“I have been working in the area for 30 years and been doing North Pole voyages for 24 years, and I’ve seen many changes in the ice conditions,” Captain Lobusov said during the voyage north. “As we approach the North Pole, you can see we have many stretches of open water.”
To travel to the North Pole is to be acutely aware of not only the isolation of the present, but also the weight of the past, of those who sought to be where we now stood, to meet, in the words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the “challenge of human daring.” It is also, increasingly, to consider the future — to wonder whether, just as the window of accessibility is cracking open, the opportunity to see the North Pole as we know and imagine it is already starting to close.
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are known for many things; being fashion plates isn’t one of them. When the Apollo 11 astronauts made their giant leap for mankind in 1969, however, they were wearing a type of “space couture” that shared a history — and, indeed, many of the same seamstresses — with what was essentially the Spanx of the time.
He was 72 now. He had never left, never graduated to serving tables, never became a manager or a chef — he says he never asked to do anything else. So, he had stayed a busboy, for 54 years. The title had evolved since 1964; he was now a “busser.” But he still wore the kind of throwback paper hat that a busser wore in 1964. He made whipped butter, and squeezed the oranges for OJ, but mostly, he still bussed plates and glasses, tidied up the same dark wooden booths, passed the same windows inlaid with the same stained-glass foliage, noted the same line of customers snaking out of the front doors, received waves and hugs (and sometimes Bulls tickets) from the same regulars. He had seen generations of customers and co-workers pass through; he’d been there so long he watched Bill Murray go from neighborhood kid to superstar to venerated elder. When he squinted, the same teenagers were still curled into the same booths, the same infants tossed crayons under the same tables, the same captains of industry put away the same post-workout pancake stacks.
His 2018 commute wasn’t even that different than his 1964 commute. He lives in West Gresham, not far from 89th Street. He takes two trains and a bus in the morning, then back in the afternoon, four days a week. He rides the Red Line almost perfectly from one end to the other. Door to door, that means a roughly two-hour commute, each way.
Yet her journey of self-discovery is not, in the end, the beating heart of this book. Neither is the love story of Denison and Chomé, or even Deasey’s blossoming relationship with her deceased father. The most affecting story here is that of the story itself: the tensions between what is written and what is spoken, and who controls the narrative. “Verba volant / Scripta manent” runs the Latin proverb chosen for the epigraph: “Spoken words fly away / Only what is written remains.” A Letter from Paris is a sobering reminder of the ease with which our stories can be warped by the prevailing attitudes of the time – and the crucial importance of archives in the preservation of lives and literature.
In the novel’s closely observed daily round of ranch work — fixing fences, feeding cows, inoculating and branding the new calf crop — the lives and concerns of these rural folks and their ties to the land are slowly, inevitably revealed to us. The landscape of their world is both harsh and beautiful. “Brown melt-water flows fast through the irrigation ditch, coming down off Mount Baldy. The level might hold off a drought if there is one this summer. From this vantage, the fields are lush with the leavings of winter. The alfalfa is coming in green. A new calf runs and bucks; in just days on earth, its balance is already perfect.” “Kickdown,” in its moving evocation of a place and a people and a way of life at a pivotal point in our history, finds that same nearly perfect balance.
I always thought my brain’s resistance to concentration was a character flaw I needed to learn to work around. “Hyperfocus” helped me recognize the limits of my attentional space and make my environment more conducive to focus.
Mr. Bailey splits his book into two sections: one on hyperfocus, which is the state of devoting all your attention to one complex task, and the other on scatterfocus, intentionally allowing your mind to wander in order to connect ideas, plan for the future and recharge. While hyperfocus is key to productivity, scatterfocus supports creativity.