On Paper Trails and Typewriting Females

I just finished reading Cameron Blevins’ new book Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West, which I learned a lot from (see my full notes and quotes from the book below).

One thing that popped out to me was the role of women in the Post Office’s workforce. Women made up two-thirds of all Post Office employees by the end of the 1870s, with the Post Office itself accounting for 75% of all federal civilian employees at the time. This made it a vital source of work for women early in the movement for women’s suffrage.

Their chief work was within the Topographer’s Office, which produced maps of postal routes. The layout and drawing of the maps was done by men (it was actually called “gentlemen’s work”). But the “ladies’ work” of coloring the routes according to frequency of delivery was arguably just as if not more important, because it added the dimension of time to the otherwise inert graphics and kept the maps up to date and therefore useful.

This wasn’t easy given the constantly changing routes and limitations of paper. As Blevins put it: “These women were, in effect, trying to paint a still life while someone kept rearranging the fruit.”

All this was on my mind when I saw Richard Polt’s Instagram post for International Typewriter Day:

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I’m not sure how much typewriters factored into the work of the female “colorists” given its graphical nature, but the people’s machine without a doubt contributed to the societal sea change happening concurrently as women marched first into offices and then, eventually, the voting booth.

Anyway, I recommend Paper Trails primarily for history nerds—specifically 19th century America. The academic writing is refreshingly accessible and peppered with illustrative graphs throughout. I’m happy to file it under my “technically first” series of books about how innovative technologies came into being.

Notes & Quotes

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Two favorite Ted Lasso scenes

We rewatched season one of Ted Lasso in advance of season two coming out next month. Among the many wonderful scenes in this marvel of a show, two scenes stuck out this time around.

One is from episode 7 (“Make Rebecca Great Again”), when the shy groundskeeper Nate gives a (NSFW) pregame speech/roast with Ted’s support:

The other is from episode 8 (“The Diamond Dogs”), when Ted hustles Rupert in darts:

Both scenes find their leads emerging from low moments into precarious situations that could have ended in disaster, but instead resulted in satisfying catharsis. They work so well because they’re earned, based on the foundation of character development that’s been building throughout the season.

I’m eager to see where season two brings them and the rest of the cast. Believe!

The Ghost Map

When I learned Steven Johnson (my favorite author) has a new book out, it prompted me to finally read one of his previous books that’s been on my list for a while.

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World was a timely read, for obvious reasons. Though cholera is a different beast than COVID (“Imagine if every time you experienced a slight upset stomach you knew that there was an entirely reasonable chance you’d be dead in forty-eight hours”), its effect in this story and throughout history shows us both how far science has come since the Victorian Age and how vulnerable we remain to infectious diseases.

What I love most about this book—even beyond the historical factoids and masterful storytelling you can expect from any Johnson joint—is that it’s basically a murder mystery, with cholera as the microbial serial killer and an unlikely detective duo of a doctor and a priest hunting it during a deadly epidemic in the crowded, putrid London of the 1850s.

Call it an epidemiological thriller. Probably not much competition in that sub-genre, but Johnson made the most of it.

Quotes

I like Johnson’s description of London at the time:

an industrial-era city with an Elizabethan-era waste-removal system as perceived by a Pleistocene-era brain.

On the topography of progress:

The river of intellectual progress is not defined purely by the steady flow of good ideas begetting better ones; it follows the topography that has been carved out for it by external factors.

On great intellectual breakthroughs:

It is rarely the isolated genius having a eureka moment alone in the lab. Nor is it merely a question of building on precedent, of standing on the shoulders of giants, in Newton’s famous phrase. Great breakthroughs are closer to what happens in a flood plain: a dozen separate tributaries converge, and the rising waters lift the genius high enough that he or she can see around the conceptual obstructions of the age.

On miasma theory and the “sociology of error”:

It’s not just that the authorities of the day were wrong about miasma; it’s the tenacious, unquestioning way they went about being wrong. …

How could so many intelligent people be so grievously wrong for such an extended period of time? How could they ignore so much overwhelming evidence that contradicted their most basic theories? These questions, too, deserve their own discipline—the sociology of error.

Recent Views

More photography here and on my Instagram.

