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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Pixel art game, design in 8 bit style character fighting against dragon with fire vector. Health lives points, man battle with dangerous creature
Image by robuart / Getty Images

We read a number of stories across the web this week, and you can always visit our editors’ picks or our Twitter feed to see what you may have missed. Among this week’s #longreads, here are five standout pieces that we recommend.

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1. A Plane of Monkeys, a Pandemic, and a Botched Deal: Inside the Science Crisis You’ve Never Heard Of

Jackie Flynn Mogensen | Mother Jones | June 23rd, 2022 | 6,566 words

In May 2020, a plane full of monkeys intended for COVID-19 research was supposed to depart Mauritius. But it never did. Who purchased the monkeys? Where were they supposed to go? When Jackie Flynn Mogensen looked into the failed flight, and began to investigate the secretive global trade of research monkeys, she found there was an even bigger story: The U.S. is experiencing a primate shortage, and there aren’t enough monkeys for research across many areas of medicine. Primate research has led to life-saving discoveries over the decades, but it remains controversial, with no guarantees, despite animal testing guidelines, that animals are treated properly. “But no matter how you or I feel about it,” Mogensen writes, “it’s clear the practice has saved—and is saving—human lives.” This is a fascinating dive into the monkey trade and the players within it, like Matthew Block, who’s been a target of animal rights groups for years and, as you’ll read, is the owner of the company who arranged the flight. Mogensen also reports on a few alternatives, like lab-grown organs, but we’re still a long way from a world without animal testing. —CLR

2. Jason Brassard Spent His Lifetime Collecting the Rarest Video Games. Until the Heist.

Justin Heckert | Vanity Fair | June 27th, 2022 | 5,900 words

I can count on my hands the number of video games I’ve played in my life, and the only way I ever won a round of Mario Kart in middle school was by shoving my friend off the couch in the den where she kept her console. But even as an uninitiated reader, it was impossible not to become invested in this story of a man who amassed an impressive collection of old and rare games, only to have them stolen in one fell swoop. A satisfying true crime tale, much more Knives Out than Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, this piece features quirky characters who work at game stores with names like Grumpy Bob’s Emporium. It’s also a poignant meditation on nostalgia and how we assign value to objects that speak to our past. I needed a distraction from the barrage of terrible news this week, and Justin Heckert delivered. —SD

3. One Woman’s Wholesome Mission to Get Naked Outside

Gloria Liu | Outside | June 13th, 2022 | 3,100 words

It may come with being British, but growing up I was very prudish about nudity. A communal changing room meant an elaborate wiggle dance under a towel, into a swimming costume that would have met with Queen Victoria’s approval. Upon moving to the Pacific Northwest, I found more liberal attitudes toward nudity, and I relate to Gloria Liu as she discusses her jealousy of “friends who were less inhibited, so comfortable in their own skin.” Liu takes us on a gentle journey as she attempts to emulate these friends, and go naked outside. Spoiler alert: She makes good progress and ends up describing a beautiful nude night hike, where “Taking my clothes off with others wasn’t the exercise in courage or cutting loose that I thought it would be. It was an exercise in faith. To be naked, I had to believe that the world could be good. And tonight it feels like it can be.” This essay starts by considering nakedness — but ends up reflecting on friendship and the importance of building memories. —CW

4. How the Yurok Tribe Is Bringing Back the California Condor

Sharon Levy | Undark | June 22nd, 2022 | 3,433 words

Condor 746, on loan from a captive breeding program in Idaho, traveled to California in spring 2022. He’s the first California condor in over a century to reach the ancestral land of the Yurok Tribe, and made the journey to mentor four young birds in a condor facility in Redwood National Park. Condors are very social, explains Sharon Levy, learning best and benefitting from being under the wing of an elder. In this piece, Levy beautifully traces the journey of the species, and the incredible efforts of the tribe to ensure the bird’s successful reintroduction to the wild. It’s an insightful look into what it takes for captive breeding programs to work over time: creative solutions, dedicated biologists, and — in the condor’s case — monitoring for lead poisoning. (And a bonus: there’s an amazing photo of a chick next to a hand puppet — the first condors reintroduced were reared by puppets!). —CLR

5. The Confessions of a Conscious Rap Fan

Mychal Denzel Smith  | Pitchfork | June 28th, 2022 | 2,287 words

Hip-hop has had subgenres nearly as long as it’s had the spine of a breakbeat, but at some point it was riven by a more seismic distinction: mainstream vs. underground, and specifically the rise of “conscious” rap. Mychal Denzel Smith was one of the many people who internalized that stance, who viewed hip-hop as a vessel of liberation and awakening to a degree that became an identity of its own. That was then, though. Now, with the 2022 return of Black Star and Kendrick Lamar — both avatars and resurrectors of conscious rap — Smith interrogates his onetime fandom, as well as the evolution (or lack thereof) of the music itself. “I was artificially limiting my perspective,” he writes, “in the name of some grand vision of consciousness that never cohered into anything other than my own sense of intellectual superiority.” This isn’t a discussion about art vs. artist. It’s a coming to grips with our own reductive tendencies, our willingness to flatten ourselves in the name of aesthetic belonging. If you’ve found that the backpack fits a little bit differently these days, this piece will help you notice where the straps are chafing. —PR

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Young Kid Learning To Ride a Bike without Support Stabilizer Wheels Left Behind
Young Kid Learning To Ride a Bike without Support Stabilizer Wheels Left Behind

Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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

1. A Texas Teen Wanted an Abortion. Now She Has Twins.

Caroline Kitchener | The Washington Post | June 20th, 2022 | 4,100 words

If I were a journalism teacher, I would assign this story to my class immediately. Not only because it is wrenching — and my god, it is — but also because it demonstrates the value of beat reporting, editorial foresight, and covering the ripple effects of major news stories. Caroline Kitchener writes about abortion for one of the biggest newspapers in the country. The so-called “heartbeat bill” in Texas went into effect nine months ago, which means the first women in the state who couldn’t get abortions because of the law are now having babies. Therein lies the seed of a story idea, in the form of a question: What happened to those women? Kitchener found one of them, a teenager who gave birth to twins several weeks ago, and crafted an intimate narrative that simmers with pathos yet lets the facts speak for themselves. I won’t soon forget the scene in which antiabortion activists hold up the subject of Kitchener’s piece as a political victory — even lighting a candle in her honor — without any knowledge of what their shameful advocacy has meant for her well-being, her sense of self, or her future. This is complex, award-worthy storytelling. —SD

2. How Three Sisters (and their Mom) Tried to Swindle the CRA out of Millions

Sarah Treleaven | Maclean’s | June 21st, 2022 | 4,359 words

Who doesn’t love a Canadian grift story? When Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) employee Carol Power was asked to audit the Saker sisters from Nova Scotia — deemed to “be the model of rural ingenuity” for their diverse portfolio of interests — she had no idea that she had stumbled on to a complicated web of serious tax fraud going back years. When the CRA prodded, the sisters doubled down on the fraud, inventing false paperwork to cover their crimes. When taken to court, they proclaimed themselves victims of a vast CRA conspiracy against them. “The CRA investigators were looking for books, records, documentation, and electronic hardware and storage devices. They subsequently spent nearly three years combing through the Saker family bank records, sales receipts and invoices and searching for T4 slips, trying to track the Sakers’ behaviour and establish their patterns. Boudreau learned that many of the businesses had been operating largely without bank accounts, and most appeared to have no employees, supplier contracts or even production expenses. When CRA investigators asked the Sakers to provide supporting documentation to prove they were entitled to the refund amounts they claimed, the Sakers produced a huge volume of vendor invoices and sales receipts…One of the many vendors listed by the Sakers was Vandalee Industries, a name nearly identical to that of George Costanza’s fake employer on Seinfeld. It was almost like the Sakers were having a good time.” —KS

