My Animals

Sometimes you find an old piece of writing you're not embarrassed to share. This must have been a high school English assignment from when I was about 17. (This is my school picture from that year.)


I didn't remember it at all, but I found it when I was looking for my only copy of my valedictory address, which I kept for a long time in a special box but now seems lost to history. (Click on the little arrow on the upper right of the pdf box for easier reading.)



Little Hearts

Though my conversion to crazy cat lady was swift and complete, I did not take Sampson to the vet as soon as I got him, which was September 13, 2014. You would think my general state of anxiety would have imagined an illness for my favorite little buddy before a year had passed, but he was generally a healthy, if neurotic, cat. Vets are expensive. He's an indoor kitty, and a very well-nourished one at that. It never seemed like an urgent problem.

At Christmas, Samps had an embarrassing and ugly little cat...issue...and my sister and I decided he should go to the vet. He also has some smelly breath and needs to get his teeth cleaned. So I made an appointment earlier this month, which I thought would be quick and cost me a couple hundred dollars. During the exam, the vet kept asking questions like "Does Sampson ever run out of breath? Does Sampson ever open-mouth pant? Is Sampson more lethargic than he used to be?" This started to sound like, "Does Sampson seem like he's dying?" It turned out Sampson has a pretty bad heart murmur—on a 6-point scale, with 6 being the worst, he gave it a 4—and since we had no vet records we didn't know what caused it. The vet recommended a trip to a cat cardiologist for an echocardiogram. A couple of weeks ago, my boyfriend and I loaded Samps into a cat carrier—a process that involves a lot of treats, trickery, crying, and scratching—and drove him out to Maryland. They put him under sedation and shaved off little patches of fur and determined he has a genetic heart defect, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which has no cure and lots of cats have but is usually undiagnosed until a cat drops dead one day. For the moment, his heart is actually pretty healthy, but I also don't want him just to drop dead soon. I have to take Samps back in a year.

Meanwhile, I am out $800 and Samps still has not had his teeth cleaned or shots re-upped, but he has had better health care than what is available to what I'm going to take a wild guess and say is the vast majority of humanity.

Writing About Police Brutality

I've done a lot of it lately. Here are the links, in order:

I wrote about my days as a former CCRB investigator. The job was interesting. I took in complaints of police misconduct in New York City, investigated them, researched legal and procedural precedent and wrote recommendations to the actual Review Board. The frustrating thing, for me, about case work is that, after awhile, each new case can look like a million you've already had. It wasn't for me. There were also broad trends that we didn't have the power to do much about, at least at the time. One of the biggest things were that people in poor neighborhoods were very often arrested for minor crimes, crimes which didn't hurt anyone and the enforcement of which were at the officers' discretion.

I wrote about why people protested in Ferguson, Missouri after the decision not to indict the officer who shot Michael Brown. I know some of the protests turned violent, and I know violence can be hard to understand. It's difficult to communicate the desperate anger and rage a lot of communities feel. If you want background context on how oppressive the legal system is there on poor people of color, read Radley Balko. Voting, peacefully protesting, writing—all of those can be effective ways to change the system. But I think the people in Ferugson are feeling something deeper and more radical. I'm not excusing it, but I think it's always worth it to try to understand other people.

I wrote about my decision to protest after a Grand Jury in Staten Island did not indict the officer who killed Eric Garner by putting him in a chokehold. Sometimes, there's nothing else left to do.

The Protestors

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The First Amendment protects the right to disagree. The religious clauses encourage a diversity of faiths, so there's no philosophical majority weighing down on our moral thought. Freedom of speech emboldens the right to question authority. Most important to me: Establishing a free press creates a class of professional agitators. There are always questions about whether news has a liberal bias. I think it's because we think that the people who most want to rock the boat tend toward progressivism, and that's probably true. If news itself has a bias, though, it's more anti-authoritarian than ideological. We saw the rise of a conservative press in the 1980s not because there is an inherit left-wing skew to mainstream media but because, I think, the previous generation of intellectual elite had trended so far left—the authorities had changed. There's always room in America to find a new way to tell the story of us. Barack Obama did it in his second inaugural, which is my favorite of his speeches. In it, he told the story of the United States as one of ever expanding Revolution, one that started with the Declaration of Independence and will never end. It would have been nice if he'd embrace that worldview more in the practice of his presidency.

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Being a Critical Reader

I worry I am too tough a critic when it comes to judging other people's writing. I'm hard on myself, to be sure, but it's easier to evaluate other people's writing, and so I do. Often. (I should specify that I mean edited writing: Unedited, who are any of us to judge or be judged?) If I had my way as a writer all the time, I would write something that's straightforward and competent before I overwrote or tried something clever for clevernesses sake. I hate purple prose, and I hate gilded lilies. Most of all, I hate adverbs. Is there anything more useless than an adverb? I recognize their basic function—modifying verbs. How many verbs need modifying, though? Most of the time, something either is or isn't. Better to choose a good verb.

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When I worked at the Prospect, I spent a lot of time working from home. Four writers were crammed into one not-large room at our office; an arrangement our editor agreed was not conducive to writing. So when I was working on a first or second draft, it was usually ok for me to not show up. (Before that point, I was usually away somewhere, reporting.) But working on a first or second draft is a unique and often terrible experience, and you spend a lot of time writing words you will never use, and you keep your kitchen very clean because washing dishes becomes a soothing task compared to untangling a paragraph or structuring a section—or, as I was asked to do by an editor once, to my horror "unneating a draft"—and you don't want anyone to see how crazy you can get anyway. 

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Lewis Lapham Makes Me Sad

This week, I listened to this Longform podcast with Lewis Lapham, who was editor of Harper's for the better part of 20 years and founded Lapham's Quarterly. In truth, I'd been avoiding it. It's hard to listen to journalists talk about working before, say, the 1990s. Their lives were so good! I get insanely jealous. (I read David Remnick's piece about the scandal at the Bolshoi with the same level of envy: Oh, to have been a bureau chief in Moscow right before the fall.)

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I've Been Busy!

This space has been shamefully empty for a time. I spent the last two weeks of July in my happy place. (It's a real place, Vancouver, Canada, with one of my dearest friends. We were roommates in Brooklyn what feels like a lifetime ago. There should be a word that falls between sister and friend, because she would fit there.) Then, I returned from my exile and commenced the work of being normal. I spent a hurried, hot day moving my stuff out of storage and gathering my cat. The latter involved some scratches and bleeding. Why do cats hate carriers? I worried Sampson wouldn't recognize home and I'd spend a day trying to soothe his freak-outs, but after a few curious meows he seemed to figure out where he was and started rolling his happy, furry self all over the floors and furniture. Reclaiming it, as it were. 

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When I first told people about my job situation, their response was: "You should take a vacation." It seemed absurd, to travel without a regular paycheck. But after a few weeks of frantic worrying, work that wasn't progressing, and couch-surfing in DC, it occurred to me that this was the perfect time to take a break, after all. Everyone was right, and I was wrong.

I'm writing this from Detroit on a long layover. (I also spent a long time watching two guys chat in the middle of the automated walkway, while walking backward. I took a video):

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The Fourth of July

I didn't realize tomorrow was a holiday. Earlier this week, friends started telling me about their plans to be out of town this weekend, asking me to water their plants, feed their cats, pick up their farm shares, etc. Then I remembered. It’s not just because of my current unemployment. I’ve been ignoring the calendar for years. I worked for newspapers for a long time, which always publish on holidays, and was a very junior employee, which meant I usually had to work. (Some day I will write a book about the people who work on holidays: doctors and nurses on Halloween, firemen on Thanksgiving, cops at Christmas, etc.)

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Here is an Announcement!

I'm very pleased to share this news: I will be a fellow at The New America Foundation starting September 1. I am proud to be continuing my relationship with that great organization, and am very grateful for their support. There are many smart, good folks there studying the barriers low-income Americans sometimes face as they try to move up the economic ladder, and the policies that could make their ascent easier. That's my jam, too. The fellowship was the perfect opportunity to expand on the work I've been doing.

Summer Number 1

I am surprised at how unmoored I’ve felt since my unemployment began, on June 13. It shouldn’t be a shock. Say, “I got laid off,” and it sounds bad to most people. It didn't feel terrible to me as it was happening, though. It’s not unusual for a magazine’s entire staff to be jettisoned when leadership changes as radically as it did at The American Prospect. More salient: I’d been hoping to be laid off. In its 24-year history, the magazine has suffered from a serious earthquake every two or three years, and this is only the latest. (I believe it will probably be the last.) After four-and-a-half years there, I considered the possible outcomes for me and reckoned involuntary termination was the best one.

Still, something happens to you when all the money anyone in the world owes you lands in your bank account one Friday, and the weekend rolls past and Monday morning arrives with no place for you to go. 

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Moving On

My magazine, The American Prospect, is radically changing directions. After our July/August issue closes this month, the magazine's founders are taking it back over and it's unclear what happens next. Regardless, I've been informed that the Prospect's future plans do not include my continuing employment there. In a couple of weeks, I will have lost my job, and be unemployed for the first time since I got my first real job at Subway in my senior year of high school.

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