Category Archives: Personal Essay

The Teenage Dreamland of ‘Twin Peaks’

A.N. Devers | Longreads | May 2017| 9 minutes (2,206words)

When the first episode of Twin Peaks aired, I didn’t see it. It was the spring of 1990 and I was in shock. My grandfather and grandmother had just died unexpectedly of different causes less than twenty-four hours apart, on April 1st and 2nd, respectively. I was 12 years old and felt as if I was in a fever dream. Their deaths were ghastly and remarkable and strange and heart wrenching and I felt like for two weeks my body had left the earth, a pre-teen balloon, floating above their home of Ft. Worth, Texas watching streams of mourners as they arrived with potato salad and Ricky’s BBQ and chocolate cake.

My papaw died of sudden complications from a lifetime of smoking although he had quit finally. My mamaw, from a stroke at the funeral home while making memorial service plans, the next day. Both were surprising. No one was prepared. Not an hour before I was snuggled under Mamaw’s arm while she wept, steeling herself for a lifetime without him, trying to envision a life for herself where she could manage, which, surreally, involved buying herself a Cadillac. And the day before that, I was on a plane from Virginia to Texas trying to see my grandfather before he was gone. I was too late. She married him at fourteen. He was seventeen. They saved each other during the Great Depression and supported many others. Her heart didn’t see a way without him.

Seven days later, when the first episode of Twin Peaks aired, I didn’t know it existed. I wouldn’t have even known to look out for it. I had been dropped off at my first cousin’s house (she is about 15 years older than me and had three kids of her own), and left to melt into the sofa while the adults of the family dealt with their unexpected dual funeral attended by hundreds for the two wildly popular senior citizens that were my grandparents.

We didn’t have cable television yet installed at our home in Virginia and it was an incredible gift those two weeks I cried and couch surfed. I consumed MTV and hour after hour of cheerleading national championships on ESPN. I had never seen cheerleading championships before and they were perfectly deadening. I could watch without feeling. I might have also decided at that moment to never become a cheerleader. I might have dreamed of being thrown high in the air and caught by strong arms. I might have dreamed about being thrown in the air and never coming down. I played my little cousin’s super Nintendo late into the night.

Like most cultural discoveries those days, it was provided to me by my brother, a freshman in college. Twin Peaks became the first thing we shared together as a mutual love that I can remember.

The other thing I did that week was read and reread a copy of Sassy magazine that I’d found at a grocery store news stand. I had never heard of Sassy before but plucked it from the shelf because of a cover story that said, “Are humans exploiting dolphins?” This was something I was deeply invested in. I was head over heels for dolphins and had sent letters to Greenpeace and wanted to be a marine biologist at the time, because, I was twelve. Dolphins were my horses. Inside the magazine I discovered a large fold-out poster and profile of the cast of a new television adaptation of The Outsiders being produced by Francis Ford Coppola and I was entranced by how well this magazine knew what to feed me. At that moment, no one I knew had read The Outsiders. It was a secret affair I was having with S. E. Hinton, while all my peers read Sweet Valley High and Babysitter’s Club, which made Sassy’s cover story seem like a personal manna gift from mythological teen goddesses haunting Texas supermarkets. When I got home I tore out the subscription card and subscribed.

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Sassy Magazine included a ‘Twin Peaks’ photoshoot featuring models resembling its teenage stars.

Sassy, a magazine packaged to look like a mainstream teen magazine, with ads for OB tampons and Debbie Gibson’s Electric Youth perfume and Lip Smackers lip gloss, and the infamous Teen Spirit deodorant, as in Nirvana’s “Smells Like…,” was actually far more provocative, as close to a direct line to the underground alternative girl culture of New York City and America as I would find for several years. I didn’t know there was an alternative to cheerleading and New Kids on the Block and hair scrunchies and Seventeen magazine, which I was deeply suspicious of, and YM magazine, which I was equally suspicious of, and Tiger Beat and BOP which had been interesting for a month when I was ten before I decided I wasn’t a bedroom teen heartthrob kind of girl. I hadn’t known about an alternative at all, but I realize now I’d yearned for one.

