As the two people who usually read and respond to Toast submissions, we the Nicoles thought it would it be fun to come up with a
short list of our favorite freelance pieces this year. We left out posts that were part of ongoing series (like “How to Tell if You’re in a Novel” and “If X Were Your Y”), but there were still so many to choose from and we know we’ve probably unwittingly overlooked some of our faves and, no doubt, some of yours. So, after you revisit these wonderful works — listed (pretty much) in the order published — feel free to add your most-loved posts in the comments!
Beauty Work: Lessons in Ballet, by Siobhan Phillips:
Ballet has always known, that is, that gender is performance. It’s easy to assume or even to dismiss the word—performance—when it comes at you in a theory of culture. In ballet, it comes at you with the power of art. Femininity is something to be perfected and made beautiful. A hard, endless, noble kind of work. That’s why ballet can seem, to the young women practicing it—to me, for example—like an honest and subtle thing, even if its artifice is obvious—more than obvious, pretty embarrassing, really—and its relevance waning. Here’s the ideal, it says. Here’s the effort. Here’s the distance between the two.
In March of last year, my partner and I celebrated twenty years together. We had both recently discovered Sayers, and my anniversary gift to her was a complete set of the Wimsey novels—mostly hardbacks from the 1940s; I wanted to echo Wimsey’s book-collecting hobby, but my finances are rather more modest than his. (Thrillingly, the books arrived from a second-hand shop in the UK to my Massachusetts office in a huge blue bag stamped “Royal Mail.”) I read many of the books out loud to her over the following months, and it struck me that the entire Wimsey-Vane courtship can be read as an extended meditation on the question: how does one build an egalitarian relationship in an unequal, indeed misogynist, world?
Un-Thorned: Fear, Faith, and the Genes Between, by Taylor Harris:
Sure, I can pick out their laughs in a roomful of children or spot their distinctive tantrums a block away. I can tell you my son will eat broccoli, and my daughter will not be bribed. But beyond the quirks and the milestones, the shot records and reports from preschool, there’s one thing I want to know: That somehow my children will avoid or outrun my history of mental illness, live free of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and its fraternal twin, Depression.
The reassurance I want that my kids will dodge this particular bullet seems more and more elusive. There was a time when I believed the truth of generations could unravel as easily as a child pulls the tape from the cassette with her finger. That somehow identifying which addictions or disorders lived on which branches of the family tree could protect my children. If I could just find the black box of genetic coding, buried beneath oral histories and old photographs, I, with the help of God, could stop this thing from growing amongst my babies.
You Think You Have Time: Hiking the Lowest to Highest Trail, by Carrot Quinn:
We’re walking through a wash in the desert in the dark, and we’re thirsty. We’ve been hiking since five a.m., and left our last water source a few hours after that. In the interim we climbed ten thousand feet cross-country up and over a ridge, stopping on top to look back down at our starting point in Death Valley, then hiked down the other side. The last of the light has long since gone.
I’m hiking with Chance and Jess, two other women who share my passion for long-distance hiking. We’re here in Death Valley in the first week of October to complete the Lowest to Highest Trail — an overland route created by Brett “Blisterfree” Tucker that takes the hiker from the lowest point in North America (and also the hottest), Badwater Basin, to the top of Mount Whitney, the highest point in the Lower 48. The route, which crosses three mountain ranges, is 135 miles long. Only 14 miles of that is trail.
Very few have completed this route on foot, and we’ve given ourselves about six days to do it.
Letter to My Mother After Charleston, by Carvell Wallace:
Today, they killed nine people in an AME church. And I’m glad you’re not here because you’d just be shaking your head and clucking low and quiet, calling on Jesus’ name. You’d be asking what the world was coming to. You’d call Aunt Shirley and Aunt Bev and the three of you would repeat the same things over and over. It’s a low-down dirty shame. Like we’re no better than dogs. What type of evil would possess a man.
I wouldn’t be a teenager anymore. But then I would be because you’re always a teenager around your mom. And I’d be annoyed with you. I’d want you to handle it differently. I’d want you to…I don’t know…do what I do. Write a thinkpiece or say some smart shit on Twitter. Lie alone and stare at the ceiling. Not call anyone. Not talk to anyone. Feel the weight in the pit of your stomach. Lock the door from the inside without even knowing it.
