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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

Treating Drug Epidemics Requires More Than Changes in Law

AP Photo/David Goldman

For a small country, Portugal has a lot of scientific and anecdotal data to offer the world about protecting people from substance abuse. At The Guardian, Susana Ferreira spends time in Portugal’s north and south, examining the sweeping shift from a standard punitive approach to drug use to one focused on harm-reduction. Since decriminalizing drug possession and consumption in 2001, the country has staved off a massive drug epidemic and its associated issues, from HIV to overflowing prisons. Ferreira examines the subtle cultural shifts that underpin Portugal’s success: no longer thinking of soft versus hard drugs, no longer looking at drug users as ‘junkies,’ but as ‘people with addiction disorders.’ Success requires social services and as well as new ways of thinking, which are things the U.S. has long struggled with, but should strongly reconsider as we suffer our own opioid epidemic.

“These social movements take time,” Goulão told me. “The fact that this happened across the board in a conservative society such as ours had some impact.” If the heroin epidemic had affected only Portugal’s lower classes or racialised minorities, and not the middle or upper classes, he doubts the conversation around drugs, addiction and harm reduction would have taken shape in the same way. “There was a point whenyou could not find a single Portuguese family that wasn’t affected. Every family had their addict, or addicts. This was universal in a way that the society felt: ‘We have to do something.’”

Portugal’s policy rests on three pillars: one, that there’s no such thing as a soft or hard drug, only healthy and unhealthy relationships with drugs; two, that an individual’s unhealthy relationship with drugs often conceals frayed relationships with loved ones, with the world around them, and with themselves; and three, that the eradication of all drugs is an impossible goal.

“The national policy is to treat each individual differently,” Goulão told me. “The secret is for us to be present.”

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A Pact Between You, God, and the Dance Floor

Daniel Arnold / Topic

Bar and bat mitzvahs celebrate a time when Jewish boys and girls reach the age to observe Jewish law. These sacred celebrations can also be wildly expensive, even competitive, with families trying to make their kid’s event memorable enough to stand out during a season of bar/bat mitzvahs. Dancing is always part of the program, and getting people to dance, and dance wildly, can require some external direction. For Topic, Jen Doll spent a month attending bar and bat mitzvahs to examine the professionals who are called “party motivators.”

Doll attended celebrations with a few different motivators to see how they work across the range of Jewish denominations. Motivators are not only excellent dancers, they engage the audience and direct people to play games, and they keep the party going. Although some like Meir Kay are independent operators, some companies provide fancy sound systems and up to eight motivators. It’s a lucrative gig, but it’s not just a job any dancer can do. Motivating is a skill that requires natural charisma and energy, which you either have or you don’t.

I’m pulled into the circle and dance with them, my hair in my face, feeling sweaty and slightly silly but also exuberant and welcomed by the crowd of strangers. On the other side of the mechitza, Kay has fashioned a jump rope with black napkins and is using it as a dance prop. Leaving the circle, I hang out at the back of the room to watch him cycle through a range of moves, his feet in black Nike high tops, tirelessly moving to the beat as he makes his way around the men’s side of the party. He leads line dances and games like Coke and Pepsi, a bar mitzvah staple that involves running back and forth across the room depending on whether “Coke” or “Pepsi” is called. He passes out hats and sunglasses and glow sticks in neon colors, items he’s brought along to the event in a large box. Tzvi Hersh’s dad has put on a pair of hot pink sunglasses and is grooving to the music, a huge smile on his face. Men are being lifted onto other men’s shoulders; boys pose with Kay for photos to post on Instagram and ask for his autograph. He is a celebrity, the most popular person at the party—at least, if you don’t count the bar mitzvah boy. And maybe even if you do.

When we leave at around 10:30, Kay is still dancing wildly. “I hope I could always do this, even if I’m a bazillionaire,” he’d told me on the phone. “After every night I’m sweaty and exhausted. Once you get to the later years, can you keep up with the kids? I’m gonna ride the wave as long as I can.”

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My Secondhand Lonely

(Klaus Vedfelt/Getty)

Zoë Gadegbeku | Slice | Spring/Summer 2017 | 15 minutes (4,081 words)

If it’s a Sunday, my mother is probably tucked into her bed, the stillness of the time between rest and the week’s unrelenting pace hanging heavy in the air, late afternoon light filtering through the half-drawn lavender curtains. She is probably reading, or maybe dozing and waking to the sounds of frantic sirens from the latest crime drama she has been engrossed in. The next morning, she will collect herself into the polished package she presents at work, just enough foundation to accentuate her cheekbones, dressed in a black suit with thin white pinstripes, her silver jewelry angular and slightly threatening like the point of her chin, eyes glaring above her glasses frames as if to say, “Don’t try me.” She has spent years building and defending her independence, interrupting a supposedly comfortable solitude only occasionally with relationships with men who eventually show themselves to be unworthy of her time. Still, her single motherhood never looks tragic to me, in spite of backhanded compliments that are supposed to affirm her strength: “Ah, in fact! You Mama Essie, you’re not a woman, ooh! You’re a man! Look at all the things you have done!” Working twelve-hour days, giving her family stern, frills-free advice, laughing with such unrestraint that it’s almost possible to see the fillings in her molars, she is single-minded in her mission to be excellent in every way. I can’t quite remember the exact moment she started to say, “Dzifa, I just want you to be happy. I don’t want you to end up like me.”

