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Life After Pain

Photo by Riyan Nugraha from Pexels

Ge Gao’s beautiful essay at The Threepenny Review explores life after pain: chronic, inexplicable arm pain that rendered her right arm useless:

I did not jump off the Williamsburg Bridge or drown myself in the East River when I took my evening walks along the river parks in lower Manhattan. Every morning I woke up, flipped my body to the left side, and stretched the right arm long and hard, with a childish hope that the pain would suddenly ebb, just as it had arrived in my body, without any warning. Quickly, disappointment became a daily dose I had to swallow. Then anger. Then depression. Pain camped somewhere inside of my muscle, nerves, or bones and decided to take an extensive lavish vacation there. In order to sustain my daily life, I realized, I had to endure the pain the way other people manage their grief. You bargain, you retreat, you accept.

But it’s not just about coping with pain, because this is her right arm, her dominant arm — it’s also about the loss of all the potential that her right arm represents.

I had just turned twenty-seven years old. I had just run away from a disturbing relationship. But I still wanted things. Aristotle continues the discussion of a soul by pointing out that “within the soul the faculties of knowledge and sensation are potentially these objects, the one what is knowable, the other what is sensible.”

His words explained why my disability of a hand crushed me more than anything. My right hand was the tool for sensations, as well as for recording and clarifying thoughts. The cruelty of not being able to use my right hand was not just about the pain, but the trap of the pain. No release; no writing about it and shaping it into an episode for something larger or sadder than pain itself.

A hand, I concluded, was the soul.

She excavates her pain with a clear-eyed frankness that is itself a bit painful in its sharpness, and the result is a gripping read.

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Racism in Romance, or Why Is the Duke Always White

Photo by duluoz cats via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Alyssa Cole’s romance novel was widely recognized as being one of the best of the 2017, so why didn’t it get nominated for a Rita (aka the Academy Award of the romance industry, bestowed by the Romance Writers of America)? Surprise, the romance novel industry is just as racist as the rest of the world! In The Guardian, Lois Beckett takes a close, hard look at the history, ongoing struggles, and future of romance novelists of color — change seems imminent, but old (racist) habits die hard.

Last year, however, many observers felt that this was sure to change. One of the standout novels of 2017 had been Alyssa Cole’s An Extraordinary Union, an interracial romance set during the civil war. The book had already won a number of awards and made multiple best-of-the-year lists.

When the Rita awards finalists were announced in March 2018, An Extraordinary Union was nowhere to be seen. A novel rated exceptional by critics had been not even been deemed as noteworthy by an anonymous judging panel of Cole’s fellow romance writers. The books that had beat Cole as finalists in the best short historical romance category were all by white women, all but one set in 19th-century Britain, featuring white women who fall in love with aristocrats. The heroes were, respectively, one “rogue”, two dukes, two lords and an earl.

What followed, on Twitter, was an outpouring of grief and frustration from black authors and other authors of colour, describing the racism they had faced again and again in the romance industry. They talked about white editors assuming black writers were aspiring authors, even after they had published dozens of books; about white authors getting up from a table at the annual conference when a black author came to sit down; about constant questions from editors and agents about whether black or Asian or Spanish-speaking characters could really be “relatable” enough.

Then, of course, there were the readers. “People say: ‘Well, I can’t relate,’” Jenkins told NPR a few years ago, after watching white readers simply walk past her table at a book signing. “You can relate to shapeshifters, you can relate to vampires, you can relate to werewolves, but you can’t relate to a story written by and about black Americans?”

The answer, for some readers, is that it never occurred to them that they’d be able to relate.

A particularly infuriating comment, some black authors said, is when white women describe taking a chance on a romance with a black heroine, and then express surprise at how easily they were able to identify with the story. Shirley Hailstock, a black novelist and past president of RWA, told me about a fan letter she once received from a white romance author. She sent me a photograph of the letter, with the signature concealed.

“Dear Shirley,” the white author had written, in a neat cursive hand, “I’m writing to let you know how much I enjoyed Whispers of Love. It’s my first African American romance. I guess I might sound bigoted, but I never knew that black folks fall in love like white folks. I thought it was just all sex or jungle fever I think “they” call it. Silly of me. Love is love no matter what colour or religion or nationality, as sex is sex. I guess the media has a lot to do with it.”

The letter, dated 3 June 1999, was signed, “Sincerely, a fan”.

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This Is Why No One Answers the Phone Anymore

The hand set and computer control box of a phone bank system, Greenville, Ohio. (AP Photo/Skip Peterson)

Americans got 47.8 billion robocalls last year, many of them falsely claiming to be from well-known brands and sites like Marriott and Trip Advisor to get people to stay on the line. When Trip Advisor started getting complains about “their” sales tactics, they put internal investigator Fred Garvin on the case.

“This is TripAdvisor,” a chipper automated female voice said, and today was Garvin’s lucky day: He’d been awarded thousands of TripAdvisor credits for an exclusive vacation to the sunny Caribbean!

It was Garvin’s lucky day. He’d been collecting information for more than nine months, but everything he knew was secondhand. He had never heard the messages himself or been able to tie the Mexican resorts directly to the call centers and the fraudulent use of TripAdvisor’s name. Earlier in the summer, the complaints seemed to have stopped, and Garvin worried that the scammers had gone dark before he could pin them down. Now they were calling his cell phone.

Following the prompts, Garvin was transferred to a live agent, who asked his age range and if he made at least $60,000 a year. He passed the test and was quickly put on the line with a second live agent—the charmer. “You’ve won an all-inclusive trip to one of our fabulous resorts,” the agent said. “What do you like to do on vacation, Mr. Garvin?”

The calls were eventually traced to Adrian Abramovich, who the FCC identified as “the source of 96,758,223 illegal robocalls.” At Wired, Alex Palmer follows the VoIP trail, from the initial complaints against Trip Advisor to Abramovich’s downfall.

Abramovich arrived at the Russell Senate Office Building looking bewildered, as you might expect of someone compelled by congressional subpoena. In the past few years, there hadn’t been much that Democrats and Republicans in Congress could agree on. Health care, immigration, taxes, deficits—every debate, every topic and idea was us vs. them. Here, finally, was an issue that perfectly bridged the partisan divide: a burning hatred of robo­calls. As soon as the hearing began, the senators pounced, clearly relishing the chance to lay into the stout man at the witness table. Abramovich, wearing a suit and glasses and with his hair pulled back into a neat man bun, looked trapped. Senator Richard Blumenthal kicked things off. Abramovich, Blumenthal said, had assembled a “phenomenal record of consumer abuse.” Looking directly at him, he declared: “You have become the face of this problem.”

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Gone Today, Here Tomorrow

Actress Fan Bingbing poses for photographers upon arrival at the opening ceremony of the 71st international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Tuesday, May 8, 2018. (Photo by Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP)

Fan Bingbing is one of China’s biggest movie stars, if not the biggest, with her combo of high glamor and girl-next-door accessibility. Everyone knows her, everyone loves her. And so everyone was worried when, in August of last year, she just … disappeared. No public appearances. No social media activity. For almost six weeks.

Then, on October 3, Fan reappeared as suddenly as she had vanished. According to the South China Morning Post, she had been held under a form of detention known as “residential surveillance,” at a holiday resort in a suburb of Jiangsu. The system was instituted in 2012, under President Xi Jinping, making it legal for the Chinese secret police to detain anyone charged with endangering state security or committing corruption and hold them at an undisclosed location for up to six months without access to lawyers or family members. Sources close to Fan told me that she had been picked up by plainclothes police. While under detention, she was forbidden to make public statements or use her phone. She wasn’t given a pen or paper to write with, nor allowed any privacy, even when taking showers.

The problem? Making too much money, and not paying enough in taxes. As May Jeong explains in her Vanity Fair story about Bingbing’s brush with state security, her behavior was par for the course in the Chinese film industry and her notoriety made her the perfect target for a government that wanted to deliver a powerful message, fast: things aren’t going to be like this anymore, and no one’s too popular to get caught.

Under Xi’s crackdown, tens of thousands of people have disappeared into the maw of the police state. An eminent TV news anchor was taken away hours before going on air. A retired professor with views critical of the government was dragged away during a live interview on Voice of America. A billionaire was abducted from his private quarters in the Four Seasons in Hong Kong. Other high-profile disappearances include Interpol president Meng Hongwei in September, photojournalist Lu Guang in November, two Canadians who went missing in December, as well as the writer Yang Hengjun, who went missing in January. “The message being sent out is that nobody is too tall, too big, too famous, too pretty, too whatever,” said Steve Tsang, who runs the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

Taken together, Xi’s moves represent a dramatic rollback of the economic reforms and relative freedom that enabled the film industry to flourish in the time before his reign. “Deng Xiaoping kept everyone together by promising to make them rich,” said Nicholas Bequelin, the East Asia director of Amnesty International. “What keeps things together under Xi is fear. Fear of the system, where no matter how high you are, from one day to the next you can disappear.”

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If Following McMillan Cottom and Gay on Twitter Isn’t Enough, Here You Go

Photo by Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Tressie McMillan Cottom is brilliant, funny, scathing, important. Roxane Gay is brilliant, funny, scathing, important. And the editors at Guernica are brilliant for commissioning the latter to interview the former.

