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Drinking While Black — The Isolation and Loneliness of Navigating All-White Taprooms

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Where are all the Black people?

I asked the question aloud as my husband and I pulled into Downtown Asheville one October weekend last year. We were weary from the road—the drive from Atlanta felt more like a steady climb as we headed up the Piedmont towards the Blue Ridge Mountains—but excited to explore a city we had fallen in love with years before. 

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Autumn brings a dazzling display to the region, but even without the golds and auburns lining the highway, the drive to Asheville is one of breathtaking views. I would love to say that beauty alone inspired us to return to Asheville like the faithful to Mecca, but that’s simply not true. We came for the beer. 

[Editor's note: This piece was originally written and commissioned in March, prior to COVID-19 lockdowns and the current uprising, and was held back at a time when most taprooms were closed. It has since been updated to reflect the events of the last several months.]

Asheville was known as “Beer City USA” for many years, even if it lost the title to Grand Rapids, Michigan in the last public poll. Still, it’s rightly considered one of the best beer cities in the country. Even better for us: while a journey to Seattle, San Diego, or either of the Portlands would have adequately satisfied our thirst, Asheville is only a five-hour trip from Atlanta. 

As we drove through the streets of Asheville that day, I watched as families and couples strolled down the sidewalks of the mountainous city. Every face was White, which felt like a shocking contrast to Atlanta. The numbers back up that impression: according to U.S. Census estimates, 83% of Asheville’s residents are White, while 51.8% of Atlanta’s residents are Black.

I hadn’t noticed the difference on my previous visit. Or maybe I did notice, but my recent, heightened attention to diversity in the beer community made the reality of Asheville’s Whiteness more apparent. 

Like Asheville, Atlanta has its own moniker. In the 1970s, it became known as the “Black Mecca” of the South (Harlem was the original “Black Mecca” in the 1920s, during the Harlem Renaissance). The term “Black Mecca” signifies that a city is home to a thriving middle- and upper-class Black community, and that Black businesses, educational bodies, and arts and cultural institutions enjoy prominence and respect. Atlanta has provided Black people with opportunities that are harder to find in other parts of the country. Leaving our comfortable environs was a stark reminder of that fact.

FOREIGNER IN A STRANGE TOWN

Atlanta’s beer community reflects the diversity of the city, but it hasn’t always felt that way. I remember the first time I stepped into a brewery about 10 years ago, unsure and precautious as I waded through the sea of White people dressed in white and blue polo shirts and khaki pants. My husband and I made our way through the crowd and ordered with some guidance from the server behind the bar.

With my glass in hand, I became more intrigued by the surrounding atmosphere. Everywhere, there were groups of young, White men who looked like the frat guys who roamed the halls of my college. Their postures conveyed how comfortable they were in an environment that was foreign to me. I felt like an outsider, an unwanted guest encroaching on someone’s private space. 

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Though the place was foreign, the feeling wasn’t: it still pops up whenever I find myself in an all-White space. One of the first times I felt it was during a family trip to the Florida Panhandle when I was a kid. The excitement of spending my days jumping waves and floating in the ocean was peppered with moments of feeling like my family didn’t belong. The questioning looks from strangers are still seared into my memory. 

Only later did I come to understand those looks as microaggressions: subtle actions and words that show another person’s intentional or unintentional biases. Though fleeting at the time, those small actions spoke loudly, and shaped my understanding of the world and my place in it. They felt like unspoken rules that tried to designate where I was allowed to go, and restrict me from places where my presence wasn’t welcome.

Unlike my experiences in Florida, my first brewery visit wasn’t an unpleasant one. We continued to visit taprooms across the city. We found one where the vibe was more in sync with our tastes. We later got married there. Sure, it still had the same crowd of White, bro-y dudes decked out in their uniform of white and blue polos, but the occasional Black or Brown face could still be found behind the bar or out on the patio enjoying the summer sun. 

A SEA OF WHITE

My relationship with this country is fundamentally different than a White person’s. My race and gender are a key part of who I am, and they are the lens through which I see the world. My identity affects how I interact with the world, and how the world interacts with me.

For instance: as a Black person, you often find yourself questioning your interactions with others. Why did he give me such a detailed explanation of their IPAs? Does he do that for everyone? Or did he do it because I’m Black? Or a woman? 

Whenever I walk into a room, I count the number of Black people in it. I’m not the only one who does it. Other Black people do too. Some of my White friends who consciously think about inclusion do too. It feels lonely when I walk into a taproom and see that I’m the only Black person in it; though my complexion makes me stand out, I feel paradoxically invisible. Not even an afterthought. It’s this isolation that motivates Black people to establish their own spaces. 

Navigating all-White spaces can be tough. My defenses go up. Not high-alert, but casually cautious, because I don’t know where an interaction will lead. I remember one conversation with a group of coworkers. They were diving into the music of their childhoods. Several people threw out a few big names that I recognized, but if you asked me to comment on their catalogue of works, you would receive a blank stare. I continued to listen to the conversation, having nothing to add since the genre of music up for discussion was largely foreign to me. 

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At some point in the conversation, my coworker asked my opinion on a particular band. And that’s when I had to remind him that I was Black and didn’t grow up listening to that type of music. That’s not to say that Black people are a monolith—I know Black people enjoy listening to music by White artists. I happen to be one of them, but when I was young, my parents filled our house with music by Prince, Marvin Gaye, Al Green. It was an innocuous conversation on the surface, but one that made me feel othered—even in my coworker’s attempt at inclusion. 

Everything from simple cultural references to outright insensitive and offensive statements can turn a regular conversation into an impromptu lecture on Black identity. Statements like “That’s so ghetto” or “I don’t see race” can send my spidey senses into high alert. They trigger an internal struggle. Should I address this? Should I bring up race? Will this make things awkward? At the root of these questions is my fear of alienating White people—my fear of making them uncomfortable, despite the fact that their words did me harm. 

BEER AND BEYONCÉ

As my love of beer evolved, I became more entrenched in the Atlanta scene. My current community consists of a diverse group of women, many of whom look like me and share my experiences. While I can have a conversation with anyone, nothing beats sharing a beer with someone who understands your perspective of the world. 

Now, my “beer scene” looks like meeting up with women who swap tasting notes, discuss the cultural importance of Beyoncé’s “Homecoming,” and plan how we can encourage more Black women to fall in love with craft beer—all in one night. I’ve shared beers with women who challenge us to extend our idea of “diversity” beyond women and Black people. I have the privilege of walking into Atlanta beer events and seeing familiar faces from all walks of life.

I’m comfortable here. Not just because I know the faces of the people behind the bar, but because I know I’m welcome in these spaces. And as I’ve learned in life, there’s a difference between being accepted and being welcomed.  

After settling down at our Airbnb in Asheville that October day, we headed towards the first stop on our carefully curated list, armed with my DSLR and excitement for the adventure ahead. But upon arrival, a quick scan of the taproom confirmed we were the only Black people present. 

That moment triggered the same quick, involuntary reaction that my brain seems required to perform whenever I walk into unfamiliar, all-White spaces. 

Anyone who has seen a Western or biker bar scene knows this cliché. An outsider walks into a bar, and for a moment, the newcomer goes unnoticed. The bar patrons continue to sip beer from thick glass mugs, shoot pool in the back corner, dance to the music winding out of the jukebox. 

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Then that moment abruptly ends. The bar patrons simultaneously pause and look towards the door where the outsider stands. In that moment, the patrons determine how to react. Is this newcomer a friend or foe? Friends are welcomed into the fold. The music switches back on, and the patrons continue on as if someone pressed the play button on a remote. Foes aren’t so lucky. 

After we’d become so comfortable in the Atlanta beer scene, walking into a brewery in Asheville felt like a return to long-ago fears and discomforts. As we continued our trip around town, we remained the only Black people in all of the taprooms we visited. This wasn’t a new experience, but an old one we thought we’d left behind years ago. I wanted to get lost in the beauty of the mountains, the beer we tried across the city, the hearty breakfast I devoured at Tupelo Honey. But the fact that we were so often the only Black people around kept nagging at me. 

SAVED BY FIREFIGHTERS

On the final night of our trip, we walked into the last brewery on our list, which was in the midst of a huge Halloween party. A coven of witches stood closest to the door and looked at us when we walked in. My internal movie screen flickered on right on schedule, but it was interrupted by my intrigue. How often do you encounter a coven of witches? I asked the women if I could snap a picture of them, and they happily obliged. A man dressed as Jesus photobombed the shot. 

The brewery was electric with the energy of costumed people shaking off the stress of the week. I performed my typical scan of the crowd, looking one more time for a Black face. And to my surprise, I found two Black people, standing in a group near the bar. I rushed over and introduced myself. It turned out they were a group of firefighters, enjoying an after-shift beer. I shared my observations of Asheville and its lack of diversity in the many taprooms I visited. They acknowledged my comments with a collective shrug, which seemed to say everything: Asheville is White, and its taprooms Whiter still.

Our conversation evolved into less serious topics, like my love for “Chicago Fire.” We laughed and joked around for a few more minutes before going our separate ways. The interaction was one of the most memorable experiences I had on the trip. Though I left Asheville with lingering disappointment, that moment was a shining light. 

Since my trip to Asheville, our world is strikingly different from what it was before. Taprooms around the country have closed their doors in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19. I’ve watched as nationwide protests against racial inequality and police brutality start to catch the attention of White America. Black squares from people and businesses flooded my Instagram timeline on Blackout Tuesday. An awakening seems to be occurring across the country. 

It’s also an awakening that demonstrates the privilege of having White skin in this country. Every day, I live with the injustices assigned to my skin color—but until now, White Americans had the ability to distance themselves from the struggles of living in a society steeped in systemic racism. Watching this awakening was triggering. It amplified my feelings of invisibility, but at the same time, I started to feel hopeful. 

I’m hopeful that breweries around the country will make a genuine effort to be welcoming to all. As beer businesses start to open and bounce back, I want them to consider how they can diversify their taprooms and other spaces—whether that’s hiring more Black and Brown front-of-house and brewing staff, or hosting events that cater to the Black community. Shaping a welcoming and safe environment for Black and Brown people requires a genuine desire for inclusion. There isn’t a checklist that can be ticked off to get there. But it starts with education, which is followed by action. 

Before the pandemic and awakening of White America, I was resigned to the fact that, as I explored breweries across the country, I would continue to wrestle with my disappointment in the lack of diversity in the taprooms I visited. I’m cautiously optimistic that, as the country moves past COVID-19 and as we start to roam the world again, I will begin to see a change.

