The Longreads Blog

Behind the Story: Mailee Osten-Tan on Reporting on Gender Confirmation Surgery in Thailand

A patient in a blue and pink dress lays out estrogen injection materials on a hotel room bed.
Penny from New York City, who had gender confirmation surgery (GCS) at the Preecha Aesthetic Institute (PAI) in Bangkok, lays out estrogen injection materials on a bed. All photographs by Mailee Osten-Tan.

By Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Since the first operation in Bangkok in 1975, Thailand has become one of the top destinations for gender confirmation surgery (GCS). But what drives people to seek trans healthcare in Thailand, and why would so many patients rather fly across the world for the procedure than do it in their home countries? In her new story for Longreads, “Finding a Path in a Broken System,” Bangkok-based visual journalist Mailee Osten-Tan explores these questions and more. She spent the past year researching and reporting this feature, speaking with 15 trans women around the world about their experiences. I asked Osten-Tan about what attracts her to a story, the challenges she faced working on this piece, and her creative approach as a visual storyteller.

* * *

Your work spans written and multimedia features, on a range of issues in Thailand and abroad. What do you look for when you search for a project?

Other stories by Osten-Tan: a piece on leatherback turtles returning to Thailand to nest, a story about a rural village in the Loei province at odds with a goldmine, and a short film about a rape and sexual assault responder in Maine.

Growing up in a mixed-race immigrant family in a majority white area in the U.K., I have always felt like I occupied a space somewhere on the periphery — not quite part of the community around me but not completely divorced from it either. The older I become, the more I understand this to be a fundamental part of human nature; that all of us are in various ways searching to find our place in society and to feel like we belong. I think that’s why I find stories of people from marginalized communities, or those in the process of defining themselves, so compelling. Discrimination is often at its core political, but I’m more interested in how discrimination impacts lived human experiences. Wanting the acceptance of others is so universally relatable that it can be an important entry point for anti-discrimination advocacy. I also love visual journalism because it opens doors to worlds I would never otherwise interact with. For example, for Al Jazeera, I’m currently working on a photography feature about a woman cockfighting bird breeder in the north of Thailand, breaking into a very traditionally masculine sport. Read more…

Finding a Path in a Broken System

Woman behind a curtain, looking out a window
Amy, who flew from the U.K. to Thailand for gender confirmation surgery, gazes out the window of a hotel room in Bangkok. All photographs in this story by Mailee Osten-Tan.

Mailee Osten-Tan | Longreads | June 2022 | 7,449 words (27 minutes)

 

CW: This story mentions depression, suicide, and isolation, and discusses different types of gender confirmation surgery and recovery procedures in graphic detail.

Go behind the scenes of this story in our Q&A with Mailee Osten-Tan.

As Amy (not her real name) walks toward the immigration hall in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, she is visibly nervous. The long glass corridors, rows of fluorescent lights reflecting off plastic face shields, and sound of crinkling white protective suits make her feel like she’s entered a science fiction film. She is presented with a small number tag and guided toward neatly spaced plastic seats where she waits for her documents to be inspected. The airport is almost completely empty: echoey, eerie.

It is July 3, 2021, and there are reports of 6,230 new cases of COVID-19 in Thailand today. But Amy’s anxiety is not the result of an 18-hour flight in the middle of a pandemic to a country — and a part of the world — she has never visited before. Being denied entry would create yet another stumbling block, another frustrating barrier, to what has already felt like a never-ending process. She is here to receive gender confirmation surgery (GCS), a procedure she has been dreaming about since childhood and for which she has been planning for six long years. Like an object on a conveyor belt, she has already passed through four different airport checkpoints — each time she scrutinizes the memory of her own documentation for one typo, one incorrectly filled form. When an immigration officer finally stamps her passport, she feels a cold wave of relief.

* Osten-Tan spoke to 15 trans women for this story. Among this group, one person had surgery in the U.K. through the NHS, two opted for surgery in the U.S., and another did not have GCS.

Amy is not alone. Since the first operation in 1975, Thailand has gained a reputation as the global expert in this niche field: Foreigners made up 90% of GCS patients between 2010 and 2012. But what is driving this thriving industry in the country goes well beyond the comparatively low cost of care. Over a period of six months, I spoke to a group of trans women* to better understand why many would rather fly halfway across the world than receive GCS at home. Coming from the U.S., the U.K., Norway, Bulgaria, Israel, Canada, and Australia, and facing different personal and social circumstances, they were united in their conviction that their home countries had not presented them with good options and that they had to take matters into their own hands. Read more…

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Domestic cat in house looking through window at European robin
Domestic cat in house looking through window at European robin (Erithacus rubecula) in garden. (Getty Images)

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

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1. “I’m Still Alive but Sh*t Is Getting Wild”: Inside the Siege of the Amarula

Alex Perry | Outside | June 1st, 2022 | 20,187 words

Stop me if you’ve heard the plot before: Westerners descend on Africa in search of valuable natural resources, hellish chaos ensues. This version of the story, though, is far more complicated. For one, it sets the predatory global remote-construction industry — in this case, working to establish infrastructure for imported natural-gas workers in Mozambique — on a collision course with a local ISIS affiliate known as Al Shabab. On the other, it culminates in a series of events that’s as maddening as it is hopeful as it is tragic. Alex Perry manages to reconstruct a multi-day standoff and escape attempt with cinematic exactitude, folding in centuries of context and colonialism to create a marathon piece that leaves you exhausted in more ways than one. —PR

2. Tell the Kids I Love Them

Jeremy Redmon | Oxford American | June 1st, 2022 | 3,695 words

Donald Lee Redmon was a husband and father, a man with a sharp, dry wit. He was a decorated Vietnam war combat veteran, and an accomplished member of the U.S. Air Force who took his own life after a diagnosis of total disability. In this essay at Oxford American, his son Jeremy, who was a teenager at the time of his father’s death, explains how he became a journalist and entered the military to try to understand the singular event that had shaped his life. “But after studying everything I have gathered about him, I have formed my own beliefs about his decision. His illness caused him severe pain, robbed him of his ability to support himself and his family in uniform as he had for seventeen years, and drove him into a deep depression.” Jeremy Redmon maintains that despite the anguish and unanswered questions, his father’s death has shaped him in unexpected ways. “My father’s suicide carved a deep gash in me. Though that wound has been a source of intense pain, it has also given me a greater capacity to experience joy. These are the best days of my life.” —KS

3. On The Woes of Being Addicted to Streaming

Jeremy D. Larson | Pitchfork | May 23rd, 2022 | 3,423 words

During a recent audit of the subscriptions we pay for, my husband suggested we cancel our Spotify accounts, something I’ve been considering for months. Among other things, I miss the satisfying, deeper journey of listening to albums — of listening with intention. Even so, I shuddered at the idea of getting rid of the streaming service. In this piece, Jeremy D. Larson explores the loss of the “textured and unique connections” we used to have to music, the homogenizing effects of playlists that are seemingly curated for us (when, in fact, we’re all just stuck in Spotify’s “mushy middle,” serviced the same popular tracks over and over), and the “fabricated reality” of the app. “I have personalized my experience enough to feel like this is my music, but I know that’s not really true,” writes Larson. Is Spotify an addiction? Has it changed our lives? Sounds dramatic, but the answer to both is yes. Larson’s piece reminds me of other thoughtful essays, by Jason Guriel and Kyle Chayka, on consumption in the age of streams and algorithms. Dive into all of these for a nice mini reading list on the topic. —CLR

4. A Once-in-a-Lifetime Bird

Kevin Nguyen | The Verge | May 31st, 2022 | 6,040 words

I would not call myself a bird watcher. I do not own binoculars, do not have a bird app on my phone, and do not conduct many bird-related discussions. However, underneath this nonchalance, there may be a twitcher waiting to get out. Each spring, I am delighted to dust off my bird feeder and quickly get to know my regulars. If someone different appears it’s an event, and I will sweep to the window, phone in hand, ready to google the new guy. According to environmental educator Sheridan Alford, I am already part of the birding gang: “To see a bird is to bird!” This inclusivity is what Kevin Nguyen finds as he explores the birding world. He also discovers joy, with everyone keen to tell him about their “spark” moment — that instant you see something that inspires you to be a birder for life. Nguyen’s case study, Chris Michaud, even uses birding to get through alcoholism, a breakup, and lymphoma, reaching a birding pinnacle when he sees a redwing, his “once-in-a-lifetime bird.” Redwings are common in Europe but had not been seen in America. This one was no Christopher Columbus however — it only reached new lands because a low-pressure system had flung it across the Atlantic, an increasing issue due to climate change. Nguyen points out the irony: Thousands of people totted up their carbon footprint trying to see this unusual bird — only there because of us. —CW

5. It’s 10 P.M. Do You Know Where Your Cat Is?

Egill Bjarnason | Hakai Magazine | May 17th, 2022 / 3,900 words

I am writing this blurb with my cat, Trouble, sitting on my lap, as is her wont lately during work hours. Once upon a time she preferred to nestle between my husband’s arms while he typed on his laptop. What changed? Who knows. Cats are fickle. They are wonderful. They are also, as this essay details, murderous. With equal doses of love, humor, and scientific data, Egill Bjarnason illuminates the danger that free-roaming (aka outdoor) cats pose to other species they see as prey — birds, namely, which are especially vulnerable on islands like Iceland, where Bjarnason lives. In cultures accustomed to letting cats prowl in yards and alleys, coming inside only when they please, the notion of keeping them indoors at all times or, as some towns in Iceland are making a matter of policy, after an evening curfew can feel like a betrayal. How to navigate this conundrum? Bjarnason offers some suggestions. I for one am happy to keep Trouble in our apartment, where she routinely directs her killer instinct at the mice that sometimes take up residence under our stove. My husband once claimed, his eyes wide in horror, that he witnessed her swallow one of them whole. RIP Mr. Mouse, but better you than a rare bird. —SD

A Carefully Constructed Li(f)e

Triptych frame of black and white photographs
Photo of Howard Farley Jr. Courtesy of the The Atavist Magazine.

Greg Donahue |  The Atavist Magazine | May 2022 | 8 minutes (2,274 words)

This is an excerpt from The Atavist’s issue no. 127, “The Fugitive Next Door.”

 

The Atavist Magazine, our sister site, publishes one deeply reported, elegantly designed story each month. Support The Atavist by becoming a member.

On the morning of December 2, 2020, Tim Brown got up early to start a fire. The night before, an unseasonable cold front had descended on Love’s Landing, Florida, where Brown lived with his wife, Duc Hanh Thi Vu. By 8 a.m., the mercury in the thermometer had yet to reach 40 degrees. At the bottom of the cul-de-sac where the couple lived, a thin layer of frost glistened on the long grass runways that extended through the quiet neighborhood: Love’s Landing is a private aviation community, home to pilots, plane engineers, and flying enthusiasts.

As heat from the fireplace warmed the house, Brown headed to the small hangar he’d built right outside. Nearly everyone in Love’s Landing owned a plane, and Brown was no exception. He’d just had the engine of his gleaming Tecnam P2008 replaced, and despite the chill in the air, the morning was shaping up to be calm and clear. Perfect weather to take the plane up.

