Qui Vivra Verra (Beyond Bye-Bye)

I am leaving France. I am still in France, in my bed in Toulouse, but I am leaving. My bags wait for me by the door. My room, bare. Only my food remains in the cupboard (coffee grounds, tea and in the fridge, of course, chocolate mousse). I began leaving this morning, when I did all my “lasts”: last walk around town, last ride on the metro, last glass (or two or three) of French wine in France. I felt my face wilt the last time I looked at the statue of a man (who always has birds resting on his head) that sits in the center of Place Wilson. The man, Pèire Goudouli, lived and died in Toulouse. He wrote poetry in Occitan. And now, birds fluff their feathers on his stone skull.

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I leave behind a crate of medicine, marking all the days and nights I lied in this bed, coughing and sniffling, wondering if I was sick because of the smoke I inhaled every morning while passing by the middle school on my street.

I leave behind mugs and backpacks and dead skin cells in the form of dust. Whoever sleeps here next will thank me for all the free paper and shampoo in the file cabinet.

I leave behind a grammar book and half the words in it that I have already forgotten.

Bed is an interesting place to be while in the process of leaving. In bed, with your eyes closed, you can feel like you are anywhere. But tonight, I feel like I am here, in Toulouse, in my home. Bed feels much more concrete of a place when I am aware that tomorrow I will leave it forever. This is what it feels like to go to sleep next to someone whose heart you know you will break the next morning. You are leaving them, even though you have not moved. The process has begun.

And so I play “Goodnight, Moon” with the contents of my life. I say goodnight and goodbye to new loved ones and a life of leisure that left me with enough time to honestly process, reflect and worry over who I am. Or rather, who I will become. Who I am is not a problem: I am in college, I am in France, I am good. I can locate myself (in a general way) a second past the moment I lose my stillness. It’s physics, really.

I find it much more comforting to look back and let go of my beautiful memories in Toulouse (the gourmet meals, the evenings sitting by the river, every walk I’ve ever taken) than to imagine how I will carry them into the future. I worry about my career, of course, and what I will do immediately after college; about the kind of life I will structure for myself (time off and hobbies and marriage and kids); and who I will be inside. What will I believe? Will my biases still be there, or will they be redistributed according to my new experiences? To what will I say, “Never” or “Always”?

Part of me is excited to leave the endless wrestling with myself behind. It’s tedious and anxiety-producing and feels like the work of a heady grad student who can discuss hypotheticals all day. On more than one occasion, I have seen the sunrise. My life of leisure, at times, felt woefully un-leisurely, all at the fault of my incessant and dogged brain. But how many can say that had 5 months to contemplate their lives without having to suspend them at a retreat or some ashram in India? I still went to school; I still worked at a bar; I still spent time with friends. But abstained (unwillingly) from familiar, local comforts. I had to replace myself in Toulouse, which led me to wondering exactly who it was that I was remaking.

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But creating and discovering a self takes work, and a hard worker needs sleep. It’s a cop-out, I know, the blogger’s equivalent of Puck’s epilogue from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”:

“… you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend…”

If you pardon, we will mend. It’s exactly what I need to do after half a year’s worth of self-reflection: sleep on it.

Mangez Bien (Food and The French Paradox)

Bread, butter, jam and espresso in the morning. Tartes, tea, green salad and fresh cakes in the afternoon. If a snack is necessary, a croissant with nutella or a chocolate bar. For dinner, there are always 3 courses: a main plate with grains, meat and vegetables, followed by green salad and a light dessert like apple sauce. And there is always bread, wine and cheese.

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While this might describe my day in food, it doesn’t capture the essence of my eating–which is a very French way of looking at my consumption, as something with a hidden heart.

But it’s true; food is no longer fuel for me, as it was in the U.S. It’s an energy of a different kind, one that feeds the heart, the mind, and, dare I get too French, the soul. Nothing compares to an afternoon in a cozy salon du thé with new friends, hot christmas tea and a raspberry tarte with sweet pistachio and lemon crust–or an evening with the apartment windows splayed open, a bouquet of red wine, a smattering of cheeses, my hostess and I hovering over them, red-cheeked and happy. Notice how food is an accompaniment to ambiance. People and mood matter more than what’s on the plate.

