Fattening the Curve

“… wherever, for the sake of the necessary motion of the parts, with proper strength and agility, the insertions of the muscles are too hard and sudden, their swellings too bold, or the hollows between them too deep, for their out-lines to be beautiful; nature most judiciously softens these hardnesses, and plumps up these vacancies with a proper supply of fat.”

(William Hogarth, Analysis of Beauty, 1753)


Remember when you didn’t know what “flattening the curve” meant?

Like you, I am now all too aware that the phrase refers to slowing the speed at which a virus spreads, and that, in our current moment, the phrase is usually invoked in reference to social distancing as a practice that it is hoped will diminish the rate at which COVID-19 is devastating the world.

But cast your mind back, back through the mists of time to February.

Back then, I, for one, would have taken the phrase “flatten the curve” for a Hogarthian term of art in reference to the necessary measures needed to correct a “too bulging” line.

plate 49

William Hogarth, Analysis of Beauty, Plate 1, Figure 49

Or perhaps, along the same lines, I might have taken it for a mantra used in a barre class to be repeated under your breath as you contract your abs.


The other day, after her bath, the younger was standing in the hallway in just her underwear admiring herself in the mirror.

“I have a 4-pack!” she announced proudly. “Let’s see what you’ve got,” she added.

I rolled my eyes and pulled up my shirt.

She examined my torso, frowning.

“Are you tensing?” she asked.

“Umm, I think so?” I said, uncertainly.

Finally, she declared, “I don’t see much.”

“A 1-pack?” I suggested.

“Let’s say a 2-pack,” she said generously and then added, consolingly, “don’t worry, I know you’re still really strong.”

This was more than a week ago, before I’d really settled into to my daily supining regimen, which has since become a full-blown lifestyle.

Now, this lifestyle, to be sure, comes more naturally to me than to others. You could say I have a gift for it. Remember how in Working Girl (which I just re-watched, and recommend you do the same) Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith) tells Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford) that she has a head for business and a bod for sin? [1]

Well, I, rather less impressively, have a head for blogging and a bod for slothing. [2]

In days gone by, if I didn’t have to go to campus, I could easily spend 75% of my day supine on my sofa, which is where I do the bulk of both reading and writing (yes, I’m there right now). But these days I’m really cultivating that muscle: the supining muscle, which you develop by relaxing into the posture.

You know how in yoga when you’re standing in Tadasana, your instructor will intone, “Feeeeeeel the soles of your feet siiiiiiinking into the earth”? Well, cultivating your supining muscle is like that that except you have to feeeeeeel your bum siiiiiiiinking into the sofa.

Maybe this doesn’t appeal to you. But too bad, because this isn’t for you, it’s for the public good. So suck it up and lie down.

I might be wrong, but “fatten the curve” has a lot of potential as a new public health slogan. Like:

Fatten The Curve To Flatten the Curve.

And then there could be a little illustration. See, I’ve made a rudimentary prototype:


The stick person on the right is, yes, a bit bigger than the one on the left. But that is on purpose, you see, because the person on the right is fattening the curve.

The benefits of committing to this form of inaction are, I submit, both ethical and aesthetical.

Let me be clear; I am not advocating for complete atrophy. Strong muscles are important; I am myself, as my daughter observes, very strong. Moreover, there is surely no supine sweeter than the supining of muscles fatigued by extreme exertion. So do whatever you enjoy—I recommend dancing like there’s nobody except the people you live with watching, because there isn’t—unless you’re live Instagramming your performance to the world—to keep your muscles supple and your blood flowing.

But the hard-bodied physical ideal that reigns supreme—here in Los Angeles at least—feels impoverished. It’s an ideal that, as Milton says in Paradise Lost (admittedly in a slightly different context) “perverts best things” by reducing their value “to their meanest use.” Hogarth reminds us that it is “for the sake of … necessary motion” that muscles are “hard” (my emphasis). But we are not beholden to necessity. Nature, given a chance, “most judiciously softens these hardnesses”—and supining your self is one way to encourage her softening effects.