3. Safety Town

Ilana Bean | Guernica | June 20th, 2022 | 3,839 words

My most vivid childhood memories are the ones where I’m on my bike, at 4 years old, just after I learned how to ride. Our family’s home has an unusually long driveway: We can fit over a dozen parked cars during parties. There was so much space: to play, to ride, to create my own little whimsical world. I thought of this formative time as I read Ilana Bean’s piece on traffic gardens, those small-scale street systems through which kids can learn about road safety. In the imaginary world I built in front of our house, cracks in the concrete became turns. Carefully laid sticks became dividers. Rocks I collected from the neighborhood became coins for the toll bridge. But this curiosity in the built physical space I moved in quickly faded, and cars — driven by adults — would take me wherever I needed to go. Bean’s mother, Fionnuala Quinn, is a traffic safety expert, focused on building more intuitive relationships between children and our streets; car culture in the U.S. means that many of us “don’t actively interact with transportation until we reach the magic age of sixteen,” and at that point, we’re then expected to master the art of driving after a minimal amount of training. This is a thoughtful read on road safety and design — which I admit I’ve spent very little time thinking about in my life, despite the amount of power and responsibility I have each time I get behind the wheel. Even more, it’s a lovely, unexpected essay on the dedication of a mother, and the potential for a world in which children are raised with the skills to navigate their environments independently and safely and people are empowered to ask for and help build better streets. —CLR

4. How OXO Conquered the American Kitchen

Dan Kois | Slate | June 20th, 2022 | 3,066 words

When the second season of the brilliant sketch series I Think You Should Leave dropped last year, one of its oddest moments was the trailer for Detective Crashmore, a hardboiled action movie starring Santa Claus as the titular cop. There’s much more I’d like to say about it, but for our purposes today the thing that matters is a single line Crashmore utters: “Everything has sucked lately.” You know why? Because he’s right! We’re all mad and sad and worried. And when we’re all mad and sad and worried, that’s exactly when you need to read something like Dan Kois’ cheerful dive into the inner workings of OXO. You probably have a salad spinner or garlic press or measuring cup from the obsessively utilitarian housewares company; maybe you’ve marveled at it, maybe you haven’t. But in a time when the clearest articulation of our global mood comes from an irascible Santa-Claus-portrayed maniac, it’s worth taking a few minutes to concentrate on something small and good. Even when that something small and good is a vegetable peeler. —PR

5. A Marriage Story

Alan Siegel | The Ringer | June 14th, 2022 | 2,330 words

“It is, without a doubt, one of the most moving film sequences of the past 20 years.” I saw Up a long time ago, in a part of my life I’d like to forget. I don’t remember much about that time in my life (thankfully!) or much about the movie itself, other than what it reduced me to: a sobbing heap on the couch. I don’t think the term “ugly cry” had been invented yet, but that’s an accurate description of my response. How could two animated film characters conjure such a powerful emotional response in a hapless viewer in a mere 10 minutes? At The Ringer, Up director Pete Docter and codirector Bob Peterson reflect on the care and craft that went into making Carl and Ellie, as well as the specifics of imprinting them and their shared history on the hearts of an unsuspecting audience in that seminal first part of the film. —KS

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Diego Garcia Base as seen from the air
The British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) or Chagos Islands (formerly the Oil Islands) is an overseas territory of the United Kingdom situated in the Indian Ocean, halfway between Africa and Indonesia. The territory comprises a group of seven atolls comprising more than 60 individual islands, situated some 500 kilometers (310 mi) due south of the Maldives archipelago. The largest island is Diego Garcia (area 44 km squared), the site of a joint military facility of the United Kingdom and the United States. Following the eviction of the native population (Chagossians) in the 1960s, the only inhabitants are US and British military personnel and associated contractors, who collectively number around 4,000 (2004 figures). (Photo by: Pictures From History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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1. White Parents Rallied to Chase a Black Educator Out of Town. Then, They Followed Her to the Next One.

Nicole Carr | Pro Publica | June 16th, 2022 | 7,200 words

This was the scariest story I read all week. Cecilia Lewis was hired in 2021 by the Cherokee County School District in Georgia to be its first-ever administrator focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. But she hadn’t started the job — indeed, she hadn’t even moved down South from her longtime home in Maryland — before a mob of white parents decided she had to go. They sent her racist messages, spread lies about her, and screamed at school board meetings to get their way. And when Lewis took a different job, one county over, they didn’t stop. Nicole Carr’s feature is a searing reminder of just how vicious the right-wing war on progressive education in America has become, and a revealing look at the kind of people — white parents, riding a wave of national bigotry — who are leading troops into battle. —SD

2. Back to Chagos

Cullen Murphy | The Atlantic | June 15th, 2022 | 7,416 words

For most in the Americas who have heard of the Chagos archipelago, it’s likely through Diego Garcia, a tiny atoll that serves as a U.S. military installation in the middle of the Indian Ocean. But ’twas not ever thus. Not by a long shot. For Diego Garcia to be “uninhabited” enough to fulfill its current purpose, it first needed to be emptied of its indigenous populace: the Black people that had lived on the atolls for centuries, enslaved, indentured, and underpaid. Flung across Africa and as far as the U.K., the expatriated Chagossians fought for years to return to the islands; finally, this year, they boarded a ship and sailed eastward from the Seychelles to the land now known as the British Indian Ocean Territories. Cullen Murphy — a longtime Atlantic staffer, now the outlet’s editor-at-large — accompanies the voyage, and tells a long, maddening tale of disenfranchisement and diaspora. “Accompanied by British military personnel, small groups of Chagossians have in recent years been allowed brief ‘heritage visits’ to some of the islands,” he writes. “On their visits, the Chagossians have used the limited time on each island — never overnight — to clear vegetation from the decaying churches and restore the crumbling graves of their loved ones. They have cleaned inscriptions. They have left flowers. And then they have had to depart.” It’s not quite home again, but it’s a step closer. —PR

3. Loans Got Me Into Journalism. Student Debt Pushed Me Out.

Carrington J. Tatum | MLK50: Justice Through Journalism | June 13th, 2022 | 2,370 words

Carrington J. Tatum’s mother held multiple jobs and worked hard to send Tatum to college — the first in his family. Becoming his school’s first Black editor-in-chief, Tatum also discovered a passion for journalism, and realized he could make a real difference in the marginalized communities he reported on. “I was on my way,” he writes, making an impact, winning awards, and doing everything one is supposed to do to “make it” in this world. But the burden of student debt, and rising rent, has meant that he can’t afford to stay in this line of work: “After graduating, I owed more than $90,000 in student loans, about $64,000 of which is private loans to Sallie Mae.” Any amount he has hoped to save has gone, instead, to paying off loans with excessive interest rates. “My journalism degree was more expensive than my wealthier classmates’ degrees because I couldn’t afford to pay in cash,” he writes. “But that’s a common theme with American systems. Poor people pay high prices. Rich people get discounts.” This is a gutting read on the financial hardships that are driving bright, hard-working Black storytellers out of the field, the systems that keep people in poverty, and, in turn, the communities who also lose out because their stories are not told. (Pair this with one of our Longreads essays, by Kristin Collier, on living with debt in America.) —CLR

4. Sacrifice

Matthew Bremner | Hazlitt | December 1st, 2021 | 6,423 words

I am currently doing some renovation work on my house, which entails spending my evenings clutching a paintbrush, grimly painting the walls a color that someone, in a fit of whimsy, called “Beautiful In My Eyes.” (Inadvertently implying it is beautiful to no one else.) I am looking forward to a time when I do not have paint in my hair, and I can go back to being blissfully ignorant of the many different types of door trim there are in the world. (It is a whole thing apparently, there are catalogs.) Justo Gallego Martínez, on the other hand, chose to immerse himself in a building project for 60 years — not because he procrastinated over trims — but because he was building a whole damn cathedral by himself. With no architectural expertise and using waste and recycled materials, Justo constructed something near the size of the Sagrada Familia. As I struggle to figure out how to stop a door handle from falling off, I have nothing but respect for this achievement. So does Matthew Bremner, who finds himself charmed by Justo as he attempts to understand a monk who chose to sacrifice himself to God in such a unique way: “He piled empty paint cans on top of one another and filled them with cement to make columns. He bent corrugated iron rods and fed them through slinky-like springs to create the structure of arches.” Bremner spends weeks with Justo at the site, over a period of years, and learns not just about Justo but about the people who visit and even himself. Have a read — the beautiful descriptions will pull you into a bizarre world, one that Justo built himself. —CW

