Kindness shouldn’t be relative. And life is much simpler when you drink your coffee black.
These are the two rules I try to live by. Sometimes I fail.
Late last spring, I was waiting in line for an oat milk cappuccino at one of the local coffee shops that also serves as my mobile office outside of pandemic times. Normally, I’d take that time to soak up the environment, soak up the energy; but this was one of my wilder days, which is to say it’s one of my days where every minute needs to be maximized. Standing in the corner, I pull out my laptop to sift through my work emails.
It’s a mindless task, mostly, allowing my thoughts to wander freely, and that morning, they wandered to writing. I’d recently finished the Isolation Journals project and was seemingly on the tail end of that momentum. “What’s next?” I ask myself as I open that morning’s New York Times newsletter. “I wonder what it feels like to send an op-ed piece. I wonder how one submits an op-ed piece.” It’s an ambitious thought, and I know this. It’s an ambitious thought, and I don’t care. It’s an ambitious thought, and it excites me.
“I will if you will: How to submit a NYT Op-Ed Essay “
It’s from my writer friend.
This is the text that interrupts my both my screen and my thoughts. This is the text that has collected dust in the corner of my mind for seven months, now.
Seven months later, sitting on my living room floor, I learned of the second worst Epstein in existence. Seven months later, sitting on my living room floor, I happened upon an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that has since incited incredulity, resentment, and anger, even. Seven months later, I broke my first rule.
If you search Wall Street Journal’s op-ed section from December 11th, you’ll find an article entitled ‘Is There a Doctor in the House?’ Under normal circumstances, it would be an unremarkable line — one to breeze by on your way to the next. In the throes of a pandemic, however, it is intriguing enough to dive into. So I did.
Joseph R. Epstein opens with the following sentence: “Madame First Lady-Mrs. Biden-Jill-kiddo: a bit of advice on what may seem like a small but I think is a not unimportant matter. Any chance you might drop the “Dr.” before your name? “Dr. Jill Biden “ sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic.”
Holy bananas, is this real?
I took a pause at the word “comic.” I took a pause, took a breath, and took a vow to read it with an open mind.
Sweet Fancy Moses, it is real.
As I’m writing this, I’m fighting with myself on whether or not to link to the article. Understanding that this was probably a brilliant, albeit shallowly, strategic move on Wall Street Journal’s part, I don’t want to give this rubbish any further attention; however, understanding human curiosity, it makes more sense to provide the link, as most of you will probably google it anyway. So, click here to save yourself some time.
Take a few moments to give it a read, and then take a few more moments to return to your normal color — unless of course you agree with him, in which case, you should probably tap out of this now.
Unquestionably, my most valuable practice is using my pen to make sense of my thoughts. I often choose my pen because I like the feel of it. Sometimes, I choose my pen because it saves me from feeling like an asshole later. That day — the day I discovered the second worst Epstein in existence — I chose my keyboard.
I poured myself a glass of wine and wrote Mr. Epstein a letter. The words poured through my fingertips with a fluidity I rarely experience in verbal communication. It was easy and uncensored and raw. As I was finishing that last line, my late-spring coffee shop text came to mind: “I will if you will.”
I guess today is the day.
In a calm sort of diligence, I located the link to submit op-eds to the Wall Street Journal, and, unhesitatingly, I pasted my letter and hit the submit button.
Dr. Epstein — Joseph — Joe — fossil: a bit of advice on what is decidedly NOT a small matter. Any chance you might drop the antiquated belief about who asserts the title “Dr.” and how that title is earned? A wise woman once said to always be a first-rate version of yourself instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.
Why, I ask, should Dr. Jill Biden omit her honorific — one that was earned, not gifted to her — simply because you are incensed by it?
Despite the condescending opener of your WSJ op-ed piece, I committed to reading it with an open mind, a willingness to understand your message. I committed to reading it with hope that you were simply a former educator trying to impart some valuable, albeit quite crass, advice. I’m an optimistic one, you know? I had hope that you would offer more than a thinly veiled brag about your thirty years at Northwestern or your final exam circumstances. I had hope that you would share a point when you spoke of being an editor at the American Scholar — a point that goes beyond boasting. I had hope that when you pitched your complaints about how indiscriminate schools have become with dolling out honorary doctorates, you would tell us of the direct letters you wrote to ALL of the undeserving recipients. It turns out, you singled out one woman you viewed as an easy target.
It turns out, your blatantly misogynistic advice was for her to sit quietly in the shadows of her husband and be a second-rate version of somebody else.
It turns out, I was wrong.
You see, that’s the thing about confident women. We can admit when we are wrong. And the other thing about confident women, Joe, is that we don’t need to be schooled by someone with “only a B.A. in absentia” and an honorary doctorate on how to write our names.
I’d like to tell you that I immediately regretted it, but that would come later. The human side of me — the female side of me — felt good in the moment. I took a satisfied sip of my wine and thought “huh…. I get this keyboard warrior thing.”
I knew it wouldn’t be accepted, as it was more of a direct rebuttal to Joseph Epstein than an opinion piece written for the masses, but I screenshot WSJ’s message that my submission was received and sent it to my writer friend.
It took an entire day and a rather emphatic second request for me to forward him a copy. And because I woke up still me that morning, that copy came with the following disclaimer:
“Below is my utterly shameful, unedited, from-the-heart reply that I mostly wish I hadn’t sent. I say “mostly” because I actually meant every word. It’s just stooping, and I hate stooping.”
Because he’s a generous person, he assured me that I shouldn’t feel badly and that it was probably much tamer than the others they received. “I appreciate that,” I said. “Still, though, kindness shouldn’t be relative.”
It’s not really my style to write pieces that offer sweet reminders of how to live well. Others are far more eloquent at that sort of illustrative storytelling. I’m choosing to today, though. I’m choosing this because sometimes I want validation of my own humanness, and experience tells me that others do, too.
So, my reminder to you is that we all have that piece of us that unravels, drops our composure, loses our shit; and seemingly, never more than this year. The year of the coronavirus, the murder hornets, the devastating wildfires. The year we lost Kobe Bryant, Alex Trebec, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The year of loud and necessary racial equality protests, the humanitarian refugee crises, the most wildly divisive presidential election in history. The year that makes us not only want to ring in 2021, but to unabashedly shout FUCK OFF 2020. It’s important to recognize that side of us, but it’s also important to counter it with our kind sides.
And we need to do it without using a reference point because kindness shouldn’t be relative.
Writer’s note: Since stumbling upon Mr. Epstein’s rubbish piece last weekend, I’ve seen a lot of comments shaming the Wall Street Journal for publishing it. I understand that. I’ve seen a lot of comments shaming Mr. Epstein for writing it. I understand that. The catchy bit here, though, is that as garishly sexist and condescending as his words were, and as brazenly strategic as the newspaper is for publishing it, I support both in their rights to do so. I have to. As a writer, as a proponent of free speech, I have to, even when I hate what is being said.