Running on Empty

A newspaper column on the Internet.

Båts Against the Current: How Ikea Nearly Ruined My Marriage

This 2011 essay received an honorable mention in the 2012 Erma Bombeck Writing Competition. The website where it used to live is shutting down. I’m reposting it here so that it has a home. 

In every relationship, there is one person who enjoys Ikea, and another who finds it a blue and yellow Abu Ghraib of the soul. I like Ikea. When I moved into my husband’s apartment in New York, he had an Ikea bed. More accurately, he had a pile of broken bed parts with a mattress flung on top. The mess could have easily been reconstituted into a bed with a $10 replacement part that Justin refused to return to Ikea to buy.

The first time we visit Ikea together – four years, one marriage and one child into our relationship – I prepare for our visit with the diligence of a Secret Service advance team. I determine the closest of greater London’s four Ikeas, studiously compare cots and bookcases, measure walls and rooms,  compile an annotated shopping list. The goal of this prep work is to expend less of our time (and Justin’s patience) on operational matters and more on marveling at cartons of 99-pence doodads.

And the plan works, for the most part. On the day of our visit I consult tags, make notes and cross-reference, while Justin pushes the stroller and breathes in a way that resembles the relaxation exercises they showed us in birth class. We are ok, and then we realize that the van is due back in an hour and a half, and that the baby needs to eat, and that we still have to procure our purchases from the giant joyless warehouse part of the store.

In the dim-lit aisles we load a dolly with boxes whose heft suggests the amount of marital discord contained within. Then comes the checkout line, which looks exactly like passport control in a developing country: disinterested checkers  processing lines of people with overloaded carts and the defeated, desperate look of those who have come too far in their journey to turn back. We emerge with a Hensvik cot, a Stuva dresser/shelf unit, an assortment of clever nylon boxes to organize toys, and an Expedit bookcase.

The Expedit bookcase comes in two oblong boxes, each of which weighs as much as a collapsed star. On each box is a decal bearing two cartoons. In the first panel, a vaguely human shape with a frowny face and a hammer stands before a jumbled pile of boards. This image is crossed out with a decisive X. In the next frame, the humanoid has made a friend, and the smile they exchange over the pile of boards means that assembly of this product requires two people.

I know one thing about these mute genderless persons: they are not married. Because if they were, Ikea’s graphic designers would be legally required in a third panel to render the rage, frustration and recrimination that comes with building the Expedit bookcase with the person you love.

Justin hates building Ikea furniture only slightly less than he hates actually being in Ikea. He does not enjoy assembling things, not when he could honor the talents and training of a local craftsman by paying him for his work. He is upfront about this.

I love building Ikea furniture. Transforming a pile of particle board and screws into a piece of furniture with at best a five-year life expectancy makes me feel like God molding man from the clay of Life. In my heart, there is only marginal difference between the family heirloom cradle my great-great-grandfather carved in Italy 100 years ago and the one I pieced together one afternoon with an Allen wrench.

Exactly five days after we moved to London, a Harvard Business School professor published a paper called “The ‘IKEA’ Effect,” which said that consumers love the things they buy more if they have to put in a little bit of labor before they can use them. People crack an egg into a bowl of powdered corn syrup and convince themselves they’re baking from scratch; I push a drawer front onto a wooden dowel and fancy myself an artisan. I am just as unhandy as Justin, but I believe that I’m not, and this, I realize, is about one hundred times more insufferable.

When our daughter goes to bed that night we tear open the boxes and spread the Expedit’s guts across the living room floor. The arguments begin instantly. A completed Expedit will fit neatly into the space along the wall (I know, because I measured it!) but there is not enough floor space to lay it flat during assembly. Furniture must be moved. After a cursory glance at the directions, Justin begins hammering and screwing with grim determination so that he can get this over with as soon as possible; I refuse to proceed until I have parsed every step of the directions (or “specs,” as I secretly and sadly call them in my faux-contractor head).