It may have been after I left home to go to college, after she began measuring my absence in the number of weekends she spends alone or how long it has been since I last called, but it is always distressing to hear, and I never let her continue long enough to give an explanation for this lament. I snap at her, “Why would you say that? Don’t talk like that!” Most of the time she sighs, or repeats in a resigned near-whisper, “I just want you to be happy, that’s all.” I’m only now growing to understand why being like her is supposedly an undesirable state in which to “end up.” She has spent a whole lifetime masking profound loneliness as self-sufficiency, and I have been her unknowing apprentice.

* * *

I’ve been engaged in the slow, careful process of constructing my own solitary fortress for the past five years — four in the unhealthily competitive atmosphere of an elite private college, one at a graduate program in the cold of Boston that feels unhealthy in a different way, as I’m constantly picking through my pain for the most exquisite parts to exploit for a story, or to bring the heavy black woman perspective, coded as “nuance,” to certain classroom discussions. I’ve learned how to carve bricks for the boundary around myself out of intricate excuses to explain away the obvious strain in my tight smiles: “Oh, nothing, I’m just tired.” “Yeah, I have so much shit to do, but it’s cool.” “You know, I’m a writer, so I’m always in my feelings.” Or my default reply, also inherited from my mother, “It’ll be fine. I just have to get on with it.”

I’ve developed great skill at stacking these platitudes between myself and anyone who may see me often enough to notice the cracks in my poor performance of strength. My aesthetic is always adapting to sustain the deceit. There are days when the hyper-feminine and form-fitting serve as the perfect costume: black skirt with slits on either side, paired with a black top making up for the modesty of its high neck and long sleeves with its slightly see-through material. On other occasions, I put on my tomboy disguise, still silhouetted in black but this time in the form of jeans and round-neck sweatshirts a few sizes too big, hiding a body that still feels uncomfortable at times with its dips and curves that I don’t always want to display. Each compliment is more than a validation of personal style; it is a warning to never let the mask slip: You always look so good. Always on point. Honestly, how do you do it?

Every word is a confirmation of what I’m convinced will happen if I choose to deviate from the customary gracious smile, responding instead with “Actually, I’m not okay. I’m scared and alone. Can you please talk to me?” As far as I’m concerned, the trick of “not looking how I feel,” another coping mechanism I’ve modeled after my mother’s never-ending capacity to keep going even on her most sorrowful of days, has succeeded to the point where no one will know how to react to my crumbling before them. There’s never an appropriate time to reveal the extreme isolation of harboring feelings you don’t quite understand, and every attempt lands clumsily in the space between myself and the other person, unashamed in its messiness but too frightening for either of us to touch any further beyond prodding the issue tentatively with a few ill-placed jokes.

She has spent a whole lifetime masking profound loneliness as self-sufficiency, and I have been her unknowing apprentice.

I tentatively crack open the door on a subject that I almost never speak out loud for fear it would swallow me with its terrifying reality. I drop vague references to how much I’m “going through it” at inappropriate times, like on the walk to the train station with a friend after class. I’m held back in my lonely place by the fear that I’ll expose the ugliness of my perfect farce. No formulation feels right or reasonable: I don’t know what this is. Every month since the spring of 2014, without fail, a smothering fog settles over me, before the premenstrual bloating and the pimples set in. Every month, seven to ten days before my period, every month with no exceptions. I think about ending myself for seven to ten days, every month, for two years. I flinch when my train rushes to a stop in front of me, only a short platform and a stripe of yellow paint between myself and its force. Every month, seven to ten days before my period, tears threaten to flood me in a too-hot shower, right before classes, in the middle of weekly check-in meetings at work.

It has taken this long to even allow these thoughts to whisper in my mind, because the training offered by my mother’s example has helped me to erase these grim blotches from the gleam of my effortless presentation, because for a part of those two years I dated someone I was always nervous would dismiss this horror as one of my “emotional excuses” for being a bad girlfriend, because if I don’t “get on with it,” there are friends who would find their calls unanswered at 4 a.m. when they have boy-related anxiety, or job-related anxiety, or what-am-I-doing-with-my-life anxiety. A heavy hand with the concealer hides the puffy eyes I get from going to sleep in tears I can’t explain, and I can get on with the lonely business of faking a life.

* * *

I recognize a similar show of flawlessness — albeit without the morbid subtext that stalks me — in Molly, the successful, gorgeous counterpart to Issa’s slightly inept persona on the HBO series Insecure. I can see traces of my mother’s charm in Molly’s relaxed laugh in front of a room full of colleagues as she makes a presentation, the ease with which she plays a game of dominoes with three men in the parking garage, spotless outfits in variations of ivory and cream standing out against her dark skin because she knows how striking that combination can be, and also that we, her admiring audience, won’t be able to ignore its stunning effect. It only takes the quick fade-out announcing a new scene for me to begin to see the unraveling of Molly’s perfection, so familiar and expected that I feel as though I’m the one pulling at its increasingly fraying edges.

In one scene, Molly gets a text, a simple “Hey” from Hassan the engineer, the latest man she’s seeing, or “the Arab guy,” as another character refers to him. Molly seems almost wistful as she reflects on how “different” he is, and the fact that she never imagined ending up with someone who wasn’t black — which seems a rather permanent statement to be making after only three dates. Of course, Hassan inevitably lets her down, and when Molly later recounts the story to Issa over dinner, she ends with a resigned “That’s my life” before lamenting the futility of navigating a dating scene which almost always seems to play out against her no matter whether she’s smothering, aloof, demure, or any combination of approaches to letting men know that she is interested in pursuing a relationship. The brilliance of the show lies in lifelike moments like these, when I see two black women using humor to avoid hitting too close to the heartbreaking center of the moment they’ve just shared: Issa offers a “broken pussy” as the explanation for Molly’s dating woes. “I think your pussy is sad,” she says. “It’s had enough. If your pussy could talk, it would make that sad Marge Simpson groan.”

I see myself in Molly’s wavering smile, in her attempts to keep herself together for colleagues and a larger anonymous public, in the possibility that this could be who I am becoming — this woman who thinks she has figured out how to measure herself in appropriate proportions, to always be more than enough for every situation, incredibly qualified for her job, head-turning from board meetings to restaurants, only to discover that her sole reward could be the yawning void where a life partner and peace of mind should reside.

For every shred of fear of a loveless, lonely future I feel, there seems to be an infinite number of reminders that I should be ashamed to crave romantic companionship to the same extent that I’m working toward academic and professional success. Gloria Naylor’s Ophelia seems to be pointing fingers at my weakness when she says, “I was never in that camp of a night out with someone is better than a night alone. I was someone, and there was always something to do with me.” My favorite poet, Warsan Shire, appears to echo this accusation of low self-worth on my part, “My alone feels so good, I’ll only have you if you’re sweeter than my solitude.” It is as if these women’s affirmations of being enough for themselves, of loving their own company so wholly that they would not let anyone interfere with their serenity just for the sake of doing so, is some sort of indictment against my half-baked self, acting out a self-reliance I do not feel.

Listening to the two black women hosts of the official podcast for the TV show, Insecuritea: The Insecure Aftershow, deepens the embarrassment that I think I should feel for empathizing with Molly, for seeing in her the reflection of the same act my mother and I, and many other black women, fictional and otherwise, have been putting on for our entire adult lives. The hosts laugh about how “pressed” Molly feels to find a man:

“I wasn’t expecting to see a woman in 2016 who’s willing to openly say, ‘I just want to be married,’ cuz I feel like I don’t see that a lot anymore.”

“Right, I think for us we tend to be either/or . . . like either you’re heavily career-based and you’re just going hard in that direction, or you’re more family oriented and you’re just focused on building that side.”

Even as the radio hosts slip in the disclaimer that they are speaking only from their own experiences and those of women they know personally, the archetype of the no-nonsense black boss lady stands in plain view, complete with shoulder pads à la Teri Joseph from Soul Food in the early 2000s, or immaculate white suit and precise side part like Molly. I feel as though I am hearing the retelling of a myth that predates my existence — the independent black woman who doesn’t need anybody. I am drinking in the idea that longing for a love connection was a trivial concern, and that personal ambition and the gleaming summit of career success should suffice until such time as a woman decides to shed her professional sheen in favor of the muted tones of motherhood, marriage, and all the accompanying trappings. Being anything less than enough — yearning for another person outside of oneself, for the chance to be seen without the masks, to be cared for in the way one cares for others — then becomes off-brand for an unstoppable black woman™.

* * *

As I try, and fail, to fully understand what it means to revel in being alone, Toni Morrison writes to me through Sula on her deathbed, Sula who has truly lived life rather than plodding through it at a gentle pace. Her estranged friend Nel challenges Sula’s last boast that she is “going down like one of those redwoods,” majestically, and not “dying like a stump” like everyone else. Nel’s skepticism demands a deeper explanation: what does Sula have to show for this supposedly grand life of hers?

“Show? To who? Girl, I got my mind. And what goes on in it. Which is to say, I got me.”

“Lonely, ain’t it?” Nel’s question sticks out in my mind like the point of an index finger toward a shameful secret unfurled before a judgmental public. Lonely, ain’t it.

“Yes. But my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else’s. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain’t that something? A secondhand lonely.”

Sula gives me the language to describe my loneliness, to hold it away from myself and dissect it, tackling its complex mesh and dissecting it piece by piece in the hope of finding some fulfillment on the other side of its demise.

It is as if these women’s affirmations of being enough for themselves, of loving their own company so wholly that they would not let anyone interfere with their serenity just for the sake of doing so, is some sort of indictment against my half-baked self, acting out a self-reliance I do not feel.

Loneliness may exist for me as a craving for romantic love, as a hope that a partner may be able to help me untangle the web of reasons why I feel alone with my emotional turmoil, but it also moves far beyond the presence and potential abandonment of a lover. It lives in the moments after a strenuous day, when my monthly distress threatens to destroy the titanium resolve I have bolted down firmly over any hints of softness that may betray me. It is in my trembling lips pressed tightly together, but not hard enough to stem the outburst of sorrowful isolation that eventually spills over the edges of heavily made-up eyes, streaking jet-black down my face. I’ve cried the full length of the ride on a red-line train and onto the bus. In public I crumple into myself and wallow in the awareness that no one will be waiting at home or on the phone to listen to me cry, no one will turn away from their own worries to listen to mine. I’ve cried staring directly into the faces of strangers shut tight with lack of concern, or with apprehension that my tears may open a gateway to some erratic and potentially dangerous behavior that could affect them. All this lonely isn’t mine. Even after I get home, I imagine it still clinging tightly to my hair and clothes, smelling like the man in the faded navy hoodie sitting next to me on the train, who didn’t seem to care that I don’t want to chat.

Loneliness rests in the soft tap on my shoulder, clad in my favorite wax-print outfit, a wrinkled hand, a quiet smile leading to the question, “You’re from Nigeria? Or Ghana? I saw your dress and I knew.” Every African woman of a certain age on the train could be my great-aunt or grandmother, with the same manner of folding their arms in front of their chests, the same gold-framed glasses with perfectly round lenses. We are looking for relatives, long left behind and hardly spoken to, in each other’s faces.

Yet, I can’t afford to immerse myself in the sentimentality of being lonely, to make sweeping statements about the nostalgia that immigrants face, miles and temperature points too far from the Equator’s reassuring heat, to address it as a uniquely urban plague that defines the landscape as much as skyscrapers like glass cages and an anonymity that crushes those who are unable to fend for themselves and bolsters those who have come to escape a dull elsewhere they used to call home. This lonely I’ve been carting around every month for the past two years is sinister. My lonely is life-threatening, as it grows more and more difficult to convince myself that anyone would notice the space I left behind if I were to cease to exist. My lonely is my mother’s, but it’s also a secondhand acquisition that could be hormonal or psychological, one that scares me into concealing what could be a very serious mental health condition whose dimensions I haven’t been fully able to grasp. My lonely is also that of Ahine, my best friend, who moves from work to home and back again amidst London’s eternal dreariness, isolated in the exhaustion of striding forward in her career while helping her mother through illness, who sends me a tearful voice message after months of unusual silence to explain how her loneliness felt so insurmountable that it seemed easier to retreat further into herself than to reach out to anyone. It is also Bre’s, when we pass each other on the street, and at the exact same moment we are screaming private crises but somehow cannot topple the boundary of expectations and break down to each other. We make eye contact, and she smiles. “Where are you off to?” the single cowrie shell in her locs flashing back and forth as she shakes her head slightly to the rhythm of her waving hands. Later I’ll explain to her that I was marching as fast as I could to disappear onto a crowded train before someone caught me out of character, drinking back the lumps of sobs forming in my throat, and she’ll already know.

“Girl, I was going through it too!” So why didn’t we stop for each other?

There must be some unfortunate birthright we have inherited, my black girlfriends and I, that traps us beneath its weight, some powerful entity that widens the distance between ourselves and any source of comfort and support. We take care of ourselves only to the extent that we can paste on a cheerful face and keep showing out and showing up for others to feel at ease, keeping our hurt and our fear tucked away in the desolate, uncharted territories of the hours in the early morning when sleep is replaced by a depression that appears impossible to chase away. Twenty-five years after Sula’s death, Nel visits her grave and mourns not only the loss of her friend, nor the betrayal of the affair between Nel’s husband and Sula, nor the secret the two women shared of the day a little boy drowned after slipping from Sula’s grasp and into the river. “Sula?” Nel calls into the emptiness, with only the leaves and the ground beneath her feet answering her call. “All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude.” Nel’s cries descend into an endless loop, “circles and circles of sorrow,” as she realizes that the source of her loneliness had roots deeper than the absence of her husband. “Girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.” The gaps between myself and the women in my life grow wider and more impassable the more we hide our difficulties from each other under the guise of being, or at least appearing, strong.

* * *

I finally speak my agony out loud one Wednesday in September of 2016, because my mother’s training has not prepared me adequately for a time when private suffering becomes unbearable and spills out into the open no matter how much I try to halt its flow. I’m standing in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom, my reflection framed by its glossy black border. I’m about fifteen minutes away from the arrival of my bus but unable to keep putting on my face because I’m not confident that my wobbly hands won’t stab my eye with the mascara brush I’m holding. There is the familiar tightening in my chest and my throat, and I try to steady my shaky breath by inhaling and exhaling deeply. Panic is winning a silent war against me, and I whimper as quietly as possible so as not to alert my two roommates. It wouldn’t do to bother them while they’re also getting ready for school and work. Instead I call my mother in Accra, hoping she can hold some of this chaos for me.

There must be some unfortunate birthright we have inherited, my black girlfriends and I, that traps us beneath its weight, some powerful entity that widens the distance between ourselves and any source of comfort and support.

“Baby, just try to calm down. Take deep breaths. Oh, baby, I’m so worried about you . . .”

I cry to her with my head tilted back so I don’t damage the mask I’ve just painted on. I’m not terrified because my morbid thoughts have intensified but because they are now beginning to overpower my desire and ability to just get on with it. I make it to the bus stop right as the bus pulls up, and I’m even twenty minutes early for work. I look good, always stylish, as my supervisor says, my hair at its hugest and fluffiest, the way I like it, because the humidity hasn’t started to shrink it yet. Later that day, the distance across the desk between myself and my favorite professor doesn’t seem quite as vast because I blurt out a summary of the monthly struggle I’ve been navigating, sharing with her my fear of conceding defeat to loneliness by even considering seeking the advice of a therapist.

“I don’t know, it’s just such a lonely feeling to know there’s no one who can listen the way I listen to them, so that I have to go and talk to a stranger.”

Her eyes widen behind the smudged lenses of her glasses with a concern that I know isn’t pity, but still makes me anxious.

“Zoë, it’s one thing if your friends are a safety net that you can fall back on, but if you don’t have that . . .”

* * *

There was a time when I controlled my lonely, when I would have been glad to claim ownership over it, to take it by the hand and along with me on adventures only I could see or appreciate. Being an only child meant that I was a self-contained source of my own joy. I climbed the twisted trunk of the same forget-me-not tree almost every day of the long vacation between July and late September, most of its velvety yellow flowers stuck in the red gravel at its base. Sometimes I was brave enough to jump back down from among the branches, following the path of descent back to solid ground that one of my slippers invariably took; other times I would have to wait for my mother to come back from work to help me down, my grandma’s arms unable, or more like unwilling, to get me out of my self-made predicament. I grew up always carrying a place for myself where the only other invited guest was my imagination, which allowed me to twist life’s mundaneness into whichever shape intrigued me the most. It seems fitting that the process of reclaiming my lonely as a place of satisfaction with myself, rather than a haunting jail that I’m too scared to escape, is a solitary one. I want to feel motivated to keep living for my own sake and not solely because giving up would alter the lives of people around me, to be “on point” for myself and not to be just a symbol of “black girl magic” for other people to cling to. I’m throwing away these secondhand burdens to avoid handing them to the daughter I may have in the future. I don’t want her to think it’s her duty to hold the fractured pieces of herself together long enough to fool others into thinking that her strength is unmatched. I’m prying open the vicious clamp of my lonely trap and pointing it out to other people in my effort to rid it of its power. No, I’m not okay. Can you please talk to me? 

* * *

This essay first was first published appeared in the Spring/Summer issue of SliceOur thanks to Zoë Gadegbeku and the staff at Slice for allowing us to reprint this essay.

Suburbanizing Survivalism

AP Photo/The Idaho Statesman, Katherine Jones

As the disaster preparedness phenomenon spreads from the rich and eccentric into mainstream America, survivalism is becoming big business. One leader in this sector is Wise Co., a manufacturer of shelf-stable food packed in Mylar pouches. In Bloomberg Businessweek, Amanda Little examines how Wise Co. CEO Aaron Jackson is steadily growing the business by targeting who he calls Mr. and Mrs. Smith in everyday America.

Rather than focusing on niche survivalists and evangelicals who believe in end times, Jackson is focusing on Target, Home Depot and Walmart, where survival foods are positioned as purchases just as practical as fire extinguishers and bottled water, and consumer habits are shaped by mounting global paranoia about natural disasters, terrorism and climate change. So far only 2% of Americans buy survival foods. He intends to change that. The whole approach seems a bit strange, though, since as a CEO who wants what he calls “stable customers” and “predictability,” his success has everything to do with global instability. Also, he doesn’t really believe the world will end, because if he did, why would he work so hard to make money he won’t be able to spend?

Then again, it’s the fear behind the idea that you should be prepared, just in case, that nags at you as a potential consumer. It can’t hurt, right? Because what if you’re wrong? Maybe it won’t matter. When the world has been devastated by warlords and ecological disaster, and you’re hiding in a bunker in the burned out woods, eating shelf-stable beef stroganoff mixed with radioactive rainwater, the flavor will probably make you feel like the rest of the world can’t end fast enough.

Jackson first connected with Wise in 2012, when a headhunter tried to recruit him from Post to run the fast-growing startup. He declined the offer, but commenced some research. “My aha! came in mid-2012 when I read that more than half of American homes have first-aid kits on hand, along with fire extinguishers and flashlights. I realized then they haven’t added the food component. I saw incredible growth potential.” When the headhunter extended the offer again a few months later, Jackson accepted the job of CEO and cautiously started to shift the marketing focus to his ideal customer, one who looks less like Ted Kaczynski and more like himself, his wife, who’s an attorney, and their two tweens: someone who isn’t entirely convinced that humanity is hurtling toward annihilation but who’s willing to stock the pantry with a Mylar-fortified food supply just in case. “This is the food equivalent of life insurance—staples that every American household in this age of uncertainty should have,” he says.

Jackson hired a young designer who’d been at the surf company Quiksilver to revamp the packaging. “We’d been selling our products in large, black plastic tubs. We needed something that doesn’t scream doomsday, so we moved to clean white boxes, contemporary fonts, high-quality food images—packaging that makes sense on a Target shelf,” Jackson says. As orders came in from big-box stores, he added a manufacturing facility a 15-minute drive from the office (production had previously been outsourced) that can produce 25 million pouches a year.

In the past four months, the spate of natural disasters combined with the specter of nuclear war with North Korea has pushed up Wise’s total sales 40 percent from the previous four-month period. Concerned suburbanites as well as disaster responders have contributed to the increase. The factory has made it possible for Jackson to meet both sudden surges and steady growth in demand. He ultimately managed to ship the 2 million servings to FEMA in a matter of weeks, with only a brief disruption to his regular customers’ supply.

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Destroying Music, One Playlist at a Time

Rex Features via AP Images

The music business is struggling. File-sharing and streaming have cut into what was for decades a lucrative industry. Sure, Americans are producing more vinyl now than they have in years, but overall album sales remain down, and the average consumer doesn’t seem to want to own music anymore. They want to listen to it, and only half-listen. So how does the industry get people to pay for a product that they’ve started expecting for free? Enter Spotify.

At The Baffler, Liz Pelly puts the world’s most popular streaming service under her microscope, to look at not only how it works, but how its algorithmic system shapes how listeners value music itself. The key is in the playlist, Pelly says, and how it strips songs of their origins or any other context besides mood, and directs listeners not to albums, but back to Spotify. Spotify user satisfaction is high, but while we’re relaxing to another chill mix, the service collects data about our tastes and songs’ performances — information that advertisers use to sell us stuff, but not anything that can help sell music. Playlists are corporate-branded. Spotify isn’t the solution to the music industry’s struggles. It’s a new threat, and our $9.99 monthly subscription finances the problem.

As an industry insider once explained to me, digital strategists have identified “lean back listening” as an ever more popular Spotify-induced phenomenon. It turns out that playlists have spawned a new type of music listener, one who thinks less about the artist or album they are seeking out, and instead connects with emotions, moods and activities, where they just pick a playlist and let it roll: “Chillin’ On a Dirt Road,” “License to Chill,” “Cinematic Chill Out.” They’re all there.

These algorithmically designed playlists, in other words, have seized on an audience of distracted, perhaps overworked, or anxious listeners whose stress-filled clicks now generate anesthetized, algorithmically designed playlists. One independent label owner I spoke with has watched his records’ physical and digital sales decline week by week. He’s trying to play ball with the platform by pitching playlists, to varying effect. “The more vanilla the release, the better it works for Spotify. If it’s challenging music? Nah,” he says, telling me about all of the experimental, noise, and comparatively aggressive music on his label that goes unheard on the platform. “It leaves artists behind. If Spotify is just feeding easy music to everybody, where does the art form go? Is anybody going to be able to push boundaries and break through to a wide audience anymore?”

Indeed, Spotify’s obsession with mood and activity-based playlists has contributed to all music becoming more like Muzak, a brand that created, programmed, and licensed songs for retail stores throughout the twentieth century. In the 1930s, the company prioritized workplace soundtracks that were meant to heighten productivity, using research to evaluate what listeners responded to most. In many ways, this is not unlike the playlist category called “Focus” that we see now on Spotify. In March 2011, Muzak was purchased by Mood Media, a company that provides in-store music, signs, scents, and video content. The similarity between the objectives of companies like Muzak and Mood Media, and the proliferation of mood-based playlists on Spotify, is more than just a linguistic coincidence; Spotify playlists work to attract brands and advertisers of all types to the platform.

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Portland, Oregon, Where the Law Protects Car Thieves Instead of Peoples’ Cars

AP Photo/The Telegraph, John Badman

In my first six months living in Portland, Oregon in 2000, someone smashed my passenger window. They stole a jacket I left on the front passenger seat, and some irreplaceable audio recordings I was transporting between work and home. I was pissed. I quickly learned a hard Portland truth: you can never, ever, leave anything visible on your car seats around here. It doesn’t matter if it’s a paper bag full of old burger wrappers or an empty box; if thieves see potential, they’ll break in to get it. The problem has persisted. Shards of broken glass still sparkle on our sidewalks, and people drive with plastic bags taped to their cars to keep out the rain until they can get their windows replaced.

Things have gotten worse. Now thieves just steal your car. Despite its small size, Portland has the third highest car theft rate in America, right after Baltimore and Detroit. By October 2017, more cars had been stolen here than in all of 2016. At Willamette Week, staff writer Katie Shepherd figures out why. It turns out, it’s because of a culture of crime and intravenous drug use, and because lax laws make car theft difficult to prosecute. Cops arrest the same people over and over. That’s how easy stealing cars here is. Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney Ryan Lufkin is working to change that by closing a loophole. Until then, hide your stuff. Don’t let your car idle to heat up on winter mornings. Use The Club. Not that it matters; parking here is a roll of the dice. So how did this start?

The case involved Jerrol Edwin Shipe, a 49-year-old former retirement home worker who was arrested in 2012 while sitting in a stolen truck in Washington County. He was convicted but appealed the verdict, claiming he didn’t know it was stolen and that he had gotten the truck from “a friend named Richey.”

Evidence at the scene suggested Shipe knew he was driving a stolen truck. He had bolt cutters, multiple sets of keys, and a locked case labeled—amazingly—”Crime Committing Kit.” The truck had other stolen property inside. The key Shipe had been using to start the engine did not belong to the truck.

Shipe’s appeal claimed that prosecutors could not prove he had “knowingly” taken possession of a stolen vehicle. Prosecutors argued that the evidence should have made it obvious to any reasonable person that the truck had been stolen.

The Oregon Court of Appeals judges ruled in Shipe’s favor. Chief Appellate Judge Erika Hadlock wrote in the July 23, 2014, decision that the state was asking the court “to accept too great an inferential leap” in determining that Shipe knew the truck was stolen when he took possession of it. (Hadlock declined comment to WW on her ruling.)

It set a precedent: Carrying tools associated with car break-ins or even operating a car with the wrong key was not enough evidence to prove that someone sitting in a stolen car knew that it was hot.

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Climate Change and Social Disorder in Central Africa

AP Photo/Jerome Delay

Incorrectly named by Europeans as Lake Lake, Central Africa’s Lake Chad once sprawled across the region where the borders of Nigeria, Niger, Camaroon and Chad meet. This massive lake district was once home to 100 million people, where numerous tribes utilized the lake’s bountiful fish and reed islands, grew crops and grazed cattle. In the 1970s, the lake and its tributaries started drying up. Drought descended, followed by tsetse files, famine and disease. Now the tribes and the jihadist extremist group Boko Harama battle over territory and scrarce resources.

In The New Yorker, Ben Taub reports from Lake Chad, where roads are rare and the desert is spreading, to examine how natural disaster and colonialism led to humanitarian disaster and jihadism. Boko Haram is a reaction to poverty and colonialism, and here on the front lines of climate change, shifting ecology contributes to social decay as much as homegrown greed and Western interference.

On the morning of July 22nd, we set off by boat in the direction of Médi Kouta. The chief of the island, a seventy-two-year-old Boudouma named Hassan Mbomi, met us at the shoreline and guided us uphill, through a grove of charred palm trees. He had returned to the island twenty days earlier, to try to grow millet, because he was starving on the mainland. About two hundred people had followed him. “When we got back, everything was burned,” he said. “We have to build our village from scratch.” A large group of men were waiting for us in a dusty clearing, but Mbomi said I couldn’t speak to them. He said that they had been kidnapped by Boko Haram and forcibly conscripted into the jihad before escaping.

To comply with U.N. safety rules, we were accompanied into the islands by a Chadian soldier named Suliman. He seemed ill at ease on Médi Kouta, and the people there eyed him with suspicion. When we left the island, Suliman told me that he didn’t accept the chief’s explanation. “Sometimes they go away, sometimes they come back,” he said. “But they are all complicit.” Some jihadis have a branding on their back—a circle with a diagonal line through it—but, in most cases, “we can’t distinguish who is Boko Haram and who isn’t,” Suliman said.

For two years, Suliman had been fighting in the islands. The Army had no boats. Sometimes his group commandeered fishermen’s pirogues, and he had come to believe that many fishermen worked as spies, alerting Boko Haram to the military’s movements. Like most soldiers, he grew up speaking Chadian Arabic, and cannot communicate with people in the Lake Region. We passed another island lined with burned palm trees. “The jihadis used to come to these islands at night, and we couldn’t see them,” Suliman said. “So we would light the trees on fire, so they wouldn’t come back.” He had torched the trees on Médi Kouta.

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The New Face of Military Recruitment

AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Recruitment rates are down, and while the Army works to increase the number of enlistments, it’s simultaneously working to eliminate past unethical recruiting practices. At Task & Purpose, Adam Linehan accompanies recruiters in New Jersey to see how the process works, and to meet the people who might one day form the next generation of American soldiers — if they can qualify.

Since the mid-aughts, when thousands of recruiters faced allegations of so-called “recruiting improprieties,” the Army has gone to great lengths to crack down on unethical recruiting practices — such as fudging paperwork, purposefully overlooking blatant disqualifiers, helping recruits cheat on the entrance test, and lying to enlistees (telling them, for example, “You’ll never go to war”). But the temptation to bend the rules persists, increasing whenever the pressure on recruiters to fill quotas becomes greater. That’s the case now.

“The problem is that the Army didn’t just increase the mission, they increased the demand for quality recruits,” a recruiter told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “So a lot of guys are cutting corners. Usually it’s just to keep their bosses off their backs — to avoid an ass chewing. It’s hard to flat-out lie when everyone has access to Google in their pockets, so they tell half-truths, which are still lies. Like, if a kid wants to join the reserve for college money, the recruiter will neglect to mention that the education benefits don’t kick in until a year after they sign their contract. That kind of stuff.”

However, among the East Orange recruiters, honesty isn’t just expected; it’s the foundation of their entire approach. In 2015, Lt. Col. Edward Croot, a Special Forces officer who commanded the Mid-Atlantic Recruiting Battalion until about five months ago, laid the groundwork for an ambitious strategy to reverse recruiting trends in the Northeast, which is the most challenging environment for recruiters in the country. Croot believed history was to blame: Over decades of dwindling participation in the armed forces, Northeasterners had grown vastly disconnected from the military. To mend the gap — to reacquaint people in the region with the organization fighting wars on their behalf — Croot opted for aggressive transparency. Recruiters would need to spend as much time as possible “outside the wire,” educating the masses about military service. In other words, they’d need to make the Army familiar.

