Polly Asks: New York Magazine Wants Me to Write Ask Polly For Them. Should I Tell Them to Piss Off?

Dear Readers,

I need to tell you a story. That means this will be just like every other Ask Polly column, except this story is a little longer than usual, and at first, when you read it, you’ll ask, “Where’s the tepid dude of the week?” Just bear with me.

In September of 2012, after reading and admiring The Awl for years, and writing a few short humor pieces for them, I sent Choire Sicha an email.

Subject: Existential advice column That’s what I should be writing for The Awl.

Come on, pay me a tiny bit and it’s yours! Just enough $ so my husband doesn’t roll his eyes and spit whenever he hears the word “Awl.”

Choire’s one-word reply was:


Two days later, I sent in my first column and The Awl published it, and thus began one of the best gigs of my career. My first editor, Carrie Frye, let the term “pious fuckwinder’ run in my second column. My second editor, Choire, was even more tolerant of dubious strings of adjectives. (He also once forgot to pay me for five months, but when I responded with a three-thousand-word screed on the madness of freelance writing, he sent me a check and published my screed and paid me for that, too.) My third editor, Matt Buchanan, let the term “dickweasel” run. In a world full of pious fuckwinders and dickweasels, in other words, The Awl is an island of sanity, and originality, and humility. I had hoped to never leave.

Worst Man: I’m the Friend You Didn’t Invite to Your Wedding

My friend Stephen planned his wedding very carefully. He picked Howe Caverns, in upstate New York, for the ceremony because it was a favorite weird-but-cool destination of himself and his then-finance. He roped in a mutual friend of ours to perform the ceremony; he timed the whole thing to coincide with the annual Perseids meteor shower. I wasn’t invited.

Stephen told me later that only the immediate families were there. He didn’t want to deal with having a big event, he said—“fretting over orders of centerpieces or picking hydrangeas versus birds of paradise”—or the logistics of wrangling friends to leave the city. “Plus, we knew we’d be having a nice big party here in the city,” he said with a nervous laugh. “You weren’t invited to that, either.”

In fact, none of my adult friends have ever invited me to their weddings. Not Stephen or Tom and Kim or Mary and James or Annabel and Nick or anyone else. When I bring this up, people laugh, and they almost always say, “No! Really?”

That Millennial Marketing Verve

Last summer, a dozen people, mostly in their late teens and early twenties, crowded into a living room in Aldan, Pennsylvania, a small working-class suburb outside of Philadelphia. They toggled back and forth between smartphones and tablets while they downed an energy drink called Verve. “Did you know Red Bull and Monster can stay on the shelf for more than four years?” one guest told another. “That’s disgusting,” the other person replied. “Verve has a shelf life of eight months.” The chatter continued until Erin Wilkers, the twenty-year-old college dropout who had invited them into her parents’ home, quieted them and began her soliloquy. “I’m just going to start off by eliminating the people in the room that aren’t right for this,” she began. “I know this sounds blunt, but if you’re cynical, there’s the door, leave. Straight up. I don’t want to work with you. And that’s fine if you’re cynical—if you’re happy with what you’re doing.”

Wilkers put on a YouTube video. In the video, a twenty-three-year-old named Alex Morton stands in front of a wall plastered with the Verve logo, talking to a group at Verve Central, a company training center in Virginia Beach. His bro-ish drawl, combined with a rapid-fire speech pattern, makes him occasionally smear his words. “I’m not here to tell you it’s the next Facebook, but it’s the next Facebook,” he tells the audience in the video. “Society says, ‘You want to be a millionaire? Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ They make it some fantasy thing. You have to be on a game show to have a million dollars? That’s not true. That’s why three percent of this country own ninety-seven percent of all the money. Three percent own everything. So that means most of our moms, dads, teachers, professors and friends don’t know how to make money. So chances are the person in your life currently teaching you how to make money is probably broke.”

After the video, a man named Jim Brogan, a former San Diego Clippers player, appeared on the television screen. He had dialed in with Oovoo, a Skype-like service hooked up to the TV. Despite the poor frame rate and the mild pixelation that softly scrambled his face, he projected a bone-rattling ebullience from the television. “Learning about this business is easy,” he said in a mild Philly accent. “It’s similar to going to school. I don’t care if you’re taking philosophy, calculus, reading 101, economics 101, I don’t care. We see young people, fifteen to twenty-four-year-olds, that are making—there’s two fifteen-year-olds making a hundred thousand dollars, two twenty-four-year-olds making over half a million. Don’t be cynical about your chances. Don’t be cynical about what’s happening out in the world. Stop watching the news and all the crap and all the negativity that’s out there.” He eventually talked about Verve: “You’ve got a product that helps people,” he said. “If they have cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue, chronic headache, they’re a little overweight, why not say, ‘For thirty days, try this’?”

At the end, when he asked if there were any questions, I responded with one about how, once we started selling Verve, the payment plan actually worked. “The more people you help, the more money you make!” he said. “Haha! I love that line!”

A Guide to Visiting Iceland on July 16th, 2014

Your day in Iceland begins on a bus, the Flybus, which shuttles along Iceland’s edge from Keflavik airport to Reykjavik. In ten years, you might be able to do this trip on a train that will carry a thousand passengers every hour. Iceland has never had a public train before, so it’s possible that the first public train in Iceland will cater almost exclusively to tourists, whose numbers are projected to almost double by 2023.

Until then, it’s the Flybus, which traces a boundary between Atlantic Ocean and an inexplicable, bulbous network of volcanic rock. Observe as you travel that the treeless terrain, at once both traversable and inhospitable, makes it perfect for video game realms where characters can only move, jump, and shoot. Travel fact: Ridley Scott’s upcoming movie version of Halo just filmed in Iceland a few weeks ago.

Reykjavik is a driving city—a small Los Angeles, you will be told, with growing traffic problems. The traffic gets worse as the city gets bigger, in large part because of tourism—because of all the hotels they’re building. But still, we’re talking a really small LA, since its population is just a bit over a hundred and two thousand people. After stopping by a hideous cement church, a hot dog stand, and the shopping district, you will finish your city tour in forty-five minutes.

Now it’s time to see some of Iceland’s famous wilderness. Rent a car with a friend to go watch a performance of Cage’s 4:33 in an ancient ravine. Pile in with another guy and two girls you just met. One of them is best friends with that girl from your high school, which is the sort of improbability that you can still fathom, like the fact that all the water in Iceland smells vaguely of sulfur. Travel fact: that girl from high school had blond hair and responded to something you’d say with a scoff and a smirk and that either meant she disapproved or didn’t understand—you never figured out which. You spoke little to her and she to you. And now you and her best friend are careening across a well-marketed arctic landmass, united by that foreign visitor spirit, that desire for exotic curiosities and safe adventures.

The Cover Job

Peter Mendelsund is associate art director of Alfred A. Knopf Books, which makes him perhaps the preeminent expert among those who judge books by their covers. He’s designed covers for everything from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo to classics by Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Joyce, and De Beauvoir. Last week, he published two books: What We See When We Read, an incisive exploration of the phenomenology of reading, and Cover, a monograph of his best work, which includes his thoughts on designing and several short essays from authors.

I talked to Peter the other day about his work as a cover designer, which began eleven years ago, after a past life as a classical pianist.

So, you were a classical pianist for many, many years, and you mention in Cover that that you still self-identify as such. Is the pleasure you get out of designing at all different than the one you get playing?

Oh yeah, it’s different in kind and degree. The joy I get out of playing piano—there are very, very few things in life that match that particular form of communion. Of course, it’s also hard work, but when it’s going well it’s just one of the great feelings a person can have. If one is playing great music, if you’re playing Bach or Beethoven, and you’re playing it in a way where things are working properly, then your self dissolves, and it’s absolutely a transcendent experience. And nothing, nothing, in design matches that.

It’s not like I’m sitting in front of my InDesign documents swooning. I wish I did. Designing evokes a much narrower range of emotions; that range is somewhere between cool, which is one response, and oh, that’s pretty.

You say in Cover that with book design “clever” and “pretty” are the main benchmarks of quality—that design doesn’t need to deal in profundity. Is that really true, though? Looking at some of your covers, I find profundity. Is that incidental, or do you aim for that?

Well, what you’re trying to do is make something that structurally maps the text. So if there is some unintentional profundity, it has to do with the way the author has written the book and the way the reader has read the book. You’re gonna bring your own experience and feelings to bear on it. I don’t think there’s ever been a moment where I’ve said or felt, “this cover is really profound.” It’s really profundity by association—if it’s a great text, Dostoevsky or whatever, then you connect the experience of reading with the paratext.

What Not to Stream

Center Stage 2: Turn It Up

The Eleanor Roosevelt Story 

Music of the Heart

Chalet Girl

Eyes of an Angel

Without a Paddle

Sherri Shepherd: It’s My Time to Talk

Fred 2: Night of the Living Fred

The Dark Side of the Sun

The Big Wedding

Slightly Single in L.A.

Why I Left

Legend has it that William Howard Taft once got stuck in a bathtub. It probably isn’t true, in the way that so many bits of history are just oversold dad jokes. But let’s say, for a second, that it is true. Or better yet: Taft didn’t get stuck. He just decided to stay in the bath.

I thought about William Howard Taft as I soaped myself. I’d left the door to the bathroom open, and I could feel the chill beyond the curtain; I knew what awaited me when I shut off the water and stepped, dripping, from the shower. Even though, when I’d come into the shower three minutes earlier, I’d known that, one day, I’d have to leave it — I’d known that the shower wasn’t, couldn’t, be where I belonged — the thought of Taft’s bulk gave me pause. His considerable girth warmed me. If Taft could stay, maybe I could stay, too. Maybe I could make it in the shower. If I could make it in the shower, I could make it anywhere.

I have a rain shower. It has black and white tiles. When we’d moved in to the apartment three months earlier, I’d thought, “This is a good shower.” Now, I thought again, as though no time had passed, “This is a good shower.”

