Are You a Boy or a Girl?

May, 2016

It starts with a gender-reveal celebration, and it culminates at the door of a bathroom in North Carolina.

Like a lot of 18-month-olds, my daughter is epicene; even if she’s out on the town in, say, pink leggings and a floral raincoat, sometimes I’ll still get a “He’s so cute—how old is he?” from a friendly stranger. (I just did, in fact, on Mother’s Day. In the stranger’s defense, we were exploring cannons at a military park. Masculine!) I rarely bother to correct people, but if they realize their mistake, they are often profusely apologetic, as if they’d given grave offense over something far more consequential than gender.

And if this scene unfolds when I’ve dressed her in neutral clothing, the offense at times turns subtly outward. “Why do you dress her like a boy?” demanded a man in the jewelry section of H&M while my kid—in a red sweatshirt, jeans, and gray-and-purple sneakers—rummaged through a pile of tassled earrings. The man was trying to be polite, but he also seemed affronted by his own confusion—and affronted by me, I suppose, for causing his confusion. “She looks like a boy!” he insisted, repeatedly. The only response I could think of was the shrugging one I gave: “She looks like herself.”

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Ivanka and Donald Trump

Ivanka Trump Makes Donald Even Scarier

March, 2016

Ivanka Trump achieved her status as the best reality television character the genre has ever produced on her father’s NBC program Celebrity Apprentice. This was an arena in which the likes of Tom Green, Dennis Rodman, Andrew “Dice” Clay, and other reanimated wax figures from the Museum of Déjà Vu would vie to create a winning entry for the Schwan Food Company’s LiveSmart frozen food line or the catchiest jingle for Chicken of the Sea, and where Melissa Rivers might be spotted screaming “Whore pit vipers!” at her fellow female contestants. And there would be Ivanka, as grave, groomed, and expertly briefed as a dignitary at a disaster site, checking in on how a team’s dog food commercial was coming along or gently arbitrating a screaming match between Lisa Lampanelli and Lou Ferrigno or smiling gamely as a shirtsleeved Piers Morgan tried to flirt with her. No matter how grisly the post-celebrity carnage at her feet, Ivanka radiated warmth and star wattage—but her charisma was a protective force field, not a beckoning flame. She evinced a holographic ability to be in her surroundings but not of them, fully possessed of her poise and glamour even when forced to dress down Gene Simmons, her throaty boarding-school voice and diction in service of a gleaming mental apparatus that never misfired. Imagine watching old WrestleMania footage and suddenly realizing that “Rowdy” Roddy Piper’s corner man was Jacqueline Kennedy. That’s kind of what it was like to watch Ivanka on Celebrity Apprentice.

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The Kindly Brontosaurus by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

The Kindly Brontosaurus

August, 2014

The amazing, prehistoric posture that will get you whatever you want, whenever you want it.

In her helpful Slate piece on how to avoid and mitigate flight delays, Amy Webb stresses that the savvy air traveler must invest energy in grooming the airport staff. “Stand next to the gate agent, even if they ask you to sit down,” she writes. “Be polite but firm. … Ultimately, they just want you to go away and not be their problem anymore.”

I endorse this strategy, and I would like to elaborate on it, because Slate readers deserve to know about a foolproof method of persuasion for securing a seat on a packed flight—and for that matter, for convincing authority figures of all stripes to give us things that aren’t ours. This simple technique has an anodyne name that belies its hypnotic, even occult powers. It is known as the Kindly Brontosaurus.

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Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

Do animals know they are dying?

November, 2013

I Am Convinced My Cat Told Me She Was Dying. Am I Crazy?

Before I tell you this story, you need to know something about me, which is that I am a brain in a body, activated by a complex series of physical, chemical, and biological processes. I am neither religious nor spiritual; I do not believe in God or heaven or an afterlife. I don’t put stock in parapsychology, telepathy, or clairvoyance. I think that Dr. Doolittle was a great guy, but there’s no way he could talk to the animals.

And yet, despite all these shortcomings, I’m convinced that my cat came to me one night last winter and told me she was dying.

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Stephen Colbert: America’s Catholic.

September, 2013

Move over, Antonin Scalia. Stephen Colbert is now America’s Catholic.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has always reminded me of the robed men of the Catholic Church in which I grew up: well-fed and saturnine, burbling with derisive erudition, jolly one moment and imperious the next, a weary disgust often flickering at the edges of the brow and lips. These men only really engaged with the boys; the girls always seemed to them to have wandered into the room by mistake. I’ll never forget the look of vague revulsion on the face of the vast monsignor who served Holy Communion at my confirmation, the corners of his mouth pulling down to contain his nausea at the riffraff they let into the church these days. It’s the shape of a mouth reading an acrid Scalia dissent.

