Monthly Archives: November 2012

Gender Equality Means You Have to Go To The Gym


So Richard Cohen has this column about the new James Bond movie where he sort of bafflingly laments how buff Daniel Craig is:

Contrast this new Bond to Roger O. Thornhill, the charmingly hapless advertising man played by Cary Grant in “North by Northwest.” Like Bond, Thornhill pulls off some amazing physical feats — his mad frantic escape from the crop duster, the traverse of Mount Rushmore — and like Bond he wears an expensive suit. Unlike Bond, though, when he takes it off we do not see some marbleized man, an ersatz creation of some trainer, but a fit man, effortlessly athletic and just as effortlessly sophisticated. Of course, he knows his martinis, but he also knows how to send out a suit for swift hotel cleaning.

[…] Grant — for all his good looks — represented the triumph of the sexual meritocracy — a sex appeal won by experience and savoir-faire, not delts and pecs and other such things that any kid can have. He was not alone in this. Gary Cooper in “High Noon” wins Grace Kelly by strength of character, not muscles.

Cohen gets some ‘expert quotes go here’ material:

“There has been a striking change in attitudes toward male body image in the past 30 years,” Harrison Pope, a Harvard psychiatry professor, recently told the New York Times. He said the portrayal of men in what amounts to the Bond image is now “dramatically more prevalent in society than it was a generation ago.” That same Times story reported that 40 percent of middle and high school boys work out with the purpose of “increasing muscle mass.”

First of all, when it comes to an increasing supply of fit, good-looking males, I am staunchly in favor.

Not for the reasons you’d think, though. I actually see the increasing prevalence of good-looking males—and the corresponding pressure to resemble them—as a consequence of feminism. The more egalitarian your society is, the less women need to rely on men for status or livelihood. A woman is not impressed by your Ferrari if she drives one herself. Stripped of the traditional condo-and-cufflinks status symbols, men have to resort to the last asset they have—their looks.

My only evidence for this, alas, is anecdotal. After five years in Denmark, I was convinced the primary reason Danish men spend so much time tanning, gymming and hair-producting was because it’s all they have. Danish women have jobs, education, professional status, financial stability, what do they need yours for?

Inequality of good-lookingness between the genders has become a kind of proxy index I use when I travel. Anytime I walk around a country  full of  stylish, beautiful woman and schlubby, hairy-backed men, I fear for its Gender Inequality Index score.

Part of me almost agrees with Cohen’s lament. There is something meritocratic about your attractiveness being based on your confidence, you status, your character. In America, he softly moans, hard work will not just propel you out of your class, but out of your league. For men of his generation, each of Daniel Craig’s jumping pectorals represents something lost, a new bar to hurdle.

So that’s part of my response. But the rest of it is me making a wanking motion and a ‘pfffft’ sound. Living in a country that’s becoming more equal, where other people’s desires are as important as your own, means you no longer get to choose the criteria by which you will be judged. For two millennia, women have been living in a world ruled by men. Nothing makes men angrier than realizing that might not always be the case.

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Filed under America, Journalism, Serious

This is either the best or the worst first paragraph I’ve ever read

Patrick O’Brien — Clarissa Oakes

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If the internet is going to destroy our privacy, can it take our prudishness too?

So everyone is all Panic Room about the Petraeus scandal and how it means that we’ll never be able to write e-mails or send text messages or fuck LinkedIn connections ever again. Fallows says we shouldn’t put anything in an e-mail we wouldn’t want our boss to see! Kaylan says there’s no such thing as privacy anymore! Sullivan says no public figure is safe from scandal!

I say we all need to grow up. If we’ve learned anything in the past 50 years, as the press has peered with increasing enthusiasm into the Jockeys of our public figures, it’s that nobody’s clean, nobody’s sinless, nobody’s even all that nice. Social media and the internet have opened the fly even further.

Instead of reconstructing a bygone era when it was easier for public figures to hide who they really are, we need a common understanding of morality and social norms that allow us to separate ‘violation of the public trust’ from ‘meh, everyone does it’. In other words, we need to stop caring. 

We’re shocked every time a politician or  celebrity appears in a sex tape, posts naked photos online, admits to some exotic fetish, etcetera. That shock, though, is a relic, an appendage of the belief that not that many people are doing such things. We gasp at sexual shenanigans under the assumption that they represent extreme human behavior.

