Category: Dynasty Trust

Mallory Ortberg on the Goofballs of the Western Canon - October 31, 2014 by zeldalegacy

To appropriately describe the power of Texts From Jane Eyre and Other Conversations With Your Favorite Literary Characters, the debut book by Mallory Ortberg — the funniest writer on the Internet and the co-creator of the wonderful website The Toast — it seems best to list the places where I laughed while reading it: on the subway, laughing hard enough that the L train glared at me; in bed with a wicked case of insomnia (my chortling woke up my husband); at the Flavorwire office, where we all fought over who got to read the book first.

The beautiful thing about Texts From Jane Eyre, based on Ortberg’s original column for The Hairpin, is that it offers exactly what it says on the cover: the Western canon is parodied and spoofed through the silly modern invention of texting. Ortberg’s comedy is shot through with love and deep literary knowledge, highlighting the silly and outrageous subtext bubbling under classics from Lord Byron to Nancy Drew. It’s hilarious, wickedly smart work that also serves as a fantastic reading list. It was a pleasure to talk with Ortberg at the Flavorwire offices during her recent visit New York.

When did you realize that you were good at writing jokes like the ones in Texts?

51NkGhyEKrL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_-2I really love doing really stupid jokes. I remember in the sixth grade when my dad showed me Monty Python and the Holy Grail with my best friend and I drove everyone crazy by reciting every scene verbatim. So, I’ve always loved bits. But definitely, in the last three to four years is when I really started feeling like, man, making jokes about literary characters for a short amount of time is what I was put on this earth to do. So glad I found a very specific calling early in life.

I was reading your book at the same time as Megan Amran’s Science… For Her! And both books felt like an extension of the kind of manic female voice that Edith Zimmerman was using at The Hairpin when she was the editor.

Totally, and I think Caity Weaver [at Gawker] or Patricia Lockwood [poet, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals] probably fall under the same umbrella, but they’re all pretty distinct. I wouldn’t say that any of us are clones of each other at all, but there’s definitely that wonderful, unhinged, zany sense of, “I want to be weird and funny and you’re gonna love it.”

Let’s talk for a minute about the Transcendentalists, like Henry David Thoreau and his Concord crew. What was up with those guys?

Somebody could write a long, thoughtful essay about how Thoreau was misunderstood, how the purpose of Walden was never “I’m going to live a life of complete solitude,” and so he shouldn’t necessarily get crap for having people come visit him and bring him marmalade. But I don’t want to write a long essay about that; I want to write jokes about how he steals pies from his neighbors and he talks to his friends late at night in Boston asking them to bring him stuff.

And his parents were pencil factory owners.

He didn’t even make his own cabin, and he literally was just like, “Can I use your cabin for two years, and then get really famous and let me not pay you or anything?” It’s such a dirtbag move, like, “Hey man, can I use your lake house for a while and write my book there?” I mean, it’s fine, but it’s very silly, and people need to treat it with the silliness that it merits. He was like, “I’m not paying taxes, whatever.” I think he owes the world a few apologies.

Did you read every book in preparation for Texts?

Kind of! I had already read all of them. I went to the kind of college that really does say, “Here is the Western canon, read it.” Which is definitely not the only thing you want to do with your English major, you definitely want to reach beyond that, but it was pretty traditional in that sense. So I read the Western canon and have a lot of thoughts about it, apparently.

It was just stuff that I felt really familiar with. I grew up in a house where there was a lot of reading. My parents were both pastors, so there was a lot of Little Women, and European and white North American classics. I love, love, love and have read a lot of other stuff, but the Western canon felt kind of like something I knew intimately. And it was full of so much silliness that it was often — like, I love the Western canon — but it’s sort of silly and it’s full of assholes. Generally people either say either, “Let’s not talk about this because we talk about it too much,” or, “Let’s talk about it very seriously and take it very seriously and Hemingway was very serious and he’s very important.” But these people are goofballs.

The Sun Also Rises is insane.

I cannot tell you how full of joy I am that his granddaughter [Mariel Hemingway] is now like a Zen lifestyle blogger. I don’t know if she blogs [ed. note: her personal blog is titled: “Living a Holistic Life”], but she writes very meditative books with, “Fill your house with lightness, and drink green juices, and stretch,” and he would’ve just gone nuts. He would be miserable. I wish that all of those guys had grandkids who all they did was do yoga and scented themselves and avoided bread. It just would’ve driven them crazy. Like, I wish so much that F. Scott Fitzgerald had like a gay grandson who just taught deep breathing.

There’s a distant relative of his who is a twee musician [Blake Hazard].

Good! May they all have twee descendants. Or simply centered, balanced people who treat the people in their lives well, as sort of like a counterbalance to, “Well I’m going to shoot every animal in Kenya and then die.” Well, where did he die? He shot himself in Florida or something? Who cares? He shot himself.

Do you feel a profound power, running The Toast and being your own boss?

Yes, I do. I really like it. It’s really cool because [Toast co-founder] Nicole [Cliffe] is my favorite person in the world, so I love working with her, and I always want to please her. I love what we get to do. I have a really high sense of motivation, as opposed to just like, “Oh, I feel like writing jokes today.” Being your own boss is really, really fun. I think it’s great. If you want to do it, you should give it a try.

It seems like you just emerged on the Internet fully formed as a comic writer. Where did that come from?

Well, I started writing on the Internet in 2011, and I was doing recaps of The Vampire Diaries for free for a website that I don’t even remember the name. After that I was working in publishing and writing a ton on the side, and I started writing for The Hairpin and then started writing stuff for The Atlantic and Gawker and The Gloss and a couple other places. It certainly wasn’t overnight. I spent a couple years trying to find out what my voice was. Turns out it was just the one that comes out of me when I talk. I was able to spend a lot of time doing it and quit my job and emerged like Venus from the sea, fully dressed in a bathrobe.

Do you get exhausted? You write so many jokes all day long, and you’re really good at it. How do you have that energy?

I conserve all my energy by moving very little. I go into like a physical hibernation. I didn’t know that this is what I loved to do until I started doing it. I think a lot of people have a talent for writing a novel. It turns out I’m just really at my best and happiest when I have to come up with a lot of jokes throughout the day. And write 400 words about them. I don’t know what I did before Twitter. I love Twitter, and it was made for me. I had no idea that it existed and then as soon as it came along I was like, “Oh, thank god, I’ve needed this all along and where have you been?”

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Probably still running The Toast. Honestly, this is the type of job I would want to do until I die. I hope that in five years The Toast has more money than anyone in the world, and I have at least one item of clothing that’s made of gold. Cause my dream is, remember the episode of The Simpsons where Homer ends up winning the lottery and he turns into a man that is ten feet tall and is made of gold and is covered in rupees? That’s the goal. That’s the dream.

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Impersonating Miles Davis - October 30, 2014 by zeldalegacy
My Miles Davis impersonation

My Miles Davis impersonation

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” – Confucius

So there’s all sorts of hub-bub about Mostly Other People Do the Killing‘s new album  Blue (Hot Cup Records), which is a note-for-note re-creation of the acclaimed Miles Davis’ masterpiece Kind of Blue (Columbia Records).  Criticism of Blue ranges between “How dare they?” to “What was the point?”

