Author Archives

Story Wrangler, WordPress.com. Senior Editor, Longreads. Not to be fed after midnight.

A Race to Claim a Piece of Space: The Out-of-This World Obsession of Meteorite Hunters

When word spread of a crater in Carancas, Peru — a tiny, remote village at 12,000 feet — the world’s scientists and meteorite enthusiasts were skeptical. The only way to know just what happened was to see it in person, and “there were only so many people in the world willing to head to the highlands of Peru at a moment’s notice to look for things that fell out of the sky.” In a Wired and Epic collaboration, Joshuah Bearman and Allison Keeley profile two professional meteorite hunters, Mike Farmer and Robert Ward, who travel to Carancas to see the crater for themselves — and recount what happens after they arrive.

After a day of poking around olive groves, the group retreated to their hotel. They’d said their goodnights when Farmer first saw the reports from Carancas. He called Ward. “Did you see what happened in Peru?” he asked. “Come down to the lobby.” It was midnight by then, but Ward hurried downstairs to huddle over Farmer’s computer and look at the images showing up on the meteorite forums. A crater in the middle of an empty plain. Photos of villagers posing with black rocks in their palms. And reports of witnesses falling ill, struck by some invisible ailment.

Farmer was skeptical; he thought it might be a hoax. The forums were full of theories: It was a spy satellite, it was volcanic, it was just a sinkhole. There were images of fragments, but they looked like chondrite, and that made no sense. Chondrites are among the most fragile of space rocks. They usually burn up or explode in the atmosphere. They also don’t make craters. Karl smoked and looked at the screen, uncertain. Ward was undaunted; he wanted to see it firsthand.

They knew they had to move fast. Speed is vital in the case of a witness fall—when a meteor is seen hitting the Earth—because rival groups will be vying for the same otherworldly prize. At times the competition includes a French father-son duo, a Russian team known for long hunts in places accessible only by helicopter, and a pair from Oregon who hunt with what they claim is a team of meteorite-sniffing dogs. It can be a shifty business, and distrust is common. Once, before they teamed up and were both hunting the same landfall in Kenya, Ward thought Farmer was having him followed—until he realized the tail was hired by someone else altogether.

Read the story

The Bat-Borne Virus That Threatens to Become the Next Pandemic

Image by shellac / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

For bioGraphic, editor-in-chief Steven Bedard joins a team of public health investigators studying the Nipah virus, a disease that has the potential to become the next pandemic. They track its movements to a local gachhi, a collector and seller of date palm sap, in a village in Bangladesh. Fruit bats in the region, which feast on cultivated crops like mangoes and figs because of a lack of food source in their native range, have also developed a taste for this fresh sap. Scientists think these bats have carried Nipah for a long time, but now — as these virus-harboring mammals are in closer contact with humans — the threat of an outbreak is real.

Nipah symptoms in humans are varied, from an initial fever, headache, vomiting, and a sore throat, and progress to more serious signs of encephalitis — dizziness, drowsiness, altered consciousness, neurological changes — and then coma and death. Drawing on the expertise of epidemiologists and ecologists, Bedard paints a picture of the emerging disease in an in-depth investigation.

While the man is not the villain I may have envisioned when we were searching for him—just an old man looking to make a few extra Taka by tapping the local trees—these health workers, and health officials around the world, know that the next outbreak could begin with him, or someone just like him. And although Nipah virus has killed fewer than 400 people since it was first identified 20 years ago, they also know that the pathogen’s persistence in the environment, its ability to change quickly, and its potential, under the right set of conditions, to spread like wildfire could enable the next outbreak, or the one after that, to become a pandemic. Many experts think that the right set of conditions might already be in place here and across a vast swath of western Bangladesh known as the “Nipah Belt.”

As we make our way back through the village, I can’t help retracing the steps I took to get here. It’s just a few kilometers and a very plausible route from this tiny village to a city center and onto a crowded bus through one of the most densely populated countries in the world, then on to the country’s capital of nearly 9 million, and possibly onto an international flight bound for another metropolis. It took me two days to travel that route in the other direction—well within the virus’s incubation period.

Read the story

‘I’m Not Saving These Pit Bulls—They Are Saving Me’

Image by Stacy / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

After experiencing great loss in his life, Jason Flatt relocated to Georgia for a fresh start. Someone gave him a pit bull puppy, which he credits for saving his life and giving him something to live for. When Flatt went to the pound to get the pup a playmate, he noticed that all of the kennels had pit bulls. He decided to foster a few dogs, placed them in permanent homes, and then kept taking on more. In 2009, he founded an animal rescue foundation, Friends to the Forlorn, which specializes in rescuing pit bulls, but also special-needs dogs, pups in line to be euthanized, and those otherwise rejected by other organizations.

“The worse shape the dog is in, the more determined I am to fix it,” says Jason. To date, Friends to the Forlorn has saved 600 dogs and counting. At Atlanta Magazine, Candice Dyer profiles Flatt, who says he’s found exactly what he was put on earth to do: save as many dogs as possible.

“People assume I’ve been in prison,” he says with a shrug. “Women clutch their pocketbooks tighter when I walk by. Children point and stare. I get treated like a freak show.”

No matter; his unconventional presentation is a defiant statement of solidarity with his spirit animal. “Pit bulls and I both are looked down upon without people getting to know us,” he says. “We are judged by what we look like and not what we are. We both are expected to fail. I have always had to prove people wrong. So do they. I relate to them.”

Read the story

‘Mommy, Are We Famous?’: On the Rise of Kid Influencers on Instagram

Children are a growing part of Instagram’s billion-dollar influencer industry. Take two-year-old twins Taytum and Oakley Fisher (@taytumandoakley), for example, who have 2.2 million followers and earn between $15,000 and $25,000 for a single post. Or Zooey Miyoshi (@zooeyandthecity), the sunglasses-wearing, Tokyo-and-L.A.-based six-year-old with a seemingly busy life of fashion photoshoots and paid partnerships.

What does it mean to have a child influencer on Instagram? As you might imagine, the parents of these little stars face their share of haters and critics. “They’re voluntarily exposing them to a digital world where their monetary value as an influencer is measured in likes and comments,” writes Katharine Schwab. As part of a Fast Company series on the Instagram Economy, Schwab reports on the rising kid stars of the platform, and the parents managing their content behind the scenes.

For young kids under the age of 13–Instagram’s minimum age requirement to open an account–this big business is largely the domain of their parents. Many of the parents I spoke to say their kids have either no awareness of Instagram, or think of it mostly as taking fun pictures with Mom. While some are too young to talk yet, I asked the parents of some of the older kids to ask them about their roles in this process. Mai Nguyen-Miyoshi, whose 6-year-old daughter Zooey has 146,000 followers on Instagram, described her response: “‘It feels great!!!’ And then she threw her arms up and out like she was going to give a big hug.” Jaqi Clements, the mother of 8-year-old twins Ava and Leah, whose account has 869,000 followers, described a recent conversation: “They actually got into the car a few weeks ago from school and said, ‘Mommy . . . are we famous? . . . One of our friends at school said we were.’”

But there are larger concerns for these Instagram parents. The internet has a dark side, one teeming with racists, sexists, pedophiles, and trolls. Nguyen-Miyoshi, mother of six-year-old Zooey, has personal experience dealing with trolls online. She worked in social media for 10 years, and during that time she posted a picture of two men who’d refused to give up their seats to pregnant women on Twitter. The post went viral, and Nguyen-Miyoshi had so many trolls come after her that she left the internet for a time.

The experience has made her hyper-conscious of what could happen to her daughter. Nguyen-Miyoshi doesn’t post any photos that she thinks could read as sexual. She combs through all of Zooey’s new followers every day and blocks any that look suspicious, like accounts with no profile picture that follow thousands of other users, or accounts of men who only post selfies. She blocks all negative comments. And along with not posting where Zooey goes to school, where they live, or where they’re hanging out, she has Zooey wear sunglasses in most of the photos she posts. Nguyen-Miyoshi says this is an anti-pedophile tactic. Many years ago, she says she read an article about how pedophiles mostly connect with children through their eyes, so she dresses Zooey with sunglasses as a means of circumventing it.

“To prevent that connection she always wears sunglasses,” Nguyen-Miyoshi says. “It helps prevent the creepy men.” The white sunglasses have become a core part of Zooey’s aesthetic.

Read the story

One Foot (and Paw) in Front of the Other: How Far Would You Go For Your Dog?

Image by James Lee / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

How far would you go to save the animal you love? A freak accident at the park leaves Shawna Richer’s dog, Scout, paralyzed. She had to make a choice: would she put Scout down, or do whatever it took to save her, even if it meant tens of thousands of dollars in veterinary bills — and the possibility that she would never recover? In a story at the Globe and Mail, Richer questions whether she’s truly up for the struggle and shares the emotional, physical, and financial journey of Scout’s rehabilitation.

If she was going to walk again, intense rehabilitation therapy would have to start soon. The day Scout was discharged, Kim and I looped a towel under her back end and lugged her clumsily to the car. It was like carrying an octopus. Her back legs hung limp and dragged behind her. Her paws grazed the parking lot. Her tail drooped.

Once home, she slept. And slept. When the Tramadol and Gabapentin wore off, she panted and trembled. Twice a day, she fought each pill, refusing to swallow, pretending to swallow, chomping them to pieces and spitting powder in the air. Wrapping them in chicken skin did not fool her. I had to get the hang of tossing the capsules way back in her throat and massaging them down.

She hadn’t had a bowel movement in days. She couldn’t pee unless I massaged her lower belly. She wouldn’t eat and neither could I. In a week, she lost nine of her 40 pounds. I lost 10.

Suddenly, I didn’t recognize my life. I rotated from cumbersome trips outdoors to hours sitting by her bed as I tried to work, laptop on the floor. At night, I held each foot and slowly rotated her legs in wide circles, the way the exercise chart we’d been sent home with showed, even as she slept.

I watched her constantly. One time, I left her on the bed to go refill my coffee cup and she cannonballed over the side trying to follow me, landing on the floor with a thud, unhurt.

I felt alone and constantly fearful, afraid Scout wouldn’t improve, afraid insurance wouldn’t come through, afraid, inexplicably, that something else was going to happen. I ordered an expensive dog first-aid kit from LL Bean. I ordered her a seatbelt. I was nervous driving, even walking down the street. I was convinced another freak accident was around the corner.

Read the story

When No One Pulls the Trigger, the Gun Is to Blame

Daniel Karmann / AP Images

In a fatal shooting in their Mississippi home, Roger Stringer lost his two sons: younger son Justin to a gunshot to the head, and older son Zac to prison. Zac was found guilty of manslaughter, and although the rifle had fired, he said he knew he hadn’t touched the trigger.

A few years later, Roger came to believe that the rifle from the incident — the Remington Model 700 — was at fault. After some digging into the manufacturer, he learned that the model that killed Justin had in fact been recalled for firing off spontaneously on its own. At The Trace, Casey Parks tells the story of a father seeking justice, and his mission to warn gun owners of the defective rifle.

The New Jersey State Police sent their rifles back in October 2011, alleging that the guns “slam fired” when the officers loaded cartridges. Other people told Remington their Model 700s had shot holes in their walls and sliced through their TVs, all without a pulled trigger. One owner said his rifle went off five times in a row. After he put it in the freezer, it stopped firing. “Happened twice in December,” one customer noted. “Happened three times in a day,” another said. In a 2012 entry, an employee in Remington’s product services department wrote, “Owner wanted refund because he is scared of the gun.”

Most of those incidents never made the news. But in 2010, more than a year before Justin died, CNBC produced an investigation showing that Remington had known since the 1940s that the old trigger — the one that killed the boy in Montana — could fire if someone pushed the safety to the off position. The trigger’s designer, the CNBC report alleged, had proposed a fix that would have cost five-and-a-half cents per gun. The company decided against it.

At Zac’s trial, no one mentioned the CNBC documentary or the dozens of lawsuits pending against Remington. The state’s firearms expert testified that she had hit the Remington with a rubber mallet and dropped it from three feet. Neither test made the rifle fire.

Roger was the last witness to appear for the state. He told himself he was testifying because Justin couldn’t. Roger didn’t understand why Zac might have killed his brother. The boys got along as well as siblings ever do; they argued sometimes, but never violently. Once, Roger had pushed them to fistfight in the yard, but Zac refused to hit his brother in the face. The best Roger could figure was that taking Zac off his ADHD medication had caused him to snap. The alternative — the idea that Zac’s rifle had fired on its own — just didn’t make sense.

Read the story

‘It Happened to My Father the Way It Happened’: The Truth About Green Book

Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen in Green Book. Courtesy of Universal Pictures/Participant/DreamWorks.

Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, a film about an Italian-American bouncer who escorts a black pianist on a tour of the Jim Crow South in 1962, is emerging as an awards season frontrunner. Not just inspired by historical events or “based on a true story,” the film is the true story. “It happened to my father the way it happened,” says Nick Vallelonga, the son of the film’s protagonist and one of the movie’s screenwriters.

But the family of the pianist, Dr. Don Shirley, has dismissed the film, not just for its factual inaccuracies, but for essentially revising and rewriting a black man’s identity. At Vanity Fair, film critic K. Austin Collins comments on all that’s wrong with the movie.

The artistic and political success of any film “based on a true story” doesn’t hinge entirely on absolute historical accuracy. But the debate over the truth of Green Book fascinates me because of all of the unquestioned assumptions—and the presumptions—undertaken by Farrelly and crew in their design of Dr. Shirley’s character.

It’s really something. Everyone seems to agree that Tony Lip had a, shall we say, limited view of black Americans before meeting Shirley. According to his son, he was “a product of his times. Italians lived with Italians. The Irish lived with the Irish. African-Americans lived with African-Americans.” The trip with Dr. Shirley, Vallelonga said, “opened my father’s eyes . . . and then changed how he treated people.”

Yet it is this man’s account that became the basis for an entire film—this account which, from his screenwriter son’s own admission, is informed by a limited, very 1960s, very white understanding of race. Though unreliable on its face, this understanding becomes our lens into the history of this specific black man.

Read the story

A City in Upheaval: The Story of a Single Block in West Oakland’s Ghost Town Neighborhood

Image by Hossam el-Hamalawy (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The entire west side of Oakland, California, is undergoing dramatic change, and the Ghost Town neighborhood of resident Annette Miller, who was born in her house on 30th Street over 50 years ago, is right in the thick of it. Rents and house prices have soared, while nearly 43 percent of its neighborhood’s residents remain below the poverty line. And while the white population has more than doubled, the black population has dropped from 50 to 39 percent.

Over the years, Miller has fought an eviction notice and a stream of realtors interested in buying her home. But more recently, with properties on the block selling for over $800K and an industrial building soon to become live-work spaces for artists, she feels like many things are out of her control.

At San Francisco Magazine, Gabriel Thompson tells the stories of Miller — and the neighborhood’s old-timers and newcomers — as they witness the changes sweeping the block.

From this perch, Miller has watched as the block—and the entire west side of Oakland—has changed over the decades. She can disentangle its history like an evolutionary biologist. During the Great Recession, houses were bought and lost to banks at some of the highest foreclosure rates in the entire Bay Area. Then those houses were scooped up by real estate men who paced the sidewalks and rarely smiled. Buildings were emptied out, murals painted over. Fences went up. Rent went up—by 71.5 percent over the last five years. Way back in 2001, SFGate called the neighborhood “deliciously attractive” because its “poverty and misfortune preserved a rare sort of purity and beauty,” as if it were a forbidden, primitive fruit. Later, the real estate men would try to take a bite out of Miller, too.

Miller was born in this house, some 52 years ago. “The average person lives in a house for what, three years?” she asks. “I try to tell my kids, living in the same house for so long, it should mean something.” As the pace of change has accelerated, Miller has become the default historian of the block, a keeper of its stories and secrets, an advocate for the old-timers and a bridge to the new arrivals. “It’s not hard at all to remember,” she says of all the missing people and families who once made a life on 30th Street. “When you’ve lived here your whole life, you don’t forget.”

Read the story

The Last Place Where No One Is Looking: Embracing the End Times of Snapchat

Ever since I password-protected my Diaryland site 15 years ago, I’ve slowly amassed a collection of now-abandoned online spaces in an effort to create a public, professional web presence. I hopped over to LiveJournal, where a few of my friends spilled their thoughts on a daily basis, then Typepad to create an early version of an online resume, then to a short-lived stint on Blogger, and finally to WordPress, where a significant part of my self still lives, albeit in fragments and forgotten drafts. Initially, I was bothered that these sites floated in the void, as I’ve tried to keep a tidy, tightly curated presence across the internet. Yet over time, as I’ve ditched Twitter, stopped blogging, posted less on Instagram, and made other accounts private, I feel strangely satisfied watching these profiles and sites languish, as my posts and updates harden into artifacts in the Museum of Me. I now wait for the moment when I can use them again solely for myself — when there are no readers left and no one is looking.

I thought about these deteriorating, forgotten spaces while reading Helena Fitzgerald’s thoughts at The Verge on one of the internet’s big ghost towns, Snapchat. Celebrities and the non-famous have abandoned the platform, and the ephemerality that had made the app popular is no longer a unique selling point, rendering Snapchat irrelevant and useless.

But it is this uselessness, Fitzgerald writes, that now makes Snapchat a compelling space for her again: a private hangout for a handful of people, far from the crowd, where they can yell out their secrets, be unseen, and disappear.

Perhaps more than anything else, what has sucked all of the joy out of the social internet in its current form is its exhortation to be useful. We have arrived at a version where everything seems to be just another version of LinkedIn. Every online space is supposed to get you a job or a partner or a stronger personal brand so you can accomplish the big, public-record goals of life. The public marketplace is everywhere. It’s an interactive and immersive CV, an archive. It all counts, and it all matters.

First in the era of America Online, and then in the era of LiveJournal and micro-blogging, the internet was at least partly an escape. It was a place where the boundaries of real life, in which everything was more or less a job interview, could be sloughed off and one could imagine the internet as a quiet, uninhabited space of whispered intimacies. In this era of hyper-usefulness, what seems rarest and most valuable online are spaces that offer, however illusorily, a return to this original uselessness. There are places where, against the constant obligation to be seen and remembered, we might get to be unseen, unrecorded, and forgotten.

Read the story

Growing Up in Rural Washington as a Muslim Immigrant

At SeattleMet, Hayat Norimine describes what it was like to grow up as an only child in a Japanese-Syrian household in Pullman, Washington, a small town eight miles from the Idaho border where issues of race and diversity were never talked about. “My parents never taught me to be proud of race or heritage,” Norimine writes, and it wasn’t until she was a college student in Seattle that she began to see her childhood more clearly.

In her essay exploring race, class, and identity, Norimine describes how she fell for a man from this very place she is from — a place that is “not glamorous or exotic,” and where “many immigrant kids somehow thrived.”

I had known what I was getting myself into, falling for someone who had very strong ties to the Palouse. I was only 23 when we married, and I had never wanted to be content with the first comfortable option I got. I had wanted to move back abroad, even at the risk of losing a green card. But over time my love for Owen translated to a love for the land that made him, helped him grow. I became comfortable with the idea of living there, while Owen—thinking he had made a commitment to someone who’s going anywhere but there—became comfortable with leaving.

Those dusty, yellow-brown rolling Palouse hills that never looked more beautiful? They were decrepit to Owen, a constant reminder of the land that wasted away under chemical farming to which he helped contribute. We’d drive by and he’d point to the gashes in the hills formed by water runoff, a sign of the damage endured after decades of abuse.

We were looking at the same site but saw very different things. I had romanticized returning to the land that Owen’s family held such ownership to. Owen now saw something else—confinement.

Read the story