When I read that the art critic Peter Schjeldahl had died on October 21, I was surprised that my eyes teared up. I knew from a New Yorker essay of his that he had advanced lung cancer. The obituaries said he was 80 and had smoked since he was 16. He was also a recovering alcoholic and apparently not the greatest father. Before 2019, I knew nothing about his personal life beyond his writing on art.
The tears, I realized, were for my own future life without the sensory crescendos of a new Peter Schjeldahl review. I could say unequivocally that he was my favorite living critic, and not having his sensibility in real time felt like a serious loss.
A month or so ago, I started noticing big subway ads for “Coca-Cola.” I insert the quotes because I can’t remember the last time I saw that infamous font advertised anywhere that wasn’t an AMC theater.
One version of the ad shows a beautiful young couple—white, male and female, both very blond—having fun at home while holding bottles of “Coca-Cola.” The other shows the same style of couple, only Black, each with light skin that seems to match the other perfectly. The weird demographics notwithstanding, my first thought upon realizing that these ads are part of a campaign was: Who still drinks Coke?
The trailer for the latest Halloween movie—landing more than four decades after the original—is so hard-pressed to titillate that the grisly deaths are shown rather than teased. Predictably, we see the gray-haired Jamie Leigh Curtis enveloped by an old house on Halloween, interacting with various teenage carnage fodder.
That trailer made me think about Getting Out—how it’s a twisted game we play with ourselves. Whether it’s out of the house (harm’s way) or out of a franchise that’s outlived any plausible narrative, we’re always messing it up.
The diminishment of men—every age, race, and nationality—is now another thing to worry about. Or at least the New York Times thinks so. In a recent column, David Brooks looked at a new book by Richard Reeves looking at “the male crisis”—boys and men struggling in the United States and across the globe.
Brooks notes that “Reeves talked to men in Kalamazoo about why women were leaping ahead. The men said that women are just more motivated, work harder, plan ahead better. Yet this is not a matter of individual responsibility. There is something in modern culture that is producing an aspiration gap.”
As many have written over the past few weeks, “quiet quitting” has to be the most inane concept of 2022. So you’re going to show your employer you’re checked out by working just 40 so-so hours a week? OK, maverick, but you’ve got nothing on “King-Size Homer,” what many consider the best Simpsons episode of all time (if not for the fat-shaming).
In this 1995 gem, Homer’s reaction to the nuclear power plant’s new exercise program is to pork up to over 300 pounds so he can claim a disability and work at home. He hits his mark and gets a workstation in the living room. All he has to do is press Y on the keyboard all day. Eventually he realizes he can set up his top-hatted “drinking bird” to keep pecking the Y so that he can go off and have fun. When he returns to find the drinking bird collapsed, his prehistoric DOS monitor flashes “Situation Critical, Explosion Imminent.” He has to rush to the plant (hard to do when you’re morbidly obese) to manually shut down the system before there’s a nuclear meltdown.
Several times during our drought summer in New York, severe thunderstorms were predicted and the atmosphere complied—ashen clouds, intense humidity, barometric pressure sucking the curtains to the screen. But then nothing happened: no deluge from the heavens, not a single drop. And before you know it: sun again, that insidious free agent.
This has been my metaphor for our democracy in peril. Something threatening happens, and we think: “At last they’ll come round.” But the heavens never open; not a single drop. It turns into just another line crossed (He declassified everything that day while riding in a golf cart; all good!).
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.
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.
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.
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).