Plarn, pallets, and... actually there's no third thing

(A sneak peek of the latest issue of Mouths!)

Hey pals,

It’s been a minute! My sisters and I have been hard at work on the latest issue of our zine. Here’s a bite-sized piece.

We want you to rethink DIY.

You don’t need Pinterest. You don’t need money. You don’t need to increase your carbon footprint. You can get everything you need for a fun, fulfilling project
from what other people throw away.


Plastic kills millions of animals per year. It fills our landfills and poisons our bodies. And it’s a miracle product.

Plastic is so light, strong, and cheap that we rely on it throughout the supply chain. What’s a practical environmentalist to do?

Well, there’s no easy answer. But reusing plastic already in the environment might be the closest we can get.

Gather your bags

Do you have an enormous bag of plastic bags in your kitchen? Who doesn’t!?

Grab 10 and stack them on top of each other. Cut off the top (loops) and bottom (seam). Fold lengthwise twice and cut crosswise 8 times. You should end up with several loops.

Tie ‘em up

Get two loops. Insert Loop One into Loop Two, then draw one end of Loop One into the other end of Loop One. This should form a knot connecting Loop One and Loop Two.

Confused? Watch a YouTube video and practice. It’s simple once you get the hang of it.

You can also make twine out of plastic (pictured). It takes a bit more effort but, again, watch a YouTube video to learn how.

Make something

You can use plarn to make just about anything you would make out of regular yarn. For most projects, that does mean crocheting or knitting.

Some ideas: bedrolls for houseless people, baskets, a plastic hairshirt to wear as penance for all the times you used plastic bags (just kidding. Unless...)

One way to get started without any other supplies? A no-sew braided rug!


Shipping pallets are to businesses as Amazon boxes are to consumers. They’re constantly accumulating and Jesus, please, take them if you want them!

But pallets aren’t trash — they’re wood! Not nice wood, but wood!

Pick your pallets

Wood ends up in a pallet instead of furniture for a reason. It could be warped, knotted, or just kinda ugly. And once it becomes a pallet, it can take some serious damage.

So don’t just pick up the first stack of pallets you find on the side of the road. Be discerning! Be sure to avoid any with bugs, rot, mold, spills, stains, or odors.

Overall, you want a nice, clean pallet that doesn’t look like it’s been around the block too many times.

You may be wondering where can you find these pristine pallets. Tile sellers are one good option — they get tons of shipments that take minimal abuse.

Prep your pallets

Even a relatively fresh pallet can still have a splinter-y surface full of loose nails. You should probably take care of that!

Thankfully, this is a pretty simple fix: hammer any nails that are sticking out into place and sand away the splinters. It’s a lot easier with a sander, but good old sandpaper works too!

Now you can paint or stain the pallets. It’s up to you, but it’s a good way to cover up ugliness and prevent bug infestations.

Use ‘em!

Once your pallets are prepped, use them for raised garden beds, raised bed-beds (I sleep on one!), or all sorts of furniture, if you have basic woodworking supplies and some time!

Find this piece + a moving interview with author SJ Sindu, a banging protest playlist, and more original art and writing in Awake. Available for download here!


The Mouths


I <3 Keaira LaShae

First of all, I need to tell you that I’ve been busting my ass for two months and I’m finally DONE. Mouths to Feed Magazine #3: The Creativity Issue is out on Gumroad and available in digital and print form! (!!!)

Fucking finally.

Illustrating. Interviewing. InDesigning. Manual double-sided printing. Sewing. It is a lot of work, even if it is the “whistle while you…” kind. Thank God I did it, and thank God it’s over.

On the bright side, it turned out really, really cool and you should definitely check it out.

The zine centers around the metaphor of art as produce — like, literally, fruit and vegetables. Artists need to keep their minds fertile, a place for ideas to grow — then work like hell tilling, weeding, and pruning until they’re ripe. Is that what Voltaire meant by “cultiver notre jardin”? (I’m the wrong person to ask — I read Candide in French to try to improve my vocabulary and it really wasn’t working.)

The whole thing’s got me thinking about hard work and happiness and what we produce. And you know who I’d love to ask about all that? Singer-songwriter and dancersise icon Keaira LaShae.

Once upon a time, I was an extremely noodly college student who had not exercised, like, at all, since I solemnly left the karate dojo for the last time — at age 13. I was intimidated by lifting, allergic to team sports, and absolutely hated running. But even the noodliest among us can find joy in dance.

Somehow, I found myself typing “dance workout” into YouTube. I came across Keaira LaShae and I am not exaggerating when I say my whole life changed.

I dare you not to feel good about yourself after doing this. I DARE YOU.

Maybe I wasn’t so noodly after all! Sure, I looked ridiculous, but I was working out! It was a tiny step. But it led me to much bigger ones — to lifting heavy and playing rugby and yes, even running.

In lockdown, I came across her again. We’d both been through so much. She’d landed a deal with PopSugar, recorded more music, become a mother… I’d graduated college, moved abroad, fallen in love… I thought of how our bodies accompany us wherever we go — how strength sustains us in everything we do.

The weight of years of everyday hard work fell on me all at once. God damn. We did it.

Lest this letter come out sounding like an unabashed, uncritical ode to work, here’s a different sort of story.

When’s the last time you went on a hike? It had been months, for me, and even then I’d been dragged. Two seasons working in the woods had killed my love for the outdoors. Killed it dead. Once you start making money doing something, you start to wonder why anyone would do it for free.

My brother came to town and we went on a hike just a hop skip and a jump from my place. I’d never been and never would have if he hadn’t been to visit. It smelled like green. A rickety old bridge swung under us. Creek water sparkled. It was, in a word, lovely.

What got ruined for you because of work? Maybe it’s been long enough for the bitter taste to leave your mouth.



On writing for the internet (sometimes it sucks)

Plus an FAQ on life in France

A strange thing happened in between me starting this newsletter and now. I became a professional writer.

That’s not nearly as glamorous as it sounds. This month, a decent chunk of my income will come from writing about cargo tracking for shipping companies. Some of my income will come from actual journalism. The rest will most likely come from personal essays: writing about me.

Freelance writing involves a lot of rejection, but I’ve had good luck with finding a home for my personal essays. My first big byline was a personal essay in HuffPost — a straight-from-the-heart meditation on not traveling home during the pandemic. And more recently, in Business Insider, I wrote about the privilege and pain of teaching English in France.

The nice thing about publishing these essays is that it’s not complicated. I write, briefly, about a personal experience. Because it is something I feel compelled to say, it flows quickly through my fingers into a Google Doc. I turn it in. Someone publishes it. I get paid. Simple as.

Nothing like the 10+ hours I spent last week interviewing, researching, writing, re-writing, and ragequitting my way to a finished news piece.

What sucks about publishing these essays is that people feel ownership over me and my story. After I published my essay with HuffPost, I got multiple messages from strange men offering up their spare rooms. I’m sure they were well-meaning. After all, I was expressing grief at not being able to return home. All the same — thanks, I’ll pass.

And people have things to say about me, things that are so much bigger than my tiny little twenty-something life. I find my choice of words, my headline — even my author photo — being drafted into cultural conversations I didn’t sign up for.

My essay about the trials of working as an English assistant in France generated some pretty lively comment sections, replete with “oh please”s and “boo-hoo”s and “poor baby”s and eye-roll emoji. Young people are so soft these days! Always expecting a vacation, never wanting to work! Look at her — of course they ate her alive.


Hey! I find myself wanting to say. Only I’m allowed to talk about myself like that!

I mean, I get it. Who wants to hear someone complain about working part-time hours in a beautiful country right now (or ever)? But still. I’m only human. Ow.

I write to explain myself. Sometimes I don’t get enough space to do that in a 1,000-word article. As I publish more of my writing, I think I’m going to have to get used to feeling misunderstood.

For now, though, the impulse to explain myself remains. I’ve been thinking a lot about the questions people raised about the article, so I wrote up some answers.

Did you seriously not speak French when you arrived?

TAPIF only requires B1 French, which, in my experience, allows you to stare blankly at a bank teller until you give up and ask “parlez-vous anglais?”

I’d achieved B2/C1-ish French years before, but intensive study of Swahili erased it. My pardons were poles and my ouis were ndiyos.

Out of necessity, I quickly caught up. Three months in, my French was solid enough to make friends in BlaBlaCars. Two years in, a French man asked me where my “petit accent” was from — the proudest moment of my language-learning life.

Now, it’s my Swahili that’s gone and forgotten. Catch me in two years writing about teaching English in Tanzania.

785 euros for 12 hours a week sounds pretty good.

It is! Unfortunately, non-EU assistants aren’t allowed to work more than that. Depending on where you’re placed, it can be difficult to make it on 785 euros per month, particularly as a young foreigner unfamiliar with the French system.

I don’t necessarily think assistants should be paid more. I do think the Ministry should provide housing support and allow supplementary work hours.

What were the students like?

Rambunctious, infuriating, sweet. Most importantly, too young for me to be talking about in a public forum. (Which is a shame, because I have a lot of stories.)

