On our May 17, 2019 roundtable episode of the Longreads Podcast, Essays Editor Sari Botton, Audience Editor Catherine Cusick, and Senior Editor Krista Stevens share what they’ve been reading and nominate stories for the Weekly Top 5 Longreads.
This week, the editors discuss stories in Outside Magazine, Wired’s Backchannel, The New York Times Styles, and Longreads.
00:20 “This Gen X Mess” (May 14, 2019, The New York Times)
“We were in the digital stone age.” – Krista Stevens
This week’s New York Times Styles package on Generation X in 1994 inspired a wave of nostalgia.
Our editors discuss Alex Williams‘ piece on the impossibility of summing up an entire generation’s experiences in one label. (Caity Weaver‘s attempt at spending a week living with technology available in 1994 sends Sari down a memory lane of modems, payphones, and calling in her notes to the New York Times tape room.) They laugh at “The Rules,”a dating guide that looks to your grandma for advice, and discuss two more sections in the Gen X Styles package on John Singleton and Evan Dando.
12:30 “He Trots the Air” (Pam Houston, May 13, 2019, Outside Magazine)
“The first thing that I would caution about this piece is that you should not read it in a public space.” – Krista Stevens
The team discusses Pam Houston’s beautiful style in this personal essay about Houston’s 39-year-old horse, Roany, their quarter-century long bond, and having to say goodbye. We think we know family animals well — and that we have the power to delay when their time will come — but life makes its own decisions.
15:51 “The Curious History of Crap—From Space Junk to Actual Poop” (Ziya Tong, May 14, 2019, Wired)
This excerpt from Tong’s book The Reality Bubble: Blind Spots, Hidden Truths, and the Dangerous Illusions That Shape Our World, examines what, despite our propensity to record everything, we still don’t see: where our food comes from, where our energy comes from, and where our waste is going.
The team discusses some of the excerpt’s truth bombs, like how one person’s poop is enough to fertilize 200 kilograms of cereals per year, and how orbiting space garbage as small as a lens cap can hit a spacecraft like a grenade. Luckily, the piece also explores how we can repurpose some of humanity’s trash to our advantage.
22:24 “The Omen of the Wasps’ Nest” (Marlene Adelstein, May 2019, Longreads)
A collector of nests, Adelstein becomes fixated on a wasp nest as an omen, while her relationship and family nests deteriorate around her.
24:10 Editor Q&A: Are you a reader or an editor first?
“If my internal editor doesn’t pipe in, is that a sign that something is good?”- Sari Botton
A behind-the-scenes look at whether the editor brain ever turns off, how editorial sensibilities are forever evolving, and a recommendation for Jenny Zhang’s Annotations newsletter, which deconstructs what works in popular articles.
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Produced by Longreads and Charts & Leisure.
This week, we’re sharing stories from Drew Magary, Amy Wallace, Leif Reigstad, Pam Houston, and Ziya Tong.
In December 2017, we knew it would soon be time to make a decision to euthanize our 8-year-old lhasa mutt. The best vet and all the medications in the world could no longer forestall a growing belly, heavy with the water his failing heart couldn’t purge from his system. We thought we’d get to choose when. Author Pam Houston thought the same thing about her 39-year-old horse, Roany.
As Houston recounts in this poignant essay at Outside, she and Roany had been together for 25 years. After a lengthy period of lameness, despite exceptional care, she knew it would soon be time for her friend, a horse known for his gentle disposition and a keen emotional intelligence. On the night before his scheduled departure, Roany made his own decision, but not without Pam by his side.
Roany was stoicism defined. As his condition worsened, he learned to pivot on his good front leg—and would, for an apple or a carrot or to sneak into the barn to get at the winter’s stash of alfalfa. He blew bubbles in his water bucket because it made me laugh, and he would sometimes even give himself a bird bath by splashing his still mighty head. I also knew that just because he could handle the discomfort didn’t mean he should. He had been so strong so recently, such a force of nature thundering back and forth across the pasture. There was no chance I was going to ask him to make another winter, but as long as he was hobbling to his golf course and chortling to me each morning, it seemed too early to end his life.
He was still standing when I got there. But the minute he saw me he went to the ground with relief. He curled up like a fawn, and I could hear that his breathing wasn’t right. Mike and I sat beside him and petted his handsome neck. Above us, stragglers from the Perseid meteor shower, which had peaked over the weekend, streaked the blackness.
This week, we’re sharing stories from Jayson Greene, Theresa Breuer, Christa Parravani, Alexandra Kimball, and Casey Taylor.
Afghan women have few rights — they’re expected to live life according to the wishes of their fathers and the husbands they’re made to marry as teens. Considered “worthless” by some, women are required to spend their lives cooking and cleaning and raising children. Because they’re denied an education and even the right to exercise to improve their physical fitness, some feel resigned to domestic dronery. At Outside, Theresa Breuer reports on Ascend, a mountaineering program that empowers Afghan women to take control of their lives by teaching them how to climb a mountain. While the mountain itself offers life-threatening risks from altitude sickness and a path through an actual minefield, the girls and their families face even greater risks at home from members of the community who want to keep women in the kitchen and who use terror and violence to impose their will.
To run Ascend, which typically has 11 employees, seven board members, and multiple volunteers, Marina travels to Afghanistan four times a year. She visits girls’ schools to promote the program and invites students to apply. There are usually about 20 members, ranging in age from 15 to 23. The economic background of the young women’s families is varied, but most are poor. Team members must participate six days a week, after school and on weekends, for at least nine months. They interview with Marina, Ascend program leaders, and prominent women in the community to demonstrate their commitment. Once accepted, the girls need to get their families’ permission.
“Afghanistan is a predominantly Muslim, very culturally conservative country with strict rules about what women can and can’t do,” Marina says. “It would threaten the girls’ lives if their fathers didn’t approve. Each woman who’s part of Ascend takes a risk. So does her family. There’s a lot of extremism in Afghanistan. Honor killings still happen. Male relatives feel obligated to protect the family honor, and a girl who does something perceived to dishonor the family can be punished by any of them.”
While the women’s fathers have given permission for them to participate, not all have done so enthusiastically. One let his daughter join because “he had nothing better for her to do.” He made sure to tell Marina what he thought of her efforts: “You’re wasting your time. Everybody knows that girls are worthless.”
Many Afghan girls internalize these sentiments. When asked to describe herself, Neki responded, “When I was born, no one was happy, because I was a girl.” Shogufa, who has a close relationship with her father, remembers an old story that her grandmother told her: “ ‘When a girl crosses underneath a rainbow, she will turn into a boy.’ Whenever a rainbow appeared, I chased it.”
The four Ascend members climbing Noshaq—Hanifa, Shogufa, Freshta Ibrahimi, and Neki Haidari—were chosen for their physical strength and the skills they demonstrated on training climbs, in addition to their emotional endurance and commitment to the program. Just a few years ago, none of them could have imagined coming to Noshaq’s rugged terrain.
Like Freshta, Hanifa knew nothing about mountaineering before Shogufa convinced her to give it a try. Once Hanifa was in the mountains, she says, “I felt like I got free from a cage. I decided that from now on, I want to be a powerful woman who, when I see someone whose hand has fallen, I will take their hand and help them. No longer should women feel weak.”
Sometimes you need to gird your loins wade thigh-deep into the news of the day, and sometimes you need to take a break and read about an awesome dog who climbed a 23,000-foot mountain in the Himalaya. Thank you, Outside and Anna Callaghan, for giving some of us the mountain-climbing dog story we need.
At first it seemed like the Sherpas only tolerated Mera because Wargowsky liked her so much, but as they witnessed her climbing prowess, they began to treat her with reverence. “They’d never seen anything like this happen. They said she was a special dog, that she brought luck to the expedition,” Wargowsky says. “Some even thought she was blessed.”
The next day, Wargowsky took his team up to camp one to start the summit bid. The route features steep ridgelines that drop thousands of feet off either side. There are sections of vertical snow. To get down, climbers have to do a number of rappels. Wargowsky tied Mera up at camp so she couldn’t follow them back up the mountain, but the dog chewed through the rope and caught up with the team less than an hour after it had left. “She just tucked in right behind me,” he says. “And it’s not like I could leave the clients to take her back, so it meant she was going with us.”
She’s a good dog, Brant.
Mera became an instant celebrity. People came over from other camps to meet the dog who’d summited Baruntse. Some tried to discredit her, saying it was impossible. Luckily, the team had plenty of photographic evidence. Mera declined to comment for this piece, preferring instead that her accomplishment speak for itself. And to be clear, no one forced Mera to climb this mountain. In fact, Mera’s feat made the climbers very anxious.
This week, we’re sharing stories from Jane Mayer, Jen Gann, Christine H. Lee, John Birdsall, and Anna Callaghan.
As a climbing ranger in Grand Teton National Park, Drew Hardesty is one of those charged with rescuing lost and injured hikers, runners, and climbers. When things are good, he’s putting his life on the line, dangling 50 feet below a helicopter, harnessed to a survivor. When things get bad, he’s one of the ones who brings home the bodies. When we think of outdoor adventure gone wrong, we often think of the victims — those who died on a climb, on a trek, on a run. At Outside, Hardesty shares a little about how deeply death on the mountains affects the rescuers and how they cope with repeated trauma.
He had been on his share of body recoveries. “Sure, man,” he said. “I get it, I’ve been there. We’ve all been there.”
“This one was different,” I said. “Two women on the ledge. It was obvious they had injuries incompatible with life. We had to climb up through blood in the chimney to find the last gal. I’ve picked up plenty of others—friends even—but this one felt … different.”
Karl Marlantes describes conversations like these in his 2011 book What It Is Like to Go to War. Marlantes was a young Marine lieutenant in Vietnam and noted that none of his men ever wanted to talk to the chaplain, because the chaplain had never seen what they had seen. But another soldier, the sergeant, was in his third tour in Vietnam. And one by one, the men would steal back to his tent to talk.
Mental health is like physical health. Both can suffer trauma. Each can take weeks, months, or years to recover from. Sometimes we never recover at all. Mental trauma can affect different people on the same rescue or recovery in very different ways. We may walk through terrain where we conducted a body recovery or see someone in a crowd who you’d swear was the person from the body bag. Bob Irvine, a Teton climbing ranger from 1963 to 1995, says he can’t walk through the range without seeing places where people have died. On the flip side, another climbing ranger, George Montopoli, who began his summer Teton climbing career in 1977, told me not long ago that for every place he sees a body recovery, he sees another place where we made a rescue. For a time, I too could only look at the mountains and see death and injury. I know countless widows around these mountains.
The alpinist Will Gadd recently told me: “If you only see death in the mountains, then you’ll never go there.” I know this is how we are wired. We embrace things that nourish us and give us joy, and we avoid things that cause pain and sadness. But the mountains bring about joy, and they bring about sadness. They remind us of the eternal link between life and death—we can’t have one without the other. Understanding this connection is fundamental to our own resiliency. So is talking with others who hold similar experiences. This is often referred to as peer-to-peer counseling. Another crucial part of the path is finally shedding the stigma of mental health and suffering.
In the Tetons, at the end of a rescue or body recovery, we’d often wander over to the porch at the large cabin in the meadow just south of Jenny Lake. There’d be a bottle or two on the porch, but often it would go unopened. We’d look past one another, tell a joke about death, look up at Teewinot, listen to Cottonwood Creek and the rustle of wind through the leaves. Sometimes we’d tell stories. What was important was that each of us had been there; we all, in another way, had blood on our hands—we had all shared the same experiences. While always offered, we didn’t need the chaplain. We needed each other.
Over two miles into my first Division I cross country race, I felt buoyant. My legs turned over like a well-oiled machine and my chest fluttered with promise: as a freshman, I was in third place for my team. I dug the metal teeth of my spikes into dirt and focused on maintaining an even clip. Lost in the reverie of the race, I almost didn’t see my coach standing on the sideline, her blond hair pulled back, face shadowed in a hat.
“Get your shit together,” she seethed as I ran past. Focused and faster than anyone anticipated, I glanced over at her, unsure whether she was speaking to me or someone else. But I was alone. “Move your fucking ass.”
The feeling of calm in my chest dissipated with her words, as if a balloon had been pricked, all the air let loose. Rather than ruminating on the strength in my legs, the smooth swish of my uniform against inner arm, my mind reeled. What was I doing wrong? I was already on pace for a significant personal record — was I supposed to be running faster? Had I appeared unfocused as I ran past?
When I look back at that first race, I always remember those words, the way the tension crept into my limbs. And the feeling stayed throughout the season. Nothing ever seemed good enough for Coach — she’d tell us we were a fucking shit show as a team when we didn’t run as fast as anticipated or when our outfits didn’t match or when we took too long on warmup. Before a race, we could either be a fucking hero and get our shit together or not. There was no in-between. I was 17 years old at the time, adjusting to life halfway across the country from my family, new food, a new sleep schedule, higher mileage, and learning the contours of socializing with my team, but those were not factored into my performance, nor was there any acknowledgment that adjusting to college — especially as a Division I athlete — can be a difficult, and stress-inducing situation.
My coach’s words were not unfamiliar to me. As an athlete, I’d been told iterations of get your shit together my entire career. In high school, no matter what our emotional state was, we were trained to say every day is a great day! The phrase, one my coach used to yell into the sunrise while he biked next to me, is scrawled all over the margins of my training journals, even when the descriptions of my runs read “hurt a lot,” “windy,” or “bloody toe.” Shirts at cross country meets featured sayings like pain is weakness leaving the body; champions train, losers complain; and seven days without running makes one weak. These slogans, intended to be humorous in some cases, emphasized the mentality that many sports do: athletes should be tough enough to overcome anything. If you don’t, it means you’re weak.
I internalized that way of thinking while growing up. I’ve been competitive as an athlete since I was in third grade, and I learned to ignore my emotions, focusing instead on external measures of time, pace, and mileage. My strategy earned me respect from coaches as someone who would train through anything — sickness, shin splints, a bone that grew threw my big toe — and place well in races, no matter what was happening in my personal life. When I placed well, I told myself I was satisfied. And when I didn’t, my entire sense of self-worth came tumbling down. I’d vow to work harder in practice, and the whole cycle would repeat itself ad nauseam; I was always chasing an invisible goal that remained just out of reach.
Midway through my freshman year, I began experiencing neurological issues. As I’d learned to do throughout my years of training, I tried running through the symptoms. Even when this ended in me collapsing on the track, I’d try and try again. To quit seemed unthinkable, but eventually I did. I experienced an acute bout of depression. Without running, who was I? Why hadn’t I been strong enough to push through? I berated myself for being weak, for symptoms out of my control, for losing a sport that had been my entire identity.
Eight years have passed since then, and I am finally learning to run in a way that honors both my physical and emotional health. I am growing more comfortable talking about my experiences with depression, and the way that running played a role in my self-worth for such a long period of time. In speaking about it, I have also realized that I’m not alone. Many athletes struggle with mental health issues, but the culture of sport — especially at the top tiers of competition — often emphasizes physical performance over holistic wellbeing. The culture is changing in ways, yes, but the rhetoric of athlete’s “overcoming” anything is still deeply ingrained in the language of coaches, and the way athletes speak to themselves.
In the following essays, athletes testify on their experiences with mental illness, factors that exacerbate mental illness in sport, and ways that we as a culture can begin to change our language and training in an attempt to support wellness emotionally as well as physically.
1. When athletes share their battles with mental illness (Scott Gleeson and Erik Brady, August 30, 2017, USA Today)
As Scott Gleeson and Erik Brady report, nearly one in five Americans experience some form of mental illness and, for athletes, because of the stressors of the sport, experiences with injuries, and overtraining, the percentage may be even higher. Testimony from a range of athletes — Michael Phelps, Jerry West, Brandon Marshall, Allison Schmitt, among others — about their experiences with mental illness and sport are featured in this piece, all of them urging athletes to speak up about their experiences, seek professional help, and change the culture of sport for the better.
“Sometimes, I walk in a room and regret being so naked and vulnerable, but this is bigger than me,” Imani Boyette says. “I believe my purpose is to talk about the things that people are uncomfortable or afraid to talk about.”
2. Everyone Is Going Through Something (Kevin Love, March 6, 2018, The Players’ Tribune)
On November 5th, at a home basketball game against the Hawks, 29-year-old Cleveland Cavalier Kevin Love began to experience what he now knows was a panic attack. In the days and weeks that followed, after medical testing and conversations with his team, he began to see a therapist, which is something he never envisioned himself doing, particularly because of his identity as a pro basketball player.
“Nobody talked about what they were struggling with on the inside. I remember thinking, What are my problems? I’m healthy. I play basketball for a living. What do I have to worry about? I’d never heard of any pro athlete talking about mental health, and I didn’t want to be the only one. I didn’t want to look weak. Honestly, I just didn’t think I needed it. It’s like the playbook said — figure it out on your own, like everyone else around me always had.”
In this candid and moving essay, Love breaks the silence surrounding mental health, particularly in regard to sport, and, as the title of his essay makes clear, recognizes that “everyone is going through something.”
3. U.S. Athletes Need Better Mental Health Care (Martin Fritz Huber, May 16, 2018, Outside)
After DeMar DeRozan of the Toronto Raptors tweeted about his depression and Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers penned a viral essay about his experience with panic attacks, the NBA, as Martin Fritz Huber reports, created a position for a director of mental health and wellness.
“I think that’s the biggest burden on American sport culture,” says Brent Walker, an executive board member with the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. “I’ve heard repeatedly from professional and elite athletes how they don’t want to admit having to having a weakness—mental [illness] being one of those.”
Huber breaks down how other countries approach mental health in relation to sport, and asks what it might take to adjust the current system in the U.S. so that athletes are supported.
4. No, Running Isn’t Always the Best Therapy (Erin Kelly, July 23, 2018, Runner’s World)
“Phrases like ‘Running is cheaper than therapy!’ and ‘I run because punching people is frowned upon,’ are routinely splashed on running-themed bumper stickers, social memes, and apparel, and reinforce the idea that running offers a healthy mental outlet.”
Though studies show that running has positive benefits on wellbeing and mood, Erin Kelly, in this well-researched personal essay, pushes back against the notion that running can cure everything. Instead, she advocates that athletes reflect on why they’re participating in sport, and seek therapy when needed in addition to logging miles.
Related Read: When a Stress Expert Battles Mental Illness (Brad Stulberg, March 7, 2018, Outside)
5. The WNBA Needs Liz Cambage, but She May Not Need It (Lindsay Gibbs, August 20, 2018, The Ringer)
As Lindsay Gibbs reports, toxic effects of systemic racism, unequal pay in the WNBA, and a string of losses left Australian Liz Cambage, who plays for the WNBA’s Dallas Wings, depressed.
“When she returned to Melbourne, Cambage ghosted almost everyone in her life and retreated into a world of depression and anxiety. She said she heavily self-medicated with prescription pills and alcohol. She said that she isn’t surprised by her on-court success this season.”
Cambage credits honesty — with herself and others — as the reason she’s emerged from the dark place where she was.
6. Split Image (Kate Fagan, May 7, 2015, ESPN)
Social media allows us to curate images that tell a certain narrative — one that’s not always the most honest. As Kate Fagan reports, Madison Holleran, formerly a runner at Penn, seemed like she had the perfect life based on her Instagram and texts.
“But she was also a perfectionist who struggled when she performed poorly. She was a deep thinker, someone who was aware of the image she presented to the world, and someone who often struggled with what that image conveyed about her, with how people superficially read who she was, what her life was like.”
After Madison committed suicide, her family and friends scoured old posts and texts for clues about what was wrong and the warning signs they missed. Ultimately, this piece asks us to consider what lurks beneath the surface of social media’s veneer.
Related read: Are Female Long-Distance Runners More Prone to Suicidal Depression? (Emily De La Bruyere, February 3, 2014, The Daily Beast)
7. Talent. A Football Scholarship. Then Crushing Depression. (Kurt Streeter, November 15, 2018, The New York Times)
“What experts know is this: Recent studies place suicide as the third leading cause of death for college athletes, behind motor vehicle accidents and medical issues.
And nearly 25 percent of college athletes who participated in a widely touted 2016 study led by researchers at Drexel University displayed signs of depressive symptoms.”
In this profile of Isaiah Renfro, a top freshman wide receiver at the University of Washington who attempted suicide, Kurt Streeter writes about the pressures placed on NCAA athletes, what it means to quit sport after building an identity as a high-performing athlete, the important role that coaches play in supporting athletes off the field and on, and the hope that Renfro now feels for his life after seeking treatment.
8. Sports Stats May Be an Ideal Measure of Mental Health (B. David Zarley, October 17, 2016, The Atlantic)
At the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, associate professor Daniel Eisenberg is leading a team of researchers at Athletes Connected in order to help athletes understand mental-health problems and track concrete data on the subject. As B. David Zarley reports, Eisenberg and other researchers collect weekly mental-health surveys which focus on academic and athletic performances and levels of anxiety and depression in order to pinpoint connections between the two.
“I think sports and celebrity are two places where we can begin to lift the mental-health stigma, by showing that real people who perform, and who are well valued by society through their athletic contributions, do also suffer from symptoms of ill mental health,” says Chris Gibbons, a post-doctoral fellow and the director of health assessment and innovation at the University of Cambridge’s Psychometrics Centre.”
Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about neurological illness and running. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.