People pay plastic surgeons to fill up their vacancies with a proper supply of fat (I know; I’ve marveled at the results on Montana Ave., back when I used to walk on Montana Ave.). But you can achieve superior results for free and in the comfort of your own home by reclining on your sofa.

We all need a proper supply of fat to plump up these vacancies—to fatten the curves of our bodies but also to flesh out our daily trajectories—trajectories that, these days, feel increasingly skeletal, reduced to the bare outlines of existence.

In my case, the existence contained within those outlines is comparatively luxurious: I’m still getting paid; I can easily work from home; I have a yard, for which I have never felt more grateful. And, although (my prolific blogging and Instagramming of late notwithstanding) I am “working,” it seems wrong to use the same verb to describe what I’m doing and what essential workers and others adjusting on the fly to alternative modalities are enduring.

So I feel aware that a paean to the fat of life might seem glib or jarring at the present time; if there was ever a moment when needs must, this is surely it.

And yet.

(One of my supervisors at Cambridge once wrote dryly in the margins of one of my essays, “Thank God for “And yet”!”; he noticed that I tended to rely upon the locution when I had written myself into a corner and needed to get out of a tight spot.)

Where was I? Oh yes, and yet, it’s a grim irony of the way our world is organized that even as some people are literally working themselves to death, others, like me, have copious amounts of unstructured time on their hands. And this is why I find myself here, writing this entirely gratuitous essay. This is the fat that is helping me to plump up these meager, vacant days. I hope, if nothing else, it softens the hard edges of your day too.



[1] I was struck while watching Working Girl—which features a lot of both Griffith and Ford semi-clothed—that there is a beguiling softness to both of their bodies, a softness that—even though in many ways we see a much broader range of bodies onscreen now—is rare these days.

[2] I can’t believe “slothing” is a real word! But it is! I just found it in the OED!


Day 142: Till some blind hand Shall brush my wing

“One world exists where a man follows the road scorned in the other by his copy.”

This is a quote from Auguste Blanqui’s treatise on the multiplicity of worlds, L’éternité par les astres (1872). Catherine Gallagher cited it at the close of a talk about counterfactual narratives that she gave this weekend at a conference I helped organize; something about the line made tears well up in my eyes.

As Gallagher observed in her talk, Gottfried Leibniz is the father of counterfactual thinking. Leibniz’s theology holds that, selecting from an infinite array of possible worlds, God chose to bring our world into existence because he deemed it the best of all possible worlds. For Leibniz, thinking about how the world might have been is a way to appreciate how much worse things might otherwise have been. (“You think our world is bad? Wait till you see these others!”). While Leibniz insists that overall all other possible worlds are inferior to ours, he acknowledges that a given individual may well fare better in many of these other worlds.

Leibniz’s Theodicy (1710) ends, strangely and compellingly, with a fable that speaks to this poignant incommensurability between divine and individual interests. The fable focuses upon Sextus Tarquinius, the infamous prince whose rape of Lucretia was said to precipitate the founding of the Roman republic. Leibniz tells the parable in order to try to explain why, although God permitted the rape of Lucretia to occur, God is not responsible for Sextus’s sin. According to Leibniz, God judged that it was worth sacrificing Lucretia’s life and happiness because of the greater good that would spring from Sextus’s crime. For Leibniz we have no choice but to endorse this decision as the right decision, because God’s goodness compelled him to create the best of all possible worlds; and therefore a world in which Lucretia was spared would have necessarily been a “worse” world.

What does “the best of all possible worlds” mean here? In another context (The Discourse on Metaphysics, 1686) Leibniz writes that a perfect world is “the simplest in hypotheses and the richest in phenomena,” and Leibniz scholars tend toward thinking that Leibniz imagines God to judge “bestness” by this or another metaphysical criterion rather than appealing to a more utilitarian criterion like “a world in which the most people are happy.” Leibniz admits, then, that God permits evil in the world; these individual instances of evil, Leibniz argues, are a necessary consequence of God fulfilling his duty to create the best of all possible worlds. In other words, God permits the rape of Lucretia because that instance of evil is necessary to creating the best of all possible worlds that subsequently emerges.

