The Longreads Blog

To Your Door: The Human Cost of Food Delivery

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To earn money during a rough patch as a freelancer, Sam Riches worked as a bike courier, delivering food in Toronto during a six-month period. While the job lacked in pay, it offered one intriguing benefit: a crash course in human nature.

When you’re broke, your body becomes your last resort, a mostly reliable means to make money that also comes with great precarity. If you get injured in a low-wage job with no employment insurance, there’s nothing to fall back on. You pay with your health.

I feel this job in my body. My neck cracks, my shoulders pop, my ankles creak. Some nights, I ride until my legs turn numb and the wind whips tears in my eyes and the world becomes fuzzy at the edges. Then I have a choice. I can keep riding or I can stop and wait until my path becomes clear again.

You learn about human nature when you ride a bike through the arteries of the city. You see couples arguing in parked cars. Elderly ladies collecting beer bottles. Street performers whose routines become familiar. Guys on dates trying too hard. Guys on dates not trying hard enough. Old men falling over drunk. Good dogs. There are so many good dogs.

People are mostly good. That’s another thing you learn on this job. I deliver to downtown offices and suburban schools, to addiction-withdrawal centres and auditoriums, to pregnant mothers and hungover teens and elderly folks who are genuinely amazed they are able to summon bread pudding to their door.

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Possessed by Music

AP Photo/Peter Kemp

You might have known a music obsessive in your youth, the kind of person who went to all the shows, tore off their shirt, and danced with enviable abandon; you might have been that obsessive yourself. In the late 1960s, a shirtless, longhaired man started appearing at rock shows around England. He danced on stage, held cryptic signs, and believed he was Jesus Christ. His name was William Jellett, and at Medium, writer J.P Robinson assembles a vivid portrait of this one of music’s most mysterious, passionate, messianic fans. He danced to Captain Beefheart, to Led Zeppelin, at punk shows, at reggae shows — seemingly at more places than a person could physically be at one time. He would disappear only to reappear again. He was the guy you saw at shows and wondered What’s his story? Robinson examines the way spirituality and music connected for Jellett, how this pained man found a home, and the darker side of his guru identity.

Throughout this time, Jellett was increasingly visible at gigs. Watching the Incredible String Band, he danced on his seat, as the audience shouted “Jesus, we love you.” Sometimes, people would throw beer cans at him. He was “an easy target, in more ways than one,” one gig goer remembers. He talked to women about cats, or walked down an aisle, handing out fruit and nuts, or exchanging grapes for front row tickets. At a pub in Ealing, someone recalled, he “jumped on stage and started singing ‘I know it’s only rock and roll but I like it,’ before the Stones released song of said title.”

At a Slade gig, in 1971, he banged his tambourine as they played “Know Who You Are.” When the recording of the gig was released, as “Slade Alive,” he was credited as “unknown member of the audience.” He watched New York Dolls in 1972, with the fashionable set, who disliked his robes. At a Frank Zappa gig in 1972, he stood to proclaim that “if you want to know the truth, listen to Jimi Hendrix.” At another gig, “as I started singing,” one musician remembers “everyone began cheering and I thought it was because of me. Then I realized it was because ‘Jesus’ had arrived in the audience.”

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Changing My Mind About Pig’s Feet and Cornrows

Anya Brewley Schultheiss / Getty

Dara Lurie | Longreads | January 2018 | 12 minutes (3,011 words)

This essay is published in collaboration with TMI Project, a non-profit organization offering transformative memoir workshops and performances that invite storytellers and audience members to explore new perspectives. By bravely and candidly sharing their personal stories, storytellers become agents of change for social justice movement building. Dara told an abbreviated version of this story onstage at TMI Project’s inaugural Black Stories Matter show in March 2017.

Peggi’s voice comes muffled through the closed door to her office. Her words come in rapid bursts with long silences in between. In the dance studio, my 6-year-old brother races his tiny Hot Wheels car across the floor. On Peggi’s daybed, I curl over the open pages of a worn fairy tale book kept on a shelf just for me. I keep my eyes fixed on the pages of the book, even when Peggi comes in the room. I am trying to forget the last two days of my life; the guttural terror of Mommy’s screams, my grandmother’s pitiful moaning and my Uncle Stanley’s grim-faced silence as he drove us back to New York. Now, Peggi is standing over me, speaking.

