This week, we’re sharing stories from Bee Wilson, Seyward Darby, Wil S. Hylton, Greg Milner, and Annie Dillard.
Joanna Petrone | Longreads | August 2017 | 28 minutes (7,729 words)
It comes on suddenly as a gas main explosion, the feeling of being grabbed tightly from within and twisted. I am standing at the front of my classroom, at one, almost, with its beige institutional carpeting and faint but pervasive smell of damp paper. I’m instructing sixth-graders — sleepy and vaguely conspiratorial-looking, the way they often are on Fridays in January just after lunch — when that blue flash of pain rips through me. I stop talking. I freeze, hand on belly, and wait to find out if I’ll vomit.
Inside me everything is lightening bolts and banshee wails and chaos. Outside, obedient, slightly bored students print in marble composition notebooks. Not one of my charges says anything — no one has noticed — so I steady my breathing and shuffle next door to find another teacher to cover for me.
On the toilet, I check my underpants. There is no new red blood — only the same smear of tacky rust-colored discharge that’s been soiling my pads for weeks. The bathroom light, set to a motion-sensitive timer, blinks out into darkness while I sit stock still, afraid and in pain, replaying the highlights of the last two weeks: positive pee sticks, phone calls and doctor’s offices, a sequence of blood tests, an ultrasound confirming a mass in my right adnexa (a uterine appendage), and, last night, a duo of cheerful ER nurses sheathed in full-body, bright orange hazmat suits injecting an abortifacient into my backside.
To turn the light back on, I need to move, but I am immobilized by pain so intense I can no longer tell where in my body it is coming from. After a time, the pain quiets enough for me to think over it and will my body into action. I flail my hands to trigger the light, stand up, wash. Maybe this is cramps from the methotrexate working, I think, just very bad cramps, signaling the welcome end of a doomed, rogue pregnancy.
Our notions of health and wellness (both charged terms these days, one might add) are still stuck in a paradigm that wouldn’t be out of place in ancient Greece; what goes on inside us must somehow be visible and recognizable on our bodies’ surface. In her Guardian essay on the rise of orthorexia — the obsession with consuming pure, “perfect” foods — Bee Wilson traces the history of a recent-yet-oh-so-familiar publishing trend: using youthful, traditionally good-looking women to sell both specific products (hello, coconut-and-oat energy balls!) and an amorphous, ever-shifting “clean” lifestyle.
Every wellness guru worth her Himalayan pink salt has a story of how changing what you eat can change your life. “Food has the power to make or break you,” wrote Amelia Freer in her 2014 bestseller Eat. Nourish. Glow. (which has sold more than 200,000 copies). Freer was leading a busy life as a personal assistant to the Prince of Wales when she realised that her tummy “looked and felt as if it had a football in it” from too many snatched dinners of cheese on toast or “factory-made food”. By giving up “processed” and convenience foods (“margarine, yuck!”) along with gluten and sugar, Freer claimed to have found the secrets to “looking younger and feeling healthier”.
Perhaps the best-known diet-transformation story of all is that of Ella Mills — possessor of more than a million Instagram followers. In 2011, Mills was diagnosed with postural tachycardia syndrome, a condition characterised by dizziness and extreme fatigue. Mills began blogging about food after discovering that her symptoms radically improved when she swapped her sugar-laden diet for “plant-based, natural foods.” Mills — who used to be a model — made following a “free-from” diet seem not drab or deprived, but deeply aspirational. By the time her first book appeared in January 2015, her vast following on social media helped her to sell 32,000 copies in the first week alone.
There was something paradoxical about the way these books were marketed. What they were selling purported to be an alternative to a sordidly commercial food industry. “If it’s got a barcode or a ‘promise’, don’t buy it,” wrote Freer. Yet clean eating is itself a wildly profitable commercial enterprise, promoted using photogenic young bloggers on a multi-billion-dollar tech platform. Literary agent Zoe Ross tells me that around 2015 she began to notice that “the market was scouring Instagram for copycat acts — specifically very pretty, very young girls pushing curated food and lifestyle.”
At The Atlantic, Ross Andersen excerpts Annie Dillard’s classic 1982 personal essay, “Total Eclipse,” from her new collection, The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New.
Dillard writes in exquisite detail about the haunting, surreal experience of witnessing the last solar eclipse to have been visible on the mainland of the United States on February 26th, 1979, after driving with her husband five hours inland in Washington State to catch the view from a hill top.
The full text of the essay will remain on the site for free until next Tuesday, August 22 — the day after “The Great American Eclipse,” which is inspiring eclipse tourism, and lots of astrological predictions.
Now the sky to the west deepened to indigo, a color never seen. A dark sky usually loses color. This was a saturated, deep indigo, up in the air. Stuck up into that unworldly sky was the cone of Mount Adams, and the alpenglow was upon it. The alpenglow is that red light of sunset which holds out on snowy mountaintops long after the valleys and tablelands are dimmed. “Look at Mount Adams,” I said, and that was the last sane moment I remember.
I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on Earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a 19th-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead. The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. All the distant hills’ grasses were finespun metal which the wind laid down. I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages; I was standing in it, by some mistake. I was standing in a movie of hillside grasses filmed in the Middle Ages. I missed my own century, the people I knew, and the real light of day.
At UCLA’s Donated Body Program, Dean Fisher uses a device to dissolve the dead bodies of donors. This alkaline hydrolysis machine, called the “Resomator,” turns bodies into liquid and pure white bone, which is then pounded and scattered at sea. Compared to cremation, alkaline hydrolysis is better for the environment, yet the process is currently only legal in the U.K. and in 14 U.S. states and three Canadian provinces. Is this the machine that could disrupt the death industry?
At Wired UK, Hayley Campbell explores this process of water cremation, which a growing number of advocates is calling a cleaner, more efficient, and ultimately less expensive alternative to burial and traditional cremation.
The machine is mid-cycle. Fisher, grey-haired and tall in light green scrubs, explains what’s happening inside the high-pressure chamber: potassium hydroxide is being mixed with water heated to 150°C. A biochemical reaction is taking place and the flesh is melting off the bones. Over the course of up to four hours, the strong alkaline base causes everything but the skeleton to break down to the original components that built it: sugar, salt, peptides and amino acids; DNA unzips into its nucleobases, cytosine, guanine, adenine, thymine. The body becomes fertiliser and soap, a sterile watery liquid that looks like weak tea. The liquid shoots through a pipe into a holding tank in the opposite corner of the room where it will cool down, be brought down to an acceptable pH for the water treatment plant, and be released down the drain.
Fisher says I can step outside if it all gets too much, but it’s not actually that terrible. The human body, liquefied, smells like steamed clams.
According to Tristan Harris, it’s going to take more than infinite willpower for billions of people to resist the infinite scroll of the attention economy. It’s going to take regulation, reform, and Apple becoming something of an acting government.
Harris — a former Google design ethicist and the founder of Time Well Spent, a nonprofit that encourages tech companies to put users’ best interests before limitless profit models — insists that our minds have been hijacked in an arms race for our attention. He also insists that, with the help of a Hippocratic Oath for software designers, we can win.
“YouTube has a hundred engineers who are trying to get the perfect next video to play automatically,” Harris says in a new interview with WIRED‘s editor in chief Nicholas Thompson. “Their techniques are only going to get more and more perfect over time, and we will have to resist the perfect.”
See? This is me resisting:
In an interview with WIRED, Thompson and Harris discuss why now is the moment to invest in reforming the attention economy.
THOMPSON: At what point do I stop making the choice [to use Facebook or Google or Instagram]? At what point am I being manipulated? At what point is it Nick and at what point is it the machine?
HARRIS: Well I think that’s the million-dollar question. First of all, let’s also say that it’s not necessarily bad to be hijacked, we might be glad if it was time well spent for us. I’m not against technology. And we’re persuaded to do things all the time. It’s just that the premise in the war for attention is that it’s going to get better and better at steering us toward its goals, not ours. We might enjoy the thing it persuades us to do, which makes us feel like we made the choice ourselves. For example, we forget if the next video loaded and we were happy about the video we watched. But, in fact, we were hijacked in that moment. All those people who are working to give you the next perfect thing on YouTube don’t know that it’s 2 am and you might also want to sleep. They’re not on your team. They’re only on the team of what gets you to spend more time on that service.
Again, the energy analogy is useful. Energy companies used to have the same perverse dynamic: I want you to use as much energy as possible. Please just let the water run until you drain the reservoir. Please keep the lights on until there’s no energy left. We, the energy companies, make more money the more energy you use. And that was a perverse relationship. And in many US states, we changed the model to decouple how much money energy companies make from how much energy you use. We need to do something like that for the attention economy, because we can’t afford a world in which this arms race is to get as much attention from you as possible.
The opportunity here, is for Apple. Apple is the one company that could actually do it. Because their business model does not rely on attention, and they actually define the playing field on which everyone seeking our attention plays. They define the rules. If you want to say it, they’re like a government. They get to set the rules for everybody else. They set the currency of competition, which is currently attention and engagement. App stores rank things based on their success in number of downloads or how much they get used. Imagine if instead they said, “We’re going to change the currency.” They could move it from the current race to the bottom to creating a race to the top for what most helps people with different parts of their lives. I think they’re in an incredible position to do that.
Is it possible to make the internet a kinder place? Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom thinks so. In Wired, Nick Thompson reports on how Instagram has been working to clean up its photo sharing platform, creating tools for users to close comments on certain posts and ban offensive words—or, in one notable case, offensive emojis:
In mid July 2016, just after VidCon, Systrom was faced with just such an ophiological scourge. Somehow, in the course of one week, Taylor Swift had lost internet fights with Calvin Harris, Katy Perry, and Kim Kardashian. Swift was accused of treacherous perfidy, and her feed quickly began to look like the Reptile Discovery Center at the National Zoo. Her posts were followed almost entirely by snake emoji: snakes piled on snakes, snakes arranged numerically, snakes alternating with pigs. And then, suddenly, the snakes started to vanish. Soon Swift’s feed was back to the way she preferred it: filled with images of her and her beautiful friends in beautiful swimsuits, with commenters telling her how beautiful they all looked.
