Usual Suspects: A Taxonomy

Discerning what we should and should not trust can be tough, especially when we sometimes get conflicting messages from TV, adults, friends, or even our own minds. To take some of the guesswork out of making those calls, I’ve compiled a handy (though obviously incomplete) list that shines a light on some of the people and entities that you might want to be skeptical of as you make your way through this uncertain world.

1. Taco Bell cravings


Profile: Double Decker Tacos, Quesaritos, Doritos Cheesy Gordita Crunches: These are the things your digestive system—all the organs, glands, and loopty loopin’ intestines in your bod that turn food into energy—crave! Each bite is like a blast of greasy heaven. While you may have lofty, admirable goals, like one day becoming a human rights attorney or a particle physicist, your digestive system’s raison d’être is to be totally ensconced in Chalupa Supremes every day.

Causes for wariness: Empirical data collected by an anonymous but very reputable source shows that your digestive system will more than likely turn that Crunchwrap Supreme into Inconvenient Diarrhea Supreme (but is there ever a time when diarrhea isn’t inconvenient?). High on those Taco Bell endorphins, you’ll think you’re invincible and might want to go party it up (and by “party it up” I mean doing something other than sitting on the toilet or being toilet adjacent), but that would be a mistake.

2. White jeans


Profile: Pristine pants that, when worn with a blazer and a button-down top, offer the promise of making you look totally professional and cute. When worn with a white T-shirt and a little skull cap, chances of looking like a sexy, super-casual pope increase exponentially.

Causes for wariness: Yes, white jeans are versatile and wonderful. But they’re also the Judas Iscariot of the denim world because they will betray you, sometimes in ways you might not even be aware of until the end of the day when you take them off and see a stain on the butt. White jeans get dir-tay. They are presumably meant to be worn by idle aristocrats who lounge on fluffy pillows all day—and not those of us who spend our hours feasting on Cheetos, BBQ ribs, and pasta while downing flagons of Kool-Aid.

3. Mirrors


Profile: A reflective surface that ALLEGEDLY presents you with a true representation of what you look like when you are standing in front of it.

Causes for wariness: Your perception of yourself is colored by factors that a mirror can’t account for—insecurity, confidence, lighting, a good mood, or a bad mood. All of these things can distort the way we see ourselves in mirrors, and so we can’t rely on them to present us with any kind of objective truth. Also, sometimes ghosts live in them.

4. Yourself, when you decide to cut your own bangs


Profile: Precipitated, perhaps, by a late-night viewing of Amelie or by admiring a photo of Zooey Deschanel (patron saint of the be-banged), you realize that you too need bangs, like right away. You, being the owner of a pair of scissors, should cut your own hair now. The impulse is undeniable. Your hair-cutting skills are non-existent, but this is happening!

Causes for wariness: Having bangs cut by a professional stylist can sometimes end horribly! I don’t know why anyone whose hair-cutting training begins and ends with (maybe) watching a YouTube tutorial 10 minutes ago thinks they are, without a doubt, going to be a huge success story. (“She was just a kid—the odds were stacked against her—but she came outta nowhere and did it: She cut perfect bangs!!!”) That isn’t to say that self-cut bangs ALWAYS look bad. You might look fine, or great, even. The thing is: This isn’t a decision to be taken lightly. Do your research, google “Suri Cruise bangs,” practice on a sibling, and then make a decision about how to proceed.

5. Your parent/s


Profile: The adult people/person raising you. They provide you with your genes or jeans. In some cases: both.

Causes for wariness: Santa Claus, the tooth fairy—right out the gate, your folks are lying to you. Sometimes they fib because they’re trying to protect you. Sometimes it’s because they want to inject a little magic into your life before you’re forced to face adulthood’s harsh realities. Sometimes they do it because it’s a thrill for them (when I was a kid, my mom had me convinced for years that rice was ice cream). But while they love you, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t, from time to time, also full of crap.

6. Captains of industry and/or business tycoons and moguls


Profile: Sublimely wealthy individuals who own oil fields, real estate developments, and the corporations that manufacture all the cool stuff you love.

Causes for wariness: The one percent of the world’s wealthiest one percent, these people get together bimonthly to wear top hats and figure out ways to get monopolies on stuff. Buy their wares if it pleases you, but know that they really only care about cash money, and will do whatever it takes to keep themselves waist-deep in fancy bowties and monocles.

7. “Surprise” chocolate bars


Profile: A fully intact fun-size chocolate bar that is unexpectedly discovered in the bottom of your backpack, or in the pocket of a coat you haven’t worn for months.

Causes for wariness: If you didn’t realize that this candy bar was just chillin’ in your bag all this time, there’s a good chance that it’s old as hell or some relic from Halloweens past. If you need this morsel of candy for sustenance, then by golly eat that thing (please, survive!), but if you’re looking for a little carefree, sugar-based pleasure, you must remember that your ancient, ashen, buried-treasure candy may be more trick than treat. Stale, bitter chocolate may not kill you, but it will make your mouth sad.

8. The writers of a beloved TV show’s series finale


Profile: These are the scribes who have been plotting the lives of your favorite fictional characters for seasons. When a TV series comes to an end, they are charged with wrapping up the story in a way that is emotionally satisfying, makes sense, and rewards viewers for all of the passion and time they’ve invested in the show.

Cause for wariness: Gossip Girl. Enough said.

9. The smell of your breath after you’ve blown into your hands to check its freshness


Profile: The inside of your mouth is feeling grimy, hot, and foul OR tastes like Doritos even though you haven’t eaten any. You cup your hands together, blow into them, and then try to catch a whiff. You smell nothing, think life is swell, and confidently spend the rest of the day getting up-close-and-personal (whispering secrets in friends’ faces, dancing cheek-to-cheek with attractive suitors, French kissing influential members of the community, et cetera) with everyone you meet.

Causes for wariness: According to bacteriologists, you really can’t smell your own breath this way. Instead, ask a child to give your breath a quick inspection (little kids are brutally honest about this stuff); or lick your wrist, let it dry for a few seconds, and then sniff the saliva spot. The smell, if there is any, will have been transferred onto your skin, thus permitting you to assess your breath situation more objectively.

10. The government


Profile: Anyone in charge of running your country, state, or city.

Causes for wariness: The “government” can do good, especially when influenced by determined activists, but the people working for the government often aren’t totally upfront with the populace. You’ve heard about this, right? These people are all up in your biz, looking through your emails, monitoring your phone calls, and making hilarious collages of your deleted selfies; they have a cure for the sniffles locked up in a vault but won’t release it because they’re in cahoots with Big Tissue; they know what’s going to happen in the next five seasons of Game of Thrones; AND they’re having secret pizza parties with tax payers’ money. Basically, they give us the information/services that they want us to have and keep everything else under wraps.

11. Person twirling a handlebar mustache


Profile: Any individual who stares off into space, seemingly to ponder a no-good scheme, as they feverishly play with their anachronistic facial hair.

Causes for wariness: Aside from the fact that this is textbook villainous behavior (and a sign that someone is about to be tied to some railroad tracks), popular wisdom holds that a person with something to hide may involuntarily touch their face, (especially the area around the mouth) while they’re lying.

12. Idris Elba


Profile: Debonair British actor whose appeal, due to his award-winning acting abilities and next-level dreaminess, spans demographics.

Cause for wariness: He’ll steal your heart. ♦

Free to Disagree

Illustration by Ana.
Illustration by Ana.

Presidential debates, legal arbitration, diss tracks—thinking of disagreements as competitions, where one person wins the conversation and the other person loses, is basically embedded into the foundation of Western culture. Though it may be common and perhaps even natural, this sort of competition discourages compromise, can create animosity, and is a powerful stumbling block on the road toward becoming a compassionate communicator. In extreme cases, these arguments are more about insulting someone to achieve a sense of victory or superiority than the actual issues at hand, which clearly isn’t cool. Most often, though, this attitude is responsible for turning what could be a minor difference of opinion into a full-blown, completely futile verbal brawl, with both sides refusing to concede “defeat.”

Whenever I’ve thought of disagreements as things to win or lose, I’ve had to make myself numb to whatever the person I was talking to was saying or going through because, at least in my mind, acknowledging their feelings or opinions would compromise my victory. And yet, the sort of victory that comes from hardening myself against someone else’s experiences isn’t the sort of victory that I’m interested in—it just isn’t gratifying in a way that I can be proud of. If I can strip away that competitive element when I’m faced with a conflict, and instead see the conflict as a way of working through a difficult or distressing issue, then I’m no longer in battle mode, and it isn’t imperative that I shoot down every dissenting remark or guard myself from having an emotional reaction. I don’t have to agree with the other person, but by dispensing with that whole win-lose dichotomy, I’ve created a situation where I can be open to what’s said to me, and hopefully present my opinions in ways that aren’t strictly adversarial.

When I hear some fancy person in a movie use the phrase “I respectfully disagree,” it’s usually just a pompous, faux-polite way of intimating that that character doesn’t give a damn. To me, though, it means the exact opposite—it’s about acknowledging the feelings and basic humanity of the person you’re clashing with, and it’s an essential part of any argument or debate. I’m not encouraging anyone to live a kumbaya-style “avoid conflict at all costs” sort of life. I’m also not laying down a “Miss Manners”–esque, finishing school, polite young women behave this way” set of rules. All I’m saying is that it is possible to have strong opinions and beliefs and still be a sensitive human being, which can be very easy to lose sight of when you’re in the middle of a heated debate. Here’s how to make sure you don’t lose your head while you’re trying to make your point.

1. Actually listen to the other person.

When a conflict arises and the other person is speaking, instead of stewing or silently formulating the verbal smackdown that you are about to bequeath upon your antagonist, sincerely and thoughtfully consider their words and emotions—not what you THINK they’re saying, or what you want to respond to. Genuine, effective listening—that is, really hearing what’s being said—is about being attentive. You’re focusing on the speaker, making eye contact—you are engaged. You should be able to repeat what has been said to you in an objective way—without judgment or hostility (though, depending on the circumstances, you may not have to literally repeat it).

When I have a disagreement with my boyfriend and it’s clear that we’re deadlocked, it can be satisfying simply knowing that he’s understood what I’ve said. One recent, pretty minor example: I think he should invest in a Mac but he clings to his very basic PC with a Ron Swanson-ian Luddite fervor. When I told him that Macs are more user-friendly and durable, and went over the myriad reasons why I think he’d enjoy owning one, he listened attentively, didn’t cut me off mid-sentence, and then plainly told me that he got what I was saying and saw why I like Macs, but he just didn’t want one. After considering what I said, he still knew that a basic PC is a better fit for his minimal computing needs (which I understand because I listened to him).

I’m not a Mac evangelist or anything—you know, zealously spreading the good news about Apple Inc., Tim Cook, and the MagSafe power adapter. But I just thought, specifically, for my boyfriend, a Mac would be perfect. It was frustrating when I was unable to get him to change his mind. However, that frustration was mitigated some because he didn’t appear to be totally disregarding what I said. He didn’t give the impression that he thought my opinion was stupid or worthless. He simply disagreed with me. Resolution can just be mutual understanding—you’ve absorbed their perspective and they’ve absorbed yours. While that may not be the most desirable outcome, in situations where both parties are steadfast in what they believe, it can be the most amicable one.

When you don’t listen, you’re essentially saying that your opinion is the only one that matters. But when you do listen, it shows that you value the person you’re speaking to, recognize their right to have an a opinion—even if the two of you aren’t seeing eye-to-eye, even if you HATE their opinion—and it demonstrates that you are at least open to working toward some type of solution, whether that solution is just mutual understanding or the type of collaboration that leads to major social change.

2. Be open-minded.

As clever, well-read, and worldly as you may be, you don’t know everything. You can’t know everything! You can’t fully grasp what it’s like to be black, an American Indian, gay, or someone with a mental illness if that hasn’t been a part of your life experience. You can’t know what it’s like to lose a parent or be bullied mercilessly if those things haven’t happened to you. Hell, you can’t know the best way to prepare jerk chicken if you’ve never cooked it before. Sensitivity and compassion emerge when each of us recognizes the limitations of our worldview. As So-Crates once said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” I’ve found that people who don’t acknowledge their own fallibility and cosmic ignorance speak in really disturbing and unsympathetic absolutes. They seem to have this inability to question their own opinions, and that’s scary.

In October, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart spoke with the conservative Fox News host Bill O’Reilly about white privilege—the idea that because of the color of their skin, white people are afforded certain societal advantages that people of color aren’t. O’Reilly doesn’t believe that white privilege exists and said, “If you work hard, if you get educated, if you’re an honest person, you can make it in America.” How does he know that? He’s a white man. He’s never not been a white man. So, how can he know that what he’s said is true with that much certainty? Yes, the United States has a black president, and there are many successful people of color, but what about the hardworking people of color who are struggling? If we’re being sensitive debaters, then we can’t just totally discount dissenting voices because their experiences don’t jibe with our rigid notions of truth. One of the benefits of conflict is that it allows our truths to evolve, grow, and gain nuance as we are exposed to perspectives that are different than our own. But even when our beliefs are firmly rooted within us, we can still be open-minded by having the humility and self-awareness to acknowledge that our ideologies are not universal truths.

