Skip to content

How Does a Moment Last Forever?

Back at the start of the pandemic, one strain of the thinking internet’s insatiable need for copy was served by warnings against making a metaphor of the coronavirus. Forget that it came from China, that it was happening in an election year, that Trump had dismantled the National Security Council directorate charged with protecting us against such threats. Don’t take the bait.

Most of these exhortations were against casting COVID-19 as payback from some unknown dispensary of karma. Paul Elie in the New Yorker reminded us that Susan Sontag in the New Yorker had the final word on illness as metaphor in 1978 and again in 1989. She poked massive holes in this human impulse, so we mustn’t narrativize the pandemic as we narativize our individual lives.

Read more

The Best Someone

Sometime during the COVID spring, I was walking behind a young couple and overheard the guy ask the girl, “Did you hear the Luke Combs cover of ‘Fast Car’?” I wasn’t familiar with Luke Combs, but I was surprised to realize that the Tracy Chapman song had remained in the pop vernacular for more than three decades.

As a Black lesbian folk singer appealing to white audiences, Chapman was a pop anomaly. But her song is a perfect slice of Americana. I heard her busking “Fast Car” in the Harvard Square subway station a few times in the 1980s. I remember hearing it once from another part of the station, and the reiteration of “be someone, be someone” in that large space seemed portentous to my young self.

Read more

Urbi et Orbi

It’s hard to believe our COVID summer is already over. In New York, the weeks failed to coalesce as a season, and most people got sick of being told they should be either buying a house far, far away or pining for Italy while stuck in a state park.

The New York Times offered beautiful photos of empty Italian streets but also an update on how businesses in Capri and other Italian tourist destinations miss “the interaction, the energy, the optimism, the shopping style” of rich Americans. (Funny thing: New York City’s small businesses miss “the shopping style” of rich Americans too!)

The Times also did its best to put a kitsch spin on bad times. “To Many Travelers, 2020 Was the Summer of 1965” walks the affluent reader through the golden age of the “family road trip,” where Catskills campsites, motels with in-ground pools, and amusement parks were the shiny lure for working-class people who might never expect to travel by air.

Read more

Cold Comfort

Early in COVID lockdown this spring, America’s viral diversion of aw was watching penguins subvert their societal role as aquarium attractions to temporarily become commanders of the gaze. First they waddled the halls of Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium to have a gander at their fellow marine life. Then another waddle from the Kansas City Zoo ventured to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art for a look-see.

Suddenly we thought a lot about animals captive in zoos because we had ourselves become captive. The parallels could not be starker: the primary complaint of zookeepers is the incessant drudgery of shoveling out feces; our own obsession at that time was hoarding toilet paper. Read more

Masks

Back when airline emergency instructions came tucked inside the seatback pockets in front of you, I’d sometimes get unnerved by the illustrated mother putting on her mask as a child sits next to her. Yes, it’s logical to secure your own breathing device first. But I couldn’t help envisioning the masked mother turning to find the kid already dead.

As the life-giving conduit of oxygen, masks have (save for a few scenes in Blue Velvet) long represented protection amid catastrophe. Infantrymen in World War I lived in mortal dread of the shout for “Gas!” Gas masks became the symbolic escape hatch of battlefield carnage well beyond the next World War.

Scuba divers and snorkelers, astronauts in Ad Astra—they all seem to “get” the importance of masks. And of course the masks that protect people from contamination on both sides of a medical procedure. From the perspective of science, it’s complete logic, this effort to stave off possible death. It’s hard to imagine politicization. Read more

Quiet City

During the dark hours of what is now a previous crisis for America but an ongoing one elsewhere, Queen Elizabeth delivered a message of uplift. She sought to remind her people that “the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humored resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterize this country.”

The Beatrix Potter sound of that hyphenated “fellow-feeling” is what lingered. In the context of Twitter vocabularies fed from a dump at the edge of town, “fellow-feeling” arrived like a bunny hopping across the entrance to the Holland Tunnel.

At this moment in America, all we can say about fellow-feelers is that we have two warring factions. The national discord we have anguished over for years. New York City, on the other hand, has always managed to pass as a cunningly diverse (if spectacularly unequal) assemblage of fellow-feelers, whatever the scale of crisis. Read more

The Big Reveal

Americans generally care little about history, but they do like a good “if only.” If only JFK wasn’t shot there’d have been no Vietnam mess and no Tricky Dick taping in the Oval Office. If only his brother had dodged a bullet, Ronald Reagan would never have got his mitts on a government to gut.