Let me explain eating in France. There is Food, but then there is also Taste, and then there is the Meal. All three are separate and important elements in french cuisine. Food may seem like the easiest thing to understand as an American–a tomato is a tomato, no matter where you go, right? In France, however, every element has a specific name and origin. My hostess will point across my plate and explain, “This sausage, boudin blanc, came from this region, the Pyrénées” or “This is a Bordeaux merlot made a few hours away.” In the U.S., I feel that food is simpler. One would say, “This is sausage” or “This is red wine.”

All the food must taste good, too. No French person or restaurant would ever purposefully serve mediocre fare. “Un bon goût” is a descriptor that always accompanies my hostess’ tour du plat; it is always a good sausage or a good wine. It’s important that each bite be pleasing–because why would you eat something unpleasant when you are in France?

Finally, you have the meal. A meal is more than just a drink and a plate. A real meal has a minimum of three courses. Wine is usually paired. And you must dine. A real dining experience includes friends, a soothing ambiance and lively discussion. In order to dine, you have to stop working, sit down and enjoy. A kebab on the way to class isn’t a meal–neither is a salad while watching Netflix. A real meal transcends whatever is on your plate and becomes an entire experience.

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My first few weeks in France, the food rocked my world. I was determined to try the entire shelf at the grocery store devoted to chocolate mousse; I gorged myself on tartes salées et sucres at various salon de thés; and I simply could not get over the 3-course dinners my hostess considered “normal.” I was eating like an American in France: too much, too often and never slowly enough.

I don’t think I need to explain the famous “French Paradox” too much–Americans are always taunted by the fact that the French eat seemingly fattier, richer foods with wine and chocolate, while they remain thinner than the American tourists ogling the macaroons served at Mac Do in Paris. The French, we are told, eat more slowly, never snack and have home cooked meals more often. They eat until they are “well,” and not full. When they do go out, they make up for cleaning their plates by walking everywhere they go. Good food is good for the health, and Americans don’t eat good food.

But “quick” food is becoming more popular, and I have a few questions about the health benefits of coffee and cigarettes for 2 out of 3 “meals” per day. I wonder how it is possible to always clean your plate with bread at a restaurant and not feel full afterwards, even if you haven’t eaten all day. I don’t understand how a sandwich made out of an entire baguette is a snack. I want someone to explain to me, for the love of god, how the sum of no water fountains, few public bathrooms and what must be constant dehydration does not lead to a heat stroke epidemic every summer in France.

I have learned to adjust to eating here–it was, perhaps, the greatest part of culture shock for me, something I was not expecting. I know now that “Un bon repas doit commencer par la faim,” or a that a good meal must begin with hunger. I eat small in the morning, like they do, and never buy snacks. I block off hours for meal times, or rather, the rest of my schedule revolves around my three “pauses” during the day. I have acquiesced to wine with dinner and have learned that it is bliss. I don’t count calories. I don’t care.

Me and my Kir

None of this is to say that I will keep these habits upon returning to the U.S. Food, I now realize, is a part of the lifestyle everywhere. The way I eat in France matches the way I live: leisurely, slow and for myself. In America, my life is different. I consider myself a busy person. Busy people don’t eat for hours. Busy people need coffee, and damn you if they can’t get it in a cup larger than a thimble. But it is nice to care about my food–it is nice to be here, in France, and recognize what food is and the way it fits into my life. Whether this realization comes from my abundance of free time or the French culture itself, I’m not sure. We talk about food just as much in my Italian-American family, but I’ve never seen food as such a strong cultural device before.

Good taste is worth importing. I don’t know how many bottles of wine I can reasonably fit into one suitcase, and I’m fairly certain that a 7-hour flight would ruin a batch of mousse, but I will bring my new and improved palate home. As well as my knowledge of how to make a decent Kir, which wine glass goes with what and the joy of a good pastry crust.

Petit à Petit, L’oiseau Fait Son Nid (Home in Southwest France)

Before heading abroad, I thought I knew what it took to make a life: friends, family, a daily activity like school or work and hobbies. I never thought about the everyday, mundane acts like walking and cooking and simply seeing. I also thought I knew the components of the self: personality, soul, passion and connections. I had never thought of the other, secret self that I would be left with when I was alone–the person who I was in constant conversation with while made mute by an empty apartment during the day.

After leaving the places where I had a life and a person thrust upon me (where I had school and friends in St. Louis and family and history Chicago to tell me who I was), I realized I knew very little about what it was really like to make myself up. I realized how much of my life in the US had been invented for me, and how much of that invented life and personality I had come to think of as essential.

