Tim Cook + the Unbearable Lightness of Escape

Tim Cook

As a longtime lover of confrontation, the appeal of gayness always struck me as many and manifold. Most specifically: the experience of watching people squirm when I told them that I was gay.

The uncomfortable shift as they tried to make sense of it all, while I just let it all hang there for a moment, or several moments, of discomfort. Witnessing folks forced to challenge whatever notions they had about what constituted a gay man: totally delicious. Except for the fact that I wasn’t gay, the prospect of this scene alone made it almost interesting enough for me to want to claim allegiance. Even if saying so was a luxury for a hetero man who wasn’t going to be losing any jobs over it, could get married without sanction and wasn’t likely to get beaten up over it.

If you’re an African-American, your otherness is not occult at all. In fact, it’s the first thing known about you.

But for the friends who agonized over coming out to me, the roommates who were scared to hug their lovers in the houses we shared, or for Tim Cook, the current CEO of a company where I worked in days past, the coming-out experience seemed as difficult and fraught as … well, there’s no comparative experience, really. No way to understand the years of negative messaging all filtering through perhaps a personal sense that yes, indeed, they WERE talking about you. Because if you’re an African-American, your otherness is not occult at all. In fact, it’s the first thing known about you. Same if you’re Asian. Or white. Being Jewish is a little more sotto voce, but the likelihood that your family wouldn’t know that you were Jewish? Very low.

“Bro, that guy is a faggot, man.” Even given how I spend most of my time — hanging out with fighters — it was still shocking to hear a fighter actually use the term “faggot” specifically to describe a sexual orientation, and not as just a generalized, but thoughtless, term of abuse.

“What do you care?” The guy I was talking to was a professional fighter and in my weight class, and though we were friendly enough that I didn’t expect an outright beating, the room got quiet. On scales of toughness, he was orders of magnitude above me. 

“I mean, why would you give a rat’s ass what one guy does with another guy? In fact, I think that guys that are overly concerned about that have some concerns of their own about their own … appetites.”

Iconoclastic as it may have been, Apple was also more conservative than could have been guessed.

And there was that scrumptious, disruptive uncomfortability again. He changed topics with some forced laughter, and I was left again with a sense of how heavy a load this crap, this homosexual hate, can be. Even at Apple, a place where I worked for almost two years right after Steve Jobs returned from exile at NeXT, a place where it wasn’t uncommon to see workers working their way to the cafeteria at lunchtime wearing no shoes, socks or shirts — this knee-jerk hetero homo-fear thing was a thing.

Because Apple, iconoclastic as it may have been, was also more conservative than could have been guessed. Like the entire Silicon Valley. A valley whose history housed both Jobs and noted inventor of the transistor and racial theorist (read: racist) William Shockley. And while not Conservative with a capital C, conservative enough that things that shouldn’t have felt criminal most certainly did. Even for people who knew better.

Like: a freelance designer I worked with at Apple. He called and asked to meet me. He hemmed and hawed through the meeting, seeming distracted and more nervous than made me feel comfortable (as a noted paranoiac, I figure any new news will be bad news). Then finally this: “Can I ask you a question?”


“Are you … straight?”

I laughed. “Which answer would make you feel most uncomfortable?” He shrugged, I answered, and only after it was more than clear that this was going to have absolutely no effect on our work dealings did he relax. 

And he was just a guy for hire. Which is to say, do not think for a second that, very rich man though he is, this was any easier for Tim Cook, who’s already facing criticism that he hasn’t gone far enough. In fact, it might have been a good deal harder, since stockholders don’t care who you sleep with as long as it doesn’t affect the bottom line — but if who you sleep with affects the bottom line? Then they’re going to be concerned. And thus far, outside of worries about China, Russia and parts of Africa that might be socially resistant to homo-friendly change, it’s steady as she goes.

And it’s about damned time, too.

A Drink for the Bloodthirsty

A vampire wiping the blood off of his mouth.

When it comes to boozing, how adventurous are you? Are you a blood-in-your-tropical-cocktail brave? Me neither. Sopping up a pool of steak “juice” with a slice of sourdough is one thing. Drinking blood borders on lycanthropic or vampiric. Or Chicagoan. Which is where the new blood-based beverage named Werewolves of London is finding an audience.

Customers are apprehensive at first glance; one they try it, however, they find it ‘refreshing.’

— Jason Brown, bartender at Kinmont

Bartender Jason Brown is the man behind the seasonal tipple at Kinmont, a seafood and game restaurant that opened a few months ago. Brown notes that customers are apprehensive at first glance; once they try it, however, they find it “refreshing.”

The high minerality, the coppery hint of a penny, the iron finish. Each intoxicating glass contains gin, Pimm’s, house-made coconut syrup, pineapple juice … and about a jigger of pigs’ blood.

