The Longreads Blog

Desperately Seeking Daniel Day-Lewis

(John Shenton / Mirrorpix / Getty Images)

In 1989, during a performance of Hamlet at the National Theater, Daniel Day-Lewis walked off the stage. Like Hamlet, he claimed, he’d seen his father’s ghost. He never took to the stage again. With this week’s announcement that Day-Lewis is retiring from acting, it looks like his film days are over, too. And when Daniel Day-Lewis commits to something, he really commits.

Cue the public mourning for one of our most dedicated actors, a man as famous for avoiding the cameras as he is for standing in front of them. Day-Lewis embodied Acting with a capital A, embracing all of its finicky pretense. The end of his career may also be the end of an era for the great method actor — and the brilliant, if reluctant, male movie star.

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Exile in Guyville

For Interview magazine, singer-songwriter Liz Phair talks with author Elizabeth Wurtzel, whose first book, Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America, originally published in 1997, has just been re-released with a new afterword by the author.

The two touch on a variety of topics, from taking risks in your 20s, writing memoir vs. writing fiction (Phair herself is at work on a novel and a book of linked essays), music, motherhood, and the rise in sexism ostensibly ushered in with last year’s presidential election.

PHAIR: I think what we’re seeing politically is the result of people having developed atmospheres around them that make them untouchable, to the point where they don’t feel empathy for people who are in a more vulnerable state.

WURTZEL: I see sexism everywhere, and I think it has to do with that. I’ve begun to blame sexism for everything. I’ve become so overwhelmed by it that, even though I love Bob Dylan, I don’t want to listen to Bob Dylan, because I don’t want to listen to men anymore. I don’t care what men have to say about anything. I only want to pay attention to what women do. I only want to read women. I’ll tell you how intense my feelings about this are: You know The Handmaid’s Tale, the show, which is feminist in its nature? Because men are behind it, I don’t want to watch it. That is the extent to which I am so truly horrified by what is going on.

PHAIR: I have felt that same wave coming through. I’ll try to rent a movie, and every single title is for men, by men, about men, and I’m just like, “Where’s my world? Where’s my zone? Where has it gone?”

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Image courtesy of Mattel

This week, we’re sharing stories from Caity Weaver, Marisa Meltzer, Jiayang Fan, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, and Jeff Maysh.

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Why Quotas Still Don’t Work for Journalism

(Jonathan Torgovnik / Getty Images)

Imagine you work in an industry where accuracy and precision are hugely important. Your work is scrutinized by an ever-growing field of critics eager to catch any misstep, and if you get something wrong it has the potential to do people serious harm.

Your job often requires making dozens, if not hundreds of calls to obtain or even just verify a single fact. You spend your days wheedling information out of people who don’t want to provide it. You pore through mountains and mountains of documents which may only include one salient fact buried deep in a dense bog of data. Often these documents are difficult to find, or require the assistance of lawyers to access — lawyers you personally can’t afford and your higher ups may not want to pay for.

Now imagine this industry is failing at being a viable industry.  People in a different department than you are supposed to be responsible for that aspect — business, finances, the bottom line — but your department creates the product that is being sold. When “innovators” are brought in to come up with dynamic ideas, they pin them on you. There’s nothing to suggest the product is broken or failing, and everything to suggest that the means by which money is made from the product is the problem, but that doesn’t seem to matter to the innovators. They have figured out how to track how your product is consumed — do we have the metrics on that?  — and so they are going to use that information to suggest changes to how you do what you do.

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How Do You Name a Not-Quite-Fat Ken Doll?

Image courtesy of Mattel

The new lineup of Ken Dolls — seeking to represent a more multicultural, physically diverse populace (read: client base) — landed earlier this week to much fanfare. Some of the reactions were laudatory; some were less so (who can resist a man-bun joke, after all?). Caity Weaver, writing at GQ, got to follow the creative process leading to the new dolls’ release. Through her eyes, we learn how even an attempt to “celebrate diversity” often requires so much semantic and design acrobatics that it’s not very clear who the celebration is for, and who might still be excluded from it. Case in point: the tortured internal discussions at Mattel around what to call the “heavier” version of Barbie’s companion — after they’d already decided not to make him fat (“You don’t want to go too much,” as Ray Cavalluzzi, a Mattel sculptor, put it).

