This news, or news or rumors, immediately made me think of Big Red Son*, a non-fiction David Foster Wallace piece about the Adult Video News Awards, which are like the Oscars for porn. Stay with me.
Wallace’s style is heavy with footnotes. (Someone once admitted to me she DIDN’T READ THE FOOTNOTES, which I found shocking because well, they are the best.) Despite reading this essay collection nine years, four cats and three children ago, one of the footnotes in Big Red Son never left me. It was about how porn defined itself by being subversive, and the more acceptable it became, the more depraved it would have to get in order to keep its status.
When I saw the headlines about a possibly “crazier” version of Fox News, my mind jumped right to that old footnote:
“Respectability creates a paradox. The more acceptable in modern culture it becomes, the farther porn will have to go in order to preserve the sense of unacceptability that’s so essential to its appeal. As should be evidence, the industry’s already gone pretty far … it’s not hard to see where porn is eventually going to have to go in order to retain its edge of disrepute.”
I’m pretty worried that since we’re in an age when Nazis are up for debate, where would a “crazier” Fox News even go with its discourse? You know what, don’t answer that question.
Almost a decade ago, at the SXSW film fest, I saw a documentary about a man ahead of his time called We Live in Public. He rigged cameras all over his house and live-streamed his life with his girlfriend, a prophecy of the privacy-rejecting times to come. The film unsettled me back then, and raised a lot of serious questions about the implications of living under a construct like this. Now his avant garde art experiment is reality, especially in China, where people are making $100,000 a month live streaming their most mundane moments.
One of the primary concerns I have about all of us living in a mediated reality (one in which you are aware of an audience gaze) is how it affects identity formation. That is, during adolescence, when developmental science indicates people are quite literally forming their own identities, establishing who they are as adults who are separate from their parents, today’s adolescents are also forming their public identities (on Instagram or what not) at the same time. These two selves may be completely dissonant, and neither is even fully “formed” yet. What a mindfuck!
The summer between 9th and 10th grade, a group of cheerleaders from my high school decided to pose for a group picture topless except for belts they fastened around their chests. They took the film for developing at Eckerd (you see, children, back in those days we would get our film rolls developed at a 24-hour pharmacy). Another high school student worked at the Eckerd photo corner, saw the shot when reviewing the final photos and scanned it. This was 1998, so the photo was passed around as email attachments, and everyone who was anyone saw this photo, but it eventually stopped being a thing. Can you imagine if this had happened in the age of social media?
Had I paid more attention in philosophy classes, I would probably know this problem is as old as time, and it’s just expressing itself in a different way now. But I do think about it a lot because my daughters are post-millennials, and damn, what a world. Even given the minor professional obligations I have to be “in public,” I’m constantly unsure how much/what to share in public spaces. Suffice to say it will not be anything involving topless belt photos.
This bucket list, which was allegedly found in an Urban Outfitters dressing room, basically made my week. It’s not only hilarious in its substance but also in its specificity (seven bikinis, two blow jobs, hooking up with Jacob). The other thing that gets me is its wild divergence from adorable innocence (stargaze, pet a giraffe, decorate room) to adult extracurriculars (drugs and sex). And some of it was comic just because it didn’t make sense until the internet figured out what “Go Ape” (a ziplining place) and “Randyland” (a Pittsburgh-area landmark) meant.
For me and my friends it just made for endless rounds of laughter and discussion at parties. When we were hosting the visiting New Yorker scribe Evan Osnos in Seoul on Friday, friend Jonathan had not HEARD ABOUT THE LIST (where was he all week!?!) and so he subsequently spent several minutes reading it and laughing until his face turned beet red.
At a different party (in a probably-too-cool-for-me vinyl record-themed bar) on Saturday, Friend Alex and I brought it up with a Pennsylvanian (did you know Pennsylvanians insist on referring to their state as P-A, instead of Pennsylvania?) and he was so excited that other people learned about RANDYLAND. True story: today he sent me two business cards he saved from Randyland, which he found in old stuff as he prepares to move back to America on Tuesday.
I know there’s speculation someone planted this list as a joke but due to its specific Pittsburgh-area references and just a gut feeling, I’m gonna say it’s real. And whoever this woman is I hope she is enjoying her anonymous fame. She brought a smile to us all during what feels like ongoing crises in the country and world.
Seth Myers’ A Closer Look is how I get my television news clips. He condenses the big outrages o’ the day into a monologue, complete with the galling clips I missed since I mostly read the news instead of watch it. But watching is way better sometimes, as this Orrin Hatch/Claire McCaskill exchange shows. Thanks, A Closer Look!
