Look it up.

There’s a scene in the film Say Anything where Lloyd (John Cusack) comes over to Diane’s house (Ione Skye) for what will emerge as a fairly high-stakes dinner with her father (John Mahoney) and his very business-like adult friends. (This meal is where Lloyd, asked what he’s going to do with his life, famously declares his personal philosophy: he doesn’t want to buy anything, sell anything, or process anything. The party ends with the IRS showing up to investigate Diane’s dad for tax fraud.)

Diane’s not ready yet when Lloyd arrives just before all that; he awkwardly pokes around her bedroom as she holds out various dresses around the closet door and asks his opinion on what to wear.

He pauses at a thick reference book, stroking its spine. “This is a mother dictionary,” he says, just loudly enough for her to hear.

“I’ve had it forever,” she says. “I used to have this thing with marking the words that I would look up.”

He flips through the pages, slow at first and then faster, running his finger down columns where nearly every word has a ballpoint-pen X beside it in the margin. Sometimes she’s marked whole runs of words with a giant bracket.

Diane was the valedictorian of a class where Lloyd may have been considered, by at least a few, the coolest dude around. He possesses a shy confidence that is painfully, obviously undercut with a heavy streak of slacker self-doubt.

Lloyd slams the dictionary shut. Maybe he’s overwhelmed, maybe impressed, or maybe both. She emerges with yet another dowdy, matronly dress option and he smiles as if it’s the sexiest thing he’s ever seen. They go down to dinner.

Of all the many times in Say Anything that we are shown and told that Diane Court might be the smartest 18-year-old girl in Seattle, and that unbelievably this is why cool guy Lloyd is in love with her, or at least the idea of her, this has always been the one that stuck with me. She’s undeniably a nerd—“trapped in the body of a game-show hostess,” as one of Lloyd’s female friends observes—and he undoubtedly likes her more for it.

I never had a dictionary quite that fancy growing up—I don’t have a strong memory of any given edition—but from early as I can remember, I would ask my mother what a word I’d come across in a book or newspaper article meant and she would answer, “Why don’t you look it up?” In high school, I had an otherwise unbearably old-fashioned English teacher one year whose most common-sense lecture on a similar topic somehow stuck, habit-forming in its simplicity: Don’t ever read past a word you don’t understand. Stop and look it up. I longed for the luxury of having a dictionary so comprehensive and yet so commonplace that I could mark X’s in pen like Diane’s. I wished for some way to document retroactively how many words I had researched, that I knew.

After my father’s parents died, I came home from college to Reno for a long weekend to help him clean out their two-bedroom apartment. I left with two main inheritances: first, my grandmother’s costume jewelry collection, the kind of heavy rhinestones and elaborately set pieces that no one makes any more. (We each wore one of the necklaces for our wedding.) The other was boxes of books and LIFE magazines—nothing particularly rare or valuable, mostly cheap paperback editions of American classics, some annual calendars or notebooks or other printed giveaways that must have come with the membership dues my progressive grandparents paid to left-wing organizations through the years.

And, most greedily claimed though my only real competition, my brother, was not even there—one giant unabridged Webster dictionary from 1941, the year my father was born. It weighs at least 10 pounds and for more than a decade I hauled it, at no small expense, as I moved from apartment to apartment, coast to coast, where generally it sat on the bottom shelf of any bookcase I deemed sturdy enough to hold its bulk.

When I first moved into my current office, in a sleek shiny building in Burbank, I had a very retro-style bar along the glass window. A year later, nixed by HR, I had a mirrored bar cart I couldn’t entirely bear to bring home in defeat, so I hauled the dictionary to work and cracked it open along the top tray.

I am an editor in chief, I thought, and no matter how many types of media, how many platforms that job now encompasses, I am at heart a woman of words. Here are so many words. Let’s not forget how important each and every word we choose still can be.

Last month, for no real reason except a sudden surge of restlessness, I went over to my dictionary and took a slew of close-up photographs of the cover, the spine, a series of pages at not-quite-random inside. I also found a full sheath of newspaper clippings and typed notes and reference materials tucked inside, a haul rich enough for its own post.

Then I looked up the word that many adults I know will say was their first furtive attempt to confirm via a dictionary, particularly one in a library they might leaf through otherwise anonymously, that they might exist in some older, more recognized form: homosexual.

But the 1941 unabridged Webster’s does not include the word homosexual, or any of its variations.

It skips from Homo sapiens (“Man, regarded as an organic species”) to homoseismal (“Coseismal,” which according to m-w.com means “simultaneously affected by the same phase of any particular seismic shock”) to homo signorum (“An image, much used in old almanacs, of a man surrounded by representations of the signs of the zodiac, lines from which point to the parts of the body subject to their influence”).

I have no idea why homosexual is not included in this dictionary. Their website now includes the definition—“1. of, relating to, or characterized by a tendency to direct sexual desire toward another of the same sex; 2. of, relating to, or involving sexual activity between persons of the same sex”—and notes the first known use of the word was in 1891. There’s no detail on the site given on when or why it was added to Webster’s lexicon. (Just looked up lexicon to be sure I was using it correctly; according to Google it is “the vocabulary of a person, language, or branch of knowledge; a dictionary.”)

By Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. (I can only hope at least some curious male homosexuals who looked up their word found a similar illustration on a nearby page, thus perhaps helping answer some of their questions.)

That’s not to say no one could tell me why it’s not included. Here’s one lengthy and fascinating longread about the history of Merriam, Webster and all their editions and additions, which leads me to believe that I could likely get a human on the phone who is perhaps willing to take me down that particular queer rabbit hole.

A quick google (the verb, using the proper noun site, and also the clear antagonist in this dictionary ecology) reveals that in fact earlier Webster’s did include the H-word, perhaps before my edition: In 1909, according to OutHistory.org, homosexuality made its debut in Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary “as a ‘Med.’ (medical) term meaning ‘morbid sexual passion for one of the same sex.’ Homosexuality was considered a ‘morbid’ (diseased) passion because it was not a passion for procreating, but for sexual pleasure.”

The site also says heterosexuality didn’t make the page until 14 years later, in 1923, when it was similarly defined as a “morbid sexual passion for one of the opposite sex.”

