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Ben leads the Editorial team at WordPress.com / Automattic, and contributes to Longreads, Discover, and The Daily Post.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger Was the Newest Member of the Gym

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

At Deadspin, David Davis‘s sprawling oral history of the original Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach is gritty, fun, and brimming with ’70s sleaze and addictive banter. Beyond piecing together the early years of the legendary gym, the story zooms out to show the broader shifts that took bodybuilding from a small Southern California subculture to a multibillion-dollar industry — and then zooms all the way in to focus on the quirks of its ensemble cast. This group of pioneer bodybuilders happens to include Arnold Schwarzenegger, of course: fresh off the proverbial boat, and making his first, heavy-accented moves in the state of which, decades later, he would become the governor.

[Chet] Yorton: I beat this young kid in the [NABBA] Mr. Universe contest in ‘66. He was very subdued. He needed an interpreter because he spoke very little English. He followed me around like a puppy dog backstage. He wanted to know what to do for his calves, what to do for this and that. He came in second to me, but at 20 years old you could tell he was unbelievable. When I came back to Gold’s I told everybody, “You’re not going to believe this guy Arnold Schwarzenegger.” I knew then.

[Frank] Zane: I won Mr. America in September of ‘68. A week later was [IFBB] Mr. Universe in Miami. Arnold was there. He’d just come over to the States. He was white, smooth, didn’t pose good, had missing body parts, couldn’t speak any English. I beat him, and he took it real hard. But Joe Weider immediately fell in love with Arnold and whisked him off to California, where he was moving his business empire [from New Jersey]. Arnold got a Volkswagen, paid apartment, free supplements, couple hundred bucks a week. From Joe Weider, that was pretty amazing.

[John] Balik: Without question, Joe Weider was the most important person in establishing Arnold here. Arnold wouldn’t be here without Joe Weider making the first step and supporting him.

Joe Weider first told Arnold to go to Vince’s because they were doing business together. I was standing next to Vince at the desk when Arnold walked in for the first time. He was wearing flip-flops, white shorts, and a string T-shirt. Arnold was probably the biggest he’d ever been; he weighed maybe 255 pounds. He said in very broken English, “I’m Arnold Schwarzenegger. I’m Mr. Universe.” Vince took the cigar out of his mouth and said, “You just look like a fat fuck to me.”

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Breast Implants, Beyond Real and Fake

Image via Getty

Nearly seven years ago, Nell Boeschenstein decided to undergo a prophylactic mastectomy after learning that a genetic mutation running in her family significantly increased her odds of getting breast and ovarian cancer. Her recent Granta essay is a (bracing) personal and medical history of the years since her surgery. It’s also a cultural history of breasts in their various ontological states — real and symbolic, natural, fake, and enhanced — and highlights the difficulty of talking about bodies (even, if not especially, one’s own) without getting entangled in layers of mediation through language, visual representation, and social norms. You start with skin, flesh, and blood and end with celebrity profiles, podcasts, and long lists of synonyms and euphemisms.

The essay devotes considerable space to unpacking the cultural ambivalence surrounding breast implants, which double as markers of both tackiness and empowerment, which makes the decision whether to get them at all especially fraught:

You also talk about not getting them at all. Years ago, whenever the vague meditation of what-would-you-do-if passed through your head en route to never-me, you liked to imagine yourself as a woman who would reject the idea of implants and instead proudly claim, like a warrior princess, some scars and a misshapen torso. Reality bites. Since never-me has become yes-you, you’ve grown hyper-aware of the clickbait that appears periodically in your Twitter feed, lauding brave breast cancer soldiers and promising a gallery of artistic photographs featuring survivors who’ve decided against implants in favor of staring out at the world and daring it to tell them they’re not beautiful.

In these photographs, sometimes their chests are unadorned. Sometimes they are decorated in elaborate tattoos of briar rose patches or rising phoenixes or blooming cherry trees. Inevitably, the writers of these articles fawn over the aesthetic qualities of this body art and the moral courage and rejection of a patriarchal culture such a choice implies. Maybe you’re reading too much into it, but it seems that, while all women who’ve had their biological goodyears taken off are placed on some sort of pedestal, those who’ve opted out of implants are — mirror, mirror — the most ballsy, the most badass, the most empowered of them all.

