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Posts from the ‘Words Matter’ Category

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In the Shallows

Once in a while you read articles in the same sitting that seem to be parts of larger narrative, or maybe it’s that the second one is a clap-back to the first.

This happened recently when I read an archived article by A.J. Liebling that the New Yorker online reprinted after the death of Prince Philip. Liebling’s post from November 29, 1947, looked at how the press was covering the royal wedding of the future queen—he specifically honed in on the reportage of one American correspondent billed as “Noted American Society Woman and Authoress.”

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What Are Words Worth?

Perhaps the ultimate irony of the Trump era arrived during the voted-out President’s most recent impeachment trial, with the defense’s video montage of prominent Democrats using the word fight.

Here, in perfect Pee-wee Herman “I know you are but what am I?” fashion, the greatest serial liar of the modern age attempts to show that there is no difference between himself and Democrats.

In the Senate Chamber, 43 know-nothings affirmed their knowing nothing of Constitutional law—for instance, Brandenburg v. Ohio, which holds that protected First Amendment rights do not include “inciting or producing imminent lawless action.” They did so by acquitting their Gambino-in-Chief, making him free to incite lawless action on many other days.

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Americana

The two weeks between the Capitol assault on our democracy and the inauguration of our 46th President roughly coincided with Sotheby’s “Americana Week, January 8 to 22.” In promoting furniture and folk art up for virtual bid, the auction house oddly designated a “week” as lasting 14 days.

But that wasn’t what diverted my attention to the Sotheby’s ad. It was View of Hallowell, Maine, an “American School” painting described in the catalog as “a mother and her son gazing upon the bustling waterfront and business district . . . from Butternut Park on the Chelsea side of the Kennebec River.”

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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.

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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

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

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

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

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