Jeannette Cooperman

A member of the St. Louis Media Hall of Fame, Jeannette Cooperman was the staff writer at St. Louis Magazine for twelve years. She received the Writer of the Year award at the 2019 City & Regional Magazine Awards, and she was named to the 2017 FOLIO: 100 list of “the best and brightest” in the magazine industry nationwide. Cooperman spent a decade doing investigative reporting for Riverfront Times, where her work was recognized by the National Education Writers Association, the National Mental Health Association, the National Black Journalists Association,  the National Gay and Lesbian Journalism Association, and the Society of Environmental Journalists. She holds degrees in philosophy and communication and a Ph.D. in American studies, and she has written five books—four of them dealing with history, literature, and social psychology, and one a murder mystery. She and her husband, a historian, live with Willie, an especially playful standard poodle, in a century-old farmhouse in Waterloo, Illinois.

Posts by Jeannette Cooperman

Sound and Fury

          I thought I was going deaf. Selectively deaf, only to the dialogue of certain films. Leaning forward or cranking the volume (which sometimes only made it worse) I seriously considered turning on those stupid subtitles. Then I happened onto an article that assured me the film industry acknowledges the problem. […]

Make It a Double, Robot

    If you needed proof that we have lost our soul, just head to a bar that has lost its bartender—to a robot. In times of loneliness, sorrow, or despair, some people go to church, and some go to a bar. Those working behind that stretch of polished wood need all the patience possessed […]

Play Is a Form of Respect

    A three-part humanities lecture about play, with wine and hors d’oeuvres on the last evening? I cleared my calendar. For years I have grumbled that the world of ideas is too dour. This year’s speaker, Ian Bogost, invents games. He wrote a book called Play Anything. His cultural commentary for The Atlantic is […]

And Pioneering the Concert of the Future Is . . . ABBA??

    I am conflicted about many things, but I never thought an old Swedish pop band would be one of them. Nonetheless, ABBA is about to hold a concert—based on its first new studio album in forty years—with digital avatars. For whatever reason (vanity? Old hurts? Good sense?) the four members of ABBA did […]

There Is More Than One Way to Live a Beautiful Life

              It all started when Sr. Noeleen insisted I end my agonized-over, emo high school graduation speech with “Mispah.” Mis-what? She was smiling, her thin, stern face alight with triumph. I sulked, bristling without even knowing what the stupid Hebrew word meant. “May the Lord be between you and […]

Gratitude Comes Hard to Us

    Thanksgiving is here, and we who invented the holiday are squirming as usual. We have been subjected to a series of (usually commercial) exhortations to be grateful (and show it by buying something). Pop psychology has tossed a lot of mawkish reflection in the same direction, insisting we make gratitude lists and feel […]

From Sugar to Shit

    A friend is telling me how she got caught up in gambling, and I, who use a crowbar to pry open my wallet, am trying to understand. She was lonely at the time, working at a hard and boring job and in desperate need of diversion. She tells me about her favorite machine, […]

A Long and Rambling Letter to My Dead Mother

    You have been gone two and a half years now. I thought my heart would ache (it often does) and I would want you back desperately (I do not). The world has changed too much, too fast. You would spend your days worrying about every single person on earth. Terrified of us going […]

Modern Loves

The new divide will not be between the conservative and the sex-crazed, but between those of us who are alarmed by our own capacity for jealousy and those who either deal calmly with theirs, bury it, feel none, or lie.

The Dubious Sport of Wife Carrying

    Every year in Sonkajärvi, Finland, zany and athletic men follow the dubious example of Ronkainen the Robber, who led his nineteenth-century band of thieves to neighboring villages to steal women and food. What was once marauding is now a sport—a world championship, in fact. You sling your wife over your shoulders and splash […]

The Deceptive Charm of the Horse-Drawn Carriage

    Insomniac since my twenties, I have tried every herbal, narcotic, meditative, ocean-waved, breath-counting trick there is. The best, hands down, was the time I spent at a friend’s apartment in downtown Chicago. Snow fell lightly, outlining the gracious old hotels and turning the streetlights numinous, and every night the heavy clop-clop of the […]

Temple Grandin: Screens Do Not Solve Autism

    The dining room at the Ritz-Carlton was subdued, silverware’s clink muffled by all that fine white linen, and conversations were conducted in low, cultured, carefully modulated voices. Temple Grandin’s interruption rang out like an emergency announcement, drawing amused stares as she bluntly informed the waiter of her requirements. I was young enough to […]

The Exquisite Cruelty (or Is It Love) of Bonsai

          A tiny, gnarled apple tree, its trunk curved. A foot-tall banyan tree, holy as a relic. Horror vies with love. I want one of these bonsai trees. Every leaf, every strip of bark is perfect. Enchanted, they belong to a fairy world. Each has two ages, one counted from a […]

The Demon Wall

    Once you have seen it, seen even a photo of it, you will be haunted by it. And maybe that is what it was: a haunting. The demonveggen, or Demon Wall, covers a limestone archway in a small church in Sauherad, in southern Norway. I cannot do better than the Atlas Obscura description:   […]

How Efficiency Replaced Beauty and Stole Our Souls

Above the treetops and pitched roofs of our clean, sweet little town, a giant bobble sits atop stilts. I see it from our window, and I would not blame beer-soaked teenagers if they climbed up (careful, though!) to adorn the thing with graffiti. Anything would be an improvement. Now Waterloo (its name rendered a pun […]

Slime Ball

Stretching, squishing, popping, poking. . . . we are coping with the stress of the apocalypse by playing with slime. There are billions of #slime views on TikTok and YouTube and an array of slime products for sale online: Witches Brew slime for Halloween, Spooky dense butter slime, Elmer’s Fruity Slushie slime (foam beads that […]

Island Wisdom

    For us mainlanders, islands are vehicles for nervous jokes (how would we survive if stranded on one?) or wild fantasy (Gauguin, fleeing to his sexy tropical paradise). The developed world patronizes anyone who chooses to live cut off from urban convenience and absorbed in a culture all their own. We picture the carefree […]

The Many Incarnations of the Bookmobile

    A dinner conversation turned to favorite childhood books, and from there to the bookmobile. Everyone else rhapsodized about how much fun it was to clamber onto that library-as-bus and pick out your books. I shuddered and stared at my broccoli. I dreaded those class trips to the bookmobile. It felt like all my […]

How Terrorists Think—and Why We May See More Events Like the Capitol Riot

      Insights start with something strange, distant, unfamiliar. Then they find their way home. Terrorists, for example. Why are they willing to shut down the most powerful of all instincts and die for their beliefs? Having read stories of heroes and martyrs when we were kids, we take it on faith that people […]

Did the Italian Sculptor Sexualize?

    Public art has yet to start a world war, but with the tempers it ignites, the possibility is real. At the moment, the Italians are fighting over a new piece of sculpture, with female politicians especially outraged by what ArtNet calls “a female figure with a rather prodigious and gratuitously defined rear end.” […]

What Cannot Be Spoken

    Novels, news, plays, debates, speeches, texts, films, podcasts, instructions—we move through life on a conveyor belt of words. Yet the most powerful are those that cannot be uttered. People were so terrified of bears that they created the first known euphemism, replacing the creature’s formal name with words meaning “the brown one” or […]

Sweden’s Mysterious Sleeping Sickness: Psychosomatic or Coerced?

          Instead of showing warm sympathy when someone I loved had weird or terrible symptoms, I used to hiss, “For God’s sake, don’t tell my mother.” Vicious headache, dizzy nausea, and you could not stop scratching your left arm? Nette would call the next day with a wan voice and an […]

What Side-Eye Toddler Tells Us About Ourselves

    “Finally impressed?” asked the headline in The Washington Post. The NFT (non-fungible token) of the side-eyeing toddler meme had just fetched $74,000 in cryptocurrency. “Nope,” I replied aloud, deleting the story. We—need a word for United Statesians, because I do not want to drag Canada into this mess. We are the ones who, […]

Holy Cow!

    A New Yorker who cycled the Katy Trail this summer told me, delight still in his voice, that the highlight of that blazing hot ride was coming upon cows swimming in a creek. Werner Lampert, an Austrian sustainability expert, used to climb to an alpine pasture and recited German Romantic poetry to the […]

Mama, Don’t Take My Kodachrome Away

In an artist’s hands, digital technology is a toolkit whose wands and transformations grant almost magical powers. But what about the rest of us, holding up our phones everywhere we go? Now we, too, live as Photographers.

From Amorous Novelist to Buddhist Nun

    “Usually people who do bad things make good writers,” observes Jakuchō Setouchi. “I did a lot of bad things, which is why my novels are interesting.” Now ninety-nine, she became a Buddhist nun at fifty-one—and later joked that she took her vows too soon; she had not realized she would live so long. […]

Your Emojis Do Not Mean What You Think They Do

    Umberto Eco warned us. Back in 1976, he asked readers to “face the problem of the so-called iconic signs.” After all, facial expressions create “easily recognizable semantic units.” Easily recognizable, maybe. But not easily interpreted. We now add little cartoons to our messages as though they are simple, only to be confounded by […]

An Ode to the Holy, Erotic, Maddening Fig Tree

      September is the tensest month. Now large enough to cover shame, fig leaves shade branches dotted with hard green fruit, and the summer sun has lost its fire. I check long-term forecasts, watch YouTube videos, demand that my husband pull up the irises that might be cooling the soil around my precious […]

Syncing Our Brains—to Each Other’s

    In the future, Svengoolie will command my complete attention. No more dozing and surfing. Not if I want a good marriage. For my husband, tv is pure escape. Nothing relaxes him more than a Friday night pizza and two hours of a bad Fifties horror flick, the kind that was stuck together with […]

The Sad Little Cloud Over Bob Ross’s Life

  Though I loved watching him paint, I found Bob Ross a wee bit smarmy—like a Mister Rogers for grownups, but less earnest. Only in recent years, when I started to see his face on mugs and socks, breath mints and boxer shorts and Chia Pets (everywhere, that smile! that ’fro!) did I pay him […]

Good Dog!

    For weeks, I kept an internet meme on my desktop. It suggested a “new approach to self-care”: talking to yourself the way you talk to your dog. “What a good girl!” “Look at that sweet tummy!” “You’re so smart!” “Time for a treat?” The idea amused and shamed me. I listened to myself […]

How a Company Called BlackRock Shapes Your News, Your Life, Our Future

    Lou Grant’s death (okay, Ed Asner’s) left me nostalgic for those Chuckles the Clown days when newsrooms buzzed with idiosyncratic idealism. Five giant corporations now control most of what we see and read. The smallest number of media companies are now reaching the largest number of people in U.S. history, and the strongest […]

How Are These Crimes Different?

