On moral philosophy and moral comedy: a reminiscence

I don’t normally do anything in the way of personal writing for my real job, which is in scholarly publishing, but this week had the opportunity to pen this little reminiscence about taking one of my most memorable authors, the moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt, to his appearance on The Daily Show. I was a new publicist then, and the highly unusual campaign served as a whirlwind introduction to a career I still get a kick out of ten years in. Thought I’d share the start of the post here:

As Jon Stewart wraps up his 16 year stint on The Daily Show this week, I can’t help recalling fondly the time I escorted one of his unlikelier guests—the moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt—to an appearance. It was 2005, and Harry, an emeritus professor at Princeton, and I, a brand new publicist, had been caught off guard by early interest in his philosophical treatise, On Bullshit. The book, apparently unencumbered by its unprintable title, would go on to become an international phenomenon, spending 26 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, where it would peak at number one. The Daily Show was one of the first major venues to take interest in the book, which started its meteoric rise as a quirky, unassuming title from our mid-list. We’d expected it might raise a few academic eyebrows, but were unprepared for the journalistic outpourings from all corners. “This book will change your life”, wrote Leopold Froehlich in Playboy, seeming to mean it. Bullshit’s time had come.

On BSComedy Central’s invitation was met with equal parts excitement and trepidation. It was one thing to watch, baffled, as the book reviews piled up, quite another to send Harry into the glare of the mainstream media. Jon was, after all, formidable in his way, and Harry, for all his facility with the ironic and profound, was not particularly well-versed in comedic pop culture. His inquiry was as serious as it was sincere, and he was reluctant to “bullshit” about the topic he had so carefully treated. Our visit to The Daily Show marked my first time in a green room of any sort, and I spent most of it holding my breath. Harry was wonderfully refreshing to work with—thoughtful, modest, and genuinely surprised, at 76, that his work had generated interest outside of philosophy journals. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting him into.

Read the rest on the PUP blog.

The Cost of an Elite Education

A little while ago, after reading the excellent book Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz, I became mildly fixated on the cost of an elite education… and not the monetary one you’d think.

An excellent sheep

(An excellent sheep near my house)

The book review essay that ensued is up at Brain Child Magazine. You can read the complete essay on their website.

The Cost of an Elite Education
By Debra Liese


Mitchell L. Stevens, Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites

Lacy Crawford, Early Decision: Based on a True Frenzy

William  Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life

If your teenager is granted entry to a prestigious university this spring, a few recent books on the expanding class gap in elite education can assure you of three things:  1) By the time your seventeen-year-old starts fretting about admission essays, it’s already too late (Creating a Class). 2) The final lap can be grueling, and often a mirror of modern parenting missteps (Early Decision). 3) Not winning the race may be a victory (Excellent Sheep).

Americans are partial to romantic notions about education and equal chances. Yet according to Mitchell Stevens, the author of Creating a Class, who worked for a year and a half in the admissions office of an unnamed, prestigious New England college, the appearance of class neutrality is created by exceptions and not the rule. Stevens observes that we have become a society where “terms of college admission are also the goals of ideal child rearing,” a situation that favors the affluent. As if that isn’t enough, he disabuses us of any hopeful fantasies about whether or not some prestigious schools prioritize students who can pay full tuition. Spoiler alert: they totally do.

But isn’t complicity in the perpetuation of inequality the trade-off that must be made to win at life? Not according to former Yale Professor William Deresiewicz, whose new book, Excellent Sheep, is quick to remind parents that “screwing other people’s kids” isn’t actually all that advantageous to their own. Elite students, he argues, lack the moral imagination of their public-educated counterparts; they are great at jumping through hoops, but terrible at taking real chances. He doesn’t blame the kids but a system that excels at “retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead—and even more smug about its right to its position.” It’s an intelligent and bracing critique.

Of the journalists who gave Deresiewicz’s argument sympathetic consideration, many hailed from the Ivies themselves. Will these now-enlightened folks be the last generation in their lineage to do so? Not likely. The quest for more status is culturally ingrained, even though, as he points out, “Status doesn’t get you anything except the knowledge that you have it.”

