Author Archives

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

Into the Wild On an E-Scooter

Photo of the author, Brandon Tauszik.

Rental scooters have descended on many American cities, clogging sidewalks and opening riders up to head injuries. Brands like Skip and Lime have the potential to improve city life by increasing mobility, especially in areas with lackluster public transportation. But how would the scooters perform outside the city? For Gizmodo, Joe Veix decides to ride a Skip scooter out of San Francisco and toward the ocean, to test its limitations and see if it can help him escape into nature. The company stated many clear rules. Riding the scooter “as a means of escaping society” was not one of them. But the rules’ undefined edges constituted their own kind of frontier, and Veix embraced this urban adventure.

The Presidio is out of Skip’s service territory area, which is limited to San Francisco proper, excluding its parks. In their app, there’s a border drawn around the map of the city. Outside the area is a purple-colored no-man’s land, free of scooters, presumably ravaged by violent gangs with poor mobility. When I crossed into this lawless territory, I worried that my scooter would shut off and the whole plan would sputter to a stop, leaving me at the mercy of the hordes and their perverse whims. But upon entering the forbidden zone, the scooter kept moving. I was safe… for now.

I rounded the circuitous path up to the Golden Gate Bridge and began crossing. It was crowded with tourists and bikers in spandex. Other than a few odd looks from people, it was mostly uneventful. The bike path along the western side of the bridge was wide and accommodating.

Beyond the bridge, the small screen on the scooter indicated that I had about 50 percent battery left. Not heartening, but it would have to suffice. I rode west, up into the Headlands. The engine churned up the hill at 5 mph. Though sluggish, it was enough to overcome a group of road bikers, who looked upon me with searing disdain.

This is the story of a fun little jaunt by a very funny writer. But there’s also something profound about seeing the e-scooter stripped of its context. Out there on a hiking trail, far from the bustling world of venture capital that created it, it’s no longer a new, potentially lucrative urban accessory poised to disrupt traditional modes of transportation. It’s just a rickety little bunch of plastic with a dying battery.

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The Power of a Neighborhood’s Name

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

Sometime in the late 2000s, Google Maps started calling Buffalo, New York’s Fruit Belt neighborhood “Medical Park,” even though long-time residents didn’t call it that. Home to Buffalo’s black working class, Fruit Belt residents feared this digital erasure was part of the city’s attempt at rebranding in order to sell it out from under them. For Medium’s tech channel, OneZero, journalist Caitlin Dewey writes about how data threatened this African American community, how residents are fighting to save it, and what Google Maps’ renaming reveals about the flawed ways data collection works. Many people deny that the renaming is part of any calculated rebranding, but what is clear is that data is not neutral. Neither are those who use Google Maps.

Worst of all, in May 2018, a young realtor named Kim Santana posted a glamorous Instagram post of herself standing on the corner of High and Lemon Streets, holding a large coffee cup. “Whether you call it the fruit belt or the medical park neighbourhood, this is a great opportunity to be part of the buffalo renaissance!” her caption read. (“I really believe that the Medical Campus is going to bring some attention to the formerly known Fruit Belt neighborhood,” Santana told me by email.)

Residents who saw the image seethed. India Walton, the co-founder of the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust, ticks off the many ways the Instagram post offended her: the tone, the use of the reviled Medical Park name, the presence of a “chai latte or whatever.” Walton includes the image in a presentation she gives to other activists around the country about the dangers of gentrification. The post proves, Walton says, that developers and realtors seized on Google’s mistake to market the Fruit Belt to rich white kids.

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Deciphering the Language of the Body in China

AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

While living in China, English journalist Poppy Sebag-Montefiore experienced the way strangers touched each other in various situations — on the train, in the market, standing in line. “Touch,” Sebag-Montefiore writes in her essay at Granta, “had its own language, and the rules were the opposite of the ones I knew at home.” She recounts her fascination with all of this touch, and how she set about understanding the way it works and where it came from, before the country’s rapid modernization irreparably changed it. All this physical intimacy offered, in her words, “a direct hit of the love, energy and camaraderie that you get from friendship,” but she also wondered if it had a dark side.

Touch in public, among strangers, had a whole range of tones that were neither sexual nor violent. But it wasn’t neutral either. At times, yes, you’d be leaned on indiscriminately because of lack of space, or to help take some weight off someone’s feet. Yet other times you’d choose people you wanted to cling on to, or you’d be chosen. You’d get a sense of someone while haggling over the price of their garlic bulbs and you’d just grab on to each other’s forearms as you spoke or before you went on your way. Touch was a precise tool for communication, to express your appreciation for someone’s way of being, the brightness in their eyes as they smiled, their straightforwardness in a negotiation, a kindness they’d shown.

