It is difficult to escape the cold, which seems to be at its most intense while I’m sitting here writing to you. I hope that you’re bearing up, and for those who live in or are visiting warmer places, that you’re appreciating your moment’s good fortune.
This week’s newsletter takes a look back at the past year in five categories (visionaries, commentary, books, films, and music). In each one, I’ve briefly profiled a person or work that struck a cord in me because of the power in their points of view.
All provide a perspective from someplace in the borderlands, tell us something about what they’re seeing from out there, and how they’re trying to influence the rest of us.
Barry Lopez is an author best known for writings about the environment and man’s interactions with nature. His Arctic Dreams won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction, while Of Wolves and Men was a finalist in the same category. I didn’t know about Lopez until this year, when someone referenced an interview that he’d given to The Alpine Review on Twitter.
That interview was in 2016, when he was beginning his struggle with cancer but eager to respond to a wide-range of questions in spite of it. I’ve highlighted his remarks on “speaking out” about issues that matter to him, and what he hopes to accomplish when he does.
On the importance of standing apart from the broader society:
"It’s necessary to have people out on the edge calling back to us about what’s coming."
On the tone of your cautionary tales when you care about the people who are hearing them:
"I want to understand how far I can go without overstating the presence of darkness."
On what to give a crowd that’s come to hear you:
"I gave a talk once at the Athenaeum in Providence, Rhode Island, and I asked the man who was my host, what is it that Emerson and all of these people did on a Sunday afternoon at the Athenaeum? Did they talk about politics, or did they talk about science, or did they talk about sports? What was it that made these talks so much a part of cultural memory for us? And he said they just elevated — they brought the level of the conversation up. And I reflected on that and thought, well, that’s what I want [to do]."
When you’ve prepared your remarks, your choice is always between enabling your listeners and simply talking to them:
"I’m pouring this out, and I’ve crafted it, and I hope you’re moving into it and having your own thoughts at the same time. [When] people get up out of those seats and walk out, I can tell by body language that there is a sense of self-worth that is there that might not have been there. A person who has that sense of self-worth is capable of imagining things that are good for that person’s family, and basically good for the world. That’s that elevating thing. I think if the story or the talk in front of a group of people is structured properly, people will recall what it is they mean by their lives, and if they do that then they’re prepared to take that next step in their own imaginations."
On Lopez’ writing:
"You’re writing to complete yourself in other people; that’s your work."
Roxane Gay is a teacher of creative writing at Purdue. She published a collection of essays called Bad Feminist in 2014 about how most feminists are out of touch with those who most need the movement, and her memoir Hunger from last year was about her experience with weight.
The essayof hers that I’m recommending is called “Tiny House Hunters” and the Shrinking American Dream. In it, Gay makes observations about a cable TV show “where people pretend to look for a new tiny home and act like it is reasonable to live in a space with fewer than 400 square feet.”
Of course, she wouldn’t really fit in one—which is why her writing about the show and its implications has its particular sting. “When one aspires to own a tiny home, they have a correspondingly tiny American dream,” she writes, and that dream fits fewer of us--including the paycheck Gay has gotten for most of her adult life, or her body type.
"Shows like Tiny House Hunters flourish, in part, because even now, after the mortgage crisis and financial collapse, home ownership and the American dream are synonymous. Home ownership represents success and the putting down of roots. Home ensures the stability of the American family. When you own a home, there is always a place where you belong, and where you are the master or mistress of your own domain…
"[But] when we talk about the American dream, we never talk about what that dream costs. We never talk about how so many Americans are one financial crisis away from losing their savings or their homes. And we don’t talk about how the American dream should not be grounded in material things like large homes or fancy cars rather than, say, single-payer health care, subsidized childcare, or a robust Social Security system."
Gay is calling for an American Dream that is large enough to fit (well) everybody. In a time when we’re transfixed by the day-in-day-out of our soul-sucking politics, thinking about a dream that might really come true someday is a serious antidote.
Roxane Gay was born in Omaha and teaches in Indiana. Her “intimate, rigorous pontifications” (The New Yorker) have come from several borderlands, but I think the most significant one may be the heartland of America that still dares to dream.
When your job is writing, you’re always reading if you know what’s good for you, and it helps to read “up,” because there are magicians out there with tricks to show you. Last year, Michael Chambon did the best ones that I got to experience in his book Moonglow.
The stories I'm witing in WorkLifeReward are about my family and my work. Some of them are funny, even when they’re about nightmares, rage and madness. Moonglow is about these things too, along with a character in the story who has Chambon’s name. It’s not exactly autobiography however, as he announces in the “Author’s Note” that’s posted on the door of the rollercoaster ride we’re about to take.
"In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it. Wherever liberties have been taken with names, dates, places, events, and conversations, or with the identities, motivations, and interrelationships of family members and historical personages, the reader is assured that they have been taken with due abandon."
The result is that his book is both rollicking good fun and propulsive from beginning to end—no mean feat when you’re writing about yourself and your family.
Moonglow is loosely about his grandfather’s adventures, which are recounted to Chambon from his deathbed: his grandfather's childhood in Philadelphia, combat experience during the Battle of the Bulge, career in rocketry at NASA, imprisonment in New York after attacking a clueless boss, his wife’s commitment to an asylum, his late-in-life meeting with wartime hero Wernher von Braun, and his old age. The narrative "zigzags across time and geography" instead of unfolding from his past, but its chronological lurches are always held together—magically, I think—by what one reviewer called "a logic of memory." As a result, Moonglow’s seeming haphazardness provides far more space than usual for meaning and recognition to grow from the richness of its events and encounters.
The following excerpts show how Chambon’s use of words produce emotional resonance, with the last one being at once a hilarious striptease and a careful guarding of male vulnerability.
"He felt she was telling him she was going to die, and that she planned on doing it here, in this room that jumped in the candlelight."
"When I walked into the bedroom, I saw a shaft of afternoon sunlight, slanting in through a window, strike the eternal bottle of Chanel No. 5 on my grandmother’s vanity. A dijinn kindled in the bottle. It was the very color of the way my grandmother smelled; the color of the warmth of her lap and enfolding arms; the color of her husky voice resounding in her rib cage when she pulled me close.".
[And finally, Chambon recalling what his grandfather said about the night that he'd first met his grandmother:]
"Can I ask you to do something?” he said. “Would you by any chance be willing to take off those glasses?”
She stood very still, red lips pressed together. He wondered if he had made some king of gaffe, if asking a Frenchwoman to remove her sunglasses violated a well-known Gallic taboo.
“The eye doctor said I am not supposed to,” she said. Her voice faltered. “But I will.” This came out barely louder than a whisper.
“It’s all right,” he said. “Never mind. You can just tell me what color your eyes are. That’s all I really wanted to know.”
“No,” she said. “I will take them off for you. But also you have to do something for me. Let me do something, I mean to say.”
“Yeah? And what’s that?”
I don’t know how many people could have seen my grandparents, standing there in the hallway outside the doors of the reception room, whether anyone was paying attention. But even if they had been standing in an empty room, I imagine that neither my grandfather nor the mores of 1947 can have expected my grandmother to do what she did next. Looking back at that night from inside the soft gray nimbus of Dilaudid [a painkiller], my grandfather could only close his eyes, the way he closed them that night, as she reached out to the fly of his trousers and, tooth by tooth, zipped him up.
“C’est fait,” she said.
When he opened his eyes, he found himself lost for the first time in hers. They were the color of twilight in Monte Carlo, when the stars come out to twinkle like ten-watt bulbs, and the quarter moon fans her hem of sequins against the sky.
“Blue,” my grandfather said, falling back against the pillow of the rented hospital bed in my mother’s guest room. After than it was a long time, hours, before he opened his eyes again."
Moonglow is almost everything you could want on a cold day in a comfortable seat by a warm fire.
Wind River takes place during the winter in one of the most desolate corners of America, an Indian reservation in central Wyoming. It’s about a young girl’s murder and the struggle to bring her killers to justice.
The story itself proceeds along a conventional arc, but many of its details along the way are extraordinary. For example, the understated performances by Jeremy Renner, who hunts animal predators on the reservation, and Gil Birmingham, as the victim’s father, are breathtaking. Men taking care of one another in the face of unbearable tragedy has rarely been portrayed this movingly.
Jeremy Renner and Gil Birmingham
The screenplay by Taylor Sheridan (who also did the writing for the similarly excellent Sicario and Hell or High Water) is natural, spare and at times poetic. Nick Cave’s haunting music kept me on the edge of my foreboding seat, and the cinematography was literally bone chilling. Most of all, however, Wind River is about the terrible reality in places that no one seems to care about.
Before the credits, there is a postscript that tells about the hundreds of young women who have disappeared on Indian reservations, the fact that few are ever found, and that to this day no one keeps statistics to track this tragic loss. The film calls from all of America's borderlands and asks us to start caring about what’s happening there.
You can see Wind River's trailer here,although it only hints at the things that are most special about it.
(Another p.s.: In what seems like a year's worth of Harvey Weinstein, this may also be the last great movie that comes out of the Weinstein Studio.)
I won’t attempt to characterize the songs I’ve included in this 2017 sampler except to say that they’d all be considered “popular,” as opposed to classical, jazz, country or world music, and the performers are all English-speakers.
The six songs I've picked extend from most commercial, at the top, to least commercial, at the bottom. Except for the Spoon and War on Drugs songs, I either picked artists in unfamiliar combinations (Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile) or those I didn’t know about at all until last year. I hope you’ll enjoy the songs and decide to dive deeper into some of the artists. The links in the titles are to the song’s music videos. You can listen either with our without looking to concentrate on the sounds that have been produced and the messages that are being delivered.