When I was a kid growing up on the South Side we called all the bugs that make noise at night in July and August “crickets.” I am not sure why or if any are actually crickets. I think they are cicadas, but we reserved that word for the 17-year variety. As a boy I was told how much noise the 17-year cicadas made back in 1973, the year before I was born, and looked forward to 1990 for their next arrival in Chicago. When that happened I was in Europe on vacation and only arrived home for the tail-end of their emergence. They liked oak trees, everyone said and it seemed true, and my neighborhood had many oak trees. The trees themselves seemed to sing when the cicadas got going. When they came back in 2007 I was up on the North Side, where the cicadas where more muted and widely dispersed. But once that year I went to a cousin’s house in my old neighborhood for an engagement party for my sister, and I deliberately got off the train two stops early to walk over a mile down oak-lined streets to listen to the cicadas. I remember, on the deck of my uncle Bob’s, my great aunt Rosemary had a cicada sitting on her shirt like a living broach. Her husband, my uncle Kevin, sat next to me and asked me why no one made comedies anymore. I was somewhat confused, thinking maybe he meant the quality had fallen off since Chris Farley died, which seemed an unlikely opinion given his age. My dad later whispered “He means musicals.” Kevin was a daily communicant. Fought at Saipan, and was part of the first group of Marines who arrived at Nagasaki after Japan surrendered, which we only learned through a eulogy someone gave after his death a few years later. Rosemary, seated in the front row of the church, saluted the young marine who handed her the folded flag. I never saw her again.
Implicit in complaints about political correctness is that it (the statement, term, belief) is logically incorrect or at best misleading. It then follows that a deliberate logical fallacy creates aesthetic problems in essays or speeches or works of art-- or whatever the PC thing touches. In short, PC feels stupid just like any bad logical leap, and is therefore ugly and distracting.
That thought came to me while listening to a decent podcast from the BBC called "Living with the Gods." It's a series of 15 minute episodes about some of the core aspects of religious belief throughout history and across culture. The first several episodes are great, and generally it's way above average for podcast/radio shows, but I score it a mere "decent" thanks to commentary in several episodes that is simply PC bullshit of the 2017 vintage.
Last week I wrote an essay about Tom Petty and his influence on me. Read it here.
In the summer of 1991 my brother and I were runners at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. We'd often eat lunch on the steps of a plaza across the street from the Merc, sitting along Wacker Driver in a long line of other runners, clerks, and traders.
One day, a man passed us talking on his phone. It was a car phone, but in his hand. It was the first one I had ever seen outside of a TV show about drug dealers and the cops who hunt them. The two of us, 16 and 17, shook our heads in shock--and disgust. "No one is that busy," my brother said.
I wonder what the other guys sitting along Wacker thought. Young as we were, it had to be a remarkable site to more than just us. Maybe a few on those plaza steps envied the man and his on-the-go style and coveted a mobile phone of their own. My guess, though, is that even right there outside one of the hubs of modern capitalism, most agreed no one was that busy.
Over the next decade signs of a changing world piled up. There was the time in 1996 when a woman's cell-phone went off in my Modern American Lit class at Marquette University. Our professor-- as mild-mannered a guy to ever teach a humanities course--icily told her to turn it off. Now. The rest of the class was about as appalled.
There are a pair of comic-relief scenes in Manchester-by-the Sea that concisely encapsulate my problems with the movie. 16-year old Patrick, whose father recently died, practices with his band, Stentorian, in the garage or basement of one of Patrick’s two girlfriends’ houses. The band sucks, and that is supposed to be True and Funny. In the first scenelet Patrick and his mates reprimand the drummer for playing too slow. In the second, they reprimand him for—hold on, you’ll never guess—playing too fast. Nothing else happens in either scene.
These two paired bits add little to Patrick’s character beyond 1) reminding us he is just a teenager and 2) showing us one of the things that binds him to his titular town. The latter is important because his uncle Lee may move him out of it.
Unfortunately, the terribleness of the band makes Patrick less interesting, not more, and makes this particular bond to his hometown flimsy. I’m not asking for Jack Nicholson suddenly playing a busted piano like a virtuoso minutes after clocking out of the oil-rig in Five Easy Pieces, but some nuance or passion or depth of character would have been nice. If I am supposed to spend over two hours giving a shit about a guy, please make him interesting. Beyond the death of his father, the boy possesses little to excite our sympathies. I mean, he’s one of those dudes juggling two girlfriends once. Nuts to him.
