Category Archives: Uncategorized

These Are the Locals Who Get The Story of Charlottesville Right

Last Saturday evening, Charlottesville police chief Al Thomas held a press conference about the events that day that unfolded under his watch “We love our city,” he said in conclusion. “Let us heal. This is not our story. Outsiders do not tell our story.”

I was born and raised in Charlottesville. I attended and graduated from its public schools; I still live in the city and call it home. After a weekend in which the national media descended upon our downtown and broadcast the unfolding story with the nuance of a parade of elephants, Thomas’s sentiment was welcome. Aside from being heartbroken and outraged, I was tired. Tired of talking heads calling our town Charlotte, of “The South” appearing in print as some strange monolithic mystery region somewhere below Philadelphia, of factual errors confusing the city with adjacent poor and rural counties, of accusing fingers pointed without question at the police and the local government, of former UVA students who spent all of four years here weighing in as if experts, of a lack of context, a lack of understanding of the city as a specific place with a specific history at a specific moment in time.

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Where In the World is O.J. Mayo?

It has been more than a year since O.J. Mayo, thought at one point to be the second coming of LeBron James, was “dismissed and disqualified” from the NBA for 24 months after he violated the league’s anti-drug policy.

Mayo wasn’t a once-in-a-generation talent, but he was pretty close; the guard had the speed, physicality, and athletic creativity that even other elite athletes lacked, and when he was drafted out of USC as the third overall pick in the 2008 draft, the thought was Mayo was destined for a myriad of future All-Star games. Those prognostications never materialized, and in light of the NBA’s ruling, Mayo has taken a step back from the game.

According to Ryan Jones of the Bleacher Report, who first profiled Mayo for Slam as a dominant high schooler at Huntington (WV) High School, Mayo has essentially disappeared:

 The basketball world doesn’t know what’s going on with Mayo, nor is it particularly interested in trying to find out. With his present a mystery and his basketball future in serious doubt, his past was the one thing it seemed possible to understand.

It’s not that Mayo has kept a low public profile — he has separated himself from both the basketball world and his own circle, or at least those whom Jones tried to contact to see how Mayo has spent his time away from the NBA. What’s bizarre about Jones’ feature is that Mayo was in the prime of his career at the time of his suspension, nearing 30 and, though recovering from injuries, still a valuable contributor for the Milwaukee Bucks. That he would incur the suspension is in itself shocking — only one other player in the past decade (Chris “Birdman” Andersen) suffered the same punishment — but to then completely disappear is a more shocking matter.

We’re no longer talking about a child, of course. O.J. Mayo will be 30 in November. He will have earned about $45 million in eight NBA seasons. At this point, there is no measure by which he is not an adult, responsible for his choices, good and bad. The stakes now go beyond trivialities like academic eligibility and mere reputation. This is about his career. His life.

Thinking about all this brought me back to something Mayo said 10 years ago, on that summer afternoon in Los Angeles. “What’s the average time you live on earth—like 60, 65 years?” he asked. “Basketball’s gonna take up half of it. I’d like to be successful in the other half, too.”

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Inside the World Famous Suicide Race

This past spring, Chris Apassingok, a 16 year old in the Siberian Yupik village of Gambell, struck and killed a bowhead whale during a traditional hunt. In his community, Apassingok drew nothing but praise — subsistence hunting is a backbone of the area’s economy and whale meat, along with that of walrus and bearded seal, is an essential source of much-needed nutrients — but as soon as news reached the lower 48, both Apassingok and the practice of hunting whales became subjects of intense vitriol, as Julia O’Malley recently reported for High Country News,

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The Arsonist Was Like a Ghost

Monica Hesse | American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land | LiverightAugust 2017 | 17 minutes (4,100 words) 

In the middle of the night on December 15, 2012, Lois Gomez sat up in bed. She thought she heard something. She listened. Nothing. Maybe she was wrong, maybe she hadn’t heard anything. She went to the kitchen for a drink of water. It was two or three in the morning, only a few hours before her shift at Perdue and her husband’s shift at Tyson. Now she definitely heard something. A banging on her front door — which in itself was odd; friends and family knew they always used the side entrance — and someone yelling: “Your garage is on fire! I’ve already called 911!”

She stood frozen in the kitchen trying to process the information. Christmas lights, she thought. Her outdoor Christmas lights were halfway up, but she and her husband had recently decided to visit his family in Texas for the holiday and she’d been trying to figure out whether to bother with the rest of the decorations, which were meanwhile stored in the family’s detached garage, which was now on fire. Christmas lights, along with the expensive music equipment for her son’s rock band.

