Sunday read: How not to be shameless

We are living in a world of shamelessness.

I mean that literally. Somewhere, sometime — probably around the time that iPhone apps made publicity-seeking as easy and instantaneous as posting a tweet — many people stopped being bothered by behavior that, in other eras, would have prompted an apology and a temporary drop off the map.

Now? People double down. (And I’m so sick of the phrase “double down,” except in its original blackjack-oriented form. Make “Double Down” Obscure Again, please.) Refuse a reassuring Covid test? It’s an invasion of freedom — and you can’t let those socialists take away our freedom. (And won’t someone think of the grandmother?) Accosting a school-shooting survivor in the name of the Second Amendment (among other things)? Use the publicity to raise $1.6 million.

Oh, and that whole botched coronavirus thing? “Not my fault.”

I know there’s an irony here, that bogeyman, “cancel culture.” I once wrote a story about public shaming, and holier-than-thou Twitterers piling on people for one stupid remark can also be stupid, in the fashion of shooting a fly with an elephant gun. But (usually) there’s a sense of morality at play. And (usually) the offender tries to show remorse.

But that requires a sense of shame, a knowledge that you have wronged somebody and want to make amends. Perhaps the other party doesn’t want to forgive; that’s a whole different conversation. (Forgiveness is generally good for you, though.)

I’ve been thinking about all of this — brazen politicians and cable hosts and an unwillingness to give an inch — and it made me think of David Carr. An excerpt from his brilliant book, “The Night of the Gun,” is my Sunday read.

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Sunday read: The Hammer and the man

Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images via NBCNews.com.

Many years ago, when I was free-lancing for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, my editor asked me to provide the copy for a special section on the Boy Scouts. Most of the article pitches we discussed were fairly low-key, ranging from a profile of a local Scout-oriented exhibition to a talk with Eagle Scouts. But one stopped me in my tracks: Could I call Hank Aaron, a Scout growing up, and get his thoughts on Scouting?

A dirty little journalist’s secret — well, MY dirty little journalist secret — is that making cold calls is a knee-knocking affair. It’s your job to approach complete strangers, and sometimes those complete strangers are celebrities whose gatekeepers can hold you off for the foreseeable future while you pursue your one necessary quote or response. Call Hank Aaron? I was shivering with anxiety.

So it took me some time to get up the nerve to call the Atlanta Braves corporate office, where Aaron was an executive, and ask to speak to him. I fully expected the secretary to tell me that Mr. Aaron wasn’t available, and could I leave a message, and I would never hear back. Why would Hank Aaron want to talk about his boyhood as a Boy Scout?

Instead, she put me right through and Aaron got on the line. I honestly don’t remember much of what he said, only that he was thrilled to say it — Scouting really had made a difference for a black boy in Jim Crow-era Mobile, Alabama — as he regaled me with tales of walking to Scout meetings and taking part in activities. For me, who only perceived him as a taciturn slugger and Hall of Famer, it was interview heaven. I would think about it every time I passed Hank Aaron Stadium off I-65 in Mobile when I traveled from Atlanta to visit my parents in New Orleans.

And now Hank Aaron is gone. He died Friday, in his sleep, at age 86. Hank Aaron, the first hitter listed in the Baseball Encyclopedia, still the all-time leader in RBIs and total bases, barely second in HRs, third in hits (a great detail: if you take away Aaron’s 755 home runs, he still has 3,000 hits), the namesake of the award that goes to each league’s top hitter, the incredibly consistent, classy, coolly understated Hank Aaron — Hank Aaron has passed.

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Sunday read: This pretty much sums it up

Image from the Washington Post.

The 88 pages of the Jan. 4-Jan.11 issue of The New Yorker contain one feature article, a 39-page chronicle of how Covid-19 went from obscure coronavirus to the colossus of death that has killed 2 million human beings as of mid-January, including close to 400,000 Americans.

It’s my Sunday read.