A carpenter by trade, Brown had spent much of his life enjoying the outdoors. In his younger days, he was an expert scuba diver and deep-sea fisherman. But now, at 66, his age had finally caught up with him. His close-cropped hair had gone gray, and health issues had him in and out of the hospital. During the past year alone, he’d suffered two heart attacks. Flying offered the chance, as Brown put it, “to continue the fun.” He’d fallen in love with aviation years earlier, after taking a charter trip with friends in Alaska. Flying sure beat staring at the trees on either side of the road, he said. This was the kind of enthusiastic attitude that made Brown popular in Love’s Landing. Soon after moving there in 2017, he and Vu became, as a neighbor put it, “one of the best-liked couples in the airpark.”

Brown had just raised the hangar door when an unmarked Dodge Durango roared into the driveway, along with a Marion County police cruiser. As Brown turned toward the commotion, a law enforcement agent in a tactical vest leapt out of the SUV. He was pointing an MK18 short-barreled automatic rifle at Brown’s face. “Step back! Raise your hands!” the agent shouted.

Brown did as he was told. Officers from a half-dozen federal agencies were fanning out across the property. “Are you Tim Brown?” the lead officer demanded as he approached the hangar. Brown nodded. “I’ve got a warrant for your arrest,” the officer said. Agents moved in formation to clear the hangar and headed toward the main house to execute a search warrant.

Brown’s neighbors would later recount their confusion at the fleet of official vehicles facing every which way in the street. No one knew what Brown had done. But whatever they imagined, the truth was almost certainly stranger.

For the previous 35 years, Tim Brown had been living a carefully constructed lie. He wasn’t just an aging retiree with a passion for aviation. In fact, he wasn’t Tim Brown at all. His real name was Howard Farley Jr., and law enforcement alleged that he’d been the leader of one of the largest drug-trafficking rings in Nebraska history.

As he was placed under arrest, a wry grin spread across his face. “I had mentally prepared myself for being caught,” he would later say. “When it happened, with men pointing guns at me, the only thing to do was smile.”


PART ONE

Growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska, Howard Farley was what you might call a gearhead: a blue-collar kid with a knack for the mechanical. He was born in 1948, the fourth of five children, and spent much of his youth honing his engineering skills. He built award-winning model cars and a playhouse for his hamsters dubbed the Sugar Shack. Later, he crafted an RV out of an old school bus.

Boyishly handsome, with a wide Leave It to Beaver grin and prominent ears, Farley was popular in school and had a roguish quality that endeared him to most everyone he met. He was also restless. Life at home was complicated. When he was in his early teens, his mother abandoned the family, and Farley’s father was stuck with a house full of kids. Farley was devastated. “It left a profound loss of motherly love and guidance during critical teenage and adult years,” his elder sister Beverly later wrote.

In high school, Farley fell in with a rebellious crowd. “Mine were more the fun-loving guys that rode their motorcycles to school, dated the cheerleaders, and had keg parties on the weekends,” he said. When friends came to visit him at the grocery store where he sometimes worked, he would bag up steak after steak without ringing them up. “He always had a bit of a hustle,” said one friend, intending it as a compliment.

In September 1965, Farley experienced his first brush with the law. Like a lot of Midwestern kids his age he liked cars, and in those days the best place for cruising was Dodge Street in Omaha. A generation of Nebraska youth spent their evenings making the loop between Tiner’s Drive-In on 44th and Todd’s on 77th, showing off their rides and gorging themselves on 65-cent burgers. Sometimes they staged drag races. When police arrived on one such occasion, Farley attempted to flee, driving at nearly 100 miles per hour. His date in the passenger seat begged him to stop. In the ensuing chase, police fired on Farley’s car, and a bullet hit the girl in the jaw. Farley was quickly arrested. His license was suspended, and he was sentenced to a year of probation. The girl survived, and later sued Farley for $25,000 dollars. He was 16 years old.

Farley got his act together enough to capitalize on his mechanical abilities—soon after he graduated high school, he was hired full-time at the sprawling Burlington Northern rail yards. In those days, rail work paid well. Engineers earned an annual salary of about $30,000, or $160,000 today. For Farley, the money must have felt like a dream. He quickly moved up the ladder at work. Before long he was driving trains from Lincoln to Sioux City and Creston, Iowa. The hours were long and tedious, but he was a natural. “He was built for it,” said Tyrone Baskin, a friend from high school who also worked the rails.

Farley fathered a child with Christine Schleis, a high school girlfriend, and married her. Their union was rocky from the beginning. “We were not a good match,” Schleis said. “It was just something that happened. You got pregnant, you got married. There was no question.” Schleis came from a cultured, well-traveled family. It was a world apart from Farley’s upbringing.

The couple named their daughter Amy—three letters in honor of her three-pound birth weight. While Schleis stayed home with the baby, Farley took up skydiving and partied hard. In 1969, he and another man were arrested for burglarizing a local carpeting business. It’s unclear what role Farley played in the crime; the charges were later reduced to accessory after the fact. Eventually, Farley became disillusioned with life in Lincoln. He took a job with a railroad company in Alaska, leaving behind his wife and daughter. By 1970, he and Schleis were ready to file for divorce.

Over the next 15 years, Farley divided his time between Alaska, Washington, and Florida, where he lived when he wasn’t working the rails up north. He married again, got another divorce. Occasionally, family drama drew him back to Nebraska, but he never stayed long. “He was an adrenaline junkie,” said an old friend. “I don’t think that changed.”

Perhaps he saw drug trafficking as an outlet for his restlessness. According to a source who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, Farley was introduced to a man who had experience in the drug trade. The man explained to Farley that someone who traveled as frequently as he did could make a fortune—all he had to do was bring drugs along on his trips. “That’s how Howard found out what to do and how to do it,” the source told me.

By the early 1980s, Farley had quit the railroad business and relocated to Lake Worth, Florida, a beach town about 60 miles north of Miami. He told Baskin, his high school friend, that he’d saved $30,000 dollars and was going to “go for it,” investing the money in a shipment of cocaine and flipping it for big bucks. There was no better place than Florida to put his new plan into action. It was the height of the Miami Vice–era drug boom, and Farley had little trouble finding himself a supplier. “I think an opportunity just presented itself, and he jumped on it and made the most out of it,” Baskin said.

Farley started ferrying drugs to contacts in Nebraska and Alaska. In the beginning it was a largely insular affair; he was mostly supplying former coworkers and friends— “single railroaders making a lot of money,” as one of Farley’s Nebraska customers put it. Sometimes, Farley asked friends to mail packages of coke using FedEx and kept his fingers crossed that they’d reach their destination undetected. Other times he brought the drugs with him on a plane—he booked super-saver flights to keep costs down. At least twice, according to Baskin, Farley drove his Saab from Florida to Alaska and back again, stopping in Lincoln along the way north. “He probably left some [drugs] with people to distribute here,” Baskin said. “Then he’d take what was left and transport it on to Alaska.”

Before long, Farley was laying over in Lincoln with larger and larger amounts of blow. It was the tail end of the disco era, and demand was high. But Farley wasn’t dealing grams to strangers in the bar. He sought out distribution partners among friends and family, people he could trust. His sister Mary, who at one time sold lingerie and sex toys, and her husband, Gerry Machado, got involved. According to prosecutors, Farley used their house in Lincoln for storage and sales. High school friends joined in. Among them were Baskin, Robert Frame, and John Kahler, all Vietnam War veterans who had returned from combat with varying degrees of drug addiction. Farley taught them how to cut the high-grade coke he brought from Florida with inositol, a type of sugar, to increase the volume and make more money selling it. His friends gave Farley his cut of sales whenever he was in town “He didn’t take chances,” said Baskin. “He made sure he knew the people he dealt with or they had been friends a long time.”

Farley wasn’t the only person supplying drugs in Lincoln. Coke dealing had become a cottage industry among hard-partying railroaders. Clyde Meyer, a Burlington Northern engineer, ran an operation out of his house on the city’s west side. Like Farley, Meyer had started small. “I think he slowly got into it and then got too deep,” said Colleen Nuss, whose boyfriend once lived in a spare room at Meyer’s house. Nuss was a teenager at the time. “I remember going there one night just to get a little bit of pot and there were drugs and women,” Nuss recalled. Unlike Farley’s supply, Meyer’s coke came from Colorado, but users didn’t care about a product’s origin once it hit the street.

By 1984, Farley’s efforts had paid off in a big way. An acquaintance who asked not to be named remembered going to Farley’s mother’s house and seeing bricks of cocaine piled high in a closet. “He was definitely worth seven figures by that time, easily,” the person said. Another friend remembered Farley stashing wads of cash in safe-deposit boxes across south Florida. Court records have him receiving payments of $80,000 or $100,000 in a single go.

Still in his early thirties, Farley had found a quick way to fund the adventurous life he’d always dreamed of, and he had done it on his own terms. He wasn’t flashy or aggressive. In fact, he appeared to take a generally relaxed approach to the drug trade. “There was no viciousness there,” Nuss said. Farley and his crew “were just super mellow, like hippies.”

In Florida, Farley took up watersports; he turned out to be a talented diver and fisherman. He partied at Harry’s Banana Farm, a legendary dive in Lake Worth. He talked about going legit. He wanted to buy a boat and start a business chartering passengers around Florida and the Caribbean.

But Farley also began planning for a different kind of future. In 1982, he filed an application for a Social Security number in the name of Timothy Terry Brown, a three-month-old child who had died after a short illness in January 1955. Farley found the name while looking through microfilm of old newspapers at the library. The idea of taking a dead child’s identity was less risky than it sounds. People born in the 1950s often waited until they were in their teens or early twenties before applying for a Social Security number. Farley’s fraudulent application was submitted nearly 30 years after Brown’s birth, but that didn’t seem to bother a likely overworked civil servant. After the Social Security card arrived in the mail, Farley acquired a Florida driver’s license, a birth certificate, and a passport in Brown’s name.

It’s unclear whether Farley sensed trouble ahead or was just being prudent. Either way, he was attuned to the risks that his line of work entailed. In a few years, he had become one of Lincoln’s major drug suppliers. It was only a matter of time before law enforcement took notice.

Read the full story at The Atavist.

‘We Are Everywhere’: A Reading List for the Queer South

Costumed figures walk down Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras, New Orleans, Louisiana, early 1950s.
Costumed figures walk down Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras, New Orleans, Louisiana, early 1950s. (Photo by Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

By Spencer George

The first person I kissed was a boy, on a beach, late in the evening. The stars were bright overhead, his mouth tasted like tobacco, and I remember thinking that one day I would kiss someone and I would hope that it would never end. It was summer in the American South and the air was sticky with rain. Sometimes, standing in it, I would find myself hoping for the clouds to clear and show me who I ought to be, or, even better, a path toward outwardly becoming the girl I knew I was inside. Somewhere deep within me, there was a truth I was uncovering, and it was one I felt I had no guidance for. I had never imagined what it would be like to live fully as myself in this place; I had never seen what it looked like to be here and love someone else, someone else who looked like me.

In popular culture, the stories I saw of Southern queerness often involved leaving. Queerness in these narratives was a secret shame, one that, if revealed, led to loss and disappointment. If there were happy endings to these stories, it was only because the characters left everything behind, escaping to distant metropolises where they could begin anew. There seemed to be no bridge between lives once lived and futures where the possibility of joy existed. Most of all, there seemed to be no way to have that joy without removing oneself from home entirely.

I often think that I would have come out years earlier if I had been able to see myself represented in different ways. If I had witnessed queer characters fall in love and thrive and build lives — joyous, wonderful, full lives — in the places they are from. As soon as I started to realize I fit outside of the binaries of sexuality, I assumed I would have to leave if I were ever to explore that side of myself. And I did leave, eventually, running to New York City for college. I did not anticipate how much I would miss the South; I did not anticipate how isolated and far from home I would feel in the city. I had come for community, after all. But it seemed to constantly evade me. I was alone, more than ever before. And all I wanted to do was go home.

Most people assume that the South is a monolith of conservatism and tradition, a place where not only is queerness unable to thrive, it ceases to exist. But while the Northeast holds 19% of the LGBTQ+ population, the South holds 35%, the largest of anywhere in the United States. It is here, back in the places that raised me, that I have found community and hope — in the students I teach, in the friends I have made, in the voices of those speaking up for change. It is not that we don’t exist, but that our stories have not historically been given the representation they deserve. We have long been telling them; it is the world that has not always listened. It is time now to listen. We are not going anywhere.

‘We Are Everywhere’: How Rural Queer Communities Connect Through Storytelling (Nicole Blackwood, National Geographic, September 2020)

This beautiful piece follows the story of Rae Garringer, creator of the oral history project Country Queers, which originated from a road trip through rural America to document the stories of queer people. I deeply relate to the sentiments Garringer expresses in this piece, especially in their drive to record these stories so that not only would they feel they could exist in community, but so they could show anyone else struggling with the same feelings that they are not alone. It’s why we are artists in the end, I believe — to show, through sharing our stories with the world, that none of us are alone.

“Rural queer lives look so different, across space, across people’s identities,” says Garringer. “I came back like, ‘Oh yeah, we are everywhere.’ Which I’d felt to be true, but I didn’t have personal evidence for it.”

The Rib Joint (Julia Koets, Creative Nonfiction, Summer 2019)

This story absolutely floored me the first time I read it. I thought about it for days. I still think about it, and about the parts of myself I saw within it, and the power that feeling held. Julia Koets follows the story of an age-old queer experience: that of falling in love with your best friend. It’s easy to joke about how this common experience is most people’s first realization of their queerness, but it certainly doesn’t make the experience any less painful, messy, confusing, or complicated. The transition of friends to lovers to something else between the narrator and Kate in this piece is raw, made exceptionally complicated by the backdrop of a small Southern college town. It is so easy to picture the two of them driving at night, hidden by the pines, as Koets describes. It is so easy to feel the way love blooms, a feeling between the ribs, a connection that seems like it will never disappear.

One night, I told Kate about how I had kissed my best friend in middle school. “It’s not that strange,” she said as I concentrated on the dimly lit road. “Lots of girls have crushes on their best friend. I don’t think it means you’re a lesbian.” I was relieved. I also wondered whether Kate meant that I shouldn’t worry about the ambiguity surrounding our own friendship. I wondered if she felt the ambiguity between us, too. Kate moved closer to the blue center console and rested her head against my shoulder. “I’m getting tired,” she said.

I imagined driving through thousands more towns just like that, with her head on my shoulder and some country song on the radio. Every store would be closed. Every field would be empty. Every house would be dark.

Jericho (Silas House, Ecotone, Issue 28)

In “Jericho” Silas House writes about God, friendship, belief, grief, and love. Another piece about the transition of friendship into romance, it follows teen boys William and Joshua over one summer as they navigate self discovery and the loss of innocence. This is a piece infused with longing, and it is felt in every interaction between the two boys. It also gives a glimpse into the intersections of religion and sexuality, with the church an ever-present force in the background, as it is in so many small Southern towns. Joshua is grappling with his feelings for William, but he is also grappling with belief, redemption, and where to find them. House himself is a queer author who has written candidly about his upbringing in Appalachia, and does so beautifully.

William ran into the water and so Joshua followed, diving in and slicing through the water as he blew air out of his nostrils. This was the only time he felt free, speeding underwater. As soon as he came up William was splashing him and laughing like they’d known each other their whole lives. He felt like they had. He felt like he had been wishing for William before he even knew he existed.

What I Learned on My Road Trip to Meet American Homophobia (Morgan Thomas, Vice, January 2018)

Of course, none of this is to say that there are not challenges queer individuals in rural and Southern areas face. In many Southern places, homophobia and deep prejudice still run rampant. There are some things, as Morgan Thomas explores in this piece, that might never change. Thomas, who hails from Florida and is the author of Manywhere, a recent collection telling stories of Southern queerness, visits anti-LGBTQ groups to attempt to foster understanding. What she found was a mix of acceptance and hardship, with many individuals perpetually reciting Bible passages they believe demonstrate queerness as something rooted in sin. They often refused to entertain conversations about their own personal beliefs with her and instead stuck to the same narratives they have been telling for years. But there is always a space for new narratives, and the more we share our stories, the more we open up space for those narratives to shift.

Luckily, many organizations nationwide have invested time and resources in fostering tolerance, whether efforts explicitly aimed at nurturing LGBTQ acceptance within the church or those who work to advance queer tolerance in general. Near the end of my trip, I volunteered at a pride event where an LGBTQ-friendly church was tabling. I told them about my trip. They said, ‘Many interpretations come from the letter of the law.’

I said, ‘I’m glad you’re here.’

They said, ‘We’re glad you are, too.’

It was enough.”

The Queer South: Where the Past is Not Past, and the Future is Now (Minnie Bruce Pratt, Scalawag, January 2020)

Activist, organizer, and out lesbian Minnie Bruce Pratt has been working within the queer South for years. In this piece for Scalawag, she talks about the hold of the past on the American South, and the way it confines us. Like other pieces on this list, there is an overwhelming sense that one of the main challenges in advocating for Southern queerness is the region’s difficulty in letting go of the stories it has long held on to. They bleed into everything here: into the fogged fields at sunrise, into the pines swaying in the breeze, into the flowing creeks and cragged mountains. We cannot escape the past, nor can we change it. What we do have, however, is the ability to change the future, both through reexamining our histories, uncovering the stories that did not get told, and creating space for younger generations to tell their own.

The Queer South is centuries full of such stories, both known and the untold. A red thread of resistance binds those of us who have been “in the life.”… In the Queer South, we are still fighting and we are still singing.

Fat Tuesday at Dixie’s (Sarah Wilkerson-Freeman, Southern Cultures, Spring 2006)

This piece is a deep dive into the life and work of photographer Jack Robinson, who grew up in Mississippi and spent his 20s photographing life in New Orleans’ French Quarter in the ’50s. Robinson later became a celebrity photographer featured in Vogue over 500 times and helped build the careers of artists such as Tina Turner, Joni Mitchell, Clint Eastwood, The Who, and more. A gay man, his photos of New Orleans offer a glimpse into the eccentrices of Southern artists and the spaces they gathered in, many of which also served as queer spaces. A large portion of his photographs take place at Dixie’s, one of New Orleans’ first gay bars and a hangout for artists and writers such as Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and Gore Vidal. Robinson’s photographs show another side to the South, one of creative expression and community, helping to rewrite the narratives of Southern queerness that have long been written out of history.

With his camera, Robinson documented the tensions between gender and sexual identities and the desire for free, open, creative self-expression in the South during the McCarthy Era. … Robinson’s photographs of Fat Tuesday at Dixie’s show another side of American life and culture, one that challenges the perhaps overdrawn history of the McCarthy Era as largely devoid of acceptance of homosexuality.

A Queer and In-Color Geography: From Mumbai to West Virginia (Anjali Enjeti, Scalawag, March 2022)

Anjali Enjeti speaks with Neema Avashia, author of Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place, in this interview about West Virginia, concepts of home, family bonds, and love. Another Appalachia is a beautiful — and necessary — tribute to the region, and tells a story that, without the book, many might believe does not exist. But both Appalachia and the South are far more diverse than they are given credit for. We do not need any sort of elegy; we are still here. We will always be here.

I definitely think that if we think of “queering” in its broadest sense, as being about breaking away from binaries and boxes, then my understanding of what it means to be in a relationship with people was certainly informed by growing up in a small place. I don’t have the same sense of there being strict rules that define what people are “supposed” to be to one another. Which is to say: Just as my neighbors on Pamela Circle and my aunties and uncles became family for me, I understand my role in the world as being to extend that kind of love without regard for normative lines.

***

Spencer George is a Writer and Teaching Artist hailing from the Carolinas. She holds a B.A. in English and Human Rights with a concentration in Creative Writing from Barnard College and is pursuing her M.A. in Folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her work focuses on narrative representations of the rural South and has been published in The Bitter Southerner, The Adroit Journal, and Medium, and once received a shout-out in the The New York Times. Spencer was the 2019 recipient of the Peter S. Prescott Prize for Prose Writing. She is the creator and writer of GOOD FOLK, a weekly newsletter about the people and stories of rural America and the American South. She currently teaches creative writing in North Carolina public schools as a Senior Fellow with ArtistYear. In addition to teaching, she is the Special Initiatives Assistant at Girls Write Now and is at work on her debut novel, Loblolly, which tells the story of two young women as they travel across the Southeast in search of a mysterious man who appears only in dreams and the individuals who worship him.