Are you supposed to be this kind of woman? You honestly do not know. But if you are, you aren’t. Messages have been mixed. Messages are mixed.

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Long Live the Oddly Charming Poetry of the Mail-Order Catalog

Image by Mike Mozart (CC BY 2.0)

In this age of near-universal despair, could America’s longest-running mail-order retailer be the sleeper hero we didn’t even know was still among us? At Chicago Magazine, Nick Greene makes a compelling case that Hammacher Schlemmer, founded in 1881, might just be the goofy, retro anti-Amazon we need.

The catalog’s most obvious hook might be the ridiculous gizmos and novelty items — motorized unicycle, anyone? — that appear on its cover. But what I found especially endearing is the level of care the catalog’s makers invest in the product descriptions.

Beyond being older, today’s prototypical Hammacher Schlemmer customer is also wealthy and educated. “They would definitely be considered top 10 percent in household income, a lot of postgrads,” Farrell says. “That’s why we feel the copy is important.” Where else can one find a backpack described as “Brobdingnagian” or a walking stick crafted from “sustainably coppiced blackthorn (Primus spinosa)”?

The text is matter-of-fact, with odd literary flourishes, and the titles are concise, yet deceptively clever. “I could go on for hours talking about titles,” says John Gagliardi, who, as Hammacher Schlemmer’s senior creative manager, oversees the catalog’s unmistakable copy. “We agonize over titles.” The company employs two full-time copywriters and a stable of contributors to write the extensive product descriptions.

The NASA Strength Sun Hat harnesses “the same technology used in space suits.” That galactic selling point doesn’t overshadow the product’s earthly benefits, like the “wide brim” and a “radiant barrier” that “imparts a UPF 50+ rating to the hat.” If a product is unisex (the sun hat is), then that will always be noted, as will whether or not it requires batteries (it does not). At 153 words, the hat’s description is about the average length for Hammacher Schlemmer. A standard catalog is 88 pages long, give or take, meaning that, at four products per page, there are roughly 53,856 words in every issue. That’s more verbose than The Great Gatsby (47,094 words).

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Queer Eye Is an Upbeat Documentary of a Failing Social Order

Photo By Sthanlee B. Mirador/Sipa USA (Sipa via AP Images)

When the Queer Eye reboot landed on Netflix a few months ago, my initial skepticism soon got washed away by the overwhelming doses of kindness and empathy the new cast showed everyone they encountered. A few episodes in, though, new questions started percolating in my head: Shouldn’t this show be called “Bourgeois Eye” rather than “Queer Eye?” Where are these people’s support systems — why do these five men need to help strangers complete basic, everyday domestic tasks? How can Jonathan and Antoni belong anywhere on the same spectrum of professional competence and emotional intelligence? Who could’ve been callous enough to stage not one, but several awful scenes involving Karamo, the sole black cast member, and local police?

At The Baffler, Laurie Penny lends her sharp critical eye to a show in real need of some serious unpacking. She pulls off a very Fab Five-like feat: blanketing her subject in affection while exposing (shredding, really) both its obvious and less-obvious shortcomings. At the core of her essay is a crucial point: that the show isn’t really about queerness; it’s about documenting (mostly white, mostly straight) “heroes” who demand, but can’t quite acquire, the emotional and other labor they’d expected to get for free.

The one thing the Fab Five aren’t allowed to do is get angry. That appears to be the trade-off for permission to enter the homes and lives of their test subjects. The show is relentlessly, exhaustively upbeat.

There’s a queasy equivocation, the constant implication that both sides need to compromise and unclench their grip on their prejudices in order to reach that magical place of acceptance. Issues of race, gender, and poverty are painfully smoothed over to force the material into a neat forty-five-minute box tied off with an uplifting message and a tasteful bow. Most grueling of all is episode five of season one, which stars a Christian father of six who works two low-waged jobs, usually sleeps two and a half hours a night and, unsurprisingly, doesn’t have a lot of time left over for personal grooming. He tells the Fab Five that he considers the state of his too-small house evidence of “not being enough” for his wife and children. It should be apparent even to the most unblinking neoliberal believer in the power of positive self-talk that the deficiency is not in this man’s soul, nor his self-confidence, but in his salary. His deficiencies have a dollar value, and culture has convinced him that that is his fault.

