homeaboutarchives + tagsshopmembership!

kottke.org posts about Mallory Ortberg

Interview with Mallory Ortberg

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 01, 2017

Hi everyone. Tim Carmody here. Jason and I are trying something new. I interviewed Mallory Ortberg, probably best known for the site she cofounded called The Toast, about her new subscriber-supported newsletter The Shatner Chatner. (It’s actually been in operation since March, but has a brand new home on the web.)

The full (well, fuller) interview is on my newsletter, which is called Backlight. Below, Kottke.org gets an exclusive, handcrafted, heavyweight gram vinyl excerpt, where Mallory describes what The Shatner Chatner is all about and its place in today’s simultaneously imploding and exploding media galaxy.

I hope you enjoy it, and if you do, check out my Tinyletter and keep coming back here to Kottke. It’s an experiment in collaboration we’re excited to try.


Mallory Ortberg: I love the Shatner Chatner. It feels very important to me that this newsletter always be in some way connected to… not necessarily Bill Shatner the man, but William Shatner the persona. That’s always super important, for me to distinguish between the two. People keep trying to say, “did you hear that thing that William Shatner said on Twitter?” I’m like, “no, I never want to know about Shatner.”

Bill Shatner is just the flawed material manifestation of the spirit of Shatner.

It’s a fact. It’s a red herring you know. Let it be what it is. I am trying to commune on a different level with with the Shatner… I feel like I have a running list of male fictional characters that weirdly drive the engine of the Shatner Chatner where I’m constantly trying to figure out, “what is my relationship to you? Why are we kind of the same?” And Niles Crane is also one of those people. And I again don’t know why. That’s what I’m still trying to use Shatner Chatner to figure out.

So Shatner has emanations and penumbras not just on this planet, but fictional ones too, in other characters.

There’s like one body, with multiple incarnations.

[The new site] is a little more professional, but it’s not the same - it’s not like The Toast Part 2, where I have to also run a whole website. They run the website. I just get to make jokes. And it’s not to say that it is The Toast 2.0, content-wise either. It’s very much just like Mallory’s weird thoughts and feelings, for however many folks would be interested. It may be, you know, a smaller crew, but I also want to make sure that it’s like a reasonable amount of money and not something that like only really well-off people will be able to afford.

I mean, I can’t always necessarily convince an editor to publish, “Hey, I wrote a bunch of stuff about my weird inability to love Stephen Sondheim but I really want to, because it helps me understand my best friend Nicole.” That can be the hard pitch to make when outlets are cutting their editorial teams. Whereas I’m like, “ah, but I’m pretty sure at least 5000 people would actually be super into learning more.”

That makes sense, especially when you have a track record of being able to bring your audience with you; they’re interested in going wherever you’re going.

Sure. And if they don’t, you know, then I’ll get to do that too. whatever the experience is going to be, it feels just like cool to get to try something that’s not the same as either, “OK it’s going to be a full time job. I have to run this website, I have to do a lot of behind the scenes stuff as well as write a lot, and I also have to make sure that on a daily basis the site is close to profitable, or else we’re going to run into trouble.” And then at the other end something like a free newsletter is really really fun, and then after like six months, it’s like, “oh, but this is how I make my living. I should probably at least try to not write for free all the time.” Even though, again it’s my choice, it’s not like somebody was trying to get me to publish a newsletter and then not pay me. It’s just more of a sense of what’s the right balance here between getting paid for my time and work versus not overworking myself.

I was pretty jazzed about the possibility that I won’t have to like answer any more e-mails than I do already which is great. Very hard time doing that. But I will get to write some more.

Will the newsletter still be published weekly?

So my hope is, with some money coming in, I’ll be able to dedicate more time to it than just once a week. For me, as somebody who has kind of a high natural tendency toward output, I really like to write kind of a lot. You know I took some time off after The Toast to write a little less and rest, and it was great. But I love to write and I love to come up with a bunch of dumb ideas and make jokes.

