Taffy Brodesser-Akner

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Male synchronized swimming has often been viewed as risible partly because it pushed against traditional gender roles and also because a person in a pool not swimming seems an affront. Oh, and the nose plugs don’t help, either.

The sport served as both backdrop and punchline for the best gag of early ’80s iteration of SNL, the video skit seemingly unlocking a string of genius mockumentaries by Christopher Guest. But anyone who stops laughing for a minute will have to admit that few can excel at the combination of mime, dancing, gymnastics and, yes, swimming. 

Bill May excelled. The American was long lauded as the best male synchronized swimmer ever, though his peak years were spent in frustration, sidelined and bone dry, as men were never allowed to compete in the World Championships or Olympics. Growing weary of the fight for inclusion, he plunged into a Cirque du Soleil pool in Vegas and tried to forget what might have been.

Than, unexpectedly, a mixed-gender event was added to the 2015 World Championships in Kazan, Russia, and May jumped back into the sport even though he had little time to perfect routines with his female partners, one of whom was seven months into a pregnancy.

In an 11,000-word ESPN The Magazine article, Taffy Brodesser-Akner traces May’s progress from public-pool practices to podium, making me care about a sport I have never once watched, with a big-hearted look at a person who kept paddling forward even when it made him look silly to others.

An excerpt:

They got to choreographing. They used community pools around Las Vegas to practice, renting them out for as many hours as their schedules allowed, subject to all the degradations of community pools: old women doing aqua aerobics on the other side of the rope; children cannonballing into your part of the rented pool before a lifeguard can get to them and tell them the space is yours; a kid taking a dump in the pool, sidelining them from practicing for a full hour while the water rechlorinated. Chris Carver had flown in from Santa Clara that day, and they didn’t like to waste time, and maybe saying the pool had rechlorinated by the time they got back in was generous. The only breaks they took were when they had to use the bathroom or when Kristina’s husband brought her newborn by for nursing. Bill put over $40,000 on his credit card for pool rentals. USA Synchro could pitch in only $12,000 total. The rest would come from the formidable Aquamaids, who operate a long-standing and very successful bingo facility in Santa Clara, run by volunteer Aquamaid parents in charge of getting funds to the swimmers for costumes and competitions.

Bill still swam the two Cirque shows and put an hour’s worth of makeup on each night. He still taught an abdominal workout to the other O cast members three times a week, twisting and lifting and pushing impossibly to get every single angle of their trunks to resist and grow stronger, to get them looking more like Bill. And he still swam his regular workout, an hour back and forth and back and forth in the pool each morning, and at night, when he was showered and his Weimaraners lay at the foot of his bed and he ceased movement for just the few hours he slept, he dreamed of Kazan.•

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Here are 50 ungated pieces of wonderful journalism from 2015, alphabetized by author name, which made me consider something new or reconsider old beliefs or just delighted me. (Some selections are from gated publications that allow a number of free articles per month.) If your excellent work isn’t on the list, that’s more my fault than yours.

  • Who Runs the Streets of New Orleans?” (David Amsden, The New York Times Magazine) As private and public sector missions increasingly overlap, here’s an engaging look at the privatization of some policing in the French Quarter.
  • In the Beginning” (Ross Andersen, Aeon) A bold and epic essay about the elusive search for the origins of the universe.
  • Ask Me Anything (Anonymous, Reddit) A 92-year-old German woman who was born into Nazism (and participated in it) sadly absolves herself of all blame while answering questions about that horrible time.
  • Rethinking Extinction” (Stewart Brand, Aeon) The Whole Earth Catalog founder thinks the chance of climate-change catastrophe overrated, arguing we should utilize biotech to repopulate dwindling species.
  • Anchorman: The Legend of Don Lemon” (Taffy Brodesser-Akner, GQ) A deeply entertaining look into the perplexing facehole of Jeff Zucker’s most gormless word-sayer and, by extension, the larger cable-news zeitgeist.
  • How Social Media Is Ruining Politics(Nicholas Carr, Politico) A lament that our shiny new tools have provided provocative trolls far more credibility than a centralized media ever allowed for.
  • Clans of the Cathode” (Tom Carson, The Baffler) One of our best culture critics looks at the meaning of various American sitcom families through the medium’s history.
  • The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic) The author examines the tragedy of the African-American community being turned into a penal colony, explaining the origins of the catastrophic policy failure.
  • Perfect Genetic Knowledge” (Dawn Field, Aeon) The essayist thinks about a future in which we’ve achieved “perfect knowledge” of whole-planet genetics.
  • A Strangely Funny Russian Genius” (Ian Frazier, The New York Review of Books) Daniil Kharms was a very funny writer, if you appreciate slapstick that ends in a body count.
  • Tomorrow’s Advance Man” (Tad Friend, The New Yorker) Profile of Silicon Valley strongman Marc Andreessen and his milieu, an enchanted land in which adults dream of riding unicorns.
  • Build-a-Brain” (Michael Graziano, Aeon) The neuroscientist’s ambitious thought experiment about machine intelligence is a piece I thought about continuously throughout the year.
  • Ask Me Anything (Stephen Hawking, Reddit) Among other things, the physicist warns that the real threat of superintelligent machines isn’t malice but relentless competence.
  • Engineering Humans for War” (Annie Jacobsen, The Atlantic) War is inhuman, it’s been said, and the Pentagon wants to make it more so by employing bleeding-edge biology and technology to create super soldiers.
  • The Wrong Head” (Mike Jay, London Review of Books) A look at insanity in 1840s France, which demonstrates that mental illness is often expressed in terms of the era in which it’s experienced.
  • Death Is Optional” (Daniel Kahneman and Noah Yuval Harari, Edge) Two of my favorite big thinkers discuss the road ahead, a highly automated tomorrow in which medicine, even mortality, may not be an egalitarian affair.
  • Where the Bodies Are Buried,” (Patrick Radden Keefe, The New Yorker) Ceasefires, even treaties, don’t completely conclude wars, as evidenced by this haunting revisitation of the heartbreaking IRA era.
  • Porntopia” (Molly Lambert, Grantland) The annual Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas, the Oscars of oral, allows the writer to look into a funhouse-mirror reflection of America.
  • The Robots Are Coming” (John Lanchester, London Review of Books) A remarkably lucid explanation of how quickly AI may remake our lives and labor in the coming decades.
  • Last Girl in Larchmont” (Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker) The great TV critic provides a postmortem of Joan Rivers and her singular (and sometimes disquieting) brand of feminism.
  • “President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation, Part 1 & Part 2” (Barack Obama and Marilynne Robinson, New York Review of Books) Two monumental Americans discuss the state of the novel and the state of the union.
  • Ask Me Anything (Elizabeth Parrish, Reddit) The CEO of BioViva announces she’s patient zero for the company’s experimental age-reversing gene therapies. Strangest thing I read all year.
  • Why Alien Life Will Be Robotic” (Sir Martin Rees, Nautilus) The astronomer argues that ETs in our inhospitable universe have likely already transitioned into conscious machines.
  • Ask Me Anything (Anders Sandberg, Reddit) Heady conversation about existential risks, Transhumanism, economics, space travel and future technologies conducted by the Oxford researcher. 
  • Alien Rights” (Lizzie Wade, Aeon) Manifest Destiny will, sooner or later, became a space odyssey. What ethics should govern exploration of the final frontier?
  • Peeling Back the Layers of a Born Salesman’s Life” (Michael Wilson, The New York Times) The paper’s gifted crime writer pens a posthumous profile of a protean con man, a Zelig on the make who crossed paths with Abbie Hoffman, Otto Preminger and Annie Leibovitz, among others.
  • The Pop Star and the Prophet” (Sam York, BBC Magazine) Philosopher Jacques Attali, who predicted, back in the ’70s, the downfall of the music business, tells the writer he now foresees similar turbulence for manufacturing.

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I wasn’t familiar with Taffy Brodesser-Akner before 2015, then I read wonderful pieces she wrote about Kris Jenner and Don Lemon, two people I normally wouldn’t care about, and I was hooked, always looking for her byline. In the New York Times Magazine’s annual “The Lives They Lived” issue, she’s penned the postmortem for wrestler Roddy Piper, who could boast like Ali even if he pulled his punches. One of the biggest stars in the history of the business, Roderick George Toombs, as he was christened, was driven to an early death by the industry’s very real toll, dealing with the brutal schedule of slams and falls with cocaine and steroids and painkillers and sleeping pills. The act of constantly living a fantasy also exacted a price, as his public comments were often puzzling, a mix of carny kayfabe and ill-advised opinions. You weren’t sure if his words were a work, and he didn’t seem certain, either.

The short piece doesn’t delve into Piper’s demons but instead focuses on his impact on the boom period of the 1980s, when the pseudo-sport went national. An excerpt:

Piper (né Roderick George Toombs) was hired by the W.W.E. in 1984 as a manager. When he finally made it into the ring a year later, it was as a villain, to engage in vicious rivalries with everyone from Andre to Mr. T (at the height of his A-Team fame). His theatrical loathing for his opponent made the matches magnetic, and he became the most beloved hated man in the W.W.E. universe. And his ability to bring all those crazy feuds to life during his interviews energized story lines in a way the W.W.E. had never before been able to successfully pull off.

With Andre, Piper asks if it’s true that Big John Studd body-slammed him. No, Andre says, it isn’t. Piper, neck veins pulsing, suggests that even he could body-slam him. Interview over. Andre grabs Piper’s shirt, uses it to fling him across the room and walks off the set. Piper, red-hot with rage, screams, ‘‘You think you’re tough?’’ He stares into the camera and does an Incredible Hulk pose that shows off his terrifying trapezius muscles. ‘‘You ain’t nothing!’’ You have never seen a man so committed to seeming to have lost all control.

Piper never won a world championship, but he didn’t need to. He was the W.W.E.’s hero, his energy a shot of adrenaline into wrestling’s weary heart. In 2005, he was inducted into its Hall of Fame. And in July, when he died in his sleep from cardiac arrest at 61, it was hard not to think that he had used up all his energy prematurely, keeping all those other clowns afloat for so many years.•


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Having just profiled anchorman(nequin) Don Lemon in the pages of GQ, Taffy Brodesser-Akner turns her attention to Kris Jenner for the New York Times Magazine. Her work is starting to form a through line.

These subjects are shallow people consumed by what they see in the mirror, but they also reflect, if uncomfortably, who we are and the period we live in. Jenner seems equal parts producer and pimp, but pimpin’ ain’t easy. Without a ton of obvious talent to work with but also unencumbered by a sense of shame, she’s molded her brood into the apotheosis of Andy Warhol’s prediction (warning?) that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, and she’s made a mockery of that shelf life. 

In that sense the Kardashian-Jenner family members are the most interesting celebrities of our era, because they’re more emblematic of it than anyone else, a harsh, anxious age marked by decentralized media, branding, exhibitionism, narcissism as entrepreneurialism, faces filled and filtered, and banal self-promotion. It’s a moment when the spoils go to the most aggressively remorseless. Maybe someday their stars fall and selfies fade, but the clan has already left a mark on its time–our time. That’s what great performers do.

An excerpt from the largely admiring piece:

There are still people who dismiss Kris Jenner, 59, and her family — Kourtney, Kim and Khloé Kardashian, all in their 30s; her son, Rob Kardashian, 28; and Kendall and Kylie Jenner, 19 and 17 — as “famous for being famous,” a silly reality-show family creating a contrived spectacle. But we have reached the point at which the Jenners and the Kardashians are not famous for being famous: They are famous for the industry that they’ve created, the Kardashian/Jenner megacomplex, which has not just invaded the culture but metastasized into it, with the family members emerging as legitimate businesspeople and Kris the mother-leader of them all.

She is an executive producer of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and its summer spinoffs. She also manages the careers of all six of her children, as well as her own. Without Kris, Kim might not have pulled in a reported $28 million in 2014. Kendall wouldn’t necessarily be an in-demand model, walking runways for Chanel and Marc Jacobs and appearing on the covers of Allure and Harper’s Bazaar. There would most likely be no Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, a choose your own adventure (presuming it’s an adventure Kim Kardashian would go on) game app, starring Kim, that brought in many millions last year, or T-Mobile commercial, or book of selfies (“Selfish”), released this month. Kourtney and Khloé and Kim might not have three retail stores, named Dash, in Los Angeles, New York and Miami; a hair-and-makeup line, Kardashian Beauty; a bronzer line, Kardashian Glow; and Kardashian Kids, a children’s clothing line sold at Babies “R” Us and Nordstrom. Kendall and Kylie might not have licensing deals with PacSun, Steve Madden, Topshop and Sugar Factory, where they each have signature lollipops and several contractual agreements to appear at the candy stores. Rob, the lone brother, would probably not have a sock company that features socks that say things like “LOVE HURTS” and “YOLO” or sell adult onesies at places like Macy’s. There would not be seven perfumes in Kim’s name, or Khloé’s perfume with Lamar Odom, Unbreakable, which is still available, though their marriage has ended. There would be no endorsement deals, either: things like OPI nail polish and a “waist trainer” that Khloé and Kim model on their Instagram account. It is entirely possible that without Kris Jenner and all her wisdom over the years, all the attention she has garnered for her family, 16.9 million people would not have tuned in on April 24 to watch her ex-husband Bruce tell Diane Sawyer that he is transgender. 

The thing is, no one in her family knew what they were doing until Kris took charge.•

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The only time I’ve ever felt sympathy for Rand Paul was when he was interviewed on CNN by Don Lemon, who decided to provoke the Libertarian because that was what he thought it was necessary to do, in much the same way a parakeet senses it must chirp. It was sound and fury and signified nothing, theater aimed at making it seem something important had occurred. That, in essence, is the meaning of modern cable news.

In Jeff Zucker’s clown car of infotainment, Lemon passes for a star, not because the anchor is right–he almost never is–but because he gets attention, making stupid comments about race and gender and religion and anything else that slips from his face hole. 

What can you do with such a person, apart from turning away? You can write a sympathetic-if-devastating portrait of him as Taffy Brodesser-Akner has at GQ. The opening:

So I say to Don Lemon, I say, let’s do it, Don Lemon, let’s have dessert. We’ve been here awhile, eating lunch, and we’re having a good time, so likable is Don Lemon, so open is he to my questions, so warm is his smile. And maybe he can be coaxed into it. We are at the restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art, and the portions are modern-art-sized, and he just had his photo shoot yesterday—he’d suspended all manner of salt and other bloateries in the days leading up to it and would love to cut loose a little. But he still needs persuading, since it is a known thing that dessert is one of the principal sacrifices of people who regularly appear on TV. But he relents, because Don Lemon is not the kind of guy who will make you eat dessert alone. The negotiation: He’ll do it, but it’ll have to be light. I look up and down the menu and suggest that the sorbet looks promising, given his totally understandable criteria.

He leans in, big warm smile, not wanting to correct me, but needing to: “Sorbette,” he says, like a news anchor. “It’s pronounced sorbette.”

“Sorbette,” I repeat, shaky. I smile, not quite understanding the joke.

“Sorbette,” he says with the confidence of a man who informs hundreds of thousands of Americans each night about what is happening across this land as well as many others. “It’s pronounced sorbette.” Sorbette! Could he be right? I’ve been saying it like a French word for years, like a complete asshole. Have I, a native English speaker, a graduate of a four-year college, a frequent eater of frozen desserts, been mispronouncing it all this time?

Or we can leave room for the possibility that he is just plain wrong. This is Don Lemon, after all, the news anchor whose name has become associated with what might politely be calledmissteps, like asking an Islamic scholar if he supports the terrorist group ISIS, or declaring on the scene at Ferguson that there’s the smell of marijuana in the air, “obviously.” This is the guy who asked if a black hole could be responsible for the disappearance of Flight MH370; who asked one of Bill Cosby’s alleged rape victims why she didn’t stop the attack by, as he put it, “the using of the teeth.”

Yes, we have to allow for the possibility that Don Lemon might be wrong.•

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