The Binder: The Writings That Shaped Me

Since I could access the internet, I’ve been a voracious reader of blogs and other digital journalism publications. I come from the heyday of sites like Cracked and the birth of sites like io9, a time before the catastrophic pivot to video or the Hulk Hogan lawsuit, a time before “fake news,” a time before the death of Mic (more on that below) or the death of Deadpsin or the death of Bitch or the death of MEL.

A part of me always knew I’d end up in this field. And then, as soon as I arrived, a part of me always knew I’d be gone well before I wanted.

I could still spend most of my time freelancing, to be clear. I’ve done it before, and it would be much easier now that I’m a more established writer. But I don’t want to anymore. It doesn’t feed me anymore. It takes and it takes, churning some of the best writers of the current generation into mincemeat for $0.10/word. It takes that mincemeat and uses it to make some of the best publications of our generation into nothingburger after nothingburger. When people aren’t clamoring to get a bite anymore, they shutter their horrid little burger shack altogether.

I am bitter. I will always be bitter to see my heroes and friends laid off en masse, or try to weather historically and horrifically fucked up workplace cultures to make rent.

But I can’t help loving what we’ve made along the way. I’ll keep looking for it, keep checking my Feedly daily, keep sharing each glimmer of beautiful and insightful prose I see someone allowed to write and publish. I keep my binder — a literal, physical binder filled with printed out copies of my favorite writing, in case it ever disappears entirely. This is a collection of what lives inside that binder: the writings that have inspired me, given me hope, kept me afloat.

I would love nothing more than to talk about these works, but specifically, I want to discuss them with people. To incentivize you to actually read these pieces, I am not discussing them in this list. Instead, you can leave a comment, or you can email me using the form here. Please don’t be shy; I am begging to engage with you about these pieces. The same goes, of course, with any recommendations you have for me. I will read them. I promise, I promise, I promise.

“Roach Complex”

When I scan my Twitter feed, reliably dramatic if nothing else, the dominant feelings seem to be thirst and menace, with glib hyperbole negotiating extremes of anxiety. Social media amplifies self-loathing; the memorably wretched tweet gets the likes. (Roland Barthes anticipated that impulse: “I want to be both pathetic and admirable, I want to be at the same time a child and an adult,” which is to say, I’m baby.) Twitter’s own denizens call it “the hell site” out of feigned affection, and the underworld has long been described more lavishly than paradise.

Chris Randle, Real Life (RIP), 2019

“Why are queer people so mean to each other?”

Sociological research tells us that queer and trans people are disproportionately likely to experience abuse, sexual violence, homelessness and bullying in childhood and adolescence (and it continues into adulthood for many, Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project notwithstanding). Even those of us who somehow manage to escape outright abuse and neglect still grew up in a world where we needed to keep secrets — where, at any moment, we might come across someone who hated us or wished us harm because of who we are. Where our basic rights and dignity might be taken away at the whim of the next politician to take office. The result of all this exposure to trauma — to the very real threat of violence and ostracization from our family, friends and entire society — is that queers as a collective sustain serious trauma to our internal sense of ourselves and others.

Kai Cheng Thom, XTRA Magazine, 2019

“What Is Glitter?”

The jovial Mr. Shetty told me over the phone that people have no idea of the scientific knowledge required to produce glitter, that Glitterex’s glitter-making technology is some of the most advanced in the world, that people don’t believe how complicated it is, that he would not allow me to see glitter being made, that he would not allow me to hear glitter being made, that I could not even be in the same wing of the building as the room in which glitter was being made under any circumstance, that even Glitterex’s clients are not permitted to see their glitter being made, that he would not reveal the identities of Glitterex’s clients (which include some of the largest multinational corporations in the world; eventually, one did consent to be named: thank you, Revlon, Inc.), and that, fine, I was welcome to come down to Glitterex headquarters to learn more about what I could not learn about in person.

Caity Weaver, The New York Times, 2018

“How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation”

But the more I tried to figure out my errand paralysis, the more the actual parameters of burnout began to reveal themselves. Burnout and the behaviors and weight that accompany it aren’t, in fact, something we can cure by going on vacation. It’s not limited to workers in acutely high-stress environments. And it’s not a temporary affliction: It’s the millennial condition. It’s our base temperature. It’s our background music. It’s the way things are. It’s our lives.

