Private newsletters •
Public memes •
Washington City Paper •
The Black Cat •
Bodys Isek Kingelez •
Okay. Where were we? I began writing Superb + Solid in August 2017 as a biweekly exercise, to make sure I still knew how to write. I posted 12 editions, once every two weeks, through January 2018. Keeping the beat was as much my goal as capturing whatever struck me as interesting. Then I hit pause, and now it’s a year later, and here’s lucky issue #13. Why keep this going? For one thing, writing Superb + Solid means I’m not writing on Facebook.
I’m not pious about social media. Facebook’s great for mainlining birthday wishes and news about friends and relatives, and it’s generous with its dopamine pinpricks of affirmation. But I can no longer overlook its indifference to threatened violence and election tampering, or its vulnerability to security breaches and fake news. (Meaning genuine fake news—pardon the oxymoron—not actual news that happens to embarrass the president.) As we’ve voluntarily surrendered a staggering volume of our memories and sentiments, Facebook hasn’t protected our data accordingly. But what did we expect? Facebook never claimed it was a bank vault, and it isn’t. It’s a casino, and you only lose the chips you put in.
A while ago I noticed I was feeding Facebook too much stuff I liked. I still write plenty for free. I’m doing it right now. But I want to be a better steward of myself, because I’m better than Facebook. We all are. One of my favorite stories last year, an apparently true yarn by a Canadian writer named Nick Burchill about pepperoni, seagulls, and a hotel room in Victoria, B.C., went viral on Facebook—but with an editor’s guidance and polish, he might have used it to vault himself into a writing career. It reminds me not to give Facebook anything I write with deliberation.
And I’m seeing more blogs and newsletters now. Some, not all, come from friends. Blake Eskin’s Eskin Premier lit the match for Superb + Solid. Others I recommend (and please tell me yours): Dan Baum’s Third Act Trouble, about journalism and mortality; Rob Walker’s The Art of Noticing, about cool arcana; Deborah Wassertzug’s I’ll Live, about life and cancer; Jordan Ellenberg’s Quomodocumque (I looked up the Latin: “one way or another”); Rob Horning’s ruminative Internal Exile; Anne Trubek’s Notes from a Small Press, about indie publishing; and The Ruffian, by London journalist Ian Leslie.
It’s that last one, a Savoy truffle usually laced with sneaky Beatles references, that grants Superb + Solid its permission to go quiet. Last April, Leslie kicked off one post like this: “The Ruffian is back after enforced absence, due to reasons.” That’s good enough for me. If I don’t send out Superb + Solid every two weeks now, it’s due to reasons.
Across the universe.
My new hesitation with Facebook, of course, means little as long as I stick with Instagram (which Facebook owns) and Twitter (which occasionally pwns Facebook). My friend Jason Cochran once called Facebook “a coloring book for grown-ups.” But Twitter’s become my shameful tic. Like Facebook, it’s a public scratchpad that abdicates its own responsibility (or culpability) as a publisher, putting equal weight behind utility and stupidity. The result is a steady supply of highly flammable kindling that’s constantly threatening to spread into a brushfire and leap over its containment line.
But that danger also means it can transmit breaking news at lightning speed—faster, even, than the professional news organizations that do the actual reporting. I’ve hacked Twitter to mute a lot of the chaff coming my way, so I see a good deal of useful information I’d have missed otherwise. I’ve even come to appreciate those who use its technically imposed staccato to their advantage. At its best, it reminds me of good barroom storytelling, or stand-up.
For all its noise, Twitter still sends up clear signals. Rory Turnbull of Honolulu contributed a great set-up on New Year’s Day: “Hello, I’m a professor in a movie, I only reach the main point of my lecture right as class is ending. Then I yell at students about the reading / homework as they leave.” Within hours, many others had piped in, offering up other careers to a growing canon of movie clichés. (A reply from @Lin_Manuel: “I just made it worse too. I’m sorry, professor.”)
Seamas O’Reilly, an Irish journalist who tweets as @shockproofbeats (a.k.a. Seamas It Ever Was), had a corker last May, responding to the prompt, “We want to hear about your work related fuck-ups. Reply, quote tweet, do your worst.” O’Reilly: “Got my days wrong and ended up alone in a room with my boss and the President of Ireland while I was on ketamine.”
Even that trip down the K-hole must show respect to @costcoricebag (a.k.a. Hadie Mart) (a.k.a., I assume, Madie Hart), of the University of Minnesota, who on August 23 tweeted: “IS IT JUST ME, OR DID I JUST PULL OFF THE GREATEST TWITTER SCHEME OF ALL TIME????? Read the first word of my tweets to find out….” Scroll down and do as she says—read the first word of each tweet going back to early May—and your jaw might drop. I hope I won’t spoil any surprises by noting that her friends probably thought she’d lost her mind when, on July 8, she posted five tweets in a row that began with “Galileo.”
I grew up outside D.C., but I haven’t lived in the area for more than 30 years. My familiarity with the city is trapped in the Marion Barry era. It’s been so long, in fact, that local institutions that opened while I was growing up, and even after I left, are officially old enough to die off. I can tell you how to get to Commander Salamander no problem, but don’t waste your time looking for it—or asking me to recommend a restaurant.
Washington City Paper soldiers on, at least. The free weekly launched the careers of Jack Shafer, Katherine Boo, Clara Jeffery, David Carr, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jake Tapper, and many other luminaries. Back in the day, I considered it required reading; I even paid for a subscription when I lived in Chicago.
City Paper just published a brief oral history of the Black Cat, an appealingly tattered rock club that’s closed shop after 25 years. I never got to know the Black Cat the way I did the original 9:30 club on F Street. I only remember visiting the Black Cat once, at its first location in the mid-’90s, to see Bailter Space, an avant-noise band from New Zealand. And though I’m unfamiliar with the sources and bands in City Paper’s report, its closing anecdote feels backdated to the city’s harDCore era of Dischord, Fugazi and Cool “Disco” Dan: “One New Year’s Eve, I was tasked with unclogging a toilet, and I had to dig through layers upon layers of excrement. Finally when I got to the bottom, I found that the culprit was someone tried to flush an entire Washington City Paper down the toilet.” Ashes to ashes, funk to funky.
DANCING ABOUT ARCHITECTURE
Magical mystery tour.
The slowly emerging results of last month’s presidential election in the Democratic Republic of Congo appear to bear the overwhelming stench of fraud. President Joseph Kabila is calling it for his preferred successor, Felix Tshisekedi, who was apparently trounced by the leading opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu. I’m in no position to judge: I live in a country where winning the popular vote is no guarantee of winning office (and where a secretary of state can declare himself the winner of his own gubernatorial election). Either way, Congo’s election ends Kabila’s 18-year reign, which began in 2001 after the assassination of his father, President Laurent-Désiré Kabila—who in 1997 had deposed Mobutu Sese Seko, the leopard-fez’d totalitarian who had renamed his country Zaire (and plundered it relentlessly for 26 years).
Last year, the Museum of Modern Art staged “City Dreams,” a retrospective of Bodys Isek Kingelez, a sculptor who lived in Congo’s capital city, Kinshasa. “City Dreams” is one of the craziest exhibits I’ve ever seen: a generous room crammed with fantasy skyscrapers and stadiums fashioned from vibrantly painted cardboard and commercial detritus, each building flamboyant with architectural excess and impossibility. Kingelez’s urban dreamscape imagines Kinshasa as a brutalist amusement park—a Congolese Vegas, maybe, or a psychedelic Brasília—ordered up by a demented dictator as a trippy monument to himself.
Congo’s new President-elect, whoever he turns out to be, may not share the artist’s funkadelic approach to urban planning. It only dawned me during the news of Congo’s election that Kingelez, who died in 2015, had been working largely under Mobutu’s corrupt and kleptocratic rule. That vintage also applies to much of the “City Dreams” soundtrack. The exhibit closed on New Year’s Day, but MoMA curated a fantastic “City Dreams” playlist that lives on on Spotify. I’ve been listening to it on shuffle for months: five hours of exuberant Afropop bliss that sounds just as bright and effervescent as the imaginary buildings in the show. Whether the songs are sung in Swahili or French, I don’t understand a word, and I could listen all day. I’ll recommend it with a clear conscience to almost anyone.
More next time.
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