Category Archives: Nonfiction

Why Don’t You Just Get One of Those Creative Jobs?

I never acted on my mother’s suggestion that I find a nice creative job, like in advertising, but then the job came to me anyway. An art-director friend called and said she was making a TV commercial for Barneys New York and she needed some words. Would I do it?

I didn’t hesitate for a second. Why not? What is the difference between art and advertising?

Quality? Clearly not. The only difference I could come up with for sure was the logo. I was an adman from that day forward, and somehow it gave me the resources to do what I thought was art—with a logo.

I had always been interested in the neutral zone, the DMZ of art and commerce, and now I was working there. It was a place where I could push the limits, mainly because I was so unfamiliar with the limits. Like Iggy, I didn’t feel like a sellout, I felt empowered. If you’re going to be a bad boy, be bad: like Bob Dylan talking to the computer in the IBM ad. Don’t tell me he wasn’t savoring the transgression of the whole thing.

At The Paris Review, writer and creative director Glenn O’Brien narrates the comic struggle of making a living in the arts, particularly the way many creative types struggle with whether or not to go into advertising. He doesn’t.

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‘I might have not wanted to think about my Jewishness, but now I had to.’

At Vice, Eve Peyser has an essay I strongly identify with about belatedly embracing her Jewish identity. Raised by atheist parents in New York City and attending Oberlin, Peyser more comfortably identified as a liberal, and was reluctant to be lumped in with certain kinds of Jews — rich, entitled, Zionist, anti-Palestinian. Recently, though, the rise in antisemitism ushered in by the new administration — plus personal attacks by racist online trolls — have prompted Peyser to analyze how she’s distanced herself from her heritage, re-evaluate what it means to be Jewish, and take pride in owning it.

A recent sunny afternoon, my best friend Beck (a fellow secular New York City Jew, and college classmate) and I went for a walk to a Jewish cemetery near my apartment in Ridgewood, Queens. The grid of tombstones and mausoleums engraved with Jewish names—the sort of place that has been vandalized recently—got us talking about why it took so long for us to feel OK with (or even proud of) our heritage.

Both of us had felt the same shame at times, heard the same things. Beck remembered a time in Oberlin when a leftist activist remarked on her big, Jewish nose—a shockingly casual bit of bigotry given how “woke” our little bubble was. We had both seen a Facebook post from a former classmate of ours who quoted a pamphlet called “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere,” a 32-page guide for leftist activists on how to incorporate fighting anti-Semitism within their movement. In explaining how anti-Semitism functions and differs from other forms of racism, the zine perfectly addressed the complicated identity of white Jews, like myself:

“Many oppressions rely on keeping a targeted group of people poor, uneducated, designated non-white, or otherwise ‘at the bottom.’ Anti-Jewish oppression doesn’t depend on that. Although at many times it has kept Jews in poverty or designated non-white, these have been ‘optional’ features. Because the point of anti-Jewish oppression is to keep a Jewish face in front, so that Jews, instead of ruling classes, become the target of people’s rage.”

It also notes that part of the reason we’re so willing to dismiss anti-Semitism is because it moves in cycles—in the aftermath of oppression, Jews are often allowed to blend in again—and atrocities like the Holocaust seem like ancient history.

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‘Every Watch Geek Has an Origin Story’

watches and watch parts, on a black background

Novelist and memoirist Gary Shteyngart has an essay in The New Yorker about his growing obsession with high-ticket mechanical wristwatches, a fixation that escalated throughout the 2016 Presidential race and peaked around the inauguration. Something about the reliability and precision of German and Swiss ticking timepieces helps quell Shteyngart’s growing anxiety; delving into his expensive new hobby, he’s able to divert his attention away from his growing fears and the residual unrest from his childhood as a Jewish refugee from Russia.

Along the way, he visits watch factories in Germany, the offices of the online publications Hodinkee and TimeZone, the Horological Society of New York, and other exclusive halls where his fellow watch enthusiasts gather.

As the election approached, I started going to meetings of the Horological Society of New York. On the streets of Manhattan, I never have any idea which celebrity is which—they all seem to be Matt Damon—but at the Horological Society I could identify all my new heroes, many with full, Portlandian beards, across the vast hall of the library of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, in midtown, while they waited in line for their free coffee and Royal Dansk butter cookies. There was the nattily dressed Kiran Shekar—yes, the Kiran Shekar, noted collector, author, and proprietor of the independent watch purveyor Contrapante. I ran over to introduce myself and a few moments later he gave me his watch to hold, and a few weeks later he arranged for me to attend the secret RedBar, a meeting of the watch elect, at a bar in Koreatown. You need a regular to invite you to a meeting, and the idea that I could be welcomed into this exclusive world kept me from sleeping. I lay in bed practicing what I might say about “perlage,” “three-quarter plates,” and the rare lapis-lazuli dials on some seventies Rolex Datejusts.

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Want To See a Polar Bear? Just Follow the Bones

a polar bear walks on the ice

In Kaktovik, Alaska, dozens of polar bears take advantage of the bone pile—the remains of this community’s yearly quota of bowhead whales, which locals butcher right on the shore—to supplement meager summertime hunting. The bone pile is also a bounty for locals like hunter and guide Robert Thompson, who’s booked solid through 2017 taking hopeful wildlife photographers on polar bear tours. Michael Englehard tells the story in Hakai magazine.

The juncture of lingering bears waiting for freeze-up, the windfall of a bone and blubber cache, and a nearby community eager for economic opportunities, has resulted in a burgeoning bear watching industry in Kaktovik. Thompson, one of seven coast guard-certified tour boat captains, makes a good living from the castaways at the bone pile between September and November. A popular captain who is already fully booked for 2017, he can get so busy that he rushes to work without breakfast, grabbing a fistful of coffee beans to chew on his way out the door. His boat Seanachaí, Irish for storyteller, is aptly named—the man who can see bears making a beeline to the bone pile from his living room chair and who once got charged by a marauding male right on his doorstep regales visitors with tidbits about life in the North. A favorite is the technique for how to prepare a polar bear skin. “You stuff it through a hole in the ice and let shrimp pick it clean,” he says, adding that he’s also seen bears steal from set fishing nets and once watched one pull a net to shore. Thompson’s porch is a still life of body parts and implements: a pot with chunks of unidentifiable meat chilling in the frigid air; a caribou leg for his dogs; snowmobile parts; a gas tank; and, like a cluster of fallen angels, a brace of unplucked, white-phase ptarmigans. On a driftwood stump near the shed grins a mossy polar bear skull; it’s not a scene for tender romantics.

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

This week, we’re sharing stories from Amy Wallace, Katherine Laidlaw, Lisa Miller, Porochista Khakpour, and Lauren Schwartzberg.

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The Rules For Being John Hinckley

Thirty-four years after his commitment to Saint Elizabeths Hospital, after being found not guilty by reason of insanity for shooting Ronald Reagan to impress actor Jodie Foster, John Hinckley is free. Well, “free.” In a fascinating New York magazine profile that also digs into the limits of both psychiatry and juries, Lisa Miller details some of the conditions of his release into the custody of his 90-year-old mother.

Under the order of a federal judge, Hinckley has to live with his mother for at least a year. He must remain in treatment with mental-health professionals in Williamsburg, who have to be in regular touch with the doctors at St. Elizabeths and the court. He may not travel more than 50 miles from home, and he may not contact Foster or any of his other victims. He may not knowingly travel to places where “current or former Presidents” will be present, and if he finds himself in such locations he must leave. He may play his guitar in private, but in the interest of containing his narcissism, he may not play gigs. For now, he may browse the internet but not look at pornography or at information related to his crimes. He has to submit the make and model of his car to the Secret Service as well as his cell-phone number. He is encouraged to make friends in Williamsburg but may not invite a guest to sleep over at his house unless his mother (or one of his siblings, both of whom live in Dallas) is home. Violations of these terms could send him back to the hospital.