A half-ounce, though, goes far. First off, blood is pretty caloric, says vampirologist Theresa Bane. Good to know. “There is no nutritional value, and it is very fatty. Taken in large doses, it will make you physically sick,” says the author of Encyclopedia of Vampire Mythologywho also appears on Discovery Channel programs. “The human body cannot process it into energy. As a cultural rite of passage? Yes. Mixed with other ingredients? Yes. As a meal? No.”

As a small amount in a drink? Most def. Bane would put her $11 on the table if she were visiting Chicago. “I’m already a fan of black pudding.” That British oatmeal-and-pigs’-blood delicacy joins the group of other blood-infused treats such as blood tofu and fried blood. Blood is, in fact, something that other cultures stomach with more bravado than Americans. 

The reddish pink cocktail on a bar.

The Werewolves of London cocktail from Kinmont in Chicago

Source Kinmont Restaurant

As far as Brown knows — and a few uber-boozers and bartenders in the States have confirmed — blood hasn’t been used as an ingredient in a U.S.-made cocktail.

“There have been so many creative people in this profession,” Brown says. “Everyone has really pushed the envelope with flavor profiles. I asked myself, ‘What can I do?’ ”

Precisely three things led him to choose blood:

Fun Facts

  • When Brown lived in San Francisco, he would walk by a Chinatown storefront that sold coagulated blood cubes. “Ever since then, the idea has been rattling around in my head,” he says.
  • Brown’s favorite rock ballad, “Werewolves of London,” also rattles around in his head. In particular a Warren Zevon line provided Brown with rich imagery: “I saw a werewolf drinkin’ a pina colada at Trader Vic’s.
  • The vibe at Kinmont is very rustic hunting cabin — as in axes on the walls, vintage Field & Stream issues papering the bathroom and hanging lanterns. Let’s face it, Brown says, “hunting is a bloody endeavor.”

Vampirologist Bane says that if bloodthirsty creatures did roam the earth, it would be more accurate to use cows, as pigs weren’t domesticated when the myths (werewolf or vampire) were born. In any event, for those curious about the latter, vampires prefer “flesh, excrement and carrion … sometimes a samurai’s top knot,” she says.

Brown jokes, “I wasn’t out for pigs’ blood in particular. I don’t know if werewolves would prefer pigs … or unicorns.” Quite simply, Kinmont’s reputable pork purveyor in the Ozarks was able to offer pasteurized blood. After receiving the frozen jug, the kitchen pasteurizes it again. From there, it hits the bar.

Sorry, no recipe will follow. Off to Chicago with you, to drink a bloody good cocktail. And, as they say in An American Werewolf in London, “Beware the moon, lads …” (on Nov. 6, it’s full).  

First-Person Friday: Sugar Hide

little hands of a girl holding jelly beans.

Jordan Rosenfeld is a book author living in Northern California. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Rumpus, The Washington Post and more. She blogs at www.jordanrosenfeld.net.

While other kids went regularly to the doctor, my acupuncturist father assessed my young body’s failings with the words, “Let me see your tongue,” and “I need to feel your pulses.”  The sum of these two inspections revealed such things as “low kidney chi” or “too much yang.”

No matter how much I slept, my eyes were always ringed by sepia circles. I often complained of stomachaches, and peed so frequently my grandparents once sent me home from the summer convinced I had diabetes. I’d quickly lose my breath jogging after the ice cream truck down the street while my 8-year-old peers could run around for hours.

The shop was like a portal to another reality: where my mother would be easy to rouse from bed when I was hungry for dinner.

Since I refused the insult of the acupuncture needles, my father sought the cure from herbs we’d gather at the Chinese medicine shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown. We pushed open the heavy glass door, metal chimes clinking to a snug, dimly lit sanctum. Dense with sculptures and deities, it felt like another world.

Man crosses a street in chinatown with red lanterns in the background.

San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood

My nose tingled with the pungency of strange scents, foreign plant life mixed with the synthetics of unknown chemicals. Behind the counter, a wizened Chinese man sat so still with a notepad, he looked like a statue. Wrinkled customers wandered the room at the slow gait of Tolkien’s Ents.

Row upon row of wooden bins revealed mysterious bits and twigs, chalky circles, black button-like objects, dark red beetles, half-crushed. My father handed over our script of needs, which the man behind the counter translated to Chinese characters and then scooped into a brown paper bag.

The Chinatown shop was like a portal to another reality: where my mother would be easy to rouse from bed when I was hungry for dinner, never darting up in a panic to deliver me late to school, her hair a static sheath around glazy eyes that brightened only after a shot of vodka or a pill tumbling out of a plastic bottle.

Behind the shelves of gold and red Chinese dragons and paper lanterns coated in dust, that portal would transport me to a new universe, a better world — where my father would have a real job, in a traditional office. No clandestine meetings down long corridors or shady men carrying illegal packages filled with other kinds of herbs.

We never stayed long enough.

Back at home, my father put the mysterious mix into a clay tea pot. He steeped a potion that left a dense fug in the kitchen and induced my gag response, tasting of crushed aspirin dragged in mud and steeped in bitter grass.

While my father watched, I tossed down the first few sips, my nose pinched shut — but when he left me alone, I spilled the rest of the brown sludge down the sink.

I continued to pop Skittles and gorge on Charleston Chews. My habit wouldn’t land me in jail or rehab, but it lingered well into adulthood.

My symptoms did not go away, and doctors’ tests revealed nothing out of the ordinary. My father had no way of knowing the truth: that I would pilfer quarters from his own pockets, hop on my bike and ride to my friend’s by way of 7-11, where I would buy all the candy I could.

I gravitated to the good stuff: Sour Patch Kids and Fun Dip “Lik-m-Aid” — three pouches of confectionary sand accompanied by a candy stick to suck then dip then suck and dip again. And when the stick was gone, I’d lick my finger and plunge it into the packet, rubbing the pure sugar on my gums — and savoring the high.

My best friend and I would often ride to the Oroweat outlet for year-round discounts on Hostess products. Like the $2 boxes of eight Twinkies, which we put away in less than 10 minutes. All along, my father continued to perform his Eastern “cures” on me — and I continued to pop Skittles and gorge on sticky Charleston Chews.

Though my father’s daughter, I always hated needles. For years, I had to be held down screaming at my pediatrician’s office for a simple vaccine poke. But by the time I was 9, I learned to withstand the mosquito-bite pricks of tiny acupuncture needles. And later, I braved my dentist’s Novocain needles.

From my parents’ perspective, cavities inexplicably ravaged my mouth. I never came clean about my sugar addiction. My habit wouldn’t land me in jail, or rehab, but it lingered well into adulthood.

My mother found sobriety and my father found a legit job long before I revealed my sweet truth. We were a family operating on secrecy, after all.

The Frightful Finitude of Halloween Costumery

A female in a cat halloween costume with a long black cape

The celebration of All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween, gains a full head of crazy steam as we start pulling into autumn and jack-o’-lanterns start gaily festooning everything that stands still long enough to be festooned.

With adults spending $1.2 billion on costumes for themselves last year, and about $1 billion on costumes for kids, according to the National Retail Foundation, it seems we’ve gone all in on “thumbing our noses at death” with a whole lot of “good clean fun.” But we’ve also gone all in on an irksome profusion of “sexy” costumery.

Sexy cats, sexy rats, sexy secretaries, sexy meter maids, sexy sexies and on and dizzyingly on. It’s almost OK that this holiday has become a fertility rite for adults, but it certainly seems like it should come with some of age of consent ruling for kids and their costumes. Or are we the only ones not so vaguely discomfited by 6-year-old chambermaids? 

Yes, yes … cranky is on the phone and wants its old man back — we got that. But still … take a good gander at the sexy fright, shock and awe substituting for scares these days … we dare you.

YouTube Morticians, Funeral Selfies + New Relics

BW image of 3 people washing a body in a wooden bathtub

Death is the only certainty in life. We’re all running in that direction — some faster than others — and, while there’s little we can do to avoid our tragic end, we still have a say on how we want to meet the Grim Reaper when it comes for us. Here are some of your hilarious, eco-conscious and straight-out bizarre choices when it comes to dealing with your impending doom.

Mortician for the YouTube Generation

One is not supposed to laugh about death. It’s a serious matter. Yet Caitlin Doughty thinks humor is the key to making our own mortality more palatable. Meet the 27-year-old mortician and YouTube sensation who’s on a mission to make us face our impending doom with a unique combination of expertise and wackiness. Through her YouTube channel, “Ask a Mortician,” Doughty manages the unimaginable: making hundreds of thousands smile at the fact that one day everything they love will perish. Read the story here.

Tattoos as Family Heirlooms

You thought Victorians keeping locks of hair from their beloved dead ones was creepy? Brace yourself because you ain’t seen nothing yet. The latest trend in family heirlooms could be framed tattoos. Yes, that requires slicing your loved one’s skin and treating it with liquid silicone. But at least this way you can preserve a sight of the person you cherished for eternity. Or as long as your flat mates can bare it. Read the story here.

Funeral Selfies

What’s the worst thing you can do at a funeral? Dress inappropriately? Bring a snack or a date? Forget to silence your phone? OK, how about snapping a photo of yourself — a selfie — and posting it online? (Cue audible gasp.) If you are unfamiliar with the concept of the #funeralselfie, this may come as a shock. But it’s becoming a common practice among the younger generation, and some professionals think it’s simply putting a 21st-century face on grief. Read the story here.

Green Burials

Living a sustainable life is commendable, but now you can die sustainably too. The increasingly popular industry of “green burials” is offering eco-friendly funeral options like nontoxic embalming and biodegradable caskets. Your remains can even be turned into compost. Anything for those earth-loving, granola-eating folks who are dying not to leave an ecological footprint behind. Read the story here.

Hashtag Activism 2.0

A young woman holding a sign with the hashtag 'bring back our girls'

Dump a bucket of ice water on your head and post the video on Facebook. Or tweet a picture of yourself holding a sign reading “#BringBackOurGirls.” Or sign an online petition. Voila, you’re an instant activist! 

Welcome to the much-derided world of so-called hashtag activism, or “slacktivism,” that’s become something of a calling card for the millennial generation. But now some enterprising young people are trying to change that, launching startups they hope can take our passing interests or underlying values and guide all of us — not just millennials — into more directed and, most importantly, sustained civic engagement.

The big question for these startups “is whether they can translate the ‘like’ … into something more.”

Their concepts run the gamut: from policymaking “bootcamps” to a social network dedicated to civic identities. Popvox, a Silicon Valley-based site started four years ago to help people better interact with members of Congress, is undergoing a “stem to stern” overhaul this fall, as co-founder Marci Harris describes it. Nonprofit good-government groups have been trying to up their engagement game. The Participatory Politics Foundation, which created the online clearinghouse on Congress, OpenCongress, recently launched AskThem.* It allows constituents to have Twitter conversations with elected officials — 140 characters or fewer, please.

“There’s sort of a scale of engagement, and ‘like’ ” — as in that Facebook thumbs-up — “is the first rung on the scale,” says Lee Rainie, director of Internet, science and technology research at the Pew Research Center, which last year released a study on civic engagement in the digital age. The big question for these startups “is whether they can translate the ‘like’ … into something more.”

What they’re up against: human nature, a jaded public and the micro-attention spans of the 21st century.

The more complex the situation, the “less moral outrage and determination to act.”

Evanna Hu is among those who lament the way modern civic engagement hinges on “instant gratification.” People will rally for big, one-off events, like voting in the historic 2008 presidential election. They’ll voice support for very black-and-white causes, like stopping African warlord Joseph Kony. But try to sustain that attention across complicated policy battles with ups and downs and compromise and incremental victories, and you’re in much more difficult territory. Just ask the Obama administration, which has tried, and mostly failed, to keep its unprecedented grassroots game on campaign footing during the tough years of actually governing.

As one group of academics found in a recent study of the #StopKony phenomenon, simplicity is the key to virality. The more complex the situation, the “less moral outrage and determination to act,” concludes the study, by Daniel Sullivan, Mark Landau and Aaron Kay.

The 23-year-old Hu, who helped start international mobile texting company g.Maarifa, insists that her generation could be interested in delving far deeper into the policy process, in all its sausage-making glory, if it were easier to get involved. Millennials are just turned off by the barriers to entry, the old boys’ club, the Beltway insiders and all the other powers that be. So she and friend Julia Hurley, who works in international development, launched a “hackathon” to test that theory. Instead of gathering computer gurus together to develop an outside-the-box tech solution to a problem, they brought together young wonk wannabes to “hack” the policy process.

Thus was born Polithon. In the first weekend-long event in September, participants tried to tackle the Israel-Gaza crisis, learning the ins and outs of the often opaque policymaking process along the way. Hu and Hurley envision holding two more events of this kind in the coming months, focused on different issues and in different locales, and then, potentially, scaling up into a real advocacy operation on a whole range of issues participants care about. After all, the Israel-Palestine feud is not everyone’s cup of tea. And “we’re not saying all millennials should care about all the issues,” says Hu. It’s more about zeroing in on issues that matter to you and finding new ways to weigh in on them.



Coming out with a product that is all about politics is very unlikely to work.

—Matt Mahan, Brigade CEO

That’s the same philosophy that Harris, of Popvox, embraces. The aim of the rebuilt site is to “lower the barriers and increase the quality” of the dialogue between people and the officials elected to represent them, as well as among citizens who care about certain issues. Right now, most of the 400,000 registered users are people who were already engaged offline. But Popvox redux offers other enticements. The site is more interactive, for one, and it allows users some self-promotion: They can advocate for their issues and become “thought leaders.” 

Brigade, too, is premised on individual passions. But the creators of the new web site and social network, launching next year, are trying to cast a net as vast as the Web. “Certainly, there will be target audiences and there will be early adopters, … but at the end of the day, we see ourselves competing with ESPN and Spotify for people’s discretionary time,” says Matt Mahan, Brigade’s CEO. The key, of course, is not to label it a politics site. “Coming out with a product that is all about politics is very unlikely to work,” concedes Mahan. “But if you dig one level deeper and you talk to people, … everybody has issues that they care about. They have things that they want to see be different, and it’s very personal for them.”

Brigade acquired Philotic Inc. – best known for its Causes app used by nonprofits to attract support on Facebook and the advocacy startup Votizen – in June, keeping much of the same Causes team. It’s funded by Napster founder and early Facebook investor Sean Parker and other Silicon Valley titans like Marc Benioff and Ron Conway (who is, full disclosure, also an OZY investor). And it has similar ambitions in terms of those companies’ reach, though it continues to hold the details and functions of the new site close to the vest. 

Could all these efforts work? Do people really want to spend their time debating where to install bike lanes or how to fund public education, as Mahan and the Brigade team envision? Or for that matter, going to weekend-long policymaking exercises or tweeting at their congressional representative? Rainie, of Pew, thinks that once organizations know what their audience “likes” — literally and in social media terms — it could very well create channels to “introduce them to deeper levels of engagement.” But he cautions that the history of the Web is littered with failed efforts to turn people’s fleeting political interests into something more sustainable.

 *Corrections: This article has been revised to clarify the relationship between Brigade and Causes and to correct the relationship between the Participatory Politics Foundation and OpenCongress.

Sam Lindo: Bubbling to the Top

A view of Camel Valley Vineyards

There are nearly as many jokes about British wines as there are about sheep, and Sam Lindo has heard them all. A quarter-century ago, his folks planted the seeds of their middle-aged dreams in a Cornish sheep farm, where Lindo now helps harvest the fruits of their labor into award-winning sparkling wines. 

Back then, the prospect of English bubbly got folks giggling before the first sip, but today — thanks to global warming and stiff-upper-lip tenacity — English wine is a thing, and Lindo is one of England’s foremost vintners. He’s been named the country’s winemaker of the year three times, and this year nearly nabbed the title of world’s best sparkling winemaker in the International Wine Challenge — a first for an English winemaker.

“We do have something to prove,” namely that English wine can stand the test of time.

Losing to famed Champagne Charles Heidsieck didn’t burst Lindo’s bubble; he was pleased to make the short list of three. His Camel Valley wines haven’t hit their fourth decade, while Heidsieck’s have been around since the 1850s, making Lindo the scrappy underdog. “It’s a very British position to be in, and we almost rely on it,” he tells OZY. “We do have something to prove,” namely that English wine can stand the test of time.

Lindo, 38, married with three kids, speaks casually, with a slight nasal tone. He’s lean, reflecting a love of cycling, and the opposite of posh, more comfortable in chinos and tees than tuxedos and ties. He set aside his math degree from Bath University and a prospective career in London to do what his classmates dreamed of: own a business. Lindo joined the family’s vineyard in 2002.

Dad Bob got into wine in a roundabout way, purchasing his dream farm after retiring from the military at age 38. Brown Farm’s name should’ve been a clue, but it took time to see that farming grass for sheep in their south-facing, well-draining soil — sheltered in a microclimate that has grown warmer since the 1980s — wasn’t going to plan. In 1989, the mercury rose along with Bob’s frustrations, and he came up with an idea: planting grapes in a spare field. If it didn’t work out, “at least they’d have lots of wine to drink,” Sam Lindo says.

The first crop came in 1992, producing a still wine. Acidity is a problem for English wines but can be a blessing for sparkling varieties. As Lindo tells it, an Italian customer tasted his dad’s wine and told him it would be fantastic for bubbly, which led to the vineyard’s first sparkling in 1995.

Sam Lindo in a big metal tank smashing grapes

Sam Lindo with his father and founder of Camel Valley, Bob Lindo

Source Camel Valley

Two approaches help Camel Valley stand out: growing vines on loam instead of chalk, like most English wines, and the crushing process.

Father and son perfected the process through trial and error. This impacted virtually every aspect of production, from automating the disgorging process — which expels the yeast — to computerizing the accounts and retail system. They also introduced a cooling system for controlling temperatures during fermentation. “Each year, it’s pretty clear what things we need to get that’s going to make the wine better or our lives easier,” says the younger Lindo.

But not everyone’s a fan. “We don’t stock it,” says John Valentine of wine merchant WineTrust100, “and have tended to have Coates & Seely, which we feel, frankly, is better.” Master of Wine Jo Ahearne agrees. “I think [Camel Valley’s] reserve brut is really delicious, but the ‘normal’ one lacks a bit of structure and is more rounded and much less ‘champagne-like,’ ” she tells OZY, adding that the Coates bubbly is “more refined.”

For his part, Lindo thinks two approaches help Camel Valley stand out: growing vines on loam, rather than chalk, like most English wines, and the winery’s crushing process. Camel Valley crushes the grapes for the sparkling varieties before pressing (most wineries press whole bunches), which gives the rosé its color and extra-fruity flavor. Twelve years in, Lindo has netted numerous international awards. Annual turnover has grown from 200,000 pounds to more than 2 million pounds ($3.7 million), and the vineyard produces between 50,000 and 200,000 bottles a year, depending on the harvest. Winemaking, he says, is easy. “It’s a series of very simple things you have to do. You just have to do them correctly and in the right order.”

It’s an open question how much British wines will take off, even in Britain. Right now, English wines account for only about 0.25 percent of the U.K. market, and British winemakers produced only 4 million bottles last year, compared with Champagne’s 300 million. 

But investment has soared. Some hope new English vineyards, some aiming at a million bottles a year, can secure up to 15 percent of the the U.K. market within a decade. “It’s going to be interesting to see who gets there and how they get there,” Lindo says.

Mel Owens: From The NFL to the Courtroom

A close up photo of an NFL football

Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Mel Owens transforms from a measured and soft-spoken civil litigator into a fiery gladiator reminiscent of his days as a hard-hitting linebacker with the Los Angeles Rams.

His trigger? Discussing an 85-page complaint — Richard Dent, et al., v. National Football League — that he and six other attorneys filed earlier this year and which they hope to get certified as a class-action lawsuit against the NFL. More than 1,300 former players have already joined the suit, and in it, Owens and the other lawyers argue that for decades the league “intentionally, recklessly and negligently created and maintained a culture of drug misuse, substituting players’ health for profit.” Take away the legalese and the NFL, as Owens puts it, is accused of “poisoning these guys over their careers.”

All of which are pretty harsh words for a case that in short order may get thrown for a big loss. Or it could move forward. The league’s motion to dismiss will be the subject of a hearing today in San Francisco. For its part, the NFL, through spokesman Brian McCarthy, declined to comment.

The drugs allowed injured players to stay on the field, but at times, the suit says, led to worse long-term injuries.

When it comes to this case, Owens is in a unique position as a representative for NFL players, who are requesting a trust fund to keep pace with future medical charges — plus, they want punitive and compensatory damages. For starters, the 55-year-old Californian spent a decade playing on the Rams and is a personal victim as well, says Steven D. Silverman, an attorney in Baltimore who represents plaintiffs in the case. (If the court grants class-action status, Owens would be part of the aggrieved group.) Most recently, and for more than a decade now, Owens has been practicing sports-related workers’ compensation law, so he’s also “in a unique position to understand the injuries that our guys have experienced,” says Silverman. Those injuries, the suit says, include everything from enlarged heart and nerve damage to stage 3 renal failure.


A Detroit native, Owens grew into an All-Big Ten player at the University of Michigan under the legendary Bo Schembechler. He made the most of his football career in the 1980s with the Rams, where every year, he says, players underwent a preseason physical exam but never got walked through their results in detail. Individuals were given painkillers — including opioids, which the complainants say created drug dependencies — or anti-inflammatories. The drugs allowed injured players to stay on the field, but at times, the suit says, led to worse long-term injuries.

football player on the field during a game.

Mel Owens (No. 58) with his Los Angeles Rams teammates

Source  George Gojkovich/Getty

But critics note that is only one side of the story. When properly administered, of course, painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs can provide real relief from the constant pounding NFL players must endure every week. And though 1,300 players have joined so far, pointedly, not all former players support the suit. In fact, after news of it broke, Brian Baldinger, who played with the Dallas Cowboys, the Indianapolis Colts and the Philadelphia Eagles before serving as a host and analyst for NFL Network, said in one interview, “I believe we knew what [medications] we were taking and spirit we were taking them in. I think we all knew what we were doing regardless of whether the doctors signed off on it or not.” (Baldinger declined to elaborate on his comments when reached by OZY.)

It’s certainly a tough adversary when you go against the NFL.

— Alan Milstein, lawyer

And some argue players aren’t so naive — like Mitch Abrams, a New Jersey-based sports psychologist who has worked with both NFL teams and individual players. “If a player wants a drug, he’s going to get it,” he says.

Ultimately, for Owens, a herniated disk in his back ended his own football career. Following his retirement in 1990, he enrolled at Hastings College of Law in San Francisco and built a practice specializing in workers’ compensation. The career switch didn’t shock his former Rams teammate Jackie Slater, a Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee: “He was a bright guy, trying to stay current with things going on around him and in the world,” says Slater. “I’m not surprised he became an attorney.”

former professional football player outside his office after retirement from the game.

Former NFL player Mel Owens

Owens says he has seen firsthand the toll that football takes on players — and he wants the league to pay its fair share for that pain. The suit alleges players were rarely, if everinformed of the drugs’ risks and that it was cheaper for the NFL to give players drugs and send them back on the field than to increase roster sizes to allow injured players to rest and heal properly. “I was a player,” he says. “If I can lend a voice or a hand to players who cannot help themselves, I’m going to help.”

But it’s one tough play for tough-guy Owens, who once ran with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, during an off-season with the Rams. Legal experts, including New Jersey attorney Alan Milstein, warn that his case may not truly be a class-action suit, meaning it might be limited to the experience of certain players and may not actually gather the collective momentum it needs. And the likelihood of success? The NFL, of course, has vast resources at its disposal to defend this case. “It’s certainly a tough adversary when you go against the NFL,” says Milstein, who challenged and beat the NFL’s minimum-age requirement — only to have it overturned on appeal.

Nathan Siegel contributed reporting.

Sitting Down With a Novelist Scarred by the Taliban

Portrait of author Nuruddin Farah

Nuruddin Farah, 68, hasn’t won the Nobel Prize in literature. Yet.

But he still has time, and his latest novel, Hiding in Plain Sight — which came out Oct. 30 — could be one more sign that he ought to be discussed.