Money is the silent sixth member of the rescue squad. The services that the Fab Five are offering are worth more than most of these men could possibly afford—there are thousands of dollars of new clothes and furniture on offer here, and frankly, that’s no shabby way to advertise tolerance.

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Cheese and Macaroni Do Not a Mac and Cheese Make

Photo by Steven Guzzardi (CC BY-ND 2.0)

People of a certain age might remember a distinctly late-nineties and early-aughts culinary fad: the fancy mac and cheese. It involved taking a cheap, slightly embarrassing, nostalgia-laced standby of industrialized 20th-century food, and mixing in a couple of common-denominator markers of luxury, like lobster meat or truffle oil. (Yes — the truffled-lobster mac and cheese was a thing. I lived to tell the tale.)

As veteran cheesemonger and food writer Gordon Edgar shows in his Zocalo essay, macaroni and cheese is an American staple with a history that stretches back to colonial times. As such, it repeatedly finds itself in contested territory. Who does it belong to? How (and through whose labor) did it become, well, mac and cheese? And how far can you stretch and — Food-Network-speak alert — “elevate” it before it stops being itself?

Being a judge at a macaroni and cheese competition in San Francisco taught me a lot about American food. The competitors were mostly chefs, and the audience—the online tickets sold out in minutes—was soaking up the chance to be at a “Top Chef” kind of event, but more urban and cool. The judges included a food writer, an award-winning grilled-cheese-maker, and me, a cheesemonger.

We awarded the win to a chef who made mac and cheese with an aged Vermont cheddar. The audience, however, chose another contestant. When he arrived at the winner’s circle, he made a stunning announcement: His main ingredient was Velveeta.

Amazement! Shock! Betrayal! The audience clutched their ironic canned beer but didn’t quite know how to react. Was it a hoax? A working-class prank against elitism in food? Was this contest somehow rigged by Kraft? In the end it turned out to just be a financial decision by the chef: In great American tradition, he bought the cheapest protein possible.

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“99 Luftballons” and the Grim Fairy Tales of ’80s West Germany

A souvenir shop in Kaiserslautern, Germany, in 1985. Photo by: Wolfgang Eilmes/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

In a personal essay at Catapult, Adrian Daub (a prolific Longreads contibutor) weaves together memories of his childhood in West Germany under a sky constanly beset by ominous objects and memories. From the sonic booms of American military planes to the threat of nuclear fallout from Chernobyl, he describes the inescapable presence of invisible threats — the stuff of which more or less all childhoods are made, but with the particular weight of German rain, German fairy tales (both modern and old), and German history.

It was this experience that drew me to the children’s book author Gudrun Pausewang, who dominated our bookshelves and our minds in those years with a grimness and joylessness that today strikes me as particularly German. In 1982 Pausewang published The Last Children of Schevenborn (published as Fallout in English), a young adult book about a group of friends separated from their families during a nuclear attack, who end up dying one after the other. In 1987 she published The Cloud, which repeated the hijinks of Schevenborn with a nuclear power plant filling in for ICBMs.

The books were gripping, moralistic, and deeply disturbing. I hated the way they robbed me of sleep, but to not read them felt like closing my eyes to something important. I think my parents gave them to me in the same spirit. Pausewang wrote one more dystopian novel in which the Nazis had come back to power, and that in some way made explicit what these books had been about all along. Never again were young Germans to close their eyes before some change in the macroclimate. Pausewang was turning the children of the 1980s into little Geiger counters ready to register the faintest contaminants. And so I lay awake each night, eyes wide open, letting the potential horrors of this world stream through me.

During those years, even the cheeriest pop songs were about potential horrors. One result of the English version of Nena’s “99 Luftballoons” becoming a hit is that few Americans realize the song is actually about a scenario not unlike one of Pausewang’s cautionary tales. The titular balloons drift across the sky, are mistaken for a Soviet incursion, and trigger “99 years of war.” And in the end, the singer, surveying a world of rubble, lets fly another balloon — and this time, because the world has ended, because there are no more fighter wings, no more Pershing missiles, no more generals, she can let it go without anyone mistaking its meaning. It’s a wild song precisely because it seems to be about so little and is about so much.

