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Mr. Rogers vs. the Superheroes

Associated Press

Maxwell King | An excerpt adapted from The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers | Abrams | September 2018 | 12 minutes (3,033 words)

It all came together in Hawaii, of all places.

In the late 1970s, David Newell and Fred Rogers were traveling together to Honolulu, where Fred was scheduled to make a speech. David Newell handled public relations for Fred Rogers and his production company, Family Communications, Inc. (FCI), as well as playing Mr. McFeely, the “speedy delivery” mailman character on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Rogers hated traveling by himself — in fact, he hated traveling at all, just as he hated giving speeches. But he was often called on to speak at colleges and universities, as well as to early childhood education groups and broadcasting organizations, and most often it was Newell who traveled with him.

In a taxi to the speaking engagement, Rogers was lost in thought about his upcoming speech. Newell recalls: “In the newspaper, I came across this little blurb that a child had jumped off a roof with a towel — the Superman thing.”

Newell interrupted Rogers’s reverie to tell him the shocking news that a little boy who’d watched Superman on television had decided he would try to fly, and was terribly injured falling from a rooftop. One of the few things that could raise anger — real, intense anger — in Mister Rogers was willfully misleading innocent, impressionable children. To him, it was immoral and completely unacceptable. Read more…

Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth

Sarah Smarsh | Scribner | September 2018 | 11 minutes (3,022 words)

We’re delighted to bring you an excerpt from chapter two of Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh.

Body of a Poor Girl

Our bodies were born into hard labor. To people who Grandma Betty would say “never had to lift a finger,” that might sound like something to be pitied. But there was a beautiful efficiency to it — form in constant physical function with little energy left over. In some ways, I feel enriched rather than diminished for having lived it.

I know the strength of this body that helped hoist an air compressor into a truck, leveraged a sheet of drywall alone, carried buckets of feed against prairie wind. I know the quickness of my limbs that scaled a tall fence when a bull charged and that leapt when a ladder fell. But while I worked in those ways, like my mother and father I wrote poetry in my mind.

There’s an idea that laborers end up in their role because it’s all they’re suited for. What put us there, though, was birth, family history — not lack of talent for something else. “Blue-collar workers” have jobs requiring just as much brainpower as “white-collar professionals.” To run a family farm is to be a business owner in a complicated industry. But, unlike many jobs requiring smarts and creativity, working a farm summons the body’s intelligence, too.

To run a family farm is to be a business owner in a complicated industry. But, unlike many jobs requiring smarts and creativity, working a farm summons the body’s intelligence, too.

Sometimes it was miserable. Sometimes it was satisfying. The farmhouse living room where we spent evenings had a big woodstove in it, and no fire will ever feel more glorious than the ones we sat next to after working outside in January sleet that clung to the metal fences as a coat of ice. I’m a little sorry you never got to feel that. But I am not sorry that you never experienced the dangers of being devalued outside those farmhouse walls.

The person who drives a garbage truck may himself be viewed as trash. The worse danger is not the job itself but the devaluing of those who do it. A society that considers your body dispensable will inflict a violence upon you. Working in a field is one thing; being misled by a corporation about the safety of a carcinogenic pesticide is another. Hammering on a roof is one thing; not being able to afford a doctor when you fall off it is another. Waiting tables is one thing; working for an employer whose sexual harassment you can’t afford to fight and risk a night’s worth of tips is another.

For black and brown bodies, a particular danger exists regardless of how much money is in a bank account. We were white bodies in peril specifically because we were laborers.

The person who drives a garbage truck may himself be viewed as trash. The worse danger is not the job itself but the devaluing of those who do it.

For those of us who were female, the body was also defined by its role as a potential mother. That’s true in every class but becomes more problematic in the context of financial struggle. Poverty makes motherhood harder, and motherhood makes poverty harder. Single mothers and their children are, by far, the poorest type of family in the United States.

The frustration at the dangerous crossroads of gender and poverty was sharpened for my mom in a couple of ways, I think. She had a mind that wanted books, ideas, and sketch pads — things she sat with privately but didn’t get to share with the world. And, because people considered her beautiful, she got a constant stream of attention about her body, at work and elsewhere. Being physically objectified that many times over — as a labor machine, a producer of children, and a decorative object — all while being aware of your own unexpressed talent can make the body feel like a prison.

