Do you remember me? you type. I have some questions. I would be grateful if you might be willing to answer them.
Why did you hurt me? is your question, the only one, but you do not write this.
Of course I remember you! he replies, almost immediately. I will give it my best to answer any questions you have. I hope you are doing good.
You ask if he might be willing to share his memory of that day at the mall. Your point of view would be helpful for my own closure, you say, no matter what that may be. You ask if he has ever thought of it again, if the experience ever held any weight for him. You tell him there are no right answers, because you believe this is true.
Gil responds from a different email address. His personal one.
Let me really think about it, he says, so I can give you my best recollection.
I want to help you, he says, in any way that I can.
“He wanted to know if there was such a thing as a ‘Fart Chart’ of different kinds of beans,” McGee said. “And if he used a different kind of beans, could he maybe eat a couple more servings? He also wondered if there was something he could do to the beans ahead of time.”
The next day, McGee went looking for answers. At the Yale biology library, he discovered that plenty of food-science research had been published by and for the food manufacturing and packaging industries, but little of it had been shared with chefs or home cooks.
“I spent hours in that library because I had never seen anything like it,” McGee told me. “Poultry science and agricultural and food chemistry. I would just flip through random volumes and see microscopic studies of things I eat every day. It seemed so cool and unexpected. It took more than a day to home in on the right sources about beans, but not only did I find out what’s in them and what you can do about it, but there is a fart chart and there are things you can do to lessen your suffering. Most of the research in the field of flatulence was funded by NASA. If you think about it, it makes good sense — these were still the days of capsules.”
If the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.
The largest and most audacious direct action in US history is also among the least remembered, a protest that has slipped into deep historical obscurity. It was a protest against the Vietnam War, but it wasn’t part of the storied sixties, having taken place in 1971, a year of nationwide but largely unchronicled ferment. To many, infighting, violence, and police repression had effectively destroyed “the movement” two years earlier in 1969.
That year, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the totemic organization of the white New Left, had disintegrated into dogmatic and squabbling factions; the Black Panther Party, meanwhile, had been so thoroughly infiltrated and targeted by law enforcement that factionalism and paranoia had come to eclipse its expansive program of revolutionary nationalism. But the war had certainly not ended, and neither had the underlying economic and racial injustices that organizers had sought to address across a long decade of protest politics. If anything, the recent flourishing of heterodox new radicalisms—from the women’s and gay liberation movements to radical ecology to militant Native American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, and Asian-American movements—had given those who dreamed of a world free of war and oppression a sobering new awareness of the range and scale of the challenges they faced.
On May 3, 1971, after nearly two weeks of intense antiwar protest in Washington, DC, ranging from a half-million-person march to large-scale sit-ins outside the Selective Service, Justice Department, and other government agencies, some 25,000 young people set out to do something brash and extraordinary: disrupt the basic functioning of the federal government through nonviolent action. They called themselves the Mayday Tribe, and their slogan was as succinct as it was ambitious: “If the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.” The slogan was of course hyperbolic— even if Washington, DC were completely paralyzed by protest for a day or week or a month, that would not halt the collection of taxes, the delivery of mail, the dropping of bombs, or countless other government functions—but that made it no less electrifying as a rallying cry, and no less alarming to the Nixon administration (Nixon’s White House chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, called it “potentially a real threat”). An elaborate tactical manual distributed in advance detailed twenty-one key bridges and traffic circles for protesters to block nonviolently, with stalled vehicles, improvised barricades, or their bodies. The immediate goal was to snarl traffic so completely that government employees could not get to their jobs. The larger objective was “to create the spectre of social chaos while maintaining the support or at least toleration of the broad masses of American people.”
The protest certainly interfered with business as usual in Washington: traffic was snarled, and many government employees stayed home. Others commuted to their offices before dawn, and three members of Congress even resorted to canoeing across the Potomac to get themselves to Capitol Hill. But most of the planned blockades held only briefly, if at all, because most of the protesters were arrested before they even got into position. Thanks to the detailed tactical manual, the authorities knew exactly where protesters would be deployed. To stop them from paralyzing the city, the Nixon Administration had made the unprecedented decision to sweep them all up, using not just police but actual military forces.
Under direct presidential orders, Attorney General John Mitchell mobilized the National Guard and thousands of troops from the Army and the Marines to join the Washington, DC police in rounding up everyone suspected of participating in the protest. As one protester noted, “Anyone and everyone who looked at all freaky was scooped up off the street.” A staggering number of people— more than 7,000—were locked up before the day was over, in what remain the largest mass arrests in US history. Read more…
I couldn’t quite figure out why Japanese listeners had come to appreciate and savor the blues in the way that they seemed to—lavishly, devotedly. Blues is still an outlier genre in Japan, but it’s revered, topical, present. I’d spent my first couple of days in Tokyo hungrily trawling the city’s many excellent record stores, marveling at the stock. I had shuffled into the nine-story Tower Records in Shibuya (NO MUSIC NO LIFE, a giant sign on its exterior read), past a K-pop band called CLC, an abbreviation for Crystal Clear—seven very-young-looking women in matching outfits, limply performing a synchronized dance, waving their slender arms back and forth before a hypnotized crowd—and ridden an elevator to a floor housing more shrink-wrapped blues CDs than I have ever seen gathered in a single place of retail. I had been to a tiny, quiet bar—JBS, or Jazz, Blues, and Soul—with floor-to-ceiling shelves housing owner Kobayashi Kazuhiro’s eleven thousand LPs, from which he studiously selected each evening’s soundtrack. I had seen more than one person wearing a Sonny Boy Williamson t-shirt. I had heard about audiophiles installing their own utility poles to get “more electricity” straight from the grid to power elaborate sound systems. What I didn’t know was what about this music made sense in Japan—how and why it had come to occupy the collective imagination, what it could offer.
In Calgary, Aziz found a Muslim community in conflict—and denial—over how to address the fact that dozens of young men were leaving their community to travel to distant battlefields. The Canadian government estimates that as of the end of 2015, 180 Canadians overseas were actively involved with terror organizations; about half of them are believed to be in Syria and Iraq, having been recruited by groups such as isis. It was difficult for members of the city’s Muslim community to accept that radicalization was happening in Calgary. It seemed implausible that these young men could be capable of carrying out acts of violence abroad—until it started happening.
Many in the community hoped that Aziz might be able to intervene. He was, after all, not much older than those who were leaving. Other imams in the community, most of them foreign born and middle-aged, had trouble connecting with Muslim youth born and raised in Canada. They didn’t know how to address political issues such as the conflict in Syria with those who were unsettled by the slaughter of thousands of civilians. Imams across the country feared that broaching the subject of overseas conflicts and jihad directly might draw objections from others in their mosques—or worse, attract the attention of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (csis).
Michael Joyce climbs into his father’s station wagon on a Sunday afternoon, the light of southern California glowing soft and gold. Joyce is tiny and cherubic, his face freckled and full, his hair a shock of strawberry blonde. He is 12 years old and has already spent six of those years playing competitive tennis, and he’s become very good at it.
In another six years, Joyce will become the junior national champion. After that victory, he will hoist a heavy trophy overhead and cameras will pop and flash and reporters will shout questions in his direction, and his ascension, as a professional tennis player, will begin. In an especially vibrant era for American tennis, Joyce’s cohort will include Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, and Jim Courier. He will play each of them, with varying levels of success, and at his peak he will be ranked as the 64th best male singles player in the world.
During his playing days, David Foster Wallace will write about him in his seminal tennis essay, “The String Theory,” later republished in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments, and through that work, Joyce’s career will persist, a blip of his existence anthologized in pop culture. In the years that follow, at every tournament Joyce attends, someone will ask him about that story, about Wallace, and about that period in his life.
A wrist injury will end his career early but not his successes. He will coach Maria Sharapova for six years and two Grand Slam titles and become a known commodity as a coach and mostly forgotten as a player, a fact that will annoy him greatly, but also be inarguable.
On this day, though, none of that yet matters. Defeat had been meted out by another prodigious talent, another boy born with a natural inclination towards the sport. Joyce, at 12 years old, was not yet thinking about his professional future, he was not yet aware that his youth and working adulthood would blend together without interruption; he just knew that when he won, everyone around him seemed happier and he liked that. He liked the way his view of the world, from the back seat of the station wagon, seemed to grow larger and brighter on those days, the family joyful and contented, his father sometimes pulling off the road for a post-match ice cream.
This would not be one of those days, though. Joyce had lost. His opponent, a lefty, put heavy topspin on the ball. It was a style that Joyce had yet to encounter, and when his opponent walloped it back, deep into the corners, a distance, both literal and metaphoric, grew between the boys.
The resulting defeat was felt so strongly and shared between Joyce and his father, also named Michael, that they diverted from their regular route home, drove out to the edge of town, and pulled to a stop at a factory that manufactured ball machines. Joyce didn’t know this factory existed, he didn’t know how his father knew it existed, but soon enough a new ball machine was rattling in the trunk, and they were on their way home.
Years earlier, in the family backyard, Joyce’s father had torn down the tree house, filled in the swimming pool, and put up a tennis court. Joyce received instruction from famed tennis technician and legendary hard ass Robert Lansdorp and his father, who taught tennis in the army, would replicate the lessons at home.
Now, in the backyard, the machine stood in his father’s place, rapid firing balls that sliced and hooked and spun through the air, mirroring the shots that Joyce had missed earlier in the day. Joyce’s task was to remain there, outside, until he understood how to play every shot. For three hours, Joyce batted at the air, fought through fatigue, and ignored his body that was wilting with exhaustion.
Later, when his mother and sister returned home from a day of running errands, his mother stormed into the backyard. “What are you doing?” she shouted at his father. “The poor kid is exhausted.” It was then that Joyce took his first break, his hands now raw and red and blistered over, his frustration giving way to tears.
This is an unseemly side of athletics: the labor that is overlooked in the delirium of mass mediation, the absurdity that we ignore because it is ugly and alarming and unhealthy, but also necessary. It is very hard to go pro in any sport, and few sports are as isolating as tennis. On the court, there is nowhere to hide, no teammates to mask individual deficiencies. As a result, the life of an athlete, even a young one, has to be dwindled down to a singular focus, and then refined over and over again. Joyce did not yet fully understand why this level of sacrifice was required—but it wouldn’t be much longer until he did.
“When I was younger I almost felt like the happiness in the family depended on how I was doing in tennis and it probably did a little bit and that was the sad reality of it,” Joyce says. “If I won we went out for lunch and everyone’s happy. If I lose, my dad’s kinda pissed and my mom’s pissed at my dad. It’s a lot of pressure on a kid. It’s not a normal childhood.”
That day, in the backyard, with his mother’s help, Joyce learned that he had to stand up for himself. He had to be able to say no, his mother told him. He couldn’t please everyone, not all the time, and his self-worth couldn’t be dictated by wins and losses. This was a hard lesson to learn, of course, and Joyce describes that day, and his father’s course of action, as “a bit nutty,” but it worked. A few months later, Joyce played that same boy and won in straight sets.
Through the cursory nature of their careers, athletes learn of life’s brevity earlier than most and at another angle and a different depth. Joyce is now a father and husband, and the things that used to matter to him, matter less now. The priorities of his life have shifted, but tennis remains near the top and so does what he loves most about the sport: the game’s simple binaries, that there is one winner and one loser. On a tennis court, you are exposed and vulnerable, and you have to face whatever comes your way and face it alone. Joyce has come to enjoy that. He has viewed his life through the lens of tennis, his ambitions and desires distilled through its filter. His experiences have shaped who he is, sometimes in small, indiscernible ways, and other times in larger, sweeping turns. He grew up in the sport, and in public, and now, at 43 years old, Michael Joyce begins his second act. Read more…
Maybe it’s not a coincidence that Rudisill, crotchety patron saint of the fruitcake, is related to one of the most famous American queer men of all time. She was an aunt of Truman Capote. Capote, effeminate and limp-wristed, could be considered the ideal target for the word fruitcake in its other, equally noxious meaning.
The expression “nutty as a fruitcake” has been sewn into common American parlance since as early as 1935. Fruitcake is something like the word faggot’s first cousin. To be nuts was to be mentally ill, after all, and queerness was, for a time, a flavor of mental illness. The common history of the moniker goes as follows: A fruit, susceptible to the whims of nature, tends to grow tender and soft. For a man to embody these very traits, a sensitivity to the elements that is typically coded female, goes against the imaginings of masculinity our culture worships.
This word association is quite fun; it’s like rummaging through an old thesaurus from a blazingly shittier America. Recently, I began trying to trace the precise pathways through which this food became a pejorative, motivated by intense personal curiosity: I had grown up eating fruitcake and considering it a delicacy. My family is from the Indian state of West Bengal, where fruitcake is widely considered a food to cherish rather than to trash. The architecturally stodgy, pre-packaged variety that so many Americans seem to abhor was a food my family and I would eat with tea. Other families could have stuff from Entenmann’s or Carvel; we preferred these tutti frutti cakes that came in rectangular aluminum packaging. We’d even eat it for breakfast. It was aseasonal, dislodged from Christmas. If doing so were nutritionally sound or socially permissible, we’d eat it every meal.
Almost six months after she was hired, the shop had an opening for a full-time mechanic. Layton wasn’t moved into the position, as she’d been promised. Instead, the store hired a young man who hadn’t gone to bike school, and whose experience came from volunteering at the same bike shop where Layton had previously worked. “On his first day,” she says, “he overtightened a seatcollar on a carbon seatpost and cracked it, smashed it. I fucking would have known not to do that.”
Layton was never explicitly told that she wasn’t going to be moved into the full-time mechanic position. Instead, her bosses “hired around” her, evading her questions when she pressed them about when she’d get to start working on bikes. While she doesn’t hold a grudge against the mechanic who broke the seatpost, she’s irked that the shop manager and owner weren’t upfront with her about what they thought her capabilities were. “I took a huge pay cut, making a quarter of what I was making to work there, because I was promised that I would be hired as a mechanic,” she says. “And I never once had a bench of my own to work on.”
When Fingal points out that D’Agata, far from revealing the meaning of Presley’s life by sifting through its particulars, is inventing and imposing his own meanings on it—this is during an exchange about tae kwon do, which Presley practiced and for which D’Agata concocts an elaborate originary legend involving an “ancient Indian prince”—D’Agata replies that there is something between history and fiction. “We all believe in emotional truths that could never hold water, but we still cling to them and insist on their relevance.” The “emotional truths” here, of course, are D’Agata’s, not Presley’s. If it feels right to say that tae kwon do was invented in ancient India (not modern Korea, as Fingal discovers it was), then that is when it was invented. The term for this is truthiness.
Yet D’Agata, as Fingal notes, is not presenting Presley’s story to the reader as something that has been “poetically embellished” (Fingal’s phrase), or as the chronicle, as D’Agata insists, of his own search for meaning. He is presenting it as a work of nonfiction. D’Agata clearly wants to have it both ways. He wants the imaginative freedom of fiction without relinquishing the credibility (and for some readers, the significance) of nonfiction. He has his fingers crossed, and he’s holding them behind his back. “John’s a different kind of writer,” an editor explains to Fingal early in the book. Indeed he is. But the word for such a writer isn’t essayist. It’s liar.