Take a break from headlines to look at beautiful images. Aforementioned Friend Sean has a book of Tokyo street photos available on Amazon. Or just gander at the photo blog of Channing Johnson. A friend of 15 years, I used to rent his talent for free we were in school together. Now he’s a big time wedding photographer and his work is so, so lovely.
Not quite back at work but a side project, a video series called “Elise Tries,” launched last week. It explores curiosities across my patch of Korea and Japan, and the pilot features a harrowing few moments with raccoons. Future episodes are less dangerous but arguably more humiliating.
I put out a newsletter — called the Hu’s letter (groan) — that I’ve deliberately not promoted because I like that it’s small. It feels like I’m just writing to a handful of old friends. In it I share links that I found thought-provoking or just worthy of other people’s eyes, what I’ve written or said to other press, and pop culture ephemera I’m consuming in a given week. Sometimes I include product recommendations, but only if I’m feeling passionately about said products.
Almost 50 newsletters in, I’ve found that the search function in TinyLetter, a free newsletter platform, is terrible. I can never find OLD links I know I shared but want to re-read for whatever reason. So I’m going to put most of each latest newsletter’s links in list form, as a post, since the search function works much better on this here blog.
I enjoyed going through my Evernote, in which every link I save I associate with several tags, so that I can go back and find saved links on general concepts when they strike me. If you liked this sort of “links on a specific theme” thing, let me know and I can feature other themes in the future.
This post is excerpted from my near-weekly newsletter, the Hu’s Letter. You can subscribe if you’re into that sort of thing.
Part of the problem with being a professional reader and writer is that you spend all your time reading and writing, but often it’s not really the kind that you want to be doing. Don’t get me wrong, I consider it a great privilege that my job is to straight-up read a lot, then travel around, discover ideas and people, or history as it’s happening, ask questions of the person/idea/event, then tell the story. I mean, that is a ridiculous vocation for which to be paid.
But after reading way too many periodicals during the hellish and hateful 2016 election, I found my psyche exhausted and altogether pissy by year’s end. I decided I need to recommit to reading about “bigger” ideas, themes, connections, etc. To get my head straight, if you will. So I am resolving to read more books, recommended by the smarty pants I get to call friends. I’ll track the recommendations (and by year’s end, the progress) here. If you have thoughts or additions, please let me know in the comments or all the other ways to reach me.
Scott’s take: “So basically, it’s fiction but Charles Lindbergh runs against FDR. FDR runs a really serious issues campaign and Lindbergh just flies his plane from state to state entertaining people. He wins in a landslide, and immediately appeases Hitler. It goes by especially quick once you’re gripped by the horror of it becoming reality.”
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
Recommended by work spouse Matt Thompson
Matt’s take: “It’s post-apocalyptic fiction. But it’s feel good post-apocalyptic fiction that will remind you of all the things to appreciate about life and living.”
Reeve’s take: “I like it so much, I bought myself another copy. It’s about relationships and how they are complicated and affect each other. It’s really about group dynamics, which you would like. If you’re reading blurbs about how it’s about regrets, it’s about a totally different kind of regret. It also captures teen boyhood of a certain variety better than just about anything else, which I’m sure you will find to be a big selling point.”
Mao’s Last Revolution, Rod MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals
Recommended by John Delury, China historian and our Seoul friend
Delury’s take: “It’s a quick read. Once you understand the dynamic of ‘working toward the Chairman’, the pages fly by as your heart sinks. Its the best treatment of the Cultural Revolution’s high politics, the Mao-eye view.”
Born a Crime
Recommended by Liz Taylor
Liz’s take: “There are parts that are super poignant, makes some great observations about race, and also parts are totally hilarious. Go with Born a Crime.”
I like that a lot of these friends know me really well and emphasize the “quickness” of the reads, because I have a pretty short attention span. But we have a lot of weeks left in this year so keep your ideas and recommendations coming …
We are witnessing this weekend an exodus of Republican party leaders from Donald Trump, their nominee for the highest office in the land. The floodgates broke open after an 11-year old video leaked in which Trump’s saying predictably horrifying things about women and basically bragging about his previous sexual assaults. That he just “grabs them by the pussy,” he says, and kisses women whenever he wants, because “when you’re a star” you can get away with it. He is aided and abetted on that tape by all the men who were with him on a studio lot’s bus, and in particular by the known bro, television host Billy Bush.
Why now? Trump’s attitudes about women were long known (a case of marital rape, calling women “slobs” and “dogs,” saying breastfeeding is “disgusting” and a whole slew of nose-cringing comments). So were his other attitudes, that actor Josh Gad laid out succinctly:
“We screamed until we were hoarse that calling Mexicans rapists, banning people based on their religion, not disavowing Klan members, calling women fat and disgusting, dishonoring POWS and Purple Heart fallen soldiers, and making fun of the disabled was not only unpresidential but unbecoming of a human being. And most importantly, for eight years we have sat astonished that a political ascension could be gamed out of questioning the birthplace of our first black President.”
