Melissa Mesku

Pushcart-nominated essayist with work in National Geographic, Guernica, Creative Nonfiction, and dozens of print and digital magazines.

Creator of the recursive literary publication ➰➰➰. Founding editor of New Worker Magazine which ran from 2013–2020.

Right now I'm in goblin mode while I finish writing a novel. I'm also starting to put together a guide for teenagers to retire at 18 with no money, avoid work, pursue their calling, and pay it off by age 30—I did it and it's replicable. I also have a handwritten Substack taken from 20+ years of journals.

I'm a self-taught software engineer and have spent the past decade building websites and applications for major brands. I'm now a mentor and software engineering manager. Portfolio now archived.

Formerly I was an entrepreneur and ran a company from 2010 until it burned down in a California wildfire in 2018. Before that I was a high school teacher for refugee and immigrant students, with a teaching certificate from Cambridge and certification in Texas. Before that I helped co-found a housing cooperative non-profit, and ran the English program at a non-profit language school, and a bunch of other stuff besides. I graduated magna cum laude from UC Berkeley with a degree in rhetoric and in natural resource conservation, lived/worked in 5 countries and 7 U.S. states, traveled extensively in 35 countries. If you can't tell, I've had way too many answers for what I want to do with my life.

Bring me serendipity. I love talking to passionate people who know they can do whatever they want in this wide world. I also like talking to people who suspect that might be true and want to test it out. I especially encourage you to reach out if your interests overlap mine (indigenous land and forestry, anti-work, zero waste and closed loop systems, utopias real and imagined; experimental and intentional communities, and lately, relational modalities, meditation) or if my experience is relevant to you. Book time with me here. 💋

Writing



Restoring the Ship of Theseus

Is a paradox still the same after all its parts have been replaced?

Lapham’s Quarterly 2019

A philosophical investigation tracing Plutarch to Hobbes and Locke; Ai Weiwei dropping a Han Dynasty urn forever; copycat art vandalism; Maggie Nelson borrowing Roland Barthes’ Argo (which he got wrong); kintsugi pottery repair, Katamari Damacy.

🏆 Cited in Shipwreck Hauntography (Amsterdam University Press, 2021)

🏆 Read aloud by the Curio platform

Two thousand years later the Ship of Theseus paradox is still bobbing along, though it often appears by other names. One example is attributed to Enlightenment philosopher John Locke: the so-called “John Locke’s Sock paradox.” An exhibit at the now-defunct Museum of Philosophy illustrated it with a series of socks, each more patched than the last. It appears in teaching texts like Philosophy for Dummies, and an episode of The Good Place had “Locke—Parable of the Sock” scrawled across a classroom chalkboard. References to John Locke’s socks even outnumber news reports of a sock puppetry scandal involving a contemporary author named John Locke.

Its sheer popularity might be enough to enshrine it, except for one small problem. Scholars are unable to locate any references to socks in Locke’s work. Locke discussed many questions of identity, but apparently left his garments out of it. This might be enough reason to retire the sock version once and for all. It might also explain why none of the John Locke socks you can buy on Etsy have either holes or patches.

Read at Lapham’s Quarterly

Latinx Heritage Month

Who do you complain to when it’s HR you have a problem with?

Creative Nonfiction 2021

The doublespeak in corporate diversity initiatives; on being the ethnicity of the month; having to highlight your difference but make that difference undifferentiated.

🏆 Nominated for the Pushcart Prize

The photo editor works at the desk next to mine. I’ve often watched her remove high-res blemishes from patches of skin so zoomed in you can’t even tell it’s a face. On her screen right now is a thousand-pixel expanse of brown.

In the future, there’ll be an app for that—one that lives in your eye, letting you see people as unblemished, corrected. We could call it Mote. No—Beam.

Then I think—no. No one wants to see other people as perfect. They just want themselves to be seen as perfect.

It dawns on me that racism works like a shitty app. It is software that installs a mote, a beam in the eye. It runs in the background, and occasionally sends push notifications. No one deletes it because everyone else is still using it.

Read at Creative Nonfiction

Escaping Paradise

My family’s attempt to escape the deadliest fire in California history

Guernica 2019

The 2018 Camp Fire in Northern California; escaping the town of Paradise, CA that burned to the ground; how to drive through flames and black smoke.

🏆 Anthologized in McGraw Hill’s upcoming 2024 Power of Process essay composition textbook

“Hurtling into darkness, on the train home I read the news of the first reported deaths. Five found on Edgewood Lane, immolated in their cars. I know Edgewood Lane. It’s the only street that connects to my parents’ dirt road.”

My sister texts me, “Finally heard from mom. Still stuck in gridlock, in the flames. The house is probably gone.”

At first I don’t know what she’s talking about, but then I remember: even though it’s November, it’s still wildfire season. Since my parents and little sister moved to Paradise fifteen years ago, they’ve had to evacuate multiple times. My mom keeps boxes next to the front door labeled FIRE for things like her checkbook and my grandma’s tortilla recipes. Keepsakes are permanently stored in a hauler by the road, ready to be hitched.

I call my sister back while panic-Googling “California wildfire news.” I learn its name just as she picks up. “Camp Fire,” I say.

“More like hellfire,” she answers.

Read at Guernica

Around the U.S. National Parks in 5 Books

Travel with me on a literary tour through our remaining wild lands

National Geographic 2018

Taking in the Everglades, Saguaro, Canyonlands, Arches, Yosemite, and Mesa Verde National Parks.

🏆 Included in Great America

Canyonlands rivals the Grand Canyon when it comes to vistas, yet the park receives a fraction of the visitors. It’s the kind of place you can hear a hawk take to the wind, or watch in silence as the sun falls over miles of pastel bluff. The inherent value of being able to experience open land this way is what Wallace Stegner extolled in his 1960 “Wilderness Letter,” which helped get Canyonlands designated just four years later.

But the writer most often associated with the region is Edward Abbey, the beer-drinking, iconoclastic patron saint of nearby Arches National Park. The two writers, whose very different philosophical and environmental legacies have marked this part of the West, are the subject of All The Wild That Remains, part biography, part travelogue, part meditation on the last of the wild West.

Read at National Geographic

Jade Sharma, Her Irreverence, Her Audacity

Remembering the author of Problems

LitHub2020

Author Jade Sharma had the audacity to die at the age of 39, in July 2019. When I found out Jade had “fucking died,” as her editor Ruth Curry put it, I compulsively went back through our texts and emails. I was plagued with a question. It wasn’t how; I was pretty sure how. It wasn’t why exactly, either. Then I picked up Problems and read it again.

“What, really, are we doing—what the fuck is this life, what is it for, where is it going? What really matters, and what do we do? I only trust people who are addled by this question, even when I fucking hate their answer.”

The night I met Jade Sharma, I saw her verbally shit all over the guest of the evening, Paul Auster, at a literary event in New York. From the back of the audience, she stood and assailed him at length over a minor point related to Beckett. Look, she said witheringly, I studied Beckett. I mean, I’m sure you know stuff—they, like, paid you to come here and talk, but… It was incredibly rude, totally uncalled for. I liked her immediately.

What had drawn so many to her and her critically acclaimed novel was a caustic wit that might repel anyone else. Here is Maya, the female narrator of Problems, on women: “Imagine the voice-over in a car commercial… ‘The female body, luxurious and roomy, can accommodate three cocks and three babies at full capacity.’” On marriage: “Sometimes I thought the only natural ending to our relationship would be a homicide/suicide. Anything else would feel like a letdown.” On heroin: “High. Walked down the street like I had a cock. Like the city was my bitch and I was fucking it in the ass.”

And yet, Problems is a gentle book. It is plainspoken, funny, wise, and bears none of the audacity of its irreverent narrator. If anything, it’s about the interiority of an intelligent woman losing her grip on life. For Maya—for Jade—the questions of love and life are exploded. Everyone’s the wiser for it, but everyone is a casualty.

Read at LitHub

Multitudes

Translating strange loops in Douglas Hofstadter’s strange loops of translation

➰➰➰2019

Coding a way to switch pronouns in a text; exact translations that don’t exactly translate; natively genderless pronouns in Finnish; feeling like a bigot when I trip over ze/zir; how to scaffold unweildy complexity; is there room for the singular pronoun, “I,” to be made plural?

