Sushi in Japan, Wine in Singapore, Unpasteurized Cheddar in England: How Pregnancy Guidelines Vary around the World

It started with raw fish. I was ten weeks pregnant and riddled with low-lying nausea that reared up at the very thought of vegetables — any vegetable, though the leafy green ones were especially noxious. After a lifetime of balanced eating, it was hard, mentally, to recast mac&cheese and buttered pasta as daily staples. No, I needed to eat something healthy, or at least healthy-ish, and the first thing that came to mind was raw fish. Salmon, specifically, served in slashes over white rice and virulently green seaweed and a scatter of edamame. Wasabi, the Japanese sushi chain, calls it “poke;” I call it “the best $10 you can spend in the Fulton Street Subway Station.”

I bought the poke; it stayed down; I bought it again, and again. It was only after it had become a bi-weekly staple that I happened to glance at the “Nutrition in Pregnancy” handout my doctor had given very early on. “Sushi,” it said, under the list of foods to avoid. The panic I felt was both diluted and confounded when, continuing to read, I learned that fish was an excellent source of protein and Omega 3 fatty acids, and should be consumed at least twice a week.

Evidently, I concluded, it was the rawness that was the problem, not the fish. But what about countries like Japan, where raw fish is a daily staple? Are Japanese women also told to abstain from raw fish throughout their pregnancies? And what’s so harmful about raw fish, anyways?

The answer to the first question, as it turns out, is no. Not only is it culturally acceptable for pregnant Japanese to continue eating raw fish; they are encouraged to do so by the Japanese Ministry of Health. The answer to the second question is: not much — most of the time.

For pregnant women, seafood can pose two health risks. The first is mercury exposure — which can have small — but not immeasurable — impacts on fetal health. Levels of mercury are species-, not temperature-, specific. It’s also not really something most Americans — or most Japanese — need to worry about (the Japanese government did a bunch of research around mercury consumption and found that the average Japanese citizen consumes 60% of the daily mercury allowance). Save for swordfish, bluefin tuna, and tilefish, most fish with high mercury levels are not even consumed in America. And even the big-guns like shark are fine in small quantities. Here’s a handy mercury-based frequency guideline, if you’re curious about how often you can eat bluefin tuna (weekly), or, um, bottlenose dolphin (bimonthly).

The second health risk — and this is temperature-specific — is seafood-related illness, aka food-poisoning. This can come from eating shellfish harvested from contaminated waters, or from eating any raw fish that has been kept in non-sterile/cross-contamination-prone conditions. Instances of the latter are very rare (around 1 in 2 million, per this New York Times article) — so, TLDR: as long as the raw fish comes from a sanitary source, it’s fine for pregnant-lady consumption.

But just because raw fish is, mostly, good for pregnant ladies doesn’t mean most governments endorse it. 8 of the 14 countries I looked at, including the US, advise against it, 4 (the Scandinavian countries and Japan) give it the thumbs up, and the UK and Ireland make the distinction between shellfish (no-go) and finfish (fine).

The consensus on smoked fish, meanwhile, was clearer: 10 of the 14 were against it, and the remaining four lacked a stance at all. As far as mercury was concerned, most countries were okay with some amount of tuna, but half were against any consumption of higher mercury fish, while the remainder was split between limiting consumption and no policy. Here’s how it all breaks out (click the image to view the spreadsheet): sushi-pregnancy

But Wait, There’s More

Finding out that raw fish was not a blanket pregnancy “don’t” here or in Japan got me wondering about other common pregnancy “don’ts,” and how the US policies on them compared with those other developed nations. All told, I looked at 19 countries’ official guidelines and recommendations on 6 don’t-ridden topics: seafood,  alcohol, caffeine, cheese, meat, and weight gain. Note that the official guidelines might differ from what is culturally acceptable (for example, while studies have shown that the majority of pregnant Italian women do continue to drink wine in moderation, the official policy is to avoid it altogether).

The full dataset, with sources, is available here.

