Interview: ‘Poor Teeth’ Writer Sarah Smarsh on Class and Journalism

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Originally posted on Longreads Blog:

Julia Wick | Longreads | November 7, 2014 | 11 minutes (2,674 words)

“I am bone of the bone of them that live in trailer homes.” That’s the first line of Sarah Smarsh’s essay “Poor Teeth,” which appeared on Aeon earlier this month. Like much of Smarsh’s work, “Poor Teeth” is a story about inequity in America. It is also a story about teeth, hers and her grandmother’s and also the millions of Americans who lack dental coverage.

Smarsh has written for Harper’s, Guernica and The Morning News, among other outlets. Her perspective is very much shaped by her personal experiences: She grew up in a family where most didn’t graduate from high school, and she later chaired the faculty-staff Diversity Initiative as a professor at Washburn University in Topeka. I spoke with her about her own path to journalism and how the media cover issues of class. 

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I Left My Knife in San Francisco


I’ve flown since I was seven years old. That’s when my mom packed up us little ones — my two younger brothers and I — and took us to this magical, faraway place known as Dallas, Texas. Since then, I’ve flown on airlines no longer in existence (Texas International. Pan Am. Braniff. TWA. Northwest Orient, which still exists as Northwest Airlines but I miss the old name.) and airlines that are barely hanging on to its assets and reputation (Malaysia Airlines). I’ve flown by myself as a wee one — from Manila to Dallas when I was nine — and with a big group — my JET Programme colleagues in 1994.

I’ve gotten lost in airports (DFW, my own home airport) and even in airplanes (I exited a lavatory and turned down the wrong aisle when I was seven; I still remember the panic). I’ve sat at the very back of a plane during long-haul flights and have also had the blissful pleasure of experiencing First Class and Business Class. I’ve thrown up in planes, suffered through horrible, ear-splitting colds on planes, and even had a total stranger nearly propose to me on a plane. (Long story that has to do with some pretty awful turbulence.)

So yeah, I consider myself a fairly seasoned traveler.

And yet, despite all that experience, all those years of navigating the world through its best and worst airports, all those thousands of hours sitting in giant metal tubes waiting to be hurtled across time and space, I somehow still manage to stumble and make what can only be called rookie mistakes.

I’ve missed flights after misreading departure times. I’ve overpacked and have had to frantically repack suitcases on the floor in front of the ticketing agent. I’ve forgotten to call and confirm my return international flights and thus have lost those reservations. I’ve just barely made it to the gate after oversleeping. (This was back when you could show up at the gate just as they’re closing the doors and still be allowed on the plane.)

And yep, I’ve packed forbidden objects in my carry-on bags and have had to surrender them at security.

The last time this happened was last week, in fact. I like packing things the night before my departure so that I can be ready to go the next morning, but there’s always something that you have to leave for the last minute: your facial wash, toothbrush, toothpaste, maybe shampoo if you’re going to shower the next morning.

Last Thursday morning was no different, but I was prepared. I had everything packed up and ready to go by the time my shuttle arrived at 5am sharp. This, despite the fact that I had a hotel roommate who didn’t have to leave until the next day, so I was doing all of my last-minute packing and morning ablutions in near-darkness, helped only by the ghoulish light from my smartphone.

Still, I was quite smug when I showed up at SFO Terminal 2, wielding my TSA Pre-check boarding pass, all ready to breeze through security. It didn’t faze me at all when the TSA agent flagged my little backpack for further inspection because, hey, I still got to keep my shoes and jacket on and didn’t have to pull out my laptop. A routine bag check was nothing, and I was still 2 hours early for my flight anyway.

“You have a knife in here,” the TSA agent said as she led me to a corner desk.

It took me a moment to process that gentle accusation, so kindly delivered that I had to pause and register that it was something that could prevent me from continuing on my merry way towards the nearest coffee shop.

A knife? In my bag? What the …?

And then I remembered. The lovely Swiss Army knife that my husband had given me for my birthday, one that I’d wanted for years since I’d lost my last one at the Austin airport — you guessed it — the last time I accidentally left it in my carry-on. That time I had no recourse, and I had to rush to catch my plane, so I helplessly had to surrender that beloved knife, a knife that had saved me more times than I could count on numerous backpacking trips across several continents. A knife that I had stolen borrowed from my ex-boyfriend after we broke up, and one that proudly sported a little scorch mark after I accidentally left a mosquito coil burning a tad too long in an insect-infested youth hostel in rural India.

This time, however, I’d left plenty of time. The TSA agent rummaged through my bag and found the offending knife, hidden deep in a front pocket, and offered to escort me back to the front, unsecured area so that I could mail my knife back home.

If nothing else, I could tweet that I was “escorted by TSA out of security.” There is that.

I’ve been told by the very sympathetic TSA agent (is that an oxymoron?) that the mailing process is a “slow boat to China.” I don’t really care if it takes six months as long as I get it back. I still remember that sinking feeling of dread after that plastic baggie with the mailing form and the shiny, heavy pocketknife slipped out of my hands and into the mailing slot. It only took me a few minutes to get back through security again and into the safety of the gate area, but it took me far longer to get over the nagging feeling that I was missing an important part of me.


The fallacy of timesaving apps: They don’t save you much time

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Originally posted on Fortune:

The universe has exploded with apps. There are over 1 million available for Apple [fortune-stock symbol="AAPL"] products and for Android devices: recipe apps, fitness apps, productivity apps, shopping apps. Many claim they will streamline your life and save that most precious commodity: time.

But will they? Can they?

“So many people are over-busy and overwhelmed. We’re looking for things outside of ourselves to ease our burden,” says Ali Davies, a Vancouver-based personal effectiveness coach who works with clients on time management issues. She almost never recommends a productivity app to a client. In fact, she often recommends the opposite, for several reasons.

First, because there are so many of them, many apps focus on something very specific. “There are no barriers to entry,” says Bob O’Donnell, who studies the technology marketplace as founder and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research. To make a viable product in a crowded eco-system, a developer…

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Seriously? This Is What Passes for Feminism in America


Originally posted on TIME:

On Tuesday, I listened to Malala Yousafzai speak at the Forbes Under 30 Summit on her work fighting for girls’ education. Malala was shot in the head on October 9, 2012, by the Taliban for her outspoken views. She survived. But many girls don’t.

She has become a public figure, fighting for education for girls. Appropriately, she learned that she won the Nobel Peace Prize this year while in class. Her courage and grace are inspiring.

Today, I returned home to the so-called “war on women” in America. The latest antic? Apparel company FCKH8 posted a video of young girls dressed as princesses using the F-word and gesturing with their middle fingers to try to bring attention to sexism. It’s uncomfortable to watch—not in the sense that it causes viewers to rethink long-held beliefs, but because it’s a cheap ploy. Toward the end, two adults appear hawking “This is what…

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A really great way to spend a Saturday



It’s the last weekend of the State Fair of Texas, and little Wednesday – a pitbull mix pup of about a year old that B. found at the train station one day – spent most of today hanging out at the DFW Rescue Me adoption booth behind the Chevy building.

I never knew how much love I could give to anyone, let alone a dog I only met a few months ago. But Wednesday has that way of stealing your heart and never letting go.