An Interview with Ben

In which he says: I’m sheltered a little at the Times from the woes of the industry, but it’s rare that I’m impressed by out of town newspapers, and I buy them — all of them — everywhere I go. Seems like so much slash and burn has skinned a lot of papers down to nothing. To beef jerky. They read horrible and look irrelevant and feel like the flesh of a 100-year-old man. How many stories are we missing because the corporate owners won’t employ enough people to give a few of them the time to roam around and be curious? How much better could towns and cities all over the map be if newspapers were still the connective tissue? That’s what’s slipping: that connective tissue.

The Preacher


Before I met Robert Jeffress, I wanted to hate him. Jeffress is the conservative preacher who made national headlines in October, when he called Mormonism a cult. He’s the senior pastor at First Baptist Dallas, the oldest megachurch in America, and I am certainly not a Baptist. He endorsed Rick Perry for president, and I’m definitely no fan of Perry’s. As a matter of fact, Robert Jeffress and I probably disagree on every major political and religious issue. And yet, I really, really like him.

It would be easy to dislike him if he were a hypocrite or a bigot, if he were an insufferable megalomaniac or the kind of man who preaches out of hate and anger. But he’s none of those things. He’s actually delightful to be around. He’s not just polite; he earnestly cares about people. He may not believe in evolution, but he really does want to know how your day has been. He may oppose certain rights for gay people, but he genuinely desires for you to be merry on Christmas. If he talks with you, he’s attentive and giving. He’s curious about you and about the world.

The first time I met him, he greeted me warmly, even though he’s the next Jerry Falwell and I look, as one of his staff members put it, “like the son of David Crosby.” He looked past the beard and long hair and shook my hand firmly, inviting me into his spacious office. He offered me soda, coffee, water, a seat on his comfortable leather couch. When I noticed that he had the jackets of all 17 of his books framed and hanging on a wall, I mentioned casually that I’d love to write a book someday. He tilted his head slightly and looked into my eyes.

“Oh, you will, Michael,” he said. “I’m sure of it.”

Navigating Love and Autism

Amy Harmon: GREENFIELD, Mass. — The first night they slept entwined on his futon, Jack Robison, 19, who had since childhood thought of himself as “not like the other humans,” regarded Kirsten Lindsmith with undisguised tenderness.

She was the only girl to have ever asked questions about his obsessive interests — chemistry, libertarian politics, the small drone aircraft he was building in his kitchen — as though she actually cared to hear his answer. To Jack, who has a form of autism called Asperger syndrome, her mind was uncannily like his. She was also, he thought, beautiful.

So far they had only cuddled; Jack, who had dropped out of high school but was acing organic chemistry in continuing education classes, had hopes for something more. Yet when she smiled at him the next morning, her lips seeking his, he turned away.

“I don’t really like kissing,” he said.

The Pharmacist

Peter Hessler (thanks, Charles B.): In the southwestern corner of Colorado, where the Uncompahgre Plateau descends through spruce forest and scrubland toward the Utah border, there is a region of more than four thousand square miles which has no hospitals, no department stores, and only one pharmacy. The pharmacist is Don Colcord, who lives in the town of Nucla. More than a century ago, Nucla was founded by idealists who hoped their community would become the “center of Socialistic government for the world.” But these days it feels like the edge of the earth. Highway 97 dead-ends at the top of Main Street; the population is around seven hundred and falling. The nearest traffic light is an hour and a half away. When old ranching couples drive their pickups into Nucla, the wives leave the passenger’s side empty and sit in the middle of the front seat, close enough to touch their husbands. It’s as if something about the landscape—those endless hills, that vacant sky—makes a person appreciate the intimacy of a Ford F-150 cab.

The Dancer

Ed Komenda: His wife standing next to him, Clyde Cressler kissed another woman on the dance floor.

Her name was Elaine Seckar, his ballroom dancing instructor at Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Lemoyne. It was there, under the lights of the chandeliers, dancing over the worn grain of the ballroom floor, that she showed him a temporary cure for the Parkinson’s disease running through his legs like pins and needles.

“It was on the cheek, of course,” Clyde says.

It was the simplest way the 68-year-old business owner from Mechanicsburg could express his feelings. The pain he had felt for so long had disappeared.

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

His wife, Carol, understood. Her husband had seemed to overcome, if only for the length of a Beatles song, the disease that had destroyed his sense of normal.

No, it wasn’t a new medication that saved him.

It was the tango.

1-2-3, 1-2-3.

If I Die Young

Every day, seven Floridians die of a prescription drug overdose. This is the story of Stacy Nicholson and her struggle to recover from her addiction to oxycodone. Stacy received treatment through the Pinellas County drug court as part of a program called “Ladies’ Day.” The deal: If she stayed away from OxyContin, Xanax and other narcotic drugs and completed a treatment program, her record would be wiped clean. But for addicts, abstinence is not a simple matter.

Lane DeGregory and John Pendygraft with If I Die Young.

War Stories

Thanks to Raja for pointing out this Foreign Policy piece that tries to identify the stories that “told the story of the Iraq War.” They’re all, of course, amazing stories, written in difficult circumstances that I have trouble imagining. From Anthony Shadid to Dexter Filkins to Seymour Hersh, these are incredible stories. See for yourself.

I’d build upon the list with David Finkel’s story about Izzy, which is my favorite.

What would your list include?