The Longreads Blog

Greenland’s Deepening Ecological Grief

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With glacial ice retreating and formerly reliable sea ice becoming more and more treacherous for winter hunting and social trips, the people of Greenland understand climate change first hand. As Dan McDougall reports for The Guardian, a study of 2% of Greenland’s population by the University of Copenhagen and the Kraks Fond Institute for Urban Economic Research reveals that Greenlanders are experiencing greater anxiety and a special sort of ecological grief as direct results of climate change eroding their traditional ways of life.

“There is no question Arctic people are now showing symptoms of anxiety, ‘ecological grief’ and even post-traumatic stress related to the effects of climate change. The impact of climate change on mental health is a looming public health crisis. So if a Greenland-wide survey points to anxieties around food security and way of life it’s another red line between climate change and mental health,” says Howard. “We are searching for terms to capture this deep feeling of pain in Arctic nations – words like eco-anxiety or ecological grief – but for me, something called ‘solastalgia’ perfectly sums up how people living on the frontline of climate change feel. It was coined by the Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht. It is also related to an Inuit word that refers to a friend behaving in an unfamiliar way. It means feeling homesick when you are home. Many of these islanders are in mourning for a disappearing way of life.”

In Ilulissat, Claus Rassmussen is stirring a foul brew of oily blood and fish. “Seal stew,” the sled-dog hunter says. Strung out in a row, his family carry buckets of the murky soup to feed to the dogs – a nightly ritual for Rassmussen and his five daughters.

Over the past two decades, Greenland’s sled dog population has halved to around 15,000 with the numbers still falling. Greenland’s unique sled dog culture and the specialised training technology and knowledge is in danger of disappearing.

An interview with Rassmussen proves more emotional than anticipated. In his modest home, an old wooden cottage among social housing blocks, his face is contorted. Instead of the Greenlandic way – long silences and monosyllabic answers – there comes an outpouring.

There are six of us crouched in the room, including three of his daughters, as he talks about the decision to kill his beloved dogs because he could no longer afford to feed them. As he talks about shooting one, a dog given the name “my son” in the local language, the teenagers burst into tears – a shocking explosion of grief in a culture where emotion is rarely shown. In Inuit culture, strength, silence, and self-sufficiency are admired traits.

“I had a blood clot last year and couldn’t hunt,” says Rassmussen. “Here in Ilulissat we have the ice fjord and, for now, it’s strong enough to hold us, but I was unable to walk for nine months. The trouble was nobody wanted my dogs so I had to kill eight of 13.

“I killed my favourites. To spare them possible cruelty. That was my decision. The others were given away to people I knew. They weren’t dog people, but were interested in having animals – but perhaps they weren’t looked after in the way they should’ve been. I managed to take some back and since then I have been building up a new dog team.”

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On Representations of Disability: A Reading List

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Around the age of 3 or 4, Harriet McBryde Johnson sits in front of her family’s television set and thinks, “I will die.” The thought comes to her after an advertisement for the Muscular Dystrophy Association flashes across the screen, one that depicts a small boy’s journey from running bases as a baseball player to using a wheelchair and then to bed, one he never rises from. Born with a neuromuscular disease, this commercial, and then a telethon around the age of 5, are Johnson’s first encounters with depictions of disability in mainstream media, as she writes in her memoir Too Late To Die Young. From that first scene, the line I will die, I will die, I will die, serves as a sort of chorus, one that punctuates Johnson’s progression from kindergarten student to law school graduate to protestor and beyond. Johnson reclaims the line; as she moves through life, I will die is no longer a source of fear, but rather a lyric of defiance.

The negative representations of disability Johnson encounters in childhood do not leave her in adulthood, particularly in relation to her wheelchair. She protests against entities like Jerry Lewis, who claims, in a letter penned for Parade Magazine, that wheelchairs are a form of “steel imprisonment,” a “dystrophic child’s plight.” When, being photographed for The New York Times Magazine, the photographer asks to remove Johnson’s chair from the frame, saying that Johnson looks “frail.” The photographer argues that Johnson will look “beautiful and powerful out of the chair,” “brave,” but Johnson advocates for herself.

