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The Audacity of Hope: A Reading List on Barack Obama

Image by Jason Taellious (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I’m not sure when Barack Obama first entered my consciousness: whether it was a 60 Minutes segment during the first campaign or reading about him in the July 10th, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone — which, albeit slightly crumpled — remains on our coffee table to this day.

The time leading up to his first election was the darkest period of my life to date and during those long nights in late 2008, I took strength from the enthusiasm surrounding him, his campaign, and his election. The optimism was part antidote to my troubles, part encouragement to move on. Of all the articles written about Obama over the years, the ones that intrigued me most were the ones that helped me get to know the man and what he stood for, just a little bit better.

Thursday, January 19th, 2017 is the last day in office for Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States. With this reading list we remember the man, his time in office, and take a peek at what’s in store after the White House.

1. “The Conciliator” (Larissa Macfarquhar, The New Yorker, May 7, 2007)

Macfarquhar reports on Obama in action with constituents before being elected president, observing his calm demeanor, “freakish self-possession,” and ability to connect with humans of every description. She describes a man who, early on, eschewed political outrage as an impotent, empty tactic — a distraction to achieving unity.

2. “A Conversation with Barack Obama” (Jann S. Wenner, Rolling Stone, July 10, 2008)

In this wide-ranging interview during Obama’s first bid for president in 2008, Wenner takes us back to the optimism surrounding the candidate and his campaign. They chat about Obama’s three favorite books, musical tastes, pop culture, getting endorsed by Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, and Obama’s overall approach to governing a nation.

3. “Obama’s Way” (Michael Lewis, Vanity Fair, October, 2012)

Michael Lewis spent six months with the president before Obama was elected to his second term in office. Lewis reports on the emotional demands of the presidency, avoiding distraction to save decision-making energy as commander-in-chief, the potentially disastrous human consequences of those decisions, and what the president does to soothe his soul after a particularly hard day.

4. “The way ahead” (Barack Obama, The Economist, October 8, 2016)

In his own words, Barack Obama examines the state of the U.S. economic union, positing that globalization, inclusion, and closing the gap between the richest and poorest Americans will aid U.S. prosperity.

5. “Barack Obama is Preparing for His Third Term” (Jason Zengerle, GQ, January 17, 2017)

Most former presidents avoid the spotlight to spend more time with family and maybe enjoy some golf. Even though Barack Obama is stepping away from political office, he’s gearing up to influence the direction of the United States by advising his successor.

When Boredom Yields Treasure: The Hermit Who Inadvertently Shaped Climate-Change Science

Broad-Tailed Hummingbird. Photo by Maureen Leong-Kee CC-BY SA 2.0

He also understood that the male broad-tailed hummingbird’s wings make a whistling sound, and indeed Barr had tracked the bird’s return each spring. Together with Barr’s weather and snow melt, Inouye was able to show how climate change’s impact on a single flower might mean the end of broad-tailed hummingbird migration in the region.

The hummingbird relies on nectar from the glacier lily—so much so that it synced its migration to arrive in Gothic just before it blooms. To adjust to warmer springs, however, the lily now flowers 17 days earlier than it did four decades ago. In two more decades it’s likely the broad-tailed hummingbird will completely miss the glacier lily’s nectar. This widening seasonal imbalance is called phenological mismatch, and has become a major concern as scientists learn more about climate change. In Gothic, this will impact not just broad-tailed hummingbirds, but also butterflies, bees, hibernating mammals, and the animals that depend on all those animals. These same dynamics will play out across the Rocky Mountains, and similar alpine ecosystems across the world.

At The Atlantic, J. Weston Phippen reports on Billy Barr, a man who moved into a remote part of the Rocky Mountains in search of solitude over 40 years ago. To avoid boredom, he documented snow levels, animal sightings, and the date flowers first bloomed. “…collectively his work has become some of the most significant indication that climate change is rearranging mountain ecosystems more dramatically and quickly than anyone imagined.”

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Empathy and Escapism — Obama’s Secret to Surviving the White House Years: Books

Photo by Michael Pittman CC-BY SA 2.0

Not since Lincoln has there been a president as fundamentally shaped — in his life, convictions and outlook on the world — by reading and writing as Barack Obama.