Here I believe this site may be quoting verbatim from historian Jonathan Ned Katz’s The Invention of Heterosexuality:

In 1934 “heterosexuality” appears in Webster’s hefty Second Edition Unabridged, defined in what in 2015 is still the dominant modern mode. In 1934 “heterosexuality” is a “manifestation of sexual passion for one of the opposite sex; normal sexuality.” Heterosexuality has finally attained the status of norm.

In the same 1934 Webster’s, “homosexuality” has changed as well. It’s simply “eroticism for one of the same sex.” Both terms medical origins are no longer cited. Heterosexuality and homosexuality have settled into standard English.

If I could find my copy of Katz’s book, which I know at one point I definitely owned, or had ready access to his archives in the New York Public Library, I might find what appear to be further detailed footnotes about Katz’s own correspondence with a M-W rep named Brett P. Palmer on the subject:

Mr. Palmer assures Katz that “homosexuality” and “homosexual” appears on page 1030 of the 1909 edition of Websters’s International Dictionary. He also says that “heterosexuality” first appears on page xcii of the 1923 supplement of Webster’s New International Dictionary, and that the contemporary definition of “heterosexual” first appears in the 1934 Second Edition of Webster’s. Katz is grateful to Palmer for this information and for photocopies of these pages, now in the Katz Collection, NYPL.

But what of my 1941 copy?

The answer may partially be that it’s technically a Webster’s second edition, which according to the Slate longread is mostly now remembered for being something of a layover between the early origin myth-type tomes and the modernized, more curated Third:

The Second was what one Merriam editor calls the Internet of its time: 3,350 pages long, with more than 600,000 main entries, including proper nouns, and hundreds of pages of biographical, geographical, and literary appendices and other encyclopedic matter. The Second was designed to be a single-source reference for the educated classes and an aspirational text for the masses. It contained long lists of popes and dukes, and hundreds of illustrative quotations from the Bible, Shakespeare, and Dickens. But there was no mention of Mae West, Eugene O’Neill, or Babe Ruth. Popular culture, a term dating to the 19th century, was considered too unrefined for such a serious work. The Second was also priggishly didactic, prescribing what its ivory tower editors and consultants considered “proper” language, and brusquely dismissing usage that was, as its labels declared, incorrect, improper, or illiterate.

I am not sure if I should take the homosexual’s exclusion from such an encyclopedic volume as priggish (self-righteous) or perhaps prudish or simply proscriptive: if you don’t define someone, they can’t disrupt your world order, or so you might hope.

Really it was already too late for that. In 1941, homosexuals were fairly well-defined, medically speaking (if not well-described or well cared for as humans in those medical worlds). We were living in varying degrees of secrecy or boldness, particularly as the second edition of a U.S.-involved World War provided ever more freedom for independent women or sea-faring men to find each other in circumstances where perhaps many people cared more about simple survival than who kept each other warm.

I like looking this sort of thing up. It’s how I almost ended up going to graduate school to study queer history, though instead I just jumped feet-first into what they call the first draft of history, aka journalism. (My baby brother went full historian, which is almost as satisfying.)

I particularly like that we live in a world now where in order to learn a word you don’t have to skulk into the corner of a library, under a bank lamp or the watchful nosy eye of a small-minded, small-town busybody. (I never knew a librarian who wanted anything but to encourage reading more, but it can hard to differentiate gatekeepers from nurturers when you’re simply scared of defining who you are.) I like that there’s no one authoritarian answer to what a word means, though I worry like any good left-winger about the undue or unchecked influence of a google or the likelihood of instead some kid stumbling onto a site that perverts curiosity to inspire shame. I love so much that the young people who work for me delight in disappearing down a spiral of Wiki, YouTube and any other primary source they can get their hands on to learn about some incredibly specific phenomenon or sub-culture or person, going from unknown to expert in a matter of hours.

And for all that I love words, I love how they keep changing, and how these institutions, no matter how much more modern, still struggle to keep up. In 2016, Merriam-Webster added cisgender, genderqueer and the gender-neutral title Mx., according to this tweet and then this contentious, cautionary article in the MetroWeekly. None of those words are in the most wispy aspirations of my ancient history edition.

But so, so many other words are. I’m still not sure what to make of them, what to do with them. Should I pick a new word—at random? at my fancy? at yours?—and write or say something about it each week? Should I post pretty pictures to Instagram of the most unlikely or forgotten? Should I stop obsessing over individual words as a means of procrastination from writing a whole book of them strung deliberately together?

Clearly I’m willing to take suggestions or requests. What is the one word you would, or have, look up first?

Bet you rue the day you kissed a writer in the dark

I had such good intentions. I made it one week into 2018 sticking to my promise that I’d regularly write something, somewhere that at least some other people could read it.

Then the flu was a plague upon our house, then it was awards season, in between a furious mix of work and travel and suddenly it’s mid-March and this is the first full weekend I’ve been healthy and home since MLK Day.


I’m resisting the urge to abandon the hard-won resolutions I’d made my around to by the end of 2017. We’ll just call this an early Spring reboot. I’m trying every day, every week, to think about what I am doing to care for my body, my mind, and my future.

In between rounds of the flu, we did yoga while watching whales leap through the ocean off the coast of Mexico during a short trip to Puerto Vallarta to celebrate 10 years since our first date.

I read a lot, from a Marcia Clark-penned mystery novel I found by the pool at the hotel, to a YA novel that had been on my list for a while, the amazing Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, to a very un-me fantasy-history novel, The Philosopher’s Flight.

By far the most influential thing I inhaled while spending a lot of time in bed was a recommendation from my friend Annika, Rachael Herron’s Fast-Draft Your Memoir. Annika wrote in her TinyLetter that she’d finally pushed way into a long-contemplated writing project thanks to Rachael’s advice.

My formal education as a writer is a little all over the place—journalism school broke my ability to form short, declarative sentences into crumbs and then helped me rebuild that skill, one excruciating class at a time, which for all that I tend to shrug off the value of a Medill degree is in retrospect fairly invaluable. I took a series of MediaBistro screenwriting classes shortly after moving to LA, which I snobbily liked in large part because they were for working writers, mostly journalists, rather than casual hobbyists. It was more focused on how to tackle a new format than a reassuring or nurturing support group. Other writer friends contributed their own story-breaking best-practices from the various camps/cults/classes they’d paid for. I learned a lot from blogs Jane Espenson and John August faithfully updated, often daily, through the mid-2000s. I have a dog-chewed and dog-eared copy of How to Write a Romantic Comedy that more than fulfilled its title promise.

