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‘Something’s Got to Give’: Redux

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For the “Journeys” issue of Topic, Anna Holmes shares a reprint of a 1996 New York Times Magazine piece by Darcy Frey originally titled, “Something’s Got to Give.” The piece is a frenetic, testosterone-and-adrenaline-fueled ride-along with a fragile fraternity of New York air traffic controllers minding the busiest airspace in the United States. They’re charged with ensuring the safety of 7,000 flights per day using outdated and failing equipment while attempting to maintain their own sanity. “Every hour around here is 59 minutes of boredom and 1 of sheer terror.”

ALL THE WAY DOWN the bank of radar scopes, the air traffic controllers have that savage, bug-eyed look, like men on the verge of drowning, as they watch the computer blips proliferate and speak in frantic bursts of techno-chatter to the pilots: “Continental 1528, turn right heading 280 immediately! Traffic at your 12 o’clock!” A tightly wound Tom Zaccheo, one of the control- room veterans, sinks his teeth into his cuticles and turns, glowering, to the controller by his side: “Hey, watch your goddamned planes—you’re in my airspace!” Two scopes away, the normally unflappable Jim Hunter, his right leg pumping like a pneumatic drill, sucks down coffee and squints as blips representing 747s with 200 passengers on board simply vanish from his radar screen. “If the FAA doesn’t fix this goddamned equipment,” he fumes, retrieving the blips with his key pad, “it’s only a matter of time before there’s a catastrophe.” And Joe Jorge, a new trainee, scrambling to keep his jets safely separated in the crowded sky, is actually panting down at the end as he orders pilots to turn, climb, descend, speed up, slow down and look out the cockpit window, captain!

From the passenger seat of a moving airplane, the sky over New York City seems empty, serene, a limitless ocean of blue. But on a controller’s radar scope, it looks more like a six-lane highway at rush hour with everyone pushing 80. On the Sunday after Thanksgiving—usually the busiest air-travel day of the year—jets are barrelling toward Newark just 1,000 feet above the propeller planes landing at Teterboro. Newark departures streak up the west side of the Hudson River just as LaGuardia arrivals race down the east. And in the darkened operations room of the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control—the vast air traffic facility in Westbury, Long Island, that handles the airspace over New York City—the controllers curse and twitch like a gathering of Tourette sufferers, as they try to keep themselves from going down the pipes.

Then, for an instant, his mind wanders—don’t forget to pick up milk on the way home—and suddenly he looks back at the scope and it’s gone: no picture, no pattern, just a mad spray of blips (and more blips now than there were five seconds ago) heading—where? North or south? Climbing or descending? He can’t remember, and though he tries to catch up, he’s already behind, conflicts arising faster than he can react—one here, one there—jets streaking across the sky at 300 miles an hour, the controller’s stomach in knots because he knows he’s going down, nothing to do but leap from his chair, rip off his headset, and yell to his supervisor, “Get me out of here—I’m losing it!”

Sometimes it is the Federal Aviation Administration’s ancient equipment that messes with a controller’s head—a radar scope from the 1960s going dark with a dozen planes in the sky, or a dilapidated radio blowing out. A few years ago, a controller guiding ten jets in a great curving arc toward Newark suddenly lost his frequency just as he had to turn the pilots onto the final approach to the runway. Watching in helpless horror as his planes careered farther and farther off course, the controller rose from his chair with an animal scream, burst into a sweat, and began tearing off his shirt. By the time radio contact was reestablished—and the errant planes were reined in—the controller was quivering on the floor half naked, and was discharged on a medical leave until he could regain his wits.

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Why “Florida Man” Really Isn’t All that Funny

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It all started in 2012 in Miami, Florida when Rudy Eugene, high on bath salts, was shot dead on sight by police while attempting to consume Ronald Poppo’s face. Poppo barely survived, losing his nose and his eyeballs. What was it precisely that had started? As Logan Hill reports at the Washington Post Magazine, it was the Florida Man meme — a sometimes humorous, mostly pitiful, ongoing series of events in which Florida men are discovered in bizarre, often criminal circumstances. What the media coverage and the internet fails to report, however are the addiction and mental health issues that spark the strange behavior in the first place.

Since Florida Man was first defined on Twitter in 2013 as the “world’s worst superhero,” many men (and it’s almost always men) have assumed the mantle. He is a man of a thousand tattooed faces, a slapstick outlaw, an Internet-traffic gold mine, a cruel punchline, a beloved prankster, a human tragedy and, like some other love-hate American mascots, the subject of burgeoning controversy.

At its most comical, the Florida Man phenomenon encapsulates the wildness of both America and the Internet. At its most salacious, it’s a social-media update on the true-crime TV of “America’s Dumbest Criminals” and the gallows humor of tabloid headlines. At its most insensitive, Florida Man profits by punching down at the homeless, drug-addicted or mentally ill.

For Florida Man to evolve from the primordial swamp-gas of the Internet, the environmental conditions had to be just right. Florida is the third-most populous state, so it naturally has a lot of everything — good, bad and weird. The state’s sunshine laws, passed in 1967, make public records — mug shots, arrest reports, video evidence and 911 calls — available to anyone, with the ease of one-click shopping. Then there’s the state’s strange geography: swampland infested with alligators and pythons, the most sinkholes in the nation. As for law and order, the state counts about 2 million concealed weapons permits, 1.4 million felons, and “stand your ground” laws. Thanks to the temperate climate, there’s no offseason for criminals or pranksters or nudists. And, as local writers from Carl Hiaasen to Dave Barry to Lauren Groff have noted, the water table of weirdness is just naturally high in Florida. Strangeness seems to bubble to the surface.

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Protecting the Unicorns Beneath the Sea: The Secret Seahorse Colony of Long Beach

A Pacific seahorse in a red gorgonian sea fan. Getty Images.

Every five days for the past three years, Rog Hanson has driven two hours in the middle of the night to visit his colony of four Pacific seahorses, dubbed Bathsheba, Deep Blue, Daphne, and CD Street. As Deborah Netburn reports at the Los Angeles Times, the colony’s location in the waters off Long Beach, California is a guarded secret. Together, he and fellow seahorse enthusiast Ashley Arnold have spent hours upon hours under the sea observing and documenting the colony’s behavior and sharing what they learn with scientists. For him, it’s a calling he was drawn to after a close, very personal encounter with a whale; for her, diving is a way to do good and help manage the PTSD she has as a result of her military service.

If you get Hanson talking about his seahorses, he’ll tell you exactly how many times he’s seen them (997), who is dating whom, and describe their personalities with intimate familiarity. Bathsheba is stoic, Daphne a runner. Deep Blue is chill.

Hanson makes careful notes after all his dives in a colorful handmade log book he stores in a three-ring binder. On this Wednesday he dutifully records the water temperature (62 degrees), the length of the dive (58 minutes), the greatest depth (15 feet) and visibility (3 feet), as well as the precise location of each seahorse. His notes also include phase of the moon, the tidal currents and the strength of the UV rays.

“Scientists will tell you that sunlight is an important statistic to keep down,” he says.

He has given each of his four seahorses a unique logo that he draws with markers in his log book. Bathsheba’s is a purple star outlined in red, Daphne’s is a brown striped star in a yellow circle.

Now, Arnold and her boyfriend, Jake Fitzgerald, check in on the seahorses about once a week and help Roger rebuild the city he created for them.

“We call them our kids because we love them so much,” Arnold says.

Hanson and Arnold are very protective of their seahorse family. They tell visitors to remove GPS tags from their photos. They swear them to secrecy.

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How to Catch a Cyber Sextortionist

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While a student at Belmont High in Belmont, New Hampshire, Ryan Vallee — under the name of Seth Williamson — would initially befriend teen girls by texting them about their favorite ice cream or the name of their pets. They thought he was being sweet. He was after clues to their social network passwords. His aim? To hack their accounts in a bid to extort them for nude selfies. If he didn’t get what he wanted, his demands escalated.