So, throughout my time here, I’ve begun to pick up little pieces of what I believe are my life. As the proverb suggests, I attempted to make my nest, my “nid,” in Toulouse. I never questioned the need to make Toulouse feel like home–everywhere I’ve ever stayed for an extended period of time (St. Louis, Villanova, here), I have tried to find family figures to have dinner with, postcards to decorate my room and favorite spots that I could return to and call “mine.” I can’t even imagine what the alternative to building a nest is: white walls? Flings? Ambivalence? Though I claim to have wanderlust, I could never be a true wanderer. I love having a home. I love the idea of home.

Toulouse

Toulouse

In Toulouse, I have my hostess, an array of postcards over my desk and a few Spanish friends who live around the corner. I can find my favorite boulangerie, bar, coffee shop and salon de thé on a map. I like to run along the canal next to my apartment and take naps on the bank of the river. I go to school, work at a bar and travel. Bit by bit, I’ve built a temporary nest that has kept me sane and safe while away from my other homes.

Naturally, I began to wonder if I could ever move to France. My concept of home isn’t so concrete as to be restricted to the 70’s style split-level I’ve lived in since kindergarten, but I do find myself thinking more and more that I will live within a mile of my mother for the rest of my life, as my mother does with her own. That idea used to scare me (The monotony! The familiarity!), but it now seems so logical that I sense some weird Freudian complex at play.

However, my mother did leave home for college and lived in the exotic land of Florida for a few years, so I suppose that I, too, have the ability to make nests elsewhere.

Over the past few months, I’ve traveled quite a bit around Southwest France: Bordeaux, Estarvielle, Carcassonne, Collioure and Albi. In each city (or, more often than not, village), I’ve enjoyed food, wine, nature, sights and best of all, conversations with locals.  I have never loved a region so much, perhaps because it has everything I could want in the way of land, people and culture.

Albi

Albi

You are expected to learn wine here. The terrain switches between lush rolling hills and rocky, limestone soil, so you get the best of the fermented world: essentially, Italian whites and Bordeaux reds. You can ski, or descend the Pyrenees and swim in the Mediterranean. You are expected to eat well, whether it be hearty cassoulet or les fruits de mer. The cheese is always different and always incredible. Markets. The most enamored teenagers you’ve ever seen. Of the street performers, there is always an accordionist to make you feel very, very French. You are confronted with the strange coexisting remnants of Visigoths, Romans and the slave trade (that you had surprisingly failed to comprehend was a catastrophe that extended beyond your home country and had lasted even longer in the french colonies than it had in America). Trilled Rs and hard consonants and accents that sound like horse hooves on cobblestone.

But, as I’ve explained, these pieces don’t make up an entire life; there is always walking and seeing and breathing that fills the spaces between moments and circumstances. “This is real life,” my hostess has explained to me at dinner. “When you are living and not thinking about it.”

I think of the life that I’ve spent in transition in France: on the metro, walking in the rain, climbing strange hillsides with a belly full of wine. Sometimes I was headed to a specific destination: school, the safety of a café. Most often, I was simply living without thinking about it, which is easier to do, I realize, when you are not scared of where you are, but you are curious to see more. When you know the language and the land, but not yet how long you want to stay. In this life, these transitions, I imagine little nests dotting the terrain. I don’t imagine building the nests (no one ever does), but I feel, for a small second, what it would be like to settle in one.

Collioure

Collioure

Sauter du coq à l’âne (Mental Meandering Abroad)

Last week, I wrote an article for my student paper about the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris: “Charlie and Me: An American in France.” I was (and still am) confused and very emotional about the attacks and what they mean for the people of France, the status of free speech, and Muslims across the globe. Hence the title of my first post about France, which literally translates to “To jump from the cock to the donkey.” The idiom means to wander illogically in conversation, something that I think my Hebdo article did. I couldn’t help but jump from topic to topic; being abroad and learning so much makes my head spin.

My mind isn’t being blown on a daily basis because I’m learning new facts or having trouble adjusting to obvious cultural differences. Everyone who studies abroad goes through a little mental checklist before they leave in order to prepare for: fewer showers, more bread, and lots of smiling and nodding with potentially disastrous results. No, the hardest (and absolute best) parts of studying abroad are being surrounded by a different cultural point of view and being wildly uncomfortable all the time. 

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The Streets of Toulouse

Let me unpack that for you. First, when I say cultural POV, I mean that there are a lot of things that I, as an American, take for granted. I consider them facts of life. For example: I am willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to go to college. I expect Starbucks (and wifi) to exist within a mile of my every location. I assume that there is a bathroom in all school buildings. I never, ever ask strangers for directions when alone at night. Not a one of these things is true for a native Toulousian. To me, these are not big cultural differences. They are simple shifts in attitudes, undetectable to a tourist or someone in America reading about France (both of which I have been).

