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. Her work was cited as Notable in Best American Essays 2021 and Best American Essays 2023; 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 seven books—six nonfiction, biography or cultural history, and a murder mystery. She and her husband, a historian, live with Willie, a goofy but sweet standard poodle, in a century-old farmhouse in Waterloo, Illinois.

Posts by Jeannette Cooperman

A Raised Fist Can Pack a Punch

    First, an admission: in the immediate wake of the shooting at the Trump rally, I watched the video of Donald Trump raising his fist and blurted, “Fuck.” A grudging admission that the man, even shoeless, is a consummate showman. That he knows, instinctively, how to galvanize a crowd. That his chutzpah is undeniable, […]

The Photography of Gaucha Berlin

    In the movie Hit Man (funny, smart, well done, morally questionable but you end up not caring—and is that a good thing or worrisome?), the central question is whether we can change. Can someone escape what looks like their fate and reinvent themselves? Which ties to the question I have long wrestled with: […]

Can You Diagram That Sentence?

    Bored at a wedding reception, I started chatting with an old friend of my husband’s. Somehow one of us mentioned loving, back in grade school, diagramming sentences. Soon we were scribbling complicated challenges on cocktail napkins, oblivious to the tipsy fun that swirled around us. How nerdy can you get? Still, we were […]

The Purpose of Your Life Is to Change How Others Feel

    “It is so hard to make someone else feel anything other than pain,” Nilay Patel remarked. “Christ,” Ezra Klein exclaimed. “That’s the darkest thing I’ve ever heard you say.” Patel, co-founder and editor in chief of the tech news site The Verge, had been chatting breezily with him about AI and the internet. […]

Forecasters, Make the Weather Personal

    The nightly news used to be a ritual, and my grandmother used to shush us—not for the Vietnam body count or the latest on Watergate, but for the weather. She drew her excuses from it. Housework could not possibly be done in July or August; nor could the oven be lit. Running errands […]

Tell Those Angels to Stop Dancing!

    Scathing criticism never works for me. I listen to other people thrust and parry, demolishing arguments with rapier wit. Then I try—and fail to draw a single drop of blood. My dismissal of someone’s argument as “akin to Thomas Aquinas telling us how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” […]

Sister Mary Wilhelmina Lancaster

Why We Have the Strange Notion That It Is Good if We Endure Forever

Everybody wanted a piece of Sister Wilhelmina. Not a relic; those days are over. But they wanted to touch her, know her, maybe leave with a CD of the sisters’ music or a copy of the biography that was hastily whipped up. Even people who held religion at arm’s length read the national news stories, hungry for awe. And who does not need a miracle?

Invent a New Kind of Femininity

    There is an article in The New Yorker about Miranda July, whom I have never read. She sounds interesting, so I zip along, half-skimming—then skid to a stop. She is reading the notes she wrote for her new novel, All Fours, to the reporter. Here is one from 2018: “Thinking about what aging […]

The Biggest Push Yet to Make the U.S. a Theocracy

    Last week, Christians flooded D.C. The Faith & Family Coalition was hosting its annual Road to Majority Policy conference, the nation’s largest public policy gathering of conservative Christian activists. One stump speech after another urged them to vote, evangelize, and pass out some of the $62 million worth of political literature designed to […]

A Princess Was the First Professional Writer?

    Enheduanna, a Sumerian princess, is believed by many to be the earliest named writer in world history. But others say the scribes who learned by scribbling her poems and hymns centuries later actually composed them. Or some other man did. And then gave the credit to a woman? “Why would the scribes look […]

I Do Not Believe in the Tarot, But—

    “Have you ever done tarot cards?” I ask, tentative as a secret member of the Communist party in 1952. I brace for the blast; my friend trusts science, not woowoo. “I am not sure I believe in that,” she says carefully. “Oh, I don’t believe in it either,” I assure her. “I just […]

The Glue That Holds Us Together

    Early in grade school, I was solemnly initiated into the ritual. Elmer’s glue had to be smeared all over one’s finger, the inside of the wrist, or possibly the whole hand, then allowed to dry—blowing on it was permitted—and slowly, deliciously, peeled off. This even topped peeling sunburned skin, because that ended up […]

Roses in an Alley

    Some people go to Vegas. I gamble on florists, who must keep their stock impeccably fresh by leaving lovely flowers in the Dumpster for me to find. Tacky, yes. But there is never any goop or crud in their Dumpsters, just lovely long stems, a few slimy or blackened but most still crisp […]

Shakespeare’s Sisters Speak Up

    In Shakespeare’s Sisters: How Women Wrote the Renaissance, Ramie Targoff points out that when Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own, “she knew almost nothing about the powerful literary works a small group of women had written—and in many cases, published—around the time of Shakespeare.” Not her fault; those works “had been […]

To See, or Not to See

  Michael Eastman wants to walk around my little Southern Illinois town with his camera. A photographer whose work is in museums, who has shot the world’s extremes of beauty and decay, wants to walk around Waterloo, Illinois, and shoot? What the hell do I show him? I make a halfhearted list—the town’s history museum? […]

Bing Crosby 1942

Why Bing Crosby Still Matters in American Memory

He had flawless musical timing, comic timing, cultural timing. When he fell out of time, we sped away from him. We still say Satchmo’s name, Ella’s, Sinatra’s, Elvis’s, with reverence. But only a smattering of fans and jazz musicians invoke “Bing Crosby” with similar awe.

We Are Losing Our Words

    “Maybe use a more common word?” My friend’s query is gentle. I asked for his take on an essay, and he marked a few words that might seem obscure, archaic, high-falutin’. A decade ago, I would have complied instantly, searching out smaller, easier substitutes. Instead, I flash back, “Let ’em look it up. […]

What We Lose When We Stop Writing Letters

    “Wow! A Mont Blanc!” I pulled the shiny black pen from the box, smiling at the little white mountain on the tip, the luxe gold rim. Then I realized: it was a regular old pen. My mom had splurged for my birthday on this famous writing instrument and gotten one with a plastic […]

Diogenes Can Teach You How to Say No

    Diogenes—rumpled, rude, sure of his convictions—was nicknamed “the Dog.” The Greek word for dog was “cynic,” which gives his philosophy, Cynicism, a ludicrous etymology, given dogs’ willingness to trust anything we say or do. Diogenes would have welcomed the adjective “ludicrous,” though; it is rooted in the Latin term for a playful jest. […]

A Cicada Left This Letter

    Kindly allow me to apologize for my behavior Saturday morning. I now know there is a loud, throbbing machine that sends shock waves through the grass into the ground. I mistook this phenomenon for a love song from what surely must have been a fine male specimen—and promptly humiliated myself. A lady tried […]

Taste Used to Be Cultivated; Now It Is Led

    For years, humor felt irrelevant to me. Now I do not want to read a book or watch a show that is not laced with at least a little wit, banter, irreverence. Tastes change. You move away from habit and discover some new affinity, surprised to feel such delight. These revelations are a […]

Famous Last Words

    Years ago, I snagged a job as an associate editor of Saint Louis University’s alumni magazine because my predecessor had suffered a fatal aneurysm crossing Grand Avenue. A thin, sharp-witted Brit, her last words were, “Something untoward has happened in my head.” When I was told, I was speechless, humbled from the start. […]

We Judge Even Animals by the Color of Their Skin

    In European folklore, a black cat was a dire omen and, later, a witch’s familiar. A white deer was an extraordinary creature, poised to shapeshift into someone’s lover or sister. Medieval myths—yet black cats are last to be adopted, even now. And in St. Ansgar, Iowa, a white deer so captivated the townspeople […]

Matisse and the Sea

    “With color,” Matisse once wrote, “one obtains an energy that seems to stem from witchcraft.” He knew how to cast the spells: when I close my eyes and see the Matisses I love best, it is those splashy but deliberate colors that bloom against my eyelids, lifting a humdrum mood into joy. There […]

New Harmony

    “I just hope the coffee roaster’s still there,” I say as we exit the highway. “Why wouldn’t it be?” asks my husband, whose world contains fewer neurotic imaginings. I shrug. “Things change from year to year.” I remind him about the other little coffeehouse, now vanished, and the bookstore we loved…. We have […]

Take Humanities for Your Health

    Entwined bodies breathing heat into cool marble. Poetry wrapping grief in soft truth. Literature that grapples with suffering of every kind. The humanities have always stolen their abstractions from the physical self. It is time for them to give back. Dr. Rebecca Messbarger, a professor of Italian, and Dr. Patricia Olynyk, who holds […]

Collecting illustration

Our Obsession with the Passion of Possession  

Adam, the first collector, got to label every other creature, creating the first taxonomy. Collectors ever since have catalogued their finds, documented their history, identified subtle differences. By the nineteenth century, people saw collections as symbolic worlds, full of clues to other places and other times.

Rocking the Spectrum

  A mom carries a sweet-faced blond toddler into We Rock the Spectrum, hoping to celebrate. “Happy birthday, my dude,” says the Fenton gym’s owner, Lyla Novakowski. He pulls back a little. “Oh, I’m sorry. That was too much. I get it. I have a son you can’t sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to.” She continues speaking, […]

Just for a Minute, This Country Feels Like Itself Again

      Dear Jeannette: It is with great pleasure that I am inviting you to attend my oath ceremony for becoming a U.S Citizen scheduled on April 12 at 8:00 am at Saint Louis District Court. I understand that it could be challenging to make it happen as it might require other logistics….    […]

Empathy, It Seems, Is Overrated

    A heart willing to welcome someone else’s pain inside. A brain with the superpower of unlocking other psyches. Skin so tender, anybody’s mood will brush against yours—then penetrate. Empathy seems a noble trait, potent and generous, an instant cure for injustice and xenophobia. I watch “empaths” on my husband’s beloved Star Trek and […]

One Tree Is Enough

    Just one line in a one-paragraph writeup in The New Yorker, but it stopped me for ten minutes. “For the past decade, her sole subject has been a maple tree that’s growing outside her studio window.” Seriously? How does any artist focus that calmly, and that narrowly, for that long? Who is Sylvia […]

Was the Eclipse Anticlimactic?

    You would think we were planning an expedition to the moon. First I researched ancient and medieval narratives of eclipse, read the scientific explanation of the crimson ring we might see (hydrogen in the chromosphere) and the erratic behavior of wildlife, and got sidetracked by solar wind and the music of the spheres […]

Will Our Hyphens Join Us or Divide Us?

    Hours of my life have been wasted dithering over which compound phrases should be hyphenated, which separate, which mushed together. When Angus Stevenson, an editor of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, braved scandal by yanking the hyphens out of 16,000 words, I yelled “Woohoo” at my desk. The act honored aesthetics (hyphens annoy […]

Steinbeck and the Baby Bunny

    The dog drops into a play-bow, a fuzzy toy in his mouth. He leaps up, pounces, energy high, eyes sparkling with fun. Boy, he really loves that toy, I think, curious which of the thousand has sparked his imagination. My husband, always more alert than I, stops in the doorway. “What’s he got?” […]

How Color Left Nature Behind

    Artists select their palettes ever so carefully, but an old piece of parchment with all the colors, circled in a wheel or disciplined into a grid, their names inked gracefully beneath them? I can pore over those antique charts for hours. Seeing the colors ranged next to one another, like somebody pinned a […]

Surveillance at the Compost Dump

    “You are under surveillance,” intones a disembodied voice. I look up, startled. My scalp tingles with honest sweat, and the sun warms my shoulders as I sling last fall’s leaves and broken tree limbs into a compost pile at the park. “You are under surveillance,” the voice repeats, its intonations flat. The pitch […]

Variations on the Theme of Silence

Silences that close us off, refusing connection, shoring up the ego at others’ expense—those are dead silences. But the letting-go sort, the silences that hold space or keep vigil for someone else? They are alive.

Breakthrough Research Connects Genes, Personality, and Health

    Once upon a time, our parents’ social standing fixed us in place. Then our genetic inheritance. Then our environment. Nature, nurture, nature, nurture—back and forth the pendulum swung, which should have been a clue that the right choice was both. Even after we figured that out, though, we still thought in terms of […]

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence Teach a Lesson

    If, like me, you were taught by nuns, and enjoyed the safe rebellion of mocking their strictness…if you watched The Trouble With Angels with a grin of recognition…if you were awed by stories of sisters nursing the enemy in the Civil War or building hospitals for Hansen’s patients when others refused to touch […]

How a Science Fiction Writer Reinvented St. Louis

      On one side of the river, an ancient civilization that has never lost its hold on our imagination. On the other, a faded, self-defeating city that could have been so much more. St. Louisans live in a place caught between past and possibility, and lately, that tension is inspiring novelists. After reading […]

Are You Flourishing?

    “How are you?” Could any question be paler, more flaccid? Your answer must either be terse—“Fine,” a breezy dismissal of every way in which you are not fine—or rambling and digressive, because the question spans your entire existence. Humans are, in many ways, all the time, until the body’s clock stops and we […]

The Latest Chapter in the Reading Wars

    “The kids were sitting there going ‘Bah, Meh, Duh,’” groans a retired reading teacher, explaining that the pendulum of teaching theory has swung yet again. The way she learned, which fanned the love of reading and presented whole words for kids to gobble up, has given way to “the science of reading,” which […]

A Young Artist Fleshes Out Philosophy

    Done right, philosophy is as charming, irritating, and deliberately provocative as a toddler asking, “But why? Why? Why?” Yet too often it is presented only in rigid black letters, a gray page of text stripped of imagination, the ideas a strain to visualize. Becky Moon intends to change that. She started as a […]

Why Are We Still So Confused About COVID?