      An unfamiliar number on my cell phone. When I say hello, a man’s voice informs me, sounding anxious and angry, that there will be a hearing for Walter David Kemp in three days. I know that name all too well, but I do not immediately recognize the voice. I am scrambling for […]

Twenty Years After 9/11: History Repeats Itself

    Milestones rehearse and punctuate our memories—but in the case of Afghanistan, history never had a chance to cool. Twenty years after 9/11, we are left wondering: Could we have made more of a difference? To what extent will Taliban rule oppress women and shelter future terrorists? Should we have even tried nation-building, or […]

Vermeer’s Cupid Has Been Set Free

    When I was single and grumbling about it, my mother used to say, “All it takes is a day.” One shift of the kaleidoscope, one chance meeting, and bitter loneliness drops away and the world glows with promise. That fast, your life has a different direction, a different set of possibilities. This is […]

If I Were a Dragonfly

            I tried to chase one once. Finally stopped, dizzy and breathless, and just watched the loops and swoops, sunlight shining through those transparent, delicately veined wings, the spindly body a bright iridescent blue, like it grabbed a piece of the rainbow and kept it to wear. Even trying to […]

The New Day of the Dead Stamps—and Their Backstory

    The U.S. Postal Service was canny about how they announced their fabulous new stamps: “Lively Day of the Dead Stamps Available Soon.” Lively, because in this country, death is not. Death scares us. But these stamps are “colorful”—that adjective is at the top of the news release. They do not have the pallor […]

Not with a Whimper but with a Bang

Instead of trying to predict how soon the world will end or reaching for a static, reassuringly rigid worldview, we need to take in new information every day, brush our teeth with it, readjust our internal model of the world as we go.

How Your Best Friend Turned Anti-Vaxx

      For months now, I have been asking the same two questions. How can so many people be opposed to a vaccine that could save their lives and those of their loved ones? And how dare they justify increasing the risk of infecting someone else? Frustrated to the point of fury, I take […]

Not “Nice”

          “That’s the problem with Midwesterners!” explodes my intensely creative, less than patient friend. “They think nice is a thing. Nice is just passive-aggressive.” Wait—nice is not a thing? Not a virtue to which we must aspire? Not the sweet lubricant that allows us to function in community? That would be […]

The Midwest’s Lascaux Is Up for Auction

    An artist held out drawings of the rock art in Picture Cave. In its pitch-black depths, beneath a woodsy, remote part of Warren County, Missouri, the cave had walls covered in red and black pictographs. Carol Diaz-Granados, who was working on a doctoral dissertation about Missouri’s American Indian rock art, stared for a […]

My Guilty Adoration of Veronica Mars

    I tried a few light mentions, name-checking her with the diffidence I reserve for any opinion that might be dorkier than I realize. “Who?” “Oh, yeah. Never watched that.” Crushed, I shut up. Nobody was going to share a grown woman’s sudden, overwhelming love for a long-ago teenage tv show that felt like […]

Free the Nipple

    According to Instagram, Facebook, and several other platforms, the sight of a woman’s nipples is potentially offensive, too sexually charged for the general public. The exceptions to that rule are interesting. When a woman’s nipple has been injured, scarred, or rebuilt after a mastectomy, it can be shown. When a woman’s nipple is […]

Haiti’s Curse

    Dried veggies, small scoop. Red beans, big scoop. Vitamin powder, medium scoop. Rice, big scoop. Dried veggies. . . . People poured into Chaminade’s gym this morning, squinting as they tried to find friends camouflaged by hairnets and masks. Now we are getting to work, filling and sealing bags of food that will […]

First They Stole Love Letters, Now Email

    I can wail for hours about what we lost when we stopped writing letters by hand, letting our hearts and minds flow through our bodies and onto heavy cream paper that could be kept, smoothed, wept on, reread until it crumbled with age. But the most I’ve put on paper to my husband […]

Why James Cameron’s Skynet Is Even More Disturbing as Reality

Extreme and eccentric though they be, transhumanists represent a movement to take control of human evolution. Artificial intelligence will, they predict, accelerate itself into a superintelligence far more powerful than anything our human brains are capable of. The consequences? Nothing less than immortality, some say. Certainly an end to much of our disease and suffering. Maybe an end to us.

Uprooted by Modernity

      “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”     Simone Weil said that. Weil, whom Andre Gide called the patron saint of all outsiders. She was a leftist who alarmed her comrades by embracing religion. A French secular Jew who became a devout […]

Magic Mushrooms

    “They grow,” my friend intoned, “in dark places.” She most emphatically did not want mushrooms on her pizza. We teased her for days; after all, she grew in a dark place, too. But fungi are fairly repulsive. Moist, they can be thready or clotlike or clump up as capped, gilled mushrooms with a […]

On the Other Side of the Glass

    She stands close to the glass and puckers up, making a kissy face. The chimpanzee on the other side of the glass, Tonka, meets her lips with his own exaggerated kiss. Then he presses his lips against the glass as though for another kiss. He shakes his head goofily, tongue lolling, and she […]

House of Miles (Davis)

    Miles Davis was still in diapers (what a ludicrous thought, that burning, old-before-his-time genius bowlegged with a saggy diaper) when his family moved to East St. Louis. His dad—as brilliant, ambitious, and easily angered as his son would be—built a dentistry practice there (and owned a pig farm in nearby Milstadt). Miles grew […]

Why So Many Robots Are White

          When I tell someone in customer service, “Thank God I got a human being,” I mean this as a compliment. We have all seen how maddeningly stupid a programmed AI can be. What those of us outside tech tend to forget—unless we have been the victim of an algorithm run […]

Why Sports Journalism Is Boring and Cruel

          Naomi Osaka went first, and her courage made it possible for Simone Biles to step back at the Tokyo Olympics. Anybody who wanted to at least sound compassionate (and not like an anguished competitive spectator feeding off of other people’s skill) made sympathetic murmurs about all the pressure. Would there […]

Proof of the Soul?

    When golden light breaks through a streaky pink and orange sunset, it is easy to imagine we are seeing Heaven itself. Standing atop a mountain, we are at one with the whole world. Marble altars feel colder, paler, and more remote these days, and many of us seek nature’s wonders as eagerly as […]

Why We Need Touch

    In my starving-grad-student days, I took money to let both men and women feel me up. They were medical students, and I was to give feedback about their first, fumbling forays at a breast exam. What fascinated me was how different each attempt was. Some were tentative, some grabbier than a bad date, […]

Sometimes Symmetry Is Overrated

          The neighbors must worry about me; I have been desperately tending one of the two flowerpots in front of our house. It must catch a harsher slant of afternoon sunlight, because every year, the pot I place on that side of the door scorches first. Grunting, I hoisted it up […]

A Woman in a White Dress

  There is winter white, a disappointed cream just waiting to be kicked aside by linen. There is ivory, the word itself luxe, fitted for wedding gowns and trousseau satin peignoirs. But for a summer dress, simple white suffices. The appeal is so universal, I have heard more than one man rhapsodize over seeing a […]

Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness

It always depresses me to see how accurately Alexis de Tocqueville, a twenty-five-year-old upstart, took our measure two hundred years ago. He started out admiring and found himself predicting (quite accurately, as it turns out) a sad and shallow trajectory from heroism to petulance. How sharply modern it sounds, his observation that Americans are “restless […]

They Snuck Into the Panthéon and Saved Paris

Once, in the middle of the night, six Parisian teenagers managed to get into the Panthéon in Paris. It turned out to be so easy, they woke up the next morning thinking: Okay, what next? Les UX—The Urban eXperiment—was born. Next was the Ministry of Communications—where, in the dusty basement, they found maps charting the […]

Steinbeck Could Not Save to the Cloud

    Carpenters used to seem so lucky. They sweated and got splinters, but they could see the result of their effort. Those of us who pushed paper around knew a stray cigarette ember could char a month’s work into ash. Doctoral students kept their dissertations in the freezer, surprising anybody who helped themselves to […]

Whacked Out Sports: A Cultural Clue?

    “What in holy hell are you watching?” My husband should have the grace to look guilty; instead, he just grins. On the tv screen, young women in bikinis jiggle as they spike a volleyball, giggle as they play an uncomfortably suggestive game of leapfrog. “It’s Whacked Out Sports,” he replies. I blink. Now […]

The Vanishing, Civilizing Art of Marginalia

    Sometimes the notes are ferocious, Skirmishes against the author Raging along the borders of every page In tiny black script. . . .     I smile at Billy Collins’s “Marginalia,” because I always used to scribble outrage or applause in the margins of my books. I used to dogear the pages, too—I […]

The Woman Who Taught Us Not to Trust Our Memories Has Some Doozies of Her Own

    When people first started coming forth with stories of being abused by Catholic priests, it felt as though a fault line had opened in the earth, and all sorts of buried rats and lizards were scampering out. As a reporter, I fielded calls weekly. Sometimes with trembling voices, sometimes erupting with rage, people […]

What Bloodshed in Haiti Means for Us

    When I learned that Jovenel Moïse, president of Haiti, had been assassinated—after riots and demands that he resign—something inside me crumpled. Again? I was in Haiti during its 2010 presidential elections, along with the professional photographer who shot the image above, Patti Gabriel. We were the outsiders on a volunteer medical trip, neither […]

Invitation to the Dance

    Standing, I squint at the computer monitor while I try to curve my hip out as I tap my right foot. The dancers on the screen are holding plates of food, of course, as they execute perfect moves. This is “Jerusalema,” and I am a year late to the party. But I am […]

Why Nobody Knows Moholy-Nagy’s Name

    Now that dinner parties are back, try this experiment. When you are introduced to someone new, ask them questions, anything you can think of that might touch on their professional expertise in some way. Then wait for them to parry, explaining that actually, their research is confined to the mating habits of the […]

The Attention Economy

We talk about paying attention, as though it is a debt—and these days, attention is definitely currency. We still use money and buy material stuff, but these transactions all begin by gaining our limited attention.

Why We Need Lupin

    Two television shows eased me through the coldest months of the pandemic. One was—do not smirk— the PBS remake of All Creatures Great and Small. That show is so utterly wholesome, James Herriot so gentle and decent, the human foibles presented with such kindness and on such a small, everyday scale, that watching […]

Why We Know Next to Nothing About Nubia

    Grateful just to be somewhere beautiful and air-conditioned, I stand and skim, as is my sinful habit, the big introduction label to the Saint Louis Art Museum’s Nubia exhibit. I feel the usual distance of centuries and miles; nothing lives in my memory about Nubia, no peg on which I can hang a […]

Q&A: A Peek at The Kimono Tattoo

    I so enjoyed Dr. Rebecca Copeland’s mystery, The Kimono Tattoo, that I wanted to solve the next mystery. Not the sequel (though she is writing one) but the motive. What gave a midwestern university professor the nerve to take this chance? She plunged herself into a world of ancient artistry, then translated its […]

On the Indiscriminate Love of Dogs and Everything Else

    Ah, Westminster! Where else can a trapezoidal head, or an egg-shaped one, be a mark of honor? Dogs are my favorite sport, and dog shows one of its spectacles. I watch rapt, drinking in the elegant curve of a whippet’s underside, the big soft eyes of the Pyrenees, the romp of a giant […]

We Need More Than We Want to Give

      The metal bench is branding the underside of my thighs—I can almost hear the sizzle—and the dog is pacing, lifting each paw the second he sets it down. Necessity has forced my husband into Walmart, an experience he assiduously avoids, and we are waiting for him outside in the heat of the […]

Biden and the Bishops

    In my years as a Catholic, I watched, riveted, as the priest elevated the host, the wafer as round and large and luminous as a distant moon. While he murmured the Eucharistic prayer, I thought about a gentle, scruffy, bearded, dark-skinned carpenter breaking flatbread for loyal friends, pouring wine from an earthen jug, […]

Montessori Meets AI

    My mother talked a lot about Maria Montessori. She could not afford to send me to a Montessori school, so she read all about Dr. Montessori’s work and figured out ways to apply her method at home. Looking back, I suspect that even the way she put milk into little pitcher small enough […]

Acing Work-Life Balance

      I keep rereading what is now old news, those amazing stories about the French Open. Not the stories of grand slams and surprise victories, but the stories about sensible withdrawals. I want them to mean more than they do, on the surface. I want them to herald a widespread return of common […]

Are Goose Feathers a Prerogative?

