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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from James Carroll, Cecilia D’Anastasio, Ben Steverman, Eva Holland, and Ian Brown.

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Editors Roundtable: 170 Million Pieces of Trash Orbiting the Earth and No One Knows How to Use an Apostrophe (Podcast)

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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.

Subscribe and listen now everywhere you get your podcasts.

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.

15:51The 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.

22:24The 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.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Drew Magary, Amy Wallace, Leif Reigstad, Pam Houston, and Ziya Tong.

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‘Buried in the Cowboy Way, with His Tail to the Wind’

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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.

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

KURASHIKI, JAPAN - AUGUST 25: Sunflower at the entrance of a house, Okayama Prefecture, Kurashiki, Japan on August 25, 2017 in Kurashiki, Japan. (Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Art In All Of Us/Corbis via Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Jayson Greene, Theresa Breuer, Christa Parravani, Alexandra Kimball, and Casey Taylor.

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Where the Men are Scarier than the Minefield on the Mountain

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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.”

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Make Way for Meera

The Himalaya as seen from Mera Peak.

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.

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Bill Shine in the Oval Office
White House Communications Director and Deputy Chief of Staff Bill Shine, who resigned as co-president of Fox News in 2017. (Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Jane Mayer, Jen Gann, Christine H. Lee, John Birdsall, and Anna Callaghan.

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Maintaining Mental Health as a Rescuer in the Grand Tetons

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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.

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