The young garden

Easter 2016
Just look at this blowsy camellia of mine.

April weather has been fickle, but I pull open the curtains every morning with pleasure and note how my front yard is coming back to life. I’ve been in a mood lately and studying English cottages and gardens with my typical fervor. I have such strong ambitions for my meager garden, and I feel like a failure more than half the time, but the context of English gardening has made me feel more relaxed. First, it is very loose and impressionistic. Gardens are simply packed with every conceivable flower and shrub, with little form or order imposed. Second, the English have been gardening for hundreds and hundreds of years. A refined plantsman in one of the books said his garden was so young; it was only 20 years old. This surprised and comforted me. I recall that my garden is four years old; it is but a mewling thing, inchoate and desperate to be tended. I have a long way to go until it feels finished, and I am happy about that. Because maybe a garden is never finished.

Next: To figure out how to persuade Guion to jack up our horrible concrete walk and replace it with pea gravel. (I mean, I’ll help, but it’s such man’s work.) This project feels incredibly essential to me right now. I’m also hankering after a Virginia rose, but I can’t find one anywhere.

There is a very old tin of Burt’s Bees’ lemon butter cuticle cream at my desk; I use it infrequently. When my grandmother was alive, I’d give her this cream every year for Christmas. She’d clasp the little circular tin in her narrow fingers and say, “Oh, I have needed this! My cuticles get so dry!” She’d say this every year as she unwrapped it, even though she probably knew she was getting the same thing she got every year, and it pleased me. Whenever I use the stuff, the faint lemony scent makes me think of her, and I smile.

Now that I am 30, I have put childish ways behind me:

  • I am acclimatizing myself to being referred to as a “nice lady”; it is horrible beyond words to be called this.
  • I think I’m still in college, but then when I meet an actual college student, I think, Good grief, look at this infant.
  • I have to repeatedly Google the meanings of acronyms that my young colleague uses in Slack.
  • I want to be in my bed, skincare routine complete, by 10 every night.
  • I cannot fathom wearing a bikini in public. It now feels inappropriate, to show this much flesh in my old age.

Recently, in reading life:

I’ve fallen in love with Teju Cole, and I feel a particular bitterness toward my boss for loving him before I did, as if I have to lay claim to an author first, before anyone else recommended him to me, as if that mattered at all. If I heard that Teju Cole was speaking somewhere nearby, I’d probably travel an unconscionably long while just to hear him. I read the infinitely strange Two Serious Ladies, by Jane Bowles, and I have been thinking about her ever since; I lent it to a colleague, and he gave me the slim volume of Paul Bowles’s Tangiers diary, and I am curious about what kind of marriage they must have had. I’m reading Spring, the latest little release from Karl Ove Knausgaard, and it charms me in all the predictable ways that he works on me. Specifically, he has this magic for making me ponder questions that I don’t encounter anywhere else. The one that has been haunting me lately is what is personality FOR? What is its function? I’ve been asking lots of people this question lately, and Grace M. gave the best answer I’ve heard yet: That human animals have personality because it makes society better; different personalities fulfill different roles, and so we have a collaborative, healthy, diverse community because of the multiplicity of temperaments.

I feel like I should surrender as a creative writer. I sat down to write a story recently, and was feeling into it, coasting along in this great groove, and then I stopped and re-read the character I thought had sprung from my fresh mind. I had just written an exact replica of Elio from Call Me By Your Name, down to the lounging on a mattress listening to classical music daydreaming about boys. What a hack! My brain is a thief. I give up.

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Reclaiming our lives from screens

Camden and Regent's Park area
Near our London neighborhood (May 2016).

Spring is coming slowly to Virginia. I feel fairly desperate for it, on the eve of snowfall.

I have been thinking about the season and its association with new beginnings. Recently, I was in Austin for SXSW with my team, and a subtle theme emerged from many of the presentations: Maybe technology isn’t all that good for our well-being. Maybe so much “innovation” is just making us sad and insane and lonely.

We were pondering the ways that people in 2018 are trying to become more human again. Increasingly, we’re feeling this urge to sever our ties to social media and detach from our soul-crushing dependence on digital devices.

In the midst of these conversations in Austin, I was plowing through Elizabeth Bowen’s novel The Death of the Heart. This passage kept coming to mind as a tangential example of life, the freedom of the mind and body, the particular independence that we have as liberated creatures.

“To the person out walking that first evening of spring, nothing appears inanimate, nothing not sentient: darkening chimneys, viaducts, villas, glass-and-steel factories, chain stores seem to strike as deep as natural rocks, seem not only to exist but to dream. Atoms of light quiver between the branches of stretching-up black trees. It is in this unearthly first hour of spring twilight that earth’s almost agonised livingness is most felt. This hour is so dreadful to some people that they hurry indoors and turn on the lights—they are pursued by the scent of violets sold on the kerb.” — Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart

What a pleasure to be alive in such a season! And all of these details, so finely observed, could only come from someone who has never gotten a crick in her neck from staring at her Instagram feed for an hour.

You can tell from my recent posts, but 2018 is my year of fighting against being hijacked by technology. I want to be alive and in the world the way that Bowen was. Following are some of the small ways I’m reclaiming my life.

Focus on print.

