Wednesday, September 04, 2013

The Unsent Email

Miranda July’s project “We Think Alone” has been a rather up and down experience. A collection of emails from the sent mail folder of famous and semi-famous people’s email accounts. A blast of emails on a particular topic arrives in subscribers’ inboxes on successive Mondays. Go here to sign up. 

This week’s contribution struck me as well above average. The emails were all drafts of messages that were never sent. This concept is rather exciting because it is even more voyeuristic than the earlier topics, and it highlights a kind of emotional frailty and difficulty in communicating effectively on the internet. The drunk email not sent. A healthy hesitancy at the urge to go negative. 

Here are some selections:

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Etgar Keret
To: z
Subject: Nostalgia
Date: 15:30 6/11/2012

Hey z.,
Sitting home and remembering the good times when you still liked me.

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Lena Dunham
Date: May 12th, 2013
Subject: book
To: J

Hi J,

I'm a big fan of your work and the book. I am so grateful L sent it to me. It's a truly meaningful work that young feminists should have the chance to engage with.

But after a few lovely exchanges, L wrote me a series of very upsetting, paranoid and accusatory emails. I was saddened that our interaction became so bitter suddenly and without warning. She questioned my interest in, and understanding of, the book and my relationship to feminism as a whole. I'd love to meet you but I am not comfortable engaging with L in any way. It was just too disorienting and mean. Sorry to write that in an email, but I guess modern times require us too!

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Sheila Heti
Date: December 11, 2009
Subject: ps
To: Margaux Williamson

I *am* feeling pretty sensitive obviously this week.

The other thing is: Sometimes you f

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Rodarte
Date: Monday, October 17, 2011 3:37 PM
Subject: Questions
To: L

This is just so crazy to us. We can’t even deal with this question.

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Deborah Morales
Subject: Week 10: an email you decided not to send-Sent on Behalf of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Date: June 24, 2013 11:30:26 PM PDT
To: Miranda July

Hi Miranda,

I don’t save emails that I think better of sending. Once I decide not to send an email, I delete it because I’d rather not have someone dig it up later and think that it expressed my real sentiment. If I decide not to send it then it’s not what I ultimately believe.

 P.S.—I almost didn’t send this email. Does that count?

Yours Truly, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

---------- Note----------

Danh Vo and Catherine Opie were also unable to find an email they decided not to send.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Advice from Sheila Heti

This extraordinary message is from Miranda July's project We Think Alone, which has just released its second round of emails. 


From: Sheila Heti
Date: Wed, Jul 29, 2009 at 1:54 PM
Subject: Re: fridge
To: Kathryn Borel

sprinkles the wonderhorse is the best thing you've ever called me.

i haven't read the piece yet -- i'm sorry. moving around, writing,  self-involved. now in the motel.

i wish i had words of advice about S. i have been thinking about M (and N!) excessively for the past week. how exhausting. i know just how you feel. these are the things i have been thinking / doing to calm myself down. here is my wisdom so far.

1. why am i so anxious? i've been feeling like half a soul without a man. so i'm realising that maybe who i want to meet is actually myself, and not some guy. this has been a pretty relaxing realisation. i sort of see my face in front of me (not as in a mirror, but in a soul or metaphysical way) and it cheers me up. i am not alone. i don't need anyone.

2. loving someone means loving their ugliness. if you do not love also what's worst in them, you do not really love them. it's hard in a new relationship because every bit of ugliness is a surprise; but these are the parts that must be loved. or else it's not love. it's icon-worship or something like that.

3. i sort of feel exhausted; like i have had so many years of relationship anxiety. i want to be on the road for six months, going from place to place and developing no attachments and forgetting all the boys that didn't work out.

4. what do you really *feel*? do you really want or need him?

5. are you staying in it to be a *better person*? you are a good enough person. i learned from my marriage (and from watching mark with michelle) that remaining in a relationship to make yourself a better person usually makes you a more odious person; it also can't hold up very long.

I met an amazing choreographer at Yaddo -- an 80 year old woman; Sally Gross. From NY. She told me that I was young. That there was enough time in my life for everything; being alone, being with women, with difficult men, with not-difficult men.

This was soothing. There's enough time in my life for everything.

