Competence Porn for the Rest of Us

“Competence porn” was first coined by television and film screenwriter John Rogers in 2009. The evocative phrase addresses the innate pleasure some of us derive from watching truly exceptional people do things impressively, especially in television and film. I stumbled upon the idea of competence porn after reading one of Sam Sifton’s excellent “What to Cook […]

The Origins of Grandparents Day

Many scoff at non-major holidays as random, for-profit celebrations made-up by greeting card companies, but Grandparents’ Day, always observed on the Sunday after Labor Day, is no such holiday. President Jimmy Carter enacted the first Grandparents Day in 1978, but Jacob Reingold and Marian McQuade were the selfless advocates who worked behind-the-scenes to make Grandparents […]

Unfunny Brilliance in Standup Comedy: Part 1, Charlie Murphy

Standups who do something other than crack jokes are not new or unusual. Carlin’s act consisted of tearing down cultural conceits with jazzy profanity. Rickles was still slinging insults at 87 when he sat down with Jerry Seinfeld in Comedians in Cars and talked about playing clubs in the early days. (“Sir, is that your […]

Unfunny Brilliance in Standup Comedy: Part 2, Dave Chappelle

Comedian Dave Chappelle released four standup specials in 2017 that are considered his return to show business, after quitting Chappelle’s Show in 2006. The way he suddenly left the successful show (and a $50 million contract with Comedy Central) led to rumors he had a drug problem or mental health issues. Chappelle has hinted in […]

Remembering Our Humanity, One Letter at a Time

This week I was struck by the importance of letter-writing after reading a profile of Kolbie Blume, President Obama’s former director of writing for sampled correspondence, in The Atlantic. Blume, at age 22, was one of the team of writers in charge of answering the 10,000 daily letters and messages received from citizens hoping to […]

Jazz, the Devil, and Jess Stacy

Something odd and beautiful happened to Jess Stacy that night in 1938. It is easy to have the impression he never experienced anything quite like it again. Stacy had played piano for the Benny Goodman orchestra since 1935 and was on stage the night they (with other musicians) played the Carnegie Hall concert of January […]

On Stars and Mules

Before I knew the Wordsworth poem, “The Stars are Mansions Built by Nature’s Hand,” I knew stars. When one grows up in an isolated place, one of the gifts you are given are a riot of stars. In some parts of the world, the sky is still visible with stars you take for granted until […]

Destination: Grafton, Illinois

There are places that reenergize us, help us put down our burdens (and our smartphones), if only for a weekend. Grafton, Illinois is that place for me. A short hour’s drive from my home in St. Louis, Grafton is a small river town (population 640) situated where the Illinois and Mississippi rivers converge. It also […]

Everyday Wilderness

There is a special kind of hell when one has just returned from the ER at 1:30 a.m. with a projectile-vomiting toddler, who somehow has been showered, wrangled into clean, cotton pajamas, and shushed and rocked to sleep, when the sounds of some nocturnal creature racing back and forth across the nursery ceiling become all […]

Big Boxes Write American History

Local media has been reporting the demise of St. Louis’s Chinatown, another victim of big-box development. But it is not so much a Chinatown—officially it is called the Olive Link—as a small polyglot area of Olive Boulevard near Highway 170, which the Post Dispatch calls “the gritty back door” of University City. University City is […]