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‘She changed my heart. And that changed my mind.’

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At 33, Tabitha Blankenbiller believed she didn’t want any children, until — unexpectedly — she became pregnant. In this essay at Salon, Blankenbiller considers how the simple existence of her unborn child changed her perspective on motherhood and life, causing her to reconsider choices and beliefs, only to discover that just when she’d decided that this particular lemon would make great lemonade, sometimes life decides for you.

Think of how many passages you breach in a day. The driver’s door to your car. The turnstile of your favorite park. The impatient elevators of your building. The generous slide of the grocery store’s glass. Out of the bedroom, into the living room. One side of the tunnel, out the other. Hundreds of transitions switching backdrops, edging us forward in the routine, the occasional fresh adventure.

One in ten thousand will bookend us. We will pass through as one thing and emerge another. It will mark our Before and After. That day at work, I entered the single stall private bathroom as a drama queen clutching her pearls over a period missing for a scant blip of a week to take a test she’d managed to skip for an entire adult lifetime of horror stories and marriage and college, and then grad school bad jobs and dream vacations, first essay published and first book released, canning and handwriting and Thai cooking lessons, 40 pounds up and down five times over.

I peed on the stick, then set it on the counter while I played a game of Disney Emoji Blitz on my phone. The timer cut in for my three minutes, and I tilted the test toward me to discover the faintest line severing the woman I knew into another.

This was impossible. I took a picture in a haze and sent it to my best friend Charlotte, a parent of two.

Holy shit yeah, that is pregnant, she confirmed.

We weave hypotheticals of our lives, speaking over one another to announce what we’d do if it were us. We make lists, connections, promises. For 33 years I ran the simulation in my head of that improbable second line, and decided each time, without fail, that I did not want a child. I believed they were too expensive. I believed my life was already fulfilling and content. I believed that not all women should be mothers. I believed that the capacity and consumption of our species is unsustainable on this planet, and that some flavor of doom is inevitable. I believed that abortion is healthcare, a procedure that does not require an explanation to receive. I believed that a zygote is not a person, and a four-week-old clump of cells is a precursor to human life.

All of these convictions are still accurate. I stand by each one.

But there is the question, what would you do, and there is what happens when a sudden, impending new reality forks your life in two. Our hearts are a vast trove of too many secret reactions and desires to discover in a lifetime. And what I realized about myself is this: that I cannot name a time I have been happier than standing in our backyard gripping the back of the patio chair, demanding that Matt needed to listen to me.

“We have to keep it. I love her already.”

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Why Murder-Suicide is on the Rise Among the Elderly

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After a bout with cancer and several strokes that eliminated her quality of life, Becky Benight had had enough. She wanted to die on her own terms. Confessing her wishes to her husband Philip, he sprung her from nursing home hell in a bid for freedom; they made a pact to end their own lives to stop their chronic suffering. Everything went along according to plan until Philip woke up from his coma to discover that not only had Becky died, he’d been charged with her murder.

In this piece at Harper’s Magazine, Ann Neumann reports that mercy killings and murder-suicides are becoming more and more common in an aging society where getting old means ill health and industrial “care” in drab, expensive, privacy-free, for-profit nursing facilities that warehouse the elderly until they expire, all while collecting hefty fees for the service.

When Philip Benight awoke on January 26, 2017, he saw a bright glow. “Son of a bitch, there is a light,” he thought. He hoped it meant he had died. His mind turned to his wife, Becky: “Where are you?” he thought. “We have to go to the light.” He hoped Becky had died, too. Then he lost consciousness. When he opened his eyes again, Philip realized he wasn’t seeing heaven but overhead fluorescents at Lancaster General Hospital. He was on a hospital bed, with his arms restrained and a tube down his throat, surrounded by staff telling him to relax. He passed out again. The next time he came to, his arms and legs were free, but a drugged heaviness made it hard to move. A nurse told him that his wife was at another hospital—“for her safety”—even though she was also at Lancaster General. Soon after, two police officers arrived. They wanted to know why Becky was in a coma.

Three days earlier, Philip, who was sixty, tall and lanky, with owlish glasses and mustache, had picked up his wife from an HCR ­ManorCare nursing home. Becky had been admitted to the facility recently at the age of seventy-­two after yet another series of strokes. They drove to Darrenkamp’s grocery store and Philip bought their dinner, a special turkey sandwich for Becky, with the meat shaved extra thin. They ate in the car. Then, like every other night, they got ice cream from Burger King and drove to their home in Conestoga, a sparse hamlet in southern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Philip parked in the driveway, and they sat in the car looking out at the fields that roll down to the Susquehanna River.

They listened to the radio until there was nothing more to do. Philip went into the house and retrieved a container of Kraft vanilla pudding, which he’d mixed with all the drugs he could find in the house—Valium, Klonopin, Percocet, and so on. He opened the passenger-­side door and knelt beside Becky. He held a spoon, and she guided it to her mouth. When Becky had eaten all the pudding, he got back into the driver’s seat and swallowed a handful of pills. Philip asked her how the pudding tasted. “Like freedom,” she said. As they lost consciousness, the winter chill seeped into their clothes and skin.

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Tommy Tomlinson: The Weight I Carry

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In a piece at The Atlantic adapted from his forthcoming book, The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America, Tommy Tomlinson shares the physical and emotional costs of weighing 460 lbs, the emotions that drive him to eat, and the uplifting litany of activities he looks forward to doing as he loses weight.

“Eat less and exercise.”

That’s what some of you are saying right now. That’s what some of you have said the whole time you’ve been reading. That’s what some of you say—maybe not out loud, but you say it—every time you see a fat person downing fried eggs in a diner, or overstuffing a bathing suit on the beach, or staring out from one of those good-lord-what-happened-to-her? stories in the gossip magazines.

“Eat less and exercise.”

What I want you to understand, more than anything else, is that telling a fat person “Eat less and exercise” is like telling a boxer “Don’t get hit.”

You act as if there’s not an opponent.

Losing weight is a fucking rock fight. The enemies come from all sides: The deluge of marketing telling us to eat worse and eat more. The culture that has turned food into one of the last acceptable vices. Our families and friends, who want us to share in their pleasure. Our own body chemistry, dragging us back to the table out of fear that we’ll starve.

On top of all that, some of us fight holes in our souls that a boxcar of donuts couldn’t fill.

My compulsion to eat comes from all those places. I’m almost never hungry in the physical sense. But I’m always craving an emotional high, the kind that comes from making love, or being in the crowd for great live music, or watching the sun come up over the ocean. And I’m always wanting something to counter the low, when I’m anxious about work or arguing with family or depressed for reasons I can’t understand.

There’s a boat I want the man inside me to put in a lake. Daddy’s johnboat lives in our backyard. It’s green aluminum and still has its Georgia registration number on the side. When I was a kid, we hauled a thousand catfish over the side of that boat. Daddy died in 1990, and the boat hasn’t been in the water since way before then. I’ve always been afraid that I’m so big, I’d tip it over. It needs a drain plug and a little love. But it’s still strong enough to hold a normal-sized man, and maybe his beautiful wife.

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On Alcoholism, Sobriety, and Running Toward a Future

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In this moving essay at Broadly, Robyn Kanner reflects on achieving 90 days of sobriety at the end of 2018. After realizing that alcohol was not helping her cope with her personal sadnesses and professional disappointments and that everything wasn’t at all fine, she decided to make a change and went for a run. Seeing the beautiful minutia of others’ lives helped inspire her to get to AA, get a sponsor, and above all, stay sober.

On these first head-clearing runs, I started to understand how everything got so bad: Every drink that I had was a result of a resentment paired with the fear it stemmed from: I have resentment at my father because I fear that one day, I’ll also die from multiple sclerosis. I fear that he never got the chance to teach me the things he needed to. I fear that I’ll always push people away when life gets too hard, like he did. I resent my design work because I fear that it doesn’t have a huge impact on the world—that I could have made something better. I’m tethered to my emotions in sobriety now, all of the time. All the bad parts of me are crystal-clear, and the shame makes me grimace in frustration, but I know I owe it to myself to move forward. I do my best to do that keeping a strict routine of running and 12-step meetings.

On a celebratory post-run call with my sponsor, I was quick to share all the gold I feel. She appreciated my enthusiasm, but reminded me that I’m an alcoholic with an incurable disease. My euphoria shifted as I told her all the little secrets I used to keep—how I handled my hangovers by hanging my head low to avoid eye contact, how I still miss the way bourbon burned down my throat on winter nights, and how I’m afraid I won’t stay sober forever. There was a quiet moment. She understood. She told me how she misses the way wine swirled around a long-stemmed glass at dinner with friends—that no one sober knows if they’re going to be sober forever. It was a forgiving moment, and it humbled me.

Kids were playing outside on a frigid December morning when I took my last run of 2018. My father visited me on that run, as he sometimes does now. Long before any drink, I was a kid who wanted to hang out with her dad. He’s been gone a long while, but our relationship continues to evolve. He’s my higher power now, and I call upon him to help me. I drank to keep the sadness of his death away. In sobriety, he’s here to keep me grounded. Thoughts of him move my life forward instead of back. I sleep better—more gently. His presence keeps me sober, alive, and running.

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On the Books We Choose and Those We Don’t

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In this moving essay at LitHub, Steve Edwards reflects on how his reading life, specifically the books he chose and also the books he didn’t choose, has changed him over the years as a writer and as a person.

In my twenties the question was never “What do I want to read?” but rather “Who do I want to be?”—and bookstores were shrines I pilgrimaged to for answers. I didn’t have much money and had to be intentional in my selections. I’d pull a book from the shelf and study its cover, smell its pages, wander into the weather of its first lines and imagine the storms to come—imagine a wiser, wilder me for having been swept away by them. It’s something I still feel in my forties. I’m still dazzled by possibilities when I walk into a bookstore.

But it’s not the same.

Now when I wander the aisles, it’s not just some future self I imagine but a past one. There aren’t just books to read but books I’ve already read. Lives I’ve lived. Hopes abandoned. Dreams deferred. The bookstore is still a shrine but more and more what I find aren’t answers to questions but my own unwritten histories.

Choosing is always a sweet sorrow. I don’t mean to lament that fact only to point out that, as with rivers, you never step into the same bookstore twice. And while I remain dazzled by the promise and possibility bookstores offer, I’ve found myself becoming somewhat apprehensive of them. Who needs the reminder of all you never were? Or of all you were but won’t ever be again? At 44 I feel a pressure that wasn’t there in my twenties.

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Evidence Over Intelligence: How Robert Mueller Sought Justice for Pan Am Flight 103

On Dec. 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 from London's Heathrow International Airport to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport was destroyed and the remains landed in and around the town of Lockerbie, Scotland. Forensic experts determined that plastic explosive had been detonated in the Boeing 747-121 forward cargo hold. The death toll was 270 people from 21 countries, including 11 people in the town of Lockerbie. (AP Photo)

Today, Robert Mueller heads the investigation into Russian collusion in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. At Wired, Garrett M. Graff reports on one of Mueller’s perhaps lesser-known but nonetheless fascinating and insightful previous assignments: at one time, Mueller oversaw the U.S.’ investigation into the bombing of Pan Am flight 103.

The bombing, which took place over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988, was the first act of terrorism against U.S. civil aviation. To this day it remains “the largest crime scene ever investigated” and revealed how woefully unprepared the FBI and the U.S. government were to respond to the families of terror victims.

The time on the clocks in Lockerbie, Scotland, read 7:04 pm, on December 21, 1988, when the first emergency call came into the local fire brigade, reporting what sounded like a massive boiler explosion.

Soon it became clear something much worse than a boiler explosion had unfolded: Fiery debris pounded the landscape, plunging from the sky and killing 11 Lockerbie residents. As Mike Carnahan told a local TV reporter, “The whole sky was lit up with flames. It was actually raining, liquid fire. You could see several houses on the skyline with the roofs totally off and all you could see was flaming timbers.”

At 8:45 pm, a farmer found in his field the cockpit of Pan Am 103, a Boeing 747 known as Clipper Maid of the Seas, lying on its side, 15 of its crew dead inside, just some of the 259 passengers and crew killed when a bomb had exploded inside the plane’s cargo hold.

It had taken just three seconds for the plane to disintegrate in the air, though the wreckage took three long minutes to fall the five miles from the sky to the earth; court testimony later would examine how passengers had still been alive as they fell. Nearly 200 of the passengers were American, including 35 students from Syracuse University returning home from a semester abroad. The attack horrified America, which until then had seen terror touch its shores only occasionally as a hijacking went awry; while the US had weathered the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, attacks almost never targeted civilians.

The Pan Am 103 bombing seemed squarely aimed at the US, hitting one of its most iconic brands. Pan Am then represented America’s global reach in a way few companies did…

The bombing soon became one of the top cases on Mueller’s desk. He met regularly with Richard Marquise, the FBI special agent heading Scotbom. For Mueller, the case became personal; he met with victims’ families and toured the Lockerbie crash site and the investigation’s headquarters. He traveled repeatedly to the United Kingdom for meetings and walked the fields of Lockerbie himself.

The Scotbom case would leave a deep imprint on Mueller; one of his first actions as FBI director was to recruit Kathryn Turman, who had served as the liaison to the Pan Am 103 victim families during the trial, to head the FBI’s Victim Services Division, helping to elevate the role and responsibility of the FBI in dealing with crime victims.

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The Curious Case of Justin Alexander: Adventure Tourist or Murder Victim?

Landscape view near the river between Manali to Leh Ladakh in India. Getty Images.

The Parvati Valley in the Indian Himalaya — known for its overwhelming beauty — calls to those who want to shed their possessions as part of a quest for spiritual enlightenment. As Harley Rustad reports at Outside, it’s also known for a plethora of missing and (presumably murdered) Western adventure tourists.

But beneath Alexander’s glamorous tales was a person searching for higher meaning, sometimes at the expense of sensibility.

In December 2013, at age 32, Alexander announced his retirement. Disenchanted and restless, he sold the majority of his belongings, packed a backpack, and took off. In the first post on his travel blog, Adventures of Justin, he wrote: “I am running from a life that isn’t authentic…I’m running away from monotony and towards novelty; towards wonder, awe, and the things that make me feel vibrantly alive.” He spent the next two-and-a half years on the road, backpacking through South America and Asia, and driving his motorcycle around the United States.

On the surface, Alexander embodied the “I quit my job to travel” trope, and he amassed a horde of followers—more than 11,000 on his Instagram account alone. Many gravitated to his stories of climbing the Brooklyn Bridge at night, partaking in a shamanistic ritual in Brazil, undertaking a monk’s initiation ceremony in Thailand, and helping build a school in earthquake-wracked Nepal in the spring of 2016. Others were drawn to what his adventures represented: Alexander was minimalist but not rejectionist. His smartphone didn’t disgust him; it enabled him to tell his story. And his path appeared to be one not of disassociation but of action, as if he were the protagonist in his own epic novel…He once said that his life was about “walking that razor’s edge” between living in modern society and a free existence.

However Alexander’s journey ended, something happened at Mantalai Lake. In the September 3 photograph taken by the hikers, Alexander is wrapped in his gray shawl. He appears calm and stoic. Maybe Alexander’s realization wasn’t about himself but about the man he trusted to guide him—that he came to see the holy man as a fraud, unable to offer what he sought. It’s possible Alexander found what he was looking for: a dreamlike revelation while sitting near the source of a holy river, listening to the minute motions of nature, that showed him the way forward. Or maybe at the end of the trail, he found nothing; that the harder he tried, the more it felt like he was grasping at mist—chasing tendrils higher and higher into the mountains.

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‘I Don’t Know What Else to Do. So I Run.’

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In this poignant piece for Outside, longtime runner Christopher Solomon considers loss and the body’s inevitable decline as he recounts how his father helped him fall in love with running, what running has meant to him over the decades, and the injury that stands between him, daily roadwork, and the peace and joy that it can bring.

And when the Colonel decided that his three children should also love running, it was more decree than suggestion. Other neighborhood kids had to take out the trash for their allowance; my sisters and I ran for ours.

The conventions of memoir dictate that we must have hated our father for this—our own Great Santini. But my sisters and I adored him, and we adored running. I grew up an eager if unexceptional athlete; my medal haul from years of competition would not fill a soap dish. Those early decades of running shaped me, though. At day’s end in college and then later, as a young writer, I laced up. Having run almost every day since childhood, I rarely found the act too unpleasant, even when I was pushing along at a decent clip. On these runs, something curious always happened by the 18th minute. The ragged bellows in my chest grew less insistent. The chaos of arms and legs settled into a rhythm. Thoughts from the day—­current arguments, past heartaches, the sentences that resisted being pinned to the page—drifted past as if on a conveyor belt. I reached out and picked up each in turn, considering it from different angles.

These runs rarely produced thunderbolts of insight. But by the time I got home, with streetlamps flickering to life, my brainpan had been rinsed. The world felt possible again. For me, these runs were almost like dreaming.

When the wheels start coming off an athlete’s chassis at middle age, the big surprise isn’t that it happens. It’s that you, me—we—barreled along so blindly for so long, not seeing that the road ahead was really a narrowing one-way street.

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The Overdose Video: America’s Latest Genre of Horror Film

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Drug addicted people passed out, actively overdosing, have recently become the subject of police and amateur videographers in America. The lurid footage — often including the children of the drug addicted for heightened effect — gets posted on YouTube and other social media channels and naturally invites the cruel, nasty, mean-spirited comments you’d expect from an anonymous online mob ready to judge without even a cursory understanding of who the user is or what they’ve endured thus far.

Capturing video of someone at the worst possible moment of their lives sure seems like a gross indignity and invasion of privacy, and as Katharine Q. Seelye, Julie Turkewitz, Jack Healy, and Alan Blinder report at the New York Times, the public shaming and humiliation has had mixed results in encouraging the drug addicted to get help and get clean. The videos do have one lasting effect: a source of shame users’ children will have to endure for the rest of their lives.

In Lawrence, Mass., a former mill town at the heart of New England’s opioid crisis, the police chief released a particularly gut-wrenching video. It showed a mother who had collapsed from a fentanyl overdose sprawled out in the toy aisle of a Family Dollar while her sobbing 2-year-old daughter tugged at her arm.

“It’s heartbreaking,” James Fitzpatrick, who was the Lawrence police chief at the time, told reporters in September 2016. “This is definitely evidence that shows what addiction can do to someone.”

Mandy McGowan, 38, knows that. She was the mother unconscious in that video, the woman who became known as the “Dollar Store Junkie.” But she said the video showed only a few terrible frames of a complicated life.

Ms. McGowan had only seen snippets of the video on the news. But two months later, she watched the whole thing. She felt sick with regret.

“I see it, and I’m like, I was a piece of freaking [expletive],” she said. “That was me in active use. It’s not who I am today.”

But she also wondered: Why didn’t anyone help her daughter? She was furious that bystanders seemed to feel they had license to gawk and record instead of comforting her screaming child.

“I know what I did, and I can’t change it,” she said. “I live with that guilt every single day. But it’s also wrong to take video and not help.”

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The Portrait of the Artist as a Criminal

This combination of June 2017 file booking photo shows Max Harris, left, and Derick Almena, at Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, Calif. (Alameda County Sheriff's Office via AP, File)

A charismatic yet abusive and manipulative guru, derelict building owners who allowed habitation in a warehouse with wiring described as “grossly unsafe,” and an underfunded, mismanaged fire department all contributed to a fire at Satya Yuga, also known as the Ghost Ship, an art collective that was the scene of “the most deadly structure fire in the United States since 100 people died in the Station nightclub in Rhode Island in 2003.” But who’s taking the blame? Who’s incarcerated? Not the building owners. Not the fire chief. Not the electric company. Not the city of Oakland, California. Rather, as Elizabeth Weil reports at the The New York Times Magazine, it’s Derick Almena the charismatic guru, and also, inexplicably the second man taking the rap is a kind yet hapless vegan artist named Max Harris who first discovered the fire and attempted to put it out before it got out of control.

Yet life can be cruel, and even a person striving toward right thought can set off cascades of events that go incomprehensibly awry.

Satya Yuga had its own logic. You had to tolerate people playing music at all hours of the night. You had to not use your toaster and your teakettle at the same time because the electricity was channeled from Custom O’s auto shop to the warehouse and then dispersed through a complex river system of wiring and extension cords. You had to work on your own art, collaborate with the other members of the collective and also help build the living, breathing art installation that was the warehouse itself. The mock contract people signed upon joining the collective had only one condition: “Be Unconditionally Awesome.”

Around 11:20 p.m., Harris decided to leave his post at the door to go inside Ghost Ship to use the bathroom. As he entered the building, he noticed the light looked strange — a glow on the ceiling. He ran to his studio and grabbed a fire extinguisher. But by the time he returned, eight or 10 seconds later, the fire was out of control. At 11:23 p.m., Carmen Brito, the potter and substitute teacher, who lived in the back of the warehouse, woke up in a room filled with smoke and called 911. Upstairs, as fire rose through the baseboards, people started shrieking, pleading, streaming down the strange staircase.

As details began to emerge, the fire was not understood as an isolated, idiosyncratic catastrophe. It was understood as the product of civic and societal failings. In the years leading up to the fire, the Oakland Fire Department had been chronically underfunded, understaffed and mismanaged. Between 2011 and 2015, the department employed neither a fire marshal nor an assistant fire marshal — and it is the fire marshal’s job to ensure that property owners and tenants follow the city’s building code. To deal with the fallout after the tragedy, the fire chief retired.

They found the prosecution’s idea that Harris held what the district attorney described as “a leadership position in the warehouse” manipulative, infuriating and absurd.

There was no way for Harris to process the situation, no way to assimilate the facts. He always thought that if he moved gently through the world, the world would move gently over him. He thought that if he helped others, good karma or Jesus or both would take care of him. Had he not done enough? Every time he entered the courtroom, he felt the vast weight of the community’s grief and accusation. “It’s just wrong,” he said of the whole situation into the jailhouse phone. He lost friends in the fire. He had his own trauma to work through. How had his life taken him here, with all these bodies laid at his feet?

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