🏆 Monograph appears in The Strange Loops of Translation (Bloomsbury, 2022)

It occurred to me there was something I could do. I could create, with some code, a way for readers to switch the pronouns in Douglas Robinson’s text. It would remove the cognitive load of translating in place. And it would let me get around potentially embarassing myself with the esteemed professor.

Before I got a chance to reach out to Robinson with my idea, he sent me another draft. This kind of exploded my plan. The new draft also used genderless pronouns throughout, but instead of the original singular ze/zir for Hofstadter, he went with the plural they/them—and then added a new layer of complexity by pluralizing the very notion of the individual and even created a new lexical structure to convey it (yes, pluralizing the word “I”).

The final outcome, for Robinson’s “The Strange Loops of Translation,” was that we worked together to create a switch whereby the reader can choose to toggle the pronouns. In pedagogy, scaffolding is the practice of using tools and aids to accommodate students where they’re at so they can engage meaningfully in lessons that would otherwise be beyond their understanding. Consider this a scaffold to help aid the uninitiated in navigating a dense text that gets at the heart of how meaning is made, and lost, in translation.

Read at ➰➰➰

A Tour of the World’s Most Enchanting Libraries

From monasteries to royal reading rooms, travel with me to these majestic libraries

National Geographic 2017

A researched photo essay detailing 23 renowned libraries around the world, photographed by Massimo Listri.

It has been said that reading books is surreal: You stare at marked slices of tree for hours on end, hallucinating vividly. Book lovers, therefore, are a strange bunch. They spend hours by themselves, escaping this world and immersing themselves in another. The variety of their worlds is as limitless as human knowledge. It’s a wonder that any one thing would bring these solitary souls together—until you consider the library.

Perhaps no institution in society holds as much promise as libraries do. For ancient monks, libraries were the repository of sacred knowledge; for early scientists, they made possible technical advancements and medical cures. The advent of the modern public library represents the greatest aspiration for civil society—namely that people would want to read and broaden their horizons.

Read at National Geographic

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Oblivious, with Brown Hair   (print)

Math 2018

Creative nonfiction. Putting aside Marcuse and Habermas in pursuit of sex; Gauloises Bleues; obsession; the station at Bajcsy-Zsilinszky in Budapest.

When the lecture ended, in his frumpy sweater and ill-fitting slacks, he edged his way out of the auditorium. There was a fundamental awkwardness to his gestures, an angularity. It almost seemed like doubt—as though he weren't entirely sure whether his arms, his legs, were to be trusted.

Neither were mine. I had to force myself to wait until he had left the building. Then I let myself get up. Out on the street, my eyes were starved. I took off past the Szechenyi Bridge toward Váci Utca.

As I meandered I got progressively more disoriented; labyrinthine streets unfurled and little landmarks vanished when I turned around. I thought about my desire to lose myself in the streets and how little it carried over into the rest of my life. This crush disturbed me. I was glad the sky was turning to night—the way I felt made more sense in the dark.

Read at Math

The Financial Aid Loophole That Cost Me Thousands

I was on merit scholarships and need-based grants—then the scholarships cancelled out the grants

The Billfold 2017

The absurd ins and outs of Federal financial aid reporting that often negate merit scholarships for the poorest students.

🏆 Cited in support of a bill that passed legislation

“Every year parents and students pin their hopes on third party scholarships. But for students on need-based financial aid, that money actually works against them.”

As it turns out, the amounts in grants I was, well, granted, would indeed have been higher were it not for the scholarships. As a low-income student, I qualified for the full amount of available state and federal grants. But I received less grant money than I qualified for because of the scholarships. The way they calculate it, the scholarships lowered my need, so I qualified for less grant money. The scholarships I had worked so hard for ended up canceling out my need-based grants dollar for dollar.

So where would my scholarship money be going? Apparently to some combination of the federal government and the school itself. There would be no payout—not to me at least. Huh?

I ditched class to spend the next day in the waiting room at the financial aid office. It was like any classroom, students nodding off in antique chairs, except when they woke up they were confronted with a bail-bonds-waiting-room level of anxiety.

Read at The Billfold

The Silent Refugee

It’s possible to not have a country. But is it possible to not have a language?

Mask Magazine2015

Creative nonfiction, a story from my days as a high school teacher. A student of unknown origin becomes a tabula rasa until she can speak for herself.

“I kept coming back to the possibility that this girl might live in a completely unintelligible reality. I tried to imagine an inchoate mind grasping but having nothing to hold on to.”

I handed her a pencil and asked again with my sweetest teacher voice. She limply held the center of the pencil in her fist and made no indication that she knew what I was saying. I was annoyed—how do I announce her to the class if I don’t even know her name? But a bigger thought shut me up. What if something’s really wrong—what if she can’t talk at all?

I’d heard some crazy stories since I’d started teaching. Some of the worst were from our Lost Boys, the umbrella term for the 20,000 Sudanese boys who traveled thousands of miles escaping soldiers, lions, and starvation until they chanced upon U.N. camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. The Lost Boys are said to be the most severely war-traumatized children in history, and I had a number of them in my class. Though I’d never met one, there had to be “lost girls,” too. Might she be one?

Read at Mask Magazine

R*d Sc*re

The podcast that shall not be named

➰➰➰2019

The politics of nuance in a polarized agora; self-censorship; weighing a “socially responsible” left Straussian impulse against true social responsibility; online mobs and hills one might die on.

“Nuance. I have it, you have it, yet where is it? Whenever it is spoken, it is not heard. Nonstandard opinions. I have them, you have them, yet where are they? The moment they are uttered, they’re lumped into pre-existing binary categories. Everything is either good or evil, left or right, woke or bigoted.”

For as often as the podcast is discussed, particularly on Twitter, it is rarely mentioned by name. When people talk about it, they omit letters by spelling it “r*d sc*re.” It is absent in places its presence would be expected, lending to the sense that Red Scare is something of a specter, a presence defined by its own absence.

It’s ironic, as the term “red scare” refers to the hysteria in the U.S. surrounding the fear of communism, whereas what we have now is a hysteria surrounding the fear of coming off across as a closet conservative, a racist, a bigot, an alt-right cryptofascist, or simply not woke enough. The acerbic hosts of the Red Scare podcast deliberately mock this hysteria. Their show is positioned squarely within the left, in allegiance and in critique. But in our era of “you’re either with us or against us,” their mockery is regularly misread as an allegiance to its opposite. This disavowal is McCarthyism by another name, but conducted as a leisure-time activity by a well-meaning public.

Read at ➰➰➰

Getting Off On Entrepreneurship Porn

And getting off of entrepreneurship porn

New Worker2014

How business journalism glorified entrepreneurs to absurdity; sex metaphor LOLs; oh elusive success!—so much easier to just stare at a glossy magazine spread and imagine I already have it.

“There is only one subjective experience, that of the big swinging dick. Everyone else is an object. No thought is given to how the thing gets made. Certainly no thought is given to who gets fucked.”

Fast Company, Inc, Entrepreneur: it’s all porn. The stars that grace their covers titillate us with their fetishized activities, from the pivot—an invigorating change in thrust—to the Silicon Valley money shot, the big IPO. Every act entrepreneurs engage in has received a flattering centerfold; even “failure” has been upcycled to now conjure the image of an experienced man of the world. At the center of it all is the successful entrepreneur: the powerful and ever-ready stunt cock. Following the pornography 1.0 model, we’re not looking at a prick we want, we’re looking at a prick we want to be. The entrepreneur is the dick we are supposed to identify with through envy. The world he dwells in—at least what little we glimpse of it—is intended to reflect a deep-seated fantasy of our own.

My first notion of this came one Saturday night while I was reading Fast Co alone on the couch. I had that moment every young, virile person has on a Saturday night, which is Really, is this what I’m doing on a Saturday night? My answer was a frustrated Yes. I’m reading Fast Company because I am going to own a fast company one day, goddamn it! (I already fucking owned a company, it just wasn’t a fast one. Have you heard of the slow food movement? It was like that, but without the food.)

