Author Archives: Barbara Sutton

Short Story: Ms. Tisch

My best friend Mona prefaced any philosophical thought with “It must be weird”—as in “It must be weird to be a dumb kid because you don’t even know what you don’t know.” Dumb kids came up in our conversations because of Ms. Tisch. When someone asked if there was going to be a quiz the next day, all she said was: “A word to the wise should prove sufficient.” We considered The Wise to be us.

Ms. Tisch taught fifth- and sixth-grade math and quickly became our favorite teacher, Mona’s and mine. She had taught my brother two grades ahead when she first came to St. Mary’s and was known as Mrs. Tisch. My brother didn’t have much to say about her. In fact, she was largely considered a benign oddball by students and teachers alike.

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Underwater

As wildfires tore across Western Europe and the American West, I was reading Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World (2022), Barry Lopez’s posthumous essay collection. I hadn’t thought a lot about the actual earth beneath our feet as destiny, as perhaps the largest factor in making us what we are as Americans. But I paused at Lopez’s reminder that “geography, some scholars believe, has subtly but directly influenced the development of our cultures, our languages, our diets, our social organization, and to some degree even our politics.”

Over the past six years, many have concluded that to understand America’s divisiveness you need to set the Way Back Machine to the Federalists/anti-Federalists debates. But maybe, I thought, geography played more of role in this chronic schism.

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Situational Awareness

When Stephen Curry was named MVP in the NBA Playoffs, more than a few sportswriters praised his “situational awareness,” a term I’d coincidently been thinking about in relation to warfare.

I’d just had a conversation with someone who’d served in army communications in Afghanistan, and he talked about how when social media took hold in the aughts, after any kind of attack or explosion, soldiers would stupidly post to say that they were safe. “No situational awareness” was his verdict.

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Legacy Americans

A week after the murder of 10 people at a supermarket in Buffalo, I was sticking a stamp on an envelope. “Whose idea was that?” I asked the billowing flag. Whose idea to connect “Forever” with the Stars and Stripes? Was this person or persons sure about the Forever part? To quote André 3000: “Forever-ever?”

The Buffalo shooter had cited “the great replacement theory” as his rationale for randomly gunning down Black people—the paranoid fantasy that Democrats had hatched a diabolical plot to replace white Americans with people of color (imported or domestic).

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Rock Paper Scissors

A recent headline in the Atlantic online got on my nerves: “The Democrats Really Are That Dense about Climate Change.” I hadn’t thought much of people being “dense” since junior high. But more important, the idea that Nancy Pelosi was “blowing a once-in-a-decade chance to pass meaningful climate legislation” seemed too facile even for the Atlantic’s hourly collagen shots of news filler.

Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats fully get the do-or-die-ness of climate change. But guess what? Do-or-die-ness encompasses everything in American life right now. Gun legislation and protecting reproductive rights are pretty high up, but preserving our democracy at the polls is still paramount, given that we can already see the switchman in the distance, all set to pull the lever onto permanent minority rule.

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Old Times

Who knows what compelled Peter Allen to release “Everything Old Is New Again” in 1976. Maybe it was the excess of Bicentennial celebrations. In the seventies, pop culture was obsessed by the 1920s (The Great Gatsby), the 1930s (Bonnie and Clyde), the 1940s (Summer of ’42), the 1950s (American Graffiti), and even the teens (Pretty Baby). Everything except the sixties.

And now it feels like the worst headlines from the decade of Allen’s song are making a group comeback—inflation, high gas prices, a global energy crisis, the battle over reproductive rights, Sinn Fein, and most horrendously, the prospect of nuclear war.

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The Years of Magical Thinking

When I heard on March 9 that Ernest Shackleton’s sunken ship, the Endurance, had been found, I remembered reading that Shackleton had begun the expedition to cross of Antarctica from sea to sea by quoting the Roman Stoic Seneca: “I will find a way or make one.”

When the Endurance got frozen in an ice floe in the Weddell Sea, Shackleton and his crew ought to have perished by the law of averages. But he courageously led his men to one island and then another and went back for those who didn’t get in the lifeboat.

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Everything Falls Apart

It’s spring in the northern hemisphere, the time when influencer moms rev up for Easter’s filtered pastels, peppered here and there with the earthy painted colors of Ukrainian eggs. This year, with the people of Ukraine bloodied and bombarded in an unprovoked war of aggression, Americans aren’t as revved about the pastels.

You’d think that with the widespread lifting of COVID restrictions we’d be able to manage the cognitive dissonance of celebrating locally while mourning globally. But it’s hard to laugh. No one can seem to get the satire right, even when the president of The Force of Good once played the piano with his dick. I keep waiting for someone to stage “Springtime for Putin” à la The Producers, but so far nothing.

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Goodbye to All That

“Where are the people?” one of my friends asked when we saw West Side Story at the Lincoln Square AMC a week before Christmas. We knew the Spielberg musical was tanking at the box office, but we thought that a theater sitting on the actual terrain of the movie plot might be a draw. It was a rainy Saturday night, and I had to assume that the old people—the only viable audience for entertainment set in 1957—were staying away because of that and Omicron. Even with Tony Kushner as screenwriter, these aficionados of the late, great Lincoln Plaza Cinemas (1981-2018) could not be coaxed out.

But then you could ask “Where are the people?” about anywhere in New York. When there’s a void of crowd, an emptiness, you sense that the would-be masses are off together doing the same thing. But what—hunkering down or partying hard? Regardless, they were doing it outside the five boroughs.

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The Right Tree

The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree has historically claimed the whole of December as far as tree media goes. Last year’s conifer drama wasn’t related to COVID but to a tiny saw-whet owl that came as the tree’s unintended plus-one. “Rocky” was described as being “rescued,” as “clinging to the branches,” as a “stowaway.” A Syracuse paper had the most Onion-esque headline: “Oneonta owl found in Rockefeller Christmas tree inspires a children’s book.”

Though there was no Oneonta owl this year, the 79-foot, 12-ton Norway spruce made its customary hyped appearance with the Daily News and the Post dutifully amplifying the fact sheet bullets: more than 50,000 multicolored lights! a 900-pound star with 70 spikes covered in 3 million crystals!

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