Boat Squatters, Liberal Arts Cults & Toxic Masculinity

By Flora Stadler

A great long form article doesn’t feel like a slog. I love long reads that push the word limit for a single sitting, but still grip me until the end. This week, I’ve got three articles that fit this description.

Lost at Sea: Poverty and paradise at the edge of America
By Joe Kloc for Harper’s
Approx length: 6,000 words

Photo by Therese Jahnson for Harper’s

In a bay along the coast of Sausalito, Ca., is a graveyard of abandoned boats that’s home to about 100 people who call themselves anchor-outs. This makeshift squatter community has existed there in some form for more than a century. Kloc tells the story of a few residents in a loose, meandering style that matches their own—dropping in and out over several years. It would be easy for him to caricature residents who call themselves Dream Weaver and Innate Thought, but he doesn’t. There’s no attempt to put a moral frame around their lives, or a cohesive narrative that makes sense of everything. It’s all snapshots: a man who used to work with Shel Silverstein and inherited his boat; a young woman with multiple sclerosis who lived there with her small child until their boat sank; an amateur painter who started selling his work and moved ashore. There are hints at the disparities that brought them to the boats, and the tensions that may eventually evict them, but the focus is personal.

A Little History: “The bay has served as a stopover for sailors headed down the coast, or out into the Pacific, for at least two centuries… The first live-aboards came with the Gold Rush, when those who had made fortunes moved onto rectangular crafts with gently curved roofs and French doors, then lost everything playing monte in the city… They were followed by San Franciscans who had lost their homes in the earthquake and fires of 1906, and then by opportunistic bootleggers and rumrunners.”

Larry Ray and the Stolen Kids of Sarah Lawrence
By Ezra Marcus and James D. Walsh for The Cut (New York Magazine)
Approx. length: 9,000 words

Photo illustration by Art Handler for The Cut

When I’ve heard my alma mater mentioned over the years, it’s usually as the punchline of a joke about lesbians or humorless feminists (à la American Psycho or Ten Things I Hate About You). I usually roll my eyes. It’s easy to stereotype the formerly all-girls’ liberal arts college as radicalized, but the campus, its location and size, all felt very cloistered—an insulated place to push into adulthood. But this story is counter to all that, a rabbit-hole nightmare centered on a crazy, charismatic ex-felon who essentially moved into his daughter’s dorm and started a sex cult. Larry Ray, a well-connected and controlling guy with a complicated past (Did he help NATO stop a bombing in Kosovo? Who knows for sure!), took a handful of kids in his daughter’s dorm and manipulated them so thoroughly that several have tried to commit suicide multiple times, another was last seen living in a homeless shelter, and one began working as a prostitute to pay Ray back for all of the “damage” she’d done to his property. Their parents are traumatized, and there’s still a lot of mystery around how this happened. How could Sarah Lawrence have such a relaxed policy on dorm-crashing prison dads? Although Ray is the perpetrator, there’s a lot the school has to answer for.

Supplemental Reading: Behind the Reporting of New York Magazine’s Cover Story on Larry Ray

My Cousin Was My Hero. Until the Day He Tried to Kill Me.
By Wil S. Hylton for The New York Times Magazine
Approx. length: 11,500 words

Photo illustration by Mike McQuade for New York Times Magazine

It’s a really long read, but this novella of an article grabs hold from the beginning and doesn’t let up. The spine of the story is the night Hylton was almost murdered by his cousin, whom he idolized. But it moves in and out of that night expertly, charting the writer’s growth and his cousin’s slide, and how those two paths eventually cross with explosive effect. Hylton explores every aspect of his masculinity—his impulse to fight, his romantic relationships with men, and how holding to traditional gender roles contributed to the disintegration of his marriage. He contrasts his own revelations with his cousin’s embrace of violence and machismo, which leaves them both crippled. It deals with all the subtleties of gender identity and how we become a summary of our choices, good and bad. It’s so compelling that, when I stopped halfway through reading it to run some errands, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Eventually I had to pull over so I could find out how it all ended.

The Gist: “My attraction to my cousin and my detachment as a husband both reside in the pantheon of male tropes. Masculinity is a religion. It is a compendium of saints: the vaunted patriarch, the taciturn cowboy, the errant knight, reluctant hero, gentle giant and omniscient father. Like Scripture, each contains a story of implicit values. Fraternity, dominance, adamance, certitude — these are the commandments of male identity. Maybe in societies deep through history, those qualities helped organize a world of chaos, but the antediluvian constructs of masculinity are easily weaponized in modern life. The virtue of strength invites abuse. Adamance enables intransigence. Restraint devolves to disengagement, and fraternity yields exclusion. The veneration of those traits is poison to young men. It offers an easy escape from the necessary struggle of self-reflection and replaces the work of interior discovery with a menu of prefabricated identities.”

