The Longreads Blog

Please Don’t You Be My Neighbor

Colorful buildings near Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan, New York City USA (Getty Images)

More from Jeremiah Moss! We’re proud to have published the first chapter of his book, Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost its Soul. Read “Mourning the Low-Rent, Weirdo-Filled East Village of Old.”

As his neighbors pass from health problems and old age, relinquishing formerly rent-controlled apartments to monied young people, writer Jeremiah Moss remembers and mourns the simple intimacies that passed among the colorful tenants of his East Village apartment building. In this stunningly beautiful essay at n + 1, Moss recounts how the new tenants, eyes glued to phones, have mastered marginalizing their neighbors simply by ignoring them — refusing even the small kindness of eye contact, refusing their very existence.

The East Village was full of people who were bruised like I was bruised, people who weren’t quite pulled together but were trying to make something interesting with their lives. I belonged here. In this neighborhood. In this crumbling tenement.

As a psychoanalyst, I help people to think, and I am hyperattuned to variations in the psychic field, but anyone paying attention can feel a person’s psyche in close proximity. You can feel if it runs sluggish or quick, shallow or deep, elegant or jumbled. On the sidewalks and subways, you know which people to avoid simply from their fizz in the air. What I feel from many of the new people, the ones working so hard to be normal, is the absence of mind. When I picture it, I see a tightly compressed knot, a forced blank, surrounded by a buzzy cloud of agitation and distraction. This is, of course, highly subjective and impossible to measure, so you’ll just have to trust me when I say: They aren’t really here. And that absence, that rapidly replicating zombie effect, makes the city a lonelier place than it used to be.

So why would I leave this place? I am good at sitting still and waiting. I will outwait the new people. Surely, I tell myself, the bubble will burst, the tide will shift, and they will move on, the way they always do, after they’ve suctioned up all of what they came to eat. But I know they won’t leave. They are forever replenishing themselves, like the teeth in a shark’s mouth; one vacates and another steps forward to take its place. If I survive the hunt, I will be a leftover in the glittering ruins of that future world, the old neighbor whistling on the stairs, taking his time, a ghost stuttering under the electronic eyes, barely seen, but still here. Holding the memory for as long as I can. We are, after all, the things we have lost.

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Waiting for Alice

Jasmin Merden / Getty, Illustration by Homestead Studio

Leslie Kendall Dye | Longreads | January, 2020 | 9 minutes (2,577 words)

Alice is destroying my marriage. It began unexpectedly and accelerated quickly, and now we’re in the thick of a potentially ruinous interpersonal struggle. Kerry (my husband) sees it as a contest between my passion and his pragmatism. I do too, but not in a bad way. I look at it this way: Our marriage is like a seesaw, which fulfills its function by rocking back and forth. Alice, at the moment, is the teeter point. As such, she’s complicated. She is also the most gorgeous creature who ever lived.

Alice has curly hair, the color of oatmeal. Mornings she can be found basking in the sunlight that floods the two front rooms of our apartment, either on my daughter Lydia’s bed or on the living room carpet. In summer, the ash tree blooms and fills the windows, and our city apartment looks like a country house. Alice looks like a duchess, curled on the hearth. She knows that at 5 p.m., when I bring my radio into the kitchen and start making dinner, Lydia will be home soon. Our front door is thin enough that we hear everything in the outside hall — goodnight kisses, lovers’ spats, newspapers landing at our neighbors’ front doors. We are one floor above the lobby, and Alice’s ears flatten against her head when the downstairs doors squeak. Lydia often pauses in the vestibule between the first and second door to inspect the packages that the postman has dropped. Alice holds her breath in that pause, listening for what comes next, which is Lydia banging up the stairs to our door. She is a small child, but very bangy; each step announcing her after-school weariness. Alice, having been trained not to bark, stands at our door with barely constrained poise. She quivers. When the knob turns, she backs up, paws the ground, and emits a single yip. Lydia’s backpack crashes to the ground — it gets heavier every year — and the rituals of reunion commence. Alice licks Lydia’s face, Lydia massages Alice’s ears. Alice turns in circles, Lydia says, “OK, Alice, OK! ” She picks her up and cradles her, rubs Alice’s nose with her own. Lydia’s father comes up the stairs. Lydia gets Alice’s leash. When the three of them return from the park, we will eat.

People often make fun of small dogs like Alice. She is a teacup toy poodle, she is under 10 pounds, and people say, “That dog is the size of a rat.” Yes, I want to say, and you are the size of a Great Dane. So what? In an interview, President Obama once said something unkind about “little yappy” dogs and Michelle shut him down. All dogs are dogs. All dogs look silly and mournful when wet; all dogs have urgent ears. A small dog is as likely to sniff or cuddle or growl or bark as a large one. Across all breeds, there is a common dogness. People think big dogs express salt-of-the-earthness in their owners, something that speaks of mud and skinned knees and free-range parenting. They think little dogs, on the other hand, reveal their owners to be tacky, or frivolous, or worst of all girly, as if delicacy is the province of only one gender. Alice feels no pressure though; she doesn’t care how she looks. She can be both graceful and awkward. She is ethereal when she lifts her paw; she is clumsy when she roots in the wastebasket. When we catch her, she looks up, her jaws clenched around a tissue stained with lipstick or an emptied bag of kettle corn. “Drop it, Alice,” we say. She narrows her eyes. “Alice, drop it.” She places her treasure on the floor, as though it were a wounded sparrow. Then she slinks away, a little angry. Alice also likes to chew toes; she stations herself at the foot of the bed while we watch TV. She brings her kibble from the kitchen to the dining room table, eating it from the floor while we eat. She will lick the inside of your nose if you let her. She is a dog’s dog. She’s a little girl’s dog. She is our dog.

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For my husband, the problems with Alice are many. She is expensive and she requires too many walks — Kerry, being the most responsible member of the household ends up taking her for most of them. She wrecks midday carnal relations. She stares. When we lock her out, she whines at the bedroom door. Someday she may get sick, so sick that we can’t afford her care, and it will be two — three if you count Alice — against one, in favor of deepening our debt to save her. Kerry would of course want to save Alice, but Kerry also wants to pay our rent. Alice annoys approximately one half of the 12 or so tenants in the building — the French woman who receives right-wing mail and the guy who works out of his home as a medium are most likely the ones who have called management about her paws skidding on the hardwood floor at all hours. The gray-haired couple upstairs barely tolerates children; potentially incontinent creatures don’t mix with carpeted hallways. Our downstairs neighbor does like Alice, as does her cat Bubby, who glides up the stairs routinely to request stomach rubs from Lydia. When Alice came, Bubby knew he’d better make friends with her. We don’t know how the FBI agent on the fourth floor feels, because that’s her job.

She will lick the inside of your nose if you let her. She is a dog’s dog. She’s a little girl’s dog. She is our dog.

Kerry fears neighborly rage, our one-year lease, and NYC’s scarcity of affordable housing. Kerry is cautious, Kerry is careful, Kerry is against extra spending, which is something Lydia and I are very much for. Lydia and I like new paperbacks and take-out burritos and postcards from the museum gift shop. We like bringing flowers when we visit friends, and chocolate, too, and tea. We are not good with margins and austerity, though when we got Alice we promised to be better. I have taken on more work and Alice doesn’t eat the finest dog food or anything. We frequently have scrambled eggs for dinner. Still, Kerry worries.

For Lydia and me, there is only one problem with Alice: She doesn’t exist. Actually, she might, but if she does, we don’t know her yet. We might have seen her picture online, at one of the rescue sites we frequent, but maybe none of those dogs was Alice.

The other night, we fought over Alice. Lydia, to my pride and shame, moderated. “I understand how Daddy feels, because you told him Alice wouldn’t be for a while, and then you and I started in right away. I understand how Mommy feels, because Daddy can never be persuaded of anything, and it’s not like we can compromise and get only half a dog.”

In our wedding vows, Kerry promised we could get a dog. “Two dogs, we’ll have to talk about,” he added, meaning one dog was OK, I reminded him.

“I didn’t know about the wedding vow, Daddy,” Lydia said.

Kerry looked abashed. But then he said: “Someone has to worry about the routine responsibilities. Mommy does housework on impulse, whereas Daddy does all the scheduled events, like laundry. I don’t want to be the dog walker because I am the only one who can keep a schedule.”

“Won’t Alice ever pee on impulse?” Lydia asked.

“You’re not helping,” I said.

Alice has become a dark cloud for Kerry, a constant pre-ulcerous stomachache. He never used to worry about our desire to get a dog because there’s a big clause in our lease: NO DOGS. It’s on a separate page. NO DOGS gets its own page, stapled at the back.

But two weeks ago, Lydia asked me to ask, just to be sure. Kerry said good, that will be an end to it. I wrote to building management. They wrote back the following:

“Dogs are decided on a case-by-case basis. Tell us your plan and we’ll let you know.”

I started in my chair. For so long, we had sighed and complained to our friends: “Our building won’t allow dogs. We want one so badly!” Now, it was a case-by-case decision and suddenly, Alice appeared. Kerry’s face clouded, his shoulders tensed. “Don’t tell Lydia right away,” he pleaded. I told him I wouldn’t, I understood the pressures of a dog, I was not as gung ho as he thought, I wanted to be measured, to wait until we had more security, to wait until Lydia could walk a dog by herself. I thought I meant it. I did mean it. But Alice kept looking at me. She looked at me from my lap, and she looked out from Lydia’s arms where the two of them lay snuggled on a Saturday, sleeping in. She looked at Kerry too, with love in her eyes, teaching him how to love her back. She looked at me so much that I gave in and began looking too, not just at her, but for her.

Here’s why.

Last year Lydia’s first grade class did a months-long unit on families. The three of us almost ended up in therapy as a result. All the kids brought their parents and their siblings on their presentation days. Baby brothers crawled on the floor in diapers, big sisters described middle school. Lydia came home scowling. “Angela doesn’t have siblings,” I said. “Neither does Riley.” It was no use. It seemed that all other only children went on lots of vacations or were devoted to sports that kept them busy or lived in high-rises with lots of other kids who came over all the time to watch movies. I stopped reading books to Lydia that had siblings in them. Meet the Austins, Cheaper by the Dozen, The Saturdays, all these large-family books disappeared into my closet.

It festered through winter. I explained to Lydia again why she is an only child. Mommy suffered a near psychotic depression during pregnancy, we can’t afford a second child if we want to stay in Manhattan, or if she wants to go to a weekly ballet class, or for us to replace her shoes as her feet grow. The choice to have one child makes sense.

I asked other parents of onlies how they handled the pleading; most people said that it hadn’t come up, that their onlies liked their situation just fine. Meanwhile, my daughter had mastered pathos at a Dickensian level. The vortex of her longing sucked up small pleasures, blotted out the sun, made me ache for a pregnancy that I knew could do me in. With sudden clarity, I realized I was a failure at homemaking, for what is a home without lots and lots and lots of kids? There had to be noise and crashes at unexpected times, and club meetings on the stairs, and walking a scrappy little sister to school. My life was a sham, it was not full, it was a cruelty inflicted on my one precious child. I began taking antidepressants.

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Eventually, winter let up. Lydia attended dance camp and learned inappropriate songs. Friends slept over. They built forts and they fought and out of sight things crashed to the floor. We had dinner parties and the house got messy. I worked to keep our apartment as full and gay as possible. It became a habit. We became hosts. We threw a Christmas party and a New Year’s dinner. Then I googled successful only children. Daniel Radcliffe is an only child. So too, Cary Grant and Carol Burnett. I felt better, even triumphant.

In The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud writes about how a family of three never looks like a real family when they sit down to dinner. When I read that, I recognized the sentiment, and I felt worse.

Then, on a bus one spring day last year, I sat next to a woman who was holding a black poodle on her lap. She massaged the dog’s head with her thumb. We got to talking. I told her my child loved dogs, and I wanted to get her one. The woman replied that her daughter was an only child, and the dog was the best compensation she could think of. Indeed, she said, the dog had worked wonders.

In the play The Member of the Wedding, there is this line, distilled and poignant. Lonely Frankie says it about Janis and Jarvis, her brother and soon-to-be sister-in-law. “They are the we of me.” The three of us are already three, but a vision flared: Alice could make us three even more of a “we.”

Kerry said the other night that he married me partly because I don’t think things through and I married him partly because he does. He was angry that I had told Lydia the building said “maybe.” I had promised to keep it under my hat. I was angry because he doesn’t understand how much we need Alice. He said: “I thought you were a grown-up.” I said: “I thought you loved me.”

The three of us are already three, but a vision flared: Alice could make us three even more of a ‘we.’

I do wonder if I should have my head examined. Alice is obviously something more than a dog to me, she is some sort of promise, some dream deferred onto which I can project realization. She is the anti-lonely, the kinetic and frenetic to energize the quiet world of three, she is also peace at bedtime, Lydia maybe falling asleep at a normal hour. There is a time in life when our parents shape and define it, they set the terms of what is both normal and possible. Alice is a way to expand my powers, to convince myself that I can stretch our universe, place one more star inside its boundaries. I remind Kerry we could not afford Lydia, either. I remind him how much we had to adjust to walking her in the park, too. He reminds me that dogs and people are not the same, and I shoot back that that’s the point — we are not making another baby, we are merely adopting a dog. There is always a counterresponse; it is a fight between two equally sane points of view. That’s why Alice is pushing us apart. To Kerry, she’s the sword of Damocles. To me, she’s the final click on the lamp’s dial, the one that brings us to the brightest wattage possible for our home. We are both right. The domestic seesaw rocks.

For as long as I’ve known him, Kerry’s had a plan. He runs the numbers, he thinks ahead. Where we’ll eat dinner and what time the movie is playing and whether the bus or the subway will be faster today. He uses calendars and maps and software. He is calm and efficient and brainy. He has tried to teach me to stick to a plan, too, with some success. I, in turn, have coaxed him to surrender, to trust that even unpredictable pleasures can be counted on: I am forever changing the plan, but I am always here. Little dogs yip and run around in circles and confuse the situation of your life. But they also build their world around you, and if you can endure the noise and motion, you get all those lovely kisses. To me, this is the perfect plan, the stable and the kinetic, forever in pursuit of each other. That’s us. That’s family. That’s Alice.

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Leslie Kendall Dye is a writer and actress in New York City. Her work has appeared at The New York Times, The Washington Post, Salon, Vela, Electric Literature, SELF, The LA Review of Books, and others. She is at work on a memoir about mothers, daughters, drugs, and show business.

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Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Jacob Gross

Science Says Life is Better in Intentional Communities

(AP Photo/Missourian, Joshua A. Bickel)

Intentional communities geared to gender parity, equal division of labor, and a simpler way of life are proliferating in the United States. Rejecting consumerism and capitalism, communities tend their own livestock, gardens, and facilities, and share among themselves. And, according to researchers, members of intentional communities score highly on the Satisfaction with Life Scale — higher in fact than 30 of 31 different cohorts under study. Why? As Mike Mariani reports at The New York Times Style Magazine, intentional community members have strong social connections and a meaningful existence spent in nature, not to mention a much smaller carbon footprint than average people.

The members of East Wind, for example, range in age from infancy to 76: Some have lived here for more than three decades, but around half of the population is part of a new wave, people in their late 20s and early 30s who joined in the last four years. These newer residents moved to East Wind to wean themselves off fossil fuels, grow their own food, have a greater say in how their society is run and live in less precarious financial circumstances.

Even in the dead of winter, the property is stunning, with its undulating textures of ridges, glades and limestone escarpments. It was obvious how living here could reconnect people to the land, letting them hike, climb, swim and harvest in a way that is beyond reach for most Americans. As we passed a three-story dormitory painted Egyptian blue, Nichols told me that, as a college student in the late 2000s, he tumbled down what he calls the “climate change research hole,” reading websites that pored over grim scientific projections about an increasingly warmer planet. He’d joined the Bloomington, Indiana, chapter of the Occupy movement for a while, but saw the blaze of indignation dwindle to fumes without any lasting political victories. Afterward, Nichols felt wholly disillusioned by the corporations and government organizations that he felt had a stranglehold on his life. “It’s going to go how it goes,” he recalled thinking, so “how do you want to live in it?” After discovering several intentional communities online — many find East Wind and others through simple Google searches — he concluded that joining one was “just a more comfortable way of living right now.”

IN 2017 BJORN GRINDE and Ranghild Bang Nes, researchers with the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, co-authored a paper on the quality of life among North Americans living in intentional communities. Along with David Sloan Wilson, director of the evolutionary studies program at Binghamton University, and Ian MacDonald, a graduate assistant, they contacted more than 1,000 people living in 174 communities across the U.S. and Canada and asked them to rate their happiness level on the Satisfaction With Life Scale (SWLS), a globally recognized measurement tool. They compared these results to a widely cited 2008 study by the psychologists William Pavot and Ed Diener, which surveyed past studies that used the scale to analyze 31 disparate populations — including Dutch adults, French-Canadian university students and the Inuit of northern Greenland — and discovered that members of intentional communities scored higher than 30 of the 31 groups. Living in an intentional community, the authors concluded, “appears to offer a life less in discord with the nature of being human compared to mainstream society.” They then hypothesized why that might be: “One, social connections; two, sense of meaning; and three, closeness to nature.”

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Can Japan Break Its Addiction to Disposable Packaging?

The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images

Japan is infamous for its excessive, often elaborate, plastic packaging. Want a single slice of cake? At a department store, it will likely come in a box graced with an ice pack and plastic utensil, wrapped in a bag which is wrapped in another bag that gets taped shut, even if you want to eat it a few feet from the point of purchase, even if you request, “No bag, please.” With the system stacked against ecologically minded consumers, how can people opt out of all this and reduce the waste they generate from supermarkets, restaurants, and convenience stores? For The Japan Times, journalist Andrew McKirdy collected all the disposable waste he generated in a week, from straws to bottles to shopping bags, then tried to spend a week without using single-use plastic. Experts warned him it would be tough. It was.

I then beat a hasty retreat from a bakery whose products are all pre-wrapped, then buy a tomato, five potatoes, a carrot, an onion, a jar of jam and a can of tomatoes at a supermarket. The cashier is unconcerned when I say I don’t want a bag, but she looks at me like I’m some kind of eccentric when I say I don’t want my potatoes placed in a smaller plastic bag either.

I am beginning to feel slightly embarrassed, and that only increases when I buy three slices of ham at a different supermarket’s delicatessen counter. The clerk agrees to wrap them in paper, but he tells me they might fall out if he doesn’t then put the package in a plastic bag. When I ask him not to, he looks at me like I’m a full-blown lunatic.

There is another awkward moment when I buy a baguette and a smaller piece of bread at a bakery. The clerk puts the baguette in a paper bag but puts the other piece of bread in a plastic bag. My request to put both in paper is met with confusion, and as I’ve had enough of making a fuss in shops that I often visit, I smile, accept defeat and take my plastic-wrapped bread back home.

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At Mrs. Balbir’s

Getty / Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Jillian Dunham | Longreads | January 2020 | 12 minutes (3,036 words)

I sat on the edge of the bed in my hotel room in Bangkok and dialed. Below me, longboats and water taxis bounced across the Chao Phraya like motorized toys. As much as I wanted for someone to answer the phone, for something to happen, I also hoped that it would go on ringing forever. I was nervous about contact.

The voice that answered startled me with its warmth. “This is Mrs. Balbir,” she answered. I explained that my aunt and I were interested in the Thai cooking classes she taught, listed in my Lonely Planet. “I teach out of my home,” she explained, and proceeded to give me directions. “Tell the taxi to go towards the end of Sukhumvit Soi 15,” she explained. She described the courtyard in which she lived and the tiny sign outside that identified her building. “Come a little early, we’ll have tea and talk,” she said, her voice sweet but a little unnerving, like a blurry bird’s. It was as if we were already acquainted. I didn’t wait for her to hang up first.
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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Michael Barajas, Evan Ratliff, Andrew Mckirdy, Raffi Khatchadourian, and Agnes Callard.

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1. The Prison Inside Prison

Michael Barajas | Texas Observer | January 21, 2020 | 25 minutes (6,335 words)

Decades with no personal contact, no way back into the general prison population, cut off from the possibility of parole — solitary confinement is an ongoing experiment in cruelty on human subjects.

2. The Mysterious Lawyer X

Evan Ratliff | The California Sunday Magazine | January 16, 2020 | 48 minutes (12,100 words)

Nicola Gobbo defended Melbourne’s most notorious criminals at the height of a gangland war. They didn’t know she had a secret.

3. Throwaway Society: Rejecting a Life Consumed by Plastic

Andrew McMirdy | The Japan Times | January 10, 2020 | 9 minutes (2,465 words)

Japan is the second-biggest producer of plastic waste per capita, after the US. One journalist tries to spend a week without using single-use plastic and discovers how dependent Japan’s food system has become on disposable plastic.

