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Aaron Gilbreath
Aaron Gilbreath has written essays and articles for Harper's, The New York Times, Kenyon Review, The Dublin Review, Brick, Paris Review, The Threepenny Review, and Saveur. He's the author of This Is: Essays on Jazz, the personal essay Everything We Don't Know, and the forthcoming book Through the San Joaquin Valley: The Heart of California. @AaronGilbreath

New York City Shredder

Tyshawn Jones, far right, at the Adidas Skateloftnyc at Webster Hall, 2017. Johnny Nunez/WireImage

Skateboarding has been around long enough, and skate parks are numerous enough, that tons of amateurs can rip like only pros once did. It’s a whole other thing to skate with style. For The New York Times Magazine, Willy Staley profiles Tyshawn Jones. The first New Yorker to win Thrasher magazine’s Skater of the Year award, Jones represents a shift away from skateboarding’s West Coast origins, and its contentious merging with the fashion industry, which is where the money is. Besides his absolute devotion and his incredible abilities, what separates him from so many of us skaters is that he grew up in the Bronx and has used flat, crowded Manhattan as his skate park. Instead of doing the same tricks on big ramps designed for those exact tricks, he gives us something new: olleying over store signs and trash cans, sliding across handrails and flower boxes, and even doing a boardslide on the front of an earth mover on Park Avenue. Finding the spots requires talent. Imagining how to skate them, and pulling off the tricks, are whole separate talents.

As Strobeck sees it, that journey from the Bronx to Manhattan is captured symbolically in the trick that put Jones on the cover of Thrasher: an ollie over an entrance to the 6 train at the 33rd Street station. This subway entrance is a mind-boggling thing to leap over: The gap starts in an office building’s elevated plaza, and from there, you have to clear a thigh-high guardrail, then a six-foot-wide staircase plunging down into the street, with a spike-tipped fence on the other end. But the ollie itself was just a fraction of the challenge. Midtown was swarming with people whenever they went to film.

One thing Jones has that a lot of pro skaters don’t is a bunch of hardheaded friends who are willing to bring city life to a halt for him. The day he finally landed it, on his third visit, he went to the spot with 10 of his buddies, most of whom didn’t skate. They positioned themselves all around the subway entrance to help, in Strobeck’s words, ‘‘facilitate’’ — or the exact opposite, depending on your perspective. One stood in the stairwell to keep unwitting straphangers from taking a board to the skull, one stood up top to keep people from going down the stairs, some dealt with people in the plaza above, another worked as a spotter to tell Jones when the coast was clear. Even passers-by stopped to help.

To ollie over something this massive is like doing a parabolic calculus problem with your body while also attempting suicide, but it involves a set of motions Jones knows like second nature: Snap the tail and leap, dragging the board as high as you can with your front foot, tucking your knees into your body — on the Thrasher cover, Jones’s are practically touching his shoulders — then hope for the best. When Jones finally landed it, he did so with his front wheels in the street and his rear wheels up on the sidewalk, one last screw-you from New York, but he rode away. He got a message on Instagram from someone who worked in a building high above the plaza. She told him that people in the office had lined up at the windows to watch. When he landed it, the whole place erupted in cheers.

Jones makes a solid living from his sponsors and the restaurant his skate money bought him, but like most pro skaters, he would make a lot more if he was in a different sport. The skateboard industry is lucrative but has always had limitations, so Jones is wisely targeting clothing and fashion brands instead of just skateboard companies. Besides talking a lot about money, Staley’s piece is also a celebration of a sport whose athletes gets far less respect, and money, than mainstream basketball and baseball players. Hanging out with Jones, Staley makes an observation you don’t see much in skate journalism: the way skaters view other athletes.

It was the week of the N.B.A. Finals, and the two began to discuss the truly galling amount of money basketball players make. ‘‘Throwing a ball in a hoop!’’ Jones said, dismissively. ‘‘Curry got $237 million for five years.’’ It hadn’t occurred to me just how rote the work of an athlete might look to a pro skater, who must do so much more than just perform. He has to find spots, think of tricks, overcome not just his fears but also the police, Good Samaritans, cracks in the pavement, rain. And only once that chaos has been mitigated can he try to perform, to write one little line in the canon of an insular subculture. Henry joked that her son had gotten into the wrong sport entirely.