5. The Google Engineer Who Thinks the Company’s AI Has Come to Life

Nitasha Tiku | The Washington Post | June 11th, 2022 | 2,621 words

Could it be? After conversations with Google’s artificially intelligent chatbot LaMDA (Language Model for Dialogue Applications), engineer Blake Lemoine maintains that the bot has achieved sentience. Google vice president Blaise Aguera y Arcas has dismissed Lemoine’s claims, despite the fact he has “argued that neural networks — a type of architecture that mimics the human brain — were striding toward consciousness.” Lemoine’s on administrative leave from Google and decided to go public. While the story sounds like it comes straight out of science fiction, Lemoine is not alone. “Lemoine is not the only engineer who claims to have seen a ghost in the machine recently. The chorus of technologists who believe AI models may not be far off from achieving consciousness is getting bolder.” Detractors, though, say that making sense is far from sentience: “Most academics and AI practitioners, however, say the words and images generated by artificial intelligence systems such as LaMDA produce responses based on what humans have already posted on Wikipedia, Reddit, message boards, and every other corner of the internet. And that doesn’t signify that the model understands meaning.” Stories like this, as well as “Ghosts,” Vauhini Vara’s incredible essay about feeding the linguistic engine GPT-3 prompts about her late sister (highlighted in Longreads’ Best of 2021), would make any skeptic think again. —KS

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

The Milky Way Galaxy in the night sky over the dormant San Pedro Volcano by Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.
The Milky Way Galaxy in the night sky over the dormant San Pedro Volcano by Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. Lake Atitlan is an ancient volcanic caldera or crater, filled with water thousands of years ago. (Photo by: Jon G. Fuller, Jr./VW PICS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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1. Inside Kyiv on the Night of Ukraine’s Stunning World Cup Qualifier Victory

Wright Thompson | ESPN | June 2nd, 2022 | 4,282 words

“I came to Kyiv to watch a city watch a game,” writes Wright Thompson. And watch he does, while absorbing and documenting all he can as he wanders the capital and spends time with Ukrainians in this gem of a piece. Thompson captures the air in Kyiv on this first day of summer: the fear felt when air raid sirens go off, the tension that builds in the hour before the men’s national team plays Scotland in a must-win World Cup playoff semifinal, and the strangeness of life, of everything now. “But still there is an unspoken feeling hovering over everything, a mixture of worry that the success they’ve known so far could turn to defeat, that the destruction of war might return to Kyiv.” Everything in this piece feels raw and immediate: the scenes, the conversations, the moments. “History is being written in real time and nobody knows how things will end. These could be the last days of a regional war or the first days of a world war.” What a snapshot of this night, and a fleeting portrait of the city in a time of war. —CLR

2. Two Fathers

Mitch Moxley | Esquire | June 2nd, 2022 | 5,756 words

I remember the Humboldt tragedy vividly. When a semitruck plowed into the bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team, killing 16, it dominated the Canadian news — the country mourning alongside the small prairie town that lost so much. In this report for Esquire, Mitch Moxley takes us deeper, giving us a glimpse into the raw pain of those closest to the lost boys. I inhaled sharply at his account of the severity of the injuries incurred that day — so disfiguring that in one case, a family held vigil by the bed of a boy who was not their son, learning later that their boy was in the morgue. It’s a difficult read. From that excruciating time, Moxley examines the paths the families take as they follow the court case of the semitruck driver, Jaskirat Singh Sidhu. Distracted, Sidhu passed five warning signs before hitting the team bus at an intersection, and many families could not forgive him. Chris Joseph, who lost his son Jaxon, became a strong advocate for both prison and then deportation: “Joseph’s feelings about Sidhu weren’t motivated by malice or hatred, he says. They were motivated by a sense of justice and, more than that, by his unimaginable grief.” Scott Thomas’ son Evan was also killed, but Thomas found a different way, writing a forgiveness letter to Sidhu, passed on to him during the trial. Sidhu asked to see him: “Thomas turned around to see that Sidhu was already down on one knee, sobbing. He took Thomas’s hands, and Thomas lifted Sidhu. The two embraced and cried.” An emotional, searing account of a tragedy and how different families experience grief in the aftermath. It’s worth your time. —CW

3. The Surreal Case of a C.I.A. Hacker’s Revenge

Patrick Radden Keefe | The New Yorker | June 6th, 2022 | 11,064 words

A CIA hacker with a grudge, poor impulse control, and access to troves of extremely sensitive government data makes for a particularly dangerous combination. After an ongoing spat with a colleague escalated, former CIA hacker Josh Schulte believed that the organization had not treated him fairly. He is alleged to have used WikiLeaks to exact his revenge, not only exposing the CIA’s hacking methods and ongoing projects in a huge data dump, but also endangering the lives of assets embedded with foreign targets. While giving away government secrets is one thing, what investigators discovered about his activities outside of work revealed that Schulte had a dark secret of his own: a huge collection of child pornography. At The New Yorker, Patrick Radden Keefe gives us a front-row seat to the “theatre of secrecy.” —KS

4. The Stargazers

Joshua Sokol | Science | June 2nd, 2022 | 4,000 words

“We found a large number of books. As they contained nothing in which there were not to be seen superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all.” So wrote a Catholic priest in the Yucatán, describing the destruction of Mayan texts after the arrival of European colonizers in the 1500s. It will come as no surprise that the priest was dead wrong — about what the texts contained, and about their erasure. As this feature details, over many generations, descendants of the ancient Maya quietly preserved their forebears’ unparalleled astronomical knowledge. Today, Indigenous people are working with Western scholars to identify and again record this mastery of the cosmos. (For example: A graphic designer who is also a “daykeeper,” a person who tracks the 260-day calendar around which Mayan ritual is oriented, and travels to communities in Central American highlands to ask people what they know about the stars.) This story, full of astounding scientific tidbits, is also a moving reminder of the cultural and intellectual resilience of Indigenous communities. —SD

5. Just How Important Is Eye Contact Between Musicians? And What Does It Signal?

Ariane Todes | Classical Music | May 27th, 2022 | 2,015 words

I play bass in a band. When my lead guitarist and I lock eyes, it’s because a) we’re counting up to make sure we both hit the chorus of Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign” correctly, each time b) our singer decided to sing an additional verse before the guitar solo usually starts, or c) our singer accidentally skipped a verse and we’re taking the song home early. It’s these quick glances and smiles — camaraderie across the stage — that averts disaster mid-song and helps us stay in the moment with our singer, who is often deep in the thrall of the Blues. This is why I was fascinated by Ariane Todes’ dive into orchestral eye contact at Classical Music. While the members of the orchestra outnumber our little four-piece by dozens, the purpose of eye contact from the conductor to various musicians and sections conveys something quite a bit different: “Basically, a conductor only has six things to tell the orchestra: it’s either faster or slower, longer or shorter, or louder or softer, and everything else is based on that. The eyes and face are what communicates all the other things.” And, while the Blues and classical music differ vastly in style, strong eye contact among the musicians pays off in good vibes on-stage and off. “But occasionally there are fleeting moments where something passes wordlessly – friendship, encouragement, solidarity, shared endeavour, perhaps even love – and maybe that makes eye contact the very essence of music.” —KS

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Domestic cat in house looking through window at European robin
Domestic cat in house looking through window at European robin (Erithacus rubecula) in garden. (Getty Images)

Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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

