Snakes, unfathomable emergencies and invisible nuns

“In one wicked motion, the head whips around, the mouth opens wide ad the teeth sink into the flesh between Steve Daskam’s thumb and index finger. Daskam shrieks and squeezes the back of the snake’s head with his other hand to force the slitherer to withdraw its fangs before the rest of us can quite compute what has happened, our flashlights spinning like circus spotlights trying to focus. Ignoring the oozing blood and what ever stinging pain he endures, Daskam uses his bleeding hand to regrip the hissing 11-foot-Burmese python and shove it into a teal pillowcase. Then he starts to laugh.”

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I defy anybody not to want to continue reading this story, which runs in the May issue of Hemispheres. It’s about diesel mechanic Daskam and his friend, high-school teacher Devin Belliston, and their hobby hunting pythons in the Florida Everglades. Not only is this legal but it’s actually encouraged by the authorities because the reptiles are an invasive species that has been wrecking havoc on the delicate local swampy ecosystem through the strangling and swallowing of small mammals and other indigenous critters. It does what the best stories do, which is to immerse the reader in a whole other totally engrossing world they previously knew nothing about. You can read the rest of the piece by clicking on the pages below.

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There’s another great piece of writing in this issue but of a very different kind in Boyd Farrow’s travel essay ‘Modern Inconveniences’. Boyd used to edit CNBC European Business magazine for Ink where he’s remembered as a pugnacious grouch and it’s great that he hasn’t mellowed any:

“By my reckoning, there has not been a single positive technological innovation in hotels since the introduction of the passenger elevator in the mid 19th-century. All the same, hotels have insisted on introducing a succession of useless gadgets, ranging from the trouser press to the bathroom telephone. A phone in the WC? What kind of emergency are they envisaging?”

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Also this issue, changes in the magazine’s tent-pole cover feature Three Perfect Days.

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Not only has the design been upgraded, the presentation of the story has switched from second-person narrative (“Your destination is the red-dirt hills of southwestern Guam…”) to first-person, which allows this issue’s traveller Chris Wright to fully indulge himself:

“A highlight of the tour is a 17th-century convent that supports itself by making and selling cookies – commerce that’s complicated by the fact that the nuns must never be seen by non-nuns. I wander the hallways in search of a nun-run cookie shop, then come a cross a murky little room with a hole in the wall, inside of which stands a circular wooden contraption. It spins and a box appears. I put 10 euros down and it spins again. “Receipt!” I shout into the hole.”

It’s like the inflight version of The New Yorker. (Posted by AndrewH)

Spy games

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Ever wanted to have a sack placed over your head and duct-taped tight by a stranger in a hotel room. Some people pay top money for the experience. Kinky? No, it’s part of a so-called Urban Escape and Evasion course, a training programme whose clients have included Navy SEALS and special ops forces, as well as regular folks like the journalist the Hemispheres editorial team sent along to attend two days of instruction before being kidnapped and then hunted as he made his way on foot across Los Angeles. Read the story here. (Posted by AndrewH)

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The Dead Rodents Society

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A couple of month’s back I posted how much I enjoyed reading the Dispatches section of Hemispheres, the magazine Ink produces for United Airlines (here). Well, here’s a really good Dispatch that’s coming up in a future issue.

The Dead Rodents Society
Creating dioramas out of mouse cadavers isn’t as cute as it sounds
By Chris Wright

Oscar the mouse is in poor shape. To be fair, he didn’t look great when we started out, but now he’s a mess. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time snipping, scooping, peeling and tweezing the deceased animal (and inadvertently mangling and de-furring him) in an effort to create a piece of taxidermy art. What I’ve got is an extra from a Tim Burton film.

There are a dozen of us working on white rodents on a long table at Boxpark, a pop-up mall in London’s hip Shoreditch neighborhood, one of the venues for a series of workshops run by a local taxidermist named Margot Magpie. Magpie currently hosts two classes a week, but demand has been so high she’s about to introduce more, some of them involving larger animals like squirrels and rabbits.

“I think people enjoy the hands-on aspect of it—we don’t have that today, with all the digital stuff,” says the former medical history student, explaining why her sessions have been consistently over-subscribed since she started them almost two years ago. “Also, I just think people are really interested in dealing with something that’s dead.”

Then there’s the fact that this is billed as an anthropomorphic taxidermy class, meaning we get to make our mice do human-y things like play tennis or read the paper. As one of tonight’s students puts it after spending a couple of hours knuckle-deep in viscera: “I thought we’d be spending more time making them into cute little shapes!”

“Cute” isn’t the right word. Taxidermy turns out to be messy, fiddly and fraught with the potential for minor disasters. “I’ve lost his face!” shouts one student. “It’s a monster!” cries another. But, when we’re done, most people seem happy with their creations. “Look!” says a guy who has put a little broom in the hands of his mouse. “He’s sweeping up his own entrails!”

This is probably the best bit of mouse art tonight, but it’s not the best ever. One student, Magpie says, went on to create a mouse circus. “Another one I liked,” she adds, “was a mouse painting a picture of a cat.” On our table, meanwhile, there’s an animal that’s even more grossly misshapen than Oscar. “What are you going to do with him?” someone asks the would-be taxidermist. “Mother’s day?” he responds.

Very mice

Above, Chris’s finished piece – pending its listing on eBay. (Posted by AndrewH)

Dispatches from the Hemispheres

We’ve got a guy here on the editorial floor of Ink’s London office who’s a source of great amusement for his colleagues, as well as some confusion. Anyone who sits within hearing distance – and that’s plenty of us – gets to overhear a life played out in one-sided phonecalls that are by turns comical (the conversations with his four-year-old daughter when he speaks in the voice of Mr Dinosaur), achingly funny (like when he’s explaining to a writer why the story they’ve just filed is unpublishable) and outright hilarious (his retelling of how he locked himself out on a balcony in his underwear with his daughter who quickly became desperate to go to the toilet). The confusion is because lots of people don’t know what Chris Wright does.

That comes about as a result of him not working on a London-based magazine. His magazine is Hemispheres, a class publication that Ink actually puts together in its New York office. As executive editor, it’s Chris’s job to remind the rest of the editorial team on the other side of the Atlantic that there is a whole world out there beyond the shores of America.

He is also specifically responsible for putting together the magazine’s Dispatches section; this takes the form of a bunch of short stories filed from around the globe that suggest that wherever it is you’re heading, it’s all a lot quirkier than you think. Some of these are no more than groan-worthy shaggy-dog stories or extended jokes, but others are almost profound. They are all reliably finely honed pieces of writing and all represent a very Chris Wright outlook on life. If you’re not lucky enough to be listening in on his phonecalls, then reading Hemisphere‘s archived Dispatches online is the next best thing.

Try this one:

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Author Cain Nunns Illustration Peter Oumanski

SHANGHAI – Barely five feet tall, hobbled by an old industrial accident and decked out in an ill-fitting navy blue Mao jacket, 74-year-old Zhang Ying doesn’t look like a trainer of prizefighters. But appearances can be deceiving. The Shanghai native has produced hundreds of champions over a career that has spanned six decades.

When Zhang ducks into a doorway on a side street at the edge of Shanghai’s commercial district, his presence hushes the crowd inside, which has gathered to witness a favorite bloodsport in this region of China. At the periphery, stewards collect fistfuls of yuan. Bets at underground matches like these routinely run into the thousands of dollars.

The smart money is on Zhang’s fighter, Yellow Dragon, who has won 15 bouts in a row.

It could be the result of the fish diet Zhang’s been feeding him, or the brutal workout regimen, but the champion is much broader than his opponent. There are whispers that Zhang’s also got him hopped up on some kind of herbal tea concoction.

Yellow Dragon, who stands about an inch high, is one of the stars (known as qu qu) of cricket fighting, a tradition that was once the domain of the gilded set but which is now played out in insect markets, like this one, across Shanghai. Each fight lasts no longer than 10 seconds or so, but in that time the crowd can be whipped into a fury of screeching and finger-pointing as combatants execute supposed kung fu maneuvers.

Zhang’s cricket is released from his bamboo cage, and the two foes eye each other warily across the Formica-topped table. The Dragon, however, hasn’t built his reputation by playing coy. Within seconds he is a blur of hurricane aggression and snapping limbs. Outmatched and outgunned, his opponent scurries back to the far side of the ring. He’s had enough.

“Pathetic,” spits one onlooker in disgust.

Zhang barely responds to the victory. He has seen it all, from the banning of the bourgeois sport during the Cultural Revolution, to intermittent police crackdowns on gambling, to its recent resurgence and the establishment of pro leagues across the Middle Kingdom. Few crickets would be a match for the Dragon, who, having dispatched another victim, continues his march to immortality.

“Don’t count on it,” Zhang sniffs. “Crickets don’t live very long. He’ll be dead within a month.”

Here’s a couple more recent good ones:

War Games
Once a training tool for budding Cold Warriors, Soviet video games are attracting a new breed of player. By Robin Cherry, from June 2013

Altitude adjustment
The comic potential of topographical confusion. By James Dorsey, from Nov 2013

(Posted by AndrewH)

On the nuclear trail

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As the bus takes us to the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, which holds some of the most powerful weaponry in human history, we are required to show identification and to sign a form acknowledging that we may undergo additional security screening. I’m standing behind a beefy, heavily belt-buckled man in his 60s from Buffalo, New York. He was a US Air Force pilot stationed in West Berlin from 1969 to ’71. As he leans on his cane, he reminisces about his tour of duty with our guide, Bob Ratledge, himself a 74-year-old former Air Force pilot.

“They fired at us just to let us know they were there, and we shot back for the same reason,” says the guy from Buffalo, recalling his time spent flying American spies over the Berlin Wall. “Of course, we always had the nuclear stuff in the back of our minds,” he adds with a chuckle.

Pick up the September issue of Hemispheres for a superb story on the newest boom in the US travel industry – tours of the atomic weapons sites of the American Southwest, written by Salon columnist and author David Sirota with spooky photography by Bryon Darby. Alternatively, read it online here. (Posted by AndrewH)

The cableway connecting the missile complex to the launch duct.

The modest crew quarters on level 1 of the control center.

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The Time Is Right

Working months in advance, it’s near impossible to time a magazine story to the daily news. Will your cover actor win the Oscar they are nominated for? Or will the glowing story about your cover athlete be tainted by their arrest days before your issue hits?

But, when it goes right, and serendipity is on your side, it’s a wonderful feeling.

This month’s Hemispheres has a great profile about the brand that is race car driver Danica Patrick, who became the first female to win pole at the Daytona 500 this past weekend. Check it out here.

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-Orion Ray-Jones

Pop-up Action Part 2: A challenge from across the pond

En garde, Mr Humphreys. Time for a little Transatlantic Ink duel!

I take your Gulf Air Thomas Allen illustration and raise you a feature from Go and a book review from  Hemispheres.

Readers, whatcha think? Have the Brits or Yanks made the best use of Allen’s talents?

http://www.airtranmagazine.com/features/2010/02/the-life-and-times-of-independent-bookstores

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http://www.hemispheresmagazine.com/2009/11/01/austens-powers/

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-Orion Ray-Jones