The Longreads Blog

How Vocal Injury Can Change You

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Like most people, I hate hearing a recording of my voice — cringing and pleading for it to be turned off. However, I had not given my objections much consideration, until reading John Colapinto’s excellent piece on speech for The Guardian. Our own voice is the only one we hear differently from other people — what we hear when we speak does not come through the air, but in vibrations that pass through the hard and soft tissues of our head and neck. There is often a mismatch in who we know ourselves to be, and how we try to project onto the world, and yet “we remain mercifully deaf to how we perform this ideal self, in a bid to ‘put ourselves across’, to make an impression.”

Colapinto had never much considered his own voice either — until he nearly lost it. A serious vocal strain affected the way he spoke for years and eventually forced him to confront what is lost when your voice is hindered, and nuances of emotion can no longer be conveyed. In fact, our ability to speak is what has given us an evolutionary edge, “it enabled early humans – a relatively slow-running, physically weak, easily preyed-upon animal – to plan and cooperate and strategize with each other to outsmart bigger, faster, more lethal predators.” Aristotle defined the voice as “the sound produced by a creature possessing a soul,” and this deeply personal essay will help you understand why.

Consequently, he said, I had done what many people with my injury do: I had developed strategies for, as he put it, “speaking around the problem” – retraining my recurrent laryngeal nerve (the nerve that, among other things, controls the tension on the vocal cords) to drop the pitch of my voice, slackening my freighted vocal membrane so that the 3 or 4% that was still pliable would vibrate. This reduced the rattle in my voice, but at a cost. It was robbing me of the natural variation in pitch and volume that people use to give colour, animation, expression and personality to their utterances – what linguists call prosody, the melody of everyday speech.

Through prosody, we express tenderness, or anger, or enthusiasm, or any number of other nuanced emotional states that give the human voice its peculiar power to woo, persuade, threaten, cajole and mollify. Prosody makes the difference between the affectless utterances of HAL, the computer in 2001, and the rich and expressive instrument of Morgan Freeman or Meryl Streep – or even just the lilting, songlike way you say “Hello” when you answer the phone, so your caller doesn’t think you’re a machine. The term comes from the ancient Greek: pros, meaning “toward”, and ody, meaning “song”. We speak toward song. Except I didn’t any more, according to Zeitels.

“You’re behaving through a veil of monotone,” he went on. “When you talk, you can’t express emotion properly. You can’t change pitch, can’t get loud, can’t do the normal things that a voice does to express how you feel.”


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All Aboard for an Adventure in Inequality

ANTARCTICA - 2013/11/30: Tourists at Yankee Harbour, a small inner harbour on the south-west side of Greenwich Island in the South Shetland Island group, Antarctica, with cruise ship Seabourn Quest in background. (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

To satisfy his wanderlust, Devin Murphy worked on a series of cruise ships to see the world and learn more about it. As he reports in this fascinating piece at Outiside, what he didn’t bargain for was a free education on the deep disparity between the poor and rich, the haves and the have nots, not only in ports of call around the world, but aboard the vessels upon which he served.

I’m an American who grew up surrounded by comforts that were delivered to me by ships like these—ships that I’d never thought about.

As the summer wore on, my hands became ribboned with cuts from barnacle shards caked into the rope fibers, and I got accustomed to the insults of the assistant engineer, who often tipped over into psychotic rage when I did something wrong. He spent all his free time reading biker magazines and smoking in the dark next to the engines, a patron saint of hatred.

Meanwhile, day by day, I really began to appreciate the passengers. Whether they were recent retirees on a dream trip or industrial business owners leveled by the beauty of the wilds, it was humbling to share in their awakening wonder.

I also got a better sense of the oddity of life on a boat. One time the captain called me to the bridge and told me to man the controls while he went to his cabin. I was 20 years old, steering a cruise ship through the night. It was so exhilarating that, when the captain came back, I didn’t notice at first that he was carrying a full-size test dummy with a long black wig on it. He began dancing around and humming to the doll.

“Um. Sir? What are you doing?”

The captain opened the wing station, sang, “Time for us to part, my love,” and hurled the doll overboard. He blew a kiss to the back of the ship, then called into his radio, “Man overboard.”

He shot a red flare into the sky, and I slowly turned the ship to start our impromptu man-overboard drill. The doll looked so much like a real person that I felt a wash of fear about one day being alone on the waves, drifting off into the cold unknown.

During our return trip from Antarctica, the Drake Passage—the expanse of ocean between Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands and Cape Horn—thrashed the ship around. The hotel executive, feeling sick, went to his cabin and left an Excel spreadsheet open on a computer we shared. It showed what the international crew members were paid, and their low compensation—far less than minimum wage in the U.S.—stunned me. I was able to save much of what I made. These men, who worked with kindness, effort, and attention to detail for 12 hours a day, six days a week, and up to nine months at a time, were being exploited, and they had to send money to families back home. The reality of the flag of convenience became clear.

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The Geography Closest In

Photo by Mats Silvan/Getty Images. Edit by Cheri Lucas Rowlands.