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Remembering Jerry Krause, Architect Behind the Greatest NBA Team Ever Assembled

There is dichotomy that naturally comes with any sort of memorialization for Jerry Krause, the general manager of the Chicago Bulls for nearly 20 years and who died earlier this week. Krause didn’t draft Michael Jordan, but it was primarily through his efforts that the Bulls won six NBA titles, dominating the 1990s with players like Scottie Pippen, Steve Kerr, Horace Grant, and Toni Kukoc, among others; Krause was the architect behind the signing and drafting of those players, and without his efforts, who knows if we would even consider Jordan the GOAT. Read more…

I Can Totally Believe It’s Actually Butter!

In the Washington PostLibby Copeland talks to butter aficionado and food writer Elaine Khosrova — author of Butter: A Rich History — about the origins of butter, the range of butters available, and how to hold a butter tasting. But is it good for us or not? It depends when you ask.

Butter’s story is a very American story, because the arc of its vilification and subsequent redemption is a parable for how we get food wrong time and again. We alternately demonize and idealize individual ingredients — not just butter but also sugar, caffeine, red wine and supposed miracle foods featured on “The Dr. Oz Show” — and in doing so, we miss the big picture. Even now, at butter’s supposed moment of glory, many nutritional scientists worry that the pendulum may be swinging too far in its direction. American food trends are hopelessly reminiscent of Newton’s third law, says David L. Katz, founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center: “For every boneheaded action, there’s an opposite and equally boneheaded reaction.”

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The Sense of an Endling

Elena Passarello / Animals Strike Curious Poses / Sarabande Books / March 2017 / 12 minutes (3,100 words)

Illustrations from “The Last Menagerie” by Nicole Antebi.

The last Woolly Mammoth died on an island now called Wrangel, which broke from the mainland twelve thousand years ago. They inhabited it for at least eight millennia, slowly inbreeding themselves into extinction. Even as humans developed their civilizations, the mammoths remained, isolated but relatively safe. While the Akkadian king conquered Mesopotamia and the first settlements began at Troy, the final mammoth was still here on Earth, wandering an Arctic island alone.

The last female aurochs died of old age in the Jaktorów Forest in 1627. When the male perished the year before, its horn was hollowed, capped in gold, and used as a hunting bugle by the king of Poland.

The last pair of great auks had hidden themselves on a huge rock in the northern Atlantic. In 1844, a trio of Icelandic bounty hunters found them in a crag, incubating an egg. Two of the hunters strangled the adults to get to the egg, and the third accidentally crushed its shell under his boot.

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A Culinary Legend’s Next Fight

Paula Wolfert

Emily Kaiser Thelin | Longreads | March 2017 | 9 minutes (2,256 words)

The following is a Longreads exclusive excerpt from Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life, the new book by author Emily Kaiser Thelin about the extraordinary life of culinary legend Paula Wolfert, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2013. Our thanks to Thelin for sharing this story with the Longreads community.

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In an impossibly narrow lane in the crowded ancient medina of Marrakech, a motor scooter zipped past, a horned ram bleating between the driver’s legs, bound for sacrifice for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. I jumped to get out of the way and promptly collided with a family headed home for the holiday, a small lamb chewing on weeds while straddling the shoulders of the man. I cinched my coat tighter against the wet, cold December day and pushed on against the crowds.

It was December 2008. I had come to Morocco on an assignment for Food & Wine to profile legendary cookbook author Paula Wolfert, a longtime contributor to the magazine whom I had edited as a staffer there since 2006. This was the culinary equivalent of a journey through the Arabian dunes with T. E. Lawrence or a trip to Kitty Hawk with the Wright Brothers—the chance to tour the place where a titan of my field first made her name. She and I had met in person only twice before, once at a food conference and then for lunch at her house in Sonoma. She had returned to Morocco because her publisher, HarperCollins, had suggested she update her first book, the 1973 landmark Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco. Read more…