The Longreads Blog

Duet for a Small Porpoise’s Extinction

Wikimedia Commons / Collage by Katie Kosma

Kimi Eisele | Longreads | December 2018 | 22 minutes (5,477 words)

Were we ever to arrive at knowing the other as the same pulsing compassion would break the most orthodox heart.

— Claudia Rankine

One December afternoon two years ago, I came upon an iceberg in the Place du Pantheón in Paris. Twelve of them actually, each the size of a small car, arranged in a circle, clock-like. I observed them for a while, and then I did what I sometimes do in nature: I started dancing with the ice.

There was another dancer there, too, moving fluidly around one of the pieces. When I saw him I thought, kin, which is also what I came to feel for the ice itself.

I approached the other dancer and asked to join him. At first he said no. A cameraman was filming him, and I understood this to mean his dance was important and would be preserved. He mentioned an injury. Maybe he was afraid I would touch him or lean on him, which is a fear I myself have, given my own fragile lower back. Or maybe he thought I wanted to partner dance — waltz or jitterbug, say — and I understood that refusal as well, because that is not the kind of dancing the icebergs seemed to summon. I clarified, “Not together, just alongside. We each can do our own thing.” So he nodded and I joined him and we danced that way, improvising, alone and together, with the ice.

The ice was from Greenland. It had already broken off from the ice sheet and was melting into the sea when the Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Elliason and his geologist collaborator Minik Rosing scooped it from the ocean and transported it in refrigerated shipping containers to Paris for the occasion of the 2016 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP21.

While world leaders listened to scientists and economists and debated the future of the planet, people came to the Place du Pantheón to be with the 12 chunks of ice. Children, grandmothers, musicians, dancers, sanitation workers. Dogs came too. It was not unlike a petting zoo, but instead of goats and ponies, they petted ice.

Photo by Shannon Cain

I returned to the icebergs nearly every day. One night after a rain, the pavement glimmering under city lights, I made another dance, just me and the ice, dueting.

 

A friend filmed this dance and some weeks later, he sent me the video. He’d added music: Antonio Sanchez’s “Pathways of the Mind,” from Meridian Suite — a perfect pairing, by sheer chance. I’ll always have it now, to remember.

Technically, the word “iceberg” signifies a chunk of ice more than five meters wide that’s fallen from a glacier or ice sheet. Smaller ice chunks are called “growlers” or “bergy bits.” The Greenland growlers in the Place du Pantheón remained there for a few weeks. And then they disappeared.
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Remembering Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks

Pete Shelley performing at the Marvin Festival, Mexico City, 2018. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

Buzzcocks lead singer Pete Shelley has died of a heart attack. He was 63.

To my ears, Buzzcocks were always a pop band with punk sensibilities, rather than the other way around. The craftsmanship behind songs like “Why Can’t I Touch It” or “What Do I Get” demonstrate an ambition beyond provocation. Pete Shelley was Ray Davies’ legitimate heir: smart, sincere, and acerbic with an unerring ear for musical hooks. The early Buzzcocks albums Another Music In A Different Kitchen, Love Bites, and A Different Kind Of Tension are each their own kind of greatest hits compilation.

Still, Buzzcocks had an impeccable punk pedigree. Peter McNeish, as he was originally known, organized the June 1976 Sex Pistols gig in his hometown in Manchester. That appearance, though sparsely attended (“I think there were about 42, 43 people there,” Shelley remembered), was the catalyst for almost the entire post-punk Manchester scene, as some of the attendees went on to found Joy Division, The Fall, the Smiths, and Factory Records. The next time the Pistols came through town, McNeish’s new band opened. His stage name was now Pete Shelley, which his parents would have called him had he been born a girl.

The first Buzzcocks EP, Spiral Scratch, was released in January 1977 on their own independent label, New Hormones. “We made quite a bit of money from Spiral Scratch,” Shelley said. “It ended up selling about 16,000 copies and we were able to buy some new equipment.”

Once Shelley took over as principal songwriter and vocalist later that year, the band released a series of extraordinary singles, characterized by breakneck tempos, breathless canny lyrics about unrequited love, and ingenious chord changes pumped out by buzzsaw guitars. There’s not a rock star guitar solo in sight. Shelley sings with a petulant Manchester yelp. He turned this material out with seeming effortlessness.

It’s an impressive collection, from the delirium of “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays” to the confessional testimony of “I Believe,” to the ceaselessly catchy “You Say You Don’t Love Meall created by a man who was 26 when his band broke up in 1981.

Shelley did not come out as bisexual until years later, although anyone listening to his romantic complaints and genderless lyrics would have already understood. “Ever Fallen In Love With Someone (You Shouldn’t’ve),” the band’s masterpiece, was inspired by a line from Guys and Dolls. “You spurn my natural emotions,” Shelley sings. “You make me feel like dirt and I’m hurt.”

And if I start a commotion

I run the risk of losing you and that’s worse

Ever fallen in love with someone

You shouldn’t have fallen in love with?

“I wrote it about Francis, who was the social sec at Warrington Tech,” Shelley remembered. “I was going through self-discovery, shall we say, a fertile ground for writing songs. In the initial courtship he was resistant to my charms.”

Punk decluttered popular music, and Shelley, already a fan of pared down acts like the Velvet Underground and Can, was prepared to fill the void. “There are plenty of musicians that I enjoy watching that are entertainers,” he told The Guardian in 2006. “But I wouldn’t want to be that, because the thing with an entertainer is that there is always that dishonesty, which is what punk tried to get rid of.”

“It was like, you’re not pretending to be something you are not,” he continued. “You are just what you are.”

He applied this approach to his lyrics as well, always smart but never contrived. “See, with me, I’m never really happy unless everything sounds like it’s conversational,” Shelley told The Quietus a few years ago. “That’s why I find it hard to write lyrics, to simplify it to the point where it sounds like there’s no writing there. So a lot of time and effort goes into me rejecting things.”

Shelley went solo after the Buzzcocks broke up. An early single, “Homosapienbanned by the BBC because of its “explicit reference to gay sexwas actually written in 1974, before Buzzcocks formed. But the influence of Shelley’s former band was still rippling out through mainstream culture.

The Fine Young Cannibals’ 1988 cover of “Ever Fallen In Love” reached the top-10  in the UK, which “financed our comeback,” according to Shelley. The band’s reunion lasted almost 30 years. In the meantime, college radio, indie rock, and Nirvana all advanced and receded. Buzzcocks music informed them all.

Punk fizzled, like any musical trend. Its most durable aspects of emotionally direct, vulnerable, aggressive, and unornamented communication have remained. Buzzcocks embodied this approach. Long live Pete Shelley.

***

Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Matt Giles

Alternative Reality: ‘California Divided’

Getty Images

I thought that it was a good couple of weeks for alt weeklies as I surveyed recent stories published in alternative papers around the United States for the second installment in this regular reading list.

In Portland, the Willamette Week covered the city’s embattled mayor, Ted Wheeler. Maya Smith, a staff writer for the Memphis Flyer, filed a charming profile of a blind pharmacist named Charles A. Champion. Christina Sturdivant Sani looked at the underrepresentation of black journalists in D.C. for the Washington City Paper. In Phoenix, a New Times reporter zeroed in on the questionable practices of Arizona’s former parks director.

Back East, DigBoston took aim at Massachusetts’ state gun purchasing agreements. All About Beer, the country’s oldest beer mag, was eulogized in Durham’s Indy Week. Anthony Mariani, the editor of Fort Worth Weekly, wrote an intense personal essay on his brother’s suicide. And the Chico News & Review published an amusing and informative dispatch on the Jefferson separatist movement in Northern California.

It goes without saying that I came across more good writing than I could include in this modest list. But I hope this mix of profiles, investigations, and personal musings will keep you busy until next time.

1. “Portland’s Mayor Is Struggling on the Job. And It’s About to Get Harder.” (Rachel Monahan, December 5, Willamette Week)

The Willamette Week, Portland’s best alternative newspaper, gives readers a long, detailed status report on the city’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, whose term began at the beginning of last year. Reporter Rachel Monahan portrays an ineffectual leader who is losing the faith of his allies after failing to deliver on a number of campaign promises, such as providing a shelter bed for every homeless Portlander.

No man is an island, but Ted Wheeler looks marooned. Next month will mark his second anniversary in one of the highest-profile jobs in Oregon politics—and Wheeler is struggling in a remarkably public manner.

No one doubts his intelligence or his integrity. But nearly all of the two dozen people WW spoke to about Wheeler say those qualities are not enough. They describe a mayor unable to move the city forward on challenges large and small. He’s disappointed the left and the right, while frustrating the institutional players who want to see Portland’s achievements measure up to its potential.

Wheeler seems unable to take control.

2. “Dr. Charles Champion, a Memphis Institution for 50 Years” (Maya Smith, November 29, Memphis Flyer)

Charles A. Champion is the blind proprietor of Champion’s Pharmacy and Herb Store on Elvis Presley Boulevard in Memphis, TN. Maya Smith, a staff writer for the Memphis Flyer, has written a lovely profile of this 88-year-old pharmacist, who now spends most of his time greeting customers at the front of the store.

Opaque lenses hide eyes that, for the last four years, have been able to make out only faint light. The man in the glasses, wearing a white coat embroidered with “Dr. Charles A. Champion,” sits in a green chair in Champion’s Pharmacy and Herb Store on Elvis Presley Boulevard. Champion is 88 years old, but still has his wits about him and shows up to work every day.

His wife of 60 years, Carolyn Champion, is sitting to his right. His cane, a stack of newspapers, and a plastic bucket of peppermints are on his left. Trusting his ears and gentle nudges from his wife, he gives one of each to everyone who walks by. Champion is the owner of the South Memphis pharmacy and has been there every day (Tuesday through Saturday) since 1991.

There are many fine details in this piece. But I liked this one in particular, a saucy quote from Champion, who has several strong opinions on medicine: “I turn down more people than I serve,” he says. “Just because you want a certain drug, it doesn’t mean you need it. I have to be the one to look out for people. I won’t give someone medicine just so they can continue living unhealthy.”

3. “California Divided” (Stephen Magagnini, November 29, Chico News & Review)

California’s Jefferson separatist movement has always served journalists well. In 1942, a reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle named Stanton Delaplane won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the “gun-toting citizens” who wanted to secede from the Golden State. In the Chico News & Review, Stephen Magagnini takes stock of the movement as it exists today in Northern California, which he describes as an “unlikely assortment of survivalists and hippies, pot growers and hardline cops, real estate appraisers and loggers, fencing instructors and gun lovers, Latinos and anti-immigrants.” Jefferson’s leader is Mark Baird, a rugged Trump supporter and something of a libertarian cowboy.

The movement has long been popular with a segment of rural far-Northern California, but Baird, 65, a strapping reincarnation of John Wayne, started breathing new life into Jefferson five years ago. The 6-foot-4-inch fire tanker pilot, rancher and Siskiyou County reserve deputy sheriff cuts an impressive figure. He sports a black belt holster, but instead of a sidearm, packs his weapon of choice, a copy of the Constitution.

Though it seems unlikely that the Jeffersonians will get their way, it would be foolish to dismiss the movement outright, given that Trump’s victory was a surprise to such a large swath of the American population.

4. “The Reality of Being a Black Journalist Covering Local D.C. News” (Christina Sturdivant Sani, November 29, Washington City Paper)

Christina Sturdivant Sani, the Washington correspondent for The Commercial Observer and an urban journalism fellow at Greater Greater Washington, takes a look at the underrepresentation of black journalists in D.C.’s media scene.

As a black journalist and native Washingtonian, I am equally proud to report local news and frustrated by my industry.

Beyond local black media, such as the Washington Afro American and the Washington Informer, there’s an underrepresentation of black journalists at print and digital outlets that cover D.C news.

In a city comprised of 47 percent black residents—the largest racial demographic in the city—it pains me that “mainstream” publications are majority white, most of them by a significant margin. It’s also telling that after writing for a dozen local news outlets, I’ve only had black editors at the Afro.

To its credit, City Paper gives Sturdivant Sani the space to take a look at its own track record with diversity. “Many editorial staffs around town, including Washington City Paper,” Sturdivant Sani writes, “could use a heavy dose of melanin — to document D.C.’s historically black culture and preserve the wellness of its black journalists.”

5. “Parks and Wreckage: Meet the Archaeologist Who Brought Down Parks Boss Sue Black” (Steven Hsieh, November 29, Phoenix New Times)

Steven Hsieh, a staff writer for Phoenix New Times, digs deep into an Arizonan archeological scandal. The protagonist of his story is Will Russell, who, while serving as a compliance officer for Arizona State Parks, blew the whistle on Sue Black, the department’s director who, with her deputy director, James Keegan, approached development “with more regard for awards and political ambition than archaeological sites,” Hsieh writes.

During Russell’s year and a half at Parks, he grew angry over practices he viewed as flagrant violations of state law.

Not long after he was hired, it became clear to him that Black and her allies, especially Keegan, did not value his role as a compliance officer. Parks leaders pressured Russell to treat antiquities sites not as cultural resources in need of protection, but as obstacles to development.

Records obtained by Phoenix New Times show Arizona Parks built gardens, trails, campgrounds, picnic areas, and cabins on several archaeological sites without following procedures intended to protect Arizona’s cultural resources.

6. “Fire Sale” (Chris Faraone and Curtis Waltman, September 27, DigBoston)

DigBoston, the cleverly named alt weekly, is currently knee-deep in an investigation into Massachusetts’ opaque state gun purchasing agreements, in collaboration with the Emerson College Engagement Lab and Muckrock, the non-profit news site.

Since the beginning of this year, our team at the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism has examined hundreds of state purchasing agreements, for everything from heavy crime-fighting equipment to consumables for laser printers. Of the many contracts that caught our attention, the firepower free-for-all unpacked herein (SP16-AMMO-X85, abbreviated as AMMO in following references) stands out as especially dubious, with entities on all sides operating in an unchecked fashion despite being on the radar of state prosecutors. Nearly three years into the AMMO arrangement, a malleable open call that allows for multiple contracts to be approved under it, vendors have leveraged the opportunity to make millions of dollars off the state. For most of those procurements, there was no competitive bidding. And the process is far from transparent.

The second installment in the series was published in late November, and the next part, on tasers, will come out in January, according to Chris Faraone, who co-wrote the story and serves as DigBoston’s news and features editor.

7. “Saying Goodbye” (Anthony Mariani, November 15, Fort Worth Weekly)

A recent cover story for Fort Worth’s alternative newspaper — which, every week, publishes breaking news and cultural criticism along with a longform piece that usually tops out around 5,000 words — gets quite personal. Anthony Mariani, the editor of Fort Worth Weekly, writes about his brother Adam’s suicide, and the essay is sad, manic, and occasionally uplifting.

Everyone keeps telling me not to blame myself, that there was nothing I could have said or done to have changed a thing. But why? Why can’t I blame myself if that’s going to make me a better person, a better son to my mother and a better brother to my sister and other brother? And, perhaps most importantly of all, a better husband to my wife and father to my son? I was a lazy brother to Adam. There is no doubt about that. That is a fact. I could have called him more often. I texted him a bunch but rarely ever called. And I knew. I knew he was not doing well. Our mom exploded a couple of years ago when I chose to spend my vacation with my friends instead of with Adam. What’s the big deal? I whined. I even solicited Adam’s blessing while I was living it up with my buds. Ever humble and ever supportive of his little bro, he wrote off Mummy’s angst toward my vacation as her simply being her usual neurotic self. At least that’s what he told me. He was a good brother that way.

8. “For 39 Years, Local Mag All About Beer Shaped the Craft Beer Scene. This Is How It Collapsed.” (Michael Venutolo-Mantovani, November 27, Indy Week)

America’s oldest beer magazine, the Durham-based All About Beer, founded in 1979, appears to have ceased publication in mid-October. The magazine, whose website now sits abandoned on the web like so much digital flotsam, played a large part in elevating the country’s burgeoning craft beer movement, as Michael Venutolo-Mantovani makes clear in his detailed postmortem for Indy Week, the alt weekly serving North Carolina’s Research Triangle.

At the magazine’s founding, there were fewer than one hundred breweries across America, nearly all of which were mass producers such as Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Coors. But even then, AAB quietly heralded the ultra-nouveau movement of craft and small-batch brewing. Its fourth issue had a brief mention of newcomer Sierra Nevada—today the seventh-largest brewer in the U.S., with production facilities in Asheville. In the decades that followed, AAB found itself on the leading edge of an exploding scene.

It’s a sad moment when a publication goes under. Let’s pour one out for All About Beer.

***

Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Columbia Journalism Review.

My So-Called Media: How the Publishing Industry Sells Out Young Women

Sipapre, AP / Getty / Collage by Katie Kosma

On November 30th, Tavi Gevinson published her last ever editor’s letter at Rookie. The 22-year-old started the site when she was just 15, and in the intervening years it had spawned a pastel-hued community of girlhood, which, if not always sparkly, was always honest. The letter spanned six pages, 5707 words. In Longreads terms, that’s 20 minutes, 20 minutes of Gevinson agonizing over the site she loved so much, the site that was so good, that was now bigger than her, that she couldn’t figure out how to save. “Rookie had been founded, in part, as a response to feeling constantly marketed to in almost all forms of media,” she wrote, “to being seen as a consumer rather than a reader or person.”

The market had won, but Gevinson was fighting to the death. It was hard to read. You could sense her torturing herself. And she was. Because in truth there was nothing Gevinson could have done, because the failure of Rookie was not about her, or even about the poor state of media as a whole. It was about what it has always been about, which is that as much power as women have online — as strong as their voices are, as good as their work is, as valuable as it is to women, especially young women — its intrinsic worth is something capitalism, dominated by men, feels no obligation to understand. This is what ultimately killed Rookie. And The Hairpin. And The Toast. And maybe even Lenny Letter too.

***

In her first ever editor’s letter, Tavi Gevinson explained that she wasn’t interested in the “average teenage girl,” or even in finding out who that was or whether Rookie appealed to her. “It seems that entire industries are based on answering these very questions,” she wrote. “Who is the typical teenage girl? What does she want? (And, a lot of the time, How can we get her allowance?)” She claimed not to have the answer but provided it anyway by not asking the question: by not inquiring, like other young women’s publications, whether her readers would like some lipstick or maybe some blush with that. Instead, Rookie existed in a state of flux, a mood board of art and writing and photography on popular culture and fashion and politics and, just, the reality of being a girl. In an interview with NPR in 2011, Gevinson noted the hypocrisy of other teen magazines’ feminist gestures: “they say something really simple about how you should love your body and be confident or whatever, but then in the actual magazine, there will still be stuff that maybe doesn’t really make you love your body.”

Writer Hazel Cills emailed Gevinson when she was 17 to ask if she could join Rookie. In her eulogy for the site, published in Jezebel, Cills described the magazine’s novel concept: “unlike Teen Vogue or Seventeen, we were overwhelmingly staffed with actual teenagers, and were free to write about our realities as if they were the stuff of serious journalism.” Lena Singer, who was in her 30s when she worked as Rookie’s managing editor, thinks the publication deserves some credit for the fact that adults are now more willing to defer to adolescents than they were when it launched. “Part of my role as an editor there was to help protect the idea — and I still believe it — that the world doesn’t need another adult’s opinion about teen spaces, online or elsewhere,” she says. “Teens say what needs to be known about that.” And when they didn’t have the answers, they chose which adults to consult with video features like “Ask a Grown Man,” where celebrities like Thom Yorke answered readers’ questions. The column would have been familiar to Sassy aficionados, particularly fans of its “Dear Boy” series which had guys like Beck offering advice. Which made sense, because Sassy was basically the OG Rookie.

Named by the 13-year-old daughter of one of the heads of its publishing company, Fairfax, Sassy arrived in 1988 and was the first American magazine that actually spoke the language of adolescence. Teen publications dated back to 1944, the year Seventeen launched, but Sassy was different. “The wink-wink, exasperated, bemused tone was completely unlike the vaguely disguised parental voice of Seventeen,” write Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer in How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine. And unlike Teen or YM, it did not make guys the goal and girls the competition — if it had a goal at all, it was to be smart (and preferably not a conservative). Sassy was launched as the U.S. iteration of the Australian magazine Dolly — they originally shared a publisher — and presented itself as the big sister telling you everything you needed to know about celebrity, fashion, and beauty but also drugs, sex, and politics. “The teen magazines here were like Good Housekeeping for teen-agers,” Dolly co-founder Sandra Yates told the New York Times in 1988, adding, “I’m going to prove that you can run a business with feminist principles and make money.”

So she hired Jane Pratt, an associate editor at Teenage magazine, who matched her polka dot skirt with work boots, who donated to a pro-choice organization. Pratt “cast” writers like Dolly did, then went further to reinforce their personalities by publishing more photos and encouraging them to write in the first person, with plenty of self-reference, culminating in a sort of reality TV show-slash-blog before either of those things existed. Sassy became ground zero for indie music coverage thanks largely to Christina Kelly, a fan of Slaves of New York author Tama Janowitz who wrote the way teenagers talk. “I don’t know how to say where my voice came from,” she says. “It was just there.” Like the other writers on staff, she offered a proto-Jezebel take on pop culture, a new form of postmodern love-hate criticism.

At its peak, Sassy, which had one of the most successful women’s magazine launches ever (per Jesella and Meltzer), attracted 800,000 readers. But this was the era of the feminist backlash, where politicians were doubling down on good old American family values. The writers and editors at Sassy weren’t activists, per se, but they were the children of second wavers, they went to universities with women’s departments, they knew about the patriarchy. “Sassy was like a Trojan horse,” wrote Jesella and Meltzer, “reaching girls who weren’t necessarily looking for a feminist message.” Realizing that adolescents were more sexually active, receiving letters about the shame around it, Sassy made it a priority to provide realistic accounts of sex without the moralism. They covered homosexuality, abortion, and even abuse, and were the first teen magazine in America to advertise condoms.

In response, right-wing religious groups petitioned to boycott Sassy‘s advertisers; within several months the magazine lost nearly nearly 20 percent of its advertising. After several changes in ownership, including the removal of Sandra Yates and a squarer mandate, the oxymoronic conservative Sassy eventually folded into Teen magazine in 1997, the alternative press devoured once again by the mainstream.

But Sassy left behind a community. A form of analog social media, the magazine united writers with readers, but also readers with each other. Sassy even had its readers conceptualize an issue in 1990 — the “first-ever reader-produced issue of a consumer magazine” — the same year Andi Zeisler secured an internship at Sassy with a hand-illustrated envelope and the straightforward line, “I want to be your intern.” Six years later, she co-created her own magazine, Bitch, a cross between Sassy and Ms. It had the same sort of intimate community where, Zeisler explains, “there’s somehow a collective feeling of ownership that you don’t have with something like Bustle.”

Bustle, a digital media company for millennial women, is often cited as the counter-example to indie sites like Sassy, Bitch, and Rookie. It has more than 50 million monthly uniques (Bustle alone boasts 37 million) and is run by a man named Bryan Goldberg, who upon its 2013 launch wrote, with a straight face, “Maybe we need a destination that is powered by the young women who currently occupy the bottom floors at major publishing houses.” While Sassy had to struggle to be profitable and sustainable in an ad-based and legacy driven industry, now corporate entities like Bustle manspread sites like Rookie into non-existence. “The one thing that has stayed the same,” says Zeisler, “is the fact that alternative presentations of media by and for girls and young women is really overlooked as a cultural force.”

***

Tavi Gevinson was born the year Sassy died, but Lena Dunham arrived just in time. Recalling her predecessor, she described her feminist newsletter, Lenny Letter, which launched in 2015 as “a big sister to young radical women on the Internet.” Delivered to your inbox, Lenny, backed by Hearst, mimicked the intimacy of magazines past, the ones that existed outside Twitter and the comments section. It included an advice column and interviews (the first was with Hillary Clinton) as well as personal essays touching on various sociopolitcal issues. It was more activist than Sassy, more earnest than ironic, more 20-something than adolescent. It even had a Rookie alum, Laia Garcia, as its deputy editor. Lenny’s third issue launched it into mainstream consciousness when Jennifer Lawrence wrote an essay about pay disparity in Hollywood, which provoked an industry-wide conversation. Then three years after launch and without warning, on October 19, a final letter by Dunham and co-creator Jenni Konner claimed “there’s no one reason for our closure” and shut down.

Lenny’s demise came nine months after that of another site that had a loyal female-driven community: The Hairpin. Founded in 2010 by Edith Zimmerman under The Awl umbrella, the site that had also published writing by Lenny editor-at-large Doreen St. Félix claimed “a natural end” — the same words The Awl used for its closure. NPR’s Glen Weldon suggested more specific reasons for their termination: the decline in ad revenue online, the sites’ unwillingness to compromise, their independence. “The Awl and The Hairpin were breeding grounds for new writers — like The National Lampoon in the ‘70s, Spy Magazine in the ‘80s, Sassy in the ‘90s and McSweeney’s in the aughts,” he explained, adding, “Invariably they would find, waiting for them, a comparatively small, but loyal, sympathetic and (mostly) supportive readership.”

Two years before this, a similar site, The Toast, founded by former Hairpinners Nicole Cliffe and Daniel Ortberg, also closed. The publication was created in 2013 to be an intersectional space for women to write basically whatever they fancied. They even invited Rookie to contribute. The Toast published multiple features a day, stating, “we think there’s value in posting things that we’ve invested time and energy on, even if it comes at the expense of ‘You won’t believe this story about the thing you saw on Twitter and have already believed’ link roundups.” In a lengthy message posted in May 2016, Ortberg broke down the financial circumstances that left them weighing their options. “Most of them would have necessitated turning The Toast into something we didn’t like, or continuing to work ourselves into the ground forever,” Ortberg wrote, adding, “The only regret I have is that Bustle will outlive us and I will never be able to icily reject a million-dollar check from Bryan Goldberg, but that’s pretty much it.”

It says everything about the American media industry that Bustle, a site with an owner who mansplained women’s sites to women, a site which acquired the social justice-oriented publication Mic only after it had laid off almost its entire staff, has outlived the ones that are actually powered by women. If you look closely, you will see that the majority of women’s sites that continue to exist — from SheKnows to Refinery29 — have men in charge. Even HelloGiggles, which was created by three women, is owned by the male-run Meredith Corporation. That means that, fundamentally, these publications are in the hands of a gender that does not historically believe in the inherent value of women’s media. Women, including young women, are valuable as consumers, but if their interests cannot be monetized, they are worthless. Yet the same year The Toast closed, Lauren Duca wrote a Sassy-style essay, “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America,” in Teen Vogue which dominated the news and garnered 1.4 million unique visitors. “Teen girls are so much smarter than anyone gives them credit for,” Phillip Picardi, Teen Vogue’s digital editorial director, reminded us. “We’ve seen an immense resonance of political coverage with our audience.” Seventeen and ELLE have also capitalized on wokeness, their spon-con sharing real estate with social justice reporting, blurring the boundaries between protesting and shopping. “The inner workings of those places are not about feminism,” says Zeisler. “They’re about selling feminism and empowerment as a brand and that’s very different from what you would find at Rookie or at The Toast or The Hairpin.”

It seems fitting that a new print teen magazine launched last year called Teen Boss. On the fact that it had no ads, Jia Tolentino side-eyed in The New Yorker, “unless, of course, it’s all advertising — sponsored content promoting “Shark Tank” and JoJo Siwa (both appear in each of the first three issues) and also the monetizable self.”

***

Teen girls are the “giant piggybank of capitalism,” says Zeisler, and it’s an apt metaphor. Their value is their purchasing power and they are sacrificed, smashed to pieces, to get to it. When Ariana Grande obliterates every sales record known to man, man still asks why she is on the cover of BuzzFeed. Man never seems to ask, however, why sports — literal games — are on the cover of anything. This is the world in which Rookie and Lenny Letter and The Hairpin and The Toast attempt to survive, in which all that is left when they don’t are floating communities of women, because the industry refuses to make room. As Gevinson wrote, “that next iteration of what Rookie stands for — the Rookie spirit, if you will — is already living on in you.” As Dunham wrote, “Lenny IS you: every politician, every journalist, every activist, every illustrator, every athlete who shared her words here.” As The Hairpin wrote, “We hope when you look back on what we did here together it makes you proud and not a little delighted.” As Cliffe and Ortberg wrote, “The Toast was never just a chance for people to tune in to The Mallory and Nicole Show, it was also a true community and it will be missed.”

