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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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