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The Bluestocking, vol 267
fascinated by the smell & taste of earwax
I’m stuffed with coronation trivia ahead of next weekend—and you can watch me disgorge it on a Zoom event with Atlantic head honcho Jeff Goldberg and my fellow Britisher Sophie Gilbert on Tuesday. Register for free here.
I Really Didn’t Want to Go (Harper’s)
To journalists, a “cruise piece”—in addition to being a free vacation you’re paid to express all your darkest thoughts about—is a career achievement; it carries associations with the great cruise piece of 1996, “Shipping Out,” better known as “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” indeed also published in this swanky East Coast magazine. To be able to unite the cruise piece with wellness writing in a single essay promised a glory and quantity of free stuff that would hearken to the heyday of print magazines, back when things mattered.
What’s more, during the yearslong squabble over which of us lady writers would become the next Joan Didion, no one had tried to claim the title of David Foster Wallace for girls; his reputation as both a misogynist and an author beloved by misogynists meant it was just sitting right there this whole time, waiting for anyone with grammatical flexibility and the courage to try. A reread confirmed my suspicions: it’s not that good. But it is, fatedly, about a cruise on the same cruise line. All I’d have to do was avoid footnotes, which would be too obvious, and getting sensitive about the evils of advertising, a moment that has long passed. (We call it branding or marketing now.)
The point, remember, is not to imitate DFW, but to occupy his place—in a female way. “A supposedly moisturizing thing you’ll never do again,” suggested a friend. “A supposedly fun egg I’ll never put in my vagina again,” proposed another. “A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again, because I’m dead,” Boyfriend 1 supplied. I would not be putting any jade eggs in my vagina, both because of my Didion-esque self-respect and because, after Goop settled a lawsuit concerning “unsubstantiated claims” made about the medical benefits of the yoni eggs in 2018, I assumed they had stopped selling them. Anyway, I am getting paid about 50 percent more than DFW was, even adjusting for inflation, which is a win for us girls.”
Very happy to be vindicated in my decision not to pitch a Goop cruise feature, on the assumption that the Goop cruise was going to be entirely filled with journalists writing about the Goop cruise, and would therefore be like one of those safari holidays where 19 Jeeps are chasing one harassed cheetah who just wants to eat in peace. (If I’m going to cosplay any DFW piece it will be “Big Red Son,” about the adult film awards, on the basis that people are still making and jacking off to porn without being crippled by self-conscious irony.)
Still, Lauren Oyler has done a very funny job of writing the inevitable Goop cruise meta-commentary, which correctly notes that a classic Gwynnie ruse is to insist that we all need to let ourselves cry, even though everyone on social media and reality TV is blubbing all the time: “A favored tactic of the self-identified iconoclast is to argue that things that have already happened need, still, to happen.”
Also, I commend anyone who a) gets their employer to pay $490 in expenses for wifi; b) has two boyfriends, which sounds exhausting.
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Open Questions (Gwern)
“While petting cats, I accidentally discovered cats are fascinated by the smell & taste of earwax, particularly that of humans, and this interest can last indefinitely. Dogs & humans, for comparison, are not. A number of anecdotes have reported this over the years, but no formal research appears to have been done on this. What makes earwax attractive to cats? Pheromones? Some nutrient?
A big hat-tip to The Browser (subscribe here) for this link to Gwern’s list of unanswered questions, which includes ruminations on furry economics (lucrative), microwaved tea (yuk) and the question of why more identical twins don’t work together? (I would love a Reserve Me.)
I know some of you reading this will pause reading the newsletter at this point to put your finger in your ear and get your cat to sniff it. Please know that I am judging you. But also email me and tell me what happens.
Cultural differences: one thing that’s maybe hard for Americans to understand is that, while half their politicians are having conniptions about drag queens, enormous swathes of British culture are based around the desire by middle-aged men to put on stockings (some will even claim it’s for Important Espionage Reasons). Even the royal family, has never been able to get enough of them. Here’s Barry Humphries (RIP) invading the Royal Box, much to Prince Charles’s delight.
“Reader, to think it is to know it: Darcy was a more harmless soul than we had imagined, and replete with good intentions; his silence in company proceeded, not from a conviction of natural superiority, but from a solid, sterling stupidity, such as an English gentleman alone dares display.” Hilary Mantel was working on a Jane Austen mashup, told from the perspective of Mary Bennet, when she died (Guardian).
A genuinely informative discussion of how ChatGPT actually works—and therefore what its strengths and limits are—from David Epstein and Cal Newport (Range, Substack).
“To protect his 30 ships and their precious cargo, he had one small armed brig named the Ganges with around a dozen guns. Up against him were the 186 guns of the French squadron, 74 in Marengo, 40 in Belle Poule, 36 in Semillante, 20 in Berceau and 16 in Aventurier.” Lovely telling of a pivotal moment in the Napoleonic wars, when OCEANS HAD BECOME BATTLEFIELDS (Terra Nullius, Substack).
“It is not enough to say that, actually, Jews or Travellers aren’t really white. One must instead commit to the view, however much it upsets certain contemporary pieties, that white people can experience racism.” Samuel Rubinstein on Diane Abbott’s bizarre suicide-by-cop letter to the Observer. (The Critic).
Man is accused of rape in America, fakes own death, flees to Scotland, pretends to be someone else, claims he has he same tattoos as fugitive because he was unwilling tattooed while unconscious, gives bizarre interview in an oxygen mask and fake accent. Here’s a clip of him clearing it all up.
There’s an odd sense of something submerged in this New York Times story of the professor who wrote the definitive book on trauma, then smashed her kneecap and essentially disappeared for decades—like there’s something its author wants to say, but can’t quite articulate. Any guesses what it is? Am I being ridiculous? Hit reply or leave a comment.
“Some chippy prick on Twitter said I looked like Timmy Mallett. I don’t mind the comparison. Timmy Mallett is a brilliant painter and entertainer who explained hard topics like apartheid to children. My arguments, language, and approach are for adults but I don’t take myself hyper-seriously.” Mic Wright on his debate with Matthew Goodwin, the Vidal/Buckley debate we deserve (Substack).
Feeling pretty chuffed that I caught the word “Habsburg” when Alexander Skarsgard and his Swedish chums were bitching about the Roy family in the latest Succession. I’m guessing he said something like “they’re inbred like the Habsburgs.” Can any Swedish speakers help? (Very unfair dig, tbh, unless it turns out that the father of Shiv’s baby is Cousin Greg.)
This Substack got a nice shoutout from David Aaronovitch here. I like his Substack, Notes From Underground, as well as the two others he recommends: Joshua Rozenberg on the law, and Sam & Lawrence Freedman on domestic and foreign policy.
I enjoyed the President of South Korea singing American Pie at the White House. As did he, by the look of it (twitter).
See you next time!