Tag Archives: death

Ushering My Father to a (Mostly) Good Death

Photo courtesy of Karen Brown

Karen Brown | Longreads | November 2017 | 14 minutes (3,613 words)

 

“How about Tuesday?”

My father is propped up on three pillows in bed, talking logistics with my sister and me. We’ve just brought him his Ovaltine and insulin.

“Or would Thursday be better? That’s a couple days after the kids are done with camp.”

“Ok, let’s plan on Thursday.”

My father is scheduling his death. Sort of. He’s deciding when to stop going to dialysis. That starts the bodily clock that will lead to his falling into sleep more and more often, and then into a coma, and eventually nothingness.

He is remarkably sanguine about the prospect, which we’ve all had a long time to consider. A master of the understatement, he promises it’s not a terribly hard decision, to stop treatment and let nature takes its course, “but it is a bit irreversible.”

If I’m honest, he’s ready now to stop dialysis. It’s a brutal routine for someone in his condition, incredibly weak and fragile from living with end-stage pancreatic cancer, kidney disease, and diabetes. It’s painful for him to hold his head and neck up, which he has to do to get to the dialysis center. During the procedure, he must be closely watched so his blood pressure doesn’t plummet.

But he’s always been a generous man. He’s willing to sacrifice his own comfort in his dying days for the convenience of his family, since we all want to be present at the end. If he pushes his last day of dialysis to Tuesday, then my sister can still go on the California vacation she’d been planning with her family. If he pushes it to Thursday, I can still take the journalism fellowship I’d accepted. It will also give his grandchildren time to finish up their summer jobs and fly down.
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The Lost Genocide

A woman in Kutupalong Refugee Camp. Since August, nearly half a million Rohingya have escaped over the Myanmar border to Bangladesh. (Doug Bock Clark)

Doug Bock Clark | Longreads | November 2017 | 6,868 words

From his tent in the illegal shantytown carved out of a Bangladeshi forest, 25-year-old Abdul watched as men, women, and children limped into the refugee camp, gaunt from not eating for days. They were his people, the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority that has been widely called the world’s most persecuted people. Abdul had arrived in the camps ten months earlier, when 66 thousand refugees fled the neighboring country of Myanmar in the last months of 2016. Nearly a year later, the Rohingya were once again on the run, with hundreds of thousands fleeing to Bangladesh through grooves worn in the swamps made by the more than 1 million refugees who had preceded them over seven decades.

The most recent violence began on August 25, 2017, when armed Rohingya groups attacked as many as 30 Burmese police and military posts near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. The army’s retaliation had been swift, with soldiers razing more than 200 villages, causing about 600 thousand Rohingya to flee. The refugees told stories of Burmese soldiers ambushing their villages, raping the women, and shooting the men or decapitating them with knives. They described landmines being laid along the well-known escape routes. Each morning, corpses of Rohingya who had drowned trying to cross the mile-wide Naf River, which divides Myanmar from Bangladesh, washed onto the shore where they had once sought safety.

Abdul called the new arrivals into his shelter, which was made of discarded plastic stretched over bamboo slats, though all he could offer them was a spot on the red-clay floor. Soon, 30 people were occupying just 80 square feet. But they counted themselves lucky: Most new arrivals slept under monsoon-season skies. Nearly a million Rohingya now crammed into a narrow peninsula on the southern tip of Bangladesh, almost all of them in squatter settlements ringing the U.N.-run camps, which have been at capacity for decades. Eventually, Abdul’s tent became so crowded that he had to bed down at a nearby mosque. But having made a similar escape with shrapnel embedded in his shoulder just 10 months earlier, Abdul felt he had to help.

