In recent months, there’s been a lot of hubbub and even a little hysteria over the fate of the personal essay. It began with a New Yorker piece by Jia Tolentino with the headline, “The Personal Essay Boom is Over.”
But Tolentino wasn’t proclaiming the death of the entire category, just essays of a certain kind: often sensationalized, barely edited accounts of very personal experiences with click-baitish headlines. The pieces tended to lack reflection, and offered little connection between their anecdotes and something larger.
Because there are so many people emailing me essays every day — more than I can respond to — and because I am ramping up from 8 essays a month to 10 or 12, I thought it might be a good idea to post here clarifying what I’m looking for, what are the best ways to pitch me, and what you can expect from working with me once I choose your essay. Read more…
Doing construction in New York City is dangerous and expensive. Cut the pavement in the wrong place and crews can rupture gas lines. Hit a water main, short a backup generator. These sorts of mistakes cost the city $300 million each year. Worse yet are natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy — where floods caused a three-day blackout and left two hospitals without power — and threats like buried chemical tanks and national security issues. In Bloomberg Businessweek, Greg Milner follows the people who are creating the city’s first three-dimensional subsurface infrastructure map to create a safer city that can self-regulate and grow more efficiently, and where agencies and private utilities can coordinate. In a very real sense they are pioneers, of a frontier that lays below our feet. Detailing pipes, cables, sewers, wires and electric lines, even soil types, the map will be the first of its kind, and if it works, it could make New York a model for the world’s future smart cities.
Because of data from satellites, we can now map the world down to about 6 inches. We’ve almost reached the point Jorge Luis Borges describes in his short story “On Exactitude in Science,” in which cartographers built “a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.” But the world beneath our feet remains shrouded in darkness. “Light and radio waves don’t go through dirt like they do air,” says George Percivall, chief technical officer for the Open Geospatial Consortium, which is helping to develop global standards for underground mapping. “The next frontier, in both a literal and figurative sense, is underground.”
New York City’s daunting infrastructural labyrinth is like the “Here be dragons” decorating ancient maps. Underneath the 6,000 miles of asphalt and concrete road lie thousands of miles of water, sewer, gas, telecommunications, and electrical infrastructure. And let’s not forget the 500 miles of underground subway tracks or Con Edison’s 100-mile steam delivery system. In its entirety, it’s known to no one. The individual details of the vast underground are hoarded and guarded by the various stakeholders. Con Edison has its electrical map; the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) keeps track of water and sewer pipes; the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) could tell you where the transit tunnels are; and so on.
Imagine the city as a living organism, a body consisting of various systems—respiratory, nervous, skeletal—that share the same space and even intertwine. Now imagine surgery performed on that body by a surgeon who knows the location of only one system, who looks at the body and sees only blood vessels or bones. This is the odd condition of New York—a body subject to what, viewed through a wide lens, looks like perpetual triage. Each year, for repairs or to facilitate construction, the streets are sliced open 200,000 times—an average of almost 550 cuts per day, or 30 per street mile every year.
In the 1600s, Northern Mexico’s indigenous Tarahumara tribe escaped Spanish incursions by moving deep into the rugged Sierra Madre. There, they cultivated the steep canyons, maintained their cultural identity and traditions, and developed into some of the world’s best long-distance runners, able to run for days without stopping. The Tarahumara people have earned international renown for their phenomenal marathon endurance. Tarahumara runners have appeared on the cover of Runner’s World magazine. They’re the subject of the best-selling book Born to Run, and they compete in many international races, yet many of their villages still lack running water and electricity. As they’ve suffered drought and famine, Mexico’s drug cartels have preyed on them. Cartels clear-cut their ancient pine forests. They converted their land to marijuana and opium poppy fields, and forced these peaceful reclusive people to work for them or leave.
At Texas Monthly, Ryan Goldberg tells the tribe’s story — which is Mexico’s story — and how cartels now offer the Tarahumara endurance runners money to run drugs across the border. The dire need to keep their families fed and keep violence out of their villages has turned too many village men into felons after they get caught at the border. Although Goldberg’s article isn’t polemical, the narrative puts the responsibility in the hands of Western consumers: if you buy Mexican drugs, you are funding the destruction of these indigenous people. Even if your Saturday night coke party is an occasional weekend extravagance, it comes with a huge human cost, not just to your body. Your purchases are part of an international supply chain, and the West’s appetite for drugs is the root of this problem. Supply and demand itself is simple in theory: no demand for Mexican drugs, no cartels. The reasons for demand are varied and complicated, and addiction is very different than recreational drug use. But America is still complicit in the Tarahumara’s suffering.
As the cartel war ricocheted from one canyon to the next, Urique became one of the last towns to be engulfed by intense violence. It had once served as an outpost for tourists exploring the natural beauty of the surrounding canyons, which helped keep it relatively tranquil until a Sinaloa boss’s nephew was murdered there, in late 2014. From then on gunfire could routinely be heard in the town and up the canyon. In the days leading up to the 2015 Ultra Caballo Blanco, an eight-hour battle erupted in a village along the planned racecourse. International runners arrived to find armed gangs in the streets of Urique, while local government officials assured the competitors there were no problems. A day before the race, however, Juárez hit men stormed the police station, seizing two officers and a teenager, and American organizers called off the race. Most of the visiting runners, who had come from 23 countries, made their way out under military escort. More than five hundred Tarahumara, Silvino included, resolved to carry on anyway, and the mayor agreed to a version that cut out the downriver loop, where the major shoot-out had occurred.
A few months later, Sinaloa won control of the area—nearly a dozen planes flew out of the town of Urique in one day with the remaining Juárez fighters—but conditions worsened. With the Sinaloa in command, land theft and poppy growing increased.
Some Tarahumara activists tried to make their plight known, like Irma Chávez Cruz, a 25-year-old mother who was a friend of Silvino’s. Chávez had learned Spanish as a teenager, to serve as an interpreter for her people, then earned a university degree in ecology and gotten elected to local government. She worried about Tarahumara children losing their running traditions, so she regularly put on races in the region, including all-female events called ariweta. She helped organize the largest-ever recorded rarajipari in Chihuahua—Silvino led one of the teams—and together they traveled to Brazil, in October 2015, for the inaugural World Indigenous Games. The next year, Chávez ran in the Boston Marathon (possibly the first Tarahumara woman to do so) and, while there, spoke on a panel about indigenous running traditions. Together with her father, an activist, musician, and poet known as Makawi, she pleaded for government officials in Chihuahua to help prevent drug traffickers from stealing their land and their water. But help never came, and speaking out became risky. According to the Mexico City–based magazine Proceso, at least five indigenous activists were assassinated in 2015 and 2016.
How serious are you about saving the planet? Many marketing types say that activism is the new hot advertising strategy, but some businesses actually believe in the philosophies they espouse, like Patagonia. Founded in 1973, the California-based company has always aimed to balance responsible production with environmental activism, by funding environmental causes, refining its business model and manufacturing practices, and empowering like-minds. With the Trump administration’s move to dismantle environmental protections on public land and climate change, Patagonia’s staff believes that too many companies in the outdoor industry have been too passive for too long, and the time has come to spend more company profits fighting the political forces that not only threaten America, but humanity’s future. At Outside, Abe Streep examines the ways Patagonia reaches consumers, manages its factories, thinks of its role in a revolution, and urges other businesses to step up. With power and influence comes great responsibility, which puts brands in the position to influence social good. Interestingly, this socially responsible model has quadrupled Patagonia’s profits during the last seven years. The question is: are those other companies committed to long-term political activism?
For decades, Patagonia sought to demonstrate that profitability and environmentalism can go hand in hand—to show a better way by, for example, encouraging fair-trade practices in foreign factories. The company advised Walmart, helping the retail behemoth clean up its supply chain, and worked with Nike to create the Textile Exchange, a nonprofit that encourages more sustainable practices in the apparel industry. Chouinard now believes that he was mistaken in trying to influence publicly traded companies. “I was pretty naive thinking you could do that,” he told me.
Marcario presented an alternative: grow Patagonia into a much bigger brand so that everything it did would have greater impact. She was uniquely qualified to make this argument. In her youth, she was an outspoken progressive activist, arrested during protests on issues like LGBT rights, AIDS, and women’s health. “She understands the need for revolution,” Chouinard has said. But she also understands business. Upon taking the CFO job, she streamlined distribution and shipping, installed industry-standard software, and focused on improving e-commerce. “Doing things that, you know, like, retailers do,” she laughs. During her first year, in 2008, the global economy crashed, but Patagonia—and much of the outdoor industry—didn’t: the company experienced growth in the high single digits. Casey Sheahan, Patagonia’s CEO at the time, told me that this was due to people “aligning themselves tribally” at a time of strife. It was a hint of the opportunity that would come with the rise of Trump.
Sheahan also told me that, at the time he left Patagonia, more than 50 percent of the revenue came from direct-to-consumer business via Patagonia’s stores and e-commerce. He suspects that the percentage is bigger today. (The company wouldn’t confirm or deny this.) Selling directly to a consumer, rather than through a third-party retailer like Backcountry.com or REI, increases both revenue and influence. According to Joe Flannery, a veteran outdoor-industry marketer and senior VP of technical apparel for Newell Brands, which owns Marmot and Coleman, Patagonia’s direct-to-consumer sales “represents one of the most powerful mechanisms of any brand. When you have that direct interaction, that means the consumer is digesting what you’re saying.”
I don’t know about you, but the last two winters where I live have been plagued by extreme flu seasons, with scores of friends and coworkers complaining about getting sicker than they had in ages. Now that it’s summer, I don’t want to think about the hacking and nose-blowing of winter, but a lot of people have started asking an important question: are pathogens getting stronger?
He decided to start where pharmaceutical chemistry had left off decades earlier: in the messy real-world settings where bacteria duke it out. He launched his campaign, called Swab and Send, in February 2015. For £5, participants got a sample tube, a mailing envelope, and an explanation of what Roberts wanted them to look for: a spot in the environment where bacteria were likely to be competing for nutrition and room to reproduce. He asked them to use their imagination. The less sanitary, the better.
In a departure from the first antibiotic searches, Roberts does not ask his sample-collectors to focus on soil. Instead he wants them to search in places his predecessors may have overlooked. “There’s such a rich microbial environment everywhere around us,” he says. “Every single place is a niche, where bacteria will have evolved and adapted independently. Soil may have evolved biological warfare, if you like, completely differently than a marine environment, or a muddy environment, or contaminated pond water. There’s a possibility of different chemistry everywhere.”
The Swab and Send campaign fired people’s enthusiasm: Within two months, Roberts received more than £1,000, and hundreds of swabs. Small checks continue to arrive by mail. (The price of participation has gone up, to £30 for five swabs.) Elementary schools invite Roberts to make presentations, and he gives the kids swabs to take home. He has taken sample tubes to parties and to newsrooms. He has two swabs that were swiped across desks in the Houses of Parliament.
Even if you were more partial to the taste of purple Dimetapp cough syrup or the fake banana flavor of some prescription whose name I can no longer remember, you know the flavor of pediatric amoxicillin. Everyone loved that pink medicine. Its chalky, anonymous fruit flavor has generated loving blog posts and subreddits of impressive lengths. One writer loved it so much as a kid she went on a quest to taste it one more time. At The Atlantic, Julie Beck searches for that peculiar pink flavor of childhood to learn where it came from and how taste shapes a child’s experience of illness.
Taste is a factor in children’s medicine in a way that it’s just not for adults, who are prescribed pills for most things. And children often need the extra enticement of a familiar flavor to be coaxed into taking their medicine. But flavor used to be considered a more integral part of medicine for all ages—more than just something added to make it palatable.
Under the humoral theory of medicine, Berenstein says, “tastes themselves were correlated with the body’s humors.” So if someone’s four humors—black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm—were seen to be out of balance, they’d likely be advised to avoid certain tastes, and eat more of others. A melancholic person, for example, might want to avoid vinegar (sour—just like them), and eat more sugar to balance themselves out. “It wasn’t about a spoonful of sugar making the medicine go down,” Berenstein says. “A spoonful of sugar was the medicine.”
And for bitter herbal preparations that served as medicine, Greene adds, the bitter taste was “proof of efficacy”: If it tastes gross, it must be working. But in the 20th and 21st centuries, the Western understanding of medicine came to focus on active ingredients. What Greene calls “the sensuous dimensions of medicine” got “systematically written out of the stories we tell ourselves about pharmaceuticals and the way they work.” But medicines “nonetheless have physical properties,” he says, “and those physical properties certainly influence our experience of them.”
In the green hills east of San Francisco, a group of peaceful Sufis proposed a gigantic sanctuary in the town of Saranap.Many Saranap homeowners resisted, claiming their semi-rural, unincorporated village of native oaks was being taken from them, blemished, they said, by a bubble-looking building straight from the Buckminster Fuller playbook, if Fuller was from Azerbaijan. The Sufis felt discriminated against, and when they dug in their heals, the kind, quiet religious order showed a newly aggressive side of its personality. At the heart of the battle were issues of domain and inclusion that lie at the heart of America itself: who gets to decide who becomes part of a community or not? Why do communities tolerate one religion over another? No surprise that race, class, and wealth are involved. Oh, and the Cheesecake Factory’s wealthy CEO. At The FADER, Amos Barshad tells this story of clashing cultures and religious bias.
But ugly, explicit religious hatred would surface. “The Sufis’ project is a mosque with teachings from the Koran,” railed a fortysomething man named Steven, incoherently, in one meeting. “What other buildings in the area are made of glow-in-the-dark circles, to no end, like the sign of infinity, the time our neighborhood will be dealing with this monstrosity? We don’t care that you eat a lot of cheesecake.” Then he laid down what sounded like a threat.
Others had argued that construction would trigger aggression and cause permanent hearing loss in children, or force homes teetering off the sides of cliffs. Steven, dressed mildly in a white polo shirt and sweater vest, went further: he promised that if construction somehow harmed his own family, “I will make sure there is hell to pay.”
Later in the same session, Pascal Kaplan of Sufism Reoriented took to the lectern. Dapper in a light summer suit, speaking calmly and quietly, he recalled his doctoral studies in theology at Harvard, where he’d read extensively about “unintended religious bias.” He explained that it comes “not out of malice” but simply because people are “unfamiliar with the tenets, symbols, and theology” of the faiths they are biased against. Respectfully, he pushed back.
Ivan Reitman and his crew didn’t have a solid script for the screwball 1979 summer camp comedy Meatballs. They didn’t have Bill Murray. They had a few months to film, and most of the camps they asked to use as sets thought they were nuts. Yet the movie they made stands as one of Hollywood’s enduring comedies, a surprisingly sensitive look at one teenager’s rite of passage through summer camp. At Vanity Fair, the always spicy Eric Spitznagel talks with cast and crew in a revealing oral history of the making of Meatballs. As they say in the movie, “Are you ready for the summer?”
Goldberg: We had our cast, but there was still the matter of Bill [Murray]. “Is Bill going to do it? Will he show up?” I didn’t know if he ever read the script. Then he kind of committed, but not really. Three days before we start shooting, we have no idea if it’s going to happen.
Banham: Dan Aykroyd was supposed to play the part. That’s what I heard. And that’s what we all believed. Most of us in the cast, we would talk about it. “Can you believe we’re in a movie with Dan Aykroyd?” Everybody knew who Dan Aykroyd was. And then we show up for the movie, and there’s Bill Murray. And we’re like, [deflated] “Oh. It’s the new guy from S.N.L. [Sighs] O.K.”
Blum: Bill turned up in this Hawaiian shirt and red shorts, wearing an alarm clock on his wrist, which eventually found its way into the film.
Reitman: I remember how amazing he was that first day he showed up. I handed him the script—I think it was the first time he was reading it—he flipped through it and said, “Eh.” And he very theatrically threw it into a nearby trash can. [Laughs] That’s kind of terrifying to see an actor do that just minutes before you’re going to shoot your first scene with him.
No, I just start writing. I don’t have any plan. I wait to find out where it goes. Sometimes I do an outline, but even then, that’s not really a plan, because I don’t really follow it. The novel is bigger than your head. A novel is a gigantic, rambling, incredible thing. All you can do is start. Roy Lichtenstein, who I knew quite well actually, would say the reason most painters fail at art—not at painting, but at art—is because they know what the picture is going to be before they approach the canvas. So the whole idea that there are things you should say or want to say or have to say—fuck that.
Charcoal Joe is your fourteenth Easy Rawlins book. You once said that the eleventh novel in the series, Blonde Faith, was going to be your last, yet you continued writing. Why do you keep returning to Easy? What is it about him?
When I finished Blonde Faith, I couldn’t see another book coming out of Easy. I couldn’t even imagine it. I realized, finally, that I’d reached the border of my father’s life and was entering into the world of my life. I decided if I wrote from that vantage point, from that point of view, I could write the novels exactly the same but with my experience forming it, rather than the experiences of my father and his generation.
Do you have an end in mind?
I don’t know if I have an end plan. It depends who lives longer, Easy or me.
“My ancestors are Irish and they were called all sorts of names,” Pete, a 58-year-old farmer, told me. He said the country has swung back around to how it was a century ago. “Now people say Hispanics are taking their jobs,” Pete said. “Come on. You can’t get a kid who can flip a burger to come here and do this job for $15 an hour. If we had a workforce that was willing to do this work, I’d hire them, but we don’t.” A 2014 American Farm Bureau study backs that up: It shows that unemployed Americans regularly shun farm work, even preferring to stay unemployed.
Which is one reason why Pete told me he’s anticipating a rough year: He’s not sure he’ll have the hands to do the work on his berry, apple, and vegetable crops. “Word of mouth used to bring guys to the farm during the harvest, but now I don’t know,” he said. He wouldn’t agree to let me use his name because he said even talking to a reporter had him worried about repercussions from zealous ICE agents. (While we were talking, Pete’s wife yelled at him to hang up the phone. He didn’t.) Pete pointed to an ICE arrest of five farmworkers in western New York who did not have criminal records. He said it’s just that kind of unpredictability that adds another layer of uncertainty to a business already fraught with pressures farmers cannot control—like the weather or consumer appetites.
Pete points out that the undocumented community is a net contributor to taxes. It’s true: A recent report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy found that undocumented immigrants contribute billions of dollars to state and local taxes across the country. Deporting them, Pete added, will only hurt Americans. “If they just stopped contributing to the workforce, we’d have a major crisis,” he said. “Pretending [deportation] fixes the system that’s broken only means less food; it doesn’t fix how this works.”