Earlier this month, Assata Shakur became the first woman to make the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Terrorists list, and a $2 million reward was placed on her head. The FBI is no doubt capitalizing on a surge in public confidence after the made-for-TV melee that resulted in its capture of the Tsarnaev brothers, who struck fear into the hearts of Americans about the possibility of “domestic terrorism.” But Assata is a civil rights activist, not a terrorist—and her inclusion on the FBI’s list is a reminder of how retrograde our criminal justice system is. Forty years ago, Assata was shot by a New Jersey state trooper with her hands in the air, then charged with the “execution-style murder” of a police officer who was killed in the ensuing shoot-out. Her conviction is dubious, given that the all-white jury deliberated amidst fear-mongering racist news coverage, but, even if it were just, it is unclear why Assata is not simply a criminal but a terrorist. The head of the FBI’s Newark Division characterized her as a “threat to America.” After 40 years of peaceful exile in Cuba, one wonders what constitutes Assata’s “threat.” Certainly not a physical threat. An ideological threat, then? Shakur’s views are anti-imperialism, anti-racism and anti-sexism, and she speaks out against the United States government when it commits injustices. So does that make her a threat to America?
Having heard many cases for smart phones, I could have told the Verizon Men why I like my dumb phone. I like that it helps me to get lost, I could have said. I like that when I swipe it with my magic swiping fingers I just leave a smudge. Sometimes, with my dumb phone in my pocket, I just am where I am, with exactly no apps. Sometimes a beautiful person does something beautiful in the beautiful world and I just have to remember or forget it; that is all. Maybe we’re at a glittering heteronormative boardwalk, dressed in easy irony, and the glorious sun is setting, and we’re talking about heteronormativity and also things we watch on Netflix instant streaming, and I want to take a photograph, as though from my 1981 Holga, with my 2014 phone, but I just can’t, I just can’t. All the time, I could have said, this phone helps me to incorrectly answer, or simply not answer, any number of given questions. At dinner, there’s no point to putting it on the table, so I don’t. And when I wake in the morning, if I want to look at freshly posted photos of you, I’d have to walk to the back of our house and turn on the computer, and select from the various networks, including the intriguingly named “PoliceSurveillanceVan4,” and kneel in the kneeling chair, which I do not want to do. So I look out the window, and I look at the sky. Some days the trees are rosy. Some days the trees are fleeced. Beneath that window, on the bedside table, there is a lamp, a clay dish, and a landline. In the daytime, only the Disabled American Veterans and my mother call our landline. But someday I want to call you on it, because I miss the sound of your voice. It may be illegal by then, or at least sacrilegious, and the call will have to be patched in straight from my brainhole to yours. I will say, “Hi, Is this my friend?” And you will say, “I think you said, ‘I’d like to take the train to Poughkeepsie.’” And I will say, “No. Is this my friend?” And you will say, “Did you say, ‘Departures from O’Hare?’” And this will go on for some time, until I start begging your bot. I’ll say, “Human, please. Human please. Human please.” And finally you will come to me. And I will say, “There you are! I’ve been missing you!” And you will say, “This connection is incompatible. I lost your contact long ago.” (continued from Point 121)
When I took the phone that I’d purchased at the combination violin repair / used electronics shop, with its dilapidated population of koi, to the Verizon store, with its special brand of infinite blandness, and was asked if I wanted an upgrade, and replied that I did not want an upgrade, it was like I had peed on the floor. They looked at me funny. Then they looked at that funny cast-off phone. It had come all the way from 2007, which was several lifetimes ago, or lifetimes of phones, anyway, because with all their dying it must follow that they live. The phone was old, they said. Their tone was like Euthanasia Is Legal in Several Western States, and also Forward Ho! And didn’t I want an upgrade—really, come on—or was I just gonna pee on their infinitely bland floor? Standing there, with the Top 40 Hits wisping low in the climate-controlled air, I felt sympathy pains for the original Anabaptists, round about 1693, when they passed on buttons, and kept using hook-and-eyes, and at first it just wasn’t cool. Buttons, man. Gotta close that shirt with buttons. Then the next thing you know you’re a farmer in a bonnet, while everyone else is making out in Google glasses. They’re like Kiss me! What’s on Facebook? Kiss me! I’m gonna go powerscan HuffPost. I’m kissing you! How do I look? That headline I half-read made me really angry! Here’s my tongue in your mouth! Emoticon, emoticon! And you’re just like plow, plow, plow. (Continued in Point 122.)
