the dead ladies project, by jessa crispin

Let’s say, for a moment, that the character of a city has an effect on its inhabitants, and that it sets the frequency on which it calls out to the migratory. People who are tuned a certain way will heed the call almost without knowing why. Thinking they’ve chosen this city, they’ll never know that the city chose them.

It’s a favorite myth in our culture that hardship makes you a better person, that it is merely the grindstone on which your essence is refined and polished. But the truth is that scarcity, depression, thwarted ambition, and suffering most often leave the person a little twisted.

We all occupy space on top of one atrocity or another, blood has coated every square inch of this earth.

My childhood was one of deprivation. Not deprivation in a material sense but a deprivation of beauty. Which might not sound like much, unless you live on beauty, unless it is your air and water and religion.

The south of France of today is what happens to a place when all the artists, the queers, and the misfits have been driven out by rising prices and improving “quality of life.” The rich are attracted to the places built by the freaks, the heat and the noise of places like Berlin, New York, San Francisco, and then they strip the cities down to their stumps like an insect swarm, driving off any biodiversity until all that is left is people with money.

You are not standing in the London of today but in the London of forever, its pasts and its futures, real and imagined.

What saves you is a new story to tell yourself about how things could be.

what works for women at work, by joan c williams and rachel dempsey

…organizations that think of themselves as highly meritocratic tend to have more gender bias than organizations that do not.

“Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel.”

Over time, she learned that there were certain adaptations she just couldn’t make if she wanted to stay true to herself. “I needed to be the same person at work and outside of work,” she said. “It was too stressful to try to be two different people.”

the life-changing magic of tidying up, by marie kondo

Every object has a different role to play. Not all clothes have come to you to be worn threadbare. It is the same with people. Not every person you meet in life will become a close friend or lover. Some you will find hard to get along with or impossible to like. But these people, too, teach you the precious lesson of who you do like, so that you will appreciate those special people even more.

When you come across something that you cannot part with, think carefully about its true purpose in your life. You’ll be surprised at how many of the things you possess have already fulfilled their role. By acknowledging their contribution and letting them go with gratitude, you will be able to truly put the things you own, and your life, in order. In the end, all that will remain are the things that you really treasure.

five things because i’ll probably forget again on friday

1. There is a much longer story about the horse show that I will doubtless tell each of you over a bottle of wine some time, which begins with Nick-the-horse dumping me onto a fence at our Friday lesson, such that his bridle came off and I still have a spectacular bruise on my right butt cheek, moves through a 2-hour drive to get a delightful Dutch breeder named Constanza from the showgrounds to the airport (we are fast friends now and I am invited to her farm outside Utrecht), and ends with me enjoying myself in a show ring for the first time, riding the kind of blissed-out, fluid round we can do at home but never before in front of a judge. “Shit,” Casey reports the trainer standing next to her saying of our performance: “they are laying down some good trips.” We were.

2. Once again I have been puzzlingly overlooked for a Macarthur – perhaps something to do with the fact that I haven’t actually written anything – but I was completely goddamn delighted with two of this year’s picks: my longstanding beloved Ta-Nehisi Coates (have you read his new book yet, why haven’t you read his new book yet), and my new fling Lin-Manuel Miranda. I’ve listened to the cast soundtrack of Miranda’s musical Hamilton approximately one gajillion times since it was released last week. It’s a masterpiece. There’s fine-grained, scintillating brilliance in the detail work, a pattern not so much sequential as unfolding ever outwards, revisiting themes to add nuance and complexity and shadow. But there’s also the straight-up shot to the heart of a staggering story, fiercely told. God, just listen. Trust.

