The Vandal and the Mosque: A New Chapter of Forgiveness in Arkansas

Five months later, that worry was wiped away, when Hisham Yasin, the mosque’s lively social director, climbed the stairs of the courthouse with a cashier’s check. That was what had left Abraham speechless next to the Christmas tree.


A Sebastian County Courthouse clerk hands Hisham Yasin a receipt for the Al Salam mosque’s payment of $1,731, the total amount of outstanding fines for Abraham Davis.

Ethan Tate for The New York Times

“There’s no words,” he said, his hands covering his face. “English. Find it.”

Some weeks back, Hisham had called me to say that the mosque had received a generous donation from the Jay Pritzker Foundation. No one at Al Salam had ever heard of the foundation, and they thought at first that it was a rip-off scheme — one of those send-me-your-bank-account-number-and-we’ll-send-you-a-million-dollars ruses. A bit of Googling told them otherwise. Now they wanted to spread the good will: They had decided to pay off Abraham’s court fines.

Abraham’s life had come crashing into theirs. They were now linked. They could not leave him behind.

“He is part of our story,” said Hisham, who owns A&H Auto Sales, a used-car dealership in town.

I returned to Fort Smith to write the next chapter of their story. I also gave a talk at the University of Arkansas there. Abraham didn’t come. His lawyer, Ernie Woodard, didn’t think it was a good idea (his plea agreement forbade any contact with people from the mosque). But Abraham’s mother, Kristin Collins, and the mosque’s president, Dr. Louay Nassri, sat next to me onstage.

It was a happy occasion. The town was now decked out in Christmas finery. My article had run so there was no longer a question of what I was up to. Hisham admitted that, for a while, he thought I was an F.B.I. agent. The New York Times business card didn’t fool him.

“I can print you a thousand business cards that say, ‘I’m the pope,’ ” he said.

The article appeared shortly after Abraham’s family had received an eviction notice. Donations from readers helped them pay the security deposit and first month’s rent on a new place, and get some used furniture and a bed for their 5-year-old. Someone from Texas paid off their electric bill. Abraham was able to buy a bicycle. That meant he could get to work on his own.

Hisham said the article had put Fort Smith on the map. One of the photographs we ran featured a sign for his car lot. He got calls from Atlanta, Cincinnati and Riverside, Calif. At first he thought they were telemarketers, but then he realized they were well-wishers. Dr. Nassri got calls from London and Switzerland.

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The article seemed to satisfy a deep craving for something healthy after months of gorging on outrage. At a time when each side of the political divide seemed sure the other side was crazy and maybe even evil, it was an antidote. It helped people see that Americans are much more moderate than Twitter and Facebook would have us believe, that we actually have a lot in common, and that our mutual capacity for tolerance and kindness is quite large.

“You wove the lives of 2 men and their community in a way that for the first time I don’t feel like everyday I have to fight or be militant & absolute about good & evil, right & wrong,” one woman wrote on Twitter. “Thank you for that peace.”

A reader in Oregon said the story “gives me something to hold onto, an amulet, a prayer bead.” A woman named Linda Brown said the story was “a reminder that most Americans aren’t the caricatures we are presented with over and over.”

Abraham was stunned. He expected to be mocked. Instead he was praised. This flew in the face of his assumption that he didn’t have the right to take up space on this earth. He had been written off — by school, by society, by the world of educated adults — but here were complete strangers telling him he mattered.

“It just kind of blew me away to have people messaging me from all over the world,” he recalled, “saying, ‘Hey, I read the piece about you. I want to tell you it inspired me.’”

Abraham now works six days a week at the Hydration Station, a gas station and convenience store a few miles from his house. He seems to enjoy it — there’s a certain satisfaction in stacking the boxes of beer in even rows and restocking the coolers. He banters with the customers: It’s cold out there tonight. Breath mints? Can never have too many.

On the couch, Abraham started to get his words back.


The Collins-Davis family’s new living room, where Abraham sleeps. The wall decal, purchased with money donated by a man in England, reads in part: “In this house we are real, we make mistakes, we say I’m sorry, we give second chances, we have fun, we give hugs, we forgive…”

Ethan Tate for The New York Times

“It’s a great weight being lifted off of my shoulders,” he said, looking at the floor. “And I don’t deserve it, but this act of kindness, it’s just, wow.”

So many people want so much for Abraham. Someone from the university called telling him to get in touch when he was ready to enroll. I realized I was rooting for him, too. I wanted him to finish high school.

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He had started taking classes toward his GED over the summer. But at some point he stopped. When I asked him about it, he offered a vague excuse. Maybe he didn’t see the use. He was happy in his job. And as he’d said to me before, he never saw himself as a college guy.

But the news from the mosque seemed to unlock something.

“It’s crazy because I was thinking of a lot of things,” he said, “and going back to school was one of them. It’s like a whole new window just opened up. It’s like somebody who has been locked in a padded room and has never felt the wind before. I’m just in awe of this moment right now.”

He sat back and looked at me intently.

“I want to say I regret what I did, but at the same time I don’t,” he explained. “It’s kind of like a flower just sitting there waiting for the right drop of water to tap its petals. To open up and reveal something beautiful on the inside.”

Read about our Times in Person events in Athens, Ohio and Jackson, Mich.

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8 Ways to Have a Better Relationship in 2018


Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone, via Associated Press

Let’s get this out of the way: There’s no magic solution for having a better relationship. People aren’t perfect, couples fight, that’s just life.

But! Hope isn’t lost, and there are many things big and small you can do to help. We looked through a year’s worth of relationship advice to find the best guidance we have to offer, so here are few tips to take into the new year.

Put away your phone

“A cigarette and embrace after sex has quickly been replaced with a scroll through social media,” said Gillian McCallum, chief executive of Drawing Down the Moon Matchmaking, a British dating website. “Men and women are guilty of reaching for their phone and basking in the glow of their screen rather than the afterglow of lovemaking.” Read more »

Get more sleep

Fatigue may be making you more hostile to your partner and affecting your health. Read more »

Figure out your love style

Take this quiz with your partner to see how differently you each define love. Read more »


Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters

Have tough conversations before moving in together

Much less planning goes into cohabitation than into a wedding, but it is, in many ways, a bigger legal, financial and emotional step. Read more »

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Not satisfied with your sex life? Grab your calendar

Can a couple in a sexless relationship schedule a path to intimacy and connection? Read more »

Open up?

