I’ve moved to a self-hosted WordPress blog at faineg.com. Adjust your links accordingly — I’ll be blogging a lot more, too.
My mother regularly threatens me with writing a really terrible obituary if I die before my time.
“It’ll be full of puppies and rainbows,” she says. “It’ll go on about how sweet and kind and inspirational you were. A little angel sent down from a sunbeam to live among us.”
She knows this would wound me to the core. This is a clever way to ensure against my early demise, or at least to ensure that I look both ways when crossing the street.
My utter revulsion towards this often-repeated, happy narrative about nice young white girls cut down against their time also gets me thinking. How do we eulogize the young and dead unfortunately? Why do we do such a sugary job of it, most of the time?
Marina Keegan was the latest example. Struck down in 2012 at the age of 22, on the way to Cape Cod, after graduating from Yale with the love of her peers and professors alike. Already tapped for a coveted New Yorker gig. Full of potential. Her essays now are seeing the light of day, republished on the New Yorker and blasted across the Internet.
Keegan’s brief life is being heralded as an inspiration, the sort of thing meant to make you weep with the Joy of Life over your computer keyboard. We’ve seen this before. Keegan is being re-purposed, posthumously. A sort of passionate Deepak Chopra figure, here to give us life lessons from her lovely young life — reaped before its time.
To be quite frank, this post-death exultation makes me a little ill. And it is not because of her, or her writing, which is perfectly good from the snippets I’ve read. It is because I would like to talk to her and see what she made of it. Part of me wonders if she would despise being re-purposed in such a way, rendered an inspirational figure — eulogized in USA Today, a Sad But Gentle Soul.
It brings me back to a greater observation. How often do we conclude about a young woman smacked down by fate about her time that she was not only brilliant but also at times difficult, snarky, complicated?
Truth. Young men and boys dead early are also portrayed through rose-colored glasses. But their naughtiness is also (at least more often) exposed. A lazy Google search for “obituary mischievous young boy” reveals dozens upon dozens of hits. Such a search substituting “girl” receives nothing of the sort. Young women are, more often, portrayed as magical angels come to live among us, here to blow the fairy dust of hope amidst us sad, earthbound beings.
This is, of course, bullshit.
Young women, especially the kind that are very good at writing, are usually just as cynical and wretched as their male counterparts. I believe this very strongly. Yet this is not how we honor them. We honor them by taking away the peculiar bits of their existences that defined them, denuding them of complexity, of blemish. We render early-dead young women eternally grinning, pretty little positive dolls. The reality of the young woman herself is irrelevant.
I don’t like Christopher Hitchens much. I liked Gore Vidal more. Both died relatively recently. Both their eulogies, on the whole, captured their intractable, loathsome asshole sides. To reiterate: I am not saying that Keegan, or any other Cut Down Before Her Time woman, was a secret curmudgeon. These are extreme cases.
But all of humanity, and especially those who are particularly creative, have their strange and ambiguous traits. These made them human. Perhaps it’s simply much harder to eulogize the dark and weird sides of young people who are not terribly famous, who do not have an immense body of work, whose grieving families are more able to take the wheel of such remembrances. But why is this so?
I am young, and thus a terrible, malevolent idiot. So too are many of my peers, or at least the ones I really like. Must you possess a certain gravitas (so often denied women of any age) to be remembered as both brilliant and as a miserable asshole? Does the flower of youth automatically disqualify you as being seen as a terrible curmudgeon? Should we let these early flowerings of cynicism and holy rage go unnoticed, even if they were the primary concerns of the young and early-dead?
There is one book I have read that did a good job of eulogizing a very young and very clever man. It is John Gunther’s “Death Be Not Proud,” which I picked up in a used bookstore the day after a friend and colleague died. Johnny Gunther died from a brain tumor when he was 17, a preternaturally sharp high-schooler who corresponded once with Einstein on a mathematical problem. Gunther documents his son’s more inspirational utterances, that is true: “God is what’s good in me,” for example.