I’m reading all the time, all day long, but I want to read for depth and comprehension. If this is my aim, the best way to read is in print. It’s far better for our brains and eyes and memories.

I am still a print-only reader of books, but in further pursuit of this effort, I’ve greatly reduced my online news diet. I try to read a bit in the New Yorker when it comes and receive a few newsy email digests, but that’s it now. I don’t keep up with the news in this feverish way that I once did. And it’s wonderful. I’m so happy about it. (For more inspiration in this area, see Farhad Manjoo’s piece in the New York Times about how he only read print newspapers for two months.)

Treat my phone like a landline.

Guion and I have been trying this one out: When we’re home, our phones live in one place. We don’t take them around the house with us, from room to room. We deposit them on a particular counter when we come home, and that’s where they live.

This small domestic habit has surprisingly profound effects on our ability to resist distraction and read and write and talk to each other. It is both depressing and heartening, to discover that such a small behavioral shift can have such a significant impact on our evenings.

Check Twitter only once or twice a week.

Twitter is so unfortunate! These days, I avoid it as much as I can and post primarily to complain about my dogs or share a quote. I sense my anxiety, my babbling technostress, and my cynicism increasing the longer I scroll through my feed. Now, I log on mostly to see what beautiful paintings Rabih Alameddine has posted or if Lulu has any new quips. That’s it.

Wait without looking at my phone.

I’ve been working on resisting the allure of my phone whenever I’m waiting. It’s a small choice, and one that seems to reek of sanctimony, but I’ve sincerely enjoyed this new habit.

Whenever we’re alone, our necks are tilted down at our phones. I do it too. And it’s incredible how blank the mind goes when we’re looking at a screen. We just turn off to the world. We barely exist in a given environment when we’re deep in our phones.

The smartphone is a pacifier. The device is burning with heat in our pockets, and we can’t resist it: We don’t want to feel or look lonely. It’s frightening to be too intimate with our thoughts and fears and desires. The phone distracts us from our inner life, makes us feel busy, envious, mildly piqued—anything but alone.

This insignificant choice, waiting without relying on my phone to comfort me, has had such a powerful effect on my mental state. I did not expect it. It’s as if I was remembering how to see again, how to observe the world around me. I’m particularly floored by this one. It made me realize how reliant I have been on my phone to placate me when I’m alone.

Consider the body.

It’s well documented that our devices are bad for our minds (pick a modern plague, any plague: anxiety, addiction, stress, self-esteem, fake news, porn, etc.). But our phones and laptops are also bad for our flesh-and-blood bodies.

This practice of waiting without looking at my phone has also made me incredibly conscious of my body: how it works for me, how it feels, how I carry myself. My posture has been wrecked by years of peering at screens. I still need to work on this one. If anyone has any good posture tips for maintenance throughout the day, please share; I’m all ears.

Hold things in the mind.

I rely on my phone to remember everything for me. I used to have a strong memory; I used to memorize full speeches and poems, and once, in my fervent youth, entire (albeit short) books of the Bible. But now? I have to make a list even if it just contains three items. Our memories have grown despairingly weak. Because we don’t need to remember anything anymore: This is what our devices are for. Convenient props for the mind.

I’ve been thinking about memory for years, since being so fascinated by Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein, and I have realized how much my brain power improves when my device isn’t a mental crutch. For me, an act as small as taking notes by hand, with a pen on paper, is a tiny step in the right direction.

Cherish everything that has no digital life.

Your stupid German shepherds who dig trenches in your backyard because they’re bored. Your shelf full of dog-eared paperbacks. Your weak-limbed daffodils crushed by March snow. Your friend’s baby, who has no idea who the president is and doesn’t care about the moronic thing he said today. Your church’s community dinner that follows the service. Your grandfather. These are some of the things that can bring us back to ourselves.

Here’s the concluding hope:

People are getting smarter about tech usage. We’re all a little less naïve about the consequences of our digital dependence. In the wake of the latest Facebook scandal and just overall, more and more people are getting off social media. Surely some new, terrible platform will replace Facebook and Twitter, but I believe we could be witnessing the twilight of their popularity. Maybe we can collectively turn the tide before it’s too late for our hearts and minds.

Amid the Russian bots and fake news and conspiracy theories and data breaches, I feel buoyed by a little hope. Every sign-off, every step away from the machine is optimism. Humans are taking back small measures of their humanity.

Get off Facebook now

Lake District day two
A photo Facebook never saw (Catbells, Lake District, UK; June 2016).

I signed up for Facebook when I was a freshman in college, shortly after the platform had been opened to non-Ivy League schools. In the old days, as you’ll recall, Facebook was just for college students. It was mildly fun back then. I remember being excited to join a group for UNC freshmen and then, as I made friends in real life, add them as friends on Facebook. I signed up for events and posted photos of my friends and I lounging in the quad. But the sheen quickly wore off. Soon, high schoolers could join, which was something that annoyed a lot of us, as if we were the pure and rightful users, and then, finally, anyone with a pulse could sign up. By the time I graduated, just four years later, Facebook had already started morphing into the creepy, greedy, sadness monster that it is today.

Facebook’s monstrosity has always been there, lurking in its DNA. But the past few years have shown us the platform’s sinister nature in new and palpably horrifying ways.

If you’ve been paying attention, nothing below will surprise you. You already know Facebook is bad. But in case you needed a few more reasons to delete your account…

1. Facebook is using you; you’re not using Facebook.

Pro tip: If something is free, you are the product.

This is not something I stopped to consider when I first signed up for Facebook. What a great, friendly service, to connect me and all of my new friends at college! Um, no. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t make Facebook out of the goodness of his heart, simply because he wanted to see everyone reach across the aisle and poke one another. (Remember “poking”? God. We should have known back then that Facebook was super-sketchy.)

Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook as a horny college student, creating an app to rate girls on their hotness levels. Facebook might have been for bros then, but now, Facebook is for advertisers. They are his customers. We are what they are using. Facebook tracks everything you do online, buys additional information about you from data brokers, and then sells that information to advertisers so they can get you to buy things. This is what Facebook is for—and yet we all pretend that it’s happy and useful and connecting us with friends near and far. It’s not. As we shall see in the following points.

Additional reading

2. Facebook is creepy.

So, not only is Facebook using you, but Facebook is also very secretive about how it’s using you.

Just to scratch the surface: Facebook knows how much you make, where you live, how many credit cards you have, how much your house cost, where you shop and what you buy, who’s in your address book, and what your face looks like. Facebook also knows where you go online even after you sign out of Facebook. (They’re tracking you with cookies; this is how the ads seem so frighteningly specific. It’s because they’re watching you, everywhere, online.) And we gave them permission, for all of this.

A summary of the scope of Facebook’s operations (emphasis added):

… even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. … What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does — ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ — and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.

(Source: “You Are the Product,” John Lanchester, London Review of Books)

Facebook’s intrusion into our lives is only going to grow. It’s in a grasping and depserate state, even with its outrageous market share. 1.2 billion people use Facebook every day, but Zuckerberg won’t stop until he has everyone. This is the central business proposition: Get the entire world onto Facebook so we can watch every human and sell them everything. It all sounds so grandiose and hyperbolic, but it’s what the benighted CEO is after.

What’s needed, [Zuckerberg] argues, is some global superstructure to advance humanity. This is not an especially controversial idea; Zuckerberg is arguing for a kind of digital-era version of the global institution-building that the Western world engaged in after World War II. But because he is a chief executive and not an elected president, there is something frightening about his project. He is positioning Facebook — and, considering that he commands absolute voting control of the company, he is positioning himself — as a critical enabler of the next generation of human society.

(Source: “Can Facebook Fix Its Own Worst Bug?” Farhad Manjoo, New York Times Magazine)

This is the goal. Facebook wants your whole life.

Additional reading

3. Facebook is bad for democracy.

You know how America is more polarized than ever before?

How “echo chamber” politics seems to be the only way we do things now, with everyone just liking and re-posting things they already agree with, and no one is capable of listening to an opposing point of view without throwing a tantrum online? Remember how liberals were so gobsmacked that Trump supporters existed in such large numbers, because (and I heard dozens of people say this) they “didn’t know anyone who would vote for Trump”? Remember the 2016 election, the one that Russia hacked?

Facebook has a hand in all of this. Even if we can’t directly blame Facebook for the 2016 presidential election, Donald, the Dear Leader, and his conspiracy theory goons, played directly into the platform’s weaknesses.

We can blame Facebook for a lot of the ills that plague our piss-poor public discourse.

With its huge reach, Facebook has begun to act as the great disseminator of the larger cloud of misinformation and half-truths swirling about the rest of media. It sucks up lies from cable news and Twitter, then precisely targets each lie to the partisan bubble most receptive to it.

(Source: “Can Facebook Fix Its Own Worst Bug?“)

And this:

On Russian meddling specifically, it took Facebook more than 10 months after the election to reveal that Russian trolls had bought ads through Facebook, and then it further dragged its feet on deciding to make those ads available to Congress.

(Source: “On Russian Meddling, Facebook Follows a Familiar Playbook,” Farhad Manjoo, New York Times)

Just this month, Facebook has finally owned a bit of its culpability in propagating misinformation, with the announcement that it will be demoting posts from news outlets in favor of those from your friends.

On this whole, this seems like a positive move, but it’s also too little too late. The damage has been done; the rift in decent public discourse has been made, and I’m not optimistic it can ever be repaired. (Unless everyone gets off Facebook. Which is what I’m trying to make happen. Clearly.)

Additional reading

4. Facebook pollutes and manipulates your brain.

The internet can be rich in splendor and mired in filth all at once.

Facebook is squarely on the filth side of this equation. It’s the least edifying way to use the internet.

Here’s a simplistic metaphor: We, the Facebook users, are the lab rats. Facebook, the erstwhile scientist, is force-feeding us junk food to examine how we behave.

This metaphor can only go so far (because then the scientist sells his rat findings to Mad Men??), but it gets at the gist of this point. Facebook fills our brains up with junk (ads, memes, hysterical news stories, “studies,” etc.) and then uses algorithms to control what we see, in an ultimate effort to manipulate our behavior.

… if we want to be melodramatic about it, we could say Facebook is constantly tinkering with how its users view the world — always tinkering with the quality of news and opinion that it allows to break through the din, adjusting the quality of political and cultural discourse in order to hold the attention of users for a few more beats.

