After my internship, my first assignment for National Geographic was a story about the Zinacenteco Indians in the highlands of Chiapas. The subject was interesting but very challenging. As a woman, my access was mostly limited to other women who only spoke the Maya language I was struggling to learn. Once I traversed the language barrier, it was still very difficult to gain permission to photograph because it was a culture that traditionally believed that taking one’s pictures meant taking one’s soul. Each photograph was the result of a protracted pre-negotiation. While I was struggling to make pictures there, I started dreaming of photographing in a place where people actually liked being photographed. I started to think about the prospect of documenting a culture that I understood, where my perspective and understanding could actually make a difference in my seeing.
I found an old copy of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, a groundbreaking novel about the jaded alienation of the young and rich in Los Angeles, on the bookshelf of our rented house in Chiapas. As I reread it, I thought about how people around the world were fascinated by the depiction of Los Angeles kids in the popular TV show Beverly Hills 90210. I realized that the world I grew up in, Los Angeles, was worthy of the same kind of sociological and anthropological study, that as photographers, anthropologists and documentarians, we customarily turn on the other rather than on ourselves.
So I came back to my hometown and started documenting kids in Los Angeles, the place that fabricates the popular culture that is exported around the world.
—Photographer and documentarian Lauren Greenfield writing in Time. Greenfield studied film and anthropology in college and had initially planned to spend her career “documenting the exotic [and] the other”; instead she returned home to Los Angeles and turned the lens on the world she’d grown up in. Those photographs ended up becoming Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood, her acclaimed first book. That was nearly two decades ago. Since then, Greenfield has become a renowned chronicler of youth culture, gender and consumerism, and is perhaps best known for her 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles.
Scott Korb | Longreads | May 2020 | 18 minutes (4,490 words)
Our time is nearly up, but we’ve been living in our building on East 19th Street, in New York City, for more than a decade. It’s six stories, 24 units, built in 1920. A walkup. To arrive home we walk up to the fifth floor. The stone stairs grow smoother and more slippery as you descend, because more people over the years have trod the lower steps; that is, fewer people have had to climb so high as us. On the way down one has felt inclined, landing-by-landing, to step more gingerly, to grip the bannister — until these days, when we try not to touch anything or anyone outside the apartment, or when we wipe those things down before we do. Our lives will be this way until we leave, because, again, our time is nearly up.
The roof is off limits and armed with an air-raid siren that would make the dog howl.
The paint in the stairwell, a light, creamy green, bubbles and sometimes flakes off in chunks, sometimes peels, exposing paint and plaster from decades ago. For most of the time we’ve lived here, on the wall just above the landing as you ascend between the third and fourth floors, the paint was cracked and had folded itself to form the shape of a woman, nude, from beneath the breasts to just below the hips, somehow including a navel. I suspected I was the only one in the building to see her, and I was too embarrassed to alert my wife.
Not long after we moved in, in 2009, before we were married, I painted the lower half of one wall in our kitchen a clean and deep red, which now matches several striped hand towels and the new teapot. (We’ve continued making improvements.) The same day I painted in the kitchen, I also covered a wall in the living room a bright, flat blue, though we could tell right away that was a mistake — to live in a lesser Mondrian — and I repainted the wall in white just as soon as the blue was dry. For now, there’s a pair of bright red paintings, the work of a friend, centered on that wall above the blue sleeper-sofa. We’ll soon take them down. The kitchen table we use today once belonged to a woman I briefly dated and was friends with off and on for years, though I don’t recall exactly why or when I came to own the table. (My memory is not what it once was.) I seem to remember its being offered, and then loading it into a U-Haul truck beneath her loft in SoHo the same day I helped another woman move to Inwood, in Manhattan’s northern reaches, before returning home to Brooklyn late that night. Together, that other woman and I must have carried the table up to my apartment before settling in for a few hours on my mattress. This is how we lived.
The kitchen table is an antique, and for a time, in several apartments (including this one on 19th Street), I used it as an office desk. Hanging above the table these days is a bookshelf that once belonged to a couple of radical publishers, relatives of a friend who, in 2016, organized an estate sale in the couple’s warreny West Village apartment, advertising “art, furniture, lamps, tableware, a multitude of unusual curios, loads of books (especially cookbooks).” The day we left with the bookshelf and hung it on our wall we also carried away cookbooks by Molly O’Neill and Joyce Chen. Our other kitchen bookshelf once belonged to two men whose apartment we rented on 29th Street, also on the East Side, near the hospital where our son was born. This apartment had deep blue carpeting and a balcony, a pass-through from the kitchen to where we ate, and when we lived there we also owned a guinea pig. When we arrived where we live now — with the dog who came with me, the cat who came with my wife, and before our son — we posted on Craigslist an advertisement putting the guinea pig up for adoption: “Free to a good home. Full set-up.” As it grew and ate more hay, the rodent had become too messy; my wife was allergic. So after some emails, one afternoon two girls came from the Upper West Side with their mother, who insisted we take her daughters’ twenty dollars before they carried him away with his cage, which I must have lugged down the stairs and loaded into their hatchback.
Most everything about Lloyd remained mysterious. He sometimes seemed very old and unkempt, but he also displayed occasional vigor.
Over the years, many people have come and gone from our building on 19th Street. During the pandemic, the building has more or less emptied out — some, no doubt, for good. Who knows who’ll return? And yet, throughout our tenure, mostly we’ve complained — to each other and the more durable neighbors — about the turnover, which for a spate about five years ago, involved renovations to apartments in the lower floors that turned one-bedrooms into two- and two-bedrooms into three-. More bedrooms make apartments easier to share with other college students, which has been at the root of our grumbling: Our landlord’s fostering of transience. Dorm-life. (How soon we forget.) Even so, we twice wandered into these renovations, always on the lookout in New York for a little more room, but it never made sense when we considered the deal we’ve always had: our overall space isn’t much and the bathroom’s a puzzle, but there are two bedrooms and our rent remains below what the market will bear, for now, in the neighborhood.
Elisa Albert | Longreads | April 2020 | 22 minutes (5,474 words)
The first time I get rear-ended is at a stoplight on the corner of Central and North Lake, around 4pm. One minute I’m on my way to school pickup, the next minute I’m disoriented and sobbing. The at-fault is a 19-year-old dude in a Jeep full of friends. He is nonplussed. He asks, without affect, whether I am okay.
“No!” I scream. “What the fuck?”
My car is badly damaged. I can’t stop sobbing. No airbags deployed. I am worried the dude will get back into his car and flee, so I photograph his license plate in haste, and call the cops. I cannot for the life of me stop crying. My rage and fear and shock and sadness are a tangle. The Jeep doesn’t have a scratch on it. It’s raining. The dude and his friends huddle under a shop awning, laughing.
The cop tells me to calm down: “It’s not that big a deal, ma’am.”
Later, when I call the cop oversight office to suggest that this particular cop go fuck himself, the oversight officer will watch the body cam footage and promise to speak to the cop in question about sensitivity in traumatic situations.
For some reason, I refuse an ambulance. (“Some reason”, ha: I am more terrified of institutional health care than I am of getting back into a smashed up car and driving away with whiplash and a concussion.)
I spend days in bed, in the dark, alternating heat and ice. A haze of phone calls from insurance agents, a hailstorm of Advil, rivers of CBD hot freeze.
You can get rear-ended anywhere. It wasn’t Albany’s fault, per se. But it’s so easy to blame Albany. Fucking Albany! This was God’s way of telling me I’ve done my time in this hopeless shithole of a city, right? Or maybe this was God’s way of punishing me for never utilizing public buses. Or maybe this was God’s way of shaming me for having my kid in private school. The thinks you think when you’re stuck in bed, in the dark, without distraction, for days on end! Meditation is a billion times harder than crossfit, and constructions about “God” are tough epigenetic habits to break.
Robin Antalek | Longreads | April 2020 | 18 minutes (4,599 words)
In 1964, when my mother was pregnant with my younger brother, she found out that her husband, my father, had married another woman and that woman was pregnant as well. My father’s new wife had left her family and three small children, and then she and my father had created a subset family, making us a complicated algebraic formula, resistant to logic. He and his new wife lived together somewhere in Fairfield County, Connecticut, commuting distance to their jobs in Manhattan, where they had met. For a while they lived in his red Volvo wagon that smelled of his ever present Camel cigarettes.
Once, way before my brother, he drove us in that same red Volvo wagon down the wide tree lined Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn to a pre-war apartment building overlooking Prospect Park for a visit with his parents. The adults gathered in a room with windows that offered a view of the tops of the trees while, at 3, I remained in the kitchen with the housekeeper and a parakeet in a cage in front of a window that looked out onto a brick walled airshaft.
The bird turned its back on us while I ate Milano cookies. When dinner was ready the housekeeper took my hand in hers and led me into the big room. I was too full to eat the bright pink roast on the broad, gold-rimmed dinner plates, or sip from the tiny glass of tomato juice resting on a paper doily on a miniature plate. I know the attention on me was uncomfortable and confusing. My feet dangled from the chair in patent leather shoes and I was reprimanded by my father more than once for kicking the bar that stretched between the legs. Tucked in the large bureau behind me was a Batman and Robin coloring book, a gift chosen I supposed because of my name, not gender, along with a fresh pack of crayons, promised to me only if I ate my entire dinner. Later I am shattered, inconsolable, my face rubbed raw against the shoulder of my father’s tweed coat as he carries me from the apartment, a piece of meat still lodged between my cheek and molars.
In this personal essay, Nicholas Thompson, editor in chief of Wired, writes about what he has overcome spiritually, mentally, and physically, to continue to improve as a runner, running a sub-2:30 marathon at age 44. Thompson considers the role that running has played in his life (he’s overcome cancer) and how his father inspired him to excel. Thompson knows that hard physical training, technology in the form of GPS watches, heart rate monitors, and nutrition regimens are important, but he believes running is simply a form of hide and seek with your own brain, ever vigilant in protecting the body from injury.
My variant of thyroid cancer was eminently treatable, and in the months that followed I recovered slowly. At first, I would step out of my apartment and struggle to walk the one block uphill from my apartment, in Brooklyn, to Prospect Park. But in due course I could walk anywhere, and eventually run. One glorious day, I both ran 10 miles and talked optimistically with my wife about having children. Fitness came back faster than I expected. Nine months after the diagnosis, I ran 15 slow miles in the mountains of Aspen, Colorado, and burst into tears as I came down from the last peak.
So why do runners have limits? And why do the limits differ from one person to the next? In part, it’s because of physiological factors: blood oxygen levels, lactate, muscular strength, each of which has a genetic component. But there’s another theory, put forward by a sports physiologist named Tim Noakes. As he puts it, in what he calls the central governor model, part of the reason we slow is because our brain is telling our body to stop because it’s scared. It doesn’t want you to overheat or develop a stress fracture in your shin, so it preemptively hits the brakes. If Noakes’ theory is right, it implies a mind-body dilemma. We all can go faster. We just have to persuade our brains not to start the subconscious shutdown process right away. But the only thing we can use to trick our brain is our brain.
Hitting my goal meant running a marathon in 9,000 seconds, and I crossed the line with just 47 to spare: 2:29:13. Only one person older than me went faster that day. My family sent texts full of emojis and love. Finley came running to congratulate me, to celebrate, and to reveal that, having seen me the week before, and toward the end of the race, he’d worried I’d pushed it too far. For the first time, he said, I had looked like I was truly exhausted. I’d made it. I’d done it. But now it was time to stop for a while.
We give our children our genes and our love, and we don’t have any idea of what, in the end, they’ll do with them. My grandfather scarred my father by trying to push him into sports; my father inspired me by taking me running around the block. Maybe one of my sons will write a tell-all one day about the pressure his father put on him to be something he didn’t want to be. Or maybe they’ll find that they love the sport too, and I’ll end up drinking beet juice with my grandkids.
Adam Kuhlmann | Longreads | April 2020 | 17 minutes (4,265 words)
It’s a cold, gray morning in late December, the week that sags like bunting hung between Christmas and New Year’s. I pull my mother’s Subaru alongside a large cinder block building identified only by a street address peeling from a rust-pocked and dented steel door. I see no functional windows, just a few square cavities that have been boarded up from the inside.
My wife, Mysha, eyes the grim façade from the passenger seat. “Is it strange,” she asks, “that Chase takes lessons inside a commercial slaughterhouse?”
Chase is my nephew, an 11-year-old with the eyelashes of a Hollywood starlet and a penchant for neon athletic wear. During our annual holiday visit to my Virginia hometown, he had invited us to watch him pitch and hit baseballs for an hour, under the tutelage of a private coach.
“It gives him a leg up,” my sister had told me the previous night after Chase went to bed. Perhaps sensing my skepticism, she explained the nature of today’s competitive child-rearing: how all of a kid’s activities — from his first birthday party to his college admissions — must be coordinated and enhanced, for a fee, by biologically unrelated adults.
At 39, with no plans to father a child myself, I am free to pass judgment on all manner of parental behavior without worrying that, one day, I’ll have to admit I was wrong. So, I reminded my sister about the 1990s, when the most we’d hoped for was piano lessons. As for getting into college, I told her about the Friday night before I took the SAT. I’d stayed up late, crowding around Betsy Newman’s backyard fire pit. I’d joined a boozy, a cappella rendition of Blind Melon’s “No Rain.” My test prep had consisted of just saying no to the nozzle of a can of Cool Whip, a triumph of restraint I’d managed without a glance of adult supervision.
My sister patiently absorbed my nostalgia. Then she added: “Chase wants this too. He loves baseball.”
I couldn’t argue with Chase’s results. Last summer he’d been selected for the all-star team of his neighborhood little league. My sister sent us photos of the boys celebrating at a local Mexican restaurant. In one close-up, Chase’s arm is draped over the shoulder of a boy with the same tousled hair spilling from the same star-spangled hat. With the other hand, he is slugging a yellow concoction from a goblet the size of a table lamp.
During our annual holiday visit to my Virginia hometown, my nephew, Chase, had invited us to watch him pitch and hit baseballs for an hour, under the tutelage of a private coach.
Looking down at her phone, Mysha confirms the address, so we slip into a small parking lot in the back of the building. Though it’s no more welcoming than the front, at least we find no sign of doomed Angus cattle.
Inside, the facility’s décor hews to jock brutalism. Forty feet above us, fluorescent lights hang from metal beams, filling the cavernous room with a stadium’s ice-blue brightness. The atmosphere is warmed only by the sound of classic rock rattling from speakers bolted to the walls. Black netting curtains off a pair of batting cages, where a few stocky teens hack at soft tosses. The floor is covered in green artificial turf studded with five-gallon buckets, around which cluster litters of scuffed baseballs.
I spot my brother-in-law, Clay, seated with two other men whose buzz cuts and taut expressions would fit in on the bridge of a naval destroyer. They lean forward from metal folding chairs, studying the ritualized movements of their boys. Nearby is a makeshift pitching mound, where I spot Chase moving into his windup: a fluid and compact gathering of 100 pounds of muscle and bone. His pitch sails high, pulling out of his catcher’s crouch a college-aged man in gray sweats. His bottom lip is swollen with tobacco, and he pauses to discharge a brown stream into a soda bottle before offering my nephew a blunt appraisal: “You’re overthrowing again. What happened to your release point?”
Chase cocks his head thoughtfully. “I forgot to reach out with it.”
“Right,” the coach says, demonstrating with his own right hand before returning a dart to Chase’s glove side. “Fix it.”
In his plush suburban home, Chase is a merry prankster. When he was 4, he stood on the carpeted mezzanine, reached his hand between two wooden balusters, and dropped an untidy sock onto the face of my sister, napping on the sofa below. Here, in this Spartan box, Chase’s aim is nearly as true — but he is all business.
We slide in, and the fathers stand to make room for us in the self-consciously gallant way of Southern men. And suddenly I recognize that I am easily the smallest person in the seating area. This includes my wife, who at 6-foot-1 dwarfs me in a way that attracts stares in public.
Out of the corner of my eye, I track a wide throw that tips off Chase’s glove and bounces once on its way toward our congregated shins. I bend and manage to spear it with my right hand.
One father draws out a whistle through his teeth.
“Once a second baseman, always a second baseman,” Clay says.
I toss the ball back to Chase, who registers the deed — and our presence — with a stoic little nod.
“College ball?” asks the other father.
Before I can laugh, say “no,” and explain that this catch had been the most graceful maneuver I’d accomplished in 20 years — indeed, I’d just tweaked my back and would require, this evening, a liberal application of Tiger Balm — Clay jumps in.
“This guy played in the Little League World Series!”
Lynn Casteel Harper | Catapult | excerpt from On Vanishing: Mortality, Dementia, and What It Means to Disappear | April 2020 | 18 minutes (4,925 words)
I have officiated only one memorial service in which I thought the dead person might come back. Dorothy was 103, and she was known for surprise reappearances. Dorothy had resided in an independent living apartment at the retirement community, and I had visited her on the few occasions when she had come to the Gardens to recover from an illness. I had learned over the course of these visits that as a teenager, she had left home to become a stage assistant to Harry Houdini—against her parents’ wishes, of course. What did a nice Methodist girl, a preacher’s daughter, want with an older man—a Vaudeville magician, no less—rumored to be a Jew, the son of a rabbi? Only after Houdini and his wife, Bess, visited Dorothy’s parents and promised to care for her as their own daughter did her parents relent.
In Houdini’s shows, Dorothy would pop out from the top of an oversized radio that Houdini had just shown the audience to be empty, kicking up one leg and then the other in Rockettestyle extension. Grabbing her at the waist, Houdini would lower her to the floor, where she would dance the Charleston. In another act, she was tied, bound feet to neck, to a pole. A curtain would fall to the floor, and voila!—she would reappear as a ballerina with butterfly wings, fluttering across the stage. At the end of each night’s performance, Dorothy stood just off stage next to Bess to witness Houdini’s finale: the Chinese Water Torture Cell. A shackled Houdini was lowered, upside down, into a tank of water from which he escaped two minutes later. Dorothy knew how he accomplished this stunt—what was often deemed his “greatest escape”—but she never broke confidence.