Featured

Superb + Solid #13

Private newsletters •
Public memes •
Washington City Paper
The Black Cat •
Bodys Isek Kingelez •
Congolese pop


THROAT CLEARING

Get back.

Ball on number thirteen on roulette wheelOkay. 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.


SOCIAL MEDIA

Across the universe.

Galileo
(Image: Smithsonian Magazine)

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.”


OBIT

Hello goodbye.

black-cat
The Black Cat. (Image: District Concerts)

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.


Bodys Isek Kingelez,
Bodys Isek Kingelez, Ville Fantôme (1996). (Image: MoMA via Curbed)
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.


FAKE CARTOON
fake cartoon jan 3 2019

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Top: Howard Arkley, “Superb + Solid” (detail), 1998. From the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Profile icon: cartoon by Michael Leunig.

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Featured

Superb + Solid #12

New York City and Print
Misunderstood words •
The broadcast from Antarctica


 
MAGAZINE

Deadline.

I remember Sunday, January 4, 1998, pretty well, considering it was just over 20 years ago. A clear, sunny day in Brooklyn—T-shirt weather, weirdly enough. (It didn’t snow that year until the first day of spring.) I arrived just before noon in front of a Fort Greene brownstone with a van crammed full of careless single-guy stuff from my Chicago apartment, and I got it all up to the parlor floor. The weeks that followed were more disorienting than I’d anticipated, having come from a city that’s basically just like Brooklyn, except with a bit of Midtown Manhattan at the center.

A week later, the Monica Lewinsky scandal arrived in a cloudburst, and I started my first New York City job, as an editor at Print, a magazine about design and visual culture. I’m not sure I understood my good fortune to fall in with this small assembly of brilliant journalists, but I quickly dunked my head into their pond. In no time I was interviewing people like Massimo Vignelli, Paula Scher, Harlan Ellison, Stefan Sagmeister, Komar and Melamid and Michel Gondry. I watched Tibor Kalman deliver his final student lecture at Cooper Union. (Audience: “How’s your health?” Kalman: “My health is…a pain in the ass.”) I took home books by Lauren Greenfield, Shepard (“HOPE”) Fairey and Milton (“I♥NY”) Glaser.

Some of our editors’ and writers’ dedication bordered on the monomaniacal. I looked forward to getting invoices from our typography columnist, Paul Shaw, who flattered us by addressing his envelopes with our names in the most astonishing, ornate watercolor calligraphy I’d ever seen. (I still have them somewhere.) And I came away with too many friends and influences to name. When we took home a National Magazine Award for General Excellence in 2005, I shouted (recognizably, to a few) from the our balcony box-seats at the Waldorf-Astoria, not realizing what the award didn’t mean for the business.

My timing was, naturally, exactly right and exactly wrong. I caught the sunset of printed magazines’ golden age, and the dawn of the shift to digital, social and mobile and AI and whatever’s coming our way this year. Print began to feel its age years ago; we briefly—briefly—discussed changing our name to accommodate reality. But Print was an anomaly in a service-oriented industry, and its most recent publishers couldn’t make the effort sustainable. Print’s final print edition appeared a few weeks ago, capping a 77-year run and neatly bookending my first two decades here.

Print published its own moving eulogies, one by former art director Steven Brower, who offers his own history with the magazine and its longtime proprietors (who I was fortunate to work with), and another by Steve Heller, a sharp, funny, neurotic and occasionally pugilistic design thinker who has long served as the steward of Print’s conscience and soul. I don’t have a copy of the final print edition, but this farewell appears in a series of photos on Heller’s Facebook page: “PRINT, PRINT, PRINT, PRINT, PRINT…turning pages, smelling ink, opening for the first time…pleasures lost.” You may have to pinch and expand Heller’s photos with your fingers on your phone screen to read his essay. But I guess that’s what we call progress.


WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE

Stuck in fulsome prison.

With all of this week’s Sturm und Drang around Fire and Fury, one sentence in the Hollywood Reporter preview of Michael Wolff’s book caught my eye: “Even Ivanka and Jared regarded Conway’s fulsome defenses as cringeworthy.” That’s the first time in a while I’ve seen “fulsome” used correctly. Just a day earlier, my friend David Schneider had posted to Facebook Giant If, a salty comic strip by Gretchen Koch, which lost me around the fourth panel. I suspect its misuse of “fulsome” was meant as a fancier version of “full”—a fuller “full.”

But “fulsome” doesn’t mean that. It means excessively flattering: ass-kissing, basically. Which made for an eye-opening quotation in The New York Times last July, when Donald Trump Jr.’s lawyer defended his client’s mysterious meeting with Russian indignitaries by saying he was prepared to make “a fulsome statement about the nature of the meeting, what led to the meeting, what the conversation was in the meeting.” Not to go all William Safire here—but gah!

Say what you will about Wolff: the guy knows his vocabulary. He gets “nonplussed” right, too, in an excerpt Ana Marie Cox scanned and posted to Twitter: “In business meetings, observers would be nonplussed that Charlie and Jared Kushner invariably greeted each other with a kiss and that the adult Jared called his father Daddy.”

I was nonplussed by a November headline in WWD: “Vanity Fair Fashion Staff Nonplussed by New Editor’s Personal Style.” The story’s reporter and editors seemed to believe “nonplussed”—puzzled—means “unimpressed”: “But while Jones may have been editorial director of the books department at The New York Times, an alum of Time magazine and The Paris Review, a graduate of Harvard and holds a doctorate in English and comparative literature from Columbia—none of this impressed Condé Nast-ers.”

Such abuse occasionally balloons into bona fide scandal. There was that nasty flare-up in January 1999 when a white official from Washington, D.C.’s Office of the Public Advocate got sacked after telling two aides from the mayor’s office, “I will have to be niggardly with this fund because it’s not going to be a lot of money.” “Niggardly,” to my ears, is a very ugly, if perfectly valid, way to say “frugal.” I would not have thought to use it myself—my brain won’t go anywhere near it. In retrospect, the speaker might have used a little more discretion in his word choice. An entire Wikipedia entry on controversies around “niggardly” backs up this point: the perfect word isn’t necessarily the best word.


BROADCAST

Radio free Antarctica.

Years ago, when I first turned on my Sonos system, I was charmed by an app within the app for Radio by TuneIn, which lets users listen to any terrestrial radio station anywhere in the world. I tried to stump it immediately, searching for signals in Antarctica. I expected maybe a scrambled mush of ham-radio jabbering. But I got A Net Station, the continent’s only broadcaster, which plays a selection of tranquil acoustic folk and blues. I tuned in occasionally on cold mornings, imagining a couple of bearded research scientists who’d lugged their guitars all the way to the South Pole and had now huddled around a mike in the middle of the unending night.

But over the years, I noticed I was hearing the same songs in the same order. It finally dawned on me that I wasn’t listening to a live broadcast but a playlist set up by the station’s founder, an enthusiast named George Maat, who created this novelty in Antarctica 20 years ago. The website seems preserved in 1990s amber, festooned in charmingly primitive effects and gooped-up Comic Sans and Cooper Black in garish colors. Click the “Play” button, you’ll find your laptop downloading the entire playlist of 139 songs, starting with Will Brady’s “My Creole Belle.”

I was a little disappointed at first to discover that A Net Station is a 20-year-old time capsule, frozen in time. But that seems apt, and at any rate, the music itself does the trick of quieting down and mellowing out any morning or night, frozen or scorching, at any latitude.


FAKE CARTOON

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Top: Howard Arkley, “Superb + Solid” (detail), 1998. From the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Profile icon: cartoon by Michael Leunig.


Featured

Superb + Solid #11

 

Frank Sinatra vs. George Michael •
Dictators and caffeine •
The longest album ever made •
Elf power


 OPEN LETTER

Father figure.

Last Christmas, George Michael died, and the news came unexpectedly but without shock. A pop star who’s already broken the sound barrier by 21 can only continue in one direction, and when he’s tormented constantly by depression, drugs, and homophobic police harassment, he gets there faster than he should.

Sometime after his Wham! days, a cloud passed before Michael’s sunny blow-dried face, and he started making a kind of acid gospel, as though he’d been spending time spinning Primal Scream’s ecstatic outro to the decade, Screamadelica. It was in this brooding mindset that Michael granted an interview to The Los Angeles Times in 1990, unloading the burdens of his fame, which he said he’d never really wanted.

The sheer incomprehensibility of this suffering was too much for one local newspaper reader, an elder named Francis Albert Sinatra, himself a professional musician of some renown. After reading Michael’s profile with bemusement, Sinatra responded in an open letter back to the paper—real talk, father-to-son:

Come on, George. Loosen up. Swing, man. Dust off those gossamer wings and fly to the moon of your choice and be grateful to carry the baggage we’ve all had to carry since those lean nights of sleeping on buses and helping the driver unload the instruments.

When I reposted Sinatra’s letter on Facebook a year ago, I remembered that at age 20, I’d dismissed the note as the cheesy platitudes of an irrelevant has-been. Today, though, I love this note: it’s thoughtful, funny, well-reasoned and superbly written. His voice booms off the page with impatient generosity—“You’re top dog on the top rung of a tall ladder called Stardom”—like an unholy ghost in a loosened tie and a low-slung porkpie, nodding with laconic wisdom from the dark end of a Hollywood dive.

I don’t know too much about Michael’s or Sinatra’s music or lives, or whether they ever got to meet. But Sinatra strikes me as the kind of guy who’d have seen depression as a bad mood, loneliness and longing, not a potentially fatal illness. He also strikes me as the kind of guy who, like Michael, probably knew a thing or two about depression firsthand. Even if he didn’t know it.


LEADERSHIP

Espresso love.

Jon Lee Anderson’s excellent New Yorker profile this month of Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s bumbling dictator, reveals a ruler whose dangerous weakness has become an accelerant to his nation’s famine and economic collapse. Anderson also profiled Maduro’s far more colorful mentor, the late Hugo Chávez, in a different era—that piece appeared a week before September 11, 2001, and several months before Chávez was deposed for three days before he regained control. But the detail that stuck with me most over the years concerned Chávez’s most terrifying habit.

It was about nine at night, and Chávez was on the lawn, sitting under a large mango tree at a round wooden table. He was wearing sneakers, black jeans, and a long gray collarless tunic shirt with epaulets. A stack of papers, some highlighter pens, and a couple of cell phones were on the table. A servant brought us demitasse cups of espresso, glasses of mango juice, and some grapes and crackers. Chávez is a caffeine addict. One of his assistants told me that when the staff realized he was drinking twenty-six cups of espresso a day they started cutting him off, and have got him down to sixteen.

Twenty years ago, when I lived around the corner from Coffee Chicago on Clark Street, the baristas jotted daily musings—a lo-fi, locavore Twitter—on a countertop blackboard. I clearly recall one message, illustrated with a skull and crossbones: “DID YOU KNOW??? Caffeine is medically classified as POISON. If you drink 85 CUPS of coffee YOU WILL DIE.” It never occurred to me to ask what might happen if I tried to match a Venezuelan dictator shot for shot, but 26 espressos a day sounds like rather a lot.

Is it, though? Which has more caffeine, an espresso or a cup of joe? Searching for answers reminds me of an old Jewish joke (100 Jews, 101 opinions), and answers seem similarly rabbinical (how are you brewing it? how big is the cup?). One authoritative-looking opinion comes from Kicking Horse Coffee, near Banff National Park in British Columbia: a 2-oz. espresso’s 80 mg of caffeine compares with a 12-oz. coffee’s 120 mg.

So ounce for ounce, espresso is killing it. But you don’t drink as much espresso as coffee, unless you’re Hugo Chávez. At his peak, he was slurping the equivalent of 17 coffees a day. For the record, that’s about two cases, give or take, of Diet Coke.


MUSIC

Overpowered by funk.

My childhood friend Bill Battle last week posted to his Facebook page the track listing of Van Halen’s 1984 album MCMLXXXIV: “Holy crap, has there ever been a better continuous stretch of 80s rock than this.” Bill’s post included running times, and I remarked on how short albums used to be. “VH songs were very succinct for a band that featured an amazing guitar virtuoso who needed to get his solos in,” Bill responded. And then: “What’s your favorite “long’ album?”

Back in the day, an LP of two 23-minute sides was a wholly different animal from a bloated 74-minute CD (to say nothing of an endless streaming playlist). Long albums—by which I usually think of gatefold sleeves, van-mural artwork and 12-minute drum duets—weren’t my tempo. Even within my preferred genre, I’m not sure I’ve ever listened to the Clash’s triple-LP Sandinista! more than once all the way through. Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Welcome to the Pleasuredome could have been a solid album at half its girth. I still love XTC’s four-sided English Settlement, from 1982—but could you really call it a long album? The entire thing fits on a single CD, with room to spare for several B-sides.

What’s the longest album ever made? Google led me quickly to an improbable answer. A Wales Online item from 2013—no idea how I missed it the first time—introduced a trio of Cardiff grad students called Quiet Marauder who had released a bid for a Guinness Book entry: an album called Men with 111 songs stuffed onto four full-length CDs. Running time: four hours, 49 minutes, 20 seconds.

And Quiet Marauder didn’t pad the bill with drum duets. The band produces quirky ditties in the tradition of They Might Be Giants, The Jazz Butcher and the Bonzo Dog Band. The track listing itself is a mildly exhausting document: “I Promise I Will Not Murder You,” “A Gay Guy and a Dog,” “I Took Some Pills I Found on the Floor!”, “Completely, Maniacally Happy,” and on and on and bloody on. So far, I’ve only listened to one one-hundred-eleventh of the album, a lo-fi singalong called “I Want a Moustache, Dammit,” and it’s reliably adorkable, but 110 more of these could crush my spirit.

Counterpoint: Why the hell not. Proust wrote seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past. McSweeney’s published William T. Vollmann’s seven-volume meditation on violence, Rising Up and Rising Down. Karl Ove Knausgård’s six-part memoir has been a smash, and that’s 3,500 pages (so far). But I haven’t noticed whether Quiet Marauder released four-disc pressings of Men—Amazon sells the four volumes separately, and that seems like a lost opportunity. You want a Guinness entry for your album? In for a penny, in for a pound! If I want a copy of the longest album ever made, I don’t want four CDs sold separately! I want a moustache, dammit.


THE JOYOUS SEASON

Our bodies, our elves.

My biggest holiday gripe? For a long time, it was “Jingle Bell Rock,” but these days, it’s Elf on the Shelf. Some diabolical marketing department cooked up this parental curse, condemning us to spend weeks before Christmas Day having to remember to furtively move a creepy plastic-and-felt doll around the house and leave notes—a new note every damn day—admonishing our young believers that they better not pout and I’m tellin’ you why. The elf who stays in our house types his notes in Google Docs, using a font called Gloria Hallelujah, which approximates what an elf’s handwriting might look like if he worked in a coffee house writing cute messages about caffeine’s medical classification on a little blackboard. Anyway, some idiot inevitably figured out he could expand the consumer base with Mensch on the Bench, for eight nights’ obligation to a different audience segment. Are the floodgates open? Who’s to stop an arms race of elfin brand extensions? It’s not that hard! The Dude in the Food, the Bore on the Floor, the Thug on the Rug, the Tramp on the Lamp—see, we could do this all day, except why would we want to.

I was grumbling about all this the other day like the crazy person this kind of thing makes me until I noticed a note my son left for the elf, responding to that morning’s missive. It stopped me in my tracks and spread a grin across my mug. My son loves “elfs”! Well, I love that he loves them. But how much longer can their relationship last? Another year or two, maybe, before his inquiring mind (or his older sister) finally exposes the mechanics behind the ruse. On the plus side, I’m happy knowing that one day in the near future, he’ll get turned on to David Sedaris’s “Santaland Diaries” and soon find himself weeping with laughter. Until then, though, Stockholm syndrome has taken hold, and I’ll depend on this plastic elf to keep his magic act going for a while.


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Top: Howard Arkley, “Superb + Solid” (detail), 1998. From the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Profile icon: cartoon by Michael Leunig. 


 

Featured

Superb + Solid #10

The Gettysburg Address •
Sarah Lyall •
Instagram Places •
Roshambo


SPEECH!

272.

No score and three years ago, I led several technology executives through a writing exercise: a personal essay of 272 words. They couldn’t write about their work expertise—no “mobile infrastructure,” no “cloud platforms.” They had to tackle personal passions: youth hockey, rescue dogs, public libraries, Bordeaux. And that word count! “Not 271,” I warned them. “Not 273.” Most of the execs were perplexed; some, visibly annoyed. What was the big whoop about 272 words?

The Gettysburg Address—that’s what. It’s there at the Lincoln Memorial, 272 words looming large in Roman type on a gigantic wall next to Lincoln’s seat. I hadn’t been down to the Memorial in 30 years or so until a sunny afternoon two weeks ago, when my kids and several thousand others climbed the steps for a good view of the National Mall and a close-up of Lincoln’s giant marble shoe. How long could Lincoln have taken to deliver 272 words? Three minutes, tops?

The 272-word writing exercise turned out to be fun, and I enjoyed seeing everyone warm to the challenge. And they were competitive. Each group nominated one essay to present in front of the entire class until one prevailed over all. My group nominated an executive who’d just arrived from Paris. He painstakingly wrote 272 words in charming, formal English. And everyone swooned over his conclusion: “The best time for a glass of wine? Right now…with you.”

It wasn’t Gettysburg. But a 272-word invitation, in a foreign accent, undermined by jet lag, to have a drink! The guy stole the show. That was my reminder: keep your word count down, so every word matters.


PERSONAL HISTORY

Pattern recognition.

A startling essay by New York Times reporter Sarah Lyall recently appeared online in Five Dials, London-based publisher Hamish Hamilton’s literary magazine. Lyall wrote about her face blindness: an inability to recognize people you just met the day before, or in some cases, have known for years, people you’ve married or raised as your children. Neurologists call the condition prosopagnosia. Oliver Sacks had it, famously; shortly before his death, he published a 2010 account in The New Yorker of his own battle with recognition. He illustrated his own severe case by describing the day he couldn’t find his way back home from a walk around the neighborhood.

Sacks’s case, while certainly frustrating to him, seemed somehow charming and eccentric in his retelling. For Lyall, it feels anything but. An investigative reporter who can’t recall her subjects’ faces starts at a pronounced disadvantage. Her essay is harrowing, in part because it’s relentlessly long—6,000 uncomfortable words, reported beautifully and with hilarious self-effacement. (In 1995, Lyall’s writer husband Robert McCrum suffered a massive stroke that he turned into an acclaimed memoir. That’s a whole lot of neurology going on in one household.)

Lyall’s essay goes light on the neurology and heavy on her own cringeworthy diary of inadvertent insult, continually puzzling and annoying other guests at dinner parties. At the start of the essay, she’s trying desperately to determine who’s hosting the cocktail party she’s attending:

Standing in these people’s living room, I assessed the possibilities. 1. They were my friends but I didn’t recognize them. 2. They were not the friends I thought they were, but other friends who I also did not recognize. 3. Nobody was anybody’s friend: I had gone to the incorrect dinner party and they had mistaken me for somebody else. Perhaps all of these things were true. I went into the bathroom, took out my phone and starting texting my friends. ‘I do not know what to do,’ I said.

Lyall also cites a couple of unlikely prosopagnosia sufferers: Chuck Close, whose gigantic pixellated portraits might well be his own form of face-blindness therapy (unless every face in the wild looks to him like one of the miniature abstract paintings that make up each portrait). Another fellow in face blindness: Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado. Lyall travels to Denver to witness how on earth a politician with national ambitions deals with this misunderstood condition. She watches Hickenlooper work a room, killing everyone around him with the vaguest, most generic kindness—almost as though he were a…politician. “He had a warm conversation with a pair of women,” Lyall writes. “‘I couldn’t tell you who either of them is,’ he whispered to me, after they had left.”


INSTAGRAM

World atlas.

Just as you can tell a tree’s story by the width of each ring, a organization’s datelines say a lot about its finances. In the year since the U.S. presidential election, several of our most prestigious newspapers have felt a jolt of adrenaline, both financial and investigative. You see it not just in their ambitions and the world-changing news they break, but in the far-flung datelines of their reporting. It’s genuinely startling to find a story reported from a place like Point Hope, “a small gravel spit on the northwest coast of Alaska”: a tiny town on the front lines of climate change and high-speed internet access.

One of my favorite features of Instagram is its search-places function. After reading a story about a place like Point Hope (or Tikiġaq, in the local Inupiaq), I often find my thumb touring through places where reporters are enterprising stories and where I’m unlikely ever to visit myself. My recent Instagram search history is a strange cross section of news articles I’ve come across: Point Hope; Bulawayo, Zimbabwe; St. Helier, Jersey; Tuapa, Niue; Lorengau, Papua New Guinea; Valletta, Malta. When I go Instagram-surfing in these odd, obscure places, I’m probably looking for context that might make a faraway story seem real. And what I find is more authentic than what I can get from the news report, because usually, a local kid shot it on a whim with a mobile phone.

I’m discovering that Instagrammers do basically the same thing everywhere, whether they live near palm trees or polar bears. Most likely you won’t find striking photojournalism, but you’ll probably see a charming human grinning back at you, possibly modeling a going-out outfit and brandishing a phone or throwing a gang symbol with innocent bravado. These strangers may live exactly where Muslim refugees are getting resettled in unwelcoming territory, or a reporter has just been assassinated in her car. But the human instinct to announce our presence and smile and say “Hey! I’m here!” looks basically the same no matter where you take your selfie. And some days, that can be pretty reassuring.


TALK TO THE HAND

Let them eat rock.

My kids’ backseat round of Rock Paper Scissors the other night only took 10 seconds to reach the conundrum at the center of the game. Rock breaks scissors? Yes. I’ve done that myself. Scissors cut paper—sure, of course. Paper covers rock? Let me get back to you on that.

I took my question to Facebook, naturally: Isn’t it kind of bullshit that Paper covers Rock? I’ve seen a rock cover paper but never the other way around. Paper should always lose to Rock and Scissors, and you should never choose it. Rock should defeat everything, even another Rock. I quickly amassed a lot of heated opinions, but no satisfying explanations.

I wasn’t surprised when my Google search about the game turned up Ben Zimmer’s Slate podcast (with my former Advertising Age colleague Bob Garfield); generally, when I wonder about anything, Zimmer has wondered about it years earlier and published an answer. Zimmer’s 2016 podcast taught me a detail about Rock Paper Scissors I’d never known: that on the West Coast, the game is known as Roshambo (a corruption of Rochambeau, a Revolutionary War nobleman and general from France). If you live in California, you’re probably like, Well, duh, but Roshambo was news to me.

Back to paper and rock. Questionable sources like Quora and Reddit had their own opinions, but they got closer to a reasonable explanation how paper beats rock. The simplest argument I could find looks back to how the game was played in ancient Japan, when paper was interpreted not as covering the rock but as wrapping around it. Paper wraps rock? I can live with that.


FAKE CARTOON


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Top: Howard Arkley, “Superb + Solid” (detail), 1998. From the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Profile icon: cartoon by Michael Leunig. The photo of Lincoln’s foot appears courtesy of Jeff Pruzan. “Pattern recognition”: René Magritte, “La reproduction interdite,” 1937.

Featured

Superb + Solid #9

Mobile-Free Monday •
Mr. and Mrs. Mugabe •
“Yakety Sax” •
John Branch


PROFILE IN COURAGE

Downwardly mobile.

With Cyber Monday nigh upon us, I choose to pause and look back fondly to last Monday. Mobile-Free Monday, the first annual holiday declared and celebrated by myself, devoted to the solitary endeavor of spending my day without my phone. O, to judge the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free of their apps! Indulging in their hits of electronic cocaine, impairing their imaginations and memories while I let mine unfurl, free of their addiction! I watched them, smug and sanctimonious, with neither phone nor the slightest remorse. Begone, phantom ringtone! Aroint thee, wishful spam! Thank God almighty, I was mobile-free at last!

Okay, look: I forgot the goddamn thing on my kitchen counter when I left for work, all right? And since I spend business hours at a desktop firewalled from almost anything but itself, protecting me from my own personal files, Mobile-Free Monday meant a day with no email, no texts, no emojis, no “likes,” not even a single illiterate tweet from the Oval Office. A day to breathe and meditate, to contemplate life in the moment, seeing into the distance with half my mind just out of reach…as soon as I got over a touch of the shakes, I’d be just fine.

“What’s your phone number?” A few years ago, I was trying to pick up a prescription when I realized I could not answer this question, the kind of softball a paramedic might pitch to someone who’s regaining consciousness and getting strapped onto a gurney. The mellow pharmacist assured me this happens a lot more often than you’d think, ha ha, no biggie—but it may have been my very first bona fide senior moment. I don’t mind that my phone can show me a flawless route through an unfamiliar place while avoiding traffic jams, but the price of my reduced stress is sometimes apparent.

Standing on the platform, it dawned on me that having no mobile phone also meant having no mobile train ticket. I scowled down to my feet and found a $20 bill—the second $20 I’d spotted in less than 48 hours. This never, ever happens to me. The first $20, which I peeled off a rain-soaked street on Saturday afternoon, we promptly liquidated at a toy store down the block. The second was my divine Mobile-Free Monday gift. Windfall no. 2! I would have Instagrammed it, but my phone was at home…and besides, a single round-trip ticket from my town to Penn Station runs $15.50.


LEADERSHIP

All the bosses’ names.

The media fully scratched my Zimbabwe itch this week with numerous reports from the scene of its 93-year-old dictator getting tossed off his throne after 37 years. After winning independence, the increasingly corrupt and demented Robert Mugabe went on to kill tens of thousands of his countrymen, destroy his agricultural economy and spiral his currency into hyperinflation. As I noted in September, I’m the proud owner of a Zimbabwean 10 million dollar note—chump change, of course, once Mugabe started printing currency in the trillions.

Mugabe’s mandatory retirement seems long overdue. The tipping point seems to be his wife’s scoffing at the notion that anyone would challenge her plan to succeed her husband in the dictator’s throne. But Robert, “Gucci Grace,” and their children have offered any number of let-them-eat-cake moments over the years. A recent Instagram post from his son Bellarmine Chatunga depicted the lad pouring Champagne over a luxury wristwatch: “$60 000 on the wrist when your daddy run the whole country ya know!!!” No surprise that misogyny has stoked so much anger toward Grace in particular. Here’s one headline from The East African of Nairobi: “Grace Mugabe: the bane of Zimbabwe?”(The question mark means it’s fair and balanced.) The New York Times’s “The Fall of Africa’s Most Hated First Lady” was far more circumspect.

The celebrations may come to a swift end now with the succession of a gentleman nicknamed “the Crocodile,” but the whole thankfully bloodless downfall reminds me of “Congo War,”a 1964 ska novelty by a Trinidadian calypso singer named Lord Brynner. “Congo War” captures the early-’60s wave of African revolution in real time with comical horns and names that scan perfectly with “Robert Mugabe.”

It is sad but it’s exciting, when I read the newspaper
About what’s happening in the western province of Africa
Everybody’s fighting to get the fortune and fame
But it is amusing, when I read all the bosses’ names
Such as Kasa-Vubu, and Antoine Gizenga
Fighting to gain power over Katanga
Colonel Mobutu and Justin Momboko
Rivaling Tshombé to be boss over the Congo.


#RESIST

This saxophone kills fascists.

Two ironclad rules about dashboard-cam videos on YouTube. Rule no. 1: Nothing good can come from watching a dashboard-cam video. Especially if it’s footage shot in Russia. Because at some point in the course of gawking at clips of drunk drivers skidding miraculously through Ring Road slush, you will inadvertently witness an S.U.V. disintegrating across the grille of an oncoming tractor trailer. Rule no. 2: if the action is sufficiently slapstick, and—this is crucial—nobody gets maimed or killed, the soundtrack to the clip is always, always, “Yakety Sax.” Last year, someone posted sped-up security-camera footage of an intrepid, boxy sedan barging through a Siberian airport, madcap security detail in hot pursuit, and even as I watched it on mute, convulsed with laughter, I had no doubt which music was chosen for the score.

“Yakety Sax,” immortalized as the “Benny Hill” theme, could have a useful second function not for comedy so much as for heckling. I thought of this when I read a Washington Post account of a winery in Montgomery County, Maryland, where I grew up, having been tricked last Sunday into hosting an event for Richard Spencer and a hundred other white-supremacist hillbillies. The venue’s managers cottoned onto the scheme midway through and kicked everyone out. The story plays to a revenge daydream of mine, in which I’m the winery’s manager, I discover the Nazi infestation, and I torment my guests with “Yakety Sax” at top volume through every speaker in the joint on endless repeat, spoiling Spencer’s triumphant walk-ons and subverting his fascist sermons to his gullible flock until he gives up and joins #BlackLivesMatter.

Our military has famously tormented strongmen like Saddam Hussein and Manuel Noriega with irritating soundtracks blasted at their bunkers. Other themes could work in this capacity. “Louie Louie,” “I’m Too Sexy,” “Looney Toons,” “Funkytown”—any would show the proper antigravitas. And while I thrill to the thought of seeing a bewildered Spencer take the stage pursued by “What’s Happening!!”, its clownish bounce may lack the full degree of insult I need for the job. No, in my scenario of trolling the trolls, I turn to the professionals. Because there’s no mute button in the world strong enough to withstand “Yakety Sax.”


JOURNALISM

The correspondent.

The New York Times published a harrowing account this week of the continuing descent of Stephen Peat, a retired National Hockey League player, into violence and crime and tragedy after a career of concussions and fistfights. The Times’s John Branch lets the story unfold almost entirely through the texts and emails of Peat’s anguished father, Walter, whose helpless words supplied even the heartbreaking headline: “I have no idea how to tell this horror story.” Doing so entirely through a sensitive edit of the source material, providing almost no additional narration or exposition of his own, Branch illuminates the real work of the journalist. Writing, the story reminds us, is just as much about writing as it is about not writing.


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Top: Howard Arkley, “Superb + Solid” (detail), 1998. From the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Profile icon: cartoon by Michael Leunig.


Superb + Solid #8

Featured

Top of the Lake • Courtney Barnett • The Clientele • Sticky FingersInternal Exile • The biggest loser


THE STRUGGLE

Nevertheless, she persisted.

Midway through the new second season of Jane Campion’s excellent detective-noir series Top of the Lake, our heroine, Lt. Robin Griffin, played by Elizabeth Moss, gets brutally attacked by a professional superior. It might be the most shocking and terrifying moment in a harrowing season. The action, thankfully, is getting caught by security cameras, but a control room of male officers arise from their stupor, only to mutter impotently—Ooh. That’s not good—as though they’re watching TV. Finally, the cops swarm in, the attack is disrupted, Griffin emerges quite scathed…and the story moves on.

Spoiler alert: there is no spoiler. An episode that physically and psychologically harms the lead character does not unfold into a plot point that drives the rest of the series—it just vanishes. And that seems not to be Campion’s oversight but her exact point. Dropping the subplot respects the experience of Campion’s female viewers, and for male viewers like me, Campion is saying: That’s right, guys. You see this? This is what it’s like. Even Griffin soon seems to feel an escalation isn’t worth her trouble. No doubt if the attack hadn’t been witnessed, her colleagues would have gaslighted her, poking and prodding the story to death as they tried to locate the inconsistencies that justify their own incomprehension.

This week’s intensifying revelations of sexual assaults in Hollywood and Washington and beyond began with celebrities bravely speaking out against higher-ranking celebrities. It’s now spread to more powerless women and men, unloading their secrets and recounting their trauma. We know the names of the perpetrators, but not always of the accusers, because many of them have had their careers and lives arrested—some by their own design, to retain control of their own dignity. Nobody has any idea how far this change will go. But a head of steam is building, and people need to keep telling their stories, and people need to keep hearing them.


ROCKSHOW

The age of miracles.

This month I caught two shows within a week, which is as close as I get to a double-header. The wry Melbourne songwriter Courtney Barnett, a few days ahead of her 30th birthday, shared the stage of Manhattan’s Beacon Theater with fellow guitarist Kurt Vile. I’ve adored Barnett from the night in April 2014 when a friend sent me the link to “Avant Gardener”; before I’d risen from my chair, I’d found Barnett’s website and bought her album. I’ve never done that before or since, and I’m still head-over-heels.

A few nights later, at the Bell House in Brooklyn, I went to see The Clientele (pictured above), a trio that revives delicate, rainy London pop from the Carnaby Street era through jangled strings, brushed drums and the heavily reverbed vocals of Alasdair MacLean. Before the show, I noticed Mac McCaughan walk past: the founder of the Clientele’s label, Merge Records, and an influential punk-pop band of his own, Superchunk.

Eight years ago, I interviewed McCaughan and his Merge co-founder and bandmate Laura Ballance about building a fiscally conservative business amidst a wasteful and swiftly mutating record industry. Streaming wasn’t yet dominant, but downloads were:

MM: We’re still pretty obsessed with selling physical records.

Q: So has packaging become more important or less?

MM: To us, it’s gotten more important. You have to make it nice, to give people a reason to want to buy a physical object. Our digital sales are increasing, but I think there’ll still be a core of music fans who’ll always want to buy records.

I’m one of them: still buying physical copies and adding them to the thousand others that groan pointlessly on my cheap buckling shelves in the basement. I’m old-school, but I’d rather possess a physical object than borrow the sound waves. It seems hard to get as close to the music when it’s just audio, or maybe I’m more invested when it’s in my hands.

I bought a copy of The Clientele’s autumnal new Music for the Age of Miracles at the merchandise table, just as I’d done with Kurt and Courtney’s new Lotta Sea Lice a few nights earlier at the Beacon. When MacLean wandered over after his performance, he tagged his ornate signature with a black Sharpie onto my copy of the album. I’ve still never seen anyone do that with a Spotify playlist.


JOURNALISM

Sympathy for the devil.

After I’d posted a stage-left shot of The Clientele’s gig on Instagram, @haganomics left a comment: “Super jealous!!!” @haganomics is Joe Hagan, an old friend from my Inside.com days, and he’d missed the show for the most excellent of reasons. Last week, he was kicking off a book tour to support Sticky Fingers, his notorious new biography of Rolling Stone’s founder Jann Wenner. (Make no mistake: it’s me, not Joe, who’s super jealous.)

Sticky Fingers has generally received rave reviews from everyone but its subject, who disowned the book and its author after reading it, dismissing it as tawdry and unfair. Wenner, having ceded all editorial control and now clearly feeling stung, disinvited Joe from a joint appearance onstage at the 92nd Street Y and seems to have put their families’ neighborly friendship on ice, at least for the time being.

I’m only a few pages into Joe’s book, and I can already sense that Wenner will come around once he sees he’s been treated fairly and with human empathy. I’m reading Sticky Fingers not so much as a book about Wenner, or rock’n’roll, or publishing—or, as of yesterday, sexual assault—but about journalism itself.

I remember when Joe told me almost three years ago that he’d started working on it, and my jaw dropped at some of the interviews he was landing: McCartney, Dylan, Springsteen, Elton, Mick and Keef. Guys like that don’t need to suck up to Wenner. They only speak on the record if they feel like it. And they only feel like it if they want the guy anointed for sainthood…or if they want to nick him with a little paper-cut of revenge after 50 years of holding their fire while they endured the transactional pantomime of celebrity journalism.

Even early on, Joe must have understood that pursuing the truth about his subject could doom their friendship. Nevertheless, he persisted. That took serious nerve. Wenner used to hire reporters like Joe, used to champion them in his magazine’s pages. Editors and publishers used to worry more about the narrative than the relationship. I bet Ol’ Blue Eyes wasn’t too thrilled when Esquire published Gay Talese’sFrank Sinatra Has a Cold in 1966. But Sinatra enjoyed his enviable celebrity. He took the slings and arrows as they came. Maybe Wenner will eventually come around to the journalism he invited Joe to accomplish.


A FRIEND WRITES

Grief tourists.

Rob Horning, an erudite and well-read colleague I knew at Condé Nast Portfolio, writes a personal, exhaustive, sometimes scholarly newsletter called Internal Exile. This week’s entry is worth a subscription on its own. From Horning’s “Grief Tourists”:

Our friend turned to a stranger sitting beside her, a stolid man in a T-shirt who looked to be in his early 50s. He was wearing about a dozen different-colored silicone bracelets on his wrist, as if he hoped to raise awareness for everything. She asked him, à propos of nothing, what the deal was with all the bracelets, and he tersely responded, “Do you really want to know?” Our friend tried to make it clear that she didn’t mean to seem rude; then the man began telling us about how in 2012, his child had been a third-grader at Sandy Hook Elementary, and the bracelets were related to that.

