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.
I will grant, however, that misery is not the best word. It trivializes suffering from illness or the illness or loss of a loved one. I’ve always liked the phrase dismal wearies, which I heard long ago from a colleague at the literary publisher where we worked. Also encountered there was the fantods, used twice in Sherwood Anderson’s 1921 story “I Want to Know Why.” It means a very bad mood, a state of irritability and tension, nervousness, restlessness, or anxiety. Mark Twain used it in several books, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: “These were all nice pictures, I reckon, but I didn’t somehow seem to take to them, because if ever I was down a little, they always give me the fan-tods.” In the old days you might find a synonym in the fidgets, but it wasn’t necessarily like the willies, so you wouldn’t equate it with the creeps.
Obviously fantods never caught on. But the feeling the phrase connotes—something that overtakes us with anxiety and shakes us from the aimlessness of complacency—seems especially relevant right now, when citizens of conscience are ransacking the history of our republic for evidence that the current crisis of democracy can be overcome. In February 2018, I have a clearer rationale for the nebulous holiday Kalman planted in my brain: a day to face up to all the ways we have screwed ourselves over. And by “we” I mean us, We the People.
Two things happened last week that have called out our slack and dormancy: The Parkland shootings on Valentine’s Day and two days later the Mueller indictments against workers in the Kremlin troll farm that duped us.
The rule for politicians is that you can blame anyone but “the American people”—though that consists only of those registered with your party and the amorphous swing voters. And the rule of our current president is that he can blame anyone but himself. These bromides are aided and abetted by every New York Times Wellness column on the most-read list: don’t beat yourself up over what you can’t fix; be understanding because the stress is killing you.
The wellness ethos was brought home over the weekend by a New York Times profile on WeWork, the global network of shared office space. A New York City WeWork building on Broad Street includes a Rise gym. The Times included a photo of a wall near the gym full of Post-It notes under the words “in 2018 we will . . .”: Be gentle with my SELF! Win in all aspects of life! LOVE my life! Live my best life! Be my best self! Love the skin we’re in. Move more, regret less. It’s all well and good for people to be positive, but are we really talking about the same year?
Divisiveness grows in concert with a culture of blamelessness: I’m a Democrat; I’m a liberal; I recycle and do yoga. I can’t do anything about those 63 million Trump voters. We’ve moved away from religion, but there is wisdom in the words of theologians like Augustine: “Never fight evil as if it were something that arose totally outside yourself.” That’s pretty much the theme of every strand of the DC Comics and Marvel franchises.
But of course that wisdom assumes we’re willing to fight let alone take some of the blame. There was a period last summer and fall—you knew it was coming—when leftist pundits began chastising the press for catastrophizing Trump’s near daily outrages. That is, they thought it was naïve for papers like the Washington Post to get all up in your face every day.
And lately we’ve had intellectual arguments for the hopelessness of the situation. Kevin Baker in the New Republic believes that the Republican Party going rogue harks back to “an America in which all politics was a fight to the death, and the side that did not win was not merely defeated but destroyed.” Yascha Mounk in the Atlantic says that outside of the Republican Party’s tyranny of the minority, we no longer have a democracy by and for the people, but that we do at least have a chance of getting it back.
We can acknowledge grave problems with the way our democracy works without using them as a hall pass to roam noncommittally for years on end. I don’t want to believe there will come a time in the future of those WeWork gym members when their children ask, “What did you do that time Trump was president?”
“What do you mean do?”
“How did you live day to day?”
“I tried to tune that out because what could you even do? I focused on being gentle with myself, loving my life, and being my best self.”
“Is that why he was president for eight years?”
It’s not hard to accept blame as part of a polity because you’re not alone; the breach of responsibility is social, not personal. Thirteen Russian Facebook pages managed to reach 126 million Americans. You don’t have to be the kind of American who could be reeled into an anti-Hillary meetup to admit that you’ve been herded by social media.
The first step is accepting the responsibility that comes with being one of many. Fantods Day could be the opportunity to do that if you’ve let it slip—staring into the eyes of the beast and seeing yourself. The encounter makes you agitated and anxious, but you also adjust your set-point above comfortably numb.
This is what the student survivors in Parkland have shown us. Of course they are traumatized; of course they care about wellness. But they have—in the best light of mental health—transformed their grief and tears into a force of democracy that we are currently lacking in our country. They are up in your face and they promise to stay up in your face every day.
They have made us see that this is not about personal failing but the failing of a collectivity to reach out for hands, to hold on tight and create a standard of justice and decency that will protect our republic. Nothing miserable about that. §