Anne Helen Peterson, BuzzFeed News, 2019

“Is confidence a cult? These sociologists think so.”

“To be self-confident is the imperative of our time. As gender, racial, and class inequalities deepen, women are increasingly called on to believe in themselves,” reads the first line of the text. It criticizes the individualistic, neoliberal missives from corporations to “just be more confident” — in our bodies, in our relationships, in motherhood, in the workplace, and within humanitarian efforts to support global development — and argues that, most of the time, they end up reinforcing the very beliefs they aim to deconstruct. For example: Orgad and Gill describe one “love your body” campaign that features a dozen or so women all dressed similarly against a minimalist background as “an attempt to use and strategically deploy images of minoritized groups (people of color, disabled people, Muslims, queer people) in commercial culture to ‘take diversity into account’ only to empty any particular differences of their meaning and social significance.”

Rebecca Jennings, Vox, 2022

“Toward a Theory of the New Weird”

New Weird has potential to do something different. Rather than simply re-drawing boundaries of normality to be more inclusive, “to weird” today could be to map on the same strangeness certain subjects have historically been afforded onto other subjects in order to reveal the inherent strangeness of all such constructs. What feels weird or eerie depends on who you are, and is therefore a political question. Through perceptual flips, New Weird could relocate the weird other from the outside to within. Within the default main character of a story, but perhaps also within the category humanity itself.

Elvia Wilk, LitHub, 2019

“Of Being Numerous”

It seems almost quaint (and this is no good thing) that just a few years ago we were shocked to learn the extent of our mass surveillance state. But the NSA leaks were, at the time, a revelation. They shed light on a fearsome nexus between the government, communications, and tech giants. And beyond this, they offered a lesson in the challenges of fighting a system of control in which we are complicit.

There was a certain folly, but also a commendable optimism, in the immediate, outraged responses to Snowden’s leaks. Journalists and activists sought an object, a vessel, a villain. Who is to blame? Where are the bad guys? How do we fight back? There were obvious culprits in need of censure: Whether it was then director of national intelligence James Clapper, then NSA director Keith Alexander, Google, AT&T, or the PRISM data collection and surveillance program, we looked to blame someone or something we could isolate and locate. Politicians’ and activists’ efforts centered on top-down NSA reform and demands for tech giants to be more transparent. As such, they missed the nuance and gravity of what was at stake.

Natasha Lennard, Real Life (RIP), 2019

“Bad Metaphors: Community”

Communities are assumed to be happy things, with constituents that agree with each other because they are more or less the same kind of people with the same values. They represent the goldilocks zone of social relations: not too impersonal, not too individualistic — just right. The assumption is that community, rather than an unaccountable individual or faceless bureaucracy, is the appropriate scale for important work; and that communities always act in the best interest of their constituents. As such, the metaphor deceives, providing a convenient cover for the interests of macro social structures like nations and corporations. It also depends on a misinterpretation of how communities actually function.

David A. Banks and Britney Gil, Real Life (RIP), 2019

“What Should We Make of Dan Savage’s Legacy?”

Savage isn’t responsible for coercive men using his advice as a cudgel, but it’s perhaps unsurprising that he became a cult figure for insensitive men. Savage is often blunt and sometimes reductive. He’s occasionally in thrall to evolutionary psychology and the gender essentialism that results (“Why are women so loud during sex?”); he calls non-urban parts of the country “knuckle-drag America”; and he often treats the idea of the liberal urban environment as a panacea for bullied gay teens, simplistically encouraging them to “just move.” Savage has been declared a problematic fave and accused of misogyny, racism, transphobia, biphobia and relentless bullying of fat people, among other things, which has resulted in several of his public appearances being protested and glitter bombed

Madeleine Holden, MEL Magazine (RIP), 2020

“The Night The Lights Went Out”

There may come a day when I can recover some of the memories I lost from this whole episode, but I’d prefer that day never come. I try not to think about what happened to me, but I do every day. Mine is a mind terminally preoccupied with itself. I also talk about what happened a lot because I never shut the fuck up about anything. But I’m trying, with mixed results, to not divide my life into separate epochs of Before Brain Injury and After Brain Injury. In my inbox, I still have grisly photos my family took of my injuries when I was in the hospital. I haven’t been able to bring myself to look at them, and I won’t. I also had to look away when a doctor was going through a digital rendering of my CT scan—a smooth animation of successive cross-sections of my skull—because it was like watching my face melt in real time.

Drew Magary, Deadspin (RIP), 2019

“Immaterial Girls”

There may come a day when I can recover some of the memories I lost from this whole episode, but I’d prefer that day never come. I try not to think about what happened to me, but I do every day. Mine is a mind terminally preoccupied with itself. I also talk about what happened a lot because I never shut the fuck up about anything. But I’m trying, with mixed results, to not divide my life into separate epochs of Before Brain Injury and After Brain Injury. In my inbox, I still have grisly photos my family took of my injuries when I was in the hospital. I haven’t been able to bring myself to look at them, and I won’t. I also had to look away when a doctor was going through a digital rendering of my CT scan—a smooth animation of successive cross-sections of my skull—because it was like watching my face melt in real time.

Rina Nkulu, Real Life (RIP), 2017

“The Modern Family”

We are, in 2021, somewhat more acquainted with the ways that concepts like toxic relationships and gaslighting can warp families beyond recognition and turn these bonds sinister. Many people are conscious of the idea of setting boundaries, and understand that the definition of family can be elastic enough to include, say, beloved friends. None of these ideas are new, but the language we’re using to talk about them has a clinically detached vibe that allows us to confront incredibly painful experiences with some degree of distance. It feels precise; it captures an inexact idea we know to be true in our bones: Sometimes, family isn’t worth it.

Emily St. James, Vox, 2021

“How Twitter Can Ruin a Life”

In the 18 months since, what happened to [Isabel Fall, author of “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter”] has become a case study for various people who want to talk about the Way We Live Today. It has been held up as an example of progressives eating their own, of the dangers of online anonymity, of the need for sensitivity readers or content warnings. But what this story really symbolizes is the fact that as we’ve grown more adept at using the internet, we’ve also grown more adept at destroying people’s lives, but from a distance, in an abstracted way.

Emily St. James, Vox, 2021

“The Fall Of Mic Was a Warning”

The Times had missed the forest for the treehouse. Mic was the archetypal millennial-packed digital media workplace ― not because it coddled its young employees, but because it left so many of them yearning for stability. Like its cousins BuzzFeed, HuffPost and Vice, Mic at times relied on its young and diverse staff to churn out content, respond nimbly to every change in the Facebook algorithm and sometimes even mine their personal pain for clicks in the pursuit of blistering traffic growth.

Maxwell Strachan, HuffPost, 2019

“Of Course Thrillist Knew About The Burger Guy’s Domestic Violence Conviction”

There was a story here; one a reporter might have chosen not to run, fearing the harm it might cause, or one they might have followed to whatever conclusions it led them to. Both of those stories would have been true, but the one they ran wasn’t, not quite. The correction, in which they write of somehow “missing” a part of the story, as if it were simply misplaced or unseen, isn’t really true, either. Instead, the story Thrillist told about Stanich’s elevated the apologetic reporter at the expense of victims he didn’t know—or didn’t want to know—about. The difference there means very little in one reading, and everything in another.

Molly Osberg, Jezebel, 2018

“The Time I Went On A Lesbian Cruise And It Blew Up My Entire Life”

I had only a vague idea of what to expect when I boarded the Celebrity Summit in April for a weeklong excursion to the Caribbean. Olivia, a groundbreaking women’s record label turned lesbian travel company, named for the hero of a Dorothy Bussy novel, has catered specifically to lesbian vacationers since its maiden voyage in 1990. When I reached out to Olivia, the company offered me a press ticket for one of its Celebrity-partnered cruises so that I could get a sense of how it’s become one of the most successful lesbian companies of all time. I generally expected to meet some nice older ladies with interesting life stories, to explore the tensions of intergenerational lesbian culture and the fraught future of lesbian spaces, to laze about on a beach in the Virgin Islands and get to say I was swimming and sunbathing “for work.”

What I didn’t expect was everything else that would happen to me — and is still happening to me — thanks to this one little week in my otherwise pleasantly uneventful life.

Shannon Keating, BuzzFeed News, 2019

“Dreaming Accountability”

Accountability is not a destination, it is a skill we can build and practice. It is an art, a craft, an alchemy we can learn how to wield, just as we have learned how to wield hurt and shame and fear. If accountability is a skill we value, then we must make room and make commitments to practice it ourselves each day, each week, each year. We can start small and build up our skills from there. We can start with our everyday relationships and those closest to us: our families, our friends, our partners, our coworkers, the earth.

Mia Mingus, Leaving Evidence, 2019

“American Hippopotamus”

Burnham was here at the Maryland Hotel to call these animal lovers to a higher purpose, to gather them behind an idea. It was a grand and sparkling idea, an idea with momentum. The idea was already making its way through the U.S. House of Representatives in the form of a bill, introduced by one of Burnham’s partners, the Louisiana congressman Robert Broussard. Theodore Roosevelt, a friend of Burnham’s, had been so impressed with the idea a few years earlier that, newspapers reported, he’d pledged “his hearty approval and promise of cooperation.” Days before the speech in Pasadena, Burnham had gone to Denver to meet with the former president and secured his endorsement all over again. The New York Times called the idea “practical and timely.” Editorials around the country claimed that the idea’s time had come, or that it couldn’t come soon enough.

The idea was to import hippopotamuses from Africa, set them in the swamplands along the Gulf Coast, and raise them for food. The idea was to turn America into a nation of hippo ranchers.

Jon Mooallem, The Atavist Magazine, 2013

“Who Is We?”

This past December, the New York Times ran a perfectly anodyne post promoting a new episode of The Daily, its popular podcast, and found itself mildly embarrassed. The problem wasn’t the actual substance of what it had published, a straightforward accounting of how the national-security establishment’s fixation on Arabs and Muslims had blinded it to the threat posed by right-wing terrorism, but the presentation: Someone had headlined the post “The Rise of Right-Wing Extremism, and How We Missed It.” Who exactly, any number of people asked, reasonably, is “we”?

Tim Marchman, Deadspin (RIP), 2019

“Why You Never See Your Friends Anymore”

Whereas we once shared the same temporal rhythms—five days on, two days off, federal holidays, thank-God-it’s-Fridays—our weeks are now shaped by the unpredictable dictates of our employers. Nearly a fifth of Americans hold jobs with nonstandard or variable hours. They may work seasonally, on rotating shifts, or in the gig economy driving for Uber or delivering for Postmates. Meanwhile, more people on the upper end of the pay scale are working long hours. Combine the people who have unpredictable workweeks with those who have prolonged ones, and you get a good third of the American labor force.

Judith Shulevitz, The Atlantic, 2019

“Starting Over: It’s not about the elk, it’s all about the elk”

Most of the time, the Elk is just a swerve I have to make as I pass on Southwest Main Street between Third and Fourth avenues. When I look at Libby’s photos of it as it is today, I’m struck by those skinny legs and proportions that don’t quite seem “right.” Libby mentions how much smaller it seems at ground level than up on its granite pedestal. Perry notes that ungrateful Portlanders objected to this gift to the City originally because it wasn’t a West Coast elk. But back before “all this,” I remember sitting in Lownsdale Square, gazing at it in all its shaded serenity and feeling myself exhale and enter a reverie—not about the Elk, surely, but along the trail my electrons blazed for me through and around the area encased by my brainpan. I did not muse about early 20th century power relationships or the way this bronze elk reflected them. 

Barry Johnson, Oregon ArtsWatch, 2020

“‘Kids are gross’: on feminists and agency”

We talk a lot, in discourses regarding and informed by feminism, about the fact that women should be able to exist in public spaces without being approached by strangers who comment on our appearance; without being touched by people who don’t have our permission, but who feel entitled to touch us because they like the way we look. [My child] gets more unsolicited comments about how cute he is, more uninvited pinches on the cheek and ruffles of the hair and demands for affection from strangers, than anyone else I know. I made a point, from when he was very young, of teaching him to express his discomfort: he says ‘I want some space’; he says ‘I feel shy’; he says ‘I don’t want you to touch me’; he says ‘I don’t like that, please stop.’ These statements from him are almost always laughed at, and then ignored, until I step in on his behalf.

Caitlin McGregor, Overland, 2017

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