Goodbye Without Leaving: On the Loss of a Friend, by Molly Minturn:
When I showed up for my interview at the magazine, I was perfectly on time. The chapel clock chimed as I put my hand on the doorknob. Before I could turn it, the door opened and I saw Kevin, the managing editor, for the first time. The way I’ve framed it sounds like something out of a romantic comedy, but instead of romance I felt something familial when I saw his face. He looked at me like we shared a secret—that’s the only way I know how to put it. His eyes actually twinkled. I stood there on the step, my mind flashing to vintage images of Santa Claus. But Kevin wasn’t jolly, a fact for which I was grateful, because neither was I.
“Where’s My Cut?”: On Unpaid Emotional Labor, by Jess Zimmerman:
It’s something I’m happy to do for the people I care about, but it is not effortless. I’ve fielded hundreds of late-night texts, balanced reassurance with tough love, hammered away at stubborn beliefs, sometimes even taken (shudder) phone calls. I’ve actually been on agony aunt duty for male friends since high school, so if it’s true that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something, counseling bereft dudes may in fact be my only expert skill.
And yet, it is basically impossible to monetize, short of demanding funds to build a gold bridge. Not that I’d charge my friends – but I don’t charge to edit stuff for them either, nor do usually they charge me when they knit me something or draw me a picture or feed my dog. Yet that work is still considered to have value. I’ve offered to pay for dogsitting, they’ve offered to pay for editing; often we arrange some kind of barter in lieu of payment. If we wanted to charge someone else money for these services, it would not be considered absurd. But emotional labor? Offering advice, listening to woes, dispensing care and attention? That’s not supposed to be transactional. People are disturbed by the very notion that someone would charge, or pay, for friendly support. It’s supposed to come free.
Why I Want an Arranged Marriage, by Rohin Guha:
One of the best qualities a guy I date could have–besides being a stone-cold fox–is having the ability to impress my parents. Part of impressing them would consist of being able to persuade them that they have the mettle to handle my neuroses. My parents have witnessed me at my best (let’s say, graduating college), my worst (being broke and unemployed after finishing graduate school), and at my most bewildering (when I came out to them). It only makes sense that they’d have the executive decision to come up with a short-list of princely candidates.
It’s not that I don’t trust myself to find a sensible match. It’s that I’m tired. I’m exhausted.
I simply want to outsource part of the process to people who have a direct stake in me winning at the end. My parents have a direct stake in me winning at the end. Not just in romance, but life in general.
Visible Faith: On Grad School and Ageism, by Carla Stockton:
More saliently, I think older men know what young people don’t yet, and what women are sometimes not as willing to acknowledge — that once a woman passes the mid-fifties mark, she is supposed to be invisible. She is supposed to fade into the woodwork and be quiet. She is “unfuckable,” and that renders her unworthy of great thought. There are, of course, exceptions: a woman who has achieved a certain status, or a woman who has proven herself as a colleague, commands respect, is welcome in certain areas. But a 68-year-old woman who has spent her life in pursuit of other goals — who has raised a family, provided the means by which her children could attend Ivy League schools, made some movies and written some screenplays but clearly has not had the gumption to get a real career — is beneath contempt if she insists on being noticed.
Grief in the Diaspora, by Tasbeeh Herwees:
Every time we return someone is gone, mama says. Every time we return it feels a little less like home.
Experiencing a death in the diaspora is like watching your life on a film reel. There are no bodies to bury. There are no belongings to pack away. There is no funeral tent. And even as guests come through the door, our self-made family in a self-made exile, there is a loneliness to the heartache.
Alghorba jamra min ul nar, mama says. Exile is an ember from hell.
“Not So Bad”: On Consent, Non-Consent, and Trauma, by Christina Tesoro:
The older I get, the more I am certain that every woman in the world has had an experience like this. My mother, my grandmother. Girlfriends and ex-girlfriends and friends. It comes up in conversations with women I’ve only just met, thousands of miles from my home, sometimes minutes within knowing each other. The actress Loretta Young, shortly before her death, learned the words date rape and discovered a name for the place Clark Gable had taken her decades ago, an act that changed her life.
We know it before there are words for it. We know it when there aren’t words to describe exactly what happened. The edges of a violation are not drawn in ink or stone or sand. They aren’t even written on the body, not always.
Selling Books in Cold Places, by Zoe Selengut:
In bookselling, and in no other sphere of my life, I do believe in divine Providence. Bookselling is a petty god but I am its favorite. I come from a long line of religious maniacs and I am righteous, not as I am an American, by an accident of birth, but as I am an atheist, by the grace of God. When I walked into that last interview six years ago, bookselling had already broken my back, but I didn’t know it yet; the collapse was delayed years past the trauma. And any way, one crippling injury in exchange for several years of a pure right spirit is not too high a price to pay. A woman of the intense Protestant sect that formed my mother’s people died with these words on her lips: I have found the one right way. If I had been crushed under a book press or frozen to death in an attic annex or fallen to the Mouse Queen in that final battle all solitary catalogers fear, I would have said the same thing.