Alcohol

In recent years, there has been a lot of research on alcohol and pregnancy (much of which is cohesively distilled in Emily Oster’s book, Expecting Better). The general scientific consensus seems to be that babies born to pregnant women who consumed 1-2 drinks a week had no adverse effects — but because all of the data is based on surveys, rather than supervised studies, it makes sense that governments would be loathe to use this finding prescriptively. And, indeed, most do not. 15 of the 18 countries I looked at endorsed complete abstention, and only one doesn’t call for abstention for at least part of the pregnancy. The below chart shows each country’s position, where 1 denotes complete abstention, 2 is try to abstain but if not, keep it to 1-2 drinks/week, 3 is abstain for the first three months and do not drink/binge drink thereafter, and 4 is 1-2 drinks a week.

I was surprised that Singapore, which is not exactly known for being footloose and fancy-free, had the most moderate position on drinking I could find. Singapore’s healthcare system, I should note, is considered by the World Health Organization to be one of the most efficient in the world, so this is not a case of outdated recommendations. If any Singaporeans or expats living in Singapore want to shed some light on this, please do!

Coffee

When it comes to coffee — and caffeinated beverages in general, some countries dole out recommendations in milligrams, others in cups. The latter tended to be from countries with strong cafe/coffee break cultures. Anyways, the average 12oz cup of coffee has around 120 milligrams of caffeine, so I used that as the multiplier for the cup-based recommendations. All but one of the countries surveyed allowed for prenatal caffeine consumption; where they diverged was in whether 200mg or 300mg a day was acceptable, with most falling into the higher end of the spectrum. In the chart below, 1 means avoid, 2 is avoid in first trimester and keep to 200mg/day thereafter, 3 is up to 200mg/day, and 4 is up to 300mg/day/3 cups of coffee.

The big outlier here is Israel, whose government recommends total avoidance of “espresso coffees, percolator coffees, black coffee and high-caffeine content energy drinks” — though it does allow for up to three cups/day of lower-caffeinated beverages like soda or hot chocolate. The US American Pregnancy Association recommends avoidance in the first trimester, and up to 200mg after; the other 200mg countries don’t make the first trimester off-limits. The APA’s reasoning for the first-trimester ban is the increased risk of miscarriage associated with high caffeine consumption, but a) the level of “safe” caffeine consumption is actually quite a bit higher than even 300mg, and b) none of the research I found cited the first trimester as being more susceptible to caffeine than any other. That said, morning sickness might render coffee entirely unappealing (mine did from weeks 6 to about 14).

Cheese

Cheese falls into a similar pregnancy camp as raw fish, where the risk lies not in the thing itself, but in the creepy-crawlies that might glom onto it. In the case of cheese, soft, unpasteurized cheeses and mold-ripened cheeses are decently hospitable breeding grounds for listeria, a strain of bacteria that can cause miscarriage or stillbirth in infected pregnant women. Basically, listeria dig mold and moisture and low-acidity — and are vanquished by pasteurization and the higher-acidity levels that come with age. So, from a scientific perspective, preggos can hold the camambert and unpasteurized ricotta and take the chedder and the pasteurized feta and be good to go — but not all countries’ cheese guidelines line up with science. In general, the guidelines can be divided into four camps: the no mold-ripened or soft, unpasteurized camp, the no unpasteurized camp, the no soft camp, and the no soft or unpasteurized camp.

cheese-pregnancy

You might think that France would be among the most permissive — and anecdotally, it might be — but policy-wise, it falls into the same “no soft cheeses” camp as Argentina and Australia. The US, meanwhile, joins the cheese-loving nations of the UK and Ireland, along with Sweden and Singapore, as the most permissive.

 

Meat

Meat carries two possible health risks: bacteria contamination (toxoplasmosis and salmonella in undercooked meat; listeria in non-dried deli meat and refrigerated pates) and vitamin A. The first is dispatched with heat, the second, by avoiding liver, which is naturally high in vitamin A. But back up — what’s wrong with vitamin A? If taken in so-called “megadose” quantities, it is toxic and is associated (though not directly linked) with birth defects. The American Pregnancy Association defines the safe upper daily limit as 3000 IU, and sets the recommended limit at 770 IU. While the amount of vitamin A in liver varies, on average, a 3oz serving of beef liver will have 12,000 IU; a chicken liver, 27,000 IU — ie, 4-9 times the upper daily limit. So, yes, avoiding liver seems prudent. And yet! The majority of guidelines I read say only to cook meat thoroughly and possibly to avoid non-dried deli meats, and pates, with no mention of liver in the altogether. (Indeed, Argentina’s guidelines actually encourage consumption of liver, for its high iron content.)

meat-safety-pregnancy

Above, you can see that only the UK recommends avoidance of all three meat categories. Only 7 of the 15 surveyed countries recommend avoiding non-dried deli meats (and Denmark encourages their consumption). 8 recommend avoiding pates, and 7 recommend avoiding whole liver — but only Finland, Ireland, Singapore and the UK recommend avoiding both.

Weight Gain

Closing things out with another touchy subject! In the US, culturally, the expectation is that pregnant women can eat until the cows come home — and then pay like hell after the baby comes. I was shocked (and, not a little bummed, at least until the morning sickness hit) when my doctor told me that, rather than eating for two, I should be eating for one and one/seventh. In theory, an extra 300 calories a day plus nature doing its thing will add up to somewhere between 25-35 pounds by week forty, assuming the calorie-consumer starts out at a healthy weight (BMI of 18-24). The 25-35 recommendation was initially put forth by the Institute of Medicine in 2009; today, it’s certainly the most common recommendation, and most of the surveyed countries that do stray from it do not do so broadly.

A few countries — France, China, and Russia — gave a target weight (26lbs), rather than a range. Japan had the lowest end (15lbs) — though anecdotal evidence suggests many Japanese OBs think 15lbs is more of a high end. Of the countries with ranges, the UK’s was the narrowest (22-26lbs); Italy’s (20-35) was the widest. South Africa’s “formal recommendation is that there should be no guideline for weight gain;” Sweden also appears to be guideline-less.

 

In Conclusion: Shout Outs to Nuance, Cleanliness, and Culture

After pulling all of these guidelines together, a few themes emerged. One, I think, is that the rules are not so black and white as they may seem on a doctor’s mimeographed handout, and it’s worth finding out the reasons behind them, and the research behind those reasons. A little bit of knowledge is an empowering thing, particularly during a time as emotionally fraught as pregnancy.

A follow up to this theme is that, in the case of seafood and meat and cheese, it is not, for the most part, the foods themselves that are harmful, but the environments in which they are caught or stored or prepared. It is always a good thing, when possible, to know where your food is coming from; while pregnant, this is especially true.

And, finally, culture pervades even the sterile halls of medicine, and that this can be a beneficial thing. If fish were not a staple in the Japanese diet, if cheese was not a staple of the British diet, if coffee culture were less pervasive in Scandinavia, would their respective governments have bothered to investigate the health impacts of mercury levels and unpasturized hard cheeses and caffeine? To culture, I tip my hat.

 

Advertisements
Sushi in Japan, Wine in Singapore, Unpasteurized Cheddar in England: How Pregnancy Guidelines Vary around the World

When It Lifts, or Some Scattered Thoughts on Summertime in Newfoundland

I bought my copy of Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News in a bookstore in New Orleans’ French Quarter (‘ol’ E. Annie,’ the owner called her), right before I had to leave for the airport. I don’t remember what drew me to the book (I had not heard of ‘ol E. Annie, nor seen the film version of Brokeback Mountain, her most famous short story), but I do remember spending the flight in the sort of white-out immersion I’d experienced often as a child (The Long Winter! Anne of Green Gables! Vols 1-5 of Harry Potter!), and rarely thereafter. I finished The Shipping News right as the flight touched down, greedily, with a full-body gnaw, and have wanted to go to Newfoundland ever since.

trinity bay, newfoundland

The Shipping News, if you haven’t read it (go read it!), is about a blundering, down-and-out newspaperman who finds luck and love in a hopeless place Newfoundland, his ancestral homeland. It’s a classic underdog tale, set in an unorthodox — but very underdog-friendly! — location, and the language takes its cue from the setting: the descriptions are rough and pummelling; the dialogue terse, and salty. It’s not that the picture ol E. Annie paints of Newfoundland is inviting, exactly — it’s all freeze and fog, squid burgers and pocked skin and fearsome winds — but it latched onto me. I feel a pull towards cold, remote places that are still, somehow, inhabited, and what is more remote than a hunk of rock so far east it has its own time zone, so generally inhospitable that its denizens still speak in the heavy brogues of their great, great, great grandparents?

