I’m not expecting Mattel to ask me if I’d be interested in licensing my name and likeness for an action figure, but if they were interested in creating a highly unmarketable “Distraction Figure,” I’m their guy.
The lure of the next click, the Carrollinian seduction of the rabbit hole, the promise of random discovery—its illogical, side-steppy glories—have always been irresistible to me.
Now, in a COVID-19 world, surprises that are actually delightful, and don’t activate fresh doubts about a previous scientific opinion now being roundly reconsidered, could not be more welcome to me, and I hope to you.
So, with the immutable gaze and stoic relentlessness of a Distraction Figure, I’m beginning a column series that brings together things I like under one sheltering-in-place roof. “Things” are meant to be construed in the largest of all senses—yes, physical objects, some of which can be kept and others rapidly consumed, but also that which can be streamed; that which can be contemplated; and that which doesn’t exist yet but should (like the inflatable mask which follows).
Some of these choices were inspired by COVID—how could fascinations and the mechanics of appeal not be so influenced—but others are “things” that I have always favored, and now have a chance to share with you.
Of course, you are all invited to send me whatever you have wandered toward, or what has wandered your way, and you want to share with others who are in search of something that is of enduring significance or merely represents a platonic ideal of distraction at its purest form.
Ecosia—Plant Your Search
Photo courtesy of Ecosia
Ecosia is a lovely, give-back-y nonprofit search engine that turns the rabbit hole of the internet into holes filled with trees, including native ones. Ecosia users have planted 30 million trees and restored 30,000 hectares of forest. So, no matter how socially unattractive your searches are, perhaps “how do I get even with someone,” some good can come from them.
My dear friend Jim Mustich spent about 14 years writing this book, so the sudden close-to-home-ness of its title is sheer coincidence. It’s a magisterial and passionate aggregation—although debates of its exclusions and inclusions have provoked controversy and are part of the experience; he writes that he hopes to provoke “merry arguments,” which he certainly did with me at the banishment of W.H. Auden. Each entry is accompanied by a magically concise summary and framing, a book-out and world-in view. There are manifold surprises, as well as loving respect for the canon; in short, a quarantine’s best guest.
St. Vincent and Bobby Short
I’m confident they have never been linked before, but my locus pocus has a logic. It starts with the singer-songwriter Annie Clark, who goes by St. Vincent and released a song called “New York” back in 2017.
The Fader describes it as a “somber ballad lamenting the end of a relationship.” But when you listen, it is impossible not to feel that it inhabits a parallel universe; the pandemic transmogrifies this into a longing for New York itself, and the immediate loss of so much there was to love about it.
These words capture the dualism: “New York isn’t New York/Without you, Love…I have lost a hero/I have lost a friend/But for your darling/I’d do it all again…” Here’s a lovely acoustic version of the song Annie Clark did at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s virtual gala.
This richly contemplative work pairs unexpectedly well with Cole Porter’s “I Happen to Like New York,” which Bobby Short attacks with his customary bittersweet brio. Written in 1930, its last chorus speaks for itself: “And when I have to give the world a last farewell/And the undertaker starts to ring my funeral bell/I don’t want to go to heaven, don’t want to go to hell/I happen to like New York.”
If this sets you in the mood for more New York songs, Annie Clark has started a crowd-sourced list on Spotify.
In Case You Have Any Remaining Wine
Photo courtesy of Neue Galerie
With alcohol sales soaring during the pandemic, there is a low probability of uncompleted bottles knocking around the house. But should you reach your limit, I draw your attention to an austere but voluptuous wine stopper designed by the Austrian architect and designer Josef Hoffman, one of the founders of the Secession movement. You can buy this $150 reproduction at the Neue Gallerie’s well-merchandised online design shop, which features items consistent with the museum’s collection of Austrian and German art and design created between 1890 and 1940.
Also check out their spectacular collection, an impeccable gathering of works from a period of explosive creativity, which shudders with the collision of interior psychological drama and the cultural shocks of that tumultuous European half-century.
Design and Conquer
Photo courtesy of Dezeen
Dezeen is a sharply edited online magazine and blog focused entirely on innovation in architecture and design. It is a provocative engine of intersection, with a rangy take that includes the myriad ways that the built environment shapes our lives. COVID-19, as you would expect, plays a role, with recent pieces in full culture-hopping mode, probing the way fashion reacts to the new normal (I just love these social distancing hats); concept tents for classrooms; and an ingenious inflatable face shield to allow us to eat and drink while wearing it. I can’t wait to try it.
Avoid Brown Outs
Photo courtesy of Casabella
With the ascension of avocado to the Mount Olympus of superfoods, and with guacamole a quarantine essential—Chipotle even released its secret recipe—the risk of the appearance of that ubiquitous brown oxidation layer, and the transformation of your snacking into a science experiment, is a grim reality. Demonstrating the ultimate in ingenuity, the hermetically-sealed Casabella Guac-Lock is the solution you’ve been waiting for, keeping its contents verdant and ready for your next Pavlovian (and Paltrowvian) avocado toast break.
Stream Your Life Away
Forgive me for the further bulging of your data plan, but I would be remiss if I didn’t bring your attention to Mubi, which puts Netflix, Amazon Prime and even the Criterion Collection—at least in some ways—to shame. Mubi releases a new film every day, and it recently opened its entire library to members with no time-limit. It’s a trove like no other, including classics and modern masterpieces, plus curated collections (here’s Hedi Slimane’s, which includes jumps from Night Tide and Le Cercle Rouge to Charade). And if you’re holding out for a vaccine before out-venturing, here’s their list of the top 1,000 films.
Photo courtesy of Patreon
Founded in 2013 as a way for creators to find patrons (get it?), this site—which includes artists, writers, musicians, fashion designers, video game developers, adult content creators, you name it, they make it—has four million patrons and 150,000 creators. COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on this community, and Patreon’s data science team has been watching as the struggle has brought them new talent. In a blog post they write: “More than 30,000 creators launched in the first three weeks of March 2020 alone, and these new creators are acquiring patrons faster than usual.” As you would expect, there is a rowdy mix of talent, but I urge you to find some artists whose work speaks to you, or speaks so well for itself it doesn’t matter if it speaks to you, and become a mini-Medici.
‘Don’t Lose That Thought’
Photo courtesy of Glacier Boards
Pristine invitations for outpourings of uncontainable insights, whiteboards are a fixture of the modern office; I have seen many where whole walls are scribble-ready. When I think of the millions of whiteboards that have been abandoned since March, with a final, un-erased graffiti of brilliance, I am reminded of the 2,000-year-old loaf of bread found in the baker’s oven in Pompeii. For those who miss the thrill and danger of the void, there is no shortage of virtual whiteboards that make work-from-home collaboration possible. Here’s a thoughtful list of the best ones. And if you want a physical whiteboard at your remote office, here are some peel-and-stick options as well. Lastly, and this is not a parody I promise you, here’s a hand-made, artisanal glass whiteboard, from the Pacific Northwest.
Live From Where I Live
I could dedicate an entire column to the vastness of the response by the music industry, and others in the entertainment-industry-complex, to COVID. There was, of course, the multi-network, multi-platformance extravaganza mounted by Global Citizen, “One World: Together at Home,” where Lady Gaga pulled together boldfaced names who had no boldfaced destination conflicts, making Billie Eilish, Lizzo, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones and Elton John available to perform in support of health care workers.
But I’m more drawn to the intimacy of Rolling Stone’s “In My Room” series, which brings a dignified simplicity and voyeuristic intensity—is that an Art Deco lamp on Joan Jett’s left?— that combine to make for some moving performances. There’s Graham Nash’s modest version of “Our House,” conversationally pitched as if he’s singing to an old friend; Lucinda Williams performing “Are You All Right” and Sting, who invites us into his recording studio with three of his classic songs.
I also want to bring your attention to a marvelous virtual reading of Roald Dahl’s James the Giant Peach. The filmmaker Taika Waititi managed to bring Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch and many others to the festivities. It’s a wonderful way to introduce children to the book or to reintroduce yourself to what at times can be a very adult story dressed in kids’ pajamas. The performances raise money for Partners in Health, which was cofounded by Dahl’s daughter Ophelia and has played an active role in the crisis.
Finally, National Public Radio keeps an updated list of live virtual concerts.
Until next time—stay well, stay distracted.
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