My mom was beloved among her friends as a kind, funny, wise, and generous person, I’d learn as an adult. But there was a deep pain in her that only those closest to her saw. I think sometimes that she didn’t really hate having children as a young woman; she hated her life, and the children who came into it would feel that.

My mom was beloved among her friends as a kind, funny, wise, and generous person, I’d learn as an adult. But there was a deep pain in her that only those closest to her saw.

There is a good chance you would have felt it, too. The anger she put on me, I would have put onto you. I can count on one hand the number of times someone has seen me in a moment of true rage; they would tell you my voice became quiet and my eyes stopped blinking. But I have felt the wild, ungrounded frustration of the women before me many more times than I have shown it. Not so much now. But very much when I was a teenager and into my twenties, during what would have been your most formative years. Back then it took every bit of strength in me to stop that energy running through my body like lightning, to refuse to be its conductor.

Anger was not Jeannie’s true self, I’d learn as she aged. But, as tends to happen with people who are beaten down by daily circumstances, my young mother’s core nature was glimpsed only in moments of life and death: the hospitalization of a loved one, her own water breaking. It was not a tender nature, but it wasn’t mean, either. It was a severe serenity, doing whatever a moment required without complaint.

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The day my brother arrived, she sat on the edge of my twin bed to wake me in the dark early-morning hours. She’d picked out my ruffled mauve bedding and kept it well laundered, but before that moment she had never sat on it, that I can recall. She had a habit of keeping her distance and flying off the handle at the smallest frustration. For this event that might actually warrant panic, though, she was calm as a priestess in the October moonlight.

“It’s time,” she said.

At the hospital more than thirty miles away in Wichita, Mom hemorrhaged during the labor. Her blood pressure dropped so low that the doctors said, “Stay with us.”

Once she had recovered, someone put me in a blue smock and took me to meet Matthew, who was blotchy and black haired. The visitors’ room had blue balloons and food on long tables; I’d never seen such a big spread of treats and drinks on a day that wasn’t Thanksgiving or Christmas. Dad gave me a cup of sparkling grape juice, which I knew was expensive since it was in a big glass bottle involving bubbles and foil.

Mom wore a pink-and-black-striped cotton gown. She had curled and teased her long brown hair and put makeup on her twenty-two-year-old face, but her eyes were tired. They would stay tired for a long time.

My parents couldn’t afford a babysitter and didn’t live in a proper neighborhood where there might have been fellow mothers to help a woman recovering from childbirth. Both my grandmothers, Betty and Teresa, had promised to come by when they could. Dad was determined to get back to work. The Family and Medical Leave Act that might have protected Mom’s job for a few weeks wouldn’t be passed for another eight years; toward the end of her pregnancy, she’d been forced to quit whatever low-paying gig she had at the time.

So Mom would be on her own with a child not yet in school, an infant, a checkbook for a bank account with thirty bucks in it, and long miles between us and any town, any store.

So Mom would be on her own with a child not yet in school, an infant, a checkbook for a bank account with thirty bucks in it, and long miles between us and any town, any store.

With Matt’s arrival just weeks before Ronald Reagan’s reelection, Mom would soon cast her second vote in a national election. This time, though, her politics were different. While her teenage instincts had gone with losing incumbent Carter the year I was born, by 1984 she had been won over by Reagan’s charm or at least by the national consensus that he was a good president. Many others in our community would vote for him, too — if they voted at all.

“They’re all crooks,” I often heard about politicians. Mom never said that. She was not given to apathy and did her best to stay on top of the news. Based on what she could glean, Reagan was a good man.

The Republican party would hurt women like my mother in direct and indirect ways that decade: removing the Equal Rights Amendment from the party’s platform, dismantling aid programs that helped poor women feed their children, eroding reproductive health rights. Unbeknownst to my mom, the Republican party was turning deeply socially conservative, different from the moderate, fiscally conservative party that people respected in my area. Mom didn’t think women on welfare were lazy or that feminists were militant monsters. She voted for Reagan because a cultural tide told her it was the right thing to do, and she had little time or resources to question the wave of sentiment the country was riding.