1. “I’m Still Alive but Sh*t Is Getting Wild”: Inside the Siege of the Amarula

Alex Perry | Outside | June 1st, 2022 | 20,187 words

Stop me if you’ve heard the plot before: Westerners descend on Africa in search of valuable natural resources, hellish chaos ensues. This version of the story, though, is far more complicated. For one, it sets the predatory global remote-construction industry — in this case, working to establish infrastructure for imported natural-gas workers in Mozambique — on a collision course with a local ISIS affiliate known as Al Shabab. On the other, it culminates in a series of events that’s as maddening as it is hopeful as it is tragic. Alex Perry manages to reconstruct a multi-day standoff and escape attempt with cinematic exactitude, folding in centuries of context and colonialism to create a marathon piece that leaves you exhausted in more ways than one. —PR

2. Tell the Kids I Love Them

Jeremy Redmon | Oxford American | June 1st, 2022 | 3,695 words

Donald Lee Redmon was a husband and father, a man with a sharp, dry wit. He was a decorated Vietnam war combat veteran, and an accomplished member of the U.S. Air Force who took his own life after a diagnosis of total disability. In this essay at Oxford American, his son Jeremy, who was a teenager at the time of his father’s death, explains how he became a journalist and entered the military to try to understand the singular event that had shaped his life. “But after studying everything I have gathered about him, I have formed my own beliefs about his decision. His illness caused him severe pain, robbed him of his ability to support himself and his family in uniform as he had for seventeen years, and drove him into a deep depression.” Jeremy Redmon maintains that despite the anguish and unanswered questions, his father’s death has shaped him in unexpected ways. “My father’s suicide carved a deep gash in me. Though that wound has been a source of intense pain, it has also given me a greater capacity to experience joy. These are the best days of my life.” —KS

3. On The Woes of Being Addicted to Streaming

Jeremy D. Larson | Pitchfork | May 23rd, 2022 | 3,423 words

During a recent audit of the subscriptions we pay for, my husband suggested we cancel our Spotify accounts, something I’ve been considering for months. Among other things, I miss the satisfying, deeper journey of listening to albums — of listening with intention. Even so, I shuddered at the idea of getting rid of the streaming service. In this piece, Jeremy D. Larson explores the loss of the “textured and unique connections” we used to have to music, the homogenizing effects of playlists that are seemingly curated for us (when, in fact, we’re all just stuck in Spotify’s “mushy middle,” serviced the same popular tracks over and over), and the “fabricated reality” of the app. “I have personalized my experience enough to feel like this is my music, but I know that’s not really true,” writes Larson. Is Spotify an addiction? Has it changed our lives? Sounds dramatic, but the answer to both is yes. Larson’s piece reminds me of other thoughtful essays, by Jason Guriel and Kyle Chayka, on consumption in the age of streams and algorithms. Dive into all of these for a nice mini reading list on the topic. —CLR

4. A Once-in-a-Lifetime Bird

Kevin Nguyen | The Verge | May 31st, 2022 | 6,040 words

I would not call myself a bird watcher. I do not own binoculars, do not have a bird app on my phone, and do not conduct many bird-related discussions. However, underneath this nonchalance, there may be a twitcher waiting to get out. Each spring, I am delighted to dust off my bird feeder and quickly get to know my regulars. If someone different appears it’s an event, and I will sweep to the window, phone in hand, ready to google the new guy. According to environmental educator Sheridan Alford, I am already part of the birding gang: “To see a bird is to bird!” This inclusivity is what Kevin Nguyen finds as he explores the birding world. He also discovers joy, with everyone keen to tell him about their “spark” moment — that instant you see something that inspires you to be a birder for life. Nguyen’s case study, Chris Michaud, even uses birding to get through alcoholism, a breakup, and lymphoma, reaching a birding pinnacle when he sees a redwing, his “once-in-a-lifetime bird.” Redwings are common in Europe but had not been seen in America. This one was no Christopher Columbus however — it only reached new lands because a low-pressure system had flung it across the Atlantic, an increasing issue due to climate change. Nguyen points out the irony: Thousands of people totted up their carbon footprint trying to see this unusual bird — only there because of us. —CW

5. It’s 10 P.M. Do You Know Where Your Cat Is?

Egill Bjarnason | Hakai Magazine | May 17th, 2022 / 3,900 words

I am writing this blurb with my cat, Trouble, sitting on my lap, as is her wont lately during work hours. Once upon a time she preferred to nestle between my husband’s arms while he typed on his laptop. What changed? Who knows. Cats are fickle. They are wonderful. They are also, as this essay details, murderous. With equal doses of love, humor, and scientific data, Egill Bjarnason illuminates the danger that free-roaming (aka outdoor) cats pose to other species they see as prey — birds, namely, which are especially vulnerable on islands like Iceland, where Bjarnason lives. In cultures accustomed to letting cats prowl in yards and alleys, coming inside only when they please, the notion of keeping them indoors at all times or, as some towns in Iceland are making a matter of policy, after an evening curfew can feel like a betrayal. How to navigate this conundrum? Bjarnason offers some suggestions. I for one am happy to keep Trouble in our apartment, where she routinely directs her killer instinct at the mice that sometimes take up residence under our stove. My husband once claimed, his eyes wide in horror, that he witnessed her swallow one of them whole. RIP Mr. Mouse, but better you than a rare bird. —SD

A Carefully Constructed Li(f)e

Triptych frame of black and white photographs
Photo of Howard Farley Jr. Courtesy of the The Atavist Magazine.

Greg Donahue |  The Atavist Magazine | May 2022 | 8 minutes (2,274 words)

This is an excerpt from The Atavist’s issue no. 127, “The Fugitive Next Door.”

 

The Atavist Magazine, our sister site, publishes one deeply reported, elegantly designed story each month. Support The Atavist by becoming a member.

On the morning of December 2, 2020, Tim Brown got up early to start a fire. The night before, an unseasonable cold front had descended on Love’s Landing, Florida, where Brown lived with his wife, Duc Hanh Thi Vu. By 8 a.m., the mercury in the thermometer had yet to reach 40 degrees. At the bottom of the cul-de-sac where the couple lived, a thin layer of frost glistened on the long grass runways that extended through the quiet neighborhood: Love’s Landing is a private aviation community, home to pilots, plane engineers, and flying enthusiasts.

As heat from the fireplace warmed the house, Brown headed to the small hangar he’d built right outside. Nearly everyone in Love’s Landing owned a plane, and Brown was no exception. He’d just had the engine of his gleaming Tecnam P2008 replaced, and despite the chill in the air, the morning was shaping up to be calm and clear. Perfect weather to take the plane up.

A carpenter by trade, Brown had spent much of his life enjoying the outdoors. In his younger days, he was an expert scuba diver and deep-sea fisherman. But now, at 66, his age had finally caught up with him. His close-cropped hair had gone gray, and health issues had him in and out of the hospital. During the past year alone, he’d suffered two heart attacks. Flying offered the chance, as Brown put it, “to continue the fun.” He’d fallen in love with aviation years earlier, after taking a charter trip with friends in Alaska. Flying sure beat staring at the trees on either side of the road, he said. This was the kind of enthusiastic attitude that made Brown popular in Love’s Landing. Soon after moving there in 2017, he and Vu became, as a neighbor put it, “one of the best-liked couples in the airpark.”

Brown had just raised the hangar door when an unmarked Dodge Durango roared into the driveway, along with a Marion County police cruiser. As Brown turned toward the commotion, a law enforcement agent in a tactical vest leapt out of the SUV. He was pointing an MK18 short-barreled automatic rifle at Brown’s face. “Step back! Raise your hands!” the agent shouted.

Brown did as he was told. Officers from a half-dozen federal agencies were fanning out across the property. “Are you Tim Brown?” the lead officer demanded as he approached the hangar. Brown nodded. “I’ve got a warrant for your arrest,” the officer said. Agents moved in formation to clear the hangar and headed toward the main house to execute a search warrant.

Brown’s neighbors would later recount their confusion at the fleet of official vehicles facing every which way in the street. No one knew what Brown had done. But whatever they imagined, the truth was almost certainly stranger.