The concept hinges on the belief that events involving a single life can change world history, à la the wing-flapping butterfly creating a tsunami. But the contemporary origin story is the 1914 assassination of the Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, that was said to have triggered World War I.

Great fiction has been partial to this device. In Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, if only Annushka hadn’t spilled the sunflower oil near the railway turnstile, Berlioz would not have slipped and been decapitated by the train and the poet would not have been compelled to pursue the evil magician for the length of the novel. Read more

Count Yourself Lucky

At a time in this crisis that now seems ages ago, Masha Gessen, a New Yorker columnist whose essays I admire, wrote about why she was not a bad person for leaving New York City during a pandemic.

Her daughter had asked if the family was going to be like “those people”—the “rich white people who leave the besieged city because they can.” Her mother’s justification on March 30: “If we got very ill, we wanted to be those people who were not stressing this already overtaxed city, taking up hospital beds that were needed by people who didn’t have the option of leaving.”

The family’s destination was Falmouth, Massachusetts, landing at a time when local residents on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket were asking fleeing New Yorkers to stay away and not infect them. Read more

An Embarrassment of Risk

We are living in a fugue, all of us Americans, even if there’s not a case of the novel coronavirus within hundreds of miles (although epidemiologists might know otherwise).

At this stage of the outbreak in New York City, you can’t do much but panic-buy—and even that is curtailed by available space (only so many rolls of toilet paper will fit inside an oven). Instead you take longer washing your hands while mourning the loss of an already paltry IRA. You game the subway ride between a car with more people who may have COVID-19 and one with fewer commuters but more homeless types who do things like simultaneously light a cigarette and a blunt at 8:45 in the morning because when the cars thin out, it’s their turf.

We are in this disorienting situation for the same reason that the world is—a pandemic that only guys on Wall Street are referring to as a “black swan.” They mean something you couldn’t have seen coming. But because a black swan is something that occurs in nature whereas a unicorn is not, you actually could have seen this coming. Read more

Odio, ergo sum

In a speech at Notre Dame Law School last October, William Barr, the U.S. Attorney General and Donald Trump’s current Oddjob, made clear that his conservative Catholicism and definition of democracy were one and the same. Like Republican fundamentalists since Newt Gingrich’s reign, Barr decried “moral relativism” as the cause of every social ill, insisting that the Constitution’s framers believed that “free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people.”

When I read this, I thought how each side of the political divide preaches not just to the choir but to its most baroque-motet-y part—in Barr’s case, the Opus Dei fold of Gregory IX fanboys. But I also wondered if Barr had any desire to convert freethinkers to his cause. Because if he did, the way in was through hate.

For one of Catholicism’s most famous converts, the way in was through love. “I loved not yet,” St. Augustine famously said when struggling with belief, “yet I loved to love.” I remember reading excepts from his Confessions in college and thinking of Donna Summer singing “Love to Love You, Baby.” Read more

Smarter Living

The most Simpsons of Simpsons moments in my reckoning occurs not in the television series but in the 2007 feature film. When the biohazardous Springfield is threatened to be destroyed under its giant glass dome, the family and fellow residents gather in church, where Homer grabs and frantically thumbs through a Bible, exclaiming, “This book doesn’t have any answers!”

By 2007, the series was more than a decade past its prime, but the movie was peak Simpsons—first because this was the last time religion was important enough to warrant a joke, and also because it identified what Americans at the dawn of social media’s chokehold could not find in church: answers.

Luckily for Americans in 2020, you can find all the answers you want in New York Times articles bearing the tagline “Smarter Living.” These are not the answers to questions people used to look for in reading the Bible or Tolstoy or Stendhal. They are the answers to the challenges of self-optimization, self-care, and “living your best life”—topics like what to do on a day off from work and how to use public bathrooms. Read more

The Tripping Point

Arecent House Financial Services Committee hearing provided Americans a brief moment of clarity in regard to both Mark Zuckerberg and our nation’s cultural quagmire. As the Facebook founder answered questions about political advertising and his proposed cryptocurrency, a Congressman’s comparison of Zuckerberg to Donald Trump provoked a reaction that went viral.

Zuckerberg’s physical façade is a barge billboard when it comes to communicating this important aspect about his worldview: he has rarely had to put up with anything that annoyed him or made him squirm. His forehead, in particular, suggests the Great White Plains of upper-middle-class access to things like high-performance front-load washers. Whatever nasty CSI was unfolding somewhere Alabaman and rank with bodily fluids, Mark Zuckerberg—just laundered and encased by central air—continued clacking code on a taut keyboard. Read more

Are You Being Served?

Iwas recently sitting between friends, a couple, at a movie theater, waiting out the seemingly endless stream of commercials for Peak TV filler. One of my friends would lean across me to whisper to his partner “Yes” or “No” in regard to his amenability to giving some series a crack. They were usually in alignment, but when it came to Amazon’s Carnival Row, he vehemently declared “NO.” She worked in theater lighting; “Yes,” she countered. He was resolute: “Nothing—with—wings.”

His reaction owed to his teaching an undergraduate short story writing course in which his students were solely interested in fantasy—lots of dragons and interspecies wing-flappers, lots of GOT homage. (This is a school where the tuition is well over $50,000.) His students explained their decisions as partly lucrative (“there’s a lot of money in YA fantasy”) and partly to express themselves, to put their “rampant imagination” on display. When responding in class to a story about a gender-fluid elf, my friend brought the Wrath of Kahn down upon himself by asking “Aren’t all elves gender fluid?” Read more

Pluto’s Helmet

Since the installation of a man who wants to be a 1989 version of emperor, I’ve thought quite a bit about Greek and Roman mythology. Given their rampant violence, misogyny, and injustice, these stories are fading fast from our common culture even though violence, misogyny, and injustice are not. When I learned a few of the stories in high school, autocracy was something that happened in olden times or else in bad countries. I wondered how these freakish, depraved gods could inspire awe when people had to have considered them jerks. But with the odious corporality of Donald Trump, America has been given a refresher course in unchecked and unrestrainable force—the basis of all mythology.

I am now willing to consider the malevolence of Trump and his cronies as mythic. This is not to give any individual actor (least of all the toddler-in-chief) classical stature as antagonist; they are contemptibly and irredeemably shills. Whereas Nixon’s conspirators got the Shakespeare treatment during Watergate, Trump’s flunkies cannot break the cartoon barrier. The obsequiously manic Guiliani getting wound up by Laura Ingraham is like Slim Pickens riding the Strangelove bomb. Barr alternates between Droopy Dog catatonia and—because of those glasses—Blue Meanie Chief. The entire cabinet you imagine as Minions ready to spring from inside Melania’s red trees. Read more

The Big Short

Too often,” said Fiorello La Guardia, “life in New York is merely a squalid succession of days, whereas in fact it can be a great, living, thrilling adventure.” I thought about my city as “a great, living, thrilling adventure” when I went to check out the throngs in Washington Square Park trying to hear Elizabeth Warren speak on September 16.

These were the faces of hopefuls, of progressives—the flash foot soldiers, many of them students who could afford to be hopeful by virtue of youth (regardless of a climate going to hell). Yes, it was a predominantly white audience, and, yes, there was a smattering of those whom Republicans love to label “the elite” and we locally will willingly stereotype as Upper East/West, Brooklyn, or maybe Tribeca moms. But for the most part, this was a group that could not afford a lot—maybe because there seemed to be more women. Read more

Paint It White

My father’s mother was an old lady when I was born. My first memory of her house is a pair of large pink candles—one shaped like a “7” and the other a “9”—adorning the dining room buffet. She had turned that age at a party sometime in the past, and she liked to turn the “7” upside down to make it look like a “2.”

She was a young woman in the 1920s, but the era she fetishized—as an Irish American who married an Irish American—was the first years of the twentieth century.

She banged out bad chords on an upright piano and was always singing sad songs about dying children—“I’m Tying the Leaves So They Won’t Come Down.” Everybody died back then, when she was a girl in Elmira, New York. One of her brothers died of pneumonia—in bed at home, just like in Dickens. Her best friend, Loretta Meade, died as a young teen because she walked in the rain “during her monthly.” Read more

Mockingbird, Red and Blue

U2 may have advanced the theory that “midnight is where the day begins,” but most of the world’s songbirds don’t clock in till dawn. The famous exception is the nightingale. Unattached males will sing through the night to attract a mate, while males in general sing during the hour before sunrise as a chest-puffing exercise in defending their territory. Keats believed that the nightingale has never known “the weariness, the fever, and the fret” of groaning men. But singing all night for a mate and then continuing on to maintain your turf has to be a slog. The bird might as well be holding a boombox over its head.

As a resident of North America, I didn’t think much about the night part of nightingales until I heard birdsong at 2 a.m. It was strange to gradually register the lone trilling piercing through the temporary void of urban acoustics north of Boston. The solitary voice was both beautiful and sad. I knew it couldn’t be a nightingale—most of all because it sang like a mockingbird.

I was surprised to learn that male mockingbirds will sing all night for the same reasons as male nightingales—looking for a mate, asserting their territory. I wondered why I’d never heard a nighttime mockingbird before this, but then this was the first time I’d lived next to a park, urban mockingbird territory to stake out and defend with your last breath. Read more

Cashless

There’s a scene in The Forty-Year-Old Virgin that doesn’t shed much light on sex but offers a prescient glimpse into the future of commerce. Catherine Keener’s character sells things on eBay but keeps the merchandise for show in an actual store. Jonah Hill wants to buy the pair of glittery boots with goldfish on the bottom that he is holding in his hands, but Keener tells him he can only buy them via eBay.

This was way back in 2005, when an eBay seller’s unwillingness to take a potential customer’s cash seemed funny. It was also a time when a lot of the items sold on eBay were curios and collectibles rather than things that would restock your medicine cabinet.

But the world has changed. Not only do 90 percent of Americans shop for things online rather than in actual stores, actual stores have adopted policies of not accepting cash. This summer the New York City Council is expected to vote on a bill to ban stores from denying consumers the option of paying cash for goods and services. Cashless stores are thought to discriminate against those who don’t have bank accounts or credit cards. Some fear that cashless commerce simply greases the wheels for New York’s becoming exclusively for the haves. Read more

Is That a Thing?

Along time ago I made up the term literary enabler. I use it for something I read that perfectly articulates a half-thought-out, non-logic-based sensation that might well be the first thread of a very important philosophical insight.

One of my favorite literary enablers was Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer—specifically, the passage where the protagonist sees The Oxbow Incident at the same theater where he first saw the movie fourteen years before. Back then, he had emerged from the theater to the scent of privet, the camphor berries on the sidewalk popping under his shoes. Now the same exact thing happens, and he becomes fixated on this perfectly bookended capsule of time:

But what about the intervening fourteen years? What has happened in them? What, for example, about the split plywood seats in the theatre, enduring nevertheless as if they had waited to see what I had done with my fourteen years. There was this also: a secret sense of wonder about the enduring, about all the nights, the rainy summer nights at twelve and one and two o’clock when the seats endured alone in the empty theatre. The enduring is something which must be accounted for. One cannot simply shrug it off.

What has stuck with me from this part of Percy’s novel is the way that something your mind deems memorable is filed away alongside coincident events that inadvertently get stored in the same place. You don’t realize this mental piggybacking until you summon one memory and suddenly a jumble of stuff falls out of the closet with it. Read more

The Fat Pants Presidency

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of living under this atmospheric condition, imposed by House Democrats, that I call We Can’t Impeach the Authoritarian President for Actions That Are Impeachable (We Just Can’t).

The literary metaphor this impasse brings to mind is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, a novel in which the protagonist butler fails to act for the entirety of the narrative. You wait for the something that you feel has to be coming, but, no—he just scrapes away his masters’ crumbs as an older and older man. The story ends up being about his being exactly how he is and nothing more—a fate the Democrats are toying with.

Our current Remains of the Day started when Pelosi told the Washington Post that she didn’t think the nation “should go down that path” in regard to Donald Trump and impeachment because “he’s just not worth it.” The phrase seemed the coordinating dinnerware to her State of the Union clap. Democrats who still manage to have hope tried to convince themselves of some elaborate political strategy buttressing the phrasing and the timing. To me, however, “He’s just not worth it” indicated yet another wrong detour away from democracy. Read more