The problem was that a lot of students were not reporting the behavior. They were trying to get through, heads down, not wanting to attract the wrong kind of attention. Seth’s victims seemed to share that trait. A girl named Mackenzie, who was harassed by Seth, told me that when she learned who a few of his other victims were, she realized that none were in the popular crowd. They were consigned to the insecure middle, where every misstep was perilous. Staying quiet seemed a reasonable choice.

As Stephanie Clifford reports at Wired, one by one, exasperated and terrified, the girls reported Seth Williamson to the police. When Raechel Moulton, Belmont’s only detective, realized she had a serial cyberstalker on her hands, she called in the Feds — who have far greater power to investigate cyberbullying than state officials. It was just a matter of sorting through his IP address trail before the sting took place.

RYAN VALLEE WASN’T one of the popular kids at Belmont High. But he had two advantages his victims did not. He was a boy, and therefore not as vulnerable to slut-shaming. And he understood how to harness technology to seem powerful, controlling and terrifying victims for years with only a smartphone and a computer.

This information was critical: It meant Vallee was back online, breaking the terms of his bail. Moreover, if agents could catch him with whatever device he was using, they would also have his browsing and messaging history. With evidence that strong, they could circumvent Vallee’s “some other dude” defense. The government got an order that required Facebook to deliver daily reports of IP addresses and login times for the M.M. Facebook page. Meanwhile, O’Neill took over Mackenzie’s Facebook. Copying the instant-messaging patois he learned from his teenage daughters, O’Neill posed as Mackenzie, alternately flirting, challenging, and being mad at him. “The more he talks, the more he logs in,” O’Neill said. “The more he logs in, we can identify where he is.”

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“Set Up For Failure”: How Iran Captured 10 US Sailors at Farsi Island

Riverine Command Boats (RCB) 802 and 805 participate in a bi-lateral exercise with Kuwait naval forces in the Arabian Gulf. Photo by US Navy via Sipa USA

Despite the United States Navy’s insistence that “U.S. Navy Forces deployed globally are ready in all respects,” ProPublica’s ongoing investigation into the Navy’s combat readiness has revealed otherwise.

In the latest installment, Megan Rose, Robert Faturechi, and T. Christian Miller report on how failures up and down the Navy’s chain of command, coupled with a toxic “can’t say no” leadership culture, contributed to 10 US sailors getting captured by Iran in January, 2016, after navigational and mechanical glitches put their ill-suited vessel into Iran’s territorial waters.

In the wake of the Farsi Island incident, the outlines of the Navy’s fumbles were widely reported. But ProPublica reconstructed the failed mission, and the Navy’s response to it, using hundreds of pages of previously unreported confidential Navy documents, including the accounts of sailors and officers up and down the chain of command. Those documents reveal that the 10 captured sailors were forced out on dangerous missions they were not prepared for. Their commanders repeatedly dismissed worries about deficiencies in manpower and expertise.

Foley spotted a blue flag atop one of the boats. He pulled out a Navy reference manual. The flag belonged to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Foley shouted that the men were Iranians.

Nartker was holding up a wrench and pointing at his engine to indicate to the Iranians that his boat was in need of repair.

Inside the engine room, Escobedo made quick work of the repairs on the water pump and then started up the engines. With each movement, the more maneuverable Iranian boats blocked him and the men aboard them racked their weapons. He could see them squeezing their triggers.

“Stop boat!” they yelled. “Stop boat!”

Nartker decided to ignore the shouting men.

“Go!” he yelled at Escobedo.

Escobedo believed that if he followed the order, the Iranians would begin firing. He thought the rounds would cut clean through their boat. Someone was going to get killed. Rather than gunning the boat, Escobedo simply looked at Nartker: “Sir.”

Nartker later told Navy investigators that he had considered grabbing his M4 assault rifle and trying to shoot his way out. But he thought that if he began shooting he could start a war. He had never received a briefing on the region from the Navy, but he had been reading The Economist magazine. He knew about the looming nuclear accord.

Nartker’s superior officers had ignored protests. They had assigned him a mission beyond the capabilities of the gunboats. And they ordered him to proceed, even knowing about the shoddy equipment and the late start.

It was wrong to punish him, when so many others shared responsibility. Nartker, Fuselier wrote, “was set up for failure.”

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MH370 Five Years Later: Will We Ever Know What Happened?

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - MARCH 03: Messages written on paper for passengers, onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 during a 5 Years of Remembrance for Malaysian Airlines MH370 event on March 3, 2019 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Photo by Mohd Samsul Mohd Said/Getty Images)

Three official investigations have failed to determine the probable cause behind the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370, a Boeing 777ER carrying 239 passengers and crew. Originating in Kuala Lampur on March 8, 2014, the flight was bound for Beijing, China.

As William Langewiesche reports in The Atlantic, what has been discovered to date is that the Malaysian government, concerned about a blemish to the reputation of their prestigious national airline, has been less than forthcoming about what they know about the crash — even to the point of deliberately allowing searchers to scour the ocean for debris in locations they knew were far from MH370’s final descent. The plane made a series of turns away from Beijing and flew for more than six hours before descending into the Indian Ocean at high speed after running out of fuel.

Perhaps the only saving grace is that it is believed that the passengers had all long since passed peacefully because someone had deliberately depressurized the aircraft. Was it a foreign government? Hijackers? Or was it a pilot with marriage problems who led an existence outside the cockpit described by people who knew him as “lonely and sad”?

Less than a week after the disappearance, The Wall Street Journal published the first report about the satellite transmissions, indicating that the airplane had most likely stayed aloft for hours after going silent. Malaysian officials eventually admitted that the account was true. The Malaysian regime was said to be one of the most corrupt in the region. It was also proving itself to be furtive, fearful, and unreliable in its investigation of the flight.

Accident investigators dispatched from Europe, Australia, and the United States were shocked by the disarray they encountered. Because the Malaysians withheld what they knew, the initial sea searches were concentrated in the wrong place—the South China Sea—and found no floating debris. Had the Malaysians told the truth right away, such debris might have been found and used to identify the airplane’s approximate location; the black boxes might have been recovered.

A close observer of the MH370 process said, “It became clear that the primary objective of the Malaysians was to make the subject just go away. From the start there was this instinctive bias against being open and transparent, not because they were hiding some deep, dark secret, but because they did not know where the truth really lay, and they were afraid that something might come out that would be embarrassing. Were they covering up? Yes. They were covering up for the unknown.”

The Malaysian report was seen as hardly more than a whitewash whose only real contribution was a frank description of the air-traffic-control failures—presumably because half of them could be blamed on the Vietnamese, and because the Malaysian controllers constituted the weakest local target, politically. The report was released in July 2018, more than four years after the event. It stated that the investigative team was unable to determine the cause of the airplane’s disappearance.

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Concealing a Catastrophe: ‘The Day the Music Burned’

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Back in 2008 when a backlot fire at Universal Studios Hollywood decimated a media vault containing music masters and film archives, the “UMG spokesperson pushed back against the idea that thousands of masters were destroyed with a more definitive denial: ‘We had no loss.'”

As Jody Rosen reports at the New York Times Magazine, this is “pure spin.” The fire consumed music masters for original recordings from the likes of Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry to Guns N’ Roses, Nine Inch Nails, and Nirvana. “The archive in Building 6197 was UMG’s main West Coast storehouse of masters, the original recordings from which all subsequent copies are derived. A master is a one-of-a-kind artifact, the irreplaceable primary source of a piece of recorded music. ”

Rosen maintains that as music industry labels continue to consolidate — “most commercial recordings from the past century-plus are controlled by three gigantic record companies: UMG, Sony and Warner Music Group” — these giant companies bear a critically important responsibility to store and most importantly preserve and protect the irreplaceable musical treasures, by huge names and little-known artists alike, stored in their vaults.

“Sonically, masters can be stunning in their capturing of an event in time. Every copy thereafter is a sonic step away.”

