The Stages of Womanhood

From Electric Lit:

It was in the midst of these days when I was struggling to complete the—what would it be?—seventh, no, sixth stage of my growth as a woman, being a year late already with that, according to the (ineffective) anthroposophic doctor I had consulted about my persistent ear infections, when I was awoken yet again during a particularly restless night of being awoken, first, by my child, then by a mosquito, then by my child again, then by the tickling in my ears, then by my child again—when I was awoken yet again, this time by the high-pitched wail of an air-raid siren that I mistook at first for a malfunctioning fan in one window and then a fan in another, going around turning off and unplugging the fans one by one, then finally making my way downstairs and out the back door to stand in the yard looking up until the sound of the siren died abruptly, the wail descending. Of course I thought of war, since our country was in conflict yet again with another country. I thought maybe the mosquito that had been bothering me would live longer than I would. I thought of calling the local police station. I wondered if my husband had heard the siren through his ear plugs. He was sleeping downstairs so that he would not be bothered by me, since I was sleeping so badly these days, or by the child, who was waking so often. The doctor had told me that the next stage, the last stage of womanhood in which a woman is reproductive, was very important creatively. The stage that came after that was very different—also wonderful, she said, but very different. But I had not yet completed this stage, which was supposed to be a growth into full womanhood. As far as I could see, I was exactly the same this year as I had been last year and the year before.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

The Elegant Balance of a True Friendship

Hyperboles, a short story

by Sarp Sozdinler

From Electric Lit:

Two mathematicians but they are more friends than colleagues. The older of the two, Henry, teaches to graduate students in Tokyo while Liam, fifteen years his junior, works as a consultant for a private contractor in Madison. Liam makes fun of Henry because his name pentadecimally has more letters than his in correlation with the gap in their ages, but no one but them finds it funny. The two have been sending each other letters every month for the past eighteen years, on the days or weeks of the calendar marked with a prime number as another inside joke.

What did the triangle tell the circle? Henry asks Liam in his last letter before Christmas, postmarked on the twenty-third day of the month.

What? Liam asks in his reply.

You’re pointless, Henry writes back two weeks later.

They have a tradition where they send a pen nib back and forth as part of their snail mail correspondence, to be used for when someone important in their field passes away. The rule is that whoever is in possession of the nib on the day of the news should write a few words after the deceased and reserve a memorial spot in either The Times or The Tribune, the only two international papers distributed to where each lives. They’ve only made use of the nib six times in eighteen years, the last dedicated to Henry’s professor from his doctorate, who had lent him the nib in the first place. As the recipient of the nib, Henry wrote a numerically melodic eulogy for the man, showing his gratitude and appreciation in iambic pentameter. When he later tried to describe the experience to Liam, he used such quaint words as exultant and qualmish, the kind of feelings only the people past a certain age like him would feel.

In one of his more recent letters to Liam, Henry writes, What’s one word that starts with an E and ends with an E and only has one letter in between?

Liam replies: Envelope. He knows this thanks to the video his son shared on Twitter a few months back, which is also probably where Henry saw it.

Two months later, following their longest lapse in communication, Henry asks again in another letter: What’s one word that starts with an E and ends with an E and only has one letter in between?

Envelope, Liam writes at first but then, keeping in mind his friend’s declining health, replaces his paper with new stationery to ask him, What?

You’re pointless, Henry replies.

The next morning, before Liam can make it to the post office, he receives a phone call from Henry’s stepdaughter in Tokyo. Her father has passed away in his sleep.

“Toward the end, he started naming his friends after the months they died in,” she tells him. “So I guess you can start calling him August from now on.”

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting

08:05 Hampton Court to Waterloo

Until the point when a man started dying right in front of her on the 08:05, Iona’s day had been just like any other.

She always left the house at half past seven. It took her an average of twenty minutes to walk to the station in heels, which meant she’d usually arrive fifteen minutes before her train left for Waterloo. Two minutes later if she was wearing the Louboutins.

Arriving in good time was crucial if she wanted to secure her usual seat in her usual carriage, which she did. While novelty was a wonderful thing when it came to fashion, or film, or even patisserie, it was not welcome on her daily commute.

Some time ago, Iona’s editor had suggested that she start working from home. It was, he’d told her, all the rage, and her job could be done just as well remotely. He’d tried to cajole her out of her office space with sweet talk of an extra hour in bed and more flexibility, and, when that didn’t work, had attempted to drive her out by making her do something awful called hot desking, which she learned-was corporate speak for sharing. Even as a child, Iona had never liked sharing. That little incident with the Barbie doll was still seared in her memory and, no doubt, her classmates’ as well. No, boundaries were necessary. Luckily, Iona’s colleagues quickly became familiar with which was her preferred desk, and it morphed from hot to decidedly frigid.

Iona loved going into the office. She enjoyed rubbing shoulders with all the youth, who taught her the latest lingo, played her their favorite new tracks, and told her what to watch on Netflix. It was important to keep at least one finger plugged into the zeitgeist, especially in her profession. Bea, bless her, wasn’t much help on that front.

She wasn’t, however, looking forward to today very much. Her latest editor had scheduled a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree appraisal, which sounded altogether too intimate. At her age (fifty-seven), one didn’t like to be appraised too closely, and certainly not from every angle. Some things were best left to the imagination. Or not thought about at all, to be honest.

Anyhow, what did he know? Much like policemen and doctors, her editors seemed to get younger and younger with each passing year. This one, believe it or not, was conceived after the World Wide Web. He’d never known a world where phones were tethered to the wall and you had to look up facts in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Iona thought back, somewhat wistfully, to her annual appraisals when she’d first started at the magazine, nearly thirty years ago. They didn’t call them “appraisals” then, of course. They were called “lunch,” and they happened at the Savoy Grill. The only downside was having to politely remove her editor’s fat, sweaty hand from her thigh on a regular basis, but she was quite adept at that, and it was almost worth it for the sole meunière, deftly detached from the bone by a subservient waiter with a French accent, and washed down with a chilled bottle of Chablis. She tried to remember the last time someone other than Bea had attempted to grope her under a table, and couldn’t. Not since the early nineties, in any case.

Iona checked her reflection in the hall mirror. She’d gone for her favorite red suit today-the one that shouted I mean business and don’t even think about it, mister.

“Lulu!” she called, only to discover the French bulldog already sitting right by her feet, ready to go. Another creature of habit. She leaned down to attach the lead to Lulu’s hot-pink collar, studded with diamantz spelling out her name. Bea didn’t approve of Lulu’s accessories. Darling, she’s a dog, not a child, she’d said on numerous occasions. Iona was quite aware of that. Children these days were rather selfish, lazy, and entitled, she thought. Not like darling Lulu at all.

Iona opened the front door and called up the stairs, as she always did, “Bye bye, Bea! I’m off to the office. I’ll miss you!”

Link to the rest at Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting

PG doesn’t usually include posts with excerpts from books, but when he started reading a sample of Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting, he was captivated by the voice of Iona and how quickly the story took off.

The Life I Never Intended to Love: Dog Owner

From The Wall Street Journal:

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a dog person. One of my earliest memories of a dog is from when I was around 5 years old and a neighbor’s golden retriever knocked me face-first into the concrete.

As an adult, I harbored both a mild fear of dogs and a major irritation at their seemingly entitled owners who would bring them into places they don’t belong, let them invade my personal space and then say, “She’s friendly!”

This made it all the more curious that I should become, during the pandemic, the sole caretaker of a German shorthaired pointer named Bo. He has proved to be an inexhaustible and exhausting daredevil, prone to illness and injury, a chronic whiner who relentlessly demands my attention and takes up most of my time and energy—challenges I hadn’t considered or in some cases even knew existed. He cost me a fortune in medical bills and made me spend days disinfecting my apartment. Weirdly, he also turned out to be the surprising way I filled a hole in my life that I never knew existed.

