please VOTE (& wear a mask)

I know everyone & their mom – including probably all of the apps on your phone – is telling you to vote.


For me this isn’t just about getting the Cheeto out of office – it’s also about deciding what kind of country we want to be, and whether democracy has a chance here.

I’m obsessed with Billie Eilish

Her lyrics are witty, her aesthetic is fresh, and her voice is ethereal. I’ve been listening to Billie Eilish for the past week and can’t stop watching this video.

“It’s juvenile,” Matt said, but I thought: “So what?” Juvenile is exactly right – Eilish makes me walking home from a friend’s at night as a teenager, music blasting in from my cd player, full of possibility, slightly scared but mostly fearless.

Fall 2017 Reading List

1. The Cross of Redemption, Essays & Works by James Baldwin
I’ve read quite a few Baldwin essays at this point, but I’m eager to fully immerse myself in his writing again. I love his anger and his humanity. A through-line thus far has been that there is no such thing as a “Negro”, it’s an invention. I’ve been reading Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, and it’s been surprising how well these books are speaking to each other. In Atwood, some characters call this “pseudospeciation.”

3. The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann.
I thought this novel would be tonally similar to Death in Venice, but it’s a lot more…combative, almost; antagonistic. I pictured a book titled “Magic Mountain” and set in a Swedish resort to be calming and meditative, but although it is philosophical, it is so in a way that is complex and obtuse, as if the book didn’t like you and wanted you to struggle along with its characters.

4. Why I Write, George Orwell.
I bought this while in London, in part to keep myself from buying out an entire bookstore. I toss it in a bag when I’m on my way out the door.

5. Capital in the 21st Century, Thomas Piketty.
As soon as we unpack our book boxes and I find it. This was a very enjoyable read when I started it—the prose, at least in the beginning, is very engaging and light, in spite of a subject that, in the hands of a less capable writer, could be dense and difficult.

6. MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood
Finally—I’m at the end of the trilogy. I’m hoping that the endcap will not be horribly depressing—or at least, not as horribly depressing as the preceding books have been.

7. No Plot? No Problem, Chris Baty
This book, written by the creator of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), was recommended to me by a lifehacker article about writing your own (awful) novel in 30 days. The main advice of the article (and the book) is to realize first-hand that the novel you write will be an awful piece of garbage (“shit”, the book says). But, that’s OK. All first drafts are shit. The point is to get yourself to write it—not to publish, necessarily, or to share, or to amaze yourself with your writing prowess (or not just that), but also because it’s an experience that could be rewarding of itself.

Misguided Outrage

A story in the Logan Square edition of DNA Info this weekend strongly questioned Ald. Roberto Maldonado’s stance on fighting gentrification along the 606 trail. Maldonado is in favor of legislation currently being drafted in the council that would make it costlier for developers to convert multi-family properties in the area into single-family properties—an attempt to fight the wave of gentrification that has moved more than 20,000 Latino families from the area over the past three years. But critics object to Maldonado’s stance on the grounds that he previously profited from this kind of development in Logan Square. This outrage is misguided and might interfere with legislation that might actually preserve affordable housing in the neighborhood.

The 606 trail opened in June of 2015 along the Bloomingdale Line, a train route that had stopped operations in the early 2000’s. Throughout its development and construction, area residents worried about the trail’s capacity to encourage more gentrification in the area. The story reports that Maldonado bought and sold profit near the 606 trail–at a profit of more than $300,000. However, the story presents this buying and selling as more nefarious than it might be in reality. As the story itself details, Maldonado was pushed to sell the property in the first place out of fears that he could be accused of conflicts of interest because he owned property in the area.

Additionally, although the property that Ald. Maldonado sold will be converted from multi-family housing to single-family housing, he is not ultimately responsible for what the new developers will do with the land. Hypocrisy in politics is ugly, but it’s ugliest when people propose something good and then do the opposite. As it stands, this legislation is an attempt to disincentivize converting multi-family homes into single-family homes.  We shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, and I hope that the writers at DNAInfo (who I think do an amazing job in Chicago and the Logan Square area) lean way from sensational angles in their reporting until they hit on real corruption. I also hope that this misguided outrage doesn’t get in the way of this or any other initiative to preserve affordable housing in Logan Square.

Government-Assisted Market Failure: America’s Higher Ed Accreditation System

Many of today’s political fights boil down to fights about what the government should provide, and what it should leave for the “free market” to do. It’s part of the argument about health care, public schools, and public housing. I would argue that these are all fields that have shown substantial market failures, fields where the importance of the good in question are in particular tension with the incentives of the private industry.

It’s held as a truism that “markets work best without government interference,” but that’s only true when consumers of a good have enough information and enough power to protect themselves from imperfect products, usually by taking their money elsewhere. The case with for-profit education is interesting in that government intervention—in the form of federal student loans—has allowed a spectacular market failure to get even worse.

The past few years have brought increasing scrutiny of for-profit higher education. In 2015, a group of college students made the news when they defaulted on their student loans. The “Corinthian 15” had all pursued higher-education by at Corinthian College institutions, a chain that eventually shut down after a series of Department of Education investigation.

But Corinthian Colleges is far from the only for-profit institution in the United States; a 2012 ProPublica report published a growth of more than 1 million students from 2001-2010, and as of 2016 the industry was worth more than $36 billion. As critics, including those in the Obama Administration, have pointed out—most of that revenue is made up of federal student loans—taxpayer money that is getting students nowhere but costing the rest of a lot while they get there.

In her new book Lower Ed, author Tressie McMillan Cottom outlines some of the most damning characteristics of for-profit schools: their high tuition rates compared to public universities, their dependence on federal student aid funds, and their students’ low employment prospects after graduation.

What has received relatively less attention is the mechanism that allows these colleges to operate—and to receive federal funding—in the first place, the federal accreditation system and the regional accreditation institutions that it depends on. US accreditation agencies are not federal or governmental agencies—they’re private institutions, often funded by fees paid by the institutions that they’re meant to oversee.

Late last year, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity voted to derecognize the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS). NACIQI found that many of the schools that the organization accredited were failing. This unprecedented derecognition would mean that the institutions accredited by ACICS—most of which are for-profit institutions—would no longer be eligible to receive federal student funding. This is a welcome step, but it is not enough. There are far too many for-profit institutions in the United States that are providing sub-par education at exorbitant high costs—and too few guidelines for the accreditors that enable them.

A Waste of Federal Funds

A December, 2014 Government Accountability Office report found that accreditors rarely derecognize or even sanction institutions—and when they do, they tend to sanction them for financial difficulties. According to a 2012 study, taxpayers paid for an estimated $32 billion in tuition fees for for-profit institutions in 2009. Many for-profit schools depend primarily on federal funding and likely would not be fiscally sound without federal funding.

The Obama administration began a campaign of demanding greater oversight of federal accreditation —but the Department of Education under DeVos seems poised to roll back these remedies. Rhetoric in defense of private insitutions often talks about the “efficiency of the market,” and Devos herself has spoken along those same lines when talking about K-12 education. The failure of many public K-12 schools in the United States is a pressing problem, one that many charter schools may well be poised to address.

But higher-education is a different landscape, with different market conditions—and different market failures. The current state of the industry has many students going deep into debt while receiving worthless degrees that employers don’t recognize—at the very least, they don’t recognize them the same way that they recognize degrees from traditional institutions, including community colleges and public universities. Alas, it doesn’t seem like Devos will hold for-profit schools accountable—earlier this year, a former lobbyist for for-profit schools hired by Devos resigned after a controversy erupted over his appointment. There may be a universe in which the market, with a proper set of accountability standards, may succeed. But the Dept. of Ed doesn’t seem interested in holding these schools accountable, even though they receive billions of dollars anually in federal funds.

Preying on the Most Vulnerable Students

Some critics of the accreditation system (incorrectly) speculate that perhaps students fail to graduate from for-profit institutions because they are less motivated or less “suited” to education. But this is an unfair assessment, given the asymmetry between the resources that non-profit and public colleges and universities devote to their students. For-profit institutions instead choose to spend their money on advertising, or even on princely (and illegal) compensation for their recruiters.

Unfortunately, for-profit institutions have been incredibly successful in recruiting students, especially among populations that have traditionally had less access to or knowledge about higher education. These include not only ethnic minorities, but also veterans and those who return to school later in life.

Some of these options are cheaper, too. Courses at community and public colleges and universities can be far less than those at for-profit institutions, and they’re more likely to be recognized by employers in the market. Some non-profit organizations provide training, as well, such as Certified Nurses’ Assistant certificates provided by the American Red Cross.

A Failure of Incentives

After the Obama administration began making moves to challenge accreditation institutions in 2015, critics decried what they saw as another effort to increase government control of private activity.

However, the rise of for-profit education institutions in the United States (many of which are publicly traded), and their mounting history of abuse and fraud—proves that there aren’t enough incentives to encourage accreditors and schools to provide quality education. Worse, the history of accreditor sanctions—mostly for schools that are financially unstable—may incentivize schools to increase tuition costs and not to take risks on investing in resources to improve education.

For-profit institutions and continuing education programs at better-regarded schools also have a history of preying on individuals who are trying to improve their skills and knowledge, but may not have had the opportunity or knowledge of the system to access more traditional educational opportunities.

Increase Accountability—and More Favorable Options

The Department of Education and the Federal Government should take the following steps to increase accountability of accreditors and improve the higher-education landscape:

  • Introduce higher, more explicit standards for accreditors to adhere to, and speed up the process for derecognizing institutions.
  • Continue to recognize the “gainful employment rule” formulated by the Obama Administration, which requires that institutions prepare students for gainful occupation and stipulates other regulations.
  • Re-invest in public universities and community colleges to pre-recession levels. These institutions not only have a better track record of serving their students well, but are also more closely governed by elected officials, and have greater cachet in the job market.
  • Encourage states to invest in more funding for college guidance counselors in high schools—so that students are well-informed about their options.
  • Explore a long-term replacement or refurbishment of the accreditation process-perhaps involving greater intervention from state bodies.

During the Obama administration, the Department of Education took many necessary steps to improve the accountability of accreditation system and the many for-profit colleges it recognizes. These policies are not only vitally necessary protections of the nation’s student-consumers, but they’re also fiscally sound. The Department of Education under Secretary DeVos should continue to ensure that federal tax money allocated for education is well spent.

We Are All Complete Beside Ourselves (Review, ish)

They say that novels are about everything, but short stories are about one thing. In that way, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is more like a short story or novella than a novel. It’s got more than one thing to tell you, but the one thing it focuses on is brutal.

I was recently talking with my roommate about an essay of David Foster Wallace’s that I’d just read, about a scholar’s lifelong review of Dostoevsky’s work. As part of the essay, DFW mused that American novels–or maybe all modern novels–had gotten completely away from being serious. Serious was gauche, and all of the postmodernist novels seemed to be post-sincerity, too. I’ve often thought that about some postmodern authors – I still find Pynchon a little bit cold (although Mason & Dixon is feeling a lot warmer than The Crying of Lot 49 did).

But We Are All Beside Ourselves does that amazing thing – it’s profound, serious, deep and ruminative, but it’s still tinged with a flippancy that makes it easy reading. I was hooked because of the easy-breezy prose, I was moved by its heart, its immediacy, and its anger.

The novel’s narrator and protagonist is Rosemary Cooke, acting as an only child in a family where there were once three siblings. Her focus on her brother and sister is such that Rose herself is hard to pin down as a character; but this serves to highlight the real, lasting damage that their absence has done to her family. Because they are gone, Rose herself is uneasy with being fully present. This comes through in part in the meandering, a-chronological style of storytelling.

As a narrator, she’s both present and aloof: she’ll tell you the gist of her feelings, but she’ll elide facts and context until she’s good and ready to have you hear them. She’s up-front about her own narrative unreliability, pleading time, or emotion, or a willful forgetting for the gaps and irregularities in her narrative.  At first, this style made me worry that the book was trying too hard–but toward the middle I realized that it was a portrayal of Rose’s state of mind and way of thinking. Rose might be preoccupied with her siblings, but the novel is all about their effect on her.

The book is funny, and light, Rose’s tone conversational: but neither Rose nor the novel are at all afraid of serving up moments of heartrending, brutal emotion. The book’s cover promises it to be “bighearted,” and that’s true, but it’s also heart-rending, heartbreaking. Even now, I can feel an ache in my heart (and my ear, but that has little to do with the novel).

Part of the book’s power is how firmly it’s steeped in our own reality and the stakes of our own lives and our own circumstances. The world described in the novel is not some abstract world; its problems are our problems, its questions are our questions. Its narrative might be meandering, but the questions it demands of us aren’t. I’m being obtuse myself in not really describing much about it, but I really believe that going into this book completely ignorant of its premise (as I did–I liked the cover and was hooked by “Man Booker Prize Finalist” badge on it) is the best way to enjoy it. (In particular, please don’t read the back cover.)