Of course, we install one of the pieces upside down, and of course, we discover this only when it’s too late to even begin to think about fixing it. Whatever material this monstrosity is made of – some NASA-grade invention that manages to be both heavy and flimsy – would not survive a second attempt at construction, and neither, I suspect, would our marriage. The Swedish probably have a word for the time you spend convincing yourself and your partner that the furniture is “supposed to be like that,” and another for the air of mutual resentment that permeates a room when two-college graduates realize that a sexless cartoon is a better builder than they are.

It takes an hour – or maybe two, or maybe twelve – before we finally, sweatily hoist the shelf against the wall. Justin is silent and fuming. I am ashamed of the barking, shrewish harpy I have become and how little time it took me to get there.

In the Ikea showroom the Expedit looked like a chic, sleek place for books to preen themselves, like an airy Berlin gallery. In our living room, decoupled from its showroom lighting and cheerily artificial surroundings, it looks like what it is – a cheap, hulking mess that dominates the room with the charm of Cousin It. And because the house is so old and the floors are so warped, it does not even lie flush against the wall, but lurches forward at a 15-degree angle like a drunk about to vomit.

I look over at Justin, who is sweating and tired and covered in a fine particulate dust that probably contains asbestos. He works so hard. Today he spent what little time he has outside the office in a place he hates because his baby needed a bed and that’s where his wife wanted to buy one. That is love.

I know all this and yet I am still furious at him, and that is marriage.

Why has Ikea caught on? We think it’s so great. We line up in droves for meatballs and Lack tables, but at the end of the day your marriage is worse and there’s an ugly bookshelf in your living room. This is no way to live. Yet still we beat on, båts against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the great blue box off the freeway.


What the Kids Are Watching: The Best of Toddler TV

There was a time, touchingly, when I believed I was not going to allow my young child to watch television. Today my two-year-old can name so many different animated characters that she’s either sneaking out at night to watch bootleg videos at some kind of toddler speakeasy, or the educational games her nursery school touts are just a front for a daily program of endless cartoons and puffy synthetic snacks.

In any case, apart from a few crossover stars like Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants, television shows that are major cultural reference points in our house are virtual unknowns on the adult scene. For the benefit of those without children or cable, here’s a quick primer on what the kids are watching these days. (Kids under three years old, I mean. Not teenage ‘kids’. I genuinely have no idea what they’re doing. Just planking and sexting each other, as best I can tell.)

Read more . . . 

The Subway vs. The Tube: Which Is Better?

The London Underground system turns 150 years old this month. In honor of this occasion, I’m publishing the results of a five-year independent study of the Tube and its 108-year-old American cousin, the New York City Subway. Below is a comparative analysis of the two systems, based solely on the observations of one person with no social science credentials, no car, and a chronic people-watching habit.

Size: New York’s subway carries 1.6 billion people a year to 468 stations on 660 miles of train track. London shepherds 1.1 billion to 270 stations across 249 track miles. Advantage: New York.

Map aesthetics: The Tube map – designed in 1931 by the civil servant Harry Beck, with few major alterations since – is a modernist masterpiece. It’s bright and clean and beautiful and no one cares that it bears no geographic relation to the London above it. MTA’s map looks like a Body Works cross-section of a dead man’s scrotum. Advantage: London.

Value: A single ride on the subway is $2.25, whether you are going crosstown or from the Bronx to Brooklyn. The shortest Tube journeys start at £2.10 and steadily increase. A single ride from the outer boroughs of Zone 6 into central London – a trip thousands of commuters make daily – is £5 one way for the average rider, or nearly $8. This does not include butler service. Insane. Advantage: New York.

Willingness to move down: In a crowded subway car, the importance of “moving down” – the distribution of standing passengers equally throughout the length of the car – is an article of faith. Failure to move down is grounds for intra-car abuse and ostracization. Tube riders unable to get a seat tend to limit themselves to an invisible vestibule directly in front of the doors. This scrum delays boarding and results in the infuriating spectacle of half-empty trains pulling away from crowded stations. This is why so many people died on the Titanic. Advantage: New York.

Read more . . . 

Courtside at the World Championship of Ping Pong




The consensus in Alexandra Palace, the Victorian-era exhibition hall in north London where the World Championship of Ping Pong is happening, is that ping pong on this island has never seen anything like this.

