A Voice of Reason in the Workout World

Entertainment musts from Julie Beck

Casey Johnston
Casey Johnston, pictured, is a "much-needed voice of reason" in the world of fitness, says Julie Beck. (Elena Mudd)

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Good morning, and welcome back to The Daily’s Sunday culture edition, in which one Atlantic writer reveals what’s keeping them entertained.

Today’s special guest is senior editor Julie Beck. Julie oversees our family section and created “The Friendship Files,” a special series that explores—you guessed it—stories about navigating friendship. She’s also the writer behind one of my personal favorite Atlantic stories from the past year, on the rites and traditions of “childlore” (featuring such time-honored rituals as drawing the “cool S and typing “BOOBS” on a calculator). These days, Julie is enjoying the quirky Canadian comedy series Letterkenny and getting swole with the help of the writer and weight-lifting influencer Casey Johnston. She also remains unapologetically smitten with the “bleeding-heart howl” of the 2000s emo legend Dashboard Confessional.

First, here are three Sunday reads from The Atlantic:

The Culture Survey: Julie Beck

Something I loved as a teenager and still love, and something I loved but now dislike: My favorite band in high school was Dashboard Confessional, which was a cool thing to like until I got to college and learned that emo was embarrassing and we were supposed to be into irony and indie sleaze now. Luckily, I’ve held on to my love for Chris Carrabba and his bleeding-heart howl for 20 years; now we’re apparently in an emo revival, and the band is touring again. [Related: Dashboard Confessional, or when it was cool to have feelings]

I was also a big Twilight fan as a teen, and although I will always have some nostalgia for it, I can no longer defend the series’ central romance. I was recently reminiscing with my best friends from high school about how the book swept our entire friend group, and how strange and sad it was that not a single one of us questioned sparkle-vampire Edward Cullen’s behavior at the time. He climbs through Bella’s window to watch her sleep, and he even disables her truck to prevent her from visiting a friend. Readers are supposed to understand that this is because he just loves her so much and wants to protect her, and indeed, we all thought it was the most romantic thing ever. Meanwhile, the other corner of the love triangle—a werewolf named Jacob, who treats Bella like she has human agency, has fun with her, and doesn’t stop her from taking risks—is just a temporary distraction before Bella ultimately recommits to her stalker boyfriend and his controlling family. As I’ve grown up, I’ve found that the path to emotional maturity requires switching allegiances from Team Edward to Team Jacob. (As long as you ignore the whole maybe-falling-in-love-with-a-baby thing.) [Related: At its core, the Twilight saga is a story about ____.]

An online creator that I’m a fan of: Casey Johnston wrote the “Ask a Swole Woman” column at various publications for many years and now writes a newsletter called She’s A Beast, which I highly recommend to folks of any gender who are interested in getting into weight lifting. Even if you’ve never touched a weight before, her beginner’s program, “Liftoff: Couch to Barbell” is really welcoming. She’s also a much-needed voice of reason, regularly calling bullshit where she sees it when it comes to the weight-loss industry (see: “The Yassification of Ozempic”).

Lifting weights has turned working out from a penance that I resent into something more like a science experiment—what can my body do if I invest in it? Can I pick up my own body weight? (I can.) Can I get my suitcase into the overhead bin without help? (You betcha.) Can I get rid of my constant shoulder pain from being a professional computer gremlin? (Sort of—but you still need an ergonomic desk setup, kids!) Can I quiet the voices telling me the only reason to move my body is to make it smaller? (Yes—not all the time, but more than I ever dreamed was possible.) Thanks to weight lifting, I’ve found a new and honestly revelatory relationship to exercise and to my body in my 30s—and Johnston’s writing was my gateway.

A quiet song that I love, and a loud song that I love: “Sleepwalker” by Julie Byrne is a gentle masterpiece, as is the rest of her album Not Even Happiness. But if what you’re looking for is happiness, then listen to “Set It Free” by Now, Now. It sounds like a perfect summer day (and also kind of like Tom Petty gone emo).

A good recommendation I recently received: My dear friend Nathalie convinced me to start watching Letterkenny. It’s a Canadian comedy about a fictional town in rural Ontario, where cliques of farmers, burnouts, hockey players, and Native residents of a nearby reservation clash over petty small-town dramas—but also help and support one another when it counts. What’s most fun about the show is its dialogue: The characters delight in wordplay, and they draw on a sprawling glossary of Canadian slang and in-jokes for long scenes of linguistic silliness. I find myself quoting the show all the time. See: “Pitter patter,” which means “Let’s go!” [Related: The dirtbag is back.]

An author I will read anything by: I’ve been slowly working my way through Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s books since I read and loved Mexican Gothic a few years ago. I’m in awe of her creativity and versatility; she writes across a wide range of genres—gothic horror, noir, historical-fantasy romance—and seems to nail every one.

A poem, or line of poetry, that I return to: “Wish,” by W. S. Merwin:

Please one more

kiss in the kitchen

before we turn the lights off

I have a print of it, in Merwin’s handwriting, framed in my apartment (near the kitchen). In just three lines, it says pretty much everything about what really matters in this too-short life. [Related: The poet of premature endings]

Read past editions of the Culture Survey with Faith Hill, Derek Thompson, Tom Nichols, Amy Weiss-Meyer, Kaitlyn Tiffany, Bhumi Tharoor, and Amanda Mull.

The Week Ahead
  1. Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, a book by the writer Claire Dederer that wrestles with the question of how to enjoy good art by bad people (on sale Tuesday)
  2. Iconic America, an eight-part docuseries that explores American history through a close examination of its national symbols (premieres Wednesday on PBS at 9 p.m. ET)
  3. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, the film adaptation of Judy Blume’s beloved 1970 novel (in theaters Friday)

Alice Birch
Clémentine Schneidermann for The Atlantic

The Most Quietly Radical Writer on Television

By Sophie Gilbert

Until she was 5 years old, Alice Birch lived in a commune in the Malvern Hills, a bucolic area in the west of England known for bluebell woods and wandering poets. It was, she recalls, quite low-key for a commune, “not culty, not wild”—just a 19th-century redbrick country house with orchards and vegetable gardens and adults trying to live out their collectivist ideals. At night, the whole group ate together around a big round table, and Birch would listen quietly as people talked. Though everyone was broadly left-leaning, she remembers a good amount of disagreement; she couldn’t always understand what was being talked about, but she felt the tension, the crackle of ideas sparking as they met in the air.

“That’s theater,” she told me last month, sitting at a table inside London’s National Theatre. Before Birch became a highly prized film and television writer, she was a playwright—“There’s no one better,” the woman in the theater bookstore told me, her eyes glinting, as I picked up some of Birch’s plays—and throughout her work, the dinner table is often where everything kicks off. In the smash TV adaptation of Normal People that she co-wrote with Sally Rooney, a shady alfresco lunch in Italy turns into an eruption of emotional violence. [Blank], a 2019 play that premiered at London’s Donmar Warehouse, features a 45-minute scene called “Dinner Party,” in which a gathering over meze is interrupted by cocaine dealers, wine deliveries, and eventually a child wielding a baseball bat.

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