Category Archives: Advice On How To Live Your Life

Literal and literary street harassment

Lately the news (aka my Facebook feed) has been broadcasting this video, which draws attention to the problem of street harassment and catcalling. Frankly it’s never bothered me much when a strange man says, “Hello beautiful!” or “Have a nice day!” as I pass him on the sidewalk looking beautiful on a nice day. This seems like pure friendliness on his part, and the comments help challenge my working theory that I’m a ghost. It’s annoying when a strange man tells me to smile, but at the same time the directive makes me question why I’m not walking around smiling all the time because it’s such a nice day and I look so beautiful. Maybe I should be smiling. Maybe this guy trying to contort my face into a different position using only the power of his voice has been to hell and back and is now wise to the ways in which a smile turns a frown upside down and he wants to share this happiness with me and the rest of the babes.

It’s hard for me to distinguish between my sensitivity to street comments and my sensitivity to people in general. I don’t know whether to look someone in the eye when I pass him, to give a little wave, to steal his iPhone, etc. It’s just like how I get nervous standing in line at the post office or visiting the bodega downstairs where I might run into one of my amiable neighbors. Other people are scary. They throw off my equilibrium. Sometimes they even say things out of their mouths, which can be horrific.

When a stranger speaks to me on the street, I don’t know when a response could be construed as flirting and when a lack of response could be construed as rude. It sucks to be put in that position every time you leave the house, but a lot of people for whatever lunatic reason like to stay socially engaged. They like to interact with the transients who enter their communities, especially if those transients seem carved out of marble. I condemn sexual harassment and catcalling, but most of the time people are just saying hi or telling me how wonderful I am. We exchange niceties and continue on our business, no harm done, sometimes with a little glow about us because that social interface went so well. I’d honestly rather live in a world where people notice each other than in a world where we pretend strangers don’t exist and where my beauty isn’t recognized for its cataclysmic power.

My other objection to shutting up everyone on the street is that I, too, am a street harasser. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stared out a coffee shop window and have proceeded to write down graphic details about a stranger’s dress or stride or baleful countenance. I put words into their mouths. I ascribe feelings to them. Sometimes I write explicitly about their butts. I violate the personal privacy of innocent passersby again and again by way of my notebook. You’re going to wear those hot pants outside my coffee shop window? You deserve to be written up. I might even put a baby in you. (But in 25 years that baby will discover that his absentee father is in fact the President of the United States, which is ironic because the baby has been trained as a political assassin.)

No one has the right to take physical or vocal possession of anyone else’s body. But humans are naturally interested in each other. So I think someone should make a video that doesn’t shame men for their interest, but instead tells them what kind of speech is invasive or prurient, and what may genuinely put a smile on two faces. (Kinda like this?) And also teach them that NO ONE IN THE HISTORY OF URBAN LIVING HAS EVER GOTTEN A GIRL’S NUMBER BY HOLLERING AT HER WHEN SHE ALREADY HAS SOMEPLACE SHE NEEDS TO BE. For god’s sake. But, to paraphrase Rabbi Hillel, if we can’t build elaborate fantasy worlds wherein every passing woman is a potential future wife or perhaps a serial arsonist on the run from Johnny Law (according to my notebook), then who will build them for us? Not the Republican Party, that’s for sure.

And now I must adjourn to pace the block where the half-blind men in their 80s hang out on their stoops just waiting for an angel to walk by and make their day.

Trying to love puppies a little less

Last night I was downtown with some time to kill before a dinner reservation, and I needed a bit of a pick-me-up, so I walked to Christopher Street to perv on some puppies. For whatever reason (no, for a solitary reason: rich Village people) Christopher Street is the nucleus of the Manhattan designer puppy trade. These puppy boutiques have every kind of genetically engineered, possibly inbred critter you can imagine: yorkies, pomeranians, shih tzus, teacup teacups, dollhouse chihuahuas, disappearing poodles, and dogs whose heads were shrunk by voodoo priests and then grafted onto tumbleweeds. In short, these boutiques are where men take their girlfriends when they want to get laid, and they are where puppies go when they want to sit by themselves in tiny, pee-fragrant cages and look at everybody with sad eyes, and they are where I go when I’m feeling down and want to have a sad-eye staring contest with some lonely puppies.