          The dog inches closer, then leaps backward. Scared by a goose feather because its soft brownish gray tip moved in the breeze. Trying not to laugh, I tug him forward. Another goose feather lays on the lakeside path. Then another. They would be beautiful in that Art Nouveau vase, I […]

Self-Pleasuring in a Car Lot, and the Difference It Makes to Be White

    The police officers approached, scanning the car lot. Blue Earth County Dispatch had received quite a few 911 calls about a woman—clearly under some sort of influence—jumping in and out of vehicles. At least one caller noted that she seemed “happy.” It was 1:30 p.m.—broad daylight, nothing narrow or furtive about it. The […]

With King Lear, We Are God’s Spies

  It has been said, scathingly, by dispirited critics, that Shakespeare’s King Lear is simply too big for the stage. It is impossible to do the play’s sweeping themes justice in a single production. Maybe so. But I just sat in the breeze at Forest Park and watched the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival mount a […]

The New Fluidity

    Looking around the restaurant table, I see us all as sixteen. My high school friends have a few wrinkles now, a few extra or fewer pounds, but they remain so essentially the same people I adored all those years ago that I am smiling when the waiter reaches me. He must think I […]

Rejected by an Algorithm

      The Common Reader has a sliver of a budget, so to keep much of our content free, we spend that sliver on sporadic boosts that at least let a few more people find us on social media. Lately, though, many of those attempted boosts are being rejected for no apparent reason. They […]

How Teenage Girls Dress and Why We Care

    My high school uniform was a navy drop-waist pleated jumper with a pilgrim-collar white blouse. It pains me even to type that sentence. We flipped the blouse around and wore it backward so we could unbutton some buttons, and we took the baggy jumper in at the side seams, cutting deep to make […]

What It Is Like to Be a Sex Worker

There is a reason we use the word “intimate.” Sex cuts closer to our core than any other physical act. It can rip away the garb and the façade, break through the boundaries, ease loneliness, soothe anxiety, restore a sense of self.

Quick—Pick Yourself Some Pseudonyms

      In the celebrity culture that dazzled us for a while, the talented, beautiful, or outrageous among us gathered fame like snowballs rolling downhill. Everybody knew their name, and they trailed that glory everywhere they went. Now, many of the hottest influencers are avatars online—real people using a pseudonym or virtual avatars that […]

Strange Words for a Strange Time

    The curators of News on the Web did us a painful favor when they collected the new words of the past decade. In the sociopolitical realm, there is of course “wokeness,” stripped of its many inflections. We have acquired “birthers” (questioning Barack Obama’s citizenship) and “truthers,” a sad choice of labels for people […]

How Grief’s Alchemy Turned “Hamnet” into “Hamlet”

      Over wine, my book club raved about the quiet spell Hamnet cast, the grace and tenderness of its language. We read aloud our favorite Maggie O’Farrell’s lines: “The fireplace, which is filled only with ashes, held in the fragile shape of the log they once were…” “Time runs only one way.” “Every […]

Is Beauty a Grace or a Curse?

    I spent the first decades of my life staring in a mirror. Now I have shattered it. People used to tell little girls they were beautiful no matter what. My mother continued the tradition, but when I learned the dangerous trick of comparison (surely our original sin) the truth dawned. I concentrated on […]

He Turned Birds into Pantone Colors

            It is always a mystery, that reverence can come out of murder. Young Robert Ridgway used to mix up a batch of gunpowder in his father’s pharmacy. He packed it into a rusted rifle recovered from the sunken wreck of a river steamer, and he and his father went […]

Why Superman Used a Phone Booth

    Feeling like a ten-year-old, I memorize the number, walk home, press the number, and hold my breath until I hear a ring. The phone booth at the corner of the Monroe County courthouse grounds still works. Granted, I have never seen anyone use the thing, but I am absurdly happy to think that […]

Money Is a Popularity Contest

    I avoided reading all the early articles about Bitcoin, sure I would not understand them, sure this was only a fad, a blip, an obsession akin to Victorian tulipmania. Bitcoin is now a $1 trillion asset class using as much energy every year as Sweden. Next came the fuss about non-fungible tokens, but […]

Eating Our Terror

            There is a peculiar phrase in Arabic, psychologist Hala Alyan notes in her beautiful essay on fear. Its literal translation is “You’ve eaten some terror.” The notion stops me. I am used to thinking of emotions eating us. Devouring us, consuming us, swallowing us up. But to eat terror—or […]

My Old Kentucky Quandary

    “Hasn’t this leftover of the capitalist elite run yet?” my husband asked as he passed the television set, me leaning forward, legs demurely folded to one side, mint julep in one hand. “Post time is later this year,” I informed him. “And don’t ruin it.” This exchange took place two weeks ago. Medina […]

Do We Even Want Real Journalism?

    Roughly once a month, somebody asks, “Do you know a good investigative reporter?” Then they launch into a story of such rank injustice or exploitation or abuse of power that my fingers twitch toward a notepad. What they need, though, is a reporter whose questions will make the right people nervous, and whose […]

Small Talk, Big Ideas

    People are saying a lot these days—most of it superficial—about small talk. How we miss it, after our year of solitude; how to do it gracefully; how it glues our society together. Personally, I have always hated the stuff. Small talk is designed to smooth over awkwardness and allow us to chat pleasantly […]

The Genes That Make Us Human—and How We Thwart Them

    Though I often prefer other species, humans do have an extraordinary ability to use language, tell stories, make art, share symbols, show altruism, and improve our own well-being. Why? A new study is the first to identify 267 genes that distinguish modern humans from chimpanzees and Neanderthals. Nearly all those 267 genes helped […]

Speak of the Dead in Present Tense

      Most grammar rules, we break as blithely as casually as kids break curfew. Only when we speak of the dead do we turn timid, terrified of using the wrong tense. In the first few days, someone “has died,” but once the announcement is made, they simply “died.” Or “passed,” though none of […]

Forever in Blue Jeans?

The fact that our costume began as a sturdy and predictable garment, then evolved into a million variations and constant novelty—how American is that?

The Death of Genre

      Time was, you listened to jazz or rock, read mysteries or romances, majored in English lit. or anthropology, craved Chinese or Italian. You stuffed your likes into compartments. Then came cross-fertilization, influences, blends, hybrids, boundary-breaking ecommerce. Now you can listen to Japanese jazz or Afro-Celtic rock, read a literary mystery that is […]

On April 27, a Pink Moon Rises

    The moon, I hear, is rusting. This seems entirely wrong. Nature is meant to be pristine; wet oxygen should gnaw on shipwrecked hulls, carburetors, iron gates, cartwheels. The machines in the garden, the futile artifacts that tried and failed to be powerful. Never the moon. The Moon stays with us, loyal as a […]

Death Will Surprise You

    The body changes over time, grows creakier, squeakier, crinklier, wheezier. Once those you love hit a certain age, the changes are seldom hopeful. And if you try to get a prognosis from a medical professional, you get as many answers as a Catholic who goes priest shopping. The problem is the same in […]

Why Your Name Matters

    Nothing sounds sweeter than the name of someone you have fallen in love with; nothing intrigues you more than your own name, overheard. “Pronounce people’s names,” my mother urged her shy daughter. “People love to hear their names spoken.” Refusing to speak someone’s name either acknowledges their power or cancels it. Some traditions […]

The Chalk Skies of Bill Gates (and Other Doomed Experiments)

    A giant balloon, released in the Arctic, spewing chalk dust to dim the sun. It sounds the stuff of a late-night horror flick, but the project had the imprimatur of Bill Gates and researchers at Harvard University—not to mention $30 million in private funding. The ultimate tinkering, it sounds like something a kid […]

How Passion Became a Hobby

    When was it decided that every cover letter had to include the phrase “I have a passion for”?  How did we decide our private pastimes would fascinate? Maybe it begin with all that pressure to rack up extracurricular activities. Or with Gen X cynicism, the almost narcoleptic refusal to show enthusiasm about anything. […]

A Glossary of Negative Emotions

    So much hate fills the air, a thick and sometimes bloody miasma. We talk with alarm about hate crimes, hate groups, hate speech. But what is hate? David Hume pronounced it “altogether impossible to define.” I think of it as a dark, pulsing, amorphous monster I know to flee. But in Hatred: Understanding […]

Are Oldschool Directions Better for Our Brains?

    Salmon can do what Thomas Wolfe swore we could not: Travel nine hundred miles to go home again. Homing pigeons can fly a thousand miles away, circle back, and arrive where they began. In her musings on Supernavigators: Exploring the Wonders of How Animals Find Their Way, by David Barrie, and Nature’s Compass: […]

The Art of the Compliment

    “I like your shirt, Jeannette!” a young woman in town calls whenever she sees me walking the dog. In winter, it was, “I like your coat, Jeannette!” If we are standing close enough to chat, she says, “I like your earrings, Jeannette!” Our exchanges feel like badminton, me leaping up to whack a […]

What If Iago Secretly Loved Othello?

    My husband and I have been on a Shakespeare kick, watching different versions and deciding whose Hamlet we like, who better captured Cordelia, how Judi Dench managed to redeem Lady Macbeth…. Often, if I have gardened or hiked that day, the Elizabethan prose sends me into a happy doze—but Othello kept me wide […]

Is the Nuclear Family Exploding?

    The happy flurry had begun: platters and bowls passing, here was the gravy, who needed butter? One of my cousins, maybe four years old to my seven, studied me and my mother, trying to figure out who else belonged to us. My mom tried a cheery “It’s just the two of us!”—who wants […]

The Anxiety of Influence

      I think of the Greek god Pan as an old goat, horny and hooved. Built like a faun or satyr (neither of which recommend him for polite society), he was deliberately rustic, at home in the wild, the kind of guy you expect to wear a leather jacket, use vulgar language, and […]

The Evolution of the Bitch

        “Namaste, bitches!” calls the blowsy, purple-clad yoga instructor on the greeting card, pulling all the sting from the word. I buy the card and leave it on the kitchen table for days, reconditioning myself. The casual use of “bitch,” with fondness or in teasing, has taken me some getting used to. […]

Remembering Eleanor Roosevelt

What I knew was the surface. But Eleanor, David Michaelis’s recent biography, let me step into her heart. Now I could imagine how she ached for her father’s company, how her relatives’ comments must have stung, how her school days charged her mind and set it in perpetual motion. How awkward it was for her to show tenderness, how desperately she craved it. How fully she became herself and what power that gave her.

The Room of Requirement

          “You never had your own room? You shared with your mother?” My friend is aghast. “I know,” I say, part of me still fifteen and fuming. “But it was just the two of us in a little one-bedroom apartment.” I did have time to myself; my mom worked full-time. But […]

The Scourge of God

      An object that looks like a braided horse’s tail sits on a shelf near my desk, because I cannot bring myself to throw it away. At the end of one of the braids is a tiny dark reddish-brown stain. The muscles tightened around my heart the day I realized that stain was […]

Why Are Girls With Guns Sexy?

        “… like the way guys find women with guns hot,” my husband was saying. “What?” Surprised that this was news to me, he rattled off examples of women warriors in hit movies, superheroes in the comics, female soldiers in the military…. “You find that sexy?” I blurted. He shrugged, carefully noncommittal, […]

Saving Daylight—From What?

        I nearly missed marrying my husband. Our first real date (after a mutual, happily married friend gathered her single college friends in a hopeful blind double date) was for an art exhibit, and he was picking me up late on a Sunday morning. Earlier the same morning, I met a friend […]

Is It Breastfeeding or Chestfeeding?

    I made the classic media mistake last week: Read a story with a clickbait headline and forget that the truth might be more nuanced. What I read (and the flurry of outcry that followed) suggested that we are now to speak of “chestfeeding” instead of “breastfeeding.” Which does make sense, in certain cases. […]

Some Are Sad. And Some Are Glad. And Some Are Very, Very Bad

    Dr. Seuss was okay with red fish and blue fish; he could imagine an elephant sitting patiently in a tree to hatch another species’ egg. So why was he such a bigot when it came to human beings? And does that mean we need to abandon his books? During China’s Cultural Revolution, there […]

Fair Weather’s Friends

          “Our perfunctory observations on what kind of day it is, are perhaps not idle. Perhaps we have a deep and legitimate need to know in our entire being what the day is like, to see it and feel it, to know how the sky is grey, paler in the south, […]

The Role of Models

          The sound coming from the kitchen table started as a groan, stayed in back of the throat as a teeth-clenched yyyynnnghhhh, hit crescendo with the yowl of a cat in heat. In the interest of pandemic sanity, my husband dug out a model kit bought a few years ago on […]

Why Nobody Dared Stream The Dissident

    “Has the sacrificial victim arrived yet?” ”He has arrived.” “Thank God.” Those are quotes from Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. Turkish intelligence obtained (one does not ask how) an audio recording, and highlights from the transcript are part of the new documentary The Dissident. Directed by Bryan Fogel, who won the 2018 […]

Black Holes and Psychic Vampires

    Two months ago, the country was melting down, the virus was winning, and the prospect of being sucked into a black hole in outer space was the only scenario terrifying enough to dwarf the rest of my angst. I read to distract myself, but the explanations confused me from the start: Black holes […]

How German Captured the Pandemic, and French Gave It Nuance

    All those stereotypes you struggle against? Dig them out and brush them off, because of course the German language invented the most complicated, somber, interesting words for life in a pandemic. And French added the most nuance. And Spanish emphasized sociability. As for us? Quite a few of our neologisms sound like a […]

The Cock Will Crow

    We sigh in bliss outside French patisseries, dab on French parfum, drink French wine, eat cassoulet and coq au vin, wear Parisian couture. We have made French toast, French fries, and French kisses our own. Yet we cannot manage to absorb the French sensibility. Criticize their politics all you like, the French know […]

How Mud Can Save Us

    The dog looks like a baby rhinoceros, every black curl caked with mud, his eyes bright slivers beneath a brown spiked fringe. How did seven pristine inches of snow turn into this diarrhetic substance? After enthusiastic greetings from Figgy and Lucy and Buddy and Dukie at the dog park, I am almost as […]

Spitting on Polish

    Like the canals in Venice and the air over Beijing, my fingernails have cleared during the pandemic. No longer stained by red polish or suffocated into fungus or splitting from the astringent polish remover, they are simply there, white crescent moons bright above smooth pink nail beds, the ends gently curved. Why did […]

The Contagion Narrative—and What It Leaves Out

    We have been living in a disaster movie, so caught up in the suspense, we failed to see how scripted it was. Turns out there is an “outbreak narrative” in films and popular novels, and it has influenced our media, our policy, our response. There are stock characters: Patient Zero, who seems healthy […]

Loose Canon: Can Classics Survive the Neo-Nazis?

      The study of classical antiquity always seemed so serene, secluded from the noise of modern life. I pictured scholars bent over tomes of Aristotle, archeologists brushing dirt from marble, professors reciting epic poetry. But raiders from the alt-right have invaded the sanctuary, laying claim to the ancient memes. Classics is hot—and not […]

Time for an Imaginary Friend?

    We are all going a wee bit crazy, and the latest remedy for social isolation is something called tulpamancy. The art of the invisible friend. Tulpamancy is defined as “the act of conjuring sentient beings,” dreaming up a person who will live in your head. You decide how they look, how they act, […]

The Disability Paradox

    When I see someone whose body is twisted into an unfamiliar shape or cannot move as mine does, I often flinch, then try to hide the involuntary recoil. Afterward, I lie to myself, insisting that this is empathy. It is not. It is stark fear. Why? Because I am not sure I would […]

Big Business Versus the Bees

    In 1985, Bayer patented a synthetic insecticide that soon showed up in its garden products. Imidacloprid belonged to a new class of chemicals, neonicotinoids, neonics for short. They block neural receptors, killing an insect or, with milder exposure, causing tremors, convulsion, an inability to fly, sterility, or a damaged immune system. The intended […]

“Some Women Marry Houses”

    I am glad my mother cannot see my house right now. First there was COVID, so why would I bother with beeswax and Swifters when the only person showing up was the mail carrier? I like Travis and value his opinion, but he is far too busy to peer in the window and […]

Would We Recognize Alien Life If We Saw It?

    I had pretty well decided we were alone. Surely life from another part of the universe would have shown up by now? But maybe it already has. In the way that a constellation’s points of light connect into a picture once you know what you are looking for, clues have been popping up. […]

Zero Zone: Artful Noir That Asks a Serious Question

      Some books capture your imagination; Zero Zone locked mine in an art gallery. An adroit literary thriller, its prose has a clean, well-lit spaciousness, yet the sensory images are so rich that every page is splashed with color. Scott O’Connor’s main character, Jess Shepard, is an artist who has been through her […]

Why Does the Richest Country in the World Have So Little Culture?

  My husband stalked into my office this morning to ask me a question. “Why is it that in the United States, where we can draw on the cultural traditions of dozens and dozens of ethnic and national groups, we have so few cultural traditions?” he wanted to know. I had no answer. All my […]

When Media and Politics Splinter, So Does Espionage: A Q&A With Robert Koenig

    Seeing the rabble at the Capitol and trying to sift through its ideologies made me nostalgic for the Cold War, a phrase used more often than you would think, by both sides. So I called Robert Koenig, who, after working in the midst of Cold War spies and researching several historical spies, is […]

When Barbie Is Reimagined as Maya Angelou …

    I never had a Barbie doll, no doubt because she was pricey. My mother would have shrewdly eyed all those accoutrements, separately packaged, and nipped that problem in the bud. My friends had Barbies, though, and mainly what I remember is seeing them carried upside down, blood rushing to their ponytailed scalps. We […]

On Conscience and Cowardice

    The other day, I found myself skimming through Shakespeare’s Richard III, the tale of a king who was vainglorious, scheming, and amoral. Breaking the fourth wall to confide in the audience, Richard makes a shudderingly fine villain. Breathless, we follow his Machiavellian rise to power and short, destructive reign. The opposite of a […]

The Year We Made No Resolutions

In the third week of January, it struck me that I had heard virtually nothing about New Year’s resolutions. Nobody was cleansing or purging or making extravagant promises to themselves or anyone else. The few people who dared to vow a dry January poured themselves a strong whiskey five days later, after the Capitol was […]

The Color Purple

On Inauguration Day, Kamala Harris wore glorious purple. First, I heard it was for the suffragists. I smiled, thinking back to quotes I once dug up about their careful choice of color, the Americans stealing the Brits’ purple because it represented “the instinct of freedom and dignity.” I was glad they did not stick with […]

Please Let COVID Kill the Buffet

For some, it is clowns. For me, it is buffets. They terrify me, because I always make bad choices. Once I sat down and realized I had dished up an entirely white plate for myself: potatoes, filet of sole, cauliflower… I am not sufficiently fond of my own race to make that a good decision. […]

What Would It Take to Be Whole Again?

To be “made whole.” The phrase has always taken my breath away, even though I understand nothing of the common law and personal injury disputes in which it is invoked. How lovely, to be, in a single gesture, made whole. It sounds effortless, an act of grace, a wand waved over my head. Just imagining […]

What QAnon Calls Research

There is a single, innocuous phrase, used like a mantra by proponents of QAnon and other conspiracy theories, that drives me insane. Not because it is uttered in smug or combative tones, though it often is, but because it feels like such a distortion. “Do your research,” they say. Why should this be maddening? I […]

Baring Pixar’s Soul

    Spoilers throughout.   Soul may be a children’s movie, but two weeks later, I am still trying to figure it out. Granted, I overthink everything. But I like director (and Pixar creative chief) Pete Docter’s willingness to tackle abstract concepts (Up, Inside Out) so I want to know what he is saying. The […]

What You Wear to a Coup

In little-kid history, the word “ragtag” conjures motley groups of men who band together, with fife and drum, to join the Revolution. Well, if ever a group looked ragtag, it was the one that smashed its way into the Capitol last week. Jimmy Kimmel called it “a psychotic Price Is Right audience”; others said it […]

A Less Than Civil War

For at least a year, my husband has been predicting something like what happened January 6 at the Capitol. I let his words wash over me, unable to believe anything that close to an act of civil war could happen here, again. “At the core, this is about race, and it’s about who wields power,” […]

Sick As a Dog

This is more than a story about how dogs bankrupt you and drive you crazy. It is a story about the damage that can be done to any of us when we do not get what we need. It begins, though, with the dog. Willie, adopted at fifteen months of age. Silky black curls and […]

The Most Important and Most Neglected Virtue

Research is done on the mating habits of the duck-billed platypus or the mosquito’s affection for cheese. Philosophers inquire deeply into nausea, zombies, and the solidity of the chair upon which you sit. Yet precious little work has been done on one of the most fundamental traits of human character, the one we use to […]

Fate Can Be Cruel, Friends Crueller

“Do you ever shut up?” “You’re a born loser.” “Well, you’re not invited.” “Definitely not the artist in the family.” Accidental or barbed, a mean comment can catch like a hook in your soft throat and leave you hanging for years, unable to wriggle free of the memory. Social media only exaggerates the power of […]

Allergic to the World

“Ah, you have a cat,” I say, trying for a tone that does not suggest, “You have a machine gun pointed at my chest.” Which is how it feels. When your throat closes of its own accord, shutting off air and voice, you remember. You also remember spending your first year of marriage dozing through […]

The Monolith #MeToo

I miss the monoliths. Or rather, since they are still popping up, I miss the mystery. How cool it would have been to be counting Big Horn sheep from a helicopter and glimpse sunlight bouncing from a tall silver bar planted in a red-rock canyon? Otherworldly, mysterious, charged with possibility. This was the year the […]

The 2020 Dumpster Fire

Most years, the cards are so sweet. This year, I did a few in watercolor and found myself painting a defeated Santa sitting on the curb, a crushed beer can next to him, some trash in the street, drinking the dregs from a whiskey bottle. Inside, it was easy to write, “It’s been a rough […]

Why We Try So Hard to Change Our Beloved

Late at night, watching a doting mad-scientist husband slowly poison his wife in order to bring her back to life, I sigh. It never works. Then I wonder why love makes us monsters. Most of us do not live in The Twilight Zone, where we could literally poison our beloved. Yet we begin a relationship […]

How Food Seduced and Betrayed Us

When did food move from sustenance, holiday ritual, and occasional treats to a consuming avocation with its own vocabulary, gear, techniques, and media? There are more devotees than most religions can attract, and their rituals are charged with significance.

