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Aaron Gilbreath
Aaron Gilbreath has written essays and articles for Harper's, The New York Times, Paris Review, Tin House, Kenyon Review, Vice, and The Morning News. Curbside Splendor published his essay collection, "Everything We Don't Know," in 2016. @AaronGilbreath

Does Outdoor Recreation Correlate With Environmental Values?

PPR/Mammut/Thomas Senf via AP Images

It’s easy to assume that people who mountain bike, rock climb, and hike also value environmental protection, but is that true? And do outdoorsy folks do anything to help protect the mountains and rivers where they play? For High Country News, Ethan Linck examines the complex, often flimsy relationship between outdoor recreation and conservation efforts. Linck speaks from experience: he’s a runner, a skier, a climber. He recognizes many failures in the outdoor recreation industry and his own community and the challenges balancing the enjoyment of nature with efforts to protect it. Fortunately, he also sees some promise.

By citing its indirect contributions to federal agencies with widely varied missions and management agendas, the Outdoor Industry Association inadvertently raises a thorny question. That is: What are we conserving in the first place? Should we fight for public lands because they provide us with recreation opportunities, or because they support biodiversity? Should we only protect those plants and animals that directly benefit us or that we find beautiful — or should we fight for the entire community of life? The field of conservation biology tells us that long-term ecological stability requires the latter. But stoke fundamentally centers on the self and the quality of human experience, and thus has no intrinsic stake in biodiversity or ecosystem stability. More than anything else about recreation culture and its relationship to conservation, this troubles me.

For even if outdoor industry groups manage to engage in some political battles, or kick some money toward environmental protection, recreationist-driven conservation has historically failed to align with the principles of conservation biology. That’s largely because of the emphasis on awe-inspiring scenery at the expense of biodiversity-rich lowlands, and wildlife management that favors prey species at the expense of ecosystems. This is especially true in the mountainous West.

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Will Big Pharma Help Save Some of the Oldest Marine Life on Earth?

Dale Gerhard/The Press of Atlantic City via AP

Ecology is the study of the relationships between organisms and their environment. Birds known as Red Knots migrate to the Arctic to breed. To gather the necessary caloric reserves, each bird needs to feed on approximately 400,000 horseshoe crabs’ eggs along the eastern seaboard. Unfortunately, the crabs’ numbers have declined precipitously, and the birds haven’t been breeding as much as before. The problem is that biomedical companies bleed the live crabs to use their blue blood in endotoxin tests — and as their numbers drop, so do the numbers of birds.

At Audubon magazine, Deborah Cramer examines how Eli Lilly biologist Jay Bolden tackled this ecological problem by convincing his employer to switch from crab blood to an effective synthetic. Bolden’s next challenge is to get the rest of the pharmaceutical industry to follow suit.

But Bolden had a compelling reason: “I’m a birder,” he says, “so this hit close to home.” He’d seen Red Knots, one in Delaware’s Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, and then another in Ireland’s Ballycotton Marsh. And a few years ago, at an endotoxin summit in Delaware hosted by Lonza, Bolden witnessed the arrival of horseshoe crabs. “We were walking along Pickering Beach, in Delaware,” he recalls, “and the beach, seemingly empty, suddenly filled with horseshoe crabs coming in from the sea. It was a religious experience for me.”

The longtime birder didn’t need to be told how badly shorebirds along the Atlantic Flyway need horseshoe crab eggs. Further, he had learned about the plight of horseshoe crabs worldwide in 2013, during a Lonza webinar with Glenn Gauvry, president of Ecological Research and Development Group, an organization dedicated to the conservation of horseshoe crabs across the globe. While population data on the animals in Asia isn’t fully known, “horseshoe crab populations in Japan, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, and Singapore, once vibrant, are now endangered,” Gauvry has written. It is questionable, he writes, whether current takes of horseshoe crabs for endotoxin testing “can be sustained, much less meet the projected future demands of this rapidly growing market.”

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The Healing Crystal Community Needs to Confront Its Connection to Dubious Mining Operations

AP Photo

You try to shop local and drive less. Your dog’s compostable poop bags are made from corn. Maybe you use jade to increase sexual energy, or wear a clear quartz necklace to clarify your thoughts. But in our complex global economy, some products’ true origin can elude even the greenest consumer. For The New Republic, Emily Atkin exposes the healing crystal industry’s inability, and unwillingness, to identify all of their crystals’ sources, which conflicts with the new agey, wholistic reasons people use crystals.

Most of the US’s healing crystal stores buy their stock at the annual Gem, Mineral, and Fossil Showcase in Tucson, Arizona. Even though some vendors try to source responsibly, others’ crystals come from environmentally and ethically dubious mining operations. For instance, the jade that’s marketed for sexual healing might come from Myanmar, whose jade industry Al Jazeera called “the biggest natural resource heist in modern history.” Atkin shows that it’s time that the healing crystal industry healed itself.

Publicly-traded mining companies don’t routinely disclose all of their byproducts, nor to whom they sell these byproducts. Annual reports for shareholders tend to list only the cumulative profits from byproducts. It’s therefore difficult to assess what percentage of the healing crystal market is sourced from industrial mining operations.

It’s not difficult, however, to prove that some crystals come from mines that are decidedly unfriendly to the Earth. For example, this large blue chrysocolla—a “supportive goddess energy stone”—is from the Tyrone Copper Mine, and this $48 pyrite stone to “promote positive thinking” is from the Chino Copper Mine. These are the two largest copper mines in New Mexico, and according to the environmental group Earthworks, they “will generate an estimated 2 billion gallons of acid and metals contaminated seepage every year, requiring water treatment in perpetuity.” The mines have also caused “severe surface and groundwater contamination, and the State of New Mexico and U.S. Department of Justice have filed natural resource damage claims against the company for damages to water and wildlife resources.”

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Turning Love and Grief into Outsider Art

Photo by Chris Bethell

After one artist’s partner and parents died, he transformed his small London house into his greatest work of art, room by room, covering and filling the space with collage, sculpture, painting, and writing. At Vice, Joe Zadeh takes readers through Stephen Wright’s House of Dreams, where he lives, takes his morning tea, and receives visitors who feel compelled to share their own stories. Wright never intended for his house to become a public shrine, but he’s pleased it did. As he tells Zadeh, “It’s about being human. We are all here to support each other in some way. So it’s not a problem. My heart is big enough to do that.” All in all, this is a love story.

The purely decorative aspect of the House of Dreams fell away and powerful subtexts flooded in. Objects were still chosen for their colours, but also for the memory or symbolism attached to them. Stephen wanted things that were chipped or smelled or sticky or stained. He wanted things that were unwashed. A trace of DNA was important to him. He wanted jackets with mess spilled down them, shoes with a stench, combs with hair in – materials that had life in them. These objects quickly began to fill the walls throughout the house. When he walked from room to room, he could sometimes smell a complete stranger. He liked that.

He cried as he created, but the physical grind of the work itself became a source of solace: the birthing of a sculpture, the mixing of cement, the tedium of mosaicing, the endless sorting of objects. He fed off it. Working with his hands felt like a connection to his parents. He wanted to feel exhausted at the end of each day, he wanted to be hardly able to get into bed.

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Reporting on Bolivia’s Coca Rebirth: An Interview with Jessica Camille Aguirre

AP Photo/FILE, Dado Galdieri

In her recent Guernica article “Bolivia’s Quest to Spread the Gospel of Coca,” journalist Jessica Camille Aguirre reports on policy changes in South America’s poorest country. New coca legalization goes against everything American policymakers think about cocaine, but as many Bolivians will tell you, coca isn’t cocaine. It’s a leaf, touted in Bolivia as a cure-all, no more dangerous than a cup of coffee, but far more invigorating.

The coca leaf doesn’t get you high, it simply wakes you up. Many Andean people chew or drink it brewed for energy, or to treat altitude sickness or stay sharp. The War on Drugs only led to violence and death in Bolivia, and small farmers suffered. After cooperating for decades with the U.S. on drug issues, Bolivian president Evo Morales decided to expel the DEA and let Bolivia design its own drug policy: It would let farmers grow and sell more coca leaf inside the country and encourage entrepreneurs to use it in new commercial products. Despite the very clear difference between powder cocaine and raw coca leaf, some people describe the diffrence as a matter of degree. I spoke with Aguirre about her reporting on a profound shift in thinking about an unfairly stigmatized plant. Read more…

The Man Who Painted the Cover of Jethro Tull’s ‘Aqualung’ Album Didn’t Get Paid What It’s Worth

AP Photo/Dear

Musicians, writers, and visual artists may work in different mediums, but living on the bottom of the capitalist food chain has cursed us with many common problems. Instead of finding unity, though, even the underdogs form a hierarchy and screw each other over.