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How Some Apache People Deal with Intergenerational Trauma

AP Photo

After over 30 years fighting the US military and American settlers, the Chiricahua Apache medicine man named Geronimo surrendered to the US government in a canyon in Southeastern Arizona in 1886. Mexican and American soldiers had already murdered many of Geronimo’s wives and children, and sold others into slavery. After surrendering, Geronimo and 341 other Chiricahua were permanently moved to an Oklahoma military base as prisoners of war. There, separated from their land and the plants and animals that inhabit it, their children were sent to schools designed to strip them of their language and cultural identity.

At Lithub, journalist Anna Badkhen pays homage to the tribe’s intergenerational trauma and their attempts to reconcile their pain with their proud ancestry. Invited by a Lipan Apache friend, she travels to a small town in the Sierra Madre Occidental of northern Mexico, where descendants of Geronimo perform the Ceremonia del Perdón — a Ceremony of Forgiveness, but also a celebration of their lineage. As the Apache try to forgive, Badkhen tries, in her words, “to learn what forgiveness is and whether it is possible.”

The Holguíns are lighting a ceremonial flame in a pedestal grill, to prevent a forest fire. One of Geronimo’s many great-great-grandsons, Alex Holguín, hands out pieces of paper. Bernarda has explained her idea for this: “It is a ceremony to ask God to forgive, in the name of our ancestors, the perpetrators and the victims. We will ask for forgiveness for the wars against Indians. For the turbulent times the consequences of which we are still suffering today.” People are already lining up to torch their pain. In the rain, smoke over the grill billows white.

I guess forgiveness means making peace. But I don’t want to make peace. Not with the prisoner of war cemetery at Fort Sill. Not with Charlottesville. Not with Tulsa or the Osage murders, not with the Holguíns’ abducted and enslaved grandmothers. Not with the orphaning of entire nations of their ancient rituals. Not with the banality of evil around the globe, nor with my own prejudiced cruelties and malice. All of them make me who I am, allow me to see the world the way I do, make me want to bring it to some kind of accountability. I must carry the heartbreak of it, this dark fire.

Hilda Holguín says it simpler:

“All these things I have, they form me,” she explains over a paper plate loaded with what she calls “Apache food:” a stew of potatoes, onions, hot dogs and ground meat cooked up in an enormous communal vat.

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The Cost of Being a Regular Ol’ American Place

AP Photo/Seth Perlman

Some places have easy-to-describe landscapes: Southeastern California is hot and dry. Southern Mississippi is swampy and green. Culture is something else, though — even though the Midwest’s flatness seems to define it, people mistakenly conflate its geography with its culture, which eludes easy description.

In The Hedgehog Review, Phil Christman recounts his struggle to make sense of his native Midwest after he moves back there with his wife. People call the Midwest “flyover country” and “the American breadbasket.” They comment on its orderly grid of roads and towns and its endless fields. But when locals tell Christman this is “the middle of nowhere” and “just like anywhere,” he not only realizes a place can’t be both anywhere and nowhere, but that viewing the region as average and normal works to the Midwest’s own detriment. As he wonders what normalcy in America even is, he questions what effect the Midwest’s sense of its own average American-ness has on people, including himself.

What does it do to people to see themselves as normal? On the one hand, one might adopt a posture of vigilant defense, both internal and external, against anything that might detract from such a fully, finally achieved humanness. On the other hand, a person might feel intense alienation and disgust, which one might project inward—What is wrong with me?—or outward, in a kind of bomb-the-suburbs reflex. A third possibility—a simple, contented being normal—arises often in our culture’s fictions about the Midwest, both the stupid versions (the contented families of old sitcoms) and the more sophisticated ones (Fargo’s Marge Gunderson, that living argument for the value of banal goodness). I have yet to meet any real people who manage it. A species is a bounded set of variations on a template, not an achieved state of being.

I took the first option. As a child, I accepted without thinking that my small town, a city of 9,383 people, contained within it every possible human type; if I could not fit in here, I would not fit in anywhere. (“Fitting in” I defined as being occupied on Friday nights and, sooner or later, kissing a girl.) Every week that passed in which I did not meet these criteria—which was most of them—became a prophecy. Every perception, every idea, every opinion that I could not make immediately legible to my peers became proof of an almost metaphysical estrangement, an oceanic differentness that could not be changed and could not be borne. I would obsessively examine tiny failures of communication for days, always blaming myself. It never occurred to me that this problem might be accidental or temporary. I knew that cities existed, but they were all surely just Michigan farm towns joined together n number of times, depending on population. Owing to a basically phlegmatic temperament, and the fear of hurting my parents, I made it to college without committing suicide; there, the thing solved itself. But I worry what would have happened—what does often happen—to the kid like me, but with worse test scores, bad parents, an unlocked gun cabinet.

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