★ The polar air was dismaying, not monstrous as it had been in the previous incursions. A street-sweeping truck raised a solid-looking cloud of dry dust on West End and left it hanging in the crosswalk for a dauntingly long time after the light changed. The sky was the color of salt-dust, too. The sun faded out and in. Pigeons fluffed and waddled in a patch of turf where the deep cold had preserved the last thin snowfall down between the grass blades, as if it were a specimen of long-term significance. Some new kind of blue melting salt was at work on the sidewalks. A pile of dog turds had been so freeze-dried as to resemble wood shavings. The late sky was subtly mottled.
I'm a doctor.
People sometimes ask how I managed to complete a doctoral degree in literature, despite knowing that I wouldn’t be pursuing an academic career or using it for anything.
My response usually goes something like this (it doesn’t, but let’s pretend it does):
I picture myself, an 89-year-old woman, sitting in a wheelchair and staring out over a field of wheat. I reflect back on my life, what I have achieved, what happened, who I loved, who I had been, and who I had become. I think back on that glorious period of life when I thought I’d become a scholar, a thinker, and a teacher. And I wonder after all these years why I didn’t just finish it. What was so hard back then that I couldn’t just write a few more words down on a page? It didn’t matter then, but as I stare out onto that empty field, it matters.
The camera pans in toward my withered face, moving closer and closer until my flesh blurs into pale blotches of light. As I fade back into focus, you see my body pristinely frozen inside of a cryogenic chamber, and realize that this whole thing is the creation of my aging consciousness, buffering around in a virtual retirement community, so fixated on mistakes of the past that I fail to take this marvelous opportunity to dream up an all-you-can-eat pie buffet on the Starship Enterprise.
But I digress.
My favorite Maori soprano turns 70 today. If you know her, you probably know her from this. And rightfully so. Happy birthday!
It’s a story as old as time itself: man dislikes his job, decides to pursue a career in comedy, sends a bunch of unsolicited work into The Onion, and eventually becomes editor of the world’s most popular satirical news site. Well, maybe it’s not that conventional, but it is the general career outline of newly-appointed Onion editor Cole Bolton. A former associate economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and research associate at Harvard Business School, Bolton’s comedy experience was practically nonexistent before he joined The Onion as a contributing writer in 2006. But despite never once being a member of a college improv troupe, Bolton’s passion and talent allowed him to work his way up through The Onion’s writers’ room, until he was named head writer this past November, and then editor just four months later.
I recently talked with Bolton about his rise through The Onion’s ranks, his new responsibilities as editor of "America’s Finest News Source," and the impact of satirical news in today’s media landscape. READ MORE
"For wine-lovers, the Miracle Machine is aptly named. The device helps you create your own wine at home in only a couple of days. All you need is the gadget and a smartphone."
With the writers abuzz with talk of securing Amtrak Residencies, Tom Zoellner's concisely titled Train comes at a good time. The Los Angeles writer rode the rails in six different countries on three continents to research his new book. He also traveled from New York to Los Angeles on our often-embattled national carrier.
Amtrak appears to have recently scored a rare PR win, after managing to turn an offhand remark from Awl-pal Alexander Chee into an as-yet-unnamed but perhaps-soon-to-be-formalized program aimed at giving writers free or low-cost rides. Writer Jessica Gross has already done such a rolling residency; Chee will take to the rails in May.
I called up Zoellner to ask him what he thought of the idea, and how trains lend themselves to such whimsy while owing their origins to hard material realities of conquest and profit.
Tom Zoellner's Train is available wherever books are sold, which is to say, not aboard trains.
Do you write on trains?
It’s such fun. It’s such sort of a sensory experience. You got the physical movement of the cars, you’ve got the rhythmic clickety clack. You’ve got the hushed conversations of people talking around you. There’s the smeared images, scrolling by outside the window. The whole thing really puts you into a state of reverie. I can think of no better environment, particularly in the United States, to think sort of philosophical thoughts.
Are you surprised that this idea has managed to strike such a nerve?
No, the only thing surprising is that nobody thought of it sooner. The train is our most poetic form of conveyance, and Amtrak for years has had a public relations deficit, in terms of people really appreciating what they have to offer. Amtrak is unfortunately too often the punch line to a joke, instead of us recognizing that it keeps the spirit of American railroads alive.
Do you think they’re actually going to be able to institutionalize it?
I sure hope so. Just as a parenthetical, I myself am going to not apply—I think I’m kind of ethically disqualified. I’ve written about Amtrak, number one. Number two, I’m probably going to continue to write about them in some form and I don’t want to take free stuff from them.
To me it seems that the idea is really motivated by a romanticism, which you touch upon in the book. But it seems that the bigger theme, which you touch upon in almost every chapter, is this idea that railroads perpetuate some form or other of exploitation. Did you have that theme when you began exploring the project or did you pick it up as you went along?
I had a sense that railroads were not exactly—let’s focus this just on America for the time being—they weren’t exactly great corporate citizens, particularly in the 19th century. I knew the history, but I didn’t really appreciate the depth of it: the manipulation of state legislatures, the utterly callous attitude they had to the lives of their employees, the economic predatory stance that they took, particularly in unsettled Western states. The record on railroads encompasses a whole range of organizational behavior. By that I mean that they were responsible for doing great good, but a lot of lives were destroyed in the process. READ MORE
You could spend a couple of minutes try to tease out the influences that are so obvious in this one or you could just accept that at this moment in our culture it is virtually impossible to create anything that is not essentially an amalgamation of everything that came before it and simply enjoy it for what it is. I know what I'm gonna choose!
To those of us for whom life is an incessant montage of badly-lighted scenes detailing mistakes made and opportunities squandered, this endless winter has been something of a comfort in that we are no longer alone: It's dark out there for everyone now. Oh, you're a little down because it is cold and gray all the time? WELCOME TO MY WORLD. Huh, you never really realized just how sad things can get at 5:15 of a Wednesday evening? MY LIFE IS AN ENDLESS SERIES OF WEDNESDAY EVENING, 5:15s. Perhaps "comfort" is not the appropriate word, though: What I am trying to convey is the small sense of belonging we melancholics finally feel now that everyone around us has grasped just how empty, meaningless and sorrowful it all is, and how even the sharpest sparkle on things that seem streaked with salvation is only the errant reflection from a sliver of sun that was meant to shine for someone else. Sadly, though, just as we are getting comfortable with the idea that we are part of the larger group, along comes the clock to save the rest of you: this Sunday everything goes an hour ahead. When you are living in your bright new world, one that is suffused with light and joy, please every now and then give a thought to those of us left behind, those of us for whom the darkness never ends. You know who we are now. You were once like us. Spring forward.
Photo by Jeffrey Zeldman, via Flickr
Heather Doney and Rachel Coleman are co-founders of Homeschooling’s Invisible Children, a site that documents abuse under the cover of homeschooling. Recently, they launched a new organization, the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, which raises awareness of the need for homeschooling reform, provides public policy guidance through research, and advocates for responsible home education practices.
How did you two meet?
Rachel Coleman: Heather and I both do academic research on homeschooling, and we were both in a Facebook group that dealt with spiritual abuse and some other negative aspects of conservative Christian homeschooling culture.
Heather Doney: Both of us were eldest daughters of families raised in the Quiverfull movement, where adherents reject birth control and have "as many children as God gives you,” so we had a lot in common: research interests, big family/big sister stuff, an interest in class differences in homeschooling.
How big are your families?
HD: I'm the eldest of 10, six girls and four boys.
RC: I’m the oldest of 12 children, seven girls and five boys.
How did you come up with the idea for Homeschooling's Invisible Children (HIC)?
RC: Heather and I were finding more and more cases of child abuse concealed by homeschooling, and at first I tried keeping a list of links, but I needed a better way to organize them. We decided putting them together in a blog might be a way to do that, while raising awareness at the same time.
You were both homeschooled yourselves, right?
RC: Yes. My parents started homeschooling me because my mom wasn’t sure I could handle all-day kindergarten (I took very long naps), and all-day kindergarten was the only option where we lived. It worked pretty well for our family, so I was homeschooled through high school alongside my siblings.
HD: I was homeschooled, but my education was pretty nonexistent. My family was very poor. We lived in inner-city New Orleans, which had a terrible school district, but my parents' homeschooling was even worse. There was no oversight. I was the only one of us kids to even learn how to read. It was only through an intervention by my grandparents that I gained access to intensive tutoring and started public school in 9th grade.
What do you mean by no oversight?
HD: My parents registered as a private school in Louisiana when I was six, which homeschoolers can do, and no one checked on us again. We never had to take standardized tests or report to anyone.
Is it like that in every state?
RC: 25 states have no assessment mechanism whatsoever. Most of the states that do have some assessment requirements also have loopholes—this is how Heather’s family fell through the cracks. Louisiana’s homeschool law requires parents to either create an annual portfolio of their students’ work or have their children tested each year. However, when parents in Louisiana choose to homeschool under the private school law instead of under the homeschool law, which is perfectly legal, there are no assessments or even subject requirements. Heather’s parents were literally not actually required by law to educate her, and there was no system in place for checking up on her and her siblings’ wellbeing.
Sadly, this lack of accountability is the norm for homeschooling law, not the exception. READ MORE
Even if you are having the best morning in your life thus far—and let's be honest, you almost certainly are not—this will make it a little brighter. For this rest of us this is probably as good as it's going to get all day, so let's take the time to fully appreciate it.
With Leah McGrath Goodman's identification of the founder of Bitcoin at Newsweek (not really a slam-dunk case? But, I'll take it, for now?), the greater Bitcoin-Internet is aghast. How dare this magazine expose this person? Not only are the comments on the piece itself entirely about how outrageous the reveal is, certainly Reddit is AFLAME.
● "This is unbelievable. How can we, as a community, protect Satoshi? It's on us. He gave us this gift. What can we do for him? I'm thinking bounties on the heads of any criminal that touches Satoshi? Is that too rash?"
● "This is scary as hell. This thing makes me so angry for some reason."
● "Leah McGrath Goodman, you are a BITCH!"
● "This article is horribly written and seems fake."
MEANWHILE. Here's the tackiest thing I've ever seen from a news publication.
Hitting the paywall on Newsweek's piece on true identity of bitcoin's creator? Free summary: http://t.co/mFdNz1Zive
— Christopher Mims (@mims) March 6, 2014
It's every dog for himself on the Internet. I guess the Bitcoiners were right, economies really are a race to the bottom of human behavior!
The Academy Awards are a meaningless popularity contest decided by out-of-touch old white men in suits with the help of an occasional white lady. But if your movie wins one, an Oscar can help make a significant difference in how posterity treats it and, more immediately, in how much money it makes. 12 Years a Slave, which raked in a very respectful $140,000,000 worldwide before it won Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay, is beginning to enjoy its Oscar bump–or perhaps, bumps:
12 Years will make a major expansion in U.S. theaters — Fox Searchlight will be playing the movie in more than 1,000 theaters — even though the slavery drama comes out on DVD Tuesday. … Beyond the big screen, best picture winner 12 Years a Slave is getting a post-Oscar bump for the book it was based on. The 19th-century memoir by ex-slave Solomon Northup jumped from No. 326 on Amazon.com before Sunday night's Academy Awards ceremony to No. 19 on Monday afternoon.
According to the New York Times, the movie launched its source material to the bestseller lists this past fall. Now its trajectory is steep enough that Oscar-winning director Alfonso (“Gravity”) Cuaron could be called in to film it. When your intrepid author checked on Tuesday, March 4, the paperback remained in the top 20, while the Kindle version had jumped to #17 overall and #2 on several specific lists:
• #2 in Books > Politics & Social Sciences > Sociology > Race Relations
• #2 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > History > Americas > United States
• #2 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Nonfiction
People are rediscovering a lost classic and paying for the privilege! Terrific. But in a case like that of 12 Years a Slave, when the memoirist is long-since deceased, who profits from the book’s Oscar bump? Not to be all Upworthy about it, but the answer may surprise you.