The Tram

With this shift in POV comes the uncomfortable feeling. It’s not unlike wearing an itchy wool sweater all the time. Sometimes you forget it’s there, when you’re laughing with your American friends and drinking red wine. But then you move, and you remember that you are out of your element. My rich vocabulary of anglicisms doesn’t work here. Neither do all my American values and attitudes. Which has led me down a very cool path of discovering who I am, separate from the place I come from and the values I have been taught are universal. France isn’t so very different from the United States. But my experiences here are less about the culture, the language and the place (Quelle Horreur!) and more about the simple fact that I am an Other in a place that is foreign to me. 

So, in a moments of intense internal work, I find my mind and my language jump around quite a bit–which makes blogging very difficult. But if there’s anything I’ve learned in France so far, it’s that if there’s a will, there’s a way, even more so than in America. I don’t mean it in a “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps kind of way.” I mean it in a “Even if you can’t find a single street name and you’re half a bottle of wine deep, some drunk teenager will help you find your way home out of the kindness of his drunk, teenage heart” way. People have done harder things, I know, but asking for help is difficult for an independent yankee like me.

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The Capitol

I have had many moments, even in my short few weeks, when I have needed a lot of help, and thankfully received it. My three favorite:

  1. When a woman starting cursing me on the metro (it was legitimately the beginning of “Beauty and the Beast,” I swear), and the French man next to me apologized to her on behalf of “tout le monde”  for whatever she was upset about.
  2. When I fell down a mountainside in les Hautes-Pyrénées and lost my cellphone, and then had to climb back up the mountainside with my professor to search for it. She summited first, of course.
  3. When, post-lost cellphone, I had a very nice new friend call an airline to explain that while I never reached the confirmation page or received a ticket to Prague, my card was charged for a billion gazillion dollars. Because, while the internet doesn’t always work here (card readers too!), airlines will still find a way to rob me blind.

I won’t even get into my linguistic errors ( small confession: I accidentally called my professor “Mr. Cute” for two weeks because I was mispronouncing his name). My awkward moments will proliferate, I have no doubt. But, have no fear, I am learning from them, learning my limits and learning that I am more than just a product of place and circumstance. Which is quite a valuable lesson, I think.

An American (Secular Feminist) in Israel

Last week, toured Israel through Project Interchange, an educational institute of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). The trip was meant to provide American students interested in media and journalism with a deeper understanding of Israel’s political, historical, cultural, technological, strategic, and religious contexts. I met with Israeli PR reps, journalists, broadcasters, military personnel, professors, activists, and more. I spoke with Arab-Israelis and Jewish religious leaders. I visited sites holy to Muslims, Jews, and Christians. I sampled Israel’s art, culture, and natural beauty. Obviously, I saw Israel through a particular lens: the Israeli-Jewish perspective. Regardless of who or what you think Israel is, this is its make-up and its national identity: Jewish. Somewhat secular. Democratic?

Part of this trip was based on my desire to understand and immerse myself in a place, as opposed to just act as a tourist. Granted, I did a lot of just touring. But through my conversations with the Israeli and Palestinian people, I hope that I gained a bit more insight into a) what the Israeli perspective is, b) who the Israeli people are, and c) how these people and thoughts shifted my own world view and compare to that of America. Israel is a locus of conflict; at this point, after my trip, I am slightly more knowledgable as to the different sides, but still utterly confused as to how a resolution can be made.

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Some of the things I heard while on my trip:

“If Israel continues to occupy thousands of Palestinian people, it will no longer be a Jewish nation state.”

“Israel was a great act of self-defense.”

“[The Israeli Right] are transforming Israel into something the world cannot accept.”

“You cannot PR your way out of the occupation.”

“I will never say that this is a Jewish state.”

“This is a Jewish state, have no doubt.”

“If you are a good journalist, and you report what is happening [to Palestinians], you will create incitement.”

“This is my homeland, the place where I belong, the place where the Jews will never be driven out of again.”

“The situation continues to be unsustainable.”

“When there are no bombs, it’s paradise.”

“Welcome to the Middle East. You can go to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow with a completely different reality.”

Hopefully, my coming months in France can help me digest all that I learned.

The History of Bald Broads

The undercut is the must-have hair cut for “all men”–and for a few daring women. Recently, the undercut has gone through a “feminine reinvention.” It is the haircut for the chic chameleon woman: masculine when slicked back, feminine when let down. Down, it represents a hidden queer or alternative identity, while still allowing its wearer to “pass” in everyday life. Up, it makes a woman feel tough and un-messable; if she can shave her feminine hair bare, she can defend herself in other ways, too.

Spoiler: I recently got an undercut. After years of Barbie-long locks, I got a bob, and then a few months later, decided I needed to clip my head. But how? I wasn’t ready for a “boy” haircut yet–I still wanted to play with my hair, touch it, braid it. I needed something versatile, but more masculine, less “sweet” than my cute little bob. So, obviously, I went for the undercut.

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Though I find the undercut empowering, new, and different, what are the cultural and historical implications of my bare head? Where did the history of women with shaved heads actually begin?

Shaven Head Shame

Having a shaved head has not always been an empowering thing for women–or a choice at all. The Bible presents a bald woman as a captive; her head was shaved at the beginning of captivity. If her captor still found her attractive (despite her lack of hair) at the end of a month, he could rightfully wed her. Later, this practice translated into women being required to cut their hair upon being wed.

In the Middle Ages, a shorn head was a sign of submission. Women adulterers often had their heads shaved as punishment, as their hair legally belonged to their husbands. Conversely, women would also shave their hair lines to make them appear higher and accentuate their foreheads. It also made their hair easier to hide under veils; exposed hair was seen as “erotic.”

During the Holocaust, women prisoners had their heads shaved. One young girl described the experience: “I look around and I see young girls with scissors and clippers cutting hair off clean to the scalp… when the cold scissors touch my scalp and my hair slowly falls down, I can’t help it, my tears fall down, mixed with my black curls.” A shaved head was seen as a dehumanizing uniform for prisoners in concentration camps.

Fast-forward to post-WWII France, and women accused of “collaboration horizontale” with the Germans had their heads forcibly shaved in public. The women, often prostitutes, were sometimes beaten to death. Unfortunately, France has a history of desexualizing women by shaving their heads.

Today, women are still shave their heads as an act of contrition. Most natural hair used for wigs and extensions come from countries where long hair is seen as a badge of beauty–but women are poor enough to consider selling it. Hair historian Caroline Cox says, “Working-class women’s hair is used to bedeck the head of those who are more privileged. It’s been going on for hundreds of years.” In Russia, women prisoners have been known to have their heads shaved, and the wardens sell their hair for money.

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Clipped Rebellion

As a woman, shaving your head can also be a sign of rebellion. After Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus clipped their hair, the media released a torrent of “Are they crazy?” headlines. But for the pop stars, and countless other celebrity women who have dramatically cut their hair, their new do’s were a sign that they–and not the media, society, or managers–were in control.

In China, women shaved their heads in 2012 in protest of gender discrimination in university admission policies. While shaving their hair off, the women reportedly sang together, “I am as strong as you are, and am putting all I have into chasing my dream.”

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Bold, Bald Beauties

Some women shave their heads (partially or in full) to divorce themselves from the most physical and obvious symbol of their femininity. Free of their egos, they can discover how they identify themselves and how they are feminine, apart from just hair. An unfortunate side effect? One woman writes of baldness’ unfortunate side effect for women:

The most common reaction in public is that people assume I shaved my head due to bad health. It’s quite peculiar getting so many sympathetic looks from strangers. Although people mean well, is it a coincidence that we generally assume a woman would have a shaven head out of weakness, when we assume a man does it to show strength? Society’s popular perception of ideal femininity is so often rooted in weakening women. We are meant to look youthful, gentle and soft. Strength in ‘feminine’ beauty is rarely actually about looking strong, resilient or empowered, it is about looking sexy.

Some female Buddhist monks (Bhukkhuni) shave their heads, like male Buddhist monks do in order to show commitment to the Holy Life.

Stay tuned for a history on the undercut! Spoiler alert: its origin may surprise you.

In The News: Pussy Riot, Druid Kings, and Religion and Politics

Not all of us have time to read the news. I’ve been too busy reading the news to blog lately. I’d like to start a new feature: weekly lists of aggregated, recent news articles. A lot of what I will choose to add to these lists will be long-form, op-eds, or things that I find fun; if you want quick news bites, read something like TheSkimm. My point here is simply to find and promote interesting and well-written articles. So that for those of you who don’t have the time to sniff through the internet with your news nose pressed to the screen, here’s your cheat sheet.

