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Breakfast in America

Forty years ago this month, the British band Supertramp released Breakfast in America. I use the descriptor “British band” because by that date it had pushed any louche-glam connotation dangerously close to middlebrow. By 1979, it wasn’t just the four primary hair compositions of these bands to emerge from the black-lit mist; the risers supported supplemental musicians galore. Identifying the principals posed a challenge for the uninitiated.

Though it was Los Angeles to which Supertramp had emigrated two years before, the mythic America depicted on the album jacket is the island of Manhattan. The Jane Withers-looking waitress holds a glass of near-pornographic-hued orange juice in front of the ghost-white Twin Towers. It’s tempting to think that 1979 marked the end of the heyday of expats satirizing Hotel California bacchanalia—biting the hand that feeds you, so to speak. But that era managed to proceed along quite nicely for at least another decade thanks to Genesis and Phil Collins. Read more

Achtung, Baby

You’re walking on a sidewalk with one of your grandmothers. You’re old enough to be out of a stroller but young enough to be a pedestrian hazard. You start out at your grandmother’s side but invariably you drift. Then it happens—the startling yank to some piece of clothing attached to you. Your grandmother’s arm maneuvers as if by reflex, as pneumatic as a robotic claw turning a diesel engine. “Stay on the right and everyone gets to where they’re going.”

These kinds of memories tend to claim outsize real estate in the minds of those of us who walk around a large city every day. That’s because we cannot fathom how this custom—you drive on the right and you walk on the right—could be cast aside in lieu of nothing.

Media gripe stories about lapses in “sidewalk etiquette” seem to run on timed rotation. We know the annoying behaviors—not looking where you’re going, lost to the distracting sounds of earbuds, stopping in the middle of pedestrian traffic to take a selfie, weaving from side to side, walking with a posse that takes up the whole sidewalk, swinging your arm or handbag in areas dense with pedestrians. But “stay to the right” is always first on the list because it’s the most important for the movement of crowds. Read more

This Train

A week before the midterms last fall, Bruce Springsteen released the live version of “Land of Hope and Dreams,” from the soundtrack to Springsteen on Broadway. If you’d been wanting to weep about the demise of the U.S. of A., this song was the perfect trigger.

Take, for instance, the prospect of living in a nation where “dreams will not be thwarted.” That’s right up there with “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored,” from the thick of the Civil War in 1862. It took America a mere 103 years after the debut of that tune to give black residents the supposed right to vote at a polling station. As for de facto voting rights for more than 14% of our nation . . . well, Nancy Pelosi et al. are hinting that the check might be in the mail. (But don’t hold your breath.)

“Land of Hope and Dreams” seemed to me Springsteen’s plea to all sentient Americans: “this train” is big enough for all of us, so get out there and vote in representatives who will make peaceful coexistence happen. Sadly, however, his choice of metaphor—“big wheels roll through fields where sunlight streams”—relegated his message (however moving) to weightless nostalgia. Read more

Earth Dog, Justice Warrior

On February 5 the world rings in the Chinese Lunar New Year of Earth Pig and says goodbye to that of Earth Dog. The Spinner of the Years stops toiling for no one, but I must admit I will miss the reign of Earth Dog.

I will miss Earth Dog because of the prediction that came with her: “corruption is rooted out, tyranny and oppression overturned, and justice prevails.”

Who could argue with justice prevailing? We know the familiar Martin Luther King Jr. quote: “Let us realize [that] the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The words are nice, but is there such a thing as a “moral universe”? (If the universe was moral, why wouldn’t justice be pre-installed?) I’m afraid Dr. King was letting us down easy. No one wants to hear that the people who go without or take the hits to build an endowment are often not the ones reaping its dividends. Read more

The Tower

Back on September 4, CNN photographer Khalil Abdallah was in the right place at the right time to capture this image of lightning striking the White House. Presidential timeline-wise, the thunderstorm raged about halfway between the Washington Post’s publication of excepts from Bob Woodward’s Fear and the chest-thumping of an anonymous White House “resistance” figure in the New York Times.

The first thing this weather event brought to mind was the similar hand-of-God coincidence on July 17, one day after Donald Trump met with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki and refused to acknowledge Russian interference in the 2016 election. During an Oval Office press event, the lights went off just as the President professed his “full faith” in the U.S. intelligence agencies.

The second thing the lightning brought to mind, though, was the tarot card The Tower. In the weeks since that strike to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue—and especially in the wake of the midterms—the connections between Donald Trump and The Tower tarot could not be more pronounced. Read more

Le Seize Septembre

Sometimes it seems that surrealism’s most enduring influence on popular culture is the non sequiturial distance between image and identifying text. When it comes to this art of disjuncture, the Belgian painter René Magritte was a master (see his 1930 work The Key of Dreams).

In college I was seduced by Magritte’s paintings of trees and nighttime illumination, and in Le Seize Septembre I found the best of both worlds. The painting shows a tree at the last moments of dusk, only the crescent moon shines not from above but from the heart of the tree, casting a strange light onto the surrounding ground. People have commented that the moon of September 16, 1956, did not look like this from where Magritte was painting: it was actually four days shy of full and much larger.

But it’s true that nature abhors a vacuum. The void of rationality behind Magritte’s choice of title for this picture I eventually filled in for myself. Read more

We Are Unblessed

Ikeep hearing and reading two phrases in regard to the twin conflagrations consuming ever more real estate on the home pages of the New York Times and Washington Post: “It will get ugly” and “We are fucked.”

The first fire is the coordinate effects of Bob Woodward’s new book and the anonymous Times op-ed by a senior White House official; the second, the Senate’s confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

Though we longed for the implosion of Donald Trump, we didn’t want the implosion of our republic to go with it. “It will get ugly” owing to the unhinged chief executive but more so to the void of democracy known as Republicans—this lockstep conglomerate of testosterone who will devastate the country with their minority rule until either January 2, 2019, or forever.

“We are fucked” because for the past 40 years, right-wing dollars have greased a conservative legal movement to wrest control of the nation’s courts. This calculated takeover of the people’s government relied on Republicans’ sinister gerrymandering to control both the House and state governments and their unearned advantage in the U.S. Senate (all those population-challenged Red States getting the same two votes as the 39.5 million residents of California). Republicans have used these exploitations to win the Electoral College and shape the Supreme Court. Read more

Speaking in Tongues

I often wonder if someone is tracking the number of times Donald Trump has uttered or tweeted the words “disgrace” and “disgraceful” since assuming the presidency.

The stuff that gushes from his mouth and/or Twitter feed has been pretty well categorized.

There’s the third-grade-vocabulary propaganda hammered home with endless repetition and occasional enhancements—as when “witch hunt” was upgraded to “rigged witch hunt,” slathering on a generous lapse of logic.

Then there’s the outright gutter talk and the “people are saying” innuendo that gets filed under “dog whistle.” (Calling Omarosa Manigault Newman a “dog” is a twofer in this regard.)

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The End of the End of July

There were parts of summer I hated growing up. From fourth through eighth grade, playing in the Cinderella Softball League meant practicing next to a sewage treatment plant. Every day I ran after grounders in a swampy valley that was buggy in addition to stinking to high heaven. I had all kinds of pollen allergies, but we were relatively poor and the relatively poor didn’t medicate these things. I endured by swatting away mosquitos with my mitt and rubbing my red eyes with my other hand. (I wasn’t the world’s greatest athlete.)

Though I grew up in a small city, I had plenty of access to what we called “the sticks.” I loved forests but had no overriding passion for rural America—probably because in Western New York rural meant poor. But thanks to novels, stories, and paintings, I had fallen in love with the summer landscapes of pre-industrial America by the time I got to college. Read more

About That Bat-Signal

Where Is Barack Obama?” New York Magazine wants us to know that we should want to know.

Apparently people are unhappy that the 44th president seems to have ghosted himself from public life right when we’re entering months of nail-biting over the midterm elections.

One thing the cover article showed me is that the baseline cliché of every superhero franchise has thoroughly colonized the American psyche. Commissioner Gordon is flashing the bat-signal to no avail. And he’s doing so just as DC restaurants (and their patrons) are confronting/harassing/shunning members of the Trump White House.

How quickly we forget Michelle Obama’s “When they go low, we go high.” That got a lot of applause, but then Trump got a lot of electoral votes.

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