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Restoring Neon City

Photo by Philip Kromer CC-BY-SA 2.0

At Curbed, Stephie Grob Plante profiles the artists of Austin, Texas who create new neon signs and restore old signs to their former, glowing glory.

Sharon and Greg list signs of theirs that are gone like they’re listing names of the long dead. They’ve been making signs in Austin for three decades, and many of the businesses they’ve served have shuttered. South Congress Mexican restaurant Manuel’s was Sharon’s first neon sign, however, and it’s alive and kicking. “Same neon, still working, and it’s over 30 years old.”

The process of restoring the State Theater’s 1935 marquee blade was particularly intensive, say the Keshishians. For starters, the original neon letters were uranium, which isn’t made anymore for safety reasons. Greg and his team removed all remnants of the old neon; completely gutted the inside of the porcelain enamel sign, including the electrical wiring and neon transformers; shoved out 79 years’ worth of pigeon poop; replaced the electrical components; made the majority of the neon from scratch; and polished the porcelain enamel.

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The Soundtrack to Healing on the Road to Recovery

(Photo by: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)

After his son died of a heart condition at age 5, James G. Robinson planned a month-long road trip across America to help his family begin to heal. What they discovered was that despite all the amazing monuments and curiosities America has to offer, the best times were spent in the car as a family, enraptured by Harry Potter audio books, quintessential sing-along road trip songs, and a playlist curated for each state.

After all, part of this trip was figuring out how to be together — as a family of four (rather than five), each of us wrestling with grief in their own way.

I’d brought along a secret weapon: the complete, unabridged “Harry Potter,” read by Jim Dale, spanning 117 hours over 99 CDs.

It was probably the most useful item we brought on the entire trip. We got through the first four books, 50 hours in all (leaving another 67 for our next trip). Our older son had read them already, but as the miles flew by he was just as rapt as the rest of us. The only problem: if we stopped before a chapter ended, the boys would refuse to leave the car, begging us to turn it back on by crying “Hawwy Potttoooo!” in mock baby voices.

I’d also created some Spotify playlists to keep us company, including an assortment of energetic road songs: The Muppets’ “Moving Right Along,” Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” Waylon Jennings’ “The Dukes of Hazzard Theme,” and Johnny Cash singing “I’ve Been Everywhere.” We played this every time we set out, and by the end of the trip, we were all singing it together; yelling extra loud each time Cash mentioned a place we’d visited, too.

To ease the pain, we decided to collect stones wherever we went, inscribing each with the place and date and setting it aside in a small canvas bag. When our son’s tombstone was finally set, we’d bring the bag to the cemetery and stack them above his grave, according to Jewish tradition.

The ritual of finding stones helped us evoke his memory and acknowledge his absence. By the time we returned home, we’d collected 12 pounds of assorted rocks and pebbles, as well as a crab shell and broken sand dollar that the boys found on the beach in South Carolina.

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The Nearly Impossible Journey of a Long-Term Survivor

An Inuit youth pulls an infant on a sled along a snow-covered street in Inuvik in Canada’'s Northwest Territories on April 3, 1974. The round building looming in the background is a Catholic church. (AP Photo)

On June 24, 1972, three boys decided to leave their residential school in Canada’s Northwest Territories and walk from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk (“Tuk”), in a bid to avoid punishment for stealing a pack of cigarettes from their dorm supervisor. Without a highway connecting Inuvik to Tuk, the boys had no idea they were undertaking an impossible journey of 90 miles over boggy tundra. At Granta, Nadim Roberts tells the story of Dennis, Jack, and Bernard — just one example of the horrific toll residential schools have exacted on Inuits, the Inuit community, and their traditional ways of life.

From the pond, the boys walked in the direction of the highest hill, where they could see power lines unspooling to the north-east. The 69,000-volt transmission lines had been strung the previous month. ‘These lines go all the way to Tuk,’ Dennis told his friends. He and Bernard were from Tuktoyaktuk, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. If they followed the power lines, they’d be home in a few hours, Dennis said. School would be over soon anyway, and if they left now, they could avoid getting in trouble.