For The Outline, Robert Silverman tells the story of his father’s regrettable success painting the cover of one of Jethro Tull’s best-selling albums. As the band became famous, the Aqualung cover art ended up on everything from coffee cups to t-shirts, and Silverman’s father, Burton, received no more payment for his effort than his initial $1,300 flat fee. Burton is now 89. He still feels he’s been wronged. The way it all went down has become rock and roll mythology. Now the Silvermans tell their story to set the record straight.

If he couldn’t win in court, perhaps, dad surmised, Anderson might be willing to join the (non-existent) battle against Warner Bros, and help win some token equity in the continued use of the painting, somehow. In the fullness of time, dad has come to realize how half-baked this plan was, but in 1991, he penned a letter to Anderson, asking for help. “As a champion of goodness, truth and beauty, would he entertain to put in some kind of word on behalf of another artist,” is how dad describes his entreaty.

Using his corporate stationary and in a haughty tone, Anderson said any dispute regarding royalties and the rights to the artwork were between dad and Ellis. He also doubted that Ellis would fail to spell out future rights in a written contract (he did), yet again insisted falsely that dad modeled the figure on the front and back cover after him, and suggested dad could not “legally hold copyrights in an artistic representation of a real person.”

An artist can maintain the copyright for a representation of another human being, famous or not. But Anderson’s sense of entitlement in the letter, the combination of grandiosity and the insistence on false claims, plus his side hustle selling autographed lithographs — bearing Anderson’s signature, to be clear, not dad’s — on the cover still bugs dad to no end.

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Judgement and Epiphany on Pittsburgh’s Number 79 Bus

AP Photo/Walter Stein

Brian Broome | True Story | August 2017 | 26 minutes (7,034 words)

The last bus to the East Hills leaves Wilkinsburg Station at exactly 12:28 a.m. on weeknights, and I am always the last one on it by the time it reaches Park Hill Drive, where I live. The street is midnight dark apart from the headlights of the bus. The ramshackle homes are set a bit back from the road, behind overhanging trees. Anywhere else, this street would be charming. But poor makes everything ugly.

The irritated bus driver and I sit in silence under the flickering fluorescent lights, which blanch everything an odd shade of greenish blue. I am coming off a late shift at work and the both of us, the driver and I, are impatient to be back in our normally lit homes. We can just about taste the freedom. But tonight, our quiet time together is interrupted by a rumbling in the distance. A shouting that grows progressively louder as the bus shuffles slowly up narrow Park Hill Drive. And when the rumbling reaches its peak, we are set upon by a horde of drunken children, unruly and shrieking, who have come out of seemingly nowhere. They shout and bang at the sides of the bus with open hands, fists, bottles, and all their energy. They are trying to rock my coach off its wheels and overturn it with me and my terrified white coachman inside. He leans on the horn and, as is frequently the case with such miscreants, this show of weakness serves only to incite them further, fueling their attack. Bottles are thrown. Some shatter against the windows.

I hold fast to the seat in front of me and wonder where their parents are, as if they could do anything to stop the onslaught. Their failure to properly raise their children is the reason I’m caught in the tide of this ocean of bloodthirsty, cackling hooligans bent on the wreaking of havoc. I can only assume my death is imminent. We are at their mercy. The driver, frantic, fumbles with the radio, which crackles and sputters with truncated, static-ridden words as he tries to explain what’s happening to some incredulous and disembodied voice at the other end. And then, as quickly as it began, it is over. The banging subsides, and the melee disappears into the darkness. The excitement can’t have lasted for more than a minute or so, but it felt like an eternity, and the bus quietly ambles up the road to the stop outside my home, where it heaves a sigh of relief and spits me out under a flickering streetlamp. It speeds away noisily, and I stand there until its engine fades, leaving me to the sound of crickets.

The 79. Your tour bus for the East Hills neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It’s a bus that exists only to ferry people to the busway that links our little village to the rest of the city. A loop bus that encircles the projects like a noose.

If you look at the area on a map, the loop resembles the Eye of Horus, an ancient Egyptian symbol I once saw in a book about witchcraft. It symbolizes protection, royal power, and good health, and in the East Hills, this is the cruelest of all ironies. I live at the corner of the eye, the very caruncle of the Eye of Horus, but protection and good health are in rare supply here.

Sin, however, is abundant. You can walk around this neighborhood and pick mortal sins off every branch of the overhanging trees. The 79 makes seven stops. I’ve counted them.


Through sloth the roof sinks in and through indolence, the house leaks.
(Ecclesiastes 10:18)


Someone is ringing my doorbell at 8 a.m. on a Sunday, and before I even fully open my eyes I know who it is. He will keep ringing until I get out of bed to answer, so it’s best just to get it over with. My vision is blurry, and my body is heavy with all the sleep I didn’t get. I throw on an old bathrobe and lumber heavy-footed down the stairs, holding on to the railing for dear life. I close one eye to look into the peephole. There’s his face, distorted in the tiny fun-house-mirror glass, which makes his bug eyes bulge all the more comically. They are run through with blood-red spiderwebs. He is sorry again. I can feel his shame even before I open the door and when I do, a frigid blast of stale, sick, sweet liquor smell almost knocks me over.

I am so sorry, sir.

I know these are the words he’ll lead with. My next-door neighbor has never called me anything but sir even though he is easily a decade older than I am. His eyes are leaking, with either the cold or the sting of being cripplingly hung over. Wrapped in dirty clothes and as thin as a chicken bone, he is sorry. Riddled with contrition. But he doesn’t remember fully what happened last night. Only the flashing of police lights in the wee hours and that men in blue uniforms came to his house. As we stand there, both shivering in the winter chill, I take the opportunity to refresh his memory of the previous evening. Because I remember.

I spent most of my evening on my knees in my bed, banging on the wall that separates our bedrooms. The walls around here are like rice paper, and whatever your neighbor does on his side may as well be done right in front of you. But even if the walls were made of Kryptonite, I would still hear my neighbor’s insanity clear as gunshots. Like me, he is a drunk, although a far less responsible one. I work for a living, but he cannot be bothered to take up such intrusions. The bottle requires all his time and energy. I take this opportunity not to invite him in as I have been stupid enough to do in the past. I allow him to shiver on my doorstep while I pull my dirty bathrobe tighter around my neck and recount every detail of his previous evening’s antics. The same antics he’s performed almost every night since I’ve been unfortunate enough to move to this place. He braces for my verbal assault. He bows his head and winces; bows his head, unable to meet my seething gaze. I am furious with lack of sleep and righteousness. He and I have been here so many times before.

Last night, you began your screaming through the walls at ghosts, and as you stand there in clothes that you’ve been wearing for a week, I need to, once again, fill in your memory while you cover your face and feign regret. You are just like every other no-good, do-nothing drunk in this neighborhood, and underneath it all, I can tell that you are perfectly healthy. Able-bodied.

I tell him proudly that I was the one who called the police, and he whimpers with shame. He creaks out another I’m so sorry, sir.

The fact of the matter is that no one visits you and you have no family because you cannot be bothered to get your act together. Your life is one long, comfortable nap on the couch, watching your life fall to pieces around you. I have seen you, day in and day out, sitting and staring into space in the driver’s seat of that stationary junk heap you call a car, getting drunk, and then I have to deal with the fallout. And yes: I called the police. They came again to laugh at you openly, just like the last time I called the police on you due to the constant noise just on the other side of my wall. But this was the first time they’ve had to scoop you up from outside in the snow. This is a new milestone for you. A whole new low.

He still has not met my eyes. When he finally opens his mouth to speak again, I am foolishly waiting to hear something new come from his lips. He just stammers and, in a voice brittle as kindling, stutters out another I’m so sorry, sir. His sick-sweet breath cuts through the cold. I can tell he’s already thinking about how his precious liquor will smooth over the rough edges of my harsh words.

