Pacific Standard writer Kate Wheeling and editor Max Ufberg wrangled a comprehensive, meticulous, and fascinating oral history of the 1969 oil spill off Santa Barbara, California, that galvanized environmental activism, ultimately leading to the creation of a slew of federal environmental regulations and agencies. The whole read is great—Wheeling and Ufberg pulled in everyone from local activists to oil company lawyers to journalists—but one section on cleanup tactics stands out as both interesting and quaint.
Bottoms: The way they cleaned it up was they brought in straw. Bales and bales of straw.
Hazard: They didn’t have the oil response teams that they have now. We were totally unprepared for it. You know, what were we going to do?
Relis: I thought these oil companies and the federal government had sort of a game plan, but this was a joke. They were throwing straw down on the beach to lap up the oil with pitchforks and hiring people off the street! I mean, this was funky.
Bottoms: And they’d throw the straw out into the harbor too, and they’d take pitchforks and get convicts down there in little barges and lift the straw out of the ocean and drive the straw up the coast to a dump.
Relis: That was kind of eye-opening — that big companies and big government can be so incompetent.
It’s true, kids! Barely more than 40 years ago, government and corporations were assumed to be generally competent and responsible. The times, how they change.
In the introduction to her story on deep-brain stimulation for Pacific Standard, Sarah Scoles tells the story of Liss Murphy, a woman with treatment-resistant depression—in her words, a “sepsis of the soul”—who saw deep-brain stimulation as her last opportunity to live a normal life. The moment doctors turned on the stimulating current was a life-changer. But then they had to turn it off.
The doctors installed the electrodes and turned them on.
For Murphy, the moment was astonishing. A warmth surged through her. Everything felt lighter, clearer. But then those sensations stopped. The doctors had cut the current so that they could finish wiring the circuit, close her cranium back up, and insert the permanent pulse generator into her chest
After the surgery, Murphy spent a few days in recovery, and then the doctors sent her home. She would need to heal for three weeks, they told her, before they could turn her device back on. Back at home, returned to the gray world of her depression, Murphy remembered that warm, light, clear feeling. I wish that could be forever, she thought.
At Pacific Standard, Katie Kilkenny interviews Brian Reed, the host of the popular investigative podcast, S-Town, from the producers of Serial and This American Life. Reed shares his perspective on his approach to reporting the story. He relates how he earned the trust of the people he interviewed (the story takes place in Bibb County, Alabama — a poor and rural part of the state not used to outsiders) and his thoughts on reporting on someone after they have died. Warning: the interview contains spoilers.
I did find, in general, with some people down there, the “fuck it” attitude that I talk about in the story applied to talking to me. They got a kick out of me being there and having a reporter interested in their lives. That can be a lot of things — it can be annoying and it can be overwhelming, but it can also be validating to have someone listen to you as long as you want to talk, and listening to your every word, which I would do a lot of times. Otherwise it can be fun, and add some spice into your otherwise normal day, when you have this guy with a microphone following you around, and it’s funny. I think all of those were present in these relationships.
I read Alana Massey’s essay collection, All The Lives I Want: Essays About My Friends Who Happen to be Famous Strangers, with a pencil in hand. I read it behind the counter at work when it was quiet and customer-free. I read it in bed, long after my partner and cat had fallen asleep. I read it in Starbucks when I should’ve been writing but needed inspiration. Massey is a writer I’ve followed since I became interested in journalism. I admired her incisive blend of pop culture and literary criticism. I especially loved when she wrote about religion—Massey spent time at Yale Divinity School—because I went to a conservative Christian college and I was yearning to see how I could translate my weird, vaguely traumatic religious background into beautiful sentences. I bought her book as a reward for myself for meeting a writing deadline.
This reading list is partially inspired by Massey’s excellent writing about the way our society honors and rejects celebrated women—and also about society’s inclination, if not blatant desire, to know every little detail about our favorite celebrities and judge them according to our own arbitrary moral standards. (I’m not immune to this: I spent ten minutes in bed Googling potential paramours of one of my favorite YouTube stars, even though I know it’s none of my damn business.) Why do we feel like we own celebrities—not just their art or their products, but their images and their personal lives? What do celebrities owe us, if anything?