The country was swinging right, and working people were changing party allegiance. My mom was one of them, part of a national trend that I have found says more about clever political messaging than about what people truly know or think about the issues. Meanwhile, poor rural mothers like her were receding from view in both political parties, if they’d ever been in view at all.

When she got home from the hospital, to our new house in the country, Mom was still bleeding through the stitches between her legs. She was exhausted in a way she’d never been and scared to have a four-year-old and a newborn under her care. Dad had to go back to work.

“Please don’t go,” Mom said to him. She was generally too proud to ask anyone for anything, including her own husband for support. But she pleaded. “I can’t do this alone.”

There were houses to build, though. My uncle was outside honking the horn, and Dad left — believing, to some extent, that it was his job to provide and her job to take care of the kids. There was no paid leave for him either in such a moment.

Once Dad was gone, Mom lay in their bed trying to sleep through her pain as Matt cried from his crib. I crawled up a chest of drawers in her bedroom and tipped it over. The dresser crushed me against the carpet.

Mom ran from her bed and somehow lifted the chest off me, straining so hard she tore her stitches. Blood ran down her thighs.

I don’t think we went back to the hospital. When she told me the story, it was about a day she barely survived because of my dad’s absence. I see it now as a day she barely survived because society valued productivity and autonomy more than it valued women and children. Pregnancy slows you down, so pregnant women lost their jobs; mothers were alone in their nuclear households while fathers worked extra hours to make up the difference. For the poor and rural among them, the situation was keenly dangerous.

When Dad came home that night, Mom was quiet. She stayed quiet for weeks, until Dad made another announcement. He would be leaving for a construction job a long drive east of us. That meant weeks away from home. Mom thought he was finding excuses to be away from us.

I see it now as a day she barely survived because society valued productivity and autonomy more than it valued women and children.

“Please don’t go, please don’t go,” she said, screaming and crying. She often screamed but almost never cried. It was like something had broken in her when the stitches between her legs tore.

But Dad packed up his tools and left again.

He was concerned about providing for his family, he told me when I was grown, sitting next to him in his work truck and telling him how Mom remembered that day.

“I couldn’t have turned down good money, even if I had to be gone for a long time,” he said. His eyes filled with tears. “Look, maybe I was wrong.”

* * *

How to handle the stress of it all when you don’t even know that your life is stressful? Women saying “my nerves are shot” was the closest anyone came to examining the situation. What they didn’t discuss, though, they felt. That’s what substances were for.

Every adult I knew was addicted to something — mostly cigarettes or booze. Also pills, both prescribed and gotten by other means. The women of my mom’s family, who had grown up in Wichita with doctors nearby during decades when health care was cheaper, were sold on the idea of prescriptions for symptoms rooted in psychological strife. Most of them were on “thyroid medicine” for exhaustion, “nerve pills” for anxiety.

Dad, however, didn’t take even the most benign aspirin — not thinking it harmful or ineffective but suspecting it amounted to money spent on something your body and mind could do on their own, for free and without side effects. Dad had a quiet inner life as a self-healer. Once in a while he shared it with me, and in that way he was the most maternal force in my life.

Dad had a quiet inner life as a self-healer. Once in a while he shared it with me, and in that way he was the most maternal force in my life.

He tucked me in most nights and helped me say my Catholic prayers to the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost, Mary, and the guardian angels of me and all my family. This helped me relax at bedtime, but I had a horrible time falling asleep. I’d lie in my bed thinking through every problem and staring at my closed closet while my muscles were frozen in fear. One night I finally told Dad that I couldn’t fall asleep for the longest time, even after the prayers. He listened. Then he put his hands around my toes through the comforter.

“Relax your feet,” he said in a soft voice, and I did.

He said to relax my legs. I was amazed to find that I could and did.

“Now relax your tummy,” he said. I did, knots and tension disappearing as though Dad had helped me wave them away. I felt like a warm blanket was being drawn over me, but on the inside.

“Now relax your arms and your fingers,” he said. “Now your shoulders.”

By the time the magic had reached my head, my eyebrows relaxed, and I fell asleep.

Dad knew how to help me quiet my mind because he had taught himself to quiet his own. No matter how hard a day was, he almost always treated me with respect, if only by keeping his distance when his own emotions were raging.