The fire most likely claimed most of Chuck Berry’s Chess masters and multitrack masters, a body of work that constitutes Berry’s greatest recordings. The destroyed Chess masters encompassed nearly everything else recorded for the label and its subsidiaries, including most of the Chess output of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, Etta James, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy and Little Walter. Also very likely lost were master tapes of the first commercially released material by Aretha Franklin…”

The list of destroyed single and album masters takes in titles by dozens of legendary artists, a genre-spanning who’s who of 20th- and 21st-century popular music. It includes recordings by Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, the Andrews Sisters, the Ink Spots, the Mills Brothers, Lionel Hampton, Ray Charles, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Clara Ward, Sammy Davis Jr., Les Paul, Fats Domino, Big Mama Thornton, Burl Ives, the Weavers, Kitty Wells, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Bobby (Blue) Bland, B.B. King, Ike Turner, the Four Tops, Quincy Jones, Burt Bacharach, Joan Baez, Neil Diamond, Sonny and Cher, the Mamas and the Papas, Joni Mitchell, Captain Beefheart, Cat Stevens, the Carpenters, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Al Green, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Elton John, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffett, the Eagles, Don Henley, Aerosmith, Steely Dan, Iggy Pop, Rufus and Chaka Khan, Barry White, Patti LaBelle, Yoko Ono, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Police, Sting, George Strait, Steve Earle, R.E.M., Janet Jackson, Eric B. and Rakim, New Edition, Bobby Brown, Guns N’ Roses, Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, Sonic Youth, No Doubt, Nine Inch Nails, Snoop Dogg, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Hole, Beck, Sheryl Crow, Tupac Shakur, Eminem, 50 Cent and the Roots.

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Purplesaurus Rex Kool-Aid for $195 a Packet? Oh Yeah!

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Perhaps you too quenched your childhood thirst from a sweating jug of Kool-Aid in the heat of summer. Inexpensive and easy to make, with flavors like “Yabba-Dabba-Doo Berry” or “Pink Swimmingo,” it was a staple in my family’s kitchen in the ’70s and ’80s. At The Takeout, Will Hodge reports on a special breed: the Kool-Aid packet collector, people so dedicated to the drink and the nostalgia surrounding it, that they’ll pay hundreds of dollars to add a coveted packet to their collection.

Kool-Aid was first conceived in the late 1920s by entrepreneurial inventor Edwin Perkins as primarily a means to save money. At the time, one of the top sellers in his catalog of household goods was Fruit-Smack, a fruit-flavored liquid concentrate housed in four-ounce glass bottles. In an effort to reduce shipping cost and eliminate breakage losses, Perkins developed a powdered version that could be sold in small envelopes.

His “Kool-Ade” debuted in 1927 (the name was officially tweaked to “Kool-Aid” about seven years later), with a variety of flavor envelopes promising to generate 10 drinks for only 10 cents. Kool-Aid’s cultural entrenchment started almost immediately. Shortly after its creation, the Great Depression hit and Perkins cut the price of his product in half. Yet even at just five cents an envelope, Kool-Aid was generating over $1.5 million in annual net sales by the mid-1930s.

It’s not just the nostalgia or artwork that demarcate some of the more sought-after packets, as some of the smallest-production runs have been devoted to playful gimmicks and promotional tie-ins. If you want your Kool-Aid spiked with a smattering of knock-off Pop Rocks, Cracker Cherry was there for you in the summer of 1991. If you want some color-changing shenanigans, both original and reissue versions of Great Bluedini change from a green powder to a blue liquid. If you celebrated Halloween in Canada in 1996, then you may have found the doubly exclusive (both holiday and regional) flavors of Scary Black Cherry and Eerie Orange dropped in your trick-or-treat bucket. If you’re looking for a Fred Flinstone-emblazoned packet of Yabba-Dabba-Doo Berry or Bedrock Orange, they were only available inside specially-marked boxes of Fruity Pebbles cereal in 1988. If you were a part of the “Biscuit ‘N Gravy Birthday Bunch” at participating Bob Evans restaurants in the mid-‘90s, you may have been gifted an exclusive packet of Cherry with Nickelodeon’s Stick Stickly on it or a Lemonade with Bob Evans furry mascots Biscuit ‘N Gravy on it. (I can only hope that Kool-Aid tried at least once or twice to concoct some version of biscuit-and-gravy-flavored drink).

