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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

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