But he also documents Johnny’s decline, the details of his suffering. He describes it when Johnny grows angry at his affliction, when he is exasperated, when he succumbs to his own humanity. And so, with these details, the obituary suddenly becomes more complete than any other I’ve come across. I read this memoir — published in 1949 — and feel the same sort of thump in the chest: both John Gunther and Johnny Gunther are dead now, and yet I feel them keenly. That’s how it’s done.
I do not know a thing about Marina, beyond the somewhat inadequate descriptions of what she was like that are being shuffled about the Internet. Perhaps she would have happily agreed to this sort of lurching inspiration machine generated around her death. That is her right.
But I also concern myself with the posthumous notions of the young and horrid. Call it self-preservation. I do not feel there is much in my story that anyone in their right mind could deem Inspirational, but — and but – perhaps with some airbrushing some Story of Triumph and Adversity could be re-animated, voodoo-like, from beyond my personal veil. The beer truck hits, and I am transfigured.
Should we attach a rider to our wills, that states that our obituaries be brutal and truthful? That no one describe us as “Full of Love And Life,” or we come back and haunt their closets, and permanently tie their shoes together, and attract moths to their underthings?
I think I will. I shall make it legal, or at least scribble a note in the margins of my legal documentation, or something. If you’re going to make the effort at all, don’t remember me as an Angel of Love, or a Gentle Beacon of Light. Remember me as a frightened, smallish, oft-difficult human, trying at times to make a legitimate effort.
PS: My friend Heather Houlahan wrote a very good essay on approximately this same topic: Angels and Daemons – Raised by Wolves
When I began writing, it was a food blogger. I was 15 and was noticing the explosion of popular food blogs online: most importantly, I just really liked eating stuff. I started a food blog when I was sixteen and then threw myself more thoroughly into it once I got to school at Tulane, where I (conveniently) worked at the Newcomb College Center for Research on Women, complete with an enormous culinary library.
And I ate stuff, which is the primary trajectory of a well-spent time in New Orleans. I must have tried every reputable gumbo in the region, and concluded none quite came up to the family recipe — and the Vietnamese food, crawfish boils, po-boy establishments of ill repute, and all the rest. My family is French Creole in origin and so I justify some of this gluttony as a kind of cultural interface. Eat until you make yourself slightly sick, more so if you add in cigars and lots of really aggressive red wine. Reminiscence.
This is black jambalaya from Crescent Pie and Sausage Company in Midcity, a really excellent entry into the already-booming “New Orleans restaurant that makes its own sausage” market. It’s black because there’s black-eyed peas in it, and it tastes delightfully filthy. This recipe has been dubbed Bad Bart’s Black Jambalaya and you can make it via Food Network instructions, an experiment I think I will make very soon. Who is Bad Bart? Christ if I know.
Jokes about sausage samplers write themselves. Suffice to say the boudin was spectacular, and the re-imagined Little Smokies were crunchy and good. Something is existentially satisfying about ground meat. I won’t be needing your vegan pamphlets, thank you. Chicken and biscuits from the Ruby Slipper, with tasso gravy on top. Evokes memories of being in a hurry on the way to school as an elementary school kid in Atlanta, and we’d pull over and get fried chicken on a biscuit from Chick-Fil-A, which would degrease your entire system by 12:00 PM. But it was worth it. This was better —lighter. I’ll never get chicken and waffles. There ought to be crumble.
At some point my entire New Orleans return-trip denigrates into a bunch of Instagram images of oysters. It’s hard to know what to say about oysters. Beyond the fact that the first time you eat a raw and enjoy it, you feel you’ve passed some magical veil into adulthood. When you’re little they tell you they’ll give you food poisoning and ALSO you won’t like it, and so you take their word for it. Then you’re like fourteen or so and it’s a nice dinner and someone foists one on you. Needless to say I accepted that challenge and have never looked back. Damn you BP. Curse you to hell. “Only Louisiana oysters will do,” my grandmother always says. “The California ones are too big.” Some people don’t know that New Orleans is home to a large Vietnamese diaspora population, attracted to the area by fishing and shrimping jobs in the aftermath of the war. This means you can get great Vietnamese food in the metro area, and lately, that great food has begun migrating into the inner city itself. The Eat-Well Food Market on Canal is one of those gems, with a front area containing the usual assortment of cigarettes, various pork rind flavors, and beer, and the back with a really excellent Vietnamese street food menu. This was superb Bun Bo Hue, considerably meatier and richer than versions I had in the actual Vietnamese city of Hue. Delicate lemongrass broth, and bones with marrow you can suck out. Perfect.
Cochon Butcher is where I always stop, eventually, both because I think Donald Link is cool and they have really great sandwiches. Home-made meats and a counter ordering system. I always seem to get the bacon and collard greens melt, combining two of my favorite things into a distinctly salty, melty, slightly sour little slice of excellence. I may try this at home, actually, as I often have orphaned left-over collards. Recently discovered by every suit in the Financial District, so gird your loins for lunch rush.
We drove out of the city one day to go look for the swamp, the location of which we deduced from Google Maps and conviction that driving any direction from New Orleans will inevitably lead you to somewhere murky and populated by alligators. Well, it didn’t work – we neatly bypassed the Jean Lafitte park and instead found ourselves further and further out in nothing-in-particular country, with little white houses on stilts and the occasional Catholic cemetery, and few trees.
But on the way back, we stopped at Salvos in Belle Chasse, which my friend Harry introduced me to a couple of years. There, the oysters and indeed everything else cost a good $3 to $4 bucks less than the food everywhere else in the city, and everyone sitting down to eat all-you-can-eat boiled seafood is just From Around Here. So we ordered a dozen raw oysters, fat and gleaming, while my friend Una covered her eyes and grimaced at the spectacle (understandable, perhaps — take it intellectually, the act of eating an oyster. Loathsome and yet immensely pleasurable.)
New Orleans: the only airport in the world where you can get a cup of gumbo with cornbread for breakfast before your flight out. Good gumbo with a proper crab claw and a chicken wing in it, too. I eat this before I leave and regard the fools ordering from the Subway next door with deep disdain, as I surgically extract crab-meat from the shell of a crustacean at 9:30 AM. That’s living, you jerks.
I want to live here again someday. I think.
What I miss most about New Orleans is definitely the music. Most cities in the world view music as a semi-interesting sidebar to the more important stuff. Venues are rare and expensive, outdoors festivals feature beer gardens and security scrutiny, and the occasional major band blows through like traders in the desert, selling $300 coliseum seats to the middle-aged fans who can afford it.
Then there’s New Orleans, where music is considered an expected part of the week, something that just sort of exists and permeates the air, a given inclination. Avoiding music in New Orleans becomes the hard part, for any extended period of time. You’ll be riding your bike through the neighborhood and encounter a hundred-person strong second line with a marching band, and then you’ll stop and look because everyone stops and looks. Also, all the shows are bar shows, or just about. This is eminently more reasonable.
I went to Frenchmen Street on a cloudy day and walked into the Spotted Cat to encounter Rev. Sarah McCoy and the Oopsie Daisies. I guess she sounds like the natural conjunction of Amanda Palmer and Big Mama Thornton. They are excellent.
This is Sal in the Oopsie Daisies, who I remember from Hare Krishna free dinners, which were a real college institution when we didn’t feel like paying for Indian food. He’s a good singer and musician and I’m glad he’s doing this.
Buskers on Frenchmen Street. Isn’t the word “busker” sort of pleasant? Regardless. They’re another fixture here, and some people just sort of come down to New Orleans to spend their vacations engaged in a bit of busking and sight-seeing. I think this is a nice point-counterpoint way of handling things.
One of the many youthful brass bands that hang out in the Quarter. Sure, some are better than others. But these guys were good, and I’ll always appreciate the youthful enthusiasm. Here is my friend Blake, who studies music at Loyola University and plays the trumpet, sometimes in front of psychedelic backdrops but usually not. He is in a band called Sycamore Soldier, which is just starting out, and you can read about them here.
I haven’t been back to New Orleans in two years. It’s a damn sin, and I’m glad I could correct it this March. The weather was cold and overcast, but not too much had changed.
Here’s some photos from around town — a few more blog posts to come, most likely. I’m thinking about millennial tribalism, apocalypses (and how to recover from them) and Going Home Again, Or Can You? this week.
Bicycles seem to have a rather outsize place in every memory I have of New Orleans. Who needed a car in college when you could have a second-hand BMX with Tool stickers on it? I certainly didn’t. (The tradition continues: didn’t use a bike this trip and felt weirdly disabled the entire time, although the gloomy weather wasn’t exactly ideal).
The courtyard at Cafe Amelie, where I have never actually eaten, but which my mother assures me is good. I like these Creole courtyards and the vague acquisitive part of me wouldn’t mind owning one someday, although I imagine they’re hell to keep up.Study in gutter punk and dog on a cold spring day in the Quarter. I miss gutter punks, sort of. I wouldn’t mind having a few of them around Stanford. If you have seen the Portlandia skit on gutter punks, please be aware it is essentially a work of 100% accurate documentary. (I miss Hare Krishna dinners, and all those kids with Moleskines who smelled sort of weird but were down to talk about Thoreau).
A brief lick of blue sky. And some spires. The family’s Ancestral Cathedral, although we fell from faith a couple generations ago and show little sign of returning into the tender embrace of Catholicism. (I manage to be guilty enough on my own).
The acrobatic show in Jackson Square, where clever young men persuade tourists to give them money to jump over them. I wish them all the best. You walk by on your way somewhere else and think “I won’t stay for the jump, this time.” But the tourists are lined up and on the off chance some calamity happens, you always DO stay.
The never-disappointing tableaux of stuff at Electric Ladyland, where I guess I would get a tattoo if I ever got a tattoo. My personality is not decisive enough yet. (I would get a quote from Moby Dick about striking the sun and a scrimshaw image of a squid fighting a whale. Then I would be very cool at bars).
Enjoy that sun, kid. The dock of the bay — well, river — by the Jax Brewery. Fun at night if you’re sanguine about muggings. This is something I’ve spent a lot of time doing. When I was briefly in Iowa by the Mississippi, I would find it rather comforting that the big red ships passing at all hours were on their way, inevitably, homewards
My college commute to Tulane for a brief time was this, back when I lived on St Charles near Valmont. Than I discovered bicycles. But sometimes it’s still nice. Was it always $1.25? Am I getting cheaper?
A woman travels to Nepal to investigate the custom of chaupadi, wherein menstruating women are made to sleep in small, often-snake-infested huts. Even worse, women are at risk of being raped when they sleep in these isolated locations, and the stigma against menstruating women makes it hard for teenage girls to attend school.
She puts together a well-written piece about the chaupadi practice, which features numerous voices of young Nepalese women and social-rights activists who are working to ban the practice.
The piece is then re-run on Jezebel — and suddenly, the bloodhound like keening of cultural imperialists fills the air.
HOW DARE SHE TRAVEL TO A FOREIGN COUNTRY AND WRITE ABOUT IT FOR PEOPLE IN AMERICA. HOW DARE WE TELL THE NEPALESE HOW TO LIVE. MENSTRUAL HUTS AREN’T ANY OF OUR BUSINESS.
Yes, that’s right, folks: a comments section that features numerous women who likely identify as feminists, industriously attempting to justify snake-infested menstrual huts regularly targeted by rapists.
This, in a nutshell, gets at why the frothy Internet manifestation of cultural relativism simultaneously drives me nuts and amuses me. It’s a curious kind of bifurcated reasoning, whereupon a highly educated individual with certain notions of human rights attempts to show how non-racist and non-judgmental they are by coming out and defending Profound Cultural Practices.
