Life in the dark and in family-unfriendly companies Hardships: Harper's account of a black winter in Greenland makes cheerier reading than Fortune's tale of the price paid for having a family.


March 16, 1997|By Cynthia Dockrell | Cynthia Dockrell,BOSTON GLOBE

Before you get so fed up with the capriciousness of March that you flee south, read the cover story in this month's Harper's. You'll never complain about winter again.

Gretel Ehrlich writes an arresting first-person report of her winter Greenland, where the sun disappears for months. Temperatures drop way below zero and stay there. Dogs, which provide the primary mode of transportation, outnumber humans

by an impressive margin, and a sled maker talks rapturously about trees -- though he uses their wood, he's never seen one growing in treeless Greenland.

Ehrlich right off answers the question every reader will ask: Why go so far north just as the sun heads south? Her answer is weighty yet simple. "The first time I visited Greenland was two summers after a near-fatal lightning strike," she writes. "To live nose to nose with death pruned away the presumption of a future, even another sunrise. Life was an alternating current of dark and light." Greenland's sheared-off landscape summons her back: "Its continuously shifting planes of light are like knives thrown in a drawer. They are the layered instruments that carve life out of death into art and back to life. They teach me how to see."

Ehrlich in turn teaches us about the monumental effort it takes to get through day after day of darkness, and how the dark becomes a kind of light. Her spirit sinks, predictably, as day and night become indistinguishable -- she eats in the middle of the night, drinks too much, sleeps during the "day" -- but then she adapts. Her dilated pupils take in things not noticed under the sun; she comes back to life. By the time that big orange orb peeks over the horizon again, in February, she doesn't want it.

Written like a diary, Ehrlich's prose is arranged in short bursts that mimic the electric pace of her time in Greenland. It's part poetry, part science fiction, and charged throughout with revelation. She has been to the edge of existence in every sense, and her story is not to be missed.

Family and Fortune

No one ever said having a family and a career was easy, but here's an article to make working parents decidedly uneasy.

Fortune's cover story for March 17 is provocatively headlined "Is your family wrecking your career? (and vice versa)." The answer is yes, according to Betsy Morris. She reports on a handful of families living in a leafy Atlanta suburb where everything looks perfect on the outside but is in fact a breeding ground for stress. Though the dual-career couples inside these houses are knocking themselves out, they're failing to get ahead.

Morris offers convincing evidence that employers these days actually punish their people for having families.

Politically correct corporations pay lip service to the '90s demand for on-site day care and flexible schedules, but at

promotion time they're likely to overlook mothers and fathers who leave the office at 5 every day and lose precious billable hours when a child gets sick.

She cites studies suggesting that "well-educated men with working wives are paid and promoted less than men with stay-at-home wives, possibly because they can't clock as much face time." And whereas a few decades ago nice cars and big houses were the ultimate status symbols for ambitious men, now a wife who stays home is the thing to flaunt.

If you can afford that, you've arrived.

One wishes Morris had branched out more and interviewed dual-career families in other parts of the country, but the statistics she throws out are solid enough to convince readers that this corporate family-bashing is probably happening everywhere. If ever a story raised questions about how work fits into our lives, this is it. It almost makes you want to move to Greenland.


Fashion comes to the March 17 New Yorker, in a photo-and-story-loaded package that should appeal even to those who don't give a fig what anyone wears.

The standout is a rollicking piece by Malcolm Gladwell in which he follows "coolhunters" -- people who work for companies like Reebok -- as they search for what's cool. Since fashion now trickles up from the street, as opposed to the old days when it washed down from the big couture houses, clothes manufacturers are desperate to know what those kids on the street will buy. But the truly cool, the ones whose style all the other fashionable young folks will imitate, are elusive. And what they decide is cool changes faster than the seasons. So when a coolhunter finds a genuine cool kid, it's, like, totally butter.

Like, so is this story.

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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