4. N.K. Jemisin’s Dream Worlds

Raffi Khatchadourian | The New Yorker | January 20, 2020 | 26 minutes (6,746 words)

In Raffi Khatchadourian’s New Yorker profile, N.K. Jemisin recounts the racism she witnessed as a child in Alabama in the ’80s, as well as racism — editorial and otherwise — that she has lived through in her career.

5. Who Wants to Play the Status Game?

Agnes Callard | The Point | January 16, 2020 | 6 minutes (1,549 words)

Hi, nice to meet you, are we playing the Importance Game or the Leveling Game? With a skilled player, it’s hard to tell one from the other.

The Early Years of Elif Batuman’s Interest in Russian Authors

AP Photo/Charles Krupa

What if author Leo Tolstoy was murdered? Consider the evidence: late in life, the great Russian author started ending his daily journal entries with the phrase “If I am alive.” He and his wife, Countess Sophia Andreyevna Tolstaya, fought so much he wrote his novella The Kreutzer Sonata about a husband who murdered his wife. (Granted, Tolstoy did give her his diaries, which detailed his sexual escapades, including the fact that he’d a child with a serf who lived on their property.) He had an associate who was trying to get control of the copyrights to his early manuscripts. Tolstoy’s wife made a strange statement on her deathbed. These are the puzzle pieces that a young Stanford student named Elif Batuman used to investigate the circumstances of Tolstoy’s death.

Before Batuman started writing for The New Yorker, she harbored a profound interest in the famed Russian author. At Granta, Batuman recounts her wild academic goose chase and how it led her to the ranks of other Tolstoyans at the International Tolstoy Conference in Russia. The four days she spent wearing sweatpants and flip-flops after her luggage got lost en route to Russia is the tip of the iceberg. This piece is a comic examination of both a subculture and of the depths of her own youthful imagination, which became her first book, The Possessed, about the people obsessed with Russia’s great authors.

The morning panel was devoted to comparisons of Tolstoy and Rousseau. I tried to pay attention, but I couldn’t stop thinking about snakes. Perhaps Tolstoy had been killed by some kind of venom?

‘The French critic Roland Barthes has said that the least productive subject in literary criticism is the dialogue between authors,’ began the second speaker. ‘Nonetheless, today I am going to talk about Tolstoy and Rousseau.’

I remembered a Sherlock Holmes story in which an heiress in Surrey is found in the throes of a fatal conniption, gasping, ‘It was the band! The speckled band!’ Dr. Watson assumes that she was killed by a band of Gypsies who were camping on the property, and who wore polka-dotted kerchiefs. But Watson is wrong. The heiress’s words actually referred to the rare spotted Indian adder introduced into her bedroom through a ventilation shaft by her wicked stepfather.

The heiress’s dying words, ‘the speckled band,’ represent one of the early instances of the ‘clue’ in detective fiction. Often, a clue is a signifier with multiple significations: a band of Gypsies, a handkerchief, an adder. But if the ‘speckled band’ is a clue, I wondered drowsily, what is the snake? There was a loud noise and I jerked upright. The Tolstoy scholars were applauding. The second speaker had finished her talk and was pushing the microphone along the conference table to her neighbor.

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Inking Against Invisibility

Christopher Malcolm / Getty, Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Talia Hibbert | Longreads | January 2020 | 8 minutes (2102 words)

When people see my tattoos, they ask me, “Did it hurt?”

My mind says, “That depends. Do you know what hurt is?” because my mind has a bad attitude and a flare for the dramatic.

My mouth mumbles, “Not really,” because my mouth is shy.

Honestly, I’m never sure what people mean when they say “hurt.” Most of the world is visited by pain; I’m handcuffed to it. I’ll describe it to you on the day you tell me what it’s like to breathe.

Another favored question is, “What do your tattoos mean?”

Most people are astonished and appalled when I say, “Nothing.” They can’t believe I don’t know what kind of flowers are inked on my right shoulder, or the species of the bird on my shoulder blade. They’re horrified to hear I have no particular fondness for octopuses, as if the one living on my left thigh might take offense. I rarely explain that the word ICON is tattooed onto my ribs because one day, while in an especially good mood, I heard Jaden Smith’s Icon and was delighted by the unapologetic rap-god arrogance. Aside from anything else, society generally disapproves of arrogance — but I needed it. My body needed it.

Some days, we still do.

