Duluth, Minnesota was dank and barren. Ice and mounted snow covered Lake Superior, save for scattered pools of howling waves. I picked this time because the ships weren’t in and wouldn’t be for several weeks. It was, for the moment, safe to stand by that great lake and speak on the silent affliction it routinely ushers to Duluth’s shores—the very same affliction that will spread across four states and infect each Dakota Access Pipeline construction site. I was there to meet Sarah Curtiss, an esteemed Anishinaabe activist at Men As Peacemakers, who’d agreed to an on-camera interview to discuss the predatory violence on this lake and other locations throughout Indian Country, such as oil fields and pipeline camps, that threaten the lives and bodies of Indigenous women on a daily basis. She wasn’t my first documentary interview on this subject, yet my hair raised in anticipation of absorbing more horrific accounts and the immense responsibility of honoring her every word.
Curtiss shook my hand and sighed. Her exhale eased my nerves. “You wouldn’t believe some of the questions I’ve been asked,” she said. “I once had this woman, a reporter, say ‘Are you sure? Are you sure you’re Indian?’”
Curtiss is astute, so I would not put it past her to pop this icebreaker as a litmus quiz for non-people of color documentarians (or journalists), but for me that morning it was an invitation to an honest interview built on trust in our convergent, but different, American experiences as “other.” Her last name, Curtiss, her milk complexion and loose auburn curls were more Anglo than Disney’s Pocahontas, but questioning her blood quantum never crossed my mind. How could it? Being of color, I’d long resigned myself to what most American minorities from families spanning the skin color spectrum know: If one of the three race-defining elements (skin color, features, hair texture) is off stereotype, “Are you sure?” or “What else are you?” looms over every discussion with the uninitiated. But, Curtiss and I were initiated.
We met on a February morning as if we were sorority sisters from distant chapters executing an exclusive greeting in the form of her sigh that said, Thank God I don’t have to explain myself to you. It was unexpected, but I was grateful. We discussed her advocacy in the fight against the epidemic of missing, murdered, and trafficked Indigenous women plaguing North America; the crisis that led her to divulge, “I do not go a month without someone I have a personal connection to passing away.” More specifically, she spoke of her prominent role combating trafficking on Lake Superior ships that pass through Minnesota’s Duluth Port—the reason for my sojourn to the frigid Midwest.
On a 17-degree day with sharp winds blistering her hands and cheeks, Curtiss stood beside the great lake that keeps sweeping away her stolen sisters. She detailed injustices against many Native women who live unrecognized lives, invisible to all but those who mean them harm—demeaning, brutal harm—and introduced me to invisibility as a handicap, rather than a privilege of gods. Read more…
For eight years, until Tropical Storm Irene struck the village of Waterbury, Vermont, the corner of South Main Street and Elm was occupied by The Alchemist Pub and Brewery. It was, by most measures, a common small-town bar. The walls were chocolate brown brick. The barstools were steel and backless and topped with black leather. A pool table sat in the corner. The ceilings were high, and the lighting was soft. A cast of regulars helped fill the pub’s 60 seats. It was charming in its familiarity, quaint and comfortable, but brewing in the basement was a beer capable of inspiring obsession. It was called Heady Topper and since the pub was the only place you could buy it, Waterbury—home to just a few thousand—soon became a mecca for craft beer drinkers.
The pub belonged to Jen and John Kimmich. Jen ran the business side, and John handled the beer. They first met in 1995, when they were both working at the Vermont Pub and Brewery in Burlington. John had made his way there from Pittsburgh. He’d been enthralled by a home brewer and writer named Greg Noonan who was a pioneer in craft brewing, especially in New England, where he helped push through legislation that recognized the concept of brewpubs.
After graduating from Penn State, John packed everything he owned into his Subaru and drove to Vermont in the hopes that Noonan would give him a job. He did, and for a year John waited tables, coming in on the weekends for no pay to learn the trade alongside the head brewer. Then John became the head brewer. Jen was a waitress at the pub. After turning down John’s initial first-date offer, she came back a week later and asked him out. A month later they were engaged.
Two months after the Kimmiches opened The Alchemist in Waterbury, John, driven by an obsession with fresh, floral, hoppy flavors, brewed the first batch of Heady Topper. The immediate response from customers upon tasting it was bewilderment, followed by intrigue. Their eyes scanned the room, meeting all the other eyes scanning the room, all of them in search of an answer to the same question: What is this? “People were shocked, maybe,” John says. “They would taste it and go, ‘Oh, my god.’ They’d never had anything like that before. People really went nuts for it.”
At first, John didn’t brew Heady year-round. He would make it two times a year, then three, then four, tinkering with the recipe each time. He had other beers to make, like Pappy’s Porter or Piston Bitter or Bolton Brown. They were all distinct, unusually compelling beers, but soon word began to spread about Heady: It was a hit. The problem, if there was one, was that it was only available in the pub. Enterprising customers solved it by sneaking pints into the bathroom, where they would pour them into bottles, screw on caps, and then shuffle out of the bar, pockets bulging. The business and the Alchemist name were growing with rapid, radical speed, beyond anything the Kimmiches had anticipated—and then the storm came.
Irene arrived in Vermont on a Sunday afternoon in August 2011. It roared north from the southern end of the state. Waterbury’s usually calm and placid Winooski River, a short distance from the pub, swelled uncontrollably. The local waterways and tributaries overflowed, and the contaminated water rushed through town, absorbing sewage and sodden trash and heating oil, staining everything it touched. Trees and shrubs were unearthed or turned gray and brown, like they’d been doused by a plume of ash. Cars were flipped; bridges buckled and collapsed; houses were left twisted and roofless. In some stretches of the state, more than a foot of water fell.
From their home in Stowe, just 10 miles north of Waterbury, Jen and John and their son, Charlie, watched the storm unfold. When they got the call that Waterbury was being evacuated, John jumped in the car and drove down, powerless but determined to see the destruction with his own eyes.
By the time he arrived at the brewpub, the basement—where he had been brewing for eight years, where he stored the original recipes for more than 70 beers, and where he and Jen had their offices and kept the food—was completely under water. On the first floor, John stepped inside. The water was not yet waist high, but it was well on its way, so he worked his way to the bar and poured himself a final pint of Holy Cow IPA. Then, with the water rising at his feet, he raised his glass skyward and toasted goodbye to everything they’d built. Read more…
“Wait, so your ex called your boss and tried to get you fired?”
This is me.
This is Andy. We are on a break from German class, 15 minutes between the future tense and the subjunctive. He’s from Baton Rouge and I’m from Seattle, but we’re speaking German, for practice. We are not very good.
“Er ist ein … Fucker,” Andy says. “He told my boss I was reading ebooks at my desk instead of working—which I totally was.”
“So, did you get fired?” I ask.
“No, my boss already knew I was a super shitty employee. But then I called up my ex’s boss and got him fired.” Andy’s former boyfriend is in Amsterdam; he’s a mechanic. A few months ago he told a customer that her car was totaled, bought it off her for a few hundred euros, then sold it the next week for two thousand.
“Es ist nicht so gut,” I say, my German failing, as always, to reach the correct level of emphasis. We are both going through breakups. It’s been a week since mine and six since his. This is what we talk about every day, 15 minutes at a time.
Two weeks ago, Andy’s ex visited him here in Berlin. They had dinner, then sex, then Andy asked him to leave, told him he shouldn’t sleep over now that they’re not boyfriends anymore. Three days later, the cops called. His ex is filing charges for attempted murder. He says putting him out on the street in middle of the night in February is an act of violence. Andy has to be in court next week.
Scott Korb | Longreads | February 2017 | 32 minutes (8,200 words)
The following essay is adapted from a talk presented at Pacific University’s MFA in Writing Program. It includes advice from writers of “YA fiction, writers for television and stage, of novels and essays, investigative journalism, and criticism” on how we might produce meaningful work in the next four years.
* * *
I often teach a piece of writing by David Foster Wallace, included originally as the introduction to the 2007 edition of The Best American Essays. He called the piece “Deciderization—2007,” a title that jabbed at the then-current president, George W. Bush, who, in the midst of his second term—in the midst of the Iraq war, which as fought had been lost—reminded the country during a press conference insisting he would not fire Donald Rumsfeld, whom he would later fire, that he, George W. Bush, was “The Decider.”
The moment seems far away now, but Bush’s choice of words here, it was said at the time, “struck the national funny bone.” Writing in the New York Times, Sheryl Gay Stolberg said,
On the Internet, it was memorialized to the tune of “I am the Walrus,” by the Beatles. (“I am me and Rummy’s he. Iraq is free and we are all together.”) On late-night television, the Decider emerged as a comic-book hero, courtesy of Jon Stewart, host of “The Daily Show.”
In other words, in making fun of Bush, Wallace was not alone and, as he was well aware, was far from the most high-profile or widely observed jabber. Opening the book’s introduction, he wrote, “I think it’s unlikely that anyone is reading this as an introduction.”
Most of the people I know treat Best American anthologies like Whitman Samplers. They skip around, pick and choose. There isn’t the same kind of linear commitment as in a regular book. … There’s a kind of triage. The guest editor’s intro is last, if at all.
This sense of being last or least likely confers its own freedoms.
When I’ve taught his introduction before I’ve tended to highlight how Wallace considers and reconsiders the essay form itself—“one constituent of the truth about the front cover,” he writes, “is that your guest editor isn’t sure what an essay even is.” This confusion is fun in a way that Wallace is often fun. It does what this particular writer tends to do—puts his own subjectivity front and center in an effort to pull a rug out from under us. What do you mean you don’t know what an essay even is?
Continuing on, Wallace then addresses his lack of both confidence and concern with the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction—more fun for us—only to change course a moment later, explaining that he does care about such differences, but conceding that they’re “hard to talk about in a way that someone who doesn’t try to write both fiction and nonfiction will understand.” At which point he dives into the part of the essay I’ve always been most interested in talking about with writing students, who tend—as I am—to be interested in how to do what writers are trying to do. What is writing supposed to feel like?
Writing-wise, fiction is scarier, but nonfiction is harder—because nonfiction’s based in reality, and today’s felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex. Whereas fiction comes out of nothing. Actually, so wait: the truth is that both genres are scary; both feel like they’re executed on tightropes, over abysses—it’s the abysses that are different. Fiction’s abyss is silence, nada. Whereas nonfiction’s abyss is Total Noise, the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one’s total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect, and how, and why, etc.
The intergenre debates that go on in our culture have been a great pleasure to me over the years. I like what journalist Jeff Sharlet says on the point: “Fiction’s first move is imagination; nonfiction’s is perception.” And to be sure, I’m always delighted to hear from someone about the abyss under poetry’s tightrope. Read more…
He wore tan work boots and rough jeans. He told a friend in the waiting room that he had a couple hours off work and thought he’d stop in for some extra cash. The receptionist told him the names of that day’s phlebotomists. He paused. Sliding a 16-gauge needle into someone’s arm is tricky, and the man reconsidered. Instead of signing in, he announced to the room that he’d come back tomorrow and try his luck.
I’d driven 107 miles from my home in Bangor, Maine to the BPL Plasma Center in Lewiston to collect $50 for having my arm punctured and a liter of my plasma sucked out. The actual donation takes about 35 minutes, but the drive and its attendant wait makes for an eight-hour day. I clocked in for that trip five times this summer.
I’m a professor at the University of Maine. My salary is $52,000, and I am a year away from tenure. But like everyone else in that room, I was desperate for money. Read more…
I am sitting in the middle seat of the third row of a minivan. A heap of purses crowd my feet. Elbows and knees jab my sides. We are gridlocked on I-285 during Atlanta evening rush hour in a crawl-pause rhythm, our progress as tedious as arranging the frames of a stop motion animation film. The nose of our van points southeast to Savannah, the historic coastal town Union Army General Sherman spared during the Civil War. When raindrops the size of nickels smack our windshield, the hazard lights on surrounding vehicles blink on like garlands of bulbs on a Christmas tree.
“Hey,” my friend in the second row calls, craning her neck to make eye contact. “Do you want chai?”
I lean forward. The seatbelt catches my breastbone. “You want to make a stop already? We’ll never get there at this rate.”
“No, no,” says the driver, my neighbor from up the street. “We brought a thermos. And cups.”
I am incredulous, not only because my friends thought to pack chai on a four-hour road trip, but because, judging by the way the rest of my friends continue their chatter, I am the only person who finds it odd.
It’s no wonder. Among our seven passengers, six have immigrated to the U.S. from South Asia. They sip chai from morning to night. Percolating pots of fresh ginger, full fat milk and cardamom serve as background music in their homes.
I am the only one of us born and raised in the States, the only one who considers bagged tea to be actual tea, the one who stubbornly refuses to wear saris to celebrate South Asian holidays, the clueless audience for conversations rattled off in Hindi, a language I don’t understand.
I am the interpreter of academic monograms like S.A.T. and A.P., the friend who suggests they not worry so much about their kids’ grades or test scores, the beloved Aunty who sticks up for their children whenever a parental rule interferes with their enjoyment of authentically American childhoods.
Steam from the chai forms a layer of film on my face. I inhale its aroma, hopeful it will ease the dull ache in my gut, the sinking feeling my friends probably can’t decipher because they grew up in countries where their brown skin and names did not summarily mark them as outsiders. Not even these ladies, my closest friends, know that I harbor a deep-seated fear of small American cities and towns.
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…
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…
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When I woke up on January 1st of 2012, I resolved not to drown. At 24 years old, I still lacked a crucial survival skill that most American children pick up before finishing elementary school.
It wasn’t for lack of opportunities. As a toddler my parents enrolled me in classes at a local YMCA; while I did develop an electromagnetic poolside grip, I did not successfully learn to swim. Later, I took a few lessons at a neighbor’s pool until those ended abruptly following rumors that another neighbor was threatening to alert the authorities to the unlicensed swimming business. In high school, during a harrowing water-treading test, my gym teacher hovered nervously over me as I flailed my gangly limbs to keep my face just above the water’s surface, and when I looked up I saw in his eyes my own terror reflected back. Knowing that he wouldn’t want to be responsible for a kid drowning in his gym class, I was certain he’d happily let me switch to the more terrestrial bowling/tennis/golf PE track that term. After high school I went to a college that had a somewhat absurd but rather practical requirement that in order to graduate, you had to be able to swim two pool lengths. I passed by back-floating across; no one seemed to mind that it took me nearly a half hour to “swim” a total of 50 yards.
Being in the water terrified me, evoking the kind of primal fear that our ancestors learned, generally, to heed. But I rarely told anyone; I was too embarrassed to admit I couldn’t swim. Attending an outdoorsy college with more riverside ropes to swing on and cliffs to jump off than I cared for meant that I often found myself in the water hoping and praying that I could thrash my way to some semblance of dry land before swallowing too much water–or before a fate worse than death to my idiotic college-addled brain: to have to be saved from drowning by a peer.
So on New Year’s Day that year, I promised myself one final chance to figure the damn thing out before resigning myself to a lifetime in fear of three quarters of the Earth’s surface. Read more…