I felt buoyed and buffeted by this touch. I sometimes felt like I was bouncing or bounding from one person to the next like a pinball, pushed and levered around the city from arm to arm. If the state was like an overly strict patriarch, then the nation, society or the people on the streets were the becalming matriarch. This way of handling each other felt like a gentle, restorative cradle at times. At other times all the hands on you could be another kind of oppressive smothering. But usually touch was like a lubricant that eased the day-to-day goings-on and interactions in the city, and made people feel at home.

I wanted to document this unselfconscious touch. To keep hold of it. I could tell that this ease between the bodies of strangers might not survive rapid urbanisation. This touch was so visual, so visible. I freed my camera from the head-and-shoulders interview shot and took it out to the streets.

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The Darwinian View of Our Storytelling Species

Terray Sylvester/VWPics via AP Images

Taxonomy classifies organisms in a way that maps life’s diversification and ancestral connections across time. When folklorists started charting popular stories like “Little Red Riding Hood” the same way, they built evolutionary trees that revealed surprising connections between childhood tales across cultures. For Harper’s, science writer Ferris Jabr explores this lesser known scientific approach to children’s narratives, which treats a story’s structural elements as genes, called ­mythemes. But this approach peers much deeper than individual stories’ genealogies. It exposes the ancient, durable roots of storytelling itself and our nature as a species. “Beauty and the Beast” and “Rumpelstiltskin,” Jabr writes, were no longer “just a few hundred years old, as some scholars had proposed — they were more than 2,500 years old.”

“Most stories probably don’t survive that long,” says Tehrani. “But when you find a story shared by populations that speak closely related languages, and the variants follow a treelike model of descent, I think coincidence or convergence is an incredibly unlikely explanation. I have young children myself, and I read them bedtime stories, just as parents have done for hundreds of generations. To think that some of these stories are so old that they are older than the language I’m using to tell them—I find something deeply compelling about that.”

The story of storytelling began so long ago that its opening lines have dissolved into the mists of deep time. The best we can do is loosely piece together a first chapter. We know that by 1.5 million years ago early humans were crafting remarkably symmetrical hand axes, hunting cooperatively, and possibly controlling fire. Such skills would have required careful observation and mimicry, step-by-step instruction, and an ability to hold a long series of events in one’s mind—an incipient form of plot. At least one hundred thousand years ago, and possibly much earlier, humans were drawing, painting, making jewelry, and ceremonially burying the dead. And by forty thousand years ago, humans were creating the type of complex, imaginative, and densely populated murals found on the chalky canvases of ancient caves: art that reveals creatures no longer content to simply experience the world but who felt compelled to record and re-imagine it. Over the past few hundred thousand years, the human character gradually changed. We became consummate storytellers.

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When Music Speaks to Our Experience

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From his father’s bass-playing to his own teenage piano compositions, writer Mark Wallace has lived a musical life. Although he eventually dropped out of music school and turned a different direction, his passion for music never diminished. At the Los Angeles Review of Books, Wallace writes about how Anton Webern’s Concerto, Opus 24 captivated him and helped him understand the shape of his own life. “Perhaps I was drawn to Webern’s structure,” Wallace writes, “because my hear life had had so little. The music was a kind of homecoming, after years of instability and constant uprootings.”

If there was a plan to our life in that time, though, a method, it was not one comprehensible to the limited scope of a child’s mind. Stability answers something in us, when we are young. The world should not be nuanced, since we are only just getting our heads around ideas of black and white, forward and back, right and wrong. It was impossible for me to grapple with notions of impermanence when notions of permanence were still only just forming in my mind. I didn’t consciously crave stability in the years in which we knocked around upstate New York; instead, I developed a keen sensitivity to the unstable, a deep and abiding confidence that, at any moment, everything about the scene around me was liable to be upended, that at any moment things could radically change.

Powerful music writing often charts the listener’s relationship to sound. It’s a treat when a close listener like Wallace is also a writer whose detailed descriptions allow us to hear complex music more clearly, and glimpse its larger meaning.

And this music made a kind of sense that had never been made to me before. I was instantly alert to it, attuned to its evolving three-note motif even as I realized it had none of the structure I had intuited from classical music, none of the same kind of balance and symmetry. This music had a different kind of structure: a framework I could hear, but one I didn’t yet understand. As unfamiliar as its style was, I was aware that it had a style, an internal consistency that told me the music was complete in itself, that it was whole. It was a different kind of wholeness than that of Bach or Mozart. The music was not in any key, and that was intriguing. There was no single tone here with that kind of gravitational pull. Instead, the music built on a foundation it seemed to devise itself, rather than one common to other pieces. It established its own terms with the notes and figures and structures that announced the piece, and then reshaped those arguments in subtle ways with each passing bar. There was much elusive quicksilver here, and little that one would call tuneful. Though I had heard nothing like it before, it was somehow not surprising. Its foundations felt solid and secure.