Read the rest at Brain Child Magazine.

On Excellent Sheep and Irish Twins

I have a couple of new pieces coming up in Brain, Child Magazine this winter. One is a book review essay for their annual Brain, Teen issue. It’s on the trouble with elite education, and I look at several great books, including two out just this year: Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz (you might recall this powerful piece of his in The New Republic this past summer), and Early Decision by Lacy Crawford. As someone who is a product of public education, with strong professional ties to the ivy league, the topic is one I’ve been obsessed with for some time. And in a piece set to appear on the Brain, Child blog this Thursday, I had a good time writing about the projected anxiety my “Irish twins” provoked. A must read for all of you who returned from maternity leave already pregnant. Anyone…?

It’s part of a two-perspectives feature on how age gaps impact family dynamics. And there will be a twitter party known as The Great Brain Debate on Thursday 2/5. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIrish twins face the cold, cruel world. Stick together kids, it’s harsh out there.

Being fragmented


Earlier this week, Commonweal ran a piece I wrote on belief, disbelief, death, being young and lost, older and somewhat less lost, and trying to make sense of my kids’ religious upbringing. Belief, for me, has always seemed to start and stop and change in hiddenness, so however constructive the sorting was, writing about faith publicly was a challenging experience.

Thank you to Commonweal for the lovely treatment they gave this piece in their print magazine:

When my oldest daughter was a baby, she carried with her, from car seat to crib, My Little Golden Book About GOD. A gift from her great-grandmother, it was full of cherubic children cradling birds, nursing wounds, and gazing, dumbfounded and sweet, at a vast and star-strewn sky. Now at eight, it’s her quest to perfect “Adeste Fideles” on her guitar that obsesses her, and touches something in me, though my own belief in God is mercurial, and until she requested otherwise, I was more compelled to take my kids to play outside than to Mass.

Early on, my husband and I found vague common ground in seeing a relationship with nature as the closest thing to a true religious experience, though I never disliked church. While his Evangelical background and late-adolescent turn from its dogma left in its wake a gaping space and a lack of interest in organized faith, my own Catholic upbringing had felt like wandering a vast and fascinating museum and left me relatively unencumbered. As I passed into adulthood, I carried with me, more than a set of specific beliefs, a subtle passion and a sense of mysticism, a box with relics—an idea that things could not be easily explained.

Read the rest at Commonweal.

The very worst tweep

The experience of following me on Twitter, if you’re actually paying attention to the fact that you’re following me on Twitter, is no doubt, pretty unremarkable. I don’t have a huge number of followers, but I easily have far more than I deserve. It’s not that I’m unappreciative. Occasionally I peer in at these amiable-seeming followers and wonder if they’re sufficiently entertained, if they’re talking amongst themselves. And sure enough, they are.

It’s always a little strange to be followed. A little great, a little dreadful. When I was seven, my best friend would teach me bad words at recess, in exchange for which I would promise to take her to some amazing place―a dubious partnership from the start. I learned a lot of bad words that year, but needless to say, unless you count some cattails behind the swing set or a broken corner of asphalt on the basketball court, that girl never ended up anywhere interesting because of me.

To say my Twitter persona is “undeveloped” would be a nice way of putting it. I don’t tweet daily, or even weekly, so it goes without saying that I’m not offering a steady stream of amusement, a theme, or requisite engagement. The few glimpses into my friendships or personal life are so scant they’re hardly worth the price of admission. I’m such a winning combination of introverted and unambitious on social media that it took me almost a year before I didn’t feel like a boundary-crashing lunatic tweeting ‘at’ someone to say “nice article!” Yet when one of those “nice articles” happens to come my way, I’m super grateful. My earnestness probably doesn’t do much to enhance my Twitter desirability, but considering my Twitter spirit animal is already akin to a hibernating hedgehog, I figure there’s little point in adding the qualifier “hard to get”.

