The Longreads Blog

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

12/2/1967-Miami, FL- Candace Mossler and her nephew, Melvin Lane Powers, smile as they show off an engagement ring given her by Powers. The couple announced their plans to be married 12/2. They were acquitted of murdering Candace's multi-millionaire husband Jacques Mossler. (Getty Images)

Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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1. The Notorious Mrs. Mossler

Skip Hollandsworth | Texas Monthly | November 17, 2021 | 12,033 words

Candace Mossler, mother of six, was a Houston socialite who lived in a mansion with a steam-heated pool. She loved to throw lavish parties. Charm and philanthropy were the super powers Mossler used to divert attention from rumours of a double life that included sex work, running her own escort service, and a clandestine affair with Mel Powers, her then 22-year-old nephew. The affair was heinous enough, but did Mossler conspire to commit murder — more than once? For this surreal whodunnit — complete with a salacious sideshow trial — Skip Hollandsworth pored over pages of old news clips, court records, and interviewed aging people in Mossler’s orbit to attempt to find out. “Rarely had circumstances converged to produce such a sensational story, one that, as the Houston Chronicle put it, was teeming with ‘love, heat, greed, savage passion, intrigue, incest and perversion.’” —KS

2. Marilyn Manson: The Monster Hiding in Plain Sight

Kory Grow and Jason Newman | Rolling Stone | November 14, 2021 | 9,777 words

This is a piece about Brian Warner, aka Marilyn Manson, a pseudonym chosen to combine the names of Marilyn Monroe and Charles Manson. In naming himself “after a serial killer and a woman who had a very tragic life,” Warner gave us a big clue into his psyche — but it was only this year that women began naming him as an abuser, unflinchingly documented here by Kory Grow and Jason Newman. For decades, the media “has amplified and glamorized his voice — including Rolling Stone, which put him on the cover in 1997 with the headline ‘Sympathy for the Devil.’” But at some point, Warner “got caught in a state of arrested development and embraced ‘Marilyn Manson’ as a lifestyle.” This is a detailed account of the depravity of that life, and an honest appraisal of Warner’s character. —CW

3. Inside Jane Campion’s Cinema of Tenderness and Brutality

Jordan Kisner | The New York Times Magazine | November 16, 2021 | 4,900 words

When I saw Jane Campion’s last movie, I cried so fiercely and for so long that, by the time my now-husband guided me out of the theater, the lights had been on for a solid 10 minutes and teenaged employees in red vests had finished sweeping popcorn from the aisles. In her profile of Campion, Jordan Kisner captures what made me feel those Big Feelings: The director’s singular ability to portray cruelty and warmth, dark and light in equal measure, not with choreographed action, but with the sheer, simple force of human presence. Kisner’s story is an intimate conversation with a once-in-a-generation artist and a close, careful reading of her oeuvre. I enjoyed it so much I could cry. —SD

4. To Catch a Turtle Thief

Clare Fieseler | The Walrus | November 12, 2021 | 3,490 words

In 2014, 11 baby diamondback terrapin turtles were found inside a FedEx package at the Calgary International Airport. This discovery eventually led authorities to Dave Sommers, a poacher who had trafficked thousands of hatchlings within the U.S. and abroad, to places like Canada, Mexico, and China where the prized turtle can sell for much more. ($24,000 for one with a fancy shell pattern, in fact!) This wild, cinematic story, with excellent reporting from Clare Fieseler, is a fascinating dive inside an international wildlife smuggling operation, and a look at how one New Jersey man’s “weird obsession” turned dark. —CLR

5. The Bored Apes take Manhattan

Jessica Klein | Input | November 16, 2021 | 3,444 words

Some subculture pieces bring you inside a community you never knew existed. Others offer a glimpse into a community you’ve heard of but had little sense of the nuances contained therein. And still others leave you with a sense of having attended a convention of emperors thrilled with their new clothes. That’s the vibe of Jessica Klein’s ridealong through Apefest, a gathering of people whose defining characteristic is owning a verifiable jpeg of a cartoon simian. (If you’ve been wondering what the hell an NFT is, please consult the previous sentence.) With each subsequent bearded white thirtysomething millionaire-on-paper you meet, your sense only intensifies that you’re witnessing the newest iteration of Beanie Babies — just one that boasts fans like Jimmy Fallon, and features Neil Strauss writing a memoir of a make-believe ape named Jenkins. Klein knows what she’s got here, and assiduously avoids the impulse to snark, instead letting dudes named Digging4Doge do the talking. Thankfully, they’re more than willing to do so. Enjoy your glimpse now, before the apes get so bored they depreciate precipitously and these crypto bros have to find a new reason to fist-bump. —PR

‘We Are Alive’: Six Longreads About Music

Shovels & Rope in 2019. Photo by Krista Stevens.

By Krista Stevens

My earliest memories involve music. At first, we had an ancient turntable, a penny taped to its arm to prevent it from skipping. My dad loved Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Elvis. My mom was into Simon & Garfunkel and Jim Reeves, a guy I thought profoundly uncool in his knitted cardigan. Later, I remember waking up early on a Saturday morning to watch cartoons, the Creedence Clearwater Revival 8-Track still kathunking along, blaring “Bad Moon Rising” and “Down on the Corner” hours after my parents had gone to bed following a night of beers and tunes. It took both hands for me to yank that tape out so I could hear the TV. Later still, I recall dance parties at my auntie’s house. With the dining room table pushed to the side of the room, adults and kids alike would be twistin’ the night away along with Sam Cooke. It cost almost nothing; it was fun we could afford. Everyone was happy. I still know all the words to all those songs.

Let me tell you ‘bout a place
Somewhere up a New York way
Where the people are so gay
Twistin’ the night away

Later in life I learned to play guitar and bass, forever chasing that singular thrill of being immersed in music I love. I wanted to get to know it more deeply, from the inside. I’m forever obsessed with all things musical: artists, their inspiration, their craft, their dedication, their instruments, their foibles. When a piece appears on any of these topics, I can’t resist. So here, for the love of it, are six pieces related to music.

Here they have a lot of fun
Puttin’ trouble on the run
Man, you find the old and young
Twistin’ the night away

 

Trigger: The Life of Willie Nelson’s Guitar (Michael Hall, Texas Monthly, December 2012)

For 52 years, Willie Nelson has played the same instrument: A 1969 Martin N-20 classical guitar called Trigger. In this masterful profile, Nelson and Trigger share equal billing as Hall recounts the musician’s career and the meticulous maintenance that keeps Trigger in tune, after more than five decades and thousands of performances.

Erlewine looks forward to Trigger’s semiannual physicals. He oils the bridge and cleans the fretboard, the wood of which is so eroded it looks like waves between the frets. Then comes the lacquering. The mottled area just above the sound hole shows the effects of fifty coats of lacquer applied over 35 years. The darker parts are colored by dirt and dead skin that can’t be removed; the lighter parts are where Willie has dug deep into the spruce. Erlewine carefully rubs the gouges in the wood that run parallel to the strings between the bridge and the sound hole, a sign of the force with which Willie plays.

Like A Shovel and A Rope (Michael Ramsey, Oxford American, November 2019)

In the fall of 2019, we attended a small music festival outside of Athens, Georgia, to see Shovels & Rope, a husband and wife duo who handle all their own guitar, vocals, keys, and percussion, trading duties often during the show. When he’s singing and playing guitar, she’s behind the kit with a stick in one hand and a shaker in the other, singing harmony. When you’re standing there, in front of the stage, and the music envelopes you, it’s hard to believe that there are only two people up there making that magic happen in such an intimate performance. Ramsey’s piece takes you backstage and introduces you to Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent in an ethereal braided essay that intersperses his personal experiences along with the story of the duo’s musical career.

Most rock songs, you imagine either that you’re the singer or that you’re the one being sung to; with Shovels & Rope, you imagine the gate is open and the backyard is full and you’re singing along.

Many of their best songs have a deliberateness on the topic of how to build a life, both wistful and hard-edged. “Making something out of nothing with a scratch and a hope,” they sing on “Birmingham,” their origin-myth anthem, “two old guitars like a shovel and a rope.”

The Spirit of Neil Peart (Brian Hiatt, Rolling Stone, January, 2021)

At Rolling Stone, Brian Hiatt wrote a loving tribute to Neil Peart, the late drummer for the Canadian band Rush, published one year after Peart’s death from brain cancer. What I loved about Hiatt’s piece is that despite the fact that I have never been a fan of Rush, I came away with huge admiration for Peart as a music professional. Here’s a highly acclaimed drummer with decades of experience who remained a student at heart, always wanting to improve as a musician.

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.

Meet the Revolutionary Women Strumming Their Way Into the World of Flamenco Guitar (Lavinia Spalding, AFAR, June 2019)

As a music student, every new song I learn, every new technique earned, is a small victory. (I’m looking at you, groovy and challenging bass line to Taj Mahal’s “Diving Duck Blues.”) I can’t imagine flying across the world to show up at a master’s door hoping to gain a particular kind of instruction, but that’s precisely what Lavinia Spalding did when she traveled to Spain to become a tocaora, a female flamenco guitarist. Dedicated music students will be able to identify with the sweetness of improvement, often evidenced by the physical discomfort that accompanies it.

I’ve been in Spain only two days, and already my fingers hurt. It’s a prickly, high-pitched sting, like when a fallen-asleep limb returns to life. The sensation delights me. It means I’m doing something right.

Living With Dolly Parton (Jessica Wilkerson, Longreads, October 2018)

How do you question a living legend? With grace, care, and deep respect, as it turns out. For Longreads, Jessica Wilkerson took a closer look at the business interests of singer, songwriter, musician, and philanthropist Dolly Parton. There’s no question that Dolly’s work for literacy and science has done a lot of good. But, could Dolly do better? Wilkerson thinks so.

