Author Archives

I'm a runner, reader, writer, and editor.

Stories of Immigration as Protest: Letters to Donald Trump

At Granta, Barbara Zitwer, Colm Tóibín, Elham Manea, Linda Coverdale, Kyung-sook Shin, and Anne Landsman share their stories of immigration to protest Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban as an abomination in a country built and fueled by people from away.

Barbara Zitwer: I was very moved at an i am muslim too rally in NYC a few weeks ago. There were people of every color, every age and every religion. I overheard a conversation – an elderly woman was speaking so animatedly in a low, raspy voice, and although she had a thick accent her words lodged in my mind: ‘My family died in a camp in Germany. No one stopped them. We can never let that happen again. We can never watch. We must act. I lived for a reason. I am a Jew and today I am a Muslim, too.’ And then she rolled up her sleeve and revealed a tattoo on her arm as if it was a badge of courage.

Colm Tóibín: It is always easy to invent enemies; it merely takes a failure of imagination, a determination to look inwards, a lack of confidence in our own ability to see clearly, to understand, to love.

Linda Coverdale: Many of the more than eighty French books I have translated into English deal with war, oppression, misogyny, racism, the plight of refugees and the gruesome hells of genocide. The second book I ever took on told the story of Molyda, a child who watched without a tear – even a single one would have betrayed her ‘complicity’ – as those she loved died in the killing fields of Cambodia. Rescued from a Thai refugee camp by a couple in Paris, she could not speak for a year, but her new parents, psychiatrists in exile from Communist Czechoslovakia, helped her to dance and sing her memories, which slowly became her French voice.

Read the story

On Mastery: Learning Kyudo — One of Japan’s Oldest and Most Respected Martial Arts

Leigh Ann Henion was drawn to archery by her grandfather’s passion for it. She travels to Japan to improve her archery skills by learning Kyudo — a form of archery that is one of Japan’s oldest martial arts. In her short yet intense course, sensei Kazuhisa Miyasaka helps her realize that achievement with the bow and arrow comes only after mastering one’s mind.

We have not talked about the fact that, when our grandfathers were alive, our nations and families were adversaries. Or that when I asked him to introduce kyudo in just a handful of days, I was making an impossible request. But we both knew.

Miyasaka touches my arm, tightening my actions like the precise folds of origami. My projectiles hit sand, nearer and nearer the target. Until. Twack. I pierce paper. The target is so far away I’d need binoculars to see exactly where my arrow rests.

I’ve achieved an obvious goal. But my release felt no more important than my stance, this arrow no more special than the one sent before it. I arrived in Japan hoping to understand why hitting a target isn’t the most important part of this tradition. Now, I know the closest I’ll come is the realization that it doesn’t matter to me whether I hit.

When I hear the target rip again, from a second arrow, I realize that I had not been listening for it.

Miyasaka has been recording my final day with a video camera. He turns my attention to a flat-screen television, which seems out of place in front of the chalkboard where he sketches feather patterns. When he pushes play, I see a woman I do not recognize. She moves through the stages of kyudo form with deceptive ease. At one point, she closes her eyes.

When I see the pale cocoons of my eyelids, I think to myself: Seriously? I remember none of it.

Miyasaka looks out at the target and says, “You did that yourself. You have real skill now.”

But the sound of my target-slaying was not one of accomplishment.

It was a signal that, as long as I’m alive, I will not be done.

Read the story

Peanut Butter and Jelly: The NBA’s Secret Addiction

At ESPN, Baxter Holmes reports on how the lowly peanut butter and jelly sandwich fueled the 2007-08 Boston Celtics to an NBA title, becoming the sweet and salty stuff of superstitious sport legend that has spread like an addiction across the league.

But as the Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen Celtics steamrolled to a 66-win season and an NBA title, the secret to their success, so cleverly disguised between two pieces of white bread, was eventually leaked.

At the time, Doo notes, the Celtics not only didn’t provide lavish pregame spreads, they didn’t offer much food at all. But he soon found himself slapping together 20 PB&J’s about three hours before every tip-off, the finished products placed in bags and labeled with Sharpie in a secret code: “S” for strawberry, “G” for grape, “C” for crunchy. Of vital import: Garnett was an “S” man, and woe unto he who did not deliver him two S’s before every game. “If Kevin didn’t get his routine down, he’d be pissed,” Doo says. “Even if he didn’t eat them, he needed them to be there.”

