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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Clusters of ripe Pinot Gris grapes on the vine
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Here are five standout pieces we read this week. You can always visit our editors’ picks or our Twitter feed to see what other recommendations you may have missed.

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1. Kate Price Remembers Something Terrible

Janelle Nanos | The Boston Globe Magazine | July 28th, 2022 | 11,329 words

I would be remiss if I didn’t start by noting that Janelle Nanos’s story contains graphic details of childhood sexual abuse — some readers may want to proceed with caution, or not at all. Should you choose to click through, you will find a feat of narrative journalism, as propulsive as it is compassionate. As an adult, Kate Price, an authority on child sex trafficking, began to remember being abused by her father, grandfather, and other men. But no one believed her. Even she wasn’t sure she could trust her memories. So, in collaboration with Nanos over roughly a decade, Price went looking for evidence of what her brain told her had happened. I won’t reveal what they found; readers should experience it in the context of Nanos’s excellent prose. I’ll just say that the piece took my breath away. Twice. —SD

2. Where There’s Smoke

Paloma Pacheo | Maisonneuve | June 24th, 2022 | 5,764 words

Although no wine connoisseur, I have been to the Okanagan Valley — a wine region in British Columbia — several times. I enjoy sitting on a vineyard patio, cockily swirling a big glass round and round while I pretend to detect oaky notes or hints of grass (all I smell is the reassuring whiff of alcohol.) The last time I was there, the air was also sadly filled with the smell of smoke as wildfires burned across the region. Although I feared for properties in the area, it never crossed my mind to consider the wine itself; but for those who can taste the difference between a cab sav and a merlot, the tinge of smoke is a growing concern. In this essay, Paloma Pacheco persuades several Okanagan winemakers to discuss the threat of “smoke taint” — still quite a taboo topic outside the industry. The taint occurs when compounds in woodsmoke bind to sugars in a ripening grape’s skin, and with wildfires growing in intensity each year, the risk of wine tasting, in Pacheco’s words, “like you’re licking the bottom of an ashtray,” has grown in many wine regions. Wine is a low priority in the many challenges of a burning world, but Pacheco points out that “the solutions that winemakers and growers have adopted represent a form of resilience many of us can learn from.” A riveting read. —CW

3. Code Snitching

Radley Balko | Nashville Scene | July 28th, 2022 | 8,219 words

Nashville isn’t the only American city to have seen a recent spike in both population and gentrification; it’s also not the only city to have a byzantine set of zoning codes governing what can and can’t happen on a person’s property. But when you put those two things together, as Radley Balko explores in this investigation, you get a perfect storm of bureaucracy-perpetuated inequity. Real-estate developers and property-value-minded neighbors anonymously call the Metro Codes Department on longtime residents, many of whom are older, Black, and poor — and almost none of whom (Balko included) can fight the compounding deluge of citations. That’s not even considering the bloated city council that’s uniquely susceptible to lobbying from housing associations, and thus not exactly disposed to address this syndrome at the root. Yet, in this case, change may be in the offing: Nashville Scene has already published a follow-up story detailing the ensuing uproar, which includes mayoral pledges and a whole lot of neighborly strife. Every time a hedge fund guts a local paper or alt-weekly, it jeopardizes the future for pieces like this. —PR

4. Moral Panics Come and Go. Sex Bracelet Hysteria Is Forever.

Claire McNear| The Ringer | July 29th, 2022 | 3,000 words

I remember laboring over sociology essays on classic moral panics such as the Mods and Rockers (two British youth subcultures, supposedly rather fond of beating each other up.) However, I never learned about parents getting flustered over colorful jelly bracelets. Luckily, Claire McNear is here to fill me in with this captivating essay on why seemingly innocuous bands became labeled as sex bracelets and banned from schools across the U.S. McNear explains, in far more entertaining terms than any of my turgid tomes on the topic, how the fear behind a moral panic is a “perception problem.” In this case, people assuming “the generation or generations behind them are more salacious.” There is little evidence that middle schoolers in the early 2000s were actually busy snapping bracelets to indicate sex acts — it was all far more Brady Bunch than the grown-ups would ever have suspected. —CW

5. Sam Taggart’s Hard Sell

Tad Friend | The New Yorker | Aug 1st, 2022 | 9,497 words

Where do I even begin to endorse Tad Friend’s safari into the world of modern-day door-to-door salespeople? First, I guess, would be the disclaimer that this sort of subculture piece is catnip for me. I’m a sucker for industry argot, from “bageling” to “tie-downs” to the BOLT system. I’m a sucker for play-by-play annotations, as when Friend details the conversations that Taggart — would-be king of the “knockers” — has with the folks unlucky enough to answer the door and expose themselves to his white-toothed psychological siege. I’m a sucker for anything that plumbs the depths of alpha-bro “performance” thinking, foreign as it is to my character. But that’s only the starting point. What Friend delivers here is a portrait of the want that plagues so many of us, a want for success that’s really a want for redemption. It fuels the cold calls, the seminars, the mind games. “Failure is abhorrent because it can induce a contagious loss of faith in the whole enterprise,” he writes. That was likely the case in the days of Fuller brushes and vacuum cleaners, and it’s certainly the case today, with the knockers peddling home-security systems and high-commission solar panels. Somehow as devastating as it is entertaining. —PR

The 19th-Century Hipster Who Pioneered Modern Sportswriting

A portrait of a man in handlebar mustache on a bicycle, in front of a collage of images of the same man on his bicicyle in different locales
Collage by Carolyn Wells / Illustrations by W.A. Rogers

Robert Isenberg | Longreads | April 2022 | 10 minutes (2,788 words)

“I am bowling along beneath overhanging peach and mulberry trees,” recalls Thomas Stevens, in the 19th chapter of Around the World on a Bicycle, “following a volunteer horseman to Mohammed Ali Khan’s garden. Before reaching the garden a gang of bare-legged laborers engaged in patching up a mud wall favor me with a fusillade of stones, one of which caresses my ankle, and makes me limp like a Greenwich pensioner when I dismount a minute or two afterward….”

Like many travel writers, Thomas Stevens wrote in the first person. He also wrote in the present tense, so everything he recounts feels immediate, as if his journey is unfolding in real time. Over the course of many hundreds of pages, the reader travels with Stevens, eats with Stevens, weathers rainstorms with Stevens. When Stevens outwits thieves in Persia, we’re right there with him. When he listens to “Hungarian Gypsy music” in Serbia, we hear it, too. When he narrowly evades a herd of stampeding mustangs in the American frontier, we also duck and cover. With every crank of his pedal, we ride alongside, absorbing the same sensations.

But there’s one thing missing from Around the World on a Bicycle, Stevens’ mammoth memoir from 1887: the author himself.

Nowhere, in his two volumes and 41 chapters, does Stevens bother to explain why he decided to ride a penny-farthing across three continents. He never once mentions his parents, his childhood, or a prior career. Even his titular bicycle, which carries him 13,500 miles over mountains and deserts, has no origin story; it simply appears out of the ether. The first chapter opens with a flowery description of his ride away from San Francisco and through the surrounding hills. You might expect some kind of flashback, but no; Stevens has hit the road, and he’ll continue hitting it for two years straight.

Understand, though: Stevens isn’t shy about his own opinion. He assesses the attractiveness of every woman he meets. He analyzes every meal and guesthouse in microscopic detail. He recounts whole histories and cultural traditions to the best of his ability, and then decides how they measure up to the standards of Western Civilization. Because he’s riding a bicycle, Stevens is particularly preoccupied with road conditions, and he casually judges entire regions by their traversability. Stevens has unwavering confidence in his own perspective, and he assumes that we do, too — even if we have no idea who he is.

From a literary perspective, Around the World on a Bicycle is missing vital context. Take a similar book, like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and you’ll find a memoir of loss and addiction that also happens to take place on the Pacific Crest Trail. The most respected travelogues are usually couched in introspection. Lands of Lost Borders, by Kate Harris, is also about a cyclist riding thousands of miles across Asia, but Harris chronicles much of her life story up to that point, in order to explain the importance of her journey. In contrast, Stevens unburdens himself of any past or motivation. There’s nothing to him. He could be any able-bodied Victorian male with a taste for adventure.

The most revealing passage isn’t in the story itself, but in the front matter:

To

Colonel Albert A. Pope,

of Boston, Massachusetts,

whose liberal spirit of enterprise, and generous confidence in the integrity and

ability of the author, made the tour

Around the World on a Bicycle

possible, by unstinted financial patronage, is this volume

respectfully dedicated

There you have it: A young man writes his first book, and he dedicates it to his bankroller. Granted, Col. Pope was a prominent bicycle manufacturer at the time. Stevens owned a bicycle — one he’d bought with his own money for an 1884 trip across the United States — but Pope gifted him a nickel-plated Columbia Express and contracted him to write about his two-wheeled travels for Outing, a magazine Pope owned. Stevens would later draw on those articles to form Around the World on a Bicycle. How all this came to pass, though, would be anybody’s guess, because the book never mentions these arrangements — nor Pope, nor anyone Stevens knows or cares about — again.

But Around the World on a Bicycle isn’t literature, nor does it have any ambitions to be. Stevens may be the first human to circle the globe on a bicycle, and he may have chronicled the minutiae of that saga, but Stevens’ book and Strayed’s Wild don’t stem from the same tradition. Wild is travel writing. Around the World on a Bicycle is something else entirely: It’s sports porn.

***

Let’s get one thing out of the way: I love sports porn.

While I’m sure there is “sports porn” intended for genuine sexual gratification, I of course mean something more colloquial: texts and images that excite consumers on a primal level. This more wholesome brand of sports porn celebrates athletic achievement in all its visual glory, perhaps motivating the consumer to attempt similar feats, but offers little narrative substance. Like actual pornography, sports porn doesn’t tell a story so much as serve up an exciting scenario: What if you biked down a mountainous Chilean barrio? What if you went fly fishing in the remotest rivers of Siberia? What if you — in this case — rode your high-wheeled bicycle all the way around the planet?

Specifically, I love outdoors porn — and bicycle porn in particular. As an avid rider who writes regularly about cycling, I could watch vloggers pedal over the Rockies all day. I devour whole issues of Adventure Cyclist, the official magazine of the Adventure Cycling Association, and every last field report. I attended the Banff Mountain Film Festival several years in a row, where I watched film after film of adrenaline junkies BASE jumping off cliffs or paddling kayaks over waterfalls.

Video is now the dominant medium for sports porn, which makes perfect sense: Moving pictures require little explanation and can (literally) zoom in on physical action. This is the kind of high-octane excitement that GoPro cameras were designed for. Today, it’s easy for weekend warriors to shoot at high frame-rates and incorporate slo-mo and speed-ramps into their videos; even amateur productions can look spectacular. More and more often, solo sportsmen can make masterpieces on their own: Gravel bikers journey into the Kyrgyzstani wilderness with their prosumer drones, and they return as YouTube influencers with thousands, or even millions, of followers. Any attempt at real plot would ruin the mojo.


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But before video, there were glossy magazines like Outside, Backpacker, and Dirt Rag, periodicals that are often described in the journalism industry as “aspirational.” I cite these titles lovingly: They are the few glossies I’ve ever actually subscribed to or read cover-to-cover. I have spent much of my own career writing aspirational articles, like how to ride a bike in Taiwan or where to grab brunch in Providence. But while magazines like Outside publish in-depth profiles about serious topics, their appeal for many is largely pictorial. Like National Geographic’s stunning landscape panoramas and aerial shots, sports porn photos of Himalayan ice-climbers and trail-running through Scotland will knock the wind out of you. The next thing you know, you’ve ordered $300 worth of gear from REI and hired a personal trainer.

Before moving pictures existed, though, Thomas Stevens was stirring imaginations with his words, and sports porn is the genre he helped create. In 1886, the high-wheel bicycle (known by many as an Ordinary or a penny-farthing, a reference to the large and small British coins its wheels resembled) was roughly equivalent to the iPhone in 2022: a relatively new technology that had completely transformed modern society. Europeans and Americans were still grasping the possibilities of this magical new machine, and Stevens seized the moment; he vowed to ride across the United States, England, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, completing his journey in Yokohama, Japan. The route was arbitrary, as all round-the-world tours are, but Stevens is still the first known cyclist to satisfy the public with this claim. Stevens pedaled through countries he knew his readers would never visit, and he vividly described the people he met. In the same spirit as any pornographic text, readers were invited to switch out the actual narrator for their own globe-trotting fantasy. Nobody cared who Thomas Stevens was. What they wanted to know was how he did it and what it was like when he got there.

***

To be fair, I didn’t “read” Around the World on a Bicycle so much as listen to it. Vintage copies on eBay can cost hundreds of dollars, and I struggled to find an unabridged reprint. An inexpensive ebook version was easy to find, but I was reluctant to read 1,000 pages of purple prose on a backlit screen. Instead, I found a recording produced by LibriVox — a free archive of public domain writings that functions like a Project Gutenberg of audiobooks — and I dedicated several weeks to Stevens’ book, which is read in tandem by several volunteer narrators.

Stevens was only the latest in a series of authors whose works about long-distance bike touring I’ve read, many of them historical. I had devoured a book by Fred A. Birchmore, also called Around the World on a Bicycle, about the author’s journey in the mid-1930s. I had read Barbara Savage’s Far From Nowhere, about a round-the-world bike tour with her husband in the late 1970s. Most interestingly, I read Around the World on Two Wheels, by Peter Zheutlin, a biography of Annie Londonderry and her infamous wager in the 1890s. All these authors followed similar routes, and they all paid homage to Stevens.

Day after day, I played Stevens’ book on my car stereo. On the bike trail, earbud affixed, I gorged on chapters. The book echoed in my kitchen as I cooked or washed dishes, much to my family’s chagrin. Travelogues are a double whammy for the reader, because the geographic journey mirrors the progression of sentences. The bike wheel turns slowly uphill; the paper page turns in the reader’s fingers; the MP3’s time-stamp ticks along, second by second.

As that journey continued, I found myself torn. On the one hand, I liked Stevens and could only imagine what a pleasure it was to know him. He’s eloquent, dashing, and good-humored. The way he describes himself, Stevens seems gracious to friends and brass-knuckled to antagonists. He is genuinely curious about everything he sees, from folk dances in Eastern Europe to dining etiquette in Kurdistan. Stevens takes pains to learn local languages, to make friends wherever he goes. He compliments and admires much of what he sees: His awestruck description of the Taj Mahal is tear-jerkingly sincere. 

In the same spirit as any pornographic text, readers were invited to switch out the actual narrator for their own globe-trotting fantasy. Nobody cared who Thomas Stevens was. What they wanted to know was how he did it and what it was like when he got there.

Like all great travelers, the man takes everything in stride; when Stevens is arrested in Afghanistan and escorted back to Persia, he expresses little more than disappointment. “As the golden dome of Imam Riza’s sanctuary glimmers upon my retreating figure yet a fourth time as I reach the summit of the hill whence we first beheld it,” he writes, “I breathe a silent hope that I may never set eyes on it again.” If there’s anything a cross-country cyclist loathes, it’s backtracking.

Yet Stevens was a product of his era: He places absolute faith in his Anglo-Saxon virtues, and he finds novel ways to trivialize every other ethnicity. He has no problem describing people as “savages” and comparing their behaviors to children or even animals. In one passage, Stevens is forcibly escorted by a dark-skinned soldier in the Pashtun hills, and his description of the man amounts to straight-up minstrelsy. He also carries a revolver, which was common at the time, but he brags about using random wildlife for target practice. From a modern viewpoint, Stevens’ boorish attitudes remain unsettling to the very last page.

Sports porn still struggles with this archetype — the brave white male seeking glory in exotic lands. In fairness, I have seen the genre diversify in recent years, largely thanks to social media,  but the go-to lead character is still a scruffy blonde guy with a California cadence. Outdoorsy Americans tend to have conspicuous freedom and safety nets that make their lifestyles possible. Nowhere is this privilege more evident than in their rationales, often spoken in voiceover: “I didn’t want to spend my life stuck in an office,” or, “I needed to push myself to try something new” — the usual declarations of young men with a granola streak and nothing more pressing to worry about.

I can’t criticize them too much, because I am part of that tribe — an obsessive cross-country cyclist who spends much of his free time reading about far-flung expeditions by bike. As a scruffy white guy, I could step into any of those YouTube fantasias and no one would notice. Almost 90 years after Stevens’ death, I remain his target readership. And although the penny-farthing was soon replaced with the “safety bicycle,” Stevens and I use roughly the same vehicle for roughly the same purpose: to explore, to challenge ourselves, to connect with the world.

***

In Rhode Island’s entire Ocean State Libraries system, I couldn’t find a single edition of Around the World on a Bicycle, in print or digital versions. Instead, I tracked down a copy at the Providence Athenaeum, a library so historic that it used to loan books to Edgar Allan Poe.

But this wasn’t just any copy: The Athenaeum has an original printing of Stevens’ book, released in two volumes in 1887 and 1888. What’s more, handwritten notations in each book verify that the volumes were acquired in July and September of their respective publication years. These copies, now tattered from centuries of use, their spines chipped and cracked, were hot off the presses when they joined the Athenaeum’s collection.

An old, worn hardcover book on a table, with two rubber bands holding it closed

Photo by Robert Isenberg

One of the librarians carefully set up the books on a table, to make sure I didn’t strain the covers. She had never heard of Thomas Stevens, and when she saw a picture of the author in the opening pages, she guessed he was riding a unicycle. She sat at the desk behind me while I read, a gesture I appreciated: Seeing the book firsthand was a euphoric moment, and I was grateful for someone to witness it.

What I hadn’t realized was that Stevens’ book was illustrated; between them, the volumes contained 180 black-and-white plates. The etchings are artful and detailed; I could frame any one of them and proudly hang it in my home. As a drawn character, Stevens appears again and again, riding his bicycle or standing beside it; he finds himself in wildly mixed company; fashions change all around him, from top hats to fezes to turbans to jingasa. It’s hard to tell how much the artist embellished, of course. Stevens carried a camera, and he mentions snapping pictures, but he also rode alone, and there was no Google Images search to verify his accounts.

As critical as I am of Victorian culture, I couldn’t help but fall under Stevens’ spell. I had already devoured the audiobook, yet found that I still had plenty of room for dessert. Sports porn is most effective when it’s audacious: People aren’t supposed to have fun in such dangerous ways, yet here they are, free-climbing up sheer sandstone. Stevens didn’t reveal much about himself, but he loved being the center of attention. The front wheel of his penny-farthing was 50 inches tall, and Stevens coasted into villages where bicycles had never been seen. In his telling, Stevens constantly explains what the bicycle is, and he entertains crowds by demonstrating its use. More than once, strangers offer to buy the bike from him. Stevens craved the attention, and readers were eager to pay it.

For a 21st-century reader like me, the real value of Around the World on a Bicycle is accidental: It freezes time. Stevens was a sportsman and tourist; he saw the world at street level. He may not have been a reliable anthropologist, but the author painstakingly described what these lands looked and felt like to an ordinary Western visitor. Stevens exhibits a mindfulness that modern people still labor to attain. Given enough time, pornography transforms into documentary. To Stevens, writing a book about a global cycling tour was a business op with a built-in publicity stunt. Today, his account sheds light on a bygone world.

And the inspiration remains — timeless and pure, unsullied by subtext or character development. More than a century later, Stevens still urges readers onward, to propel ourselves forward, to see how far we can go.

 

***

Robert Isenberg is a writer and multimedia producer based in Rhode Island. His books include The Archipelago: A Balkan Passage and The Green Season: A Writer’s First Year in Costa Rica. He was recently named a 2022 Scriptwriting Fellow by the Rhode Island Council on the Arts and won Best Documentary Director at the Block Island Film Festival. Feel free to visit him at robertisenberg.net.

Editor: Peter Rubin

Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands

The Big Bear Reading List

Image: Carolyn Wells

Growing up in England, my knowledge of bears largely came from Yogi Bear cartoons, and on a childhood holiday to North America, it wasn’t Disneyland, but the thought of seeing a real-life Yogi that I was most excited about. However, despite my parents stoically driving a hire car down treacherous mountain roads as I lounged in the back bemoaning the lack of performing bears, it never happened.

It wasn’t until I moved to Canada many years later that I saw my first bear. I just turned a corner and there it was, a young black bear casually munching grass, completely unphased by my open-mouthed awe. Several years on, I have seen countless black bears; in fact, they rather enjoy relieving themselves on my front lawn after overindulging in next door’s apple trees. But my childhood wonder of them remains.

I am not the only one drawn to the subject; bears have inspired some wonderful articles, so I’ve compiled a reading list of six stories that not only look at bears, but the emotions and issues that they provoke.

1. Where Now Grizzly Bear? (Brian Payton, Hakai Magazine, January 2021)

In this article, Brian Payton shows grizzly bears to be intrepid explorers “destined to wander” — with male grizzlies swimming up to seven kilometers to find new territories. I found myself hypnotized by a map included in the piece, which tracks a grizzly bear as it travels an incredible 850 kilometers over five months. The positive side of grizzly bears turning up in new places is that, after decades of persecution, their numbers are finally improving and young males are looking to move away from “all these big dudes.” On the other hand, this means potential human conflict: “We know they will coexist with us. Their survival depends on our willingness to coexist with them.”

A bear emerges from dense vegetation and pauses on the shore. It’s early spring, and the young grizzly has only recently roused from hibernation, ravenous and driven. He lifts his head and gazes out across the falling tide to the opposite shore, where forested slopes are close enough to make out individual trees. The bear stands and sniffs the air.

Grizzlies can see about as well as we can, but it’s their olfactory powers—at least 2,000 times more acute than ours—that most likely set them in motion. We’ll never grasp how they perceive the world, let alone what they’re thinking. For some reason, this bear falls back on all fours, ambles away from prime habitat, and wades into the sea.

To reach the far shore, he dog-paddles west across Johnstone Strait, one of the narrowest navigable channels that make up the fabled Inside Passage. This stretch of water separates the North American mainland from the largest island on the Pacific coast, British Columbia’s Vancouver Island. It’s only three to 4.5 kilometers across but anywhere from 70 to 500 meters deep. Swift tidal currents can reach 15 kilometers per hour. Vessels of every description pass through, from kayaks to freighters, to cruise ships carrying thousands of passengers. At this time of year, the water temperature averages about 8 °C, but the bear has almost no fat left to insulate him from the cold.

2. Grizzlies at the Table (Jimmy Thomson, Beside Magazine, December 2020)

One place in which grizzly bears are more prevalent than ever is in Wuikinuxv, British Columbia. Jimmy Thomson’s beautiful piece highlights the respect that this First Nations community gives their frequent visitors. The bears are valued as an important part of the ecosystem: “In eating the salmon, the bears bridge the gap between the deep ocean and the treetops, dragging the wriggling essence of one ecosystem into another.” This article is full of such powerful imagery, and Thomson’s respect for the people who wish to defend these animals is apparent.

Adam Nelson pulls the band’s truck into the small landfill less than a kilometer from the village, as he does three times a week to keep bear attractants out of people’s homes, and honks his horn to avoid startling any nearby bears. He and Corey Hanuse toss the village’s garbage bags into the landfill and wait. Minutes later a large grizzly is tearing the bags apart.

An electrified fence around the landfill, installed at great expense, lasted three days. The bears pulled it open like a can of sardines and it hasn’t been repaired. Later, someone stole the batteries. The bears have become accustomed now to the easy food the dump has on offer, and most days it’s possible to find them snacking amongst the detritus. Better there than roaming the village.

3. Barbearians at the Gate (Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, The Atavist Magazine, May 2018)

Bear intrusions are not so welcome in other areas. Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling’s article documents life in Grafton, New Hampshire, where residents believe “in untethering themselves from institution, foraging for food, and hunting game with guns, arrows, and knives.” Hongoltz-Hetling discovers a deep-rooted conflict in Grafton between man and bear, explaining the drama with a colorful array of local stories — about eaten cats and bear-fighting llamas, for instance — that tell us as much about the characters and colloquialisms of Grafton as about the bears themselves.

With bears reaching peak boogie man status, Hongoltz-Hetling also hears whispers of a darker side to the conflict — vigilante posses embarking on clandestine hunts of bears sleeping in their dens, even though “a person was (and still is) much more likely to suffocate in a giant vat of corn than be killed by a bear.” This article is an intriguing insight into small-town life — told through the bears.

Can bears be calculating? Babiarz and other Grafton residents I spoke to sure seemed to think so. Dave Thurber, a Vietnam War veteran who lives up the road from Jessica Soule, recounted how, one dark winter night, he had a feeling that something wasn’t right. He peeled back a corner of the curtains covering his living room windows and peered out at the front lawn, where he spotted a bear delicately licking sunflower seeds from a bird feeder. When a car approached, the bear flattened itself against a snowbank like an escaping prisoner evading a watchtower spotlight. After the car passed, the bear resumed eating.

Rumors of the bears’ cunning had planted unsettling questions in the minds of Grafton residents: How close are we to a bear right now? Could one be just beyond someone’s front door or hiding behind a nearby tree, casing a pet or, worse, someone’s child?

4. A Death in Yellowstone (Jessica Grose, Slate, April 2012)

How do you manage conflict between humans and bears when it escalates? That’s a dilemma faced by many park rangers. In the Yogi Bear cartoons, Yogi was a cheeky chap who loved to steal the odd picnic basket from guests at his home in Jellystone National Park. In this article, Jessica Grose discovers the stark reality that a fed bear is often a dead bear — for national parks are, ultimately, a human creation: “Its boundaries are built and monitored by the government, and the rangers are responsible for keeping its … visitors safe.” If a bear gets too close, the rangers have to play judge and jury on its life.

This was the case with Grose’s subject — the Wapiti sow — a bear thought to have been responsible for two deaths in Yellowstone National Park. Grose’s piece is a harrowing look at bear attacks and how rangers weigh up a bear’s guilt like a criminal case, with “ non-acidic envelopes for storing evidence, tweezers for picking up multicolored grizzly bear hairs, tape measures for measuring bear tracks.” The death penalty is based on whether a bear was acting in a naturally aggressive way or not. But what exactly is natural? The penal code for wild animals is a hard one to decipher.

Wildlife biologists like Kerry Gunther help the park’s crime-scene investigators by speculating on a bear’s emotional state. Based on the evidence at hand, he tries to determine whether a given act of bear aggression might have been a natural behavior—the result of being startled while feeding on an elk carcass, for example, or seeing someone approaching her cubs. If a bear appears to have followed a hiker down the trail instead of backing off, or if it attacked campers while they were asleep, that would be more unusual—the result, perhaps of a deranged grizzly mind.

In a mauling case like that of John Wallace, in which there are no living (human) witnesses, sorting out these categories of bear aggression can be especially vexing. But there’s one piece of circumstantial evidence that almost always leads to euthanasia: a half-eaten corpse. Under normal circumstances, the grizzly diet in Yellowstone is about 60 percent vegetarian—roots and nuts, with the remainder coming from pocket gophers, trout, elk, and bison. If the rangers have good reason to believe that a bear killed a human being and then consumed his body, that bear’s behavior will be deemed unnatural—and its crime a capital offense.

5. Lessons From a Bear Attack (Eva Holland, Cottage Life, December 2020)

Not all bears are given a guilty verdict after an attack. When Mya Helena Myllykoski and her son were charged by a grizzly bear, the bear received a reprieve for acting naturally to defend a moose carcass. In her interview with Eva Holland, Myllykoski describes her relief that the bear was spared, and how instead of paralyzing her with fear, the attack inspired her to fight to protect bears. Holland explores the fascinating psychology behind Myllykoski’s “post-traumatic growth,” as well as describing the attack itself in spine-tingling detail. Her account demonstrates great respect for the wilderness she is writing about — in a previous piece, “When a Fatal Grizzly Mauling Goes Viral,” Holland discusses her reluctance to report on bear attacks at all: They are incredibly rare, and she questions whether writing about them is anything more than voyeurism for those outside of bear country. This perspective brings sincerity, thoughtfulness, and understanding to her work on the subject.

When she shares that detail—that she has felt a grizzly bear’s hot breath on her face—I feel something unexpected creeping up inside me, a little green shoot alongside the larger growth of fear and fascination as I listen to her story: envy. Irrationally, against all logic or instinct for survival, I envy that experience, just a little. When she tells me that she regrets not having a memory of that smell, I understand what she means. I want to know what the bear smelled like too.

We crave vivid and authentic encounters with the wilderness. That, in part, is why we go out there, why we leave the city behind for an afternoon or a weekend, or more. We want to see the stars turn overhead and hear loons, owls, and coyotes; we want to watch the mist burn off a river’s surface, or a thunderstorm roll across a lake. We want to smell crushed spruce needles and wet, decomposing logs and that sweet dirt scent when the mushrooms begin to pop up.

Wilderness can feed us. It can fill our lives up with rich sensory memories. But we take risks in going there, and we bring risk with us for the animals that live there too. Sometimes we pay a price for our curiosity and our desires—but more often, they pay the price instead.

6. This Man Protected Wild Bears Every Day for 13 Years — Until He Made the Ultimate Sacrifice (Nick Jans, Reader’s Digest, June 2019)

Timothy Treadwell took the meaning of bear advocate to a whole new level. I first learned about Treadwell through watching Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, an incredible film that uses sequences extracted from more than 100 hours of video footage shot by Treadwell during the last five years of his life — years he spent living amongst grizzly bears in Alaska. Nick Jans has also written a beautiful book about Treadwell, The Grizzly Maze, depicting the journey that led Treadwell to the bears, and the stunning, eerie landscape of Alaska that is their home.

In this excerpt for Reader’s Digest, Jans explains how Treadwell was a controversial figure, a self-styled “bear whisperer” who refused to accept bears as dangerous animals, and “gave them names like Thumper, Mr. Chocolate, and Squiggle. He would walk up to a half-ton wild animal with four-inch claws and two-inch fangs, and say, ‘Czar, I’m so worried! I can’t find little Booble.'” Jans provides a moving portrait of Treadwell, culminating in a gut-wrenching description of his final demise — mauled by a bear. Accustomed to recording his life, Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, had a camera turned on during the attack: “Treadwell did not die quickly. The tape runs roughly six minutes, and his cries can be heard two-thirds of that time.”

While many believe Treadwell encroached on the life of the bears, rendering his end inevitable, he was still a remarkable, larger-than-life character, and Jans manages to capture him with his elegant prose.

Those searching for the meaning in what happened to Timothy Treadwell offer compelling theories, impossible to either prove or refute but containing flickers of insight. Bear-viewing guide Gary Porter says, “I think Timmy made a fundamental anthropomorphic error. Naming them and hanging around with them as long as he did, he probably forgot they were bears. And maybe they forgot, some of the time, he was human.” Porter points out that old, dominant males generally avoid people and are intolerant of other bears. A subordinate bear that refuses to move is attacked and, if it doesn’t retreat, is often killed and eaten. Biologist Larry Van Daele calls such an event “apparently more of a disciplinary action than predatory.”

And he, too, agrees there may be something to the theory, especially given “the strange, ambiguous signals Timothy sent to bears.”

“Maybe that big guy figured Timmy was just another bear,” Porter suggests. If so, it was a final, ironic compliment to a man who strove, among bears, to become as much like them as possible.

An Audience of Athletes: The Rise and Fall of Feminist Sports

womenSports, Bettmann / Getty

Britni de la Cretaz | Longreads | May 2019 | 26 minutes (6,609 words)

The idea for womenSports magazine was born in a car suspended over the San Francisco Bay by beams of steel. Several weeks before she captivated the nation by beating Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match in the fall of 1973, Billie Jean King sat in the passenger seat of a car and stewed. At the wheel was her then-husband, Larry, driving the couple from Emeryville near Oakland toward San Francisco on the Bay Bridge, and as Billie Jean flipped through an issue of Sports Illustrated, she complained, which is what she always did whenever she picked up an issue of SI. Read more…

When American Media Was (Briefly) Diverse

Photo by Jessica Felicio, Illustration by Homestead Studio

Danielle A. Jackson | Longreads | September 2019 | 16 minutes (4,184 words)

The late summer night Tupac died, I listened to All Eyez on Me at a record store in an East Memphis strip mall. The evening felt eerie and laden with meaning. It was early in the school year, 1996, and through the end of the decade, Adrienne, Jessica, Karida and I were a crew of girlfriends at our high school. We spent that night, and many weekend nights, at Adrienne’s house.

Our public school had been all white until a trickle of black students enrolled during the 1966–67 school year. That was 12 years after Brown v. Board of Education and six years after the local NAACP sued the school board for maintaining dual systems in spite of the ruling. In 1972, a federal district court ordered busing; more than 40,000 white students abandoned the school system by 1980. The board created specialized and accelerated courses in some of its schools, an “optional program,” in response. Students could enter the programs regardless of district lines if they met certain academic requirements. This kind of competition helped retain some white students, but also created two separate tracks within those institutions — a tenuous, half-won integration. It meant for me, two decades later, a “high-performing school” with a world of resources I knew to be grateful for, but at a cost. There were few black teachers. Black students in the accelerated program were scattered about, small groups of “onlies” in all their classes. Black students who weren’t in the accelerated program got rougher treatment from teachers and administrators. An acrid grimness hung in the air. It felt like being tolerated rather than embraced. 

My friends and I did share a lunch period. At our table, we traded CDs we’d gotten in the mail: Digable Planets’s Blowout Comb, D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar, the Fugees’ The Score. An era of highly visible black innovation was happening alongside a growing awareness of my own social position. I didn’t have those words then, but I had my enthusiasms. At Maxwell’s concert one sweaty night on the Mississippi, we saw how ecstasy, freedom, and black music commingle and coalesce into a balm. We watched the films of the ’90s wave together, and while most had constraining gender politics, Love Jones, the Theodore Witcher–directed feature about a group of brainy young artists in Chicago, made us wish for a utopic city that could make room for all we would become. 


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We also loved to read the glossies — what ’90s girl didn’t? We especially salivated over every cover of Vibe. Adrienne and I were fledgling writers who experimented a lot and adored English class. In the ’90s, the canon was freshly expanding: We read T.S. Eliot alongside Kate Chopin and Chinua Achebe. Something similar was happening in magazines. Vibe’s mastheads and ad pages were full of black and brown people living, working, and loving together and out front — a multicultural ideal hip-hop had made possible. Its “new black aesthetic” meant articles were fresh and insightful but also hyper-literary art historical objects in their own rights. Writers were fluent in Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison as well as Biggie Smalls. By the time Tupac died, Kevin Powell had spent years contextualizing his life within the global struggle for black freedom. “There is a direct line from Tupac in a straitjacket [on the popular February 1994 cover] to ‘It’s Obama Time’ [the September 2007 cover, one of the then senator’s earliest],” former editor Rob Kenner told Billboard in a Vibe oral history. He’s saying Vibe helped create Obama’s “coalition of the ascendent” — the black, Latinx, and young white voters who gave the Hawaii native two terms. For me, the pages reclaimed and retold the American story with fewer redactions than my history books. They created a vision of what a multiethnic nation could be.

* * *

“There was a time when journalism was flush,” Danyel Smith told me on a phone call from a summer retreat in Massachusetts. She became music editor at Vibe in 1994, and was editor in chief during the late ’90s and again from 2006 to 2008. The magazine, founded by Quincy Jones and Time, Inc. executives in 1992, was the “first true home of the culture we inhabit today,” according to Billboard. During Smith’s first stint as editor in chief, its circulation more than doubled. She wrote the story revealing R. Kelly’s marriage to then 15-year-old Aaliyah, as well as cover features on Janet Jackson, Wesley Snipes, and Whitney Houston. Smith was at the helm when the magazine debuted its Obama covers in 2007 — Vibe was the first major publication to endorse the freshman senator. When she described journalism as “flush,” Smith was talking about the late ’80s, when she started out in the San Francisco Bay. “Large cities could support with advertising two, sometimes three, alternative news weeklies and dailies,” she said.

‘There is a direct line from Tupac in a straitjacket [on the popular February 1994 cover] to ‘It’s Obama Time’ [the September 2007 cover, one of the then senator’s earliest].’

The industry has collapsed and remade itself many times since then. Pew reports that between 2008 and 2018, journalism jobs declined 25 percent, a net loss of about 28,000 positions. Business Insider reports losses at 3,200 jobs this year alone. Most reductions have been in newspapers. A swell in digital journalism has not offset the losses in print, and it’s also been volatile, with layoffs several times over the past few years, as outlets “pivot to video” or fail to sustain venture-backed growth. Many remaining outlets have contracted, converting staff positions into precarious freelance or “permalance” roles. In a May piece for The New Republic, Jacob Silverman wrote about the “yawning earnings gap between the top and bottom echelons” of journalism reflected in the stops and starts of his own career. After a decade of prestigious headlines and publishing a book, Silverman called his private education a “sunken cost” because he hadn’t yet won a coveted staff role. If he couldn’t make it with his advantageous beginnings, he seemed to say, the industry must be truly troubled. The prospect of “selling out” — of taking a corporate job or work in branded content — seemed more concerning to him than a loss of the ability to survive at all. For the freelance collective Study Hall, Kaila Philo wrote how the instability in journalism has made it particularly difficult for black women to break into the industry, or to continue working and developing if they do. The overall unemployment rate for African Americans has been twice that of whites since at least 1972, when the government started collecting the data by race. According to Pew, newsroom employees are more likely to be white and male than U.S. workers overall. Philo’s report mentions the Women’s Media Center’s 2018 survey on women of color in U.S. news, which states that just 2.62 percent of all journalists are black women. In a write-up of the data, the WMC noted that fewer than half of newspapers and online-only newsrooms had even responded to the original questionnaire. 

* * *

According to the WMC, about 2.16 percent of newsroom leaders are black women. If writers are instrumental in cultivating our collective conceptions of history, editors are arguably more so. Their sensibilities influence which stories are accepted and produced. They shape and nurture the voices and careers of writers they work with. It means who isn’t there is noteworthy. “I think it’s part of the reason why journalism is dying,” Smith said. “It’s not serving the actual communities that exist.” In a July piece for The New Republic, Clio Chang called the push for organized labor among freelancers and staff writers at digital outlets like Vox and Buzzfeed, as well as at legacy print publications like The New Yorker, a sign of hope for the industry.  “In the most basic sense, that’s the first norm that organizing shatters — the isolation of workers from one another,” Chang wrote. Notably, Vox’s union negotiated a diversity initiative in their bargaining agreement, mandating 40 to 50 percent of applicants interviewed come from underrepresented backgrounds.

“Journalism is very busy trying to serve a monolithic imaginary white audience. And that just doesn’t exist anymore,” Smith told me. U.S. audiences haven’t ever been truly homogeneous. But the media institutions that serve us, like most facets of American life, have been deliberately segregated and reluctant to change. In this reality, alternatives sprouted. Before Vibe’s launch, Time, Inc. executives wondered whether a magazine focused on black and brown youth culture would have any audience at all. Greg Sandow, an editor at Entertainment Weekly at the time, told Billboard, “I’m summoned to this meeting on the 34th floor [at the Time, Inc. executive offices]. And here came some serious concerns. This dapper guy in a suit and beautifully polished shoes says, ‘We’re publishing this. Does that mean we have to put black people on the cover?’” Throughout the next two decades, many publications serving nonwhite audiences thrived. Vibe spun off, creating Vibe Vixen in 2004. The circulations of Ebony, JET, and Essence, legacy institutions founded in 1945, 1951, and 1970, remained robust — the New York Times reported in 2000 that the number of Essence subscribers “sits just below Vogue magazine’s 1.1 million and well above the 750,000 of Harper’s Bazaar.” One World and Giant Robot launched in 1994, Latina and TRACE in 1996. Honey’s preview issue, with Lauryn Hill on the cover, hit newsstands in 1999. Essence spun off to create Suede, a fashion and culture magazine aimed at a “polyglot audience,” in 2004. A Magazine ran from 1989 to 2001; Hyphen launched with two young reporters at the helm the following year. In a piece for Columbia Journalism Review, Camille Bromley called Hyphen a celebration of “Asian culture without cheerleading” invested in humor, complication, and complexity, destroying the model minority myth. Between 1956 and 2008, the Chicago Defender, founded in 1905 and a noted, major catalyst for the Great Migration, published a daily print edition. During its flush years, the Baltimore Afro-American, founded in 1892, published separate editions in Philadelphia, Richmond, and Newark.

Before Vibe’s launch, Time, Inc. executives wondered whether a magazine focused on black and brown youth culture would have any audience at all.

The recent instability in journalism has been devastating for the black press. The Chicago Defender discontinued its print editions in July. Johnson Publications, Ebony and JET’s parent company, filed bankruptcy earlier this year after selling the magazines to a private equity firm in 2016. Then it put up for sale its photo archive — more than 4 million prints and negatives. Its record of black life throughout the 20th century includes images of Emmett Till’s funeral, in which the 14-year-old’s mutilated body lay in state, and Moneta Sleet Jr.’s Pulitzer Prize–winning image of Coretta Scott King mourning with her daughter, Bernice King. It includes casually elegant images of black celebrities at home and shots of everyday street scenes and citizens — the dentists and mid-level diplomats who made up the rank and file of the ascendant. John H. Johnson based Ebony and JET on LIFE, a large glossy heavy on photojournalism with a white, Norman Rockwell aesthetic and occasional dehumanizing renderings of black people. Johnson’s publications, like the elegantly attired stars of Motown, were meant as proof of black dignity and humanity. In late July, four large foundations formed an historic collective to buy the archive, shepherd its preservation, and make it available for public access.

The publications’ written stories are also important. Celebrity profiles offered candid, intimate views of famous, influential black figures and detailed accounts of everyday black accomplishment. Scores of skilled professionals ushered these pieces into being: Era Bell Thompson started out at the Chicago Defender and spent most of her career in Ebony’s editorial leadership. Tennessee native Lynn Norment worked for three decades as a writer and editor at the publication. André Leon Talley and Elaine Welteroth passed through Ebony for other jobs in the industry. Taken together, their labor was a massive scholarly project, a written history of a people deemed outside of it.

Black, Latinx, and Asian American media are not included in the counts on race and gender WMC reports. They get their data from the American Society of News Editors (ASNE), and Cristal Williams Chancellor, WMC’s director of communications, told me she hopes news organizations will be more “aggressive” in helping them “accurately indicate where women are in the newsroom.” While men dominate leadership roles in mainstream newsrooms, news wires, TV, and audio journalism, publications targeting multicultural audiences have also had a reputation for gender trouble, with a preponderance of male cover subjects, editorial leaders, and features writers. Kim Osorio, the first woman editor in chief at The Source, was fired from the magazine after filing a complaint about sexual harassment. Osorio won a settlement for wrongful termination in 2006 and went on to help launch BET.com and write a memoir before returning to The Source in 2012. Since then, she’s made a career writing for TV.  

* * *

This past June, Nieman Lab published an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, editor in chief of The Atlantic since 2016, and Adrienne LaFrance, the magazine’s executive editor. The venerable American magazine was founded in Boston in 1857. Among its early supporters were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. It sought to promote an “American ideal,” a unified yet pluralistic theory of American aesthetics and politics. After more than a century and a half of existence, women writers are not yet published in proportion to women’s share of the country’s population. The Nieman piece focused on progress the magazine has made in recent years toward equitable hiring and promoting: “In 2016, women made up just 17 percent of editorial leadership at The Atlantic. Today, women account for 63 percent of newsroom leaders.” A few days after the piece’s publication, a Twitter user screen-capped a portion of the interview where Goldberg was candid about areas in which the magazine continues to struggle:

 

GOLDBERG: We continue to have a problem with the print magazine cover stories — with the gender and race issues when it comes to cover story writing. [Of the 15 print issues The Atlantic has published since January 2018, 11 had cover stories written by men. — Ed.]

 It’s really, really hard to write a 10,000-word cover story. There are not a lot of journalists in America who can do it. The journalists in America who do it are almost exclusively white males. What I have to do — and I haven’t done this enough yet — is again about experience versus potential. You can look at people and be like, well, your experience is writing 1,200-word pieces for the web and you’re great at it, so good going!

That’s one way to approach it, but the other way to approach it is, huh, you’re really good at this and you have a lot of potential and you’re 33 and you’re burning with ambition, and that’s great, so let us put you on a deliberate pathway toward writing 10,000-word cover stories. It might not work. It often doesn’t. But we have to be very deliberate and efficient about creating the space for more women to develop that particular journalistic muscle.

My Twitter feed of writers, editors, and book publicists erupted, mostly at the excerpt’s thinly veiled statement on ability. Women in my timeline responded with lists of writers of longform — books, articles, and chapters — who happened to be women, or people of color, or some intersection therein. Goldberg initially said he’d been misquoted. When Laura Hazard Owen, the deputy editor at Nieman who’d conducted the interview, offered proof that Goldberg’s statements had been delivered as printed, he claimed he had misspoken. Hazard Owen told the L.A. Times she believes that The Atlantic is, overall, “doing good work in diversifying the staff there.”

Taken together, their labor was a massive scholarly project, a written history of a people deemed outside of it.

Still, it’s a difficult statement for a woman writer of color to hear. “You literally are looking at me and all my colleagues, all my women colleagues and all my black colleagues, all my colleagues of color and saying, ‘You’re not really worthy of what we do over here.’ It’s mortifying,” Smith told me. Goldberg’s admission may have been a misstatement, but it mirrors the continued whiteness of mainstream mastheads. It checks out with the Women’s Media Center’s reports and the revealing fact of how much data is missing from even those important studies. It echoes the stories of black women who work or worked in journalism, who have difficulty finding mentors, or who burn out from the weight of wanting to serve the chronically underserved. It reflects my own experiences, in which I have been told multiple times in a single year that I am the only black woman editor that a writer has ever had. But it doesn’t corroborate my long experience as a reader. What happened to the writers and editors and multihyphenates from the era of the multicultural magazine, that brief flash in the 90’s and early aughts when storytellers seemed to reflect just how much people of color lead in creating American culture? Who should have formed a pipeline of leaders for mainstream publications when the industry began to contract?

* * *

In addition to her stints at Vibe, Smith also edited for Billboard, Time, Inc. publications, and published two novels. She was culture editor for ESPN’s digital magazine The Undefeated before going on book leave. Akiba Solomon is an author, editor of two books, and is currently senior editorial director at Colorlines, a digital news daily published by Race Forward. She started an internship at YSB in 1995 before going on to write and edit for Jane, Glamour, Essence, Vibe Vixen, and The Source. She told me that even at magazines without predominantly black staff, she’d worked with other black people, though not often directly. At black magazines, she was frequently edited by black women. “I’ve been edited by Robin Stone, Vanessa DeLuca [formerly editor-in-chief of Essence, currently running the Medium vertical ZORA], Ayana Byrd, Kierna Mayo, Cori Murray, and Michaela Angela Davis.” Solomon’s last magazine byline was last year, an Essence story on black women activists who organize in culturally relevant ways to fight and prevent sexual assault.

Solomon writes infrequently for publications now, worn down by conditions in journalism she believes are untenable. At the hip-hop magazines, the sexism was a deterrent, and later, “I was seeing a turn in who was getting the jobs writing about black music” when it became mainstream. “Once folks could divorce black music from black culture it was a wrap,” she said. At women’s magazines, Solomon felt stifled by “extremely narrow” storytelling. Publishing, in general, Solomon believes, places unsustainable demands on its workers. 

When we talk about the death of print, it is infrequent that we also talk about the conditions that make it ripe for obsolescence. The reluctant slowness with which mainstream media has integrated its mastheads (or kept them integrated) has meant the industry’s content has suffered. And the work environments have placed exorbitant burdens on the people of color who do break through. In Smith’s words:

You feel that you want to serve these people with good and quality content, with good and quality graphics, with good and quality leadership. And as a black person, as a black woman, regardless of whether you’re serving a mainstream audience, which I have at a Billboard and at Time, Inc., or a multicultural audience, which I have at Vibe, it is difficult. And it’s actually taken me a long time to admit that to myself. It does wear you down. And I ask myself why have I always, always stayed in a job two and a half to three years, especially when I’m editing? It’s because I’m tired by that time.

In a July story for Politico, black journalists from The New York Times and the Associated Press talked about how a sophisticated understanding of race is critical to ethically and thoroughly covering the current political moment. After the August 3 massacre in El Paso, Lulu Garcia-Navarro wrote how the absence of Latinx journalists in newsrooms has created a vacuum that allows hateful words from the president to ring unchallenged. Lacking the necessary capacity, many organizations cover race related topics, often matters of life and death, without context or depth. As outlets miss the mark, journalists of color may take on the added work of acting as the “the black public editor of our newsrooms,” Astead Herndon from the Times said on a Buzzfeed panel. Elaine Welteroth wrote about the physical exhaustion she experienced during her tenure as editor in chief at Teen Vogue in her memoir More Than Enough. She was the second African American editor in chief in parent company Condé Nast’s 110 year history:

I was too busy to sleep, too frazzled to eat, and TMI: I had developed a bizarre condition where I felt the urge to pee — all the time. It was so disruptive that I went to see a doctor, thinking it may have been a bladder infection.

Instead, I found myself standing on a scale in my doctor’s office being chastised for accidentally dropping nine more pounds. These were precious pounds that my naturally thin frame could not afford to lose without leaving me with the kind of bony body only fashion people complimented.

Condé Nast shuttered Teen Vogue’s print edition in 2017, despite record-breaking circulation, increased political coverage, and an expanded presence on the internet during Welteroth’s tenure. Welteroth left the company to write her book and pursue other ventures.

Mitzi Miller was editor in chief of JET when it ran the 2012 cover story on Jordan Davis, a Florida teenager shot and killed by a white vigilante over his loud music. “At the time, very few news outlets were covering the story because it occurred over a holiday weekend,” she said. To write the story, Miller hired Denene Millner, an author of more than 20 books. With interviews from Jordan’s parents, Ron Davis and Lucy McBath, the piece went viral and was one of many stories that galvanized the contemporary American movement against police brutality.

Miller started working in magazines in 2000, and came up through Honey and Jane before taking the helm at JET then Ebony in 2014. She edits for the black website theGrio when she can and writes an occasional piece for a print magazine roughly once a year. Shrinking wages have made it increasingly difficult to make a life in journalism, she told me. After working at a number of dream publications, Miller moved on to film and TV development. 

Both Miller and Solomon noted how print publications have been slow to evolve. “It’s hard to imagine now, particularly to digital native folks, but print was all about a particular format. It was about putting the same ideas into slightly different buckets,” Solomon said. On the podcast Hear to Slay, Vanessa DeLuca spoke about how reluctant evolution may have imperiled black media. “Black media have not always … looked forward in terms of how to build a brand across multiple platforms.” Some at legacy print institutions still seem to hold internet writing in lower esteem (“You can look at people and be like, well, your experience is writing 1,200-word pieces for the web and you’re great at it, so good going!” were Goldberg’s words to Nieman Lab). Often, pay structures reflect this hierarchy. Certainly, the internet’s speed and accessibility have lowered barriers to entry and made it such that rigor is not always a requirement for publication. But it’s also changed information consumption patterns and exploded the possibilities of storytelling.

Michael Gonzales, a frequent contributor to this site and a writer I’ve worked with as an editor, started in magazines in the 1980s as a freelancer. He wrote for The Source and Vibe during a time that overlapped with Smith’s and Solomon’s tenures, the years now called “the golden era of rap writing.” The years correspond to those moments I spent reading magazines with my high school friends. At black publications, he worked with black women editors all the time, but “with the exception of the Village Voice, none of the mainstream magazines employed black editors.” Despite the upheaval of the past several years (“the money is less than back in the day,” he said), Gonzales seems pleased with where his career has landed, “I’ve transformed from music critic/journalist to an essayist.” He went on to talk about how now, with the proliferation of digital magazines:

I feel like we’re living in an interesting writer time where there are a number of quality sites looking for quality writing, especially in essay form. There are a few that sometimes get too self-indulgent, but for the most part, especially in the cultural space (books, movies, theater, music, etc.), there is a lot of wonderful writing happening. Unfortunately you are the only black woman editor I have, although a few years back I did work with Kierna Mayo at Ebony.

 

* * *

Danielle A. Jackson is a contributing editor at Longreads.

Editor: Sari Botton

Fact checker: Steven Cohen

Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross

The Underground Magazine That Helped Shape Portland, Oregon

Snipehunt 1994, cover by Sean Tejaratchi, courtesy of Portland Mercury

It’s hard to imagine now, but Portland used to be a tiny ignored little city that a lot of bands didn’t want to play and national media largely ignored. Those were sweet times. In that relative cultural isolation, a poster artist named Mike King started a music fanzine named Snipehunt to both harness and serve Portland’s small arts community. Enlarged and fully realized by editor Kathy Molloy, her volunteer team designed, edited, published, and distributed the magazine themselves. Snipehunt had a devoted following and helped launch the careers of its then-unknown freelance writers. Then in 1997, it abruptly quit publishing, and Molloy ghosted everyone and moved to British Columbia.

In an oral history for the Portland Mercury, local writer Joshua James Amberson goes on his own snipe hunt for Molloy, and he lets those who were involved with her artistically piece together the magazine’s creation and influence. One artist called Molloy “the punk mayor of Portland.” Molloy remains a mystery who, like her magazine, cannot be found online. Thanks to Amberson, Snipehunt now sort of has web presence.

The scene that inspired Snipehunt featured bands that weren’t getting media coverage and writers and artists without an outlet. The magazine soon became a breeding ground for local creators, and its contributor list is a peek at the kind of local talent and energy emerging during that time: novelist and screenwriter Jon Raymond, current Portland city commissioner Chloe Eudaly, filmmaker and installation artist Vanessa Renwick, local writer and publisher Kevin Sampsell, novelist Rene Denfeld, Crap Hound and Liar Town creator Sean Tejaratchi. For many of the contributors, Snipehunt was their first publication, their first opportunity to regularly try out their ideas on an audience.

A typical issue of Snipehunt had interviews with local and national bands, pages of comics from independent artists, scene reports from West Coast cities, oddball prose pieces, political action coverage, and pages of reviews—albums, zines, live shows, films, and books. It was a broad take on DIY culture, loosely based in the punk scene but covering artists and subjects far beyond the imposed limitations of that world.

With the magazine’s history largely absent from the internet, its name unfamiliar to the majority of current Portlanders, and physical evidence of its existence difficult to come by, I reached out to a couple dozen of its contributors to provide me—and the rest of new Portland—with a much-needed history lesson.

Read the story

Longreads Best of 2020: Science and Nature

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

All through December, we’re featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. We’ve searched through our archives to find the science and nature stories that take you into ancient forests, through dark swamps, to the bottom of the sea, and right up into the stars. 

If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly Top 5 email every Friday.

* * *

The Social Life of Forests (Ferris Jabr, The New York Times Magazine)

Old-growth forests in North America are like something out of a fairytale — huge trees, luminescent with moss, with boughs arching above your head, and “gnarled roots” beneath your feet, “dicing in and out of the soil like sea serpents.” And, as Ferris Jabr discovers in this story, the magic of these trees goes beyond what we see — with intricate fungal networks weaving them together into an inclusive community that links “nearly every tree in a forest — even trees of different species.” This is a fascinating piece that shows you these giant sentinels are more than you expect — more than just individuals. 

Jabr goes into the forest with Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia who has studied these systems and proved “a dynamic exchange of resources through mycorrhizal networks” between the two species of paper birch and Douglas fir. Her work has provoked a certain amount of controversy: “Since Darwin, biologists have emphasized the perspective of the individual … the single-minded ambitions of selfish genes.” Simard is proving this is not what is happening in old-growth forests; they are “neither an assemblage of stoic organisms tolerating one another’s presence nor a merciless battle royale: It’s a vast, ancient and intricate society.” And trees are not just interacting with each other, “trees sense nearby plants and animals and alter their behavior accordingly: The gnashing mandibles of an insect might prompt the production of chemical defenses … Some studies have even suggested that plant roots grow toward the sound of running water.” 

A forest operating as a complicated, sharing society is a powerful notion. Not only does it garner more respect for this ecosystem, but it could prove that cooperation is as central to evolution as competition: “Wherever living things emerge, they find one another, mingle and meld.”  Read more…

The Great British Reading List

Illustration by Carolyn Wells

By Carolyn Wells

As the plane dipped below the clouds, an endless patchwork quilt of green fields and russet hedges stretched out beneath me. It had been two years since I had seen that familiar vista, thanks to COVID-19. However, with travel restrictions lifted — and my arm triple-jabbed — I was finally returning from expat life in Canada to my home country of the United Kingdom, to spend three months with family.

Perhaps it is because it has been so long since my last visit, but the contrasts between North America and this gray, quirky little island seem more pronounced than ever. Everything is so much smaller, the tendencies for reservation and self-deprecation so much clearer, and even more cups of tea are offered (I clutch one as I write).

I live in British Columbia — a British colony back in the days of Queen Victoria, with her government’s dubious penchant for claiming large chunks of the world. Yet, despite these origins, the differences between this Canadian province and the British Isles are as vast as the murky ocean separating them. Perhaps this island’s very particular culture comes from the hodgepodge of its ancestry: From the Romans to the Vikings, people always loved a good ol’ invasion of this land. Or maybe it’s simply the sense of history: Everywhere I turn there seems to be an ancient stone church, sitting awkwardly among new neighbors —  swanky bars and flats. Nip to a pub and there will be a plaque above your head, casually informing you that people have been getting drunk in that establishment since 1552.

Whatever the reason, Great Britain is an obscure place — and one that has inspired some interesting writing — with people grappling to understand the different elements that make up the rather bizarre whole. And so, whilst I am embracing stoicism, marmite, rain, and real ales, I decided it was time for the Great British Reading List.

Tea, Biscuits, and Empire: The Long Con of Britishness (Laurie Penny, Longreads, June 2020)

Laurie Penny has also experienced the differences between North America and Great Britain, after spending six months writing TV shows in Los Angeles. However, her understanding of the two cultures by far transcends my own. In this essay, Penny observes the Great British myth cheerfully portrayed abroad, full of “Queens, detectives, spies, castles, and young wizards,” versus the reality of a little island, “whose power on the world stage is declining, where poverty, inequality, and disaster nationalism are rising.” The imaginary version, although “fascinatingly dishonest,” is a hypnotic one, and people around the world cozy up with a cup of tea to watch the reassuringly gentle Downton Abbey, or “The Great British Worried-People-Making-Cakes-in-a-Tent Show.

Penny carefully picks apart why Brits are happy to let this grand deception continue. From the loss of the Empire to the reality of life in Britain under COVID-19 lockdowns, Brexit, and Boris Johnson, we prefer the fantasy version. Have a read — her take on this phenomenon is jolly good. 

I do try to resist the temptation to make fun of other people who take uncomplicated joy in their thing. The British do this a lot, and it’s one of the least edifying parts of the national character. Fandom is fine. Escapism is allowed. No semi-sensitive soul can be expected to live in the real world at all times. But watching the whitewashed, revisionist history of your own country adopted as someone else’s fantasy of choice is actively uncomfortable. It’s like sitting by while a decrepit relative gibbers some antediluvian nonsense about the good old days and watching in horror as everyone applauds and says how charming.

A Joyless Trudge? No, Thanks: Why I am Utterly Sick of ‘Going for a Walk’ (Monica Heisey, The Guardian, February 2021)

During my first week back in the U.K. I went to the great British seaside. It was beautiful. It was also freezing. Nevertheless, families were picnicking on the beach, sitting in their North Face jackets under huge umbrellas, stoically munching on cheese and pickle sandwiches while the wind beat a dance on their striped windbreakers. We were one of them. And as the wind turned up a notch into gale force, blowing the ice cream off my Mr. Whippy cone, I recalled Monica Heisey’s article for The Guardian detailing a holiday she went on with three Brits. As a Canadian, this was her first experience of a British holiday, and I very much enjoyed her shock at the pragmatism involved in holidaying “in a country where the ground is soggy and the sky grey at least 60% of the year.”

On Heisey’s holiday they “went on long, aimless walks every single day,” from “a half-hour jaunt on a public footpath across a gated, excrement-riddled field” to “an off-piste ramble through the tall, dry grasses surrounding a stately home.” This is completely normal. My family had begun muttering about “lovely coastal walks” months before we left for our seaside break, and sure enough every day we donned knee-high wellies and marched off to check on what those wind levels were up to on more exposed coastal paths. (On a couple of occasions treating ourselves to a cup of tea halfway round the trudge.)

Heisey nails her critique of British culture, and I found myself chuckling more than once reading this article. So take a look, and remember to always just carry on, “the forecast of heavy thunderstorms be damned.”

I am, it seems, comfortably in the minority. After the Great Walking Holiday of 2020, I encountered pro-walking sentiment everywhere. Friends tracked steps with competitive rigor, fighting to be the first to reach 10k a day, or announcing grand Sunday schemes to cross London on foot. Planning a weekend in Herefordshire, I was inundated with recommendations for the county’s excellent walks. In fact, Airbnb reviews in the UK tend to focus on two things: whether or not the property provides an adequate electric kettle, and the quality and abundance of nearby walking routes. Recently, watching The Crown on Netflix, I had the disorienting and novel experience of feeling sympathy for Margaret Thatcher who, in an episode set at Balmoral, is dragged out on the royal family’s favourite pastime, “walking around in terrible weather wearing the thickest socks imaginable”.

Marmalade: A Very British Obsession (Olivia Potts, Longreads, July 2020)

Great Britain is not particularly renowned for splendid cuisine, but there are some classics: the full English breakfast, a roast dinner, a ploughman’s lunch, bangers and mash, a jar of Branston pickle … and marmalade. Full disclosure: I have picked this essay before, for Longreads Best of 2020: Food. However, I still love it, and last week it came to mind when I had the pleasure of going to a shop that was purely dedicated to the wonder of marmalade: Rows upon rows of glinting orange and yellow jars, winking promises of citrus delights at me. Olivia Potts’ piece, all about this condiment of squashed oranges and sugar, is magical — and very British. Only in English does marmalade “connote a citrus-based preserve containing peel,” and Potts takes a deep dive into “why the British love marmalade so much.” The result is a lovely piece full of warmth, humor … and the rather wonderful characters who frequent the World’s Original Marmalade Awards.

I stand back and admire my five-and-a-half jars and… I get it. Of course I do. How could I not? My jelly isn’t quite crystal clear, but it is basketball orange, bright and glowing. I dropped saffron strands into a couple of the jars, stirring last minute, and they hang, suspended in the jelly, perfect threads. It may not be award-winning, but it is the best I have ever made. It really does feel like I’ve potted sunshine, a moment in time.

My Life as a Cleaner in London (Michele Kirsch, The Independent, October 2015)

Great Britain may be the home of quaint villages with marmalade shops, but you are also never too far away from a cosmopolitan city. London is a little world all of its own — encircled by the M25, a road known to crush even the most buoyant of souls with its traffic — it is a heady mix of every culture and nationality. There are nine million people squashed into its bustling streets, or rammed into metal tubes down below: Where underground trains rumble through old Victorian tunnels and people remain ever so careful to mind the gap. Michele Kirsch’s article details an engrossing cross-section of this society. As a cleaner, Kirsch has a key into the lives of everyone from students to jazz singers, and though it might look like cleaning, exploring people’s homes “feels a bit Miss Marple-ish.” Her eloquent writing evokes the chaos, loneliness, sadness, and joy of the people to whom she is “East London’s good wife.”

Kirsch’s musings also brought back memories of my own time living in London, from Shoreditch being the “unofficial home of the high-maintenance beard,” to the darker side — the casual racism that can sadly still prevail in a multicultural country. Kirsch notes it when a friend’s 9-year-old son asks her what she does, and to her response that she cleans houses, “he said, ‘I thought you had to be Eastern European to do that. No offense.’”

So take a read for a glimpse into London life — the unique viewpoint and beautiful prose of this essay are worth spending some time with.

As well as working for long-term clients, I do one-off jobs, often frantic pleas to clean up before a move, or before the tidy person gets home. One was a flat off Brick Lane. This was a biohazard job: matted, badly stained carpets, never-been-cleaned fridge and cooker, loo out of Trainspotting. But the guy himself was ebullient, friends with all the neighbours. He just exuded a joie de vivre and genuinely did not see or care that he had been living in a shithole for years. Facing a big, brown dubious stain on his carpet, I asked, “Is this poo, vomit, or curry?” “Possibly all three,” he said, honestly, gleefully. A life well lived. Messily, but happily.

Fences: A Brexit Diary (Zadie Smith, The New York Review, August 2016)

Sadly, the racism touched upon in Kirsch’s essay came crashing to the fore in 2016. I was living in Canada during Brexit, and, absorbed in the echo chamber of friends and family, I considered the referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union a mere political blip. As Zadie Smith writes in her incredibly astute and of-the-moment piece, Nigel Farage, one of the main forces behind the Leave campaign, “seemed in the grip of a genuine racial obsession, combined with a determination to fence off Britain from the European mainstream.” It didn’t seem possible to me that this was a sentiment that could win the day. I was wrong.

In truth, the reasons behind Brexit are varied, but the process of the vote did peel back a thin veneer to reveal an ugliness beneath. The week before the referendum, Smith’s Jamaican-born mother had someone run up to her in London and shout “Über Alles Deutschland!” The day after the vote, Smith noted “a lady shopping for linens and towels on the Kilburn High Road stood near my mother and the half-dozen other people originally from other places and announced to no one in particular: ‘Well, you’ll all have to go home now!’”

It was not only racial divides that were uncovered: Britain has long been a society dominated by class, with nuanced differences between many invisible, but powerful, lines. From the working class to the neoliberal middle and upper-middle class — reveal where you shop, go to school, or who you socialize with and you can be exposed. In this essay, Smith recognizes both her own middle-class liberal attitude, and the understanding of other viewpoints that this can preclude her from. 

Read this essay and understand that the power of this referendum was to magnify “the worst aspects of an already imperfect system—democracy—channeling a dazzlingly wide variety of issues through a very narrow gate.” 

Wealthy London, whether red or blue, has always been able to pick and choose the nature of its multicultural and cross-class relations, to lecture the rest of the country on its narrow-mindedness while simultaneously fencing off its own discreet advantages. We may walk past “them” very often in the street and get into their cabs and eat their food in their ethnic restaurants, but the truth is that more often than not they are not in our schools, or in our social circles, and they very rarely enter our houses—unless they’ve come to work on our endlessly remodeled kitchens.

Cat and Mouse (Phil Hoad, The Atavist Magazine, February 2021)

Britain is a nation of animal lovers: It was the first country in the world to start a welfare charity for animals, and almost one in two households has a pet — 20 million of them being cats and dogs. In the area I am in at the moment it seems this 20 million quota has been filled just with cockapoo dogs named Barney (yes, we have one too). Fifteen percent of Brits even say they love their pet more than they love their partner (a statistic I am not shocked by after my mother informed me she wished to be buried with the cremated remains of her pet duck).

Therefore, it is also of no surprise that Phil Hoad’s fascinating article delving into the world of two pet detectives searching for a cat murderer is set in Britain. In this country, such things as a memorial service for the cat victims, complete with a harpist and a rendition of “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” are acceptable — people understand the passion of the detectives, Tony Jenkins and Boudicca Rising. Their organization, SNARL, has even been supported by British celebrities, including Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson, who wrote in The Sun: “I’m not a cat fan by any means—they give me asthma—and I can’t think of anything worse than spending time in the company of an animal-rights person called Boudicca Rising. The case makes my blood boil because I am a dog fan. And if someone poisoned mine, I’d capture him and force him to live for a year with Boudicca Rising.”

This whodunnit at times made me both sad and angry — after all, I too am a British animal lover — but it is a rollercoaster ride and a beautiful read.

Jenkins worried that, too often, the media furor minimized the impact of the killings on pet owners. “I had one police officer who went, ‘Waste of my time—it’s only a cat.’ I said, ‘Excuse me? It’s only a cat?’” Jenkins told me. “Imagine you get married, and your wife gets a cat. You then have a child, and your child at the age of six has grown up with it, adores it, sleeps with it. And one morning your wife gets up, opens the curtains, and there’s your cat with no head, and no fucking tail, and your daughter’s about to go out and play. And you tell me it’s just a fucking cat.”

Hellhound on the Money Trail

AP Photo/Justin M. Norton

Robert Gordon | Memphis Rent Party | Bloomsbury | March 2018 | 32 minutes (6,304 words)

 

This story first appeared in LA Weekly in 1991.

* * *

The sun did not shine, but it was hot as hell the day a memorial stone was unveiled for bluesman Robert Johnson near a country crossroads outside Greenwood, Mississippi. About seventy-five people filled the tiny Mt. Zion church, a row of broadcast video cameras behind the back pew and a bank of lights illuminating a hoarse preacher as he praised a man who reputedly sold his soul to the devil.

There was no finality in setting the stone. The attention came fifty years too late, and even if his memory is more alive today than ever before, Johnson’s rightful heirs still have nothing but the name. This service was not about the body of the bluesman, which lies in an unmarked grave somewhere in the vicinity; it was about the guitar-shaped wreath provided by Johnson’s current record label, and about the video bite that would be beamed into homes around the country that April 1991 evening.

Read more…

Snapshot of Canada: An Accidental Reading List

ürgen Schwenkenbecher/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Cleaning our basement recently, I found a box of old Canadian magazines. The covers were crisp, the bindings intact. Published between 2011 and 2013, I’d gathered these issues of The Walrus and Maisonneuve as research for an abandoned book project. Curious about what was inside, I sat down with them and a pot of very British black tea — the kind The Empress Hotel serves with tiny sandwiches in Victoria, British Columbia.

People call The Walrus the Canadian New Yorker. Maisonneuve was named Magazine of the Year in 2005, 2012, and 2016. Between their striking glossy covers I found the stylish, substantial writing these magazines are still known for, and stories both evergreen and of their time: stories about food, sex, drugs, immigration, politics, Indigenous rights, art, and the environment.

Thumbing through old magazines can be fun. Dated advertisements reveal bizarre worldviews and outdated thinking, like the doctors who famously preferred Camel cigarettes, and a mid-century ad I found featuring two poodles smoking the Old Gold brand. Those were the days. Back issues also capture a country’s struggles, its psyche, mythology, and national narratives, and these Canadian issues returned me to a particular time in my own life.

Years ago, I pitched an idea for a book called Canphilia to a literary agent. Philia is a suffix denoting love or an affection for something, and I loved Canada. The title was too scientific for a first-person narrative travelogue in search of the Canadian national identity, but I was younger then, and that was the best I could come up with.

Covering 3,854,085 square miles, Canada is the second-largest country in the world. Canada and the United States share the world’s longest international border, yet few Americans can name half of the 10 provinces let alone name beloved Canadian icons or defining cultural characteristics. “To outsiders,” my proposal said, “Canada seems like the perfect country: scenic, peaceful, friendly, progressive. Its national parks are the envy of the developed world. The country has one of the highest standards of living on earth, a functioning public health system, and it’s the only G8 country with balanced books. Canada legalized same-sex marriage in 2005, outlawed the death penalty, and operates North America’s only federally authorized drug injection site. Naturally, when people talk about it, most utter some variation of, Ah, I love Canada. But beyond vague notions of Britishness, hockey, and maple syrup production, what do we really know about it?” One thing I knew was that living next to one of the most loud-mouthed, aggressive, arrogant countries in history could make any neighboring country appear quiet, peaceful, and humble. Or maybe their voice was drowned out by all of our patriotic, idiotic, saber-rattling nonsense.

The vast majority of Canada’s 38 million inhabitants lived in larger urban centers within 125 miles of the US border, so I planned to drive, hike, and ferry across the entire country, from west to east, sticking to the border, to investigate. “More importantly,” my proposal said, “do we even know what makes a Canadian a Canadian? What they stand for? How they think and act? And what do they think of us, anyway?”

I was ambitious and slightly bananas, and I wanted to do for Canada what Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones did for China, and Ian Frazier’s The Great Plains did for the American Midwest: write a vivid, nuanced, humorous portrait of a people and their homeland, that would appeal to a general readership and enlighten myself as much as my fellow Americans. In addition to Canada’s national character, I would interrogate my own interest, search for the reasons so many of us disgruntled Americans fall under the country’s spell. Obviously Canada wasn’t perfect, with its clear-cut logging and historically egregious treatment of Indigenous people. I wanted to examine Canada’s contradictions, and debunk popular stereotypes. I wasn’t interested so much in defining “constitutional monarchy” or “parliamentary democracy” for American readers, or helping them reconcile Canada’s independence with its connection to the Queen. I was interested in profiling the personality of the Canadian people and their culture while trying to figure out why I longed to live somewhere I knew so little about.

The agent loved the idea, but we never shopped it to publishers. I couldn’t afford to take enough of the trip to write any sample chapters, and supposedly, Americans don’t care enough about Canada to read books about it. I filed “the Canada book” away in the back of my mind as I developed other niche book ideas that never sold, because that’s the kind of writer I am. As I moved around, my Canada books and back issues came with me.

After reading these issues, I thought it’d be fun to assemble some of their stories, which reveal new sides of Canada to outsiders like me (and maybe you). This is not meant as a definitive Canada reading list. It’s a sample of what I pulled from one stack of issues from 2011 — 2013. That makes this collection more of a tiny time capsule, an incomplete portrait of a particular place in time. Actual Canadians can gather more wide-ranging, complete lists that capture the totality of Canada, its breadth and depth. These older stories also provide an interesting baseline to compare Canada now with Canada then. After reading them, I wondered: Has Canadian secondary education improved? Is Kraft mac ’n cheese still Canada’s national dish? What happened to that hyped comedy troupe Picnicface? Here they are in chronological order, with their subheads included as description. None of these stories feature hockey or The Tragically Hip, but one is about Labatt beer. Part of Canada’s identity involves outsiders’ reliance on cliché. Enjoy, eh?

* * *

Going Viral” (Maisonneuve, Kaitlin Fontana, Summer 2011)

“This fall, the sketch comedy group and online-video machine Picnicface will simultaneously launch a feature-length movie, a TV show, and a book. Can eight nerds from Halifax resuscitate Canada’s ailing comedy scene?”

In Halifax, far from the showbiz machine, Picnicface has been free to both develop a unique voice in front of a warm audience, and to cultivate a show without fear of high-profile failure. McKinney likes that the group is from Halifax—it reminds him of his early days in Calgary, before he moved to Toronto. “If they’d been born in LA, they’d have all been poached before they could create this voice that develops between like-minded people, this ecosystem that happens in smaller places,” he says. Halifax, for Picnicface, is an incubator. Little goes further: “We’ve done some garbage here, but I’m really happy we did, because it helped mold us.”

Canada’s Most Unwanted” (The Walrus, Jasmine Budak, December 2011)

“Domestic adoption is rarely the first choice for prospective parents. But with rising infertility rates and the availability of foreign infants declining, some 30,000 children in government care have a better shot at finding a family.”

Canadians have long adopted from abroad, but largely for humanitarian reasons, in spurts and small numbers: orphans of the Irish famine, World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars; and, later, in the mid-’70s, from orphanages in Cambodia, Bangladesh, India, and Latin America, through Ottawa’s newly established national Adoption Desk. But over the next two decades, as adoption became normalized and the supply of domestic infants began to wane, inter-country adoption became less about finding parents for destitute babies and more about finding babies for hopeful parents. It was no longer motivated by goodwill, but rather became a transaction in the business of fulfilling the developed world’s growing demand for infants.

Visions of the Future” (Maisonneuve, Chandler Levack, Summer 2012)

“A twenty-four-year-old singer named Grimes is the world’s hottest independent pop star, and her fame has cast Montreal into the spotlight yet again.”

Grimes’ success and the exposure she’s brought her Arbutus label-mates—Sean Nicholas Savage, TOPS and TONSTARTSSBANDHT, among others—have made Montreal a high-profile indie-rock hotspot once again, reminiscent of the time, several years ago, when Arcade Fire attracted the world’s attention to the city. Although Montreal has plenty of other worthy independent labels, like Secret City and Alien8, the rise of Grimes has made Arbutus a litmus test for the promise of the city’s young musicians. Today’s tastemakers are fickle, and too much hype can cause a community to cannibalize itself—especially one as small and tight-knit as Montreal’s music scene. As Morrissey once said, “We hate it when our friends become successful.”

Calgary Reconsidered” (The Walrus, Chris Turner, June 2012)

“Six truths about the city that’s no longer, simply, Cowtown.”

Even if you love the city deep down, you sometimes feel as if you’re merely putting up with it, waiting for it to grow all the way up and become what it pretends to be. Calgary is an overnight millionaire fresh from the sale of a gas exploration company, complaining about the greed of all those farmers who jacked up the lease rates. Calgary is the home riding of the prime minister abutting the home riding of the premier, and still insisting that it doesn’t get a fair shake in Ottawa or Edmonton. Calgary is the highest per capita income in Canada in a province with no sales tax, indignant that its property taxes are going up. Its conservatism sometimes scans as a youngster’s I-got-mine insolence. Its emerging power and prominence come across from some angles as pure teenage bluster.

The Hunter Artist” (The Walrus, Sarah Milroy, July/August 2012)

“In Cape Dorset, Nunavut, a new generation is redefining Inuit art, preserving northern traditions as it adapts to southern ways of life. One of these artists is Tim Pitsiulak.”

Whites imagine Inuit, and Inuit imagine whites; Inuit art is where their fantasies meet, but the interface is changing. Kinngait continues to release its annual portfolio of about forty prints, as it has for more than fifty years. Despite stars like Kenojuak, prices for the prints have remained fairly consistent and modest, in the $500 to $2,500 range. But one-of-a-kind drawings are gaining a following and, as with the prints, the prices are regulated by Dorset Fine Arts, the co-op’s Toronto distributor, which sends the art to dealers across Canada and around the world, who then charge what the market will bear. Pitsiulak’s largest and best drawings can now sell for as much as $12,500, making him one of the most successful artists in the North. His aunt Kenojuak’s best works sell for around $16,000. Shuvinai Ashoona’s prices are close behind Pitsiulak’s and rising fast. This phenomenon of individual artists’ commanding widely differing levels of remuneration could someday lead to a break with the old co-op way of doing things, in which the revenue from higher-priced artists supports the costs of maintaining the studio and distribution, helping to fund the production of those artists who are less likely to sell. Inuit artists in Cape Dorset may hesitate to abandon a system that has afforded them predictable prices for pieces on completion (as well as studio space and material costs), irrespective of the vagaries of the southern art market.

Manufacturing Taste” (The Walrus, Sasha Chapman, September 2012)

“The (un)natural history of Kraft Dinner — a dish that has shaped not only what we eat, but also who we are.”

The point is, it’s nearly impossible to live in Canada without forming an opinion about one of the world’s first and most successful convenience foods. In 1997, sixty years after the first box promised “dinner in seven minutes — no baking required,” we celebrated by making Kraft Dinner the top-selling grocery item in the country.

This makes KD, not poutine, our de facto national dish. We eat 3.2 boxes each in an average year, about 55 percent more than Americans do. We are also the only people to refer to Kraft Dinner as a generic for instant mac and cheese. The Barenaked Ladies sang wistfully about eating the stuff: “If I had a million dollars / we wouldn’t have to eat Kraft Dinner / But we would eat Kraft Dinner / Of course we would, we’d just eat more.” In response, fans threw boxes of KD at the band members as they performed. This was an act of veneration.

John Cage’s Canada” (Maisonneuve, Crystal Chan, Fall 2012)

“The twentieth century’s most important avant-garde composer may have been American, Crystal Chan writes, but he found his greatest inspiration north of the border.”

On a Thursday night in August 1961, Cage took the podium at Montreal’s Théâtre de la Comédie-Canadienne and moved his arms in a circle, imitating the hands of a clock. In response, eighteen musicians began to play. The piece, called Atlas Eclipticalis, was Cage’s first Canadian premiere, and he had written it by matching notes to star positions in an astronomical atlas. At the time, the whole world had its eyes on the stars; earlier that spring, a Soviet cosmonaut had beaten the Americans to space. Composing music with the help of astronomy was still an eccentric method, though, and one that marked an important shift in Cage’s career. After Atlas Eclipticalis, Cage moved away from writing music with notes, rests and other conventional symbols. Instead, he went on to create graphic scores—essentially, drawn music—and write textual instructions. He started to see himself as a creator of experiences through sound, rather than a composer of music.

The Place Where Art Sleeps” (Maisonneuve, Chris Hampton, Fall 2012)

“The vast majority of the art gallery of Ontario’s priceless collection isn’t on display — it’s tucked away in high-security, top-secret vaults.”

Of the AGO’s eighty-five-thousand-piece permanent collection, only about 3,900 works are on display right now. At any given time, 95 percent of the collection is in storage. Paintings, sculptures and installations account for roughly eleven thousand pieces in the vaults, while photography and works on paper make up the other seventy thousand. This isn’t unique to the AGO. Art institutions are a bit like icebergs; the public sees less than a tenth of their holdings. But that may finally be changing. While security and conservation remain top priorities, galleries are beginning to experiment with new ways for the public to engage with their broader collections. Visitors increasingly want to see everything—including what’s behind the scenes.

Doppel Gang: Why Canada Needs Quebec” (The Walrus, Mark Kingwell, January/February 2013)

“Why Canada needs Quebec.”

Yes, there it is. Quebec is Canada’s familiar-strange double, a return of the repressed, so like the rest of the country and yet so minutely, eerily different. Are they plotting something large and secretive, some kind of surprise secession? Probably not. No, they probably just want things to go on like this more or less forever, teetering between passive entitlement and passionate outrage, sketching a glorious future free of any reality principle.

Unmasked” (Maisonneuve, Andrea Bennet, March, 2013)

“Before the 2010 G20 Summit in Toronto, police infiltrated activist communities as part of a massive, costly campaign that resulted in high-profile arrests and prosecutors. Who were these undercovers, and how did they avoid scrutiny?”

Guelph was also home, in the lead-up to the G20 summit, to a branch of one of the largest undercover police operations in Canadian history. The $676 million security bill for the G20 summit and its G8 counterpart—which was held on June 25 and 26 in Huntsville, Ontario—included funding for an eighteen-month-long infiltration of activist communities, from January 2009 through June 2010. The Joint Intelligence Group, a well-staffed network of OPP and RCMP officers based in Barrie, Ontario, carried out this investigation. According to the JIG Operational Plan, the effort included twelve “trained covered  investigators,” as well as commanders, managers, and technical and office support. Over the course of those eighteen months, JIG made $8 million worth of capital purchases and had a $297 million operational budget. It set up commander offices, a project room, workstations—and, during the G20 summit itself, an operational “War Room.”

Fight of the Bumblebee” (The Walrus, Sasha Chapman, March 2013)

“Honeybee colonies are collapsing around the world, putting food production in danger. We may need Canada’s indigenous pollinators to save the day.”

South of Detroit and Windsor, sandwiched between Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair, the flat lines of Essex County farmland carve the southern tip of Ontario into tidy rectangular parcels of fertile, well-drained soil. When you approach Leamington from Highway 401, it is difficult to imagine this area as the nearly impenetrable forest it once was, or that the fires lit by would-be farmers to clear the land once burned so brightly they could be seen 500 kilometres west in Chicago. Today the aerial view looks more like a semi-industrial park, because the area is dominated by gunmetal grey–framed greenhouses. With some 355 hectares under greenhouse vegetable production, more than anywhere else in North America, the region’s output is larger than the entire industry in the US, and growing much faster than other types of agriculture.

First Do No Harm” (Maisonneuve, Ann Silversides, April 2013)

“Are doctors and drug companies to blame for the opioid-abuse crisis? After two shocking deaths in small-town Ontario, Ann Silversides reports from one of the largest coroner’s inquests in Canadian history.“

Under the Influence” (The Walrus, Matthew J. Bellamy, June 2013)

“Beer is to Canada as wine is to France. How Labatt and its allies brewed up a nation of beer drinkers.”

Before the Black Christmas of 1936, Mackenzie approached J. Walter Thompson Co., a major global advertising agency. Mark Napier of the Toronto office had an uncanny feel for the cultural logic of the age, and wanted to portray brewers like Labatt as instrumental, not detrimental, to the nation’s development. In a series of advertisements published in the national monthly Canadian Homes and Gardens, he highlighted Labatt’s long, influential past. “It really all began 70 years ago,” read the text of one ad in 1937, under the tag line “Then As Now.” In others, he linked the company’s evolution to watershed moments in our history, such as Confederation and the Boer War, when “soldiers knew good ale.” As Canadians searched for uniquely Canadian ideas, events, experiences, and commodities—the makings of a national identity—Napier served up Labatt’s product as an age-old piece of Canadiana.

The Marineland Dreamland” (The Walrus, Craig Davidson, July/August 2013

“Deconstructing memories of a scandal-ridden theme park.”

I worked at Marineland for eight summers. Brendan Kelly, six years. Phil Demers, twelve. It paid our rent and put beer in our fridges. Best summers of my life. To a man, we spoke those words.

It makes you wonder. What if, rather than fabrication, “The Tale of the Frozen Sea Lion” was an act of erasure? My unconscious mind embarking on a sly mission of disburdenment, of purposeful forgetting? If I forget enough, if my own story fills with holes, I can tell myself it’s a lie. And that’s easier, overall. Easier than holding on to the knowledge for twenty-plus years, doing nothing meaningful about it. Easier than remembering how I laughed as my supervisor kicked a dead sea lion.