Book Club

A Turn of Phrase.

By: Jen Shoop

I took a long stroll through Central Park with a lovely woman (ahem, a badass lawyer and mom and all-around kind person) I met through this blog.***  As we pushed our babies through the park, trading stories and experiences about being new moms juggling careers and marriages and the curiosities and ailments of our children, she mentioned that she loves the way I write about Mr. Magpie–that she feels similarly about her husband, and that she relates dearly to the dynamic I capture.  I thought on this for a few days, as I don’t feel that I dedicate a lot of blog space specifically to Mr. Magpie, aside from this love letter to him, which I occasionally reread and which invariably leaves me tearful.  (Two sisters texted me after reading it, and one wrote: “I read your post.  I cried a lot.  Like a lot a lot.”  The other wrote: “You captured him perfectly.  But never write that again.  [SOBBING EMOJI FACE.])  But there’s no mistake: he’s woven in throughout, so often the reasonable anchor to my recountings of the emotional vicissitudes of a 30-something woman still learning to become an adult.  It led me to wonder about the other people and beliefs and forces in my life that operate similarly in this writing outpost, whose presence casts long shadows over my self-expressions.

***If you also live in New York, please be sure to scroll to the bottom!

****Unrelated, but the simple letterpress cards above are from this Etsy shop.

And one of those has to be — must be — language.  My longtime, occasionally combative, romance with language.

I’ve written about how I’ll occasionally reach for a turn of phrase purely out of aesthetic interests, without completely understanding the import.

How I recoil in disgust from overly-used pop-lit phrases like “the lip curl” (scroll down to the #turbothot; another one I hate?  “Plop” as a verb — as in, “she plopped down on the couch.”  How unseemly!  Never describe me as plopping onto anything, pls and thank you.)

How language can be used to fence me in and out.

But there’s another class of language that I obsess over: the turns of phrases I’ve picked up in conversation with people far more eloquent than I.  I’ll hear someone use an elegant expression in the middle of conversation, and I’ll gravitate towards it, magpie-like, picking it up tenderly, turning it over, carrying it back into the nest for future use.  I’ll wonder when I might be able to parade it around in the future, and then wait, cautiously, to see whether people express any modicum of emotion at its debut in my lexicon.  There are a few phrases that spring to mind when I think about this category of speech:

+”My privilege.”  Just after my c-section, my mother cared for me in the most humbling of ways.  She helped me step into underwear.  She helped me breast-feed mini.  She held my hand.  She smoothed my hair.  She folded down the sheets of my bedding every night.  (Ah, my.  I can’t write that without my eyes welling up: the thought of her quietly going to my bedroom, turning on the bedside table lamp, folding down the bedding for me.  What selfless kindnesses I have been privy to in my life at the hands of this woman!)  At one point, I asked her to do something truly embarrassing for me — I can’t remember if it was purchasing milk of magnesium or picking up a dirty tissue I couldn’t bend over to pick up — and I said, “I’m so sorry you have to do these things for me.”  And she said: “My pleasure — no, my privilege.”  I was gobsmacked by this phrase.  I was also thrilled when, a few months later, my sister gave birth and invited me into the hospital room to meet my new nephew, and she kept thanking me and apologizing for the brevity of the stay, and I was able to say: “This is my privilege.”

+”I’m so sorry you have to go through this.”  I was relaying to my sister-in-law the ins and outs of deciding whether to have a scheduled c-section when I discovered that mini was breech — I had to decide, in 24 hours, whether I wanted to try a cephalic version, where the doctor attempts to manually flip the baby around by pushing on your belly and leaving you, in the words of my doctor, “a little beat up.”  The procedure requires an epidural and has about a 50% success rate.  It was either this, or resigning myself to a scheduled c-section to avoid the stress and discomfort of a procedure that might not work.  My sister-in-law, who has had multiple c-sections and knew what was on the other side of the decision, chose not to lecture or share her experience or offer a perspective.  Instead, she said: “I’m so sorry you have to go through this.  Whatever decision you make is the right one.”  I’ve long loved her for that unobtrusive and empathetic turn of phrase, and have used it dozens of times when I want to show my support but not advance a perspective.  I’ve had friends going through IVF, major illnesses, serious career changes, and challenges with spouses, and I have no idea what to say to them, not having been there myself.  I don’t know whether to say, “Damn, this sucks” or “Let’s be optimistic!!!”, and I find the kind, calm empathy of an “I’m so sorry you have to go through this” walks the perfect line between them.

+”Pain is pain is pain.”  I’ve written about this before, but one of my dear friends had a truly traumatic, near-death birth experience when bringing her daughter into the world.  Months later, I had the callousness to mention that I’d found the recovery from mini’s c-section more challenging than expected.  I immediately regretted what I’d said.  I’d had a healthy baby and a very straight-forward recovery process.  She had lost her uterus and, very nearly, her life.  I apologized for my flippancy.  She shushed me and said, “Oh no.  Pain is pain is pain.”  I’ve loved her for this, for her graciousness in the face of my insensitivity, but also for her humbling sense of perspective, the acknowledgment that our experience of pain shouldn’t be thought of as greater or less than another’s — pain is pain.  I’ve used this in many conversations since, when I find a friend or sibling undercutting the expanse of their own feelings too quickly, minimizing their emotions.  “Oh, but, you know — it’s not like xyz happened…” or “I know I’m making too big a deal of this when xyz had abc happen.”  I’m happy to trot out: “But pain is pain is pain.”

+”I can’t imagine what you’re going through.  You and your family are in my thoughts during this difficult time.”  Have you ever written a condolence letter?  They’re borderline impossible to pen.  It feels as though there is nothing worth saying.  There are no words that could possibly meet the enormity of the loss at hand.  In these situations, I turn to the carefully-penned condolence card I received from a very sweet classmate of mine during my junior year of high school.  (Yes, high school!)  My grandfather had passed, and somehow this had been announced during morning prayer intentions.  A classmate of mine wordlessly handed me a card in black ink on crisp ivory stationery in her perfect, tiny handwriting a few days following.  It read:

Dear Jen, 

I was so sorry to hear about your grandfather.  I can’t imagine what you’re going through.  You and your family are in my thoughts during this difficult time. 

Yours, Cristina

I remain in awe of this note, so thoughtful and charitable and classy, and so tender-hearted and elegant at the same time.  The “I can’t imagine what you’re going through” creates a vacancy for the depth of emotion you experience in grief.  It doesn’t attempt to soothe with cloying platitudes, or ply with Pollyanna-like language.  It’s generous.

I’ve copied this note verbatim to friends and family members enduring the loss of a loved one.

Also, let’s applaud: a sixteen year old wrote this.

On reflection, a lot of these phrases are particularly useful in times where words typically fail me — where they don’t seem enough, or I can’t quite say the right thing.  These are my safety net phrases.

What are yours?

ALSO: a few recently and frequently asked questions I’ve fielded, especially over Instastory (thanks for following along):

Q: Where do you get mini’s tights?  

A: I love Jefferies Socks’ baby tights, especially the cableknit ones.  They’re a little pricey for baby tights, but they’re very well made and look just as good after dozens of washings.  I tend to like the baby tights with a little weight/texture to them — so I also like these by Gap, though they don’t stand up as well to the washing machine over time.

Q: How functional is the J. Crew cape you rave about?  I’ve had to return capes because they aren’t practical with children.

A: You are a wise woman.  The cape has been great for mild winter days when I’m pushing mini around in the stroller.  The cape has been not so great for days when I’m running errands solo — you can’t really put a purse over your shoulder while wearing the cape, or the front flips up and it’s ugly.  I typically wear my cape when I know I’ll be strolling with mini and therefore will be hands-free (and will have a place to keep my bag), when I’m running down the street with just my card holder (on sale!!) to get coffee, or when I’m entertaining at home.

Q: How comfortable are the Gucci Princetown loafers?  And do you think they’ll go out of style soon?

A: I have gotten SO many questions about these loafers over time.  My personal opinion is that — of all the trendy splurges I’ve featured and made — they’re worth it.  First, they’re insanely practical if you’re pregnant or a mom or just a busy badass.  No fussing with laces or socks or anything.  You slide and go.  (Great for when you’re nine months pregnant and can’t bend over, or when you’re recovering from a c-section, etc, etc.  Seriously!  They were life-savers.)  Second, because they’re a riff on the classic Gucci loafer, I trust they’ll have more staying power than your average trend.  I find them incredibly comfortable, but you do need to break them in over the course of maybe a month.  They’re beautifully made and have the most gorgeous, supple leather — but you do need to sort of loosen the leather a bit.  I find that they run true to size.

Q: How do you do your hair?!

A: UM, this question is my favorite ever because it implies that you like it and I have never had good hair, or a hairdo for that matter, until about two months ago.  But the key ingredients are a 1″ Hot Tools curling iron (the best the best the best and they last foreverrrr — make sure you get the one with the gold barrel; don’t get any of the colored/ceramic ones!) and this texturizing spray.  Also, pro-tips: curl your hair away from your face, don’t curl the ends, and don’t touch your hair once you’ve curled it until it’s TOTALLY COOL.  Then run your fingers through it for that Kate Mara vibe.

Q: What nail polish colors are trendy right now?

A: I have seen a lot of girls wearing dark, glossy burgundy manicures lately, and I love it.  I exclusively wear Essie’s Gel Couture polishes — they’re not actually gel/no-chip manicures, but they last for at least a week, and I am REALLY hard on my nails.  (I am constantly washing bottles and cooking!)  The technicians apply the color directly to your nail and then apply top coat (no base coat!)  Give it a try! Anyway, I like Essie’s Gel Couture in the deep burgundy “Spiked with Style” color, but my manicurist suggested I try the similar, but more purple-hued “Gala-Vanting” and that one looked great, too.  Wicked and the other dark dark colors are always trendy this time of year, but I’ve never been a huge fan — they look a little vampy on me.  I’m more likely to go bright, bright red at this time of year; bright red never goes out of style!  I love Essie’s Rock the Runway.

FINALLY, and I realize I’m running long on NAIL POLISH (ughhh), I was getting my nails done last weekend and the CHIC-EST CHIC PEA strolled in wearing a Cartier Tank watch, cashmere sweater, and perfectly-cut jeans with these fur-lined moto books that sort of looked like Jimmy Choo’s Youth boots, but had fur.  I haven’t been able to find the exact pair, but they’re in the same family as these or these — not something I’d usually gravitate towards, but they looked absolutely FAB on her.  Anyway, she waltzed in and I sized her up as a Essie Wicked kind of gal, but then she asked for Fiji or Mademoiselle, and the classic pale pink looked so lovely on her that I almost changed my color on the spot!

Q: What’s a good anniversary gift for my husband?  Want to spend under $250.

OK, don’t kill me for crushing your budget right out the gate, but I have recommended to many friends the Filson briefcase ($325).  BELIEVE ME, a man needs a briefcase.  He’ll be so happy he has it!  No matter what his profession!  And the Filson brand/style is like catnip for most men — it’s rugged and sporty enough not to look affected, durable, and also very stylish.  It seems equally at home on the preppy set as it is on the hipster bike-to-work babe.  I found it on sale for $220 here in the black!  Mr. Magpie is a major cook, so new cookbooks or kitchen gadgetry (people love this burr grinder) is always a good option for him.  New technology in general excites him — I’m contemplating getting him the latest Apple TV (we also have — and prefer — the Roku for streaming, but you can’t stream any Apple stuff on it, and we’ve bought TONS of movies on Apple, so we need both!  UGH!  But the Roku has a better interface and you can stick it right into the TV’s port, so you don’t have a separate piece of equipment dangling down, cluttering your media console), airpods, and this cool WiFi video doorbell.  Also, he’s legitimately obsessed with making our home a “smarthome,” so our phones control our lightbulbs thanks to Hue and, in our old home, the thermostats thanks to Nest.  Those were both great gifts for him that he legitimately tore into and eagerly set up.

Q: I’m going to a cocktail event and want to look really fashion-forward.  I’m always stuck in the same rut and want to step out of my comfort zone.  What would you wear?

Love this!  Go you!  There are a few labels that always push me out of my comfort zone — check out The Reformation (and pay attention to the styling!  They do a GREAT job styling, down to their shoes and makeup!  Replicate!), MISA (this and this and this!), and Veronica Beard (this with black booties?! or this with kitten heels?!).  I’m also a sucker for everything by Self Portrait, which always has interesting shapes and fabrics.  This one is on sale and would be SO stunning, and this one is darling and such a fun and unexpected print, and ALSO on sale!  Finally, And Other Stories always has unique statement pieces at a reasonable pricepoint, like this dress or this dress.  I also like the way this dress is styled, with suede OTKs, but could also imagine wearing it with opaque black tights and some black pointed toe pumps!  I guarantee no one else will be wearing one of those!

Q: I am stumped trying to purchase two Baptism gifts for baby boys of very close friends. I know you’ve mentioned that you are Catholic on the blog, so I was wondering if you could pass along a few gift ideas?

A: I almost always purchase the same set of 2-3 religious books for any baby Baptism —

+Most parents love this one in particular; I read it to my daughter almost every night!
You could just leave it at that (I promise, parents will love having those!  I take them to Mass with me to entertain mini, and it makes me feel good that they’re non-secular), but here are some other gifts I’ve given if you’re looking for something to pair them with, or something more substantive:

Other items with a religious bent…
+Dish with baby’s name on it — I’ve given and received this, and it’s a lovely keepsake and can be part of the ceremony.
+My mom gave my daughter this cross and we hung it over her door frame in her bedroom.  I don’t know if it’s just my family, but we always hang crosses over door jambs.
+The cutest little saint prayer dolls — especially cool if the baby has the same name as one of the saints.
+Rattle by the maker of the beloved Wubbanub.
More secular gifts, but still appropriate for the occasion:
+Some sweet baby booties for the occasion (or, if a girl, these!).
+If the mama is into monograms, these cute little diaper bloomer things — maybe with white or beige lettering.
+Anything sterling silver from Tiffany.  You’ll be the fanciest schmanciest person ever if you gift something from here.  I received this baby comb for mini and it is one of my most beloved possessions of hers!  (Incidentally, it’s quite a good comb — very fine-toothed!  We use it every night after bath.  Mini is a fancy pants.)

******A propos of this post on language and its many restorative purposes, I thought I’d conclude by sharing a little thought I’ve been tossing around with a few readers who live in NY: what are your thoughts on gathering in person for a book club meeting after the new year?  We can pick a book and discuss and also obsess over how well-dressed we all are.   HA!  But seriously — if you’re interested in potentially joining, drop me an email at and I’ll begin to think on details, like an appropriate book and a possible venue.  The prospect of this convening leaves me very excited because a) I feel like I know a lot of you already, and I owe you a BIG ONE for all of the advice and wisdom and support you’ve shared, and b) I love book clubs, and c) there’s a little part of me that I left behind when I finished my teaching assistantship at Georgetown that I miss: moderating great conversations with open minds about language and its many mysteries and enchantments.

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12 thoughts on “A Turn of Phrase.

  1. What a lovely and deep post. I was so glad you linked to it in a post this week (keep doing that – your archives are full of treasures newer readers may have missed!) The line “I’m so sorry you have to go through this” actually resonate more for me in terms of a condolence message than “I can’t imagine” – that phrase feels distancing and a little too close to “I don’t want to imagine.” But that’s just me! And the main thing is – say something, anything – don’t let stumbling over words hold you back. Having lost a dear loved one, that’s what I keep coming back to. This is a really helpful post ( and as someone who loves language I thought you’d appreciate this line “When your grief feels dark and bottomless, know that we are here to reflect Paul’s light and love back to you, whether it’s next month, next year or in ten years.” I’ll close by saying you are so thoughtful and genuine – it is truly refreshing to read your blog.

    1. Hi Emily — Thank you so much for writing in about this. Love that Cup of Jo post and so glad you shared it here. I’ll be lifting that language and using it myself in the future; it’s beautiful, generous, and helpfully truthful in its acknowledgment of the jaggedness and darkness of grief.

      Thank you so much for the incredibly kind words about me and this blog, too! I am so flattered. You made my week.


  2. Love this post so much — like you, I love thinking about language and I’ve filed this post away for future reference.

    I so wish I could join your possible NYC book club! If only I hadn’t moved away in 2014 😉

    1. BOO. I forgot about the move — I always think about you as a New Yorker for some reason. Maybe we can do something distributed in the way of a book club…

    2. I take that as a high compliment! I did grow up 45 mins away and then lived in the city for 8 years, so I feel more like a New Yorker than a denizen of any other city 🙂

      I already feel like your monthly book posts are a club of sorts! Hoping that you will keep them up in the new year (and no pressure to do them monthly — some months I never finish even one book!)

  3. Thank you for writing this – I needed that turn of phrase yesterday. What do you say to a 16-year-old student whose father suddenly and unexpectedly passed away? These words.

  4. Hi! The Jimmy Choo Biker boot (similar to Youth) comes in a fur-lined version. My mother has them, and I’m seething that my feet are a size larger than hers. Maybe they’re what you spotted at the salon?

    1. I found a GORGE pair that are similar in a lower price point. Currently snapping them up!

      They’re the Charles David “Rustic Leather & Rabbit Fur Moto Booties”

      1. ZOMG — THOSE ARE AMAZING. I love the black! I feel like I’d fit right in up here in NY with those badboys on! xx

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