Apr 24, 2020

SPECIAL FRIDAY EDITION: Quick hits and personal musings.

SPECIAL FRIDAY EDITION: Quick hits and personal musings.

The last free Friday edition.

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Today’s read: 7 minutes.

The last free Friday edition of Tangle, the latest Trump controversy, reader questions and a personal story from this week.

Friday editions.

Friday editions come out twice a month, or whenever there is a big, breaking news story that happens after Thursday’s newsletter is sent. After today, Friday editions will only be sent to paying subscribers. I am keeping 90% of Tangle free for anyone who wants it, but I feel like I have to give a little something extra for those who chip in. Typically, Friday editions are more personal, follow a different format from the regular Monday-Thursday editions, and include recaps on any news that may not have fit in the newsletter throughout the week. To become a paying subscriber and make sure you receive Friday editions going forward, you can subscribe below:

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A link.

In yesterday’s newsletter, I referenced the “hilariously extensive list” of all the times President Trump has said he didn’t know someone who he obviously had a relationship with. Several readers wrote in to tell me that the link was broken, so I wanted to follow up and give it to you again: you can find it by clicking here.

Quick hits.

  • During a press briefing yesterday, the president caught some attention for suggesting doctors study UV lights to kill coronavirus or injecting some kind of disinfectant into people. The comments were widely mocked on Twitter by the left, including a now-viral video of coronavirus task force member Dr. Deborah Birx reacting in real-time to his comments. The maker of disinfectants Lysol and Dettol even issued a press release warning people not to inject or ingest disinfectants. While I have no idea where the latter comments came from, it does seem fair to note that there have been some breakthroughs with UV light killing viruses. In fact, a team of scientists from Ireland recently developed a robot that disinfects hospital rooms with UV light and is now in high demand. The use of it on humans is still considered quite dangerous and unproven, but there is actually plenty of talk about it amongst qualified scientists, which I assume is where Trump got the talking point from.
  • On Wednesday, I covered the debate over when states should reopen. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who is moving faster than most other state leaders, was featured prominently in that edition. The Associated Press is now reporting that President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence had repeatedly told Kemp they approved of his aggressive plan to allow businesses to reopen — but on Wednesday, the president and vice president made a major about-face, and began criticizing Kemp openly. “I told the governor of Georgia Brian Kemp that I disagree strongly with his decision to open certain facilities,” Trump said Wednesday, only a day after telling the same reporters that he trusted Kemp’s judgment. On Thursday, he went even further: “I wasn’t happy with Brian Kemp, I wasn’t at all happy.” Click.
  • Yesterday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said more than 20 percent of people tested for coronavirus antibodies in New York City had them. The results surprised experts and officials across the country. The study was done by randomly testing 3,000 supermarket customers across New York State, and 14 percent of all people tested in the entire state had the antibodies. If those numbers translate to “true incidence of coronavirus” (we don’t yet know if they do), that would mean more than 1.7 million people in New York City had the virus. That’s far more than the 250,000 confirmed cases and would imply a death rate of about .5%, according to Cuomo, or five times the flu. Much like the Stanford study, though, there does seem to be some self-selection bias here. One would imagine the people going out to grocery stores are more likely to have come into contact with the virus. Click.

Your questions, answered.

Reminder: Reader questions are a big part of Tangle. To ask a question, all you have to do is reply to this email and write in. Give it a try!

Q: Several readers have written into Tangle asking me what I subscribe to, what my sources are, or what my process is for writing the newsletter.

— Lots of readers from all over.

Tangle:  These are the outlets I subscribe to on a monthly or yearly basis: The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Times, The Week, Apple News and The New Paper.

I also read Axios, Fox News, Politico, The Washington Examiner, The Daily Caller, Vox, Huffington Post, The Guardian, Commentary Magazine, Vice and occasionally, websites like Breitbart or The Daily Kos, but I don’t have paying subscriptions to any of them (they mostly live on ad revenue and are free). I read a number of other newsletters each day — from David French’s The Dispatch to pro-Trump, nationalist-populist newsletters — and subscribe to a few as well. I also donate to individual writers I like or websites like Wikipedia when they ask. All this is to say nothing about the numerous podcasts and Twitter feeds I listen to and follow. My goal is to read and listen to everything so you don’t have to, and can find all the good stuff here in Tangle.

