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

“The Glitter-scurfed Frappuccinos” Is Totally the Name of My New Band

Mmm, scurfy. (A Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino, 2017. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

John Birdsall’s essay for Topic on crimes against taste deserves kudos for bringing us the beautifully evocative words “glitter-scurfed,” but also for being a fun and funny way of getting us all to realize when we’re being judgy assholes about peoples’s food (#ChideReads?). Is the line between “good taste” and “food crime” completely relative? Maybe. But even if it’s not, it’s a lot fuzzier than most of us think.

Some days my Instagram serves up a scroll of atrocities: cake-topped #freakshakes, Bloody Marys bristling with bacon swizzles and sliders on skewers, Luther Burgers with glazed doughnuts stunting for the bun, brownie-batter “hummus,” glitter-scurfed pink-and-blue unicorn Frappuccinos, and activated charcoal soft-serve so black and glossy it resembles roof-patch polymer. Social media is a major enabler of crimes against taste (their visual representations anyway; see the new popularity of “dark cuisine,” or hei an liao li—fantastical, thrillingly transgressive dishes trending on Chinese social media), but it is, after all, only food porn.

Let’s pause to consider the definition of “crime,” or at least to say what it is not. There are plenty of dishes that appear brutal, bizarre, or disgusting through the lens of culture. My introduction to Filipino food was the murky bowl of dinuguan (a stew of mixed pork innards in a sauce of vinegar and blood) my future mother-in-law served me for breakfast one morning nearly 30 years ago. As I slurped politely, I gazed longingly at the box of Cheerios on top of the fridge. If I’d stopped there, rejected a cuisine I didn’t understand and that seemed intent on assault (especially so early in the morning), my brush with the food of the Philippines might have gone down in dinner-party stories as a tale of staring down evil in a bowl and living to talk about it, or at least of shuddering in the face of grossness. Thanks to love for my husband-to-be, I suppose, I persisted. I came to see beauty in a bowl of blood and offal stew—the way a handful of economical cuts from a butcher’s market stall can transcend utility, honor an animal gone to slaughter by elevating its twistiest parts, and express an immigrant’s longing for a place on the other side of the world. A dish that looks, smells, and tastes like a crime can merely be misunderstood, evidence of an accusing prosecutor’s failure at grasping meaning or context.

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“White” Isn’t Even Neutral When You’re Talking About Paint Colors

The March 2018 Esquire cover story “The Life of an American Boy at 17”  brought no end of critique upon itself. Was it justified, necessary critique, or was it evidence of what Esquire‘s editor called a “Kafkaesque thought-police nightmare of paranoia and nausea”? Writing in Pacific Standard, Patrick Nathan takes advantage of time and reflection to pen a thoughtful, pointed essay on what it means to be “neutral” when you work in systems — of politics, of journalism, of culture — that are themselves seeped in racism and misogyny.

The piece is written as if Ryan is an unfamiliar or exotic subject for profiling. In fact, he is the institutionally approved median, or neutral, of young masculinity in America, at the center of two centuries of culture, entertainment, law, education, art, and politics. America was built, mostly by slaves, for boys like Ryan.

I’ve always known who he is, because Ryan is the model I was supposed to imitate—at least until my queerness got in the way. So it’s not only insulting that Esquire assumes I can’t see him—that any queer, or any person of color, any girl or woman, can’t see him. It’s cruel. And it seems a deliberate cruelty, because all Esquire has done is to re-emphasize this neutrality, this apparent normative ideal, which makes the rest of us un-American.

Clinging to this false neutrality, Esquire has only strengthened the ideologies of whiteness and toxic masculinity. Percy may not have done this on purpose, but neither is Ryan, on purpose, a bigot whose unchallenged ignorance can and will harm other people. This is what people mean when they lament the inevitability of “the system”: Percy is doing what the system asks of her—recording what happened and who said what—and doing it well. Ryan is behaving like the boy the system wants him to be. Jay Fielden, Esquire‘s editor, is equally faithful to this system, where words are transparent and self-propagating tools of something called civilization.

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Make Way for Meera

The Himalaya as seen from Mera Peak.

Sometimes you need to gird your loins wade thigh-deep into the news of the day, and sometimes you need to take a break and read about an awesome dog who climbed a 23,000-foot mountain in the Himalaya. Thank you, Outside and Anna Callaghan, for giving some of us the mountain-climbing dog story we need.

At first it seemed like the Sherpas only tolerated Mera because Wargowsky liked her so much, but as they witnessed her climbing prowess, they began to treat her with reverence. “They’d never seen anything like this happen. They said she was a special dog, that she brought luck to the expedition,” Wargowsky says. “Some even thought she was blessed.”

The next day, Wargowsky took his team up to camp one to start the summit bid. The route features steep ridgelines that drop thousands of feet off either side. There are sections of vertical snow. To get down, climbers have to do a number of rappels. Wargowsky tied Mera up at camp so she couldn’t follow them back up the mountain, but the dog chewed through the rope and caught up with the team less than an hour after it had left. “She just tucked in right behind me,” he says. “And it’s not like I could leave the clients to take her back, so it meant she was going with us.”

She’s a good dog, Brant.

Mera became an instant celebrity. People came over from other camps to meet the dog who’d summited Baruntse. Some tried to discredit her, saying it was impossible. Luckily, the team had plenty of photographic evidence. Mera declined to comment for this piece, preferring instead that her accomplishment speak for itself. And to be clear, no one forced Mera to climb this mountain. In fact, Mera’s feat made the climbers very anxious.

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It’s All In the Wrist (and the Blatant Lying)

A gendarme, left, looks at French soldiers searching for art objects in a canal in Gerstheim, France, in 2002. Investigators partly emptied the canal to find objects and paintings stolen by Stephane Breitwieser, 31, suspected of stealing more than 172 art objects and paintings. Many of the treasures were discarded or destroyed by the his mother. (AP Photo/Cedric Joubert)

Forget grand, high-tech, multi-level Ocean’s Eleven-style heists; Stéphane Breitwieser robbed nearly 200 museums of $1.4 billion worth of art without a single computer hack. Instead, he relied on patience, a Swiss army knife, brazenness, and the fact that people — including museum security guards — are really bad at noticing things. Michael Finkel tells his story (and that of his girlfriend and accomplice, Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus) at GQ.

On their way to the exit, they’re stopped by a guard. They feign calm, but Breitwieser has a terrible feeling that the end has come. The guard wants to see their entrance tickets. Breitwieser, unable to move his left arm, awkwardly reaches across his body with his right to fish the tickets from his left pocket. He wonders if the guard senses something amiss.

A guilty person would cower and try to leave, so Breitwieser boldly tells the guard that he’s heading to the museum café for lunch. The guard’s suspicion is defused, and the couple actually eat at the museum, Breitwieser’s arm held rigid the entire time.

They rent a cheap hotel room and wait two days and return yet again, newly disguised, and he steals four more pieces. That’s a total of 13, and such is their level of euphoria that on the drive home they can’t contain themselves and stop at an antiques gallery displaying an immense ancient urn, made of silver and gold, in the front window.

Breitwieser enters, and the dealer calls from atop a staircase that he’ll be right down, but by the time he descends no one is there. Nor is the urn. They return to France plunder-drunk and giddy, and for fun, Breitwieser recalls, Kleinklaus phones the gallery and asks how much the urn in the window costs. About $100,000, she’s told. “Madame,” says the dealer, “you really must see it.” He hasn’t yet noticed it’s gone.

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What’s a Good Hourly Wage for Developing PTSD?

If you haven’t read Casey Newton‘s haunting story about Facebook moderators at The Verge, it’s not too late. Next time you’re mindlessly scrolling there and liking dank memes, spare a moment for moderators like Chloe, who are shouldering a traumatic burden — but at an outsourced content moderating center, so they aren’t supported or compensated like actual Facebook employees.

The moderators told me it’s a place where the conspiracy videos and memes that they see each day gradually lead them to embrace fringe views. One auditor walks the floor promoting the idea that the Earth is flat. A former employee told me he has begun to question certain aspects of the Holocaust. Another former employee, who told me he has mapped every escape route out of his house and sleeps with a gun at his side, said: “I no longer believe 9/11 was a terrorist attack.”

Chloe cries for a while in the break room, and then in the bathroom, but begins to worry that she is missing too much training. She had been frantic for a job when she applied, as a recent college graduate with no other immediate prospects. When she becomes a full-time moderator, Chloe will make $15 an hour — $4 more than the minimum wage in Arizona, where she lives, and better than she can expect from most retail jobs.

The tears eventually stop coming, and her breathing returns to normal. When she goes back to the training room, one of her peers is discussing another violent video. She sees that a drone is shooting people from the air. Chloe watches the bodies go limp as they die.

She leaves the room again.

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At Glen Mills Schools, the Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves

Glen Mills, just outside of Philly, is considered the “Harvard of reform schools,” all brick buildings and grassy quads. It has a stellar athletics program that sends players to the NFL, and has served as a model for reform schools across the country. And as Lisa Gartner uncovers for the Philadelphia Inquirer, it’s built on serious physical violence against students enabled by the barest training and standards for staff that are selected for brawn rather than skill.

According to sworn testimony from Glen Mills’ in-house trainer, Carmelo Mustaccio, the school had not devised, let alone demonstrated, specific techniques for properly restraining students.

Instead, Mustaccio recertified Glen Mills’ counselors each year by showing them a PowerPoint, demonstrating “gently” lowering others to the ground, and then giving out an open-book, multiple-choice quiz.

“Very rarely” did anyone fail the 15-question quiz, Mustaccio said. The third question asks: “Which of the following does Glen Mills NOT allow when addressing student behavior?” The options are “verbal ridicule,” “poking and slapping,” “kicking and choking,” or “all of the above.”

The counselors graded one another’s papers. They could miss three questions and still pass. If someone failed the quiz, they stayed after class while the trainer went over the right answers, Mustaccio said. Then they took the same quiz again.

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How Do You Shepherd If You’ve Never Had a Sheep?

Rev. Thomas Berg, director of admissions at St. Joseph's Seminary, said he and his colleagues strive to rigorously screen the young men applying for admission, assessing their psychosexual development and emotional maturity. Applicants are asked about their dating history and their level of attraction to other males; Berg believes the process has succeeded in reducing the number of seminarians with same-sex attraction. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

For the New York Times, Elizabeth Dias spoke to two dozen gay Catholic priests and seminarians about life in a church where their existence is both an open secret and a deep shame.

Gregory Greiten was 17 years old when the priests organized the game. It was 1982 and he was on a retreat with his classmates from St. Lawrence, a Roman Catholic seminary for teenage boys training to become priests. Leaders asked each boy to rank which he would rather be: burned over 90 percent of his body, paraplegic or gay.

Each chose to be scorched or paralyzed. Not one uttered the word “gay.” They called the game the Game of Life.

The church controls a priest’s job, his housing, his healthcare, his pension, his life. Being openly gay threatens all of that, even if the priest remains celibate — a requirement that is in itself troubling.

Even before a priest may know he is gay, he knows the closet. The code is taught early, often in seminary. Numquam duo, semper tres, the warning goes. Never two, always three. Move in trios, never as a couple. No going on walks alone together, no going to the movies in a pair. The higher-ups warned for years: Any male friendship is too dangerous, could slide into something sexual or could turn into what they called a “particular friendship.”

“You couldn’t have a particular friendship with a man, because you might end up being homosexual,” explained a priest, who once nicknamed his friends “the P.F.s.” “And you couldn’t have a friendship with a woman, because you might end up falling in love, and they were both against celibacy. With whom do you have a relationship that would be a healthy human relationship?”

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Stovetop Revenge

Photo by Bob B. Brown via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Mary Woodson was no fan of Al Green’s refusal to commit to her (or to monogamy). So she took matters into her own sauce pan, coating a naked Green with scalding grits; weaponized grits have since worked their way into a range of Black art and media. Cynthia Greenlee explores the stories for Vice, stripping back the hardy-har-har tale of an angry woman getting revenge on a cheating man to show the powerlessness and pain beneath.

Food is about relationships and power: who cooks for whom, who can leave the table without cleaning, who picks the strawberries, who pockets the profits. And not all relationships are healthy. The food served for pleasure can also serve as punishment. Take the origin story of Prince’s hot chicken in Nashville. Family lore has it that the chicken got its mouth-scalding heat from a girlfriend who objected to the late-night shenanigans of her partner. When he requested her special fried chicken after carousing without her, she slathered it in cayenne pepper, battered it, and fried it. The story has the apocryphal patina of a much-told tall tale—but if true, someone liked revenge served blindingly hot and with ample pepper.

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A Moral Center In a Decayed Ethical Universe

Former Abu Ghraib interrogator turned playwright Joshua Casteel, left, interviews an unidentified prisoner, played by David Blum, during a dress rehearsal of his production, "Returns," in 2007. (AP Photo/The Daily Iowan, Ben Roberts)

Joshua Casteel had to decide between attending seminary and deploying to Iraq as an army interrogator. He chose Iraq, where he hoped to bring morality and humanity to interrogations. But army interrogators already had their own version of “moral order”:

For the first week Casteel sat in on interrogations. There were six booths on each side of a long hallway; down the center was a two-way mirror that didn’t always work well, and when it didn’t, the prisoners watched you watch them. The rooms held little beyond plastic chairs, cheap tables, maybe zip ties on the chair legs. Sometimes a steel hook was attached to the floor. Every now and then prisoners were led to a more comfortable room, to confuse them, make them relax. The goal was to make them slip up. Sometimes Casteel saw men kept naked. Sometimes they were handcuffed to chairs.

During lessons, Casteel’s supervisors explained how to use fabricated stories and charges of homosexuality to shame the prisoners and manipulate them. The commanders were clear about who they were dealing with, Casteel remembered.

“These men,” they said, “are the agents of Satan, gentlemen.”

Casteel kept his own moral compass in the interrogation room, where it turned out that treating people like people was more effective than treating people like animals to be broken.

It turned out he couldn’t help but feel bad for the prisoners. It didn’t matter if the prisoner was a wrongly accused farmer or a jihadist bent on Casteel’s destruction. His orders commanded that he approach prisoners as assets to manipulate, but when Casteel walked into the interrogation room and saw the prisoner, he thought, This is a man in need of redemption. “From my very first interrogation,” he wrote later, “I have simply lacked the ability to look at the person I interrogate in a way that does not demand I also think about what is best for him.” Soon Casteel was attending confession with an Army chaplain after each interrogation, because “of an overwhelming burden to atone for what I considered the sin of reducing individuals to strategic ‘objects of exploitation.’” Once, he told a prisoner “You are not a criminal, you are not a terrorist,” and the prisoner wept, because no American had ever called him anything but evil.

At the same time, Casteel was extracting more information from the prisoners than other interrogators. During interrogations, Casteel smiled a lot and tapped his foot or smoked a cigarette to give the prisoner time to think, or sometimes because he didn’t quite know what to do next. He tried to show respect. He listened more than he spoke. He paid attention to a prisoner’s words, tone of voice, body language. “Some good news came in today,” he wrote to his parents after a month in Iraq. “I was just notified that the results of my past three interrogations received special recognition from ‘higher up.’ I guess my cigarettes and smiles with the ruthless man I spoke briefly of earlier did something profitable for the commanders in the field. That was a big boost of confidence, being as the best thing I did was simply respect him.”

Casteel eventually left the military as a conscientious objector after one particularly transformative encounter with a detainee. On his return to the U.S., he struggled both with the aftermath of his experience and with his health — his time monitoring burning waste pits in Iraq left him with Iraq/Afghanistan War-Lung Injury, and the ensuing cancer killed him. For Smithsonian and Epic magazines, Jennifer Percy tells the story of his life, work, and death.

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There’s a Fine Line Between “Discovering” and “Interloping”

In this Nov. 14, 2005 file photo, clouds hang over the North Sentinel Island, in India's southeastern Andaman and Nicobar Islands. (AP Photo/Gautam Singh, File)

John Allen Chau was killed by the famously isolationist residents of North Sentinel Island when he attempted to bring them Jesus. Whatever you think about his religious motives, he also represents a trend in “authentic” tourism — an entitled, colonialist trend — that evinces a profound disrespect for the humanity of other people. At The Walrus, adventurer Kate Harris digs into the essential egotism of travel to encourage us all to find a more respectful way of exploring our world.

Survival International, a non-­profit that works for tribal peoples’ rights, has documented a troubling rise in the popularity of “human safaris,” in which tourists seek out fleeting, zoo-like glimpses of uncontacted Indigenous peoples. In the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, part of the same archipelago as North Sentinel, you could, until recently (and possibly still), peer out of a tour bus at the Jarawa, a group of hunter-gatherers through whose traditional forest territory the Andaman Trunk Road was built. Similar sightings of Peruvian and Brazilian Indigenous tribes are available if you quietly ask the right guide. And, if these experiences aren’t ­thrilling enough, several organizations offer “first contact” treks, including ones in Papua New ­Guinea to visit “undiscovered tribes” who have “never seen a white man.”

Done well, tourism focus­ed on local peoples can give them more control over their destiny and widen the hearts and minds of travellers to the wonders and complexities of the world. Done poorly, tribal tourism denies people the dignity of being left alone—denies them, even, recognition as people. Either way, travel has a tendency to bring out the Chau in all of us. We want what we want when we go abroad, which often is the untouched, the authentic—even as our arrival, by definition, undermines those very qualities in a place or of a culture and contributes to the slow, involuntary conversion of one way of life into another.

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