It’s difficult not to feel like Leibniz’s God is kind of an asshole. Not a Milton’s God kind of an asshole, who is assholey in a Bluebeardy kind of way (“don’t go into that closet to which I am giving you this key … you did? [Sigh] Now I have to kill you”) but a libertinish Valmonty asshole who plays life like a long game of chess, mowing down pawns without compunction.

The point of Leibniz’s fable about Sextus is to show that God does not bear responsibility for an individual’s choices. The fable begins with a scene, set in our world, in which we see Sextus seek out Jupiter at the temple of Dodona in Greece. Sextus has already heard of his fate from Apollo and he’s not happy about it, so he complains to Jupiter and asks for a new fate. Jupiter says he will give Sextus a new fate if he agrees to surrender his claim to the Roman throne. Sextus refuses and storms out of the temple, abandoning himself to his fate. In the rest of the fable, we are shown an array of other possible worlds “wherein shall be found, not absolutely the same Sextus as you have seen [in this world] (that is not possible, he carries with him always that which he shall be) but several Sextuses resembling him, possessing all that you know already of the true Sextus, but not all that is already in him imperceptibly, nor in consequence all that shall yet happen to him. You will find in one world a very happy and noble Sextus, in another a Sextus content with a mediocre state, a Sextus, indeed, of every kind and endless diversity of forms.”

After surveying all of these worlds, finally we arrive back in this world, where we re-witness Sextus storm out of the temple of Dodona in a fury and return to Rome where he rapes Lucretia and is subsequently driven out, bringing down the monarchy. Pallas (Jupiter’s daughter, who has been conducting our tour) then comments: “You see that my father did not make Sextus wicked; he was so from all eternity, he was so always and freely. My father only granted him the existence which his wisdom could not refuse to the world where he is included: he made him pass from the region of the possible to that of the actual beings.”

Whenever I read this story I get stuck pondering the same question: which properties are essential to Sextus’s character and which are not? From what I can tell, Leibniz’s position is that there are certain essential properties a given individual has (like being human); and there are also contingent properties, like being the kind of human who chooses to rape Lucretia. Those latter contingent qualities are essential qualities of the Sextus of our world, but not of the Sextuses in other worlds. But then what does it mean to say that Sextus was wicked from all eternity? I suppose it means that Sextus in our world always freely chooses to rape Lucretia, despite having abundant other opportunities. Yet at the same time there’s something deterministic about Leibniz’s understanding about a person’s identity in a particular world; Pallas says, recall, that a given, world-specific Sextus “carries with him always that which he shall be,” suggesting in some way that character is destiny.

I write at a moment when those other worlds feel closer than usual, as do the other characters I might be in them, the other plots I might live out. In another world I’d still be a duck-rabbit of course (Leibniz insists that species is an essential property), but perhaps there’s one world where I’m more steadfast, and another where I’m more impulsive, and yet another, most desirable of all, where I’m more decisive. There might even be one where I return my library books. The specters of the different choices I might have made, that I could make yet, haunt those I’ve already made and those that still lie before me.

Making lists of pros and cons, hypothesizing and conjecturing possible outcomes, feels like such a Leibniz’s-assholey-God thing to do, detached from the tangible sufferings of those, like Lucretia, who may be the collateral damage of my lofty choices. In Leibniz’s fable, all the various worlds that God has at his disposal are like macrocosmic lists of pros and cons; specifically, all of the worlds are represented as books in a divine library. God likes to come in sometimes and browse these other worlds in order to “enjoy the pleasure of recapitulating things and of renewing his own choice, which cannot fail to please him.” As the verbs “enjoy” and “please” suggest, this is not the tortuous exercise in second-guessing oneself it would be for a mere mortal. Being all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good has its perks.


Due to a recent flare up of an allergy to something (mornings, I suspect) as well as a general propensity for weepiness, I seem to need tissues near to hand at all moments. Since, obviously, I am perennially out of tissues, I’ve taken to depositing rolls of loo paper on all available surfaces around the house. The other day a little fly was trying to get into my apricot jam while I was eating breakfast and I brushed it away and then unthinkingly picked up the roll of loo paper on the table and crushed the fly with it; that is, I stamped the roll of paper on top of the fly, as if I were crushing it with a mug. When I picked up the roll of loo paper and turned it over, there was the fly’s body, perfectly flattened against the plys of paper. It looked a bit like the flowers I used to press inside books when I was a girl. For some reason, I didn’t scrape the fly off; I didn’t want to touch it, so I just left it there. Now every time I reach for the roll, I see the fly’s dead body and think about how carelessly I slaughtered it. It’s a strange little momento mori. I see it and I think of Lucretia and all the other lives, big and small, that were not scorned in some other world.


Day 78: my OKCupid profile


I am an ambiguous figure. I am not being evasive. That’s a statement of plain fact.

What I’m Doing With My Life

Mostly blogging in an effort to distract from the gnawing emptiness in my soul. Also have sorted out sock drawer in manner described by Marie Kondo, who says that if you ball your socks up they “are always in a state of tension.” Enough people are already aggravated with me, I don’t want to annoy my socks on top of everything else.

I’m Really Good At

Hiding in plain sight; slicing bread; making my psychiatrist laugh; finding valuable objects on the ground (so far I’ve found—on three separate occasions—two $100 dollar bills, and one Macbook Air. I kept the cash but not the Macbook Air) .

The First Things People Notice

The first thing they notice is either that I am a duck or that I am a rabbit. Depending on which of these they notice first, the second thing they notice is either that I am a rabbit or that I am a duck. The third thing they notice is that I bear an uncanny resemblance to the seventeenth-century poet John Milton. The fourth thing they notice is that I am either Australian or South African. The fifth thing they notice is that I become tetchy when my accent is mis-identified.

Favorite books, movies, music, shows, food

Book: reading’s not really my bag

Movie: Back To the Future

Music: “Medical Jones.” It’s an original song by my daughter about this cat. The cat’s name is “Medical Jones.” Honestly, once it’s in your head, you cannot stop singing it! [1]

Shows: Punch and Judy

Food: gluten

The Six Things I Could Never Do Without

Hmm. I’m trying to remember what a “Thing” is. Is it an object that only becomes visible when it’s dysfunctional? Like a dirty window? Let’s say that’s one then. What else. A sieve without any holes? No … wait, that would just be a bowl, wouldn’t it? Don’t count that one. Huh. This is way harder than I thought it was going to be. Let me approach this another way: the six things from eighteenth-century literature that I could never do without! Robinson Crusoe’s earthenware pot! Sophia’s muff! Pamela’s round-eared cap! The rock that Samuel Johnson kicked to refute Bishop Berkeley! Belinda’s deadly bodkin! And, last but not least, the enormous helmet that crushes Conrad in The Castle of Otranto! Hurrah!

I Spend A Lot Of Time Thinking About

… what it would feel like to be dashed to pieces by an enormous helmet; whether I am a “new spinster” or just an old spinster.

Typical Friday Night

Babysitting for my husband while he’s out on the town.

Most Private Thing I’m Willing to Admit

My PhD is actually from the University of Phoenix, not Harvard.

Message Me If

You have the answer to these three riddles:

What is born each night and dies each dawn?

What flickers red and warm like a flame, but is not fire?

What is ice which gives you fire and which your fire freezes still more?

If you would like an answer to your message, in addition please answer the following bonus riddle:

What is it that women most desire?


1853 engraving based on 1667 miniature by Faithorne

1853 engraving based on 1667 miniature by Faithorne

Oh wait, I just read OKCupid’s policy on photos. They stipulate that “you must appear in the photo!” a rule they insist upon so “that you will see real people, and they will see the real you.” I would just like to say that I think that this is a terribly misguided rule. I’m not sure I want to see real people, and I definitely don’t want them to see the real me! Not that there is a “real me”! (see David Hume, Gilbert Ryle, &c.)

