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 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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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.”

In the context of hopelessly toxic Twitter feeds, that hyphenated “fellow-feeling” arrived like a Beatrix Potter bunny hopping across the entrance to the Holland Tunnel.

The only thing that Americans can say about fellow-feelers is that we have two warring factions. This discord is our national tragedy. 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.

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The Big Reveal

Americans generally care little about history, but they do like a good “if only.”

If only JFK wasn’t shot there’d have been no Vietnam mess and no Tricky Dick taping in the Oval Office. If only his brother had dodged a bullet, Ronald Reagan would never have got his mitts on a government to gut. The concept hinges on the belief that events involving a single life can change world history, à la the wing-flapping butterfly creating a tsunami. But the contemporary origin story is the 1914 assassination of the Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, that was said to have triggered World War I.

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Count Yourself Lucky

At a time in this crisis that now seems ages ago, Masha Gessen, a New Yorker columnist whose essays I admire, wrote about why she was not a bad person for leaving New York City during a pandemic.

Her daughter had asked if the family was going to be like “those people”—the “rich white people who leave the besieged city because they can.” Her mother’s justification on March 30: “If we got very ill, we wanted to be those people who were not stressing this already overtaxed city, taking up hospital beds that were needed by people who didn’t have the option of leaving.”

The family’s destination was Falmouth, Massachusetts, landing at a time when local residents on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket were asking fleeing New Yorkers to stay away and not infect them.

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Odio, ergo sum

In a speech at Notre Dame Law School last October, William Barr, the U.S. Attorney General and Donald Trump’s current Oddjob, made clear that his conservative Catholicism and definition of democracy were one and the same. Like Republican fundamentalists since Newt Gingrich’s reign, Barr decried “moral relativism” as the cause of every social ill, insisting that the Constitution’s framers believed that “free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people.”

When I read this, I thought how each side of the political divide preaches not just to the choir but to its most baroque-motet-y part—in Barr’s case, the Opus Dei fold of Gregory IX fanboys. But I also wondered if Barr had any desire to convert freethinkers to his cause. Because if he did, the way in was through hate.

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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.

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The Tripping Point

A recent House Financial Services Committee hearing provided Americans a brief moment of clarity in regard to both Mark Zuckerberg and our nation’s cultural quagmire. As the Facebook founder answered questions about political advertising and his proposed cryptocurrency, a Congressman’s comparison of Zuckerberg to Donald Trump provoked a reaction that went viral.

Zuckerberg’s physical façade is a billboard when it comes to communicating this important point: rarely has he had to put up with anything that’s made him squirm. His forehead, in particular, suggests the Great White Plains of upper-middle-class access to things like high-performance front-load washers. Whatever nasty CSI was unfolding among the world’s demimonde, Mark Zuckerberg—just laundered and encased by central air—continued clacking code on a taut keyboard.

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