Some decades ago my father sat me down to watch Sullivan’s Travels. It was partly to see Veronica Lake’s awesome hair, but mostly I think it was to recognize that hammering people with their troubles is not a great recipe for success. Also, that something you think of as just something you like to do might be the very thing that people want and moves the human enterprise forward.
Sullivan’s Travels came out in 1941, when my dad was five years old. When he was three, his own father went into an outbuilding of the chicken farm he owned, closed the door, turned on the car and sat in it. No one knows why he killed himself. Photos of my father that year at Christmas show a little boy who has forgotten how to smile. He had by this time been moved from Spring Valley, New York to Greenwich Village, where my Italian grandmother grew up and where her siblings still lived. By the age of four, my father was helping his mother make paper flowers to support the two of them. By nine, he was working after school (also, smoking) and was allowed to keep ten-cents of what he earned in order to go to the all-day-Saturday-matinees, newsreels about the war effort followed by cartoons, serials and double-features. My dad wound up skipping two grades in grade school; he became a voracious reader and a stockbroker, and still, fifty years later, would become unabashedly happy talking about the old Mickey Mouse cartoons.
I bring this up because of Afghanistan. I read people smarter than I am about what’s happening and while my thoughts turn to donations and housing refugees what I do is go into the kitchen and bake. It’s 5:57am and I have just started an almond cake. Baking offers thinking time as you combine ingredients and watch them become other things. If you do this with no mendacity and from only desire, you create a catalytic exchange. You make, in other words, more pie.
Take the shortbread pictured above. I had no one in mind to eat it but wound up that first day feeding it to three people. Shortly afterward, one decided to take in hand Paloma Media’s woebegone Facebook page; another committed to producing PM podcasts, and the third offered graphic design help. The latter two also hung new lights in the recording studio (which is looking hella good, and speaking of, look who came to hang out, seen here with Reason’s Liz Wolfe).
The delivery guy who the next day schlepped the studio sleeper couch up four flights of stairs? He got a piece of shortbread. So did my 24 year-old downstairs neighbor as he showed me the video game on which he helps players in the Philippines make money. Noticing my wifi was slow, he texted a friend, who immediately came over and got my internet up to speed and, after eating a cookie, told me which new modem and router to order and that he’d set them up for me when they arrived.
I gave the rest of the shortbread to Chen, who runs the laundry on the ground floor and does innumerable nice things for everyone in the building. Then I started baking again.
These exchanges strike me as more productive than arguing about who owns noodles, an engagement that, prima facie, makes me go blink-blink but which I know to be about other things, about rooting around for rage calories that will get a person… where? A perch in the public eye? Do they imagine there’s succor in taking down acclaimed others? (Shades of Donald McNeill Jr. here.) And what does gunning for ruination do to a person? I pondered this in “Destruction and Hope in Portland,” which ran earlier this month in Persuasion:
We can consider people entranced by chaos and think, “They’re young; they don’t yet have responsibilities and believe they are fighting for a better world.” This belief need not be sustained on building anything, only the collective effervescence that comes with tearing things down; as one activist who participated in the burning of the police union hall in Kenton told me, “I’m not going to lie: It’s fun.”
But fun for how long, when you’re engaging in the same sorts of destruction night after night after night? When you get up in the morning and there is no longer anything novel or newsworthy about broken glass and embers? Where does the emotional sustenance come from then? I sometimes saw the activists, 14 months in, as caught in a sort of bulimic loop, binging every night on figurative junk food only to get up in the morning feeling gross and undernourished and needing somebody to blame for the emptiness.
I also wonder what happens when you pledge and keep pledging to whatever is the opposite of grace, and had a chance to think on this last week, after I saw Louie C.K. at Madison Square Garden. The next day I went looking for an image of the stage set, which I thought was pretty clever…
Alas, there were as yet no images, and only one review, in the Daily Beast, which, given its recent track record - including the repeated editorial attacks on Donald McNeill Jr. - I should not have been surprised to find sour and altogether unhappy the comedian was permitted to perform at all. So be it; we are all allowed our opinions. What we are not allowed, as ethical journalists, is to mess about with language and timelines in service of that opinion, as the Daily Beast writer did when she wrote that Louie C.K. was “fresh off of a sexual-harassment scandal.” Hmm. Do you consider the Houston Astros “fresh off” their 2017 MLB Championship? Is Moonlight the movie we are all talking about? Are you still incessantly humming Adele’s Hello? We live in an era where advocacy is regularly and righteously passed off as journalism; maybe the Daily Beast writer does not know the difference. But what of her editor? Why did he or she not attempt to make the writer a better writer by asking whether she were trying to keep the scandal fresh for a reason? And a few questions from me: What happens when you plant your feet in figurative 2017 concrete? When you imagine there is sustenance to be had in shaming others? I really think such people must be starving.
Speaking of Liz Wolfe, she and I had the opportunity to get in the studio last week and talk about the resignation of Andrew Cuomo, based in part on Liz’s piece for Reason, “Cuomo Resigns as New York Governor at Long Last.” (Audio-only here.)
I have just taken the almond cake from the oven. It’s crumbly and moist and is making the apartment smell like butter. Until next time: is your muffin buttered? xx
I'd be thrilled to butter you muffin Nancy. Would rate amongst the top five moments in my long and increasingly dreary life.