Subscribe to Internal Exile here.


FAKE CARTOON


BOOKS

Inside joke.

The other night, I noticed my daughter had brought home a postcard-shaped 25-year-old library book called New York. I flipped around—state flag, state flower, state bird—until I chanced upon a “notable New Yorker” whose cotton-candy bouffant and sphincter-puckered scowl glared from the page, flooding me with nostalgia. Donald Trump’s tiny portrait—look closely: he’s literally flipping us off—is stuck right at the bottom corner, a tongue-in-cheek punch line. I imagine the authors and editors chuckling: It’s a children’s book! We shouldn’t do this!…should we? And there you have it: state inside joke.

In 1992, the joke belonged mostly to Manhattan. Beyond the Hudson, people may have vaguely heard about the hyped-up developer—a connoisseur of terrible taste who always looked like he was halfway between thrilling to the limousine life and wanting to punch someone’s lights out. A brash outer-borough punk, he was a little like Howard Stern, although lacking the charm and self-flagellation that came naturally to the King of All Media. Once Trump began the first of several tumbles into bankruptcy, even his enemies must have felt a nasty shock of betrayal: Wow—I guess the guy’s actually not that bright.

Trump survived, though. Sure, he diluted his chintzy brand, slapping his goofy name across ever-more mass merchandise with an ever-more desperate and downscale customer base—yet somehow he could still walk out of every room with their money. “Born 1946,” the book says: that means he’s 71 now, not forgotten, but still trapped beneath than unbroken crystal ceiling of acceptance among the real billionaires—the Rockefellers, the Bloombergs, the Astors, the Lauders—who will never have him. He’d never made it into their club. But he’d made it, and if an inside joke can make it there…well, you know the tune.

But look who else is on Trump’s page! There’s Michael Jordan, ready to soar into the stratosphere. Within another year or two after this book was published, Jordan had become the biggest and most beloved celebrity on the planet, his heroic image plastered dictatorially on every available surface in his professional hometown of Chicago. There was a while, back in the day, when—no joke—he probably could have been elected president of the United States.


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Top: Howard Arkley, “Superb + Solid” (detail), 1998. From the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Profile icon: cartoon by Michael Leunig.

Featured

Superb + Solid #7

Extreme walking • Chris Ware • Word coinage • Dan Baum • Churchillian


HELL OF A TOWN

One step beyond…

Early one spring evening 20 years ago, I witnessed one of the funniest and scariest things I’d ever seen. I was walking up Lexington Avenue when four blokes with close-cropped haircuts, Chelsea jerseys and white trainers stepped outside their budget hotel. They looked as tense as first-time skydivers, with clenched, wide-eyed expressions that betrayed their anxiety. As a platoon, they barged across the sidewalk together and—to my horror—straight into oncoming traffic. Screeching brakes, blaring horns, cabbies’ screams of incandescent rage. The freaked-out lads feigned nonchalance, stealing glances over their shoulders as God granted them safe passage to the other side. And then, suddenly, I knew exactly what I’d just seen. Four tourists straight outta Heathrow who knew exactly one thing about New Yorkers: we ignore the WALK signals.

True, we walk the way Parisians drive: by law when it’s handy, and however we want when it isn’t. Parisians call it système D, for débrouille—roughly, “just do it”—and it’s a point of civic pride. But smartphones have broken New Yorkers’ stride. Half the pedestrians I encounter now move at a lobotomized shuffle, hunched over their screens. I haven’t witnessed a walking-and-texting accident, but Honolulu has just outlawed the act of poking at a phone while using a crosswalk. I can’t imagine how the Hawaii Five-0 enforces it—or how the NYPD will, if a similar proposal that’s in play here gets signed.

We’ve been here before. Gotham attempted a similar measure in February 1998, a month after I’d moved to town, when Mayor Rudy Giuliani decided to take a bite out of jaywalking. Cops and pedestrians alike ignored him, of course. But one day, New York Times investigative reporter David Rohde made sport of the effort, needling an officer on a Midtown corner about the scofflaws passing before him, until the exasperated cop halfheartedly nabbed the next jaywalker he saw. Bad move: the cop’s mark turned out to be a non-compliant law student who immediately enlisted 18 classmates in her criminal-defense clinic to help her fight the fine.

I just went back and re-read Rohde’s story, published with the incredulous headline “Officer Apprehends a Perpetrator. The Charge Is Jaywalking.” Twenty years later, every word is still hilarious.


MONOMANIA

Novelty library.

I envy anyone discovering Chris Ware’s universe for the first time. Over the 30 years Ware has written and illustrated his comics, magazine covers, posters and signage with impossible architectural precision, three-ring typography and self-deprecating wit, his output has only become more astonishing and deeply humanistic. I was fortunate to enjoy Ware’s work when he was still an emerging Chicago artist. As a wise young savant, he produced NewCity’s weekly full-page “Acme Novelty Library” comic, a bleak voyage rooted in the psychedelia of “Little Nemo in Slumberland” and the good bones of Wicker Park rowhouses. After I once interviewed him for Chicago magazine, I bought a full-page comic—a solid week’s labor in India ink and invisible blue pencil on posterboard—and today, I rarely walk past it on my wall without pausing to immerse myself in its dark magic.

The other day I received Ware’s immersive, intimidating new Monograph, part portfolio and part memoir. I mean no disrespect when I say the book is literally exhausting. Amazon had given me fair warning, listing its dimensions at more than a foot and a half tall with a shipping weight of close to nine pounds. Monograph belongs on a table, preferably with a magnifying glass, in a room with walls that block cellular signals: a full review of his comics “Jimmy Corrigan,” “Rusty Brown,” “Quimby Mouse,” “Big Tex,” and “Tales of Tomorrow” deserves undivided attention.

Monograph is a suitable bookshelf companion to Ware’s Building Stories, a comic novel detailing a century of life in a Chicago rowhouse, collected in a non-linear narrative among more than a dozen pamphlets, paperbacks, posters and other materials, packaged in a box the size of a board game. In the five years I’ve owned a copy, I’ve been hesitant to approach it with less than the full presence and consciousness the art merits. No joke: I still haven’t removed the shrink-wrap.


MAD MEN

Wordsmithing.

Ad copywriters, as a species, love to coin words and phrases. Some inventions serve their purpose and extinguish themselves; others, the I’m Lovin’ Its and Just Do Its and Uncolas, catch fire and survive well beyond their half-life. Today’s coinages stretch parts of speech—adjectives twist into nouns and nouns into verbs. I’ve recently encountered “What’s your healthy?”, “What’s your greater?” and “This is how you Sonic.” These abused words hit my ear wrong, but at least they get me listening. I sometimes black out on conference calls, overcome by blather that warps “solve it” into “solution it,” “make it” into “architect it,” and “write it” into the reprehensible “wordsmith it.”

“Unrare,” on camera-maker GoPro’s billboard across the street from Penn Station, stopped me dead in my tracks. It’s a verb, not an adjective; the line is “Unrare the share.” I took a picture for later study, because I was failing in the moment to solve this three-word Rubik’s Cube. “Unrare”—meaning, to…what? render as common?—implies we’re not sharing enough in (I assume) social media, that we’re not taking sufficient advantage of the opportunity to share our (I assume) “moments,” and that buying a GoPro will solution our problem.

Except we do share—a lot. That’s why mobile phones have dedicated self-portrait cameras, and why some clever bastard came up with the Selfie Stick. So it’s not just “unrare” that feels wrong; it’s the premise.

I’ve now spent enough energy on “unrare” that I don’t feel bad admitting defeat. I have absolutely no idea what it means. But here’s what really amazes me. “Unrare the share” made it past dozens of professionals who billed countless hours in pitches and on calls. The phrase got printed. It reached the market. Copywriters, designers, strategists, account leads, clients, cookie-munching focus-group participants: every one of them read “Unrare the share.” Every one of them nodded. Every one of them understands what it means. Maybe every one of them will buy a GoPro.


NEWSLETTER

Ain’t that a shame.

Dan Baum, who with his wife and journalist partner Margaret Knox has spent a career covering stories like Columbine and Katrina for magazines like Harper’s and The New Yorker, is unafraid to tangle with anyone, whether David Remnick or Rahm Emanuel. Dan once kicked off an interview with Emanuel like this: Before we start, you should know where I’m coming from. I think you’re full of shit. So try to prove to me you’re not. (I’m paraphrasing—except for the “full of shit” part. That’s verbatim.) Emanuel’s shock melted into laughter, and Baum got himself an off-guard interview.

My favorite magazine story that got away of my entire career was one I’d conceived and then assigned to Dan in 2008. I wanted our magazine to profile the Westboro Baptist Church as a small family business—which it is—exploring how the company kept pulling in revenue year after year by selling a repellent product nobody wants. Dan accepted, and I was thrilled. But the next morning, he called with regrets, not because he didn’t want to do it—he did—but because he predicted, accurately I think, that my editor would eventually lose interest. In hindsight, Dan saved us both some serious heartache.

After a decade apart, Dan saw Superb + Solid #6 this month and reintroduced himself to me with dark comic economy:

How did we meet? You must forgive me. I’m old (61) and I’ve had two brain surgeries in the past two years. (glioblastoma) Our meeting may be sitting in a petri dish at New York Presbyterian.

As Richard Lewis once told Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm: I’m trying not to laugh, but that’s funny. But still: a harrowing turn for Dan, and upsetting news for me. Dan writes beautifully, with discipline I’ve never had. For years he’s been unspooling a newsletter, “Third-Act Trouble,” an ever-growing memoir I now receive in highly anticipated nightly doses of just a few milligrams each. I’m coming to Dan’s life story in medias res—he caught me up with the archives, a document of close to 1,200 pages that he’s assured me I’m not obligated to read, although I’d love to. I look forward to his vivid scenes from 35 years ago as a Singapore stringer—funny, cinematic, shocking—and I hope I’ll be getting them for years and years.

I’d quote an entry here, but I’d rather share Dan’s brief appreciation last Wednesday for a departed citizen of his beloved New Orleans, a fellow Katrina survivor named Fats Domino:

I’m guessing Fats eked out 89 years by strictly adhering to that healthful New Orleans diet, vigorous physical exercise, and the clean, tobacco-free early-to-bed lifestyle for which New Orleans is justly famous.

(Christ almighty; if Fats can make it to 89, surely I can, right?)

See you in 2045, Dan. [Update: Subscriptions to “Third-Act Trouble” are not publicly available. This was my misunderstanding. I apologize to Superb + Solid readers for the false lead and to Dan for the responses he’s had to turn away. A large collection of Dan’s past articles, available for downloading, is here; a list of his books, available for ordering, is here.]


STATUS UPDATE

Our finest hour.

Ronald Gerber If the Democrats win midterms, probably Pence. • Jason Good The Rock! • Tracy Guth Spangler I hope we don’t ever find out. [me Me too, but that could also be a post-apocalypse scenario.] • Stephen Clark Don Jr.? Eric Trump? • Victor Thompson Something composed of not more than a few cells. • Adrienne Marek I can’t think about that organism—terrifying. • Steven Featherstone dead Churchill • Justin Kerr [photo of Kid Rock performing in an American flag schmatte] [Steven Featherstone lol • Kris Goodfellow Oh, dear god. You are right.] • Josh Weinberg Scott Baio? • Jandos Rothstein President Ted Nugent [Stephen Clark Along with his VP Sarah Palin…it’s a 2 for 1 package 🙂 • me Sarah Palin…she may be the answer to my question.] • Jake Eldridge President Camacho • Tarah Malhotra-Feinberg This is the most terrifying thing I’ve read all year. [Tarah Malhotra-Feinberg Oh wait, unless you mean the more recent perception of Churchill as a bigoted, loudmouthed asshole…] • Mark Thompson Kidd Rock? • Deborah Wassertzug Ebola, the Return • Galet Mike My ballsack? • Jason Williams Wait, does “made” (past tense) count? If so, Heath Ledger’s Joker. If not, disregard.


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Top: Howard Arkley, “Superb + Solid” (detail), 1998. From the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Profile icon: cartoon by Michael Leunig.