“Your mother had a cerebral aneurysm,” she says. “A blood vessel exploded in her head. She might not survive the operation.”

Peggi speaks in the flat tone of naked truth. One day, I will understand Peggi’s courage; her rare ability to look life straight in the eye. But at this moment, I hate her truthfulness, and I wish she would go away. I look back to my book to signal my lack of interest, but Peggi continues.

“Even if she does survive, the doctor says she might be a vegetable for the rest of her life.”

“When can I get my Halloween costume?” I ask when Peggi stops talking.

The slap comes as quick as lightning, scorching the side of my face.

“I hate you!” I shout, hurling my book into a corner.

One evening, a couple of weeks later, Peggi sits down on the edge of the daybed where, as usual, my 10-year-old face is buried in a book. “It’s impossible,” she begins, “for me to run this school and take care of you both.” I look up from my story. “I’ve found a place where you and your brother will stay for the time being.” Her voice is soft, asking me to understand. “It’ll only be for a little while,” she says. I look back down at my book. “Until your mother gets better…” she continues, but I let her words dissolve into the background rumble of distant traffic.

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An Ode to Sichuan’s Singular Sensation

Photo by Ragesoss (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons.

We tend to think about regional cuisines in terms of flavor, texture, or signature preparation; sometimes it’s a specific combination of ingredients — think Basque piperade, or Old Bay Seasoning in Maryland. In Sichuan, it’s a sensation: the numbing, tickling heat of the region’s beloved peppercorn, zanthoxylum. (Calling it a peppercorn is actually an entrenched misnomer: it’s closer to the citrus family than to hot chilis.)

At Roads and Kingdoms, Taylor Holliday, a purveyor of Sichuan ingredients, takes readers along the peppercorn’s path from rural farms and Chengdu markets to the USDA bureaucracy that has made it extremely difficult to bring to the States. At its core, though, this is an ode to a spice that etches itself onto your memory within seconds of your first taste.

Even more than other spices, endowed by evolution with defensive odors and tastes, Sichuan pepper seems designed not to be eaten. Once you get past the thorns, the taste of a fresh or freshly dried berry leaves your mouth, tongue, and lips buzzing and numb for several minutes. It is literally electric: The active ingredient, sanshool, causes a vibration on the lips measured at 50 hertz, the same frequency as the power grid in most parts of the world, according to a 2013 study at University College London.

In late June, the Sichuan pepper harvest in Qingxi, the Hanyuan town at the heart of pepper production, was still at least a couple months away, generally “during the seventh lunar month,” according to Di. But the berries getting direct sun are already plump and red and releasing some very potent, intensely numbing oil once you bite into them or squeeze the little bumps covering the surface of the peppercorns. After the berry clumps are painstakingly harvested, the farmers sell them to a processor who dries them until the little pods open, releasing their unpleasantly brittle black seeds, at which point their shape resembles a flower, earning them the name hua jiao, or flower pepper, in Sichuan dialect.

The best hua jiao are fully open with few seeds or stray twigs, and certainly no thorns—though some have been known to sneak through in lower-quality product, which is one reason premium peppercorns are not only picked but also cleaned and sorted by hand. They deliver not only the tingly sensation prized in Sichuan food, often paired as a one-two punch with chili peppers, but also a strong citrusy perfume and taste that adds intrigue to the heat. Outsiders think of Sichuan food as spicy hot, or la, but the more prevalent and unique characteristic of the cuisine is ma, the citrus tingle of Sichuan pepper. The combination of the two, mala, is what we typically think of as Sichuan flavor.

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Fast or Slow: What’s the Best Way to Die?

Silhouette of death with scythe.Lighting info: one flash with cells behind model and rain from sprayer between the flash and the model

The grim reaper is fickle, inconsistent, and unpredictable.

To wit: This past weekend a 55-year-old childhood friend of my husband’s died suddenly and unexpectedly from a massive coronary, leaving everyone around him stunned.

Ironically, at the moment my husband looked up from Facebook to express his shock, I was in the middle of reading “My Father’s Body at Rest and in Motion,” Siddhartha Mukherjee’s scientific personal essay in the New Yorker about his octogenarian father’s excruciatingly slow demise, after suffering a few falls.

Mukherjee, a physician, considers the body’s proclivity toward homeostasis, which kept his elderly father’s failing body alive for months — much longer than seemed to make sense.