So how do we talk about ideological topics in a productive way—that is, without sounding like an insensitive jerk? First, remember that you have to express your opinion as maturely and precisely as possible. This means not pulling any playground crap: Don’t scream in anyone’s face, or say, “You’re wrong,” when you really just mean “I disagree.” The semantic difference between these two statements is slight, but real. With “I disagree,” you’re subtly acknowledging that a dissenting opinion could be valid for someone, but that person isn’t you. When you say, “You’re wrong,” you’ve dismissed the opinion’s validity altogether.

If you accept that your truth isn’t everyone’s truth, then you don’t have to take every ideological disagreement personally, but with that acceptance comes the responsibility to use language that reflects the level of consideration that you have for opposing views. When we’re talking about issues like race, class, politics, and religion, we’re usually talking about beliefs that are colored by personal experience and tied in some way to identity. If you use hostile language during your debate or disagreement, it can feel like a personal attack against those closely held parts of a person, which undermines your position and can obviously be hurtful.

DIY Plastic-Toy Necklace

There are action figures, dolls, and tiny cartoon-character figurines jammed in every corner of my bedroom. I collect toys and will probably continue buying new ones until I’m ancient and have a long, gray Dumbledore beard. The toys I hold dearest are the ones I’ve had since elementary school, when I was a wee toy hoarder. They are artifacts of the past–not just in a general, pop-culture nostalgia sense, but of my past. These are the things I loved and obsessively played with as a little kid. They’re a part of who I was and who I am today, and I’d have a hard time parting with them.

That being said, I don’t actually play with my toys anymore. But after seeing a really moving documentary called Toy Story 3, I realized my toys might want me to engage with them. So in an effort to make sure my little figurines don’t feel neglected, I started turning them into necklaces. Now I can carry them with me all day and keep them close to my heart. If you feel a similar sort of affection for your old toys and trinkets—specifically ones made of polyvinyl material, which is pliable—then this tutorial on how to make toy necklaces (that double as holiday ornaments!) is perfect for you.

What you’ll need:

  • Screw eyes (aka threaded eye hooks).
  • A long-reach lighter.
  • Pliers.
  • Plastic toys.
  • A necklace chain or festive-looking piece of ribbon or string (what I like to call a “stringy ribbon thingy”).

Let’s get to it!

The 11th Hour

Illustration by Caitlin H.
Illustration by Caitlin H.

I’m all for doing a good job, and I never totally blow off responsibilities, but here’s the thing: If I spy an unscheduled sliver of time in my day, I am probably going to use it to rest, read 45 BuzzFeed articles about Friends, or watch all of my DVR’d episodes of Dance Moms in lieu of working on some required task that’s due the day after tomorrow. What can I say? Nappin’ and chillin’ are very appealing to me—especially so, it seems, when I should be working. In fact, one of the things that I do when I’m trying not to do whatever I’m actually supposed to be doing is stare at my nappin’, chillin’ cat with envy, genuinely hoping that I’ll someday come across an ancient talisman or incantation that will allow the two of us to switch bodies.

I’ll admit it: I’m a procrastinator. I dilly-dally and delay, and, as a result, have spent innumerable nights and early mornings wrapped in a duvet, chugging two-liter bottles of Mountain Dew like a madwoman while cramming German vocabulary into my brain or writing a 10-page research paper. I can pull off an all-nighter like a champ. Although doing this doesn’t make me happy, it also isn’t something that I beat myself up over—or at least I try not to.

If you’re anything like me, when you see people who don’t seem to have any problem getting things done—people who are organized, proactive, and accomplished, who balance multiple responsibilities with a McConaughey-ian breeziness—you may start to regard your inability to be more like them as an insurmountable flaw in your character. But it’s not! Though the word procrastination is almost always used pejoratively (I have yet to be complimented on my world-class procrastinating skillz), you don’t necessarily have to feel bad about yourself if you are a habitual procrastinator.

Contrary to the popular thinking on people like us, procrastinators aren’t necessarily lazy or irresponsible. I, for one, am totally driven and hardworking, but I still put things off till the last minute. I don’t think it’s because of lax morals or a weak work ethic—I think it’s because of my FEELINGS. For many of the dodgers, delayers, and deferrers of the world, it’s not that we don’t want to do what’s required or that we can’t do it, it’s just that our fears, anxieties, and (somewhat ironically) ambitions can be so overwhelming that they paralyze us and stop us from doing what we know needs to be done.

Everyone delays something, sometimes—like eating burritos, procrastination is an intrinsic part of the human condition, and doing it occasionally is not generally a big deal. I’m not some pro-procrastination activist; I’m not trying to justify my practice of putting off commitments. I don’t necessarily enjoy the stress of 11th-hour scrambling (though some procrastinators thrive on the adrenaline that comes with a tight deadline). Chronic procrastination—when putting off tasks basically becomes a way of life—can lead to missed deadlines and opportunities, compromise your professional and personal relationships (as constant delays are usually seen as inconsiderate, obnoxious, and a sign of irresponsibility), and/or jeopardize your happiness and health. That last one is a biggie: Procrastination often leads to high stress, which is harmful to your mental wellbeing and can hurt your immune system. Compounding all this damage, if you don’t address health concerns in a timely manner, the results can—worst-case scenario—be fatal.

So it seems to me that always waiting till the last minute to do everything is a lot more than a “bad habit.” Picking your nose or talking with your mouth full can’t kill you, after all! Procrastination seems, rather, to be an ingrained reaction to deep-seated emotions. Since shame is one of those emotions, it can only be counterproductive to feel ashamed of our tendency to delay—instead, let’s try to understand it.

Whenever I’m given a deadline, I always want to get to work right away, because I know how awful it feels to be all panicky with the Mountain Dew jitters the night before. But still, more often than not, I just can’t get started. One of the great mysteries of procrastination is that we do it even though we know full well that it will lead to stress and tears, and that the quality of our work might suffer. In his book The Procrastination Equation, the researcher Piers Steel offers an explanation for such irrational behavior: He says “the Achilles’ heel of procrastination” is impulsiveness. “Showing self-control or delaying gratification is difficult” for procrastinors, he says. “We just don’t have much ability to endure short-term pain for long-term gain.”

One time when I was in college, my best friend just out of the blue asked me to accompany her to Medieval Times. I went, even though I had to write a midterm paper. It was due soon, and I hadn’t done any of the reading for that class. I ended up finishing the paper mere minutes before I had to turn it in, which might have been exhilarating to some people, but was nightmarish for me. But when you’re impulsive, you act on emotions—all of the potential consequences of your actions take a backseat to what you’re feeling in the moment. Your long-term priorities, like doing quality work, being successful, and getting a reasonable amount of sleep every night can easily be obscured by the fleeting pleasure of eating a whole leg of oven-roasted chicken while watching fake knights joust in a fake castle.

Working Titles

workaholicsWorkaholics (2011–present, Comedy Central)
Workaholics is a jock-y buddy comedy series about some slacker/stoner bros who work for the same telemarketing company and live to cause juvenile mischief, shirk responsibility, and sloppily chase le ladies. It probably sounds questionable, I know! But the show’s brand of ridiculous, inappropriate humor is FUNNY AS EFF. Don’t get me wrong: I do not condone the behavior that Workaholics displays for our entertainment. Rather, I suggest living vicariously through its main characters: Adam, a perma-teen Chyah, dude! kind of dude; Blake, a bizarre long-haired puppy of a guy; and Anders (aka ’Ders), the relatively responsible one who makes sure they all come out of their shenanigans alive and with their jobs. For 30 minutes at a time, Workaholics lets me pretend I’m an immature dude without the consequences of actually being an immature dude or having one in my life. And when it’s over, I get back to reading literature or whatever. —Dylan

exhibitionExhibition (2013)
This drama, directed by Joanna Hogg, follows two artists trying to live together and work together on their art, their house, and their relationship. Watch it if you’re scared to grow up or become an artist. Will it make you feel better? Probably not. Will it make you feel a little more comfortable about growing up or becoming an artist? In a way, probably yes. Exhibition shows that it is OK for life, at any age, to be confusing, upsetting, and strange. Also: The female lead is Viv Albertine, a guitarist in the Slits, which is real-life proof of the cool changes that can happen over the course of a career. —Caitlin H.

our city dreamsOur City Dreams (2008)
A documentary about five artists: Swoon, Ghada Amer, Marina Abramović, Kiki Smith, and Nancy Spero. They work in different mediums, and are at different stages in their lives and careers, but they’ve all chosen to make New York City their home. This isn’t a movie about New York, though—it’s about creativity, hard work, process, desire, and living the life you want. Watching these women work, and seeing the ways they arrived at their chosen fields, is inspiring beyond belief. Our City Dreams has been streaming on Netflix for a while now, and I cannot keep track of how many times I’ve watched it. If I’m uninspired about life or work, it never fails to refresh my spirits or help me discover something new about myself. It makes me feel connected to these women, and all women everywhere who are hustling too do what they love to do and express what they need to express. —Laia

mr momMr. Mom (1983)
Written by John Hughes, this lighthearted look at gender stereotypes stars Michael Keaton as Jack, a man who loses his job during a recession. Jack’s wife, Caroline, once a stay-at-home mom, goes back to work to support the family while Jack bumbles his way through domestic duties like cooking, grocery shopping, and dealing with the explosive aftermath of their baby’s first can of chili. Keaton is effortlessly funny—there’s no shtick with him—which keeps the movie from being the over-the-top, slapstick-y mess that it could have easily been. I saw Mr. Mom for the first time in ninth grade, on one of those rare, lovely days when the teacher’s lesson plan was “Everybody watch this movie and then answer a couple of questions about it that will never be graded.” In keeping with the tradition of using Mr. Mom as an educational tool, my assignment for you is to soak up its warm, ’80s-family-comedy vibes and then decide if you agree with me that Michael Keaton, in this role, is hilarious and perfect. —Amber

crazysexycoolCrazySexyCool: The TLC Story (2013, VH1)
VH1’s biopic of TLC, one of history’s most badass R&B groups, follows Chilli, T-Boz, and Left Eye through grueling rehearsals and into their hyper-accelerated rise to stardom, where the work only gets harder and more complicated. Watch it to see how three intelligent, talented women fought to get their money after being signed to an exploitative contract, navigated the art of collaboration, and got their professional motivation back after ending personal relationships with scrubs. Double-watch it for the KILLER ’90s hip-hop tomboy fashion TLC was known for. (They could wear crop tops like no one ever has, or ever will again.) —Caitlin D.

beauty shopBeauty Shop (2005)
Queen Latifah stars as Gina, a widowed hairdresser, in this spinoff of Barbershop. She’s a star stylist, but her boss, the shady salon-owner Jorge (Kevin Bacon), treats her poorly. Gina gets fed up and decides to open her own shop. Take that, patriarchy! She faces obstacles (corrupt city officials, Jorge) but builds a successful salon with a staff of trusting and funny characters, including Alicia Silverstone as the shampoo girl. Like in Steel Magnolias, there’s something enchanting about watching a group of sharp-witted women trade advice and gossip. Beauty Shop is about trusting yourself, reaching for your goals, and never letting the Man get you down. —Marie

better off tedBetter Off Ted (2009–2010, ABC)
In this supremely smart, satirical workplace sitcom, Ted is an honorable guy working for a comically evil, profit-grubbing corporation. The company, Veridian Dynamics, develops technologies such as weaponized pumpkins, cowless beef, and organic vegetables full of antidepressants. The show aired for just two seasons, which is a travesty, because the surreal jokes hit hard and with almost dizzying frequency (you can still see them all on Netflix Instant). There are also tons of career lessons in each episode. For example, if your workplace tries to cryonically freeze you, you should probably quit. —Amber

shamelessShameless (2011–present, Showtime)
A lot of TV protagonists are trying to figure out what they’ll do with the rest of their lives, but Fiona Gallagher is trying to figure out what to do RIGHT NOW—how she’s going to pay this month’s bills and get all five of her siblings to school on time and keep her drunk dad away. I have six brothers and sisters, and the fierce loyalty the Gallagher siblings show for one another feels familiar, especially when they lie to protect each other. Shameless also focuses on a side of social services that doesn’t get a lot of attention: At one point, Fiona tells Child Protective Services that, despite their good intentions, they’re not helping as much as they think. At the same time, Fiona and her family are never framed as victims. They’re smart, complicated, unabashed problem-solvers who constantly make me question my own ethics. I watched all the available seasons of this show in an impressively short period of time while anxiously chewing my blanket during the extra-raucous and suspenseful parts. —Tova