For years, I kept my interest in Newfoundland confined to Google image searches and the occasional travel blog, and that’s likely where it would have stayed if my husband hadn’t bought bought us two tickets to St. John’s for my birthday this year. In preparation, I read The Shipping News for the fifth time and went through all of the wonderful Edible Roadtrip coverage of the island and watched Youtube videos of Newfoundlanders screeching tourists and explaining choice Newfie phrases.  Last Friday night, we set out, last Saturday morning we set out again, this time successfully, and went on to spend three nights in St. John’s, and one night up the coast in Trinity.  The trip was a heady whirlwind of fog and sun, seeping quiet and spilling hubbub, foods fried and foods fresh, and excellent ’90s rock.
skerwink trail
If you, too, have a Shipping News-inspired hankering to get ye to The Rock in the summertime, here are some observations that might prove useful:

1. In Newfoundland, July can feel a lot like April, thanks to the glacial current coming from near(ish)by Labrador. It was 45 degrees when we landed, and then vaulted up to 72 on our third day. While the summer clothes I packed didn’t go entirely unused, I mostly wore leggings and a puffer. This was not a problem, sartorially, as Newfoundland dress code is casual in the extreme.

2. The landscape, in the summer, is mostly greys and greens: fog, rock, ocean; spruce, bracken, moss. In the towns, sturdy box and row houses in jewel and Easter and popsicle hues cut through the mist, but on the highways and byways, you’d be forgiven for wondering if you’d somehow tumbled into some land before time, primordial and raw and huge.

3. But then the sun comes out (maybe! If you’re very lucky!), and the grey scatters and the greens go emerald and the ocean and lakes turn sapphire and the landscape seems less primordial than majestic, luxuriating in the drama of its sweeping cliffs and shaggy hills and endless waters.

4. The water — good lord, there is so much of it. Lakes and rivers (here, called “ponds” and “brooks”, no matter their girth) dot the Trans-Canada like pearls, and the coastline’s many bights mean that miles inland, you are never too far from a cove or an inlet. Even the land can be amphibious; on the sunniest of days, the footpaths squelch beneath your shoes; step off one onto the fluffy moss and you’ll sink a full foot.

5. Outside of St. John’s, this north-east temple of Neptune is mostly empty, apart from the occasional long-haul trucker on the road, the bright-red trawler in the distance. On the lakes, there are lily pads but no frogs; at the beaches, there are gulls, swooping and preening, but no swimmers.  

6. The wind is a crouching tiger, hidden dragon. By which I mean that, while mild in the summertime, its effects are everywhere, from the worn-away karsts at the edge of the sea to the drunken, sparse bent of the trees. While the fastest gust ever recorded was on Mount Washington, Newfoundland’s aptly named “Wreckhouse” region  regularly sees speeds above 100km/hour (they’re called “Wreckhouse Winds”), and the island in general is known as the windiest province in Canada.skerwink trail

7. The people, too, are wind-beaten — and white. Canada’s reputation for ethnic diversity does not extend to this island of Anglo-Saxons. Most of the current population is of Irish,  western-English, or Scottish descent. A small percentage hails from France, and a much smaller one is indigenous (there were originally two tribes on the island, but settlers wiped out the Beothuk people and their language; today, only the Mi’kmaq remain). You rarely see a face that isn’t ruddy, pink, cream, freckled.

8. The accent is generally closest to Irish, though occasionally you’ll get a stream of Queen’s English, fine — and brittle — as china. The dialect, though, is a lovely hodgepodge, part preservation (‘ye’ for you, ‘me’ for my/mine), phonetic borrowing (as in hangashore, ‘layabout,’ from the Gaelic ainniseoir, and bakeapple,  from the French baie qu’appelle, ‘that berry’), part elision (n’arn, for ‘nary a thing,’ and b’y, which is technically ‘boy’, but is used more like ‘bub’, or ‘bud’), part fun with prepositions (‘where ya ‘longs to?’), and part pure sonic joy (a tickle is a channel, a scruncheon, a fatty morsel, a tuckamore, a low clump of trees).

9. The food goes beyond fish and chips and seal flipper pie. In St. John’s, it felt like every touton-and-baked bean action had an equal and opposite squid vindaloo reaction. The pubs and casual places tend to offer up the more traditional, rib-sticking, scurvy-inducing fare, which is definitely worth trying (check out the Christmas-light-decked, poorly-named Bagel Cafe for a bevy of options), while newer spots like the Adelaide Oyster House and Mallard Cottage offer up inventive takes on local ingredients, such as the aforementioned squid vindaloo and a spicy, zingy vermicelli salad at the former and glorious hunks of salt-baked turnip and whole flounder, simply broiled with herbs and lemon, at the latter.