Miranda Ward | Adrift | Weidenfeld & Nicolson | January 2021 | 15 minutes (4,339 words)

The bald conclusiveness of a positive pregnancy test draws a clear line between yes/no, this/that, knowing/not-­knowing. For a moment at least it clarifies everything, or distils it, into a single and irrefutable piece of knowledge. This certainty, when it comes to the body, is rare (later a doctor will tell me: if everything in medicine were as reliable as a pregnancy test, my job would be a lot easier), so I hold on to that piece of knowledge, which is proof of my own productivity, for as long as I can.

But doubt, worry, have a way of threading their way through even the solidest conviction. Threat is everywhere: a light fever, an undercooked egg. Indeed the more I read the more I realise how fragile a pregnancy is, how it isn’t as simple as a positive test and a baby nine months later, which is something I suppose I always knew in the abstract but never had any real frame of reference for before. I was aware that some of my friends and acquaintances, for example, had had miscarriages, but I had not until now really understood what it meant, in both practical and emotional terms, to have to hold an awareness of this terrible possibility always alongside a hope, a longing, for it not to happen to you. Most of what I know about pregnancy, in fact, comes from fiction, from books, films, TV: the way certain signifiers – wooziness, weakness, nausea – are used to suggest a pregnancy before it is confirmed; the way, once it is confirmed, a woman must somehow both alter her behaviour drastically and hardly at all, vomiting copiously into a bin at work seconds before giving a presentation just as if nothing is amiss, but studiously avoiding, suddenly, a whole litany of food and drink; most of all the way a baby is almost always the inevitable result of a pregnancy. The plain fact of it – that at least one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage, perhaps more, since sometimes a woman might miscarry before she even knows she’s pregnant – had somehow eluded me, or else I had somehow failed to think of it in tangible terms.

What does that statistic actually mean, practically speaking? It means that nothing is a given. It means that there are people – a lot of people – for whom the result of a pregnancy is not a baby. It means that even the purest elation is often shaded, especially in the early weeks, when miscarriage is most likely, with fear.

I develop a set of superstitions for protection; certain shirts for luck, certain routes home from the library or the grocery store, certain songs skipped or repeated. An aping at control. And for a while everything is normal, in the sense that nothing is normal, in the sense that I feel slightly ill, weary, a little as if I am not myself. My overriding emotion is happiness, but there is also a part of me that feels as if I have become separated somehow from my body, as if it is acting of its own accord, and the thinking part of me is just along for the ride. There are psychological adjustments to make – I have to play the phrase I’m pregnant over and over to myself to believe it; I have to think about what is good for me not in terms of my body only, but also in terms of the invisible body-­to­-be inside me. There are physical symptoms, too, though they are mild (another thing I didn’t realise: that while some pregnant women are indeed debilitated by illness or weariness, not everyone is). I am never actually sick, though I am dogged by a whisper of nausea that asserts itself at odd times and leads me to keep a pack of digest­ives on my bedside table. I can feel a largeness, a tenderness, to my breasts, and although I know it’s far too early for the pregnancy itself to show I feel fuller somehow, heavier than I was before I knew, as if the knowledge itself has some weight or substance to it.

This is not an unpleasant feeling – because it is a novelty, and because the pregnancy is so unequivocally desired – but it is hard to escape a sense of uneasiness, too. I find myself tracing familiar routes around Oxford, where I’ve lived for years, ever since I moved to the UK after university; I know the roads well, and yet I feel every encounter between feet and pavement to be different now, because I am differently bodied. What I have is a sense, visceral and unignor­able, that my body no longer belongs wholly to me – and in a way it doesn’t. As I walk I feel not exactly a ‘we’, but a blooming plurality, an ‘I and…’, perhaps, the assertion of a possibility taking physical form. Where once I occupied my mind during walks with long, elaborate daydreams, there now seems to be no room for anything other than the immediacy of experience and the planning and execution of the tasks of my own daily life. I take to listening to radio shows and podcasts, tuning out my external surroundings and internal circumstances, focusing on the minute details of, say, a true crime story, losing myself in the voice of the presenter.

* * *

Geographers write about the inseparability of the body from our experience of place: we sense places, are bodily present in them, see them, hear them, smell them, move within them. How else do we know a favourite room or city or mountain trail? The body, as Tim Edensor writes, is the means through which we experience and feel the world.

To which he adds: bodies are not only written upon but also write their own feelings upon a space in a process of continual remaking.

What I am struck by in the delicate earliest weeks of pregnancy is that I am being both made and unmade; rewritten. The pregnancy is largely unspoken of: we have told our doctor, and our parents, which perhaps lends it a weight in the world that it wouldn’t yet have had we not told anyone, but day to day I move through the hours without anyone but us knowing, because the pregnancy is still invisible. When I stand in front of the mirror I see nothing different, but nothing the same, either. When I go to the swimming pool, as I do most mornings, an almost religious habit, the place of it has shifted, though the change is microscopic, under the surface. On a quiet morning I watch the play of sunlight on the bottom of the pool and I am in a foreign country. In the changing room, pulling off my wet suit after a shower, I am self­-conscious for the first time – can they tell? But I want them to tell, even though there’s no way they possibly could, even though when I think of it I have the sense not so much of the world tilting on its axis but of the axis itself having drifted elsewhere. I smile knowingly at a visibly pregnant woman undressing and she looks away, uncomprehending or embarrassed or both. I am the foreign country, or else I have lost the map of this place. Walking home, along the same roads I have always taken, the green of the trees fading into yellow, I feel somehow both lonely and plural.

