Search Results for: knife ax

Shovel, Knife, Story, Ax

Illustration by David Huang

Erika Howsare | Longreads | May 2019 | 18 minutes (4,826 words)

I am going to tell you a bunch of stories about killing and death, but the first one is a story about a story. It was short, and my neighbor was the storyteller. He told it to John and me ten years ago, the first time we met him. After hello, his very next words to us were: “I once killed a copperhead on your kitchen table.”

Taken aback, we laughed. In those days, we had no killing stories of our own. Now, things are different.

Hear the self-defense in this one:

One morning last June, the day of the solstice, I had a little time on my hands. We had a vet appointment at 10:30 and it was 10:18, a bit too soon to wheedle the cat into the car. I brought some things down to the basement of our old house to put them away.

In the underground chill I deposited the laundry basket on top of the washer, turned back toward the stairs, and heard a little sound. Like a soft slap, an object slipping onto the floor. I looked. There are often animals in the basement, birds and crickets and mice. This was a snake. Read more…

Telling Stories In Order to Live: On Writing and Money

Sarah Menkedick | Longreads | January 2020 | 14 minutes (3,866 words)

I made the decision to write full time in the summer of 2008. I was leaving a teaching position in Beijing, and moving back to Oaxaca, Mexico, my husband’s hometown. I said I was going to “live from writing.” I had no idea what that really meant, but it was a leap I wanted to take.

We lived in a $150-a-month apartment in a scruffy colonia on the outskirts of the city. The financial bar I had set for myself was around $500 a month. I met this at first by grading practice TESOL exams online. This meant hours upon hours of listening to nervous Koreans analyze Harry Potter or explain worm digestion. I was so bored I pulled out enough of my own hair to give myself a bald spot.

From here, I moved on to writing practice TESOL exams, then practice SAT exams for a Korean contractor who worked for the Princeton Review in Asia. This took less time and paid more, leaving hours of the day free for me to write overwrought and purplish essays about my travel experiences. Nights, Jorge and I ate tlayudas in a nearby señora’s garage and drank forties of Corona. A few months into my full-time writing life, I got a gig as a blogger and editor at a travel site. I learned WordPress and basic HTML and got to publish my overwrought and purplish essays on a platform for an actual audience. In the meantime, I started my second personal blog, named for — cringe with me here — a Julio Cortázar short story. My blog allowed me to publish experimental essays in Spanglish and wax philosophical about the old man at the market who carved wooden airplanes. It allowed me, in other words, to suck.

My writing sucked for a long time in diverse ways, with the occasional sentence or paragraph or maybe even mini-essay that was half decent and resonant with the promise of the actually good. In late 2009, I went to a goat slaughter at an old hacienda in Huajuapan de Léon, a dry and dusty city a few hours from Oaxaca. The slaughter was an annual event in which local herders brought their goats to be killed en masse, their meat and skin and blood and bones all put immediately to use.

It allowed me, in other words, to suck.

The scene at the hacienda seemed straight out of the 1700s. The killing was more humane than I’d expected; one swift knife in the throat and the animal died instantly. Hundreds of goats were killed simultaneously so that none had to anticipate suffering. In courtyards around the hacienda, women carved the skin from the bones and hung it like underwear to dry, men etched out internal organs and tossed them in blue buckets. Kids raced around playing tag in bloody huaraches. I took notes nonstop in my little notebook. We returned to the city late at night, and the next morning I woke up at six and started writing.

It took me three days to complete a narrative of the experience. I wrote with a concentration, intensity, and focus I’d never had before, but for which all the sucky writing of the past year (and the previous decade, in bits and pieces) had prepared me. On a whim, I applied to six MFA programs and submitted the goat essay as my writing sample. One by one the rejections rolled in, until only one school was left. I not only had to get in, I had to get funding, which wasn’t guaranteed, so I figured it was probably all over. Then one day I returned from my run and opened my email and there was an acceptance from the University of Pittsburgh, guaranteeing me full funding for the duration of the three-year program. I screamed. I jumped around the apartment screaming. I dragged Jorge out of bed and we ran down the street to our friends’ apartment and we all drank shots of mezcal at nine in the morning. I would have three years to write, full-time, funded.

In 2010 Jorge and I moved back to the U.S. for my program. The following year, I got an internship at Harper’s Magazine and started Vela, my own magazine of nonfiction writing by women. The idea of the magazine was to counter some of the frustration I’d felt in New York at the narrowness of what might be called the legacy literary world, its white, male Ivy-Leagueness. I invited five women writers I knew and respected to participate, and the concept was for us to have a collective portfolio of our skills. I was idealistic in the way of the clueless outsider. I just wanted our small group of women to show that we could write. We published stories about abusive relationships. About the Zapatistas. About stepparenting. About chronic illness. About gold mines in Peru and gangs in Ecuador and the lingering impacts of genocide in Cambodia. None of our work was paid. Our crew put in hours and hours of writing, of editing each other’s work, of copyediting and designing and promoting and participating in epic rambly email threads. All of us had day jobs: grad school, teaching, editing. We wanted to prove to ourselves and the gatekeepers that we could do it. And we did.

One by one, we grew more successful: We published in major magazines. We won grants. Some of us went on to write books, others got teaching jobs. Meanwhile we opened the magazine up for submissions. Had we been a standard literary journal, pay would’ve been a nonissue. Literary journals rarely pay and if they do, they pay enough to subsidize, say, a new pair of jeans. But we operated in a liminal zone — most of us didn’t consider ourselves journalists and we didn’t define our magazine or its mission as journalism, but most of our work wasn’t in the more academic or highly “literary” essayistic style either. We were somewhere between literary journalism and travel writing and essay writing and narrative, and this ambiguity of genre had been part of the point in the first place: to push on the boundaries of those categories. It seemed clear that journalism had to be funded and well-compensated. Literary writing, less so, although why wasn’t exactly clear. I got hundreds of emails after we’d opened to submissions from writers who demanded to know how much we paid. Many of these emails consisted of semi-belligerent offers to write “guest posts” about personal travel experiences for a certain fee. When I said we didn’t pay, I often got angry rants in response, once from a woman who had no significant bylines or books, but who charged upward of $2,000 for her writing workshops. She called our magazine a scam. Meanwhile, I read the explosion of think and opinion pieces on paying writers. I was about to graduate from my MFA program and become a full-time freelancer. By this point, five years into “living from writing,” I wanted to be paid for my creative work. I knew I wouldn’t write for my own magazine if it didn’t pay. And so we ran a Kickstarter exclusively with the point of paying writers, and we raised $28,000. With that money we were able to publish some extraordinary work from writers we might not have gotten otherwise: two essays led to major book deals, others led to grants and to longer, more in-depth journalistic stories with bigger magazines.

