Notes
First thoughts, running arguments, stories in progress
Katie Martin / The Atlantic

In this week’s Atlantic coverage, our writers explored how obsession feeds inspiration, the prospects for school choice succeeding, the shadow network of anti-vax doctors, the health effects of space flight, the worst presidential elections, and more.

Can you remember the key facts? Find the answers to this week’s questions in the articles linked above—or go ahead and test your memory now:

For more tricky questions and surprising facts, try last week’s quiz, and subscribe to our daily newsletter.

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Andrew Burton / Reuters

President Obama told The New York Times that reading books like The Three-Body Problem and The Underground Railroad helped him “slow down and get perspective” during his eight years in the White House.

This week, we asked our Politics & Policy Daily readers to share which books inform their daily lives and help keep things in perspective. Here are some of our favorite responses.

Tom Lucas suggested The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah:

The story of how French citizens faced so much difficulty during the Nazi occupation is relevant today when we talk about ISIS and how they took over cities in the Middle East.  I’m sure many of those citizens didn’t want to take in the soldiers but were forced to do it in order to protect their families.  We are so far removed from this kind of suffering that it can be difficult to imagine, and understanding it more makes me appreciate how small our problems in America are by comparison.

Thomas Gierach suggested both fiction and nonfiction: Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy, and Stamped From the Beginning, by Ibram X. Kendi.

Gail Driscoll enjoys Barack Obama: The Story by David Maraniss, Jon Meacham’s American Lion, and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegywhich she says “exposes the complexity of the problems facing much of the Rust Belt.”

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From David, a reader in Oakland:

I hope it’s not too late to point out the perfect track for Inauguration Day. For so many reasons, it just has to be Leonard Cohen’s exhausted but hopeful “Democracy,” recorded 25 years ago [yesterday] and still inspiring—and, let us hope, prophetic.

Cohen died just a day before Donald Trump was elected president, so we’ll never know his reaction. But we can still glean wisdom and hope from his lyrics:

It’s coming to America first,
the cradle of the best and of the worst.
It’s here they got the range
and the machinery for change
and it’s here they got the spiritual thirst.
It’s here the family’s broken
and it’s here the lonely say
that the heart has got to open
in a fundamental way:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Shelagh Huston absorbed more of the lyrics in the days following Trump’s win:

After months of an election campaign that gave us the feel / that this ain’t exactly real / or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there, and after years of a rising tide of the wars against disorder / the sirens night and day / the fires of the homeless / the ashes of the gay, Leonard Cohen prophesizes: Democracy is coming to the USA. Like so many of us, Cohen cared about the idea of America (I love the country) but was horrified and revolted by what’s been happening to it (but I can’t stand the scene). [...] At a time when the US is in more danger of foundering than ever before, Cohen’s words are the perfect anthem for these times: Sail on, sail on / oh mighty ship of State, we’re dreading this voyage, not knowing if we’ll we make it to the shores of need / past the reefs of greed / through the squalls of hate.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

A crowd watches Donald Trump's inaugural address in Washington, D.C., on January 20, 2017, Ricky Carioti / Reuters

In the aftermath of November’s election, many readers who had been shocked by Donald Trump’s victory shared poems that helped them cope with loss and change. Jared turned to “Ash Wednesday” by T.S. Eliot:

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

Full poem here.

***

Trump’s presidency is actual now, and will be for another four years. For many, after the bitterly fought campaign and the upset victory, his Inauguration Day feels like the turning point between a past marked by loss and a future marked by uncertainty. Maybe that was why, this morning, I found myself looking back at another poem—W.H. Auden’s “Homage to Clio,” the muse of history:

It is you, who have never spoken up,
Madonna of silences, to whom we turn

When we have lost control, your eyes, Clio, into which
We look for recognition after
We have been found out.

It’s a poem in praise of memory and choice, those uniquely human capacities—and in praise of the regret that comes inevitably with them. So far as Clio stands for time and history, her “silences” apply to both the past and the future: She won’t tell you what to do next, and if you look back and beg her to change something, she’s extremely unsympathetic.

What Clio can do, Auden writes, is to remind you of your own power: your ability to act with purpose, not only in the sense of political action or artistic expression but also in the simple sense of recognizing your own regrets and fears and place in history. That power is a privilege and a burden, which may be why Auden closes with a prayer:

Clio,

Muse of Time, but for whose merciful silence
Only the first step would count and that
Would always be murder, whose kindness never
Is taken in, forgive our noises

And teach us our recollections.

Listen to Auden reading the poem here.

***

If you have a poem that brings you hope and comfort, please send it—with a link if you can—to hello@theatlantic.com, and I’ll add it here. Update: Katie recommends “Revenge” by Eliza Chavez:

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Photo of Shiprock, a land formation in New Mexico, by reader Jimmy Rollison for our America by Air series.

Mar became an American citizen in 2013 but has uncertainty about her future in the U.S.:

In 2001, at the age of 12, I immigrated here from Spain with my parents. My father, a veterinarian, had lost his job and was offered a position (and visa) as a researcher at the FDA after applying for an opening online. The FDA benefitted from my father’s labor in that he performed the work of a veterinarian, but because he lacked a license to practice in the U.S., he was paid less than a licensed vet.

The only difference between myself and someone who crossed the border illegally is that I was born to a family with the means of immigrating legally when faced with economic forces beyond our control.

But I believe it’s still unclear to my parents and I if it was a good decision to immigrate here. My father is getting older and will not be able to afford retiring soon. Once he is unable to work full time, my parents might have to immigrate again somewhere where the cost of living is lower. (They do hang an American flag from their porch and watch Fox News.)

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Fabian and his family overcame the fear and uncertainty of having the wrong documentation:

I was brought to the U.S. in the late ’80s by my parents while I was barely eight years old. We left Uruguay, where I grew up and where my sister was born. (I was born in Argentina for reasons still unclear to me.)

I attended school and ferociously embraced American culture. When I attended college, I was notified that I either had to pay cash or prove that I am a U.S. citizen. My family had gotten a deportation notice in the mail during that time. Although we had been living here for 10 years—which seemed like an eternity at the time—the INS did not recognize my family as having legal status. My father began to suffer from a major depression that deteriorated his health physically. I continued to study and worked three jobs at times.

In 2000, I married the love of my life, a refugee from El Salvador who was a U.S. citizen. We immediately started the process to become a permanent resident. By 2006, I had become a U.S. citizen in LA County. My dad took me to the ceremony himself to make sure I got there on time.

The first person I voted for was myself in a city council election. I lost by three votes in a three-person race in my district.

I am now a U.S. Government and U.S. History teacher. Eventually, my parents were able to become permanent residents through my status as a citizen. Unfortunately, my sister continues to be undocumented because she didn’t qualify for any programs. She is planning to move with her family to Canada due to the Trump presidency and his continuous anti-immigrant rhetoric.

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This next reader, Shelly, immigrated to the U.S. from Israel in the late ‘50s:

I came to this country with my family when I was five years old. We actually landed on my 5th birthday off a big ocean liner which sailed from the U.K., where we’d visited relatives and toured London. We came from Israel—a country only a decade old at the time—to help with some of my health issues and so that my father could find better business opportunities. My grandmother, aunt, uncle and their families were already in the U.S. I remember that day as my grandmother met us and brought me my first really beautiful doll.

My parents had been refugees from Nazi Europe in 1938. They met in pre-Israel Palestine and were filled with hope when they came to America.

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Gifriends

Zuleyma Peralta, 29, Ph.D. candidate
Lives in Sunnyside, Queens; emigrated from Mexico

To me, America really means trying to look for the American dream. When I came here, I came from the mountains of Guerrero. My parents were poor. My dad was struggling; even though he was a teacher, he wanted me to have a better future, so he brought me here. It wasn’t my choice, obviously, but I’m really glad he did, because he opened a world of opportunities here for me. Every day I just wake up and try to make him proud. I’m currently doing a Ph.D. Making sure that their sacrifice, and the sacrifice that they’re still making, is really worth it. And to me that’s what America symbolizes. The fact that you can come here and make something of yourself, even if you come from nothing.

Gifriends

Robin Glazer, 61, Director at the Creative Center at University Settlement Lives in Jersey City, New Jersey

America’s strengths are in its immigrant communities, and all the amazing things that they’ve brought to the table and influenced. I was in education for 22 years as an art teacher for a public school system here in New York. And I will tell you that every year as my classes became more diverse and rich, the artwork that came out of that was more diverse and rich. The teachers were influenced by it, the administration was influenced by it.

The best American is somebody who is inclusive of all, respectful of all, curious about all, doesn’t shut anything down—which is kind of an oxymoron in the fact that I really cannot talk to Trump supporters now and I do shut them down in my mind. People felt disenfranchised. They needed somebody to blame.

Gifriends

Darryl Scherba, 68, Architect
Lives in Upper East Side, Manhattan

For the last 300 or so years, we’ve been a pretty unique place in the world. Most immigrants, when they come here, they have a better understanding of what America means than most natives. We have an unbridled spirit. Optimism. A belief in the future. A sharing of disparate pasts. And a coming together, unlike most other countries in the world. And I think we’re unique in the sense that we’re a melting pot of so many nationalities.

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Gifriends

Michael McLean, 50, Construction Worker
Lives in Upper West Side, Manhattan

I think America is at its best under turmoil. Not war, although we do respond very well to war, but when there’s a need—there’s a crisis. We are the most giving country in the world, as far as philanthropy, so when there’s a crisis, we’re at our best.

An American is someone who bleeds and is willing to defend our country. Somebody who realizes the big picture—you’re only a piece, part of the whole. Someone who can put aside their biases, their personal, political opinions, and realize what's better for the greater good.

