Feeding Your Grief

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In the photo, my family’s wearing black. Their heads are hunched, and they look miserable. But when I look at the picture, I can’t concentrate on them, on their faces, on their grief. I look instead at a plastic grocery bag my father carries in his left hand. It’s in the foreground of the image, and the local photographer has mistakenly focused on the bag. The caption reads, “The Blum family mourns the loss of their daughter.” There’s no mention of the bag, but it demands attention. The bright, bulging plastic monstrosity leaps out from the photo. It has life in a way that the man holding it does not. My father’s face is vacant, like he’s not really there. And I always think, when I hold the picture up under the fluorescent basement lights, that if you want to find my father in the photo, you can’t look at him. You’ve got to look at the bag. To know Larry Blum, you have to understand why he brought a bag of bananas to his daughter’s funeral.

Isaac Blum, writing in the Iowa Review about his young sister’s death from plane crash debris, the shadow Heinz ketchup casts over his family, and the different ways people mourn.

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Microaggression U: Racism at Yale, from Students’ Perspectives

Photo: Angelo Mercado

It may be difficult to imagine that life at Yale, a site of immense privilege as well as a seemingly liberal oasis, could be tough for students at all in light of other, more violent instances of racism occurring across the nation. Yet Yale’s high bar of entry and its utopian image do not preclude its students from being victim to ordinary, systemic injustice. In fact, entering into a place where privilege is so pervasive may only make it more difficult for students from diverse backgrounds to assert their own identities, making greater the inequality between those who have power and those who do not. The demand we make of these student activists, then, should not be How bad is it? or Does this really happen? For at the heart of what’s going on is the long-awaited release of years of pent-up pain and frustration, caused by the slow burn of chronic, systemic injustice.

—At Guernica, Larissa Pham writes beautifully, as always, about the insidious systemic racism she and other persons of color encounter on a regular basis at one of the most prestigious, liberal universities in the world.

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The Biblical Rheology of Deep-Dish Pizza

Photo by Sara B. // Flickr CC license

Matthew Gavin Frank | The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food | Liveright | Nov. 2015 | 11 minutes (2,839 words)

The following is the Illinois chapter from Matthew Gavin Frank’s exceptional new tour of signature foods from fifty states, excerpted here courtesy of Liveright Publishing.

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If frostbite is just another kind of scalding, then let’s imagine this earth as a dish, or—even better—a platter, something capable of containing the thickest of our dinners, the cold cut, as if geologically, with the orange grease of the mozzarella, the pepperoni’s fat char. Let’s pretend that all winters can be spatula’d into our mouths in easy triangles, that, if we take too big a bite, if we don’t blow the world cool, our mouths will fall lame, and we will make only weather sounds.

Uncle sprinkles crumbs of parmesan and crushed red pepper over his slice. Outside, on the window, a child leaves his hand in the frost, and the pizza whines as Uncle bites it. You think of crying, of fallow fields, of—just south of the city—some awful crow choking to death on some kernel of frozen corn. Here, in Illinois, our corn is better. Better even than the birds.

The crust uplifts the sauce. In this is some kind of offering, sacrifice. The pizza cries for its mother. The ovens gasp. This, Uncle says, tracing his pinky over the imprint of the child’s thumb, trying to measure up, is what your aunt and I used to call Baby-Making Weather. Read more…

‘I Have Been Writing To Impress Old White Men’

Photo: vintagecat
Photo: vintagecat

As a young woman I had one and only one intense and ceaseless pastime, though that’s not the right word, though neither is hobby or passion. I have practiced this activity with religious devotion and for longer than I can remember. I have been trying to give it up recently, since moving away from Bedford Falls, since around the time my daughter was born. But nearly all of my life has been arranged around this activity. I’ve filled my days doing this, spent all my free time and a great amount of time that was not free doing it. That hobby, that interest, that passion was this: watching boys do stuff.

— Claire Vaye Watkins, acclaimed author of Battleborn and Gold Fame Citrus, presented “On Pandering” during the 2015 Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop. Now published as an essay, Watkins gets honest with herself, her audience, and her answer to the question, “Who do you write for?” and how she ( and we) can change our answers.

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How the Mason Jar Got Hip

Photo by Nina Nelson, Flickr

That, in a nutshell, is why the Mason jar has become emblematic of gentrification: Holding a cocktail or a Slurpee, it’s removed from its original context—which is rooted in functionality—and made into an icon of ironic contrast. Used to serve a drink in Hackney Wick, the Mason jar becomes a vacant signifier. It’s meaningful in its evacuation of meaning—a far cry from delivering the pleasures of summer in the dead of winter, or ensuring that, in a time of need, there will still be enough.

This current incarnation of the Mason jar has a lot to do with the hunger for greater legitimacy: How can I be more real, and more unique in my realness? One of capitalism’s most enduring legacies has been persuading people that they can purchase a singular style. In some areas, like fashion, the effort to be unique has come full circle, so that the best way to be an individual is to dress with utter banality (hence the trend known as normcore). Mason jars—with their enticing aura of thrift, preservation, and personal labor—have become a potent signifier in this quest. Rather than ensuring against scarcity, however, Mason jars confirm the presence of abundance—and suggest that we’re rather fatigued by it.

Ariana Kelly, writing in The Atlantic about the invention and impact of the Mason Jar ─ that simple, indispensible glassware that facilitated rural American life ─ and what its current popularity in urban culture signifies. Kelly’s piece ran in September 2015.

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The Definition of Grace

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Definitions of grace have been refined and amended often over the centuries. Many understandings of it bleed into one another in the human imagination, mixing with emotions and resulting in grace being looked at often less as a matter of doctrine than of nostalgia. But the catechism defines grace as “favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.” Grace manifests as both God’s disposition and God’s action; it is an atmosphere of salvation for humanity to dwell in, but can quickly be made manifest and intervene in human affairs.

Flannery O’Connor recognized our failure to identify grace when she wrote, “Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them.” I read this line in my early twenties when I was making my way through O’Connor’s collected works and intentionally widened my gaze in search of grace at work. I imagined it as a substance that blanketed creation, an unearned pardon on top of an already abundant and generous gift rendered invisible by being taken for granted. It was like the Dark Matter taking up most of the universe, or even the carbon particles in our own corner of the galaxy, but if I watched closely enough, I could see it act on objects.

—Alana Massey, in a wonderful essay about losing faith while at divinity school that appeared on Hazlitt.

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‘The One Who Gives Birth to Herself’: Rachel Syme on Empowerment and Agency Through Posting Selfies

Photo by Tina Leggio, via Flickr

It’s difficult to select just one perfect quote as a representative sample of Rachel Syme’s excellent ode to the selfie, at Matter. She comes at the subject from so many smart angles that there are too many to choose from. A prolific self-portrait poster herself, Syme defends this hugely popular phenomenon–so frequently derided as narcissistic and shallow, especially in reference to women–as a respectable act of self-expression and self-determination:

We are living in times of peak-selfie, and therefore, peak selfie-hatred. When a phenomenon leaks so completely and quickly into the cultural water supply, people are bound to get freaked out…

Those who see selfies as signs of the end times are focusing on the outliers; the bad actors. The people who accidentally fall into a waterfall and die in the pursuit of the perfect shot. The kids who get addicted to the digital feedback loop and start relying on hearts to get up in the morning. The moms and dads who take selfies when they should be watching their babies; the seething loners who use their selfies as a way to spread hate (if this hate spills over into violence, then selfies will surely get the blame). But these types of delinquents have always existed: the teenagers who don’t pay attention in class, ​the bros ​who snooze through cultural events,​ the trolls who care about snark over compassion. ​There are always going to be tourists who shove themselves obnoxiously to the front of the line, people who put their needs over the needs of others, people who gawk at fires and funerals: these are not unique social problems created by the selfie or its accoutrement.

​What the critics don’t focus on is how to decode the language of selfies when they are being used correctly: what the people in them are trying to do with their portraiture, what big message each individual’s self-representational practice all adds up to in the end.

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Celebrating the Trans Community: A Reading List

Photo: Heikki Siltala

Transgender Awareness Week occurs during the beginning of November, traditionally culminating in the Transgender Day of Remembrance. This period serves to amplify the achievements of the trans community, as well as illuminate its struggles. The Transgender Day of Remembrance honors the victims of hate crimes, suicide, murder and countless other violences trans folks face daily.

2015 has not been kind to the trans community. Trans celebrities receive awards and accolades, yet 79 trans-identified folks have been murdered this year. Many of them are women of color. Many were killed by people they knew, people they trusted.

Historically, the complexities of the trans community have been overlooked, its activism whitewashed or erased or ignored completely. Hollywood continues to cast cisgender actors in trans roles, reaffirming these revisionist attitudes. Subconscious, thoughtless or intentional, this is insidious. Erasing the experiences of a community—the good and the bad—erases the community altogether.

Every story is, of course, different, though the American media prizes a certain, clean-cut narrative of triumph over adversity. Trans is an umbrella term; it encompasses a variety of gender identities, a million stories.

I hope something here inspires you to reaffirm your commitment to making this planet safe and welcoming and kind and generous, or shows you that you are not alone. Or both.

We remember. We remain. Read more…