From my bunny point of view, I don’t understand what all the fuss is about.  According to Confucius, Imitation is one of the three methods of gaining wisdom. While the other two, Reflection and Experience, may sound more respectable, Confucius doesn’t actually state that any one method is better than the other.  We may think of Reflection and Experience as better, but it could be that those are just the methods that are easier to brag about.  No one wants to brag about having Imitated someone.  However, Imitation should be respected, because it shows humbleness in the acknowledgement that others are better than oneself, and at the same time it shows confidence in being able to admit that you are Imitating.

For those not familiar with Kind of Blue, this is what it is in a nutshell:

I’m just a bunny so I can’t really explain what makes the album so great, but I know it has something to do with it being made up of seven legendary musicians who were improvising in a style that no one was yet familiar with— modal jazz.  Modal jazz is hard to explain, but it’s basically when improvisation is based on scales (7 sequential notes in a certain key), as opposed to a chords (3 or 4 notes of the same key played together).  So Kind of Blue was an album where musicians who had each individually achieved greatness using improvisation based on 3-4 notes, were brought together and were given twice as many notes and twice as much freedom to work with.

There’s a lot more to this, but I’m just a bunny.  You can get expert information here.  All I can say is that it grooves with a familiar beat, but it’s still unpredictable.  The solos sing and are seamless; they don’t come off as a thing apart from the song.  It makes me feel happy.  It makes me want to close my eyes when I listen.

As for Blue:

Of course musicians should want to follow in the footsteps of Kind of Blue, and ideally musicians they would do it with their own music, but they can only get there through the learning methods of Confucius; all which have drawbacks.  Reflection, while noble, limits oneself to his or her existing knowledge.  Experience risks having gigs that are painful, both for the musicians and audience.  Imitation has its pitfalls too, but if done well, accomplishment is guaranteed.

The Wall Street Journal quoted Jimmy Cobb, the only surviving member from Kind of Blue,  as saying that when he first listened to Blue, he thought he was listening to the original.  Mostly Other People Do the Killing (a band that is ironically usually described as unique and unorthodox) should be proud of themselves for being able to imitate the album so well.  I know jazz is supposed to all about improvising, but by imitating the band got closer to knowing the genius of the album, which is something that will undoubtedly flow into their own original work eventually.

Jimmy Cobb

Jimmy Cobb

The Wall Street Journal also quotes jazz historian Dan Morgenstern, who said “Why bother creating a masterpiece that already exists?”  With this, I have to agree.  While this is an accomplishment for the band, I don’t see where it can go from here.  Many will listen to the album, but if they want to buy it, they might as well buy the original. This project could be highly successful on tour, because it could be the closest that anyone who wasn’t around in 1959 can get to hearing it live.  Unfortunately, bandleader Moppa Elliott, said that the project was not meant to tour, but maybe they will reconsider, and who knows… maybe they can even get Jimmy Cobb to sit in.

Read more:
A Conversation with Mostly Other People Do the Killing with PopMatters

Filed under: Album Reviews, Jazz Lessons, Journal Tagged: Bill Evans, Blue, Cannonball Adderley, Columbia Records, Confucius, Dan Morgenstern, Hot Cup Records, imitation, jazz, Jimmy Cobb, John Coltrane, Kind of Blue, Miles Davis, Moppa Elliott, Mostly Other People Do the Killing, Paul Chambers, Velvet, Wall Street Journal, Wynton Kelly
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Do Something Pointless - October 29, 2014 by zeldalegacy

Do something pointless for 20 minutes this week.

Do something devoid of meaning, devoid of effectiveness, something having little or no sense or purpose.

That may be tough for you to pull off. Our American culture has always been purposeful and effective. We pushed West to get more and more land. Manifest Destiny filled our scruffy settlers with meaning and they pushed. Full of purpose and meaning, we pushed for bigger and better and faster and more. We made cars. Then more cars and bigger cars. Rockets were even faster than cars. We shot upward full of purpose into space. We planted a flag on the land of the moon, that beckoning frontier. We have always been an active culture, pushing effectively for bigger-better-faster.

Our wages grew the whole time. Our success grew and grew, we were effective and purpose-filled. By the 1970s we led the world in many ways. We had more food, more money and more success than any other country. Our food and shelter was as big and grand and as fast as any culture in the history of mankind has ever known. And it showed. The 1976 Cadillac Sixty Special was 20 feet long.

And we kept growing. We began to grow in new ways. We’re still growing, pushing effectively, full of bigger and better and faster and more purpose. It means success. It means beating everybody else.

We now lead the world in obesity, pharmaceutical drug use and the percentage of our population with anxiety. We use more cocaine than any country in the world. We have complained of an obesity epidemic for a decade now, and fast food revenue has grown each and every year in that decade. We have bigger-better-faster food. Bigger people, better and faster at consuming more of everything. We have bigger-better-faster sex. We produce 89 percent of the world’s pornography. Our export is an effective and purposeful push for more and faster everything, because that means better living to us.

Imagine riding a bike. You push the pedals to move forward. If you don’t push, you don’t go anywhere. We’re all aware of that, and we think of riding a bike as being about effective effort against the pedals. Turning a wheel is a cycle, yet we tend to be aware of only half of what we’re doing. Allowing is part of that process, acceptance is part of that process, co-ordination is part of that process. Try pushing with both legs and pushing all the time. Give it all that you’ve got, when you feel the pedals push back against you push harder. What will happen? You’ll push off of your seat, standing tall and rigid as you coast to a stop, and tip over in the dirt.

Once upon a time, it made sense to push for bigger-better-faster food shelter and sex. That has been an effective “meaning of life” for maybe 83,000 generations, so it makes sense that it gives us purpose. It worked for our great-great-grandfathers, it worked for our fathers. We want to push west and up, and push forth into society for more of what sustains life.

Yet quite possibly for the very first time in any culture ever, pushing effectively towards more effectiveness and purpose and making bigger-better-faster food, shelter and sex at all times – is not enhancing our quality of life.

What if we learned to value other things as well?

Do something pointless. For 20 minutes this week, do something that means nothing at all. Get nothing done.

Turn your phone off. Find a quiet place to sit down, and make yourself comfortable. Don’t even think. Don’t even try not to think.

Thoughts will come. Let them pass you by. Imagine walking on the streets of Seattle as people pass you by. Do you grab them by the arm and find out where they’ll take you? Maybe you’ll go to Pike Place Market and they’ll buy you a paper sack full of hot fresh doughnuts. Maybe they’ll lead you down a dark alley if you follow them. Yes, you’ll be curious where your thoughts might lead. Don’t try and figure out if the thoughts are going somewhere good or bad, and don’t try shoving them out of the way. Let them walk on by you.

Count your breath. One, two, three, four, then repeat.

You will feel silly. You will feel as if you are getting nothing done. And you’re not. This is a pointless activity, as silly as picking up a heavy object and putting it down repeatedly..

Doing something pointless for no reason may be the most challenging 20 minutes of your week. Don’t do it because it will bring meaning and effectiveness and purpose to the rest of your week.