Ultimately, our biggest mistake was not budgeting any money for ourselves: We’d been bombarded with commentary about the importance of paying writers, but not editors. The latter worked for a paltry stipend or no salary at all. None of us had the time or the desire to take on a full-time business role. Instead, we put the magazine on hiatus while we tried to figure out future funding and plans. In the meantime, dozens of other magazines sprouted up, all in that space between journalism and the literary essay. Most of these advertised boldly and proudly that they paid — but upon investigation, the pay was $50. Maybe $100 or $200 for a long-form piece. The conversation about “writing for free” continued, now focused on the insult of being asked to write “for exposure,” with the usual rants on Twitter and think pieces making the rounds. The idea of an experienced writer being asked to do her professional work for a major media corporation for “exposure” is ludicrous and insulting. But all the bombast and pressure and rhetoric around writing “for free” ignores a few key realities: Many professional and experienced writers are being asked to write for very little, which is somehow celebrated as “payment” but is in fact nowhere near a functional wage; and many inexperienced and early-career writers might not be doing work that merits payment. The latter is a reality not many people want to discuss. My early work sucked. No one would have paid for it, and I wouldn’t blame them. I wrote hundreds of thousands of pages that would, were I to print them out, fill an entire room of my house. Little snippets of them ended up published. The 70,000-word book I wrote for my MFA thesis ended up as a 7,000-word Harper’s Magazine story. Bits and pieces of work I’d written about Spanglish and Mexico and my marriage ended up as an Oxford American essay. But most of this work was compost — stinky, rotting, coffee-ground and broken-egg essays feeding richer work down the line. It wasn’t simply that it sucked. It was also that I wrote it for myself: to find out how I saw, what I cared about, how I strung my ideas and scenes together. I wrote it for the basic purpose of trying to figure out what mattered and how to convey that it mattered on the page.

But most of this work was compost — stinky, rotting, coffee-ground and broken-egg essays feeding richer work down the line.

I believe — I stake my existence on believing — that art should be compensated, and compensated with a living wage. This is not a given, which is why I live in Pittsburgh, why I have a part-time job that miraculously provides health insurance. I no longer write “for free.” I have started, in fact, demanding more pay for almost every piece, knowing that as a woman I’ll likely be offered less, and knowing that if I don’t ask I surely won’t get it. At the same time, writing with money as the end goal and predominant measure of value changes the nature of the game. Maybe this isn’t always negative; commercial pressure can work as a valuable creative restraint, forcing writers out of solipsistic indulgences. But thinking only of where a piece will sell, what I can write to make the money I need — urgently need, right now — to pay for our roof, also makes me wonder why I am still doing this. Why live this life of a writer, so poorly compensated in money and acclaim, so uncertain, so competitive, so crazy-making, if I’m not even doing it because I believe in it? If I’m not doing it because I’m writing something I have to write to figure out what it means to be human? Why do it if it’s just a job?

And yet at the same time, of course it’s just a job — this is the secret I didn’t know when I began. It requires the same grind and tedium as a job. The same negotiations for pay and promotion. The same boredom and frustration. But sometimes I need to remember that if it is just this, the meaning can bottom out — then I wonder, why do it at all. There has to be some risk, some leap that may not necessarily be compensated. That is uncertain and scary. Writing that matters is often risky — its saleability may not be immediately obvious, its style may be unconventional, it may break with standard forms and narratives. It does what it has to do to figure itself out. Certainly, there is phenomenal writing that doesn’t necessarily follow these rules, that may pop up within very familiar genres and categories. There is also plenty of writing that flaunts convention and fails to achieve anything of importance. Yet writing for a living often means writing, ultimately, what the market will bear. It means internalizing the stylistic and rhetorical and intellectual underpinnings of the literary behemoths, then shaping one’s work in their image. It means putting the cart of audience — and the style of “high magazine-ese” — before the horse of the idea, of the struggle to make sense of the intractable. It can shrink the work into manageable and predictable frames, and this can explain why so much of what is published and shared feels so familiar, and fails to generate that feeling of the whole world having been rattled and made new.

The other day, I went to a talk by a well-known writer who has become a guru on the business of writing, and she talked quite a bit about audience: She hinted that writers who don’t consider their audience aren’t savvy enough businesspeople, and maybe even self-centered or obsessed with prestige. But I wondered how it is possible to create authentic work, with that essential spark of the urgent and the curious, that is centered first and foremost on an audience’s imagined desires. Trying to derive a work from the question Who’s the audience for x and what will they like? instead of from a thorny idea, or an overpowering emotion, or a story that feels vital seems to me to quash the work’s life and purpose. It becomes purely commercial.

Trying to derive a work from the question Who’s the audience for x and what will they like? instead of from a thorny idea, or an overpowering emotion, or a story that feels vital seems to me to quash the work’s life and purpose. It becomes purely commercial.

I Skyped the other day with my little brother, a fellow artist who lives in Sweden and works as a barista and reaps all the benefits of the Scandanavian welfare state while flailing around trying to make a career out of music. “I know it’s bad when you’re Skypeing me at 1:30 p.m.,” he told me, meaning productivity, career-obsessed me, normally squeezing every last drop of potential wordage and progress out of the day, must be having a crisis if I am sitting in slippers in my backyard at 1 p.m. talking to him. He grinned through a mouthful of frozen pizza. I went on one of the flights of what-is-this-life fancy I can only indulge with him. I talked about Richard Powers’s The Overstory, and how after I read it I had that uncanny feeling of both how limited my work and life are and how profound and big the true mission and scope of art can be. It simultaneously made me want to give up — if I can never do that, why bother? and to forget all my woes and keep going, with a realigned compass focused not on publication but on that feeling I had each night I put The Overstory down. Why live this life, why embark on this madness of writing full-time, constant rejection, constant financial stress, the constant tug of pettiness and ego, if I’m not doing it because I’m trying to get at that essence of connection or meaning or mystery that makes a reader put down a book and just sit for a while and stare, or cry, or call her mother? Why do it if not for that? That, at the end of the day, has very little to do with money.

At the same time, when I have finished a piece of writing now, I am fully aware of the skill and the expertise required to create it — I cannot imagine publishing it for free. It is my livelihood. I need it to be recognized with adequate pay. I need the pay to fund my existence. The pay becomes the recognition and validation that reinforces the meaning of the work. The job and the passion blur in confusing ways, helixed so tightly it’s hard to unwind them. The irony is that the further I get into my career and the more I really need and demand money, the more I come to question what this means for my writing, what I believe and care about as a writer, what I am exchanging for what. It becomes harder and harder to write in that pure void of ideas and perseverance without knowing when the money will come and from where, trusting that eventually, if the work is good enough, it will come. Trusting that if and when it does, it means I’m doing it right. That it’s “worth it.” Eventually, the money has always come, but it has always not been enough, and I have always kept at it anyway believing eventually it will be, and on and on.