Religion and Politics

Everyone’s two favorite things to discuss at the dinner table, right? This is the stuff that makes the news world go ’round: party lines, heavenly divides, and of course, the intersection of the two. Though the U.S. claims separation of church and state, Capitol Hill is like a modern-day nesting egg, with the Bible hidden inside the Constitution hidden inside obviously religious congressmen and women. While the U.S.’ roots are puritanical, the rest of the world offers richer–and sometimes more comical, as you’ll see below–disputes between the government and God.

Real News

  1. I am the son of a terrorist. Here’s how I chose peace,” by Zak Ebrahim at Ted Talks. Ebrahim, the son of one of the plotters for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, discusses how he overcame his tumultuous upbringing through, unexpectedly, The Daily Show and Busch Gardens.
  2. The New History Wars,” by James Grossman in The New York Times. A lot of us have taken A.P. U.S. History for college credit, but we didn’t really consider the impact of that course on ourselves and our understanding of what it is to be truly American. While the College Board attempts to amend and revise A.P. curriculum to reflect a changing America, Texas seems to be doing the opposite in an attempt to combat the secularization of history.
  3. Why I Hope To Die At 75,” by Ezekiel Emanuel in The Atlantic. In an interesting meditation on what it’s like not to die young, Emanuel explores America’s obsession with living long. Whether you agree with him or not, Emanuel’s perspective is certainly different from that of the mainstream media — and certainly contradictory to the new bionic human craze sweeping bookshelves and newsrooms.

Real Fast

  1. Religious Crimes and Free Speech: From Pussy Riot to Fellatio with Jesus Statuary, the Controversies Keep on Coming,” by Clay Calvert in The Huffington Post. The title says it all. In case you were wondering, yes, people (including a 14-year-old boy) have done B-A-D things to religious statues.

  2. Dueling Satanic groups feud over Tea Party politics,” by Robert Allen for Detroit Free Press. Who else to challenge a Satanist group than another Satanist group? Though the attempt to erect a 10-commandments statue in Oklahoma’s state capitol has since been stopped, Satanists had dueling plans to foil the Christian agenda.
  3. Stonehenge Mystery: Will Druid King Get a Parking Space for His Kawasaki?” by Max Colchester in The Wall Street Journal. No, a Kawasaki is not a mystical druid carriage, it’s a motorbike. And yes, this is a real druid king we’re talking about.

Photo: Konrad Summer, Fickr

Eight Things: My Favorite Literary Journalism Pieces

Literary journalism and I have a love-hate relationship. On one hand, it turns news into accessible narratives, and on the other, it gives the impression of being factual instead of emotionally truthful. Despite my inner turmoil, I have read a TON of literary journalism pieces, or articles. I prefer the term “piece” because it puts literary journalism in the creative writing camp, instead of the hard news world. My favorite pieces have always contained surprise, beautiful imagery, and emotional truth. I take them as interesting perspectives on topics that I am almost always completely ignorant of; I get the feeling that if I were to be an expert on a topic, and I didn’t write the piece itself, I’d find myself upset or betrayed by another writer’s experience.

So I present the pieces to you that I have enjoyed and found deliciously insightful and fresh. For all its faults, literary journalism almost always offers a fresh look; it is never old hat. I’ve enjoyed some of these pieces because of the unique way they choose to handle their stories — so, because of craft — or for the subjects themselves. Enjoy.

Literary Journalism Done Delightfully Well

  1. Jonathan Lebed’s Extra Curricular Activities,” by Michael Lewis:  This piece made me look at the stock exchange and the money world in a very different way. Lewis takes the traditional story of “Un-American Crook Takes Innocents to the Bank,” and turns it towards the Securities and Exchange Commission and Wall Street itself. Beware: you will think less of your own high school extra curriculars after reading this.
  2. The Final Comeback of Axl Rose,” by John Jeremiah Sullivan: Oh my, do I love J. J. Sullivan. Check out his book, Pulphead, for laughs and vulnerability and curious scenes that only he could get himself into. I was never particularly attracted to Axl Rose, until I read this piece and I thought about his beautiful, long hair and his mysterious, dark past. I, like Sullivan, fell in love with this grungy dude throughout the piece.
  3. Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” by Gay Talese: Literary journalism is never short on enigmatic men to love; Sinatra is one of them. He’s as spunky and as smooth as you would expect, but there’s a sad undertone (isn’t there always?) of a mama’s boy who just can’t get his life quite right. Fun fact: Talese took notes for this piece on a shirt board.
  4. Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” by Joan Didion: This essay is for all those, especially of my generation, who romanticize the 60s as a beautiful and magical time. Didion shows the opposite of the kind of darkness you’d see on Mad Men; instead of drunken, existentially asleep business men, you follow drugged out kids without a hint of perspective. The whole piece unsettles you in a way that only wasted lives can.
  5. Jumpers,” by Tad Friend: This is one of the first pieces I ever read that was introduced to me as literary journalism. It could also be described as place-based writing. Regardless, Friend creates a heartbreaking piece out of a place I had always seen as beautiful and peaceful before. Heights are a double-edged sword: both majestic and deadly, clear and evoking danger by just being what they are.
  6. Sex, Drugs, and the Biggest Cybercrime of All Time,” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely: I read this piece this summer during a moment of obsession over hackers. Erdely’s piece does a great job of capturing the weirdly glamorous and brilliant world of cyber criminals, alongside the quirky and sometimes damaged hackers themselves. Highly entertaining.
  7. Ticket to the Fair,” by David Foster Wallace: I talk about DFW a lot on this blog because he is just so damn good. This story talks about my home state, Illinois, in a way that I don’t know it as: desolate and midwestern (being near Chicago gives me a different perspective). Though the story is (of course) hysterical, the ending is somber and sad in a way that only DFW can make me feel.
  8. Papon’s Paper Trail,” by Adam Gopnik: Another haunting and sad piece, Gopnik explores what the Vichy regime means to France, over fifty years later. As a francophile, I really enjoyed an inside look at the french psyche. Gopnik’s book, From Paris to the Moon, is also worth a read.

I’ve read many other great pieces of long-form journalism on VICE, Rolling Stone, and The New Yorker‘s websites.

 

 

Ten Things: What to Read and Where to Look for the Best News

Because I am currently interning at Religion & Politics, an online news journal and a project of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, I read a lot of news every day. As in, it’s my job to read the news for several hours (see the results of all that hard work here). I’ve always been interested in journalism; I read the Chicago Tribune, and then later the The Wall Street Journal, every morning in high school. Now, because of blogs, news sites have the incentive to keep online content (mostly) free. If content isn’t free, I sign up for a free trial (and remember to cancel in time) or use some of these tricks to get my news without paying. So, I don’t even need to read the paper anymore to get all my news!

Lately, though this is always true, I’ve come across some pretty embarrassing gaffes on Facebook, where people seem to genuinely believe satirical news (as in, anyone who posted the “George Zimmerman Arrested While Visiting Ferguson” article from National Report, or as they like to call themselves, “America’s #1 Independent News Source.” Independent, indeed.). I realized, though my generation has always been told, “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet,” some people aren’t sure where to look for good news. Fortunately, it is literally my job to find good, relevant, and well-researched pieces from a variety of trustworthy sources.

Where to Look

I’d like to pass on some of my newfound news knowledge to you. Here are the top 10 news sites to look at to get the best and most accurate news every day. Some of them seem very obvious, but I’ve found that having an aggregated list (I keep a document on my browser) of news sites helps me click through and keep current faster and more efficiently.

  1. The New York Times. Obvious, but a lot of people will turn to local papers first. That’s fine, but The NYT has some of the best international and domestic hard news out there.
  2. The Washington Post. Another obvious source, but perhaps less well-known than The NYT. Fun fact: after reading up on Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s amazing journalism, which exposed the Watergate scandal and showed that journalists really can stick to their guns when it comes to keeping sources confidential, I’ve always had a tiny dream of working at The WP.
  3. The Wall Street Journal. More business and tech oriented than the others, but always an interesting read.
  4. The New Yorker. Excellent long-form journalism. Reasonable op-eds.
  5. The Atlantic. Like The New Yorker, it includes mostly long-form, literary, and high-brow works. I’ve been reading The Atlantic since high school at an old English teacher’s request, and it’s always kept me well-informed and entertained.
  6. Slate. Opinionated, interesting pieces that always attack hot news. Read this if you want a quick (though biased) rundown of current events and pop culture. Find your favorite writers and columns so that you know you can trust the opinions you’ll inevitably steal.
  7. The Daily Beast. I really like The DB for two reasons: one, their handy and fun “cheat sheet” for a quick scoop on the day’s top stories, and two, for their witty writers.
  8. News from the Associated Press. Extremely current hard news. Not set up like a traditional news site, but it’s an excellent place to go for completely up-to-date information on news stories you (and the rest of the world) have been following.
  9. The Huffington Post. Their homepage looks like a scam, but they cover a wide variety of topics. So, you can get your frou-frou news about the “Worst Dressed at The Emmys” alongside the hard stuff.
  10. NPR. Though nobody ever really thinks of National Public Radio outside of their cars, NPR’s website offers interesting and nontraditional news coverage. It’s not necessarily the most up-to-date, but they always cover topics of interest in a way that other sites don’t. Plus, you can listen to interviews and talks while you do work!

I would also suggest signing up for a free newsletter email service such as theSkimm. It takes less than five minutes to read, and will give you a quick, digestible bite of news about important events (but be wary: five minutes of news ain’t enough to really understand a single story, let alone the most important story in a single country. So, newsletters are a good place to start, but I wouldn’t use them as the be-all, end-all. And I especially would not use them as support in a “political discussion,” otherwise known as an argument.).

Look out soon for regular posts of top articles to read for the week, as well as a list of “news” sites NOT to visit.

And Then They Came For Me: The Endangered Syrian Journalist, and What That Means for Ferguson

After hearing about the beheading of American journalist James Foley by ISIS yesterday, I knew I had to speak up. Foley is one of thirty journalists to go missing in Syria over the past three years, making the Syrian civil war the most dangerous conflict for journalists in last thirty years. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 66 journalists have been killed in Syria since the beginning of the civil war. These brave journalists put themselves in harm’s way in order to expose the truth. As Foley’s mother said in a statement Tuesday night, “We have never been prouder of our son Jim. He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people.”

So let’s take a look at that suffering: 160,000 dead, 6.5 million uprooted from their homes, and 2.7 million forced to flee, according to the Huffington Post. In 2012, it was the deadliest internal conflict on the planet.

 

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So, it seems that the most dangerous places for civilians are also the most dangerous places for journalists, which simply makes the work reporters do all the more important. In 2013 alone, 71 journalists were killed, 826 were arrested, and 2160 were threatened or physically attacked, up by 9% from the year before, according to Reporters Without Borders. Governments and terrorist groups around the world have been using conflict as an excuse to target and brutalize journalists — it’s been happening in Gaza, Syria, Egypt, Russia, Iran, and even the US.

Which takes me to Ferguson, MO, where 14 journalists have been arrested trying to cover the protests and police brutality after the murder of Michael Brown (a detailed account of the police officer’s account vs. eyewitnesses can be read here). Police officers are specifically targeting journalists and members of the media with tear gas and arresting them without lawful cause. Though the American Civil Liberties Union has sued Ferguson for barring journalists from reporting (and won), arrests are still happening. And so Ferguson begs the same question as Syria: if this is how militants are treating journalists, how must they be treating civilians?

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As Max Fisher said at Vox, “Journalists can at times be the canary in the coal mine for situations when basic order and public safety have broken down.” By targeting journalists, the police and government of Missouri are sending a message: “We control the streets. We control the citizens. We will threaten you with death whether the cameras are rolling or not.”

And this is the message journalists expect to hear abroad, when dealing with terrorist organizations, brutal governments, and war. It is startling to see the fear and intimidation tactics used by law enforcers, who are meant to protect citizens, against a non-militarized group of protesters.

Many people have already made the connection between foreign atrocities and what is happening in Ferguson; Palestinians are tweeting tear gas advice at Ferguson protesters, and Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein (who was arrested during a protest outside of Governor Nixon’s office) has said, “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.”

Epstein went on to say, Racism is alive and well in the United States. The power structure looks at anyone who’s different as the other, as less worthy, and so you treat the other as someone who is less human and who needs to be controlled and who is not trusted.” Epstein is talking about a narrative that all black Americans know well: black bodies don’t matter. Brown’s shooting and Ferguson’s protests exposed the racial profiling and systematic police brutality of blacks that hasn’t been as widely publicized since the ’92 L.A. riots (see a detailed timeline of significant events in American civil rights here).

With the constraining and barring of journalists in Ferguson, law enforcement is attempting to maintain that narrative. If American journalists like James Foley have the bravery to go abroad to document violent conflict enacted by governments on civilians — Foley even went back after being held captive in Libya for six weeks in 2012 — they can certainly continue to document them here so that people understand not just the violence happening in Ferguson, but the implications of that violence for all Americans.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. ~ Martin Niemöller

Image credits to Lucas Jackson, Reuters and Charlie Riedel, AP Photo