And, increasingly, they don’t. I sort of hope that in 50 years we’ll live in an American where most people have ChatRouletted, possess self-taken naked pictures, own their weird sexual tastes, reveal their open marriages. Moral outrage isn’t so much you shouldn’t be doing this as it is nobody else is. Once we can assume everyone is doing these things, we won’t have to pretend to be shocked by them anymore. 

If the internet means losing our privacy, maybe losing our privacy means hiding less of ourselves. Shine enough light and the shadows disappear. I hope that, as our eyes adjust, we’ll realize they were never really shadows at all.

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Gay People Have Crushes Too

This article about a married 50-something dude looking up his second-grade crush is adorable, but I can’t help wondering how it would play out if the object of his affection was male.

I had dude-crushes at the rate of nearly one per year from daycare til middle school (OK, grad school). Some of them turned out to be gay, some of them didn’t. Some I still know, some I don’t. Some I’ve told, some I haven’t.

Everyone knows juvenile crushes are harmless. They say more about giver than the getter, and it should be flattering to know you exist in some neuronal nook of a forgotten acquaintance.

Still, I’d be nervous calling up the dudes I spent elementary and middle school pining over (and terrified of). Even 20 years later, even in 2012, I feel like straight guys wouldn’t find it cute and complimentary, but deceptive and threatening, like I’d stolen something from them.

Or maybe I’m just paranoid. Maybe its worth a shot! Does anyone have an e-mail address for Jonathan Taylor Thomas?

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Filed under America, Gay, Journalism, Personal

Three Things I Didn’t Know About The Tuskegee Experiment

In the middle of Snowden’s course on epidemics is this phenomenal one-off about the Tuskegee experiment. Here’s three things I didn’t know:

1. The study was designed to prove a racist hypothesis

Clark [the designer of the Tuskegee experiment] started with a profoundly racist hypothesis that he wished to demonstrate, and that is the simple one that the African-American male was racially distinct from the white male, and was so in ways that could be demonstrated by studying the natural history of syphilis in their bodies. […]

In the body of white males, the damage was overwhelmingly to their more highly evolved — and therefore more vulnerable — neurologic systems. He expected that the result in African-American males would be very different, being less neurologically sophisticated, their bodies would experience damage instead primarily to their cardiovascular systems, and proof was to be gained by studying the natural course of the disease in a group of males — African-American males — who were systematically untreated.

Let’s remember that this is a study that was based not on any therapeutic objective. On the contrary, the main interest of the syphilis study conducted at Tuskegee was to examine syphilitic black male bodies postmortem.

2. The study went way beyond the researchers and test subjects

This study continues from ’32 to ’72. By later in the 1940s, penicillin, a highly efficacious remedy for syphilis, was developed, and it was determined that the members of the study would be systematically denied the antibiotic.

Local doctors in Macon County were all provided with the names of the members of the study, and they were instructed by the Public Health Service that those men were not to be given penicillin. So the study continued for twenty-five more years, when a therapy actually existed. […]

In fact, there was a time when there was a great threat to this Tuskegee study, and that was when America entered the Second World War, because at that time there was the danger that the members of the study group risked being drafted into the Army, and that would entail blood tests. Their syphilis would be discovered, and the Army would provide treatment, ending the experiment. So, the assistant surgeon general of the United States intervened on behalf of the study and provided the Selective Service Board of Macon County with the list of all those men included in the study, and they were exempted from the military draft. […]

Well, by 1972, at the conclusion, 28 of the men in the study died directly from syphilis. A hundred others died of complications related to syphilis. Forty wives of members of the study were infected with syphilis, and 19 children fathered by members of the study were born with congenital syphilis.

3. This study was not a secret

There was, however, no intention in the Public Health Service to terminate the study, and this was not, strictly speaking, a secret study. There were published reports on a regular basis. This is really one of the more disconcerting parts of this study. What does it say about our society at the time?

In other words, this is a study that was published, that was written about publicly in scholarly articles, and people thought this was okay. The first published report was in 1936, and papers were later written every four to six years or so, until 1970. And strikingly, there was never a protest within the medical community about reports on this type of study that appeared in medical journals for forty years.

In 1969, a committee of the Centers for Disease Control determined that the study should continue, and this conclusion was backed by local chapters of the American Medical Association.

