The artichoke

Have you ever cooked an artichoke?

They are a pain in the ass to prepare. If you want to steam a whole fresh artichoke, you first have to snip the spiny tips of every outer leaf so that they don’t draw blood. You have to cut off the stem so that the vegetable sits upright in its steam bath, and you have to saw off a good inch of useless tiny leaves clustered at the top of the globe.  You steam the artichoke in a little water so that its tight fist of fibrous petals begins to unclench–but not in too much water, and not for so long that it wilts open like a dying rose. Either by bisecting the artichoke or by patiently delving into the center of its petals with a spoon, you scoop out the bristly inedible choke.

That’s just to cook the thing. To eat, you pull off one leaf at a time. You can also dip the leaf in garlicky butter or stuff cheese and breadcrumbs between all its herbaceous shingles, but ultimately you must slowly tear the artichoke into pieces and scrape off the tenderest part of each petal with your teeth until you reach the heart: delicate and subtle, but substantial.

Artichokes take time and loving attention to prepare, and it takes just as long to consume what little tenderness this spiky vegetable has to offer. For a long time, I only served steamed or stuffed artichokes when I had an audience: boyfriends, usually, but sometimes friends; once a small party of women who were trying to distract one of our number from a bad breakup. Only in recent years did I consider preparing artichokes for myself.

Photo by Pete Zebley of Central Tattoo Studio.

The artichoke is my most visible tattoo. When curious strangers ask me about it, I tell them that it was my gift to myself when I defended my dissertation and completed my PhD in literature. I’ll let you figure out the rest.

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Reading Roundup: July 2019

It was an absolutely blazing July, with temperatures approaching 100 in Philly, so how about some HOT TAKES? Hot in terms of opinionatedness, not in terms of timing–July’s Literary Hot Takes twitter thread has cooled down by now. I never like to participate in those, though, because as strong as my opinions are, there’s always a notable exception. Just look at some of the books I read this month.

Take 1: Most writers don’t have the chops to pull off different character perspectives in every chapter. I call this “doing the police in different voices” after T.S. Eliot, who almost gave “The Waste Land” the title “He do the police in different voices”–an appropriated bit of dialect that was too much even for Eliot’s problematic editor Ezra Pound. Books that do the police in different voices tend to lean on dialect or stylistic idiosyncrasies such as choppy sentences to differentiate the thoughts of different characters. The result is usually pretty embarrassing.

That said: I just finished and was blown away by There, There by Tommy Orange, a book that introduces a dozen characters who speak in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd perspectives in short chapters, occasionally interspersed with an omniscient narrator’s reflections on Indians in history and popular culture. (I say Indians because the novel does, although it also queries itself and makes it clear that individuals have different relationships to the term as well as the term Native Americans.) Instead of feeling choppy and self-conscious, all of these points of view flow as smooth as silk and carry each character inevitably toward the novel’s cataclysmic event, where the chapters got even shorter and I turned pages frantically to find out what had happened to the characters I had come to care about. While I’m sure that a closer reading would reveal some subtle variations in sentence structure that help the reader perceive each voice as distinct, the real difference is that each character is motivated by their own complex web of identity, ambitions, and fears, and they stand apart from one another in action and intent without the need for exaggerated stylization. I admire this novel for its craft, and was shaken to the core by my own ignorance of history and present-day Urban Indian communities.

Take 2: If your story takes place in an MFA program or anything of that nature, you’re going to have to work twice as hard to get me to read it. I spent a full decade of my life in grad school; I sat in those seminars and I went to those parties and I contorted myself into shame spirals over my work–and I have to tell you, it just wasn’t that interesting.

But Bunny by Mona Awad caught my attention–first because of the title (a nickname I have given and received as a young adult); then because the excerpt I read was creepy as hell. The Bunnies are a Stepford-esque clique of grad students who embody every cliche of the basic bitch: they love sweet and cute things (including pumpkin spice lattes, of course), they are beautiful and white and rich, and they express their love for one another in infantile hyperbole. The main character, Samantha, seems to be a little in love with them despite her professed horror: the Bunny scenes are festooned with doting descriptions of their scents, their clothes, their shiny hair and eyes, and their affectionate displays. Her obsession with and fear of their hyperfeminine performance is a little misogynist, to be frank, and I kept waiting for the curtains to part and reveal some justification for it. (I felt similarly about the narrator’s shallow revulsion for the college town’s residents and supposed crime problem.) There is a little self-aware wink when Samantha’s fiction is critiqued as being “in love with its own outsiderness”–also true of Samantha’s narration–but I wasn’t really satisfied that the tension was ever resolved between despising Bunnies and wanting to be like them.

That said, it’s an engrossing story with some truly surprising twists and turns, and if you’re not put off by the blood and guts, there’s a delicious horror in its extremities that make it a fun summer read. I also think it will make a great, if gross, TV series.

Take 3: If there is a prologue, it better be amazing–or at least somewhat consistent in tone and style as the rest of the book. My reasons for this are mercenary: if I’m deciding whether or not to buy your book, I will read the first few pages and see if I want to continue. Those first pages are essentially the sales pitch for me to read the rest of your book.

I know, I know. As a former academic and longtime bibliophile, I also want to believe in the sovereignty of The Book as a work of art. If the author wants to tack a misdirecting prologue onto the front of the book, perhaps that should be their artistic prerogative. On the other hand, consider how many of the sprawling literary classics we celebrate were shaped by mercantile concerns–Joyce and Dickens publishing chapter by chapter and paid by installment, countless authors pushing out short stories until they could afford to write a book. Literature doesn’t exist outside of capitalism. Sorry.

As it turns out, an offkey prologue is the reason I was reluctant to read Severance by Ling Ma when I read the free sample months ago. The prologue introduces us to a “we”, a group of characters who band together when a pandemic decimates the world’s population. In the early days after the apocalyptic event, “we” relied on the internet to learn how to do things like start a fire; the prologue seems critical of how dependent “we” are on the internet for knowledge-sharing. Was the entire book going to be critical of the things we do to keep alive today? I didn’t want to sign up for that.

But it was getting so well-reviewed by trusted sources that I picked up a copy at the library and read on. The novel is narrated in the first-person perspective by a character who, as it turns out, has a complicated relationship to the prologue’s collective. She reflects on her life in New York before the pandemic and her life with the “we” group afterward; the chapters are intimate, immediate, and sympathetic. It’s not my first literary zombie novel–I really liked Zone One by Colson Whitehead too–but Severance brings its own beauty and pain to the zombie apocalypse and I am still haunted by some of its language.

I stand by my take: it would have been a shame to miss this gorgeous, melancholy book due to its odd beginning, and it truly stands on its own without a prologue.

Take 4: There’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure. Just pleasures. Read what you want! Love what you love!

If I did have a guilty pleasure in reading, though, My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Mossfegh might qualify. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book: it’s got a big concept, but that doesn’t always pan out with good storytelling or prose. This novel, however, is studded with beautifully constructed sentences, and in the spaces between there are other pleasures: ecstatic lists of brands and foods and medications, unapologetically ungenerous imaginings of other characters’ interior lives, and the deliciously disgusting bad behavior of its main character. (And a smattering of white girl racism which I could do without–it’s not needed to make the point.) Making the main character an absolute unsympathetic wreck of a human is an interesting and in some respects necessary choice: you have to be kind of a jerk to completely forfeit all your quotidien obligations such as doing your job and being somewhat pleasant to the men who run your neighborhood bodega; for another, you have to be relatively privileged and sheltered to choose a life of disengagement. Who’s to say what came first: the narrator’s privilege or her bad attitude? But she is surrounded by characters who are so much worse that you end up rooting for her year of oblivion. What else is she doing do–spend time with her vapid and cruel older boyfriend? go out and meet new, equally horrible people? Work for an art gallery that celebrates animal cruelty and facile “shock” art? (The art gallery is particularly, terrifyingly on point for the pre-9-11 era when this novel takes place.) But I felt on edge when I enjoyed this story: the desire to opt out of the human race, to cocoon until you wake up to a better world or a better you, are relatable but not the impulses I wish to cultivate in myself.

