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?

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.

The Lucky Ones

I missed most of #BuffySlays20 — the Friday 20th anniversary of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series premiere — because, as usual, I was working. My pop culture job that is almost never these days actually about me celebrating or even barely being aware of pop culture because I spend most of my time managing. Chief-ing.

I didn’t watch the series premiere of Buffy, but I wasn’t too late to the Bronze overall. I caught up with my college roommate Chris, binging on VHS tapes of the first two seasons mailed to our off-campus apartment the way you did if you were lucky enough to know other fangirls from the early days of the internet who thought that dubbing you episodes of a show you absolutely must love as much as they did was a perfectly valid way to spend their time and technology.

When we were marathoning early Buffy, I remember it still seemed shocking to see a girl who might punch first, then ask questions. Who could fight her way out of danger using nothing but her bare hands. I remember walking around campus — I was 20, maybe 21 — and reminding myself in the long shadows, Don’t be stupid, you can’t actually do that.

There’s a moment — the moment, for me, of many moments in that show that have stuck wet and bloody and breathless in my memory. It’s in the second season finale, “Becoming, Part II,” and if you knew and loved Buffy you already know the moment I mean.

Buffy’s battling her ex-boyfriend, Angel, whom she loved and lost (because he went evil after they boned) and then kept loving even as he stalked her and vengefully destroyed everything he could of her life because it reminded him so cruelly that for a little while she made him feel human again. Anyway they’re battling, as they do, at a more fevered pitch than even the last arc of episodes, and he thinks he’s about to win.

“No weapons, no friends, no hope,” he snarls over her. “Take all that away, and what’s left?”

She closes her eyes. He thrusts his sword at her face to end it all.

She stops the blade between her palms, opens her eyes, and says, “Me.”

The only thing that really consistently makes me feel better these days is pushing my body. Up a hill, down a hill, up, down, another step, another lunge, another rep. I don’t usually feel that great about it when I start. Sometimes I’m just tired but more often I’m weary and anxious and scared about the world as a basic state of existence and it’s hard to imagine anything could make me feel less that way.

Sometimes I wake up now before dawn and lie in bed until there’s just enough pale purple in the sky to know I’ll be able to see a coyote before I trip over it, and then I get up and put my shoes on and leave my sleeping wife and take my tiny dog and drive 10 minutes to the base of a trail built by Boy Scouts that goes up, up, up and around and spits us out on the plaza of the Observatory, which is so stupidly cinematic and picturesque that by the time I catch my breath I have no choice but to remember that I am both alive and very lucky, still, to be able so easily to thrust myself back into the world of the living. We are the lucky ones.

Then I run down the hill and start another day. I don’t run up the hill, not yet, not for longer than brief bursts of vertical sprints. But I am going to, eventually.

Originally published on March 13, 2017, at tinyletter.com.