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They want a baby. The economy won’t play along.

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Melissa Myrick is photographed at her home in Fenton, Mo., on July 11, 2014. The Myrick couple’s dream for having a baby is being deferred by the economy, first by their loss of jobs and later, the high cost of in-vitro fertilization, their only chance of conceiving. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

FENTON, Mo. — Her husband gets home close to 4 p.m., first day in 20 he’s been back on the job as an electrician. He walks through the house, past the outlets with safety covers, the gated basement stairs, a bookcase bracketed to the wall — babyproofing measures they took a few years ago in still-simmering anticipation. The house is quiet. Just Rick Myrick and his wife. He kisses her hello. Then he checks to see how many hours he’s worked this year: 130 in four months. Not nearly enough. Not if they ever hope to start a family.

Melissa Myrick is 33, blonde and quick to smile. She thought for sure she’d be a mother by now. She could picture it: One boy, one girl, both with her bright blue eyes. That was the plan when she and Rick married in 2008. Get pregnant right away. But first he lost his job, then she lost hers. They decided to wait. A year later, barely back on their feet, a doctor’s visit revealed they’d struggle to conceive. The best shot for Melissa and Rick to have a baby would cost at least $15,000 – money they didn’t have, a financial risk they still feel unable to take.

Their dilemma echoes that of millions of American families in this recovery, people who have watched the economy grow and the unemployment rate fall, but who are still waiting for their own outlook to brighten. Choices large and small hang in the balance – whether to buy a house, go to college, get married. Have a baby.

“I want to get ourselves in a better situation before we start trying,” Melissa says now, sitting at the kitchen table. And the already difficult economics of the decision are made even harder by the discovery that they will need expensive treatment to conceive.

They’ve hashed this out hundreds of times. Pledged to find a way. Mapped the options, tracked his hours. They know they can’t wait much longer. But is this the right time?

“We don’t want to bring children into this world if we can’t provide for them,” Rick says, hitting upon his fear.

For Melissa, the fear is different. It’s that they will never get the chance.


The decision to have a child is not coolly rational, yet clinical calculations often play a role. Kids are expensive. Diapers. Doctor’s visits. Childcare. Food. Clothes. Maybe college down the road. Assuming that kind of responsibility is an act of optimism, the belief that tomorrow will be better than today.

So when the economy plunged into recession in 2008, shedding jobs and expectations, the U.S. birth rate followed, reversing the upward trend seen when times were good. And the birth rate has continued to fall, a sign of just how many Americans continue to struggle in this recovery, five years after the recession ended officially.

Last year, the nation’s fertility rate hit a historic low — 62.9 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some of that decline comes from a long-term shift toward smaller families. But finances also play a pivotal role. A Gallup poll last year found the main reason Americans were delaying parenthood was worries about money and the economy — even as the stock market rallied and broad indicators pointed to a brighter future, highlighting a disconnect felt by many Americans. A report by Pew Research Center showed birth rates in many states rise and fall in tune with personal income.

Births have slowed so sharply that researchers note that future economic growth could be stunted by a smaller labor pool. Immigration is often seen as a fix. But the downturn crimped supply lines for both babies and new foreign faces. The change was so dramatic that the Census Bureau in 2012 was forced to revise the 2050 U.S. population projection it made just four years earlier, dropping it by 9 percent, to just under 400 million.

The languishing economy has caused people to doubt if they can afford to be parents.

The barriers are even higher for Melissa and Rick, among the 6 percent of U.S. married couples facing infertility. Living in Missouri, one of 35 states that doesn’t mandate insurance coverage for infertility, they are on the hook for related doctor’s visits or drugs. They face a huge upfront price tag — a cost that can’t be pushed down the road, when their economic outlook might be brighter. That’s frustrating to them.

“Why should the economy play into my family planning?” Melissa asks.


Melissa Myrick, left, watches as her niece, four-and-a-half-year-old Ariana Ashbrook, and husband Rick Myrick kick around a ball in their backyard at home in Fenton, Mo., on July 11, 2014. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

She skips baby showers now. Just hearing that someone is expecting overwhelms. Once, a friend surprised her with black-and-white ultrasound photos (“I’m pregnant!”), and Melissa stood there with a tight smile, afraid that uttering a single word would end in tears. She hated that she felt this way. It cost her friends who didn’t know how to react. But her battle brought her closer to others, too, like the one woman who spent hours looking up advice on how to share pregnancy news with someone struggling to have a child. When she finally called Melissa to deliver the news, she was the one crying.

The support helps. But Melissa still worries about a future that doesn’t include what she always assumed would be theirs.

“What if we never have children?” Melissa asks her husband as they sit at the kitchen table. “What are we going to do, go on vacation all the time?”

The recession does appear to have changed who is having IVF: The number of cycles for women under 35 has fallen or flatlined since 2008, a possible indication that younger women are delaying treatment.

Rick, 35, his short-cropped hair going gray, wants children, too. But he thinks it’s out of their hands. He doesn’t see it as some cosmic judgement against them. “It’s not like we’re doing wrong,” he would later explain, “or we’re bad people or we shouldn’t be parents, you know?”

He reaches his hand toward Melissa across the table.

“Oh, we’ll just play a bigger role in your niece’s life,” Rick tells her.

They adore her 4½-year-old niece. She stays at their house most weekends. But Melissa recently asked Rick to remove the girl’s child seat from the SUV. She couldn’t bear glancing in the rearview mirror and seeing it empty during the week.

Melissa and Rick, who went to high school together in the St. Louis suburbs but didn’t start dating until later, were in no rush to get married and have children. They wanted to be prepared. Both of their parents divorced when they were young. Money was tight in both households growing up. Rick recalled how his mom tried supporting him and his sister on her overnight nursing shifts. It wasn’t always enough. Sometimes they relied on public assistance. He didn’t want that for his children.

By 2008, they felt ready. He was 29. She was 27. They got married in Las Vegas, at the top of the Stratosphere Tower, surrounded by friends and family. It was August 2008, one month before the financial meltdown. It didn’t take even that long to hit them. The day after they married, Rick got a call. The small shop where he worked was closing. On their honeymoon, another call. Melissa lost her job helping a real estate appraiser.

“There was no way we could start a family,” she recalls.

They decided to hold off on getting pregnant for one year. Just one year. By then, they had new jobs. A month after stopping birth control, Melissa started having severe cramps. She was diagnosed with endometriosis. Getting pregnant would take help. The next summer, she started on Clomid, a common prescription for boosting pregnancy odds. Nothing happened. That fall, they tried interuterine insemination, the first of two rounds, $2,500 a pop. Melissa was certain it would work. They babyproofed the house. She bought tiny shoes and pink onesies. Disappointment followed.

Exhausted by the doctor’s visits, they kept trying on their own. Melissa downed vitamin concoctions. She visited an acupuncturist. She kept believing. She stocked up on home pregnancy tests. Her friends bought her even more.

“It’s just a vicious cycle every single month,” she says.

Then, in January 2013, they met with a doctor specializing in infertility. He told them Melissa was an ideal candidate for in-vitro fertilization. IVF offered the best odds. About 1 percent of babies born in the U.S. are conceived this way. But the procedure requires close medical monitoring and daily injections. A single attempt costs at least $15,000. And even then her odds were maybe 50-50.

Despite the recession, the overall number of IVF cycles in the U.S. has grown steadily for more than a decade, even though the annual growth rate briefly stalled out in 2009, according to the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology. But the recession does appear to have changed who is having IVF: The number of cycles for women under 35 has fallen or flatlined since 2008, a possible indication that younger women are delaying treatment. “Older women don’t have the luxury of waiting until the recession ends,” said Gretchen Livingston, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center.

Rick asked around work about IVF and learned a co-worker had twins that way. He told Rick that he’d opted for a shared risk program, one of several creative financing options, which charges a flat rate for multiple IVF cycles, until a baby is born. It cost him $30,000.

“Just think about it like buying a car,” Rick was told. “Just do the financing.”

But Rick and Melissa struggle with the idea. When they are both working full time, they earn good money, reaching as much as $125,000 a year. Melissa has a seemingly solid job at a prison health-care company. Rick’s job as a union electrician is less predictable. Two years ago, he struggled for hours. Last year, he logged more hours and his paycheck grew. This year has been the worst since he started out in the trade 16 years ago. Now, they risk losing their health insurance if his hours don’t pick up.

“If we could stay consistent and know he’s not going to be off work, we could do it,” Melissa says. “It’s just that as soon as we start thinking about it, it goes straight back down.”


Melissa Myrick and her husband with four-and-a-half-year-old Ariana Ashbrook wave goodbye to Melissa’s parents at their home in Fenton, Mo. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

They need to make a decision. Does it make sense to wait? Will things be better in six months or a year?

“And I watch the clock,” Melissa says, knowing that most doctors believe fertility begins a hasty decline after age 35. Any delay will not improve her odds of getting pregnant.

But Rick is unsure about work. Summer, especially, should be a busy time. Construction work seems slow, but his boss said he expects it to pick up. The schools that sustained the electrical crews last year with jobs running telecom cables have cut back. Rick hopes he doesn’t get laid off and fall to the back of the union’s rehire list. With hundreds of names in front of his, he could be out of work for years. “I’d probably have to find another career,” he says.

Other expenses pop up. His truck needs new tires. The cats need surgery. The washing machine breaks. Every time they build up a little savings, something seems to happen. The sliding glass doors in the kitchen open to a steep drop into the backyard — for years, they’ve put off building a deck.

Melissa worries about finally taking what feels like their last shot at having children. She can close her eyes and imagine her perfect blue-eyed boy and girl. But she can’t bear to imagine if the plan doesn’t work.

Just calling the IVF doctor and setting up an appointment feels like a huge step, no matter the price tag.

“I probably should make it,” Melissa says now. Maybe soon. Maybe later this summer. Maybe by then their future will seem more certain.

Later that night, they leave their quiet home and hop in the truck to run errands. It’d been a good day. Rick is back to work. For now. Melissa has a plan. For now.

Their house sits at the top of a cul-de-sac, where two young boys bounce a red ball. A little girl rides her bike in the street, training wheels holding her steady. Another girl, maybe 2, stands in a neighbor’s yard and points at a passing dog.

Here, then, is everything they want.

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2 days ago
I've been waiting to read this article, and it definitely won't be the last. The U.S. is going to see a *huge* drop in birthrates with the millennial generation. People don't want to have kids they can't afford, and the longer they wait, the more likely they are to have even more unaffordable circumstances like needing IVF come into play.
San Francisco, CA
1 day ago
Just once I'd love to see a purportedly “family values” candidate come out in favor of parental leave, daycare, etc. Part of the problem is that the millennial birthdate won't plummet except among the relatively affluent who have the greatest ability to plan their families and more hope that the economy will get better for them personally, so I'd expect the percentage of poor children to actually increase.
11 hours ago
@acdha Agreed SO MUCH on the first point. But while I think the very poor will likely continue to have kids because of lack of access to reproductive care, I think contraception has also never been more prevalent and accepted in our society (not to mention covered by insurance-- unless you work for Hobby Lobby or some other jackass company). I'd argue the real squeeze for the lower middle class and up will end up being IVF; they'll wait too long and then not be able to afford such an expensive, non-insurance-covered procedure.
10 hours ago
Good point - battles over access & education have a cost but, given how little our country chooses to invest in children, that's definitely cheaper than IVF.
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1 public comment
23 hours ago
Am i supposed to feel sorry for these people who can't simplify or change their lifestyle to have a child? not working
Idle, Bradford, United Kingdom

Where Do Cocktail Prices Come From?



Why does your drink cost $11 or $14 or $20? [Pouring Ribbons cocktail photo: Alice Gao]

Unlike the people who drink them, not all cocktails are created equal. Or at least that's what their prices seem to indicate. The mixed drinks at one bar in one city might be double what they cost at a cocktail-conscious watering hole in another part of the country.

But it doesn't even take a supersonic bar-hop across America to observe this phenomenon. A house cocktail at New York City's Pouring Ribbons, an innovative establishment slinging impeccable drinks, will cost you $14. Not too far uptown, at the stately bar at the NoMad Hotel—where the drinks are similarly innovative and well executed—an original cocktail sells for $16. Then there's ZZ's Clam Bar, in Greenwich Village, where sipping on one of chief bartender Thomas Waugh's elegant liquid creations will set you back $20—or nearly 43 percent more than the cost of a drink at Pouring Ribbons.


A drink at ZZ's Clam Bar. [Photo: Paul Yee]

Complicating things further, there are plenty of bars and restaurants that go out of their way, it would appear, to price their house cocktails consistently—say, all for $12 apiece—suggesting to a casual observer that, perhaps, all these drinks are an equal value.

I reached out to several managers of serious cocktail destinations in order to better understand what accounts for the broad swings in price we encounter from place to place as we ply the now-extensive craft-cocktail landscape, as well as why some cocktail menus are priced uniformly.

A cocktail by nature is a combination, in differing ratios, of a set of ingredients that each have costs, so many cocktail bars spend a lot of time and effort crunching the numbers behind their drinks. Setting prices for a cocktail-focused list can take a lot more work than menu-pricing might take at a wine or beer bar. That's certainly the impression I get from Jeffrey Morgenthaler, the bar manager at Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon. He approaches the pricing of his cocktail menu with a great deal of mathematical precision, coupled with a small dose of professional intuition.

Jeffrey Morgenthaler from Clyde Common in Portland

Morgenthaler at Clyde Common in Portland, OR [Photo: Katie Burnett]

In addition to bartending, Morgenthaler maintains a blog about his craft, and pricing strategy has been a recurring subject over the years. He's even released Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to his readers, many of whom are in the service industry, as instructional tools. The charts are basic versions of the ones he uses at Clyde Common to calculate pour cost and, by extension, sales prices for drinks.

Pour cost is pretty much what it sounds like: the cost a bar incurs by pouring a given cocktail. But pour cost is typically expressed as a percentage of the sale price of a drink rather than a raw number; so if it costs a bar $2 in goods to produce a drink that it sells for $10, the pour cost of that drink is 20 percent. "Some places need the pour cost to come in at 18 percent," Morgenthaler tells me, "others are fine with 25 percent. It all depends on the business operations." In other words, a bar might decide upon an acceptable range in which its pour costs must fall, given how other aspects of the business factor in, and then calculate the price of drinks based on that range. Between two drinks sold for the same price, the one with the higher pour cost earns the bar a smaller profit.

At what point does price come into consideration when a bar like Clyde Common—which is located adjacent to the Ace Hotel and has gained a reputation for quality and innovation—comes up with new drinks for its cocktail menu? Morgenthaler says, "When I'm developing a drink for the menu, my first concern is that it tastes delicious. So once I've got something I'm happy with, then I take it to the computer." Here he runs the numbers on what the drink's recipe would cost the bar in goods. "Sometimes it's fine as is, sometimes we've got to swap ingredients or adjust proportions to make it work, and occasionally we have to scrap the entire drink because it simply doesn't fall within our menu's price range."

That range usually includes some drinks that guests can buy for just $7, up to more elaborate ones costing as much as $12. At Clyde Common, offering a range is important, Morgenthaler says, in that it "ensures that we're opening ourselves up to as many guests as possible. We realize that not everyone is comfortable with $10 to $12 drinks, and we want to cater to everyone."


The Charlie Horse at Clyde Common [Photo: Katie Burnett]

One of the tests of a good bar manager is to balance effective cocktail-pricing strategy and innovative menu development. In a 2011 blog post, Morgenthaler shared the following hypothetical:

Let's say, for argument's sake, that you've got a two-drink cocktail menu, consisting of Drink A and Drink B. Drink A is a complex cocktail that requires a little more attention from the bartender and uses some more obscure, expensive ingredients. It costs $10 but comes in at a 32% pour cost, but it's designed to appeal to a smaller segment of the customer base, and therefore you only sell ten of them a night. You make up for this with Drink B. Drink B costs $8 but comes in at a 17% pour cost. It's appealing to a much larger audience, and therefore you sell 150 of them a night. Drink A is called a loss leader; it keeps your bar on the cutting edge, is there for the cocktail geeks, and helps stimulate the sale of Drink B by bringing in a constant flow of new guests to the bar.

By this reasoning, the markups on higher-priced cocktails can sometimes be thinner, as a percentage of price, than those applied to their cheaper counterparts; that said, pricier drinks serve the bar in more indirect ways than simply by pulling in straight profit. And knowing how to write a cocktail menu that can thread this needle takes experience.

"If you see a drink that contains Green Chartreuse and it's under twelve bucks—get that."

"I can't say that there's any way to be 100 percent certain that a certain drink will sell better than others," Morgenthaler tells me. "I'm constantly surprised by what is less or more popular on our menus. But with as much experience as I have, I would say I've got a pretty good idea of what's going to sell and what's going to appeal to a more connoisseur crowd." His advice to the value-seeking drinker who's after quality of spirits and complexity, all in one sublime beverage? "If you see a drink that contains Green Chartreuse and it's under twelve bucks—get that."


Jackson Cannon at The Hawthorne in Boston [Photo: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Jackson Cannon echoes many of Morgenthaler's insights. Cannon is a fixture of the cocktail scene in Boston, Massachusetts, as co-owner and bar director at The Hawthorne and bar director at Eastern Standard. The latter is large and features a robust dining component, while the former is more of an intimate drinking den with a focused menu of small plates. Between the two, Cannon has a lot of experience setting cocktail menus aimed at a range of sales volumes.

No matter its size, Cannon points out that "a restaurant will be successful over the long haul if it can pocket"—meaning earn in net profits—"10 cents on the dollar." In other words, for an establishment pulling in $1 million a year in revenue, the owner is fortunate to have $100,000 to show for it after expenses. "That's a tough order," Cannon adds. "Robust liquor sales at solid cost of goods are one of the reasons you can get to that 10 cents on a dollar." Astute cocktail pricing (say, pour costs around 21 percent or less, on average) can be a critical component of a restaurant's overall business strategy and health. "That would make [liquor sales] its best-performing center, if their food targets are right around 30 and their wine is around 33."

At high-volume bars, the numbers are slightly different. "Your big, busy bars that are relying on much more of their percentage of goods in liquor—as opposed to restaurants and fine dining—they tend to be a little bit happier at 16 or 17 percent" pour costs, Cannon says.

When Cannon and his team revise their cocktail menus, he says they try to price drinks destined for the greatest popularity so that they have the lowest percentage pour costs. For a prospective top-selling drink, "we need to make sure that that one is in a very solid cost of goods range, maybe a point or two below our target, because if a number-one mover that is refreshing and easy to [drink] is priced right, it allows you some wiggle room on some other esoteric things, where the ingredients are more expensive." He adds that, "We'll take a few lumps on this really cool drink that [the bartenders have] created, and it will be great conversation. Meanwhile, the gin sour...this is going to do the heavy lifting for us."


The Hawthorne's Mojito [Photo: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Cannon says that pricing is usually the last consideration when setting a drink menu. He says that Katie Emmerson, bar manager at The Hawthorne, is "looking for balance in so many other ways first. She's looking for great, balanced individual cocktails to begin with, whatever it may take to make them. She's looking for a spread of different things that speak to a little something for everyone. The last part of that is to make sure the internal math matches that sense of balance. That doesn't drive her creative process, per se."

Carefully selecting rail spirits (the lower-cost bottles used for standard drink orders) and negotiating volume discounts on bulk orders with distributors are among the ways in which Cannon's establishments manage their liquor costs and, by extension, keep their cocktail prices in check. But not all bars may have such tools at their disposal. Each U.S. state has its own regulations on how liquor is distributed; for instance, in so-called control states, liquor distribution is government-run and prices may be fixed.

The process of developing new cocktails touches pricing in more ways than one. Zach Tirone, general manager at the LCL: Bar & Kitchen, located in the Westin New York Grand Central, drills his bar staff to record their spirits usage whenever they experiment with new recipes.

"Hopefully, if your bartender or beverage director is doing their due diligence, they're probably making that [new] cocktail, if it's an original cocktail, you know, at least a dozen to two dozen times, probably, just to make sure they're getting it right," Tirone says. "You have to account for product you're using that's not even being consumed." Basically, a business needs to absorb and account for that waste, so it can be built into the overall pricing model.

The potential upside to rigorous development, of course, is that it pays for itself. "That's a cost I have to eat that, hopefully, in the long run I'll see the reverse effect [of], because [the drink is] selling and people like it," Tirone says.


Eamon Rockey at Betony in NYC [Photo: Roger Kamholz]

Not all bars price cocktails on a graduated scale—some favor parity instead. Eamon Rockey, general manager of Betony, a fine-dining restaurant located in Midtown Manhattan, oversees the pricing of the establishment's entire beverage program. Unlike Morgenthaler, whose menu prices are tied to the cost of each drink's production, Rockey prefers consistent prices across Betony's cocktail list.

"I really, really love offering things at the same price," Rockey says. "It's something that has been consistent amongst the programs that I've curated over the past several years." With only a couple of exceptions (such as its $17 Milk Punch, which requires two days to prep), the cocktails at Betony are priced at $15. "There are some cocktails where the ingredients are more expensive than others, there are some cocktails that are more involved than others, but, at the end of the day, what you're actually seeking as a guest, I hope, is an experience. And if the experience of that drink is worth 15 bucks...then you'll look forward to ordering another one."

Rockey uses the example of an amusement park to help illustrate his philosophy: "You go to an amusement pay to enter the park for the experience, and everybody pays the same amount. You don't get upset when your friend gets an extra ride in here or there."

In thinking about how the elements of a Betony cocktail might impact its price, Rockey says, "It's less about parsing things down between ingredient to ingredient, milliliter to milliliter, and more about knowing that, regardless of whether your cocktail's ingredients are a buck or two more a are going to have a cocktail that is caringly crafted by somebody who was trying to produce something that is peak of quality for that exact spirit and for that exact list of ingredients."

So how did Rockey arrive at the magic number 15? For one thing, it appears that Betony's guests are willing to pay that price. And the number, he explains, "allows us to use fine glassware and very good spirits as a base...very fresh juices, and other modifiers, as well, that are the archetypes of their category. That price for a drink allows us to produce a sustainable cocktail program that takes into account labor, ingredients, glassware, ice, time, and so forth."

In terms of the restaurant's overall business model, Rockey and his business partner, executive chef Bryce Shuman, reject the idea of what Morgenthaler calls "loss leaders." Rockey says, "The chef and I, my partner and I, don't look at the restaurant and say, OK, we're willing to lose money here as long as we make it up here. We want to be responsible on all levels. We want to ensure that we're not hedging our bets one way or another, but rather thinking about things both on an individual basis, whether it be cocktails or wine or food, and also on the broader scale, as well, where we care for the future of the restaurant as a whole.


[Photo: Alice Gao]

"I would not feel right if a person who came in for a cocktail and maybe a snack," he goes on, "was paying a premium so the guys in the dining room were able to eat food that is in a more extravagant menu style... Everything should be in balance."

Consistently priced cocktail menus such as Betony's beg an important question: should us drinkers be overly concerned about shopping for "value" when it comes to our cocktail choices? Jackson Cannon, the Boston bar director, has some cautionary words: "I'm really sensitive to the idea that someone would be choosing their cocktail based on the cost of goods in it... I think that's a really good way to get the wrong cocktail for yourself. My view is, you should be talking about the flavors that you like and leave the rest out of it."

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5 days ago
Very interesting!
New York, NY
6 days ago
Very cool look into how your drink gets priced.
San Francisco, CA
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1 public comment
5 days ago
TIL: bar owners hunched over spreadsheets optimizing their 'pour cost'
Earth, Sol system, Western spiral arm

Inside Look: Imgur Reveals Redesign, Announces Plans for a Convention

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Can Imgur remain its positive, plucky self while growing to be one of the Internet’s rising social titans?

Imgur's Sarah Shaaf, IRL. (Photo via Imgur)

Imgur’s Sarah Schaaf, IRL. (Photo via Imgur)

Imgur is at a tipping point.

What began as a photo storage site for Reddit users has grown, in just five years, into a thriving community with almost twice as much traffic as its de facto parent site, raking in five billion pageviews a month.

But in tech, a proven model with great results isn’t always enough. The site debuted a redesign this morning. They’re also planning a slew of in-person events and a convention, all thanks to a recent injection of $40 million in VC funding. It’s clear that Imgur is striving to become a social media staple on the level of Instagram or Twitter.

As they get set to expand their reach, Imgur faces the familiar challenge of having to grow a company while holding on to the quirky identity that gave them their success. The team behind Imgur knows that if they want to keep their tight knit community as they scale larger and larger, they’re going to need to offer more than just a pile of memes and an upvote button.

To pull it off, they’re going to have to balance the whims of their community with the needs of the business, and hope those two things can coexist.

* * *

When Imgur Founder Alan Schaaf was in town the other week, he sat down with Betabeat to give us a custom tour of the new Imgur.

The new look is a bit more clean than the older site, which hadn't changed much its five year history. (Screengrab via Imgur)

The new look is a bit more clean than the older site, which hadn’t changed much its five year history. (Screengrab via Imgur)

The site has a much cleaner look overall, but the biggest adjustment is the addition of tags. Before the redesign, all images sat together in one big ocean, with the day’s most popular content on the front page as the tip of the lulzberg.

Now, you can tag images to custom-sort the content into galleries and personal filters. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, for example, you can create a gallery that brings up anything tagged “Game of Thrones,” “GoT,” “John Snow,” “You Know Nothing,” etc.

“We’re trying to add some organization to all of these viral images so that you can drill down to the ones you want to see and skip over the rest,” Mr. Schaaf said.

Tagging and filters allow for the site to be more useful to individual users without breaking them off into sub-communities like a Facebook group or a subreddit.

Even tags are either upvoted and downvoted. (Screengrab via Imgur)

Even tags are either upvoted and downvoted. (Screengrab via Imgur)

“We just wanted one big cohesive community like we’ve always had, so tagging is just a different way to view the same big pool,” Mr. Schaaf said. “You can focus on cats, but cats stuff still lives and breathes among all the other content.”

After all, the last thing Mr. Schaaf wants to do is upset the community by breaking them off into factions. To make sure the redesign would fly well with the users, he built the new site slowly, testing the design with about 10,000 hardcore users, collecting feedback, making tweaks and refining the new features.

And, for the first time, he came out of Silicon Valley to be among his people and hear what they were saying. Imgur’s always been a site with a community, but it’s only in the past few months that Imgur has been holding events for that community across the country.

“We know that Imgur is huge in terms of scale, but don’t recognize Imgur as a community that’s come so far in the last few years,” Tim Hwang, Imgur’s Head of Special Initiatives, told Betabeat. “The meetups show that they appreciate us, but they’re also a sign of what’s to come.”

So what’s to come? The Imgur team wants to ramp up to a major convention, but won’t have the details ready until as late as December, though they claim it will be “something no Internet community has ever done before.”

But even before the Imgur team came into the picture, their users have been meeting up for years, using direct messages, Facebook groups, or even building entirely separate websites to stay in touch. And sometimes, these real-life meetups pay off when Imgurians catch a glimpse of their default leader, Sarah Schaaf.

The first of the official Imgur meetups was at Houston Hall, a New York City beer garden, where they were celebrating their love of puns and lolcats. A few of them were huddled to the side, whispering and pointing toward a curly-haired West Coaster on the other side of the room. All the attention was on Ms. Schaaf.

At Houston Hall, Sarah Schaaf kicks back at the first ever Official Imgur Meetup. (Photo via Imgur)

At Houston Hall, Sarah Schaaf kicks back at the first Official Imgur Meetup. (Photo via Imgur)

“It’s a little bit weird, like a celebrity moment,” Ms. Schaaf told Betabeat while she was in New York. “But it wears off, and people say ‘Aw, you’re one of us, you’re normal.’”

Ms. Schaaf is the iconic (to Imgur users, at least) “sarah,” the site’s Director of Community. Ms. Schaaf has been the public face of Imgur, dealing with the questions and concerns of millions. So it’s no surprise that when she appears IRL, people stop and stare.

* * *

Ms. Schaaf is Alan Schaaf’s older sister. When Mr. Schaaf started Imgur, he was running the site on his own with his sister always in the background when her little brother needed advice.

When Mr. Schaaf noticed that a community was forming in the photos’ comment sections, he called upon his sister to fill the official role of community manager. She was a natural choice — she had a sense of Imgur’s identity, she had a knack for social media and she’d been alongside Mr. Schaaf all along.

So in 2012, Ms. Schaaf became the Director of Community and Imgur’s first employee, three years after the site began. Since then, she’s gone from being big sister to the founder, to the big sister for a community of millions. She cruises the gallery, looks at comments and takes the temperature of the user atmosphere.

“I’m just kind of a face, or a place you can go for someone to talk to. I just try to humanize Imgur a little bit,” she said.

But in the past few months, Mr. Schaaf realized that more was needed. After taking stock of Imgur’s future, he started looking for someone to build out Imgur’s partnerships and events. This is when Mr. Hwang, who had been the cofounder of ROFLcon, came onto the Imgur team.

Side by side, Ms. Schaaf and Mr. Hwang stand out as the user-facing team in the small company of mostly engineers and ad salesmen, looking at the massive Imgur community and asking themselves the next big question:

What are we going to do with all of these people?

After all, it might sound hokey, but “Imgurians” are, well, a special breed. They’re plucky, positive, supportive and all about the lulz. Imgurians love cats, unlikely romances, themselves and dad humor — puns are almost always the most upvoted comments.

Some Internet communities can be virulent — anyone who’s read YouTube comments can attest to that. Even Reddit, the community that birthed Imgur, has a reputation for being hostile toward women. But the cynicism and snark that’s characteristic to comments sections on other forums and news sites is either absent from Imgur, or buried away. Imgurians are self-policing, downvoting haters and keeping an eye out for the well being of the community.

The Perfect Match

Alan Schaaf bootstrapped Imgur and kept it profitable for 5 years without taking a dime from investors. Read more here about how Andreessen Horowitz convinced Imgur to take $40 million.

“People will post, ‘Oh I noticed this specific user was being very negative to everybody, I just wanted you guys to know that you’re great, and don’t listen to them,’” Ms. Schaaf said. “Then that gets to the front page, and everybody’s like ‘Yay, we’re all great, and that person sucks.’”

Every day, love stories and tales of personal triumph are mixed in with the Bad Luck Brians and cute animal gifs on the front page. Imgurians who are having a rough week or making a big career change can throw themselves in front of the masses and find outpouring of support.

But what makes all of that joy so surprising is that Imgur is a democracy. There’s no set of priority users, very little censorship and nothing to regulate what rises to the top except for millions and millions of people voting up or down. And or the most part, what rises to the top is some of the Internet’s most uplifting material.

“It’s niceness at scale,” Mr. Hwang said.

All that positivity is addictive — a quarter of Imgur’s traffic is from people who have visited the site over 200 times, and though the site was built to be a stop-and-go dumping ground for images, almost 10 percent of all visits last for more than half an hour. In an age where fewer people visit a site’s homepage before its individual pieces of content, people who visit Imgur’s homepage average an astonishing 44 additional clicks.

But with that scale comes the pressure to make their platform a thriving business. After five years of profitability, Imgur accepted $40 million in V.C. funding, which comes with some obligations to take that scale and turn a serious profit.

The new tagging feature fits right in with that new mission: Imgur runs some light ads, but marketers love to target specific demographics. It’s much easier to sell ad space to someone like Netflix, for example, by targeting galleries with a “House of Cards” tag than trying to sell a vague, front-page ad spot.

No online community likes change, and an online community’s least favorite change is often the sudden influx of ads. But Mr. Hwang knows that if you keep your ear to the ground long enough, the community will let you know exactly what they want.

* * *

There comes a time in an app’s life when a user base will do unexpected things, taking the tool you built and doing things you never intended with it.

Just look at Instagram, which was originally a tool for spicing up ugly camera phone pictures, building out social features later when sharing became popular. Or how Tumblr was originally built for blogging before the popularity of re-blogging made it more of a personal scrapbook and aggregator.

So the community team at Imgur is on the lookout for those kinds of “green lights” — moments when the community uses Imgur’s tools to demonstrate how they want Imgur to be.

Tim Hwang has experience building communities — we knew that his hiring meant an impending convention, but they only just confirmed it. (Photo via Imgur)

Tim Hwang has experience building communities — we knew that his hiring meant an impending convention, but they only just confirmed it. (Photo via Imgur)

One big “green light” came when an Imgurian used the gallery feature, which was made so users could showcase a few photos on one page, to make a guide to the Ukranian uprising. Since then, Imgurians have also used the gallery feature to create recipe roundups, lifehacking tutorials, exercise routines and fashion guides.

“Seeing the site go from being just about funny stuff, to also having important, serious content is a sign that the community is maturing,” Mr. Hwang said.

But the Imgur team doesn’t want to try to be a news hub, or put in features that pressure their community to lean harder on listicles and informative pieces. They’ve seen other sites try to rock the boat and alienate users in the process — look at Instagram, which keeps trying to emulate Snapchat to the sound of crickets, or how Facebook generates collective scorn every time they update their features.

“The philosophy is to take a very light touch,” Mr. Hwang said. “To figure out what the community wants, and be there to help out.”

The Imgur team has been lucky not to incite a riot amongst its users so far, but it almost seems naive to expect the fledgling community to grow and mature, while maintaining its youthful, exuberant, positive brand intact along the way. The Imgur team just wants to show the world how incredible their community is without it growing up and becoming jaded and ugly.

“Once people become part of the community, people realize Imgur is more than just memes,” Ms. Schaaf said, “There’s so many more layers.”

“Though I’ll say that funny cats are pretty great,” Mr. Hwang said.

Oh, funny cats are funny forever,” Ms. Schaaf said.

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8 days ago
So proud of Tim and the awesome work he's doing!
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Talking Openly About Obama and Race : The New Yorker

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In September, 2009, just eight months into Barack Obama’s first term, when it was still possible for unsentimental observers to perceive the Tea Party’s riotous fulminations as a passing blip, Jimmy Carter remarked that opposition to the President’s agenda was driven, largely, by one thing: race. “I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he’s African-American,” Carter said. He went on:

I live in the South, and I’ve seen the South come a long way, and I’ve seen the rest of the country that shared the South’s attitude toward minority groups at that time, particularly African-Americans. And that racism inclination still exists. And I think it’s bubbled up to the surface because of the belief among many white people, not just in the South but around the country, that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country.

Carter, then eighty-four years old, well into the say-anything years of public life, and still mildly tainted, even among some Democrats, as a negative ideal of the Chief Executive, was quickly criticized for the remarks. Even Obama took pains to distance himself from Carter’s words. Yet, as a white Southerner (he became governor of Georgia at a time when it had barely moved past legalized segregation), a Democrat, and a former President, there was perhaps no one better suited than Carter to recognize the racial trip wires that lay in wait for the first black Commander-in-Chief.

It’s remembered now that Bill Clinton’s cultural affinity for African-Americans led to him being dubbed the “first black President,” but that’s not entirely precise. More specifically, Toni Morrison, writing in The New Yorker, presented the term in the wake of the impeachment proceedings, offering that the rhetoric around Clinton’s family background, his electorate, his personal friendships—and his appetites—had rendered him an effigy of blackness, offering a window into how the public, or a good part of it, would behave in the unlikely event that an actual black person achieved the Presidency.

That unlikely event occurred in November, 2008, and at this juncture it is difficult to disagree that Morrison was on to something. One hears it in the questioning of Obama’s American birth and legitimacy—the idea that he couldn’t really be President without trickery, that he has stolen something—and his presence in rooms where someone like him shouldn’t be. Carter’s words are, if not conventional wisdom, then certainly one of those truths that most of us know but few are willing to admit. That reticence, along with a large dose of cynicism, explains the reaction to Eric Holder’s statement, in an interview with ABC News, that the opposition to the Administration (“You know, people talking about taking their country back”) is partly driven by racism. Holder’s assessment that “I don’t think this is the thing that is a main driver, but for some there’s a racial animus” is, on the whole, more tempered than Carter’s words, and far less incendiary than Charlie Rangel’s dismissal of the Tea Party, in 2013, as “the same crackers who fought against civil rights.”

It has still been enough to inspire backlash. Senator Rob Portman, of Ohio, criticized Holder on Fox News, stating that blaming racial animus for the opposition to Obama “doesn’t help us” fight racism, adding, “I don’t think it’s a constructive statement.” The affront with which Holder’s words were greeted left one waiting for the intimation that he and, by extension, his colleagues in the Administration are “the real racists.”

The past year has offered an odd object lesson in historical redundancy. The fiftieth anniversaries of major points in the civil-rights movement tick by at the same time that Supreme Court decisions and political maneuvering in state legislatures offer reminders of what, exactly, the movement fought against. It’s fallen directly to Holder, more than to any other figure in the Administration, to respond to those echoes of history. (Jeffrey Toobin has written about his work in this area.) Holder’s office has moved against discriminatory voter-I.D. laws and police departments with a record of racial profiling, launched an investigation into the circumstances of Trayvon Martin’s death, and attempted to diminish the sentencing disparities that have bloated the number of African-Americans incarcerated during the war on drugs. It is worth noting that Holder’s appearance, last summer, at a commemoration to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington inspired a longer and louder round of applause than that of anyone else that afternoon, save the President. Speaking to the crowd gathered on the National Mall, Holder remarked:

This morning, we affirm that this struggle must, and will, go on in the cause of our nation’s quest for justice—until every eligible American has the chance to exercise his or her right to vote, unencumbered by discriminatory or unneeded procedures, rules, or practices. It must go on until our criminal-justice system can insure that all are treated equally and fairly in the eyes of the law. And it must go on until every action we take reflects our values and that which is best about us. It must go on until those now living, and generations yet to be born, can be assured the rights and opportunities that have been too long denied to too many.

It’s one thing to make this kind of statement in the abstract; it is quite another to make it in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Voting Rights Act discriminates against white Southerners. The Court was responding to concerns that only the most naïve form of idealism could render as being driven by something other than race; and yet, this is a disclaimer commonly offered by those on the contemporary political right. The difference between the civil-rights era and today is not simply evolving racial attitudes but the sincerity with which those attitudes are expressed. Unlike the age of the proud segregationist, the contemporary creed of racial progress has resulted in an entirely dishonest state of affairs—one in which any action, no matter how clearly racial in intent or outcome, is followed by a declaration of innocence and a résumé of racial goodwill.

That Sarah Palin, assorted Tea Party elements, and two-thirds of Republicans deem impeachment of the President a worthy undertaking only underscores the point. It’s easy to see this as simply a symptom of the partisan abyss that afflicts our politics—in 2005, nearly three-quarters of Democrats favored impeaching George W. Bush, and Congressman John Conyers authored a resolution to determine whether there were grounds to begin proceedings. That the fictive Benghazi and I.R.S. scandals have brought Republicans to the position that Democrats adopted only after the initiation of an unnecessary war and unwarranted national surveillance and the most inept handling of a national disaster in American history suggests, at the least, a sliding scale of outrage. More to the point, what we now call partisanship is simply the acceptable means to express other sublimated and less acceptable contempts.

To an extent we seldom acknowledge, the two major parties today are the lineal descendants of the forces shaped by the civil-rights movement and those shaped by the “Southern strategy.” Both play out the logical extensions of their points of origin. Holder memorably referred to the U.S. as a “nation of cowards” when it comes to race, but that could be a better state of affairs than the one we now have. It’s far more damning that this is a nation of self-declared racial innocents, blithely detached from its past and their prejudices. Cowards have no choice but to understand their own fearfulness. Innocents recognize no culpability, and thus are blamelessly capable of anything at all.

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8 days ago
Love this. "What we now call partisanship is simply the acceptable means to express other sublimated and less acceptable contempts."
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Who's Buying J. Crew's New XXXS Clothes? : The New Yorker

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At first, the new clothing sizes that J. Crew established in May—000 and XXXS—seem to send an outrageous message to women. Pants in this size fit a twenty-three-inch waist; the average American woman measures thirty-seven-and-a-half inches. The shopping blog Racked described the triple zero as “a whole new level of crazy.” The celebrity chef Rachael Ray called it “the silliest, most asinine thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” A Facebook commenter wrote, “Finally, something I can wear. On my arm.”

What’s happening at J. Crew can be difficult for Americans to grasp: as the U.S. has become a less attractive place to open stores, retail isn’t solely about their needs anymore. The triple-zero and extra-extra-extra-small clothing is not designed for the average shopper in Houston, Miami, or even Manhattan. Instead, J. Crew said that the sizes are a response to the requests of petite Asian customers, particularly at its new stores in Hong Kong, who had trouble finding Pixie pants and boyfriend jeans that fit them.

American pundits reported J.Crew’s explanation, but many of them immediately discounted it. They shouldn’t. As I wrote in March, opportunities to build stores in the U.S. are dwindling. So J. Crew and many other chains, along with mall developers, are turning to Asia. Abercrombie & Fitch and Old Navy recently opened their first stores in mainland China; Victoria’s Secret plans to do the same later this year. “China is our primary growth driver and will be our company’s focus for the next decade,” an Abercrombie executive told Ad Age. Eventually, the company said, Abercrombie may open more than a hundred stores there. Hong Kong, where J. Crew opened two stores in May, has become one of the most desirable retail markets worldwide.

There may be a limit to the number of U.S. companies that can keep growing in Asia.

New Asian millionaires, along with their counterparts in Russia and the Middle East, have also revived the couture business. At Chanel’s haute-couture show in Paris last week, the front row included the Korean pop singer CL, the Korean-Australian actress Jung Ryeo-won, the Taiwanese actress Gwei Lun-Mei, and Angelica Cheung, the editor-in-chief of Vogue China, whose dark bob mimics Anna Wintour’s. (Vogue China is published by Condé Nast, the New Yorker’s parent company, in partnership with China Pictorial.) “Our sizes typically run big, and the Asia market runs small,” a J. Crew spokeswoman said. She noted that the triple zero—available online and in the Hong Kong stores—makes up the smallest proportion of its sales.

Critics of the triple zero have reason to be sensitive about the issue of size in women’s clothing. Since the size zero, and then the double zero, first appeared in stores, feminists have pointed out that pro-eating-disorder groups idealize it. “It signifies the desire to be so small, you can simply disappear, be nothing, fade into zero-ness,” Samantha Escobar wrote for the Web site the Gloss. Studies have found correlations between exposure to a very thin (and often Photoshopped) ideal in the media and dissatisfaction with one’s own body and eating disorders. Margaret Atwood captured the relationship between size and sexual politics in her 1969 novel “The Edible Woman,” in which the narrator, recently engaged, gradually loses her desire to eat and fears that she is being consumed; the beginning of the cocktail party to celebrate her engagement is described as “zero hour.”

Yet even the definition of a zero isn’t as fixed as one might think. As retailers expand globally, one challenge they face is that sizes don’t translate easily from one market to another. J. Crew’s size chart shows that a U.S. triple zero is the equivalent of a zero in the U.K., a twenty-eight in France, and a one in Japan. (The largest U.S. size available is a twenty, or XXL.) Even within the U.S., sizes vary from brand to brand.

This wasn’t always so. The United States used to have a consistent sizing system, and it looks nothing like the one brands use today. Kathleen Fasanella, a professional patternmaker and consultant who has written prolifically about women’s sizing, told me that what we call a sixteen today was once "a pretty small size." (When people claim that Marilyn Monroe wore a size sixteen, that doesn’t mean what they think it means; estimates put her in the equivalent of a size four to eight today.) According to Fasanella, women’s sizes once corresponded to the markings on an L-square, or tailor’s square, a tool used by patternmakers to determine scale. But customers didn’t find the system intuitive, so retailers pressured manufacturers to move away from it. The National Bureau of Standards studied women’s body measurements, calculating such variables as “abdominal extension” and “bust point to bust point,” relying heavily on a study of fifteen thousand women conducted between 1939 and 1940. In 1958, the bureau designated clothing sizes in even numbers from eight to thirty-eight, with a plus symbol for fuller-hipped women and a minus symbol for slender figures. As women became larger, though, the standards became less relevant. In the nineteen-eighties, the system was eliminated.

Fasanella told me that the notion of “vanity sizing”—whereby retailers deliberately increase the measurements of each clothing size so that women feel better about the number on the tag and therefore spend more—is a myth, at least as it’s usually described. Because Americans have gotten heavier over time, retailers have had to adjust their sizes upward to keep their “medium,” which today corresponds to a size eight or ten in the U.S., as the most popular size. (To use fabric efficiently, Fasanella said, “you should be selling two mediums for every small and every large.”) If your weight has remained constant over many years, you might wear a smaller size today than you did ten years ago.

J. Crew’s development of new sizes to serve Asian customers makes good business sense, and it is no less arbitrary than most other sizing standards. Someday, it might be logical for retailers to converge on a single, international size chart—but it doesn’t seem likely. Americans enjoy being outliers, and we never did manage to adopt the metric system.

Photograph by Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty.

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12 days ago
Dispels some interesting myths about sizing in women's clothing.
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The Weird, Scary and Ingenious Brain of Maria Bamford

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Maria Bamford has a mantra of sorts, and here it is: Do the work. Three words, three syllables. An easy, orderly thing. She tells it to herself when she wakes up in the morning, whether it’s at her bungalow in a middle-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Los Angeles or at a Holiday Inn in Boston or a Marriott in Bloomington, or any of the other highway-side hotels she hits for one night before moving on. Do the work. It’s a stay against paralysis, against the descent of dread. It’s less dramatic than “seize the day!” more affirming than “stop overthinking everything!” It is functional, and that’s what she’s trying to be. Do the work. She repeats it on airplanes, in taxis, on the long walks she takes to calm her nerves before a show. Sometimes she amends it to: Just do the work, the “just” a reminder that she’s not, after all, performing surgery on babies. There’s another, more refined version, too. Do your bits, she’ll tell herself, resigned to the idea that this may always be a struggle. Just do your bits.

It should be simple, even if it’s not. Because she’s a comedian, and comedians do bits.

The first time I met Bamford, one evening in May, she was at a theater in Boston, about to step in front of an audience of roughly 600 people. She had been rehearsing her bits all afternoon, silently delivering jokes as she speed-walked alone along the Charles River, internally running through the intricacies of her timing as she browsed a couple of bookstores in Cambridge, thinking up a few chummy Boston references she could throw in to her 60-minute monologue. Now, dressed in black pants and a quilted North Face pullover, Bamford paced a small room backstage, her layered blond hair mussed and a little spiky, her blue eyes downcast as she avoided chitchat. What she was feeling, she’d later tell me, was “terror.”

You would think that stage fright, at this point in her career, wouldn’t be an issue. Bamford is 43. She has been doing stand-up comedy since her early 20s, when she was living in Minneapolis, a two-hour drive from her childhood home in Duluth. She has put out three well-received albums, twice done sets on “The Tonight Show,” landed a guest role on the third season of “Louie” and has had two half-hour specials on Comedy Central. Judd Apatow has described her as “the most unique, bizarre, imaginative comedian out there right now.” Last year, she appeared in the Netflix revival of “Arrested Development,” stealing scenes as DeBrie Bardeaux, a freakish, endearing meth addict in recovery. Mitchell Hurwitz, the show’s creator, calls Bamford “a genius” and “a real artist.” He adds, “Real artists talk about things that nobody else talks about, and talk about them candidly.”

Things Bamford likes to talk about candidly include the fact that she has disabling bouts of anxiety and depression, that she has contended with a form of O.C.D. called “unwanted thoughts syndrome” and that during her childhood, those unwanted thoughts came in the form of constant worries she might kill her own family or sexually molest animals. And while her comedy routinely traverses more everyday subject matter — she mimics her stalwart Minnesotan parents with devastating precision; she deftly does bits about emojis, online dating and her deep lack of interest in cooking — all of it seems anchored, one way or another, in Bamford’s psychological fragility. When she does her stand-up, when she acts on television and most notably in several web series she has written and starred in, she plays an exaggerated version of herself — a tremolo-voiced woman with a stunned expression, trying to navigate a world of people whose confidence is appreciably higher than her own.

In her work, she describes having done stints at inpatient psychiatric units and also the diagnosis she received a few years ago of Type-II Bipolar, an increasingly recognized variant of bipolar disorder. (“It’s the new gladiator sandal!” she will declare onstage.) Narrating the particulars of her psychology, which also include a history of binge-eating and having suicidal thoughts, Bamford displays little in the way of anguish and nothing resembling self-pity. She appears before audiences simply as vulnerable, as someone whose ongoing presence in the world is not entirely assured. She likens herself in temperament to a daffodil or an orchid, capable of wilting if the conditions aren’t perfect.

In Boston that night, she stood in the shadows at the edge of the curtain, watching a local comic, a tall woman with a swaying Afro, perform a warm-up set for the waiting crowd. Every time the other comedian delivered a joke, Bamford guffawed loudly from the wings, an odd, overdone warble that split the darkness, offering encouragement to the lesser-known act. Comedy, like most businesses, is baldly hierarchical. Bamford herself is only midway up the ladder, a headliner but not a superstar. She wants more, but then again she doesn’t. Just do the work.

The audience was now applauding. It was her turn to go on. Her jitters revved, as they always do. Smiling almost sheepishly, she began the 15-foot walk across the empty stage, toward the puddle of light with a microphone at its center. She looked, in that moment, like a woman who would either crumble or roar.

The minute Bamford lifted the microphone, her nervousness morphed into something more potent and focused. She began with some lighter material about making a ceramic dog for her father and a Vine video she could play anytime someone complained she wasn’t good at expressing her emotions. (She acted it out onstage in jerky, six-second bursts: “I love you . . . O.K.? I love you . . . O.K.?”) From there, she ran through an exuberant and juvenile riff on farting, including a lot of vivid sound effects, and then eventually she rounded the corner, as she almost always does, to talking about suicide. (“Is anyone thinking of suicide?” she asked the crowd, sounding merry. “Well, don’t do it, it’s not the season for it.” She then crinkled her face into a childish pout. “And people will be so mad at you if you do that.”)

Much of Bamford’s work examines the relationship between “people” — generally well-intentioned friends and family — and those who grapple with depression or anxiety or any other challenge to the psyche. Her act is a series of monologues and mini-skits performed rapid fire and often without regard for transition. Deploying a range of deadpan voices, she mimics the faux-enlightened who hover around the afflicted, offering toothless platitudes (“You just need to get out in nature”), bootstrapping pep talks (“It’s all about attitude. You gotta want it!”) or concern warped by self-interest (“You’d think you’d just stop vomiting for me and the kids”). The humor of any given moment relies not so much on punch lines as it does on the impeccably timed swerves of her tone, the interplay between Bamford’s persona and those of all the people who don’t get her. Often, she is demonstrating helplessness on both sides. “We love you, Maria,” Bamford says, imitating her 69-year-old Midwestern mother, Marilyn, in one of her recorded performances, heaving a fed-up sigh. “We love you, we love you, but it’s hard to be around you.”

Bamford is a small person, narrow-shouldered and spindly legged. Her speaking voice is also small and a bit quavery, lending a charming uncertainty to anything she says. Wrapped inside the wobbliness, though, is an earned authority. Bamford talks about mental illness the same way Sarah Silverman talks about being Jewish or Louis C.K. talks about being divorced, with the flippant knowingness of an insider. Occasionally, the sharper pieces of her agenda poke through. One of her more jarring bits is about war veterans. She points out that more than 7,000 U.S. veterans die of suicide every year. “Which is funny,” she says, breaking into a giggle as a predictable hush falls over the room, “Because you’d think they’d die over there, but they come home. . . . " The audience quickly explodes into laughter — not because it’s funny, but because it’s funny coming from her.

After the show, a crowd lingered late in front of the theater, waiting to speak with Bamford. She is frequently approached by people who view themselves as part of her tribe, who want to talk about their own diagnoses and tell their own tales of being misunderstood. In making light of the hidden struggles and deep absurdity that accompany living with, or close to someone with, mental illness, she appears to have planted an appealingly honest flag. She gets mothers who say, “I have a daughter just like you,” and daughters who say, “I have a mother just like yours.” She gets people — a lot of people — who say that her frank talk about suicide has made a difference to them personally.

The next morning, Bamford climbed into my car, holding a takeout salad she’d brought from the hotel, an early lunch for the ride ahead. We were going to Albany, about 160 miles away, where that evening she was due to put on another show. Ticket sales, she’d heard, had been slow. As it is with many comics, the specter of bombing always loomed. “I don’t know,” she said as we pulled onto the Interstate. “You may see it tonight.”

I told her I thought the Boston performance was great, but she waved off the compliment.

“It was good,” she said. “I mean, yes . . . , but I was slightly disappointed with myself.”

When I asked why, she fumbled for words. “Just psychologically . . . ,” she began, and then trailed off.

Close up, Bamford is milder than she is onstage. She has a thoughtful and friendly demeanor, but it’s edged with a certain nervousness. The verbal acrobatics that pump energy into her monologues, you soon realize, are not flashes of spontaneous genius but rather the product of huge amounts of time spent in focused rehearsal. (When she’s developing new material, she will pay friends $75 an hour to listen to her practicing bits over the phone.) In casual conversation, words come less easily. Bamford often appears to rethink her sentences midway, leaving many of them unfinished. Some of this may be attributable to Depakote, the mood stabilizer she takes daily. It’s one of a number of concessions she has made in the name of stability. Thanks to the medicine, she also now needs at least 10 hours of sleep each night, she says, “and also another hour to nap.”

When it comes to stage fright, Bamford laments that there seems to be no remedy. She enjoys performing, but only after the fact. Even just thinking about doing stand-up that night made her panicky. “I think I’m going to start working with a coach,” she added. “Just to get some daily support.”

She is, if anything, a dutiful seeker of help. One night in 1990, when she was a sophomore at Bates College in Maine, experiencing a period of despair, she wolfed down a huge amount of food and then called a suicide help line. Ever since, she has maintained faith in support networks. She has participated in 12-step programs for eating disorders, money problems, sex and intimacy struggles and addiction, though substance abuse has not been an issue for her. She just appreciates the company, and also the honesty. “I think 12-step programs are genuinely cognitive behavioral programs,” she told me. “You are out of isolation, and that helps you think differently about things.” When traveling, Bamford looks for local support-group meetings to visit. Otherwise, she attends them by phone. She has found a sense of community in online chat rooms and is a vocal fan of, a website that gives advice about psychiatric medications. (In addition to the Depakote, she also takes Prozac for depression and occasionally beta blockers to calm a tremor in her hands.)

She sometimes talks about her brain as an entity not entirely in her command, as something unruly and perhaps best understood from a slight distance. “My brain wanted me to think,” she will say, describing unhealthy perceptions, or “My brain wasn’t doing so great,” recalling a darker time. Her brain, she has found, behaves best in controlled settings, thriving on rules and boundaries. Twelve-step programs are good this way. And so, too, curiously enough, is stand-up comedy, stage fright notwithstanding. When at one point I remarked that putting yourself alone onstage before a judgmental audience seemed like a punishing thing to do, Bamford said: “Yes, but for me it’s also a structured environment, and structured environments feel safe. I’m up there in the lights, saying what I want to say, and they’re sitting a safe distance away.”

Most everyone I spoke to about Bamford felt compelled to mention that she’s a deep thinker, an observant introvert who processes everything carefully. “She’s always churning the butter,” was how her older sister, Sarah Seidelmann, put it.

“You know what it’s like?” says Jackie Kashian, a comedian who has known Bamford for about 20 years and sometimes travels with her as an opening act. “It’s like being best friends with Hermione Granger. You spend a lot of time in the library.”

And it’s true. Bamford normally hauls a bag of books and magazines with her when she travels, never knowing where she might find a steadying revelation. She’s a lover of recovery memoirs, psychology tomes and bullet-pointed self-help manuals. She can quote liberally from “The Artist’s Way,” by Julia Cameron. She reads O.C.D. books with titles like “Tormenting Thoughts and Secret Rituals.” She also plows through People magazine as well as lots of highbrow literary writing and is, in particular, a fan of Dave Eggers. (“I sometimes put my name next to his,” she confides in a 2011 video she posted online about books she loves. “Like, what would it be like to be Mrs. Eggers?”)

She is bolstered, she says, by hard facts. A subscriber to AARP Magazine, she enjoys citing studies about health and longevity. A few years ago, after reading in a book that people who feel a strong sense of community have been proven to lead longer and happier lives, Bamford started working to overcome her natural shyness and fear of interaction by saying hello to her neighbors in Eagle Rock, a diverse and partly gentrified area on the northeastern edge of Los Angeles. She bought a park bench and had it installed on the median strip in front of her house. She then spray-stenciled the words “Have a Seat!” on the sidewalk in front of it. To her delight, the bench is often occupied. “It’s like a bird feeder for humans,” she says.

In the car that day, Bamford told me she was reading something called “The Procrastinator’s Handbook,” which was all about overcoming anxiety and just doing the work. She told a story about how a couple of years ago, when she was feeling leveled by depression and anxiety, a mutual friend connected her with the comedian Jonathan Winters, who was at that point well into his 80s. (He died last year.) Like Bamford, Winters was a gifted mimic, known for creating satirical characters. He also suffered breakdowns, spent time as a patient in psych hospitals and as early as the 1960s was hinting at his psychological struggles in his comedy routines. Eventually, too, he was given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Bamford recalls that when she spoke to Winters on the phone, she was just out of the hospital herself and deeply scared about continuing on with both comedy and life. Winters, she says, offered what turned out to be a useful bit of blunt-force wisdom. “He said: ‘You got a good shrink? Yes? Well then, you just keep going.’ ”

Bamford has a song that she sometimes performs onstage called “My Anxiety Song.” It has no melody. Instead, it sounds more like an incantation, a desperate verbal hum. “If I keep the ice-cube trays filled,” she chants, “no one will diiiiieeee.” She continues, in a monotone, “As long as I clench my fists at odd intervals, then the darkness within me won’t force me to do anything inappropriate or sexual” — here, she drops her voice a couple of notes — “at dinner partieeeees. . . . “

This, she is saying, is the agony of O.C.D., the skewed sense of cause and effect that first began to plague her when she was about 10. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 2.2 million adult Americans contend with some form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s not uncommon for the symptoms to appear during childhood. Bamford is patient when explaining the particulars, aware that when she jokes about having wanted to chop up her family into bits or imagining what it would be like to lick a urinal, it can make her sound weird and also scary. But she makes a distinction: It’s the thoughts that are weird and scary, not the person. And while most of us are prone to having fleeting notions that would qualify as inappropriate, in the mind of someone with O.C.D., they are more likely to lodge themselves and repeat. The thoughts don’t tend to inspire action, only fear. It’s like having a homegrown terrorist in the brain.

During her childhood, the thoughts kept her from sleeping. As her anxieties combined with exhaustion, she began to isolate herself, contemplating suicide as early as middle school. At some point, she shared her fears with her mother. The whole family — Bamford, her parents and her sister — went to counseling for a while, with mixed results. “We weren’t in the golden age of psychotherapy in Duluth,” recalls Marilyn Bamford, who was then a stay-at-home-mother but later became a family therapist herself. Maria remembers going to the therapist and “mostly just taking naps on her couch, because I was so tired, and it felt like a safe place.”

Her compulsion for violent thoughts felt so shocking that she was afraid to share them, even in therapy. She finished two years of college in Maine and another year at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland — feeling “supercompulsive and superdepressed the whole time” — before transferring to the University of Minnesota, where she majored in creative writing. At 22, she was prescribed antidepressants, which helped only somewhat.

Throughout it all, she was drawn to performing. As a child, Bamford showed talent as a violinist. She acted and sang in school plays. In her early 20s, she shaved off all her hair and moved into a feminist housing collective in Minneapolis, holding down a job at a pizza place while doing what she calls “hippie performance art” in coffee shops and black-box theaters, mixing violin-playing into her act. To earn extra money, she busked on the street with the violin. “I was really just trying to express myself,” she says. Being a baldheaded woman, she sees now, was an unconscious ploy to ward off intimacy and keep her struggles hidden: “People are like, ‘Oh, you’re a weirdo, I’ll stay away.’ ”

During this period, Bamford met Jackie Kashian, who performed at open-mike shows in Minneapolis, where Bamford would sometimes surface, thin and hairless and carrying her violin. “Her material was always sideways,” Kashian remembers. “She wasn’t examining the same topics a lot of other people were examining. It wasn’t going to be: ‘Hey! Airline food!’ or, ‘How am I gonna date more?’ It was usually like, ‘There’s this weird thing happening in Sudan.’ ” Club owners often perceived Bamford as “too smart for the room,” she says, adding, “Sometimes that’s just a polite way of saying ‘I don’t get you.’ ”

It wasn’t until she was in her mid-30s, after moving to Los Angeles, that Bamford finally found an O.C.D. specialist who was able to treat her unwanted thoughts using a technique called “flooding.” She was instructed to write down her compulsive fears in exacting detail, then to record herself reading them out loud and, finally, to play them back for herself, again and again, until they stopped causing her anxiety. Most of her fears were about harming other people or forcing herself on someone sexually. She recalls the flooding exercise as “horrifying and painful,” but potent in what it accomplished. While she continues to contend with other psychological challenges, the unwanted thoughts, she says, still sounding amazed, “just went away.”

Over time, too, Bamford has managed to build a stronger bridge between herself and her audiences, largely through truthful self-disclosure. She talks about wanting to commit suicide, calling it a “[expletive] idea,” one of her many stupid thoughts, like buying day-old raisin bread in bulk and freezing it. “My experience is so embarrassing,” she says. “But I’ve learned that it’s O.K. to be yourself. . . . It’s better than pretending that it’s not there.”

Bamford understands that her condition is most likely steered by genetics, or as she sometimes phrases it onstage, “Mentals run in the family.” “My great-grandmother lived her whole life in an attic,” she told me. “Maybe there were other reasons, but my mom seems to think, from her letters and stuff, that she was massively depressed.” Her father, a retired dermatologist, has also cycled through periods of depression. And in 2010, Marilyn Bamford landed briefly in the psychiatric ward of a Duluth hospital, having gone off Depakote, which she’d taken for decades to combat seizures (it’s prescribed for epilepsy and bipolar conditions), and started showing signs of mania. “She was calling the pope and emailing my manager, telling him I was in danger,” Bamford says. “It’s really scary to see someone you know change so quickly like that.”

Her mother’s hospitalization seemed to confirm something Bamford had long suspected about herself, that despite the fact she was now a reasonably well functioning adult with what was starting to look like a sustainable show-business career, there remained a lingering capacity for meltdown. Any gathering clouds were not to be ignored. “I said to my friends, if I ever start talking too fast, please just take me to the hospital,” she said. She had even done a kind of comic rehearsal for it, filming a 2007 web series called “The Maria Bamford Show,” in which a depressed comedian named Maria Bamford — played by Bamford — has a nervous breakdown and moves home to Duluth, tended to by her parents (also played by Bamford), who come off as bumbling, endearingly idiosyncratic and unwittingly critical. The series is hilarious and unusual, and it boosted her cult following.

In 2011, things were going well professionally. Bamford was getting regular voice-over work on television. She had starred in a popular series of preholiday ads for Target, playing an overhyped shopper. She was booking stand-up gigs as far away as Australia and playing larger and larger venues in the U.S. But her mind, as she puts it, had become like “an untethered jackhammer.” Her energy soared and crashed. After one of her two dogs, a pug named Blossom, took a tumble off her back porch and died — something for which Bamford blames herself, having removed a ramp connecting the porch to the yard — her mood went permanently black. “I could not find any comfort at all — just nothing, and for months,” she says. “I felt terrible, and my brain felt terrible. In the past, I’d always been able to be like, ‘Oh, I’ll write in my journal or read my self-help book, or I’ll call people and get out of this mood,’ ” she says. “But it wasn’t a mood. It was like, ‘Yeah, I’m gone.’ ”

Over the course of about 18 months, she was hospitalized on three occasions, for periods ranging from three to seven days, each time checking herself into the psych ward of a different L.A.-area hospital. “I thought it was the responsible thing to do,” Bamford says now. The hospital stays were in part a way to switch her medications under supervision (she received a Bipolar II diagnosis during her first admission), and in part meant to keep her from committing suicide, which she says had gone from being a vague idea to something that felt like a foregone conclusion, a rational next step.

Bamford’s sister, Sarah Seidelmann, visited her at Glendale Adventist hospital and says she felt taken aback by the number of patients who seemed lost in schizophrenia or were practically catatonic with depression. “I remember thinking, Oh, my gosh, all these people look terribly dispirited,” Seidelmann says. “These aren’t the people who can help you get better!” Seidelmann, who lives in Minnesota with her husband and four children, is a certified life coach. Her website asks, “Are You Ready for an Absurdly Fantastic Life?” She is also a recurring character in her sister’s stand-up routine, depicted as a hyperalert, finger-chewing realist who sees every problem as innately solvable and who often aggressively tries to redirect her sister’s negative thoughts. (In one skit, when Bamford says, “I’m worried I’m too old to be in show business,” the stage version of Seidelmann spits out an instant dismissal: “Hmmm. Betty White, Dame Judi Dench, Joan Rivers. . . . You’re not old enough!”)

According to Seidelmann, Bamford’s imitations of the family and their various blunders are biting in ways that can be painful — “My father cried, the first time he saw her doing him onstage,” she says — but they can be illuminating, not just inside the family but also inside a world rife with struggling people. Bamford’s comedy swims with paradox. She skewers the culture of self-improvement but relies on it, too. She pokes fun at the people who blithely misunderstand her, but also credits them for giving her love and shelter. (“You’re horrible,” she thinks about a friend who visits her in the psych ward and says all the wrong things. “But can you come back tomorrow?”) She addresses the loneliest of gulfs, acknowledging the confounding intimacies of living with and in proximity to mental illness — the whipsawing, humbling forbearance required from everyone involved.

Seidelmann, when I talked to her on the phone, got choked up, recalling seeing her sister pale and quiet and surrounded by a lot of hard-luck cases in the linoleum-floored psych ward in 2011. “My first instinct was to say, ‘Dude let’s get you out of this place,’ ” she says. “But Maria was trying to tell me something different. She was saying, ‘I feel safer here than I do at home.’ ”

Last month, I went to a meeting with Bamford in Los Angeles. It wasn’t a support-group meeting, but rather a business meeting, at a sprawling Beverly Hills office complex that’s rapidly being taken over by Netflix. As the company grows, there could be opportunity for someone like Maria Bamford, whose sensibilities don’t readily bend to those of network television but whose appeal with certain, quirk-loving audiences is well established. For the last few months, Bamford had been talking with Mitchell Hurwitz, the “Arrested Development” creator — a comic maverick in his own right — who had recently signed a development deal with Netflix, which came with an office and a mandate to launch new series.

“We’ve been drinking bottled water and eating salads and thinking out loud,” Bamford told me. “It’s how things get done in L.A.” She was dressed that day in jeans and a blue-green blouse, and when we met, in the sunshine outside the Netflix headquarters, she also wore an enormous wide-brimmed black hat. Something about it, the big, drooping hat sitting atop her thin-stemmed body, reminded me of how she likened herself sometimes to a flower, how vulnerability and resilience can coexist.

These days, Bamford credits the Depakote with keeping her stable. She sees a therapist weekly and a psychiatrist every three months. She no longer feels suicidal and remarks on that often — “It’s incredible!” she says — as if she has finally, after 33 years, shaken a persistent head cold. Following the hospitalizations, she says, it took almost eight months before she felt well enough to work at anything resembling a regular pace.

There’s a sweetness attached to her newfound balance: Bamford is in her first sustained romantic relationship, with an artist named Scott Marvel Cassidy, whom she met in early 2013 on <a href="" rel="nofollow"></a>, advertising herself under the user name Hogbook. (“I used to have a profile that suggested I was fun-loving and happy,” she says. “But Hogbook felt more honest.”)

When Bamford and I walked into Hurwitz’s office that day, he embraced her warmly. Hurwitz is effusive and has a quick-moving wit. The show they were discussing would be based roughly on Bamford’s life experiences, including, possibly, her stays in the psych ward. “I guess what I want to do is make mental illness feel more normal, more like a regular thing,” Bamford said. The question was how to develop the central character and give her a compelling narrative arc. Hurwitz mentioned that a few nights earlier he sent an email to Bamford, wondering what the Maria character’s trajectory should be. “What’s she aiming at?” he wanted to know. To which Bamford replied, only partly joking, “Maria don’t do trajectories.”

Conversations about ambition, especially since her hospitalizations, cause her to blanch. She has cut back on her travel, doing only a couple of shows on the road per month. She continues to do voice-over work and has had some small television parts, but she no longer goes to auditions, understanding that her oddball style is unlikely to land her any conventional roles. When she does things now, they are very much on her own terms. Her latest special — called “The Special Special Special!” which she made available for download late in 2012 — was released in May on Netflix. Rather than filming a live theater performance, as most comics do, she chose to stage her act in the comfort of her own living room in Eagle Rock. Lit by amateurish spotlights and with a keyboardist playing music during transitions, Bamford delivers a rollicking 45-minute set to an audience of two — her parents — who sit on her sofa, trying to look appreciative, clapping and laughing even as she mimics them. It makes for a weirder and funnier show and also, as her comedy often does, makes a subtler point about the burden families bear.

Critics have called Bamford’s special “hilarious,” “fearless” and “brilliant.” Riding alongside the compliments is a perceptible whiff of anticipation, a sense that she’s sitting on the edge of bigger things. The question of how hard to push herself, however, openly perplexes her. In our conversations, she fretted over whether it was O.K. to be a marginally productive comic, wondering if, in dialing back her time on the road, for example, she was being self-protective or just lazy. “I look at people who are hustling,” she said on the day we drove to Albany. “They’re working their butts off and doing a great job, and I don’t know if I’m ever going to be that person. I mean, I think there’s a reason I’m not famous.”

Bamford even has a bit about her productivity in her routine: “People want to know: ‘So what are you working on? What’s going on with you? What’s the next page? What’s coming up for you? What’s on the horizon?’ ” she says, adopting the fatuous voice of someone making small talk. “And I say: ‘Oh. I’m done. . . . Yeah, I finished early. I’m actually living in a gravy boat filled with delicious gravy.’ ”

I got to see her do that bit in May after we finally reached Albany that night. Bamford had worried about ticket sales, but the house was full. She’d worried that the comic opening for her, an energetic young New Yorker named Joyelle Nicole Johnson, wouldn’t make it to the theater on time, but she did. Twenty minutes before the show, Bamford sat on a worn couch in the greenroom with her legs crossed, anxiously reading her copy of “The Procrastinator’s Handbook,” which was filled with sentences she’d underlined in ballpoint and drawn big stars next to in the margins. Soon, the stage manager would come to get her and the house lights would dim. Soon, she’d be out there, making her case for the mentals and hearing people laugh in recognition. They always did. Earlier, in describing the stage fright, she told me that she knew that performing wasn’t exactly a life-or-death thing. But somehow, it still felt like an exercise in overcoming.

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12 days ago
If you are not a Maria Bamford fan, you should be. So happy to see her work get this kind of platform.
San Francisco, CA
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