Everybody thought Lou Junod was a gangster. He not only looked the part, with his pinkie ring and French cuffs and blue dress shirts white at the collar, he played it, cultivating an air of danger. He had beautiful manners and always strove to be a gentleman, the striving itself a part of his charm. But there was something feral about him behind the civility, the elaborate coded masculinity and even more elaborate actorly diction. He chased down men when they cut him off in traffic and got into fistfights well into his 70s, his anger an eclipse you couldn’t help but look at even though you knew it would strike you blind. He had an underworld glamour, even to his own children, and a reputation. People figured he had “connections,” and he did — his connections called our house, like old friends. But they weren’t friends. They were bookies, and they had him by the balls.
He placed his first bet on the first Super Bowl, Chiefs-Packers 1967. That was also the first football game I ever watched, because my uncle George was married to Vince Lombardi’s sister. Who the hell knows why you fall in love, but I can tell you that several love stories began that day: between America and the NFL, between my father and gambling, between me and football, and between me and my father.
I was 8 years old at the time, alone in the house because my brother and sister had just gone off to college. I was afraid of him until football. He scared me often to tears, and football gave me a way of talking to him without crying. And it gave him a way of talking to me, well, without making me cry. I dedicated myself to football in an effort to reconcile myself to him, and to reconcile him to the rest of my family. That he lost tens of thousands of dollars in the process didn’t really matter as much to me as my role in trying to help him win.
For anyone who does creative work, Gabrielle Bellot‘s poetic piece at LitHub is a salve for the times when we’re plagued by artistic self-doubt. In relaying her own struggles and in deconstructing the work of poets W.B. Yeats and Derek Walcott, Bellot finds solace and inspiration in two other writers who at times sought to shed the “thick coats of impostors.”
I have always been struck by “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.” Not because it’s unusual for Yeats—it contains a bit of the mythic dreaminess many of his poems do, and its darkness is less apocalyptically tinted than some of his earlier pieces, like “The Second Coming”—but because it feels like such a twilight poem, a poem written when you feel a peculiar kind of lowness: frustrated in your writing but not so much that you cannot write at all, for you are, counterintuitively, inspired by your lack of inspiration, even if you think the work you produce is nothing. It’s a poem for those of us who feel we are no longer doing anything new, no longer accomplishing anything; we wear the thick coats of impostors and hate ourselves. We feel like, whether or not we’ve been published, we aren’t really writers. We’re failures.
I know the feeling well, the way the waves rock—or don’t—when your boat has drifted deep into the sargassum of self-doubt. I feel it often. When I tell friends this, sometimes they react with surprise, as I’ve had the fortune of my work being published in places I once never imagined I could see my name in. But being published doesn’t remove the feeling of failure. It’s an almost universal symptom of being a writer who isn’t ruled solely by their own arrogance that we will feel, at some point, like impostors, like one-trick ponies, like authors who will never amount to anything, or whose time has passed without us realizing how sacred and finite those clock-ticks were. I don’t pretend to feel quite what Yeats did, our ages and careers and lives so different, but I understand it, all the same.
Yet, ironically, I also read “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” as a kind of hopeful paean. It does not, after all, tell us to give up when we feel like we’ve lost the bit of dream our work comes from. Instead, it directs us, simply and powerfully, to go forth and find it again. Write, Yeats seems to suggest, even against death—the death of our inspiration, or the one who measures us, when our time is nearly up, without us knowing. It is a poem of death, yes—but not one of ending, but, instead, of new beginnings, painful and poignant as they may be.
But, with or without fame, we can never know if our work will live on. Perhaps it’s enough to sing, and keep singing, and hope, after our own night-shawl has closed around us, that someone else will hear it, and, hardest of all, remember it.
Did William Ernest Johnson III steal the homes of the dead by forging notary signatures to transfer ownership and flip them for a profit in Philadelphia neighborhoods ripe for gentrification, or is he — as he maintains — a victim too? Craig R. McCoy investigates at the Philadelphia Enquirer.
They are all dead. Yet if city records are to be believed, they all walked into the office of a notary public and signed away their homes, which just happened to be in gentrifying neighborhoods with soaring property values.
Gail Harrison lived alone in the house where she grew up on Seybert Street in North Philadelphia. She had her quirks, but neighbors looked out for her. “She was a nice, friendly, Christian-hearted woman,” one said.
Harriet Dunn and Dorcas Moone lived quietly in a North 27th Street rowhouse in Brewerytown that they bought in 1950 after leaving the Army.
Alex Krasheninnikow survived a Nazi concentration camp. He later handed out the Communist Party paper on the streets of Philadelphia. His home on Agate Street in Port Richmond was overflowing with books.
Their properties all ended up in the hands of a stranger, a 43-year-old man named William Ernest Johnson III, who wrapped up some of the deals while still on parole from a long prison term for a string of violent crimes.
In all, an Inquirer investigation has linked Johnson to at least six suspicious home transfers over the last 2½ years. In case after case, he acquired vacant houses with longtime owners who were dead or so aged that their grown children would later say they never participated in the transactions.
The taking of Gail Harrison’s house was the first of a string of suspicious acquisitions involving Johnson. To look into them is to find more dead sellers, doctored deeds, and a city bureaucracy blind to it all. The thefts took place so quietly that in two cases the relatives did not know about the illegitimate sales until they were contacted by the Inquirer.
One theft required the forging of two signatures — those of longtime companions Harriett Dunn and Dorcas Moone. Dunn had been dead a quarter century and Moone a decade when someone signed their names to the deed selling their three-story house at 1323 N. 27th St., another Brewerytown address. Moone’s signature on the deed misspelled her name.
At The Walrus, in an excerpt from his book The Organist: Fugues, Fatherhood, and a Fragile Mind, Mark Abley deconstructs the pipe organ, examining its components, appearance in history and popular culture, and its powerful capacity for meaning via sound as he recounts his distant father Harry’s obsession with the instrument and with musical composition and arrangement — often at a cost to his personal relationships.
Above all, my father was a musician. He played, he conducted, he taught, he accompanied, he composed. When I was a boy, he would sometimes appear at the dining table with a pencil behind his right ear and an abstracted distracted look in his hazel–green eyes. After a few bites of food and a cursory exchange of words, he would excuse himself, return to the piano—the central item of furniture in each of his many homes—and play, over and over, some musical phrase. Just a few bars at a time, with tiny variations. Listening to him, short sighted as I was, I thought about how my optometrist would keep toying with the refractor’s glassy settings to arrive at a correct prescription. When a melody or chord had been fixed to my father’s satisfaction, and he had scribbled it down on the back of a used envelope or the previous Sunday’s church bulletin, he would resume his meal. My mother could be a stickler for proper manners and polite behaviour. But she tolerated these whims without complaint, knowing they were anything but whims. When my father was composing music—for choir, organ, solo voice, or piano, and occasionally, for other instruments too—he was happy, or something approaching it. Those were the good times, the times when nobody had to worry about his state of mind.
In each of their homes, my mother placed a crucifix on the living–room wall, and my father hung a portrait of Bach on the wall above his desk. Music ruled his life.
It did not rule mine, and therefore, his was a life I could not fully enter. I never took an organ lesson; maybe he was waiting for me to ask, or maybe I was waiting for him. More likely, he needed to maintain a private space away from the demands of his family, just as I needed to create an imaginative world in which my parents would not be dominant. An organ, any organ, no matter how shrill its tone or limited its range, would give him the space he craved. Not every organ held stops that allowed my father to speak with both the voix céleste and the vox humana. Yet he was a master at coaxing beauty out of unlikely vessels, making even the weakest instrument sound sweet or strong. To his wife and child, the language he lived and breathed was a foreign tongue: the language of a distant nation. The language of organists.
At the New York Times, read Adam Skolnick‘s interview with Louis Rudd and Colin O’Brady, the two men who set out from the Ronne Ice Shelf on the western edge of Antarctica on November 3rd, 2018 in a two-man race. Pulling all the equipment they’d need to survive for two months on sleds called pulks, which man would be the first to traverse Antarctica — the coldest continent on earth — in a solo, unassisted journey of 921 miles?
[Louis Rudd] I couldn’t retrace my track. I went back on the compass bearing. Visibility was like 10 meters. I was thinking, “This is getting quite dangerous now.” I’ve got no tent and no sleeping bag. I’ve literally got a down jacket and I’ve got some food. I’ve got a sat phone, but nobody is coming to get me in these conditions. It could be a couple of days in this sort of thing.
Without my tent and sleeping bag, I’m instantly in a survival situation, and I was conscious as well that the winds were really strong. There was a ski sticking up, but if that fell over, the whole thing could have been buried. It took me a long time to do the two miles. I was scanning and looking. I’d almost gone past it, which would have been fatal, but by pure luck, I turned my head toward a gap in the spindrift and saw a black shadowy sort of shape. Instantly turned, skied a couple hundred meters, stumbled across it. Relief.
Becoming a mother is a process — matrescence, I can’t quite bring myself to call it — and not usually a smooth one. My theory is that, these days, the identity transformation begins the first time you apologize for posting so much about your baby on social media. And it’s complete the first time you find yourself jumping into a new mom’s mentions to give her unsolicited advice.
I’m reminded of this every time I open Instagram and see the feeds of women I’ve followed and admired and laughed with and confessed to for years who have recently become a parents. As I watch them make their own transitions into the role, I feel full of affection and compassion and nostalgia, followed quickly by a vexing, almost irrepressible desire to be consulted.
It doesn’t happen with the first photo, where under current conventions, you post a photo of the infant, newly born, with his or her or their name and, as if the child is a fish you caught, their weight and length. If you’re committed to being thorough, you express some sort of loving sentiment that feels revelatory to you but reads as perfunctory: “We’re so in love.” (Which we know to mean something closer to: Thank God I think I love it??) “We’ve never been happier.” (My asshole and vagina are now one hole) “We’re getting to know each other!” (My nipples look like they’ve been run through a meat grinder and I feel completely and utterly hopeless but so much so that I’m afraid to say it out loud.)
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 Match.com 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.”
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.
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.
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.