Somali-born, Ethiopian- and Indian-educated, and a former resident of Germany, the United States, Sudan, Italy, Nigeria — Farah is nothing if not global. And yet, his work is also obsessed with problems that are particular to a certain region of the world — in this case, his motherland. Hiding in Plain Sight’s story follows Aar, a United Nations logistics officer who (like Farah did in the late ’90s) returns to Somalia after many years. Upon his return, he receives death threats from the al-Shabab terrorist organization. An attack soon erupts (no spoiler; it happens quickly). It’s a story that’s far too real: Farah notes, almost casually in the acknowledgments, that his sister Basra Farah Hassan was killed by a Taliban bombing in Afghanistan.

It’s all the more haunting, then, that the story follows Aar’s younger sister Bella, a photographer living in Rome. She and Aar’s estranged wife, Valerie, are put into conflict over the fates of Bella’s niece and nephew. Over the course of the book, the ways in which all of these characters interact allow Farah to raise questions of national identities, sexuality and aesthetics.

As I spoke with Farah over the phone, his dedication to human rights and his love of books were both themes that he returned to again and again. We discussed the roots and themes of Hiding in Plain Sight, as well as his fondness for working in trilogies, this particular novel’s invocation of certain books and the way art can illuminate social issues across the world.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Where did the initial idea come from?

Nuruddin Farah:

I’m obsessed, as you may know, with a few areas of life. One of them is what makes a person tick: What are our identities? Who are we, really? Are we the people we are, born into the country in which we are born and are brought up, or are we larger than the countries in which we were born and in which we were brought up? These are the ideas that have always come to me. And the other thing that, obviously, is very, very important for me is human rights. What matters to people? What choices can they make where they are safe from harm, safe from terrorism, and so on and so forth? These are the things that kept me going and that have always kept me going, right from when I started writing my first novel.




Bella is a photographer in the story — how did you think about her art?


Her project — the one that she was going to work on, just before her brother is murdered — is one that would take in the conflict that is Somalia into account, in a photographic image of that in various parts of the world, because Somalis have now joined the world’s diaspora. Those are some of the things that have also interested me: to record all of these things, register the sorrows and the joys of finding a home elsewhere, and living in it.

We should insist on elections, but we won’t allow people to express themselves sexually in their own way.

— Nuruddin Farah


Let’s talk about sex. It’s a big deal in the book.


In truth, we in Africa, and especially in the Islamic world, are sex-obsessed. We’re obsessed with sex, but we avoid having a dialogue about it, both in Africa as well in the Middle East, in the Arab world, in the Islamic world. My interest is to start the dialogue — the dialogue that goes on between choices. How much of a choice does one have to admit to being homosexual in Africa or in the Middle East? My interest in the human rights of the individual started with my first novel, From a Crooked Rib, in which a young nomad Somali woman is being bought and sold. That’s the way we deal with it, in the tradition, and so the struggle still continues.

And I’m saying, inasmuch as it is right for democracy to take shape in Africa and the Middle East, democracy is that package that can’t be cherry-picked. You don’t say, “I want this and I don’t want this.” “We should insist on elections, but we won’t allow people to express themselves sexually in their own way.” Recently, I saw in the Ugandan and Kenyan newspapers about President Museveni of Uganda, who was harangued — there was a demonstration against his presence in the U.S. Hotels in Texas would refuse him admission; they wouldn’t want him to stay in the hotel. Some of these countries are obsessed in determining. … They say that homosexuality is un-African. My argument is, homosexuality is a human self-expression, and it is in Africa as it is in the Middle East, in Saudi Arabia, in Morocco, everywhere else. And yet people are in continuous denial. …

That’s how it all started, in fact. It’s the usual thing: It’ll be controversial, and then someone will say, “Oh, Nuruddin Farah — he lives somewhere else.” I’m saying that, as a young man, I knew homosexuals in the village and town where I grew up. But people would deny that. They would say, “It’s un-African.” And I’m saying, no, it is human. To be gay is human.

Inasmuch as it is wonderful to meet people, books are a lot more interesting than people.

— Nuruddin Farah


A lot of your work falls into trilogies. Is the next novel you’re working on a thematic follow-up to this one?


It is very possible, but I may take one paragraph from this novel and work it into an entire novel. The characters may be new, but the characters will share a great deal of similarities with the characters in this novel. It may not necessarily revolve around sexuality. It may take us to another theme which is related to this. Religion is one; quite often, people quote the Quran or the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita, they have a religious side. The new novel may contain a lot of that — looking at life through a theological point of view. It may. As I said, I haven’t finished the entire novel. I’m working on it.


What books do you admire? Did they influence this book at all?


For much of the time, I live by myself amongst books. Books are my friends, my companions. As I said to you, the characters sit at my table and have dinner with me when I am by myself, and sometimes even in company. When one writes one’s first novel, one can actually be truthful, and one may write as much as one knows about the life one is writing about. But the more books you write, the more you start a dialogue with other writers — other writers from the past, other writers from the present, one’s own friends’ books, books one didn’t like. This continuous dialogue takes me to other books. Inasmuch as it is wonderful to meet people, books are a lot more interesting than people.

This piece was originally published Oct. 30, 2014, and updated as of Nov. 14, 2014.

A Republican Renaissance in New York

American flag in foreground with people being seen through it

Come Nov. 4, Republicans’ New York nightmare may finally be over.

That’s what the GOP is hoping, anyway, and this time it’s not just hope. For the first time since 2004, Republicans could once again rule in upstate New York — something they couldn’t manage even during the tea party sweep that gave Republicans the House of Representatives in 2010. Republicans could also potentially take the New York Senate, thanks in large part to their strength upstate. Now, it could well be a one-election blip, especially if a popular Democratic presidential nominee like Hillary Clinton lands on the ballot in 2016. But it could also signal a return to form for the region, which has been known for turning out a vanishing breed: GOP moderates.

Of course, upstate New York has always had an identity distinct from — even defined in opposition to — New York City. The largely pastoral region stretches from Niagara Falls and the shores of Lake Erie to the green peaks of the Adirondack Mountains and down the Hudson River Valley. On issues such as gun rights, taxes and government spending, upstate voters swing rightward — “always more Republican than the rest of the state,” observes Bruce Altschuler, professor emeritus of political science at the State University of New York at Oswego, via email. And moderate Republicans have historically done well there. As late as 2004, Republicans won seven of the 11 upstate congressional seats (that number is now 10 because of redistricting).

Here’s the thing about hitting rock bottom: There’s no place to go but up.

But five years later, they were down to one. That’s when businessman Bill Owens, a Democrat, won a special election for Republican Rep. John McHugh’s House seat. (He was snapped up to be secretary of the Army.) What happened? Bush backlash in 2006, for starters — and then, in 2008, a guy named Barack Obama.

From there, Republicans compounded their problems. Three upstate House seats became vacant between 2009 and 2011, thanks to appointments in the new Obama administration, including McHugh’s, and a resignation — married Republican Chris Lee, who turned up in shirtless photos he’d been sending to Craigslist singles. The GOP was favored to win all three special elections. But thanks to lackluster campaigning, underwhelming candidates and internal party squabbles, Democrats snared victories in each of them. Call it Republicans’ New York nadir.

At this point in time, it looks like a Republican ascendancy.

But here’s the thing about hitting rock bottom: There’s no place to go but up. And little by little, Empire State Republicans have been getting their act together, building the foundations for what could be the ultimate redemption this fall. Of the seven districts in upstate New York that were competitive in the past two election cycles, Republicans have comfortable leads in four, hold a small edge in one and are within striking distance of ousting two Democratic incumbents in the others. “There’s a chance that they could run that table,” says Don Levy, director of the Siena College Research Institute, which conducts political polls in New York. And though Levy cautions that much may have changed since the last Siena polls from upstate, conducted in September, “at this point in time, it looks like a Republican ascendancy.”

The two parties’ behavior suggests as much: The Republicans are getting more aggressive while Democrats are just trying to shore up their incumbents. In two districts, the 21st and 23rd, Dems have simply stopped buying ads on behalf of their candidates — giving up, essentially. They’re instead buying airtime to defend freshman Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney in the 18th District. Republicans, meanwhile, are sending the big guns upstate to campaign for their candidates, including Elise Stefanik, a 30-year-old former Bush staffer, and John Katko, who suddenly looks like a real threat to incumbent Democrat Dan Maffei.

State and national trends are working in Republicans’ favor. According to Altschuler, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has grown increasingly unpopular, in part because of his support for the SAFE Act, a 2013 gun control bill that bans the sale of high-capacity magazines and created a registry for assault weapons. It was passed in response to the Sandy Hook school massacre. And this time around, Obama is a drag, not a boost, for Dems — despite the fact that Democrats outnumber Republicans by 2-to-1 In the state. “If you took New York City out of the equation, then [Obama’s] numbers are negative,” notes Levy. 

New York Republicans have also gotten their own house in order. This election season they’re more united — and they seem to have learned their lesson about nominating candidates who are too conservative for their district. In 2010, the GOP backed some people who were “a little too tea party­-esque,” for the region, says Levy. A few won only to be dumped two years later, with the presidential race attracting higher Democratic turnout.

Rep. Chris Gibson, the former army colonel and Cornell grad who represents a largely rural district north of Poughkeepsie.

Rep. Chris Gibson represents a largely rural district north of Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Those with staying power are more like Rep. Chris Gibson, the former army colonel and Cornell grad who represents a largely rural district north of Poughkeepsie. He’s crossed the aisle to work with Democrats on policies dealing with veterans affairs and agriculture. In 2013, the National Journal labeled him “the most liberal House Republican.” Or like McHugh, the Republican representative turned Obama Army secretary.

Which is why New York’s Republican resurgence, nascent and precarious as it is, may be a boon for others: those who lament the loss of the middle in American politics. The moderates? They’re all upstate.