My discovery of Twin Peaks wouldn’t happen that week I sprawled on a sofa in Texas. It had to wait until August back home in Virginia, and like most cultural discoveries those days, it was provided to me by my brother, a freshman in college. He had come home for the summer and I still remember him trying to get me out of my bedroom to watch the first episode, which was beginning an eight-week summer rerun. “It’s supposed to be great,” he said. “Weird.” I remember lying on the floor with my feet up on a small wooden stool which I then would lift and flip and over and over like a bored circus performer.

Twin Peaks became the first thing we shared together as a mutual love that I can remember. My brother had spent every moment preceding my grandparent’s death having very little to do with me. I’d spent every moment trying to have everything to do with him. I wonder if he noticed a change in me. A loss of the puppy dog following. A shift in his hyperactive, annoying little sister. The sadness. What I remember about myself that year was a nearly complete jettison of my former personality, a somewhat goofy, awkward young girl. And my guess is I was entirely less annoying to him post-grandparent’s death, which is sad really, that it took an experience of brutal grief and loneliness to find some calm and some edge.


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Shock was the only experience between April and August of 1990. I was in shock from adolescence. I was in shock from my parents’ and my family’s shock. I was in the shock from a growth spurt that left me the tallest person in school for two years and therefore subject to ridicule. I was in shock from childhood spent meandering around America as a military brat before settling into a brand new suburban neighborhood on a far fringe of the Washington D. C. metro area that felt too Disneyworld and not enough world. It was shiny and the houses were much bigger and boxier and the lawns were newly striped with neon sod and there was nothing to do. I had been free to roam on my bicycle for hours on the Utah air force base we’d moved from. But in this new suburb there were rules because we weren’t surrounded by fences and checkpoints. There were rules because there were disappearing girls. A body of a missing girl was found in a ditch on the side of a road across the county. There were concerns about child snatching nationwide. It was around this time that unsupervised child play was relinquished by Americans. I was in shock that teachers and friends at school expected me to be happy all the time. It was all shocking, everything seemed sickeningly off.

For the first time I was watching a television show that showed suffering was a part of life that didn’t get smoothed over at the end of an episode.

And then I watched Twin Peaks and felt the relief of my shock. Twin Peaks for the next two years became my best friend. I have no critical perspective from which to look back with, I don’t care that the show was edgy or quirky or ground-breaking, though it was. I don’t care about its flaws or its holes or its unanswered questions. I saw it as a breath of fresh dark honest night air. I could live in my grief and be weird in my grief. I could handle losing friends because I didn’t dress the right way or own Benetton sweatshirts that engulfed my entire body or want to prank call boys at sleepovers and spray my bangs all the way to the ceiling. The veneer of the perfect town was as thin in Twin Peaks as it was in Centreville, Virginia.

For the first time I was watching a television show that showed suffering was a part of life that didn’t get smoothed over at the end of an episode. But seeing Laura Palmer’s mother’s scream helped me contextualize my family’s grief. And yet my relationship to the show is more complicated than that. It wasn’t just a salve for the grief of losing my grandparents; it also offered me a way to grieve and let go of my girlhood.

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A ‘Twin Peaks’-themed fashion spread in Sassy Magazine.

The raw sexuality that oozed from Audrey Horne, Laura Palmer, and even the far more chaste and reserved Donna Hayward, was an awakening I might have not quite been ready for, but which allowed me to feel much more aware of what was happening to me and the girls around me over the two years Twin Peaks was on television and ever since.

I would learn my best parlour trick, how to tie a cherry stem into a knot with my tongue, from Audrey Horne, a trick she demonstrates to Blackie, the madam who runs One-Eyed Jack’s her father’s secret brothel across the Canadian border. I would only discover my clitoris after reading the Twin Peaks spin-off book written by David Lynch’s daughter, The Diary of Laura Palmer, a book that is disturbing and tawdry and was written off as terrible, but which I read again and again through high school, as I struggled to comprehend the woes of womanhood.

It was such a great relief to see the plight of women and mothers and teenage girls so clearly articulated on television. Critics have said Twin Peaks capitalized on dead girl navel gazing, but Twin Peaks helped me cope with the pain, and sometimes agony, of being a teenage girl. I had a sheltered childhood and was unprepared for the unwanted gaze and actions of men. It was all happening concurrently, my watching the women of Twin Peaks be brutalized, be murdered, be beaten, be cheated on, be disregarded, be dismissed, and my learning that some men, and boys, were going to do the same to me and the young women around me.

