The Longreads Blog

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Shiprock Peak in New Mexico
Shiprock Peak in New Mexico. (Education Images / UIG via Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Rachel Monroe, Jianan Qian, Rene Ebersole, Adi Robertson, and Kyle Chayka.

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Who Needs Jurassic Park When We Have Liaoning, China

Visitors pose with their hands in a dinosaur's mouth at an exhibition in Shenyang, China.

In The Middle of Nowhere, China, 250 miles northeast of Beijing, a massive new museum is rising up from the dusty earth. It will house a portion of the findings from Liaoning, a region whose abundance of fossils is helping paleontologists understand dinosaurs’ relationship to birds in more detail — and making China the new paleontology hot spot. Richard Conniff has the full story for Smithsonian.

Nonetheless, there’s genuine fossil wealth being revealed in Liaoning. Many of the slabs have been transferred to Beijing, where preparators are getting them ready for display. One morning in the basement of the IVPP, I watched a young man stare through the dual lenses of a microscope as he worked an air-pressure tool along the length of a wing bone. The needle-pointed tip whined and flecks of stone flew out to the sides, gradually freeing bone from matrix. Nearby a woman used an old credit card to apply a tiny drop of 502 Super Glue to a break in a fossil, then went back to work with a needlelike pick in one hand and an air pump in the other. Eight preparators were working at that moment at different fossils. It was an assembly line, dedicated to opening old tombs and bringing whole empires of unimaginably strange and beautiful creatures almost back to life.

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To Hug, or Not to Hug?

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Emily Meg Weinstein | Longreads | April 2018 | 15 minutes (3,682 words)

There’s a thing that happens on blind internet dates. I’ve never liked it. In this brave new #MeToo world, where first we have said that we will not be raped, then we have said that we will not be beaten, and finally we have added that we only want to have sex that is “much wanted and excellent,” when we want to, with the people we desire, I feel that I can finally say — and do — something about it.

It’s the thing where men I’ve never met before, and am encountering for the first time on a blind internet date, ignore my outstretched hand, and tell me, “I’m a hugger,” before touching my body without my consent, invitation, or desire.

***

Single and desiring sex — desiring men, intimacy, friendship, conversation, connection, adventure, motherhood, family, and life partnership, too — I use the internet to seek these things, as I have used it to seek and find used cars, my current living situation, advice, information, and a variety of inanimate objects to purchase.

At best I am likely to be disappointed — by the strangeness of the stranger, the dullness of his personality, the rudeness of his remarks, the smallness of his mind. Or I might be beleaguered by his suggestion that since I am a writer, I help him with his writing; or that since I am a tutor, I help him with his résumé; or that since I am climber, I help him learn to climb; or that since I am a woman, I help him with his problems; or, just as often, by his suggestion that we retire to his home, after a single beer or coffee and less than an hour of conversation, to engage in a specific sexual practice or kink in which I have expressed no prior interest. Most often, and most of all, I am likely to be disappointed by my own lack of desire to know this man, or be known by him, either in conversation, or any other, more intimate way.

At worst, I have discovered, I am likely to be groped, and to face the reality that when women make dates we open ourselves up to a range of experiences, ranging from disappointment to dehumanization to violence.

A not insignificant percentage of my internet dates have touched me in intimate ways without my invitation or consent. Several men have placed their hands on my knee or inner thigh within the first half-hour of meeting me, while we sat sipping our first and only drink. They have grabbed or stroked or held my hand without my consent; they have squeezed my waist or shoulder when I have neither touched nor leaned toward them. These touches were not invited by anything other than my presence and proximity.

Until October 2017, I thought being touched in these ways was somehow either their right or my mistake. I met these men for drinks, mostly after 9 p.m. (I work, tutoring, most weeknights until 8.) I put my picture on a dating app. I wore purple mascara.

Even close male friends I considered woke feminists suggested that agreeing to an internet date carried with it some kind of “implied consent,” though to what, specifically, they couldn’t name.

I never thought my presence, proximity, picture, and purple mascara constituted a tacit invitation for these strangers to touch my knee or inner thigh, hand or arm, waist or shoulder. But even as I grew weary of being touched in these ways, I stopped allowing myself to believe it was wrong, or even preventable. I began to accept that it must be what I signed up for by agreeing to meet a stranger for an alcoholic beverage in a public place after dark. I began to dread these meetings.

Now, I only meet strangers in the afternoon, for coffee, so we can have more clarity and more daylight. I still wear the purple mascara.

But there is something else that happens, even in the afternoon, even just with coffee — even before the beverages are ordered, before we are sitting on the benches, chairs, or stools: I go to meet a man, a stranger, in the afternoon, for coffee. I find him at the appointed hour and location. I say hello. I say his name, question mark. I smile with curiosity, warmth, and somehow, still, a faint, feathery hope. I put my hand out, for a handshake.

But most men, when they see my outstretched hand, jovially announce, “I’m a hugger!” Then they reach out to touch my body, and pull it to theirs.

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How to (Almost) Get Away With Murder

Toronto, ON - JANUARY 31, 2014. Murder suspect Christopher Fattore is being escorted by Peel Regional Police to Peel Police airport division after his flight from Halifax arrived at Pearson shortly after 5 p.m. The flight was about an hour later than co-accused Melissa Merritt. (Chris So/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Three healthy people died at 3635 Pitch Pine Crescent in Mississauga, Ontario, in less than four years. In this in-depth multimedia piece at the Toronto Star, Amy Dempsey unravels how a series of missteps and errors at every phase of the investigation nearly allowed one couple to get away with murder — three times.

CALEB HARRISON was not the first person in his family to die at 3635 Pitch Pine Cres. He was not even the second. In April 2010, his 63-year-old mother, Bridget Harrison, was found dead at the bottom of the stairs leading to the second floor. Her body lay steps away from the powder room where one year earlier she had discovered her husband, Bill Harrison, cold and lifeless. His death at 64 was classified as natural until Bridget died under suspicious circumstances and a coroner updated his file, placing the deaths of husband and wife in the same category. “Undetermined.”

And now a third mysterious death. An entire family wiped out. How could this happen?

Peel Regional Police would come to believe that the same perpetrators were responsible for all three deaths — a theory that, if proven, meant that someone had gotten away with murder twice before, and that authorities had missed two homicides.

A criminal trial led to murder convictions in two of the three deaths, but it did not expose the series of missteps that led to this extraordinary investigative failure. Pieced together, records disclosed over four years of criminal proceedings tell a story of mistakes made at every juncture — by police, coroners and pathologists.

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England’s National Health Service Is Suffering Growing Pains

Peter Byrne/PA Wire URN:34998098

As T.S. Eliot said, “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.” Recently, much whimpering has come from the thousands of infirm people waiting in England’s overcrowded, understaffed hospitals. The sick lay on stretchers in hallways for entire days, or on the floor. Some wait for hours in the ambulances that brought them to the hospital.

For the London Review of Books, James Meek examines the crisis that has struck England’s National Health Service. Preparing for a surge of aging citizens with various ailments and a dependence on caretakers, NHS initiated a transition from an old hospital-based system to a new ambitious system centered around home health care. Unfortunately, the transition has not been smooth, and the future looks uncertain. The reform also has people asking what kind of country they want England to be: one of solidarity and publicly funded health care, or one of privately funded care where, like the United States, everyone fends for themselves.

A whistleblower told the Health Service Journal that ambulance delays in the east of England had led to the deaths of at least 19 patients and serious harm to 21 more. On 1 January, an 81-year-old woman in Clacton, Essex, dialed 999, complaining of chest pains. The ambulance took three hours and 45 minutes to arrive. It was too late. A few days later, a 52-year-old man in Norfolk collapsed with severe chest pain and vomiting. He was taken to the Norwich and Norfolk Hospital, but had to wait in the back of the ambulance that took him there for four and a half hours before being seen by a doctor inside the building. He was told to go home and collapsed again when he got there. Two ambulances sent to get him were diverted to other calls and by the time he returned to hospital, his life couldn’t be saved.

One doctor in a major A&E department in the east of England told me he’d witnessed short cuts taken by staff under pressure. For a time, ambulance crews had been allowed to leave patients in a hospital area that wasn’t technically A&E reception. One elderly patient with abdominal pain was diverted within the hospital from emergency medicine to a GP-style consultation, sent home, returned to the hospital a few hours later, and died. “What I’ve seen is the relentlessness of the shifts,” the doctor said. “The intensity. The feeling of higher and higher accountability. And then a lack of investment in staff. Asking them to do more and more and more, to cover more and more patients. There’s no give and take. The staff they should be investing in get more and more demoralized. You’re at risk of creating a Mid-Staffs environment where people don’t really know who they’re working for and start accepting risk that previously would have been deemed unacceptable. They stop reporting things because they reported them before and nothing happened. It’s creating a dangerous culture.” What should be done? “Stop decreasing capacity. Build capacity and build staffing. The party line is always ‘it doesn’t affect patient care.’ Of course it fucking does.”

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Maybe We’re the Circle

 

Megan Stielstra with Nicole Piasecki | Longreads | April 2018 | 18 minutes (4,936 words)

 

This is the third in a three-part series on gun violence.

In part one, long after the shooting at her old high school, Megan Stielstra worries about her father’s heart.

In part two, Nicole Piasecki writes a letter to the wife of the shooter who killed her father.

In part three, Megan and Nicole talk about the shooting that changed their lives, who owns the story, and what to do with fear. 

* * *

On December 16th, 1993 there was a shooting at my high school in Chelsea, Michigan. A sleepy little town west of Ann Arbor, the reporter called it. I was a freshman in college. I watched it unfold on the national news from a thousand miles away. This was years before Twitter, before we all had cell phones in our pockets. I couldn’t get through to anyone at home. I couldn’t find out what had happened. One fatality, said the reporter. A local school administrator.

My father was a local school administrator.

Hours later, I heard his voice on the phone. Anyone who has been through such waiting knows that planet of relief. But here’s the brutal truth: as I learned that my dad was alive, another girl learned that hers was not. Our superintendent and friend, Joe Piasecki, was killed that day. He had a daughter a year younger than me. Her name was Nicole.

I’ve thought about writing to her at least a hundred times.

“Here,” I would say. “Here is my heart.”

A few years ago I started working on an essay about my relationship with my dad. He lives on an island now in the Gulf of Alaska. He had heart problems while hunting in the mountains, and, after surgery, went right back up. I was angry at the risks I thought he was taking with his health. I was scared I would lose him and I didn’t know what to do with that fear, but I learned something in the writing about the choices we make to keep living. He’d quit his job and moved to Alaska not long after the shooting. He needed those miles. He needed that mountain. I get that now.

After I finished a draft, I looked Nicole up online. She’s a writer now, and a writing teacher, same as me. How do you start with someone you haven’t spoken with in 20 years? I wrote. I sent her the essay, asking if she wanted me to change anything, cut anything, leave it in a drawer. I’d never given anyone that kind of power over my work but in in this case it felt vital. It didn’t matter who I was as a writer. It mattered who I was as a person.
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Maybe We Can Make a Circle

 

Nicole Piasecki | Hippocampus Magazine | June 2017 | 13 minutes (3,410 words)

 

This is the second in a three-part series on gun violence.

In part one, long after the shooting at her old high school, Megan Stielstra worries about her father’s heart.

In part two, Nicole Piasecki writes a letter to the wife of the shooter who killed her father.

In part three, Megan and Nicole talk about the shooting that changed their lives, who owns the story, and what to do with fear. 

 

* * *

Dear Alice,

1. I’ve started to write this letter at least 20 times in as many years. Just imagine me sitting alone in my office surrounded by crumpled pieces of paper. Since you’re a writer yourself, I know you understand the difficulty of saying it just right. I have spent way too much time trying, and I need to find a way to finally be done with this.

2. When I first walked into your high school English class in Chelsea, Michigan, I saw a light in you that I wanted for myself. Your chestnut eyes were always welcoming, your smile always subtle, yet warm. In person, you were impossible to hate.

3. “The center is a point,” you said to our class during the daily segment on commonly misused phrases. “One centers on a point, not around one.”

4. I had never given much thought to my teachers’ lives outside of school. I knew you within the context of your 11th and 12th grade classes. I rarely even saw you in the hallways of Chelsea High. You were a fixture in that corner classroom, a woman who seemed to exist wholly there. I knew you as humble and intelligent, absent of the complexities and fallibility of the literary characters we discussed in class.

I never would have imagined that you were married to a man who kept a gun beneath his pillow.

5. I took Chemistry I with your husband in 1992, when I was a sophomore. I remember that he played loud rock music on the stereo while we did experiments. He wore that plaid and wool hunting jacket and drank coffee out of that small, plastic cup that doubled as a lid to his tall vacuum thermos. His hands sometimes shook when he lifted the cup to his lips. He kept his haggard ponytail pulled back with a thin rubber band. I remember the fluorescent classroom lights shining on his balding head as he lectured. During class, he stroked each side of his wide mustache with his thumb and first finger, while he waited near a wooden podium for a student to answer a question. Sometimes he started class at his instructor’s desk with a lab sink and used test tubes and chemical reactions to create sudden, violent bursts of flames. That was his signature method of making chemistry seem cool.

Though I interpreted his personality as arrogant and strange, I didn’t dislike him as much as I quietly despised the subject of chemistry. You should know that I have always struggled with solving complicated formulas.

6. My dad never told me things that a teenager didn’t need to know, and I never thought to ask him. He mostly kept his work life separate from home life. I didn’t know what a school superintendent did all day, and I never thought to ask him.

One night, though, when I was standing in our kitchen by the sliding glass door, my dad walked up to me with his hands in the pockets of his faded weekend jeans and said, “Hey Nick? When you went in early for chemistry help, did Mr. Leith ever act weird around you?”

I looked at my dad for a few seconds and wrinkled my brow. “What are you talking about?” I replied.

My dad dropped the subject without explanation, and I quickly forgot about it.

Even when it was just the two of us — your husband and I — in his chemistry lab, he had never said anything inappropriate to me. He just buzzed around the room while I sat in the middle, an island among a sea of empty desks. He answered my questions about the homework and continued preparing for the school day.

I wasn’t a pretty girl. I was self-conscious and tomboyish. Acne spotted my jaw line and chin. My chest was as flat as a boy’s. And I was the boss’s daughter.

You should know that I have always struggled with solving complicated formulas.

7. Earlier that year, the mother of a quiet, long-haired, senior girl called our home telephone at an unusually late hour. I answered the call in the kitchen. “Dad, it’s for you,” I said in the direction of the living room. He took the call in private.

8. One of my favorite photographs of my dad is the one where he’s sitting next to my hospital bed at St. Joe’s in Ypsilanti, right after my knee surgery during my senior year. He sat in that uncomfortable chair, staying day and night, as my left leg moved, bending and straightening in a Constant Passive Motion machine. In the photograph, he’s wearing jeans and a blue sweater with a tired, loyal smile on his face. He only stepped out of the room when the nurse arrived to help me use the bedpan. Back then I never saw his commitment to me as remarkable because it was all I had known.

9. Through high school it seemed that my teachers somehow belonged to me. “Mrs. Leith is my favorite teacher,” I often said, not even realizing the implication of the possessive determiner, the inherent egocentricity of the teenage mind that places everyone and everything in her life on a single orbit.

10. Surely you know all about the giddiness that your high school students felt on the Thursday before Christmas break. My energy that day felt boundless. I practically bounced from seventh period, across the grass, and straight to the outer window of my dad’s office. I knocked on his window, and he tilted it open. He was eating an ice cream sundae from McDonald’s out of a small, clear, plastic cup. He smiled his full-faced smile when he saw me, and I returned a grin. He reached out and dropped the car keys into my hand so I could drive to physical therapy. My mom planned to pick him up later so they could finish the Christmas shopping. As I turned to walk toward the parking lot, my dad said, “Have fun. See you later,” and tipped the window to close it.

At physical therapy, my friend Carey and I both rode Stairmasters, and we listened to the Lemonheads album, It’s a Shame about Ray, on the stereo. We moved our arms like we were dancing. The snow fell quietly outside; the cold windows had white paper snowflakes taped to them.

Mid-workout we overheard someone say there had been a shooting at Chelsea High School. We stepped off of the Stairmasters and huddled around an AM/FM radio to try to learn more. Our first instincts developed concern for our friends who may have been attending a sporting event in the school gymnasium. We imagined that the shooter must have been a kid from another school.

It never crossed our minds that the shooter could have been your husband or that the victim could have been my dad.

Carey and I changed into our street clothes without finishing our workout. We quietly puzzled over all the possible scenarios that could have led to gunfire in our small hometown, but we couldn’t add it up.

11. When the details of that afternoon — the day your husband killed my dad — slowly leaked out from police reports and school employees, I learned that your husband had been reprimanded for sexually harassing female students in the school hallways. I learned that he was on the verge of losing his job. I learned that your husband had stormed out of the grievance meeting with administrators not long after the school day had ended. I learned that you and your husband carpooled home from school together that day. I learned that you were with him and his anger for the 20 minutes it took you to drive home.

I learned that when you arrived home, your husband disappeared upstairs. He returned with a 9mm, semi-automatic pistol in his hand. He asserted, “He is going to die.”

I learned that your husband got back into the car alone and sped toward the school administration building where my dad and two others continued the meeting.

Twenty minutes.

That’s how long it took your husband to drive back to the high school.

I learned that you didn’t call the police whose small-town headquarters were only blocks from the school. You didn’t call the administration building to warn the three men whose lives were at stake, sitting ducks. Instead, you called the teachers’ union office in Ann Arbor, 20 minutes in the opposite direction.

Since nobody had cell phones then, my dad and the others in the room received no proper warning that your husband was coming back to the meeting with a gun and intent to kill.

Your husband wore a long trench coat with pockets of ammunition. He squealed his tires in the school parking lot. He told someone who approached him that he had “unfinished business” to attend to.

He walked into the administration building. Turned the corner into the doorway of the small office. He lifted the gun and pointed it, first, at my dad (Daddy, Dada, Pops).

My 47-year-old dad’s last words were: “Steve, you don’t have to do this.”

Your husband fired round after round. He killed my dad. He injured two others.

You didn’t call the police.

12. Why Alice? Why the fuck didn’t you call the police? Why? Why? Why?

13. After your husband shot my dad, a pocket of time existed where my dad was not gone, and it was still just a Thursday in December. I was still just a teenager, happily riding the Stairmaster at MedSport looking through icy windows with paper snowflakes taped to them. My brother, Brian, was still just a fresh-faced Private First Class, wrenching bolts on the engines of fleet vehicles at the Marine base in Okinawa, Japan. My mom was still a wife of 26 years and a middle school special education teacher at a neighboring school district.

You were still just my favorite high school teacher — the one who made me love words.

14. I can’t remember if it was you or I who initiated the meeting two days after your husband murdered my dad at our school. I hadn’t slept since I found out. I had been desperately pulling his photographs from sticky plastic pages of family photo albums and taping them to the bathroom mirrors: Dad sitting on a chaise lounge chair on the beach in Cancun the previous December; Dad sitting on a tree stump by Higgins Lake smoking a corn-cob pipe and holding a cup of morning coffee in his relaxed hand; Dad with his arm around my brother Brian at the Marine boot camp graduation ceremony at Camp Lejeune less than four months prior.

Still, I was worried about how you might be feeling. I was eager to believe in you — to affirm that we were both unknowing victims of your husband’s violent actions, to tell you that I didn’t blame you.

I sensed some hesitation from my mom, but she took me to meet you anyway. The story was still developing. I couldn’t imagine any scenario wherein you were not the hero. She could.

We learned that you had been staying with your friend and colleague, Pam. When we arrived at her house, Pam took our damp jackets, and I saw you sitting alone in a wingback chair at the far corner of the large room. You didn’t rise to greet us when we entered the Christmas-ready living room. Your face displayed a low, distant gaze. Your fingertips fidgeted with a pinch of fabric on the bottom of your sweater. I don’t know what kind of welcome I had expected.

Finally, you approached me. You said something like, “This is for you,” and your tone was solemn. You reached out and handed me a hardcover book and hand-written letter. Did the book have a tree on the cover? Do you remember the title?

I never read the book. I meant to. My head was too clouded with grief in those days to concentrate for long. I stuffed the book into a drawer in my bedroom and never looked at it again.

I did read your short letter. Your words were scrolled diagonally across the yellow legal paper that you’d folded like a business letter. The one thing I’ve always remembered about the letter was the part I understood the least. “Maybe we can make a circle someday,” it said.

I’ve been wanting to ask you for years: What does that mean?

15. I returned to school only three weeks after my dad died, often arriving late and unprepared, driving up to the school in the used Chevy Corsica that was still registered in his name. My other teachers offered me unspoken allowances for my unimpressive academic performance during the second half of my senior year. My government teacher passed my late, biased research paper that took a stance against the death penalty. I called capital punishment “an option that doesn’t warrant enough suffering.”

I was scheduled to take your English class, but the counselor intervened. Instead, I met with your student teacher in the library. I don’t remember her name, only that her severe psoriasis frightened and distracted me. I was afraid it was contagious, and I couldn’t bear any other complications in my life. We read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea as an independent study. I was just barely getting by. I remember how tired Santiago was while trying to reel that large Marlin into the boat. I supposed that I wouldn’t have had it in me to keep going like he did.

On the one-month anniversary of my dad’s death, I doodled “un mes” on the top of my worksheet in Spanish III, instead of listening to Señora’s lecture. I wanted someone to understand the dispassionate nature of time — that it kept moving forward, creating more and more space between my dad’s terminated life and my enduring one. It had been one month since your husband killed my father. But I couldn’t say it. I couldn’t scream or cry or even say that I was sinking, that I needed help. I couldn’t say that my 17 years of gentle experiences hadn’t come close to preparing me for this.

That final semester of high school, I don’t remember speaking to you. Surely I must have seen you in the hallways. Did you see me?

If I could forget about Hamlet, the Lilliputians, stream-of-consciousness writing, and all the prefixes and suffixes in the English language, maybe nothing would remind me of you.

16. It was confusing to see you in the courtroom, on the opposing side, sitting next to your mother-in-law, then taking the stand, making a case for your husband’s insanity defense, trying to get the jury to say, not guilty. The defense attorney led you through a detailed account of your husband’s bizarre actions. I remember the story of your husband killing your pet bird, how he broke its neck with his bare hands. You recounted a Christmas when he curled himself beneath a piano and sobbed like a baby. You explained his obsessions with guns — how he usually kept one within reach.

An aisle in the courtroom divided my family from his, yours. You never once looked across.

I often wonder why I expected some sort of loyalty from you. I was one of thousands of students who had filtered through that corner classroom, but you had made me feel like an insider.

17. I know exactly where I was when I learned that you lost your battle with cancer. I stood courtside in the main gymnasium at Adrian College. I wore my baggy, white shorts, a bulky knee brace, and jersey #25, covered with a bright gold warm-up top. My blonde hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and it was wispy on top from my sweat. I was a sophomore at Adrian and had just finished playing an NCAA, Division III basketball game. My mom came to watch my game because it was the second anniversary of the day your husband killed my dad, and anniversaries held a weakening force for us. It seemed that we should be together.

“I have some news,” Mom said. She had done the right thing by waiting until after the game was over to tell me.

“Alice died.”

“When?” I asked.

“Her funeral was today.”

18. You taught me to love the nuances of words. You were the first to introduce me to Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Swift. If I could forget about Hamlet, the Lilliputians, stream-of-consciousness writing, and all the prefixes and suffixes in the English language, maybe nothing would remind me of you, except there will always be circles.

19. Did you ever attend the National Council of Teachers of English convention? I have barely missed a year since I began my own career as an English teacher. You’re gone, so I don’t have to worry about running into you there, in an elevator going up or in the cafeteria at lunch. But I must admit that sometimes I still think I see you places. I see a modestly dressed woman with shoulder-length brown hair, and downward-pointing chestnut eyes, and my breath catches in my throat. Then I remember.

20. The last time I saw you in the flesh, I was a freshman at Adrian College and you were still an English teacher at Chelsea High School. In a moment of capriciousness, I drove the hour north on Michigan 52 and parked in a visitor space in front of the high school. The campus was quiet. All the students sat in class, which left me alone to walk the cement pathways.

I walked past the art building where I had taken half a dozen studio art classes in drawing, painting, pottery, and jewelry; past the science building where I had taken chemistry with your husband; past the building where I had taken Spanish every semester; past the administration building where I had spent so much time waiting for my dad so that we could ride home together, the same building where I saw him, an hour before he died, eating his ice cream sundae and smiling through the propped-open window.

It still seemed strange that life just continued on in that place. A different teacher stood in front of your husband’s old classroom, a new superintendent sat at a desk in my dad’s old office, new kids replaced those of us who had graduated.

I entered the English building and walked down the locker-encased hallway to your classroom.

I peeked into your classroom window, a thin, rectangular pane of glass. I saw you leaning on a desk just a few feet from the door, helping a small group of students. I stared through the window until you saw me. When you looked up, your body froze for a moment. I wonder what you were thinking then.

I hadn’t told anyone that I was coming, and still find it hard to explain my motivation to see you that day.

You looked weak, frail, and sick, a dimmer version of your former self. I remember that you stepped into the hallway and faced me. You looked me straight in the eyes. You wore an expression that I decoded as a combination of mercy and fear.

Even with your full attention, I couldn’t speak a single word. All I could do is stand in the hallway and look at you, standing three feet away.

I searched your face and eyes, and you searched mine, as if all the questions were written there. You never asked me why I had come. You seemed to understand, maybe more than I did.

How long did we stand there, saying nothing at all?

21. It never occurred to me that you would die from a cancer recurrence soon after that day we stood together in silence outside of your classroom door at Chelsea High School. I didn’t know our impromptu meeting would signify a final goodbye between teacher and student, woman and girl.

I always imagined that someday I would write you a letter, that someday you would hold it in your hands. That someday I would have the answers to all of the questions I never had the courage to ask.

* * *

Nicole Piasecki teaches undergraduate writing and rhetoric at the University of Colorado Denver. Her creative writing has been featured in HippocampusMotherwellBrevity Blog, Word Riot, and Gertrude Pressand is forthcoming in Literary Mama.

This essay originally appeared in Hippocampus Magazine.

Editor: Dana Snitzky

Here is My Heart

 

Megan Stielstra | An essay from the collection The Wrong Way To Save Your Life | Harper Perennial | August 2017 | 27 minutes (7,366 words)

 

This is the first in a three-part series on gun violence.

In part one, long after the shooting at her old high school, Megan Stielstra worries about her father’s heart.

In part two, Nicole Piasecki writes a letter to the wife of the shooter who killed her father.

In part three, Megan and Nicole talk about the shooting that changed their lives, who owns the story, and what to do with fear. 

 

* * *

Write your name here. Address, here. Here — check every box on this long list of disorders and diseases and conditions that are a part of your medical history, your parents’ medical history, your grandparents’ medical history and down the DNA. So much terrifying possibility. So much what if in our blood, our bones.

I checked two. Melanoma and —

“Heart disease?” my new doctor asked. I liked her immediately; her silver hair, her enviable shoes. Is that an appropriate thing to say to your doctor? I know we’re talking about my vagina but those heels are incredible. Later, I’d love her intelligence and, later still, her respect for my intelligence even when — especially when — I acted bonkers. She removed the weird, spotty growths from my arm and told me they weren’t cancer. She diagnosed my thyroid disorder and fought it like a dragon. She helped me understand my own body and demanded that I treat it with kindness, even when — especially when — I was stressed or exhausted or scared. It’s so easy to forget ourselves, to prioritize our own hearts second or tenth or not at all. Do you see yourself in that sentence? Are you, right this very moment, treating yourself less than? Cut that shit out, my doctor would say, except she’d say it in professional, even elegant doctorspeak and to her, I listen. Her, I trust. Every woman should have such an advocate and the fact that our patient/doctor relationship is a privilege as opposed to a right makes me want to set the walls on fire. Look up — see the wall in front of you? Imagine it in flames.

“Megan?” she said, and I pulled myself away from her shoes. “There’s a history of heart disease in your family?”

“Yes,” I said. “My dad.”
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One Coastal Scottish Village Learns the Real Meaning of Community

Usher, D./picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Although geographically small, the harbor looms large over the village of Portpatrick on Scotland’s rugged west coast. Once a thriving port, the rail line closed, the ferry moved elsewhere, and fisherman quit coming as much as they used to. After years of outside ownership, locals formed a trust to transfer ownership of the harbor back to the community. Then the real trouble began.

For Harper’s, Samanth Subramanian narrates the village’s struggle to save its harbor and identity through a once-obscure ownership model called “community shares.” Portpatrick’s is a story about the pitfalls of capitalism and the benefits of doing what’s best for your town’s quality of life, rather than for a few peoples’ bank accounts.

In the United Kingdom, the law enabling bencoms to issue withdrawable shares is more than a century old, but it was only in the 1990s that it was rediscovered, and only in the 2000s that enterprises began using it in any meaningful number. In England and then Scotland, as state funding dried up in the nerve-racking years after 2008, dozens of communities tried to fend for themselves, issuing shares to buy or create assets they deemed too important to do without. The government found it useful to encourage community share issues; a two-year research program culminated, in 2012, in the launch of the Community Shares Unit. Since 2012, 110 million pounds (some $150 million) have been plowed into 400 or so enterprises: pubs, farms, soccer clubs. In Hastings, in East Sussex, a bencom purchased the local pier. Strontian, up in the Scottish Highlands, plans to build itself a school; not far away, the community built a hydroelectric power plant. And Portpatrick, with its pastel houses under low, capricious skies — Portpatrick bought back its bunny-shaped harbor.

The community shares model is unfamiliar in the United States. For the most part, regulations have been too stringent to permit it, said Amy Cortese, who wrote the 2011 book Locavesting. But the law is changing slowly in such a way that it might, one day, accommodate bencoms. The JOBS Act, which President Obama signed into law in 2012, enabled equity crowdfunding, so that a grocery store might more simply sell shares in itself in an offering online. Beginning with Kansas in 2011, thirty-six states now allow small companies and co-ops to issue shares to local investors. But the benefit of these to the community is presumptive — a reliance on the theory that when a small business flourishes, the local economy feels new wind in its sails. For British bencoms, the impulse to assist the community is written into their genes; it defines the very function of these enterprises, and it organizes the way they spend their profits.

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How the NRA Uses Fear to Sell Guns in America

The "Wall of Guns" at the 2013 NRA Convention in Houston, Texas. (K Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

Crime levels are down in the United States, gun manufacturers are laying off workers and going bankrupt in the face of plunging sales and profits, yet that won’t stop the National Rifle Association from using fear to manipulate people into buying a gun.

At The New Republic, “military veteran, big game hunter, and gun owner” Elliott Woods goes undercover at the Shooting, Hunting, and Outdoor Trade Show in Las Vegas to learn about how the NRA marketing machine has gone into high gear to combat what they’re calling the “Trump Slump.”

Since the 1990s, the NRA has been enormously successful at stoking white Americans’ fears about their darker-skinned fellow citizens while simultaneously cultivating paranoia about left-wing politicians seeking to take away their guns. Barack Obama’s presidency was a watershed event in this dynamic. During his eight years in office, the NRA’s membership grew from three million to five million. The organization’s combined political spending during election cycles increased from about $6 million in 1998 to nearly $60 million in 2016. According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of gun owners who cite “protection” as their top reason for owning a gun grew from 26 percent in 1999 to 67 percent in 2017. During roughly the same period, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, firearms manufacturers increased their annual output of handguns more than fourfold, from 1.3 million to 5.6 million. Firearms imports also surged, from about 900,000 guns in 1999 to over five million in 2016.

Last September, the parent company of gunmaker Smith & Wesson released its first-quarter 2018 earnings report: Net sales were down 37.7 percent from the previous year, and shares had lost a quarter of their value. The company had to cut 200 jobs later that year. At Sturm Ruger, another major gunmaker, the picture was equally bleak. Profits were down by half, and net sales were down by more than 25 percent. In February, Remington, which manufactured the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle that Adam Lanza used in the Sandy Hook massacre, filed for bankruptcy. “Nothing was worse for the gun industry and the NRA than getting Trump elected,” Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist and author of Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist, said. “I’ve been very nervous for a long time over the [gun] issue being the province of the Republican Party, and now we see it coming to a head, because the NRA got in bed so hard with Trump.”

Viktøs, an apparel company based in Wisconsin, ran a billboard-length ad for flip-flops next to one of the escalators, with the tagline GEAR FOR YOUR DAILY GUNFIGHT. At one of the many booths promoting AR-15 accessories, I found a poster from a Florida-based custom AR-15 manufacturer called Spike’s Tactical that showed a squad of thickly muscled dudes in the foreground, backs to the viewer, dressed in jeans, black T-shirts, and ratty ball caps. Each of them wore body armor and carried some iteration of an AR-15. They stood in front of a concrete Jersey barrier, facing down a mob of ruffians wearing ski masks and bandannas who appeared to be burning down a city. None of the rioters carried firearms. The text at the top of the poster said: BERKELEY—PORTLAND—CHARLOTTESVILLE—BOSTON—>NOT TODAY ANTIFA.

I’d heard passing comments all week about the threats posed by Black Lives Matter and the so-called antifa, and I wondered how we had reached a point where conservative white Americans fantasize about taking to the streets, bristling with weapons, flanked by fellow vigilantes, prepared to violently confront other Americans who are exercising their First Amendment rights to assembly and free speech. It was one thing for the NRA and the gun industry to promote concealed carry of small pistols to defend against muggers and rapists, but it was another thing entirely to promote group vigilantism at a time when the country’s racial and political tensions are actually getting people killed.

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