The complicated truth is that the story behind each tattoo’s design means far less to me than my decision to get tattoos in the first place. Yes, they hurt. They stung and scratched and burned, some places worse than others, but I barely noticed. And if you read that sentence in a grim, rage-y, action hero voice — good, because that’s how I said it. I’m Judge Dredd the Barbarian Warrior Princess, also known as a sufferer of chronic pain. Ink marks the sites of my major physical trauma, because for years, people tried to tell me that trauma wasn’t there.
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Why the 9/11 Families May Never Get Closure

OSAKA, JAPAN - JUNE 29: U.S. President, Donald Trump (L) meets Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud (L) on the sidelines of the second day of the G20 Summit at INTEX Osaka Exhibition Center in Osaka, Japan on June 29, 2019. (Photo by Bandar Algaloud / Saudi Kingdom Council / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Of the 19 hijackers who carried out the 9/11 attacks, 15 were Saudis, but what role (if any) did the Saudi government play in the scheme? While a small team of FBI agents has been trying to uncover the truth, other parts of the FBI are determined to keep possible Saudi connections secret. Why? As Tim Golden and Sebastian Rotella report in a joint investigation by The New York Times Magazine and ProPublica, President Trump’s not keen on something that might imperil “good relations with Saudi Arabia.”‘ Will the families of those who died as a result of the attacks ever get closure?

On the morning of Sept. 11 last year, about two dozen family members of those killed in the terror attacks filed into the White House to visit with President Trump. It was a choreographed, somewhat stiff encounter, in which each family walked to the center of the Blue Room to share a moment of conversation with Trump and the first lady, Melania Trump, before having a photograph taken with the first couple. Still, it was an opportunity the visitors were determined not to squander.

One after another, the families asked Trump to release documents from the F.B.I.’s investigation into the 9/11 plot, documents that the Justice Department has long fought to keep secret. After so many years they needed closure, they said. They needed to know the truth. Some of the relatives reminded Trump that Presidents Bush and Obama blocked them from seeing the files, as did some of the F.B.I. bureaucrats the president so reviled. The visitors didn’t mention that they hoped to use the documents in a current federal lawsuit that accuses the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — an American ally that has only grown closer under Trump — of complicity in the attacks.

The president promised to help. “It’s done,” he said, reassuring several visitors. Later, the families were told that Trump ordered the attorney general, William P. Barr, to release the name of a Saudi diplomat who was linked to the 9/11 plot in an F.B.I. report years earlier. Justice Department lawyers handed over the Saudi official’s name in a protected court filing that could be read only by lawyers for the plaintiffs. But Barr dashed the families’ hopes. In a statement to the court on Sept. 12, he insisted that other documents that might be relevant to the case had to be protected as state secrets. Their disclosure, he wrote, risked “significant harm to the national security.”

Washington’s efforts to keep secrets about possible Saudi connections to 9/11 have also intensified. Former F.B.I. agents who have made court statements in support of the 9/11 families have been warned by the bureau that they risk violating secrecy laws. Kenneth Williams — a retired agent who wrote a prescient memo before 9/11 about radical Arab students taking flying lessons in possible preparation for hijackings — said in a sworn declaration for the plaintiffs that an F.B.I. lawyer told him that the Trump administration did not want him to help them because it could imperil “good relations with Saudi Arabia.” (The F.B.I. declined to comment.)

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Eating To Save My Mind


Claire Fitzsimmons | Longreads | January 2020 | 18 minutes (3,796 words)

I’m at my neighbor’s house for a Super Bowl party. Taylor is a wonderful cook and a generous host. We’ve had Thanksgiving and Christmas with her family, and there’s an abundance of other Pinterest-worthy spreads we’ve indulged in. 

The girl can cook, and today she’s excelling in her field. There are loaded potato skins with chili and all the toppings. Bursting filled jalapeños and chip ‘n’ dips. Coffee tables, side tables, table tables groan under food. Feet are up, eyes forward, mouths open, as our American friends fulfill their patriotic duty by stuffing themselves in front of a sporting event.

I’m way out of my depth and ill at ease. I’m trying not to look at The Food. And I am definitely trying not to catch Taylor’s eye as I avoid everything on offer. But she is noticing, and she’s got me: “You’re not eating.” 

 “Oh,” I say. “Oh.”

 Then I offer, apologetically, “I’m on Whole30.” 
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