A GSP, as they’re often called, isn’t a starter dog like a golden retriever or a bernedoodle. It’s a dog bred for hunting, with so much energy it’s hard to imagine it unless you’ve spent real time with one. A dog that during its adolescence, according to a popular meme, resembles the velociraptor portrayed in “Jurassic Park” as an absolute terror. The websites of rescue organizations looking to rehome GSPs describe them with words and phrases like “exuberant” or able to “sail over a 6-foot fence,” offering some clues as to what owners can be in for.

I read none of these cautions in the spring of 2020. San Francisco was under shelter-in-place orders, and as an avid runner who was single, living alone and going a little batty, I wanted to see how many days in a row I could run. On day 27, I was bored enough, despite my lifelong antipathy toward canines, to try running with my friend’s dog Edson, an impeccably trained GSP. That first day we ran together, I let him off leash amid the wooded trails of Presidio national park. I recognized that I felt joy watching that dog run.

A few months later, I was looking at litters of GSP puppies—just for fun, I told myself. Then I reached out to a breeder named Amelia Brockelbank in Alpharetta, Ga., and soon we were having regular phone conversations. I peppered her with questions and confessed my deepest fears. What if I don’t love him? She’d take him back, no questions asked. When I saw number 24 among her six-week-old puppies’ headshots, I knew my fate was sealed.

When I told my GSP-owning friend that I was getting one, he congratulated me. Then he texted me the GSP-as-velociraptor meme. Still, people said Bo would be a great fit for me and in many ways, they were right. The December before the pandemic hit, I had run a 50-kilometer trail race with more than 5,000 feet of elevation gain. I was surely active enough for this dog. Five days after I brought Bo home, and on the eve of my 39th birthday, he slept through the night. I had the perfect puppy.

The transition into full-on dog mom was swift. My Instagram feed was soon full of Bo’s antics: Bo asleep on the couch with his legs so straight I call it his rigor mortis pose; Bo tagging along while I clambered up Snowmass mountain on skis at sunrise; Bo leaping in the air with the backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge. I cuddled him; I coddled him; I made up rap songs for him.

The first signs of trouble came when Bo was around 8 months old. He jumped out the car window after getting a whiff of a milkshake on the side of the road, ran across four lanes of traffic and relieved himself at a gas station before I was able to get him back.

Then he started escaping the dog park and raiding nearby picnics. I’d chase him around, screaming his name, until some poor soul would tell me what he’d managed to steal: a pork bun here, some chicken wings there, a marzipan pastry that left him smelling like a French bakery. The $470 emergency room visit after he inhaled the better part of three slices of Indian-seasoned pizza was when I knew I was in over my head. Much of a dog’s behavior, of course, is a reflection on its owner, and I admit there was no shortage of mistakes I made.

Around the time that Bo hit adolescence and seemed to forget all the training we’d done, he started having consecutive bouts of a parasite, which required me to sanitize my entire apartment. I lost count of the vet trips, canceled vacations and the number of times I stood alone on the streets of San Francisco at 3 a.m. with him wondering why I had ruined my otherwise responsibility-free life. GSPs can be a “vocal” breed, and Bo whined constantly, no matter how much I seemed to do for him. Some nights the whining got so bad, I’d go sit in my car and cry.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

The Toughest Fish in the Barrel

From Electric Lit:

Sunrise Foods, just a few blocks from my house, is marked by a glossy freestanding sign, a cheery egg-yolk yellow against an often gray, wintering Toronto sky. Back in December, just before I turned 14, Tracey “with an e” recruited a bunch of us from the school lunch table to work here in her uncle’s new bagel and smoked fish store. Now, six months on, all my peers are gone. But I have learned to tell whitefish chubs with their oily, golden hue from goldeye that wrinkles away from the skin. I’ve learned how to sheath my arm in a plastic bag and plunge it into a barrel of gutted herring, floating in their vegetable oil pond. How to act like I wasn’t afraid to touch the fish until I wasn’t afraid to touch the fish.

At the barrel I re-tie my white apron over the green Roots Athletics T-shirt I bought with my first paycheck, protecting it from oil splashes that never wash out. My dirty-blonde waves are pinned on top of my head with a clip of faux pearls. A berry-scented hair spray from a purple bottle helps disguise the fish smell.

I’d had an argument with my mother just before I was hired at Sunrise. She was annoyed that the sleeves of my winter coat no longer reached my wrists, that I was yanking my shirt sleeves down to my mittens to cover the gap. My growing body and its expense had slipped her mind. I had to agree to chip in my birthday money, but I got to choose the store and the new coat. Then it hit me: birthday cards only come once a year. I really needed a job.

The customer’s eyes follow my arm as it disappears into the dark oil. I reach around blindly. Even in a barrel, the fish resist being caught.

I’ve seen my mother eat herring from a little glass jar, lifting scraps of the silvery sliced fish onto a Triscuit with her fork or sometimes her fingers, and sliding the cracker onto her tongue like it’s a delicacy. Her family served it at all kinds of holidays when she was growing up.

At the Sunrise counter, though, you can buy herring sliced in oil, in cream sauce, or in wine vinegar with red onion and black peppercorns. But barrel herring is high-drama herring. “Time for herring theater,” I whisper to Hymie, who speaks Yiddish with the uniformly geriatric customers, and makes our best-selling tuna salad with a secret ingredient (chicken bouillon powder).

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Reddit, Tell Me Where I Went Wrong

From Electric Lit:

My neighbor (32F) is not speaking to me (44M) because I made some repairs to her home while she was out of town. These were mostly exterior and relatively minor (clearing debris, replacing deck boards, adding a utility sink, installing a rain cap), but I did climb onto her roof. She says I was out of line by not asking permission and that she no longer trusts my judgment.

We live two streets away from each other in a small neighborhood of old houses. We have been friends for a year and hooking up for about three months. I would like more, but she is a relatively new widow and single parent to a four-year-old boy and doesn’t have the capacity right now. She is seriously my ideal woman, though, and I am willing to wait. I am not the most attractive guy and never thought I’d interest a person of her caliber. We’ve gone out a few times when her mom was watching her son or if there was a “Parents’ Night Out” at his daycare, but mostly it’s a couple hours together after her son goes to sleep. She’s invited me along with a larger group to go hiking a couple times, and we get each other’s mail and water each other’s plants if the other person is out of town.  

I bought a house in this neighborhood after my divorce because it was close to my job and to my ex-wife’s house (we share custody of two teenagers), but a lot of people move here because it is one of the few affordable city neighborhoods in a good school district. Then they realize that because the houses are all extremely old repairing them is a hassle. You think about yanking down the wallpaper somebody painted over only to discover lead paint or try to replace a door and realize you’ll have to get one custom made. I’m an engineer and can get into this kind of stuff, but a lot of people don’t. My neighbor told me on more than one occasion that her house stressed her out. She could handle the yard work and minor repairs and outsource the truly big projects, but then there were all of these things in between. Installing a utility sink felt impossible when you had a full-time job and a young child and no spouse, but were you really going to pay someone to do that? “You don’t have to pay me,” I’d tell her. “Get the sink, and I’ll put it in,” but she wouldn’t let me. I figured it was about her son and his father, about not wanting him to see anyone step into that kind of role, and so I dropped it.

The night before she went out of town, we were on her porch drinking beers and watching for the fox that lives in the overgrown lot across the street. Her son had gone to bed about thirty minutes before and was still sleeping lightly. We couldn’t go upstairs yet and so we got to talk. Work, TV shows, a book she almost loved whose ending felt contrived, my daughter’s failing grade in chemistry that brought me and my ex-wife to a moment of real collaboration. We had a fan going to ward off the mosquitos, and the sunset was just beginning to brighten the edges of the summer sky. When the dog walkers passed, we’d wave, and this gave me a good feeling, all of these people seeing me with her. It felt like being claimed.

“This is nice,” I said.


“Being with you. I’m glad we don’t sneak around.”

She made a face. “Why would we do that?”

Her voice had a slight edge to it, and I knew I had to tread lightly. I couldn’t imply she was risking her reputation or trusting a person she barely knew to behave well if whatever it was we had ended.

“That first night you slept with me I was so happy,” I said. “I told myself, she has a kid and we’re neighbors. She isn’t going to hook up with me unless she thinks it could really be something.”

She took a long drink of her beer and seemed to consider her response. I was hoping she would say I was right, but she just shrugged. “We’re both adults. You never struck me as a lunatic.”

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Divorcée Fiction: On Ursula Parrott

From The Paris Review:

I’d never heard of Ursula Parrott when McNally Editions in­troduced me to Ex-Wife, the author’s 1929 novel about a young woman who suddenly finds herself suspended in the caliginous space between matrimony and divorce. The first thing I won­dered was where it had been all my life. Ex-Wife rattles with ghosts and loss and lonely New York apartments, with men who change their minds and change them again, with people and places that assert their permanence by the very fact that they’re gone and they’re never coming back. Originally published anonymously, Ex-Wife stirred immediate controversy for Parrott’s frank depiction of her heroine, Patricia, a woman whose allure does not spare her from desertion after an open marriage proves to be an asymmetrical failure. Embarking on a marathon of alcoholic oblivion and a series of mostly joyless dips into the waters of sexual liberation, Patricia spends the book ricocheting between her fear of an abstract future and her fixation on a past that has been polished, gleaming from memory’s sleight of hand.

It’s been nearly a century since Ex-Wife had its flash of fame (the book sold more than one hundred thousand copies in its first year), and as progress has stripped divorce of its moral op­probrium, it has also swelled the ranks of us ex-wives. Folded in with Patricia’s descriptions of one-night stands and prohibition-­busting binges are the kind of hollow distractions relatable to any of us who have ever wanted to forget: she buys clothes she can’t afford; she gets facials and has her hair done; she listens to songs on repeat while wearily wondering why heartache always seems to bookend love. My copy is riddled with exclamation marks and anecdotes that chart my own parallel romantic catastrophes, its paragraphs vandalized with highlighted passages and bracketed phrases. There is a sentence on the book’s first page that I outlined in black ink: “He grew tired of me;” it reads, “hunted about for reasons to justify his weariness; and found them.” The box that I have drawn around these words is a frame, I suppose; the kind that you find around a mirror.

For all its painful familiarity, it’s easy to get caught in the trap of Ex-Wife’s nostalgic charm; there are phonographs and jazz clubs and dresses from Vionnet; there are verboten cocktails and towering new buildings that reach toward a New York skyline so young that it still reveals its stars. If critics once took issue with the book’s treatment of abortion, adultery, and casual sex, contemporary analyses have too often remarked that Patricia’s world cannot help but show us its age. “Scandalous or sensational?” wrote one critic when the book was last reprinted, in 1989. “Times have changed.” Yes and no; released in the decade between two world wars, and just months before Black Tuesday turned boom to bust, Ex-Wife probes the violent uncertainty of a world locked in a perpetual state of becoming.

Lurching toward sexual revolution but still psychologically tethered to Victorian morality, women of Parrott’s generation found themselves caught in the free fall of collapsing conven­tion. The seedy emotional texture of Ex-Wife’s Jazz Age de­bauchery reflected the panic felt by women across the country who had glimpsed freedom but remained ill-equipped to navi­gate its consequences. Almost immediately following the book’s publication, the press began a guessing game that sought to identify who was being shielded under its mantle of anonym­ity; was Ex-Wife a confession, a fantasy, or the indictment of a culture shifting too rapidly to acknowledge the inevitable casualties we leave in the wake of change? By August of 1929, conjecture had correctly zeroed in on Katherine Ursula Parrott (née Towle), a journalist and fashion writer who seemed to bear an uncanny resemblance to her bobbed and brushed heroine.

Considering the book in the context of what we now know about her life, one cannot put much stock in Parrott’s sug­gestion that Patricia was a composite figure. Instead, Ex-Wife seems to have been a place to record injuries too personal for her to claim as her own. Born in Boston to a physician father and a housewife mother, Parrott decamped to New York’s Greenwich Village shortly following her graduation from Radcliffe College in the early twenties. Her first marriage, to the journalist Lindesay Parrott Sr., ended in divorce in 1926, the year he discovered that the childless marriage he had in­sisted upon was not so childless after all. In 1924, Ursula had learned that she was pregnant and left the couple’s London home for Boston, where she gave birth to her only son before depositing him in the custody of her father and older sister. It was a secret that she managed to keep from Lindesay and their glamorous circle of friends for an astonishing two years. Marc Parrott, whose afterword concludes this book, would never have a relationship with his father. He was nearly seven years old when his mother finally acknowledged her maternity and assumed responsibility for his care. It was 1931 by then, and Ursula had become one of a handful of women who would find her fortune writing escapist romance tales under the pall of the Great Depression.

Marc Parrott’s recollections of his mother paint a vivid por­trait of a spendthrift who often worked for seventy-two-hour stretches in order to meet the deadlines that would keep her (and her lovers) in furs. Parrott swanned through the thirties publishing short stories and serialized novels in women’s mag­azines, her name often mentioned alongside the Hollywood stars who were attached to her screenplays and cinematic ad­aptations. Although I never once found her son mentioned in the many news items devoted to her work and her persona, Parrott was occasionally found in the company of a pet poo­dle improbably named Ex-Wife; in more ways than one, it would seem, her greatest scandal was also her most stalwart companion.

Though Ex-Wife was initially framed as the writer’s en­dorsement of a dangerous new cultural model, Parrott herself was painfully aware of the double standard that continued to condemn “girls who do.” Divorced for a second time in 1932 and for a third five years after, the writer openly mused about her vulnerability in a world where marriage no longer insulated aging women from “man’s urge for variety.” Parrott called di­vorced women like her “Leftover Ladies,” a term that implies both surplus and rejection. Her abandoned woman is doomed to a battle that offers neither victory nor surrender. I think of Patricia examining the phantom lines that have begun to etch themselves across her face. I think of her cold creams and her lipsticks, of her awareness of a clock that never stops ticking. “The Leftover Lady is not free to get old,” Parrott wrote the winter after Ex-Wife came out, “for she has entered the compe­tition, in her work and in her social life, with younger women. And that competition is merciless.”

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

The virtue of discretion – When the rules break down, you must judge what to do on your own. Discretion is necessary for navigating the muddle of life

From Aeon:

It is midday, the sixth hour, sometime between Easter and Pentecost, at a Benedictine monastery, and the monks are gathered for the main meal of the day. It could be any century between the 6th and the 21st, and anywhere from southern Italy to South Korea. Although each monastery is autonomous, governed by its abbot, the order prescribed by the Rule of St Benedict regulates every particular of the proceedings. The monks eat in silence, except for the sound of biblical passages read aloud for their edification. Fare and portions are specified in detail: two cooked meals (no meat), one pound of bread, and a cup of wine daily, no more, no less. Every aspect of life is stipulated: how and when the monks may sleep (all in one room, dressed and belted, with a light burning all night); the order in which the Psalms are to be sung each day (with an added ‘Hallelujah!’ between Easter and Pentecost); clothing (two tunics and two cowls, plus shoes and socks for the monks who work in the fields); bed linens (one mat, sheet, blanket and pillow per monk), when to get up and when to go to bed. If micromanagers have a patron saint, it is surely St Benedict.

Yet each of the 73 chapters that make up the Rule of St Benedict foresees exceptions and mitigating circumstances that may soften the apparently rigid order. The monks may not eat the flesh of four-footed animals – unless the abbot grants permission to the weak and sick who need stronger sustenance. Silence reigns at meals – unless the abbot gives permission to entertain a guest with conversation. Monks are allowed one hemina (around half a pint) of wine and not one drop more – unless they have laboured all day under the hot summer sun. Private possessions are forbidden – no book, no writing tablet, no stylus, nothing whatsoever – unless the abbot wills otherwise. No precept is so rigid that it cannot be bent if the abbot judges that circumstances warrant an exception: it all depends. The abbot’s discretion does not contradict the Rule of St Benedict; it is the Rule.

