Women We Read This Week

Sara Corbett’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being the Boarder Queen” in Outside

Never mind the mixed-up byline (the online version credits Michael Llewellyn). This March 2000 profile of pro skateboarder and snowboarder Cara-Beth Burnside is by the great Sara Corbett, and I read it the old-fashioned way a couple of nights ago: in print, in Outside’s 25th anniversary anthology. I’d never heard of Burnside before, and I don’t skate or snowboard, but I loved the unflinching way that Corbett presented Burnside’s status as the unrivaled top female athlete in a male-dominated sport, and the way that status can be both blessing and curse. Here’s Corbett:

From the outside, it seems as if she’s devised a life of perpetual youth, in which the language is a secret one shared only by devotees, whatever their sex. But where snowboarding is liberated—the opportunities for girls being virtually the same as for guys—skateboarding is not. This bugs Burnside. She’s no suffragette, mind you, but she feels lonely having no one there to compete with, no squad of trash-talking upstarts looking to dethrone her, not to mention a lingering bitterness for the days when she was a true outsider, an interloper in a male world. There have been bad vibes, offhand comments, and one time, according to Patty Segovia, some guys kicked Burnside’s skateboard right over the fence at the park. She’s not a crier by nature, but away from the guys, at times she’s sat down and cried.

Now, in the skate parks, they stop to watch CB, this small-framed girl-bullet who may or may not have a chip on her shoulder, who seems to live half the time in her mind. According to Andy Macdonald, who skates frequently with her in Encinitas, California, Burnside’s bravado on the ramp has silenced any critics. “She goes for the harder tricks and she keeps at it,” he says. “There’s no other woman riding a ramp who even comes close to her. She’s better than a lot of guys, and there’s definite respect for her—maybe even some jealousy.” By sheer force of will, Burnside has made people take notice of her. Not one for public speaking, she uses the ramp as her pulpit, a place where she can issue a call to girls who may be too intimidated to persist, to the sponsors who continuously insist that skateboarding’s a dead market for girls; a place where she can be both eloquent and forceful. This is Burnside’s thing. It’s what keeps her flying and falling.


Marina Keegan’s “The Opposite of Loneliness” in Yale Daily News and The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories

Marina Keegan’s “The Opposite of Loneliness” went viral two years ago, following the author’s death in a car wreck soon after graduating from Yale. In her final editorial, she elegantly tore down the fear of time and the future, instead speaking to the joy in not knowing, changing one’s mind, and making something happen in the world. Her observations about being in a passionate community that embodies the opposite of loneliness and carrying that feeling out into the world breathe energy and inspiration into being alive.

She wasn’t just talking to graduating college students. She was talking to everyone:

We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life… It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it’s four A.M. and no one goes to bed. That night with the guitar. That night we can’t remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt. The hats.

Keegan’s parents, teachers, and friends sorted through her many pieces of writing and put together a collection of both short stories and nonfiction, which came out in April. Keegan’s voice weaves through stories of an Iraq War correspondence, familial and romantic relationships, collapsing marriages, the wavering faith of a submarine crew, the consequences of a lack of passion in the finance world, and more. Though Keegan’s words are made heavier with the tragedy of her death, her stories are nuanced, illustrating human life with a fresh and passionate voice.

The collection’s final passage sums up Marina’s short career and evocative writing:

I read somewhere that radio waves just keep traveling outward, flying into the universe with eternal vibrations. Sometime before I die I think I’ll find a microphone and climb to the top of a radio tower. I’ll take a deep breath and close my eyes because it will start to rain right when I reach the top. Hello, I’ll say to outer space, this is my card.


Lizzie Widdicombe’s “The End of Food” in The New Yorker

I have to admit that I ate carnitas tacos while reading “The End of Food.” I don’t think I could have finished the article without pork grease flowing through my veins, because the world that Widdicombe describes is foreign and soulless to me. She goes to meet the inventors of Soylent (advertised under the motto “Free Your Body”), a meal replacement beverage that, according to the three tech nerds who invented it, is a tasty and healthy way to have a more efficient life. She arrives at their apartment to find that,

They had been living mostly on ramen, corn dogs, and Costco frozen quesadillas—supplemented by Vitamin C tablets, to stave off scurvy—but the grocery bills were still adding up. Rob Rhinehart, one of the entrepreneurs, began to resent the fact that he had to eat at all. “Food was such a large burden,” he told me recently. “It was also the time and the hassle.

The friends start mixing up vitamin based recipes, and eventually they invent Soylent, which then becomes their primary food source. Widdicombe tried drinking Soylent for several days, and she found that, “with a bottle of Soylent on your desk, time stretches before you, featureless and a little sad.”

The sludge has found a following in our workaholic monomaniac culture. Myself? I will stick to the burden of eating, to tacos, carnitas, and gorditas, to dreaming of strawberry pie, and waking to drench my bread in olive oil.


Lauren Quinn’s “Which Side Are You On, Girl?” in Guernica Daily

Lauren Quinn’s insightful and compelling essay opens in the shower of a girl’s locker room, where there is a dividing line between class and race. The larger setting is Oakland, California in the 1990s. Quinn lived in the Flatlands neighborhood, which sat in contrast to the Hills, where the families were more affluent—affluent and white. The daughter of sixties radicals who had moved to Oakland for its revolutionary energy, Quinn thrived in a world where school, friends, and the social milieu was biracial, gritty, and full of energy. So were the summer swim teams, all except the Oakland Hills Tennis Club (OHTC) team. The OHTC had more money and more time to practice than the Flatlands teams. They also had matching swim suits and caps, and armies of minivan-driving parents. Of course, OHTC won all of the meets.

“A tension grew in me, a division, a fault line just like the one that drove beneath the earth and had caused those hills to rise up in the first place,” Quinn writes. The clash between the swim teams from the Flatlands and the Hills is the narrative arc that Quinn uses to create a seamless weave between the politics of childhood sports, the larger context of race and class in Oakland and in the U.S., and her own increasingly conflicted desire to have a white girlhood like the ones she saw on T.V. She couldn’t help but notice that “even The Simpsons lived in a two-story house.”

Quinn takes fierce look at what we do to children in our efforts to teach them fairness, empathy, tolerance, and sportsmanship. Beyond that, she draws us in through her striking images: the steam of the hot shower in the locker room, the stripped down view of the Flatlands from up on the hill, and “fingers sticky with BBQ sauce” at the picnic where Quinn’s Flatlands team hears they finally beat the OHTC. However, the conclusion emphatically does not wrap up the issues broached by the essay in a neat little bow, which makes it a totally satisfying piece.



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