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Making Something Out of Nothing With a Scratch and a Hope: The Ballad of Shovels and Rope

Shovels and Rope at the Wildwood Revival in September, 2019. Photo by Krista Stevens.

This is no mere profile of the hardest-working duo in music. David Ramsey‘s notes on Shovels and Rope at Oxford American are a poetic testament to the passing of time, to commitment, to raising a family yet carving out the time you need to be creative, to “how to build a life,” to how music lifts us and helps us to cope.

“Partnership for survival in the world—that is romantic to me,” Cary Ann said. “We’re going to get down here in this ditch and we’re going to shovel together until we get to the other side. I’m digging on this side and you dig on that side. Hopefully we get to the other side intact.”

When interviewers like me ask them how they do it, a touring rock band with two kids, they say they’re still figuring it out. That sounds like something you just say, but actually this is precisely what parenting is like, at least for me. You have a problem, you solve the problem, you feel right proud, your solution is rendered laughably irrelevant one day later because your child changes altogether. You are as plucky and as hopeless as a medical researcher hunting a cure for a bug that evolves faster than every breakthrough.

17. The infant’s state of existential bafflement—Who am I? Why am I here?—seems basically correct, if inefficient, and I always feel a little guilty as a parent training it away.

What is the correct answer if your toddler hears the rain outside and asks, is it music?

When Marigold first started talking, I remember taking her to the playground and she approached a lizard and said “hi.” Then she got on her knees and said “hi” to each and every ant that crawled by, one by one, and I had a feeling in my belly: Pride.

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N.K. Jemisin: ‘I am still going to write what I am going to write.’

Photo by Laura Hanifin. Copyright 2015

In Raffi Khatchadourian‘s New Yorker profile of author magnifique N.K. Jemisin, Jemisin recounts the racism she witnessed as a child in Alabama in the ’80s, as well as the racism — editorial and otherwise — that she has lived through in her career.

“John Scalzi, the former president of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, heralded Jemisin as ‘arguably the most important speculative writer of her generation.’” (Edit, mine.)

Jemisin credits her father Noah — a painter — as someone who fully supported her writing not only by being her “first real editor” but also by creating art alongside her in long companionable afternoons he spent painting, while she composed on a couch nearby.

Jemisin’s writing process often begins with dreams: imagery vivid enough to hang on into wakefulness. She does not so much mine them for insight as treat them as portals to hidden worlds. Her tendency is to interrogate what she sees with if/then questions, until her field of vision widens enough for her to glimpse a landscape that can hold a narrative. The inspiration for her début novel, “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” (2010), was a dream vision of two gods. One had dark-as-night hair that contained a starry cosmos of infinite depth; the other, in a child’s body, manipulated planets like toys. From these images, Jemisin spun out a four-hundred-page story about an empire that enslaves its deities. The book established her as a prominent new voice.

Above her desk she had hung family photos: glimpses of a truncated generational story. “Like most black Americans descended from slaves, it basically stops,” she told me. She once wrote about this loss—not merely the erasure of a backstory but also the absence of all that a person builds upon it; as she put it, the “strange emptiness to life without myths.” She had considered pursuing genealogy, “the search for the traces of myself in moldering old sale documents and scanned images on microfiche.” But ultimately she decided that she had no interest in what the records might say. “They’ll tell me where I came from, but not what I really want to know: where I’m going. To figure that out, I make shit up.”

Dad and I would pass time, whole afternoons, not speaking to each other,” she told me. “He would be working on a painting in his studio. I would be sitting on the couch, writing.

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Writing Emails to My Late Father

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Ten years ago, I was in a dark place. I was consumed by shock and rage and grief. My guts were in a knot. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I vented the emotions that were poisoning my will to live in a series of emails to myself. It was the only thing that helped me get through that awful period in my life. For me and for Rax King, writing emails was a way to cope.

As King related at Glamour, King wrote her father emails to remember their relationship and to work through her grief after he died in May, 2018. Stunningly, months after she’d began writing, someone — a living witness to the relationship she had with her dad — wrote back.

When I felt particularly tortured, I opened my dad’s last voicemail to me and listened to it. His voice reaffirmed that I was a human experiencing honest grief rather than a dead pixel on a distant screen, passively crying over the cruelty of some algorithm. In the voicemail he thanked me for the gift basket of bagels, lox, and whitefish salad that I’d had delivered to him for his birthday. He was pleased to have received it and didn’t know he was going to be dead in a month.

I began writing him emails. I didn’t send them at first. Typing his email address into the recipient bar was enough to conjure up his listening presence. For months I transcribed the hostile anguish in my head into emails to my father, which I would then seal off with the addition of his email address and save in my drafts folder. It was the high school diary, unfiltered. He would never find out how it ended now; it felt good to “tell” him.

Email was barely on his radar. But one day I opened Gmail and searched my email history for his name anyway, even though I knew I wouldn’t find much. It was the sort of thing I did often in the early days of my father’s death, fracking for his presence in the deepest and most unlikely crevices of my life.

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We Use Language as a Spade

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In this beautiful personal essay at The Sun Magazine, Christine Marshall considers cats and kittens, the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, and how writing has helped her to express and process her anger, resentment, and grief after a series of miscarriages.

BISHOP’S POEMS ARE like the sky on a clear night. At first you notice the brightness, stars as thick and close as pores in the face. The stars and moon and planets form patterns and shapes. They remind you how much energy exists in the world. Then you start to notice what’s behind the stars: an eternity of dark.

IN A 1966 letter to her poet friend Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop mentions her cat Tobias, who still flourishes, age fifteen. The 1960s were not a great decade for Bishop, who was embroiled in a painful breakup with the love of her life, Lota de Macedo Soares. Bishop didn’t write about her heartache in her letter to her friend. She stayed light. She chatted about the weather and politics and the neighbors’ children and her cats.

Writing, I decide, is not just a record of our experiences but a reaching beyond what we have known, an opportunity to use empathy and curiosity to broaden our sense of self. There’s a strange assumption in the phrase Write what you know — that we already know ourselves.

We don’t stop at what we know. We don’t use language simply as a mirror. We also use it as a spade.

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William Gibson on How Science Fiction Portrays Reality

(Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

William Gibson talks to Sam Leith at the Guardian about how he got into writing science fiction, how his break-out novel “Neuromancer” was possible because he knew nothing about computers, the subtle, yet striking similarities that make London and Toyko great settings for his work, and the fact that even in science fiction, you’re lost without your phone charger.

His 1981 short story “Johnny Mnemonic” was made into a film starring Keanu Reeves in 1995, but Gibson’s breakthrough only came with 1984’s Neuromancer. He famously wrote this rip-roaring, noir-inflected fantasy of burned out hackers and technologically augmented ninjas – which gave birth to the whole “cyberpunk” genre – on a manual typewriter, and he freely talks of himself as a late adopter. So maybe the poetic, rather than technological, turn in that description of cyberspace is the way to read him. He magpies futuristic sounding stuff.

“I was actually able to write Neuromancer because I didn’t know anything about computers,” he says. “I knew literally nothing. What I did was deconstruct the poetics of the language of people who were already working in the field. I’d stand in the hotel bar at the Seattle science fiction convention listening to these guys who were the first computer programmers I ever saw talk about their work. I had no idea what they were talking about, but that was the first time that I ever heard the word ‘interface’ used as a verb. And I swooned. Wow, that’s a verb. Seriously, poetically that was wonderful.

“So I was listening to it as an English honours student. I would take it back out, deconstruct it poetically, and build a world from those bricks.

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What Brings True Happiness: the Booze or the Bonding?

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In this personal essay at Good Beer Hunting, Helena Fitzgerald wonders whether she can still enjoy herself and the easy camaraderie she finds in the dark, cozy dive-bars bars she loves — without drinking alcohol.

