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Eulogy

2015 June 16

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I’ve done more public speaking this year than I typically do. In January, I participated in a Women in Clothes event at Harvard Bookstore. I recently began running a monthly meeting at work that requires more speaking.  I surprised myself by getting up at a story slam and telling a story (for which I won first prize!). In my essay-writing class at Grub St., we had to read all of our essays aloud to the class. But, by far, the most challenging public speaking I needed to do was give the eulogy at my grandmother’s funeral in March.

I don’t like public speaking. I don’t much like private speaking, to be honest. I prefer writing. And silence. But when my grandmother died and we went to the funeral home to make arrangements, the funeral director gave us a book of readings to choose from for her funeral mass. My grandmother was a devout Catholic, and went to church every Sunday until she got too sick to go. But it didn’t seem right to me that these religious readings, talking about the grace of God and faith and Jesus, etc., were the only words to be said about my grandmother at her funeral. So I mentioned to my family that it was too bad there wasn’t an opportunity to say something more about her life. Cut to the next morning, when I got a phone call from my mother where she shared the “good news” that we were allowed to say some words about my grandmother at the end of the funeral mass–and that my family had nominated me for the job.

The word “eulogy” comes from ancient Greek, meaning “praise.” Apparently, any speech praising someone, whether it be for retirement or at a funeral, can be a eulogy, even though we most commonly associate its use with death. As I sat the afternoon before the funeral and tried to write my first eulogy, I realized the sheer weight of what I was attempting to do. I wasn’t just talking about what my grandmother had meant to me or giving biographical facts of her life–no, a good eulogy must encompass those things, but also, at the same time, try to encapsulate the essence of a person and what that person meant to everyone assembled to honor their memory. That task is daunting for anyone, but was especially daunting for me, realizing I’d only known my grandmother for a fraction of her life, and only in a capacity as a grandmother–she wasn’t my mother or my friend or my cousin or my sister, as she was to the others gathered at the church that day. I had to somehow make my limited experience and knowledge of her life stand for something larger, something that would be understood by everyone there.

But isn’t that what all good writing should aim to do? Make the personal universal in some way?

My great-uncle passed away two weeks ago. He was 94 and had been married to my father’s mother’s sister–the day of his funeral would have been their 71st wedding anniversary, had either of them been alive to see it. I like to think they were celebrating together, somewhere. Though perhaps a “great-uncle” isn’t typically a close relationship in one’s life, my uncle was a strong force in mine–one of my very favorite people in the whole world. He was sharp and thoughtful and kind and funny. He was the kind of person who was your best friend within 5 minutes of meeting you. In fact, though he’d lived on his own until very nearly the end, he’d needed to go to a nursing home to recuperate after falling recently, so he’d spent the last six weeks of his life there. In that short time, he’d made such an impression on one woman, who would visit her sister, also a patient there, that this woman came to his funeral, bearing a tray of homemade scones, which she explained was an Irish tradition.

His nephew, who’d been his primary caretaker, gave his eulogy at the funeral, and it was lovely. But it made me reflect, again, on how insufficient words are in the face of something as primal and permanent as death, and how limited our own experiences of people are. How no one person can ever truly know another person. There are too many facets, too many complicated inner workings and circumstances and thoughts.

But we try. And when words are one of the only things we have, we must make the most of them. Words can’t express what my grandmother or my uncle, or any other family member who’s passed away, meant to me. They also can’t express the sorrow I’ve felt for close friends who’ve suffered devastating loss. But they are something–perhaps not as good as scones, but they are something.

 

Writing Matters

2015 June 4

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I read an article a few weeks ago that made my blood boil. In it, writer (and linguistics professor) John McWhorter proposes that teaching students anything beyond “functional writing” is worthless in today’s tech-driven society. He cites Kim Kardashian’s tweets and Cornel West’s recent lack of published books as evidence that our society no longer needs or wants formally written prose.

I went to hear a lecture by Steven Pinker a few months ago wherein he advocated for a less formal style of writing (which he elaborates on in his most recent book. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century). His argument was not that formal writing is no longer necessary or important; rather, that the rules of strict grammar are outdated and even make writing worse. He makes a good argument. I’m a textbook editor (of English textbooks, no less) and I agree that some formal grammatical rules do nothing but complicate otherwise good prose. I think there’s wiggle room in terms of language, and I agree that language, especially in America, is a constantly shifting and evolving, living organism.

But what he doesn’t say is that writing in and of itself is outdated and useless.

