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No Photos, Please.

On a recent trip to Los Angeles I attended an exhibit at the Getty Museum featuring the work of Josef Koudelka, whose photographs mostly depicted gypsies and impoverished people in mid-century Romania and Czech Republic. I don’t know much more because I don’t spend much time reading the labels. An art history professor of mine in college frequently and vehemently chided museum-goers who believe they’re learning more by reading the wall captions than they would looking at the art. Every time he said it I felt shame for ever having bothered to read a caption at all, and henceforth spent my museum time looking hard at the art, holding my gaze for longer than is comfortable. Careful, though, not to stare past the point of social acceptability, because almost as bad as the label-readers are the art hogs who look for so long they make everyone else in the room feel as though they’re missing something.

I had never heard of Koudelka and was taken by his photos, enough to want to kick all the other tourists out of the room so I could be alone with the images (is there any better way to experience art?) and was even scolded by a suited security guard for taking a photo of one with my phone. “No photos, please!” he yelled, but there were photos everywhere. We wouldn’t be here if someone hadn’t seen something and thought, I must photograph that. The others snapped their necks at me and lost interest just as quickly.

I could easily have found the same photo online (which I have, above), but the one on my phone reminds me that I saw it in person, that I was there to see the result of Koudelka actually having been there, to witness these elegant contrasts: the girl’s youngness against the finality of a wedding day, the white of her dress against the crumbling wall, the bitterness in the face of the girl in the window behind her against her own expression of annoyed impatience, as though she is saying, Do we have to do this right now? Adolescence is the same across time and space and understanding. I take great comfort in that—it makes me feel human. And if that is not at least one of photography’s promises, then I have learned less than I suspect, or than I’ve hoped.

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Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

(originally featured in Bitch Magazine)

Caitlin Doughty’s memoir begins with an elderly man and a pink plastic razor. “A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves,” she writes. “It is the only event in her life more awkward than her first kiss or the loss of her virginity.”

Doughty is a Los Angeles-based mortician and death theorist. She best known for her organization and blog, Order of the Good Death, described as “a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.” Between that and her YouTube series, “Ask a Mortician,” she is widely recongized as a vocal proponent of demystifying our collective cultural experience with mortality.

Doughty’s debut memoir is an unapologetic account of the intimate (and often graphic) experiences of her first few years working in the American funeral industry. She focuses mainly on her job at a busy San Francisco crematory, where she began as an inexperienced 23-year-old fascinated with death. Carefully balancing a razor-thin line between humor and vulgarity, she recounts everything from moldy human remains to cleaning up molten body fat to loading stillborn babies into the crematory retort. “Appalling? Absolutely,” she writes. “But if I let myself be sucked into the sorrow surrounding each fetus—each wanted but wasted tiny life—I’d go crazy.”

While reading, I often found myself unsure whether to laugh or cringe—and that’s the point. “There is nothing like consistent exposure to dead bodies to remove the trepidation attached to dead bodies,” Doughty writes. “What happens to a culture where all decomposition is removed? We don’t need to hypothesize: we live in just such a culture. A culture of death denial.”

With this book—and her efforts with Order of the Good Death—Doughty hopes to help “pull the shroud off our death ways.” The goals are to make death more a part of life, to reintroduce the concept of families taking care of their own dead, and to develop healthy, secular ways to deal with our mortality. Her writing evokes both the bluntness of Jessica Mitford’s 1963 exposé, The American Way of Death, and the dark humor of Mary Roach’s 2003 Stiff, while taking the informally-designated “death” genre to the next level with a blend of history, personal narrative, science, humor, and advocacy.

“A culture that denies death is a barrier to achieving a good death,” she concludes. “Death isn’t happening to you. Death is happening to us all.”

Here Lies #1: The Green Suitcase

I recently read a Huffington Post blog about de-cluttering, the kind that makes you feel ridiculous for having clung onto the variety of crap that weeds up tiny apartments: memorabilia, kitchen gadgets, archaic forms of media. The reading propelled me into a jettison frenzy, combing the house for stuff. Stuff I haven’t worn since two apartments ago. Stuff I never read and—let’s be honest—am never going to make the time to read. Stuff whose initial freeness convinced me that I could find a use for it. An expedition permeated with moments of waving an object in the air and asking, “Why do I have this?!?” before shaking my head and dropping said trash into a recycled paper bag. It’s liberating.

