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Say Uncle 6 min read

Say Uncle

The loneliness of having kids during a pandemic and the craziness of parenting in private schools, the brilliance of John McPhee, polymaths, QAnon claims a mother, and plenty of pop culture.

By Cary Littlejohn

I skipped last week’s email because I took an impromptu trip home to see my parents, sister, and niece.

I simply unplugged. My phone didn’t really factor into my few days in Tennessee nor did my laptop. I’m here to tell you that it felt fantastic.

It was humbling to play uncle for the first time in over a year. My niece is so much more complex and fun than she was the week she was born, and my guiding principle was “if she’s awake, we’re going to hang out.” It was a simple organizing principle, but I’m embarrassed at how tiring it was. Tiring in the best possible way, but tiring all the same. I practically lived in the floor, working my hardest to remove the title of “stranger” and earn the title of “uncle.” She loved to touch things, like the chain hanging down from the ceiling fan or framed pictures on the wall. She grew incredibly heavy while toting her around to see those things. She loved to swing in a hot-pink porch swing hung up just for her. She loved to dance to a catchy but unintelligible song coming from a rainbow-colored llama that danced around if you just pressed a button on its leg. If you didn’t watch her, she’d climb into an extra large dog bed, which was pretty fluffy and comfy. She thought hard about taking steps, and every now and then, could do it on her own until she realized what she was doing and dropped like a stone. She often stood with her toes curled underneath her, resting on the knuckles, and that probably made those attempts at walking all the harder, but how do you teach a kid to uncurl their toes? She liked chicken noodle soup. She loved to look at books, sometimes right-side up and others upside down, and she would let out a tiny little gasp at whatever she was seeing and say something between “Look” and “See?” that came out as “Sook.” She laughed a lot and cried relatively little. She stayed up late for a baby.

Suddenly, I was in awe of my little sister and her husband, who’ve been raising this little girl in the midst of a pandemic more than 11 hours away from any family to provide help for them when they undoubtedly grew tired.

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. I read a powerful essay from Sophie Gilbert in The Atlantic that reminded me of my sister’s new family. It was a woman recounting her life since giving birth to twins in the middle of the pandemic and how hard that had been. There were moments that smacked of truth because my sister had lived them, but then I realized that I knew too little of my sister’s actual experience with the challenges of new motherhood in a far-away place while a country was ravaged by a serious disease. Like this:

    Every person who’s given birth during the past year, I’d guess, has experienced a version of the same thing—a sense of isolation so acute that it’s hard to process. I was used to loneliness being something like a dull throb, a kind of ambient hum that rose or fell depending on what else was going on. The isolation of pandemic new parenthood was different. It felt like a wound. It stung bitterly from the very beginning, and every day that went by only made it more raw. Every milestone that my babies hit without anyone being around to witness it was colored with some grief. Every month we spent in the square-mile perimeter of our neighborhood made it harder to imagine ever leaving. 

  2. Sticking with the topic of parenting in The Atlantic, I was thrilled to read (a week or so late but who cares because it was in the print edition) Caitlin Flanagan’s wonderful piece with a strikingly simple thesis: Private schools are indefensible. 

  3. John McPhee turned 90 this month. He is a genius and writer of unrivaled talent. To me, it’s a talent that never overpowers or astonishes but rather one that subtly convinces you to care about something that had piqued his interest. Even if the elevator pitch for the story or book seems impossibly dull or impossible to sustain interest for thousands of words or hundreds of pages, McPhee’s work is a constant reward of trusting someone’s talent to reveal the miraculous and sublime in any topic. A wonderfully long career and wide-ranging interests covering countless topics from sports to the natural world to food will give you lots to explore. The New Yorker’s David Remnick introduces a small collection of pieces worth revisiting.

  4. The breadth of McPhee’s interests has always amazed me. “What can’t this guy write about?” I’d think. I thought of him in connection with a piece that was recommended by The Browser this past week about polymaths, “or the person of extraordinarily wide-ranging knowledge.”  Commentary magazine published a review of Peter Burke’s new book, The Polymath, and I found the review a great endorsement for the book. Even though the author disagrees with many to whom Burke bestows the descriptor of polymath, especially as the examples cover more recent figures. But it’s a topic that I find so appealing, the accumulation of knowledge resembling nothing short of a super power that, to some degree, is achievable if we just set our minds to it. 

  5. This Washington Post piece on climate science revelations made possible from soil samples taken from beneath Greenland’s ice sheet reminded me of the bonkers ice-climbing story I shared two weeks ago. The Post’s story tells about a project to hide nuclear weapons under Greenland’s ice, and how that failed project led to a discovery about just how fragile Greenland’s ice sheet really is.

  6. Erik Wemple, the Washington Post’s media critic, took his own publication to task for giving Trump trolls a foothold to cry foul, fabrication, and fake news. The piece begins:

    On Jan. 9, The Post reported that then-President Donald Trump, in a call with Georgia’s lead elections investigator, Frances Watson, had instructed her to “find the fraud.” He mentioned that she could become a “national hero,” reported the newspaper. In both cases, the quotes were wrong, as  The Post has acknowledged in a correction  to the story. 

  7. I recently covered a school board meeting, same as I do every two weeks. More than two dozen people showed up to make comments (or support those making comments) that because the governor had rescinded the state’s mask policy, the schools across the state shouldn’t have to wear them anymore. (That was not the case, because schools were required to wear masks long before the governor enacted the mask mandate, so canceling the one had no effect on the other.) One of the women who spoke against the mask said they caused severe physiological and psychological damage to students. She called it a crime against humanity to deprive students of life-sustaining oxygen. She offered no evidence for any of these claims. She was followed by another woman who stood up to put the board on “legal notice” that crimes had been committed and they were required by law to respond. The crimes were a hodgepodge of QAnon-inspired Big Lies, and it was simply an airing of those grievances with no mention of face masks. I knew QAnon had to have a strong foothold in this community, but I hadn’t seen it so clearly in front of me. These were just some of things running through my mind as I read the firsthand account of one BuzzFeed News reporter’s relationship with his mother as she went deeper into the QAnon rabbit hole

  8. Speaking of crazy stories dealing with holes, did you read the Curbed story of the women who felt a draft coming from a mirror in her NYC apartment only to find the mirror covering a hole that led to an entire other three-bedroom apartment? Not her neighboring apartment. When she went out the door, she was in a completely different part of her apartment building. 

  9. More superheroes: Now that WandaVision is over, the MCU has Falcon and Winter Solider teed up and ready to go. The first episode aired this week, and it was perfectly fine and enjoyable. This WIRED article argues that it’s the wrong format. It says:

    That could be the biggest failing of Falcon and the Winter Soldier—that it doesn’t feel like a television show at all. According to the creators, that was a conscious decision. “Everybody went into this saying we’re making a six-hour feature,” director Kari Skogland told  Entertainment Weekly . “We’ll break it up so ultimately it will look like television, but it will feel like a six-hour feature.”

    Then it says that’s a bad idea because nobody wants to watch a six-hour feature. And yet, the Snyder Cut exists (and clocks in at just over four hours) and opened on HBO Max to largely positive reviews. I, for one, still don’t get it. Is it better than the 2017 cut? Yes. Does that make it good? No.

  10. Drinking Double-Feature: A fun surprise in this year’s Oscar nominations was Thomas Vinterberg’s inclusion for Best Director. His film, Another Round, is a beautiful film. It follows four middle-aged Danish men who decide to dabble in a self-run social experiment with day-drinking. It’s on Hulu, and Mads Mikkelson is delightful. One of the last films from the beforetime was The Way Back, starring Ben Affleck, as a former high school basketball standout struggling through a tough time one drink at a time who’s then asked to coach his former team. I just now watched it, and it feels like the buzz about the film was dwarfed by COVID-19. If you skipped out on this one, it’s actually one of the better releases to come out of 2020.

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