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Posts from the ‘Words Matter’ Category

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

Le Seize Septembre

Sometimes it seems that surrealism’s most enduring influence on popular culture is the non sequiturial distance between image and identifying text. When it comes to this art of disjuncture, the Belgian painter René Magritte was a master (see his 1930 work The Key of Dreams).

In college I was seduced by Magritte’s paintings of trees and nighttime illumination, and in Le Seize Septembre I found the best of both worlds. The painting shows a tree at the last moments of dusk, only the crescent moon shines not from above but from the heart of the tree, casting a strange light onto the surrounding ground. People have commented that the moon of September 16, 1956, did not look like this from where Magritte was painting: it was actually four days shy of full and much larger.

But it’s true that nature abhors a vacuum. The void of rationality behind Magritte’s choice of title for this picture I eventually filled in for myself. Read more

Paper Chase

In a pithy irony within our golden age of irony, state election officials around the country are seizing on a voting strategy that a few years ago would have seemed unthinkable: paper ballots.

We know that Russia will try to influence the 2018 elections, whether through the primaries that begin this month or the November midterms. In their quest to undermine American democracy, they’ll use the tried-and-true method—spreading misinformation using social media platforms—and give hacking into electronic voting systems another crack. They may have other things up their sleeves, but unless Robert Mueller announces more indictments, such things will probably go under the radar.

This week, America’s fearless leader reiterated his refrain that Russia had “no impact on our votes” in the election that put him in office. He did, however, indicate that the nation should guard against meddling in the midterms. “One of the things we’re learning,” he said, “it’s always good to have a paper backup system of voting. Called paper.” Read more

I Hear You

I remember when I realized that “I hear you” was big with the 360 Degree Feedback crowd. It was in 2008, and the proof came via a colleague in the university external relations office where I worked. She was one of those people who rise to the top in academic administration without displaying any degree of talent let alone basic competence (in HR speak: low ambiguity tolerance). To say she was a yes-woman put it mildly; she tended to nod into perpetuity like a bobble-head toy.

People thought of her as Miss Sunshine because she was always smiling and saying thank-you. She was Catholic and prim, with an aesthetic that suggested Karen Sue Pence by way of Lilly Pulitzer. With her strawberry blond hair and fair skin, the black splotch on her forehead every Ash Wednesday screamed down the hall to all sinners: Look what I’m enduring for you! At Christmas she sent fruit baskets from Harry & David. She had a lifetime supply of Monet waterlilies cards from the MFA. Read more

Elephant in the Room

What a strange day for Republicans. This is their guy, their origin story, and yet they can’t in good party conscience quote much of anything Abraham Lincoln said without violating the Fox News code of honor.

Three strands of Lincoln rhetoric would run afoul of Fox and Friends: his subject matter (the oppression of black Americans and a strong federal government), his skill at massaging words into compassion triggers for doing the right thing, and his refusal to demonize the opposition.

It is difficult to square Lincoln’s prosaic transfiguration of words on a page with a Republican president who gets an oral versus written daily intelligence briefing—or with the prune face of Mitch McConnell, where hopeful words die like sparrows smacking into the windows of the old Javits Center. Read more

Happy Birthday, Boz

Charles Dickens was born on this day in Portsmouth, southwest of London, in 1812. I had read his novels in school but started thinking about him seriously after visiting his onetime residence at 48 Doughty Street in London. It was around the Guy Fawkes holiday and it was pouring. A friend and I were invited to join the post-closing-time reading group since we were the last stragglers in the house museum. And also because we were very young in relation to the book group. They were discussing a shorter sketch about a boy or a lad and a walk that I unfortunately could not pick out of a bibliographical lineup if you held a gun to my head.

What I remember most about that visit, though, was the bedroom of Dickens’s sister-in-law, Mary. On her single canopied bed a white nightgown had been laid out. She had come to live with the family and help with the new babies, as was custom. But at seventeen she suddenly became ill and died—in Dickens’s arms no less. Read more