Discretion is the faculty of it-all-depends. When a general rule collides with recalcitrant particulars, it is discretion that sorts out the resulting muddle. No rule can encompass all the situations to which it may have to be applied, and the shuffle of human affairs is constantly dealing us wild cards. Even in the ordered world of the Benedictine monastery, circumstances fluctuate. One reason why the Rule of St Benedict has survived for so many centuries in so many places is its flexibility. In contrast with the short lives of so many other would-be utopias and ideal communities, which rarely last for more than a single generation, the Rule of St Benedict – originally composed for Benedict’s own monastic community in Monte Cassino in southern Italy in the early 6th century CE – still provides the blueprint of the organisation of Benedictine monasteries all over the world, as it has for 1,500 years. Not for nothing does St Benedict call discretion ‘the mother of all virtues’. When universal rule and particular situation don’t align, it’s discretion that leaps into the breach. We couldn’t live without it.

And yet we’re uncomfortable living with it. We like our rules clearcut and unambiguous, and above all consistently applied. We equate rules applied the same way to all people in all situations with equality and predictability, two cardinal virtues of the rule of law. Exceptions immediately trigger suspicions of special pleading, unfair treatment or wanton caprice. The power to exercise discretion, whether in the court, the classroom or a government office, invites gimlet-eyed scrutiny for the least sign of abuse – or simple error. Distrust shadows discretion like a private eye shadowing a suspect, just waiting to catch the culprit red-handed. As a result, discretion has been driven underground, still in constant but now clandestine operation. It’s become the indispensable faculty that dare not speak its name.

How did this happen? The decline in the fortunes of discretion is part of the history of rules. That history is long and labyrinthine, and rules have always meant many things: the rules of arithmetic calculation, of games, of warfare, of cookbooks, of parliamentary procedure, of traffic, of musical composition, of marriage and divorce, of spelling, and on and on. There is no known human culture without rules, and almost no human activity that slips through the tightly woven mesh of rules. But amid this dazzling diversity and ubiquity, we can make out two broad categories: thick rules and thin ones.

The Rule of St Benedict is a sterling example of how thick rules and discretion work hand in hand. Thick rules announce a directive about how or how not to behave, clearly and succinctly, but then they go on to fatten that precept with examples, exceptions and appeals to experience (call them the three exes). For example, an early 18th-century treatise on siege warfare contains what sounds like a self-evident rule: ‘Always attack the enemy’s stronghold at its weakest point.’ But exceptions immediately follow: if a good paved road that made the transport of heavy cannons and munitions easier led to a stronger part of the fortifications, then the attack should begin there instead.

A thick rule requires the ability to discern among cases that may, at first glance, seem alike

Take another obvious-sounding rule from a 17th-century handbook on how to play various games: in chess, don’t sacrifice a piece worth more for one worth less. Yet in the next breath comes an exception: should your adversary seem to have a penchant for playing a particular piece – say, a knight – then you should do your utmost to put the knight out of commission, including sacrificing a piece of higher value (say, your bishop), in order to discombobulate your opponent and gain a psychological advantage. Thick rules are learned by example and from experience, and they are constantly being stretched by exceptions – the three exes (and perhaps a fourth ex, for extenuating circumstances). These are part and parcel of the rule itself, the woolly coat that cushions the rule against unforeseen circumstances.

A thick rule requires discretion to follow; the ability to discern among cases that may, at first glance, seem alike (for example, what the monks will be served for dinner) but, in fact, differ in significant respects (eg, this monk is strong and healthy, and that one is sick and weak). But what exactly is discretion, how does it work, and who is qualified to exercise it?

Discretion is not the whole of judgment, but it is an essential part. Judgment is the ability to bring together universals and particulars, a two-fold task. First, we must decide, which universal – which law or rule or maxim or principle – applies to this particular case at hand? The judge who arraigns a suspect must figure out what charge to book; the doctor must decide the diagnosis and treatment for the individual patient. Because this kind of judgment is all about cases, it is sometimes called casuistry. The pages of newspaper advice columns are full of everyday conundrums that mobilise casuistry: ‘My husband is an anti-vaxxer. Should I lie to him about having our child vaccinated?’ Here, judgment must decide which moral principle takes precedence: the principle of trust and truthfulness between spouses, or the principle of parental responsibility for the child’s welfare. Casuistry tries to figure out which rule or principle should dominate in this specific case.

So discretion is the second form of judgment, mustered after that first decision about universals and particulars has been made: this is indeed the right universal for these particulars, but its rigid application without some adjustment to these particular particulars would cause some unintended harm. In the case of the parents who disagree whether their child should be vaccinated, we are likely to want to know more specifics about both the marriage and the risks run by the child, in order to temper the application of whichever principle we have decided should trump in this case. Either marital trust or the child’s welfare may suffer, depending on the decision, but there is a further duty to try to minimise the harm.

What kind of harm depends on the kind of general rule. In a court of law, injustice might result from, for example, applying the full rigour of the law against theft to a poor, hungry person who stole food. In the kitchen, following the cake recipe’s instructions about the amount of baking powder may result in an oven explosion if you’re cooking at high altitude. In a spaceship launch, not taking into account how far the launchpad is from the equator when calculating the amount of fuel needed for a rocket to reach escape velocity can crash the rocket and its payload. These are all cases in which the unambiguously apt universal – the law forbidding theft, the recipe for this kind of cake, the calculation of escape velocity – must be tailored to fit the particulars at hand, just as the abbot granted the weak and sick a portion of meat at dinner, or the guest at dinner a courteous conversation partner. Casuistry pits one universal against another in the case at hand; discretion tweaks the apposite universal to the particulars of that case. Both casuistry and discretion are feats of judgment, but not the same feat.

. . . .

We exercise discretion all the time, but we can’t give rules for how we do it

Link to the rest at Aeon

Why Can’t I Write Whenever I Want To?

From Writer Unboxed:

In springtime, after a cold, dark winter, my teachers would fling open the windows to let fresh air flow into the schoolrooms.

Unfortunately, my school was surrounded by farmland and the fresh spring air had usually warmed up enough to bring with it the unmistakable stench of silage, that pungent slurry of fermented grasses the local farmers spread on their fields to keep the cows fed before the summer crops came in.

Amid the groans of pupils holding their sleeves to their noses, the drone of bumblebees, and the window-rattling supersonic roar of Concorde’s pilots being taught to land at the nearby airport, you could occasionally hear the frantic scratching of pens on exam papers, spring being testing season in Scotland.

I never minded taking tests.

It appealed to what I would later learn was an ADHD trait of hyper-focus, but at the time I thought of as ‘having a good short-term memory and a decent sense of how to manage my time within the 90 minute window of most tests’.

(Obviously, I was one of the cool kids…)

I loved the quiet order of the test rooms: everyone socially-distanced for intellectual purity—long before it became fashionable for health reasons.

I adored the knowledge that no one would talk or make fun of me for ‘being a swot’ or otherwise distract me until the end of the test.

Even the quiet shuffle of the invigilators haunting the aisles of the temple of learning like the ghosts of cloistered monks added to my odd sense of freedom in an exam room.

I could regurgitate hastily-memorized algebraic formulae with ease, there—so different from the panic that seized me if asked to stand at the board and talk about numbers. I could quote passages from history and biology facts by closing my eyes and remembering how they looked on the textbook page. But best of all, there was always that moment when the I turned to the part of the English paper that said “Write a short story, or essay, on…”

Of course I felt the same incipient nausea as everyone else while speed-reading the list of possible topics: how was I to fill 40 minutes writing about a trip to a new place, or imagining I had found a bottle on a beach?

The will to keep calm and carry on began to leak from the room as 99% of the pupils looked at the ceiling in despair, or scratched a few stilted lines onto the page, hoping for magic to happen.

But soon something would bubble up in my brain. Soon I was radiating enough energy to make up the deficit from everyone else: my mind full of ‘what ifs’ and kooky characters who might play in these worlds.