The Things You Do For Family: Why I Go By ‘Mother Megan’, by Megan Castellan:
It’s a perennial question—whenever I meet someone new, be it at a bar or at church coffee hour, the question arises with a renewed intensity. The questioner grasps my hand, peers into my eyes, and sweetly asks: “But what do we call you?” …
The handful of women in seminary would cluster around after class and have intense conversations about how we would deal with these sorts of questions. As women’s ordination is still a comparatively new phenomenon in my corner of Christianity, we didn’t have a road map for this life. All the questions, all the customs that had been set down by male priests centuries ago had to be answered all over again, daily, by us.
At the Corner of the Real and the Imagined: On Literary Geography, by Rebecca Turkewitz:
I no longer scribble in notebooks when I read mysteries, nor run my fingers over fictional maps while daydreaming about buried treasure or solving crimes. I’ve at least partially outgrown that unselfconscious, mooning type of fandom. But, still, when I read something I really love, I become absorbed and completely lost. For a time, it all feels real: Lovecraft’s monstrous gods and Bloom’s wry professors and Hawthorne’s mysterious strangers. And I want nothing more than to fall completely into the illusion and share a world with these characters. Or at least to stand, for a moment, in the place where their world meets mine.
To Fill an Emptiness: Tradition, Food, and the Holidays, by Kayla Whaley:
A few months after I stopped eating, we were driving down a long, restaurant-filled road. It was just past four o’clock, so they were all getting ready for the dinner rush. With our windows open, all you could smell was smoke and meat and grease. I sucked the air into my lungs as hard as I could, but it wasn’t enough. I didn’t want to breathe in the suggestion of food, I wanted to feel the food sticking in my teeth and burning my tongue. I wanted my mouth filling with saliva around a too-big bite, the pressure of pushing it down my throat, the slight discomfort of an over-full stomach.
I wasn’t hungry. My body doesn’t recognize hunger anymore, not in the way it used to. This was craving—the need to fill an emptiness. It hurt, but not in any way that seemed to matter.
Humor and Other Posts
Dial-A-Modernist, by Adrienne Raphel:
Dear Modernist, I’ve been on-again-off-again seeing a woman — well, I wouldn’t call it seeing. But I told her we had to break it off, it wasn’t fair to he her, or her fiancé. Screw him, she said, I’m in love with you. You have to go back to him, I said. He’s a good man. I don’t think she’s taken it well — I have a bruise on my temple, and I don’t remember last night. –Have or Have Not
Have Not: The bar is empty. Take a whisky. The glass is small in your hand, the amber glows above the mirrored surface. Put the glass down, empty. The bartender pours in another few inches. A woman comes in, sits at the other end of the bar. She lifts her martini, but the glass shatters, the drink slips down her leg, the olive skitters across the lacquered bar. The world breaks everyone. –E. Hemingway
The Gradual Devolution of My Goals as an English Teacher, by Riane Konc:
Okay, well, I don’t expect every student to be Harold Bloom. I mean, how many ADULTS do you know who can fully parse “The Waste Land”? I’m not looking for a full textual analysis here. Maybe one student will follow the way that World War I haunts the narrator; maybe one will pick up on the theme of existential decay; maybe another will follow the parallels between Eliot’s poem and Weston’s From Ritual to Romance. I actually like it better that way, each of them poring over bits of the poem and teasing out individual meanings, then bringing what they’ve mined back to class to share. The important thing is that they figure it out on their own.
It’s best to work through dense poems like this in class. Although several of my students did point out that April, in the poem, was symbolic of spring, which I thought was a good start. Also I think they really connected with the cruelty of the spring, because did you know the school makes them take the SAT the same month as prom AND the senior class trip, which is totally oppression? — as Chloe mentioned.
Things My Male Tech Colleagues Have Actually Said To Me, Annotated, by Cate Burlington:
“It’s not ‘P.C.’ to say this, but…” Thank you for this helpful preface alerting me to the fact that I can spend the next thirty seconds fantasizing about Star Trek without missing anything important.
History in Color: A Black American Romance Roundtable, by Alyssa Cole:
I think that because people of color, and African Americans in particular, have been presented as non-actors in American history for so long, it can be hard for even open-minded people to wrap their minds around certain ideas. Why would a slave want to fight for the country that enslaved him? (African Americans have participated in every military engagement in U.S. history.) Would people really make time for romance while doing backbreaking work? (Enslaved Africans maintained relationships, marriages, and had social lives—like most humans do even in hard circumstances.) I know that slavery existed after the period your story is set in, so how can I believe they have a happily ever after? (Meanwhile, no one questions whether the couples in Western-set historical romances die of diphtheria after the last chapter, or if Regency romance Lady So-and-So dies in childbirth, as so many women did.)
Karl Ove Knausgaard Reviews Everything Else In America, by Josh Gondelman:
A Big Mac
Even the name ‘Big Mac’ insulted me. Big? Was this sarcasm, or just gross American hyperbole? As I bit into it, the gritty sesame seeds of the bun pried open my taste buds for the onslaught to come. Some flavors I recognized. Pickles. Onions. Limp iceberg lettuce, days past its prime. Other tastes were foreign to me. The special sauce was like a cartoon, a mockery of seasoning. The patties themselves bore no resemblance to the flesh of any animal I’d ever tasted. I wept tears for the noble bovine whose muscle had been reconstituted in such an unrecognizable form.
When I had finished my meal, I lit a cigarette and took one puff.
‘No smoking,’ said the cashier. Her rebuke felt unjust, for what I’d just experienced was as foul and carnal as sex itself.
I’m Getting Really Tired of My Mysterious Flaky Friend, by John Leavitt:
Just being near Jen meant you got dragged into her random schemes. She’d go to parties and insist her name was “Natalie from Legal.” You’d call her and a Hungarian guy would pick up. She’d forward her mail to your address and your box would be full of old issues of Sensor Plate News magazine or packages addressed to “La Contessa.” Because we’re about the same height and weight, Jen always roped me into going grappling hook and climbing supply shopping with her to “test the counterweights.” She got “freebies” from her “job” and was happy to share her designer scarves and sunglasses. She was the person to call when you locked yourself out at 3:00 am. Hell, half the time she was already nearby!
Once she wore an eyepatch for a month. Never explained why. Classic Jen.
The Most Metal Deaths in Middle-earth, Ranked, by Austin Gilkeson:
Huan was a big, friendly dog who helped Beren and Lúthien in their adventures, and was only permitted to speak three times in life. That sounds more whimsical than metal, but Huan was also prophesied to die in battle with the mightiest wolf to ever walk the earth. It’s never said who made this prophecy, but somehow almost everyone in Middle-earth knew it, which suggests that Huan was so metal people took one look at him and thought, “Only the mightiest wolf to ever walk the earth can kill this dog.” Huan fulfilled his fate when he died fighting Carcharoth, a giant hell-wolf that guarded the gates of Morgoth’s realm and had been driven insane after swallowing a Silmaril. Just before dying, Huan used his third and final time to speak to say farewell to Beren. Presumably, had he been allowed a fourth time, he would have said, “This is so fucking metal.”
The Pitch Meeting for Wishbone, by Abbey Fenbert:
VISIONARY: We’re getting kids to read here, Janice. Give them just enough to tantalize their literary palates and I guarantee you they’ll devour all these titles, cover-to-cover, and certainly not just use the surface knowledge gleaned from Wishbone to posture before their future professors and Internet dates for the rest of their adult lives.
[Suits exchange glances]
VISIONARY: Trust me, they will all finish Silas Marner.
SUIT #2: How does the dog read?
VISIONARY: The same way you do, Dave. With an open heart and ready mind.
How to Stock an Independent Bookstore, by Leslie Kendall Dye:
Bookmarks with shop’s name and logo on them, free with purchase (or if customer runs in and grabs some and runs out)
Extra Kleenex for bathroom come spring, for largely asthmatic and allergic population of independent bookstores
Maritime Soap Company everything. Everything that company makes: stock it. If it has a drawing of an anchor on it, stock it.
The Timid Anarchist’s Poetry Book, by Liz Anderson:
I went to a networking function
How successful I was!
How easy it is to speak to
And sneak shrimp into
The pocket of a businessman
A Linguist Explains the Grammar of Shipping, by Gretchen McCulloch:
The fandom process is decentralized and democratic: a ship name lives or dies on its own merits. And while ad execs and literary punsters have a lot of flexibility in terms of whether they choose to use a blend or not, show creators don’t name their characters based on which combinations will make shippable blends, so ship names are also a unique opportunity to see how people cope with words that are seriously difficult to combine.
And that, my friends, is why we need fan-guistics.
“Red Pill, Blue Pill”: A Tale for MRA Children, by Jaya Saxena and Matthew Lubchansky:
Females can be sad or glad
But females are all very bad
Why are they all sad, glad, bad?
Human nature. Ask your dad.
Some are thin
And some are fat
Neg them all
They asked for that