I think I grew up thinking of racism as something one person did to someone else. Racist described an individual, some redneck in a pickup truck, a cop car or, worst-case scenario, judge’s robes. It’s only in my 20s that I realized that the history of racism in America isn’t a bunch of bad apples, it’s the whole tree.


Filed under America, Personal, Serious

Homies: What Happened to Everyone I Went to Middle School With?

‘It’s your fault,’ Tim says.
‘Ha! … What?’ I say.
‘The weed. You made me smoke weed, that’s how it all started.’
I’m smiling too hard. ‘OK, but if that’s the logic, then it’s really my brother’s fault, because he got me smoking weed.’
‘That’ll work,’ Tim says.

I’m in Bangkok on an extended stopover on the way from Denmark to Sydney. I booked the tickets six months ago and just found out Tim lives here last week. I’ve been sleeping on his couch for three days.

Tim Park and I were friends for the last year of middle school and the first two years of high school. Most of the time we spent together was in groups, competing for the title of The Funny One.

I haven’t seen Tim for nearly five years, and not regularly for ten. I remember him as low-maintenance, outgoing, engaged, and I’m pleased to discover he still is.

He even talks like he used to. Though he’s ethnically Korean and culturally American, he’s linguistically Ebonic, and he speaks with the gold-mouthed drawl of a rapper.

Tim on Bangkok: ‘It’s hella garbagey and shit, guy.’
Tim on work: ‘Shit, my boss be workin’ us like chattel.’
Tim on Las Vegas: ‘You knew them shits was legit when the Italians gave it to Celine Dion and a bunch of magicians.’

With anyone else, it would seem like shtick, but with Tim you get the feeling that his inner monologue sounds like this too.

Tim left Seattle after college. Being fluent in Korean and English made it easy to find a job in Seoul. After two years he got headhunted by a European consumer-products company and installed in their Asian headquarters in Bangkok. He lives in a right-angled, wood-trimmed condo in a tower block, and sells high-end auto parts to retailers all over Asia. He had to get extra pages for his passport because of all the business travel.

In the years since we stopped hanging out, I haven’t actually thought about Tim that much. Though we spent a significant amount of time together in eighth and ninth grade, we didn’t go to the same high school, and we’ve ended up in non-intersecting social orbits. He moved to Asia, I moved to Europe. He spent college partying in fraternity houses, I spent it gradually coming out of the closet. He talks about his high school experience like it’s D-Day. I talk about mine like it’s Stalingrad.

Tim helped me stay awake through my jetlag after I landed in Bangkok. Even without an audience, we joust rather than converse, and over banana pratas we debated Thailand vs. Denmark, noodles vs. pastries, Asian girls vs. European boys. By the time we finish our tea, most of my sentences end with ‘bro’ and my adjectives have been replaced with swear words. Talking like this, describing my life in teenager voice, makes it feel like I’m talking about the future.

For the next two days, I wandered around Bangkok during the day and met Tim when he got off work. Tonight we drank beer at a cocktail bar on top of a hotel tower.

‘Let’s get some cigars,’ Tim said.
‘Aren’t we leaving?’
‘To go, son,’ he said.

Tim’s condo has a sort of courtyard with a kiddie-pool and a half-submerged jungle gym. We’re sitting on the side, dangling our feet. It’s still 85 degrees, though it’s been dark for hours. Tim lights the cigars. I figure this is as good a time as any.

‘Hey Tim: What happened to Adrian?’

Adrian Maeda was a squat, round-faced classmate of Tim’s. Every time I try to picture him, I think of the kid from ‘Up’. He used to walk with his legs far apart, and the last time I saw him I stood there with my hand out as he sort of swayed toward me. I remember that he was both a small-time drug dealer and a genuinely nice guy.

I knew Adrian had died, but only in the ‘I heard’ sense. I wasn’t in contact with anyone who was close to him, and I didn’t know anything about the circumstances. Tim was a pallbearer at Adrian’s funeral.

‘Overdose,’ Tim says.

Adrian grew up in Medina, one of the richest neighborhoods in Seattle. His father was some sort of businessman, and Tim tells me that years where he earned less than $1 million were considered weak (‘You know how them Japanese is’). Adrian started selling pot in high school, just small amounts, just to other kids at Grant.

Tim keeps talking. Adrian was pure business. He used to wait outside of pawn shops for junkies coming in to sell DVDs. ‘Whatever they’re paying you, I’ll pay more,’ Adrian told them, and by the time he was in college he had a whole supply chain of dudes sprinting out of Target with shopping carts full of movies, calling Adrian for a few bucks a pop. Adrian sold them on to friends and acquaintances at a markup, but still below retail.