I began to write, as unsure as everyone else about where I was going with this idea, but with one piece of certainty tucked up my sleeve for emergencies: I knew that once I started writing some force would pluck me from the school room and transport me on landslide of words, slipping and sliding down the scree of sentences, unaware of the passing time until a sixth sense alerted me to an internal five-minute warning, and I could turn and sprint towards ‘the end’.

As uniformed bodies stumbled from the exam room, drained and demoralized, I positively bounded out into the sunny, stinky Ayrshire spring, whistling and giggling, and wondering why everyone else looked so glum.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

169 Square Feet in Las Vegas

From The Paris Review:

The Las Vegas apartment complex was advertised as a fresh start, a place to reinvent oneself. With only 169 square feet in the so-called “micro-studio,” there was simply no room to bring much of my past life with me. I was not seeking reinvention, but I was looking for cheap rent.

I arrived in late afternoon on a warm fall day. New friends had invited me to go camping in Utah and were soon to depart, so I tossed my few belongings into the studio without taking much stock of the space. I did, however, note what I would come to call “the bathroom situation.” Along the apartment’s eastern wall stood the shower and the toilet, both separated from the rest of the space by only a curtain. The only sink was the kitchen sink. Well, I thought, that pretty much eliminates the possibility of anyone staying the night. I showed up to my friends’ doorstep tired and sweaty, and as we chatted, the last member of our camping caravan emerged from his bedroom, hair damp from a shower. I snuck a glance into his room. His apartment was basically the same size as my entire micro-studio, and contained many more things—paintings from Chile, philodendron cuttings in blue glass vases, and, in the living room, even a large white rug and a recliner.

My tiny apartment, as I named it, was fine for the time being. Utilities were included in the price. I had a desk that doubled as my dining table, and enough cabinets to use for my clothes. There was a kitchenette with a mini fridge and a two-burner stove, where I made, nearly every day, toast and eggs sunny-side up. When I showered, steam filled the room, and the dracaena I’d just bought seemed to like the humidity.

One night, I invited my new friends over for dinner. I owned very few kitchen essentials, so I used a Crockpot Express to steep risotto in wine while I used my only pan to sauté onions. It would take a full day for the smell of caramelized onion to dissipate from the apartment, and, over time, I began to worry that the scents of all my meals had fossilized in my linens. The philodendron man made a comment about a YouTube video he’d watched on micro-studios in New York. Why, we wondered, were there micro-studios in sprawling Las Vegas, where subdivisions and suburbs were more common than even regular-sized apartments? When we left to go eat in the courtyard, our arms full of pots and plates, one of the friends said she’d stay behind. She needed to use the bathroom, but didn’t want anyone else inside at the same time.

Because I lived alone, I normally didn’t close the curtain to use the toilet. I closed the curtain only when I had visitors, which seemed like a performance of modesty, since the toilet was never going to be private. But there were not many visitors. One of my only guests was the philodendron man. The first time he visited by himself, I was nervous. I ended up overcooking the shakshuka I’d planned for dinner, and when he arrived, the place smelled of burn. We drank wine on my bed, and he left. From a friend, I learned he was anxious about the bathroom situation.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

In The Stacks

From In The Stacks:

I’M A LIBRARIAN, so of course I was picking melted plastic out of the 3D printer when I heard the news that Maisie Martin had died.

I wandered out of the maker space, past the robotics lab, around the VR cave, into the music studio. We do have books in this library, lots of them. But these days, we have more than books.

Maisie was dead, so it was time, at last, to break down the synthesizer.

3D printers, LEGO robots, VR goggles: these offerings are not, among well-funded public libraries, uncommon. The Big Red Synthesizer is, by contrast, unique. Before it was Maisie’s instrument, it was my headache.

The music studio, I could handle. Generally, it was reserved by various squads of scruffy teens. They howled and tittered behind the glass and left the production computer’s keyboard greasy with Cheeto dust.

Every so often, one of them would spy the Big Red Synthesizer, enormous, as long as a Fiat, parked against the back wall of the studio control room. It was a fugitive from the 1970s, ancestor to the tools inside the production computer. Packed with knurled knobs set beside pulsing LEDs, it might have been ripped from the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. Every so often, one of the teens would creep out of the studio to ask: Hey, uh… how do you use that thing?

I would confess: I didn’t know. The synthesizer’s markings, “VCO” and “VCF” and “LFO,” were as inscrutable as an ancient tablet. Jacks yawned open, ready to receive the cables draped over hooks on the wall. According to what logic would those cables be inserted? I had barely weathered the transition to USB-C. I had no idea.

The teens would fiddle. Generally, their efforts produced only silence, and they retreated back into the computer. Once, a girl with stringy hair and long fingers summoned a yowling square wave, so banshee-pure that it punched through the soundproofing and filled the library. I jogged to quiet the noise, but she pulled the plug before I arrived, frightened by her own sound.

There was, as far as I knew, just one patron who understood the use of the Big Red Synthesizer, and her expertise made up for all our ignorance.

Maisie Martin, 83 years old, was a virtuoso.

Her career had bloomed and faded before the internet, so there wasn’t much to find about her, except the stub of a page on the university website naming her a Professor, Emeritus in classics. She had written a book about the muses, far too obscure to be included in our collection. Her hair was cut short, her expression set serious, but she was never unkind. She simply had things to do.

Maisie kept a schedule. Wednesdays were library days; synthesizer days. After being delivered by a young chauffeur, she would walk slowly to the front desk and sign her name in the studio logbook, her handwriting smooth and elegant. (The scruffy teens could barely make letters.) After she disappeared inside, there would, for twenty or thirty minutes, be silence. Maisie was plugging the right cables into the right jacks, rebuilding her composition.

I’d once spied her through the glass, consulting her notebook. She had reproduced the face of the Big Red Synthesizer in neat lines, photocopying the drawing dozens of times; on each copy, in red ink, she drew the paths of the cables as she plugged them in.

I asked her once how she composed for the synthesizer, and she replied:

“For a piano, you write a song. For a synthesizer, you invent a patch. I have been working on my patch.”

It made her sound like a farmer.

Every Wednesday, after she had rebuilt her patch, she started it playing. I could hear it only faintly through the soundproofing. The bass pushed through in big, slow waves.

Sometimes the scruffy teens would be waiting when Maisie emerged. She would give them a curt nod, and they would nod back. Neither camp seemed particularly impressed by the other.

What was Maisie making in there? There’s a code of honor among librarians: let patrons do their thing. The patrons who wanted to tell you, told you; they could not, in fact, be quieted. Yusuf Naber’s research on penguin behavior was undertaken largely, if not totally, for the opportunity to report its daily progress to the librarians. (Yusuf was ten.)

As for the rest? Brilliant Ayesha Rossi built stacks of history books, one age leading her to the next and the next as she rebuilt the whole story of humanity in her head. Ubiquitous Barbara Turner wormed her way through the mystery shelves, following a path as circuitous as an Agatha Christie plot. These patrons’ intentions, I did not know. I only saw their outermost contours, in the shape of resources requested.

Maisie Martin’s contour was a straight line. Every Wednesday, she came. Every Wednesday, she built her patch, nudged it along, broke it down.

Every Wednesday except for one.

It was the library’s policy that you should leave the studio as you found it. I reminded the scruffy teens of this policy again—and again—and again. I swiped my fingers across the keyboard, showed them the orange glow. They shrugged and smirked and promised to do better.

Maisie needed no such reprimand. In fact, she overdid it. No one else used the Big Red Synthesizer; she could have left it configured, the tangle of cables dripping in place, spaghetti-like, from one Wednesday to the next. But always, after thirty minutes of reconstruction and an hour of work, she spent her final thirty minutes removing all the cables and hanging them neatly on the wall, arranged in order of ascending length, from six inches to four feet.

The closest I ever came to divining her purpose was the day I said to her: “Maisie, you can leave the cables plugged into the synthesizer, if you want. No one else uses it.”