3. Three audiobooks by dudes, of varying quality but interconnecting themes: the Oliver Sacks memoir, and then Laszlo Bock’s book about people ops at Google, and then Vaillant’s account of the Harvard Grant Study. You always think you can’t love Oliver Sacks any more, and then you do. People are so real and present and urgent to him. I wanted to be scathing about Bock but his sincerity and curiosity were hard to resist. (Like Maciej Ceglowski and Sebastian Stan, he grew up a communist; maybe that’s why all three seem to have an inner core of diamond-hard idealism. Easy enough to sneer at freedom when you’ve never been unfree.) Bock’s description of evidence-based everything has the distinction of being the first thing I’ve ever read that gave me the slightest interest in working at Google. Still slight, though. Weirdly, Vaillant’s book has made me yell at the car stereo a lot more than Bock’s did. The Grant study is an extraordinary, 75-year-and-counting longitudinal study of a bunch of college men. With this astonishing wealth of material at his disposal, Vaillant’s mistakes are both egregious (autism, for example, is not a “genetic lack of empathy” and fuck you George for saying that it is) and pervasive. The case studies are quite glorious, almost worthy of Sacks, but the conclusions I draw from them are very different from Vaillant’s. A delicious takedown in the Atlantic paints him as a deeply flawed man.

4. Three books by ladies, of uniformly high excellence: Marie Kondo’s Tidying Up is just as life-changing as advertised. Sparking joy is good but the part that clicked for me is the act of thanking your no-longer-needed belongings for their service. My medicine cabinet has never looked so spare. I put off reading What Works for Women at Work for months, afraid that it would make me feel (more) guilty, but in fact it’s one of the most validating books I’ve read in ages. Jessa Crispin’s Dead Ladies Project documents a sojourn in Europe in search of reasons to live. I am devouring it.

5. How is it even possible that I haven’t blogged about Steven Universe yet? There’s probably a German word for the first time your kid recommends something to you and you pay attention to the thing and you realize, Holy shit, this thing is really good. My kid found a good thing. SU is, for me and Claire, that thing. It’s a love letter from maker Rebecca Sugar to her younger brother, and from both of them to the beach towns where they spent holidays growing up, and to the anime they adore, and it’s also a fully realized world with compassionately drawn, three-dimensional characters. It is beautiful and wise and sane and also hilarious and adorable. It’s a love letter to all of us, and so’s Ta-Nehisi’s book and Lin-Manuel’s show and Oliver’s memoir, and I needed all of them, I needed all the reasons I could possibly find to get out of bed, I literally needed reasons to get back on the horse, and they came when I needed them and I’m so grateful.

adventure time: more cavorting

Cavort: applying to horses, probably from the colloquial intensifying prefix ca- + vault ‎(jump, leap); later generalized. Early sources connect it to cavault, a term for a certain demeanor of horses.

Remember our last, catastrophic outing? I decided to pretend that I was some other, much more skillful rider.

This turned out to be one of my better ideas.

adventure time: elkhorn slough

Yesterday should have been Dad’s eightieth birthday. Last year I called him to wish him a happy birthday and it became obvious over the course of the conversation that he had no idea who I was. I ended up sleeping for most of that long weekend. I don’t know why anniversaries like this are so painful, although I know it’s a common enough sorrow. This one comes only two weeks after another terrible one, the day of Mum’s diagnosis in August of 2013.

So I’ve been cranky as hell, and I booked us a trip for Alain’s last weekend without really thinking about it – a night in a hotel near the aquarium in Monterey and a kayak trip on Elkhorn Slough. We got to the aquarium right when it opened and had it almost to ourselves for the first couple of hours. I showed Alain the Open Sea tank and the kelp forest. “Science church,” I said.

The Pacific giant octopus was awake and clambering over the glass. I crouched down at eye level and we looked at each other, mind to alien mind. The children had to drag me away. The bat rays in the touch tank were active as well, jumping out of the water to make eye contact. I stroked their satiny skin.

What makes Monterey Bay so spectacular is a mile-deep undersea canyon that terminates in Moss Landing. Also in Moss Landing: Elkhorn Slough, the largest tract of tidal saltmarsh in California outside the San Francisco Bay. It’s what the bay must have been like in the Before Time (before Europeans, I mean; maybe we Westerners love post-apocalyptic fiction because we are the goddamn apocalypse.) The water dances with seals and otters and fish. The sky is so thick with birds that they look like a mist.