Office SpaceOffice Space (1999)
How does a soul-sucking job in a cubicle with unflattering lighting sound? Pretty bad, right? Office Space is a hilarious comedy about a guy (played by Ron Livingston, one of my many fake boyfriends) who hates his horrible job and annoying boss so much that he decides, with the help of friends, to embezzle some money from the company. He also falls in love with a waitress (Jennifer Aniston) at a T.G.I. Fridays–like restaurant next to his office. Office Space was always funny, but in the 15 years since its release, it’s become a time capsule—the office in question is a tech company, and no one there understands the internet. The computers they work on are hulking, enormous monsters. Bonus points go to Milton, the saddest sack at the company, whose mumbles about his beloved red stapler caused the desk accessory to have a renaissance in the early naughts. —Emma S.

broadcast newsBroadcast News (1987)
In the ’80s, before women were being told to “lean in” at work, Jane (played by Holly Hunter), the executive producer of a nightly news show, was figuring it all out for herself while being a total boss. Broadcast News is not about how glamorous and exciting it is to work in television—it opens with a frenzied scene in which an assistant desperately sprints around the studio to get a clip for the night’s show into Jane’s hands—and does so right as it needs to go on the air. It’s nerve-racking, and conveys how stressful it is to make live TV. Jane deals with all this pressure in a very relatable way: She sits at her desk, sobs into her hands for a couple minutes, wipes her eyes, and carries on with her day. Rather than suggest that women have craaaazy emotions, Broadcast News shows how an the ambitious, cool, assertive, and in-control exec might cope with her intensely difficult job. —Brodie

coal miner's daughterCoal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
If you’ve never heard of the country music legend Loretta Lynn (and if you haven’t, check out “The Pill” and “Rated ‘X’,” which are important parts of music and feminist history), you could easily mistake this biopic about her life as fiction. It tells the story of Loretta, one of eight kids born in the 1930s to a coal miner in an impoverished Kentucky town. She gets married at the age of 15, has four kids by 19, starts a music career in her 20s, and rises to superstardom in her 30s. Loretta works her ass off and juggles her family and dreams from the very beginning, when she has to bring her kids with her on tour and her husband’s support seriously wavers. Sissy Spacek’s alternately heartbreaking and triumphant portrayal of the singer always brings me to tears. —Stephanie ♦

Magic Shows

hookHook (1991)
In this sort-of sequel to J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, Robin Williams plays a middle-aged workaholic attorney who doesn’t remember that he was once Peter Pan. After Captain Hook kidnaps his children, the grown-up Peter returns to Neverland to save them. When I was wee, Hook was my lifeblood. I had Hook action figures and bed sheets. I watched the movie on a loop, utterly absorbed in the adventure and fairy dust of it all. Honestly, I don’t know how anyone could not become obsessed with this movie. There’s swashbuckling, gigantic pirate hats, flying people, a Technicolor-goo food fight, adorable kids, a villainous Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook, a dagger-wielding pixie played by Julia Roberts, and Rufio, Rufio, RU-FI-OOO! All of these fantastic bits are bound together by composer John Williams’s emotional score (basically the sonic equivalent of the twinkle in a child’s eye), Steven Spielberg’s jaw-dropping Neverland, and the mesmerizing level of energy and sincerity that Robin Williams brought to this role. I can’t think of another actor who could have played a grown-up Peter Pan as convincingly as he did. Obviously, it’s extremely bittersweet watching this bangarang movie now, but Williams was a powerful force of light and laughter in my childhood, so I see Hook as a gift—144 minutes of happy thoughts and a reminder of the humor, gentleness, unique talent, and preternatural charisma of a person I deeply admired. —Amber

Bernard's_WatchBernard’s Watch (1995–2005, ITV/CITV)
This British children’s show came out in the mid-’90s. I was sort of too old to be watching kids’ shows at the time, but I was hooked on this one because I could relate to its young hero, Bernard, and his problem of always running late for things like school. Except in his case, a postman with mysterious powers gave him a magical watch that could STOP TIME. Bernard could have used his watch for mischief like stealing or tricking people, but he had a pure, kind soul and harnessed the power of that beautiful and perfect accessory to help friends, old ladies, his parents, or anyone else who needed a life-pause. He even prevented accidents and stuff like that. What a nice boy! I still regularly think about Bernard, but especially his watch. Every once in a while I’ll be staring out my window and catch myself wishing for a postman to bring me that magical object. Seriously, where is it? —María Fernanda

shelley duvall's faerie tale theatreShelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre (1982–1987, Showtime)
As a kid, I was obsessed with this fantasy TV series, which my parents had on VHS tapes. It’s hard to say what was most amazing about each episode: the great acting (by Robin Williams, Susan Sarandon, Christopher Reeve, Pee-wee Herman, and a host of other stars), the low production values (the sets and costumes tended to look like they came from high school plays, though the makeup was usually terrific), or the fairy tales themselves. Some are romantic, some are funny, some are scary, and some are a little bit of everything. And that’s what I still like about them! Duvall’s interpretations aren’t the sanitized retellings we all know—they are often dark and weird, which is obviously better. The whole series is now on Hulu, which means you can watch them all back-to-back. Hooray! —Emma S.

CinderellaRodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (1997, ABC)
Oh, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella! Do I love you because you’re beautiful? Or are you beautiful because I love you? Actually, I know what it is: I love this made-for-TV musical because the inimitable Whitney Houston plays Cinderella’s fairy godmother, and the songs Houston performs are capable of making a show-tune/’90s-pop glutton like myself salivate. Also, long before Tiana became the first black Disney animated princess, the singer Brandy Norwood was cast as Cinderella in this movie. As a black girl growing up in the ’90s, I didn’t see people who looked like me in fairy tale movies or picture books very often. But then came this movie, with a black princess and a multiethnic cast—the prince was played by the Filipino-American actor Paolo Montalbán, and his parents, the king and queen, were a black woman (Whoopi Goldberg) and a white man (Victor Garber). All of this was enthralling and very special to me, and it underscored the idealistic message that is the heart of the Cinderella story: Anyone can rise above their struggles and have a life full of magic and happy endings. —Amber

Practical MagicPractical Magic (1998)
The Owens sisters, Sally (Sandra Bullock) and Gillian (Nicole Kidman), come from a line of powerful witches. But with such talents comes a curse: Every man that an Owens woman falls in love with dies. Obviously, that would make dating pretty hard! Sally is no-nonsense and Gillian’s more of a free spirit, but they have a tremendously close bond. When a boyfriend starts abusing Gillian, Sally senses it and goes to look for her. That’s when the real trouble begins! Bullock and Kidman’s sisterly chemistry is the best, and it’s the reason why I like this movie so much—aside from all the cool witchy stuff. Their aunts (played by Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest) are also AMAZING witches and totally steal the show. —Marie

the outsidersThe Outsiders (1983)
Based on a novel written by S. E. Hinton in the 1960s, when she was a teenager, The Outsiders is a coming-of-age story about a group of teenage boys who face a series of problems and adventures related to the pains of growing up, violence, social differences, beauty, death, friendship, and consequences. It features one of my favorite movie quotes of all time, “Stay gold, Ponyboy”—a reference to this poem by Robert Frost. And the movie really does make you think about the importance of staying pure at heart even though all good things, including youth, come to an end. It’s half angst-y and half melancholic without being overly dramatic, and it makes me think about my life from a new perspective and appreciate it more. It also has a lot of famous actors, like Diane Lane, Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, Ralph Macchio, Matt Dillon, and Tom Cruise, all very young, all looking hot and awesome. —María Fernanda

hemlock groveHemlock Grove (2013–present, Netflix)
This Netflix horror/mystery series is about weird families, possible werewolves, secret angels, mad scientists, psychics, the devil, and other antiheroes who inhabit a down-and-out town in Pennsylvania called Hemlock Grove. One of them is responsible for the murders of two teen girls, and it’s hard to tell which. No character in this series is really “good,” but I tend to like them anyway. I’m also a fan of their gory transformations from human to not-quite-human (nowhere else will you see a werewolf so full of existential angst, I assure you). I’m surprised it isn’t more popular, but I guess it can’t be easy to live in the shadow of Orange Is the New Black. —Arabelle

harry potterHarry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
Believe it or not, this movie was my first exposure to Harry Potter. I went in thinking it would just be a regular kids’ movie, but after the opening scene, when the great wizard Dumbledore appears and dims the street lights with his magic wand, and a cat transforms into a witch (Professor McGonagall!), I knew it would be something a lot more magical. There is nothing like stepping into Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry with Harry for the first time. You have to take a train from a secret platform to get there! The ceiling in the great hall looks and moves just like the sky outside! The staircase is like a real, shifting M.C. Escher drawing! In gym class, students whiz around on brooms to play Quidditch, and people are flying around on brooms. It’s exciting! Since then, I’ve seen the movie and read the book so many times that I know that plot beat by beat. It isn’t even my favorite installment in the Harry Potter saga, but it’s still my number-one movie for escaping reality. —Stephanie

cinema paradisoCinema Paradiso (1988)
My mom rented a copy of this movie for me to watch and dared me not to cry. She won the bet, because I ended up sobbing about four times before it was over. The story begins with a famous director named Salvatore Di Vita. Following the death of a childhood friend, he flashes back to the small Italian town of his childhood. The village is pretty unromantic, but its movie theater and the films shown there provided young Salvatore with an escape into a more glamorous world. It’s a movie about our general fascination with movies—the sway they hold over our perceptions and aspirations, and the way life can change for people who emulate what they see in them. Salvatore’s life doesn’t work out perfectly, the way a movie’s ending does, but it is enriched by what movies taught him to imagine. Maybe that sounds cheesy, but you should really watch it! Just be sure to have some tissues around because my mom was right—you’ll probably need them. —Lucy

enchantedEnchanted (2007)
I usually get annoyed with live-action musicals, but this one is the exception. It follows a seemingly naïve gal named Giselle, played by Amy Adams, as she gets ejected from her problem-free cartoon fairy world, Andalasia, and lands in real-life New York City. Giselle’s story pieces together chunks of the Disney animated princess movies we all know and sometimes hate—a bit of Cinderella here, some Snow White there, a little Sleeping Beauty thrown in near the end—but what makes Giselle lovable is that she’s stubborn and fights for what she believes in. She doesn’t give up on finding the magical essence of “happily ever after,” even in cold, hard realities. —Chanel

Princess_MononokePrincess Mononoke (1997)
This epic anime feature takes place in Japan hundreds of years ago, during the Muromachi period. It follows Ashitaka, the last prince of the Emishi tribe, as he sets into the forest to find a cure for his arm. (While defending his village from a demon, he suffered a magical injury that gave him superhuman fighting abilities but that will also shorten his life.) As he searches for a spirit that might be able to help him, he stumbles into a battle between humans and forest gods and creatures whose fearless leader is Princess Mononoke, a human raised by wolves. The stunning imagery pulls you right into the princess’s enchanted forest. Her world is threatened by industry and war, though (just like ours), and the movie’s message about environmental protection is what I love most about it. The original film is in Japanese, but an English version was released a few years later and was voiced by some of my favorite actors (Claire Danes is Princess Mononoke!). —Stephanie ♦

Tales of Enchantment

fabulous sylvesterThe Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, the Music, the Seventies in San Francisco
Joshua Gamson
2005, Picador

In the ’70s and ’80s, Sylvester, a soul singer from San Francisco with a profound and beautiful voice, was known as the Queen of Disco. He inspired generations by being exactly who he wanted to be, society be damned. This biography chronicles how Sylvester grew into his role as a fearless openly gay icon in an era when gay rights were in their infancy. But it’s also about Sylvester’s music, performances, and total DIVATUDE: He was gorgeous and sang some of the most important songs in disco. I cannot recommend this biography enough, and not just because it’s about Sylvester and he was fabulous: Joshua Gamson brings that time of gay activism and drag queens and all-night dance parties to life with his AMAZING writing. You feel like you’re right there in the Castro, hobbling around on six-inch platforms, trying to make it into the midnight Sylvester show. —Julianne

tender morselsTender Morsels
Margo Lanagan
2007, Knopf Books for Young Readers

Margo Lanagan must be a witch, because her books are too magical, dark, and troubling to have been written by a mere human. Tender Morsels is a retelling of the Snow White fairy tale. This Snow White is not to be confused with the Disney gal with dwarf friends; she’s Rose Red’s sister, from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Do you know the story? Snow White and Rose Red are best friends as well as sisters. One cold winter night, a bear comes to their door and begs to be let in. It turns out that he’s a prince, and Snow White marries him. In Lanagan’s utterly devastating version of the story, we learn that the girls are the products of rape; teir mother, Liga, has escaped into a magical, private world of her own imagining, where she can keep her little family safe from the horrors of the outside world. But this means her daughters are not prepared for cruelty. When others begin to enter their peaceful haven, including men from a nearby village and a treasure-seeking dwarf, the girls are deeply fascinated, and Liga realizes she’s kept them from living full lives of their own. This is not an easy read, but it’s a powerful exploration of human love and sacrifice. —Estelle

witches of eastwickThe Witches of Eastwick
John Updike
1984, Knopf

The 1987 film adaptation of this novel was a staple of my childhood. In it, Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Susan Sarandon play the titular witches, whose powers are brought forth when the devil, played by Jack Nicholson, comes to town. I picked up the novel last year, and I don’t know what took me so long—like the movie, it is sexy and entertaining. Updike said he wrote the book to “make things right with my, what shall we call them, feminist detractors,” and it reads sort of like someone’s grandpa trying to sound like a feminist and occasionally failing spectacularly. But Updike is a master of the sentence, and the book is most successful on that level. —Emma S.

Erica Jong
1981, Harry N. Abrams

I found this gorgeously illustrated book about witchcraft at a thrift store. I vaguely recognized the author’s name, but I didn’t yet know about Erica Jong’s association with second-wave feminism or her best-known, controversial book Fear of Flying. In Witches, she uses poetry and prose to collect some of witchcraft’s mythology, spells, and rituals, and finds in its history a source of women’s power. It’s not the most thorough Wiccan resource (take a look at books by Starhawk or Scott Cunningham if that’s what you’re looking for). Even still, it’s one of the most beautiful and beloved books on my shelf. —Stephanie

Gloria Steinem
1988, Henry Holt & Co.

The consummate blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe is still the gold standard of American sexuality and va-va-voom, so much so that stars (Madonna, Lady Gaga, Lindsay Lohan, et cetera) still try to emulate her more than 50 years after her death. This is one of the most important books in pop culture, I think, because in it Steinem deflates the pervading idea that Marilyn Monroe was basically a sexbot by examining how Marilyn Monroe, the person and the cultural idea, came to be: Born Norma Jeane Mortenson (her last name was later changed to Baker) to a mom with serious mental health issues, Monroe was shuffled around as a kid to “aunts” and foster mothers, and her need for parental love, which she arguably sought through her many husbands, defined her until the very end. This is a crucial read for feminists, pop culture fans, movie buffs…everyone. It might even teach you a bit more about yourself. —Julianne

kiki strikeThe Kiki Strike series
Kirsten Miller
2009–, Bloomsbury Publishing

I’m so excited to write about this series, because it’s SO EXCITING! It revolves around the life of Ananka Fishbein, a normal teenager whose life is thrown for a loop when a giant sinkhole appears outside her New York City apartment. Out of the whole climbs Kiki Strike, a badass who dresses in all black, has platinum hair, and is allergic to all foods but coffee. Plus, she knows multiple languages, how to use various weaponry, and martial arts. She and Ananka recruit four other girls (each gifted in a different art: chemistry, engineering, disguise, and hacking) to help them defend the city from criminals, and, on their downtime, roam the ancient, abandoned tunnels beneath its streets. I became so obsessed with this book at one point that I wore black for days, drank only coffee, and planned elaborate missions to spy on people at my school. The best part about this book is that, while the characters may be invented, the settings are not; there are actually abandoned subway, railroad, and flood tunnels hidden beneath the city, some accessible to the public, others just waiting to be explored. —Lucy

little mermaidThe Little Mermaid
Hans Christian Andersen
1837, C. A. Reitzel

Han’s Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid and the Disney adaptation that most of us are familiar with have the same basic set-up: A mermaid princess, fascinated by the human world, rescues and falls in love with a human prince, then gives a sea witch her beautiful voice in exchange for a pair of legs (required for jumpin’, dancin’, etc.). The original, Andersen version, though, is much darker (the mermaid feels a knife-like pain whenever she walks), and the story unfolds in bittersweet, decidedly un-Disney fashion. I think if I’d read this story as a small child, it would have been a harrowing and confusing experience (particularly the part where the sea witch is described as having a “great spongy bosom”). Fortunately, I read The Little Mermaid for the first time a couple of months ago, so I was able to appreciate how thematically rich it is. It’s a fairy tale about assimilation, unrequited love, the suppression of the female voice, social stratification, and self-sacrifice. Its complexity is truly bewitching. —Amber

tarot plain and simpleTarot Plain and Simple
Anthony Louis
2002, Llewellyn Publications

This book has a special place in my heart, because I used it to learn tarot when I was just a 16-year-old teen witch. There are numerous books that teach tarot for beginners, but this is the best one I’ve found, and I still find myself reaching for when I need to brush up on the cards’ many meanings. Louis takes the reader through each of the 78 cards in the tarot and offers key phrases and other tricks that make memorizing them as uncomplicated as learning multiplication tables. Ultimately, divination with tarot is about combining the cards’ traditional meanings with your own personal thoughts and experiences, but having a proper foundation is essential! If you choose to embark on the wonderful journey of divination, you’ll have no better trusted companion than this classic. —Meagan

book of tarotSeventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom: A Book of Tarot
Rachel Pollack
1998 (revised edition), Thorsons

This book is half tarot guide, half personal narrative, and reading the latter part feels like listening to stories spun by a wise witch. Rachel Pollack also sheds some light on the history behind each tarot card. For example: Did you know that the 12 stars in the Empress’s crown symbolize the signs of the Zodiac? There are worlds of magic in tarot, and this book helped me gain new appreciation for their artistry and mystery. I could read it over and over and still learn something new each time. Whether you’re new to tarot or are an experienced cartomancer, this is a must-read. —Meagan

jpegThe Magicians Trilogy
Lev Grossman
2014 (boxed edition), Viking

I love a good trilogy, don’t you? Why settle for just one book when you can greedily devour three that follow the same storyline? Lev Grossman’s novels The Magicians, The Magician King, and The Magician’s Land are about Quentin Coldwater, who goes on an epic journey from boy to man, from student to teacher, and from loser to king and back again. They take place in a magical land called Fillory, and in a school for magic called Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic. I read an interview with Grossman recently where he complained that readers often compare Brakebills to Hogwarts, when really it’s based on Oxford, but hey, being likened to Hogwarts seems like a compliment to me! Read all three books back to back for maximum enjoyment. —Emma S.

Brian Froud and Alan Lee
1979, Abrams

I squealed with joy when I first came across Faeries, because I recognized Brian Froud’s name from The Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. Froud is the conceptual and costume designer, behind those movies’ visually stunning fantasy worlds and characters, and his sketches—plus detailed descriptions—of mythology’s many different kinds of fairies are just as amazing. Lush illustrations (including watercolors contributed by Alan Lee) are paired with handwritten text about fairy behavior (the Daoine Sidhe, for example, are skilled chess players and love “hurling”), fairy flora (primroses can open the way to fairyland), and how to protect yourself from fairies, if you so choose (try iron, St. John’s wort, or a sock under the bed). If you’re as enchanted by Froud’s fairy tales as I am, I’d recommend his other books as well: Good Faeries/Bad Faeries, Goblins!, and Trolls. —Stephanie

sacre bleuSacré Bleu: A Comedy d’Art
Christopher Moore
2012, HarperCollins

Sacré Bleu turns art history on its head. It starts with the death of Vincent van Gogh, which is seemingly attributed to a curious shade of blue. Throughout the novel, other famous real-life artists, like Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, find themselves under the same color’s spell. If it weren’t for its comedy and clearly fictitious scenarios, this could be a textbook on the history of Impressionism and post-Impressionism. The action takes place in Paris (an enchanting setting if ever there was one!) using real figures from history, but the story, with its raunchy sorcery, is a like a strange dream. —Chanel

Malinda Lo
2009, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Ash, an orphan, lives at the mercy of her wicked stepmother and cruel stepsisters. Not one to become a typical fairy tale martyr, though, she retreats to the forest, where she becomes entangled with a mysterious man named Sidhean and his fairy realm. Caught between the magnificent but dark fairy world and the human one, Ash has to make some difficult choices that Cinderella could never have imagined. Ash is based on familiar tales, but it tosses all the tired old tropes out the window. And even though it’s a romance, it doesn’t gloss over any of the gritty realities that come with friendship and love. —Rachael ♦

Math Attacks

Collage by Ruby A.
Collage by Ruby A.

There is a portion of the population that can stand in front of a chalkboard that’s covered with numbers and variables and, as if by magic, make sense of everything they see. These people know what algorithms are and how to use them. They can also calmly and easily calculate the tip when presented with a dinner bill. While I personally think these folks should be called something grand and mystical, like “sum sorcerers” or “number whisperers,” usually we just say that they’re “good at math.”

I’m in awe of these savvy individuals because I have very little mathematical talent myself. Truth be told, I’m actually bad at it. I use a calculator to solve equations as simple as 4 + 7 and have received my fair share of Ds on algebra and geometry tests. Reading numbers comprising more than four digits out loud is tricky, sometimes nigh impossible, for me. I even have trouble telling time on an analog clock! In seventh grade, I had an analog watch, which was given to me by some well-meaning family member. I wore it every day because it was red and black, my favorite colors. When anyone asked me what time it was, I lied and said that my watch was broken, rather than suffer the embarrassment of having someone see me slowly count by fives and make whatever additional calculations were necessary just to tell them that it was 2:43.

There’s a theory that people who think they’re bad at math just aren’t devoting enough time to understanding it. I won’t argue with the idea that you have to work hard to be successful, but I’m pretty offended by the implication that the reason I can’t simplify a logarithmic expression is sheer laziness. While I’m sure there are people who look at algebra problems, say, “Screw this, it’s too hard,” then run off to watch fart compilation videos as they bask in their own ignorance, that certainly isn’t what’s going on with me.

I started working to improve my math skills in the fourth grade, when I noticed that my friends weren’t laboring over their division worksheets in the same tortured way that I was. When I was in elementary school, I studied flashcards, drilled myself on multiplication tables, and played Math Blaster, a space-themed arithmetic computer game, during my summer vacations. In high school, when the chasm between my lowly math abilities and the abilities of many of my classmates widened, I often stayed up late at night working on homework as my math-whiz grandfather tutored me over the phone, then went to school early the next morning to get additional help from my math teacher or friends. Because of these efforts, I never got any Fs on my report card, but the subject never became any less complicated.

Each new school year, I waited for something to click in my mind—for an “aha!” moment when I’d be able to approach a polynomial expression with total confidence. I didn’t think that the doors to understanding mathematical principles were sealed shut to me, but it felt like in order to pass through those doors, I had to know some kind of secret handshake or code that I hadn’t figured out yet.

Struggling with math makes me worry that I’m stalling out intellectually, which wavers between feeling disappointing and depressing. On one agonizing night when I was 16, my scientist mom tried to help me with my Algebra II homework, and my mind just refused to absorb anything that she was telling me. It was as if all of my brain cells had formed a wall in protest and were like, Get out of here with that ‘inverse function’ mess—we demand more Backstreet Boys lyrics! As the night went on, I made no progress, and the frustration I felt with the homework ballooned into a greater frustration with myself. I thought I was a moron, and even though now I understand that was an overreaction, at the time it felt chillingly, insurmountably true. I mean, it wasn’t as if I was trying to split atoms—this was 11th grade math, which nearly everyone but me in class seemed able to do! I shut down completely and started to sob while my mom, who basically earned a living analyzing numerical data, began yelling at me, trying to convince me that this wasn’t something to be upset over. Her shoddy attempt at consolation just made me even more upset because she was, in my mind, gifted with an understanding of math that made it impossible for her to relate to my struggles.

Popular wisdom holds that there may be a psychological element to why I find math so difficult. Although there are many studies about the way girls are socialized to believe we’re mathematically deficient, I’ve never thought that my gender was the root of my problem because, as I’ve said, my mom is a scientist who doesn’t even need a calculator to do number stuff. But at one point, I did believe that my defeatist attitude might be holding me back. When I was in school, I’d try to force myself to “think positive” when I was doing my math homework or studying. I’d say things like “You’re a number crunchin’ champ,” or “You’re gonna solve the crap out of these equations.” Inspired by Good Will Hunting, I even wrote “You’re wicked smaht” on a piece of paper, which I tacked on to the corkboard in my room for motivation. But then I’d get a D on a quiz and a sad trombone would start playing in my head.

Things haven’t gotten much better for me over the years. As we all know, math is everywhere—it’s on every discount sign in the aisles of our favorite stores, it’s in proportions that we observe in a painting, it’s in our recipes, it’s the reason our phones work—and because of this, I often wonder what the world is like for people who are fluent in the language of numbers. What does it feel like to be a statistician capable of predicting the outcomes of presidential elections? What is like to say a number like “777,777,777” without any hesitation?

I don’t think that I’ve ever been as emotional about math as I was in high school, but there are still moments now when I’m hard on myself. When I’m slowly making change or counting money, I think, There are eight-year-olds who could probably do this more quickly. With age, though, I’ve gained a clearer understanding of my intellectual strengths: I’m perceptive, creative, and have a talent for historical analysis. Simply remembering that I have these talents can boost my confidence when I’m feeling discouraged or dejected and prevent math from feeling like this totally oppressive force in my life. Part of counteracting mathematical anguish is acknowledging that people excel in different areas and knowing that no one is the best at everything. I accept that numbers aren’t my forte because academically and career-wise, I’m more interested in the humanities…and never having to cry over an algebra problem again, if I don’t have to. ♦

Friday Playlist: Be Your Own Hero

These robust, sweeping, mostly instrumental tunes from TV shows and movies are like a collective call to put on an invisible cape, psych yourself up, and go out and conquer the world. Nothing can stop you.

Saoirse Ronan, in a still from the movie Hanna.

Illustration by Minna.
Illustration by Minna.