Last night, I watched him fight an invisible assassin in the snow, a ghost that apparently didn’t fight fair. I sat at the window and watched him fight it alone under the lazy overhead light of the courtyard. I watched for a long time. A crazy man in the middle of the night, wrapped up in the kind of silence available to the world only in the wee hours after a snowfall. His ghost must have moved quickly. He never seemed to be able to land a punch. His kicks didn’t connect, and his slaps went wildly airborne. Flailing. The ice and snow didn’t help, putting him on his back frequently, and his shouts were muffled by the snowdrifts and the pane of my window. His apparition didn’t fight fair because it knew no one could see it except him and me at the window with my forehead on the cold glass, doing nothing. We were the only two people to bear witness to its existence, and I was afraid of the kind of contact that would be required to make the pain stop for this man. I was afraid to throw open the window and call to him. And then my fear turned to resentment and my resentment turned to anger and then I made the call, waiting at the window until the courtyard was bathed in red and blue lights.

I am not ashamed of calling the police in this neighborhood even though no one else will. I don’t know why they won’t. The people around here know that I’m the one who calls, and I don’t care. That’s what they’re for, the police. My neighbor drinks himself to the point of dementia and thinks the world owes him something. This is who he screams at every night through the walls. This is who he is fighting. He is fighting the world, and the world doesn’t fight fair. The world will always win if you don’t keep your wits about you. I plan never again to be as pathetic as he is. I was once. But never again. I work for a living.

He continues standing at my door like a cautionary tale. He tells me through foul liquor breath that he’ll never do it again, and vomit hitches in my throat. I know this is a lie. He turns to walk slowly through the snow, not to his apartment but to his hideous purple paperweight of a car. His oasis. I tell him he might want to consider getting a damn job. He gets inside the car, where he’ll sit all day in the cold, trying to change reality by looking at it through the bottom of a bottle. I have work in a few hours. I need some sleep. I won’t get it. In the East Hills of Pittsburgh, there is truly no rest for the weary.


For the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags.  (Proverbs 23:21)


I used to be my neighbor. I was exactly like him. If you let me take a drink, you’d almost immediately regret it. I can guarantee it. When I imbibed, it was an all-day affair and into the night until my body couldn’t take any more. I wouldn’t stop until someone pried the bottle from my hands and then locked me up. I loved alcohol and would have bathed in it given half a chance. There was a time when I would have bypassed the circuitous route of the mouth if I could have and injected it directly into my bloodstream to perform its magical workings with even more expeditious mercy. In my fantasies, every vending machine was stocked with delicious brown liquors and little plastic baggies full of powdered goodies, and there would be one on every street corner. In short, I am an addict. I am the poor, innocent, blameless victim of an extended adolescence and an arrested development. I have drunk and drugged so much so as not to remember my own name on some nights, and then I would wake up in agonizing pain and do it all over again the next day and the next. I am a glutton for punishment. But, firstly and more importantly, I am a glutton for intoxicants of all kinds. This is why I live in the East Hills. I live here as punishment.

Life on the outside is expensive, and the East Hills falls perfectly within my price range. Cheap. I am here because I have drunk my opportunities in life. I have drunk away a good job. I have drugged away my vacations; I have snorted my future. I have filled myself to bursting with pharmaceutical delusion, and my punishment for having all that fun is to live here surrounded on all sides by sin. I have sacrificed the privilege of living in the nicer neighborhoods in the city. I live where I can afford, and I will tough it out until I make better things happen for myself. I am not a garden-variety Negro. I don’t belong here. I am not like my neighbors, content to live off scraps. I have just temporarily lost my way.

I am clean now and seeing things clearly. I am almost four years clean, and I’ve learned my lesson. The element who live here continue to flounder inside their own endlessly repeated mistakes, convinced they are society’s victims. This is why they don’t talk to me. They ignore me because they know not just that I am unafraid to call the police, but also that I am not one of them. I refuse to be an injured Negro. I have made no friends here and try to keep a low profile. I have tried many times to talk to these people and am met with only blank stares every time. Shunned because I am ill-equipped to talk about doing time in jail the way that most people talk about going to the grocery store. It’s not my fault they continue to snub me. The problem with being a glutton and recognizing it as I do is that you know that there is always a price to pay in the end. Dues. For me, the East Hills is dues, and once I’ve paid my debt, I’ll stand on tiptoe and wait for the wind to lift me off this hill.


Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.
(Proverbs 16:18)


I stand at my corner every day waiting for the 79 as it ferries people between low-paying jobs and court dates and the grocery store. The projects are the pupil of the Eye of Horus, and whoever built them made sure to make them colorful this time. The units are painted purple and blue and red and, to me, the end result looks like a dysfunctional Candy Land sitting atop a hill. The 79 circles it all day.

My shoe has a hole in it. It’s raining today and I have no umbrella, and now my sock is dampening from a puddle I stumbled into. I look up in minor annoyance at the sound of a too-loud engine and notice that the woman who always parks her car right in front of my bus stop is wearing red today. Her car shines silver like new sixpence. It positively gleams. I don’t know what kind of car it is, but it doesn’t belong here. It should belong to a celebrity or a doctor or a lawyer—the kind of person I was told I could be if only I had applied myself. The woman stops by to visit my other, younger neighbor a few times a week. Today, the vehicle smells of coconut air freshener and some expensive, flower-based perfume that wafts out when she opens the car door. She emerges from the vehicle, haughty and well-dressed, and the rhythmic thump from rap music that was muffled before booms at top volume from her extravagant carriage. She is in a red dress and high heels. I smile big at her and wave, but no return smile is offered. Instead, she fixes me with elevator eyes that start at the top floor of my nappy hair and end at my now waterlogged basement of a shoe with a sock growing soggier and slimier by the second. She moves past me, wordless and lofty, flipping newly done box braids and throwing an expensive shawl over her shoulder in a grandiose motion, and rushes through the rain to my neighbor’s house. I am in no position to be acknowledged. She and my neighbor greet one another jubilantly, and they proceed with some sort of hushed business inside his home before she emerges a few moments later and struts past me. Then, she climbs back behind the wheel of her brilliant blingwagon and speeds off to park its majesty in the ramshackle driveway of her ramshackle apartment, just a few blocks up the street. She lives here too. I will never cease to be amazed by the great pains people who live in this ghetto will take to try to make it look like they don’t live in this ghetto. The number of dilapidated huts around here with brand-new cars sitting in front of them is confounding, and what people from this neighborhood can spend on clothes and shoes alone could most likely settle the national debt with change left over.

Pride is complicated. And money can buy many things. But here it mostly buys impracticality. Intricate hairdos whose upkeep makes it impossible to pay electric bills on time, for example, and ridiculously expensive bottles of liquor from the conveniently located liquor store. The kind of liquor the rappers drink, though presumably the rappers also have money for groceries. The bill of goods on sale is that you are what you drive and wear and drink, but I, with my soaking-wet sock and rain-dripping forehead, am not buying. I won’t fall prey to the stereotype that society has laid out for me and be trapped here in a state of perpetual adolescence. It’s a modest life that is the key to success, and I won’t forget that. Being bested every day by your own pride will keep you struggling. One must learn to adjust to one’s circumstances, and you’ll get nowhere by trying to show off at the club every weekend. I should tell the woman this, but I won’t. I bite my tongue. She has made her decision, and who am I to judge anybody? I know what my priorities are, and pride comes only after you’ve accomplished something. So I narrow my eyes and assure myself that the Lady in Red’s fancy car will be taken from her one day owing to her irresponsibility. Repossessed. Someday, I imagine, I will see her on the 79, laid low, and I’ll just politely nod in such a way so that she knows that I know. With no words from me, she will know that I’ve recognized her fall from ersatz grace and that she should have taken a lesson from me. She’ll remember this day when I stood steeping in my own shoe and she barely acknowledged my existence. She will be unable to meet my eyes. It is my humility that will one day lift me out of this place. Slow and steady will win the race, I just know it. I go out of my way to be friendly to the people around here, but they’ll have none of it. Too proud to talk to the outsider because he looks poor. Poor is the way you should look when you are. Humble. There is no place for pride in the East Hills.


I have seen the fool taking root, but suddenly I cursed his dwelling.
(Job 5:3)


Community Crime Update: 10/4/2015 Burglary/Assault 2400 Block of Bracey Drive, 7:30 a.m.