10. This stuff will set you back a pretty penny. Newfoundland is not a budget travel destination; most of the tourists are around or past retirement age, and the establishments, particularly outside of St. John’s, reflect this: lots of twee gift shoppes and very small-scale artisan stores (in tiny Trinity, we saw stores offering speciality chocolate, seal-skin slippers and hats, landscape paintings, and yoga (Tuesday and Thursday afternoons)), along with a handful of whale, puffin, and iceberg tour outfits.

In the high season, expect to spend at least $150/night for a room at a B&B in a small town and $200+ in St. John’s. In nice restaurants, prices are on par with New York’s — low teens for appetizers, mid-twenties for entries (yes I’ve already converted from Canadian).

11. That said, there is one wonderful free activity available all over Newfoundland: hiking! There are well-maintained trails all over Newfoundland’s coast, including the East Coast Trail, a continuous 540km stretch along the Avalon Peninsula. In St. John’s itself, we hiked the switchbacks up to Signal Hill (so called because it is the site of the first successful transatlantic wireless transmission, aka the beginning of our addiction to all things wireless and the reason I can publish this today!). It was really more of a walk than a hike, and it wended through cozy streets full of neat, cheery row houses and at the top in addition to views of the sea and of St. John’s spread (or really, dotted) out before us, we saw six humpback whales! Six! They were close enough to see with the naked eye, but a nice man gave us an up-close look through his enormous tripod binoculars. They had massive white fins that appeared aqua in the water, and the knack all vast creatures have for making quick movements seem slow and languid. signal hillOutside of St. John’s, we hiked first outside in Bulls Bay in an attempt to see puffins (unsuccessful in that regard but the trail was very Gandalfian in its shrouds of mist and craggy rock, and utterly empty). In Port Rexton, we hiked the famous Skerwink in Trinity Bight. It’s not called the one of the best coastal trails in Canada for nothing: the views — of the cliffs and karsts and sea and inlets and, towards the end, a squat, lonely lighthouse — are staggering, and the lovely Canadian Parks Service built hundreds of wooden steps to facilitate the taking in of them, and the rough-hewn charm of the steps strung along the lush moss and tuckamore (new word!) gives the whole thing a serious woodland faerie vibe.

skerwink trail

In both instances, there was absolutely nothing but our own senses to keep us from going over the cliffs, which made us feel very adventurous and also slightly worried, as we hail from the land of guardrails stay back keep away single file please!

In conclusion: go to Newfoundland, and bring yo jukebox money. (And a sweater! And binoculars for the whales!)

When It Lifts, or Some Scattered Thoughts on Summertime in Newfoundland

How to Save a Lie

What would you do if your son was at home/
Crying alone/
On the bathroom floor/
‘Cause he’s hungry and the only way to feed him is to/
Sleep with a man for a little bit of money?

Our eighth grade art class had been tasked with creating CD jackets to songs or albums we felt spoke to us, though my reason for choosing City High’s EP had less to do with the subject matter’s relevance to my life — I was thirteen and had barely been kissed, let alone slept with, let alone slept with for money — and more to do with my seating assignment. I occupied the sixth stool at a table otherwise populated by our middle school’s resident wolf pack: boys who’d been suspended for smoking pot on a school trip to Plymouth Rock, girls who’d traded braces for ninth and tenth grade boyfriends, a collective posse whose basement birthday parties were highlighted by girl-on-girl makeouts and breathless flights from our town’s singular night cop. Sitting among them, I felt like Cady Heron showing up as the corpse bride when all the other girls were sexy kittens. Could a song like “What Would You Do?” show the wolf pack that under the fake blood and dirty wedding dress lurked someone with real sexy kitten potential?

It was a question that never got answered, because I forgot to bring in my custom-illustrated copy of City High. And then I lied about it. “I left it by the boombox yesterday,” I said, when it was my turn to press play and explain my mordant depictions. The lie had had twenty anxious minutes of Ja Rule and Sublime and Jack Johnson to foment; it came out smoothly. But my art teacher didn’t tell me I could bring in a different illustrated song the following day, as I had hoped: instead she turned to my classmates, asking, gravely, if anyone had seen City High, or moved it by accident, or borrowed it and forgot to put it back. No one had, of course, but the art teacher seemed to take silence as a group admission. Fine, she snapped. There would be no more expository DJing until City High was found.

