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Leslie Jamison: Does Recovery Kill Great Writing?

In this excerpt from her book, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, Leslie Jamison recalls how in the early days of recovery, she examined the work of newly-sober writers like John Berryman and Charles Jackson for clues about how sobriety would affect her as a writer. It wasn’t until she read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest that she found “proof that sober creativity was possible.”

But the truer story of my drinking is really a story about tedium, about claustrophobia and repetition. At a certain point, it started to expose itself as something that wasn’t revelry, that wasn’t about connection but isolation, that wasn’t about dark wisdom or metaphysical angst — that wasn’t about anything, really, besides the urge to get drunk, by myself, with no one watching.

The night of my first meeting, when I was 26 and desperate, I drove across the river to an address near the hospital, crying all the way across the Burlington Street Bridge, my tears streaking the streetlamps into bright white rain. It was almost Halloween: cobwebs on porches, hanging ghosts made from stuffed sheets, jack-o’-lanterns with their crooked grins. Being drunk was like having a candle lit inside you. I already missed it.

Once I got sober, I became more interested in the question of what little, as Berryman put it, could be said for sobriety. If addiction stories ran on the fuel of darkness — the hypnotic spiral of an ongoing, deepening crisis — then recovery often seemed like the narrative slack, the dull terrain of wellness, a tedious addendum to the riveting blaze. I wasn’t immune; I’d always been enthralled by stories of wreckage. But when I got sober, I wanted to know if stories about getting better could ever be as compelling as stories about falling apart. I needed to believe they could.

Over the years, I’d come to realize that many of my drunk icons had actually gotten sober eventually, or tried to, and I went looking for proof that recovery had not blunted or destroyed their creativity. It was like the desire the poet Eavan Boland confessed when she asked for poems with women who weren’t beautiful or young: “I want a poem/I can grow old in. I want a poem I can die in.” I wanted a story I could get sober in.

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The Baller Women of the Billiards Tour

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Despite the fact that women have been playing billiards since it became a hobby for European royals in the 15th century, they still have to endure cheap shots from men who can’t resist critiquing their game. At Topic, Megan Greenwell profiles the women ranging in age from their teens to their 70s playing in the eighth stop on the West Coast Women’s Tour for nine-ball billiards in Northern California.

Eleanor Callado—who cofounded the West Coast Women’s Tour with her twin sister Emilyn in the early 2000s, and is now an internationally ranked pro on the WPBA circuit—was introduced to the game by her father, as an eight-year-old growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Eight hours in to the first day of play, I get a firsthand glimpse at the annoyances that come with being a woman in the often-macho pool world. Only half of the tables in the room are being used for the tournament at this point, but Mata and several other eliminated players aren’t tired yet, so they’re playing friendly matches on the rest. A handful of men are milling around, irritated that there’s still no space for them. I am watching Callado dominate a match when a middle-aged man sidles up next to me and begins critiquing her form. “That was a very amateurish mistake,” he scoffs when she misses a bank shot.

I’m not the one he’s criticizing, and I’ve known Callado for all of a day, but I find myself fuming. “She’s an internationally ranked pro!” I snap. He’s taken aback, stammering something about how she’s not that highly ranked this year. After she reports her 8–2 win, I run up to tell Callado about the conversation as she purchases a celebratory beer. But, surprisingly, she’s not half as annoyed as I am; she rolls her eyes, but she’s laughing, too. She’ll go on to win the tournament fairly easily, but her real focus is on a pro event in Michigan a couple of weeks later. This is just for fun, and one ignorant guy isn’t going to stop her from having a good time. “That’s sort of the point of all this,” she says, gesturing around the room at the event she founded more than a decade ago. “I mean, how cool is it that you get all these women in a male-dominated sport and just get to pretend the men don’t exist for a weekend?”

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Homeward Bound: A Sea of Sexual Harassment in the Field of Science

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Homeward Bound is an Australian organization dedicated to helping women achieve leadership positions in the field of science, though ironically, the mentorship program has been plagued by the prevalence of sexual harassment during the program’s three-week long Antarctic voyage. Perhaps the worst part? Women who have reported concerns feel silenced by the organization. “Their belief is that Homeward Bound is not yet a safe space for women, even as it works toward making science more inclusive of them.” Read Eve Andrewspiece at Grist.

The women who wrote to me, all alumnae of Homeward Bound’s inaugural Antarctic voyage, alleged that, rather than working to remove barriers that stymie women scientists, the trip was plagued by them. They noted several instances of sexual harassment and bullying, and one participant alleged a disturbing episode of what she labeled “sexual coercion” at the hands of one of the ship’s crew. Much of that environment of hostility was perpetuated, they say, by Homeward Bound’s leadership and faculty.

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How Jerry and Marge Gamed the Lottery

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At the the Huffington Post Highline, Jason Fagone reports on how a dyslexic cereal box designer with a penchant for puzzles and patterns figured out a loophole in the Cash WinFall state lottery game, earning $27 million in gross profits playing the lottery over nine years in two states.

Looking for a little more Fagone in your life? Read an excerpt of his book, The Woman Who Smashed Codes and learn how “know-nothings” Elizebeth Smith Friedman and William F. Friedman became the greatest codebreakers of their era.

So perhaps it was only fitting that at age 64, Jerry found himself contemplating that most alluring of puzzles: the lottery. He was recently retired by then, living with Marge in a tiny town called Evart and wondering what to do with his time. After stopping in one morning at a convenience store he knew well, he picked up a brochure for a brand-new state lottery game. Studying the flyer later at his kitchen table, Jerry saw that it listed the odds of winning certain amounts of money by picking certain combinations of numbers.

That’s when it hit him. Right there, in the numbers on the page, he noticed a flaw—a strange and surprising pattern written into the fundamental machinery of the game that, like his cereal boxes long ago, revealed something no one else knew. A loophole that would eventually make Jerry and Marge millionaires, spark an investigation by a Boston Globe Spotlight reporter, unleash a statewide political scandal and expose more than a few hypocrisies at the heart of America’s favorite form of legalized gambling.

The last time Jerry and Marge played Cash WinFall was in January 2012. They’d had an incredible run: in the final tally, they had grossed nearly $27 million from nine years of playing the lottery in two states. They’d netted $7.75 million in profit before taxes, distributed among the players in GS Investment Strategies LLC.

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“My Sparkling Brain”: Dealing with Multiple Sclerosis at Age 27

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After getting diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, Meredith White comes to terms with the weight of knowing what that diagnosis brings, and the uncertainties of living in a body with an incurable degenerative disease. Read her essay at The Walrus.

One night, three months later, I slid into an mri machine, a little excited, a little bored, a little anxious. My primary fear was that I had some hidden and unknown piece of metal in me that the magnets in the machine would excite out of my body in a painful discovery. The machine switched on, nothing happened, and I exhaled. Nothing hidden, nothing mysterious. I settled in and lay as still as I could for the next forty-five minutes while the mri clanged, whirred, and clicked. To give myself something to think about, I recited poetry in my head. In what may be the best example of dramatic irony I will experience in my life, a poem by William Butler Yeats came to mind: “I have drunk ale from the Country of the Young / And weep because I know all things now…”

Yeats’s speaker has gained prophetic vision through sharing in the drink of the Country of the Young—the land of the immortals, in Irish myth. The speaker is undone by this knowledge of what is, and what is not, to come. He seems paradoxically shrunken, his life condensed to one miserable fact: that he will never be with the woman he loves. Knowledge of what is to come, Yeats suggests, will not spare you from the necessity of experience.

The vision in my right eye never fully returned. With both eyes open, I don’t notice this, but if I squint or wink or cover over my left eye, I am reminded that I carry this small neurological scar and that one day I might have more. I’ve wondered, struggling through a bout of debilitating fatigue, if the fog in my brain and the weight in my limbs might never lift and if this would mean I have to give up my ambition to do, to see, to write, to accomplish anything. I try to look straight at the future, but it dissolves, in my flawed vision, into a continuing mystery with a slight possibility, now, of bad things. A life can feel so small. But there is a contingency plan, phone numbers of the clinic to call if I need to. I take a deep breath. I remind myself that Socrates was wrong: there are many things beyond myself that are worth investigating in the meantime. There are so many activities worth doing with a belief in their certainty. When I go to work. When I see my friends tonight. When I finish this essay. When, when, when.

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But Where Will We Put Uncle Larry?

Veteran's National Cemetery indoor Columbarium. Flags adorn each service man and woman's marker in honor of the memory of the brave sacrifice made for their country. (Getty Images)

As religious rules around cremation have relaxed, more and more Americans are turning to cremation as a cost effective way to deal with the dead.

At Popular Mechanics, Caren Chesler tours Rosehill Cemetery’s crematorium and, in addition to learning about the process of cremation, she reports on how loved ones often struggle to deal with the cremains of family members. Not knowing where to store them, people put urns in closets, garages, and in storage — liminal spaces that place the dead out of sight and out of mind. Urns may be light enough to travel, but they’re often heavy with emotional baggage.

Rosehill, located about a half-hour from Manhattan, now cremates about 25 bodies a day, seven days a week, and has been expanding its facility to meet the growing demand. It already had three cremation machines, but bought an additional unit in 2013, another in 2016, and expects to have a sixth up and running by the end of the year

Altogether, it takes about an hour and a half to cremate a body, though that varies depending on the person’s weight and the type of casket they’re in. The time-consuming nature limits the number of bodies each can cremate. During my visit, all five of Rosehill’s machines were in various states of operation just to keep up with demand. Each needs to get five bodies done in eight hours. Rosehill’s cremation units run six days a week, standing idle only on Sundays.

That’s one of the advantages of cremation: You can address your emotional issues with the dead on your own terms. The disadvantage? Now you’re left with the remains, this small tangible object impressed with a whole different set of emotions. After Luke’s brother passed away, she picked up his ashes on the way home from work, as if it were just another weekday errand. The funeral home was on the way home, after all. “I was too stupid to ask someone else to pick (my brother) up, and had never done it before. I wasn’t prepared for how personal it would feel,” she said. “I threw my brother’s ashes in the trunk with a thump and cried all the way home.”

A few years later, when her stepfather passed, she couldn’t even bring herself to pick up the ashes, even as the funeral home kept calling. “I never spoke to them. I listened to one voicemail, politely reminding me to ‘come get your dad,’ It was the phrase, coupled with the fact ‘my dad’ was a bunch of ashes stuffed in a box, that just reminded me of that afternoon I picked up (my brother) Tom,” she said.

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How Much Would You Endure to Flee Persecution?

Since April 2016, more than two thousand Haitians have arrived in Tijuana to cross into the United States. They pose as Africans. They flee from the economic crisis in Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela, countries where they had obtained humanitarian asylum. Agencia EL UNIVERSAL/EVZ (GDA via AP Images)

What would you endure to find safety and security? Now that Europe has slammed its doors shut to migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Nigeria, just to name a few countries, many are attempting to enter the United States via a long, arduous journey that includes a treacherous jungle crossing.

At The New Republic, Lauren Markham reports on how, starting from Brazil — a country that offers visas to those from countries where Brazilians are allowed to travel freely — migrants travel north through Peru and Ecuador. In Columbia and Panama they must traverse the perilous Darién Gap, a 2,200-square-mile, road-free tropical forest that connects the two countries. The goal? To reach a Mexican border town from which to slip into the United States, where, if they’re caught, they could be detained for years.

They will have to give me protection,” Henok, an Eritrean man in his thirties, told me as we sipped juice at a café in Tapachula’s central square. “I cannot go back to Eritrea, so I know they will have to protect me in the United States.” It was a matter of human rights, he said.

“I know it won’t be easy,” Henok said, as if reading my mind about his rosy-eyed picture of what awaited him up north. “But in the U.S., I will get my papers, and I will be free.” The passage across oceans and trudging through continents would be worth it, he said. If he could make it through the Darién Gap, he could make it in the United States.

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Polar Exploration: The Story of Pain

Baffin Island, Canada. (Photo by Christopher Morris - Corbis/Getty Images)

Eva Holland attended Extreme Polar Training, a school that teaches how to survive what mother nature has to offer 2.5 degrees south of the Arctic Circle. In addition to treacherous, bruising ice, it includes temperatures of -40F and wind so cold and strong it gives you a headache before it tries to blow you over. For Outside, she recounts the experience and the final exam — a weeklong 40-mile loop in the frozen Canadian north.

Now Jonatan, Lin, and I had 72 hours to find our way back to town. To get there, we would have to ski across the ice in harnesses, towing heavy pulks—fancy sleds, basically—loaded with all the gear we needed to stay alive in extreme cold. We would have to navigate using all the tools at our disposal: compass, maps, sun, wind, and the sastrugi, lines carved into the snowpack by the prevailing northwest winds. We would melt snow for water, pitch our tent in gale-force gusts, eat and sleep and ski and piss and shit in temperatures as low as minus 40 Fahrenheit. And we would do it all while dodging dehydration, frostbite, hypothermia, injury, navigational error, loss of critical gear, fuel spills, a tent fire, and a good old-fashioned societal breakdown in our civilization of three.

I had winter-camped in extreme cold before: A year earlier, I spent my 34th birthday on a frozen lake, on a night that plunged to minus 29, part of a fat-biking expedition that was meant to simulate conditions at the South Pole. So I knew what it felt like to lie awake, shivering in an inadequate sleeping bag, too cold to sleep and almost too afraid to try. Now, as I slogged through deep snow and deeper darkness toward my tent, tripping and scraping my shins on chunks of broken ice concealed by fresh powder, I reminded myself that I had come here intending to suffer.

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Barbara Ehrenreich on Writing to Think

Journalist and author Barbara Ehrenreich. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

In Typing Practice, an excerpt from her book, Living with a Wild God, Barbara Ehrenreich reflects on keeping a notebook to make sense of growing up female in a dysfunctional family. The lessons she learned offer some hope for these trying times: “But there is another possible response to the unknown and potentially menacing, and that is thinking.” Granta has an excerpt:

I had discovered that writing – with whatever instrument – was a powerful aid to thinking, and thinking was what I now resolved to do. You can think without writing, of course, as most people do and have done throughout history, but if you can condense today’s thought into a few symbols preserved on a surface of some kind – paper or silicon – you don’t have to rethink it tomorrow. You can even give it a name like ‘yesterday’s thought’ or ‘the meaning of life’ and carry it along in your pocket like a token that can be traded in for ever greater abstractions. The reason I eventually became a writer is that writing makes thinking easier, and even as a verbally underdeveloped fourteen-year-old I knew that if I wanted to understand ‘the situation,’ thinking was what I had to do.

But there is another possible response to the unknown and potentially menacing, and that is thinking.

So this was the mental procedure, which even a little girl could learn: First, size up the situation. Make sure you have all the facts, and nothing but the facts – no folklore, no conventional wisdom, no lazy assumptions. Then examine the facts for patterns and connections. Make a prediction. See if it works. And if it doesn’t work, start all over again.

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Jimmy Buffet® Incorporated

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 08: Musician Jimmy Buffett helps open Box Office for "Escape To Margaritaville" on Broadway at Marquis Theatre on December 8, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)

The beach-bum version of Jimmy Buffett has become a huge brand® with financial interests in foodstuffs, hotels, casinos, and even adult living communities. Buffett is the original escapist who has long escaped his original slacker identity. A businessman wrapped in a Hawaiian shirt, he’s worth more money than Bruce Springsteen. (Not bad for a guy who only had one top ten song, compared to Springsteen, who has had 12.) Taffy Brodesser-Akner profiles Buffett for The New York Times.

Jimmy Buffett is not really Jimmy Buffett anymore. He hasn’t been for a while. Jimmy Buffett — the nibbling on sponge cake, watching the sun bake, getting drunk and screwing, it’s 5 o’clock somewhere Jimmy Buffett — has been replaced with a well-preserved businessman who is leveraging the Jimmy Buffett of yore in order to keep the Jimmy Buffett of now in the manner to which the old Jimmy Buffett never dreamed he could become accustomed. And therein lies the Margaritaville® Mesquite BBQ Rub: The more successful you become at selling the Jimmy Buffett lifestyle, the less you are seen as believably living the Jimmy Buffett lifestyle.

Mr. Buffett has given his fans a path to a simulacrum of the island life. In the course of it, he’s gotten very rich. How rich? According to Forbes, in 2016 Mr. Buffett, who has only had one Top 10 song (“Margaritaville” reached No. 8), was worth a reported $550 million. (Bruce Springsteen is worth a mere $460 million, according to that same list.)

To be Jimmy Buffett is to understand that the Jimmy Buffett lifestyle is one not simply of leisure, but of a leisure born of resistance to middle-class convention and upward mobility: We work too many long hours, we would rather be at a bar, we would rather be Gone Fishin’, our other car is a surfboard, our other coffee mug is a beer bottle, we would rather be lying on a beach, our skin the texture of Margaritaville® Sweet & Spicy chicken wings (recipe available online!). The Jimmy Buffett lifestyle shakes its fist at the Man even while, Jimmy Buffett, with his 5,000 employees, is basically now the Man. So he is stuck with a conundrum: How do you maintain a brand that is about being chill when it is maybe the least chill thing in the world to wake up in the grip of panic about your new multimillion-dollar musical?

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