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The Money Man to the Filthy Rich of the NBA

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NBA players are the best paid athletes in sports — making tens of millions and sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars over a single contract. Heck, the league average salary is $10 million per season. But all that scratch won’t last a lifetime if you don’t manage it well. At the New York Times, Devin Gordon profiles Joe McLean, a guy who almost made the NBA and has since made his living offering white glove concierge services and financial counseling to some of the wealthiest players on the court.

Mr. McLean doesn’t negotiate his clients’ deals — he’s not an agent. His job is to grow every dollar that comes in and track every dollar that goes out. He’s part investor, part butler, a C.F.O. and a golf buddy, a sports therapist and, when necessary, the disapproving dad. When the explosive power forward Aaron Gordon got his first big contract last summer ($84 million), Mr. McLean warned him that “with great abundance comes great discipline.”

Last summer, after Mr. Gordon signed his $84 million deal, he bought a house and was immediately confronted with all kinds of mundane homeowner questions for which he had no answers. Such as: How much should it cost to mow my lawn?

“The first couple people that came to the property were sending these invoices trying to charge $4,000 to $5,000 a week to cut grass and do some power washing,” Mr. McLean said. Mr. Gordon has a big house, but not that big — it should have cost around $500. “So I’ve got to go back to Orlando and get people that we trust on the property. I’ve got to speak to everyone that goes near it, because they’re all signing N.D.A.s.

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Sing a Song of Hope: ‘Everything will be all right’

Nathalie Bajinya of the Tacoma Refugee Choir. (Matt Driscoll/The News Tribune via AP)

At Seattle Met, James Ross Gardner profiles the Tacoma Refugee Choir, a choral group with many who have fled war and conflict in places like Africa and Ukraine in a bid to find a new life in America. In the choir, they’re not only composing their own songs, they’re building a network and a community.

“We walked…for like two weeks,” she would later recall, so much walking her shoes turned to shreds. The lullabies and hymns she learned from her mother buoyed her. When those ran out Nathalie made up her own. Humming, composing, singing—she pressed on.

Ahead lie Uganda, then Kenya, where she would live on the streets before taking up residence at a series of orphanages. And beyond that, a world away, a life she could not yet imagine, in a city on Puget Sound, waiting to hear her song.

She heard about the choir while studying for her U.S. citizenship exam. A choir for refugees? she thought. That’s me. She showed up for her first rehearsal in January 2018. Her arrival coincided with some good news for the choir. Weeks earlier, the city council voted unanimously to grant $20,000 to help fund the choir’s 2018 season.

When Nathalie got to the one about her orphan friend—the Ethiopian two-year-old back at St. Monica in Nairobi—and the song Nathalie sang to soothe her, she piped a few lyrics.

Here came that opening m like a hum. The short o. “Maaambo, sawa, sawa. Maaambo, sawa, sawa.” Her eyes closed as she sang, her voice filling the shop. “That means… ’Everything will be all right,’” she explained.

Erin had never heard the song before. Hours later it would enter the choir’s repertoire. During rehearsal that night, at Erin’s direction, Nathalie would convene with a few other Swahili speakers in the group and type out the lyrics to be projected on a wall. Soon everyone would be fitting their mouths around these new words. And Nathalie would introduce a dance. Five steps to the right, kick. Five steps to the left, kick. Five forward, kick. And the following week—with Erin away and Mariia Pozhar of Ukraine conducting—Nathalie, in a loose purple- and white-dyed dress, would lead them all through it again. “Maaambo, sawa, sawa.” Kick. “Maaambo, sawa, sawa.” Kick. As they moved the choir members would brush against one another so closely they’d practically be holding each other up.

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