Featured

Superb + Solid #6

 

Baseball branding • Hate groups • Fake cartoons • Nanoblocks • Motel neon


INSIDE BASEBALL

All caps.

Last weekend in Evanston, Illinois, I spent a few minutes in a claustrophobic off-campus bazaar on Sherman Avenue. Northwestern University stuff was easy enough to find, but I was looking for a Chicago White Sox cap. Nothing with a stiff bill or a big foam dome and plastic mesh; I wanted one I might have plausibly discovered at an estate sale. I found a black fitted cap as thin as a heavy cotton shirt, with a handsome calligraphic embroidered logo. Close enough.

I haven’t followed baseball closely for decades—the Orioles were my team; the Sox are my dad’s—but I’m old-school about caps. Only one thing looks right on a baseball cap, and that’s a baseball team logo. (By contrast, anything looks right on a trucker’s cap, except, obviously, “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.”) This Sox logo is of indeterminate vintage—late 1960s, or early 1990s, or right now—but as I dug through the online archives of curious White Sox branding, I got caught between 1976 and 1990.

The Sox uniform during my childhood was a sleek disco-era atrocity, with bizarre spread collars, dispirited community-center typography, jerseys designed to be worn untucked…and briefly, until too many Sox got lacerations from sliding into bases, shorts.

I collected baseball cards every year from the late 1970s for almost a decade, and I just went digging through my own collection to find the early ‘80s Sox again. Carlton Fisk and Ron LeFlore are right here in 1982, wearing these uniforms like their teammates. So I don’t mean to pick on Dewey Robinson, a relief pitcher from Evanston who racked up four innings in four games in 1981 for a 4.50 earned run average. But that’s a card to remember. If he’d worn an athletic whistle on the mound, he might have passed for Mr. Slye, my Cabin John Junior High phys-ed teacher.


JOURNALISM

Haters gonna hate.

The New Yorker’s teaser for Andrew Marantz’s “Birth of a Supremacist” this week promised to reveal “how a leftist contrarian became a white-nationalist shock jock.” (Wording varies online.) The shock jock in question, Mike Enoch, spewed his spittle in obscurity until antifa activists doxxed him in January, revealing his identity as Michael Enoch Isaac Peinovich. Marantz spoke to Peinovich’s father: “He lives in an upper-middle-class New Jersey suburb that is often listed among the most progressive towns in the country”…

…uh-oh. A little close to home. As it turns out, my hometown of Maplewood, where I’ve lived for eight years, does indeed figure into Peinovich’s past, as does his father’s current home, the similarly NPRish Montclair. I sometimes reflect that I haven’t met any true villains since I moved here, and while I try to empathize with those I don’t understand, it’s hard to fathom why anyone would dissent from the worldliness of an inclusive community to determine the true path is white supremacy. If a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged, as the old saw has it, then I have to imagine a white supremacist from Maplewood must be a liberal who’s been mugged by his own personal failures.

The Enoch profile is the close counterpart to one of my favorite New Yorker profiles in recent years: Adrian Chen’s sympathetic study in 2015 of Megan Phelps-Roper, the dissident granddaughter of Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church. I’ve read few articles that so thoroughly challenge and debunk my presumptions about a given topic. I’d always thought of the Westboro gang as a sequestered cult, living in plain sight in Topeka but out of touch with society. But they live in the same world as we do, listening to the same music, watching the same shows, openly strategizing how best to exploit the media outlets they damned to hell. Phelps-Roper’s departure from Westboro took unimaginable reserves of courage. I haven’t heard much about Westboro since the Rev. Phelps’s death in 2014. I suspect Chen’s jaw-dropping Phelps-Roper profile may have been another serious puncture in their tires.


FAKE CARTOONS

The old drawing board.

Hard to believe the first edition of Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern is now old enough to sleep through its first macroeconomics lecture of the morning, but there’s Father Time for you. Dave Eggers published the debut issue in autumn 1998, after he and a few others, including me, spent the late spring and early summer hunting and gathering for a modest scrap drawer of forgotten curiosities. McSweeney’s was a prestigious publisher almost out of the gate, but in its infancy, it was just an unassuming farmer’s almanac: black ink on white paper; no graphics, one font (ITC Garamond). I was involved in the first few issues, and I still see surviving elements of the apologetic, hand-wringing house voice I helped establish.

One of my favorite features of that first issue was a series of fake cartoons, conceived and described but not illustrated, because we weren’t cartoonists. My friend Jason Zengerle submitted an acidic idea I still love, set in a Chicago housing project. Jason’s byline isn’t on it, but when word got back to us that David Foster Wallace was teaching this “cartoon” to students at Illinois State, that seemed pretty far from Normal, and it came as ear-to-ear validation for both Jason’s joke and the format itself.

I took cartooning classes in my teens. I didn’t have the talent or stamina to get really good, but I still keep a running list of ideas for single-panel New Yorker cartoons for the day I finally get struck by lightning and pick up a Rapidograph. It’s pointless to wonder whether my list of jokes would make it past the magazine’s cartoon editor, Emma Allen. But this one feels a good match for one of the magazine’s resident surrealists: Zach KaninFarley KatzEd Steed. I’ll be sharing more fake cartoons as they occur.


TOYS

Big yellow taxi.

One of my duties as a dad involves assembling intricate sets of plastic toy blocks. I enjoy seeing these things take shape as they’re advertised to do: a sculptural version of an adult coloring book.

Usually, these are Legos, of course. But occasionally I encounter something more diabolical. I was recently confronted with Nanoblocks, much like Legos except Japanese, not Danish, and made up of sadistically tiny components, more suitable for tweezers than fingers. Note the U.S. quarter in this photo, to show the scale of this tiny pixelated New York City cab.

As I sometimes do with the more complex (that is: expensive) Lego sets that make it into our house, I took a picture, before it meets its inevitable death by misadventure, for proof that at some point, I defeated the Nanoblocks. I put the finished taxi on a windowsill above our kitchen sink, a momentary sanctuary before my son noticed it.

Last night, I found the disintegrated Nanoblocks taxi strewn across my son’s dresser. He had no explanation for its demise—just a winning smile and a shrug. Why did he destroy this little taxi? Because it was fun, I assume. Destruction is the natural order of these things, anyway. Nanos to Nanos, dust to dust.


INSTAGRAM

Pretty vacant.

Friday, October 6, 12:06 a.m.

During my years in Chicago, I enjoyed noticing all the scraps and shreds of old Americana that survived in the open. Ads painted on brick walls with antiquated phone numbers, elaborate ancient molding in apartments even young adults could afford, and an occasional classic neon sign from the era of tailfins and “Telstar.” I don’t know why I’d known about the Heart o’ Chicago, which wasn’t on my way to anything, but I remembered it from my time there in the mid-’90s. And when it showed up as an option for attending my 25th reunion on a budget, I booked it. It’s got precious little in the way of charm or amenities, but a bunch of my friends stayed there, too. Plus, it was a hundred bucks a night…neon-sign views on the house.


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Featured

Superb + Solid #5

Propaganda • Venezuelan portraits • Todd Baker • Chrysler Building


FAKE NEWS

Misinformation, please.

A retired U.S. sergeant major once taught me an important point about propaganda: it only works on the losers. This was in 2003, several months after the U.S. began prosecuting its “shock and awe” campaign in Iraq, and I’d been researching the wartime tool of airborne leaflets for Print, the graphic design magazine where I was an editor. I’d assigned a leaflet retrospective to Sgt. Maj. Herbert A. Friedman (Ret.), PSYOP historian of the Psychological Operations Association. It’s reprinted here.

One million leaflets, I found out, equal one ton of paper. In the first months of 2003, the U.S. dropped 31 million leaflets over Iraq. Some were carrots, promising safety to exhausted, terrified civilians; others were sticks, demanding surrender and threatening punishment. In both cases, they were graphically crude, Friedman wrote:

Nearly a century of simple design and visual language have run through safe-conduct, threat, and reward leaflets since World War I. Today, as U.S. adversaries from Maoist rebels in Peru to the Iraqi Information Minister spread their word in Web sites and chat rooms, the leaflet remains one of the military’s lowest-tech, but most effective, media.

As Facebook and Twitter continue to come under increasing fire for their roles in letting bots, trolls and fake-news farms spark rumors and throw elections, enticing gullible people to believe foolish things, Twitter this week began testing double-length messages to random users.

Chortle if you will at vulnerable peasants getting swayed by crude messages dropping out of thin air. Watching Twitter—whether at 140 characters or 280—is like watching the sky above you darken with an infinite propaganda cascade. Friends, enemies, strangers, algorithms: we’ve all got our leaflets, and we’ve all got our planes. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that we’re all losers, the propaganda does seem to be taking effect.


PHOTOJOURNALISM

El hambre.

The United States this week announced a revised and updated—you couldn’t call it “new and improved”—travel ban, and the blackballed nations comprise a curious list. This round is less baldly racist than the other recent feints at national-security pantomime, targeting not just the usual Muslim-majority suspects that Americans have been taught to fear and loathe, but a couple of non-Muslim outliers as well.

For North Korea, the travel ban is probably a moot point—theoretical, if a bit short on theory. But for Venezuela, a neighbor in the Americas suffering the horror of economic collapse and famine, a travel ban for its desperate, panicked, emaciated public seems unconscionably cruel.

For almost 20 years, one of the most apocalyptic symbols of Venezuela’s struggle to live in the fallout of economic freefall was the Torre de David, an unfinished oil-company headquarters in the central business district of Caracas. When the corporation and the developer ran out of money to finish the building in the mid-1990s, nature and humanity took over, rendering the incomplete skyscraper “the world’s tallest slum.” Jon Lee Anderson, among other intrepid journalists, captured it for a Hugo Chávez profile in The New Yorker in 2013: an immense, impoverished D.I.Y. neighborhood of informal economies and free housing, available to those who could appease the menacing gangs in the right measure and climb dozens of flights into the downtown sky to their homemade homes.

Just as resourceful as the inhabitants of Torre de David are the Venezuelans who posed for a Bloomberg Businessweek photo essay this week: five people describing their struggle to eat and survive. Each portrait is paired with an earlier snapshot of the subject, showing how they looked in their prime at healthy weights, such as the 49-year-old construction worker who’s dropped from 243 pounds to 165. These brave interviewees are proud but depressed, more resigned and frightened than defiant. They fight tears through their interviews, and as I read about their unimaginable fatigue and perseverance, I found it hard not to cry with them.


SOUNDTRACK

Parkour and recreation.

One of the more unlikely music releases I’ve been drawn to this year is the soundtrack to Monument Valley 2, released this month: the score to an elegant, ambient iPhone video game inspired by M.C. Escher whose heroes slalom through an unimaginable parkour course of physics-defying staircases, viaducts and doorways.

Like the prior installments of the game, the Monument Valley 2 soundtrack has a tranquil, occasionally eerie electronica score that nods appreciably to Brian Eno, Philip Glass, Gustavo Santaolalla and Boards of Canada. London-based composer Todd Baker wrote a Medium post about his influences for the soundtrack album, the most prominent being Erik Satie’s 1888 composition “Gymnopédie No. 1”:

The key element in this track, for me, is the spacious and gentle pacing, encouraging you to pause and ponder for a moment, something which perfectly suits the moment in the game where the child is gently and patiently being taught her first lessons.

Baker’s spare, spacious music translates beautifully to the real world: an impossibly avant-garde accompaniment to a video game. Here’s how his Satie homage “Child” sounds when performed live in the studio with Baker’s band The Lydian Collective.


INSTAGRAM

Look sharp.

Tuesday, September 26, 5:17 p.m.

One of the first things I noticed about living in New York, when I moved here almost 20 years ago, was that when Sunday afternoon rolled around, I wouldn’t be rushing to the airport. Sometimes I have to remind myself that many people I see randomly every day are visitors in a heightened state of alert: energized, intimidated, inspired, exhausted. They’re in New York City, and they’re not headed to a desk. Today may be the highlight of their year. They’ll find ways to work this fact into conversations for months. I sometimes forget the intensity of that feeling.