Recently, I started a newsletter. I did it in part because of all the pressure to kick off the promotion process for my second book, but also because for years now I’ve been wanting to write the kinds of essays I used to write: introspective, heartfelt, unabashedly Midwestern in spirit, with guest appearances by my dad and Annie Dillard. I didn’t write them and didn’t start the newsletter for years because I wouldn’t be paid, and I thought I should be concentrating only on what I could sell. Yet in starting the newsletter I rediscovered the joy of writing as a fundamental way of being in and moving through the world. It felt so unexpectedly good. I wrote what I wanted, what came from the gut, without any nagging train of thought in the head about who would read and where that would position me and how that would advance my career and what opportunity would open up. I just wrote for the joy of paying attention to my everyday life, thinking about what matters.

No professional writer or artist should be working for free. But neither should they be writing for $50 or $150 or $200, or for a paltry monthly stipend. Instead of painting a stark dichotomy between paid and unpaid work, I wonder if we could think of artistic careers as moving along a spectrum or timeline, from early work that might be funded by other means — MFAs, day jobs — to beginning work that might be paid a small amount, to professional work that should be paid a living wage. A publication offering $50 for an essay can’t announce “We pay!” as a sort of uniform accomplishment; the mere act of paying doesn’t necessarily make the work more valid nor does it properly compensate the work. When the focus becomes so much on the act of payment as a type of validation, not only do other metrics of value get lost — creative freedom and exploration and support — but what it means to pay meaningfully and fairly gets lost as well.

I wrote what I wanted, what came from the gut, without any nagging train of thought in the head about who would read and where that would position me and how that would advance my career and what opportunity would open up. I just wrote for the joy of paying attention to my everyday life, thinking about what matters.

I don’t regret writing for free all those years when I was figuring out how to write. But I have more complicated feelings about writing full-time now for what amounts to barely a living wage. I find it much harder in the early middle of my career to sustain and justify this work — I’m not a 28-year-old graduate student who can live on the same pizza for a week anymore. I have a child. I have a freaking mortgage. I went out for a beer the other night with a friend, also about 10 years into her writing and editing career, very accomplished and very financially unstable, and she said, “We’re too far in now to back out!” It’s true. It feels like we can’t give up. But the path forward is so uncertain — success looks so distinct for each particular artist and may not have any correlation with money. I was whining and moaning with my husband the other night about my career and when I would “make it” and he said, “Maybe you have made it,” and I realized that yes, maybe I have. Had anyone told me in graduate school I’d be writing for the magazines I write for and publishing my second book, I’d have let my head fill with self-congratulatory fantasies of greatness. Now, I spend most mornings writing at a plastic table on our front porch with a fitted sheet as a tablecloth. I am constantly hustling. Sometimes I am fulfilled in the way people can be fulfilled by a single word: writer. Often I am keening anxiously toward the future. This is an object lesson in the human condition of forever wanting more and never being aware of what is going on right here right now, but it’s also a lesson in the improbability and uncertainty of “living from writing” or from any art, of how really going at it with passion and dedication offers no guarantees or certainty or promise of stability. Yes, many artists and writers accept this as common knowledge — perhaps even as a badge of honor — starting out, but there is a very big difference between knowing it at an idealistic 28 and knowing it at 36 with a child, uncertain health insurance, and a house. I am fully aware now of the precise contours, dimensions, nooks, crannies of the gap between my ideals and financial and commercial realities. Much time is spent navigating that gap, possibly as much time as I spend writing.

Writing for free, or for very little, is something I would not and cannot do now — and yet at the same time, I long for the inhibition of that time when my writing wasn’t so hitched to my ability to pay for childcare or buy groceries. I have found it the most difficult to sustain my belief in the larger purpose of what I am doing when I am also desperately trying to get it to pay me and pay me enough. Yet at the same time, I do see progress: I am making a living. I am living from writing, my writing, still the writing I want to do and also writing I sell. But the balance is delicate and fragile. It is not so much between writing for free and writing for pay: it is between writing that makes the act of writing worthwhile, that feels somehow essential to deeper human understanding, and receiving sufficient money for this writing — between the very solitary act of making something I need to make out of a personal urgency and the needs and desires and economic whims of thousands of other people. This is the cost and the meaning of “living from writing.” I keep doing it, because I don’t know what else to do, because I am not qualified to do anything else, because I have come this far and I don’t want to give up now. I keep doing it in the hopes that someday that elusive balance will be struck between financial stability and creative freedom. In the meantime, I try to keep my compass as finely tuned to the north of what troubles me, moves me, confuses me, even as I draw up Google spreadsheets, as I write the tentative notes to editors asking for just a little more, as I cling to that ledge of living from writing and keep trying to peek over the top.

* * *

Sarah Menkedick is the author of Ordinary Insanity: Fear and the Silent Crisis of Motherhood in America, forthcoming from Pantheon in April 2020. Her first book, Homing Instincts, (Pantheon, 2017), was long listed for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. Her work has been featured in Harper’s, Pacific Standard, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Guernica, Oxford American, The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere. She was a 2015-2016 Fulbright Fellow in Oaxaca, Mexico, and a 2019 Creative Nonfiction Writing Fellow. Follow her on Instagram @familiasantiago. Visit her website at

Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Jacob Gross

Addiction’s Seismic Effects on a Family

Illustration by Laurent Hrybyk

Sarah Evans | Longreads | December 2019 | 9 minutes (2,405 words)


“Get the fuck out of my life.”

Sam’s voice wobbles and cracks, confessing to youth and vulnerability that his venom-filled words otherwise mask. The door slams in my face, as my youngest child runs — literally runs — to meet his drug dealer. I heave a sigh and head to bed for the night. We won’t see Sam again tonight, and maybe not tomorrow either.


It wasn’t always like this, but I can construct the map that has led us here. Snippets of his childhood haunt me. Tonight I get lost in a memory of a hot summer night when my kids were spinning around like tops in the backyard under the strings of light that crisscrossed our backyard. I can still hear the peals of laughter escaping Sam, barely out of toddlerhood. His pace picked up, making my stomach flip-flop just watching him. His older sister, Mia, came to an abrupt halt and sat down next to me.
Read more…

Naked City

Illustration by Homestead Studio, based off Oksana Latysheva & Vivali / Getty

Leslie Kendall Dye | Longreads | December, 2019 | 16 minutes (4,411 words)

“No man is an island.”