Mostly, I wrote. I wrote thousands of essays and blog posts, both on my own and for work at Popnography, dozens if not hundreds of feature and cover stories for magazines, a short film and three (four?) screenplays, one of which I revised and rewrote seriously for the better part of maybe five years, parts of a half-dozen other short story collections or novels. In my bones and heart I’m a writer, even if in this phase of my career I rarely do it for my day job.

So one night, only sort of high on cold meds, I bought Fast-Draft Your Memoir for six bucks on Kindle and figured, especially with Annika’s recommendation, that at the least I might find something that would help me advance the almost-ready-to-be-written book I finally found myself on the cusp of tackling. Then, as Jessica joked, I did a very typical Shana thing and speed-read a book about how to speed-write a book. Two hours later I’d highlighted and annotated my way through Herron’s advice and even begrudgingly hauled out a notebook to follow her instructions to write an outline.

I have, I am pretty sure, two big books in me that I need to write before I die, and for the last three or four months or so I’ve been inching my way toward being ready to finally tackle the first. I’d thought maybe it should be a novel. Narratively neater, more easily compacted, free of the hurt that still stings in recalling a very precise and largely awful time in my life.

This book changed my mind, if only because for the first time it was actually simple to outline what parts of the story needed to be told and which could be skipped. (Herron’s perhaps obvious but important advice: a memoir is not an unabridged autobiography. It’s a story.)


Just before the flu struck, the first lay-on-the-floor yoga class of the year included the option to draw a card from a deck of intentions. I’d been agitated through the first part of the session, more distracted than usual due to some work drama that just wouldn’t fade from the front of my mind.

Instead of trying to find some elusive clear consciousness, eventually, I’d prompted myself to consider the tiny spark of the book idea I’d been trying to tease into more, and in a blissed-out haze of long-held horizontal poses and calming chimes, I felt my mind unspool across the entirety of a story. I could see the beginning, middle and end. I knew what to title it. I understood how, though the story had started 16 years before, I was only just now ready to assemble it properly.

I rose from my mat at the end of the class feeling light, buzzing with a calm certitude. Then I drew a card from the deck the teacher had left on her mat at the head of the room.

CREATE, the oracle said, and I may not be one who often asks the universe what to do but I’m also not one to ignore when I’m given such a clear answer.

Annika’s already made her way through a first draft, which is amazing and so exciting and inspiring. I’m just now finding my way into something resembling a regular writing schedule and I’m sure around some unforeseen corner I will hit a wall, hard, like always happens.

But for now it still feels absurdly easy. I lived this story a long time ago, and I’ve spent some part of probably every day since trying to make sense of it, telling myself over and over how I survived. That I survived. Now it’s time to write it down for real.

Call 2018 By Its Name

I told myself in 2018 I was going to write, somewhere, about something personal every week. Here goes.

This wasn’t the easiest re-entry, though I hadn’t expected it to be. January is awards season, and you come crashing back into it fast, with the Golden Globes almost always the first Sunday after the holiday break. We prep going back into November but every year it’s still a shock to the system. Add on top of that everyone else in our company (non-awards season-reliant divisions) rested and ready to come in all invigorated and ready to plan How Things Will Be Better in 2018. I wish our fiscal year started in March.

I came back well-rested (and decided to take the observations of such as a compliment given I know exactly how ragged I felt by the time I checked out in December). I’ve struggled not to be overwhelmed and exhausted all week, and to remind myself that’s how it always is after a nice solid vacation.


I also came back with a new hairdo. I have never really had a signature hairstyle because 95 percent of my grooming is about controlling the Beast, and wresting that control in my favor already seemed like the highest bar possible to expect. But after we saw the devastatingly excellent Call Me By Your Name last weekend, the night before New Year’s Eve, I fixated a bit on one slice of the early ’80s scene-making: the side-swept long curls worn by Elio’s sometimes girlfriend, Marzia.

When we went to Italy in 2014, I was enraptured by how many women wore long messy curls with such bravada. Coming off a year like 2017, with the swoony taste of that film still strong under my tongue, it seemed like finally the time to see whether my workday cosplay — my corporate drag, as it were — could extend finally all the way head to toe.


I tested the look and accompanying retro-ish jumpsuit at a New Year’s Day party, because what good are friends you’ve had for years and years if not to experiment on.

And then I came back to work on Tuesday, coiffed and at least marginally more confident, hair slicked down on one side and curls crimped out on the other.

Why not treat the office like a stage, when so much of what we do there, especially as women, is perform? Every day I act like a person who is not grievously insulted to have to prove my ability to excel in my field, over and over. Every day I consider whether to speak my informed opinion or swallow it down—which will be easier, short-term, medium-term, long-term? Every day I wonder what my career and life would be like were I to be granted the benefit of the doubt half as often as I have seen myself and those I work with and for give it to those who already started with a leg up.

Time’s up, as they’re saying. I am excited to see so many people putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to justice for women in other fields, many of whom need actual, demonstrable legal and financial resources in order to fight back. I loved how Shonda Rhimes said, “We’re a bunch of women used to getting stuff done. And we’re getting stuff done.” (One of the most fundamental truths of organizing I ever learned was that busy people—women—are the ones most likely to make change.)

Black dresses won’t change the world, but they’re forcing an important shift in tone. A hairstyle won’t make that change, either, or even hasten it. But this week, at least, it made me feel more able to face the world with my head held high.

Ciao, bella. Let’s do this.

Three Prayers for 2017

(Or: the year in music and learning to let go)

I am not the praying kind.

Modern Jews are rarely raised to be, or not in the way so widely or popularly portrayed, and in my house it was never particularly popular. I’ve never kneeled by my bed or pled with a higher power to help find my way out of a tough time. I’ve closed my eyes and sent fervent wishes out into the universe, but I’ve rarely waited around to be saved by anyone but myself.

I don’t pray, but I have spent significant time with those who do for all the right reasons — activists I worked and marched with who were motivated by their beliefs in God or Jesus or Allah as intensely as I was in my fundamental trust in humanity.

I’ve been thinking a lot about faith this year, what it means, whether I still have it, if it matters in the goddamned slightest. Every time new and preventable massacres are met with #ThoughtsAndPrayers. Each attack on Muslims and Jews. Each new assault on those already suffering the brunt of America’s indifference to poverty and dignity and our inability to reconcile this country’s founding sins with its rhetorical promises of equality.

It’s not the first or last time someone will say so, but amidst one earlier round of the Republican push to roll back health care, the almighty Rep. John Lewis finally lost his patience.

“Those who are sick will suffer,” he wrote, “and some of them will die. This is a shame and a disgrace.” He ended with an old prayer so simple it broke my heart: “May God have mercy on us all.”

Here are three prayers — or as I usually call them, “songs” — that helped save my soul, or at least keep me going, in 2017:

1. Praying for Time

We were still soaked with grief from the election when our patron saint, our gay godfather George Michael, died on Christmas. Under the velvet thrum of that powerful voice was a masterful songwriter—and an angry man who shed his early saccharine edge early in lieu of self-righteous damnation.

Even his strident, accusatory songs like “Shoot the Dog” (attacking Tony Blair and George Bush in equal measure for their warmongering) don’t match the bitter, judgmental rage and steady march of the opening track to 1990’s Listen Without Prejudice, “Praying for Time”:

The rich declare themselves poor
And most of us are not sure
If we have too much
But we’ll take our chances
Because God stopped keeping score

There’s one line buried in the song that always haunted me, through our earlier recessions and booms and busts and “welfare reform”: Charity is a coat you wear twice a year.

Put on your silken concern. Give a little. Applaud each other. Go back to your easy life. Repeat.

It is the damning assessment we deserved, in 1990, in 2016, for having forgotten that there will always be people who have or want power for themselves, even at the expense of basic humanity.

George, it was revealed after his death, had in addition to lending his voice to many charity albums also spent decades quietly giving away tremendous amounts of money, from local schools to AIDS organizations. In August, we were guests at Project Angel Food’s annual gala, this year honoring George, their biggest benefactor of all time. (He also did his community service in their kitchens following his Beverly Hills arrest in 1998.)

We put on pretty dresses and drank too much and donated a lot of money to help support home delivery of meals to families impacted by AIDS and cancer, and then Adam Lambert sang the shit out of two George hits and one they’d both covered to acclaim (Queen’s “Somebody to Love”). And then we all went home.

There’s a live version recorded in 1996 as part of an MTV Unplugged concert that never aired in the U.S., and the track is no more complex in arrangement than the original but somehow both softer and sadder in tone.

It’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate
Hanging on to hope when there is no hope to speak of
And the wounded skies above say it’s much too late
So maybe we should all be praying for time

George’s voice, especially live, has such an easy, soaring lift and lilt that there is something that feels almost like hope amidst one lyrical addition: “Do you think we have time?” he sings, and then again and again.

On the final refrain he adds: “Please give us time.”

Do you think we have time?

2. Pray

I am not the most devout Sam Smith fan (this critique of his cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” is still somehow among the most popular posts I ever dashed off on Tumblr), but I first heard “Pray” on my way to work on a cold fall morning and it sunk into my bones.

This feels, heretically, like a verse George could have written:

I lift up my head and the world is on fire
There’s dread in my heart and fear in my bones
And I just don’t know what to say
Maybe I’ll pray

The simple refrain— Everyone prays in the end—feels both fatalistic and like forgiveness for our own weakest moments in the face of great fear.

In 2017, we marched and yelled and made angry signs, and sometimes — many times — we despaired. If I could have summoned some faith I would have prayed, because for the first time in my long life of righteous indignation I really struggled to believe that there was some point, either a meaning-point or an end-point to the arc of struggle, that as Kushner wrote the world only spins forward because it’s mostly felt like we were going back, back, back in time.

We’re closing out the year with a tiny sniff of hope that well-organized elections can be won decisively enough to resist being stolen, but also with renewed attacks on so many fronts it’s hard to pick an outrage of the day, let alone year.

3. Praying

Kesha’s Rainbow might be the best album of 2017, but however you make that measurement it must be acknowledged as among the most prescient.

We didn’t know how badly this year we’d need such tangible proof that a woman could survive years of abuse by a powerful man, speak out despite risking her career in doing so, sue for justice and independence from that man, lose in court, and still pull herself up to make her best album yet.

She’s said that “Praying,” the first song released off the album, is as much about her own ability to find peace and strength in that survival as it is a condemnation of her abuser. But it’s in the song’s slow rise to a full gospel refrain that you hear both the purity of her anger and the release of knowing, finally, who is to blame:

I hope you’re somewhere praying, praying
I hope your soul is changing, changing
I hope you find your peace
Falling on your knees, praying

The track immediately follows an explicit rejection of traditional faith, “Hymn,” which is its own kind of prayer assembling all the outcasts, “kids with no religion” and other fuck-ups into Kesha’s revival tent for a protective benediction. It’s a “hymn for the hymnless” for those who “don’t need no forgiveness.” Or, as she sings, “If you know what I mean, you on the team.”

I don’t know a woman in America who hasn’t spent at least some hard time since this country began seriously entertaining the idea of electing a serial sexual predator reckoning with their own pasts, our “lucky breaks” and “could have been worse” moments and, almost just as often, the times that were neither.

I still have no idea how we’re supposed to heal when each day brings new reminders of just how much awful behavior so many men have been allowed to get away with for so long. But the louder I play “Praying,” the better I feel, so I’ll keep starting there.

And one (or more) for 2018

“Praying” is followed on Kesha’s album by “Learn to Let Go,” which like most of Rainbow is another way of saying the same thing — the same goddamned thing we need to hear again and again in hopes of drowning out what Kesha calls the bogeyman under her bed:

Always whispering, “It’s all your fault”
He was telling me, “No, you’re not that strong”
I know I’m always like telling everybody,
“You don’t gotta be a victim
Life ain’t always fair
But hell is living in resentment
Choose redemption
Your happy ending’s up to you”

The whole album is a solid exercise in how to hammer home a message, a mantra, in as many ways as you need. It remains to me an inspiration and reminder that the worst times in our lives can help us create meaningful works of art on our own terms.

It’s a sunny day in southern California as I finish this post I started more than a week ago, then left marooned on a laptop app while I went home to Reno for the holidays. I kept Kesha’s sage advice in mind on the trip (recommend reading the whole thread):

Today in the car while we ran errands, one of our phones gave us George Michael singing “Faith,” and in keeping with my favorite new-to-me podcast of the year, Code Switch, I realized this post was best concluded with some of the other songs that gave me life in 2017:

Hamilton OST & mixtape. We saw this show on Broadway on January 19, 2017, the last night of the Obama administration, during a brief New York stopover on our way to the Women’s March in DC. The simple protest/drinking song “The Story of Tonight” is my favorite from the original soundtrack, but it was “One Last Time”—in which Washington explains why he can’t just stay president, no matter how it breaks A. Ham’s heart—that brought our audience to its feet for an early standing ovation. Usher’s “Wait for It” and Ashanti and Ja Rule’s “Helpless” improbably improve on the originals, and Kelly Clarkson’s cover of “It’s Quiet Uptown” is sadder and more raw than the show’s entire bleak second act.

Speaking of, Kelly Clarkson’s Meaning of Life is fun, a little funky, and deeply satisfying in how well it makes the case that 15 years after winning American Idol she is maybe just beginning to make the best music of her career. (I remain pettily delighted that The Voice pulled off the steal of the century by landing her as a coach for their next season.)

I came around to loving the entirety of Sam Smith’s The Thrill of It All, which is especially suited (and I don’t mean this as a back-handed insult) for long soaks in my new, deep bathtub. It managed to fill the gap of what I wanted from and didn’t quite get on Adele’s last album, especially “HIM” and “Nothing Left For You.”

The only thing wrong with Julia Michaels’ EP Nervous System is that it’s too short. Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Cut to the Feeling” was a pop-bright star through the moonroof on more than one night. Lorde’s “Green Light” is dangerous to turn up while driving if you want to stay safe, but her “Liability” is the real heartbreaker off Melodrama. I loved Solange’s A Seat at the Table for being both bigger and blunter than even the very best of Beyonce.

I dramatically feared I’d lost my taste for live music after a few too-big, I’m-too-old arena concerts but rediscovered via Bleachers at the Roxy that my emo heart can still beat strong at tiny rock shows. And Queen with Adam Lambert at the Hollywood Bowl, fancy box seat style, was a worthwhile summer indulgence. (Also: if you have the chance to see Kesha live, do it.)

Whenever I got too stuck in the bureaucratic downsides of my job this year, I ducked into a Slack channel my staff started to trade recommendations/reviews/defenses of new music (#new-jamz 4eva), and every single time their shared love of music and what it all means made me remember how lucky I am to do what I do every day with such a great team.

I’m looking for more Spotify playlists to stream, because even a brief look back proves I spent plenty of time obsessing over a few albums rather than finding fresh sounds. (I love this nearly endless compilation from NPR’s Alt-Latino and if you missed me gushing over my birthday mix, #ShanaTop40, catch up here and here.) Please leave/send more recommendations.

I’m still writing my way around and through what I want to leave behind in 2017 and what 2018 might become, so I’ll stop there for now. Except to say:

Amid far too many rediscovered gems after George’s death is this footage of him rehearsing with Queen before the 1992 Freddie Mercury tribute concert. (Vulture recaps a little of the history here.)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about rough drafts, about revisions. About rehearsals.

On stage with Queen, George managed between his own grief and fear for a brief second to bring back to life the spirit of Freddie in a sea of fans clapping in synchrony across the vast expanse of Wembley. That echo upon echo of thousands of people singing “Somebody to Love” back at George wasn’t unprecedented — or even unrehearsed, as you can see in the video above around the three-minute mark, where David Bowie nods along with the call-and-response break. And here’s the big live version:

The Allen Ginsberg line I have tattooed on my upper back — America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel — followed early versions of the poem that were far more angry and defeated. One even concluded:

Dark America! toward whom I close my eyes for prophecy,
and bend my speaking heart
Betrayed! Betrayed!

It’s taken most of 2017 to find any kind of inner peace that will last long enough to acknowledge how little we can count on or even prepare for in the days and months to come without being overwhelmed by the accompanying panic. I’m finishing out the year, or close to it, feeling the warmth of the sun on my shoulders and some renewed sense of faith in my heart.

Betrayed! Betrayed! But still we fight on. We choose life. That’s my prayer for 2018. Pray with me.

Back to the Future Self

My friend and colleague Jason writes a weekly meditative Medium post that I find 100 percent worth reading and reflecting on. One line from this Sunday’s missive gave me that guttural yesssssss throat-clicking swallow when something feels so true you can’t breathe deeply until you’ve taken a moment to honor it:

I started playing with this ai bot called Replika yesterday. It asked me what I would want to share with my future self. I sat with that question for a while before replying Seek out things that give life meaning

I sat with that for a while.

The answer every time I am asked why did you get that tattoo, no matter which tattoo, is essentially the same. They are all messages to my future self.

I have enough visible tattoos that I am often asked by those without any, especially those who are feeling the call for their first, some version of that question. It’s frequently accompanied by its inquisitive cousin: but how do you know you won’t regret it?

It’s a question worth asking — if you’re really going to get a tattoo you should ask every single question you have before you do, and keep asking until you are satisfied with the answers, if only because by all accounts getting one removed is even more painful and expensive than doing it in the first place.

It’s worth asking but to me it’s not the right question.

I have no idea what my future self will wish I have done or not done with my life, with my body or time or money or love. I don’t think she’ll be that different, but seriously, what do I know? She’s not here yet. I hope she is not consumed with any kind of regret. I invest in that future but there’s no way to know if it will yield the result I imagine.

Instead I ask what she will need to know from the past. One day, weeks or months or years or even decades after the decision is made and the ink is sown, she will need — I will need — to be reminded that there was a truth I felt so deeply the only way I could be sure I never forgot was to commit my skin to it.

Even before my memory and memory-making mechanisms were brutally rewired, I somehow sensed this road map back in time would be necessary. The real reason I got that tattoo at age 22, or 27, or 34, or 40, was because something was so true and real I wanted to be sure I never forgot. Was never able to forget. It didn’t matter if I felt that way at 26, or 30, or 55. I just needed to remember I had felt that way, and to honor that past self the way I must trust in my future one.

These are my tattoos:

  1. A compass rose
  2. A phrase from a Pablo Neruda poem
  3. Woodcut-style mountains
  4. A line from Allen Ginsberg’s “America”
  5. Another line from Allen Ginsberg’s “America”
  6. A lyric by Joni Mitchell
  7. A portrait of our dog, Trip
  8. A postcard illustration
  9. A family motto

The truth of each of these seems so obvious to me but is often misinterpreted based on a first look, even when carefully considered.

Number 2 has been mistaken for a statement of lgbtq solidarity or strength, which is actually what Number 4 represents. Number 3 can look as much like waves, which isn’t wrong. Number 1 is actually two tattoos maybe five years apart, the second overlapping version slightly more ornate than the simple original one underneath, but also modified to expand on the meaning of the first. The line in Number 6 is best known for being sung by another artist that also has deep significance. Number 8 is based on a photo taken of us in Kauai but is equally a warning to my present and future selves, much like Number 5 is equally a pledge and a precaution. Number 7 is as purely about grief as Number 9 is about love, which is to say sometimes.

They all hurt. Some I wanted desperately to. Number 2 I correctly planned and predicted would ache, especially flying cross-country, so deeply that I would be unable to lose sense of my corporeal self. It kept me anchored. Number 7 revealed that I, like many people, am allergic to at least some kinds of red ink, and also that my reaction could have been much, much worse.

Here is how, when prompted today, I would distill what I wanted to remember from each:

  1. A place that lives inside you never leaves, no matter where you are, and you can find your way back when you need and are ready
  2. Words will save you, complete you, help make sense of your life — but you must work for them
  3. Only the rocks live forever, or: don’t overestimate your importance to the universe
  4. You must fight, and keep fighting — whether it’s for a principle, a people, a country, or a final draft that finds optimism where there was once only despair
  5. Make good trouble, but not for the mere sake of it
  6. This marriage is the best thing you will ever do
  7. Grief will have its way with you, and it’s okay to wear that on your arm
  8. You survived, and you have something to live for, so don’t be fucking stupid
  9. People are the point

Today for some reason, while I sat on our new patio in the sun and tied my shoes and got ready to run up my new mountain, I sang some of “Power of Love” to the dog.

“Are you singing Huey Lewis and the News?” Jessica called from the house. I was. I don’t really care about them as a band but I, like most kids who grew up in the ’80s, loved Back to the Future, and that’s where it starts (and ends).

I thought I was singing “Back in Time,” and I’d forgotten the whole middle part of this verse:

It don’t take money 
Don’t take fame 
Don’t need credit card to ride this train 
It’s strong and it’s sudden 
And it’s cruel sometimes 
But it might just save your life
That’s the power of love

Dear future self: you’re welcome.

Originally published November 6, 2017, at tinyletter.com.

Meet Little Miss End of the World

Tomorrow I will go to work.

Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. Tomorrow I will. I’ll do my best to avoid the TVs playing CNN throughout the office, though it’s possible there will be so much other, newer, awful news to show over and over that anniversary coverage will barely make air. (The producer in me calls bullshit: anniversary packages have been cut and dammit they will be run!)

This year might be different. Not tomorrow specifically, which will likely be hard and harrowing especially because this whole year has been hard and harrowing.

But this year I tried something different. Yes, there is a story there. No, I’m not ready to write about it, not yet. It’s not some miracle. It’s no cure, not a clean slate. A new intent, maybe. A new map.

Really it’s about trying a whole series of things that are different. Soaking silently for hours in a teak boxes of mineral water. Lying on the floor in the near-dark and meditating in long-held slow stretches. I didn’t know before I was capable of such stillness. I wasn’t, I guess. I couldn’t hold that quiet calm through the fear and worry and unknown places my mind might wander. Now I find myself reaching out to those edges.

I have been searching and searching through my memories and my old hard drives to find a tiny scrawl I made in late 2001. I have probably made that search before but if so I left terrible breadcrumbs for myself.

Finally: I found her.

Meet Little Miss End of the World:

October 2, 2001.

I was at my parents’ house in Reno, in limbo between New York and San Francisco. I was drowning every day, every night. Barely keeping my head above water in the middle of that hot dry autumn desert. Drenched in guilt that even though I’d planned to move west on September 15 now somehow I was abandoning the survival we needed to do together as a city. Far too traumatized to do anything and yet carrying on every day.

I wrote this:

living alone means you get to decide what kind of person you are, i said when i first moved [to new york]. it means, do you go to the movies today or read a book? cook a meal or walk down to a restaurant? fuck around or make something useful of yourself? no one’s there in that crowded house to tell you where to go or what to do, not even when the sky is falling.

so i was alone. i stood alone on the edge of the apocalypse and spun in circles and choked on ash and remembered no one was there to lead me home if i didn’t find it myself. good thing i’ve been trusting no one but myself this whole time, i thought, because that’s who i’m left with. and i found my way, followed, asked, soldiered on.

and maybe i spent too much of those days after alone, too, because when i close my eyes i see her, my little stick figure on an empty half planet. no buildings, even. no people. no smoke. no flat white light. this is what the end of the world looks like, except i know now that it will be worse than what we’ve been able to imagine. i’m officially making her my friend, little miss end of the world, this self of myself that i see when i try to sleep. maybe if i know she’s just a little digital picture i can manipulate and resize and put where i want i’ll remember where i am, why i’m leaving this time.

I survived. I’ve survived. I was 24 and it changed everything except that the world continued on, good and bad and better and worse.

This year has been worse. Today, so far, is okay. Tonight I’ll go curl up on a hardwood floor in some semi-fetal position and reach out for those calm wisps at the edges of my consciousness. I won’t be alone. I’m not alone.

I wasn’t alone then, either, but now I know at least that much so deep in my bones it doesn’t ever let go. I’ve learned better language, precise and clinical but also elusive and intuitive, for understanding and accepting what trauma does to your brain and body and what will or won’t or might not or just might ever heal the way you’re expecting and in many ways you hadn’t.

I am not alone at the end of the world. And neither are you. Maybe I still needed that little scrawled drawing to remind me. Or maybe you do.

Originally published on September 10, 2017, at tinyletter.com.

Disc 3.

I could write a dozen more pieces about Meredith’s #ShanaTop40 mix, starting with the rest of Disc 1, chock full of my most formative years. And I’m going to have to come back to Disc 2, which starts with George Michael.

(I’m almost almost almost ready to write about George, but as I told Sara as we texted furiously back and forth about this playlist and all the memories it dredged up, once I start writing about George I may never stop.)

Disc 3, though. Disc 3 is my life in California. (Note: This is just the first half.)

2004: Green Day, “Are We the Waiting”

In February ’04, I moved from San Francisco back to New York City. To prove I could. To be sure I hadn’t actually died on 9/11 and just not yet fully noticed. Turned out I wasn’t dead, but it still wasn’t where I needed to be. Quit my agency job, figured out how to fund and run a GOTV campaign working with AIDS agencies, dropped my stuff in an apartment in Long Beach and spent three months criss-crossing Ohio and Pennsylvania. The day after GWB won (again), I tucked myself into my hoodie and took a train, another train and a plane back across country to my new home. I listened to American Idiot the whole way, and for most of the next month, until SoCal’s relentless sunshine forced me back into the world. I don’t say lightly that an album saved my life, but this one came as close as I’ve ever needed and found. More than once, really: then there was the musical, oh god the musical. We saw the previews in Berkeley on our honeymoon, I got to sit down with Billie Joe Armstrong and talk about hearing his songs fully realized only when sung by women — and as face-melting as that was, it couldn’t compare to how beautifully Stark Sands delivered this song on Broadway. (Or then, later, BJA as St. Jimmy.) If I ever figure out how to write this novel I have bouncing around inside about Los Angeles it will be born from that same ache.

2005: Panic! At the Disco, “The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide is Press Coverage”

Relatively recent memory is a mindfuck. How bizarre to think back and realize these were adjacent years. We actually saw what’s left of Panic — Brendon Urie, now Broadway-bound himself to take a role once played by Stark Sands — last month at the Forum. It wasn’t at all like the many of their shows we saw once upon a time, through no real fault of theirs. I was proud that this weird queerish band of teenagers had survived long enough to be loved by a new generation of kids on a sold-out arena tour scale. But they might as well be a different band now. What I first remember of Panic in 2005, maybe 2006, is as raw and rough and painful as the ache just barely restrained under the young ambition of this record: Emily belting out “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” in the shower, bathroom door open on a hot summer day. But whenever it was we first saw them play live, it was this song that sealed the deal. “Swear to shake it up!” Brendon howled, and the devoted crowd yelled it right back at him like a boomerang. Swear to shake it up.

2006: Silversun Pickups, “Lazy Eye”

Peak Silverlake, though actually we got there more like two years later. Yes, this album was great, but it was Swoon that I will forever feel in my bones. I heard “Panic Switch” for the first time sitting with Davis at Dangerbird Records, blasted from the speakers on the publicist’s desk right in our faces. Just a sunny weekday afternoon in Sunset Junction. That was my job, to hear a song like that months before it would be released and figure out how to make the world love it as much as we did. That was 2008, the year when we almost got married at Spaceland — because why not, we could throw open our balcony doors and hear whoever was playing down the hill anyway — when I spent as much time in LA’s many tiny rock venues as I did at the office. There’s nothing about “The Royal We” — we are ready for the siege, we are armed up to the teeth, be careful how you live and breathe, release what’s broken underneath — that feels less relevant now. More, really, compared to those easy happy days. “Lazy Eye” always felt to me like a track that belonged more to Swoon than its predecessor, though, so consider this kind of a prequel to that life moment.

2007: Fall Out Boy, “Hum Hallelujah”

When everyone was putting Rufus Wainwright’s (admittedly amazing) cover of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” in their TV show’s most emotional finale, Pete Wentz was writing a song about that time he tried to kill himself in a Best Buy parking lot while listening to the original on repeat. It’s fast, full-bodied and loud as fuck. (It was around this time that I realized my best answer to being asked “What kind of music do you like?” was simply, “I like it loud.”) Fall Out Boy belatedly filled in for my un-arrested development — a far-too-serious adolescence spent mostly shunning whatever my peers liked. But standing shoulder to shoulder with kids 10 years my junior at FOB shows even as I turned 30, sweat and tears and feels pouring off us, did more to heal whatever angst was left from my teens than years of therapy. I sing the blues and swallow them too, Patrick sang so sweetly, and I hung onto the rough wooden beams on the roof of the Troubadour, standing on the table in the balcony with Jamie and singing back at the top of our lungs. I got splinters in my fingertips. Never trust a band that wouldn’t bleed for you, Pete wrote once. Felt only fair to bleed for it a little, too.

2008: Lady Gaga, “Paparazzi”

In no small part because of how I spent way too much time thinking about Pete Wentz — and specifically how he toed some precarious line between his public self and whatever was left to keep private — in this string of years I wrote, and rewrote, and kept writing a short film and then screenplay about how some unclassifiable pop star could still shake the music industry. One common rumor early on about Gaga was that she was trans. “Ambiguity makes you a lightning rod for people to hate you,” Pete told me when I interviewed him for an Out cover in spring ’08. “Some days I wake up and I couldn’t be bothered at all. Some days you Google yourself and you can’t eat.” This is hardly even the most meta song off Gaga’s The Fame (that prize probably goes to the title track) but it was still in heavy rotation through my writing playlist. I was — am — so obsessed with the known and unacknowledged rules and behavior required to succeed within the economy of fame, and this little stalker of of a love song sums it up so succinctly: Baby you’ll be famous, chase you down until you love me.

2009: Adam Lambert, “Whataya Want From Me”

I tried not to sneak a look at the track list of each of these discs as I made my way through, didn’t want to spoil myself in this amazing journey back through my own life, and when these opening notes came on in the car I actually gasped. I’d forgotten somehow how perfect this song is and was for that moment. I’ve already written my way through what Adam still makes me think about in this post around the end of American Idol. This song was written by/for Pink (with Max Martin, natch), and you can tell, but somehow it still feels like it was written for Adam. After months and months of writing about him on Idol and the aftermath, I interviewed him in October of this year, days before my wedding, and unknowingly and unwittingly beginning one of the biggest shit-storms of my life as a writer. This track was in many ways used as his peacemaker — after shocking the AMAs with an unrehearsed extra-sexualized version of his first post-Idol release, the far less interesting or emotionally honest “For Your Entertainment” (in response, in part, to what was written about him and Out), a bunch of his promo appearances for the album were canceled. When he was allowed back onto the morning shows, it was with this song, which seemed to contain somehow just the right amount of genuflection (once upon a time, I didn’t give a damn, but now here we are) and righteous defiance (there’s nothing wrong with you, it’s me, I’m a freak) to let him largely win his way back into safe-for-straights territory. It worked: the song charted into Billboard’s Top 10 and scored him a Grammy nom for best male vocal performance. He’s still got one of the best voices I’ve ever heard, and I’m so glad we’re seeing him at the Hollywood Bowl with Queen this summer. But this song, wistful and a little angry, reminds me he could have been an even bigger star, and somehow we still weren’t yet ready for him.

And….somehow that feels like the right place to stop with this for now. In 2004 I finally figured out where in the world I wanted to live — sunny Southern California, please and thank you — and by 2009 I’d figured out who I wanted to spend the rest of my days with. Those are the biggest and most important before-and-after changes in my life that still bring me happiness every day, and getting to hear them play out in song is truly a gift.

Originally published April 29, 2017, at tinyletter.com.

Pour myself a cup of ambition

So I turned 40. I didn’t write as much about that, not even on Twitter, as I expected I might, mostly because thanks to my wife I completely achieved (overachieved) at my twin goals of distracting myself as much as possible and also surrounding myself with people who have loved me for so long and through so much that it was difficult, even for me, to forget what an accomplishment that is in and of itself. I am terrible at not treating birthdays, anniversaries and New Years as annual opportunities to harshly grade myself — so clearly getting through 40 without spiraling into any significant self-criticism means I’m completely grown up now and have nothing left to learn.

One great and unexpected gift landed on my desk the day I finally dragged myself back to work: the #ShanaTop40, a 3-CD compilation of the biggest hits of my lifetime, commemorated in a format that Meredith was also smart/kind/brutal enough to remind me I was alive for both the birth and relative death of. (It’s also available on Spotify, which is helpful because while my car still has a CD player, none of my laptops do.)

The #ShanaTop40 is fucking amazing, especially when played on the evening commute at top volume with the sunroof open. The drive home from work is a better barometer of my current mental health than any questionnaire could be. It’s how I coined the term crommuting, which (obviously) means the kind of driving home from work you do where whether you want to or not, whether you can articulate why or not, you basically navigate traffic through a cloud of crying. Sometimes it’s mere exhaustion. I genuinely love what I do, but being a boss lady is hard work (as it should be — the day managing people is easy is probably the day I should stop, because it will likely mean I’ve forgotten the essential work required to be human). Sometimes it’s much shittier than that. One pledge I’ve made at 40 is to stop calling the sexist bullshit that still simmers under the surface at pretty much every workplace by any nicer name.

I have a glass office. Nearly everyone on my staff has at some point come in and cried there. I’ve done my best to comfort and reassure each one that I 100 percent truly never will hold against them the way we — women, especially — just sometimes leak all our overwhelmedness out of our eyes. But I can count on one hand the number of times I haven’t held that in myself — until I got into the car for the drive home. My commute is a lot shorter now than it has been at other times, but I’m still usually a bit more settled by the time I pull up at the house. Crommute accomplished. On a hard but slightly better spring day, where I make that drive with the sun still above the horizon, a mix CD stacked with the best singles of the last 40 years is exactly what I need to remember how fucking alive I still am. Meredith’s annual end of year mixes come with stellar liner notes, but I guess it’s on me to write about these songs, or at least some of them, somewhere.

Track 4 is Dolly Parton, “9 to 5.”

Almost everything you need to know about me is that the most formative movies of my very young girlhood were Victor/Victoria and 9 to 5.

The first is a 1982 fake-French musical set in 1930s Paris, starring Julie Andrews as a desperately broke opera singer who finds unexpected success — and a complicated romance with a mobster — after she begins working as a (male) female impersonator. It’s queer and transgressive and romantic and every story I ever write about finding love among the other freaks owes it a major debt.

The other most important film of my impressionable youth, of course, is the 1980 feminist comedy featuring Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda as three fed-up secretaries at Consolidated, the impenetrably generic corporation where they are routinely demeaned, dismissed and harassed, especially by their boss, who they somewhat accidentally conspire to kidnap and then hold hostage (in his own house) while implementing the many common-sense workplace reforms he and his old boy cronies had blocked. I saw this movie when I was maybe 5 and became pretty obsessed with it, even though I’m not sure how much I really understood then. I had a huge crush on Dolly, her sweet southern twang and (admittedly) soft cashmere sweater sets. I played every game of Office as if I was Lily Tomlin’s character — “Consolidated, please hold!” I would chirp into my fake phone, placing multiple calls into imaginary purgatory until I was ready to choose one line and solve the next crisis.

Many of my favorite ’80s movies were business comedies — I was also a big fan of the ridiculous Secret of My Success, in which Michael J. Fox is legitimately in peak comedy form, but also features him and Helen Slater bursting into a big conference room to either stop or help stage a company takeover. (I don’t remember which — I just remember being so impressed by this kind of scene in every Wall Street-esque movie.)

But 9 to 5, it turned out, was for all its broad farce maybe the most accurate. Maybe still.

Workin’ 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin’ 
Barely gettin’ by, it’s all takin’ and no givin’ 
They just use your mind and they never give you credit 
It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it 
9 to 5, for service and devotion 
You would think that I would deserve a fat promotion 
Want to move ahead but the boss won’t seem to let me
I swear sometimes that man is out to get me!

But then, buried a little in the second chorus, is exactly the kind of sly, subversive faith that the movie has, that the secretaries of the world will win in the end:

They let you dream just to watch ’em shatter 
You’re just a step on the boss-man’s ladder 
But you got dreams he’ll never take away 
You’re in the same boat with a lotta your friends 
Waitin’ for the day your ship’ll come in
An’ the tide’s gonna turn and it’s all gonna roll your way

Is it? I hope so. This song and movie is nearly as old as I am and there’s a lot in there that still sounds far too familiar.

But I was wearing a kick-ass lady boss jumpsuit the day I put this first CD in the car and I sang along to Dolly at the top of my lungs as I drove and I only wanted to cry a little. Mostly I was proud of having made it this far. I care more about being a good boss than I ever imagined would matter to me, all those dramatic boardroom scenes aside. I don’t need my staff to like me, or want to be my friend, or want me to be theirs. But I want to make the workplace better, at least a little better, for everyone else who’s just fighting to get through the day in one piece, too.

Originally published April 16, 2017, at tinyletter.com.