‘That motherfucker had everything,’ Tim says. ‘No, everything. He for real had stacks of like, The Golden Girls Collection in his basement.’

The dealing evolved from weed to cocaine to prescription drugs. Tim saw packages of OxyContin and Vicodin at Adrian’s place ‘straight out the ambulance, bro’. Adrian’s father apparently knew that his son was dealing, but told him simply ‘be careful’ and didn’t ask specifics.

As I’m taking this all in, I keep asking how Adrian managed to keep increasing the selection and amounts of drugs he sold (‘diversify’, if you want to get businessey about it) without getting caught or even coming close. He apparently had a few handguns, but they were just for show. He hated guns, and wouldn’t even shoot them at the firing range. He did a brief stint in jail, but that was for getting pulled over with weed in his car. Bad luck more than a close call. Adrian, who according to Tim was earning $20,000-$30,000 per month, was completely under the radar.

I brace myself for the beginning of where I know this story is going to end. For Adrian, it’s the day he discovered OxyContin. ‘Never get high on your own supply’ is a drug-dealer rule so widely known that even I know about it, but Adrian had been sampling his retail selection of marijuana since he had first started dealing at 15. No biggie. OxyContin, however, was something totally different.

I have to ask Tim what OxyContin even is. I’ve heard of it, I guess, but in the same way you hear about ketamine or crystal meth. The local news, or a coworker, or maybe Oprah tells you about the powder pillaging some arid elsewhere and you go ‘damn I’m glad I don’t know anybody who’s into whatever the fuck that is.’

Turns out OxyContin is an opium derivative. It has roughly the same effects as heroin—on your body, and on your social life.

‘You start taking it only on the weekends,’ Tim says. ‘And pretty soon you’re thinking “Yeah, Thursday’s part of the weekend…”’

‘So Adrian was a using a lot?’ I ask.
‘We all were,’ Tim says.

I’m a little surprised by the ‘we’. In spite of Tim’s verbal swagger, I’ve never seen him show any aptitude for actual, real-world mischief. When we were 14, he was always the first one to back out whenever we devised an egging or toilet-papering campaign. The light banditry we were involved in at that age—shoplifting, minor vandalism—were always spectator sports for Tim, something we told him about afterward.

‘So the thing you said about the weekend…’
‘That’s me talkin’, yeah.’ Tim says.

He and Adrian, often accompanied by a supporting cast of Grant alumni and University of Washington students, started taking OxyContin every weekend. My head fills with visions of strippers, joyrides, trips to Vegas.

‘Naw dude, it wasn’t like that. All we ever did was watch TV at Adrian’s place,’ Tim says. He describes the least decadent bender imaginable: A group of fratboys in a basement, awake for 48 hours, eating pizza and watching entire seasons of ‘The Sopranos’.

‘That sounds fucking gay,bro,’ I say.
‘The weird thing is, that was the year I finally started to get good grades,’ he says. ‘I could work all week, thinking I wanted to get all the stress done before the weekend.’

Tim finished his senior year with a 3.8 GPA, but he could see the expanding-weekend problem beginning to appear. Adrian, too, was using more and dealing (i.e. earning money) less.

‘That’s why I moved to Seoul,’ Tim says.

Every time Tim visited from Seoul, Adrian was worse. He started using cocaine, then crack. On a visit for Christmas, Tim found Adrian half his former size.

‘He was kind of a scrawny fucker. I never realized how short he was before that, because he was so wide. But when I saw him, I was tipping him over, like “You on Atkins, guy?”’

Two months later, back in Korea, Tim got a call from Adrian’s dad, telling him the family was staging an intervention—‘like on TV and shit’. Tim dialed in from Seoul, telling Adrian from a speakerphone on the living room table that he had to quit it all, everything. Adrian went to rehab and got clean.

A lot of addicts apparently die from overdoses not in the midst of their addiction but after a recovery. The problem is a mismatch between your mind and your body. Your mind remembers how much you needed to get a buzz, but your body doesn’t have the tolerance anymore. It’s like a runner, after 10 years on the couch, getting up and trying to run a marathon.

That’s what happened to Adrian. Two weeks after he came back from rehab, Adrian’s father found his body in the basement.

‘Adrian was realizing that everyone he knew went to college and he didn’t. He was at home, at his parents’ house, being a fucking drug dealer. He was like, I can’t do anything,’ Tim says. ‘The only thing he was good at was selling dope and running schemes and shit.’

‘You think that triggered the relapse?’ I ask.
‘Fuck if I know.’

I ask Tim if he blames anyone. I’m sitting here, knee-deep in a kiddie pool in Bangkok, trying to find some systemic explanation, some loose bolt in the system that should be tightened. Did the rehab institution fail Adrian? Did the education system? Law enforcement? My mind is looking for an ‘if only’ that will turn Adrian, and this whole stupid, routine story, into an example of something larger. If only he was given a job once he was clean. If only he had been prescribed methadone. If only he had been given support to leave Seattle.

‘Ain’t nobody’s fault, man,’ Tim says. ‘It’s just Adrian.’

One of the main reasons Tim and I stopped hanging out was the culture clash between his friends and mine. Grant was nominally public, but was situated in a six-figure neighborhood of detached homes with yards out front and those little sprinklers that pop up out of the ground to keep them green. From up north, we regarded it as prep school, training ground for the future defenders of the status quo, and we mocked them for taking the whole jock-cheerleader thing seriously.

My high school, Lincoln, was like the store-brand version of Grant. We had cliques too, but with more overlaps and lighter penalties for failing to line up single-file underneath a social category. It was segregated by class, like all American high schools, but it wasn’t rare to see a football player doing a Friday-night kegstand with a radio nerd and a pink-haired goth holding his legs.

Tim keeps naming mutual acquaintances, and they keep having the same dire fates. There’s Pete Stanton, who in seventh grade had a mustache and was the biggest 13-year-old on the planet. When he was a sophomore at Grant, Pete stabbed a homeless guy under a bridge in a Seattle park, and is serving a life sentence.

‘I guess he said in court that the homeless guy owed him money,’ Tim says. ‘Even at 15, we were like, damn, this fool needs to rethink his business plan.’

Then there’s Chaewon. I don’t know his last name and I don’t even know if that’s the right way to spell his first name. He had a face that looked like he was being hung from the ceiling by his hair, and he was always smiling a gummy smile, even when he was slamming his chest up against yours or calling you a faggot. He was always surrounded by five or six other kids our age who looked so similar to each other they can only be called henchmen.

Chaewon’s in jail now too. After they both went to Grant, he and Tim were actually pretty good friends for awhile there, and I suspect Tim’s thug-life method acting comes at least partly from his prolonged exposure to Chaewon.

When I ask why Chaewon’s in jail now, Tim says, as if it’s obvious, ‘He was a gangster. Like, an actual gangster.’

I swear I remember him wearing only blue, but I can’t remember if that was real or just me projecting white-boy stereotypes onto someone who terrified the shit out of me.

‘Let me repeat myself: He was in a fucking gang,’ Tim says. ‘They used to rob houses at lunchtime. He was coming to fourth period with, like, pearl necklaces around his wrist, talkin’ bout “sorry I’m late, I had to run an errand.”’

Tim was there when Chaewon went to a party with a crescent wrench at the end of a twisted plastic bag and started hitting people over some high school beef. Tim was there the time cops showed up at Chaewon’s condo and found a duffel bag full of weed under the coffee table. They took Tim and another Grant student into the hallway and told them ‘You don’t belong here. Get your asses back to college.’

Tim was Chaewon’s only friend who ever met his mom. ‘I think he was tired of all that gangster shit sometimes,’ Tim says. ‘He said he couldn’t let other fools meet his moms because he never knew what might go down later.’

I don’t even know what that means, but I gasp knowingly.

Chaewon’s doing ‘like seven years or some shit’ somewhere in Washington state. Possession with intent, Tim thinks. ‘We’re not exactly in touch anymore, dude. Chaewon’s not the kind of guy to be like updating his Facebook, all checking in from prison and shit. Feed my fish!’

As grotesque as it is to say, Adrian, Peter and Chaewon were predictable. We’ve all been told a million times that drugs and gangs lead to death and prison. Theirs are the fates I would have predicted for them as the judgmental 14-year-old I was when I first met them. I’m not expecting, however, this tour through the ruins of our middle school graduating class to suddenly involve Daniel Browning.

‘Oh shit, you didn’t hear about Daniel?’ Tim says.

We hung out with Daniel Browning off and on during the three years me and Tim were friends. Daniel was kind of a social orphan. He was too freckled and shy to fit in with the cool kids, but he didn’t have the offbeat interests or book smarts to make it as one of the nerds. That, somehow, left him with us. I remember him as a shy, polite guy who mostly wanted to play ‘Tekken 3’ and be left alone until adulthood.

Daniel’s currently living in a halfway house in Seattle. He derailed late and hard. He was fine through high school: a little weed, a little drinking, nothing serious. He went to college at the University of Idaho and majored in business. He looked for work in Chicago but couldn’t make anything stick. He moved back to Seattle and ended up parking cars. And, eventually, taking OxyContin.

‘Dude, this was fucking after Adrian died. I have no idea how that shit happened,’ Tim says.

Here’s where it gets predictable. Daniel gets hooked and spends months locked in his room at his parents’ house. He doesn’t have Adrian’s money (or hookups, and therefore discounts), and pretty soon he maxes out his credit cards buying PlayStations and selling them on Craigslist for cash. Intervention, rehab, halfway house.

Of all of Tim’s friends, Daniel was probably the most similar to me. We were both classified as awkward not because we were actually antisocial but because we didn’t hang on any particular rung of the high school social ladder.

‘Jesus Christ, if Daniel hadn’t gone to Grant, he might not have gotten into all that shit,’ I say. I’m doing it again, searching these stories for some sort of theme that’s going to make them all about the same thing.

‘That’s bullshit,’ Tim says. ‘Daniel, Adrian, they didn’t get fucked up because they went to some preppy high school. It’s the drugs, man, it all started with weed. And you’re the one that got us doing that shit.’

Tim’s right. I smoked him out in my basement when we were 13 years old. We loaded my brother’s asthma inhaler with tin foil, then weed, then smoked, then played ‘Street Fighter II’ until we fell asleep. I was playing the expert—‘Naw guy, you gotta poke smaller holes in the foil’—but it was only my second time smoking. One week earlier, my brother had given me a green pea-sized nugget of weed in exchange for doing his paper route.

Tim and I smoked weed regularly through our eighth grade year and, yes, smoked out Daniel Browning for the first time. For me, the novelty wore off quickly. I spent that year almost catatonically depressed, and realized as I started high school that the depression and the weed had started at the same time. I quit, the clouds lifted, I never smoked again.

Tim smoked a few times a week for another ten years. He taught Adrian how to smoke like I taught him. He only quit when he started using OxyContin: ‘Weed just didn’t occur to me anymore.’

‘So it’s the weed?’ I ask.

‘Weed fucking is a gateway drug,’ Tim says.

Tim’s full of shit, obviously. If I hadn’t smoked him out in my basement on that particular Saturday, it would have been someone else smoking him out, in another basement, on another Saturday.

As I’m about to say this, I realize that my own explanation is just as full of shit. There was no dark magic in the halls of Grant that made its students take drugs or stab homeless people or wait outside Target for junkies and their DVDs. Like Tim, I’m just trying to explain the unexplainable by telling myself something I already know.

‘I’m sorry,’ I say. ‘About Adrian, I mean.’

‘It’s all good,’ Tim says.

My cigar is a nub, and my fingers are getting burnt. We get up from the table almost in unison.

‘Hey, did I ever tell you about Mikhael?’ Tim says.

‘Who?’ I say.

‘Russian exchange student at Grant, I don’t think you ever met him. Anyway, he got yelled at one day by our teacher—total flamer, no offense—in front of the whole class for getting an answer wrong. The next day, he steals a Buick from one of the houses next to the football field, drives it into the faculty parking lot and rams the teacher’s car. He didn’t even run away. He straight up got out of the car, closed the door all gentle and went to his next class. I saw the whole thing with Adrian and he goes, “That’s hella how they solve problems in Russia.”’

Tim holds the door open for me as we walk into the building. I’m laughing so hard it fills up the lobby.


Filed under America, Essays, Personal

Yesterday in central Berlin, crying on a bicycle

I happened to be listening to this lecture yesterday on my way to a friend’s house, and I was all quiver-lip  from Tiergarten to Kaiserdamm.

It wasn’t just the speech. Yesterday voters in my home country and my home state decided that gay marriage threatens traditional marriage like milk threatens cereal. We shouldn’t have to vote on this shit, but we did, and we won.

It was also the same day Alex Ross published this lovely essay in the New Yorker:

I am forty-four years old, and I have lived through a startling transformation in the status of gay men and women in the United States. Around the time I was born, homosexual acts were illegal in every state but Illinois. Lesbians and gays were barred from serving in the federal government. There were no openly gay politicians. A few closeted homosexuals occupied positions of power, but they tended to make things more miserable for their kind.

There will always be small-minded politicians, vicious diseases, bigoted thugs. Until recently, it felt like the world was rooting for them. Yesterday, it felt like it wasn’t.

‘Why are your eyes all wet?’ my friend asked when I arrived.
‘It’s cold outside,’ I said.
‘Well come inside, it’s warmer,’ he said, and it was.

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In the middle of an article on longevity, a ringing endorsement of Mayor Bloomberg

If you pay careful attention to the way Ikarians have lived their lives, it appears that a dozen subtly powerful, mutually enhancing and pervasive factors are at work. It’s easy to get enough rest if no one else wakes up early and the village goes dead during afternoon naptime. It helps that the cheapest, most accessible foods are also the most healthful — and that your ancestors have spent centuries developing ways to make them taste good. It’s hard to get through the day in Ikaria without walking up 20 hills. […]

Every one of these factors can be tied to longevity. That’s what the $70 billion diet industry and $20 billion health-club industry do in their efforts to persuade us that if we eat the right food or do the right workout, we’ll be healthier, lose weight and live longer. But these strategies rarely work. Not because they’re wrong-minded: it’s a good idea for people to do any of these healthful activities. The problem is, it’s difficult to change individual behaviors when community behaviors stay the same.

In the United States, you can’t go to a movie, walk through the airport or buy cough medicine without being routed through a gantlet of candy bars, salty snacks and sugar-sweetened beverages. The processed-food industry spends more than $4 billion a year tempting us to eat. How do you combat that? Discipline is a good thing, but discipline is a muscle that fatigues. Sooner or later, most people cave in to relentless temptation. […]

The big aha for me, having studied populations of the long-lived for nearly a decade, is how the factors that encourage longevity reinforce one another over the long term. For people to adopt a healthful lifestyle, I have become convinced, they need to live in an ecosystem, so to speak, that makes it possible. As soon as you take culture, belonging, purpose or religion out of the picture, the foundation for long healthy lives collapses. The power of such an environment lies in the mutually reinforcing relationships among lots of small nudges and default choices. There’s no silver bullet to keep death and the diseases of old age at bay. If there’s anything close to a secret, it’s silver buckshot.

Exactly this! People on this little Greek island aren’t morally or genetically superior, they’re just surrounded by an environment that systematically, comprehensively, ubiquitously encourages healthy behaviors. In the rest of the west, our environment does the exact opposite.

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Filed under America, Journalism

An Appealing Metaphor for Innovation

Kevin Carey, in the middle of an article about how Silicon Valley is upending higher education, has a supergreat metaphor:

So he walks over to the whiteboard that makes up the entire wall of the conference room and deftly sketches out the inner workings of a rocket engine, showing what happens when thousands of gallons of rocket fuel are sprayed into a chamber of fire, thus igniting and creating fantastic amount of force, the eddies and whorls of which need to be predicted and calculated in minute, down-to-the-millisecond detail, so that the force can be directed down through the closed chamber in which the initial combustion occurs and out the bottom of the rocket in the form of enough thrust to take something the size and weight of, say, a telecommunications satellite, up and away from the gravitational bonds of our planet.[…]

The real holy grail is a more efficient use of fuel to create thrust. The amount of thrust needed to liberate X amount of weight from the Earth’s gravity well is a brute math problem. It’s inescapable. And, crucially, as Scott explains it, when the rocket is sitting on the launching pad, most of the weight is fuel.

Most of the weight is fuel. […]

Because when most of the weight is fuel, Scott explains, a reduction in the amount of fuel you need to create thrust increases the payload weight you can move from Earth into orbit along a logarithmic scale. It’s not a linear, one-to-one thing. The less fuel you need, the less fuel you need. It’s exponential.

I’ve been thinking about this since I read it three days ago, which probably means it’s true in some way. It’s a good article!

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Two Fun Things to Do in London

Program new autocorrects into all the iPhones at the Apple store:

Cover up the top hole in the saltshaker and shout ‘It’s a miracle!’