The love for Dolly that I learned was one without doubt. To question one’s devotion to Dolly Parton is to turn the world upside-down. Indeed, it is to question one’s investment in, and rehearsals of, mythologies of whiteness, which are rarely spoken, rarely noted as white. “Whiteness is an orientation that puts certain things within reach,” Sara Ahmed writes. Dolly Parton was crucial to my own orientation.

Because my grandma is right — inquiry is seductive — I needed to question Dolly Parton’s meaning in my and our lives.

I needed to confront Dolly Parton’s blinding, dazzling whiteness.

We Are Alive (David Remnick, The New Yorker, July 2012)

The first time I saw Bruce Springsteen live was on October 31st, 1992 at the Target Center in Minneapolis, about 20 years before David Remnick would write this stunning profile. It was a momentous evening — they wheeled Bruce out in a coffin perched on a dolly, and he popped out to start the show with “Spirits in the Night.” It was the first of many performances I’d see in Minneapolis, Fargo, and even Milwaukee, thanks to being married to a Bruce fanatic. I appreciate Springsteen’s music, but I’m not a massive fan, until I get to the show. Anyone who loves music knows it has the power to move them, be it to tears, to sing along, or to dance. At Springsteen shows, I’ve felt my heart and spirit soar when the Fargodome roof almost blew off during the show closer “Light of Day.” I’ve had the hair stand up on the back of my neck with the opening strains of “The Rising,” an experience that was so intense it continues to this day, happening whenever the song comes on the radio. What I love about Remnick’s profile is that he makes Bruce seem like a regular person, despite being someone whose superpower is conjuring life-altering feeling and emotion in even the most casual fans. He’s a guy whose job happens to be running the E Street Band, the Boss who pays their salaries and struggles at times too — both creatively and with his mental health. A man who, even though it doesn’t seem like it sometimes, is one of us.

After all these years onstage, he can stand back from his performances with an analytic remove. “You’re the shaman, a little bit, you’re leading the congregation,” he told me. “But you are the same as everybody else in the sense that your troubles are the same, your problems are the same, you’ve got your blessings, you’ve got your sins, you’ve got the things you can do well, you’ve got the things you fuck up all the time. And so you’re a conduit. There was a series of elements in your life—some that were blessings, and some that were just chaotic curses—that set fire to you in a certain way.”

The Professor

Illustration by Carolyn Wells.

Irina Dumitrescu | Longreads | November 2021 | 3,065 words (17 minutes)

It is the fall of my senior year and I am at a pub with the professor and a group of his students. At one point I look down and notice his hand is on my leg.

“I’m sorry, my hand is on your leg,” he says with a defiant look. “Oh wait, I’m not sorry.”

I am speechless but I give him my firmest glare. He removes his hand and never does it again. That’s that, I think then, I think so many times later. The sexual harassment didn’t work on me. I dealt with it. It left no mark.

At some point that evening, when the professor is out of earshot, one of the students in the master’s program confides in a low voice:

“I don’t really want to be here. But I want a reference letter from him.”

The professor is famous, a genius, or what counts for one in our corner of the world. Everyone knows that his letters open doors to the best PhD programs. I make sure never to ask him for a reference letter. I can’t say why yet, but even then I know. I don’t want to owe him.

That’s that, I think then, I think so many times later. The sexual harassment didn’t work on me. I dealt with it. It left no mark.

***

My father is my mother’s professor at the polytechnic. My father is a brilliant engineer, so brilliant his own professors cannot bear to part with him. They keep him to teach. My mother is a so-so student who fails her first university entrance exam and doesn’t much care for engineering anyway. She looks like Cleopatra though, so he pursues. She likes charming young men who play the guitar, not older lecturers with glasses and superiority complexes. But her family thinks he is a good idea. Solid. Respectable job. He brings her flowers. He brings her parents flowers.

When my mother has appendicitis, she misses three weeks of coursework, and my father sees his opportunity. He will tutor her. He teaches the material, after all. They fall in love and the rest is history.

This is the love story I grow up with, the great romance.

***

The professor can be very supportive. He lets me sit in on his classes, he corrects my Latin over pints of beer. He calls me clever. I come to feel I owe him anyway. After all, his knowledge is more important to me than a letter, a more valuable gift. He reminds me frequently of his early academic achievements, of his many discoveries and books.

The knowledge is precious, and so is the feeling of being in. Allowed in the inner sanctum. Chosen.

But when it comes to writing a paper for him, I can’t even write the first word. None of it is good enough. None of it could be good enough. I am not a genius. I am starting too late. My head does not work the same way. I write nothing and he puts in a grade and I graduate. A year later I send him the paper I owe him from a different country. I do not know if it really earns the A it had been granted in advance.

***

My father is driving me home from the university one evening. I am upset, and he is comforting me by telling me that I can deal with anything. After all, I am like him. I have inherited his doggedness.

“When we want something, we don’t give up until we get it.”

“Is that how you got mom?”

He smiles, satisfied. “Yes.”

“You know, if you had done here what you did there, you would have lost your job.”

“I would have lost my job there too, if she had complained.”

***

The professor quietly disapproves of my father. We spend a lot of time drinking, and when the other students go home I confide in him. Not much, but just enough for him to guess that something is not right. I resent this recognition. I know my father’s faults, and they are for me to be angry over, not for someone else to take seriously.

At moments I have the sly feeling the professor is trying to slip into the paternal role himself. I do not want this either. One father is more than enough.


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When I decide to go away for graduate school, the professor interprets it as my going to work with another scholar. I think I am opting for the opportunities of a prestigious university in another country. He sees it as choosing another mentor. Choosing her over him.

***

My father has my life planned out. I will study medicine, become a doctor, marry, and have kids. I will buy a house in the same city, and it will be large enough for my parents to move in with us. He will spend his golden years gardening in our backyard. I suppose it will be up to my mother, who has not been consulted on this plan, to help with the theoretical grandchildren.

When I get the letter from Yale, everyone is proud. He is too. Still, he can’t help adding one footnote.

“Just think,” he says, “you could have gone to medical school.”

“And lived at home?”

“Yes!” he says, a little too cheerfully.

***

The professor pays for the beer and the students drink it. It is an act of generosity to our thin pocketbooks. In the old epics, the lord gives his followers mead. In return, they promise to die for him in battle. The price of loyalty is a drink.

The service here is not so extreme. No one dies. Instead, there are jokes. The shy student is made fun of for being shy. The handsome one is made fun of for being good-looking. We hear dirty stories about the other faculty. Who has affairs. Who got a racy postcard from a student. Who was caught fucking in the department. When there is nothing salacious to say, we hear which colleague is silly, or desperate, or stupid.

We feel awfully lucky to be around this table, being made fun of for shyness, good looks.

***

My father does not take it well when my mother changes jobs. Before, she brought the harder assignments home for his help. It just made sense: Even long after he was no longer her professor, he was still the better engineer. But now she finds a career she likes, and is good at. He spends a lot of time concerned.

I have been trying to work out what a student learns when a teacher makes a pass, gives chase, falls in love. I read think pieces and they say she learns her only value is sexual. That must be true, often, but it does not quite fit my story here, the story that made me. What am I to think of a teacher who idealizes his pupil, puts years into her improvement, who sees her as his project to build up and refine?

What if the relationship is not erotic at its core, but parental? What if that is more frightening? The teacher desires to make the student in his own image. We know how that creation story goes. The copy is never as good as the original. The point of a copy is to remind us how much better, and irreplaceable, the original is.

In my first year of graduate school I read Shaw’s Pygmalion, the story of a professor of phonetics who teaches a common flower girl to speak like a duchess. I have always loved the myth of the artist entranced with his own work, but this play brings home its cruelty, its impossibility. No matter how much Eliza Doolittle grows under Henry Higgins’ mentorship, she remains an object to him, worth only the five pounds he paid her father for her. She learns to speak, but he never learns to listen.

I manage to hold in my tears until I reach the classroom door.

***

I am writing a book about complicated pedagogical relationships. About how fear and pain can motivate, or destroy. I am writing about desire too, that inconvenient spark between teachers and students anyone from Socrates to Heloise would have known too well. The book lets me pretend that I am writing about history and literature, not about myself or my parents. The book takes many years. I am slow, often blocked. Even after years of thinking about this topic, there are some words I cannot find. When I do find words, they fall short. What is it about words that must always fail?

What is it about words that must always fail?

***

I am arguing with my father. It is summer, and I am to leave for graduate school in two weeks. I am desperately trying to get everything ready. My mother has given me her old car, a sweet two-door sedan with manual everything and no air conditioning. The car has been smoked in, though, so it needs a proper cleaning. But I am working full time. And my mother is working full time.

The person who is not working full time is my father.

What my father is doing is sitting in the basement and playing computer solitaire for hours on end. Listening to classical music. Cooking up ways to make money that can’t be spoiled by insulting your boss.

I call him from my office desk and ask him if he will take the car in to be cleaned professionally. I will pay, but I don’t have the time to do it myself. He tells me it is a waste of money. I tell him it will be a waste of my money. The argument goes on, as he explains to me why I should not want this basic thing that I want.

I am often angry with my father, but this fury is new. It is in my chest, hot and bulging, as though it might choke my throat from the inside, as though it might explode through the top of my head and melt the roof. I yell at him and slam the phone down, and in that second the lights go out. I am certain that it was my rage that did it. I must have overloaded the grid. I burned the lights out.

A co-worker drives me home, and the streets are slow-moving, blocked. We hear over the radio that the entire northeast is under blackout. During the hours we spend on the road, I dread seeing my father again. That evening, deprived of our usual distractions, of music and television and computer solitaire, my parents and I sit down and talk. My mother and I are trying to break through to him and not having much luck.

At one point in the evening, when my father is out of earshot, I push the words that had long stuck in my throat past my teeth.

“Sometimes I don’t understand why you don’t just divorce him.”

“And what would you say if I did?”

“I would be sad but I would understand.”

Over the decade to come, my father will imagine himself the victim of many betrayals from me and my mother. He will read conspiracies into every glance, fabricate stories based on impossible events, overwrite the past. He will forget his own threat of divorce to her. He will forget that he countered peace offerings with lectures.

But this one conversation, as the city darkens unhindered, it feels unfaithful. The beginnings of freedom feel like treachery.

***

When I come home from graduate school, I make a point of visiting the professor. Each time. I am fond of all those who have taught me, but this is more regular. Is it that I feel gratitude more powerfully if I think I can grant it freely? Or am I still hoping for recognition?

Maybe I am trying to prove my loyalty. I left but I always come back. I do not know it yet, but this is better training for children than for adults.

On one visit I tell the professor how worried I am about my book. If I do not finish it and find a publisher in time, I will be out of a job.

“Do you want a contract? I can have my secretary get you a book contract by tomorrow.”

I know this is not the usual procedure. I need to finish the book, write a proposal, submit the proposal. The press must have it evaluated by experts. Even with connections to smooth the way, there is a process. I say no to the book contract, and try to sound cool about it. I have to do it the hard way.

One of the things I have learned from reading medieval literature is the price of a gift. In the old epics, kings distribute riches to their guests and followers. Rings, hauberks, steeds. The anthropologists tell us the power of the gift: Give something to someone, and it forces them to give you something back. Give them an object too magnificent ever to be repaid, and they will remain in your debt. You will have demonstrated your might. The most powerful person is the one who can give something that can never be paid back.

Maybe the most powerful person is the one who dares to refuse the gift.

***

I finish my book. I am tenured and a professor in my own right, like my father. I work in a group that researches power. We talk about the usual things. Who can demand obedience. The authority to levy taxes and armies. The symbols of kings and emperors and pharaohs. I do not find the words here for what happens between teachers and students, parents and children, lovers, and friends.

My husband reminds me that I read Foucault in graduate school, and he taught me another kind of power. Not top-down, by command, but a force that is everywhere and invisible. The discipline we learn from the world around us, making us obedient even when we are on our own. A force that shapes who we are.

“That’s why facing it is so hard,” I say.

“Yes, because it’s in you.”

***

My father is upset with me. I am not calling enough. I am not calling because I have a baby, and the exhaustion has pushed me to the edge of survival. Each day’s challenge consists of: keep baby alive, keep myself alive, do not murder the neighbors who throw parties loud and late. But my sin is that I am not calling.

My father thinks I am not calling because my mother has won me away from him.

“It is the natural course of things for parents to die before their children, so consider me dead,” he writes.

I consider him dead.

A few months later, my consideration falters, and I send him pictures of his grandson. He takes this as an attempt to reconnect, which I suppose it is. He sends me a long list of events over the past 10 years that I am to explain to his satisfaction if I want a relationship.

I tell him what I really think.

He tells me what he really thinks. About me. About my mother, how pure she was when she was young, how vulgar she became as she aged.

I consider him dead.

***

I am visiting home, which is not home anymore and was hardly home when it was home. I visit the professor and his wife with my baby. They are both tender, playful. The professor smells the top of the baby’s head and says how wonderful it is to smell a baby’s head. From now on I will make a special point of smelling babies’ heads, at the very top, where the smell is the best.

My father has made himself dead by this point, so I do not visit him. He never meets his only grandchild. I did not, after all, explain things to his satisfaction.

***

That the professor does not behave himself is common knowledge. Everyone talks about it and yet no one talks about it. Including me. Why talk about something everyone knows?

Over the years, I notice something funny. I hear stories of women dropping out, women scarred. I do not know any of them. The ones I know are men, men who mysteriously falter, then stop.

I argue with a friend whose confidence seeps away over his years of working with the professor. I think I see a connection between his loss of faith and the way the professor treats his students. Maybe all those jokes about them, about the scholars they might become, left their mark. He denies it. The professor is great. It is his own fault that he stopped being able to do the thing he had been doing well for so long.

Sometimes I think men would rather suffer the whole burden of their failures than admit that someone has the power to hurt them.

But only some men.

***

I am at a conference with the professor. He cites my paper in his talk, the paper I could only write for him once I left. It is going well.

That evening we have drinks with the conference organizer and his graduate students. I ask the professor what software he used for a certain project. He gets angry.

“Why should I tell you? You went to study with her. You’re part of her school now.”

“I am just as much your student.”

“Everyone wants something from me. You do the work yourself.”

“I am asking about methods, not results.”

“Well, I did the work.”

I remember something.

“You had a graduate student do the computer stuff.”

“Well, I paid for the work.”

The local students look horrified, as does our host. I go to the bar bathroom, close the door, and start crying. I wonder at my ability to reproduce patterns, to find teachers to continue the drama my parents began. Then I wipe my face and go back to the table, doing my best to seem untouched.

Later, we call a cab for the professor, who is stumbling.

“I can’t let anyone love me,” he says softly. I give him a hug and fold him into the car. The next time he emails he seems to remember nothing. I answer politely, warmly even.

He did not ask me to consider him dead. But I do.

 

***

Irina Dumitrescu is an essayist and scholar of medieval literature.

Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

A rhesus macaque monkey sits on the edge of the swamp along the Silver River in Ocala, Florida. (Getty Images)

Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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1. “Judge, Lawyer, Help, Case Dismissed”

George Chidi | The Intercept | October 31, 2021 | 8,064 words

This is a story of political indifference and a system woefully unequipped to truly help unhoused people with mental illness. It is also the story of Harmony, a woman living on the streets of Atlanta, Georgia in her own filth, in a state that ranks 51st in the U.S. for investment in mental health spending. “Harmony is unique,” writes George Chidi, “And yet there are at least 100 Harmonys on the streets of Atlanta. The county knows each of them by name. There’s a list.” Harmony does not want to be in hospital or incarcerated; she does want her story told. As Chidi grapples with Harmony’s living conditions, he unravels who might be able to help and who should be held accountable. And while various entities and government departments play “hot potato” with her life and liberty, Harmony’s wishes go mostly ignored. She would very much like to be left alone. “And yet despite millions in resources, much of which the state cannot figure out how to spend, Harmony remained unhoused at the foot of the iconic Coca-Cola sign above the Walgreens at Five Points — in the heart of Atlanta — as she has on and off for years, in a state of abject human degradation, with all of this misery taking place less than 100 yards from the very steps of Georgia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities headquarters.” —KS

2. The Gradual Extinction of Softness

Chantha Nguon and Kim Green | Hippocampus Magazine | November 8, 2021 | 3,946 words

Kim Green and Chantha Nguon have been working together to write Nguon’s memoir; they’ve talked and cooked together over the past several years. This co-written collaboration in Hippocampus Magazine is a stunning, lyrical essay about Nguon’s experiences as a child in Battambang before fleeing to Vietnam, surviving the Cambodian genocide, and remembering her mother, Mae. The Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot murdered 2 million Cambodians, erasing nearly one-fourth of the population, leaving nothing but death and a devastated country with “no idea of tomorrow.” Through evocative writing, Nguon carries her family’s history forward, “borne on the smoke” from the charcoal fire of her mother’s open-air kitchen. Her memories are aromatic and vivid; she remembers flavors of happiness like Mae’s pâté de foie, and the wind in her wide-open mouth as she zoomed around Phnom Penh with her older brother on his Vespa. The recipes weaved into the piece are unexpected and poignant, as you can sample from these ingredients and steps: “Take a well-fed nine-year-old with a big family and a fancy French-Catholic-school education. Fold in 2 revolutions, 2 civil wars, and 1 wholesale extermination,” she writes. “Slowly subtract small luxuries, life savings, and family members until all are gone.” It’s one of the most moving essays I’ve read this year, and a piece I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. —CLR

3. How two BBC Journalists Risked their Jobs to Reveal the Truth About Jimmy Savile

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore | The Guardian | November 2, 2021 | 6,380 word

This is a detailed examination of what happened behind the scenes during a BBC Newsnight investigation into abuse committed by Jimmy Savile. It was a difficult topic to investigate — Savile had recently died and had been a beloved BBC celebrity — but rumors about Savile being a sexual predator were rife, and two journalists were determined to find the truth. The author of this piece, Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, was a friend of one of the journalists — the late Liz MacKean. Sebag-Montefiore’s affection is apparent as she documents MacKean fighting for her piece, desperate to have the voices of the women who spoke to her heard. It was a battle MacKean ultimately lost, when Newsnight editor Peter Rippon killed the story. In the end, MacKean and producer Meirion Jones, “gave all their research on Savile to the BBC’s rival, the commercial channel ITV,” and the Savile story broke. A 2012 inquiry into the BBC’s conduct over the Newsnight investigation found Rippon’s decision “seriously flawed.” In refusing to drop this story, MacKean and Jones “helped to change the culture about the way past sexual abuse is talked about, and survivors listened to.” When Sebag-Montefiore searched for an account of what they had done she couldn’t find one: “So here it is.” —CW