And because it’s so liberating, I’ve kept that Huffington Post blog an open tab on my desktop for three weeks so that every time I open my laptop I am reminded to throw something away. I have since parted ways with the following items: a stack of paperwork pertaining to a defunct 401K account, two pairs of unworn earrings I found tucked into my checkbook wallet, copies of my grad school application (on paper and compact disc), a box of < 500 since-updated business cards, that backup bottle of eyeglass spray cleaner, and a package of don’t-actually-hold-your-hair bobby pins.

In an effort to keep this going and make it more entertaining , I’ve decided to post about every moderately significant object (in size or merit) I discard. This is both an exercise in letting go and a testament to the wisdom that writing is the best form of remembering. In this case, not remembering the object as much as its history, or sometimes my history of believing in its necessity.

Here Lies #1: The Green Suitcase

The green suitcase is the first suitcase I ever owned. I purchased it from Target in 2005. My choice was based on its shade: an electric neon green, the same green of a pair of shoelaces I had cherished in high school. I was twenty-four, living in Rhode Island, and preparing to travel south to a wedding in North Carolina with my then-boyfriend and a handful of his friends that I didn’t really care about who didn’t really care about me either. Five of us left at midnight and drove the twelve hours in a minivan with a little television mounted to the ceiling. It was June and we hit hot traffic in D.C. I leaned my head against the car window, watching steam rise from the pavement and make Monets of the landscape.

Our hotel had a pool and my boyfriend had disappeared to attend to wedding party responsibilities. I happily spent an afternoon reading The DaVinci Code on a complimentary towel. One of the friends said, “I’m just not into popular fiction.” I defended my book choice by saying that I was taking a summer art history course. We gracefully fulfilled every stereotype we had assigned each other.

unctreesThe wedding was held in a swank ballroom at the University of North Carolina. Finely framed portraiture scaled the walls and the sounds of a live string quartet came from somewhere unseen. The brides maid dresses and groomsmen ties were the same shade of green as my suitcase. This made me realize, for the first time, that weddings didn’t need to be stuffed full of unjustifiable and painful tradition. The whole event was a confluence of tattoos and old money, swirled in this surprisingly tasteful fashion.

A beautiful Southern porch stretched off the building and faced an immaculate lawn shaded by oak trees. I spent much of the evening out there, sipping something nonalcoholic, leaning against a stone railing and staring at the campus, thinking about being someone else—a bridesmaid, a UNC student, a banquet waitress. I didn’t have it bad; I just had it bad enough to be curious.

*

The green suitcase occupies half of the top shelf in my hallway closet—prime real estate in a three-room apartment. It is on wheels but at some point lost the feet that counterbalance its weight; now one must lean it against a thigh or a counter for stability. It has since been relegated to relocation purposes, carting DVDs or audio equipment from one apartment to the next. It’s green still glows from among darker closet hues, but that is not enough to necessitate its stay. In its absence, that green will remain—in a dish towel, a vase, a set of nesting measuring bowls—tracing a neon stripe into the future.

Blood Test

I am supposed to be fasting but wake up with hunger crawling up from below against the rawness of morning throat. Two hours until the lab opens. Maybe I can lie, I think. Or maybe it doesn’t really matter. I make a cup of tea and dip my fingers into a canister of roasted almonds.

“You have to fast 12 hours for accurate fasting blood test results. If you fast four hours or more the fasting blood test results may be accurate,” says the internet. In my search for validation I find only the guiding principles of a pervasive framework poised to inspire shame.

I go anyway. The sun is coming up and the parking lot is already full. A woman behind the counter hands me a sticker with my name written on it. “This will be your name tag. Wear it while you’re in the building and hand it back in before you leave.” What kind of a system are they running here? I sit across from a patient in the waiting area who looks like Johnny Sac’s wife from The Sopranos. She scrolls her iPhone with two hands, long curved manicure grazing the screen. I pick up a newspaper and read an article about the FDA changing nutrition labels, making calories more prominent and clarifying serving size. “Most of the nutrients are listed in grams, a basic unit of the metric system. People don’t really understand what a gram is.”

A technician calls my name and I follow her down labyrinthine hallways to a windowless room. Her hair is in tight rows and she sports a pair of outdated Nikes.

“Let’s see what we got here,” she says, looking at my sheet.

“I can do everything but the fasting tests. I didn’t fast.”

“Do you want to just come back and do them all at once?” I tell her I’m already there, so we might as well do the ones we can. She doesn’t seem to understand my logic, but concedes. Tourniquet, prick, drain. We make that warm, temporary conversation people make over medical procedures. My boyfriend passed out the last time he had blood drawn. This makes her chuckle and arrive at the conclusion that all men are wimps, a generalization I don’t believe, but she is filling numerous vials with my blood, and I want to bond on some level.

She hands me a urine sample cup and leads me to a nearby bathroom. “Don’t worry about that sign that says don’t flush,” she says. “It’s because we also use this bathroom for drug testing.” I lock the door behind me and look for the sign that says not to flush. I find only a xerox that says “IF YOU URINATE ON THIS SEAT YOU WILL HAVE TO CLEAN IT UP YOURSELF.” There is no sink.

When I return she’s on the phone tracking down a stool sample kit. “Should I give her the one with the orange lid or the gray lid?” I think about how there is really no graceful way to give a stool sample, how shit universally levels us.

She dumps me back in the waiting room and disappears into a door marked BIOHAZARD in search of my colorfully lidded sterile cups. Ginny Sacrimoni has been replaced by a bald guy with a tribal head tattoo. All the magazines are from 2011 and I find myself staring at a wall mounted photo collage of lab technicians, little portraits cut into perfect rectangles from Kodak 4x6s. They all look so nondescript. Are dull people drawn to lab work or does lab work suck everything interesting out of your life? Two women come out of the BIOHAZARD room laughing. “Just cleaned out my locker and found a wedding invitation from 2009,” one of them says.

The technician returns holding a brown paper bag. Inside are three color-coded vials filled halfway with unidentifiable liquid, and some foreign object she calls a “hat.”

“The hat fits right into your toilet. You poo into it and then use the little spoons to scoop out samples for each container.” Her voice lowers for the word poo. “Do you want the blue lidded cup, too?” She asks in such a way that implies I understand the significance of the blue lidded cup.

“Sure.” Can’t hurt.

She pulls a blue lidded cup out of her lab coat pocket. I like her, the way she prepares for all possible outcomes. She smiles and asks for my name tag. It makes a soft fabric hiss as I peel it off my coat.

It’s going to be a sunny day. I cradle my shit sample kit under my arm and the tinted automatic doors exhale me into morning.

Review: What Will It Take to Make a Woman President?

(originally featured in Bitch Magazine)

In her introduction to this collection of interviews, Marianne Schnall admits that her endeavor began with a slightly different question—one raised by her then 10-year-old daughter, shortly after Obama was elected: Why haven’t we ever had a woman president? “It is these types of questions, often out of the mouths of babes, that can wake us up out of a trance,” writes Schnall. “Many inequities have become such a seamless part of our history and culture that we may subliminally begin to accept them as ‘just how it is’ and not question the ‘why’ or explore the possibility that circumstances could be different.”

Schnall confronts these cultural assumptions by posing a series of provocative questions to a series of equally provocative subjects—Maya Angelou, Gavin Newsom, Nancy Pelosi, Sheryl Sandberg, Gloria Steinem, to name a few. She includes men and women, democrats and republicans, and a variety of races and ages—a selection which illustrates the importance of framing the lack of American women in leadership roles as a humanist issue, not just a concern specific to a portion of the population, even if that portion is more than half. “Women bring a different perspective to each and every conversation because we have a different set of experiences,” says journalist Pat Mitchell, who points out that global issues are “too complex to expect men to figure it out all by themselves.”

Despite the diversity of Schnall’s interviewees, they unanimously agree that all women leaders face the same set of challenges, namely an unforgiving media, a lack of role models and resources, and the influence of a society that frames self-promotion and drive as unattractive, unfeminine qualities. “Women have to be taught that ambition is ladylike,” says Senator Clair McCaskill. Or better yet, that antiquated ideals of what is “ladylike” or feminine need to be redefined—a process that starts at home. “Most girls don’t grow up thinking that they want to be out there in the rough-and-tumble of politics,” says political strategist Donna Brazile. “You’ve got to give women the tools they need in order to believe that they can be successful when they get there.”

