Maddie worked as a travel guide in Argentina and a teacher at several educational nonprofits in San Francisco before joining Mother Jones. She’s also written for Outside, the Bay Citizen, and the Rumpus. She manages Mother Jones' Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program.
THE NOVELIST DANIEL HANDLER is bobbing ahead of me in the cold bay water at San Francisco's Aquatic Park. His head, swathed in a red cap, resembles a maraschino cherry, and I struggle to keep up as the current presses me back toward land. "They told me to wear a swim cap so I wouldn't be mistaken for a seal," he explains. "So I was always wearing it, but then I wondered, 'What happens if I get mistaken for a seal? What then?'"
The "Balclutha" docked in Aquatic Park Maddie Oatman
Handler, 44, is best known for his Lemony Snicket kids' books, but his latest novel, the gruesome and delightful We Are Pirates, isn't so child-friendly. We'd arranged to meet here at the Dolphin Club, where he swims three or four mornings a week in the presence of historic tall ships such as the mighty Balclutha. Swimming makes him feel free, he says. It lets him shake off his celebrity and escape urban life for a bit.
Gwen, Handler's 14-year-old protagonist, also yearns to slip away. She's an awkward kid from SF's hypersafe Embarcadero neighborhood, grounded for pilfering makeup and a porn mag from the drugstore. Aided by her friends and a demented old man spewing pirate lore, she steals a boat and sets out for high adventure on the bay. As the dazzle of piracy darkens, Gwen's father, a dweebish radio producer, tries to bring her back to safety. Without skimping on talking parrots, Handler's novel touches on the nature of modern surveillance and the forces that compel us to reckless acts.
Not so fast. It turns out New Year's Day is the deadliest day to hoof it home, according to a 2005 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that looked at every pedestrian death from traffic collisions between 1986 and 2002. Nearly half of the fatal accidents that occurred on a January 1 took place between midnight and 6 a.m. And on an even more sobering note, 58 percent of pedestrians who died that day were legally drunk, according to their blood alcohol levels at time of death.
But maybe people have gotten way better at ambulating under the influence since 2002? I asked the IIHS to crunch the most recent data available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Turns out, not much has changed. Between 2008 and 2012, more pedestrians died in traffic crashes on New Year's Day (and Halloween) than on other days of the year. IIHS also found that 59 percent of pedestrians killed on New Year's Day were drunk, compared to 34 percent of pedestrians in fatal crashes every other day of the year.
There's no mystery here: Drunk walkers are much more likely to engage in risky behavior like crossing against a sign, jaywalking, or lying down in the roadway, says Dan Gelinne, a researcher at University of North Carolina's Highway Safety Research Center. "Intoxicated pedestrians frequently cannot fulfill the perceptual, cognitive, and physical skills required to cross safely in the complex traffic patterns seen in most urban cities," wrote New York University School of Medicine researchers in a 2012 review paper in the journal Trauma.
Of course, NYE teetotalers still have drunk drivers to contend with. In nearly half of the traffic crashes that killed pedestrians in 2012, the driver or the walker (or both) had consumed alcohol, according to the NHTSA. But get this: Pedestrians in these crashes were more than twice as likely as drivers to have had a blood alcohol level greater or equal to 0.08 grams/deciliter, or above the legal driving limit—34 percent of walkers versus 14 percent of the drivers.
"Watching a sporting event on TV, you're bound to see at least one ad reminding people not to drive after drinking," says Gelinne. "The risks associated with drinking and walking aren't as clear to the average person." Freakonomics author Steven Levitt compared the risks of drunk driving versus drunk walking in his 2011 book SuperFreakonomics. "You find that on a per-mile basis," he writes, "a drunk walker is eight times more likely to get killed than a drunk driver."
If you're lucky enough to survive the impact, healing from wounds becomes trickier when you have booze in your system. "Alcohol impairs the ability to fight infections, repair wounds, and recover from injuries," says Elizabeth Kovacs, the Director of the Alcohol Research Program at Loyola University's Stritch School of Medicine. Alcohol impairs the white blood cells responsible for clearing out debris and "eating garbage" on skin wounds, she says.
"Alcohol impairs the ability to fight infections, repair wounds, and recover from injuries."
If you do miss the last train home and walking becomes unavoidable, try to remember these tips from a trauma surgeon: Don't wear dark colors, stay out of the road as much as possible, and walk in a group (ideally with some sober folks sprinkled in).
Better street lighting and lower speed limits near popular hangouts would help too, says Gelinne, along with campaigns encouraging bartenders to cut the taps when solo customers start getting sloppy. In San Francisco, the Vision Zero campaign aims to eliminate all traffic deaths by 2024 by restructuring high-risk roadways and lowering speed limits. Los Angeles and New York have taken similar measures, thanks in part to $1.6 million in grants to promote pedestrian safety from the US Department of Transportation. IIHS's Russ Rader points to new car technology like Subaru's EyeSight camera system, which automatically hits the brakes if it thinks there's a pedestrian in your path, as a good step forward, though a tiny fraction of cars are currently equipped with these features.
Bottom line: As you ring in 2015, if you can't call a cab or squeeze onto the subway, your best option is to grab a pillow and stay put. Or reconsider your choice of merriment-enhancement for the night. As it happens, the safest day of the year to walk down the street is 4/20. Make of this what you will.
For an end-of-year playlist, I was tempted to focus on the glittering dance tracks, hip hop ballads, and crashing rock numbers that propelled 2014's late-night bar crawls and caffeinated road-trips. Much of the past year's standout music packed momentum and pizzazz; new songs by TV on the Radio, Spoon, Taylor Swift, Run the Jewels, the Black Keys, and St. Vincent come to mind.
But for when you're at home during the grayest and shortest days of the year, none of that will do. Here's a playlist for afternoons spent hibernating in sweatpants and flipping through photo albums while the snow piles up outside. The best introverted music of 2014. Songs that pair well with nostalgia, daydreaming, the settling feeling of having nowhere to go but the kitchen for more tea. In the words of Axl Rose (as quoted on featured band Luluc's website): "Said woman, take it slow and things will be just fine."
You can also listen to the playlist nonstop via Spotify (embedded at the bottom).
1. The Barr Brothers, "Love Ain't Enough"
This playful and eclectic Montreal-based group experiments with obscure instruments like the African ngoni, dabbles in Delta-inspired blues, and knows how to really bang it out during live shows. But this tender track, with Sarah Page's hypnotic harp and front man Brad Barr's ragged voice laid out bare, is a clear standout on the band's new album Sleeping Operator.
2. Brandi Carlile, "The Eye"
This song is steeped in regret and remembrance, and it rings with simple and assured harmonies. Singer-songwriter Carlile's forthcoming album The Firewatcher's Daughter is set to land March 3, 2015. "Vulnerability is all over this record," she told NPR, and maybe nowhere more than in "The Eye."
3. Luluc, "Small Window"
Australian duo Luluc has opened for the likes of Lucinda Williams and Fleet Foxes. In this gentle tune, singer Zöe Randell murmurs of dreamy reflections from an airplane seat. The echoey blend of her voice with partner Steve Hassett's will make you want to float away.
4. Marissa Nadler, "Drive"
Nadler released a burst of new music in 2014: An album July, and then Before July, an EP full of unreleased songs including a fresh take on Elliott Smith's "Pitseleh." Like much of her music, something about "Drive" feels haunted—Nadler's delicate voice and the track's minor chords swirl together and summon dark woods and lonely highways.
5. James Bay, "Let it Go"
Breakout crooner James Bay perfectly evokes the torturous process of untangling from a lover. This song helped make the soulful Bay a Brit Awards Critic Choice Winner of 2015, and all before releasing his full-length debut, Chaos and the Calm, due out in March.
6. The Staves, "In the Long Run"
Combine the sounds of folksy trio Mountain Man and the ever deep Laura Marling and you get The Staves, a perfect answer to midwinter melancholy. Their angelic voices, flawless picking, and thoughtful harmonies make me want to listen to this bittersweet song on repeat.
7. Sharon Van Etten, "Our Love"
Moody yet transcendent, "Our Love" showcases Van Etten's vocal control. Paired with this steamy video, the tune is the ideal backdrop for an afternoon make-out session.
8. alt-J, "Warm Foothills"
One of the songs off of alt-J's latest album, This Is All Yours, samples Miley Cyrus, but I prefer the velvety female vocals of Lianne La Havas and Marika Hackman on "Warm Foothills," a song braided together with glimmering guitar, silky violins, and hopeful whistling. The lyrics are full of playful poetry: "Blue dragonfly darts, to and fro, I tie my life to your balloon and let it go."
9. José González, "Every Age"
"Some things change, some remain, some will pass us unnoticed by," González chants in this pulsing paean to life's journey, the first single off of his forthcoming album. "Every Age" is a "beautifully spare, existential meditation," writes music critic Robin Hilton.
Michelle Tea skipped college and spent her 20s and 30s in grimy houses, drinking herself unconscious and getting herself fired from every entry-level job she took. She eventually sobered up, landed a teaching gig, published several books, and won over the love of her life—a polished businesswoman named Dashiell. Her "meandering and counterintuitive" path may not inspire imitators. But Tea's candid and colorful writing, chronicling her emotional wedding, stabs at Buddhism, devotion to eccentric fashion, and attempts to get knocked up with "sperm shooters," speaks to her ability to function as an adult without losing sight of her wackier self.
People in the United States have been going to Planned Parenthood for nearly a century, ever since Margaret Sanger opened her first birth control clinic in Brooklyn in 1916. But it wasn't until 1977, after the US had already celebrated Roe v. Wade, that Colombian women had any equivalent organization to turn to. That was the year Dr. Jorge Villarreal started Oriéntame, a women's reproductive health clinic now credited with inspiring more than 600 outposts across Latin America "and for reshaping abortion politics across the continent," writes Joshua Lang in a story about the Villarreal family, out today in California Sunday.
In the 1950s, botched abortions caused nearly 40 percent of Colombia's maternal deaths.
Jorge Villarreal Mejía graduated from medical school in 1952 and soon took the reigns of the obstetrics department at Colombia's national university. During that time, botched abortions caused nearly 40 percent of the country's maternal deaths. "Women in slum areas were putting the sonda (catheter) inside of them without any sonography," his daughter Cristina Villarreal told Lang. "They used ganchas de ropa (coat hangers), anything." When these women showed up at general hospitals, they were shamed and quickly given basic medical attention at most.
So in 1977, Jorge opened a stand-alone health clinic in Bogotá called Oriéntame. Abortions were illegal, so Oriéntame had to focus on helping women who were already suffering from bad abortion attempts, or "incomplete abortions." Colombians had to wait another thirty years before their mostly Catholic country legalized abortion, under pressure from a coalition that included Cristina Villarreal. (Abortion is now legal in Colombia when a mother's physical or emotional health is in danger.) In the meantime, Oriéntame continued its mission to heal and empower women, using a sliding-scale payment model in order to reach poorer clients. In 1994, Cristina assumed leadership of the organization, which had grown to include a second nonprofit to help doctors around Latin America open their own Oriéntame clinics.
Not unlike the volatile abortion politics in the US, across Latin America, "for every political action, there seems to be an equal but opposite reaction."
Lang's story, an eye-opening and educational read, details the Villarreals' persistence in the face of police and priests, health administration raids, legal battles, money troubles, and social stigma. Not unlike the volatile abortion politics in the US, across Latin America, writes Lang, "for every political action, there seems to be an equal but opposite reaction," making Oriéntame's success "all the more unlikely." Today, the organization continues to struggle for funding. But fortunately for the estimated 4.5 million women seeking abortions every year across Latin America, and countless others looking for reproductive guidance, Oriéntame's network has already laced together a much-needed safety net that will be difficult to undo.