And he really listened to me. Even though Mom was the reader and writer of the two, Dad liked to claim I grew up to be good with words because he talked to me like a grown-up rather than in baby gibberish when I was an infant.

Conversations were different with the rest of my family. They often fell into trancelike repetition of nonsense once a kid had worn them out: “He needs a good pop upside the head,” they’d say. Or “He’s lazy,” or “She don’t mind when she’s told.” Even warm, loving Betty would brag about how she’d been beaten as a kid and it did her good. “She’s up to something,” grown adults would say about little kids — words of warning like an old fairy tale from a European forest, where a poor child was a burden unless she contributed to the household and obeyed the rules.

Dad never said things like that. He would have troubles with drinking and gambling over the years, but he carried an aura of peace even when our lives were chaotic. He brushed my knotted hair before the sun came up, before he went to work and I went to school. He jotted poetic little notes of wisdom on scraps of paper and put them in my bedroom. When I was older I realized how remarkable all that was in our culture where manliness had a specific definition.

“Writing poems and brushing your daughter’s hair before school isn’t something men brag about, where we’re from,” I told him, reflecting on how nurturing he was by nature.

“It ought to be,” he said.

He was so good with little kids over the years that, even though he never said he wanted me to have my own, I sometimes felt simultaneously relieved I wasn’t a mother and sad that he wasn’t a grandpa to you.

Driving his truck, he would hang his left arm out an open window and let the smell of his wheat fields fill the cab. He barely pushed the gas pedal. The truck seemed to stand still, but through the large, flapping gash in the floorboard under my dangling feet I could see the dirt road moving past. Dad was quiet. The radio was off or tuned to AM. The fields were dirt or green sprouts or blond waves or tall stubble like Dad’s beard. I’d crank my window down and do like Dad.

The place we lived was full of sharp objects, poisons, and frustrations, but there were moments — maybe most moments, on the whole — like in Dad’s truck with the windows down, when the west wind that reached us all the way from the Rockies cleared the air, and I felt more free than I’ve felt in cleaner, safer places.

To find that feeling by myself, I developed a trick I called “doing the reflection.” I’d crawl onto the bathroom countertop and press my face close to the mirror, my breath creating two little circles of fog that disappeared when I inhaled. I would stare into my own eyes. It was important not to blink, for some reason. Then I’d feel a shift inside my head, hear a little “swoosh” like the ocean inside a shell.

My face would suddenly look a little different, my vision was a fraction of a millimeter outside my own eyes. Then I felt calm, unlike the upset child I saw in the mirror.

The poverties that threatened my safety forced me to find that safest place. Eventually I would think of that realm as where we come from, and where we return when we die. That’s where I heard you. That’s the calm center where I received my most important assignment, as the body of a poor girl bound for a different life: to make sure you were never born.

* * *

From Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh. Copyright © 2018 by Sarah Smarsh. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

* * *

Journalist Sarah Smarsh has covered socioeconomic class, politics and public policy for The Guardian, The New York Times, The Texas Observer and many other publications. A frequent commentator on class issues in the U.S., she recently was a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Smarsh’s first book, Heartland, was long-listed for the National Book Award in nonfiction. She lives in Kansas.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

(Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Brittany Packnett, Rahima Nasa, Jordan Smith, Scott Korb, and Chris Heath.

Sign up to receive this list free every Friday in your inbox. Read more…

The Dead End on My Record Shelf

Steven Errico / Getty

Christopher C. King | An excerpt from Lament from Epirus: An Odyssey into Europe’s Oldest Surviving Folk Music | W.W. Norton & Company | May 2018 | 16 minutes (4,346 words)

A time-traveler, a person from the twenty-first century, stands on a cliff overlooking a mountain pass in southern Europe, in northwestern Greece, a few thousand years after the end of the last Ice Age, having traveled back in time by way of some technology unknown to us. This traveler is observing human beings while they interact with one another in this challenging, remote environment.

Something is happening among these proto-Europeans. One person places a long wooden shaft, holes bored along the side, to his lips, producing sound. Other sounds exit the mouths of the surrounding people. The collective sound appears fragmented to the listener — the time-traveler — standing above. At times the voices and the flute notes appear smooth, mellifluous, but then disjointed and abrupt. During this flood of sound, members of this group move in cryptic yet intentional ways. When this lush cacophony ceases, so too do the movements of the people.