4. Where Is the Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay?

Stephanie Hayes | The Tampa Bay Times | November 9 | 4,500 words

My favorite genre of viral story is Animals on the Run. The zebras in Maryland, the red panda in Washington, D.C., the llamas in Arizona — in my time, I’ve loved them all. So yes, I am the target audience for this feature about a creature who went on the lam: Cornelius the rhesus macaque, who outwitted would-be captors in Florida for years (years!). But Stephanie Hayes tells a Where Are They Now story for everyone, not just the animal-obsessed like me. It’s tragi-comic, expertly written, and thoroughly engrossing. What shines most is the respect — no, the awe — that Hayes has for her elusive subject. Cornelius, it turns out, is a mystery in more ways than one. And maybe that’s how it should be. —SD

5. Award-Winning Writer Mayukh Sen Shines A Light On Food’s Hidden Figures

Brianne Garrett | Sweet July | October 26, 2021 | 1,674 words

Mayukh Sen talks about his path to food writing in this interview about his new book Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America. Sen set out to look beyond white culinary luminaries like James Beard and Julia Child to highlight lesser-known people of color and how they’ve influenced American food. There’s plenty to appreciate in this interview; how Sen describes the way his book project evolved over time from its original intent into something larger and more nuanced and how a critical part of his focus was on honoring his subjects’ hands-on work in addition to their culinary ideas. “I wanted to tell the stories of these immigrants and really honor their labor with as much care as possible. I do hope that readers understand that for America to become this glorious, so-called melting pot of diverse cuisine, there’s a lot of struggle involved. You can see a lot of that struggle in the stories of each of these women.” —KS

The Great British Reading List

Illustration by Carolyn Wells

By Carolyn Wells

As the plane dipped below the clouds, an endless patchwork quilt of green fields and russet hedges stretched out beneath me. It had been two years since I had seen that familiar vista, thanks to COVID-19. However, with travel restrictions lifted — and my arm triple-jabbed — I was finally returning from expat life in Canada to my home country of the United Kingdom, to spend three months with family.

Perhaps it is because it has been so long since my last visit, but the contrasts between North America and this gray, quirky little island seem more pronounced than ever. Everything is so much smaller, the tendencies for reservation and self-deprecation so much clearer, and even more cups of tea are offered (I clutch one as I write).

I live in British Columbia — a British colony back in the days of Queen Victoria, with her government’s dubious penchant for claiming large chunks of the world. Yet, despite these origins, the differences between this Canadian province and the British Isles are as vast as the murky ocean separating them. Perhaps this island’s very particular culture comes from the hodgepodge of its ancestry: From the Romans to the Vikings, people always loved a good ol’ invasion of this land. Or maybe it’s simply the sense of history: Everywhere I turn there seems to be an ancient stone church, sitting awkwardly among new neighbors —  swanky bars and flats. Nip to a pub and there will be a plaque above your head, casually informing you that people have been getting drunk in that establishment since 1552.

Whatever the reason, Great Britain is an obscure place — and one that has inspired some interesting writing — with people grappling to understand the different elements that make up the rather bizarre whole. And so, whilst I am embracing stoicism, marmite, rain, and real ales, I decided it was time for the Great British Reading List.

Tea, Biscuits, and Empire: The Long Con of Britishness (Laurie Penny, Longreads, June 2020)

Laurie Penny has also experienced the differences between North America and Great Britain, after spending six months writing TV shows in Los Angeles. However, her understanding of the two cultures by far transcends my own. In this essay, Penny observes the Great British myth cheerfully portrayed abroad, full of “Queens, detectives, spies, castles, and young wizards,” versus the reality of a little island, “whose power on the world stage is declining, where poverty, inequality, and disaster nationalism are rising.” The imaginary version, although “fascinatingly dishonest,” is a hypnotic one, and people around the world cozy up with a cup of tea to watch the reassuringly gentle Downton Abbey, or “The Great British Worried-People-Making-Cakes-in-a-Tent Show.

Penny carefully picks apart why Brits are happy to let this grand deception continue. From the loss of the Empire to the reality of life in Britain under COVID-19 lockdowns, Brexit, and Boris Johnson, we prefer the fantasy version. Have a read — her take on this phenomenon is jolly good. 

I do try to resist the temptation to make fun of other people who take uncomplicated joy in their thing. The British do this a lot, and it’s one of the least edifying parts of the national character. Fandom is fine. Escapism is allowed. No semi-sensitive soul can be expected to live in the real world at all times. But watching the whitewashed, revisionist history of your own country adopted as someone else’s fantasy of choice is actively uncomfortable. It’s like sitting by while a decrepit relative gibbers some antediluvian nonsense about the good old days and watching in horror as everyone applauds and says how charming.

A Joyless Trudge? No, Thanks: Why I am Utterly Sick of ‘Going for a Walk’ (Monica Heisey, The Guardian, February 2021)

During my first week back in the U.K. I went to the great British seaside. It was beautiful. It was also freezing. Nevertheless, families were picnicking on the beach, sitting in their North Face jackets under huge umbrellas, stoically munching on cheese and pickle sandwiches while the wind beat a dance on their striped windbreakers. We were one of them. And as the wind turned up a notch into gale force, blowing the ice cream off my Mr. Whippy cone, I recalled Monica Heisey’s article for The Guardian detailing a holiday she went on with three Brits. As a Canadian, this was her first experience of a British holiday, and I very much enjoyed her shock at the pragmatism involved in holidaying “in a country where the ground is soggy and the sky grey at least 60% of the year.”

On Heisey’s holiday they “went on long, aimless walks every single day,” from “a half-hour jaunt on a public footpath across a gated, excrement-riddled field” to “an off-piste ramble through the tall, dry grasses surrounding a stately home.” This is completely normal. My family had begun muttering about “lovely coastal walks” months before we left for our seaside break, and sure enough every day we donned knee-high wellies and marched off to check on what those wind levels were up to on more exposed coastal paths. (On a couple of occasions treating ourselves to a cup of tea halfway round the trudge.)

Heisey nails her critique of British culture, and I found myself chuckling more than once reading this article. So take a look, and remember to always just carry on, “the forecast of heavy thunderstorms be damned.”

I am, it seems, comfortably in the minority. After the Great Walking Holiday of 2020, I encountered pro-walking sentiment everywhere. Friends tracked steps with competitive rigor, fighting to be the first to reach 10k a day, or announcing grand Sunday schemes to cross London on foot. Planning a weekend in Herefordshire, I was inundated with recommendations for the county’s excellent walks. In fact, Airbnb reviews in the UK tend to focus on two things: whether or not the property provides an adequate electric kettle, and the quality and abundance of nearby walking routes. Recently, watching The Crown on Netflix, I had the disorienting and novel experience of feeling sympathy for Margaret Thatcher who, in an episode set at Balmoral, is dragged out on the royal family’s favourite pastime, “walking around in terrible weather wearing the thickest socks imaginable”.

Marmalade: A Very British Obsession (Olivia Potts, Longreads, July 2020)

Great Britain is not particularly renowned for splendid cuisine, but there are some classics: the full English breakfast, a roast dinner, a ploughman’s lunch, bangers and mash, a jar of Branston pickle … and marmalade. Full disclosure: I have picked this essay before, for Longreads Best of 2020: Food. However, I still love it, and last week it came to mind when I had the pleasure of going to a shop that was purely dedicated to the wonder of marmalade: Rows upon rows of glinting orange and yellow jars, winking promises of citrus delights at me. Olivia Potts’ piece, all about this condiment of squashed oranges and sugar, is magical — and very British. Only in English does marmalade “connote a citrus-based preserve containing peel,” and Potts takes a deep dive into “why the British love marmalade so much.” The result is a lovely piece full of warmth, humor … and the rather wonderful characters who frequent the World’s Original Marmalade Awards.

I stand back and admire my five-and-a-half jars and… I get it. Of course I do. How could I not? My jelly isn’t quite crystal clear, but it is basketball orange, bright and glowing. I dropped saffron strands into a couple of the jars, stirring last minute, and they hang, suspended in the jelly, perfect threads. It may not be award-winning, but it is the best I have ever made. It really does feel like I’ve potted sunshine, a moment in time.

My Life as a Cleaner in London (Michele Kirsch, The Independent, October 2015)

Great Britain may be the home of quaint villages with marmalade shops, but you are also never too far away from a cosmopolitan city. London is a little world all of its own — encircled by the M25, a road known to crush even the most buoyant of souls with its traffic — it is a heady mix of every culture and nationality. There are nine million people squashed into its bustling streets, or rammed into metal tubes down below: Where underground trains rumble through old Victorian tunnels and people remain ever so careful to mind the gap. Michele Kirsch’s article details an engrossing cross-section of this society. As a cleaner, Kirsch has a key into the lives of everyone from students to jazz singers, and though it might look like cleaning, exploring people’s homes “feels a bit Miss Marple-ish.” Her eloquent writing evokes the chaos, loneliness, sadness, and joy of the people to whom she is “East London’s good wife.”

Kirsch’s musings also brought back memories of my own time living in London, from Shoreditch being the “unofficial home of the high-maintenance beard,” to the darker side — the casual racism that can sadly still prevail in a multicultural country. Kirsch notes it when a friend’s 9-year-old son asks her what she does, and to her response that she cleans houses, “he said, ‘I thought you had to be Eastern European to do that. No offense.’”

So take a read for a glimpse into London life — the unique viewpoint and beautiful prose of this essay are worth spending some time with.

As well as working for long-term clients, I do one-off jobs, often frantic pleas to clean up before a move, or before the tidy person gets home. One was a flat off Brick Lane. This was a biohazard job: matted, badly stained carpets, never-been-cleaned fridge and cooker, loo out of Trainspotting. But the guy himself was ebullient, friends with all the neighbours. He just exuded a joie de vivre and genuinely did not see or care that he had been living in a shithole for years. Facing a big, brown dubious stain on his carpet, I asked, “Is this poo, vomit, or curry?” “Possibly all three,” he said, honestly, gleefully. A life well lived. Messily, but happily.

