Longreads

27 Jan. 2023
A bowl of bright orange macaroni and cheese, photographed from above, against a deep blue background

As January draws to a close, our favorite stories this week included a stirring critical essay, a paean to the world’s greatest boxed meal, a rethinking of psychedelics’ impact on the planet, a profile of a craftsperson at his peak, and an eye-opener about how humpback whales use air in some unexpected ways.

1. Corky Lee and the Work of Seeing

Ken Chen | n+1 | 11,542 words | January 25, 2023

After Corky Lee passed last year, the photographer and community organizer was memorialized in his hometown’s most conventionally prestigious outlets: The Times offered a sizable obituary, as did Hua Hsu in The New Yorker. This week, on the first anniversary of Lee’s death, Ken Chen rendered an altogether different kind of portrait in n+1. Much of the same biographical information is included, as are a number of Lee’s iconic photographs of Asian Americans in New York throughout the last six decades. Yet, when Chen writes about his encounters with Lee, and about the 14 photographs he selects to represent Lee’s work, the grief that suffuses his words isn’t solely about Lee, but about the many atrocities visited upon the Asian American community, up to and after Lee’s death. Chen’s critical acumen here is reason enough to read: “His images lack a charismatic subject,” he writes of Lee. “Those whom capital dismissed as surplus, he saw as beautiful. He commemorated the multitude, the striking waiters and seamstresses whose unruly abundance crowded away any beatific composition.” But he brings a similar understated poetry to the social conditions Lee’s work served to illuminate — and with violence against Asian American elders and others seemingly unending (including a horrifying recent attack in my own hometown), that juxtaposition makes Chen’s piece nearly as indelible as the images it contains. —PR

2. An Ode to Kraft Dinner, Food of Troubled Times

Ivana Rihter | Catapult | January 19, 2023 | 2,261 words

I only discovered Kraft dinners later in life after moving to North America revealed the cult of Kraft to me. A stable lurking in every cupboard; I admired the respect that something so impossibly orange had managed to garner. When Ivana Rihter finds KDs, though, they are much more; cooked for her by her baba, they are inextricably linked to her immigration story. She describes the process of boiling the pasta and adding the sauce with reverence, the memory mixed in with her love for her baba and appreciation for the economic hardships her family struggled through to start their new life. Her baba teaches her to put feta on top, and with this “secret little piece of the home country mixed in with all-American shelf-stable cheese” it remains a food for life, and — consistently sitting at about a dollar a box — one that carries on seeing her through hard times. I found this an unexpectedly beautiful essay, more about memory and belonging than cheesy pasta. Food can transport you back in time, especially if, as Rihter describes it, it “is soaked with memories of [an] origin story.” —CW

3. Tripping for the Planet: Psychedelics and Climate Activism

Amber X. Chen | Atmos | January 16, 2023 | 3,196 words

In this piece, Chen explores what the current psychedelic renaissance means for environmental activism, and how synthetic drugs like LSD and MDMA and psychoactive plants like ayahuasca and peyote can stir change within individuals — and ultimately galvanize social movements. This all sounds incredibly positive on the surface, but not everyone who dabbles in such mind-altering journeys is transformed for the better; psychedelics also fuel right-wing movements, too. (See: “QAnon Shaman.“) The decriminalization of psychedelics is a step toward making their therapeutic benefits accessible to more people, yes, but as Chen notes, it increases the threat of deforestation, and — with today’s psychedelic movement being largely white — it also takes power away from Indigenous people, who have harnessed the healing power of these sacred plants for thousands of years. (See also a Top 5 essay I picked last year: “The Gentrification of Consciousness.”) I appreciate Chen’s exploration here, and the questions posed that I haven’t stopped thinking about, like: “How broken is Western society that we think we need drugs in order to facilitate mass climate action?” —CLR

4. The Violin Doctor

Elly Fishman | Chicago Magazine | January 17, 2023 | 4,177 words

Recently, in his late 60s, my dad decided to learn how to play the violin. I respect the choice to try the impossible, especially something as delicate and timeless as bowing a stringed instrument. (My parents’ cats, who endure the scratching out of notes from beneath the couch or bed, seem to have a different opinion.) After reading this lovely profile, I think perhaps my dad, a skilled carpenter, should also try apprenticing as a luthier. I, someone with zero skills at playing an instrument besides an egg shaker, who curses putting IKEA furniture together, was mesmerized by the descriptions of how John Becker, perhaps the best violin restorer on earth, practices his craft. Elly Fishman’s profile has a musical quality: It sweeps readers through chapters of Becker’s personal story and dwells in long, lyrical moments when, with the surest of hands, Becker repairs some of the most revered instruments on the planet — namely, Stradivari. There are just 650 of the violins left. What makes them so extraordinary? Musicians and scientists may puzzle over that question forever. In the meantime, Becker works — quietly, meticulously, instinctively. “We are caretakers of these instruments,” one of his clients tells him. “We move on, but these instruments continue to the next generation.” —SD

5. For Humpbacks, Bubbles Can Be Tools

Doug Perrine | Hakai Magazine | December 20, 2022 | 1,500 words

It’s well known that many animals use tools to aid feeding and other tasks of life. Think: otters floating on their backs, cracking shells with rocks. You’d think it would be hard for whales to use tools, but as Doug Perrine reports at Hakai Magazine, humpbacks use what’s available to them — air and water — to form bubbles for a variety of activities. “I’m tempted to describe the air in a humpback’s lungs as a Swiss army knife because I’ve seen whales do so many different things with it,” he wrote. “It is not actually a tool collection though, but a storehouse of raw construction material with which the whale can fashion a variety of tools. Lacking free fingers and opposable thumbs, whales are unable to create and use tools in the same way as humans, but reveal their intelligence through the manner in which they utilize other body parts for tool production and use.” —KS


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26 Jan. 2023

In this excerpt from her book, Conversations with Birds at Orion Magazine, Priyanka Kumar delights in the birds and animals of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, and cranes in particular.

Sandhill cranes are monogamous birds; during courtship, the male valiantly tosses vegetation or mud into the air and fans its wings above the body, before dancing with abandon and letting out a unison call. Then the pair throw their heads back—the male at a deeper angle—and the female lets out two calls for each call the male emits. Lifelong pairs rely on this short, sharp unison call for relationship maintenance—it’s a pair’s shorthand to stay connected, or to alert a mate to a threat in their breeding area. Dancing, too, is used not only in courtship rituals, which are said to be infrequent in lifelong pairs, but also as a communal activity. These cranes have at least ten different types of dances and as many calls; their dances are so lively, with leaps, bows, and head pumps that I wonder whether this is why a group of cranes is also referred to as a dance or swoop of cranes.

26 Jan. 2023

There are about 650 Stradivarius violins left in existence today. If one of them needs repair or restoration, their owners — wealthy collectors and world-class performers, mostly — call John Becker, a master luthier with a shop in downtown Chicago. How did a man who doesn’t play the instrument become the finest violin technician in the world? Elly Fishman explains:

He was drawn to the idea of working on rare violins — “I could see it was a craft” — and applied for a position at the prestigious violin dealer and restoration shop Bein & Fushi in 1979. Also located in the Fine Arts Building, Bein & Fushi ran a cutthroat apprentice program, but Becker’s talent was obvious from the start. “They said I was the best person they’d ever had,” he says.

When the top restorer left in 1982, Becker was tapped to fill his shoes. His first repair? The Adam, a 1714 Stradivarius violin named for a former collector. The business’s co-owner Robert Bein had given his employee The Secrets of Stradivari, a book by the acclaimed Italian luthier Simone Sacconi outlining the author’s best practices, and Becker absorbed them all. “I did some great work on that instrument,” he says.

In 1989, Becker took over as head of the entire workshop. Already renowned, Bein & Fushi became one of the world’s most prominent violin shops during Becker’s time there, thanks in large part to his work. “He was brilliant,” recalls Drew Lecher, who worked alongside him. “I guess you could say he had a Midas finger. If a violin didn’t sound right, he’d make it sound right. And if it didn’t look quite right, he’d make it look right. He was the standard-bearer.”

26 Jan. 2023

What can rotting teeth reveal about the experience of growing up with generational trauma? It turns out, quite a lot. Tali Perch’s deeply personal essay about her childhood, family, and relationship to pain is organized around a series of dental appointments:

Mama called a Russian friend to find a cheaper dentist. The friend had recommended “Uri” mostly because he worked where he lived: he didn’t have to pay rent twice and could pass those savings on to his customers. “Smart businessman,” Papa said.

Dr. Uri buzzed us in and opened the door to his apartment. “Come in, come in,” he said, using the formal Russian you and smiling through small, stubby, very white teeth. He was a stocky older man with a helmet of coarse salt-and-pepper hair and matching bushy eyebrows. His apartment was empty and felt as cold as a meat locker; the kitchen had been converted into a treatment room, no cookware in sight. He motioned for me to sit in a dental chair next to his stove. Mama stood in the corner.

Dr. Uri rooted around in my mouth. “The lower left molar is decayed,” he told Mama in Russian, whose word for “molar” roughly translates to critical tooth. Or drastic tooth. Or native tooth. A tooth to preserve, to repair. Or, if too wounded, then a tooth to cajole slowly, gently, carefully by its root, leaving the gums and nerves healthy for a stronger tooth to grow there. But to Dr. Uri, my molar was merely a baby tooth. “Not worth fixing.” He yanked the tooth quickly, with no novocaine, as if he had only seconds to extricate the tooth or the decay would live there forever.

26 Jan. 2023
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Devin Kelly | Longreads | January 2023 | 17 minutes (4,692 words)

Read Devin Kelly’s previous Longreads essays: “Running Dysmorphic,” “What I Want to Know of Kindness,” “Out There: On Not Finishing,” “Repetitive Stress,” “I Miss it All,” and “Children in the Garden.”

In late November, I am standing near the front of the church at my fiance’s grandfather’s funeral. I am not feeling great, I would say. Earlier that morning, I woke up a little achy and anxious about the achiness. I am wearing the suit I will get married in and standing next to the person I will marry, and, halfway into service, I kneel down as part of the ceremony, feel something go wonky in my head and my mouth and my body, think nope nope nope, and collapse sideways into the arms of my fiance. I wish I could say I remember something about that infinite blackness of not-being-with-it, that space of the unconscious, but it feels, in the moment, only like giving oneself over without permission, and then waking into a sea of faces. The mass goes on; somewhere to my right the priest still speaks. I say sorry. I say sorry again and again. In this way, I am reminded that this is life, that I am alive. I say sorry and people look at me with worry. I say sorry and people look at me with love. 

My wrist is held by my fiance’s aunt, a cardiac nurse. She talks to me, gives me sips of water. I think of the people seeing me and wonder how long it takes for an image of someone to undo itself from your mind. I say sorry to myself because I know I will think about this forever. I say sorry again to anyone who will hear. I say yes to a question asked by a cop who is somehow between the pews, and then to an EMT with red cheeks and a Red Sox hat. I want to get up. I want to undo. I want to be in my own head for a little bit and have the people go away. But more people come. Another EMT, then another. I am embarrassed; I am thinking only of myself. I am walked to the back of the church; I am placed on a stretcher, wheeled into an ambulance. The man inside it calls me buddy. I smile. It feels good to be called buddy. It makes me think that I am a kid, that I could be a little bit of a kid forever. I smile and nod. When they put the IV needle in me, and I feel the rush of something cool injected into my body, I pass out again. They are worried when I awake. The man says buddy but with more urgency. He holds me by the shoulder as I am wheeled into the ER. He says something about my heart, something about a pacemaker. I think okay, okay, remember this — the red brick of the building, the one green leaf amidst the others long since gone to gold, the 10 feet of brushed gray concrete between the ambulance and the electric doors, the bench without a person, the cold air against my wet chest, the person I love holding my jacket. 

Twenty years ago, my brother nearly passed out in a church in Rochester. I remember the heater on the ground beneath the pew, and how it looked like a fire alarm bell. I remember the men in the back of the church, with their puffy Buffalo Bills jackets, and I remember the abrupt and almost-comforting cold coming from over the lake, and how it slapped and shattered the skin of my young cheek when we opened the door to take my brother outside. He recovered. We walked back inside and left after mass — it was midnight on Christmas Eve — to sit at my grandmother’s small kitchen table in her small kitchen two blocks from the shore of Lake Ontario, where we ate Entenmann’s coffee cake with our dad before we went to bed. Before my grandmother died, I sat with her at that same kitchen table, watching her refuse to eat a spoonful of peas. My dad asked her to eat them, in what was perhaps the gentlest act I’d ever seen him perform. I’d never heard him whisper until that moment. He asked her softly, and she refused. She was small then, just barely taller than four feet. Life had made her stubborn, then tender, then stubborn again. That is my last memory of seeing her alive. Her face, just above the table’s edge. Like a moon gone down to earth. 

He asked her softly, and she refused. She was small then, just barely taller than four feet. Life had made her stubborn, then tender, then stubborn again. That is my last memory of seeing her alive. Her face, just above the table’s edge. Like a moon gone down to earth.

***

You can use the word faint — or its almost-homophone, feign — in a myriad of ways. You can say I fainted. You can say that some tasks are not for the faint-hearted. You can describe the faint light of dusk as the sun descends beneath the horizon and turns what once was gold to purple as everything moves closer to shadow. You can hold a faint hope in your heart. You can hold that hope forever; it can perhaps burn faintly inside you — just enough to keep going. You can feign courage even if you are faint-hearted. You can feign so much: your life, your expertise, your sorrow, your joy. You can speak faintly, so softly that someone might say speak up, the same way they might ask — then yell — for you to get up if and when you faint.

***

There are no windows in the emergency room. There are wires coming out of my body. I close my eyes. I open them. I say to myself: I will say thank you to anyone who touches me. I don’t know then that some of the touches will be difficult, that I will be pricked and poked, will feel the somewhat gross and mostly uncomfortable sensation of the thick and blue rubber band pulled taut around my arm. The blood gone from me again and again. The TV airing reruns of Friends. In between, my fiance and I look at islands we might visit when all of this is over. We want there to be hydrangeas — 10 million hydrangeas. A sun to shine on them. A doctor comes in and says it might be Lyme. He says you never know. He says the word test a thousand times. I am struck, while waiting, of how horrible it feels to wait. A child cries next door, in his own windowless room. My fiance takes a balloon from my room and walks it over to his. I watch her leave and think if I am allowed to decide to love someone for the rest of my life, and then I know that I am allowed, and that I do.

I am worried about my heart because everyone is worried about my heart. They say I will stay overnight in cardiology. They say they will move me when a room opens up. My fiance fits into the bed with me. We are both small. We watch Friends and eat Goldfish. Because no one will tell me how worried I should be, and because there is so much time in between the scary things that people tell me and the less-scary moments of those same people telling me not to be afraid of the scary thing they said hours before, I make a list of what I need to become okay with. I do it in my head. At the very top, I say that if I have to be okay with dying, I will become okay with dying. I say that if I have to be okay with someone opening up my body, I will become okay with someone opening up my body. I say that if I have to be okay with never being able to run again, I will become okay with never being able to run again. At the very bottom of the list is my body in the bed, making a list of all I might have to become okay with, the anxiety and worry of wondering about the self, and the only thing I think I know at the time: that I feel like I will hold my worry forever.

***

In his long, romantic book Rome, Naples, and Florence, Stendhal describes what later became known as Stendhal Syndrome. By his account, Stendhal is walking through Florence on the 22nd of some long-ago January, his heart “leaping wildly” within him at the prospect of viewing art. So much art. With memories “crowding and jostling” within him, he finds himself, by his own admission, “incapable of rational thought.” I think of his honesty with such compassion; he is so vulnerable, so innocent, so unrestrained in his willingness to be transfixed and transformed. He wants so badly to be moved. And soon, he is. Standing in front of Volterrano’s Sybils, he undergoes “the profoundest experience of ecstasy” and, leaving the Basilica of Santa Croce, he feels a “fierce palpitation of the heart” and walks “in constant fear of falling to the ground.” 

Stendhal Syndrome takes that description as a kind of origin story, and, though unverified by scientific evidence as a true psychosomatic condition, posits that people can experience moments of lightheadedness, heightened anxiety, syncope, and more as a result of exposure to beautiful art. The Italian psychiatrist Dr. Graziella Magherini documented 106 cases of this, which she published in her book, La Sindrome di Stendhal. In an interview in Metropolis, she describes a man, Kamil, who visited Florence, took in a great deal of art, and, in almost the same spot as Stendhal, “felt like he was suffocating.” Magherini says that he “had to leave the church and lay down on the church steps, and that he was “able to collect himself only when he managed to imagine himself at home, in his bed in Prague.”

On the internet, I move back and forth between articles about Stendhal Syndrome and Magherini and Paris Syndrome — a term for people who visit Paris and experience a sense of extreme disappointment (which manifests as lightheadedness, tachycardia, and more) because the city is not what they expect it to be. It is perhaps the opposite of Stendhal Syndrome — a bodily response not to overwhelming beauty but to overwhelming mundanity. I am drawn to these descriptions of episodes and syndromes because they feel romantic — deeply symbolic and metaphorical. Reading about some of Magherini’s cases, I find myself thinking that they seem outlandish and absurd, true in their experience but only potentially true in their diagnosis. Perhaps Kamil was not really overcome by the beauty of art; perhaps he was tired from all the traveling and walking. Perhaps he was anxious about something in his life — some lost love, some unresolved desire — and the expectation of beauty (more than its reality) made him terrified, made him long for somewhere safe. His home, maybe. His bed in Prague. But I am no psychiatrist. I only know that, in the ambulance, when the EMT put the shock pads on my chest, worried that he might have to use them, I felt wildly calm. I saw the blue sky through the little window, felt the faintest rush of cool air, and thought this is real, this is here, and here is where I am. I wanted to make that little world safe. I breathed into it.  

***

They wake us both at two in the morning, and they make my fiance leave. I am wheeled through the dark emergency room, where the child — I hope — sleeps, and where a drunk man leans over his gurney, body heaving in some in-between state. He is left there in the hallway to recover, like a ragged doll of a wet fish. I wonder about what it must be like to work through this darkness, not knowing who or what is going to come. When I wake up again, I am in my own room, and there is a soft light — maybe even faint — spreading all orange above the trees, as if the sky is a blanket under-lit by a flashlight. Later that morning, after a nurse tells me the remaining tests they have to run, they wheel in an older man next to me, and slide a divider between us. He coughs. He coughs as if coughing is his breath. He had heart surgery months before; he thinks something is wrong with his heart again. He keeps asking if they will have to slide a catheter into his vein until it pokes up and around his heart. When his doctor comes in, the man coughs. He coughs and coughs again. 

In between each cough, he tells his doctor the story of a friend he had, a friend who called him on the phone to tell him he was about to take his life, that he had the gun right there. He talks about his friend with something that sounds like honor and is almost definitely dignity. He has respect for his friend, still, even though his friend used the gun. He says that: even though he used the gun. He tells the story for a long time. He coughs while he tells it. He does not raise his voice. He speaks with the flatness of a thick, wooden board. I don’t know how much hurt this man holds in his body and in his heart. He says that sometimes it is the only decision to be made. I want to cry, hearing the story. I have been separated from someone I love. I am alone in this room with the soft light that I want to get softer, and with a body that feels not quite mine, and I don’t know what to do with this story. I think: There is loss and there is only loss, which means that life is what we make of loss, which is an impossible task, to make something of loss, so life must simply be how we live, and continue to live, amidst the unthinkably unmakeable. It is, every day, so deeply humbling to take each and every breath. If I don’t hold onto that, I know I will let it go. 

I think: There is loss and there is only loss, which means that life is what we make of loss, which is an impossible task, to make something of loss, so life must simply be how we live, and continue to live, amidst the unthinkably unmakeable.

***

Around the time of my parent’s divorce, I felt — for months — a gnawing pain in my chest. I was 10, 11 years old when it started. The pain would manifest as a short, sometimes intense sensation. I would feel it, frown, rub my chest, and get scared. I didn’t tell anyone about it. I didn’t tell anyone about it for a very long time. I remember sitting in Mr. G’s fifth grade English class, laughing too loud at the word bosom in Shakespeare, and thinking to myself — each time the pain shocked me out of nowhere — that I wouldn’t live to see the next day, or the day after that. I did that for a long time, this silent planning for a non-future, coming to terms with how my refusal to ask for help would probably lead to the end of my life. It felt grown up at the time, like I was handling a grown-up problem in a grown-up way. Now, thinking back on it, it seems so lonely, and sad. I think of that younger me, sitting in the midst of so many other young people, trying to become okay with dying and not telling anybody. I want to reach back into that past, and hold that child. Hold him tight. I want to say you can open your mouth. I want to say you can admit it. And then listen. Listen and hold. Hold and listen.

It took me almost a year to spit out my anxiety and worry and pain to my dad in a long, speedily spoken sentence. I remember how calm he seemed. We were in the car. He told me it would be okay, and a few days later he sat next to me in a room somewhere off a highway as a man rubbed a gooey, cool liquid all over my chest and my heart lit up — all electric — on a screen. The diagnosis had nothing to do with my heart. I was young; I was growing; these things happen. I would be okay. 

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There is something about the heart I cannot shake. I don’t mean about feeling. There will always be something about feeling I cannot shake, or even begin to describe. But there is something about the heart — my heart, and maybe yours — that looms over me each day. I think this is because I cannot control it. Right now, as I type this, I am breathing slowly, breathing deeply through my nose, and I feel my heart beat less frequently as a result. But even here, I am not controlling the actual beating of my heart, just its frequency. No. There is something about the heart. It beats until it doesn’t. I don’t give or withhold permission. To live my life is to accept — in this one, life-giving ongoingness that occurs right at the heart of me — that I am not the center of this story.

***

You can use the word heart in a myriad of ways. You can speak of the heart and its four chambers. You can speak of the heart as a muscle. You can say the heart is the size of a fist. You can talk about the fairyfly, only .2 millimeters long, and you can say you need a microscope to see its heart. You can say he doesn’t have any heart, which doesn’t literally mean that the person doesn’t have a heart, only that whoever you are speaking of lacks some sort of courage or resilience. You can be heartened. You can be disheartened. You can cross your heart. You can have a change of heart. You can have a heart of gold. You can believe in someone, and even love someone. You can do this with your whole heart. You can do something for that someone in a heartbeat. You can — always, and sadly — break their heart. Your heart has a bottom. You can speak from this place, the same way that you can bear your soul. Your heart has strings, too. They can be pulled. They can be tugged. I don’t know if they can be tied. I imagine they can. It sounds lighthearted, I know, but you can also have a heavy heart. I think of this often. How heavy is your heart? Do you wear your heart on your sleeve? Would you like help carrying it? I know you carry it every day.

***

In the daylight, a nurse takes my blood for the fourth time in my hospital stay. I watch soccer. I get lonely until my fiance comes. I don’t know what to do with my worry. I don’t know what to do with the time in between not knowing and knowing, which seems to be an entire lifetime, where I am left next to the coughing man whose friend put a gun to his head. I think a hospital is a hard place to get better, even if it is filled with people who do the job of helping you get better. I think a hospital is a terrible place to worry. My worry becomes a balloon filled; it takes up the whole room. It occupies a place next to the window and blocks out the light. My worry becomes my whole self, scared to tell a soul what is happening out of fear that it will make what is happening a reality. My worry becomes a silent thing. I put it somewhere in my body and let it fester. I close the door to that room. I wish that there were plants. I wish there was something other than the steady hum of machinery and the electric rhythm of my heart filtered through a monitor, which I turn to sometimes to make sure I am alive.

In the early afternoon, two nurses come to wheel me to a different floor, where, for the second time in my life, I sit in a room as a man rubs a cold and gooey liquid over my chest and takes a recording of my heart. We are so close, the two of us, in that elongated moment. We are so close in that dark room. It feels intimate; it doesn’t feel intimate; I want it to feel intimate. I want the man to talk to me about this moment, to acknowledge the two of us in this room together, to ask me about my body, to let me tell him what happened, to share something — a story, a kindness — in this room together while we are together. I want us to be unlike men. I want to lean into intimacy. I would kiss his hand if he offered it to me, the way people do in old novels upon arriving at the other’s door. Instead, there is just the cold feeling against my chest and the sound that sometimes erupts from the monitor as something — a frequency, perhaps — switches, and I hear my heart as if my heart were alien to me, this blooping thing that fills the room.

I am okay. I am diagnosed with vasovagal syncope — a fairly common syndrome brought on by various triggers, in my case, the dehydration most likely caused by the stomach virus manifesting itself in my gut — and I leave the hospital with a heart rate monitor glued to my shaved chest. It feels odd, standing in the hospital’s lobby, trying to rethink the 30-something hours, as if I had existed somewhere else. But I hadn’t. I sat in my body in a bed, and was moved around — from floor to floor — and attended to. There is a lump underneath my hoodie where the monitor sticks out. I feel as if I failed somehow — at life, at dignity, at anything of worth. I know that’s not true. You can tell me that’s not true. It doesn’t change the feeling.

***

In medicine, the term syncope refers to a loss of consciousness brought upon by a reduction of blood flow to the brain. Causes can be serious or benign. It can be related to a condition of the heart. In linguistics, the term syncope refers to a moment when a letter — typically a vowel — is omitted in the pronunciation of a word. This happens all the time in common speech. You say op’ra instead of opera, cam’ra instead of camera. A letter is devalued, made to seem empty, and is left out of the spoken word. When you experience syncope, you feel yourself left out of the language of common life. You come to, and the world has spoken a word and the very letter of you has been omitted. The word has been spoken; there is no going back. D’vin. D’in. D’n. D’. ‘’. If you say it aloud, only the emptiness echoes.

When you experience syncope, you feel yourself left out of the language of common life. You come to, and the world has spoken a word and the very letter of you has been omitted.

In music, the term syncopated refers to a moment when the offbeats of a song are stressed or accented. When you are listening to a song that is heavily syncopated, it disrupts your expectations of normal rhythms and patterns, and, though you are listening in that state of disruption, the hope is that such disruption makes you keep listening. My favorite example of this is the song “Fake Empire,” by The National, which introduces a piano melody that occurs in 3/4 time while the song is sung in 4/4 time. This is conflict, yes, but I enjoy this conflict. Your heart, however, should not beat consistently in a syncopated fashion. This is called an arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat. You could have tachycardia, your heart beating too fast. You could have bradycardia, your heart beating too slow. Too fast. Too slow. It’s hard to know that something has to be just right. 

What to make of this disruption? This staggering anxiety in the everydayness of life? That fear of omittance, of a disrupted rhythm, of coming-to and not knowing? The desire to be just right? The worry of being left out? The longing for safety? The longing to be moved? The beauty of the painting? The letdown of the city? The  hand reaching out in that moment just before falling? And if there’s no hand? And if you can’t reach? What to make of this? Of life? Of what you can choose and what you can’t? Of wishing it were the other way around? Of giving over control? Of holding on too tight? Of the hurt we hold in the body and the heart? And of the heart — there it is, on the monitor, liquid blue and electric, like something underwater, do you see it, and can you see the scarring; it’s there, it’s there, I didn’t know it could be there, but it’s there, what we’ve caused to one another, what we hold and keep holding, not knowing any other way until we don’t know any longer — yes, of the heart, what of it?

***

I have tricks now for when I feel faint. I can cross my legs, push them out against each other. I can place my hands together and press them real hard. For weeks now, walking through the city, going to work, taking the subway — I think to myself: What would be the worst place to pass out? I worry about it constantly, find myself pressing each hand to the other in a preventative way, stemming off even the possibility of something happening. I see it all the time: my life moving ahead of me in small, missed moments. I see a glitch in the future. I am running with a child in a stroller, and then the child disappears, and there is only an empty stroller. I finish a book and immediately forget everyone’s name. I am holding out flowers; I am saying here, these flowers are for you, and in that moment right before I give them, the flowers disappear, and I only have an empty hand. 

I think that, in these moments, what I am really saying to myself is what would be the worst place to be left out? I don’t want to be elided. I don’t want to be omitted. I don’t want my heart to skip a beat, to beat too slow, to beat too fast. I think that what I am really saying to myself is that I am scared — terrified, actually — of frailty and its limits, of knowing that there is something about presentness — about being here, in that space where nothing can be left out, because it is happening now, and now, and now — that I am still learning.

And so I speak in the present tense. And so I press my hands together each day and tell myself that it is like prayer. Please let me be here; let me stay. And so I count the yellow windows in the black night from the moving train. And so I lose count and start again. And so I tell the one I love that the river from my childhood reminds me of the river in Joni Mitchell’s song. And so I run my hands along things: chain link fences, triple-painted gates, countertops, and bars. And so I anthropomorphize the animals, call the fly inside the apartment my little guy and click my tongue and wish him well. And so I order the sage-butter tortellini one day, chicken fingers the next. And so I say so what, it’s date night at the diner. And so I remember to laugh. And so I do: I laugh even when it’s hard. And so I remember that it’s this moment I want, before it becomes the next, where anything could happen and anything could not. I don’t remember that, the not. When I awoke, I remember I saw your face. 

***

Devin Kelly is the author of In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen (published by Civil Coping Mechanisms) and the co-host of the Dead Rabbits Reading Series. He is the winner of a Best of the Net Prize, and his writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Guardian, LitHub, Catapult, DIAGRAM, Redivider, and more. He lives and teaches high school in New York City.

***

Editor: Krista Stevens

Copy editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands

25 Jan. 2023

On the first anniversary of photographer Corky Lee’s death, Ken Chen sets forth an astounding feat of remembrance: a mosaic of photocriticism from which he teases out an elegy to Lee’s empathic genius, all set against a litany of horrors perpetuated on the Asian American community. Stunning writing, brimming with clarity and anger and love.

I spent a year looking at Corky Lee’s photographs. I saw grandmothers squat on the curb and laugh. I saw girls pluck the guqin. I saw boys pose on their fire escape. I saw women set up a streetside clinic whose sign says without shame: PAP SMEAR / BREAST EXAM / GONORRHEA TEST. I saw tenements, picketers, parades, veterans, and flags. I saw Reyna Elena, Miss Philippines and a B-Boy flying his bare arms wide. I saw a dapper Desi boy protesting Dotbusters. I saw men beat Taiko drums, I saw them hold up tombstones for Vincent Chin. I saw three women from Sakhi say: WE WILL NOT TOLERATE ABUSE. I saw a bride and groom order from a hot dog cart. I saw two cool women throw a cool glance. I saw a man remembering at a table marked POSTON ARIZONA and I wondered how many years had passed since the prison camps. I saw New York City and the tangled warrens of Chinatown. I saw a hollering woman in a hardhat hoist her sign high, the text that also tells her biography: INJURED ON THE JOB, THEN FIRED BY THE BOSS! There is something moving about the sheer number of people Corky Lee thought were worth remembering. His archive is an Aleph in which you can glimpse everyone from an Asian American world bulging vast with time and complexity. Over the past few years, we have asked for someone to finally see us. Looking at these kaleidoscopic images, I found myself thinking the only power that can recognize us is ourselves.

25 Jan. 2023

To those outside the world of mountaineering, Nims Purja is the subject of the Netflix documentary 14 Peaks, which chronicled his journey to climb all of the world’s 8,000-meter mountains in record time. To many of those inside the world of mountaineering, though, Nims Purja is a climber in every sense of the word — as much a showboat and a hustle-minded careerist as a talented alpinist. In this gnarled, complex profile, Grayson Schaffer tries to get the measure of the man from all angles, folding in everything from Purja’s newfound influencer clientele to the fraught history of the Nepali sherpa community. It’s a hell of a read, even to those of us who will never set foot in a base camp.

He says he’s the CEO of nine companies, though he won’t name them all. His book and movie are both autobiographical. The former, a best seller, reads like the kind of memoir written by American politicians who have suddenly taken to vacationing in Iowa. The latter, Nims says, was Netflix’s most popular release of 2021. He gets consistent corporate speaking gigs, and his one-on-one guiding rate up Everest is, he told me, more than a million dollars.

It’s a lot. Nims is a lot. But his hustle and bravado are precisely the things that have allowed him to break into the mainstream from Nepal’s deep bench of climbing talent. I’ve covered mountaineering and Sherpa culture on and off for more than a decade, and while there have always been insanely strong climbers with roots in Nepal, nobody has ever amassed the mind share, as the marketers say, that Nims has. In the process he’s gathered a legion of devotees and plenty of critics, all of them hoping to cement his reputation as either a generational talent among high-altitude mountaineers or else an egotistical self-promoter flying perilously close to the sun.

25 Jan. 2023

This gentle essay documents Roxanne Gay’s and her wife, Debbie Millman’s, journey to Antarctica. It’s not a racy tale, just a thoughtful look at what the trip meant to them, told from their perspective. A lovely take on shared contentment.

I took a picture of Debbie, bundled in her bright red parka, eyes covered with goggles, beaming as she held the chunk of ice. There were more penguins. We pulled up to a craggy landing and stepped foot on land to . . . say we stepped foot on Antarctica. We admired the landscape, and I was struck by the fact that this really is one of the last places in the world that is largely unconquered. I found an unexpected comfort in that.

25 Jan. 2023

The human fascination with psychedelics is nothing new. The earliest use of psychoactive plants dates back to 11,000 B.C. in Israel, with the brewing of beer, while some people theorize that the eating of magic mushrooms 20,000 years ago fostered the intellectual evolution of early humans (see: “stoned ape theory“). For Atmos, Amber X. Chen explores the current psychedelic renaissance’s effects on environmental activism, and how hallucinogenic drugs like LSD and psilocybin, and ancient plant medicine like ayahuasca, can stir change within individuals — and ultimately galvanize social movements.

It sounds incredibly positive on the surface, but not everyone who dabbles in such mind-altering journeys comes out the other side positively transformed. As research shows, psychedelics have enormous therapeutic potential, sure, but they also fuel right-wing movements, too (see: “‘QAnon Shaman“).

The use of psychoactive plants has its roots with Indigenous tribes, who’ve used them for healing and cultural practices for thousands of years. Before we push for the decriminalization of psychedelics and encourage their use to help stir climate activism, reports Chen, there are steps that need to be taken for these powerful, sacred plants to play a positive role in the environmental movement.

In a 2022 study that surveyed 240 people, mostly from Australia, the U.S., and the U.K., who had prior experience with psychedelics, researchers found more pro-environmental behaviors among participants who reported having had a previous mystical experience than those who had not. The researchers measured these behaviors based on a wide range of behaviors—anything from adopting a vegetarian diet and purchasing eco-friendly products to turning off your lights more regularly.

Before adding psychedelics to the climate action toolkit, we need to first plan for their conservation, prioritize Indigenous cultures, and place Indigenous peoples into leadership positions. This means respecting the wishes of Indigenous peoples: if a tribe or nation doesn’t want its plant medicines commercialized, we should not interfere. For those willing to share, we must not appropriate. Ultimately, we have to listen.

24 Jan. 2023

This is a surprisingly poignant essay about growing up with Kraft dinners. Ivana Rihter manages to make a cheap pasta dish sound beautiful, but it’s not about the food, it’s about the memories of family and heritage that it conjures up.

More than twenty years later, the sound of dried pasta tubes sliding across cardboard soothes me like a rain stick. Kraft was the first meal I ever truly loved, the first one I attempted to cook on my own, and the first food I could not live without. There are four boxes tucked into my pantry as I write this.

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