A 36-year-old female victim reported that a known female suspect of East Pittsburgh broke into her house by forcing open the front door. The suspect stole a frozen chicken, then pulled a knife and began swinging it at the victim like a woman possessed. Officers arrived on the scene and detained the suspect, whom they found shouting obscenities in front of the residence. The frozen chicken was located roosting in the suspect’s purse. The suspect told officers that she and the victim were both romantically involved with the same man. While officers were attempting to get the full story from this ostensibly grown woman, a male, also of East Hills, emerged from the residence and tried to interfere with the arrest. The male shoved one officer and then took a swing at another. Witnessing this, a third officer deployed his Taser, shocking the shit out of the male actor and immediately stopping his assault of the officers. The male was then taken into custody. Both suspects were taken to the Allegheny County Jail. The female was charged with burglary and simple assault while the male was charged with obstructing the administration of law and aggravated assault. When queried, neighbors chalked this incident up to just another instance of supposedly grown women jealous of each other over the attentions of a no-account man. Many people in the neighborhood remain confused, however, as to why a person would express envy toward a romantic rival by breaking into her house and stealing a frozen chicken at 7:30 in the morning. All have dismissed the event as just the latest in a series of ghetto dramas that have made the neighborhood look foolish on the local news. One local resident, standing at the bus stop with a hole in his shoe and suffering from obvious sleep deprivation, who wished to remain anonymous, rolled his eyes at the news of yet another domestic disturbance in the area, saying, “It happens every day because these people have nothing better to do.” At the time of this printing, the whereabouts of the frozen chicken are unknown.


They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.
(Ephesians 4:19)


The 79 is an enormous baby stroller. Never in all my days have I seen so many little babies slung over the hips of young girls. Some have two, three, or even four babies in tow, each one smaller than the next, like Russian nesting dolls. Often, the mother is on the phone in an argument with some unseen boyfather. Variations on the word fuck are her favorite way to communicate. The children listen and drink in every obscene word. Her beautiful baby girls with beads in their hair, each one unique as a Tiffany lamp.

The young mother sitting across from me has children crawling all over her. She cannot be more than seventeen, and although the children are vying for her attention, she refuses to put down her cell phone. Her ability to ignore them is remarkable. Today, she is using social media like the teenager she is. Giggling at Facebook and sending messages because no one can just skip adolescence. You have to go through it even if, through your own misdeeds, you find yourself being a parent. Meanwhile, the children, left to their own devices, run around the moving bus, screaming. Not even the sound in my headphones can drown them out. She looks up only occasionally to curse at them, admonishing them for behavior that she will never properly correct. She is weary of them. They bounce around the speeding bus like gumballs free to come back bloody, but she cannot be bothered. When I catch her eye, I take the opportunity to shoot her a scornful look, which she shoots right back. Some may say that I should mind my own business, but I believe in addressing problems at the source. She continues to stare at her phone.

The news that sex can cause children has not reached the East Hills; the housing projects near my home are positively swarming with them. It’s certainly not my place to judge anyone, but they run around loose and hang out on the streets until after dark to get up to all manner of lasciviousness. The boys talk dirty and in harsh words about things they could hardly know about. I blame the rap music. Sex. That adult feeling in the hands of children. They have all the working parts and none of the knowledge, and the knowledge won’t become clear to them until it’s too late. I would never comment on how anyone raises their children, but I see their futures bold as the sunrise. I see the cycle, and if I were their parents, I would impose a strict curfew. I would introduce a comprehensive sexual education program. For their own good. Unbridled lust can never lead to anything positive, and that’s an irrefutable fact.

The girl on the bus is joined by a friend, who also has children in tow. They talk about boys, using dirty language. They talk about nonsense, as girls do. One of their children plops himself down in the seat right next to me. He is sticky with sugar, and I smile down at him. His mother, the one with the cell phone, calls him back to her angrily and shoots me yet another dirty look. I don’t know why. Maybe she knows that I know that her pattern of sex and children will continue. She will find out the ways of the world as she gets older. Her children will steal her youth and her opportunities. And money? That is something that will never come, though it will be slightly less elusive than escape. But this is her life and she can live it the way she wants to. It doesn’t affect me in the slightest, so I don’t care.

They pull the cord and exit the bus in a flurry of confusion. Strollers erected and toys gathered. Baby bottles and diaper bags. Children flying in all directions, holding up the rest of us, who actually have somewhere to be. They continue talking and move slowly as they gather their many belongings. They will make me late for work. They are never in a hurry. They finally exit, off to God knows where.


But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.
(Timothy 6:9)


I am standing beneath the bones of industry. Heavy equipment roars and jackhammers all around me, and workmen in fluorescent yellow vests and hard hats shout instructions at each other as they erect beams and walls. The cement-colored sky is littered with progress, and I’m standing underneath it all, noticing for the first time that everything around here is changing. The low-rent bodega is gone, where I bought my cigarettes from the Indian people, where you could buy illegal loosies when your money was low. The nuisance bar up the street is gone, and the complexions of the people all around me have started to dramatically change. Just above my head, just outside my field of vision, they are working on East Liberty, the neighborhood down the street from the East Hills. The club that used to play hip-hop music is gone, and the whole block has been spruced up with gourmet pizza shops. Artisanal cocktail bars are sprouting up, seemingly from nothing. The projects that were once here have been torn down and replaced by a shiny red-and-white Target, and there are white people taking a spin class in the building that used to house the Arabic bodega. I am there soaking it all in as if it all suddenly appeared by magic when a woman approaches and stands beside me.

She says, as if she and I were in the middle of a conversation, You know they gonna move us all outta here, right?

East Liberty is changing faster than anyone can keep up. It’s changing, slow but steady, exactly like Lawrenceville did before it, and the people who live in my neighborhood have definitely noticed.

They gonna move us outta here as soon as they need the space, the woman continues to no one in particular. Far enough out so they can’t see us.

I stand there with this elderly woman I’ve never met before, and we watch the transformation happening right before our eyes. I don’t live here, but I don’t tell her that. She’s looking up at the construction of a newer, shinier place and making frantic plans. I can see her mind working. She’s wondering where she’s going to go when all is said and done, and although I don’t want to believe her, I know she’s right. She is the kind of old, diminutive black lady who is always right. She has seen this kind of “neighborhood rejuvenation” a thousand times before. I pretend not to know what she’s talking about and we both stare up silent at the harbingers of her imminent displacement while newly transplanted white people go about their business all around us. She and I stand close enough to be lovers as her scarf flaps in the wind, and after I’ve steeped in enough of her reality, I turn on my heel and walk away, leaving her standing there looking up and wondering what on earth she’s going to do. I wish I had said something reassuring. I want to tell her that deep down, I don’t know what I’m going to do either. I want the two of us to commiserate together, standing there, looking up at all this progress. But instead, I comfort myself by deciding that I will never be her. I tell myself that she should have planned better. Then she would have options. She would have the kind of options that I will have. Options that are soon to present themselves to me. Soon.

But I can’t ignore the fact that her fear has uncovered my own. As I walk back to the busway, to the beginning of the 79 route, I can’t shake the knowledge that no one can prosper without taking something, and no one can prosper lavishly without taking lavishly. The word on the street in East Hills is that the white people are coming. People talk about it on the 79, and I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’ve seen the white men in casual slacks and dress shirts, surveying the neighborhood and measuring things. It’s just a matter of time. It’s never done in a forceful way. It’s always very subtle and always under the guise of progress. But those who live in the neighborhood know that we’re on borrowed time. There are many things that capitalism produces, and noble behavior on either end of the rich/poor spectrum is not one of them. But we admonish only the poor.

I admonish only the poor.

The white people will come and uproot the neighborhood because they want the space, and I will ignore that in favor of looking down my nose at the people who live around me. I am desperately trying to create some fictional line of demarcation to separate myself from my neighbors when I know that I am them in the eyes of the people who will come to take whatever they want from us. I have been confused, but my neighbors haven’t. They are not fooled by my air of superiority. It is remarkable what the powers that be can delude you into thinking without your permission and what they can trick you into ignoring. And they have fooled me into ignoring the obvious. That I bring home and disseminate every judgment that white people want me to make against the people with whom I have the most in common.

Greed is why the East Hills exists the way it does and why we always end up on some hack writer’s “Worst Pittsburgh Neighborhoods” list. Poverty and racism can leave you feeling like less. They skew the priorities and, on some days, make you so angry that you become confused as to where to aim that anger. Late at night, when everything appears to be quiet underneath the flickering streetlamps, there is an angry hum over the East Hills neighborhood. A tension. You can feel it, and you never know when it’s going to erupt.