It had been a rough couple of months. For one thing, she wasn’t getting along with her next-door neighbors. She’d been close with the woman who’d owned that house before, Susan Bundick. They brought each other dinner sometimes, or stood and chatted in their backyards. But one Sunday afternoon, Lois was outside emptying the aboveground backyard pool to close out the summer season, and she saw the police were at Susan’s house. They told Lois her neighbor had died. Now, Susan’s daughter lived in her mother’s old house and things weren’t as pleasant. Tonya was fine, kept to herself, but Lois had a few run-ins with Tonya’s new boyfriend, a squirrelly redheaded guy whose name she didn’t know. He’d done a few little things, like dumping a bunch of branches on their lawn instead of disposing of them like he was supposed to. Once he’d accused her of making racial slurs against Tonya’s kids. The accusation was ridiculous. Lois’s husband was from Mexico, and her four grandchildren were partly black.

She’d also been having nightmares about the arsonist. In one dream, she went into her kitchen late at night and saw someone racing through the yard, an intruder wearing dark-colored sweat pants and a hoodie. “What are you doing?” she called. The figure turned and looked at her but she still couldn’t see his face, and he eventually disappeared behind her detached garage. She woke up and realized it wasn’t real.

This night wasn’t a dream, though.

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How ‘Jane Crow’ Is Ravaging Families of Color

Six or seven years ago, I met a teenage mother in the Bronx who was mired in the city’s bureaucratic and legal systems. It wasn’t just through no fault of her own; the blame for the circumstances in which she and her young son found themselves rested squarely with the same bureaucracy and courts that were condemning them. The city’s family shelter system refuses aid to anyone who has family who says they will house them, and the city goes to lengths to track down family members. This girl’s grandmother had told city officials she would house the girl, but when she gave birth, she kicked them both out, saying she didn’t want to live with a baby. The girl went to live with her brother and his girlfriend, but became a pawn in their fights, and was ultimately kicked out of their place too. It was winter, so she tracked down her father, who was squatting in a decrepit, vermin-infested building in the Bronx. She did her best to keep her boy safe, including taking him to doctor appointments required by the city in exchange for care for some of his medical issues. One day, she had to choose between making it to an appointment with the family shelter system or going to one of those doctor appointments. Desperate to get her son out of that vermin-infested building, she skipped the doctor, just that once. The doctor reported the missed appointment, and investigators went to her grandmother’s place, and then her brother’s, where her brother’s girlfriend suggested they find the father at his squat. When they arrived and found the baby amid all that vermin, they took him away. His mother, who was not a drinker or drug user, diligently went to parenting classes, Narcotics Anonymous and jumped through every other hoop the city placed before her — whatever she needed to do to get her son back. She was a better, more attentive and more devoted parent than most others I’ve known, and after letting her down over and over, the city punished her, treating her like a stereotype she didn’t fit and taking away the one thing she had ever cared about.

I thought of her this weekend when I read the New York Times‘ exposé on New York City’s use of foster care as punishment for “predominantly poor black and Hispanic women,” a practice that the Times reported some have nicknamed “Jane Crow,” in reference to the laws that codified the American practice of racial segregation.

In the Times story, one of the lawyers who represents these women in court explains how Jane Crow works:

“It takes a lot as a public defender to be shocked, but these are the kinds of cases you hear attorneys screaming about in the hall,” said Scott Hechinger, a lawyer at Brooklyn Defender Services. “There’s this judgment that these mothers don’t have the ability to make decisions about their kids, and in that, society both infantilizes them and holds them to superhuman standards. In another community, your kid’s found outside looking for you because you’re in the bathtub, it’s ‘Oh, my God’” — a story to tell later, he said. “In a poor community, it’s called endangering the welfare of your child.”

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Remembering When Puff Daddy Ruled the Summer

“De-spa-cito.”

It is impossible to stop the smash single, featuring Daddy Yankee, Justin Bieber, and Luis Fonsi, from forever embedding into your brain this summer. “Despacito” has all the qualities of a perfect ear worm, which is why you’re still humming Bieber’s chorus hours and days after you hear the tune. And since “Despacito” is now the most globally streamed song in history, surpassing 4.6 billion streams since debuting in January, there is really no way to escape what has become a worldwide phenomenon. The song of the summer has become the song of 2017.

Twenty years ago, before crowning a single as the song of the season emerged as part of the pop culture canon, Puff Daddy ruled the airwaves. 1997 was a tumultuous year: Tupac was gone, Notorious BIG would follow that March, and Diddy was striking out on his own. He was still an assembler of talent, signing artists like Black Rob and Mase to the Bad Boy label (as Jimmy Iovine states in the recent Defiant Ones docuseries, Puff has always had one of the best ears for talent), but he also was stepping into the booth, releasing his debut No Way Out in July 1997.

While “Despacito” is constantly streaming and filtering out of your radio, you couldn’t avoid Puff Daddy that summer. He had two contenders for songs of the summer: “It’s All About the Benjamins” and “I’ll Be Missing You,” which were both released within a period of roughly one month—which he then followed with “Mo Money, Mo Problems,” Life After Death‘s second single that hit airwaves that July.

Within 90 days, Puff had three songs all contending for the top spot on the Billboard charts. That is an incredible run.

There are few with an ego as outsized as Puff’s—from changing his name several times over the past two decades to Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, his recently released biopic (don’t you dare call it a documentary!), the entrepreneur-artist never strays far from the spotlight. While what Daddy Yankee et al have achieved is certainly historic, it doesn’t come close to the dominance Puff achieved that summer. As Shea Serrano explained in a 2015 excerpt from his book The Rap Year Book,

The dominance of Puffy: The song that followed “Can’t Hold Me Down” on top of the Billboard’s Hot 100 was “Hypnotize” by the Notorious B.I.G., which is the most perfect example of Bad Boy’s We Have Money, Life Is a Party mission statement. It was there for three weeks. Hanson’s ridiculous “MMMBop” ba-duba-dopped its way to the top for three weeks (Puff did not produce that one, turns out). After that, it was “I’ll Be Missing You,” a tribute song to the Notorious B.I.G. by Puff, Faith Evans, and 112. It was at number one for 11 weeks. “Mo Money Mo Problems” was next (by the Notorious B.I.G., Puff, and Mase). It was there for two weeks. And then “Honey” by Mariah Carey came after. It was there for three weeks. Puff produced that one, too. That’s a stretch of 25 out of 28 weeks where Puff Daddy was, in part, responsible for the number-one song in the nation, and he’d spread it over five songs. It had never happened that way before. It hasn’t happened that way since.

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Remembering Nelson Mandela’s Contribution to Sports

Of all the words that have been spilled about Nelson Mandela over the years, perhaps the most interesting center around his thoughts on and contributions to the arena of sports.

Mandela understood sports to be a powerful unifier, which is why he backed the Springboks, South Africa’s (long reviled) national rugby team, during its surprise run in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. And it’s why Mandela was instrumental in helping his country land the 2010 World Cup. Sports can supersede all other differences, perceived or recognized, and in commemoration of Mandela Day, it’s worth revisiting Wright Thompson’s classic 2008 piece (for ESPN the Magazine) which examined what the World Cup meant for South Africa:

As the members of the [Springboks] dressed for the final match, they looked up to find Mandela standing in the locker room. He’d come to offer the support of all of South Africa. Some of the players, including some who’d grown up believing Mandela was a terrorist, were overcome with emotion. During the national anthem, Pienaar bit his lip so hard that blood trickled down his chin. He did not want to cry. And when the locals won, Pienaar looked up to see Mandela walking onto the field in a Springboks jersey—Pienaar’s Springboks jersey. As the president hugged the player, the 65,000 mostly white fans did what actually had been a crime just a few years before: They spoke Mandela’s name in public. Nel-son! Nel-son! Nel-son! Later, people told of seeing hard-line apartheiders standing in front of their televisions and chanting along with the crowd.

A nation had been born.

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California’s Housing Crisis Is About Jobs, Not Houses

The median home price in California has reached $500,000 — more than double the cost nationally — and a new brand of housing crisis is here. It’s nearly impossible for anyone to afford a home in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, or any surrounding suburbs. As today’s New York Times reports, this means people like Heather Lile, a nurse making $180,000 a year, live in distant Central Valley towns like Manteca and commute two hours to get to work. “I make really good money and it’s frustrating to me that I can’t afford to live close to my job,” she tells the reporter. Read more…

When Everyone In Town Has a Gun, But the Enemy is the Economy

For decades, residents of Nucla, Colorado mined the coal that fueled the nearby power plant. But a lawsuit brought on by environmentalists will close the nuclear plant in 2020, and the mine will shut down as well. One in eight people in the town will lose their jobs. Nucla had a moment of fame in 2013, not for its declining economy, but for an ordinance in the wake of Sandy Hook which ran against a national call for restricted gun access: Every household in Nucla would be required to own a gun.

Lois Beckett traveled to Nucla for the Guardian and talked with residents there about the fight for their livelihood. But Nucla’s enemies can’t be run off their land with firearms; they’re in the liberal town next door.

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Despair All Ye Who Enter Into the Climate Change Fray

A New York Magazine story on climate change is making the rounds on the internet, frequently being shared by people characterizing it as a “terrifying” “must-read.” “It is, I promise, worse than you think,” writes David Wallace-Wells, who goes on to tell his readers that even the most anxious among them are unaware of the terrors that are possible “even within the lifetime of a teenager today.”

What many readers seem to be overlooking is how frequently words like “may” appear in the text of Wallace-Wells’ article. “May” is in there seven times; “suggest” six times, “possible” and its variants a few more. Wallace-Wells is, of course, referencing the positions of scientists, whom he says have become extra cautious due to “climate denialism,” steering the public away from “speculative warnings” that could be debunked by future scientific progress, weakening their own case and giving weight to their opponents.

As Jack El-Hai wrote for Longreads in April of this year, science editor Peter Gwynne is still dogged by an article he wrote for Newsweek more than 40 years ago, “The Cooling World,” which predicted — wrongly, as it turns out — another Ice Age. The prediction at the time was supported by evidence, he claimed, that was mounting so quickly, “meteorologists are hard-pressed to keep up with it.” The evidence Gwynne relied on has since been disproved — a phenomenon not uncommon a field as relatively young as climate study. As El-Hai noted:

The study of the world’s climate was still primitive in the 1970s. Few meteorological scientists then knew how to interpret trending temperature information, and the cause of climate changes was mysterious. The information that climate researchers had collected was incomplete and easy to misread. The biosciences have advanced by huge leaps since then, and many more scientists now study the climate.

Gwynne’s article was used for decades as fodder by those who trade in what Wallace-Wells dubs “climate denialisms,” showing how those determined not to believe in a certain scientific finding can benefit from the natural trial-and-error of most scientific inquiry.

After Wallace-Wells’s piece was published, climate scientist Michael E. Mann took to Facebook to criticize his story. (He also claimed Wallace-Wells interviewed but didn’t quote or mention him). Mann is equally critical of “doomist framing” and “those who understate the risks” of climate change, and argues that Wallace-Wells’ article includes “extraordinary claims” without “extraordinary evidence” to back it up.

About the risk of catastrophic methane released by melting permafrost, for example, Mann says the science “is much more nuanced and doesn’t support the notion of a game-changing, planet-melting methane bomb. It is unclear that much of this frozen methane can be readily mobilized by projected warming.”

Mann also highlights Wallace-Wells’ referencing of “satellite data showing the globe warming, since 1998, more than twice as fast as scientists had thought.”

“That’s just not true,” writes Mann. “The study in question simply showed that one particular satellite temperature dataset that had tended to show less warming that the other datasets, has now been brought in line with the other temperature data after some problems with that dataset were dealt with… The warming of the globe is pretty much progressing as models predicted… which is bad enough.”

Mann’s position is that the evidence supporting the notion that climate change is “a serious problem that we must contend with now” is overwhelming enough without a doomsday narrative that he fears has a “paralyzing” effect and makes people feel hopeless, potentially deterring efforts to mitigate the human-caused harm.

There’s an argument to be made in defense of Wallace-Wells’ meltdown-style writing, however. As Atlas Obscura staff writer Sarah Laskow noted on Twitter, the exploration on which he embarks is hardly novel — New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert won a Pulitzer this year for a book on the topic, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Yet, Wallace-Wells’ story got readers’ attention in a way that seemed to suggest it was news they’d never encountered before.

For scientists like Mann, it’s true that the evidence easily at our fingertips is compelling enough to warrant immediate mitigating efforts. But not everyone is a scientist like Mann. As El-Hai noted in his piece on Gwynne’s disproved Newsweek article, a U.S. Senator held up a snowball on the Senate floor in 2015 as part of an argument that global warming isn’t real. Today, Antarctica is poised to shed one of the largest icebergs ever recorded, while the Trump administration is abandoning international climate agreements, undoing dozens of environmental regulations dealing with everything from methane to grizzly bears to chemical spills and using the agency meant to protect the environment to launch a program challenging climate science. In light of all that, it’s just as easy to sympathize with Mann’s concern about making people feel so hopeless they believe there’s nothing left to be done, as it is hard to blame Wallace-Wells for despairing.