It’s funny how time passes, even when it feels like it doesn’t. Because it does. The comfort I felt in that shower, warm-ish droplets of water cascading down my head, made me think of time, and how it passes. Hairs from my own body littered the floor of the shower. They weren’t there, once. And that’s when I realized: even if I stayed in the shower, one day I wouldn’t be there. Because, I realized, I have to die. Plus, there’s a drought going on, and I should probably stop using all this water. That’s when I left the shower.

Six Months, One Week, and Four Days With Zelda

I pulled out my first gray hair today at 9:32 a.m. It wasn’t the first gray hair I’ve had, just the first one I’ve pulled out. I didn’t pull it out with a sense of purpose; it just came out with the rest of its classmates. No one tells you—well, no one told me, until I’d already noticed—that after you have a baby, all that lustrous, glorious pregnancy hair sheds quickly, replaced by your former, less exciting and less beautiful hair.

I examined this gray hair momentarily. (Time is of the essence, I only have a moment.) I deemed it not much coarser than my regular hair, and looked up at myself in the mirror. There was the wrinkle in the middle of my forehead, just like my mother’s, which appeared when I was around twenty and only shows itself when I am thinking.

Am I thinking? Is this wrinkle deeper?

I looked at myself and realized that my hair was longer now than it’s been in at least twenty years. Twenty years ago I was seventeen. I’m thirty-six. No, thirty-seven. I forgot to get a haircut for a year.

I heard the baby stir. (My moment was up.) I left the bathroom, went into her room, and was greeted by her smiling face. It was 9:36 a.m. Right on schedule.

Two and a half hours later, she was sleeping again and I needed to scan my passport. My unused passport, issued last August, when I was two months pregnant. My hair was at least six or seven inches shorter, my face a little thinner. “Wow, I do not look happy in this photo,” I thought to myself. “Are there any photos where I look happy?”

My Short Career in the Internet Outrage Business

The target demographic: white males, Rust Belt, fifty-plus. We came in early; I saw the sunrise every morning. We worked in New York City, but I don’t think a single coworker lived there. They commuted from Long Island and Jersey and Philly, daily, to be in the office. I lived alone in Brooklyn and it was a straight shot on the M to Bryant Park. I could see the lawn and the library from my desk—the gold and yellow and green filtered light. I went home in the afternoon and got ready for bed before my friends clocked off, so I drank alone. I wasn’t alienated from the labor; the labor alienated me from everything else.

We made up the New York office of a conservative media company based in the South. In hindsight, the politics seem both hyper-specific and nebulous; the one constant is that they orbited around white-hot outrage and fear. This was not obvious to me when I replied to the “Digital Reporter” listing. I’d been in the business for a few years by then, writing candidly about art and music and related topics, and my track record wasn’t hard to come by: it would have been clear to anyone checking that I stood on the liberal side of things. But the earnest man conducting my interview assured me that my politics had nothing to do with the scope of the work I’d be doing. For the most part, he was correct. We’re all actors on the internet, right?

“Fuck it,” I said to myself, “You’ll have a job writing news.” Which is not to be confused with breaking news (getting a tip, making the wire) or reporting news (collecting a first-hand account) or making news happen (punching someone at a wedding). I was writing the news, over and over and over again. Some people call this aggregating or blogging; I called it a job. My necessary skillset was narrow.

The War on Christmas was a big topic around the office. When the shooting at Sandy Hook happened, the answer was “more guns.” These were positions I was not used to hearing directly. Not that I hadn’t worked at news organizations with conservatives before. This was just so clear cut, and an orthodoxy: To assign pitched outrage to mundane news items for the sake of clicks. That was the job: to trawl Twitter, and the rest of the internet, for conspiracy and evidence of liberal malice. Then, to repackage these stories or posts or memes for the target demo. This is a common job description for a certain large—and largely invisible—class of web writer. And it is tedious, mind-numbing work.

“Your career will be over,” my friend Sam told me. I considered this as my unemployment shrank.

What a Pack of Cigarettes Costs, State By State

Every year, we check the prices of cigarettes in all fifty legally recognized states of this fair Union. (Previously: 2013; 2012; 2011.) Predictably, the results are mostly—but not entirely!—grim: for the first time in the short history of this survey, not a single store in any state state offered us a pack of cigarettes for less than five dollars. So do smoke them, if you happen to have them, since nothing is ever going to get better.

This year, reigning affordable tobacco merchant Kentucky was resoundingly knocked out of the top spot; four states now offer cheaper cigarettes. If obtaining the cheapest possible cigarettes from nearby convenience stores is the overriding factor in the choice of your domicile’s location, you can set your Google Maps coordinates for Virginia or Missouri. While New York and Illinois both offer some relief, they manage to retain their position as the states where cigarettes are most likely to cause you to bounce your rent check. Also of note: Oklahoma cigarettes cost 21 percent more this year than last, and Minnesota’s are up by 36 percent.

As for where these numbers come from: we called convenience stores and gas stations in the most highly populated areas of each state (obvious disclaimer: prices aren’t the same in every store in every area), and asked politely for the cost of a pack of Marlboro Red cigarettes. The current price is in bold; last summer’s price is in parentheses. As always, YMMV.