Tag Archives: gambling

Congratulations to 2022 Macarthur Fellows; Focus on Kiese Laymon

Debbie says:

Congratulations to all the 2022 Macarthur Fellows announced this morning.  If you don’t follow the Macarthur Fellowships (also known as “genius grants”), they go to people in a wide variety of fields of interest. The criteria are:

  1. Exceptional creativity
  2. Promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishments
  3. Potential for the Fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.

In Laurie’s and my world, a few extraordinary science fiction writers, including Octavia Butler and Kelly Link have been awarded fellowships, as have many other people whose work we admire.

Each Fellow receives $800,000 in unrestricted funds, paid out in equal quarterly installments over five years. In other words, this is the chance to use the next five years to do what they think is most important and most valuable without worrying about income.

The  annual list is always inspiring, exciting, and (for me at least) a test of what I’ve been paying attention to.  This year I’m aware of three of them (usually it’s more like five), and I’m especially excited about one of them. I reviewed Kiese Laymon‘s book, Heavy, in July of 2021, and this seemed like a great day to reprint that review.


cover of Heavy, all text

Kiese Laymon published Heavy: An American Memoir in 2018, but I only got to it last month. Fair warning: this book is not for the faint of heart. Laymon is trying just as hard as an author can to tell the whole truth as he sees it, to pull no punches, to let no one off the hook: not himself, not his mother (the book is framed as a letter to her), not the other people in his life, and most certainly not the white world which is ultimately responsible for most if not all of the miseries he recounts. Not that the book is all misery–it is much too rich for that.

The title of the book tells us right away why I would review it here. Laymon experienced himself as fat from early childhood. He describes teenage eating as self-medication, a deep fear of what the scale would say, a dislike to be seen other than fully clothed. These feelings are familiar to most fat people, and yet this book (along with Roxane Gay’s Hunger, which I reviewed here in 2018) never fail to remind us that being fat is different in a Black body than in a white body. (Gay is quoted on the front cover of Laymon’s book.)  Fat bodies are frequently singled out for oppression; Black bodies in America are effectively always in danger of being oppressed. One way to frame this book is as an example of intersectional oppression–and an example of a strong man’s complex and rich response to the world’s desire to keep him down.

When I imagined the insides of rich-white-folk houses, I imagined stealing all their food while they were asleep. I wanted to gobble up palms full of Crunch ‘n Munch and fill up their thirty-two-ounce glasses with name-brand ginger ale and crushed ice tumbling out of their silver refrigerators. I wanted to leave the empty glasses and Crunch ‘n Munch crumbs on the counter so the white folk would know I had been there and they’d have something to clean up when I left.

Laymon was always fat … until he shifted from eating to obsessive exercise, and to anorexia as self-medication. To echo one of the book’s common refrains, he ate and ate and ate and ate until he didn’t. And when he didn’t, he stopped eating dramatically and exercised unceasingly, with eventual tragic results to his Black body.

I will forget how the insides of my thighs feel when rubbed raw. I will play on the basketball team. I will think 190 pounds is too heavy so I will jog three miles before every practice and game. I will sit in saunas for hours draped in thermals, sweatpants, and sweatshirts. I will make a family of people who cannot believe I was ever heavy. I will become a handsome, fine, together brother with lots of secrets. I will realize there is no limit to the amount of harm handsome, fine, together brothers with lots of secrets can do.

His relationship with his body is not the only relationship in the book; it may not even be the most central one. His relationship with his mother encapsulates the complexities of the book: love, admiration, fear, shame, disgust and appreciation are all there all the time–and we come away with a picture of a woman about whom all of those feelings make sense, and we understand how he can hold them all simultaneously.

In this simplified arc of author-in-a-fat-body, author-in-an-anorexic-over-exercising-body, the third portion is author-in-a-gambling-body.  The gambling narrative illuminates many of the previously opaque issues his mother was having, and is as raw and insightful as the rest of the book.

I kept coming back to the casino because I felt emptier and heavier when I lost than when I won. I couldn’t win, because if I didn’t have enough to begin with, I could never win enough to stop. And if I won, I came back to win more. And if I came back to win more, I would eventually lose. And after I eventually lost, I would remember the thrill of winning. No matter what, I would always come back with the stated intention of winning and the unstated intention of harming myself.

Throughout his own self-examined journey, Laymon never fails to talk about who his friends and lovers were, what his life with them was like, and how much he loves them. With the keen eye of the observant lover, he brings them to life on the page. He also came very early to a realization of how women are treated, and a gut-level unwillingness to be part of that pattern … and the ways in which his refusal also made him a participant. He never lets us forget for a moment that we are all complicit, all the time, and that there are very few paths to escape complicity.

Books like Heavy and Hunger show us something that no theoretical books–about race, about fat oppression, about human pain–can ever convey. Laymon is incomprehensibly generous to let strangers so far into his own life, a journey no reader can or should come back from unscathed.

The work of bending, breaking, and building the nation we deserve will not start or end with you or me, but that work will necessitate loving black family, however oddly shaped, however many queer, trans, cis, and gender-nonconforming mamas, daddies, aunties, comrades, nieces, nephews, granddaddies and grandmamas–learning how to talk, listen, organize, imagine, strategize, and fight fight fight for and with black children.


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It’s Horse Abuse, but We Call It “Sport”


Debbie says:

The world is buzzing with the results of Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. Maximum Security, a horse that only became the favorite within a day or so before the Derby, was disqualified at the finish line for crossing outside of his lane and endangering other horses and jockeys. The decision is wildly controversial, with appeals flying, lawsuits threatened, and even 45th weighing in against the decision to disqualify. Sports books and betting sites are among the big winners: they stood to lose substantial amounts if the favorite won, and can rest easy paying out the few people who bet on Country House at 65:1 odds.

Why would I talk about this in Body Impolitic? Because I found Sally Jenkins’ piece for the Washington Post, “Forget Maximum Security’s Misstep: The Whole of Horse Racing Is a Foul.” Jenkins, by the way, believes the officials at the Derby finish line made the right call — once you accept all the premises she questions:

A foul? They called a foul because Maximum Security with Luis Saez aboard swerved out of his “lane”? “He’s a baby,” Saez said rightly of his horse. Where, pray tell, was the discernible lane in all that muck and rain and screaming and flogging and young animal surging? Where is the “lane” in a sport beset by medication overuse and purse structures that incentivize racing horses even when they are hurt, in which the jockeys whip-beat their horses to the finish on a clearly unsafe wet surface the substance of farina?

This isn’t a sport; it’s a fancied-up vice. Horse people counted on the excitement of the Derby to obscure the fact that 23 horses died at Santa Anita this winter, and Churchill Downs, too, is one of the deadliest tracks in America. All you could think, during the long 22 minutes that the stewards took to review the film, as the walkers led the steaming, mud-caked contestants in cool-down circles while great plumed exhalations came from their nostrils, was, “I don’t give a damn who won; somebody just please get these horses out of the mud, and check their legs, and dry their coats, and give them something to drink.”

For all the indignities and mistreatment foisted on human athletes, at least (most) humans have the chance to walk away, to say “This isn’t worth it.” A human held on the sidelines while the judges waffle can at least scream at the judges, and might even be able to throw up her hands and head for the locker room. But a horse is at the mercy of humans–and the humans (no surprise!) care more about who won than whether the horses are taken care of in the moment.

But why would we care for horses in the moment when we don’t care for them in the long term?

Some tracks hurt horses more than others, Churchill Downs is one of them, and everybody in this beautiful-turned-rotten game knows it.

As far as chance and luck go, Churchill Downs is just lucky it doesn’t have a horror on its hands. …  As veteran Louisville Courier-Journal journalist Tim Sullivan has pointed out, 43 thoroughbreds have died of race-related injuries at Churchill Downs since 2016, a rate of 2.42 per 1,000 starts, which is 50 percent higher than the national average. Yet not until two weeks ago, amid scrutiny of its track record in the wake of the Santa Anita debacle, did Churchill Downs move to institute any common-sense reforms. It will install an equine medical center and surveillance cameras in barns and advocate for medication reform. That’s a start.

Jenkins clearly loves horse racing, and loves horses. And she sounds like she’s coming to the conclusion that if she wants to continue loving horses, she has to stop loving horse racing.

We see this story everywhere we turn: the human children at the U.S./Mexico border, or drinking water in Flint, Michigan; the racing greyhounds; the hordes of near-starving feral cats domesticated and then abandoned in cities all over the world; the ever-growing number of extinct or near-extinct species.

I don’t know any way to talk about this without cliché, but this one, like so many clichés, is a truth that needs to be universally acknowledged. We are all connected; we rely on each other. To respect and value variety and comfort in human bodies is to respect and value variety and comfort in animal bodies. And to monetize and commoditize bodies is to demean us all.

The only Kentucky Derby result anyone should be happy about is that the horses made it safely back to the barns — this time.