Susan Dominus interviewed more than 50 members of nonmonogamous couples to find out if an open marriage is a happier marriage. Read more »

Educate yourself on what makes a good relationship

Good relationships don’t happen overnight. They take commitment, compromise, forgiveness and most of all — effort. This is the New York Times guide to having a better relationship, filled with the latest in relationship science news, fun quizzes and helpful tips for building a stronger bond with your partner. Read more »

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The Most Expensive Mile of Subway Track on Earth

Swelling ‘Soft’ Costs

The M.T.A.’s high costs are not limited to the companies that build the tunnels. Projects start burning through cash long before construction begins.

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On average, “soft costs” — preliminary design and engineering, plus management while construction is underway — make up about 20 percent of the cost of transit projects in America, according to a 2010 report by the Transportation Research Board. The average is similar in other countries, contractors said.

Not in New York.

The latest federal oversight report for the Second Avenue subway projected soft cost spending at $1.4 billion — one-third of the budget, not including financing expenses. M.T.A. officials said that number was high because it included some costs for design of later phases of the line. But experts said it was still shocking.

“The crazy thing is it’s so high even with everything else,” said Larry Gould, a transit consultant and former M.T.A. subway planner. “If we have three or four times as many workers, how can the percentage for soft costs be so high?”

Soft costs for East Side Access are expected to exceed $2 billion. The project plan called for the hiring of 500 consultants from a dozen different companies, according to a 2009 federal oversight report.

Both the Second Avenue subway and East Side Access projects hired the same main engineering firm: WSP USA, formerly known as Parsons Brinckerhoff. The firm, which designed some of New York’s original subway, has donated hundreds of thousands to politicians in recent years, and has hired so many transit officials that some in the system refer to it as “the M.T.A. retirement home.”

The firm was the only vendor to bid on the engineering contract for the Second Avenue subway, records show. On East Side Access, it is sharing the contract with STV Inc., which recently hired the former M.T.A. chairman Thomas F. Prendergast. The contract was initially for $140 million, but it has grown to $481 million.

WSP USA declined to answer questions. “WSP has undertaken complex and enduring infrastructure projects across the U.S., and the New York region presents unique needs and challenges,” the firm said in a statement.

The M.T.A. is partly to blame. Officials have added to the soft costs by struggling to coordinate between vendors, taking a long time to approve plans, insisting on extravagant station designs and changing their minds midway through projects. In 2010, they hired a team of three consultants to work full time on East Side Access “operational readiness” — getting the tunnel ready to open — even though contractors knew construction would not end for another decade.

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Janno Lieber, who joined the M.T.A. as chief development officer in April, acknowledged there were parts of the authority’s project management approach that have been “broken” and “self-defeating.” Changing plans midway through projects is a “huge issue,” as is over-customization of designs and poor management of consultants, he said.

“We just have to do a much better job,” Mr. Lieber said. “We’re relying on these consultants to run our projects, and we’re not getting good results out of them.”

Others have a more skeptical perspective about the soft costs.

Jack Brockway, an executive at Herrenknecht, a German manufacturer of tunnel-boring machines, said he got “stacks and stacks and stacks” of instructions from consultants for his work on the Second Avenue subway, down to details that barely made sense.

“It makes you wonder if it’s really necessary, or if they’re just trying to do something to justify how much they’re getting paid,” Mr. Brockway said.


Workers at a new Metro station in Paris in December. Despite France’s strong unions, Paris has lower subway construction costs than New York City because of more efficient staffing, fierce vendor competition and scant use of consultants.

Pete Kiehart for The New York Times

The View From Paris

Across the Atlantic Ocean, Paris is working on a project that brings the inefficiency of New York into stark relief.

The project, called the Line 14 extension, is similar to the Second Avenue subway. Both projects extend decades-old lines in the hopes of reducing systemwide overcrowding. Both involved digging through moderately hard soil just north of the city center to make a few miles of tunnel and a few stations about 80 feet underground. Both used tunnel-boring machines made by Herrenknecht. Both faced strict regulations, high density and demands from neighbors, which limited some construction to 12 hours per day.

But while the Second Avenue Subway cost $2.5 billion a mile, the Line 14 extension is on track to cost $450 million a mile.

On a recent afternoon at a Line 14 construction site, an official expressed disbelief that New York was spending so much.

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“We thought ours was expensive,” said Laurent Probst, managing director of Île-de-France Mobilités, which controls transit in the French capital.

As he descended into the hole carved for the future Pont Cardinet station, it became clear how the costs could be so different. Scattered around the cavern were a couple dozen workers, running drills, smoothing over soil and checking electrical systems. Mostly, they worked by themselves.

Mr. Probst, 39, wearing a suit and blue tie under his orange safety jacket, pushed the button to operate the elevator himself.

France’s unions are powerful, but Mr. Probst said they did not control project staffing. Isabelle Brochard of RATP, a state-owned company that operates the Paris Metro and is coordinating the Line 14 project, estimated there were 200 total workers on the job, each earning $60 per hour. The Second Avenue subway project employed about 700 workers, many making double that (although that included health insurance).

The tunnel-boring machine chewing through dirt north of Pont Cardinet — a secondhand machine, Ms. Brochard noted — was staffed by a dozen laborers who bounced between the control room, the cutting wheel and the sides of the machine.

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Our Journalists Share Their Most Memorable Interviews of 2017

We asked 10 New York Times reporters to tell us about the most memorable interviews they conducted this year.

A Ukrainian heroine who had reason to fear the foreign press

ANDREW KRAMER, Moscow correspondent

AMINA OKUYEVA, volunteer soldier in the war against Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine

CreditBrendan Hoffman for The New York Times

It was Amina Okuyeva’s first interview with a foreign journalist since an assassin posing as a foreign journalist had tried to kill her and her husband during an interview.

We chose to talk in the lobby of the Intercontinental hotel, since it was a well-lit, well-guarded public space.

Ms. Okuyeva was a minor celebrity in Ukraine for, along with her husband, joining a volunteer paramilitary force fighting Russian-backed rebels in the eastern part of the country.

Her previous interviewer had said he was a reporter with the French newspaper Le Monde. In fact, he was a Chechen assassin. Midway through their interview, he opened fire. Ms. Okuyeva pulled out her own gun and shot back, saving herself and her husband.

There had been clues something was amiss. “He had a notebook, but he wasn’t writing anything in it,” she said.

In the Ukrainian news media, Ms. Okuyeva was portrayed as a fierce heroine for fighting back to survive. I saw a frightened woman. In my notebook I wrote, “furrowed brow.”

A few months later, I filed a brief story noting that Ms. Okuyeva had died in a subsequent assassination by a gunman hiding in bushes on a roadside. By coincidence, I wrote the story in the lobby of the Intercontinental hotel, where I had come earlier in the evening to have dinner.

A warm smile in the middle of tragedy

FRANCES ROBLES, domestic correspondent

AILEEN AYALA, mother whose son died of a heart condition the morning Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico

I met Aileen Ayala at the Salinas Memorial Funeral Home a week after her 29-year-old son, Josue Santos, died as Hurricane Maria trampled Puerto Rico. Communications were so bad she hadn’t been able to notify friends and family about Josue’s death.

In the middle of all that tragedy, Ms. Ayala, 53, portrayed a warmth that belied the heartbreak. I remember her smile most of all. She was convinced all this was happening to her so she could be stronger on the day someone needed her.

Here’s the quote we used in our story for The Times’s “24 Hours in Puerto Rico” project: “You go out and stand in line, because now life here is all about lines — a line for gas, a line for the bank — and everyone starts talking: ‘I lost this, I lost that, I lost my roof, I lost my car.’ And when it’s my turn, I have to say: ‘I lost my son.’ ”

An entire life devoted to a single pursuit

RAPHAEL MINDER, Madrid-based correspondent, covering Spain and Portugal

JUSTO GALLEGO, cathedral architect

CreditGianfranco Tripodo for The New York Times

On a chilly spring afternoon, I walked into the crypt of an unfinished cathedral in Mejorada, Spain, to find the grave of the frail old man I had come to interview.

Justo Gallego, 91, has been building his own cathedral almost single-handedly since the 1960s. With a 125-foot-tall cupola, the “Cathedral of Faith” is hard to miss, but talking to its architect proved far more complicated.

I had made an appointment through a friend of his, but Mr. Gallego was in no mood to talk. Hunched in front of a wooden stove, he made it clear he had no time for a journalist. Disappointed, I took another walk around the cathedral and settled on the steps of its esplanade to finish some other work.

Eventually, I went back in and found Mr. Gallego still transfixed by the glow of his stove, but in a different mood. For the next few hours, we discussed the Catholic Church, the Spanish Civil War, Gaudí’s architecture and why some people devote their entire lives to a single pursuit, whatever others might think about it.

A Syrian boy who was forced to look

SOMINI SENGUPTA, international reporter

MUHAMMAD, young Syrian refugee living in Beirut

In Beirut, I met a little boy who was forced to watch beheadings in his hometown in Syria. He would have been around 9 at the time, the same age as my own child.

He described holding his mother’s hand, not wanting to look, but also being unable to look away. Looking was mandatory, he said.

What seemed to trouble him most were the rules that pinched his freedom, like being told he couldn’t cut his hair or he couldn’t swim in the lake shirtless.

“Muhammad cut his hair again as soon as he reached Beirut,” I wrote in my story about childhood in ISIS-held areas. “He colored a swish of it platinum blond and swept it upward, with pomade, so that he looked a bit like a unicorn, with the face of a cherub.”

A “self-proclaimed black weirdo” with a “spectral, spaced-out” sound

JENNA WORTHAM, staff writer at The New York Times Magazine and co-host of the podcast “Still Processing”

KELELA, R&B singer

CreditErik Madigan Heck for The New York Times

Earlier this year, I flew to Strasbourg, France, to interview the singer Kelela for The Magazine’s annual Music Issue. She was on tour with the British band the xx.

The internet was ravenous for the return of her sound — spectral, spaced-out R&B that’s quirky and sexy without being hypersexualized — but also for her visibility as a self-proclaimed black weirdo. There just aren’t that many of us in the spotlight.

A few days before we met, Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” one of the most visceral albums about black womanhood in years, had been passed over at the Grammys. Would Kelela’s new album, six years in the making, wind up in the void, too?

She was stunningly open with me as she worked through her feelings about her role as a black cultural figure — the responsibility it contains, and the delicate balance between succumbing to the appetite of the internet and resisting the commodification that goes with it.

For her, figuring out the answers to these questions was bigger than an article: It was essential for survival.

I left our last encounter after midnight, having gotten closer to resolving some questions of my own about the relentless uncertainty that accompanies the creative process.

A precious gift, after tea and pie

DAN BARRY, reporter and columnist

CATHERINE CORLESS, amateur historian, County Galway, Ireland

CreditPaulo Nunes dos Santos for The New York Times

I carried a just-purchased apple pie up to the County Galway farmhouse of Catherine Corless.

I knew that this amateur historian had been interviewed many times before about how she had exposed the buried secrets of the old home for mothers and babies in nearby Tuam. But as the son of a Galway woman, I also knew that a deeper discussion would require tea, and tea would require pie.

Our interview, though, would need several more visits — and several more pies. Ms. Corless is quite shy, but with each visit she revealed a little more about her personal stake in a case concerning the historic mistreatment of unwed mothers and their children.

During our talks, I tried to imagine myself as her, so as to ask better questions. And when we were done, I knew that what she had given me was her story — a precious gift — and now it was up to me to handle it with care.

A politician digging around in his own conscience

SHERYL GAY STOLBERG, Washington correspondent

JEFF FLAKE, Republican senator from Arizona

CreditAl Drago for The New York Times

I had just started covering Congress when I went to Arizona in October to interview the Republican senator Jeff Flake, an ardent critic of President Trump, on his home turf. Mr. Flake was supposedly gearing up to run for re-election, and his race was going to be extremely difficult; Arizona is a pro-Trump state, so pundits were busy predicting Mr. Flake’s demise. (Ten days later, he dropped out of the race — but not before he delivered a searing indictment of Mr. Trump on the Senate floor.)

What I remember most about Mr. Flake that day was his mood. He was not defiant, as he would later be in his Senate floor speech. Rather, he was deeply reflective; in retrospect, it seems clear he knew even then that his political career was over.

As we spoke, he ran through some of his earlier criticisms of the president — for peddling the false conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya, for instance, and for characterizing Mexicans as rapists. Then he asked plaintively, “In which of those instances should I not have spoken out?”

I felt as though I were watching him dig around in his own conscience.

A door opened, after knocks that went unanswered

JOHN BRANCH, sports reporter

CLAUDETTE CRAIG, mother of murdered youth-league coach Charles “Chucky” Craig, mentor to N.B.A. star Kevin Durant

CreditMatt Roth for The New York Times

The N.B.A. star Kevin Durant wears No. 35 in honor of a mentor named Charles “Chucky” Craig, who at 35 was shot and killed outside a Maryland bar when Mr. Durant was a teen. Doing a story about a murder that happened in 2005 meant a lot of nonworking phone numbers, unreturned calls and knocks that went unanswered.

But one door opened, in a neighborhood of tired old houses in Washington, and a small, well-dressed older woman asked me in. It was Claudette Craig, Chucky’s mother, who had just arrived home from a funeral. She didn’t expect me, but quickly invited me to sit at the kitchen table, where a framed photograph of Chucky still stood.

The rest of the house was empty. After decades there, she was moving to Georgia to be close to family, taking the train the next day.

“If you had come tomorrow,” she said, “I wouldn’t have been here.”

I spent a couple of hours with her, talking about her son and her memories of the night he died. She had never met Mr. Durant, except maybe when he was a little boy and Chucky brought the kids from the recreation center by to get something to eat.

“I don’t know why I let you in,” Ms. Craig said as I got up to leave. “I don’t normally answer my door. But you looked nice.”

A bridge to a song

ANDY NEWMAN, metro reporter

J. J. COVIELLO, custodian, and SOLOMON WASSERMAN, inventor

CreditStephen Speranza for The New York Times

Song for a New BridgeCreditVideo by Stephen Speranza

Even mundane stories yield surprises. In August, I was at a rest stop on the New York State Thruway asking drivers about a new bridge on the Hudson River that had just replaced the deteriorating Tappan Zee Bridge.

A custodian emptying trash cans approached. His name was J. J. Coviello, and he had Down syndrome. In 25 years as a reporter, I had never interviewed someone with Down syndrome for a story that wasn’t about disability. But Mr. Coviello knew about the bridge. He planned to cross it soon to visit relatives. “I’m thrilled,” he said. “It’s a good experience for me.”

I quoted him in the story, without mentioning his condition, because it wasn’t relevant. He was a guy excited by a new bridge. To people who know and love people with Down syndrome, this is no epiphany. But the experience opened up the world a little bit for me.

The next person I talked to was a big jolly man, an inventor named Solomon Wasserman. He made up a song on the spot about the bridge, to the tune of “If I Were a Rich Man”: “All day long I’ll sing and I’ll celebrate, what a wonderful bridge we have, hey!”

I left the rest stop grinning from ear to ear.

A string theorist with dreams of Middle East peace

DENNIS OVERBYE, cosmic affairs correspondent

ELIEZER RABINOVICI, theoretical physicist and co-creator of the Sesame institute

CreditDmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

In my role as cosmic affairs correspondent, I’m rarely involved in anything that moves the markets or affects international relations.

But last spring I met Eliezer Rabinovici, a string theorist from Hebrew University in Jerusalem. After the famous handshake between Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in 1993, Mr. Rabinovici and a colleague at the renowned physics lab CERN had an idea for what would eventually become Sesame, an institute in Jordan where Arabs and Israelis could collaborate on scientific research.

As someone who often speculates about multiple universes and extra dimensions, Dr. Rabinovici was as far removed from current affairs as I was. He would have no use for the Sesame synchrotron — a particle accelerator that would produce a special kind of light for studying materials and drugs — and even claimed he didn’t really know how it would work.

Why then, I asked him when he visited The Times in advance of Sesame’s opening, had he spent more than 20 years of his life getting it going?

“I always wanted to visit some of these other universes, just to see how things are there,” he said, but with the Sesame project “I actually got to live in a universe where Arabs, Israelis, Iranians, Pakistanis work together for the same cause for their own people, for humanity.”


9 Ways to Live Healthier in 2018


Béatrice de Géa for The New York Times

We all should eat better, exercise regularly and get more sleep. We hear those three pieces of advice so often it can be easy to drown them out. But there’s a reason this advice has become so cliché: Combined, they truly can result in a healthier life, physically and mentally.

But where should you begin? We’re here to help.

Below is the best advice from The Times on ensuring that your body and mind are in top shape in 2018, whatever that means for you. Whether you’ve been trying to sleep better, establish an exercise routine or finally give your house the deep clean it deserves, we’ve got you covered.

Finally fix your sleeping hygiene

It seems like such a simple problem to fix: Get more sleep. But how? In this Times guide to getting a better night’s rest, you’ll learn how to create and maintain positive sleep habits, find a nighttime ritual that works for you, figure out when you should even be sleeping and much, much more. Read more »

Try biking to work

Yes, biking to work can be a daunting prospect. But in this simple how-to guide, we’ll teach you the rules of the road and the best ways to stay safe. Read more »

Learn to manage your stress

Stress can impact both your mental and physical health, so as you move into the new year it’s important to get a handle on yours. Read more »


Damon Winter/The New York Times

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Never done a downward dog? Give it a try

Like stress, yoga is something that can impact both your mental and physical well-being, but in an incredibly positive way. Read this beginner’s guide, then show us your best child’s pose. Read more »

Clean home, clean life

A new year means new beginnings, so give your home a makeover with our comprehensive guide to cleaning out every room, nook and cranny. Read more »

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The Year in Fitness: Exercise, Add Intensity, Live to See Another Year

His efforts help to belie a number of entrenched beliefs about older people, including that physical performance and aerobic capacity inevitably decline with age and that intense exercise is inadvisable, if not impossible, for the elderly.

Other studies this year reinforced the notion that age need not be a deterrent to hard exercise and that such workouts could be key to healthy aging. An animal study that I wrote about in July, for instance, found that frail, elderly mice were capable of completing brief spurts of high-intensity running on little treadmills, if the treadmill’s pace were adjusted to each mouse’s individual fitness level.

After four months of this kind of training, the exercised animals were stronger and more aerobically fit than other mice of the same age, and few remained physically frail. Perhaps most striking, “the animals had tolerated the high-intensity interval training well,” one of the scientists who conducted the study told me.

But of course, mice are not people. So it was another study this year that to my mind provided the most persuasive evidence that strenuous exercise alters how we age. In that study, which I wrote about in March (which became my most popular column this year), scientists at the Mayo Clinic compared differences in gene expression inside muscle cells after younger and older people had completed various types of workouts.

The greatest differences were seen in the operations of genes after people had practiced high-intensity interval training for 12 weeks. In younger people who exercised this way, almost 275 genes were firing differently now than they had been before the exercise. But in people older than 64, more than 400 genes were working differently now and many of those genes are known to be related to the health and aging of cells.

In effect, the intense exercise seemed to be changing muscle cells in ways that theoretically could affect biological aging.

How to Build Muscle in 9 Minutes

Want to get strong, but don’t have time for a gym? Strength training is key for increasing flexibility, reducing injury risk and maintaining an overall healthy body. The best part is that it doesn’t have to take long. Here we’ll teach you a simple nine-minute-long strength training program that you can complete in your own home. All you need is a set of dumbbells (or another type of weight), a clock and the goal of building a stronger body.

At this point, I should probably pause and explain that intensity in exercise is a relative concept. The word intense can seem daunting, but in practice, it simply means physical activity that is not a cinch for you.

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For research purposes, intensity is based on percentages of someone’s heart rate maximum. But you and I can ignore these technicalities and pay attention to how we feel. Many scientists have told me that exercise is considered easy if you can talk and sing while participating in it.

During relatively moderate exercise, singing becomes difficult.

And during intense exercise, you will find it difficult to speak without gasping.

But, again, intensity is relative. If you have barely exercised in recent years, five minutes of climbing stairs will constitute an intense — and effective — workout.

If, on the other hand, you regularly stroll during the week, you might consider increasing the pace of those walks for a few minutes at a time, until you no longer can easily converse. The latest science suggests that your cells will thank you.

And afterward, other science says, reward yourself with a warm soak. Several ingratiating studies this year indicated that luxuriating in warm water aids in recovery from strenuous exercise and also, surprisingly, helps us to acclimate to hot-weather workouts.

But as always, the most compelling exercise-related research this year reminded us that activity of any kind is essential for human well-being. One of my favorite studies of 2017 found that people reported feeling happiest during the day when they had been up and moving compared to when they had remained seated and still.

Another memorable study concluded that, statistically, an hour spent running could add about seven hours to our life spans. These gains are not infinite. They seem to be capped at about three years of added life for people who run regularly.

How to Start Running

Running is a great way to get fit, feel better and even form new relationships with other runners. Starting a new running habit doesn’t have to be hard — all it takes is a comfortable pair of shoes and a willingness to move a little or a lot, all at your own pace. The Well Guide makes it easy to get started, get inspired and stay on track. Are you ready? Let’s go!

But the results have inspired me. I trained for and ran a half marathon in 2017 and will run another in 2018. I am not fast. But I aim to be persistent. If Mr. Marchand can gain fitness and speed after turning 100, why should not those of us with still a half-century or more to spare? Happy New Year, everyone.

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That Time Andy Cohen Asked Anderson Cooper Out (and About His Mom)

ANDY COHEN I remember being home when I made the call, on Horatio Street. I was excited.

COOPER Within 45 seconds, he said, “Your mom is Gloria Vanderbilt.”

COHEN So bad. I wanted to date the Vanderbilt boy.

COOPER I imagined him on a Bluetooth headset, walking around, gesticulating a lot.

COHEN By the way, you weren’t exactly Mr. Personality on that call, either.

COOPER No, I wasn’t. I was very depressed. It was a bleak time. I was trying to figure out my way at ABC. I started as a one-man band; a guy I worked with when I was a fact-checker made a fake press pass for me, and I borrowed a camera and started going to wars. I’d been working at Channel One for three years. I’d never worked at a network. I didn’t know what I was doing. We never had the date.

COHEN We started running into each other at the Roxy. He would be dancing around.

COOPER I wouldn’t be dancing around. I was like, that’s the guy who said, “your mom is Gloria Vanderbilt.”

COHEN We both knew Barry Diller, and we wound up in this group that would travel together, him and his friends.

COOPER DVF — Diane [von Furstenberg]. Billie Lourd, she was very young. Sandy Gallin.

COHEN We went to Turkey.


Mr. Cooper and his former New Year’s Eve co-host, Kathy Griffin, in 2015.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters

COOPER I remember going up some waterway in a slow-moving boat, talking to you, sort of entranced. Andy, even before he was on TV, was the life of the party.

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COHEN I thought he was a little standoffish. But I liked making him laugh. That was my goal: Maybe I can crack this guy up, and that’s where we can come together.

COOPER He did this whole “Maniac” dance.

Flashdance – She’s a Maniac [HD] Video by Vientaneva

COHEN Oh, yes, from “Flashdance.” We were on the boat, it’s a very fast dance, and I was barefoot. Didn’t I cut my foot?

COOPER It made me giggle uncontrollably. That’s the first time I remember being like, “You’re funny.”

COHEN Then we would have dinner occasionally, or be at the same party. We went to Croatia in 2005. I was at Bravo then.

COOPER I started working later at night, so our chances for hanging out were limited.

COHEN Our shows are so different, but we have commonalities because we’re both on every night. I worked in news —— why are you laughing? Excuse me, I worked at CBS News for 10 years.

COOPER You absolutely did, but the advice you would give me was not —— I was in Croatia with him when I got the call about Hurricane Katrina. I turned to Andy and said, “I gotta go,” and, Andy, as a newsman, what was it you said?

COHEN I said: “This is ridiculous. They just want you outside at some rainstorm so they can get ratings.”

COOPER Needless to say, I was on the next flight out. But one of the things I don’t think Andy has gotten enough credit for is he’s been an openly gay man in this industry from the very beginning. I was out at work ——

COHEN He was out to everybody. Everyone at CNN knew your partner.

COOPER And I was out at the Roxy.

COHEN Yeah, with your flaming-white hair, like Katniss Everdeen.

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COOPER It was more about not discussing it publicly. But I told you I was going to be making a statement.

COHEN He never asked me for advice, but we did talk about it.

COOPER I don’t think there’s anything I’ve not discussed with him. It’s nice to have someone who pokes fun at you. If I’m in a dangerous place, he’ll text me something funny.


Mr. Cohen last year on his Bravo show, “Watch What Happens Live,” with Bethenny Frankel, a guest from “The Real Housewives of New York City.”

Michael Nagle for The New York Times

COHEN I do get worried when he’s like, “I’m on my way to Egypt.” I’m like: “Are you kidding me? When are you coming home?” You’re not eating your eggs. Do you not like them?

COOPER No, I like them.

COHEN Are you going to eat your toast?

COOPER I’m going to nibble.

COHEN Do you want some jelly?


COHEN He is a very fussy eater. We were in the Dallas airport two weeks ago. Tell what you were eating for breakfast.

COOPER Panda Express.

COHEN He was eating orange chicken at 9 a.m. It was so gross.

COOPER We took a trip to Brazil five years ago. It was me; my partner, Benjamin [Maisani]; a friend of ours; and Andy. I brought them to Trancoso, this town I’d always heard about. I booked the hotels, I booked the flights — the one thing I asked Andy to do was check the bags in.

COHEN I lost Anderson’s luggage. It was terrible.

COOPER That was the first time I’ve ever gotten angry at Andy. And when I get angry, I get silent.

COHEN Prickly ice-cold monster. You have to navigate his moods. I know exactly when to stop talking to him.

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COOPER We’re both sensitive in reading other people’s emotions. I know instantly when he’s lost interest in a conversation on the phone. We work all the —— see, he’s checking ——

COHEN I’m rolling my sleeve up.

COOPER I think he was secretly about to check his watch.

COHEN No, I wasn’t. Look, you know people when you travel with them. It’s intimate.

COOPER When his second book came out, he asked me to do an interview with him at the 92nd Street Y. My agent was in the crowd, and she was like, “You guys should take this on the road.”

COHEN We looked at each other, and, immediately, were like, “Oh, my God, we can travel the country together.”

COOPER We’ve done 30-something shows.

COHEN New Year’s will be a good continuation. It’s going to be really fun. Amy Sedaris is coming by. We’re going to play games.

COOPER We want people to feel like they’re hanging out with us for a night.

COHEN I’m going to bring alcohol.

COOPER I would expect nothing less.

COHEN Just so you know.

COOPER I’d rather not know the details.

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Who Wants to Buy the Most Expensive House in America?

“Let’s say you’re a super-wealthy single dude who just sold your company,” said Nile Niami. “You’ve just moved to L.A. and you don’t know anybody, so you hire someone to fill your house with partyers. You want everyone to know who you are, but you don’t want to talk to anybody. So you go sit in your V.I.P. room.”

Mr. Niami was giving a tour, and, unlike most home tours, this one started in the nightclub. It will have multiple bars, its own coat room and LED ceilings playing images of moving clouds. Beyond the floor-to-ceiling glass walls there is a swimming pool, along with panoramic views stretching to downtown Los Angeles and Century City.

The home is entering its fifth year of development. When finished this spring, it will be one of the largest private homes in America — 100,000 square feet — and, at an asking price of $500 million, will bill itself as the most expensive as well.

The property has 20 bedrooms. Seven of them are in a separate building for staff. The largest bedroom is a 5,500-square-foot master suite. It will have its own office, pool and kitchen; like the nightclub’s V.I.P. room, it is meant to be a private retreat from the rest of the house.

A scale model of the One.CreditJake Michaels for The New York TimesNile Niami by the nightclub hot tub area at the One.CreditJake Michaels for The New York Times

The house has a commercial-size beauty salon and a lounge where the walls and ceilings are made of jellyfish aquariums. Asked why, Mr. Niami shrugged, looking slightly baffled by the line of questioning. “Because it’s cool,” he said.

At a minimum, he said, there are four swimming pools, including the ones in the nightclub and master suite. But by another count, he said, there are seven, including an infinity-edge moat that surrounds the property, as well as indoor spa pools. He also lost track of the number of elevators. “I need to count,” he said, holding up his hand and closing his eyes. A few seconds later, he arrived at the tally: five.

The list price is nearly five times the price of the most expensive home ever to sell in Los Angeles — that’s a tie between the Playboy Mansion, which sold in 2016, and a speculatively built home in Holmby Hills that sold for $100 million last year. The most expensive home sale to date in America is a $137 million spread in New York, in the Hamptons, and $300 million is believed to be the price of the most expensive home ever sold in the world.

In the 19th century, families like the Astors and the Vanderbilts spent years or even decades designing estates to impress European aristocrats. Now it’s developers like Mr. Niami, a former B-movie producer, who are building the homes, designed to impress international billionaire would-be buyers.

The house’s architect, Paul McClean, who also designed the home that Jay-Z and Beyoncé paid $88 million for earlier this year, said it would be as much an entertainment showpiece as a house. That’s very much how Gilded Age mansions functioned. “The pattern repeats itself,” Mr. McClean said.

But while Gilded Age mansions were built as family legacies to be passed down to future generations or endowed to universities, these tech-centric, ultramodern glass-and-marble behemoths are designed for living in the moment. They come furnished, often with artwork, wine and cars. Each represents a developer’s bet that an instant-gratification billionaire is willing to pay more for it than almost anyone else has ever paid for a personal residence before.

This New Gilded Age has found an epicenter in Los Angeles, particularly where Bel-Air, Beverly Hills and Holmby Hills converge. Real estate agents call it the Platinum Triangle. A spec home is on the market in Bel-Air for $250 million; it comes with two years of prepaid household staff. Nearby, a London-based developer is marketing a gated community where homes start at $115 million.

In 2012, Mr. Niami paid $28 million for the hilltop lot, which included a vacant 10,000-square-foot house that he said was in ramshackle condition. He declined to say what he was spending on construction.

The One, as he has branded it, will officially hit the market when it is completed in mid-2018. Local real estate agents seem to agree that Mr. Niami is building a one-of-a-kind mansion on a one-of-a-kind lot, with a 360-degree view you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else other than the Getty Museum.

Many also agree it’s unlikely that he will get his price. Stephen Shapiro, the president of Westside Estate Agency in Beverly Hills, says sales have been very strong for houses over $20 million in Los Angeles over the past several years. But he cited only three or four sales over $100 million in all of California — what he described as “a nonexistent market.” Fewer than three dozen homes worldwide have sold for more than $100 million in the last decade, according to a report by Christie’s International Real Estate.

Jonathan Miller, an appraiser in New York who has been tracking United States home sales over $50 million, said a $250 million four-floor condominium in Manhattan has been in contract for two years and is scheduled to close escrow soon. The 2015 record was an estate in France that sold for $300 million, whose buyer was recently revealed as Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Mr. Miller said he doesn’t think any of these sales necessarily indicate the market is strong. “I call this aspirational pricing,” he said. “There’s been nothing close to $500 million.”

A gold Lamborghini in the garage of the Opus, a house developed by Mr. Niami in Beverly Hills, on the market for $100 million.CreditJake Michaels for The New York Times The pool in the middle of the Opus house. CreditJake Michaels for The New York TimesThe Cristal Champagne room at Opus.CreditJake Michaels for The New York TimesA custom built-in coffee machine that can make almost every type of coffee drink at Opus.CreditJake Michaels for The New York TimesCreditJake Michaels for The New York Times

There is also a growing belief that there are more houses being built in the $100 million-plus price range than there are buyers who can afford them. (Mr. Niami counters that his house isn’t comparable to any others being built because of its size, its unusually large hillside lot, and its views.) Mr. Niami’s real estate sales partner, Drew Fenton, declined to be interviewed but said in an email that the One is in a category of its own and that the top end of the luxury market in Los Angeles is booming, with low inventory and “many qualified buyers.”

Mr. Niami could still make a hefty profit if the property sells for well under $500 million, which seems like the plan. Most homes with record-breaking asking prices have sold for significant discounts. The Playboy Mansion, for example, was listed for $200 million and sold for $100 million in 2016.

But this may be the pinnacle of the huge-house arms race in Los Angeles. One upside, for Mr. Niami anyway, is that it’s likely no one could ever again build a home of this size. It took almost two years to excavate the hilltop lot, with construction vehicles clogging the narrow, hilly streets. In reaction to mega-size homes and construction that strains lot sizes and squeezes neighbors, Los Angeles has since passed an anti-mansionization ordinance, capping home sizes in many neighborhoods.

So the scale helps justify the asking price. “That’s one of the things we’ll be selling,” said Jeff Hyland, the president of Hilton & Hyland, the real estate firm that has the listing. “You couldn’t build this again.”

Mr. Niami said he thinks the buyer will likely purchase the property as a fifth or sixth home. The estate would basically serve as a private hotel to visit a couple of times a year. “They would have a full staff with uniforms,” he said. Meals would be prepared off-site or come from the large catering kitchen, which is downstairs. (The main kitchen also has four ovens, if needed.)

Mr. Niami was raised by a single mother in a 1,100-square-foot home in Los Angeles. Doug Witkins, who was Mr. Niami’s Big Brother mentor in the early 1980s, said, “He struck me as the best salesman I’d ever met in my life, at age 11.”

While still in high school, Mr. Niami took night classes to get his cosmetology license, then learned how to do special-effects prosthetics for horror films. At 19, he went to work with Mr. Witkins, selling international movie rights at his film distribution company.

A custom gold giraffe sculpture that Mr. Niami commissioned for his house.CreditJake Michaels for The New York TimesMr. Niami, a yoga enthusiast, in the hot yoga room he had made for his house.CreditJake Michaels for The New York TimesA sauna in Mr. Niami’s house.CreditJake Michaels for The New York Times

Later, he started his own production company, spending $300,000 on a trailer to hype a movie he described as “‘The Terminator’ with a woman.” Mr. Niami and a partner went on to produce 14 more films, many of them straight-to-video B movies. One starred Keanu Reeves at his post-“Matrix” peak and earned $29 million in the United States, but cost over $30 million to make. Mr. Niami said he realized that if he couldn’t make a big profit off that movie, he probably never would.

So he started building small condominiums and renovating homes to sell. Building luxury spec homes from scratch in affluent areas, he broke a few neighborhood price records. In 2014, Sean Combs paid $39 million for one of his spec houses. (It had an underwater tunnel connected to a grotto.)

Mr. Niami has built more than 30 houses in Los Angeles, with half a dozen more under construction now. He plans to start looking for investment partners and penthouses in New York City to develop next year.

Mr. Witkins went to work with Mr. Niami after his own business fell off during the last recession. He said his onetime mentee took what he learned producing films and applied it to building and selling homes. “Each house is like a set and an ongoing production,” Mr. Witkins said.

Just above the Sunset Strip, construction workers in white bootees were putting the final touches on another home — a 14,000-square-foot house that Mr. Niami is building for himself. It has a custom-made 24-foot gold giraffe skeleton sculpture in a glass box and a $400,000 Lucite-bottom swimming pool.

“This entire house is about excess,” Mr. Niami said, after showing off a giant sensory deprivation chamber, a cryogenic spa treatment chamber and a hot yoga room with living walls. “Who needs two pools? Two Jacuzzis? Nobody! But it’s cool.”

Later, we went to Opus, a 21,000-square-foot home in Beverly Hills, hidden behind a shiny gold wall, that Mr. Niami started marketing six months ago for $100 million. To help sell it, he produced a three-minute trailer featuring largely nude women painted in gold gyrating suggestively and swimming in the pools. It was meant to be “very sexy, on the edge,” he said, citing Beyoncé’s “Partition” as inspiration.

In September, he cut the asking price to $85 million. Buyers, he said, weren’t actually interested in purchasing the home with the roughly $12 million worth of Lamborghinis, Rolls-Royces and Damien Hirst paintings he was going to include at the higher asking price. (The house next door, built speculatively by the QVC handbag mogul Bruce Makowsky, sold in 2014 for a record $70 million to the Minecraft founder Markus Persson; it was listed for $85 million.)

Mr. Niami at the One property. CreditJake Michaels for The New York Times

It was a balmy late-November afternoon and the glass walls of Opus’s living room were open to the 85-foot-long infinity pool, where a bird landed to bathe itself. Mr. Niami took a chamois left behind by a maid and dusted an already spotless-looking shelf inside the champagne room, filled with $300,000 worth of Cristal. Then he picked up a gold champagne holster in the shape of a machine gun and struck a quick pose.

Later, Mr. Niami made cappuccinos from a wet bar’s iPad-activated coffee maker and took in the panoramic view beyond the pool. It was a slightly hazy day, but there was still good visibility.

“It’s funny,” he said. “A lot of the houses I do look into other houses I’ve done.” Across the way, for example, was another modern glass mansion he built a few years ago. It looked vacant, with overgrown landscaping.

Mr. Niami said that the buyer, from Malaysia, paid him $40 million for the home and then promptly gutted it. “That house looked like this,” he said, stretching his arms out wide for emphasis. “Furniture! Beautiful! Everything!” Eventually, he said, the Department of Justice took possession of the home after the owner ran into legal trouble. It’s been empty ever since. “It’s so sad,” he said.

The next day, he was still thinking about that house. In the chauffeured Mercedes van that is also his office, he scrolled through original photos of the house on a large screen mounted to the back of the driver’s seat. The house had sleek white marble floors and was resplendent in black, white and gold. “I want to buy it back,” he said.

Candace Jackson is a reporter in California.


Debunking Myths About Estrangement – The New York Times

“To the extent you are actively trying to distance yourself and maintain that distance, that makes you estranged,” said Kristina Scharp, an assistant professor of communication studies at Utah State University in Logan.

Last month, Lucy Blake, a lecturer at Edge Hill University in England, published a systematic review of 51 articles about estrangement in the Journal of Family Theory & Review. This body of literature, Dr. Blake wrote, gives family scholars an opportunity to “understand family relationships as they are, rather than how they could or should be.”

Estrangement is widely misunderstood, but as more and more people share their experiences publicly, some misconceptions are being overturned. Assuming that every relationship between a parent and child will last a lifetime is as simplistic as assuming every couple will never split up.

Myth: Estrangement Happens Suddenly

It’s usually a long, drawn-out process rather than a single blowout. A parent and child’s relationship erodes over time, not overnight.

Kylie Agllias, a social worker in Australia who wrote a 2016 book called “Family Estrangement,” has found that estrangement “occurs across years and decades. All the hurt and betrayals, all the things that accumulate, undermine a person’s sense of trust.”

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For a study published in June, Dr. Scharp spoke to 52 adult children and found they distanced themselves from their parents in various ways over time.

Some adult children, for example, moved away. Others no longer made an effort to fulfill expectations of the daughter-son role, such as a 48-year-old woman who, after 33 years with no contact with her father, declined to visit him in the hospital or to attend his funeral.

Still others chose to limit conversations with a family member to superficial small talk or reduce the amount of contact. One 21-year-old man described how he called and texted his mother, but not his father, after leaving for college. “They still live together so obviously he noticed and that bothered him,” he said.

Estrangement is a “continual process,” Dr. Scharp said. “In our culture, there’s a ton of guilt around not forgiving your family,” she explained. So “achieving distance is hard, but maintaining distance is harder.”

A complete rupture can be years in the making. It’s been three years since Nikolaus Maack, 47, has had contact with most of his family. But he started distancing himself from his parents and siblings a decade before. “I was staying away,” said Mr. Maack, a civil servant in Ottawa. His father’s temper had always kept him on edge, he said, and he felt that holiday meals were particularly uncomfortable and demeaning. Eventually, Mr. Maack stopped attending Christmas festivities altogether.

Reached by email, Mr. Maack’s father declined to be interviewed but insulted Mr. Maack and said he no longer considered him a son.

Myth: Estrangement Is Rare

In 2014, 8 percent of roughly 2,000 British adults said that they had cut off a family member, which translates to more than five million people, according to a nationally representative survey commissioned by Stand Alone, a charity that supports estranged people.

And 19 percent of respondents reported that another relative or they themselves were no longer in contact with family.

Myth: There’s a Clear Reason People Become Estranged

Multiple factors appear to come into play. In a 2015 study, Dr. Agllias interviewed 25 Australian parents, each of whom had been cut off by at least one child. The reasons for the rupture fell into three main categories. In some cases, the son or daughter chose between the parent and someone or something else, such as a partner. In others, the adult child was punishing the parent for “perceived wrongdoing” or a difference in values. Most parents also flagged additional ongoing stressors like domestic violence, divorce and failing health.

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A woman once insisted to Dr. Agllias that she had not spoken to her son and his wife in seven years because she asked her daughter-in-law to bring a specific dessert to a family gathering, and the daughter-in-law had deliberately brought the same one she had baked. The mother-in-law saw it as “a symbol of total disrespect,” Dr. Agllias said, yet she revealed other factors that had undermined their relationship, including that she felt her son’s wife sometimes kept the grandchildren from her and didn’t properly take care of her son. The dessert, Dr. Agllias said, became a symbol of the “cumulative disrespect” she felt.

Myth: Estrangement Happens on a Whim

In a study published in the journal Australian Social Work, 26 adults reported being estranged from parents for three main reasons: abuse (everything from belittling to physical or sexual abuse), betrayal (keeping secrets or sabotaging them) and poor parenting (being overly critical, shaming children or making them scapegoats). The three were not mutually exclusive, and often overlapped, said Dr. Agllias, a lecturer at the University of Newcastle in Australia.

Most of the participants said that their estrangements followed childhoods in which they had already had poor connections with parents who were physically or emotionally unavailable.

For instance, Mr. Maack resented that he was routinely left in charge of his two younger siblings, so much so that he decided never to have children of his own.

After years of growing apart, the final straw was his wedding day.

In 2014, he and his longtime girlfriend decided to marry at City Hall for practical reasons: They realized she wouldn’t be able to inherit his pension, otherwise. He didn’t invite his family, in part because it was an informal gathering. But also because a brother had recently married in a traditional ceremony, during which his father had backed out of giving his speech. He worried that his father might do something similarly disruptive. He did not want to invite him and said he didn’t think anyone else would come without him.

“I agonized over inviting them or not, for a long time,” he said, “but in the end, decided, ‘I can’t have them there.’”

His family found out he was married through Facebook. One brother told him he was hurt he wasn’t even told. And his sister and father made it clear they would no longer talk to him, according to Mr. Maack and his wife. Two other relatives confirmed their account.

These days, one brother still talks to Mr. Maack, mostly through Facebook messenger, but they don’t talk about the others.

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Is It Better to Cook With Coconut Oil or Olive Oil?


Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times

Q. Is it better to cook with coconut oil or olive oil?

A. In terms of health impacts, it is better to cook with olive oil.

Compared to a tablespoon of olive oil, a tablespoon of coconut oil contains about six times the amount of saturated fat, nearly meeting the daily limit of about 13 grams that the American Heart Association recommends. High saturated fat intake has been tied to increased levels of LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol, which raises the risk of heart disease.

Furthermore, olive oil, a main component of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, contains beneficial polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.

“Between the two, olive oil is a better choice, since monounsaturated fats can have a beneficial effect on your heart when eaten in moderation and when used to replace saturated and trans fats in your diet,” said Annessa Chumbley, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the A.H.A., in an email. Earlier this year, the organization issued an advisory that firmly reiterated its guidance to consumers to replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats to help prevent heart disease. Consumers were also urged to keep in mind the bigger picture of an overall healthy eating pattern.

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While some research has linked the main type of saturated fatty acid in coconut oil, lauric acid, to increased levels of HDL, or “good,” cholesterol, it still appears to raise LDL cholesterol. Yet, coconut oil may be a better choice than some other sources of saturated fat. A large, recent study found that lauric acid didn’t appear to raise heart disease risk quite as much as other types of saturated fatty acids, such as palmitic acid, which is substantial in butter.

Proponents of coconut oil point out that it is rich in phytochemicals that have healthful antioxidant properties. While it’s true that extra-virgin coconut oil, like extra-virgin olive oil, contains phytochemicals, most of the coconut oil on the market is refined and provides few of those antioxidants, said Dr. Qi Sun, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. But even if the coconut oil you are using is extra-virgin, “the saturated fat effects outweigh any beneficial effects of the antioxidants,” he said.

But of course, we don’t eat fats or cholesterol or antioxidants — we eat food. So while coconut oil certainly isn’t the magic bullet some claim, there’s no need to avoid it completely, especially if it is used instead of butter or shortening in baked goods or to impart flavor in something like a curry dish. As a general rule, though, cooking with olive oil is the better choice for overall health.

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