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Walking the Line in the Bekaa Valley

Syrian refugee children in the eastern town of Bar Elias, in Bekaa valley, Lebanon, Thursday, May 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

When every single day seems to contain ten distinct — and equally dramatic — news cycles in North America, it’s all too easy to forget that one of the biggest humanitarian crises of our time continues to unfold in and around Syria. In Popular Mechanics, Bronwen Dickey follows a small group of slackliners as they criss-cross the Bekaa Valley, in eastern Lebanon, where hundreds of thousands of refugees reside in makeshift camps. Their mission is to give as many refugee children as possible a chance at a literal balancing act, a fleeting moment of controlled fear — and, hopefully, joy — in a daily life that’s full of the chaos of displacement.

If tightrope-walking, with all its sober elegance, is the classical violin, then slacklining is the country fiddle, full of mischief and improvisation. Though some do it competitively, for most enthusiasts there is nothing to summit or “win” in slacklining. The same line you crossed (or “sent”) yesterday could very well defeat you today. The aimlessness of it, the lack of scorekeeping, is part of its appeal. What’s more, it does not require fancy gear or exceptional fitness. It is a test of patience, not of strength. It is also a flawless barometer of the practitioner’s state of mind. “Fear and stress turn into muscle tension,” Sonya says, “which makes the line shake, which makes you shake, and it all comes back to you. It’s like talking to a mirror.”

Three hours after setting up in Nasser’s field, the Mediterranean sun hangs low in the sky, and the Crossing Lines team is ready to start teaching. Three twenty-foot lengths of one-inch-wide flat nylon webbing have been propped up on wooden A-frames, cinched into clove hitches, and tightened with heavy metal ratchets so that they can support weight, yet still have some give. Each line is suspended about twelve inches off the ground and radiates outward from The Rock. Encircled by color-blocked tumbling mats, the ClimbAID truck shines like a beacon in the dusty white rock-yard.

“I never know if anyone will show up,” Beat says, scratching nervously at his dark beard. The problem for him, and for Sonya, and for anyone hoping to organize diversions near the settlements is that in Lebanon, Syrian youth as young as ten are encouraged, sometimes forced, to find jobs as soon as they can physically handle them. Basic survival doesn’t leave much time for extracurriculars. “It’s very hard to plan ahead,” he says. “For these kids, there is only now. There is no tomorrow. There is no five minutes from now.”

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To Be a Lexicographer Is to Surrender to Folly

Image by GCShutter (via Getty Images)

The arrival in the past 30 years of search engines and vast databases of electronic texts has made dictionaries far more comprehensive, but also much more complicated to compile and update (not that the task was easy to begin with). Andrew Dickson’s Guardian piece on the history of the Oxford English Dictionary focuses on the tension between the cumulative, decades-long process of updating the OED and a world in which few people still pay for hard copies and Google reaps most of the ad revenue from online queries. What is it that keeps this endeavor chugging along? There’s institutional inertia at work, no doubt, but also something even more amorphous: the vocational resistance — one might call it love? — of lexicographers who have embarked on a journey whose end they know they’ll never see.

It takes a particular sort of human to be a “word detective”: something between a linguistics academic, an archival historian, a journalist and an old-fashioned gumshoe. Though hardly without its tensions — corpus linguists versus old-school dictionary-makers, stats nerds versus scholarly etymologists — lexicography seems to be one specialist profession with a lingering sense of common purpose: us against that ever-expanding, multi-headed hydra, the English language. “It is pretty obsessive-compulsive,” Jane Solomon said.

The idea of making a perfect linguistic resource was one most lexicographers knew was folly, she continued. “I’ve learned too much about past dictionaries to have that as a personal goal.” But then, part of the thrill of being a lexicographer is knowing that the work will never be done. English is always metamorphosing, mutating, evolving; its restless dynamism is what makes it so absorbing. “It’s always on the move,” said Solomon. “You have to love that.”

There are other joys, too: the thrill of catching a new sense, or crafting a definition that feels, if not perfect, at least right. “It sounds cheesy, but it can be like poetry,” Michael Rundell reflected. “Making a dictionary is as much an art as a craft.”

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The Unexpected Reemergence of an Elusive Strain of Rice

The rice mill at Middleton Place Plantation, South Carolina. Photo by Brian Zinnel (CC BY-SA 4.0).

The history of the African diaspora in the Americas is a patchwork of oral traditions and cultural practices that had to endure centuries of slavery and oppression. Major chunks of it might be lost forever, but then, unexpectedly, some elements might make an unlikely reappearance. Such is the case of hill rice — a strain that was a staple of slaves’ culinary tradition in South Carolina and elsewhere, before disappearing around the turn of the 20th century. At the New York Times, Kim Severson retraces the recent, surprising discovery of hill rice on the Caribbean island of Trinidad by B.J. Dennis, a Charleston-based Gullah chef.

Mr. Dennis had heard about hill rice — also known as upland red bearded rice or Moruga Hill rice — through the culinary organization Slow Food USA and the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, the group that brought back Carolina Gold in the early 2000s. He’d also heard stories about it from elderly cooks in his community. Like everyone else, he thought the hill rice of the African diaspora was lost forever.

But then, on a rainy morning in the Trinidad hills in December 2016, he walked past coconut trees and towering okra plants to the edge of a field with ripe stalks of rice, each grain covered in a reddish husk and sprouting spiky tufts.

“Here I am looking at this rice and I said: ‘Wow. Wait a minute. This is that rice that’s missing,'” he said.

It is hard to overstate how shocked the people who study rice were to learn that the long-lost American hill rice was alive and growing in the Caribbean. Horticulturists at the Smithsonian Institution want to grow it, rice geneticists at New York University are testing it and the United States Department of Agriculture is reviewing it. If all goes well, it may become a commercial crop in America, and a menu staple as diners develop a deeper appreciation for African-American food.

“It’s the most historically significant African diaspora grain in the Western Hemisphere,” said David S. Shields, a professor at the University of South Carolina and chairman of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, who works with Mr. Dennis on historical culinary projects and was with him that rainy day in Trinidad.

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The Placeless and the Privileged

I last read about the startup Roam, which caters to affluent digital nomads seeking a ready-made community whether they’re in London, Tokyo, or Miami, in Jessa Crispin’s Outline story from last summer. Based on her experiences in the company’s compound in Bali, she questioned the possibility of an authentic communal experience in a place that depended on the cheap cost of living and stark income gaps between Roam patrons and the local labor force.

In the New York Times Magazine, Kyle Chayka revisits Roam, this time in Miami, where he observes different nuances of satisfaction and alienation — from the real, if temporary connections that people seem to make during their stays, to the growing sense that this was more “immersive group therapy” than a travel experience. Some of the most interesting moments in Chayka’s piece, however, go beyond the (easily parodied) surface of the wealthy-tech-nomad lifestyle. He also examines the deeper forces that have made a concept like Roam not just attractive to a subset of (mostly young) professionals, but almost a logical, necessary outcome of the current economic moment. As Roam founder Bruno Haid tells it, the startup is “a means of letting human capital find the path of least resistance, wherever it may be.”

There is a vicious plausibility to Haid’s vision. The macroeconomic pressures he describes in the urbanized West — a lack of affordable housing and linear careers — are particularly tough on millennials, who are also, incidentally or not, a historically unattached generation, with low rates of marriage, homeownership and childbearing. If the usual trappings of adulthood don’t seem attainable, and a permanent sense of precariousness seems unavoidable, why not embrace impermanence instead? Already there are partial nomads all around you; you just might not think of them that way yet. There’s the writer who spends a few months of every year in Berlin, making up for diminishing freelance wages with cheap Neukölln rent; the curator bouncing between New York and Los Angeles; the artist jumping from Tokyo residency to Istanbul fellowship. In the competitive freelance economy, geographic mobility has become a superficial sign of both success and creative freedom: the ability to do anything, anywhere, at any time.

Those in less artsy careers who chase that same sort of freedom may find it illusory. The new technologies that have liberated us from place have also made employers more comfortable with remote workers, but only because we can be so easily monitored. Combine this interconnectivity with an increasing population of freelancers — over a third of the American work force makes money in the so-called gig economy — and you have the makings of a nomad boom. Haid estimates his target customer base to be around 1.2 million people who make over $80,000 a year and could live anywhere. Pieter Levels, creator of the social network Nomad List, believes there to be a nomad population in the high hundreds of thousands.

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