Sometimes, though, I remember to remember. I was on the 43rd floor of a Midtown skyscraper the other day, in a meeting with visitors from places like Scottsdale, London, Singapore and Lima. When I noticed the hypodermic Chrysler Building just outside the window, I was the one who sauntered over to the window and took a shot with my phone, to get the light and shadow playing in sharp harmony behind the great slab of the MetLife building. I’m glad I don’t have this Art Deco landmark peering over my shoulder at my desk, because if I did, I might never take the time to look at it. And I remembered the advice I got soon after I moved here, about how to see familiar buildings for the first time: Never forget to look up.


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Featured

Superb + Solid #4

 

Lorem ipsum •
Paul McCartney v. Fela Kuti •
Profanity •
Fascist haircuts •
September 18, 2001


PIG LATIN

Don’t believe the type.

Don’t steal my tattoo idea. Before you read any further, say it aloud: I promise not to steal Todd’s tattoo idea. Okay, I trust you. Here it is: a couple words on my right shoulder or forearm, set in Hoefler & Co.’s elegant Gotham, if the tattoo artist can get it right, and a simple phrase: Lorem ipsum. Maybe, if I’m feeling up to it, the fuller Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet. If you’ve had any exposure to design with type, you know the phrase—placeholder nonsense that shows you how the real text will flow once you’re getting ready to publish it. (A Google Image search reveals I’m already late to this tattoo idea, of course. If you ever have a brainstorm, stay away from Google.)

Lorem ipsum is already my personal, private joke. Over the years, I’ve ordered a number of shirts from Blank Label, an online store that applies your measurements to sort-of-custom fits, and I’ve taken advantage of the site’s option to let you dictate your own label. I now own about a dozen shirts that say Lorem Ipsum inside the collar, and only I know it’s there, and I still think it’s funny.

But there’s real intrigue to lorem ipsum. A Latin scholar would know right off the bat that it’s not real language. It recently occurred to me to feed the fake text into Google Translate, until I found a brief 2015 essay in Open Culture explaining its origins as typesetting gibberish. A printer several centuries ago grabbed a page within reach and set placeholder type based loosely on Cicero’s “De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum” (“On the Extremes of Good and Evil”), rendering it illegible so it wouldn’t be published accidentally.

The printer had the right idea. I’d rather let lorem ipsum slip into view than most other alternatives. Deadspin last month published “The Fallout from Sportswriting’s Filthiest Fuck-Up,” a poignant and excruciating history of the worst typographical error imaginable: a paragraph of juvenile profanity that snuck into print and destroyed the reputations, careers, and even lives, of those ensnared in the small-town scandal. Caveat emptor.


ROCKSHOW

Chaos and creation.

Tuesday night, I saw Sir Paul McCartney, who’s 75, play a live show for the second time in my life, with my sister, who also saw him for the second time, and our mom (fifth time) and dad (sixth). My mom is two years younger than Sir Paul; my dad, five years older. It would have been easy enough and fully understandable for Sir Paul to execute a set list dripping in indulgent nostalgia, and though there was no shortage of hits, he took some daring detours into what I assume were more personal favorites: “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “Junior’s Farm,” “Let Me Roll It,” “Here Today.”

The lineup heavily represented Wings, particularly Band on the Run, and I found myself wondering about the album’s chaos and creation. The band recorded it in 1973 in the restive environment of Lagos, Nigeria, then under the sway of oil revenue, military rule, and the funk-cult bandleader Fela Kuti.

I can imagine Fela feeling wary of a wealthy English rock star coming to town and encroaching on the African Shrine, Fela’s ramshackle club: an opportunity, possibly, for cultural theft. But Paul and Fela quickly sorted out any misunderstandings. No collaboration seems to have taken place, and I’ve never detected the slightest hint of Fela’s serpentine funk on Paul’s album. But 40 years later, in 2013, in a brief interview timed to the release of the tribute album Red Hot + Fela, Sir Paul recalled how Fela’s initial wariness yielded to bonding. It’s a charming story, probably largely unknown to or forgotten by most fans of either superstar. And Sir Paul’s recall in the interview of Fela’s live keyboard riff is astonishing, especially when he sits down to play and sing it from memory.


ON LANGUAGE

Do solemnly swear.

Years ago, as an editor at Details and the father of a newborn girl, I briefly tried to assign a counterintuitive essay about the charms of teaching your kid to swear. I knew a number of dads who could turn a phrase and spin a funny yarn about their darned kids and their darned mouths. I might have gotten the idea from a story Neal Pollack had told about he and his wife both struggling not to collapse into laughter when his six-year-old son experimented (and hit paydirt) with “dammit.” The Details essay never happened, and I didn’t understand it: who wouldn’t find it hilarious to hear a six-year-old swear?

Well, I wouldn’t. Now that I have a six-year-old son who I’m sorry to say gets a genuine reaction from busting out certain four-, six-, and 12-letter-words, I can understand why I wasn’t getting any traction. A situation with a kid who likes getting profane at home wasn’t going to end well if he decided to test-drive his vocabulary in class. (We didn’t have this problem with his older sister. So far, we still don’t.)

I warn him at every opportunity of the consequences of using this language out of context, and he seems to take the point. But on this point, Rachel and I are terrible enforcers. A couple weeks ago, he started belting out the forbidden words while we were driving, and when we grownups in the front failed to contain ourselves, the resulting laughter eventually required a car repair. (I’d say more but I don’t want to jeopardize my insurance policy.) So why don’t parents think it’s charming to let their kids swear? Now I know. And where does he learn this language, anyway? No fucking clue.


INSTAGRAM

Fascism week.

So far this summer, on the streets of Manhattan, I’ve spotted exactly one MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN trucker cap, worn by a 60something guy dressed in a tourist’s golf shirt and khakis and a defiant pout. And I’ve spotted exactly one TRUMP T-shirt, on an anxious-looking 12-year-old kid with anxious-looking parents, adrift somewhere a block or two from the safe embrace of Times Square. If you spend time anywhere further from Manhattan (or closer to Trump Tower) than I do, your mileage may vary.

I don’t know for sure that these were tourists, but that’s the only sensible explanation. I’m willing to write off the occasional inadvertent provocation of a clueless visitor who has no idea his cap or shirt would be deeply offensive to the average New Yorker. But I confess that when I witnessed an unambiguously fascist haircut on a young man in J. Crew-catalogue foppery yesterday, my shoulders tensed. The guy might as well have been wearing an armband. Regardless of whether he’s hip to the Richard Spencer connotations—I didn’t ask—I know that nobody happens innocently upon the “fashy” in a GQ spread and then brings a copy of the magazine to the barbershop. It seems impossible to wear this haircut in Midtown Manhattan, on the way to an office job, without knowing exactly what it says.

Unrelated: if you squint at this coif, you could imagine it on Kim Jong-un, and that’s my flimsy excuse for recommending Evan Osnos’s startling report from Pyongyang in The New Yorker this week. Of all the incredible details in his article, the one that amazes me most is that Osnos, an American and a journalist, got North Korea’s clearance to report the story in the first place.


PERSONAL HISTORY

Insistence.

The anniversary came and went. Given the real-time disasters unfolding this year, and the asymmetry of September 11, 2017, being the 16th anniversary and not the 15th or 20th, it passed with little fanfare. I had my own evil experience with September 11, 2001—everyone in New York at the time did; everyone everywhere did—and we all encountered it in our own way. I spent that day in subdued shock, of course. I walked from Midtown up to my sister’s apartment on the Upper West Side, my back turned to downtown. The first acquaintance I encountered on the street was Ben Katchor, the MacArthur-winning illustrator, who lived across the street from Tracy. I’d interviewed him a few months earlier for the Toronto Globe & Mail. We managed our hellos, and he managed to point out what a beautiful day it was, and then we both ran out of words, standing there on the corner of 102nd Street and Broadway, shaking our heads in a daze.

I was still feeling out of it two days later, on September 13, when Jason Adams and I reacted to a bomb threat at Grand Central by leaving our office at Blender magazine and hoofing it from Bryant Park back to Brooklyn, talking our way past every police checkpoint—14th Street, then Houston, then Canal—until we were right there: enveloped in the silent afternoon, not saying a word as we wove through downtown streets full of jagged concrete slabs and crushed cars and fire engines coated in gray dust.

One of the most vivid documents of that week, one I still re-read, is “Ago,” a small-batch blog post my friend Jason Cochran published seven days later. It’s still every bit as raw now, eerie and prescient, and it never fails to flood me again with those same buzz of dread and nausea, or the feeling Jason identified as insistence:

In one 90-minute stretch, some 5,000 souls were violently unleashed from their bodies, and it happened a little over a mile from my bedroom. The feeling of insistence, I believe, was them. The recently deceased, you often hear, find themselves confused about their new state. The World Trade Center people were telling me that they couldn’t understand what had happened to them. It had happened so quickly, without preparation. They were confused, and they felt lost. It was almost as if they were trying to get my attention for some confirmation.


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Superb + Solid #3

Featured

Zim dollars •
Luna •
Christoph Niemann •
Catastrophes •
The eclipse


FILTHY LUCRE

Energy crisis.

One sunny weekday afternoon toward the end of July, I innocently opened a monthly energy bill in the amount of precisely $8,176.64, and I did exactly what you’d expect. I snapped my head backward, and I gaped, bug-eyed and slack-jawed, at my phone screen, as though a movie director had instructed me to imagine I’d just seen an energy bill demanding payment for three years’ worth of gas and electricity. Which I had.

This couldn’t be real. Could it? No, seriously…I mean…could it? It took many phone calls over a month for my provider to pin the blame for the faulty charge on a busted gas meter. But it got me thinking about money’s essential artificiality. I remembered an article I’d assigned to my colleague George Quraishi for the April 2008 issue of Condé Nast Portfolio, and I found it on my shelf. It’s a single-page rogues’ gallery of six of the world’s most worthless currencies: Indonesia’s 100,000-rupiah note, then worth US$11.05; São Tomé and Principe’s 50,000-dobra note, US$3.47; Vietnam’s 500,000-đồng note, US$31.37. (I mentioned my own encounter with this surreal currency in a 2002 travel essay in McSweeney’s.)

The heavyweight champion was, of course, Zimbabwe’s hyperinflated dollar under the disastrous dictatorship of President Robert Mugabe. A contact in Harare smuggled me a Zimbabwean 10-million-dollar note, valued unofficially at the time of publication at US$3.90—though that rate was purely academic, because the speed of Zimbabwean hyperinflation meant even the price of a restaurant meal escalated with satirical giddiness between drinks and dessert. (Customers paid when they sat down, not when they stood up.) By 2009, Zimbabwe was issuing 100-trillion-dollar notes. In 2015, the country abandoned these astronomical denominations and tied the currency to the U.S. dollar…trading at a cool 35 quadrillion Zim dollars.

That 10-million-dollar Zimbabwe note remains one of my more curious possessions, along with my 2,000-đồng notes (Hồ Chí Minh on the front, textile workers on the back…valued at 13 U.S. cents), and my Saddam Hussein–adorned 250-dinar notes from the Central Bank of Iraq. The pursed scowl of Zimbabwe’s dictator makes no appearance on his country’s failed currency. Still, Mugabe, at 93, remains in power after 37 years and humiliating hyperinflation. My fellow Americans: please take note.


MUSIC

Tell me do you miss me.

I got an email the other day telling me my copy of the new Luna album was in the mail. This is Luna’s first record in 15 years, and for those of us who spent the 1990s nodding along to its drowsy, hypnotic, downtown New York City sound, it’s been a long wait.

A lot of my favorite old bands are reuniting these days after many years in dormancy. Ride just put out its first album in 21 years, and a new one’s coming from The Clientele after nearly a decade. Luna’s reunion feels more personal, though. I’ve seen them play so many times, over a span of 20 years—outdoors in Battery Park; over New Year’s Eve; and at the precise moment I turned 30. Once, a week after I’d finished reading band leader Dean Wareham’s memoir, I noticed him and his wife, bassist Britta Phillips, in the subway at Astor Place. I introduced myself cautiously as a fan of both the band and the book—Wareham beamed: “You read it last week!“—and although I’d intended to give them space after that, they kept me in conversation all the way up to Times Square.

Being a traditionalist, I still buy most of my music as physical copies, and they arrive by mail, instead of surfacing in record store bins. (Cities have lost a little of their time-wasting appeal in the 20 years since Luna’s heyday, when record stores and bookstores were plentiful.) Those who pre-ordered Luna’s new album were treated to a 90-minute 2015 reunion show concert film: a response to the band’s 2006 breakup documentary, Tell Me Do You Miss Me. The economics of the pop-culture business are getting more and more unsustainable, but maybe Other Music and Saint Marks Book Shop will somehow, someday, figure out a way to eke out their own surprise reunions.