“Old age is a massacre,” Philip Roth wrote. For my father, though, it was more a maceration—a steady softening of fibrous resistance. He was not so much felled by death as downsized by it. The blood electrolytes that had seemed momentarily steady in the I.C.U. never really stabilized. In the geriatric ward of the new hospital, they tetherballed around their normal values, approaching and overshooting their limits cyclically. He was back to swirling his head vacantly most of the time. And soon all his physiological systems entered into cascading failure, coming undone in such rapid succession that you could imagine them pinging as they broke, like so many rubber bands. Ping: renal failure. Ping: severe arrhythmia. Ping: pneumonia and respiratory failure. Urinary-tract infection, sepsis, heart failure. Pingpingping.

Those feats of resilience surrendered to the fact of fragility. And, as the weeks bore on, an essential truth that I sought not to acknowledge became evident: the more I saw my father at the hospital, the worse I felt. Was he feeling any of this? Two months had elapsed since his admission to the geriatric ward.

I read Mukherjee’s piece on the heels of revisiting “A Life Worth Ending,” a similar 2012 New York Magazine piece by Michael Wolff (yes, that Michael Wolff) which I’d been reminded of on Twitter, about his mother’s “dwindling” in a miserable, expensive, endless-seeming purgatory in the year before her death.

(In my early 50s, about the same age both my grandmothers were when they died, I’m mildly fixated on death.)

Wolff — who includes the same Philip Roth quote in his piece — writes of his frustration witnessing his mother’s last years, when she seemed caught precariously and unenviably between life and death; not well enough to live on her own without tremendous intervention from her family and doctors, but not sick enough to quickly die. He makes a convincing case against the medical establishment’s endeavors to keep the dying alive long past such time as they are able to thrive on their own, leading to painful, slow deaths that deplete families and taxpayers.

Age is one of the great modern adventures, a technological marvel—we’re given several more youthful-ish decades if we take care of ourselves. Almost nobody, at least openly, sees this for its ultimate, dismaying, unintended consequence: By promoting longevity and technologically inhibiting death, we have created a new biological status held by an ever-growing part of the nation, a no-exit state that persists longer and longer, one that is nearly as remote from life as death, but which, unlike death, requires vast service, indentured servitude really, and resources.

This is not anomalous; this is the norm.

The traditional exits, of a sudden heart attack, of dying in one’s sleep, of unreasonably dropping dead in the street, of even a terminal illness, are now exotic ways of going. The longer you live the longer it will take to die. The better you have lived the worse you may die. The healthier you are—through careful diet, diligent exercise, and attentive medical scrutiny—the harder it is to die. Part of the advance in life expectancy is that we have technologically inhibited the ultimate event. We have fought natural causes to almost a draw. If you eliminate smokers, drinkers, other substance abusers, the obese, and the fatally ill, you are left with a rapidly growing demographic segment peculiarly resistant to death’s appointment—though far, far, far from healthy.

A few nights after their friend died, my husband and his brother attended the funeral. Afterward, the three of us got into a discussion about how strange it is that for the most part, none of us have any idea how or when we’ll exit this world, and no control over the matter. We debated whether those faster “traditional exits” Wolff identifies are better or worse than slower routes, which afford loved ones time to prepare and say goodbye.

We ended the evening as mystified as we’d been begun it.

 

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Nurse whispering in Phaedra's ear
Photo by DeAgostini / Getty Images

This week, we’re sharing stories from Moira Donegan, Leonora LaPeter Anton, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Linda Besner, and Geraldine DeRuiter.

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Native Americans’ Persecution Continues; Only the Uniforms Have Changed

Peter Byrne/PA Wire

When an Ashland County Sheriff deputy lethally shot 14-year-old Ojibwe boy Jason Pero, many residents of the Bad River Reservation demanded answers for what appeared an unjustified use of force. But to members of the Bad River Band of the Ojibwe nation, Pero’s death was one horrific incident in a long history of police depredations by an police force that harms instead of protects them.

For BuzzFeedJohn Stanton reports from Ashland, Wisconsin, one of many towns whose law enforcement agency has jurisdiction over a neighboring Native American reservation and has fostered tensions. In Ashland, a correctional officer allegedly preyed on female Native American inmates before committing suicide, a deputy shot another young Ojibwe man, and instead of trying to offer answers or consolation to Jason Pero’s family, the Sheriff tried to control the media narrative around Pero’s death. Tribes overseen by the Bureau of Indian Affairs often hold that Federal agency in equally low standing. Poor police relationships are themselves shaped by the cultural divides between residents of reservations and adjacent white communities, who frequently know little about tribal culture other than broad brush strokes or inherited stereotypes.

Like many groups, the Ojibwe learn to avoid the police. So when the police are breaking the law, who are they supposed to go to, and why would they ever believe things will improve? As one tribe member put it, “This has been going on for 300 years…”

On a per-capita basis, Native Americans are 12% more likely to be killed by law enforcement officers than black Americans — and three times more likely than white Americans.

If you live on one of the dozens of reservations across the country in which local, white police forces from nearby border towns have jurisdiction, the chances that you’ll end up in jail are high. In Ashland County, for instance, Native Americans make up 11% of the population but account for 44% of the inmates in the county jail, according to data collected by the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit criminal justice research and reform group.

For tribal leaders here and across the country, that leads to one conclusion. “That becomes a disproportionality that speaks to some sort of institutionalized injustice going on,” says Bad River Tribal Chairman Mike Wiggins.

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Moira Donegan is the Anti-Katie Roiphe We Need

Participants at the Take Back The Workplace March and #MeToo Survivors March & Rally on November 12, 2017 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Chelsea Guglielmino/FilmMagic)

I have run out of jokes about how long this week or month or year has been, not least because this is the fourth time I’ve rewritten a piece I started on Tuesday.

At first it was about Katie Roiphe and the news that she planned to expose the creator of the Shitty Media Men spreadsheet in Harper’s March issue. But then Roiphe told The New York Times that her piece didn’t name a creator of the list:

In a later interview, Ms. Roiphe said that she herself did not know the identity of the person who started the list and added, “I would never put in the creator of the list if they didn’t want to be named.”

Yet, in an email to the woman who created the list — now publicly known to be writer and former New Republic editor Moira Donegan — a Harper’s fact checker had written: “Katie identifies you as a woman widely believed to be one of the creators of the Shitty Men in Media List. Were you involved in creating the list? If not, how would you respond to this allegation?”

This is strange, given that Roiphe’s sole contact with Donegan was a single email in December asking if she had any interest in speaking about the “feminist moment” for a Harper’s piece. Donegan declined, having no idea that Roiphe suspected her of creating the list or had any intention of exposing her as having done so.

It’s not uncommon for fact checkers to assist in the reporting process, as researchers. Still, Roiphe’s approach comes off as duplicitous, even cowardly. Was Katie Roiphe, a woman who has long delighted in publishing contrarian takedowns of feminism — who has for more than two decades been praised, sometimes begrudgingly, for seeming impervious to and even relishing the anger she brought out in other women — afraid to be honest with Donegan? Why would she leave the hard questions to her fact checker, lie to The New York Times, mislead Donegan, and not dare to email her more than once?

I can’t tell you the answer to that for sure, because I emailed Roiphe to ask and she hasn’t written back. I also emailed New York University’s journalism program, where Roiphe is a professor and a director, and got no response. I contacted Harper’s editor James Marcus, who politely directed me to their publicist, Giulia Melucci, who replied: “We can talk about the piece when the piece is published.”

* *

Roiphe did take to Twitter to defend herself, a bit, employing language so classically Roiphean, I almost laughed:

People who criticize Roiphe are “confused.” They lack “perspective.” In the Times piece about the backlash against her, she characterized it as “hysteria.”

It’s stunning to watch Roiphe use the language of gaslighting with such ease. But of course she did: she’s been doing it for a quarter century, ever since she made her name in the early ’90s by claiming in a New York Times op-ed that men were the true victims of date rape. She’s dined out on the attention ever since, recycling that position: the Woody Allen of cultural criticism.

She has long seemed to see herself as the enfant terrible of the feminist movement, even when the movement itself saw her largely as a privileged dilettante with rich parents, one of whom helped facilitate her ability to be made into a cultural icon. Jennifer Gonnerman wrote well about this in her 1994 piece for The Baffler, “The Selling of Katie Roiphe.” In her piece, Roiphe isn’t a powerful supervillain, she’s a mouthpiece manufactured by The New York Times to shut down a movement that didn’t serve its purposes:

By making Katie Roiphe the new celebrity feminist, the Times aimed to create the illusion of being on the cutting edge of sexual politics. Its discovery and single-handed championing of this latest variety of feminism may have ostensibly served to “further debate,” but it actually did little more than prop up the Times‘ long-standing opposition to feminism’s more radical strains. Coming out of the mouth of a young, self-proclaimed feminist, the idea that date rape is the product of young women’s hysteria had legitimacy.