Johnson’s memoir reveals a litany of ableist assumptions directed toward her and other disabled people, as well as the emotional and physical tolls these perpetual violences take on her throughout her life. Harmful messages, distributed through television ads, telethons, looks others give her while she’s out, snide comments, the highly inaccessible way our world is physically built, seep so much into her consciousness that at one point, she sees wheelchair dancing as being “undignified.” It takes her years before she reckons with her own beliefs, questioning whether they are borne from what others have told her about her disability or about what she herself has experienced in her body. Then, she explains the joy that comes from moving through the world in her wheelchair, saying, “we can in our own way play with sight and sound, combine rhythm and form, move in our chairs and with our chairs, and glide and spin in ways walking people can’t.”

Though Johnson’s life experiences are unique to her, the underlying themes within her book resonate far beyond. I saw myself reflected in some of her passages, particularly when I thought back to my own experience using a wheelchair for a few months as a result of neurological symptoms, during which time I felt a sense of shame. Johnson’s reckoning with her own internalized ableism helped me realize that my feelings came not from my use of the wheelchair, which allowed me to move through the world, often with great joy, but from how I thought others might perceive me.

Her memoir, too, encouraged me to ask questions: How does pervasive ableism affect the way our society continues to be architected? In what ways have disabled people been represented in media and how can representation continue to evolve so that disabled people have more agency? How are invisible disabilities treated versus visible? What have other disabled people’s experiences been engaging with different accessible tools and technology? The essays curated here cover an array of topics related to those questions, as well as delve into intersections between disability and race, class, and gender.

1. Common Cyborg (Jillian Weise, September 24, 2018, Granta)

Jillian Weise writes against Donna Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto,’ exposing numerous flaws in Haraway’s argument, namely, the fact that Haraway neglects to acknowledge disabled people. Weise discusses what it means to claim a cyborg identity, and how disability is treated by a group of people she names ‘tryborgs,’ who “preach cyborg nature,” but “do not actually depend on machines to breathe, stay alive, talk, walk, hear or hold a magazine.”

They like us best with bionic arms and legs. They like us deaf with hearing aids, though they prefer cochlear implants. It would be an affront to ask the hearing to learn sign language. Instead they wish for us to lose our language, abandon our culture and consider ourselves cured.

2. What It’s Like to Be a Disabled Model in the Fashion Industry (Keah Brown, September 5, 2018, Teen Vogue)

In this essential reported piece, Keah Brown, author of recently published The Pretty One, interviews three models with disabilities — Chelsea Werner, Jillian Mercado, and Mama Cax — and draws on her own experiences with cerebral palsy to emphasize the need for increased representation of diverse bodies in advertising, media, and modeling.

Disabled people and disabled models are still left out of most campaign ads and runway shows. This lack of representation has implications: When you go so long without seeing yourself it is easy to interpret that lack of representation to mean you’re ugly and unworthy, that you deserve to be invisible or even worse, are grotesque.

3. How Designers Are Failing People With Disabilities (Justin Rorlich, March 6, 2014, Hazlitt)

With estimates that there are 1.3 billion disabled people in the world who control more than $8 trillion in disposable income, you’d think there would be competition within the wheelchair market to create products with sleeker, more efficient design. But no, as Justin Rohrlich exposes in this piece, hardly any work is being done within big corporations to advance wheelchair design. Instead, individuals like Andrew Slorance are taking matters into their own hands.

In no other market do we force people to simply take whatever product gets shoved down their throats, especially one of this size,’ Donovan says. ‘It’s really sort of unbelievable.

You’d think that companies would have figured out long ago how to sell to a cohort this size. For some reason, it remains barely-touched.

4. The Complicated Dynamics of Disability and Desire (Lachrista Greco, April 6, 2016, Bitch)

After a teacher in middle school tells Lachrista Greco she’s using her invisible disability as a “crutch,” Lachrista begins to make a connection between her disability and how wanted she feels in relation to others. In examining harmful cultural moments like Kylie Jenner modeling with a wheelchair, essays by other disabled writers, and personal memories, Lachrista explores how disability is connected to desirability, both in her life, and in our culture as a whole.

Jenner appeared on the cover of the magazine sitting in a brass-colored wheelchair—sexy, glamorous, and blank. It’s fetishization to the nth degree for Jenner, an able-bodied person, to pose in a wheelchair wearing a black latex bodysuit. It’s “crip drag,” as comedian and disability rights activist Caitlin Wood calls it.

5. The Amputee Cyclist’s Art of Self-Repair (C.S. Giscombe, May 23, 2019, The New York Times)

After seeing a banner that reads “Do you remember when prosthetics weren’t mind controlled?” while on a bike ride through the U.C. campus, C.S. Giscombe reflects on his own prosthetic; ruminates on intersections of race, class, and disability; and confronts ableism.

He was amazed — as some people are, ‘because of your handicap’ — that I was riding at all, and as we talked and climbed the topic of touring came up and he was quick to inform me that it was a thing sadly beyond my capabilities, though we had just met. ‘Typically, disability is viewed as a tragedy,’ as my friend the poet Jennifer Bartlett has observed.

6. Products mocked as “lazy” or “useless” are often important tools for people with disabilities (s.e. smith, September 20, 2018, Vox)

After seeing a device called a Sock Slider ridiculed on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, s.e. smith compiles a list of other tools mocked on the internet: “banana slicers, egg separators, jar openers, buttoners, tilting jugs for dispensing liquids, and much more.” In interviewing people with disabilities, disability scholars, and compiling research about costs of attendants, smith not only makes clear that the use of these gadgets enable some disabled people to live independently, but also examines the role of the internet in spreading harmful messages.

When content mocking the disability community — like memes about ambulatory wheelchair users getting up to grab something high at the store — spread like wildfire, commentary from the affected community is rarely attached. This has a dehumanizing tendency, creating a world that rewards judgmental, snappy commentary and eliminates nuance.

7. I Love ‘Queer Eye.’ I Don’t Love The Way It Portrayed People With Disabilities. (Jessica Slice, July 26, 2019, Huffington Post)

Representations of people with visible disabilities on television are far and few between, so when the Fab Five of ‘Queer Eye’ featured Wesley, “a Black man, loving father, 30-year old community activist and wheelchair user” on an episode, Jessica Slice had hopes that the team would empower Wesley to embrace his identity as a disabled man in the same way they encourage others featured on the show. Instead, the episode falls short in many ways, which Slice chronicles in this well-researched piece.

Critically, being disabled is not a negative. It’s an identity, just like being queer, Black or Latinx is an identity. If it makes you pause to hear ‘Black, but not really,’ or ‘gay, but not really,’ then you should have the same reaction to ‘disabled, but not really.’

8. (Don’t) Fear the Feeding Tube (Kayla Whaley, May 8, 2018, Catapult)

When her mom brings up the idea of a feeding tube, Kayla Whaley recoils. She feels shame and fear thinking about such a concrete change being made to her body until she speaks with others who have gone through the surgery. This essay, in addition to providing a history of gastronomy tubes, also chronicles Kayla’s emotional turn from revulsion to delight in relation to her g-tube, and the ways in which her feeding tube allows her to connect with her body in new and surprising ways.

More than that, knowing what was inside felt like sharing a secret with myself. Seeing inside my gut, learning to recognize its patterns and moods, felt intimate in a way that was wholly unexpected but altogether a joy.

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Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, Guernica, Tin House, and elsewhere. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.

Conversations with My Loveliest

Photo by Loverna Journey

Melissa Berman | Longreads | August 2019 | 10 minutes (2,413 words)

 

I saw her through the slit of the partially open bathroom door. She left it slightly ajar because she’d started thinking about these things.

She didn’t tell me so, but the slice of light peeking into the hallway said it all. We were taking that turn, the one I never thought would come, though, how could it not?

She was out of the shower now, drying herself off. I walked into the den to casually pretend I was oblivious to the whole thing.

“Can you come here please?” she called out.

So it is happening, I thought.

I looked over to the chest of drawers, the emergency call receiver with the red button — the HELP in such big white letters. The button was bigger than her hand. And the special alert pendant she was supposed to have around her neck, in case she fell or something, sat next to it. The cord was perfectly coiled, looking pathetic, like an ugly necklace no one would ever wear.

“Hell-lo?” her impatient voice curled around the cracked-open door and floated down the hallway.

I picked up the necklace and put it around my own neck.

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In Sickness, In Health — and In Prison

Najeebah Al-Ghadban for The Marshall Project.

Mia Armstrong | The Marshall Project | August 2019 | 9 minutes (2,400 words)

This article was co-published with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.

Niccole Wetherell and Paul Gillpatrick were engaged in 2012. The state of Nebraska has prevented their wedding ever since​.

Wetherell is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder, housed in a prison about 50 miles away from her fiance, Gillpatrick, who is serving a 55-to-90-year sentence for second-degree murder.

The pair, who met in 1998, have come to accept they cannot marry in person. Instead, they want to wed via video conference, and they want an end to a prison policy that forbids Nebraska inmates from marrying each other except in “special circumstances.” Wetherell and Gillpatrick argue they have a “fundamental right to marry.”

In June, U.S. District Judge Robert Rossiter ​affirmed​ that right. The case is now in appeal. But the legal precedent Rossiter cited has a quirky history that involves an infamous co-ed prison, an impromptu wedding, a soon-to-follow divorce and a U.S. Supreme Court decision.

That decision, Turner v. Safley, established how courts should weigh the constitutionality of prison regulations, and has formed the legal basis for prison weddings across the country​—​most often between one incarcerated person and someone on the outside. It opened the doors for a niche industry of ​officiants​ ​who​ ​specialize​ ​in​ prison weddings. And its clear articulation of marriage as a fundamental human right was even cited in ​Obergefell v. Hodges​, the landmark Supreme Court decision that in 2015 affirmed the right to marriage for same-sex couples.

It all started in 1980 at a prison in Missouri. Read more…

Editor’s Roundtable: One of the Most Important Pieces of Our Time, Plus Rats and French Cooking (Podcast)

"The Council Held By The Rats," by Gustave Doré. (Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

On our August 16, 2019 roundtable episode of the Longreads Podcast, Essays Editor Sari Botton, Contributing Editor Aaron Gilbreath, and Longreads Head of Fact-Checking Matt Giles share what they’ve been reading and nominate stories for the Weekly Top 5 Longreads.

This week, the editors discuss stories in The New York Times Magazine, Eater, and Hakai Magazine.


Subscribe and listen now everywhere you get your podcasts.


3:05 “Our Democracy’s Founding Ideals Were False When They Were Written. Black Americans Have Fought to Make Them True.” (Nikole Hannah-Jones, August 14, 2019, The New York Times Magazine)

16:13 Super Sad True Chef Story, (Samuel Ashworth, August 12, 2019, Eater)

22:53 The Rat Spill” (Sarah Gilman, August 13, Hakai Magazine)

 

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Produced by Longreads and Charts & Leisure.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

FORT MONROE, VA - MARCH 26: The sun sets near the Old Point Comfort Lighthouse at Fort Monroe National Monument on Tuesday March 26, 2019 in Fort Monroe, VA. The area was once known as Old Point Comfort. It is believed that some of the first Africans to live at Jamestown first landed here in 1619. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Nikole Hannah-Jones and The New York Times Magazine Staff, Melissa del Bosque, Nitasha Tiku, Sarah Gilman, and Tift Merritt.

Sign up to receive this list free every Friday in your inbox. Read more…

It’s Getting Hot in Here, So Take Off All Your Constructs

Bone Collector / Juicy J, Photo by Elsa / Getty

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | August 2019 |  7 minutes (1,984 words)

 

The album art for Megan Thee Stallion’s “Hot Girl Summer” has her riding a bottle of Hennessy like a bronco, with Nicki Minaj strapped in behind her. Both rappers have their arms up, their boobs out, their hair down. The flames around them are redundant. Before it was a song, Hot Girl Summer was a meme, with the 24-year-old freestyle genius dropping the mixtape Fever a month ahead of the summer solstice. That art is even better, a throwback to the flyest of fly blaxploitation: “She’s thee hot girl and she’s bringing thee heat” (more redundant flames surround her). Named Stallion for her statuesque beauty and with fans known as Hotties, Megan rebranded the aestival months as Hot Girl Summer. In the August issue of Paper magazine, she calls it a movement. The rapper told The Root that being a hot girl is not about being a certain type of sexy — it’s about “women, and men, just being unapologetically them.” But there are clear parameters here, which encompass a look — 5’11’’, hourglass — and a personality: “You definitely have to be a person that could be like the life of the party, and, you know, just a bad bitch.” Hot Girl Summer isn’t Taraji P. Henson in spectacles quietly doing actual rocket science, it’s Halle Berry in an orange bikini popping up out of the surf as Bond gawks. While Hot Girl Summer rejects the idea that a woman, notably a black woman, has to be answerable to anyone — a poignant reminder in a climate of rampant misogyny — the movement still implies a sexy young object of someone else’s desire. Read more…

What Does It Mean To Be Moved?

A Dutch Ship, a Yacht and Smaller Vessels in a Breeze, c. 1660, Willem van de Velde the Younger. Found in the collection of the National Gallery, London. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Jennifer Wilson | Longreads | August 2019 | 10 minutes (2,734 words)

 

“Why does a ripe apple fall?” Tolstoy asks in War and Peace. “Because the wind shakes it…or because the boy standing below wants to eat it?” Technically, the wind is the movement of air across space; but in our poetry, myths, and moving pictures, wind is something else entirely. For Tolstoy, it was the forces of nature tilting downward to meet man’s desire. For others, the wind is something that gives us permission, permission to move off course, to be blown away, to be held back longer from our destination, to act wild. In Homer’s The Odyssey, Aeolus, the divine keeper of the winds, hands Odysseus a bag containing all the winds of the earth. Aeolus conjures the west wind to send the men home. But just when they have Ithaca in their sights, Odysseus’s men, convinced the bag has gold inside, open it up. The winds escape and transform into a storm that sends their ship all the way back to Aeolus. However, this time he refuses to help them, certain Odysseus has been cursed by the gods.

We have rendered wind a metaphor for anger, passion, unreason; we use it as an excuse when we want permission to lose our minds. It is that extra push to be the person you really want to be, or to explain who we already in fact are. As Wallace Stevens put it “The wind shifts like this/ Like a human without illusions/Who still feels irrational things within her.” In Joan Didion’s Los Angeles Notebook, she writes about the strong, dry Santa Ana winds that leave coastal California in disarray, sometimes on fire. But for Didion, the Santa Anas are something else too; their arrival allows for a certain relinquishing of control. “We know it [is coming] because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks. I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever it is in the air.” I remember reading these lines for the first time and wishing for a wind like that, something that I could surrender to. Read more…

Pages You Can Dance To: A Book List

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Brittany Allen  | Longreads | August 2019 | 10 minutes (2,730 words)

 

In 1974 Walter Thompson, a Berklee-trained bandleader, moved to Woodstock and made up a language. A fan of improv, Thompson initially designed forty signs for structuring a live composition. With one gesture, he could single out a group in his orchestra (like “Woodwinds”). With another, he could instruct said group to hold a long note (“Long Tone”), match one another’s phrasing (“Synchronize”), or tell players to dit dit dit out a series of staccato bursts (“Pointillism”). Wham, Blam, thank you ma’am: a new song, on the spot.

Forty years later, directors working with all kinds of performers — actors, dancers, and musicians — still employ Thompson’s conducting shorthand to devise material. The language has a name now: soundpainting, a term I find almost unbearably lovely. At my (blessedly experimental) college I studied soundpainting, stage pictures, lyric essays, many radiant paradoxes that suggested trespass between one mode of making and another. But soundpainting, this word lingers. What a pure reminder that our creative borders are porous by definition. That some of our metaphors ought to be mixed.

Either Martin Mull or Frank Zappa or Elvis Costello or someone else entirely once may have said, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” and meant this as a cut. But like Thompson, I chafe against the arbitrary border. In this reader’s opinion, there are some excellent books about music. But on the synesthetic end of the exercise, there are also miraculous books suffused with music, there are rhythmic books that dit dit dit a forever impression on your skull. A man in Woodstock believes you can paint with sound. Well, I know for a fact you can dance to pages. Read more…

Woodstock: My Queer Love Story

Illustration by Mark Wang

Kate Walter | Longreads | Month 2019 | 7 minutes (1800 words)

“Want to go to Woodstock with me?” my boyfriend Joe asked.

“Yes!” I screamed at his offer. I was a 20-year-old student at a conservative Catholic women’s college in New Jersey. Joe was my guide into the radical 60s.

We’d met at the Jersey Shore when my sorority rented a house in Belmar, a party town. Joe was four years older than me, already out of school. He had a job, his own apartment, a motorcycle and long hair. My father disliked him. It didn’t help when my mother found my birth control pills in my dresser.

Joe was over six feet tall, with black hair and dark eyes, kinda hairy and a bit chubby, a bear — not my type at all. He had wire-rimmed glasses, like his idol, John Lennon, and wore vests with fringe. Since Joe was the music editor for The Aquarian, a popular underground newspaper, we became regulars at the Fillmore East. Nothing could have kept us two rockers from the three-day music festival in the lower Catskills.

That was so long ago, Joe and I were both still straight. Years later, in the 70s, we came out — first him, then me. (No wonder the sex wasn’t so hot.)
Read more…