All of this has been clear about Donald Trump. Why abandon him now? It seems one answer is, because these GOP leaders have people in their personal lives that are affected by the hatefulness of his speech and the sexual assault he’s advocated. One thing we are hearing a lot from Republican lawmakers and officials now is the “I have daughters” line, or “I have a wife.”
This need for proximity to a person affected by an injustice in order to believe in it is really eating at me this weekend. Our elected representatives are not chosen to just represent their families or their personal experiences. And if they’re only going to take stands based on that, there are entire groups of people and experiences that would never benefit from justice: What if you don’t know a poor person? Or disabled person? Or someone without health insurance? Or a Muslim? Or an immigrant? Or a refugee? Do the injustices affecting them not matter?
“The existence of your neighbors pain is not dependent on your belief in it,” actor and activitst Jesse Williams said. And it comes up again and again in a time of serious racial strife and division in America.
I was reminded of Ohio Senator Rob Portman’s change of heart on same sex marriage a few years ago. He changed his position at the lobbying of his son, who is gay. While it’s good for gay people that someone in power changed his position to their side, the reason why he did it is worth interrogating. Matt Yglesias wrote on this topic back then:
“But if Portman can turn around on one issue once he realizes how it touches his family personally, shouldn’t he take some time to think about how he might feel about other issues that don’t happen to touch him personally? Obviously the answers to complicated public policy questions don’t just directly fall out of the emotion of compassion. But what Portman is telling us here is that on this one issue, his previous position was driven by a lack of compassion and empathy.”
When I went on a slew of tweets about this subject last night, one person responded by saying, we’re only human. And that’s true. It’s easier to have compassion and empathy for those we consider our neighbors and our friends. But that then drives another point and theme I’ve been turning over and over again in my head this election year: The critical need to be nearer to those, have more conversations with, collisions with, friendships among those who aren’t like us. We’re in a period of resegregation in America, by many quantifiable measures. And that is only making it harder for people to have empathy for those who look different, talk different, have different backgrounds.
It was a bit of serendipity then, that I found this quote in my old notes from philosopher John Stuart Mill from back in 1848. It’s truer now than it was back then, I think.
“It is hardly possible to overstate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar … Such communication has always been, and is particularly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress.”
I hope we all do some soul searching when this election is over in a month. But the work of trying to better understand each other and care for each other is a long, something difficult slog. I don’t know that humanity has any other choice but to do the work.
I’ve gotten really into a couple of email newsletters that people I like and admire put out — notably Ann Friedman‘s, Jamelle Bouie‘s and Sean Bonner‘s. Newsletters are all the rage these days and I’ve toyed with doing one myself so I’m trying it out. You can subscribe at this link, and I’ll cross post here on HeyElise if you prefer not to crowd your inbox further.
What I Wrote
I’m on leave so I’m not doing a ton of writing for work. That said, I hope you’ll enjoy one of my last NPR pieces before I had a baby, on hard-core Korean hikers and how hiking links Korean immigrants to their ancestral homeland. I also wrote a bunch of answers for Cup of Jo, the popular lifestyle blog, about motherhood in South Korea. And if you haven’t moseyed over there yet, I started a blog for two-week-old Isabel Rock, because it wasn’t going to be fair that her sister has a Tumblr and I didn’t do some sort of documenting for Isa.
“Why, why, why, does Pizzolatto keep making Frank say thinks like, “It’s like blue balls. In your heart”? Poor guy’s got enough to deal with without it sounding like he’s doing pornographic slam poetry.”
The former Economist correspondent in Seoul explores the history, culture and ways of life here on the land I now call home. It’s been dragging in a few parts but I’m learning a lot of fascinating tidbits so I’m working my way through.
What I’m Watching
Rectify is a quiet and sometimes lyrical show on Sundance Channel that I only recently discovered. The first season is only six episodes and available on Netflix or Amazon Prime streaming, so it’s easy to get caught up. It’s worth the investment if you enjoy character driven stories and can handle a more plodding pace. Not sure? Read Matt Zoller Seitz’s review, which won’t give much away.
Also: I’m hate-watching True Detective, of course.
The Instagram account of Chriselle Lim: Chriselle Lim is a stylist and video blogger that once worked with the famous YouTube tycoon, Michelle Phan. I’ll never have her glamour or togetherness so I lurk on her Instagram, instead. Also she has an adorable baby who is also already living a more stylish life than the rest of us.