Fences: A Brexit Diary (Zadie Smith, The New York Review, August 2016)

Sadly, the racism touched upon in Kirsch’s essay came crashing to the fore in 2016. I was living in Canada during Brexit, and, absorbed in the echo chamber of friends and family, I considered the referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union a mere political blip. As Zadie Smith writes in her incredibly astute and of-the-moment piece, Nigel Farage, one of the main forces behind the Leave campaign, “seemed in the grip of a genuine racial obsession, combined with a determination to fence off Britain from the European mainstream.” It didn’t seem possible to me that this was a sentiment that could win the day. I was wrong.

In truth, the reasons behind Brexit are varied, but the process of the vote did peel back a thin veneer to reveal an ugliness beneath. The week before the referendum, Smith’s Jamaican-born mother had someone run up to her in London and shout “Über Alles Deutschland!” The day after the vote, Smith noted “a lady shopping for linens and towels on the Kilburn High Road stood near my mother and the half-dozen other people originally from other places and announced to no one in particular: ‘Well, you’ll all have to go home now!’”

It was not only racial divides that were uncovered: Britain has long been a society dominated by class, with nuanced differences between many invisible, but powerful, lines. From the working class to the neoliberal middle and upper-middle class — reveal where you shop, go to school, or who you socialize with and you can be exposed. In this essay, Smith recognizes both her own middle-class liberal attitude, and the understanding of other viewpoints that this can preclude her from. 

Read this essay and understand that the power of this referendum was to magnify “the worst aspects of an already imperfect system—democracy—channeling a dazzlingly wide variety of issues through a very narrow gate.” 

Wealthy London, whether red or blue, has always been able to pick and choose the nature of its multicultural and cross-class relations, to lecture the rest of the country on its narrow-mindedness while simultaneously fencing off its own discreet advantages. We may walk past “them” very often in the street and get into their cabs and eat their food in their ethnic restaurants, but the truth is that more often than not they are not in our schools, or in our social circles, and they very rarely enter our houses—unless they’ve come to work on our endlessly remodeled kitchens.

Cat and Mouse (Phil Hoad, The Atavist Magazine, February 2021)

Britain is a nation of animal lovers: It was the first country in the world to start a welfare charity for animals, and almost one in two households has a pet — 20 million of them being cats and dogs. In the area I am in at the moment it seems this 20 million quota has been filled just with cockapoo dogs named Barney (yes, we have one too). Fifteen percent of Brits even say they love their pet more than they love their partner (a statistic I am not shocked by after my mother informed me she wished to be buried with the cremated remains of her pet duck).

Therefore, it is also of no surprise that Phil Hoad’s fascinating article delving into the world of two pet detectives searching for a cat murderer is set in Britain. In this country, such things as a memorial service for the cat victims, complete with a harpist and a rendition of “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” are acceptable — people understand the passion of the detectives, Tony Jenkins and Boudicca Rising. Their organization, SNARL, has even been supported by British celebrities, including Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson, who wrote in The Sun: “I’m not a cat fan by any means—they give me asthma—and I can’t think of anything worse than spending time in the company of an animal-rights person called Boudicca Rising. The case makes my blood boil because I am a dog fan. And if someone poisoned mine, I’d capture him and force him to live for a year with Boudicca Rising.”

This whodunnit at times made me both sad and angry — after all, I too am a British animal lover — but it is a rollercoaster ride and a beautiful read.

Jenkins worried that, too often, the media furor minimized the impact of the killings on pet owners. “I had one police officer who went, ‘Waste of my time—it’s only a cat.’ I said, ‘Excuse me? It’s only a cat?’” Jenkins told me. “Imagine you get married, and your wife gets a cat. You then have a child, and your child at the age of six has grown up with it, adores it, sleeps with it. And one morning your wife gets up, opens the curtains, and there’s your cat with no head, and no fucking tail, and your daughter’s about to go out and play. And you tell me it’s just a fucking cat.”

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Surfing in Texas. (Getty Images)

Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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1. Homegrown and Homeless in Oakland*

Kevin Fagan, Sarah Ravani, Lauren Hepler, J.K. Dineen | San Francisco Chronicle | November 3, 2021 | 4,639 words

There’s not a major city in the state of California that hasn’t found itself grappling with a decade-long explosion of homelessness, and not a discussion that doesn’t devolve into blaming decades-older canards like deinstitutionalization and drug abuse. But as this exhaustively and empathically reported piece shows, it’s never as simple as a talking point. For the sixth in the Chronicle’s annual Homeless Project series, the paper crosses the Bay to profile four unhoused people in Oakland — all of whom grew up in the city, and all of whom owned their own home at one time. In their stories of loss and perseverance, accompanied by photography and data visualizations that are breathtaking for all the wrong reasons, we find ever-present reminders that there is no one cause for this epidemic. The only universal, it seems, is the tragedy and struggle that ensues when this country fails its own citizens. —PR

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2. Selling Certainty

Eric Boodman | STAT | October 20, 2021 | 7,300 words

Imagine being in such intense pain that it hurts to put on clothes. When a physician finally provides a diagnosis, it feels like a guess. Then along comes a blood test that promises a definitive answer and access to a clinical trial that could change everything. Who wouldn’t seize the opportunity? This is what happened to fibromyalgia patients who took the FM/a Test, produced by a company called EpicGenetics. Problem being, as Eric Boodman explains, the manufacturer was “using an aborted trial to sell an unproven test to people who were desperate.” Boodman’s feature is a Russian doll of scientific mysteries: Why doesn’t the FDA vet all home medical tests? How do companies get away with false advertising? What is fibromyalgia? And there are some genuinely eyebrow-raising tidbits along the way. Case in point, a health executive “who went back into retirement to focus on writing novels to rescue the reputation of the historical Dracula.” —SD

3. A Death Full of Life

Gabrielle Anctil | Beside | September 27, 2021 | 2,200 words

Reading Gabrielle Anctil’s piece for Beside I was struck by how unusual it was. While people talk about death, the issue of what we do with our physical remains still feels like something we speak about in hushed tones, the mere thought of lifeless bodies conducive to nervous looks and anxious gestures. I was therefore impressed with the understated and matter-of-fact way Anctil tackles a fascinating subject: How our approach to our earthly remains has evolved along with our religions and beliefs. Cremation did not become popular until the ’80s, but now we often “see urns resting upon mantelpieces, if departed loved ones’ ashes haven’t simply been scattered in a meaningful place. The cemetery has lost its nobility.” Anctil also addresses an issue I had not yet considered: The environmental impact of what we do with the dead. I was amazed to learn that funerals use enough wood “to build 4.5 million houses,” while embalmed Americans are “buried with 19.5 million litres of embalming fluids.” Even a single cremation uses “two full SUV gas tanks of fuel, to say nothing of the carcinogenic particles that are released into the atmosphere.” Despite this harsh reality, quiet beauty still reverberates through this essay, as Anctil acknowledges our need for “a site where we can feel the pain of separation and continue to nurture our relationship with those who have passed on.” —CW

4. Cresting the Wave

Joe Hagan | Texas Highways | October 28, 2021 | 3,307 words

“[E]very attempt to catch a wave felt deeply personal, a test of will against the world, the desire to surf as powerful as the desire for identity itself.” There are so many gorgeous lines in Joe Hagan’s recent essay in Texas Highways. He reminisces about learning to surf and growing up on the shores of Padre Island in Texas. Beautifully recalling these memories, Hagan writes of personal reinvention, and of the search for identity. In this process, he discovers deeper layers within his rich and complicated family history and faces an earth-shattering truth about his birth. Amid all of this is the anchor of place — the Gulf Coast, Bob Hall Pier, the waves themselves — and the memory and truth it can hold. I’m inspired by this story — it moves me to write. —CLR

5. Finding Joy in the Unknown: an Interview with Dara McAnulty

Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee | Emergence Magazine | October 26, 2021 | 5,722 words

At Emergence Magazine, Dara McAnulty talks about his book Diary of a Young Naturalist, his love for the natural world, and what he’s learned from writing and publishing a book as a teen. Reading Diary helped me appreciate McAnulty’s deep commitment to the environment. In nature McAnulty finds joy and delight, feelings often tempered by the despair of human ambivalence toward our planet. What’s most inspiring about this interview is McAnulty’s renewed faith in the artist’s power to persuade others to help preserve Earth for future generations. “The entire battle of the book for me…is this inner struggle in me about whether or not art or writing or music is worth it. Can it make a difference? Can it change people’s minds? Can it change the world? I think at the end of the book, I realized that yeah, it can. It’s done it before. It changes people’s minds. It shows people the way that the world could be, in spite of the way that it is now. And only by seeing that future can we work towards it. That’s the artist’s job: to show the way that the world can be.” Longreads ran an excerpt of Diary of a Young Naturalist earlier this year. It’s worth your time. —KS

There Are No Seasons: A Reading List on Loss, Love, and Living with Fire in California

Illustration by Wenjia Tang

By Cheri Lucas Rowlands

As a child in Northern California, fall was my favorite time of year. My birthday is in mid-August, so I was always ready to tackle the next school year, and was excited because our hottest days, our true summer, had yet to come. But the past several years have felt different here, ever since the Tubbs Fire tore through Sonoma, Napa, and Lake counties in October 2017. This deadly, unprecedented fire blazed across canyons and hills, jumped the 101 freeway, and cut through the city of Santa Rosa without warning — destroying entire neighborhoods in the night and killing 22 people.