Why did you expect a vacation?

When I decided to take the position with TAPIF, I’d just finished a season as a crosscut sawyer and was in the middle of enlisting in the Army. Teaching in France was a vacation in comparison to either of those things!

Would you recommend other people apply for the program?

Absolutely. Just come to France with ample savings, Google Translate, and a trusted friend on speed-dial. And if it all goes wrong, remember you are free to leave.

Why do you say you were exploited?

I wrote that I felt both privileged and exploited because that captures the truth of my experience.

Assistants are vulnerable. They earn a minimal salary. They often have tenuous housing situations. They receive a total of two days of training for what can be a very challenging job for a 20-year-old — standing alone, in front of 15 high-schoolers, speaking English, which many students don’t understand and have no interest in understanding.

When things go wrong, they are their only advocate. Without the support of the same labor organization that protects their French colleagues, assistants are more or less alone.

For many assistants, this is not an issue. They are assigned to a city with a low cost of living. Their school provides housing. Their colleagues take them under their wing. They have a wonderful time and write enthusiastic blogs to that effect.

Others, however, experience situations that expose their vulnerability. What happens when the school garnishes the assistant’s wages because transport strikes kept them from work? When an assistant is sexually harassed, by a colleague or student(s)? These things happen — they happened to multiple assistants during my time in France.

My own experience was more the former than the latter. By the end, I had a beautiful house and a beautiful life in a beautiful town. But I think it’s important to speak out for the benefit of those who do have difficult, even traumatic, experiences in France. Prospective assistants should know what they’re signing up for, and how to make the best of it should they choose to go.

I’m going to keep writing about my life on the internet. I have so many more stories, and I really can’t help telling them.

I want to tell you what it was like to

  • go solo backpacking across Europe at 17, freshly printed passport in hand

  • work 9 days at a time sawing logs in the woods

  • have scabies (!!!)

  • have dozens of seed ticks sucking my thighs as I slept (!!!!!)

  • be the world’s biggest David Bowie fan, 2010-2012.

I still want to tell you all that. I’m still getting used to the fact that thousands of people are going to read it.




Mettbrötchen and chill

I stayed with a dear friend in Hamburg, Germany, recently, in a bright, airy apartment overlooking a side street off the Reeperbahn.

I have, characteristically, a lot to say about that trip. How strange to be a tourist in a time almost free of tourists! What a strain and what a gift city life can be! How wonderful it is to see friends after a long time apart!

But what I really want to talk about, more than any of that, is mett. (Warning: vegetarians may want to skip this bit, there’s a picture that might gross you out.)

Mett is raw, ground pork. A list of things I knew about mett before arriving in Germany:

  • it is a thing that Germans sometimes (often?) eat

  • with modern farming techniques, it’s perfectly safe

  • it’s not all that different from sushi or beef tartare, both of which I’d eaten and enjoyed

Despite all these things I knew, I was not prepared for how I would feel when I saw it, pink and wet, in front of me. It was just so… pink. And wet.

But, urged on by my dear friend, I closed my eyes and took a bite. I regret to inform you that it was absolutely delicious.

Mettbrötchen has a mild, creamy, savory flavor, not unlike lox on a bagel. A generous helping of salt and butter is a must! I hear it’s also delicious with raw onion and caraway.

9/10, would eat again, even though it was kinda gross to pick raw meat out of my teeth afterward.

A letter of recommendation for a fun, socially-distanced activity: boating.

We rented a canoe to explore the river Elbe and its canals, which crisscross through Hamburg’s various parks and districts.

We saw

  • little cottages with gardens on the riverbank where city dwellers can escape (called Schrebergarten, I believe)

  • a lot of drunk Germans in boats. Some sober Germans in boats

  • barefoot people playing drums on the steps of a park, for an audience of said drunk and sober Germans in boats

  • a shirtless young man hiding in the trees, singing in Latin (a shy actor training for a part perhaps?)

  • birds, of varying degrees of friendliness. (Mom and dad ducks guarding their nests: extremely unfriendly. Swans: indifferent, but menacing. Pigeons: just chilling)

  • an enormous swimming mammal which I refuse to believe was a rat — mostly because I don’t want to live in a world where rats are the size of cats

  • boat-thru cafes (!!!)

As a modern human being with access to land, air, and sea, I think I stick to the first option far too often. What treasures are hidden on the Tennessee River? I don’t know, I’ve never found out!

As you may have suspected, I passed through Hamburg on my way home to Tennessee, where I’ve taken up residence in (drumroll please) my mom’s guest room. It was a very long and heavy journey. While I’m usually perfectly content to stare out a window in silence, 18 hours of trains and 14 hours of planes was a bit much, even for me.