Elkhorn Slough also supports a thriving colony of humans bumbling around in brightly-colored kayaks, and yesterday we were among their bumber (I meant to say number, but who am I to turn down a serendipitous typo?) Our tour guide Jon gave us a good, thorough orientation. When we all said we’d like to see sea otters, he said presciently: “Our real problem’s going to be staying out of their way,” and gave us some tips on what to do if wildlife approached too closely, which I apparently promptly forgot.

We visited these harbor seals first and they worried me even as they made me laugh, swimming under and around our kayaks and popping their silky heads out of the water, the glassy meniscus splitting over their sweet faces like a caul. Then we paddled by a raft of sea otters – at least thirty, probably more, about 1% of the global population. Everywhere we paddled, otters followed. My face ached from smiling at them.

We went under the bridge into the wetlands and saw terns dropping out of the sky, then flying out of the water with bright pilchards in their beaks, gulping as they flew. Stately brown pelicans sailed like galleons.

Fighting the tide to get back to the beach, we paddled near a pair of younger otters that fought and played in the water, an aquatic Alice and Thimble, jumping and Loch-Ness-Monstering joyously. We tried to stay out of their way but as we turned for home, one of them popped up and looked me straight in the eye. It swam boldly over to my kayak, slipping through the water like a thought, and climbed aboard.

I froze. I couldn’t remember anything Jon had told us to do. I am so used to talking to domestic animals that I said, inanely: “No, otter, you can’t be here.” It appeared to find this remark hilarious. It had clever hands and eyes full of mischief and pale whiskers. Its fur was so dense!

I’ve never been so close to a wild creature. I loved it with every particle of my being. With infinite reluctance I turned my back and started paddling. I felt its steady weight slide off the back of my kayak. Then it swam over to Alain’s kayak and clambered on.

“Splash at it!” said Jon, and paddled over to splash at it, whereupon it slipped off and climbed onto Jon’s kayak! He splashed it again and it swam back to me.

“Oh no you don’t,” I said, not wanting to be in violation of Federal laws against interfering with protected wildlife, and splashed my paddle in its adorable face. It frowned at me crossly and swam away.

“That doesn’t happen very often,” said Jon. But not never.

And I thought my face had ached from grinning before.

As you know, Bob, California is a bona fide motherfucking paradise. I’ve seen coyotes hunting in Orinda and Woodside and bobcats trotting purposefully across the Marin Headlands. I’ve seen elephant seals and sea lions and dolphins and whales. I’ve seen more raccoons and squirrels and mule deer and jackrabbits and scrub jays and hummingbirds and herons and egrets and turkey vultures and red tailed hawks than I can easily remember. But I will never forget my otter.

I’ve driven past the big-ass formerly-coal-fired now-natural-gas-fired power station at Moss Landing dozens of times but until two weeks ago I had no idea what this place even was. A chance remark at Jamey’s barbecue prompted me to look it up and book the trip. The protected area is relatively new in the scheme of things, where by scheme of things I mean the huge marine sanctuary that stretches from the Golden Gate to Hearst Castle. The Nature Conservancy started buying up land around Elkhorn Slough in 1971, and donated it to a foundation in 2012.

In the future I hardly dare let myself hope for, all our power comes from cheap solar and the highway traffic is autonomous Tesla art cars. Our food is grown in clean room farms. The cities are dense and green like forest meadows and the Marine Reserves and Protected Areas join up with the National and State Parks into one vast patchwork quilt of wildlife habitat. I’m more grateful than I can say for all the conservationists and scientists and docents and donors working towards that future. I’m glad Daddy raised us all in science church, and I’m glad he was our Dad.

sorcerer to the crown, by zen cho

“A female may be poor or delicate or a spinster, but it does seem ill-advised of Miss Liddiard to combine all three.”

She would never trust her again—no! But one could nonetheless be very fond of someone in whom one had no confidence whatsoever.

turbulence, by samit basu

I don’t know how it was for you growing up in the UK, but here nearly all of us have this huge sense of irrelevance. We’ll never change anything. The world will never know us. We grow up thinking hard work and a certain amount of ability are all we need — and then we eventually have to accept that they can only take us so far.

the glass castle, by jeannette walls

Everybody said Dad was a genius.

It took me a while to realize that just being on the move wasn’t enough; that I needed to reconsider everything.

the internet of garbage, by sarah jeong

What Gjoni was doing was both complicated and simple, old and new. He had managed to crowdsource domestic abuse.

…the Internet is experienced completely differently by people who are visibly identifiable as a marginalized race or gender. It’s a nastier, more exhausting Internet, one that gets even nastier and even more exhausting as intersections stack up. It’s something to keep in mind, particularly since media narratives of the “worst” kinds of harassment rarely feature people of color.

People will never stop being horrible on the Internet. There will never not be garbage. But in a functioning society, someone comes to collect the trash every week. If private platforms are to become communities, collectives, agoras, tiny new societies, they have to make a real effort to collect the garbage.

hashtag humblebrag

Re-entry has been tough, because apparently all I really want in life is sunshiney France, steak frites, gelato and endless hours with my kids to swim and read frivolous novels.

Now I am back to my mundane life of sunshiney Northern California, high-stakes venture finance and show-jumping.

over figgy toast

Me: Heather wants to borrow Little Poppies so she can paint Big Poppies. Yay! Go Big Poppy!

Alain: Is that a sports thing?

Jeremy: Yeah, maybe baseball?

Alain: I know as much about baseball as you know about cricket.

Me: What, nothing?

Alain: We lost the Ashes!

Jeremy: That was careless! Where did you have them last?

Alain: Not me, the Australian team.

Me: Can they retrace their steps?

Alain: By the way, you have leprosy.

Me: Sunburn.

Jeremy: From when we went bike riding.

Me: I was pulling off these sheets of skin and offering them to Jeremy.

Alain: Ew!

Me: He said: “Thanks! I’ll make a – No, I won’t say it.” I said: “What? A tiny me? A tiny penis?” He said: “I don’t want to say.” I said: “I will love you no matter what!” He said: “A lampshade.” I said: “EW NO BAD NO UNSAY IT.”

Jeremy: So now it’s been said again.


Alain, to Jeremy: You should have gone with the Mini-Me.

Jeremy: A tiny wife!

Me: Poor Little, Poor Little Rachel.

Jeremy: Like Keira Knightley. Remember what Patrick said about her?

Me: “She is so wee!” You could keep her in your pocket.

Alain: Lose her in your pocket lint.

Me: How careless! Can you retrace your steps?

the tragedy of the macarons

Opinions are divided over who left the five remaining Laduree macarons in our beautiful little apartment on Rue de Seine. Certain people have held the contentious position that I am principally at fault; I, contrariwise, maintain that the responsibility for commonly held macarons is itself collective, and that everyone ought to have done their part.

However the disaster came about, the fact remains that the macarons were left behind, and the Pole Sud macarons purchased in Lezignan, while undeniably delicious, were considered no substitute for the real thing.

We caught the TGV back to Paris yesterday and there was some talk of ducking out for replacement macarons, until we established that there were Laduree outposts at CDG itself. As we checked in this morning, our gate agent told us there was one such outpost just inside security. Jeremy dashed all our spirits when he reported that Google said it was closed.

Fie upon you, Google! It wasn’t, and almost our last act in Paris was to replace the Earl Grey, menthe, vanille, abricot and yuzu ginger macarons that had been so tragically lost. Since this story has such a happy ending, technically it is now the comedy of the macarons. Goodbye, Paris, we love you and hope to see you again soon.

the separation of church and state and the tour de france

A busy week! We are in Villerouge with the girls’ grandmother and uncles. On Saturday, Christopher and Alicia drove up from Barcelona with their puppy, Tosia. We walked the puppy up to the ruined castle and ate blackberries warm off the bush. We had a lovely dinner together (tomatoes and basil from the garden, grapes warm off the vine) but our visitors had to leave the next morning. We see Chris about once every five years for 24 hours. It’s not enough. I didn’t cry when they left but it was a near thing. Afterwards we all went to Annette’s for a swim.