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Finally Seeing the Forest for the Trees

sshepard/Getty

Maura Kelly | Longreads | November 2017 | 15 minutes (3,727 words)

Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I never got the whole nature thing. In my middle-class town, surrounded by neatly engineered housing developments, the little “nature” I knew was unnatural. The grass of the boxy lawns, stripped of dandelions, shined a uniform pesticide green. The most memorable tree of my youth lived like a caged beast in an indoor shopping mall; Shel Silverstein would’ve wept to see it, imprisoned between the food court escalator and a fake waterfall with wishful pennies glittering on its floor. In my state, even the ocean was tainted; the beaches of the Jersey Shore were a riot of oversized umbrellas and slick men in banana hammocks blasting their boomboxes. One summer, so much trash washed up on the sand that it made headlines, hypodermic needles and all. The Garden State, so-called, but it wasn’t exactly Eden. Since I never went to summer camp, since my parents had no country hideaway, I was a kid who thought the Great Outdoors wasn’t all that great. A tree by any other name was just as boring as every other tree.

All that began to change slowly during my undergraduate years in a postcard-perfect New England town. There I began to understand how beautiful nature could be. I still didn’t want to commune with it or anything. (Camping seemed like a fantastically bad idea; why anyone would want to sleep on the cold hard ground in a place without a proper toilet was beyond me.) But the trees surrounding my campus and the mountains around my college town pleased my eye in a way that was new to me. There, in New Hampshire, I also went on the first hikes of my life. But despite my burgeoning Romantic sensibility, I saw those excursions up the mountain as little more than a chance to exercise while hanging out with friends. As for opportunities to stop and smell the pine needles, I was determined to avoid them. All I wanted was to rush to the top of Mount Cube and race back down again — fast enough to burn some calories — and I got annoyed when anyone tried to slow me down to ooh-and-ah over some dumb mushroom.

After college, I eventually arrived in that city of all cities, New York. I loved it. I couldn’t believe it had taken me so long to get there — to the center of the world, so it seemed, with all the great art museums, the great jazz places, the great movie theaters, the great performances of Shakespeare. The city helped me to notice an aspect of myself, the intellectual epicure, that I’d barely noticed before. It was a thrilling discovery. In New York, my brain was fed the richest of foods, my ambitions were fueled, my expectations for myself raised. By then, I’d lived in four other U.S. cities, and I felt sure I’d found the place that beat them all, where I’d stay forever.

The years passed and I had what I half-jokingly call “my nervous breakdown.” Half-jokingly, though it was no joke. A perfect storm of events — a break-up, a career disappointment, a professional trauma — knocked me down. I couldn’t eat or work, I could barely read or write, and I especially couldn’t sleep more than three hours a night. I couldn’t go out in public without disintegrating into tears — on the subway, in restaurants, at the gym, during a friend’s book party — triggered by the least little thing, like a long wait or a sad song. I was frequently overwhelmed by vertigo that felt as much physical as metaphysical. It felt at times as if I was slipping down some vast mountain into the abyss, unable to stop my steady descent, like a character out of some Edgar Allan Poe horror story. This went on for months and threatened never to end.

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The Dead Man Fund

(Lambert/Archive Photos)

Jack El-Hai | Longreads | November 2017 | 7 minutes (1,672 words)

In 1989, Morningstar, Inc., an advisory service, issued a strongly worded and unusual recommendation to its clients who had placed money with a firm then called the Steadman Funds (later known as the Ameritor Funds). “We urge you to cut your losses and get out,” Morningstar counseled. Doubtless, some investors heeded this advice. Many couldn’t, though, because they were dead.

A few years ago, the fate of Ameritor— nicknamed “The Dead Man Fund” — and its unfortunate investors, became entangled with the history of my house. An envelope had landed in our mailbox containing a check in the amount of $10.32 made out to one Anna Mae Heilman. She was nobody we knew, but the name rang familiar to me for some reason. With the check was a letter explaining that the money was a final settlement of Heilman’s investment of 171 shares in the Ameritor Security Trust mutual fund, which had closed down.

It didn’t take long for me to remember how I knew Heilman’s name. When we bought the house, we acquired its abstract, a thick and crumbling packet of legal documents that chronicled more than a century of transactions involving the property. Heilman’s name was in there. She and her husband had owned our house for several years ending in 1971.

Heilman’s tiny payout at a rate of only six cents per share seemed strange, so I began looking into the history of Ameritor and the circumstances of the Heilmans’ sale of our house. I then learned of two terrible misfortunes that afflicted one family. Read more…

The Aftermarket for (Human) Spare Parts

Male and female mannequins In storage
Mannequins in Storage via Wikimedia

For many, it seems like an easy choice: You check the donor box on your driver’s license and feel a vague sense of philanthropy. “If anything happens to me, at least what’s left will be used in a meaningful way.”

Two Reuters reporters traced what happens with those “donated to science” bodies. It’s gruesome and predatory and largely unregulated.  Stop here if you’re squeamish.

Outside Southern Nevada’s suburban warehouse, the circumstances were far from comforting. In the fall of 2015, neighboring tenants began complaining about a mysterious stench and bloody boxes in a Dumpster. That December, local health records show, someone contacted authorities to report odd activity in the courtyard.

Health inspectors found a man in medical scrubs holding a garden hose. He was thawing a frozen human torso in the midday sun.

This is the “body broker” market. It’s different from the federally regulated tissue and organ donor market — the market that provides, say,  a liver to a waiting patient.

The body broker market is a for profit industry selling body parts for medical training.  Brokers often source those bodies — body parts, really — from the poor, offering partial cremation in exchange for the opportunity to sell off what’s left.

The industry’s business model hinges on access to a large supply of free bodies, which often come from the poor. In return for a body, brokers typically cremate a portion of the donor at no charge. By offering free cremation, some deathcare industry veterans say, brokers appeal to low-income families at their most vulnerable. Many have drained their savings paying for a loved one’s medical treatment and can’t afford a traditional funeral.

“People who have financial means get the chance to have the moral, ethical and spiritual debates about which method to choose,” said Dawn Vander Kolk, an Illinois hospice social worker. “But if they don’t have money, they may end up with the option of last resort: body donation.”

Few rules mean few consequences when bodies are mistreated. In the Southern Nevada case, officials found they could do little more than issue a minor pollution citation to one of the workers involved. Southern Nevada operator Joe Collazo, who wasn’t cited, said he regretted the incident. He said the industry would benefit from oversight that offers peace of mind to donors, brokers and researchers.

“To be honest with you, I think there should be regulation,” said Collazo. “There’s too much gray area.”

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How Much is Too Much to Save a Dying Cat?

Max Oppenheim/Getty

s.e. smith | Longreads | November 2017 | 17 minutes (4,363 words)

The veterinarian looks anxious as she enters the room, clearly dreading the conversation she must have many times a night on the late shift at the emergency clinic.

Yes, your pet is dying. No, I’m afraid there’s not much we can do, she is bracing herself to say.

Her scrubs are a rich maroon, coordinating with the jewel-toned surroundings of the hushed exam room in the swanky clinic. Thick doors block the sound from outside, the interstitial space where they’ve left me alone in an echoing silence with a grim steel table and a box of tissues after the technician rushed my cat to the back, somewhere in the bowels of the hospital. The last time I saw her she was gasping for air, eyes huge, expression: betrayed.

I wonder if I will see her again.

It’s the largest veterinary clinic I’ve ever been in and it feels more like a spa, down to the powder blue polo shirts the receptionists all wear. The stack of euthanasia authorizations left out on the counter are the only sign this place is perhaps not what it seems. I have driven a long way to come here, because it is Easter weekend and my vet isn’t in the office, but this cannot wait.

Oddly, I find myself wanting to reassure the vet, to tuck her loose strand of hair behind her ear and offer her a cup of tea from the space-age machine out in the horrifically depressing lobby, filled with people sitting in little clumps with strained faces.

“I know,” I say as she sits opposite me, searching for words, and her shoulders slump in relief. “I knew the cancer would spread eventually, but is there anything we can do to make her comfortable?”

On my way in, struggling with the weight of my cat’s carrier and my bag, I passed a couple carrying one of those cardboard boxes they use to send cats home from the shelter, the takeout container that is supposed to presage many years of happy life together, cartoon kittens and puppies stenciled along the sides. It swung with a peculiar, empty lightness, bouncing in an almost sprightly way that felt at odds with the stricken looks on their faces.

There is a stark finality in the empty cat carrier.

You can take this, your cat won’t be needing it anymore.

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My Half-Sister’s Half a Life

Illustration by Wenting Li

Jeannie Vanasco | The Glass Eye | Tin House Books | October 2017 | 2,543 words (10 minutes)

In the Memory Game you’re expected to find two matching cards. My dad’s left eye and his right didn’t perfectly match. The i and the eye don’t perfectly match, but they sound the same. Jeanne and Jeannie sound the same, but we don’t perfectly match. I could write this story chronologically and divide it into three parts titled “eye,” “i,” and “I.”

But I worry that I lose authority as a storyteller if I recall memories from age four. I could preface some of those memories with “I remember.” Or, in memoir, is such subjectivity implied? Like “I see” and “I hear,” “I remember” is almost always an unnecessary filter. Maybe I can preface the more detailed memories with “I remember” — a defense against any reader who thinks, There’s no way she remembers playing the Memory Game when she was four, or It couldn’t have been the Memory Game — its so symbolic. It feels forced.

Do I need to be more selective with direct dialogue, or introduce hindsight perspective, or lean on my mom’s memories? I’ll keep some of her in the present tense. I’ll show how I often ask her questions, such as: “Did it happen this way?” “What was his illness called?” “Did Dad accept the loss of his eye?” But if I excerpt conversations with her that concern only him, then it looks like I care less about her life stories.

I’ll write another book after this, a book for her.

Jeanne

Not once did my dad say Jeanne’s name in my eighteen years with him. My mom did when I was eight.

I was dancing in my bedroom with an unlit candle when she called me downstairs. My teacher, Sister Paulina, had asked three second-grade girls to lead our First Communion ceremony with a dance. The dance required me to hold a candle above my head, and I was terrified of setting the church on fire. I practiced at home almost every day for a month.

When I walked into the living room, my dad was in his chair, holding a small white box. As my mom explained that he had a dead daughter named Jeanne (pronounced the same as my name) “without an i,” he opened the box and looked away. Inside was a medal Jeanne had received from a church “for being a good person,” my mom said. My dad said nothing. I said nothing. I stared at the medal.

Later that day, in the basement, my mom told me Jeanne had died in a car accident when she was sixteen. I sat on the steps as my mom folded clothes and confided what she knew.

Two other girls were in the car. The car could seat three people in front. Jeanne sat between the driver and the other passenger. The driver tried to pass a car, then hesitated and tried to pull back into her lane. She lost control and the car crashed. Jeanne was the only one who died.

“Your father blames himself,” my mom said. “He can’t talk about it.”

“Why?” I asked.

“He gave her permission to go out that night.”

Jeanne had asked him if she could see a movie with her friends. He asked what her mother had said. “She said to ask you.” He said it was fine, she could see the movie. He had no idea his first wife had already said no. He and his first wife weren’t speaking.

“Did you know his first wife?” I asked.

“No, he was divorced long before I met him. All this happened in New York.”

It happened near Newburgh, where he and his first family had lived. I knew only Ohio. In my mind, all of New York was made of skyscrapers, taxicabs, and car accidents.

“What did Jeanne look like?”

My mom said she’d never seen a photo.

***

I painted portraits of Jeanne in watercolor. I titled them Jeanne. My art teacher told me she was disappointed that “such a good student could misspell her name.” From then on, I included an i.

***

“I wanted to tell you about Jeanne before that,” my mom says after I ask why she told me when she did. “But your dad, he worried that you’d misinterpret his intentions. I told him, ‘She’s going to find out someday. Don’t you think it’s better she hears it from us?’”

“Did Dad have any photos of Jeanne?”

“No. He told me his ex-wife wouldn’t let him have any. But for some reason, she gave him the medal.”

***

Throughout my baby scrapbook, I’m referred to as “Barbara Jean,” “Jean,” “Jeanie,” and “Jeannie.” In one letter, my dad calls me “My Darling Daughter Barbara Jean.” In a letter to my mom, he calls me “Jeanie” and “Jeannie.” My parents had planned to name me Jeanne.

“That or Jean Marie, actually,” my mom says. “Her given name was Jean Marie. She went by Jeanne. Your father simply saw the name as a sign of respect. He even spoke with a priest about our naming you after her, and the priest encouraged him to do so, provided he never compare you. ‘I would never do that,’ your father said.”

But while my mom was asleep after having just given birth, he named me Barbara Jean, after my mom. When he told her what he’d done, she said, “That’s no name for a baby.” She thought Barbara was too old-fashioned. That, and two Barbaras in one house would be confusing.

“When I told him I wasn’t calling you Barbara, he got this sad look on his face. He meant to do something sweet,” she says. “He always had good intentions.”

Legally my name remained Barbara Jean, but my parents called me Jeannie. My dad added the i.

“Just said he was adding an i,” my mom says. “He never explained it.”

***

I remember the spring day that I stood alone in the corner of the school playground, thinking about Jeanne. Cars passed by with their windows open. I often wondered if my dad thought about Jeanne every time he drove our car. A classmate, another second-grade girl, asked what I was doing.

“My half-sister died,” I told her.

“I have a stepsister.”

I tried to explain the difference between a half-sibling and a stepsibling.

“We share the same dad,” I said.

“I didn’t know you had a half-sister.”

“Four of them,” I said, or maybe I said “three.” I didn’t know if Jeanne counted, or if she counted more because she was dead.

***

I have no clear memory of learning about Jeanne’s sisters — Carol, Arlene, and Debbie — but I know my parents told me about them before I learned about Jeanne. Arlene is the only one I knew throughout my childhood. She lived in New York. She visited us four times in Ohio — five if you count when our dad was dying.

“Arlene is beautiful,” I told my mom after Arlene’s first visit.

Arlene’s dark brown eyes matched her hair. Thick and wavy, it fell just past her shoulders. Later I’d show photographs of Arlene to boys I liked; I wanted them to think that I’d be beautiful someday, like her.

“She was a model once,” my mom said. “I think she modeled wedding dresses for a catalog.”

Arlene often called, wrote letters. She mailed me unusual presents: hangers with illustrated wooden cat heads, vials of sand from Jerusalem, a pair of earrings that looked like pale orange pearls. She even trained her cockatiel to say “Happy birthday, Jeannie.” She sent a video of it. I wrote thank-you letters; they went through several drafts. I wanted my cursive to look perfect.

Carol and Debbie I’d never seen, not even in photographs. Debbie was a hairdresser in New York, and Carol owned a candy shop in Rhode Island. Carol, the oldest, was my mom’s age. Beyond that, I knew nothing.

Once, while my dad was on the downstairs rotary, I listened through the upstairs rotary. I was in the second grade and often eavesdropped. I could hear one of his daughters — not Arlene, I’d have recognized her voice — yelling. My dad mentioned me, and she yelled more. I quietly set the phone on my bedroom carpet. I could still hear her. When no more sound came from the receiver, I looked through the grate in my bedroom floor. My dad was at the dining room table, his head in his hands.

“They were mad your father had his first marriage annulled,” my mom explains. “It was after your First Communion. You asked him why he couldn’t take Communion with you. He said it was because he was divorced. It’s a man-made rule — that you can’t take Communion if you’ve been divorced. If you annul the marriage, the church basically says the marriage never existed. His daughters took it personally. He didn’t mean anything against them. He wasn’t disowning them. He did it for you.”

***

Jeanne would come between me and almost everything I did. I studied harder. I researched the lives of the saints and how I might model their behavior. I sat before my bedroom mirror with a notebook and documented my appearance and what exactly I needed to fix. I needed to be a smart, kind, beautiful daughter.

I tried not to hear her name when he said my own.

***

I followed my parents to their graves. Rain made it difficult to find our way.

“Where do I walk?” I asked, afraid of disrespecting the dead.

My mom told me to follow her. We passed a smaller fenced-in area where fresh flowers and toys were at almost every grave.

“The children’s cemetery,” she explained.

My dad stood farther ahead of us, underneath a tree. He motioned us toward him.

I looked down at two headstones printed with my parents’ names and birth years: “Terry J Vanasco, 1922,” and “Barbara J Vanasco, 1942.”

“Where do I go?” I asked.

“You might have a husband someday,” my mom said. “You’ll want to be buried next to him.”

“But I want to be with you and Dad.”

***

I call my mom, ask if she remembers that day in the cemetery.

“We took you to see the graves?”

“That’s what I remember,” I say.

Dad

After Jeanne died, my dad bought burial plots for himself and his wife next to the plot for Jeanne. When he and his first wife divorced, she demanded that he forfeit his plot because she didn’t want him buried next to their daughter. He agreed. Soon after the divorce, he went to court again, this time for beating up “a bum” on the street.

“Why should you be alive?” my dad asked him. “You’re not working and my daughter’s dead.”

The judge remembered my dad and let him go.

My dad’s sister Anna told all this to my mom, who at some point shared it with me. I don’t know if I learned this story before or after seeing my parents’ headstones, but the two stories juxtaposed together make sense, writing-wise. Still, I call my mom, ask if she remembers when she told me about my dad losing his burial plot.

“I don’t,” she says, “but did I ever tell you: when I went with your dad to his father’s funeral — this was a couple years before you were born — the funeral director told me about your dad losing his cemetery plot. The director said, ‘In all the years I’ve worked here, I’ve never heard of anything like it — denying a man burial next to his daughter.’ Your dad’s ex-wife eventually did offer him the plot — this was when you were a little girl — but your dad refused it. He said, ‘I have a family here.’”

Mom

It was my parents’ twelfth wedding anniversary. I was ten. A snowstorm swept through Sandusky. We had plans to celebrate at home that night. We were in our car leaving the grocery parking lot when my mom abruptly told him to stop the car.

She left it, slammed her door, and opened mine.

“We’re walking home,” she told me.

My dad looked back at me.

“Come on,” she said. “I’m teaching you a lesson.”

“What did I do?” I asked.

“I’m teaching you you don’t need a man.”

I told her there was a snowstorm. It was too cold to walk home. Our house felt far away.

“Stay with him if you want,” she said and began to leave us.

I apologized to my dad and ran after her.

My dad slowly followed in the car with the front passenger window down.

“It’s a blizzard,” he said.

She ignored him.

I asked her why she was angry, and she ignored me.

He pleaded for us to get in the car. Home was at least two miles away.

She yelled at him to leave us alone. He looked at me, and I looked down at my boots. When I looked up, our car was disappearing into the falling snow.

“What if he dies in a car accident?” I asked.

“He’ll be fine.”

“But there’s ice.”

“He won’t die.”

I watched my breath chill before me and disappear.

We walked in silence along the shoulder of Milan Road. When I looked behind us, snow had already covered our tracks. Snow plows rumbled by. A few cars came and went. A man offered us a ride and my mom waved him off.

“We’re almost home,” she lied.

The man drove away.

“Your father doesn’t trust me,” she said.

The friendly man who worked in the checkout at the grocery store, my dad thought was too friendly, she explained.

My dad often told us to wait in the car while he checked out. I always thought he was being a gentleman, bringing the groceries to us.

“Your father doesn’t trust anyone,” she said.

“What about me?”

“You’re different.”

***

When we reached our house, he was at the kitchen table, his head in his hands.

“Dad,” I said.

I yanked off my boots and ran to him.

My mom walked past us and into the basement. He followed her, and I went into the bathroom and lifted the door to the laundry chute. I heard my dad apologize.

That evening at dinner, they smiled at one another and held hands.

***

“Sometimes he drove me nuts with his possessiveness,” my mom says when I ask about the snowstorm. “His father was the same way, apparently. Your dad’s mother would go to the grocery store, and your dad’s father would time her. Your dad thought it was horrible, but then he went and did the same sort of thing to me.” She pauses. “After you left for college, your dad and I were on the back porch — and he asked if I regretted our marriage. ‘Of course not,’ I told him. ‘Why would you ask me that?’ He said he knew how unreasonable he’d been. He said he was sorry. He said he was afraid of losing me. Your dad would have been happy, just the three of us, in a cabin out in the woods. He said you and I were all he needed.”

***

From The Glass Eye by Jeannie Vanasco. © 2017 Jeannie Vanasco. Used with permission of the publisher, Tin House Books. 

When You’re Broken by Breaking News

Two mourners sit among crosses for those killed during the mass shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

I managed to avoid most news about the mass shooting that occurred in Las Vegas this week, but it has been at the front of my mind. There were breaking news updates almost every hour, every day, but I didn’t click. I don’t know and still don’t want to know the gunman’s name. (I won’t use it here unless my editor tells me I have to.)

I was frustrated by the the breaking news updates, which was strange because I used to love being a breaking news reporter. I know the rush of unearthing a piece of information no one else has, of typing as fast as you can to get it out — the pride of being first. But something about this news cycle has changed that for me. I don’t care that the shooter was a gambler, or a loner, that he was cruel to his girlfriend in his local Starbucks, or otherwise unremarkable as he purchased multiple firearms. I don’t see what value that information has for the public.

Even as I type this, I know I’m wrong. Horrible, shocking events like mass shootings scare us, and information soothes us. On Monday, I asked an editor at a national news site, “Why did he do it?” He responded, “We’ll never know.” There was enough known about the shooter on day one to know he was as incomprehensible as the violence he perpetrated. That’s when I stopped paying attention. I know these little details, these constant updates, are attempts to create order out of chaos. I also know that effort is futile, and that futility frustrates me. The barrage of updates serves only to keep the horror in the national discourse. Read more…

The Unforgettable Edie Windsor

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Something you might not know about Edie Windsor, the 5-foot-nothing, 100-pound woman whose landmark lawsuit brought down the Defense of Marriage Act, is that she was completely charming and lovable in person — rare of people we deify. You wouldn’t have to spend very long with her, just a few minutes at a press conference would have been enough. It’s said about a lot of people, but true of only a few: There was something eminently special about Edie.

When the Supreme Court ruled on United States v. Windsor in 2013, I was a local news reporter for Metro New York. I went to the LGBT Center in the West Village to see Windsor and her lawyers speak on their win. The organizers were very skittish about promising anyone face time with Windsor. She was elderly, 83 years old, they kept telling us. How could we be so demanding as to expect time with her? A cub reporter, I huffed showily, like a small, useless bird puffing out its chest to impress a murder of large crows who could not care less.

When I finally saw Windsor, I felt sheepish. She was elderly, and so petite. She wore a fuchsia silk shirt, her hair had a perfect Golden Girls bounce, and she had a huge smile. Despite her age and size, she didn’t seem frail; she had the air of a woman whose bones are shot through with iron. When her handlers tried to end the press conference, Edie insisted on reading the speech she prepared and then took questions. Her lawyers praised her tenacity, her courage, her determination. They said she made the country more American that day. She just smiled and turned right around and heaped praise back on them. “They made this old lady flourish,” she said.

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Atomic City

Justin Nobel | Longreads | September 2017 | 12 minutes (2,920 words)

In the middle of Idaho’s Lost River desert is a green street sign that reads “Atomic City” with an arrow pointing to a lonely gravel track. One evening, some years back, I followed it. As purplish storm clouds swallowed the sun, I came across a cluster of scraggly trees and weather-beaten trailer homes. Beside an abandoned speedway sat an antiquated ambulance and across the street a neon Bar sign twinkled in the dusk. Inside the bar, I met drifter lovers from Colorado and a potbellied man in a hunting cap who worked as a spent-fuel handler for the nearby Idaho National Laboratory. We discussed nuclear energy, of which he was, not surprisingly, a fan. Then I asked the question that had brought me to Atomic City: What caused the 1961 nuclear disaster?

The spent-fuel handler ordered a shot of Jägermeister. “Have you heard of the love triangle?” he asked. I hadn’t. All I knew was there was something fishy about the disaster. Earlier that day, when I tried bringing it up at Pickle’s Place, in Arco, Idaho, thirty miles away, I received cold stares. “You won’t find much on that,” a brawny man with a girl at his side told me as he exited the restaurant. I heard the same thing at the gas station next door, and at the fleabag motel I checked into. People aggressively knew nothing, which seemed to imply there was something to know.

“One guy’s wife was messing around with another guy,” said the fuel handler, after downing his Jäger. “He got pissed off and messed up…I shit you not.” He then reenacted how the disaster might have happened: “You fuck my wife, I fuck you up” — and with fingers clenched he yanked his hand upward, making the motion of pulling a control rod out of a reactor core. Boom.

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