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On The Kindness of Strangers 9 min read

On The Kindness of Strangers

Finding your people in nature, plus top-notch true-crime reporting, Colleen Hoover, Hilary Mantel, reading, AI, and more.

By Cary Littlejohn

I’ve recently set a new goal for myself: Walk all the trails in my city of Columbia, Missouri.

Partly inspired by the likes of Craig Mod, but mostly in response to the comfort of walking the same stretch of trail—sometimes farther, sometimes shorter, but almost always the same stretch close to my house—for almost two years now. 

The last time I lived here (a stretch that also ran two years), I did the same thing, but on the other side of town. Proximity (and by extension, convenience) is my M.O., not, as it could be, exploration.

Columbia is a modest-sized city, its beating heart the University of Missouri and all that falls within its orbit. But one of my favorite of its many offerings is more than 60 miles of trails, incorporated right into the city, able to transport you from bustling streets to canopies of trees and running streams in just minutes. 

I hope to document some of these walks, as an extra incentive to get outside my comfort zone of “the trails just down the hill from my house.” In my first step toward all of that, my girlfriend and I hit the trails early on Saturday morning, hoping to beat the heat. We walked a modest distance on a brand-new (to us) trail and loved every second of it (minus some pterodactyl-sized mosquitoes that latched onto me with what I can only assume was the goal of lifting me off the ground). We didn’t push too hard, and we turned around as we felt the sun begin to heat up the day. 

It was delightful. We decided to celebrate with a nice big breakfast. But when we parked the car and got out at the restaurant, I patted my pocket of my shorts and did not feel the familiar rectangle of my front-pocket wallet. Had I left it at the house? Had I been driving around all morning without it? No, I didn’t think so, but it couldn’t hurt to check since the house wasn’t far away. Look around the house and, sure enough, I hadn’t. Checked everywhere in the car one more time, just to be sure, and then Courtney took over driving duties and pointed us right back to the crowded park we’d just left. 

It took forever to get there. Or at least that’s how I felt, alternating between nauseated whingeing and leg-bouncing anxiety. The two-lane road had been rendered pretty much useless by what can only be described as every single parent, grandparent, aunt, and uncle in Columbia trying to get into the park to see their little one play soccer. 

When we finally got parked, we commenced our search right where we’d last left off in the parking lot, thinking my wallet might have fallen out when I went to get into the car as we left. (Wouldn’t be the first time I lost something from a pocket.) Moving from empty parking spot to empty parking spot, looking for light leather to stand out against the blacktop, yielded nothing. Nor did looking under the few parked cars that were nearby. 

So there we were, steeling ourselves to retread the same ground we’d just trod for who knew how many miles, in hopes that speck of light-brown leather would stand out. It could be anywhere.

Just as we start down the trail, I happen to look at the gate arm that blocked the trail from cars, and as if the heavens parted, gold light shone down, and a chorus of angels started singing, there it was!

On some level, perhaps it’s easy to dismiss as just the “normal” thing to do. But I don’t think that’s a given. And it quickly made me feel an even deeper affinity for the few others we’d encountered on the trail that morning. Much like how you might feel when in a bookstore and look down an aisle to see another person reading the back of a book and you stop and think, “These are my people.” And without knowing them, you like them. You feel like you share something. 

The same was already true for those out on the trails so early on a Saturday, but with a small, unnecessarily kind act, they won my heart. On the off chance that they got curious about the name they saw on numerous credit cards and forms of ID and look me up, I hope they find this and can feel a fraction of the appreciation behind this deeply sincere thank you.

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. Hard to describe just how good this incredibly in-depth Rachel Aviv story in The New Yorker is. It clocks in at over 13,000 words, and not a one is wasted. It revisits the case of Lucy Letby, a neonatal nurse in the U.K. who was convicted of killing seven babies and attempting to kill six more. She was sentenced to life in prison and was only the fourth woman in U.K. history to get such a sentence. Aviv’s story posits a simpler explanation: The U.K.’s NHS was underfunded, understaffed, and overworked, and that Letby’s proximity to multiple deaths was correlation, not causation.
  2. It’s always interesting when someone lets you into their process, and Nieman Lab has a great interview with Aviv about how the story came together.
  3. I have this memory from visiting my dear friends in Knoxville this past fall: It was a little book club package thrown together in the midst of a Tennessee Volunteers basketball game we were watching that asked the players what they were reading. In it, fifth-year senior Josiah-Jordan James was repping two authors: Sara J. Maas and Colleen Hoover. My girlfriend has been plowing through one series by Maas, so I know the name if not the work, but Colleen Hoover remains mostly a name I see in large numbers at my local bookstore. I can remember a collection of her titles adorning the shelving directly beneath the register at Skylark Books, and while in there, a woman coming through the doors to ask for one in particular. I realized then just how big and popular Hoover’s work was, and thus how big my blind spot that I didn’t know her at all. So I was excited to read this Texas Monthly story on Hoover and the reality of a blocked writer.
  4. Another author, totally different style. I loved this piece from The New York Review of Books on Hilary Mantel’s posthumously published book of essays. I love her perspective on reading fiction:

There are people who declare, “I love reading,” which is a lame-brain statement like “I love children.” When anyone refers—as papers and magazines do at holiday time—to the pleasure of “escaping” into a good book, you can be sure the writer has no idea what books are for. They are not there to allow you to escape, but to give you information about the human condition, which is a thing you cannot escape. You find out the use of books when you are very young. History, biography, and novels in particular lend you experience that is not yet your own. They are an advance paid on life. They hand you different scripts to try. They rehearse you. If you want entertainment, roll dice; then you can maintain your happy-go-lucky innocence. Novels teach you that actions have consequences. They help you grow up.

  1. Speaking of reading, it’s still bleak out there when it comes to college students. This story from The Chronicle of Higher Education (requires registration/sign-in to read free articles) details a great many of the potential causes and how professors are dealing with the marked decline in reading ability, motivation, and stamina.
  2. Do you remember what it felt like to wake up without a phone? That simple question gave way to a great essay/book review in The Point. I particularly love this description of a morning routine that feels all too familiar: “Almost automatically, I’m quipping bleary-eyed text replies, toothbrush in mouth, expressionless (though I’ve added lols). Turning to Twitter, I channel surf other brains before consulting my own. The news articles that strike me as crucial upon waking will later seem contrived, forgettable.”
  3. I remember an article we argued over in a college class focused on argumentation and debate: Is Google Making Us Stupid? It was worried about the same things the Chronicle of Higher Ed piece is worried about when it comes to reading: How technology is changing our expectations and our ability to think. Back then, Goggle was less about the massive suite of interconnected products it is today; it was still best known as the can’t-miss search engine. And now, Google Search is about to change. This WIRED piece talks about all the ways AI is going to be integrated into Google Search, which has already been degraded by the huge influx of paid ads at the top of our results instead of what we actually searched for. Now, before the obligatory ads, will be an AI-generated summary that hopes to answer your search.
  4. Want more AI-related changes to things that once made sense? The founder of the dating app Bumble made waves when talking about how AI could change the entire dating app experience. Her idea? “A world where your dating concierge could go and date for you with another dating concierge.” Translation: AI-powered bots that you’ve trained will “date” the AI-powered bots that potential mates have trained, and only if those dates pan out, will you, the human in search of a date, be brought into the loop. So beyond the Google Search example, where the nameless, faceless AI tries to answer questions for you (rather than simply giving you links to things that are the likeliest to contain the answer for you), this would entail presumably countless missed connections because these bots have decided for you that it’s probably not going to work out. It’s all so very weird, as this piece from Slate sums up for you.
  5. OK, OK. One more and then I swear I’m done. The fine folks over at 404 Media had some thoughts on OpenAI’s newest version of GPT-4 Omni, which can talk to you.

While GPT-40 appears to be, from carefully controlled and scripted demos released by the company, a powerful piece of tech with the ability to process visual inputs, speak with convincing “ums” and stutters, and listen to audio, all anyone is talking about is its voice. They especially note that it sounds uncannily like Scarlett Johansson in the movie Her.

  1. Now, for a palate cleanser from all that AI terribleness: A truly delightful essay in The Paris Review on Scrabble and addiction.

More From Me

Over on my blog, I’ve been writing about various topics of interest to me.

RIP, Twitter

DIY Astrophotography

John McPhee and Words

Coolest Job in the World

AI Helps to Win a Pulitzer

Alice Munro's Art of Fiction Interview

Culture Diary

Here’s a collection of what I’ve been consuming in the past week.

The legend for my list was stolen from Steven Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, Sentence Case is a TV show, ALL CAPS ITALICS is a short film,  Italics is a book, and bold is a live performance or show. A number in parentheses after a TV show highlights how many episodes I watched. An asterisk after an entry means it’s a rewatch. The source of the movie or show, whether streaming service, physical media, or in theaters, is shown in parentheses as well.

5/13: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, S11 (Max)
5/14: Jeopardy! Masters (Hulu); THE BEAST (2024) (theater)
5/15: Eeverybody’s in L.A. (Netflix)
5/16: PGA Championship (ESPN+); Jeopardy! Masters (Hulu)
5/17: PGA Championship (ESPN+); Survivor, S46 (Paramount+)
5/18: PGA Championship (Paramount+); BOTTOMS* (Amazon Prime)
5/19: PGA Championship (Paramount+); AMERICAN FICTION* (Amazon Prime)