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Story wrangler, Senior editor, Longreads.

‘These Were His Mountains, After All’: Remembering One’s Father While Cycling in the Swiss Alps

Susten Pass, Canton Uri, Switzerland. (Photo by Marka/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

James Jung describes riding through Switzerland, his childhood, and his relationship to both cycling and his father in a recent essay at Bicycling Magazine:

Ever since I first thought about this alpine mission, I knew I’d want to write about it, and I’d been trying to fuse my father to these rides. I’d pick a mountain peak in the distance and imagine I was looking at the gravestone he didn’t allow us to give him. I’d see a piece of farm equipment in a field and daydream that if I waited there long enough, maybe Dad would reappear to fetch it. I swatted flies from my face on the Pragelpass and saw my hand as his hand, the one that, three days before he died, moved back and forth for 16 straight hours as if he were conducting some hallucinogenic symphony from his deathbed. I remembered, too, the rough way I put his arm into a sling the night he broke it and the sad look he gave me when I did so, or how I sometimes avoided sitting beside him because I couldn’t stomach the smell of his dying body. I thought that maybe these rides were punishment for having betrayed him like that, as if my suffering on climbs could somehow be commensurate to the ways he’d suffered. But those are bullshit, half-baked ideas meant to convey some poetic vision of life; the type of self-indulgent writing that should be struck from any story before it goes to print. To be more truthful, those are simply ideas and emotions I don’t trust. The fact of the matter is my father wasn’t on those rides with me. He is dead now, and much of the missing I have done of him is missing I have done for myself, a mourning for who I was when I was his boy, for all the time I can’t get back. So, in answer to my wife’s question, I had done these rides for myself.

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‘It’s An iPad, Not An usPad’: Douglas Rushkoff on Digital Isolation

At OneZero, author and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff asks: how much are the privileged allowed to use their wealth, fancy devices, and fully wired houses to insulate themselves from the troubles of today’s world?

The pool for my daughter wouldn’t have gotten here were it not for legions of Amazon workers behind the scenes, getting infected in warehouses or risking their health driving delivery trucks all summer. As with FreshDirect or Instacart, the externalized harm to people and places is kept out of sight. These apps are designed to be addictively fast and self-contained — push-button access to stuff that can be left at the front door without any human contact. The delivery people don’t even ring the bell; a photo of the package on the stoop automagically arrives in the inbox. Like with Thomas Jefferson’s ingenious dumbwaiter, there are no signs of the human labor that brought it.

Many of us once swore off Amazon after learning of the way it evades taxes, engages in anti-competitive practices, or abuses labor. But here we are, reluctantly re-upping our Prime delivery memberships to get the cables, webcams, and Bluetooth headsets we need to attend the Zoom meetings that now constitute our own work. Others are reactivating their long-forgotten Facebook accounts to connect with friends, all sharing highly curated depictions of their newfound appreciation for nature, sunsets, and family. And as we do, many of us are lulled further into digital isolation — being rewarded the more we accept the logic of the fully wired home, cut off from the rest of the world.

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The Seattle Police Shooting of Native Woodcarver John T. Williams, 10 Years Later

Photo by Chait Goli

A decade ago, Seattle police officer Ian Birk shot and killed John T. Williams, a well-known Ditidaht woodcarver in the community — because he carried a pocketknife. For Seattle Met, James Ross Gardner shares the story of John through the eyes of his older brother turned family spokesperson, Rick Williams.

WALK ACROSS IT NOW. Follow John T. Williams’s steps. Go west on Howell, until you reach Boren. Where 10 years ago on that August day everything was bright, the colors and contours practically bleached out by the sun, now a canyon of shiny new skyscrapers casts long shadows—testaments to the speed at which this city erases its past.

On one side, before you reach the crosswalk, towers an apartment complex. Next to it, an Amazon office. On the other side of Boren, the side upon which the woodcarver took his last breath, stands a Hilton. Below your feet the old crosswalk is gone. In its place are painted three white deer. A small plaque affixed to the new hotel, feet away from where he died, reads “This crosswalk dedicated as: The White Deer Crossing…to honor John T. Williams, Native Carver.”

His life and death reverberate in other, less visible ways. The shooting triggered a Department of Justice investigation, resulting in the consent decree that placed SPD under federal monitoring. And in June 2020, when a police standoff with protestors for Black lives resulted in a 23-day occupation known as the Capitol Hill Organized Protest, or CHOP, leaders invited Rick Williams to participate. He carved there with one of his sons—and told protestors he was proud of them and that they should remain peaceful.

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‘I Mostly Feel Like My Voice Matters’: A Portland Journalist on Protests, Police Violence, and Enduring Trauma

Two protesters flee through tear gas after federal officers dispersed a crowd of about a thousand at the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse on July 21, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

Karina Brown, a reporter for Courthouse News Service, has covered protests since Donald Trump was elected. In this personal essay, she describes “the hours of cat-and-mouse” between protesters and local and federal police on a recent Friday night in the streets in Portland, Oregon. Taunted and chased by cops, she was ultimately unhurt, but still shaking days later. The fear she felt reminded her of a night 26 years ago that she will never forget.

I’ve done a lot in my life to be okay with having that happen to me. I’ve had long bouts of feeling like everything I do is beyond pointless and I should just give up and never get out of bed ever again. Sometimes it feels like the destructive will of the world will never be overcome. But I battle that feeling with an aggressive pursuit of beauty and connection. And I mostly feel like my voice matters — that’s why I’m a journalist. So it was weird to feel that pointlessness so strongly again over the last few days. And I think the reason it came back was the reason it was there in the first place, decades ago. I’ve never been able to understand one thing: how could he have done that to me? To ME? As if I don’t matter at all. As if his whim, or compulsion was all that mattered and I was worthless.

The cops who taunted me as I ran from them were an echo of that trauma. Over the weekend, as I grew angrier, I kept circling back to one thought: don’t those fuckers know I’m sacred? That every one of us out there is?

* * *

I know. I’m supposed to be objective. I’m not supposed to say my personal feelings about what I’m covering in public — ideally in the minds of some, I wouldn’t even have feelings about what I cover. But to me, objectivity in journalism creates a disembodied voice. It fails to come from both everywhere and nowhere and instead encapsulates the perspective of the powerful rather than afflicting it. I come from somewhere. I come from right here.

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‘Their Bodies Are Not Considered Their Own’: White Privilege in the Emergency Room

In her memoir, The Beauty in Breaking, Michele Harper writes about her experience as a Black doctor in the ER, exploring race, gender, justice, and healing in stories about her patients and her own life. In this excerpt at Zora, Harper recounts a time when police officers brought a young Black man in handcuffs into the triage area of the hospital and demanded that she examine him for drugs that they believed he had swallowed.

But for Dominic, it seemed somehow warranted, somehow a commonplace, that his rights as a patient should be tossed aside. I looked at him; his autonomy was so provisional. But then, had he ever had self-determination? Had he even been considered to have ownership of his Black body? There was no medico-legal reason for a doctor or a hospital to usurp his decision-making capacity, and yet, for some people, it was expected. In the face of these truths, we are reminded that for many people, their bodies are not considered their own. For those whose bodies are viewed as suspect and threatening, those bodies, at the preference of a more privileged body, could be manipulated, even assaulted.

But Harper refuses — stating that it’s illegal to force a medical examination on a competent adult — and the man is discharged and free to go. She also holds her ground despite her antagonistic resident, who tries to defy her.

I sat still at my computer, attempting to breathe in for a count of three and out for a count of six (or something like it), to dampen the disgust as my anger mounted — anger that my resident, my privileged, highly educated white female resident, had felt comfortable being so disrespectful as to dismiss my judgment on this matter; that she had felt she had the right to invoke what she deemed a higher authority: older white doctors who’d done the police’s bidding in the past or whatever voice happened to be on the other end of the line from Hospital Ethics.

I looked down at my hands on the keyboard, my slender, dark brown hands, dry from constant washing and dousing with alcohol-based sanitizer between patients. As I noted the contrast of my dark wrists extending from the cuffs of my stark white coat, I was reminded of which costumes in America, even in the twenty-first century, are seen as legitimate and which are not.

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‘Who’s Going to Take Care of Me?’: When the Coronavirus Takes Both Parents

Photo by Rahul

At the Washington Post, writer John Woodrow Cox and photojournalist Salwan Georges share the story of the three Ismael siblings — Nash, 20; Nadeen, 18; and Nanssy, 13 — as they struggle with the loss of their mother, Nada Naisan, and their father, Nameer Ayram, who died 20 days apart from COVID-19.

For days, he and his sisters had lived off delivery orders through their mom’s DoorDash account, though they had no idea where the money came from to pay for it. None of them had bank accounts or credit cards, and Nash didn’t want to spend the $300 in cash he’d found in a drawer behind his parents’ bed.

Zeana opened a tab at Sahara to keep them fed, but she also worried about their bills. Nash retrieved his mother’s phone from the hospital after her intubation, and Zeana told him to search it for a banking app. When he discovered that the mortgage appeared to be past due, he tried to pay it. A moment later, he found his parents’ checking account, drained of all but $900. The mortgage payment bounced.

Nash tried to learn as much as he could as fast as he could, but he often felt overwhelmed, especially on the morning nine days after his dad’s death when he discovered a $188,629 hospital bill that he was terrified they might have to pay.

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‘You Could Literally See Our Shit From Space’: The Broken Bowels of Beirut

Photo of Ramlet el-Baida beach in Beirut, Lebanon, taken in February 2018 by Sasaki Makoto / Getty Images

Lina Mounzer‘s recent essay in The Baffler on Beirut’s crumbling sewage system, and the corrupt politics and rotting infrastructure that have the city’s residents swimming in their own collective waste, is a beautifully written piece on shit:

Beneath every city, its underground twin. Its dark heart; its churning guts. This is no metaphor: I’m talking about the sewer system. A network of pipes connecting to every shower drain, every kitchen sink, every toilet, disappearing a household’s dirt and grease and vomit and urine and feces down the gullets of small pipes that flow down into the ground, that then feed into bigger pipes, and ever bigger pipes, all our shit merging: the organic, fibrous roughage of the rich, the nutrient-deficient poop of the poor, and all the middle-class crap in between, all democratically flowing together in a single system, ideally powered by gravity, ideally leading to the great bowel of a treatment plant meant to deal with all this waste, turn it clear again, so that it can be safely dumped into rivers and seas.

She recounts a time with friends when they picnicked and drank on Ramlet el-Baida, the city’s only public beach, and later swam in its waters:

One night we took supplies of wine and beer down with us, as so many others did. Drunk, we ran into the waves stripped down to our underwear beneath the moonshine sky. I remember splashing around giddily, then leaping away, screaming nervous laughter when I imagined something might be brushing against my legs.

Sometime later an architect friend showed me a satellite image that had been taken of Beirut, in such high resolution you could zoom in on the dense patchwork of tightly packed blocks and see the individual rooftops of buildings, see who could afford satellite dishes and who still kept pigeons. The image had been taken from space, and so from space you could see the two dark lines on either side of the Ramlet el-Baida beach extending out beneath the deep blue of the sea. Outfalls of raw sewage flowing straight into the water; you could literally see our shit from space. When I swam there, I had been afraid of sea monsters lurking beneath the waves. I did not know that the things I should have feared were much, much smaller, measured in parts per million: monsters of our own making.

But raw sewage spewing into the sea isn’t the only problem. It now rains less and less in Beirut, but harder, and so violently that the city and landscape — the soil, the pipes, the streets, everything — cannot handle the deluge:

When it rains that hard the sea becomes invisible in the distance; the horizon is a single gray wall of water from earth to sky. It is not hard to imagine that the sea itself is falling upward, roused out of its bed to roar vengeance down upon us: the poison of our shit, our garbage, our waste, the collective punishment of our carelessness both innocent and deliberate having mutated it into a monstrous thing.

And so Beirut drowns in, swims in, and eats its excrement in an endless cycle:

When the border between this world and its underground twin collapses, we have no choice but to live with the monsters of our worst nightmares. All that shit we tried to hide, forget, reroute, ignore, is out now, flooding the streets for all to see.

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‘I Saw It on Instagram, I Had to Come’: The Desire to Document Ourselves in Nature

Visiting iconic tourist hotspots in Arizona like the Grand Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, and Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Outside writer Lisa Chase explores our obsession with documenting ourselves in the wild and the evolving art and process of photography in the time of Instagram.

Even when crowds aren’t destroying a place outright, the sight of countless people treating nature as the backdrop of their personal photo shoot is galling. It’s as if the Instagram tourists are performing the experience of being in nature rather than simply being in nature. Like those countless pictures of people jumping joyously in the wild: Why must they jump? Why can’t they let nature steal the show? Or the photo of a woman sitting in solitude at the edge of the cliff, when in reality she’s surrounded by throngs. That solitude and scenery used to be the purview of a club of outdoor purists. Now, it seems, any fool with a smartphone can have it for themselves.

But for as long people have been going into nature and documenting themselves doing so, tension has existed between the outdoors and the story we wish to tell about the journey. Our photos have always been edited, even deceptive, when it comes to ­acknowledging our civilizing tendencies. Ansel Adams, whose career spanned from the late 1920s until his death in 1984, was known to retouch his photos or shoot around evidence of man—logging roads, parking lots—for his primordial hero shots of Yosemite Valley. As art professor and landscape photographer Mark Klett said to writer Rebecca Solnit in a 2003 New York Times piece, it’s like the only legit take in an Adams photo is, “This is nature. And it’s beautiful because you’re not there.”

Klett identifies our messy paradox, the human desire to lose ourselves in the wild and also to extract, despoil, and package it.

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With Your Support, We Can Continue to Be a Space for First-Person Storytelling

longreads member drive

I’ve felt very grateful over the past six years to be able to work with such a varied mix of writers at Longreads, from seasoned journalists to previously unpublished writers to artists who have expanded into longform storytelling.

Many of my favorite pieces published here are personal essays — stories chronicling moments of discovery, unanticipated journeys, inner explorations made accessible, and more. Essays editor Sari Botton has built a rich archive, and I’m not even sure where to begin to highlight the breadth of this work and the diversity of voices. Among these stories, you’ll find the Fine Lines series — a collection of writing about age, like Laura Lippman’s “The Art of Losing Friends and Alienating People” — and other recent popular essays, like Michael Musto’s “The Danger of Befriending Celebrities.”

I’m particularly drawn to unexpected and beautifully braided essays: I think of Kimi Eisele’s “Duet for a Small Porpoise’s Extinction,” a lyrical essay on nature, dance, language, and a world of disappearing things; and also Alison Kinney’s “The Man in the Mirror,” which begins by examining one of my favorite paintings — The Arnolfini Portrait — and then explores trust, vulnerability, intimacy, and the aftermath of rape. An essay published last fall on the anniversary of Northern California’s Camp Fire, “California Burning” by Tessa Love, also comes to mind, as it weaves meditations on California and fire, Berlin and foxes, and destruction and regrowth.

Above all, it’s important to give writers the space to explore and go in unique directions, telling stories only they can, and Longreads has been able to provide that wide, blank canvas for them to do so.

As an editor, I’ve also loved bringing illustrated personal narratives to life. In the delightful “Cut From the Same Cloth,” Myfanwy Tristram explores aging, maternal envy, and the extreme fashions of her teenage daughter. In “Home Is a Cup of Tea,” sketch artist Candace Rose Rardon combines watercolor sketches and travel writing in a piece exploring her evolving definition of home. And in “Unleashed in Paris,” Kate Gavino shares how she became comfortable speaking French while walking Parisian dogs in a longform comic that, at its heart, is about belonging. The ability to explore different approaches to first-person stories, like these, is made possible through Longreads member support.

Whatever the format, contributors are given the space to experiment, which is what has kept me excited about working at Longreads to this day. With your contribution during our Winter Member Drive, you can help us publish more stories and expand the roster of writers and artists we’d love to work with.

Please consider donating during our Winter Member Drive — every dollar helps, and every recurring contribution helps even more. Click the button below if you’re ready to become a member and support writers, journalists, and illustrators who have unique and resonant stories to tell.

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🗺️ Emoji Day: A 📖 List

Image by Dimitri Otis / Getty Images

👋 July 17 is 🗺️ Emoji Day! To 🎉 this ever-changing visual language that we use on our 📱 and 💻 and across social media, here are five 📖 recommendations — including a delightful post series on a blog about punctuation — on the history and evolution of the emoji. 😘

1. A Series on Emoji (Keith Houston, August 2018-January 2020, Shady Characters)

Don’t have time to read 10 posts? 😛 Adam Sternbergh’s 2014 New York magazine piece, “😊, You’re Speaking Emoji,” covers the emoji’s evolution.

On his blog Shady Characters, Houston tells the histories of our favorite punctuation marks, from the ⁉️ to the #️⃣. In a 10-part series on the emoji, he chronicles the beginning; its ancestor, the emoticon; its adoption outside of 🗾; the gatekeepers; its presence in the 📰; the challenges in making the character set more inclusive and representative; its future; its nature (“What are emoji?”); and, in the series conclusion, its current state. Don’t overlook the reference 📜 at the bottom of each post, which include even more recommended stories and articles.

It was into this text-only world that emoji’s first true an­cestor was born. Com­pris­ing only a colon, a hy­phen and a clos­ing par­en­thesis, the emoticon, or :-), was per­fectly de­signed to pierce the dis­in­ter­ested blank­ness of a crt mon­itor. Gran­ted, so-called emoticons have been dis­covered in many pre-di­gital sources, such as sev­en­teenth cen­tury poems:

Tumble me down, and I will sit
Upon my ru­ins, (smil­ing yet:)
Tear me to tat­ters, yet I’ll be
Pa­tient in my ne­ces­sity.

and tran­scrip­tions of Ab­ra­ham Lin­col­n’s speeches:

…there is no pre­ced­ent for your be­ing here yourselves, (ap­plause and laughter;) and I of­fer, in jus­ti­fic­a­tion of my­self and you, that I have found noth­ing in the Con­sti­tu­tion against.

“Emoticon, Emoji, Text: Pt. 1, I Second That Emoticon” by Tom McCormack in Rhizome covers this joke gone wrong in more detail.

but these are al­most cer­tainly ty­po­graphic mis­steps rather than in­ten­tional smi­leys. The con­sensus is that emoticons proper ar­rived in 1982 in re­sponse to a joke gone wrong on an elec­tronic bul­letin board at Carne­gie Mel­lon Uni­versity.

2. How Emoji Conquered the 🌎 (Jeff Blagdon, March 2013, The Verge)

Blagdon tracks the beginnings of this digital communication through the 👀 of Shigetaka Kurita, the 💡👨🏻 of emoji.

Windows 95 had just launched, and email was taking off in Japan alongside the pager boom. But Kurita says people had a hard time getting used to the new methods of communication. In Japanese, personal letters are long and verbose, full of seasonal greetings and honorific expressions that convey the sender’s goodwill to the recipient. The shorter, more casual nature of email lead to a breakdown in communication. “If someone says Wakarimashita you don’t know whether it’s a kind of warm, soft ‘I understand’ or a ‘yeah, I get it’ kind of cool, negative feeling,” says Kurita. “You don’t know what’s in the writer’s head.”

Face to face conversation, and even the telephone, let you gauge the other person’s mood from vocal cues, and more familiar, longer letters gave people important contextual information. Their absence from these new mediums meant that the promise of digital communication — being able to stay in closer touch with people — was being offset by this accompanying increase in miscommunication.

“So that’s when we thought, if we had something like emoji, we can probably do faces. We already had the experience with the heart symbol, so we thought it was possible.” ASCII art kaomoji were already around at the time, but they were a pain to enter on a cellphone since they were composed with multiple characters. Kurita was looking for a simpler solution.

3. Everybody 😊💩 (Mary Mann, August 2014, Matter)

Mann discusses her conflicted feelings around her use of emojis: she’s fascinated by their ability to encapsulate our emotions so succinctly, and that they are understood across 🇺🇸🇯🇵🇫🇷🇨🇳🇧🇷 and 👶🏻🧒🏻👩🏻👵🏻, but also 🤦🏻‍♀️ to rely so heavily on them.

And of course emojis are inherently silly, but that’s not in and of itself a bad thing. Silliness is not necessarily an indication of shallowness. In fact, I’d argue the opposite: A capacity for real silliness is usually born out of pain. We’re attracted to silliness because we need it. We need it because life isn’t easy.

Your mom is sick.

Your grandfather died.

You got laid off.

Your company folded.

Your rent went up.

Your husband left.

He didn’t call.

She didn’t call.

They never call.

All these things happen every day, to billions of people all over the world. And if a stupid cartoon of smiling poop makes you feel better, well, that’s:

😜 + 💡

4. The 👄 History Of The 💩 Emoji (Or, How Google Brought 💩 To 🇺🇸) (Lauren Schwartzberg, November 2014, Fast Company)

Schwartzberg compiles an 👄 history on the origin and evolution of the beloved 💩 emoji, created in 🇯🇵 and brought to the 🇺🇸 by a team at Google.

Darick [Tong, Google 👨🏻‍💻 and 🇺🇸lead of its emoji project]: It struck me as a particularly flexible and effective emoji. It provides a way to say shit or crap in an email without explicitly typing the words, and it catches the reader’s attention in a way that smiley faces don’t. Most importantly, it always elicits a smile from the reader and the writer, which is ultimately the purest purpose of emoji: to add emotional expressiveness to written communication.

5. Emoji Don’t Mean What They Used To (Ian Bogost, February 2019, The Atlantic)

While it makes sense for emoji to cover the range of the human experience, Bogost ✍🏻 that “more specificity means less flexibility,” and that this visual language has shifted away from the abstract. More choices at our 📱fingertips changes the way we select and use emoji, viewing them more as 🖼️ rather than 💡. “Counterintuitively, all these emoji are less applicable because they contain more information.”

A skull (💀) almost never means that the speaker has a braincase in hand, Hamlet-like, but rather offers an ashen reaction or a lol, I’m dead sentiment. An emoji originally designed to signify an Eastern bow of greeting or politesse (🙇‍♂️) takes on the more abstract meaning of mild subjugation or psychic deflation in the West. Fire (🔥) could mean a campfire or house fire, but more often it suggests enthusiasm, ferocity, or even spice. Eggplant (🍆) could denote a nightshade, but more likely it suggests, well, something else. These and other meanings are possible because the emoji function primarily as ideograms.

But as emoji have become more specific in both their appearance and their meaning, their ideographic flexibility has eroded.