John Donne

There is a theory that the mind is a collection of symbiotic identities, some conscious, some unconscious, that form an uneasy alliance for the sake of survival. Truthfully, that’s my theory, although I think I read something similar once. I am now working on a new theory, that New York City is similarly a collective, that what looks like a group of entirely separate individuals who happen to walk past one another all day long is actually one great organism.

I find this idea reassuring, because life here can make you feel not just unimpressive, not just peripheral, but entirely negligible. I have lived in New York for more than 22 years, which I am sorry to say is more than half my life. In that time, I have never stopped asking the question: Do I belong here? Am I woven into the tapestry, or am I a dangling thread? How does everyone seem to know one another, and where is everybody going? Why is the line at Sarabeth’s so long? Why are the libraries closed on Sundays? Was there a memo about wearing Hunter rain boots? Why are dogs not allowed in my building? Every day, I am confronted by mysteries. But if New York City is actually dependent on every last person within its boundaries, deriving not just energy but also narrative structure from all who move through it, then maybe I’m not negligible after all.

I have never stopped asking the question: Do I belong here? Am I woven into the tapestry, or am I a dangling thread?

I have tried to explain to others the feeling I get on a typical day in the city — that we are all characters in some sort of Yiddish short story, but it’s unclear who are the heroes and who are the villains, whether it is a comedy or a tragedy, who are the stars, and who are merely the background. You see and hear so many things in a day. So I’ll start from the beginning — the beginning of yesterday, that is, and go through one whole day, and hope that you’ll come along for the ride.


Yesterday began like many others. I was in the check-out line at Zabar’s, and I overheard an exchange that intrigued me. A middle-aged woman in nondescript, baggy clothes, her hair a combination of layered bohemian chic and I-don’t-care gray — a West Side classic — was talking to another woman, who was younger.

“We’ll go downtown to my place, we’ll have a cup of coffee, and we’ll talk. Later, I’ll put you in a cab. Sound good?”

I composed a silent plea. Take me too. I can’t think of any place I’d rather go than downtown to your place, for a cup of coffee. I felt strongly that this woman had curtains — big silk curtains — and her apartment had a sitting room and a poodle or two sprawled on the rug. Her place had a view of a public garden, and there was primrose in bloom, and maybe a fountain, and people smoking, and other people kissing, and a few in the midst of lovers’ spats, and rain kissed the earth, just there, in that garden. A cab! Is there anything to excite the imagination more than the hailing of a cab after someone unexpectedly asks you over for a cup of coffee? I wanted the younger woman’s problems, whatever had invited the older woman’s concern. The word “downtown” had become a cashmere shawl, one I wanted to be wrapped in immediately.

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The checker put my groceries in the bag. I trudged home, feeling blue. Once again — not at the center of it, not where the action was, the discourse, the problems, the connection. At home, I made myself some coffee, but there were no silk curtains, no poodles, no conspiring or commiseration.


A short time later, I traveled south to my dance studio, Steps, which sits in a hub of Upper West Side activity. You’ve got the Beacon Theatre just across Broadway, the Ansonia just south, and next door, Fairway Market, which is a holy pilgrimage in itself. I’ll say just this: Fairway has an entire room devoted to cheese. Also: things you didn’t know you wanted, because you didn’t know they existed. Artichoke paste. Lambrusco vinegar. Garam masala. Chocolate latte balls — $1.25 a bag.

On the elevator at Steps, I witnessed an altercation. A young, paunchy man wearing earphones got on before this other woman and almost held the door for her. I say almost because he held it for a second, then let it go too soon, before she was safely inside, so the door banged into her. She didn’t need a hospital or anything, but there was no question he was in error. The elevator takes approximately three hours to get from the lobby to the third floor — where the classes are — and back. Catching the elevator is therefore a big deal, as is holding the door for that one last person who is desperate not to wait three more hours for the next ride. The woman quietly harrumphed. Message received. Wild-eyed, the paunchy man said, “I HELD THE DOOR FOR YOU.” She did not accept the falsehood. “You did NOT hold the door for me,” she replied. “You let the door SLAM on me.” Enraged, he replied, “I am not talking to you.” “It sure sounds like you are!” she shot back, and he became so angry that I prayed the elevator was almost at the third floor. I didn’t fear for her safety, but maybe a little I did. When she walked off the elevator, he cursed her. I don’t mean he used foul language, I mean he cast a hex. Sarcastically. “Hope your tendus aren’t all sickled!” he said.

You don’t want to get caught sickling your tendus.

Performing arts shade! (A tendus becomes sickled when you point your foot in the wrong direction, which is a gross dance error, the equivalent of a social gaffe while interacting with, say, the queen of England. You don’t want to get caught sickling your tendus.) All at once, I felt kinship with both the aggressor and the victim in this elevator standoff. I don’t know exactly what defines New Yorkers, but it has something to do with our ability to keep the rhythm of these altercations without missing a beat, like children playing double Dutch.


In the sunshine of Studio II, a motley collection of dancers was warming up for the 10 a.m. ballet class. The teacher is tall and blond and haughty — so imperious her instruction borders on camp. She speaks with a British-implied accent and adorns her daily performance with an array of hairstyles and lipsticks. Her smile is lopsided and sudden, just enough to alert us that her condescension is mostly for show. She has a fabulous accompanist and sometimes there are 100 people taking class. It’s ballet with a cabaret atmosphere, and I suspect people love this teacher because she makes them feel like party guests. The spectrum of humanity attends. At the barre, one sees principal dancers from American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, so immaculately sculpted and graceful that they strike one as circus performers or possibly even figments of the imagination. Also at the barre: an elderly woman in a wig who carries her ballet shoes in a plastic bag from the liquor store.

We are all freaks in this room — spiritual cousins of sorts, worshipping at the same church. Here we find rapport and community, gossip and disdain. The mighty sylphs chat with the old loons, and the rest of us try to figure out where on this spectrum we fall. Everyone here is drawn to ballet as a monk is drawn to prayer, and this commonality surpasses — if only in this hour and a half — our jagged differences in achievement.

Everyone here is drawn to ballet as a monk is drawn to prayer, and this commonality surpasses — if only in this hour and a half — our jagged differences in achievement.