And you know again I would make it really clear: It’s not The Toast, the Sequel, because you can’t like promise anybody else’s involvement. “Don’t worry, I’m reuniting the gang, I’m back on the road.” Can’t do it. I mean, if anyone listening were to say, “I have ten million dollars and I want to make you restart The Toast,” I’m sure I could talk Nicole into it in a couple of years. This isn’t that.

So it’s a solo project?

I think it’s going to stay mostly solo. It would be so fun to periodically have like Nicole and some of my pals stop by. But I think especially because I’m charging individually, I don’t want to ask anybody to be a regular recurring feature if they’re not also making money. So I think it is going to be solo in that regard.

I’m still going to be writing books, and it’s not affecting other projects that I’ve got going on. But it’s nice, especially as a freelancer, you know - I freelance for Slate, I freelance my books (that’s probably not like the way to look at it). I have a lot of independent projects. I don’t have like a day job where I get benefits and health insurance. So part of what feels exciting about this is at least the opportunity to try to have that home base.

As grateful as I am for all the opportunities I’ve gotten over the last couple of years, I’m also very aware that, like The Toast, which is something that I loved and did well, that could go away. Not necessarily in the next five minutes, but in the next six months or the next year and the next two years. And so I always want to have at least one or two things that I feel like “OK, if everything else fell apart tomorrow, would I be able to pay my bills next month?” “How am I doing my best to make sure that I am taking care of myself financially in a really hot and cold field?” I’m a freelance writer. That’s means sometimes things are really flush and sometimes are really not.

I know I hope it works out. If it doesn’t at least I give it a shot. Like, I’m always a little bit anxious to think ahead to what my next thing with my backup with my third fallback plan. All the way down to, you know, let’s assume the entire industry craters tomorrow. “Where could I try to go get a job that would give me dental insurance?”

It’s funny because, I don’t at all think “oh, the future best response to that is everybody go start a newsletter and become like a freelancer!” It’s part of what’s just like really painful is just a reality of: people get fired for trying to unionize; people get fired for reporting sexual harassment at work; companies are laying off a lot of people both in my industry and in other industries. Just systematically we’re removing workers’ protections and making sure that people who have to work to live don’t have to work. There are a lot of people who work 40, 50, 60 hours a week and who do not have health insurance or retirement plan or unemployment and don’t know how they’re going to pay for food this month.

I’m really grateful that that right now, I’m making decent money. But also, you know, starting a newsletter is not the answer to the fact that we live in a society where workers are just not taken care of, not prioritized, not given a fair exchange for their work. Which of course every conversation I feel like that everyone has about work right now comes back to “we need unions,” “we need workplace protection,” and all that.

So I don’t want to pretend like this is the correct response to the world we live in. It’s just the project I’m excited about. And I’m anxious, and I call my representative in Congress all the time but it feels weird and threatening.

At the same time, I have so many people I know, not really like personal friends but just people I love on line, who have newsletters, and I love it so much, and I wish there were more ways for people to charge like a small amount for it. Right? I have so many people that I would love to pay, like, a couple of bucks a month to read their thoughts about food or movies or feelings or you know all of the above and anything that makes that easier. I’m kind of jazzed to at least explore.

I know I was thinking, if I were giving advice to someone who was like, “I used to do this job for money and now I do it for free,” it would be, try to make some money doing it. Because you know can you can do it.

In praise of water

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 27, 2017

NASA quasar water vapor.jpg
NASA artist's conception of a quasar similar to similar to APM 08279+5255, where astronomers discovered huge amounts of water vapor. Image by NASA/ESA.

I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I’ve loved water for as long as I can remember. It was a crucial part of my life long before that. You could even say water is a huge part of everything I’ve been and will become.

Growing up in Michigan, fresh water is unusually plentiful. Even Detroit’s river is a strait between enormous lakes. Smaller ones abound. When I first visited Texas, I was told that the state had no natural lakes. It seemed impossible.

Twenty years ago, my first college research paper was for an international relations class. We had to find an international conflict and break it down with a little game theory and a smattering of other analytic perspectives we’d learned. (He really liked game theory.) I picked water rights in the Middle East. I think it was the first time I’d taken something that had always been presented as a mysterious, centuries-long, religious and tribalist conflict, and broken it down into a concrete fight over resources. No resource is more important or elemental than water.

