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Holiday Weekend Reading 10 min read

Holiday Weekend Reading

If you're in search of good stuff to read or watch over the long holiday weekend, look no further than this newsletter for some can't-miss recommendations.

By Cary Littlejohn
Holiday Weekend Reading Post image

I had a week that reminded the of the joy that can come from reporting for a community newspaper. Two stories I wrote for the weekend edition were those happy, slice-of-life stories that had no immediate news value. They weren’t going to provide readers with must-know information. They weren’t holding institutions to account. They were just stories. They were a reminder of the power of stories in our lives, that telling them are one of those blessed things that only humans can do.

One was the story of a grandmother who, upon looking out her window at the intersection where her granddaughter crossed the street on her walk to school, noticed that sometimes there wasn’t a crossing guard. She called to let the school district know this, and before long, she was hired to do the job herself. She took that opportunity and ran with it. There’s not a lot of ways to spice up being a crossing guard, but she ingratiated herself to every person who drove by her intersection because she was smiling and waving at every single car that passed by. She never misses one. And people noticed. They brought her gift cards for coffee and flowers to the school, all to say thank you for making their day. They called and emailed my newspaper, saying, “Have you heard of her? Have you seen her? You should do a story on her.” It was such a treat to meet and talk to someone who just endlessly loved her job, whose personality said “Do things this way,” not for any recognition  but just because. Then to see people react to that positivity was nothing but uplifting, for it’s so rare that people agree on something wholeheartedly, but everyone I talked to agreed she was a light in a dark world.

The other story was a reunion of sorts. Almost 18 years ago, a pregnant woman went into such a quick delivery that she had no time to get to the hospital and gave birth in her own bathroom. A police officer, fresh off of a 12-hour shift, was on his way home when he got a call from his dispatcher telling him of the emergency and urging him to get over there because he was the closest to it. He floored it, arriving just minutes later, only to find the woman had given birth already. He was one of the first people the young baby met as he provided assistance until the ambulance could arrive.

Then life happened, and on both sides of that interaction — the family and the officer — lost track of each other, despite the story remaining a favorite for both. A week ago, the baby that was born in that bathroom graduated high school, and she had looked up the officer and sent him a graduation invite, along with a copy of the newspaper article that was written all those years ago documenting her birth and his role on that day. All those years later, the families hadn’t seen each other, wasn’t even sure the other was still in the town, despite the fact that the officer’s son was a classmate of the young woman and was graduating alongside her.

I got to talk to the families and relive that pivotal moment in a young person’s life when they graduate and the past, present, and future all compete for time and attention in the graduate’s mind. I was reminded in how random the world can seem, how little we know about even some of our most cherished stories, and how telling those stories is a great privilege.

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. 5280’s Robert Sanchez wrote recently about the value of community newspapers and the joy he had working at two of them early in his career. He wrote from a place of reverence. Those jobs allowed him to feel connected to his community in a way that few probably ever get to feel.  Though he doesn’t say it specifically, I can only imagine that there were moments when stories like the two I got to write this week came to his attention, and he felt the same privilege I did in writing them.

    I’d lived in my town nearly a decade by then, but I had never before felt so connected to my community. I wrote about town budgets, business openings, and infighting among a local school advisory board. The first time I used a cell phone was at a murder site. My first intense story was about a teenager whose estranged father tried to set fire to his mother’s apartment. The mayor recognized me at the Baskin-Robbins on Mainstreet; the police chief cornered me at Safeway to talk about community policing; kids at school told me how badly our town’s new “teen center” was failing; one of the local bar owners told me how much he hated the council members. I kicked ass on our newspaper softball team. I still have my shirt.

  2. The story about the cop and the graduate was a level of serendipity that felt like magic. I felt a sense of being lucky, of being in the right place at the right time, and marveling at how such an interesting set of events had just fallen into my lap. A recent Texas Monthly story about messages in bottles that were found in Texas made me feel the same way as I read it. There seems to be something lucky about finding a message in a bottle, not the same kind of lucky as winning the lottery, but a feeling of the world shrinking a bit and not feeling so massive. The story summed up that magic nicely:

    The odds of any given message in a bottle washing ashore aren’t great. A 2007 report from The American Surveyorfound that  less than 3 percent  of messages tucked into bottles and sent adrift were ever discovered, which means that the handful that wash up on Texas beaches every few months likely represents just a tiny fraction of messages sent. Various factors appear to influence the chances of such a bottle surfacing—closer to shore is better than farther out, and bottles launched from densely populated areas tend to get recovered at a higher rate than ones dropped into the Arctic Ocean. But such is the romance of the message in a bottle: the possibility that it will ever be discovered is slim, which is what makes these stories so appealing. It’s fun to ponder how a handwritten note can be preserved in glass and transported through time and space by the great unknowable force that is the ocean.

  3. There’s message in a bottle magic and then there’s “magic” magic. This newsletter has seen me reference magic and magicians on multiple occasions. But this recent New York Times story about David Berglas and his singular variation on a classic trick is a wonderful example of writing that makes you feel as if you were there. Here’s a description of the trick itself: 

    The trick is a version of a classic plot of magic, called Any Card at Any Number. These tricks are called ACAAN in the business. ACAAN has been around since the 1700s, and every iteration unfolds in roughly the same way: A spectator is asked to name any card in a deck — let’s say the nine of clubs. Another is asked to name any number between one and 52 — let’s say 31.

    The cards are dealt face up, one by one. The 31st card revealed is, of course, the nine of clubs. Cue the gasps. There are hundreds of ACAAN variations, and you’d be hard pressed to find a professional card magician without at least one in his or her repertoire. (A Buddha-like maestro in Spain,   , knows about 60.) There are ACAANs in which the card-choosing spectator writes down the named card in secrecy; ACAANs in which the spectator shuffles the deck; ACAANs in which every other card turns out to be blank. Dani DaOrtiz

    For all their differences, every ACAAN has one feature in common: At some point, the magician touches the cards. The touch might be imperceptible, it might appear entirely innocent. But the cards are always touched. With one exception: David Berglas’s ACAAN. He would place the cards on a table and he didn’t handle them again until after the revelation and during the applause. There was no sleight of hand, no hint of shenanigans. It was both effortless and boggling.

  4. Like with these examples of serendipity or magic, it can feel like lightning is striking. It’s so random that it seems to make no sense. The same thing could be said for anyone who goes viral on social media, perhaps evenly doubly so for pets who get famous online. It’s not because they’re not cute or funny; almost all of them are. It’s the fact that there are so many cute and funny pets and no shortage of owners posting that content online. Here’s a story of one woman’s attempt to make her dog Internet famous.

  5. I read this Vanity Fair piece about a group of wealthy Memphians who traveled via private jet to the Stop the Steal rally in Washington D.C. on Jan. 6 not to find out the shocking truth that many who supported Trump couldn’t plausibly claim “economic fear and frustration” as a reason but rather for the account of what the uber wealthy in Memphis do in the city. I grew up not far from Memphis. It was the easiest big city for us to travel to when it came time to go shopping or to visit the zoo. I went to college there, living in the city for four years. The article is about the haves and have-nots. Compared to the folks in this story, I was definitely a have-not. And I had no idea the kind of life the haves led.

  6. A long holiday weekend might see people getting together with family and friends for any number of activities. Hopefully the weather is nice enough to allow those to be outside, but somewhere there are probably folks getting together to enjoy a nice trip to a bowling alley. I recently stumbled across a story from WIRED about a man who reimagined the bowling bowl, who hacked the physics of the ball and made a name for himself. It’s a story that reminds you of the gap between pros and amateurs when reading about the things that serious bowlers want out of their bowling ball. I’m usually just happy to find a ball that’s not too heavy but also has right-sized finger holes.

  7. On the opposite end of a sport at its highest was the absolutely confounding, head-scratching moment from the recent Chicago Cubs and Pittsburg Pirates game. Rarely are pros reduced to such tee-ball shenanigans, and everyone who’s watched it has to ask the same basic question: Have you forgotten how baseball works? Just step on first.” But alas, that doesn’t happen, and madness, absolute madness, ensues.   Twitter delivered another glorious baseball clip that showed some next-level conflict resolution skills by an umpire making the decision to eject a pitcher from the game after he throws behind a batter. It’s full of profanity-ridden tirades, and the ump sticks to his guns. A masterclass. 

  8. My love and admiration for the Apple TV+ show Ted Lasso is well documented in this newsletter, but I loved this recent piece from Vulture on an unsung hero of the show, Coach Beard. It’s a Q&A with a writer on the show’s second season about what makes the character so memorable and necessary to the success of the show.

    Is there a scene from the first season that stands out to you? They do a lot of fun things with puns. I think that’s in episode two.

    I love the puns. I love that they do a lot of references to musicals. I just love this guy who knows everything about soccer and musicals. There’s a scene where the team is at an away game and they’re watching, I think, Iron Giant, and Ted has to leave. He tells Beard to stay here because in about 32 minutes, you’re going to have a room full of sobbing men. And Beard goes, “I’m going to be one of them.” When you cut back to them, you see all the players crying over Iron Giant. That’s what I love about the show and also this character — it’s showing different ways of being masculine and that watching a movie and crying with your buddies over a cartoon is one of the ways you could be a strong man. I love it. And that Beard has no shame in telling Ted, “Oh, I’m absolutely going to cry to this movie too.” [Here’s a clip that was embedded in the middle of this section online.]

  9. On two consecutive nights this week, I went to the movies. One of them was Disney’s new live-action origin story, Cruella. I had a great time at this film, even if there were serious criticisms that could be made, namely, Why was this film/story necessary at all? Who needs a backstory for Cruella? Nobody, right? Right. But if you can get beyond the crass commercialization and expansion of Disney’s IP empire, it was a really enjoyable film, and no critic’s review nailed that point as well as Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff.

  10. The second film was A Quiet Place Part II, which picked up right where the first one left off. I’m not a longstanding fan of horror films, so I just watched the first one earlier this week. I enjoyed it, but not to the extent of so many when the film was first released and flooded with love and admiration. I watched it more as homework required before I could go to see the sequel, just because I was excited to go to the movies. The film has racked up more than $50 million in its opening weekend, so obviously the love for the first film has not diminished. I hated the experience of watching it because, as so many have hoped, nature is healing and a Friday night showing was full of teens and preteens who made the theater a very NOT quiet place. I say all of that as an explanation for my mindset that led me to finding the sequel just “meh.” This Rolling Stone article expresses some of my more reasonable criticisms of the film, namely that an original bit of storytelling, so rare in this era of IP-or-bust in Hollywood, is becoming its own brand of IP, with another film on the way, perhaps to the detriment of this second film’s ending.

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