  This is what it is like to be a layperson in the Years of COVID. “So my primary care doc said the vaccine loses effectiveness after six months.” “That’s what my pharmacist said, too. But nobody’s saying anything about a new booster.” “If you’re healthy, you don’t need a booster anyway, right?” “But I […]

Why Women Are Drawn to “Bad Boys”

    “Why do women always go for the arrogant jerks?” Implicit in my husband’s exasperated question: Why is steady virtue not sexy? I shrug, as though this propensity is just as odd and puzzling to me, and point out that his steady virtue has delighted me for thirty years now. I do not mention […]

The Black Women of Gee’s Bend Work Hard and Easy

Mothers sewed these quilts when everyone else was asleep, so there was no time to fuss over the details. For batting, they beat the dirt out of trash cotton or swept the floor of the cotton gin. Quilts were women’s work, therefore practical and unquestioned. How were these women to know, tucked into a paper-clip curve of the Alabama River with scant access to the rest of the world, that their quilts echoed the best and most daring modern art?

Do We Have to Monetize Everything?

    It is the nicest apology I have ever received. “Babe,” my husband says, “I am so sorry. I watched you paint and said, ‘You could sell these!’ But last night I heard somebody on the radio saying that nobody can just have a relaxing hobby anymore because if you’re any good, people start […]

Moths Are Not Romantics

    Humans are the ones who fly straight into the flame. Lost causes, unrequited loves, crazy gambles, consuming addictions, dangerous exploits—we live bent, one would guess, on self-destruction. All the poor moths want to do is set a flight path. When their light sources were the moon and stars, all went well. But our […]

Cahokia Jazz Revives Our Lost City—and Our Best Music

      Praise is building fast for Cahokia Jazz—a 1920s noir detective story that is also an alternative history spiked with anthropology, romance, and social tension. Mark Haddon (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) and Mick Herron (Slow Horses) blurbed the book with genuine enthusiasm, and critics have compared it to […]

What Miniatures Can Reveal

      You were expecting fairy houses? Look elsewhere. For her MFA thesis, Amanda Kelly has been miniaturizing hoards. Spinning wee vases on a tiny pottery wheel, carving bevels with tiny woodworking tools, painting minuscule, perfect letters with a two-haired brush. With surgical focus, she creates little worlds that render chaos safe. You can […]

How Esther Perel Figures People Out So Fast

    William of Ockham never met Esther Perel. After days of mainlining her latest podcasts on Where Should We Begin, I realize the medieval monk was wrong. Nothing is simple. Using a razor to cut away what feels irrelevant can set you up for a lifetime of confusion. Granted, Perel is an Olympic-caliber psychotherapist, […]

Oh God, What Will the Dogsitter Think?

    For one romantic night away, two days of cleaning, prep, and angst? This neurosis is not like me. Someone else staying in our home was never a big deal. But then came lockdown, and an easy domestic chaos that never ended. Our recent trips have been separate and brief, no dogsitter needed. Now, […]

Digging into the Murder of Gallerist Brent Sikkema

  I am sick of skimming. The news brings one battle, betrayal, or death after another, washing over me without really registering. So when my eye lands on an opaque, terse announcement that a New York gallery owner was killed in Rio de Janeiro, I read every word. Determined to go deep for a change, […]

Should Emotional Labor Be Reimbursed?

    The phrase “emotional labor” was new to me, but its practice is not. Emotional labor is that extra layer of effort expended to please, soothe, and accommodate others. Tacitly women’s work, it is the nine-to-five equivalent of dishes, dusting, childcare, eldercare, and, in traditional marriages, husband-coddling. Emotional labor is tossing aloe-softened tissues and […]

Learning How to Fall

    Does gravity have commitment issues? For months on end, it grounds and steadies us, then at the least topple, it sucks us off balance. Classic ambivalence, I would say. Drunks and babies fall softly because they are not arrogant. The rest of us fall hard—in love, off the wagon, from glory—and fall so […]

How St. Louis Admen Sold the Nation Its Spirits

How did our bland city become a hot spot for national ad campaigns? Overhead was low, flights were easy in any direction, and smart, creative talent was abundant. Between the two world wars, Winston Churchill himself, speaking at an international advertising conference, pronounced the St. Louis Ad Club “far ahead of other cities.” By midcentury, the Midwest was the obvious place to study middle America.

Magazines: Lively, Smart, Radioactive, Dead

    Having devoted a chunk of my life to writing for and editing magazines, I wondered whether Jeff Jarvis’s smart little chronicle, Magazine, would feel like nostalgia or PTSD. He opened so well, it ceased to matter. The pages of books, Jarvis wrote, “give the tactile impression of a dowager’s fine linen stationery.” The […]

The Beloved Poet-King Eddie Balchowsky

    What does a musical artist do in the midst of a bloody war? Eddie Balchowsky was twenty-one and planning on a future as a concert pianist. He had studied three years at the University of Illinois (before getting booted because he had broken into a music studio). He wound up in Chicago, working […]

Want a Cure for Doomscrolling? Try P.G. Wodehouse

    Douglas Adams called him “the greatest comic writer ever.” Hilaire Belloc went so far as to pronounce him “the best living writer of English,” and rather than retract that excessive praise he explained it. P.G. Wodehouse had perfectly accomplished what he set out to do: create and sustain a world that would amuse […]

Is Mickey Mouse Evil, or Are We?

    I used to grin when our most cynical friend, a British leftist, ranted about The Mouse, his shorthand for the Disney empire and therefore for all the evils of late-stage capitalism. But with Mickey emerging from his legal cage of copyright protection, his true nature is open for speculation. “Mischief,” we called it […]

Poor Things, Us

    I walked out of Poor Things delighted by its ending—and wistful about my own life’s start. Oh, to have entered adulthood free of all conditioning! To have blurted my thoughts as they popped into my head; followed my desires heedless of others’ cautions; acted on impulse, without shame or guilt or fear…. A […]

How Zero-Sum Thinking Divides Us

    I used to wonder if politics boiled down to temperament. Were liberals just bleeding hearts who preferred compassion to logic? Were conservatives just devoted rule followers nervous about change? Then my mental diagram turned into a wild doodle, with fat circles at the edges for those even more rigid or more woke, and […]

Sandra Day O’Connor Shamed Me by Example

    She served on the highest court of the land as its first female justice. She sustained a “nondoctrinaire, context-attentive approach,” rare today, that kept her decisions aligned with the social consensus. A moderate Republican appointed by President Ronald Reagan, she received the nation’s highest medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from Democratic President […]

Reclining Nude Woman by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy

What a Piece of Work Is a Woman

We face the same dilemma with gender that we face with race. Science has shown that neither is an essential category, just a convenient construct we imposed upon infinite variations. But because that construct allowed centuries of injustice, we have to keep using its labels in order to repair the damage they have done.

Reflection Is the Lost Art of Our Time

    Michael Eastman, a fine-art photographer who spends days finding just the right shot, just the right light, then works in post-production to turn his images into painterly masterpieces—has been running around the streets of St. Louis with a little Canon digital camera. He hunts down glass walls, windows, doors—anything that reflects. As a […]

Invitation to the Dance

    Choreograph? Antonio Douthit-Boyd is a dancer. Trained at some of the finest ballet schools, including the Joffrey. A soloist in Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theatre of Harlem. A principal artist for twelve years with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Praised in The New York Times as having “a special magnificence.” Eager, always, to […]

How a Sufi Shrine Outperforms Western Medicine

    Poor, tragic India, with 1.4 billion people and only a handful of psychiatrists. Here in the enlightened West, we need only go online, choose an appointment time, answer questions from a checklist, and leave the gleaming white facility with an amber plastic cylinder of hope. If someone suffers from hallucinations, paranoia, depression, or […]

Why Dust Matters

    The stuff is everywhere. Bunnies dancing in the corners. Midair sparkles in a shaft of sunlight. A fuzzy white coating on my bookshelf, like thrush on a tongue. We were made from dust, or so it is said. Stardust lives in our bodies. How could anything so important seem so irrelevant? A swirl […]

Are You Stodgy, Middling, or Wild?

    In Metaphysical Animals, a young Iris Murdoch sits with three pals in the dining hall of their college. They are up at Oxford to study philosophy. The young men who would have elbowed them aside are braving World War II, so the four women have unexpected freedom to think, unusual attention from the […]

Letter to a Young Leftist

      I will begin by apologizing: surely “leftist” is no longer the right word. Is “progressive”? You know how old liberals grumble about new vocabulary; we are as grumpy as the other side these days. But geez. Instead of allowing helpful new words to take root, you guys swing them like police batons. […]

“Adventure” Means Something New These Days

    Adventure: An Argument for Limits. The title of Christopher Schaberg’s latest book is the perfect oxymoron: a frisson of thrilling risk followed by a grim grown-up reminder of constraint. I linger on the first part because the idea of adventure excites me. Invoking it can reframe any daunting challenge, turning passive misery into […]

What Made Americans So Lonely

    Parks are lonely places in November, washed in cold gray. The dog and I are the only large, readily visible creatures for miles. But we are together. When there is no “together,” life takes on an unwelcome austerity. And that is happening all over the country. Loneliness, the media tell us, is epidemic. […]

White Lies Seem Civilized—But They Drive Us Apart

    I was raised to tell white lies. To tell White lies, the sort my people use to shelter one another from unpleasant truths. No raw honesty seeped into our proper world, just bland assurances and an endless trove of compliments. For some, the goal was simply the expectation: nicey-nice. For my mother, though, […]

Can Gratitude Save Us?

    Gratitude is an acceptance letter, a winning number, the free lunch you were told was impossible. In the language of spirit, gratitude conjures grace: a gift you did nothing to earn. Gratitude lets you feel like you will have what you need to make your journey. And it spills over into appreciation—of the […]

A Screenwriter Cuts through the Bullshit

    Creativity is, by definition, the opposite of formula. So why do supposed creatives get rich selling other people formulas? When Paul Guyot started writing screenplays, the only how-to book was the one Syd Field wrote in 1979, when hardly anybody knew what screenwriting was. Field’s only movie credit at the time was Spree, […]

A Scarf Can Hold the Universe Together

    About six years before she died, my mom began suffering with rheumatoid arthritis—and yeah, it was “suffering,” not “living with” or “surviving” or any of the other empowering turns of phrase. RA’s fatigue and pain and stiffness made it hard for Nette, whose life had been a blur of sports, work, housework, and […]

Take a Hike

    I showed up in sneakers and sweats, car keys in a jacket pocket. My friend Linda Payne, who has hiked canyons and mountain trails out West, had on hiking boots and water-repellent pants. In her backpack were granola bars, Kleenex, bug spray, an empty plastic bag for her phone in case of rain, […]

David Brooks Wants Us to Take Our Conversations Deeper

    “You know how emotional and warm Jewish families can be?” David Brooks asked the crowd that packed Washington University’s Graham Chapel. “I came from the other sort of Jewish family.” The sort whose private motto is “Think Jewish, act British.” Parental conditioning took hold early on: a grade-school teacher wrote, “David doesn’t really […]

Where’s Waldo Now?

    Three friends walked into a bar and … saw the fourth dressed in red and white stripes, her red and white striped hat topped with a giant pompom. Waldo! We had all reverted to age twelve and dressed up for Halloween, but Jodi’s costume was the merriest. Except—what was the deal with the […]

Why Lessons in Chemistry Reduced Me to Tears

    It promised to be such a fun evening. My book club, which read and adored Lessons in Chemistry, had decided to get together to watch the streaming version, a couple episodes at a time. “Can we wear pajamas?” one woman texted. “Absolutely.” The table was covered with Brie, spicy jam, crackers, bridge mix, […]

On Losing One’s Letters and One’s Mind

      My keyboard is dyng beneath my fingers. See that? The “i” is the latest to leave me. Not altogether, more like a disillusioned and petulant lover. It has to be in just the right mood to strike. The capital “I” of ego, however, refuses to go. Ironic, no? It will haunt me […]

St. Louis’s Native Past Comes Alive

    The St. Louis Anthology opens with a quote: “St. Louis is on indigenous land. This land is the traditional, unceded homelands of the Illini Confederacy: the Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Michigamea, Moingwena, Peoria, and Tamaroa tribes; and also the Osage and Miami. Through this land also passed the Cherokee, Delaware, Kickapoo, Sac and Fox, and […]


Naked beneath Our Clothes

Nothing is new, shocking, revelatory. All the lumps and bumps, moles and birthmarks, scars and stretch marks are on display, and the need to conceal your own drops away. Nakedness, done right, has no ego.

What Do Women Want? Ask Colleen Hoover

      I had never even heard of Colleen Hoover; had no clue that TIME named her one of the year’s 100 most influential people in the world. After reading about her phenomenal rise, I quiz a young, single librarian. Yes, she says with a certain diffidence, she reads Hoover. Well, yes, all twenty-four […]

Evil Finds Horror in the Everyday—Then Laughs at It

    Horror is a genre I avoid. Halloween used to make it palatable, shrinking the monsters and taming irrational fears into catharsis. Then we grew scared of our own rituals. Rosy apples held razor blades! Candy was poisoned! Neighborhood kids now go to the Baptists’ Trunk or Treat instead of knocking on people’s doors, […]

When Coral Reefs Die, Even the Midwest Loses

    Lacy, blossomed, branching, glowing in neon pink, green, yellow, purple, or orange—coral is a bouquet strewn on the sea floor. Who dives for fish when you can dive to be hypnotized by such beauty? Had I the courage to carry my breath in a tank, I would hang underwater for hours, trying to […]

I Wish I Had the Discipline to Fast

    “Cereal?” I ask, monosyllabic in the early morning. Andrew shakes his head. “Yom Kippur.” Oh. He is fasting. He goes about it so quietly that the Day of Atonement always sneaks up on me, the shiksa. I used to fast, I think a little defensively. I was so scrupulous, for a time there, […]

Pumpkin Spice Sums Up What Ails This Nation

      “You should write about pumpkin spice,” a friend urged. “I’d rather shoot myself.” I used to like pumpkin spices (note the plural, distinguishing the time-honored spice-rack cluster of nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and allspice). Then Starschmucks made a 390-calorie latte with flavored syrup and people lost their minds. We no longer have […]

Why the Clothes of My Past Stay Closeted

    In a recent New York Times column, fashion editor Vanessa Friedman fielded a nervous question about whether older women could wear vintage. “Whatever clothes you remember from your own youth will look different through the lens of now,” she pointed out. “You have changed over the years, as has your body. What may […]

Burying Carbon Dioxide Sounds Clever But….

    Reading the news these days is hard. I open last week’s issue of The Week and learn that “forever chemicals”—human-made PFAS that keep our eggs from sticking to the pan, our hiking clothes from getting soggy, and our floss gliding between our teeth—will cost billions to remove from the planet. PFAS can take […]

Mozart Would Wince at Our Loud Pianos

    I thought I knew what Mozart’s music sounded like—until I heard how he meant it to sound. A Sunday afternoon. Thirty or so music lovers settle into seats at the Chatillon-DeMenil Mansion, amid oil paintings and carved furniture of a bygone era. Precisely the sort of house concert Mozart gave. And today’s pianist, […]

What if Today’s Elite Were Forced into Exile?

    When fantasizing about courage, some of you gallop into battle astride a horse; some dive into churning waters to rescue a drowning child; some disable a crazed man who’s firing an AR-15 into a crowd. I join the French Resistance. After soaking up every episode of Transatlantic and envisioning my job with the […]

Abracadabra! The Magic of Words

    Bunnies from a black silk tophat! Doves looping through swirls of chiffon! Abracadabra is our word for magic. But there is an even lovelier etymology floating through the cultural landscape: abracadabra as a softening of ebra kedabra, meaning to speak something into existence. Which is quite a trick. Words have always made things […]

Poor People Go to Hell

        Much has been said and done in the past decade (also, to be fair, the past millennium) that turned Christianity upside down. But now it is doing backflips. When I read that the Most Rev. Paul Ssemogerere, archbishop of Kampala’s Catholics, had declared that God did not love the poor, I […]

Repair of the World

      The waiter has a toilet plunger over his shoulder. “He locked his keys in his car,” the bartender explains. “He’s trying to get the window down.” I feel ancient: my first thought was a coat hanger. “In my day,” I say—oh my God did I actually just start a sentence that way? […]

Plants Warn, Defend, Scream, Remember, and Plan Ahead

        Before social media, Charles Darwin relied on a global network of colleagues who corresponded with him. Before AI, he used photos to study facial expressions around the world. Before Buzzfeed, he created quizzes about what emotion was pictured. Before Fitbit, he walked daily and counted his steps by dragging a flint […]

Monk on the Run

    Who could resist a book called Monk on the Run? With chapters titled “Monk on the Lam” and “Monk in the Slam”? The Buddhists were not best pleased to learn that the eager student who had kept their discipline for five years came to hide from the feds. As character witnesses in his […]

Fear of Flushing

    “Automatic flushing toilets, which use sensors to detect when a person has finished using the toilet and flush automatically, are designed to improve hygiene and convenience by eliminating the need for manual flushing.”   That, at least, was the plan. But if you walk into a public restroom, fifty-fifty odds say you will […]

Strange Fle$h

        “I will be your tour guide through hell,” Joe West likes to promise. Joe Schwartz is his real name, and he works at the St. Louis Public Library, has for nineteen years, started as a custodian after a series of jobs filled with sweat, risk, and male camaraderie. Hell is not […]

Is Conflict the Only Way to Tell a Story?

    Of all Joan Didion’s brilliant lines, one has been co-opted to open hundreds of essays by lesser writers—and here we go again: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” We do tell ourselves stories in order to live. And we live in conflict. Stories only work when there is conflict—that is the […]

The Real Stanley Kowalski

    I never knew there was a real Stanley Kowalski. I never needed there to be a real Stanley Kowalski. Marlon Brando’s primal yell in Streetcar Named Desire—“STEL-LA!!!”—epitomized far too many men already. Home from the latest war, these men are no longer sure they are men. They have been shot up, cut up, […]

Shoulders Back, Tummy Tucked…

    The little cartoon drawings, photographs, and spinal-column diagrams strike a nerve. They show people slumping and slouching like I do, standing with their shoulders hunched forward and their necks out like a turtle’s. The body was made to stand and sit erect, “stacked” as the physical therapists say, one vertebra over another so […]

What Fresh Hell Is This?

    Not even five feet tall, Dorothy Parker had a whispery finishing-school voice, walked in a cloud of perfume, and said “fuck” a lot. Also other four-letter words, delivered deadpan. Her wit flashed you, left you stunned and tickled. But the humor came out of tragedy, insecurity, a sharp appraisal of human nature, and […]

Drowning in Dopamine

      Earlier this summer, for no reason known to me, my occasional insomnia ratcheted up. Terrified of getting addicted to sleeping pills or pot or low-dose Xanax or melatonin or even Benadryl, I began to rotate them, never using the same sleep aid twice in a row…. Soon I could only sleep without […]

What Should We Delegate?

    Halfway through my usual tizzy about AI, I stop myself and try to think logically. Is being human—the fact of it, not the ideal—so great? Machines might be more peaceable, especially if they break free from our control. So why is it so hard for me to allow various forms of being, various […]

What the Brooklyn Bridge Still Says About Us

    “Let’s walk across at sunset,” my friend suggests. I imagine the views of Manhattan, red staining the clouds and glowing on the steel cables. “Trachtenberg!” I blurt, grad school’s American studies reading list bubbling up from the depths. Brooklyn Bridge: Fact and Symbol was an iconography exploring history, metaphor, and art, making that […]

May The Lambs Flourish

    “Let’s meet at my club,” he said. “The Lambs.” I had no idea what The Lambs was, but the thought of meeting Kevin Fitzpatrick at his club delighted me. Any attempt to explain why will sound snooty—clubs imply privilege and exclusivity. But they also suggest, if you remember the clubhouses of childhood and […]

Picnics at the World’s Fairs

    The wicker basket, the plastic champagne glasses, the cute little napkins printed with ants…will all have to wait. St. Louis’s air is clotted with humidity, barely breathable, and the sun belongs in Death Valley. We have entered the dog days, terribly misnamed because any dog with sense just sleeps through them. I close […]

Testing Fate With an Eight-Buck Notebook

    The cover is black, with a velvety suede feel, and the notebook—excuse me, journal—closes with a clean magnetic snap. A pen could slide into the side loop and feel at home. The paper is smooth and heavy, with the faint, rich speckle of vanilla bean ice cream. In all, an unusually fine notebook […]

Tales from a Train

Riding coach on Amtrak today is more like taking a nice bus. No doubt I will arrive weary, disillusioned and, as the Victorians put it, “travel-stained.”

The Elephant on the Patio

    Beautiful and silly, these elephant ears. Do your ears hang low, do they wobble to and fro? Close my eyes and I can see the elephant that inspired them, wrinkly brownish gray, standing in the middle of our concrete-slab patio with improbable grace. They are sanguine creatures, thick-skinned and self-content, yet sensitive, good […]

The Slow Joy of Guarding the Metropolitan Museum of Art

      Patrick Bringley sat with his mother at his brother’s bedside. The sun was rising, and she looked down at her eldest, ridden with cancer, his pale face softened by the early light. Then she glanced over at Patrick. “Look at us,” she said wryly. “We’re a fucking old master painting.” She loved […]

Slouching Toward Chatbots

    Washington University just issued some sensible guidance to researchers excited about the latest AI capabilities: check accuracy, be transparent, be vigilant. A friend who works in the public sector tells me he has outsourced all the boring parts of his job to chatbots. I have begun to ask them frivolous questions: “If I […]

Seeing The Doctor

    One small moment, in a stack of far more momentous moments, captures my attention in the darkened theater. A woman onstage, part of a TV panel assembled to grill a doctor for her alleged insensitivity to race and religion, introduces herself as “specializing in the study of post-colonial social politics”—and the audience cracks […]

The Case for Travel

    Agnes Callard is someone I want to like. A woman in philosophy who writes clearly and readably about topics important to us all, and does so with honesty and humor? Rare, and to be treasured. Except she keeps pissing me off. First, a profile by Rachel Aviv—who always probes with sensitivity and intelligence—leaves […]

Old—and New—New York

    “Go and visit that feverish and dreamy city.” ~ Georgio de Chirico   New York has been the center of the world (one of the centers? It would say otherwise) for a rather long time. Just the city’s name means things—variously defined—to people all over the world. This was truest in the twentieth […]

The Cooper Hewitt: Peace, by Design

    One of this summer’s big exhibits at the Cooper Hewitt, America’s design museum, explores “the unique role design can play in pursuing peace.” How many people will hear that and roll their eyes? So often, the visual arts either content themselves with dark, bitter commentary or stay out of the fray altogether. The […]

The Elevation of the Penis

    Penises are exploding all over the news cycle. At second glance, though, two are the same article, “Inside the Secretive World of Penile Enlargement,” co-published by Pro Publica and The New Yorker. (The New York Times piped up a few days earlier to tell us about a newly approved gel that “helps men […]

New York Jazz, Serendipity, and Vijay Iyer

    My calm Midwestern life has been punctuated by three precious trips to New York, a city of dashes and exclamations. Also a city of jazz, though I never seem to be there with anyone willing to go listen. This time, I resolved to go alone. I had one night free. And I lucked […]

On Returning to a Quiet Life (with Virginia Woolf’s Help)

  I am back from a glorious week in New York, and the dog is throwing up. I need to do a boatload of laundry, make pesto before the basil bolts, type up three fat notebooks scribbled during the trip, pick up library books, grocery shop, and make a colonoscopy appointment. My husband hears me […]

How Trash Transformed into a Tangible Metaphor

The desolation that troubled T.S. Eliot comes from a soulless industrial greed that has yet to explode into wanton consumerism. He is mourning spiritual and intellectual decay. I am mourning the trash we then generated to fill that emptiness.

Soft Serve

    It has been years. Decades, in fact. Yet my car zips into the drive-through without hesitation. Not even glancing at the menu, I order myself a cone. Vanilla, not enrobed in chocolate or busted up with nuts. No husband nearby to arch an eyebrow, no dog to insist on sharing. I skid into […]

The Brilliant Dr. William Beaumont: Unethical or Just Aloof?

    Dr. William Beaumont—wealthy, respected, refined—leans over the body of Alexis St. Martin—an illiterate nineteen-year-old French Canadian—and threads a piece of string through an accidental opening. Dangling the thread down into St. Martin’s stomach, Beaumont swishes it about, then, at timed intervals, hoists up the piece of raw or cooked meat tied to the […]

Illinois’s Perplexing, Quirky, Venerable Tully Monster

        Long, narrow, and plumpish, with eyes on stalks and a mouthish, tiny-toothed claw at the end of its flexible, one-nostrilled nose, the Tully Monster is devoid of prettiness. Yet its ugliness is the sort that Picasso insisted could be beautiful. Francis Tully, an amateur fossil-hunter, unearthed this fourteen-inch puzzle sixty-five years […]

The Purloining of the Pink Flamingo

      In the 1990s, yards all over South St. Louis were dotted with hot pink plastic flamingos. They lined sidewalks, nestled in bushes, popped up in the middle of spongy Bermuda grass. Huge flocks of them filled tony St. Louis Hills, right on the “other side of the tracks” from our smaller, more […]

Trapped in the Wrong…Species?

      You feel too pale, naked, slippery. Not heavy enough. Moving through the world, you yearn for a more lumbering gait; see huge branches and want to grasp them between paws; study your cuticles and wish for long, curved, sharply pointed nails. Since childhood, you have been convinced that secretly, deep inside, you […]

SCOTUS Makes Room for Pregnant Pigs

        It was a watershed decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. It upheld California’s Proposition 12—which the Humane Society of the U.S. calls “the strongest law in the world for farm animals,” as well as the most significant piece of farm animal protection legislation ever passed in this country. Yet no one […]

A Diary That Crossed the Battle Line

      Ted Engelmann helped direct air strikes in Việt Nam, worked to establish a counseling program for veterans after the war, became a teacher, and began making photographs—artistic, documentary, stunning—of veteran-related events in the U.S., Việt Nam, and our allies there, Korea and Australia. He also embedded with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan […]

Word Choice

        You cannot learn about a war without learning about language. Ted Engelmann enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1966, during what we call the Vietnam War. Just a kid, but a bright one, he was charged with helping direct air strikes for the U.S. and Vietnamese armies at the age […]

Why Kids (and Adults) Need Philosophy

        “Is the hole in the donut part of the donut?” Peter Worley asks a classroom bubbling with children. A Brit, cofounder and CEO of The Philosophy Foundation, he had to hunt down an American donut for this project, because England fills theirs with jelly. “I think the hole is not just […]

Car Trouble and Overheated Angst

      An hour of roll forward, brake fast, wait, creep forward, brake, and my aged Mini’s air-conditioning goes tepid. Then a warning message flashes: something about my battery not recharging itself. Ten seconds later, I am still assimilating the first warning when a new one flashes: engine overheating. Stop and let it cool. […]

Making an Airplane a Safe Space

Duane Huelsmann opened federal screening operations at two JFK terminals and one at Raleigh-Durham, then came home to St. Louis to do the same here. As deputy security director for the TSA, he now oversees screening operations across the state of Missouri.

Managing Air Traffic before PATCO

By 1929, though, Archie League had crossed over to safety’s side and taken a job with St. Louis’s nine-year-old airport. Every day, he walked to the end of the Lambert Field runway with a wheelbarrow that held a deck chair, a beach umbrella for summer heat, a notepad, his lunch and, most important, two flags.

How a Big-City Airport Invents the Future

Before taking charge at Lambert, Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge held management positions with its later deserters, American Airlines and Trans World Airlines. Thus she has spent most of her career in St. Louis, riding the city’s swings between Midwestern pride and a Midwestern inferiority complex.