Why TV People Speak in Front of Bookshelves

Concentrating on the talking heads is tougher, now that they have all positioned themselves in front of bookshelves. I keep trying to read the titles. Is it odd that people who make their living with the liquid authority of their voice all chose to pose in front of silent squiggles of ink? It is honest: […]

What We Will Miss About Life in a Pandemic

Stop the world. Take people who have been leading active, engaged lives and throw them into a scary, unprecedented isolation. How many will wind up loving the limitations? Curious about the past year’s wrenching experiment, I asked on social: What will you miss when the pandemic is finally over? Some folks spat back “Nothing.” Others […]

My Friend the Supertaster

“Try a bite,” I urged. She did, and winced. Then she explained. Sus is a supertaster—and she would prefer to leave this particular superpower behind. Again and again she has to explain that she is not just “a picky eater,” as she has been branded her entire life. This is genetic: She was born with […]

Lost References

Last week, I wanted to quote a line from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” so, in this sad time when none of us can trust our poetic memory, I Googled it. This is what I most envy my elders: Their brains were honed and polished by all they committed (apt word) to memory, […]

Innocence and Experience

At the start of my twenties, I was still filled with sweet virtue (or romantic folly, you choose) and determined to, quaint phrase, “wait until marriage.” Which took so long that my own mother finally said, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, just sleep with somebody and get it over with.” And so I did, and I […]

Why We Are Always Trying to Measure Up

“What am I supposed to do with this?” my friend demands, referring to the recipe I emailed. “It’s soup,” I reply, thinking that sufficient. “There are no measurements!” “Just go with your gut. Sauté a bunch of onions, add enough broth, as many veggies as you can stand to chop up, then when they’ve cooked […]

Capturing the Queen

The Crown has it all: working-class grit and aristocratic glamour; scandal and propriety; hysteria and cool restraint; mod rebellion and venerable tradition; vice and Anglican benediction. But will my husband watch it with me? Not a chance. It pains him, he says, to watch the British monarchy pulled apart from within. On one of our […]

Spoiler Alert

People tell me I spoil our dog. Hardly spoiling, I tell myself as I put off work to drive to a park where he can splash in the lake and then run in the woods, free and happy, grinning as he trots back to me with leaves and burrs clinging to his curls. We hurry […]

The End of Manual Labor

How hypocritical of me to sing the praises of manual labor for another gender, given that I will do almost anything to shirk it. But as young men run amok and older men grope for a new way to feel good about themselves and, failing to find one, kill themselves or others, I have begun […]

Philosophical Resignation

How cool. The Daily Nous website has a page where people who earned graduate degrees in philosophy can post the non-academic jobs they have landed. I never made it past a bachelor’s in philosophy, but my brain dances with the possibilities for my betters: jobs in government, media, any realm that requires ethics and clear, […]

Tea, Cozy

The isolation has undone me. I am talking to the kettle. It is a shiny new kettle, bright red, Le Creuset. It was marked down by Amazon’s warehouse, but I can find no flaw. As I wash that cheerful enameled surface and scrape off various stickers, I murmur, “Are you just old, darlin’? Is that […]

How Caution Divides Us

Who would have thought that the simple, practical, survival-handy emotion of caution would be what tore us apart? Caution, it turns out, finds itself a sweet spot and declares anything on either side intolerable. (Seven feet apart? Ridiculous. Five feet? Courting death.) Now that I am paying attention, I realize that caution has always been […]

Firsthand: Life Without Democracy

Last week, in an idle panic, I tried to imagine what it might be like to no longer live in a democracy. Then my foolishness struck me across the face, and I realized I should ask someone who has already experienced that life. I contacted an intelligent young journalist and interpreter who grew up in […]

How COVID Stole Everybody’s Sense of Smell

I miss hugs, an accidental brush against a stranger’s arm, the downy head of a friend’s baby as I curve my hand to support it. But above all, I miss how people smell. The soft, milky smell of that baby’s skin. Exhalations of coffee, garlic, chocolate. The drench of heavy perfume worn by the sort […]

The Art of Sauntering

“Brisk” is the recommended sort of walk, heart-healthy and efficient. But on a golden Sunday with air as crisp as an apple and sunshine backlighting red and gold leaves until they glow, all that push vanishes. I saunter. The dog sniffs to his heart’s content, and I let my gaze fall where it may, pause […]

A Delicate Constitution

“You know, if humans are still around three centuries from now,” my husband remarks, “they are going to wonder why a country founded on the principles of equality and justice had so much trouble making that true for everyone. Why it after centuries of blood and tears, there was still resistance. I mean, WTF?” He […]

What It Would Be Like to No Longer Live in a Democracy?

So much that we take for granted has been thrown into question, it seems a good time to test the hypothetical. What would it be like, if we could no longer count on fair elections and a representative government? That worry is our only common ground at the moment, yet we cannot even agree on […]

Is a Play on Zoom Still Theater?

Oh, yay, another Zoom performance. Well intended, I mark my calendar—and wind up reading a book instead. Why does performance feel so flat online? Well, it is flat, reduced to two dimensions, and often popped into Brady Bunch squares (though I think we are getting past that). But the caliber of the performance can be […]

The World Is Still Wobbling

The most dangerous thing for the citizen of a democracy to do after an election is relax. But all I can think is, now we can all relax. A little bit, even? For quite some time, I have wondered where I live. What country is this, divided almost in half, each side with a checklist […]

“This Getting Older, It Ain’t for Cowards”

“Such a shame,” murmurs a friend in her eighties. “Why should I be so nervous?” She always thought she would be more willing to take risks at this point in her life. “What do I have to lose?” she adds wryly. “Yet I find myself so bloody cautious.” This is a woman who has crossed […]

The Assassin on the Porch

Standing on our side porch waiting for the dog to do his midnight perimeter check, I spot the real danger: a giant, silvery black, fiddle-shaped bug with a bright red spot and long, angular legs. Gingerly, I push open the door and reach inside to switch on the porch light. Bending as close as I […]

An Award-Winning Documentary on Flannery O’Connor Premieres in St. Louis

All that fancy literary theory about separating the writing from the writer? Forget it, if the writer is Flannery O’Connor. Her life and her work are inextricable, and the St. Louis premiere of Flannery, winner of the first Library of Congress/Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, makes that clear. As astute as O’Connor but without her […]

Saturday in the Park

I share our dog’s affection for Lakeview Park, its wide, smooth path rising and falling alongside three small lakes edged with reeds, a weeping willow, a dock, a steep hill. One Saturday morning in early October, as soon as the sun slanted through cold mist, we set off happily. By the time we reached the […]

How Caliphate Fell Apart—and What That Means for the Rest of Us

The 2018 podcast Caliphate caused me to miss my exit ramp one evening, run a red light the next morning. Rukmini Callimachi’s reporting held me spellbound, the material so inherently dramatic that her soft-voiced narrative needed no extra hype. When, toward the end, it began to look as though her major source, Abu Huzayfah, might […]

The Big Three Seventy-Five Years Ago

This morning, a friend sent me a meme: a black-and-white photo of Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin, seated in dignified poses, their expressions reserved and thoughtful. Different as their characters were, they all look like men who know their own minds and are capable of keeping their own counsel. Below that image, […]

The Mysterious Case of the Grotto

A cynical private eye and former mercenary named Joe Adams calls to tell me that while walking his Marine-trained pit bull past the old St. Mary of the Angels Convent grounds on Bellevue Avenue, he took note of the construction site. Joe Adams takes note of everything. He trained rebels in Myanmar, regularly turns down […]

Office Space

Workwise, I find myself in an odd place. I have never been happier than I am now, working from home. Yet I am desperately sorry for young people who have to work from home. The fluffy sort of news—by which I mean anything that does not include death counts, death threats, or the imminent death […]

The Either/Ors That Box Us In

Paul Griffiths is trying to defend the biological either/or of male and female. The coauthor of Sex and Death: An Introduction to Philosophy of Biology, he wants it understood that even if not everyone lands neatly in one or the other, there are only two sexes. If we are talking sexual reproduction (which he is), […]

How Trump Has Encouraged the Witches

An insurance agent calls to tell me one of her elderly clients wants to get in touch with me: “She said it was ‘life and death.’ Or maybe she said ‘it wasn’t life and death.’ Anyway, she says she doesn’t know how to reach you, because she’s ‘not on the Twitter.’” I take the woman’s […]

Everyday Saints

I did not grieve my mother the way I thought I would. There was no keening, no bleak loneliness—only a few hot, convulsive sobs, followed by a soft peace. That felt odd, because we had been closer than most. My father died when I was a baby, and I had no siblings, so we had […]

Dropping Clues to Your Socioeconomic Class

The instant you leave the insulated world of high school, you have to start explaining yourself. You are now meeting people who have no idea how you came to be. And over the years, your story layers like one of those geological samples, shown vertically, different stuff pressing down each year. While we are walking […]

How a Dog Would Want a Politician to Behave

Willie follows me everywhere. A pandemic puppy, he has not yet endured much alone time. He quickly learned our two code phrases (“Going shopping” signals a fairly short, bearable absence; “Going to work” means it could be a while), and if he is trotting along beside me and hears either “shopping” or “work,” he makes […]

Pretend You Are Doing Research in Antarctica

The photographs make me shiver. Antarctica. Vast white mystery. The snow an endless slick of white, broken only by gray rocks on the coast and blue-shadowed glaciers. Ninety percent of the world’s ice is here, yet because Antarctica is so dry—the coldest, windiest, iciest, driest place on Earth—the continent is categorized as desert. I close […]

The Zoo of Human Quarantine Behavior

The other day I played hooky, drove across the river, met a friend for an hour’s walk at Forest Park, met another friend, chatted, picnicked, went back to the parking lot, in a brief concession to the workday, to do a phone interview from my car—and realized I had lost my phone, whose holder also […]

Playing Possum

Late Sunday night, I went outside to add something messy to the garbage my husband had already rolled to the curb. And what to my wondering eyes should appear? A small—not baby, maybe teenage—opossum, backlit by a streetlight in the autumn mist, its pointy little face and long tail silvery white. “No,” I hissed at […]

Yard Sign Politics

Every time I walk the dog, I hope to run into the neighbor with the Black Lives Matter sign in their front yard. I want one, too. In our sweet but painfully white town, I figure the more the better. Then I pass three houses with “Pritzker Sucks” signs in their front yards, and my […]

Into the Woods

Trees have felt significant, relational, to poets and priests and philosophers for centuries. The symmetry of this partnership is surprising, when you think how lopsided the scales are: Trees shade and shelter and furnish and feed us, and we … clear-cut them. Or hug them and get mocked. Or alter the environment, and watch them charred by wildfires or pulled up by their roots.