Oh fine, here’s a “real” picture:

another wittgenstein duck-rabbit

Now, full disclosure: I am naked in this picture, which is against OKCupid’s profile-picture rules. But, I’d argue that it’s OK because you can’t see my torso, just my face. So I think I’m done! Now I’m just going to lie back and wait for the messages from my (few and unfit) suitors to start rolling in …


[1] I’m updating this post to include this footnote. I have this feeling that footnotes are against OKCupid policy but I’ll just have to risk it. The update is because I realized upon reflection that it was unfairly tantalizing of me to rave about this song without telling you the words so that you can sing it to yourself. The lyrics are:

Medical Jones, Medical Jones,

Medical, Medical, Medical Jones.

Medical Jones, Medical Jones,

This is the story of Medical Jones.


That’s it! It’s pretty easy to pick up. As for the tune, I’d give you the score, but unfortunately I don’t how to write music. But the beauty of this song is that it’s not really about the tune. Honestly, you can use almost any tune without any injury to the song. Enjoy!


Day 76: Miltonic hairs

On Friday I went to a fantastic talk about Milton’s hair that Jayne gave at the Huntington. It was about how Milton’s hair (frequently but controversially described as “light brown”; frequently and less controversially depicted as shoulder-length, with a bit of curl to it) figures prominently in both literary and visual depictions of him in the eighteenth century.

That description doesn’t even begin to do the talk justice, though. I know she’ll be terribly bashful when she reads this, but hearing a talk by Jayne is like watching a movie by Christopher Nolan, or a play by Tom Stoppard. It’s at once a dazzling spectacle full of wit and playful embellishments, with ingeniously interlocking moving parts; and it’s also intellectually riveting. At the end she apologized for the talk’s lengthiness, but its ampleness was one of its pleasures.

When it came to the Q&A I didn’t really have a question … but the talk had triggered a long chain of associations … about the hairiness of Eden (Right? The “tangling bushes”; the “shaggie Hill”; “the fringed bank with Myrtle crowned?” It is so hairy in paradise!) and Milton’s fondness for the serpentine line (the brook that winds with “mazy error” and so on). I gathered my miscellaneous thoughts into a question about the aesthetics of wavy lines. But as I was asking my rambling question, gazing idly at the portrait of Milton that was up on the projector as I did so, I found myself saying out loud what I was thinking at that very instant: which was that perhaps I (like Milton) am particularly invested in the aesthetics of wavy lines because I have Miltonically wavy hair. [1] It was just a silly off-the-cuff remark … but I distinctly heard a few murmured “her hair really is like Milton’s ….” as Jayne responded to my question. And just so we’re all on the same page here, I should say that the resemblance I’m referring to here is between my hair and John Milton’s hair; I’m not talking about some purported resemblance between my hair and Eve’s coy tendrils or Adam’s hyacinthine locks. [2]

Here he is, in all his wavy glory. Judge for yourself, o ye who have seen my hair:

1853 engraving based on 1667 miniature by Faithorne

1853 engraving based on 1667 miniature by Faithorne

After the talk, when I glimpsed myself in the mirror while I was washing my hands in the restroom, I actually said out loud, and none too happily, “God, I really do look like Milton.” Later Jayne remarked that she would never see my hair in the same way again, and a graduate student of whom I’m very fond remarked of the resemblance, in a wonderfully deadpan way, “you can’t un-see it.”

Now, it could well be that it’s not really the case that I look like Milton in particular. I suspect, rather, that my beachy waves (what! That’s how Dr. F. described them!) coincidentally bear a striking resemblance to the Cavalier locks worn by many seventeenth-century men. My children have each several times asked me if the picture of the bushy-haired Leibniz on my T-shirt is a picture of me.

So, here’s the thing. I’m not sure whether to embrace my Miltonic aura or to commence anti-Miltonic defensive maneuvers immediately.

Here are the options as I see them:

Option 1: De-Milton My Hair

To do this, I maintain, I need to trim my longish bangs pronto. And here I must take a moment to note the oddity of the American term “bangs” to refer to what we British refer to, much more reasonably, as a “fringe.” The OED tells me that bangs are called bangs because hair cut in this manner was understood to be cut “‘bang’ off,” the phrase “bang off” connoting abruptness, suddenness, violence. It struck me that, in hair terms, bangs naturally counter-balance Miltonic waves. One might say the bangs are a necessary punctuation of the undulating Miltonic line. One might even say, if one were feeling particularly iconoclastic, that Paradise Lost could have used a few more bangs to break up those endless waves. But I digress. The waves-punctuated-by-bangs look would de-Miltonize my hair, is my point.