If 2020 has shown us anything, it’s that we need each other to survive. The world won’t be the same after the pandemic’s over. At least I hope it won’t.

Words, Stephanie GrantIllustrations, Colette Holston

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dlanods
6 days ago
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Dr. Fauci Has Been Dreading A Pandemic Like COVID-19 For Years

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Last year, before the COVID-19 pandemic created quarantines, surging unemployment and packed hospitals, I interviewed Dr. Anthony Fauci. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is now essentially omnipresent as part of the White House coronavirus task force. But in the spring of 2019, with COVID-19 nowhere on the horizon, he still had the time to speak with me for over an hour about vaccines. Recently, I was plumbing through my archives and found an excerpt of the interview that stopped me in my tracks.

At the time, with cases of measles on the rise, the anti-vaccination movement was one of the biggest ongoing public health stories. We spent most of the interview talking about vaccine safety for a video series I was making for The Washington Post. But at one point in our chat, I asked him, “What’s the thing that keeps you up at night?”

I don’t know what I assumed Fauci would say, but his response couldn’t have been more prescient.

“Well, I always say something semi-facetious when people ask me that. We worry about so many things when we’re awake that we’re so tired that nothing keeps us up at night. But notwithstanding that, the thing I’m most concerned about as an infectious disease physician and as a public health person is the emergence of a new virus that the body doesn’t have any background experience with, that is very transmissible, highly transmissible from person to person, and has a high degree of morbidity and mortality.

Now what I’ve essentially done is paint the picture of a pandemic influenza. Now it doesn’t have to be influenza. It could be something like SARS. SARS was really quite scary. Thankfully, it kind of burned itself out by good public health measures. But the thing that worries most of us in the field of public health is a respiratory illness that can spread even before someone is so sick that you want to keep them in bed. And that’s really the difference.”

At the time, I didn’t find this quote particularly earth-shattering. It seemed like a reasonable concern, but not newsworthy. After all, Americans have lived through multiple pandemic scares — SARS, MERS, swine flu — and we largely dodged each bullet. This part of the interview was off-topic for the series I was making, and I left it on the cutting room floor.

Reading the transcript almost a year later, I am struck by how clearly Fauci described this current pandemic. Our nation’s top public health officials have known that this outbreak, or something like it, was a serious possibility, and they haven’t been keeping this information to themselves. But it’s hard to find the collective will to prepare for — and stop — a theoretical threat. COVID-19 may be unprecedented, but it wasn’t unpredictable.

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dlanods
86 days ago
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The Year the USWNT Wouldn’t Stop Winning

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Scott Laven/Getty Images

America’s women delivered a World Cup performance for the ages this summer. It was only a small part of their impact in 2019.

Imagine what it must be like to become the best in the world at something, only to find out that being the best isn’t enough for some people. Imagine spending your entire life working to reach the pinnacle of your field and silence the haters, only for those haters to keep attempting to belittle your accomplishments even after you made it. Imagine listening to people try to undermine your success by saying that your competition was weak, or that your field is unpopular and irrelevant, or that you went about things in the wrong way. What would you do upon realizing that there are some people who simply can’t be pleased, even if you manage to be the best you can be—the best anybody in the world can be?

This was a problem that America’s women’s national soccer team faced in 2019, but not a new one—those women didn’t just become the best in the world. They have been ranked no. 1 in the FIFA world rankings for most of the past 12 years, with Germany briefly moving in front for three short stints. They have won four of six Olympic soccer tournaments and four of eight World Cups. In 664 matches all time, they have outscored their opponents by a combined total of 1,616 goals. Victory is their resting state.

In fact, what set this team apart was not that it won the World Cup, but that it won the World Cup again. Although this was the USWNT’s fourth title, this summer marked the first time the Americans had entered the event as defending champs and repeated. Their 5-2 win over Japan in the 2015 final was the most-watched soccer game in American history. This time around, they had a target on their backs, and the rest of the world showed up eager to take them down. The competition was supposedly better than ever, and so they took great joy in dodging every ax hurled at their bull’s-eye.

From start to finish, their World Cup showing was a triumph. It began with a 13-0 demolition of Thailand, a breathtaking glimpse of what it looks like when the best players in a sport get to do basically whatever they want for the full length of a game.

It culminated with a 2-0 win over the Netherlands and a multi-continental drinking spree, the latter of which was documented by goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris in what is to Instagram Stories what Citizen Kane is to cinema.

Their victory was total. The Americans set Women’s World Cup records for goals (26) and goal differential (plus-23). They never trailed, and scored within the first 15 minutes of every match except the championship. They became the first team to go 7-0-0 in the Women’s World Cup. (Team USA went 6-0-0 in the inaugural edition in 1991, back when the event was called the “World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup,” because FIFA wanted the words “World Cup” to be reserved for men.) They were everything the best teams can be: dominant in routs and unshakable in crunch time; confident they would win and yet utterly thrilled when they did; individually brilliant but cohesive. At times, each American player was better than each player on the opposing team. That could’ve felt cruel. With the U.S., it felt like a celebration of excellence.

Along the way, though, the women encountered a stunning amount of domestic backlash against a team coasting to victory in international play. They were criticized for scoring too much, or celebrating too hard. They were called unpatriotic, even as they won a major competition on America’s behalf. When the players had the gall to propose they should be paid as much as the American men’s soccer team, they were told that they didn’t deserve it, because they were less popular, even as they achieved greater successes in front of larger audiences. It seemed there was nothing this team could do that wouldn’t make a large portion of the population angry.

Least bothered by all of this: the women of Team USA. They were followed by a cavalcade of pointless yelling virtually everywhere they went, like dust following Pig-Pen. And still they thrived. They not only returned to the peak of their sport, but also found time to laugh at those who couldn’t find joy in their success. And instead of letting the worst arguments against them put a damper on their title, they refocused that conversation to a meaningful end.


There were plenty of things one could rightfully criticize Team USA for during this year’s World Cup. There is no reason a roster as talented as this one should have played in three consecutive one-goal games in the knockout stages. But head coach Jill Ellis—the subject of a 2017 player coup, the bane of soccer Twitter, and, thankfully, now a retiree—seemed determined to leave some of her best players on the bench, or else use them in unusual circumstances. Goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher proved an excellent shot-blocker, but sometimes passed the ball directly to opposing attackers. And the team got the benefit of questionable refereeing decisions against Spain (that penalty call!), France (that non-penalty call!) and England (that offside VAR decision!), winning each match by one goal. The U.S. was plainly the best team in the field, but appeared strangely interested in keeping their knockout matches competitive.

These weren’t major talking points. Shockingly, no right-wing bloggers tried to hit it big with posts like, “Does Jill Ellis’s Decision to Leave Lindsey Horan Out of the Starting XI Prove That She Hates America?” Instead, the most common anti–Team USA talking point focused on celebrations. When the U.S. women responded to that criticism by replacing their over-the-top celebrations with muted ones, they were criticized for that too. It continued even after they won. I’d say it’s generally a good thing in life if people’s biggest problem with you is that you celebrate too hard.

The harshest criticisms were reserved for Megan Rapinoe, the team’s boldest star. Simultaneously a masterful creator on the left wing and an unshakable closer from the penalty spot, she led all players in the tournament with six goals and 27 passes completed into the penalty area (nobody else in the tournament had more than 16). And she did this despite sitting out two of America’s seven games. She won the Golden Boot given to the World Cup’s top scorer, the Golden Ball given to the event’s best player, and the 2019 Ballon D’Or given to the best player in the world. (I don’t know how French people differentiate between the Golden Ball and Ballon D’Or, but that’s beside the point.) Rapinoe had both of America’s goals in the round of 16 against Spain, both of the team’s goals in the quarterfinals against France, and scored in the final against the Netherlands. Let’s see the pose.

And yet Rapinoe was regularly lambasted. There was the outrage over her saying that she wouldn’t visit the White House if she was invited, joining the long list of Americans who Trump supporters must virulently hate even if they bring glory to America. After winning the title, she was accused of stomping on the American flag in postgame celebrations. (A more realistic interpretation of what happened: Rapinoe maybe, kinda grazed a flag that she didn’t seem to realize was on the ground, in between celebrating with various other, not-on-the-ground flags.) It got to the point where she was even criticized for standing silently during the national anthem—which … I thought was OK? Isn’t that what 90 percent of us do at sporting events? Isn’t that considered respectful?

Rapinoe never seemed fazed by the criticism. She didn’t ignore it, like many prominent athletes who claim to do so. She went and dominated the biggest stage in her sport, and then gave honest and striking answers when asked about any topic. She used her Ballon D’Or platform to encourage male stars to fight racism and sexism in sports. She used her Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year acceptance speech to call out the lack of diversity in media. She spoke with conviction and clarity about how the president of the United States targets non-white and LGBTQ citizens. (The team never did go to the White House, by the way.)

The women of Team USA refocused the conversation around them to their yearslong attempt to get paid as much as America’s male soccer players. They talked about the pay gap loudly and relentlessly. This was so effective that crowds chanted “EQUAL PAY” in World Cup stadiums and booed the head of U.S. Soccer at public events held to celebrate the World Cup win.

The argument against equal pay is always that the men’s team is simply more popular. In 2019, that was clearly untrue. This goes beyond just the discrepancy in success, as the American women are back-to-back World Cup champs while the men failed to qualify for the last World Cup and recently lost to Canada for the first time in 34 years. A fun experiment is to go to U.S. Soccer’s YouTube page and look at the view counts for recent videos about the men’s and women’s teams. A video from the account’s “Behind the Crest” series about a September USWNT friendly got 75,000 views; a video in the series posted the same day about the USMNT playing Mexico—their archrivals!—got less than 7,000. The Women’s World Cup final drew 16 million viewers despite airing at 11 a.m. Eastern time; the men’s team playing in the Gold Cup final the same day got 9 million viewers in prime time. (I also suspect many viewers were watching to see Mexico.) Jersey sales for the women’s team were the most purchased of any national team in American history, regardless of gender. The men’s team routinely played in front of fewer than 15,000 fans; the women’s team broke a record by playing in front of almost 50,000 and routinely played in front of 30,000. The women’s team, uh, generated more revenue than the men. There is no conceivable metric by which somebody could look at the U.S. men’s national soccer team and the U.S. women’s national soccer team and conclude that more people cared about the men than the women in 2019.

The USWNT succeeded on the field in spite of the way U.S. Soccer treated it. And the women harnessed the attention that came with their on-field greatness to draw eyes toward how unfairly they were treated. The team still hasn’t won its fight for equal pay—a trial is set for May—but its ability to shift the focus to that movement goes beyond just a few soccer players potentially increasing their paychecks. The USWNT are far from the only women in this country who get paid less than men who do the same jobs. But given that their achievements, popularity, and revenue are publicly available alongside those of their male peers, and given that they trounce that male group in every category and still receive less, their efforts sparked a cry for change. They gave voice to women in similar situations whose successes aren’t publicly reported on.

I don’t know how I would react if I reached the pinnacle of my field and was told that it wasn’t enough. But Rapinoe and the U.S. women’s soccer team handled it perfectly. They never worried about people they’d never please, and instead set their sights on making their sport and their country better. While the rest of the world searched for shortcomings to tear down their accomplishments, they built upon those accomplishments to address the shortcomings they encountered. America’s champs agreed that reaching the pinnacle of their sport wasn’t enough. They won their exhilarating victories, and still felt they had more to do.

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dlanods
195 days ago
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dlanods
195 days ago
Better than the men
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The Pub, the Farm, and the Forest — A Return to Narnia

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“Where are you ladies from?” the barman asked. 

It was an obvious question. Here we were with our American accents deep in East Gippsland, one of the more isolated parts of an already remote area of rural Australia. My mother and I were the only customers on a Friday night at the Bellbird Hotel, a pub that sits on the road between Orbost and Cann River—two very small towns in the midst of a temperate rainforest in eastern Victoria.

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As we drove across from Bairnsdale, the closest proper city (by “city,” I mean a place that has a hospital and a population of more than 10,000 people; by “close,” I mean 90 miles away), the land became more intimate, wetter, more verdantly claustrophobic. Tree ferns and a towering grove of eucalyptus trees hugged the two-lane freeway. Cell service became spottier.

We had driven the six hours from Melbourne the day before, stopping in each small town along the way. We were retracing a journey my mother had taken more than 40 years earlier. She met my father in New England, when he was living there in the early 1970s. Eventually he convinced her to come back to Australia with him, where he owned a farm in remote East Gippsland, in a place called Club Terrace. 

“Does the house have a kitchen?” she asked him. He assured her it did. 

When she arrived, the roads were mostly unpaved and the forest encroached onto the rudimentary freeways even more than it does now. Club Terrace was nothing more than a postcode that catered to a few farms and four sawmills. Its anchor was a tiny, one-room general store, which also acted as the post office, alone in the forest at a crossroads just off the main (unpaved) highway. You knew to start looking for the turnoff about 10 minutes after you passed the Bellbird Hotel.

To Americans, I sound Australian. To Australians, I sound American. Wherever I am, I sound like I’m from somewhere else. Wherever I am, I feel like I’m from somewhere else.

The kitchen he promised her was a large room with no floorboards, next to a three-room house heated by a wood stove. There was a bungalow out back, where they slept. It was as far away from New England as a person could possibly be. My father called the farm “Narnia.”

But the land! Narnia lay between a river and a creek and a hill, with paddocks and brambles and a modest orchard beside the small wooden house. There were more birds than my mother had ever seen or heard. The land felt almost oppressive, but also wonderful and strange.

I was born the year after she arrived, in the bungalow where they slept. My mother didn’t like her doctor at the Bairnsdale hospital, who kept trying to convince her that her hips weren’t wide enough for childbirth. So my father—who had started but not finished a medical degree before going on to earn a PhD in something else entirely—bought an obstetrics book, and they decided to go it alone. My mother claims that I may have been the first planned home birth—once you discount the generations that did it this way before hospital births were the norm—in the state of Victoria. 

My father delivered me. No one else was present, except a goat named Trilby. My parents had no scale, so two days later they drove up the road to the Club Terrace post office/general store and placed me on the postal scale. It only went up to nine pounds. Healthy and happy, I weighed more than that. 

My earliest memories are split between the farm and Cambridge, Massachusetts, where we lived for a couple of years when I was very young. But it was Narnia where my sense of self took shape. I clambered up trees in the orchard, I saved lizards from our pet cats, I chased the cows, I picked fresh fruit from the trees and strawberries from my father’s long strawberry patch behind the house. In springtime, a dip in the paddock beside the house filled with rain water, forming a temporary grass-bottomed pond, and lily of the valley sprung up all around it. At night I dreamed I was the queen of the fairies. 

And the first pub, the first meal outside the home—hell, the first public space I remember—is the Bellbird. Once, as a three-year-old, I tried to buy a biker a drink at its bar. My parents and I often ate dinner there on weekend evenings and I remember the smell of the beer-stained carpet in that pub as clearly as the smell of the wet springtime in the forest and farmland that surrounds it.

We left for Melbourne when I was almost four. My parents broke up when I was seven, and my mother returned to the U.S. when I was a petulantly resistant teenager. (I was resistant to the move, but also literally anything else you could throw my way.) By the time I left Australia, it had been more than a decade since I’d visited the Bellbird.

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In 2017, after spending my entire adult life in the U.S., I moved back to Australia. My mother still lives in Los Angeles. “Where are you from?” is a question I have heard every day for almost 30 years. To Americans, I sound Australian. To Australians, I sound American. Wherever I am, I sound like I’m from somewhere else. Wherever I am, I feel like I’m from somewhere else. 

One of my main reasons for returning to Australia, dragging my own reluctant teenage son along for the deeply disorienting and life-altering ride, was to spend time with my father. I got here just in time, or not soon enough, depending on your point of view—or my state of shame. He was a very young 83 when I arrived, and died a year later after a brief illness.

My father could be the softest, kindest man alive. But he also could be stoic, sometimes to a fault.

A few days after his funeral, my mother showed up from the U.S. for a visit, only her second since leaving almost 30 years earlier. We decided to hit the road. She was excited and nostalgic, pointing out landmarks along the way, remembering the times she had traveled this road with my father and then with me. 

I, meanwhile, was a bundle of stress and grief and shock. I pushed it behind a stony façade just as my father often did when he was feeling uncontrollable emotions. He could be the softest, kindest man alive. But he also could be stoic, sometimes to a fault. I felt inhabited by his resistance to messy emotion; the tides of grief and cold suppression swelled and struggled inside of me as we drove deeper into the forest.

Back when we lived there, the four sawmills in Club Terrace shut down early on Friday afternoons and the workers went straight to the Bellbird. By 4 p.m., the place was packed. When my mother and I arrived at 5:30 p.m. on a Friday evening this past December, we were the only customers. The barkeep seemed perplexed that anyone was there, let alone two American women looking for dinner. A sign out front said the pub was for sale. We ordered food, and two Coopers Sparkling Ales, and asked him how long he’d run the place. 

“Fifteen-and-a-half years,” he said. “I think my time is up.”

My mother asked if any of the sawmills were still running in Club Terrace.  

“No,” he said. “They haven’t been running for fifteen-and-a-half years.” His first day as publican was the last day of operation for the last sawmill. 

“Wow. Good timing,” my mother said in an attempt at humor. 

“No,” he said, “it really wasn’t.”

Earlier, when we’d driven in towards the farm, the old Club Terrace post office and general store looked as though it had been abandoned for decades, its small timber frame gutted and infiltrated by the forest. We took the narrow wilding dirt road up from there, past the nicely kept farms of our former neighbors, my mother wondering aloud about each family and their whereabouts.

When we got to the gate to the farm, it was open. We drove down the long slope of the driveway, past the paddock that led down to the river. The old house was still there, but obscured by strange shoddy additions, walls and structures that looked like a child’s cardboard fort, like a shantytown compound. The yard immediately surrounding the house was strewn with old plastic toys, a broken-down car, and a bus painted with peace signs and John Lennon quotes. Dogs barked at our arrival. I stopped the car a good distance from the house, feeling the intense anxiety of our intrusion. This is a place where someone might move if they never wanted visitors.

The fields were overgrown and full of blackberry brambles. We got out of the car and my mother walked towards the house to see if anyone was home. I felt rooted in place, anchored to the ground. Tiny birds flitted around the fences nearby. It was eerie and close and isolated. The dilapidated paddocks felt like they were calling out to me to rescue them. It was so green—more green than any green I’d ever encountered, wonderfully, suffocatingly green. Isn’t there a C.S. Lewis book where the kids, now adults, return to Narnia and find it crumbling and overgrown?

My mother walked around the house calling, but no one answered.

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Later, back at the pub, the owner said that someone named Nellie had bought the farm a few years back. When speaking of other people in the area he used last names, but with Nellie he stopped short. He didn’t look at us when he spoke of her, doing the thing that country people do when trying not to speak badly of their own kind to strangers. 

“It’s a bit rough out there these days,” he said.

I was relieved when my mother returned to the car. But when we reached the top of the driveway, she jumped out again. “Let’s go down to the river!” In a flash she had disappeared into the brambles, finding her way down the steep slope to the river bank, calling back for me to follow her. At 70, she is still tiny and nimble, and I felt large and awkward and unsure of my footing in comparison. I have always felt this way with her, and she has always pressed ahead, encouraging me to do things I’m scared of, or simply don’t want to do. 

My mother has always pressed ahead, encouraging me to do things I’m scared to do or simply don’t want to do.

I tried to follow, but it was too much: the juxtaposition between us, my father’s obvious presence and dreadful absence. This had been his land, his life. He loved this place fiercely. And here it lay, uncared for and overgrown, and here I stood trapped in its closeness, its magic, the land of my birth, and I couldn’t even tell him about it because he was gone. I stood at the top of the ridge and cried as my mother splashed happily along the riverbank below.

An hour later, when the Bellbird’s owner asked us where we were from—that question I get everywhere, every day—my brain whirled through my usual responses. It’s complicated. The 2,000 words above are honestly just the tip of the iceberg.

I looked at my mother, searching for an appropriate response, and she smiled at me as she saw the shock spread across my face.

“I was born in Club Terrace, Victoria,” I said. And then, for the first time in my life: “I’m from here.”

Words, Besha RodellIllustrations, Justin Santora Language

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dlanods
230 days ago
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The Astros Don’t Deserve a World Series of Distraction

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Houston’s response to a report about a prominent executive reveals a culture that not only values titles above all else, but condemns anyone who dares to feel differently. The Astros’ actions are the story of MLB’s signature event—and no amount of winning should change that.

The Houston Astros are the most talented team in baseball. They may be the most talented team ever assembled. And the people who put it together are counting on that team to distract you.

They’re hoping that 107 regular-season wins, an American League pennant, and a chance at a second World Series championship in three years will convince you not to pay attention to the angry assistant general manager behind the curtain, who, in an almost comically cruel moment in the Astros’ clubhouse after ALCS Game 6, repeatedly shouted, “Thank God we got Osuna! I’m so fucking glad we got Osuna!” at three female reporters, an incident brought to the public’s attention by Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein. Osuna is Roberto Osuna, the closer the Astros acquired from the Blue Jays in July 2018 while he was serving a 75-game suspension after being arrested and charged with assaulting the mother of his 3-year-old son. (The charges were dropped when she chose not to return to Canada to testify against him.) The angry assistant GM is 34-year-old Brandon Taubman, who has worked for the Astros since 2013, rising to his current position in September 2018 and receiving an extension last month.

They’re hoping that the winning will cause you to forget—or, if you’re less online, maybe to never find out—that the team’s first response to Apstein’s report, issued only an hour after her article appeared, was a smug statement that smeared her reporting. The team declined to comment for the story itself, opting instead to wait for the piece to be published and then call a respected, credentialed writer’s work a fabrication, a claim quickly contradicted by two other writers who witnessed the interaction and corroborated Apstein’s account. Not that credentials mean much to the Astros’ PR department; the team previously violated league regulations in August when it barred a reporter from the clubhouse at Justin Verlander’s behest and then defended its actions afterward.

The weight of the evidence indicates that if either version of events was misleading and untruthful, it was Houston’s. The team said Taubman was supporting a player—presumably Osuna, who had blown a Game 6 save—who was being asked questions about a “difficult outing.” But multiple eyewitnesses who spoke to The Athletic and the Houston Chronicle on the condition of anonymity noted that no interviews were being conducted and no players were around when Taubman blew up. The “difficult time” the Astros referenced in their initial statement was in fact a champagne party.

They’re hoping that the prospect of a Verlander–Stephen Strasburg pitcher’s duel or the visions of Commissioner’s Trophies dancing in your head will discourage you from parsing the statements Taubman and Astros owner Jim Crane released on Tuesday afternoon. Because if you do, you might notice that neither one of the men acknowledged or apologized for the first statement’s accusations. You might notice that Taubman said he was sorry “if” anyone was offended by his actions, as though there were any uncertainty on that score. You might notice the extraneous reference to Taubman’s being a family man, as if husbands and fathers don’t do bad things. Actions speak louder than words, but Taubman’s loud words were actions.

You might also try to discern why Taubman would make such a spectacle of supporting a 15-month-old trade for a player who had just nearly lost a big game. And you might dig a little deeper and read David Folkenflik’s NPR report, based on the words of three witnesses, that said Taubman “appeared to be responding to the presence of a female reporter who was wearing a purple rubber bracelet to heighten awareness about domestic violence,” and whose tweets about domestic violence hotlines Taubman had complained about before. Then you might wonder how to square that with Taubman’s contention that Apstein’s report “does not reflect who I am or my values.”

You might also see that both statements mention charity, as if having thrown some money at an issue inherently makes every other action OK. Crane reiterated the Astros’ intention to “create awareness and support,” echoing GM Jeff Luhnow’s statement days after the 2018 trade for Osuna, when he said the “conversation and awareness” provoked by the trade might “turn out to be a positive down the road.” At the time of the trade, Luhnow also said, nonsensically, that the Astros had a “zero-tolerance policy related to abuse of any kind.”

In Crane’s comments Tuesday, he cited a partnership with a domestic violence coalition, mandatory training for employees, and about $300,000 in donations made to local women’s shelters. And if you’re busy looking up World Series start times (8:08 or 8:07?), you might not stop to wonder whether the Astros took those steps because they cared deeply about preventing domestic violence or because of the widespread backlash to the trade, and because it was convenient to hide behind a donation that they could have made without trading for Osuna if they’d felt so strongly inclined. Or maybe whether it could have been a bigger gift, considering that Crane and the Astros are worth billions; $300,000 is what they pay Osuna every 17 or so days.

You might wonder why the Astros’ actions and response seem so familiar. Saying the quiet part loud, gaslighting, blaming the media, and acting unconscionably because the cruelty is the point are practices that have become uncomfortably common at the highest level over the past few years. Now those belligerent tactics have metastasized into baseball’s biggest story in the week of the sport’s signature event. It’s unfortunately not news that the Astros and other teams employ players such as Osuna, or even that a front-office figure would feel this way. The news is that one of them would be brutal or obtuse enough to gloat about it, not just in front of female reporters but to them.

If you do dwell on any of this, you may come across someone who instructs you to stop fixating on off-the-field issues and simply watch the World Series. To which I would answer: We were trying to, man. (I’m assuming this someone would be a man.) The World Series is exciting and José Altuve is adorable and you can’t constantly be pissed off, so the righteous indignation that accompanies a team’s treating a domestic violence suspension as an arbitrage opportunity slowly settles into resigned, sardonic tweets. That’s where we were on Saturday, until a high-ranking Astros executive went out of his way to reignite the outrage and a PR flack fanned the flames, implicating the entire organization. To put this in playground terms: The Astros started it, and they still haven’t faced any external consequences or imposed any discipline themselves.

Did any website, let alone every website, have a Brandon Taubman package planned for World Series week? Does anyone want to be thinking about Brandon Taubman when we could be thinking about Carlos Correa or George Springer instead? No. Media members and fans alike were prepared to grimace when remembering Osuna’s Astros origin story, but otherwise relish the historic rotations, stacked lineups, and charismatic stars on display in the Astros-Nationals series. It’s the same mental gymnastics routine that spectators attempt when Aroldis Chapman or Addison Russell or any number of Bad Baseball Dudes sit out a suspension and then linger like the embodiments of bad memories. They’re allowed to play, but we don’t have to be happy to see them.

Here’s another memory: Luhnow insisting, in another August 2018 statement, that “We welcome being held accountable for all of our personnel decisions.” Taubman certainly didn’t welcome accountability on Saturday. Nor was he welcoming to media members who were entitled to be where they were. He made a point of taunting a trio of reporters who’d had to fight for the right to stand in that clubhouse and be berated by a man flanked by more men, with the biggest bully holding a symbolic cigar.

Taubman runs the Astros’ “pro player scouting efforts,” among other endeavors, which notably involve next to no in-person scouting; the Astros have dismissed all of their pro scouts, trusting that work to technology and in-office analysts. This would seem to suit him: Before he joined the Astros, Taubman built a model to make money on fantasy baseball, plugging and playing day by day based on projected performance. After he joined the Astros, he said, he initially avoided the clubhouse to avoid developing emotional ties to players. (In retrospect, he should have continued to stay away.)

Let’s be honest: The Astros’ approach to player acquisition typically works pretty well. But the Astros erred by treating Osuna as just another combination of salary and stats. Houston has weathered uproars before, about tanking, shifting, deploying tandem starters, hiring internet nerds, pulling their offer to first overall draft pick Brady Aiken in 2014, applying technology to player development, reorganizing their scouting staff, and sign-stealing. Your mileage may vary when it comes to assessing whether those strategies were good or bad for baseball, but most of them worked out well for the Astros. Tanking was a way to get good players and build a quality team, at least in 2012. Shifting and internet nerds are still ascendant. The Astros won the 2017 World Series with a tandem-starter-esque postseason staff. Aiken’s elbow was busted. Player development became baseball’s next frontier, and the Astros planted their flag first. Cutting down on traditional scouting hasn’t seemed to hurt them yet. And their reputation for sign-stealing and picking up on pitch-tipping has made their opponents paranoid.

One can see how the Astros might have started to believe that they could do no wrong—that anything outsiders said was a mistake would eventually be vindicated. That applies internally, too: Much of the Astros’ front office was opposed to trading for Osuna, and multiple members of the club’s baseball operations department have departed partly because of bad blood.

“The Astros are firm in their belief that winning will fix everything,” Evan Drellich, the Chronicle’s former Astros reporter, wrote in 2014. Too firm, as it turns out. After drinking their own flavor of Kool-Aid for years, everything they did began to taste like a title. They traded for Osuna without even needing to on a wins-and-losses level, chasing some fetishized conception of surplus value. But past success is no guarantee of future results, which Taubman, a former investment banker, should know. As often as the Astros have been right about pure baseball decisions, this time they’re in the wrong—as wrong as they were when they drafted Mark Appel over Kris Bryant in 2013 or released a reinvented J.D. Martinez after 18 spring training at-bats in 2014. Yes, the Astros make major mistakes. What Taubman said, and how and to whom he said it, was one of them. So was releasing their first statement and subsequently letting it stand, and so were the watered-down statements put forth on Tuesday.

I told you the Astros are hoping you won’t pay attention to Taubman. That may be giving them too much credit, because it implies that they care what you think. If they did, though, they wouldn’t have traded for Osuna in the first place. “They don’t give a shit, to be honest, what people think of them,” a former Astros staffer told me and Travis Sawchik in The MVP Machine. “Jeff’s gonna do what he wants to do.” And right now, it doesn’t seem as if he wants to do anything. Why would he, as long as the wins keep coming, the fans don’t desert the team, and the financial tap isn’t turned off?

Maybe manager A.J. Hinch’s disappointment will put pressure on the higher-ups, although he hardly took a stand on Osuna’s acquisition last season, saying, “Once he gets here … we’re gonna welcome him on our team,” and, “Domestic violence is bad … and so we have to figure out a way to separate those feelings versus the additional opportunity he is getting on our club.”

Maybe MLB will step in and suspend Taubman, compel a more sincere-sounding apology, or close the loophole that makes players suspended for domestic violence, unlike those who test positive for PEDs, eligible for the postseason, and thus attractive trade chips.

Or maybe not, because this ultratalented 2019 roster makes for a marvelous diversion to draw all the eyes away from the front office’s ass-showing. It’s easy to confuse being good at building baseball teams for being good in a broader sense. Crane, Luhnow, Taubman, and anyone else who sanctioned the Osuna trade and resents being badgered about it will bank on continued quiet (mostly) on the World Series telecasts and another clubhouse celebration—perhaps one with fewer front-office executives—to send their fans home happy and ensure that the baseball world won’t hold them accountable.

The worst part is, there’s a good chance it will work.

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dlanods
253 days ago
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Congratulations on Being Named a ‘Franchise Player’! Enjoy Your Kick in the Metaphorical Privates!

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The inappropriately named ‘honor’ continues to make a farce out of NFL free agency.
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dlanods
481 days ago
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