The Trail Blazers offer 20 crustless, halved PB&J’s pregame — 10 of them toasted, a mandate ever since an opposing arena prepared them as such and Blazers guard Damian Lillard approved. They’re composed of organic fixings, save for white bread, which Portland’s assistant performance coach Ben Kenyon notes is a high-glycemic carb that easily digests to provide a quick energy jolt. Typically, all 20 vanish well before tip-off; sometimes the Blazers double their order.

The Rockets make sure the PB&J is available in their kitchen at all times, in all varieties — white and wheat bread, toasted, untoasted, Smucker’s strawberry and grape, Jif creamy and chunky — and offer 12 to 15 sandwiches pregame, with PB&J reinforcements provided at halftime and on postgame flights.

The Bucks might boast the NBA’s most elaborate PB&J operation: a pregame buffet featuring smooth, crunchy and almond butters, an assortment of jellies (raspberry, strawberry, grape, blueberry, apricot), three breads from a local bakery (white, wheat and gluten-free) and Nutella. The team scarfs 20 to 30 PB&J’s per game and travels with the ingredients, which rookies prepare on the plane and in visiting locker rooms.

Read the story

On Being Trans, Disabled and Using the Washroom: ‘I have a right to exist safely in public spaces.’

Christian McMahon remembers growing up transgender and disabled, and implores us to remember that acknowledging someone’s humanity is a lot more than simply allowing them to use the washroom they prefer. Acknowledging his unearned privilege as “a small white man with a disability,” he reminds us that everyone deserves the basic human “right to exist safely in public spaces.”

Until I was in fifth grade, I never questioned the fact that other kids could pee at school, and I could not. As a kid with a chronic physical disability — a tiny speck of a redhead curled into a wheelchair, slumped on a walker, or sagging between a pair of crutches, depending on the year — the rules were different for me.

I knew that if I had to use the bathroom midday, I would have to go to the nurse’s office and say my stomach hurt so that my mom would take me home. This, in turn, meant missing the entire rest of the school day rather than having her bring me back to class, which would mean facing the possibility of someone asking where I’d gone. That was the deal. From kindergarten on, I looked at each carton of chocolate milk, each astronaut pouch of Capri Sun, with the same calculated thought: Could I afford to drink this now and still stay at school all day with my friends? Probably not. My choice, then, was between meeting my human need for liquid and participating fully in my own education.

The ADA passed when I was 10. On TV, I saw a girl near my own age crawl out of her wheelchair and up the inaccessible steps of the Capitol building to demonstrate the need for such a monumental piece of legislation. People with disabilities deserved to be included in society as full citizens. We deserved to be treated as human beings. That we weren’t was something I had already internalized as an immovable fact. I cried in front of the TV that night at the thought that there would be an accessible restroom at my school by the time I started sixth grade. I cried because it hadn’t occurred to me, before that moment, that I could belong in this way.

Read the story

Am I in an Abusive Relationship? ‘I knew if I had to ask I already knew the answer.’

In this installment of the Survival Skills column at Hazlitt, Katherine Laidlaw recalls an abusive relationship in which her boyfriend threatened her with a boxcutter. In examining why she stayed as long as she did, she observes how the emotional scars affect her thinking and perception in what should be a new, exciting relationship — to the point where “Everything now — a flicker of tone, a sideways glance, a distant voice on the end of the phone — is a sign, a flag, a warning.”

It’s hard to know what to do when someone says, “this is the knife I was going to use to kill you.” On a cold day in January, he holds a box cutter up to my face, runs it in front of my neck, his expression placid as flat water, and then walks calmly back over to a cardboard box that sits on the other side of the room waiting to be sliced open.

It’s hard to know what to do when that same person, later, says he loves you.

For women who are raised to believe they are strong, agency is complex. Privilege makes you reckless. I remember the moment I chose to buy into the interesting situation I could sense unfolding. It happened one morning, maybe around 4 a.m., when I couldn’t sleep—I usually couldn’t sleep when I slept over. We almost always went to bed angry and I almost never knew why. There is something insidious about love built by two brittle hearts. I made a choice and chose wrong. How naive I was, to have thought that when someone hurts you, the polite response is to ask him to stop.

Read the story

How a Story Becomes a ‘Hopeful Thing’: George Saunders on His Writing Process

George Saunders

At The Guardian, George Saunders reflects on his writing process. The magical, romantic notion where fully formed art leaps from the author’s brain on to the page? It dishonors the writer, the reader, and the work. In reality, it takes “hundreds of drafts” and “thousands of incremental adjustments” to form a story into a “hopeful thing.”

If you love George Saunders, check out the Anton Chekhov-George Saunders Humanity Kit and see what it’s like to take a literature course with Mr. Saunders, for yourself.

We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he “wanted to express”, and then he just, you know … expressed it. We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same.

The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.

How, then, to proceed? My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with “P” on this side (“Positive”) and “N” on this side (“Negative”). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (“without hope and without despair”). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the “P” zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.

The artist, in this model, is like the optometrist, always asking: Is it better like this? Or like this?

The interesting thing, in my experience, is that the result of this laborious and slightly obsessive process is a story that is better than I am in “real life” – funnier, kinder, less full of crap, more empathetic, with a clearer sense of virtue, both wiser and more entertaining.

And what a pleasure that is; to be, on the page, less of a dope than usual.

Why do I feel this to be a hopeful thing? The way this pattern thrillingly completed itself? It may just be—almost surely is—a feature of the brain, the byproduct of any rigorous, iterative engagement in a thought system. But there is something wonderful in watching a figure emerge from the stone unsummoned, feeling the presence of something within you, the writer, and also beyond you – something consistent, wilful, and benevolent, that seems to have a plan, which seems to be: to lead you to your own higher ground.

Read the story

How Jazz Singer Baby Esther Jones Became Betty Boop

The comic character Betty Boop is enjoying a renaissance, with new cartoons, a new trademark red lipstick, and women’s fashions on offer. At New York, Gabrielle Bellot explores the original inspiration for Betty Boop—a black jazz singer named Baby Esther Jones, whose signature voice and scat-inspired patter inspired not only Betty’s look, but her signature phrase, “Boop-oop-a-doop.” As Bellot writes, Boop was far more than just a cartoon character—she was the first feminist depicted in animated film.

Betty Boop, it seems, continues to dance across the stages of media, makeup, and memories alike. Yet behind her there’s a ghost, a figure who follows her everywhere, but who’s hardly ever seen: The all-too-often-forgotten African-American cabaret singer named “Baby” Esther who, arguably, truly gave birth to the cartoon character, yet rarely receives credit for it, and whose story, in many ways, tells a larger tale about America itself.

On the one hand, Betty Boop was a creation of the heterosexual male gaze, with an endless parade of lecherous male characters trying to see under her skirt, yet on the other hand she wore power like a light shawl, her image an in-your-face depiction of unashamed sexuality.

She was a stereotype, yet she also defied stereotypes of what female cartoon characters could do onscreen. An early promotional ad describes her as “the first and only feminine cartoon star.” In two 1932 shorts, Betty Boop, long depicted as a virgin, even has to try to fend off grotesque male characters who try to rape her, which she is saved from by screaming for help; these were among the earliest cartoons to depict sexual harassment so explicitly. And she could be subversive in other ways, too: In one episode, she changes clothes onstage from a dress to a man’s suit, a transformation all the more striking because it subtly suggests a possible queer context for the character.

Read the story

27 Years and 1,000 Break-Ins: North Pond Hermit — Book Edition

If you enjoyed Michael Finkel’s 2014 GQ story about Christopher Knight — the North Pond Hermit — you’ll be interested in knowing Finkel’s turned that story into a book.

At The Guardian, read an excerpt from The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, Finkel’s book on the man who simply walked away from the modern world into the woods of rural Maine in 1986 without any real plan for survival. Living alone for 27 years in a makeshift camp, Knight survived by stealing food, clothes, and provisions from neighboring camps and cabins. Knight committed over 1,000 break-ins during his self-imposed exile — stymying law enforcement and homeowners alike for nearly three decades.

Christopher Knight was only 20 years old when he walked away from society, not to be seen again for more than a quarter of a century. He had been working for less than a year installing home and vehicle alarm systems near Boston, Massachusetts, when abruptly, without giving notice to his boss, he quit his job. He never even returned his tools. He cashed his final pay cheque and left town.

Knight parked the car and tossed the keys on the centre console. He had a tent and a backpack but no compass, no map. Without knowing where he was going, with no particular place in mind, he stepped into the trees and walked away.

The cabins around the ponds in central Maine, Knight noted, had minimal security measures. Windows were often left open, even when the owners were away. The woods offered excellent cover, and with few permanent residents, the area would always be empty during the off-season. A summer camp with a big pantry was nearby. The easiest way to become a hunter-gatherer here was obvious.

And so Knight decided to steal.

To commit a thousand break-ins before getting caught, a world-class streak, requires precision and patience, daring and luck. It also demands a specific understanding of people. “I looked for patterns,” Knight said. “Everyone has patterns.”

He perched at the edge of the woods and meticulously observed the habits of the families with cabins along the ponds. He watched their quiet breakfasts and dinner parties, their visitors and vacancies, the cars moving up and down the road. Nothing Knight saw tempted him to return to his former life. His surveillance was clinical, informational, mathematical. He did not learn anyone’s name. All he sought was to understand migration patterns – when people went shopping, when a cabin was unoccupied. After that, he said, everything in his life became a matter of timing. The ideal time to steal was deep in the night, midweek, preferably when it was overcast, best in the rain.

Read the excerpt

A Nuclear Bomb at Ground Zero, and What Happens Next

At The AtlanticKaveh Waddell has a conversation with researcher William Kennedy, who along with Andrew Crooks, is mining data from past tragedies such as the 1917 Halifax Explosion, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina to run computer simulations studying how humans would respond after a nuclear attack on Manhattan.

Kennedy: We’ve found that people seem to be reasonably well behaved and do what they’ve been trained to, or are asked or told to do by local authorities. Reports from 9/11 show that people walked down many tens of flights of stairs, relatively quietly, sometimes carrying each other, to escape buildings.

We’re finding those kinds of reports from other disasters as well—except after Hurricane Katrina. There, we have reports that people already didn’t trust the government, and then with the isolation resulting from the flooding, they were actually shooting at people trying to help.

So we’re going to model individuals responding to the immediate situation around them. They’re trying to leave the area, find food, water, and shelter: basic Maslow-like necessities.

Waddell: What are the goals that each individual agent will be balancing? Safety, hunger, family and friends, getting out of the area—how will the model treat those needs?

Kennedy: One of the aspects we’ll be modeling is the individual agents’ social networks. Communications with those people, and confirmation of their status, seems to be one of the first urgencies that people feel, after their immediate survival of the event.

Part of our modeling challenge is going to be figuring out if a parent would go through a contaminated area to retrieve a child at a daycare or school, putting themselves at risk in the process, because it’s important to them to physically be there with their children. Or do they realize that they’re isolated, that communications aren’t going to be available in the near term, and they only deal with their local folks who are now their family? That’s the sense we get.

Read the story

Filmmaker Kyrre Lien Traveled the World Interviewing Internet Trolls in Person

Three years ago, filmmaker Kyrre Lien became curious about what drives people to make hateful comments online. He pored over 200 online profiles and traveled the world to interview internet trolls in person to uncover why they say the things they do. Kyrre’s look into the bowels of humanity is at once absurd and terrifying — proof that hate and those with “illogical beliefs” may be living right next door. Watch Kyrre’s troll documentary at The Guardian.

Norwegian filmmaker Kyrre Lien began researching online commenters on Christmas Day 2014. “I became fascinated by how much hate and ignorance people were writing in the comments section of a news site,” he says, “so I began looking at people’s profiles, trying to work out who they were. Many seemed quite normal. They had families and looked like nice people, but the comments they were writing in a public space were so extreme. There was a disconnect.” And so began Lien’s three-year journey into the lives of some of the internet’s most prolific online commenters, now the subject of a documentary, The Internet Warriors.

Lien’s research took him across the world – from the fjords of Norway to the US desert – meeting people of extreme, “often illogical” beliefs: the racists, the homophobes, the slut-shamers. Lien initially researched 200 potential subjects. Half said no when he approached them. It was then a process of elimination: “To find out what their motives were, who they were, and why they held the views they did. In a way,” he says, “I became an investigator.”

Kjell Frode Tislevoll used to spend hours debating online. “Like when I commented on an article: ‘What we need in Oslo is a sidewalk for those with dark skin and a sidewalk for those with white skin. That way, we won’t be attacked or mugged.” He got 20 likes. Eventually he decided to apply a filter on Facebook, so he’d no longer see posts about immigration.

But things are changing for Tislevoll. Last year, a refugee reception centre was built in his home town, and he slowly found he was becoming “less sceptical of immigrants”. It coincided with the arrival of a Muslim man at work. “He’s OK,” he says, “so my issues with immigration are going away. If I met my former self in a discussion forum now, I’d probably get into an argument with him.”

Read the story