Notes of the World, 2022
2022 was, in many ways, a year about what didn’t happen: Russia didn’t overrun Ukraine during the vicious invasion that seized the world’s attention from the springtime on; instead, Vladimir Putin accidentally turned his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, into the voice of the free world (and the only person on Earth who can get Congress to agree on something). Crypto didn’t change the world; instead, its value crashed on the global exchanges while its evangelists were left teetering on the edge of the law. And, no, Black Panther’s grief-stricken sequel didn’t find a way to replace Chadwick Boseman; instead, it operated like a movie whose high and noble mission was to remind us how irreplaceable the man truly was.
Coincidentally, I didn’t write about any of those things. Life, work, school, inertia and an utterly abortive attempt at published writing came at me fast. But, of the things I have written about, some need to be circled one last time before the clock strikes midnight on January 1, 2023. So, here goes nothing — Notes of the World, 2022 edition. Enjoy.
The Rise of Brandi Carlile
When I wrote about her over a year ago, Brandi Carlile was blowing up. Is it possible for an artist to have two blowups that are basically the same in the space of five years?
Since December of 2021, Carlile’s been on Saturday Night Live, twice; played tribute to Amy Grant at the Kennedy Center Honors; been showered with awards, including enough Grammy nominations to fill the first row of the bench at a court of appeal; and flanked everyone from H.E.R to Dua Lipa on Elton John’s farewell tour.
Carlile’s 2018 album, “By the Way, I Forgive You,” was an instant classic. Its brooding, country-coated stories of life, loss, injustice, and love against a heavy backdrop of religious imagery established her as a lead guardian of the Americana traditions. “In These Silent Days” added Seattle grunge and high-flying rock to the menu, showcasing Carlile’s wide windshield and versatility. But the media blitz that’s followed it up has put her in music’s upper-upper crust, period.
Aging Gracelessly, in More Ways Than One
“The wisdom of crowds is fleeting,” hisses the Mormon patriarch in Hulu’s Under the Banner of Heaven, “and cleaves to that which is fashionable.” (Not, by implication, that which is right.) Modern Christianity, declining amid cultural change and a mass alienation from Western institutions, has tried to reconstruct itself by drawing a crowd. According to Bob Smietana of the Religion News Service, half of all U.S. churchgoers go to less than 1/10th of churches. With small, local churches emptying out, the remainder are flocking to so-called megachurches that seat hundreds (or thousands) of people on a weekly basis.
Does that mean that local faith communities, the churches that earned tax exemptions by doing non-religious good for the places in which they were rooted, are on their last legs? Maybe. But it also means that the scandals that — frequently — rock megachurches like, say, Hillsong are scattering more sheep than in years past. Bluntly, Christ has fewer hands and feet out West than he’s had in a long, long time, and that number isn’t getting any bigger.
I’ll probably write a little more on this when next year rolls around. But, for now, suffice to say that Christianity is in a managed decline that isn’t slowing down — and it’s not being managed gracefully.
In February, All of Hollywood Should Consider Talking About Austin Butler and Danielle Deadwyler
We’ve been through this before: Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is a mess. It needlessly caricatures the Black church, several of its events are divorced from history, and it works overtime to cast its titular figure as someone he was not. Elvis, king he may have been, was not a caged social justice warrior, nor was he friends with B.B. King, nor did he miss Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral to do anything other than film one of his patented classics. (“The only thing worse than watching a bad movie is being in one.”)
Anyway — oh, my gosh, that Austin Butler.
He didn’t just have the King down pat; he had him tackled like Aaron Donald and pinned like a WWE wrestler: That suppertime triangle-sounding Memphis drawl. All those midnight trips to Beale Street. His wistful watching of M.L.K.’s mourners. And the gyrations. Lewd, lewd gyrations, from the hips of a boy who knew who he was and the heart of a man who certainly didn’t. In Elvis, Austin Butler exuded American mythology at its finest — ridiculous, regal, reaching for a better us, only to find ultimate greatness just past our fingertips.
In Till, Danielle Deadwyler captures a different slice of the American story as Mamie Till Mobley, the woman whose son, Emmett, was lynched in Money, Mississippi for violating the South’s rules of racial apartheid. Mobley is, in some ways, everything Luhrmann’s Elvis wants to be — an American living a comfortable life, cannoned out of her apathy by coming face-to-face with racial terror. And Deadwyler’s performance is right up there with Butler’s as a stirring picture of a person in a moment in time. But the very thing that animates Till — the murder of a young boy at the hands of Jim Crow — is purposefully, conspicuously, (perhaps) admirably absent from the final product.
Of course, both of these movies are worth watching for the performances that core them alone. After the credits roll, though, they ask a question that I’m not qualified to answer: How much history is too ugly to make it to the silver screen?
The Beginning of the End, Again
Four months ago, Donald Trump’s grip on the Republican Party looked sealed solid after his takedown of Liz Cheney in a Wyoming House primary. It wasn‘t: After so-called MAGA Republicans lost en masse in November’s midterm elections, Republicans are turning their eyeballs elsewhere in search of a 2024 standard-bearer.
Right now, “elsewhere” means Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who’s become the culture war’s most ardent combatant. He’s gained fame nationwide for his crusades against LGBTQ teachers and public officials, but he hasn’t — oh, I don’t know — raised a ruckus by breaking bread with literal Nazis.
Sure, DeSantis basically got his start as governor by engaging in cringeworthy worship of the former president, and, sure, David Brooks called him “charmless and stiff” in the New York Times. But DeSantis’ success against Trump in the polls might encourage some hitherto-mythological “normal Republicans” to hop into the race, too — from Nikki Haley and Tim Scott to Mike Pence and Chris Christie.
The Joy Revolutionary
Has Stephen Curry made himself the face of the NBA? He won his fourth championship in June, and a Finals MVP award to boot. By his own sheer greatness and lovability, along with that of his teammates, Curry has managed to turn the Golden State Warriors’ once-nondescript basketball brand into the most valuable franchise in sports.
Perhaps the greatest credit to Curry as the game’s greatest has been his readiness and willingness to recede alongside his teammates. Kevin Durant thought he was the best in the business when Curry agreed to share the floor — and two titles — with him; nearly all of America concurred. As a series of young, unproven talents have made their way to the San Francisco Bay, no one has played the role of teacher quite like Steph; he even came off the bench for a playoff game to prolong a hot streak from backup guard Jordan Poole.
Am I suggesting that Curry is more relevant than LeBron, more unstoppable than Giannis, more feared, loved and respected than the likes of Luka Donçic? Yes. What’s more, it’s tough to find his place among the greatest in the game because we have no idea just how high Steph can rise.
In Praise of the Vikings
The Eagles are 13–2. Philadelphia’s beloved Phillies pushed the Houston Astros to six games in one of the most unlikely World Series runs of all time. And Daryl Morey assembled a roster best described as “the Zombie Rockets” to put Joel Embiid’s Sixers in position to win an NBA title — or lose in the second round of the playoffs, as is the custom. Oh, the Flyers exist, too.
But the crew I’m most proud of is the Minnesota Vikings. After I lauded them as the NFL’s most hopelessly entertaining team, the Vikes entertained their way to the second-best record in the league. (At 12–3, they’re in a three-way tie with the Bills and the Chiefs.) They still have a fine, if altogether unspectacular, quarterback in Kirk Cousins. Danielle Hunter and Dalvin Cook are still on this roster, and Justin Jefferson’s receiving stats are bloating their way past Randy Moss territory.
Minny’s played 13 games that were decided by 8 points or less, and they’ve won every single last one of them. They beat the Bills in October because Buffalo QB Josh Allen fumbled a snap in his own end zone while Buffalo was up 7, and they defeated the Colts 10 days ago (ish) after trailing 33–0. (If you’re about to ask if that was the largest comeback in NFL history: You’re correct!) So entertaining is the cast of the show unfolding at U.S. Bank field on a weekly basis that the football press refuses to treat the Vikings’ record as a harbinger of Super Bowl glory. They are simply too entertaining to be taken seriously — but, then again, weren’t they always?
Dreams from My Failures
I finally read Dreams from My Father this year. I know, I know — what took me so long? I’d been hearing about this book since I was maybe eight or nine years old; I’d seen it available in libraries throughout my teenage years; I’d read memoirs from Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton, and Chris Christie in high school. Heck, I’d even read Obama’s other memoir. (A Promised Land is also very good, if a little more uptight. Becoming president is supposed to do that.) What had taken me so long to crack open this specific book?
As Brandi Carlile would say, it wasn’t right, but I read Barack Obama’s near-biblical ‘90s-era autobiography, built around the absence of his father, Barack, Sr., right on time. No, I’m not saying that because his book — in part about a man who discovers his passion and purpose while organizing everyday people in Chicago — was an excellent light on his ideology. I’m not saying that because his reflections on collisions “between worlds of plenty and worlds of want, the ancient and the modern…” are a metaphor for modern American life, or a lens to see my own struggles in the shadow of fundamentalist religion. And I’m not saying that because this globetrotting text has a way of speaking — to one’s identity and one’s deepest longings — by the very emptiness at its core.
I’m saying I loved this book, above all else, because of Obama’s introduction to the 2004 reprint. Its words, written by a wiser, more self-conscious man who has seen how his deep thoughts could be deployed by his enemies, are a reflection on what this book meant to all of America. They’re also touched with a tinge of embarrassment, at Obama’s own unbridled awareness in its pages and the amount of his thoughts he lets the reader see. And they’re blessed with the wide windshield that would one day make Obama this nation’s first president, a windshield that enabled him to take the conflicts unfolding in the pages of the book — within his own life, within his own people, within his own family, within himself — and affix them to the moment in which his pen hits the page of the introduction.
They’re also blessed with regret. If Obama had known that his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, would die before Dreams from My Father was a year old, he explained, “I might have written a different book — less a reflection on the absent parent, more a celebration of the one who was the single greatest constant of my life.” In that moment, Obama is aware of himself as a vessel of hope, and as the man who will become the nation’s lone Black senator when he defeats Alan Keyes in the Illinois Senate race. He’s probably aware of the possibility of the presidency, too: His roof-rattling address to the Democratic National Convention was a done deal at the reprint’s press time. Yet, his final note on this book from 1995 is that he wishes it were more positive — not because he underplayed the events of his life (“I feel like the luckiest man alive” is Dreams’ final independent clause), but because he underplayed the people.
Hopefully, my personal life is a decent distance from these pages. These are, at their core, supposed to be reflections on the world, and the things that happen upon it — not an extended, textual therapy session. Yet, the sight of Earth is often starkest in shadow, and I do some of my better writing when I’m downcast or disturbed. But, as confident as I am in my writing when it emerges from the places where the naked eye can’t see, the ancient Chinese had a point when they said, “Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” Or, as — of all presidents — Richard Nixon once said, “Let us gather the light.”
Some of my writing has been about the people who light candles, even while I’m beset by the temptation to curse the bits of night that pass before my eyes. But not enough. There are a lot of people I could name as having lit candles in my own life, but I won’t — partially because I fear embarrassing them, partly because I fear being thoughtless enough to overlook someone, and partly because I’d hate for you to think these were acknowledgements and click away. Sometimes, they softened blows that I otherwise would have had to take at full force. Sometimes, they heard of my sorrow and willingly carried it on their shoulders. Sometimes, without even knowing that I had sat in the dark in the midst of brightness, they said or did something that altered my life’s trajectory the upward inch it needed to keep me going. Hopefully, you know who you are; if you don’t, I wish that I’d told you somehow.
This gibberish isn’t enough to communicate my thanks, but it’ll have to do — at least for now. Happy New Year.