Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Letters to the editor are my favorite


Yesterday night on Twitter I was making fun of crazy letters to the editor, such as the weird blast-fax screeds that make their way to my desk. Anyway it led me to a few further thoughts and I did a handful of tweets. Here they are unedited and in order in one place:
As much as I make fun of crazy letter-writers, I love letters to the editor, too. They were always my favorite part of newspaper growing up.

Still appreciate the way they are a) personal and b) public. And they get perspectives into the newspaper that otherwise wouldn’t be there.

My favorite thing is letters responding to other letters. I *like* that people take time to respond, wait for publication.

I am no luddite. But you know it is true: There’s a different character to this than posting a comment beneath a letter online.

Also good: Updates, like letter complaining of bird droppings at park, then (after a rainstorm) thanking person who cleaned up.

So, listen, I will always have fun with weird or nonsensical letters. Some are too funny or deranged not to share.

But for serious, part of what I like about them is they can throw you a curveball in a way the rest of the paper rarely does.

These have been some further thoughts about letters to the editor.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

In Sweetgrass, noisy sheep and frustrated cowboys are the stars


I wear clothing made of wool but I do not spend a lot of time around sheep, and I bet you $100 you are the same as me. But you need sheep to get wool, and people to take care of the sheep, and as a result there is a whole world, out west, of people whose job is to grow the sheep so they can grow the wool.

The business of wool is not the subject of Sweetgrass: the sheep are, and to some extent the people taking care of the sheep. Most of the movie follows two cowboys -- one old, lined-faced and taciturn, one young and more expressive -- as they herd the sheep through the Absaroka-Beartooth mountains in Montana and a little bit of Wyoming. It is a great movie and you should watch it on Netflix Watch Instantly as soon as you get a little time to devote to sheep.

Sweetgrass does its best work in close close-up or from incredibly far away: the tight shots of the sheep are fascinating but so are the mountain's-eye views of the herd as they're coaxed along and herded by the men on horses and their dogs. The landscape is beautiful, the pacing is deliberate, and there is more visual wit and flair than you might expect from a movie about herding sheep. (Though the digital film quality can be a little harsh at times -- for the majestic mountain vistas, you wish it were on Malickesque high-resolution 65 mm film. On the other hand it proves the point that a good eye and ability to go where the story are more important than technics.)

A great moment right at the beginning of the film: In close-up, a sheep idly chews cud. The bell around his neck rings a little as he moves his jaw. This goes on for awhile. Then he slowly turns his head, notices the camera and abruptly stops chewing, staring straight at us, head cocked to the side a little, waiting.

The sheep spread out some when they're grazing on the craggy face of a mountain, but when they move at least they really do seem to prefer to be together, in tight, tight herd. There is a poetry to the way they move, like a school of fish, although as we learn, getting them going is no effortless thing. And they are mad loud: The bleating seems to be constant.

Because there is no voiceover narration or any other form of exposition, really, to let us know where we are and what is happening, there are a bunch of questions that present themselves to the viewer. Here are a handful of answers, gleaned from Google: The herd the cowboys are working with comprises about 3,000 sheep. The drive that takes them out to pasture on a federal grazing permit was the last of its kind, and happened in 2001. The younger cowboy is named Pat Connolly and the older cowboy is named John Ahern.

In its second half, the story shifts from being mostly about sheep to being mostly about the cowboys. There is a striking scene where Connolly calls his mom from the top of a mountain and vents his frustrations with the long days, the toll on his body and his dog's body, the difficulty wrangling 3,000 ornery sheep and shooting at the black bears who come in the night to eat them.

"I'd rather enjoy these mountains than hate 'em," he says. "And it's getting to the point now that I hate 'em."

He's whining, yes, but you can understand where he's coming from, and it's a nice counterpoint to "home on the range" homily. Similarly, the scene where Connolly's mic captures him shouting all manner of nasty profanities at the sheep as he drives them up a mountain seems eminently understandable. You can see how the months-long drive could cause you to hate sheep, and hate mountains, and be ready to be home. Maybe that's why they cheer when they arrive in town at the end of that last drive, even though it means their jobs will no longer exist.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" by David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de ZoetThe Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Pretty extraordinary novel. Meticulous about its historical setting -- Japan, 1799 -- but deeply deeply felt, intricately plotted, and in the end quite exciting. The first third is a bit of a slog but at some point there's a tipping point and the pages start to fly by. One thing it does pretty well is to leaven some of its more high-literary conceits with a handful of almost pulpy plotlines involving forbidden love and at least one super-evil villain who -- well, I'd better not say.

I have a lot of thoughts about this book but it is quite late at night so I am not going to write a whole bunch right now. I will say that of course the most impressive thing about this novel is how deeply it burrows into its historical setting, and I love how it embraces the full scale of the impersonal historical forces and massive-if-bygone social institutions at the same time that it captures the real interior experience of the individuals who populate them. The two things -- historical forces and individual actors -- aren't exactly opposed, but what I like here is not just the empathetically written characters but the (forgive me) historicity of the story. Terrific book.



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Friday, September 17, 2010

WDH politics podcast

Hey listen to this. I made this podcast with ace political reporter Katie Foody, talking about politics in Wisconsin's 7th Congressional District and some of the other races we're following. Check it out below: