“Things feel broken.”
Those weren’t the first three words in a recent article in The Times by Sarah Lyall about our pandemic-frazzled nerves. They weren’t the fanciest. But they seemed to me the truest — or, rather, the truth of our moment distilled to its essence. This country isn’t working, not the way it’s supposed to.
Oh, it’s functioning, with a mammoth economy (which distributes wealth much too unevenly), an intricate transportation network (about to improve, thanks to infrastructure legislation) and the historically swift and heroically expansive delivery of vaccines to Americans rooted firmly enough in truth to accept them.
But in terms of our democratic ideals? Our stated values? Our basic contentment?
We’re a mess, and the pandemic mainly exposed and accelerated an ugliness already there. Would the violence at the U.S. Capitol a year ago today have happened in the absence of Covid closures and fears? Maybe not then. But we were headed there before the first cough.
The anniversary of the Jan. 6 rioting has rightly focused attention on the intensifying efforts to undermine our democracy, but it should also prompt us to contemplate the degradation of the country’s civic spirit and the foulness of its mood.
That’s part of what Jan. 6 symbolized, and that’s what Sarah’s article was about. It specifically examined customer freak-outs and meltdowns, but those bespeak a nastiness and selfishness that go hand in hand with disrespect for the institutions and traditions that have steadied us. The attacks on democracy are inextricable from the collapse of decency.
In my final newsletter of 2021, I pushed back against many Americans’ pessimism, noting that when I look at spans of time greater than the past few months or years, I see trajectories of improvement, arcs of hope. I still see those, and I believe that we can — and should — leaven any upset over, say, the shortfall of Covid tests with bedazzlement at the fleet development of vaccines. As a country, as a species, we’ve still got plenty of juice.
But it’s erratically channeled. It’s squandered. And it often can’t compete, not these days, with potent currents of anger. Regarding those currents, another passage in Sarah’s article grabbed and stayed with me. “In part, the problem is the disconnect between expectation and reality,” she wrote, paraphrasing what a consultant had told her.
The consultant was addressing the consumer experience, but that assessment can be upsized and applied to the American experience. One of our glories as a country is how high we tell everyone to reach, how big we tell everyone to dream. But that’s also one of our predicaments. A land of promise will invariably be a land of promises unkept.
There’s too little joy at present. In its stead: recrimination, rancor and indecency — which is the prompt for this reflection and the pivot to a plea. As we begin and lurch through a new year, can we recognize that the best way to fix what’s broken isn’t with a sledgehammer? The rioters at the Capitol lost sight of that. The rest of us mustn’t.
For the Love of Sentences
In part because of the holiday break, “For the Love of Sentences” hasn’t appeared since mid-December, so today’s installment will be a bit longer than usual, to accommodate nominations that stretch back that far. Without further ado:
“When I read about the Serbian hermit Panta Petrovic this summer, I liked him immediately — even as I understood that he, being a misanthropic hermit, would not like me back,” wrote Jon Mooallem in The Times. “For starters, the man looked the part: 70 years old, smudgy-cheeked and virile, with a beard fanning off him like the bottom of an old broom, rope for a belt and white sleeves blousing from a tattered brown vest. Aesthetically, he resembled a fiddler on the roof without the fiddle. Or the roof.” (Thanks to Lynne Sheren of Greenville, N.Y., and Vipan Chandra of Attleboro, Mass., for the nomination.)
Sticking with The Times, here’s Pete Wells, our restaurant critic, on a new British steakhouse in Manhattan: “One of Hawksmoor’s great attractions, though, is its custom of writing out the names and weights of other, larger cuts available that day on chalkboards posted around the dining room. These stretch from bring-your-rugby-teammates gigantic, like a 54-ounce rib chop, to condemned-prisoners’-last-meal huge, like a 38-ounce chateaubriand, on down to slabs of meat that you could conceivably eat by yourself if you could take the next day off to lie very quietly on the couch like a python.” (Christine Fischetti, Aspinwall, Pa.)
Here’s the science writer Dennis Overbye on a special magnifying glass for the cosmos: “Sitting in a spaceport in French Guiana, wrapped like a butterfly in a chrysalis of technology, ambition, metal and wires, is the biggest, most powerful and, at $10 billion, most expensive telescope ever to be launched into space.” (Nina Koenigsberg, Manhattan)
Here’s David Segal describing one of the people in his article about a Dickensian workhouse in London becoming — of course! — luxury apartments: “Mr. Burroughs, a 77-year-old chartered accountant, speaks carefully and barely above a whisper, as if he were narrating a golf tournament.” (Sharon Green, Owings Mills, Md.)
Here’s Gail Collins, from her weekly online “Conversation” with Bret Stephens: “Registering as an independent is like telling a charitable fund-raiser that you want to help by sending good thoughts.” (Paula Diamond, Amagansett, N.Y.)
Bret differed. “I’m happy as an independent,” he wrote. “It’s like getting to order à la carte, whereas everyone else is stuck with a bento box of things that don’t actually go together.” (David Calfee, Lake Forest, Ill.)
Bret also confided, regarding 2021: “I had such high hopes for the year, Gail. Melania and Donald would slink quietly out of the White House, she in couture, he in ignominy.” (Christine Sheola, Ithaca, N.Y.)
Moving on to The New Yorker: Calvin Trillin examined the art of the lede — that’s journalistic jargon for an article’s opening words — by reproducing an epically packed one from a Louisiana newspaper’s account of a woman biting a camel. (Yes, you read that correctly.) “Notice,” Trillin observed, “how the reader is drawn in with a single unpunctuated sentence that starts slowly and gradually becomes an express train that whistles right by the local stops without providing an opportunity to get off.” (Steve Estvanik, Seattle, and Laurie Caplan, Astoria, Ore., among others)
Here’s Jenny Turner, in The London Review of Books, on Hannah Arendt: “She wrote polemical essay-columns, in German at first, for the German-speaking New York Jewish press, and then in the spirited, sardonic English of a beer-hall fiddler who hasn’t forgotten her old life in the string quartet.” (Roman Kadron, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.)
In The Guardian, Catherine Bennett opined that despite all the damage that Covid has done, Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, “has treated masks as if they were a lefty plot against his face.” (Marilyn Wilbanks, Ellensburg, Wash.)
In The Washington Post, Dana Milbank sized up the current state of gerrymandering: “Thanks to a breathtaking abuse of redistricting in G.O.P.-controlled states, all but an unlucky handful of members of Congress will henceforth be exempt from listening to those god-awful whiners called ‘voters,’ spared those bothersome contests known as ‘elections’ and protected from other disagreeable requirements of ‘democracy.’” (Valerie Congdon, Waterford, Mich.)
Finally, a headline — we allow the occasional extraordinary one into the “For the Love of Sentences” sanctum. It appeared atop a review of “The Tragedy of Macbeth” by A.O. Scott, one of The Times’s movie critics: “The Thane, Insane, Slays Mainly in Dunsinane.” (Bonnie Friedman, Pukalani, Hawaii, and Laura Day, Wheatland, Mo.)
To nominate favorite bits of recent writing from The Times or other publications to be mentioned in “For the Love of Sentences,” please email me here, and please include your name and place of residence.
What I’m Reading (and Have Written)
Joan Didion’s death on Dec. 23 prompted many excellent appraisals of her work. One that particularly intrigued me was in The New Yorker, by Zadie Smith, who sagely noted and corrected many faulty assumptions about Didion. I wrote my own reflection on Didion’s early essays and how they pioneered a radical transparency in journalism. As it happens, I previously sang Didion’s praises, in this column from 2017.
Another major loss: Betty White, at 99, last week. I got to spend a few hours with her a decade ago, for this feature. And here’s the audio from my 2011 interview with her onstage in Manhattan for the TimesTalks series.
The conviction of Elizabeth Holmes on three counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud prompts me to resurface this column of mine from 2019 about her dreams and schemes in the context of both American history and this particular American moment.
Although this hilariously irreverent obituary of Renay Mandel Corren, written by her son Andy and published in The Fayetteville Observer in North Carolina, went viral, I mention it anew just in case you missed it and its assertion that there “will be much mourning in the many glamorous locales she went bankrupt in: McKeesport, Pa., Renay’s birthplace and where she first fell in love with ham, and atheism; Fayetteville and Kill Devil Hills, N.C., where Renay’s dreams, credit rating and marriage are all buried; and of course Miami, Fla., where Renay’s parents, uncles, aunts and eternal hopes of all Miami Dolphins fans everywhere are all buried pretty deep.” That’s pretty much the tone from start to finish. (Gail Lord, Santa Ana., Calif., and Priscilla Travis, Chester, Md., among others)
Few political profiles have an opening as wild and memorable as Olivia Nuzzi’s take on Mehmet Oz in New York magazine does. The whole article is worth reading.
So, in a different vein, is this beautifully written reflection by Honor Jones, in The Atlantic, on ending her marriage.
Also in The Atlantic, James Parker’s appraisal of the new, nearly eight-hour documentary “The Beatles: Get Back” is a smorgasbord of spirited prose, which is par for the Parker course. (Kristin Lindgren, Merion Station, Pa.)
Another keeper: Jon Caramanica, a Times pop music critic, eulogized his mother through his memories of going to concerts with her. “More than anyone, my mother — who died late last year — gave me music,” he wrote. “She gave me the idea that there was freedom, or identity, to be found within.” Jon added that nothing “will strip your varnish quite like watching someone you love wither. It made me tentative, as if any wrong move on my part might put her in peril.” (Paul Geoghegan, Whitestone, N.Y., and Ross Parker Simons, Pascagoula, Miss.)
On a Personal Note
In a newsletter in early December, I mentioned that I’d begun reading, and was enjoying, the latest novel by Amor Towles, “The Lincoln Highway.” I didn’t finish it until last week: Deadlines, holiday commitments and more got in the way. Also, I wasn’t in a hurry. I wanted to make it last.
Only in its final stretch did I fully appreciate one of its principal themes: the degree to which none of us can escape our parents.
Oh, we can get away from them physically, if that’s what we very much want or need. But emotionally? Psychologically? For better or worse, I don’t think we’re ever free.
I have friends who readily tick off the ways in which they’re unlike their mothers or fathers, as if to prove how little their parents have to do with them. But that cataloging — that consciousness — is the very evidence of their parents’ enduring presence, no less potent for them than for friends who dwell proudly on the values that their parents instilled in them. Whether attracted by their parents’ example or repelled by it, all of these daughters and sons are using the same point of reference. They’re measuring themselves with the same yardstick.
I’ve been stuck by the especially pronounced stamp left by parents whose sons have reached most intently for the presidency or attained it. (I say “sons” because the sample set of daughters remains much, much smaller, though I hope not for long.) Those men’s relationships with their fathers, in particular, fascinate me.
Look at the title of Barack Obama’s initial memoir, “Dreams From My Father.” Look at his predecessor George W. Bush, who tried so hard not only to match but also to exceed his father: He would get that second term; he would drive deep into Iraq, topple Saddam Hussein and remake the Middle East. Look at Bill Clinton, whose father died while his mother was still pregnant with him. What a hole that left. What a hunger that fed.
I wrote at greater length about the paternal shadows cast on presidents in a column in 2014, so there’s no need for more of that now. Besides, those presidents are just amplified versions of most of the rest of us, who are destined to try to live up to or live down the people who produced us. To prove them right or wrong about us.
Some of the unkind assessments that my parents made of me — throwaway remarks in most instances — are like inerasable chalk on the blackboard of my memory. But some of their more abundant expressions of faith also remain there, and if they’re fainter and smudged, well, that’s on me. All those words, all those judgments: They’re like the operating instructions for my personality. They explain how it works.
And among the reasons that “The Lincoln Highway” moved me is how it brought all of that to the surface. For its main characters, the actions and inaction of parents aren’t just details from the past. They exist as gravity does — a grounding force, a constant pull.