***

Editor: Krista Stevens

Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands


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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Dark Crystal costume designers Brian Froud and Wendy Froud stand in front of a gothic, creepy character on a dimly lit purple stage.
Creatures & Costume Designer Brian Froud and Assistant Costume Designer Wendy Froud attend the European Premiere of "The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance" at the BFI Southbank on August 22, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/WireImage)

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

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1. What Bullets Do to Bodies

Jason Fagone | HuffPost Highline | April 26th, 2017 | 7,799 words

I’m breaking from tradition here and highlighting a story that’s already been in one of these newsletters, and as a top pick no less. The circumstances demand it. On Tuesday, a gunman armed with two legally purchased AR-style assault rifles slaughtered 19 children and two teachers in a single classroom at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. As authorities worked to identify the victims, they asked parents to provide DNA samples. What’s unspoken in this detail is that the dead children were unrecognizable, or so mangled that it would have been an unimaginable cruelty to ask their parents to look at them. I can’t get this fact out of my mind, and it prompted me to re-read one of the best pieces of explanatory journalism in recent memory. Almost exactly five years ago, Jason Fagone spent time with the head of trauma surgery at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia to understand the damage that bullets do to bodies. What Dr. Amy Goldberg had to say about the Sandy Hook massacre could be said today about the shooting in Uvalde: “As a country, we lost our teachable moment…. The fact that not a single one of those kids was able to be transported to a hospital, tells me that they were not just dead, but really really really really dead. Ten-year-old kids, riddled with bullets, dead as doornails.” America is a country where the mass murder of children is followed by mourning and forgetting, but never action: Congress hasn’t passed a single piece of gun control legislation since Sandy Hook. Until that changes, Goldberg’s comment will be relevant again in another community, at another school. It’s only a matter of time. —SD

2. Man of Culture

Sukhada Tatke | Fifty Two | May 20th, 2022 | 4,280 words

Many scenes in Sukhada Tatke’s origin story about a bacterium found in the soil of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) feel plucked out of a movie: A ship full of Canadian scientists and doctors, landing on a mysterious island to collect samples from its inhabitants and the land. A Punjabi microbiologist who makes one last batch of this culture and stores it in his freezer after his lab deprioritizes his research. Then, some years later, fascinating experiments on mice confirming that this molecule — rapamycin — is a “life-saving wonder drug” that can save millions of lives, including organ transplant patients and people with cancer, diabetes, and neurodegenerative diseases. Tatke tells the remarkable story of this scientist, Surendra Nath Sehgal, and a medical discovery that has brought hope to so many. —CLR

3. On Metaphors and Snow Boots

Annie Sand | Guernica | May 23rd, 2022 | 2,821 words

Have you ever felt pain that stabs, throbs, or tingles? Have you ever felt mentally stuck or scattered? At Guernica, Annie Sand suggests that the common metaphors we use to describe physical and mental pain and illness are reductive, in that they fail to truly describe what it’s like to endure a body and/or mind causing us trouble. “When we use metaphor to conceal the unknowable, we make symbols out of human beings and allegory out of experience. We reduce our own pain to a precursor, a line item, a weather report…There is a cost to romanticization, to needing metaphor too much. Things — people — are easier to destroy when they’re an abstraction.” She suggests that to truly convey our individual experiences, we need to create metaphors of our own. “I wonder instead if the answer is not to abstain from metaphor, but rather, each time society tries to wheat-paste an ill-fitting metaphor over our lives, to offer one of our own…I collect them: latitude of many storms, thaws that come and go, clouds that squeeze. In a strange way, thinking about anxiety as weather lets me slip past society’s questions of why, and how long, and are you seeing someone about this? It sets me loose from the terrible calculus of justifying my minute-by-minute expenditures. It leaves those unanswered questions of cause and cure off the table.” —KS

4. The Funk of Poverty

Starr Davis | Catapult | May 25th, 2022 | 3,088 words

To say I loved this essay feels wrong, because I despise so many of the things that informed this essay. A road out of hardship, splashed with the oil of bureaucracy. Get-by mechanisms that are only “coping” in the loosest, most fleeting sense of the word. Relationships that confine or harm; a world that tells you in no uncertain terms that it simply does not value you. But the love at the center of this piece — the love Starr Davis’ mother had for her, and that she in turn has for her infant daughter, that glows ember-like despite buffeting headwinds — turns it from a litany of pain into a catalog of perseverance. “I have never met a happy mother,” she writes. “All the mothers I know are crazed, tired, or selfishly dragging themselves away from their children. My biggest fear is becoming those types of mothers. The types of women who forget their dreams or, worse, stop dreaming altogether.”—PR

5. How The “Mother Of Yoda” Conquered Hollywood — And Why She Disappeared

Falene Nurse | Inverse | May 3rd 2022 | 2,767 words

Growing up, two of my favorite films were The Dark Crystal and The Labyrinth. The worlds they created enthralled me — filled with magic, weirdness, and ethereal beauty. Iconic to this day, they were pulled from the impressive imagination of Jim Henson, but, behind the scenes, there were other magicians at work — the puppeteers. In this profile of Wendy Froud, Falene Nurse explains how she sculpted The Dark Crystal’s puppet leads, Kira and Jen (her first job out of art school, no less). In The Labyrinth, she lent not just her talent to the production; her baby, Toby Froud, played the child kidnapped by the Goblin King (a.k.a David Bowie in leggings so tight they came with a free anatomy lesson). Froud was even part of the force that created a certain little Jedi, earning her the nickname “the Mother of Yoda.” Yet, after this gluttony of ’80s icons, Froud seemingly disappeared for many years; Nurse reveals how CGI gradually destroyed the art of the puppet and Froud’s disdain for the Hollywood scene. Then in 2019, some new magic happened: Netflix commissioned a prequel series, The Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance. Froud was brought back on board to help recreate the elegance of that world — real puppets and all. And guess what? Baby Froud, now all grown-up and freed from David Bowie, worked with his parents on The Age of Resistance as the Design Supervisor. Now that’s a Hollywood ending. —CW

Sister of the Moon: A Stevie Nicks Reading List

Stevie Nicks Singing in Concert
Singer Stevie Nicks performs at the 1983 US Festival. (Photo by © Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS/VCG via Getty Images)

By Jill Spivey Caddell

When Rolling Stone published an updated list of the 500 greatest songs of all time last year, a tune that had not been included at all in the 2004 iteration of the list suddenly appeared in the top 10: “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac. Of course, anyone with a fleeting acquaintance with the overwrought and raucous history of Fleetwood Mac knows that “Dreams” is a Stevie Nicks song, part of a Rumours diptych with Lindsey Buckingham’s “Go Your Own Way” rehashing Stevie and Lindsey’s tortured breakup. Anointing Nicks’ “Dreams” as a classic anthem 45 years after its initial release, beloved by Gen Z TikTokers and nostalgic Boomers alike, speaks to the irrepressible essence of Stevie herself.

From Prince to Harry Styles, Tom Petty to Haim, Stevie Nicks links generations of musicians and fans, genres and trends. This reading list probes the source of her ongoing popularity through her refusal to be anything but herself, showing how Stevie’s instincts for survival and her silvery songwriting prowess allowed her to rise above her band’s many implosions and cement her own supernatural cultural presence. As we celebrate Stephanie Lynn Nicks’ 74th birthday on May 26, these essays explain why the ageless sound of her voice continues to haunt us.

My obsession with Stevie goes back 25 years to the concert film and album The Dance. It’s 1997, I’m watching VH1 in the air-conditioned staleness of late summer, and a woman with long blonde hair and skin like counter laminate is eviscerating the man onstage beside her with her eyes. She’s burning him so badly it’s a shock he’s still left standing to play his guitar and not zapped into a heap of ashes. I’m 14 and it’s all deeply romantic.

The woman is Stevie Nicks and the man is Lindsey Buckingham and I have no idea, in that wide-open summer between middle and high school, about the specific details of their long and tortured rock ’n’ roll love affair. All I know is that I love the song the woman sings — a sweetly curdled torch song called “Silver Springs” — and that some shit has gone down here.

Having witnessed that look, I wanted more of it poured right into me. Right that minute, I set about buying Fleetwood Mac’s back catalog in my cavernous local Best Buy, attempting to learn more about the band. Learning more was easy. As The Dance climbed the charts, VH1 provided plenty more Mac content for the masses, including one of the juiciest Behind the Music episodes of all time, in which Stevie is interviewed in front of a grand piano dripping with lit candles and sunflowers. The Dance was on constant televised rotation, as was the video for “Silver Springs,” as the song entered the U.S. music charts.

Before The Look, Fleetwood Mac was just old-people music to me. I was born after their soapy, druggy heyday in the ’70s; I knew a few of their ’80s hits from shopping mall soundtracks and I vaguely recalled their Boomer-gratifying 1993 performance at Bill Clinton’s inaugural ball (which is worth a watch these days for Al Gore’s awkward grooving and the unexplainable presence of Michael Jackson). But I didn’t know the first thing about the people in the band or their history when I was arrested by that look. What I know now is that The Look suggested worlds of love and hate far beyond what my teenaged self could imagine. I’ll follow you down till the sound of my voice will haunt you, Stevie sings, and here she is, haunting the hell out of him. Narratively, musically, it’s insanely gratifying. And only Stevie, with her decades of mixing art and life, performance and presence, could have delivered that look and that moment with such all-consuming intensity.

Stevie Nicks’ Magic Act (Timothy White, Rolling Stone, September 1981)

Iconic rock writer and later Billboard editor-in-chief Timothy White captures Nicks on the precipice of releasing her first solo album and attempting to balance her desires for control over her own career with her fealty to the band that brought her fame. In White’s lyrical prose Nicks appears in her witchiest, most mystical, Rhiannonesque state: She’s constantly having prophetic dreams (like the one that produced the ethereal cover of Bella Donna) and seeing ghosts. If that’s the state of mind it takes to write songs as good as “Edge of Seventeen” and produce vocals as fierce as her turn with Tom Petty on “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” who can fault her crystal visions?

Fresh from finishing Bella Donna, her first solo album, Stevie Nicks had met up with Fleetwood Mac at Le Château, the legendary studio-retreat where Elton John recorded Honky Château and where the Mac were laying down tracks for their next LP. Retiring for the night, Stevie turned off the light in her huge shadowy bedroom. Suddenly, she was startled by the sound of rapidly flapping wings in the blackness. The noise abruptly ceased. Then came a queer whir, and something brushed against her cheek. She froze. The light she had just extinguished sprang on and she was so petrified she could not scream, could not even speak. Ten minutes passed as she cowered in mute terror; then she stumbled down the damp hallway to the room of her secretary, Debbie Alsbury, who calmed and reassured her. She eventually made her way back to her bed and fell into a troubled sleep.

Nicks Fix (Claire Jarvis, Avidly, December 2012)

Many of us who love Stevie can trace our devotion back to a single moment: For Claire Jarvis, this is a famous photograph of Stevie and Lindsey taken during the Mirage tour. Appearing painfully entwined, the duo reenact their tempestuous love story during the Stevie song “Sister of the Moon.” Jarvis finds the performance during which this photograph was taken and close reads it to untangle how Nicks’ incantatory showmanship is necessarily entwined in her songs’ popularity. Live onstage, in her voice and her body, Stevie’s pain and sadness and beauty become manifest and transform, as Jarvis argues, into joy.

The sad, wide-set eyes, carelessly lined in brown. The white-blond tendrils slipping, elf-locks, before her ears while an Elnetted crest sweeps down her back. The slightly drooping lower-lip. The famously fragile, much-abused, nose. Stevie in all her guises has been with me my entire adult life. As a leotarded, gamine Garbo; caped in black velvet, plumed permage tamped down by a deep hood; or shoulder-padded, embellished, and feathered to the rooftops. Each iteration slots into the complex order of things known as Stevie Nicks; each era separable but contiguous, all routed through her mild witchery and intense American mysticism. Even the way she says “intense” marked itself on my mind; I hear her pronunciation each time I say the word, the mid-vowel rising, flattened by her nasal, Californian compression of the “e” into an “i:” “intinse.” Intinse song. Intinse silence.

The Story of How ‘Saturday Night Live’ Made the “Stevie Nicks Fajita Roundup” Sketch (Dan Devine, The Ringer, May 2020)

In 1998, Saturday Night Live aired a one-off sketch of a cheap advertisement for a fake Mexican restaurant owned, inexplicably, by Stevie Nicks. Lucy Lawless, starring as Nicks, warbles Fleetwood Mac songs transformed into ads for burritos and enchiladas, and that’s about the extent of the plot of the sketch. Only the parodies are amazing and Lawless totally sells it and the two-and-a-half-minute bit has gained a cult following. The sketch is the perfect encapsulation of Nicks’ slightly kooky, always committed cultural presence, and it features all the trademark Stevie signifiers: the shawl, the twirling, the wind machine, the tambourine. So thank heavens Dan Devine produced this immaculately researched oral history of the Stevie Nicks Fajita Roundup, from its conception to its acknowledgement by Stevie herself, allowing people like me who love it to feel vindicated in our obsession.

“Stevie Nicks’ Fajita Roundup” wasn’t prescient. It didn’t put its finger on the pulse of 1998, or anticipate the ways in which pop culture would shift in the years to come. It didn’t point toward some broader universal truth, or teach us something about ourselves.

It just … started, and was weird for two and a half minutes. But it was really weird for those two and a half minutes, blithely absurd and blissfully silly in a way that cuts through the clutter and nestles itself into your gray matter. We can’t always explain why something sticks in our brains; sometimes, it just works. And for a lot of people, “Stevie Nicks’ Fajita Roundup”—something that probably shouldn’t have worked for anybody—just worked.

‘Silver Springs’: Inside Fleetwood Mac’s Lost Breakup Anthem (Brittany Spanos, Rolling Stone, August 2017)

The story of the 1997 revival of “Silver Springs,” a song that had been essentially lost in the Fleetwood Mac canon since Nicks had written it for Rumours, provides fascinating insight into what made the band great and what doomed it to fracture. The now-classic was one of several chestnuts (“Dreams,” “Gold Dust Woman”) that Nicks penned for the smash record, but with two other songwriters in the band vying for album space, it was cut for time. Nicks had given the song’s royalties to her mother in the hopes that it would pay for her retirement; instead, “Silver Springs” was relegated to the B-side of “Go Your Own Way” and forgotten until it made the set list for 1997’s The Dance and became a Grammy-nominated chart hit. Spanos’ article traces the song’s tumultuous life and afterlives from a highway sign for Silver Spring, Maryland, to Stevie’s mom finally getting her long-delayed royalty check.

“I never thought that ‘Silver Springs’ would ever be performed onstage,” she reflected during a 1997 MTV interview. “My beautiful song just disappeared [20 years ago]. For it to come back around like this has really been special to me.”

The Moonlight Confessions of Stevie Nicks (Amy Kaufman, Los Angeles Times, September 2020)

What’s it like to grow old as a female rock star? Amy Kaufman’s profile explores Nicks as a 70-something chanteuse confronting a world that demands youthfulness at all costs. Stevie candidly discusses her fears of catching COVID, her 15 years on Weight Watchers (necessary, she assures the reader, to fit into her custom-made stagewear), and her disgust with her appearance in certain camera angles of the documentary concert film, 24 Karat Gold. Nicks’ honesty about her concern with her own image is refreshing, even as it makes us realize that Mick Jagger and Pete Townsend (or Lindsey Buckingham, for that matter) don’t face the same pressures to grow old without letting anyone catch you in the process. Speaking of Buckingham, Nicks addresses his departure from Fleetwood Mac in 2018, when he was fired (at Nicks’ insistence, he alleges). Stevie seems resigned to a life without Lindsey, but given the band’s history, a reunion seems inevitable. After all, the mystique of Stevie Nicks is impossible, for better or for worse, to separate from the talent and chaos of Lindsey Buckingham.

There’s melancholy in her voice when she discusses the split, which she describes as a “long time coming.” She was always hopeful that “things would get better” but found herself noticing she was increasingly sad with Fleetwood Mac and more at peace in the “good, creative happy world” with her solo band.

“I just felt like a dying flower all the time,” she says. “I stayed with him from 1968 until that night. It’s a long time. And I really could hear my parents — I could hear my mom saying, ‘Are you really gonna do this for the rest of your life?’ And I could hear my dad saying in his very pragmatic way — because my dad really liked Lindsey —‘I think it’s time for you and Lindsey to get a divorce.’ It’s a very unfortunate thing. It makes me very, very sad.”

Stevie Nicks is Still Living Her Dreams (Tavi Gevinson, The New Yorker, February 2022)

Blogging wunderkind-turned-actress Tavi Gevinson has long been one of Nicks’ “goddaughters,” the young women adopted by the childless Nicks upon which she lavishes gifts like gold moon-shaped necklaces. Gevinson is an astute commentator on fame, having achieved it at such a young age, and her interview with Nicks does what many profiles fail to do: recognize the brilliance of Stevie’s songwriting. Digging into Nicks’ artistic process, the interview also acknowledges the centrality of her relationship with Christine McVie and their mutual pact never to be treated poorly by male musicians. Despite her infamous romantic entanglements with men, sisterhood has always been at the heart of Stevie’s artistic mission, whether she’s belting “Wild Heart” backstage with her coven of backup singers or serving High Rock Priestess vibes in Destiny’s Child “Bootylicious” video. Gevinson’s interview illuminates how Stevie’s intergenerational sorority continues to find new pledges.

In her music, loss is simultaneously earth-shattering and ordinary. Heartbreak is survivable, and possibly a key to self-knowledge. Many of her songs take place at night, in dreams or visions, “somewhere out in the back of your mind.” Her narrator frequently asks questions of herself and of some higher power, as if in constant conversation with her own intuition. When I said “Just be Stevie Nicks,” I was thinking of how her work had taught me to see such sensitivity as a source of strength. Nicks’s music is what you listen to when you need help listening to yourself.

***

Jill Spivey Caddell is a writer and teacher of U.S. literature, arts, and culture. She lives in the United Kingdom.

Editor: Krista Stevens

Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands


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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Members of the band Kalush Orchestra on stage at Eurovision 2022, as confetti streams down
15 May 2022, Italy, Turin: Kalush Orchestra from Ukraine celebrates with the trophy after winning the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC). The international music contest is held for the 66th time. There are 25 songs in the final out of the original 40 musical entries. Germany took the last place. Photo: Jens Büttner/dpa (Photo by Jens Büttner/picture alliance via Getty Images)

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

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1. Dislodged

Josh McColough | The Missouri Review | April 15th, 2022 | 5,508 words

I was drawn this week to a few reads about California road trips, including one on Joan Didion, as well as an essay by Josh McColough in The Missouri Review that recounts part of a West Coast road trip with his teenage daughter, when a road closure in Northern California leads to an unexpected delay. At one point in their journey, they approach a dangerous section of Highway 101 that’s prone to landslides — the Last Chance Grade — and must decide whether to wait until the highway is fixed, or turn around. “Sometimes in order to move forward, you have to stay put for a bit—one of the many lessons imparted to us from the virus,” writes McColough. And so they decide to wait, which opens up the space to be still: to notice all the tiny banana slugs on the forest floor, to ponder just how long it took for the old-growth redwoods to grow that tall, to watch the coastal fog creep inland and do its thing. Reading about their experience on this beautiful spot of earth made me feel small in a humbling yet positive way, and McColough makes poignant observations throughout about humanity, our vulnerable environment, and our place within it. I paused a number of times while reading to allow myself to feel sadness for our world, but also to feel joy — because how lucky are we, ultimately, to be able to live in such a place? “Our inability to see ourselves as tiny points on a much longer ecological or geological spectrum is our uniquely human blind spot,” he writes. “It’s where and how we fall short.” Take the time to read this thoughtful piece. —CLR

2. All the Best Things About Europe with None of the Genocide

Laurie Penny | Penny Red | May 14th, 2022 | 1800 words

I love the Eurovision Song Contest. It is an annual four-hour extravaganza (yes, four!) that mercilessly drags me back and forth between tears and cackles of joy. (There is usually some drinking involved.) This year was no different — with the performances last Saturday ranging from bonkers acid trip pop songs to beautiful ballads. I am not even sure what genre to call the entry of my home country, the United Kingdom, but the singer took some surprising linguistic liberties with the term “spaceman.” (Just to let you know, we came second, our best position in 25 years.) Anyhow, I digress, and Laurie Penny explains the madness much better than I can in this breezy, fun essay: “Every year, forty-something countries serve up musical interpretations of a theme that sounds like knockoff body spray – this year it’s The Sound of Beauty. Almost anything goes except subtext.” Eurovision voting tends to be a bit political — this year particularly so. Penny notes “It’s hard to get banned from Eurovision, but invading a neighboring country and massacring tens of thousands of people will do the trick.” Without Russia competing, Eurovision asks us, “What if, instead of killing each other, we all just got hammered and did karaoke?” Ukraine won Eurovision 2022 with a landslide public vote. I cried again. —CW

3. The Magic of Alleyways

Will Di Novi | Hazlitt | May 16th, 2022 | 3,200 words

Vibrant. Countercultural. Places of rest. These aren’t descriptors that leap to mind when I think of alleys, the hidden veins of cities everywhere. At least, they weren’t until I read this ode to alleys by Will Di Novi. Inspired by an incident outside his apartment in downtown Toronto, Di Novi takes readers on a tender journey through these misunderstood urban spaces. That alleys are relegated in our vernacular to the category of things dark and dirty is a mistake — a classist and racist one. Throughout history, alleys have been sites where people without power and privilege “meet and make mischief,” Di Novi writes, “[a] city’s unofficial social laboratory.” He invites readers to look on alleys in their own burgs with fresh eyes. He hopes they’ll find pleasure, as he did, in witnessing “mundane wonders,” among them “the adolescent love notes scattered on the walls; the sun-bleached vines shaking in the breeze; the shadows of the power lines merging on the blacktop: fishing poles at noon, pyramids by dusk.” —SD

4. Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Kent Russell | Harper’s Magazine | May 11th, 2022 | 6,982 words

Like Kent Russell, I’ve always been a sucker for the otherworldly and occult. UFOs? Yes, please. Conspiracy theories about the reptoids living under the Denver airport? Put it in my veins. It’s in that spirit that I mainlined Russell’s long journey into the world of John R. King IV, a man who claims to have studied enough ancient grimoires to be able to communicate with demons. The journey isn’t fruitless, though neither is it fulfilling — which is exactly the point, I suppose, when you’re dealing with something that’s empirically unprovable. Yet, throughout, Russell renders King’s quiet insistence, and his own (remarkably sanguine) explorations into the world of dark forces, with a flair both literary and relatable. “Reading King,” he writes, “I felt myself vacillate between terror and wonder like a compass needle brought near a magnet. Here was a man who had punctured the airless dome of modern existence, and, what’s more, was really goddamned cocksure about it.” Put down the Ouija board and pick this up instead. —PR

5. The Bronc-busting, Cow-punching, Death-defying Legend of Boots O’Neal

Christian Wallace | Texas Monthly | May 11th, 2022 | 6,139 words

“This morning’s chore: Boots and three of his Stetsoned coworkers must round up some two dozen bulls scattered across a vast grazing pasture, drive them to a set of pens about a mile away, and load the one-ton beeves into a livestock trailer so they can be hauled to another division of the Four Sixes, the legendary West Texas ranch that sprawls across 260,000 acres…To an outsider, this might feel like a scene straight out of Lonesome Dove. For Boots, this is Tuesday morning. He’s repeated this task countless times—his career began during the Truman administration and has now spanned seven decades—but if given the chance to be doing anything on earth, this is what he would choose every time.” Now is probably a good time to mention that this particular Boots, out on a horse rounding up Angus bulls in rural Texas, is 89-years-old. While Boots (a.k.a Billy Milton O’Neal) has decades on me, I am at the age where I’m starting to think more about aging not just with grace, but also vitality and a side of sass. What are the keys to aging well? If you take some pointers from Boots in this superlative profile by Christian Wallace at Texas Monthly, aging well means not just doing what you love, but being intentional, and becoming part of a community of people who share your joy. Oh, and let’s not forget the dancing. “Boots and Nelda were happy together. Perhaps more than anywhere else, they found common ground on the dance floor. They would dance to country music, waltzes, and rags, and they loved to two-step.” —KS

Our Braided Bread

A seeded challah loaf, surrounded by the ingredients used to make it: egg yolks, flour, salt, and yeast
Photoillustration by Carolyn Wells

Benjamin DuBow | Longreads | May 2022 | 16 minutes (4,536 words)

 

Reader note: Click the footnote numbers to jump to note; from there, click the numbers again to return to the story.

 

Early on Friday mornings, when the air still whispers with the night, I make sure to feed Orlando before heading out to the community farm.

Back when I first got started with starters, I used to weigh out the flour(s)1 and water to ensure an equal ratio, but nowadays I just eyeball it. Orlando doesn’t seem to mind — in fact, I like to think they welcome the small surprises.

Sometimes these alterations are intentional. The crucial thing is to give him ample time to mature, and I learned from Nate that wetter cultures ferment more quickly.2 So, if I think we’ll be in a rush later, I’ll feed Orlando a more liquid diet. More often than not, these Friday morning feedings are rather on the wetter side — for when are the hours before Shabbat ever not a rush?

As the cold weather comes, I must pay closer attention to temperature. I wiggle my fingers under the tap until I feel the water warm, careful that it doesn’t get so hot to scald the baby starter. This added warmth gives her a head start, yes it does.

The word challah, which comes from a root meaning round (suggesting the shape), originally denoted the portion of bread that Jews were commanded to reserve for the kohanim, the priests who worked and lived in the Temple and relied on such gifts for their sustenance; the challah, as such, was supposed to be of highest quality, a bread befitting a servant of God.

After the Second Temple’s destruction and the scattering of its priests, the Sages commemorated the now-obsolete practice by instituting a substitute: a portion of dough from the people’s daily bread would be removed and burned. (The root word might alternatively mean hollow, or pierced. An empty space.) This sacrificial portion was then called the challah.

It always seemed odd to me that we’d memorialize destruction with yet more destruction. As though the jobless and houseless among us are no longer hungry. As though we can afford the waste.3

Orlando and I bake bread fairly often — generally at least twice a week. One of these (or sometimes two, if I’m baking a double batch to share with a friend) will be a country-style loaf, the kind you might picture when you think of sourdough.4 I eat some of this fresh, save a good hunk for the following day, and usually freeze the rest, in slices, so that I can throw some in the oven as needed. This way, none of it goes stale.

But our Friday bake is a different sort entirely, closer to a brioche than the traditional country-style. And though challah made with sourdough starter is not very common these days, this bread we make is deeply traditional, with a long history that predates commercial yeast. All challah was once made with the help of a symbiotic culture. This recipe of ours is not a new creation; it is a re-creation. A return-together.

These Sabbath loaves (always plural) I do not freeze. Both are needed, whole, to grace the evening’s table. This, too, a part of the tradition.

Ironically, I hardly ever made challah before moving to Ames, Iowa. (Ironic because I come from New York, the center of American Jewry, while here in the heartland I am a stranger in a foreign land.)  Certainly not with any regularity, not as I do here nearly every Friday. I have a couple of theories why.

Theory #1: Back home I’m surrounded by a Tradition that is there whether I show up or not. I feel it in the Judaica, the sefarim and mezuzot that line the bookshelves and mark the doorways of our house. I feel it when my Zeide asks if I’m going with him to shul the next day for holiday prayers, which, of course I do if he asks (which he knows, and, bless his heart, only asks once per holiday). I feel it in the pre-Shabbat cooking and showering frenzy and the post-candle-lighting, pre-dinner regroup over glasses of wine and giggles that I’m blessed to partake in with the women of the house now that I’m rarely bothered to go to Friday evening prayers with the men. I feel it in that special quality of quiet that blankets our den on a winter’s Sabbath night when dinner is done by eight and the rest of the family goes to sleep soon after and I am alone on the couch, nestled in the favored corner spot, book in hand, with hours to relax into the cozy embrace of that holy darkness.

What I’m saying is, in that already suffused space, I don’t feel the need to perfume the air around me with the sweet scent of the ceremonial Sabbath bread. But here, in Ames, Iowa, there is a hollow, an empty space. A void I need to fill.

It’s only in the past 400 years or so the term has come to designate the bread that actually makes it to the Shabbos5 table — fairly recent in the history of our Tradition. Nowadays, the word “challah” is understood to refer to a specific style, the familiar braided loaf, which Ashkenazi Jews in Central Europe.6

Daily bread in that region was mostly made of rye, and was dark, coarse, and heavy — what those of us who don’t rely on it for survival might quaintly call “rustic.” But Shabbos called for something special, so my forebears would splurge on fine white flour and expensive sugar and further enrich the dough with eggs and oil for a bread befitting the holy day. Two loaves (representing the two portions of manna for the Sabbath)7 of six strands each (to represent the 12 showbreads baked daily for the Temple, back when the Temple stood) with seeds on top; the seeds represent abundance and further commemorate the manna that fell, which supposedly resembled coriander seed. We’re told it tasted of honey.


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This particular style of challah quickly spread to Jewish communities around Europe and was brought to America and Palestine when many of them immigrated en masse toward the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries in order to escape the latest round of worsening violence.

With most of my breads I weigh out the dough ingredients, but for some reason I invariably use volumetric measurements for challah. This is less precise, borderline blasphemy in the world of serious baking, but I don’t question this decision. It just feels right — maybe because the measuring cups I use, old tin things I found buried amid basement clutter, once belonged to my grandmother.

First, I proof a bit of active dry yeast to help the starter along: one half-cup (approximate) of warm-hot water, finger-tested, plus one teaspoon of sugar and one of the yeast.8 I have a special bowl I use for this, a little plastic guy I used to eat cereal from as a kid. It’s got a striped lavender-and-purple rim and a picture of Tigger (yes, of Winnie the Pooh fame) on the bottom, and it’s perfect.

While the yeast is waking up, I fill the mixing bowl (big, metal, Tiggerless) with the rest of the ingredients: three cups all-purpose flour, two cups bread flour (for added strength), a half-cup of sugar, a baby palm of salt, a bit more than half a cup of oil (neutral, unless I run out and only have olive), five farm-fresh eggs, and a healthy heaping of Orlando, who by this point is doubled in size and lofty with gas.9

Once the dehydrated yeast has reanimated and regained its vigor, and the image of Tigger is wholly obscured by the foaming, I add the frothy brew to the bowl and mix until all the ingredients come together. If we have time, I’ll let the dough rest for a few minutes to make the next step easier.

Theory #1a: The air back home is so thick it can be suffocating, and the expectation to perform my Jewish identity in a way that makes sense to my family (“Benjamin, please put a yarmulke on your head.” As though that’s what’s important here.) precludes a deeper breath.

I can understand that such things are actually important to some, that part of what being Jewish means to them is covering your head at the Shabbos table (if you’re a man, that is — these head coverings are a gendered practice, and this, too, is part of it). I can, if I really wanted to, object. Make a stink. But then the air would smell of nothing else, and nobody would be happy. So, I do it. I put on the skullcap for the sake of shalom bayit,10 quickly forget about it, and in such ways are the particular contours of my individual identity forced to fit the familiar mold.

But here, in Ames, where there is room for me to stretch my lungs and fully breathe, I do. This is what breathing on a Friday looks like for me.

Then, I knead. And knead. When I think I’m done kneading, I knead some more. At least 10 minutes of kneading. This step is crucial to a soft and fluffy challah, both in how it builds up the gluten into long, strong, supple strands that are evident in the final product, and because the kneading — a deep-tissue dough massage — is where much of the love comes in.11

When the kneading is done, I smear the inside of the bowl with a film of oil, flip the dough around to coat, then cover with a much-reused plastic shopping bag (a thick yellow one from the Gourmet Glatt in Cedarhurst, ideally) and let the dough rise for an hour.

In the colder months, I must remember to put it someplace warm and cozy so the yeasts don’t get sluggish. I’ve found that the oven, turned off but for the light (incandescent), is a good place for this.

The second loaf is rarely finished, and often it’s barely begun. Challah is delicious, but it’s only the first course of the celebratory Sabbath meals, and those who know what’s in store know to save room for the rest.

This presents an issue, as I find that our challah tends to go stale pretty quickly — which is somewhat surprising, given the enrichments in the dough. But on the other hand, this does seem rather appropriate, given challah’s provenance.12

Leftover challah makes for excellent paninis or grilled cheese or slathered sandwiches stuffed with slaw and sliced meats. But in the days following, I usually just have hunks of it with leftover tahina for a snack. Sometimes, on a wine-fueled whim, I’ll give it to one of my guests to take home.

The important thing is that it does not go to waste. God forbid we waste this holy bread.

Jews from outside of Europe — Iraqi Jews or Maghrebi Jews or Yemenite Jews or Syrian Jews or Persian Jews, et cetera — would probably not have recognized the now-iconic braided loaf; they most likely encountered it for the first time in America or Israel in the mid 20th century when they, too, were forced to leave their homes under threat of violence.

(Something you should know about being Jewish, regardless of origin: Though this threat of violence can go dormant for a while, it never fully disappears. It hides, under the table, behind the curtains, in the dark corners of the room. Even in apparent absence, the violence lurks; the threat looms always in our minds, like a cancer in remission. Whatever comfort and security, whatever wealth we now enjoy may someday vanish in a night of broken glass, and once again we will be forced to find new homes. Things like challah, though, we can take with us. This is part of what we mean by Tradition.)

The Sabbath breads from these various Jewish communities were often the same as their weekday flatbreads (which depended on the region), sometimes with sesame or other seeds sprinkled on the surface to signify the manna. Many adopted the braided loaf after relocating but kept their traditions of serving the bread alongside a spread of dips, which many Ashkenazi Jews (my family included) adopted in turn.

Theory #2: Challah, already really good by itself, goes perfectly with the Friday night dip(s). They elevate each other. And while I admire the local co-op baker’s bread prowess and appreciate that they put out fresh challah on Fridays so their patrons can enjoy their challah French toast or challah bread pudding or whatever Iowans like to do with our bread outside the appropriate cultural context of the Sabbath meal, their version doesn’t taste quite right to me. Too sweet, especially once tahina or hummus get involved. Maybe it’s because their machines knead without heed to everthreats of violence and forget to add my people’s pain. Tears, you know, are quite salty.

Orlando and I have been working on this challah recipe since we moved to Ames two summers ago. I started with other recipes, including my sister’s and Joan Nathan’s, and tasted what they were about. Then, we tinkered.

To make the bread more tender, I’ve added more oil, a bit more sugar, a couple more eggs — and good ones at that. I try to use the best eggs I can find, eggs befitting a holy bread. The ones I get from Ron & Kristine up in Hubbard from chickens raised on Central Iowan pasture beam with sunlight transmuted into liquid gold. The yolks are nearly orange (the product of their foraged, insect-heavy diet) and color the dough so bright a yellow it looks as though I’ve added turmeric. Now, when I make challah with other eggs — even the nice ones I sometimes get from the co-op when my poultry people are out — the dough looks sad and wan by comparison. Unilluminated.

Then, of course, there is the added component of Orlando, whose presence in this Sabbath bread brings home for me the concept of shalom, though I can’t tell you exactly why that is the case. (Shalom means peace, shalom means welfare.) Only that the feeling I get when we bake together, and especially when we bake challah together, is the same sort of feeling I get when I’m home with my family for Shabbos. (Shalom means wholeness, means harmony.)  This, too, I cannot quite describe. Just that I feel a particular warmth in my heart and stomach, cheeks and toes. (Shalom is also used as a salutation — on the Sabbath, for instance, we say: Shabbat shalom.)

I think we’re pretty darn close to where it wants to be. In distinction to our usual sourdough loaf, our challah has a soft crust (though it still could be even softer) and a finer, closer crumb, the lattice of strands more braided pillow than agglutinated web.

The holy grail of challah is Ostrovitsky’s. Located on Avenue J and 12th in the heart of Midwood, Brooklyn, the store is just a few blocks down from where my Bube and Zeide live — where my great-grandmother lived before — and not too far from where my siblings grew up until I was born and my family moved to Long Island.

Bube and Zeide bring Ostrovitsky challah whenever they come for Shabbat or the holidays, and every time it’s perfect. Their recipe is a variant from the western German Jews known as vassar challah, water challah, and is made without eggs or oil. It’s impossibly fluffy, soft as a cotton ball and nearly as white as one, too. Nothing in the world tastes as good with tahina.

One day, Orlando and I may try to replicate it. For now, though, I’m content to have Ostrovitsky’s when I go home for the holidays (though last time I was home, Bube did offer to ship me some).13 In the meantime, while I have access to these gorgeous eggs, we’ll keep making our more cakey eier challah. It’s a big hit at my Shabbat dinners here in Ames.

After the dough has doubled in size, I punch it down, divide in two, then in sixths for a total of 12. Each portion gets rolled into a long, tapered rope. Which, too, is a development: After many lopsided loaves, I’ve found that the tapered tops help keep the braid evenly elliptical as I pull the ductile strands across each other.

I braid them so that there is a prominent ridge of doughy hummocks just left of center, rather than the usual French-style braid with its disappearing valley. This is just a personal preference.

An egg wash for each, another covered rest.

Theory #3: My friends here like our challah, and I like giving them a familiar comfort. A reason to look forward to Shabbat. And while the traditional Friday night feast — a celebration of abundance where, in good times, there ought to be enough for everyone to have seconds and thirds (You like it? Please, have more!), where there’s no fear of running out and no problem welcoming last-minute guests (Yes, of course! Don’t worry, there’s plenty to eat!)14 — would probably be reason enough for my Ames friend-family to anticipate these meals, they would be incomplete if not crowned by the glory of this Sabbath bread.

Once the braided loaves have risen the right amount (the precise timing of this step, dependent on temperature, et al., is another of the things we’re still playing with), they get another egg wash. I then top them with my flashy six-seed blend of cumin, caraway, fennel, white poppy, and black sesame (I started using that last baffling duo as a Purim stunt last year and it stuck),15 and nigella, and into the oven they go. Eighteen minutes at 350 degrees, turn them around, and continue to bake until the doubly washed crust has reached the proper golden-brown color — about 10 to 12 more minutes. It’s better to underbake than over; we want the crust to be soft.

The smell during this period is intoxicating — sweet bread aromas mingled with the mysteries of toasted spice — and fills my whole house with the scent of Shabbat. They come out steaming, and I juggle the too-hot loaves onto a rack to cool until we’re ready to eat.

It took me a long time to understand this gift from my Tradition. For much of my childhood, Shabbos was a time of No, a period in which all the fun and exciting things were off-limits, muktsuh.16 Eventually, though — once I adopted the family practice of bunkering down on the den couch with a book, after I relearned the delight of the post-lunch nap (a delight that I had known as a toddler then foolishly forgot for a dozen years or so) — I began to glimpse the promise of Shabbat.

It is not a time of No, I now realize. It is, rather, a Yes so radical that my hypnotized mind struggled to see this affirmation which challenges the priorities of our modern world and forces a reckoning with what we consider most important to our lives. Shabbat is a Yes to family, to community, to togetherness; it is a Yes to good food slowly and carefully prepared; it is a Yes to rest, to giving our selves time to breathe in the company of other breathing bodies given space, ideally, to be their precious selves.

Every week, everything pauses. And in this sacred space-in-time,17 removed from the concerns of the workweek and the distractions of modern technology, we are enabled to sit down at the table and break bread with our loved ones. Oh yes, Shabbos is a gift indeed.

My guests begin to arrive a bit before seven and gradually trickle in. I’ll pop on out, glass in hand, to hug and say hello and offer them glasses so they can drink the wine the previous guest brought while I finish up in the kitchen. Sometimes folks will congregate by the kitchen doorway and half-watch me scurry around, but now that the cold weather is here and the fireplace lit, that’s the obvious gathering place.

I do enjoy having an audience, it’s true. But I’ve learned that it’s even more satisfying to be alone in my kitchen-cave and hear the heartwarming chorus of hellos and how’ve-you-beens as more friends arrive, grab a drink, and gather by the fire to unwind and warm. (Heart, stomach, cheeks, toes.)

When I’m done prepping, I refill my glass and join them. The light from the fire mingles with the light from the Shabbat candles that burn just above on the lintel in the olivewood candlesticks my mother gave me on my last visit home, and these colliding firelights catch in my friends’ bright eyes, in our raised glasses. Eventually, when the moment feels right, I invite them to the table where our challah rests.18

There is a blessing my people say over our bread, thanking God for the gift of it. And though I’ve moved away from much of the ritual trappings of my Tradition, layered as they are in language that does not speak to me, I do love this sentiment of gratitude.

So, instead of thanking an omnipotent but troublesomely transcendent deity, I simply express my thanks. It goes something like this:

[Lifting both challot in my hands] I am grateful for all of you, my friends; I am grateful for (insert some wonder of the week and/or relief that a stressful period has passed); and I am grateful for this bread.

Then, I pull a loaf apart. The braided ropes come apart at the seams as the strands of gluten stretch and tear, and the steam still inside the bread rises above the table like an offering. I rip off a hunk, pass the halves to either side of me, dip, and take a bite.

***

Benjamin DuBow is a writer, cook (sometimes chef), and all-around food and nature nerd from New York. He currently lives in Ames, Iowa, where he’s pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing & Environment at Iowa State and working on a novel.

Editor: Peter Rubin

Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands


Footnotes

1 After much experimentation, we (Orlando and I) have found that a blend of flours works best: all-purpose, dark rye, and sprouted wheat is the currently favored combination. It seems the sprouted wheat is especially nutritious, for humans and sourdough alike.

2 The rate of sourdough maturation after feeding depends on a number of other factors as well, most notably the types of flours, the qualities of the water, the strength & diversity of the culture, and the ambient temperature.

3 The root for challah, ח–ל–ל, also bears a striking resemblance to the word chillul, which means desecration.

4 The kind with a deeply colored crust that cracks or even shatters as you bite through into custardy, cave-shot crumb. The kind with three days’ worth of lactic acidity and complex esters (thank you, bacteria; thank you, yeasts) that makes your mouth water as you inhale and chew and gradually discover a more resonant note, which makes your mouth salivate even more, enzymatically unlocking yet deeper, more surprising tones, and so on, until with a bittersweet goodbye you swallow and it’s gone.

5 Pronounced SHAB-es, this is the Yiddish form of “Shabbat,” and the more common term where I’m from. I use these interchangeably, depending on how I feel and/or aesthetic considerations. Don’t read into it too much.

6 According to the writer Gil Marks, to whom I am indebted for much of this historical information, this bread was a specialty of southern Germany, where it was called berchisbrod, and originated as a pagan practice: Ancient tribes in the region would prepare variously shaped loaves (often in animal forms) in honor of the winter solstice. This tradition continued after the adoption of Christianity, and new shapes were added. One such shape, made with a twisted or braided dough, was meant to ward off the wrath of a Teutonic witch-demon, a crone with matted, twisted hair called Berchta or Holle. While it’s not likely that German Jews were much involved with this malevolent spirit, the bread was quite attractive and the names made sense: Berchta sounds like the Hebrew word for blessing (bracha), and Holle is just some phlegm away from challah.

7 On Shabbat, all labor was forbidden, including the daily manna gathering and preparing. So, the Jews were instructed to collect two portions on Friday, and a second-order miracle ensured that the extra portion did not rot or get infested with maggots overnight (see Footnote 12).

8 This practice of adding commercial yeast, commonly called “spiking,” ensures a reliably quicker rising time, as sourdough can take a while on its own and, as has already been noted, Fridays can be a little hectic. It’s not cheating. Or maybe it is, and I just don’t care about those rules. We’re playing our own game here.

9 These bubbles of carbon dioxide, caught and held by the stretchy matrix of flour proteins, are the by-product of respiration as the yeasts and bacteria metabolize the starches. Put another way, they are Orlando’s breath. Know this: Dough rises because it is alive.

10 Lit. “peace of the house.”

11 That’s one important reason I don’t use a bread machine to mix our challah dough. (The other is that I don’t own one.)

12 During the 40-year sojourn in the Sinai Desert following the Exodus from Egypt, the Jews survived on daily miracles: water that streamed from a rock; foodstuff (that manna) that appeared on the ground in the night, covered with dew. Each person was instructed to collect enough — and only enough — of this manna for their daily need. Unsurprisingly, some people ignored the order, collecting in excess of their needs and storing it overnight. But this excess manna quickly rotted and filled with maggots.

13 Note to self: Remind Bube of this.

14 If there are no extra guests, or if people do not eat seconds and thirds, I’ll pack the remainders into various Tupperwares while my friends clean up and do the dishes (a good deal). Nothing hits on a Sunday night like Shabbat leftovers, and they make for excellent work-lunches, too — a filling, mid-week reminder of what’s important.

15 There’s a tradition on Purim of v’Nahafokh hu, or “turning things upside down,” a full discussion of which is beyond the scope of this piece.