Nice and clean newly painted line in a corner of my library’s under-renovation lower level:

We had some trees removed and the guy in the bucket truck looked like he was chillin’ on the roof despite actually floating through the air:

From our first time in Half Price Books without the stroller, where he definitely took advantage of his freedom:

While rock hunting at the beach I thought it’d be fun to throw one in the air and try to catch it on camera as it fell. This was the only shot that turned out, and it was kinda perfect:

Post-rain monkey bars at a local playground:

Media of the moment

An ongoing series of what I’ve read, seen, and heard recently

The Good Lord Bird. The limited series really captures the book’s madcap and dramatic spirit. Ethan Hawke is so delightfully committed to the dead-serious absurdity of John Brown.

The Underground Railroad. Two of my main takeaways while watching this 10-episode limited series: 1. I can’t believe I get to watch essentially 10 new Barry Jenkins movies! And 2. That’s a few too many given the heavy subject matter!

Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, A Night in Tunisia. Recently my wife asked me to “get some jazz” from the library, so right before I left I grabbed a few albums more or less at random. Struck gold with this one.

Benny Goodman, Mozart at Tanglewood. Wanted to find some good concertos and heard good things about this one. Those good things were right.

Fake Love Letters, Forged Telegrams, and Prison Escape Maps: Designing Graphic Props for Filmmaking by Annie Atkins. A cool visual compendium and behind-the-scenes exploration of a film graphic prop designer’s impressive work, including lots from Wes Anderson movies.

Mulch ado about gardening

We’re finally, finally, doing stuff in our yard and garden areas. Some of it is remedial caretaking—fertilizing and weeding the lawn, removing dead bushes and trees—but a lot of it has focused on beautification and planting vegetables we’re not totally sure will thrive but are giving a try anyway.

I gotta say: I’ve really loved it. Perhaps because the work is the polar opposite of my digital, desk-bound day job: it’s an ancient practice, outside, requiring arduous physical labor, with visual progress toward to an end goal but no screens whatsoever.

The key reason we’ve been able to do so much thus far is Mr. 2 Years Old is now old enough to help, and boy does he enjoy it. We got him his own set of tools so he can work along with us, both for real and in the little dirt area we set aside just for him to romp around in. So far it’s collected a bunch of rocks and sticks, though we also set him up with a geranium to water.

As is the case with homeownership writ large, the list of things to do is seemingly endless and grows longer the more ambitious we get. Who knows what we’ll actually get to this year. That said, I’m kinda shocked by how much progress we’ve made with only partial weekends and the scattered weekday morning at our disposal.

Next up on the list: laying down a goodly amount of fragrant cypress mulch!

Favorite Films of 2005

I started making annual top-10 movie lists in 2007, so I’ve been going backwards from there to create lists for each year retroactively. See all my best-of lists.

I really enjoyed kicking off my back-in-time film rankings series with the 2006 slate.

Most of my indelible memories from this moviegoing year involved the late, lamented Westgate Cinema, a rundown strip mall theater in Madison that showed the arthouse flicks I was really getting into at this time as a high school junior and senior. I saw several of my top 10 films there.

Looking at the box office from that year reveals a now-familiar dominance of franchises, though only one superhero movie. The only two original concepts represented in the top 10 were Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Hitch—one of which made my own top 10 and the other just missed out.

As for the Oscars, the bit that sticks out (besides the surprising-but-not-really Best Picture triumph of Crash over Brokeback Mountain) was host Jon Stewart’s quip after Three 6 Mafia won Best Original Song for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from Hustle & Flow: “For those of you who are keeping score at home, I just want to make something very clear: Martin Scorsese, zero Oscars; Three 6 Mafia, one.”

On to the list…

1. Brokeback Mountain

True story: when I started teaching myself how to play guitar around this time, the first two songs I learned were “Blackbird” by The Beatles and “The Wings” from the Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain score by Gustavo Santaolalla. Partially because they happened to share a similar riff (and, I realize only now, theme: “Take these broken wings and learn to fly…”), but also because they’re both gorgeously evocative in their own ways.

2. Good Night, And Good Luck

There’s a cozy intimacy this film accomplishes that sets it apart from other star-studded period dramas. Maybe it’s the smooth-jazz score, the black-and-white, or the short runtime. Or maybe it’s the contrast of big issues—freedom of speech, the power of the press—being teased out through small conversations in unassuming rooms.

3. Grizzly Man

I’ve seen and enjoyed many Werner Herzog documentaries, but this one still reigns supreme.

4. Batman Begins

Ah, the halcyon days of when a gritty superhero reboot was a novel concept.

5. A History of Violence

The fight in the diner. The stairway sex scene. The final shot.

6. The 40-Year-Old Virgin

Let’s save the discussion about the cancelability of mid-2000s comedies for the 2004 list (Anchorman, Dodgeball) and say for now that this felt like a sea change at the time, not only for the humor but also for the ultimately positive portrayal of virginity.

7. The New World

I remember going to see this with some friends who were expecting something closer to Pocahontas than the slow, meandering, meditative epic this actually is. Needless to say they didn’t like it, but I did.

8. Walk the Line

At my high school, seniors were allowed to make a big raucous commotion between classes on their last day of school to celebrate graduating. My contribution to this day was hoisting my boombox above my head and playing this movie’s soundtrack on repeat while I walked the halls.

9. Four Brothers

An underrated winter movie, crime movie, family drama, and ensemble piece, with Chiwetel Ejiofor’s truly chilling turn as the sadistic, fur-spangled crime boss Victor Sweet as a bonus.

10. Mr. & Mrs. Smith

We now know how Brangelina would turn out, but at the time the chemistry of Pitt and Jolie was as incandescent as this movie’s alchemy of action, humor, and romance.

Honorable mentions: Broken Flowers, Fever Pitch, Hitch, In Her Shoes, Just Friends, King Kong, The Squid and the Whale, War of the Worlds

Marveling at masks amidst the plague experience

In his latest column “Are Face Masks the New Condoms?” (paywalled), Andrew Sullivan reflects on how difficult it is to change pandemic-induced behaviors:

With HIV, as with Covid, a transformation of the facts did not necessarily mean a transformation of psychology. Human psyches take time to adjust to new realities; fear and trauma have a habit of outlasting our reason; and stigmas, once imposed, can endure. Camus noted how his citizens in The Plague were oddly resistant to the idea that their pestilence was over, even as the numbers of deaths collapsed. Reactions to the good news were “diverse to the point of incoherence.” But for many, “the terrible months they had lived through had taught them prudence,” or imbued them with “a skepticism so thorough that it was now a second nature.” They had become used to their new routines, and the sense of safety they gave. However bizarre it seems, they became attached to their plague experience.

Sullivan is specifically referring to some people’s resistance to going mask-less outdoors despite the latest science condoning it. But his larger point about the stubbornness of human psychology and becoming emotionally attached to the pandemic experience rang very true for me.

Marveling at masks

Not long before lockdown last year, wearing a mask was still liable to be seen as paranoia even as the specter of the pandemic lurched ever closer. Yet now, long after mask mandates went into effect, it’s not wearing a mask that attracts suspicion and consternation—at least in the Chicago area where I live (obviously it’s a different story in other parts of the country).

And that’s one aspect of pandemic life I’ve become not necessarily attached to, but certainly appreciative of. Anytime I go to a store or other indoor public place, I see every person wearing a mask, even young kids, and think, This is pretty cool.

It’s pretty cool that all of us—whether willingly or begrudgingly—are undertaking collective action to benefit the health of our neighbors and nation. Again, whether you see it that way or not is irrelevant; it’s the fact that it’s happening at all and on such a grand, widespread scale that’s a bit of a marvel to me.

It makes me feel a kind of kinship with my fellow countrymen and women, an esprit de corps that makes the frustrations of pandemic life a little more bearable. Or, as Matt Thomas tweeted:

(Notably this tweet was from before we knew COVID transmission was far more likely through air droplets than direct touch, but the sentiment remains valid.)

To be clear, I’d rather not have to wear a mask. Once mask mandates end and the prevailing, science-based wisdom allows for a more normal life, I’ll celebrate with everyone else. But until then, I consider masking up something to embrace as a small but significant action I can take to nudge this plague in the right direction.

(That and getting the vaccine, which I’ve now done.)

In this together?

“We’re all in this together” started the pandemic as a motivational motto that even yours truly deployed, but over time kinda curdled into a cheap slogan of hackneyed false optimism due to the decided un-togetherness fostered by a very tumultuous 2020. We all haven’t had the same COVID experience.

I’m one of those people for whom there was very little that was negative about it. I didn’t lose my job. I got to and continue to work from home (saving a bunch of money on commute fuel, among other things). I avoided catching COVID, as did my immediate family and friends (knock on wood). And above all I got so much more time with my wife and 2 year old than I would have otherwise, which was a priceless gift.

For those reasons I’ve very much become “attached to the plague experience.” The new routines it generated will be hard to kick. Slowly, as more people get vaccinated and another summer outdoors approaches in relief, maybe a new mindset will take hold. (I for one eagerly await going to a movie theater once I’m past my post-vaccine waiting period.)

Until then, the plague experience abides.

Recent Views

More photography here and on my Instagram.

This picture barely captures how cool the evening light was through these clouds at my local strip mall:

Remnants of winter:

Black Play-Doh + white Play-Doh = accidentally awesome marbled design:

“Aphyllous trees beneath cirrocumulus clouds” sounds like a line from “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” but is really just what I caught here at our park:

Just doing domino runs with Jenga blocks with the 2 year old:

On the move in Pure Michigan:

Liked the colors and lines here:

Shout-out to the kids playing pickup baseball at the park who probably have never seen The Sandlot but nevertheless showed why it’s such a timeless classic:

Favorite Films of 2006

My annual top-10 movie lists begin in 2007, so I thought it would be fun to start going backwards from there and create lists for each year retroactively.

First up is 2006, which is now 15 years ago and a notable year for me in several ways: it’s when I graduated high school, went on tour with my band (RIP Ice Cap Fortune), entered college, and started this blog.

I also have a lot of movie-related memories from that year, including:

  • seeing Brick at my beloved Hilldale Theatre in Madison not long before it closed permanently
  • going to my first and last midnight screening (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest)
  • suffering through some truly awful movies (X-Men: The Last Stand, Superman Returns, Lady in the Water)
  • starting to write about movies (Quinceañera, The Prestige, the 2006 Oscars)

But the abiding memory from 2006 was the day I saw five movies in a row.

My mediocre movie marathon

This may be a common occurrence for film festival-goers or professional critics, but for me it was something I did just to see if I could pull it off—both as a tactical feat of avoiding detection by the theater staff and as a moviegoing stunt.

I walked into Marcus Point Cinema in Madison, WI, for a 12pm showing and reemerged into the darkness just before midnight (paying for only one ticket—yes, I was a teenage scofflaw). It’s not the best lineup, but here’s what I saw:

  1. The Pursuit of Happyness
  2. Rocky Balboa
  3. The Nativity Story (an unplanned addition but it fit perfectly between other showings, and my mom joined me with some contraband McDonald’s)
  4. Blood Diamond
  5. The Good Shepherd (my dad joined me for this one)

I never did this again and would not recommend it. By Blood Diamond my eyes were getting blurry and my butt hurt, so I don’t think I could fully appreciate that or The Good Shepherd. But it was bucket list cross-off and gave me a story to tell on my blog 15 years later.

Anyway, on to the list…

Top 10 of 2006

I suspect this won’t continue to be the case as I move back in time, but I saw almost all of the films in my top 10 in theaters at the time. By then I was an ardent cinephile with a job and a car, so I was able to see a lot of movies. And there were a lot of great ones. Here are my favorites:

  1. Children of Men
  2. Brick
  3. Tell No One
  4. Casino Royale (review)
  5. Inside Man
  6. Stranger Than Fiction (review)
  7. The Departed
  8. V for Vendetta
  9. Pan’s Labyrinth
  10. Jackass Number Two

Honorable mentions: The Prestige, Borat, Little Miss Sunshine, Idiocracy, Half Nelson, United 93, Marie Antoinette, Shut Up and Sing, Monster House, Old Joy, This Film is Not Yet Rated, Mission: Impossible III