‘‘Throwing a ball in a hoop,’’ he said again. ‘‘That [expletive] is crazy!’’

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The Bonds Beyond Language

AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

Brian Trapp‘s twin brother Danny had cerebral palsy and severe intellectual disabilities, which limited his speech to twelve words. Thanks to a devoted family who developed their own language of jokes and rituals, Danny could convey a range of ideas and emotions and participate in family life. But his limited language meant that people had to speak for him, guessing at what he would have wanted, what he did and didn’t understand, the full breadth of his personality — with only twelve words, there was so much about Danny that his loved ones could never know. Faced with the decision to take Danny off a ventilator, how could the family be sure they were respecting a wish he couldn’t express? In a stirring essay for the Kenyon Review, Trapp examines his deep relationship with his twin and the ways we communicate in general; we imagine and interpret who people are and project our own experiences onto them, including, in Trapp’s case, his survivor’s guilt.

There was a large gap between his receptive and expressive capabilities, so we had to make what disability advocates call the “least dangerous assumption” and assume his communicative intent even when we weren’t exactly sure what he was trying to say. This required his conversation partners to coconstruct his meaning, from his body language, context, and tone. We had to imagine what he was thinking, project ourselves into his mind. This might seem strange, but it is not that different from how people normally interact. Language, in general, is a flawed and limited instrument. We can never truly know what others feel or think, even if they spend hours telling us, even if they have a million words at their disposal. My brother just happened to have twelve. Rather than making him a freak or an alien, his disability helps us see the essential human truth of all our communication acts: We all construct other minds through this imperfect mediation of language. No one speaks on their own. We are all twins—we all finish each other’s sentences.

My name is a case in point. My brother multiplied its meaning with tone, context, and absence. He said “I-an” so I’d talk to him. He said “I-an” to tease me, repeated it every fifteen seconds while we rode in his van, an auditory Chinese water torture. He yelled “I-an” into my voice mail to call him back. He said “I-an” in response to questions like “Who’s ugly?” He yelled “I-an” at church, heckling the priest in the middle of a sermon, which might mean any number of things, both satirical and metaphysical. He said “I-an” softly before he nodded off to sleep, so that it might as well have been: I love you.

My name was the currency between us. When I said, “Danny, give me an I-an,” I was asking for a hand-slap, a bro-hug, if everything was all right, if he loved me. When he refused, “not-I-an,” the “absence of I-an” could have as much meaning. The silence might mean: Dude, screw you. It might mean: I’m too tired. I’m in too much pain. It might mean: You have to talk to me more. You’re an asshole. You’re a poor substitute for Mom. Withheld at the right moment, it might mean: I resent you.

Projection is a central theme in this essay, and into this essay I projected my own sadness. I cried as Brian lay in the hospital bed with his dying brother, letting Brian’s pain register as the pain I feel about my ailing elderly father and a recently deceased friend. Readers necessarily carry so much of ourselves to the stories we read; when I cried during Brian and Danny’s final moments together, I was also bracing myself for my own.

A white film covered his tongue, and his cough was wet. I put my finger in his hot hand. I asked my brother, “Do you love me?”

“Eh,” he said. He did not tease me. He knew.

I closed my eyes and held him to my chest. I pretended it was twenty-nine years ago, that we weren’t even born, still sealed in the womb. Where were our bodies? Were we like this, face-to-face? Were we turned around, back-to-back and rubbing spines? Was he upside down, his ass in my face? Where did I end and my brother begin? I pretended that his body wasn’t breaking down, that they had not cut tendons or poked holes, put in tubes or fastened masks, that I was never married, never had my heart broken. There wasn’t even language yet. We hadn’t learned a single word. Our cells were still blooming, getting ready. We would do it all over again.