Read at New Worker Magazine

That’s a Good Idea

Precarity and the profit motive

Institute of Network Cultures2017

Frederick Taylor’s scientific management techniques from the early 20th c.; now that everyone’s their own boss, it’s just us exploiting ourselves; a drinking game for the entrepreneur-proletariat.

🏆 Included in The Pervasive Labor Union (2017) by Silvio Lorusso

Kill me, everyone is full of good business ideas. At my local pub, I’ve seen patrons offer the bartender cash if he’ll wear their Fitbits while he works up and down the bar. My local cafe, where I keep spare keys for my Airbnb guests, is now turning the key thing into a side business. Actually, these are shitty business ideas. But they’re good enough to build a business around, probably. At the very least, I can see how these ideas could become a thing. If I don’t do them, and they don’t do them, I’m sure someone else will. Then they’ll have the cash and the cred, and I’ll just have what I have right now—debt and regret.

Not so long ago, a good idea was nothing more than a throw-away thought. That your bartender should wear your Fitbit so your insurance company thinks you’re exercising—it’s a joke; at best you might earn a laugh between pints. But with precarity shifting us toward the entrepreneurial, a good idea is now more than an idea: it’s an injunction. To put it in the parlance of Andy Warhol: in the future, everyone will be an entrepreneur for fifteen minutes. Not because it’s cool, but because it’s fucking necessary.

Read from the Entreprecariat at Institute of Network Cultures

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Clarice Lispector and Experiments with White Heat

Stalking inspiration with pen and paper

Gulf Coast 2018

Água Viva by Clarice Lispector; flash floods of euphoria turn to waterlogged prose; paper is a feeble catchment device.

🏆 Gulf Coast’s guest blog, Winter 2018

The text was too slippery. There was nothing to hold on to. No characters, no plot. Just flashes of illumination waterlogged by amorphous prose. I was moved, but it wasn’t clear to where.

Since then, I’ve learned I am not the only one with a white heat novella in the closet. Some of my closest friends have written uncannily similar things. Only, it wasn’t the zeitgeist uniting us, nor the rudiments of what we’d been taught. It was accidental. We each, alone, had had a mystifying liminal experience and chose to pursue it in writing. We each created our own lexicon, parameters, process. Some were wild like mine; others, less jarring. Yet, for the infinitude of possibility, the work we produced is disturbingly similar.

In plotless pursuit of the intangible, we were on to something, stalking the ineffable. I suspect it is not achievable, for its very nature may preclude the possibility, but to me that makes the documenting of it all the more significant. What pursuit is more worthy of words than trying to locate the source behind them?

Read at Gulf Coast

The Pastor and Marguerite

Finding faith, losing it and—well, losing it

Hobart2019

Creative nonfiction, Southern California noir. In the shadow of a mercurial friend; Sassy magazine, Jared Leto, sneaking out; hardcore and pop punk; questionably Christian virginity.

“In her steel toe boots, she stomped and lunged into the guys, trying to start a mosh pit. Every time Marguerite jumped, I darted in the space she opened up.”

A week before summer break, Marguerite stopped coming to school. Our friends Anna and Nazanin figured she was just ditching class. But when I summoned the courage to ditch alone, I couldn’t find her. The grocery store where we stole all our makeup—she wasn’t there. The orange groves where kids went to fuck or smoke meth was full of garbage and couches—no Marguerite.

When yearbooks went on sale, my mom gave me forty dollars. I’d put the money in my locker, which was kind of dumb because Marguerite also had the combination. But when I went to get it, the cash was still there, tucked in my P.E. shoe. I should have been relieved, but I panicked. If Marguerite didn’t steal the money, it meant she really was gone.

On the last day of class, Nazanin found me and told me the news. “She hasn’t been ditching. She got pulled out of school—by her Dad. He sent her to a Christian camp.”

Read at Hobart

Bright Houses   (print)

Casas Brillantes

Carve 2018

Creative nonfiction, Southern California noir. The vague unease of suburban tract housing; hanging out with white people in Mexico; lacking history vs. feeling ahistorical.