But I don't know what you are finding so hard about S; is it the distance mingled with you losing respect for him cause he's not a good writer? If you can't find a way to love that about him, then maybe he's not the person for you to love right now. But why twist yourself up into knots about it? You are a curious person, you get excited about people easily (as I do), and you're desirable, sexy and beautiful. There will always be men who want you, which means that you have to call time out when you're not ready.

Of course, it could be the book that's getting you down and you're taking it out on S.

My head is not so clear that I can give you any good advice. I always am temperamentally in favour of breaking up, but intellectually in favour of the rigours of going on. Who knows? It doesn't seem like an easy situation, what with the distance, and if the distance is not going to end within the next two years, it's hard to see why it's so necessary or worthwhile. It happens all the time, doesn't it, that people meet, but they don't live in the same place, so it doesn't work out.

Do you, deep in your heart, feel like he is absolutely so special that these two years of distance are worth it? Or is he simply another amazing guy, of whom you can say, It's really too bad we didn't live in the same place so we could see what a relationship would have been like.

The only thing I can advise is to be a bit easier on yourself. It is not a moral failing not to continue a romance with a man who you knew for two weeks, who lives across the world from you. Unless one of you can move, it seems like a terrible strain.

Another piece of advice: Don't make any decisions when you are overly emotional. Like, don't break up with him in the midst of this feeling. Wait until you have some equanimity, or you may regret any actions you take as impetuous.

Try to ride this panic out. You don't have to decide anything. You're not going to miss anything -- the man of your dreams, etc -- by delaying thinking about it in the midst of your book turmoil.


Monday, July 08, 2013

Interview on Big Picture Science Podcast

Right here you will find an interview I did for the Big Picture Science Podcast. The episode is called "Mummy Dearest."

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Memorable Lines from Nathan Englander's For the Relief of Unbearable Urges

He took a deep breath and ignored his sense of injustice, a rich man’s emotion, a feeling Mendel had given up the liberty of experiencing horrors and horrors before.
—“The Tumblers,” p. 50

The Jewish day begins in the calm of the evening, when it won’t shock the system with its arrival.
—“The Gilgul of Park Avenue,” p. 109

“Eighty-eight dollars’ worth of the blandest food you’ve ever had. The soup is inedible, pure salt. I had a spoonful and needed to take an extra high-blood-pressure pill. I’ll probably die before dinner’s over, and then we’ll have no problems.”
“More and more,” Charles said, taking a yarmulke from his pocket and fastening it to his head, “more and more, you’re the one that sounds like a Jew.”
— “The Gilgul of Park Avenue,” p. 128

“Am I really your second?” she asked.
Dov heard more in the question than was intended. He heard a flirtation; he heard a woman who treated the act of being second as if it were special. He was sad for her—wondering if she had ever been anyone’s first. He did not answer out loud, but instead nodded, affirming.
—“For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” p. 188

Memorable Lines from Nathan Englander's What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank — stories

“And tell me this,” Rena said. “When a little bar mitzvah boy says to a pretty girl as a joke, ‘You are my wife,’ and he gives her a bracelet as a token—”
“A divorce is arranged,” the young rabbi said. “We have done it before. Yes, if it is uttered and the gift is received, they are married, the same and any two people in the world.”
“Even if neither really meant it?” Rena said. “Even if an innocent joke between two young adults at play?”
“Even then,” said Rabbi Kiggel.
—“Sister Hills,” p. 65

“It’s a delicate thing being Jewish,” Ace said. “It’s a condition that aggravates the more mind you pay it.”
—“How We Avenged the Blums,” p. 81

44. She is gone. She is gone, and she will be surprised that I am alive to write this—because she, and everyone who knows me, didn’t think I’d survive it. That I can’t be alone for a minute. That I can’t manage a second of silence. A second of peace. That to breathe, I need a second set of lungs by my side. And to have a feeling? An emotion? No one in my family will show one. Love, yes. Oh, we’re Jews, after all. There’s tons of loving and complimenting, tons of kissing and hugging. But I mean any of us, any of my blood, to sit and face reality, to sit alone on a couch without a partner and to think the truth and feel the ruth, it cannot be done. I sure can’t do it. And she knew I couldn’t do it. And that’s why it ended.

—“Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side,” p. 133

53. And I still love her. I love you, Bean. (And even now, I don’t say it straight. Let me try one more time: I love you, Bean. I say it.) And I place this in the middle of a short story in the midst of our modern YouTube, iTunes, plugged-in lives. I might as well tell her right here. No one’s looking; no one’s listening. There can’t be any place better to hide in plain sight.

—“Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side,” p. 135

62. Here is me, fictionalized, sitting on the couch with a letter, written in my grandfather’s hand. I am weeping. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen his handwriting before. I think to call my mother, to tell her what I’m holding. I think to call my brother or maybe Cousin Jack. But really, more than anyone, I think to call that missing love—that missing lover. Because it’s her I wish were with me; it is her I want to share it with right now. And more so, to find myself weeping from a real sadness—not anxious, not disappointed, not frustrated or confused—just weeping from the truth of it, and the heartbreak of it, and recognizing it as the purest emotion I’ve ever had. It’s this I want to tell her, that I’m feeling a pure feeling, maybe my first true feeling, and for this—I admit it—I am proud.

—“Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side,” p. 138-9

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Thank you, Internet

I hate cars.

Or perhaps it is more accurate to say I have a love-hate relationship with cars. Unless you live in a large metropolitan area—and I don’t—it is all but impossible to live without a car. The freedom and sense of autonomy they provide can be fun, and in the United States there is so much automotive lore that these machines are an expression of our American ethos. Cars are associated with road trips, drive-in movies, double dates, and many other coming-of-age episodes. Although the auto industry is no longer the economy’s most important sector, cars are still an essential part of American life, and despite my ambivalence about these beasts, I often find myself enjoying the experience of tooling around the roads.

But cars are both dangerous and temperamental. I have had a couple of serious accidents in my driving career, and each has rocked me off my hinges in a way few experiences in life can. In addition, until they break down, we are often unaware of how dependent upon our cars we have become. This is a story of a breakdown with a happy ending.

Yesterday afternoon I was expecting a friend to visit and had gone out to the store to get some supplies. It was a beautiful summer day, and I opened the windows and the sunroof of my 2001 Volvo wagon, enjoying a nice breeze and some tunes on the radio. All went well, and I arrived back home about an hour before my guest was to arrive.

But then trouble.

The sun roof would not close. The car windows closed fine. Other things seemed to be working, but I could not get the sunroof to close. This is the point at which I was reminded that I hate cars.

I pulled the manual out of the glove box and started to read. The obvious hypothesis was a blown fuse, so I started to research this possibility with no luck. Of the more than 40 fuses related just to the inside of the car, none of the ones that might be responsible were blown. All looked fine, and replacing them with the spares provided with the car had no effect. Meanwhile, the time before my guest was to arrive was now reduced to 40 minutes, and the front seat area of my car was exposed to the elements. The weather was perfectly fine at the moment, but this is New England. A storm can appear in a five minutes.

Eventually I gave up and went into the house to prepare for my guest. I was resigned to dealing with this problem much later: after the evening’s activities were over (by which time it would be dark) or perhaps even the following day. Which, of course, would be a Sunday when no professional assistance would be available. But when I got in the house, I took one last step before giving up. I googled.

The search phrase “Volvo sunroof won’t close” directed me to a number of discussion boards where motorists ask questions about their cars and kind people with time on their hands provided suggestions. There were a number of false leads, but I came across one really odd sounding suggestion: “You could try locking/unlocking three times in a row with the remote keyless entry device to reset the ceiling light panel.”

This idea sounded crazy, but the ceiling light panel is were the switch to the sunroof is mounted, and I was desperate. So I ran back out to the car pressed the remote button three times and—presto!—the sunroof worked! It closed, and I may never open it again.

Google to the rescue. There is nothing in the Volvo user manual about resetting the ceiling light panel with the magic remote switch, but the crowdsourced experts of the internet knew the trick. And I am so grateful. A ruined weekend was averted by a simple google search. Thank you, internet.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Grocery Store Game

1. Throughout the week, keep a careful list of items needed.
2. When you leave for the store, forget the list.
3. When you return, check the list and calculate your score.
4. Start a new list with the items you forgot to get.
5. Repeat.

Another rhythm of my life.

Monday, April 01, 2013

A Culture Threatened by Technology

On a recent trip to Washington, DC, I took an afternoon to visit Gallaudet University, the only college in the world whose programs are specifically tailored to deaf and hard of hearing people. Established in 1864 by a bill signed by President Abraham Lincoln, the campus sits on a hill in northeast Washington among a group of Nineteenth Century row houses, not far from the warehouse district above Union Station.

As soon as you go through the gate, you know you have entered a different world. All campus tours are conducted in American Sign Language (ASL), and if you don’t speak Sign you must make special arrangements for a tour with an English interpreter. The entire campus is designed for people whose primary sense is vision. Like many universities, the classrooms are fitted with the latest computer projection equipment, but to ensure that everyone can participate, circular seating is the norm. Large windows in the newer buildings provide plentiful natural lighting, and interiors are designed and furnished with openness and clear sight-lines in mind. The student center is a happy place with hands flying in youthful conversation, and from what I could see, the student body is quite ethnically diverse.

I don’t know ASL, but I have some appreciation of the beauty of the language. What the rest of us do with vocal inflection and rhythm, signers do with their entire bodies. As I negotiated the purchase of a book at the bookstore, the student clerk offered me the credit card receipt and a pen with an added flair that said, “Please, sign here,” without a word being spoken. After the transaction was completed, he gently rapped the counter with his knuckles to get my attention, and then threw back his shoulders to sign “thank you,” with his open hand extending broadly out from his mouth in a gesture as warm as a handshake. I witnessed what I assumed was a fairly typical college debate among friends in the library—a kind of frenetic dance of hand motions and facial expressions conducted entirely in silence. To the outside observer, fluent ASL involves a kind of bodily confidence rarely seen in the hearing world.

Deaf people assert that theirs is a rich culture now threatened with extinction by the growing popularity of cochlear implants, devices that allow deaf people to hear through a radio receiver wired directly to the auditory nerve. Implants are very expensive; not always covered by medical insurance; and the results are somewhat variable. But as the technology improves and more cochlear implants are given to very young children in an effort to have them learn spoken language, many foresee the eventual end of Sign and deaf culture. The Gallaudet community has embraced many aspects of our electronic world—email, Skype, and texting—but the technology that would replace Sign language with spoken language is nowhere in evidence.

Although it may seem strange—or even troubling—to many hearing people, deaf people often reject the idea that deafness is a disability, and some deaf parents, wanting to share their unique world with their children, express the hope that their babies will be born deaf.  But the overwhelming majority of deaf children are born to hearing parents. As a result, decisions about which world these youngsters will enter are typically made by loving adults firmly established in the dominant hearing world.

Many deaf people see their cause as exactly parallel to the great social movements that have fought for the rights of ethnic minorities, women, the LBGT community, and other groups. Twenty-five years ago this spring, Gallaudet was embroiled in a great protest, known simply as Deaf President Now (DPN). As the world watched, students, faculty, and staff shut down the campus insisting that it was time for the university—by then over a century old—to appoint its first deaf president. The strike was successful, and I. King Jordan, a dean and professor of psychology, was appointed president. Since then all Gallaudet’s presidents have been deaf, and DPN stands as a defining moment of self-determination for deaf people throughout the world.

It is difficult to put yourself in the place of the hearing parents of a deaf child. I am not sure what I would do if faced with that situation. At the same time, I know where I stand on deaf culture. Gallaudet is a vibrant place, a symbol of what a community of deaf people can do—for itself and for us. I live on the outside. I don’t speak the language. But I see what this world means to those who inhabit it. Deaf people have created a society with a unique and wonderful history, and we will all be diminished if it fades away.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

A View of Heaven

In her play Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Sarah Ruhl envisions a heaven in which you go to a planet where you are united with the person you loved the most on Earth. There are some drawbacks. Because you only get one set of clothes, laundromats are scattered about the planet, and clothes are washed frequently. Naturally, all the people in the laundromats are naked while their clothes are being washed.

After learning about all this in a brief roundtrip to heaven, the main character returns to Earth and recommits herself to loving her sweetheart as much and as well as possible so that they may spend eternity on their planet together.

There is something quite innocent and appealing about Ruhl’s heaven.