The Ex-Con Scholars of Berkeley

Larissa MacFarquhar, writing for The New Yorker:

Murillo and Czifra wanted U.S.I. to be a place where former inmates could talk and help one another, but, more than that, they wanted to figure out a way to recruit more people from prison. The idea of going to college had sounded ridiculous to them, but now they knew that, even if you had dropped out of elementary school, you could still make it. They modelled themselves on a San Francisco organization, Project Rebound, that had been started, in 1967, by a man named John Irwin, who, in his twenties, did time in Soledad for armed robbery. Irwin had gone on to become a professor at San Francisco State, and Project Rebound got former inmates into San Francisco State, where California residents were guaranteed entry if they had a G.P.A. of 2.0 in high school or community college.

But Murillo and Czifra knew that a lot of people in prison could aim higher and get into the U.C. system—you just had to know what to do. Tuition was free for any California resident whose household income was less than eighty thousand dollars a year, but you had to know about financial aid and when to apply for it. You had to know the right courses to take in community college—real academic ones, not the business-certificate classes that sounded practical but were actually useless. You had to do extra stuff that might seem pointless, like joining clubs and going to office hours. You had to write a scintillating personal statement. Yet all that became relevant only after you’d decided to go to college. Getting to that point in the first place—that was harder.

This is an amazing, multi-faceted story about redemption, education, the criminal justice system, and the realities and complexities of human interaction and decency. Send it to anyone who tells you that the world is a terrible place. But don’t think it’s all peaches and cream—the final two paragraphs will disabuse you of that notion real quick.


The Backstory Behind David Foster Wallace’s Famous Commencement Speech

Sam Levine, writing for The Huffington Post:

David Foster Wallace wanted to know who had thought bringing him to Kenyon College to deliver its commencement address was a good idea.

Meredith Farmer, an English and philosophy double major in the class of 2005, nervously claimed responsibility.  

“Go fuck yourself,” Wallace told her. “Fuck you.”

As a famous embracer of cliche, D.F.W. would appreciate the fact that the only way the 'This is Water' speech can be described now is by saying that is has "taken on a life of its own."

/via The Howling Fantods


“I’m old,” she quipped, “but I’m not cold.”

Tara Bahrampour, writing for The Washington Post:

Leona Barnes doesn’t remember when, back around the close of World War I, she met Gladys Butler, Ruth Hammett and Bernice Underwood. Growing up in Southwest Washington, they were part of the landscape, in the same way that her house and her street and her church were.

As little girls, the four played jacks and jumped rope; later they shared gossip and danced the two-step and the Charleston. Two of them lived in the same house at one point, and three of them had babies the same year — 1933. But they could not have predicted that someday they would be poised to celebrate their 100th birthdays together.

Every day of the week should include a story like this.

America isn't dead yet.

/via Ruth Marcus


Why I Haven't Had a Conventional Christmas in 20 Years

Steve Albini, writing for The Huffington Post:

Nineteen years ago, my wife Heather Whinna stopped by the post office on the way home. She found bins there full of letters addressed to Santa Claus, left out by the post office for people to read and answer. Curious, she read a few of the letters and couldn't believe what she saw.

These weren't impish requests for toys or a new bike; mostly, they were desperate pleas from heads of households asking for help. It was staggering. People let down by the remnants of a social safety net, without families or abandoned by their families, people suffering sickness, poverty and abuse. People so far out on a limb that they swallowed what pride they had left, took pen in hand and wrote down everything that had failed them, everything that had broken or been stolen, everything that had hurt them and made them feel fear and shame and worry.

Spoiler: they did something about it, and have kept at it for the past 20 years.

/via Pitchfork


My Writing Education: A Timeline

George Saunders, writing for The New Yorker:

Toby has the grad students over to watch A Night at the Opera. Mostly I watch Toby, with his family. He clearly adores them, takes visible pleasure in them, dotes on them. I have always thought great writers had to be dysfunctional and difficult, incapable of truly loving anything, too insane and unpredictable and tortured to cherish anyone, or honor them, or find them beloved.

Wow, I think, huh.

When my first book was published, I emailed all of my writing teachers just to tell them and say thank you. I remember lessons and advice from all of them. Every semester, I hope to have that effect on at least one of my students. The kind of devotion and respect that Saunders writes about here—I don’t know that I’ve ever even dreamed it was possible to inspire it in a student. But  now, after reading this—maybe.


Letters to Our Daughters: Do Not Be Good

Megan Mayhew Bergman, writing for The Ploughshares Blog:

I’ve spent far too much energy in my life being “good.” Seeking approval and validation outside of my own gut, criticizing myself for failing an image. If you pursue the prescribed perfection of womanhood, you’ll find it can be a demeaning, exhausting endeavor.

I can’t wait until my girls are old enough for me to introduce them to Megan’s writing.


You Just Got Out of Prison. Now What?

Jon Mooallem, writing for The New York Times Magazine:

The opening riff of ‘‘Good Times, Bad Times’’ kicked in on the stereo as they hit Los Angeles County, just before 2 p.m. Carlos bobbed his head in the back seat. The mood in the car was up — for a minute or two. Then, construction work narrowed Route 101, and Roby grumbled as they slowed nearly to a stop. ‘‘See that, Dale?’’ he asked Hammock. ‘‘I’m complaining about traffic. You know what that’s called?’’

‘‘No,’’ Hammock said.

‘‘That’s called ‘free-man problems,’ ’’ Roby said.

They fought through the congestion to their next stop, a Target in downtown L.A., where Roby put Hammock in charge of the big red shopping cart. ‘‘There you go, pushing a cart!’’ he shouted as they set off into the aisles. ‘‘Who would’ve thunk it!’’

Every ride home includes a stop to get the third-striker out of his sweats and buy him some real clothes and basic toiletries. It’s typically the last thing Carlos and Roby do; walking into a crowded big-box store asks a lot of these guys. Roby was released on Presidents’ Day weekend, and his father and cousins took him straight to an outlet mall. The swarm of bargain-seeking humanity overwhelmed him. In prison, people move slowly, drag their feet and keep their distance; all of a sudden, Roby was being jostled and bumped. And after 12 years in the same state-issued clothing, he had no idea what to buy. When his father asked him what size he was, Roby told him: ‘‘I don’t have a size.’’

I’m late to the party on this article, but I had to link to it; it’s just that good. If you need a mental espresso shot to restore a flagging faith in humanity, drink this up.


When I’m Gone

Rafael Zoehler, writing on Medium:

My mother picked me up at school and we went to the hospital. The doctor told the news with all the sensitivity that doctors lose over the years. My mother cried. She did have a tiny bit of hope. As I said before, everyone does. I felt the blow. What does it mean? Wasn’t it just a regular disease, the kind of disease doctors heal with a shot? I hated you, dad. I felt betrayed. I screamed with anger in the hospital, until I realized my father was not around to ground me. I cried.

Then, my father was once again a father to me. With a shoebox under her arm, a nurse came by to comfort me. The box was full of sealed envelopes, with sentences where the address should be. I couldn’t understand exactly what was going on. The nurse then handed me a letter. The only letter that was out of the box.

“Your dad asked me to give you this letter. He spent the whole week writing these, and he wants you read it. Be strong.” the nurse said, holding me.

The envelope read WHEN I’M GONE. I opened it.

Caution—do not read this if you’re already feeling a little emotionally prickly.


‘This wave of independence’

Margarita Noriega, writing for Vox:

These new shoes from Nike are pretty sweet, both in form and function, and they were inspired by a single moving letter from a 16-year-old living with cerebral palsy. Florida high schooler Matthew Walzer was just within reach of independent living, but desperately in need of a shoe he could lace up without someone else's assistance.

So Walzer wrote a letter to Nike CEO Mark Parker asking for help.

Maybe there’s hope for us after all.


The New Normal

Stephanie Wittels Wachs:

The grief takes up so much space that there’s not much room for anything else. When I’m not thinking about how bleak life’s going to be without you, I’m signing or notarizing or mailing documents on your behalf or explaining to some customer service representative that you’re dead. Most importantly, I’m trying my best to get out of bed every morning, put one foot in front of the other, and smile for my daughter. This is taking all the energy I have. As a result, my ability to think and remember is notably compromised. I constantly say one word but mean another. I hear “I told you that already” constantly.

If you’re someone who has dealt with the unexpected death of someone close to you, you’ll recognize yourself in this piece.

/via Bill Simmons