I don’t really expect the people I follow to amuse or enlighten me any more consistently than I amuse or enlighten them. It takes a lot to get me to unfollow you, as I harbor the quaint notion that you might feel hurt to have our connection mysteriously severed. And what goes around comes around, I suppose, because I didn’t get unfollowed nearly as much as I should have during my first year on Twitter. In truth this is a fact I attribute solely to the law of averages: if regular tweeting is the best way to attract new followers, it’s also the surest way to repel them.

I am, if nothing else, there. And in that vein, a writer friend recently asked me to ‘attend’ a Twitter party with her, on the topic of Presence. As the party commenced, and the other tweeps introduced themselves with punny bursts of “I’m here”, and “present!”, discussing their struggles for zen, bonding with hashtagged ease, I sat stunned. “Can you take me home?” I texted my friend, who was otherwise occupied. So I did the equivalent of sitting in the corner, nursing a single drink for a bit. “You were crap at that party,” she replied finally, when it was finished. She spoke the truth. But by then, I had fallen asleep.

And yet, to my own surprise, I’ve discovered I like knowing that my followers are, if nothing else, there too: That nice guy who wrote for the Economist and followed me when I had eight followers and appeared no more legitimate than a bot. The Millions, my favorite literary website, which made the magnanimous gesture of actually following me back, (a move that had me flying high, and guiltily so―because who am I fooling?―for weeks). The intimidatingly snarky tweetsters, the literary hopefuls, the progressive educators, the activists―it was strangely nice to see them in my list week after week, their sheer presence announcing (at least to me) that they were totally nonjudgmental of the nothing I was hell bent on delivering.

As it would happen, events in my life took me off Twitter altogether for a couple of months. When I logged back on, I noticed my number of followers had taken the most precipitous fall of my uneventful Twitter career. Gone was the parenting and education writer whose posts I occasionally ‘favorited’ (she seemed so nice!), the cool, mystical tweeting poet with whom I’d once ventured a rare mutually complimentary exchange (didn’t that mean something?!)

I had it coming of course. I am nothing on Twitter if not the worst, and in fact what truly surprised me is that a lot more people were still there than not. Even The Millions, one of my unlikeliest coups in the first place―was still unaccountably there.

I processed this how any logical person would, and concluded that each and every one of the people who had failed to unfollow me were not only lax about curation, they were, well, kind of supportive, were they not? While I’d headed to outer space, they were sitting there waiting, going about their article writing and book promoting, too kindhearted or unconcerned about their Klout score to click unfollow on an account that had ceased to do anything interesting for months, if it ever had done anything interesting in the first place.

Or maybe all those unconditional follows just made me overly sentimental. Twitter is good for some things, but not for taking personally. I’ll never be an avid user, but I won’t be practicing principled avoidance and deleting my account any time soon. Modern day scourge on human interaction or invaluable opportunity for a democratic exchange of ideas, I’m not particularly drawn to either camp. When last I checked, my followers seemed to be having a great time without me, so I slipped them a random but fascinating link on amnesia, and headed for the door. But not before I saw another follower bite the dust. I didn’t mind. I am, after all, the very worst tweep. I have to take what I can get.


(sometimes it’s nice to be followed)

Writing life

I was delighted that Lauren Apfel, the debate editor and contributing blogger at Brain, Child magazine, asked me to take part in a writer’s blog hop on process. Lauren is brilliant and incisive and has written any number of essays that I’ve admired, but I discovered her through a piece she wrote for the Guardian on how she wished she’d given her children her surname. You can read more of her work at Omnimom. It was lovely of her to ask me about my process, considering mine could best be summed up as “glacial”.

What am I writing or working on?