I understand that the whole miniature puppy breeding business is ethically suspect, and I understand that maybe I shouldn’t frequent these shops, but if it’s wrong to be emotionally manipulated into loving tiny adorable creatures who lick the glass separating your two faces until their tongues are raw, and who make you feel that you’re not fate’s only miserable prisoner, then I don’t want to be right. “Aren’t those places depressing?” asked my friend at dinner. “Of course,” I said. “But they’re sad, and I’m sad, so it’s a good fit.” Then I got drunk and wanted to launch a midnight puppy raid before it occurred to me that I’ve basically become Cruella De Vil.

I am a good old-fashioned humanoid

Last night I finished Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim and began reading Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. When you really think about it, these two books are not so different. Yes they are. This blog post is off to a bad start. QUIZ! Which dreadlocked computer pioneer wrote the following excerpt, Conrad or Lanier?

As long as you are not defined by software, you are helping to broaden the identity of the ideas that will get locked in for future generations. In most arenas of human expression, it’s fine for a person to love the medium they are given to work in. Love paint if you are a painter; love a clarinet if you are a musician. Love the English language (or hate it). Love of these things is a love of mystery.

But in the case of digital creative materials, like . . . the World Wide Web, it’s a good idea to be skeptical. These designs came together very recently, and there’s a haphazard, accidental quality to them. Resist the easy grooves they guide you into. If you love a medium made of software, there’s a danger that you will become entrapped in someone else’s recent careless thoughts. Struggle against that!

Lanier thinks that current technology is inadvertently circumscribing our humanity, limiting users to behaving more like machines than people. A few months ago Zadie Smith followed up on this idea in The New York Review of Books:

When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.

You guys understand what I’m getting at here, right? That I have a personal WordPress blog so I’m doing okay, but you, on the other hand, might not be? Good, glad to see we’re on the same page. You should now leave a lot of eccentric comments below or I will consider you further enslaved to the hive mind. This post is so 2010.

Speaking of not being a gadget, my friend’s comedian kid brother (Gidget?) has been messing with people on Craigslist forever. Here is Dregslist, his new website, a compilation of greatest hits.

JOHN DEERE JS46 LAWNMOWER, RUNS LIKE NEW (possibly haunted) – $30

I also like this lady who makes visual art on her typewriter, and this guy who crochets traditionally masculine objects like urinals and handguns. We should all do more crocheting of bullets and less shooting of bullets. Whoa, sorry for that political rant. You know what a crocheted bullet would look like? A tampon for Jared Lee Loughner’s vagina. And I’m out!

Playing the grief card

Acceptable ways to play the grief card:

1) Getting an extension on a due date at school.

2) Taking some time off work.

3) Cursing at the bank rep who keeps calling to harass you about a $5 fee the day after the service.

4) Eating apple pie for breakfast with impunity.

5) Refusing to change out of your pajamas/holey sweater/union suit for a month.

6) Requesting first dibs on holding puppies and babies if one is going around.

Unacceptable ways to play the grief card:

1) Demanding to hold strangers’ puppies or babies.

2) Cutting in line at Chipotle.

3) Taking fine jewelry, cashmere scarves, or North Face jackets off other peoples’ bodies because “they remind you of your loved one.”

4) Spending all the life insurance money over the course of a long weekend in Vegas because “that’s what your loved one would have wanted.”

5) Becoming addicted to opium.

6) Blogging childishly about death in a transparent effort to keep people close through humor. Coming up next: “1001 Reasons I Miss My Dad!” and “A Top Ten List of Ways My Life Will Never Be the Same!”

On the death of my father

My dad liked to read my blog. In fact, the last time I saw him he bragged to my mom that he had “made it onto Wistar’s blog!” (I’d recently written a post about our mutual glee regarding the Dictionary.com snafu.) Dad also played a crucial role in the One Star Watt Turtle/Frog/Spider Saga of 2008. After a woman wrote a letter to the Charlottesville Daily Progress chastising pool owners for letting innocent creatures drown, my guilt-ridden father fashioned wooden rafts for the pool filters. He envisioned that the tiny ladders he attached would enable mice or frogs to climb to safety until they could be rescued. But Dad said the rafts hadn’t worked as well as he’d hoped so he was devising another system when he, himself, drowned.