A tiny woman stood behind me at the barre. She smiled and said hello. She knew me from the playground I frequent with my child. How was life? How was school? What grade was my daughter in now? Good. OK. Second. Her girls were fine, she said, except for one thing. What was that? I asked. They were both enrolled at the School of American Ballet (S.A.B., as it’s known around here), and they weren’t happy. The School of American Ballet is a “feeder school” for New York City Ballet, which, for many people, is the pinnacle of the art, the highest goal, the shiniest of prestigious places. It’s also known for being a hotbed of sexism, not to mention a place keen on anorexia as a way of life. Still — New York City Ballet! My daughter takes class at another, saner place, but even at 7, she’s heard of S.A.B. It’s where the perfectly turned-out, smooth-bunned, pearl-earring-bedecked baby giraffes are going when they make a sharp turn and head into Lincoln Center. I researched when the annual audition day was — sometime in early spring. I don’t know what made me do it, except of course I do: At the center of New York City’s ineffable glory are cosmic sources of radiation — Times Square, the Chrysler Building, the grandiose arrangements of limelight hydrangeas in the main hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the School of American Ballet.

“Maybe we should go, just to see what the school looks like, Mommy,” Lydia said. “But what if you get in?” I asked. “I won’t go,” she said. “But how could you say no to S.A.B?” I asked. Then we both laughed and immediately remembered that neither of us wanted her at S.A.B. Mostly we remembered that. The other part of us remembered the tiny angels in the second act of the New York City Ballet Balanchine Nutcracker. They hold candles and wear floor-skimming wire hoop skirts, and they shuffle so rapidly across the stage that they create the illusion of floating. Lydia and I were given tickets to the dress rehearsal last year, and at the time, Lydia leaned over the balcony and said, “I want to skim the floor in a hoopskirt.” But only kids who go to S.A.B. can be angels in the New York City Ballet Nutcracker.

Lydia’s own dance school is not far from Lincoln Center. One day I saw a dancer departing the school and rounding the corner. As she passed under the Leonard Bernstein Way street sign, I caught sight of her T-shirt, which read Sing out, Louise, and I promptly fell over and died. This is a line from the Broadway show Gypsy, which has lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, who for theater folk sits at the tippy top of Mount Olympus, with Rodgers and Hammerstein and Cole Porter flanking him. What was great about the shirt was the shorthand — if you love the shirt, you and the wearer can be best friends. You can hug on the spot without formal introduction. (An exception to the no-eye-contact rule generally in play on the NYC streets.) I decided to get one of the shirts for Lydia for Christmas. (Gypsy is about the mother of all stage mothers. Whenever Lydia thinks I am getting too involved in her life, she pointedly whispers, “Sing out, Louise.” I immediately clam up. Smart kid.)

Greta is the biggest personality of the dance moms at Lydia’s school. She is tall and skinny — a gazelle in human form. She is a dancer herself, and her daughter, who takes jazz at Lydia’s school, studies ballet at — wait for it — S.A.B. From Greta, we get all the dirt: who’s dating whom and who’s fighting whom and which former artistic directors are showing up just before curtain to torment the dancers backstage (Peter Martins). She tells us inside things. For example, New York City Ballet dancers aren’t allowed to wear their stage makeup outside the theater, they have to wash it off before they go home. The makeup is copyrighted or licensed or something. It’s in their contracts. Greta makes me feel both closer to and farther from the action. She gives me the same feeling that the weekly arrival of our New Yorker magazine gives me — knowledge without inclusion; glamour, but not mine. I sometimes think The New Yorker exists exclusively to evoke this feeling.


In the late afternoon, I had an unpleasant errand — my yearly mammogram. I was headed downtown on the Second Avenue bus, when suddenly, it was nearly black outside; raindrops scattered on the windows like bullets. An omen. Weill Cornell Imaging is in a dreary medical tower on York Avenue. This neighborhood depresses me. If the earth were flat, and you walked to the edge of it, you’d be on York Avenue. It is just so far from anything that feels life-affirming. New York City’s heartbeat can best be felt on the West Side, pulsing through an artery that runs south through Times Square and north past Carnegie Hall, all the way up to the Metropolitan Opera House at 65th. Meanwhile, York Avenue is as far east as you can get without falling into the East River; it’s like a freezing cold finger — no blood flow.

She gives me the same feeling that the weekly arrival of our New Yorker magazine gives me — knowledge without inclusion; glamour, but not mine.

For a mammogram, you go to the ninth floor. This is Breast Land, where every staff member has been schooled in keeping people calm. When you can, please sign here, and How are you doing today? and Would you care for a chocolate or a bottle of water? You stumble along, get your locker, wipe off your deodorant, put a pink robe on, and breathe deeply along the hallway to the next waiting room, where you sit with the other naked-but-for-their-pink-robe ladies and stare out the window at the 59th Street Bridge, which from this close-up looks like a metal brontosaurus. This is the same bridge that Woody Allen lifted to iconic grandeur in the movie Manhattan, but when you look at it from Weill Cornell, amid the steam rising from the manholes on York and the sparse sidewalks around it, it just looks like an angry brontosaurus. Then the breast people call your name and your heart beats faster. A technician in pink scrubs leads you into the next little room, the one with the machines, and asks how your day is going, and rubs you down with freezing gel for an ultrasound, or covers your nipples for a mammogram.

Remember how I said New York is best described as a Yiddish short story? (Are there short stories in Yiddish? I feel that my people tend to run long.) What happened next could really happen anywhere, but somehow, it managed to be nutty in a way I ascribe to this city. You need to know a detail about me first. Two years ago I had a rib removed. It was the third rib, it was under my left breast, and it grew this tumor called a hemangioma — the same as those little strawberries you see on some newborns’ heads. The only way to make it stop growing was to take it out.

“The tumor has fractured your rib,” the thoracic surgeon told me. He prodded me in the chest with his forefinger. “Doesn’t that hurt?” He prodded again. “That has to hurt.” I hadn’t noticed. I had a 4-year-old. I was tired. The jabs, however, got my attention. “Now it hurts,” I said, ever the people pleaser. “’Course it does,” replied the surgeon.

So he took the whole rib, and in order to make my breast sit up properly, he put in a fake rib. The fancy term is “chest wall repair,” but no one outside medicine has ever heard of the “chest wall” so I call it a “fake rib.” A few months after that, I had my first mammogram. If you have not experienced a mammogram, picture a knife spreading a pat of butter across a piece of toast. But really, really hard. Or, as the tech put it, “Your breast is round and the machine is flat.” Or, just imagine a pain so intense that you find yourself clutching the sides of a cold metal machine as tears roll down your cheeks and your soul hovers above your body and everyone prays for the end. After that, I went home. A day later, my fancy “chest wall repair” broke. My fake rib detached from its fake bone anchor and descended into the void of my chest, causing an alarming bubble of air to rise up through my breast like a balloon every time I inhaled. So I had to do the thoracic surgery again. The second time, the surgeon put in Gortex, which he said he hoped would be more durable. Hoped? Back to yesterday.

If you have not experienced a mammogram, picture a knife spreading a pat of butter across a piece of toast. But really, really hard.