Even when those Profound Cultural Practices involve, say, actual snake-infested menstrual huts.
It’s foolish logic, as anyone who’s devoted much time to the study of the Antebellum South can readily inform you. Southern slave owners considered it to be very much a part of their distinct, non-Yankee culture to own other people and — as one may recall — were willing to go to war over that right.
When viewed through the lens of popular cultural relativism however, one could well interpret the abolitionist movement as an attempt by culturally insensitive Yankees to impose their own, colonialist beliefs on the noble traditions of white plantation owners.
After all, said slave owners always claimed that their slaves were happy — just as some relativists will claim in the modern era that women are perfectly OK with being consigned to menstrual huts or having their genitalia snipped off, despite sundry voices very much to the contrary.
Indeed, my own genetic heritage is Southern and I’m almost certainly related to a slave owner or three. But I can’t say I spend much time lamenting the fact that my cultural predecessors were so cruelly deprived of the right — a right which they cared deeply about, and thought was justified in many cases!— to traffic in, demean, and utterly subjugate other human beings.
One also wonders where the cultural relativists are in relation to the recent unpleasantness visited upon Burma’s Muslim Rohingya by the Buddhist majority. Are not the Burman, Buddhist ethnic majority merely defending their identity and adhering to their customs by driving out and killing the people they call “Bangladeshis?” Who are we to judge?
And indeed, aren’t the people of Uganda merely expressing their cultural identity by outlawing homosexuality and actively persecuting gay people? Who are we to judge?
I’m willing to judge, and so, I suspect, are members of humanity from all across the world who have a basic sense of what human rights is, what it is permissible to visit upon another person. And I’m disinterested in excusing the murder, disenfranchisement, and abuse of innocent humans in the name of preserving some weak notion of “diversity.”
The human rights and comforts I’d wish for my neighbor two doors down in Palo Alto are the same rights I wish for a Nepalese woman or a Somali teenage boy. I remain unsure why others feel the need to draw geographical distinctions.
Further, this stream of cultural relativistic thought is, ironically, deeply patronizing to the very same cultures its adherents think they are defending.
It implies that these cultures are weak.
They are so very weak that eliminating a single facet of them — like female genital mutilation or menstrual huts, or what have you —will topple them over entirely. Human culture is more robust than that, and this gossamer fairy-wing interpretation of How Those Exotic People Live strikes me as rather insulting.
It ignores another important facet of human culture: it changes, morphs and percolates. But only in rare cases does it vanish entirely. The South’s distinctive culture, in its strangeness and music, persists despite the elimination of slavery. So too, the culture of the Western Nepalese will, I’d wager, continue on when the last menstrual hut is dismantled.
Perhaps some cultures really are that weak! a culturally relativist cheerleader might say in response — I’d like to imagine tapping away from a MacBook Air in a Starbucks, but we all have our fantasies.
Fine, then. I submit that a culture that crumbles into dust when some unabashedly cruel aspect of it is removed is not a culture worth preserving in the first place.
There was lots of screaming, and shouting, and ducking behind obstacles and convenient hiding places. In other words, I was playing paintball, a practice more commonly associated with twelve year old boys and emotionally frustrated rednecks than with young journalists with an interest in social issues.
Turns out I love it.
This all started when I went to visit my friend Eli’s paintball range to fly a camera-drone over some unobstructed turf.
Perhaps I should explain: I do indeed possess a small consumer-range camera drone, and I do indeed require lots of empty space to fly it over, lest I run afoul of strict FAA regulations that frown upon that kind of behavior. Let’s move on.
I was flying, with the assistance of Eli, when he suggested that I try playing paintball. I’d already driven there and I was in a pretty good frame of mind, what with the sudden arrival of both spring and some modicum of expertise with a camera drone. So I agreed to try paintball.
I was outfitted with a large black hoodie, as well as a full-length facial mask that resembles the sort of thing that a plague doctor might wear during the Dark Ages. Professional players wear more protective equipment than these rather basic remedies, but it’s really all you need: paintball pellets will sting like a bitch when they hit your tender exposed flesh, but won’t actually cause permanent injury. (The same can’t be said about your eyeballs, which is why everyone wears the face mask at all times within the range).
I was then handed an air-powered gun, with a battery-powered tumbler on top that takes in the paintballs. They’re ejected with extreme prejudice when you pull the trigger. You don’t pull the trigger like that of a normal gun, where you do it once and with great intention and purpose. Instead, you toggle your fingers on a paintball trigger really rapidly, like when you’re tapping on a desk and expectantly waiting for somebody. “Spray and pray” is an effective technique in this sort of game.
“Try it out,” Eli said, and I walked over to a small target range that looked exactly like a lesser Jackson Pollack painting. It took me a few minutes to pick up the toggling motion, but once I did, I was merrily pinging targets with extreme prejudice.
“She’s a killing machine,” Eli’s brother said, approvingly.
Then I went to actually play. The paintball range is set in a huge stand of eucalyptus trees, outfitted with blinds and hiding places and brush, allowing you to lurk and pick off the unsuspecting. The Delia family has outfitted the place with a number of forts that resemble something right out of a National Historic Site brochure about doughty pioneers. Players can take over these forts than protect them against the opposing team. This is considered extra fun.
The players, almost all dudes (a shock!), were outfitted in tactical-looking protective gear and baggy clothing. The baggy clothing is strategic — it helps cushion the blow if you do get hit. “You can always tell the sharks because they have nice guns,” Eli’s brother pointed out.
Some of them had decorative face shields painted with skulls or fangs, or other appropriately aggressive items. One guy had added rainbow-colored feathers to his. Ages ranged from 10 to pushing 60 among the immediate paintball warriors, with most clustering in that fuzzy range of adolescence from 13 to mid—twenties.
As paintball players will point out, there’s an instructional purpose to the soft-tissue trauma of getting whomped with a paintball pellet: it motivates you to get a lot better at paintball.
Paintball isn’t real warfare, but as it turns out, the adrenaline rush you get isn’t too far off from the real rush of having angry people spew hot lead at you at close quarters. Police and the military use paintball as both training and recreation.
That’s why I loved it, I’m pretty sure. I’ve spent the past three years living in places where crossing the street can become an exciting exercise in existential terror. A week where I don’t find my heart thumping with the exultant pleasure of continuing existence after escaping yet another run-in with the Death Angel (in the guise of, say, a tuk tuk) is one that feels somewhat muted and colorless of late.
Coming from a Southeast Asian metropolis with limited rule of law to the manicured and aggressively safe climes of Palo Alto and Stanford is enough to give anyone in their right mind whiplash. If you’re me, it mostly makes you unusually pissy.
Paintball fills that emotional gap. All of the adrenaline and aggression. Absolutely no risk of being run over by a drunk in a 4-Runner in broad daylight, as would be my likely undoing in Phnom Penh.
I spent the rest of the weekend after my stint at the paintball range in an unusually cheery mood — smiling at random motorists on the freeway (whom I usually consider rat-bastards), being unusually pleasant to skeezy old guys at the bar, waiting in lines with much more patience than I can usually muster
Paintball, in my mind and in the mind of others, is usually associated with libertarians — the kind of people who want to corner you somewhere and talk about the Gold Standard in increasingly agitated tones. This being California, Paintball Jungle is a lot less about Apocalypse Prepping, and a lot more about having a good time pretending to be engaged in urban warfare.
“I only allow positive people here,” said Eli’s dad to me, the founder of the place and a former international paintball star. And indeed, he was right: most everyone seemed to be in a good mood.
I’m glad I tried paintball – it’s the happiest kind of bloodlust.
If you want to try it out yourself, come to Paintball Jungle in Vallejo. It’s near the Wine Country, too. Imagine what kind of weekend you could have.