For the previous 35 years, Tim Brown had been living a carefully constructed lie. He wasn’t just an aging retiree with a passion for aviation. In fact, he wasn’t Tim Brown at all. His real name was Howard Farley Jr., and law enforcement alleged that he’d been the leader of one of the largest drug-trafficking rings in Nebraska history.

As he was placed under arrest, a wry grin spread across his face. “I had mentally prepared myself for being caught,” he would later say. “When it happened, with men pointing guns at me, the only thing to do was smile.”


PART ONE

Growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska, Howard Farley was what you might call a gearhead: a blue-collar kid with a knack for the mechanical. He was born in 1948, the fourth of five children, and spent much of his youth honing his engineering skills. He built award-winning model cars and a playhouse for his hamsters dubbed the Sugar Shack. Later, he crafted an RV out of an old school bus.

Boyishly handsome, with a wide Leave It to Beaver grin and prominent ears, Farley was popular in school and had a roguish quality that endeared him to most everyone he met. He was also restless. Life at home was complicated. When he was in his early teens, his mother abandoned the family, and Farley’s father was stuck with a house full of kids. Farley was devastated. “It left a profound loss of motherly love and guidance during critical teenage and adult years,” his elder sister Beverly later wrote.

In high school, Farley fell in with a rebellious crowd. “Mine were more the fun-loving guys that rode their motorcycles to school, dated the cheerleaders, and had keg parties on the weekends,” he said. When friends came to visit him at the grocery store where he sometimes worked, he would bag up steak after steak without ringing them up. “He always had a bit of a hustle,” said one friend, intending it as a compliment.

In September 1965, Farley experienced his first brush with the law. Like a lot of Midwestern kids his age he liked cars, and in those days the best place for cruising was Dodge Street in Omaha. A generation of Nebraska youth spent their evenings making the loop between Tiner’s Drive-In on 44th and Todd’s on 77th, showing off their rides and gorging themselves on 65-cent burgers. Sometimes they staged drag races. When police arrived on one such occasion, Farley attempted to flee, driving at nearly 100 miles per hour. His date in the passenger seat begged him to stop. In the ensuing chase, police fired on Farley’s car, and a bullet hit the girl in the jaw. Farley was quickly arrested. His license was suspended, and he was sentenced to a year of probation. The girl survived, and later sued Farley for $25,000 dollars. He was 16 years old.

Farley got his act together enough to capitalize on his mechanical abilities—soon after he graduated high school, he was hired full-time at the sprawling Burlington Northern rail yards. In those days, rail work paid well. Engineers earned an annual salary of about $30,000, or $160,000 today. For Farley, the money must have felt like a dream. He quickly moved up the ladder at work. Before long he was driving trains from Lincoln to Sioux City and Creston, Iowa. The hours were long and tedious, but he was a natural. “He was built for it,” said Tyrone Baskin, a friend from high school who also worked the rails.

Farley fathered a child with Christine Schleis, a high school girlfriend, and married her. Their union was rocky from the beginning. “We were not a good match,” Schleis said. “It was just something that happened. You got pregnant, you got married. There was no question.” Schleis came from a cultured, well-traveled family. It was a world apart from Farley’s upbringing.

The couple named their daughter Amy—three letters in honor of her three-pound birth weight. While Schleis stayed home with the baby, Farley took up skydiving and partied hard. In 1969, he and another man were arrested for burglarizing a local carpeting business. It’s unclear what role Farley played in the crime; the charges were later reduced to accessory after the fact. Eventually, Farley became disillusioned with life in Lincoln. He took a job with a railroad company in Alaska, leaving behind his wife and daughter. By 1970, he and Schleis were ready to file for divorce.

Over the next 15 years, Farley divided his time between Alaska, Washington, and Florida, where he lived when he wasn’t working the rails up north. He married again, got another divorce. Occasionally, family drama drew him back to Nebraska, but he never stayed long. “He was an adrenaline junkie,” said an old friend. “I don’t think that changed.”

Perhaps he saw drug trafficking as an outlet for his restlessness. According to a source who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, Farley was introduced to a man who had experience in the drug trade. The man explained to Farley that someone who traveled as frequently as he did could make a fortune—all he had to do was bring drugs along on his trips. “That’s how Howard found out what to do and how to do it,” the source told me.

By the early 1980s, Farley had quit the railroad business and relocated to Lake Worth, Florida, a beach town about 60 miles north of Miami. He told Baskin, his high school friend, that he’d saved $30,000 dollars and was going to “go for it,” investing the money in a shipment of cocaine and flipping it for big bucks. There was no better place than Florida to put his new plan into action. It was the height of the Miami Vice–era drug boom, and Farley had little trouble finding himself a supplier. “I think an opportunity just presented itself, and he jumped on it and made the most out of it,” Baskin said.

Farley started ferrying drugs to contacts in Nebraska and Alaska. In the beginning it was a largely insular affair; he was mostly supplying former coworkers and friends— “single railroaders making a lot of money,” as one of Farley’s Nebraska customers put it. Sometimes, Farley asked friends to mail packages of coke using FedEx and kept his fingers crossed that they’d reach their destination undetected. Other times he brought the drugs with him on a plane—he booked super-saver flights to keep costs down. At least twice, according to Baskin, Farley drove his Saab from Florida to Alaska and back again, stopping in Lincoln along the way north. “He probably left some [drugs] with people to distribute here,” Baskin said. “Then he’d take what was left and transport it on to Alaska.”

Before long, Farley was laying over in Lincoln with larger and larger amounts of blow. It was the tail end of the disco era, and demand was high. But Farley wasn’t dealing grams to strangers in the bar. He sought out distribution partners among friends and family, people he could trust. His sister Mary, who at one time sold lingerie and sex toys, and her husband, Gerry Machado, got involved. According to prosecutors, Farley used their house in Lincoln for storage and sales. High school friends joined in. Among them were Baskin, Robert Frame, and John Kahler, all Vietnam War veterans who had returned from combat with varying degrees of drug addiction. Farley taught them how to cut the high-grade coke he brought from Florida with inositol, a type of sugar, to increase the volume and make more money selling it. His friends gave Farley his cut of sales whenever he was in town “He didn’t take chances,” said Baskin. “He made sure he knew the people he dealt with or they had been friends a long time.”

Farley wasn’t the only person supplying drugs in Lincoln. Coke dealing had become a cottage industry among hard-partying railroaders. Clyde Meyer, a Burlington Northern engineer, ran an operation out of his house on the city’s west side. Like Farley, Meyer had started small. “I think he slowly got into it and then got too deep,” said Colleen Nuss, whose boyfriend once lived in a spare room at Meyer’s house. Nuss was a teenager at the time. “I remember going there one night just to get a little bit of pot and there were drugs and women,” Nuss recalled. Unlike Farley’s supply, Meyer’s coke came from Colorado, but users didn’t care about a product’s origin once it hit the street.

By 1984, Farley’s efforts had paid off in a big way. An acquaintance who asked not to be named remembered going to Farley’s mother’s house and seeing bricks of cocaine piled high in a closet. “He was definitely worth seven figures by that time, easily,” the person said. Another friend remembered Farley stashing wads of cash in safe-deposit boxes across south Florida. Court records have him receiving payments of $80,000 or $100,000 in a single go.

Still in his early thirties, Farley had found a quick way to fund the adventurous life he’d always dreamed of, and he had done it on his own terms. He wasn’t flashy or aggressive. In fact, he appeared to take a generally relaxed approach to the drug trade. “There was no viciousness there,” Nuss said. Farley and his crew “were just super mellow, like hippies.”

In Florida, Farley took up watersports; he turned out to be a talented diver and fisherman. He partied at Harry’s Banana Farm, a legendary dive in Lake Worth. He talked about going legit. He wanted to buy a boat and start a business chartering passengers around Florida and the Caribbean.

But Farley also began planning for a different kind of future. In 1982, he filed an application for a Social Security number in the name of Timothy Terry Brown, a three-month-old child who had died after a short illness in January 1955. Farley found the name while looking through microfilm of old newspapers at the library. The idea of taking a dead child’s identity was less risky than it sounds. People born in the 1950s often waited until they were in their teens or early twenties before applying for a Social Security number. Farley’s fraudulent application was submitted nearly 30 years after Brown’s birth, but that didn’t seem to bother a likely overworked civil servant. After the Social Security card arrived in the mail, Farley acquired a Florida driver’s license, a birth certificate, and a passport in Brown’s name.

It’s unclear whether Farley sensed trouble ahead or was just being prudent. Either way, he was attuned to the risks that his line of work entailed. In a few years, he had become one of Lincoln’s major drug suppliers. It was only a matter of time before law enforcement took notice.

Read the full story at The Atavist.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Dark Crystal costume designers Brian Froud and Wendy Froud stand in front of a gothic, creepy character on a dimly lit purple stage.
Creatures & Costume Designer Brian Froud and Assistant Costume Designer Wendy Froud attend the European Premiere of "The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance" at the BFI Southbank on August 22, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/WireImage)

Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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1. What Bullets Do to Bodies

Jason Fagone | HuffPost Highline | April 26th, 2017 | 7,799 words

I’m breaking from tradition here and highlighting a story that’s already been in one of these newsletters, and as a top pick no less. The circumstances demand it. On Tuesday, a gunman armed with two legally purchased AR-style assault rifles slaughtered 19 children and two teachers in a single classroom at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. As authorities worked to identify the victims, they asked parents to provide DNA samples. What’s unspoken in this detail is that the dead children were unrecognizable, or so mangled that it would have been an unimaginable cruelty to ask their parents to look at them. I can’t get this fact out of my mind, and it prompted me to re-read one of the best pieces of explanatory journalism in recent memory. Almost exactly five years ago, Jason Fagone spent time with the head of trauma surgery at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia to understand the damage that bullets do to bodies. What Dr. Amy Goldberg had to say about the Sandy Hook massacre could be said today about the shooting in Uvalde: “As a country, we lost our teachable moment…. The fact that not a single one of those kids was able to be transported to a hospital, tells me that they were not just dead, but really really really really dead. Ten-year-old kids, riddled with bullets, dead as doornails.” America is a country where the mass murder of children is followed by mourning and forgetting, but never action: Congress hasn’t passed a single piece of gun control legislation since Sandy Hook. Until that changes, Goldberg’s comment will be relevant again in another community, at another school. It’s only a matter of time. —SD

2. Man of Culture

Sukhada Tatke | Fifty Two | May 20th, 2022 | 4,280 words

Many scenes in Sukhada Tatke’s origin story about a bacterium found in the soil of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) feel plucked out of a movie: A ship full of Canadian scientists and doctors, landing on a mysterious island to collect samples from its inhabitants and the land. A Punjabi microbiologist who makes one last batch of this culture and stores it in his freezer after his lab deprioritizes his research. Then, some years later, fascinating experiments on mice confirming that this molecule — rapamycin — is a “life-saving wonder drug” that can save millions of lives, including organ transplant patients and people with cancer, diabetes, and neurodegenerative diseases. Tatke tells the remarkable story of this scientist, Surendra Nath Sehgal, and a medical discovery that has brought hope to so many. —CLR

3. On Metaphors and Snow Boots

Annie Sand | Guernica | May 23rd, 2022 | 2,821 words

Have you ever felt pain that stabs, throbs, or tingles? Have you ever felt mentally stuck or scattered? At Guernica, Annie Sand suggests that the common metaphors we use to describe physical and mental pain and illness are reductive, in that they fail to truly describe what it’s like to endure a body and/or mind causing us trouble. “When we use metaphor to conceal the unknowable, we make symbols out of human beings and allegory out of experience. We reduce our own pain to a precursor, a line item, a weather report…There is a cost to romanticization, to needing metaphor too much. Things — people — are easier to destroy when they’re an abstraction.” She suggests that to truly convey our individual experiences, we need to create metaphors of our own. “I wonder instead if the answer is not to abstain from metaphor, but rather, each time society tries to wheat-paste an ill-fitting metaphor over our lives, to offer one of our own…I collect them: latitude of many storms, thaws that come and go, clouds that squeeze. In a strange way, thinking about anxiety as weather lets me slip past society’s questions of why, and how long, and are you seeing someone about this? It sets me loose from the terrible calculus of justifying my minute-by-minute expenditures. It leaves those unanswered questions of cause and cure off the table.” —KS

4. The Funk of Poverty

Starr Davis | Catapult | May 25th, 2022 | 3,088 words

To say I loved this essay feels wrong, because I despise so many of the things that informed this essay. A road out of hardship, splashed with the oil of bureaucracy. Get-by mechanisms that are only “coping” in the loosest, most fleeting sense of the word. Relationships that confine or harm; a world that tells you in no uncertain terms that it simply does not value you. But the love at the center of this piece — the love Starr Davis’ mother had for her, and that she in turn has for her infant daughter, that glows ember-like despite buffeting headwinds — turns it from a litany of pain into a catalog of perseverance. “I have never met a happy mother,” she writes. “All the mothers I know are crazed, tired, or selfishly dragging themselves away from their children. My biggest fear is becoming those types of mothers. The types of women who forget their dreams or, worse, stop dreaming altogether.”—PR

5. How The “Mother Of Yoda” Conquered Hollywood — And Why She Disappeared

Falene Nurse | Inverse | May 3rd 2022 | 2,767 words

Growing up, two of my favorite films were The Dark Crystal and The Labyrinth. The worlds they created enthralled me — filled with magic, weirdness, and ethereal beauty. Iconic to this day, they were pulled from the impressive imagination of Jim Henson, but, behind the scenes, there were other magicians at work — the puppeteers. In this profile of Wendy Froud, Falene Nurse explains how she sculpted The Dark Crystal’s puppet leads, Kira and Jen (her first job out of art school, no less). In The Labyrinth, she lent not just her talent to the production; her baby, Toby Froud, played the child kidnapped by the Goblin King (a.k.a David Bowie in leggings so tight they came with a free anatomy lesson). Froud was even part of the force that created a certain little Jedi, earning her the nickname “the Mother of Yoda.” Yet, after this gluttony of ’80s icons, Froud seemingly disappeared for many years; Nurse reveals how CGI gradually destroyed the art of the puppet and Froud’s disdain for the Hollywood scene. Then in 2019, some new magic happened: Netflix commissioned a prequel series, The Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance. Froud was brought back on board to help recreate the elegance of that world — real puppets and all. And guess what? Baby Froud, now all grown-up and freed from David Bowie, worked with his parents on The Age of Resistance as the Design Supervisor. Now that’s a Hollywood ending. —CW

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Members of the band Kalush Orchestra on stage at Eurovision 2022, as confetti streams down
15 May 2022, Italy, Turin: Kalush Orchestra from Ukraine celebrates with the trophy after winning the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC). The international music contest is held for the 66th time. There are 25 songs in the final out of the original 40 musical entries. Germany took the last place. Photo: Jens Büttner/dpa (Photo by Jens Büttner/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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1. Dislodged

Josh McColough | The Missouri Review | April 15th, 2022 | 5,508 words

I was drawn this week to a few reads about California road trips, including one on Joan Didion, as well as an essay by Josh McColough in The Missouri Review that recounts part of a West Coast road trip with his teenage daughter, when a road closure in Northern California leads to an unexpected delay. At one point in their journey, they approach a dangerous section of Highway 101 that’s prone to landslides — the Last Chance Grade — and must decide whether to wait until the highway is fixed, or turn around. “Sometimes in order to move forward, you have to stay put for a bit—one of the many lessons imparted to us from the virus,” writes McColough. And so they decide to wait, which opens up the space to be still: to notice all the tiny banana slugs on the forest floor, to ponder just how long it took for the old-growth redwoods to grow that tall, to watch the coastal fog creep inland and do its thing. Reading about their experience on this beautiful spot of earth made me feel small in a humbling yet positive way, and McColough makes poignant observations throughout about humanity, our vulnerable environment, and our place within it. I paused a number of times while reading to allow myself to feel sadness for our world, but also to feel joy — because how lucky are we, ultimately, to be able to live in such a place? “Our inability to see ourselves as tiny points on a much longer ecological or geological spectrum is our uniquely human blind spot,” he writes. “It’s where and how we fall short.” Take the time to read this thoughtful piece. —CLR

2. All the Best Things About Europe with None of the Genocide

Laurie Penny | Penny Red | May 14th, 2022 | 1800 words

I love the Eurovision Song Contest. It is an annual four-hour extravaganza (yes, four!) that mercilessly drags me back and forth between tears and cackles of joy. (There is usually some drinking involved.) This year was no different — with the performances last Saturday ranging from bonkers acid trip pop songs to beautiful ballads. I am not even sure what genre to call the entry of my home country, the United Kingdom, but the singer took some surprising linguistic liberties with the term “spaceman.” (Just to let you know, we came second, our best position in 25 years.) Anyhow, I digress, and Laurie Penny explains the madness much better than I can in this breezy, fun essay: “Every year, forty-something countries serve up musical interpretations of a theme that sounds like knockoff body spray – this year it’s The Sound of Beauty. Almost anything goes except subtext.” Eurovision voting tends to be a bit political — this year particularly so. Penny notes “It’s hard to get banned from Eurovision, but invading a neighboring country and massacring tens of thousands of people will do the trick.” Without Russia competing, Eurovision asks us, “What if, instead of killing each other, we all just got hammered and did karaoke?” Ukraine won Eurovision 2022 with a landslide public vote. I cried again. —CW

3. The Magic of Alleyways

Will Di Novi | Hazlitt | May 16th, 2022 | 3,200 words

Vibrant. Countercultural. Places of rest. These aren’t descriptors that leap to mind when I think of alleys, the hidden veins of cities everywhere. At least, they weren’t until I read this ode to alleys by Will Di Novi. Inspired by an incident outside his apartment in downtown Toronto, Di Novi takes readers on a tender journey through these misunderstood urban spaces. That alleys are relegated in our vernacular to the category of things dark and dirty is a mistake — a classist and racist one. Throughout history, alleys have been sites where people without power and privilege “meet and make mischief,” Di Novi writes, “[a] city’s unofficial social laboratory.” He invites readers to look on alleys in their own burgs with fresh eyes. He hopes they’ll find pleasure, as he did, in witnessing “mundane wonders,” among them “the adolescent love notes scattered on the walls; the sun-bleached vines shaking in the breeze; the shadows of the power lines merging on the blacktop: fishing poles at noon, pyramids by dusk.” —SD

4. Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Kent Russell | Harper’s Magazine | May 11th, 2022 | 6,982 words

Like Kent Russell, I’ve always been a sucker for the otherworldly and occult. UFOs? Yes, please. Conspiracy theories about the reptoids living under the Denver airport? Put it in my veins. It’s in that spirit that I mainlined Russell’s long journey into the world of John R. King IV, a man who claims to have studied enough ancient grimoires to be able to communicate with demons. The journey isn’t fruitless, though neither is it fulfilling — which is exactly the point, I suppose, when you’re dealing with something that’s empirically unprovable. Yet, throughout, Russell renders King’s quiet insistence, and his own (remarkably sanguine) explorations into the world of dark forces, with a flair both literary and relatable. “Reading King,” he writes, “I felt myself vacillate between terror and wonder like a compass needle brought near a magnet. Here was a man who had punctured the airless dome of modern existence, and, what’s more, was really goddamned cocksure about it.” Put down the Ouija board and pick this up instead. —PR

5. The Bronc-busting, Cow-punching, Death-defying Legend of Boots O’Neal

Christian Wallace | Texas Monthly | May 11th, 2022 | 6,139 words

“This morning’s chore: Boots and three of his Stetsoned coworkers must round up some two dozen bulls scattered across a vast grazing pasture, drive them to a set of pens about a mile away, and load the one-ton beeves into a livestock trailer so they can be hauled to another division of the Four Sixes, the legendary West Texas ranch that sprawls across 260,000 acres…To an outsider, this might feel like a scene straight out of Lonesome Dove. For Boots, this is Tuesday morning. He’s repeated this task countless times—his career began during the Truman administration and has now spanned seven decades—but if given the chance to be doing anything on earth, this is what he would choose every time.” Now is probably a good time to mention that this particular Boots, out on a horse rounding up Angus bulls in rural Texas, is 89-years-old. While Boots (a.k.a Billy Milton O’Neal) has decades on me, I am at the age where I’m starting to think more about aging not just with grace, but also vitality and a side of sass. What are the keys to aging well? If you take some pointers from Boots in this superlative profile by Christian Wallace at Texas Monthly, aging well means not just doing what you love, but being intentional, and becoming part of a community of people who share your joy. Oh, and let’s not forget the dancing. “Boots and Nelda were happy together. Perhaps more than anywhere else, they found common ground on the dance floor. They would dance to country music, waltzes, and rags, and they loved to two-step.” —KS

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Woman on floor playing records
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Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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

1. The Woman Who Killed Roe

Kerry Howley | New York Magazine | May 9th, 2022 | 7,800 words

When I was 13, sex education was part of religion class — this is what happens when you attend a Catholic middle school. We were given a lot of atrocious advice, such as, if you have gay feelings, you should talk to your priest about it. When we learned about abortion, a guest speaker — a classmate’s mom who worked at a “crisis pregnancy center” — told us the procedure was a sin and passed out silver pins supposedly the size and shape of a fetus’s feet at some number of weeks of gestation. I believe we were encouraged to wear them on the lapels of our uniforms. This experience has been top of mind since I read Kerry Howley’s chilling profile of Marjorie Dannenfelser, the most powerful anti-abortion activist in America. Dannenfelser is from my hometown, she went to the same university I did, and she was married in the Catholic church attached to my middle school. Reading Howley’s piece was like going through the looking glass. Dannenfelser is a terrifying, single-minded, vengeful extremist whose (anti-)life’s work relies on images of “murdered” embryos and fetuses, stripped of the physical bodies, the well-being, and the humanity of the people who carry them. Howley’s piece made me cry. It made me rage. I’ll never be able to shake it. —SD

2. Breakfast with the Panthers

Suzanne Cope | Aeon | May 10th, 2022 | 2,790 words

The Black Panther Party’s social and public health work across the U.S. after its founding in 1966 and into the early ’70s was far-reaching, even pioneering. I’d no idea that the Panthers paved the way for lead paint legislation and sickle cell anemia research, among other issues, so I appreciate Suzanne Cope’s glimpse into their community work. With as many as 45 local chapters, the Panthers developed safe housing and addiction treatment programs, door-to-door healthcare, and food justice initiatives like the Free Breakfast for Children Program which, at one point, fed more kids across the country each day than the state of California did. I also didn’t know that the majority of the party’s members by the end of the ’60s were women, and that they held many of its leadership roles. To this day, the more common image of a Black Panther is not of an activist mother but instead one that’s masculine and militant, complete with beret and gun — an “inaccurate and enduring perception” of the Panthers due to biased reporting, misinformation from the FBI, and “an all-out war” waged against them by J. Edgar Hoover. Thanks to Cope for this piece that acknowledges the Panthers’ community activism, which has always been “under-recognized” and “uncelebrated.” As she writes, “Imagine what they could have accomplished if their efforts were supported and not destroyed.” —CLR

3. Rematriating Our Lives: Indigeneity and What it Means to Climb

Micheli Oliver | The Alpinist | May 5th 2022 | 3,955 words

I am not a climber. The mere thought of precariously hanging from a rock face by my fingertips makes me feel faintly nauseous. I am, however, fascinated by people who choose to scale mountains, and I loved the climbing descriptions in Micheli Oliver’s essay for The Alpinist: “A glorious act of raising my bones up, of holding my own body, of celebrating my humanness in a dance of strength and breath.” Oliver, a person of Piikani Blackfeet heritage, muses not just on climbing but what it means to her as a Native adventurer. Indigenous people often do not have access to such activities, leaving adventure narratives to be dominated by tales of conquering the landscape and elements. Indigenous stories tend to depict “harmonious interactions with the land.” Reverence certainly fills Oliver’s words: “Snow shimmered gold across a blue, green and black sea of spruces, firs and pines. To my conscious mind, this was an unfamiliar vista, and yet my bones seemed to know the landscape intimately.” But there is also a darker story she wants to tell. Oliver climbs despite a fear of the outside world instilled in her by her parents, who taught her that “there are those who don’t see me as the human I am but as an object, exoticized for my looks.” When white people disappear in the mountains, news articles “proliferate across national media … When Native people vanish, however, their fates have frequently generated little response…” This is an adventure story that makes you think. —CW

4. In Search of Chad Hugo

Jeff Mao | GQ | May 12th, 2022 | 2,598 words

Pharrell Williams may be the household-name half of legendary production duo The Neptunes, but the upbeat sound that defined commercial hip-hop for more than a decade wouldn’t have existed without his Skateboard P’s partner, Chad Hugo. When Williams transitioned into a solo career, Hugo receded quite willingly into a relative obscurity of his own making. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t still live and breathe music, however, as Jeff Mao found while spending time with him in his native Virginia Beach. This isn’t a profile built on emotional reckonings or outlandish sound bites; it’s a quiet portrait of a quiet man who seems profoundly satisfied with what he’s accomplished, and freed from the expectation of what comes next. Mao’s byline doesn’t pop up too much in magazines these days — the ego trip cofounder and rap-mag stalwart has been doing more work on the exhibit-curation and liner-note side of things — and when it does, it’s worth your time. Especially this time. —PR

5. The Untold Story of the White House’s Weirdly Hip Record Collection

Rob Brunner | Washingtonian | May 3rd, 2022 | 2,022 words

Did you know that the White House has an official record collection? Can you imagine Ronald and Nancy Reagan doing the Electric Slide on music night? (Apparently that never happened as the records were put in storage not long after Reagan took office. Sorry for creating that image / nightmare in your mind.) Although the collection includes everything from Perry Como to the Clash, the vast majority of the albums have never been played and the last time it was expanded was in 1981. If you had the chance to update the collection with records from the previous 40 years, what would you choose? What would you want to put into the ears of the sitting president, their administration, and all the administrations to come? John Chuldenko, President Jimmy Carter’s grandson, once shot footage for a documentary about the White House’s record collection and is keen to add to it. “…it would be a blast to bring the collection into the 21st century. The White House record library ‘is a treasure, and people need to know about it,’ Chuldenko says. ‘We need to update this. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.’” “And there, finally, was the collection: record-filled boxes stacked up in front of the movie screen. The LPs had been kept in their original sleeves, which were inserted into color-coded binders (light blue for pop, yellow for classical, etc.). Each was adorned with the presidential seal and a foil stamp that read WHITE HOUSE RECORD LIBRARY. The whole thing reeked of gravitas and respectability—except that inside a binder, rather than some speech delivered by FDR in the ’40s, you might find a mint-condition copy of Macho Man by the Village People.” —KS

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

An array of cheeses with cartoon smiles.
ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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1. Paper, Cut

Various Authors | Washington City Paper | May 5th, 2022 | 12,400 words

Another day, another beloved print publication calling it quits. Washington City Paper, which nurtured such writing luminaries as Ta-Nehisi Coates, Katherine Boo, Jason Cherkis, and the late David Carr, has printed its last-ever physical edition. In a special package, veteran staffers describe what working at the alt-weekly meant to them. The anecdotes are spectacular. Sex workers in the newsroom lobby, looking to buy ads. A reporter getting punched by a guy named Casino. Final proofs being shipped to the printer via Greyhound bus. Editors pouring their hearts and souls into young writers’ copy. WCP will continue to publish online (and you can support its work), but not everyone in the city it covers has access to the internet. This bittersweet collection of memories stands as a testament to the unconscionable harm that late-stage capitalism and its attendant greed have done to local news. (Speaking of unconscionable harm, consider also reading Rebecca Traister’s fiery essay about how feckless Democrats and their “anemic” rhetoric helped usher America to the precipice of Roe v. Wade‘s reversal.) —SD

2. Our Animals, Ourselves

Astra and Sunaura Taylor | Lux | January 6th, 2022 | 6,846 words

In this thought-provoking essay published in January, Astra and Sunaura Taylor make a socialist feminist case for veganism, which can open outward into other calls for liberation and help us understand and be part of the paradigm shift that needs to happen to create a more egalitarian and sustainable society. Capitalism is about controlling bodies, they write, not just of humans but of nonhuman animals like cows and pigs. “While the trauma inflicted on people and animals … isn’t the same, it is interconnected. We are all caught in the same racist, sexist, colonial, and ecologically catastrophic capitalist system.” This is a call for cross-species solidarity and to consider veganism alongside other social justice movements on the left. It’s a tough read — particularly for people who consider themselves socialists, feminists, or animal advocates and continue to consume meat and dairy products — but an important one. —CLR

3. Dreamers In Broad Daylight: Ten Conversations

Leslie Jamison | Astra Magazine | April 27th, 2022 | 7,261 words

What do you daydream of? Justice? Love? Wealth? Fame? Peace and quiet? Something else entirely? In this terrific essay at Astra Magazine, Leslie Jamison explores the pleasure and release she feels in daydreaming as well as the shame and regret she can experience when her thoughts drift from the present to the future perfect. “My shame about daydreaming is the shame of solipsism and self-centered fantasy, the shame of turning from the banality of daily life toward the hollow calories of wish fulfillment, the shame of preferring the hypothetical to the actual…Restraint. Indulgence. Punishment. This triptych of impulses has structured my relationship to desire for so long: with food, booze, men.” —KS

4. The Ministers of Cheese

Mark Pupo | Toronto Life | April 25th, 2022 | 5,296 words

Mark Pupo has a vested interest in his subject matter — the Cheese Boutique — in this essay for Toronto Life. He freely admits, “For me, more than most any store, the Cheese Boutique delivers a blissful, calming dose of retail therapy.” However, his bias does not get in the way of a lovely narrative. The owners, the Pristines, were originally immigrants from Kosovo who managed to make a home on a “once lonely, ungainly street” that now attracts hordes of Land Rovers on the weekend, their drivers desperate for a cheese fix. It’s a joyful success story of a business that thrived even during the pandemic — by starting virtual cheese-making classes and adding a food truck — yet kept its family roots. Even though the shop attracts fancy customers (Dustin Hoffman is a visitor) and fancy prices, two generations of Pristines are still there seven days a week to run it. Come for the family story and stay for the luscious cheese descriptions: “You let it come to room temp, slice off the top rind, and spoon out the gooey inside (called the “paste”). The odor is nauseating—reminiscent of rot and ancient back alleys—but to the tastebuds it’s awesome. Mellow and buttery.” Yes, please! —CW

5. In the Court of the Liver King

Madeleine Aggeler | GQ | May 5th, 2022 | 3,054 words

At the nexus of Influencer and Extreme Fitness Bro lies Brian Johnson, a man who drags unholy amounts of weight through the Texas woods. A man who does burpees on crowded New York subway cars. A man who, along with his family, sleeps without mattresses in order to better mimic the behavior of his primal ancestors. A man who eats a pound of raw liver a day — yes, a day. It’s hard for me to type these words without laughing, yet the joy is nothing compared to that derived from reading Madeleine Aggeler’s rollicking profile of the man known to millions only as The Liver King. Will you leave feeling sorry for his poor kids, sparring in their mansion’s living room and taking a fork to pigs’ heads in some Lord of the Flies fever dream of prepubescence? For sure. But if a magazine is going to give multiple pages to a bearded madman and his paleolithic worldview, you could do a lot worse than this vivid (but still humanizing) portrait. And a word of warning to my vegetarian friends: maybe look for a text-only version, lest the many photos of glistening organs and animal parts drive you to apoplexy. —PR