Finally, this is not so much a take as a preference. I love the idea of historical fiction, but I’m often a little disappointed by reality of historical fiction. We can’t all be Hilary Mantel, deploying meticulously researched historical detail along with intelligent writing and probing psychological depth. I only recently read the excessively hyped Song of Achilles and the author’s short ebook “Galatea,” and I liked them, but I did not love them. However, I ate up Circe by Madeline Miller in about two days. Some of the stylistic tendencies that fell a little flat for me in Achilles–the purplish and occasionally overwrought prose, the jarring weirdness of divine beings–take on an entirely different tone in Circe, a tale of gods mucked about by humans instead of the other way around. If your favorite parts of Achilles were the scenes with sharp-toothed Thetis, then you’re going to love Circe’s family members bleeding gold and swanning about in elaborate gear like residents of Panem’s Capital.

Elsewhere on the Internet

I wouldn’t say that I compare myself unfavorably to the youthful protagonists of the novels I read, as this author reflects, but I do find myself vaguely irritated at everyone in books for being so young. Show me the 35-and-up protagonists who have more interesting conflicts in their lives than extramarital affairs!

Happy to hear about Carmen Maria Machado’s take on Pennsylvania’s atmospheric potential:

For fun, she and her friends would drive to Centralia, PA where a fire has been burning in one of the coal mines since 1962, the fumes so toxic that all but seven residents have fled the town and those who remain do so at special dispensation of the state. “We used to watch the smoke coming out of the ground,” Machado told me. “I’ve always been interested in Pennsylvania as a gothic setting…in the way industries like coal and steel have chewed up the landscape in this horrifying way but it’s a really beautiful place…”

I’m intrigued by Austin Walker’s idea that we should use first-person accounts of gaming experiences to fill out their histories, and I love that he used Elder Scrolls: Morrowind as his example. I have a friend who has gotten really into Elder Scrolls Online but hates the Morrowind region; everything in it is ugly, he grouses. But I can’t separate the shiny new Morrowind from my experience of discovering it on my old Xbox for the first time. Morrowind was the first game I got obsessed with. I replayed it many times, making up challenges for myself: play as a vampire, as a smooth talker who rarely fights, as a Nine Divines devotee who is terrified of the occult and frankly devastated to learn that Daedra are real. When I hear music that sounds remotely like the game’s ambient orchestral arrangements, I visualize the southern swamps and what it felt like to stumble upon Dwemer ruins for the first time.
It’s hard to put all that into words, though, and I can’t blame my friend for not feeling convinced.

I was also obsessed with Final Fantasy 7, although I never played it myself–just sat on the floor of my brother’s room while he played. Despite the many hours I spent watching this game like it was a movie, I internalized very little of its plot and was surprised to read, via this thoughtful Sidequest reflection, how anticapitalist the game is.

Slate: Why an Award for Books Without Violence Against Women Is So Controversial

This is charming, and evidently spearheaded by an employee at the press where I used to work: SEPTA is offering Books in Transit for riders to read for free.

The Return of Gaming Summer

Last summer was a social, exploratory Summer of Gaming. Last year I finally gave myself the gift of an up-to-date console, pre-packed with half a dozen games I’d already reserved for free. Game-playing became a delightfully communal experience: I scheduled low-key hangouts with other gaming friends to try out new-to-me games (like Oxenfree, which thrilled and chilled us) and rediscover old favorites through their eyes. But over the fall and winter, the gaming playdates were replaced by other kinds of social activities and I fell out of the habit.

Now that it’s hot enough to seek refuge in my cool basement, I’ve returned to my stockpile of free games–plus a few additions. What’s on your list this summer?