In case it wasn’t clear, the book is highly recommended. Check it out of the library! Or buy it here if you want to support this blog.

Language & women & art

Three of the books I’ve read recently have disappointed me because of their portrayal of women. Part of what’s frustrating about the feeling is that I worry that I’ve ruined myself for popular media by being so conscious all the time about the injuries the world inflicts on women, minorities, and people who know the difference between there/their/they’re. But dammit, as sensitive as I am as a person generally, and about portrayals of women specifically, I still feel like writers, singers, politicians could just show a little more respect and be a little less rude.

None of the parties in the whole Swift-Kardashian-West fight look particularly good. But I’m still so disappointed that the story seems to be “did Taylor Swift give her permission” instead of “stop referring to people as bitch, Kanye, geez.” Who cares if she was into it? I’m not into it! I didn’t give you my permission! I couldn’t even stomach Frank Ocean saying it. This is a thing I seriously wish I could be chill about! I love hip hop. “Bitch” is a satisfying word to say in English, and it rhymes with so many others. It just continually feels like a slap in the face for that word to be used to refer to women, de rigeur, almost as a ritual.

But it’s not just hip hop, and it’s not just bitch, and it’s not even just curse words.

I recently read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, which, after some dissatisfying science fiction (The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Mistborn), felt refreshing in its imagination and wit. And then, it slowly dawned on me that, out of fewer than five pages devoted to the two only female “characters”, the bulk of their storyline was rapt obsession with a jeweled piece of clothing. All the other characters was charismatic genius men!

Then, I read Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind-Up Girl, which, although at least imaginative in its premise, took far too much glee in its description of some parts of female anatomy. Also, although I think that the book imagines itself to be “gritty” and “real,” the eponymous wind-up girl is a Japanese-made cyborg sex slave who is irresistibly alluring to the male character, who is far more protagonist than she.

Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem is far less egregious–not only is it a good novel, but it has admirable, complex, and interesting female characters. It just can’t quite figure out how to flesh out relationships between them, or between people in general. Unfortunately, this deficit greatly lessens the poignancy of the book’s premise–a story of human characters whose alienation leads them to literal aliens. Also, out of four female characters, all wives, three of them are highly ambitious career women who had little affection for their husbands and whose marriages were built almost entirely on convenience. One is interesting, two is stereotype, three is caricature. The fourth wife is the one that bugged me the most–basically nameless, and her husband (the novel’s protagonist) shares little with her about the strange stuff happening to him.

Basically, what I’m trying to say, obtusely, verbosely, and in this obfuscating writing style is that shit, people still write about women in a really fucked up way!

Case in point is Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, which knows many ways to refer to a woman’s crotch, but clearly prefers only one.

Feminism/criticism has some language to talk about this – words like objectification and commodification. But they feel somehow not completely accurate when referring to the writing of some novelists. Because there’s something so gleeful, so half-self-conscious, or faux-self-aware, about the way that they portray their horny protagonists.

DFW, whose absence I feel even more acutely in these nice times, wrote a take-down of Updike’s prose that felt like sweet, joyous vindication. DFW, even when I disagree with him, has real clear-headed reason and compassion.

His takedown of Updike paints Mailer & Roth with the same broad brush and I don’t mind one bit–finally, confirmation about Roth! I’d struggled through Elegy and The Human Stain but could never quite trust my own assessment that his books were just about horny old dudes.

Of course, I know they’re not. They’re also about the loss of the great American dream, and about the failings of intellectualism and morality, about romanticism and idealism. But I’m beginning to feel more confident in trying to find better books that don’t give me a sinking, sometimes-sick, sometimes-angry feeling in my stomach, books that threaten to force me into completely internalizing a lower self-esteem because of my gender. I’m putting my copy of American Pastoral in the Take-One-Leave-One donation box in Logan Square, and I’m not gonna feel that bad about it.


Under the Radar #1: Awesome Stuff You’ve Never Heard Of

There used to be a feature on WNYC by Leonard Lopate called “Underreported.” In that same spirit, I want to start evangelizing some of the stuff that I think is great and is either underrated or just flies under the radar.

Full Benefits (Web series)
College Humor has quite a few webseries, but none have hooked me quite as much as Full Benefits. It’s about two work friends who hook up after a party, then try to decide what they’re going to do about it. The writing is just as hilarious as the best of College Humor, but it’s also grounded by the leads who are genuinely likeable; not only do they have good chemistry with one another, they also look like people you’d like to hang out with. Each video is 2-5 minutes long, but it’s packed full of character development, running gags, and weird jokes.

