When people say, “It’s the little things,” you might roll your eyes at such cliched “wisdom.” But I’m finding so much truth in those words in the past couple of weeks that I’m going to share why and ask you what little things are getting you through.
Learning something new: One of my colleagues at the paper used to work at a pizzeria. On more than one occasion when we’ve gotten together to watch a sporting event, he’s made us homemade pizzas using the recipe and methods from that pizzeria. The pizzas were delicious, and so I asked him to show me how the ingredients, how he made the dough, the whole nine yards. Last weekend, he did, and it felt so good to be ignorant of something and being led along by someone willing and happy to share his knowledge with me. To those of you who might scoff and say, “But it’s pizza dough; how hard could it be?” I say you’re missing the point. It’s not that hard; he said so many times. But this isn’t about the complicated things. We’re celebrating the simple things, and simpler than the recipe was the method by which I came to learn of the recipe. I simply asked.
Like-minded friends: I wanted to write more in 2021. I write for a living, but I don’t always write for myself. I write a newsletter, but it stretches many of the same muscles as my journalistic writing. I wanted to write in new ways, to discover new muscles, to feel sore after the expended effort because I’d done something untested. I decided to try my hand at fiction. Short stories to be safe, while if not necessarily easier to write when it comes to the mix of character development and pacing and revelation, they’re at least not as long. Writing is hard, and that truth comes as no surprise to anyone who’s ever picked up a pencil or stared down the blinking cursor on a blank word processor. I found it no easier despite my day job; in fact, I whined to nobody in particular about the added unfairness of writing so much for my job—When would I ever find time to write for myself? Then I had an unexpected revelation in a group message with two friends from grad school: They were each working on a novel, but none of us knew of the others’ efforts (or even the aspirations behind the efforts). Suddenly, we were talking about writing strategies, giving the elevator pitches of our stories, confessing self-imposed deadlines, and much more. It was one of the best conversations I’ve had in 2021 thus far. It was reinvigorating, which was more needed than I’d care to admit not even one month into the new year, and it felt like a relief from wandering in the desert. Not that the wandering has ended, mind you; I just found some close confidants with whom to wander. And that can make all the difference.
So there are two incredibly simple things that are bringing me joy. I hope you all have something like that, something small and seemingly insignificant that’s actually quite meaningful to you, to get you through what’s still a profoundly strange and difficult time.
If you do, please share them with me, whatever they might be. It feels good to share what’s keeping you afloat, and I can assure you it would feel good to read your small joys from simple things, too.
Ten Worth Your Time
This piece by Charles Homans for the New York Times Magazine on “How Armed Protests are Creating a New Kind of Politics” is just one example of excellent journalism coming out of the aftermath of Jan. 6.
Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” Mao Zedong observed in 1938. Americans, by contrast, have generally whistled past the full implications of their own privately held arsenal, treating guns as an object of politics, not a subject. This is partly a function of the country’s until recently unbroken modern record of peaceful transfers of power. It is also a triumph of Second Amendment activists’ messaging and their ability to successfully navigate that message’s central paradox: that the right to bear arms is constitutionally guaranteed because of the potential need to overthrow the same government that codifies the right in the first place. Gun rights advocates have done this mostly by confining their language with monotonous discipline to the fact and mythology of the Revolutionary War, associating gun rights with heroism and patriotism while also implicitly assuring that their exercise against the state is a matter of deep history. George Washington knew what Mao knew, of course, but his own revolution was an awfully long time ago.
PS—Gillette, WY connection/fun fact: Author Charles Homans got his start in journalism at my paper, the Gillette News Record.
Like Homans’s story, this is another of the type that I can’t stop reading out of some mixture of horror and fascination. The mistake would be to think this is primarily the fringe, like the militia movements of the ‘90s from which it sprang. But that would be wrong, that would be to underestimate the connective power of the internet and social media. It’s much bigger and more pervasive than any of the support for anti-government militias ever had. This New York Times account of the Boogaloo movement is indispensable. There’s a well-known political rabble-rouser here in my Wyoming community, extra conservative in that newer mold of Trump conservatism, and he’s often seen in Hawaiian shirts, like the those that are the calling cards of the Boogaloo Bois. Here, in Wyoming, where I’m still new but feel fairly certain that Hawaiian-styled clothing is not popular, one has to wonder: Does he subscribe to this kind of thinking? Or is he just a guy in an out-of-place shirt?
Consider then-President Trump’s thoughts on the Jan. 6 raid on the Capitol:
The adviser told me that Trump expressed disgust on aesthetic grounds over how “low class” his supporters looked. “He doesn’t like low-class things,” the adviser said, explaining that Trump had a similar reaction over the summer to a video of Brad Parscale, his former campaign manager, shirtless and drinking a beer in his driveway during a mental-health emergency in which police tackled him and seized his weapons. “He kept mentioning, ‘Oh, did you see him in his beer shirt?’ He was annoyed. To him, it’s just low class, in other words.
That was the reporting from New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi. There was briefly a feeling that the pro-Trump mob was simply as Trump feared: low-class. But people reminded critics that such characterizations let many well-to-do people, with educations and good jobs and respectable titles, off the hook. This is the concerning story, told by BuzzFeed News, of one of those groups we should be thinking about: teachers.
PS—Another Gillette, WY connection/fun fact: There’s a link in the story to a Chattanooga Times Free Press article by Patrick Filbin, the reporter who sat at my desk in Wyoming before I did.
Joan Didion is a giant in the literary and journalism worlds. And for good reason. Nathan Heller wrote about her in this week’s issue of The New Yorker, and it’s a fantastic read.
A friend of mine who taught high school with Teach for America in Mississippi went on return to his native New York for medical school. He came to visit me in Mississippi, where I was still living at the time, in the same town to which I’d been sent by TFA to teach. We drove out to a spot on a ridge that overlooked the Mississippi Delta, the last high spot before it flattened out for eternity to the west. There was an old observation tower, but I no longer had the means to unlock it. So we scaled the thing until we could climb over and reach the steps inside. Looking out over the delta as the sun sank, he allowed himself to get lost in the beauty of the place. And make no mistake: It was beautiful. He spoke about loving it in Mississippi, which wasn’t an odd thing for him to say. He’s a thoughtful and sentimental man. But I’d spent so much of my life right on the edge of Mississippi, just across the state line in Tennessee, that I’d forgotten what it meant to look at the place with fresh eyes. He’d come and loved what he’d experienced, for it was unlike anything in New York. I took it for granted too often, and it was nice to be reminded of its importance and wonder when I saw the sun setting on the delta as he must have seen it. That’s what this essay from The Bitter Southerner made me think of when I read it. No matter if you’ve never spent any time in Mississippi; you’ll appreciate it, too.
GameStop and short-selling stocks are all anyone seems to be talking about this week, at least when it comes to those on Twitter. There has been so much excellent explanatory journalism written this week on the topic, I decided to spare you more of it here. But I did love this brief column from WIRED that suggested now as a great time to rewatch The Big Short, which I always think is a marvelous idea, as it was one of my favorite films of 2015. Michael Lewis’s book in Adam McKay’s directorial hands was a potent combination.
Instead of more explainers on GameStop, read more Michael Lewis with this New York Times piece from 2001 on a 15-year-old kid who basically upended Wall Street from his home computer using AOL email and E*Trade.
Speaking of Michael Lewis, one of the things that made The Big Short so compelling (in both book and film forms) is that he found some sources who knew what was what from the early stages. He’s arguably done so again, but instead of stocks and short-selling, he’s looking at the pandemic and the scientists who saw it coming. His next book will be called The Premonition, and hopefully he doesn’t get distracted from it by all this GameStop brouhaha. Lewis is one of our great nonfiction writers, and his great skill is to take something incredibly complex and make it not only graspable but enthralling.
A thoughtful conversation between GQ’s Zach Baron and Apple CEO Tim Cook after Cook made some surprisingly pointed comments about the “Data-Industrial Complex,” meaning the incredible amount of surveillance and tracking we all undergo every day through our mobile devices.
Cook also highlighted two new Apple features. The first is what the company is calling a “privacy nutrition label” — a section on App Store product pages that explains every app’s privacy practices, including what they do with your data. The second, already more controversial, is App Tracking Transparency, a feature that will require apps to get permission before tracking your data, and which will become mandatory in the very near future.
The pandemic hit the movie industry hard; that much is no secret. It’s early in 2021, but there was already a big release that might or might not have driven audiences to theaters in non-COVID times. Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, and Jared Leto, three Academy Award-winners, headline The Little Things, now in theaters (where available) and streaming on HBO Max. It’s a detective-chases-killer thriller in the same mold as Seven (perhaps too much in the same mold): aging ace detective (who happens to be Black) is pretty much out of the game but gets pulled back in by a captivating murder that results in him taking a up-and-coming white detective under his wing. The similarities don’t stop there. Here’s the thing: It’s not good, but it’s wildly watchable. Denzel is good, Malek is miscast and I, for one, couldn’t stop staring at his mouth and wondering why and how his upper lip completely covers his teeth when he talks the way it does, and Leto might as well be acting in a completely different movie for how much he hams it up. As this Vulture review correctly points out, the ending is an oddity, thinking it’s more profound and revelatory than it actually is and doing so in a way that actually hinders the viewer’s understanding of the character’s motivations. Despite all that, Denzel is Denzel, and he did more than could be asked for with such a lackluster script.
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