Completed

Fallout Shelter is a free game! Not just free during a special offer, but free always! And yes, it’s a bit of a commercial for Fallout 4, but it’s a solid and charming sim in its own right. You’re a Vault overseer and your job is to construct a Vault that provides safety, resources, and wellbeing. As your dwellers become stronger and wealthier, you can send them out on missions which are themselves a little tedious. But for the kind of gamer who loves collecting things–dwellers, special weapons, silly outfits, pets–it’s a daily delight. “Complete” here is relative–I have a large, well-functioning vault and most of the achievements unlocked, but Vault life hums along forever.

Speaking of…

Fallout 4. Fallout Shelter worked its magic, and I nabbed this game the next time it went on sale.
“It’s like Skyrim, but grimdark” I explained to one of the friends I spent last summer playing Dragon Age with. “With a semi-optional Stardew Valley subplot.” When I first started the game, tentatively picking my way down the hill from my Vault to the ruins of my former suburban home, pocketing clutter along the way, I didn’t know that the classic Bethesda trashpicker element had been blown up into a whole minigame. The settlement-building mechanisms are not very intuitive and I am not great at it, but I became obsessed with collecting resources for my settlers and connecting them with trade routes. Despite being a few years behind on this bestseller, I had managed to avoid most of the spoilers and was frequently surprised and delighted by its plot twists and characters (rarely the selling points for any big Bethesda sandbox).
I won’t feel that I have truly completed the game until I unlock 100% settlement happiness, but without DLC I’ve mostly exhausted the game’s intrigue for now. I don’t enjoy deathclaws and dungeon crawls enough to discover every location or hunt down every bobblehead.

The Room: Old Sins. Since my short but intense dalliance with Dragon Age: Heroes, I don’t download any games to my phone–but this sequel was on sale for like $2! It combines the clever locked-box appeal of the original game with the detailed staging and scale of The Room 3, and the mechanism of moving between rooms in its creepy miniature gothic mansion is much easier and visually appealing than 3’s tower.

In progress

Rise of the Tomb Raider is full of adventure and discovery, with more of what I enjoyed about the 2013 game (tomb puzzles, shooting things with arrows, breath-taking scenery) but with fewer graphic death scenes. Sure, I absolutely miscalculated some jumps and overestimated my ability to fight a leopard, but Lara’s deaths are more artistic and blurry now, which is fine with me.
I am very, very close to the end, but I’ve gotten very completionist about fulfilling all the level challenges such as breaking statues and lighting braziers, so it feels a bit like homework at the moment.

Qube 2 bears some resemblance to Portal in terms of contained puzzle levels, although its voice acting is less winsome. I am also very very close to the end here, but get distracted by shinier flashier games.

Dishonored 2. Dang, I am terrible at stealth games.

Sleeping Dogs. I’m not very far in and wish I had more time to explore the night market instead of shaking down vendors and fighting off gangsters, but I suppose that speaks to the game’s appealing attention to detail.

Games that I definitely started a year ago and haven’t finished yet but maybe I will this summer?

Beyond Eyes

Dreamfall Chapters

Seasons After Fall

Tales from the Borderlands

In the queue

Inside

Never Alone

Portal: Still Alive

Too Human

Reading Roundup: June 2019

Friends, did you know that you do not have to scavenge bookstore clearance tables to read affordably as well as ravenously? You do not have to wait for coveted books to go on sale, or pounce on ARCs before they are published? Did you know you could check out all the new fiction you please at a library?

Of course you knew this. I did too, but I couldn’t quite seem to get into the habit. But now I have mastered the arcane rituals of checkout and return at a university library two blocks from my office, so I was able to squeeze in a few more reads this month.

Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko. This book opens with a girl who simply can’t wait to get to the beach, and I felt the same way as I started reading. All I knew about the novel is that it is a translation from Russian and that it entails a school for magic–drawing the inevitable comparisons to Harry Potter, although reviews were clear that Vita Nostra was a darker, more violent take on magical education. I was as ready to dive into this as into the ocean.
What the reviews did not mention was the tedium of magical education. Our main character transforms quickly from a schoolgirl who loves the sea to a drudge who memorizes meaningless textbook passages to a novice savant who begins to glimpse meaning through the passages. While I respect the audacity of depicting the academic rigor it would take to transform a normal human teenager into a mystic, I found the transformation very uncomfortable to read. I was reminded of a period in my own life when I spent so much time poring over obscure texts until reality seemed to unravel.