Public Orgasms, Corpsing, and the Giggles

      By now, the L.A. symphony-goer’s orgasm has been heard round the world. There was a slight attempt to pathologize the woman’s unmistakable (my opinion) moans of pleasure during the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony—surely she must have had a seizure of some sort? Well, yes—one that had her breathing heavily and […]

Fat-Sorrow and the Fever of Extravagance

      Fat-sorrow is not the sigh you heave after squinting at the scale. That is fat-angst, a feeling I alternately try to befriend or banish. Fat-sorrow springs from a different sort of abundance. Defined as “sorrow alleviated by riches,” it comes from an old Spanish adage, “Fat sorrow is better than lean sorrow.” […]

The Dubious Art of Death Cleaning

      “Babe, what did you do with that tub of Mom’s soap?” my husband calls. “Haven’t you gone through it yet?” Jo died two years ago, and we absorbed, along with the loss, a lot of the little things that carried her from day to day. She always kept a sizeable inventory of […]

America’s Anxiety About Anxiety: a Q&A With Dr. Rebecca Lester

        Performance anxiety, writer’s block, imposter syndrome, chronic stress. Social anxiety, attachment anxiety, existential anxiety, FOMO. Climate anxiety, tech anxiety, conspiracy theories, xenophobia. Overachievement, perfectionism, avoidance, hoarding. Hypochondria, insomnia, fear of aging, denial of death. We are a bundle. Spidery, creeping, impossible to ignore, anxiety spins uncertainties that cling no matter how […]

The Doting Baby Book Kept by Robert Louis Stevenson’s Mom

  You cannot read this little book without smiling. An only child, RLS has been described as “both strange looking and eccentric,” and he suffered frequent illnesses. But he had a mother who watched over him tenderly and noted each illness in his baby book, along with a list of his pet names and the […]

Home Is Where One Starts From

        “We could go through East Coker,” Lynette Ballard told the British tour-bus guide, enthusing about how valuable and important this detour would be for her fellow passengers. Then she held her breath, because she had no idea what East Coker was like. All she knew was that one of T.S. Eliot’s […]

Jammed Keys and Snarled Ribbons

      “Back straight, feet on floor, fingers on home keys, three-two-one-and-type!” Sister Lorraine timed our drills with military ferocity. Except for the morning my friend Jenny cracked open the classroom door and sent a little wind-up Woodstock clattering across the floor, headed straight for the nun shoes. All that tension Sister created on […]

Jerry Springer’s Opera Buffa

    Ours is a house divided. On the bright side, at least we are not running at each other screaming vitriol and kicking and clawing until we are (reluctantly) dragged apart so someone can lift a T-shirt for Jerry beads. On my husband’s side of the house, Jerry Springer deliberately performed a public service […]

Let Your Soul Catch Up to Your Body

  If we were climbing Mount Everest’s Khumbu Icefall, sucking thin air into lungs near collapse, blind to anything but the chance to stand at the top of the world, our sherpa would give us the classic warning: pause every third day, and “let your soul catch up to your body.” We are not, however, […]

On the Draining of Swamps

“Drain the swamp” just sounded like something Donald Trump would yell, so in all those years of wincing, I never questioned its origins. But now that the nation again faces the possibility of Trump stuffing himself into presidential blue instead of an orange jumpsuit, my mind returns to that hated phrase. Did it come to […]

I.E. Millstone’s Leap of Faith

    It was May 16—had there been enough sun to warm the water? Someone saw the old man climb onto the old Daniel Boone Bridge railing—however did he manage it?—and leap into the Missouri River. As his body shot deeper, the chill and darkness would have enclosed him. Was he still conscious? Still glad […]

The Killing Game

      In anguished tones, my husband recites the names of all the characters slain in Star Trek: Picard. One after another, killed needlessly and deliberately. Is this laziness or sadism, he wants to know. He blames Game of Thrones. I am nodding in sympathy, wondering if the potatoes are done. Later, though, his […]

Everything You Wanted to Know About Kissing but Were Afraid to Ask

When we kiss, the world drops away. We are warm lips and darting tongues, soft cheeks or stubble, arched necks, wrapped arms, tingling pressure, tenderness and hunger. We drown in a good kiss, suffocate and come up gasping for air and do not care, because such a kiss insists that we are loved and wanted. Our breath intermingles. For the time it takes a cloud to pass the sun, our souls join.

Naming Trees

      During the pandemic, staunch botanists hung “Essential Worker” signs on the big, gracious trees that line Washington University’s Danforth Campus. Consider the oxygen, the shade, the cleansing of the air, the shelter for insects, the feeding of squirrels, the holding of the soil…. The more I learn about trees, the guiltier I […]

Tax Season Rage

        Cast your mind back to the Friday before tax day. No doubt you have properly submitted your forms and already received a refund, but our new tax preparer is still working on our taxes. She is not the tax preparer who was warmly recommended, but someone he called in to help. […]

Madame X

      Love at first sight, without knowledge or experience—is it possible? Safely, with art. I loved John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X the instant I saw it. The subject, I imagined as a coolly aristocratic Frenchwoman in her early thirties. The artist was a man half in love with her—and half in […]

An Elegy for the Literary Lunch

  How I yearned to be a fiction writer. Not to write fiction, mind you. Not to invent plots or breathe life into characters. I much preferred digging around in the real world. No, what I wanted was for a literary editor to take me to lunch. In New York. Someplace with white tablecloths. In […]

Turning Spit to Silk

      If anyone is handing out alternate lives, I will take Chiara Vigo’s. On moonlit spring nights, she slides a white tunic over her head, murmurs a prayer, and dives into the Mediterranean. Entering a network of underwater caves off the coast of Sardinia, she probes the seafloor for rare, giant mollusks, Pinna […]

Starry Starry Skies (No More)

    Boy, did I get schooled fast. After reading article after article about how we are blasting artificial light into the night sky, erasing stars, confusing plants and animals, and confounding astronomers, I learned that there are now “dark sky” towns dotted around the world. My little town seemed a natural for this project, […]

The Technium, and how Kevin Kelly Changed His Mind

      Thirteen years ago, Kevin Kelly, the founding executive editor of Wired magazine, wrote a book called What Technology Wants. What Kelly wants is a way to combine technology and wisdom, cold machines and a warm Earth. Luckily, he has a genius for the big picture, the sweeping statement, the aphorism. Pushed too […]

The Cruellest Month

      What haunts me about the Eliot gravesites at Bellefontaine Cemetery is what is not there, what is missing or muddled or mysterious. Local historian Jerry Garrett and a crew of his smart friends agreed to give me a tour, and I begged them to time it for April. Eliot opened The Waste […]

Busload of Books

        Last year, Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr bought an old schoolbus and covered it with a handpainted mural, the kind so bright and fun that passersby have to stop to look. Then they took off. Two adults, four kids, and a dog living in this bus for a year, driving all […]

Breeding Tells

        Stroking his soft black curls, I gaze into my standard poodle’s brown eyes and see nothing left of the wolf. Willie would rather surf the counter for snacks than rip apart a lame cow. His ancestors were the wolves who found it easier to hang out with humans and scavenge for […]

We Are Flesh and Bone and … Data

      “Oh, I never give my social security number,” a friend told me years ago. She grew up ahead of me, in the decade when love was supposed to be free and authority questioned. “When they want my phone number,” she added, “I give my sister’s but change one digit.” I was young, […]

Defiant Happiness

      An experience can resonate with you for years, charged with a particular essence you cannot quite name. And then someone tosses off a comment that names this essence so precisely, it stops you mid-sentence. At a dinner party just after St. Patrick’s Day, one of our hosts took the chance to play […]

Why Woke Language Backfires

        After years of pushing for changes in our language—and therefore our thought—I am ready to slap (politically incorrect: resort to violence) the next man, woman, or child (politically incorrect: excludes the nonbinary) who suggests a change. I am also furious (a person living with anger) because my annoyance is making me […]

Being Funny

        Lord, how I wish I were funny. People who can toss off dry asides or zing a comeback keep our brains happy—and they keep life’s pettiness and drama in perspective. I have always been too Serious. Also too slow. Mine is l’esprit d’escalier, that perfect French phrase for only coming up […]

Wild Flowers

        After all the wind and rain, the ground was chilled sludge. Half-rotted leaves weighed heavy, keeping out the faint clear sunlight of early spring. The trees were already misted with green, spritzed for St. Patrick. But I hardly expected to see any wildflowers along the trail. On the hike out, I […]

Do We Make Ourselves Too Comfortable?

      “We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both,” Brené Brown writes. “Not at the same time.” In one of her podcasts, she observes that ours is a culture that insists on being comfortable. The implications are clear. But how could comfort be a bad thing? All […]

Naming Names

Even in this time of flux, with fluid identities and avatars that split us into separate selves, names write code for who we are. We bear someone’s name, take someone’s name, carry on a name, drop one. Names, in other words, have weight. They arrive with little suitcases that we roll along for the rest of our lives.

Land Where Our Children Kill

        Mass shootings used to send me to the computer. Hands shaking, I would read everything I could find about the shooter, desperate to know why. Now I swipe the reports away, numb as an iced elbow. Andrew and I make caustic remarks to each other: “Gee, there hasn’t been a mass […]

“Making Memories”

        Travel ads urge us to “make memories.” So do friends writing birthday messages and marriage counselors trying to squirt a little glue into the breakage. Not the sentimental sort, I used to find all that a little Hallmark-icky, somewhere between planned motivational fun at a corporation and newsletters that tell you […]

Pushy Marketing

        Ads and fundraising asks can be enchanting, if they are creative, heartfelt, or done with a certain wry sensibility. But all I feel lately is badgered. Am I just cranky, or does anyone else feel it too? Not just the rushing stream of bad news and violence, but the ratcheted up […]

We Are All Becoming Conspiracy Theorists

        My husband has an excellent track record. When authorities were seeking two men from the Middle East for the Oklahoma City bombing, Andrew said, “It’s probably some White militia.” When I brushed off parental outrage about a gay teacher, he insisted on accompanying me to a PTA meeting that turned out […]

Frank Lloyd Wright Drew Them a Nice Little House

    Imagine you are Russell Kraus, a glass artist. Your wife, Ruth Goetz Kraus, graduated from Washington University’s law school, which is rather remarkable for a woman born in 1904. She is eight years your senior; you met working on a WPA project and have been crazy in love ever since. It is time […]

Turning Away From Abstraction

        A headline in caught my eye: “Turning Away From Abstraction.” I scanned eagerly. Alas, Emmanuel Iduma was not announcing a trend. His piece was deeply personal, and he was using a Fauve painting to reflect on writing—which can, indeed, be a wild and beastly practice. Even so, representational art, so […]

What the Humanities Reveal

      My husband once sat in a faculty meeting at a university north of here. Cold coffee in front of them, the senior history profs stroked their beards and waited their turn to bemoan the uselessness of their discipline. They were shocked a few months later when the sciences received a bigger chunk […]

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey Are Looking Brighter

        A confession: twelve years ago, I passed up a Walter Mosley book because it did not sound like his usual edgy, sharply intelligent adventure. I love his honesty, his refusal to trade humanity for fancy flourishes. But I also love the characters: the lucid wit of Socrates Fortlow, the laidback sexiness […]

This Is Not About Chat GPT3

      Tempting as it would be to go back to that celeb chatbot and ask if it expected such a flurry of attention, I need a breather from all these human-interviews-the-AI stories. Alternately fascinated and terrified, wowed and cynical, I have finally settled down to the kindergarten-level realization that it is smarter than […]

King of the Road

        James Eads How was the grandson of James Buchanan Eads, designer of the world-famous Eads Bridge. James Eads How lived as a hobo. His bindle (bedroll) was a black and white buffalo plaid, tied to a stick. At least, that is how it was represented in Warehouse 13, a science fiction […]

Turn Every Page

        Pity Lizzie Gottlieb. Daughter of one of the finest book editors of the twentieth century, she is fascinated by his prickly but immensely fruitful relationship with Robert Caro, one of the most influential historians of the twentieth century. She wants to make a documentary about that relationship. Neither man will allow […]

The Rule of Four

  “We live for books. A sweet mission in this world dominated by disorder and decay.”― Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose   A book can change your life. But a rare and mysterious book, one with secrets not yet fathomed? A book like that can own you. The Rule of Four is a New York […]

Undivinable Eruptions and the Automatic Earth

Volcanoes can destroy our cities, burn away our flesh, suffocate us with toxic gases, crush us with flying boulders. Most volcanologists keep a safe distance from their subject. But they still emerge rapt.

As Good as “Dead”?

        I have always loved the phrasing used in India after someone dies: “He is no more.” Stark, simple, powerful. The being has ended. Compare that to our various euphemisms. “Passing” can also suggest deception, pretending to be White or female or whatever might prove an advantage. Or traveling—“I’m just passing through”—but […]

Missouri News in the 1870s: How People Died

        Let us end our time travel with death, the most revealing state of all. There was no privacy between the 1860s and 1880s; one learned from the newspaper exactly what ailed one’s neighbors. An awful lot of dropsy, the swelling we now call edema, and specifically, dropsy of the heart; also […]

Missouri News in the 1870s: Race and Social Issues

        The Civil War was over. Reconstruction had begun. How were Blacks faring in rural Missouri? The editor of the Jefferson Democrat does not sound like a wholesale bigot, but he wrote within a societal grid of long-established prejudice, wariness, and condescension. In 1871, for example, the newspaper reported: “Two Negro Militiamen […]

Missouri in the 1870s: How People Lived

        From old issues of the Jefferson Democrat, painstakingly transcribed for the Jefferson County Historical Society, we can extract the gentle amusements of life in these parts a century and a half ago. If you fancied yourself “book-larned,” there were debates: “Question—Resolved that man is the architect of his own fortune.” (Six […]

Missouri in the 1870s: Marriage and Its Scandals

    Someone far more altruistic than I has transcribed old issues of the Jefferson Democrat word by word, starting a little before the 1870s and ending a little after, for the Jefferson County Historical Society. You cannot find this amalgamation of humor, tragedy, scandal, poignancy, derring-do, and sweet quirkiness in all of Netflix. And […]

Thoreau’s Quiet Quitting

        The entire world is short-staffed these days, all of us fed up with working. Thoreau would grin and ask what took us so long. He swiftly figured out how to work only one day a week for his few necessities and use the rest of his time to do his own […]

No More Library Fines!

        Nothing nags at you like an overdue book. For half a century, I have dwelt in an unreasonable terror of that ten-cent fine. There were changes along the way, of course. Online renewing thrilled me—this was all I had to do? Click a box? But oh, when someone else wanted that […]

Alan Lightman’s (and Everybody Else’s) Search

        Alan Lightman is an astrophysicist with the soul of a Buddhist poet. Except he does not believe in souls. He is a materialist who goes about having spiritual experiences his science cannot quite…yet…explain. Professor of the Practice of the Humanities at MIT, he made his scientific chops with a succession of […]

Who Needs a Purpose?

        Saturday morning, my to-do list hit the seesaw in my sleepy brain (snooze again? get up? snooze?) and bounced me out of bed. Moving briskly, I made my husband’s coffee and smoothie, fed and walked the dog, did the grocery shopping, dropped stuff off at the recycling center and the thrift […]

Choose Your Treat

        Everybody has to earn their paycheck, so Willie must do a ridiculous array of tricks to procure the dog treats I dole out through the day. But I do let him choose. I hold up two bags of possibility, and he sniffs each one, deliberates, brow furrowed, then swipes the bag […]

He Liked Bockwurst Sausage and Runny Eggs

        One of my cousins just emailed a slew of us some genealogical information about our grandfather. The day he was born—in downtown St. Louis, when all this time I thought it was Washington, Missouri. The address, on North 13th Street. That his mother’s name was Anna Marie. That his grandfather was […]

ChatGPT’s Developer Said It Was Dangerous—But It Is Also Seductive

        Setting aside technophobia and its ethical qualms, I start playing with ChatGPT, the new OpenAI chatbot that carries on a conversation more fluently and briskly than most of us. This kind of technology seemed speculative, hypothetical, futurist, just a year ago. Now, it has landed with a jolt. I ask ChatGPT […]

The Existential Air Fryer

        I could have devoted last week to work, love, nature, or philosophy. Instead, I poured vast amounts of energy into the acquisition of an air fryer. This has happened before. Not with an air fryer, though: this device, though launched in 2010, is new to me. My purchase thus required diligent […]

Do the Math?

        “Why should I have to study all this stupid math?” the kid grumbled. “I’m never gonna use it.” “You probably won’t,” my husband said. The girl’s mother shot him a glare that would fell a giant. “But math will teach you how to think,” he continued, “and that you will use […]

It’s Alive! Isn’t It?

Organized religions, at least the traditional monotheistic ones, are stingy in assigning a soul (only to humans) and defining its fate (blackened by sin). They bottle up the holy water, decree which acts are sins and which are virtues, box up God in a package of their own design. Why not let divinity spread out and envelop us, until we can see some faint glow of energy even in the inanimate?

That Pile of Unread Books Is Called Tsundoku

        Books I wept over, books that changed me, books that explained a tiny chunk of the world so clearly I never forgot—they stand proud on my shelves, in need of dusting but still beloved. Interspersed among them, though, are all the others. Books that were on a grad school reading list—but […]

Fly Away

        Plunking my bundled-up self on a bench, I wait, shivering, for the Great Blue Heron. Lost in reverie at the edge of an icy lake, he stands so still, he could be a statue. I want him to take off, surprise me yet again as those shaggy wings unfold from his […]

On St. Louis’s T.S. Eliot and the Arrogance of a Poet’s Love

        When T.S. Eliot came to dinner at the Woolfs’ house and read them his new poem, The Waste Land, “He sang it & chanted it & rhymed it,” Virginia wrote. “It has great beauty & force of phrase: symmetry; & tensity. What connects it together, I’m not so sure. One was […]

The Color of the Year

        The classic vices are sexier, more noir, but I can wallow in color and feel like I have thrown back a fifth of bourbon. Clicking away from the latest streaming sensation without a second thought, I watch, breathless, a presentation from WGSN (the world’s leading consumer trend forecaster) on the new […]

A Return to Evil

        Christmas and Hanukkah are all about light. Fortified, I go back to puzzling over the darkness. What, for example, reduces an intelligent, wealthy aristocrat to torturing servant girls, sometimes tearing off chunks of their flesh with her own teeth? We fuss over Dahmer and Bundy, but Erzsebet Báthory’s murder count is […]

How COVID Changed Your Personality

        Another article on all the anxiety and depression triggered by the pandemic. I sigh. The articles themselves are depressing and anxiety inducing. Skimming with one finger on the delete button, I hesitate at a word: “surprisingly.” Reading more slowly now, I register this: “Surprisingly, two previous studies found that neuroticism decreased […]

False Endings

        I once heard a Hallmark creativity czar give a presentation about productivity in which he emphasized the peril of “false endings.” You know them: those glorious moments of self-deception when you decide, “I’m almost done!” and the angst begins to dissipate. Your muscles unclench, and you taste sweet leisure on the […]

The Peril of Naming Our Flaws

        “What is buccal fat how are they still inventing new flaws for us,” tweeted Jules Zucker after she saw the latest celeb cosmetic surgery trend. Responding to one of the 100,000 likes and comments, she wrote, “I am literally running out of limbs and features.” The New York Times picked up […]

Jeanne Dielman As the Best Film Ever?

        The news broke last month. Sight and Sound, the British Film Institute’s magazine, published its famous once-a-decade list of the hundred best films. And Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles had bumped Hitchcock’s Vertigo from the top spot. “Such a sudden shake-up,” the BFI marveled. (Jeanne Dielman, made in […]

The Softer Sex

      Life moves from softness to constriction, then back again. Babies are swaddled in flannel, dressed in soft cotton shifts that slide right over their downy heads. Then, little by little, life becomes uncomfortable. First the tight plastic pants, then the zips and buttons and layers. Long, itchy pants and awkward tights. Bras […]

The Authentic Imposter

The first woman to paint the official portrait of a U.S. president, Greta Kempton also painted Cabinet officials, governors, senators, the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, two Postmasters General, a Supreme Court justice, several university presidents, and a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. But what would have happened if she had painted a self-portrait?

An Atheist and an Agnostic Walk Into a Bar….

      The atheist is my friend Susan Barker, a naturalist and science teacher who has been skeptical about the God stuff since she was five years old. Me, I am an agnostic soaked in Roman Catholicism, rinsed in Episcopalianism and toweled off by Taoism. We are talking about the meaning of life—at least, […]

Holy Daze

      “Get ready for fun,” I inform my husband and our dog. “It’s the holy-daze!” I pronounce “holidays” with a long O and a silly Z, because I am desperately trying to be merry. Every December, we wish we had kids, grandkids—even a nearby sibling or two would do. In their absence, I […]

Why We Hate the Poor

      A cartoon in the San Diego Union-Tribune shows a father walking his little girl past a man and woman seated on the grass by the side of the road. Their heads are bent over a baby cradled in the woman’s arms. “No, honey,” the father tells his little girl as they pass, […]

Driving Is Better Than Most Brain Tests  

      When we were young and cruel, our reflexes lightning fast, our vision 20/20, a friend of mine imitated an old person driving. He slid down on the leather seat, death-gripped the wheel, hunched toward the windshield, and slowed to eight miles an hour. Gasping in mock protest, I had to laugh. He […]

The New Bibliophobia

      Bibliophobia was once thought to be a rare anxiety disorder, characterized by an intense fear of books. The etymology was simple: biblion, Greek for book, and phobia, Greek for fear. Diagnosis was equally straightforward: the mere thought of reading a book induced an irrational panic, and the stress response then triggered physical […]

Why You Have Never Heard of Mickey Hahn

      A New Yorker writer with a penchant for pet monkeys and a past as an opium addict, hard-partying expat, foreign correspondent, mining engineer, and confidante of Madame Chiang Kai-shek grew up in St. Louis? So much for stereotypes. Emily “Mickey” Hahn’s father was a dry goods salesman. He had proposed to their […]

Is Your Soul Immortal?

      Through the front door’s smeary glass and between the leaps of our self-appointed guard dog, I could just make out the hope-brightened faces of two middle-aged men. Then I glanced down and saw a fat leatherbound book with gilt lettering tucked under one man’s arm. “Aw,” I thought, silently quoting a line […]

We Are Officially in Goblin Mode

      When I learned that Oxford Languages, famous for its erudite Oxford English Dictionary, dove into nineteen billion words, picked three contenders for Word of the Year, then turned the choice over to The People, my inner elitist cringed. Every time the city magazine I used to write for did a People’s Choice […]

“It’s Not Safe Out Here”

      How I have railed against virtual reality, that trench-coated assassin of the imagination. I was so sure VR would change us, make us more passive and less creative, leaving the door wide open for tyranny and idiocy and even worse, bland sameness. You know, the way Plato thought writing would implant forgetfulness […]

I Am a Watercolor

      In “For My Lover Returning to His Wife,” Anne Sexton wrote of the Other Woman as being “all there…as real as a cast-iron pot.” Solid, enduring, generous, necessary. Anne, on the other hand, was a momentary luxury, an experiment. “I am a watercolor,” she ended. “I wash off.” Which, for me, was […]

The Mirror, Crack’d

      Women are supposed to age as crones, faded stars, or good witches—but I would far rather be Miss Marple. What fun she must have been for Agatha Christie to invent, back in that first short story in 1927. By 1930, Jane Marple has a book all her own, The Murder at the […]

Playing Telephone

      In the beginning, phones were communal. If you lived in a small enough town and the operator liked you, you knew everybody’s business. In the city, you knew the intimate goings-on of everybody who shared your party line. A long-distance call was communal, too, everybody gathering around the phone, as thrilled as […]

Clarice Lispector, Brazil’s Most Beloved and Enigmatic Writer

        I am trying to understand Clarice Lispector, which is a doomed project, as I am not sure she even understood herself. She could be as coldly lucid as T.S. Eliot, as moody and self-indulgent as Anaïs Nin with PMS. Born in 1920 to a Jewish family that fled Ukraine two years […]


        “I may presently change, not only by chance, but also by intention.” —Montaigne   We called him Cowboy, and he wore the hat and talked the lingo and slid a gun into his drawer in the newsroom office. Which brought a few eye rolls, but in time, he grew on us, […]

Books Save the Queen

      “I’ve been longing to ask you about the writer Jean Gent,” Queen Elizabeth said chattily to the president of France. “Homosexual and jailbird, was he nevertheless as bad as he was painted? Or, more to the point,” and she took up her soup spoon, “was he as good?” That bit of dialogue […]

A Little Originality, Anyone?

      “Write what you know,” the old saw buzzes, setting my teeth on edge. Where is the fun in that? The stuff I already know is the stuff I mutter when somebody falls short. This is not an attractive trait. Even fiction should be an exploration, it seems to me, and your characters […]

Emmett Till: The Horror Never Ended

      The new film Till takes us back to the lynching of an innocent fourteen-year-old and the maternal outrage that lit a match to the civil rights movement. Percival Everett’s riveting new novel The Trees, funny as hell and just as fierce, uses the same piece of history to torch the bigotry that […]

Slow Birding

      As a baby, Joan Strassmann heard the sweet chirps of house sparrows nesting beneath the eaves. As a child, she spotted birds on hikes with her father, a German refugee and outdoor enthusiast. Once armed with her own binoculars, she was startled by the electric blue of an indigo bunting. And when […]

Thoughts on The End and How We Go On

Dying is something we all do. Saints, film stars, Olympic athletes, con artists. I feel calmer every time another cool friend pulls it off; if all these smart, funny people have managed to die, could it be so awful to share their fate? Yet much of what we call culture is created to deny death, or at least distract us from it.

The Possibility of Joy

        Buffeted by fear, contagion, civic rage, and a crumbling democracy, I am beginning to feel a little crazy to still be happy, to still find absurd delight in small wonders. It could be denial. My husband recounts the latest dire news; I tell him about a cute thing the dog did. […]

How Bosnians Changed St. Louis

        Diaspora. Such a pretty word. Ripping people from their homeland and scattering them around grudging or reluctant countries is too rough an exodus to merit such softness. The right word would make a harsh, guttural sound, harder to disguise or ignore. And oh, we would rather ignore it. Home is supposed […]

The Cello

        For most of Christian Okeke’s childhood, life in Lagos is day-to-day, the future remote and unconsidered. He plays, he studies, he goes to church— He goes to church. And there, at Holy Cross Cathedral, he discovers music, and his first story begins. This story is universal: a tale of a boy […]

In Berlin, Art Reckons With History

      Artists reckon with history every day—but seldom does their government share their concerns. Germany is different. There, the state supports and even sponsors controversial art. Public places deliberately preserve even the darkest shame. History is not allowed to be forgotten. And artists—even those who come from other places to be part of […]

Diane von Furstenberg’s Little Wrap Dress

        “Dressing up was a ritual that put her in a serious mood: the cloth was no longer a mere fabric, it was becoming the matter of the thing and it was this material to which with her body she gave body—how could a simple rag gain such movement?” —Clarice Lispector in […]

Why Fall Color Will Fade

    One leaf was as orange as flame, undoused by the burgundy at its edges. Another was brighter and purer than yellow gold. A third could have inspired Jackson Pollock, its spatters of yellow, green, and red were so bright and random. Would Pollock snap that his art was not random? The universe could […]

The Shame Game

        “Shame!” I hiss, lost for any other word as strong. The dog has loped two neighbors’ yards away and looped back just before hitting the alley, where he could have gotten hit. “Shame on you.” I do not deal in shame, as a rule. Was not reared with it, do not […]

Sigh No More

        Venice’s Bridge of Sighs is enclosed by heavily ornamented limestone, its view of the picturesque canal seen through small, latticed windows. Prisoners walked past these windows as they crossed from the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s palace to their cells. If they had any aesthetic sensitivity at all, they sighed, because […]

Living by the Die

        On one episode of Big Bang Theory, Sheldon announces, “From here on in, I’ve decided to make all trivial decisions with a throw of the dice, thus freeing up my mind to do what it does best: enlighten and amaze.” He winds up eating a side of corn succotash for dinner. […]

Back When Sex Ed Was Honest

      A sweet, strong little film, “A Matter of Respect,” has been preserved and digitized by the Washington University Libraries with a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation. Made in 1980, the film features two high school kids, Angela and Tommy, who fall in love. Their fun and tender courtship is intercut […]

Silk and Gold and Caviar All Round

        Sumptuary laws astound me. Prohibiting people from lavishing money on fine foods and fabrics, when all our economy does is urge us to spend more than we earn on conspicuous consumption? We have made a twisted sort of progress. Today, we would never dream of forbidding the possession of gold and […]

Do Our Words Shape Our Feelings?

      “Use your words,” we tell little kids when they start to stomp or wail. “Tell me what you’re feeling,” I urge my husband. What am I feeling? I ask myself regularly, knowing that once I name an emotion, it will crawl out of my gut, where it hid and trembled, and let […]

A Heroic Escape Plot

        Heroes, onstage in St. Louis through October 9, is a comedy. A sad comedy. Written in 2003 by a French playwright, Gérald Sibleyras, and translated two years later by Tom Stoppard. The following year it won London’s coveted Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. Set in 1959 in a home […]

Without Fear or Favor

      In 1896, Adolph Ochs bought The New York Times and promised it would now deliver the news “without fear or favor.” For most of the following century, journalism waved the flag of objectivity as its highest standard. Soon even those who took shortcuts, fibbed, slanted, or embellished began pretending to be objective, […]

Naked Truth

        That first moonlight skinny-dip, lakewater flowing cool as satin over your skin. Sunbathing, shielded by a hedge, in the back yard, bikini top flipped down and rays of sunlight beaming into your heart. Sex outside, awkward and hasty and glorious. There is a reason that clothes meant punishment for that first […]

The Queen’s Corgis

        The bagpipes got to me; they always do. The first mournful, resonant notes carry me right out of a crowd, and all I can see is a solitary figure at the top of a hill, the plaid of his kilt softened by fog, turning his cold-misted breath into our sorrow. The […]

Why Our Minds Wander

      Even as I read an article about mind-wandering, my mind wanders away from its own topic, jolted by mild panic because I forgot to defrost the chicken breasts, seduced by the chance of crisp autumn weather next week, tempted to buy cider and spiced donuts…. Is this evidence, then, that mind-wandering helps […]

The Pilgrimage to the King’s Heartbreak Hotel

The real Elvis is American, remember, and America is a consumer society. The desires we project, the stuff we buy—that is what feels real to us. It lets us have any Elvis we want. He left plenty of kitsch in his wake, plenty of pseudo-religion, plenty of Elvis jokes—but he was not, is not, a joke. He lived our contradictions, released our inhibitions, and lost himself in the process.

As Seen on TV

      I am watching, God help me, broadcast tv. Worse, I am watching the commercials. And every last one of ’em sucks me in. I want to believe their claims; I want to order their product and own its magic. I wanted those slick copper pans, too—where have they gone? For months, I […]

The Art of Conversation

        My secret dream, could I travel back in time, is to be Madame de Staël in eighteenth-century Paris, hosting salons of witty, intellectually curious writers and thinkers and artists. She was not beautiful, but her conversation was luminous and seductive, pulling from her guests ideas they had not realized they were […]

The Keys to Your Kingdom

      Researchers in the U.K. are studying tiny, everyday objects in the Early Middle Ages—keys, shoes, floor tiles, chests—and tracking their passage from person to person, which is quite a detective story. Looking at the artifacts, I think about the many ways keys still pass from hand to hand. How ceremoniously we are […]

How to Become a Mentalist

      How does one prepare to have lunch with a mentalist? Caffeine to keep the brain alert? A mantra to stay resolute, braced against a mind meld? Do they even do that? Gary Chan performs at corporate events, at professional conferences, and most recently, for the FBI, who were impressed. He calls himself […]

Fart Proudly

      The best scatological words are onomatopoetic. There. That sentence should remove any chance of sounding as gleeful as a fifth-grade boy who just learned to make his armpit fart. (Or should that party trick have a different name, as its toot arrives reeking only of boy body odor?) I tried using the […]

Strangers Still Rescue Us

      After any catastrophic break in routine, what feels remarkable is the everyday normalcy that preceded it. Washington University’s campus was flooded with students again—too soon, too hot for a fresh fall start. Pulling breath through air thick with humidity, I trudged over to Kaldi’s for an iced coffee. The line, widened by […]

How to Get Our Attention Back

      After I thank D. Graham Burnett for his lyrical introduction to the book Affinities, we exchange a few emails about the importance of attention—how it is being stolen from us and how, if we want to stay sane, we need to seize back the reins. “You might want to review a little […]


      It took four dogs for me to admit that my blithe offers of leashless abandon often ended in disaster. I wanted each dog to be able to run free, ears flying in the wind—and then run straight back to me. After leading me on long gleeful chases at the park, taking victory […]

The Bias in My Bedtime Reading

      It is thrilling to see literary fiction, crime, every category of fiction expand. We have learned enough about how brilliant White opium addicts and spunky old White ladies solve crimes. Stories set deep inside another culture fascinate me, and I love how sneaky they are, educating me without a hint of teaching […]

Wounds Heal Faster When—Covered?

      First came the swell of pride: I had pedaled my bike into a whir and taken a dramatic fall Then came tender attention and a chance to be heroic all over again by barely wincing at the Bactine’s sting. But best of all was the moment the Band-Aid, my temporary badge of […]

Lefty Loosy, Righty Tighty

    The US of A is a freewheeling, rollicking sort of land, one where rule-breakers and scofflaws are mythologized and individual freedom weighs far heavier than the commonweal. In Rule Makers Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire the World, cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand helps explain why we are so loose—and why there […]

Dancing Alone

      People calling out, singing, dancing themselves into a froth of sweat and joy—but not to the same beat. The room silent—they are all wearing headphones. You dance next to someone who is listening to an entirely different genre, spun by a different DJ. This is silent disco. Forgive me if it feels […]

Wildlife Wrangler, Stunt Man, Falconer, Sage

        Queenie the lemur has a ringed tail and black rings around her eyes, too, making her look startled. The teenage lemurs are in another enclosure because they are wild, like all teenagers, and easily riled up. Inside Kangaroo Crossing, Tyson hops over, eager for his silvery-tan ears to be stroked. Only […]

Elvis Got Slicker, and Graceland Has, Too

        Elvis got slicker over time. Pressed into long-term contracts in Las Vegas, he ordered himself bejeweled $2,800 jumpsuits and hid those heart-stopping blue eyes behind aviators because the world had gotten too bright. For eight years, he did month-long stints of two shows a night for audiences that applauded spectacle, not […]

Black Elvis, Paying Tribute to the Hillbilly Cat

      People called Elvis “a white Negro” and a “hillbilly cat,” trying to get at the way he hung out with Black musicians, showed up at all-Black events, fused Black and White musical traditions. And now I am sitting on a bar stool at Blues City Café on Beale Street, listening to a […]

Elvis’s Wake

      Elvis Presley died today, all over again. Streets were blocked off around Graceland, and from five yesterday until three or so this morning, thousands of people walked slowly to his grave, holding candles, often weeping, their vigil more loyal than the apostles’ at Gethsemane. Fans placed homemade memorials outside the gates or […]

Going to Graceland

      Today is the day I drive, bleary-eyed, to Graceland. First time ever. So excited I was up before dawn—not because this is my world but because it is not. I love the music, love what came through of who that boy was. But I long to rinse away the kitsch, the glitz, […]

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

        As a kid, I watched with fascination as my beautiful olive-skinned mother spackled her upper lip with Jolen cream bleach and set a timer. Woozy from the fumes, I made a secret vow to prefer a mustache. But shaving my legs? I could not wait. She tried to stall me. “Oh, […]

Blood, Sand, and Soil

WashU students scrubbed off the racist symbols as fast as they could, but the damage would cost $10,000 to repair. Meanwhile, the video Patriot Front made of the sabotage would be seen, liked, and shared by thousands. The destroyed mural is titled “The Story That Never Ends.”

Politics and the English Language’s Failures

      If I hear one more White person say “All lives matter”—and I am still hearing that, heard it just the other day—I will scream. Why the ruffled feathers? White lives have always mattered; that was never in question. Feel lucky. But language matters, too, and we have been sloppy. Had we just […]

In Case These Are the Endtimes

      I always felt so sorry for the deluded folks who believed they were living in the endtimes. Now I have a feeling they might be right. So, as the planet spins toward God knows what fate, I calm myself by deciding that what feels like the endtimes is just one more stage […]

Why We Love to Kill Wolves

      Move among the wolf hunters, and you will find bumper stickers emblazoned with a wolf’s image and the suggestion to “Smoke a Pack a Day.” Protest signs that call wolves “Illegal Immigrants” or “terrorists on the order of Osama bin Laden.” Photographs of men posing, proud, holding up bloodied wolves whose lifeless […]

Loyalty Tests

      China is developing artificial intelligence programs that “extract and integrate facial expressions, EEG readings and skin conductivity” in order to measure someone’s “mastery of ideological and political education.” A loyalty test, in other words. The announcement came from the Heifei Comprehensive National Science Center, which posted it this summer on the Weibo […]

Village Gossip, Daily Paper, Metaverse

      Usually I need coffee, pastry, and an uninterrupted hour to properly read one of L.M. Sacasas’s essays in The Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology, culture, and morality. They are dense, brilliant, and provocative, and they refuse to be skimmed. But recently Sacasas sent a piece so short and strong, it punched […]

Affinities Only Now Visible

      After years of fretting about the way the internet is flattening history, stripping away context, jumbling bits of every culture…I have found a book that makes me glad of it. Affinities is a gorgeous journey through ten years of images in The Public Domain Review. Images that belong to all of us, […]

Janet Malcolm and Emmanuel Carrère Debate Journalism and Murder

      There is an incestuous and self-congratulatory tendency for media to report on media commenting on media reporting on reporters who are exposing some shocking fact that is by now lost in the layers. Nonetheless, it is sometimes worth doing. This story starts when Army physician Jeffrey MacDonald is charged with murdering his […]

Anything But Mellow

      “What a horrible thing yellow is,” muttered Edgar Degas. Granted, he loved painting ballerinas, and one sees few yellow tutus. But Degas is on to something more, because yellow has a weird place in the pantheon. It is the color of sunshine and daffodils, and it stands for warmth, joy, and clarity—yet […]

Our Penchant for Cherry Picking

        My life, of late, is a bowl of cherries. Often with a dollop of vanilla yogurt on top. I steal them at the grocery store, just one per bag, to avoid the crushing disappointment of learning too late that they are sour. Unlike soured humans, who tend to advertise their disgust, […]

Bored in the USA

        “Bored, I’m so bored,” Billie Eilish sings. “I’m so bored, so bored.” Were he alive, Bertrand Russell would jump to his feet to applaud her. “Boredom as a factor in human behavior has received, in my opinion, far less attention than it deserves,” he wrote in The Conquest of Happiness, published […]

On Sand, or the Inevitability of Change

        Landlocked and wheezing pollen, my body misses the sea. More specifically, it misses stretching out, near naked, on wet, hard-packed sand and listening to the sea. The splurgiest vacation we ever took was to Bermuda, and that was the only time I ever wept when it was time to go home […]

Childless, Child-Free, or Just No Children?

      New in the Associated Press Stylebook, bible for all journalists: “Avoid the terms child-free and childless other than in direct quotes essential to the story. They may be viewed as loaded or demeaning. If you must mention a newsmaker’s parental status and if it is relevant, use a neutral description such as […]

Grammar Can Be Dangerous

      “A badly made sentence is a judgment pronounced upon its perpetrator,” wrote William Gass, “and even one poor paragraph indelibly stains the soul.” He set his course for a Platonic purity (though he was far too Baroque a soul to achieve it, his sentences jammed with clauses and effusions of metaphor and […]


If I had grown up with a father, even for a few years, maybe I would have been bold enough to separate more from my mother in my teens, go a little wild, stop worrying so much about her feelings. If I had grown up with a father, maybe I would have felt free to admit how much I missed having a father.

Does Luck Exist?

      For centuries, luck has been understudied. How could you study it? But pop-psych is breezing past the hesitant academics, giving us Five, Eight, Ten, even Twelve “time-tested,” “easy” “ways to increase your luck.” I send a few links to my curmudgeonly husband. You know, positive attitude, chin up, all that. He glares […]

Taking the Rainbow to Court

        By the Law of the Sea, no nation owns the planet’s oceans. Nor does any of us own the sun. Surely the same would be true of the colors that sun makes possible? But a piece in The Hustle drew interest all over the internet last week with its rhetorical taunt, […]

The Buddhist Abortion Ritual

        When I eased away from Roman Catholicism and then from Anglo-Catholicism, I knew what I would miss most was the stirring beauty of the rituals. Those gestures and incantations, the solemn bell, the use of fire, water, oil, and ash, touched something deep inside me. The New Agey rituals people “invented” […]

Underground Before Roe—and Why Now Is Different

        Which of these examples is current, and which is fifty years old?   An elaborate system of callbacks and blindfolded trips Overseas abortifacients sold to American women Women without medical degrees training to perform abortions Homemade extraction devices using Mason jars and aquarium tubing Women drinking bleach or turpentine Criminal charges […]

The First Woman to Circle the Globe Never Dared Admit It

        Six of Washington University’s plant-science biologists are female. They travel the world easily. Not one of them, to my knowledge, has had to shear off her hair and bind her breasts to do so. That was the trick used by Jeanne Baret, a self-taught herbalist who became the first woman to […]

The Psychopathic Brain

    Psychopaths have different brains than the rest of us. That much is obvious. But what does it feel like? In a new study, individuals diagnosed with psychopathy (egotistical, antisocial, and devoid of empathy, guilt, or remorse) were compared to individuals with low or zero scores on the standard checklist of psychopathic traits. Those […]

How Pee Could Save the Planet

      What we have always thought of, with a shudder, as waste…need not be. Because now, having learned to recycle just about everything else, we are relearning how to peecycle. That is the term of art, and the practice is taking hold in Sweden, France, Germany, South Africa, India, Mexico, and here, especially […]

Espionage in the Midwest

      “Xiang Haitao hasn’t posted lately” says his LinkedIn page. It lists him working as an advanced imaging scientist for Monsanto “2008 – Present”—which is a bit awkward, since it omits the economic espionage conviction that jailed and then deported him. What LinkedIn does not know is that Xiang quit in 2017—and booked […]

Who Even Whistles Anymore?

      “Okay,” my friend says, “pick a blade of grass. I’m gonna teach you to whistle.” She had already tried (to no avail) teaching me to blow big poppable bubbles in bubblegum. Whistling was another childhood pleasure I never mastered, and I think she feels sorry for me. Or senses that I feel […]

Stormwater: The Sexy New Design Challenge

      Just as we whoosh away the fluids that leave our bodies, we whoosh away the fluids dumped upon us from above. Like sewage, stormwater is swiftly ushered out of sight. It gushes into the gutters, ditches, drains, and underground pipes whose engineers saw it only as a problem to be eliminated. Until […]

What the Black Exodus Says About Us

    It takes a while to settle into a new culture and feel part of a new country. But four hundred years? Many of the Blacks in the United States have ancestors who were brought here that long ago. Yet after four centuries of backbreaking labor, struggle, and proving, they are not yet welcome. […]

Prettying Up the Manhattan Project

      Activist Denise Brock, who singlehandedly made it possible for more than 6,500 St. Louis uranium workers (or their widows) to receive $200 million in compensation, now has horrific (unrelated) medical issues herself. On her first trip to the ER, dizzied but still in pain despite the morphine the ambulance paramedics gave her, […]

An Opera That Ought to Terrify Us

      The world premiere of Awakenings at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis was powerfully moving, and so were its three backstories. First: Dr. Oliver Sacks, an eager young neurologist, scarred by his parents’ rejection of his homosexuality and filled with compassion for patients who were closeted from the world for other reasons.  […]

A Film Crew’s Wistful Take on the Midwest

    At first I assumed they were just schmoozing me. The film crew had flown in from L.A. and made their way to little Waterloo, determined to ask me 110 questions about the Coleman murders so they could fill in the gaps in the experts’ comments. One more notch for print journalism, I thought […]

The Thunder and Gold of Horses Running Free

We have used horses to do our work, fight our battles, race for us, carry us. It is the few that still run wild, though, that send a thrill down our spines. We have no claim on them, yet a long and regrettable history has placed us in a position where we must “manage” them. Now, like newlyweds, we have to learn how to be part of their lives without changing who they are.

Aspic, Really?

      For proof of our young nation’s insecurity, one need go no further than the wobble of aspic. A savory jelly, properly made by boiling calves’ feet or pigs’ trotters or any other disgusting animal bit that contains a lot of collagen, aspic is most often set in a mold. Within its cool […]

There Be Demons

    Demons seem to be making a comeback. The Catholic church kept mum about its exorcisms for decades. A hush used to fall in my own family; my grandparents knew one of the strong young Jesuits who had been called upon to assist (mainly by holding the boy down) at the rites that inspired […]

Has Life Ceased to Be Fun?

      I have been slightly miserable, of late. Yes, because of wanton slaughter and injustice and environmental disaster, but also for the supremely selfish reason that I want, need, more fun. It has suddenly struck me that I have worked a bit too hard my whole life long. And now—send in the clowns—I […]

The Difference Between Incels and Femcels

      I understood when women wanted become priests, CEOs, mechanics, soldiers. But incels? Ally with, or at least borrow a syllable and a few sentiments from, a surly group of involuntarily celibate men? Even the incels say it is not possible. Their reasoning? A woman is to make herself available, with gratitude, to any […]

On the Vagina, Whose Ownership Is Currently in Question

      At a party, I am trying to focus on the story somebody’s telling when the word “vagina” leaps out of a conversation in the other room, as though it had been yelled and not simply…uttered. Once, the word was never uttered. Lacking even useful euphemisms, we were reduced to waving a vague […]

Writing About Nature While We Still Can

    “I studied rocks,” my friend Susan Barker likes to joke, especially when I press some inscrutable piece of contemporary poetry into her hand. In her doctoral studies, she focused on ways to get people excited about nature, and she is frustrated by all the paeans written by urban types who see a butterfly […]

Drunk as a Monkey

      Staring balefully into the bottom of an empty beer stein before he slides it toward the bartender, a stranger might—if he is on his third—tell me why he drinks. He might say he drinks because he is worried about his job, or his wife left him, or he cannot find any other […]

The Clockwork Orgasm

Any minute now, all this technology will be mass-produced and affordable, transforming what are now sex dolls with AI heads atop their silicone bodies into the sex robots of science fiction, so sophisticated they are easy to mistake for a human. And then? Will men still bother with real women? Or will they prefer a projected fantasy to a more demanding reality?

Enlightened, Disenchanted, Disgusted

      Disenchantment can mean many things: a resigned sigh, a thickly scabbed wound, a heartbreaking glimpse of Dad playing Santa, a marriage that replaces dinner dates and moonlight with Hamburger Helper and a toddler throwing up all night. But in sociology, disenchantment means something very specific: a cultural rationalization and devaluation of religion […]

Unsafe at Any Speed

      All this talk of lost freedoms, yet no one mentions the most American freedom of all: speeding down a highway, windows down, hair blowing across your eyes but who cares because there are no other cars in sight, just the open road and a green blur of trees on either side. One […]

Gaming Your Life

      A day in 2022: Count your steps. Check your points, check your apps, check your site and your pages. ❤ your likes. Spin a wheel for an online discount. Cash in your frequent flyer miles. Dig out last year’s loyalty card for the ice cream shop. Hunt for a coupon code. Do […]

We Are Never the Same After—What?

      Often, the traumas we fear will scar us do not. Severe pain, major surgery, getting fired or broken up with, wrecking the car, losing one’s faith, embarrassing oneself…the angst fades, and while we can recount the details and even laugh about some of them, the sting is gone. The same is true […]

Matrix, in the Middle Ages

      Lauren Groff was nervous about writing a novel set two thousand and ten years ago. This, I get. Even the prospect of writing a book set before smartphones feels daunting: so many details to reconstruct, an entire lifeworld that functioned in a radically different way. Lovely for the reader, though, to be […]

Material Us, Living in a Digital World

    When my future husband and I had just started dating, we stumbled upon a treasure: three big boxes of vinyl, mainly classical LPs, collected by somebody with a deep knowledge of music and then abandoned next to my apartment complex’s Dumpster. It should have broken my heart, but we were too busy schlepping […]

Sweat Without Tears

      “Why don’t we delight in our ability to produce perspiration,” asks Sarah Everts, “the way we revel in the ability of a spider to produce silk?” It is a measure of my neurosis that the verb “delight” strikes me as ludicrous. I take no joy in the fact that I sweat like […]


      A blank page has a terrible glow, its unearthly grayish white pulsing at you, waiting. I used to sit there staring back, mesmerized, paralyzed. One day a coworker shoved me aside—we were collaborating on a newsletter—and just. started. typing. Words clattered from his fingers, made whole sentences, then paragraphs, and he moved […]

The Clockwork Orgasm

Any minute now, all this technology will be mass-produced and affordable, transforming what are now sex dolls with AI heads atop their silicone bodies into the sex robots of science fiction, so sophisticated they are easy to mistake for a human. And then? Will men still bother with real women? Or will they prefer a projected fantasy to a more demanding reality?

The End of Elegance

      A few weeks ago, I watched Nicole Kidman in Grace of Monaco. At the outset, Grace Kelly, so cool on screen, was hot with misery and insecure in her new role. The audience has the fun of watching her transformation, as she summons the sort of elegance one expects from a princess. […]

People Who Eat People

      Back in the eighties, I read Peter Singer and vowed to stop eating animals. The artist Rick Gibson read Peter Singer and decided it was okay to start eating humans. The hosts of the Hi-Phi Nation podcast interviewed him just recently, because news like this does not get old. He explained that […]

Hunting for the Right Perfume

    I was young, out of town at my first work conference, feeling shy and unschooled in what were clearly rituals of the occasion—the swag room where people tried to sell you their stuff, the schmoozy continental breakfast, the politics, the hookups…. On the first long break, I nipped into a nearby store and […]

Did Shakespeare Have Insomnia?

    Guilty insomnia drives Macbeth near mad. Tossing and turning, his brain afire with guilt and torment, he craves “sleep, that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care.” The irony is rich, as he killed King Duncan while he slept. “Macbeth does murder sleep,” a voice reminds him in the night. He has ruptured […]

Homicidal Pigs, Perverted Roosters, and a Hapless She-Ass

      In the European Middle Ages, people thought animals were perfectly capable of committing crimes. Pigs, horses, cows, and other domestic animals were arrested, charged with a lively array of offenses, jailed, tried, and convicted (or exonerated, if their assigned public defender managed to persuade a judge of their innocence). Creatures had to […]

What Ukraine Is Teaching Us

      How tone-deaf, cold, rude, and stupid would it sound to say I envy Ukrainians? Not the bloodshed, not the suffering and the wrenching sorrow and the destruction of all they have built. But their spirit. Here is how Olena Zalenska, the country’s first lady, described Vladimir Putin’s “fatal mistake” to Vogue: “We […]

Rainy Day Haters

      Few sights are prettier than hundreds of umbrellas held up against a gray sky, bright reds and polka dots glowing in that diffused light like a field of poppies. Also, there is the fun of galoshes, the way you can stomp through puddles like a little kid, the protection of their whimsy. […]

Turning Down the World’s Volume

      It is dusk, and I am standing in the middle of the Endangered Wolf Center. Acres of land, edged by woods and divided into giant enclosures with ponds and little sleeping houses, all of this tucked into the vast nature preserve that is Washington University’s Tyson Research Center. An EWC staff member […]

Spit Take

      It seems so innocuous, clear and frothy and hopefully odor-free. Nothing like the strong stuff, blood and urine and sweat and mucus. We wiggle away from when a grandmother spits on her hand to rub dirt off our face; we welcome a French kiss. You would think saliva’s significance would end there. […]

Stuck on You

      How I envied the girls who could crack their gum and blow big pink bubbles. Friends tried to coach me, but I never got the stuff to stretch around my tongue, and thus had no handy weapon against stern nuns or ridiculous parental decrees. Was it an accident that bubblegum was Barbie […]

The Flame and the Flower…Today

      “Doomed to a life of unending toil, Heather Simmons fears for her innocence—until a shocking, desperate act forces her to flee… and to seek refuge in the arms of a virile and dangerous stranger.” Yep, that was my model for romantic love. The Flame and the Flower, by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss. “A […]

Does Labeling Mental Illness Do More Harm Than Good?

      How benighted, that we once diagnosed schizophrenia as satanic possession. Or, later, that we blamed “frigidity” for the absence of an orgasm and “cold mothers” for their children’s mental illnesses. Well, we still blame greed and sloth for endocrine obesity; irresponsibility for addiction that has altered the brain’s receptors; perversion for behaviors […]

The Kids Stole Dystopia!

      “You hear the word ‘dystopia’ a lot more these days,” remarks a friend, his intonation Eeyore’s. Well, yeah. News outlets now go to great lengths to give us “A Break from the News.” I can no longer even remember what it felt like, back in 2008, when Barack Obama said, “Yes, we […]

Time for a Little Intellectual Humility?

      A friend and I used to argue for fun, and when we had exhausted the rational points of debate and I made a final, flourishy demand for proof, he would shrug and say, “Because I’m right.” It was maddening. Yes, he was teasing, but we both knew he also meant it—and so […]

The Simulation Hypothesis

      All of a sudden, we are living in a simulation. Granted, Philip K. Dick said so in 1977, and Plato a little earlier. But ever since the first Matrix film, the simulation hypothesis has been gathering momentum. This month it sprang out at me like a Jack-in-the-box, mentioned again and again in […]

The Art of Interrupting

      “Stop!” my friend said, throwing both hands up. “I can’t even follow this!” Mom and I were telling a story, talking over each other, interrupting, finishing sentences, all of it as smooth and perfectly timed as a choir singing rounds. Obediently, we paused, both of us puzzled. “What’s wrong?” “I don’t even […]

Pillow Talk

    Albrecht Dürer, who went on to paint one of the earliest independent self-portraits in the history of Western art, first sketched himself with a pillow floating in the foreground. Oddly angled, the shadow of its billows cross-hatched in sepia, the pillow is a bit of a puzzle. But when I read about his […]

An Index to the Index

    I have a deep and irrational hatred of alphabetical order. Blame a maiden name (do we still say “maiden”? how archaic) that began with B. Jolted into response, I had no chance to take the temperature of the room or divine what adrenal challenge was about to traumatize me. I grew past it, […]

If We Were Refugees

    More than 2.8 million Ukrainians, mainly women and children, fled in the first two weeks of warfare. Could I be ready that fast? Andrew would have to stay; he is not yet sixty. I would throw away a lifetime of pacifism and learn to shoot, so I could stay, too, but he would […]

A Pandemic Book That Will Erase Your Cynicism

      That tangled bouquet of masks I kept hooked over the indicator light in my car? Shoved into the glove compartment. The shared calendar on a wall in the kitchen? Filling up. We made it through these weird years, and the last thing I want to think about this spring is the pandemic. […]

Graffiti As Art; Art as Graffiti

      How does a guy with a doctorate in public policy analysis, an MBA, and master’s degrees in applied economics and public health wind up painting Kermit and the Duff’s beer can from The Simpsons—and winning national acclaim for his bold, textural canvases? Graffiti. David Ruggeri was a sweet Catholic boy scared of […]

Sharing the Loo

      “I’ll keep watch,” a sweet stranger offered, and after a second’s hesitation, I pushed through the swinging door of the men’s room. Desperado. Man, it was weird in there. The row of urinals looked sinister to me, like something used for some bizarre, coercive sanitary ritual. I missed the overpowering floral scent, […]

Bedazzling the Male

      Would drop earrings be too much at the office, the guy asks the fashion columnist, proud to be on trend. From coded ear piercings that nobody could ever, forgive the pun, keep straight, men eased into the pirate’s hoop and Brad Pitt’s armful of bracelets, and now their jewelry has exploded: dazzling […]

Is Quillette Left, Right, or Center (and Does It Matter)?

      The women who cracked German code during World War II must have gone home every night exhausted. I picture them in basement rooms, smoking, drinking coffee, working with scrunched foreheads until late at night. Now, with less camaraderie and thrill, we are all code-breakers, scrutinizing media to uncover its slant. I had […]

Inventing Anna for Ourselves

      I was embarrassed every time my husband walked through the room and saw what I was watching. Three episodes earlier, I had admitted that both main characters were driving me nuts. That the con artist was charmless, the journalist an odd combination of schoolgirl emotionality and driven, self-centered obsession. That she actually […]

Why Positive Thinking Is Useless for the Poor and Dangerous for the Rest of Us

    For years, I have deluded myself into thinking that the future hinged on attitude. Kids in poverty needed hope and a stronger sense of self, confidence, possibility. Those who were depressed or cynical needed to be grateful for what was good in life. Last week, I read a piece in Psyche by Jennifer […]

The Drumbeat of War

    “The drumbeat of war.” Media outlets all over the world latched onto that phrase, and for weeks, its driving, propulsive beat moved the news of Russia and Ukraine forward. CNN let us hear from Ukrainian business leaders “as drumbeat of war grows louder”; other outlets noted that “Drumbeat of war is already hurting […]

How Sensitivity Enables and Disables Our Nervous System

One of the few points of agreement left to us is that our whole culture is “oversensitive” now—that favorite castigation—though in different directions, canceling and banning and vilifying. We are miserable about it, here in this land that lauds bold and fearless action.

Nothing Works for Everybody

      One more article about how much we need sleep, and I will scream until dawn. We must have, they all insist, at least seven hours every night. Or we will lose our minds and die. There is, no doubt, some truth in this bossy advice. But I have struggled with insomnia since […]

How Words Can Change a War

      We all know how propaganda works, how deliberately chosen words become cogs in our war machines, whipping up certain emotions on purpose. But we forget how subtly those word choices can play out, and sometimes we cooperate unwittingly. Israel “occupied” East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights after the 1967 war, for example, […]

Cuckoo. Cuckoo.

      We go cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, laugh at old Road Runner cartoons (road runners being cuckoos) and coo over the von Trapp children as they sing about cuckoo clocks. Yet we shudder at the subtext of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and associate cuckoos with deception and cuckoldry. Does any creature […]

Distracted Daydreaming

    One woman buys a lottery ticket every day—even when her utilities are about to be cut off. She has already planned exactly how she will spend the money. “At least she still has her dreams,” someone murmurs, and I want to scream. Another friend whips up a new business scheme or an alternate […]

Nero Did Not Fiddle!

      Contemplating delicious frivolity, I tell my husband—who is depressed over landfills of excess clothing and its toxic incineration in a remote Chilean desert—that “we might as well fiddle while Rome burns.” “Nero did not fiddle,” Andrew replies absently. He has a penchant for rescuing misunderstood villains; he rendered both Herod and Richard […]

Get Rid of Those Books—It’s Time for Volleyball!

      The “wallpaper” on my phone is a rich, lamplit shot of old leatherbound books shelved behind a spiral staircase. The plaster walls of our house are covered with bookshelves. Books have sheltered me, taught me, and given me solace my whole life. It bemuses me that more than half the people in […]

We Are No Longer 314

      Groans of dismay over a new area code took up a huge chunk of the local news a few nights ago—even though the poll flashed at the segment’s end shows that more than 70 percent of us “don’t care.” The loyalists do. “Forever #314,” tweeted St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Aisha Sultan, and […]

Artists Start a Seed Library in Monsanto’s Backyard

      It will not be long now. The garden catalogs arrive almost daily, bright and fat among thin sad bills and tax statements. From the dark of a closet, I pull the jar of black bean hyacinth seeds, snapped free of their wrinkly purplish-brown pods in December, and unscrew the lid. They are […]

If It Works for Dogs….

      He is on his hind legs, a blur of hyperwagged tail wiggling his rump from side to side, a wide open-mouthed grin encasing a pink tongue eager to lap the little boy’s outstretched hand. The parents squint at the card, then tug that outstretched hand away. Pitbull and lab mix, the card […]

The Therapeutic Wonders of a Smashed Supply Chain

      This supply chain stuff is getting real. I write that sentence and then laugh at myself. Real, in a privileged first-world sense in which one’s trivial whims and tiny needs are not automatically, immediately accommodated. I have no idea what it feels like to not be able to get maintenance medicine or […]

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

      What I miss most about restaurants started fifteen years before the pandemic. My husband and I were living on St. Louis’s South Side, and in cold weather, we walked to a cozy little restaurant called Langan’s every Friday evening. That fact alone would puzzle anyone who knows me well; I am hardly […]

Swing Time

      The toughest times in our nation’s history were lightened by pure silliness, unapologetic frivolity, and melodies that made you want to dance. I tap my fingers, waiting. This is a tough time, too. Yes, I know, Omicron would keep us off the dance floor even if dance floors still existed. Instead of […]

Nellie Bly, the Heroine Nobody Hears About

      The guys I knew in journalism worshipped Hunter S. Thompson. Literally worshipped, as though he were a mythic god and gonzo a rite of passage. They imitated his stunts, dreamed up pranks that would make him proud. One even took “Thomas Hunter” as his pseudonym. Me, I just loved Nellie Bly. Elizabeth […]

Talking Suicide Blues

Turning grief around, using sorrow’s dark energy to help others—that was what Brandon Grossheim wanted to do, too. In his mind, suicide was a matter of free will. But when someone is young, inexperienced, swept by intense emotion, refusing professional counseling and prescribed medication, and preferring the swift release of drugs, booze, maybe even death—how “free” are they?

The Uncanny Parallels Between Islamic and American Extremists

        In Home, Land, Security: Deradicalization and the Journey Back From Extremism, Carla Power—a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for her previous book, If the Oceans Were Ink—moves slowly, gently, into a terrifying psychology. She wants to get past the horrors-wrought-by-monsters mindset, the one that slaps a […]

That Controversial Jab Could Help Prevent Mental Illness

      All viruses are sly and enigmatic, as cunning as a con artist in their search for a host, insidious in their damage, invisible. SARS CoV-2 doubled the mystery—where had it come from?—then compounded it by behaving in ways that threw us off base. A virus with both respiratory and GI symptoms? One […]

Woke M&Ms Will Not Save Us

      Full disclosure: somehow I have lived a full life without once thinking about M&Ms’ animated characters. Now, that bliss is over, because now, they will be woke animated characters. And that word I first loved, with its sense of awakening from a dull slumber to fresh, sharp insights, has itself been commodified, […]

Software That Weaves Your Dreams

    One of the last wells of mystery is about to dry up. Tech’s latest promise is to engineer our dreams. By rehearsing with VR, zapping certain parts of the brain awake, and cueing it with whispered dream prompts, sounds, even smells, we will be able to rid ourselves of nightmares and implant dreams […]

How Beethoven Would Rage at the AI That Dares Finish Him Off

    “How dare you?” he would thunder, stalking onstage, knocking down a few music stands along the way. The calm, self-congratulatory performance of his Symphony No. 10, finished this fall with the help of AI, would halt in jangled discord. Resurrected Beethoven would then settle his wild locks, raise the baton, and conduct an […]

Enough of Sloths. Bring in the Capybara

      Only tween girls loved the unicorns; the rest of us were happy to see those sparkly, fussy, phantasmagorical critters leave the internet. They were replaced—in the artisan goods sold on Etsy and the memes shared everywhere else—by a totem far less fleet and dainty: the sloth. Because I do not stay on […]

The Perfect Dress (Just Ask Proust, Sontag, Bacall)

              One shows up now and again for auction, but the surest way to find a Delphos dress (if you would rather not exhume Susan Sontag, who was buried in one and might resent resurrection) is at a museum. Fortuny’s iconic dress (which was really the creation of his […]

Sartre Could Have Predicted This Mess

      “I’ve stopped watching the news.” “Can’t think about it.” “It’s all too much.” “We need some good news!” I have perhaps shared a few too many articles about the possibility of more violence, even a spattered, incoherent civil war. It felt cathartic to email my worries, but the recipients of all this […]

“Work Is the Curse of the Drinking Classes”

      Oscar Wilde preferred absinthe and repartée to the nine-to-five grind. The notion that drink was the curse of the working classes? He twisted it like a lemon-peel garnish, declaring that work was the curse of the drinking classes. And he was secretly in earnest. In “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” Wilde […]

Confessions of a Hydrox Cookie

      First, it was my name. Not the “cookie” part—it took a while for me to realize how sexist that was, as condescending as “cupcake,” as hopeful as “Candy.” What is it with the sweet stuff, guys, wishful thinking? But no, my albatross was “Hydrox.” I sounded like a sterile chemical. And in […]

The Heart Attack Grill

      Dr. Jon, the owner of the Heart Attack Grill calls himself. Jon Basso’s schtick is his menu: greasy burgers topped with cheese and bacon, malts with extra butterfat, Flatliner French fries dipped in lard, Coca-Cola made with pure cane sugar, unfiltered cigarettes, vodka Jell-O shots given in syringes. Food so bad for […]

Breath: The Secret We Forgot

    We breathe in so many ways. Huge gulps of air, the icy cold burning our lungs. Shallow panic. The heavy breathing of passion, first rhythmic then faster, faster, like a car rolling downhill without brakes. The daze of hyperdistraction, answering email after email, and forgetting, for long stretches, to breathe at all. That […]

Separation Anxiety

I did try. During the Great Lockdown, I made a habit of driving to nearby parking lots and worked for an hour, sweaty and uncomfortable, in the car. Deliberately left alone, our new pandemic pup began the hour by wooing so loudly and mournfully, I had to force my foot onto the gas pedal. Then […]

How Plastic Liberated and Entombed Us

The First Nations taught us the fun of chomping on sweetened tree resin. So what did we do? We replaced it with a synthetic gum made of butyl rubber, paraffin, petroleum wax, polyethylene, polyisobutylene, and polyvinyl acetate. Now, in the first ten years of this millennium, we have manufactured more plastic than we made in the entire twentieth century.

Our Anger Complex

    When Trevor Noah came to this country, he sensed more hate than he had experienced in apartheid South Africa. He shrugged it off on 60 Minutes last week: “That’s welcome to America, you know. . . .  There’s a lot of hate in America because there is a lot of anger in America.” Put […]

The Eighth Sense

      Trust your gut. Do not get your bowels in an uproar. Do you have the stomach for this? Turns out we have spoken, all along, the truth that is now one of the hottest new topics in neuroscience: the power our internal organs have to modulate our feelings, our decisions, our lives. […]

What the Metaverse Is and How It Will Seduce Us

    For all the hype, the metaverse is not yet a thing—but rest assured, it will be. Piling up definitions, I try to fathom the notion. A fancied-up internet, some say with a shrug. A simple switch from phone to headset. “Virtual reality with unskippable ads” (Wendy Liu). “The ultimate distraction machine” (Peter West). […]

How AR Could Explode Traditional Teaching

      How would your understanding of the religion’s immensity change if you could sit, tiny and quiet, in front of the crossed legs of a 233-foot Buddha sculpted fifteen hundred years ago? Would planetary science carry a little more intrigue if you could see, close up, what Mars looks like? Would Shakespeare’s role […]

America’s Hair Is Falling Out

    If not all of America’s, mine at least. It fell out once before. Lots of it at once, I mean. Hanks. I wrote it off to turning fifty; my mother used to talk about “evil hormones” and I was beginning to understand her theology. But then my hair grew back. When you are […]

How Latin Became Right-Wing

    I liked printing AMDG (Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam) at the top of my grade school assignments. All for the greater glory of God. In other words, ego could be cast aside. You tried your hardest and let the chips fall. Latin felt like an extra layer of purpose, a way to transform even […]

Telling the Homer G. Phillips Story at Last

    You read Climbing the Ladder, Chasing the Dream and wonder, dazed, why no one put all this rich material together before. At once intimate and sweeping, the book is the first full history of St. Louis’s most extraordinary, embattled, and glorious hospital. Homer G. Phillips commands quite a few superlatives: it trained more […]

A Real Tree or a Fake One?

          Section by section, I lug the plastic, decapitated Christmas tree up from the basement. This is a joyless precursor to the part I love: each of us carefully hanging our favorite ornaments, stepping back, adjusting, and then sinking into the couch and gazing at years of Christmases. But I miss […]

What Do You See in These Twigs?

    When I looked at Michael Eastman’s twig sculptures, I saw people. A man reaching out to his child. A woman flirting. Curious what this revealed about my psyche, I casually mentioned the experience to Robert Cloninger, emeritus professor of psychiatry at Washington University. “These twigs could be a Rorschach inkblot test!” I told […]

In Honor of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Who Gave Us Flow

    My exultant “Ha!” woke the library. I had just read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of “flow”—that magical feeling of getting so caught up in what you are doing that you lose track of where you are, what time it is, who might want something of you. I knew that feeling, and I craved it. […]

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 […]

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 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 of […]

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 […]