I spent last week in Belize with two dozen teenagers, taking in the big, new world.
The last night I saw you, you danced in the street because it was your first time drinking Hennessy. A man on house arrest had sent his girlfriend for a bottle, and when he screwed the top off, you shimmied across the road and asked for a taste. You said, "Can I try that?" and "What did you do to get an ankle monitor strapped to your leg?" He said cocaine. One shot or two?
He poured the liquor slowly into a red cup. You drank it in a gulp. The neighbors played rap songs from a parked car, and you held up the empty plastic and danced. You said it burned. You asked for a second shot. "Why aren't you dancing?" you asked me, then pulled me close to you. The headlights were a spotlight, and you rolled slow with your arm around me.
Everyone we knew was inside then, and you said between dance moves that there were things you'd never told me. You said you were finally happy, that you were working and living and trying new things. I believed you because I wanted to. You had eaten Korean food and mussels; now you were tasting Hennessy.
We danced in the street, and I felt lucky because you made life fun, because you were never scared of strangers, and always asked whatever you wanted to know. I was in journalism school then, and I knew that you had skills no Ivy League could teach. I asked you to tell me the things that you had never told me, but you gave me only hints. I tried calling you later, but you never answered — not that weekend, not ever again.
I’m calling it now: Kokoroko’s “Abusey Junction” is my favorite song of the year, though it could just as easily be Y La Bamba’s “My Death.” I’ve been rumbling through Louisiana, listening to these two on repeat.
I’m never in one place this year.
In the doldrums
A year or so ago, I read an article about a Mississippi dad who'd lost two sons. In 2011, the man's 15-year-old was arrested for killing his younger brother with a deer rifle. Zac, the 15 year old, swore he hadn't pulled the trigger. His dad didn't believe him. Guns, he said, don't do that. Roger Stringer testified against his son, a testimony that helped send the teenager to prison. Then, in 2015, Roger found out guns CAN do that. The article was a short brief, an update in the boy's case. But I couldn't stop wondering what the father must feel like now, so I called him. We started talking on the phone once a month, then once a week. Eventually, I flew down to Mississippi to meet him.
I feel so lucky to have gotten to write “His Only Living Boy,” a longform piece that tells their story. I learned a ton about guns and family, about what it means to love and believe in things. I'm especially grateful to Roger, a "typical gun-loving redneck," who made me laugh and cry in equal measure. Working on this piece felt like going home in all the ways I needed this year. I also got to team up again with Tali Woodward, a genius editor who is always righting my ship.
Longreads named the piece, which ran in both The Trace and in Mississippi Today, one of the best stories of 2018.
Happy to say goodbye to 2018 with these Gothic-leaning songs; I can’t imagine weathering a harder year.
Spotify says I listened to Tim McGraw more than any other artist, so y'all can take my recommendations however you like. When I wasn't crying country, I listened to music while busting at the gym, dancing solo, trying to Cardi B my way into some happier bounce. Anyway, these were my favorite albums and songs of 2018. It was a super great year for think-y, slow-jam rap.
Robyn - Honey
Kacey Musgraves - Golden Hour
Tierra Whack - Whack World
Mac Miller - Swimming
Noname - Room 25
Snail Mail - Lush
Janelle Monae - Dirty Computer
Saba - Take Care
Waxahatchee - Great Thunder
Teyana Taylor - K.T.S.E.
(h/m: The Carters - Everything is Love, Makaya McCraven - Universal Beings, Blood Orange - Negro Swan, Hop Along - Your Head Off, Dog)
NEW ORLEANS — In Honduras, Carlos Chirinos-Padilla said, it was too dangerous to run. Soccer games were street matches, short bouts confined to the few feet in front of his house. Drug cartels roamed the neighborhood, he said, sometimes forcibly recruiting his neighbors, sometimes murdering them. Carlos and a group of other boys stole space and time when they could, but the violence left little room for dribbling.
When he fled Honduras for New Orleans two years ago, Carlos, now 16 and a high school junior, hoped for just two things: a quiet place to live and an opportunity to play real soccer on a real team. A high school squad, he thought, would be the best place to start.
Carlos enrolled at Cohen College Prep, a small high school in uptown New Orleans. For nearly 70 years, Cohen had been largely African-American, but Carlos’s arrival coincided with a demographic shift at the school. Five years ago, the school had no Latino students. Teenagers whose first language is Spanish now make up more than a quarter of the 350 students enrolled. Statewide, the number of Hispanic students has tripled over the past decade, from 17,000 in 2008 to 50,000 this year. Almost as soon as the new students arrived, teachers said, they started asking to play soccer.
But Louisiana won’t let them play.
For The Hechinger Report and ESPN’s The Undefeated, I wrote about Louisiana’s refusal to allow immigrant students to play high school sports.
Spent a week in Mississippi, all of us grieving.
Hiked solo for the first time ever, a 5-mile wind around waterfalls.
The odds were stacked against my going to college. No one in my family—not my parents or seven cousins, not the great aunts and uncles who lived a few hours away—had earned a degree. My central Louisiana high school didn’t have a guidance counselor, and my parents could only afford for me to take the ACT once. The Internet was new enough then that I never searched for colleges online, but my mother navigated the sparse web until she learned how to get money for school. She stayed up late filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, inking down her meager salary to ensure I won a Pell Grant. When a glossy brochure arrived inviting me to attend a liberal arts college in Mississippi, I applied without researching further.
That college didn’t have a journalism degree, but it did steer me down a path far easier and more lucrative than the ones my family members have traveled. After graduation, I headed north for a newspaper job at The Oregonian. Editors assigned me to the education beat when I started at the daily in 2007. Over time, as I learned about the ways school boards allocate money and determine district boundaries, as I noticed that the schools with the highest free- and reduced-price lunch rates also had the lowest test scores, I started to wonder about the education systems back home. What did it mean that some schools offered Advanced Placement classes, while others, including my own, did not? Did the ACT prep classes my rich friends took assure them a lifetime of greater opportunity? Should I have chosen a different college? As an adult, I learned that I could have attended a Louisiana university for free. My grades and test scores were high enough that I even qualified for a monthly stipend. But teachers never told me about the scholarship, and my parents didn’t know it existed.
Last August, after 11 years at The Oregonian, I left the newspaper because I wanted to learn more about the Southern states that shaped me. I spent a school year at Columbia University studying poverty, politics and education. Today all of it — my childhood, my working life — paid off in a dream job. I'll spend the next school year writing about inequality and education in Louisiana and Mississippi for the Hechinger Report, a journalism nonprofit that consistently produces some of my favorite work about the South. I'll still be freelancing (and have two non-Hechinger pieces in the works right now), but I'm so grateful for the chance to go home.
The hazy days of summer are drying up, but I'll be sitting riverside until the pink light fades. I can't get enough of Angel Olsen and Sharon Van Etten.
Years ago, one of my first as a reporter in Oregon, I went to a Gresham-area high school to work on a story. The district was in the middle of a big budget crisis, so I was visiting classrooms to learn how the cuts might affect kids. A student met me in the office to show me the way to the writing class I’d arranged to watch. His name was Aaron.
He was funny and polite, the rare teenager who held nothing back when we talked. He was a quadriplegic, and he told me that he was trying to figure out how he could write a book when he couldn’t move any of his limbs. Later that day, I told the office secretary how much Aaron had impressed me, and she scoffed. She told me he was “evil,” a brat who tried to mow other kids down with his wheelchair. Her comment annoyed me so much I made sure to track him down on MySpace. I considered writing about him but decided I’d rather be his friend. He was 16 when we met, already more mature than most of the people I knew in my 20s. He’d been abandoned by both of his parents and lived in a foster home with a dozen or so mostly nonverbal kids. His dad eventually came back into his life, and I tried (but failed) to help him find his mother.
That first year, I visited him every other weekend. He liked antique swords, black Converse and strawberry red soda. When he turned 18, he moved across town into an apartment called “Quadriplegics United Against Dependency.” When he turned 21, I bought him a bottle of Jack Daniels, and we drank it through bendy straws. He wanted a cat, a girlfriend and a job in radio. He talked about writing a book and enrolling in college, but he never did either. Still, he taught me a lot in my early 20s. He introduced me to Korean instant ramen (and persuaded me that it tastes better with an egg poached in the broth). He taught me a good deal about politics and more than I wanted to know about anime. Few of North Portland's streets had curb cuts, I learned traveling with him, and if two people in wheelchairs were already on the bus, Aaron couldn't ride.
I pushed him too hard at times. He was so smart—and more than that, he just saw the world in a special way—that I wanted him to go to school and write that book. I was young then and probably grew too impatient when he didn’t have the strength to follow up on things like registering for classes. I made mistakes: I got his hopes up every time I found a new address for his mom. He’d dictate a letter to me, and I’d write it and send it, and he’d never hear back. I’d help him fill out an online dating profile, touching up the descriptors to render him the way I saw him—not the way he saw himself. Still, girls wouldn’t write. Life really isn’t fair, he told me. Sometimes things just suck and no amount of willpower can overcome that.
Eight or so years ago, he decided he wanted to try to make a documentary of his life. We did maybe three long interviews, and though we never did edit them into anything, I always felt grateful that we’d taken the time to ask each other real questions. We occasionally went out to eat or to see a movie, but mostly we just sat in his room and talked.
He died a few months ago, I found out tonight. I hadn’t emailed him since December, back when I was in New York and distracted by the flurry of pages to read and write. I’m so sad that I missed a chance to see him again, but I’m grateful we made all those videos. He had other friends, better friends, than me, but I cherished him as a person and as a thinker. Though he was often depressed, I never saw even a sliver of the “evil” boy that school secretary described. She was wrong, I knew then and learned over and over again. Here he is at 18, talking a tiny bit about what his life was like.
I'm still twisted sad here, writing every day in the Portland Community College library. But I've been hiking and biking and swimming, listening to happier songs and trying to pretend.
No one danced like my mother. Her sways were swings, hips-guiding glides across the floor. Occasionally she danced with other people, but she was at her best alone. She’d lead herself, one arm in the air, the other on her stomach, in a smooth box step. Music took her somewhere. I remember being a little kid and watching from the back seat as she listened to Van Morrison's “Into The Mystic.” She closed her eyes and threw her head back against the car seat. Ecstasy.
She loved the Bee Gees so much that when Maurice Gibb died, she didn’t move from the end of her bed for three days. Even the least Bee Gee deserved her modified shiva.
She took me to see Titanic on opening night, and we vowed then that we’d see Celine Dion together one day. Back in 1997, when Celine put out her fifth album, we read somewhere that she’d never make another album unless she could make one better than “Let’s Talk About Love.” Impossible, we agreed. That record was perfect. And anyway, the Bee Gees sang a duet on it.
She moped to John Lennon. She twerked to Flo Rida. Two weeks ago, she danced in the street with my brother’s neighbors, strangers just a few hours earlier. Once, years ago, after a full night of Patron and Black Eyed Peas hits, Neola and I watched her persuade my father to slow dance to “Bitches Ain’t Shit.”
She pawed through every clearance section in the mall to find me the perfect prom dress. She made me slow dance with her in the dressing room to determine which one fit best. She once jumped out of the car in the McDonalds line to do the “Livin La Vida Loca” dance in the parking lot. She could Shuffle and Wobble or take it country to the Boot Scootin Boogie.
Two years ago, we went to Mississippi, and she cheered and swayed those hips as a transwoman sang Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” the same day the state passed its anti-LGBT bill. Afterward, she rushed up to the stage to tell the woman how much the performance meant to her as a woman who was trying to make sense of femininity after losing her breasts.
Last month, at my brother’s wedding, she did the Conga and the Cha Cha. She attempted a broken salsa then swirled herself back into that one-armed solo dance she did best. The dance floor emptied out when “Guilty,” her favorite song, came on. She pulled me, and I leaned into her, but after awhile I just watched. She was such glory moving.
She spent her last day with the Bee Gees playing from my dad’s cell phone. The only solace I can take is she didn’t live long enough to see Barry Gibb die.
When that fog horn blows
You know I will be coming home
And when that fog horn whistle blows
I gotta hear it
I don't have to fear it
And I wanna rock your gypsy soul
Just like way back in the days of old
And together we will float
Into the mystic