Author Archives

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

When Death Came to Mauritius

TOPSHOT - An aerial view taken in Mauritius on August 17, 2020, shows the MV Wakashio bulk carrier, belonging to a Japanese company but Panamanian-flagged, that had run aground and broke into two parts near Blue Bay Marine Park. (Photo by - / AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

On July 25th, 2020, the container ship MV Wakashio ran aground off the coast of Mauritius, an area known for “some of the world’s clearest lagoons, most pristine ecosystems, (and) healthiest fish.” The ship eventually broke in two, spilling oil into Point D’Esnay, contaminating the coastline’s vegetation and sea life. As Ariel Saramandi recounts in this essay at Granta, when the government failed to act quickly, the citizens of Mauritius took action. The community made booms to soak up oil and protested against government indifference and inaction — despite the threat of being arrested for criticizing the authorities.

We have our superlative reputation to protect, after all: some of the world’s clearest lagoons, most pristine ecosystems, healthiest fish. Tourism is the heart of the economy. The majority of the island’s most opulent hotels are found on the east coast. Plus, the government is heavily invested in the fishing industry. Our fish exports are a 250-million-dollar business, and parastatal fish farms dot the south-eastern lagoon. We are confident that the Wakashio will be removed imminently from the reef: it’s in the government’s self-interest. We hear talk of international assistance and are reassured.

Meanwhile, images show filaments of an oily substance on the shore. Then images show the ship beginning to tilt. The Minister of Fisheries said the photos ‘appeared to be manipulated and deceptive.’ ‘The ship is not sinking and will not sink,’ he said on 5 August 2020.6 All is under control.

The next day thick black streaks coat our lagoon. Oil like lacquer on the water.

Against all international recommendations, despite our outcry and outrage, the government sank half of the Wakashio in great haste on 24 August. Two days later, melon-headed whales washed up around the south-eastern coast. Dead, mutilated, glossy bodies. Authorities haul them onto the back of pickup trucks, tails hanging out. Authorities cover them in white sheets. Videos of dying whales bobbing helpless in the ocean. Video of a mother whale trying to nudge her dying baby above the waves so that it can breathe; she watches as it dies, then dies a little while later, too. Fishermen say the ship was sunk in a whale breeding ground, that some of the corpses they found were of pregnant females.

Read the story

“People are dying waiting”

TORRENCE, CA - DECEMBER 29: Hospital doctors and nurses treat Covid-19 patients in a makeshift ICU wing on the West Oeste at Harbor UCLA Medical Center on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020 in Torrence, CA. The hospital has no open beds for incoming patients and have worked tirelessly to create additional beds for the influx of Covid-19 patients. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

At ProPublica, reporters David Armstrong and Marshall Allen tell the story of 53-year-old Miguel Fernandez, a Latino man from California who contracted the virus last fall. The center of a tight-knit, multigenerational family, Miguel fought for his life in hospital as his loved ones pushed to get him life-saving extracorporeal membrane oxygenation treatment — a specialized therapy that doctors are now in the horrific position of having to reserve for younger patients with the best chance of surviving, as critically ill COVID-19 patients overwhelm a healthcare system stretched far beyond usual limits.

But starting in early November, the daily number of COVID-19 hospitalizations surged in Los Angeles County, rising eightfold between then and the wave’s crest, which arrived just after New Year’s Day. Within weeks, overflowing hospitals faced exactly the types of care-rationing decisions experts had feared. Hospitals set up tents to increase capacity, and ambulances circled for hours as they waited for beds to open. By early January, Los Angeles County emergency medical personnel were directed to conserve supplemental oxygen by only administering it to the neediest patients, and to stop transporting to hospitals cardiac arrest patients who couldn’t be revived in the field. State officials dispatched refrigerated trucks and thousands of body bags to the region.

Miguel didn’t want to go to the hospital. He knew people like him were dying. Latino Angelenos have suffered the highest COVID-19 death rate in Los Angeles County — almost twice the rate of Blacks and about three times the rate for whites.

The separation was especially difficult for Alejandrina, who had been married to Miguel since 1991. Miguel liked to tease her when she watched her Mexican telenovelas: Why do you watch those shows when you have me? On Mother’s Day earlier in the year, Miguel had surprised her by buying a pair of rings, getting down on one knee and proposing again. The couple made plans to renew their vows on their 30th wedding anniversary this summer. When he became sick with COVID-19, Miguel assured Alejandrina he would get better so they could get married again. She promised she would wait for him.

Read the story

“Addiction is a thief of your goodbyes”

Getty Images

In this moving essay at The Rumpus, Heather Stokes recounts what addiction has stolen from her and her mother. A bother and uncle addicted to crack stole not only possessions from the family house, but most importantly Heather and her mom’s personal safety and any chance at stability. Eventually, a boyfriend’s coke addiction costs Heather her freedom, after she embezzles from her job to help feed his habit.

Her pause snapped me back into the conversation. I disinterestedly responded, “I’m sorry, can you ask the question again?”

“What do you feel addiction has stolen from you?”

I knew that she was more than likely referring to my own addictions, but I did not want to talk about those. Instead, I went back in time, back to a time before I knew that substances and people were not meant to be abused. The many years my uncle, brother, and father spent in and out of prison, leaving my mother and I alone—years that robbed me of having a father, of having a stable male presence in our family. Years that morphed into the “I’ll just do it myself” attitude that haunts my relationships to this day. I thought about the shame I felt as I walked past the neighborhood bodega, eyes fixed to the ground, to avoid making eye contact with my brother who stood outside, shaking in the middle of three-day crack cocaine binge.

These were the silent losses. The things that are not talked about in the glamorization of addiction played out on your favorite television shows. Things left unspoken between family. Like opening the kitchen cabinet to find a little corner ripped off the roll of aluminum foil—my uncle used them to construct his aspirin bottle crack pipes. Cut-off straws that were useless to drink your Pepsi with made the perfect suction for inhaling poison; I would often find them discarded under the crab apple tree in front of our house. Some mornings, I would even find my uncle discarded there with them, his disheveled body wrapped around the tree, surrounded by rotten crab apples as if the poison had seeped into them, too.

Read the essay

“A Series of Small Collapses Caused by Continual Neglect”

CLEVELAND, OHIO, UNITED STATES - 2020/09/29: Protesters wearing masks march through University Circle while holding up placards and banners during the protest. In reaction to the presidential debates being held in Cleveland, protesters gathered to protest against President Donald Trump and show support to black lives. The initial protest began with speeches at Wade Lagoon, and proceeded with a march throughout University Circle that ended at Wade Lagoon. Stragglers from the initial protest went downtown towards the intersection of 105th St. and Chester Ave. where police were stationed. (Photo by Stephen Zenner/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

In this deeply moving essay at The Baffler, Hanif Abdurraqib reflects on the protests of last summer and the ongoing fight for equality with a mix of grief and pride. As he considers those who protest systemic racism in America, he says “… yes, it is thrilling to see a generation that has harnessed their firsthand knowledge, their resources, their steadfast care for each other, and their rage, and channeled it into multilayered action.” But he yearns for a day when the time and energy and fortitude required to protest can be “freed up not only for other fights but for other endeavors that make newer uses of their time.”

What pushes people out into the street and what pushes them to organize might be sparked in a single moment, but before that moment, and often stretching on long after, is a series of small collapses caused by continual neglect.

A series of small collapses is how they come to be radicalized.

We were there because it was necessary that we be there. Because someone we loved was in the streets and they needed protection or care or simply someone else they knew to add to the long braid of someones blocking traffic and holding the line when cops descended with their sprays or their horses or their hands on their weapons.

The grief of this moment, this life, is torrential. More for some than others, of course. But in the midst of it, one small, distinct grief that I have been focused on is the grief that sits alongside the immense pride and excitement I feel watching young activists step fully into themselves and realize they are entirely unmoved by and unafraid of power. I had that inside of me when I was a teenager, and a lot of the people I lived with and hung around did too. But so few of us actually knew what to do with it. We knew we hated that cops were in our schools and in our neighborhoods—their primary function to inject fear into the day-to-day movements of largely marginalized kids from largely marginalized communities. But it didn’t seem like there was much to do with that rage except funnel it back into our own ecosystems, our own selves. We knew our anger but not our capacity to organize.

Read the essay

Life Goals: Power Couple Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - JANUARY 27: Power couple, USWNT forward Megan Rapinoe and Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird enjoy the game at the Alaska Airlines Arena on January 27, 2019 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

Superstar athletes Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird have given their lives to soccer and basketball, respectively. At GQ, Emma Carmichael reports that now, as their sports careers reach their conclusion, the couple is using their considerable influence and profile to further equality — for women’s rights (in and out of sports), the Black Lives Matter movement, and for other members of the LGBTQI community.

There is no precedent for the pastel-haired international soccer star who courted the ponytailed all-American point guard and went on to live happily ever after. For now, the “cross-sport lesbian power couple” template begins and ends with Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird. And they are not just stars in their sports—they have set the standards to which future athletes will be held. Between them they have more championships and gold medals than most couples have steak knives: At 35, Rapinoe is one of the most decorated American soccer players of all time, with two World Cup titles and an Olympic gold medal to her name. Bird, 40, is considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time, having won multiple championships at every stage of her career—from her two championships during her fabled UConn days to her quartet of rings with the Seattle Storm and four Olympic golds with the national team.

They have set the agenda off the field too: Both have been active in the Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name movements as well as the ongoing fights for equal pay and treatment that have revolutionized their sports. In January, after months of campaigning that started at the WNBA’s pandemic site in Florida, Bird celebrated Rev. Raphael Warnock’s victory over Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler in one of Georgia’s crucial runoff Senate races. They are pushing things forward, as none other than Billie Jean King tells me. “We were always afraid of the unknown,” she says. King lost all of her sponsorships in 24 hours when she was involuntarily outed in 1981. Things are different now. “This is why having Megan and Sue out in front like this, being comfortable in their own skin, is so huge. It allows other people to be more comfortable.”

Every person I interviewed for this story is an LGBTQ+ professional (or formerly pro) woman athlete. All seemed to over-explain their work—Bird taking pains to describe why she and her fellow WNBA stars had to play in Russia, Harris and Krieger making sure I understood they’d spent many years playing with Rapinoe, even King laying out how she and the Original 9 of women’s tennis fought for better prize money in the ’70s. The tendency probably comes along with being a conscientious, media-trained athlete and public-facing woman, but I also wondered if the instinct was learned: from having to make the case for yourself constantly, from being forced to convince the skeptical that what you do has merit.

Read the story

Justin Townes Earl: The Saint of Lost Causes

Justin Townes Earle (Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images)

We saw him live once, almost exactly two years ago. Just one guitar, one man, and his heart, laid bare for all to see through his songs. Justin Townes Earle’s singular, percussive playing style was both rhythm and harmony to the melody of his voice at that small venue in the middle of a cold Canadian winter. When a string broke on his guitar on the first song, there was no tech to do the fix, no second guitar to reach for. Earle rummaged through a case, grabbed a spare string and made the change, chatting amiably with the audience the whole time. It felt like you could get to know him. We knew he’d struggled hard. You could hear it in his entire song catalogue. But of course, there was so much we didn’t know, couldn’t know, don’t deserve to know.

In this tribute for Rolling Stone, Jonathan Bernstein interviewed 30 people, including friends, former bandmates, and Justin Townes Earle’s widow, Jenn Marie Earle, who share what Justin meant to them, six months after his death. They paint a portrait of a generous and loving man, who was not able to offer that same generosity and love to himself.

Onstage, Earle was an electrifying presence: six-foot-four, dressed in vintage suits, playing in a fiery style of finger-picking he’d picked up listening to the bluesman Mance Lipscomb. He assumed the public persona of a world-weary troubadour, one worthy of his cursed namesake, the self-destructive country-folk genius Townes Van Zandt, a friend of his father.

Justin was locking himself inside a dark room off the basement for hours to write, communicating with Jenn Marie through a grate connected to the kitchen upstairs. “If you need me,” Justin would shout, “just stomp your hoof, my little dear.”

“I’d seen him starting to become more distant, in many ways,” Jenn Marie says. “That song, to me, was an admittance, of choosing the fate of being locked away from what means the most to you.” The album Justin was writing in that unlit basement study, the last album released while he was alive, would be called The Saint of Lost Causes. “I think he was admitting that he was defeated, in a lot of ways,” Jenn Marie says.

As the years passed, Earle’s insecurities grew. “There was a huge part of Justin that didn’t believe in himself,” says Jenn Marie. “He saw the music business changing. . . . When his [2014 and 2015 albums, Single Mothers and Absent Fathers] came out, he was disappointed they didn’t do so well. I think that’s where a lot of his darkness, his struggles with substance abuse and addiction, started to come to the surface in the last few years: him feeling like he wasn’t good enough.”

“We have for so long looked at people who had addiction problems … we ask them the wrong questions,” he said in 2018. “We say, ‘What is wrong with you?’ The problem is, they hurt. So you don’t ask them, ‘What’s wrong with you.’ You ask them, ‘Why do you hurt?’”

Read the story

Earl King Deserves His Due

Earl King at the Petrillo Bandshell in Chicago, Illinois, June 5, 1994. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

You might not know of Earl King, a singer-songwriter guitarist from New Orleans, Louisiana, though you’ve likely heard songs he wrote if you know the music of Fats Domino, Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, Lee Dorsey, Allen Toussaint, or Ray Charles. As Geoffrey Himes reports at The Bitter Southerner, King was a lyricist and showman beyond compare, yet few of his own recordings exist. He was a man with insatiable curiosity, self-motivated to learn about anything that struck his fancy, a songwriter dedicated to his craft. Himes argues that it is about time that King be recognized as poet laureate of New Orleans for his many musical accomplishments, some of which you can listen to in the piece’s accompanying Spotify playlist.

During this period, 1965-1974, King rarely performed in public. Instead, he stayed behind the scenes, writing and producing songs for other people. In this way, he resembled Willie Dixon, the great writer-producer of the Chicago blues scene. Dixon, too, never enjoyed much success with his own recordings, but he wrote and arranged big hits for Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter and is now recognized as the secret genius behind the stars. King is due the same recognition.

In fact, one could argue that King, (Willie) Dixon, Percy Mayfield, and Chuck Berry are the true “Poets of the Blues.” All four made their recording debuts between 1945 and ’55; all four compensated for a lack of higher education by educating themselves to become verse craftsmen; all four satirized American life and romance with an unerring eye.

All of them, even Berry, are better known for the dozens of versions of their songs by other artists than for their own recordings.

“When I got into my own thinking about writing,” King confessed, “my intention was to be the best lyricist in the world. I used to sit around with my buddies, drinking coffee and talking about how something in a song could be said a different way. We used to get a kick out of playing gymnastics with the words. We’d talk about what kind of thought that’s going to create in the person who’s listening. We’d talk about words that might have a twofold meaning to them. Like ‘Do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti; forget about the dough and think about me.’”

King was that increasingly rare figure in American life — the non-academic intellectual. He never attended school again after graduating from Booker T. Washington High School in New Orleans, but he never stopped studying and reading. A conversation with King was likely to take unexpected detours into Asian music, marketing theory, modern jazz, and the Rosicrucian Order. He was living proof that an active, well-stocked mind doesn’t always come with scholarly credentials.

Read the story

Making Art Awash in Grief

Getty Images

In this incisive essay at Guernica, Traci Brimhall explores the human need to create art in a bid to process death and loss. She relates a 100-day project in which Janet, an artist and photographer, mourns her mother’s passing by photographing flowers and other elements from condolence bouquets, assembling and publishing a single image each day. Brimhall relates her own efforts to process grief through the creative process by crocheting afghans for those in hospice, as well as handmaking paper made of found love letters and cards from her ex-husband.

Someone in my group for hospice workers shares the article on flowers as a grief ritual, and that’s how I discover Janet. I quickly read the news story about how Janet uses the dried flowers from her mother’s funeral to make new images for 100 days. Each day she uses the petals and stems to create and photograph a new form, and each day she takes it all apart, tucking the dried floral pieces back into storage. I start to follow her Instagram account, eager for the inevitable startle of old roses rendered into birds or flattened carnations transformed into the segments of a caterpillar rising off a branch. It’s common to see birds and insects as visitations from the dead. Every flying thing from monarch butterflies to Emily Dickinson’s buzzing fly has been associated with death, but I love that in Janet’s work, the visitations are like a form of summoning, a new life from a dried petal.

Scrolling through the 100 days feels like a catalog of grief. The work seems to change so fast: on some days she plays with the shadows each dried bloom casts; on others she makes abstract shapes. Towards the end of her project, she’s creating more mimetic pieces. Some natural materials she returns to often, using a leaf until it breaks apart. Some of the broken pieces are cast aside and others get used again for what they now resemble, the leaf crumbling and leaving only its hard veins, which suddenly becomes a bird’s foot. I love that nothing is wasted. Everything is ripe for transformation. It reminds me of the jewelry and tableaux the Victorians made from dead loved ones’ hair, somehow taking what feels ephemeral or like detritus and making something nearly permanent.

We talk about how to grieve with hope—how to acknowledge, to ask, to be honest. When I pour the bright pink pulp of a stranger’s love letters mixed with mine into a deckle mold, I acknowledge that even all these years later, I am still sad. I don’t know what to ask, but I know what I need will come from process, not product.

Read the essay

Tragedy on the Pacific Crest Trail

CAMPO, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 24: A monument marking the Southern Terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail sits along the U.S.-Mexico border on January 24, 2019 near Campo, California. The trail is a 2,650 mile trek from Mexico to Canada. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Since 2012, the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail has seen an influx of hopefuls making their own attempt at the arduous and challenging distance, made famous in part by the book Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s account of her crossing, and the movie of the same name starring Reese Witherspoon.

The trail, which starts at the northern border of Mexico and ends at the southern Canadian border, traverses California, Oregon, and Washington. It features every type of landscape and all the permutations of precipitation west coast weather has to offer.

In March 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The “Pacific Crest Trail Association asked long-distance hikers to leave the trail, lest they carry the coronavirus to small towns ill-equipped to cope.” As Louise Farr reports at Alta, Hiker Trevor Laher’s father Doug begged him to leave the trail and come home. The government order and the pleas were not enough. Trevor continued on, at his peril, not falling victim to the virus but the perilous conditions of the San Jacinto Mountains.

Trevor often assured Karen that only 11 PCT hikers had died along the trail since it had been officially declared finished in 1993, but exact figures are difficult to pin down. The number could be as high as 20. At least 5 hikers have disappeared and not been found. In fact, there have been 11 deaths on or near the trail in California, 8 of those in the desert section.

Dave and Marilyn drove on a parallel road for a mile, watching Trevor appear and disappear between bushes. They honked the car horn and waved, and he clicked his hiking poles, grinning in acknowledgment. “That was the last time we talked to him or saw him,” says Marilyn. Then the world changed.

“The sun came out, the wind died almost completely, and it was perfect blue skies,” Cody recalls. “There was a very light snow on everything, maybe a quarter of an inch. It was quite a beautiful morning. But that also, I think, lulled us into a false sense of security.”

For the briefest time, he managed to stay in place. Then, suddenly, he began sliding feet first, gathering momentum until he hit a rock and began cartwheeling into an icy gorge.

Read the story

All Aboard for an Adventure in Inequality

ANTARCTICA - 2013/11/30: Tourists at Yankee Harbour, a small inner harbour on the south-west side of Greenwich Island in the South Shetland Island group, Antarctica, with cruise ship Seabourn Quest in background. (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

To satisfy his wanderlust, Devin Murphy worked on a series of cruise ships to see the world and learn more about it. As he reports in this fascinating piece at Outiside, what he didn’t bargain for was a free education on the deep disparity between the poor and rich, the haves and the have nots, not only in ports of call around the world, but aboard the vessels upon which he served.

I’m an American who grew up surrounded by comforts that were delivered to me by ships like these—ships that I’d never thought about.

As the summer wore on, my hands became ribboned with cuts from barnacle shards caked into the rope fibers, and I got accustomed to the insults of the assistant engineer, who often tipped over into psychotic rage when I did something wrong. He spent all his free time reading biker magazines and smoking in the dark next to the engines, a patron saint of hatred.

Meanwhile, day by day, I really began to appreciate the passengers. Whether they were recent retirees on a dream trip or industrial business owners leveled by the beauty of the wilds, it was humbling to share in their awakening wonder.

I also got a better sense of the oddity of life on a boat. One time the captain called me to the bridge and told me to man the controls while he went to his cabin. I was 20 years old, steering a cruise ship through the night. It was so exhilarating that, when the captain came back, I didn’t notice at first that he was carrying a full-size test dummy with a long black wig on it. He began dancing around and humming to the doll.

“Um. Sir? What are you doing?”

The captain opened the wing station, sang, “Time for us to part, my love,” and hurled the doll overboard. He blew a kiss to the back of the ship, then called into his radio, “Man overboard.”

He shot a red flare into the sky, and I slowly turned the ship to start our impromptu man-overboard drill. The doll looked so much like a real person that I felt a wash of fear about one day being alone on the waves, drifting off into the cold unknown.

During our return trip from Antarctica, the Drake Passage—the expanse of ocean between Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands and Cape Horn—thrashed the ship around. The hotel executive, feeling sick, went to his cabin and left an Excel spreadsheet open on a computer we shared. It showed what the international crew members were paid, and their low compensation—far less than minimum wage in the U.S.—stunned me. I was able to save much of what I made. These men, who worked with kindness, effort, and attention to detail for 12 hours a day, six days a week, and up to nine months at a time, were being exploited, and they had to send money to families back home. The reality of the flag of convenience became clear.

Read the story