NOTE TO SELF

Troubled waters.

When I stepped onto a southbound 6 subway train at 48th Street late on a Monday afternoon this month, I was struck by the most aggressive demonstration of manspreading I’d ever seen, a true hall-of-fame performance. Amazed and amused, I took a quick phone picture, but the car wasn’t full, and nobody seemed bent out of shape.

So I was startled when the manspreader turned out to be a teenage girl, who stood at Grand Central Station and gathered her duffel bags. She looked spent and bleary, barely conscious, as though she were running away from someone or something. When she steadied herself as the train ground to a stop, and then stumbled toward the door, she didn’t notice that she’d dropped her wallet until someone scooped it up and handed it to her. And when she quietly stepped off, it seemed like she’d made a serious step.

Late summer has become a season of tension. We’ve had a month of agony over matters I’d assumed long settled, but whether disgust is the only rational position for a leader to take on a neo-Nazi/white supremacist rally, or a sadistic, racist, psychotic, criminally convicted sheriff, turns out no longer to be a self-evident truth. Hurricane Harvey further reminds us that we still don’t believe enough in climate change to build levees and dams instead of fantasizing about see-through walls on the Rio Grande.

If the Houston catastrophe doesn’t gut-punch our national psyche the way Hurricane Katrina did, it also seems so far to be a trickier target for blame. New Orleans is smaller than Houston, magnetic and romantic instead of authentic and industrious. In the political narrative, its impoverished Ninth Ward residents should have known better than to live beneath sea level. I recall one Congressman in September 2005 wondering, on camera, whether the city should be abandoned. If anyone has had similar thoughts about Houston, the sprawling center of a massive oil- and chemical-based economy, full of influence and affluence, they’ve wisely kept their traps shut.

Some of the displaced New Orleans diaspora in Houston have lost everything, again. My friend Michael Patrick Welch wrote in Vice about enduring both calamities, 12 years apart. Essays like his remind me that before terms like “Katrina” and “Harvey” (and “9/11”) become universal symbols, they unfold as personal catastrophes for a few of us who live through them—or don’t—while the rest of us watch in what I hope is empathy. And it reminds me there’s a huge difference between seeing someone manspreading over three seats on the subway and having the slightest idea of what I’m actually looking at.


ILLUSTRATION

Wörter und Bilder.

If you need a rabbit hole to climb into, look no further than Christoph Niemann’s website. There’s a good reason why his illustrative and animation work is routinely featured on New Yorker covers and in a Netflix documentary. In The New York Times, Niemann has live-blogged the New York City Marathon—running and sketching and cracking jokes simultaneously, an astounding feat of journalistic juggling—and brought adorable, monstrous life to Rio de Janeiro’s World Cup curse of Maracanã. I’ve tried for years to scheme a way to get him working on something, anything, for any reason, and I haven’t given up.

Few working today are as dextrous with visual metaphor as Niemann—all the more wondrous given that the Berlin-based artist thinks in German and English. (At a Rizzoli Bookstore appearance last year, I asked him about translation glitches; 99% of his ideas, he says, are bilingual.)

Niemann published two books last year, including an illustrated collection of our 300 most common words. Apparently, Words is meant for children. But it’s impossible to stop flipping through it once you start, and it’s quite a feat. Anybody can illustrate “cat” or “dog” or “house”; try illustrating “to” or “again” or “the.” Niemann makes the task seem logical and simple, economic with strokes and instantaneously hilarious.

My son and I have spent a lot of time with Words this year, and it’s sped up his reading comprehension. He’s also back in touch with Niemann’s charming iOS apps Petting Zoo and Chomp. Like Words, both are aimed at kids but feel market-tested for me, featuring goofy Dixieland jazz and simple art I wish I’d come up with. Petting Zoo is an interactive “game” with no scoring, just visual jokes; Chomp integrates selfie video, weaving your head into the story. (Sorry—your kid’s head.) Neither app is new, but both are enjoying a renaissance in my house, and I hope Niemann is working on another.


INSTAGRAM

Gawker.

Monday, August 21, 2:40 p.m.

I didn’t get a great view of the solar eclipse this time around. New York City wasn’t in that narrow 70-mile belly band across the country where the darkness would be more complete, and the afternoon was intermittently overcast. Still, the light outside did get noticeably dimmer in the middle of the day, and crowds came out in force to see what they could see. I saw a lot of people in business attire walking around with Rice Krispies boxes and worrying over whether the eclipse goggles they’d purchased were legitimate or scams.

It’s rarely good news when crowds spill into the streets with a monomaniacal focus. The last time I recall seeing thousands of people staring into the sky, their faces wore expressions of shock and horror, not wonder and amazement. New Yorkers are legendarily jaded and unimpressed, and although I didn’t get the eclipse goggles or jerry-rig a cereal box to witness the moon passing in front of the sun, the scene I saw in Bryant Park that afternoon might have been an even rarer sighting than anything going on in the sky.


More next time.

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Superb + Solid #2

Featured

Spy v. Trump •
The Love Train •
Vertu •
Louis Mendes


MAGAZINE

Bright lights, short fingers.

I’ve got issues. I’ve kept stacks of them for decades, moving them faithfully from home to home, even as they vanished slowly from newsstands. Some I’d worked on: Chicago, McSweeney’s, Inside, Print, Details, Condé Nast Portfolio. Others I’d found formative or inspiring: Beach Culture, Emigré, DoubleTake, Colors. Naturally, there’s a year’s worth of Spy on the shelf, too, and although I almost never visit for a visual thrill of blissed-out layouts and acrobatic typography, I’ve been thinking about this magazine a lot lately.

When I was in college, the satirical Spy gave me my Talmudic study of Manhattan, elegantly mugging the city’s brightest lights once a month. This was the era when a desperate developer—an over-leveraged, weirdly coiffed, “short-fingered vulgarian”—entertained journalists harmlessly with his very loud mouth and very terrible taste. He always returned their calls, and he always took the bait. He had yet to become by turns a local punchline and then a national one, a fraudulent has-been, a D-list dinner guest, a demagogue—and then suddenly, insanely, terrifyingly, President of the United States.

Back in 1990, Spy‘s relationship with Donald J. Trump was reliably symbiotic. The magazine and its mascot’s mutual obsession is hard to overstate: I can literally pick up any issue on my shelf, open it at random, and find Trump’s name somewhere on the page. His boundless insecurity gave him an insatiable craving for Spy‘s constant attention and abuse. (It was Spy‘s editors Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter who first noticed Trump’s short fingers as they shook hands with him, and then coined the epithet that still tortures Trump to this day.)

The issue from 27 years ago, August 1990, was one of my keepers, but I’m sorry to report that this wine’s delicate balance has aged into rancid vinegar. There’s Trump on the cover, witless head on toddler’s body, mouth braying in his trademark sphincter-lipped pucker. The cover story, “Trump’s Final Days,” is Jamie Malanowski’s meticulously crafted dossier of articles from the near future up to 1996: literal fake news.

Any yuks still to be found here are in the artfully rendered clippings from The New York Times, People and The Wall Street Journal (including an unflattering Page 1 stipple portrait). A series of “photos” show Trump ballooning and balding through the 1990s, and it’s ironic how much better Spy‘s plump Trump looks, with his Gordon Gekko slick and Robert Maxwell frame, than today’s obese man-baby with his ridiculous cotton-candy bouffant.

More unsettling, though, is the truthiness of Spy‘s fake news. It just cuts way too close to the bone. Here’s a speculative New York Times clip, dated December 26, 1990, about a terrorist attack:

A series of explosions wracked the hangars of the Trump Shuttle in New York, Washington and Boston yesterday morning. The explosions, which went off almost simultaneously at around 8:15 on Christmas morning, ignited fires that burned out of control until early afternoon. No injuries were reported.

Finished laughing? Here’s another Times “clip,” from February 2, 1993:

After months of issuing almost daily denials that he was in severe financial straits, former billionaire Donald J. Trump yesterday bowed to the inevitable and filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy code.

Actual Trump bankruptcies: 1991, 1992, 2004 and 2009. And then there’s a back-pages ad (“HEY, GUYS!”) from Spy‘s fake October 31, 1995, edition of the New York Post: Trump hawks “my new line of grooming products—Hair Spray, Mousse, Gel and Tint” (available by check or money order for $19.95).

It’s all amazingly on the nose—and it might be funny today if the joke hadn’t been overtaken by Trump steaks, Trump wine and Trump water, brands that would have stretched the reasonable limits of Spy‘s imagination in 1990. Yet here we are, 27 years later, living through the alternate timeline that Carter and Andersen surely would have rejected as way too implausible to publish.


PUBLIC TRANSIT

We try harder.

Let’s face it: truth these days is taking a serious beatdown. The President’s demented press conference this week at Trump Tower was merely one more incremental low point on a slope that never seems to bottom out. Decades after Spy, Kurt Andersen is still identifying craziness in a new book excerpted this month in The Atlantic. But a “Reporter’s Notebook” in The New York Times noticed that the conductors in New York City’s subway system are now liberated to provide customers with truthful announcements. No more “sick passengers” (dead body). No more “there’s another train following directly behind” (“Your call is very important to us. Please continue to hold”). Now, just the unvarnished ugly truth.

It’s worth pointing out that this is worth pointing out. Transit systems, when not trafficking in announcement doublespeak, are increasingly automated with smoothly indifferent messaging. Occasionally I hear an urban legend from a friend. My favorite was the soothing announcement in San Francisco: “We are finishing our descent into Market Street. Please place your seats and trays in an upright and locked position. On behalf of all of us here today, we know you have many choices for travel, and we thank you for choosing MUNI.” Then there was the one about the exasperated D.C. conductor whose Metro train had lurched to a halt. After a few minutes of silence, he got on the mic and sighed to his startled audience: “Ladies and gentlemen…we’ve had a jumper.”

In the 1990s, the Chicago Transit Authority played a little looser with protocol. For all its Soviet indignities, the el’s conductors often made the experience worthwhile. I remember one guy, the day after a mayoral primary, getting on the mic and lecturing a packed rush-hour car about the shamefully low voter turnout and the social perils of sitting out the democratic process. He was angry, and he was right; I thanked him on my way out at Belmont Avenue. Had this happened today, the guy probably would have been shit-canned before the train had reached Howard Street.

The real star of Chicago transit in those days was the conductor of “the Love Train”: a smooth-talking omniscient narrator, like Do The Right Thing‘s Señor Love Daddy. Even a routine station announcement became a sales opportunity. (“Fullerton: We Try Harder.”) More typical was his between-station feel-good patter: “We’ve currently reached a cruising altitude of 20 feet and a velocity of seven miles an hour on Electric Avenue. Ladies and gentlemen, please introduce yourselves to your neighbors, and smile, because you are riding…the Love Train.” And we did smile helplessly, and for a few blissful stops at least, love conquered all.


BRANDING

All this useless beauty.

One afternoon this month, my friend and former colleague Jeff Bercovici, the San Francisco bureau chief of Inc., took to Twitter to muse about a disappointing quarterly result, hot off the press: “I never root for non-evil companies to fail, but sometimes one whose success baffled me fails, and it’s a relief to know I wasn’t crazy.”

Jeff was subtweeting Snap, née Snapchat, which I confess I don’t really get either. But tech has a seemingly limitless appetite for silliness, and Snap is hardly the most ludicrous offender. I’ve got a company I keep up my sleeve for discussions like this, and I volleyed back. “My favorite—and it still seems to be selling its phones, whose appeal utterly eludes me—is Vertu.” Jeff took one look at Vertu’s website and responded: “You made that up.” Reader, I did not.

As I’m not a Russian oligarch self-exiled within a Knightsbridge mansion, I simply lack the imagination to have dreamed up this rural English manufacturer of handmade luxury mobile phones, both smart- and flip-, whose vessel-bursting entry-level models start at $5,600. As the raw materials escalate in pretension, the prices respond accordingly, and one stroll through Vertu’s Signature Collection may persuade you to live a little beyond that starter model. Vertu’s Clous de Paris Red Gold—built with black leather, polished black sapphire face and keys, a ruby key, and 18-karat red gold—will set you back a cool $46,600. (Do please mind your Vertu; misplacing it could prove ever so slightly boring.) A fair price for a chintzy little number that could easily be mistaken for a cigarette lighter and can’t so much as Instagram itself.

I’d always thought of Vertu as a brand that makes no sense—and apparently, I was right. By a strange coincidence, our Twitter exchange took place the day Vertu began auctioning off its wares at fire-sale prices, having announced its collapse in mid-July. Two weeks after the news broke, Financial Times columnist Jonathan Margolis gave the brand a fair-minded appreciation:

Why was it obscene—as many held—to carry a luxury mobile costing more than £4,000, when plenty of people wear £30,000 watches that offer no more functions than a £50 Swatch?

Luxury is a thing, and it often makes the running in technology. Leica in the 1920s enabled reportage photography. The fork was considered an extravagant luxury when Catherine de Medici introduced it to the French in the 16th century.

Fair enough. Margolis’s fascinating explainer contains dozens of interesting points about a company you might not have heard of. And here’s his parting shot: “Vertu is an 18th-century word meaning an item created from precious materials often for a practical purpose, such as a snuff box. Of course.” Of course. Still, it’s a relief to know I wasn’t crazy.


A FRIEND WRITES

Re: 1s and 0s.

An observation, by Patrick Whalen, on Superb + Solid #1:

Funny you should bring up analog. I have been thinking about analog, and the idea of how we were the transition generation, raised with one’s mind firmly planted in the fuzzy imprecision analog, but also coming to know the digital ease and how it burnishes/edges. Rather than a Luddite, I try to embrace both. I know, a foreign concept these days where adherence to a team is paramount. But it turns out not everything is a 1 or a 0. There is an area in-between.


INSTAGRAM

Speed Graphic.

Tuesday, August 15, 9:03 a.m.

I once noticed this courtly photographer on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan, standing in front of B&H Photo, and regretted not sneaking a picture: the light was strong, and he seemed to be posing, although for nobody in particular. This week I saw him again, across 42nd Street from Bryant Park, and this time, I asked his permission for a quick shot with my phone. He seemed pleased and completely unsurprised; judging by his reaction, his poised stance and his perfect, serene expression, he probably gets this request every five minutes or so.

I posted my shot. Chad Hunt knew right away who it was: Louis Mendes. It turns out I might be the only person in town who doesn’t know him by reputation or in person: “I’ve met Louis—he is super great. Always w a stylin lid.” “I spotted him today too!” “He is wonderful and really kind. His photos are great.” “Louis! We shoot and swap Polaroid portraits whenever I see him.”

For a small sum, Mendes captures passersby in a 4″x5″ Polaroid format with a Graflex Speed Graphic—a real Weegee camera—that he bought it in 1959. The next time I see him, I’ll stick around long enough for the honor, grin straight into the lens, and brace for the bulb to pop.


More next time.

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Superb + Solid #1

Featured

 

Mini Metro •
Philip Larkin •
Bob Marley •
Dennis and Lois •
Howard Arkley

Is this thing on?

This is an experiment. Over the years, I’ve posted a lot of miscellany to Facebook. This is my effort to change formats and take more possession of my miscellany while still sharing it with people who might enjoy it. Writing this catalogue of my current mind also makes me slow down a little. In an era of plentiful options, blogs are almost analog: not too far from what we used to call a zine, or before that, a Christmas newsletter.

I was inspired by the example of Blake Eskin, whose periodic email does the format credit and keeps him in fine mental fettle, although his is shorter, better edited and more purposeful than mine might be. Please pass this along to anyone who might be interested. (And if you’re reading this on your phone, it works better in landscape orientation than portrait.) This is my first try at this thing. Maybe it’ll get better. Enjoy?


Queens logic

I’m not a video-game person. Don’t know much about Minecraft or Grand Theft Auto, or even Angry Birds or Candy Crush. I didn’t even know how to play Candy Crush until I took my kids to see The Emoji Movie, which was bottomlessly horrible.

But I do sometimes find myself ensnared in a couple of good iOS games that keep me shamefully occupied for a while. There’s been A Dark Room and The Ensign, a pair of spooky ASCII-based games, as well as Puerto Rico and Ra, which I learned as obscure German board games from my obsessive neighbor Don Ryan. And the Escher-inspired Monument Valley and its brand-new sequel, both justly renowned, are sufficiently beautiful and puzzling to merit repeat plays.

But pretty much since the new year I’ve been hooked on Mini Metro, developed by one Dinosaur Polo Club of Wellington, New Zealand. Your goal is to map imaginary subway lines for any of 20 cities worldwide—London, Osaka, Melbourne, San Francisco—rejiggering and engineering constantly to keep passengers moving through the stations as they proliferate. The game has a tranquil soundtrack of robotic “stand clear of the closing doors” chimes that respond to your play when you add a station, a tunnel, a bridge, and so on. The game ends, peacefully, once any station overcrowds.

Istanbul, Mumbai and Washington, D.C., are newest to the list. A couple of the more challenging maps include island-heavy Hong Kong, sparse Berlin, and watery Auckland (which doesn’t have a rapid-transit system in our world). And the toughest mode of play, “extreme,” sets tracks and trains according to your finger’s first impulse, and they can’t be moved, regardless of where future stations pop up. A bit more like real infrastructure.

One of my recent Mini Metro remappings of the New York City MTA contains hilarious impracticality, and it overcrowded after just a few “weeks.” My purple line (formerly the 7 in Queens) zigzags drunkenly through the Upper West Side, and the green wobbles with hesitation through the outer boroughs. Over in New Jersey, a fictitious yellow line charges from Weehawken up north to Fort Lee—time for some traffic problems!—and then doubles back, bizarrely, through Englewood Cliffs. In Brooklyn, a tiny dot right around Bed-Stuy had just begun emerging when the whole system shut down.

Needless to say, this particular game ended before more than a couple hundred passengers could be served by my infrastructure, which wound up looking every bit as ridiculous and twisted as Queens logic.


They change your words

Contrary to the wishful thinking of the President of the United States, The New York Times is hardly “failing”; if anything, Trump’s election has propelled the paper’s subscriptions skyward. But revenue is still down in the muck, as it is for newspapers almost everywhere—one bright spot being my hometown Washington Post, with Jeff Bezos understudying for Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane.

It may be fun to run a newspaper, but it’s expensive. Beyond the dozens of foreign bureaus and all the infrastructure, The Times also takes care to run non-required features like “Through the Outback,” an entire broadsheet section dedicated to a photo essay that appeared without warning one weekend in July.

The Times‘s latest round of buyouts and cuts included a raft of copy editors, who protested their indignity in a superbly argued (and beautifully edited) cri de cœur. A more prominent recent departure is book critic Michiko Kakutani, whose withering analysis made her a notorious gatekeeper to literary fame and fortune. (My critique of the critic: I always found her tastes a bit safe and obvious…but then, I never found myself on the wrong side of her pen.) Kakutani’s departure reminded me of one of the most amazing pieces of poetic satire I’ve ever seen, plucked a few months ago from the overflowing creek of Twitter.

First, the background—and it’s a copy editors’ story, too: The Times‘s stance on “This Be the Verse.” The irascible English poet Philip Larkin’s infamous three-quatrain screed plants an F-bomb right into the first line and never lets up. The phrase in question appeared in 1991 on the cover of Granta issue 37, “The Family”—prompting a cache of outraged letters to the editor in issue 38. But The Times didn’t dare go there. In its reviews over the years of new Larkin anthologies and biographies, it struggled to articulate a consistent policy on “They fuck you up.”

A few months ago, a writer with the poetic byline of Francis Heaney posted a tribute to Larkin and The Times on Twitter. I don’t like the word “brilliant,” because it’s overused and it oversells. But Heaney’s line-for-line parody is so great—scanning in perfect iambic tetrameter and matching Larkin’s ABAB rhyme scheme—that it stands as a memorable poem in its own right. This be the original and the response:


Redemption song

My first awareness of Bob Marley came when I was 10 and happened upon his obituary, in May 1981. So his entire catalogue arrived in my consciousness fully formed, without evolution or chronology. “Could You Be Loved” “Jammin’,” “Exodus,” “Iron, Lion, Zion”—to me, it all came from one archive in the same vintage, even though Marley, naturally, grew as an artist and a brand throughout his career.

Bob MarleyOne of the more striking things I’ve learned over the past month came in a side note from Hua Hsu’s study of Marley (timed to the release of a new oral history, So Much Things to Say) in the July 24 issue of The New Yorker. Toward the end of his life, Marley had a growing white fan base in the United States but had become frustrated with his difficulty in winning over black audiences. As he prepared to open for The Commodores at Madison Square Garden, in the year before his death, his promoters struck an unimaginable deal.

In the seventies, [Island Records head Chris] Blackwell marketed Marley to white, college-educated rock fans and maturing hippies, who were drawn to reggae as earthy and authentic. But in return for performing with the Commodores, Frankie Crocker, arguably the most powerful black-radio d.j. and programmer of the late seventies, promised that his station would play Marley’s new single, “Could You Be Loved,” every hour on the hour for three months.

Now that’s heavy rotation. Hsu doesn’t mention whether the deal went through. If it did, I’m glad I wasn’t there to witness it. Every weekend these days I endure hours of driving to SiriusXM’s Hits 1, which my kids love but which never seems to play more than seven songs without repetition, and I always end up hating them all, even the ones I like. And I’ve always liked “Could You Be Loved,” with its plucky guitar and bright, bouncy bassline. I can’t imagine having the song wrecked through this kind of programming violence.


Great pop things

I was pleased to see Dennis Anderson and Lois Kahlert, the two oldest punks I know, profiled recently for no particular reason in The New York Times. From the story: “Jon Langford, lead singer and guitarist of The Mekons—a band they have seen hundreds of times—is also an artist, and in the 1990s created a ‘Dennis and Lois’ comic strip for Spin magazine.”

About that comic strip in Spin. The magazine had lost its back-page artist-columnist and had a sudden vacancy, which gave me the opening to interview Dennis and Lois. I was friendly with Jon, having profiled him in Chicago a few years earlier, and I asked him to turn an interview with his friends into this cartoon. He illustrated it beautifully and faithfully under the nom de guerre Chuck Death, who had a weekly strip, Great Pop Things, in The NME. (I wish I’d chosen a cooler name for myself than my own.)

Here’s the strip, from the November 2000 issue. Lois had it made into T-shirts. I still have mine somewhere. And I have Jon’s original ink drawing, still unframed and in a large envelope…somewhere. With 17 years’ distance, I see now that I’d burdened Jon with an awkward volume of text, which he dealt with gracefully. I don’t recall if I’d given Spin‘s editors Sia Michel and Tracey Pepper the opportunity to see the text first, but if I were editing it now, I’d be inclined to boil these war stories down to their essence—busted knee, ruined boots, Joey at the pizza parlor—and let the drawings lead. And I note with interest that the back page of this issue was 216. Hard to imagine now.


Australian gothic

Why is this blog called Superb + Solid? That’s the title of a favorite painting of mine. Howard Arkley’s clownish 1998 portrait of an Australian house captures what I imagine to be a desolate summer Sunday afternoon: two cars missing from the carport, and not a sign of the privileged life within. Arkley’s medium, spray paint, rendered the boredom of suburban still life, interiors and exteriors, with garish, hilarious exaggeration.

I learned about Arkley by chance in 2004 during a visit to the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, where this painting rocked me back on my heels. His artwork is, in every conceivable way, the polar opposite of the more iconic indigenous paintings also in abundance in the gallery: fluorescent versus earth-toned, severe versus serpentine, plastic versus organic, caffeinated versus dreamtime. I love Aboriginal art, but it’s hard to grasp these two styles emerging from one country, much less existing in one museum.

I returned that week from Sydney with a postcard of Superb + Solid, and I’ve made it my desktop background on every computer ever since. People smile at it and think it looks familiar—it usually isn’t—and when they ask what in the world it is, I tell them what little I know. Given the typically ironic yin-and-yang interplaying an artist’s work and an artist’s life, it’s ghoulishly predictable that the painter of these blindingly bright works died in 1999 of a heroin overdose. I wish Arkley had lived longer…and painted more houses.

More next time.


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