The remaining minutes of class inched by, but the relief I felt when the bell ended was short-lived. During gym, I was called to the Vice Principal’s office. When I walked in, the first thing I saw was City High. The second was my art teacher. The third was my mother. City High glinted benignly, but the other ⅔ of the triumvirate were furious.

City High never got its moment in the sunlight, but I did, as I stumbled through a public apology while my teacher glared and the wolf pack, unfazed, drew on their arms and legs with skinny permanent markers. Then I never lied again. Just kidding, but I did learn to tailor my lies so that the only person they ever implicated was myself. For, as the wolf pack, with their nightly window drops and myriad pocket roaches knew, the best lies were islands, independent and capable of floating away, towards truth.

How to Save a Lie

This Is Not Simone de Beauvoir

an (non) Actor’s Lament

“He stole my scarab beetle!” I mumbled.

“No, no, no. Again, stronger please.” Each shake of Professor C’s shaggy head was rife with that combination of exasperation and despair so particular to the French.

“He STOLE my scarab beetle!”

Professor C sighed. I was supposed to be furious, yes? So, where was my fury?

Oh, my fury was there, all right, and, like usual, it was tied up in constricting knots.

I had arrived in Paris a month earlier, when the city was a green-gold oz of languid picnics and easy laughter and insouciant summer scarves. Now the ginko leaves were falling, and I was falling too, deeply disquieted by my inability to summon a six year-old’s roiling, aggrieved rage.

When I enrolled in “Acting French,” it had been in the manner of an empty nester signing up for pottery classes: a “why not?” threaded with a thin suspicion that I might actually be good at this. Apart from a successful turn as an angry Loyalist in our fifth grade class play, there was no historical basis for that suspicion — but I’m a card-carrying millennial; at 19, I believed I could be good at (almost) anything.

Right away, there were warning signs. In my naiveté, I had imagined that we would spend most of class reading aloud from classic French plays, like a sort of extended adult story hour. Maybe I would finally understand why people liked Les Miserables so much, I figured. But Professor C, sprightly in pirate boots and a military jacket, informed us that the play we would be workshopping all fall was one of her own. At the end of the semester, we would get to perform it at the American Embassy. What a treat for us all!

The play was based on the letters of Simone de Beauvoir. Simone was a complicated woman; Professor C acknowledged this by chopping up her life into eight different roles. A sylvan-voiced, doe-eyed Missourian, the sole theatre student in the class, got the role of twenty-something Simone, teenage Simone went to a very stylish Teen Vogue intern, and child Simone went to me.

Ninety percent of my role was a monologue concerning the whereabouts of the aforementioned beetle. Like a good budding philosophe, I exhausted all possibilities; then, I hid in some bushes. I always rushed through my monologue, hoping to reach the bushes before Professor C interrupted me. Unfortunately, the bushes were invisible (the professor was a big fan of the Our Town aesthetic, or else there was no money for props), so even when I escaped sans remark, my flaming cheeks were on full view.   

It was, objectively, a terrible play, and I, just as objectively, was terrible in it. My terribleness compounded, which confounded me, and then it flatlined, which confounded me more. I was accustomed to linear progression, but as October slid into November, it became clear to me that my only hope was an exponential hail Mary.

In Mid-December, we bundled the bony stools that constituted the entirety of our set into a van and set off for the Embassy. “Don’t come,” I instructed my boyfriend, but when I scrambled, fizzy with nerves, atop my stool, he was there, partially blocking the view of an ambassador. In the dressing room right before we went on, I had swallowed a glug of tequila, and as I waited for Professor C to finish introducing the play, I realized that the nerves I was feeling were the good kind, the kind I used to get as a swimmer behind the starting blocks. “Oh hey, this is going to be fine,” I thought, and it was. I tore into my monologue with the requisite fervor; for the first time, my lines didn’t feel like lines anymore, but like skin, something I owned. Quite suddenly it was all over and I was blushing less fiercely than usual and I could hear the audience laughing, just has they had when I was a bonneted Loyalist.

