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15 Jul 01:51

The Cost of Reading

by Ayşegül Savaş

Ayşegül Savas | Longreads | July 2019 | 15 minutes (3,811 words)

Two weeks after I read Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living, I found out that she would be speaking at a literary symposium titled “Against Storytelling” at a venue some minutes from where I live.

The Cost of Living is a memoir about the period following Levy’s separation from her husband. She moves into a dreary apartment block with her two daughters, loses her mother, takes every job she is offered, and continues writing, in an entirely new set-up of family, home, and work.

The book is about other things, too, like cycling up a hill after a day writing at a garden shed; buying a chicken to roast for dinner which tumbles out of the torn shopping bag and is flattened by a car; putting up silk curtains in the bedroom and painting the walls yellow; showing up to a meeting about optioning the film rights to her novel with leaves in her hair.

It is, mysteriously, about a scarcity of time and money, of trying to make ends meet. Mysteriously, because it is such a generous book, so lush and unrushed.

One of my best friends, visiting for the weekend, picked it up from the coffee table while my husband and I were preparing breakfast on Saturday morning.

“Oh my god,” she shouted from the living room, “this book is amazing!”

I guessed that she must have read the opening scene, when the narrator overhears a conversation at a restaurant. A middle-aged man, “Big Silver,” is talking to a young woman he’s invited to his table. After a while, the young woman interrupts to tell him a strange story of her own, about a scuba diving trip, which is also a story of being hurt by someone in her life.

“You talk a lot don’t you?” Big Silver responds.

“It was not easy to convey to him,” Levy writes, “a man much older than she was, that the world was her world too… It had not occurred to him that she might not consider herself to be the minor character and him the major character.”

My friend went home on Sunday evening. She’d just been offered a new job, and would be spending the week negotiating her terms and meeting with the people at the new office. One of her reservations about the job concerned a partner who had first approached her for recruitment. Yet he didn’t have the tact, even as he sought her out, to stifle sexist comments meant as jokes. My friend wondered whether she should call him out on this during their meeting. In their offer, the firm had praised my friend’s directness.

That week, she and I messaged back and forth about the offer, as well as about all our favorite parts in The Cost of Living. She told me she’d recommended the book to her therapist.

Another friend was struck by the book’s lightness — its reluctance to belabor any sorrow, despite the sadness that runs throughout. He felt that this was a form of respect towards readers, their capacity to understand grief and hardship without dissecting it to pieces.

Yet another friend (we were all reading The Cost of Living) said that the book had lungs. Between the empty spaces of its short paragraphs, it breathed with light and transforming meaning. This friend had just read all of Levy’s work in one stretch.


The author who’d organized the symposium was supposed to be in conversation with Levy. She was the last to speak; she was the only woman speaker at the four-and-a-half-hour event.

It wasn’t possible, Deborah Levy began at the symposium, to have a single woman speaker at such an event and call it an intellectual discussion.

In his introduction, the author said that Levy’s writing career consisted of two parts, separated by a gap of many years. The second part, he said, starting with her novel Swimming Home, could be called a “resurfacing.”

This is a word Levy uses in the first pages of The Cost of Living to refer to the young woman who’d resurfaced from her scuba dive to realize that something was wrong; Levy uses the same word, a few pages later, about her own marriage.

This was a fitting term for Levy’s writing hiatus, the author said, given that she wrote so frequently about water.

He went on to talk about some developments in literature since the 80’s. He listed the names of prominent, male authors belonging to a certain category.

A friend, sitting next to me, leaned in to whisper, “Remember Big Silver?”

On stage, Deborah Levy examined her finger nails.

We waited for the author to ask a question, so we could hear Levy speak in the little time remaining.

The author returned to Levy’s mysterious resurfacing which he situated within greater literary trends. He had more things to say when Deborah Levy picked up her microphone. “Let me just interject here,” she said.

If the author had read the rest of The Cost of Living, he would have known that in the period that separated the two parts of her career, Deborah Levy wasn’t under water at all, but fully on earth, unpacking boxes, teaching, writing, visiting her mother at a hospital. When her mother was too ill to eat or drink, she brought her ice lollies from a Turkish kiosk. Her mother’s favorite flavor was lime which, in the final days of her life, the kiosk did not have.


From The Cost of Living, I guessed that Deborah Levy was around the same age as my own mother. She’d separated from her husband some years after my parents separated. She’d then moved to the same northern neighborhood in London where I’d lived as a child, after we left Turkey for my father’s career and my mother had left behind her own career as a pediatrician.

Reading The Cost of Living, I remembered moments I’d witnessed but never articulated: the way accumulated anger and fatigue could rear up in reaction to a single word or gesture. The way daily life, despite its greater defeats, continued with color and care. (My mother lighting candles for Sunday breakfast the week after my father moved out; Deborah Levy putting strawberry trees on the balcony of her new flat.)

During our time abroad, my father made huge leaps in his career: he was the youngest, the first, the most successful in many posts he held.

In my childhood, my mother was always hosting dinners for the people my father worked with. It was not unusual for her to host three or four dinners per week, for two people or a dozen. The meals started with soup, then phyllo pastries — with potatoes, feta cheese, or spinach. Main dishes were meat roasts and rice. Often, the meat would be placed on fire roasted, hand-peeled, pureed aubergines — an incredibly tedious dish to prepare for the pleasure of a few, velvety forkfuls. Along the length of the dinner table were the “side” dishes of sautéed vegetables, yogurt spreads, and salads.

Some days later, my mother would make the whole meal again.

It feels, as I write this, as if I’m doing something inappropriate — revealing a secret, making light of my father’s work and success. Why turn things on their head when we have fond memories of those years, when my parents are now on perfectly good terms?


During the symposium, Levy asked the audience to consider what was at stake for the topic at hand. She didn’t like abstract discussions, she said. Nor was she necessarily against storytelling.

But she wondered: what sorts of things did storytelling obstruct?


Over the years, my family had agreed on the story of our years abroad — its particular telling, causes and effects. Why we left, why we returned, what was achieved in between. We had all told the story many times.

But I want to point out that the story contains many other times within it: many other hours, and days, and years. Other labors.


The symposium was part of a series on “literary activism.” Earlier that afternoon, before introducing Levy, the author had discussed the effects of a global market economy on literature. Books were now branded with literary value — as “masterpieces,” “classics,” the “most important” of their genre. These terms, the author argued, were basically ways of saying that a book would sell many copies. This vocabulary made “literary fiction” — another marketing term — available to unsuspecting, ignorant, poorly-read consumers who were eager to satisfy their intellectual needs in digestible ways.

The author had written about this topic elsewhere and talked about it at other events. His wish, I think, was to counter the capitalist market — the way it presented an obstacle to the sincere production and readership of books — through literary activism.

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I’d just begun to see the workings of such a literary market in the months preceding the publication of my first novel. Before they were released, the new books of the season were included in (or left out of) lists and reviews meant to inform readers and publishers what was worth reading in the flood of books coming out. These lists created a framework for the value of books by labeling them as the most exciting, the best, the unmissable. Books gained merit by accumulation: appearing on one list increased its chances of appearing on another; the more a book became known, the safer it was to praise it highly, since it had already acquired its “legitimate” value through repeated exposure. But on many of these lists, I noticed, the books hadn’t actually been read by the writers compiling them, but were included on the basis of an author’s fame or biography, the prestige of a publisher, or the recommendation of certain literary celebrities.

Writers who didn’t have the luck to be major characters in this story of publishing could easily think that they’d lost without even having started, because it was easy to think of this system as one involving winners and losers.

What, then, could literary activism accomplish?


Some months earlier, I’d nominated the author — the one who had organized the symposium and introduced Levy — to teach at a writing retreat. I’d read three of his novels and many of his essays; I found his writing style interesting and often lyrical.

When I learned that he would be in town for a year-long residency, I wrote to ask him whether I could give him an advance copy of my novel; he said he would be delighted.

We went to a café for tea. I asked him many questions about his writing process, how he overcame obstacles in structure or plot, how his career had progressed, how he negotiated the muddy grounds of publicizing his work without making a fool of himself.

He asked me to sign my book. He said, also, that he was quite busy, meaning that he might not have a chance to read it.

When we were saying goodbye, he said we should get together again, soon.


In my childhood, my father was very strict about assignment deadlines he gave me and my brother: memorizing poems, writing essays, drawing maps from memory. He was very strict about time in general; being late was among the worst possible sins. Alongside the lesson of promptness, I internalized a dread of wasting my father’s time.

When my father left for work trips, time in our household suddenly expanded. There were no deadlines, no family meetings to discuss important topics. We could often sweet-talk our mother into letting us stay up late or skip some work we had to do, or walk our dog while we slept in.

What had we internalized about our mother’s time?


Following our meeting, the author sent me several of his essays to read, on topics we’d discussed over tea. I’d already read some of these essays. I read the others as well.

‘I haven’t actually read your book,’ the author then said to me, ‘but I’ve read paragraphs here and there.’

One of them was about the author’s fascination with single paragraphs. He wrote about one that he admired in a novel he’d read long ago. He’d read the paragraph many times, without wanting to read the rest of the book. The opening paragraph, the author believed, held possibilities for the imagination that were diminished with the tedium of plot and story.

When we were having tea, I’d asked him whether he was intending to visit some of the unusual places in town that were described in minute, haunting detail in Sebald’s novels, remembering the author’s praise of Sebald in one of his essays. The author said he’d actually never read an entire work by him.

In the following months, the author invited me to attend his various lectures and readings around town. I heard him talk about the idea of the paragraph on several occasions. He liked to repeat that he was bored by stories and that he didn’t enjoy reading entire novels. At the same time, however, he quoted works often and with authority, fitting them into literary eras and styles. I couldn’t tell whether his knowledge was gleaned second hand or belonged to another phase in his career when he’d read entire books. He spoke of turning points in literature with the publication of this or that novel, historical moments when things had changed in relation to a particular law or policy. The books and events he singled out seemed random to me, one of thousands of changes in the world and in human consciousness. I was amazed, if not a bit incredulous, at the author’s far-reaching perspective in drawing attention to them. Of course, his was also a form of storytelling: the authorial narrative which creates an illusion of a full vantage point. Despite the author’s dislike of plot and his boredom with cause and effect, his technique of narrating literary history was the very same one used to craft stories.

One evening after a reading, the author introduced me to a poet as a talented writer. “I haven’t actually read your book,” he then said to me, “but I’ve read paragraphs here and there.”

I understood that this was not a personal affront but simply a preservation of the author’s time, in line with his priorities and aesthetics.


I think that my father would have wanted us to switch time codes with him, too; for us to whine about daily concerns and the insignificant routines of our days. He would have liked for us to make unnecessary requests from him as well. But such intimacies are nothing more than the accumulation of un-plotted time, without goals or priorities.


The most lauded books of the season, I noticed, were often about contemporary issues. They were innovative, were the first in their genre to cover a certain topic, were daring in their styles. The praise for these books was often wrapped in their utilitarian value and in what the book could provide its readers: a unique perspective, a different geography, a brand-new technique. It was easy to overlook the books that simply investigated their topics with a quiet curiosity. There was, simply, no time for them.


After we returned to Turkey, my mother started working full time at a clinic, Monday through Saturday. In the years we’d been abroad, her colleagues had specialized in their fields, acquired prestigious positions as professors or at private hospitals.

My mother was anxious about going back to her practice. But there was no time, or money, for her to indulge her anxiety: we were in a financially precarious situation following our move back. Our two cousins from my father’s side had just moved in with us, after their mother passed away. (Another story with wildly different and disputed narratives, which often left out the core: two grieving children moving to a strange home.) Not long after this, my parents separated.

To say that these were difficult times for my mother would be an understatement. More than this, they were unimaginable times, contrary to any future she would have dreamed for herself, to the story she’d participated in for decades as a supporting character. Suddenly, she had to figure out an entirely new way of living. And even though she was cast out of the main story, she was still expected to stick to that unchanging role: a gentle, loving caregiver.

Levy writes:

I will never stop grieving for my long-held wish for enduring love that does not reduce its major players to something less than they are. I am not sure I have often witnessed love that achieves all of these things, so perhaps this ideal is fated to be a phantom. What sort of questions does this phantom ask of me? It asks political questions for sure, but it is not a politician.


It wasn’t possible, Deborah Levy began at the symposium, to have a single woman speaker at such an event and call it an intellectual discussion.

She was impatient throughout the author’s questions, which he asked in academic, abstract terms. She kept asking him to be direct, cut him off when he veered off into generalizations. It was clear she didn’t have time for any of that. She wanted to get to the heart of the matter, to whatever was at stake.

When I was leaving the symposium, I saw her smoking beneath a newly blooming Judas tree. The sky had just darkened; the cool air soothed my flushed cheeks.

I walked up to Levy and thanked her. It was a relief to hear her speak the way she did, I said. I added that I’d felt an urge to kick someone.

“Oh, thank you,” she told me and waved as I walked off. It occurred to me afterwards that she might have thought my reaction was in defense of her; that I’d been offended on her behalf.


My friend, the one who had whispered “Big Silver” in my ear, texted me the next day: Did I think the author even understood what Levy was reacting to?

I wondered that, as well.


We — my cousins, brother and I — recognized my mother’s anger before it came alive. We heard it rising in the comments of strangers and relatives, of well-meaning, oblivious friends who told her to liven up a bit, to get some rest, to live her life.

When we had just returned from abroad and were barely making ends meet, one of my father’s relatives asked my mother when exactly she planned on contributing to the household. More accurately, he asked when she would be “useful”.

Over the years, my family had agreed on the story of our years abroad — its particular telling, causes and effects. Why we left, why we returned, what was achieved in between.

One time, a famous businessman greeted my father at a weekend retreat outside the city, where we’d gone as a family. He then looked over at us, wife and children: “I see you’ve arrived with your harem,” he said.

Not that we always stood up for her.

