One of the many great things from The New York Times recently has been a canvass of 17 – count ‘em, 17 - opinion columnists of a cultural icon that best exemplifies the United States.
After perusing the list, my first reaction was how many Times opinion writers chose highly accessible television series – many of which I have never seen.
Please, this is not a value judgment. We all need entertainment/stimulation that is more enjoyment and less work.
I’m likely to be watching the Mets – my patience with these poor slumping mugs is not endless – and coming soon, the Women’s World Cup of soccer, a quadrennial delight. And I spend way too much time gaping at the Bureau of Wishful Thinking, hoping for a few guilty verdicts, and soon.
The NYT’s feature demonstrates that many of its best and the brightest commentators have a life, which helps them understand this vast and divided country as well as relax and enjoy.
I was tantalized by all 17 choices, but a few that stuck with me that most:
---Bret Stephens got me by picking the film “Pulp Fiction.” Sometimes, just for fun, I go fishing on Youtube for the last 20 minutes or so, starting with Harvey Keitel as Winston Wolf a mob fixit man wearing a tux who cleans up a very messy murder scene. The movie ends with John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as two gunslingers who foil a hapless couple trying to stick up a diner. I don’t know if that segment is about America or rather about LA a very distant generation ago but either way I love it.
---David Brooks wrote: “I nominate Blind Willie Johnson’s 1927 rendition of “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.” Brooks added: “Johnson is playing his slide guitar in a way you’ve never quite heard a guitar played, and he is not really singing so much as humming, groaning and intoning. There are few words, just verbal renderings of woe.”
---Nick Kristof wrote: Horatio Alger’s “first blockbuster novel, published in 1867 as a serial, was ‘Ragged Dick.’ Its hero is a 14-year-old shoeshine boy who sleeps on the streets of New York City. While Dick is illiterate and likes to gamble, he has a good heart, a willingness to work hard and a strong sense of honesty.”
This being my personal therapy website, I came up with my own quirky visions of America:
--- “The Sopranos” – the only series I have watched in the last 40 years. Not just for Tony and Carmela but also the Italian hitman Fiorio (“Mr. Williams") muscling the smug golfing doctor into the water hole or the cool one-legged Russian woman who dumps Tony. I still ponder what the final episode meant.
--- For novels about America, I could choose Mark Twain, but I will stick with Thomas Wolfe, who taught me how to read and feel as a teen-ager. Most of his books are based in Asheville, N.C., but I would nominate “O Lost,” a revision of “Look Homeward Angel,” with the first section (inexcusably excised by the original editor) about of a teen-ager standing on the highway south of Harrisburg, sassing Confederate soldiers as they march toward Gettysburg, summer of 1863. That boy will become Thomas Wolfe’s father in North Carolina. The fissure in the United States that summery day is as real as today’s news.
---Every Thanksgiving, our son David plays the classic Scorsese film, “The Last Waltz,” the final concert of The Band – four Canadians and Levon Helm from Arkansas, with guests as diverse as Muddy Waters, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, the Staples Singers, Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, singing “Forever Young.”
However, if I have to choose one icon that catches America, I will go classical. I think of the long flights I used to take, over the Great Lakes or the Rockies in daylight, or the reverse flights, heading home in the midnight hours, the twinkling necklaces of highway, lone cars, small towns, rivers, so much space, so much promise, so much beauty, from 30,000 feet.
Then I think of the composer from Bohemia, somehow getting himself to deepest Spillville, Iowa, feeling the vast space, hearing America’s great asset, the spirituals and the soulfulness of the Blacks, and how Antonin Dvorak put it together in “Symphony No. 9 --From the New World."
(And if I have a choice, conducted by, himself an icon, Leonard Bernstein):
My ode to Thomas McGuane's short story in the New Yorker was followed by these photos from my good friend and master photographer John McDermott, long-time soccer presence, now riding the range (on his bicycle) in northern Italy.
John wrote: "One of my favorite assignments ever was to go to Colorado for a German magazine and shoot a story on contemporary cowboys. I had a great time, but ended up with a sore butt and back, not being used to riding a horse up and down steep trails. The deal with the cowboys was, “We'll give you a horse but then you need to help us with the cattle when we need you. So I got to play cowboy a little too."
John added: "The shoot took place at a ranch and in the mountains outside of Crested Butte, Colorado. The rodeo was the Cattleman’s Day event held annually in nearby Gunnison. One of the best assignments ever. The Germans were good for that. I did a lot of lengthy photo reportage assignments for Focus-on mega-churches in Texas, on the medical marijuana industry in California, on earthquake preparation in SF, on writer Isabel Allende and many others. They tended to give more space to good photography than most American magazines did. Of course, now most of the American magazines are either greatly diminished, online only, or just gone."
Well, cowboys are supposed to be gone, too, but John McDermott's photo essay -- and Thomas McGuane's short story in the New Yorker -- prove that cowboys endure.
GV adds: Several people couldn't open the Thomas McGuane short story, so I took the liberty of downloading it here:
Measuring Covid Deaths, by David Leonhardt. July 17, 2023. NYT online.
The United States has reached a milestone in the long struggle against Covid: The total number of Americans dying each day — from any cause — is no longer historically abnormal….
After three horrific years, in which Covid has killed more than one million Americans and transformed parts of daily life, the virus has turned into an ordinary illness.
The progress stems mostly from three factors:
First, about three-quarters of U.S. adults have received at least one vaccine shot.
Second, more than three-quarters of Americans have been infected with Covid, providing natural immunity from future symptoms. (About 97 percent of adults fall into at least one of those first two categories.)
Third, post-infection treatments like Paxlovid, which can reduce the severity of symptoms, became widely available last year.
“Nearly every death is preventable,” Dr. Ashish Jha, who was until recently President Biden’s top Covid adviser, told me. “We are at a point where almost everybody who’s up to date on their vaccines and gets treated if they have Covid, they rarely end up in the hospital, they almost never die.”
That is also true for most high-risk people, Jha pointed out, including older adults — like his parents, who are in their 80s — and people whose immune systems are compromised. “Even for most — not all but most —immuno-compromised people, vaccines are actually still quite effective at preventing against serious illness,” he said. “There has been a lot of bad information out there that somehow if you’re immuno-compromised that vaccines don’t work.”
That excess deaths have fallen close to zero helps make this point: If Covid were still a dire threat to large numbers of people, that would show up in the data.
One point of confusion, I think, has been the way that many Americans — including we in the media — have talked about the immuno-compromised. They are a more diverse group than casual discussion often imagines.
Most immuno-compromised people are at little additional risk from Covid — even people with serious conditions, such as multiple sclerosis or a history of many cancers. A much smaller group, such as people who have received kidney transplants or are undergoing active chemotherapy, face higher risks.
Covid’s toll, to be clear, has not fallen to zero. The C.D.C.’s main Covid webpage estimates that about 80 people per day have been dying from the virus in recent weeks, which is equal to about 1 percent of overall daily deaths.
The official number is probably an exaggeration because it includes some people who had virus when they died even though it was not the underlying cause of death. Other C.D.C. data suggests that almost one-third of official recent Covid deaths have fallen into this category. A study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases came to similar conclusions.
Dr. Shira Doron, the chief infection control officer at Tufts Medicine in Massachusetts, told me that “age is clearly the most substantial risk factor.” Covid’s victims are both older and disproportionately unvaccinated. Given the politics of vaccination, the recent victims are also disproportionately
Republican and white.
Each of these deaths is a tragedy. The deaths that were preventable — because somebody had not received available vaccines and treatments — seem particularly tragic. (Here’s a Times guide to help you think about when to get your next booster shot.)
From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.