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Washington D.C.’s New Media Landscape Is Niche

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

When young writers dream of becoming journalists, how many envision themselves writing for trade magazines like American Shipper and Onion World? I used to work at a tea company which bagged its own tea, and it always amused me when our new issue of a heavy machinery trade mag arrived in the mail. It turns out, those niche publications are now far more stable, and often more lucrative, than most of the mainstream papers and magazines. Why was I laughing? I had to work at a tea shop to make a living as a writer.

At The Washington Post, Scott Nover takes us to Capitol Hill, where reporters for niche publications now outnumber reporters for the mainstream publications most of us associate with journalism. These reporters have specialties, from agriculture to medical devices, and their work caters to specialists whose particular interests are influenced by what happens on the Hill, and who are willing to pay top dollar for niche news. Besides making certain types of information more expensive, how has this changed other aspects of the media landscape?

Mainstream news organizations in search of new revenue streams have also moved into specialized coverage and research. In 2017, Digiday reported that Politico Pro — Politico’s subscription-based news and intelligence service — had 20,000 paying subscribers and accounted for half of Politico’s total revenue. In 2011, Bloomberg bought the Bureau of National Affairs, a trade publisher, and rebranded it as Bloomberg BNA; Business Insider launched Business Insider Intelligence in 2012.

When industry is the primary audience, the priorities for reporters can be different from those of mainstream journalists. Ferdous Al-Faruque, who goes by Danny, works for Medtech Insight, an industry trade outlet published by the British company Informa. “A large part of our audience are medical device companies. So their regulatory officers, their CEOs [and] various executives will read our stuff in order to know what is FDA thinking, what is FDA doing, how does this impact our business,” he told me. “The way I always try to remember this is if my articles are not, in some way, making money for the medical device industry, I’m not doing my job because what I write needs to somehow fill their business strategy.” He stressed, though, that the approach doesn’t guarantee favorable coverage. “Even though we might lose a major client because they don’t like what we write … we have to do it because it’s not about them,” he says. “It’s about our credibility.”

Some observers argue that the growing ranks of the trade press do contribute, albeit indirectly, to broader accountability journalism. At an Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference in August, Usher and her colleague Yee Man Margaret Ng presented their research on social-media conversations between trade journalists in D.C. “What these trade folks are doing, especially on Twitter, is raising [the] alarm when [an] alarm needs to be raised,” Usher told me. “Or they’re covering something in a way that allows more mainstream … journalists to basically survey a sector they would otherwise not pay attention to.”

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Not Homeless Enough for Assistance, But Still Without a Home

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Working a stable job, paying rent on time, keeping a clean house ─ being a model tenant was not enough to keep a roof over Cokethia Goodman and her six children. When their Atlanta neighborhood became a hot market, their property’s owner decided to sell, and the family had to move. Their situation went downhill from there, taking them briefly to a Rodeway Inn paid for by the Red Cross, before struggling to secure homeless services.

For The New Republic, Brian Goldstone spent nearly a year reporting on the Goodman family’s struggle to live in Atlanta, and the larger phenomenon of working homelessness, where people without a residence still don’t qualify for certain essential types of assistance. This is a story about a lack of tenant protections, the human cost of so-called urban revitalization, rising rents and declining wages, and the tenuous positions of America’s working poor. As Goodman says, “I grew up in Atlanta. I graduated from high school in this city. Through my job, I’ve been taking care of people in this city. And now my kids and I are homeless? How does that even happen?”

Goodman’s predicament is increasingly common as the ranks of the working homeless multiply. The present support system, according to advocacy groups, effectively ignores scores of homeless families—excluding them from public discourse and locking them out of crucial support. This is due, in large part, to the way that HUD tallies and defines homelessness. Every January, in roughly 400 communities across the country, a battalion of volunteers, service providers, and government employees sets out to conduct the annual homeless census, referred to as the Point-in-Time count. Usually undertaken late at night and into the early morning, the HUD-overseen census is meant to provide a comprehensive snapshot of homelessness in America: its hot spots and demographics, its causes and magnitude. Last year, on the basis of this data, HUD reported a 23 percent decline in the number of families with children experiencing homelessness since 2007. The only problem, according to critics, is that HUD’s definition of “homeless,” and thus the scope of its Point-in-Time count, is severely limited, restricted to people living in shelters or on the streets. Everyone else—those crammed into apartments with others, or living in cars or hotels—is rendered doubly invisible: at once hidden from sight and disregarded by the official reporting metrics.

Julie Dworkin, the director of policy at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, has called attention to the profound consequences of this neglect. Not only are families denied housing assistance from HUD and its local partners, but, as the federal agency’s figures make their way into the media, the true scale and nature of the crisis is also obscured. In 2016, Dworkin and her colleagues began conducting their own survey of Chicago’s homeless population, expanding it beyond the HUD census to include families doubled up with others. Their total was twelve times that of the Point-in-Time count: 82,212 versus 6,786. “The idea that these families aren’t ‘actually’ homeless because they’re not in shelters is absurd,” Dworkin told me. “Oftentimes the shelters are full, or there simply are no family shelters—in which case, all these people are essentially abandoned by the system.” She noted the myth that families with children living in doubled-up arrangements are somehow less vulnerable than those in shelters, when these conditions can be just as detrimental to a child’s education, mental and physical health, and long-term development.

In Atlanta, where city leaders (and local headlines) have touted a drop in homelessness over the past four years, there has been no comparable effort to track the number of unhoused families who fall outside the official count. Data collected by other federal agencies does exist, however, and the chasm between their respective findings is similarly striking. The Department of Education defines as homeless anyone who lacks “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence,” which explicitly encompasses those in motels and doubled up. During the 2016–2017 school year, the Department of Education reported 38,336 homeless children and youth enrolled in Georgia public schools; that same year, the state’s HUD-administered total, not just for children and youth but for the entire homeless population, was 3,716. Politicians cited the smaller number when shaping the public narrative about homelessness in the state; that figure also helps determine the amount of money allocated to homeless services the following year. Meanwhile, the parents of those 38,336 students are caught between two parallel definitions. At their child’s school, they are homeless. At Gateway, they are not.

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Can Tech Become Ethical, If It Learns to Be Mindful First?

Nano Calvo/VWPics via AP Images

No matter how recent advances many tech companies have made for humanity, they have also wreaked havoc on our world, from screen addiction to social fragmentation to a depressing sense of isolation. Conflicted tech workers are starting to face the fact that Big Tech hasn’t simply bettered the world, and some are seeking spirituality, psychedelics, meditation, and mindfulness to reconcile this with their traditional notions of success. For The New Yorker, Andrew Marantz examines what he calls “Silicon Valley’s Crisis of Conscience.” Silicon Valley has earned our skepticism, and it’s tempting to dismiss this soul-seeking as PR or another passing trend, like open offices or those little fold-up commuter bikes. “But ultimately if a handful of people have this much power,” asks Esalen institute’s past C.E.O. Ben Tauber, “then, isn’t that worth a shot?” Maybe. So what’s this all look like?

Near the end of a placid April morning in San Francisco, a nonprofit called the Center for Humane Technology convened more than three hundred people in a midsized amphitheatre named SFJAZZ—co-founders of Pinterest and Craigslist and Apple, vice-presidents at Google and Facebook, several prominent venture capitalists, and many people whose job titles were “storyteller” or “human-experience engineer.” One attendee was Aden Van Noppen, who carried a notebook with a decal that read, “Move Purposefully and Fix Things.” She worked on tech policy in Barack Obama’s White House, then did a fellowship at Harvard Divinity School, and now runs Mobius, a Bay Area organization dedicated to “putting our well-being at the center of technology.” “The Valley right now is like a patient who’s just received a grave diagnosis,” she said. “There’s a type of person who reacts to that by staying in deflect-and-deny mode—‘How do we prevent anyone from knowing we’re sick?’ Then, there’s the type who wants to treat the symptoms, quickly and superficially, in the hope that the illness just goes away on its own. And there’s a third group, that wants to find a cure.” The audience at SFJAZZ comprised the third group—the concerned citizens of Silicon Valley.

Before the presentation, Van Noppen hosted a breakfast for a few members of the audience, including Justin Rosenstein, a former Facebook employee and a co-inventor of the Like button, and Chris Messina, a former Google employee and the inventor of the hashtag. Messina wore a polo shirt, revealing a tattoo on each arm: a hashtag on the right, a Burning Man logo on the left. “It’s not nearly widespread enough yet,” he said, of the industry’s capacity for self-critique. “But even to get a group of people together like this and publicly acknowledge the depth of the problem? That would have been impossible a few years ago.”

“A few months ago,” Rosenstein said.

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Surf Where You Least Expect It

Ton Koene/VWPics via AP Images

Ireland, known to outsiders for its castles, whisky, and lush green landscapes, has some serious breaks along its beautiful west coast. To ride them, you have to contend with frigid water, rough seas, and fickle conditions, but chances are you’ll have the waves all to yourself, give or take a few grazing sheep watching from a bluff. For The New York Times, Biddle Duke and his wife take a two-week trip up Ireland’s Atlantic coastline, out of season, to check out spots like the Cliffs of Moher and Coumeenoole beach for themselves. Conditions are hit and miss in June, but when it hits, it hits, as it did in County Sligo.

Mr. Stott and I connected through the New York surfer grapevine. Following his bread-crumb trail of texts, I found a narrow lane through a clutch of barns and farmhouses to a cove. It was a near windless afternoon, with head-high waves breaking over a smooth limestone ledge. On my scale it was excellent. For Mr. Stott it was an average practice day, so he surfed his tiny board with the fins removed for an additional challenge.

In the lineup with us was only one other surfer, Paul O’Kane, an Australian who’d come to Ireland 20 years ago for his honeymoon and, like so many others, stayed. Starved for it, I stayed in for hours. A contingent of friendly locals rotated through. Ireland is so far north that when I quit it was close to 10 p.m. the sun still just above the horizon. We had dinner, slept right there, and went at it again the next morning.

The swell lasted four more days. Between shifts in the wind and downpours we got our fill on that north coast. We moved our camp to near the ruins of the thousand year-old Rosslea Castle on a grassy bluff overlooking the two main breaks at Easkey, our only company a family of Germans who’d ferried over in their own van.

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On a Wild Patch of Mississippi Soil

AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz
For Oxford American, freelance journalist and wanderer Boyce Upholt explores a large wooded island along the Mississippi River, appropriately named Big Island. It’s home to many legends about an old moonshiner and murderer named Perry Martin, but what draws the author back over and over, are its aura and the thick woods that somehow still preserve its wildness and beauty. This is the land called the Delta. I’ve visited it myself, and it quickly seduced me. Still reeling from the plantation slave economy, it’s one of the poorest parts of the US, and one of the most beautiful. Upholt’s brief travel dispatch shines a necessary light on this overlooked region, and challenges our modern notion of wildness.
On his frequent camping trips to Big Island, Upholt uses Mississippi River water to brew his morning coffee, which works against the long-standing notion of the trashed, tamed, polluted old river. As he says, “the thick woods and wide, sweeping sandbars are, in my opinion, among the most beautiful American landscapes.” Perry Martin is the embodiment of this landscape, as Upholt writes, “a tall tale, an emblem of the days when this place sat at the fringe of civilization, unbound by domesticity. “

The idea of a dismal Mississippi is one more story. While in its narrow beginnings in Minnesota there is often too much bacteria for safe swimming, the mighty river that runs through the Deep South is relatively clean. Indeed, the thick woods and wide, sweeping sandbars are, in my opinion, among the most beautiful American landscapes.

This river is not trashed. But it has been tamed: its path has been shortened and straightened; its southernmost thousand miles are sheathed in an intricate system of locks and levees, and now ninety percent of its old floodplain stands dry. This engineering, accomplished in pieces over three centuries, often came at the behest of the swell-heads who bought up the valley and demanded protections against the river’s floods. The U.S. government, to the tune of billions upon billions of dollars, acquiesced.

The greatest flurry of engineering came in the twentieth century, in the wake of the Great Flood of 1927. It’s probably no coincidence that Perry Martin abandoned Big Island soon after that flood. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to install the floodways and spillways and dams and reservoirs that precisely managed the river’s flow; eventually, they paved the banks of the bends in concrete. From his perch in the batture, Perry Martin watched his former timber frontier be paved into a flowing machine.

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Scamming Their Way to the Top of Hollow Mountan

Press Association via AP Images

For Vanity Fair, Evgenia Peretz puts five rich Southern California families under the microscope, to see how and why they paid disgusting amounts of money to Rick Singer, a slimy college counseling guru who turned a legit business into an illicit one. Many people expect the rich and famous to, as Peretz’s title puts it, “Cheat and Lie in L.A.” They expect vacuousness, materialism, and a mortal devotion to status. That is certainly the case with this Los Angeles chapter of the college admissions scandal. But you don’t expect it from people who make their livings as parenting gurus, who talk about doing good for the world and their community, or who present themselves as what Peretz calls “exemplary human beings.”

For Singer, they were the perfect targets. Any parent obsessed with curating an image of affluence, good taste, and beneficence was exactly the sort to fixate unreasonably on a degree from Georgetown or USC. In a world dictated by status symbols, having “a kid at Yale” was the Holy Grail, the ultimate proof of a life worth envying—even if their kid was only interested in plugging products on Instagram. L.A. was teeming with such showboats. Five families, presented here, each interconnected to the others, lived behind that glossy façade. They were pillars of the community at their children’s private schools. They talked about “doing good” and “giving back.” Their kids were friends with one another on social media, a tribute to their own social significance. (Those children’s first names that have not appeared elsewhere have been changed.) But their fates diverge: Two got caught; two have come away unscathed—so far—despite dubious entanglements; and one exposed it all, for a reason no more noble than to save his own skin.

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On Beauty and Disability

AP Photo/Ben Curtis

Born with a rare congenital disorder called sacral agenesis, philosopher and journalist Chloe Cooper Jones gets a drink with a stranger whose ideas about beauty send her deep into reflection about her own body, being invisible, and the Western ideal of beauty. The man shows her a photo of a supposedly stunning beauty. “I’d wondered, not for the first time,” Jones writes in The Believer, “what my life would have been like had I been born with this woman’s hair and face and body. The recurrent thought is that I could have had anything I wanted.” Rather than leaving the bar after the man makes a disgusting confession, Jones probes deeper to examine the misleading idea of objective, unalterable beauty; how men use her, “some sad cripple,” as a prop to make themselves look sensitive; and the way getting to know a woman personally does and does not change men’s perception of beauty.

“This may be more than you want to know,” he said, “but if a woman is not, like, model-beautiful, I can’t even keep up an erection when I’m with her.”

I had multiple feelings collide. I was disgusted by what he was saying, but I wanted him to keep talking. It was clear he could confess all this to me because I was not visible on the same plane as these other women—the threes, the sixes, the tens. I saw that my body barred me from his realm of possible women. The feeling brought with it a strange relief, as if I’d been looking in a distorted mirror and someone had just replaced it with a normal one. What he reflected back wasn’t kind, but it was clear. This is how men see me. The indifferent man offered no excuses or apologies.

“Really, it’s a curse,” he continued. “I’d like to be able to date more women. But it’s not like you can control these things.”

“Can’t you?” I said.

“Of course not,” he said, looking at me in disbelief.

Jones recalls a relationship she had in her youth, when a boy she knew suddenly found her attractive, and how his change in perception permanently altered her.

“You grew on me; you made me laugh enough times that I started to want to be around you more; you are smarter than my last girl.”

I remember the pang of pride I felt when Jim said this. I remember how it motivated me, like a dog wanting to please its owner, to prove my worth to him over and again. 

Jim’s perceptual shift, not what he said in the library, is the worst part of this story. It embedded a damaging idea in me, one I’d recognize deeply when I read Scarry years later: beauty is a matter of particulars aligning correctly. My body put me in a bracketed, undercredited sense of beauty. But if I could get the particulars to line up just right, I could be re-seen, discovered like the palm tree is discovered. In order to be accepted as a whole person deserving of the whole range of human desires, I had to be extraordinary in all other aspects. My worth as a woman wasn’t apparent otherwise. 

In this new light, I started to see my work, my intellect, my skills, my moments of humor or goodness, not as valuable in themselves, but as ways of easing the impact of my ugliness. If only I could pile up enough good qualities, they could obscure my unacceptable body. 

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Here’s What Put Thousands of Californians in the Path of a Blaze

AP Photo/Noah Berger

If titles are the true first line of any story, then Mark Arax‘s new California Sunday piece starts with scorched earth: “Gone.” What first strikes as dramatic is a simple statement of fact. Four months after the Paradise fire extinguished, when Arax visited to start reporting what turned into an 11,000-word story, the communities that once filled the hills around Paradise, California were no longer there. California’s deadliest fire destroyed 19,000 structures, ended 85 lives, and left PG&E to pay $1 billion in damages. So many people lost the deeply personal, irreplaceable items that compose our identities and sense of family history, including one of Arax’s guides, a local named Joan Degischer:

Her mother had stored their history in the master bedroom closet and the garage rafters. Not a thing of it was left. Not the high school yearbooks or wedding albums or the knickknacks handed down the generations. Degischer had to call an old friend to recover a wallet-sized version of her high school graduation photo. As a kid, she had fears of such a fire, and her father would tell her not to worry. “ ‘We’re in the middle of town,’ he’d say.  ‘All these structures surround us. For a fire to get to Camellia Drive, it would have to be Armageddon.’ ”

With the reportorial skill and knack for narrative that Arax is known for, and the deep knowledge of a native, he looks beyond the tragic panorama of Paradise lost to identify the forces that put thousands of people at risk, and he finds a constellation of factors that other journalists have so far failed to connect: the history of fire suppression and forest mismanagement in the Sierra foothills; political corruption; governmental negligence and rampant urban growth; a flawed relationship with the land beneath our feet; and PG&E’s corrupt “culture of arrogance.” The clues to how this happened lay in past tragedy:

“When you connect the dots, you see a culture of arrogance in which the most important thing is the bottom line,” Frank Pitre, an attorney representing dozens of victims, told me. “Time and again, PG&E delays the necessary fixes, callously disregards the safety of California communities, and finds creative ways to not comply with the law. Billions of dollars that should have been invested in infrastructure instead went to pay an 8 per­cent return to its investors. That is their gold standard.” It was fiction that the California Public Utilities Commission exercised any watchdog role over PG&E, he said. “They don’t have the resources, they don’t have the trained personnel or mindset, to monitor and audit PG&E’s compliance with safety regulations. PG&E can literally get away with murder.”

If I wanted to fully understand the culture at PG&E, he told me, I needed to go back a decade to the tragedy that struck not the forests of California but a suburban neighborhood on a hillside overlooking the San Francisco Bay. “That’s where you’ll find the fingerprints,” he said. “That’s where you’ll find the DNA.”

On the evening of September 9, 2010, where Earl Avenue intersected with Glenview Drive in the community of San Bruno, a PG&E pipeline ferrying natural gas exploded. The blast knocked houses off foundations and instantly killed several residents. A giant fireball leaped out of the crater and began chasing other residents as they ran from their houses to a safe spot up the hill. The fireball split into two towering columns that hovered above them, roaring and vibrating. The broiler effect stole oxygen from their lungs and movement from their feet. They staggered up the hill and watched the rest of their houses go up in flames. Many did not realize until hours later that heat alone could singe their hair and cook their skin. Eight residents of the Crestmoor subdivision perished, dozens more suffered burns, and 38 houses were destroyed.

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