Charlie and I both really liked Maud Newton’s Harper’s essay about genealogy. Be fancy and buy a print copy and read it yourself! Or wait and pray that it appears online sometime in the future. Maud is writing a book about the same subject and I’m super excited for that, too. (Charlie will probably listen on tape, as that’s a lot of pages to turn for somebuddy without opposable thumbs.)
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.
Dayton is one of thousands of small American towns besot by hyper-conservative goofery, but the residue of the Scopes trial seems to trap and magnify it, even all these years later. Over those two weeks in July 1925, journalists swarmed in from across the country, their baser tendencies prevailing on a new, massive scale—it wasn’t the first “trial of the century,” but it was the first broadcast live over the radio. Preachers and monkey-souvenir vendors peddled their wares on streets clogged with looky-loos. The defendant lent his name to the production, but the counsel starred: famously agnostic Chicago attorney Clarence Darrow led the defense, with populist statesman turned fundamentalist vanguard William Jennings Bryan a figurehead of the prosecution. Chief among the gawking scribes was H. L. Mencken, whose dispatches for the Baltimore Sun and The Nation bemoaned Dayton’s “forlorn mob” of “rustics” and “gaping primates.” Dayton was a “ninth-rate country town,” he sneered, a “dung pile” destined to be “a joke town at best, and infamous at worst.”
Growing up in Chattanooga, I always heard about the Scopes Trial Play & Festival they held up in Dayton every year, but I never went until last summer. Here’s my attempt to make sense of a town that’s still making sense of itself, from this spring’s issue of The Oxford American.
My sister’s house, Sunday afternoon.
'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 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.
One of my favorite Wikipedia pages concerns a passage from Dante’s Inferno that has no clear translation. The demon Plutus screams at Dante and Virgil: “Pape Satan, pape Satan aleppe!” What does it mean?
The most charming explanation (though probably not the most plausible) is that it is a bad phonetic transcription of the French: ”Pas paix Satan, pas paix Satan, à l’épée” (“No peace Satan, no peace Satan, to the sword”).
I think perhaps the most sensible is that it is a bad phonetic transcription of the common English saying, “Poppy Satan, poppy Satan jalopy.”
In which my husband parties like it’s 2008 and gets himself a Tumblr. Well worth the wait, far as I’m concerned.
These wants aren’t exceptional, of course, but that didn’t make them any easier to name. It took an episode of The Simpsons to explain me to myself. Unshockingly, I identify deeply with Lisa—the goody two shoes, the overachiever, the little savant in the world of morons. In one of my favorite episodes, season six’s “The PTA Disbands,” a teachers’ strike shuts the elementary school down and Lisa goes into a tailspin. After days of exile from the classroom, she is bedraggled, weak, drained of her life force. She staggers to her mother. “Look at me!” she pleads. “Grade me! Evaluate and rank me! I’m good, good, good, and oh so smart!” Marge grumbles, scribbles an A on a scrap of paper, and Lisa stumbles away as if from a methadone clinic. The experience of seeing yourself so fully in another person is uncanny, particularly when that person is a yellow, unaging cartoon.
The essay I wrote for Scratch Magazine’s Q1 2014 issue on the terrible career advice that is “stay hungry” has been sprung from its paywall and now lives over here. I am hugely appreciative of Manjula Martin for asking me to write this (or at least something that became this) in the first place. If you don’t already know Scratch, I suggest you fix that post-haste. Manjula’s interview with Cheryl Strayed in the new issue is especially great.
EXCITING THING ALERT!
“Scale Highly Eccentric: A Zine of Flannery O’Connor Portraits” consists of portraits by 14 artists, whose mediums include everything from acrylic to cross stitch to custard. Basically, this is the Ocean’s 11 of Flannery O’Connor portrait zines, and a portion of the profits will benefit the Flannery O’Connor – Andalusia Foundation, Inc.
ESTEEMED ZINE ARTISTS
We’re celebrating with a profoundly excellent group of readers who will fill your ears with tales of ladies and toughness as we celebrate a Georgia girl who remains one of literature’s most acclaimed writers.
Admission is FREE. Doors are at 7:30 p.m, and the show starts promptly at 8 p.m. This is going to be the Flannery O’Connor portrait zine event of the season!
This is such a great thing my great friend Brooke has put together and I am so excited to be reading at the release party. Y’all come out and see us!
Upside of putting off spring yardwork for a month: no chance to rip up what I thought was a weed but turns out to be peonies! Big ones. Found these face-planted in the dirt last night. Unfortunately everything else I thought was a weed is, in fact, a weed.
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.
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.”
I remain pretty baffled by the book but it was really great talking with her. You can read the rest of our conversation over at Slate.
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.)