(Source: “Facebook’s War on Free Will,” Franklin Foer, The Guardian)

Foer goes on to cite just one instance of Facebook’s experimentation on us:

We know, for example, that Facebook sought to discover whether emotions are contagious. To conduct this trial, Facebook attempted to manipulate the mental state of its users. For one group, Facebook excised the positive words from the posts in the news feed; for another group, it removed the negative words. Each group, it concluded, wrote posts that echoed the mood of the posts it had reworded. This study was roundly condemned as invasive, but it is not so unusual. As one member of Facebook’s data science team confessed: “Anyone on that team could run a test. They’re always trying to alter people’s behaviour.”

For me, this attempt to control users is not surprising. Facebook has SO much data about people at its fingertips; of course it’s going to use this information to steer and control us. It’s the junk and nonsense part that also irks me, which brings me to my next point.

Additional reading

5. Facebook is valueless (to you, not to Zuckerberg).

Facebook does not deliver on any of its promises to users.

You’re not more connected to people. You have an illusion of knowing more about others’ lives, but do you, really? Do you really know what’s going on? Everything you see is a curated presentation. We all do it. I refuse to believe there’s even a “genuine” way to exist on social media. Even when you post photos of your toddler crying while vomiting or one of yourself with no makeup, you’re not being “authentic.” You’re also making a statement. Everything on social media is performance art.

Years ago, Zuckerberg bombastically stated, “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity,” and then declared that Facebook would cure this ill. Everyone would share everything on Facebook, and no one could hide anymore! The dual arrogance and hypocrisy in his statement is mind-blowing. Facebook is the very method by which we all create two identities for ourselves: the public profile me can exist entirely separately from the private, real-life me.

You’re not “staying informed.” If anything, as we’ve seen, you’re staying misinformed. You’re not reading “the news:” You’re reading headlines of stories you already agree with, and usually hyperbolic reports at that. You’re also not really reading the news deeply because of Facebook: 60% of people who share links on social media don’t even click on the links themselves. This is depressing, and also nuts.

You’re not hearing about all the hot parties and social gatherings. This is the main excuse I hear from millennials like myself, when I start ranting and raving about Facebook: “Yeah, I would get off, but then I won’t know about all the things that are happening!” Guess what? I’ve been off Facebook for five years, and I still get invited to parties. I still find out about events. Real talk: If Facebook is your primary vehicle for learning about events, maybe you need to start going to different events.

Facebook, for all its lofty and pseudo-humanistic promises, is the lowest common denominator of human interaction.

If all people want to do is go and look at other people so that they can compare themselves to them and copy what they want — if that is the final, deepest truth about humanity and its motivations — then Facebook doesn’t really have to take too much trouble over humanity’s welfare, since all the bad things that happen to us are things we are doing to ourselves.

(Source: “You Are the Product”)

Let’s be honest. What ultimate good has Facebook brought to our lives?

What are we using Facebook for, really? If you are like me, you were probably using Facebook for just two reasons: to (1) stalk weird homeschoolers that you grew up with, and (2) get hot and bothered by your relatives’ misspelled political opinions. That was it. Neither use made me feel particularly happy or encouraged in my development as a human being, which leads me to my sixth and final point.

6. Facebook makes you unhappy.

Facebook is a garbage platform that makes us all feel like garbage in turn.

This truth is borne out by all kinds of research.

In one experiment, people who were randomly assigned to give up Facebook for a week ended that time happier, less lonely and less depressed than those who continued to use Facebook. In another study, young adults required to give up Facebook for their jobs were happier than those who kept their accounts. In addition, several longitudinal studies show that screen time leads to unhappiness but unhappiness doesn’t lead to more screen time.

(Source: “Most People Are Unhappy for the Exact Same Reason,” Jean Twenge, Quartz)

The professor goes on to summarize these findings (and they apply to all people, not just teens):

Every activity that didn’t involve a screen was linked to more happiness, and every activity that involved a screen was linked to less happiness. The differences were considerable: Teens who spent more than five hours a day online were twice as likely to be unhappy as those who spent less than an hour a day.

But you don’t need “studies” to convince you of this fact. You know this, in your heart of hearts, just as I do: Facebook makes us all sadder.

We all know that too much screen time is bad for our brains and hearts and overall lives, but we’re not reducing usage that much. If you’re like me, and your entire job is dependent on a computer, cutting back on screen time isn’t an option during the work week. But the screen does not rule us. Not entirely. Not yet.

Significantly, we don’t have to let something as toxic as Facebook dominate our life online.

For me, personally, 2018 is going to be a year of cutting back, of declaring screen-free weekends and nights, as much as possible. I’m already happier for it. I’ve been happier about my online life for the past five years, primarily because I took one crucial action: I deleted my Facebook account.

Those who know me will cry foul, because they know I still use Facebook-owned products like Instagram and WhatsApp. I know that I’m being spied on there, too. But it’s a lower level of insidiousness, and the difference, for me, lies in the platform limitations. Instagram can’t distribute links or news stories or people’s hot takes. For me, Instagram is 80% babies, 10% people’s food, and 10% travel photos. I’m OK with that. It’s a nice visual distraction for about 5-10 minutes every day. I can watch friends’ kids grow up from afar and not read a single political opinion. WhatsApp is a wonderful way for my family to stay in touch, especially with a sister who lives abroad. I don’t have to interact with anyone but a small circle of family and friends there. Facebook controls the internet, this we know, but at least I can let it control me in slightly smaller ways.

I know people talk about this (getting off Facebook) in the hopes of garnering some sick sense of self-congratulation. I know that’s what this sounds like. But I just want to tell you about something that made my life better. I am a happier and more mentally balanced person because I don’t use Facebook anymore.

Most important link in this entire diatribe:

How to delete your Facebook account.

Facebook, unsurprisingly, makes it very difficult for you to delete your account. You can “deactivate” it, which just hides it from your friends’ feeds, but all the data is still there. If you really want off, you need to delete your account. Follow the instructions in the link above. After your deletion request, they’ll grudgingly delete your account within a 14-day period. (Even then, I’m not convinced they actually do it. But it’s worth the shot.)

Go with God, my friends, and go without a Facebook account.

A new person

Solutions

  • More women in leadership, everywhere
  • Less time on Twitter for everyone
  • At least two clementines a day for the entire season
  • Moisturize your face; it’s winter, you savage
  • Walk your dog(s)
  • Start studying again that foreign language once knew and have since mostly forgotten
  • Tell people how you feel, even if you’re not sure how to articulate it

Our dearest friends welcomed their son, their firstborn, into the world on Saturday. We met him and held him, talking quietly in a peaceful hospital room that overlooked the university and the mountains beyond while this little 6-pound bundle warmed my ribcage. His parents’ faces were alight with an exhausted kind of wonder. They were so relaxed, watching us carefully exchange their baby, and competent. They’ll parent him beautifully, and we are privileged to act as witnesses.

“This then, I thought, as I looked round about me, is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.” — The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald

What to do when we’re all monsters

Inspired by the horrors and paradoxes of our current cultural moment (and a Paris Review article by Claire Dederer), I wrote a short piece for Mockingbird: “Love the Art, Hate the Artist?

An excerpt:

When a politician misbehaves, it’s easy (in theory) to wave our hands and say, “Politicians! They’re all filthy.” But when our favorite novelist or comedian or musician misbehaves, we feel conflicted. We feel like we’ve been implicated ourselves. This is how I felt when I learned that Virginia Woolf, one of my all-time favorites, dressed in blackface to a party and was famously cruel and anti-Semitic. We want our artists to be as blameless as we think we are. Our beloved artists made something so good, so beautiful; shouldn’t the end product match the content of their souls?

This is the tricky thing about art: Great art can be created by terrible people.

Read more at Mockingbird.

In other news, we had a lovely Thanksgiving holiday with my family. Full of sincere, deep gratitude for these people (and pups)!

Thanksgiving 2017 Thanksgiving 2017

Thanksgiving 2017 Thanksgiving

More family times Thanksgiving 2017

How light, how loose

IMG_4025
One of the two dogwoods in the front yard.

Life is short, and the days pass quickly, especially in winter, when we wake up and come home in darkness. My perennials have been stricken by the frost; they appear to have been caught totally off-guard, their leaves curling up with blackened edges. A carpet of red dogwood leaves fills up half of the front yard. I am loath to rake them.

A family of finches is trying to nest in our wall-mounted mailbox. I hear them landing on the metal lid in the morning and catch them poking their heads in the side. They’ve amassed a small collection of building supplies in the mailbox: tiny twigs, bits of green moss, skeins of grass. I’m curious to see how far they can get with this project, what with the daily disruptions from the mailman.

Regular fires in the living room, surrounded by our books and antsy German shepherds, keep the spirits bright. We are getting a new front door installed the week after Thanksgiving, and I remember it eagerly every morning as I curse the hated storm door. But we are lucky, to have warmth and share words with one another.

“My favorite part is connecting the ideas. The best connections are the ones that draw attention to their own frailty so that at first you think: what a poor lecture this is—the ideas go all over the place and then later you think: but still, what a terrifically perilous activity it is . . . How light, how loose, how unprepared and unpreparable is the web of connections between any thought and any thought.” — Anne Carson, “Uncle Falling,” Float

Thoughtful conversation does not happen easily. I admire and envy people who can speak fluidly, in full sentences with fleshed-out ideas. I speak haltingly. I hedge. I go back on what I previously established; I come out with an opinion too quickly. But this quote from Carson makes me feel a little better. If even Anne Carson feels that the web of connections between thoughts is unprepared and unpreparable, then maybe I’m not so alone.

Still, I’d like to be more intentional. I’d like to use better words.

I did not appreciate Sebald in Austerlitz, but I appreciate him now, greatly, in The Rings of Saturn. It is dreamy and rich and full of life.

Like the flukes

Things I have taken up lately, for general happiness

  • Reading while walking
  • Darjeeling tea
  • Not reading the news
  • Not looking at Twitter for more than 60 seconds
  • The Curly Girl Method, inspired by my mother

It’s been a very slow year for me with my calligraphy business, somewhat intentionally, and I’ve been really happy about it. It is a nice thing: To come home after working for eight hours and not have another two hours or more of work every night.

“The book was in her lap; she had read no further. The power to change one’s life comes from a paragraph, a lone remark. The lines that penetrate us are slender, like the flukes that live in river water and enter the bodies of swimmers. She was excited, filled with strength. The polished sentences had arrived, it seemed, like so many other things, at just the right time. How can we imagine what our lives should be without the illumination of the lives of others?” — James Salter, Light Years

End of October
Pyrrha, creeping.

Sweet, sad Pyrrha, my older dog, has been in a lot of pain lately, and it’s incredible to me how much this has affected my well-being. I feel this pit of dread in my stomach when I think of her, whenever I hear her whine, whenever I let her out in the morning or look over and see her ears pinned back to her head. (It’s probably her hips, which is almost an inevitable ailment with German shepherds, but I’ll take her to the vet next week for a more in-depth assessment.) Just today, I was trying to tell Guion I was worried about her while pumping gas, on our way to work, and these fat tears were rolling down my face. Ugh. She’ll be OK. It’s me that might not be. Emotions! Hate them.

The 7 best things you can do for your face

Anyone who knows me well knows that I go through seasonal obsessions. I decide to learn everything I can about a particular topic, and then I move on to the next topic.

This past season, my obsession was skincare science. (Who can say where these things come from? The prior season, it was native plants.) I spent untold hours reading articles, peer-reviewed papers, blogs, reviews, and ingredient dictionaries. I still don’t really understand chemistry, but I now have a decent grasp of the science behind what you put on your face.

So, buckle up: Here are the seven most important things I’ve learned.

1. Sunscreen every damn day.

Even in the winter. Even if you don’t like it. You have to wear sunscreen. It doesn’t matter if you use antioxidants and moisturizers and the whole shebang: If you don’t wear sunscreen, everything else you’re putting on your face has been rendered worthless.

There are two types of sunscreen: physical and chemical. Physical sunscreens physically block the sun and are usually composed of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Chemical sunscreens absorb the sun and are also known as organic sunscreen. Both work; it depends on what your skin prefers.

SPF matters. Your daily SPF should be at least 30 (broad spectrum, protecting you against both UVA and UVB rays). Anything much over 50 isn’t really giving you additional protection, so don’t go crazy and think that SPF 150 will protect you from the sun’s rays for all eternity. Chill.

Finding an excellent sunscreen is The Great Quest for all skincare adventurers. It is very difficult, and you will fail many times along the way. Thankfully, there are many others walking this perilous path who have written great reviews; this is a nice place to start, and here is a very helpful overview about how to wear sunscreen well and why it matters.

Skincare science post
Current favorite sunscreens.

Favorite sunscreens I’ve tried

  • Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Liquid Daily Sunscreen, SPF 70 (I know that the 70 is overkill, but the composition is excellent and it layers beautifully)
  • Clinique Pep-Start Daily UV Protector Broad Spectrum SPF 50
  • Olay Complete Daily Defense All Day Moisturizer with Sunscreen for Sensitive Skin, SPF 30 (Olay needs to COOL ITS JETS with the product naming; my fingers are so tired from typing that)

2. If you’re over 20 and you’re not using a retinoid, you might as well just end it all now.

Just kidding. I only found out about retinoids last year! But they are the powerhouse ingredient of skincare. There’s, like, nothing they can’t do: even your tone, texture; reduce acne and sun damage; lessen wrinkles and fine lines, etc. As Into the Gloss says:

“The results are almost too good: With regular use, retinoids promise to improve skin texture, wrinkles, sun damage, visibly enlarged pores, acne, and blackheads. Science can’t prove that retinoids will make you a more likeable person, but doesn’t hurt to try for that, too.”

Before you go crazy, here are some basic rules of thumb:

  1. Start using retinoids gradually. Start using it just once a week until you build up a tolerance. Retinoids are known to cause irritation. I destroyed my moisture barrier by going crazy with retinoids, so don’t be like me. Go slow.
  2. Use a retinoid or retinol product at night. There’s some evidence to indicate that retinoids are rendered useless when exposed to sunlight.
  3. You only need a small amount. Slapping on more product doesn’t make it work better.
  4. Don’t give up! Retinoids take weeks, like 8-12 weeks or even longer, to start making a difference. The biggest mistake people make with retinoid is quitting too soon. Don’t be like those people. Fight the good fight.

Um, what are you waiting for?

Skincare science post

Favorite retinoid products

  • The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion. There’s really nowhere else you should look, IMHO, for a retinoid. This is the most potent, gentle, AND affordable thing on the market. I feel like I should buy it in bulk. I’ve been using this one for about 5 months now, and it’s a dream. Never caused me any irritation and my fine lines and skin texture have improved dramatically after months of faithful use. I’m in love and I don’t care who knows it!
  • Differin. I didn’t have a bad reaction to Differin; I just preferred the texture of The Ordinary’s product, so that’s what I’m using. Differin is also cheap and now available in drugstores without a prescription. It’s strong (you only need a pea-sized amount for your whole face), and it may cause you to purge (i.e., break out even more) at first.

3. Don’t trust product claims: Read and understand ingredients.

Everyone is trying to sell you something. If there is anything Americans need to learn, it is this.

Companies will say literally anything to get you to buy stuff; they will promise you the moon and invisible pores in just one week.

Trust no one. Instead, school yourself on some skincare science and cosmetic ingredients.

