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Fantods Nation

Maira Kalman has created some great New Yorker covers over the years. One of my favorites appeared on February 5, 2001: “Annual February Misery Day Parade.” I guess the evergreen joke is Oh, those gloomy New Yorkers. But this was also sixteen days after the installation of George W. Bush, who managed to win the popular vote on the Supreme Court. I’m assuming the misery had something to do with that.

Of course, the sad irony is that 9/11 was still seven months and six days away. Misery Day 2002 would only be worse.

I think about that cover every February, when the Northeast winters really drag. The light comes back gradually day by day but steals itself away a little too heartlessly. Because of this, it began to make sense that America should observe some version of Kalman’s Misery Day—as a collective, secular rite, similar to the atonement of Yom Kippur. Read more

The United States of Belleville

Back in December 2016, the gilt lobby of Trump Tower became the visual center of American power. Cameras followed the comings and goings of mostly middle-aged and older men amid a large plainclothes security detail.

These images stuck with me for a reason: the men in Donald Trump’s orbit—longtime cronies, legal counsel, crony-legal counsel hybrids, and of course the Secret Service and ancillary bodyguards—wore overcoats. And not just any overcoats but overcoats with the look of the early nineties—long, wide shoulders, ill-fitting by design. Klatches of these coats seemed to linger in every alcove, and even civilian journalists in their North Face jackets couldn’t dilute the mood.

The impending presidency was ominous, but the lobby overcoat tableau seemed even more so. It took me a while to figure out why, but it eventually hit me: the scene suggested the decadent metropolis in The Triplets of Belleville, the 2003 animated comedy written and directed by Sylvain Chomet. Read more

Elephant in the Room

What a strange day for Republicans. This is their guy, their origin story, and yet they can’t in good party conscience quote much of anything Abraham Lincoln said without violating the Fox News code of honor.

Three strands of Lincoln rhetoric would run afoul of Fox and Friends: his subject matter (the oppression of black Americans and a strong federal government), his skill at massaging words into compassion triggers for doing the right thing, and his refusal to demonize the opposition.

It is difficult to square Lincoln’s prosaic transfiguration of words on a page with a Republican president who gets an oral versus written daily intelligence briefing—or with the prune face of Mitch McConnell, where hopeful words die like sparrows smacking into the windows of the old Javits Center. Read more

1992

As the stock market made like the Coney Island Cyclone early this week, Reuters photographer Brendan McDermid documented frazzled traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. One of his photos—this man, whom I’ll call Trader Joe—caught my eye because of his NYSE badge number: 1992.

It’s never a good idea to read too much into coincidence. But ever since I read this Vanity Fair piece by Kurt Andersen, I’ve been cognizant of 1992 as a cultural flashpoint. Andersen’s essay is the kind people love to make a piñata of because his proffered evidence can seem overly anecdotal and subjective. But the associations he points out made sense to me.

Anderson argues that even though technology, culture, and commerce had changed drastically in the two decades between 1992 and 2012, the appearance of Americans and their stuff wasn’t all that different. If you look at the change in dress style over other twenty-year blocks, the visuals are jolting: 1932 to 1952, 1952 to 1972, 1972 to 1992. But between 1992 and 2012, the guy in jeans and sneakers looks pretty much the same. In fact, six years year later, the girl in jeans and sneakers—say, in a Madewell ad—looks even more like her 1992 counterpart. Read more

Happy Birthday, Boz

Charles Dickens was born on this day in Portsmouth, southwest of London, in 1812. I had read his novels in school but started thinking about him seriously after visiting his onetime residence at 48 Doughty Street in London. It was around the Guy Fawkes holiday and it was pouring. A friend and I were invited to join the post-closing-time reading group since we were the last stragglers in the house museum. And also because we were very young in relation to the book group. They were discussing a shorter sketch about a boy or a lad and a walk that I unfortunately could not pick out of a bibliographical lineup if you held a gun to my head.

What I remember most about that visit, though, was the bedroom of Dickens’s sister-in-law, Mary. On her single canopied bed a white nightgown had been laid out. She had come to live with the family and help with the new babies, as was custom. But at seventeen she suddenly became ill and died—in Dickens’s arms no less. Read more

Origin Story

The excitement generated by Oprah Winfrey’s Golden Globes speech almost immediately became bigger news than the speech itself, prompting Winfrey to make a public demurral that she doesn’t “have the DNA” to run for president of the United States.

But the import of her message and the way she delivered it should not get lost within the cult-of-personality frenzy that has already spawned a hot market for Oprah 2020 merchandise.

We are all complicit in the sorry state of political speechcraft in 2018, tolerating a low bar despite Barack Obama’s rhetorical gifts. And this is because we only understand speeches as the tools of powerful men. One of Hillary Clinton’s biggest communications problems was her inability to not give a man’s speech. She also fell into the storifying sand trap—touchy-feely anecdote with a first name, three banal sentences, and no resonance whatsoever. Read more

Unknowing

Years ago I was looking through remaindered books in the basement of the Harvard Bookstore and came across The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, by the philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto. The words seemed familiar, so I read the preface.

Danto titled his study of the then-current art world after something he remembered from the Muriel Spark novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Spark’s character Sandy Stranger—the acolyte schoolgirl who has an affair with her art teacher and betrays Miss Brodie—is said to have become a nun and authored a book called The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. Yes, that’s right, I thought.

Having always fancied using that title for a book, Danto wrote to Spark asking what Sandy’s book would have been about. “She replied, to my delight, that it would have been about art, as she herself practiced it.” Read more