Growing up on the San Francisco Peninsula in the ’80s, the image of the Forest Service’s mascot, Smokey Bear, was ubiquitous, but while we were taught that wildfire was a threat, it was a theoretical danger to us. As I’ve gotten older, fire has mostly remained a disaster that has happened somewhere else. The fall of 2017, then, felt markedly different: from then on, fire was no longer confined to wilderness. It found its way into cities, to the Pacific coast, to places previously thought as safe. It forced us to wear N95 masks long before the pandemic. It turned our sky orange. It has made us question where in the West, ultimately, is safe from fires — and the effects of climate change. But, as the writers below know, that place does not exist.

Two years ago, Longreads writer Tessa Love published a beautiful braided essay on fire, home, and belonging. We ran it to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the Camp Fire, which ignited in Butte County on November 8, 2018, and obliterated the town of Paradise, near Chico, near where Love grew up. The Camp Fire remains the deadliest wildfire in California’s history, killing 85 people and destroying over 18,000 structures.

Love and I had been in the latter stages of editing her piece in October 2019 when fires sparked across Northern California yet again. One of these wildfires, the Kincade Fire, forced my family to evacuate our home in West Sonoma County. I guess this is where I’m supposed to say something like, it felt so surreal to pack up and leave my home while editing this essay on someone else’s experience with wildfire. But the truth is that when my husband and I became experts at packing go bags — and had memorized the zone lines on our local evacuation map — I no longer viewed fire as a mere possibility. It was a given, and something that directly affected our community. It had been the third year in a row that we had either evacuated our home or packed our valuables into our cars just in case, so no, it was not surreal. It was the new normal.

As we approach the anniversary of the Camp Fire, Northern California is recovering from a recent powerful storm. But the threat of fire this year remains, even as November brings cooler temperatures. Because when it comes to fire, there really are no seasons.

At the moment, there’s no shortage of reported features about wildfires; I’ve read some notable pieces recently, like Andrea Stanley on climate trauma and the need for long-term mental health support for communities like Paradise, Zora Thomas on what it’s like to be a hotshot firefighter, and Lauren Markham on how assisted forest migration can help save our trees. I’d also recommend David Ferris on the devastating CZU Lightning Complex, which burned in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties in fall 2020, and its effects on the region’s ancient coast redwoods, which are the tallest living things on the planet. For this reading list, however, I’ve selected six personal essays, including “California Burning,” the story that Love and I worked on together. Each piece uses the spark of fire to explore other themes, whether home and belonging, or idleness, or memory. Read more…

The Strange True Tale of ‘Castro’s No. 1 Killer’

Patrick Leger for The Atavist Magazine

Tony PerrottetThe Atavist Magazine | October 2021 | 9 minutes (2,476 words)

This is an excerpt from The Atavist‘s issue no. 120, “The Butcher of Havana,” written by Tony Perrottet and illustrated by Patrick Leger.

Part One

On the balmy night of April 9, 1959, a little over three months after Fidel Castro and Che Guevara seized power in Cuba, a group of famous international writers gathered in El Floridita, a popular restaurant in Old Havana. They were an urbane set—Tennessee Williams, George Plimpton, Elaine Dundy, and her husband, Kenneth Tynan—and they were expecting to carouse with Cuba’s most beloved yanqui, Ernest Hemingway. Instead, they encountered another Midwestern expatriate, wearing a wide military belt and a hulking .45 service revolver.

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Burly and tattooed, the man had rough-hewn good looks. He was in his late thirties—more than two decades younger than Hemingway—and stood five-foot-ten, with thick brown hair and, in the words of his draft card, a “ruddy” complexion. An English journalist later described him as “tall, straight and meanly friendly,” with striking blue eyes that, “yellowing after only a few beers, suggested company dangerous to keep when drunk.” The American’s words tumbled out in the distinctively nasal accent of someone from blue-collar Milwaukee. He pronounced “that” as “dat” and dropped his g’s. He was the uneducated son of Polish immigrants, the type of man one of Williams’s own fictional snobs might have called a redneck.

But if his origins were humble, at El Floridita the man needed no introduction. His image had appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the United States. In fact, after Hemingway, he was probably the most notorious American in the Caribbean. His name was Herman Marks, and he had risen through the ranks of Castro’s rebel army to command the revolution’s firing squads. Around Havana, there were rumors that he had a sadistic streak; his version of a coup de grâce, it was said, was to empty his pistol into a condemned man’s face, so relatives could not recognize the corpse. Marks’s brutal work had earned him a nickname: He was El Carnicero—the Butcher.

The literati peppered him with questions, and Marks responded with pride. He boasted of being second-in-command to Che himself at La Cabaña prison, and declared that he was so busy, he conducted nightly executions until 2 a.m., and sometimes until dawn. He called the proceedings “festivities” and showed off his cuff links made from spent bullet shells.

Marks knew what the gathered writers were really after. It was an open secret in Havana that he invited select visitors to the executions, which were conducted in the empty stone moat around La Cabaña, beneath a giant floodlit statue of Christ with outstretched arms. American politicians, journalists, starlets, and socialites had all made discreet inquiries about watching a firing squad do its work. Williams, whose grandfather had been a minister, forlornly felt that he might comfort a condemned man by offering “a small encouraging smile” before he was shot.

On this particular night, Marks told the group at El Floridita, he had a busy schedule. The prisoners awaiting execution included a German mercenary. “He made the invitation as easily as he might have offered a round of cocktails at his home,” Plimpton later recalled. Marks counted the visitors out: “Let’s see… five of you… quite easy… we’ll drive over by car… tight squeeze…”

Unnoticed by the others, Tynan had been listening to Marks with growing horror, and now the Englishman leapt to his feet and began shouting. According to Plimpton, the red-faced theater critic squinted his eyes and flapped his arms like an enormous bird while denouncing Marks. He didn’t want to be in the same room as an executioner, Tynan gasped, let alone witness his handiwork. He would attend the execution only to run in front of the firing squad to protect the condemned. Tynan then stormed out of the bar, followed by Dundy.

“What the hell was that?” asked Marks. He told the remaining writers to meet him in the lobby of a nearby hotel at 8 p.m.

* * *

Almost nothing about Herman Marks’s early life suggested that he would someday play a pivotal role in a Latin American revolution. He was born in Milwaukee in 1921, and raised in a neighborhood of shoddy brick houses and bare streets. His father, Frederick, was an unemployed alcoholic who beat him; his mother, Martha Yelich, barely kept the family afloat by working as a short-order cook in a diner. He does not appear to have been close with his elder sister, Elsie, or his younger one, Dorothy; but he remained devoted to his mother throughout his life, in his own eccentric fashion.

The Markses’ volatile marriage crumbled during the Great Depression, when Herman was 12. After his mother remarried, Herman began getting into trouble. He skipped classes and was expelled from every school he attended; at 14, he was sent to a reformatory, where he ran away on three occasions and was once caught stealing a car. Over the next two decades, he was arrested 32 times in ten states, from Hawaii to Maine, mostly for drunkenness, petty theft, and disorderly conduct.

He never stayed more than three months in any one place, working odd jobs in factories, on docks, and at horse ranches. In April 1939, he joined the merchant marine, and he served in the Pacific during World War II. (He later claimed in court that he “had been in jails all over” the region, including while on shore leave in Australia.) After the war, Marks floated aimlessly around the United States, Mexico, and Canada, adding to his rap sheet: vagrancy in Texas, public drunkenness in Ohio and North Dakota, attempted grand larceny in New York City, and “prowling” in Las Vegas, a crime for which he was given 30 days in jail and then told to leave town. In Los Angeles in 1949, he robbed an elderly woman, drunkenly grabbing her by the throat. According to the police report, he only made away with naphthalene mothballs “to the value of 29 cents.” He got six months for assault but escaped from jail with two friends. While fleeing, all three seriously hurt their ankles after jumping from a dangerous height; Marks and one of the other men limped on for weeks, until they were caught in Galveston, Texas, and sent back to California to finish their sentences.

Back home in Milwaukee, at age 27, Marks brawled with his mother’s third husband and physically threw him out of the house. (Yelich took her son’s side; he was fined five dollars by local authorities for his actions.) Later that same year, he was arrested and convicted of carnal knowledge with a 16-year-old girl. According to the police report, Marks was working as a stable hand and met the girl at a bar, where, the police conceded, she had shown the bartender a birth certificate that said she was an adult. The pair then attended a riotous celebration in a barn where, an investigator noted, “drinking and sex parties went on almost nightly.” Marks was sentenced to three and a half years in prison.

His niece, Penlo Hobbs, remembered her relatives being frightened of Uncle Herman well before he entered the state penitentiary in Waupun. “He was the bogeyman,” she said. “We weren’t allowed to have anything to do with him.” Even Marks’s mother had reservations about her son. “I don’t know what happened to him,” she once told the Milwaukee Sentinel. “Whatever he did was not my fault. I sent him to parochial school and raised him good.”

She said Marks was generous when he wasn’t broke, lavishing her with bouquets of flowers, but mainly he spent his money on girls and booze. And he had an explosive temper. “He was always drinking and fighting,” his mother said. “As soon as somebody said anything wrong, he was up and mad.” Marks’s erratic personality was symbolized by his tattoos. His left arm bore a double heart inscribed with the words “Love, Nellie.” (There is no record of who Nellie was.) On his right arm was a skull pierced with a dagger, alongside the military motto “Death Before Dishonor.”

His mother took Marks in after he was released from Waupun penitentiary in 1955. A few months later he left home again. “He kissed me one day and said he was going,” his mother recalled. Somebody took a photo of him looking bronzed and fit, which Yelich carried in her purse until the day she died. “I don’t think he knew where he was going,” she said. “He was looking for something.”

He found it on a shrimp boat in Florida. While hauling nets in late 1957, he ran into some men he knew from his days in the merchant marine. They were from Cuba, an island Marks had visited several times in the service, and once as a tourist. It was now embroiled in a civil war between leftist revolutionary guerrillas, led by a young lawyer named Fidel Castro, and the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. That Christmas, Marks learned that one of his Cuban friends had been murdered in Havana by military police; they purportedly broke into the man’s house one night and shot him dead at his kitchen table. Soon after hearing the news, Marks went to an army surplus store in Key West and bought olive drab fatigues and paratrooper boots. With a Colt .45 revolver, $400 in cash, and “about ten words in Spanish,” as he later put it, Marks took a boat to Cuba. His plan was as audacious as it was simple: He would join the revolution.

Havana was under military curfew, with Batista’s menacing, blue-uniformed intelligence officers patrolling the streets. Loitering in the city’s bars, Marks failed to find any agents of M-26-7, Castro’s underground 26th of July Movement, named for the date of the group’s first armed uprising. So Marks took a bus east to the sleepy town of Manzanillo, in the tropical foothills of the Sierra Maestra, where he met two young Cubans also hoping to join the guerrillas. The trio hiked for three nights before reaching a jungle outpost of some 40 rebels under the command of Captain Paco Cabrera. An English-speaking officer interrogated Marks. Like many of the roughly two dozen yanquis who ultimately joined Cuba’s rebellion, Marks rewrote his personal history. According to one guerrilla, he claimed that he was a Korean War veteran; to others, he explained that his facility with weapons was born of a childhood enthusiasm for guns. He was accepted into the group with a meal of beef and celebratory rum.

Marks’s profile among the guerrillas rose when he saw three teenagers fumbling with a U.S. Army .30-caliber machine gun and stepped in to show them how to disassemble and clean it. By the time he was finished, a crowd had gathered around him, with men holding up rusted and broken weapons, wordlessly appealing for help. He was soon tasked with fixing the array of firearms used by rebel forces, everything from sport rifles to shotguns to carbines dating back to Cuba’s colonial days.

Marks was assigned to the unit led by Che Guevara, which suffered the highest casualties in the rebel army—one of its cohorts was dubbed the suicide squad. Marks quickly rose through the ranks to become a captain. In the spring of 1958, Che transferred him to Minas del Frío, a rebel stronghold, where Marks helped establish a military school and train recruits to repel the impending Operation Finish Fidel, a mass invasion of the Sierra Maestra by Batista’s army, which outnumbered the guerrillas 100 to 1. By May, Marks was on the front lines of combat. In one skirmish, he broke three teeth on a rock when he tripped leading a charge; in another, he led a group of 18 rebels who disabled a 250-man convoy in an ambush.

By August, Batista’s generals had to admit that they could not dislodge the guerrillas, and the army withdrew from the Sierra Maestra. The following month, Marks volunteered to join Che on a harrowing 350-mile mission across the mosquito-filled swamps of the eastern lowlands. The rebels hoped to establish a new base in the Escambray Mountains of central Cuba and use it to seize enough ground to effectively cut the island in half. In a biography of Castro, journalist Tad Szulc observed that the expedition, where the men would abandon the known terrain of the Sierra to trudge across exposed, unknown, and hostile territory, “must have seemed like a demented plan.” Che warned volunteers that conditions would be miserable, food short, and casualties likely close to 50 percent. Marks signed up anyway.

Although most of the mission’s men survived the trek, it was universally agreed to be the most grueling campaign of the entire war. Che’s column walked mostly at night to avoid army patrols and strafing airplanes. They forded rivers naked and once traversed a shallow lagoon filled with razor-sharp plants. They suffered from dire hunger and endured hurricane-fueled rain. “I’ve been through enough mud and water to last me the rest of my life,” Che wrote to Castro. “Hunger, thirst, weariness, the feeling of impotence against the enemy forces that were increasingly closing in on us, and above all, the terrible foot disease that the peasants called mazamorra—which turned each step our soldiers took into an intolerable torment—had made us an army of shadows.”

During a skirmish, Marks was wounded in the knee and ankle. Infection set in. “Pus and blood was continuously running, and I couldn’t get a shoe on my foot,” he later said. He had trudged with Che for over a month to get to the Escambray Mountains, but the possibility of fatal gangrene now threatened. Che decided to get the yanqui to safety. In early November, supporters of M-26-7 smuggled Marks from a farm into the city of Santa Clara, where he was dispatched by plane to Key West for medical care.

Although he had gone to great lengths to make sure Marks did not succumb to his injury, privately Che was not unhappy to see him go, writing in his war journal that the American “fundamentally … didn’t fit into the troop.” One of Che’s close aides, Enrique Acevedo, told biographer Jon Lee Anderson that Marks was “brave and crazy in combat, tyrannical and arbitrary in the peace of camp.” According to Acevedo, the American’s ruthless nature had disturbed the Cuban recruits—particularly his readiness to volunteer for execution duty, which he did with “an enthusiasm that was unseemly.”

The Cubans’ reaction to Marks echoed that of a reform-school psychiatrist who’d encountered him when he was 16. The psychiatrist reported that Marks was oddly detached—“a very stolid emotionless person when not excited” who “shows almost a lack of adequate feeling in respect to situations he finds himself in.” Later, when Marks was in Waupun prison, the facility’s psychiatrist found that he was “amoral rather than immoral,” and was “narcissistic in his makeup.”

These assessments would resonate throughout Marks’s peculiar career in Cuba.

Read the full story at The Atavist

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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1. Has Witch City Lost Its Way?

Kathryn Miles | Boston Magazine | October 22, 2021 | 3,758 words

Modern-day witchcraft is big business, and Salem, Massachusetts, is its epicenter. Witch-themed boutiques along Essex Street sell everything a 21st-century witch needs, from tarot card decks and spell kits to $300 custom wands. Stores like these cater not only to self-identifying witches and warlocks, but also Halloween tourists making their pilgrimage to the city each October and people claiming ancestral ties to Colonial settlers (or those accused as heretics in the 1692 trials). Kathryn Miles captures a festive, bustling local scene, but are shop owners simply commodifying a spiritual practice? And is there a better way for Salem to address and educate people about its ugly past? Miles’ own ancestral history is marked with a dark moment in 1660 — one that has left generations of her family to make sense of their legacy. She examines present-day Salem from this perspective, and asks: “Is a witch-based tourism economy the best way to honor the legacy of executed individuals who weren’t even witches in the first place?” With Halloween just days away, this Boston magazine story is a fitting read, and offers a glimpse into Salem’s lively community — as well as the past that it grapples with. —CLR

2. Aftermath

Briohny Doyle | The Griffith Review | October 24, 2021 | 3,500 words

“Aftermath” begins and ends with scenes set on water — an oyster farm on a lake, a rental house on a bay. These fluid bookends are apt for an essay that ruminates on the illusion of before and after that we all lean on to cope with uncertainty. Whether we’re responding to COVID-19, climate change, or personal grief — all of which come to bear in Briohny Doyle’s gorgeous essay — humans tend to yearn for the way things were or the way they might be, for an idealized past or dreamed-of future, for “fixed points” and “the simplicity of distance.” Doyle challenges readers, and herself, to instead bear witness to accrual and to care for ourselves in the context of the ongoing. “Fragile life,” Doyle writes. “All we have to work with. At least as precious as it is unimportant.” We must protect ourselves, she continues, from becoming “food for bad ideas.” I couldn’t help but think of a line in King Lear: “Ripeness is all.” When you’re reminded of Shakespeare, you know you’re reading something special. —SD

3. Shadow City, Invisible City: Walking Through an Ever-Changing Kabul

Taran Khan | LitHub | October 21, 2021 | 2,667 words

Taran Khan writes of friends and acquaintances betrayed by the donor agencies and NGOs who ghosted longtime Afghan employees pleading for help to flee Taliban rule after the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan in August. Many Afghans now fear the Taliban’s retribution for collaborating with the agencies who left them behind, texts and email pleas unanswered. “My fellow Americans, the war in Afghanistan is now over,” declared President Biden on television. Those the U.S. government and NGOs abandoned in their hasty retreat now face new and more insidious dangers. Khan writes: “My grandmother, who had grown up in northern India in a home marked by rigid gender segregation, told me how she used to listen to the poets who frequented the male quarters of her house through cracks in the wall. In the days after the Taliban’s takeover, I listened to Kabul through cracks in the silence that descended on the city. In the voices of friends I could reach on the phone, and behind their fear and their laughter, their assurances and their hesitating requests, I heard the streets and the soundtrack of the city’s everyday life, away from the transient media glare.” —KS

4. Under The Influence

Stephen J. Lyons | The Sun Magazine | October 1, 2021 | 1,672 words

A certain swath of people can relate to being a child left in a vehicle while dad drinks beer in the dim, smoky interior of a local pub. (This didn’t happen to me, though my best friend said she taught herself dozens of yo-yo tricks during those long afternoons.) At The Sun Magazine, Stephen J. Lyons recounts waiting for his beloved blue-collar, stogie-smoking grandpa to emerge from the bar. Lyons witnesses his usually quiet grandpa change after a few pub stops. As the truck speeds over ridges and around curves in rural Iowa, grudges and grievances bubble to the surface, sucked out the window of the rusty pick-up truck as his grandpa spits and mutters about wrongs and injustices. The love and loyalty Lyons feels for his grandpa reminded me of my own childhood, times when my dad was not ok to drive but did so anyway after late nights at relatives’ places across town, times when adult hubris (I’m fine!) and the need to blow off steam from another week at a dirty, unsatisfying job outweighed better judgement. This piece reminds me that we all fail one another from time to time, knowingly and unknowingly. And that perhaps because of that failure, we need love and grace all the more. —KS