We all know why we’re here. I’ve heard my neighbors talk about it sometimes. It’s because of greed. It is the greed of those who have decided they need more space, more gourmet coffee, more spin classes. The greed of those whose toilets we scrub and whose security we guard for a pittance and the promise of a better tomorrow that never seems to come. Someone has to do it, and it may as well be us. But the relationship between the haves and have-nots in America is anything but symbiotic. Often, the quiet around here is split wide open by the sound of gunshots. The anger around these parts is electric and alive, and it has to go somewhere. So we aim it at each other. And we rarely ever miss.

The stories of noble, robust, and hardworking poor people are cherry-picked to make the rest of us feel worthless under a system in which it is almost impossible to succeed, and perhaps I have ignored this system in favor of the easier task of judging those around me. I have left this old woman to her hand-wringing, only to begin my own. I reach the busway, where the 79 is waiting to take me back home. It is lit up and idling angrily. Puffing smoke as if it’s annoyed that I am late.


Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil. For evil men will be cut off, but those who hope in the LORD will inherit the land.
(Psalm 37:8–9)


The couch in my apartment is too close to the window. I don’t want to be sitting here one day and catch a stray bullet while I’m watching something I might be ashamed of on television. It happens. I giggle to myself as I’m moving it, thinking that the police would find me, bullet to the brain, mouth frozen open in a laugh, as reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore Show crank out canned laughter from my television set. I move the couch because it makes good sense to move the couch. I move the couch because wrath roams this neighborhood freely. It’s less visible in the daytime, but it’s still here. The murders in this neighborhood are no secret. When liquor and anger start to flow, so does blood down the sidewalk. I try not to watch the local news. I don’t really need to, anyway, because I can hear it all on the 79. And I move the couch, giggling at the knowledge that Mary Richards and the whole of the WJM-TV news team would never have to move their couches for such a reason. The next day, I stub my toe on the couch as I’m rushing to catch the bus.

The women sitting behind me didn’t know the woman who was murdered, but they knew of her. They are speaking about the murder casually and not in the hushed tones that one might expect propriety would dictate for a discussion of such matters. They knew he was no good, the man who killed her. He is only twenty years old and she was twenty-eight. She should have known better, they say. I put my headphones on and pretend not to listen, but I am listening intently to their assessment of the situation. They wonder aloud what her children are going to do. She had six of them, they say, and she should have been more focused on them than she was on a twenty-year-old man. They sound like me. And as they speak of the dead in less than respectful terms, my whole body becomes heavy with the weight of it all. Six children left motherless. She was alive and she was loved and I have more than likely looked down upon this woman in passing on this very bus. I have probably watched her struggling with baby carriage, baby bottles, and diaper bags and haughtily decided that it was her poor decisions that landed her here. I turn to look out the window. My reflection in the glass is ugly, so I look down.

The women behind me gossip on. He shot her, they say. They were arguing over money for diapers, something so ridiculous that they are in disbelief, and now I’m thinking of her children and I wonder what I’m going to do besides sit here on the 79 bus judging people every day. How I’m going to cure the disease within myself that makes me so harsh and critical toward my own people. Where did I learn this? I have no answer other than that I will move the couch. Conditioned like a Pavlovian dog, I will move it every time I see red and blue lights. I will wait for the news crews to leave every time someone is killed in the East Hills, and then I will emerge from my apartment like a sultan to cast judgment. It will be my full-time job, as murder and violence are ever present around this Eye of Horus with its hum of anger.

The women behind me shift their babies from knee to knee as they gossip on, but I am no longer listening. Their voices have indistinguishably joined the rattle of the engine of the bus to create a cacophony inside my head as we roll through yesterday’s crime scene.

People from other neighborhoods look to us up here and believe that we somehow deserve to be here. Our bad decisions are what led us to this place. But if everyone made the right decisions all the time, there would be no one for everyone else to look down on, and it is in this way that America works. We live here so that others can convince themselves that the worst of human instincts reside here and here only. They can convince themselves that something like that would never happen where they live. They can convince themselves that there has never been a drunk in dire need of mental health care in their neighborhood. They can convince themselves that, in their neighborhood, a lovers’ quarrel has never led to ridiculous behavior and that people in their part of town never spend beyond their means in order to impress. Their young daughters are virginal and chaste while ours are irresponsible whores. They wonder aloud why our society can’t cast this play in hell and get angels for actors. They feature us on your local news before the blood on the sidewalk even dries. The last stop of the 79 is always Wrath.

There was a time, long before my arrival here, when the building down the street, the one with the enormous pockmarked parking lot, was a shopping center. Now it houses a single church where people go to worship a God who doesn’t ever seem to show himself. He’s never going to come for them. The only ones who are coming are the police.

Sometimes, I wake up in the early morning and find myself missing my neighbor. One night, the red and blue lights came, and I was confused because I hadn’t called the police on him. I heard a lot of men talking outside and then they drove away in an ambulance and everything next door went silent. New people moved in and told me that he died. I guess he finally got out.

But it is at this time of the morning that I know that I won’t sleep any longer. So I go outside and walk up to the enormous parking lot where they say a glorious shopping center used to stand. I go there so early that the sun is barely up and the neighborhood is silent as the grave and cannot dictate to me who I am. I stand here knowing full well who I am and I’m not fooling anyone. I am not special. I am a part of this neighborhood every bit as much as those I enjoy judging so much. I stare out at the empty church parking lot with the sun coming up all around me, and I try to imagine what it must have been like a long time ago, bustling with activity and commerce. I can’t really picture it. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Sometimes, I sit and watch my neighbors out the window and wonder what on earth they could be smiling about. I wonder how the young mothers have the stamina to raise children around here. I wonder how any happiness can exist here at all, and then I remember how flawed my thinking is. I want to talk to them. I don’t deserve to talk to them.

I will be sitting on my hands and moving away from the window on cue until they come to take the East Hills. And they will come to take it when they need more room. This, I believe, is certain. I don’t believe we’ll band together to stop it. I’m as guilty of inaction as anyone else up here and when they come to take it away, I will move just like everyone else. To where, I don’t know. And now, as I stand here feeling the sun’s first morning warmth on my back, I can hear the 79 beginning its first circle of the morning.


This essay first appeared under the title “79” in Issue 11 of True Story, a monthly mini-magazine published by the Creative Nonfiction Foundation. Our thanks to Brian Broome and the staff for allowing us to reprint this essay at Longreads.

Juuling and Scrolling the Days Away

(Getty Images)
In 2018, the U.S. nicotine vaporizer market could increase 25 percent from 2017, giving it a $5.5 billion share of the traditional cigarette’s $120 billion market dominance. And a thin, discreet vaporizer called Juul controls 60 percent of that market.

For The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino hits that vape herself while looking closely at the ways American teenagers have embraced Juul, turning the brand name into a verb, and giving rise to parental “vape detectors.” Part of Juul’s genius is the way it separates itself from cigarettes. As Tolentino puts it, its designers” avoided the roundness of a cigarette, and the glowing tip, because they wanted people who used the Juul to feel as if they were doing something new.” With that tabula rasa, teenagers have created something wholly their own.

Read more…

‘Like Floating Through a Library’: An Interview with Nick Paumgarten

Big Bend National Park (Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)

For a recent issue of The New Yorker, staff writer Nick Paumgarten floated the rugged canyons of the Rio Grande to witness the irreplaceable wilderness that Trump’s proposed border wall would destroy. A native New Yorker, Paumgarten fell in love with whitewater on Idaho’s Salmon River as a kid. Paumgarten’s feature, “Water and the Wall,” takes readers through the riparian heart of Big Bend National Park, in a flotilla that includes Teddy Roosevelt’s great-grandson and New Mexico Senator Tom Udall. Damming, diversion, pollution, and overpumping have long degraded the state of America’s rivers, reducing clean rushing waterways into canals with as much wildness as a pet store. Paumgarten’s story shows how heightened border enforcement poses a new environmental threat.

You mention you hadn’t given much thought to the Rio Grande before you began your reporting. Did that lack of knowledge vacuum hinder or help as you started examining the river? 

There’s something slightly Trumpian to the presumption that one’s own ignorance of a subject extends to the rest of the world. In this case, the knowledge vacuum lured me in, got me curious, and made the thing seem worth doing.