What is going on down there?

Any of us could be this time-traveler. And any of us would realize — based on our observations — that these people are communicating. We perceive sound and movement, assuming cause and effect. The question that should linger in our minds is this: are we observing a use of language, a use of music, or something else — an alien and impenetrable behavior? Read more…

The Miracle of the Mundane

Sheet music discovered in 2009 identified as part of a childhood creation by Mozart, Kerstin Joensson / AP. Penguin Random House.

Heather Havrilesky | What If This Were Enough? | September 2018 | 16 minutes (3,976 words)


On a good day, all of humanity’s accomplishments feel personal: the soaring violins of the second allegretto movement of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7, the intractable painted stare of Frida Kahlo, the enormous curving spans of the Golden Gate Bridge, the high wail of PJ Harvey’s voice on “Victory,” the last melancholy pages of Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. These works remind us that we’re connected to the past and our lives have limitless potential. We were built to touch the divine.

On a bad day, all of humanity’s failures feel unbearably personal: coyotes wandering city streets due to encroaching wildfires, American citizens in Puerto Rico enduring another day without electricity or potable water in the wake of Hurricane Maria, neo-Nazis spouting hatred in American towns, world leaders testing missiles that would bring the deaths of millions of innocent people. We encounter bad news in the intimate glow of our cell phone screens, and then project our worries onto the flawed artifacts of our broken world: the for lease sign on the upper level of the strip mall, the crow picking at a hamburger wrapper in the gutter, the pink stucco walls of the McMansion flanked by enormous square hedges, the blaring TVs on the walls of the local restaurant. On bad days, each moment is haunted by a palpable but private sense of dread. We feel irrelevant at best, damned at worst. Our only hope is to numb and distract ourselves as well as we can on our long, slow march to the grave.

On a good day, humankind’s creations make us feel like we’re here for a reason. Our belief sounds like the fourth molto allegro movement of Mozart’s Symphony no. 41, Jupiter: Our hearts seem to sing along to Mozart’s climbing strings, telling us that if we’re patient, if we work hard, if we believe, if we stay focused, we will continue to feel joy, to do meaningful work, to show up for each other, to grow closer to some sacred ground. We are thrillingly alive and connected to every other living thing, in perfect, effortless accord with the natural world.

But it’s hard to sustain that feeling, even on the best of days — to keep the faith, to stay focused on what matters most—because the world continues to besiege us with messages that we are failing. You’re feeding your baby a bottle and a voice on the TV tells you that your hair should be shinier. You’re reading a book but someone on Twitter wants you to know about a hateful thing a politician said earlier this morning. You are bedraggled and inadequate and running late for something and it’s always this way. You are busy and distracted. You are not here.

It’s even worse on a bad day, when humankind’s creations fill us with the sense that we are failing as a people, as a planet, and nothing can be done about it. The chafing smooth jazz piped into the immaculate coffee joint, the fake cracks painted on the wall at the Cheesecake Factory, the smoke from fires burning thousands of acres of dry tinder, blotting out the sun — they remind us that even though our planet is in peril, we are still being teased and flattered into buying stuff that we don’t need, or coaxed into forgetting the truth about our darkening reality. As the crowd around us watches a fountain dance to Frank Sinatra’s “Somewhere Beyond the Sea” at the outdoor mall, we peek at our phones and discover the bellowed warnings of an erratic foreign leader, threatening to destroy us from thousands of miles away. Everything cheerful seems to have an ominous shadow looming behind it now. The smallest images and bits of news can feel so invasive, so frightening. They erode our belief in what the world can and should be.

As the first total solar eclipse in America in thirty-nine years reveals itself, an email lands in my inbox from ABC that says The Great American Eclipse at the top. People are tweeting and retweeting the same eclipse jokes all morning. As the day grows dimmer, I remember that Bonnie Tyler is going to sing her 1983 hit “Total Eclipse of the Heart” on an eclipse-themed cruise off the coast of Florida soon.

Even natural wonders aren’t what they used to be, because nothing can be experienced without commentary. In the 1950s, we worried about how TV would affect our culture. Now our entire lives are a terrible talk show that we can’t turn off. It often feels like we’re struggling to find ourselves and each other in a crowded, noisy room. We are plagued, around the clock, by the shouting and confusion and fake intimacy of the global community, mid–nervous breakdown.

Sometimes it feels like our shared breakdown is making us less generous and less focused. On a bad day, the world seems to be filled with bad books and bad buildings and bad songs and bad choices. Worthwhile creations and ego-driven, sloppy works are treated to the same hype and praise; soon it starts to feel as if everything we encounter was designed merely to make some carefully branded human a fortune. Why aren’t we reaching for more than this? Isn’t art supposed to inspire or provoke or make people feel emotions that they don’t necessarily want to feel? Can’t the moon block out the sun without a 1980s pop accompaniment? So much of what is created today seems engineered to numb or distract us, keeping us dependent on empty fixes indefinitely.

Such creations feel less like an attempt to capture the divine than a precocious student’s term paper. If any generous spirit shines through, it’s manufactured in the hopes of a signal boost, so that some leisure class end point can be achieved. Our world is glutted with products that exist to help someone seize control of their own life while the rest of the globe falls to ruin. Work (and guidance, and leadership) that comes from such a greedy, uncertain place has more in common with that fountain at the outdoor mall, playing the same songs over and over, every note an imitation of a note played years before.

But human beings are not stupid. We can detect muddled and self-serving intentions in the artifacts we encounter. Even so, such works slowly infect us with their lopsided values. Eventually, we can’t help but imagine that this is the only way to proceed: by peddling your own wares at the expense of the wider world. Can’t we do better than this, reach for more, insist on more? Why does our culture make us feel crazy for trying?

Read more…

J.R.’s Jook and the Authenticity Mirage

Jose More / VWPics via AP Images

Greg Brownderville | Southwest Review | February 2018 | 23 minutes (4,227 words)

A native of the storied Delta region and a musician from the age of 6, I have met quite a few veteran bluesmen. The one who towers tallest in my memory is J.R. Hamilton. When I met J.R., in 2005, he was a slender, sturdy man in his 60s with the spark of a 20-something. Six days a week, he worked on a 4,500-acre farm near Marvell (pronounced marvel), a small town on the Arkansas side of the Delta. Sundays, he played the blues. In the years between 2005 and 2008, I played guitar and harmonica regularly at his Sunday parties. Shortly thereafter, J.R. moved to Memphis, I to Missouri, and my days as a member of his band came to an end.

I met J. R. the way folks meet folks in the Delta. The first part of this story, I warn you, sounds rather cartoonishly Southern, but is nevertheless true: One evening, just before dark, I stopped for pulled pork at a place in Marvell called Shadden’s Barbecue. A woman I had never met, named Pudding, sat down next to me at the communal table where diners dig in. We fell immediately into lively conversation. Toward the end of the meal, when I mentioned in passing that I played music, Pudding said if I wasn’t in a hurry, I should follow her out to “J.R.’s jook house” and sit in with the local blues band. I didn’t know exactly what I was in for, but it’s a matter of principle with me that when a delightful stranger named Pudding says to follow her to a jook, I say yes, ma’am. Read more…


Drawn and Quarterly

Nick Drnaso | An excerpt from the graphic novel Sabrina | Drawn & Quarterly | May 2018

This is what it means to be a man.

SABRINA.interior109-5 Read more…

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Tucker Carlson (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Lyz Lenz, Chris Sweeney, Megan Zahneis and Jack Stripling, Davey Alba, and Christopher Borrelli.

Sign up to receive this list free every Friday in your inbox. Read more…

Above It All: How the Court Got So Supreme

Robert Alexander / Getty

David A. Kaplan | The Most Dangerous Branch: Inside the Supreme Court’s Assault on the Constitution | Crown | September 2018 | 19 minutes (4,985 words)

Nine mornings after Antonin Scalia died at Cíbolo Creek, the justices resumed work without their beloved, blustery colleague. The rich traditions of the Court continued unabated. After the justices all shook hands in the small robing room across the hallway from the back of the courtroom, they lined up to await the gavel of the marshal. The assembled throng grew silent, then arose. “Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!” the marshal chanted at the stroke of 10, as always. The eight justices emerged from behind the tall crimson velvet drapes and somberly took their upholstered swivel chairs on the bench. “All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting,” the marshal continued. “God save the United States and this Honorable Court!”