I had a slightly irrational fear that I might not recognize my home from all the others—that I’d ring the doorbell of some other house and they’d let me in thinking I was their child. Part of the fear was the strange sense that it wouldn’t matter. That it would be OK to just live in a different house with a different family because, out here in the suburbs, it’s all the same.

Given enough time and gravity, trajectories can become orbits. They—we—will center around something, even if it looks like there’s nothing in the middle.

Read an interview about this piece at Carve

The Queer Business of Naming and Being Named

On Words Without Borders’ annual issue

New South2018

An examination of three works that stretch the bounds of language to capture vastly different notions of personhood and identity.

“The war has left its mark on the soldiers, and the narrator’s own name—changing from Jibran to Miran, or Uftan, then to Zabdan, Shahman, Kashamshan—may itself be read as an effect, not just of the broader war, but of his private one.”

Nhã Thuyên presents a compelling portrait of someone while avoiding labeling the someone with any pronoun at all. Such a thing could be done by allowing the subject to speak in their own voice, resting within their own genderless and unspecific “I,” but that is not what transpires here. In one breathless sentence, Thuyên presents two characters: a narrator and another person, referred to as “that one.” Translated from the Vietnamese, a word central to this work—hắn—has no English equivalent. Hắn, “a third-person-singular and gender-neutral term that remains both familiar and human,” sounds innocuous enough. In its place, this translation relies on the repeated use of “that one.” Those words, while technically neutral, in this work take on a strong connotation of disdain, of the violence of denying someone their subjectivity. It is fitting, as Thuyên’s construction with every word ultimately negates the both of them. Thuyên’s “Nihilism” indicates there are many synonyms for the proper noun, even if you’re not one of them.

Read at New South

What it Means to Compete as an Artist

Seeing clearly when your business is personal

Big Cartel2017

The hell that is your personal brand doing battle with other people’s personal brands, and how to focus on your own shit and avoid the drama.

🏆 Commissioned for Big Cartel’s artists in business series

When I was first starting out, it was inspiring to see many other people running their own online businesses. It felt like a whisper of encouragement: Surely if all these people can do it, I can too!

That chipper tone didn’t last long. After launching a project, our initial fanbase bought from us, but soon after sales dried up. Knowing there were so many others like me trying to sell stuff online now became a source of worry. How am I going to compete against all these people?

If you’ve ever stressed about how you stack up against the competition, good. It’s an important question. But it’s a pretty hard one to answer.

Read at Big Cartel

The Solo Woman’s Guide to the Ultimate Southwest Road Trip   (out of print)

Itineraries for 5-, 8-, and 13-day solo trips

On She Goes (Wieden+Kennedy)2017

A tour through my favorite places in the Southwest, like the one-horse village of Mexican Hat on the Utah border just up from Monument Valley. Let the Swinging Steak dude fix you dinner on the side of the highway and stay at a Native-owned motel backed against Valley of The Gods for fifty bucks.

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#155: The Pretenders

On Chrissie Hynde and the first Pretenders album

The Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums of All Time2017

A tour through the classic album, and the rollicking story of how Chrissie Hynde came to be; on almost joining Devo, then The Damned, then The Clash; trying to marry Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious for papers; turns out Chrissie is a hell of a writer.

“Hynde’s attitude arrives fully formed; in three separate tracks on this record she’s telling someone to shut up.”

Before the band, before the punk scene, was the gig she landed writing at NME. The second assignment she secured was, of all things, to interview Brian Eno.

It’s worth a read; she’s an incredible writer. In her conversation with him, Eno explained an interesting phenomenon. “I'm always prone to do things very quickly, which has distinct advantages—you leave all the mistakes in, and the mistakes always become interesting. Any feature can be the most important one—as long as there is one. There are so many bands who present you with a large number of well-done features, none of which are important.”

The conversation with Eno made me rethink my assessment of Pretenders. If there is one feature that makes the album stand out, it’s Hynde’s voice: its strange vibrato, its keening sound. It bruised, and once heard, it stayed with you. As she wrote in her memoir, “Distinctive voices in rock are trained through years of many things: frustration, fear, loneliness, anger, insecurity, arrogance, narcissism, or just sheer perseverance—anything but a teacher.”

Read at The RS 500

My Own Private El Paso

Daydreaming of the Southwest

L’Éphémère Review2019

Creative nonfiction. Shuttling my bones across the desert floor; lone stars, billboards, Gatorade bottles of piss; canyonlands, Four Corners, and the bit of Texas that butts halfway into New Mexico like a bad neighbor.

🏆 Nominated for Best of the Net

“Where a discarded microwave along the roadside could bloom into an O’Keeffian orchid or a pockmarked valley could appear as the spilled sands of time.”

I drove this way and that without a map, letting weird signs guide my path. I chose destinations by the strangeness of their names, chose directions based on passing clouds. Or I’d just drive, ending up wherever I ended up. The car doubled as a bed when I felt too cheap and depraved to spring for a neon motel or when there were none in sight.

From Needles to Roswell, everywhere was a nowhere of a slightly different variety. In the last stretch, I stayed in an airstream in Truth or Consequences. I didn’t intend to, but I spent a week lazing the days away along the Rio Grande with a drunk couple in their seventies who had just met at a casino last month and got married. It seemed the kind of place where you might do that. The entirety of the desert was a bizarre dreamland where anything might happen, where fucked up elderly people might fall in love and start anew, where you might get abducted, addicted, evicted, or just show up in some ghost town and change your name. On a long drive around the Very Large Array, listening to static, the radio faded in and I heard an advertisement: land, $150 an acre. No roads, no water, no electricity, just land, as cheap and plentiful as you like. The Southwest is the last nowhere in America, the last canvas where all our nothingness might fit.

Read at L’Éphémère Review

Quantifying Serendipity

Toward a methodology

New Worker Magazine2016

Serendipity is by nature accidental, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying to chase it and business from trying to capitalize on it. I throw in my own account of how optimizing for seredipity led me to more than chance delights, but a full-fledged career.

“Serendipity is when you accidentally stumble upon something great, particularly in a place you weren’t looking. It’s a lot like luck: for it to be serendipitous, it’s got to be a good thing and it’s got to be unplanned.”

For all that has been said about serendipity, even within the context of coworking and business, little has given way toward a systematic understanding of how it works and how it might be measured.

Business in particular would do well to know. If studies existed to show such things, we’d probably find that serendipity is responsible for, oh, maybe a hundred percent of innovation, breakthrough discoveries, game-changing insights and other desirable yet unplannable outcomes. (Isn’t that what techies in Silicon Valley are hoping to find when they drop acid at work?) Serendipity plays a significant role that will become increasingly obvious to the business world in time, at which point we can expect all number of ham-fisted corporate attempts to institutionalize this nuanced, delicate phenomenon. In the meantime, those ahead of the curve are beginning to articulate how serendipity takes place and explore how to create environments that court it.

Read at New Worker Magazine

No Turning Back

Protesting at the second inauguration of George W. Bush

Mask Magazine2016

The intimacy of staring your political adversaries in the face; collective memory is the mob of the mind; the logic of the arena; how battle lines get drawn.

“Here the battle lines of partisanship have already been drawn. Even if she and I have the emotional depth to make a nuanced assessment of each other, it will not happen here. The environment is too charged, the hostilities too high.”

We were there to stage a massive protest called Turn Your Back on Bush. I would be among many yet mostly alone, in with thousands of ticket-holding Bush supporters on the capitol lawn to see the president get sworn in. I would turn my back during Bush’s inaugural address, and only then when more bodies had turned would it become clear who the other protesters were. I imagined we’d then send each other knowing glances and that I would have that feeling of being part of something I was proud of.

When the president began to speak, I knew it was time. I turned around.

Have you ever considered what it means to face history? It sounds grandiose, but once I turned, I knew its face. So do you; we see it all the time. It is a face whose mind is made up. It looks like a crowd, a mass, a mob, uncountable thousands becoming a single thing one order of magnitude larger than we can grapple with, the infinite minds of an infinite number of people all melding into a single rigid shape.

Read at Mask Magazine

Chola Makeup

An object lesson in the art of becoming

The Hairpin2017

How to segregate by race when you’re mixed race; punks, cholas, and other options in the all-you-can-eat teenage rebellion buffet; Hood-era Gwen Stefani; girl gangs; when a girl takes off her hoop earrings, you know it’s on.

“If I wanted to be fierce and intimidating, wouldn’t a bare-faced female who doesn’t give a shit about makeup or identity be the fiercest of all?”

With their dark lipstick, vicious eyeliner and big permed hair, the chola girls at my school were by far the most iconic and fierce. Their look, an integral part of their whole attitude, represented something I still worship in women: the ability to simultaneously be gorgeous and scare the shit out of people. As a scrawny half-Mexican twelve-year-old, it was something to aspire to.

I was nearly there, maybe. My chola friends had already given me a nickname, the misspelled Flacka. When we weren’t ditching school together and tagging walls, we were passing notes in class full of gossip and fake calligraphy. It was all very innocent now, but I knew that when I got older I would be expected to fight, prove my worth, and get jumped into the gang they were trying to join—an exhilarating prospect that filled me with cold dread.

Read at The Hairpin

Twenty Years of June Twenty-Firsts

In which Essay Daily asked “What Happened on June 21st” and I provided 20 years of personal answers

Essay Daily2018

Geoff Dyer, after reading through one of his old journals, wrote, “How funny to end up being one’s own biographer, to have to resort to the kind of research required by writing someone else’s life”—easy for me because I’ve kept a record of every day of my life for over twenty years—bam!

🏆 Anthologized in What Happened on June 21st (New Michigan Press, 2018)

🏆 Guest on the Essay Daily Podcast

On this day in 1998, A fragment of a quote from Kafka—something about how he’d rather have a page of good writing than a day of beauty. I remember thinking: man, I love you, but you are as wrong as the day is long—and it’s the solstice...

On this day in 2003, I studied Hungarian while my roommate was out, went to a meeting about the housing co-op we were starting, and then packed up to go to Sacramento for a direct action and a march. I remember hiding my language studies because it felt immoral, shameful, to spend time learning esoteric things while a war was on. I consoled myself knowing that one day, after I made myself effective in fighting the system, I’d have plenty of time in prison to fritter away studying agglutinative languages...

On this day in 2009, I was living in my car again, somewhere in New Mexico...

There is one reason to document your days: to honor your life. It’s a bottle thrown to sea. Should it come back, it will sound familiar but distant, like an echo or a shell pressed to the ear.

Read the anthology from Essay Daily

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Experimental


Mood Lighting

Fanzine 2018

Sapir and Whorf

Unlost Journal 2017

The Case for Negligence

Vagabond City 2019

The Flaw

RIC Journal 2019

Talking to Strangers

Gravel 2015

4pm at Café Septième

Souvenir 2016

In All Caps

Longridge Review 2015

Dead in the Eye

Flapperhouse 2018

Zapatistas of Berkeley

The Collapsar 2016



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I’ve appeared on CBS This Morning, CNBC, and in AM New York, Business Insider, The Cut, Fast Company, Levo, MarketWatch, Money, More, MSN, and USA Today.

My writing has been syndicated, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and will be anthologized in a McGraw Hill textbook in 2024. My most recent literary interview on air was in August 2019 on the Essay Daily podcast, and my most recent literary interview in print was in the Summer 2018 issue of Carve. When I lived in New York I’d sometimes read my work, most recently at Ditmas Lit. Long before that, I had a speaking career that took me to universities across the US.

In my role in coworking and the future of work, I’ve been interviewed by Coworking Europe, Deskmag, NY Tech, Shareable, Social Workplaces, and on a number of podcasts. My last interview about “work” was in April 2018 in Optix’s Future of Work series. Most of my “future of work” work is thankfully in the past.

In my role as a random person hellbent on overcoming barriers, I was selected by Michelle Obama to appear in a feature she guest-edited (about first-generation college graduates) in print magazine More. I’ve talked in a bunch of places, Vandal’s Curious World probably being the most interesting to listen to, and Courtney Martin’s book The New Better Off: Reinventing The American Dream (2016) the most interesting to read.

I can be found on twitter but it’s a little bit like a dead mall there now so just email me at email[at]melissamesku.com or book time with me to talk. I’m also on Substack.

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