It was at that time that male strangers walking past me in parking lots began to ask me if my “red hair matched what was downstairs.” It was around that time that I was flashed for the first time. It was around that time that the boys in gym started pulling all the girls’ shorts down with impunity. It was around the time that a classmate confessed on the gym steps that her older stepbrother was sexually abusing her, becoming the first of many similar stories I would hear. It was around that time I received an anonymous phone call asking if I would like to be set up on dates with men who lived nearby. And it was not long after that I would date a boy for nearly a year before he took my virginity after I told him I wasn’t interested in losing it at all. He called for weeks after we broke up, whispering, “Slut,” when I answered.

I would not be the bubbly teen. Unlike Laura Palmer, I wouldn’t even pretend. I would not try out for cheerleading. I would not be twirled in the air like I didn’t care have a care in the world to weigh me down to the earth. I would regard any amount of school spirit with cynicism at our megaschool that felt more like a church in which to worship jocks. I would eventually be let into a small group of older misfit teens, solely based on their learning I watched Twin Peaks.

I would listen to Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks soundtrack over and over again on my Walkman. I would listen to the tape of Agent Dale Cooper giving wistful notes into his handheld recorder for his secretary Diane to transcribe and fall asleep to his love of pine trees, coffee, and cherry pie laced with observations and clues about the murder. I would play the sheet music to Laura Palmer’s Theme on the piano every morning before school as a dirge for my day. I would pore over the October 1990 issue of Sassy which featured a fashion spread directly inspired by the show and dig through storage boxes of my mother’s clothes from the sixties and pull out her woollen pleated plaid college skirts and pair them with combat boots and get pushed up the school steps from behind and get called a dyke for wearing something other than pegged jeans and Hard Rock café t-shirts. I would read The Diary of Laura Palmer alone in the bathtub and learn about pleasure and pain.

Instead of falling apart, because of Twin Peaks I would shatter into black glittery particles and love the world more than I had before, however much it hurt.

* * *

A.N. Devers is a writer and editor. She lives in London.

Editor: Sari Botton

Putting Together the Pieces of Her Grandmother’s Mysterious Death

When she was 12 years old, Kate Daloz learned that her grandmother had died not from a household accident, as she had been told by her mother, but from a “criminal abortion,” which is how it was described on her death certificate. Now in her thirties, Daloz wanted to unravel the family secret that had left her mother without her mother. It was a story that could only be told after she found an essential archive of material—and it was also a story that could be told when her mother was ready for her to tell it.

“My Grandmother’s Desperate Choice” was published on the New Yorker‘s website on Mother’s Day, and for the next 48 hours it topped the magazine’s “Most Popular” list until it was unseated by breaking news about the president. I spoke with Kate about the response to the essay, and why it felt urgent to tell her grandmother’s story in the Trump era.

***

In the beginning of the piece you describe the moment your mother finally revealed to you that your grandmother had died of a self-induced abortion. How did this family secret reveal itself over the years, and when did you know it was time to write about it?

That last question is the easiest to answer: November 8, 2016. Within a week or two of Donald Trump and Mike Pence gaining office—as soon as it became clear that access to safe, legal abortion was in serious jeopardy—I called my mom and asked her if it was time to go public with Win’s story. She said yes immediately.

As I was growing up, Win’s death wasn’t something we talked about often, though it was always somehow present. From the moment my mom first told me the story, it has always felt both personal and political. The facts of her death make the contours of the abortion debate so stark—if my grandmother had just been able to make an appointment at Planned Parenthood she would not have died the way she did, and her children would not have grown up without their mother. It’s really that simple. That’s why, after the election, my mom and I both felt strongly that Win’s story could be a way for others to understand the stakes as urgently as we do.

I realized that I knew almost nothing about Win except the circumstances of her death. Almost all the details that appear in the piece are things I learned only when I began researching—from the letters and documents my mother carefully collected as an adult, along with the others I found on my own.

Within my mom’s immediate family there was near-total silence on this subject. Decades after she died, any mention of Win was still incredibly fraught. My aunt put it really well: My grandfather’s refusal to talk about Win with their children turned her death into the only memorable event of her life. That kind of silence was a common response for someone of his generation, but it was a terrible disservice, both to his children and to Win herself.

What family material was available to you as you wrote the story?

I used letters, photographs, and conversations with older cousins and family friends. At a certain point in my research I realized the taboo that had kept everyone from sharing information with Win’s children might not be as strong for other branches of the family—and in fact I was right. My mother’s cousins knew details of the story I’d never heard, and I was able to fill in major gaps in my understanding.

A few years ago, when I was working on my book about communal life in 1970s Vermont, I noticed that as they age, people are often willing to share more intimate details about their lives and to admit to greater ambiguity and vulnerability than when they were younger. Shame, fear, and all the other things that stop us from feeling free to tell the whole truth can sometimes drop away over time. It’s one reason I think younger generations should always go back and keep asking and re-asking questions—even about subjects older generations might think of as firmly settled.

Was there a key piece of archival information that allowed you to finally tell your grandmother’s story?

Win’s mother, Nyesie, saved every single letter Win wrote from when she went to college until two weeks before she died at 31Her grandson, my mother’s cousin, transcribed and shared them with me. It was an incredible gift. Poring through those letters was one of the most amazing reading experiences I’ve ever had. Win went from a ghost, known only to me by the horrible way she died, and the hole she left in my mother’s life, to a full person. She was an amazing writer—funny, witty, observant—and her letters are so full of love and affection, first for her mother and later for her husband and children. When I finished reading them, I felt like I’d been hanging out with her for weeks.

The other extraordinary resource I had available were the near-daily letters written by Win’s friend and neighbor, Katrina, to her husband who was in London during the war. Katrina was the person my grandfather called when he came home and found Win dead; afterwards, she also arranged childcare and offered them a place to stay. She recorded all of this, including dialogue, in letters that her husband later brought home with him and which remain carefully preserved, 70 years later. It’s making me wonder if historians of the future will have access to our digital communications in the same way. For their sake, I hope so.

When did you let your mother read a draft of the piece? What were her thoughts?

I was always talking to my mother about the research—in a way it felt like a collaboration. By coincidence, she was visiting my home when I finished the first full draft. Instead of giving it to her to read, she asked me to read it aloud to her. It was intense, but by that point we were both really ready for the story to be in the world. I keep telling her she’s brave but it doesn’t feel that way to her.

You have to remember that the worst parts of this story—that her mother died, horribly and unnecessarily—was, for most of her life, the only thing she knew. The details that the piece uncovered were the commonplace details of a life lost—that Win was a wonderful writer, that her parents had been madly in love, that her mother had written about her as a baby with total joy and affection.

What has the response been to the piece, both from your family and from strangers?

It’s been overwhelmingly positive to a degree I would never have dared expect. For my family, I think they felt a lot like I did. There was a sense of relief at finally speaking openly about a long-held secret and joy at gaining a fuller picture of this woman we’ve all wondered about for so long.

What surprised me is how many people outside the family have also expressed a kind of gratitude for this story being told—in particular, women my mother’s age who still remember illegal abortions.

What do you understand about your grandmother after writing this piece? What do you think you’ll never understand?

I feel like I finally have a sense of her as a real person. I’m older now than she was when she died, which is an interesting perspective; having two children myself also helps me empathize with some of the pressures she might have felt when she found herself pregnant again and unequipped to raise three small children during wartime.

But I have to keep reminding myself that getting to know someone through letters is not the same thing as really getting to know her. Of course I wonder how my mom’s life would have been different if she hadn’t lost her mother so young. I also would love to know how Win would have changed over the course of her life. She seemed to enjoy some parts of being a housewife, and was impatient with others. How would she have responded to the 1950s? Would she have become a feminist in the ’70s? Would she have continued writing in any formal way?

I keep thinking about Win’s last hours. When she died, her children were asleep in the next room. The fact that she didn’t even arrange childcare for them as she attempted to self-abort to me says there’s no way she really comprehended the danger of what she was doing. I’m not sure anyone observing from the outside can truly understand what goes through another person’s mind when they make this kind of decision.

What I do feel like I understand, though, is how personal the choice to end a pregnancy is, and how urgent. I feel like this story has showed me a lot about the lengths to which a person can be driven by desperation.

Between Mom and Stepmom

Sarah Menkedick | Longreads | May 2017 | 15 minutes (3,743 words)

 

Meg first appeared to me as a nimbus of curly red hair, looming above my top bunk late at night. The hair, backlit and aglow, was so remarkable that I reached up and patted it as though it were a rare creature. Meg offered the nervous, extra-buoyant “hi” of the girlfriend meeting the boyfriend’s kid for the first time. In reply, I stroked the hair.

I was five; she was 25. Just a few weeks before, she had met my dad at an art opening. He was up-front about the fact that he was 37, divorced, with a 15-year-old and a five-year-old. She was working the second shift at a hospital, reading dense Buddhist texts, hanging out with a band of artists whose blue velvet berets and psychedelic hand-stenciled trunks would later color our house. They met in February and married in October. The ceremony was in the backyard of our old brick house near downtown Cincinnati. There was carrot cake, a smoldering fall sunset, an exchange of vows inspired by a California guru. Meg walked down the aisle to the Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place.” In November of the following year, my brother Jackson was born.
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Not Really A Distant Aunt: My Family’s Slave

In this poignant, posthumous feature at The Atlantic, Alex Tizon tells the story of his family’s slave, Lola. An utusan (“person who takes commands”), Lola was given as a gift from his grandfather to his mother in 1943, when Lola was 18 years old. Lola worked, unpaid, for Tizon and his family for 56 years. During a turbulent childhood where his parents were out of the house for days at a time, Lola was a constant source of love and devotion for Alex and his three siblings. In this moving piece, Tizon attempts to understand his parents’ point of view and motivations, and reconcile himself with Lola’s life of servitude.

We landed in Los Angeles on May 12, 1964, all our belongings in cardboard boxes tied with rope. Lola had been with my mother for 21 years by then. In many ways she was more of a parent to me than either my mother or my father. Hers was the first face I saw in the morning and the last one I saw at night. As a baby, I uttered Lola’s name (which I first pronounced “Oh-ah”) long before I learned to say “Mom” or “Dad.” As a toddler, I refused to go to sleep unless Lola was holding me, or at least nearby.

Mom would come home and upbraid Lola for not cleaning the house well enough or for forgetting to bring in the mail. “Didn’t I tell you I want the letters here when I come home?” she would say in Tagalog, her voice venomous. “It’s not hard naman! An idiot could remember.” Then my father would arrive and take his turn. When Dad raised his voice, everyone in the house shrank. Sometimes my parents would team up until Lola broke down crying, almost as though that was their goal.

It confused me: My parents were good to my siblings and me, and we loved them. But they’d be affectionate to us kids one moment and vile to Lola the next. I was 11 or 12 when I began to see Lola’s situation clearly. By then Arthur, eight years my senior, had been seething for a long time. He was the one who introduced the word slave into my understanding of what Lola was. Before he said it I’d thought of her as just an unfortunate member of the household. I hated when my parents yelled at her, but it hadn’t occurred to me that they—and the whole arrangement—could be immoral.

“Do you know anybody treated the way she’s treated?,” Arthur said. “Who lives the way she lives?” He summed up Lola’s reality: Wasn’t paid. Toiled every day. Was tongue-lashed for sitting too long or falling asleep too early. Was struck for talking back. Wore hand-me-downs. Ate scraps and leftovers by herself in the kitchen. Rarely left the house. Had no friends or hobbies outside the family. Had no private quarters. (Her designated place to sleep in each house we lived in was always whatever was left—a couch or storage area or corner in my sisters’ bedroom. She often slept among piles of laundry.)

The woman who used to hum Tagalog melodies as she rocked me to sleep, and when I got older would dress and feed me and walk me to school in the mornings and pick me up in the afternoons. Once, when I was sick for a long time and too weak to eat, she chewed my food for me and put the small pieces in my mouth to swallow. One summer when I had plaster casts on both legs (I had problem joints), she bathed me with a washcloth, brought medicine in the middle of the night, and helped me through months of rehabilitation. I was cranky through it all. She didn’t complain or lose patience, ever.

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A Love Affair with a Prince Soundtrack

At Catapult, Michael Gonzales offers an account of Prince’s career of hits with a touching personal history of the writer’s own years as a music journalist and his eight-year romantic relationship with publicist Lesley Pitts. The couple bonds over a shared love of books, cocktails, and, of course, Prince, before Pitts’ untimely death in 1999.

Playing a silly game with myself, I calculated that in 1999 I would be thirty-six years old, which to my then-nineteen-year-old self sounded ancient, dusty as an old record. If I’d had access to a crystal ball, what exactly would I see in my future? Would I be a famous novelist chatting with Dick Cavett on PBS? Would I be married to my college girlfriend Denise and living in Long Island with our badass kids? Or who knows, maybe Prince was on some Nostradamus shit and the sky really was going to turn purple, followed by destruction.

In the real 1999, while the planet didn’t perish that year, for me and the small world I inhabited, it all came to a screeching halt on August 3rd, two months after my thirty-sixth birthday, when I was riding in the back of the ambulance with my long-time girlfriend Lesley Pitts. Lying on a gurney, she was being rushed from our first-floor Chelsea apartment on 22nd Street to St. Vincent’s Hospital, after she complained of a headache and shortness of breath. Leaning over her, I grunted something reassuring.

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It Was Like Nothing Else in My Life Up to Now

Josh Roiland | The Digital Press | May 9th 2017 | 19 minutes (5,354 words)

This essay first appeared in Haunted by Waters: The Future of Memory and the Red River Flood of 1997 published by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. Our thanks to Josh Roiland and editor David Haeselin for allowing us to reprint this essay at Longreads.

* * *

On a still summer night in the last year of last century an overweight woman in a wheelchair appeared, as if an apparition, under a street lamp in a parking lot on the west end of campus. I had not seen her when I pulled my car in. It was an hour till midnight, and I was covered in sand.

I’d spent the night playing volleyball and had returned home to married student housing where I was summering with a friend’s wife, while he interned in Minneapolis. She was a nurse who worked nights, and I was an English major lazing between my junior and senior year. We rarely saw each other; the only complication in our cohabitation resulted from my inability to lift the toilet seat when I got up to pee in the middle of the night. In the mornings we’d cross paths and she’d tell me, again, that it was no fun to come home and sit in piss.

That night in the dark parking lot, the woman rolled her heavy body from behind a street-lamp. “Excuse me,” she said, coming closer.

“Hi!” she said cheerfully. “Can you, uh—would you be able to give me a ride home?”

She worked at a telemarketing place near the corner of University Ave. and 42nd St. Work had let out, but the buses had stopped running, and she needed a way home. She crossed the busy intersection and wheeled into the expansive parking lot waiting for someone to help her. I was tired and dirty. I just wanted to slink into the stuffy efficiency, shower, and distract myself to sleep with PlayStation. But here she sat.

“Sure,” I said. “Sure, I’ll give you a ride home.”

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A Runaway Sister’s Survivor Guilt

a woman in a coat and hat walks down a snowy road, alone

Catapult has a personal essay by Chris J. Rice about searching for, and finding, the baby brother she left behind when she ran away from their abusive mother. Rice left home at 15, when her brother was just a year old. For years, she wondered about him, and felt guilt about having gotten out when he was stuck.

I hadn’t seen him since I was fifteen and he was one. I have a single Polaroid of him: a family shot taken when he was a few months old, nestled in Mama’s lap. Like her, he had a full head of dark hair and searching eyes. For years, I didn’t know how best to reach out to him or how to let him go.

I wondered what became of him. I wanted to know, but I was afraid to find out. At sixty, I didn’t want to reach out to a brother I’d left behind only to be turned away, or worse, blamed for the hard life I’d left him in.

If I’d stayed, I could have protected him. That’s what I believed. Maybe he believed that, too.

Then Mama died, and I put aside fear. I used every resource I had, and some money too, to find a likely contact number. I discovered it through a fee-based public records database. His number, listed and active for years—kept through every change of address and dropped like breadcrumbs as he went along—convinced me he might want to be found. Still, I had to muster the courage to connect.

With trembling hands and a trembling voice, I left him that message and waited.

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At McSorley’s: Unsorted Regulars, Misfits, Liars, Heroes, and Psychos

At Hazlitt, Rafe Bartholomew tells the story of his father, Geoffrey Bartholomew, who felt that his alcohol addiction and his bartending job at famed McSorley’s in New York City had prevented him from achieving the dream of becoming a writer. Bartholomew quit the booze but not the bar, and self-published a volume of poetry: The McSorley Poems: Voices from New York City’s Oldest Pub. In this poignant story of ambition, regrets, fathers, and sons, Rafe recounts how Bartholomew found his voice by mining the humanity of the “Unsorted Regulars, Misfits, Liars, Heroes & Psychos” who frequented the bar.

The first third of the binder described various McSorley’s artifacts—the turkey wishbones that had been dangling above the taps since 1917, when a group of regulars hung them for good luck before shipping out serve in World War One; the stuffed jackalope behind the bar; Harry Houdini’s handcuffs dangling from the ceiling as if the great escape artist had been hanging there with them, freed himself, and left behind a souvenir. The middle section consisted of poems devoted to “Unsorted Regulars, Misfits, Liars, Heroes & Psychos.” The language was raw, peppered with black humor and full of tragedy—a reminder that for all the laughter and communal goodwill I associated with McSorley’s, the men and women who are drawn into the bar’s orbit typically arrive with some scars. These were my father’s people, the alcoholics and loners and deviants he made his life with, and even at their darkest, the poems shined a light on his characters’ humanity.

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A Life Measured in Swipe-Rights

Graffiti on the sidewalk reading "i saw you on tinder"

Andrew Kay found himself on the dating market and the academic job market simultaneously, and spoiler alert: they’re deeply analogous, and it turns out that living both the personal and professional parts of your life as one massive interview is not easy, or pleasant. He takes us through the whole stressful, performative, soul-deadening process in The Point magazine — the piece is long, but the candor makes it compelling.

You craft a digital avatar of yourself and send it out into the virtual world, then spend the ensuing months and years honing and revising it; you rehearse behind closed doors again and again, giving yourself forcible makeovers until your behavior, your tics—I almost said your inner being, though this last remains up in the air, a thing you gradually learn not to think about—correspond with the simulacrum. On OkCupid and Tinder, I was “a chill, big-hearted guy,” family-centered, mild-mannered, humorously self-deprecating. In my cover letter I was a young scholar and teacher of luminous promise—bold, theoretically omnivorous, a winner of fellowships and awards, an author of multiple articles with a first book in the pipeline and a second germinating. The process is exhausting: neither in bathroom nor bedroom are you free from it, devouring dating profiles on the toilet, reaching for your cell phone when you accidentally wake at 3 a.m., checking the jobs Wiki from the parking lot outside the gym. At last you crawl, parched and ragged, to the reservoirs of intimate encounter, thinking here at last you can abandon the pretension and performance, here forget and enjoy yourself—only to learn that the performance and assessment have merely begun.

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My Bad Parenting Advice Addiction

Emily Gould | Longreads | May 2017 | 13 minutes (3,370 words)

 

During my son’s first two months on earth, I read 25 books about taking care of babies and children. I read them on my phone while breastfeeding and on the subway in stolen moments of solitude while my baby napped in his carrier, his fuzzy head an inch from the pages. Brain-damaged by love and exhaustion, I could not make sense of any other kind of book. For someone who has been partway through at least one novel since learning how to read, this was akin to a psychotic break. But when I opened any novel in those early weeks, the words swam on the page. I would stare till they came into focus, force down a few pages and then give up. Where was the baby in this story? Were the people in the story parents? They couldn’t matter to me otherwise.

The only thing worse was when the people in the story were parents, and there was a baby, but it was in some kind of danger. When my son was about 8 weeks old I picked up a novel which has both a stillbirth and the rape of a 6-year-old in its first 30 pages. Half an hour later my husband found me clutching the baby to my chest, silent tears streaming down my cheeks. I’m sure it’s a great book but I’ll never know. I threw it in the garbage can and heaped trash on top so I wouldn’t be tempted to go back in for it, as though it was some kind of enticing yet poisonous cake.

But my appetite for parenting books was infinite; they were the one thing I wanted besides sleep and icy beverages. My addiction, like most addictions, fed on itself. Because the information in each book was both redundant in some of its particulars and wildly contradictory in others, each dose of information required an antidote in the form of the next book.

All of these types of books appealed to me; if it had “baby” or “sleep” in the title, I was in.

The question of how to get your child to sleep provided the starkest, most dramatic dichotomy. There were two schools of thought: Either you could let your child cry himself to sleep, or you could comfort him, for hours if necessary, until he finally dozed off. Each camp promised a happy, healthy baby and family if you followed their advice, and ruin—of your health and your marriage on the one hand, and of your baby’s nascent trust in the world on the other—if you didn’t. Are you thinking, as I naively did, “Oh, I’ll just split the difference between these two obviously crazy extremes?” According to these books, avoiding a decision is the only thing worse than choosing the wrong path; intermittent reinforcement will confuse and madden your baby, likely making him even more demanding and teaching him that the world, and you, are not to be trusted.

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