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Graphic by Brian Kraker

Another year down. Another year older, but perhaps none the wiser? Maybe that decision doesn’t belong to you alone. It felt like nothing did, most of the time. From Tide Pods to the Philly Special to countless acts of cruelty and many more of plain senselessness to the continued existence of the Golden State Warriors to having 12 years left to stop the sun to inexplicable blue lights over Astoria, everything that happened felt like it was going to happen anyway, sooner or later, and we were all left to bear it as best we could. Same as it ever was, but different.

Still: we would be equally bereft of sense to assume that darkness would drive out darkness. You may have heard that only light can do that. For all the bad and rot everywhere, urban, suburban and rural, at home and abroad, there were the moments in between that made everything we experience every day that kept us together, however briefly. If we experienced them together? All the better.

As Bootsy Collins said in 1972, “Balance is my thing/The snow, wind and rain must come.” With that, we delve into the year that was, with an eye toward the twelvemonth ahead.

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aretha franklin songs

Citation needed

The first time I internalized Aretha Franklin – not “heard,” because as an American growing up post-1966, you never hear her for the first time – I was playing a video game against my oldest, not older, brother, back in the relatively nascent console days when video game producers didn’t know what to do other than to license actual music to fill in gaps in gameplay.

Specifically, the first time I internalized Aretha Franklin, who passed away on Thursday at the age of 76, was during one of the marathon sessions of NFL GameDay 2000 that yours truly used to play against his older, wiser sibling. To give you an idea of how the games themselves usually went, I relied on the fake punt-pass as my go-to fourth down play, and it never worked, and the most memorable game we ever played rests on that guy using that play, my play, to beat me in the final seconds of a game in which I was already ahead. He kept a running log of this particular series, but that is neither here nor there. It’s in Chicago, if I had to guess.

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I.

You’d have to really be up on your Eastern European saints to know Stanislaus Kostka; the 16th century Jesuit novice somehow isn’t even the best-known St. Stanislaus from Poland (an honor that goes to Stanislaus Szczepanów, the 11th century bishop martyred at the hands of a guy literally named Boleslaw). Long story short, Kostka grew up a boy of weak constitution but strong religious fervor in a (surprise!) harsh patriarchal family with six siblings and one older brother in particular who – we are told, probably by way of the younger siblings – ragged on him often. After education in Vienna, an alleged visit from St. Barbara and a long trip through Germany and Austria that ended with employment in a Rome boarding school, Kostka realized in a vision that the last fever he had would get the better of him, promptly wrote a letter to the Virgin Mary and died in the small hours of August 15, 1568, at the age of 17. In the Renaissance, being self-aware enough to realize you had a weak immune system was basically enough to get you beatified and canonized; in the Gilded Age, it was enough to get you Chicago’s first Polish Catholic church.

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kendrick-lamar-damn-album-cover-featured-827x620

After I saw the 2018 Album of the Year Grammy nominees, I told myself that I wouldn’t be mad if any of the artists nominated won the highly coveted award. There were no glaring insults to the culture-at-large, à la Beck or Mumford & Sons. There was Bruno Mars, Lorde, Jay-Z, Childish Gambino and, of course, Kendrick Lamar. All of these artists released albums that seeped through popular culture (though you could argue that the extent of Lorde’s and Childish Gambino’s impacts was less pronounced than the other three nominees).

Despite having a lineup of albums that had their valid arguments and did not seem personally imported into the category by John Lennon impersonator and Recording Academy president Neil Portnow, the final win for Bruno Mars’ resounding coronation changed my earlier assertion that I would not fault the Grammys for awarding something like 24K Magic for Album of the Year. The more I began to reflect on Bruno’s win and what it meant, the more I began to question why we should even pay attention.

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Fate of the Rebel Flag, William Bauley (1861)

It’s a curious thing, this American exceptionalism. It always has been, even before we inadvertently and loudly made this country the most exceptional nation in the world this side of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and even that bit is becoming questionable. Ego begets ego, and the hot air balloon rises seemingly infinitely, toward the clouds, toward the moon, toward the fully-visible sun. In any case, it’s getting away from here.

Every country is exceptional from the jump, at the most basic level. Any country can be exceptional in a next-level, “people are discussing this thing’s exceptionalism to a tautological degree in a bar over high-ABV motor oil right this second” sense. The logical next phrase there should’ve been “if it tries hard enough,” but then, that’s part of what got the United States into this in the first place, constantly feeling like the lights were turned on an hour ago, but you’re still at the aforementioned bar.

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Photograph by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

I’m not at all qualified to discuss sports, professional or otherwise. Or, at least, not in the view of the people who believe Colin Kaepernick’s unemployment is anything other than a morally righteous comeuppance, an inevitable reaction to a decorated athlete of color speaking his mind. How dare a person have thoughts beyond their scope of expertise? Can’t he just keep quiet, perform for the fans and accept his sizable paycheck? Why doesn’t he #sticktosports?

Given that thought process, none of us are qualified to form an opinion on, really, anything. Your dentist shouldn’t tell you what he thinks about the Mets’ starting rotation, nor should your accountant divulge his thoughts on Gary Bettman’s perpetual dismantling of professional hockey. Drill the teeth, find the tax breaks, shut up and do your job. Most notably, of course, the current POTUS wouldn’t be anywhere near his position had much of his base applied to him the same logic they – liberally – apply to athletes, given his complete lack of political experience and expertise prior to assuming the role[1].

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The moon hides the sun for about two hours. That’s basically what all this business about the solar eclipse comes down to – the 14 brands of sunglasses NASA’s approved for viewing, the hastily requested time-off notices, the paths of totality sounding like some phony spiritual journey, the 99 years of waiting. But some state Departments of Transportation are taking it seriously in an effort to work around what they see as being a potentially severe congestion problem along many of the country’s major trucking routes. From I-5 running parallel up Oregon’s coast to I-26 slicing through the heart of South Carolina, officials are considering limited deliveries and restricted wide loads.

It’s a stone of madness, really. The country’s major terra firma shipping arteries could be clogged by a bunch of us desperate to stare at our most blistering light in the anticipation that it gets hidden for a twelfth of our day. What new astrological insights are we hoping for from down here? What are we expecting to be different? What truth will freshly burned retinas bring us?

Plenty of cosmic rituals make absolutely no sense to me, but this one is its own reality.

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