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Filed under Funny, London, United Kingdom

If You’re Gonna Kill Your Wife, Don’t Be Weird Afterwards

Here’s a pretty shocking story from Texas about a guy who was convicted of murder, absent any evidence, basically because he acted weird after his wife was killed:

His stoicism and his apparent lack of sentimentality for Christine only fed [his next door neighbor] Elizabeth’s anxiety. She was astonished to see him two days after Christine’s funeral using a Weed Eater to cut down the marigolds at the end of his driveway, which she knew Christine had planted over his objections. […]

After a friend who worked in construction cleaned and repainted the master bedroom, Michael resumed sleeping there, on the water bed where Christine was killed.

These things seem callous because they go against the narrative of what you’re supposed to act like after your wife gets killed. You hear this in rape trials sometimes too, like ‘if the rape was so traumatic, why did you go to work the next day?’

It’s weird that we talk and think like this. How you behave after being the victim of a crime doesn’t indicate its severity. I’d love to talk to some cops about how people react to these kinds of crimes. There’s probably a surprisingly wide range, and ‘typical’ reactions probably encompass all kinds of behaviors you wouldn’t expect . People are different, and having a loved one murdered is such an extreme event that you could never foresee how you would react. Maybe you’d cry for days, maybe you’d go to Blockbuster and rent Lord of the Rings. Maybe you’d want to go to work, maybe you’d never work again. It’s not productive that our culture has a narrative for how one should behave in such a horrifying scenario.

When Michael himself took the stand on the fifth day of the trial, he calmly and steadily answered the questions that were posed to him, but he did not betray the sense of personal devastation that might have moved the twelve people who would render a verdict.

“During this whole ordeal, he never fell apart,” [his lawyer] Allison told me. “He wanted people to see him as strong. And I think in the end, that very trait worked against him.” Jurors were put off by his perceived woodenness on the stand. [The jury foreman] explained, “I would have been screaming, 
‘I could never have done this! I love my wife!’ ”

[Another juror] was not persuaded by his testimony either. “He just did not come off as genuine, because there was no emotion there,” she said.

I think if I was a lawyer I’d be endlessly frustrated at having to subtly manipulate jurors into believing what is true. Sometimes people don’t want to show their inner devastation to a creaking room full of strangers. Murderers can fake grief, and non-murderers can be stoic. This isn’t rocket science, Texas.

I read stories like this and I’m like ‘jury trials are the worst we have to stop them!’ This poor guy was convicted of murder based on nothing more than circumstantial evidence and some weak CSI shit just because the prosecution was able to convince 12 people that he was an asshole. Most people who kill people are assholes, so it must have been him.

It’s the kind of story that is meant to fuel outrage among its readers. But from what little I know about the criminal justice system, lots of crimes don’t have clear motives. And in many cases, circumstantial evidence and a convincing narrative are the only things that put genuinely guilty people behind bars. There’s a whole spectrum between an open and shut case and a true whodunit, and things like the accumulation of circumstantial evidence, rumors and past behavior is often the only thing investigators have.

So I guess what I’m saying is, there are probably a number of policies that would make American’s criminal justice much better. But I’m going to refrain from having an opinion on any particular one. This shit is complicated, and there are people who do it every day. I hope they’re reading this too.

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Filed under America, Journalism

Why Doesn’t Britain Do Longform?

America has dozens of magazines that print long, investigative narrative feature stories: Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper’s, Mother Jones, the New Yorker, I could go on.

Yet Britain, from what I can tell, doesn’t have any. The London Review of Books publishes longform, and some of the Sunday papers have magazines, but the features are mostly celebrity profiles/interviews and long reviews. The FT and the Guardian both publish promiscuously, but little in the 3,000-5,000 word range.

Are there cultural or economic reasons for this? Or are tons of great stories actually getting published I’m just missing them?

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The First Page of Don Delillo’s ‘Cosmopolis’

When I used to work at the Seattle Times, I hung out a bit with the book reviews editor. I asked her once how she decided among the dozens of books she received every week, which ones to review.

‘Read the first page,’ she said. ‘If you want to keep reading, do.’

This has given me a weird compulsion to read first pages of novels whenever I’m in bookstores. Yesterday I spent about an hour in Foyles in London doing this, and the best one I found was Don Delillo’s Cosmopolis:

Hella wanna read the whole thing now!

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Filed under Books, Random, United Kingdom