At the party afterwards, Professor C congratulated me and insisted that I finish one of the nicer bottles of champagne that was circulating. “You’ve earned it,” she said. But exponential Hail Marys, however welcome they may be, do not really give one the sense of having “earned it.”

The following fall, I received an email. Someone had made a documentary about Simone and our Embassy performance was part of it. There would be a viewing party at NYU’s Maison Francaise, in the Washington Mews. I was free that evening, but I did not go. I have never tried to act in anything since.

 

This Is Not Simone de Beauvoir

The Thrashers (thoughts on Emily Dickinson and solitude in the age of Trump)

I went to see the new Emily Dickinson exhibit at the Morgan this morning. I’ve liked Emily Dickinson since I was a child, without knowing more than the most famous of her poems. I read and reread Michael Bedard and Barbara Cooney’s picture book about her, and the little girl who spotted the train of her black dress once, on the stairs. Emily wrote the girl a poem, I remember, and in return, the girl gave her paperwhites, bulbs that harbinger spring in winter, indoors, the perfect flower for a recluse.

growing-paperwhites

The book didn’t make clear why Emily felt the need to retreat from a world that was already, relatively speaking, a retreat, and the exhibit didn’t either. Emily, the daughter of one of the treasurers of Amherst College, received the sort of education typically afforded only to wealthy young men. The exhibit contained yearbooks, programs for plays and “Eclectic Societies,” daguerreotypes of the prominent scholars and publishers and ministers whose lives Emily’s intersected with. She grew up in a cultural hub, even if the culture heavily tinged with a religion she could never bring herself to subscribe to. She had large, dark eyes and auburn hair she once prized enough to send her best friend a lock of; she was, in many ways, a catch.

She was a catch but she got caught in herself; by her mid-twenties, she had begun to withdraw, to curl up like a snail in her room, going outside only to garden. And yet, measured in words, her life was full indeed: over its course, she wrote 1800 poems, half of them between 1858 and 1865. Only 10 were published in her lifetime; all anonymously, and most without her say-so. Most of them existed in only one or two places, jotted in pencil on sheets of paper she first sewed into fascicles and later folded together in simpler sets. Some she sent to friends, or admired acquaintances; the majority were known only to her until after her death.

emily_dickinson_fascile

Like e.e. cummings, Emily saw poetry in multiple dimensions, played with capitalization, with alignment, with the shape of the paper beneath the words. She loved em-dashes; some of her poems seems studded with sharp intakes of breath. Shad her own editing notation: “N” for nature, “D” for death, crosses for words with alternates. She almost never used titles. Because of this and because so many of her poems lived in letters, and because her literal voice was so swoonily akin to her poetic one, her posthumous editors sometimes had to guess where the letter ended and the poem began. They may have guessed wrong, but if the world is your shellacking oyster, does it make a difference?

screen-shot-2017-02-12-at-10-57-43-am

In recent months, I’ve been doing some shellacking of my own, walling myself off from flesh and bone connections. Conversely, I’ve been texting furiously. Like Emily and the legions of IRC-ers and Redditors and 400 pound men who live in their parental basements, I’ve (re)discovered the comfort of a world of my own making, bolstered by communication whose direction I control. I drink and my texts grow expansive; I make plans I shy away from come shriveled morning.

It’s easy to blame the election for this, and much of it is reactionary: with so much to do, and so much to be angry about, I do nothing and seethe, or the easiest things, while dreaming of doing everything, and loudly. But Emily was at her most productive at the height of the Civil War; in solitude, she produced; I tend to reduce, or flail.

hopper-automat.jpg

This post doesn’t have an end; I’m not even sure what I’m trying to say, exactly. Is solitude justified if it’s productive? Can I spend my days consorting with flowers so long as I write about them in ways that contain at least a possibility of politically aware metaphor? Unless you’re a genius, that smacks of privilege. The day I felt least shellacked was the day of the Women’s March, in Washington. There was joy that day, in walking among so many people who didn’t just feel or dream but did. It helped that there was no cell service; the only place I could be was exactly where I was.