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The Problem with Nature Writing

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

Nature writing is a prestigious genre graced with such legendary practitioners as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Rachel Carson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Unfortunately, the genre is no longer that popular. For The Believer, nature writer Jenny Price shows what the sprawling Los Angeles Metropolitan Area reveals about the genre’s failure to connect with modern readers, and how we can rethink our relationship with nature.

People frequently ask Price, “Is there nature in L.A.?” Many outsiders incorrectly claim that L.A. has no history, beauty, depth, culture, or pedestrians. Their inability to recognize nature in the city stems from the same core problem that plagues Price’s genre: the idea that nature is something separate from, or untouched by, humanity. “To define nature as the wild things apart from cities,” Price writes, “is one of the great fantastic American stories.”

And it’s one of the great fantastic American denials. On Mapleton Drive in Holmby Hills in the Bel Air area, in the Santa Monica Mountain foothills, the TV producer Aaron Spelling has built what’s widely publicized as the starship of Hollywood homes—a 56,550-square-foot French limestone mansion with 123 rooms, with two rooms for wrapping gifts and a rose garden on top of one of four garages. Here are two generally ignored facts about Spelling’s famous homestead. First, it is a house of nature: Spelling built it, has maintained it, and stocks it with fantastic quantities of oil, stone, metals, dirt, water, and wood (a likely forest’s worth of wrapping paper, to begin with). And second, there are very few maples on Mapleton Drive. Maybe maples grew here in abundance once, and maybe not. Either way, the street enjoys the idea of maple trees, which conjures a bucolic refuge above the smog, noise, and torrential activity of the megalopolis below. Call it maple mojo. Smaller manses of nature line the rest of Mapleton Drive as well as the neighboring streets Parkwood, Greendale, Brooklawn, Beverly Glen. No parks, no woods, no dales, no brooks, no glens. Just the mojo of wild nature.

Mapleton Drive showcases the denial intrinsic to the great American nature story. To say there’s no nature in cities is a convenient way of seeing if I like being a nature lover and environmentalist but don’t want to give up any of my stuff. We cherish nature as an idea of wildness while losing track of the real nature in our very houses. We flee to wild nature as a haven from high-tech industrial urban life, but refuse to see that we madly use and transform wild nature to sustain the exact life from which we seek retreat. We make sacred our encounters with wild nature but thereby desacralize all other encounters. Or in other words, if we cannot clearly understand cities and our lives within them unless we keep track of our connections to nature, still there may be some basic things we prefer not to see and understand.

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Living to Tell About It

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As T Kira Madden writes in her powerful, poetic essay in The Sun, she grew up with two wealthy parents with chemical dependencies. Madden’s father left their family to find sobriety in another state; her mother succumbed to addiction. The young, biracial Madden struggled in that vulnerable teenage space between what she was and what she still could be, both hurting herself and trying to find a way out, with the help of other young women.

My mother calls in the middle of my shift again. She sounds worse than she did this morning. She’s crying — I can’t make out her words.

Chicken is what I understand. Made chicken. Need sleep.

So go to sleep, I say. Eliza will drop me off soon.

But I don’t want Eliza to drop me off soon. I want Eliza to drive me all around town, and I tell Eliza this. I want her to buy me as many packs of cigarettes as I can afford, and a bottle of anything, and I want us to talk, the two of us, in her car, on the beach, anywhere. I want her emo music turned down low on the radio as I tell her what my life’s been like; I want to tell her about home, about the Senior; I want to tell her that once, I could have been an Olympic athlete, or a jockey. I want to talk to her until my mother wakes up. I want my father. Most of all, I don’t want to go home.

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Parenting in the New Age of Anxiety

AP Photo/Julio Cortez

By shadowing our children and using technology to keep tabs on their movements, their digital communication, and their time, are parents eliminating kids’ ability to take necessary risks or have an inner life? At The New Yorker, novelist and essayist Jess Row explores what he calls the “culture of constant supervision,” which is another phrase for about anxious, overprotective parenting. Drugs, abductions, vape, driving while texting — the world is full of dangers, sure, but when children rarely get to be truly alone, our protections carry hidden costs. Row isn’t suggesting parents quit monitoring their kids’ whereabouts or online lives. He’s conflicted and trying to work through the pros and cons of intensely attentive parenting, because he wants to find the best way to parent his own children.