I reminded the technician in pink scrubs that I didn’t want my left breast scanned, on account of how the last mammogram broke my fake rib. It had been discussed already, I told her. Pre-arranged, all in my file, I told her. I was just reminding her. She was silent. So I said, “We’ll skip the left, OK? We’ll just do the right.” I stopped talking then, because she was reading my file with concern.

“We can’t screen one breast on a two-breast prescription,” she said.

“Why not?” I asked. “The right breast is one of the two breasts, right?”

“Doctors don’t like it when we change their orders,” she said. “If you want to scan the one, you have to scan the other.”

“But it was pre-arranged,” I croaked.

“She sent a two-breast prescription.”

“She didn’t mean to,” I argued.

“She must have forgotten.”

I began to sweat and wheeze. (If you have never had a rib crushed by a mammogram, you’ll have to trust me, once is enough.) She went to get her supervisor. The supervisor came in to tell me that they could not screen one breast on a two-breast prescription. We were getting nowhere. But then she said that a crushed rib was better than missing a malignant cell and so both breasts had to be scanned anyway. This made sense, and I began to imagine a cycle in which every year I put in a new rib after crushing the last one in the mammogram machine. The room started to tilt as I pondered my choice. The supervisor then said they did not wish to traumatize me, they wished only to make sure I was healthy. I think by then they realized that “healthy” was not, at this particular moment, the right word for me. I was floundering, somewhere near total incapacitation. It was now 6:30 in the evening. The office had begun to clear out. I could hear people saying “good night” and closing desk drawers. I was all that stood between the supervisor and the end of her day. I was alone with her — her and the machine — at the edge of the world, a brontosaurus roaring just beyond the window, black rain engulfing the medical tower.

“I can’t do the left breast,” I muttered, mostly to the wall. I cried. Tears ran. I wheezed again, then hiccuped, then I laughed. I told them not to worry, it was just the pink scrubs, the pasties, the fake rib, the large dinosaur, the end of the world. It was too much, you know? They nodded. They knew.

“We won’t press hard,” the supervisor said. She kept up her patter as she smoothed my pasties and squeezed my breasts into the flattening device, as though coaxing me into a straitjacket. They scanned both breasts. After, they gave me a Hershey’s kiss and a bottle of water.


Gusts of wind swept me up First Avenue. I joined the wet commuters on line for the 67th Street crosstown. I was full mammogram chic by now: sweaty, smelly, hair stringy and askew, rivulets of mascara pooling in the tiny lines near my eyes. I felt about as far from the ineffable radiance of the city as possible. I took out my phone to text Courtney, the mother of a little girl in Lydia’s class. She was watching Lydia, and I wanted to tell her that I was on my way back to the West Side.

“How was it?” she asked. (Courtney has had mammograms.)

“A brontosaurus tried to kill me,” I replied.

“Meet us at Santa Fe,” she wrote. “71st and Columbus.”

“‘I’ll get you a margarita,” she added. (Santa Fe has the largest, iciest frozen margaritas in existence.)

Twenty minutes later, I stood around the corner from the restaurant, waiting for Courtney and the girls. A spotlight illuminated a white satin pantsuit hanging in the window of a Columbus Avenue boutique. It was a one-piece, long-sleeved with a plunging lapel. It looked like a Star Trek uniform, but one that you’d wear to the Grammys. I stared at it for a long time, even as the storm threatened to drown me. The hem of my ancient linen pants was torn; I’d long since chewed off my lipstick. Hunger tore at me. I felt faded and chalky, as if my human color had been washed off by the rain. I wondered who was going to buy that suit. Where would she wear it? Probably, she owned Hunter rain boots and had a poodle. Maybe a greyhound. Her building definitely allowed dogs — she would never have moved there otherwise.

Courtney and the girls arrived and we walked into Santa Fe. The host led us to a booth. The girls told me about feeding the turtles in Central Park. Then there was the eating of french fries, and telling the kids to speak more quietly, and restaurant crayons — four to a set, in a tiny cardboard box. Then the married couple at the next table interrupted our conversation.

“Sorry,” the wife said. We don’t mean to keep staring, but there is a dog right outside the restaurant staring in.”

Sure enough, there was — a puppy with big black eyes and a soaking coat. He was tied to a post outside, the very definition of forlorn.

“He belongs to that woman at the bar,” the wife continued. “Poor dog!”

Courtney, who is about seven feet tall with a waterfall of honey blonde hair and a model’s face to match, stood up abruptly, and with a sort of movie star whoosh, gathered her jacket and rushed outside, the girls on her heels. They clumped around the little waif, patting and stroking and soothing. A few minutes later they returned to the table, where I’d remained, transfixed.

“I think the dog’s owner has been adequately shamed now!” Courtney said, as the restaurant gaped at the ill-fated dog. Pregnant women can’t get seats on the bus, pedestrians will knock over a person on crutches, but New Yorkers draw the line at wet dogs peering into restaurants. Sure enough, the embarrassed owner stood up from her spot at the bar, paid the bill, and went out to tend to her shriveled canine, even as she rolled her eyes at the collective presumptuousness that had forced her hand. It was like when someone scurries up or down the subway stairs on the left-hand side. This, with good reason, is not allowed in New York City. One travels up or down on the right-hand side in order to avoid head-on collisions and bodily harm. If a person — often a tourist — wanders to the left, a large crowd will force him to the right in a collective act of censure. For the greater good, of course.

Pregnant women can’t get seats on the bus, pedestrians will knock over a person on crutches, but New Yorkers draw the line at wet dogs peering into restaurants.

In the restaurant, surrounded by dog lovers and people-shamers and candlelight, the stars moved suddenly into position. Swaddled by the rhythms of an untameable city and its undomesticated regulars, the patrons of Santa Fe seemed a Hirschfeld tableau come to life. I was — for a flicker of a second — inside the city’s ineffable glow. I absorbed the warmth totally, like a cat stretching in a pool of sunlight. It was not just the food for a hungry stomach, it was not just the soundtrack of voices mixing with the flickering candlelight, it was not just the hasty alliance of animal lovers doling out opprobrium, nor the pleasurable flush of communal agreement spiked with the recognition of our tyranny and hubris. It was all of those things, yes, but it was also something more, something capturable only by some vestigial sensory organ as yet undiscovered by anatomists. Around me, the city’s plot lines merged into one great circular lane, and inside me, the five senses (and the vestigial organ) arranged themselves in symbiotic formation to produce one thing: joy. I felt mysteriously part of the city’s narrative in some way I hadn’t been a moment before. It was perfect. Then I blinked, and it was gone.

I read once that there is something called “archaic understanding” — something that children have more of than adults. We lose it gradually, but it returns in streaks of primitive insight. An understanding of things in their deepest, mythic sense. Intuition — as brief and bright as a flash of lightning.

We walked home under lamplight glowing in the mist. Some piano music tinkled out of an apartment on 71st. Perhaps it was a party somewhere nearby. The streetlights mixed with the rain like watercolors, and we pushed on, blood cells pulsing through the mighty organism. The sound of the piano retreated — into some corner, behind a curtain, up the stairs in an alley one street over.

There is a line in Peter Pan about Mrs. Darling, and it goes like this: “Her romantic mind was like the tiny boxes, one within the other, that come from the puzzling East, however many you discover, there is always one more; and her sweet, mocking mouth had one kiss on it that Wendy could never get, though there it was, perfectly conspicuous in the right hand corner.”

Like Mrs. Darling, this city is defined by something it will not relinquish. This something seems to be in plain sight just often enough to keep us charged in its pursuit. We race along the city’s streets, we chat and disperse and we hurry on again. Sometimes we stall in the midst of an eddy, looking up, just to spot it — the city’s kiss. Then it is time to retreat, to go home and heat the pan for dinner, linger over drinks, wonder what comes next — all the while secure in the knowledge that tomorrow, we’ll make another play for it — that one lovely kiss that shapes our days — because it will never be ours.

* * *

Leslie Kendall Dye is a writer and actress in New York City. Her work has appeared at The New York Times, The Washington Post, Salon, Vela, Electric Literature, SELF, The LA Review of Books, and others. She is at work on a memoir about mothers, daughters, drugs, and show business.

* * *

Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Jacob Gross

My Year on a Shrinking Island

Historic Map Works / Getty, Animation by Homestead Studio

Michael Mount | Longreads | Month 2019 | 25 minutes (6,236 words)

The home I moved into was not what you might associate with Martha’s Vineyard: it wasn’t a sweeping palatial estate near the ocean with views of crispy white foam. It was a simple shingled house tucked far in the woods, sitting in a rustic subdivision near a graveyard and just beyond the commercial centers of the Island, with power lines cutting an artery through its backyard. I schlepped my things inside, bubbling with optimism about what my year of rest and revelation would bring. My housemate was a 70-year-old man who helped me move my luggage while screaming at the Patriots game every time he walked by. It wasn’t until the fourth quarter that he asked questions.

“Most people don’t move out here until May,” he said. “What are you running away from?”

“Just New York.”

“I don’t blame you,” he said, laughing.

It was September of 2013 and I had left everything in Brooklyn. All of the carefully assembled Ikea furniture. My job. It all seemed to recede behind me on that final glimpse from the ferry that morning as I watched Woods Hole, Massachusetts, shrinking to a pinhole. All of the chaos and the heartbreak of summer in New York was like a muted roar — Facebook would remind me, but I had every reason to forget.

Some families have houses on Martha’s Vineyard. I don’t. My friend from home (home is a distant place) had moved to the Island last year to work full time for an agricultural non-profit. I did not know her well but her suggestion came to me in a time of need:

“If you hate New York so much,” she said, “you should move out to the Island for a winter and write your book. There are tons of writers out here.”

I was 24 and as weightless as dandelion molt. Leaving a job meant nothing. My longest relationship had been eight months long. I knew one person on Martha’s Vineyard and — it seemed — only a few more in New York. It hardly felt like a sacrifice. Those in New York whom I told about my plan expressed two contrasting perspectives: “Why would you do that?” and “I’m so jealous.” I chose to listen to only the latter.

It only took two trips to the car to carry all my things into the old man’s house. He seemed fine with me renting the room for next to nothing — if anything he was enthused to continue renting past Labor Day, to have company at the end of the season.

That evening we watched Tom Brady smear the Jets. During commercial breaks he fiddled with a small police scanner sitting beside his armchair; there were distant calls for drunk driving or speeding incidents. When it was time to eat he walked slowly to the kitchen and boiled two hot dogs, piling them on a paper plate.

“No dishes this way,” he said. “Bachelor life.”
Read more…

Downsizing the American Black Middle Class

Illustration by Neil Webb

Bryce Covert | Longreads | September 2019 | 13 minutes (3,448 words)

Yvonne Renee Evans has been a nurse for more than 30 years, and she has spent most of them in the private sector. It was difficult to get ahead. “I put in multiple applications and never got a chance to advance,” she said. “The opportunities might be there, but I was always given a reason.” As a black woman, she wondered if it “could have been a racial issue.” But it was difficult to prove, even when people who had been there for less time or that she had even trained herself were promoted above her. And “they could remove you at any time,” she noted. Once when she managed operating room scheduling at a hospital with a young, white woman, the hospital decided it wanted to downsize the team to one person. Evans was the one removed from the role, demoted to a lower-level position with a pay cut. “I could have fought it, but it wasn’t worth it,” she said. “You pick your battles, and that wasn’t one I chose to pick.” 

But then, after retiring from two different private sector jobs, she took a position at the John D. Dingell Veterans Administration Medical Center in Detroit in 2008. She didn’t need the work — she could have gone into full retirement — but her husband is ex-Army, and she wanted to serve veterans. She quickly found out it was also a rewarding place to work — very different than what she’d encountered in private hospitals. “The advancement here was wonderful,” she said. “You could move up the professional ladder in leaps and bounds as long as you did the work, you had the credentials. You could get to higher levels than you could in the private sector.” 

She now runs a podiatry clinic. “Every year I get appreciation awards,” she noted. She’s also been awarded for being an exemplary employee at the VA. “I never would have gotten awarded like that in the private sector. Never.” The money doesn’t make her rich, she said, but it does allow her to save for retirement and help her grown children if they need it. “I am truly the middle class,” she said.

Evans wouldn’t have always found a welcoming workplace in the government. As late as the turn of the 20th century, letting black workers into the federal government was seen as “akin to bringing down the federal service,” explained Frederick W. Gooding, assistant professor of African American studies at Texas Christian University and author of American Dream Deferred. Under President Woodrow Wilson entire departments within the federal government were segregated, with literal barricades separating black and white workers in some agencies and extra bathrooms installed so they wouldn’t have to share the same facilities. But then World War II hit. The government needed a lot more employees — both for the war effort and to staff up President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vast expansion of the government. “Because there’s all these new positions, managers can hire people of color without displacing white workers,” said Jennifer Laird, assistant professor of sociology at Lehman College. By the 1960s, that expansion “gave African American workers a foothold in the public sector.” Black people were fleeing “vitriolic racism in the private sector,” Gooding noted. But the racism they once found in public employment was mediated by need. “It’s not because the federal government woke up one day and said, ‘I’m feeling quite altruistic, let’s give blacks opportunities,’” Gooding said. “They needed bodies, it’s simply a supply and demand equation.”

The Great Migration helped take care of the supply. As black families moved en masse from rural Southern areas to urban cities in the North, they found employment with the federal and local governments when they arrived. That movement from the private sector to the public sector built a black middle class across the country, one that to this day is sustained in large part by public sector employment like the job Evans was able to secure at the VA. Those gains, however, are tenuous, and they are particularly threatened as President Trump and his fellow Republicans strive to severely reduce the size of the federal government.  Read more…

My Love Affair with Chairs

Willian Justen de Vasconcellos, Getty

Keah Brown | An excerpt adapted from The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture, Disability, and Other Reasons to Fall in Love with Me | Atria Books | 2019 | 17 minutes (4,556 words)


My longest relationship has been with chairs. We are very happy together, committed and strong, in sickness and health till death do us part, etc. There are arguments and disagreements as in any other relationship, but we apologize and make up before nightfall so we don’t go to bed angry. The notion of love at first sight is a little cheesy but true. Chairs and I have traveled around the world and back again. We cuddled on the beach in Puerto Rico, shared stolen glances in the Virgin Islands, danced the night away in Grand Turk, and gave some major PDA in the Bahamas. My chairs are loyal, with vastly different personalities but an equal amount of appreciation for the butt of mine that sits in them. A few of them like to play it cool: they don’t want me to think that they care as much as they do, and I let them believe that it’s working. After all, sometimes you have to let your partner think they have the upper hand, to work toward the long game of the bigger thing you want later. However, you and I, dear reader, we know the truth. The chairs in my life love me, and I honestly can’t blame them. Read more…

Fugitive Justice

Illustration by Lily Padula

Jennifer Lunden | Longreads | September 2019 | 25 minutes (6,331 words)

Our fuchsia had vanished. The empty pot lay broken on the front porch where just the previous day the fully flowered plant had hung, splendid and cheery. I found one lone tendril in the driveway — its three pink and purple blossoms still miraculously attached, its roots still flecked with soil. I tried to piece together the mystery, but I could not.

Later, I got an email from our tenant, Annie:

Someone absconded with one of the hanging fuchsia! Because I am a person with a strong sense of justice, I tracked a trail of blossoms and stems up to Cumberland Ave this morning, where I found the pot smashed and the tendrils scattered.

She had reclaimed our busted pot and left it on the porch. Annie chalked it up to a drunken lark, a random act of vandalism. But somebody had climbed our front steps, unhooked our hanging fuchsia, and left a trail of uprooted stems all the way around the block. Who would do such a thing? I wondered. Why?
Read more…

Mountains, Transcending

Illustration by Jason Raish

Ailsa Ross | Longreads | August 2019 | 22 minutes (6,062 words)

It’s the winter of 1923 and a five-foot tall woman is shooting at brigands in Tibet. She’s surviving a blizzard by eating boot leather. She’s accepting a maggot-dancing stew from a drug-addled butcher and having a face-off with a snow leopard.

This woman is Parisian opera singer-turned-anarchist Buddhist lama Alexandra David-Néel, and she’s kicking through Tibet’s wild hills and steppes as she strides on foot across the Himalayas from Kanchow to Lhasa.

Alexandra’s starlit memoir recounting her adventure is no Thoreauvian nature journal. This is a tale that demands to be read in a cool bed while the night paws at the windows — or in my case, by the fire while my dad watches Come Dine With Me repeats on a black January afternoon.

I started reading My Journey to Lhasa because I love adventure stories. And while I’ve never pushed myself to extremes, still I felt a kinship with Alexandra. “Ever since I was five years old,” she wrote, “I craved to go beyond the garden gate, to follow the road that passed it by, and to set out for the Unknown.” She didn’t dream of towns or parades, but a solitary spot where she could “sit alone, with no one near.” As a child, her nannies often found her crouched behind bushes or hidden up trees in Paris gardens.

Quiet spaces — I’d needed those since I was a teenager.

I was most in search of a quiet space while teaching in Seoul in 2012. I was twenty-four and tired — of living in that crunching city of 26 million, of being in a job I was no good at, of lying awake in the self-hating 2 a.m. dark with a burnt throat from smoking cigarettes on the kindergarten rooftop. I wanted to feel clean again, like a child who’d spent the day by the sea. Read more…

Nashville contra Jaws, 1975

Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures, Illustration by Homestead

J. Hoberman | An excerpt adapted from Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan | The New Press | July 2019 | 30 minutes (8,492 words)

June 1975, six weeks after Time magazine headlined the Fall of Saigon as “The Anatomy of a Debacle” and wondered “How Should Americans Feel?,” brought two antithetical yet analogous movies: Robert Altman’s Nashville and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Each in its way brilliantly modified the cycle of “disaster” films that had appeared during Richard Nixon’s second term and were now, at the nadir of the nation’s self­-esteem, paralleled by the spectacular collapse of South Vietnam and the unprecedented Watergate drama.

In fact, in their time, Jaws and Nashville were regarded as Watergate films and, indeed, both were in production as the Watergate disaster played its final act in the summer of 1974. On May 2, three days after Richard Nixon had gone on TV to announce that he was turning over transcripts of forty-­two White House tapes subpoenaed by the House Judiciary Committee, the Jaws shoot opened on Martha’s Vineyard with a mainly male, no-­star cast. The star was the shark or, rather, the three mechanical sharks — one for each profile and another for stunt work — that, run by pneumatic engines and launched by a sixty-­five­-foot catapult, were created by Robert Mattey, the former Disney special effects expert who had designed the submarine and giant squid for the 1956 hit Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

Brought to Martha’s Vineyard in pieces and cloaked in secrecy, Mattey’s sharks took longer than expected to become fully operational, and Jaws was further delayed by poor weather conditions. Accounts of the production routinely refer to the movie itself as a catastrophe only barely avoided: “All over the picture shows signs of going down, like the Titanic.”

In late June, a month when Jaws was still unable to shoot any water scenes, and while Nixon visited the Middle East and Soviet Union in a hapless attempt to, as the president wrote in his diary, “put the whole Watergate business into perspective,” Altman’s cast and crew arrived in the city of Nashville. They were all put up at the same motel, with everyone expected to stick around for the entire ten­-week shoot.

There is a sense in which Nashville represented a last bit of Sixties utopianism — the idea that a bunch of talented people might just hang out together in a colorful environment and, almost spontaneously, generate a movie. Even by Altman’s previous standards, Nashville seemed a free­form composition. It surely helped that neophyte producer Jerry Weintraub’s previous experience lay in managing tours, for Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley among others, and packaging TV specials. Read more…