In that initial Times piece — which she later strung out from an already-long 600 words into a 200-page tome that some misguided Gender Studies programs still inflict on college students — she decided that it can’t possibly be true that one in four women on college campuses are victims of rape, because she hasn’t heard about it. Is it any wonder that her peers did not think it was a good idea to confide in Roiphe, a woman who wrote about them with condescension so lacking in empathy that it comes off almost pathological?

Enter Moira Donegan, the creator of the fabled Shitty Media Men list. Donegan “outed herself,” so to speak, in a magnificent essay published Wednesday night by The Cut:

We spent hours teasing out how these men, many of whom we knew to be intelligent and capable of real kindness, could behave so crudely and cruelly toward us. And this is another toll that sexual harassment can take on women: It can make you spend hours dissecting the psychology of the kind of men who do not think about your interiority much at all.

I could quote endlessly from it, but you should read it yourself, because it is a masterpiece — and thank heavens. It feels so cynical to say that at first I could only whisper it to select friends, but: can you imagine if Donegan was even one percent less talented as a writer? Can you imagine if this piece was even slightly imperfect? Donegan was up against impossible stakes and cleared them with air to spare. She writes honestly and bravely, with grace and clarity, perfectly articulating concepts and feelings that so many of us have been grasping at for months without ever quite gripping.

I have known Donegan was the creator of the list since I first saw it, back in October, because I am a reporter and that is a thing I cannot turn off: I figured it out, found her private Twitter, and requested to follow her. She accepted and followed me back, and after she took the list down, I sent her a message.

“I’m sorry you had to take it down, but thank you for making it. It was the only thing that made me feel not full of despair this week,” I told her.

She thanked me back, and told me she took it down because she was afraid she was putting the women who added names and allegations in danger. “It’s so fucked up that the consequences for speaking out about this stuff are so much greater than the consequences for doing it,” she said. “I hope one day the world deserves all of these amazing women.”

In the months that followed, she became a source of comfort for me. When I was frustrated by some of the backlash, I went to her, and she understood. I could see why she was a nexus in this whisper network, why people trusted her, her ability to make people feel seen and heard and understood. She is, in a way, the anti-Roiphe.

* *

I say that being a reporter is a thing I can’t turn off, but the truth is, before the list, that instinct in me felt snuffed out. After the first Harvey Weinstein broke, I felt suffocated for days, like I was being buried alive. I didn’t know why. I should’ve felt exhilarated, no? Women were getting justice, and it was all thanks to journalism, the great love of my life. Why couldn’t I see this as a the good thing it was? Why did I instead feel like I was dying? I cancelled plans, burrowed under the covers, and sobbed tears that felt like they both were and weren’t my own.

And then someone shared the list with me. I still acutely remember the feeling of watching it change and grow in front of my eyes. At first I thought the feeling was exhilaration, but then I realized it was relief. It was the feeling of having an extremely heavy burden lifted from you. Do you know that feeling? A magical sort of lightness. As I told Donegan at one point, it felt meaningful, even powerful, amid so much powerlessness.

Jodi Kantor mentioned in an interview with The Cut that she couldn’t have done the Weinstein stories without her reporting partner Megan Twohey (though many media outlets seem determined to give Kantor sole credit). She and Twohey needed each other, not just because it was a monumental reporting lift, but because they needed someone to share the burden of their experience. She said:

One of the saving graces of this process has been the partnership with Megan because this was a responsibility that we each needed to share with another person. We barely knew each other when we teamed up on this story. Not only were we in constant communication with each other and not only did we compare notes, check judgment, and plot strategy on those matters great and small, but the weight of this reporting is such that you just need somebody to share it with. A lot of the stories we heard are incredibly disturbing, and you don’t want to carry those alone.

That kind of support is vital, and not easy to come by. For decades, women have feared speaking out in part because of what a solitary and often isolating experience it was. The internet has been a gamechanger in this regard, and there’s a certain irony in Harper’s — a legacy publication so resistant to the World of Online — not understanding that. The list’s accessibility online connected us to one another, even anonymously. The #MeToo movement on Twitter — which Roiphe no doubt will take issue with as well — did that too. These things made us safer, they made us bolder, and most importantly, they allowed us to support one another in a way we never could before.

That’s what was happening that night as I watched the list grow and tracked the number of people logged into the document. Twenty, then 40, then 70. Even before some of the men on the list were investigated and resigned or fired, seeing all these women put down on paper the things we all knew and burned with the knowledge of felt like the most immense relief. We’d been sharing them among ourselves, whispering them without names or details, partly because we were so sure nothing would ever change, and partly because we were terrified of being branded problematic or troublesome by the older generations whose approval we needed to succeed in this industry and craved after watching them pave the way before us.

In those fluttery, self-conscious whispers lay so much self-doubt and self-blame. This happened; does it sound as bad as it felt? Do you think I’m overreacting? Am I weak? Seeing the charges in words on a page, for someone for whom words on a page are the greatest things imaginable, felt like we were finally throwing out all that harmful self-criticism and holding our heads up and really finally saying, this isn’t how it’s going to be anymore.

It is no wonder that some women reached the conclusion that to be strong and fierce, one must be unbothered.

A foundational premise of Roiphe’s initial argument back in the ’90s was that to speak your mistreatment aloud is to be a victim. This is the truth in which many of us were raised — and it was the truth for a long time, because of the repercussions when women did speak up. Death threats, rape threats, job loss, public humiliation, and worse. Some believed this because it was what they saw with their own clear eyes; others, like Roiphe, out of some calculus that to be women who were not problematic to men was the way forward.

But it is not the truth in which we will thrive. To paraphrase Roiphe’s own words from her coming-out column in 1993, that assertion is not fact. It is advertising a mood. And — unfortunately for Roiphe and for Harper’s, both of whom, it seems, would prefer things stay ever-the-same — the mood has changed.

The women speaking out these past few months, Donegan among them, have changed this math. To speak up is not weakness, it is courage. After Donegan’s piece was published, I watched so many people, men and women, herald her bravery, and it struck me that the momentum of this moment may now be unstoppable. What a rush that is. What a rush, and what an enormous relief.

You Are What You Hear

Illustration by Katie Kosma

Pauline Campos | Longreads | January 2018 | 14 minutes (3,469 words)

 

In the winter of 2011, in the dressing room at Target, I get caught up in an existential crisis. While trying on bathing suits, I find myself toggling between two drastically different views of myself: one is informed by the harsh words my mother verbalized so many years ago, probably without meaning to hurt me or realizing I was internalizing everything she said; the other by my young daughter’s unconditionally loving view of me.

In the midst of this crisis, I must perform a juggling act: I need to treat myself and my body kindly, not only for my benefit, but for my daughter’s too. I can’t pass on to her the body shame I alone somehow absorbed — the only one of my mother’s five daughters who’s wrestled with eating disorders.

***

“Mama, that one’s pretty!” my daughter shouts when I try on the blue one-piece.

I frown at my reflection in the unforgiving dressing room mirror. The lights are too bright. Beneath the glare, I see a too-fat woman with too-full hips and a too-round belly shoved into not-enough Lycra. There is fat where muscle had once been, cellulite hiding definition lost long before I got pregnant almost five years earlier. As my eyes follow the lines of my body from my head to my toes, I hear my mother’s voice and see what her words once described. My daughter, however, only sees her mama in a pretty blue bathing suit.

“I don’t like the way this one fits,” I say, evasively. “Let’s try that black one on and see how it looks.”

Innocent eyes blink up at me.

We are shopping because of a last minute birthday party invitation — a pool party, and it is tomorrow. At the time we are living in Arizona, and although I miss the changing of seasons, I can’t really complain about what I am missing while my daughter is thrilled about the chance to go swimming with her friends. She already has a bathing suit, thanks to regular swimming lessons. I do not. My husband hasn’t seen me in one since before we were married.

The black suit is…disappointing. Or rather, the body within it isn’t living up to the standards of beauty set so deeply within. It could work, except it is a bit too tight around the stomach and my boobs are spilling out of the top. I see lumps and bumps and cellulite. I keep hearing my mother’s voice. And seeing my daughter’s eyes. I keep my expression neutral and smile at her reflection.

