Illustration: Jenny Williams

Women We Read This Week

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Carolyn Kormann’s “The Swimmer: Manhattan Edition” in The New Yorker

I’ve always loved John Cheever’s classic short story, “The Swimmer,” from which this gentle and weirdly affecting piece takes its chief inspiration. Like Cheever’s protagonist, Neddy Merrill, Kormann takes a journey via swimming pools, but while Merrill swims through suburbia, “from one back-yard pool to the next,” having lost “everything – his social status, his home, his family,” Kormann maps out the location of Manhattan’s public pools – “the people’s moat, a secret waterway, a liquid realm” – and swims through the city, “among the honking taxis, flashing lights, and fretful pedestrians.”

“My swim,” Kormann writes, “would be investigative, maybe healing. I spent my childhood in pools: they were like a second womb.” She starts at the bottom of the island and works north, swimming a few lengths at each pool before hopping out and making her way – by foot, subway, taxi, and Citi Bike – to the next. The journey described is dreamy, and reflective of that particular late summer mixture of sadness and optimism. And perhaps my own love of swimming, and my particular belief in the geographic importance of pools, gives me a vested interest in this piece, but it was refreshing to read not just as a story but as a sort of psychogeographic exercise, a way of sketching a personalised Manhattan, of describing a physical engagement with the city in a more novel (and fragmented) way than walking or running allows. It’s also light, doesn’t take itself too seriously – at one point a taxi driver tells Kormann to “Keep dedicated…What you’re doing is a real inspiration.”

“I couldn’t see how it was anything of the sort,” she writes, “but I appreciated the encouragement.”

Meghan Daum’s “Difference Maker” in The New Yorker

As I enter that phase in my life in which everyone around me begins to fall into one category or the other – parents / not parents – I worry that writing, but particularly writing by women, must also somehow be categorized in this way: the author is a mother / not a mother. What stands out about this piece, to me, is a reassuring blurriness, an acceptance of uncertainty. Even ambivalence, Daum seems to suggest – about parenthood, yes, but also about anything and everything – is itself unsure and unsteady, liable to change: “When my husband and I married,” she writes, “we both saw ourselves as ambivalent about having children. Since then…my ambivalence had slid into something more like opposition. Meanwhile, my husband’s ambivalence had slid into abstract desire.” And even when fate makes decisions for Daum and her husband, a slippery uncertainty remains:

And as I lay on that bed it occurred to me, terrifyingly, that all of it might not be enough. Maybe such pleasures, while pleasurable enough, were merely trimmings on a nonexistent tree. Maybe nothing – not a baby or the lack of a baby, not a beautiful house, not rewarding work – was ever going to make us anything other than the chronically dissatisfied, perpetual second-guessers we already were.

It’s not exactly uplifting, but it’s essay doing what essay does best, in my opinion: climbing down into the trenches with us, stripping down, getting dirty, offering not consolation but companionship.

My husband would make peace with the way things had turned out – except in those moments when he didn’t have peace, which, of course, come around for everyone. Our lives would remain our own. Whether that was fundamentally sad or fundamentally exquisite, we’d probably never be certain.


Jessica Nordell’s “Why Aren’t Women Advancing at Work? Ask a Transgender Person” in The New Republic

I was floored to read this article, to finally get a perspective on sexism in which a transgender person talks about life on both sides of the gender divide. The problem is that when we talk about bias against women in the workplace, the discussion always leads to comments that women are less driven, that they work less, that they have kids and – tada! –that is why they are paid less and statistically unlikely to be in a position of power.

However, as Jessica Nordell explains, there is now new evidence to dispel these ideas, because “trans people are now staying in the same careers (and sometimes the very same jobs) after they change genders, [and] they are uniquely qualified to discuss the difference between how men and women experience the workplace.” Research on FTM (female to male) transgender subjects shows that they are taken more seriously as males, and that females who are described as “aggressive” later find that as males those same characteristics are described in terms of leadership. In one of the most striking interviews, Nordell reports:

Ben Barres is a biologist at Stanford who lived and worked as Barbara Barres until he was in his forties. For most of his career, he experienced bias, but didn’t give much weight to it—seeing incidents as discrete events. (When he solved a tough math problem, for example, a professor said, “You must have had your boyfriend solve it.”) When he became Ben, however, he immediately noticed a difference in his everyday experience: “People who don’t know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect,” he says. He was more carefully listened to and his authority less frequently questioned. He stopped being interrupted in meetings. At one conference, another scientist said, “Ben gave a great seminar today—but then his work is so much better than his sister’s.” (The scientist didn’t know Ben and Barbara were the same person.) “This is why women are not breaking into academic jobs at any appreciable rate,” he wrote in response to Larry Summers’s famous gaffe implying women were less innately capable at the hard sciences. “Not childcare. Not family responsibilities,” he says. “I have had the thought a million times: I am taken more seriously.”

It is time to dispel the myth of the unambitious woman and focus instead on the way we – as individuals and as a society – treat women.


Sonja Sharp’s “My Journey to the New Jerusalem,” a collaborative publication of Tablet and The Big Roundtable

When I was 12 years old or so, my father popped a best-of Phil Spector compilation into the cassette player of the family station wagon. It was time for me to learn about the Wall of Sound. Lesson One: Be My Baby. Those first eight percussive beats felt like roundhouse kicks to the chest until I recognized the rhythm was already in there–my heartbeat. The women’s voices were taut and crazy with fury and wanting—a danger conveyed not in spite of but because of their unison, their perfect time.

This week, ever since I finished Sharp‘s long-form essay, I’ve been thinking about Wall of Sound. The piece has content to spare: community, Jewish identity, a power coup in a Crown Heights synagogue, a father’s transgender transition, a near-fatal childhood illness, the compulsion to hospitality, the best Challah bread in Brooklyn. But what ties it together is the music of her language–a rhythm and a longing that are transgressive, exotic, familiar all at once; that set the air around you ringing.

It’s the lamb’s head or yours. My husband’s maternal family is Persian, and just as I’ve learned to crunch chelo and spice gondi, I now painstakingly prepare the massive Mizrahi Seder for Rosh Hashanah, severed heads and all. Like almost everything in Judaism, the lamb’s head—a graduation from the whole fish head I’ve used for the past two years—is a symbol. Of something. I’m 90 percent sure.
The lamb’s head says our faith is not fucking around. This is some Old World Benya Krik shit here, some Kabbalistic kung fu. I am a spiritual gangster, and this head on the table is my message job.

Sharp’s got swagger. She nails the downbeats, she knows that profanity, slung right, is poetry. She can modulate, on a dime, to the feverish whisper of a prayer. This piece is a secret and an invitation. There is a set of Instagram pictures embedded in the text, a startling warmth and intimacy—which feels, to me, very familiar, very Jewish, even as the world of prayer screens and fasting that Sharp renders is so clearly different from my own left, secular Yiddishkeit milieu. But common ground is part of what she’s working towards, working hard. This piece is an entree into a neighborhood and, in that sense, a quintessential New York valentine. It’s also a far-ranging exploration of what it means to want and need and have faith. Like all great writing, it is specific and expansive. At sundown, this past Wednesday, Jews everywhere celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish calendar. This essay is 21st century midrash. It’s a sexy, searching text. Happy New Year, indeed.



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