A Changpa boy sips from a cup of steaming yak-butter tea. (Photo by David Bathgate/Corbis via Getty Images)
Short fiction? Yes! We’re trying an experiment.
Toronto in winter is the backdrop for Sharon Bala‘s riveting short story “Butter Tea at Starbucks,” published at The New Quarterly. This piece, layered with deep tensions between immediate family and between countries, is told by Pema, a young Tibetan woman caught in the middle. Pema’s sister Karma is struggling to meet a newborn’s demands while trying to assert her independence over their parents, traditional Tibetans who are in conflict with the father of their new granddaughter. In the epicenter of the domestic strife and conflict unfolding in Toronto — sharply juxtaposed with a horrific self-immolation in protest against China’s treatment of Tibet — is newborn Sophia.
The flames flap with a noise like laundry on a line. The fire is an orange column. A plastic bag pirouettes in mid-air. The camera, unsteady, lingers and lingers. And in the middle, the figure stands upright, stoic or suicidal. Pema thinks: she’s already dead.
It is Pema’s duty to marry a Tibetan, to have sweet- faced almond-skinned children. She wants to do her part. But when she plays scrabble with Jamal and Karma she wants what they have too.
Find a Tibetan? Karma raises one eyebrow high on her forehead; the eyebrow says I’m above all this nonsense. Here? That’s like going into Starbucks and ordering butter tea.
Pema’s parents and her sister are like warring nations, old foes skirmishing over a boundary line that shifts imperceptibly, never gaining any ground. What they need is a mediator, someone to broker a peace agreement.
Pema unscrews the nipple off the bottle and tries to think of a neutral topic. For a decade, it was just the three of them. By the time Pema arrived, the unexpected child, there was no place for a fourth party in the fray.
Amala asks about the baby. She calls her Tenzin Dolma.
Her name is Sophia, Karma says.
Pema is surprised. When had this been decided? Tenzin Dolma. Pala speaks with authority. This name will bring her good fortune.
Were you in labour for sixteen hours? Karma’s voice jumps up. Her name is Sophia Naomi Wilson.
Interested in further reading on plastics? Editor Seyward Darby recommends “How Plastic Liberated and Entombed Us” by Jeannette Cooperman at The Common Reader in our Top 5 Picks of the Week. Sign up to receive our Top 5 reads on Fridays.
At The Atlantic, Rebecca Altman examines the history of plastics, the first elements of which were conceived as a way to make money from the byproducts of antifreeze production. Altman helps us follow the carcinogenic compounds — and the money trail — through the Second World War straight into the American living room (Tupperware parties!) and out the back door with the trash, as disposable plastics were heavily marketed to keep profits flowing.
The piece is a fascinating history lesson on how humans prioritize short-term profits and immediate convenience over the future of the planet. While the Earth absorbs capitalism’s toxic byproducts and climate change is in full swing, we tout recycling, which for plastics is fraught, complicated, and largely unsuccessful.
Dad once believed that plastics could be reused indefinitely. I imagine that, maybe, he thought plastics, like their makers, deserved the chance to begin again. When Union Carbide downsized in the 1970s, Dad took severance and stayed home with my siblings until he could figure out what a life beyond plastics might look like. The answer, it turned out, was public administration: For a time, he ran my hometown’s recycling program. Recycling, though, never lived up to Dad’s ideal. Of all the plastics made over his lifetime, less than 10 percent has been effectively repurposed.
This failure, like so many other aspects of our relationship with plastics, is often framed in terms of individual shortcomings; plastics’ producers, or the geopolitics that have made plastics so widespread, are rarely called out. But to read plastics’ history is to discover another story: Demand for plastic has been as manufactured as plastics themselves. Society is awash in throwaway plastics not because of the logic of desire but because of the logic of history and of integrated industrial systems.
For decades, the industry has created the illusion that its problems are well under control, all while intensifying production and promotion. More plastics have been made over the past two decades than during the second half of the 20th century. Today, recycling is a flailing, failing system—and yet it is still touted as plastics’ panacea. No end-of-the-pipe fix can manage mass plastics’ volume, complex toxicity, or legacy of pollution, and the industry’s long-standing infractions against human health and rights.
It’s that time of year again! Our annual year-end series has evolved over the past decade, but our aim remains the same: to collect and share the very best in longform nonfiction storytelling across the web. Today, we’re thrilled to kick off our Best of 2021 collection with this list of the 10 most-read stories and essays on our site.