“Let’s keep looking,” I say.

Trusting eyes blink back at me.

“Okay, mama,” my daughter says.

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A Speech and a Sermon

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (AFP/Getty Images) and Oprah Winfrey (Sthanlee Mirador / Sipa via AP Images)

In November 1967, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. The sermon, titled, “But If Not,” starts with a parable from the Book of Daniel.

Three young men — Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego — refuse to bow before a golden image of King Nebuchadnezzar. “Our God whom we serve,” they tell the king, “is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace.” They believe God will save them, in the end, for disobeying the king’s immoral order to worship him instead.

“But if not,” they reason, “be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.” In other words, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are pretty sure that God will reward them in the afterlife for rejecting this false idol. “But if not” — even if their refusal wouldn’t stamp their one-way ticket out of hell — it wouldn’t matter. They wouldn’t bow before the golden image anyway, because it would be wrong.

Dr. King interprets the story as a biblical portrayal of civil disobedience. The three men honor “a commitment to conscience” before honoring the law of the land because, as Dr. King says, “a moral man can’t obey a law which his conscience tells him is unjust.” The men aren’t refusing conditionally, or positive that they will be saved in exchange. They’re refusing because they know, deep down, that it wouldn’t be right.

What does this mean? It means, in the final analysis, you do right not to avoid hell. If you’re doing right merely to keep from going to something that traditional theology has called hell, then you aren’t doing right. If you do right merely to go to a condition that theologians have called heaven, you aren’t doing right. If you are doing right to avoid pain and to achieve happiness and pleasure, then you aren’t doing right.

Ultimately you must do right because it’s right to do right. And you got to say “But if not.” You must love ultimately because it’s lovely to love. You must be just because it’s right to be just. You must be honest because it’s right to be honest.

Fifty years after Dr. King delivered this sermon, Oprah Winfrey, the first black woman to receive the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement, delivered another inspired speech that brought viewers to tears and attendees to their feet.

“For too long,” Oprah said, “women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of [brutally powerful] men. But their time is up. Their time is up. Their time is up.”

“In my career, what I’ve always tried my best to do, whether on television or through film, is to say something about how men and women really behave. To say how we experience shame, how we love and how we rage, how we fail, how we retreat, persevere, and how we overcome. I’ve interviewed and portrayed people who’ve withstood some of the ugliest things life can throw at you, but the one quality all of them seem to share is an ability to maintain hope for a brighter morning, even during our darkest nights.

“So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘Me too’ again.”

Time and again, Oprah has proven her commitment to conscience. She used her platform at the Golden Globes to imagine a more just world — one where our collective conscience kicks in more often, protects more women from violence, and leads us more reliably to choices that are right, good, and safe.

Women in the audience rose to their feet. Men in the audience rose to their feet, too. But few of the men spoke up.

Were these the phenomenal men? Where were Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? Were the men whose time is up choosing to listen, just this once? Or was there fear in their silence — an aversion to risk, a conditional bargain, a negotiation of face?

As Martin McDonagh, the writer-director of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri who won for best screenplay, put it to Cara Buckley in the New York Times, “I do feel it’s time for men to shut up and listen.” Oprah made sure to include men in her speech, too — “every man who chooses to listen” — by singling out listeners specifically.

Maybe the men really were listening. Maybe they still are.

But if not:

Time will not run out on men learning how to speak up for what is right, when the microphone makes its way back to them. There are ways to pass the mic even when given an opportunity to take it — as Oprah did, by telling Recy Taylor‘s story.

Recy Taylor is dead now, and so is Dr. King. No one who refused to hear them decades ago was dead at the time, though their spirits may have been. Maybe the men who hurt them are all gone now — those bygone souls that never listened. Maybe their fears and their toxicity and their influence all died with them.

Maybe all of mankind’s cowardly traits are in the past. Maybe their time is up.

But if not:

You may be 38 years old as I happen to be, and one day some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause — and you refuse to do it because you are afraid; you refuse to do it because you want to live longer; you’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you’re afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity; or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you or shoot at you or bomb your house, and so you refuse to take the stand.

Well you may go on and live until you are 90, but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90! And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right, you died when you refused to stand up for truth, you died when you refused to stand up for justice.

Read the sermon

Further reading, watching, and listening: