Miracle Grow

Barack Obama reportedly calling Donald Trump “a corrupt motherfucker” and Barack Obama indicating there could be UFOs and Barack Obama mourning the death of Bo. We’ve recently had flashes of our beloved First Dad seeming as vulnerable and uncertain as we feel ourselves to be—this exemplar whom Brian Beutler described as always taking a “methodical, ethic-of-responsibility approach to the many crises he faced in his presidency.”

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Everything Starts Here

There’s a phrase in Julian Barnes’s 1991 novel Talking It Over that has stuck in my mind all these years even though I’d forgotten the plot—“Everything Starts Here.” Before consulting my Vintage paperback from 1992, all I could recall of the book was that it’s one of those intimate “relationship” novels where people with very-British names wind up fighting in a French village. The the book reminded me that it’s a love triangle told from the perspectives of Stuart, Oliver, and Gillian.

“Everything Starts Here” is the title of a chapter that begins in the voice of Stuart:

But then Gillian came along, and everything starts here. Now. I love that word. Now. It’s now now; it’s not then anymore. Then has gone away. It doesn’t matter that I disappointed my parents. It doesn’t matter that I disappointed myself. It doesn’t matter that I couldn’t ever get myself across to other people. That was then, and then’s gone. It’s now now.

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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, honing in specifically on reportage by one 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, lawyers for the greatest serial liar of the modern age attempt to show that there is no difference between their client and members of a party that he calls “Radical Left CRAZIES.”

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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How Does a Moment Last Forever?

Back at the start of the pandemic, one strain of the thinking internet’s insatiable need for copy was served by warnings against making a metaphor of the coronavirus. Forget that it came from China, that it was happening in an election year, that Trump had dismantled the National Security Council directorate charged with protecting us against such threats. Don’t take the bait.

Most of these exhortations were against casting COVID-19 as payback from some unknown dispensary of karma. Paul Elie in the New Yorker reminded us that Susan Sontag in the New Yorker had the final word on illness as metaphor in 1978 and again in 1989. She poked massive holes in this human impulse, so we mustn’t narrativize the pandemic as we narativize our individual lives.

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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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Urbi et Orbi

It’s hard to believe our COVID summer is already over. In New York, the weeks failed to coalesce as a season, and most people got sick of being told they should be either buying a house far, far away or pining for Italy while stuck in a state park.

The New York Times offered beautiful photos of empty Italian streets but also an update on how businesses in Capri and other Italian tourist destinations miss “the interaction, the energy, the optimism, the shopping style” of rich Americans. (Funny thing: New York City’s small businesses miss “the shopping style” of rich Americans too!)

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Cold Comfort

Early in COVID lockdown this spring, America’s viral diversion of aw was watching penguins subvert their societal role as aquarium attractions to temporarily become commanders of the gaze. First they waddled the halls of Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium to have a gander at their fellow marine life. Then another waddle from the Kansas City Zoo ventured to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art for a look-see.

Suddenly we thought a lot about animals captive in zoos because we had ourselves become captive. The parallels could not be starker: the primary complaint of zookeepers is the incessant drudgery of shoveling out feces; our own obsession at that time was hoarding toilet paper.

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Masks

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.

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