I type this on a plastic keyboard, my lunch leftovers stored in a plastic container, as my infant daughter sleeps nearby next to her plastic pacifier in a rocking sleeper made of plastic. Plastics are one of humanity’s most wide-reaching, versatile and practical inventions, an influential creation arguably on par with the smelting of metal, but these unnatural materials have levied high ecological costs. Plastic bits pollute the world’s oceans, beaches, and rivers. Plastics’ parent chemicals move through the food chain, from plankton to people, into our cells.
In the fall of 2012, before my father and I went to New Jersey, I visited the MIT archives. I had arranged for the librarians to find my grandfather’s theses. They were well-preserved, their black bindings so taut that they creaked when I opened them. As I read his work, I remembered his basement laboratory and how, when I was young, he had made me a set of test tubes. I’d watched as he blew bulbous ends onto slender glass tubing. I don’t remember what experiments we ran afterwards, but there were powders and liquids, scales and bottles, and shifting states and colors that seemed magical and otherworldly.
Until I read his research, I didn’t know he had experimented with corn as a feedstock. This is how I discovered that there was a time before oil, and that some industrialists of the 1930s and ’40s envisioned a radically different society, with plastics, paints and fuel for cars made from carbohydrates. But in the US by the close of the 1940s, oil had replaced both biomass and coal as the substrate for making the stuff of everyday life. Union Carbide had helped lead the conversion.
In the years since my grandfather walked these paths, all living organisms have absorbed the products of 20th century petrochemistry. We now embody its genius, its intellectual property, its mistakes, and its hubris. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed the presence of at least 200 (from a possible 80,000-100,000) industrial chemicals in Americans. And though we already have clear reason for concern about their role in human health, development and reproduction, not even the scientists know exactly what their combined presence means for our future.
When everyone is encouraged to think of herself as a business, working for anyone else can only ever be considered training ground.
As companies have divested themselves of long-term obligations to workers (read: pensions, benefits, paths to advancement), employees (read: job-seekers) have developed an in-kind taste for short-term, commitment-free work arrangements. Their aim in landing any given job has since become landing another job elsewhere, using the job as an opportunity to develop transferable skills — and then to go ahead and transfer. The appeal of any given job becomes how lucrative it will be to quit.
At Aeon, Ilana Gershon describes how this calculus of quitting changes workplace dynamics, management techniques, division of labor, and the nature of being co-workers. “After all,” Gershon writes, “everyone works in the quitting economy, and everyone knows it.”
If you are a white-collar worker, it is simply rational to view yourself first and foremost as a job quitter – someone who takes a job for a certain amount of time when the best outcome is that you quit for another job (and the worst is that you get laid off). So how does work change when everyone is trying to become a quitter? First of all, in the society of perpetual job searches, different criteria make a job good or not. Good jobs used to be ones with a good salary, benefits, location, hours, boss, co-workers, and a clear path towards promotion. Now, a good job is one that prepares you for your next job, almost always with another company.
Your job might be a space to learn skills that you can use in the future. Or, it might be a job with a company that has a good-enough reputation that other companies are keen to hire away its employees. On the other hand, it isn’t as good a job if everything you learn there is too specific to that company, if you aren’t learning easily transferrable skills. It isn’t a good job if it enmeshes you in local regulatory schemes and keeps you tied to a particular location. And it isn’t a good job if you have to work such long hours that you never have time to look for the next job. In short, a job becomes a good job if it will lead to another job, likely with another company or organisation. You start choosing a job for how good it will be for you to quit it.
As a child, I dreaded my family’s annual trip to the plant nursery. Embarrassingly, I cannot tell you a single plant my parents purchased. My sister and I romped through the aisles of the greenhouses, hoping to trigger the sprinklers. Neither of us had a passion for gardening. I can’t speak for my sister, but I still don’t. Nevertheless, I’ve listened to two gardeners speak about their passions and philosophies in the past two weeks: Nancy Lawson, author of The Humane Gardener,and Marianne Willburn, who wrote Big Dreams, Small Garden.I pored over their books, replete with gorgeous pictures of very different gardens and their animal and human inhabitants. While I wasn’t inspired to take up a trowel, between their suggestions for dodging Maryland’s infamous gnats and peaceful coexistence with rabbits, I gained a new appreciation for a dedication to the dirt.
“When I was seven years old, my grandparents began a squatter’s garden over empty city land.” So begins Mindy Hung’s essay about bitter vegetables, the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, the unpredictability of cruel teenagers, and scarcity versus security.
2. “Arcadia.” (Emma Crichton Miller, Aeon, August 2013)
Psychoanalysts, artists, and poets have long drawn on imagery of nature. The garden, with its chaos cultivated and conquered, is lush with metaphor.
A fascinating, frustrating tale of PLANT CRIME: The tiniest water lily, Rwandan in origin, is taken from Kew Gardens in England, ostensibly in plain sight. But there are no cameras and no witnesses. What’s a conservatory to do? And what’s the end game of the wheelers and dealers on the black market for the world’s most endangered plants?
The Turkish construction boom is eliminating the historical link between Muslim life and working-class gardens, over the protests of the people:
Istanbul’s bostans preserve an alternative model for urban gardening: one that provides a living for professional small farmers, who supply their communities with produce and have relative autonomy over the spaces they cultivate. That this livelihood is being destroyed right as gardens are becoming fetish objects in the urban imagination might seem ironic — but it is perfectly compatible with the rise of the neoliberal green space.
In my adolescence, summer was a time of self-improvement. I planned my reinvention meticulously. Come the fresh school year, I’d breeze through the doors of my high school with perfect hair, new clothes, and a laser focus. Of course, I had a limited budget, hair that refused to straighten completely, and a tendency to get discouraged or distracted by the slightest obstacle. To be honest, the fun wasn’t in the result. It was the daydreaming, the dog-earing pages of Seventeen and the endless bookmarking of WikiHow articles in Internet Explorer that made everything seem possible.
This summer is my twenty-seventh. I’m looking forward to self-reflection, but I won’t be switching shampoos or going on a shopping spree. Instead, I’m going to live alone for the first time.
Lonni Sue Johnson was a successful illustrator — think New Yorker covers — amateur violist, pilot, and small businesswoman. When the herpes simplex virus attacked her brain, it caused substantial tissue loss in her medial temporal lobes; she lost almost her entire lifetime of knowledge and experiences, along with the ability to form new memories. In Aeon, Michael Lemonick describes how she’s invaluable to neuroscientists working to understand how we make, organize, and store memories.
There’s no established protocol, however, for probing an amnesia victim on the sorts of knowledge Johnson gathered in her lifetime. The neuroscientists at Johns Hopkins started at the most basic level they could think of – the ‘Who painted this?’ test, which she pretty much failed. Her semantic memory about art and artists, her primary area of expertise, was significantly impaired. Remarkably, though, when the scientists included some of her own artworks in the testing, she correctly flagged every one as hers. Even more surprising, when the researchers added drawings done in a style somewhat similar to Johnson’s, she picked them out as artworks she might have produced. To do so, she had to be drawing on some sort of memory. It clearly wasn’t episodic memory, since artworks aren’t events – but it’s unclear that it qualifies as semantic memory either, since it addresses an ineffable quality, not a set of facts. ‘I don’t think we know how to characterise that sort of memory,’ Barbara Landau, one of the Johns Hopkins scientists, told me in an interview.
The idea that we have an authentic self — a set of innate personality traits, desires, emotional and intellectual dispositions unique to us — emerged in the 18th century. Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau tried to move away from religion as a means of making sense of the world. Instead, they claimed that the purpose of life was to be true to an essential nature that defined who we are.
In the 21st century, the notion of the authentic self has solidified into common sense, with the routine demands to “be yourself” or to “be real.” This is partly a response to the perceived breakdown of collective structures that traditionally gave life meaning: religion, local community, extended family ties. The late philosopher Zygmunt Bauman has called this state of affairs “liquid modernity” — a description of how reliable anchors of group identity have given way to fluidity, insecurity, and individualism. The makeover offers an apparent solution to these social and cultural transformations. It encourages us to look inwards, to the very fabric of the self for meaning, purpose, and fulfilment.
Paradoxically, the logic of the makeover positions the external body as the site upon which inner authenticity is to be displayed — right before the market steps in to help us achieve this self-realization. Of course, there’s nothing magnanimous about the self-confidence sold to us in the form of a bottle of shampoo, a new dress, or a subscription to a gym.
Jess Zimmerman writes eloquently on the subject of emotional labor, and “Hunger Makes Me” connects the twin suppressions of women’s physical and emotional appetites.
3. ENVY: “Tan Lines.” (Durga Chew-Bose, Matter, August 2015)
Lucky for us, Durga Chew-Bose’s essay collection, Too Much and Not the Mood(not “not IN the mood,” as many 2017 book previews have miswritten), debuts in April. Here, Chew-Bose meditates on her heritage and the double standard of the white obsession with tanning.
In the parlance of sinning, pride is associated with selfishness, narcissism, and vanity (i.e., our current presidential administration). Instead, I wanted to feature self-love and self-confidence, a kind of pride that isn’t evil in the slightest, as well as a reminder that it’s 2017 and bigots still protest against LGBTQ people (and not just in the American South).
An insightful review of Michele Wallace’s groundbreaking text, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, recently reissued by Verso Books. Muna Mire examines the book’s controversial reception in 1979 and its contemporary resonance, concluding, “Black Macho may have been inconvenient; it may not have been careful. But it was a necessary push forward. Getting angry works for Black women — it gets results and keeps us alive.”
“Fuck Work” sounds blunt, until you learn James Livingston is the author of a book called No More Work: Why Full Employment is a Bad Idea. Livingston critiques our capitalist obsession with productivity and defining our self-worth via our work ethic, because full employment doesn’t insure quality of life. He asks,
“How do you make a living without a job – can you receive income without working for it? Is it possible, to begin with and then, the hard part, is it ethical? If you were raised to believe that work is the index of your value to society – as most of us were – would it feel like cheating to get something for nothing?”
On Thursday, I got two new tattoos. One was impulsive; the other, planned. The latter is above my right knee, in small print, all-caps: REDEEM THE TIME. It’s something my favorite English professor used to drawl in class. It’s from the book of Ephesians: “See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, / Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”
The days are evil because they will come to an end. In Christianity, mortality is a result of mankind’s fall from grace. Before Adam and Eve partook in the Garden of Eden, they were destined to live forever. No more. Everyone dies.
If I dwell too long on my own mortality, I have a panic attack. I have to come at death sideways–through headlines about celebrities, say, or poetry. How can something so real and (relatively) imminent feel so unreal? And then, you get the call—from the doctor, the police, your mother, whomever. It doesn’t matter who calls; the call will come.
So I got a second tattoo, because it’s all going to end. It’s a three-inch blade turned down towards my ankle, modeled after Joan of Arc’s sword. “I know it’s cliche,” I joked to Emily, and she smiled but didn’t deny it. I texted a picture to my friend. “You’re a warrior,” she sent back. I don’t know about that.
On Saturday, I’ll join thousands of people at the Women’s March on Washington. I can’t say I’m not afraid. I’m afraid of our president-elect and his supporters. My ever-present anxiety regardign death has my brain concocting bizarre and terrifying scenarios in which the march on Jan. 21 become a massacre. I am afraid my first protest will be my last. I know I am not alone in my fear, and I don’t want to let my fear of death hold me back.
The stories I’ve included this week are about eternal life and the fear we feel while contemplating the lack thereof. Read more…
Whenever one of Mooallem’s stories come out, I pretty much drop what I’m working on, kick back on my couch, and read it with a big, stupid grin. This delightful piece about a self-professed “idler” who discovers a new type of cloud is the perfect match between writer and subject matter. I guarantee that the moment you start reading, you, too, will float away from whatever it is you probably should be doing.
I was blown away by this investigation into a global super court that allows businesses to strip countries of their ability to enforce environmental regulations. “Known as investor-state dispute settlement, or ISDS, this legal system is written into a vast network of treaties that set the rules for international trade and investment,” Hamby writes. “Of all the ways in which ISDS is used, the most deeply hidden are the threats, uttered in private meetings or ominous letters, that invoke those courts.” This is the second part of Hamby’s series on the ISDS, and it focuses on an Australian company that was able to strip-mine inside a protected forest in Indonesia. Even though the company was complicit in the beating and, in one case, killing of protestors, the government was too cowed by the court to revoke the company’s permit. Read more…
Thanksgiving feels especially fraught this year. The stakes of the perfect holiday are high; better to abandon them altogether. Why does the intimacy of family breed conflict? I wish I had suggestions for battling the anxiety many of us are feeling around the table this year. As for me, I will try my hardest to speak truth if ignorance comes to a head, even if I am afraid. I will stay safe—my support systems at the ready, my journal and Klonipin in my bag, and my phone fully charged.
None of the following stories were written in 2016, but the themes of our contemporary American Thanksgiving traditions—family, identity, history—remain relevant. Read more…