But Instagram can’t build that world with simple technical fixes like automated snake emoji deletion.
This was no accident. Over the previous weeks, Systrom and his team at Instagram had quietly built a filter that would automatically delete specific words and emoji from users’ feeds. Swift’s snakes became the first live test case. In September, Systrom announced the feature to the world. Users could click a button to “hide inappropriate comments,” which would block a list of words the company had selected, including racial slurs and words like whore. They could also add custom keywords or even custom emoji, like, say, snakes.
Georgia Cloepfil is only in her mid-twenties, but she is already contemplating the end of her soccer career. The opportunities — and pay — just aren’t there for most women, and the body can only take so much. In her essay at n+1, “Beat the Clock,” she contemplates a life dedicated to a sport that can’t reciprocate.
At times I really am overwhelmed with unmitigated gratitude. Ambition, negotiation, tough-minded feminism—these give way to moments of childish joy. Professional soccer had never been more than a private dream, a subconscious curiosity. Now I get paid to do something I have loved since I was 4 years old. Other than my family, is there anything else I have loved so unconditionally, for so long?
I hobble around the kitchen, searching for a remedy for my constant foot pain and my sore knee. I am home over the holidays for a three-month offseason. “Life is long, Georgia,” says my 60-year-old mother. She is coaxing me to retire, to move on to a pursuit that won’t disintegrate my body with such persistent logic. I want to cry. My soccer life feels so short. Because it is so short.
Lindsay Hunter | Longreads | August 2017 | 12 minutes (3,035 words)
I was a kid, somewhere between age seven and 10, when our neighbor rushed in telling my mom she only weighed 129 pounds. My mom was impressed. “Oh!” the woman said. “But I weighed myself before I pooped!” They both rushed off to my parents’ bathroom, where our beige scale was kept, the one with the numbers that would swing wildly to and fro before your number locked in, staring blandly up at you despite your joy, despite your disgust. I must have weighed myself on that thing a thousand times. There was rarely joy.
Even before that day with our neighbor, I was aware of my body as mostly a disappointment, my soul’s albatross. A sexless lump I had to apologize for. I remember seeing myself in the reflection of our sliding glass doors. My friends and I were running in circles inside a kiddie pool, convinced we could make a deadly whirlpool. In the reflection my friends’ legs were toned, healthy. They wore bikinis and their flat stomachs heaved slightly with laughter. Mostly their laughing just accentuated their abs even more. My friends did gymnastics, cheerleading, softball. My friends did. I saw how my belly stuck out, like a beer gut, something I’d read about in a library book. My thighs jiggled. Playing sports amplified my uselessness; I sweated too much and I couldn’t manage to do anything with grace. I worried a lot about grace, my lack of it. Chicken and the egg: was my form, my essence, preventing me from being active, or were my static days, the Florida heat bleating harshly from pre-dawn to post-dusk, the cause of my worthless body?
I was different from my friends in this way, and it didn’t feel like a harmless difference. I began sucking in my stomach whenever I was in a bathing suit. My friend’s mother complimented me. “You lost weight, I see!” She looked me up and down, approving. I felt like I was glowing. I was in third grade.
At The Walrus, Matthew Zapruder examines his relationships with poetry and with his father. Despite being two men with great facility for precise language, they were unable to use it to bridge the distance between them. In likening poems to people, Zapruder says that the most beautiful thing about the poems most important to him is that their meaning cannot fully be articulated.
I have found that the poems which have meant the most to me, to which I return again and again, retain a central unsayability, a place where the drama of truly looking for something essential that can never quite be reached is expressed. Somewhere in the poem, or at its end, knowingness stops. You can feel the intelligence in the poem truly exploring, clambering along the words and down the page, and also that intelligence stopping at what cannot be known. Those moments where a limit is reached can often be the greatest, and most honest, in poetry. They can come first as a surprise, then immediately afterward feel inevitable, at least for a little while.
This is why asking for a certain kind of knowledge—that way of knowing we automatically, and justifiably, expect from other texts, anything other than a poem—limits our experience with poetry. If we imagine a poem as something to be answered or solved, we will most likely find ways to do so. But I think we would be better off to think of “understanding” in a poem as an ongoing process of attention.
Simone Weil writes that attention is the purest form of generosity. A generous, open, genuinely focused attention moves us through the poem, just as it moves us through an experience, through a friendship, through anything else that means and keeps on meaning. If a poem is really good, you can’t really say what it’s “about,” that is, what its central “message” is, any more than you can do so for a painting or a piece of music or a person or a mountain.
A poem is like a person. The more you know someone, the more you realize there is always something more to know and understand. A final understanding could probably only begin upon permanent separation, or death. This is why we come back to certain poems, as we do to places or people, to experience and re-experience, to see ourselves for who we truly are, and to continue to be changed.