Lydia Netzer: Inhabiting the Other Side of Death

By Flora Stadler

I read Lydia Netzer’s novel Shine Shine Shine when I was very pregnant with my second child. Sleeping had become problematic, so I tore through the story—about a willful woman named Sunny and her genius, astronaut husband, who’s lost in space when Sunny gives birth to their second child. The birth scene was wild, and brought up all the feelings I had about childbirth. But what stayed with me, and what I’ve thought of often since reading the book, is the death scene. Sunny’s mother dies of cancer, in the middle of a dream:

Her legs carried her like the wind, over the gravel road and then onto the railroad ties… She felt no pain, she felt only suffocation. She felt her blood, incapable of doing its job. She felt her mind shutting her off. Don’t tell the feet, she thought. Let them keep running. At last she turned the corner and saw the bridge, its dark brown trapezoid rising against the bright blue sky.
“Sunny,” she tried to cry, but there was no air. Her lungs were finished… Her chest contracted. Her cells struggled. She hung on the nearest beam, clung to it, thrusting her head out over the water… Sunny was there, poised. The mother tried to gasp out a warning, gasp out a final endearment. Sunny, I love you. But there was no air, and there was no blood, and the blackness came down from on top of her head and shut her down. In the reverie, she hung there, her body limp and crumpled against a beam. In reality, she died there, in the hospital bed, and went into the dark. Her brain stopped working and that was it, just at the wrong moment. One minute there were electrochemical processes inside the skull. The next minute there were not. No one shared it, no one eased it to its end, and no one could have prevented it. It just happened. A death happened at 3:12 in the morning. A private death between a mother and herself, before she could finish her one last dream. This is what it means to die: You do not finish.

That scene got to me. It wasn’t just my hormonal weepiness, or my powerful feelings about motherhood. It was something else—the idea that you don’t finish. I would think of this when my grandfather died a few years later. He was a Baptist preacher who believed in God and Heaven and I loved him, so I wanted (for his sake) all of it to be true. But I didn’t believe it, even with motherhood softening all my edges. In that grief, I’d started to write again, and for the first time I wrote fantasy. It offered a way to build afterlives I could believe in. This is why I wanted to ask Lydia a very long, run-on question about that death scene:

How did this scene come to you; what of your own experience (if anything) brought you to it; did it begin with a particular image or idea that stuck with you, or was it a feeling that you poured the writing into?

“My mother died in 2003 between the Battle of Baghdad and the capture of Saddam Hussein. She was a big fan of cable news, and that summer when she was too tired and sick to watch she would ask me to just tell her what was going on. As I sat with her, not knowing how close she was coming to death, I realized that while I was recounting the day’s events overseas, she wasn’t really listening to my words. She was kind of drifting in and out of sleep. When she died, one of the first horrible things that occurred to me was that she would never find out what happened to Saddam Hussein—if he was captured and how.

She would never find out the ending to so many stories. Who would win the next election? Who kidnapped Zoey Bartlet on The West Wing? I was pregnant when my mother died, and she would never know my second child, that she is a beautiful girl, or see her smile or listen to her play the viola.

A few weeks after my mother died, someone said to me that I should be comforted because she was looking down on me from heaven. I hope I smiled and was polite, but the reality is that I never felt that. Not even for a single minute. I never felt her presence after her last day—it was as if she was erased from the universe forever. That was a horrible adjustment for me, because I had always reported things to my mother in long phone calls. It felt like nothing that happened was real because she didn’t know about it and I had no way of letting her know.

Those are selfish feelings. Writing this into my novel, I tried to inhabit the other side of this death: the mother who was leaving her child and would never find out if the child would truly be okay. She didn’t trust. How could she trust? She didn’t know. How could she know? She tried her very best down to her last breath to protect and love her child, and give her daughter everything. And then there came a time when she couldn’t give any more, and she couldn’t know how it all turned out, and she died. What that feels like I can only imagine.”

You can order Shine Shine Shine and Lydia Netzer’s other novels at Binnacle Books.

Donate Books They’ll Get Caught Reading

We are very excited to partner with Special Education English teachers at Beacon High School to bring student libraries to their classrooms for Get Caught Reading month in May. The teachers put together a special wishlist of culturally diverse books that they would like, and your help is much appreciated!

We will match any donation, up to $300.

3 ways you can help:

  1. Go to Binnacle Books in Beacon to choose books from the teacher wishlist below, and Binnacle will order them for you.
  2. Donate money to the cause, and we’ll buy the books for you.
  3. You can also purchase books on your own and drop them off any time at Oak Vino Wine Bar, 389 Main Street.

Bookplates with donor names will be included in the donated books.

We will present the books during Get Caught Reading Month in May, at a special event with a short author presentation for the students by Julie Chibbaro.

Teachers’ Wishlist of Books for Donation
(3 copies of each book needed)

Title Author
After Tupac and D Foster Jacqueline Woodson
The Crossover Kwame Alexander
You Don’t Even Know Me: Stories and Poems About Boys Sharon Flake –  DONATED
Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America Ibi Zoboi
Allegedly Tiffany D Jackson
Romiette and Julio Sharon M. Draper
The Bridges of Summer Brenda Seabrooke
Crystal Walter Dean Myers
The Dear One Jacqueline Woodson
Forever Friends Candy Boyd
I Live in Music Ntozake Shange
Mississippi Bridge Mildred D Taylor
Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth Richard Wright – DONATED
Cool Salsa Lori M. Carlson
Nerdlandia Gary Soto
The Story of Colors Subcomandante Marcos
The Smoking Mirror Naomi Helena Quinonez
The Harvest: Short Stories Tomas Rivera
East Side Dreams Art Rodriguez
Buried Onions Gary Soto
The Fabulous Sink Hole and Other Stories Jesus Salvador Trevino
Rain of Gold Victor Villasenor
Walking Stars: Stories of Magic and Power Victor Villasenor
Ludell Brenda Wilkinson

Jersey Bears, Sex Charlatans & Phantom Planets

By Flora Stadler

The sun is out! The weekend is in sight! Here are a few long reads to enjoy outside while you’re getting some much-needed vitamin D. But these aren’t your average-sized stories, so bring sunblock.

Direct Eye Contact

Illustration: Tamara Shopsin for The New Yorker

By John McPhee for The New Yorker
Approx. length: 2,000 words

John McPhee is one of my favorite long-form writers. He’s been writing for The New Yorker for decades, but it’s been a while since he contributed. So I was excited to see a new piece about the black bears of New Jersey.

McPhee has a geometer’s sense of structure when he writes (which he outlines in his book, Draft No. 4)—each element, from lead sentence to closing scene, builds a story that perfectly complements its themes. He knows how to frame a subject to make the reader see why it’s interesting, why it matters, and he does this because he understands that chronologically is usually not the most compelling way to reveal a story.

I never think much about bears (except when I’m hiking at certain hours), but this story goes beyond the fluctuating bear population of New Jersey. It considers geography, politics, guns, tragedy. In it, the bears aren’t monsters—the real bogeyman is time, sweeping up animals and their human neighbors in changes they can’t avoid. McPhee isn’t showy or sentimental, but his writing is beautiful and deeply felt, and I love that.

Proof of why he’s great: “In the past three years, twenty-one bears have entered New Jersey homes, with no human fatalities. For example, Diane Eriksen, of West Milford (Passaic County), was under the impression that she was alone in her house. Hearing a sound in her living room, she went and had a look. A bear looked back. She beat a retreat and called 911. The bear, at the coffee table, helped itself to half a bowl of peppermint patties, scattered the wrappers all over the floor, and took off. The 911 call resulted in its death.”

The Fake Sex Doctor Who Conned the Media into Publicizing His Bizarre Research on Suicide, Butt-Fisting, and Bestiality

Illustration: GMG Art for Gizmodo

By Jennings Brown for Gizmodo
Approx length: 5,000 words

This insane profile had me at the title. It’s always interesting/terrifying to read how willfully gullible a reporter, program host, or publication can be in the name of a good hook. This time, the hook was Dr. Damian Jacob Markiewicz Sendler, a self-proclaimed forensic sexologist and research scientist, who is actually neither. He’s not even a doctor. It took one reporter making a bunch of calls to Harvard and Columbia (whose medical schools Sendler didn’t attend) and checking his license to practice in New York State (which he doesn’t have) to completely dismantle the good doctor.

But Sendler was able to sell himself as an expert to every outlet—from Huffington Post to Savage Lovecast (the popular sex podcast by Dan Savage)—hungry for a shock factor. Described by Brown as a “serial fabulist,” Sendler delivered shock—waxing faux-scientific on everything from necrophilia to suicide.

Backing up his fake credentials were fake research papers—about a dozen of them, published in peer-reviewed academic journals. There’s a lot of conversation about why peer review is flawed, and this guy certainly makes the case. But it’s satisfying to read as Sendler paints himself into a corner and, one by one, every claim he made on his website disappears. Luckily, there are screenshots!

What will happen to the “scientific” papers he published? Will news outlets offer retractions for the times they trusted Sendler’s imaginary expertise? Will he be arrested for practicing without a license? This article left me wanting a part 2.

The implications: “The articles published in forensic journals [Sendler’s ‘studies’ have been published in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine] are often based on case files. And even if they’re wacky, they could influence legal cases, according to Anna Randall, a certified sex therapist who has researched sexual asphyxiation and paraphilia. ‘Oh absolutely. They could use this in court,’ Randall told me, referring to Sendler’s published articles.”

The Hunt for Planet Nine

Illustration: Jacob Stead for Longreads

By Shannon Stirone for Longreads
Approx. length: 9,000 words

This story is an epic in the truest sense: it’s an adventure that involves high stakes and new worlds (literally), the main figures are both heroic and fallible, and as it continues, the journey becomes more important than the destination.

Science writer Shannon Stirone does a wonderful job of capturing part of that journey as Caltech astronomers Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown search for a massive planet they believe exists around the edges of the solar system. Looking to prove their very complicated calculations, the pair end up on the summit of Mauna Kea (the highest peak in all of Hawaii), using one of the world’s most powerful telescopes to find their prize.

Stirone brings life to the landscape, describing technicolor Hawaiian sunrises and isolated Martian-like mountaintops with equal beauty. She also observes the two astronomers in all their comical humanity: gobbling Pop-Tarts and making crazy calculations before realizing they may need to hit the oxygen tank.

If found, the mythical Planet 9, estimated to be 5-10 times larger than Earth, could reveal a lot about how our solar system was formed. But between the astronomers and it are limited time, billions of stars, and lots of handmade algorithms.

SPOILER ALERT: They didn’t find it. Yet. But there’s increasing confidence that it’s out there.

Fun fact: Finding Planet 9 would allow Brown—whose earlier discoveries in space led to Pluto being demoted from a planet to a mere planetary-mass object (aka dwarf planet)—to replace the one planet he removed from models of our solar system with a much larger and more informative one. Meanwhile, Batygin mathematically proved that eventually Mercury could either fall into the sun or collide with Venus and be ejected from the solar system. Essentially, these guys are smart enough to undo the galaxy.

This kind of reporting and writing doesn’t happen for free. Think about subscribing or donating to a publication if you enjoy what you read!

Tech Vegans, Carbon Hunting, & the Property Managers of Wall Street

February is all snow days and slow days—a good time to settle in with some magazines that have been piling up in the corner. I’ll be posting an occasional series called Long Form, featuring some of my favorite recent long-form articles.

Long-form journalism can read a lot like a good short story—compelling characters and plot—a self-contained experience. At best, I forget I’m even learning something. So grab a cup of coffee, find a comfy chair and let’s get reading.

First up is I Cut the ‘Big Five’ Tech Giants From My Life. It Was Hell (Kashmir Hill, Gizmodo), a fun and fascinating read about how hard it actually is to avoid Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple. For the article, the author cut out every piece of technology (software, apps, hardware like smart phones and TVs) that was powered in any way by products from the “big five” tech giants. She took her tech diet seriously, even having a special network tool designed to prevent her devices from communicating with any of the tech giants’ servers. It’s terrifying to see how deeply embedded these companies are in daily life, with a vast infrastructure that makes them more like utilities than conveniences. Although you can become a “digital vegan” (it’s a thing), it’s going to cost you time and effort. Hill thinks that escaping these monopolies may mean rethinking the assumption that everything on the internet is free, but also questions who could afford which version of the internet.

This was interesting: Amazon’s most profitable business isn’t retail, but web hosting that powers many apps and websites.

Second, The Tiny Swiss Company That Thinks It Can Help Stop Climate Change (Jon Gertner, the New York Times). Offering a glimmer of hope for the ecological future, this article explores the race to perfect technologies like carbon capture,
and to build a new market for them. The story connects past breakthroughs like Haber-Bosch—a process of manufacturing fertilizer that led to a population explosion—to the kind of problems we face in a densely populated and industrialized planet and how technological breakthroughs could address them. There’s just enough science to keep the reader on the path, following Swiss company Climework’s efforts to build a direct-air-capture network at a lower cost and larger scale than currently possible. Experts on both sides of the argument for this technology give context to how it may (and may not) mitigate climate change.

My favorite part: “The technicians had in front of them 12 large devices… which soon would begin collecting carbon dioxide from air drawn in through their central ducts. Once trapped, the CO₂ would then be siphoned into large tanks and trucked to a local Coca-Cola bottler, where it would become the fizz in a soft drink.”

The hot, new investment market for foreclosed homes, and what that means for renters, is the subject of When Wall Street is Your Landlord (Alana Semuels, The Atlantic). This article focuses on the suburbs of Atlanta, where the 2008 housing bubble hit hard, and where some zip codes have one-in-five single-family rental homes owned by institutional investors. Semuels outlines general issues with property management investors through a lot of anecdotal evidence, and some unflattering comments made to shareholders about profits. It makes the grim case that the giant money machine of private equity has found a way to profit off of a crisis it helped to create, and how the implications of that will impact the prosperity of many families for at least a generation.

Suggested side read: This connects to the New York Times series, Bottom Line Nation, showing how private equity firms swooped in after the 2008 financial crisis and took over in unexpected ways.

Have any slow reads you’d like to recommend? Post them in the comments!