What makes a secret society? Is it the codes and the handshakes, the physical language? Perhaps it’s accessibility—you might know an organization exists, but you’ll never be a member. Take this: I rushed a sorority—the same sorority!—three times, because I wanted to be able to walk into any room on my small college campus and see a welcoming face. I wanted the anonymity, the lettered sweatshirt, the history. I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself, something a little mysterious. Sure, I could study the colors and crest and memorize the majors and extracurriculars of every glossy-haired member, but that wasn’t the same as being in. I didn’t get in, obviously.
This urge to rush a sorority over and over (insanity, by Albert Einstein’s definition, I know) has manifested itself before. Middle-school me devoured books about the rich and privileged—Gossip Girl, The Clique, Private–because I knew there was a secret and I had to find out what it was. I had to, or I would be stuck reading the “How to Be Popular” WikiHow guide for the rest of my life. Kindergarten me yearned to sit next to the most popular girl in class during circle time, only to be snubbed by her henchmen. See a pattern? My identity crises have perfectly styled hair and would never wear last season’s Tory Burch flats. I continue to be fascinated—less pathetically, hopefully—by these exclusive subcultures. Luckily for you, I didn’t include any essays about the angst of privileged boarding school students. Instead, I’ve packed this list full of success stories, start-ups, witchcraft and comedy. Read more…
Inside 19th Century London’s sewers with “toshers,” who made a living by scouring for trash and waste to be resold:
They were mostly celebrated, nonetheless, for the living that the sewers gave them, which was enough to support a tribe of around 200 men–each of them known only by his nickname: Lanky Bill, Long Tom, One-eyed George, Short-armed Jack. The toshers earned a decent living; according to Mayhew’s informants, an average of six shillings a day–an amount equivalent to about $50 today. It was sufficient to rank them among the aristocracy of the working class–and, as the astonished writer noted, ‘at this rate, the property recovered from the sewers of London would have amounted to no less than £20,000 [today $3.3 million] per annum.’
On June 10, 1912, a family was brutally murdered in a small Iowa town. The murders remain unsolved:
The Moores were not discovered until several hours later, when a neighbor, worried by the absence of any sign of life in the normally boisterous household, telephoned Joe’s brother, Ross, and asked him to investigate. Ross found a key on his chain that opened the front door, but barely entered the house before he came rushing out again, calling for Villisca’s marshal, Hank Horton. That set in train a sequence of events that destroyed what little hope there may have been of gathering useful evidence from the crime scene. Horton brought along Drs. J. Clark Cooper and Edgar Hough and Wesley Ewing, the minister of the Moore’s Presbyterian congregation. They were followed by the county coroner, L.A. Linquist, a third doctor, F.S. Williams (who became the first to examine the bodies and estimate a time of death). When a shaken Dr Williams emerged, he cautioned members of the growing crowd outside: ‘Don’t go in there, boys; you’ll regret it until the last day of your life.’ Many ignored the advice; as many as 100 curious neighbors and townspeople tramped as they pleased through the house, scattering fingerprints, and in one case even removing fragments of Joe Moore’s skull as a macabre keepsake.
A brief history of the many attempts during the 19th Century to build a tunnel under the Thames River in London:
Another bridge was out of the question—it would deny sailing ships access to the Pool of London—and ambitious men turned their thoughts to driving a tunnel beneath the Thames instead. This was not such an obvious idea as it might appear. Although demand for coal was growing fast as the industrial revolution hit high gear, working methods remained primitive. Tunnels were dug by men wielding picks in sputtering candlelight.
No engineers had tunneled under a major river, and the Thames was an especially tricky river. To the north, London was built on a solid bed of clay, ideal tunneling material. To the south and east, however, lay deeper strata of water-bearing sand, gravel and oozing quicksand, all broken up by layers of gravel, silt, petrified trees and the debris of ancient oyster beds. The ground was semi-liquid, and at depth it became highly pressurized, threatening to burst into any construction site.
I’ve always been fascinated with religion, Russia, and missing persons stories so these five nonfiction pieces really captured my attention this year. The fallout from The New Yorker‘s Scientology piece turned out to be as compelling as the essay itself—and I had to put The New Yorker on here twice because the recent piece on Vladimir Putin is spectacular and continually evolving. Paul Collins’ piece on missing Barbara Follett was utterly haunting and Paul is a master of uncovering long-hidden mysteries. Everyone should check out all of his work, and I’m sure many have after reading that piece. And really, for the other two, who can turn away from secret cults and dead bodies found on beaches? Not me.
Say what you will of Ms. Love, but she’ll always have a fan in me.
I found myself endlessly quoting this piece on screen legend Lauren Bacall.
NY Times’ fascinating obituary of Loretta Young’s illegitimate daughter with Clark Gable, Judy Lewis.
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Anna Armstrong | Longreads | December 2017 | 12 minutes (2,903 words)
“Jefferson, I think we’re lost.” — Little America, R.E.M.
The distance between Rodeo and Santa Cruz is just over 90 miles. For the most part the drive is unremarkable — urban, industrial cities and rural, unincorporated towns along the Eastshore Freeway, shaping the wasteland east of San Francisco Bay. But then the interstate gives way to Highway 17 and you begin the ascent to another world. The road is a thin, curlicue curved by the green Santa Cruz Mountains.
As a child I made this trip many times with my parents in our wood-paneled station wagon packed tightly with my five siblings and me — my gaze resting out the window, tracking the miles by the three-minute pop songs on the radio while an endless imaginary flat-panel saw tethered to my slight wrist sliced through the redwoods. Our destination? The historic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
The winding highway was a signal that we were close to the magical unworldliness of rickety wooden roller coasters, salty ocean breezes, barefoot children, bikinied girls, sun-kissed boys, a symphony of voices, crashing waves, tinny arcade bells, the smells and tastes of corn dogs and candied apples — and far, far away from the broke-down, shuttered place of stillness, silence, and late-to-bloom fondness in the rearview mirror. What separated Santa Cruz from Rodeo was not just miles but a tangible joy you could hold in your hands. Coming home sunburned, exhausted, happy — sleeping through the curves of the highway, waking abruptly in time to see the straight line to home.
June 1985. I was 17 years old and newly licensed. I was preparing to make the trek from home to Santa Cruz in my very first car, a 1972 Chevy Malibu that braved a Black Flag bumper sticker in a town that just didn’t get it. The destination? A very different type of spectacle: A rock ‘n’ roll show. The Athens, GA band R.E.M were scheduled to play the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium.
Monica Drake | Longreads | October 2017 | 14 minutes (3,538 words)
A hot Hollywood beauty optioned the film rights to my first novel, Clown Girl, then, months later, invited me out for dinner. Specifically, her people emailed my people — me.
Her agent asked if I’d be interested and available.
I was home alone when I got the message, and beyond interested. I was instantly dizzy, maybe sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated. I grabbed the back of a chair, knocking over a paper cup of cold coffee on our cluttered dining table. I teach English Composition at a small, private art school and I write. I’m a full-time mom with a full-time job and a full-time writing career on the side, wherever “the side” is. I live in a sea of student essays, department meetings, administrative work, my own pages of writing, submission, acceptance, rejection, my daughter’s projects and a lot of late nights at the computer. This Miss Hollywood, of course, is a movie star.
Now she’d reached out to me — she, this writer and actress, a woman said to have “single-handedly reinvented [the] romantic comedy formula,” hailed as a “comedic genius” by more than one publication.
I didn’t check my calendar. I’d make time. Morning, noon, night, I’d be in town. When opportunity knocks, right? “Yes,” I emailed back, tapping the single word into my phone. Coffee dripped to our worn floorboards.
The Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale could not have been more timely, and therefore chilling. “In February, the book overtook George Orwell’s 1984 on the Amazon best-seller list. Texas is Gilead and Indiana is Gilead and now that Mike Pence is our vice president, the entire country will look more like Gilead, too.”
In The New Republic, Sara Jones (a former fundamentalist Christian whose education prepared her for a life of tending home and making babies and obeying a husband) writes about The Handmaid’s Tale, how its world could not exist without conservative women — represented in the book by the character Serena Joy — and what it ultimately means for those women’s lives.
America is rich in Serena Joys. One need look no further for her contemporary counterparts than Michelle Duggar and her daughters; or Paula White, the televangelist who allegedly led Donald Trump to Christ; or his aide Kellyanne Conway, who defends him as a “great boss” to women. The character Atwood invented is an amalgam of Phyllis Schlafly and Tammy Faye Bakker with a dash of Aimee Semple McPherson. The spectacle of the female fundamentalist celebrity is not recent, and she is not an anomaly. Her existence is proof of American fundamentalism’s durability, and a reminder that it could not thrive without the enthusiastic backing of women.
The dilemma of Serena Joy feels deceptively easy to resolve. She’s in this for power, and understands that it’s hers if she says the right things to the right audiences. Schlafly achieved international fame, and Conway has the ear of the president. With Gilead, however, Atwood reminds such women that they might not like the results of their labor; that by the time they come to regret it, the culture they helped create will have developed far beyond their control. Serena Joy is a warning, not only to her feminist antagonists, but to conservatives, too.
Josh Roiland | Longreads | February 2017 | 14 minutes (3,710 words)
“Who’s sticking today?” the man asked.
He wore tan work boots and rough jeans. He told a friend in the waiting room that he had a couple hours off work and thought he’d stop in for some extra cash. The receptionist told him the names of that day’s phlebotomists. He paused. Sliding a 16-gauge needle into someone’s arm is tricky, and the man reconsidered. Instead of signing in, he announced to the room that he’d come back tomorrow and try his luck.
I’d driven 107 miles from my home in Bangor, Maine to the BPL Plasma Center in Lewiston to collect $50 for having my arm punctured and a liter of my plasma sucked out. The actual donation takes about 35 minutes, but the drive and its attendant wait makes for an eight-hour day. I clocked in for that trip five times this summer.
I’m a professor at the University of Maine. My salary is $52,000, and I am a year away from tenure. But like everyone else in that room, I was desperate for money. Read more…