5. Sci-Fi Icon Neal Stephenson Finally Takes on Global Warming

Adam Rogers | Wired | October 26, 2021 | 4,348 words

Neal Stephenson isn’t the sort of writer you profile. He’s the sort of writer you think about profiling, sure, but he’s not going to invite you into his life or discuss the vagaries of craft or unburden himself of his deep-seated fears. What he’s going to do, instead, is write. That’s what he’s done since 1984 — big ol’ books that tend to huddle together under the “science fiction” umbrella but are as urgent as they are speculative. His latest, Terminal Shock, might be the most urgent yet, attempting to envision what would happen if people actually tried a theoretical process called solar geoengineering to cool off the planet. So if you’re going to profile Neal Stephenson, you’re going to need to figure out his whys and his hows, not his whos and his whats. Good thing, then, that the person doing the profiling happens to be one of the few journalists around as well-versed in genre fiction as they are in climate change. Rogers, an accomplished science journalist, aims his entire arsenal at making this a piece about the science of imagination — about how not to give up on the (admittedly bleak) future, how to turn real science into real hope, and what it means for someone as lauded and prolific as Stephenson to continue pushing us to team up and just figure this damn thing out already. —PR

A New Leaf: A Post-Legalization Cannabis Reading List

neon marijuana symbol with the word "legal" below

By Peter Rubin

If you were a pot-smoking teenager in the ’90s, chances are you heard the same urban legend I did. Marlboro’s just waiting for weed to be legalized, man. They’ve got the tobacco fields ready to repurpose; they’ll even use their green menthol pack when they start selling joints. Someone’s sister knew a guy whose college professor had seen the mockups! What’s weird about this particular wish-fulfillment conversation isn’t how dumb it was; it’s that even a stoned 16-year-old could grok the conflict brewing in the fantasy. Sure, the idea of walking into a store to buy a spliff seemed so far-fetched that imagining it was akin to arguing about who would win a fight between Batman and Boba Fett. But if that day ever did come, we sensed, it would become a commercial battlefield.

Surprise: that’s exactly what happened. After California allowed medicinal use of marijuana in 1996 — and then truly after 2012, when Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize cannabis for recreational use — a new industry sprouted. The “green rush,” as it immediately became known, wasn’t just a financial opportunity; it nurtured the best and worst that U.S. capitalism had to offer. For every underdog, a huckster; for every scrappy botanist, a shadowy billion-dollar concern; for every newly minted entrepreneur, a stinging reminder that even legal cannabis has a way of perpetuating inequities. Whether or not the devil’s lettuce ever becomes legalized at a federal level (and Marlboro finally gets involved), the journalism compiled below makes clear that the stories of post-legalization America are in many ways the stories of the nation itself.

1) The Great Pot Monopoly Mystery (Amanda Chicago Lewis, GQ, August 2017)

Few journalists have been covering the weed beat longer or better than Lewis; she’s knowledgeable, well-sourced, and has reported on everything from how Black entrepreneurs have been shut out of the cannabis boom to how the company Weedmaps has cultivated a booming business with a selective attention to legality. But my favorite work of hers might just be this feverish jaunt down the rabbit hole of BioTech Institute, a company that reportedly struck fear into the heart of the industry by trying to issue utility patents on the cannabis plant itself. Sounds dry? Not when it feels like the plot of a noir movie, with Lewis as the dogged detective:

Outside of these patents, BioTech Institute barely exists. The company has no website, manufactures no products, and owns no pot shops. Public records for BioTech Institute turned up two Los Angeles addresses—a leafy office park an hour northwest of downtown and a suite in a Westside skyscraper—both of which led to lawyers who didn’t want to talk.

A source familiar with BioTech Institute’s patenting process estimated that the company had spent at least $250,000 in research and legal fees on each of its patents. I knew that if I could figure out who was paying for the patents, I might learn who held the keys to the future of the marijuana industry. But I hardly knew where to start.

There’s no definitive aha twist in this movie — no moment that the camera skews to a Dutch angle and the violins screech in the score — but its shagginess is kind of the point. Watching a reporter follow bum leads, spool out her own thinking, and otherwise externalize her shoeleather fact-finding turns this from a Shadowy Conspiracy saga to something somehow far more satisfying: a process story.

2) Half Baked: How a Would-Be Cannabis Empire Went up in Smoke (Michael Rubino, Julia Spalding & Derek Robertson, Indianapolis Monthly, August 2021)

In November 2020, Indianapolis Monthly ran a small item on Rebecca Raffle, a woman who had moved to town and opened two CBD bakeries in the city. A few fact-checking bumps aside, the piece was uneventful, the kind of local-business profile that pops up in two dozen city magazines every month of the year. But as 2020 turned into 2021, those fact-checking bumps turned out to be the first in a long saga of upheaval and deception, exhaustively recounted here by a team of journalists that would expose Raffle’s business talk for what it truly was: talk. 

None of this seemed in line with the chill entrepreneur with the bubbly personality and perpetual ear-to-ear smile. A gay, Jewish, California-transplanted working mom, Raffle conveyed an endearing underdog quality and a compelling girl-boss backstory. A lot of people bought right into it.

We bought right into it.

Self-mythologizing is nothing new; people often believe what you tell them, and many a business owner has scraped through the lean times by acting as though their aspirations are already reality. But the meta-wrinkle in this particular story — the writers grappling throughout with the role they and their magazine played in elevating this particular mythologist — makes “Half Baked” much more than an exercise in grifter-gets-caught schadenfreude. Whether Raffle’s a Fyre Fest-level charlatan or just a woman whose ambitions outpaced her expertise, you won’t get to the end without a hefty sense of emotional conflict.

3) The Willy Wonka of Pot (Jason Fagone, Grantland, October 2013)

Once upon a time, weed strains were like broadcast TV networks: there weren’t many, and everyone knew all of them. But nothing Acapulco Gold can stay. These days, Maui Wowie and Panama Red have given way to Blueberry Kush, F-13, Azure Haze, and a seemingly infinite repository of other strains — and a great many of them, it turns out, originated with a press-shy breeder from Oregon named DJ Short. In this shining gem of a ridealong feature, Jason Fagone connects with Short at what might just be the apotheosis of his long and accomplished career: the first Seattle Hempfest held after Washington legalized recreational cannabis.

“DJ Short’s here!” said a large man in a tie-dyed tank top. He was sitting next to Short on the dais at Hempfest. His name card said STINKBUD. “I was growin’ his Blueberry back in the ’80s,” Stinkbud said. “One of the most famous guys in the entire world! DJ Short! This guy’s a legend.”

The panel’s moderator, a Canadian researcher, said, “I’ve been moderating this panel for seven or eight years. I’ve never seen Stinkbud so humbled.”

It’s not all stoner sycophancy, though. Fagone portrays Short as a man who knows how much he’s contributed to the current state of the cannabis world — and yet finds himself unable to stop that world from roaring by, leaving him behind in its rush to monetize his lifelong passion. Whimsical headline aside, there’s a real melancholy lurking here, even as Short accepts his laurels. A portrait of the artist as a forgotten craftsman.

4) Is Cannabis Equity Reparations for the War on Drugs? (Donnell Alexander, Capital & Main x Fast Company, April 2018)

A 2020 study by the ACLU found that in the U.S., Black Americans are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession. That same year, 94% of those arrested for cannabis offenses in New York City were people of color. Clearly, legalization has not alleviated the disproportionate burden that low-level drug enforcement has historically placed on the Black community, nor has it prevented Black entrepreneurs from getting shut out of the space. That’s why, in California, a number of cities have attempted to enact cannabis equity, reserving up to half of their marijuana business permits for those living under the median income line or who have a previous cannabis conviction — and in this piece, Alexander chronicles how Oakland’s equity program can set a model for others.

No state has a relationship dynamic remotely like the one between California and marijuana. We officially consume 2.5 million pounds of the drug each year, more than any other state. California produces more than 13 million pounds annually. This means that, even before dipping its toes into the uncharted waters of restorative justice, the legal weed market must contend with vast market and political forces. 

Those forces culminated in a near-failure for Oakland’s program; while the city had set aside millions in no-interest funding for these startups, it was having a difficult time facilitating the necessary partnerships between white and Black applicants. The solutions — or people, as the best solutions tend to be — don’t provide much in the way of narrative tension, but they do offer a necessary perspective on what it’s really like trying to change the system in a fundamental way.

5)  Inside the Underground Weed Workforce (Lee Hawks, The Walrus, October 2018)

Legal or not, all the cannabis that enters the supply chain starts with the same thing: human labor. Trimmers, those who take scissors to plant to free the psychogenic flower, have long been the backbone of the industry. Yet, as the workforce swells and legalization drives prices down, the livelihood isn’t as dependable as it once was. A blend of reportage and the pseudonymous Hawks’ own experience — numerous trips from Canada to work California’s harvest season — makes his account of “scissor drifter” culture an urgent one. 

In 2017, when Willow last went to work in California, trimmers were expected to buy and cook all their own food. There was one outhouse and an outdoor shower, and she slept in a tent. She was paid $150 (US) per pound. When she checked around, she discovered this was the new status quo. In fact, there were rumours of trimmers being paid as low as $100 per pound. Some trimmers will work in exchange for weed and are just happy to have a place to stay and be fed. Every year, there’s a new crop of trimmigrants with lower and lower expectations. Unfortunately for Willow, the harvest was subpar, and she struggled to finish a pound per day. She left after two weeks, staying just long enough to recuperate her costs. A poor crop can make any situation intolerable.