Welcome to Conversation Among the Ruins
"What ceremony of words can patch the havoc?" - Sylvia Plath
What do poet Sylvia Plath, painter Giorgio de Chirico, and jazz pianist Joey Calderazzo share in common? Each has produced a composition titled "Conversation Among the Ruins."
When examined together, de Chirico's 1927 painting, Plath's 1956 poem, and Calderazzo's 2019 song —three disparate works that happen to share a name— illuminate our present mess in 2022: The walls have been knocked down, we are swept between centuries, between cultures, between truth and lies, between privilege and despair. I'm not a student of de Chirico's scuola metafisica. Nor am I the kind of person who regularly quotes Plath. However, I am a fan of musician Branford Marsalis and his quartet, including Calderazzo, and I am turning to music and art for respite because I am OVER being exhausted, bewildered, angry, sad and isolated in the wake of an ongoing global pandemic in a fully-mixed-up world. [Please sign up here.]
Maybe American civilization has not reached Mad Max or WALL• E -level ruin quite yet, but things are weird.
We can't remember what we did yesterday and are afraid to make plans for tomorrow. We have quit our jobs and developed obsessions (my latest forays include searching the internet for alternate versions of the Rocky theme song and eating whole lemons!), and our social skills are not only rusty but also numbed by the pandemic loneliness that ravaged us and robbed us of our ability to inhale and exhale collectively without fear.
Is it just me, or have time and history begun to feel less linear and more circular, like whirling dervishes spinning off from the paisley tail of a cosmic fractal? My brain can't envision calendars anymore; my nervous system is already conditioned for the dings of phone notifications. Why would I desire to remember anything myself?
We compartmentalize the trauma of war, systemic racism, shootings, political insanity, and the erosion of women's rights in order to make headspace for hours of scripted apocalyptic storylines on TV. In HBO's Station Eleven, the characters exclaim, "There is no before." As our shared culture slips further into the rear view, I wonder how long it will be before we are simple frontier people again, wandering around a lake on a summer wagon train, never leaving "the wheel."
After WWII, we "classical liberal" idealists cruised happily along on our continuous trajectory of upward mobility, cultural expansion, economic globalism and social unity (peace, love and the U.N.) for decades.
Then, something went terribly wrong...not all of the sudden but seemingly all at once. This week, The Atlantic likened our derailment to the biblical fall of Babylon and its famous tower: "Babel is not a story about tribalism. It’s a story about the fragmentation of everything," wrote NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in "WHY THE PAST 10 YEARS OF AMERICAN LIFE HAVE BEEN UNIQUELY STUPID." To blame? Social media, politics and confirmation bias.
Yet there's far more to the the new culture wars than just wishing Facebook had never been invented, conservative columnist David Brooks argued in The New York Times a few days earlier. "After the Cold War, Western values came to dominate the world — through our movies, music, political conversation, social media. One theory of globalization was that the world culture would converge, basically around these liberal values." He finally concludes: "This was an optimistic vision of how history would evolve, a vision of progress and convergence. Unfortunately, this vision does not describe the world we live in today. The world is not converging anymore; it’s diverging. The process of globalization has slowed and, in some cases, even kicked into reverse."
74 years after the Marshall Plan, the train has left the track and democracy is now dangling over a fragile trestle. For a girl like me, a Gen-Xer who at 16 believed that 1985's Live Aid would be one of the pinnacle moments of our lifetimes, the current fragmentation is hard to swallow.
The purpose of this newsletter is to help you and me find our way forward.
Please sign up here. I thought about calling it "Re:Human" but that sounds too much like a line of self-opening garbage cans. I'm wary of "re," too. "Re" means to do it again. We mustn't "re" anymore. No more renew or refresh or regroup. How about a new, fresh group instead? The systems that existed before the pandemic and before Trumpism and before 9/11 and before the internet do not need to be "re-made" or "re-invented;" we need to create everything from scratch for the future. The problem is, we don't remember what scratch looks like. Let's work on that.
I promise it won't always be this deep or unfunny, and I hope Conversation Among the Ruins will be a thoughtful addition to your inbox, even if it is an oxymoron.
I will write about music, culture, current events, and personal growth and recap the week's best (or wildest) moments, like Dolly Parton and Duncan Hines partnering on a new cake mix collection, Shania Twain running her fingers down Harry Styles's bare chest during a Coachella duet, Flippers Roller Boogie Palace opening at Rockefeller Center in NYC, Atlanta Braves' Travis d'Arnaud flopping to the ground after being hit by a slow pitch from Washington Nationals' Dee Strange-Gordon. I'll also share what I've been listening to, like Sirius XM's series, Concerts for Change with Bob Crawford of the Avett Brothers, the Tears for Fears album that keeps on giving, and Spotify's "Listen Like Basquiat" playlist.
Thank you for reading this far. Please sign up here, and I look forward to next week's newsletter.