Sadly, there wasn’t a third season because one of the star/writers, Sarah Schneider, left to write for SNL. I have no idea if she’s still doing that, because I can’t find her professional website, but hopefully one of these days I’ll visit new york and steal the Season 3 Full Benefits scripts.

Youtube Channel: Community Channel

I can’t believe this, but I can’t remember the first of these personality-led YouTube videos that I saw. Over the years, I’ve watched gotten into some youtubers: vlogbrothers, sistersalad, zefrank, Charlie McDonnell. But although I haven’t kept up with the others, I keep coming back to Natalie! She’s hilarious and down-to-earth and imaginative and she’s really good at splicing multiple versions of herself into videos. She’s even got some recurring characters, like Tessa the shop attendant and the younger version of herself. Even her mom does an occasional hilarious cameo! It’s so hard for me to pick a good video, but here’s a random recent one:


Movie: Kissing Jessica Stein

Jessica Stein reading a ‘Vanilla Sex’ manual with a date whose classified ad she responded to.

Kissing Jessica Stein is the first movie written by and starring Jennifer Westfeldt.  She went on to write Ira & Abby with my husband Chris Messina, and most recently Friends with Kids, which she also directed.

This movie is one of my favorite late-90’s  early-aughts rom-coms, and it really holds up. It’s also fun to see Max Medina and a young Derrick Bond (in addition to a dozen other actors who are now famous).

Band: The Organ

Picture a band that’s a mix between The Smiths and Garbage, with a dash of Interpol.

Sounds good, right? That’s the Organ in a nutshell, an early aughts  band with a mournful 80’s sound (although they say that they were ignorant of the Smiths and similar 80’s bands). Sadly, the band broke up before releasing a second full album. I was only lucky enough to hear about them on an episode of The L Word and I was instantly enchanted with lead singer Katie Sketch’s voice.

This has been your first installment of Under the Radar! Let me know if you’ve heard of this stuff before, if you like it, hate it, or if you have your own recommendations of culture that flies under the radar!

Today’s Podcast List

  1. OntheMedia“The Country of the Future”
    The OntheMedia team heads to Brazil to investigate their current political and budgetary issues as well as whether their media system is manipulated with the state’s pocket book.
  2. This American Life“Getting Your Money’s Worth”
    Stories about getting your money’s worth–including an awkward segue to one of my favorite New Yorker stories, “Unprotected.” (I find it an awkward segue because she mentions that Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, doesn’t mention an object’s perspective upon disposed. In fact, that’s the opposite. Marie Kondo, inspired in part by Shinto philosophy, is very interested in giving actual objects their due.)
  3. The Trumpcast“The TP Ticket”
    This podcast has become on of my favorite podcasts of the week, in spite of the awful subject matter. Jacob Weisberg, I think, is in the same boat: he’s so sick of talking about Trump! But talking about Trump is necessary. I’m finding coverage of Mike Pence so far to be pretty boring, but there are two possibly intervening reasons for this: 1) the fear of a Drumpf-Pence success, however unlikely that may be, makes my brain slightly shut down 2) it’s monday.
  4. FiveThirtyEight Elections“Emergency Podcast” and “Your RNC Primer”
    Each of these podcasts has an alternative name/headline, “Pence Differs on Trump’s Core Issues” and “A Trumpian Convention,” respectively. I’m dismayed by the choice of Mike Pence if only because he can read as a somewhat sane -small-government conservative. I’m only interested in the Republican National Convention insofar as it can be mocked or serve as evidence that Drumpf’s campaign will itself be a disaster. The less support the RNC has for Drumpf, the better.
  5. What the Crime?! – Premiere Episode, “Why is Florida so Weird?”
    I just discovered this podcasts on the Panoply Media site – and it seems really cool! We’ll see if it makes it into the regular rotation.

Not on the list – I usually listen to Slate’s Money Podcast on mondays, but this week’s episode was about sports.

Some kickstarter stuff I’d actually buy

I love the idea of Kickstarter; a place where products get to sing for their supper before they’re on the shelves. With that said, I think there are a lot of misguided ideas in addition to the cool-but-infeasible or the cool-but-impractical. But I have seen a couple that I could see myself buying!

Phree – A “Write Anywhere” Pen



“Easy” Indoor Gardening

RydeSafe Bike Decals


Magnetic Bike Lamps