The wood bar that I loved so much, where late afternoons were an exhale shaped like a drink—would I still love it if I wasn’t getting drunk there, or was getting drunk the thing I actually loved, and the bar only a fiction I had placed like a screen in front of it?

What was even less clear was how much I could maintain my love for bars, and all the specific details and experiences that attend them, if I wasn’t drinking. The thing is, I just love bars. I love the permissive relief of a bar, the just-perceptible sense of entering another world where the rules are ever so slightly different. I love how so many of them feel like caves. I love the small unspoken camaraderie, and the particular conversations one can have with a friend sitting in a tall chair at the end of the bar that one can’t have anywhere else, and I love the relaxingly transactional half-friendships that one establishes with bartenders if one goes back to the same bar even a few times—the sense of being very gently known.

I had no idea if, when I stopped drinking for a while, all of this would become inaccessible to me. At the same time, that worry was what made me feel most certain I had to give up alcohol at least for a little while, if only to know definitively how much these small but bright joys actually belonged to me.

It has been, in a simple way, a relief to know that choosing not to do one particular thing for a while does not shut me out of the spaces intended for that thing, and to realize that those spaces are perhaps not as defined by drinking as I had understood them to be.

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How Bagel Makers’ Union Local 338 Beat NYC’s “Kosher Nostra”

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In the 1950s, organized crime in New York City wanted in on burgeoning bagel profits. As Jason Turbow recounts in this fun piece at Grubstreet, the New York City Bagel Makers’ Union Local 338 — a membership made almost solely of Jewish bagel makers and their sons — wasn’t prepared to share the gelt.

Despite a decidedly limited reach through the first half of last century, demand kept dozens of bakeries in business throughout Manhattan and the eastern boroughs. They were miserable places to work, located in the basements of apartment houses and other large buildings with coal-fired furnaces that could be converted into ovens. Ambient temperatures in those rooms reached 120 degrees, with bakers frequently stripping down to their underwear, even in the dead of winter, while furiously sidestepping infestations of roaches and rats. “There appears to be no other industry, not even the making of clothes in sweatshops, which is carried on amid so much dirt and filth,” reported the state of New York in one of several scathing industry safety reviews. It was not uncommon for poor tradesmen to ply temporary homes in the corners of these rooms, sleeping on empty flour sacks in the handful of hours between shifts. So dire were conditions that they even inspired a Yiddish curse: Lig in der erd un bak beygl. “Lay in the ground and bake bagels.” (Alternatively translated: “Go to hell and bake bagels.”)

The excessive hours mandated in such environments were so brutal that in the late 1920s, bagel bakers, primarily immigrants from Eastern Europe, banded together in protest. The result — Union Local 338, under the umbrella of the Bakery and Confectionery Workers (B&C) International — offered a measure of professional leverage. Beginning in the 1930s, if one wanted to run a bagel shop in Manhattan, one had no choice but to employ union bakers. They were, after all, virtually the only men in town capable of making a proper bagel, not to mention exceedingly judicious when it came to imparting their wisdom. So comprehensive was this mandate that bakery owners were prohibited from manning their own ovens at the risk of costly and relentless picket lines outside their shops. (Picketing was the official response to virtually all major labor disputes. The union prevailed every time.)

Union Local 338 never grew much past 300 bakers, but the power it held was enduring. Membership was intentionally exclusive, based on the lineage-driven, old-world tradition of passing down a generationally honed craft from father to son. On this basis, acceptance was limited to the sons of existing 338 members (with the rare son-in-law and occasional nephew sliding quietly under the rope), a structure that retained an exclusively Jewish identity. Until American-born offspring began to turn over No. 338’s roster in the 1950s, the local communicated primarily in Yiddish, its correspondence and record-keeping entirely indecipherable to outsiders. The newspaper of record, the one read by bakers during their breaks, was the Yiddish-language daily Forverts — the Forward — which today publishes online in both English and Yiddish.

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Finding Solace in the Charged Particles of the Aurora Borealis

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Hugo Sanchez, 48, immigrated to Canada to escape the brutal civil war in El Salvador. As David Wolman reports in this moving profile at Outside, Sanchez’s friendly, kind exterior hides the horrors he experienced growing up in Central America and the pain and grief he endured after losing his son Emilio, who died unexpectedly at age 10. Sanchez, a passionate photographer, finds solace in capturing the Northern Lights on film.

Growing up in Central America, Hugo had never heard of the northern lights: la aurora was a phrase used only to describe the special glow of dawn. But since relocating to Edmonton, Alberta, nearly 30 years ago, he’s had scores of sightings of what he sometimes calls Lady Aurora. Nowadays, when the forecast looks good or half decent, Hugo will load up his 2007 Mazda and drive, alone and often in the middle of the night, to Elk Island National Park, about 40 minutes from his home on the northwestern edge of Edmonton. There he’ll set up and wait. It’s a calming place, he says, where he can reflect on what he’s been through, what he’s lost, and what he still has.

Before peeling off from the group, Hugo and I listened to a Wiseman local give an informal lesson about the physics of auroras. He stood outside a cabin filled with furs and mining-era memorabilia, and, with mittened hands gesturing toward the sky, explained how nonstop nuclear fusion in the sun sends electrons and protons zooming into space—the solar wind. Some of these charged particles make their way into earth’s upper atmosphere, where they smash into oxygen, nitrogen, and other gases. The collisions emit visible light: greens mostly, with cameos from pink, violet, blue, yellow, and red.

A rare happy memory from that time came when Hugo first saw the northern lights. He and Jamie were driving on Highway 2 between Calgary and Edmonton, far from any cities, when they saw a glow rising from the horizon, gradually lighting up the sky. Even to Jamie, who had seen many auroras, it was stunning. Later she told Hugo that her people, the Cree First Nations, believe “the northern lights are dancing spirits of loved ones who have passed on.”

A few minutes later, Hugo steps away from his cameras. He looks up at the sky, alive with color and motion, and takes a deep breath. “I’m happy to see you, Emilio,” he says, sniffling, his voice cracking slightly. “I miss you, buddy. And I love you. Mom loves you, too. So, thanks for everything you’re doing lately because this is…” he says though tears. “I love you, buddy.”

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Risking Everything for a Better Life

A passenger aircraft comes into land at London Heathrow Airport in London, U.K. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

There’s a small section of South West London in which bodies — usually black or brown bodies — fall from the sky. For Maclean’s, Shannon Gormley reports on the dangers migrants face as they attempt to find safety and greater economic opportunity in a new country. While some attempt travel secreted away in transport trucks, others choose the wheel well of a jetliner traveling to London Heathrow Airport in a treacherous, and almost always fatal bid to improve their fortunes.

There’s a pretty little part of South West London where dead people fall from the sky. It’s a perfectly charming area.

The first one plummeted into a supermarket parking lot that was then under construction. That was in 1996. Two years later, a couple on a date swore they saw a second body hit the same spot, though this has never been confirmed. Another few years, another dead person in another parking lot, this one across from the supermarket which had by then been completed. The area received a decade-long reprieve from the bodies after that, but nothing lasts forever. In 2012 residents found one on a leafy side street; then, in 2015, on an air-conditioning unit on top of an office building. And this past summer, the latest: It plunged headlong into a walled back garden, neatly cracking the pavement open and landing next to a sunbather who responded with an appropriate mixture of shock and horror. That is supposed to have been the nearest near-miss.

First, the stowaway takes to the runway, with the lights along the tarmac. Sometimes he makes a game plan with a smuggler, a plan for freedom and for whatever else. And sometimes he just makes a mad break for it, running as if his life depends on it because he is certain that it does.

However he reaches the plane, if he reaches the plane, he often heads for a wheel. He hoists himself into the wheel-well, a space just big enough to curl his frame into. There, he braces himself. Or he panics.

He braces himself if he knows what’s coming. The spinning of the wheel, the thunder of the engines, the climb above the Earth, the freezing air, the oxygen-starved air. He panics if he realizes he’s been misinformed by a deceptive smuggler or a hopeful idiot, told that above the wheel lies a secret trap door that leads to a secret tunnel in the underbelly of a plane that magically carries its passengers to a better life.

And then he’s killed, probably. Around three in four wheel-well stowaways are, in one of three ways. When the wheels retract, some stowaways are crushed by the landing gear. When the plane hits high altitudes, others are asphyxiated or freeze to death. And when the wheels go back down, those still holding on to life have probably lost their hold on consciousness before they slip out of the well and drop to Earth. That is rare, though. By the time the landing gear opens—often, over a pretty little part of South West London that happens to sit under a flight path to Heathrow—the typical plane stowaway is already dead.

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On Course for Certain Disaster

In this Aug. 21, 2017, file photo, damage is visible as the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain steers towards Changi naval base in Singapore following a collision with the merchant vessel Alnic MC. A number of sailors are missing. (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joshua Fulton/U.S. Navy photo via AP, File)

Nobody on the 8,300 ton destroyer USS John S. McCain — not even the captain — really understood how to use the new touch-screen steering system the navy installed in a bid to reduce the number of sailors required to safely guide the ship. As T. Christian Miller, Robert Faturechi, Megan Rose, and Agnes Chang report at ProPublica, the system was fraught with “false alarms” and problems, to the point where engineers called the system, which regularly encountered “multiple and cascading failures,” unstable. Then, the navy blamed Captain Sanchez and the sailors steering the ship for the accident in which 10 sailors died.

In August 2017, Sanchez and his crew steered the ship toward a naval base in Singapore, where technicians were waiting. The navigation system had indicated more than 60 “major steering faults” during the month.

“We were going to have the programmers,” Sanchez said, “give the system a full, a full check, a full clean bill of health.”

The McCain never reached its destination.

In the early hours of Aug. 21, 2017, the McCain was 20 miles from Singapore, navigating one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Sanchez was on the bridge to assist in the complex maneuvers ahead. He ordered Bordeaux to take over steering the warship while another sailor controlled its speed. The idea was to avoid distractions by having each man focus on a single task in the heavy maritime traffic.

To check that he had control, Bordeaux tugged the ship’s wheel slightly to the left. The McCain did not alter its course. Bordeaux rotated it slightly to starboard. Again, the McCain maintained its track. Bordeaux suddenly realized that the McCain was steaming uncontrolled toward the cargo ships sailing through the Singapore Strait.

“Loss of steering,” he called out.

The McCain began turning mysteriously to the left, slowly at first, and then faster. The ship drew closer and closer to the vessels plying the strait.

As Bordeaux remained glued to the screen before him, there was quiet in the dark of the bridge as sailors darted around, staring at gauges, flipping buttons, trying in one way or another to figure out what was happening. Sanchez’s eyes flew across the ship’s banks of screens in his own desperate attempt to avert disaster.

Three minutes and 19 seconds after Bordeaux’s cry, the McCain collided violently with a 30,000-ton Liberian-flagged oil tanker. Ten Navy sailors were killed and scores more were injured. It was the Navy’s worst accident at sea in 40 years.

Immediate responsibility, the Navy ruled, rested with Sanchez, his officers and senior sailors. They had been lax, even complacent, in their training of the sailors steering the ship. Sanchez had made a critical error in not adding more sailors to stand watch as the McCain navigated the treacherous strait. Sanchez was charged with homicide. A chief petty officer, responsible for training the sailors to use the navigation system, was charged with dereliction of duty. The chief petty officer had himself received less than an hour of instruction.

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