Do it for no reason at all.


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Misogyny: Every Little Bit Matters - October 24, 2014 by zeldalegacy

I have been forced, through sheer volume of Twitter exposure, to learn what #Gamergate is.

I’m not a gamer. Never have been. I have no reason to take any interest at all in the internal politics of the gaming community. But there’s this stupid hashtag peppering my Twitter feed, compelling me to find out what the hell it means.

Well, sort of. I know what some of its proponents say it means and I know what basically all of its opponents say it means. To be frank, I don’t care how it started (actually, given that the term was coined by Adam Baldwin, I’m actively bummed to know how it started) or whether the original accusation of bias has any merit (seems like it doesn’t, but I’m not going to do enough research to be able to speak with any authority on that). Here’s what I care about: Gamergate, either by evolution or by design, is rife with enthusiastic misogyny. Its banner has flown above threats of rape, murder and at least one full-on terrorist attack. Feminists are the enemy and silencing them is way up there on the to do list.

If you’ve ever wondered why I have taken such a big interest in the issue of NHL ‘ice girls,’ this is why.

It’s because video games are rife with sexist tropes, and when a woman speaks too loudly about that topic she is driven from her home. Gamergate is a horror show of circular misogyny, in which a segment of the population so values its god-given right to demean women that it responds to any threat to that ‘right’ not by rethinking the practice, but rather by upping the ante and putting individual women in real danger of bodily harm (to say nothing of the relentless psychological abuse raining down on these women).

‘Ice girls’ are one part – a small part, perhaps, but a part – of why some men believe so deeply that they are more human than women are. ‘Ice girls,’ NFL cheerleaders, movie damsels in distress, video game hookers, everyone pictured in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition: All are defined entirely by whether or not they’re pleasing to men, and by how men choose to react to them. This isn’t about actual sex workers, who certainly have their place in society; it’s about an overall image of womanhood that we accept, unthinking, because we’re so used to it.

Children of both genders see co-ed crews shoveling NHL ice, with the men in warm-up suits and women in sports bras and hot pants, and see that there’s a fundamental difference between what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman, even when that man and that woman are doing the exact same job. Teens see an entire issue of the world’s leading sports magazine devoted to showing pictures of barely-dressed female models, and they learn that the sports world still caters directly, if not exclusively, to straight men. Grown men hear pundits blame women for provoking domestic abuse or muse about the commercial boost afforded by sexual assault charges, and conclude that ‘real men’ are entitled – and expected – to dominate women.

Add it up, and you get a bunch of male video game enthusiasts who simply cannot tolerate a woman trying to exert any influence over the content of those games. You get those same men, absolutely convinced that they are entitled to shut down that woman through absolutely any means, no matter how violent or cruel. After all, these intruders into the gaming world aren’t full-fledged people – they’re just women.

The best way to address this warped view is by preventing it from forming in the first place. No more placing ‘heroic’ males athletes next to scantily clad, seen-but-not-heard women. No more objectification of women in ‘family-friendly’ venues and outlets. No more making excuses for abusers just because we’d rather not view them as such. We have to demonstrate, every day and everywhere, that women are people, just the same as men are. Only by weaving that truth into the fabric of society can we start raising generations that see the world that way from the day one.

That’s not to let adults off the hook for their own bigotries. We’re grown-ups and we’re responsible for questioning and refining our own values, regardless of how they were initially formed. For those who haven’t begun that process yet, a tip: While there’s not always a clear right and wrong in every situation, if you find yourself threatening a stranger with bodily harm for expressing her opinion, then you are wrong. Most of the time, though, misogyny isn’t nearly that obvious. More often than not it comes attached to a grin rather than a snarl.

Rest assured, straight men, that feminists don’t seek to keep you from enjoying the sight of women’s bodies; rather, we’d like for everyone to remember that those bodies belong not to the men viewing them but to the women inhabiting them, and that those women have minds that deserve to be valued every bit as highly as men’s. Unfortunately, the sports and gaming worlds – and, to a slightly lesser extent, the world of pop culture – generally focus on women’s bodies to the exclusion of our minds. Little wonder, then, that those men who are most enamored with sports and gaming feel the most threatened when confronted with women who insist on being treated as more than just the sum of their physical parts.

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Day 7: Brutal Triage - October 18, 2014 by zeldalegacy

Les Roberts – Freetown, Sierra Leone – October 11th, 2014

Day 7: Brutal Triage

The prediction landscape is looking bad.   The official numbers reported are laboratory confirmed cases.   Typically, we think people need 7-10ish days to become symptomatic. Typically people have symptoms for 7 days before they get into a health facility. A month ago, it was one day, now it typically takes 4 days from when a patient is sampled to when the patient is told the result of their test (and lots get lost and mislabeled….).   Thus, the numbers that you hear about new cases today reflect the transmission dynamics from over 2 weeks ago…..and we thought the doubling time of the outbreak was 30 days, it seems to be less than that here.   We knew the ~350 confirmed cases last week were an undercount….we now think there are 7-900 in reality.   The need for hospital beds is climbing more than the ability to get them up and running.   There might be 200ish ebola treatment beds now countrywide.   There are perhaps 600 more in “holding areas.” We have schemes to get 500 or 600 ebola treatment beds up and running over the next 8 weeks.   As Foreign Medical Team Coordinator, helping to get these beds up and supported is one of my primary tasks. If there are really 3000 cases this month, and 6000 next month…with all going perfectly on the treatment bed establishment side, we will have 30% of the beds we need next month, slightly worse than the situation now.

The Ministry of Health and WHO are trying to fill the void with Ebola Community Care Units (ECU’s).   Tents with eight beds….maybe two tents, a wet tent (vomit and diarrhea) and a dry tent and a big buffer zone around with a couple latrines and a burning pit and a water supply. They will be staffed by low level health workers or community volunteers, ideally survivors of ebola who will have immunity.   The idea is that at the first sign of symptoms, the family brings the feverish loved one in. Everyone will be treated with an antimalarial and an antibiotic. If they can be tested for ebola, they will be. If not, they get monitored and if they develop 3 of the key symptoms they get referred to a proper hospital bed….which will be in short supply….or otherwise they move to the wet tent. They will be given ORS….maybe food….maybe they die, maybe they do not.   This is very close to no treatment.   But the goal is to get them out of their houses to where they will be less likely to infect others.   The supervision will be scant.   The work for those in the ECU’s will be very risky.   Even MSF has had several staff infected now and they are hyper-vigilant and resource rich. But the logic is, for every health worker infected or ECU malaria patient who becomes infected with ebola while waiting in such a unit, 2 or three infections that would have happened if the person died at home will not occur.

We aspire that we will have ~150 of these going in 60 days….which involves a million dollars per unit, major logistic planning and supply chains, site preparation by the community, and well drilling…..this will be a massive effort. But 2000 beds in ECU’s, 700 treatment beds…might be half of what we need by December.   Thus, barring a dynamic change in the outbreak growth, in November, in December, most cases will likely die at home.

Thus, the CDC has been pushing kits and training messages to promote “safe home care.” The kits would have ORS (a lot…like 20 sachets) and gloves and masks and chlorine and an ORS mixing bottle. The kits’ design is yet to be finalized by the MOH and the international community. The main part of the kit will be messages to the family. Keep the person in a room alone, and no one shares their bathroom. Only have one person deal with them…don’t touch them…wear gloves…wash with chlorine as you exit their room.   Again, like the ECU’s this is not about treating the ill as much as it is about minimizing infections. The logic flows like this:

Interim Ebola Approach

If you think about it a few steps removed from West Africa, this is freakin’ wild. We are primarily trying to facilitate people to die without infecting others.   Very little of this logic beyond the ORS is about treatment.   The last year PEPFAR was in full bloom, with all the administrative layers and consultants, it spent ,000 per patient to have Africans on anti-retrovirals. The rights-based advocates were screaming about how it was only fair that Africans get what Westerners got. In July there was an Onion headline “Experts: Ebola Vaccine At Least 50 White People Away.”,36580/   It seemed kind of funny then…now that we are being so brutal in our public health triage it is much much less funny….maybe prophetic.   We are about to assist thousands and thousands of people to die an excruciating death at home without even the most mild of pain relief. We are going to set up treatment facilities in hundreds of villages for one of the most deadly of diseases to be largely run by volunteers who will be lucky to get 3 days of training. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of them will die. And the most surreal aspect of this triage for me is that I completely think that this is the right thing to do given where we are and the limited ability to respond. As I think about you students reading this I struggle with the degree to which my endorsement of this multipronged approach is pragmatism or wisdom or loss of idealism.


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Creativity in Suburbia - October 13, 2014 by zeldalegacy

Ah, my muse…Crayola.

This month, writing took a backseat to volunteering. Family time took a backseat to exhaustion. Workouts took a backseat to elder care. Introspection took a backseat to distractions and that overused misnomer, multitasking. Depression rolled in, a predictable fog of lethargy and glass half-empty thinking.

We shrug our shoulders with banal bon mots like “Life happens” and “It is what it is” in order to acknowledge that we are giving up control, prostrate in front of the bulldozer of modern living. The minute we complain, someone snipes “first world problems” or “check your privilege”, which is sometimes just a pseudo-intellectual way of telling someone to shut up.

Resistance seems futile. You say “yes” more often than you should. You conform in a million soul-crushing ways. You follow the rules, try to be polite, try to do the right thing. I am a creative person. But after a lifetime of trying to do the right thing and following the rules, I little resemble the person that I’d imagined I’d be – socially unconventional, wildly, artistically prolific.

Choices seem obscured by responsibilities, real or imagined. Arrogance about how one is needed and what one’s value is in the eyes of others, is conflated with a sense of worthiness.

The midlife clock started ticking a couple of years ago. An acute awareness of time, the luck of making it this far, has become excruciating to avoid. I don’t want to be busy – at least not with the sort of shit that eats up our lives. I want to, to quote my favorite movie line, “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

My life is not a particularly hard one by anyone’s measure. What is hardest is that I am living in rote mode – this busy, inane rushing about and trying to do a little bit of everything. It dulls the senses, discounts my good fortune and leaves me listless. This is life in suburbia – a life I appreciate intellectually, but creatively, it’s scrabbling at my throat.

I’ve started paying attention to the many, many “rules” I follow throughout the day – all the things that I try to do right. It’s mind-boggling. Bills mailed on time, flag up on the mailbox. Drive all the way up the orange cones before the kid gets out of the car at school. Put away the cart. Sign and date here and here and here. Say thank you and please. Please hold, don’t call before 10am, don’t mow after 9pm and smile, smile, smile.


It’s a snoozer. I’ve never made it past the first couple of chapters.

This is not even touching on the legal rules, like not using one’s car as a battering ram when the person ahead doesn’t use their turn signal (my vehicular fantasy). It’s all necessary, these enforced courtesy and safety rules. It keeps us from clubbing each other (for the most part).

Then there’s the Michelle rules: see the big picture, avoid people when I’m pissy, spend time outside, don’t let things pile up, communicate to the point, don’t waste time, stay active and lastly, always lastly, be creative. How much energy does one need to be creative? Apparently more than I have at the end of a day.

I’ve been trying to give myself a psychological makeover over the last few years, within the parameters of the life I have. It has worked on some levels, but when it comes to writing, I’ve been a dung beetle. Pushing the same old shit around without feeling much progress. When asked about my writing, I rattle off the same answer: working on edits on my novel, blah, blah, blahgging.

It’s just pushing dung. If I applied even half the discipline I use in other areas of my life, I imagine that I’d have a new answer.

I laugh when I think about the stereotype of middle-aged women’s fantasies. Mine are more like 50 Shades of Misanthropy. I would like to be alone writing for days on end or finally give in to violent impulses, like ramming texting drivers with my car or delivering roundhouse kicks to people who are rude to cashiers.

Are we done here? Those dishes aren't going to do themselves.

Are we done here? Those dishes aren’t going to do themselves.

I’m waging a mental battle to make room for a creative life. To always have that hunger, that niggling doubt, that sense that wherever I’m at, it’s not where I supposed to be, well, that’s been my life. I’d be the worst Buddhist ever.

The myth that good artists must suffer or live off the grid or be plagued with personal demons and volatile relationships continues to thrive. I’m an ordinary person living, like most people, an ordinary life. Finding that spark, hearing that beckoning amidst grocery lists, soccer games and laundry loads seems daunting. But it’s there, calling out in those quiet moments between errands and getting louder by the moment.

Some guides for making room for a creative writing life:

One Year to a Writing Life: Twelve Lessons to Deepen Every Writer’s Art and Craft by Susan M. Tiberghien

The Resaissance Soul: How to Make Your Passions Your Life, A Creative and Practical Guide by Margaret Lobenstine

The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear by Ralph Keyes

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The Curious Case of Kiribati - October 12, 2014 by zeldalegacy

Because the islands that compose it are spread widely apart, the South Pacific nation of Kiribati is the only country on Earth that resides in all four hemispheres simultaneously.  

While at face-value this may seem like trivia, something to say at a party to sound worldly, the uniquely expansive geography of Kiribati has actually played an important role in the country’s history, as well as instigated one of the most interesting geographic events of the last fifty years. An event that not only changed Kiribati forever, but the entire geography of the South Pacific, and even our understanding of what it means to map our planet.

Kiribati Geography

Kiribati is one of the most expansive countries on Earth when compared to its landmass.

However, without context, that statement seems a little ambitious, so let’s start with a little history.

Like many South Pacific island nations, Kiribati was once a European colony. Bereft of any significant amount of natural resources or agriculture (less than 3% of the country’s land is arable), Kiribati mainly served as an expanded sphere of influence for the British, who claimed the island chain as an English protectorate in 1892. A relatively calm 19th century led into a violent and macabre 20th century for Kiribati, starting with the Japanese occupation of much of the nation’s territory during WWII. The ravages of war, coupled with the testing of US and British hydrogen bombs on some of Kiribati’s outlying islands during the 1950s, decimated much of Kiribati’s already meager natural resources, and caused some residents to immigrate to surrounding countries under the banner of environmental refugees.  

The devastation at Tarawa during WWII.           Photo courtesy Obie Newcomb, Jr.