 

The Thrashers (thoughts on Emily Dickinson and solitude in the age of Trump)

The Gray Mare Is the Better Horse

nyc_blackout_77

Yesterday, it was beautiful in New York, unseasonably warm, but with November’s brand of curling sun. Perfect weather for waiting in a long line to cast a vote and then walking around with a multi-pronged, fuck-yeah ebullience. In email chains and Facebook posts and Instagram comments, there were giddy, reclamatory uses of  “nasty” and “badass,” photos of suffragettes’ sticker-coated headstones, and so many variations of #withher. We were poised on the precipice of righteousness; we were buoyant and thirsty; we were ready to revel.

garbage-burning-in-nyc-streets-1977

At the DNC this summer (how long ago that feels, now), there was a sense that patriotism, long the far right’s excuse for acts of prejudice and vitriol, might become a rallying cry for unity on the left. Both of the Obamas’ speeches made me proud to be an American, a pride that was kicked along by the Olympics and reached its apex about 30 minutes in to the first presidential debate.  Whatever pluckings of disbelief I felt at the polls being as close as they were (for even a margin of 20 percentage points felt close, given what was on the fuzzy end of that margin) were stayed by a confidence that Hillary would not, could not lose.

I live in a bubble. I’ve known that for years, but I didn’t really understand it until last night, when the New York Times forecast gauge slipped from blue to pink to red. Somewhere around the time Florida was called for Trump, that bubble burst.

ap7707140492

Today is not blue or pink or red. It is still warm, but not sunny and there are no frissons of ebullience to be had. Today is grey and the people I pass on the streets are grey and the man on the subway with his head in his hands is grey and I myself feel grey in a way I have never felt before. Instinct tells me to flee – not out of fear but out of anger and spite and a refusal to own our new reality. Braver to stay and fight – but how, with no house and no senate and the certainty of a conservative court and the spectre of alt-right death-eaters making preparations for their February feast?

One way, the way that seems most obvious, is to use the free tools that Trump employed so effectively against him, to combat his lies with truths, to share the fears of the frightened and disenfranchised so that they might be allayed, to keep insisting that patriotism is love and not hate. If we rage enough against the dying of the light, we just might revive it.

09-nyc-blackout-w1373-h913

The Gray Mare Is the Better Horse

Liminal States

Recently, I came across a blog my college roomates and I had kept throughout the last semester of our senior year. It was, largely, a cooking blog, and small-ly, a walking blog, because I was not at a stage where I could give anybody advice about cooking that didn’t start and end with a microwave. I read through the archives, which started with my and my roommate Emily’s joint birthday party and ended with a walk I’d done from my then-office in Times Square home to our apartment in Cobble Hill. The penultimate post, also by Emily, struck a similar chord to me as it had when I’d first read it, at 22. It was written shortly before our graduation, and, in addition to oatmeal cookies, it offers up some really f**king poignant end-of-an-era-now-what??? feelings.

The other night the kitchen was cluttered, it was filled with canned goods and rice and dirty dishes and my computer and shredded coconut and the millions of water glasses I am currently going through.  The next morning it was a little better, as all cluttered nights feel better after you sleep on it. And I think as the week goes on, it will most likely stay on the cluttered side, but I kind of like that. Life is never a shiny, clean kitchen. Especially when you’re graduating.

Emily titled the post “The State that I am in,” and the short answer was a liminal one.

The phrase “liminal state” has been clanging around my head all summer. The word “liminal” comes from the Latin limen, “threshold.” It’s a very pretty word, I think — it sounds like a skip. Nowadays, I don’t know if there is any word with as high a ratio of metaphoric:literal as threshold, though back in Roman times, maybe that wasn’t the case.

the-upside-down

I have my own liminal state, but I’m seeing them everywhere. You could call the Upsidedown in the Netflix series Stranger Things an alternate world but I’d call it a liminal one, attached to the rightsideup like Peter Pan’s stockings. I fell asleep and dreamed our bedroom had grown mossy cumuli and a suspended haze.

Last night, I rewatched Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies, which is such a lovely, unshowy little movie, in the vein of Before Sunrise, about the sort of friendship that can become something else. There are so many scenes in Drinking Buddies where the central teeter, in words but often in gestures, on the brink of that something else; they burst with liminality.

drinking-buddies

A liminal state is a bit of a Shrodinger’s cat: neither one thing nor the other, or both, or their bleeding, shrouded edge. It is not necessarily a bad state, though it can feel so — but then again it can also feel deliciously close to a desired outcome, without all of the responsibility of owning its results.

In a liminal state, we are none of us terminal cases.

 

Liminal States