* * *

And then.

One morning, a few weeks after that first definitive, positive test, I wake up and feel my old self again – that is to say, not ill, not weary, not plural or novel – and that evening I experience some mild pain, a quick gush of blood which soon slows to an ambiguous but ominous trickle, and a sense of doom. I am not sure what the appropriate reaction is: denial? Despair? I cannot summon the energy to cook or even to eat dinner; although it is still early I retire to bed, lying on top of the duvet, curled into a question mark. Alexander lies down next to me, his body settling around mine. He tells me the things I both want and don’t want to hear: that it’s OK, that we don’t know for sure that anything’s wrong yet, that he loves me. He’s meant to be playing football in twenty minutes. Do you want me to stay? he says. I’ll stay with you. No, I say vehemently, as if this is in fact an uncharitable suggestion, you should go, you should play, what can you do at this point, what can I do? Nothing. Even after he’s pulled his socks over his shinpads, laced up his boots, he hesitates at the door: are you sure you don’t want me to stay? I don’t want you to stay, I say emphatically. If I were being honest – with him, with myself – I’d say exactly the opposite: stay, please. Instead I lie back and stare at the wall for an hour until he gets home and we go to sleep.

The next morning I call my GP, who arranges an emergency scan for me at the hospital. The soonest the scan can be done is in two days, so in the interim period I carry on as usual: I go to meetings, answer emails, run errands. It’s not as hard to do this as I would have imagined it would be, and after all, what choice do I have? But it’s also indicative of the ongoingness that will characterise much of the next two months.

I cannot summon the energy to cook or even to eat dinner; although it is still early I retire to bed, lying on top of the duvet, curled into a question mark.

I would have imagined, too, that a miscarriage was a definite thing – yes/no, this/that, knowing/not­-knowing – a neatly shaped happening with a beginning, a middle, a definitive end, each closely following the other. Women say, ‘I had a miscar­riage’, and until now I have always heard their experience as being something contained, even while brutally uncontrollable: all those stories of blood-­drenched bathroom floors, of unimag­inable agony, of horror and shock, of sadness and then resolution (often in the form of a baby arriving a year or two on, as if some consolation must always be offered): what I understand now, of course, is that these stories are told retrospectively, packaged in the way that all stories, to some extent, must be. But when I phone the doctor I’m unsure, grammatically speaking, how to phrase my concern: do I say to him that I have had a miscarriage, that I’m having one, that I’m worried I might have one in the future? The idea of the miscarriage in progress perplexes the part of me that imagined that this is a thing that can only happen privately, violently, suddenly, because it is a thing that is happening without much noise at all, and meanwhile here I am transcribing an interview, here I am meeting with a freelance client, wearing a new skirt I bought yesterday from the charity shop, here I am buying groceries and planning dinner, with nothing but a question mark inside me.

Alexander and I take a taxi to the hospital for the scan; it’s early morning and the driver is playing loud Pakistani pop, which is somehow soothing, and drowns out my own thoughts. In the waiting room Alexander scrolls restlessly through his phone. A little plastic radio on a cabinet in the corner of the room is pumping out cheerful tunes punctuated by cheerful radio host banter. I take my book from my handbag and lay it on my knees, open at my marked place. Knausgaard, A Death in the Family. In his younger-­self narrative, the author’s father has just died, while in his current­-self narrative, his partner is heavily pregnant, lumbering around, practically bursting with new life. But I cannot read on. I become fixated on a single paragraph, a description of a piece of artwork, which strikes me as incomprehensible. I read it over and over again until my name is called.

The scan reveals an embryo with no heartbeat. I lie on the bed, naked from the waist down, a blue plastic sheet draped over my legs. Alexander holds my hand while the ultrasound technician swirls a wand around inside me, talking us through the image of my uterus on the screen. It is illegible to me – darkness, light, hazy shapes – but to her the meaning is crystal clear. I’m so sorry it’s not the news you were hoping for, she says. She gives me a wad of tissue to wipe myself with before leaving the room to let me get dressed. She leads us back to the waiting room, which is fuller now, no one making eye contact, the radio still humming; a doctor will see you soon, she says, to talk to you about what happens next. ‘Soon’ is an ambiguous word, and time becomes difficult to perceive; we are there for what feels like both an eternity and an instant. I take my book out again, stare again at that same page; Alexander unlocks his phone, moves his finger across the screen in a kind of robotic motion.

What I am struck by in the delicate earliest weeks of pregnancy is that I am being both made and unmade; rewritten.

Sometimes these things resolve naturally, the doctor says when we are finally called in to see her; sometimes intervention becomes necessary, or desirable. She schedules me for another scan the following week, so we can monitor whether there’s been any change: in other words, whether the products of conception, as the embryo is now known, have been partially or even wholly expelled. After the scan, she says, we can decide how to proceed; you don’t need to make any decisions now. Good, I think, though I’m a little hazy on exactly what kind of decision I might be called upon to make; she has described the various forms of intervention but I can’t quite situate them in relation to my own body, my own products of conception.

She is very young, the doctor, soft-­spoken, apologetic. She says to call if anything changes before my next appointment, if I have any concerns. She gives me a business card, circles a phone number that’s operational 24/7. To minimise the risk of infection, she adds, seemingly as an afterthought, you shouldn’t take baths or swim.

No swimming. Of course. But I am thrown by the thought of this: the removal of the most obvious physical coping mechanism I have for dealing with what is essentially an entirely uncontrollable physical situation. I realise I’ve said this out loud without really meaning to. A silence falls, either respectful or uncomfortable.

I’m a swimmer too, the doctor says suddenly, as I’m standing to leave, abandoning, briefly, her professional distance. I’d hate not to be able to do it.

After the appointment we walk to a Starbucks near the hospital. It’s dark and anonymous inside, and smells of sweet pastries and wee. I order a latte, two shots, why not, and we sit at a counter at the window, watching buses trundle by. It’s mid­-morning and the place is full of new mothers and their prams, though occasionally someone in scrubs or a suit hurries in and then out again. Alexander texts his boss to say he won’t be coming in to work today. Not just the day but the month, the year, stretches out before us, suddenly open. What will we do with it? What can we do? The coffee is too hot, tasteless, the milk burned, but I suck it down in a rush, turning the inside of my mouth furry. Before all this, the test, the pregnancy, the ungrowing embryo, we were planning a wedding; we had set the date, hired a venue, made arrangements with the registrar. We should have cancelled everything – my due date was too close to the wedding date – but we never did; too superstitious, or preoccupied, or both. Now, of course, I say, devastated, amused, we won’t need to change the date. We can simply pick up where we left off. I feel myself begin to rewrite the map again, to slip in and out of familiarity with myself and my surroundings. There’s a simplicity to it all, underneath the ambiguity, the anguish, that makes me almost giddy: for what is this but a reversion to my natural state, a return to old routines?

A thought – terrible, comforting – hits me square in the face then, that there’s relief to be felt. The awful thing, the dreaded thing, has happened, and I need no longer fear it. I hate myself for feeling this but can’t let go of it, either, because I think it’s a way forward, a way out, a small tremble of light.

* * *

The second scan is no more or less enlightening than the first: there is still an embryo, there is still no heartbeat. No change, in other words: an unwanted stillness.

The doctor gives me a leaflet, which outlines in clinical language the three ways of managing a miscarriage when preg­nancy tissue remains in the womb: expectant, medical, surgical. The first is the wait-­and-­see approach, taken on the assumption that the tissue will pass naturally out of the womb with time. The second involves taking a course of medication to stimulate the passing of the tissue out of the womb: a potentially painful, lengthy, and often messy process, not always entirely effective, sometimes necessitating the third approach anyhow, which involves surgical removal of the tissue.

I still don’t know how to decide what to do, so I put it off: if nothing’s happened in a few weeks I’ll opt for some kind of intervention. I want above all to trust my body to do whatever needs doing, but already it’s betrayed me once, so what do I know?

Still no swimming, obviously, the doctor says sadly. Other­wise, proceed as normal.

As normal. Nothing is normal, I start to think – but then again, in a kind of terrible way, everything is normal again, isn’t it?

* * *

The present­-tenseness of the event, the miscarriage, which is not so much an event as a continual unfolding of uncharted territory, a vast grey area, makes it virtually impossible to talk about in any way that makes sense of what is actually happening. I don’t know what to tell people because the language I have is not elastic enough to encompass something which is past, present and future all at once. So I do what the doctor suggests: I proceed more or less as normal, going to meetings, going to the supermarket, scrolling mindlessly through Twitter, doing the laundry, eating, sleeping, working. I let myself lose track of time. At one point, in a notebook, next to a to-­do list, I write: The calendar is a kind of enemy, reminding me of the facts of things, the time it is actively taking to go through this process of miscarriage. I take to walking – long, slow strolls at the very edge of dusk, through parks and quiet suburban neighbourhoods that smell of woodsmoke and exhaust fumes. I feel my muscles going slack, and an irrational fear grows daily: what will my body become while I can’t swim?

My fear is really a form of vanity. I know that with each day or week that passes without a swim my body will start to look subtly different. I’ll lose, am losing, the public indicators of my fitness – the muscle, the shape of my arms and legs, the things that say to other people that I’m disciplined, that my body is under control. And I don’t want them to see what I know: that nothing is under control, that this body is not working properly, that athletically, reproductively, it is not doing at all what it’s supposed to do.

Mostly, though, if we’re honest, it’s the changes in our bodies that are in control of us, not the other way round.

Words come to me on my walks, as they used to on my swims. Some of them are obvious. Why is this happening to me? I think selfishly, inevitably, as I climb the hill to the park on a soft bed of wet leaves, fresh-­fallen after a night of howling wind. But other things, too, drifting like the smoke and the fumes. Disobedience. Betrayal. Softening, slackening, slowing. Undisciplined. Back at home, in my notebook, I write: I guess I feel disconnected from a part of myself. Not that I’m not still the same person or can’t be again, but that for a while I and some other part of me are not quite coinciding. I’m talking about the swimming, not the miscarriage, or at least ostensibly I am. I have a deep sense of geographical dissonance, like a dream of a familiar place in which the location of everything is slightly wrong, so that you round the corner and suddenly come upon a street that should be miles away, or discover that all along there has been an extra room in your house.

One Sunday afternoon, sitting in a booth at my local pub, I see a woman I used to see most weekday mornings at the pool; she always wore a bright pink cap, a navy swimsuit. She’s about my age, sitting with a friend, eating lunch. Perhaps it’s her local too, I think, for the first time realising, stupid as it sounds, that these people I’ve been brushing up against at the pool are people with lives outside that context, just like me.

Occasionally I log on to Facebook and check the page for the triathlon club I belong to. I look through the list of times from a recent 400-­metre time trial, spotting familiar names, noting the improvements, and wonder how much I, too, could have improved by now. For a moment I’m gripped by something which feels a little like jealousy but isn’t quite – desire, perhaps, something almost carnal. But then the desire, or whatever it is, fades: I’m here now, and maybe, if I can admit it to myself, I’m actually a little relieved that I’m not sweating away in a pool, that I don’t have to worry about how fast or smoothly I can cut through the water, how hungry I’ll be later, how tired.

* * *

The poles of the earth have wandered, the journalist John McPhee once wrote: even that which seems most permanent and solid is, in its own way, shifting. It’s true literally – think for example of the tectonic plates, the movement of the continents, which still, on average, drift a few centimetres a year apart, about the rate at which our fingernails grow, as the geographer Doreen Massey frames it, a reminder that the body is never in stasis either. In other words the whole world is a continual work in progress; the present is not some kind of achieved terminus, Massey writes. To underline this idea, she describes the slow movement of what she calls the ‘migrant rocks’ that came, over the course of millions of years, to form Skiddaw in the Lake District. Solid and eternal as it seems, she says, the mountain is not timeless. Like she and her sister, staying in a hotel in Keswick, it’s just passing through. It was once elsewhere. It will be elsewhere again someday.

It’s easy to lose your footing here, to feel that nothing is solid, but I’ve always found something comforting about this idea that place is essentially unfixed. The rigidity of permanence would be too much to bear, surely: who wants to be stuck in the same place forever? Who can know and love anywhere and not see that a point on a map is one thing, a living, breathing place quite another?

It’s a concept that scales well – if the world is a work in progress, then so too is a city or a street or a swimming pool. So too is the body, which is, after all, as the poet Adrienne Rich puts it, the geography closest in; it’s the first place, the place we must make peace with – subject, like all places, to the pressures of time, of external rhythms and events, changing from moment to moment, year to year, getting older, bigger, smaller, more or less capable of performing certain tasks, more or less like it was at the beginning.

There’s a simplicity to it all, underneath the ambiguity, the anguish, that makes me almost giddy: for what is this but a reversion to my natural state, a return to old routines?

Sometimes we’re in control of that change, or we think we are. Exercise in particular gives us the illusion of power over our own physical futures. Take your recommended thirty minutes of activity a day and stave off all kinds of bodily evil. Lose a bit of weight, add a bit of muscle, establish a routine, live forever, or longer, anyway. The geographer John Bale wrote of exercise as a literal form of recreation: through time, repeated action, the body is re-­created so that it works better. It incorporates knowledge, becomes stronger, fitter. Progress. Maybe next week, or the week after, I’ll be faster than I was last week. All it takes is discipline, resolve, another few thousand metres racked up. Most of all denial: of the body that wants, of the possibility of vulnerability or limitation. A few years ago, I remember, I became obsessed with watching Olympic swimming races; I trawled YouTube, read interviews with the athletes, fascinated by all their talk of sacrifice and discipline. And isn’t this why I watched in the first place? To see what happens when we write certain kinds of want out of our body, and one singular, possessive, demanding want into it: to be the best, the fastest, the one standing on the highest platform of the podium?

Mostly, though, if we’re honest, it’s the changes in our bodies that are in control of us, not the other way round. The fact of the matter is that not that long ago, my body was capable of run­ning 13.1 miles, of swimming 3,000 metres without complaint; not that long ago, my body was actually hosting another body, or the beginnings of one.

And now everything is different, and everything will be different again someday, and different again, and different again.

This excerpt has been lightly adapted for publication on Longreads.

* * *

Miranda Ward is a freelance writer, editor, and lecturer. Her memoir Adrift: Fieldnotes from Almost-Motherhood is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in the UK. She grew up on a cattle ranch in California and now lives in Oxford.

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Closure for a Sister Disappeared

Novelist Daniel Loedel recounts the story of his older half-sister Isabel, who was disappeared in Argentina during the Dirty War, “the period from 1976 to 1983 in which the U.S.-backed military dictatorship kidnapped and killed tens of thousands of supposed dissidents in the name of fighting off communism.” In this harrowing piece at The Atlantic, Loedel seeks closure for a half-sibling he never knew, having been born 10 years after her death.

Here we must pull back the curtain, listen to what’s behind the silence. First, the cultural reasons: Although Argentina’s military dictatorship technically lasted only seven years, from 1976 to 1983, they were the bloodiest in the nation’s history, and few except the junta leaders themselves were put in prison. For years, people continued to encounter their former torturers at bus stations, their rapists in cafés. For years, the armed forces maintained power at a distance, with complete immunity. For years, there were no formal funerals for the disappeared.

The report from the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team included 20 photos of my half sister’s bones—nearly as many photos as I had ever seen of Isabel herself.

The ones of the bones punctured by bullets—her rib, her pelvis, her humerus—did not move me as much as those of her skull. It was so old-looking, like one of those prehistoric craniums of Homo sapiens, the nose bashed in, some of the teeth missing, that earthen coloring. The skull had lain in a common grave, untouched for more than 30 years, before being taken to a lab, where it remained officially unidentified for about another 10. The sight of it destroyed me. In all the photos I had seen, Isabel looked incredibly young, with a cherubic beauty—round cheeks, light hair, searching blue eyes. She had been murdered and disappeared by the military dictatorship in Argentina in January 1978, when she was just 22. Staring at those photos of her skeleton in March 2018, I was eight years older than she ever had been. Never before had I quite grasped how much time she hadn’t gotten to live, to age and grow old, until I saw her bones, and realized they had been aging without the rest of her.

But no one told me what she was like, or who she’d been besides my sister. I gathered that she was rebellious, brave, idealistic. But the only attribute I comprehended with any sort of reality was: disappeared. My sister’s gone-ness, the silence around her, was so absolute that I barely dared to peek any further behind that curtain than my father did.

When he and I finally had an extended conversation about Isabel—whom I’d chosen somewhat flippantly as the subject for my college-application essay, as a way of conveying my own desire to do good in the world—I got the impression that she’d been killed for doing things like tagging walls and distributing political pamphlets. But Enrique later told me she was in fact one of the Dirty War’s rarer victims: She’d been in the armed resistance, living in hiding, with weapons in her home.

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

German flag fluttering front of Reichstag building. Berlin, Germany

This week, we’re sharing stories from Caitlin L. Chandler, Kelan Lyons, Daniel Loedel, John Colapinto, and Shay Castle.

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1. The Doctor vs. #MeToo

Caitlin L. Chandler | Columbia Journalism Review | January 19, 2021 | 25 minutes (6,432 words)

“How an HIV specialist in Germany is using media law to erase reporting of sexual abuse allegations against him.”

2. After killing his cousin, Clyde Meikle found purpose in prison through service. Now he’s asking to go home.

Kelan Lyons | Connecticut Mirror | January 16, 2021 | 20 minutes (5,342 words)

Incarceration led to a rebirth for Clyde Meikle.

3. My Sister Was Disappeared 43 Years Ago

Daniel Loedel | The Atlantic | January 17, 2021 | 14 minutes (3,508 words)

“A casualty of Argentina’s so-called Dirty War, Isabel haunted my childhood like a ghost. Then I started searching for her.”

4. The Day My Voice Broke: What an Injury Taught Me About the Power of Speech

John Colapinto | The Guardian | January 19, 2021 | 18 minutes (4,655 words)

“I had always known that the voice is a kind of aural fingerprint, something unique to every individual and from which listeners draw strong inferences. But in “speaking around” that injury, I was apparently projecting a new personality into the world: a more monotone, less enthusiastic, less engaged personality.”

5. Life and Death with a No-Good, Grumpy Dog

Shay Castle | Boulder Beat | January 2, 2021 | 14 minutes (3,688 words)

“The other thing people say when a pet dies is, ‘She had a good life.’ But did she?” Shay Castle pens a moving obituary for her dog, Sydney.

The Household Covid Budget

Full length of young female friends using smart phones while relaxing on bed at home during slumber party

Since the arrival of Covid-19 even popping to the shop for some milk has become a risk — and if you live with people, it is also a risk for them. In a shared housing situation figuring out what is acceptable behavior has become harder, and even the clearest advice “doesn’t address many of the subtle situations in which we find ourselves.” Gregory Barber asks in Wired what to do if you are a group of six people, including polyamorous members, living together in a house share? For such a group in San Francisco, the answer lay in maths — they came up with a calculator to work out risk, giving each other a points budget to use each week. 

Some activities were trickier to translate into points. First dates, in particular, would trigger a reversion to what Olsson calls a “one-off person-risk estimate.” The fact-finding missions these estimates required were a little strange and intrusive. The housemates wanted to know how often a new person shopped for groceries, who they lived with. Were they a gym rat? An ER doctor? Bachar found these interrogations uncomfortable. It felt as if she was implying that her friends were behaving badly. But others felt the questions were a reasonable concession to the pandemic. Dobro says that polyamory had prepared her for these awkward conversations around trade-offs. “We’re used to having conversations that are linked to risk,” she says. If you choose to be indoors with someone, the roommates agreed, make it count. Make it a deep conversation. Make it sex.

This was a house share better suited to calculating risk than most — Olsson works for a Silicon Valley foundation on projects that seek to mitigate the potentially catastrophic effects of advanced AI — and the other residents, to various degrees, are adherents to “rationalist modes of thinking.” The calculator this particular house came up with has now been used around the world — including by Bob Wachter, the chair of internal medicine at UC San Francisco and a frequent public commentator on all matters Covid-19.

Olsson called their risk points microcovids, in a tip of the hat to Howard, and one microcovid equaled a one-in-a-million chance of catching the virus. They pulled epidemiology papers from Google Scholar and gathered around the table in the hearth to go through the data. The first step was to impose a top-line risk budget that would anchor all of their calculations. They debated this question at length. Olsson floated the idea of 10,000 microcovids per person per year—the equivalent of a 1 percent chance of catching Covid. But what was the actual cost of 10,000 microcovids? By their estimations, for people their age, a 1 percent chance of getting sick was about as risky as driving, which was something they did without thinking. And besides, they figured, if other people who could stay home kept to a similar budget, the hospitals would not overflow. The virus might even disappear.

To some extent, governments around the world are using their version of Covid point calculators. It may seem strange that in some areas regulations mean we cannot meet friends while children are still going to school, but it is how risk has been allocated across a community to keep it at an acceptable level. 

This was the initial premise of shutdowns and social distancing and sheltering in place. Our common infection budget was tied to hospital capacity—the number of ICU beds and respirators and medical staff able to respond. For those who could work from home, the task was to contribute as little as possible to the overall sum. This left more points for those who couldn’t. Then, as the first infection curve began to flatten, the foundation of the societal budget seemed to shift. Yes, we still had to worry about public health, but that concern was being stretched by other considerations: business closures, job losses, some ideal of liberty, the desire to eat burritos.

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In Georgia, Citrus is Just Peachy

(Photo by Mahmut Serdar Alakus/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Climate change has created an opportunity for farmer Joe Franklin who grows citrus fruit — in Statesboro, Georgia, of all places. As James Murdock reports in this uplifting piece at The Bitter Southerner, Franklin has discovered that his farm is a temperate sweet spot to grow several citrus varieties from Satsuma oranges to Australian finger limes (considered the “caviar of citrus.”) Temperatures are warm enough to grow fruit yet too cold to allow the invasive psyllid — that has devastated Florida citrus crops — to thrive.

Joe Franklin believed he could grow citrus in Bulloch County, Georgia, based on his own experience of climate change. Without any research-based information on growing citrus in his climate zone, he took a risk and planted his first 200 trees in 2010. Today, his grove consists of more than 6,500 trees and 53 acres of citrus production.

As we stroll down a sunny open lane, I cannot help but notice the buzz of life around us. Bees bob on wildflower heads, which fill the gaps between trees. Thrashers scratch for worms and retreat to the woodline as we pass. Grasshoppers leap, sugar ants march, beetles flitter, an ecosystem works.

The hum of this grove stands in contrast to the silence of nearby cotton fields. Cotton, like most industrial crops, requires high levels of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and herbicides, chemicals which pollute ground and surface water, expose workers to dangerous toxins, and disrupt natural habitats. Cotton, as well as other crops, requires tilling and heavy irrigation, a combination which contributes to the structural collapse and erosion of soils.

This orchard, on the other hand, provides food and shelter for life. While it might exist as a result of climate change, it may also combat warming. University of Florida researchers found that 1 acre of citrus trees consume 23.3 tons of carbon dioxide and produce 16.7 tons of oxygen per year. Biologists have identified over 159 species that live in, and depend on, grove ecosystems. Large spaces between rows allow for natural small habitats to thrive. Rather than exposing soils with constant planting and tilling, the roots of trees hold the earth together.

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Shelved: Yoko Ono

(Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns — Getty Images)

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | January 2021 | 9 minutes (2,485 words)

Much is known about John Lennon’s self-described “Lost Weekend” — an 18-month separation from his wife Yoko Ono from the summer of 1973 to early 1975 — in which the former Beatle made records, produced records, drank, and took drugs to excess, and got kicked out of The Troubadour and various Los Angeles studios. Much less is known about how Ono spent her time back in New York.

In 1974, Ono recorded A Story at The Record Plant in New York. More than just another solo album, A Story was to be Ono’s first musical effort independent of her husband. Lennon produced or otherwise participated in all four of her previous recordings. Because of this, and the circumstances surrounding its creation, A Story is a statement of independence, a kind of personal manifesto. As a direct result of the couple’s reconciliation the following year, A Story was shelved at Ono’s direction. Most of its songs would resurface in later releases, sometimes in an entirely different emotional, as well as musical, context.

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Leap of Faith

Getty Images

Last July, an apartment in the Grenoble suburb of La Villeneuve caught on fire and quickly became an inescapable inferno of flames and smoke. Two young boys stood on the balcony, desperate to escape, but with no way out behind them. They had to jump. 

In her description for the BBC, Myriam Lahouari examines the seven men who stood on the ground ready to catch them. These men were strangers to the boys, and to each other, but shared in their bravery — catching a child flying through the air like a cannonball is no mean feat, and several received injuries requiring surgery in the attempt.

Ten-year-old Sofiane is much bigger and heavier than his brother. Mouhsine, a former security forces officer with the Royal Palace in Rabat, looks up and tries to estimate. About 40 kilos, he guesses. He knows the force will be much more difficult to absorb.

Guelord is to his right, strong enough, Mouhsine reckons, that between them they can lock together to brace against the impact. He grabs the 29-year-old’s arm.

The men are worried – they can’t see Sofiane. But he soon reappears through the thickening smoke. He climbs through the open window to sit on the sill. His feet dangle over the edge, and he looks down at the ground.

The men wait. It seems like an eternity but it’s only a few seconds. Finally, he levers himself over the windowsill, hangs, then lets go. 

His right foot strikes Mouhsine, his left foot Guelord. Both fall under the impact. Mouhsine screams in pain. The bone in his wrist looks deformed. Guelord realises he has broken his thumb. Walid has fractured his wrist, Lucas his hand. Bilal is thought to have broken a finger.  

But Sofiane is unharmed. “He landed directly into our arms,” says Walid.  Elyasse weeps in relief. “The two children were unscathed – it’s a miracle,” he reflects.

“We didn’t have much time to discuss and decide, everything was done by instinct,” adds Mouhsine.

The seven men are all from the local area, and their efforts, along with the dozens of other residents involved in the rescue effort, highlighted a real sense of community. Not many people realize that this camaraderie exists in La Villeneuve, an area with such a bad reputation that the address has become “so stigmatized that its young residents struggle to get a job.” Does this suburb deserve this image, or did “the catch” prove it to be something different? There is certainly a troubled history here — the men who saved the boys are all immigrants — on an estate that ten years previously erupted in violent rioting that provoked an anti-immigration speech by then French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

In the summer of 2010, a man from La Villeneuve was suspected of stealing from a local casino, and was killed in the police shoot-out that followed. His death triggered three nights of looting and arson in the area. A few days later Sarkozy made a hard-hitting and widely criticised security speech in Grenoble.

“We are seeing the consequences of 50 years of insufficiently controlled immigration, which have ended in the failure of integration,” he said. “We are so proud of our integration system. Perhaps we need to wake up? To see what it has produced. It worked. It doesn’t work any more.” 

He called for foreign-born residents threatening the police to be stripped of their citizenship.


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Rush Drummer Neil Peart: Master Student

Neil Peart (Photo by Clayton Call/Redferns — Getty Images)

The band Rush has a huge fan base at home in Canada and around the world, but despite having a big appreciation for their musicianship, I’ve never counted myself among them. (Please don’t @ me.) In reading Brian Hiatt‘s moving Rolling Stone retrospective in which family, friends, and bandmates remember the late Neil Peart, Rush’s drummer, I learned a lot that deepened my respect for the band, and for Peart in particular. A year ago, Peart died from glioblastoma, the same form of brain cancer that took another important Canadian musician, Gord Downie.

While Peart was a prolific reader who used his tour downtime to “fill the gaps in his education,” what struck me most was the student mindset he brought to the drums, despite being widely recognized as a virtuoso.

Before band rehearsals for Rush tours, he’d practice on his own for weeks to ensure he could replicate his parts. His forearms bulged with muscle; his huge hands were calloused. But he was also the self-educated intellect behind Rush’s singularly cerebral and philosophical lyrics, and the author of numerous books, specializing in memoir intertwined with motorcycle travelogues, all of it rendered in luminous detail.

Peart took constant notes, kept journals, sent emails that were more like Victorian-era correspondence, wrote pieces for drum magazines, and posted essays and book reviews on his website. Despite ending his formal education at age 17, he never stopped working toward a lifelong goal of reading “every great book ever written.” He tended to use friends’ birthdays as an excuse to send “a whole fucking story about his own life,” as Rush singer-bassist Geddy Lee puts it, with a laugh.

In May 1994, at the Power Station recording studio in New York, Peart gathered together great rock and jazz drummers, from Steve Gadd to Matt Sorum to Max Roach, for a tribute album he was producing for the great swing drummer Buddy Rich. Peart noticed one of the players, Steve Smith, had improved strikingly since the last time he had seen him, and learned that he studied with the jazz guru Freddie Gruber. In the year of his 42nd birthday, while he was already widely considered to be the greatest rock drummer alive, Peart sought out Gruber and started taking drum lessons. “What is a master but a master student?” Peart told Rolling Stone in 2012.

He was convinced that years of playing along with sequencers for the more synth-y songs in Rush’s Eighties catalog had stiffened his drumming, and he wanted to loosen back up. (For all of his efforts and mastery, there were some areas even Neil Peart couldn’t conquer: “To be honest, I am not sure that Neil ever fully ‘got’ the jazz high-hat thing,” Peter Erskine, who took over as Peart’s teacher in the 2000s, wrote affectionately.)

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