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Sari Botton is a writer living in Kingston, NY. She edited the award-winning “Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY” and the NY Times Bestselling “Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for NY.” She is editorial director of TMI Project, a non-profit offering storytelling workshops, and has a column on The Rumpus. She tweets at

Near-Death Experience as Training to Care for the Dying


In The New York Times Magazine, Jon Mooallem has a moving profile of doctor B.J. Miller, a triple amputee since an accident in his sophomore year of college, who’s now developing something he’s calling The Center for Dying and Living. Layered into the piece is a secondary profile of Randy Sloan, the late 27-year-old motorcycle builder who became a patient of Miller’s three years after he tricked out a bike for the doctor’s special needs. The former executive director of The Guest House, a Zen hospice center in San Francisco, Miller’s approach to palliative care is informed by his own near-death experience, and finding his way back to living.

It wasn’t that Miller was suddenly enlightened; internally, he was in turmoil. But in retrospect, he credits himself with doing one thing right: He saw a good way to look at his situation and committed to faking that perspective, hoping that his genuine self might eventually catch up. Miller refused, for example, to let himself believe that his life was extra difficult now, only uniquely difficult, as all lives are. He resolved to think of his suffering as simply a “variation on a theme we all deal with — to be human is really hard,” he says. His life had never felt easy, even as a privileged, able-bodied suburban boy with two adoring parents, but he never felt entitled to any angst; he saw unhappiness as an illegitimate intrusion into the carefree reality he was supposed to inhabit. And don’t we all do that, he realized. Don’t we all treat suffering as a disruption to existence, instead of an inevitable part of it? He wondered what would happen if you could “reincorporate your version of reality, of normalcy, to accommodate suffering.” As a disabled person, he was getting all kinds of signals that he was different and separated from everyone else. But he worked hard to see himself as merely sitting somewhere on a continuum between the man on his deathbed and the woman who misplaced her car keys, to let his accident heighten his connectedness to others, instead of isolating him. This was the only way, he thought, to keep from hating his injuries and, by extension, himself.

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From ‘Clean’ Living to a Life on the Lam

Photo by Michael Liu, via Flickr Commons

At Vanity Fair, Allen Salkin examines the downfall of Pure Food & Wine proprietor Sarma Melngailis. It all seems to stem from her involvement with Anthony Strangis, an ex-gambler she met on Twitter and then married, and whose alleged “coercive control” may have led the vegan icon and Wharton graduate to destroy her business and become a fugitive from the law:

A source close to Melngailis describes a scenario in which Strangis resorted to cult-like techniques, including gaslighting, sleep deprivation, and sexual humiliation, to control her. (Strangis, through his court-appointed attorney, Samuel Karliner, denied all these allegations but did not elaborate on his denials in responding to 80 questions from Vanity Fair.) Perhaps if you can understand how a sane, successful businesswoman comes to believe the insane idea that her dog can live forever, everything else snaps into focus—how that person might be accused of bilking her investors of $844,000, owe her employees more than $40,000 in unpaid wages, financially strip her restaurant, and now find herself awaiting trial, with a potential 15-year sentence. She had thought all harm would be magically reversed, just as Leon’s life span would be extended, according to her camp.

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Positioning, PR, and Privilege: What Casey Affleck and Nate Parker Don’t Have in Common

Photo by Bex Walton, via Wikimedia Commons

Nate Parker’s film, The Birth of a Nation, and Manchester by the Sea, starring Casey Affleck, were the toast of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Both promised to dominate Oscar season. And both male stars had a history that included allegations of sexual impropriety. Nearly a year later, Parker’s Oscar hopes have evaporated entirely — in no small part because people talked incessantly about the allegations against him. Affleck, by contrast, has emerged as the frontrunner for Best Actor, the conversations about the past allegations corralled into single paragraphs in laudatory profiles.

The reasons why are complex — but increasingly clear.

At BuzzFeed, Anne Helen Petersen explores assorted reasons why Casey Affleck’s star keeps rising, despite talk of the settled sexual misconduct suits against him, while Nate Parker’s star has fallen after he was acquitted of rape charges.

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Elizabeth Gilbert on Putting Her Privilege to Work

Photo by Steve Jurvetson, via Wikimedia Commons

At The Cut, Jessica Pressler interviews Elizabeth Gilbert, best known as the author of self-discovery travelogue Eat, Pray, Love, who more recently produced the creativity self-help “manifesto” Big Magic. Among other things, the two discuss how privilege factors into Gilbert’s story and success—an angle she’s often challenged on. She offers what strikes me as a pretty valid response:

“Privilege” still comes up in the Q&A session of almost every talk Gilbert gives. “I want to talk about privilege,” one audience member says at the BRIC, although this is the entirety of her question, and it doesn’t lead to a super-interesting discussion. Still, it’s something Gilbert has definitely thought about and formulated a response to: “I think there’s huge validity in acknowledging differences in privilege,” she said in Central Park. “If that conversation is being had in a serious way, then it’s absolutely a valid conversation. But if that conversation is being had as a way of dismissing somebody’s work, it’s a ridiculous conversation. I mean, the most extreme privilege that I inhabit is that I was born as a woman in this moment in history, in this culture,” she went on, in a voice that suggested she was about to go into a sermon. “I’m the first woman in the entire history of my family who had a public voice. I’m the first woman who had autonomy over her body. I’m the first woman who had autonomy over money. My mom was trying to open a checking account in 1974 in Connecticut, when I was 5 years old, and she was told that she couldn’t do it without her husband’s signature. But I guess my question would be ‘What do you want me to do instead? Do you want me to not become a writer? Or do you want me to use my privilege to create the most interesting body of work that I possibly can, to live the broadest possible number of experiences that I can, to reach out to the most number of women who I could reach?’ ”

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Leonard Cohen’s Legacy

Photo by Rama, via Wikimedia Commons

As if last week—and 2016 in general—weren’t already difficult enough, we lost another beloved musical great, Leonard Cohen. The Canadian-born singer-songwriter, a prolific poet and novelist as well, leaves behind a huge body of work. What will become of it all? It made no difference to Cohen. Two years ago, in an interview with Rolling Stone, Cohen said he didn’t care.

A few months later, in January of 2015, writer Kevin Mandel responded to that interview with an essay on The Millions in which he tried to understand why Cohen’s legacy matters more to him, a fan, than to the artist himself.

In an interview timed to coincide with the release of Mr. Cohen’s 13th studio album, an event in turn coinciding with his 80th birthday, the man says essentially that he cares not at all what becomes of his work after he dies, nor what his legacy will be. The music? The poems? The novels? The life? He could give a damn.

Ouch, a Cohen believer might predictably reply.

They who tend to be a mite sensitive to begin with. And remember also the bad old days, before the present éminence grise phase of the career. When to speak too lovingly about Leonard Cohen was a sure way to get one’s emotional stability called into question. So now might be excused for getting their backs up. Certain that a blasphemy has gone down, in an “et tu, Brute” kind of way.

At least that’s what I feel, but why? What is it about Leonard Cohen that not only commands my interest but can also set off no small burst of emotion? Something else, too: what exactly is my legitimate stake in someone else’s posterity? Even as a fan. Somewhere in my bones I hear my late grandmother putting it this way: if Leonard Cohen doesn’t care what becomes of his work and legacy after he dies — what’s that your business?

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Behind the ‘Literary Brat Pack’ Label

Photo by Howard Walfish via Flickr Commons

At Harper’s Bazaar, Jason Diamond offers a look back at the “literary brat pack”–Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, Tama Janowitz and a group of other writers in the 1980s as famous for their coke-fueled late nights at the Odeon as they were for publishing celebrated novels before the age of thirty. In his research and conversations with some of the authors, Diamond learns that the group’s label was to some degree just that–a catchall that gave the false illusion that they were part of a cohesive movement, and all tight with one another.

McInerney and Ellis were friends whose books you could conceivably connect because of their themes and flat tones. Janowitz, for all intents and purposes, was thrown into the brat pack mix because it was convenient. “I really can count on one hand the number of dinners I actually had with her,” Ellis recalls of Janowitz. They weren’t friends, but the newspapers and magazines made it seem like they were. The new guard, seemingly looking for media attention, not being very writerly. “I didn’t know those guys,” Janowitz says echoing Ellis. “We would bump into each other at various things we had been invited to, but it was like creating a movement, as if somehow we had been hanging out together beforehand.”

Yet when her 1986 short story collection, Slaves of New York, was published, McInerney, the reigning king of downtown fiction, was tasked with reviewing the book. “As a writer, it is possible to be too hip,” he wrote in a lukewarm review. The next day, Janowitz was featured on the cover of New York, standing in a meat locker and looking like a goth queen, in a black dress with skull earrings. “A female Jay McInerney?” reads the caption in a photo for the accompanying story.

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Ferrante in Fragments of Her Choosing

Photo by Luciano Belviso, via Flickr Commons

At The New Republic, novelist Alexander Chee has an essay/review of Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, Ferrante’s new book of selected letters and interviews spanning nearly two-and-a-half decades. In the piece, Chee considers the way the press feels compelled to draw parallels between fiction and its authors’ lives; the way it treats women authors in particular; and the importance of anonymity for Ferrante, whose cover was allegedly blown in a recent The New York Review of Books article.

Many of these recent interviews are a pleasure to read—Ferrante’s professorial side is less didactic, more relaxed. But when asked, “Will you tell us who you are?” she answers: “Elena Ferrante. I’ve published six novels in 20 years. Isn’t that sufficient?” At this point, I have to agree. Why aren’t the novels enough?

But for all of her explanations on the topic of her withdrawal, the press appears, in these pages, determined to misunderstand her. If she seems repetitive at times, she is—but only because the questions are. Soon, she begins to sound like someone pleading for her life. At one point, she vows to stop publishing if she is exposed. And when she is asked to consider the legacy of her absence, she points a finger home:

“Those who became aware of the books later . . . as a result of the media attention, at least here in Italy, encounter them with an initial distrust, if not hostility, as if my absence were an offensive or culpable type of behavior. . .. The only thing I can do is continue my small battle to put the work at the center.”

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Hellish Days in the City of Angels: Michelle Tea on the L.A. Places She Hit Rock Bottom

Photo by Steve Damron via Flickr Commons

At Buzzfeed, sober writer Michelle Tea takes readers on a tour of some L.A. establishments where she partied hard in 2001, the year she says she was hitting rock bottom with her addictions. Of The Frolick Room in Hollywood, she recalls:

This teeny-tiny bar situated on the walk of fame was the last place Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, was seen alive. But as much as a death wish as I appeared to have, the bar’s real draw was its status as one of Charles Bukowski’s primo haunts. Like all alcoholics who write, I adored Chinaski because he made my drinking seem literary, the activity of a working class hero, dirty and rebellious — which meant, since I was a girl, also feminist. I loved the redness of the bar, a vague redness, as well as how fucking awful the Hollywood mural on the wall was, and I loved the carnival promise of the neon sign outside and the weird, large, round, flat lamps on the inside. The Frolic Room was where I went when the 101 on-ramp had become tiresome and I needed a drink. Seated alone on a barstool I ordered a vodka whatever and sullenly nursed my drink. Eventually the phone rang, and the bartender answered it; turning to me, she said, “Someone is looking for a girl with blue hair. Are you her?” My boyfriend came to fetch me from The Frolic Room, took me to the taco truck down by the gay center for some food to help sober me up, then back to Tamarind, where I ate them with aggressive resentment, spilling cheese down my shirt.

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‘What’s So Good About’ Dylan

Photo by Paul Townsend, via Flickr Commons

Book-Twitter is deeply divided over the news that Bob Dylan has been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature. It seems as if half the lit world is affronted that a folk singer has been acknowledged in the same category as literary greats like Rudyard Kipling, Pearl S. Buck, Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, while the other is thrilled that lyrics to the songs that reflected and affected social change in the second half of the twentieth century are being recognized as poetry.

In a prescient post on Jezebel last month, Catherine Nichols wrote about how, in reading Chronicles, Dylan’s 2005 memoir, she came to see the musician her father had introduced her to as a true literary artist, and to answer the question she’d been holding in her mind: “What’s so good about him?”

As a writer, Dylan layers in triplicate: there are the things that happen, the loopy ways he imagines them and the art that informs his imagination all concurrently, which is a literary technique I would love to learn myself. The book Peter Pan does this layering, but it’s sorted out clearly in time: Barrie narrates the event first, then re-situates it in Wendy’s family dynamics, then explores it in Wendy’s mind, through art and imagination (that’s Neverland). Dylan writes all these dimensions at once. The human touch begins in this constant rendering of art and subjectivity behind the words.

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Ayahuasca 2.0: Journeying to the Swampland of the Techie Soul

Photo by Terpsichore, via Wikimedia Commons

I live in Ulster County–hippie country–not far from a longstanding “Church of Ayahuasca,” where devotees take what they describe as life-altering psychedelic trips induced by drinking a precise mixture of B. caapi tea and chacruna leaf. While I’ve been curious about the experience, I haven’t been enough so to get past the vomiting that’s pretty much a standard part, and the stories I’ve heard about bad trips.

At The New Yorker, Ariel Levy reports on ayahuasca’s recent uptick in popularity in San Francisco among young people in the tech world, and in New York City among the young and the hip. As part of her reporting, she braves one of the ceremonies in Williamsburg, led by an ayahuasquera called Little Owl .

One at a time, we went into the front room to be smudged with sage on the wrestling mats by a woman in her sixties with the silver hair and beatific smile of a Latina Mrs. Claus. When she finished waving her smoking sage at me and said, “I hope you have a beautiful journey,” I was so moved by her radiant good will that I nearly burst into tears.

Once we were all smudged and back in our circle, Little Owl dimmed the lights. “You are the real shaman,” she said. “I am just your servant.”

When it was my turn to drink the little Dixie cup of muck she presented, I was stunned that divine consciousness—or really anything—could smell quite so foul: as if it had already been vomited up, by someone who’d been on a steady dieta of tar, bile, and fermented wood pulp. But I forced it down, and I was stoked. I was going to visit the swampland of my soul, make peace with death, and become one with the universe.

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