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Bad Nights and Social Contracts 7 min read

Bad Nights and Social Contracts

By Cary Littlejohn
Bad Nights and Social Contracts Post image

In the wee morning hours of Sunday, when I normally would have been soundly sleeping, I was instead awake and thinking about, among other things, just how charmed my three decades on this spinning rock have been.

I’d been asleep, and suddenly I wasn’t anymore. At the moment, I couldn’t have told you why. Then it became apparent.

Neighbors were fighting. More accurately, he was fighting; she was crying. I’ve heard him yell before, clearly a volatile personality, and it would easily be classified as verbal abuse. Language beyond hateful, insults and name-calling, often over the crying of a small child. But on this particular night, this particular time of being woken up by the noise, something was different.

His rage was palpable even through the walls and my half-asleep state. And then things started crashing, presumably something thrown against the wall and doors slamming. More yelling, more name-calling. More crashing and slamming.

I’ve never seen these people. I don’t know what they look like; I don’t know what they do. But the degree to which this night was different prompted from me a somewhat reflexive decision: I called 911.

On these people I didn’t know. For actions I could only picture and piece together through sound alone. The police arrived quickly, to my door at least, and here’s what kept me up long after they knocked on my door: I have no idea what happened.

I’d reluctantly become some small part of the story, but I have no idea how it ended. I have no idea if it helped. I gained no comfort from feeling as if I’d maybe done the right thing. But I felt like it was the least I could do, that it’s what we’re called to do.

I don’t particularly like the close proximity of apartment-living. I don’t like hearing my neighbors. I don’t like worrying about how loud my music is or how loud my guitar-playing sounds. As a result, the last thing I want is to be involved in the lives of these total strangers.

And that was when I realized how charmed my life had been. I’ve never called 911 before, for any reason. I’ve never had a reason to. My house didn’t sound like that growing up. In various living situations across nine different cities in five different states,  I’ve never had such neighbors. I’ve never been in the proximity of emergency in any scenario. I’ve never answered a knock at my door to find a police officer there.

In the moments of sleeplessness due to anxiety and second-guessing, it brought me some small measure of peace to realize what it meant for my life that it was such a foreign experience for me.

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. There’s something to a delightfully unexpected contrarian story from a publication you frequent. Matt Yglesias, in his Slow Boring newsletter, makes the pitch for what was formerly known as the “Slatepitch,” named for Slate’s longstanding reputation as a welcome place for such ideas. He uses as his exemplar the hot-take that Creed was an underrated band. But he pours one out for the practice and bemoans the incredible sameness of so much writing published by today’s media organizations.

  2. Speaking of Slate, there was a disconcerting nugget to come out of the recent lawsuit between Sarah Palin and The New York Times, in which both the judge and jury separately found that the paper did not libel Palin. While the paper’s actions fell far short of the requirements of a libel case against a public figure, there was nervousness about the case in this day and age, where some conservative jurists are open to revisiting the legal standard. And if the right case or series of cases came along, with financial backing of some rich person eager to see those standards change, well, that could be a blow to journalism’s ability to write about public figures without fear of retribution. We’ve seen the power of large bankrolls in First Amendment cases (see the Hulk Hogan versus Gawker case). And therein lies the disconcerting news: One of Hogan’s high-priced attorneys attended the trial, just to watch and take notes, and one has to wonder what case he might be prepping for in the future and what harms it could do to the First Amendment protections.

  3. The New York Times, as the most venerable and respected newspaper in the country, must face any number of challenges, from journalistic ethics issues to lawsuits to worrying about the safety of reporters who might be doing their jobs in harm’s way. At the helm of this massive undertaking, at least for a little bit longer, is Dean Baquet. The New Yorker recently profiled Baquet, who’s enjoyed a long and storied career. I met the man back in graduate school when he came to receive the University of Missouri School of Journalism’s Missouri Honor Medal in 2019. (In this brief write-up of the recipients’ lectures, there’s a picture of Baquet in front of a classroom, and it was the Communications Law class for which I TA’d.) I’d met with him and a small group of students earlier that morning, just a small group of us, where he graciously took questions and talked about the news of the day. Just days before, he’d made the decision to publish details about a whistleblower who’d come forward with information about President Trump’s calls with Ukraine that set off his first impeachment. This was a controversial and contentious decisions, especially for a man who, according The New Yorker profile’s headline, “never wanted to be an editor” in the first place.