On Monday I was hell-bent on visiting Carcassonne at last. It was extensively rebuilt in the 19thC by Viollet-le-Duc, who also restored Notre Dame. Carcassonne is only thirty-odd years older than the Eiffel Tower but the Tower looks forwards and Carcassonne looks backwards. It’s a gaudy, inauthentic fantasy that is said to have been an inspiration for Disney. Visiting felt like I imagine Disneyland, which is to say crowded and hot, until we got through to the old keep itself and the crowd thinned and J and I looked at each other and heaved a sigh of relief.

On the way home we visited Lagrasse, a village nestled in a wild limestone gorge. I needed a bathroom, Claire wanted ice cream, J hoped that there might be cassis sorbet and Julia wanted to swim in the river. Lagrasse granted all our wishes in our first five minutes there and has thus endeared itself to me for life. Like Cacassonne, it is a funny melange of old and new. Half its famous Abbey belongs to the state; monks restored and moved back into the other half in 2004. You have to pay to visit both sides but it was worth it – the state kept the spooky medieval parts, but the monks got the cloister and the garden. The garden was fragrant with rosemary and thyme and I missed Skud very much.

Tuesday we rented bikes and rode the Canal du Midi, another thing I’ve wanted to do since I first came here in the ’90s. We rode an 18 mile round trip and the girls were magnificent throughout, each winning their own private Tour de France. Me to Jeremy as we set out: “When did we become the sort of family that does this kind of thing?” J: “About ten minutes ago.” For dinner I roasted a chicken with parsley and rosemary and thyme from the Villerouge garden, and we were all so hungry that we ate up every scrap.

Wednesday was supposed to be a quiet day but the markets in Lezignan were even more crowded than Carcassonne. I bought hats and sundresses for both girls and we went to Jill’s for a swim.

Today J, Claire, Barnaby and I had a road trip out to the Millau Viaduct. Good lord.

All of which sounds frenetic but there have been long quiet spells, driving through the red-earthed vineyards under the limestone cliffs, sitting in the garden listening to the cicadas and the cuckoos. There are moths here big as your thumb, with long probosci to sip nectar from flowers. The insect version of hummingbirds.

les enfants du paradis

au revoir louvre!

notre dame de paris

Yesterday was a lovely, lazy day full of serendipity. Our regular breakfast cafe had a broken coffee machine so we strolled on until we found La Rose de France on Place Dauphine and had a breakfast so splendid and beautifully presented that we fully expected it to be ridiculously expensive, but it came to less than ten Euros per head. I mean seriously, Julia’s pyramidal tea bags alone should have cost that much.

Then we visited Notre Dame, which was beautiful and creepy, and then we had ice cream from Berthillon as everyone had urged us to do and how very right you all were, and then we wandered through the Marais until we stumbled across Au Petit Versailles du Marais again, so we had lunch there and the baguettes brought tears to my eyes, so soft and sweet were they. We revisited the Centre Pompidou and went to the cat cafe and then Jeremy went to the Corbusier and Mona Hartoum exhibits while the children and I bought sandals and found ourselves passing La Dernier Bar avant la Fin du Monde, which Ada had strongly recommended, so we went in there as well.

It was all delicious and happy until we got back to the apartment and Liz texted me “Rach – are you ok -” and I had to sit down because nothing good ever starts that way.

Our friend Nóirín was a pretty special person.

cité des sciences

We braved the Metro (Jeremy deftly blocking a pickpocketing attempt) out to Parc de la Villette to visit the Cité des Sciences et l’Industrie, which according to Wikipedia is the biggest science museum in Europe. It is pretty big! We bought tickets to all the temporary exhibitions, which was a bit of a misstep because the permanent exhibitions were exquisite and we didn’t get to spend anywhere near enough time with them.

As we were touring the Argonaut, a decommissioned submarine, I got mail from the neuroscientist in London who is writing the case study about Dad’s blog. We had hoped to move Dad’s brain to a brain bank for further study but unfortunately this won’t be possible. The neuroscientist reassured us that although Dad’s brain has already been embalmed and used to train surgeons, the resulting anatomical report will still be very helpful in establishing the diagnosis of fronto-temporal dementia.

Dad used to take us to the Observatory and the Australian Museum and the Powerhouse and its precursor, the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, all the time. He took us to Taronga and Western Plains Zoo and Tidbinbilla and Parkes. His factory built fire control systems for the Collins Class submarine. He would have loved the Cité. I feel a space where grief should be. Proposed Site for Grief. What happened to Dad is so huge and terrible I can’t even get there yet. All I have is these tiny, inadequate glimmers of what he was. Of all that we have lost.

city of light meals

A cool change blew through on our first night, thank the gods. The jetlagged girls couldn’t sleep, so I went out and lay on the sofa bed with them until the “Mama Bear is here” signal overwhelmed the “STRANGE ROOM” alarm in their reptile brains. Then I couldn’t sleep, so I climbed back in with Jeremy and his “Papa Bear” signal overwhelmed mine.

Saturday we found Kirsty outside the Louvre Pyramid, exchanged many kisses and saw the Nike of Samothrace (better than I ever dreamed), the Venus de Milo (quite lovely) and the Mona Lisa (whatevs.) I adored the Roman Egyptian mummy portraits and we all loved the Islamic art. I decided that Christian art is mostly sentimental rubbish. Jeremy says I’m going through a phase.

We had an insanely delicious lunch at the Bistro Richelieu. I had the confit de canard. It was the best thing I have ever put in my mouth.

We only see Kirsty every few years but on each occasion it is as though no time has passed.

Dinner at Vin et Terroir with Kirsty’s friends Justin and Peter. I had the lentil soup, which was the best thing I have ever put in my mouth. Sunday we did a little more Louvre, swung by the Musee d’Orsay and the Orangerie (Monet is amazing) and crossed paths several times with the end of the Tour de France. Hurrah for the sportspokes! Dinner at a City Crepes, where the grownups became perhaps too merry upon cider.

Today we walked across Ile St Louis to the Centre Pompidou.

Jeremy first went there when he was Claire’s age, and last time we visited, pre-kids, he said that if he ever did have children, he wanted to take them there.

They loved it. Renzo Piano also built the Cal Academy, their favorite place in SF, and Jan and Richard’s house was always full of bent wood furniture and Matisse prints, so it must have felt like home. Jeremy went into a full-on Art Dad fugue state and we stormed around for hours. (Matisse is amazing.)

Then we went to Au Petit Versailles du Marais for Kirsty’s farewell meal, which, wah. I wish London was closer to San Francisco. Saying goodbye is boring.

Julia ordered, and I finished, the Pyramid, a structure of passionfruit mousse with an apricot center and a macaroon base. It was the best thing I have ever put in my mouth.


At the lowest point of last year when I could think of nothing whatever to look forward to, I decided rather clinically that the kids needed to be taken to Yosemite, Paris and the Grand Canyon. We crossed Yosemite off the list last fall, and here I am in a fifth floor walkup in the 6e arrondissement, listening to the children chatting and singing in the next room, and marveling at the fact that I actually managed to pull this off.

We are all jetlagged to hell but managed to get out of the apartment for lunch at Deux Magots (the others had baguettes, but I had foie gras), macarons from Pierre Herme (the rose and grapefruit was celestial) and a walk through the Jardin du Luxembourg. It is overcast and hot, and the city is every inch as dazzlingly lovely as I remembered.

The children are stellar travelers, really: troupers about the long flight and willing to try new foods. They unfolded the sofabed together and Julia said: “If I were an only child I would have the bed to myself, but on the other hand, I would not be able to unfold it.”

This is not a low point. Thank you, thoughtful former self.