The Seat of Power

“Two-thirds of the people in this world don’t even sit on a chair,” a Jesuit once pointed out, a gentle corrective to one of my many first-world assumptions. I had no idea if this was an exaggeration for effect; how does one fact-check? Besides, his point was inequity, and that was irrefutable. The sentence returns […]

The Poet and the Priest

As an undergrad, slumped in the library pretending I was studying, I overheard a little egg-shaped Jesuit earnestly apologizing to the kid working the desk for keeping a few books past the due date; he had been in Korea. Later I learned that the Rev. Walter J. Ong was the premier scholar of Saint Louis […]

The Return of the Muumuu

You suck in your tummy and hold your breath while your husband zips you and tries not to grunt with effort. Then you slip on shoes with heels like icepicks and take tiny steps to the car. Halfway through the evening, all you want to do is kick off your shoes, take off the heavy […]

What the Boogaloo Bois Are Not

Bois? Why are a bunch of hetero gun-toters in Hawaiian shirts branding themselves gender-queer? Surely they know what the spelling signifies. Or does nothing signify anymore, in this world of clashing memes and criss-crossed identities? The cleanest definition I can find for the Boogaloo Bois is Seth Cohen’s: “a loose group of far-right individuals who […]

The Winter of Our Discontent

“If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere,” the Irish poet Seamus Heaney once wrote. The phrase is now relevant in a way he never anticipated. That is not surprising; poetry pushes past a poet’s limits to trespass on the universal. And thanks to COVID-19, the whole world now dreads winter as though […]

When Scholarly Articles Are Fraud, Whim, or Total Insanity

“Elsevier says it is investigating how one of its journals managed to publish a paper with patently absurd assertions about the genetic inheritance of personality traits,” I read in the newsletter of Retraction Watch, a brilliant ten-year-old project undertaken by two scientists. Regularly appalled by what passes for research, they decided to track the small-print […]

Why Women Can Dress Like Men But Not Vice Versa

A woman slips on her boyfriend’s cotton shirt, its shoulders dropping inches below hers, and rolls up the long, long sleeves. She looks even more feminine. A man borrows his girlfriend’s soft blue pashmina, swinging one end over his broad shoulder. He looks far less masculine. I am using traditional categories here, and old gender […]

The Clothes We All Abandoned

There they all are, just hanging there, smooshed together in the dark, waiting like Broadway wannabes after an audition. As I reach for the usual gray shorts and oversized t-shirt, I shoot them a guilty glance, admiring their colors. It seems so long ago that I spent a rainy afternoon sorting them, pinks into lavenders […]

Why a Deadly Pandemic Aroused Less Drama in 1918

The first time a boy broke up with me, I thought no one had ever felt such pain. Now, I am living (so far so good) through my first pandemic, and nothing has ever felt so surreal. The sudden halt to life as we know it, the arguments between politicians and scientists, the greedy bursts […]

A Nation Turned Inside Out

A plane roars above our quiet, semi-rural backyard (this never happens), and the dog and I freeze and shoot each other looks of alarm, both of us pop-eyed. For Willie, the sky is roaring. What I hear is that ominous sound of planes flying off to battle (not that I have ever experienced this, but […]

Life Lines

In Richard Wilbur’s delicate poem “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” the bedsheets hanging on the clothesline become angels, swelling with the breeze and letting us feel the “deep joy of their impersonal breathing.” In my dryer, they tumble, inert. Clotheslines are at once homespun and ethereal, whether they are strung across […]

How the 1904 World’s Fair Destroyed a Man’s Soul

A friend sent me a BBC news clip last week—“Caged Congolese teen: Why a zoo took 114 years to apologise.” I blinked; with news of COVID-19 aerosols spraying from one direction and the firehose of political rhetoric gushing from the other, this felt a little random. But my friend was shocked by the tale, and […]

While We Fuss About Immigration, Americans Are Emigrating

Over the course of three days, I come upon an article about countries willing to take immigrants from the United States (even a few islands that are giving a discount on the dowry price); a YouTube video by a middle-aged couple who have resettled in blissful happiness (at least they say so) in Ecuador; a […]

What Does a “Reset” Even Mean?

We have seen many a lurid headline since January, most of them filled with doom, the others counterpunching with prophetic optimism. Have you noticed that one word keeps bouncing back? Quarantine reset: 5 steps to make you feel more in control … Governor Cuomo on Calls to Reset National COVID-19 Response … “The Future Reset: Global Food […]

The “Thin Places” Suffering Can Break Through

What would it feel like to be quarantined with a parent who was stressed to the breaking point, symptoms flaring, but could not seek help, either because illness had them paranoid or because they were afraid they would lose custody of the one reason they stayed alive?

Seeing Is Now Believing

“Your hair looks fabulous.” “Thank my stylist—it hasn’t been this color for a decade!” “You look better than ever!” “It’s all the work I’ve had done.” “Your photos will be ready by Friday.” “Make sure you airbrush my double chin!” Can you imagine someone in the court of Versailles being so blunt? There, the point […]

Crisis Can Make Us Kind

I spend Sunday morning reading about extremists and QAnon and toxic masculinity and people who still refuse to wear a mask, and just as I am about to give up on the human race, I open this message from Susan Kerth:   I texted a good friend here at my condo building that I had […]

The Popularity of “Poop”

Why is it so hard to talk about something we all do (one hopes) regularly? When I was a kid, every time an adult said “bowel movement”—which I spelled in my head as “bolomovement”—I cringed. My aunt used the initials BM, which should have been better but somehow was worse. My mother, appalled by all […]

Who Was That Masked Man?

Fashion dances back and forth, concealing then revealing, eroticizing certain parts of the body by first hiding them, then allowing tiny peeks. In a time of lace-up boots, a glimpse of ankle could sear a man’s eye. When décolletage became too common to excite, the midriff was revealed. Well, we have been covering our mouths […]

A Not-So-Unfathomable Scenario

When my turn came to pick for book club, I chose Sigrid Nunez’ The Friend almost at random. Okay, I chose it because there was a Great Dane on the cover. Also a reassuring gold seal: It had won the 2019 National Book Award. Still, I opened the novel with trepidation—I have picked some doozies, […]

The Death of Champagne

All this, and now champagne? The industry is in trouble, warns BBC News, Paris. After the perfect growing season—golden sunshine ripening the grapes at just the right pace; rain drenching the wines at precisely the time they thirsted, meaning they will burst with flavor instead of squishing and rotting. But “a billion bottles have been […]

Make America FEEL Great Again

It has been too easy for me to roll my eyes at the slogan Make America Great Again. The instant objection—when, in its history of exploitation of humans and pursuit of stuff, was America ever great?—misses the point altogether. This is not a fact-based imperative, not even a truthy longing. It is anemoia, that wonderful […]

Why We Seek Out Negativity

It is so unfair. If we screw up, it takes not one good deed to counterbalance the goof, but four. That, at least, is The Rule of Four described by John Tierney, a science journalist, and Roy F. Baumeister, a research psychologist, in The Power of Bad. They admit it is an average. In a […]

Today I Am Eleven

I am tired of being fifty-nine. It is a liminal, French-existentialist sort of age, a waiting for sixty—not unlike the limbo of pandemic, as I wait to contract the virus. So to hell with it. Today, I am eleven. Permission comes from a remark by the writer Madeleine L’Engle: “I am still every age that […]

Consulting the Cloister

Oh, stop your complaining, I tell myself. You are counting the months since you have shopped frivolously? Julian of Norwich sat in the window of her hermitage while the Hundred Years’ War raged around her, people dropping dead in the streets of the Black Death and the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt drawn, hanged, beheaded, […]

The Pie Is Only How Big?

Since our previous dog’s sudden death, we have had a giant trash bag tucked in a corner of my husband’s office, stuffed full of Louie’s toys. It was intended for the animal shelter but, true to form, we wound up with another pup rather quickly. Afraid castoffs would hurt his feelings, I bought new toys. […]

On Mosquitoes and Mass Murder

I love napping on the porch in a summer rainstorm, sipping wine on the glider at sunset, reading or working in the fresh morning air, birdsong in the background … Except that every time I try, I trudge back inside covered in itchy red welts. Our previous dog assiduously licked every welt, which actually did […]

“Negative Energy”—Physics or Fantasy?

Here is a confession: I have long believed that places hold energy. That I can walk into a home and sense whether people have been happy there, for the most part, or bitterly angry. That air somehow retains pain. I did not always credit such nonsense. I rolled my eyes when a friend insisted on […]

Stoicism as the Art of Learning How to Feel Without Fear

Ignoring the blithe optimism practiced by motivational speakers even in his day, Seneca urges us toward a “steadiness of heart” that is purposeful and “cannot be dislodged from its position.” His advice sounds simplistic, the stuff of cliché and needlepoint pillows. But when have I ever pulled it off?

Better We Should Be at War

“What would you rather go through, a war or a pandemic?” I asked a friend the other day. She thought a minute. “A pandemic. That way I’ve at least got a little control over my fate.” Me? I would take war. I do not say this lightly, and I do not mean just any war. […]

A Little Night Music

The night was muggy, a storm grumbling as it approached, and I was rushing the dog through a boring walk around the block. Then I heard it. A warm strum of guitar chords, intricate and lilting. Not a recording. Live. Funny, how quickly you know that. Audio has attained exquisite fidelity, and I have what […]

The End of Feminine Hygiene

Admit it. You read that headline and thought, “Eeeewwww.” Women have been told for millennia that our bodies are unclean, swampy, smelly, rank with ooze and blood. We have been sent to huts, barred from ritual baths and religious services, denied pleasure and confidence. Even in our enlightened “modern period” era, with specially designed period […]

Name Your Place

I was born to live by the ocean and wake to thundering surf. Or in the valley of a craggy, majestic mountain, its top a misty purple. In the wooded cove of a northern lake. In the desert, even, with the solace of a fierce landscape. Almost anywhere, in other words, but the cornfields of […]

How Fatalism Could Kill Us All

  “You’ve gotta live,” people like to say, shrugging off some constraint or precaution. I was always the first to agree. Until COVID-19. “If it’s my time, that’s up to God,” a woman remarks to me late in lockdown, adding that she does not wear a mask. Pressing my lips together, I fight the urge […]

Capitalizing “Black”

Back in the early ’90s, when we were living in sin, my future husband and I stayed at a bnb in Nauvoo, Illinois. We were there to learn the town’s Mormon history, and we were a little shy with the hospitable but devout Mormons who assumed we were legally wed. At breakfast, further subdued by […]

What I Learned on My Summer Furlough

After three months on furlough, I was scared to gear up again. I had forgotten how to use a zipper; stopped even bothering with lip gloss for Zoom. I was not sure my adrenal glands still functioned. Taking permission from catastrophe, I ate, drank, and slept as I chose, cheesecake on the Titanic. On furlough, […]

College, Interrupted

By their own admission, they are a little driven, used to studying among some of the brightest minds in the country, with goals held up that most folks never attain. Now all that has skidded to a partial halt, and they are sitting in their childhood bedroom fighting the temptations of a nap or a Netflix binge.