For a lot of reasons—because he is the longest-serving and most boisterous member of America’s own Ecumenical Council, because he frequently addresses Catholic groups, because Andy Borowitz says as much—we think of Justice Scalia as “America’s Catholic,” as my Slate colleague Dahlia Lithwick put it in an email. In fact, you could easily imagine him as America’s first Bishop of Rome, or at least his duly appointed representative. Pope Benedict XVI was a fun cartoon villain because of the fumes of nefarious conspiracy wafting off his haute couture threads—he was Mugatu in a chasuble. Scalia wouldn’t have gone shopping with him, but otherwise they were two hearts beating as one: They’re both deeply conservative, nostalgic for “tradition,” rigid in their interpretations of doctrine, belittling of women and gays, and forever erring on the side of consolidating more power—be it political, social, or religious—in the hands of the already powerful.

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What If Your Mother Had Aborted You?

June, 2013

Well, since Rick Perry brought it up, I’ll answer.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry is a plainspoken man, but on Thursday he waded into an ageless existential debate. Speaking to the National Right to Life conference, Perry pointed out that state Sen. Wendy Davis—who filibustered at the Texas Capitol for 13 hours on Tuesday to block a draconian abortion bill—was born to a single mother and became a teen mother herself, yet overcame those “difficult circumstances” to attend Harvard Law School and enter politics. “It is just unfortunate,” Perry said to his base, “that she hasn’t learned from her own example that every life must be given a chance to realize its full potential and that every life matters.”

“Every life matters” may scan elsewhere as an uncontroversial sentiment, but at the National Right to Life conference, you can be sure that life is defined as a zygote, embryo, or fetus granted full personhood. Which means that Perry is using a kind of transitive property: Wendy Davis was once a zygote, and Wendy Davis matters; therefore, every zygote matters.

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Brought to you by the letter I

May, 2012

An essay commissioned as part of the Museum of Modern Art exhibition Ecstatic Alphabets / Heaps of Language.

I. THE PLEASURE OF THE TEXT

“I invited a friend of mine over for dinner,” says the man ruefully. The gray-faced, middle-aged fellow is a squiggly animation, made of skinny, put-upon lines that form sluggish shapes. His dinner guest is nothing like him. The little friend who bounces through the French doors is the letter M, angular and robust. M has googly eyes at the tops of his twin peaks, which extend downward to become super-springy legs and dancing feet that also serve as his hands. M hops into his host’s outstretched palm, then rubs against his jowls like a cat. The gray man, beleaguered by these shows of affection, trudges toward a grand table piled with a colorful smorgasbord, plus candelabra. He slumps in his seat and invites the bug-eyed M to dig in. “Mmmmm, marvelous!” the M cries. “Meat! Munch! Magnificent!” M’s center of gravity is his mouth; a rib-eye steak, a loaf of bread, a glass of wine vanish into the V-shaped dip. The bottom point of this center “V” is also a straw, slurping up a glass of milk in one go. “Milk!” he says. The two upside-down Vs on either side of M’s mouth are pincers, chomping instantaneously through an entire melon. “Mmm-melon!” he says.

From THE SERVING LIBRARY

Are Women People?

March, 2012

I’ve always assumed that women are fully autonomous human citizens—who vote, even!—but now I’m not so certain

All my adult life, I’ve been pretty sure I’m a sentient, even semi-competent human being. I have a job and an apartment; I know how to read and vote; I make regular, mostly autonomous decisions about what to eat for lunch and which cat videos I will watch whilst eating my lunch. But in the past couple of months, certain powerful figures in media and politics have cracked open that certitude.

You see, like most women, I was born with the chromosome abnormality known as “XX,” a deviation of the normative “XY” pattern. Symptoms of XX, which affects slightly more than half of the American population, include breasts, ovaries, a uterus, a menstrual cycle, and the potential to bear and nurse children. Now, many would argue even today that the lack of a Y chromosome should not affect my ability to make informed choices about what health care options and lunchtime cat videos are right for me. But others have posited, with increasing volume and intensity, that XX is a disability, even a roadblock on the evolutionary highway. This debate has reached critical mass, and leaves me uncertain of my legal and moral status. Am I a person? An object? A ward of the state? A “prostitute”? (And if I’m the last of these, where do I drop off my W-2?)

Read more at Time