Residential schools had existed in Canada since 1831, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that a significant number of them operated in the north. These government-sponsored religious schools were established to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture by ripping them away from their families and communities. When Western European colonization and evangelization finally arrived in the Arctic, what had been a relatively unscathed Inuit culture began to change rapidly. Bernard’s biological parents had been part of the first generation of Inuit that passed through these schools. It was in such an institution that they first met and fell in love.

Before 1955, fewer than 15 per cent of school-aged Inuit were enrolled in residential schools. Most children still lived on the land with their families, learning traditional skills and knowledge. Rather than teaching students how to hunt, skin game, and build igloos and kayaks, residential schools taught a curriculum used for white children in Alberta.

By 1964, more than 75 per cent of Inuit children attended residential schools. Their values, language and customs were supplanted overnight by a culture that saw itself as benevolent and superior, and saw the Inuit as primitive beings in need of sophistication. The young Inuit who went through the residential school system experienced an assault on their traditional identities that had shattering consequences: they are often referred to as the ‘lost generation’.

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Second Life: A World that, for Some, Allows Full Participation

Photo by Alicia Chenaux (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

At The Atlantic, Leslie Jamison profiles several long-term, hard-core users of the immersive, virtual reality platform Second Life. In the game, you create a fantasy alter-ego and your “selective self” resides in a virtual world that allows you to leave behind everything you don’t like about yourself and your real life. Weary of your teal-blue lozenge pool? Install another.

Some critics of Second Life easily dismiss it as escapism. Despite the fact that Jamison herself struggled to embrace the virtual land of imperfect perfection, she discovered that for some, it can offer a kind of refuge from the hassles and frustrations of everyday life — an oasis of belonging regardless or age, status, or whether or not you have a physical disability or a mental illness. As she notes, “Second Life recognizes the ways that we often feel more plural and less coherent than the world allows us to be.”

Gidge Uriza lives in an elegant wooden house with large glass windows overlooking a glittering creek, fringed by weeping willows and meadows twinkling with fireflies. She keeps buying new swimming pools because she keeps falling in love with different ones. The current specimen is a teal lozenge with a waterfall cascading from its archway of stones. Gidge spends her days lounging in a swimsuit on her poolside patio, or else tucked under a lacy comforter, wearing nothing but a bra and bathrobe, with a chocolate-glazed donut perched on the pile of books beside her. “Good morning girls,” she writes on her blog one day. “I’m slow moving, trying to get out of bed this morning, but when I’m surrounded by my pretty pink bed it’s difficult to get out and away like I should.”

In another life, the one most people would call “real,” Gidge Uriza is Bridgette McNeal, an Atlanta mother who works eight-hour days at a call center and is raising a 14-year-old son, a 7-year-old daughter, and severely autistic twins, now 13. Her days are full of the selflessness and endless mundanity of raising children with special needs: giving her twins baths after they have soiled themselves (they still wear diapers, and most likely always will), baking applesauce bread with one to calm him down after a tantrum, asking the other to stop playing “the Barney theme song slowed down to sound like some demonic dirge.” One day, she takes all four kids to a nature center for an idyllic afternoon that gets interrupted by the reality of changing an adolescent’s diaper in a musty bathroom.

I heard about a veteran with PTSD who gave biweekly Italian cooking classes in an open-air gazebo, and I visited an online version of Yosemite created by a woman who had joined Second Life in the wake of several severe depressive episodes and hospitalizations. She uses an avatar named Jadyn Firehawk and spends up to 12 hours a day on Second Life, many of them devoted to refining her bespoke wonderland—full of waterfalls, sequoias, and horses named after important people in John Muir’s life—grateful that Second Life doesn’t ask her to inhabit an identity entirely contoured by her illness, unlike internet chat rooms focused on bipolar disorder that are all about being sick. “I live a well-rounded life on SL,” she told me. “It feeds all my other selves.”

Some people call Second Life escapist, and often its residents argue against that. But for me, the question isn’t whether or not Second Life involves escape. The more important point is that the impulse to escape our lives is universal, and hardly worth vilifying. Inhabiting any life always involves reckoning with the urge to abandon it—through daydreaming; through storytelling; through the ecstasies of art and music, or hard drugs, or adultery, or a smartphone screen. These forms of “leaving” aren’t the opposite of authentic presence. They are simply one of its symptoms—the way love contains conflict, intimacy contains distance, and faith contains doubt.

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A Lonely Death: The Extreme Isolation of Japan’s Elderly

Takashimadaira housing complex in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Katsumi Kasahara)

With a population of 127 million, Japan has the most rapidly aging society on the planet. As Norimitsu Onishi reports at The New York Times, elderly individuals often live in extreme isolation, albeit only a few feet from neighbors on all sides, “trapped in a demographic crucible of increasing age and declining births.” Their fate? A “lonely death” where their body may remain undiscovered in their small government apartment for days (or even years) because family is distant both physically and emotionally, and friends have all long since passed away.

The first time it happened, or at least the first time it drew national attention, the corpse of a 69-year-old man living near Mrs. Ito had been lying on the floor for three years, without anyone noticing his absence. His monthly rent and utilities had been withdrawn automatically from his bank account. Finally, after his savings were depleted in 2000, the authorities came to the apartment and found his skeleton near the kitchen, its flesh picked clean by maggots and beetles, just a few feet away from his next-door neighbors.

Mrs. Ito, age 91, lives alone in a small government apartment built back in the 1960s for up-and-coming salary men.

She had been lonely every day for the past quarter of a century, she said, ever since her daughter and husband had died of cancer, three months apart. Mrs. Ito still had a stepdaughter, but they had grown apart over the decades, exchanging New Year’s cards or occasional greetings on holidays.

So Mrs. Ito asked a neighbor in the opposite building for a favor. Could she, once a day, look across the greenery separating their apartments and gaze up at Mrs. Ito’s window?

Every evening around 6 p.m., before retiring for the night, Mrs. Ito closed the paper screen in the window. Then in the morning, after her alarm woke her at 5:40 a.m., she slid the screen back open.

“If it’s closed,” Mrs. Ito told her neighbor, “it means I’ve died.”

Mrs. Ito felt reassured when the neighbor agreed, so she began sending the woman gifts of pears every summer to occasionally glance her way.

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Teju Cole Delights in Sentence Fragments

(Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

At The Millions, Steve Paulson interviews Teju Cole about why he left Twitter, his photographic inspirations, how he delights in the beauty of sentence fragments, and his meditative approach to combining text and photography in his book, Blind Spot.

SP: You also seem to be fascinated by memory.

TC: Memory is often a layer. A lot of my language can probably be located somewhere around 1915, between Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. I have a lot of faith in what can be achieved with a well-polished English sentence. Not that I try to make the language old- fashioned, but I like a clean sentence. But a lot of the reading I do is fragmented. One of my favorite authors is Michael Ondaatje and he uses sentence fragments a great deal.

SP: Why do you like fragmentary sentences?

TC: Because they can evoke the present in a very powerful way.

SP: So you don’t want a narrative that’s too self-contained and wraps everything up?

TC: But sometimes I do. Look at James Joyce’s short story “The Dead.” Excellent sentences and they’re somewhat formal, even though the narrative is not formal. You get your epiphany at the end and you have these very powerful feelings. But if you read Running in the Family or The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, it’s jazzier. Those sentences are all over the place. Or if you read Anne Carson, who is a modern master of the fragment. A fragment is very often about mastery as well. It’s about saying I need just this much to convey. That can just be a delight. For me it’s about recognizing that great art comes in all kinds of forms. In Blind Spot I actually use more fragments than I’ve tended to use you, though I also still use a lot of well-polished sentences.

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In Service of the Slender Man: When Teen Girls Become Murderous

Photo by Julio César Cerletti García (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

To find belonging, teen girls sometimes form obsessive friendships to fend off the isolation that puberty brings at the twilight of their childhood. In this exceptionally well-researched piece at VQR, Alex Mar recalls two real-life events in which teen-girl duos became murderous and why these obsessive friendships devolved into a pact to do evil.