"Don’t Let Facebook Make You Miserable," the New York Times ordered me this weekend. Facebook can do no such thing since I bravely deleted my account in 2013. Even still, I have a patrician disdain for social media, so was hoping to enjoy some schadenfreude over the world I left behind and its many mindless prisoners. Alas…
The premise of Seth Stephens-Davidowitz's article is simple: we don't live lives that are quite as exciting as we portray them on social media. The problem is he turns every piece of data into evidence of this phenomenon. Here are three examples that serve, for him, as proof of our hypocrisy:
1. "In the real world, The National Enquirer, a weekly, sells nearly three times as many copies as The Atlantic, a monthly, every year. On Facebook, The Atlantic is 45 times more popular."
2. "Americans spend about six times as much of their time cleaning dishes as they do golfing. But there are roughly twice as many tweets reporting golfing as there are tweets reporting doing the dishes."
3. "Owners of luxury cars like BMWs and Mercedeses are about two and a half times as likely to announce their affiliation on Facebook as are owners of ordinary makes and models."
Try to find the flaws those stats. In the meantime, I will relate that Stephens-Davidowitz "actually spent the past five years" unearthing them. Now, let's bitch about the above and explore why they do not support his brief.
Below is the eulogy I gave on Thursday, March 23, 2017 for my dad, Paul O'Toole.
My dad disliked a lot of things. One of the things he disliked most were eulogies that turned a common sinner into the holiest of saints. In honor of his preference for a realistic portrait, I will now list all the annoying things he said and did throughout his life. I’ll try to keep it under an hour.
If you ever asked my dad "What does the clock say," he'd respond, "It doesn't say anything, it's a clock."
ERRGGH! Just tell me the time!
Whenever the phone rang, he facetiously announced, “If it’s for me, I’m not here.” Every. Single. Time.
My dad loved sports. He knew football, baseball, and golf well, but he did not really get basketball. So rather than enjoy, say, any of the six Bulls Championships, he preferred to loudly announce to his sons that, “The fix is in,” whenever Jordan pulled off some fourth quarter heroics.
Upon the anniversary of the 3/9/87 release of Joshua Tree...
Last week, while stuck in a Lyft on the way to the airport, I heard a U2 album that I had never heard before. By definition a U2 album that I have not heard is anything after 1993's Zooropa. For all I know it could have come out last week or 20 years ago. Though I would not say the music was in any way excellent--or even that I will look it up on Spotify--I was pleasantly surprised to find I liked it. It was probably like how a lapsed Catholic feels who attends a Christmas mass, enjoys it, and thinks, “Maybe… maybe I will come back to this familiar, comforting thing and… well, maybe.”
Everything Zooropa and before I know, or once knew, extremely well. (Everything, that is, except for October, which no one alive knows well.) Between 1987 and 1996, at least five U2 albums were in my regular rotation.* Then, at some point before Pop came out in 1997, I stopped listening.
1. Down To Earth Session IPA, 21st Amendment Brewery
This is a terrific beer. Just terrific. I could drink it all day, but if I did I would be a poor father and husband since it contains alcohol albeit not very much alcohol.
Down-to-Earth is aptly named since its glory is a mundane one. “Not Reinventing the Wheel” is a bad cliché and a worse name for a beer, but that’s what is going on here. It simply takes a good idea—a somewhat hoppy session ale—and nails it. It pours a sort of muted gold. Not sure what the hops are—Galaxy or Amarillo maybe, or maybe Citra since even my mom cooks with Citra lately. But it’s citrusy and good. ABV is 4.4% but feels even lighter than that going down. A few weeks ago I accidentally drank one in four sips while barbecuing.
Recently I was in line at Intelligentsia, a coffee shop here in Chicago, in front of some meatheads. One meathead—clean shaven, youngish—had never been to an Intelligentsia before. The other—grey bearded, oldish—had. I will call them Innocence and Experience. Innocence’s astonishment at the high price of the bags of coffee—they average about $18 for 12 ounces, compelled him to alternatively laugh, sigh, and exclaim things like “Ridiculous,” and “Unbelievable.” Experience just chuckled, saying, “Hey, that’s why I don’t come here very often.”
Why they did not go to Dunkin Donuts, which was just an artisanal-croissant’s throw away, is anyone’s guess. Mine is that they were reverse-slumming. Intelligentsia is a fine place for a good eye-roll. The baristas wear unfortunate tie-shirt combos (both the men and the women) and refuse to call coffees in paper cups “to go,” only “to take away.” Customers ask for things with soy or almond milk in them, and often sound like they are not as much ordering as cracking wise about purely conceptual drinks. Five minutes in line and five dollars for “come on, it’s just” coffee are not much to spend for a feeling of superiority.