Fortunately, the plot matches on, and although the creeping sense of dread does not let up, the tedium gives way to wonder and shock.

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. On Twitter, I asked:

This widely acclaimed debut book was one of the responses. It burns slowly at first, and I could see the much-admired craft of the book–the natural, realistic dialogue, the almost clinical observations of the first-person narrator’s psychology–but I was too uncomfortable to consider re-reading this book anytime soon. I’m slightly older than the older couple who fascinate the novel’s college student protagonists. I can’t imagine getting involved with someone so young, but I remember being in the throes of becoming and all the growing pains of vulnerability, cruelty, and crisis. I didn’t much enjoy revisiting that age.

That said, I was impressed by the way this book makes sense of what sometimes seems to me a senseless age. It made me want to revisit my old journals, to see if I too can find meaning and poetry in the flailings of youth.

The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi. I expected the same breezy prose and space politics as the enjoyable first book in this series, and the sequel did not disappoint. The storytelling is noticeably more slapsticky at first–as though the major and minor characters are still reeling in disbelief from the events of the first book–but the stakes remain high as the Interdependency hurtles toward collapse.

Mass Effect: Initiation by N.K. Jemisin. Yes, a video game tie-in novel… by award-winning author N.K. Jemisin. The Kindle app on my phone pushed a notification that the book was on sale this month, and I was furious. How dare you come into my house with this kind of targeted pitch! Of course I am going to read it!

Initiation is a ME: Andromeda tie-in; as you may recall, I did not hate Andromeda, but in any case this novel takes place before the Initiative leaves the Milky Way. (In fact, it takes place during the events of Mass Effect 2, so there are plenty of callouts for fans of the original trilogy.) Cora Harper, an asari-trained human biotic and one of your party members in Andromeda, is just trying to get used to human space, and instead, gets embroiled in a suspenseful heist plot involving AI. Reading her story felt like I was playing a DLC–there are fights! alien planets and asteroids! cutscene-like passages of exposition-via-dialogue!–and I loved revisiting the universe I have spent so much time in, so much so that I’m tempted to read other books in the series (which are not written by Jemisin). In the past I haven’t been as delighted by tie-ins for other beloved game series, but I was primed for a novel of this pacing after finishing Consuming Fire–both move quickly and don’t take themselves too seriously–and I think Jemisin’s style was well-suited to balancing Cora’s interior life with the progressively leveled action sequences.

Tender by Sofia Samatar. I’ve raved about Sofia Samatar’s novels, which offer imaginary worlds so densely packed with detail that I’m forced to read slowly and enjoy. Tender is a collection of short stories–twenty stories!–which offer a very different canvas for her gifts. Instead of detailed works that unfold slowly, these are brush sketches that evoke familiar times and places as well as eerie and otherworldly ones. I was particularly moved by “Tender,” not only for the way it plays on every possible meaning of that word but because its radioactive landscape reminded me of the creeping horror of the Chernobyl television series. Some stories suggest alternate perspectives on folkloric and cultural touchpoints like fairies, selkies, Heart of Darkness, or Coppélia; others take the form of academic or ethnographic research notes on supernatural phenomena. It’s a lot, especially for someone like me who wants to read at a gallop, but if you love short stories and fantastic tales you may love these.

Elsewhere on the Internet

Unwinnable argues that The One Good Dog in all videogames is your faithful companion from Fable 2. I can’t disagree. The dogs in Fable 2 and 3 are the reason I got so excited when I started playing Fallout 4, knowing little about the game beyond its premise, and was met by a German Shepherd who seemed to want to hang out and hunt molerats with me. Like the Fable dogs, Fallout 4’s Dogmeat was delighted to bite my enemies and sniff out ammo and food. He didn’t have the expressive range of the trainable Fable dogs, but I could collect colorful bandannas for him to wear. And that’s where it ends: Dogmeat broke my heart by simply disappearing off the map halfway through the main quest. He’s not in the gas station where I first found him. He’s not in the settlement where I thought I sent him. He’s just gone.
I digress, but I would be remiss if I didn’t complement this link with Can You Pet the Dog? on Twitter.

I about lost my mind when I saw that this rare book exhibition of modernist publications included a weird little play by Virginia Woolf, illustrated by Edward Gorey. I once found a copy in used bookshop.

A French artist draws beautiful illustrations on books that have little to do with the books. Love it, instant follow.

It turns out that I will read anything about The Westing Game, but I always appreciate Jia Tolentino’s lyrical, sharp-eyed reflections on culture.

On the Fine Art of Researching For Fiction

On Fanbyte, Where Should LucasArts Take Star Wars Video Games? offers three entirely coherent video game concepts that employ different genres to play to as-yet-undersung strengths of the Star Wars universe. I was underwhelmed by The Force Unleashed 1 and 2, and for that reason haven’t gotten excited for the forthcoming Fallen Order. But I would absolutely play a turn-based tactics game built on Stormtrooper specializations, and would possibly throw my money at an RPG exploring Lando’s backstory if one existed. Aside from the good ideas, though, I was impressed by this writer’s fluency in both the Star Wars universe and game genre conventions. For example, I have a fondness for turn-based tactics games but couldn’t articulate the mechanics and appeal this well.

Fat ballerina

If you’ve been within ten feet of Twitter recently, you might have heard that Nike has set up a fat mannequin somewhere and the Telegraph published a viciously fatphobic op-ed in reaction to it. I don’t want to talk about Nike; representation is great, but global brands are not your friends and don’t need your defense. I don’t even want to talk about the op-ed, really: it was either a writer’s gross abuse of a platform to spout hate, or a platform’s gross abuse of a writer for clickbait, or both. I do want to talk about bodies, though, and language.

First, with my apologies, a screenshot. You’ll find no links here.

Poetic! A delight to read aloud, actually! One gets the sense that the writer enjoys waxing rhapsodic about the grotesque horror and diseased flesh of this completely inanimate body. I almost relate. After all, most of us learn early on to not only despise fat bodies but to revel in the lyricism of abuse. Even basic fatphobia frequently dredges up fanciful comparisons to animals and hyperbolic descriptions of flesh in motion.

I’ve written here and elsewhere about reading the body as a text, which is absolutely what the op-ed assignment is here: look at something that is not even a real body but a reference to a body, extrapolate ideas about the imagined body’s behavior, draw fanciful conclusions about the imagined body’s ethics as well as its physical attributes. Don’t think I don’t know that some people apply this calculation to my body when I am moving it around in the world. Don’t think I don’t do it to myself. Understand that I am constantly trying to undo it. That is the purpose of this post.

“She cannot run”

About a year and a half ago, I started taking ballet lessons for adults. I had taken lessons when I was very small–ages 3-8, I think–but remembered absolutely nothing except how itchy the recital costumes were. As an adult, even the beginner ballet class seemed to move very fast, and I felt overwhelmed by how much I didn’t know about the basic vocabulary (which one is fifth position, again?) and even class etiquette, such as which direction to face at the barre.

I kept going, though, because the music and the movement offered a beautiful respite from my busy workday, and the exercises eased the joint pain that sometimes coincides with autoimmune diseases like mine. Beginner class exercises are designed to literally warm up the muscles and joints; mine crackled, but relaxed. Form is paramount; I learned that if I put my feet in the right place, my legs would hold up my body even if I felt impossibly tired. Fatigue and stiffness had been the enemy of my physical fitness for years; ballet helped me find my way back into my body.

I should mention that I also kept going to class because of my classmates. All kinds of different women and men find their way to beginner ballet at different stages of life and physical ability. Sometimes I am the oldest student but usually not; sometimes I take up the most space, sometimes not. I am trying to teach myself to stop noticing.

“Even 16 – a hefty weight”

In my first few classes, I wore socks and loose black yoga pants. Before long, I dropped by a dancewear shop in my neighborhood to purchase canvas ballet slippers in my shoe size.

The pants posed a different problem. Many dancers in class wore leotards, sometimes with a sheer georgette wrap skirt or shorts pulled over their tights; some wore form-fitting yoga separates. The idea of tights or leggings made me feel self-conscious and exposed, but I needed something fitted so that I could see what my knees were doing. There wasn’t much available for adults at the dancewear shop, let alone in my size; many adult dancewear brands don’t even make sizes larger than a Large for women. You can purchase a limited variety of plus-size tights and leotards from online retail sites, but I was hesitant to place an order without knowing what I needed from these specialized garments.

Over the last year, I’ve spent about 3 hours a week in the dance studio and probably an equivalent amount of time looking for affordable clothes that could pass as dancewear. I’ve combed through discount department stores and thrift shops and Poshmark; I’ve acquired running leggings and loose shorts and moisture-wicking tank tops and even something called a “golf dress” which is cute and comfortable over a pair of yoga capris. For Christmas, I asked for sports bras, which can cost upwards of $50 apiece.* Each week I sweat through every single seasonally-appropriate workout garment I own; I do a lot of laundry.

I have still not yet ventured into the world of leotards and convertible tights, so I decided not to sign up for the summer ballet recital which requires coordinating costumes. That’s my choice, but I still feel left out.

“She is immense, gargantuan, vast”

I have been taking ballet for a year and a half now, and I am stronger and have more stamina. It’s not all smooth sailing. My feet and hips sometimes ache from the effort of lifting and stretching, and sometimes my shoulders burn from holding my arms in my best approximation of a half-circle. Unrelatedly, sometimes my antibodies triumph in their senseless civil war with my thyroid, which manifests as additional achiness in my limbs and an uncharacteristic desire to take naps. But in general, I notice improvement in almost every action of my physical being, from walking to sitting at my computer to waking up feeling rested. 

About a year in, the ballet instructor started placing me at the head of the barre from time to time. Suddenly, I had to learn and remember the steps of the exercises instead of just following the dancer in front of me. To my surprise, I had already internalized many of the movements. Memorizing choreography is like memorizing song lyrics: you don’t just remember one step after another, you remember phrases and verses, and the music keeps you on beat.

Now I take Zumba and cardio classes too. Like my first ballet classes, they are populated with women (and a few men) who want different things from it. I want to stay on beat, and I want to anticipate the next step and fling myself into it as though it’s easy.

“Welcome to the mainstream”

The ballet instructor doesn’t go in for compliments, and her instructions are often abrasive. “Don’t bend your knees!” she’ll yell at the barre, and I’ll check myself–I don’t think I was the one bending my knees, but now I’m not sure. If she does offer praise to an individual student, it usually follows a command. “Heels together, Sara!” she’ll yell, and then–if I tighten my legs as much as my knock knees will allow–“Attagirl.”

I try to hold both the criticism and compliments lightly. I am in class to follow instructions and to improve; the most positive reinforcement is to see the beautiful and orderly movement I form in concert with my classmates. But I am also in class to exist in my own body, my improbable body that is at war with itself but still revels in its feelings of strength and grace. I owe it to my body to show up; I allow myself to feel some pride just for getting there.

And I allow myself to feel some pride when I lead the barre, a fat ballerina whose form everyone else must follow. “Watch Sara!” yelled the ballet instructor to another dancer one day. “That’s why I put her in front of you!”


*Sports bra recommendations for the busty ballerina

These garments are incredible feats of technology and have been well worth the investment for me. I went and had a proper fitting, but if you’re lucky you might find these brands discounted online. FYI, for the Natori and Panache, I felt more comfortable with the next cup size up from what I typically wear.

Natori Yogi Bra. This bra is soft and flexible enough that I sometimes wear it all day. It looks like a tank bra but it secretly has cups inside, so there is a nice work-appropriate silhouette (whereas extremely structured sports bras can err on the pointy side). The straps can be criss-crossed for racerback tops. I wear it for my lowest-impact ballet class and sometimes to hiking or yoga.

