Newsletter: July 3
Happy 4th! It’s been forever since I’ve sent out a standard weekend email (my Luca/Pixar Project one doesn’t count), so I’m happy to be back in your inbox with just some things I liked this week.
Where have I been? Well, a little bit of everywhere.
Four weeks ago, I made my first-ever real trip to Colorado, to see the wedding of two of the best people I know. It was in Estes Park, right at the edge of the Rocky Mountain National Park, and I stayed in a tiny cabin that overlooked a rushing river. It was a chance to reunite with friends from Missouri, and it was exactly what the doctor ordered.
Three weeks ago, I was camping, not far from Kaycee, Wyoming, at the Outlaw Cave Campground.
Two weeks ago, I spent early Friday on neighboring ranches in Rozet, where small-time ranchers were dealing with drought conditions by having to sell off their cattle. I stood in the middle of reservoirs that haven’t held water in a year, and I heard about the struggles of soaring hay prices and selling off just to avoid crushing debt. That night, I was watching some incredible teens come together for the first time as a band, and put on an absolutely kick-ass show. The next morning, I was on the road by 4 a.m. with my photographer driving about 50 miles south of Gillette to the Pumpkin Buttes, where nearby a young man of just 26 years has more than 13,000 acres of ranch land. He started his ranch in 2020, and this two-year stretch is one of the harshest in memory, if you ask those in the know. A difficult time to start an already difficult endeavor. He was hosting a cattle branding and cowboys and cowgirls from all over showed up to help him.
Last weekend, I sat in as things returned to normal, when the Class of 2000 got to have its 20th reunion one year late and partnered up with the Class of 2001.
I also attended a music festival where a son carried on his father’s tradition of coming to Gillette to play jazz music; the father had been doing the festival since its very first year and passed away last spring from COVID-19, one of the earliest deaths attributed to the pandemic in the state of Colorado. In the middle of the show, a massive storm blew in and almost tore down the stage.
I published stories on most of these adventures, and if I haven’t yet, I soon will. I try to stay on top of the news and stories I want to share with you all throughout the week, but I still need the weekends to write them up, and I’ve just been swamped lately. So I write to you this week knowing there are a ton of stories I’ve missed, and I’m hoping you all have found some great ones even without my help.
That said, it feels good to be back.
ESPN’s Kevin Van Valkenburg wrote about the greatness of Simone Biles, easily the most dominant athlete any one sport has ever seen, but he did so through the eyes of his daughter, with whom he watched the U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials in St. Louis. It would be a wonderful essay on sports if that’s all it was, but it’s so much more. It’s about fatherhood. It’s about greatness. It’s about the collective experiences we missed out on during COVID-19. It’s stunning.
A new biography of Jimmy Carter was reviewed in the New York Times. The book was authored by Kai Bird, and the review points out that the book is a reappraisal of Carter’s presidency that judges it more positively than history often remembers. From the review:
For Bird, who won a Pulitzer Prize with Martin J. Sherwin for a biography of Robert Oppenheimer, this background is the basis for considering Carter a nonconformist, the odd man out — the outlier. Standing athwart the poisonous traditions of the Deep South could have led to a sense of insecurity. But Carter, as Bird repeatedly observes, has always burned with a sense of being right. And more often than not, Bird argues, Carterwasright: “No modern president worked harder at the job and few achieved more than Carter.” Bird blames Carter’s basic honesty for the fact that most Americans missed this about his presidency. He became an especially appealing target for criticism in an era of seemingly insuperable challenges — an oil crisis, high inflation, low growth, apparent Soviet geostrategic gains, the Iran hostage crisis. “For most Americans,” Bird writes, “it was easier to label the messenger a ‘failure’ than to grapple with the hard problems.”
It reminded me of the time I made the trip to Plains, Georgia, for an early morning church service, for the chance to hear the man himself speak as he’s done for decades now. He was gracious and welcoming, for no doubt many of those who’d made the trip were there for his fame, not to hear the gospel. But he made sure they got both: He and Rosalynn sat for photos with everyone who came after the service had ended, but before they got a photo, they got the Word.
On my five-plus-hour drive back to Gillette from Estes Park after that wedding, I listened to the entirety of Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book, The Bomber Mafia. I loved it, finding it an interesting mix of the style for which Gladwell’s become known and military history. More recently, Gladwell was making headlines for being one of the earliest writers promoted on Bulletin, the newsletter service being rolled out by Facebook to compete with the likes of Substack. As a part of that press attention, I came across this critical piece in The New Republic about the book. I don’t disagree with the piece’s overall opinion that a book about the most effective ways to kills large swaths of civilians is crass and somewhat gross. But I disagree with how the author lets that fundamental truth suggest that the book wasn’t worth writing or failed on moral grounds because it engaged in the exercise at all. I think both can be true: The differences of opinion between these two military leaders that Gladwell examines both led to atrocious acts, even if done under the cover of war, but the fight over which strategy to use going forward is immensely interesting.
While in Estes Park, I stopped in a quaint little bookstore and picked up a copy of Michael Lewis’s newest book, The Premonition. It’s a pandemic book, but not of the same sort as Lawrence Wright is writing (the extended version of his New Yorker article, The Plague Year). It’s more a continuation of his previous book on the Trump Administration called The Fifth Risk, which looks at the inefficiencies and unpreparedness of things we assumed would be efficient and prepared, namely the United States’ government. As described this review from the Guardian, the best part of the book is this sprawling cast of characters and their rich backstories. Because Lewis is a masterful writer (and because the stories are interesting in their own right), many pages pass before he actually starts talking about the COVID-19 pandemic. But I didn’t mind. I was engrossed in the backstories and couldn’t wait to see how all the characters crossed paths in 2020 during the pandemic. I wholeheartedly recommend everyone to read this book.
Ed Yong is still toiling away at keeping Atlantic readers educated about the COVID-19 pandemic, and his latest on the Delta variant can be summed up thusly in three points: 1) Vaccines are still beating the virus, 2) Unvaccinated people are getting pummeled by the variants, and 3) The longer No. 2 continues, the less likely No. 1 will hold.
Mark McCloskey sucks. That much is not news. But now the gun-wielding doofus is running for the U.S. Senate in Missouri, which, of course he is. He held a rally recently in St. Louis, and the Riverfront Times, the local alt-weekly in STL, reminded us why alt-weeklies’ demise has been tragic. It absolute skewers McCloskey, from the very first paragraph:
Noted local criminal Mark McCloskey played host to a barbecue/political rally on Sunday afternoon, drawing tens of admirers to the sweltering parking lot of a closed outlet mall in St. Louis County to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the time he pulled a gun on a crowd of people who otherwise would never have noticed or cared he existed.
It just keeps going, and every line is pure gold.
Texas is among a handful of states going totally stupid over the faux controversy surrounding Critical Race Theory supposedly being taught in grade schools. (Spoiler: It isn’t.) The Texas Tribune does a good job breaking down what the state’s new legislation is saving the school-aged children from, namely a non-existent threat that they’ll be forced to study and comprehend a university-level (actually, graduate-level and mostly law school-level) academic theory that seeks to better understand racial inequalities that still persist to this day. This is just another example of the power of social issues in political discourse and how simple, repetitive (if demonstrably false) claims of general grievances can be weaponized.
On the theme of race and American history, have you read Frederick Douglasss’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” It’s a perfect encapsulation of the ways in which too many Americans have a selective memory of our history without paying due respect to the parts of it that are much harder to stomach. In light of the celebration of America’s birth, I’d encourage you to read it. (Relatedly, I’m finally reading Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, so I don’t have anything spoiled when I finally watch Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of it on Amazon.)
In the Walrus, there was a wonderful ode to the bygone days of browsing, specifically for art. The author uses the example of a local Blockbuster and exploring the rows of films, and how it led from one thing to another. The same concept could be said of knowledge acquisition. Gone are the days of stumbling over extraneous information in an encyclopedia. You went to the book for information on salamanders but got lost in the entry for Saturn. We don’t have an easy analog these days, although the numerous links in a given Wikipedia article can lead you on quite a research trail. But I miss the library-esque layout of movie stores, and this essay reminded me why.
I’m trying to return (or re-return, as it were) to blogging, even though it’s like a New Year’s resolution that I give up on time and time again. I’ve done decently since I made the decision. There have been more than a few death notices that I found interesting, like John McAfee (of antivirus fame), Janet Malcolm, John Langley (creator of Cops), and Donald Rumsfeld. There was Scottie Pippen in GQ and Quentin Tarantino on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. Plus the Sopranos prequel and a Ted Lasso convert.
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