  4. If you’re a subscriber to Showtime, you can see some more behind the scenes moments during Baquet’s leadership at the Times in The Fourth Estate. There are only four episodes, but they follow some of the Times reporters during some very important moments of reporting on President Trump’s administration. I bought the season years ago, and every now and then, I would fall asleep to it, like a nightlight of sorts. There was just something soothing and comforting about knowing there were dedicated journalists out there, at the top of their games, working hard to uncover all of the news that’s fit to print.

  5. The Times is working overtime to stay on top of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. It’s still developing, but President Biden announced that he’s convinced Putin’s decided to invade, based on documents gathered by U.S. intelligence agencies. The Times podcast, The Daily, explored why the U.S. won’t send troops to Ukraine in the event that Russia invades as expected.  If you know something is going on but aren’t exactly sure what or why, here’s a solid explainer from Vox.

  6. With Russia in the news so much lately, it seemed timely that an article from Lapham’s Quarterly would pop up looking at Josef Stalin’s habit of marking up books in his personal library with marginalia.

  7. From what’s inside a dictator’s books to what’s on the outside: Do Blurbs Actually Work?

  8. An interesting article on the rising phenomenon of parasocial relationships,  published in the Guardian, is essentially the epitome of the saying ,”This is why we can’t have nice things.”

  9. Zach Baron profiled Francis Ford Coppola for GQ recently, and man, oh man, it’s easy to forget what a force Coppola was in Hollywood. Allow this paragraph from Baron’s piece to be a reminder (and an advertisement as to why you should read the rest of it): “Coppola likes to describe himself as a ‘second-rate film director,’ paraphrasing the composer Richard Strauss: ‘But I’m a first-rate second-rate film director.’ In reality, of course, Coppola has directed more than one of the greatest movies ever made. Anyone who has worked on a film will tell you that luck plays a role, that it’s a collaborative medium, that art and commerce and dead-eyed executives and feckless actors all come together to make something beyond the director’s control, sometimes for better, often for worse. But Coppola, for a time, played by other rules entirely. After winning an Academy Award for the screenplay for 1970’s Patton, Coppola went on to make, consecutively, The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather Part II (1974), and Apocalypse Now (1979). To point out that Coppola won five Oscars by the time he was 36 is to understate what was going on at this time; better to just say that for a while he saw something like the face of God, and leave it at that.”

  10. A brief piece from Vulture about one of my favorite scenes from my favorite movies of the past year. Entitled “The Worst Person in the World Held Up Downtown Oslo for Its Freeze-Frame Sequence,” it begins by describing the scene, which is a poor substitute for the magic of seeing it, but it’s a valiant effort: “Midway through The Worst Person in the World, the movie’s heroine Julie (Renate Reinsve), age 29 going on 30 and ambivalent about her relationship with an older man, hits pause, literally, to run across town and be with another man. As her boyfriend Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) pours coffee at home in their apartment, Julie hits a sudden emotional breakthrough, switches the light off in their kitchen, and time stops. Aksel stands frozen as she runs downstairs and across Oslo, with all the city’s cars, trolleys, and pedestrians rooted still on a glimmering summer morning. Once she arrives at a coffee shop and finds Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), a man who is already in a relationship and with whom Julie almost but not quite cheated at a party, time clicks back into motion, and they spend the day together. The next morning, as they part ways, time freezes again, and Julie runs back to Aksel. She flips the light switch on again, time resumes, and finally, she confesses that she wants to break up.”

Culture Diary

Here’s a collection of what I’ve been watching in the past week.

Remember: The legend for my list was stolen from Mr. Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, and Sentence Case is a TV show. A number in parentheses after a TV shows highlights how many episodes I watched. An asterisk after an entry means it’s a rewatch. The source of the movie or show, whether streaming service, physical media, or in theaters, is shown in parentheses as well.

2/14: Reacher (1) (Amazon Prime); I WANT YOU BACK (Amazon Prime); BEFORE SUNRISE (Criterion Collection)
2/15: The Bureau, S1 (1) (AMC+)
2/16: Gilmore Girls (1) (Netflix)
2/17: Abbott Elementary (Hulu); ADAPTATION* (Tubi);  MINORITY REPORT* (Spectrum)
2/19: NBA All-Star Weekend (TNT); Severance (AppleTV+)
2/20: Severance (AppleTV+); Gilmore Girls (4) (Netflix); NBA All-Star Game (TNT)

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