I just finished writing a difficult essay on agnostic theism (through a Catholic lens), my yearning for more spirituality, and how I’m navigating the grey area with my children. The piece was a twin at conception, written as a project on contrasting perspectives with Lauren Apfel, who is Jewish, but raising her children as atheists. We soon found that the territory was too complex, and took our essays in separate directions, but the process of working with someone with a different perspective was really instructive. Writing is always a learning process for me, and that was certainly true here: I was forced to examine the history and evolution of my own thinking alongside my desires for my children in ways I hadn’t, at least with such rigor, before. I’ve always been drawn to mystery and uncomfortable with strictures—but what exactly does this look like in terms of religious education of children? Where does the line between reason and belief belong, and how much is it within our power to place that line in ourselves, let alone to influence as a parent? These weren’t entirely comfortable things to answer. It’s an ongoing journey for me, but one this essay had a big hand in focusing.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I don’t know if I have a fixed genre. I started out wanting to write short literary fiction when I was in my early twenties, then I had three children very close together, and completely stopped writing for a number of years. Now I suppose I write mainly thought pieces with a personal angle on a range of subjects—creativity, belief, privacy, introversion. Often my kids are a way into the material. Sometimes they’re the entire material: I’m about to start a piece on my son’s night terrors. It is a piece about the value of instinct, really. I suppose if my work is distinct from others, it’s because it always seems to be too much of something else. Too analytical to be literary, too lyrical to be journalism, not focused enough on parenting for parenting venues…

Why do I write what I do?

The first few things I wrote after a long break were connected to my kids in some way. The period during which I wasn’t writing was one of absolute mission-engagement in terms of bringing them into the world. They fascinate me, and my own responses to them are very revealing. I suppose I also like writing about them because it feels very safe. Writing didn’t always feel this way to me; I was drawn to intimidating material when I was very young, but felt like I lacked the internal compass to tackle it. Kids have been purifying in a sense—they’ve given me a new and better lens. There’s a gentleness that I feel in myself when I write about them, an impulse to preserve and protect and explore. It’s an act of love, not a dissection.

The experience of not writing for a number of years, and immersing myself in my life, allowed for a perspective shift that has made coming back to writing satisfying. Initially I was taken with the process of ‘making meaning’, and various kinds of literary architecture. The heart was there, but I tended to circle it, getting lost in the exploration of lost-ness itself. Now I find that I can access the heart more quickly, and build out from there. I do credit parenthood with that shift.

How does my writing process work?

I would describe myself as an occasional writer only, with great periods of drift, but I’m intense about the pieces I choose to tackle. I work at home as a book publicist, and my three kids are still young, two are still preschoolers, so the idea of having a regular process is a bit of a joke, at this point. The truth is, I have too many other things that absorb and distract me, and I love to be absorbed and distracted. Every few weeks I’ll get an idea and a day to write at the same time, and something materializes. I write the brunt of my pieces fairly quickly, and then spend a lot of time picking away at the editing in the margins of my days and nights.

The talented writers I’ve chosen to invite who will blog their responses next are Lynn Lurie and Antonia Malchik.

I met Lynn Lurie in a writing workshop years ago, where we were mutually taken with each other’s stories on photography. Her latest is a forthcoming novella, Quick Kills, which focuses on a photographer, and looks at, among other things, the imprecise nature of consent. I’ve always been taken by Lynn’s ability to convey psychological states in a way that feels both raw and restrained. Along with being a writer, she’s also an attorney who volunteers as a translator and administrator on medical trips to South America that provide surgery free of charge to children. I admire her ability to extend herself in concrete and meaningful ways in the world, ways that go beyond her facility with words. And she certainly has that facility. So happy that next week she’ll be sharing her thoughts on process on her website.

I first encountered Antonia Malchik’s work in the wonderful new online magazine, Full Grown People, where she is a regular contributor. The first essay I read of hers, Acts of Faith, which centers on her visit to her family’s homeland, St. Petersburg, is easily the most heartfelt story of either faith or its absence that I’ve encountered. Her current writing interests are focused on identity and environmental issues, two things I’m also passionate about. Antonia has been a travel writer and a journalist, and is all around fascinating. I look forward to seeing what she does next. She can be found at www.antoniamalchik.com and at her blog.

On Santa, belief, and the power (and pitfalls) of imagination


My most recent post for Psychology Today is on how absurdly long I believed in Santa. It’s also on hope and imagination. And a little bit of disillusionment. 

Against all evidence and the threat of public ridicule, I believed in Santa until dangerously close to the point when sitting on his lap would have conjured more images of Lolita than wholesome holiday cheer. I wasn’t exactly deluded about reality, and my belief was less straightforward than you might think. Of course to most, even such nuanced naiveté requires no additional reportage beyond the laughably advanced age at which my fantasy finally caved.

If you were to ask my parents how they happened to end up with two Santa-obsessed daughters on the cusp of adolescence, they’d tell you that they enjoyed the many years of creativity that our Santa-belief generated. They encouraged us, at first, forging responses to our litany of questions, though largely they left us to our own devices. Each year, the world we imagined surrounding the nature of Santa became increasingly sophisticated. We erected a pulley system between our bedrooms for sending conspiratorial notes, and considered the role of magic, pondered off-season life at the Pole, and the very soul of the improbable individual around whom this whole seasonal mythology swirled. Naturally, there were ambiguous elf sightings. Continue reading

New York Times essay on sensitivity, vegetarianism, and contradictions

Yesterday I was excited to have my first essay in The New York Times. The piece is on my daughter’s choice to become a vegetarian at 4, the complexity of moral choices, and the special contradictions they can present for the very young. Since I wrote this essay some months ago, it’s interesting for me to notice how much her moral complexity has actually evolved in that time (no more crying over bugs!) Apparently, food can be fairly divisive, so the comments section at times has been a bit of a sparring ground between vegetarians and non, although my piece isn’t  prescriptive of any one lifestyle other than one where acceptance is practiced and differences, emotional and otherwise, allowed. It’s been interesting reading though, some of it very thoughtful, and it’s been particularly fascinating for me to hear from adults who made similar choices at a young age–some of whom followed very different paths. Check it out on the New York Times site here. And feel free to add to the already rollicking discussion. 

The Rich Kids of Art Class

My latest  post at Psychology Today  is on wealth disparity, arts education, and creativity:

Little Girl With Art (2)When torn between two preschools for my three-year old son, I chose the one that had beautiful wooden blocks and prominently placed easels. It was slightly more expensive than others we looked at, but doable, and every time he comes home with an ample sheet upon which the teacher has thoughtfully printed his intentions, (gems such as, “me screaming with my mouth open to go outside”), it feels like one of those little parental victories. A few years ago when his older sister was in preschool, we couldn’t have afforded the same.

Everywhere in the university town I live near and work in, parents are scrambling to buy beauty, and with it, creativity. Diversity is sought after too, of course, but mostly in the academic abstract. A wealthy town means there are art, drama, and ‘music together’ classes for toddlers, exhibits with interactive, ‘kid friendly’ features. On most days, my kids would prefer to play in the dirt than interact with these well-intended features, yet there they are, and I’m glad for it. But while the area is as abundant with creative educational opportunities as you’d expect, at many public schools that fall outside the wealthiest enclaves, enrichment and arts programs have been cut. You have to pay to play. Continue reading

What’s better for you: personal or public creativity?

This post also appears on my blog at Psychology Today
Special thanks to Gabriel Roth for his insights

It’s easy to equate creative endeavors with narcissism when they’re not your own. Who hasn’t eye-rolled past their share of “shameless” self-promotion? While it isn’t always the most instructive or enjoyable pastime to read about someone else making themselves more famous, a lot of that broadcasting likely involves plenty of shame, or at least reticence, realism, and other nuanced feelings that are somehow less satisfying to imagine than delusional love-me ones. An affinity for creative expression doesn’t foretell an affinity for self-promotion—the former is, after all, often deeply personal, solitary work—but for those bent on a career tied to their creative enterprises, that aspect is a real after-the-fact requirement to be wrestled with.

Some do it more gracefully than others: The writer Gabriel Roth has a separate Twitter account called Gabriel Roth’s Ego, where he retweets praise for his recent book, “The Unknowns”, an account he keeps separate from his personal one (@gabrielroth, to date, has  over 1,700 followers to his ego’s 37).  “It totally fails as a promotional strategy,” he says. “But that’s the point: no one wants to read all the nice things people say to you.” Continue reading