Freya Epic Moulded Crop Top Sports Bra. This is a little more structured and supportive than my beginner ballet bra; I wear it to the next level of ballet, which requires more jumps.

Panache Sport wired bra. This bra is like wearing armor. I could not keep it on all day, but I am grateful for the feeling of immoveable support when I take Zumba or other dance classes that incorporate jumps. The straps convert to racerback with a clever little hook.

Reading Roundup: May 2019

The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker. A friend recommended this book in my International Women’s Day thread on books by women I read and loved. I remembered enjoying The Age of Miracles, so I put it right on my list. I warmed up to it slowly. It opens in the most insular of insular communities: a group of freshman girls living on one floor of a dorm in a small college in a small college town nestled in the mountains. It looked, for a moment, like the progress of the book’s cataclysmic sleeping sickness was going to be thinly veiled social commentary. But I read grimly on, and the sleeping epidemic raged on, playing no favorites and following no narrative rules as it devastated the town and surrounding region. In place of the commentary on campus drama I feared, the book takes a complex and nuanced look at the varied and unpredictable ways humanity responds to a crisis, and how we try to make sense out of senseless loss.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. A good commute read. I enjoyed revisiting this old story–in fact, the sections of plot that were most familiar to me (from the Iliad, as opposed to other, later stories of these heroes) were the parts I read with the most urgency.

The Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. I picked this up to read the story that the film Arrival is adapted from. Like the movie, the shell of this story is about Earth’s first contact with aliens and a linguist’s attempts to communicate with them; the heart of the story is her personal joy and grief, glimpsed in fragments like dreams or memories. I thought the movie handled these braided plots very well, but it’s a whole other experience on the page with the narrator’s changing tenses and direct address to keep you anchored in time. For example, in the movie I didn’t realize that the linguist’s fluid perception of past, present, and future is a direct result of learning to think in the alien language–very cool.
Since I came for the aliens, I expected more aliens and spaceships in other stories, and I was surprised that the stories I loved most were those that treated archaic science the way you usually see sci-fi treat science-yet-to-come. What if the sky really was a solid dome, a firmament? What if homunculi were real?

Elsewhere on the Internet

Fanbyte: Jorge Luis Borges’s New and Improved Pokémon Type System

This Chicago Tribune profile of Nnedi Okorafor has Nnedi Okorafor’s stamp of approval!

Loved seeing author headshots for some of my faves in this piece (Tayari Jones, Meg Wolitzer) but I was also really interested in the photographer’s description of her process. At my job, when I interview students and alumni, I leave the headshot photography to our designer but usually tag along to make chitchat as they pose. It does help them warm up, I think, but perhaps now I’ll be more intentional about it.

For the last eight years, I’ve only been following Game of Thrones via Twitter and think pieces, but I did watch the finale. There were some really visually stunning moments, I thought, but I could see why fans were frustrated at the quality of writing in this season. I did a full body cringe when Tyrion started talking about the power of stories. What does this remind me of, I wondered?

Just trust me when I say this is real Taurus energy: Everything should take 20 minutes

I appreciated Jia Tolentino’s take on The Bold Type, a delightful confection of a show that I feel slightly awkward about enjoying–only partly due to its tenuous connection with the realities of media, as Jia describes. (Jacqueline is a romantic fantasy of a boss–the boss that that knows you better than you know yourself–and I love her.) I feel a little old for the show, truthfully, and never more so than when the young women encounter conflicts in their love lives that amount to miscommunication. But other than that, their plot points are maybe a little embarrassingly close to reality: trying to find a job that supports your needs as well as your ambitions, balancing relationships and crazy working hours, not seeing eye-to-eye with a friend and not feeling sure how to move past it. Interestingly and perhaps more relevant to me than most of my peers: I’ve only seen one other show depict the egg freezing process (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) and, of the two, The Bold Type handled it with more grace and less sensationalism.

Shows I’ve watched recently that I feel exactly the right age for: Big Little Lies (delicious!), Dead to Me (wry and vicious!), Fleabag (devastating and capricious!).