My earliest memories involve music. At first, we had an ancient turntable, a penny taped to its arm to prevent it from skipping. My dad loved Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Elvis. My mom was into Simon & Garfunkel and Jim Reeves, a guy I thought profoundly uncool in his knitted cardigan. Later, I remember waking up early on a Saturday morning to watch cartoons, the Creedence Clearwater Revival 8-Track still kathunking along, blaring “Bad Moon Rising” and “Down on the Corner” hours after my parents had gone to bed following a night of beers and tunes. It took both hands for me to yank that tape out so I could hear the TV. Later still, I recall dance parties at my auntie’s house. With the dining room table pushed to the side of the room, adults and kids alike would be twistin’ the night away along with Sam Cooke. It cost almost nothing; it was fun we could afford. Everyone was happy. I still know all the words to all those songs.
Let me tell you ‘bout a place Somewhere up a New York way Where the people are so gay Twistin’ the night away
Later in life I learned to play guitar and bass, forever chasing that singular thrill of being immersed in music I love. I wanted to get to know it more deeply, from the inside. I’m forever obsessed with all things musical: artists, their inspiration, their craft, their dedication, their instruments, their foibles. When a piece appears on any of these topics, I can’t resist. So here, for the love of it, are six pieces related to music.
Here they have a lot of fun Puttin’ trouble on the run Man, you find the old and young Twistin’ the night away
For 52 years, Willie Nelson has played the same instrument: A 1969 Martin N-20 classical guitar called Trigger. In this masterful profile, Nelson and Trigger share equal billing as Hall recounts the musician’s career and the meticulous maintenance that keeps Trigger in tune, after more than five decades and thousands of performances.
Erlewine looks forward to Trigger’s semiannual physicals. He oils the bridge and cleans the fretboard, the wood of which is so eroded it looks like waves between the frets. Then comes the lacquering. The mottled area just above the sound hole shows the effects of fifty coats of lacquer applied over 35 years. The darker parts are colored by dirt and dead skin that can’t be removed; the lighter parts are where Willie has dug deep into the spruce. Erlewine carefully rubs the gouges in the wood that run parallel to the strings between the bridge and the sound hole, a sign of the force with which Willie plays.
In the fall of 2019, we attended a small music festival outside of Athens, Georgia, to see Shovels & Rope, a husband and wife duo who handle all their own guitar, vocals, keys, and percussion, trading duties often during the show. When he’s singing and playing guitar, she’s behind the kit with a stick in one hand and a shaker in the other, singing harmony. When you’re standing there, in front of the stage, and the music envelopes you, it’s hard to believe that there are only two people up there making that magic happen in such an intimate performance. Ramsey’s piece takes you backstage and introduces you to Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent in an ethereal braided essay that intersperses his personal experiences along with the story of the duo’s musical career.
Most rock songs, you imagine either that you’re the singer or that you’re the one being sung to; with Shovels & Rope, you imagine the gate is open and the backyard is full and you’re singing along.
Many of their best songs have a deliberateness on the topic of how to build a life, both wistful and hard-edged. “Making something out of nothing with a scratch and a hope,” they sing on “Birmingham,” their origin-myth anthem, “two old guitars like a shovel and a rope.”
At Rolling Stone, Brian Hiatt wrote a loving tribute to Neil Peart, the late drummer for the Canadian band Rush, published one year after Peart’s death from brain cancer. What I loved about Hiatt’s piece is that despite the fact that I have never been a fan of Rush, I came away with huge admiration for Peart as a music professional. Here’s a highly acclaimed drummer with decades of experience who remained a student at heart, always wanting to improve as a musician.
In May 1994, at the Power Station recording studio in New York, Peart gathered together great rock and jazz drummers, from Steve Gadd to Matt Sorum to Max Roach, for a tribute album he was producing for the great swing drummer Buddy Rich. Peart noticed one of the players, Steve Smith, had improved strikingly since the last time he had seen him, and learned that he studied with the jazz guru Freddie Gruber. In the year of his 42nd birthday, while he was already widely considered to be the greatest rock drummer alive, Peart sought out Gruber and started taking drum lessons. “What is a master but a master student?” Peart told Rolling Stone in 2012.
As a music student, every new song I learn, every new technique earned, is a small victory. (I’m looking at you, groovy and challenging bass line to Taj Mahal’s “Diving Duck Blues.”) I can’t imagine flying across the world to show up at a master’s door hoping to gain a particular kind of instruction, but that’s precisely what Lavinia Spalding did when she traveled to Spain to become a tocaora, a female flamenco guitarist. Dedicated music students will be able to identify with the sweetness of improvement, often evidenced by the physical discomfort that accompanies it.
I’ve been in Spain only two days, and already my fingers hurt. It’s a prickly, high-pitched sting, like when a fallen-asleep limb returns to life. The sensation delights me. It means I’m doing something right.
How do you question a living legend? With grace, care, and deep respect, as it turns out. For Longreads, Jessica Wilkerson took a closer look at the business interests of singer, songwriter, musician, and philanthropist Dolly Parton. There’s no question that Dolly’s work for literacy and science has done a lot of good. But, could Dolly do better? Wilkerson thinks so.
The love for Dolly that I learned was one without doubt. To question one’s devotion to Dolly Parton is to turn the world upside-down. Indeed, it is to question one’s investment in, and rehearsals of, mythologies of whiteness, which are rarely spoken, rarely noted as white. “Whiteness is an orientation that puts certain things within reach,” Sara Ahmed writes. Dolly Parton was crucial to my own orientation.
Because my grandma is right — inquiry is seductive — I needed to question Dolly Parton’s meaning in my and our lives.
I needed to confront Dolly Parton’s blinding, dazzling whiteness.
The first time I saw Bruce Springsteen live was on October 31st, 1992 at the Target Center in Minneapolis, about 20 years before David Remnick would write this stunning profile. It was a momentous evening — they wheeled Bruce out in a coffin perched on a dolly, and he popped out to start the show with “Spirits in the Night.” It was the first of many performances I’d see in Minneapolis, Fargo, and even Milwaukee, thanks to being married to a Bruce fanatic. I appreciate Springsteen’s music, but I’m not a massive fan, until I get to the show. Anyone who loves music knows it has the power to move them, be it to tears, to sing along, or to dance. At Springsteen shows, I’ve felt my heart and spirit soar when the Fargodome roof almost blew off during the show closer “Light of Day.” I’ve had the hair stand up on the back of my neck with the opening strains of “The Rising,” an experience that was so intense it continues to this day, happening whenever the song comes on the radio. What I love about Remnick’s profile is that he makes Bruce seem like a regular person, despite being someone whose superpower is conjuring life-altering feeling and emotion in even the most casual fans. He’s a guy whose job happens to be running the E Street Band, the Boss who pays their salaries and struggles at times too — both creatively and with his mental health. A man who, even though it doesn’t seem like it sometimes, is one of us.
After all these years onstage, he can stand back from his performances with an analytic remove. “You’re the shaman, a little bit, you’re leading the congregation,” he told me. “But you are the same as everybody else in the sense that your troubles are the same, your problems are the same, you’ve got your blessings, you’ve got your sins, you’ve got the things you can do well, you’ve got the things you fuck up all the time. And so you’re a conduit. There was a series of elements in your life—some that were blessings, and some that were just chaotic curses—that set fire to you in a certain way.”
When Rolling Stone “introduced” Joni Mitchell in 1969, the magazine derided her as a composer, singer, and musician, saying that she was “Not bad for a girl who had no voice training, hated to read in school, and learned guitar from a Pete Seeger instruction record.” They go on — dismissing her songs as “contrived” — to suggest that listeners are smitten despite their better judgment. “She can charm the applause out of audience [sic],” the editors wrote, “by breaking a guitar string, then apologizing by singing her next number a capella, wounded guitar at a limp parade rest. And when she talks, words stumble out of her mouth to form candid little quasi – anecdotes that are completely antithetical to her carefully constructed, contrived songs. But they knock the audience out almost every time.”
If Rolling Stone didn’t get it at first, her musical contemporaries did. David Crosby (The Byrds, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) knew immediately that Mitchell was something special. In the two-part 2020 documentary Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time, Crosby recounts inviting Eric Clapton over for the afternoon. Clapton sat, mesmerized by Mitchell’s playing and her altered guitar tunings. (Some of that mesmerization was probably due to all the weed, but let’s not allow that to take away from Mitchell and her guitar skills.) Crosby and Clapton weren’t the only ones who saw the genius in Joni.
To hear him talk about his then lady-love in Laurel Canyon, you get the strong impression that Graham Nash (The Hollies, Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young) still isn’t over her, 40 years later. “I was in love from the moment that I ever spent any time with her,” says Nash, who wrote the song “Our House” about his relationship with Mitchell. Do you ever really get over the woman who took up with James Taylor after she wrote most of her highly acclaimed album, Blue, in your communal living room?
Staring at the fire For hours and hours while I listen to you Play your love songs all night long for me Only for me
—”Our House” by Graham Nash, recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
BIG SUR, CA – SEPTEMBER 14-15: Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell clap during an act at the Big Sur Folk Festival at the Esalen Institue on September 14-15, 1969 in Big Sur, California. (Photo by Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Canadian painter, poet, composer, musician, singer-songwriter, guitarist, alternate-tuning queen, alto, and overall doyenne Joni Mitchell turns 78 on November 7th. Join as we celebrate Mitchell with five longreads about a brilliant artist whose career has spanned 60 years.
Ellen Willis gets it, or at least she’s trying to. Sort of. Maybe. In this short commentary on Blue, which was released in 1971, Willis says that “‘Blue’ established Joni Mitchell as a better singer-songwriter than Crosby, Stills, Nash & [James] Taylor combined,” but let’s not confuse compositional skill with easy likability. “Joni’s melodies and lyrics and rhythms are so rich and complicated and un-pop-songlike, her voice such a subtle instrument, her artistic pretensions so overt that if the record were any less brilliant it would be a disaster.”
In this piece, Mitchell has a wide-ranging conversation with Malka Marom, the Iraeli singer credited with discovering her. Mitchell is at the ripe old age of 30 here and we get to learn a little bit about her in her own words. Three whole years after the album’s release, I love her personal assessment of Blue: “[It], for the most part, holds up. But there are some early songs where there is too much naïvité in some of the lyrics for me to be able now to project convincingly.”
For music students, this short primer on Mitchell’s many altered tunings is fascinating not only for how she approached the guitar. It also features behind-the-scenes recording anecdotes and detail on the people and genres that influenced her music.
At the time of this writing, Vigier notes that Mitchell had painted album covers for 12 or her studio albums, many of which were self-portraits. Those paintings allowed Mitchell to reject and transcend the milk-complected, doe-eyed image many people had of her. “But her self-portraits have endless scripts, moving between genres and styles, copying from where they can,” Vigier writes. “If she can, as she does, construct her own self-image and legacy, then it will be less stable than what’s put forward, more instinctual, intentional, veering.”
This piece opens with a fantastic anecdote involving Prince and Mitchell and just gets better from there. In this review of Reckless Daughter, David Yaffe’s Mitchell biography, Carl Wilson gives Mitchell her due as a guitarist and an artist. “Mitchell excelled at channeling the subconscious of her time, especially as it was negotiated between men and women, but she was also always trying to get outside that orbit. She didn’t want to be a case of anything, except herself. The very chords she played were unique, belonging to no tradition except the one she generated with her own tuning system. She’s called them her ‘chords of inquiry—they have a question mark in them.’ It wasn’t until she began working with jazz musicians that she found a band that could follow her (the rock dudes were hopeless).”
The 9/11 Memorial Reflection Pool in New York City.
On Tuesday September 11th, 2001 I was at my desk in the Communications Department at Boeing in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The radio was on. Just after 8 a.m. local time, breaking news reported that an airplane had hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. I imagined a small plane, perhaps a Cessna. A horrible accident, but hopefully one with few casualties, I told myself. I could not have been more wrong.
As more reports came in, we found the only conference room in the building that had a television set with a cable feed. As colleagues converged on the room, we watched in disbelief when United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower and in horror as the towers fell less than two hours later. Parts of the two Boeing 767s and Boeing 757s used in the attacks had been hand-made and assembled in our building. We could not believe that four aircraft we’d helped make with love and pride had been used to cause terror and death. We were stunned, silent.
As the 20th anniversary of September 11th approaches, here are six stories about the tragedy and its ongoing aftermath. In curating this list — out of so many stories written in response to the events of that day — I found myself drawn mostly to ones published in the past few years.
Bobby McIlvaine was 26 years old when he died at the Twin Towers in Manhattan on September 11th, 2001. Reporter Jennifer Senior knew Bobby and the McIlvaine family; senior’s brother had been Bobby’s roommate. Senior’s impeccably paced story is a deep study in grief: How grief differs for everyone. How some guard theirs and others rail, both pitted against something that can never be truly assuaged. Senior reminds us that memory is fallible even in, or perhaps even because of, the most tragic circumstances. That life as a survivor remains exactly that — surviving — day-by-day, knowing you are forever in the after and your loved one is forever in the before.
Then, on the morning of September 11, 2001, Bobby headed off to a conference at Windows on the World, a restaurant in a building to which he seldom had reason to go, for a media-relations job at Merrill Lynch he’d had only since July. My brother waited and waited. Bobby never came home. From that point forward, I watched as everyone in the blast radius of this horrible event tried to make sense of it, tried to cope.
Early on, the McIlvaines spoke to a therapist who warned them that each member of their family would grieve differently. Imagine that you’re all at the top of a mountain, she told them, but you all have broken bones, so you can’t help each other. You each have to find your own way down.
It was a helpful metaphor, one that may have saved the McIlvaines’ marriage. But when I mentioned it to Roxane Cohen Silver, a psychology professor at UC Irvine who’s spent a lifetime studying the effects of sudden, traumatic loss, she immediately spotted a problem with it: “That suggests everyone will make it down,” she told me. “Some people never get down the mountain at all.”
This is one of the many things you learn about mourning when examining it at close range: It’s idiosyncratic, anarchic, polychrome. A lot of the theories you read about grief are great, beautiful even, but they have a way of erasing individual experiences. Every mourner has a very different story to tell.
That therapist was certainly right, however, in the most crucial sense: After September 11, those who had been close to Bobby all spun off in very different directions. Helen stifled her grief, avoiding the same supermarket she’d shopped in for years so that no one would ask how she was. Jeff, Bobby’s lone sibling, had to force his way through the perdition of survivor’s guilt. Bob Sr. treated his son’s death as if it were an unsolved murder, a cover-up to be exposed.
“The Falling Man” by Tom Junod is among the canon of pieces that surface in my mind now and again, ones I reread because they’re unforgettable. What touched me when I first read the piece in 2003 and continues to resonate today, is the humanity of the man captured by photographer Richard Drew. Amid unimaginable catastrophe, this unknown man — one who became controversially symbolic of the senseless tragedy of 9/11 — accepts his fate with dignity. He does not struggle. He does not flail. Faced with certain death, he chose the way in which he left this world and in his leaving, blessed us with his grace.
But the only certainty we have is the certainty we had at the start: At fifteen seconds after 9:41 a.m., on September 11, 2001, a photographer named Richard Drew took a picture of a man falling through the sky—falling through time as well as through space. The picture went all around the world, and then disappeared, as if we willed it away. One of the most famous photographs in human history became an unmarked grave, and the man buried inside its frame—the Falling Man—became the Unknown Soldier in a war whose end we have not yet seen. Richard Drew’s photograph is all we know of him, and yet all we know of him becomes a measure of what we know of ourselves.
The photographer is no stranger to history; he knows it is something that happens later. In the actual moment history is made, it is usually made in terror and confusion, and so it is up to people like him—paid witnesses—to have the presence of mind to attend to its manufacture.
In most American newspapers, the photograph that Richard Drew took of the Falling Man ran once and never again. Papers all over the country, from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to the Memphis Commercial Appeal to The Denver Post, were forced to defend themselves against charges that they exploited a man’s death, stripped him of his dignity, invaded his privacy, turned tragedy into leering pornography. Most letters of complaint stated the obvious: that someone seeing the picture had to know who it was. Still, even as Drew’s photograph became at once iconic and impermissible, its subject remained unnamed.
In a nation of voyeurs, the desire to face the most disturbing aspects of our most disturbing day was somehow ascribed to voyeurism, as though the jumpers’ experience, instead of being central to the horror, was tangential to it, a sideshow best forgotten.
In September 2001, The Onion staff had only just moved to Manhattan, from Madison, Wisconsin. When satire and comedy are what you do, how do you respond to tragedy in your brand-new backyard? With great care, as it turns out.
Hanson: Our normal, irreverent, edgy, cynical, dark humor wasn’t going to be emotionally appropriate with this situation.
Loew: At some point we realized, “Oh my God, this is going to be the first print paper we’re going to drop on the streets of New York City!” So we had to make it about 9/11, because if we made it about Cheetos or some silly stuff, that would be offensive. But this was terrifying because we’re these kids from Wisconsin coming into New York City and we’re going to drop this silly comedy paper about this horrific tragedy. So we knew we had to get it right — it was like threading the eye of the needle.
Loew: We all got back in and we all sat together, pitching headlines, trying to find the right tone. We’ve got to cover it from this angle, we’ve got to cover it from that angle. What about the average person at home, how are they handling it? That’s where “Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake” comes from. We have to capture some of this righteous anger, so “Hijackers Surprised to Find Selves in Hell.” The one that always tickled me was “Rest of Country Temporarily Feels Deep Affection for New York.”
In her personal essay, Sorayya Khan recounts the clueless curiosity, microaggressions, and overt racism she endured as a brown immigrant in America. Later, as a mother she relates having to explain that Muslims had perpetrated the attacks, knowing she would be unable to protect her sons, aged 9 and 5, from a deeply wounded and vengeful white America.
