Author Archives

Chief Semicolon Advocate at WordPress.com. Professional writer, editor, napper, and dog-snorgler. Knows you are, but what is she?

Five Houstonians, Five Days in a Flood Zone

A team from the Houston Chronicle follows five Houstonians before, during, and just after Hurricane Harvey. Taking us from August 25th to August 31st, day by day, they need no editorial flourishes or hyperbolic language to drive home the fear, confusion, and destruction.

Every time they picked up one flood victim, another appeared: A man with oxygen tanks, along with his nightgown-wearing wife and their three lapdogs. A family of eight as the flood closed in on a high point in the street.

Ellis was motoring back to dry ground – they needed gas – when he looked into a stand of oak trees. He saw something floating, and almost ignored it. Then it moved. He swung the boat around.

A man, his nose and mouth barely above water, holding his wallet and cellphone overhead, bobbed in the current. He grabbed the bow, and hung on. Ellis’ cousin jumped out and helped him in.

“Have you rescued a lady with a white dog?” he asked. Ellis shook his head.

The man kept describing the woman, and the dog, their whole way back to dry ground.

As if, maybe, if he could only describe her better, it would change their answer.

Read the story

The Elephant in the Flood

Flood insurance suffers from actuarial issues that health insurance doesn’t. Whereas health insurance (theoretically) depends on people who need less care subsidizing those who need more, everyone who buys flood insurance needs it — and when catastrophic flooding happens, insurance has to pay out thousands of people at once. Efforts to revamp flood insurance programs move in fits and starts, securing payouts can be a challenge, and no one’s really sure if raising rates or privatizing the insurance programs to make them more financially feasible will actually help. Kate Aronoff walks us through all the policy implications at The Intercept.

The even bigger policy question is whether higher and more competitive rates will actually incentivize fewer people to live along high-risk coastlines, or just leave the shore open only to those wealthy homeowners and developers who can afford higher rates and round after round of rebuilding. President Donald Trump also repealed an Obama-era mandate for flood-prone construction, so there’s no guarantee that new shorefront structures will be able to withstand future damage. The result of higher rates, Elliot predicts, “is the socioeconomic transformation along with the physical transformation of the coastlines.”

Of course, the elephant wading through the flood is the fact that there are now millions of people living in areas that shouldn’t be inhabited at all, no matter the cost. “There’s the uncertainty of living at risk,” Elliot says, “and there’s the uncertainty of what it means to stay in your community when in the near to medium term, it’s going to become more expensive for you to do so — and in the long term, physically impossible.”

All we do know: as climate change continues, there are only going to be more floods. And while the words “insurance actuarial tables” might make your eyes glaze over, the need to rebuild or relocate from flood zones is going to become an issue for more and more people.

Read the story

Like Sheep to the Sanitized Slaughter Zone

Pelin Keskin first saw her grandfather sacrifice an animal for Eid al-Ahda when she was nine. Years later, visiting Turkey for a family wedding that coincides with the Eid, she reflects on what the day — and the sacrifice — means in a changing Turkey where the farmers and butchers integral to the holiday are hidden from view behind screens at a glossy new mega-grocery-markets, called hypermarkets.

Ten to 15 butchers, covered in blood and sweat, worked the sacrifice zone, trying to get the orders right. One calf panicked as it felt a rope try to lift it by its hind legs, while another next to it was completely gutted. A calf already skinned was sectioned into kilograms. It was like a Shake Shack line, but instead of a buzzer and a burger, you have a butcher yelling your number for kilos of fresh meat. I’ve been an unapologetic carnivore all my life, but there was something soulless, something haraam, about this unrelenting efficiency.

The appeal of formalizing the sacrificial process is understandable for both farmer and customer: There is clarity, ease, convenience. My younger uncle and I could’ve easily walked out with the meat and skipped the hassle of bargaining with farmers, but we still did things the traditional, more humanistic way. Days like Eid may unify the nation, but when you come across the scene at a Carrefour, it symbolizes a reality that’s almost laughably on the nose: Turkey, in all of its modernist efforts, is just covering up the smell of its own shit.

Read the essay

The Rising Seas Are Coming From Inside the House

At the Los Angeles Review of Books, Aaron Bady turns in another of his excellent “Game of Thrones” reviews. Watching the high fantasy finale as Houston disappears underwater, he wonders: Is Game of Thrones really a fable about climate change? If it is, it’s got one key flaw; the Night’s King is an external threat can actually be defeated, but we’ll be the engine of our own destruction at the hands of climate change.

If Arya or Jaime kills Cersei and Jon kills the Night’s King, then the monsters will be vanquished and the good Kings and Queens will be able to build a democracy in peace, forever. If we can just kill the bad guys then there will be no more winter, you see; we’re all just building a better world. It’s as dumb as it sounds, when you put it like that, which is why Game of Thrones doesn’t put it like that. Instead, we get a ragtag band of brothers who, together, will cancel the apocalypse. We get the wish-fulfillment fantasy of a monster that can be slain, and isn’t us; we get the high fantasy dream that we’re all queens and knights and related to each other, and that no one else exists. But it’s still raining in Houston.

Fair warning: there are spoilers. And don’t miss the accompanying review by Sarah Mesle, whose season-long dissatisfaction at the Arya/Sansa relationship is not mollified by Sunday night’s Shocking Twist and the viewer manipulation leading up to it.

Read the review

The Subtleties of Electrocution

Reuters reporters took an exhaustive look at Taser use by U.S. police officers, documenting 1000-plus incidents in which people — often people with mental or physical illnesses, or substance abuse issues — died following a tasing. In half the cases, the person was shocked after they or a loved one actually called for help. Of course, Axon Enterprise (the rebranded Taser International) stands behind the safety of its product, throwing the nation’s medical examiners under the bus in the process.

Taser says these tallies give an exaggerated picture of the weapons’ hazards because they suggest Tasers caused all those deaths, when most involved other types of police force as well. The devices have saved tens of thousands of lives, the company says. All weapons carry risks, said Steve Tuttle, the company’s vice president for communications, but Tasers are “the safest force option available to law enforcement.”

Tuttle also said the autopsy results collected by Reuters are unreliable because they were not “peer reviewed” – a standard for studies published in medical journals, although not applicable in courts of law. The medical examiners and pathologists around the country who decided the official cause of death in those cases may not understand the weapons’ physiological effects, he said, and may be “over-listing” potential factors in their rulings to avoid being criticized for possible omissions.

“Ultimately, Taser is not responsible for educating every medical examiner on the subtleties of electrocution,” Tuttle said.

Read the story

You Can’t Embarrass a Dog, or a Trump

At The Baffler, David Roth pulls no punches in his assessment of Donald Trump for anyone still confused by his core beliefs and his approach to politics: he’s an asshole, and the self-centeredness that defines him mean that he’ll never change, and he’ll never care.

There is no room for other people in the world that Trump has made for himself, and this is fundamental to the anxiety of watching him impose his claustrophobic and airless interior world on our own. Is Trump a racist? Yes, because that’s a default setting for stupid people; also, he transparently has no regard for other people at all. Does Trump care about the cheap-looking statue of Stonewall Jackson that some forgotten Dixiecrat placed in a shithole park somewhere he will never visit? Not really, but he so resents the fact that other people expect him to care that he develops a passionate contrary opinion out of spite. Does he even know about . . . Let me stop you there. The answer is no.

The answer is always no, and it will always be no because he does not care.

Is this a screed? Yes, but sometimes reading a well-written screed does a body good. I give Roth bonus points for the piece’s excellent dog-focused introduction, tempered by a demerit for in any way likening the gift to humanity that is the dog to Donald Trump.

Read the essay

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Lighter

Colin Gillis has lost a tremendous amount of weight, and it changes things — the way he moves around the world, the way people react to him. But as he lives in his smaller body, he finds that there are other, deeper parts of his existence as a person of size that he’s lost along with the weight.

But there was also something attractive and deeply pleasurable about being—and living—large, about cultivating huge appetites and satisfying them with abandon. Eating piles of calorie rich food and guzzling it down with wine is tremendously fun, and I look back on occasions when I did that with fondness, a hint of jealousy, and with only the slightest regret. And my large body was so powerful! I trained until I could deadlift 420 pounds. The rush of excitement doing this gave me, the sense of accomplishment, the physical pleasure of muscles flush with blood, was a palpable sense of strength that I carried with me, in body and in mind.

Removing over thirty percent of my total body mass has entailed losses of pleasures that I once associated with being huge and that remain important for me. These are more than just the pleasures of regular excess in food and drink. I am physically smaller now and less strong than I once was. I may never gain back all of my old strength.

Read the essay

Everyone’s Welcome, But Some People Are More Welcome Than Others

a road sign along the side of a highway reading "tennessee welcomes you"

Since the 2016 election, my non-scientific review estimates that the media has published seven zillion articles on Trump voters living in rural America, roughly seven zillion more than were necessary. Mother Jones’ Becca Andrews traveled back to the area where she grew up, Crockett County in West Tennessee, to talk instead to people of color living and working in rural, red states. The stories she hears aren’t as bad as a white person who hasn’t been paying much attention would think. They’re worse — a lot worse.

The day after the November presidential election, Turner went with her mother to the store, and they both kept their heads down. “We just feel like we don’t belong here anymore,” she says.

Turner’s mom, who cleans houses in town for a living, went to work a couple of days after that, and her employer, an older white woman, brought up the results of the recent election. The two had talked politics before—Turner’s mom is a Democrat, and her employer is a Republican. “Well, you might as well come and live with me now,” the employer said. “You gonna be mine eventually.”

Read the story

A Roll of the Immigration Law Dice

In EsquireBrian Castner walks us through the case of Captain Noorullah Aminyar, an Afghan army officer seeking asylum in the U.S. following threats and retaliation by the Taliban that have already left his younger brother dead. He’s been in a Homeland Security detention center for three years now, his application subject to a system of immigration law that is both incredibly complex and incredibly capricious.

There is no legal definition of “de-facto government,” no clear standard that Borowski was asked to meet. U.S. asylum policy is administered case by case by several hundred immigration judges across the country. That makes decisions nonstandard, increasingly partisan, and—most frustratingly for the participants—unpredictable. Immigration judges have wide discretion, by design. “If I rob a bank and get arrested, I have a pretty good idea what my sentence will be,” said Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute, “but if I request asylum, anything might happen. The immigration legal code is second in complexity only to our federal income tax system.”

The Transactional Records Access Clearing House at Syracuse University publishes the asylum denial rates of every immigration judge. Those rates vary widely from judge to judge and city to city; for example, from 2011-2016, the El Paso, Texas court denied 96.6 percent of its 1,042 requests, while Arlington, Virginia approved 70.3 percent of its 3,717 cases.

Art Arthur, a fellow at the conservative Center for Immigration Studies and a former immigration judge (2011-2016 denial rate: 90.4 percent), said that his challenge as a judge was that “the law is very narrowly tailored. You want to be empathetic, to alleviate pain and protect someone. But asylum law doesn’t say that if something bad will happen to someone in their home country, they should be granted protection. There are specific guidelines, and it’s important to maintain fidelity to the law.” He is adamant that clear standards exist—”there’s fifty years of case law to follow,” he said—but he also admitted “at the end of the day, you can’t take human nature out of the system.”

Read the story

There’s No Overtime In This Game

Georgia Cloepfil is only in her mid-twenties, but she is already contemplating the end of her soccer career. The opportunities — and pay — just aren’t there for most women, and the body can only take so much. In her essay at n+1, “Beat the Clock,” she contemplates a life dedicated to a sport that can’t reciprocate.

At times I really am overwhelmed with unmitigated gratitude. Ambition, negotiation, tough-minded feminism—these give way to moments of childish joy. Professional soccer had never been more than a private dream, a subconscious curiosity. Now I get paid to do something I have loved since I was 4 years old. Other than my family, is there anything else I have loved so unconditionally, for so long?

I hobble around the kitchen, searching for a remedy for my constant foot pain and my sore knee. I am home over the holidays for a three-month offseason. “Life is long, Georgia,” says my 60-year-old mother. She is coaxing me to retire, to move on to a pursuit that won’t disintegrate my body with such persistent logic. I want to cry. My soccer life feels so short. Because it is so short.

Read the essay