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Self Portrait With iPhone

Getty / Image courtesy of the author / Photo illustration by Longreads

Pam Mandel | Longreads | May 2020 | 10 minutes (2,453 words)

The first thing I notice are the car selfies. So many of the profiles I see include car selfies. I overthink as I try to determine what this tells me.

I consider the following options:

I have a car. See how I have a car?

No one knows I’m doing this. My car is the only place I can get privacy in which to take a dating profile selfie.

I have no friends, no one to take my picture.

On Reddit and Quora, I learn that others have noticed this too. I find multiple threads asking my exact question. “What’s the deal with all the car selfies?”

Consensus is that the light is good inside your car — it’s even and diffused. You might be on your way to or from an important event, one that requires you to clean up, whatever that means for you. You look in the mirror, check your teeth, and think, “Hey, I look good.” Your phone is right there, in the dash-mounted bracket, perfect for a selfie.


I consider taking “car selfie” off my list of disqualifying factors for selecting a mate. I mean date. For selecting a date.
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A Second Passport

Photo courtesy of the author / Unsplash / Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Pam Mandel | Longreads | February 2019 | 14 minutes (3,605 words)

In 1982 travelers’ wisdom dictated it was a liability to have a stamp on your passport for Israel. This traveler’s wisdom, we relied on it all the time, though I could not tell you where we picked it up, exactly. And it did not help us when we went to Greece, where we’d hoped to find work and found nothing but vacationers and a few abandoned construction sites. Traveler’s wisdom guided us to take the ferry to Haifa, Israel, where we picked up farm work, enough to line our pockets with what little cash we heard we’d need for our target destination. This unofficial information was how we’d planned our route, leaving London in winter, our sights set on India.

Word was India would not issue you a visa if you showed up with a passport covered in Israeli stamps. You could, however, get a second passport issued from the embassy in Cairo and use that for traveling in parts of the world that were anti-Israel. We had been working in Israel, harvesting bananas, cleaning houses. Egypt was the launch pad to nations further east, a stepping stone on the way to India. That’s why we were going to Cairo, to get new passports.

We. Me, a California girl of 18, swept up in the transient population of unemployed British and German 20-somethings after a summer tour of Israel. That thing where Jewish kids go to The Promised Land to become one with the tribe, to form a bond with Israel. It didn’t work on me. I was instead drawn to the backpackers, the first edition of Lonely Planet’s India guidebook, and a middle class English non-Jew, Alastair, in his 20s, tall and skinny with deep-set blue eyes and a simmering anger at the world. We worked, we saved, and one day we decided we had enough money to go to Cairo and get new passports, and from there, continue to New Delhi.
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Exodus in the Ozarks

Getty / Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Pam Mandel | Longreads | June 2018 | 10 minutes (2,441 words)


“Well, what are you doing all the way out…here? How’d you find this place?”

The question wasn’t fair. Billygail’s Cafe is only ten miles outside Branson, Missouri. Sure, it’s on a country road, and sure, it feels like you’ve found something special, but it’s listed on Trip Advisor and USA Today and showed up on an episode Man vs. Food on the Travel Channel. Use Yelp to find breakfast while you’re in Branson and you’ll get Billygail’s.

The real question was not what I was doing at Billygail’s. The answer to that was easy: I was there to muscle my way through a gorgeous 14-inch plate-obscuring sourdough pancake. The bigger question was, what was I doing in Branson?

The short answer is I was in Branson for a conference and to see a place I’d never been before. There’s little I like more than going somewhere new and finding out I’m wrong about it — and for a writer, no surer way to find a great story. My previous exposure to Branson was limited to a 1996 episode of The Simpsons. Bart, Milhouse, Nelson, and Martin take a road trip, detouring through Branson to catch a performance by Nelson’s unlikely hero, Andy Williams. I didn’t buy the Simpson’s vision wholesale. I looked at Google, too, and found plenty of references to the show scene — and to country music. I’d baked extra time in my trip to explore — and to catch at least one country music show.

“Yeah, you could do that,” said the conference organizer who helped me plan my travel. “And yeah, there’s music here, but there’s this… other thing.” She pointed me to the website for Sight and Sound, a 2000 seat theater that stages multimedia spectacles based in the Bible. The current production? Moses.

A bad West coast Jew, I know little of my inherited theology. But like many of my Jewish friends and family, I know three or four things about the story of Moses — kind of the cornerstone story of the Jewish faith. Plus, Passover — the holiday where we eat matzoh ball soup and recount how Moses led “the chosen people” out of Egypt into the Promised Land — happens to be my favorite holiday. So, while Dolly’s Stampede is the most popular attraction in Branson, and there’s plenty of wholesome country western cabaret, I couldn’t resist this opulent retelling of the history of the Jewish people.

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The Dog Breeds Disappearing in India

Chippiparai dog at the streets of Tirupudaimarudur
Chippiparai dog at the streets of Tirupudaimarudur via Wikimedia

I wish I’d paid closer attention to breeds when I adopted Harley, a chihuahua mixed with something barky. I didn’t know that chihuahuas can be monogamous to a fault, making it hard on him when I’m not around. And I should have know better about the terrier influence. No matter how I try, he’s still shouty at everything that walks by the back gate.

Too late, too late, he’s very much my dog now, 12 pounds of shouty possessive loyalty on four legs. If I’d gone by breed characteristics alone, I’d have a very different dog sleeping next to the kitchen heater vent right now.

Doodles are so cheerful, retrievers are easy going, Australian shepherds are smart and good workers. No wonder they’re popular. But faddishness of dog variety has led to the decline of less common breeds. introduces us to indigenous Indian dog breeds who have lost favor in their home country as labs and shepherds become the companion of choice.

In ancient times, Indian dogs were prized across the world and exported in large numbers for hunting prowess – travelling as far and wide as Rome, Egypt and Babylon – but they were shunned at home. The international demand for Indian dogs and the fact that their gene pool stayed relatively undiluted till about three centuries ago kept these breeds going. Baskaran tells us that in the 18th century, a Frenchman travelling across India identified 50 distinct dog breeds including one called the Lut, which was often a fascinating shade of blue.

The Lut is just one of several dog breeds that have not been seen in living memory, writes Baskaran. Based on four decades of research and observation, the author concludes that there are just 25 indigenous Indian dog breeds found today. The reasons for this decline are vast and complex. During the colonial period, British rulers settling into India for the long haul often imported dogs from back home. The arrival of foreign breeds resulted in cross-breeding and there was little government interest in preserving indigenous breeds and trying to keep their gene pool intact. The few Indian rajas who did have dogs as pets were more drawn to foreign breeds. The only attempts to protect Indian breeds were made by British dog enthusiasts, who had taken a particularly fancy to our indigenous dogs, especially those found in the Himalayas.

They’re all good dogs.

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The Aftermarket for (Human) Spare Parts

Male and female mannequins In storage
Mannequins in Storage via Wikimedia

For many, it seems like an easy choice: You check the donor box on your driver’s license and feel a vague sense of philanthropy. “If anything happens to me, at least what’s left will be used in a meaningful way.”

Two Reuters reporters traced what happens with those “donated to science” bodies. It’s gruesome and predatory and largely unregulated.  Stop here if you’re squeamish.

Outside Southern Nevada’s suburban warehouse, the circumstances were far from comforting. In the fall of 2015, neighboring tenants began complaining about a mysterious stench and bloody boxes in a Dumpster. That December, local health records show, someone contacted authorities to report odd activity in the courtyard.

Health inspectors found a man in medical scrubs holding a garden hose. He was thawing a frozen human torso in the midday sun.

This is the “body broker” market. It’s different from the federally regulated tissue and organ donor market — the market that provides, say,  a liver to a waiting patient.

The body broker market is a for profit industry selling body parts for medical training.  Brokers often source those bodies — body parts, really — from the poor, offering partial cremation in exchange for the opportunity to sell off what’s left.

The industry’s business model hinges on access to a large supply of free bodies, which often come from the poor. In return for a body, brokers typically cremate a portion of the donor at no charge. By offering free cremation, some deathcare industry veterans say, brokers appeal to low-income families at their most vulnerable. Many have drained their savings paying for a loved one’s medical treatment and can’t afford a traditional funeral.

“People who have financial means get the chance to have the moral, ethical and spiritual debates about which method to choose,” said Dawn Vander Kolk, an Illinois hospice social worker. “But if they don’t have money, they may end up with the option of last resort: body donation.”

Few rules mean few consequences when bodies are mistreated. In the Southern Nevada case, officials found they could do little more than issue a minor pollution citation to one of the workers involved. Southern Nevada operator Joe Collazo, who wasn’t cited, said he regretted the incident. He said the industry would benefit from oversight that offers peace of mind to donors, brokers and researchers.

“To be honest with you, I think there should be regulation,” said Collazo. “There’s too much gray area.”

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Don’t Let the Camels Bite You, and Other Lessons from a Long Walk in the Outback

Coolgardie, Australia, Camel Team (photo in the public domain)

On The Monthly, Robert Skinner reluctantly agrees to join his parents on a camel trek in South Australia. While the participating humans walk, the camels pull carts that carry their gear for the trek.

My dad’s cousin Robyn had married a bushman called Don, and together they raced camels and went on wagon expeditions. This was the first time they were bringing other people along. There would be between 9 and 14 people on the trek. Being in such close quarters with strangers for ten days was not my dad’s idea of a good time. He would have preferred to be at home with a book or tinkering in his shed. But his own dad had a reputation for disappearing out the back door every time someone showed up at the front door, and my dad was forever trying not to be that guy.

The night before we left Adelaide he did that thing nervous parents do, where they start fussing over their kids instead. He looked at me gruffly and said, “Now listen, Bob. What are you going to do out there for entertainment?”

“I dunno. I brought a few books.”

“You understand that these are country folk we’ll be travelling with. They like different things to us.”

“Well, what about you? What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to look at the fire,” he said. “Don’t worry about me.”

Before traveling in Australia myself, I’d read two books by the Australian novelist Peter Carey — Illywhacker and Oscar and Lucinda.  I did not quite believe the characters. I have since crossed the Outback three times. It is populated by the kinds of people that choose to live in difficult and remote places; it’s weird in its own rough way.

On one of my trips through I saw a camel cart, piled high with a living room furniture set. The last time across I met three ancient women sitting in low rocking chairs, knitting in the heat while a blonde girl child ran around in the dust underneath the raised house. I’d stopped to ask about short-cutting through their cattle ranch on the private road traversing their land. They were not at all surprised by my appearance and asked merely that I be sure to close the gates. I remain convinced that they were the fates, spinning my destiny in this flat treeless place, hundreds of miles from anywhere.

Thanks to my own adventures, I found this description of one of the camel drivers — and all the other absurdities in Skinner’s story — completely plausible.

Brian or Nat usually drove the main wagon. Nat was a bosomy powerhouse who raised a family, kept a menagerie of pets and broke in camels for a living. She wore the same singlet, shorts and thongs the whole trip. Even on frosty nights. One evening she reached into her bra looking for a cigarette, and I saw her pull out a lighter, a tobacco pouch, a packet of tissues, a hunting knife, $20 (in change) and a bundle of keys before she looked up and said, “Oh, here it is. It’s in my fucking mouth.” On the fourth day she got kicked full in the face by a camel and just started kicking it back.

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The Lawn is a Lie

Man on a lawnmower on a large swath of grass
Lawnmower Man by dumbonyc via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It broke my heart when I left the heart of the city for the edge of the burbs. I’m a terrible gardener, so I never wanted a house with a yard. Yet that’s where I ended up when city living became too expensive.

My house came with a large swatch of (once) immaculately maintained front lawn — lawn which I ceased watering after the first bill. Now, late summer, it’s a dead brown with patches of dirt where eternal vigilance is not enough to ensure the absence of dandelions. For five months out of the year, I hate my lawn; the rest of the time I’m merely annoyed by it. Some day, when household economics allow, I will hire a landscaper to tear the whole thing out and replace it with xeriscaping — a no-water garden, low maintenance with all native plants, something that allows me mostly to forget about it.

Riddle: considered acre-for-acre, what is the most pesticide-, herbicide-, water-, labor-, and cash-intensive crop grown in the U.S.? Right. Your lawn. In America, turf grasses, which are mostly non-native, cover 21 million acres (think the state of Maine), cost $40 billion per year (more than U.S. foreign aid), consume around 90 million pounds of fertilizer and 80 million pounds of pesticides per year (which sometimes contaminate our groundwater and surface water), and slurp up an inconceivable nine billion gallons of water per day (at least half of all residential water use in the arid West is associated with lawns and landscaping).

All this is before we reckon the colossal time suck that lawns represent. Each year, Americans spend an average of three billion hours pushing or (even worse) riding mowers, most of which pollute at a rate ten times that of our cars. In fact, if a lawn were a car, it would be a Hummer: a resource-intensive, plainly unsustainable luxury item that looks cool but is environmentally destructive. As for biodiversity, forget it. Lawns are exotic, barren monocultures. While they are sometimes referred to as “ecological deserts,” this characterization is an insult to deserts, which are remarkably biodiverse ecosystems. Consider also the unfortunate symbolic connotations of the lawn. As food writer Michael Pollan points out, the American lawn is the ultimate manifestation of our culture’s perverse fantasy of the total control of nature. As Pollan put it so memorably, “A lawn is nature under totalitarian rule.”

On Terrain, Michael P. Branch calculates the time, money, and emotional angst (if you’re me) we invest on tending to our lawns. He mentions Thoreau’s disdain for this bulwark of American landscaping, even while confessing his own emotional attachment to the manicured green spaces of his youth. He rationalizes his own landscaping choices and admits his guilt in its pleasure.

I have a small back lawn too. I kind of love it. Mr. Branch, I feel you.

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Eating the Texas State Fair

People walking the midway past food stands at a State Fair
State Fair Food Stands by George C. Campbell via Wikimedia Commons

The food came in two categories: savory and sweet. He would try them all. He would eat them on sticks, with plastic utensils that would litter the grounds of the park long after he and his descendants had passed, he would pick them up and eat them with his hands.

From the Texas State Fair website, “Each year, State Fair concessionaires fry up tasty and unique foods for a chance to become a finalist in the Big Tex Choice Awards. Everything from Fried Beer to Fried Peaches and Cream have made the cut to become a part of an exclusive club.”

On Texas Monthly, Dan Solomon goes full Hemingway (or is it Faulkner?) describing the finalists.

He started with the Surfin’ Turfin’ Tator Boat. It was a potato. He looked at it, sniffed the air, and stared at the lobster claw sticking straight up from the split in the spud.

“That there sure is a potato,” said the man.

“It sure is. The finest potato you ever did see,” said the woman collecting money for the meal.

“I never seen a potato like that,” said the man.

“You never will again, neither,” she told him.

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Innocence Abroad

US passport pages with visa stamps
US Passport via Wikimedia (CC0 1.0)

Do Americans have a unified identity and if so, how is it defined? I remember a summer party in Seattle where, under a twilight sky, a friend insisted it was television that provided our common vernacular. I’d been without TV for a while. Mine had burst into flames (really!) and this was pre-internet everywhere — was my American cred at risk? Travel in the flyover states has shown me how different I am — a textbook “creative class” lefty — from the restrained Midwesterners I encountered. Such disparate characters, yet the same American passports.

At The Guardian, Suzy Hansen considers American identity, partly through the lens of race, partly from the perspective she gained living abroad.

For all their patriotism, Americans rarely think about how their national identities relate to their personal ones. This indifference is particular to the psychology of white Americans and has a history unique to the US. In recent years, however, this national identity has become more difficult to ignore. Americans can no longer travel in foreign countries without noticing the strange weight we carry with us. In these years after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the many wars that followed, it has become more difficult to gallivant across the world absorbing its wisdom and resources for one’s own personal use. Americans abroad now do not have the same swagger, the easy, enormous smiles. You no longer want to speak so loud. There is always the vague risk of breaking something.

Some years after I moved to Istanbul, I bought a notebook, and unlike that confident child, I wrote down not plans but a question: who do we become if we don’t become Americans? If we discover that our identity as we understood it had been a myth? I asked it because my years as an American abroad in the 21st century were not a joyous romp of self-discovery and romance. Mine were more of a shattering and a shame, and even now, I still don’t know myself.

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Lobster Shells in the Fountain and Other Hotel Mysteries

Hotel Imperial, Vienna
Hotel Imperial in Vienna via Wikimedia

I’ve experienced excessive hotel luxury exactly one time, at the Hotel Imperial in Vienna, where I landed the lowest quality room at this self-described six-star hotel. The lowest quality room at the Imperial, with its heated marble floors, lush upholstery, and view down the Ringstrasse remains the nicest place I’ve ever stayed.

At breakfast the next day, the 70-something Viennese couple directly behind my husband began to speculate (in their Viennese German) how such sweater-and-jean-wearing riff-raff could afford to stay at the hotel. My Austrian husband smirked all through our meal, whispering “I’ll tell you later.” They’d decided we were Canadian oil money; we simply could not be Americans given our economy at the time. I still regret that he did not wish them a very good morning in his own distinctive Austrian accent upon their departure.

During our stay, the hotel staff were nothing but sunshine and discretion. As we prepared to leave the hotel, the lobby butler asked if we needed luggage retrieved from our room. We were carrying day packs only; our car was parked at a cousin’s house in a Vienna suburb. “No thanks,” I said, “this is all we’ve got.”

“That happens here too.” The butler shrugged and offered what appeared to be a genuine smile before wishing us safe journeys. Our status seemed of no concern to him, only our needs and that we felt welcome.

I could not do his job; I am too judge-y and can’t keep it to myself. I have more in common with those well-dressed Viennese seniors than they’d suspect. I am impressed by those who can pull off service work in a way that’s unobtrusive and helpful at the same time.

At Bloomberg, Brandon Presser joins the staff at another grand hotel, The Plaza New York, to see what it’s like to wear the white gloves. The requests are as silly and outlandish as you’d think. The discretion? Well, they don’t name names, until they do. (Spoiler alert: It’s Charlie Sheen.)

Over my short tenure, I delivered laundry to Middle Eastern princesses and fetched lobsters out of wishing wells—and listened to colleagues delight in the oddities of their jobs, from fielding requests for Viagra or comforting a weeping woman over spilled blueberries. Serving the world’s rich and famous, it turns out, plumbs the depths of an alternative universe that readily embraces the absurd without even batting an eye. And that was only the beginning of what I learned.

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