This is very exhausting if you are not a chemist, but again, the internet is Full of Wonders. I’ve learned so much about what to look for and what to avoid after just a few hours of education. Resources below.

Semi-related caveat emptor: Don’t get sucked into the popular myth that all “natural” beauty products are better for your face. There ARE a lot of natural ingredients that are awesome for your skin, but a lot of “natural” cosmetics companies have poor formulations that are not well tested, not backed by research, and/or do next-to-nothing for your skin. Some natural products are downright damaging on your sweet little face (e.g., lemon, vinegar, essential oils, coconut oil if you’re acne prone, etc.). Step away from the pantry. Trust science and solid formulations. (There are some “natural” brands I love, like Yes To and Derma E, and there are also many natural brands that are just overpriced garbage.)

Don’t forget the primary lesson: Trust no one. “Natural beauty” companies are not charities: They also just want to sell you something (and look righteous while doing it).

Favorite resources

  • Paula’s Choice: Ingredients dictionary: Don’t recognize an ingredient? Look it up here! This is a fantastic place to get thorough, scientific, and yet understandable explanations for which ingredients are great and which will murder your precious epidermis.
  • Beautypedia: Take some reviews with a grain of salt, but in general, this is a pretty trusty place to get science-based reviews of beauty products. This site is the brainchild of Paula Begoun, she of Paula’s Choice fame, who is worshipped (and sometimes decried) by skincare enthusiasts the world over.
  • CosDNA: Don’t get scared about the Chinese. This is a crowd-sourced database where people can analyze the ingredients of a million cosmetics products. The system then flags common irritants or inadvisable ingredients.

4. Respect the pH of your face.

If, like me, you have a problem with breakouts and texture, and swing between dry and oily skin, balancing the pH of your face is crucial.

Your skin’s natural pH is about 5.5. Many popular cleansers and products, however, have pH levels that fluctuate in wild directions on either end of the scale (lemon, for example, has a pH of 2; many foaming cleansers have a pH of 9).

The most important components of this lesson are to choose the right cleanser and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.

Use cleansers with solid ingredients that have a pH between 4 and 6; 5 is ideal. Many popular cleansers are really harsh, which I was surprised to discover. Oil-based cleansers can’t be pH tested, and I love them. They’re super gentle and not stripping, so I heartily recommend them as well. Here’s a place to start to determine the pH of your cleanser, using the crowd-sourced genius of the web.

Skincare science post
Current favorite cleansers.

Favorite cleansers (all with good ingredients and low pH)

Fun fact: Drinking water is great, but it really doesn’t do much to hydrate your face. (At least, there’s little evidence that it makes a difference.) Instead, commit to high-powered hydrators and moisturizers every day. A common misconception is that people with oily skin don’t need moisturizers. They do; I do. Balance your skin’s overproduction of oil by keeping it balanced and moisturized. Every day!

Skincare science post
Current favorite hydrators and moisturizers.

Favorite moisturizers

  • Hada Labo Gokujyun Hydrating Lotion. Miraculous stuff! It’s like a hydrating toner that turns into a super-light moisturizer. Incredibly affordable and immediately effective; I put this on my face twice a day, every day, and it’s helped me tremendously with hydration. The bottle will also probably last me a year.
  • Benton Snail Bee High Content Steam Cream. I’m in love with this weird-smelling stuff packed with snail slime. Powerful ingredients, and you only need a tiny amount to cover your whole face with goodness. It’s the last step of my nightly routine.
  • Glossier Priming Moisturizer. I’m not enamored with this moisturizer, but it’s been working well for me for the past few months. I imagine I’ll need something heavier in the winter, because it’s very light, but it delivers what it promises.

5. Exfoliate with acids instead of with bits of rock.

Exfoliation is a critical part of having a smooth, even complexion, but I had no idea that you could exfoliate chemically. Physical exfoliation—harsh scrubs that everyone used as a teen and still can’t put down, rotating face brushes—can work too, but you’re at a much higher risk of damaging your skin. Korean women, the ruling goddesses of skincare, rarely, if ever, use physical exfoliants and they have perfect skin, so I’m listening to them. Instead, be like a Korean goddess and exfoliate chemically, with acids!

There are two kinds of acids that are great for your face: alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). I have worked both into my routine, but I am trying to help myself reintroduce them gradually, because they’re potent and I freaked my skin out a bit at first.

Here’s some great advice from Paula and from facialist Renée Rouleau about adding chemical exfoliants into your routine.

Skincare science post
Current favorite chemical exfoliants.

Favorite exfoliants

  • Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid. When you start reading skincare blogs, this is THE most-mentioned holy grail product in the acids space. Everyone raves about it. My advice: Go slow! Don’t be like me. Start once a week and then increase use based on how your skin tolerates it.
  • Derma E Overnight Peel (AHA). Solid ingredients and easy to use.

6. Up your antioxidant and vitamin game.

Your face needs vitamins too! Antioxidant-rich serums and moisturizers are an important step toward healthy, glowing skin. Vitamins and antioxidants can be a little tricky, because there are so many of them, and sometimes they don’t play well with others (especially the acids), but they have tons of benefits. I’ve worked a few favorites into my normal routine.

Skincare science post
Current favorite serums.

Favorite antioxidant serums

  • Mad Hippie Vitamin C Serum. I’ve done more reading about vitamin C than any other skincare product because vitamin C is (a) really great for your face, but (b) really difficult to get right in the formulation. The big problem is that it’s very unstable (i.e., it oxidizes, or goes bad, rapidly), and it often does not mix well with other products. That’s why people like this Mad Hippie serum, because it’s a more stable form of the vitamin, mixed with the super-beneficial ferulic and hyaluronic acids. Here’s an incredibly persuasive review of the stuff.
  • Glossier Super Pure serum (niacinamide, or vitamin B3, and zinc). Helps with blemishes and congestion! Have been using this for a few months in my morning routine, and I think it’s helped keep breakouts at bay. Next, I’m going to try The Ordinary’s Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% because it’s a lot cheaper.

7. Listen to your skin.

Glowing reviews are seductive. We’ve all been there: rushing out to buy something a friend told you was amazing, only to be sorely disappointed when it doesn’t work for you (or causes a pizza-level breakout).

The primary thing I’ve learned in my skincare voyage is what works for me may not work for you, and vice versa. You may hate a lot of stuff that I love, and that’s OK. Every face is different!

Learn to love and respect the skin you have. Heed the messages it sends you.

And this, my friends, ends the skincare saga. For now.

Disclaimer: I was not paid or asked to say any of these nice things about these products. This is all from the goodness of my skincare-obsessed heart and depressed wallet.

The garden isle

Kalalau Trail
View from the Kalalau Trail

The fam went to Kauai for a week, and we thought about staying forever.

Dream holiday, really. Perfect time with my hilarious, strange, and marvelous family.

I took all of these photos with my old, crappy iPhone, and the island’s aggressive beauty is STILL VERY EVIDENT. Kauai cannot be dimmed!

Kalalau Trail
Another view from the Kalalau Trail
Koke'e State Park
Canyon views from Koke’e State Park
Koke'e State Park
Kels and Alex

Koke'e State Park

Koke'e State Park Koke'e State Park

Koke'e State Park
Dad and Mom share a gigantic shave ice.
Queen's Bath
Checking out Queen’s Bath. Note that Jak roller-bladed here.
Queen's Bath
Queen’s Bath
Queen's Bath
Hi, Guion!
First days in Kauai
Hanalei Bay on a foggy day
First days in Kauai
Alex and Jak at Hanalei Bay

First days in Kauai

First days in Kauai
View in our neighborhood
First days in Kauai
Feral chickens everywhere!
First days in Kauai
Sam down at our private beach
First days in Kauai
Evening view from the outdoor shower

Not a joke. The rainbows are everywhere.

Verdict: Kauai = totally worth the 22 hours it took to get there.

Koke'e State Park

The little myth

September
Tree, from a recent hike.

On the precipice of 30, I am learning how to enjoy for enjoyment’s sake. L’art pour l’art.

In my youth, I felt I had to master anything I loved. But then, inevitably, my inability to master a thing diminished my passion for it. For instance, I loved ballet. I loved watching ballets, studying ballerinas. I took ballet lessons as a girl, and then, as a young adult, read Apollo’s Angels and took two beginner’s classes. I was, and still am, a terrible dancer. I am neither strong nor flexible and I have none of the free courage of movement that dancers require. My inability to master ballet itself dimmed my love of the art form. My ballet slippers collect dust in a drawer upstairs; I have forgotten all of the warm-up stretches I used to try every morning. It is a sad and frustrating conclusion to a brief flicker of interest. I never thought I’d become the next Margot Fonteyn, but I expected more from myself. I let myself down quickly.

I’ve been thinking about this false exchange in one particular realm lately. I have loved fiction since I was a child and still do. I read, on average, 50 to 60 novels every year. I study novelists; I drink up their Paris Review interviews; I am obsessed with the craft. And yet, despite all of this, I do not think I can write fiction. I keep trying and loathing myself.

Maybe I will get over it; maybe I won’t. Maybe I will finally write that thing that has been rattling around in my head for years. But either way, I am now repeating to myself the fact that love and mastery do not have to go hand in hand. I can love a cello concerto without ever having to pick up or know anything about the instrument itself. I can adore Italian film without having to learn key phrases. I can devour fiction without having to write a novel. It’s a little freedom I am giving myself.

“Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake.” — Robert Penn Warren

I do not think I will ever be in the mood to read Don Quixote. Can I take it off my to-read list, where it has been languishing for seven years?

A month after the rally of hatred, our parks are still in turmoil. The Confederate statues are covered up with gigantic trash bags in the morning; in the evening, an unauthorized group of men is tearing them down (which we witnessed last night, walking back to our car). Insipid tourists pose for photos, cheesing in front of the Lee statue, which irritates me to no end. (It’s such an insensitive and weird impulse, to want to pose with this now-infamous statue, which you never would have cared about, much less noticed, before a woman died in the street.)

One thing that has comforted me lately is the presence of excellent local journalists—namely, Jordy Yager. We heard him speak in a panel of other journalists on the topic of race and racism in the news, and I was so impressed with and grateful for his deep grasp of Charlottesville, its history, and the white supremacy that controlled and still controls so many of its institutions. There is still much to be done, but there are many who are fighting the good fight for the long haul.