“With Barbie [it was] clear what was offensive with the curvier doll versus what wasn’t,” says Michelle Chidoni, a polished, deftly amiable executive from the global brand communications department. We are sitting in a capacious conference room surrounded by Barbies in fashions so cutting-edge that to describe them would be illegal. But I will reveal to the reader that a great multitude of the outfits are both fabulous and fun. “People [in focus groups] didn’t want to be called ‘plus-size.’ ‘Curvy’ was the clear winner. [But] where ‘curvy’ in the female world of fashion has become something that’s desirable and sexy and positive, the men’s fashion world has not gone there yet.”

Mattel’s constant aim when describing body types is to unearth a marketing term with “a neutral-to-positive association.” They don’t always find it on the first try. Or second. Or third. Initially, in their attempt to recapture the proud spirit of “curvy” for a male doll, the Barbie team borrowed a word from the boys’ clothing industry: “husky.” Focus-group reactions were disastrous.

“‘Husky’ just turned off every guy we talked to,” says Chidoni, shaking her head. “A lot were really traumatized by that—as a child, shopping in a husky section.” “Athletic” was rejected on the notion that athletes can have vastly different body types. “Brawny” didn’t fare much better. And so: “broad.”

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Reunification Will Have to Bridge the DMZ and Massive Technological Gaps

Part of the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea (photo by Korean Culture and Information Service, CC BY-SA 2.0).

Some physicians in South Korea are working to understand the differences in healthcare across the DMZ and health issues North Korean defectors face, in preparation for eventual reunification — not easy when the medical tools Northern Korean physicians have are so drastically outdated and when support for reunification is dropping in the South. At Undark, Sara Talpos talks to the doctors trying to bridge these gaps.

The practice of medicine is sharply different in the two countries. In North Korea, the focus is on infectious disease and physical trauma, often caused by coal-mining injuries. Doctors learn only the basics of other diseases because specialized medicines and equipment — chemotherapy for cancer, for example — simply aren’t available.

Ko laughs when I tell him I’ve heard North Korean X-ray images are so poor that a South Korean doctor wouldn’t be able to understand them. “Yes, that’s true,” he says, sipping a cup of coffee. We’re meeting at Steff Hotdog, a fast-food restaurant located, somewhat improbably, inside Anam Hospital. “That’s because they don’t have X-ray film.” Instead, the doctor takes the patient into a dark room, where the patient stands between the X-ray machine and a translucent screen. Ko borrows my pen to illustrate. His doctor sits hunched over on a stool like Rodin’s “The Thinker.”

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How One Porn Mogul Made His Fortune and Ruined Everything

Despite riches, power, and respect, some people are never satisfied. A poor North Carolina kid named Michael Thevis turned paperback smut and peep show machines into a million-dollar empire, and he shaped America’s porn industry right as laws started to relax around the ownership and production of sexually explicit material. When Thevis crossed into arson, threats, and murder, he brought himself down for good. At The Daily Beast, crime journalist Jeff Maysh gets access to Thevis’ diaries and letters to tell the full story of “The Scarface of Sex” for the first time.

Rival peep machine manufacturers emerged, included those run by Leon and Mike Sokolic, Art Sanders, and Bill Walters. Before now, the most Thevis had ever done to intimidate a rival was let off a stink bomb at a store in Baltimore. Not all competitors rolled over so easily. Nat Bailen, who manufactured a peep show machine for cartoons, started to sell his units to sex-shop owners who used them for porn. In 1970, a customer named Harry Mooney in Michigan asked to lease 50 machines from Thevis—an order so large he couldn’t meet it in time. Instead, Mooney bought his machines outright from Nat Bailen. As he would do so often, Thevis turned to Underhill.

“Something,” Thevis told him, “has to be done with Bailen.”

On April 26, 1970, Underhill drove from Atlanta to Louisville in his yellow station wagon, where he met a paid accomplice, Clifford “Sam” Wilson. In the dead of night, they broke into Bailen’s factory, carrying burglary tools and five-gallon containers of gasoline. They built a bonfire using his furniture and paperwork. When Wilson found some paint cans, he told Underhill, “Let’s really screw this guy,” and poured paint over the desks and carpets. There were four-foot-tall flames licking at the windows by the time the goons fled. Reeking of gasoline, Underhill found a pay phone at the Kentucky Turnpike, and called Thevis at the Central Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles.

“Veni vidi vici,” Underhill said—I came, I saw, I conquered.

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Immoral or Merciful? Canadian Doctors Divided on Medically Assisted Death

(Photo by Valerie WINCKLER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Before assisted suicide was legal in Canada, there was a secret society devoted to helping Canadians end their lives on their own terms. As Nicholas Hune-Brown reports at Toronto Life, even though medically assisted death has been legal in Canada for a year, it remains controversial. Although some palliative care doctors — who believe in providing physical and psychological comforts to patients, but not in hastening death — are vehemently opposed to what they view as an immoral act, other doctors are slowly coming to terms with the patient’s new right to die in cases where death is “reasonably foreseeable.”

In April 2016, four months after his diagnosis, Jack went to the hospital with pneumonia. When he got out two weeks later, he needed a feeding tube and a suction machine for his saliva. He could no longer look after himself, so he moved in with April, her partner, Robert, and their two-year-old daughter, in Smiths Falls, Ontario. The man who had always been a blur of activity suddenly needed his daughter to help him out of bed. The professional smooth talker had trouble speaking, a single sentence sometimes stretching out over excruciating minutes as he struggled for breath. On more than one night, he’d begin to choke, and April would have to call an ambulance to help clear the mucus building up in his throat, watching helplessly as a look of utter horror spread across her father’s face. When she took him to the bathroom each morning, he would say the same thing: “I want to die.”

Since Jack Poelstra, Gerald Ashe has overseen nine more deaths. He’s been there as Canadian families have invented new rituals for a new way of dying—reading poetry and listening to favourite pieces of music, watching as family members have taken turns giving their final hugs and kisses. When I asked Ashe if he was ever upset by the process, if it ever felt like a burden, he thought for a moment. “You know, I think I’m a pretty sensitive guy,” he began. “But I don’t feel upset about it.” The patients had been so sure, so appreciative. The families were so relieved. To Ashe, it was clear that it was something that needed to be done, and he was glad that he was able to do it with care and empathy.

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Roxane Gay on the Final Frontier: Acceptance for Every Female Body

Brandon Williams/Getty Images

At Elle, Marisa Meltzer profiles Roxane Gay as the prolific author prepares to go on tour to support Hunger, a book she calls “by far the hardest book I’ve ever had to write.” In it, Gay reflects on what it’s like to live in a world that does not accommodate her body and how she “turned to food for numbness and protection” after being gang raped as a child.

“Hunger is not a story of triumph. Rather, it tackles the question of what it’s really like to live in a fat body—”and not Lane Bryant fat,” Gay says. “What is it like to be fat-fat? We don’t see that narrative.”

If there’s a through line to her writing, she says it’s exposing the unreasonable standards to which women are held, both by society and by each other, a reality Gay finds exhausting. “I think that I write about women’s lives in ways that allow people to be seen, and allow people to think about the world they are living in and the politics of this world without feeling like they are being judged or shamed for being imperfect,” she says.

The female body, in all shapes, Gay says, is a “final frontier, along with disability, that people can openly mock and demean and get away with treating with utter disregard.” The only possible solution she sees is “a huge amount of empathy. Kindness,” she says. “And people minding their own goddamn business.” Whether or not most readers relate to the statistics of Gay’s body, few will be able to finish her book without gaining a deeper understanding of her reality. “I don’t have a fantasy of a thin woman waiting to come out,” Gay says. “My fantasy would be to be able to walk down the street without being yelled at by someone. To walk through an airport without having someone point at me.” This is the true shock of Gay’s book—it is not the revelation of her actual weight, though how many of us, of any shape or size, would have the guts to put that on paper? It is the far deeper reveal: that a woman so accomplished, so seemingly fierce—in some circles, so revered—has been forced to “fantasize” about something so fundamental. “I don’t delude myself into thinking that if and when I reach [a certain] size, all my problems will be gone. Many of them would be different. At least I’d feel better in my body, better leaving my house,” she says. “My dreams have really become sad at this point—human dignity dreams.”

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Two-And-a-Half Minutes to Midnight: Our Fear of Nukes and How We Got Here

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

 

Elizabeth King | Longreads | June 2017 | 10 minutes (2645 words)

 

Bug-out bags, self-designed evacuation plans, stockpiles in the garage. Most Americans born in or after the 1970s have probably never thought much about these items. But ever since the Doomsday Clock, which measures how close the world is to a major anthropogenic disaster, was introduced after World War II, the public has kept a nervous eye on the likelihood of nuclear wars. With the cable news cycle’s predictable turn toward semi-obsessive coverage of North Korea and President Trump’s responses to the small nation’s nuclear program, fear has become a fixture in many households. Understandably so, as the Doomsday Clock now indicates the world is the closest it has been to disaster since 1953.

The urge to protect ourselves and control our fate is natural, but there’s no need to let nuclear angst run our lives. Through thoughtful examination of our nation’s history with nuclear weapons and the anxiety they bring, we can better understand these fears and work to address them.

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