At Pacific Standard, Sarah Menkedick profiles Vianney Bernabé, exploring what it means to be second-generation Mexican American today — a person with deep roots in Mexico and feet and future planted firmly in America. Educated, ambitious, and principled, Bernabé is destined for success. Menkedick posits that if America cannot reject this myopic resurgence of nativist (white) populism to embrace the skills and culture of Bernabé’s generation, it does so at its own peril.
Vianney embodies two fundamental American traditions: the dream of triumphing over adversity to achieve success, and its nightmare shadow of xenophobia, fear, and hatred.
What these young Latinos become will be determined not only by their own struggles and achievements, but also by the willingness of many Americans to rethink their fundamental conceptions of Americanness, to recognize the dangerous fiction of an essential, unchanging America defined solely by white culture.
Mexico gave Vianney what the United States could not: the ability to believe in herself. It did this not by granting her unequivocal acceptance or answering the persistent questions of belonging posed in the U.S., but by forcing her to come to terms with her ambivalence. It allowed her to acknowledge that she was American, but an American for whom Americanness did not mean unquestioning assimilation into white institutions, but solidarity with the many people excluded from these institutions. It granted her a new faith in herself in spite of the hatred and oppression. It familiarized her with in-betweenness, a state deeply and violently resisted in the U.S., where patriotism is feverish and flavorless, where you are with us or against us, where, at this moment in time, simply speaking Spanish or wearing a hijab is enough to elicit righteous white rage.
She returned to the United States in August of 2016, when the message being blared to Latinos was precisely the opposite: Not only were they not good enough, they were rapists, drug dealers, “bad hombres.” Vianney, with her hard-won confidence in herself, and her renewed commitment to help those left out of American progress, came home to the feverish chanting of Build the wall! Donald Trump’s victory in November — despite his losing the popular vote by a historic margin — has legitimized and strengthened a vision of the United States in which only white people belong and have ever belonged. The most popular, foundational myth of the United States as the land of freedom for the world’s oppressed has been eclipsed by the ever-present but thinly buried myth of white dominance and superiority.
Life was stable for Herb until 2013, when he “got lazy” and neglected to renew his truck-driver license. He didn’t realize the severity of his error until he applied for a new license but could not pass the written test. Although Herb quickly landed a job as a security guard at a fast-food restaurant, even working overtime didn’t provide enough for him to make ends meet. He fell behind on rent and was evicted.
Herb experienced that unfortunate reality firsthand. Last winter, his car got towed, taking his security-guard uniform and most of his remaining possessions with it. He never got the car back — he didn’t have the funds. Unable to dress for work, he stopped going, and spent the next two months on the streets. He panhandled, flashing his veteran’s ID as he asked for spare change, and was sometimes reduced to eating out of dumpsters. To survive the winter chill, he slept bundled up in several layers of pants, shirts, and blankets. Once, a cop tried to shoo him from a doorway, and Herb begged him to take him to jail instead, so he would have a warm place to sleep. The officer told him, “I’m not taking you to jail, but you can’t stay here.”
“I was really down,” Herb says. Yet he still counted himself lucky. “A lot of the people I met on the street were on meds and should have been hospitalized,” he says. “They really couldn’t take care of themselves.” But even a strong, able-bodied person like Herb will soon be broken down under those conditions. At one point he began suffering from severe chest pains, so he checked into Oakland’s Highland Hospital, where he remained for five days. “The stress got to me,” he says. “The hospital people told me, ‘Herb, just being on the streets is messing you up.’”
In 2016, I published my New Year’s resolutions on Longreads. As 2017 dawns, I thought I’d check in with my old self, dust off 2016’s goals and set some new intentions.
1. Alas, I never did make it to Iceland, but I did a lot of domestic travel in 2016. In Washington State, I touched the Pacific Ocean for the first time and slept on a sailboat. In Asheville, I got a new tattoo and swooned inside Firestorm Books & Cafe. I saw friends and family marry in Richmond and Chautauqua. I saw Deaf West perform Spring Awakening and the one-weekend revival of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater in NYC. I even visited Foamhenge! (That’s me in the photo above.) I’m returning to Asheville in 2017; beyond that, I have no concrete travel plans. Feel free to sponsor me on a trip to the ends of the Earth and back! I’ll write about it! For now, I’m seeing the world via the following essays from 2016: