“Contemporary historians report that at the peak of the Antonine Plague, 2,000 people were dying every day in Rome. If the explanation the Romans came up with seems a little silly, it’s difficult to fault them for it. There had to be some cause for the catastrophe, they reasoned. If so many people were dying each day, it must be because they’d done something they shouldn’t have; offended a god, opened a hole in a temple that should have remained closed. It is infinitely more terrifying to imagine that such calamity can befall us entirely by chance.”—New Republic | Emily St. John Mandel, “Why Do We Fear Ebola and Pandemics?”
“Very few of my tattoos are sui generis. The sum of them, however, is me. I regret none. Of course, there is still some time to feel differently. For now, what I rue most days is not what I’ve put on my skin, but what I’ve put on the Internet. Cached, reblogged, and saved by others, the photos of my tattoos will stick around after I’m gone, while the tattoos themselves will perish when I do. Sometimes I wish I could disappear my online presence altogether when I die—but I can’t, so instead I daydream about cremation, about the way my old skin will burn up like a diary.”—Vogue Daily | Sarah Nicole Prickett, “A Life In Pictures” (via Evie)
“No matter how iconic she became, Joplin was always judged as a woman: audiences embraced her talent but never forgave her for using it. Jagger and Lennon were met backstage by adoring fans willing to do anything for their company, but while Joplin had her fun, Echols describes a scene that typifies her frequent desolation: after acing her New York debut, at the Anderson Theater, Joplin found herself alone as her bandmates in Big Brother and the Holding Company went off to party. She wandered to a dive bar, where a journalist approached her; as she complained to him about the guys in the group, he “fantasized shutting her up with the ultimate put-down: ‘You forget you have acne.’””—The Believer | Alexandra Molotkow, “Without You I’m Nothing”
“I used to believe that hurting would make you more alive to the hurting of others. I used to believe in feeling bad because somebody else did. Now I’m not so sure of either. I know that being in the hospital made me selfish. Getting surgeries made me think mainly about whether I’d have to get another one. When bad things happened to other people, I imagined them happening to me. I didn’t know if this was empathy or theft.”—The Believer | Leslie Jamison, “The Empathy Exams”
“It’s a really personal thing. It feels really important. Not that I’m important, but it’s a real kindness to people and it’s something that’s easy for me to do and not easy for them to do, and I’m happy to be able to provide it. I almost feel guilty charging for it, and I have to get used to that. I’ve never been a business before, so that’s a hard one for me.”—For the third installment of Can’t Take It With You I talked with Cecily Hintzen, a onetime high-school counselor turned pathology lab administrator who’s now pursuing memorial planning as a second-act career. I heard about Cecily through David Greenwald, who I’ve known online through music-writing circles for a while—she’s his mother-in-law! He read about CTIWY and thought she’d be good for me to talk with, and he was right. If you know someone whose work—or just general existence, really—intersects with death and money in some unexpected or underexplored way, I’d love to hear from you, too.
“It’s hard to overemphasize the passivity of tubing. It is sloth ingeniously disguised as adventure. Though you are outside, you may as well be in your living room watching television. The tube forces you into a nearly horizontal recline, a posture easily mistakable for someone taking a nap. Nature rolls effortlessly by, and in response you alternately breathe and eat. You float downriver for about five hours, gauging the length of the trip only by the emptiness of the ice chest. This indolence is broken up by a minimum of functional paddling: to the cooler (which quickly becomes the most important member of the expedition) or courteously downriver when nature calls. You try to keep your distance from the convoys of high-school tubers, who tend to float in circular formations, like threatened wagon trains, around stashes of illegal beer. Occasionally you wave, with veiled condescension, to a fleet of passing canoers, trapped in their aluminum hotboxes and actively assaulting the river with oars.”—The Oxford American | Sam Anderson, “Dixie Zen”
“'There's always a bit of a melancholic undertone. It's like if YOLO grew from a reckless teen to an overly pensive twenty-something,' Eisenmann said. 'The reason it works so well to convey bemused resignation must be some combination of the little half-smile and the wide arm-spread,' Wordnik founder Erin McKean explained. 'PURE RESIGNATION, that’s my definition, caps included,' Jezebel contributor Phoenix Tso told me.”—The Awl | Kyle Chayka, “The Life and Times of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯”