You can imagine that I have a lot of feelings about my father’s recent, unanticipated, unfathomable death, and many of them are on the verge of being unbearable, and others are too private to express here, but there are a few things I would like to share with my people on the other side of this immortal Internet.

1) When the worst happens, it is okay to cope by picturing your loved one working really late at the office. If a week goes by and he or she is still not home, then start thinking California or New Zealand. I bet the weather is great there this time of year. I hope Dad remembered his hiking boots!

2) Diet Coke is the official bereavement beverage. My friend Mary and I decided the company should launch a new marketing campaign. Maybe the ads could show a glass of Diet Coke on ice beside a glass of fizzy tears on ice. “Can you taste the difference? No. Unfortunately I can’t taste anything right now.” That slogan needs some work.

3) When close friends fly in to be with your distraught siblings, it is probably not okay to fuck with them by yelling, “Dad’s favorite coffee mug!” when they accidentally knock one from the kitchen cabinet to the floor.

4) Online registries have provided many newlywed couples with china and silver, but a bereavement registry has even more potential. “Toilet paper, plastic cups, cheap white wine, whiskey, we’re good on Kleenex.” We also considered an iPhone app that would photograph and take notes on flower arrangements so you won’t get in trouble with your mother by just writing “flowers” in the little book. The app would be called iMsad.

5) Bringing babies to a household in mourning is always a good idea. Just make sure you dress them in their cutest outfits, or let them get into something beforehand like one greasy, adorable, unsalted visitor whom we were forced to nickname “Butter Baby.” Kids rubbed in food make good conversation starters. If you truly feel sympathetic toward the grieving family, you will sacrifice your child’s dignity to make us laugh. Puppies are also good accessories.

6) For at least the first few weeks (also known as that endless day) after you’ve lost someone (Where is he? When is he coming home? He forgot all his stuff!), don’t try to drive. Don’t try to leave the mourning compound. Don’t try to return phone calls. There’s nowhere to go, nothing to say. There’s no focus, there’s no agency. Find the safest, most loving place and just be there quietly until your legs and arms and lungs work properly again.

7) Count your blessings if you have a mother who allows you to joke about “Dad’s other family” that might show up at any minute asking for money and heirlooms.

8 ) Recall the Buddhist saying: “Before enlightenment, tote water, chop wood. After enlightenment, tote water, chop wood.” Lugging around compost buckets, trash bags, vacuum cleaners, and frozen lasagna can be pretty Zen too.

9) Speaking of toting, don’t come over unless you come bearing soup, alcohol, a Virginia ham, or pie. Exceptions can be made for people who give really good hugs or for those who possess a sick sense of humor.

10) Every email, card, text, Facebook comment, and phone call matters, even if you don’t get a response right away. Don’t be a stranger. If you feel uncomfortable getting in touch or you don’t know what to say, just remember that no one knows how to navigate death*, least of all the people who just had their hearts ripped out. And if you want to come over and be awkward or accidentally have your fly undone when you do the hugging rounds, all the better. We will find comfort in laughing at you later. Again, sacrifice.

Dad, you made the blog. I love you.

Latham Murray
1951-2009

* WTF

The art of navigating the New York City street corner

It is a delicate dance. The glowing crosswalk man says, “It is okay to proceed across the street, my child,” and suddenly your brain is calculating faster than your feet can shimmy across the pavement. Because, ahoy, the young mother must push the stroller down the sidewalk ramp opposite you with a child on a Power Wheels on one side and a child with a rolling backpack on the other, and lo, the tourists ahead of you are trying to make the street signs conform to their outdated map while carefully walking backwards like athletes preserving their knee joints, and jeebus, the drug hustler who thinks you’re pretty is illegally crossing the street perpendicular to this one so you have to dodge two opposing lanes of pedestrian traffic, and damnitall some hipster is flagrantly smoking a cigarette (it’s totally not you) while you’re trying to edge by him and you’re wearing an expensive shirt that you just bought in SoHo and in a second you have to make a choice whether to sacrifice your new clothes to the fire or the innocent child peddling precociously in order to cross the street before the blinking red man starts chastising him from the opposite corner. You weave, you skip, you feel like Magic Johnson. You’re suddenly on the other side of the sidewalk corner melee and you haven’t stepped on anyone’s foot or burned an infant or cursed a single mother or wished that you were all alone in the city because you know better, having seen that Will Smith movie. Lots of people are better than none, even when you’re blowing past them like an Olympian, proud of your majestic street corner maneuverings, the envy of all your drug dealing and prostitute friends.

The cosmic cure for nailbiting

I have been a nailbiter since I was very young. Sometimes I attribute this to the same sort of neurological anomaly that makes small children sniff glue or pregnant women eat dirt. On good days I think, “I am like a momma chimp picking lice out of her baby’s hair, except I am both momma chimp and baby chimp.”  Other times I think despondently, “Maybe this is simply a bad habit within my control, except I have no discipline whatsoever.” But more often the nailbiting seems so out of control, especially when I’m driving down the road, trying to conform a bit of cuticle to my specific compulsive vision, all the while knowing that I am distracted enough to crash into a telephone pole but it will be worth it because my finger will be shredded just right on the gurney. It’s a sickness. I realize that. But I’ve been helpless to cure it. Even when the whole world says “Gross.” Even when I say “Gross.” There’s still something so satisfying about tearing my hands apart.

But no more! I have been cured. And it wasn’t the bad-tasting nail polish or the synthetic nails or the hypnosis or the tape or the gloves or the sedatives or whatever. I can honestly say that the universe cured my nailbiting. Or rather the universe by way of my godmother. Because she read my chi – when up until last week I didn’t even know I had one – and she told me that I wanted to get rid of my body. This is true. I’ve always been separate from my body because, let’s face it, my body is not that great. Despite the fact that tonight I sensationally dropped an edamame down my cleavage, I would readily trade my body for a few more brain cells. My body is pretty much worthless to me unless it’s wearing something really cute.

My godmother says that Christianity has instilled in us this dichotomy between mind and body wherein we privilege the intellectual/spiritual sphere over the physical. “Yes,” I say to her. “I feel that.” And then she says that we’re all actually one thing, that there’s no separation. “Yes,” I say. “I believe you’re right.” What she’s getting at is that we’re whole beings, interconnected, cosmically integrated into the couch, the stars, the popsicle, the soy bean buried in my bra. We can’t discard or abuse our bodies because we’ll simultaneously be hurting our deepest selves. That makes sense to me. But what makes special sense is when you take this concept of the universe being a single, indivisible entity with good intentions and you apply it to the bloody tips of my fingers. Why am I trying to destroy the universe? By biting my nails I am undoing all of the important work of the cosmos. I am the character in science fiction who wants to explode planets where cute, furry aliens inhabit utopias. I am a space brat. I’m destroying my nails because I don’t believe in God, order, love, or the mind/body connection.

And frankly that’s all it took to stop biting. I just had to redefine my bad habit in terms of the universe at large. In two months I’m going to be able to scratch my itches for the first time since I was five. I’ll be able to pick a quarter up off the floor! And, as a bonus, I might go to heaven too. I’m not Cinderella (at least while I wait for these 10 nubs to grow out), but I do have a fairy godmother. And I probably helped someone today. That’s just me giving back to the cosmos that made me.

George Saunders makes me want to be a better woman

I’m more of an Esquire girl myself, but last night I read George Saunders’ 2007 GQ travelogue about visiting the Dominican Republic and Africa with Bill Clinton, and I was shaken in my boots. I’d read some of Saunders’ fiction, but not his essays, and this one reminded me of a less tangential David Foster Wallace, like a pared down version of the latter’s Straight Talk Express McCain chronicle from 2000 (unabridged in Consider the Lobster as “Up, Simba”), which I also loved. Unfortunately Saunders’ “Bill Clinton, Public Citizen” is not available online (I found it in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008), but you can read the accompanying interview here. I mean, I didn’t, but you can.

The “Public Citizen” piece is nominally about Bill Clinton, ostensibly about the good works of the Clinton Foundation, and essentially about what individual human beings are capable of accomplishing through empathy and diligence. At the end of the essay, Saunders is flying on a private jet back to the States, luxuriously bypassing customs and long lines and bland airplane food. He contemplates his “undeserved good luck.” He writes:

A friend’s grandmother, on her deathbed, said: I should have forgiven more.

What I’m afraid I’ll say on my deathbed is: I should have done more to help other people and less to feed my own ego.

Up here, my ego has been good and fed.

Looking down at the mountaintop, I say a little prayer that all this luck will make me more compassionate instead of more full of shit.