As my children get older, I’m realizing how profoundly my instincts have been shaped by this culture of constant supervision, which wants to believe that it’s the same thing as intimacy. I still prefer it, over all, to the enormous distance that I sometimes felt as a teen-ager toward my parents. But I want to ask: Who is speaking up, today, for a young person’s right to a private life, to secrets, unshared thoughts, unmonitored conversations and relationships? Phrasing it this way sounds dangerous, and also counterintuitive: Don’t teen-agers and young adults today accept that technology is embedded in every aspect of their lives, that just being alive means being present (at least to some degree) online? My daughter, just coming into her own digital domain, certainly does: she has her own phone and laptop, ostensibly for homework, is allowed to text and chat with her friends, and desperately wants her own social-media accounts. Kids her age seem to accept, reluctantly, that the price of having a social life is having their parents one step away from everything they do, sharing the same accounts, playlists, search histories. We’re the ones who regulate her time online (and use the indispensable plug-in Freedom to keep her offline while she’s studying, just as we use it ourselves). When we notice an item that warrants a conversation—a questionable YouTube search, for example—we talk about it. At length. We’ve already had more family conversations on issues related to sex—sometimes in the form of extremely contemporary tangents, related to Cardi B’s taste in shoes or Stormy Daniels’s career choices—than I ever had with my parents.

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How Do We Read in a Digital World?

AP Photo/Suzanne Tobias

In 1994, essayist and book critic Sven Birkerts published The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Even during the early phase of the internet, the reader and bookseller in Birkerts could see how digitization offered a never-ending candy store of sweet distractions, and those distractions posed a danger to not only reading, but what reading does for the solitary reader. Birkerts rightfully feared how the screen would undermine a reader’s ability to sustain deep concentration, to make the connections needed to discern meaning in narratives, to do what he calls “vertical reading”; and that our distractedness would inhibit our ability to deeply examine ourselves. At the Paris Review, Mairead Small Staid reexamines this telling book to see which of Birkerts’ concerns have come true.

Horizontal reading rules the day. What I do when I look at Twitter is less akin to reading a book than to the encounter I have with a recipe’s instructions or the fine print of a receipt: I’m taking in information, not enlightenment. It’s a way to pass the time, not to live in it. Reading—real reading, the kind Birkerts makes his impassioned case for—draws on our vertical sensibility, however latent, and “where it does not assume depth, it creates it.”

I no longer have a Facebook account, and I find myself spending less and less time online. As adulthood settles on me—no passing fad, it turns out, but a chronic condition—I’m increasingly drawn back to the deeply engaged reading of my childhood. The books have changed, and my absorption is not always as total as it once was, but I can still find, slipped like a note between the pages, what Birkerts calls the “time of the self… deep time, duration time, time that is essentially characterized by our obliviousness to it.” The gift of reading, the gift of any encounter with art, is that this time spent doesn’t leave me when I lift my eyes from the book in my lap: it lingers, for a minute or a day. “[S]omething more than definitional slackness allows me to tell a friend that I’m reading The Good Soldier as we walk down the street together,” Birkerts writes. “In some ways I am reading the novel as I walk, or nap, or drive to the store for milk.”

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The Paid Manipulators of Reality

Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

By using avatars, Facebook, fake websites, and fake news, new private intelligence firms staffed by Israeli intelligence personnel are waging wars on perception to alter targeted groups’ beliefs and behavior. In their story for The New Yorker, Adam Entous and Ronan Farrow profile one firm called Psy-Group to delve deep into this disturbing frontier, which one Israeli intelligence officer described as “a place where wars are fought, elections are won, and terror is promoted.” Psy-Group wanted to tap the growing, lucrative field of American elections. So why was it planning an “influence campaign” over a hospital board election in rural Tulare, California?

The 2016 election changed the calculus. In the U.S., investigators pieced together how Russian operatives had carried out a scheme to promote their preferred candidate and to stoke divisions within U.S. society. Senior Israeli officials, like their American counterparts, had been dubious about the effectiveness of influence campaigns. Russia’s operation in the U.S. convinced Tamir Pardo, the former Mossad director, and others in Israel that they, too, had misjudged the threat. “It was the biggest Russian win ever. Without shooting one bullet, American society was torn apart,” Pardo said. “This is a weapon. We should find a way to control it, because it’s a ticking bomb. Otherwise, democracy is in trouble.”

Some of Pardo’s former colleagues took a more mercenary approach. Russia had shown the world that information warfare worked, and they saw a business opportunity. In early 2017, as Trump took office, interest in Psy-Group’s services seemed to increase. Law firms, one former employee said, asked Psy-Group to “come back in and tell us again what you are doing, because we see this ability to affect decisions that we weren’t fully aware of.” Another former Psy-Group employee put it more bluntly: “The Trump campaign won this way. If the fucking President is doing it, why not us?”

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