16 For 25 hours there would be no video games, no television, no coloring with crayons or cutting out construction paper shapes to affix, via glue-stick, onto other shapes. Even activities I ordinarily did not find to be particularly stimulating — turning on and off bathroom lights or answering the kitchen phone, say — acquired a certain allure when forbidden. Surely you know what I mean.

17 A “palace in time” — that’s how Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel describes Shabbat.

18 Traditionally, the challah on the table is covered for the opening ceremony, a blessing over wine. This to commemorate the dew that covered the manna in the desert, and, I kid you not, so that the challah does not get embarrassed at coming after the wine (bread usually is blessed first, but wine gets preference in this Sabbath ritual). I do not yet have a challah cover with me in Ames. Another Bube request, perhaps.

Cabin Fever: A Reading List for the Perpetually Isolated

Sad child in isolation at home
Getty Images

By Kara Devlin 

It was only a few weeks ago that I found out cabin fever — the restlessness, irritability, and loneliness that a person feels when confined to one place for too long — was a genuine, medical term and not just a casual way of joking about isolation. I was on a hypochondriac mission, tasked with discovering exactly why I felt so completely out of my mind after only one week in COVID-positive solitude. When I searched my anxieties and fears, dozens of incredibly validating affirmations popped up: You are not alone; your symptoms are real; you can get better. I had never taken being alone that seriously. It was a common, unavoidable condition of being alive, so why would I? 

My discovery that cabin fever was a recognized ailment encouraged me to see isolation in a new way. The severity of the condition was now obvious. As a kid, one day inside had been enough to send me climbing the walls, searching for anything to do. What I didn’t realize as I grew older was that isolation crept into my brain in a much quieter way. Loneliness, shame, unhappiness, and impatience replaced the agitation and boredom I had grown up with. The more I read, the more I realize how universal, yet unique, this feeling is. Why does being alone make us feel this way? 

Technology doesn’t help. Most of us can have all our wants and needs met from the comfort of our rooms — food delivered, friends found in anonymous chatrooms, entertainment discovered on endless streaming services. Technology, ironically, has brought freedoms to confinement. We could spend our entire lives within one small space if we chose to, as the economy molds to serve our desires. The lazy day watching Netflix, the guilt-laden Uber Eats order, even the bold Instagram message, have all emerged around a generation spending more time by itself than any before.

Of course, isolation is not just found through a physical landscape. The most harrowing form of loneliness can occur in a crowded room. Edward Hopper famously explored the loneliness of living in the big city through paintings likeNighthawks.” This ubiquitous depiction of urban isolation, a diner with no entrance and no exit, serves as a memorable illustration of loneliness. When you are inside of this feeling — the metaphorical diner if you will — there is no perceived beginning or end, and no consideration from those around you, as nothing exists beyond this world-swallowing experience.

During the pandemic, isolation transformed from a misfortunate occurrence to something so widespread it was impossible to avoid. Like most people, I spent weeks and weeks inside my house, with no contact with anyone except the members of my household. All aspects of isolation hit at once and were impossible to escape. I realized how easy it would be to continue living like this — perpetually isolated.

I wasn’t the only one who had this idea. The switch to working from home brought the overlapping isolations of technology and the pandemic together. However, this change was not an unavoidable curse cast upon working society: Only three percent want to fully return to the office now that we are able to. Solitude is not just wrought upon us; oftentimes, we choose it. The desire to be left alone by the bothers of the social world often overpowers the negative experience that isolation implies. 

I am drawn to the idea that reading can connect the isolated — that one story on loneliness can link together hundreds of confined minds to think, Maybe I’m not alone. The stories on this list do not just seek to analyze and dissect the effects of isolation; they serve as a powerful tool of connection.

***

The Hikikomori couldn’t go outside for years. Then Covid-19 trapped them again (Ann Babe, Wired, March 2021)

Ann Babe has written a number of pieces on the solitary experience of different Korean groups, including a powerful article on the isolation of Korean adoptees in America which looks into solitude as an inherent feature of minority identity.

Like many other people, the coronavirus lockdown was my first taste of prolonged isolation. It was a complete change from my regular lifestyle. But what was it like for those who were already isolated — people who had spent years of their lives locked in their rooms, having already chosen a lifestyle of reclusiveness? This describes the hikikomori, a unique subset of people, largely in Asia, who can live decades in almost complete isolation.

South Korean-based journalist Anne Babe thoughtfully explores the experience of these people during the pandemic. She sensitively lays out multiple, personal hikikomori narratives, displaying their anxieties, reservations, and fears, all without judgment. The effects of COVID on these people ran just as deep, despite the misguided thought that they should be used to it. Babe takes us into their worlds, reminding us that there’s not so much difference between us and them. 

Reflecting on the pandemic, Kim makes a comparison. “Someone who’s been living in the cold climate for a long period of time, like I have, is able to continue on in the cold weather,” he says. “But if that person is from a hot place, they will find it hard to adapt to the suddenly freezing climate. I would say I’m numb to the coronavirus situation because I am so used to being secluded in my room. But I wouldn’t say I’m completely indifferent to it, because I’ve experienced, briefly, the warmth of being part of society.”

The Future of Loneliness (Olivia Laing, The Guardian, April 2015)

Olivia Laing is also the author of The Lonely City, an enlightening book that pulls together personal narrative and art analysis to develop a beautiful understanding of loneliness.

As a Gen Zer, technology is an integral part of my life. It’s how I keep up with work, understand the daily happenings of the world, and, most importantly, how I talk to every single person I know. This reliance on social media for connection has potentially worrying effects, as Olivia Laing argues in her illustration of concerns for strictly virtual bonds. 

Written in 2015, Laing’s fascinating piece points out what we should have realized by then — that the internet is not the perfect tool for connection, that is just an illusion. We may believe it allows us to be seen while simultaneously supporting a level of privacy, but neither can truly be achieved. You will never be viewed for who you really are, just as you will never be concealed from prying eyes. Years later, her predicted anxieties have turned into daily reality. It is normal for every app to gather mountains of data on you, every mistake to result in a permanent “canceling,” and every relationship to spend at least half its time connecting through social media. Laing discovers the true nature of the online world and maintains tension to the last word as we discover more and more truths about our online activity. 

This growing entanglement of the corporate and social, this creeping sense of being tracked by invisible eyes, demands an increasing sophistication about what is said and where. The possibility of virulent judgment and rejection induces precisely the kind of hypervigilance and withdrawal that increases loneliness. With this has come the slowly dawning realisation that our digital traces will long outlive us.

Is Long-Term Solitary Confinement Torture? (Atul Gawande, The New Yorker, March 2009)

I spent my lockdown days in Scotland, under the daily COVID guidance of Boris Johnson, who created laws that only permitted going outside once a day, for exercise. For years, like most other countries around the world, we could not meet anyone outside our “bubble” — the small group of people designated as our close contacts. These restrictions on freedom led to societal concerns about the power of government to forbid even the most basic forms of contact, such as a hug, and led many to come back to the fundamental question: Is socialization a human right?

Gawande delves into this concern in this piece, which focuses on the emergence of solitary confinement as a regular form of punishment within the American incarceration system. He draws us in with stories of monkeys and prisoners of war, creating a compelling argument for the inhumanity of isolation from the get-go. He keeps this level of focus throughout, putting you through the experience of solitary confinement with his illustrative depictions. By the end, you’ll be writing to your local representative, asking them to reconsider their position on this brutal prison punishment. 

This presents us with an awkward question: If prolonged isolation is—as research and experience have confirmed for decades—so objectively horrifying, so intrinsically cruel, how did we end up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens to it than any other country in history has?

On Solitude (and Isolation and Loneliness [and Brackets]) (Sarah Fay, Longreads, March 2020)

There is an implied difference between solitude and isolation. Solitude is a choice, your own rejection of the world, your own contentment with being alone. With isolation, the rejection flips; you are pushed out of society, no matter how much you want to climb back in. This peculiarity is just one that Sarah Fay explores in this piece. Subtle contradictions are her strong suit, as she walks the line between being alone and being lonely, the various subtleties between autophobia and eremophobia, and the distinction between interaction and connection. Ultimately, Fay’s personality is the driving force of this article, compelling us to read on to uncover her personal revelations on solitude.

The key to connection was not to be needy of connection with others. We have to give freely of ourselves, act as social philanthropists who donate anonymously expecting no plaques or appreciation in return. (Turkle and others have pointed to this as the reason why social media doesn’t make us feel connected. Each tweet, post, or friend request is made with the expectation of a response: a retweet, a repost, a like, an accepted request.) 

Together Alone: The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness (Michael Hobbes, Huffington Post, March 2017)

Isolation can often be interlinked with identity. People who are perpetually alone may come to the conclusion that this feeling is an inherent feature of who they are. This is particularly true with minorities, as each member finds themselves intrinsically different from the people surrounding them. Michael Hobbes reflects on this experience within the gay community, almost a year after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Hobbes meets each man he interviews with a deep understanding — he is a gay man himself — as he intertwines his personal narrative with that of his community. He allows their revelations to propel the article, using his own logic to back each reflection. 

I’m always drawn to pieces that effectively communicate an experience I will never personally understand. Hobbes’ depiction is painful; it is raw; but, importantly, it is thoughtful. Each sentence takes care not just for its audience, but for the subjects it depicts. The level of consideration put into each word creates a simultaneously welcoming and challenging reading experience.

You grow up with this loneliness, accumulating all this baggage, and then you arrive in the Castro or Chelsea or Boystown thinking you’ll finally be accepted for who you are. And then you realize that everyone else here has baggage, too. All of a sudden it’s not your gayness that gets you rejected. It’s your weight, or your income, or your race. “The bullied kids of our youth,” Paul says, “grew up and became bullies themselves.”

Loneliness and Me (Claire Bushey, Financial Times, November 2020) 

The Loneliness Project also takes on the normalcy of loneliness with its online archive detailing anecdotes of isolation from hundreds of submitters.

Is loneliness shameful? Does it function as a reflection of who we are as people? These are the integral questions considered by Claire Bushey as she investigates the hows and whys of her own personal loneliness, which started long before the restraints of COVID. To Bushy, being alone is neither a curse nor a blessing: It is simply a way of being. She presents her findings as a blunt response to the ideas that surrounded isolation at the start of the pandemic — that this was a new, torturous experience for all. What draws me to this piece is its honesty: Bushey doesn’t hide behind convention and expectation; she lays out everything she feels and experiences as if it were essential. 

Lonely as a cloud? I am as lonely as an iceberg, an egg, a half carafe of wine. I am lonely as the body is hungry three times a day, hollowed again and again by an ache that does not ease except with the sustenance of connection. The feeling differs from the peace of solitude, which many enjoy, including me at times. Instead, it is a gnawing sadness. Even before the pandemic, a combination of circumstance and choice left me with fewer close ties than I wanted. Every day I forage for connection, and some days I go hungry.

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Kara Devlin is a writer and student based in Glasgow, Scotland. Her writing has appeared in Her Campus, Medium, and others.