Kiribati quietly gained its independence in the latter half of the 20th century, just as the British Empire was in the process of global decolonization. However, post-sovereignty, Kiribati was still facing major problems. Despite its sweeping area, Kiribati has very little landmass, and only two-thirds of the islands that make up the country are habitable. This caused massive overcrowding in the 1970s and 80s following a rapid rise in population, forcing as many at 4,700 people to have to forcibly relocate to some of Kiribati’s neighboring countries, such as Fiji, and even as far as Australia. Combine this with the fact that Kiribati is foreseen to be the first country to lose all of its landmass to climate change-induced sea-level rise, and the story of a struggling nation comes into bleak focus. 

All of that isn’t to say that Kiribati isn’t a vacationer’s paradise; it very much is. Awash with sunshine, coral-stained white-sand beaches, and strewn about with dense palm forests, Kiribati appears to many as the picturesque vision of a tropical island fantasy. This is a good thing, because a large amount of Kiribati’s GDP comes from vacation-based tourism, which helps to prop up the economy of what is seen by many relief organizations as one of the least-developed and poorest countries in the world. 

Many of Kiribati's islands project a storybook natural beauty.

Many of Kiribati’s islands project a storybook natural beauty.

Looking broadly at the social, political, and economic problems that plague Kiribati, it becomes easy to overlook one of the practical problems that comes from being a country spread out over such a wide area. Kiribati’s boundaries are so vast that for a long time it straddled the International Date Line, meaning that the capital city of Tarawa, which lies in the western part of Kiribati, was constantly 22 hours ahead of the eastern half of the country, while only being around 1,600 km (1000 mi) apart. It’s more apt now to say that Kiribati used to straddle the International Date Line, because in 1995, in a move rarely-seen in the age of modern mapping, then-president Teburoro Tito petitioned to have the International Date Line changed so that the entire country would reside in the same day. 

In order to appropriately comprehend the gravity attached to one country moving something as fundamental to the whole planet as the International Date Line, it’s important to first understand what exactly the Date Line is.

The International Date Line was established in 1884, when a group of astronomers and other geodetic representatives met in Washington DC to convene the International Meridian Conference (note: there has not been a similar conference since). The conference’s main goal was to recommend an international prime meridian that could be used as reference in all future nautical and geographical charts. When the meridian passing through the Royal Observatory at Greenwich (located in SE London) was by nearly-unanimous endorsement adopted as the marker for 0º longitude, it was remarked how convenient the placement was as it ensured that the opposite meridian, where the Date Line would be located, would pass over no major landmasses. Because of this, no attempts were made at the time to establish a course of action if the line were to some day pass over an inhabited area. 

I wish scientists today still wore top hats.

The international crowd of surveyors and geodetic scientists that attended the 1884 conference. Photo courtesy National Maritime Museum

This fact that there was no contingency plan has left the placement of the Date Line up to the interpretation of individual nations. Since the exact course of the line was never defined by any kind of international law or treaty, the Date Line remains mainly theoretical. American surveyor George Davidson even went so far as to say that, “There is no International Date Line,” and that the line was just an, “agreement among the…principal maritime countries,” at the time that presided near it.

This ambiguity has historically allowed countries to manipulate the route of the Date Line to better suit their needs, whether those needs be for easier communication, to better manage annexed territory, or to keep countries on the same calendar day, as was the case for Kiribati. Over the Date Line’s 130-year history, it has gone from a fairly straight line, to having jogs and kinks that made it look more like an irregular heartbeat on an EKG machine. Much of the changes to the Date Line in the 20th century have been the result of Alaska and Hawaii becoming US States, and the practical problems of having territory so far away from the overseeing nation.

The history of the IDL's movement, with Kiribati's change being not so subtle. Graphic courtesy Jon Calame.

The history of the IDL’s movement, with Kiribati’s change being…not so subtle. Graphic courtesy Jon Calame.

With the precedent set before them, there was no reason to believe that Kiribati couldn’t move the line to better suit the practical needs of their expansive country. There was, however, an ulterior motive for Kiribati to petition for the movement of the International Date Line.

There is a romantic idea held by those who live just west of the Date Line, that those people are the first on the planet to see a sunrise at the beginning of every new day. Normally, this is just a notion used to give the areas near the Date Line a sense of uniqueness, something special that sets them apart. However, in 1995, Kiribati’s government thought that they would capitalize on this fact, but on a much grander scale. Kiribati wanted to be the first country to see a sunrise of the year 2000, to be the doorkeepers to a whole new millennium. Kiribati wanted the Line Islands (their easternmost territory) to start the year 2000 before anyone else.

This caused quite a stir in the South Pacific region, and a sort of “race to the year 2000” began. Countries started to jockey for their own right to experience the new millennium first. It’s not hard to see why a country would fight for this honor. Seeing the sunrise on January 1st, 2000, before any other nation, becomes a thing of pride, which many of the recently independent countries were seeking. Many nations also thought that having something like that on their “national resume” may also bring in more tourism dollars, with the thought that people would come to the island so that they too could make the claim that they had experienced a day before anyone else.

In the end though, it was Kiribati that won the right to change the Date Line. This both fixed the practical issue of the time gap they experienced everyday, and had the added bonus of making Kiribati the first country in the new millennium. Kiribati even boasts about the feat on the country’s website, saying that Kiribati was, “the first nation to see the new millennium, the 1st of January 2000.” One of Kiribati’s easternmost islands was even renamed Millennium Island to celebrate the occasion.

The International Date Line today.

The International Date Line today in stark comparison to the Prime Meridian.

The aftermath of this is obvious. Any map of the Pacific Ocean now comes with a jagged scar running askew to the 180th latitude, an aftermath of the race to get to the year 2000. Not everyone recognizes the Kiribati-version of the International Date Line, since the line itself is essentially only a theory, and because of this, any country near the Date Line can claim it was the first to witness the sunrise on the dawn of the new millennium. 

So was all the work Kiribati did worth it? Well, the economy is really no better. Kiribati’s economy now greatly benefits not from tourist dollars, but rather from relief assistance, as well as international development programs geared towards under-developed nations. If the government in 1995 had focused its efforts more on the well-being of its state rather than potential tourist dollars, would Kiribati be better off today?

Kiribati changed the global landscape, and essentially manipulated when a day starts for a great many people. They showed the power we have over our own geography, and how elastic the grid we set on our planet really is, be that for better or for worse. 

- Ben Kessler


Freshly Pressed: Editors’ Picks

The Art of the Medieval Selfie - October 11, 2014 by zeldalegacy

Self-portraits of medieval book artisans are as exciting as they are rare. In the age before the modern camera there were limited means to show others what you looked like. In the very late medieval period, when the Renaissance spirit was already felt in the air, some painters made self-portraits or included themselves in paintings commissioned by […]
Freshly Pressed: Editors’ Picks

A Pale Blue Glow - October 6, 2014 by zeldalegacy

by Shane L. Larson

One of the great things about being a scientist is I’m exposed to amazing and awesome things. Every. Single. Day. Sometimes I am astonished by Nature itself, and other days I am amazed by our ingenuity and abilities as we come of age in the Cosmos. Today was one of those days.

The first picture of the Moon and Earth together in space, taken by Voyager 1.

The first picture of the Moon and Earth together in space, taken by Voyager 1.

This story has its origins long ago. On 5 September 1977 we hucked a 722 kg spacecraft into the sky, named Voyager 1. That was the last time any of us ever saw Voyager 1 with our own eyes. But Voyager has been on a 37-year journey to act as our eyes in the Solar System. On 18 September 1977, barely 13 days after launch, when it was 7.25 million miles from Earth, Voyager sent home the first picture ever of the Earth and Moon together in space. It went on to Jupiter, where it took pictures of clouds and storms that look for all the world like the finest paintings on Earth, and discovered the first active volcanoes beyond the Earth on the enigmatic moon Io. At Saturn, it returned the first high-resolution images of an exquisite ring system, and showed us a shattered Death Star like Moon known as Mimas, dominated by an enormous crater named Herschel. But for all the wondrous pictures, we never saw Voyager. Like your Mom taking pictures of your childhood, we have never once seen the photographer chronicling our growth.

Just a sample of the kinds of discoveries made by Voyager 1. (TopL) Exquisite cloud structure on Jupiter. (TopR) Active volcanism on Jupiter's moon, Io. (BottomL) Tremendous structure in Saturn's rings. (BottomR) Saturn's moon, Mimas.

Just a sample of the kinds of discoveries made by Voyager 1. (TopL) Exquisite cloud structure on Jupiter. (TopR) Active volcanism on Jupiter’s moon, Io. (BottomL) Tremendous structure in Saturn’s rings. (BottomR) Saturn’s moon, Mimas.

But today, I saw something that made me smile. Since it began its long outbound journey, we’ve been talking with Voyager 1 on a radio. In all, it only transmits about 20 watts of power, something typical of a larger compact-fluorescent-lightbulb. The total power received on Earth from Voyager is about a ten-billionth of a millionth of a watt. In one second, we receive less than a trillionth the energy a single snowflake delivers to your shoulder as you’re walking to work.

VLBI image of Voyager 1, diligently beaming its signal back to Earth.

VLBI image of Voyager 1, diligently beaming its signal back to Earth.

But take a look at the picture above, released by NASA last fall. See that pale blue dot right there? That is Voyager 1, seen through the eyes of the Very Long Baseline Interferometer, an array of linked radio telescopes that stretches from one side of the Earth to the other. It sees the sky in radio light. Normally it looks at quasars and distant nebulae, but this image is of Voyager 1, shining its radio back at Earth. This is the first radio signal of human origin ever to be received from outside the solar system. It is also the first picture of Voyager 1 taken since its launch. It’s a bit like seeing your friend in the dark, waving their cellphone at you from a distant mountaintop.  But it’s there, and we can see it — the pale radio beacon of Voyager 1, drifting alone in the immense dark between the stars.

Long after it runs out of power, Voyager 1 will continue to drift alone through the galaxy.

Long after it runs out of power, Voyager 1 will continue to drift alone through the galaxy.

What will happen to Voyager 1? It will continue to talk to us for a little while longer. It is powered by a small nuclear power plant, gleaning energy from the decay of plutonium. But that energy supply is dwindling, and sometime around the mid 2020’s, just more than a decade from now, Voyager 1 will fall silent. The pale blue glow will disappear forever; there will be no more pictures of our loyal emissary. Voyager 1 will continue onward however, bound for the depths of the galaxy, a dead hulk built by a race of curious lifeforms that call themselves “humans.”

But now this has me thinking. All of our knowledge of the outer solar system has been gleaned with telescopes, and with robotic emissaries.  None of the sights you have seen in pictures has ever been witnessed directly by human eyes. Not the dual-tone colors of Saturn’s enigmatic moon Iapetus; not the spider-web of canyons in Mercury’s Caloris Basin; not the misty depths of the Valles Marineris on Mars. Instead, Casinni has been twirling through the Saturn system for almost a decade, and has returned the highest resolution images of Iapetus we’ve ever seen.  Mercury MESSENGER, only the second spacecraft ever to visit Mercury, finally arrived in 2011 and sent high resolution images of the Spider Crater back to Earth. And Mars? Well, Mars has its own fleet of orbiting satellites and ranging rovers to investigate its mysteries.

(L) Saturn's moon Iapetus has a light and a dark side. (C) The Spider Crater on the floor of Mercury's Caloris Basin. (R) Fog in the Valles Marineris on Mars.

(L) Saturn’s moon Iapetus has a light and a dark side. (C) The Spider Crater on the floor of Mercury’s Caloris Basin. (R) Fog in the Valles Marineris on Mars.

What happens to all our tiny robots, sent out into the Cosmos all on their own? We’ve been tossing them into space almost non-stop since the start of the Space Age — what happens to all of them?

Only 5 will ever travel beyond the solar system. Pioneers 10 and 11 are both bound for interstellar space, now quiet and dead after their power supplies failed in 2003 and 1995. Voyager 1 and 2, having completed their Grand Tour of the outer solar system, are also outbound; we expect to lose contact with them within the next 10 to 20 years. And lastly, there is New Horizons, bound for Pluto and the Kuiper Belt beyond. It is by far the youngest of this august group of explorers. It was designed to have power for 20-25 years, but it has already spent the last eight-and-a-half years just getting to Pluto — it should last another 15 years or so.

Spacecraft that are going to escape from the solar system. (L) Pioneer (C) Voyager (R) New Horizons

Spacecraft that are going to escape from the solar system. (L) Pioneer (C) Voyager (R) New Horizons

(T) When Spirit got stuck on Mars, NASA engineers recreated the situation on Earth, trying to figure out how to free the rover. (C) Artist's imaging of what Galileo looked like as it burned up in the Jovian atmosphere. (B) The LCROSS mission before impact.

(T) When Spirit got stuck on Mars, NASA engineers recreated the situation on Earth, trying to figure out how to free the rover. (C) Artist’s imaging of what Galileo looked like as it burned up in the Jovian atmosphere. (B) The LCROSS mission before impact.

Many of our robots, like the Voyagers and Pioneers, will just die. This famously happened to the Spirit rover on Mars. It trundled around the Martian surface for 2269 days (perhaps, some say, trying to earn a trip back home) before we lost contact with it. Spirit had become stuck in a Martian sand dune and was unable to free itself. Stuck on flat ground, unable to tilt itself toward the Sun to keep warm in the cold Martian winter, we last spoke with Spirit on 22 March 2010.

The Galileo mission, which spent more than seven-and-a-half years exploring the Jovian system, was crashed into Jupiter, to prevent it from tumbling out of control when its power failed, possibly contaminating a moon like Europa, where we can imagine extraterrestrial life may exist. On 21 September 2003, it was plowed into Jupiter. We couldn’t see it take the final plunge, but we listened to it faithfully radioing us everything it could for the last few hours before its end.

Sometimes, we crash our spacecraft on purpose, for science! One of the most spectacular examples of the was LCROSS, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite. This goal of this mission was to look for water ice in the perpetually shadowed craters on the surface of the Moon; water on the Moon would have important implications for the sustainability of lunar colonies. LCROSS had two pieces — it’s Centaur rocket stage, and the Shepherding Spacecraft that carried the science instruments. On 9 Oct 2009, the Centaur rocket impacted the Moon at a speed of about 9000 kilometers per hour; the Shepherding Spacecraft flew through the cloud of debris and radioed the composition back to Earth. This exquisitely timed dance was a planned suicidal flight for the Shepherding Spacecraft; its unavoidable fate was to impact on the Moon about 6 minutes after the Centaur stage. The result? There is water, frozen in the lunar soil.

But the saddest fate to me, is that of Mercury MESSENGER. MESSENGER was the first spacecraft to visit Mercury since Mariner 10 flew by three times in 1974. Despite three passes, Mariner 10 only mapped out about 45% of the surface; until MESSENGER’s arrival in 2011, we had no idea what more than half of Mercury looked like.  It took MESSENGER 7 years to get to Mercury. It has been there for about three-and-a-half years at this point, and we are looking ahead to the end. Over time, the closest point of MESSENGER’s orbit has been getting lower and lower, affording us the opportunity to understand Mercury’s gravitational field and to map and  probe the surface of Mercury with exquisite resolution. But lowering the orbit, to get a closer view of the planet, is a one way ticket, eventually leading to MESSENGER’s impact on the surface of Mercury.



The end will come sometime in March of 2015, on the far side of Mercury from our view.  MESSENGER will die alone, cut-off from us by distance and astronomical happenstance. In the words of MESSENGER PI, Sean Solomon, “This will happen in darkness, out of view of the Earth. A lonely spacecraft will meet its fate.”

This emotional attachment and personification of machines seems disingenuine to some people; spacecraft aren’t people, they are collections of wires and circuits and nuts and bolts — they don’t have souls to become attached to.  I dunno. I think they do have souls. They are the embodiment of every one who ever imagined them, worked on them, or stared at the data and pictures they returned. These little robots, in a way, are us. They are our dreams. Dreams of adventure, of knowledge, of a better tomorrow, of understanding who and what we are in a Cosmos that is vast and daunting.

And so today I smiled at the pale blue picture of our long departed friend, Voyager 1. And on the day it falls silent, I’ll shed a tear and drink a drink to its remarkable voyage, a voyage it made for you and me.

Freshly Pressed: Editors’ Picks

On Women Writers and Sustainable Publishing - October 4, 2014 by zeldalegacy

Cheri Lucas Rowlands | Longreads | Oct. 2 2014 | 10 minutes (2,399 words)

Three years ago, Sarah Menkedick launched Vela Magazine in response to the byline gender gap in the publishing industry, and to create a space that highlights excellent nonfiction written by women. Last week, Menkedick and her team of editors launched a Kickstarter campaign to grow Vela as a sustainable publication for high-quality, long-form nonfiction, to pay their contributors a competitive rate, and to continue to ensure that women writers are as recognized and read as their male counterparts. Menkedick chatted with Longreads about her own path as a writer, the writer’s decision to work for free, building a sustainable online publication, and the importance of featuring diverse voices in women’s nonfiction.

* * *

Let’s talk about Vela’s origins. You created Vela in 2011 as a space for women writers in response to the byline gender gap — yet it’s not a “women’s magazine.” Can you explain?

Like so many women writers, I was discouraged by the original VIDA count in 2011. I was also a bit disenchanted with a certain narrowness of voice and focus in mainstream magazine publishing, which tended to be very male, because men tend to dominate mainstream magazine publishing. Talking about the alternative to that gets really dicey, because it’s icky to talk about a “womanly” or “female” voice. I wanted to say: nonfiction and literary journalism written by women doesn’t have to sound like this sort of swaggering male writing, or like the loveable snarky-but-sweet meta writing of John Jeremiah Sullivan or David Foster Wallace. It can be like . . . and there we run short on models, because there aren’t very many women being widely published whose work falls into that middle zone between “creative nonfiction” — which tends to be more academic, more experimental, more the types of essays appearing in literary magazines — and traditional journalism.

Leslie Jamison has emerged as a really great model, and I’m so excited to see her work take off. There’s also Jeanne Marie Laskas, whose voice is so distinct and funny and humble and insightful, and Rebecca Solnit. Eula Biss’s recent work straddles this line between essay and journalism in super-interesting ways.

Who are some women writers whose work you admire?

There are so many — Annie Dillard is my all-time favorite writer, and I love her unabashed intensity and her language. I admire Isak Dinesen and also Beryl Markham, a lesser-known writer who knew Dinesen in Africa, and whose book West With The Night is phenomenal but rarely mentioned nowadays. In terms of literary journalists, Jeanne Marie Laskas, of course, and Ariel Levy, Alma Guillermoprieto, Janet Malcolm (embarrassed to admit I just read Iphigenia in Forest Hills and it rocked my world), Sarah Stillman, and Katherine Boo. I love literary journalism by writers who don’t typically write journalism, like Karen Russell (one of my favorite fiction writers) and Vanessa Veselka. I also just discovered the Irish writer Anne Enright and I adore her. In terms of essayists: Jo Ann Beard, Natalia Ginzburg . . . there are too many to name. You can find more on Vela’s Unlisted List of women writers.

Is Vela emulating that kind of writing by women?

I wanted Vela to be a space for this kind of work, for voice-driven nonfiction that could be intellectually and creatively free-ranging, without being defined either by the (predominately male) standards of mainstream publishing or by the moniker of “women’s,” and therefore lesser and limited in subject.

I was also frustrated with the fact that men’s magazines like GQ and Esquire were publishing this top-notch nonfiction that was getting anthologized and winning awards and generally being celebrated as exceptional writing with no talk of gender, whereas women’s magazines were almost entirely sidelined as — forgive me the academic-speak — “other.” I think this is partially the problem of women’s magazines’ marketing, advertising, and branding, and partially the way in which writing by women tends to be defined and cast off as personal in the way writing by men (of an equally “personal” nature, equally reliant on the first person) does not, something I’ve written about in the past.

The personal essay and memoir is often viewed as primarily female territory. The use of ‘I’ can come off as self-indulgent, and, perhaps, is viewed as less serious when used by women. Can you touch upon that?

I’m still obsessed with that terrain between the personal, the reported, and the essayistic/analytical. If anything, that’s a theme I’d like to see addressed on Vela: the way in which the memoir craze has, perhaps, made people hyper-sensitive about personal writing, and there seems to be this backlash against the “I.” Leslie Jamison has written some wonderful essays about that, and I think it’s territory that’s really ripe for exploration.

Ultimately, I wanted to create a publication that would be written by women because I wanted to say hey, women can do this kind of voice-driven innovative nonfiction, too, and you should be hiring and publishing them and reading their work, and also because I wanted to read more of this kind of work and find more women writers working between limited categories. I wanted a space that would not be marketed to women as dealing with “women’s” subjects, since I think part of the reason the byline gap exists is because certain subjects are considered “women’s” and marginalized, whereas men can write about anything without the subject being considered “male.” Also, while women are ushered toward these more “female” arenas, men are given meatier reporting assignments, and more dangerous and competitive assignments, as well as the intellectual freedom to write essays or criticism on a wide array of topics. One of the goals of Vela’s current Kickstarter campaign is to fund bigger, more ambitious projects by women writers.

[pullquote align="center"]I wanted a space that would not be marketed to women as dealing with ‘women’s’ subjects, since I think part of the reason the byline gap exists is because certain subjects are considered “women’s” and marginalized…[/pullquote]

Can you share a bit of your journey as a writer?

I’ll spare you the whole “I knew from the moment I wrote a prize-winning short story about a flying cat in fourth grade” spiel because really, I came to writing pretty late. I always loved writing, but it was secondary to whatever else I was studying; it was simply the medium for ideas. In college, I managed to major in a subject even less practical than writing: history of science. I assumed for a long time that I’d go back to school and get a Ph.D. in history. But then I spent almost a decade traveling and in the process came into writing not as part of a larger discipline, but as a discipline in and of itself. As much as this sounds like a statement from a cheesy application for a travel writing scholarship, writing was the natural way I made sense of all of those complex ethical questions of cultural relativism and difference, of the impacts American travelers have on the places they visit and of the ways they conceive of these places; in writing, I started to realize that these questions fascinated me.

When I returned to Mexico in 2008 after a year in Beijing, I decided not to take a teaching job and to instead “make a living from writing.” It took me about, oh, two weeks to realize that making a living from writing and writing what I wanted to write were two vastly different things.

I lived on about 0 a month for several years in Oaxaca, Mexico, grading Korean TOEFL prep exams and maintaining a blog named after a Cortázar short story. I used a few essays from that blog to apply to an MFA program in 2009, and was really lucky to be accepted with full funding. That gave me three years of paid writing time and made a huge difference in my career — not so much because of the time, which I had in Mexico, but because of the immersion in a world that had writing as its center. Talking about writing, talking about reading, reading, critiquing, teaching — it all fed my work. People criticize MFAs, but for me it was the first time I’d actually analyzed writing as craft, and it made a huge difference.

Above all, it taught me how to read as a writer. During the MFA, I did an internship at Harper’s, which was hugely educational and which I’d recommend to anyone who can afford to suck up the expense of living for a few months in New York with no income. I also founded Vela. Honestly, Vela has made my career. The site has gotten some really nice recognition and the experience of running it, editing, being edited, has taken my writing to another level. Editors have read the work I published there and encouraged me to pitch, and — I think this is an issue particular to women writers — I really needed that encouragement, that permission.

The goal of your Kickstarter campaign is to raise money so you can pay your writers. I’m curious about your own take on writing for free and exposure.

Thanks for asking about this. I know all of us at Vela have felt angsty and stressed about not paying writers ever since we opened to submissions. I also think, however, and I wonder how I can say this without seeming defensive, that it is extremely difficult to be paid for art. I cringe at using the term “art,” which seems like such a lofty horrible proclamation to be made in a fedora at some bar with antique sailing fixtures, but I think if you’re not writing journalism and you’re not writing for commercial magazines — in short, if you’re not writing on assignment for someone else — then it is very difficult to be paid for your work. This has always been true; artists and writers have struggled to find patrons, whether people or institutions.

Here is where I think many writers who are strident about always getting paid for your writing go wrong — when you’re just starting out, you’re probably not going to get paid for your painfully overwrought essay about your transformation in Chiapas (to take an example from my experience). If your goal is to get paid, you’re probably going to be writing service pieces for commercial mags, and then you’re going to be a paid writer but you’re going to wind up doing a very particular type of writing, with limited creative freedom. So you can choose that route, or you can choose to write what you want to write, and the latter route might take years and years before it becomes financially sustainable. In the beginning, because you’re just not good or experienced enough, and later because unfortunately there are fewer and fewer places that pay a decent rate for essays in particular. For Ursula Le Guin, it took 20 years.

Two, I think there’s a whole realm in between that typical dichotomy we’ve created between “for free” and its assumed opposite, “paid” — and then we have the whole issue of publications that claim to pay their writers and pay . There are ways, that is, to fund your writing that don’t necessarily mean getting paid by a publication: MFAs, fellowships, lifestyle arrangements. My intention here is not at all to say that publications shouldn’t pay — I think they absolutely should, and I’ll get to that in a second. But I think beginning writers have to find creative ways to make it work, and can’t assume they’ll be getting /word for their work. I spent years doing writing “for free,” and I think that has paid off. Literally. It got me into an MFA. The writing I did for Vela, for free, got me big assignments at magazines. It got me contacts, connections, a community, and now, after three years, the potential for funding a magazine I deeply believe in.

Hopefully all that work we’ve put in says hey, we’re legit, we have experience, and trust us to fund great writers and fund our publication. And I think I can speak for the other founding members of Vela in saying that the experience they got in writing long-form pieces, in editing and being edited, in publishing stories they could share with editors and use as clips, has gotten them to much more advanced stages of their careers. We’ve all gone on to score some big bylines, fellowships, residencies, and jobs.

And then I really do believe that after this initial period there comes a time when you say, okay, now I need to be paid. I think all of us writers at Vela have reached that point. And I think Vela has reached the point as a publication where it needs to start paying its writers to be reputable.

[pullquote align="center"]And then I really do believe that after this initial period there comes a time when you say, okay, now I need to be paid.[/pullquote]

What impact do you think the internet and new publishing technologies have had on women in the writing world?

I am of the persuasion that the great democratizing force of the internet is a fantastic thing for young writers, women writers, writers who’ve historically been excluded from the conversation. I remember this anecdote about a male writer — I think it was Chris Jones — literally knocking on the door of an editor in NYC, asking the editor to read his work. Shockingly, this worked. I could not imagine a woman doing this or getting away with it, but now the internet and spaces like Vela allow women to do just that. Hey! Here I am! Here’s my work.

Of course, the downside of that is that the internet has established this really pervasive expectation that everything should be free and everything should be shareable. I think for the internet to continue to be an empowering and liberating force for writers we’re going to have to seek new publishing models that ask readers to pay for content: via subscriptions, single issues, single stories . . . this is why Vela is making this push now to pay our writers, because we want to be part of a new and upcoming group of publications that is making the commitment to more sustainable digital publishing.

If you could direct new readers to one Vela piece, which one would it be?

Oh no, please don’t ask me to do this! You know I’m going to recommend a whole slew of them, but please don’t judge me — I have three years of writing to choose from. Simone Gorrindo’s An Unwanted Guest is a breathtaking piece. Amanda Giracca’s Lives and Past Lives is a fabulous, slow-burning essay on domesticity that stays with you long after you read it. Miranda Ward’s The Purest Form of Play is one of those pieces I return to when I start to feel cynical and burnt out. A personal favorite, a piece I worked on with a lovely writer who was so generous and insightful and great with edits, is Lilac Stitches, about motherhood, Soviet Russia, and sewing. And Molly Beer’s Fire Ants is a stunning essay that weaves her experience teaching in El Salvador with the history of deported Central American gang members.

I could keep going. I suppose, if we’re really only picking one, read our manifesto!

This interview was edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Freshly Pressed: Editors’ Picks

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