Jeannette Cooperman

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

Posts by Jeannette Cooperman

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 […]