These publications did not die by their own hand. Zeisler notes that to this day, she sees people tweeting about missing The Toast. These sites died because their inherent value did not translate into monetary value in a capitalist system run by men who only know how to monetize women by selling them out. As bright and as hungry as young women are today, they are entering a world designed to shut them down. And the future looks bleak. “If media as an industry doesn’t figure out how to value [independent sites for young women] in a way that really reflects and respects the work that goes into them,” says Zeisler, “we’re just going to have a million fucking Bustles.”

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Carr Fire
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This week, we’re sharing stories from Lizzie Johnson, Erica L. Green and Katie Benner, Jamie Lauren Keiles, Laurie Penny, and Jen Doll.

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For the Love of Phish: ‘The Art of Letting Go’

HAMPTON, VA -OCTOBER 19: Trey Anastasio of Phish performs in concert at Hampton Coliseum on October 19, 2018 in Hampton, Virginia. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic.com)

For Topic, Jen Doll dives into the world of the band Phish and their followers, known as “phans.” She discovers a hippie-esque subculture of “you do you” people dedicated not only to a band renowned for live jams, but a shared appreciation for uninhibited drug consumption, joyful escapism, and making new Phish-following-friends at every show.

I wander toward the edge of the lot, where I’m introduced to Boogie and Leroy. Boogie looks and talks exactly like Joaquin Phoenix might if he were acting in a Grateful Dead biopic; Leroy has on colorful knee-high socks and boasts a peppy energy. “How did you end up on tour?” I ask them. “I was hiking the Appalachian Trail, and I met this guy, and he was like, ‘Have you ever heard of Phish?’” Leroy says. “I was like, ‘No, man, not at all.’ And he said, ‘They’re playing in Virginia.’ We’re in Georgia, it’s 1,800 miles away. He’s walking to see them and asks, ‘Do you want to go with me?’ I said, ‘You have 1,800 miles to convince me.’ It was the most epic summer of my life.” This was two years ago, and Leroy hasn’t looked back. “It was the camaraderie of the people. The music is incredible, but just that family aspect, everyone takes care of each other.”

“Hey, has anyone given you a pin?” Boogie asks. I shake my head, and after some deliberation, he and Leroy present me with a “Stealie,” the classic red-and-blue lightning skull icon of the Dead. “Make sure you tell them that came from Leroy and Boogie,” they instruct me. I nod, trying to figure out where it should go. “You should always put it on your jacket,” Boogie says, and a woman who’s been sitting with us pipes up: “It’s your pin, honey, put it wherever you want to.” Boogie gives me his phone number so when I’m done with this story, I can call him and arrange to come on tour with the Dead. I can’t say part of me isn’t tempted. “You’re a ball of light, and you bump into him, you bump into me, you take some of that light and you move on,” he’s saying, and it’s time to do exactly that.

Maybe it sounds weird, but that doesn’t take away from how real any of it is; how seriously, even in moments of joy, fans take the music, the band, and the overall experience. You can take try to deconstruct the magic—Phish’s word-of-mouth-based popularity; their improvisational talents and creativity; the way the music pairs so well with mind-altering drugs; the way they supported the taping of shows and trading of tapes early on, creating a culture of sharing even before the internet; the way they speak to their audience and ask their audience to respond; the inside jokes and private terminologies through which you can learn and feel a sense of belonging. In some ways, though, all this dissection ignores the point, which is something much larger, the sum of so many parts.

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The Neanderthal

Illustration by Lily Padula

Jen Gilman Porat | Longreads | December 2018 | 14 minutes (3,447 words)

A couple of years ago, I purchased a pair of 23andMe kits for myself and my husband, Tomer. I intended to scientifically prove that Tomer’s most irritating behaviors were genetic destiny and therefore unchangeable. I’d grown tired of nagging him — oftentimes, I’d hear my own voice rattling inside my brain in the same way a popular song might get stuck in my head. I needed an out, something to push me toward unconditional acceptance of my husband. My constant complaining yielded zero behavior modification from on his part; on the other hand, it was changing me into a nasty micromanager. I briefly considered marital therapy, but that’s an expensive undertaking, costing much more than the $398.00 one-time fee for both DNA kits. Plus, couples’ therapy could take a long time, requiring detours through our shared history. In much appealing contrast, 23andMe, promised to launch us straight back to our prehistoric roots, to an earlier point in causality, one that might provide Tomer with something akin to a formal pardon note, thereby permitting me to stop fighting against him, once and for all. I imagined we could help others by way of example too, for what long-married woman has not suffered her husband’s most banal tendencies — the socks and underwear on the floor, the snoring? Not me, actually, because my husband puts his used clothes in the hamper, and I’m the snorer. Really, I’m probably blessed as far as masculine disgustingness goes. But my husband is flawed in one repulsive way: his barbaric table manners.

I have no doubt this is a genetic situation, for even back when we were first dating, I’d shuddered upon seeing my father-in-law poke through the serving bowls of a family-style meal with his bare hairy hands. My husband’s father has also been caught eating ice cream directly from the carton (the thought of which I now appreciate for its built-in binge deterrent). Moreover, my father-in-law eats like a caveman-conqueror, reaching across dinner plates to pluck a taste of this or that from his mortified tablemates. A family dinner looks like a scene straight out of Game of Thrones, minus any crowns. And so, when my husband first began to exhibit similar behaviors, I had to wonder: Had I suffered some rare form of blindness previously? Did some barrier of unconscious denial gently shield my eyes each day, year after year, but only at mealtimes? It was as if a blindfold suddenly fell from my face, or as if Tomer had finally removed a mask from his own. My gentleman turned into a beast, seemingly overnight.

I watched with horror, one Sunday evening, as my husband served himself a plate of meat and vegetables with his hands. His fingers ripped skirt steak in lieu of cutting it with a knife. He abandoned his fork altogether, and I lost my appetite.

Had Tomer suffered some obscure symptom of the mid-life crisis? Or was this a regressed state? During a phone conversation with a close friend, I described my father-in-law’s vile eating manners and wondered if his pre-existing condition had grown contagious. She suggested Tomer’s change of behavior might indicate an epigenetic effect; she’d read somewhere that some aspects of our genetic code lie in wait and get activated along the way. Apparently, some inherited traits remained invisible for years, hiding patiently in our cells until: Surprise! Just when you hit middle age and are totally comfortable in your own skin (despite the new fine lines around your eyes and those brown circles that are hopefully age spots and not melanoma), some new biological fact of your genetic code makes itself manifest, waking you up from your mid-age slumber.

Another interesting detail I could not ignore: Around the same time Tomer stopped liking forks, he’d adopted the Paleo diet, (versions of which are known as the caveman diet). He’d cut all processed foods from his intake, eating nothing but meat, nuts, vegetables, and fruit. Prior to going Paleo, he’d suffered from a severe case of irritable bowel syndrome and relied on bread products, thinking that challah and croissants were the softer, gentler foods. I suspected a gluten allergy and told him to lay off all the Pepperidge Farm cookies. I probably even told him to “eat like a caveman,” but I only meant for him to eat a more natural and gluten-free diet, in order to heal him, which in fact, it did.

“My stomach is no longer a quivering idiot,” Tomer said, and he said it more than once, to countless friends and family members, until he’d worked up a complete narrative on how he’d triumphed over his very own stomach. And each time he told this story, he lifted his shirt, pounding his fists upon his midsection. His proud smile began to appear, well, wild and hungry, as if he’d tamed his digestive system but in doing so, had activated a primitive gene and sacrificed his own civility.

Shortly thereafter, I came across an article pertaining to Neanderthal DNA. According to modern science, the Neanderthals and our prehistoric ancestors mated, leaving many of us with a small percentage of Neanderthal DNA. I did more Googling and learned that 23andMe can tell you how much Neanderthal DNA you carry. Although they do mean different things, in my mind’s eye, the words “Neanderthal” and “Caveman” summoned identical images: that of savage meat-eating maniacs ripping raw meat from bone with fat fingers and jagged teeth.

And this was it — the thing that sold me on 23andMe: the chance to determine one’s degree of Neanderthal-ness. Without any consideration of all the possible consequences of submitting one’s DNA to a global database, I ordered two kits, grinning and convinced that my husband’s result would show a statistically significant and above average number of Neanderthal variants in his genome. Since Father’s Day was only a month away, I decided I’d giftwrap the kits upon arrival too. I’d kill two birds with one stone.
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Who Do You Have for Science This Year, I Have Mr. YouTube Again

Robert Papion of Lake Charles, Louisiana, works on a math problem at T.M. Landry. Papion travels 150 miles round-trip each day to attend school. (Marlisa Harding/American Press via AP)

T.M. Landry made headlines for getting so many black students into elite colleges. Now it’s making headlines again because of the fraudulent methods it employed to do that. Erica L. Green and Katie Benner have the story at the New York Times, painting a picture of a school that not only falsified application materials, but sent students out into the world completed unprepared thanks to laughably ineffective pedagogy.

The school is based loosely on a Montessori model that emphasizes mastery, so classes are optional, the Landrys said. Younger students described their education as learning from computer programs and YouTube videos. Instructors and textbooks are on hand, but the students teach one another. Math and English lessons are taught by the Landrys, who devote most of their attention to older students preparing for the ACT.

Adam Broussard, a Landry parent, noticed last fall that his 8-year-old, who had attended the school since he was 3, was writing “chicken scratch.” Mr. Broussard had been happy with the school — his older son had been admitted to Brown after two years at Landry — but he confronted Mr. Landry about his younger son’s progress. Mr. Landry responded that he did not teach sentence structure and just wanted students to love to write.

An independent assessment at Sylvan Learning Center revealed that Mr. Broussard’s younger son was performing two grade levels behind.

“I gave him my son for six years, almost every day, 12 months of the year,” Mr. Broussard said of Mr. Landry. “The longer these kids stayed there, the further behind they were.”

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Did the Modern Novel Kill Charles Bovary?

Imagno / Getty, Heritage / Getty, Collage by Katie Kosma

Ankita Chakraborty | Longreads | December 2018 | 14 minutes (3,602 words)

 

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There were three of them involved in the Bovary marriage to begin with: Charles Bovary, a mediocre doctor and husband, used to being woken up in the middle of the night to set a plaster or secure a tooth in the French countryside; Emma Bovary, reader of great novels and writer of promissory notes, who sneaked away to sleep with other men as soon as her husband left for work; and Gustave Flaubert, the thirty-five-year-old writer of Madame Bovary, morally repugnant, syphilis-infected bourgeois who hated the bourgeoisie for their stupidity. As in all marriages destined for failure, there were sides to be taken. With Madame Bovary began the modern novel; on her side was the virtue of being a pioneer, of being the first in a hundred-and-sixty-year-old model, the precursor to many great novels written in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Stories of her adultery became sensational and her resistance to the boredom of living aspirational. For Emma could do no wrong. Great, immortal, hero — for her have been used words that are most likely to be used for men in real life. “What a woman!” how often have we thought like Rodolphe, one of her lovers, and watched her go. Read more…

The Longreads 2018 Holiday Gift Book Guide

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Let Longreads help you with your holiday shopping! We’ve made a catalog of books we featured in 2018 that we think would make great gifts for everyone on your list.

Books about being alone and really owning it.

Patricia Hampl on the Ladies of Llangollen, who were famous for wanting to be left alone; Stephanie Rosenbloom on eating alone; and an interview with novelist Ottessa Moshfegh in which she strongly advises against leaning in.


Books about family. 

Meaghan O’Connell and Juan Vidal on the surprise and profundity of becoming new parents; Nicole Chung and Laura June on the complexities of family connection across the generations when grappling with adoption or estrangement; Christian Donlan on the grief and joy of parenting while gravely ill; and Issac Bailey on his family’s resilience in the wake of his brother’s imprisonment.


Books for the women in your life who are mad. 

Gemma Hartley on emotional labor, Brittney Cooper on black women’s eloquent rage, and Rebecca Traister on the political power of women’s anger.


Books of investigations, inquiries, and revelations. 

Karina Longworth reveals how Hollywood’s women were caught in Howard Hughes’ web of lies; Rachel Slade solves the sinking of El Faro; Alec Nevala-Lee unravels the joined-at-the-hip origin stories of Scientology and American science fiction; Susan Orlean investigates the mystery of the Los Angeles Public Library fire; Brantley Hargrove follows in the footsteps of a storm chaser killed by the largest tornado every recorded; and Tim Mohr chronicles the forgotten role of punk rock in the fall of the Berlin Wall.


Books that explore the bounds of physical and mental health, illness and medicine, mind and body.

Porochista Khakpour, in a searing memoir about surviving a misdiagnosed chronic illness, questions the possibility of total recovery; Terese Maire Mailhot, in a lyric memoir about PTSD as a result of childhood trauma, attempts to reclaim her narrative and reconnect with her people; Christie Watson remembers her twenty years as a nurse before becoming a novelist; Kristi Coulter meditates on her newfound sobriety and a culture of silence around women’s addiction; Marina Benjamin ruminates on insomnia, plumbing the depths of sleep and wakefulness; and Michele Lent Hirsch studies the invisible lives of young women with chronic illnesses


Histories that challenge our understanding of the past.

Colin G. Calloway‘s biography of George Washington conscientiously locates him in a very Indian world; Julia Boyd points out that the Third Reich was a popular tourist destination; Linda Gordon explains the sway the KKK held in state governments in the early 20th century; Shomari Wills chronicles America’s first black millionaires; Peter Ackroyd reveals the history of gay London; and Stefan Bradley remembers the fight for civil rights in the Ivy League.


Books about dating and marriage.

Elizabeth Flock on the years she spent living with married couples in Mumbai to better understand their marriages; Kelli María Korducki on the feminist history of breaking up; Viv Albertine on dating again in her fifties. 


Follow the money.

Anand Giridharadas on the elite, Disneyfied world of Ted Talks and philanthropy as self-help for rich people; David Montero on the global corporate bribery network; Sarah Smarsh on growing up rural and working class. 


Fiction and memoirs that reflect on the way we live now, illuminating our present and hinting at possible futures.

Nick Drnaso‘s Sabrina is haunted by the menace of conspiracy theories and fake news; Ling Ma‘s Severance imagines a world in which office drones keep going to work and posting on social media even though it’s the apocalypse; Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah‘s Friday Black points out that being black in America already is a dystopian nightmare; Olivia Laing‘s Crudo was written in real time during — and is about living through — the collective traumatic experience that was the year 2017; Jamel Brinkley‘s A Lucky Man revolves around the lucklessness of black boyhood and manhood; Nafissa Thompson-SpiresHeads of the Colored People is a witty, darkly comic look at a supposedly post-racial America; Kiese Laymon‘s Heavy critiques a nation unwilling to come to terms with its traumatic past; Thomas Page McBee‘s Amateur tries to understand why men fight; and Sharmila Sen‘s Not Quite Not White explores how integral whiteness can be to our idea of Americanness.


Books of journeys, adventures, and migrations.

Laurie Gwen Shapiro on the scrappy New York teen who stowed away on a 1928 expedition to Antarctica; Laura Smith on vanishing as a way to reclaim your life; William E. Glassley on his geological expeditions to Greeland to uncover the world’s oldest secret; Lauren Hilgers on Chinese political dissidents building a new life in New York; Eileen Truax on Mexican immigrants living in fear of deportation in America; and Lauren Markham on Salvadoran teens seeking safety far away from home.


Books about faith.

Meghan O’Gieblyn‘s essays hinge on faith and feeling left behind in the Midewst; R.O. Kwon‘s novel The Incendiaries tests the fault lines of lost faith and violence; Jessica Wilbanks‘ memoir is a search for her childhood faith’s origins.


Cultural studies and criticism.

Maya Rao on the patriarchal mentality in the oil boomtowns of North Dakota; Elizabeth Rush on the first areas of the U.S. affected by rising sea levels; Elizabeth Gillespie McRae on the white mothers who violently opposed school integration in the South; Rowan Moore Gerety on daily life in Mozambique, one of the world’s fastest growing economies; Christopher C. King on Europe’s oldest surviving folk music tradition; Agnès Poirer on the intellectual life that flourished in postwar Paris; Alice Bolin on our obsession with dead girls; Michelle Tea on the perils of queer memoir; and Natalie Hopkinson on art as political protest.


Books that are about just one specific thing.

Susan Hand Shetterly on seaweed, Richard Sugg on fairies, Michael Engelhard on polar bears. 

 

Happy holidays!
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