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Longreads Best of 2019: Sports Writing

We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in sports writing.

Nicole Auerbach
Senior writer at The Athletic.

The Unbreakable Bond (Mina Kimes, ESPN the Magazine)

A beautifully written, wrenching story from one of the best feature writers in America. It’s about football, sure, but it’s actually about a son and the mother who raised him — a mother who was blinded in her late 20s by a bucket of bleach mixed with lye. DeAndre Hopkins was 10 years old at the time. Mina Kimes’ brilliant prose tells an incredible story of resilience and love. It’ll stick with you for quite some time after: If her son scores, she explains, her daughter will help her stand up and lean over the barrier so she can accept the football from Hopkins. This ritual serves as a reminder that, while she can’t see her son, he still sees her — and he wants the world to see her too.

Jackie MacMullan is the Great Chronicler of Basketball’s Golden Age (Louisa Thomas, The New Yorker)

This isn’t exactly a feature, but to label it simply a Q&A is to sell it short. It’s just a lovely, lovely interview with Jackie MacMullan, one of the all-time greats in sports journalism. Personally, I can’t imagine being a female sportswriter right now without someone like Jackie Mac to look up to, without someone like Jackie Mac paving the way. She opens up about her crazy career path and her issues with access journalism (preach!) in this day and age in the NBA. She also discussed the problems with writers being fans (again, preach!) openly. I loved all of it, and it’s worth sitting down to read. It’s not quite a feature, but you’ll feel you have a good read on the GOAT by the end. (Also, she references her relationship with Celtics great Red Auerbach … who is the person I named my dog after! Bonus points for that.)

2019 Sportsperson of the Year: Megan Rapinoe (Jenny Vrentas, Sports Illustrated)

One of the best stories I read this year came in just under the wire, in SI’s Sportsperson of the Year issue in mid-December. Jenny Vrentas wrote a masterful piece on an athlete I thought I knew quite a bit about. But it became clear as I began reading this that there were layers to Megan Rapinoe I was totally unaware of, layers that made her even more intriguing both as an athlete and person. There’s a care and precision to the reporting and writing of this piece that comes through in each and every word. You can tell it’s important to Jenny that just the fourth unaccompanied woman to be named Sportsperson of the Year have her story told honestly and fairly. And she does just that.
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Seedy

Steven Ferdman/ Getty, Drew Angerer / Getty, iStock, photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Elizabeth Logan Harris | Longreads | December 2019 | 16 minutes (4,123 words)

Weeks before my 14th birthday, 1976: my parents, my two younger sisters and I were piled in our station wagon, rumbling home to Virginia from a ski trip to New Hampshire, when my father veered toward an exit for the George Washington Bridge. “How ‘bout a weekend in New York?”

“New York City?!” we sisters chimed from the backseat.

It went without saying that my mother, who leapt at any chance for adventure, was in favor. She did, however, prefer to plan ahead. “If only we’d been prepared.”

Gunning for the exit, Dad took his foot off the pedal. “Do you want to go or not?”

“Yes! Yes!” we screamed.

Mom’s face broke open, a wide grin. “I suppose so.”

I was eager to return to the big city where I’d been only once before, but the swell I felt was owing to more than a destination. It was the sudden uptick in Dad’s mood that made the car feel like a buoy as we crested the bridge that day.

***

After the bellhop showed us to adjoining rooms, Mom explained what seedy meant. “Rundown. Worn out. Gone to pieces. Look at this bedspread!”

“So seedy means old?” asked 8-year-old Lyall.

“Not exactly.”

“Old and dirty?” wondered Frankie, 11.

“Well it’s certainly not young and clean,” Mom said.

“Seedy means it’s not up to your mother’s standards,” called Dad from the bathroom. He argued that the old hotel still had a lot of character, which was what he said in defense of his favorite houndstooth jacket with the elbow patches, lately re-lined in a psychedelic paisley by a daring, if undiscerning, hometown tailor. He was taking that very jacket out of his suitcase as my mother looked askance.

Unpacking herself, Mom grumbled again about her lack of city clothes. But she wasn’t going to let that stop her from planning the day ahead. “Let’s give Ruthie a call,” she said.

Ruthie had been our babysitter while a student at a college near us back home. After graduating some five years earlier in childhood education, she’d surprised everyone by becoming a success on Wall Street. I knew my father considered Ruthie “damn good-looking” and my mother thought she was “smart.” I noticed how they both came to attention when she entered the diner next morning.

Over breakfast, Mom and Ruthie decided we would head uptown for the Roosevelt Island tram, followed by Bloomingdales and Central Park. I was the last one in the ladies room before we set out. I dawdled before the mirror, wondering at Ruthie’s mysterious, womanly composure. People often called my dark-haired, petite mother a “beauty,” but she didn’t have Ruthie’s statuesque sophistication, her effortless poise.

From where I stood, or swam rather, treading water in the savage stream of female biology, Ruthie floated serenely. I marveled at the ease with which her body lived inside its clothes: no unsightly tugs, no asymmetrical puckers, no bulges. Her plaid skirt, crisp white blouse, cardigan and patent leather loafers contained her leaning and bending and shifting so discreetly, so damn correctly and unobtrusively they might as well have been a second skin. My bell-bottom corduroys hung too far down my hips and bunched around my crotch so that I had to keep yanking at them as I walked. The sleeves of my blazer were too short, shooting up my forearms whenever I reached out. My yellow turtleneck, spotted with hot chocolate, pulled across my chest in stretchy creases. Underneath my clothes, the situation was graver yet. I was already four inches taller and three dress sizes larger than my mother. In a single year, I’d outgrown all but one boy in my ballroom dance class. My long thin legs (my father’s) were my body’s only concession to shapely proportion, but even they looked spindly, awkwardly delicate, in contrast to the veritable explosion happening at chest level. Wearing a bra since the fifth grade, I’d recently swelled into a C cup (and counting).

Outside, Dad paced the sidewalk. “I thought you had fallen in!” He wasn’t really mad, but he didn’t hide his impatience. “Come on,” he said, waving, “they’re blocks ahead!” I kept a close eye on his back, weaving through the sidewalk crowd. I longed for him to slow down and walk with me. I longed to talk with him, to exchange a few easy words, but we pressed toward the rest of the group in our usual silence.

A tall, agile man with large green eyes and a widow’s peak on the slope of his balding white forehead, Dad was a trial attorney by profession and a performer by instinct. He often got a rise out of folks with a quick joke or, if they had a minute, he’d pull a length of rope from his pocket or fan out a deck of cards, wowing them with a trick cribbed from the amateur magic routines he’d been practicing since his teens. Whenever I ran errands with Dad — to the hardware store, the dry cleaners — we inevitably left behind a cluster of laughing people. This made the strained silence we descended into once we were alone again all the more painful and mystifying. A natural ham myself, I recognized Dad’s compulsion to find an audience wherever he went and entertain them. I never tired of hearing his courtroom stories. We shared a sense of humor and a fascination with the “characters” he represented in his practice.

But this connection felt fleeting at best. For all his comic timing, Dad was subject to unpredictable mood swings. When he shifted downward, when his temper flared, I was often the target: the eldest, the one who knew better. This had long been the case, but in recent years, my back-talk had grown bolder and we often ended up in a screaming match.
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‘They Were Growing Seedlings…Which Would Sprout To Become Supreme Court Justices’

Hope Reese | Longreads | December 2019 | 17 minutes (4,511 words)

 

When Donald Trump was running for President in 2016, he had a problem: many conservatives weren’t convinced that he would be conservative enough. He had changed party affiliations five times, only committing himself –– albeit, loosely –– as a Republican in 2012. He had even supported gay marriage.

“Evangelicals and social conservatives didn’t trust him,” Ruth Marcus, Washington Post editor and columnist told me.

Marcus, whose book Supreme Ambition: Brett Kavanaugh and the Conservative Takeover details the intricate process whereby Republicans cemented a conservative Supreme Court, points to Trump’s “innovation” –– a public list, unprecedented, of Supreme Court justices he would choose from –– as the key to Trump’s victory.

The point was to “tell social conservatives that notwithstanding their taste for a thrice-married, once-Democratic New Yorker, they could trust him to fill the Supreme Court with reliable conservatives,” Marcus says.

In Supreme Ambition, Marcus, who writes an op-ed column for the Post and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2007 for Commentary, offers a thorough look at how Kavanaugh made it onto the list –– he wasn’t originally there –– through a strong support network, and the messy hearings that ensued after Christine Blasey Ford came forward with allegations of sexual assault. Marcus is particularly critical of Congress’s handling of the situation –– the refusal to pursue leads, the botched FBI investigation, and the political concerns that infected the nomination process. Read more…

Queens of Infamy: Mariamne I

Illustration by Louise Pomeroy

Anne Thériault | Longreads | December 2019 | 21 minutes (5,424 words)

From the notorious to the half-forgotten, Queens of Infamy, a Longreads series by Anne Thériault, focuses on world-historical women of centuries past.

* * *

Looking for a Queens of Infamy t-shirt or tote bag? Choose yours here.

The year was 54 BC, but not really, because Christ hadn’t been born yet. In Rome, it was 700 ab urbe condita, or 700 years since the founding of the city; at the northern edge of the empire, Julius Caesar was veni, vidi, vici-ing his way into Britain for a second time. In Egypt, it was the 251st year of the Ptolemaic dynasty, and a 15-year-old Cleopatra was scheming. In Judea, which had recently lost its full sovereignty and become a client state of Rome, the year was… who even knows? The Judeans of the time would count it as year 258 in the Era of Contracts, though for Jewish people living after the 12th century, it’s anno mundi 3707. Either way, it was there that a new princess was born into a royal family torn apart by usurpers, civil war, and aggressive foreign meddling. In spite of all the chaos in the Hasmonean household, no one could have imagined that tiny Miriam would one day be that dynasty’s last hope.

Like so many women from ancient history, we have very few concrete facts about Miriam, who would gain wider infamy under the Hellenized version of her name, Mariamne. What little information we do have was recorded by men. Even her birth year is pure speculation, based on the typical ages for engagement and marriage in her culture during the 1st century BCE. What we do know for certain is that things were not going well for the Hasmoneans when Mariamne entered the scene.

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Longreads Best of 2019: Crime Reporting

We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in crime reporting.

Pamela Colloff
ProPublica senior reporter and New York Times Magazine staff writer.

Show of Force (Rachel Aviv, The New Yorker)

Every Rachel Aviv story is a marvel, and “Show of Force” — which looks at the intersection of domestic violence and law enforcement — is no exception. In language that is both spare and foreboding, Aviv builds detail upon detail as she sketches the contours of a troubled new marriage in Spalding County, Georgia. She notes that Jessica and Matthew Boynton, the protagonists of her story, left their wedding reception “after less than an hour” and that “Matthew wore a titanium wedding ring with a blue stripe, to signify that he was in law enforcement.” As these small but revelatory details accumulate, so, too, does a growing sense of dread. Aviv illuminates the real human cost behind the chilling statistics that suggest law enforcement officers are more likely to abuse their spouses, making it clear that Jessica, despite being in grave harm, has nowhere to turn. By the time I reached the story’s denouement, my heart was in my throat.


Susan Chira
Editor-in-chief of The Marshall Project. Chira worked for The New York Times for nearly 40 years as a reporter and editor, and shared the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for coverage of sexual harassment.

The King of Dreams (Christie Thompson, The Marshall Project)

This grippingly-written and deeply-reported story exposed the scams of a Texas con artist who made millions promising prisoners’ families their most cherished dream: bringing their children home. Thompson, a staff reporter for The Marshall Project, describes how this conman falsely promised them he could obtain reduced sentences and led them on to exhaust their life savings, in many cases. It’s a window into the desperation and vulnerability of the millions of Americans who love someone who is incarcerated.

Taken: How police departments make millions by seizing property (Anna Lee, Nathaniel Cary, and Mike Ellis, The Greenville News)

One of the great truisms about criminal justice is that it’s local. At a time when local journalism is increasingly endangered — along with the prospect of accountability for local wrongs — here’s an example of a compellingly reported and written investigation by the intrepid staff of this Greenville, S.C., newspaper. They examined statewide civil asset forfeitures over three years and found that not only did the state seize more than $17 million in property, but also that black men were disproportionately the targets.


Aura Bogado
Investigative immigration reporter at Reveal, from The Center for Investigative Reporting

Bound by Statute (Ko Bragg and Melissa Lewis, Reveal)

When reporter Ko Bragg spotted a story about a 13-year-old who was being tried as an adult in Mississippi, she wondered if there were others like him. Her investigation, meticulously examined with data reporter Melissa Lewis, uncovered that nearly 5,000 children were charged as adults in the state in the last 25 years. They found that racial discrepancies abound: three in every four of the children are black; sentences for black minors tried as adults average twice as long as sentences for white minors charged as adults; and even when white kids are handed longer sentences, they’re released much sooner than black kids.

Bragg’s elegant writing follows the devastating story of a child named Isaiah who spent nine months in pretrial detention — sometimes in solitary confinement, other times with adults — before being dragged into court shackled at the waist and ankles. Photographer Imani Khayyam captures intimate moments between a son and mother who illustrate the toll that the state’s laws have taken on their family. But perhaps most compelling is the way the work seemlessly reaches into history to find the origins of this inequity in chattle slavery. The writing explains how the practice of robbing black children of their childhood was upheld through Reconstruction, then made a feature of white mob violence, and finally codified into law — the same law that prosecutors and judges say bind them to perpetuate the inequity today.


Josie Duffy Rice
President of The Appeal, a news publication that publishes original journalism about the criminal justice system. Co-host of the podcast Justice in America.

False Witness (Pamela Colloff, ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine)

Pam Colloff’s story on jailhouse informants is one of the best stories I’ve read this year. It’s a topic that sounds like it could get technical — Pam’s reporting drew on thousands of pages of public records, covering half a century of criminal cases in Texas and Florida — but in true Pam fashion, this piece is completely and totally fascinating. It’s also enraging. The main character is a real piece of work, manipulative and charming and unrepentant. The ways in which he’s charmed women, cops, and juries, destroying peoples lives in the process, must be read to be believed. Incredible reporting, remarkable storytelling. I remain in awe.

Sign up to get email updates from Pamela Colloff about her investigation into jailhouse informants and how she reported the story.


Sarah Weinman
Author of The Real Lolita and editor of crime anthologies, including the forthcoming Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsessions

The Minnesota Murderess (Christine Seifert, The Atavist)

Seifert’s historical yarn starts out as a true crime tale but looks more broadly at the ways in which media has always incited panic about women exercising any form of independence in their lives.

He Cyberstalked Teen Girls For Years — Then They Fought Back (Stephanie Clifford, WIRED)

Stephanie Clifford’s story of repeated and sustained harassment of high school girls in a small New Hampshire town is infuriating and enraging and impossible to stop reading.

Catherine Cusick
Longreads Head of Audience and host of The Longreads Podcast

How judicial conflicts of interest are denying poor Texans their right to an effective lawyer / How the Unchecked Power of Judges Is Hurting Poor Texans (Neena Satija, Texas Tribune and Texas Monthly)

In 1963, the United States Supreme Court ruled that states are required, under the Sixth Amendment, to provide an attorney to defendants in criminal cases who are unable to afford their own counsel. How states should pay for this defense, crucially, is left up to the states. For Texas Monthly and the Texas Tribune, Neena Satija exposes the undeniable structural flaws that prohibit funding indigent defense properly in Texas. Satija has done readers an incredible service by recreating the bewilderment of encountering these judicial paywalls from both sides of the bench, bringing much needed humanity to straightening out so many convoluted conflicts of interest.

* * *

Read all the categories in our Best of 2019 year-end collection.

Guns and Marriage

Photo by Dwight Eschliman / Getty, Illustration by Homestead Studio

Simone Gorrindo | Longreads | December, 2019 | 16 minutes (4,400 words)

The little boy and I looked out through the sliding glass door at the men in the yard. We both watched as his father, Jack*, picked up a rifle from the patio table, the other men gathering around him. My husband was among them. Jack aimed at an old Kevlar vest sitting in the weeds, and I instinctively took a step backward, but the toddler drew closer, pressing his hands to the glass.

Neither of us startled as the shot rang out through the rural subdivision. In the year and a half that Jack’s son had been alive and my husband had been in the Army, we’d both grown accustomed to the sound of gunfire.

I heard these gunshots on base, as common as the sound of birds, and saw men ruck-marching down the main roads before daybreak, M4s clutched to their chests. But here in the South, I’d become most intimately acquainted with guns in west Alabama backyards like Jack’s, where soldiers shot inanimate objects for weekend entertainment while chicken thighs sizzled on the grill.

Jack put down the gun. Through the glass, I could hear his voice shake as he pretended to make a call over an imaginary radio, fuck and shit splicing the rehearsed lines. The huddle of men around him broke into laughter. I started to laugh, too, but then I realized: He was doing an impression of my husband losing composure during a mission. I was only vaguely aware of what these missions looked like, but I knew that tremor in Andrew’s voice, and Jack was mimicking it perfectly.


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The moment Jack was recalling was a dangerous one, of course, the instant in a mission when things go south (nothing ever really goes as planned, my husband had said to me once). Here was a catch-22 I was learning to live with: I wanted to know my husband, I needed to know him, but I survived emotionally by knowing as little as possible about a huge part of his life. There were days I wished he could tell me more, and others I had to put my hand up like a warning and say: I can’t. I was blocking the image of what could happen to him. Just as much, though, I was looking away from what he might be doing to someone else.

Jack handed the rifle to Russel*, who kicked the Kevlar vest aside, brought the gun to eye level, and fired a shot into the young pine trees lining the fenceless backyard. Between the trees, I could see the world that lay beyond: other identical, fenceless backyards, kids waging water gun wars in the hot afternoon.

Jack’s wife looked over at me from the kitchen, the light from the windows illuminating her bare face. “They’re just shooting at the ground,” she said. The worry must have shown in my eyes.

“They were,” I said. Russel fired another shot into the trees.

She groaned as she walked over to me. Hailey* had grown up in a 3,000-person town in Idaho and had been terrified to drive the interstate when she first got here. But she didn’t bat an eye at guns going off in her backyard.

She slid open the door. “What the hell?” she yelled in a no-bullshit tone I could never muster with the guys.

The men all turned around with the same slightly amused, slightly bewildered expressions on their faces. Jack muttered something under his breath before taking the rifle from Russel.

When Andrew and I left to go back to our house in Georgia on the other side of the Chattahoochee, I asked him if it was safe for Russel to be shooting into those trees.

“That was stupid,” he said as he pulled out of the driveway.

“But he hit the trees, right? I mean, he’s a good shot,” I said.

We paused at a stop sign. Andrew looked over at me. “He could easily miss, Simone. Anyone could. And at that range, a small tree like that might not stop the round. You know that, right?”

Here was a catch-22 I was learning to live with: I wanted to know my husband, I needed to know him, but I survived emotionally by knowing as little as possible about a huge part of his life.

I didn’t. I knew nothing about guns. I’d spent my childhood in California’s Bay Area and had worked as an editor in New York City before moving to Georgia. In my liberal, urban corners of the country, I’d never had the opportunity or need to even touch a gun; they had been something to oppose, to lament, the occasional shot heard from a safe distance at night. Where I’d grown up, owning a gun was about as sinful and strange as voting red. And I had come of age in the era of mass shootings, was just 13 when I watched the news about Columbine unfold on the television for weeks. Something in me had cemented then: a distaste not just for guns, but also for the people who owned them, championed them, fetishized them.

But I was a long way from home now. Guns were on the hips of men shopping for instant mashed potatoes; at every social gathering we were invited to, on top of refrigerators, in kitchen drawers, on shoe racks and in closets. I knew I should learn how to handle one. Andrew had offered to take me to the range before, but the prospect filled me with dread, a queasiness that I suspected had less to do with my upbringing and more to do with that warning hand I put up in the face of my husband’s stories. Shooting a gun, I sensed, would put me in closer touch with what my husband did for a living. It could satisfy a curiosity that might be safer to ignore.

***

Ladies’ Night, read a wrinkled flyer that hung by the front door of Shooters. A few of the salesman nodded at Andrew and I as we entered and walked quickly through the aisles of guns for sale to the shooting range in the back. The thin fabric of my dress clung to my thighs. As far as I could tell, I was the only lady here today.

 

The guy manning the gun rental counter was younger than the men up front, and he seemed to be the real beating heart of the place, the territorial guard dog standing between the range and the rest of the world. He looked as though he’d spent the best years of his adulthood behind that counter, growing out a thick beard, letting his plaid button-downs get snug around the waist. On a leather string around his neck, he wore a crucifix patterned with the American flag.

“You military?” he asked. They always knew.

Andrew nodded, sliding his California ID across the glass counter. Beneath it were rows of handguns, gleaming like wedding bands.

“The left coast, huh?” the man asked skeptically as he studied the ID. He looked up at us. “I’m from Minnesota originally,” he said in a conciliatory tone. “The communists live there too.”

Andrew gave him a weak smile. This talk had surprised us when’d first arrived — could the stereotypes really be so accurate? But we’d gotten used to hearing this kind of thing with some regularity: communists, Yankees, traitors. People had teasingly called us every one of these names, simply for being from somewhere else, a fact that was as impossible to hide as our race or sex.

Andrew chose the lowest caliber weapon they had on offer — a silver revolver —  and got us some “eyes and ears,” protective glasses and ear protection. We signed a few waivers and bought some overpriced ammo. It was almost time to start shooting; there was just one more thing.

“Pick a target,” the man said, nodding toward the area behind us.

We turned around. Neatly stacked in a wire rack were typical targets for a buck apiece. For two dollars, you could purchase a skeleton or goblin or bloody zombie bride. A bear-size man approached and grabbed a target that was above my line of sight. As he walked away, I caught a quick glimpse of it: A bearded cartoon in a Keffiyeh sneered at me, a Kalishnakov clutched in his hands.

“Is that — ?”

“Yep,” Andrew said with a finality that I knew could only mean: Let’s not talk about this here.

Andrew opened a heavy door that led to a vestibule, a kind of portal between the range and the rest of the building. The moment Andrew opened the next door, the air turned humid. The cement room smelled of sweat. Empty bullet casings rolled under my steps as I followed Andrew to the shooting stands, where a row of men stood, their backs wet with perspiration. Most of them looked, from the back, like suburban dads, their bodies and T-shirts softened by age. Their guns went off in startling waves. My shoulders jumped with each blast.

“These aren’t working!” I yelled at Andrew, pointing to my ear muffs.

“It’s the sensation,” Andrew yelled back. “You’ll get used to it.” It was a sensation more than a sound, an unsettling tremor moving through me.

“Shooting is athletic,” he yelled, setting down the gun in front of him. “How you hold your body matters.” He demonstrated: left foot forward, arms taut but slightly bent, the way a batter might ready himself at home plate, except forward-facing. I mimicked him, and he gave me a thumbs-up.

“All right, tell me three of the basic rules of gun safety,” he said. He had drilled these into me on the ride over.

“Treat every weapon as if it is loaded.” I began dutifully. “Never point the weapon at anything you don’t intend to destroy. That seems like an important one,” I said, stalling.

Andrew waited.

“And … keep your finger straight and off the trigger until you’re ready to fire.”

“Good. Now line your eye up with the sight, and make sure that red dot you see is just below where you’re aiming.” He paused. “Release the safety,” he said, doing it for me. “Take a breath, and then pull.”

“What if it goes spinning out of my hands?” I yelled.

Andrew laughed. I took a breath, and, just as I closed my eyes, I heard Andrew tell me to keep them open. I pulled the trigger.

Nothing. I opened my eyes and pulled again. And again.

“What am I doing wrong?” He took the revolver from me and shot off a few rounds.

“You’re afraid,” he said gently, handing it back to me. “Don’t be.”

I paused, regained my stance, and tried again. Nothing.

“Pull a little harder,” Andrew said.

I pulled again. My finger was starting to cramp.

“I can’t,” I said, and let the gun slip gently out of my hands onto the counter. The barrel pointed toward us.

Andrew scooped it up. “Never point a gun, loaded or unloaded, toward anyone.”

“Sorry.” I felt myself blush. Maybe the fact that I was unable to shoot meant we could abandon our mission, go home, and do something I was good at, like reading books.

‘Sorry.’ I felt myself blush. Maybe the fact that I was unable to shoot meant we could abandon our mission, go home, and do something I was good at, like reading books.

Andrew left then and returned with a Glock .45. It was heavier and somehow more serious looking; by comparison, the silver revolver seemed like a prop out of an old Western. He showed me how to load the first couple bullets.

Just pull the trigger, I told myself. I squinted, located the floating white dot and then, after a moment’s hesitation, went for it.

The force of the shot went through me instantly, the gun kicking back against my hands, through my arms, into my shoulders, and then out of my body.

Some people describe their first time shooting as exhilarating, a rush, the top of a roller coaster before you plummet. I understood the appeal of a rush, the kind of moment that requires surrender. But this was different. This was asking me to trust — not the gun or the men running the range or Andrew, but myself.

“Keep shooting,” Andrew said.

I adjusted my feet, tightened my arms, and pulled the trigger again. The same bone-rattling power surged through me.

“Wouldn’t you rather at least have some familiarity with guns?” Andrew had asked when I’d turned down the range in the past. But why? I wasn’t interested in hunting. I’d spent my life strategizing how to avoid violence, not engage in it. If I needed to defend myself, the only weapons I could imagine wielding were mace or a good old house key wedged between my fingers. Guns had never felt like a realistic or viable option, perhaps because they had never been real to me. They had always been, for me, more idea than object, a symbol of an irrationality in the human heart. The notion of them as tools of utility or purpose — or fun — was outside of my understanding. But moving to the South and joining the world of the Army had forced me to acknowledge that guns were not only real; they were common, as unremarkable on a man’s hip as the cell phone in his hand.

I unleashed a few more shots, put down the .45, and looked at the target: I hadn’t gotten a single bullet on even its far borders. And somehow, I was exhausted.

“I’m going to take a breather,” I yelled over the noise.

From the safety of the vestibule, I watched Andrew. He shot round after round, a swarm of little holes appearing around his target. After a rocky childhood and a string of tempestuous relationships, I felt like I’d found home when Andrew came into my life. We had fallen in love, in part, because we each felt seen by the other. He gave me a sense of belonging, of wholeness, of all my fractured selves coming together. He made sense, so I made sense. But the longer he was in the Army, the less sense he made to me, and the more I began to wonder how well I had seen him after all. I knew my husband better than anyone, and yet, this part of him — the part that shot guns for fun and went eagerly into combat — felt like a story someone else had told me, a narrative I was straining to understand. Those parts of him were the back hallways of his life I was not allowed to visit, and the shadows that obscured them made me feel uneasy, unsure of who he was, who we were — who, even, I was.

Those parts of him were the back hallways of his life I was not allowed to visit, and the shadows that obscured them made me feel uneasy, unsure of who he was, who we were — who, even, I was.

I had not wanted him to join the Army. Years before, when he’d first mentioned the possibility at the beginning of our relationship, I’d even told him I’d leave him if he did. Why on earth did he want to seek out violence? He remained silent about it for two years after that, but then recruitment pamphlets started appearing in our home, and I found notepads on his nightstand filled with workout regimes. He wasn’t going to give up on this desire, which was so strong and enduring some might say it was a calling. If I wanted Andrew, I would have to say yes to the Army.

Nine days after we married in a New York City courthouse, he shipped off to boot camp. His sudden departure, his decision to do things I did not want to think about, felt almost like a betrayal. My husband was the kind of man who brought me flowers, who asked forgiveness when he made a mistake, who’d walked a mile in the sticky summer heat of Brooklyn with a bookcase on his back, carried it up two flights of stairs, and lined it with my treasured books to surprise me. His very presence anchored me. He was thoughtful and gentle. He was tender and loving. He was also a killer.

***

A month after our day at the range, Andrew brought a gun into our home.

“That was scary easy,” Andrew said as he walked into our bedroom, where I was sitting on our bed, reading a book. He took a black handgun out of a crumpled brown bag and set it down on our faded paisley comforter. I’d known this was coming. Initially I’d pushed back, but ultimately, I’d acquiesced. Guns were a part of Andrew’s daily life and world, after all. Even so, the unloaded 40-cal felt like a threat to my cozy home, my marriage. I didn’t want anything to do with it.

Because Andrew had purchased the gun from a friend, he wasn’t legally required to register it in his name. It was free-floating in the Georgia atmosphere now. Andrew believes in gun control. He supports background checks and thinks owning a gun should be a tested, licensed activity, like driving a car. He also likes guns. His father got him his first BB gun at age 8, and his first .22 rifle at 12. On family road trips, Andrew’s father took him out to shoot it in the Nevada desert. Andrew had told me those stories in the early years of our relationship, when he was a classics student tending bar to support himself. But I’d ignored them, or blocked them out. Instead, I’d absorbed the chapters of his childhood spent on a commune, the afternoons running shoeless in the woods. I envisioned these parts like a film reel, a story about Andrew that matched the man I fell in love with.

But his father saw in Andrew what he’d always wished for himself: physical strength, a native athleticism, an electric current of intensity. Andrew remembers being 8 years old, riding in the passenger seat of his father’s Toyota, rotating Chinese meditation balls in his palm that his martial arts teacher had given him. At a stoplight, his father put a hand over Andrew’s to stop the movement. “Be careful with those,” he told him. “You’ll become too peaceful.” Though everyone in our liberal families was taken aback when Andrew joined the Army, I imagine his father, who died when Andrew was 18, would have been pleased.

His very presence anchored me. He was thoughtful and gentle. He was tender and loving. He was also a killer.

Andrew handed me the gun. It felt cool in my hands. I stared at it, trying to quiet the dissonance I felt. It was the same sensation I experienced when I picked him up from deployment in a parking lot late at night and I could sense immediately, even in the dark, that he was different, that I was different. I felt it, too, during the fights we’d started having since coming to Georgia, clashes over politics and world views that made me question when we’d stopped seeing eye to eye, or if we ever had at all.

“I think I’ll stay away from it,” I said, and handed the gun back to him, though I wanted to say more: Why would you bring this into our home? This is a part of your world, not mine.

But our lives and livelihoods were intertwined. Violence put food on our table. As his wife, I owned the gun as much as he did. In the past, I had pushed to understand: Tell me what you like about guns. Tell me why you think we need one. And long before that: Tell me why you need to join the Army. Now, holding this gun, I was asking nagging questions of myself: Tell me why you’re letting a gun into your home. Tell me why you allow violence to put food on your table.

I didn’t have an answer. I only knew that sometimes I’d pushed Andrew so hard I’d pushed him away. When he first joined the Army and told me the kind of work he’d be doing in a rapidly deployable combat unit, I asked, in a tone like a slap, “Why would you want to do that?”

He’d considered my face for a moment.

“You look ashamed,” he’d said sadly.

***

Here was the greatest surprise: Sometimes the gun set me at ease. A few weeks after Andrew purchased it, someone pounded on the door at 2 a.m., and I felt a swell of warmth as Andrew roused and moved toward the nightstand.

When Andrew discovered the intruder was a friend walking home drunk from a bar, I was embarrassed. I’d felt real affection for the gun, for my husband as he reached for it without hesitation. I knew he was thinking far more of me than of himself; or, more likely, he was not thinking at all. I saw, in that moment, how love and violence are inextricable for him, linked not by philosophy or ideology, but by instinct. Maybe it is like that for all of us. We fiercely defend, of course, what we love.

But “defend” is such a sanitized word, the kind civilians use in patriotic talk about the military, the sort of language I use when I don’t want to think about what Andrew really does. Inside the Army, they talk freely — enthusiastically — about killing. The Army trains its soldiers to kill, and they’ve gotten very good at it. According to months of interviews U.S. Army historian Major S.L.A. Marshall conducted with servicemen during World War II, fewer than 25 percent of soldiers aimed and fired their weapons with the intent to kill. Marshall’s methods have been scrutinized since he published his findings in 1947, but his studies impacted the military’s approach to training. After World War II, the military focused on conditioning its soldiers to kill, training them to overcome their hesitations through muscle memory-building “kill drills” that simulated combat as closely as possible. In “Men and Fire in Vietnam,” Maj. Russel W. Glenn estimated that, just a few decades later, around 90 percent of troops in combat were shooting to kill. Now, after 18 years of nonstop war, we have the most seasoned, all-volunteer wartime Army the U.S. has ever seen. These soldiers are professionals, and killing the enemy in combat is a duty. But, as in any career, it’s also a purpose and a skill that is celebrated.

Several months after Andrew brought home the gun, we drove to our friend Robert’s* for a weekend barbecue in Harris County, a rural area north of Columbus. He owned a small prefab house that was dwarfed by the acres of surrounding land. The men liked to congregate there; it was a vast, legal, unsupervised place for shooting.

Robert brought a long plastic case out of his closet a few minutes after we arrived. The guys swarmed as he lay it on the kitchen table, while the women barely glanced up from where they sat on the floor, playing with their babies. In the case sat a semiautomatic tactical rifle, a civilian version of the kind the men used at work and overseas. Its presence set me on edge in a different way than handguns and hunting rifles did, but once it was in Robert’s hands, something quieted in me. He handled it with a kind of familiar care, as though it were a beloved instrument he routinely played.

I listened as the guys talked shop about guns, trading in narrative as they always did: stories about wild boar hunting in the Texas prairie land, stalking deer in the north Idaho mountains, camping out in the vast public lands of the Arizona desert, their rifles piled in their truck beds. For most of them, these were the only places they’d known outside of the cities and countries where the Army had sent them. For some, these were still the only spots in the world that felt right to them, their time with the Army just a way station on their journeys back home. Guns were a part of these men’s greater story, the one they’d been given and created for themselves. It was so hard for me to grasp, but I knew some of them would feel, stripped of their guns, without a home in the world.

Our formative years were shaped by such drastically different rites of passage, it was a wonder that we could converse at all. But we did. I even loved some of these men. They stood in the line of fire for my husband without a second thought, and more poignantly, they stretched to understand me: the woman who was raised without God or guns; who’d reduced these men when she met them to “white males from conservative rural areas”; who drank a little too much at these barbecues and unwittingly became enraptured as she listened to them talk about their lives and witnessed their love for one another. They stretched to know me because I stretched to know them. “What are you writing right now?” one of them asked me with timid intimacy at a military ball. I struggled to explain.

They stretched to know me because I stretched to know them. ‘What are you writing right now?’ one of them asked me with timid intimacy at a military ball. I struggled to explain.

Watching the guys in Rob’s dining room, I thought about those afternoons Andrew had spent in the hot desert with his father, those lifetimes he’d lived before I loved him. There was something sacred in those memories that I couldn’t touch. It had taken me some time to realize, but I could not always reach Andrew. And maybe that was okay. In those times, the work of loving may be failing to understand him but choosing to love him regardless, to go to the bookstore with him and share in something we both understand and enjoy. It was allowing both of us a kind of grace; sometimes, I only gave it to us grudgingly. He was better at setting aside, at bringing me close again. He had long ago taught me that other essential ingredient to loving that I still had to work so hard at: letting go.

At dusk, we drove home through the bleak back roads of Columbus, passing aging billboards that advertised fireworks and condemned abortion. The sun was setting. When we’d first arrived, I’d hated almost everything about the city — the heat, the conservative politics, the slow-moving post office lines — but I loved that big sky, the way the sunset softened the whole city. Andrew was leaving the next day for a three-week training. These goodbyes had become routine at this point, less painful, but I still felt like something was being ripped from me when he left. The ground I walked on was less solid, the scenery in my world less vibrant. I put my hand on the console between us. He reached for it and squeezed.

*Names has been changed to protect privacy.

* * *

Simone Gorrindo is a writer and book editor living in Tacoma, Washington with her husband and two children. She is writing a memoir about the secret lives of women on the home front of America’s longest war.

* * *

Editor: Krista Stevens
Fact checker: Steven Cohen
Copy editor: Jacob Gross

The Traffic Jam on Mount Everest that Cost 11 Lives

Indian Everest climber Ameesha Chauhan speaks during an interview with AFP at a hospital in Kathmandu on May 27, 2019. - Ameesha Chauhan, a survivor of the Everest "traffic jam" who is in hospital recovering from frostbite, said climbers without basic skills should be barred to prevent a recurrence of this year's deadly season on the world's highest peak. (Photo by Gopen RAI / AFP) (Photo credit should read GOPEN RAI/AFP via Getty Images)

Despite bitterly cold and harsh conditions, the prestige associated with summiting the tallest mountain in the world continues to make Mount Everest a dangerous lure for many, regardless of their climbing skill and experience. As Joshua Hammer reports at GQ, Nepal and China handed out nearly 500 pricey climbing permits during the 2019 season. Partly due to a massive logjam of over 100 summit hopefuls crowding the ascent during a rare break in the weather on May 22nd and 23rd, over 11 people died on the mountain.

Grubhofer looked down toward Nepal and could see gray clouds sweeping across the southern face of the mountain. There was something else down there too: a line of a hundred or so climbers in brightly colored suits snaking up the side of the mountain. The crowd seemed incredible—like a bag of Skittles had been scattered down the slope. On the north side, Grubhofer knew, more climbers were tracing his trail up the mountain from Tibet too.

And then there are the growing crowds. For this year’s climbing season, Nepal handed out 381 permits to scale Everest, the most ever. The Chinese government distributed more than 100 permits for the northern side. According to the Himalayan Database, the number of people summiting Everest has just about doubled in the past decade. And in that time the mountain has become accessible even to relative novices, thanks to a proliferation of cut-rate agencies that require little proof of technical skill, experience, or physical fitness. “Some of these companies don’t ask any questions,” says Rolfe Oostra, an Australian mountaineer and a founder of France-based 360 Expeditions, which sent four clients to the summit this year. “They are willing to take anybody on, and that compounds the problems for everyone.”

In Katmandu in August, long after the last mountaineers had returned home, I found the local climbing community consumed by a debate about what had gone wrong. At least four climbers died in the 24 hours that followed Grubhofer’s moment at the top—casualties of interminable lines and tragic miscalculations, victims of one of the deadliest seasons the mountain has ever seen. In all, 11 would die on Everest in May. By the time I visited, the Nepalese government had proposed a new set of rules requiring, among other things, that prospective climbers provide proof of high-altitude experience. But skeptics doubted that the government would seriously enforce such reforms and risk reducing its millions of dollars in permit-generated revenues. “At the end of the day, the changes that Nepal talks about never happen,” Rolfe Oostra tells me. “At the end of the day, money talks.”

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Bully for You

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Soraya Roberts | Longreads | December 2019 |  14 minutes (3,476 words)

A few years ago I wrote an essay about my best friend having a baby and my inability to handle it. I wrote about the almost familial closeness of our friendship, about my difficulty parsing what we actually were (friends? more than friends?), and ultimately about the impossibility of accepting someone else getting in the way. I’m not going to relitigate the piece, that’s not what this is about, but I continue to stand by any writer who is sorting themself out in their work and who is self-aware enough to acknowledge their part in their mess. No one else did; I got about 600 comments, pretty much all of them negative: “Want to feel creeped out? Read this. So many issues in one person.” What I remember most, though, were the writers, more famous than me — one of them very famous — dismissing me — not my work, me. What the fuck was I even talking about? Who does that? Fuck no, they don’t want to read that. (Like I was some ancient untouchable, like I was contagious.) Almost all of them were women; all of them known for writing, among other things, about the intricacies of their lives; all of them claiming to make daily work out of forging a space for marginalized voices. But this, a woman wrestling with her feelings about another woman, seemed to be where they drew the line. I wasn’t a murderer, I wasn’t a psychopath, I wasn’t a white nationalist, I wasn’t a criminal, I wasn’t even a cheater, for God’s sake, and yet one of them was offended enough to actually block me on Twitter: “Wow, this is such selfish bullshit.”

Women may be encouraged to bleed out onto the page — there’s a reason the personal essay boom was predominantly populated by them — but it also opens them up to deeper cuts. Not only are they dissected in a way men are not, but the response to this writing, by people of all genders, skews more emotional as well. The motif is so well established by now that it’s almost a rule; at the very least it should be anticipated. And yet, the recent unprecedented pile-on of women writers hectoring a former university student who dared to critique a popular young adult novelist had one of these women telling me, “It never crossed my mind that people would look her up or harass her. That is … bizarre and wildly inappropriate.” 

In 2015, I didn’t expect most people to engage with the mechanics and anatomy of my writing, but I did expect the writers to. I was surprised when they didn’t. I was surprised that it all came down to a headline: This woman abandoned another woman. That I had spent months dissecting 14 years of emotions — that I had distilled them into 2,323 words — was beside the point. The point was that those writers were Good People, and Good People don’t abandon friends, much less friends who are mothers. I was not a Good Person, so there was nothing to consider beyond that. This is where being a writer, any artist really, can be at odds with being a human. Ideally, you meet the artist, the work, the ideas with no judgment. In reality, you meet them with yourself and all the limits of you. In this instance, that also entailed the particulars of being a female writer, which are very different from those of a male writer. Women not only have to withstand all the obstacles faced by every artist in a world that does not value art, but, within that, in a world that also devalues them as women, and therefore their — our — stories. They can’t just write, they have to fight to do it. And as subjugated populations have throughout history, they group together for strength, in order not only to defend themselves, but also other women who can’t — other women they choose, with whom they have a moral affinity, who are deemed worthy of representing their gender. 

This is the powerful woman’s fundamental hypocrisy. Not every powerful woman, but a healthy number. As aggressively as she clears a space for women she approves of is as aggressively as she rejects women she doesn’t. This isn’t so much about who she dislikes, though there’s that. It’s more about women she believes are espousing views that conflict with The Cause of Women™, which is what she and her circle are determined to protect. It’s understandable, yes, but it’s not excusable. A slew of apologies followed the YA mess, with all of the writers making the right sounds, but that was unsurprising. They think, they analyze, they write a good game, the best game, but their actions don’t track with their words. They say they are defending young women’s interests as they attack a young woman. They say they want women to be unlikable, but spurn them for that very same thing. “I am not a politician or a priest or a rabbi,” Roxane Gay, one of the YA supporters, wrote to me. “I’m allowed to make mistakes.” Sure, everyone makes mistakes, but who gets punished? Read more…

The Living Nightmare of Homeownership

House obscured by fog
Toomas Tuul/FOCUS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Katy Kelleher, whose work readers will recognize from her popular Longreads series on the ugly history of beautiful things, has a new piece in Curbed on the ugly history of homeownership — and why the manmade dream of owning a home haunts so many prospective homebuyers.

A 30-year time horizon seems almost impossible to imagine anywhere now, but I did once live out the anachronism of coming home to the same house for more than a quarter of a century. The specter of security that I associate with my since-demolished childhood home follows me from apartment to apartment, dangling the emotional logic of future homeownership over most of the choices I make. I ask myself daily, almost unconsciously, what it might take to reconstruct that feeling, whether any home can fill the role that house played in comforting me as a child. A decade after the housing crisis, the idea of accessing emotional stability through homeownership still sounds like so much marketing copy.

Despite years of setbacks and disappointments, my husband and I haven’t wholly abandoned our mission to escape the rental market, but we’re still millennials. We’re both self-employed in precarious industries that do not look good on paper. The size of the downpayment we’d need continues to rise while ballooning rents and healthcare costs erode our ability to save. And like so many of our peers, our vision of homeownership has permanently shifted to accommodate the warnings from the scientific community. Over time, regional housing markets are destined to undergo painful, unpredictable adjustments to climate-driven migration. That beachfront property actually isn’t going to appreciate, no matter what Miami real estate agents may say.

Emotionally, I still imagine living out the length of another mortgage with my family. But I can also read the writing on the proverbial seawall. My generation’s housing choices are necessarily limited; we all need to take far more into account than just our own private emotions, means, and finances. We can hardly afford to let the built environment stand, as it is. Most homes weren’t constructed to weather ahistorical climate conditions. The majority of our buildings were not constructed to support nature; to protect the health, safety, or welfare of people; to generate energy; or to sustain life. Until the construction of ecological housing is put within reach of everyone, previous generations’ outsized monuments to privacy will continue to threaten global health, haunting would-be buyers who can’t even afford to set foot inside them.

If the filmic nightmare of homeownership has looked, so far, like the claustrophobic fear of being trapped, the living nightmare of homeownership is shapeshifting to confirm the childhood terror of being forever locked out.

There are two different tales we tell ourselves about houses. The primary story is not about ghosts or demons or red rooms or ghouls, but rather about bright futures, long lives, children, grandchildren, and hard-earned success. The second story, the darker story, is about the horror of being trapped. Throughout American history, these stories have existed side by side. For people with the resources to buy in, one once felt more “real” than the other, but as we learned after the real estate crash of 2008, there’s truth to be found in both of them, especially for members of the cash-poor, dream-rich millennial generation.

…most of our desires are culturally rooted, shaped by a set of factors beyond our control. They don’t spring into being organically. I own a house in the woods for reasons other than my husband’s dreams or my own vision of myself as a future radical homemaker. I own out here because I can’t own in Portland, because the market is rising too quickly in the city, because I couldn’t buy in Boston, because I watched the real estate crash decimate my mother’s savings, because I feel the same anxieties as my peers. I’m afraid that a more expensive house in a more convenient area would put me into debt should the market experience another massive failure. I’m afraid that I could become trapped in one place, unable to sell, unable to move, haunting my own home and dreaming of mobility.

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The Homeownership Obsession

Longreads Pick

Writer Katy Kelleher, whose work explores the ugly history of beautiful things, turns her attention to the ugly history of homeownership — and why the manmade dream of owning a home haunts so many prospective homebuyers.

Source: Curbed
Published: Nov 13, 2019
Length: 17 minutes (4,490 words)