My process for writing the newsletter really depends on what the topic is. Typically, I spend the nights after work or the very early mornings laying out the bones of a reader response. Around 5:30 a.m. or 6:00 a.m. I will open up WSJ, WaPo and NYT to see what is on their homepages — what’s the big headline? Once I devour a few articles from each of those sites, I’ll expand to more partisan outlets like a Vox or FoxNews.com. Then I’ll open up my email and read through several newsletters: Axios, Politico, New York Times, a few individual political reporters I follow. By now, I typically have an idea of what the big story is that everyone is talking about — and if I don’t yet I’ll turn to Twitter. There, I can check the trending sections or get a feel of what my timeline looks like. I have two Twitter accounts: one for my personal, professional work and one for Tangle. The personal Twitter account follows mostly journalists and news organizations. The Tangle account follows people — readers who follow me, partisans from the left and right, a lot of unverified people. Between the two accounts, I can be sure there isn’t something the “blue checkmarks” are talking about that “the people” aren’t.

Around this time I’ll throw my headphones in and listen to a podcast, typically The Daily, while I’m getting the work together. Usually, by 7 a.m., I have begun writing the “What D.C. is talking about” section. By 8 a.m. I need to be turning my attention to my regular work, and until 9 or 9:30 a.m. I am doing a mix of the newsletter and my day job. Then it’s real work time until 11:30, with the occasional (or frequent) checking of Twitter or the opinion pages of big papers to see any other news that has come in and if my writing needs to be updated. Throughout the day, and the week, I am collecting things for the “Numbers” section, “A story that matters,” and the “Have a nice day” section.

All morning, and the nights before, I get help from Cameron, who I fondly refer to as “my research assistant,” and he is usually collecting interesting articles and facts that are relevant to a reader question. We have a shared Google doc of all the unanswered reader questions and he will pull some of those questions out and add info to them, and then I will use the links and facts he gives me as a jumping-off point to formulate my response. In the last couple of weeks, my dad has also taken proofreading some newsletters for me, as he’s on coronavirus lockdown like everyone else and looking for something to do in the mornings. In the final minutes before noon, I am sending “test emails” to myself to give things a final proofread and look. Then I blast it out to everyone and watch anxiously for the first 15 or 20 minutes in case someone responds to tell me there’s a typo, a broken link, a mistake, etc. Most days, that doesn't happen! Once I feel like I’m in the clear, my work lunch break is over, and I’ve got to get back to my day job. Then I start collecting things and reading stories for the next day’s newsletter as my workday plays out. And around we go.

A lot of the work for the newsletter happens at random times, whenever I have free moments or nights when my fiance is in class. Throughout my years working as a political reporter, I’ve gathered a lot of foundational knowledge, sources and context for the work I’m doing now. Interspersed in all of this are texts and emails to experts or people in D.C. to get their thoughts or additional context. I also have a huge web of friends and readers who are experts in their own fields, which will randomly become relevant for Tangle, and I am not shy about reaching out to them and asking for their thoughts on a story.

A story.

I wanted to leave you with something non-political today, as Friday editions are kind of my chance to relax and freestyle a bit when there isn’t a big story to cover. It’s also raining out here in New York City, and something bizarre and fateful happened to me this week, so I’m feeling a bit nostalgic.

When I went to college, I had no plans to become a writer, or a journalist, or really do anything related to media. I wanted to be an athletic trainer — the guy on the sideline of major sporting events putting dislocated shoulders back into place or helping a star basketball player make it through a double-overtime game. That was my dream: front row seats at The Show, being part of a team. About halfway through my freshman year, I realized that my favorite classes, and the ones I was doing best in, were my English writing classes. I also became distinctly aware of the fact that my grades were suffering in the biology and pre-med classes I was taking alongside the University of Pittsburgh’s finest, many of whom were trying to become surgeons or neurologists.

So I had an idea: maybe I could get the same front-row access doing what I was good at, writing. I applied for a job as a reporter for the sports section at The Pitt News, and quickly got it. My first few weeks were a thrill: walking into basketball or football games for free, seeing my work published in the hard copy print papers that were passed around school, arguing with friends about an opinion piece I had written. I loved the late nights in the newsroom and the new team I had to work with, hang out with, learn with. But I still wasn’t quite ready to drop my major and give up on athletic training. That decision came late in my freshman year, after reading an essay titled Joyas Voladoras.

The piece of writing was written by an author named Brian Doyle. I remember distinctly the feeling I had when I got done the piece, how perfect I thought it was, how moved I had been. It was described in class as a “lyrical essay,” writing that combines the real world of non-fiction with the lyrical nature of poetry or fiction. The essay itself prompted my first real, public writing project, which I called “Music to Words” and ran on my website for about four or five years. The concept was simple: I had friends send in songs that they loved, and I would listen to the songs for a few days and then publish a piece of writing that was inspired in me by the music. I published the writing on my website and encouraged readers to listen to the songs while they read. Each was written with Brian Doyle’s “lyrical essay” in mind. Then I’d post the stories on my Facebook or Twitter. It was a huge hit in a close circle of friends, and Music to Words took up hours of my time every week throughout college. It’s a concept I dream about resurrecting one day (perhaps my next Substack?).

I’m telling you all this now because of something that happened this week. My aunt from Oregon had told me about a package she had in the mail for me, and she had checked in a few times asking if I’d gotten it. I hadn’t. And then, on Wednesday, it arrived. When I opened it I saw that it was a book called One Long River of Song. It had some good reviews, looked interesting, and I sent her an email to thank her for sending it. But later that night, when I sat down to pick at it, I noticed the author’s name: Brian Doyle.

I got goosebumps.

It’d been years since I had read or seen that name, and I was immediately brought back to my sophomore year of college, sitting in my bed and underlining the sentences that seemed to pull at my chest and left me staring at my ceiling for hours on end. Back then, I had spent weeks — months, years maybe — looking for more of Brian Doyle’s writing. But it was so hard to find. What I learned in the forward of this book was that Doyle had died in 2017 of brain cancer. My heart sank. I kept reading the forward of the book and found out that he had built up a cult-like following in Oregon, and that for most of his writing career his essays had been published by small, religious print publishers, which I assume is why they were so difficult for me to find. He didn’t even publish his first novel until 2010, after I had read Joyas Voladoras for the first time. And now, in my lap, was a collection of all of his best essays, published together by his old editors to help raise money for his family to pay off his medical expenses. And it was sent to me by my aunt, who knew nothing of my connection to the author but dropped it in the mail out of little more than pure intuition. A gift from beyond.

It was uncanny timing, too. Here I was just a week out from launching the biggest writing project of my career — asking people for money for Tangle — and now the very man responsible for me taking the leap of faith into the writing world had suddenly been dropped back into my lap. Then I finished the forward and flipped to the first page, and there it was: the first words of the first page of the first chapter: “Joyas Voladoras.”

In honor of Brian, who I feel like I know despite never having met and — until this week — only ever having read four or five of his pieces of writing, I’d like to share with you this essay in full. It has nothing to do with politics, and it really doesn’t even have much to do with me, and it may not resonate with you at all. But I love it, and it changed my life, and I felt like there was just way too much serendipity and coincidence in what happened this week to not at least give him an acknowledgment here, given how much his work altered the course of my own path. So, without further ado and with some well-wishes for the weekend, Joyas Voladoras…

Joyas Voladoras.

By Brian Doyle

Consider the hummingbird for a long moment.

A hummingbird’s heart beats ten times a second. A hummingbird’s heart is the size of a pencil eraser. A hummingbird’s heart is a lot of the hummingbird. Joyas voladoras, flying jewels, the first white explorers in the Americas called them, and the white men had never seen such creatures, for hummingbirds came into the world only in the Americas, nowhere else in the universe, more than three hundred species of them whirring and zooming and nectaring in hummer time zones nine times removed from ours, their hearts hammering faster than we could clearly hear if we pressed our elephantine ears to their infinitesimal chests.

Each one visits a thousand flowers a day. They can dive at sixty miles an hour. They can fly backwards. They can fly more than five hundred miles without pausing to rest. But when they rest they come close to death: on frigid nights, or when they are starving, they retreat into torpor, their metabolic rate slowing to a fifteenth of their normal sleep rate, their hearts sludging nearly to a halt, barely beating, and if they are not soon warmed, if they do not soon find that which is sweet, their hearts grow cold, and they cease to be. Consider for a moment those hummingbirds who did not open their eyes again today, this very day, in the Americas: bearded helmet-crests and booted racket-tails, violet-tailed sylphs and violet-capped woodnymphs, crimson topazes and purple-crowned fairies, red-tailed comets and amethyst woodstars, rainbow-bearded thornbills and glittering-bellied emeralds, velvet-purple coronets and golden-bellied star-frontlets, fiery-tailed awlbills and Andean hillstars, spatuletails and pufflegs, each the most amazing thing you have never seen, each thunderous wild heart the size of an infant’s fingernail, each mad heart silent, a brilliant music stilled.

Hummingbirds, like all flying birds but more so, have incredible enormous immense ferocious metabolisms. To drive those metabolisms they have race-car hearts that eat oxygen at an eye-popping rate. Their hearts are built of thinner, leaner fibers than ours. Their arteries are stiffer and more taut. They have more mitochondria in their heart muscles—anything to gulp more oxygen. Their hearts are stripped to the skin for the war against gravity and inertia, the mad search for food, the insane idea of flight. The price of their ambition is a life closer to death; they suffer more heart attacks and aneurysms and ruptures than any other living creature. It’s expensive to fly. You burn out. You fry the machine. You melt the engine. Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old.

The biggest heart in the world is inside the blue whale. It weighs more than seven tons. It’s as big as a room. It is a room, with four chambers. A child could walk around it, head high, bending only to step through the valves. The valves are as big as the swinging doors in a saloon. This house of a heart drives a creature a hundred feet long. When this creature is born it is twenty feet long and weighs four tons. It is waaaaay bigger than your car. It drinks a hundred gallons of milk from its mama every day and gains two hundred pounds a day, and when it is seven or eight years old it endures an unimaginable puberty and then it essentially disappears from human ken, for next to nothing is known of the mating habits, travel patterns, diet, social life, language, social structure, diseases, spirituality, wars, stories, despairs and arts of the blue whale. There are perhaps ten thousand blue whales in the world, living in every ocean on earth, and of the largest animal who ever lived we know nearly nothing. But we know this: the animals with the largest hearts in the world generally travel in pairs, and their penetrating moaning cries, their piercing yearning tongue, can be heard underwater for miles and miles.

Mammals and birds have hearts with four chambers. Reptiles and turtles have hearts with three chambers. Fish have hearts with two chambers. Insects and mollusks have hearts with one chamber. Worms have hearts with one chamber, although they may have as many as eleven single-chambered hearts. Unicellular bacteria have no hearts at all; but even they have fluid eternally in motion, washing from one side of the cell to the other, swirling and whirling. No living being is without interior liquid motion. We all churn inside.

So much held in a heart in a lifetime. So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment. We are utterly open with no one in the end—not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend. We open windows to each but we live alone in the house of the heart. Perhaps we must. Perhaps we could not bear to be so naked, for fear of a constantly harrowed heart. When young we think there will come one person who will savor and sustain us always; when we are older we know this is the dream of a child, that all hearts finally are bruised and scarred, scored and torn, repaired by time and will, patched by force of character, yet fragile and rickety forevermore, no matter how ferocious the defense and how many bricks you bring to the wall. You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words I have something to tell you, a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in the thicket of your hair, the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.

If you’d like to purchase Brian Doyle’s book of essays, One Long River of Song, you can find it on Amazon here.

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