“At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted,” he said, reading gave him the ability to occasionally “slow down and get perspective” and “the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes.” These two things, he added, “have been invaluable to me. Whether they’ve made me a better president I can’t say. But what I can say is that they have allowed me to sort of maintain my balance during the course of eight years, because this is a place that comes at you hard and fast and doesn’t let up.”

Writing was key to his thinking process, too: a tool for sorting through “a lot of crosscurrents in my own life — race, class, family. And I genuinely believe that it was part of the way in which I was able to integrate all these pieces of myself into something relatively whole.”

At The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani reports on how reading and writing helped President Obama to “slow down and get perspective” from novelists, memoirists, and historical figures during the eight years of his presidency.

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Over 40 Years in “Closed Cell Restricted”: How Albert Woodfox Survived Solitary

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When Woodfox was eighteen, he was arrested for robbing a bar and sentenced to fifty years in prison.

Two weeks after Miller’s death, the four men were charged with murder. There was an abundance of physical evidence at the crime scene, none of which linked them to the killing. A bloody fingerprint near Miller’s body did not match any of theirs.

Woodfox often woke up gasping. He felt that the walls of the cell were squeezing him to death, a sensation that he began to experience the day after his mother’s funeral, in 1994. He had planned to go to the burial — prisoners at Angola are permitted to attend the funerals of immediate family — but at the last minute his request was denied. For three years, he slept sitting up, because he felt less panicked when he was vertical. “It takes so much out of you just to try to make these walls, you know, go back to the normal place they belong,” he told a psychologist. “Someday I’m not going to be able to deal with it. I’m not going to be able to pull those walls apart.”

Woodfox is reserved, humble, and temperamentally averse to drama. When he talked about himself, his tone became flat. He was scheduled to speak at a panel on solitary confinement the next day, and he felt exhausted by the prospect. “I get apprehensive when somebody asks me something I can’t answer, like ‘What does it feel like to be free?’ ” he said. “How do you want me to know how it feels to be free?” He’d developed a stock answer to the question: “Ask me in twenty years.”

At The New Yorker, Rachel Aviv profiles Albert Woodfox, a man originally sentenced to 50 years in prison for robbery. A member of the Black Panthers and the Angola 3, Woodfox spent over four decades in solitary confinement, despite a stunning lack of evidence against him in a prison murder.

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Concussion Chronology: One High School Football Player’s Secret Struggle with CTE

Photo by Marcus Quigmire CC-BY SA 2.0

“Zac was a thumper,” his father says, standing in the family kitchen. “Of all the boys, he was the one who wouldn’t show pain, who’d be fearless.… He’d throw his head into anything. He was the kind of guy I like on defense.”

…only Winslow knew the full extent of Zac’s struggles in the five and a half years since high school: the brain tremors that felt like thunderclaps inside his skull, the sudden memory lapses in which he’d forget where he was driving or why he was walking around the hardware store, the doctors who told him his mind might be torn to pieces from all the concussions from football. She knew about the drugs and the drinking he was doing to cope. She knew about the mood swings, huge and pulverizing, the slow leaching of his hope.

At GQ, Reid Forgrave profiles Zac Easter, a former “smashmouth” high school football player who took his own life in the aftermath of suffering five diagnosed concussions during his football career.

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Basking in Reciprocated Love: Can Molly Save a Marriage?

Mark Ordonez CC-BY SA 2.0

What we did was talk. For six hours, we talked about our feelings for each other, why we love each other, how we love each other. We talked about what we felt when we first met, how our emotional connection grew and deepened, how we might deepen it still. The best way I can describe it is that we were transported emotionally back to our relationship’s early and most exciting days, to the period of our most intense infatuation, but with all the compassion and depth of familiarity of a decade of companionship. We saw each other clearly, loved each other profoundly, and basked in this reciprocated love.

The feeling lasted not for hours or for days, but for months. Actually, the truth is, it lasted forever. We’ve done the drug since, every couple of years, when we feel we need to recharge the batteries of our relationship. Though the experience has never again been quite so intense, it has been a reliable method of connection, of clearing away the detritus of the everyday to get to the heart of the matter. And the heart is love.

At Lenny, read an excerpt of Ayelet Waldman’s memoir of LSD microdosing, A Really Good Day.