I’m a sucker for any author who performs a moral function through writing, who somehow – with or without an agenda – inspires us to think bigger, think more lovingly. And one who has the insight to know that he’s not always authentic or above fault himself. In this interview with Vice Magazine, Jeff Johnson asks Saunders who sees the first drafts of his work. “My wife,” he answers.

She has great judgment and honesty and, of course, knows me completely, all my tricks and falsenesses. And she has a brilliant impatience with the Merely Artsy—she wants stories to do very high-level moral work (as do I) and she reminds me of this, and forces me to go back to this higher-ground when I’m feeling tired and self-satisfied too early.

So now, thanks to George Saunders, not only do I want to go out and heal sick children, I also want to be a better writer. And find myself a wife. There goes my summer.

Breakfast think tank with Dan Ariely, croissants, door prizes

No, I did not win any of the door prizes. Particularly not the coveted free ice skating lessons that drew a murmur of excitement from the business breakfast crowd in the Omni’s conference room. We were there this morning to launch this year’s Virginia Festival of the Book with scrambled eggs and a presentation by Dan Ariely, the Duke/MIT professor and author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. After sympathetically noting the conflict of interest between a 7:30AM meeting on March 18 and an alcohol-fueled Irish holiday on March 17, Ariely gave a talk similar to this one in which he unraveled the mysteries of behavioral economics, aka the science behind buying a $4 cup of coffee or preferring specialty beer.

Last fall Fortune Magazine described Ariely as one of “10 new gurus you should know.” They like him because he applies statistical science to consumer behavior and helps companies save money on things like insurance claims and clothing returns. I like him because he’s one of the few men who realize that jeans qualify as business pants and because he’s a riveting speaker.

Whenever I encounter someone of above-normal intelligence, my first thought is always, “Let’s get this guy to Washington ASAP. He and Obama need to do lunch.” I imagine the first half of these meetings of the minds will be devoted to discussing how clever a matchmaker I am; the second half to policy decisions. And sure enough, Ariely has sage advice for the president. When asked about the outrageous AIG bonuses, Ariely said that he’s against capping bonuses in the future; instead, the CEOs should get nothing. They’re likely to do a better job for zero dollars than for $500,000. He said it’s like when you ask someone to help you move furniture for an hour. The friend volunteers out of the goodness of his heart, but the minute you offer to pay him some paltry amount like $5 (the equivalent of half a million for Mr. AIG), it’s demotivating. The person thinks, “My time is worth at least $20 an hour.” When market forces enter into the equation, the social incentive vanishes. Which is why I pay everybody in pizza. Speaking of which, if we paid the IRS in pizza instead of dollars, people would be more likely to cheat on their taxes. The further removed the commodity is from actual money, Ariely says, the more likely we are to justify fudging the numbers (or slices in this case).

By the way, I have been up learning interesting things for four hours, so I think that buys me precisely six hours of naptime and watching television on the internet.

The Amazing Fact Generator is the new I Ching

Or Magic 8-Ball or what-have-you. This morning I asked Mental Floss’s Amazing Fact Generator, “Can I afford to go to graduate school in New York City?” It responded, “The University of Wyoming opened its doors before Wyoming became a state.”

Me: Clearly you mean that I should go even though I can’t afford it because soon after graduating with an MFA I will be a bestselling novelist?

AFG: “O’Hare airport is named after Al Capone’s laywer’s son, Lt. Cmdr. Butch O’Hare.”

Me: Now you’re just toying with me. That fact doesn’t even qualify as amazing.

AFG: “Since 2002, Henry Kissinger has avoided visiting both France and Spain—and for good reason. If he does, he might just be hauled into court. Apparently, Kissinger is still wanted for questioning in relation to French deaths resulting from the American-led war in Vietnam, and Spanish deaths that occurred during America’s military opposition in Chile.”

Me: This seems to insinuate that my credit card debt will preclude a student loan, and I resent you for mentioning it.

AFG: “In 1946, Ed Waldmire, Jr., revolutionized the meat-on-a-stick world when he debuted the Cozy Dog—the first corn dog on a stick. At first, he wanted to call his creation the ‘Crusty Cur,’ but his wife convinced him that people wouldn’t want to eat something described as ‘crusty.'”

Me: Assholes like you are what’s running the web into the ground.