Happy Sunday! This week’s guest editor is Shaun Assael. Shaun was on the original staff of ESPN Magazine and spent twenty years traveling the world writing stories as a senior writer and correspondent for the ESPN shows E:60 and Outside the Lines. These days, Shaun’s writing books full time in coastal Carolina and working on a film adaptation of his fourth, The Murder of Sonny Liston. He’ll also be featured in a Showtime documentary about the same scheduled to air early next year.
Take it away, Shaun…
I attended a pair of writing conferences recently.
One was a splashy affair where big corporations pay big bucks to celebrate the investigative journalism being done by big corporations. Don’t get me wrong. I’d drive the wheels off my Winnebago to hear Marty Baron talk about Spotlight. (Or SLR’s DVN talk about anything.) But most of the panels I attended were enervating. What was supposed to feel swashbuckling got drowned in the minutia of how to sort restaurant inspections by calculating conditional sums in Excel. All worthy, to be sure. Still, I left feeling like I wasn’t part of a convention so much as a con—a version of those infomercials that tell you how to become a new you in three easy steps.
The other conference was a smaller, more intimate gathering for mystery writers. Everyone seemed to be on their second or third careers. Former teachers. Retired military. Newspaper reporters who’d blown through their buy-outs. They gathered in small clusters in a Hampton Inn, talking about what poisons to use when dispatching thieving spouses, how to saw off a serial number, and the art of the alibi. I was there because I’d come out with a non-fiction true crime book. But I fell in love with those people. I’d discovered my tribe!
I also discovered how frustrating it is to write fiction. In journalism, Ernest leaves the house, takes a left, and then goes to Chipotle, where he orders … well, you can make a call to find out. (Or, if Ernest dies of botulism, file a public records request for the coroner’s report.) In fiction, there’s no one to call. It’s one huge logic puzzle. And as much as you think you’re in control, you’re not. Once you set your characters in motion, they have needs and wants. And, in the kind of writing I do, they will at some point be faced with a gruesome discovery.
The pieces I’m gravitating toward these days reflect that tension between fact and fiction. By and large, they’re character-driven reads that unfold with the patience/precision of a good novel but contain the kind of investigative chops you can’t slap a sticker on.
On the whole, I’m partial to procedurals, so you’ll find a few more cop pieces here than usual. But you’ll also read about Urmila Mahadev, a graduate student in quantum physics who asked a question that’s still blowing my mind: As computers get smarter and more capable of using artificial intelligence to model, how will we know if they’re following our directions — or going off on their own?
Good Sunday morning to you. Prepare to be surprised.
This one has it all for me, from a chocolate lab named Keela who died “with a halo of blood around her head,” to a ghostly spirit that hovers over the investigation, to a Twin Peaks-style bar called the Thirsty Beaver. And, oh, that missing deer head. The interactive layout, which includes audio and video from police informants, is riveting. But most of all, Pruden’s patience layering in detail — “She also noticed how clean and shiny the rings were. Not like they had been in a fire at all” — is masterful. She even throws in a tip I hope I’ll never have to use for beating a lie detector test.
This isn’t a cop piece, but it reads like one. I won’t give away the ending of this whodunit in which Lizza goes on the trail of the California congressman’s missing dairy farm. But it involves a pig blood processing plant, a manure pit accident, and a vibe reminiscent of Jack Nicholson in Chinatown. Spoiler alert: hypocrisy gets killed.
In November 2017, Stephen Willeford was a plumber living unremarkably in Southerland Springs, Texas, when a man in body armor opened fire in a Baptist church near his home. Willeford grabbed an Ak-47 from his gun safe and ran to the scene, where he fired four times, wounding the shooter. After the assailant tried feeling in his Explorer, Willeford fired two more shots, shattering its windows before flagging down a bystander and going on a 90-mph chase. What follows is part Steve McQueen’s Bullet, part sweeping meditation on God, guns, and community that defies easy partisan labels.
On the heels of her chilling look into Nazi boys, Reitman uses a wide lens to show how law enforcement in the U.S. got lulled into thinking it had America’s white nationalists on the run. According to Reitman, the rise of the far right—71% of extremist-related fatalities from 2008 to 2017 were committed by supremacists compared to 26% by Islamic extremists—“raises questions about the United States’ counterterrorism strategy, which for nearly two decades has been focused almost exclusively on American and foreign-born jihadists, overshadowing right-wing extremism as a legitimate national-security threat.”
Brody’s tick-tock about the women who came forward to implicate the sociopathic physician who molested as many as 250 girls in his 25 years at USA Gymnastics is both gripping and a how-to-guide for confronting sexual abusers. Just this week, the United States Olympic Committee stripped the federation of its charter, telling America’s gymnasts, “You deserve better.” Uh, you think? Rosemarie Aquilina, the presiding judge who insisted on letting every accuser tell their story in open court, comes off as a new American hero.
The amendment that everyone is talking about isn’t what you think, says Kalt, a law professor at Michigan State who does a surprisingly lively job distinguishing between Section 3, which is what’s used when Presidents go briefly under sedation, and the more extraordinary Section 4, which deals with the chief executive’s mental health. His conclusion is bound to disappoint Never Trumpers: “It was designed to ensure that there is a conscious, communicative person in charge of the government, not to stop unfit or even unbalanced presidents from doing bad things.”
In 1993, while I was at The Village Voice and Wahlberg was touring as Marky Mark, I discovered he’d served 45 days of a two-year prison sentence “for terrorizing people of color” as a teen on the streets of Boston. I managed to track Wahlberg down by phone before a show, and to my surprise, he was forthright about his crimes. So I was intrigued to see him talking here, 25 years later, about his Catholic upbringing, how he sought forgiveness from his victims, and why he wakes up at 2:30 a.m. to start each day with prayer.
The most influential Amazon company you’ve never heard about is called Blue Origin, though it might as well be known as Space Prime. Levy goes into the dustbowl of west Texas to take a sneak peek at The New Shepherd, the 60-foot rocket that the richest man in the world is building to lead us on an epic migration into space.
I was eight when my mother took me to the newly rechristened Ziegfeld Theater in New York City to see the movie “On A Clear Day You Can See Forever.” That was 1970, and I’ve loved Babs ever since. At 76, with her 36th record, Walls, just released, Streisand talks about her struggles in Hollywood, her hopes for millennials, and how she’s writing her memoir.
Q: Do you write in the same place? A: I write in my bed, mostly. Q: With your dogs around you? A: Sometimes, yes. And with lots of food.
Do not — I repeat, do not — get thrown by this headline. Klarreich sets up her profile of Urmila Mahadev, a graduate student at the University of California, so elegantly that it gives new meaning to “a beautiful mind.”
…In which we learn about the phenomenon known as superposition, where two particles can become “entangled” and share information across arbitrarily large distances through a still-undiscovered mechanism.
I’m usually skeptical of profiles that start with the author writing about himself. But Piazza, who scripted the HBO series Treme, owns up to the trope by saying that “instead of a hanging-out-with-John-Prine in Nashville article,” he wanted to reach a deeper place: one that uses Prine’s music — Dylan once called his songs pure Proustian existentialism — to help him deal with the recent deaths of friends. Along the way, he wonders if it’s a mistake to get to know Prine “and then possibly lose another friend.” It’s a sweet, if melancholy, turn.
I recently found this piece by Hunter Thompson in a stack of old magazines in a curiosities shop. Unfortunately, Rolling Stone’s permissions department won’t let me reprint the whole thing, but you can find it in his collection, The Great Shark Hunt. Every J-student of my generation tried to ape his gonzo style, but he puts an unedited transcript of his Q&A with Ali in the middle of this piece to remind us he paid his dues as a straight news reporter. It’s a clinic in how to he separated being a reporter and writer. And he got to interview Ali in bed. Hot damn!
In 2012, Gordon Corera was assigned by the BBC to cover a story about a dead bird in a chimney. It wasn’t, the security correspondent later admits, ‘the most obvious subject about which to write for someone interested in intelligence.’ But this pigeon, uncovered during home renovations in a Surrey village about 20 miles south of London, had a red cannister attached to its leg. Inside the cannister was a coded message dating back to World War II.
“A person who is always thinking unpleasant things about others, saying unpleasant things, disliking everyone, being jealous, always having some grievance, or some form of self-pity, always feeling that he or she is not rightly treated and so on — such a person has a filthy mind in the most real and practical sense, because all these things are forms of negative emotion and all negative emotions are dirt…I have a hunch that, if I could ever get quiet and free for a moment from my negativity, I might get a gift from God.”
“If you were to build your own time capsule, what would you want people—or alien beings—a million years from now to know about us? That we were loving, or warmongering, or dopes strung out on memes and viral videos? That we flew to the moon and made great art, ate Cinnabons (that we measured at 880 astonishing calories), and committed atrocities? How could you begin to represent these times, as lived by nearly 8 billion people? And what would give you, of all people, the right to tell the story?”
Thirty years ago, as computer-assisted voting was becoming the norm, Ronnie Dugger was one of the first journalists to ask how easy it would be to hack the boxes and fix an election. As timely today as when it was reported, Dugger’s piece makes the case that the best and most secure way to count votes is the one that allows the voters to understand all the steps in the process. Analog beats digital, he concludes.
Classic Read curator Jack Shafer writes about media for Politico.
On Election Day, Nov. 6, Democratic Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum casts his vote with his 4-year-old twins, Caroline and Jackson, by his side. Tallahassee photographer Mark Wallheiser captured the moment in a photograph that could have inspired American illustrator Norman Rockwell. “Count every vote,” Gillum later urged as the race with Republic Ron DeSantis appeared headed to a recount.
Patrick Farrell, the curator of The Sunday Still, is the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winner for Breaking News Photography for The Miami Herald, where he has worked since 1987. He is currently a Lecturer in the Department of Journalism and Media Management at the University of Miami School of Communication.
I’ve been listening to Thirst Aid Kit a fair amount lately, but last week I was in Toronto for a podcast festival and caught them at a live show that just blew me away. So, so fun. They haven’t posted that audio yet, but I want to shout the praises of this show from the rooftops, and their one-year celebration is a great place to start.
Sunday Pod curator Jody Avirgan is the host of FiveThirtyEight’s politics podcast and is heading up the new “30 for 30” podcast documentary series from ESPN.
Watch how Donald Trump got elected as told only through Russian propaganda. Maxim Pozdorovkin’s film is remarkable and audacious. Nothing is true in this hilarious yet terrifying compilation except for the fact that Trump is president. While it will cost you a nominal fee to stream this Sundance award-winning feature, it’s money wisely spent.
The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering whether to review a decision by the Colorado Supreme Court that barred access to sealed court documents. On October 26, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 47 media organizations filed a 50-page ‘amicus curiae’ brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case. The brief makes the following core argument: ” The [U.S. Supreme] Court should grant certiorari because the Colorado Supreme Court’s rejection of a First Amendment right of access to judicial records inhibits public monitoring of the judicial system.”
Sunday Esoterica curator Ryan Rodenberg works as a professor at Florida State University, where he teaches research methods and sports law. He writes a lot of academic articles and some mainstream pieces too.
The presence of female voices on country radio might be only barely evident, but that’s certainly not a true reflection of the high amount of women making killer country music right now. And we’re not to just talking about (rightful) headline-grabbers like the Pistol Annies, Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price or Maren Morris.
Jamie Lin Wilson recently released one of the best country albums of 2018, regardless of gender. Jumping Over Rocks is a gem from beginning to end, thanks to the combination of expert, folk-style storytelling and her honey-sweet vocals, which can be as lonesome or loving as you could ever hope. Impressively enough, this latest collection is even better than her stellar 2016 record, Holiday’s and Wedding Rings, which makes the achievement nothing short of monumental.
Long Play curator Kelly Dearmore is the Music Critic for the Dallas Morning News. Yes, he’s heard your son’s demo tape, and he thinks it’s fantastic.
For the better part of fifteen years, I spent mornings with Mike Marrone, who created and curated Sirius XM’s adult eclectic station, The Loft. In January, Mike left the job to fight cancer. But he continued to program music through his pirate radio station, WKUM. (He even took his mix-machine to the hospital with him while he got chemo.) Now, to my everlasting relief, Mike is done with his treatments and back in fine voice. This is the latest episode of From The Basement, which you can subscribe to through Mixcloud.
We are introducing a new occasional feature: The Sunday Long Thread. These are great threads of tweets that read like essays, rants, or, in our debut installment by Quinn Cummings, a very funny story told in the grand tradition of Nora Ephron. If there’s a Twitter thread you’d like to see featured in this space, please let us know firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gather round, Gentle Readers. It is time I tell the story of the worst decision I ever made in an office. Some of you have heard this. Some have not. Whatever you do in your office today, this week, the rest of this year, you can console yourself by recalling this tale.
A long time ago, I was a talent agent. I worked for a woman named Susan Smith, who had her own small boutique agency. She was known for three things:
1. She had fantastic taste in clients. If there is someone you admire, odds are good that at some point, she was their agent. 2. She could negotiate a deal like few who have ever trod the earth. Casting would give her all the money they had budgeted for that part, plus a little more, plus promising to get her dog Barnaby groomed. She was magnificent to watch. 3. She was insane.
I’m sure you’re thinking, “Quinn, it’s the entertainment industry, they are all insane.” Yes, many are. So consider this; if you told someone you worked for Susan, people who worked for insane people would look and you and whisper, “I hear she’s insane.”
Volatile, capable off toggling between rage-screaming and whispered tears in 90 seconds. An unerring instinct at knowing exactly what you doubted about yourself and musing aloud about it. A level of vitriol to subordinates that was outlawed by the 13th Amendment.
She went through assistants with comical speed. One young man – who had endured the rigors of law school – went to “move his car” after ninety minutes on her desk and never came back.
I was her assistant for six months. If I hear a phone that sounds like the one we had in the office, I still get nauseated.
But oh, did she love her clients. She had no husband, no children; her clients were everything. Specifically, Kathy Bates and Brian Dennehy. She had discovered both of them when they were doing off-off-off-Near Hackensack-Broadway. She adored them. One could argue she made them.
For years, Brian had wanted to do DEATH OF A SALESMAN on the stage, in Chicago. For years, for a number of reasons, it hadn’t happened. Finally, with superhuman strength and negotiating prowess on Susan’s part, DEATH, with the perfect director on the stage Brian wanted, went up.
Brian got the kinds of reviews he deserved. The play was a huge hit. So huge, in fact, that it went to Broadway. Again, Susan hammered out the seemingly endless details of moving a production to a Broadway theater. She went to the opening. The reviews were love letters to Brian.
Susan was ecstatic. But the real joy came when Brian won the Tony for his performance. I watched it at home and I was 99% thrilled for Brian and 1% thrilled for us at the office. Susan had a tendency to walk in the door screaming instructions and grievances.
I was now an agent, not her assistant, but Susan didn’t hold with such distinctions. We all got screamed at, we all became miserable, we all started whatever self-soothing behavior allowed us to not cry in the hallway. At the very least, Brian’s win would delight her.
And then Brian forgot to thank her.
The next morning, we walked around with the resigned despair of a tank of sentient lobsters. We were all to be boiled alive, it was just a matter of when. Susan flew in the door, raced to her office, slammed the door shut. The quiet was actually worse.
At lunch, her assistant “Chet” slid into my office. He had the look of a man who had been screamed at for five hours. He asked a favor. Brian had called him; he was aghast he had forgotten to thank Susan, the woman who had made his dream come true. He thought he had a solution.
He would put a full-page ad in both VARIETY and HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, the daily trade papers read by everyone, thanking her. It was to be a surprise. The only thing Brian had needed from the Chet was a picture of her to put in the ad. Problem was, Chet couldn’t find one.
I had been on her desk six months, did I know of one?
I smiled, because I did. Susan, like many women of a certain age, wasn’t terribly fond of having her picture taken but it so happened there was a picture of her on the side-table in her office. Susan loved decorating, nothing was by chance, she must have liked that picture.
We got it, Chet slid it out, overnighted it to Brian, we crossed our fingers she wouldn’t notice the picture was gone for a day. Even if she did, the ad was to appear the following day; after such a loving gesture, who could be angry with us?
The next day, we all waited breathlessly for her to walk in the back door from the parking lot, down the long hallways, past each of our offices. For once, she wouldn’t be screaming. I wondered if she would hug me. I decided it was a small price to pay.
The door opened. I swear to you, even the phones stopped ringing for a second. Susan inhaled.
“Who the fuck,” she screamed, “Gave Brian a picture OF MY MOTHER.”
Founder, Curator: Don Van Natta Jr. Producer, Curator: Jacob Feldman Producer, Curator: Étienne Lajoie Senior Recycling Editor: Jack Shafer Senior Long View Editor: Justine Gubar Senior Photo Editor: Patrick Farrell Senior Music Editor: Kelly Dearmore Senior Limerick Editor: Tim Torkildson Senior Podcast Editor: Jody Avirgan Senior Editor of Esoterica: Ryan M. Rodenberg
Digital Team: Nation Hahn, Nickolaus Hines, Megan McDonell, Alexa Steinberg Podcast Team: Peter Bailey-Wells, Cary Barbor, Julian McKenzie, Jonathan Yales Webmaster: Ana Srikanth Campus Editor: Peter Warren
Contributing Editors: Bruce Arthur, Shaun Assael, Nick Aster, Alex Belth, Sara J. Benincasa, Jonathan Bernstein, Sara Blask, Greg Bishop, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Maria Bustillos, Chris Cillizza, Anna Katherine Clemmons, Rich Cohen, Jonathan Coleman, Pam Colloff, Maureen Dowd, Charles Duhigg, Brett Michael Dykes, Geoff Edgers, Hadley Freeman, Lea Goldman, Michael N. Graff, Maggie Haberman, Reyhan Harmanci, Virginia Heffernan, Matthew Hiltzik, Jena Janovy, Bomani Jones, Chris Jones, Peter Kafka, Paul Kix, Mina Kimes, Peter King, Michael Kruse, Tom Lamont, Edmund Lee, Chris Lehmann, Will Leitch, Glynnis MacNicol, Drew Magary, Erik Malinowski, Jonathan Martin, Betsy Fischer Martin, Susan McPherson, Ana Menendez, Kevin Merida, Heidi N. Moore, Eric Neel, Joe Nocera, Ashley R. Parker, Anne Helen Petersen, Jo Piazza, Joe Posnanski, S.L. Price, Jennifer Romolini, Julia Rubin, Albert Samaha, Bob Sassone, Bruce Schoenfeld, Michael Schur, Joe Sexton, Jacqui Shine, Rachel Sklar, Dan Shanoff, Ben Smith, Adam Sternbergh,Matt Sullivan, Wright Thompson, Pablo Torre, Kevin Van Valkenburg, John A. Walsh, Seth Wickersham and Karen Wickre.
Header Image: Ed Steed
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