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Debutante in the Amazon Jungle: A 50-Year Adventure

Photo by Eli Duke CC-BY SA 2.0

This is the story of the remarkable life the former Toronto debutante chose instead: to work as a missionary among the Kayapo tribe in a remote corner of the Amazon jungle. She has, by her count, survived multiple bouts of malaria, battled typhoid, worms, fleshing-eating maggots and burrowing fleas; dined often on armadillo (it tastes like chicken); impaled her foot on a poisonous fish; been shocked by electric eels and chomped by caterpillars, whose bite she equates to “liquid fire.”

She has narrowly escaped death by anaconda, witnessed a villager get his finger bitten off by a piranha and been asked to bury a dead Brazilian on a beach — after her Kayapo hosts murdered the man for straying into their lands. Thomson used to spend up to a year, without break, among the Kayapo in her younger days. Now 76, she spends up to half the year in Canada.

Fifty years ago they didn’t wear clothes. Now they call Thomson on their cellphones.

At The National Post, Joe O’Connor shares the story of Ruth Thomson, a Toronto debutante-turned-missionary who eschewed society life in 1965 to spend 50 years living with a remote tribe in the Amazon jungle.

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Old Dirt: Making Something Out of Nothing

clay

Our truck pulls away, and I watch the sloped farm in the rearview mirror, all yellow and green in the new sun. The mid-morning scene vanishes in a silver chrome flash, and soon, Josh and I are back in the land of traffic lights and brick buildings. Too soon I am back on an airplane, pulling away from these mountains, headed home, where I unzip my suitcase and dump the entire contents into the laundry. Only later—days later, in the odd indoors light—do I notice the sprinkle of dirt I have dropped in the hall. Old dirt . . . the old dirt from Mr. Neal Woody’s farm, now blessing my carpet, tickling my naked toes in the dead of night, shading my dogs’ paws, filling up an inch of my vacuum someday, when I decide it’s time. But for now, old dirt is the best souvenir, for I have North Carolina in my rugs — the farms and flowers and sweet-smelling pines, Josh and Neal, and the misty indigo sunrise. None of that ever goes away. Even now, months later, I can lift the coffee cup to my lip and feel it in my hands, the dirt-brown mug that Josh made — a veritable piece of the Appalachian Mountains, rough as rock and sturdy as stone.

At Letters From Earth, Andrew Evans celebrates the wonders of farming and crafting clay pots — two occupations based on making something out of dirt with honest labor.

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Sober Utopia: A Radical Rehab Experiment

uptopia

But now Richard was with hundreds of other people like him: chronically homeless, addicted to drugs and alcohol, and taking part in a last-ditch attempt to reboot their lives. They had come from all corners of Colorado, of their own volition, to get clean at an abandoned Army fort in the middle of nowhere.

Residents at Fort Lyon are given a surprising amount of individual freedom. During the first 30 days, you are expected to attend drug- and alcohol-education classes and work with case managers to formulate a recovery plan. The only ongoing expectation is that you attend a community meeting three mornings a week. After that, your time is yours: play basketball, go for a walk along the reservoir, sleep for 20 hours, talk to your case manager, go to classes that are offered on campus by Otero Junior College. Some people swore by the 12-step meetings. Others avoided them entirely. Every resident I spoke with — all of whom had been in some kind of addiction program previously — marveled at this radical autonomy. The standard rhythms of rehab, hustling from meeting to chore to counselor to meeting to meal to chore, were absent at Fort Lyon. This is no accident. Ginsburg explained it as an attempt to break the addict mindset: always onto the next thing, the next stimulus, the next score.

At Pacific Standard, Will McGrath reports on Fort Lyon — “a Betty Ford Center for the homeless — a radical experiment to rehabilitate some of society’s most vulnerable members.”

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Off-Time: Becoming a Widow at Age 36

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A palliative-care doctor once told me that we die cell by cell until enough cells succumb that we cross over a line. But if you are watching the person you love the most die, you track their breaths, not cells. When someone is dying, their breath slows. Ever-widening gaps form between the end of the exhale and the beginning of the next inhale. In that space, you, the watcher, wait to find out if the unimaginable has happened. You don’t know if this breath is the last one, or if there is another to come. You only know it’s the last breath when it’s too late to go back and tell them you love them one final time.

At The Globe and Mail, Christina Frangou writes on becoming a widow at age 36, after her husband Spencer died of kidney cancer, 42 days after diagnosis.

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