The general consensus is that we are on the brink of huge shift, one largely foreshadowed by Hillary Clinton’s primary race in 2008. Much of the book actually reads like a love-letter to Hillary, one that both reveres her courage and begs her to run in 2016. The interviews are bound by this underlying sense that Hillary made a huge crack in the glass ceiling, allowing most of those interviewed to believe a woman president can and will happen in their lifetimes.

“Are we ready for a woman president?” Schnall asks each of her subjects. A resounding: yes, but not without action. “I feel hopeful that you and I will act,” says Gloria Steinem. “It’s not automatic…It means recognizing that the voting booth is the only place on Earth in which everybody’s equal—so using it.”

Tricked Into Believing You Are Starting Something New

Up before dawn with trazodone’s thick fog crushing my face. A vague light glows through poorly closed curtains. 6:23 am. Boyfriend rolls over in the lust of normal sleep. Only sixteen hours to fill before a semi-respectable bedtime.

Coffee. I microwave the milk in the bottom of the mug before adding the caffeine so the whole mess stays hot a little longer. Laptop makes the kitchen glow like TV. Email, facebook, other email whose inbox receives messages from Tripadvisor and Goodreads and my mom, work email, weather, calendar. I spend some time obsessing over a recently created profile on a “the world’s leading site for online work.” No leads yet, but I’m optimistic. Decide to take a formal test to rate my English grammar skills: 82 of 100, top 30th percentile. The sentence structure test doesn’t fare so well because I have no idea what an adverb subordinate clause is. I quit at 12 out of 40 questions. If you leave now, you can’t retake the test for fourteen days. I mock this out loud into an empty kitchen.

Oatmeal’s in a bowl and I relocate to the green chair in the living room. 8:15, boyfriend still asleep. Read Cloud Atlas in front of a space heater until I have to pee and then I just take a shower because I’m already in the bathroom. At its hottest our water is still at least two degrees cooler than I prefer. I want to exit the shower with heat welts on my shoulder blades. I blame this lack on my neurotic landlords, convinced they have tweaked this lukewarm purgatory to their benefit.

Boyfriend wakes up and eats a bowl of cereal. We both work from home. “Will it distract you if I do tae-bo?” I spend an hour with a DVD I had my brother convert from VHS when I was twenty-five. I know every scream and grunt and motivational exclamation. I curse Billy Blanks only twice. Crumbs from the rug embed in the sweaty small of my back.

To the market: bread, bananas, milk, chocolate bar, dinner? The country observes Veteran’s Day and a middle school band marches around the store playing some recognizable unnamable song. I want to take their picture with my ancient cell phone, but they’re moving too fast. I cannot BELIEVE you are missing this. Send picture message without picture? Yes.

Lunch is a tuna sandwich. Boyfriend works from the kitchen table today so I move back to the green chair and write for a couple hours. It’s like putting a puzzle together, searching through nearly identical pieces of sky for the one that fits until your brain feels light and you move onto another section, tricked into believing you are starting something new. I break to pirate latest episode of Fringe and watch wrapped in a blanket, toes tucked into the gap between cushion and chair. I think about how I wish my hair was as long as Olivia Dunham’s, whose real name I can’t remember without searching imdb, but I’d rather accept the gaps in my memory than rely on technology to keep filling them.

I move to the couch for a change of scenery and struggle through the intro of a Q&A I’m putting together for a magazine. Certain assignments evoke the stilted torture of writing high school term papers. I look to other Q&As for inspiration but feel like a thief without an original idea in my head. Get lost in thinking about how all artists borrow from each other and are connected in an endless invisible network of influence.

Boyfriend leaves to go for a run. Q&A on its way to the editor and I reward my efforts with an apple. The sun reflects off dew clinging to the kitchen windows. We have a moisture problem. The neurotic landlords blame it on our hot breath. “Have you ever slept in a tent?” the wife asked, implying that I compare our apartment to a canvas teepee in the woods. Her tone suggests she believes this is the most logical explanation. I cannot argue with belief.

Lock up and walk through the old cemetery behind our duplex. Trying to find the oldest birth date; so far: 1807. It’s November and summer’s corpse spreads itself over the northern hemisphere. Various shades of orange and brown blanket the walkways. Newer headstones feature etched portraits of the dead. Mental note: etched portrait phenomenon seems exclusive to first generation immigrants. Warrants further investigation.

The dewey apartment welcomes me home. Daylight savings has pushed the afternoon into darkness. I move through, turning on the lights, then pause in the center of electric yellow for minutes, staring, wondering what to do next. My sock is bunched inside my boot. Princess and the pea.

Boyfriend watches football on his laptop, periodically fielding calls from his father, who also watches football in a city 3,000 miles away. I decide to read and then I change my mind and write until my face is pressed against the cold levee of imagination. Retreat to dinner: pasta and greens from a bag. Pre-washed but who trusts that claim. I rev up the salad spinner and let it go, shooting spinach water against skim milky white plastic; it sounds like an engine dying. The most gratifying kitchen experience. One more spin.

We eat touching knees under a tiny kitchen table and talk about writing. Some nights this feels like monologues sharing a stage. Alone, together. How much can you ever truly know about someone else’s work? Tomato sauce stains our lips. I illustrate the puzzle metaphor with my hands. He nods. He’s heard this a thousand times. We touch fingertips between empty bowls.

The Plaid Pantry appears to be out of dark chocolate Reeses peanut butter cups. “Maybe they’re discontinued,” I worry out loud. A hooded man slinks by whose movements echo those of an ape—hulking, dragging, dark. Boyfriend discovers desired candy in an unsuspecting spot. We buy it from a girl who doesn’t say hello back and divvy our treat outside on the gummy sidewalk. “I thought that guy was a gorilla,” he says, shoving the whole cup in his mouth. I eat mine like it’s a delicacy, making it last two street blocks.

At home we get under a blanket and watch part of a Harry Potter. Boyfriend has to explain what’s happening between each scene because I’ve never read the books and there are more characters than a Tolstoy novel. Sleep crawls into my peripherals. I lean my head on a shoulder that smells like wet. “Are you falling asleep?” he asks. I am and so I forget to answer.

“Babe?”

I am in bed first, every night. Crawl into the cold shell of sheets, glasses off, body tucked into a ball, long, deep breath. I find my way to the puzzle, putting words and sentences together at the edges of consciousness. Every idea feels alive, ingenious. Sleep is at the door, and the ideas become a train I am not on, leaving a station. I reach for one and repeat it over and over in my head.

Let me remember this tomorrow.

Kate Zambreno’s Heroines

(originally featured in Bitch Magazine)

Kate Zambreno has declared herself the “literary executor of the dead and erased.” Zambreno’s blog, Frances Farmer is My Sister, is part of an online discourse around how women writers have been historically perceived. Her latest book, Heroines, is part memoir and part encyclopedia of these forgotten women writers, a union in which she believes herself to be a part.

Zambreno’s narrative is a series of fragmented histories. The bulk are rich and devastating biographical accounts from what she calls her “invisible community,” comprised of women like Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivien(ne) Eliot, and Sylvia Plath, among others. While Zambreno has a soft spot for the “erased wives,” she constructs a broad community built around women writers whose legacies were repressed. “Who gets to be remembered?,” she asks. “Whose writing is preserved and whose is not?” Her intent is to illuminate these writers’ achievements, otherwise buried in the shadows of a husband, a mental illness, or a suicide.

Zambreno takes us inside the unique struggles of women writers and ultimately reveals that little has changed. The skeleton of this book is her own literary identity crisis. “I have two selves too,” she writes. “The me that lectures women on literature where husbands oppress their wives, and the me that secretly lives that life.” She struggles throughout to reconcile her marriage to a writer with her own writerly goals, affirming that love and ambition are often doomed to a perpetual binary.

Duality seems to be at the core of Zambreno’s text: husbands and wives, writers and characters, novelists and novelties. She takes the corset off a world in which women have historically been expected to be muses instead of artists, often ostracized or ridiculed for attempting to cross that divide.

One of her central arguments is that there is a critical bias against women who write autobiographically. “Memoir is a woman writer’s forbidden and often avoided content,” she writes. The charge is often narcissism—one rarely leveled at male writers of the same genre. “he can write the autobiographical, but his work is read as aspiring to something greater.” Zambreno disputes these claims and encourages women to embrace the literary self-portrait, if anything to claim ownership of themselves as characters before someone else takes that liberty.

Toward the end the autobiographical takes a backseat and Zambreno speaks frankly to her readers, advising them to tell their stories in any format available. “The only way our narratives will be told is if we write them ourselves.” This book will leave you with a sense of urgency to preserve your own fast-disappearing history.