Before the week was out, a boy his age told Kamal on the bus that he would come to our house and kill us all. He’d been Kamal’s second grade classmate when he bragged about owning a shotgun, a detail we discussed over dinner. I knew his father, as much as I could know a man who dressed in fatigues on Tuesday afternoons and said nothing while we waited by the classroom door to take our children to after school activities. The boy’s name was Gunner, not yet irony, merely fact, like his eyes that were set not quite right and the blond crop of unruly hair which fell over them. The same day, also on the bus, another child called Shahid a terrorist. Our kindergartener understood the import, but not the word, and at bedtime he insisted on a precise definition. Naeem explained that the pejorative term depends on which side of a fight you’re on. Terrorist is complicated when you’re a political science professor speaking to a five-year-old who is your son, has been to Pakistan, and like all five-year-olds, understands a thing or two about justice.
One afternoon on the school bus, with no better grasp of the term, Shahid was again called a terrorist, and this time a boy named Rich told him he was going to kill him. “Only Gunner has guns, right?” Shahid asked when he got off the bus. Right away, I telephoned the principal who promised to take care of the matter. Trusting that he had, we put Shahid on the bus the next morning, but on the afternoon ride it happened again. We met with the principal who said he’d dropped the ball. Despite the sports analogy, the Americanism never failed to fail me, as if it should be possible to make things right by locating a dropped ball, picking it up, and putting it in its place.
The emotional toll of September 11th is a heavy price families and loved ones have paid every day since. As Patrick Hruby reports at The Washington Post Magazine, first responders are now suffering health consequences after prolonged exposure to airborne chemicals and toxins during the immediate post-attack search and rescue and in the months-long cleanup that followed at Ground Zero. Responders, many of whom are in their 50s, don’t just suffer emotional aftershocks like sleep disturbances and PTSD. Physical ailments, which started with breathing and gastrointestinal issues just after the attacks, now include cancers as well as memory problems and cognitive impairment at three times the rate of others in their age group.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 11, 2001: Rescue workers help one another after the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. (Photo by Matt Moyer/Corbis via Getty Images)
Ron was one of the tens of thousands of police, firefighters, construction workers and others who worked amid the ruins of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan following 9/11. Like many of those responders, he later paid a price. Diagnosed with asthma and a lung disease both linked to Ground Zero exposure, Ron retired on disability in 2009 and moved to Arizona.
By 2014, however, Ron’s troubles with thinking and memory were becoming unmanageable. Back in New York, he had deftly maneuvered a fire engine along the city’s crowded streets; now, he struggled to parallel park the family’s SUV inside two spaces. He would put toothpaste on his toothbrush and not know what to do with it. He was let go from his security job — in part, Dawn says, because he struggled to use a smartphone.
Ron’s condition is almost unheard of for a 59-year-old man, and it points to an emerging medical mystery: Twenty years after 9/11, Ground Zero first responders are suffering from abnormally high rates of cognitive impairment, with some individuals in their 50s experiencing deficiencies that typically manifest when people are in their 70s — if at all.
Of the 818 responders Clouston and his colleagues first tested, 104 had scores indicative of cognitive impairment, a condition that can range from mild to severe and that occurs when people have trouble remembering, learning new things, concentrating or making decisions that affect their everyday lives. Ten others scored low enough to have possible dementia. Clouston was stunned. As a group, the responders were relatively young. Many had to pass mentally demanding tests to become police officers and firefighters in the first place. They were some of the last individuals you would expect to be impaired, let alone at roughly three times the rate of people in their 70s. “We should have seen — maybe — one person” with dementia, he says. “And we had way too many people showing impairment. It looked like what I’m used to seeing when we study 75-year-olds. It was staggering.
As Garrett M. Graff reports, 13,238 Americans were born on September 11th, 2001. In 2020, they turned 19 and were eligible to vote in a U.S. presidential election for the first time. How has growing up in a post-9/11 world saturated by social media, amid near-daily mass shootings and racial inequality, shaped their politics and their worldview? Graff interviewed 19 of them to find out.
The interviews do not represent a strict, scientific cross section of the 67 million children of Generation Z, but collectively they capture a portrait of a generation entering politics seemingly with a more clear-eyed sense of America’s place in the world—a country that still represents hope and opportunity to millions around the globe, yet is no longer the unchallenged superpower or champion of Western values that perhaps it was for previous generations.
Chloe: Every single day since I was born, we haven’t been in a time where we’re at peace.
Tawny: The main mindset growing up with that—actually something that I am ashamed to admit—was this deep-rooted fear, this Arab-phobia. “Oh, these are the bad people.” which was certainly not my parents’ intention when teaching me about 9/11. I think a lot of Americans who grew up after 9/11 grew up with that kind of racism. Anytime you go on an airplane and you saw someone of that race or ethnicity, you get a little uneasy. Thankfully, that’s something I grew out of, and I definitely worked on.
Chloe: When I was younger, my feelings about America were more classic, patriotic, Fourth of July, red, white and blue. You’re proud to be American because of the way that our country values hard work and capitalism. Right now, for me, I would say that being an American is being empathetic to everyone from all different types of backgrounds and races and understanding them, and understanding what they’re doing here in our country. Everyone here is an American.
As Adsel told me, “Millennials are a lot more weary—they came into adulthood during the recession, they lived through 9/11. I think their view is a lot more depressing. Whereas Gen Z—our generation—things can only get better. We’ve been born with the backdrop of 9/11, we’ve lived through shootings, we’ve lived through very polarizing politics, we have the pandemic.”
George Otto was a doctor who hadn’t paid his taxes and needed to earn extra to get square with the Canada Revenue Agency. Shereen El-Azrak was a pharmacist trying to provide for extended family in Canada and Cairo. As Brett Popplewell reports at Toronto Life, the pair worked with two drug-addicted dealers to purvey Fentanyl on the street in Ontario, Canada, at $350 CDN a patch, putting addicted Canadians at risk of overdose and death. And the reason? Simply to pad their own pockets.
He’d turn on his computer and write patient charts before his first appointments started filing into the clinic at around 10 a.m. He often treated as many as 80 people in a 10-hour shift. Then, after he was done seeing patients for the day, he’d begin his other work. The work no one could find out about. The work that would destroy his life, along with hundreds of others.
At some point after teaming up with Otto, El-Azrak brought him a new proposal. In recent months, she’d developed a lucrative side hustle, dispensing fraudulent fentanyl scripts. She worked with a few other doctors, who would write the scripts and pass them to drug dealers, who would sell them on the street. He could earn as much as $9,000 per week if he came on as a primary partner. Otto, no stranger to gaming the system, quickly agreed.
In June 2015 alone, Otto took home $33,000 from the scheme. The cash helped pay for the extravagant life he’d set up for himself and his family. It kept his jacuzzi hot and his Lexus fuelled. He had no idea who was using those fentanyl patches in Sudbury, who was overdosing, who was dying. Those people were so far removed from the life he’d built that they didn’t matter to him at all.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (foreground L), his wife Asma visit the exhibition dedicated to French painter Claude Monet at the Grand Palais on December 11, 2010 in Paris at the end of their official visit in France. AFP PHOTO MIGUEL MEDINA (Photo credit should read MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images)
Asma Assad, wife of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, isn’t content to raise the kids while her husband oversees torture and violent attacks on his own citizens in a bid to squash a rebellion that has been ongoing for ten years. In this startling profile at 1843, Nicolas Pelham reveals that the London-born first lady of Syria has been ruthless in acquiring power, wealth, and influence at home with dubious “improvement” projects under a sham called the Syria Trust for Development, all while courting favor with the West, pretending to be someone other than a wife solely dedicated to her husband’s ongoing tyranny.
The UN gave up trying to count the war’s death toll in 2016, when it had already reached nearly half a million. More than 10m Syrians are refugees.
In the first year of the uprising she advertised for a gardener and spent £250,000 on furniture. To circumvent sanctions she sent her hairdresser shopping in Dubai and used an alias when ordering from Harrods.
As the war continued, Bashar became more ruthless. One Western diplomat recalls the slow escalation of violence – using artillery against civilians, then air raids, then barrel-bombs. “They would…use it once, there’d be an outcry, but not to the point of international intervention,” said the diplomat. “So they would roll it out, and that would become the new normal.” International condemnation of Bashar’s crimes grew, yet this incremental choking of Syria, rather than all-out attack, helped forestall intervention.
On August 21st 2013 new footage appeared, showing people in the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus with bubbles foaming at their noses and mouths, and their limbs jerking. Hundreds died. A UN investigation later confirmed that they had been killed by sarin, a nerve gas. It was the worst chemical-weapons attack anywhere since Saddam Hussein had gassed Kurds in Halabja in 1988.
The financial success and ruthless machinations have eroded Asma’s carefully cultivated image. “Some still love her, put her photo on their Instagram page. But most now perceive her as a sneaky greedy person,” said one Syrian businessman. These days, though, no one accuses Asma of failing to understand how Syria works.
Late last year residents of the Damascus neighbourhood where Asma lives noticed a surreal change in the landscape. An old statue depicting a lauded colonel was joined by a new one: a vast sculpture of a horse’s head, at the direction of Asma’s business associates. Locals complained about the extravagance. According to reports in Gulf newspapers, the authorities had the horse’s head removed. Hours later it was back. The message was clear: in post-war Syria, Asma calls the shots.
State media gives increasing air time to “the Lady of Jasmine”. Huge posters of her image have been spotted in her parents’ hometown of Homs, covering entire housing blocks. Uniquely for a Syrian First Lady, ministers have taken to displaying her portrait in their offices alongside Bashar’s.
In the ninth and final season of Seinfeld, there’s an episode called “The Apology.” It’s the one where Jerry dates a nudist named Melissa and distinctions are made between good naked (brushing hair) and bad naked (opening jars; crouching). The crux is that there’s something decidedly off-putting about the dispensation of effort. Good naked presumes an unguardedness, the rousing tenderness of a perceived vulnerability. It’s happening upon my partner asleep, his hair curling riotously against his brow. The quiet and warmth of small hours, bodies pressed upon each other as an eyelid flutters open.
Sheltering in place is bad naked. It is deeply and intensely unsexy watching your romantic interest cope. The constant exposure to less-than-telegenic micro-expressions. An intolerable aspect of yourself clocked in your spouse. The sweatpants. A cozy but misshapen “housecoat.” What a novel and alarmingly survivalist pathogen does to human aging when you’ve both just turned 40, that moment when everything slackens with an almost audible sigh of defeat.
But confronted by my husband’s unalloyed contempt that day in the park, when he told me I was weak for wanting to see my dying parents, I felt true intimacy for the first time in months. The admission was a tonic. It wasn’t just truthful. It was an advanced truth. It was not just bad naked. It was beyond naked. He’d called me weak because he hated me. And he hated me because he was scared.
Because good naked is a lie. The truth of my own hideousness is disgusting even to me. As unassailably repellent as the smell of an earring back. The ugliest parts of me revel in the craven parts of him. Because so far there are no conditions by which he doesn’t love me, no matter his reluctance.
At The Walrus, Lisa Whittington-Hill looks at how media has portrayed people with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) “as Type A clean freaks, Sheldon Cooper–like nerds, productivity machines, or eccentric weirdos.” With characteristic wit, Whittington-Hill says that these stereotypical portrayals betray the true experience of people with OCD. Pervasive, inaccurate stereotypes have allowed some to misuse the term to refer to someone who simply prefers organization over disorder. Think Monica Geller from Friends. Whittington-Hill says that living with OCD — a mental illness — exacts a far greater toll and for her, one that she pays by isolating from others.
The obsessions—the unbidden thoughts driving the compulsions—are comparatively less discussed. When I try to explain my OCD to people, they don’t understand the fears and anxieties that drive these compulsions or what the repeated actions are meant to accomplish. I don’t check taps because I am really into ornate faucet design. I do it because it is the only way to quiet my brain.
I once heard OCD described, very accurately, as a record skipping in your head. The checking routine I have before I leave my apartment can take anywhere from thirty minutes, on a very good day, to two hours, on a very bad one. There is a voice in my head that won’t go away, repeating: “You must check the fridge door to make sure it is closed, or the fridge will defrost. All your food will go bad and your kitchen will flood. It will destroy your apartment and the one below it.” I pray that my foot won’t hit the overflowing recycling bag in my kitchen that sits directly across from the fridge. If my foot hits it, it disrupts my very specific, everything-in-its-place checking routine, and I have to start all over again. Repeatedly checking the door helps to calm all the fears I have about what disasters could happen if the door were left open. These fears may seem irrational, even ridiculous, to others, but they are very real to me.
My OCD makes me feel like a bad friend, a bad coworker, and a bad daughter. I can’t show up places on time and I feel like I am always apologizing for being late. I can’t travel easily and I avoid doing so whenever I can. If I do have to travel, I start dreading it months in advance. My pre-leaving-my-apartment routine is nothing compared to my routine for leaving my apartment for a vacation. I often cancel plans so I can avoid having to leave my house at all—the thought of going through my checking is too exhausting to contemplate.
As a result, I isolate myself. I live in fear of people laughing at me, which they have. I avoid relationships because I can’t imagine someone staying at my house for a night. “Just go to bed. I’ll be there in a couple of hours, after I check the windows repeatedly to make sure they are closed because I am worried that, if they aren’t, someone will somehow scale the side of my building, climb three floors, cut the window screen, and enter the bedroom to kill us.”
Who’s in the mood for romance now?
I RECENTLY REALIZED that I went three months without using my stove, reasoning that, if I never turned it on, then I didn’t have to worry about checking it. If food needed to be heated, I microwaved it or used boiling water from a kettle, or else I didn’t eat it at all. That lasted until I began to think about checking the microwave and kettle, at which point I switched to sandwiches and cereal. My OCD has cost me so many moments and opportunities.