She shook her head. “Oh, no. Building it helps me understand it. I wouldn’t get anywhere if I skipped that step.”

I should have known, therefore, that it was a Wednesday unlike any other—that the world was about to change—when, at the end of the day, I poked into the studio to turn off the lights, and found the synthesizer still wired up.

On the table in front of the machine, a piece of paper had been laid, folded into a little tent, and on it a a note was written in Maisie’s unmistakable script:


Feeling weirdly panicked, I buttressed Maisie’s delicate note with a larger one, printed in the official library font, laminated with the official library laminator:


Link to the rest at In The Stacks

Nightmares of a Shopaholic

From The Paris Review:

I’ve never been married, and I’ve bought my wedding dress.

It was a skin-melting summer day. K. and I were going to this perfect vintage store, we have to go, I really want to take you. But she couldn’t remember its name, or whether it was off Columbus or Amsterdam, so we kept stumbling into these half blocks, asphalt shimmering under our sweating shoes.

Suddenly, sure as a homing pigeon, she wheeled around a corner to a gated sliver of silver and pressed an anonymous black button. Then K. pressed her hand to the double-barred iron door, and it yielded.

The store was a riot of color. Every corner had multiple layers of stuff, so you couldn’t put your eye down on one thing without it landing on five more: golden silk handkerchiefs, tallboy cabinets draped with ropy silken tassels, iridescent velvet slippers, a bristly thick, glossy black, lancelet fur capelet, gumdrop earrings that might have been rhinestones or Tiffany. The accessories had their own accessories: there were opera glasses with an eyeglasses chain on which dangled an opera-glasses charm. My molars ached.

Oh! K.’s feathery exclamation snapped my vision into focus toward a dress form. The dress was white with the faintest tinge of seafoam green, beaded and stiff through the torso and then releasing into a tulle storm cloud that gathered barometric pressure above the ground at thigh height.

It was the worst dress.

This dress is amazing, said K. It’s so good. It would look so good on you.

I swallowed. So good, I parroted.

The shopkeeper’s ears flared up. I don’t know who made it, she said, but it’s in totally perfect condition. I think it could have been custom. She flicked her eyes along my body like a tape measure. You’d fit it perfectly.

No changing room, so I wriggled out of my tee and lost my shorts under the dress. K. and the shopkeeper whirled around me, zipping up the boning in one swoop like peeling a clementine in a single long perfect spiral. The dress cinched me and its skirt fell toward my knees, its marshmallow thunder hovering above the rug’s nap.

The saleswoman made all sorts of low squawks. K. cocked her head.

Yes, she cooed. Amazing on you. It’s perfect.

I felt the boning cut into me and felt nothing at all.

I’m serious, said K. This could be your wedding dress.

I floated above my body and watched it: a ballerina in a music box, two legs fused on one foot.

Oh my God, I can see it, said K. I could see it too. A blurry man in a tuxedo; K. behind me in garnet and gold. The dress whiter than white, backlit in seafoam, the way lights in a dentist’s office are white because they’re against a cold-hot fluorescent background.

$750, more than a month of my first rent.

That’s actually a really good price, K. said, sotto voce. You have to get it. Her pale eyes narrowed.

I–. I can’t. I shot my eyes down. I really, literally can’t, I muttered, I mean I only have a debit card and I don’t have that much money on there right now.

K. tossed her hair around her face. I’ll pay for it now, she said. You’ll pay me back.

It’s your wedding dress, she said. We found your wedding dress. It’s so perfect!

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

9 British slang words you need to know

PG notes that the OP is dated in mid-2021, so he cannot judge the current state of British slang.


If there’s one essential thing you need to get a firmer grasp on UK culture, it’s knowledge of the slang words Brits can’t stop using. Just imagine one day arriving in London and looking super strange because you can’t communicate with the locals. IMAGINE! Luckily, I’m here to teach you six common British terms you can’t live without.

1. Bagsy

The equivalent to shotgun in US English, this is what you say when you’re claiming something before everyone else, like the front seat of the car or the last scone (if you don’t know what a scone is, Google it and then sit in shame for a while. Then find a recipe for scones and make some).

. . . .

7. Uni

Want to study at a university in the UK? Make sure you’re calling it by the right name. In Britain, college means something totally different to what it means in the US, where it’s another word for university. UK colleges are for students aged between 16 and 18, who graduate from there to go to university, which is shortened to just uni. If you don’t get it right, you might end up studying in the wrong place and with people 2 years younger than you. How embarrassing!

8. Gutted

Didn’t get into the uni you wanted to go to? You’re probably really disappointed and upset – otherwise known as gutted. Where this comes from is anyone’s guess, but it probably has something to do with the sad feeling you get in your gut when you’re upset.

Link to the rest at

PG notes that “Gutted” in the US has a somewhat different meaning and there’s little doubt in PG’s mind of the source of the term outside a major metropolitan area in the United States.

After you finish fishing in rural Missouri or Minnesota (and many other places), nobody “cleans” the fish they caught. They “gut” them. Ditto for the deer you just shot. (No, it’s not Bambi’s mother.)

Without going into excruciating detail, gutting a fish involves making a long cut on the bottom of the fish, then removing the fishy parts that are not, at least in the United States, regarded as edible.

Fish shouldn’t require a gut hook. Field dressing the deer you just shot is a little bigger job. Again, without going into detail, some hunters prefer a knife with a “gut hook” blade to speed things along.

To be clear, American English includes other meanings for gut that are a bit closer to the apparent British English usage. “That took guts.” or “That was a gutsy thing for her to do.” are a couple of examples of the use of the term referring to humans, not dead creatures.

10 English slang terms you need to know in 2022


Only just getting the hang of last year’s slang? Well too late, forget it. A whole new host of (somewhat nonsensical) terms have landed and it’s time to add them to your linguistic arsenal.

With TikTok’s continued reign over our society, the app has begun to dictate a lot of the slang that ends up in our daily rotation. Although not all these terms and phrases are brand new, they’re certainly popping up everywhere – and will likely continue to do so in the year ahead. I’ve (once again) taken it upon myself to compile this new lingo into a handy list for your reading (and learning) pleasure.

1. Cheugy

This word (pronounced choo-gee) has swooped in to replace old fan-favorite “basic”. It refers to the painfully mainstream or, along the same vein, someone hanging onto things that were cool years ago but would now be deemed basic or “cheugy”.

2. Rent free

Can’t stop thinking about someone? Sounds like they’re living rent free in your mind. This is most often used when you can’t get something out of your brain – whether it’s a song, video, experience or person. They’re stuck in there and they’re not even paying rent for the space they’re occupying.

3. Vibe check

Is someone acting shady or negative? Sounds like they didn’t pass the vibe check. This describes when you check in on someone’s vibe and assess what it’s giving. Good vibes? You’ve passed the vibe check.

. . . .

5. Caught in 4k

Caught someone red-handed and have the receipts to prove it? You’ve caught them in 4k with solid, digital evidence. Another popular phrase on TikTok, it can often be accompanied by the camera emoji to really bring home the fact that you’ve been exposed.

. . . .

9. Ate that

This essentially refers to someone doing a great job. For example if someone is performing a very impressive dance, when they’re done, you might turn to your friend and say “they ate that”. It can also be abbreviated to “they ate” or even “left no crumbs” (since, as we established, they ate it all).

Link to the rest at

The Face That Replicates

From The Paris Review:

Sylvia refused to wear her glasses, which is why she saw me everywhere on campus. It seemed like it was every day that she’d come to our dorm’s living room and tell me about the not-Katy. “I yelled at her again,” she sighed, flopping onto the worn couch. “It wasn’t you.” It never was.

There wasn’t only one not-me. There were several other girls on our small liberal arts campus who had dirty-blond hair and shaggy bangs, girls who wore knee-high boots and short skirts, low-rise jeans and V-neck sweaters and too many tangled necklaces. In 2005, I didn’t stand out. I still don’t. My face, I suspect, is rather forgettable. I’m neither pretty enough to be remarkable nor strange enough to be interesting. This is true for the majority of people, though I have wondered if I have “one of those faces” that is particularly prone to inducing déjà vu. Some people seem like permanent doppelgängers. I became hypervigilant, on the lookout for not-mes that were also, sort of, me.

Looking back, I’m not surprised that I became obsessed with these look-alikes during this particular time period, in those heady and exciting early days of social media. Although the idea of doubling and mimesis dates back to the ancient Greeks and flourished in the popular imagination in gothic horror, my experience with doppelgängers still feels distinctly contemporary to me, an anxiety that arose with the camera in the nineteenth century and was then compounded by social media and its endless catalogues of faces. Although Facebook back then was limited to college students, it was still a place where one could get lost. You could lose hours searching, as I did, for people with your exact same name and friend requesting each and every one of them. You could meander through the uncanny haze of “doppelgänger week,” a destabilizing moment in the early 2000s when my classmates’ pimpled, imperfect, earnest faces were suddenly replaced by thumbnails of Angelina Jolie, Natalie Portman, and Halle Berry. It was more than just embarrassing. It was a massive Freudian slip, a sudden reveal of latent desires and delusions. We wanted to replace our faces with better, more beautiful ones—but not completely. We wanted to represent ourselves with images that weren’t us, exactly, but that were close.

. . . .

One of my favorite doppelgänger stories is Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson,” which I read around the same time that my not-me began appearing in the edges of Sylvia’s blurry vision. This Poe tale is about a boy named William Wilson who meets another William Wilson and is dogged, throughout his life, by the disturbing presence of this other William Wilson. As the story progresses, we learn that this weird fellow is not actually our narrator’s evil twin, as we might have expected. He’s better than our narrator. He stops our narrator from doing a number of bad things before the original William succeeds in reasserting his uniqueness—by an act of murder, naturally.

William Wilson is not a funny story, exactly. But it’s full of little ironies that start to feel like jokes, from the name (William, son of Will, a pseudonym that’s also an echo) to the weird origins of the text itself. First of all, the story is a homage to a story that Washington Irving wrote called “An Unwritten Drama of Lord Byron.” Poe even wrote to Irving, sending him a copy of his tale, and asked him for a blurb to help sell the story. Later, in a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, Poe wrote that one of them, “Howe’s Masquerade,” was very similar to “William Wilson,” so much so that “we observe something which resembles a plagiarism—but which may be a very flattering coincidence of thought.” A few years later, in 1846, Fyodor Dostoyevsky published his own similar novella, The Double: A Petersburg Poem, which he later rewrote and republished in 1866.

This type of doppelgänger story continued to multiply. Vladimir Nabokov called The Double a “perfect work of art” in his classroom lectures, though of course the story was ripe for rewritings—hence Nabokov’s own beleaguered and haunted narrators. The novels Despair and Lolita feature not quite doppelgängers but pairs of men behaving badly. In the twentieth century, we became adept at capturing, manipulating, and presenting precise visual copies of individuals through photography, film, and digital manipulation. Humans no longer had to use a hall of mirrors (or a skilled portrait artist) to see themselves doubled, tripled, quadrupled. We also became better at selective breeding and genetic manipulation. Dolly the sheep emerged from an adult cell in 1996, and attendant anxieties and sensational interest in the literal copies spiked Eventually, the concept of the double in art was superseded by the clone, as we slouched closer and closer to literal self-replication.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Transitions and Homes…

From House of Geek:

Well, we have a home now. What does this mean? Has it been a struggle? What’s going on?

Well, a lot of things have been going on since my father has passed. Yes, we are living with mom now, and so much more.

So, let’s catch up.

As you would probably expect, it’s had its ups and downs. There are songs I can’t listen to without losing it and becoming a blubbering fool. There are good days and bad days. We’re all taking it one day at a time.


She has admitted a lot. The first thing she has admitted is that she misses dad more than she thought she would. I didn’t say anything when she admitted this. This year would have been fifty years they’ve been married. OF COURSE, she’s going to miss him and every annoying thing she said he did.

She has also admitted she needs a grief counselor. She’s fighting depression every day. I know because of the music she’s playing out of the tv. She’s had some really bad days. She’s been fighting the urge to dive head-first into booze and not come out. She’s doing good on that front.

ADHD, Mom, my schedule, and me

Yup, that’s been a challenge as well. I will plan out my workday only to have mom make her own and include me without telling me until the day she’s got to do anything.

So, I started asking her if she had anything planned to do so I can work it into the day. She will tell me of appointments, but not errands. She will say she’s got errands to do and then volunteer me to drive.

There’s that. Now, I have to keep an ear open to see if she’s planning on doing anything that involves leaving the house and me lightening my load.

I have no clue what she’s going to do when I find a part-time remote-work job. Can’t drop everything to take her everywhere then.

My focus makes me irritated when she does that. So, I have to take a break and a deep breath as I try to refocus. I am trying not to make it difficult for her. She’s going through enough already.

Did I mention I’ve had the first COVID stab? No, well there you go.

Fighting it with humor.

Yup, I can’t help it. I have to crack a joke or two just to break the tension. Here are some things that I came up with to make mom chuckle.

She has chocolate with booze in it, and she loves extra sharp cheddar, always has it in the house. “Would we like our evening cordial and medicinal cheddar this evening?” Said in a goofy, over-the-top British accent.

Whenever she mentions there’s mail for dad, I respond with, “We’ll forward it to the seance department.”

I have nicknamed the CR-V Bessy and I tell her to “whoa” when we have to stop in the snow.

Those are just a few of them.

Link to the rest at House of Geek

Is virtue signalling a vice?

From Aeon:

As a quick stroll on social media reveals, most people love showing that they are good. Whether by expressing compassion for disaster victims, sharing a post to support a social movement, or denouncing a celebrity’s racist comment, many people are eager to broadcast their high moral standing.

Critics sometimes dismiss these acts as mere ‘virtue signalling’. As the British journalist James Bartholomew (who popularised the term in a magazine article in 2015) remarks, virtue signallers enjoy the privilege of feeling better about themselves by doing very little. Unlike the kind of helping where you have to do something – help an old lady cross the street, volunteer to give meals to the dispossessed, go door-to-door to fundraise for a cause – virtue signalling often consists of completely costless actions, such as changing your profile picture or saying you don’t like a politician’s stance on immigration. Bartholomew complains that ‘saying the right things violently on Twitter is much easier than real kindness’.

Virtue signalling can be easy – but why does that make it seem bad?

To answer this question, and understand virtue signalling in general, we need to take a couple of steps backs. In everyday discourse, the people who accuse others of virtue signalling are often not interested in doing real moral analysis – mostly, they want to discredit their political opponents. My allies are heroically rallying for a just cause, people on the other side are virtue signalling. It might be more illuminating to look at what science says on the subject. Why do we have the strong emotions we have about virtue signalling, and is it actually good or bad?

Over the past few decades, scientists in a variety of fields have developed sophisticated analyses of signalling as a general phenomenon – how humans (and other animals) send signals designed to convey information to other individuals. The insights of signalling theory can be counterintuitive, and have had a huge impact on biology and the social sciences. They also tell us that virtue signalling is more nuanced and more interesting than the picture painted by conventional wisdom and political rhetoric. As it turns out, there are bad and good things about virtue signalling – but probably not for the reasons you think.

Why do we scold virtue signallers for having it easy? The urge to dismiss someone’s actions because they took no effort is powerful. But does it not make more sense to focus on what that action actually achieves? Why do we often focus on the costs people pay rather than how effective they are at making the world better?

A few decades ago, biologists and economists struggled with similar questions. Why are peahens so attracted by the peacocks with the most extravagant tails – which are very costly to maintain but otherwise seemingly useless? Why do employers care that you put yourself hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to get an Ivy League degree in sociology with no obvious relevance to the job?

In the 1970s, the zoologist Amotz Zahavi and the economist Michael Spence offered a provocative answer. They argued that the cost paid by the peacock (or the college graduate) is the whole point. Their argument (which won Spence a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2001) is a bit subtle, so it is worth carefully looking at how it works. Communication is difficult because individuals have incentives to lie. Employers are looking for certain qualities (intelligence, conscientiousness, ambition) in their employees. They could ask the people they interview if they are intelligent and conscientious, but why wouldn’t the job candidates simply lie?

Instead, employers select their employees on the basis of signals that are difficult to fake, such as university degrees. In general, having the qualities that employers value makes it easier to get a degree. People who do not have the right mix of intelligence, conscientiousness and ambition will find college more difficult, and either drop out or spend much more time completing their studies. People who anticipate that getting a degree would be too costly for them will opt out.

So, in principle, even if nothing you had learnt was relevant to the job you want, completing the degree still sends a valuable signal to potential employers: you are the kind of person for whom this high-effort achievement is easy enough. Because it sends a valuable signal, it is in your interest to get a degree, and in the employer’s interest to hire you on its basis.

People want to appear good, because it wins them friends and social status

A similar argument applies in the biological domain, but with natural selection in the driver’s seat. Growing an extravagant tail is moderately costly for a healthy peacock – but a diseased bird would put its life at risk if he spent that much energy growing the ornament. Therefore, only the peacocks in good enough condition can afford to grow an elaborate tail. As such, natural selection favours peahens who prefer peacocks with a long tail, because these peahens mate with healthy males, and get healthy offspring as a result.

Costly signals – signals that are honest because of the fact that they are costly – are ubiquitous. Why do people give flowers to their romantic interests, or take them to overpriced restaurants? Probably because these acts are costly: were the suitor not interested in a long-term relationship, he would have little incentive to invest such effort. His gifts function not because roses are particularly useful items, but because they are a costly signal of his commitment.

Here is why this matters for virtue signalling. Dishonesty is a major problem in the moral domain. People want to appear good, because it wins them friends and social status. Our moral sense evolved because people who convince others of their moral qualities reap such social benefits. But what prevents someone from pretending to be a good person, reaping all the social benefits, and not following through?

Throughout human evolution, being able to discriminate true allies (who stick with you no matter what) from fair-weather friends (who abandon you when you fall ill) could make the difference between life and death. As such, humans are obsessed with moral hypocrisy. We carefully scrutinise potential romantic partners, friends or team members for signs that they’re not only in it for the money. And since – per the logic of costly signalling – the costs that people are willing to pay are a reliable signal of their commitment, we pay extra attention to these costs when we evaluate other people. Social psychologists have found that, when we see someone perform an altruistic act, we’re suspicious that they’re really being altruistic if they derive some benefit from the act. Clever cognitive psychology experiments even show that we categorise other people on the basis of the costs they are willing to pay to benefit their group – but not on the basis of the amount of benefits they actually provide.

This is probably why we find virtue signallers irritating. They are doing things that might gain them social status – the approval of society, a place on the right side of history. But are they actually committed to the causes they support? Or are they just interested in the social benefits? When they are not paying any meaningful costs, virtue signallers activate the alarm bells that millions of years of evolution put in our heads to protect us from fair-weather friends and other moral hypocrites.

So let’s concede that some virtue signalling is fake, but does that mean it is bad? Here it is useful to take a step back from our default mode of thinking. Evolution designed our brain to make us good at small-scale interaction, but we are not very good (or especially concerned) at evaluating the large-scale social effects of things. As such, it is easy for a polemist to throw discredit on someone who virtue-signals by pointing out that there is no guarantee that the person actually shares your moral values. But is this the right yardstick by which to evaluate these signals?

In defence of virtue signallers, research on signalling theory shows that even cheap talk can be useful.

Life is rife with coordination problems. Consider passing someone on the street going the other way. You both have a shared incentive to coordinate about which side of the sidewalk to walk on, so that you don’t bump into each other. Even though the other person is a complete stranger, there is no particular reason she would try to deceive you. In such circumstances, people will send signals (eg, stop before making a sudden exaggerated movement toward one side) to successfully coordinate. Mathematical models show that these costless signals can be crucial in helping people solve otherwise thorny coordination problems.

Coordination is crucial in the moral domain too. Imagine you live in a society that practises slavery, and you think you are the only one morally revulsed by it. Should you speak out about your concerns? If you think that everyone else is indifferent, you might be afraid that others will think you are weird, that the people benefiting from the system will punish you, and that you stand no chance to make a difference anyway.

The paradox is that, even if many people are in this situation – everyone is concerned but convinced that no one else is – they might fail to act, despite having the majority opinion. But speaking up can start a chain reaction. The more individuals raise their voice to denounce what they see as a moral problem, the more the initially silent people realise they are not alone and speak up in turn.

When everyone can expect everyone to know, it is harder for you to claim ignorance as a defence

Loud and public signals are especially effective as establishing common knowledge of a moral norm ­making sure that everyone knows about the moral norm, that everyone else knows that everyone knows about the moral norm, that everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows (and so on). Psychology experiments have demonstrated that common knowledge is a powerful determinant of social behaviour: people are much more likely to coordinate on a joint action when everyone knows that everyone knows that working together will generate good outcomes.

Link to the rest at Aeon

PG’s Rabbit Hole Warning: There are lots and lots of intriguing links in the OP that can burn up several hours of your time, seemingly in a heartbeat.

Against Any Intrusion

From The Paris Review:

February 14, 2019
Santa Monica, California

Dearest Gwen,

I know this letter to you is an artifice. I know you are dead and that I’m alive and that no usual communication is possible between us but, as my mother used to say, “Time is a strange substance,” and who knows really, with our time-bound comprehension of the world, whether there might be some channel by which we can speak to each other, if we only knew how: like tuning a radio so that the crackling sound of the airwaves is slipstreamed into words. Maybe the sound of surf, or of rushing water, is actually the echoes of voices that have been similarly distorted through time. I don’t suppose this is true, and you don’t either. But I do feel mysteriously connected to you.

We are both painters. We can connect to each other through images, in our own unvoiced language. But I will try and reach you with words. Through talking to you I may come alive and begin to speak, like the statue in Pygmalion. I have painted myself in silent seated poses, still as a statue, and so have you. Perhaps, through you, I can begin to trace the reason for my transformation into painted stone.

It has been a time of upheaval for me and I have been trying to gather my thoughts. So many things have ended, or are ending. New beginnings, too. I have been thinking a lot about the past, about our past, and it has never struck me so forcibly as now, when I am nearly sixty years old, just how much our lives have been stamped with a similar pattern.

. . . .

We both work best from women. Your mother died when you were only eight whereas mine died when I was fifty-five, yet mothers are of central significance to both of us. We are both close to our sisters, one in particular: you to Winifred, whom you often painted, I to Kate, my younger sister, who is my most regular sitter. The two men I have been most intensely involved with, Lucian Freud and my husband, Steven Kupfer—in both cases their girlfriend before me had been called Kate; I had suffered terrible jealousy at Kate’s birth and felt supplanted by her in my mother’s affection, but then grew to love her particularly. Jealousy heightens love; the special intensity with which we observe the object of our mother’s (or lover’s) devotion narrows the beam of our focus. Who was it who said that love was the highest form of attention?

One of the main reasons I want to speak to you now is because I’ve become increasingly aware of how both of us are regarded in relation to men. You are always associated, in the public’s eyes, with your brother Augustus and with your lover, Auguste Rodin. I am always seen in light of my involvement with Lucian Freud. We are neither of us considered as artists standing alone. I hate the term in her own right—as in “artist in her own right”—because it suggests that we are still bound to our overshadowed lives, like freed slaves. I hate the word muse, too, for the same limiting reason. We are both referred to as muses, and you have repeatedly been described as “a painter in her own right,” as I have. Why are some women artists seen for what they are uniquely? What is it about us that keeps us tethered? Both of our talents are entirely separate from those of the men we have been attached to—we are neither of us derivative in any way. Do you think that, without fully understanding why, we are both of us culpable?

Link to the rest at The Paris Review