My short story “One day in Mykines” was published in Soft Cartel today

Check it out here!


Áki woke up to the sound of his chicks clucking softly. He opened his eyes and saw them and their mother bundled up in the nest below.

He got up and slowly turned his head from side to side. That damn crick in his neck was acting up again. It had started a few days ago when his ass of a brother Áron challenged him to a diving competition.

Áki never should have accepted. Áron was a far better flyer and had won easily, dropping like a boulder and then gracefully skimming the ocean waves before lifting up in a perfect arc. When it was his turn, Áki hesitated and then dove awkwardly, nearly gashing himself on jagged rocks by the bay…

Best gifts for INTJs

Do you have an INTJ in your life with a special occasion coming up? Are you clueless about what gift to buy her?

I don’t envy you. We’re notoriously hard to shop for because we abhor tchotchkes and clutter. We’re also unsentimental, so things like heart-shaped jewelry, a dozen red roses, or artwork with inspirational quotes—basically, most things that retailers shill as special occasion gifts—will make us roll our eyes. And to top it off, if we’ve decided that we really want something and determined that it would add value to our lives, we’ve probably already bought it.

But don’t worry, I’ve got you covered.

Below are some ideas that will elicit a surprised smile instead of a smirk (sorry, we can’t help our faces), arranged by price level.


Good trivia books. We love absorbing and processing massive amounts of information, so help us do it! The Book of General Ignorance, Atlas Obscura, and How to Stay Alive in the Woods are all entertaining as well as instructive.

Contemplative art prints. Have you noticed that we often stare off into the distance? We’re not bored—we’re just thinking deeply about something. Get us something nice for our eyes to rest on while we’re pondering. I like these prints.

Travel adaptor. Look, it’s not the trendiest gift, but who wants anything trendy? We love useful and efficient things that keep us organized when we’re off exploring different cultures and ideas. A small adaptor with multiple USB ports fits the bill.


Great red wine. You (mostly) can’t go wrong with good bottle of wine. A lot of us are red wine drinkers—it pairs well with brooding quietly in an armchair. Benziger Obsidian Point, one of my favorites, is deep with a hint of spice, much like your favorite INTJ friends (I kid, I kid).

High-quality French press. When I say quality, I don’t mean something that simply looks upscale and stylish (personally, I’m skeptical of everything that has rose-gold plating and midcenturyish design these days). I mean something that functions smoothly and will actually keep their coffee hot. Try this Frieling model.

Print or online subscription to a “fun” magazine. We have a different definition of fun writing, and it doesn’t involve the words “people” or “OK.” Try The New Yorker, The Economist, The Paris Review, or Harvard Business Review.


Noise-cancelling headphones. Oh, to be all alone in one’s world. We’re pretty good at tunneling deep inside our own minds, but on some days, even we can’t shut out the ceaseless din. Reviewers say Sony’s latest model has finally topped Bose’s offerings.

iPad mini. Get us something compact and sleek that we can use to pool our thoughts and take with us wherever we go. The iPad mini or any well-designed tablet are good bets.

Online learning gift subscription. Help get us closer to our plans for world domination by gifting us with learning—whether we’re interested in programming, typography, or supply chain operations. Try (now LinkedIn Learning) or Coursera.

I’m biased, but I think your INTJ friends and partners would really appreciate receiving any of the gifts above, whether or not they do a decent job of expressing how they feel!

Hope this is helpful.

Jury duty: the lunch issue

On my third day of grand jury duty at 80 Centre Street in lower Manhattan, one of my fellow jurors sighed loudly when the warden called for a lunch break.

“It’s been lunch hell down here,” he complained. “Nothing but McDonald’s and Wendy’s every single day.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. Lunch hell? A few years ago, I worked in this area, and I can safely say that you can walk 1-2 blocks north, south, east, west, southwest, through the earth itself, whatever and discover something wonderful to eat. Has this guy been walking blindfolded?

Jury duty is painful. No question about it. It’s hard to figure which is worse–when the proceedings drone on for hours and hours, or when you’re forced to wait in a stifling, electronics-barred room twiddling your thumbs until the next case is ready. Sure, some of it’s interesting, but mostly it’s a lot of sitting around and listening to lectures as nightmares of high school flash before your eyes.

Lunch is easily the best part of the experience. During lunch, you’re given free rein to explore all of the lovely and diverse restaurants and cafes that the area has to offer. From the perspective of someone who works in glacial midtown, this place is lunch heaven.

Day 1: I know Chinatown pretty well from working down here, so I decided to leave that for another day and walk west instead. I wandered around Tribeca for awhile and eventually stumbled onto Terra, a rustic-chic Italian wine bar and restaurant at the triangular intersection of Franklin and West Broadway. They offer $12 salads and pastas, which is a bit more than I usually spend for lunch, but hey, it’d been a rough morning. I ordered a lobster, avocado, and arugula salad, which was delicious, though not terribly filling. It worked out anyway because I ate the whole basket of bread that they brought me. Downsides…well, there’s no wifi, so I had to rely on my work phone to check in with the office. Also, I was pretty jealous of my fellow diners who were sipping on luxurious glasses of wine and clearly here to stay for a solid two hours. What do these people do for a living? Can I do it too?

Day 2: A unusually warm and sunny April day. Yesterday I noticed a lively cafe called Gotan directly next door to Terra, but I didn’t venture inside because it looked crazy crowded. Today, it was thankfully less crowded. I ordered a tuna, poached egg, and avocado (penchant for avocados = I’m from California) salad and a mint lemonade. I parked myself at one of their large, bar-height tables and easily logged into remote access through their super-fast wifi while my food was brought to me. It was delicious but also not cheap. The salad was $12 and the lemonade was around $4. But it’s well worth it for a one-time visit. The cafe is a bit loud inside, so if you like a peaceful work environment, Gotan is not for you. I also noticed they were blasting Gotan Project music. Cute.

FullSizeRender (13)
Gotan and Terra, side by side.

Day 3: OK, time to curb the spending habit. Hello Chinatown! Today I walked east, through Columbus Park where old asian men do tai chi in the morning, and up through the sloping alleyway known as Mosco Street. I decided to revisit Shanghai Asian Manor, a favorite from past days. I sat down toward the back and ordered the spicy beef noodle soup for $7. The broth was rich and the noodles were firm, just how I like it. The service was kind of indifferent, but I expected that. I left having spent only $9 and 25 minutes of my time, which gave me plenty of room to return to the criminal court building and check up on emails.

Day 4: Time to return to another old favorite. Who doesn’t like $1.25 fried dumplings? Across Columbus Park the bright yellow awning of a fine establishment called Tasty Dumpling calls for you. The menu is limited and the seating area is bleak, but man are those some tasty dumplings. Today I opted for the slightly more upscale chicken and mushroom dumplings priced at $3.50 for a plateful. These are doughy dumplings, so they may not satisfy those of you who prefer the thinner Shanghai-style variety. (Personally, I enjoy both types.) I gobbled them up and then returned again at the end of the day to take home a $13 frozen batch of 50.

FullSizeRender (12)
Tasty and cheap!

Day 5: I suspected that Terra would be the perfect lunchtime work spot if only I could somehow manage to wangle some wifi. Gotan to the rescue! (Sorry, Gotan.) On my second visit, I ordered something heartier–rigatoni with large shrimp–to get me through the afternoon slog. The pasta was good, but I think I liked the salad better. Nevertheless, working and eating at the sunny bar table made for a perfect lunch hour.

FullSizeRender (14)
Terra is great for a fancy working lunch.

Day 6: Today I decided to spice things up. I had several spots in mind between Church Street and West Broadway–Cafe Clementine, Two Hands, etc.–but all were massively overcrowded. Instead, I ventured further up Church Street and noticed that a Mexican restaurant and tequila bar called Añejo was offering a $13 “express lunch.” Why not? I walked into a beautiful but not stuffy space with exposed brick walls and chandeliers. I sat down at a table facing out. Just enough natural light was streaming in through the large windows to see my work clearly. Plus, with only two or three other tables occupied, it was nice and quiet inside. I ordered two fish tacos, and they came with chips and salsa, a small side salad, yuca fries, and a soft drink (I chose seltzer). It all tasted amazing, as fried foods tend to taste! It was a lot more than I usually eat, so I had a tough time staying awake through the afternoon proceedings.

FullSizeRender (16)
The tacos tasted even better than they look.

Day 7: I decided to head due north today. A few years ago, Thai Angel was one of my favorite places in this area. I loved their perfectly spiced curries served alongside pristine cones of rice. At first, I couldn’t find Thai Angel on Google Maps. After a brief moment of panic, I realized that they had rebranded themselves as Soho Thai. Phew. Same place, different name. I walked in and was greeted warmly. It was a sunny day, and a warm breeze was rolling in from the open door. I sat down and ordered chicken tom yum soup, tofu green curry, and a thai iced coffee as part of their $12 lunch prix fixe. Everything tasted amazing, just how I remembered it. Although this restaurant is barely one block from the raucous shopping district, it was only half full, and so it feels like one of the best-kept secrets in the area.

FullSizeRender (15)
Sorry! I wrecked the cone of rice because I was too excited.

So if you receive your jury summons in the mail soon, don’t despair. I suggest you perform your civic duty and just get it over with. Sure, it may not be a great time for you, but it never is, is it? Once you’re there, jury duty is not exactly fun, but it’s also not as bad as you might think. There are enough breaks to check in with work and loved ones and feel like you are still somewhat connected with your day-to-day routine. If you are called for grand jury duty like me, you’ll even receive 8-10 year immunity from any state jury duty, which is pretty great!

In the meantime, enjoy lunch.


Best picture winners: the province of the great white male?

Dear friends,

Hurrah! The 2016 Oscars are just a few days away. In honor of the occasion, let’s look back at best picture winners of years past. Here are the previous 20. Notice anything interesting?

  1. Birdman
  2. 12 Years a Slave
  3. Argo
  4. The Artist
  5. The King’s Speech
  6. The Hurt Locker
  7. Slumdog Millionaire
  8. No Country for Old Men
  9. The Departed
  10. Crash
  11. Million Dollar Baby*
  12. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
  13. Chicago
  14. A Beautiful Mind
  15. Gladiator
  16. American Beauty
  17. Shakespeare in Love
  18. Titanic*
  19. The English Patient
  20. Braveheart

(Emphases mine.)

It appears that 14/20, or 70 percent, of them tell the story of “the great white male” – mostly his triumphs and tribulations in a world that simply doesn’t understand him (boo hoo). Note that I have also starred two movies that, while they may not exactly tell the story of the great white male, they prominently feature a heroic white male protagonist.

I decided to assemble this list yesterday after a conversation with a colleague. We were talking about which movies we thought might take the top prize. He was betting on The Revenant or possibly Spotlight, and I was holding out hope for Mad Max: Fury Road.** As we considered Room and Brooklyn, both excellent films, an odd feeling passed over us. We both concluded that these movies, well … they just couldn’t win, could they? It was hard to articulate, but they seemed less grandiose or monumental or something, and not just from a cinematographic perspective. Neither of them felt like a best picture winner.

I am realizing now that the discordance revolved around the fact that both are movies about women. Neither Room nor Brooklyn feel like winners because they are – for this reason – out of sync with past winners. Take a look at the list above. How many of these movies tell the story of a woman? Maybe two? And one of them (Chicago) showcases women as objects of desire, clamoring over fame, beauty, and youth.

This is very discouraging in 2016. How is it possible that movie studios are still this uninterested in female-driven plots? Sure, some popular female-centric comedies like Spy and Trainwreck came out this past year. But why is it that only movies led by white male protagonists are pegged for the ultimate prize for high art in film-making?

(Let’s not even get into the fact that best-picture-nominated movies about women are typically only about white women – that is a whole other dimension to discuss another day…)

Hopefully, the recently announced changes in the Academy’s voting membership will take take things in a different direction. Until then, thinking through these issues has been an important reminder that institutionalized patriarchy runs deep, even within me and the most progressive people that I know.

Prediction: the movie featuring the GREATEST of the great white males will win this year (this means Leo).

**Ironically, the title Mad Max: Fury Road implies that it is a male-centric movie, but it becomes a largely female-driven movie led by a strong heroine.

Flash Fiction Experiment: Crab Cake Sandwich

It all started when my good friend Tracy Golden texted me on a Tuesday afternoon to report some bad news: her lunch that day had been abysmal.

As fellow writerly types can well understand, lunch is extremely important! A good lunch anchors the day, nourishing us physically and psychologically. A bad lunch, however, torpedoes the day, at best throwing us off our craft, and at worst sending us into a tailspin of existential crises.

Then something wonderful happened. As I expressed my sympathies, Tracy texted the following sentence:

They said it was a crab cake sandwich.

Suddenly, I was delighted. What a perfect line to open a work of fiction! The words were humorous, specific, and bursting with opportunity. They hinted coyly at a story untold.

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to do a better job of honoring my whims. And so Tracy and I, along with our supremely talented friend Courtney Young, decided to each write a flash fiction of around 500 words starting with “They said it was a crab cake sandwich.” I think you’ll agree that the results of our experiment proved interesting:




By Tracy Golden 

They said it was a crab cake sandwich but the slab of gray fish meat that appeared before me did not evoke brackish Maryland waterways. It parked its lump meat lazily on a couch of sweetish yellow hamburger buns, draped with a translucent swatch of iceberg lettuce. The “spicy remoulade mayonnaise” tasted like dirt. The failure on my plate was exactly what we had tried to avoid when setting out that afternoon. And yet here it lies.

When descending from the art deco building on Park Avenue, into the bustle, George and I still had expectations. This is Manhattan. We should be near luncheonettes and restaurants that offer some modicum of satiety after you eat, some experience. Even if it was a terrible one. This is the story of non-experience.

The icy air drove us further down Park and into the nearest place serving food at a table. We wanted what every lower level Midtown employee was seeking in their day. To fold ourselves into the corner of some place and allow the change in atmosphere to lull calm back into our hands and smooth out our eyebrows. Maybe to remember the way we were before work was important to our very existence.

The table was completely wrong – too high and we were asked to help ourselves to aluminium chairs on this 10 degree February afternoon. A waitress fluttered over to offer drinks but when we ordered seltzer, she became deeply disinterested in our presence and we never saw her again. Leading up to the bait deposited on our table, they sent over everyone but the hostess of nothing to us. George was the first to state our situation although I had been in keen observance of it. His chief complaint being that we could have done better.

How many places have I been like this one for convenience or lack of judgement? What number of years has passed by since I refused to enter such an establishment? My eighteen year old self wouldn’t even get coffee at a corner deli. NO! Even the most commonplace of sips were carefully plotted and acquired from the most interesting and pertinent of shops. It had to be an experience of tactile and emotional participation.

I asked George to leave with me immediately. He looked confused. “George, we have to go, this tastes disgusting and I hate this place.”

“Troy, this shit was like, $18 bucks, and yes it is bad.” He looked down and poked the sandwich and mumbled. “It actually looks like a McDonald’s filet-o-fish…tastes like one too…”

“Then let’s just – I don’t know – dude, it’s gross.”

“Okay…okay” He picked up his coat and threw two twenties on the table. “I am starving so we need to get food. I know a place – just follow me.”

We faced the freezing air this time and marched down 32nd Street, crossing Lexington with purpose. The place was on a corner. The curtains were blue and swung across the windows. Hands reached out from behind them for their porcelain cups. Two men at the bar talked quietly over a drink. It felt like the right but I was unsure if I was capable of being in a place I wanted to be anymore. I  just followed George in – I could always eat the granola bar in my desk drawer if this didn’t work out.

new york


By Judy Wang

They said it was a crab cake sandwich.

I believed them and was picturing a perfectly crisp and golden patty of crab meat enveloped in buttery toast that would somehow save me from this week of misery. Maybe it was the rustic Maine cottage look of the food truck, or the earnest smiles of the young redhead behind the cash register, I don’t know. Point is, I believed them and paid $18 to eat a shitty fish stick on a bun while sitting on this ice slab of a concrete bench in November.

The last place I want to be was back in my office, where my wife was calling me non-stop about who knows what, and associates were sidling through my doorway every ten seconds because they don’t know how to spell their own damn names in the contracts or whatever. I want to be left alone. Actually, I don’t mind the cold so much. It’s kind of fun to sit out here and watch people walk by, hunched over and gripping their sides like it’s the dead of winter in War and Peace. This city can be such a farce of itself sometimes.

I can feel the red light on my Blackberry blinking viciously inside by coat pocket. Screw them all. I am too old to be on a leash. On days like this, I imagine what would’ve happened to my life if I’d agreed to run away to France with Cora, or Connie, whatever her name was, twenty years ago when she asked me to go. Maybe I could’ve been different. Maybe I would’ve turned into a painter or a sommelier. Or maybe I would’ve turned into the same pathetic mid-level corporate son-of-a-bitch that I am today, but in France. But hopefully not. Back then, I was as soft as butter. I could’ve gone in so many directions, been so many different versions of myself. The world felt warm, and I liked thinking about a lot of things that I couldn’t care less about today.

I wipe the mayonnaise off my chapped lips with my coat sleeve and toss the sandwich wrappings into the garbage. I stand up, close my eyes, and breath in through my nose and out through my mouth, the only useful thing my wife’s $150-per-hour yoga teacher taught me to do. Anyone who sees me doing this will probably think I’m a lunatic, but I no longer give a crap.

Feeling stolid, I head back toward the glass revolving doors, nodding to a few colleagues also returning from lunch, still trying to remember what her face looked like, and what it was she called herself, Cora or Connie.

car interior


One Tender Moment


By Courtney Young


They said it was a crab cake sandwich and the youngest one, in the passenger seat, tossed it in my direction. I barely caught it, using the tips of my fingers to grab the sandwich as my hands were bound at the wrist, denying me full mobility. I tried to maneuver the sandwich into a more comfortable holding position but the tips of my fingers gave way and it fell onto the tops of my knees. I tried to lift my legs, to roll the sandwich down onto my lap and prevent it from falling but my legs were heavy from sitting for too long. Besides, the men on either side of me confiscated the little room available in the back seat, both pushing against me as I tried to move.

The driver, the least cruel of the lot, began to sign to the man immediately to my right, moving his eyes from the rearview mirror to the road, his left hand steady on the steering wheel, his right hand moving almost gracefully in a motion beyond my comprehension. The man to my right vigorously moved both of his hands in response, aggressively bumping into me over and over again as they conversed. I couldn’t keep up with what was going on anymore. I was starving; I was in pain; and the blood that flowed from the deep gash in my scalp had poured into my right eye, making it difficult for me to see. After what seemed hours, the man to my right leaned into me so roughly I felt as if I had been punched in the side. I felt a short, piercing scream burst through my mouth, followed by a slow moan.

The sandwich fell to the feet of the man to my left; the one who hadn’t looked at me or talked to me since all this began – the man who kept checking his phone and acting like I wasn’t even there. He was cold, so cold that when I fell into him more than food or a shower or room to wiggle my limbs, I wanted a blanket.

I felt the cruel one to my right searching for something in his pocket and heard him unlocking the switchblade he used to subdue me and drag me into the car. He then sat up straight and moved the switchblade in front of my left eye so I could see it and started to swing it back and forth, left to right and then back again, as a warning. He then swiftly, roughly cut the duct tape that bound my wrists and my hands collapsed onto my lap. I couldn’t feel anything from the wrists up but I lowered myself to the cold man’s feet and swung my hands over the sandwich until I felt the blood reach my fingers. I lifted myself up, sandwich in hand, pulling back the paper, thinking about my next move.



Well, this has been fascinating. Tracy and I both happened to write from the perspective of corporate hacks, but Courtney took the crab cake sandwich in an entirely different direction! Still, I think all these stories are quite different, and their diversity reflects our individual styles and personalities in an interesting way. Stay tuned for our next experiment! And of course, anyone is welcome to join us at anytime.

Late Autumn in Central Park North

Last weekend, I took a stroll along the north edge of Central Park.

It’s been an embarrassing seven years since I last visited the area. I had forgotten how it looks and feels like an entirely different park than the one that expands upward from 59th Street.

It was mid November, so the foliage was just barely past peak. But at 60 °F in the late afternoon sun, it was warm enough to enjoy a black iced tea from the Maoz outpost near East 110th Street. Here are a few images from the quieter half of the park.

Fish, Prepared Two Ways

Hello friends,

In honor of the publication of Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel Purity, I thought we could have a little fun with one of his most famous passages. Whether readers find Franzen’s prose wonderfully complex or woefully overwrought, they will find it easy to agree that he deploys his style to great effect in the notorious “fish scene” in The Corrections.

Here we find former-academic-turned-freelancer Chip Lambert wandering into the seafood section of a fancy grocery store to look for something to serve his visiting Midwestern parents for lunch. Chip, down on his luck, is bewildered by the extravagant prices. He hazily accepts a $78.40 cut of wild Norwegian salmon from the butcher and immediately stuffs it into his pants. Hilarity ensues:

He dropped to one knee and touched his bootlaces and took the salmon right up inside his leather jacket and underneath his sweater and tucked the sweater into his pants and stood up again.

“Daddy, I want swordfish,” a little voice behind him said.  

Chip took two steps, and the salmon, which was quite heavy, escaped from his sweater and covered his groin, for one unstable moment, like a codpiece.

“Daddy! Swordfish!” 

Chip put his hand to his crotch. The dangling filet felt like a cool, loaded diaper. He repositioned it against this abs and tucked in the sweater more securely, zipped his jacket to the neck, and strode purposefully toward the whatever. Toward the dairy wall. Here he found a selection of French crème fraîches at prices implying transport via SST. The less unaffordable domestic crème fraîche was blocked by a man in a Yankees cap who was shouting into his cell phone while a child, apparently his, peeled back the foil tops of half-liters of French yogurt. She’d peeled back five or six already. Chip leaned to reach behind the man, but his fish belly sagged.


But what would that scene read like if someone else wrote it? What if, say, less-is-more icon Ernest Hemingway wrote it instead? Would it be even funnier? Let’s explore:

The man dropped to the ground. He put the fish inside his pants and behind his sweater and stood up. He decided to steal the fish and it was a dishonest thing to do but he did not have money to pay for the fish.

A little child was asking her father for a fish. The child’s voice was behind him, but the man did not see the child.

The fish was cold inside the man’s pants. He tucked in his sweater and zipped his jacket so that the fish did not fall out of his pants. The man continued to walk to nowhere in particular. He walked to a shelf of sour cream and he saw that the store was selling a French cream that was expensive. He was too poor to buy the expensive French cream but the domestic cream was less expensive.  

A man with a child was standing in front of the shelf. The man’s child opened five or six of the cans of expensive cream while her father was not watching. But her father wore a nice hat and looked like a man who had money to pay for the cans of cream.  

The man wanted to take a can of cream but he had a fish in his pants.

You’ll forgive me for my whimsy – I am just getting through A Moveable Feast for the first time. So …. I actually like it better! Something about the terseness, and imagining what’s not said, makes the passage even funnier to me. But I’m biased 🙂

Who else should we have take on this passage? Virginia Woolf? Vladimir Nabokov? Stephen King?

Strained Overuse of “Strain” Straining Headlines Worldwide

I am calling for a moratorium on the overuse of the word “strain” in news headlines.

“Strain” and its variants (strains, strained, straining, etc.) are convenient verbs and modifiers that reporters use to communicate a general sense of tension between two or more entities without articulating exactly what that tension is. The word’s convenience in this respect has made it into one of the most overused terms in headlines that I have ever seen.

Seriously, check this out:

  • “Easing the Strains Between Japan and South Korea” (Wall Street Journal, 08/04/15)
  • “EU officials deny Greek deal strains” (Financial Times, 08/06/15)
  • “Inside Syria: Kurds Roll Back ISIS, but Alliances Are Strained” (New York Times, 08/10/15)
  • “Trump and Fox work to repair strained relationship” (USA Today, 08/10/15)
  • “U.S. Strains Mount After China Devalues Yuan” (Wall Street Journal, 08/11/15)
  • “Breakdown at BP Refinery Strains Midwest Gas Prices” (New York Times, 08/13/15)
  • “Argentina Feels the Strain of China’s Devalued Yuan” (Bloomberg, 08/13/15)
  • “Emerging markets feel the forex strain” (Financial Times, 08/14/15)
  • “Czech GDP Growth Surges to EU’s Fastest to Strain Currency Limit” (Bloomberg, 08/14/15)
  • “Crews Strained by Legionnaires’ Outbreak” (New York Times, 08/16/15)
  • “Record Number of Travelers Strain Seattle Airport”(New York Times, 08/16/15)
  • “Bovis: Rising Labor Costs Putting ‘Strain‘ on Business” (Bloomberg, 08/17/15)

As you can see, the New York Times and Bloomberg are especially egregious on this front. I should have taken a screen shot of that day a few weeks ago when the NYT published three “strains” on its homepage simultaneously. And these are just the headlines. “Strain” shows up constantly in ledes and throughout the main body as well — and sometimes in all three parts of an article!

I can appreciate (a) how tricky it can be to write short and snappy headlines for an attention-deficient audience, (b) the pressure of reporting (or creating?) news in a 24/7 news cycle , and lastly (c) how hard it is to write articles as news is evolving.

But surely we can try a little harder.

“Strain” can certainly be deployed if the news is evolving and the reporter isn’t quite ready to characterize the situation just yet (see point c above). However, just an extra stretch of the imagination–or a handy thesaurus–can help copyeditors find an equally unassuming synonym to avoid over-straining their headlines:

  • “Easing Historic Tension Between Japan and South Korea”
  • “Argentina Feels Anxiety over China’s Devalued Yuan”
  • “Emerging markets feel the forex pressure

In cases when the news situation can be described with greater specificity, I think these publications can afford to drill down a step further, i.e., tell it like it is. Some suggestions:

  • “Trump and Fox work to repair tempestuous relationship”
  • “Breakdown at BP Refinery Hikes Midwest Gas Prices”
  • “Legionnaires’ Outbreak Forces Crews to Work Overtime
  • “Record Number of Travelers Crowd Seattle Airport”

(Caveat: I’m not the best headline writer, and I’m sure the professional copyeditors at these newspapers can do far better.)

I do not want to sound overly critical of these newspapers and the great work that they do, so I duly apologize if I am coming across that way. Journalism is a tough business, and of course I wouldn’t want to throw more obstacles in their wake. But shouldn’t writing be, well, fun? In the rush to get the story out, shouldn’t someone take delight in crafting a unique and clever turn of phrase in the headline, or elsewhere?

I sure hope so.

So, Hollywood doesn’t love a comeback story?

Adam Sternbergh argues in New York Magazine that Michael Keaton lost the best actor trophy this year for his work in Birdman because the Academy “doesn’t love comeback stories.”

There’s nothing wrong with Sternbergh’s logic per se, but before you can even consider his logic, the argument immediately falls flat on its face for ignoring the gigantic British elephant in the room. Eddie Redmayne won the trophy for starring in a comeback story — perhaps one of the best-known real life comeback stories of our time. A brilliant aspiring astronomer discovers that he has approximately two years to live, and his muscles will start giving away one by one until he can no longer communicate with the outside world. Yet … not only does he continue living for decades to come, but he becomes one of the most celebrated scientists of all time. (Can you hear the Rocky music?)

If I had to guess, Michael Keaton’s loss had more to do with the fact that it was hard to tell whether his acting was good or brilliant or somewhere in between underneath all that … stuff. I found it difficult to evaluate the richness of Keaton’s craft while the colors, music, special effects and swooping camera movements swirled round and round him with increasing speed. Not to sound cheesy, but I really couldn’t get a good look into the character’s soul with that much activity going on.

Whether people thought Birdman’s strong artistic direction was impressive or irritating, most would probably agree that the film was ultimately more about sustaining itself than about telling a great comeback story about its leading man. In fact, I would argue that Keaton becomes more of a centerpiece than a leading man. In his (arguably) best scene of the movie, he’s dazedly jogging through Times Square in his underwear, and the camerawork invites us to see him as more of a object of fascination rather than a real person.

Alternatively, maybe Keaton lost because the voters simply thought Redmayne was better. If you’ve seen The Theory of Everything, this is not a stretch. Redmayne and Felicity Jones’ performances are the standouts in a frankly middling film. Perhaps the Academy decided that James Marsh’s film showcased the archetypal comeback story in a more poignant fashion.

Regardless, there’s really no need to make broad sweeping suggestions that Hollywood is only “supposedly built on delivering rousing narratives” (emphasis is mine). What about Russell Crowe in Gladiator, Jamie Foxx in Ray or even Colin Firth in The King’s Speech? There’s nothing Hollywood loves better than a comeback story.

Frankly, I’m more concerned about the fact that the 2015 best actor nominees featured more than one comeback story about a white man, in an all-white field at that.

Iceland: a visit to the land of fire and ice

I just returned from a four-day trip to Iceland and can’t wait to plan my next trip. The country is, no doubt, one of the weirdest places on earth. It offers a varied, stunning, and oftentimes eery landscape (volcanoes! glaciers!), and a fascinating history (vikings!). Here are five quick and dirty must-dos that I hope will be useful if you are planning a trip to the land of fire and ice:

1. Drive yourself.

15 Drive to Blue Lagoon
Driving to the Blue Lagoon

Most tourists in Iceland seem to prefer the day tour option. And no wonder, since it seems so convenient. The tour company picks up you at your hotel every morning in a big bus, takes you to two or three popular tourist sites, and drops you off in the evening. Sounds good so far. Yet … I don’t know about you, but I didn’t come all the way to Iceland to be stuck on a tour bus with other Americans (no offense — go ‘murica!). More importantly, you don’t want to miss out on the wonderful sense of freedom and adventure that you can only get from driving yourself through a truly spectacular and unspoiled landscape. You can pull over and admire the beautiful mountains, volcanoes, fields, and beaches at your will. The main roads are easy to navigate and in excellent condition. They are also nearly empty. Every half and hour or so, we’d pass by a tour bus, but otherwise, it was just us and the mountains. Renting a car is easy. You can easily reserve one with any of the rental companies servicing the Keflavik Airport. Our cheapest quote happened to come from Budget. Be cautious when selecting a vehicle — most on offer are manual, and they will be labeled as such. And definitely get the GPS.

2. Drive from Reykjavik to Jökulsárlón and back in one day — it’s doable.

113 Drive to Jökulsárlón
The stunning drive to Jökulsárlón.

Speaking of driving, there’s a ton of debate on the web about whether or not it’s feasible to drive from the capital city to the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and back in one day (4.5 hours each way). Most of the recommendations skew toward spreading the trip over two days instead. I disagree. If you’re like me and didn’t want to burn a second day, the ~9-11-hour roundtrip is both feasible and enjoyable, even in late October. We woke up early, grabbed breakfast and a few snacks for the road, and left our hotel in Reykjavik before 8 a.m. We easily made it to Jökulsárlón around 2 p.m.– a trip that included stops at Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss, and Vík along the way, not to mention numerous pit stops we made to take photos, as the southern coast is simply breathtaking. After a tour around the gorgeous region (see featured photo above), an amphibious boat tour of the lagoon, and some coffees at the cafe, we were on the road again just after 4 p.m., and we made it back to Reykjavik just after 9 p.m. Although the drive is long, it is a straight shot along freeway 1 until you get closer to Reykjavik. We even had enough energy to go out for drinks and dinner that night!

3. Seljalandsfoss. 

In the belly of the beast.
In the belly of the beast.

Seljalandsfoss is my favorite waterfall and it’s on the way to Jökulsárlón! Yes it may be Iceland’s most famous waterfall, but no it is not merely a tourist trap. Huffington Post recently described it as one of the most relaxing places on earth, which seems weird to me, since I would go with “astounding” or “powerful” instead. Walking around Seljalandsfoss is a cold, wet, loud and even harrowing experience given how slippery the “walking path” can be (wet jagged rocks and no handrail). But you as you steady yourself on the colorful rock wall, wipe the cold spray off your face and camera lens, and look out onto the world from behind sheets of rushing water, you will feel completely exhilarated. Strap on your sturdiest waterproof hiking boots and enjoy!

4. Mount Esja.

Halfway up!
Halfway up!

On our last afternoon in Iceland, we wanted to do something that the locals in Reykjavik do. A waitress recommended that we hike up Mount Esja, the beautiful snow-topped mountain range to the north of the city (“We go hiking there on the weekend to stay fit,” she said). After a 20-mile drive north, you can park your car in one of the lots and choose your preferred path. We chose to head for “Steinn.” You can actually walk up most of the mountain–it’s not Everest–without any equipment, and view of the city below is amazing and probably not something that most tourists see. Dress in layers, as it gets blustery near the top, and be careful where streams have turned to ice. This website offers more details about the hike.

5. Kopar. We had our best meal here. Friendly service, excellent food, a great wine selection, and a lively mix of Icelanders and tourists. What else do you need, really, to rejuvenate after a long day of adventuring? Order the rock crab appetizer.

Bonus tip. Do not take a northern lights tour. Just don’t. Yes, the tours, like all tours, seem convenient, and the guides purport to know the “best places” to view the lights. And yes, they offer a free redo if you don’t see the lights. But it wasn’t worth it, and I’ll tell you why. After two aurora-less nights, we got desperate and booked the Gray Line tour. It was a borderline scam. The tour bus first took us to a field not far from Reykjavik where the city lights were very visible and clearly polluting the sky. Nothing happened. Then they took us to a restaurant half an hour away where they had “arranged” hot drinks and food for everyone. Of course, nothing was free or even discounted, and I’m sure that the restaurant made a killing. Even worse, the sky was so bright from the restaurant and surrounding neighborhood that we could barely see the stars — on a perfectly clear night! After an hour or so at the restaurant, they got everyone back on the bus and during the drive back to Reykjavik announced that there was no northern lights activity in Iceland at all that evening.

I realize that the elements are well beyond a tour company’s control, but the ground circumstances certainly weren’t. Maybe there are tours that offer real off-roading in monster 4x4s to areas that are truly beyond the city lights. But my understanding is that if they get a big enough group that night (and they nearly always do), they’ll drag you around in a bus. My advice: wait for a clear night, look at the aurora forecast, and drive to wherever’s best yourself.

In sum … go to Iceland and DIY! Hope these tips are helpful. Obviously, everything above is subjective, so please don’t hesitate to chime in and leave me a comment.