Notes on the Illusion of a Clockwork World

Time is an odd phenomenon, now that we have had the time to feel it passing. Novelists and filmmakers toy with it, imagining it running parallel to itself, moving backward, varying its speed, freezing altogether. But I am not sure anyone ever imagined exactly this.

Where Everybody Knows Your Business

Oh, God, here we go. The headline on Nextdoor Waterloo reads “Rooster crows all day long!” All my urban hackles rise, bracing to read a list of nasty, unneighborly gripes from people stuck at home with plenty of energy for vitriol. It was so nice until now, living the past thirteen years in this calm, […]

The Contagion of Everyday Life

A pandemic is never only about biological contagion. Much of what we feel, think, and do—far more than I want to admit—is the product of what we perceive or unconsciously mimic in the world around us. Laughter, yawns, ideas, courage, and panic. All of that is contagion.

Making Sense of a Random Universe

“Random,” we say, one eyebrow raised, claiming the slang for anything odd, stray, out of sync. But when big things—like the universe—are defined that way, I feel a sort of vertigo. A literal Adam, Eve, and serpent might stretch credulity, but that deep, resonant off-stage voice giving them instructions? That means we are meant to […]

The Stuff the American Dream Is Made of

      “Attractions and stores at American Dream are temporarily closed.” That online announcement was not meant as metaphor. It refers specifically to the contents of the three-million-square-foot American Dream, a collection of experiences that refuses to call itself a mall. “The psychic center of American social life has shifted from buying things to […]

What Is Lost When Graduation Is Cancelled

Only once have I ever cried when I was supposed to. Not on my wedding day; I was giddy then, breaking that can’t-see-the-bride rule to hug friends and wait for Andrew in the back of church. No, it was the grad school Commencement that got me, that resonant swell of bagpipes that filled the hall […]

Why Star Trek: Picard Changed My Mind

Every time the channel changed (in those days, with a clunk of the knob, not a remote) and I caught sight of Star Trek—those primary colors glaring against cardboardy sets, Captain Kirk’s wooden yet melodramatic delivery—it looked like a kids’ show I did not want to watch. Same with Dr. Who, some goofy guy in […]

There Is No Hierarchy of Suffering

Posting on Facebook that her beloved dog was doing well after hip surgery, a friend prefaced the report with a strenuous apology, acknowledging that this was no big deal in the scheme of things and assuring people that she was well aware of the horrific devastation of COVID-19. I replied with a phrase I use […]

An Easter Egg

“You have old stuff on your table!” announced my friend Susan Barker, a naturalist. Ready to be appalled and mortified by my own domestic failure (emotions not new to me), I grabbed a dishcloth. But she was not staring at breadcrumbs or a splotch of congealed egg yolk. Instead, she was holding a marble egg. […]

Living in a Crime Scene

After a few weeks of making myself crazy—wait, I touched the metal gate at the dog park, the virus lives on metal for I forget how long but who knows where those greyhound owners have been lately—cannot blow my nose now, dammit—nobody is looking, I will use the hem of my T-shirt—wait, there are wipes […]

Alternative Travel

The consolation we had planned for the future loss of our beloved dog was a long-awaited trip to—wait for it—Trieste. But we lost Louie abruptly, just as coronavirus hit Italy hard. So what did we do? Adopted another dog, thus complicating any future travel, because who wants to sit out a pandemic without a puppy? […]

How Pandemic Will Shape the Next Generation

“We are in the midst of forming a COVID-19 generation,” says anthropologist Jim Wertsch, who studies collective memory. “I’m in the Vietnam generation, and that provided the lens through which I saw the world. My parents were in the Depression generation, when people lost their trust in banks and became more conservative.” Wertsch, who holds […]

Quarantine Chat

“This has essay written all over it,” a friend texted, attaching a link to Quarantine Chat. Oh, my gosh, of course it did. What stranger would they match me with? What would we discover about each other? Would we have that chemical reaction Jung talked about, inevitable in the meeting of any two personalities? What […]

The Brain-Tingling Whisperers of ASMR

Stock brokerage commercials, seduction scenes, confessions, conspiracies… We have long known the power of a whisper. Still, when John Goodman made an ASMR commercial whispering about McDonald’s quarter-pounder and Ikea made an ASMR video of a woman lightly tapping on back-to-school products and the number of YouTube videos of people whispering or making toast sailed […]

E Pluribus, Pluribus

I have always found communities that withdraw from mainstream culture interesting and quaint—Amish, maybe, or Mennonite, or rainbow hippies. They all seemed similar: gentle folk who lived in ways I could admire without acceding to them. But now there are all sorts of these communities—fundamentalist Mormons; pan-Africanists in Philadelphia; Hasidic Jews and, at the other […]

The Glee of Working From Home

Even before—was there a before?—coronavirus, about 24 percent of fulltime U.S. workers did “some or all” of their work at home. The preferred term is now working “remotely,” which sounds more professional than “working from home” but strikes my ear as a little too detached and automated. I began writing cozily from home last fall, […]

Quick Check: What Metaphor Do You Use for God?

God is light. God is love. God is energy, being, process. Irreligious as I am, I have thought all those things, but the metaphors stay locked in my head. The childhood God, the gentle father watching over you; Jesus the big brother, ready to tousle your hair and kiss your forehead; God as earth mother, […]

Dragged into Shakespeare’s Brain  

My brain fuzzed into a golden haze by some seriously good wine, I lean against my husband and squint at the tiny print of the Riverside Shakespeare in his lap. We lug this heavy tome to our monthly Shakespeare dinner, reluctant to trade it, as our friends have, for a sleek Kindle. This month, we […]

Social Distancing

Stay physically apart; communicate electronically whenever possible; avoid contact. As precautions, they sound extreme—but societally, we were already trending in that direction. Ninety-five percent of shoppers want to be left alone in stores, notes an HRC Retail Advisory, and eighty-five percent would rather check prices at a scanner than ask a human being. We like […]

Unfiltered Speech

My mom made friends with every store clerk who ever helped her. One day, we were shopping, and she waved gaily at a young woman who lit up in recognition, dropped what she was doing and hurried over to show my mom her new pale pink leather jacket, its edges fuzzed with dyed-pink fur. “That’s […]

Reach Out and—Text Somebody?

Nothing dates you faster than the lineage of your communications devices. One of my best childhood presents was a toy switchboard: I sat for hours, plugging in different lines and feeling the rush of power as they lit up, connecting people. To this day, my favorite quote is E.M. Forster’s direction for life: “Only connect.” […]

Living Color

As I write this, people are gathering wood for the bonfire. When it whooshes alight, they will sing and dance and pray away the evil inside them, and tomorrow, the festival of Holi will begin. Of all the rituals in the world, this is the one I would most love to appropriate. Colors mist the […]

Blind Dates and Naked Mole Rats

Reading about the courtship patterns of naked mole rats started me thinking about our own species. There are such similarities. Granted, naked mole rats are, by our standards, a little old-fashioned: They work hard, digging tunnels with buck teeth we would find adorable on a cheerleader, and they live at home well into adulthood, helping […]

Stolen Words

I would love to speak a thousand languages, mainly just to capture all those words that leave English speechless. If we cannot say it, can we think it? I know we can still feel it—look how often we wave our hands about, trying to find the right words. To “gloss” something is to explain or […]

Cloud Cover

I should have worn a trench coat to the stormspotting seminar; I was there under deep cover. No way was I ever going to be sufficiently observant, grounded, and methodical to be of use to the National Weather Service. Nope, I just wanted to learn about clouds. In my carefree youth (I am not sure […]

The Saga of Sin, or How We Moved From Renunciation to Remediation

How we think about sin changes over time—and how it changes reveals quite a lot about us. This is true across many religious traditions, but since Roman Catholicism is a vast repository of thought about sin and its sacramental erasure, I start there, like a drunk looking for keys under a streetlamp, to see how sin has evolved.

What Makes a House a Home

Writing from time to time for what the media calls “shelter” publications, you catch yourself wondering about the difference between a set of sterile, starkly beautiful rooms and a place that is just as beautiful, but also warm and homey. It should be obvious to say “lived-in,” but some homeowners (schooled by their interior designers […]

Staying in Our Own Lanes

At a YMCA pool, a young man, broad-shouldered and easy on the eyes, seems engrossed in conversation with a woman in her early seventies, her hair gray-blond and frizzy, her figure matronly. As I slip into the water, I hear them talking with mutual sympathy about lousy jobs, laughing, trading stories. Then she begins to […]

The Sloth and the Genius

    A sloth’s digestive system can work for almost two months to break down a single trumpet-tree leaf.   • • •   Leonardo da Vinci learned at race speed, gulping down physics, arithmetic, philosophy, astronomy, anatomy, medicine, literature, languages, and art history as though someone were holding a stopwatch. Self-taught, he cheerfully admitted […]

Alien Intelligence

How smart could an octopus really be? I mean, sure, all those suction cups would be handy. But otherwise, they just hang out by themselves waving all those arms around … It was the pranks that changed my mind. More than one octopus has learned to turn off the aquarium lights by squirting jets of […]

The Grisly Habits of Beatrix Potter

“You like Beatrix Potter?” my friend Jodi, a retired English teacher, asks casually. “Love her. Flopsy, Mopsy—and Squirrel Nutkin was my favorite. Those gentle little books are so great for kids. So peaceful. Did you know they named an asteroid after Bea—” “She boiled bunnies,” Jodi cuts in. “Read Scary Stories for Young Foxes.” And […]

What Trends in Crime Fiction Tell Us About Ourselves

A few years ago, a literary agent told me I needed to make my murder mystery’s detective suffer more, struggle more, face more problems and threats and terrors. She had no idea she was talking to a woman who recovered from surgery by watching reruns of The Thin Man, Nick and Nora dressed to the […]

Red Meat Yes! Red Meat No! Red Wine Yes! Red Wine No!