I know, I know. You’ve had enough of reading about Covid. I’ve certainly had enough of posting about it. But — and this means no disrespect to the Atlantic’s Ed Yong or the diligent folks at Stat — this piece was written by Lawrence Wright, a terrific writer who wrote the best book on the lead-up to 9/11, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Looming Tower,” and an excellent work on the Camp David accords, “Thirteen Days in September.” (In an eerie coincidence, “The End of October,” his novel published in May but written earlier, concerns a worldwide pandemic.)

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Sunday read: The past and future of ‘Be’

The Beatles on the set of “Let It Be,” from denofgeek.com.

I was going to write something about the events at the Capitol last week. I thought it was interesting how they provided a perversely tragic bookend to the inauguration of the president’s other favorite president, Andrew Jackson, an occasion when mobs overran the White House and Jackson himself had to sneak out a window. (“The reign of King Mob seemed triumphant,” said Supreme Court justice Joseph Story.) To paraphrase Karl Marx, history repeats itself, the first time as farce, the second as tragedy.

But I’m still too angry and upset to deal with it. So I’m going to go to my Happy Place: talking about the Beatles.

You’re probably aware by now that Peter Jackson is taking the raw material of the “Let It Be” sessions and refashioning it into a new documentary, one that appears to be much happier than the sometimes bitter original film, which ended up as the group’s official swan song (and, in fact, appeared after the group had broken up).

I can’t help but think: Is this revisionist history? Or is it closer to the way things were?

And what impact does re-editing our memories have on their impact?

So I bring to you a pair of Sunday reads: “Let It Be” director Michael Lindsay-Hogg on Jackson’s project, and Francis Ford Coppola on the changes he made in “The Godfather Part III” (now retitled “Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone”).

“Let It Be” hasn’t been easily available since the VHS era; I can remember seeing it in a midnight showing at the Abalon Theater in New Orleans sometime around 1980, when midnight movies were a common way of showcasing older or outre works. Its reputation had preceded it: the Beatles seemingly trapped in a different studio than the familiar Abbey Road, constantly surrounded by cameras (in the days before that was a thing), with John bringing Yoko into the inner sanctum and Paul and George bickering over guitar parts.

Harrison, in fact, quit the band during the sessions. He didn’t return for more than a week, but when he did, he brought Billy Preston with him, and the rest of the sessions were calmer.

It’s Harrison’s attitude, along with Lennon’s opinion of the music, that’s colored opinion of “Let It Be” over the years. But McCartney and Starr have their own memories, and with more than five decades gone, we’re apparently going to see a more even-handed take of the era.

Does that mean Lindsay-Hogg’s original version is wrong? Not even he thinks so.

That argument was a small thing but it suggested there was certain amount of tension between them at this time in their life and indeed, why wouldn’t there be tension? They’re musicians and artists and they’ve known each other since they were teenagers and so they got married very young.

And you have to remember the time: the band is past its days of novelty. There are many things amazing about the Beatles, but for me, what often stands out is their energy — an ability to bring the joy of live performance to the studio. Just yesterday, I was listening to “I Want to Tell You,” a Harrison track off “Revolver,” and you can hear the thrill of musicians discovering new parts of themselves, and their love of doing it together.

By early 1969, though, they’d become businessmen and spouses and, above all, more cognizant of their individuality. The White Album, released just a few weeks’ before, showed they could still bring it, but it also showed they didn’t need each other as much as they did a couple years previous.

The White Album has been criticized for its sprawl, which brings up the question: What would you cut? What would you change? That got me pondering the value of good editing. I happen to love John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces,” but a recent article in The New Yorker mentioned that famed editor Robert Gottlieb wanted Toole to cut some of its set pieces. (Fortunately, they survived.)

In Hollywood, editing can make or break films. In his interview about “Godfather III,” Coppola talks about how “Godfather II,” which some critics consider superior to the first “Godfather,” was originally received at a screening.

When we previewed The Godfather Part II in San Francisco, we had a tepid reaction. And it was a mixed movie, meaning the sound and everything was done. That night, I made 121 changes, which is unheard of, because to make an editorial change when the film already has music and everything is really hard. We went three days later and previewed it again in San Diego, and the difference was night and day, which was the version that generally people value, which is Part II.

I’m reminded of a line told me when I was working on a story about film editor Kevin Tent, who’s done most of Alexander Payne’s films. Another editor said that his position is the most optimistic he knows; editors always think they can save the movie.

“Godfather III” appears to have been improved by Coppola’s changes. What will “Get Back,” the Jackson “Let It Be,” do to the image of the late Beatles? I’ve got a feeling it will add another facet to one of the great stories of recent years.

You can read the Coppola interview here and the Lindsay-Hogg interview here.

Sunday read: A scientist hero

Image from Cosmos Magazine.

I grew up in the 1970s, which means that my bloodstream and organs are probably full of contaminants that will take decades, if not centuries, to break down — long after they may have contributed to my death. I’m sure I’ve eaten my share of plastic, inhaled plenty of tar and nicotine, and probably consumed some radioactive heavy metals.

I’ve certainly been exposed to greater-than-healthy doses of lead (which is to say, more than zero), because until 1975, it was in pretty much every gallon of gasoline we pumped in America. That means it was also in every ounce of exhaust that our internal combustion engines produced.

But at least we’ve moved in the right direction — away from leaded gasoline. And, in part, we have Clair Patterson to thank.

Patterson, “The Most Important Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of,” is the subject of my Sunday read.

Patterson, who was trained as a chemist but practiced geology and physics, was an eccentric. His discovery that his laboratory was infested with lead prompted him to go to extreme lengths to clean it (as well as hypothesize where the lead came from), at a time before “clean rooms” existed. And that wasn’t all.

On smoggy Pasadena days, he’d amble across the quad wearing two different colored socks and a gas mask. He went distance running when distance running was a hobby for weirdos. He didn’t look or act like a professor. He wore t-shirts, khakis, and desert boots. He refused tenure. Later in his career, he soundproofed his Caltech office and installed two doors, two layers of walls, and two ceilings. As his colleague Thomas Church noted, Patterson was like his rock samples: He did not enjoy being “contaminated” by outside influences.

This made him easy to caricature for the corporate interests — oil and auto companies — that wanted to keep their leaded fuel in the pipeline. After all, it eliminated knocking!

And no-knock leaded gasoline was a small price to pay for all that lead in the environment. After all, miniscule amounts of lead couldn’t cause that much damage. Could it? The leading lead researcher certainly didn’t think so, and nobody was looking over his shoulder.

Kehoe also made mistakes that might have been caught had his work been subject to independent scrutiny. In one study, Kehoe measured the blood of factory workers who regularly handled tetraethyl lead and those who did not. Blood-lead levels were high in both groups. Rather than conclude that both groups were poisoned by the lead in the factory’s air, Kehoe concluded that lead was a natural part of the bloodstream, like iron. This mistake would grow into an unshakeable industry talking point.

That probably sounds familiar.

Mental Floss’ Lucas Reilly shows how indefatigable Patterson was. The scientist went to Greenland to take samples, then Antarctica. He took days to test each one. What they showed was undeniable: lead contamination had risen sharply in just a few decades. And then he went to a mountain in Yosemite and made his conclusions even stronger.

Oh, we’d polluted with lead before — just ask the ancient Romans — but this was of a scale that was frightening, not to mention unnecessary. After all, we weren’t making utensils, just stopping our cars from making noise.

You should read it all. Sometimes, even against entrenched corporate interests, science (and safety) will out.

Read “The Most Important Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of” here.

Poem

Image from Gardenerspath.com.
"The Year's Awakening"

How do you know that the pilgrim track
Along the belting zodiac
Swept by the sun in his seeming rounds
Is traced by now to the Fishes’ bounds
And into the Ram, when weeks of cloud
Have wrapt the sky in a clammy shroud,
And never as yet a tinct of spring
Has shown in the Earth’s apparelling;
     O vespering bird, how do you know,
          How do you know?

How do you know, deep underground,
Hid in your bed from sight and sound,
Without a turn in temperature,
With weather life can scarce endure,
That light has won a fraction’s strength,
And day put on some moments’ length,
Whereof in merest rote will come,
Weeks hence, mild airs that do not numb;
     O crocus root, how do you know,
          How do you know?

- Thomas Hardy