What is occult is synonymous with what is hidden, orphic, veiled—but girls are familiar with that realm. We have the instinct. Girls create their own occult language; it may be one of the first signs of adolescence. This is a language of fantasy, of the desire for things we can’t yet have (we’re too young), of forces we can’t control (loneliness, an unrequited crush, the actions of our family). This invention of a private language, both visual and verbal, shared with only a chosen few, gives shape to our first allegiances; it grants entry into a universe with its own rationale—the warped rationale of fairy tales. Its rules do not bleed over into the realm of the mundane, of parents and teachers and adult consequences.

But in May 2014, the occult universe of two young girls did spill over into the real. And within days of her twelfth birthday, all of Morgan Geyser’s drawings and scribblings—evidence of the world she had built with her new best friend—were confiscated. More than three years later, they are counted among the state’s exhibits in a case of first-degree intentional homicide.

After some time on the swings, Anissa suggests they play hide-and-seek in the suburban woods at the park’s edge. There, just a few feet beyond the tree line, Morgan, on Anissa’s cue, stabs Bella in the chest.

Then she stabs her again, and again, and again—in her arms, in her leg, near her heart. By the time Morgan stops, she has stabbed her nineteen times.

Though they were both a very young, Midwestern twelve, they had been chosen for a dark and unique destiny which none of their junior-high classmates could possibly understand, drawn into the forest in the service of a force much greater and more mysterious than anything in their suburban-American lives. What drew them out there has a name: Slender Man, faceless and pale and impossibly tall. His symbol is the letter X.

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Money For Nothing: It Might Set Your Kids Free

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Has the time come to offer a basic income to all? The easiest criticism is that people quit their jobs when they get free money, but as Issie Lapowsky reports at Wired, a new study reveals some intriguing positive effects of a basic income. In Cherokee, North Carolina, Eastern Band members receive hefty bi-annual payments from the local casino. The study shows that a basic guaranteed income helps kids stay in school longer, reduces their participation in crime, and can set them up for financial security in an era where if you lack specialized skills or education, you can no longer just fall into a job at a unionized mill for $50,000 a year.

Harrah’s, which operates the casino, takes 3 percent of the $300 million annual profits. The bulk is funneled back into the community, covering infrastructure, health care for every tribal member, and the college education fund. Casino funds have paved roads and paid for a new $26 million wastewater treatment plant. Half of the profits go toward the per capita payments. The casino has become the tribe’s most precious resource.

The Eastern Band’s change in fortunes also shifted the course of Costello’s research. “We thought it’d be interesting to see if it made any difference” to the children’s mental health, she says. They also started comparing the younger Cherokee children, whose families started accruing money earlier in their lives, to the older ones. They wanted to answer a simple question: Would the cash infusion benefit these kids in measurable ways?

Before the casino opened, Costello found that poor children scored twice as high as those who were not poor for symptoms of psychiatric disorders. But after the casino opened, the children whose families’ income rose above the poverty rate showed a 40 percent decrease in behavioral problems. Just four years after the casino opened, they were, behaviorally at least, no different from the kids who had never been poor at all. By the time the youngest cohort of children was at least 21, she found something else: The younger the Cherokee children were when the casino opened, the better they fared compared to the older Cherokee children and to rural whites. This was true for emotional and behavioral problems as well as drug and alcohol addiction.

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The Big Black Market for Spare Human Body Parts

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At Pacific Standard, Peter Andrey Smith reports on the black market big business of body brokers — those who prepare donated human remains for study by students, doctors, and scientists. A single human cadaver, parted out efficiently, can fetch $100,000 in a lightly regulated industry that’s ripe for fraudsters trying to make a buck on the donated dead.

In February of 2012, two duct-taped camping coolers—the kind you might take on a picnic—arrived at Delta Cargo, a freight-shipping warehouse on the northeast side of Detroit Metro airport. The airline’s ground crew tossed the coolers onto a pallet in a climate-controlled storage area. But the tape split, and a reddish liquid splattered out. Because the shipment was said to contain “five human heads with necks, two torsos, and one whole body,” it soon proved to be an expensive leak, requiring extensive biohazard remediation.

It seemed improbable that an entire body could fit inside two picnic coolers, so they pried open the lids. Inside were eight human heads, wrapped in trash bags and sitting in what appeared to be pools of blood. Eight faces, no names.

The United States is an excellent place to be in the body business. By one 2007 estimate, 20,000 human bodies are donated here annually. These donations come about directly. You can bequeath your body to anatomical gift programs operated by many universities, and you may become the “first patient” a surgeon operates on. Donations can also be arranged after death, through a network of independent firms, although in such cases your family may have only a vague notion of where your body will end up. Brokers do business with other brokers, who work with funeral homes and crematoriums that, in turn, get referrals from hospice centers—all of which means that, invariably, some donated remains end up dismembered, beheaded, and shipped around the world for profit.

You cannot legally sell a dead body—yours or anyone else’s. These brokers, instead, turn a profit off a corpse by charging for the service, not the actual goods. Their fees cover the “preparation” of cadaveric material as well as the “matching” and “placing” of remains. These re-allocation fees were once designed simply to cover the cost of transporting remains to and from medical schools.

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Bringing Up the Bodies: How NecroSearch Helps Police to Locate the Dead

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At 5280, Robert Sanchez profiles members of NecroSearch, a Colorado-based volunteer organization made up of dedicated lab experts, scientists, and skilled technicians. NecroSearchers apply decades of specialized experience to help law enforcement officers locate dead bodies. Their reward? Bringing closure to the families of the deceased.

In the past three decades, NecroSearch has helped police and district attorneys with more than 300 cases in 40 states and on four continents. Fifteen bodies have been discovered as a result of that work. They’ve been found in mine shafts and in landfills, hidden under a pile of rocks in the Rocky Mountains, and buried under a suburban patio in Arizona. Once, a victim was discovered stuffed inside the trunk of a car that had been dumped into the Missouri River. Another time, a body was tangled in a Northern California redwood’s root system. When a Tennessee suspect learned authorities enlisted NecroSearch to find his missing wife, the man referred to the group as a bunch of “high-tech witch doctors.”

Just before Christmas in 1985, the coroner in Glenwood Springs asked France for help identifying 12 victims who’d died in a gas-plant explosion. When she arrived, France realized it was just her. Victims were battered and blown apart, many of them burned beyond recognition. Almost immediately, emotions roiled inside her. “It was a defining moment,” she said. She had an epiphany. “I decided I needed to take all those things I was feeling, put them in a box with a bow around it, and put that box on a shelf in my mind,” France told me. “I had to separate emotion from the science.” She worked two straight days to identify the victims, pulling remains out of body bags stored inside the morgue cooler. When she was done, she turned them over to the coroner for burial. “And then,” she said, “I went on with my life.”

“I will think about all of this forever,” France told me as she sat in a chair inside her front office. She was squeezing a miniature foam brain of an orangutan like a stress ball. “I’ve seen too much to forget,” she said. “How can you not have trauma when you do what I do? There will come a time when I have to say I’m done.”

A few months ago, Clark Davenport met me at a bookstore in downtown Denver. The 75-year-old geophysicist was a few weeks from leaving for Russia on a NecroSearch-approved trip during which he would help look for the remains of Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, the youngest brother of Tsar Nicholas II. The two men—along with Nicholas’ wife, Alexandra, and three daughters—famously had been murdered and buried in clandestine graves by Bolshevik rebels a year after the February Revolution in 1917. With the rest of the murdered Romanovs discovered in the early 1990s, finding the grand duke was considered the last piece of a historical puzzle. The trip would be Davenport’s fifth to Russia in the past decade. It was work that filled him with excitement and gave him a much-needed respite from the dozen or so ongoing, more pressing NecroSearch cases in which he was involved.

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