THE BLOG
02/18/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

This Week in Magazines -- Michelle Obama, Extreme Weather and The Grateful Dead

The 24-7 Obamamania is upon us and, amid the gushing boosterism and portentous historical chatter, you'd do well to check very different and generally sober looks at the sure-to-be-self-assured first lady, Michelle Obama, in February Chicago magazine and January-February Atlantic.

Carol Felsenthal's "The Making of a First Lady" in Chicago is the more traditional take, relying on many interviews (though not with the subject herself) and capturing a decidedly solid woman who's the natural product of an extremely close South Side family, devoted to her kids and deeply respectful of her mom, herself the widow of a water-filtration plant foreman who was a precinct captain for the late Mayor Richard J. Daley. The parts are stronger than the whole, notably its reminders of what had long been both Michelle's virtual "disdain for politics" and related tensions in the marriage brought about by Barack's days in the Illinois Legislature in Springfield.

Relying heavily on a former state legislative staffer for Barack, Dan Shomon, Felsenthal says that "the young politician's wife worried about her family's financial security and often resented the demands placed on her by Barack's state senate job. She thought that serving in Springfield was little more than a selfish indulgence of her husband's."

The piece makes much of her overriding attempt to maintain a grounded family life and preserve a traditional domesticity. Indeed, it raises the prospect that the fractures in that life during the exhausting presidential campaign may well be repaired by what, ironically, should be the more structured, rational existence of everybody living in the White House.

It's that domesticity that makes Ta-Nehisi Coates' "American Girl" in The Atlantic the more provocative of the two pieces. In an essay on Michelle's "radical normalcy," Coates delves into Michelle's South Side experience and shows how it's the decidedly benign explanation for a campaign remark derided by many critics: "For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country, because if feels like hope is finally making a comeback." In her mind, she was alluding to the hope she associated with her youth; with "the long-lost neighborhood of yore."

Coates shows that not only was this not the incendiary remark it was interpreted as being, but that it reflected the dichotomy of Michelle's distinctly tradition-bound upbringing and her adult immersion in a world in which she became far more conscious of her race than while growing up. Unlike Felsenthal, Coates is not a Chicagoan, and he tours the South Side as if a foreign correspondent checking out some exotic, faraway land, which lends both a fresh insight and just a tad of naïveté to the opus ("The South Side's sheer mass and its shifting character astonished me. Bungalows would give way to mansions, mansions to burned-out lots, and at every gas station, panhandlers waited in search of change.")

Coates makes the case that the truly provocative strain of thought in Michelle is her nostalgia about the world of her youth. He finds her a "black woman who minored in African American studies, whose home turf had been marked by the Blackstone Rangers and Gangster Disciples, casting her story not as an essay on the illusory nature of the American dream but as rumination about our collective fall from motherhood, Chevrolet, and a chicken in every pot." Her memories "offer no nod to the poverty that has always haunted black Chicago. That was not her world, and it isn't her story."

Michelle herself downplays her significance to Coates, saying "there are thousands of Michelle and Barack Obamas across America. You just don't live next door to them." As for Coates himself, he concludes, "If you're looking for the heralds of a 'post-racial' America, if that adjective is ever to be more than a stupid, unlettered flourish, then look to those, like Michelle Obama, with a sense of security in who they are--those, black or white, who hold blackness as more than the losing end of racism."

---Ouch! When your old ideological friends cream you, as Jan. 17 Economist creams President Bush in "The Frat Boy Ships Out," you've got problems. In 2000 the magazine endorsed a man it now calls an "inverted snob" ("a product of Yale and Harvard Business School, he is a scourge of eggheads") and concedes that his presidency "is not without its merits," in particular his support of immigration reform, launching a $15 billion anti-AIDS program in Africa, urging tighter regulations of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, promoting minorities, and standing up to some of the hardliners in his party. He leaves behind a weakened economy, weakened international image, weakened military, and weakened Republican Party, says the magazine.

---Remember Shaun White, the shaggy-haired redhead who won an Olympic gold medal in snowboarding in 2006? February Fast Company's "Shaun White Lifts Off" profiles how he's becoming a marketing powerhouse for the youth market. "Unlike gymnast Shawn Johnson with McDonald's, or human fish Michael Phelps with Subway, White has sought out companies he truly connects with," the piece asserts, citing firms such as HP, Oakley, Target, Red Bull, and Burton (snowboarding gear and fashion for men and women). Those firms "look to White as a tractor beam to the $150 billion youth market." One marketer praises his ability "to juggle his authentic world and the corporate world and be that third platform between the two."

---In case you inexplicably missed it, December Weather and Forecasting offers "Emergency Management Decision Making During Severe Weather," by Leigh Baumgart and Ellen Bass of the University of Virginia, Brenda Phillips of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Kevin Kloesel of the University of Oklahoma.

In sum, "Emergency managers make time-sensitive decisions in order to protect the public from threats including severe weather. Simulation and questionnaires were used to capture the decision-making process of emergency managers during severe weather events. These data were combined with insights from emergency manager instructors, National Weather Service (NWS) forecasters, and experienced emergency managers to develop a descriptive decision-making model of weather information usage, weather assessments, and decisions made during severe weather."

"This decision-making model can be used to develop better decision support tools, improve training, and to understand how innovative weather information could potentially affect emergency managers' role of protecting the public."

You might have this around the next time you awake to six inches of snow that your smiling TV weatherman didn't quite get right, or the news that your kid's school is closed.

---Jan. 26 Business Week's "The Real Potential of Apple's iPhone" focuses on whether Apple can expand upon its early success in converting our cell phones into computing devices able to run tons of diverse applications. Interestingly, the average iPhone owner "has downloaded at least 15 applications in the past six years," far more than than the average consumer with a phone from Nokia, Motorola or anybody else. One problem with the whole industry involves the tough economics for application developers, who aren't making a whole lot of money, meaning Apple, and competitors, will have to figure out a way to help them turn a buck. One problem with Apple, obviously, is the health of its genius boss, Steve Jobs.

---Jan. 26 Newsweek's, "Who We Are Now" is partly an exploration of changing demographics and culture in the United States, and is a good companion to Atlantic's "The End of White America?" by Hua Hsu.

---The Dead sure aren't dead, according to February-March Relix via its "Dead On" profile of, and interviews with, the remaining four members of the Grateful Dead, soon to tour again in this post-Jerry Garcia era. Elsewhere, cerebral and somewhat combative bluesman Taj Mahal, now 66, waxes philosophical about Barack Obama while asserting, "This is the most intelligent human being that's ever approached the office of president of this country, ever in the history of this country--as far as I'm concerned."