This week, we’re sharing stories from Rana Dasgupta, Whitney Joiner, Jesse Barron, Kiese Laymon, and David Roth.
My uncle Howard killed himself in college. He was a grad student in Ann Arbor, engaged to be married, and, according to my family, well-liked. He suffered from depression worsened by tensions with his father. My grandmother knew this, yet she struggled to understand her son’s suicide for the rest of her long life. When Howard committed suicide in 1968, he did it in private inside a school chemistry lab, but he clearly wanted to be found, because he was sending a message. When 18-year-old Océane ended her life in May, 2016, she streamed the incident in real time, jumping in front of a suburban Paris subway train while strangers watched and commented.
At The Guardian, Rana Dasgupta tells Océane’s story and tries to understand why a young ailing woman could both criticize social media and use social media to communicate her message. Océane was wounded by trauma and haunted by the sense that no one cared, a fact that social media only amplified. Examining this central contradiction, Dasgupta teases out the allure of escape in the depressed Parisian suburbs, the way disconnected youth seek connection, and the way celebrity, even internet celebrity, drains people of life.
This week, we’re sharing stories from Bee Wilson, Seyward Darby, Wil S. Hylton, Greg Milner, and Annie Dillard.
Our notions of health and wellness (both charged terms these days, one might add) are still stuck in a paradigm that wouldn’t be out of place in ancient Greece; what goes on inside us must somehow be visible and recognizable on our bodies’ surface. In her Guardian essay on the rise of orthorexia — the obsession with consuming pure, “perfect” foods — Bee Wilson traces the history of a recent-yet-oh-so-familiar publishing trend: using youthful, traditionally good-looking women to sell both specific products (hello, coconut-and-oat energy balls!) and an amorphous, ever-shifting “clean” lifestyle.
Every wellness guru worth her Himalayan pink salt has a story of how changing what you eat can change your life. “Food has the power to make or break you,” wrote Amelia Freer in her 2014 bestseller Eat. Nourish. Glow. (which has sold more than 200,000 copies). Freer was leading a busy life as a personal assistant to the Prince of Wales when she realised that her tummy “looked and felt as if it had a football in it” from too many snatched dinners of cheese on toast or “factory-made food”. By giving up “processed” and convenience foods (“margarine, yuck!”) along with gluten and sugar, Freer claimed to have found the secrets to “looking younger and feeling healthier”.
Perhaps the best-known diet-transformation story of all is that of Ella Mills — possessor of more than a million Instagram followers. In 2011, Mills was diagnosed with postural tachycardia syndrome, a condition characterised by dizziness and extreme fatigue. Mills began blogging about food after discovering that her symptoms radically improved when she swapped her sugar-laden diet for “plant-based, natural foods.” Mills — who used to be a model — made following a “free-from” diet seem not drab or deprived, but deeply aspirational. By the time her first book appeared in January 2015, her vast following on social media helped her to sell 32,000 copies in the first week alone.
There was something paradoxical about the way these books were marketed. What they were selling purported to be an alternative to a sordidly commercial food industry. “If it’s got a barcode or a ‘promise’, don’t buy it,” wrote Freer. Yet clean eating is itself a wildly profitable commercial enterprise, promoted using photogenic young bloggers on a multi-billion-dollar tech platform. Literary agent Zoe Ross tells me that around 2015 she began to notice that “the market was scouring Instagram for copycat acts — specifically very pretty, very young girls pushing curated food and lifestyle.”
Do Americans have a unified identity and if so, how is it defined? I remember a summer party in Seattle where, under a twilight sky, a friend insisted it was television that provided our common vernacular. I’d been without TV for a while. Mine had burst into flames (really!) and this was pre-internet everywhere — was my American cred at risk? Travel in the flyover states has shown me how different I am — a textbook “creative class” lefty — from the restrained Midwesterners I encountered. Such disparate characters, yet the same American passports.
For all their patriotism, Americans rarely think about how their national identities relate to their personal ones. This indifference is particular to the psychology of white Americans and has a history unique to the US. In recent years, however, this national identity has become more difficult to ignore. Americans can no longer travel in foreign countries without noticing the strange weight we carry with us. In these years after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the many wars that followed, it has become more difficult to gallivant across the world absorbing its wisdom and resources for one’s own personal use. Americans abroad now do not have the same swagger, the easy, enormous smiles. You no longer want to speak so loud. There is always the vague risk of breaking something.
Some years after I moved to Istanbul, I bought a notebook, and unlike that confident child, I wrote down not plans but a question: who do we become if we don’t become Americans? If we discover that our identity as we understood it had been a myth? I asked it because my years as an American abroad in the 21st century were not a joyous romp of self-discovery and romance. Mine were more of a shattering and a shame, and even now, I still don’t know myself.
This week, we’re sharing stories from Abrahm Lustgarten, Lois Beckett, Julia O’Malley, Alice Driver, and Sarah Jeong.
This week, we’re sharing stories from Lizzie Presser, Linda Villarosa, Maurice Chammah, Mike Giglio, and Will Storr.
As a child, I dreaded my family’s annual trip to the plant nursery. Embarrassingly, I cannot tell you a single plant my parents purchased. My sister and I romped through the aisles of the greenhouses, hoping to trigger the sprinklers. Neither of us had a passion for gardening. I can’t speak for my sister, but I still don’t. Nevertheless, I’ve listened to two gardeners speak about their passions and philosophies in the past two weeks: Nancy Lawson, author of The Humane Gardener, and Marianne Willburn, who wrote Big Dreams, Small Garden. I pored over their books, replete with gorgeous pictures of very different gardens and their animal and human inhabitants. While I wasn’t inspired to take up a trowel, between their suggestions for dodging Maryland’s infamous gnats and peaceful coexistence with rabbits, I gained a new appreciation for a dedication to the dirt.
1. “Bitter Greens.” (Mindy Hung, The Toast, December 2014)
“When I was seven years old, my grandparents began a squatter’s garden over empty city land.” So begins Mindy Hung’s essay about bitter vegetables, the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, the unpredictability of cruel teenagers, and scarcity versus security.
2. “Arcadia.” (Emma Crichton Miller, Aeon, August 2013)
Psychoanalysts, artists, and poets have long drawn on imagery of nature. The garden, with its chaos cultivated and conquered, is lush with metaphor.
3. “Lessons From My Mother, the Grave Gardener.” (Anna Gragert, Catapult, May 2017)
Not even a childhood spent assisting her mother in tending to gravesides could prepare Anna Gragert for the inevitability of her loved ones’ deaths.
4. “Why Would Someone Steal the World’s Rarest Water Lily?” (Sam Knight, The Guardian, October 2014)
A fascinating, frustrating tale of PLANT CRIME: The tiniest water lily, Rwandan in origin, is taken from Kew Gardens in England, ostensibly in plain sight. But there are no cameras and no witnesses. What’s a conservatory to do? And what’s the end game of the wheelers and dealers on the black market for the world’s most endangered plants?
5. “The Neoliberal Green Space.” (Marisa Mandabach, Jacobin, July 2015)
The Turkish construction boom is eliminating the historical link between Muslim life and working-class gardens, over the protests of the people:
Istanbul’s bostans preserve an alternative model for urban gardening: one that provides a living for professional small farmers, who supply their communities with produce and have relative autonomy over the spaces they cultivate. That this livelihood is being destroyed right as gardens are becoming fetish objects in the urban imagination might seem ironic — but it is perfectly compatible with the rise of the neoliberal green space.
At The Guardian, Samira Shackle profiles Muhammad Safdar, an ambulance driver in Karachi, Pakistan, where religious violence, workplace disasters, and multiple explosions are just another day on the job. The Edhi Foundation’s ambulance service, which refuses state money and donations from businesses it deems unethical, is funded largely by donations from “the common man.” Standard work shifts run between 18 and 36 hours, and drivers earn about $1.30 US per day.
The impact of the explosion sent Muhammad Safdar flying backwards. He looked up from where he had landed and saw that the windows of his parked ambulance had shattered. As he tried to pick himself back up, fellow volunteer drivers working for the Edhi ambulance service gathered around him; it looked as if Safdar was bleeding. But he had not suffered any external injuries. “Human flesh got stuck to me,” he recalls now, as we sit in the ambulance control centre in downtown Karachi. “My friends were checking me for injuries, but it was pieces of other people. I was trembling hard and I couldn’t hear my own voice when I spoke. It sounded juddering. I could only hear whistles.”
Sporting red T-shirts emblazoned with bold white letters reading “EDHI”, these workers are a familiar sight at Pakistan’s all-too-common disaster scenes. Here in Karachi, a megalopolis of around 20 million people, there is no state ambulance service.
Like other Edhi ambulance drivers, Safdar is technically a volunteer and works for a basic salary of 4,300 Pakistani rupees a month (£33). A private driver would earn 10,000–15,000 rupees. This basic salary covers the high-risk rescue work; the easier “patient services” jobs – moving people between hospitals and transporting corpses – incur a small fee, so drivers receive a commission of around 100 rupees (76p) per trip. Sometimes patients tip. But clearly, money is not the motivating factor.
I’m notoriously grumpy while grocery shopping. Once, my partner and I got into a fight in the Aldi parking lot because one of the eggs in our carton broke. He does his best to keep us supplied in soups and noodles–simple things I can heat up when I’m anxious and depressed — but I find myself yearning for expensive, fresh produce. As much as cooking intimidates me, I eat constantly — popcorn, apples, Toblerone, peanut butter and crackers — whatever I can find. I scry for news of the downtown market that was promised two years ago. I grow hungry and impatient. The world of food seems impenetrable, a place for people with money and time, and I never feel as though I have either. Read more…