“The fact that everyone else here has VIP status grimly similar to mine is the lone saving grace; the prospect of experiencing this stroll down waking nightmare lane with tuned-out schoolkids or spectacle-seekers would be too much. There are FDNY T-shirts and search-and-rescue sweatshirts and no one quite makes eye contact with anyone else, and that’s just fine. I think now of every war memorial I ever yawned through on a class trip, how someone else’s past horror was my vacant diversion and maybe I learned something but I didn’t feel anything. Everyone should have a museum dedicated to the worst day of their life and be forced to attend it with a bunch of tourists from Denmark. Annotated divorce papers blown up and mounted, interactive exhibits detailing how your mom’s last round of chemo didn’t take, souvenir T-shirts emblazoned with your best friend’s last words before the car crash. And you should have to see for yourself how little your pain matters to a family of five who need to get some food before the kids melt down. Or maybe worse, watch it be co-opted by people who want, for whatever reason, to feel that connection so acutely.”—Buzzfeed | Steve Kandell, “The Worst Day Of My Life Is Now New York’s Hottest Tourist Attraction”
“Harris was taught to read and write (illegal for slaves at the time), so that he could monitor the local funeral announcements, and trained his memory to mentally capture the flower arrangements on a grave so that he could recreate them perfectly after his midnight expeditions. He preferred to work in Cedar Grove cemetery, reserved for Augusta’s impoverished and black residents, where there was no fence, and where poor blacks were buried in plain pine coffins sometimes called “toothpicks.” His routine at Cedar Grove was simple: entering late at night, he would dig down to the upper end of a fresh grave, smash the surface of the coffin with an ax, reach in, and haul the body out. Then he would toss the body into a sack and a waiting wagon and cover up his work before setting off for the school, the corpse destined for vats of whiskey and, later, the student’s knives.”—Smithsonian Magazine | Bess Lovejoy, “Meet Grandison Harris, the Grave Robber Enslaved (and then Employed) By the Georgia College of Medicine”
In 1999, just a few months after The Orchid Thief was published, Susan Orlean had another book come out—this one about dieting, co-written with fellow New Yorker writer Patricia Marx. She used a pen name, Susan Sistrom, which may be why you’ve never heard of The Skinny: What Every Skinny Woman Knows About Dieting (And Won’t Tell You!).You may have also never heard of it because it was weirdly marketed, and indeed weirdly written; this is the sort of book in which a suggestion that you sprinkle bleach on food you don’t want to eat is made not entirely in jest.
I stumbled on The Skinny earlier this year during a late-night Google fugue—or rather, I stumbled on this also-wacky New York Times story from 1999 about Orlean and Marx’s “skinny lunch” group going to a beefity beefman steakhouse and nibbling on rolls. I had a lot of questions about the whole thing. Fortunately Orlean was down to answer them.
She was super gracious about the whole thing and less weirded out than I would have expected by my relative rando self popping out of nowhere and asking to ask her many questions about a poorly-received book she wrote nearly 20 years ago. We wound up having a really nice talk about social expectations and evolutionary impulses and the privileging of certain obsessions over others.
The way we rank obsessions is really interesting. On the one hand, you’ve got dudes going deep into a jungle to get a flower, and they’re these heroic adventurers. And then there’s someone being like, “I want to lose 10 pounds.” Maybe neither of them are that healthy, but one of them’s a hero and one of them’s a sad woman.
Right. That’s why I do feel that it’s sort of in its own way liberating to say to women, “You don’t need to feel guilty if you actually think about this stuff. It’s natural.” When does it ever end, that women aren’t made to feel bad about things that they think about and feel? I’d like to look great and make no effort. But then you feel guilty that you care about it, and then you feel bad that you care about feeling bad about it, and then you just think, “Wow, it never ends.”
“On the one hand, I have this very abstract intellectual interest in death. You know, “I think that it’s ridiculous to spend thousands of dollars on a funeral when you could just bury somebody in a burlap sack in the backyard and that could be just as meaningful!” I’ll occasionally get on a high-horse about something like that. And then something will happen, a friend of a friend will die, and it will become very real and it will suddenly change the stakes. What I have come to learn and take away from it is, the way that we all handle death is really stubbornly personal. I try my best to be sympathetic to that and respectful of that and to see that as part of the human condition, the variety of mourning [rituals]. So despite what one can concoct intellectually, I think it remains a personal relationship that you have with your own mortality and with the people around you.”—Colin Dickey, writer and managing director of the Morbid Anatomy Museum, in the second installment of Can’t Take It With You, my column about money and death over at The Billfold. (If you know someone, or are someone, who might be good to talk to for a future installment, I’d love to hear from you.)
Money! Death! Death! Money! I’m excited to be writing a column over at The Billfold about everyone’s two most favorite subjects of conversation. First up, a really long chat with Sarah Wambold, an Austin, Texas-based writer and funeral director who’s working to start her own funeral home (or, rather, a mixed-use gallery-space-type-thing that would also be licensed for funerals). If that strikes you as something that is either cheap or easy to do, you are very wrong.
I’ll admit that my main reason for wanting to do this column—to get more cool with my own mortality, basically—is pretty selfish. But when it comes to something this universal, maybe “selfish” isn’t really a thing. It’s true, what we say about death and taxes. They’re both very stupidly certain. It’s a mess, but we’re all in it together. So whatever scrap of wisdom one of us might have pulled out of the tangle seems worth holding up for everyone else to take a look at. Maybe it’s not what you need. Or maybe it’s just the thing.
Anyway, I hope these conversations can be a starting point for many more. If you know someone who might be a good subject for a future installment, or if you think you are that someone, please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you.
“That was the thing about all this: it was a brain thing, and I loved my brain and the way it had been going about its business so gamely for more than half a century. Let’s say you have something wrong with your liver or heart. Terrible news. But if you’re lucky, if you get another one and take the right medication you’ll be back to your old self again. But with the brain, the one you were born with either works or it goes wrong and you start sliding away from yourself. Even if a better, cleverer brain – a brainier brain – had been available for transplant I wouldn’t have traded in the addled one I had. And although the problem, we’d quickly discovered, wasn’t in my eyes, that’s where it had manifested itself, and I loved my eyes too, especially here in southern California where half the reason for living, possibly all of it, was to see and be seen.”—London Review of Books | Geoff Dyer, “Diary”
“I wondered why Carcosa seemed so distinctly eerie, and found out it’s because they shot it at the ruins of the 19th-century Confederate base Fort Macomb. The past is embedded in the present, as if they were occurring simultaneously, and there’s nothing like a dilapidated Civil War–era site to remind us that America is so not different from any other fallen civilization whose relics and scars have been dusted over by the mist of time. You could not create a spookier Southern faux-Minoan labyrinth than one that actually exists.”—Grantland | Molly Lambert, “Feel Let Down by the ‘True Detective’ Finale? Start Asking the Right Questions”
“Many years ago, reading “Harriet the Spy” for what was probably the ninth or tenth time, I realized that both novels contain meaningful scenes in which the protagonist dresses up as a foodstuff. (This may sound silly, but bear with me.) About halfway through her story, Harriet is cast, much to her chagrin, as an onion in her school’s Christmas extravaganza. At the end of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Scout is conscripted to play the part of a ham in a Maycomb Halloween celebration. The distaste that Harriet and Scout have for these roles can be read as evidence not only of their discomfort with the idea of the traditionally feminine—soft shapes without hard edges—but also with the idea that existing in the world often requires the assumption of costumes, the displaying an inauthentic self, and even lying. But each comes to learn that subterfuge and dishonesty are occasionally useful, even necessary. About three-quarters of the way into “Mockingbird,” Scout and Dill meet Dolphus Raymond, a white male who lives with a black woman. Raymond, who is always seen sipping from something in a brown paper bag, explains that he only pretends to be a drunk so that the residents of the town will tolerate, if not fully accept, his unorthodox relationship. “It ain’t honest but it’s mighty helpful to folks,” Raymond tells the children. “Secretly, Miss Finch, I’m not much of a drinker, but you see they could never, never understand that I live like I do because that’s the way I want to live.””—The New Yorker | Anna Holmes, “Harriet M. Welsch, Scout Finch, and How to Be a Good Bad American Girl”
“Parents have no idea what the children are up to in their bedrooms: They are reading the same paragraphs over and over in a stupor of violent bloodshed. Their legs are limp with horror. They are reading the same paragraphs over and over, dizzy with gratification as the young lovers find each other in the French fort, as the boy avenges his father, as the sound of muskets in the woods signals the end of the siege. They could not move if the house caught fire. They hate the actual world. The actual world is a kind of tedious plane where dwells, and goes to school, the body, the boring body which houses the eyes to read the books and houses the heart the books enflame. The very boring body seems to require an inordinately big, very boring world to keep it up, a world where you have to spend far too much time, have to do time like a prisoner, always looking for a chance to slip away, to escape back home to books, or escape back home to any concentration—fanciful, mental, or physical—where you can lose your self at last.”—Annie Dillard, An American Childhood