The center court game is televised on Sky Sports, Britain’s closest home-grown thing to ESPN. There are TV commentators jawboning in a glassed-in booth and colored spotlights shooting across the audience and “Born to Be Wild” blasting on the sound system while lanky men in shorts rally under klieg lights.

Adoni Maropis, one of three U.S. players, is warming up on the center court. All of his matches today have been televised, which has less to do with the fact that he was the 2011 U.S. hardbat national champion and more with his former gig playing terrorist Abu Fayed on “24.” The tournament’s promotional materials refer often to the Hollywood actor among the 64 entrants, but Maropis is hardly the only star. Number-one seed Maxim Shmyrev of Russia has his own trading cards. Gavin Evans, 19, was an auxiliary member of the UK’s Olympic table tennis squad. There are four representatives here of the Orange Army, the traveling fans that accompany Dutch athletes to seemingly every competition in the world, and one is wearing a full-body plush lion suit in support of Marty “Loekie the Lion” Hendriksen.

The Philippine delegation looks a little dejected. Sandpaper table tennis – the kind played here – is a fringe religion in the Philippines, with money trading hands over illicit games in back alleys and basements. The squad had high hopes, but only three of their seven players are advancing to the round of 32. Organizers did not pay expenses, and it’s a long flight back to Manila without a piece of the $100,000 prize pie to show for it.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Reece Mavro, 18, a former competitive player who’s just aged out of England’s under-18 table tennis program, outside of the audience grandstands. “If this was normal table tennis, it’d be sick.”

Let’s get some things straight: Table tennis and ping pong are the same thing, except on specific occasions when they are not. The World Championship of Ping Pong is such an event. Whether that’s a good thing depends on who you ask.

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On Newtown

On Friday afternoon I was walking home with my daughter in a cold and heavy rain. On our left were the mossy tombs and crumbling ruins of the medieval church tower in our neighborhood; on our right, the splashing rush of an approaching car. As it passed I saw it was a hearse, and then I saw the grotesquely shrunken proportions of the coffin, and the toys placed amid the flowers. At this same time, a dreadful thing was happening in Connecticut.

It is cliché to say that having a child changes the way one reacts to events like these but it’s true. It’s not that parenthood automatically opens a greater capacity for empathy. All decent people feel sorrow at the news of a child’s death. My response now is far more selfish. Now that I can more clearly imagine what it would be like to lose a child, I cannot allow myself to imagine it at all. The sight of that small coffin halted my steps but the black town car behind it with the couple inside made me ill.

On Saturday Newtown was on the front page of every newspaper here. By Monday most had moved the story inside. The UK is not grieving in the way America is. The general response is that these killings are terribly sad and senseless and criminal, but that they are also the product of a culture that confoundingly accepts the possibility of such events.

It is illegal to own a handgun in Great Britain, a law that was adopted without much fuss in 1995 after a school shooting. In 2007, according to the Small Arms Survey, there were 41 firearm homicides in England and Wales; in the US, there were 9,146.

Do not interpret this as evidence of enlightenment on this side of the Atlantic. If the US media follows a pattern of righteous and invasively sentimental coverage in the wake of these disasters, the UK press relies on its own lazy clichés to shamelessly paint the US as a nation of gun-crazed zealots. I may want to hurl a shoe at the BBC reporter explaining with a straight face that “many Americans go to sleep with a gun beneath their pillow,” but I am only experiencing belatedly what residents of the Middle East and north Africa must feel when they watch Western reporters’ stand-ups from their cities. The news of yet another mass shooting in America lands here in much the way that reports of bombings in Gaza are received in the US. It’s sad, of course, but look at their history, and their culture. It’ll go on until they’re ready to do something about it. Shame, that.

I have my own feelings about America’s gun laws, but tragedies like this have a way of hijacking what should be sober debate with emotional tirades that burn out once sensation fades. I suspect that anything I’d write at the moment would only contribute to that. I just know that the headline of Sunday’s New York Times was “Children Were All Shot Multiple Times With Semi-Automatic” and that is barbaric.

It’s off the website now, but two days ago you could buy the same model of Bushmaster rifle the killer used in Newtown at Wal-Mart. Nineteen of 20 reviewers gave it five stars.


Stupid Reasons to Love the UK

When you’re living in a strange place, it’s all too easy to focus on what’s missing and what’s wrong. That’s particularly true at this time of year, when the holidays are close and family feels far and the weather turns icy and it’s pitch black at 4 p.m. like the place is run by goddam vampires.

Expats, everywhere, are famously good complainers. (I loved this list from Beijing writer Mitch Moxley about expats’ top complaints in China. I haven’t lived there, but I recognize the spirit.) Instead of indulging in whining or nostalgia, however, I’m trying a new mental exercise: conscious appreciation of all that is good about the United Kingdom.

Read more . . .

What I Think About the New Stanford Logo

Stanford University unveiled its redesigned online logo this week. Here’s what the new Stanford font looks like, compared to the font it replaced. A lot of people have criticized the redesign. I looked at it and was really disappointed. And then I remembered






and I was so ashamed that I cared about this for even more than a second that I had to squeeze my eyes shut and shake my head fast to rid myself of the memory.

A Google search for “new Stanford logo” yields 20.5 million results, because the correlation between people who care about the new Stanford logo and people who get things onto Google is high. (For fun I opened up a new window and searched “Sudan oil conflict,” and that got 12.7 million results, because people directly affected by “Sudan oil conflict” have other things to do.)

I don’t know how or why the new logo came about. I like to imagine John Cioffi was bouncing a tennis ball against the wall and said “I think I want to redesign the website” and John Hennessy looked up from Assassin’s Creed III and was like “sure” and six hours and three baskets of chicken strips later it was live.

That’s probably not how it happened. They probably paid more money than I have earned since graduation to a firm who gave a Draper-style presentation on why the curves of this new S are intrinsically better suited to a 21st century university. It really doesn’t matter. It’s not Comic Sans. It’s not the Graffiti Creator. It’s the word “Stanford,” in red, in letters marginally different from the last red “Stanford.”

This is a university whose whole identity is based on innovation. It is a place where people are daily engaged in the creation of artificial intelligence and robots and probably a bunch of other stuff in the CS department that goes straight to the Department of Defense. It’s a university whose students celebrate everything from shopping period to Wacky Walk as evidence of their iconoclasm. And everyone is acting like they just changed the lunch menu at the senior day center.

I didn’t like the new font. I didn’t like it because it’s not what was at the top of the page when I registered online for classes each quarter. I didn’t like it because it was slightly different from something I felt perfectly comfortable with and the world is changing in many other threatening ways that I can’t control. Then I read this post and by the time I was done scrolling to the bottom I had seen the logo enough times that it didn’t look new any more and I stopped caring.

People don’t like change. They really don’t. Even if it’s a really small change to something of minor significance in a place whose greatest asset they would otherwise swear was a willingness to accept change in all forms. It’s a font. It’s just a font. It’s. Just. A. Font. 

That’s all.



Leave My Pants Alone

I woke up in London not so long ago to find that right now, somewhere in Manhattan, there are Americans who think it’s okay to invite someone back to their flat for a shag, to ring a friend on his mobile, to say “cheers” when toasting nothing more than the successful purchase of a sandwich.

British slang in the US is a thing now, says the New York Times – and the BCC, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail. Without complaint or resistance, Americans are allowing Britishisms like “ginger” and “brilliant” and “rubbish” to plant their Union Jacks across the broad flat plains of our freedom-loving vernacular.

I don’t know who you self-hating Anglophiles are, but now might be a good time to quietly pull you aside and say kindly what your friends and family have been thinking ever since you started going “on holiday”: You sound like a bloody tosser. Please stop.

Read more . . . 

‘You Fucking Fail. Then You Do It Again.’

I’ve been having some trouble with writing lately. Not the what, or how well, but the why. The whether.

When I watched Hurricane Sandy unfold, the stories of destruction and tragedy, the words at my disposal felt shamefully trivial. Then the election happened, and again the stakes seemed too high to reduce to a handful of characters. And then I started thinking about how many words there are out there, just the raw sheer volume of stories and Tumblrs and tweets and articles pouring into the ether every minute like the water rushing into the PATH stations, and wondering if the addition of substandard ones just cheapens the value of the rest.

Then I fell down one of those existential rabbit holes.

In the right state of mind the writing life is one of endless renewal. Every blank page or screen is a bright fresh morning; every day yields the opportunity to teach or learn or be surprised.

In another, less charitable state, writing is also a daily scavenger hunt for new ways to disappoint yourself. There is literally no limit to the exciting story ideas that will ultimately lead to dead ends. Every week sees the launch of a quirky new independent magazine or online journal that will not want to publish your stuff. And do not forget your own boundless capacity for hackneyed, awkward prose! Thanks to the technologies of self-publishing, you don’t even have to wait for an editor to save you from yourself. Just post that sucker, and bam – your half-baked idea is out there, for good.

I write with two specters sitting on either shoulder. One of them says “Just put it out there! Don’t wait for permission! This is how it gets done now! Dorothy Parker would totally have had a blog!” And the other one says “Would this be equally at home on a Blogspot with unicorn pictures in the margins? Are you a wry original voice or a non-ironic version of A Room of Jean’s Own? Is it more embarrassing to call yourself a writer and not publish anything, or to call yourself a writer and publish this?” And I can’t tell which is wearing the devil horns and which the angel’s shroud.

A brilliant cartoon by Michael Leunig.

I miss my office in New York. Everyone there was a writer, the freelance, self-employed kind with nowhere else to work. You could turn to any other person in the room at any time – say at the coffee pot, or in line to use the printer – and say Hey, do you ever wonder if your dreams are just humiliating delusions? and they would say Sure! and you could say Great and go back to your desk feeling better about things. Now I write at home or in the public library. I know I’m not the only person who thinks these things but it can feel that way in a room alone, or in a room with an old man scratching his nuts and reading a communal copy of The Telegraph.

There is value in waiting to write or speak until you have something to say. But you can also ride that to the point of paralysis. I can tell that I am worrying too much about what happens to the words once they leave my control when I stop writing. Or when I write and won’t show it to anyone. Or, worst of all, when I write and let the worry infect the work until I don’t recognize the voice at all, and then go back to not writing.

It’s comforting to remember that none of this is new. I had similar angst about six months ago. I thought about it, then I wrote about it, and then I moved on. In a recent email my high school English teacher reminded me that I once burst into tears when I couldn’t get an in-class essay to read just the way I wanted it before the bell rang. Maybe I just need to put in my calendar a semi-annual reminder: your job is to write, not to worry about what happens next.

And alongside this reminder I will pencil the note to read and re-read this interview with Elizabeth Gilbert until I have it committed to memory (who is such a good writer and it is NOT FAIR to dismiss an author as “chick lit” just because their work receives a critical mass of positive attention from women aaaggh let’s talk about this later):

I’ve always been really surprised—and I really remain very surprised—at people who don’t think they have the right to do their work, or feel like they need a permission slip from the principal to do it, or who doubt their voice. I’m always like, What? What? Fucking do it! Just fucking do it! What’s the worst that could happen?! You fucking fail! Then you do it again.

For a Family Abroad, a Thanksgiving Journey

It’s late Tuesday night after work and I’m elbow-deep in a bowl of pumpkin batter for my daughter’s London preschool class. The children are encouraged to share with the class their Special Cultural Traditions. Last week was Dewali. Before that it was Black History Month, which in Britain is October and not February. Next month I will dress her in a red shirt and black pants so she can play Hunter #4 in their safely secular Christmas performance of “Peter and the Wolf.”

This week, however, is Thanksgiving. We are Americans. Thus the mini-muffin tray and the can of Libby’s I’ve been saving in the back of the cupboard for the last 11 months. No eggs, though. You can’t bring treats with eggs. Or nuts. Some rules supersede special traditions.

I did not expect this, that my child would be the one in the class from someplace different. Not someplace exotic. There is nothing exotic about being an American in London, or in most of the world for that matter. Our culture precedes us like medieval minstrels, a garish parade of Miley Cyrus and KFC and “Friends” re-runs everywhere, always, in perpetuity.

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