Option 2: Go the Full Milton

Ever since He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved and I have separated, friends have been asking me if I will try online dating. I always say nah, not at the moment, anyway. But recently I’ve started to fantasize about creating an online profile on a dating website, not as a means to meet people, but simply for my own entertainment. Would it be funny ha ha? Possibly not. Would it be funny-but-actually-quite-sad? Possibly, but don’t say that, you’re bumming me out. Anyway, I’m interested in testing out the genre.

Let me explain what I mean. Ever since the Miltonic hair incident I’ve been thinking, if I did do online dating, the picture of “myself” that accompanied my profile would simply have to be a portrait of Milton.

I told He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved excitedly about this idea and he gave me this “are you insane?” look. “You do know that NO MAN will contact you if you do that, don’t you?” he asked.

It was a rhetorical question.

Maybe you think he’s right. Or maybe you’re thinking, “I know you say now that you don’t want to meet anyone, but what if you change your mind and someone really compatible is turned off because you look like John Milton?” To which I would reply, “my friend, I appreciate your concern, but I am two steps ahead of you. You see it’s a win-win. First of all, do I really want to date a heterosexual male who would pass me over just because I look like the dead seventeenth-century poet John “the Lady” Milton?

Obviously, the answer is no, such a person would be un-dateable.

Second of all, think of what a nice surprise it will be when my suitor meets me! He will be thinking, “well, I suppose I’ll meet this woman, she seems interesting … yes, she does look like John Milton but nobody’s perfect.” And then when we meet for coffee at a massive chain bookstore selling fiction-books (it will be exactly like this) my suitor will be completely and utterly stunned to discover that, in real life, I look way better than John Milton.

Now, that may be a bold claim to make, but I’m going to stick my neck out and make it. (Bear in mind when you assess this claim that the above portrait is an extremely flattering portrait of Milton. I only chose it because it shows his hair in detail.)

Am I better writer? Of course not! A bolder thinker? No way! A more impassioned political activist? Ha! But am I better-looking? I honestly think that I am. I’m thinking I could even lead with that audacious statement in my profile’s opening sentence.

But why stop there? In my fantasy, I go further and the whole profile is given over to defining myself entirely in terms of my resemblance (or lack thereof) to John Milton. It might take the form of a bulleted list like so:

  • Worse writer than
  • Less Puritan than
  • More easygoing than
  • Degree of unconscious affiliation with devil’s party: similar
  • Less misogynist than
  • More concise than
  • Less prolific than
  • Views on divorce: similar
  • Better eyesight than
  • More smiley than
  • Less intimidating than

And so on and so forth.

So what d’you reck? I think He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved is totally wrong. I think it is a WINNING FORMULA. I will be the Miltonist’s crumpet: perhaps not to everyone’s taste, but with a distinctive flavor appealing to a select few.


[1] People tend to like my hair, and particularly its waviness. But, and I know this is perverse of me (I have an uncanny ability to ferret out an insult lurking beneath every compliment), I often (watch out! Hair-pun ahead!) bristle a little at the idea that my hair is one of my best features. I mean: really? Can’t you compliment a part of me that’s actually alive? You know that hair is just keratin and dead skin cells, right? That’s like telling someone that their fingernails are one of their more attractive features.

[2] One of the many fascinating facts I learned at Jayne’s talk is that Milton’s seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century readers were as baffled by the adjective “Hyacinthine” as I have always been. I’ve always assumed that “Hyacinthine,” like so many allusions in Paradise Lost, is a term that, while mystifying to me, would have been perfectly clear to an eighteenth-century gentleman (or a twenty-first-century graduate of Eton). But, apparently, no, everyone back then was equally stumped. Reddish like the gem? Blueish like the flower? Stony? Flowery? Fuck knows. Martinus, didn’t they teach you this at public school?