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“Different Days” for Jason Isbell

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - OCTOBER 22: Jason Isbell performs at Ryman Auditorium on October 22, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Erika Goldring / Getty Images)

Sober for seven years (by the tattooed notch count on his arm), Jason Isbell has mined the hard times and found gold in songs that seem to resonate with well, everyone, including the “most devoted fan bases in modern music: emotional hipster kids, hard-bitten Nashville guitar players, brainy suburban moms.” At GQ, Zach Baron talks to the singer-songwriter-guitarist about writing songs in the car, being a Southern Democrat, staying sober, and being friends with the late John Prine.

Isbell once called the drunk version of himself “intolerable”—one of the milder ways he’s described his drinking years. “He went through a number of years of not necessarily being his best self,” Hood told me. “And you know, a lot of people never come back from that. And the fact that he did and rose to the occasion and grew up to become the kind of person that he really had the potential of being and then some is super admirable to me.”

I asked Isbell if, in all the talking about his past self, he’d found a way to begin forgiving the person he’d been.

“I mean, I’m coming around to forgiving that guy. But it’s pretty recent. Because I think for a lot of the first few years of my sobriety, I needed to hate his fucking guts. So I didn’t have any risk of turning back into him. But I think there’s a phase now that I’m moving into. My friends and my wife remind me sometimes: You know, you weren’t that bad, you weren’t all bad. You know? I loved you then. And…lately they’ve been saying that more, and that’s helpful to me.”

Maybe it’s safer to say it now than it was then.

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How Margaret Atwood is Passing Time During the Pandemic

(Photo by Michael Tran/FilmMagic)

Without book signings, festivals, talks, and fundraisers to attend, Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s got some time on her hands, as she notes at The Guardian. How is she passing time during lockdown? Why, thwarting squirrels, sewing face masks for health care workers, and conducting rubber chicken choirs. As one does.

Mary Beard, the two-fisted Cambridge classicist who understands crises, debacles and pandemics, being an authority on ancient Rome, asked me to do a remote item for the BBC Front Row Late show, which usually reviews theatre but now can’t because there isn’t any. “Just a little something,” she said, “as long as it’s on plagues.” This awakened the Kraken of my deep past – a childhood of reading horror literature, not only the Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook for proto-homemakers but also the collected work of Edgar Allan Poe. Who let that into the kiddie section of the library? Well, there isn’t any sex in it: that was probably the excuse; and children are so fond of decaying corpses, especially those with all their teeth pulled out, as in “Berenice”. So me and “The Masque of the Red Death” go way back.

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How A Nonagenarian Insists We Can Avoid The Age of Loneliness

E.O. Wilson

E.O. Wilson, age 90, an “Alabamian who came up North to have work,” is the “world’s foremost authority on biodiversity.” Raised a Southern Baptist, Wilson is not a church goer, though a religious fervor comes in the form of his dedication to science, conservation, and protecting the planet and its inhabitants. As Caleb Johnson reports at The Bitter Southerner, Wilson believes that people have the power to stop climate change and avoid leaving the Anthropocene era for the Eremocene — the Age of Loneliness, “a term Wilson has popularized that defines an epoch marked by an existential and material isolation resulting from having extinguished so many other forms of life.”

I’d come to Wilson in search of hope. A new decade had announced itself with the warmest January on record, smoke from wildfires in Australia visible from outer space, and a novel virus had just begun spreading outward from China. Here in the United States, the current presidential administration continued weakening environmental rules and laws by stripping protections for streams, wetlands, and groundwater. I needed to quiet my inner cynic and its grim take on a future shaped by more extreme weather events and leadership refusing to act on scientists’ warnings that climate change affects every aspect of our environment, and our health, and will continue doing so if we cannot make major societal changes.

In conversation, Wilson asks lots of questions. No surprise since he spent 40 years lecturing in classrooms. Initially, I mistake these questions for him pondering aloud. When I fail to respond to one about how he can better support literature in Alabama, he says, “I’m asking because I want to know what you think.”

So I tell him. And as I talk, Wilson takes out a piece of paper and a pen and scribbles notes. Later, he’ll reference what he calls “our ideas” and share his plan to turn them into reality. Many things make E.O. Wilson extraordinary, not the least of which is, during his 90th year on this planet, he believes work remains to be done.

Wilson has argued that if we don’t soon change the way we live we will leave behind the Anthropocene and enter the Eremocene, or the Age of Loneliness, a term Wilson has popularized that defines an epoch marked by an existential and material isolation resulting from having extinguished so many other forms of life. To his point, a new study published in Nature suggests that mass extinction will look like a cliff rather than a slope as previously predicted. Ecosystem collapse in tropical oceans could begin as soon as next decade, followed by collapse in tropical forests — the most diverse ecosystems on the planet — in the 2040s. In other words, as Wilson writes, the biosphere will be reduced to “our domesticated plants and animals, and our croplands all around the world as far as the eye can see.”

Scientists conceive of time differently than us layfolk. Millenia rather than days, centuries as opposed to minutes. E.O. Wilson is no exception. He assures me it isn’t too late to avoid an Age of Loneliness. He is also known for popularizing the term biophilia, or the innate pleasure we take in the presence of other organisms.

“We can confer immortality on the rest of life if we wish to do so,” he tells me. I leave feeling somewhat convinced, and I wonder what would happen if more people were imbued with a similar sense of possibility and responsibility toward our present environment.

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9,000 Seconds, With Only 47 to Spare

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In this personal essay, Nicholas Thompson, editor in chief of Wired, writes about what he has overcome spiritually, mentally, and physically, to continue to improve as a runner, running a sub-2:30 marathon at age 44. Thompson considers the role that running has played in his life (he’s overcome cancer) and how his father inspired him to excel. Thompson knows that hard physical training, technology in the form of GPS watches, heart rate monitors, and nutrition regimens are important, but he believes running is simply a form of hide and seek with your own brain, ever vigilant in protecting the body from injury.

My variant of thyroid cancer was eminently treatable, and in the months that followed I recovered slowly. At first, I would step out of my apartment and struggle to walk the one block uphill from my apartment, in Brooklyn, to Prospect Park. But in due course I could walk anywhere, and eventually run. One glorious day, I both ran 10 miles and talked optimistically with my wife about having children. Fitness came back faster than I expected. Nine months after the diagnosis, I ran 15 slow miles in the mountains of Aspen, Colorado, and burst into tears as I came down from the last peak.

So why do runners have limits? And why do the limits differ from one person to the next? In part, it’s because of physiological factors: blood oxygen levels, lactate, muscular strength, each of which has a genetic component. But there’s another theory, put forward by a sports physiologist named Tim Noakes. As he puts it, in what he calls the central governor model, part of the reason we slow is because our brain is telling our body to stop because it’s scared. It doesn’t want you to overheat or develop a stress fracture in your shin, so it preemptively hits the brakes. If Noakes’ theory is right, it implies a mind-body dilemma. We all can go faster. We just have to persuade our brains not to start the subconscious shutdown process right away. But the only thing we can use to trick our brain is our brain.

Hitting my goal meant running a marathon in 9,000 seconds, and I crossed the line with just 47 to spare: 2:29:13. Only one person older than me went faster that day. My family sent texts full of emojis and love. Finley came running to congratulate me, to celebrate, and to reveal that, having seen me the week before, and toward the end of the race, he’d worried I’d pushed it too far. For the first time, he said, I had looked like I was truly exhausted. I’d made it. I’d done it. But now it was time to stop for a while.

We give our children our genes and our love, and we don’t have any idea of what, in the end, they’ll do with them. My grandfather scarred my father by trying to push him into sports; my father inspired me by taking me running around the block. Maybe one of my sons will write a tell-all one day about the pressure his father put on him to be something he didn’t want to be. Or maybe they’ll find that they love the sport too, and I’ll end up drinking beet juice with my grandkids.

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“All The Best”: Rest Easy, John Prine

John Prine performs at John Anson Ford Amphitheatre on October 01, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images)

Americana legend John Prine passed away on April 7th, 2020 from complications of Coronavirus. He was 73. Before he spent 50 years as a full-time musician, he was a mailman. He wrote songs as he completed his route, songs “about certain silent things that people didn’t talk about.” In this piece at Rolling Stone by Patrick Doyle, John’s widow Fiona and his son Jody remember Prine for his love of music, performing on stage, and his way of finding joy in the smallest things in life.

Prine said his grades were “too ugly” for college. After graduating high school in 1964, he took the advice of his oldest brother, Dave, and became a mailman. The pay was good, and so were the benefits. That life was upended when Prine was drafted into the Army in late 1966, just as the Vietnam War was heating up. But instead of being sent to Vietnam, he ended up in Stuttgart, West Germany, where he worked as a mechanical engineer. Prine played down his military service, describing his contribution as “drinking beer and pretending to fix trucks.”

After the war, Prine returned to his mail route, which, it turned out, was great for writing songs. Wandering the Chicago suburbs, he wrote classics like “Donald and Lydia,” about a couple who “made love from 10 miles away,” and “Far From Me,” a ballad about the chilly, purgatory-like feeling that consumed him before his first breakup. “A lot of stuff I was writing about were things I saw and felt and didn’t hear them in songs,” he said. “It was about certain silent things that people didn’t talk about.” Prine’s most fearless song looked back on his Army days: “Sam Stone,” about a vet who came home from Vietnam and ends up with a heroin habit. “I was trying to say something about our soldiers who’d go over to Vietnam, killing people and not knowing why you were there,” Prine told Rolling Stone in 2018. “And then a lot of soldiers came home and got hooked on drugs and never could get off of it.”

While the Prine family cannot have a public funeral right now, they are finding ways to celebrate him. “I’m going to wash all of his Cadillacs, park them all in the driveway,” Fiona says. “I would never let him do that.” Jody says he’s remembering his father by celebrating “the small stuff, because that’s what he loves, like a hot dog. Or an ice cream cone. We were having ice cream last night, just thinking about how, after a show, he’d always have ice cream and pretend it was someone’s birthday and get a cake.”

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Let’s Not Talk About Estrangement

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At Guernica, Joanna Hershon considers her estranged uncle (a man she met once, but never knew) and wonders not only about how his self-imposed distance has affected his parents and siblings, but specifically about the lack of family discourse or discord over their missing member.

Researchers at Emory University in the 1990s—Dr. Marshall Duke and Dr. Robyn Fivush—discovered that the more children know about their families, the better they do in the face of life’s challenges. The kinds of stories that predict the closest families aren’t successes or failures but rather tales that incorporate life’s challenges into the family lore. It’s not my uncle’s absence that haunts me—after all, I never knew him. It’s that no one—not my grandparents, my parents, or any of my mother’s cousins we visited with over the years—told me stories about him, or about losing him. No one mused aloud about why he removed himself from the rest of us. It’s the absence of inquiry that feels disquieting, even now. How could my mother grow up in the same small house as her brother, and have nothing much to say about him? What are her questions, and where does she put them?

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Genius, Interrupted

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Lee Holloway was a brilliant coder, co-founder, and master architect of Cloudflare. He was “the resident genius, the guy who could focus for hours, code pouring from his fingertips while death metal blasted in his headphones.” But over time he became withdrawn, sleeping for days at a time, unable to engage with his family or friends. And his affect, when he did speak, was strangely flat. As Sandra Upson reports in this exceptional piece at Wired, no one knew a degenerative disease — frontotemporal dementia — lurked inside his brain, slowly killing off cells in his frontal and temporal lobes, irrevocably altering his personality in startling ways.

He was the master architect whose vision had guided what began as a literal sketch on a napkin into a tech giant with some 1,200 employees and 83,000 paying customers. He laid the groundwork for a system that now handles more than 10 percent of all internet requests and blocks billions of cyberthreats per day. Much of the architecture he dreamed up is still in place.

He was becoming erratic in other ways too. Some of his colleagues were surprised when Lee separated from his first wife and soon after paired up with a coworker. They figured his enormous success and wealth must have gone to his head. “All of us were just thinking he made a bunch of money, married his new girl,” Prince says. “He kind of reassessed his life and had just become a jerk.”

The people close to Lee felt tossed aside. They thought he’d chosen to shed his old life. In fact, it was anything but a choice. Over the next few years, Lee’s personality would warp and twist even more, until he became almost unrecognizable to the people who knew him best. Rooting out the cause took years of detective work—and forced his family to confront the trickiest questions of selfhood.

Few disorders ravage their victims’ selfhood with the intensity of the behavioral variant of FTD. It takes all the things that define a person—hobbies and interests, the desire to connect with others, everyday habits—and shreds them. Over time, the disease transforms its victims into someone unrecognizable, a person with all the same memories but an alarming new set of behaviors. Then it hollows them out and shaves away their mobility, language, and recollections.

Because it is relatively unknown and can resemble Alzheimer’s or a psychiatric disorder, FTD is often hard to diagnose. As in Lee’s case, the early stages can be misinterpreted as signs of nothing more serious than a midlife crisis. Patients can spend years shuttling to marriage counselors, human resources departments, therapists, and psychologists. By the time patients learn the name of their disorder, they are often unable to grasp the gravity of their situation.

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Photographing the Collective Experience of Self-Isolation

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At The Bitter Southerner, Jesse Davis narrates the work of photographer Jamie Harmon, who took a portable lighting kit and a telephoto lens into communities in Memphis, Tennessee, to make portraits of people living in quarantine.

The photos, despite the required space needed to abide by social distancing guidelines, are wonderfully intimate. They bypass race, gender, and economics to capture people doing their best to self-isolate for the greater good of the community.

In the Bluff City, where gatherings are a way of life, taken for granted, Harmon, camera in hand, sets out to document the new normal. With his “Quarantine Portrait” series, he peeked — always with permission — through windows and into Memphians’ lives, capturing a slice of what life looks like under lockdown. The series is understandably somber at times, but the images resonate with an undeniable sense of hope. Perhaps paradoxically, there is something inherently community-minded in these photographs of isolated individuals. Many of these photos were taken before Mayor Jim Strickland’s “Safer at Home” order went into effect on March 23 — three weeks ago now — and before the lack of leadership from the federal and, particularly in the South, state governments became as obvious as it feels today. As such, Harmon’s quarantine portraits show Memphians self-isolating in an act of solidarity — stepping up to fill the void of leadership with individual sacrifice.

“No matter what we do, this is a collective experience,” Weinberg says, articulating the truth made apparent by this health crisis and Harmon’s portraits. COVID-19 arrived in one of the most divisive moments in recent memory and attacked without regard to age, party affiliation, or other arbitrary qualifiers. In doing so, it put bright light on simple truths: A community is only as strong as its most vulnerable members, and the lines we draw to divide us often do far more harm than good. Harmon’s series makes that plain — the houses, duplexes, and apartment buildings represented are from various neighborhoods and income brackets. Harmon’s lens captures prominent members of the community alongside now-out-of-work service industry folk. Straight, LGBTQ, black, white, Latinx, Asian-American, young, and old — all members of the Memphis community, all willing to sacrifice their own desires for mobility to the greater good.

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On Dolly Parton and Being Seen

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At Guernica, Chris Dennis reconciles his love of Dolly Parton despite her ironic combination of down-home folksiness, vulnerability, and painted artifice.

It is now mostly unclear why I thought it was a good idea to bring Dolly Parton’s Greatest Hits to school with me. Like most children, I was still standing in the messy way-station between my own limited worldview and everyone else’s. But our bus had a radio with a tape player, and the bus driver, Mrs. Connie, would allow us to take turns bringing cassettes. It’s likely I’d really wanted to hear “9 to 5” after breakfast and there just wasn’t enough time, since I’d spent too long deliberating whether to wear the black or brown velveteen shorts that my mother had made for me by hand. I’d like to quote another country queen, Barbra Mandrell, and say, “I was country when country wasn’t cool.” But I don’t think country music was the central issue with my schoolmates that morning when the entire bus erupted in near-universal outrage. A Dolly Parton track from six years earlier was not the music of the youth in 1986. The kids demanded to know whose tape it was. I sat quietly, on fire with embarrassment, holding the cassette case in my lap. After only a few seconds Mrs. Connie turned the music off. When she handed the tape back as I exited the bus at school, she said, “I’m sorry. Maybe bring something else next time.”

I’m sure I’d heard the word “faggot” before, but this was the first instance where it gathered a tangible meaning. A brutal link was forged, and on the other side of it, a child’s version of self-awareness. The sudden shame I felt about my own joy at and adoration of a certain kind of music was confusing. It’s hard to comprehend the level of disgust or discomfort the other children had then, but it was enough that, in a matter of days, many of my classmates at Eldorado Elementary School either called me “Dolly” or “faggot.” This would be the way for years. The names would almost become synonymous. How did they know already, and how could this have been the thing, in the third grade, to make my difference visible? The uncertainty I had felt about my father knowing that I loved Dolly Parton had doubled back on me. He had just shown me it was okay to love it. I didn’t know how to tell him he’d been wrong.

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Arundhati Roy: 1.3 Billion on Lockdown on Four Hours’ Notice

A labourer wearing a facemask rests next to parked bicycles used to transport materials in a wholesale market during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Kolkata on April 6, 2020. (Photo by Dibyangshu SARKAR / AFP) (Photo by DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP via Getty Images)

At The Finanicial Times, novelist Arundhati Roy reports on India’s ill-considered and anti-humanist response to COVID-19. Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, offered four hours’ notice before the country of 1.38 billion people went into lockdown, where the monied sheltered in place, displacing 460 million migrant workers. Suddenly without jobs in a country without public transportation, the workers attempted to walk hundreds of kilometers to their home villages before the country halted their movement, forcing them into perilous limbo in makeshift camps.

The virus has moved freely along the pathways of trade and international capital, and the terrible illness it has brought in its wake has locked humans down in their countries, their cities and their homes.

But unlike the flow of capital, this virus seeks proliferation, not profit, and has, therefore, inadvertently, to some extent, reversed the direction of the flow. It has mocked immigration controls, biometrics, digital surveillance and every other kind of data analytics, and struck hardest — thus far — in the richest, most powerful nations of the world, bringing the engine of capitalism to a juddering halt. Temporarily perhaps, but at least long enough for us to examine its parts, make an assessment and decide whether we want to help fix it, or look for a better engine.

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

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