Last year, I wrote a good-sized feature on the Flint Water Crisis and centuries of water pollution in Flint. I also wrote about a timeline put together by museum researchers in Flint. (Like I’ve everything I’ve written, the longer version of both stories is ten times as brilliant and a hundred times more insufferable.)

Anyways. Flint shows both the precarity of our water supply and how essential water is, for everything. We drink it, we bathe in it, we cook with it, we clean our clothes and dishes and almost everything. It flushes our toilets and often heats our homes. It’s essential to business and industry, for cleaning and fuel and disposing waste. It’s what grows our food, whether animal and vegetable. We can’t do anything without water. And like everything else we can’t live without, we take it for granted, finding new ways to abuse and squander it every day.

At the same time, water is terrifying. It is human and inhuman. It storms, it floods, it melts, it poisons and murders us. You don’t have to read Moby-Dick to get a sense of the sublime inhumanity of water, especially the ocean. But it does help.

Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.

And yet:

But though, to landsmen in general, the native inhabitants of the seas have ever been regarded with emotions unspeakably unsocial and repelling; though we know the sea to be an everlasting terra incognita, so that Columbus sailed over numberless unknown worlds to discover his one superficial western one; though, by vast odds, the most terrific of all mortal disasters have immemorially and indiscriminately befallen tens and hundreds of thousands of those who have gone upon the waters; though but a moment’s consideration will teach, that however baby man may brag of his science and skill, and however much, in a flattering future, that science and skill may augment; yet for ever and for ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest, stiffest frigate he can make; nevertheless, by the continual repetition of these very impressions, man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it.

The first boat we read of, floated on an ocean, that with Portuguese vengeance had whelmed a whole world without leaving so much as a widow. That same ocean rolls now; that same ocean destroyed the wrecked ships of last year. Yea, foolish mortals, Noah’s flood is not yet subsided; two thirds of the fair world it yet covers.

Water is us, and it is not us; it is a symbol of life, and it is nearly as hostile and foreign to landbound life as is outer space.

The BBC radio show “In Our Time” has a terrific episode about water, its chemical construction, and its simultaneous abundance and scarcity in the universe. I’d always thought there was something chauvinistic in scientists’ search for liquid water on other planets: sure, it’s essential to life as we know it on earth, but in all the infinite possibilities of the universe, couldn’t another molecule do the same job?

It turns out liquid water really is, at a chemical level, probably uniquely suited for generating and fostering life:

The periodic table restricts the elements available for life with carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen being the four commonest reactive elements in the Universe. Carbon would seem to be the most important as it can produce an enormous range of compounds (organic chemistry). Other elements such as sulfur and silicon cannot form the complexity of molecules necessary for life, Silicon, in particular, tends to form stable silicates. Life on Earth contains these plus many other commonly found elements. All these elements (except hydrogen) are created inside stars and, if common, will form simple compounds in space, with dust particles in space containing up to 35% organic carbon. For forming part of life, molecules need to be relatively easy both to form and to break down and to be relatively stable within a liquid environment.

A stable liquid medium is required, such as water, with other candidate liquids such as N2, H2S, NH3 and glassy silica being liquid only at low temperatures giving slow reaction rates, or at high temperatures that are destructive and too viscous. Also many of theses putative media freeze from the bottom up that would tend to prevent the establishment of life.

Basically (and please forgive me if I screw this up), it comes back to that hydrogen bonding we kinda-sorta learned about in first-year chemistry. The structure and polarity of liquid water, with two hydrogens on one side and one oxygen on the other, and the exact strength of those hydrogen bonds, makes it uniquely suited to store energy, dissolve compounds, and transmit both of these things from place to place. Salts, enzymes, minerals, oxygen: all of these get pumped through our bodies by way of water. It is very difficult to imagine or even mathematically model any other way to do the same range of jobs.

Phillipe Water Mafia.png

What could Earthlings do if everyone, everywhere had an infinite supply of water?

You start to carry water with you everywhere. Sometimes after getting home from work you drink from the kitchen faucet in great, hiccuping gulps. In no time at all you’ve moved from eight cups a day to a few gallons. Anyone else might have died of hyponatremia by now, but not you. You only grow stronger and more beautiful….

Every country in the world bans the drinking of any beverage other than water. All droughts cease; deserts erupt in a riot of frondescence. You twirl in delight, slowly at first, round and round, as the entire world joins you in drinking more water. Everyone is drinking more water now. A soft, cool rain begins to fall. “She’s the one,” you hear someone whisper before you ascend to a plane of existence where human vocalizations no longer mean anything to you. “The one who drinks a lot of water.”

How to get rid of clutter

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 05, 2015

KonMari, meet Mallory Ortberg. She has some hardcore advice for ridding your life of clutter so you can “live abundantly”. Some tips:

How many of the spices lining your pantry have you ever actually used? “Most of them?” Get rid of them. Every one. If you’re not using a spice right now, it’s not important. Your lymph nodes should be covered in turmeric 100% of the time, but you don’t even know where the lids to your Tupperware containers are, do you? Look at the moon. That’s all of the spice you need.

Thank every item in your refrigerator deeply — kiss each one of them softly and slowly with your mouth — then prepare for each item a small Viking funeral. Set them adrift on a blazing ship into the waters of a very cold lake. In the future, when you are hungry, eat your memories. The only thing that belongs in your refrigerator is mindfulness.

Throw away everything in your dirty laundry hamper. If a piece of clothing really mattered to you, you wouldn’t let it get dirty.

There is no need for a bed in the truly de-cluttered life. You should hover gently several inches above the floor in perfect harmony with your surroundings during your yearly nap, like a seahorse.

Ayn Rand reviews kids’ movies

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 18, 2014

From Mallory Ortberg, some reviews of children’s movies penned by objectivist Ayn Rand.

“Mary Poppins”
A woman takes a job with a wealthy family without asking for money in exchange for her services. An absurd premise. Later, her employer leaves a lucrative career in banking in order to play a children’s game. -No stars.

Every comment on recipe blogs

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 18, 2014

From Mallory Ortberg, a hilarious send-up of the comments you see all too frequently on recipe sites.

“I didn’t have any eggs, so I replaced them with a banana-chia-flaxseed pulse. It turned out terrible; this recipe is terrible.”

“I don’t have any of these ingredients at home. Could you rewrite this based on the food I do have in my house? I’m not going to tell you what food I have. You have to guess.”

“I don’t eat white flour, so I tried making it with raw almonds that I’d activated by chewing them with my mouth open to receive direct sunlight, and it turned out terrible. This recipe is terrible.”

“Could you please give the metric weight measurements, and sometime in the next twenty minutes; I’m making this for a dinner party and my guests are already here.”

These are barely exaggerated. I once saw a comment on a pesto recipe where the person substituted bay leaves for the basil and used other ingredients in the place of pine nuts and olive oil, then complained how bad it tasted and how terrible the recipe was. Oh, the literal humanity. (via nick)

An ode to Ralph Wiggum

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 20, 2014

From Mallory Ortberg at The Toast, an appreciation of Ralph Wiggum.

Ralph is not a rule-follower like Lisa, nor a rule-breaker like Bart; Ralph does not observe the rules because he is almost completely unaware of them. More than any of the other students at Springfield Elementary, Ralph is a child. Bart and Lisa and Milhouse and Nelson and Janey are kids, and therein lies the difference. Ralph sees things that aren’t there (“Ralph, remember the time you said Snagglepuss was outside?” “He was going to the bathroom!”), eats paste, picks his nose, volunteers unprompted, nonsensical declarations (“My cat’s breath smells like cat food”) disguised as Zen koans. His character is sometimes written as dim-but-profound, sometimes borderline-psychotic, and occasionally developmentally disabled, but more than anything else, Ralph like what he is: a child who hasn’t yet aged into a kid, which is one of the most embarrassing things a child can be.

Goes nicely with this video of some of Ralph’s finest moments: