Longform’s Best Essays of 2012
Meditations on America, waiting tables, and our evolving relationship with time.
This week, we’ll be sharing our favorite articles of the year on Slate. For our full list—including the top 10 of the year, plus picks in sports, politics, tech and more—check out Longform’s Best of 2012.
American Vespers: The Ebbing of the Body Politic
Earl Shorris • Harper’s
A writer considers America as he dies.
“Death is the moment when evening passes into night. I know. There is no surprise, and it often comes after a long sickness that is worse than death. When I died, I died of many things: the failing systems; the weakening of age; the exhaustion of the long war against dying. Finally, I succumbed to the lack of ethics in a California hospital, killed by filth and neglect.
“I have wished for many years to be a physician to my beloved country. The means to care for it is clear. I was revived by love and ethics. And I am not unique: no man, no woman is a metaphor; that is the place of gods. I do not know who will take America in their arms to revive her.
“No nation is forever.”
In Which We Don't Do Coke in the Bathroom of the Restaurant
Jackie Kruszewski • This Recording
“Waiting tables has never paid my bills, a fact which I prefer to hide from my colleagues with deep sighs about the price of just about everything. But through the managerially-induced eye rolls, the horrific tippers, the empty-table boredom, and the mild injustices of everyday service industry work lies my dirty secret: I could quit any time I want. I went to pick up my last paycheck from the French restaurant and ended up with two shifts a week. My name is Jackie and I am addicted to waitressing.
The happy waitress exists
“I tried to quit a few months ago. I got a raise at my non-profit, a sizable one, and I wanted my weekends back desperately because it was almost Christmas. My weekend shifts were a welcome excuse to stay in New York for Thanksgiving and not spend $200 on trains to avoid my father’s girlfriend at whatever trashy buffet joint his family had reserved for us for the occasion. But I couldn’t miss Christmas with my mother and sisters for the third time in a row, and my friends were coming to New York for New Year’s Eve. So I gave my notice.
“The second weekend in January I came back for my last check. ‘So you, you want to take a few shifts again, yes?’ Bruno, the diminutive French owner, asked. Turns out, he hadn’t rehired, just reshuffled, and I suddenly felt a surge of usefulness that I’d never felt at my day job.”
Confessions of an Ex-Mormon
Walter Kirn • New Republic
A personal history of "America’s most misunderstood religion."
“My problem was that Carla wasn’t loyal. I was her Mormon boyfriend, not her main one. Her main one was older than me and twice as tall. I glimpsed him once, at the counter in her restaurant, dressed in a letter jacket covered in pins. I knew from his posture somehow that he and she had gone places I hadn’t. My consolation was knowing that, in theory, she and I had a serious future together. In only three years, I’d serve my mission, sent by the Church to wherever they’d choose to send me—England, I hoped, because I was bad at languages but pined for foreign lands—and when I got home, I’d be urged to take a wife. It might be her. She’d hinted as much one night. ‘I’m getting this out of my system,’ she confided while we lounged in her brother’s Camaro smoking dope. ‘Don’t think this is permanent. I love the Church. I just can’t give all of me right now.’
“I too had begun having trouble giving all of me. To my parents, the backsliders who no longer knew me, I was a scripture-reading wonder boy who the elders sometimes invited to speak at services on topics such as Teamwork and Moral Purity, but I knew better. I’d turned into a sneak. At my most recent Bishops’ Interview—a ritual grilling required of every Mormon above a certain age—I’d been asked a series of questions that opened, absurdly it seemed to me, with this one: ‘Have you committed murder?’ No, of course not. ‘Theft?’ No again, though it depended. ‘Have you masturbated?’ I started lying then. I lied right on down the remainder of the list. What’s more, I was pretty certain that we all did. So why put us through the whole confusing ordeal? To be asked if you lied and be forced to lie again was annoying and dispiriting. It prevented you from pretending you were good, which is sometimes, with kids, what helps you to be good.”
How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance
Kiese Laymon • Cold Drank
Guns, race, and childhood in Mississippi.
“This isn’t an essay or simply a woe-is-we narrative about how hard it is to be a black boy in America. This is a lame attempt at remembering the contours of slow death and life in America for one black American teenager under Central Mississippi skies. I wish I could get my Yoda on right now and surmise all this shit into a clean sociopolitical pull-quote that shows supreme knowledge and absolute emotional transformation, but I don’t want to lie.
“I want to say and mean that remembering starts not with predictable punditry, or bullshit blogs, or slick art that really ask nothing of us; I want to say that it starts with all of us willing ourselves to remember, tell and accept those complicated, muffled truths of our lives and deaths, and the lives and deaths of folks all around us over and over again.
“Then I want to say and mean that I am who my Grandma thinks I am.
“I am not.”
Paul Ford • Contents
On the shifting nature of time.
“There are 200 of you in this auditorium. So every minute I don’t talk saves about three-and-a-third hours of human time. That’s a pretty serious ratio. Every one of my minutes is collectively 200 of yours.
“Of course in actual time a minute is just a minute—but is this true? A minute when you’re asleep is nothing. A minute on Twitter is as many as half a million tweets. If it was your job to read them that’s a month or two of full-time work. A minute in the early days of the universe, a few million years after the big bang, is pretty much like any other minute.
“I’ve been talking for around a minute now. If this speech was a century long we’d be ending the first decade. If it were the 20th century we’d be thinking about getting a telephone installed and wondering if we should trade in our horse for a car. Depending on where we lived, of course.”
For more of the year’s best writing, check out Longform’s Best of 2012.