Speaking of windows, and staring out of them whether there are raindrops on them or not, Lorrie Moore’s review of Sally Rooney’s Normal People made me laugh out loud.

After finishing Normal People during my last days in France, I devoured Conversations with Friends on my way to the border. Both novels follow smart young white women, both victimized by and victorious over the men around them. They feel their vulnerability and their power — they fall in love. The dialogue is spot-on, the relationships almost tangible. I felt grateful to Rooney, who is 29, for pulling some newborn truth from the world and putting it down on paper for the rest of us.

Writer Lorrie Moore, 63, has put an awful lot of truth on paper herself over the years. In her review of Normal People, she observes Rooney’s particularly millennial truth like an anthropologist describing the customs of a foreign land.

Millennials seem wedded to ideas of status and conventional success, but they want to “infiltrate” plutocratic institutions as “Marxists” and prized guests; they will deride yet exploit all privilege; raised to be competitive, they find envy is not a form of hate but a legitimate aspect of success-culture and an expression of congratulations.

Truth is one thing, perspective is another. Perhaps art is for the former, criticism the latter. Either way, I’m grateful to both Rooney and Moore for the wise words.



P.S. I’m reporting on Chattanooga, TN, for The American Leader. You can read my latest article, on the city’s climate policy, here.

Loving the Algorithm

is Spotify evil???

In Mouths to Feed Magazine’s latest issue, we assess AI’s impact on our daily lives. This was a tall order for three people who know didn’t know the difference between AI and an algorithm, or AI and a model, or AI and basically anything else. Direct quote from our first conversation about it: “AI is the internet. Isn’t it?” (No, no it is not.)

Digital collage by Hannah McLaren.

With the help of experts, we began to understand. Yes, we rely on AI all the time. It’s behind predictive texting and automatic language translation. It drives accurate search results and addictive social media feeds. It recommends the television that entertains us and the music that soundtracks our lives.

All these uses invite scrutiny, but it’s AI’s role in music recommendations that really fascinated me. How does Spotify know what I want to listen to? Does its algorithm force me into a musical bubble, recommending more of the same over time, or does it take me places I never would have been otherwise? I wanted to understand this experimental feedback loop between man and machine.

Spotify launched in the US in 2011, when I was 14. Through my teenage years, I obsessively used the service, cataloging my musical taste with the understanding that I was also defining my identity. Lou Reed in, The Doors out; Kanye West in, J. Cole out. The Year in Review was my favorite part: a summary of who I was that year, and who I could be next.

By the time Discover Weekly launched, my relationship with music had changed. Whether my latest playlist precisely captures the feeling of “looking out a window at the people below” doesn’t feel quite as consequential now that I’m not a teenager.

I’m a more passive listener now. Instead of actively cultivating an ever-expanding list of artists in my library, I let Spotify do the work. I put on an AI-generated playlist and choose the songs I like best. From there, I find the occasional new album.

It’s enough, especially because my Discover Weekly is eclectic. It’s filled with different languages and obscure covers in addition to the expected Pitchfork indie.

Sometimes, I understand perfectly why Spotify has recommended a track. I listen to a lot of indie female singer-songwriters, so of course it keeps pushing Big Thief.

Often, though, the songs might as well be beamed from outer space. “I’m So Depressed” by Abner Jay, “Sports Men” by Haruomi Hosono, a bebop song in a literally made-up language, etc. I never would have heard these tracks unless Spotify had recommended them. The algorithm’s advanced, automated crate-digging exposes more people to more artists than a human ever could.

Still, its lack of transparency is unnerving.

What do a blogger, a journalist, Father John Misty, and I have in common? All of us have listened to "Pourquoi tu me fous plus des coups” by An Luu on Spotify. That’s a bit odd because it’s an obscure pop ballad about domestic violence (the title means “Why don’t you beat me anymore?” in French). Why does a song with 37,000 views on YouTube have over 10 times as many streams on Spotify? What is it about this song that landed it on so many people’s Discover Weekly? As consumers without access to the algorithms that drive recommendations, we’ll never really know.

Music influences our moods, thoughts, and opinions. The fact that a proprietary algorithm determines much of what Spotify users listen to would be disturbing, even if there’s little evidence that the company is using this power to nefarious ends. At the same time, I consider the tracks Spotify has introduced to me precious gifts. I have no plans to stop listening anytime soon.

Here’s a soundtrack for these thoughts, made up of a mix of Spotify-recommended tracks. You can read more about it on page 12 of the zine.



Loading more posts…