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Empty Vessels

September 24, 2013 | by

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“You’ve got a lot to learn,” a man she meets on an airplane says to Lise, the protagonist of Muriel Spark’s 1970 novella The Driver’s Seat. “Rice, unpolished rice is the basis of macrobiotics… It is a cleansing diet. Physically, mentally and spiritually.”

“I hate rice,” Lise says.

“No, you only think you do,” he replies.

This character, the overconfident, pushy bore bent on convincing people they do care about things they aren’t interested in, is so familiar that if we laugh in recognition, it’s only to keep from crying. We can all at least be thankful that in the past five years the problem of men explaining things to women has not only come to public attention, but been packaged, meme-ified, and widely distributed—it’s a thing, a concept with which to view power dynamics and discourse, and avoiding mansplaining is maybe becoming a cultural value.

In her November 2012 article “A Cultural History of Mansplaining” for the Atlantic Monthly, Lily Rothman defines mansplaining as “explaining without regard to the fact that the explainee knows more than the explainer, often done by a man to a woman.” This is a phenomenon that people have found instantly recognizable and endlessly applicable to cultural situations and to their own experience. Take for instance this, from Twitter user @PedestrianError: “I don’t normally unfriend people on Facebook, but there’s on perpetual mansplainer that I think is gonna have to go.” Or @abrahamjoseph on the New York Democratic Mayoral Primary debate: “de Blasio using his mansplaining voice on this slush fund question #nyc2013.” It is so useful a concept—and so consistent a pattern, to take The Driver’s Seat as only one example—that it’s strange that no one attempted to articulate it before Rebecca Solnit’s seminal 2008 essay “Men Explain Things to Me.” Read More »

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Daring Daisy Ashford, the Greatest Ever Nine-Year-Old Novelist

July 8, 2013 | by

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It all began on the back cover of the great poet James Schuyler’s 1958 novel Alfred and Guinevere. In the novel, Schuyler creates an absolutely odd and believable childhood world, told only through dialogue between the young brother and sister Alfred and Guinevere Gates and excerpts from Guinevere’s diary. Alfred and Guinevere is the best novel I’ve ever read about childhood, because it accurately depicts the way children brilliantly and hilariously mimic adults, the way that children’s conversations are imperfectly observed imitations of adult conversations. Because of this insight, it doesn’t read like an adult imitating children—and it is incredibly funny. I’ve read it many times; I can’t get enough of it.

Going through it again this spring, I was caught by a review from Commonweal quoted on the back cover. “A deft and funny creation of a high quality,” the critic wrote, “somewhere between the terror-haunted humor of Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica and the placid, presumably unselfconscious amusements of Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters.” I had never heard of The Young Visiters. Neither, as it happens, had any of the dozen people I’ve mentioned it to in the months since. When I sought The Young Visiters out at the library, I was startled by what would seem to be the most important fact about it. “You could have told me,” I said silently to Commonweal, “that this book was written by a nine-year-old.”

When in 1919 a grown-up Daisy Ashford rediscovered and agreed to publish The Young Visiters, or Mr. Salteena’s Plan, which she had written twenty-eight years earlier, it was an immediate and absolute success. It is a Victorian “society novel” following “an elderly man of forty-two” named Alfred Salteena and his friends, the young lovers Ethel Montecue and Bernard Clark, as Mr. Salteena strives to become a gentleman. With its distinctive, graceless narrative voice and original spelling errors intact, readers regarded it as a remarkable specimen of children’s grand and unselfconscious ridiculousness. It was so popular in the United States and in Ashford’s native United Kingdom that it went through eight printings in its first year. Read More »

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Map Quest

September 4, 2012 | by

The draw of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s classic breakup song “Maps” is that it is as plainly sad as possible. “Wait,” the band’s lead singer, Karen O, sings over and over, “they don’t love you like I love you.” But “Maps” is also enigmatic: beyond its abject chorus, the lyrics are cryptic, with verses that are brief and opaque—“Packed up / Don’t Stray / Oh say, say, say / Oh say, say, say.” Karen O repeats maps, plaintive and without context, stretching the word’s aaa over four bars.

According to fan mythology, “Maps” is an acronym for “my Angus please stay,” referencing Liars lead singer Angus Andrew, whom Karen O has said the song is about. There may be other ways to read the song’s title, though. “Maps” evokes the physical and metaphorical distance that is felt from a lover who is leaving. It is a kind of emotional cartography, mapping two people’s painful journeys away from one another. This will serve as our foundation: maps aren’t impersonal, objective. They aren’t.

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At the Grave of Richard Hugo

May 14, 2012 | by

It is an indisputable fact that the memory of poet Richard Hugo haunts Missoula, Montana. This notion might first strike us as innocuous, obvious, falling within the simple domain of legacy. Thirty years after his death, he leaves equal endowments in Missoula, as the most important “Montana poet” and as a teacher of poetry: he was one of the first directors of the University of Montana’s renowned creative writing program and the author of a classic handbook on creative writing, The Triggering Town, that is filled with excellent, weird, and practical advice.

Further related to the activity of haunting: Hugo’s poems famously concern places. He is known primarily as a regional poet, and many of his most famous poems are named for Montana towns or landmarks, like “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” “The Milltown Union Bar,” and “The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir.” One can use his book of collected poems, Making Certain It Goes On, as a guidebook to Montana’s bleakest and loveliest destinations; titles of his poems will lead you to Garnet ghost town, St. Ignatius, Turtle Lake, Wisdom, and Fort Benton, finally winding back to what was once Hugo’s actual address in Missoula, 2433 Agnes Street. When Hugo wrote a poem about a place, he made the place a part of himself, and now that he’s gone, a part of him remains in those places.

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