Gifriends

John Moody, 35, State Farm Agent
Lives in Charlotte, North Carolina

I think America is unfortunately at its best when there are events that force us to come together—9/11, major storms, catastrophic events—are what really brings us out together. Kind of like the church shooting we had in Charleston, South Carolina. We were living in Columbia, South Carolina, at the time and it really kind of brought everybody together. There wasn’t any kind of violent protest or anything like that. People were just hugging and kissing.

Gifriends

Carlos Alvarado, 45, Production Manager
Lives in Riverdale, Bronx

Right now I think we live in two different countries. You have the urban, cosmopolitan lifestyle. And then you have a rural life that thinks that we’re all liberal elites or whatever. I think if we all just talked to each other, we could see that we have a lot in common. You know? America is at its best when we’re all together. I’m not sure if it’s a good example, but when 9/11 happened, we all became Americans. It wasn’t white, black, Spanish. We’re all Americans. So I’m not sure if a tragedy would get us together, but maybe. When we’re together is when we’re at our strongest.

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Gifriends

Thomas Cheeseboro, 49, Warehouse Worker
Lives in Harlem, Manhattan

America’s strength is that we are “a free country” and we are a leader in the world, the free world. Freedom of speech, the rights that we have that most countries don’t have—that’s America’s strength. Creativity. Ingenuity. Thoughtfulness. Love for your fellow man. That’s what makes America.

Gifriends

Anthony Verdille, 35, Retirement Services
Lives in Massachusetts

I think America’s always been at its best. I don’t think it matters how bad we are, how bad we think we are. I think … the people who travel across the world, know how well we are doing, regardless of what situation we’re in. I think we’re diversified, innovative, and leading. We always want to be leading in everything we do. And I think that’s the history of our country. I think that’s kind of what each person delivers.

Gifriends

Naomi Shaanan, 64, Retired
Lives in Israel

America is a great democracy with a beautiful history. People came out from religious persecution, and that’s what created a nice country. The Constitution is a work of art. And Americans are very proud; they’re very sure of themselves and very sure of their country.  

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Gifriends

Mike Puckett, 26, Comedian
Lives in Brooklyn

I don’t know if we’ve been at our best ever. Well, maybe the past eight years, I guess I’d say, because we had a president most people (that I know) were excited about. I know that means I live in a bubble, to some extent. But also because even though we have a lot of problems we’ve become more aware of them, and at least started a lot of dialogues that I don't think were being had otherwise.

Gifriends

Kevin Hines, 52, Kite Flyer
Lives in Midtown, Manhattan

I don’t mean to go off on America, but in order for America to really be America, we say “the land of the free, home of the brave.” A lot of people in America don’t feel free. They don’t feel like America is with them and it shouldn’t be like that. We should embrace each other. Our differences are just what they are: differences. But we are all the same, in our own unique ways.

Gifriends

Ollie Corchado, 26, Actor and Courier
Lives in Washington Heights, Manhattan

During the Olympics this past year, I feel like everybody just loved everybody. We were just like, “yes, we are on top, man.” We got Michael Phelps and Simone Biles just kicking ass, and like doing awesome. Everybody just loved everybody. I think that’s when America’s at its best. When everybody focuses on the positives, and not so much on the negatives. There’s a lot of bad stuff that happens, but if we just focus on the positives I really think that’s when we get things going. You don’t quit, you don’t give up. And even if you lose, the idea is you pick yourself back up. That’s the big American quality that I think is cool.

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Gifriends

Zarmina Amin, 30, Doctor
Lives in Miami, Florida; originally from Pakistan

Everything’s always been great. We’re welcoming, we’re honest, and everybody here is very hardworking. I’m an American and I love this place. I hope that Donald Trump proves to be a good president, which I don’t doubt that he will be, and everything goes for the best for our country.

Gifriends

Brittany Grey, 28, Social Entrepreneur
Lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn

I definitely think we’re at our best when we’re just working together and really just trying to be more understanding, rather than fighting everybody to have the same beliefs as us. Because we have to have understanding. I don’t feel that the people who voted for Trump are necessarily bad people, but there’s something deep down that we don’t understand about them and they don’t understand about us, so there’s gotta be some type of dialogue for us to come together.

Gifriends

Lewis Long, 51, Art Gallery Owner
Lives in Harlem, Manhattan

I think America is at its best when it really values the vast differences of its people and when it provides opportunities for those people. We’re at a pivotal time in our country. Demographics are changing. I think structurally, our economy is changing. There is less labor required to do the work that’s been done. And so, there are a lot of people that are fearful.

I think it’s going to be a difficult year. I think there are going to be convulsions from approaches that are nontraditional, from leadership that has been polarizing and hasn’t really made efforts to kind of resolve some raw feelings. I think that it’s a big unknown, but at the end of the day I think that the spirit of the American people, you know, it’s resilient. I think that ultimately our democracy is strong enough to overwhelm any type of behavior. I think in the short term it may feel like a setback. But I think in the long term it will galvanize, mobilize people, and will make us a stronger people, a stronger country.

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