Guernica: One of the things I noticed in all of these essays in Thick is that you take blackness, and black women in particular, very seriously, which is not something we see a lot of in academic writing—or in, essentially, any writing. How did you learn to take yourself seriously?

McMillan Cottom: Damn. That’s a good question. It is probably extremely revealing to try to answer, because I don’t know that anybody has ever modeled taking myself seriously for me. I suspect that’s true for a lot of black women. I don’t know how I did it. I think the moment I learned it was probably trauma-induced. I write a little bit about this, my major life trauma, in Thick, which I had never planned on doing, ever. But I think when you come out on the other side of trauma, one of two things can happen: You can be more of who you were before it happened, sometimes in the worst ways. You can double down on your fears and anxieties. Or you can come out different, and you’re never that same person. That’s what happened to me. For the first time, I was asking questions of myself rather than responding to how people wanted me to behave. For the first time, I was making affirmative decisions about what I wanted. In a real way, the trauma wiped the slate clean for me mentally. And that’s when I started the process of teaching myself to take myself seriously. By extension, I could start to take other black women seriously.

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How Do You Move a Warhol? Really, Really Carefully

Emalee Beddoes-Davis, museum curator, adjusts a Warhol at the Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum, 2017. (Aaron Chown/PA Wire URN:33563052)

You don’t always have to fly to Paris to see the Mona Lisa; art, even priceless art, constantly moves around the world for specific exhibitions. And that means logistics! For The Guardian, Andrew Dickson goes deep into the world of fine art transportation, where the objects are precious and singular, the stakes are high, and a damaged shipment means a piece of art is forever lost to us.

None of this comes cheap, needless to say: getting a single object to the UK from Australia and back might cost £60,000, while trucking works from France might cost £25,000. Shippers request “must-ride” status for their artworks to avoid the risk of them hanging around in airports, but it can still be trumped by higher-priority cargo. The registrar told me: “Horses tend to win, because they have to travel same-day, and no one worries about the cost. I had a case recently where they’d lost the forms at the airport and were going to bump my shipment. I nearly lost out to some fresh fish.”

The registrar recalled one courier who watched his crate go on, signed the paperwork – and then missed the flight. “He called me from the departure lounge, saying that the work he was meant to be couriering had just taken off. I was like: ‘You had one fucking job … ’” (In 2010, a courier lost a portrait by the 19th-century French artist Corot worth some £850,000 while drunk in a New York hotel bar. It turned up a few weeks later.)

Assuming they have both made it to the destination, the courier watches the crate leave the plane, before joining it in another climate-controlled truck for transit to the host museum. If an overnight stop is required, either a secure, climate-controlled fine art warehouse must be booked en route – there is a network of these across Europe, owned by different shipping firms – or, more likely, someone stays in the truck at all times, to the extent of sleeping in it.

Even a medium-sized exhibition may contain 80 artefacts, each of which needs to reach its destination at exactly the right moment (installations for a major show are so tight that courier arrivals are booked on an hour-by-hour schedule). Multiply that by the number of touring exhibitions – the V&A currently has 12 on the road – and you can see why a registrar might be in need of a mindfulness poster or two.

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If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium

Rick Steves: beloved travel guru, and total pothead. (In this Monday, Nov. 26, 2012 photo, Rick Steves holds a plastic marijuana leaf necklace as he sits with a poster used to advertise his business in Edmonds, Wash. AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Rick Steves wants to help you travel the world, no matter your budget. Not just because travel is fun, but because travel expands your horizons and changes your worldview. Steves is about a lot more than making sure you maximize your 3-day museum pass — did you know that the first time he traveled to Central America, “he came back so outraged that he wrote a fiery tract called ‘There’s Blood on Your Banana,’ then flew to Washington and hand-delivered a copy to the office of every member of Congress”? Sam Anderson‘s New York Times profile of Steves is a loving, rollicking, educational tribute to the man who launched a thousand backpackers.

Sometimes, fans urge Steves to run for office. When I asked him if he would ever get into politics, he had an answer ready: “I already am.” Good travel teaching, in his eyes, is inherently political. To stay in a family-owned hotel in Bulgaria is to strengthen global democracy; to pack light is to break the iron logic of consumerism; to ride a train across Europe is to challenge the fossil-fuel industry. Travel, to Steves, is not some frivolous luxury — it is an engine for improving humankind, for connecting people and removing their prejudices, for knocking distant cultures together to make unlikely sparks of joy and insight. Given that millions of people have encountered the work of Steves over the last 40 years, on TV or online or in his guidebooks, and that they have carried those lessons to untold other millions of people, it is fair to say that his life’s work has had a real effect on the collective life of our planet. When people tell Steves to stay out of politics, to stick to travel, he can only laugh.

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Welcome to Sinaloa, Home of Chiltepín

Photo by Jose Nicdao via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Aguachile is all over Mexican restaurant menus, a ceviche-adjacent seafood dish. But “aguachile” literally means “chile water,” and the oldest version of the dish had nothing to do with shrimp and everything to do with chiltepín: a small, round chile that grows wild in Sinaloa state. For Eater, Michael Snyder travels through Sinaloa with Mexico City chef Luis Valle in search of the “original-original” aguachile.

Really, aguachile is a roadmap to Sinaloa, a state whose name is often tied to the drug war and the larger-than-life dons who have become its bombastic, public face. Aguachile, Valle explained to me on my first visit to Don Vergas, began in the hills, where chiltepín still grows wild between plantations of poppy and cannabis, then drifted west toward the sea. Along the way, it touched Sinaloa’s disappearing indigenous traditions, centuries of mestizaje, cultural and economic ties to the United States, and two of the major industries — shrimp and agriculture — that drive the Sinaloan economy.

On my first visit to Don Vergas, in April 2018, Valle told me that if I wanted to try the “original-original” aguachile, we could go look for it together in Sinaloa — on what he would later call our “super mega mission.” I told him I would love to go, only half expecting it to happen, as he slid a plate of aguachile across the counter. Crystals of Maldon salt cracked between my molars. The chiltepín blazed a trail of heat across my tongue. I’d eaten plenty of aguachile before, I told him, but nothing quite like this.

“Verga,” he exhaled with a Cheshire smile, using the word that gives his restaurant its name. Translated literally, it means “mast” (as in a boat). In this context, it meant something more like “dude” or “no way”’ Sometimes, it means “cool” or “good;” sometimes it means “shitty.” Mostly, though, verga means “dick.”

“That’s because you’ve never been to Sinaloa.”

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The Terror of Being Awake

Photo by Pfree2014 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

When you’re under general anaesthesia, a good anaesthesiologist uses a combo of consciousness-dulling agents and neuromuscular blockers — one to put you to sleep and block pain sensations, one to paralyze you. What if the latter works but the former doesn’t? The stuff of horror movies. At Mosaic, David Robson explores research suggesting that up to 5 percent of surgical patients could experience pain during their procedures but be unable to communicate that to hospital staff, or even to remember the experience afterward.

This all makes anaesthesia as much art as science, and in the vast majority of cases, it works astonishingly well. More than 170 years after Morton’s public demonstration, anaesthetists across the world plunge millions of people each year into comas and then bring them out safely. This doesn’t just reduce patients’ immediate suffering; many of the most invasive lifesaving procedures would simply not be possible without good general anaesthesia.

But as with any medical procedure, there can be complicating factors. Some people may have a naturally higher threshold for anaesthesia, meaning that the drugs don’t reduce the brain’s activity enough to dim the light of consciousness.

In some cases, such as injuries involving heavy bleeding, an anaesthetist may be forced to use a lower dose of the anaesthetic for the patient’s own safety.

It may also be difficult to time the effects of the different drugs, to ensure that the so-called induction dose – which gets you to sleep – doesn’t fade before the maintenance dose – to keep you unconscious – kicks in.

In some situations, you might be able to raise or lower your limb, or even speak, to show the anaesthetic is not working before the surgeon picks up their scalpel. But if you have also been given neuromuscular blockers, that won’t be possible. The unfortunate result is that a small proportion of people may lie awake for part or all of their surgery without any ability to signal their distress.

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The Tyranny of Chairs

Photo by Don Harder via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

To eat in public while fat is to invite stares, judgement, and commentary — and that’s assuming you can be comfortably seated at your restaurant of choice. For larger people, picking a place to eat doesn’t just involve looking online for menus or reviews, but for pictures of the chairs. In the New York Times, Kim Severson explores the pains (often physical) and challenges of trying to spend an evening in a place that was not built to accommodate you, in an industry where even the king of hospitality has a fat-person sized blind spot.

Danny Meyer, 60, whose restaurants include the Shake Shack chain and high-end destinations like Union Square Cafe, said customers’ size is a new consideration. “I don’t believe we have ever designed a restaurant saying, ‘Let’s make sure there are two tables that can accommodate someone who is larger,’” he said.

And when you don’t? This happens.

Traci Armstrong, 46, who runs Specialty Catering in Bluffton, S.C., travels to eat at the nation’s best restaurants as a hobby. She is 5-foot-4 and about 335 pounds. She always books two airline seats.

She flew to Washington, D.C., over a holiday weekend to eat at Pineapple and Pearls, which has two Michelin stars. When she got there, her reserved seat was at a stationary bar stool at the chef’s counter. She didn’t fit. The staff offered to seat her outside or accommodate her at a sister restaurant, but she declined and left.

“I was mortified,” she said.

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