The problem with Bs is that they haunt you for the rest of your life. I mean Bs the letter grade, not the spelled-differently insect now threatened by some idiopathic disease. To the latter I am mostly indifferent: grateful for their honey, hopeful for their persistence, but not especially wary. Did you know that flowers are only 150 million years old? That is not very long compared to plants generally. So I thank you, bees, for all the pollinating that has made our planet so colorful, so delightful to behold. As for Bs the good-but-not-great, nothing-to-brag-about-so-move-along grade, I ever feel their sting.
The lazy, procrastination-prone, intelligent-enough teenager discovers early that Bs are an excellent way to get square-ass parents off your case. A C+ or lower will land you in long, depressing conversations in which the word "disappointed" is wielded like a switch-blade. Nietzsche said that guilt is a horrible thing which "a Real Man crushes beneath his boot-heel." That's a fake quote though he did say words to that effect somewhere, but I would not get the warning until the second semester of my senior year in college. Too late for me. Guilt was a motivator throughout my teenage years, and rather than crush it I used it as fuel.
My uncle Dick died on February 4, the Thursday before Ash Wednesday. Last week, on Good Friday morning, I rented a U-Haul and headed to his house in Beverly to claim some of his goods.
The windfall of inheritance is odd. At times that day it felt cold and mercenary to sift through a dead man's things--especially someone I loved and admired. Or maybe it is more accurate to say-- I was periodically surprised that I was perfectly fine with it. I loved him, he was a great guy, I wish he did not die so suddenly, but hell yes I'll take that dining room set and anything else that is cool.
Among the cool things I snagged were a bunch of books, including a partial set of Everyman classics--and I mean classics-- like Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius, Erasmus and Montaigne. I also picked up William H. Prescott's "The Conquest of Mexico" and "The Conquest of Peru," which are each giants and here bound in one volume. I landed a hard-bound "Origin of Species." If I ever decide to read my copy of "Finnegan's Wake," (helped a friend move-- he died and went to California), I now have Henry Morton Robinson and Joseph Campbell's "Skeleton Key" to assist me.
In a post I wrote only a few hours ago, I lamented the popularity of opinion pieces in America. It occurred to me while writing it that I am a big fan of artistic criticism and have no intention of reading less of it. I also intend to write more of it. Isn't criticism a type of opinion?
It is, but I am talking about punditry. Politically charged opinion. There are far more honest music, TV, poetry, and fiction critics than purely honest political pundits. It is far more likely that one critic will change another critic's opinion about a movie than that one pundit will change an opposing pundit's opinion on Planned Parenthood. Or Obama. Or guns. Or terrorism. This also goes for economic and religious commentators. An op-ed columnist and their kin at various online outlets are warriors for a cause--usually of a hundred causes, each addressed with the same pretense of expertise. A movie critic tends to focus on a limited area of expertise, and is thus more likely to thrive as a writer.
Criticism, aside from even being an opinion of whether a given piece of art is good or bad, makes you appreciate things on a deeper level. A film critic makes me a better viewer, and that is cool. A pundit can make me a better citizen, sure. Too often he just makes me an angrier one-- at him or at those dumbasses who have the temerity to disagree with us on what is so obviously the Truth.
So, my official stance: Read criticism as much as possible. Read opinion sparingly.
I am not Prometheus. I do not think I have snatched something from the gods that the rest of my tribe could really use. Somewhere along the line, though, I got the idea that my job was to be Prometheus, that I had to look for something on the level of fire or otherwise just forget the whole project. But that’s not me. I just like to write.
I don’t like what I am doing now, though, which is staring at my screen, making a few false starts on a few different essays. I’d rather be sailing through some piece of literary criticism or some piece of comedy I have bouncing around in my head. But really, I seldom have thoughts that need to get out. And I am not really into forcing it.
Once there was a snake who was late for an award ceremony. He slithered and slithered his way across the United States of America until he got to Los Angeles, California. Darned if the bridge was out!
Along the banks of the river he met a young woman and said, "Hi. Did you guys have an earthquake? Forget it, doesn't matter. I am a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Oscar pre-parties are about to start. Can I have a ride across the river? I can't swim and for the purposes of this story you totally can."
"Hold on a second, snake," she said. "Last time a snake pulled this one on me he bit me half way across the river and then I got poisoned and then we both drowned and when I asked him why he did that, (I guess we had time), he said, 'Hey sister, you knew I was a snake when you met me.' Which was uncool and not fair."
Dennis O'Toole is a all-set cobra jet creepin' through the nighttime. He lives in Chicago.
If you need to reach me, dial:
denotoole AT SYMBOL gmail PERIOD CHARACTER co LETTER M.