I’ve heard it said that no two people experience anything exactly the same, and that part of the value of art is how open it is to different interpretations. But there’s a difference between experiencing something differently and missing the point entirely. Recently I was assigned to read Jim Shepard’s short story “Love and Hydrogen,” which is about a homosexual couple working on the Hindenburg zeppelin; and I came to class prepared to talk about my impressions of it. My teacher started discussion off by saying what a big gamble it was to mention the Hindenburg’s fate on the first page, let alone to write about homosexuality and Nazi Germany, and other classmates chimed in about how their perceptions of the characters were influenced by knowing from the start that one of the gay lovers blew the zeppelin up. Meanwhile, I was trying to remember what Hobbes had said about human nature, that all men believe they’re naturally equal because everyone thinks they’re at least as intelligent as the next guy. I was trying to remember if my history teacher ever mentioned the Hindenburg during those high school lectures I’d forgotten so quickly. I was trying to figure out how much a fairly well educated member of society is expected to know and how many pieces of art and literature had been absolutely lost on me because of my ignorance. When it came around to my turn to speak, I said, “Clearly, I’m the only one here that didn’t know the Hindenburg blew up.”
I have a close friend who once cut himself in the hand while he was chopping carrots. I saw metal and a bunch of different colored wires in his hand instead of blood and veins. He made me promise not to tell anyone that he was not really human. I have always respected his wishes because he is a close friend. But sometimes I have the urge to tell someone. Because I think he should be destroyed.
Well, I never thought this day would come, but damn it, it did. I’ve had it. It’s over. I’m done. I’m finally sick of John Goodman. John Goodman is a man who has made a living playing various types of uncles. Some are the uncles you want to have and some are the uncles you do, did, or will have. But the unifying quality of Goodman’s uncles is that they are all preternaturally likeable—at least as long as he wants them to be. Goodman can singularly and seamlessly play both sides of the Big Man Uncle (or BMU) archetype. He can do Santa, Chris Farley, and your planetoid uncle who just can’t help himself from eating and hugging you until Sacagawea dollar coins and $2 bills start falling out of your ears. But Goodman can also play the BMU who’s a Cyclops, an escaped and pomaded up convict, a Jewish-American Vietnam vet who’s always in his element, and an insurance salesman who carries around a head, which he only recently severed. But last week I finally saw Argo, and one of the things I found out was that my love for Goodman, which I had thought was asymptotic, had reached its limit. In Argo, when Ben Affleck and I sat down to lunch with John Goodman, God Damn was I ready to feel uncled. But it didn’t happen. I knew what pithily avuncular lines he was going to say and just when, by some WPA-level feat of engineering, his cheeks would raise his 7-piece sectional set of a chin fat and curl his lips into a smile. The magic was gone.
A couple of weeks ago, the longlist for the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly known as the Orange Prize) was announced, bringing prestige to twenty writers of great fame (Zadie Smith, Barbara Kingsolver) and high acclaim (Sheila Heti, Hilary Mantel), as well as to several newcomers (Shani Boianjiu, G. Willow Wilson). Established in England in 1996 in response to the dearth of women writers honored by literary prizes that year, the Women’s Prize has helped bring recognition (and a ₤45,000 prize) to a slew of female writers who may have slipped under the radar otherwise. In the wake of recent public discussions on opting out and the rise of “pink collar” labor, the existence of the prize illustrates a few things: first, that women writers are still fighting for the same sort of representation and prestige as their male counterparts; and second (as can be seen with the rise of “ladyblogs” such as Jezebel, The Hairpin, and xoJane) that women writers seem to be gaining legitimacy not from being a part of the boys’ club, but by forming rooms of their own. But this ultimately raises the question: Is a prestigious literary prize for women progressive, or is it only reinforcing the traditional and masculine institution of award-giving that preceded it?
The discovery of The Thing in my fridge gave me a good, solid reality-check: not everything that was bad about my apartment was my landlord’s fault. Oh, sure, the mice infestations he wouldn’t take care of and the vandalized laundry machines located inconveniently far away in a leaky basement outside the complex might be, but The Thing—that was something completely outside of his control. I was at first more inclined to blame my roommate, who frequently went on grocery shopping sprees outside the norm of the instant ramen college students ordinarily buy, but who never actually cooked. Or cleaned. Not that I said anything. Her untidiness hadn’t bothered me unduly until I started clearing out the fridge one afternoon while I was alone, and The Thing caught my eye. There was no telling what it was. Eons ago, perhaps it had been a sprightly root, reaching with youthful leaves up to the open air and sun from its nursery of soil, or some bright and innocent fruit—but it was unrecognizable now. What was in the fridge was a monster in a semi-transparent grocery store bag. It was a vague horrendous shape that had gotten stuck between the bars of the refrigerator shelf as it, slowly and terribly, grew. And now there was no way for me to exorcise it except through a surgical cut. When I got out the scissors and snipped the bag out and something dark, rotten, and wet leaked out onto the shelf below, I started whimpering. When I picked The Thing and its severed bottom up, I was still whimpering. And when I threw The Thing out into the garbage bag, I was struck with a sudden awareness that this was my fault too: I had to start learning how to say no.
Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond were convicted of rape when Judge Thomas Lipps of Cincinnati found that they had both “digitally penetrated” the Steubenville victim while she was unconscious: first in the backseat of a friend’s car, then in his family’s basement. It is tempting to argue that the real digital penetration came later, as Mays, Richmond, and at least a dozen others disseminated their crimes—and the victim’s image—via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. CNN described this situation as “a social media spiral,” and writers at the Huffington Post were not the only ones to say the victim was “raped twice,” appropriating for a new purpose the language victims often use to describe the experience of testifying in court. My own stomach still turns every time I imagine waking up naked on a strange couch, my phone, underwear and shoes missing, only to find out how I got there by following a traffic-jammed trail of Abu Ghraib style pictures and videos. I can feel the desperate force behind the victim’s first text message to a friend that morning: “OMG please tell me this isn’t true.” But it was true; everything she saw online happened offline. It is a mistake and a misunderstanding to think that it is only in the depravity of the digital age that Americans have developed an appetite for the violated bodies of young women. The Steubenville rape—along with so many incidents of sexual violence—was a form of social media even before it was captured on camera. It was social: the victim’s violation was a team effort. And it was media: the victim’s body was staged to communicate a message to an audience. There would be no camera if there were no eyes to see her slung like a dead animal between three smiling boys. If new devices can validate for the victim what she would otherwise know by the empty space around her in the hallway, then I want to express the grimmest kind of gratitude. We cannot afford to see social media as the violator here just as we cannot afford to focus on the moment of penetration as the only relevant moment of wrongdoing in this familiar nightmare. Steubenville should remind us that it is the traffic between violence and the performance of violence—no matter how it’s broadcast—that constitutes rape culture. For the boys involved, the victim was a prop in their play. But she broke the third wall when she started speaking.
People in their thirties tend to have a very wide range of friends. We haven’t yet jettisoned college and high school friends, but we also hang out with our (and our partner’s) family more than we did in our twenties. We have grad school friends and work friends. We’re in touch with pretty much every generation, and can thus spot universal social trends. And right now that trend is, of course, food. My wife’s aunt posts endlessly about what she’s eating, what she wishes she was eating, and what we ought not to be eating. My students, who have very little to say about politics or social thought, can tell me exactly which café to go to for the best muffin on campus (the options are limited). When I Skype with my father, who once believed that cooking was a woman’s work, he mainly tells me what he’s been cooking. My brother-in-law photographs