We’ve been hearing some form of this argument for years now. No one reads anymore. Print is dead. Everyone’s attention spans are too short to do anything for longer than 30 seconds. We should be preparing for robot overlords. Blah blah blah. Look, I’m not completely naive. I know I work in a dying industry (publishing) and I know that most people would rather watch videos on YouTube of dudes hurting themselves than read a 2-page article. I get it. I’m not immune–I’m a slave to my Twitter and Facebook feeds and often spend a night in front of the television rather than cracking open a book. But here’s the thing–Facebook and Twitter are powered by words, and so is television. Someone needed to write those Amy Schumer sketches that I find so hilarious and smart. It’s not true 100% of the time (“reality shows” don’t have scripts [sure....] and most of my Facebook feed these days are pictures of other people’s babies), but words still have incredible power and influence.

I spend the better part of my workday editing textbooks for students in college English classes. Most of the students my books cater to do not quite have a grasp on writing. I consider it one of the most important aspects of my job to make sure it’s clear how vital writing is to life beyond the classroom. Even though McWhorter writes that there are only a “sliver” of jobs that require writing, this is a fallacy. In order to even get your foot in the door in any given industry in today’s cutthroat job economy, one must demonstrate a grasp of the written English language, via a resume, cover letter, or other communications with hiring managers. Trust me–I’m in the midst of the hiring process right now, and if a cover letter is poorly written or a resume contains a typo, it immediately gets rejected because there are literally one hundred more applications to sort though (and this is for an entry-level position). There are only a handful of jobs that require no writing once you start–even jobs in the medical and science fields require authoring reports, memos, and emails.

Beyond the workplace, words dominate our lives. Sure, the Internet is a haven for those seeking cat videos and funny gifs, but it’s also the home of countless blogs, discussion boards, comment sections, and social media apps where communication is dependent on words. Written ones. Don’t even get me started on online dating. Even Tinder requires written communication–and if you can’t put together a convincing argument that I should date you or meet up with  you, I’m going to swipe left real fast. And though McWhorter calls texting “talking with your fingers,” it’s not. It’s a swift form of communication using abbreviated text, but it’s still written. Studies have shown that with so much user-generated content on the Internet, people are writing MORE than ever before.

So let’s leave the selfie books to Kim Kardashian–she can have them. Let’s be honest–no one is really interested in her for what she has to SAY anyway. The rest of us, though, should continue to strive to express ourselves well in the written word, because it still matters, and always will.

That Kind of Girl

2015 May 27

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Lena Dunham. You love her or you hate her. She’s one of the most polarizing actors working today. Say what you will about her, she’s talented and fiercely determined and she’s an excellent (and necessary) role model for women.

A few days ago, Dunham posted a photo of herself in lingerie on Instagram. Given how frequently her character, Hannah Horvath, appears in various states of nudity on Girls, you wouldn’t think that this photo would be a big deal, but apparently, it was. Articles appeared in Bustle, the NY Daily News, PopSugar, the Daily Mail, and MTV. It was a “top news” item on Facebook. Most of the articles praised Dunham for her “body confidence” and her recent “weight loss.” It all feels a little bit like patting a child on the head for almost doing a good job. “Good for her!”

I am an unapologetic supporter of Dunham. I think she’s a great writer and I love that she is so vocal about her love of books and her support for Planned Parenthood. Of course, she’s taken some missteps. In reading her essay collection, Not That Kind of Girl, I was a little disappointed at the specificity of her experiences. But, as much as we love to foist this “voice of a generation” nonsense on her, Dunham does not speak for women of my generation–or women of ANY generation, for that matter. She speaks for herself, and for that, she should be applauded rather than torn down because her views and stories don’t always conform to what we think should be the views and stories of a certain “kind of girl.” Lena Dunham is “Not That Kind of Girl” because she is no “kind of girl” at all. She grew up in New York City, the incredibly privileged daughter of two acclaimed artists. Zac Posen was her babysitter. She was featured in the New York Times before she was eighteen–for having a sleepover. She had extensive therapy throughout her childhood, a luxury most children don’t have, despite similar struggles with anxiety and depression. Her viewpoint is a very unique one–and it’s also smart, entertaining, funny, and sometimes poignant. If you’re able to enjoy her work on an entertainment level, it’s great–it’s when you try to equate her experiences with yours that it loses its luster.

Dunham gives us a lot to talk about. Her work, on Girls, in film, in writing,  and her activism should be plenty to keep the public busy. But, of course, what we hear most about Lena Dunham is about her appearance and her body–how much she shows of it, how much she should show of it, how “curvy” it is or isn’t, what her hair looks like, what an ugly dress she wore to the Oscars. Of course, we can’t get over our collective fascination with what Hillary Clinton is wearing or what her hair looks like, so I suppose it’s naive of me to hope for a cessation of talking about Lena Dunham’s body. So, in the spirit of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” here’s a collection of images showing Lena Dunham as a beautiful woman–because I think we need them, and I think that too often, discussion of her appearance is limited to how bad she looks. Because I follow her on Instragram, and when I saw that lingerie photo, I thought, “Hey, that looks like my body,” and we tend to underestimate how important that is, to see positive representations of all different kinds of bodies and appearances in the media.

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What do you think of Lena Dunham?

 

All the Sad, Funny Men

2015 May 21

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I’m a sucker for the ends of things. Why else did I find myself on my couch until 1 am last night, watching David Letterman’s last late night show? I like Letterman–I even went to a live taping of the show when I lived in New York (Juliana Marguiles was the guest, and some athlete, and that terrible country band I can never remember the name of…not the most epic show, but still a fun experience). But I’m not what you would call a Fan. There were a few periods when I was a teenager that I would stay up late and watch his show before I went to bed, but that’s the most regular I’ve been in my Letterman viewership. I liked that he was weird and irreverent and didn’t always make sense. But beyond that, I didn’t really know (or care) that much about him. Nonetheless, all of the buzz surrounding this retirement drew me in and I watched, sucked in by nostalgia for a time I was barely alive for–Dave’s been on the air since before I was born. I got home at 11:30 after a night out with friends, and I wasn’t tired, so I stayed up and watched.

But while I watched, there was some nagging feeling pulling at me–there have been allegations that Letterman behaved inappropriately with female employees during his reign. Similarly, I’ve been struggling this week with what to think about the allegations against Louis C.K., a comic I’ve admired and also seen perform live. I know that just because Gawker puts up an article doesn’t mean it’s true, but I also cringe at the sheer number of males in power who are accused of taking advantage of female employees, reporters, colleagues, strangers, etc. It’s not a coincidence, and it’s especially jarring when the accusations come against someone whose work you genuinely admire.

One summer a few years ago, I watched Manhattan outdoors in Brooklyn Bridge Park, the movie that mythologized the city backdropped against the very skyline in its logo. It was one of those magical New York experiences that make living there ALMOST worth it, sometimes.

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As we walked home, Joe & I talked about Woody Allen. This was before the revelations of the Dylan Farrow case were in the news (again). I talked about how much I enjoy his movies (Annie Hall is one of my favorites, or was) and how conflicted his behavior (I was thinking primarily of his relationship with Soon-Yi, his wife’s adopted daughter, who was just 17 when they began their romantic relationship) made me feel. We talked about art vs. the artist, and how one should stand separately from the other. Normally, I believe this, but where’s the line? If Hitler had actually been the talented artist he’d wanted to be, and still did all he did, would we be able to look at his paintings and think, “How beautiful”? I really don’t think so. At least, I couldn’t.

So, it’s difficult for me to look at these laughing, powerful men, and not cringe at what happens behind the scenes. And yet, I still watch Louie. I still watched Letterman’s farewell. I still read Hemingway and Updike and Roth and many other male writers who completely disparage women. And I can acknowledge their talent, even admire and enjoy it. But it makes me feel conflicted and a little dirty inside, a little ashamed. Can I watch a Woody Allen movie or a Louis C.K. stand-up routine or an old episode of The Cosby Show and still consider myself a feminist?

I don’t know, and it’s sad that it’s a dilemma faced by women everywhere. How do we reconcile our values and beliefs with those of a society in conflict?

What do you think? Are you able to separate the art from the artist?

 

Birthday Funk

2015 May 7

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It’s my birthday on Saturday and I’m in a funk. Not the Bruno Mars kind, unfortunately (or fortunately?). For as long as I can remember, I seem to descend into a semi-depression in the days leading up to my birthday, no matter what’s going on in my life. It’s nothing serious, just a little more angst than usual, but it’s a downer to feel sad on your birthday!

I’m turning 33 this year, which isn’t exactly a “big year,” unless you count the people that call it their “Jesus year” (but I prefer not to equate my birthday with crucifixion…I’m not THAT depressed). But even though it’s not really a culturally significant age, 33 strikes me as…well, it’s a little bit of a threshold. Closer to 35 than 30. One step further away from your 20s. And it’s not exactly that I even want to BE younger–it’s just easy to feel, especially around birthdays and holidays, when you’re single or unhappy in other facets of your life, that you’re not where you’re “supposed” to be. You know, that sweet spot that society tells us from a young age we’re supposed to end up: married, with a baby or two, in a nice house with a backyard for your puppy to run around in. And don’t forget that good job and list of creative accomplishments.

I’m not there. And it’s okay–I don’t actually WANT a house right now, or a baby (I’d take a puppy though!). And, let’s be honest, having a husband is not always what it’s cracked up to be (or maybe that was just in my case). I DO have a good job, which I’m incredibly fortunate to have, and lots of friends, whom I’m also incredibly thankful for. I’m working on those creative accomplishments….stay tuned.

I was talking to a good friend the other day and we were lamenting this void in our lives–the way we don’t feel adequate or quite fulfilled or accomplished. But, when I really think about what I’ve done and where I’ve been, it’s not a bad set of things for 33 years. So, in an effort to beat this funk and as a little birthday present to myself (though who am I kidding I’ll probably go shopping and buy some clothes too), I thought I’d write down 33 things I’ve accomplished in my little life. And here’s to hoping there will be more to come in the years ahead!

  1. Learned to walk (This may seem minor, but it was a BIG DEAL for me. Apparently, I walked around on my hands and knees until I was almost two years old. I’ve always been a slow learner).
  2. Learned to read (I don’t remember this process, but it amazes me every time I think about it. How our brains are able to process that kind of information at such a young age. And how vital it’s been in my life!)
  3. Made friends in high school that I still talk to all the time, nearly 20 years later
  4. Won first place in my school’s Young Author’s contest in 6th grade (Yeah, that’s right, I’m still proud of that.)
  5. Performed a dance to Copacabana at my high school’s talent show senior year (It wasn’t a REAL dance, but it was fun and I got to wear a sparkly gold dress with feathers. We got a standing ovation, also. Just saying.)
  6. Asked my high school crush to dance with me at senior prom even though I was TERRIFIED and basically never saw him again (this is actually a more complicated story, but it makes me all the more happy I did it).
  7. Put myself through college (though I’m still paying for it and will be FOREVER–I think that’s something to be proud of!)
  8. Spent my junior year in Italy, speaking a language that wasn’t my own, with people I didn’t know
  9. Bought and paid off a new car on my own (And she’s still going strong, ten years later!)
  10. Put myself through graduate school (A debatable decision, but at the time, it was what I needed, and it’s led me to where I am. Although I will still be paying THESE loans until after I’m dead.)
  11. Created and kept up with this blog!
  12. Have pursued my career goals and though I don’t have my DREAM job, I have what’s pretty close to it
  13. Overcame my extreme lack of physical ability to go to the gym regularly and stay somewhat physically fit
  14. Got two tattoos!
  15. Gave a talk at Harvard Bookstore, in front of an actual audience
  16. Challenged myself to write and keep writing….I’m working on the submitting part of it. Baby steps.
  17. Got married. (Though this didn’t end the way I would have liked [I mean, it ended...sooo], I’m still proud of the relationship and marriage we had, in a complicated way).
  18. Wrote and gave the eulogy at my grandmother’s funeral
  19. Worked my way from a marketing assistant to senior editor in seven years.
  20. Have built so many rewarding personal and professional relationships over the years.
  21. Have traveled to places I always wanted to see: London, Hawaii, Wyoming, New Mexico, California, Oregon, etc.
  22. Run 2 5K races…hoping to increase that number soon.
  23. Have thrown some pretty awesome parties.
  24. Survived a gut-wrenching divorce without falling apart completely or becoming bitter.
  25. Won first place in a story slam contest I didn’t even plan on entering.
  26. Am financially independent, though I’m working on that whole savings thing.
  27. Have edited several books I’m proud of, both professionally and semi-professionally (shout out to Rebekah Matthews!)
  28. Adopted Chief and loved him a lot and took good care of him.
  29. Cultivated my own sense of personal style.
  30. Learned to like beer.
  31. Have maintained a strong and close bond with my family (again, something I’m very lucky for!).
  32. Started a writing group that I’m really proud of and happy with.
  33. Continuing to hope and believe that things can only get better.

 

Ok, that was harder than I thought, to be honest. But, there’s a lot of good stuff there! I recommend making a list of stuff you’re proud of when you’re feeling down–or even if you’re not. It’s a good reminder that no matter where we are in life, we’ve all accomplished many things, and we’re works in progress.