It’s always great to have people who know their way around a subject or a place and can fill you in. I was fortunate here to be on a trip with a handful of such people. It was because of them that I went on the trip, really. They had done the work so I wouldn’t have to. It was like floating through a library. I just had to pay attention and jot it all down in my waterproof notepad. (I learned pretty quick that it’s hard to take notes and steer a canoe at the same time.) On the other hand, I knew a little bit about rivers in general. I’d been on a bunch of float trips, paddled kayaks here and there, and had passed hours upon hours talking about rivers with other boaters. I’d read and loved Cadillac Desert and Desert Solitaire. So I brought something to this one. I usually like to have some point of contact, some toehold, when I set out to report a piece.

This boat trip let you return to the whitewater kayaking you did in your youth, and to make good on a promise you made to yourself about taking a rafting trip later in life This was a small personal thread in your article, but a powerful one. What was your logic for including a bit of the story of your life as a river runner?

No logic. Pure narcissism. Well, okay, maybe there’s a reason or two. As I said before, I like to have some kind of connection to a story. Sometimes that connection is personal. I read somewhere recently that John McPhee once tallied up all his stories and discovered that almost all of them had something to do with subjects he’d been interested in before he even went to college) This story was a mix of things and one of them was that it’s an ode to river-running.

A quiet theme here is that the impetus to protect rivers usually arises out of spending time on them. This seems true in a broader sense. (The demise of, say, the Great Barrier Reef is more painful to contemplate if you’ve been there to see it.) Many of the people in this story got religion on a river, and so maybe it made sense for me to describe how I had, too. Likewise, you can’t quite appreciate how absurd the idea of a wall is until you’ve spent some time in some of the places where one might go. Donald Trump and his cabinet ought to float the Rio Grande.

People need the chance to contemplate their existence in what you call nature’s “prehistoric hush,” to experience the cosmic out by a campfire. And yet, new sections of that absurd wall are being considered that would destroy that hush. How do you think of your role as a journalist to help stop these things?

I don’t really ever think of myself as an advocate for a point of view when I’m reporting and writing pieces. In this particular instance, that I think the wall’s a lousy idea. I also think rivers deserve as much protection as we can muster. But I didn’t take the assignment in order to advance those arguments.

Maybe I wound up doing it subconsciously, but my role, as I see it, is to bring things to light, and to present them in a way that makes you see those things in a new and different way. To the extent that there’s guile in the structure or in the emphasis, it may have more to do with keeping the reader interested, or maybe creating moments of insight and delight.

Did you read any classic river books before starting this trip? John Graves’ Goodbye to a River or Mary Morris’ The River Queen: A Memoir?

When I got out of college, I thought I’d be doing what we used to call “nature writing.” I’d been reading a lot of Edward Abbey, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, John McPhee, Peter Matthiessen Gretel Ehrlich, Barry Lopez, Norman MacLean — all that stuff, which either was a thing in the early 1990s, or was a thing in the intermountain west, where I’d gone to live for a time.

Twenty-plus years back in New York City had beaten some of that out of me, or at least had caused me to forget that that’s what I was into. I have not read the two books you mention, though the Graves came up on the Rio. Add it to the list! To be honest, on this one, in the time allotted, I could barely take a big enough bite out of Paul Horgan’s history of the Rio Grande. I also had in mind my colleague Ben McGrath’s forthcoming book about Dick Conant, an itinerant vagabond canoeist and latter-day Huck Finn, which I’d seen some early chapters of. It captures a workaday riparian America that I hardly knew existed.

As a New York City native, what had urban life beaten out of you that the nature writing revived?

Returning to New York as an adult really just diverted me from thinking, writing, or reading about the outdoors, the American West, and the natural world. It was hard to get out.

I got a job at a weekly newspaper in Manhattan, the New York Observer. The focus was on people, the machinations and ploys of city dwellers. Culture, politics, business. The whole circus. Editors and readers generally didn’t seem to care much about timber rights or water flows or endangered species, or nights out under the stars. I got re-urbanized. I grew cynical about a certain kind of writing — overly poetic evocations of natural beauty, pat epiphanies out in the bush.

Meanwhile, as you get older, maybe you get more interested in questions of money and class, in the way generations rise and fall, who’s screwing over whom and how. But in the last couple of years, I’ve been on a few assignments and trips that have reminded me about what excited me when I was younger, and I’m sort of trying to figure out a way to get back to it. This Rio Grande trip was one of these.

Can you reconcile your interest in the West with your current location? How about a Talk of the Town department for a town on a trout stream?

Whenever I do the where-from-here math, I find that I still love this town, and for that matter the whole tidewater east. But who knows what tomorrow will bring. One thing it won’t bring me is new shoulders, so big-water kayaking ain’t in the cards.

Five Early Lessons in Parenting


Steven Church | I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part| May 2018 | 16 minutes (4,362 words)

1. How to Be a Superhero

My son came home one day from his progressive and politically correct Providence, Rhode Island, pre-school and informed me that he was not allowed to talk about superheroes.

“Why not?” I asked, flabbergasted. This couldn’t be true, I thought. There must be some kind of mistake.

“Because, Daddy,” he said patiently, “Superheroes solve their problems by fighting and not with their words.”

“Yeah, but…” I tried to respond but couldn’t. I was stumped, struck dumb and silent.

He was right. But for Chrissakes, they’re superheroes. They’re the fabric of childhood. I could barely imagine my own without superheroes. Their stories helped me believe I might actually survive the nuclear 1980’s. A superhero’s problems were not the kind you could just talk about, like parking tickets, traffic jams, or sub-prime mortgages. A superhero had to deal with evil super-villains, rogue mutants, and extra-terrestrial war-mongerers. A superhero had the kind of problems that you might only be able to solve by fighting.

One of my favorites, the Incredible Hulk, couldn’t even use words. He just grunted, bellowed like an animal, and smashed things. But his anger, his insecurity and pain, was his superpower. His existential angst made him special and allowed him to help others with his unique physical gifts. What better role model for a child of the 80’s?

Still I had to admit that my son (or his teachers) had a point. It was just difficult for me to deal with the idea that he could have a superhero-free childhood or, worse yet, that he would think the model of a superhero was this guy on TV named “Sportacus.”

If you haven’t seen an episode of “LazyTown,” you’re missing one of the most bizarre television experiences. A lot of children’s shows are strange, but this one is a truly odd mixture of public service and entertainment. Sportacus, the star of the show, teams up with a spunky little pink-haired girl named Stephanie and a gang of children wearing rubber puppet suits. An adult male outfitted in a tight blue spandex flight-suit and aviator goggles, Sportacus speaks with a faux-French accent and wears a handlebar mustache waxed to sharp points. He champions lifestyle choices like physical activity and eating fruit. Pretty much any problem in LazyTown can be solved with exercise and an apple.

But what good would Sportacus be in the face of real danger? How would he handle a supervillain like Magneto or Lex Luthor or Doctor Octopus? What dreams of survival would he inspire? His beloved fruit would be poisoned with radiation. Exercise is difficult when you have a second head growing out of your shoulder and sort of pointless if you’ve mutated into a Ninja reptile. LazyTown is yet another reminder that my son lives in a world that is both eerily familiar to and strikingly different from my own childhood reality.

Some days I feel terribly ill-equipped to teach him anything.

After watching the animated film The Incredibles, we had another superhero discussion, about Mr. Incredible’s reasons for lifting train cars like dumbbells.

“Why did he do that, Daddy?”

I told him that Mr. Incredible was working out, getting stronger to fight evil, sort of like when Daddy lifts the dumbbells at home.

Then I asked, “Do you think Daddy could lift a train car?”

“Yeah,” he said, and with no prompting at all from me, “’Cause you’re a superhero.”

I just let that one settle in for a while. I let it linger in the rarified air of our minivan.

Then I repeated the story over and over again, telling friends and even strangers. But the more I told it, the more self-conscious I became, the more aware of my own shortcomings as a potential superhero. I have bad knees and bad ankles. My shoulder is wrecked. I’m lactose intolerant. I’m generally afraid of confrontation, and I trust strangers and freaks way too easily. I have more curiosity than common sense. And I look terrible in tights.

I’m glad I didn’t ruin the moment, but part of me thinks I should have politely informed him that I am no caped crusader. I’m a regular guy who makes bad choices sometimes, and he probably shouldn’t depend on my superpowers to protect him from harm. But then again I figured he’d have the rest of his life to learn this lesson. So I decided to let him believe for a while that I could lift some trains or maybe even—following his example—use my words instead of my fists to save the world and protect my family; because perhaps all children need these sorts of fictions to feel safe.

2. How to Play Dead

When I was 5 or 6, a huge scar creased my face, and I towered over many of the other kids. Not only had I pulled a pocketknife on my best friend and booted a kickball through a school window, but I regularly led a gaggle of boys around the playground in a militaristic march, while chanting, “Crush. Kill. Destroy.”

I had some issues. But I overcame them. Mostly.

So I wasn’t really worried when my son’s preschool teacher pulled me aside one day to tell me that he’d been playing a game with the other kids where they put a baby in the oven.

When she said this she said the last part almost in a whisper, a baby in the oven. She folded her hands in front of her as if in prayer and stretched her lips out thin like a knife. This was the same teacher I had to talk with about my son’s repeated reference to his colon and his drawings of the digestive system. She was one of those preschool teachers who just seemed completely incapable of understanding little boys; but she did get me thinking a bit about where he might have learned such things.

Then I remembered that I’d recently read Hansel and Gretel to him, and let me tell you, that is a seriously dark and twisted story. But I thought about it more and realized there are actually quite a few children’s stories about children being shoved into ovens or cooked in pots or cakes. One of our favorites, Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, features a naked boy baked in a cake by portly bakers with Hitler mustaches. And then I thought about a game my son liked to play with his mother. It was called “The Baby Bagoo” game, and it was a regular part of our everyday life in Rhode Island. I figured it was the kind of imagination play that good parents are supposed to do with their precocious children.

This is how it went: My son would climb up on the bed and curl into a fetal position. He’d coo and babble like a baby.

Then my wife would walk into the room and say, “Yes, I’ve come to the orphanage today because I would like to adopt a baby,” and then, “Oh, look at all these babies. I want a little girl baby. Where are the little girl babies?”

My son would cry and babble urgently.

“Oh, look at this cute baby!” my wife would say. “Oh, but he’s a boy baby.”

“Ga. Ga. Ga. Goo. Goo,” my son would say.

“What’s your name, baby?”



My son nodded his head.

“Oh, you’re such a sweet baby Bagoo. I want to take you home,” she said as she wrapped him up and carried him to another part of the room or the bed.

“Now, I’m going to leave you here by the river/ocean/lake/bathtub, OK, Baby Bagoo? Don’t go anywhere.”

She’d turn around and Baby Bagoo would promptly roll into the water and go under.

“Oh my god!” she’d yell, “My baby! My baby!” as she pulled him out of the water, limp, eyes closed. “Bagoo? Bagoo? Speak to me. Oh no, my sweet Baby Bagoo is dead.”

On cue, my son’s eyes would flutter and open wide. His arms would begin to flail and he’d rise up, cooing and babbling and saying “Bagoo” over and over again. He would be born again, newly risen, and then we’d go about our normal routines.

Of course, I recognized that my son was working through a lot of fears—layers of fear—with this game. It somehow touched on fear of abandonment, death and water, issues of gender, and the promise of reincarnation. But it was an admittedly strange game, one that other people might not understand. It even freaked me out sometimes.

I never told my son’s teachers about Baby Bagoo. I thought they might worry about us. But what they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them—unless of course they were hurt by the un-tethered imaginations of children. Our cultural avoidance of death and our ignorance of its meaning begins at an early age. One of the things that makes little kids so morbid, so creative, and so fun to be around is that they are not afraid of death. Or rather they have not yet been taught to face death through fear rather than through curiosity. For my son, curiosity generates questions—and it is these that I’m constantly encouraging him to pursue. “Never stop asking questions,” I say in my more parental moments. Fear only leads us into the darkness of easy answers, to avoidance and ignorance…and this is usually about the time he stops listening to me.

“Daddy?” my son asked me once at a restaurant.


“Why do we not like George Bush?”

Silence. The sound of guilty pride. Or the sound of me trying to come up with a reason that would make sense to a 4-year-old, or trying to just pare down the list I keep in my head.

“Is it because he doesn’t share his toys?”

For my son, this was the ultimate knock against one’s character.

“Kind of,” I said.

I was trying to speak his language.

“And because he’s fighting a war in the desert and killing people for oil?’

“Uh huh,” I said.

I swear I didn’t prompt him to say this.

“Daddy?” he said, pausing to blow bubbles in his soda. “Why is he doing that?”

“Good question,” I said.

I didn’t have an answer either. I also didn’t have an answer for why people want to bomb trains or planes or malls or sporting events, or why so many stories are about the loss of innocence. I just knew that we had to keep telling them. And I worried sometimes that fear would rise up and fill the void of answers, that he would stop saving babies from ovens and rivers because someone told him he’d got the story wrong.

3. How to Get Rich

In 2006, shortly after we moved to Fresno, California, I bought my son a frog-shaped sandbox and two hundred pounds of sand from Home Depot. As we were driving home with it in the back, he asked me if I thought a robber would come and steal his sandbox.

I laughed. “I don’t think a robber would be interested your sandbox.”

“Why not?” he asked.

This made me stop and think. I didn’t want to admit that his sandbox wasn’t valuable because you couldn’t sell it for crack, crank,  or a bottle; that it wasn’t valuable because you couldn’t hock a sandbox or recycle it for cash. Lately, the robbers in Fresno had been targeting street-lights in the nice neighborhoods, pilfering yards and yards of copper wire and selling them to recycling plants. More recently there had been a rash of thefts of catalytic converters from cars parked in driveways and public parking lots. Something about the stuff inside that could be sold on the black market.

My son’s sandbox really only had sentimental value. It was not worth money on the black market. It couldn’t be resold or recycled easily. But what if there was a black market that trafficked in sentimental value, an underworld where my grandfather’s typewriter is worth more than my laptop, or where a child’s sandbox is worth more to a meth-head than the copper wiring in the street-lights?

If there were such a market for sentimental value, we’d be rich.

With a few exceptions, most of what we owned was valuable purely for sentimental reasons. We liked our neighborhood, but it was not affluent. There were five vacant, essentially abandoned houses on our block, four of them at our end of the street. Though just one house away from an elementary school, we were also in some gang’s territory. I didn’t know which one. The only real evidence I could see were graffiti tags on our trash cans. Our neighborhood was not high-crime—mainly because there wasn’t much to steal. My son asked us once if we were ever going to be rich, and we gave him our standard line about being teachers and writers and how we were rich in “the things that matter.”

I didn’t want to say his sandbox wasn’t valuable; but I also didn’t want him to be afraid of robbers or bogeymen or the people who picked through our recycling bin, looking for bottles and cans. We’d had a few scares recently.

Once when my son and my wife were out walking the dog, they spotted the black-and-white police helicopter—a ubiquitous presence in our neighborhood at night—hovering just a block away. A voice boomed over the chop, ordering someone to “come out now with your hands up”; they hightailed it home.

Another morning, during our regular walk down to the bakery, my son and I passed a corner roped off with police tape. We found out later that a man had fired shots at a police officer, led the police on a high-speed chase into someone’s yard, crashed his car, and was shot more than 80 times by pursuing officers. I wanted to alleviate my son’s fears about a robber stealing his sandbox, but I couldn’t pretend that crime wasn’t real, and I didn’t want to tell him his new toy was worthless.

Instead, I told him this: “You know what? Your sandbox would probably just be too heavy for robbers to lift. There’s two hundred pounds of sand in there,” I said. “That weighs almost as much as Daddy.”

This was mostly true. I weigh quite a bit more than his sandbox. But it seemed to help. He sat there for a while, perhaps imagining the robbers trying to lift his frog full of sand or his Dad. I often tried to deflect and distract with humor, and I hoped he was imagining me curled up in the frog.

Then he said, “Daddy, I think robbers are golden.”

“Golden?” I asked.

“Yeah, I think robbers are golden and have three golden horns.”

“Golden horns, huh?”

“And they’re made of metal,” he said finally.

I imagined tri-tipped monsters of golden metal clanking and clunking through the side gate—a team of them, four or more with shovels, emptying his frog-shaped sandbox into five-gallon buckets they would trade for cash at the asphalt plant; one of them hefting the plastic frog onto his shoulder and dragging the lid across the concrete. I rose from slumber to the sounds of scraping metal and labored breathing. I dialed the police and watched the golden robbers squeeze into a blue van, ducking so their three horns didn’t hit the door frame. If I wanted to, I could see them circling the neighborhood, pilfering tricycles, soccer balls, and boxes of sidewalk chalk for their weekly haul to the other black market, the warehouse full of battered toys, worn-out t-shirts, and sagging recliners; shelves piled high with emotional attachments, a warehouse full of the most obscurely valuable things you could imagine. I hoped that if I tried hard enough, I could pretend that all robbers were golden sentimentalists, burdened by their metal skin and their guilt over stealing a child’s sandbox; but I knew that if they were, we’d be the target.

4. How to Be a Hummingbird

Providence, Rhode Island, 2005. The rain had been coming down in sheets for nine days straight, seeping through the walls in our basement, leaving puddles beneath the oil tank. We needed to get out of the house, and we drove fast, just barely tethered to the asphalt, headed for a movie in Massachusetts, a movie about a giant Were-Rabbit ravaging the village gardens. The red and green and yellow lights flowered in the moist fog. They twinkled and blinked intermittently with green. It was too much sometimes, too heavy. This place. This moment in time. The white noise of water-spray competed with the radio voices. My son blithely chattered away in his car-seat, conversing with his invisible friend, Tum-Tum the elephant.

Meanwhile, my wife and I talked openly about recent bomb threats to subways in New York City. We said whatever we wanted—things like, “bound to happen,” and “nothing we can do,” or “just gets worse and worse.” We admitted that this was our reality now. But a claymation movie about a giant Were-Rabbit awaited us, and we were happy about this. We were out of the house and not thinking, just driving and living. We were good Americans. It was early October 2005, and we’d already decided not to go to New York before the bomb threats were issued—mainly because we couldn’t afford the trip. But when we’d heard the reports of threats to subways and public transit, we were both honestly relieved to be anywhere but the city.

“Can you imagine that?” my wife asked, responding to another NPR update on the car radio.

“Getting bombed?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “Or living with that threat every day like they do in so many other places.”

“No, no I can’t imagine.”

I suddenly realized that our son had gone silent; and the moment began to stretch and expand, distended with silence. He was listening to everything we’d said. He was paying attention to all the words and possibilities, looking for the suggestion of violence or fear or conflict because he had Doppler radar for such drama.

“Who’s getting bombed, Daddy?” he asked.

“Nobody, honey,” my wife said, “Daddy and Mommy were just talking . . .”

“It’s a figure of speech,” I chimed in, but I was kidding myself.

He understood. He listened to NPR every morning and heard me ranting at the voices. I didn’t want him to be afraid of war and bombs. I didn’t want him to feel targeted. I wanted him to stay young and innocent and fearless as long as possible. But I also didn’t want to shelter him from the truth or from real danger. I had to prepare him to live in a world where people bombed trains or sporting events or buildings. But how was I supposed to do this? I was in the midst of a full-on parental pause, a seizure of language, and I didn’t know what to say.

Then my wife swooped in with this diversion: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

He paused for a moment, letting the possibilities balloon.

“Hmmmm, “ he said, “Maybe a hummingbird.”


April 15, 2013, Fresno, California: My son the hummingbird, born almost nine months after 9/11, will soon turn eleven. He’s just a few years older than Martin Richard, the youngest victim of the Boston Marathon bombing. My son is a bright boy who takes painting lessons, plays the trombone, and dreams of being a filmmaker. He still likes birds but he doesn’t want to be one when he grows up. His mother now has a house a few blocks away from me. My son and his sister live with me half-time, splitting the weeks. Things have changed a lot in eight years. But my son tells me that he still likes listening to NPR in the car because he learns cool things. These days he’s been listening to the news of the Boston Marathon bombing and the subsequent manhunt with what appears to be a kind of careful detachment, a calculated pre-adolescent disinterest. But he knows all the details, knows the bombs were packed in pressure cookers, knows they blew apart peoples’ legs, and he knows the bombs killed a young boy.

My 5-year-old daughter seems mostly oblivious to the news; she makes up songs in the back seat as we drive from school to home and listen to the radio reports. She doesn’t ask the same questions that my son asked years before, but I know from experience that she’s listening. I know she’s absorbing it all. And I suppose that’s what I’m reminded of every time something like this happens. Such things—these bombings, this terror—have the capacity to shrink your reality down to what really matters, making the world seem tiny and impenetrable, while simultaneously expanding things exponentially until your world seems immense and fragile and impossible to maintain.

I was still a new parent when my son first became aware of bombs, when he first started to ask “why” questions about war and violence. I can’t say that I know a lot more now than I did then. But perhaps he knew something then that we can all try to remember.

He may have been small, but he thought big and wild and in ways I aspired to match, ways that I still hope to preserve in my daughter and myself. If I could, I’d take them both out in the yard the next time a bomb or some other violence tears through the fabric of our days. Just the three of us, our faces pressed up close to the flowers, and I’d tell them to remember the nectar, remember their wings, their imaginations, and the way they can beat against the pull of violence. It’s a simple matter of defying gravity. I want to free them and protect them with this one fact: a hummingbird can beat its wings seventy times in one second. A simple blur of breath and flesh, and they could be gone.

5. After School Lessons

The other father schooled me during first-grade pick-up time.

“Saw some local fauna in the backyard,” he said and kind of rolled up on the balls of his feet.  He had the tanned muscled calves of a postal worker or a soldier, someone who’d walked a lot of ground.

“An opossum,” he said, nodding his head. “The wife wanted me to kill it, but I said, ‘No, let it be.’”

I told him and another mom about the raccoon I’d seen crossing busy VanNess Avenue and the Coopers hawk that took down a grackle on our street corner.

I’d called my kids to the window. “Hurry,” I said, “check this out,” and we watched the hawk stomp on the smaller bird, plunging its talons into the heart, puncturing the tiny chambers until the grackle bled out and stopped shuddering and flapping. It took a long time for that little bird to die. And then we watched the hawk carry it away.

When I finished my story, the mom gasped, “Oh, dear. I don’t know . . . ,” She put her hand up to her throat, covering the scar where she’d had her thyroid removed. “I can’t even . . .”

“It’s not violent,” I said. “It’s natural. The order of things.”


In one hand, the other father clutched a snack baggie stuffed with fruit. Strawberries and grapes, maybe a raspberry or two. A gift for his daughter. A treat for the walk home. He brought her something special every day.

“I freaked my sister out,” he said, gesturing toward me with the fruit baggie.

The children had already begun streaming out the doors, single-file, gravitating toward parents or guardians, gathering on the grass to wait.

“I poured salt on a block of dry ice,” he said over the chaotic noise of children.

“Watch,” he’d said to his sister. “Wait for it.”

And the deer did come. Two of them. Put their tongues to the salt. Stuck there, they pulled against the dry ice. Anchored to the lick, they strained to break free. And I wanted to tell him to stop.

“And my sister was like, ‘What are you going to do to them?”

I could see the deer pulling on their tongues, practically yanking them from their skulls. Panicked, they must have strained against their own anchor.

The other father handed his daughter the fruit baggie, “Here you go, honey,” he said and then he finished his lesson:

“And I was like, ‘Oh, I’m not doing nothing,’ and that’s when I slit their throats.”

He smiled, nodding his head again. There was a breeze that day. Unusual for Fresno. But it could not carry his words away. They dropped into the space between us.

The children flocked to their parents, gathering around us like metal fragments to a magnet. Drawn to our shelter. And I wanted to hold them all, to drag them all away from the image of the deer pulling against their tongues, their throats spilling blood.

The other father’s daughter looked up at him, his words hanging there, waiting to attach and take root. My own daughter, oblivious to the gore, grabbed my hand and begged, “Can I?” pointing at the playground; so I let her go, watching her legs kick up, bouncing toward the cedar chips.

His daughter watched, too, staring at the other girls at play. She wrapped her arms tight around the baggie and squeezed until it burst. Pop! Like a shot. And the fruit spilled down around her feet. Grapes rolled like they were trying to escape. The strawberries just sat there, wet and seedy on their flat-cut sides. And the girl looked up at him.

“Why did you squeeze it?” the other father asked, squatting to the concrete, sitting back on the heels of his Army boots.

“I don’t know,” the girl said, talking into her chest and twisting her toe on the ground.

“Consequences, baby,” he said. “Consequences,” as he picked up the fruit, and tossed it into the grass for the squirrels.

* * *

From I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: On Work, Fear and Fatherhood by Steven Church. © 2018 by Steven Church. Reprinted with permission of Outpost19.