It’s an opening worthy of “Hail to the Chief,” the introductory anthem for the leader of another branch of the federal government. It’s all carefully choreographed. The justices don’t merely walk in, and they’re not already seated when Court begins. From different curtains, they materialize in unison, in three groups based on where they sit. As institutional stagecraft goes, the Court puts on quite a show. Read more…

Having the Wrong Conversations about Hate Activity

Illustration by Greta Kotz

Anonymous | Longreads | September 2018 | 19 minutes (4,750 words)


An editor asked me for an essay about porches with an upbeat takeaway, and I thought about how porches let us navigate the zone between public and private life and connect. But I’d just sat on my porch in Texas and had conversations that sent me back inside, feeling scalded. My small talk had taken a dark turn, my fault. Most people can’t hear about trouble without suggesting a quick fix because they want you to feel better. I tried to write about porches and ended up writing about social life. I tried to write about social life and ended up writing about social media, where we also navigate the zone between public and private life and connect. Or don’t. On social media, our virtual porch, we converse with friends, friends of friends, the occasional somebody no one knows, and decide who to wave over and who to dodge. People to avoid weren’t easily detectable. I couldn’t tell except in meandering conversation. They seemed like people who might be companions, consolation. And they looked like me, white. My daughter is black.


An early inkling of trouble occurred on November 11, 2016, the first Friday night after the presidential election. She was two hours away, a college freshman in east Texas. While she was sleeping, her car was jumped on or slammed with a blunt instrument, painted with a slur (your first guess is correct), festooned with posters on which the slogan “Make America Great Again” had been altered to read “Make America White Again.”

The door to her college-owned student apartment was vandalized too. Other black students in the building woke to find their cars and doors vandalized. It seemed obvious that some white students, neighbors, had made note of black students coming and going, who lived where and drove what. Otherwise how could vandals (is that the word?) have known which cars and apartments to target? This inference might seem like overthinking it, a sin in the annals of self-help. But it was my first thought, and the first thought mothers of my daughter’s black college friends had too. Our children had been under surveillance, however inexpert, added to a list.

A friend: “But your insurance will cover it, right?”

Another: “Yes, we all feel bad the country is so misogynist it wouldn’t elect a woman.”

For months I’d watched as one candidate first descended into his campaign via an escalator, then deeper and deeper into auditoriums in small cities across America where black people were shoved and punched, sometimes at the candidate’s urging. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on February 1, 2016: “Knock the crap out of him. I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.” About a rally in Birmingham, Alabama, on November 21, 2015: “He should have been roughed up.” Sometimes blacks were ejected for being black. In Valdosta, Georgia, on March 1, 2016, black college students with no plans to protest were removed as whites yelled, “Go home, nigger.”

Pundits called this “dog-whistle racism,” as in only dogs hear it and come running and so, it follows, only racists hear it and come running. But it wasn’t muted. My daughter was born in 1997, a time after name-calling and reserving spaces as white-only had diminished to the point that, as sociologist Lawrence Bobo found, a majority of white Americans believed racism was rare. By the time my daughter was 10, the term “post-racial” had gained currency. Social scientists began to study implicit, systemic inequality and those barely articulated prejudices by which, in Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s research, subjects describe themselves as not racist but explain lack of contact with people of color as “natural” and use terms like “unqualified” to describe them.

Eighteen years later, I worried my daughter wasn’t safe. Her property had been damaged. I hoped her corporeal self wouldn’t be. I hoped her incorporeal self wouldn’t be either, but concern for that shifted to the backburner. I was like the Ancient Mariner, who must have been good enough company once but can’t act normal now. As more bad events befell my daughter and people I knew, and people I ended up knowing, I ran into friends and neighbors whose lives proceeded as usual except for political outrage I shared, but theoretically not viscerally, and when they said “How are you?” en route to somewhere pleasant — like wedding guests on their way into a wedding — I detained them and recounted bad news.

My brain was overfilled with it and leaking.

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