The alarm shrills at seven o’clock. That means I had seven hours of sleep—was that right, or was it supposed to be eight? Eight glasses of water is no longer a magic number, I read; for some, it might even be too much. Shrugging off the question, I head for breakfast, the most important meal […]

Some Like It Hot

Years ago, I went on a date with a short, dark, and handsome architect who had the colossal arrogance of anyone who thinks he can decide what sort of giant building the rest of us have to look at for the next five decades. He wanted to introduce me to sushi (this was a long […]

Beware the Binary

After years of doggedly alternating “he” and “she” or choosing mischievously contrarian pronouns (“If a welder joins the union, she can expect …”), the struggle is over. Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year and the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Decade are one and the same: the gender-neutral “they.” No longer must we presume that […]

Star Wars

Our first night living miles away from downtown’s bright lights, I went outside, looked up, and felt a deep contentment wrap around me. I was used to a night sky that looked like a black shoebox with a few holes punched. This looked like diamonds sewn onto layers and layers of tulle, so even the […]

Confessions from the Aisle of Shame

“You don’t know what the AOS is?” The shock in Shawn’s voice borders on pity. “We’ll take you,” promises Susan. They dive into a conversation about the latest hot item, a rug of magical price and quality. The lucky folks who snagged one started photographing their dogs sitting cute atop the fuzzy rug, and one […]

Personal Effects

The wallets were what got me. They fool you, because they seem so practical, just neat, safe folders of money. Yet they also hold us, flattened into paper: our name, our age, where we live, who we love. Their edges soften a bit more each day as we reach for proof, currency, or our honor, […]

Is Camp Still “Camp”?

Camp is brilliant at introducing irony where it once did not exist, but now irony exists everywhere; its distance and layering are our habitual mode of perception, absent only in cults and Waldorf preschools. What role is left for camp to play?

Paradise Lost

The room is a velvety, lightless black, except at the center, where light refracts through dichroic glass pendants and makes rainbows on the holographic floor. They are meant to cheer us up. This is Margaret Keller’s Botanica Absentia installation at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, and we have just stepped seventy years into the […]

Four Seasons—in One

“Today, it’s spring,” I announce to myself, taking the cheery tone kindergarten teachers use with the recalcitrant. Deep inside, I am still stomping my foot, because this is all wrong. It is still winter. Last week, there were a few sunny, chilly days that felt like late fall, and now the air feels warm and […]

A Screen Test for the Academy Awards

I was happily watching a British murder get solved by two smart female detectives when my husband pointed out that every conversation that was not about murder was about men. Neither of us realized that he was applying the Bechdel test; I learned only later about Alison Bechdel’s deliberately, ridiculously low standard for movies. Announced […]

Why We Are All Amazed

I titled my friend’s recipe “Susan’s Amazing Candied Pecans.” I called my favorite Bosnian restaurant “amazing,” recommended a film as “amazing,” gushed about Robert Macfarlane’s “amazing” nature writing and my friend’s “amazing” travel photographs. To even called a slow-cooker pot roast “amazing.” Writers should have more vocabulary. I imagine my English literature professor in college, […]

Passage to India

The number of Indian immigrants eager to work at Indian restaurants has dropped sharply, and I am fretting about it. My husband looks at me like I have joined The John Birch Society. Why does it matter what someone’s ethnicity is? Well, normally, it does not. What he does not realize is my capacity for […]

A TED Talk Hits Home

Hair dripping, soul at peace, I unlock the door, wet towels and swimsuit bunched under one cold arm, and hear the phone ringing. It is a landline (my husband is the human incarnation of retro) so I check caller ID on my way to the laundry room. Missouri Department of Corrections. My heart sinks. Bertha […]

Defending the Enemy

All these years, I have been reading ACLU press releases without ever knowing that the organization—100 years old this year—was inspired in St. Louis. Public defender Patrick Brayer lays out the history here, describing how Roger Nash Baldwin came to St. Louis fresh from Harvard, on the advice of a future U.S. Supreme Court justice […]

A Shaky Resolution

When a text popped up from my oldest, dearest friend, I cringed. We had made a pact to hold each other accountable. My New Year’s resolution was to learn to like healthier foods (read: lose twenty pounds), and hers was to exercise more. No doubt she was now checking in to tell me how she […]

Size Matters

“In America, the big get bigger and the small go out.” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said so last fall. He was not presenting this as a problem, but I wonder. When just a handful of people show up at book club, the conversation goes deep; when everyone is there, it splits into five […]

Domestic Chaos

It stole the air, trading sweet oxygen for something grassy and ragged, with hints of skunk and rot and Venetian sewage. And it was wafting from a cabinet in the kitchen, which doubled the horror. When repeated mentions of The Smell failed to rouse my husband, I returned to the kitchen with my face pressed […]

Pam Hupp and the Question of Evil

A few years ago, I wrote a longform feature about Pam Hupp, a blond middle-aged Midwesterner convicted of murdering a brain-damaged man in cold blood in an elaborate ruse to deflect suspicion from herself in the murder of her “best friend”—just before a suspicious fall that killed Pam’s mother. The story hit Buzzfeed and went […]

We Can Even Kill Christmas

It is bleak, colorless January, the time so many of us breathe secret sighs of relief. It is over—at least until August, when the engines of commercial Christmas will rev with a high whine. For a time, though, we are freed from expectations and comparisons, checklists and chores. What is wrong with U.S. culture? Maslenitsa, […]

Little Women Takes on the Warrior Princesses

When my bank asked for my favorite childhood book, I had to lie. Little Women seemed too obvious. I read it in the tub, under the bedcovers, on my lap at dinner. I read it aloud to the dog. I snuck it outside when my grandmother told me to stop reading and get some fresh […]

The Most Symbolic American Catalog

  Hammacher Schlemmer speaks with all the confidence of a Madison Avenue account exec in the ’50s, just before things started to crack. Every product is the definitive, consummate iteration: The World’s Slimmest 3D Printing Pen. The Only Heated Beard Softener. The Best Gentleman’s Foil Shaver. The Lady’s Fatigue Relieving Sandals. The Superior Comfort Advanced […]

A “Botanical Pompeii” Beneath Our Feet

Until I brushed up against those 300-million-year-old ferns, I thought of coal and pollution and global warming as a single, dense lump of worry, uncomplicated by history or irony.

The Mandarin Duck Was Here All Along

In fall 2018, a mandarin duck landed in Central Park. New York went crazy. They named him Mandarin Patinkin, and The Cut pronounced him the city’s hottest bachelor. Entrepreneurs captured the duck’s forest green, indigo, royal purple, and orange coloration on T-shirts that sold faster than flatscreens on Black Friday. A dog came to the […]

Chain of Love

Aw, man. I did not want to forward a chain request for a poem to twenty BCC’d friends. I have a readymade rant about all these chain things, these copy-this-message-and-send-to gimmicks that suck time and prove only that you are schmuck enough to fall for them. A friend used to send me cloyingly sweet and […]

A Holiday Party Primer: Ask Deeper Questions

In his December newsletter for The School of Life, Alain de Botton—the beloved British philosopher of everyday relationships, work, art, and meaning—begs his readers to stop asking superficial questions. If someone says they are spending the holidays with their partner and their partner’s family, instead of asking, “Whereabouts do they live?” ask “Do you feel […]

A Defense of Dots and Dashes

When I wrote for an alt newsweekly, I was teased for overusing ellipses, a gutless sort of trailing off … that expects the reader to understand that my thought is incomplete on purpose, that there is far more involved than what I have mentioned. I stuck up for my dots, accusing my (male) critics of […]

Why We Care More About Koalas Than Kin

In a reality-tv survivor show, koala bears would be off the island in five minutes flat. At the first sign of a raging bush fire, they panic and scramble even higher, thinking they will be safe if they can reach the top of the tree. Once there, they curl into a tight ball—and wind up […]

We Are Divided by How We Define What Unites Us

I was curled up in a window seat, skimming through E.B. White’s musings for The New Yorker, and I hit a definition that must have sounded obvious in 1943. Democracy, he wrote, “is the line that forms on the right. It is the ‘don’t’ in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt […]

Before You Get All Extra, Parse This

Lexicographers in Germany have been pounding away at a Thesaurus Linguae Latinae since the 1890s, with deaths and replacements along the way. They are not merely defining or finding common meanings, mind you. They are writing a biography of every Latin word and noting every possible known way in which it has been used. They […]

The Rich Toss Aside Technology

Years ago, I dreamed of a world in which technology took over all the chores that were soul-crushingly boring and freed us to be more fully human, paying more attention to creativity and compassion and relationship. Then pessimism slid back, and I worried that the wealthy would take control of technology. Access would be granted […]

A Different Kind of Reverence

I was city through and through. And then we moved to rural southern Illinois. Pausing to check messages in a parking lot, I near dropped my phone when a rooster crowed in the back of the rusty red pickup next to me. On one of my first trips to Rural King, a horse strolled in […]

How the St. Louis Wheel Could Change the City

Glowing at the west edge of downtown, the new St. Louis Wheel rounds out the city’s geometry. We have the rectangular high-rises, the diamond points of Union Station’s red tile roof; the diagonal lines, like thumb-tacked string, of the Stan Span; the sharp angles of Lumière Place casino; the gentle arches of Eads Bridge; the […]

Rage Rooms Explode

Called rage rooms or smash rooms, they are popping up—like the emotion that prompts them—all over the place. The idea is as simple as an old comic strip: Wham! Pow! You whack and shatter anything you like with neither apology nor consequence, then leave someone else to clean up the mess. Proprietors say the rooms […]

How Prayer Rugs Turned into War Rugs

When the sacred geometry of the Persian carpet was replaced by tanks, weapons, and bombs, Westerners were fascinated. But how do the women who weave them feel?

Whence All the Puking on Screen?

My phobia keeps me from drinking heavily. It makes visiting hospitals a sphere of the inferno. Even watching a movie at home is fraught, although my husband usually manages to warn me or clamp his hand over my eyes. It all started early in grade school, when three kids threw up on me in rapid […]

Ghosting Needs to Die

“ … if he was Anita Baker’s man He’d take her for her masters, hit it once an’ shake her hand  On some ol’ thank ya ma’am an’ ghost her” —from “Figaro” by Madvillain     I have been puzzling, from the safety of a marriage, over the phenomenon of ghosting and what prompts it. […]

Why Cancel Culture Is Worse Than We Think

Cancel culture seemed, for a while, to be a reaction to celebrity culture. Like mortals scaling Mount Olympus to steal a thunderbolt or two, we had grown weary of blind worship. Determined to take back a little power, we watched closely, and whenever one of our gods proved unworthy of our ideals, we pounced. Social […]

The Truth Is Out There

A giant white speech balloon is tethered at the foot of the grand limestone steps of the St. Louis Central Library. Passersby pause, some thinking of comic strips, some of texts. One guy misses the little tail pointing out at the bottom of the bubble and reads it as a giant eyeball. Which makes sense, […]

Did Superstition Win the World Series?

“I’m not watching,” my husband announced at the start of Game Five. I twisted on the sofa to stare at him. Andrew has been a staunch, unabashed Nationals fan since 2005, and the last time Washington won the World Series was as the Senators in 1924. “Every time I watch, they don’t get runs,” he […]

Trial by Fire

We start something new, or should, by defining our terms. “Wait, does this mean we’re not seeing other people?” “Did the doctor mean no dairy, not even yogurt?” So when I joined the staff of The Common Reader, I went a little clammy at the realization that I was not entirely sure what the word […]