When my father’s relatives visited my mother, after the separation, we hoped that she wouldn’t say something rash. We could almost hear her interior monologue as these relatives praised my father, the pride of the family.

We wished, at those times, that she would just keep it together. We were teenagers, we wanted to have a good time. We didn’t want to take sides or make a fuss.


The publisher sent me 20 advance copies of my book. I understood that I was meant to give them to influential people. I felt humiliated when I was asked who I knew in the literary world. I had the sense that this was part of the contract of having a book published and that I now had to “admit” that I didn’t know anyone; that I was a fraud.

I gave some of the copies to my good friends.

The others I sent to writers I admired — an equal number of men and women, all of them strangers, whose addresses I found online, or through their agents. I sent them the books by post, with the exception of the author who was in town, telling them how much their writing meant to me.

Of course, the author in town wasn’t the only one who didn’t have time to read my novel. But I want to point out, because it suddenly seems relevant, that the only ones who read my book were women.

One evening, I got a postcard from the writer Dorthe Nors. She was on book tour, she said, so she was sorry that she would be reading my book in bits and spurts. But she had already started and was enjoying it very much. Her handwriting was lively, looping, crawling all the way up the sides of the card. She had written every inch of it with questions and observations, with good wishes for the future of my book. She asked whether an endorsement from her might be helpful; she included a short one along the side of the card. I put the postcard in my tin blue box of treasures.

Some weeks later, Nors wrote again to say that she’d read more of the book on her book tour and wanted to expand her endorsement.

The male authors who responded to my emails all said they were delighted to learn that I liked their books. They told me about their other books coming out, or essays I may have missed.

They said I should feel free to send them a copy of my book but warned me that they were very busy and didn’t know if they would be able to read it.

No, it’s not the lack of time which surprises me.

It is those people who have no time but are generous nonetheless. Those radical, literary activists.


Every morning, before going to work, my mother made us fresh juice from carrots, apples, oranges. She made omelets, feta cheese and tomato sandwiches. I say this because that’s one meal a parent can get away with. On Sundays, her only day off, she baked us pastries and cookies.

Some weekday mornings, for the sake of sleeping an extra 15 minutes, I would beg her to let me miss the school bus. I asked, in my most pathetic voice, whether she’d like me to go to school having had my breakfast, brushed my hair, and dressed neatly. Then please, I pleaded, would she drive me to school and not make me rush for the bus?

More often than not, she did. In the car, we blasted Turkish pop or Mozart’s piano concertos.


At the symposium, the author began his talk by saying he had given the same talk before. He’d hired someone to transcribe it from YouTube and would now deliver it to us with some small changes. It was more or less the same talk as the one I’d heard a few months earlier, and very similar to one of the essays he sent me. The small changes he’d made for the symposium were the opening paragraphs of another essay.

To save him the time, I could probably have given the talk on his behalf.

* * *

Ayşegül Sava‘s debut novel Walking on the Ceiling was published in April 2019 by Riverhead Books. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, The Paris Review Daily, among others. She lives in Paris.

Editor: Sari Botton

06 Jan 23:12

Who Cares? : On Nags, Martyrs, the Women Who Give Up, and the Men Who Don’t Get It

by Longreads

Gemma Hartley | an excerpt adapted from Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward | HarperOne | November 2018 | 16 minutes (4,288 words)


“Just let me do it,” I told Rob as I watched him struggle to fold our daughter’s fitted sheet shortly after he took over laundry duty. It’s a phrase I’m sure he’s heard from me countless times, and even when I’m not saying it out loud, I’ve often implied it with a single you’re-doing-it-wrong stare. I cannot pretend that I have not played a part in creating such a deep divide in the emotional labor expectations in my home. I want things done a certain way, and any deviation from my way can easily result in me taking over. If the dishwasher is loaded wrong, I take it back on instead of trying to show my husband how to load it. If the laundry isn’t folded correctly, I’ll decide to simply do it myself. On occasion I have found myself venting with friends that it is almost as if our male partners are purposefully doing things wrong so they won’t have to take on more work at home.

While I don’t think this has been the case in my own home, for some women this is a reality. A 2011 survey in the UK found that 30 percent of men deliberately did a poor job on domestic duties so that they wouldn’t be asked to do the job again in the future. They assumed that their frustrated partners would find it easier to do the job themselves than deal with the poor results of their half-hearted handiwork. And they were right. A full 25 percent of the men surveyed said they were no longer asked to help around the house, and 64 percent were only asked to pitch in occasionally (i.e., as a last resort).

Even if men aren’t consciously doing a poor job to get out of housework, their lackluster “help” still frustrates. A similar survey conducted by Sainsbury’s in the UK found that women spent a whole three hours per week, on average, redoing chores they had delegated to their partners. The list where men fell short left little ground uncovered: doing the dishes, making the bed, doing the laundry, vacuuming the floors, arranging couch cushions, and wiping down counters were all areas of complaint. Two-thirds of the women polled felt convinced that this was their partner’s best effort, so perhaps it’s not surprising that more than half didn’t bother “nagging” them to do better. They simply followed their partners around and cleaned up after them.

A survey conducted by Sainsbury’s in the UK found that women spent a whole three hours per week, on average, redoing chores they had delegated to their partners.

The ways in which women cling to maintaining rigid standards is what sociologists call “maternal gatekeeping,” and what we refer to, pre-baby, as simply “perfectionism.” We actively discourage men from becoming full partners at home, because we truly believe we can do everything better, faster, more efficiently than everyone else. Because we are the ones who control all the aspects of home and life organization for our families and especially our children, we become convinced that our way is the only way. We are hesitant to adjust our personal expectations, especially because we have put so much work into caring about our household systems. We’ve carefully considered how to best keep everyone comfortable and happy, so it seems natural that everyone should conform to the best-thought-out plan available: ours.

This thinking is consistently reinforced by a culture that tells us that we should hold ourselves to this higher standard. That if we don’t strive toward perfectionism, we are failing as women. We feel as if we are letting our families down, we are letting womankind down, we are letting ourselves down when we don’t perform emotional labor in the most intense possible way. Yet this level of perfectionism can be exhausting, and it dissuades those men who would help from even trying. Instead of assuming that men can hold down the fort while we are out of town, we leave a veritable handbook on how they should best care for their own children. Dufu writes in her book that she once wrote a list for her husband titled “Top Ten Tips for Traveling with Kofi,” which included, among other things, a reminder to feed their child. I have left freezer meals and detailed instructions for my husband on how to feed himself when I am out of town so he doesn’t wander into the grocery store and spend $200 on two days’ worth of food, instead of involving him in the process of meal planning so he could take it on himself. It’s not just society but also my maternal gatekeeping that contributes to the mental load I’ve taken on. I don’t leave room for mistakes, and because of that, I don’t leave room for progress. Then again, when I do, I’ve been let down.


We had both been warned by my oral surgeon that my wisdom tooth extraction was likely going to put me down for a few days, but instead of the intense prep I would normally do ahead of time, I assumed my husband would take over what I couldn’t do. He’d been slowly but surely picking up his share of emotional labor since my Harper’s Bazaar article had appeared three months earlier. He seemed ready to take on the type of full day I would have put in before he was laid off. The day of the surgery, I felt mostly fine immediately afterward. I took my pain pills but was moving around, had minimal swelling, and spent the evening going over the plans for the next day with Rob. I had worked with our son on his homework, but there was still one page that needed to be finished in the morning. He was allowed to bring in a Game Boy for the special “electronics day” their class had earned. Our daughter needed to go to preschool at 8:30 a.m., but her needs were simple — get her dressed, brush her hair, fill her water bottle. Our son had the option of hot lunch if the morning got out of hand, and I encouraged Rob to use it but just remember to pack him a snack. He had been around and helping with the morning routine for weeks since his layoff. I assumed he could do it alone just this once, though we both thought he wouldn’t have to. After all, I was fine.

Well, I was fine until 11:45 p.m., when I woke up crying and frantically scrambling for pain pills. The left side of my face had swollen to the size of a baseball, and I spent hours awake in excruciating pain. When morning came, the situation was even worse, and I could barely function. Rob woke me at 8:30 a.m. to tell me he was taking our daughter to school along with our youngest. Our six-year-old would have to be walked to school in half an hour. I set an alarm on my phone in case I dozed off, and our son came into the room and talked with me. I asked him if he had everything ready — his lunch, his clothes, his homework. He said yes, and I lay back relieved. I was barely able to get myself out of bed to walk him to school and found myself resenting the fact that his dad hadn’t thought to take all of them to drop off like I had done when he was working. My face throbbed with pain as I slipped on shoes and a jacket, then instructed our son to do the same. Then I came into the living room at the moment we had to leave and realized that my six-year-old had been wrong. His homework hadn’t been done or checked. His lunch hadn’t been packed. He didn’t have a snack or fresh water. He didn’t have an electronic device to bring to school for their special day. Now not only was I suffering the guilt of not getting him ready, but he would have to suffer the consequences of no one helping him. He would have to stay in at recess to complete his homework. He wouldn’t get the thirty minutes of electronic time his friends would have. I was able to grab an orange and throw it in his backpack for a snack, but it was too late for the rest of it. Even though my husband had been the one on duty for the morning, I was the one left with the guilt of taking my son to school ill prepared. I felt like I should have better prepared my husband to take over for me. I should have implemented my system better. If letting Rob take over was going to mean my kids’ needs falling through the cracks, I wasn’t here for it. I needed a better option, and that better option seemed to be doing things my way.

I was trying to let go of control, or adjust my expectations, or compromise my standards, but we kept coming up short. We kept missing that elusive balance, and more frustratingly, I was the only one who felt bad about it. I was the one who cared.

When I later brought up the morning mishap with Rob, he felt guilty also, but not in the way I had. He was able to acknowledge the problem, say he was sorry, and move on. He didn’t beat himself up over his mistake in the way I was beating myself up for not hovering more diligently. Parenting mistakes aren’t a moral failing for him like they are for me. Dads get the at-least-he’s-trying pat on the back when people see them mess up. Moms get the eye rolls and judgment. Everything that happened that morning was still “my fault,” because I wasn’t living up to the standard I should set for myself as a mom: the standard of perfection.

I was still expected to be the one in charge, even when I was incapacitated, because isn’t that just what moms are supposed to do? He wasn’t expected to have the morning routine locked down. He was still a dad — still exempt from judgment. Despite now being the at-home parent, at least for the time being, it still wasn’t his primary job or responsibility. It was mine, just as it had always been. I was trying to treat my husband as an equal partner. I was trying to let go of control, or adjust my expectations, or compromise my standards, but we kept coming up short. We kept missing that elusive balance, and more frustratingly, I was the only one who felt bad about it. I was the one who cared.


The day my Harper’s Bazaar article on emotional labor went live, I went out for wine with my friend, and we immediately dove into the conversation. I wasn’t asked to explain the concept or clarify any points. She had an intrinsic knowledge of this problem that previously had no name, as did every woman I spoke to for weeks afterward. After a day spent walking on eggshells trying to further clarify the issue of emotional labor for Rob, it felt good to let loose with someone who got it. Someone who cared in the same way I did.

My friend told me how she had set a pile of bedding and other things that needed to be taken up at the bottom of the stairs. Much like my blue Rubbermaid storage bin in the closet, the bedding was difficult for her to put away and quite easy for her husband. It was also impossible not to notice — you’d have to jump over two steps or push it all to the side to go up the stairs without it. Yet that was exactly what her husband did, ignoring the obvious task in front of him, not out of spite but out of what seemed to be sheer ignorance that this was a problem at all. If it was, she would have asked him for help, right? It wasn’t up to him to notice. Realizing what needed to be done in the home was her job. She decided to go the passive-aggressive route of taking it all upstairs herself and putting it away in front of him (clearly, we are kindred spirits), getting an apology for a problem that wasn’t fully understood, and coming out on a wine date with me so she could explain to someone who would get it.

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I have had conversations with my friends about emotional labor more times than I can count, most of them long before I chose to write on the topic. Women talk to each other about the emotional labor we perform, because we all understand it deeply. We all care in similar ways. We all know how hard it is. Emotional labor is rooted in our relationships in a way that seems unshakable, even when we reach our final breaking point. One woman, upon becoming overwhelmed with the emotional labor she was performing, told her partner the only way they were staying together was for him to go to a therapist. He asked her to find one and make an appointment for him. “It went right over his head,” she says. “He’s never going to get it.”

It’s no wonder women come to each other with our problems instead of hashing them out with our partners. We talk about all the work we do — emotion work, kin work, domestic work, clerical work — because we know other women will not only recognize it but validate its worth, whereas men, through their actions, and the larger culture do not. There is so much behind-the-scenes work that we do day in and day out, and it often feels thankless and unseen. We share our stories with one another, talking to our girlfriends instead of our partners because that is where the understanding is. Our conversations with each other help us feel seen, make visible the invisible. It doesn’t change the dynamic with our partners, but it helps us feel a little less alone when we go home.

One woman, upon becoming overwhelmed with the emotional labor she was performing, told her partner the only way they were staying together was for him to go to a therapist. He asked her to find one and make an appointment for him.

But while feeling seen by women helps, it doesn’t provide a solution to the frustration we feel when work is left unnoticed and unappreciated at home. The mental load still waits for us. The delegation of labor must be done, and a fine line must be walked to ensure our frustration doesn’t show. So why not just talk about it with our partners, rather than behind their backs? The truth is, that’s easier said than done. Most women have had the talk about emotional labor at some point in their relationships only to have the talk become a fight. Our words fall on deaf — or at least defensive — ears.

Talking about emotional labor requires emotional labor.

When I try to explain emotional labor to my husband, it sounds to him like I’m saying, “You don’t care at all.” He hears that I don’t appreciate the work he puts in. But his response ignores the extensive emotional labor that goes into the way I live my life. We usually don’t go near the heart of the problem. It’s why my conversations about emotional labor have always been so cyclical. I try to talk to Rob, and we don’t see eye to eye. The emotional labor of the conversation becomes too much for me, so I instead talk to other women who will understand. We vent, we share, we bolster each other until we reach the breaking point again. Most of the time, the struggle takes place in my mind. On the outside, I look fine — maybe a little stressed but fine. Which is why the outbursts of overwhelm seem so out of nowhere when they occur.

“Men aren’t privy to the conversations that we have with one another, so for them it looks like we have it all together,” Dr. Froswa Booker-Drew, author of Rules of Engagement: Making Connections Last, tells me the first time we talk. We’ve been talking about the wisdom of womanhood and how sharing our stories with one another helps ease the burden of emotional labor, but now for the first time, I’m wondering if only talking to one another has been harming us as well. Having space to tell our stories, to bring our invisible work into the light is vital, but nothing changes if men cannot also see, hear, and tell each other these stories.

As we talk about her personal life, she tells me about the disconnect between her husband’s view of her as a force of nature, able to get all these things done with ease, and her frequent feeling that she needs help. What he sees is her ability to come up with all the solutions to keep things running smoothly. In his mind, if she needed the help, she would speak up about it, they would hire someone, and that would be the end of it. What appears to him as an innate ability to make sure everything is taken care of, however, is not as simple as it looks. He doesn’t understand the cultural pressure she feels to “do it all.” He doesn’t understand the mental work, not to mention guilt, that would have to be factored into changing the system.

“He doesn’t have the same lens that I do,” she says. “He means well, he just doesn’t get it.”


One of our biggest problems seems to be that we can never simply focus on any one part. We are always juggling the whole of our lives, no matter where we are or what we are doing. Even now, as I sit here writing, I am calculating the drive time to the restaurant where we are meeting my in-laws for a birthday celebration, thinking of the housework that needs to be done, refreshing email for my freelance work, trying to convince myself the mental noise will calm when I write another massive to-do list, even though I know it will simply lead me down the rabbit hole of connecting one task to another to another to another.

If it seems men don’t have this problem, that may be because it’s true. Men might be better at compartmentalizing, because their brains are wired differently. In a 2013 study published by the National Academy of Sciences, scientists found significant differences in brain connectivity patterns between men and women. On average, men had greater connectivity in each individual hemisphere of the brain, while women have much greater connectivity across hemispheres. Our broadly connected wires can be a great blessing or a great curse, depending on the circumstance. When we’re tackling the problem of orchestrating the schedules of five family members from memory, it can really give us a leg up. When we need to disconnect from home and focus on the work at hand, the connectivity of our mental and emotional load can drag us down. It can also be a big roadblock in trying to communicate the burden of the mental load and emotional labor to our partners. We’re living such different experiences through both our social conditioning and our manner of thinking that it’s hard to see eye to eye. That’s why we call our girlfriends. It’s why women I’ve never met before get it, and my partner of thirteen years doesn’t. It’s also why the most common answer I get when talking to women who feel like they’ve reached a balance is this: you have to let go. The clean house, the perfect motherhood, the laundry, the mental lists, the worry — it all has to go.

There are very few things I do for the joy of control or cleanliness. There is a lot I do to avoid dysfunction and tension. The idea that women should simply ease up to avoid conflict belies the fact that we do this care-based labor with intention.

Tiffany Dufu, author of Drop the Ball, spends her entire book detailing a journey from total control freak (she refers to herself as recovering from “home control disease”) to a truly equal partnership with her husband. I immediately recognized her situation before I was halfway through the introduction as she writes about the bubbling resentment she feels upon realizing what an unfair load she has opted to take on in comparison to her husband. “I was his solution to having it all. What would be mine?” she asked herself.

So she made a change and handed off some responsibility (and mental load) to her partner. I was swept into her story but somewhat horrified when I learned what dropping the ball meant for her. Handing over the reins to her husband seemed to also mean turning a blind eye to a job done incredibly poorly. She tells about how she handed over mail duty to him, and it piled up on the table for three months before being opened. There were parking tickets that went to collections, birthday invitations that went without an RSVP, not to mention the eyesore of a mountain of mail. When he offers to take over meal prep duty after she receives a job opportunity, he makes a single stew for them to eat all month long. It’s not the way she would have done it, but it’s efficient, and it works. She says she feels capable of letting her preconceived standards slide because she is clear on her priorities. “It’s important to disrupt what a standard even is,” says Dufu. “I take issue with the narrative that a woman’s standard is either the best way or the most efficient way.” I have to admit, it’s a pill that’s hard for me to swallow. She tells me they have come to a bit of a compromise on the stew (he has added a bit of variety and makes a different meal each week nowadays), but they don’t have a lot of back-and-forth to perfect the way he does his part. They never have. The work she is doing in lieu of micromanaging is more important than making sure everything is done “her” way.

Clearly going completely hands-off works for her. She shifted her priorities and let the less important balls drop, along with any guilt she felt. She even tells me about a birthday party her daughter had recently missed because she does not handle the calendar (that task is squarely in her husband’s court). Since most parents don’t forward invitations to dads, this isn’t an unusual occurrence. Her daughter was in tears. All her classmates were at the party, and she wasn’t, and for a second grader, that’s total devastation. Dufu knows she could have prevented this and other calendar heartbreaks. But she won’t. She doesn’t pick up the balls she has decided to drop, or the guilt that goes with them. Instead she takes her daughter out for a pink-sprinkle doughnut and knows another party will come. She knows her value as a mother doesn’t hinge on one missed party or anything else she has decided to forgo for the sake of fulfilling her best and highest purpose. “There are so many things that I don’t do, that I have decided are okay for me not to do.” I feel envious of her freedom though perhaps not of the method she used to achieve it.

“I would die,” I told Rob as I relayed the mail story.

“You would kill me,” he corrected.


Every now and again, I drop the ball on laundry: I do a load and it sits in the dryer for a few days while I am overwhelmed by other tasks. My husband will happily dig out whatever he needs and leave the rest, but it becomes a point of contention if he runs out of workout clothes or my son’s favorite pair of pants remains unwashed. It is why my household system usually does not allow for laundry to sit unfinished, at least not for more than a day. It’s easier for me and for everyone else if the laundry is folded and put away. It gets everyone ready for the day and out the door with minimal panic over what to wear. From a distance, it may look as if my system of doing laundry daily for one load or every other day for both lights and darks is overkill — born from a desire to be the boss of the household and nothing else. Why does it matter so much? Why don’t I just relax? Because I know it inconveniences not just me but others if I let it slide. It matters because it helps me take care of my family with the least amount of friction. There are very few things I do for the joy of control or cleanliness. There is a lot I do to avoid dysfunction and tension.

The idea that women should simply ease up to avoid conflict belies the fact that we do this care-based labor with intention. Certainly, we are capable of compromise, but when it comes right down to it, we are the ones who have carefully considered why we order our lives the way we do. Telling us to ease up is not a favor. It is a misunderstanding of why we undertake emotional labor in the first place.

We don’t want to be nags. We just want everything to get done, and it’s hard to do it alone. Being seen as a nag is one reason women spend so much mental energy choosing whether to delegate tasks, otherwise known as “asking for help” — which most women don’t want to have to ask for in the first place. It’s the reason some women take the mental work of delegation off their plate and decide instead to become martyrs to the household work. I’ve flip-flopped between the two unsavory options in my own life more than once. Becoming the martyr takes the mental work of delegating off my plate but increases my overall workload. Being the nag takes extensive emotion work to get everyone to comply. Some women successfully take alternate paths, like freeing themselves of emotional labor, but that never seemed like a solution that could last for me. I don’t want to give up the work of caring. I just want others to care as well.

* * *

Gemma Hartley is a journalist and writer whose work has appeared in Glamour, Women’s Health, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, Harper’s Bazaar, Huffington Post, and the Washington Post, among other outlets. She lives in Reno, Nevada with her husband and three children.

Longreads Editor: Dana Snitzky

24 Jul 04:16

Developer Roadmaps

by Chris Coyier

The path to becoming a front-end developer, as looked back upon by anyone who self-identifies that way, is likely a very windy one full of thorn bushes and band websites. Still, documenting a path, even if it's straighter and far cleaner than reality, is an interesting exercise and might just be valuable. Three different writer/developers have taken a crack at it this year and their results have been extraordinarily popular. Let's take a look.

These might help inform web education curriculum as well.

Kamran Ahmed's Modern Front-End Developer in 2018

From here.

Adam Gołąb's React Developer Roadmap

From here.

Adnan Ahmed's Modern Back-End Developer in 2018

From here.

Flavio Copes's Roadmap to Become a Vue.js Developer 2018

From here.

My own path is something I documented in a different format, but is no less complex. It'd be interesting to see if we can get a collection of these going based on your own experiences.

The post Developer Roadmaps appeared first on CSS-Tricks.

26 Jun 21:19

The Government Campaign to Get Rid of Singapore's Unofficial Language

by Dan Nosowitz

Imagine that the language you speak with your friends, with your family, with people on the street, a language unique to your country and objectively very interesting and cool, is, officially, considered lesser and unworthy. This kind of thing has happened around the world throughout history: African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) speakers in the United States, for example, have also had their language marginalized and demeaned by the ruling power. Now, it’s happening in Singapore.

Singapore is an immigrant country with four official languages: English, Malay, Tamil, and Mandarin. Officially, English is the most commonly spoken language in Singaporean homes, having recently and just barely edged out Mandarin. Unofficially? That’s completely wrong. Because what’s likely the actual most common language spoken does not appear on the census. That language is called Singlish.

Singlish can broadly be categorized as a creole, which is a full language that arises suddenly, usually with one language as its base, but with unique grammatical features and many words from at least one other language. This kind of language comes about when people who don’t speak the same language are suddenly living in the same place. Many creoles came from the slave trade: one person speaks one language, another speaks a second language, and they’re both moved to a place where they have to work together and live together and communicate. The base language is usually the language of the ruling class or imperial power; it’s a language that those two slaves need to understand a little, but they bring elements of their own languages into it. At first, this kind of language is classified as a pidgin, which is sort of a shorthand that exists solely for necessary communication alongside other full languages. But in some cases, it evolves into a full language of its own, one that can handle all the tasks any other language handles, at which point it’s called a creole.

Singlish has its base in English, because Singapore was a British colony for most of its modern history. But the vast majority of the population came from countries where English was not the dominant language, mostly mainland China, Malaysia, and India. Thus Singlish was born.


“Singlish itself, in its full-blown version, can get quite hard to understand [for non-Singaporean English speakers],” says Jakob Leimgruber, a sociolinguist and assistant professor who wrote his thesis on Singlish. Singaporeans are rarely monolingual, and conversations can often include bits and pieces, or full sentences, in multiple languages, which can make trying to isolate Singlish a bit tricky. But, despite the fact that Singapore is made up of multiple ethnic groups who speak different languages, Singlish itself is “remarkably consistent,” says Leimgruber, across the entire populace.

At least, it’s consistent across all ethnic groups. Socioeconomically, it’s more likely that poorer and/or older Singaporeans would speak Singlish more often; younger and wealthier Singaporeans are more likely to be able to switch between Singlish and more widely understood varieties of English. But Leimgruber says that few, if any, Singaporeans would be completely unfamiliar with Singlish, largely due to the country’s compulsory military service, which places people from all economic backgrounds together.

The language includes lots of loanwords from the other major languages spoken in Singapore, especially Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. These are really, really common, to the point where sometimes it can sound as if the speaker has simply switched languages mid-thought. And there are some pronunciation things; words that end with a lot of consonants, for example, tend to get simplified, so a word like “texts” would be pronounced more like “tex.” But it gets much more interesting than that; it has a whole mess of totally distinct grammatical features that make it unusual.

An easy one to understand is the word “lah,” which is what’s known in linguistics as a tag. It’s attached, often but not exclusively, to the end of sentences. It’s roughly similar to the Canadian “eh,” and various other English words or phrases used around the world (“right,” “you know,” “innit”). It is ubiquitous in Singapore, as associated with Singlish as the Canadian “eh” is with Canada, although interestingly there is no pause between the end of the sentence and “lah,” as there is with “eh.” Imagine it as just...not having a comma. “So you’d just race into it lah”? Singlish has so, so many of these lightly modifying tags: leh, mah, lor, hor, har, ar. They all convey slightly different things about the relationship between the speaker and listener, or the way the speaker wants the listener to interpret what was just said.

Interestingly, the Singaporean government does not have a firm definition of what “standard English” means.

Singlish speakers use the present tense when referring to people who are alive, or probably still alive. In English, you might say, “I went to Thailand last year, and the guide spoke fluent Spanish.” In Singlish, it would be, “the guide speaks fluent Spanish.” The thinking is that the guide continues to speak Spanish; whether you are in Thailand does not affect the guide’s ability to speak Spanish.

Then there’s the word “kena,” which is pronounced something like “kih-NAH.” There are words like this in Asian languages such as Malay and Hokkien, but not really in English. It’s a grammatical word used to mark the passive and usually right before or even instead of a verb; it means something, some verb action, happened to the subject of the sentence. Interestingly, it’s only ever used for negative things; you could say “the teacher kena scolded him,” but not “the teacher kena praised him.” “Tio” is similar, though it can be used for positive actions as well, like “She tio money on the ground.”

The English word “then” has, in Singlish, been changed to “den,” and its meanings have been pretty radically changed. It can be used to describe an action that will happen in the future, as in ”I den talk to you.” It can be used in about a dozen other ways, meaning “therefore,” as a link to a previous sentence, or alone as a sarcastic sort of “oh yeah?” meaning. The pronunciation might subtly change as well, by lengthening or dragging out the final consonant, to indicate the way in which the word is being used.

“Den” is one of many examples of ways in which Singlish sort of sounds like English, but actually packs a whole other bunch of meanings into it. If you were to just translate “den” as “then,” you wouldn’t really be getting it; you can’t use “den” in some places you’d use “then,” and vice versa, and it sometimes means something other than what “then” would mean.


Singlish also uses a lot of reduplication, which is repeating the same word. English doesn’t do this much; it might have a phrase like “very, very big,” in which the repetition is used to amplify the word “very.” “Very, very big” is even bigger than “very big,” which is bigger than “big.” In Singlish, that’s not at all how reduplication works. Take a sentence like this: “Your son short short.”

For one thing, that’s not a typo; Singlish, like Hebrew and a few other languages, simply doesn’t use the verb “to be.” (Singlish also often omits articles like “the” and “a/an.”) But the reduplication thing: “short short” doesn’t mean “very short.” Instead the reduplication of the word is a dampener, taking the whole phrase to something more like “short-ish.” This kind of reduplication can be used with both adjectives and verbs; you can take a walk walk, which would be a very mild stroll.

Anyway, that’s just a brief survey, and it might even underplay exactly how different from English Singlish really is. Leimgruber says Singlish is mostly mutually comprehensible with English, but I’m not so sure. Take a look at the Singlish dub of Beauty and the Beast.

Singlish is spoken across all ethnic groups in Singapore, even across economic strata. But the government hates it. Since the year 2000, the Singaporean government has been conducting a campaign called the “Speak Good English Movement,” which is specifically designed to discourage the use of Singlish and encourage the use of standard English.

Interestingly, the Singaporean government does not have a firm definition of what “standard English” means; they aren’t strictly teaching British Received Pronunciation or New England Prep School English or Australian English or anything else. By “standard,” they seem to simply mean “English that can be readily understood by English speakers outside Singapore.”

The campaign is not overtly violent or racist in the same way marginalization of Irish Gaelic or AAVE speakers was and is. The Singaporean government does outreach, posting signs around public transit telling people the “correct” way to pronounce words, hosting writing competitions for kids in school, that kind of thing. “These words are very similar and many often get them confused, but do you know when it's more appropriate to use a particular word? Put your grammar skills to the test and see how you fare!” reads one quiz. Is it “The mother put her children to sleep at night” or “the mother put her children to bed at night”?

The government’s reasoning is that English is the international language of commerce, and that Singapore has an inherent advantage because, it being a former British colony, English is already widely spoken. But if instead it’s Singlish that people are speaking, this could make for a serious obstacle to international financial success.

Since the early 1980s, the idea that any one language can be “correct” or “good,” while others are “incorrect” or “bad,” has been widely panned by linguists. Bill Labov, pioneering linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, was among the first to study AAVE as a regular language, one with rules that can’t be broken and unique features and an evolution, rather than as some mangled form of standard English. Since then, the idea that all languages are just, you know, different, rather than good or bad, has been the norm. Singapore’s shunning of Singlish is, from that perspective, retrograde and maybe even offensive.

Singlish itself is pretty well-studied, though a lot of the publications—dictionaries, for example—are more jokey than serious academic works. And Singaporeans have not risen up to protest the marginalization of Singlish. “There’s much less of an advocacy for Singlish in Singapore,” says Leimgruber. There are some—again, jokey—organizations, like the Speak Good Singlish Movement Facebook page. (“Harlow, welcome to the Speak Good Singlish Movement. Our Gahmen has been damn siao on, trying to tell us to speak good engrish, good chinese. This is the Facebook Singlish Speaker's Corner, let it all out my friends. Don't be paiseh.”)

But Singaporeans seem fairly comfortable switching between Singlish and Singapore-inflected English, or Mandarin or Malay or any of the other languages spoken in Singapore. Leimgruber says that Singaporeans don’t disagree that some mutually comprehensible form of English is important to learn, and in many situations (speaking to foreigners, job interviews) will switch to English. The degree to which people are aware of the differences between Singlish and English varies; most Singlish speakers will probably not use the many Mandarin or Malay words when speaking a more standard English, but some of those grammatical differences would likely remain.

But, says Leimgruber, Singlish is not really in any danger of dying out, despite the government’s hopes. (He says that in cases where the government really feels the need to connect with the populace, like in elections, government officials will sometimes lapse into Singlish.) It’s as close to a unique national language as Singapore gets lah?

27 Apr 02:17

Queens of Infamy: Eleanor of Aquitaine

by Anne Thériault

Anne Thériault | Longreads | April 2018 | 16 minutes (4,246 words)


From the notorious to the half-forgotten, Queens of Infamy, a Longreads series by Anne Thériault, focuses on badass world-historical women of centuries past.

* * *

I’ve been fascinated by Eleanor of Aquitaine for as long as I can remember.

That sounds like it might be hyperbole or bragging, but it’s genuinely not. For most of that time I didn’t even know her name. To me, she was the royal mother in Disney’s Robin Hood, a woman whose maternal love — or lack thereof — shapes the entire story. Her eternal disappointment in her (admittedly very disappointing) youngest son, Prince John, is cited both by his allies and his enemies; John himself obsesses over her approval, at one point sucking his thumb in the middle of a muddy high street and wailing for mommy. Somehow, Eleanor manages to be a scene-stealer without ever being in a single scene. As a three-year-old, I was hooked.

Eleanor was a scene-stealer in real life, too, and more than deserving of her own Disney franchise. She was married to both the King of France and the King of England. (Though, sadly, not at the same time.) She was an early prison abolitionist. She raised a rebellion with her sons against their father. She heavily influenced ideas of courtly love and chivalry, concepts that during the Victorian age would become synonymous with the word “medieval.” No one was getting shit done like Eleanor.

Eleanor was probably born in 1122 or 1124 (although dates are conflicting, because even nobility couldn’t be bothered to keep decent records when it came to girls). She was the eldest child of William X, Duke of Aquitaine, and Aenor de Châtellerault, who apparently was really into her name because she gave it to her daughter. Eleanor is an anglicization of Aliénor, which comes from the Latin alia Aenor — literally, “the other Aenor.” It wasn’t unusual at the time for highborn women to name their daughters after themselves — in fact, Eleanor would pass her name on to one of her own children — and anyway, Aenor came from a family full of women with interesting names. Her own mother was called Dangereuse, a reference to her beguiling ways with men, and as a nickname it supplanted her given name to the point where scholars are not actually sure what her given name was.

Aquitaine sits in the southwest corner of modern-day France — I say “modern-day” because in the 12th century, what was called “France” was the small chunk of land around Paris that is now known as the Île-de-France — and by the time William X rolled in as Duke, it was the richest and largest duchy in the neighbourhood.

Aquitaine in the late-Medieval period was a centre of culture, fashion, and higher learning (12th-century Paris, by comparison, was kind of a dull backwater). It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Eleanor was given the best education available, which included arithmetic, astronomy, and history along with “domestic arts” like household management, sewing, and spinning. When William X’s only son died in 1130, Eleanor (who would have been between 6 and 8 years old) became her father’s heir presumptive, a fact that would have kicked her education into high gear. While her brother still lived, Eleanor was being prepared for life as a powerful man’s wife. After his death, she had to be taught how to wield that power herself. Eleanor, who reportedly dazzled the Aquitanian court with her wit and beauty, was more than equal to the challenge.

When William X died in 1137, teenaged Eleanor became the most eligible bachelorette in all of Europe.

In his will, William appointed Louis VI of France as Eleanor’s guardian, asking the king to protect his lands and daughter until a suitable husband could be found. Literally hours after learning of William’s death, Louis arranged for Eleanor to marry his 17-year-old heir, also named Louis, meaning that he conveniently got to maintain control of Aquitaine. Well, sort of. According to the marriage agreement, Eleanor’s lands would come under the control of the crown only when Eleanor and Louis Jr.’s imaginary future son became King of France. Until then, Aquitaine would remain independent, with Eleanor as its leader.

What was the granddaughter of Dangereuse supposed to do with a boy raised by monks? Not much, judging by the extreme slowness with which they produced heirs.

Was it the slickest deal the king had ever made? No, probably not. But Louis Sr., who had dysentery at the time and was pooping himself to death in the midst of arranging his son’s wedding, was no doubt happy to take what he could get.

Louis VI died exactly a week after his son married Eleanor, meaning that she and her new husband got a very quick promotion to Queen and King of France. Having initially been installed in Aquitaine as the new Duke and Duchess, Louis VII and Eleanor found themselves back on the road, this time heading to Paris.

It seems important to note here that Louis VII was never supposed to be the King of France. That title was supposed to go to his older brother Philippe. Except that in 1131, 15-year-old Philippe was killed when the horse he was riding tripped over a wayward pig that had suddenly darted out of a dung heap.

As the younger royal brother, Louis Jr. was meant to have some kind of ecclesiastical career, and to that end he was raised and educated in the abbey of Saint-Denis in Paris. After Philippe’s death by shit pig, Louis re-entered court life in preparation to someday succeed his father, but his monastic schooling held a strong influence over his character. When he became king at 17, Louis VII was only marginally less guileless than he had been six years earlier when he left Saint-Denis; Eleanor was, arguably, much more suited to ruling than her husband, both in temperament and education. It must have exasperated her to no end to tolerate this milquetoast of a man not only as her husband, but also as her sovereign.

Louis was pretty keen on the turn his fortunes had taken, perhaps not least because he was very obviously and deeply besotted with his worldly new bride. Eleanor, however, was much less impressed with her new life. After growing up in her father’s dazzling court, she found Paris to be an uncultured hole and Louis VII a pious bore. What was the granddaughter of Dangereuse supposed to do with a boy raised by monks? Not much, judging by the extreme slowness with which they produced heirs. Since both would later go on to (SPOILER ALERT) have no problem making babies with subsequent spouses, the problem was probably less to do with fertility and more to do with general incompatibility.

After eight years of being married, Eleanor finally had a baby, a daughter named Marie. Eight months after Marie’s birth, Eleanor and Louis decided to go on a crusade. It’s extremely unclear why anyone thought this was a good idea. Maybe they thought it would bring the romance back into their marriage? A crusade is pretty high stakes. They should have started with roleplaying or whatever the Medieval equivalent of butt plugs was (it was probably just butt plugs).

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The crusade was, predictably, a complete shitshow. It was a shitshow before they even got to Antioch, and then became even more of a shitshow. At the time, Antioch was ruled by Raymond of Poitiers, the youngest brother of Eleanor’s father and a man described by his contemporary William of Tyre as being “the handsomest of the princes of the earth.” Eleanor was, presumably, pretty happy to see Uncle Raymond for a number of reasons: his court reminded her of the court she’d grown up in at Aquitaine, they spoke the same langue d’oc dialect, and he was genuinely kind to her. It must have felt like coming home after a decade of exile. The result of all these extremely normal emotions was that Eleanor spent a lot of time with Raymond, staying up late and laughing and drinking wine and conversing endlessly in a language Louis didn’t understand.

Everyone assumed that Eleanor and (admittedly smokin’ hot) Raymond were having an affair, because heaven forbid a miserable, homesick girl enjoy a visit with her uncle.

Whether or not the rumors were true, Eleanor compounded them by refusing to return to Paris and also saying she wanted to have her marriage annulled because of consanguinity. Eleanor argued that since she and Louis were third cousins once removed, their relationship amounted to incest — which is a pretty rich declaration to be made by someone who is maybe boning her uncle. Go big or (literally) go home (with your husband, whom you hate), I guess.

A crusade is pretty high stakes. They should have started with roleplaying or whatever the Medieval equivalent of butt plugs was (it was probably just butt plugs).

Eleanor — subject to who knows what kind of threats, promises, and threats that sounded like promises — eventually did leave Antioch with Louis to go loiter around the Holy Land for a while. Wait, you might be saying, what about that whole crusade, though? Weren’t they there to, oh, I don’t know, fight a war? Well, yeah, that was their original intention. But when they got to Antioch, Louis found out that the city he’d been intending to save, Edessa, had been razed. Louis was, somewhat understandably, relieved that he didn’t actually have to fight anyone. Raymond suggested that since Edessa was gone, maybe they could just go do a holy war somewhere else, in a conversation that presumably went something like this:

RAYMOND: Bro. Bro! It sucks that your crusade got cancelled or whatever, but we could totally still fight some bitches

LOUIS: Oh ummm actually my heart was just really set on Edessa? So I think I’m just going to pass

RAYMOND: Seriously, bro? Because we could totally go to Aleppo on a crusade!

LOUIS: it’s just that I’m definitely what I would call a planner, and Aleppo wasn’t on the itinerary I’d drawn up, so…

RAYMOND: Eleanor, don’t you think we should go to Aleppo?

ELEANOR: yeah, you guys should totally go to Aleppo! Get your war on!

ELEANOR: I mean, it would really suck if I was ever a widow

ELEANOR: but I’m willing to risk that for Jesus or whatever


LOUIS: you know, normally? I would totally be down. It’s just that I’m actually pretty tired so I think I’ll just do some pilgrimages to the Holy Land and then go home. Maybe we could try again next year?

The voyage from the Holy Land to France was eventful, to say the least. Eleanor, who still wanted an annulment (or maybe a widowhood), travelled in her own ship with her own retinue. During her trip home, Eleanor’s ship was captured by Byzantine pirates, then rescued, then forced to make landfall in North Africa. Once she finally made it to Sicily she found out that her beloved Uncle Raymond had been beheaded in Aleppo (Louis: “not to say I told you so, but I told you so.”). Then, just to cap all this shit off, the pope refused Eleanor’s request to dissolve her marriage.

We don’t really know what Eleanor’s reaction to all of this was. Maybe she decided to give up? Maybe she was biding her time? What we do know is that she got pregnant pretty much as soon as she got back to Paris, and in 1150 she gave birth to her second daughter, Alix (or Alice, depending on whose interpretation you’re going by; Louis would later have another daughter whose name is spelled by various historians as Alys and Alix, so it’s kind of confusing).

Meanwhile, Louis was picking a fight in Normandy with its current duke (and hopeful heir to the English throne), 17-year-old Henry Plantagenet. It’s kind of a long story, but basically Louis was concerned that the the growth of the Plantagenets’ power spelled bad news for him, so he launched a preemptive strike against Henry. Henry was already fighting for the English crown, and was at risk of stretching his forces too thin. When his father suggested he find some kind of compromise with the French king, Henry managed to broker an uneasy peace. When Henry came to Paris to hammer out the deals of this peace he would have met 27-year-old Eleanor for the first time.

HENRY: Hey girl. Hey. Heyyyyyyy. Girl. Hey. What’s up?

ELEANOR: Oh. Um. Hey.

HENRY: I love wars

HENRY: I’m a super-capable leader

HENRY: not sure if you’ve ever heard of my mom, but thanks to her I’m really into strong female characters

HENRY: have you ever been to England?

HENRY: it’s pretty ok

HENRY: like I’m just saying if you ever wanted to live there

HENRY: as my queen

HENRY: because Louis sucks

HENRY: I would give you so many sons

HENRY: lol, so many of them

HENRY: you’d be drowning in sons

HENRY: anyway, think it over

HENRY: here’s an engraving of my dick to remember me by

HENRY: ok, talk later!!!

Just over half a year after Eleanor and Henry first met, Eleanor’s marriage to Louis was annulled. By a group of French Bishops. Who had the blessing of the pope. For reasons of consanguinity.

Don’t even ask me what the logic was there. If Louis and Eleanor were too related to be married in 1152, presumably they were also too related to be married back in 1149 when Eleanor first petitioned the pope? Did the pope just get worn down like the parent of a toddler who has told their child 318 times they can’t have a cookie and finally, on the 319th time, can’t manage to form the word “no” and just hands over a cookie so that they can have five hot seconds of peace and quiet before the child starts asking for a second cookie?

It likely all came down to the fact that Eleanor had only given birth to daughters and Louis was ready to cut his losses and marry someone who could give him a male heir. It was obviously a very trying time for Eleanor, who, upon arriving back in Aquitaine after her annulment, immediately sent a marriage proposal to Henry. Exactly two months after her annulment went through, Eleanor was back at the altar with her favourite English heir (who, I would just like to point out, was even more closely related to Eleanor than Louis had been). Just over a year later Eleanor gave birth to a son, which I’m sure made Louis pee his pants with rage.

When Eleanor married Henry (soon to be Henry II), she left behind her two daughters but brought with her the territory of Aquitaine. By the time Henry succeeded his cousin Stephen as King of England in 1154, the Angevin empire he ruled was the largest, richest, and most powerful force in western Europe. But in spite of the fact that Henry II had a lot of land to surveil (and he did a LOT of surveilling, travelling constantly to quash an uprising here and bring a lord to heel there), he and Eleanor somehow found time to get it on frequently. In the first six years of their marriage, Eleanor gave birth to five children — William, Henry, Matilda, Richard, and Geoffrey — and in the eight years that followed she would give birth to two more daughters, Eleanor and Joan, and a final son, John.

Eleanor argued that since she and Louis were fourth cousins, their relationship amounted to incest — which is a pretty rich declaration to be made by someone who is maybe boning her uncle.

Was their marriage happy? At 800+ years’ remove it’s honestly hard to say. It’s clear that Henry and Eleanor were much more similar in temperament than Louis and Eleanor had ever been, which was both good and bad. Henry recognized Eleanor’s leadership skills early on; he trusted her to take care of England while he was out of the country, and later installed her as ruler of Aquitaine. Some historians describe even their early marriage as “tumultuous” — which I guess means lots of yelling and throwing wine glasses and hate-fucking — but most of those stories hinge on Eleanor’s jealousy of Henry’s mistresses, which is kind of suspect. Certainly Henry was never faithful to his wife — he had several illegitimate children, two of whom he actually acknowledged — but to Eleanor, this fact would have seemed extremely Par For The Course For Powerful Medieval Dudes.

As Eleanor and Henry’s kids got older, the royal couple naturally had to start planning out who would inherit what. Their eldest son, William, had died at the age of three, but they still had four sons among whom Henry had to divide his (substantial) lands. During the negotiation of a peace treaty with France in 1169, it was decided that the eldest of these sons, Young Henry, would marry Marguerite, King Louis’ eldest daughter by his second wife, and inherit England, Normandy, and Anjou. Richard would get Aquitaine, and Geoffrey would marry the only daughter and heir of the Duke of Brittany and eventually inherit the duchy. No formal plans were made for John, a set of circumstances that led to him acquiring the nickname John Lackland.

Shortly before all these announcements were made, Henry and Eleanor had travelled together to Aquitaine with the purpose of installing Eleanor as its duchess regnant. There, Eleanor would keep an independent court that would still technically be overseen by the English crown. This was a politically genius idea on several levels. For one thing, it meant that Henry didn’t have to worry too much about ruling the largest, most foreign, and geographically most distant territory in his holdings. For another thing, the Aquitanians were much happier (and less prone to rebel) under the rule of one of their own. And finally, Eleanor was just really good at being large and in charge; it was what she’d been raised to do, and she’d more than proved her mettle in England whenever Henry was away.

I’m not really going to talk about what was going with Henry at this point in time because a) it’s already extensively documented elsewhere, b) just Google Thomas Becket (or “Thomas à Becket,” if you’re going to be That Dude), and c) this piece of writing is about Eleanor. Men are tiresome and their antics bore me.

Anyway. Back to Eleanor! Things were going great for her in Aquitaine. She was finally appearing in the role she’d (literally) been born to play, and she was the star of the show. Richard joined Eleanor after a few years, since she was ostensibly ruling in his name and he would one day have to take over as Duke of Aquitaine, and during this time the two became very close. You know that scene in Disney’s Robin Hood where a disconsolate Prince John mutters “mother always did like Richard best”? If that is not the truest line in any Disney movie ever, I don’t know what is.

The thing Eleanor was most famous for during this period was the so-called “Court of Love” in Poitiers. It’s hard to know if the Court of Love ever really existed, because only one contemporary writer, Andreas Capellanus, ever mentioned it (and even then, only ten years after the fact). Capellanus alleges that Eleanor, along with her daughter Marie (remember Marie?), Isabelle of Flanders, and Ermengarde of Narbonne, held a court where they acted as a sort of jury over lovers’ disputes and general questions about love. The most famous case revolved around the question of whether or not true love can exist in a marriage — the women ruled that it most likely could not. Foreshadowing!!!

Eleanor wasn’t exactly in jail-jail — she had servants and silk dresses and sumptuous living quarters — but she sure as hell wasn’t free.

The thing about being a king and having heirs is that while they’re a great security feature, they eventually want to, oh, I don’t know, inherit something. Henry had made a lot of promises to his sons — even going as far as having Young Henry crowned King of England in a lavish ceremony — but he wasn’t all that interested in actually ceding any of his power. This may or may not have been because some (if not all) of his sons were low-key useless, or it might have been because Henry was a control freak. Or both! Who knows? What we do know is that as the years went on, Henry the Younger became increasingly resentful.

Things came to a head when Henry II was brokering a marriage deal for his son John. Count Humbert of Maurienne, the father of John’s intended, had clearly heard of John’s nickname Lackland, because he asked Henry what lands, exactly, John would bring to a marriage with his daughter. Henry, caught off guard, quickly named three castles in Anjou. You know, Anjou, the province that was supposed to be part of Henry the Younger’s inheritance. Henry the Younger immediately went to his father-in-law Louis VII, and definitely the following scene happened exactly as I’ve outlined below.

HENRY THE YOUNGER: ugh my dad is the WORST and he never lets me do ANYTHING and now he’s GIVING MY LAND AWAY

LOUIS: Mmmmm yes go on

HENRY THE YOUNGER: He says I spend all my money on jousting!

LOUIS: You don’t say

HENRY THE YOUNGER: But that’s just because I really love jousting!!!

LOUIS: Ok here’s a funny idea

LOUIS: Bear with me

LOUIS: Have you ever considered raising a rebellion against your dad?

LOUIS: LOL just wondering!

LOUIS: You know, fuck him up a bit. Knock him off his high horse. Show him who’s boss.

LOUIS: Anyway, I’m just spitballing some ideas here. Brainstorming. Whatever you call it.

LOUIS: By the way, this has everything to do with my love for you as my son-in-law and nothing to do with my decades-old rivalry with your father

LOUIS: Did you know that I had sex with your mother on SEVERAL occasions?

LOUIS: Tell her I said hi!

Henry the Younger apparently saw some sense in what Louis was saying and organized an uprising posthaste. Richard and Geoffrey joined their older brother’s rebellion, which probably didn’t surprise their father all that much — they were hot-blooded young princes with daddy issues and steam to blow off. But then the unthinkable happened: Eleanor rose in open revolt against her husband.

The how of it all is well-documented, but the why is still a question that puzzles historians. Was Eleanor just a fickle bitch? Was she outraged on her sons’ behalf? Was she wildly jealous of Henry’s mistress Fair Rosamund? Was she incensed by various political decisions that Henry had made over the years in Aquitaine that served to undermine her rule? There are no reliable answers to these questions, although given Eleanor’s intelligence, savviness, and political acumen we can probably narrow it down.

What we do know is that Henry put a swift end to the revolt, forgave his sons, and imprisoned Eleanor for the rest of his life.

Things got bleak at this point. Henry lived for another 16 YEARS and no one is even sure where Eleanor was. Occasionally he would trot her out at Christmas like some kind of show pony and then put her right back wherever he was keeping her. I mean, Eleanor wasn’t exactly in jail-jail — she had servants and silk dresses and sumptuous living quarters — but she sure as hell wasn’t free. Even when Henry the Younger died — after trying to mount a revolt against Richard, because apparently he was incapable of Learning A Fucking Lesson From History — Henry still kept Eleanor under lock and key.

Henry II died in 1189; Richard’s first act after succeeding his father was to set his mother free, ordering that she be allowed to do whatever she wished. What she wished was, among other things, for no one else to endure the brutalities of forced confinement, which she achieved by taking the radical step of emptying the country’s jails. It’s hard to imagine what her feelings must have been at this point — imagine going from being your husband’s prisoner to suddenly being the most powerful woman in the kingdom — but it must have been incredibly satisfying to free everyone Henry had ever put in jail.

Eleanor was 65 at this point but she was still going strong. She helped hold down the fort in England while Richard went on a crusade (these dudes and their fucking crusades, man), and then helped raise money to pay his ransom when he was captured. And even though John was a piece of shit (who tried to pay Richard’s captors to keep him prisoner for longer), Eleanor still helped him acclimatize to kinghood when he unexpectedly inherited the throne. At the age of 75 she travelled across the Pyrenees to Castile, Spain, where she chose one of her granddaughters to be the bride of Louis VII’s grandson, Louis.

Eleanor died at the age of 80, and was entombed next to Henry in Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou, France. By the time of her death she had outlived both of her husbands and six of her eight children. She had been queen of two countries and travelled across Europe multiple times. She had seen the Angevin empire at its height and then watched it begin to crumble in the hands of her incompetent sons. To say that she led a full life is an incredible understatement.

There is an effigy on Eleanor and Henry’s tomb. In it, Eleanor is dressed in a crown and a long bejewelled gown, her head propped up on a pillow. She is spending eternity reading a Bible and studiously ignoring the indignity of sharing a final resting place with the man who made her life pure misery for a decade and a half.

Long live the fucking queen.

* * *

Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based feminist killjoy. She is currently raising one child and three unruly cats. If she has a looming deadline, you can find her procrastinating on Twitter @anne_theriault.

Editor: Ben Huberman

21 Mar 21:46

Photographing a Stormy Sea in All Its Mythic Glory

by Anika Burgess

On February 7, 2016, Storm Imogen rolled in from the English Channel and onto the coast of Southern England. The Met Office, the U.K.’s national weather service, had already issued flood warnings. Ferry operators began to cancel services and the highway authority warned drivers about possible road closures. But photographer Rachael Talibart prepared a little differently. As the storm hit, Talibart set up her camera on Newhaven Beach, East Sussex, and trained her lens on the turbulent sea.

Talibart had spent the winter waiting for the perfect conditions, and finally they'd arrived. She photographed violently churning waves, water whipped by gale-force winds, and giant swells. The images that Storm Imogen helped create marked the beginning of Sirens, a series of big wave photographs that has now been turned into a book. The title of both the book and the images are drawn from myths and legends, particularly the Sirens of Greek mythology who lured sailors to their death.


Talibart has been enchanted by the sea for most of her life. “I grew up by the coast and a large part of my childhood was spent at sea. I used to pass long hours on deck by imagining landscapes and creatures in the waves,” she says. “Later, I studied Homer’s Odyssey and loved all those stories about sea monsters and gods. These influences have come together in Sirens.”

From Storm Imogen, she has Hydra, tumbling crests of crashing water, named after the multi-headed sea serpent from Greek mythology. Kraken, named for the Norwegian sea monster, depicts churning, white-capped seas under thunderous skies. And Mishipeshu Roars, after the Native American sea panther mishipeshu, shows waves surging high across a sea wall and exploding into the air, like two claws reaching toward clouds.

“I like to depict subjects so that they look different from how we may normally see them," Talibart explains. “Using very fast shutter speeds, I have frozen the motion of the waves at a moment that makes them seem to have a character of their own.”


Some of Talibart’s photos include elements of the built environment—a sea wall, a distant lighthouse, a tilting ferry—which emphasize the uncompromising nature of a stormy ocean. These images remind us this is not a domain for humans, something Talibart is conscious of every time she shoots.

“I am wary of the sea’s power. I have retrained myself to shoot with my left eye so I can see the waves coming with my right eye,” she says. “The number of photographers appearing on Newhaven Beach during storms has increased greatly since I started to publish my photographs and some even boast about getting dangerously close to the sea. This is irresponsible. I use a 70-200mm lens and always maintain a safe distance. With practice and vision, it is possible to use composition and point of view to capture the scale of these monstrous waves rather than putting oneself in danger or, worse, encouraging others to do so.”


Talibart also tries to study the restless sea. “Going back to locations repeatedly really helps me improve my photography. After innumerable visits, I know my storm beach very well and I know exactly the right combination of conditions for the shots I want,” she says. “If I see a promising combination of forecast and tide, I’ll get there as early as possible, usually pre-dawn, and shoot until the sea calms or the light fails. Sometimes, I can be on the beach all day.”

Talibart’s dedication has paid off. In addition to the book, her Sirens series has been shortlisted for the 2018 Sony World Photography Awards. Yet she still maintains an essential respect for her turbulent muse. “During the storms that produced my Sirens, the sea was simultaneously beautiful and terrifying; I felt very small and humbled but in a good way,” she says. “Working very much in the tradition of the ‘sublime’ in art, I want to convey the awe and exhilaration of being confronted by the ocean in its most tempestuous moods.”

Atlas Obscura has a selection of images from Sirens.

19 Mar 23:46

Crass, Offensive And Politically Incorrect: Does ‘The Book Of Mormon’ Hold Up In 2018?

by Albert Santos

Since it opened on Broadway in 2011, The Book of Mormon has garnered near-universal praise and commercial success. It’s won nine Tony Awards and grossed over $500 million in ticket sales, joining rank with the likes of The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables as one of the most successful musicals of all time. It also banks on being offensive, crass, and politically incorrect.

Last week, the musical opened in Sydney after a year-long sell out debut season in Melbourne. Overseas, the show still plays to packed out theatres daily on both Broadway and London’s West End.

But, whether we like it or not, the world has changed a lot since 2011. We’re now more open, aware, and empathetic to the struggles of marginalised communities, even if that openness is a direct result of much more dire circumstances. Not to mention the fearful reality that a reality TV show host might be the catalyst for the end of the world.

All that in mind, does a musical that lambasts just about everything it can touch hold up in 2018?

“Equal Opportunity Offender”

It goes without saying that a production from the creators of South Park would cause controversy.

When Trey Parker and Matt Stone teamed up with songwriter Robert Lopez (best known today for his Oscar-winning work on Disney’s Frozen) to create The Book Of Mormon back in 2004, some worried that Mormons would heavily protest the musical. Instead, the church was so cool with it they bought out advertising space in the program.

However, the majority of the criticism levelled towards The Book Of Mormon has to do with how it approaches race, not religion.

Most of the musical is set in an impoverished Ugandan village, where a mismatched pair of Utah-raised Mormons are sent for their mandatory two-year evangelical mission. Common racial stereotypes regarding Africa — poverty, warlords and dictators, AIDS, flimsy cult medical practices — are used as a backdrop for the character arcs of the two protagonists, Elders Price and Cunningham.

The Ugandan people are also characterised as dumb and childish: female love interest Nabulungi refers to using a typewriter as “texting”, and female genital mutilation is used to highlight the community’s depravity whilst under the rule of warlord General Buttfuckingnaked.

Upon release, NPR called its characterisation of African communities “cultural colonialism of the most insidious kind,” while a review for Harvard University noted that the Uganda presented in the production looked nothing like the real thing. Compared to the likes of Black Panther or fellow Broadway hit HamiltonThe Book of Mormon certainly feels like a step backwards for pop culture representation.

You could argue that part of The Book of Mormon’s appeal is that it doesn’t beat around the bush: everything is a punchline, because nothing is sacred.

But while it sells itself as an “equal-opportunity offender”, The Book of Mormon does seem to treat organised religion with a lot less scrutiny than you’d expect from a play that literally has ‘Mormon’ in the title. The unease of this thematic gap has been widened recently thanks to everything from the God-fearing Trump administration to the Australian Christian Lobby’s efforts during last year’s marriage equality postal survey. As Slate’s browbeat column points out, “It’s harder to giggle at religion when it’s become a political force to be reckoned with.”

There’s also a discrepancy in The Book of Mormon between the reverence given to the titular Mormons and the Ugandan people. The musical is understanding — even admiring — of Mormonism and organised religion’s potential to unify communities. The Ugandan doctor, meanwhile, is reduced to a running gag about not being able to treat his own genital disease.

So, Should You See It?

It’s worth remembering the medium The Book of Mormon is set in: commercial musical theatre, a world where tickets often cost hundreds of dollars and the audience is overwhelmingly old and white. It’s a bit hard to argue that all targets are equal when the medium is already weighted heavily against minorities.

And yet Book of Mormon is still a great musical, mostly thanks to Robert Lopez’s ability to effortlessly ape other musical styles. Arguably its strongest point (and its best song) is ‘I Am Africa’, a deconstruction of the white saviour narrative via a ‘We Are The World’-style feel-good anthem. This is where the play shines: when creators Parker, Stone, and Lopez recognise that the superficial, racist concept of Africa presented is one that the west has built, resulting in real-world ramifications spanning everything from voluntourism to Bono. Apropos of nothing, it’s also fucking hilarious.

Depending on who you ask, the rest of the musical either does or doesn’t hold up. Whichever side of the fence you fall on, it’s hard to deny that the world’s political climate has changed significantly since the show first opened.

And as a result, Book of Mormon might not be as subversive as it wants you to believe.

The Book Of Mormon is now playing at the Sydney Lyric Theatre.

Albert Santos is a Sydney writer. You can find them on Twitter here.

The post Crass, Offensive And Politically Incorrect: Does ‘The Book Of Mormon’ Hold Up In 2018? appeared first on Junkee.

18 Mar 20:36

A Walking Tour Retraces Lisbon's Painful Legacy of Slavery

by Jennifer Neal

Naky Gaglo begins his tours of Lisbon in Praça do Comércio, a grand plaza that once served as the commercial business district of Lisbon. Today, most tourists focus on the lemon-colored buildings and the triumphal arch, built to honor Lisbon’s survival and reconstruction after an earthquake in 1755. But Gaglo brings his tour to the plaza for a different reason. Slave ships once moored here along the Tagus River. Gaglo starts in Praça do Comércio because he wants his group to begin to imagine how the architecturally stunning district acted as a brutal epicenter for human trafficking.

“[This is] the other side of Portugal that isn’t well-known—the African side of it,” Gaglo says. “In Europe, slavery is not taught the way it should be. I'm just trying to uncover what the secrets are and educate people about an important part of the history.”


Portugal was responsible for shipping 4.9 million people from Western Africa to Brazil, by far the largest amount of human cargo transported during the Atlantic slave trade. And yet, while traversing the cobblestone streets of Lisbon, or sipping the barrel-aged red wine in Porto, there is little hint of the country’s role in participating in one of the bloodiest man-made atrocities in human history. It’s a missed opportunity to explore one of Europe’s most breathtaking countries by taking an honest look at how culture, history, and racism still shape this gem on the Iberian Peninsula, as well as to highlight the rich cultural diversity of the country today.

That’s why Gaglo decided to do something about it. Originally from Togo, he runs the African Lisbon Tour, a five-hour English-language walking tour through the capital city’s center that unravels the complexities of Portugal’s colonial past with intelligence and finesse, drawing clear, insightful relationships between past and present.

“We don't have very much about slavery here,” Gaglo says. “There are almost no monuments or museums. Sometimes you have exhibitions, but there's really nothing that is relevant.”

Considering that Lisbon has a substantial African community, he finds it incomprehensible that there hasn’t been a larger initiative to educate foreigners or even locals about Portugal’s part in the slave trade. While official statistics of African inhabitants aren’t known, because the Portuguese Census doesn’t ask questions about ethnicity, the cultural makeup of the city conveys an atmosphere of richness and diversity.

“We have [people] from Mozambique, Angola, and Cape Verde,” says Gaglo. “It’s a shock to tourists, but it’s a positive shock. The culture is very vibrant here.”


The tour adds a somber dissonance to Lisbon’s aesthetic charm. As Naky guides the group, 15th-century neighborhoods built from intricate mosaic tiles become fraternal meeting grounds for Africans seeking refuge. The neighborhood of Mocambo, for example, now referred to as Madragoa, served as a place of both extreme duress and sacred assembly. In Mocambo, slave owners’ were often negligent of their human chattel who, after dying, were left to rot on the streets, causing significant sanitation and public health concerns. As a result, in 1515 King Manuel I ordered that a massive burial site, known as Poço dos Negros, be built and filled with quicklime—a site now replaced with shops and markets.

Mocambo was also a significant meeting ground for slaves to practice their traditional West African beliefs. It’s where they buried bolsas de mandinga (mandinga bags), sacred talismans worn by men meant to ward off evil spirits, and took part in traditional religious ceremonies in accordance with what many Afro-Brazilians now practice as Candomblé.

Naky also takes the group to Rua do Comércio, which once sheltered a bustling slave market at Terreiro do Pelourinho Velho, where human lives were bartered. The tour then stops in the nearby neighborhood of São Bento. Now home to many bustling shops, São Bento became a prominent Cape Verdean neighborhood in the 1960s. It’s here where Naky and his group take a mid-tour break at an African restaurant that provides a delicious assortment of West African food and drink, such as spicy pork, tuna, or tofu with cachupa, a Cape Verdean dish of corn, beans, and cassava. It’s an ideal moment for both tour guide and tourist to discuss what they’ve learned and reflect on how it might challenge preconceived notions of Portugal’s past.


Afterward, the tour passes the Memorial as Vitimas do Massacre Judaico de 1506 in Rossio Square, a monument that remembers the victims of the anti-Semitic campaign that resulted in the execution of an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 people, who were accused of being Jewish. It was a critical event that is seen as one of the factors leading up to the Portuguese Inquisition, which formally began in 1536. It’s an interesting place to take the tour, because this location was also where slaves gathered for different forms of spiritual assistance and brotherhood during the 15th century, and demonstrates that the viciousness of ethnic and religious persecution affected many communities during Portugal’s colonial era.

The tour ultimately concludes near a statue at the Praça Dom Luis, named after the Portuguese king who reigned during the bloody Scramble for Africa.*

By using this history as an anchor in his tour, Naky contextualizes the integration of modern-day African communities. He shines a light on African businesses, music, art, and especially food.

“Even after the tour, they're really amazed by the history,” Gaglo says of his participants. “They really like the fact that it’s not a European tour; it's an African tour. They like having something different. This is my biggest motivation for doing it.”

Because the tour is done entirely by foot, Naky is able to guide tourists through parts of Lisbon that would not normally be discovered, and his extensive research into the subject makes it well worth the physical exercise. His tour, and the conversation it has helped to stimulate, may also be making a difference. Toward the end of 2017, Lisbon residents voted to finally erect a memorial to commemorate the millions of Africans that fell victim to the slave trade, sparking a heated debate about the true nature of Portugal’s role in slavery and the need for public accountability. No doubt, if and when completed, it will provide an invaluable opportunity for education, as well as an excellent addition to Naky’s tour.

*Update: This post has been updated to reflect recent changes in the tour itinerary.

23 Jan 22:41

Fishing With John Lurie

by silvia

In the months after he first saw “Fishing with John,” a friend of mine began thinking about buying a boat. He wanted to live off the sea. He thought about it most days until he found he could think of nothing else. Then, one day, he moved to Key West, bought a boat, and spent his days fishing. Another friend drove a few hours to a town in far-out Connecticut to buy a saxophone. He wanted to echo the sounds he’d heard on the show. A third friend awoke one morning and noticed that he was droning the theme song. He wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted.

“Fishing with John” was a very short-lived TV show, it hasn’t even been aired since the ‘90s and everyone I know had to find it on the web. It wavered between documentary realism and whimsical fantasy. It wasn’t a mockumentary, but more akin to the Steve Coogan-Rob Brydon Trip series or an exponentially funnier “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” if either show was willing to trail a toe in mind-bending, surreal waters. The eponymous John was John Lurie, star of Jim Jarmusch’s early films, mentor to Jean-Michel Basquiat, Oscar-winning composer, and bandleader of The Lounge Lizards, a musical experiment whose strange beauty could only be rivalled by Lurie’s own Marvin Pontiac recordings. “Fishing with John” surpassed all that, though, and used all of his eclectic skillset to create the weirdest and best fishing show ever broadcast.

Lurie secured funding for the show by playing home video tapes of fishing trips to a group of Japanese investors. With their money, he tried to recreate the off-handed magic of those tapes. He set off into the wild with celebrities of varying temperaments—a pissed-off and seasick Tom Waits, a bubbly and playful Willem Dafoe, a sugar-high Dennis Hopper—not necessarily in search of fish, but with all the fisherman’s accoutrements. They’d encounter strange locales and sometimes strange locals. They’d chat. Once in a while, almost by accident, they’d catch a fish.

Lurie and a skeleton crew of producers and artists turned cinematographers only managed to produce six episodes before the money ran out. After half a decade of litigation and funding gluts, Lurie edited together the footage and imposed story structures, which varied from a quixotic search for a giant squid and the squid monks who protect its secrets to a delirious, fish-less drama on the ice sheets of Maine, with the help of Robb Webb, a loopy, subversive, and extremely authoritative-sounding narrator. It went out on IFC and Bravo in 1998 and it hasn’t been on TV since. The Criterion Collection hasn’t even had a fresh home video release of it since 1999. But it’s all on Youtube.

How did the show become a cult classic? What gave it its enduring transformative power? Part of it was the strain of psychological realism that ran beneath the surface surrealism. Lurie’s masterpiece caught the wandering mind of a casual fisherman better than anything else around. As the narrator put it, with utterly straight-faced intonation, “these are real men, doing real things.”

Two real men are sitting in a real boat on the Rio Colorado, in Costa Rica. “No white man has ever been this far before,” the narrator lies after a few cutaways to dangerous looking reptiles lurking on the water’s edge. “Would you like some Fanta?” Matt Dillon asks, his tank top inflected with sweat, his sunglasses pressed to his face, and his black baseball cap on backwards. “No thanks,” Lurie says, and drinks it. “Matt?” “Yes, John.” “You still with me?” “Yes, John.” They cast out a few times and the boat rocks back and forth a bit, drifting away from the camera. They catch nothing. It starts to rain, then stops. They have still caught nothing. “How come I can’t catch a fish?” Lurie asks Dillon. “Do you think I have bad luck?” They talk about whether they did the fish dance, to honor the dead fish, with enough enthusiasm that morning. Soon a maddening montage begins. “From the depths of the jungle the power and mystery of the fish dance has been released,” the narrator tells us. Totcho, a local fisherman who led them to the hut where they spent the previous night, transforms himself into a white bird and flies to their rescue. Fish begin literally jumping from the water into their hands.

The show’s trademarks are all there: the otherworldly narration, absent-minded dialogue, strange editing, languid pacing, and impossible narrative. But none of that matters as much as the degree to which it made you want to join in, as the fact that it was a scene you felt like you could step into, a conversation you could interrupt.

Part of what makes the show so inviting is that Lurie and his guests aren’t particularly accomplished fishermen. They’re not these ridiculous semi-heroic he-men that populate your average fishing show. They don’t know everything about this year’s trout population in this particular lake. These are guys who’d rather sit and guess at what the foreign names of familiar fish are, even if it’s clear they’re just spouting bullshit. It becomes clear that this pastime and this world are accessible to your average amateur.

This is signature of Lurie’s, apparent in all of his artistic endeavors—he engages the audience, then lures them into joining him. Recently, this aspect of his work and life has reached comic heights in his hilariously overactive twitter, and with his paintings becoming popular memes in Russia, but it’s been his modus operandi long before he’d logged onto the internet. In the 1990 documentary, A Lounge Lizard Alone, we see Lurie in what looks like a dollar store, examining small instrument-shaped noise makers in plastic neon colors: little saxophones, little horns, little drums. “Should we get a thousand?” he asks. Later, at three in the morning, he and his 15-year-old bucket drummer throw them out into the crowd at a German nightclub, and he encourages them to make noise. In “Fishing with John,” it’s a little more subtle than throwing you an instrument. He gives you a model of a pleasant fishing trip and you’re free to follow it. Given the surreal elements of the show, you’d be best off improvising significantly from the model.

If none of this speaks to you, at least consider how weird it is that this minor icon of eighties urbanism ended up producing a fishing show that propels others into nature. In the commentary track to the Thailand episode Lurie says, “You go to places like this. Why do you ever go back to New York? Why do you go back to L.A.? Why do you live where you live? It just seems dumb. It’s beautiful to be here.” Listen to his meditations on quiet and soon, like my friend who suddenly found himself on a boat in Florida, you find that “Fishing with John” has changed you.

I used to catch tiny fish in a pond under train tracks with my grandfather when I was a little kid. For a long time after, with the exception of a few very brief deep sea excursions that were closer to whale watching than fishing, I hadn’t so much as held a rod. I hadn’t even consumed a fish in years. This simple and unhappy state of affairs persisted until I stumbled into an obsession with this show.

The stages of a “Fishing with John” obsession are fairly standard. First, you watch it for an easy giggle in a dark room. Soon, you find yourself watching it all the time because you’ve considered the possibility that nothing else around you really makes sense, and you continue rewatching because you’ve run out of new episodes and are hoping that there’s something new to catch in the old ones. Browsing in a bookshop, you start salivating over titles like Walleye Tactics, Tips & Tales, and A History of Fly Fishing in 40 Flies, though you’re unlikely to ever go fly fishing. You find yourself mistakenly watching films like The Annihilation of Fish. And then you find yourself going fishing every month, then every other weekend, and finally you find yourself taking days off work to go fishing. At any rate, I do.

But when you’re out there, it doesn’t feel like an addiction. Not an unhealthy one, anyway. It does feel like a high, though. “There is nothing,” says our esteemed narrator, “like fresh air with a rod in your hand.” Once you’ve done the dance that all fishermen do, once you’ve hooked a worm and you’ve cast out, a strange peace quickly overtakes you. Echoing a throwaway line from the narrator, you announce to your friend that “life is beautiful, for some more than others.” And your mind drifts off as you stare at the bobber bobbing in concert with the sines and cosines dictated by an absentee moon.

You breathe in, sit back, and look at the clouds. They’re moving slower than you’d ever imagined, shifting with the lackadaisical energy of snow before a gust of wind shakes it from a tree. You exhale and you think to yourself, “Ah, fishing.” A soft breeze passes by and the water ripples before you. You hear your friend atonally throat singing the theme song of the show, and you begin to mouth drum. In the communal cacophony one thought resounds in both your minds. It’s a random line from the show that, like so many others, you remember almost daily. “Cheese fish?”

31 Dec 04:27

Men Like Him

by silvia

“He was too much in earnest now to feel any false constraint in speaking his mind.”

In 2018, let us beware of Lawrence Selden, one of the great intellectual bachelors of American literature, the unmarried man whose friendship is the catalyst for the beautiful and unattached Lily Bart’s tragic fall in Edith Wharton’s 1905 The House of Mirth. Let us beware of men like him, the men who feel no social constraint, the authentic, the earnest, the men who imagine themselves as existing outside of society. Let us beware because they are, in fact, fake-ass fakers, and we have to get better at spotting them. Lily Bart is attracted to Lawrence Selden, an unsuitable match, but the true tragedy is that she believes his bullshit, to great cost.

The costs of believing a Donald Trump or a Harvey Weinstein—men with great power who use it in vulgar, obvious, and dangerous ways—are pretty clear. Less clear, though are the effects of the Lawrence Seldens: the bookish men, the leftist men, the “radical” thinkers, the “let us live lives of desire” kind of men. The men whose bachelor libraries we dream of living amidst. The men to whom the costs paid by women trying to survive inside patriarchy are invisible.

He calls it “the republic of the spirit.” On a fateful afternoon, Lily Bart has made a bad choice. She is expected, by the others attending the fashionable weekend estate party, to make an appearance at church, the better to solidify her chances at marrying the altogether slight (in intellect and appearance) Percy Gryce. Instead, she goes off to meet Selden for a languorous summer picnic. Her choice has the immediate effect of tanking her chances with Gryce, but the more longstanding effects of poisoning her own mind against herself. The complexity of the novel is that it makes it hard for readers to see both of these things at the same time. That is, Lily Bart’s “germ of rebellion” in this moment is intoxicating and we want it for her. Who doesn’t want to have a romantic picnic on a beautiful day with a handsome gentleman! But the real tragedy, it turns out, is not her momentary weakness; it’s that Selden so fully exploits her weakness by taking the opportunity of it to colonize her entire sense of self, to plant the flag inside her: his values, his view of the world, his system of governance. His, his, his.

Oh my God, I hate Lawrence Selden so much!!!

When I teach The House of Mirth though, my students rarely see Lawrence Selden as a villain. Because they identify with Lily Bart, and by “identify with” I mean what we really mean but rarely say: they find in Lily Bart the chance to hate themselves and the bad choices they so want to make. So they see Lawrence Selden just as Lily Bart does, because they are just as susceptible to Selden as Lily Bart is. They see him as a beacon, a model, the contrast that helps throw Lily Bart’s tragedy into relief: if only Lily had been born male, she too could have enjoyed a life of the mind, a life of beauty outside the confines of society.

Also, they see him as pretty damn hot. He’s got the perfect bachelor pad with books everywhere. He strolls the streets with only his hands in his pockets (no corsets, no umbrellas, free as a bird). He shows up at the best house parties and leaves socially and emotionally unscathed. He hangs out in the corner and observes all the other people running around subject to society. But Lawrence Selden feels no false constraints; he speaks his mind. What’s not to like about Lawrence Selden, the twenty-year-old women in my classes wonder? If only Lily Bart had truly listened to him, he was trying to show her the way out. Isn’t the real problem here that we are all so falsely constrained? Isn’t it so great that Lawrence Selden, with his devil-may-care attitude about the social, shows us how to be “real”?

But Lawrence Selden’s “way out” is Lily Bart’s suicide. By the end of the novel, as Lily has fallen in social rank and financial security, she can no longer even see herself except through Selden’s eyes. On her way to try to blackmail her former friend, the married Bertha Dorset, whose scandalous love letters to Selden Lily has in her possession, Lily makes another bad choice. Instead of going through with the blackmail, she goes to see Selden one last time, and under his “earnest” eyes, is compelled to throw into the fire the letters that could rescue her. She chooses, that is, Lawrence Selden’s “republic of the spirit,” because “she seemed suddenly to see her action as [Selden] would.” Looking at herself through his eyes, she sees that her planned blackmail would fall short of his belief system, and thus she consigns herself to death. Lawrence Selden, as one of my beloved doctoral committee members liked to vividly claim, kills Lily Bart as surely as if he held a gun to her head.

But he is handsome, and seductive, and the thing about the “republic of the spirit” is that it really does sound nice. No matter how much I yell at my students about the “gun to her head”, they generally demure. Which is wise in their way. Somehow, in their youth, they seem to viscerally get how the only way out, in this world, runs through men’s fantasies about freedom and desire, through men’s violent insistence that their fantasies do no actual violence in the world.


The maze that entraps Lily Bart, and which she cannot find her way out of, recalls the one that Dayna Tortorici recently wrote about in n+1, describing the regressive reality of so many leftist men right now. The maze, she claims, is a good metaphor to capture the complexity of our current moment. We may have thought that we were somewhere along a line of incremental progress toward a shared set of ideals about social, political, and interpersonal equality, but we were mistaken. There was never a line to follow. And now that we find ourselves at a dead end in the maze, it seems that one of the major obstacles is women: how much our society hates us, how much we all still think of women as the rules always falsely constraining us. If only women would just fucking lie down and take it, we could continue our “progress” toward the republic of the spirit! A little laudanum might help!

When I first read Tortorici’s essay, I initially really felt for all the twenty- and thirty-something women who have had to deal with the leftist young men of Brooklyn in 2017. Like, imagine dating during all of this, jfc! Imagine having to regularly make conversation with young men at a bar! But, of course that initial response was me willfully mistaking my own scenario, my own fantasy that I’m somehow outside of the maze, or that women in general have no role in maintaining its confusions and violence.

The truth is, I’m as fully in the maze as anyone; my professional and social world is full of progressive men (they write about radical politics and prison abolition and social justice; they have informed opinions on Mary Shelley and Emily Dickinson and Harriet Jacobs) who talk first and dominate the conversation; men who don’t do their share of the committee work; men who are shitty caretakers; men who believe that their commitment to the republic of the spirit excuses all; men who hoard resources and real estate and prestige; men who never, ever give up their seats on the subway. Men who do not see themselves, not really, as a part of society, because they secretly (or not-so-secretly) continue to believe that society itself is a bunch of false restraints of their always deserved, fundamental personal freedoms (think of dumb King Philip on that dumb boat in The Crown fantasizing about being “men alone”; think about Huck Finn chafing against the “sivilizing” force of his aunts, think of Matt Damon, horrors!).

What to do with all these Lawrence Seldens, I don’t entirely know. But I do know that if we got better not just at identifying them when we encounter them, but also at identifying how deeply we’ve incorporated Lawrence Selden’s ideals into our vision of freedom, progress, justice, and pleasure: that would be a start. The republic of the spirit admits no real, live women. Women are most real, most valuable to the men who govern the republics of the spirit, only when they are dead. Lawrence Selden would tell you that this is as “real” as it gets; Lily Bart’s dead body at the end of the novel finally makes everything “clear” to him. But we need not honor Selden’s “spiritual fastidiousness.” We can see him for what he is. Lawrence Selden is a fake, and the easiest way to tell is that he keeps insisting to everyone that he isn’t.


Sarah Blackwood is co-editor and co-founder of Avidly and associate professor of English at Pace University.

FAKES is The Awl’s year-end holiday series for 2017. You can read the whole collection here.

23 Nov 04:08

Ricotta Gnocchi in a Light Summer Sauce

by The Design Files

Ricotta Gnocchi in a Light Summer Sauce


Julia Busuttil-Nishimura

These ricotta gnocchi are so simple and quick to make! Styling – Lucy Feagins and Nat Turnbull, Photo – Eve Wilson.

Find the most red, bright cherry tomatoes you can for this light summer sauce. Styling – Lucy Feagins and Nat Turnbull, Photo – Eve Wilson.

If you have any extra gnocchi, pop it in a Tupperware container in the freezer for a quick dinner on a time-poor evening. Photo – Armelle Habib.

To finish this ricotta gnocchi in a summer tomato sauce, serve with a generous sprinkle of parmesan and a few basil leaves. Styling – Lucy Feagins and Nat Turnbull, Photo – Eve Wilson.

The recipes I’ve shared here over the past month have given measurements and detailed instructions, but it is trusting your intuition there in the moment which will give you the best results. I hope some of my daily rituals become yours too.

My final recipe to share is a light, ricotta gnocchi in a summer tomato sauce.

Little ricotta dumplings served in a bright, summery sauce made from cherry tomatoes is pure heaven to me. The gnocchi are quick to make, and the sauce requires very little attention – which makes it a great option on warm days. Buy the reddest and most flavourful tomatoes you can find, or better still, use homegrown. I would also recommend making your own ricotta for the gnocchi, but if you’re short on time, buy good-quality firm ricotta. Anything labelled ‘smooth’ that comes in a container will be far too watery. This sauce is not only great with gnocchi, but also with spaghetti, penne or paccheri (a large tubular pasta from Campania and Calabria), as we ate it in Italy. I sometimes use it as pizza sauce, too.



400 g fresh full-fat ricotta
2 egg yolks
pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
45 g parmesan, grated
100–200 g tipo 00 flour, plus extra for dusting
sea salt and black pepper

For the sauce

750 g cherry tomatoes
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
large handful of basil leaves
60 ml (1/4 cup) extra-virgin olive oil
sea salt
grated parmesan, to serve


To make the gnocchi dough, combine the ricotta, egg yolks, nutmeg and parmesan in a large bowl and mix with your hands or a wooden spoon to combine. Gradually add the flour, mixing well after each addition, until the mixture comes together into a soft ball. If the dough is too sticky, add more flour, a little at a time, until you have the right consistency. Season well with salt and pepper.

Cut the dough into quarters and, working with one piece at a time, roll into a sausage shape about 1.5 cm in diameter, dusting the bench with a little flour as needed. Using a knife or a pastry scraper, cut the dough into 2 cm lengths to form the gnocchi. Set the gnocchi on a tray lightly dusted with our and repeat with the remaining dough.

For the sauce, place the cherry tomatoes, garlic and basil in a large frying pan. Drizzle over the olive oil and season generously with salt. Place the pan over a low heat and cook for 30–40 minutes or until
the tomatoes have completely collapsed. During the first 5 minutes, stir quite regularly, as there won’t be any liquid in the pan yet. Soon enough, the tomatoes will burst their skins and release their juices. If there are some stubborn tomatoes that haven’t burst after 20 minutes or so, help them along by squishing them against the side of the pan using the back of a wooden spoon.

Bring a large saucepan of generously salted water to the boil and, when the sauce is nearly ready, cook the gnocchi for 2–3 minutes or until cooked through. Once they float to the top, I allow them to cook for a further 30 seconds before removing them. Test one after 2 minutes – if it’s still dense and floury, cook for a little longer, then test again.

Drain the gnocchi, reserving the pasta water, and add to the sauce. Add 60–125 ml (1/4 – 1/2 cup) of pasta water as needed, stir to coat and simmer for a few minutes. 

Season to taste and serve immediately, topped with grated parmesan.

Ostro‘ by Julia Busuttil-Nishimura is published in paper-back (AUD$44.99) or e-book ($17.99) by Pan Macmillan’s lifestyle imprint, Plum. It is also available at all good bookstores, and for orders outside Australia Readings ship internationally.

06 Oct 03:12

A History of American Protest Music: This Is the Hammer That Killed John Henry

by Tom Maxwell

 Tom Maxwell | Longreads | October 2017 | 10 minutes (2,465 words)


They point with pride to the roads you built for them,

They ride in comfort over the rails you laid for them.

They put hammers in your hands

And said – Drive so much before sundown.

—Sterling Brown, “Strong Men” (1931)


In the folktale, a powerful black steel-driving man named John Henry challenges the steam drill to a race, beats it, and dies. In some versions, John Henry is almost seven feet tall. In others, he wears fine clothes and commands any price for his work. In our national consciousness, he stands for the common man, beaten by industrialization, but unbowed.

Songs about John Henry became popular in the early 20th century. He is a folk hero in all—by resisting either the dehumanizing effects of technology or a racist power structure. His story helped give rise to an iconic American “blues ballad” as well as the “hammer song:” a rhythmic style which helped synchronize the work of manual laborers on railroads, prison work farms, and logging camps. Each axe or hammer blow rang out in rhythm to the tune, and as the tempo of that industrialized century increased, this would ultimately become the backbeat of rock and roll.

By 1915, various versions of “The Ballad of John Henry” were known all over the South. As in all ballads, the story is a tragedy. As a child, John Henry foretells his death. As an adult, he climbs upon the mountain that will claim his life and despairs. He dies heroically and without complaint, asking only for a drink of cold water. Given that the song was communicated orally, there are as many verses as performers. Suffice to say that John Henry, and the ballad he inspired, is American through-and-through: he is a powerful man beaten by the system.

John Henry said to the captain

A man ain’t nothing but a man

Before I let that steam drill beat me down

I will die with a hammer in my hand

“The Ballad of John Henry” is one of the most famous “blues ballads;” that is, European narrative song tradition blended with African-American musical styles. It’s little wonder that he was made to represent a diversity of viewpoints and agenda. “The Ballad of John Henry” has become one of the most covered folk songs in American history.

Folklorists long suspected that John Henry was a real person, but since folk heroes belong to everyone, the man remained obscured by the myth. States all over the South claimed him, as did railroad workers and coal miners. The most convincing evidence of John Henry’s existence was provided relatively recently by historian Scott Reynolds Nelson in his 2006 book Steel-Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend. In it, we meet John William Henry, a black man from New Jersey who found work for the Union Army just after the Civil War at City Point, Virginia. It’s unclear exactly when Henry was arrested for stealing from a grocery store, but he entered Richmond Jail as an 18-year-old on April 26,1866. Though at least one observer noted that it was unclear that Henry received a fair trial, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and sent to the notorious Virginia State Penitentiary in November as prisoner 497. From there, he was leased to work hard labor on a railroad for twenty-five cents a day.

The company that the Virginia State Penitentiary leased its prisoners to was a meat grinder known as the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. Led by Collis P. Huntington, the C.&O. was in a race to connect Virginia’s James River and Ohio River valleys. To do this, more than a dozen tunnels had to be built in the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia—four and a half miles, blasted through solid rock. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Irish immigrants, free blacks, and convicts lost their lives in the process. In one year alone, between September 1871 and September 1872, the Virginia State Penitentiary lost almost 400 prisoners to the construction of the Big Bend section. “Negroes who died at Big Bend hailed from nowhere and had not been christened,” one authority observed. “It was easy not to notice when such men were used up and cast aside.”

Most of the workers on the Big Bend tunnel were black. “They are preferred,” noted an 1872 article in the Richmond Dispatch, “because you can cuss a nigger, but whenever an attempt is made to abuse a white, there is a row.”

According to Scott Reynolds Nelson, John William Henry was employed in an even more monstrous place, the nearby Lewis Tunnel. Henry was a hammer man, who worked with a partner to drive spikes into the rock, making a space for sticks of dynamite to be set. It took six such teams, working twelve-hour shifts, to make enough holes for one blast—advancing the tunnel by only ten feet. Being scarcely over five feet tall, John William Henry was just the right size for this kind of work.

Because John Henry was a prisoner, he and his colleagues could be forced to work in conditions which others refused; namely, to be pushed back into a tunnel filled with fine dust from a dynamite blast, and to work alongside dangerous early steam drills. (Huntington had earlier used Chinese indentured laborers on another project for the same reason.) In the 1870s, there was no competition between hammer crews and steam drills on either account — on the one hand, steam drills were unreliable and often broke down, and so were easily outpaced by a well-coordinated team. On the other hand, steam drills produced high volumes of silicon dust, which caused silicosis (or “tunnel fever”), a quick and almost certainly fatal lung disease. This is how Scott Reynolds Nelson believes John Henry died, along with hundreds of his fellow workers.

It’s unsurprising, given the reliably inhuman nature of Reconstruction in the South, that the C.&O. hired a number of ex-Confederates as “captains,” or overseers. One such man, Claiborne R. Mason, was hated by both black and white—the former for his ability to capture runaway slaves, and the latter for his brutal suppression of Confederate desertions. Even though free black workers could and did strike for better pay, there is no doubt that the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad was a racist enterprise, and the Virginia State Penitentiary a willing collaborator.

In 1873, John William Henry disappears from the Virginia State Penitentiary records. Had he been paroled, pardoned, or released, it would have been noted. Instead, argues Scott Reynolds Nelson, it’s probable that he died. His body would have been sent back to the prison that leased him (because the C.&O. was contractually obligated to pay $100 “for each prisoner not returned”), buried in an anonymous mass grave on penitentiary grounds, and forgotten.

Forgotten except in song.

Given the fact that John Henry was black, probably a convict, and existed in the unrelieved racism of Reconstruction-era South, the first people to sing about him were almost certainly African Americans. And so there is a hidden history to “The Ballad of John Henry,” in which the protagonist demands to be treated like a man, not a slave, and who may very well have murdered some of his white overseers. A slight but telling version of the lyric quoted above—one which circulated privately in the black community—goes like this:

John Henry told his captain,

A man ain’t nothing but a man

Before I’d let you beat me down

I’d die with the hammer in my hand

Researcher Jim Hauser has collected dozens of such variations—what he calls the “rebel versions” of John Henry’s ballad—which suggest the man was originally a symbol of resistance. This John Henry refuses to be whipped or worked to death. He is willing to quit his job for better wages.

Fiddlin’ John Carson’s “John Henry Blues” from March, 1924—the earliest recorded version we have—doesn’t mention race at all.

Mississippi John Hurt’s “Spike Driver Blues” from 1928 is much more explicit.

This is the hammer that killed John Henry

But it won’t kill me

John Henry he left this hammer

All over in red

That’s why I’m gone

John Henry was a steel drivin’ boy

But he went down

That’s why I’m gone

Even though these messages are slightly disguised, there can be little wonder what John Henry meant by dying with his hammer in his hand, or why he left his hammer “all over in red.” He rebelled against his oppressors, possibly violently, and was killed. There could be no better candidate for an African American hero during the days of Jim Crow than this: A man, who, if nothing else, will defy his overseer and die like a man.

Whether as hero or slave, a guaranteed early death doesn’t work for everyone. John Henry’s situation was lose/lose, and there were those who would have none of it. Note the first verse of “Spike Driver Blues”:

Take this hammer and carry it to the captain

Tell him I’m gone

Tell him I’m gone

Tell him I’m gone

And so we have a storied variant of the John Henry song lineage: “Take This Hammer.” Its protagonist is decidedly against becoming either a martyr or murder victim. Versions of this song were documented as early as 1910.

“This song had its origin in the Big Ben [sic] tunnel in West Virginia,” reported Harvey Harward, quoted at length in 1928’s “American Negro Folk-Songs.”

John Henry was a laborer in this tunnel and became famous on account of the great amount of work he could do in one day. It is claimed he could do the work of six ordinary men in one day. He died while on duty, this giving rise to the thought that work killed him.

The men who were heard to sing the song were railroad workers, post drivers, and a construction gang. They worked as a team, and used the song to synchronize their labor.

Folk icon Lead Belly, who served time at both Texas’s Central Unit Prison and Louisiana’s Angola Prison, recorded “Take This Hammer” in 1940. “Every time the men say ‘haah’,” Lead Belly explains in his spoken introduction, “The hammer falls. The hammer rings, and we swing, and we sing.”

If he asks you was I runnin’

You tell him I was flyin’

If he asks you was I laughin’

You tell him I was cryin’

Even when inmates sang “John Henry” as a work song, the tempo was slowed. John Henry, to these men, was not so much an example as a caution. There is no mention of a noble race against a machine; only the danger of being worked to death.

In 1978, folklorist Alan Lomax filmed former Parchman inmates reenacting “Take This Hammer” as a work song, using their hoes as accompaniment:

See how they strike the ground on the second and fourth beats of the measure, just like a snare drum in a rock song.

Over a hundred years earlier, back in the mile-long Lewis Tunnel on the C.&O. Railroad in 1872, the behemoth steam drills could only address the rock from one angle, and were thus woefully inefficient. John Henry and the other hammer men worked with a partner known as a shaker, who held a chisel-like drill. The shaker would twist and turn the drill to optimize each blow of the sledgehammer. This was known as “rocking and rolling,” and thus did two act as one, and so, no matter how incremental, was progress made.

Read part two of “Hammer Songs.”

Read more from Tom Maxwell’s History of American Protest Music.


Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Mark Armstrong; Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel


31 Jul 05:03

Global autofellation with the Mooch

by sesquiotic

The Mooch, Anthony Scaramucci, Trump’s latest anus ex machina, is a real gift to the world of politics-as-entertainment. If you wrote him into a novel, the readers would say, “The fuck d’you think you are, Thomas fucking Pynchon?” If into a play, “David fucking Mamet?” But no, fuck that, this slick-headed wisemouth bounded right out of the commedia dell’arte, obviously: Scaramuccia (called Scaramouche in French), whose  name literally means ‘little skirmisher’, is a grimacing rapscallion given to braggadocio and pusillanimity. And just as the eternal Scaramouche has carried vulgar behaviour through the ages and between countries, the present Mooch has done a service to international studies of vulgarity, because now we get to see how newspapers in other countries translate fucking paranoid schizophreniccock-block, and suck my own cock.

Seriously, when the fuck else have you been able to use simple searches of international newspapers – just type Scaramucci Bannon in the box – to learn how to talk like a New York fuckface in other languages?

So, first of all, how would Scaramuccia, the Italian, say all this shit? (We’ll leave aside the fact that, being Neapolitan, he wouldn’t be speaking standard Italian. Look, the Italian newspapers use an Italian that’s grown out of the Florentine version, OK? That’s just the fucking way it is. Go to Hell and argue with Dante if you don’t like it.) Well, I’ll take the translations from’s article. Fucking paranoid schizophrenic is “un cazzo di paranoico schizofrenico”: literally ‘a cock of paranoid schizophrenic’. Italian likes cocks in its vulgarity, you see. Where in English we might say What the fuck? in Italian you’d say Che cazzo? ‘What cock?’

So what’s cock-block? It’s fermare e rompere il cazzo: ‘stop and break the cock’. Where the English is “Let me leak the fucking thing and see if I can cock-block these people the way I cock-blocked Scaramucci for six months” the Italian from HuffPo is “Fammelo raccontare ai giornali così vediamo se posso fermarli e rompergli il cazzo così come ho fermato e ho rotto il cazzo a Scaramucci per sei mesi.” (Note that they leave off the vulgar intensifier on raccontare ai giornali, literally ‘tell the newspapers’ but here translating “leak the fucking thing.”)

What’s funny is that when it comes to “I’m not trying to suck my own cock” the Italian doesn’t use cazzo. No, you see, as Costanza Rizzacasa d’Orsogna explained to me (she writes for Corriere della Sera, but I couldn’t find a frank translation of all this on their site), you could translate suck my own cock literally as succhiarmi il cazzo, but Italian has a better expression: fare il pompino, literally ‘do the little pump’, figuratively ‘give a blowjob’. And that’s what HuffPo went with: “Non mi interessa farmi i pompini da solo” – ‘I’m not interested in giving myself solo blowjobs’.

Fine, OK, great, that’s how the Italians say it. As always, speaking lively Italian is like driving a Maserati on a mountain road. But how about German? Do they make it a Porsche or a Mercedes? The answer, it seems, is more of a fucking Audi. I looked on a couple of leading news sites and couldn’t find a translation of cock-block. But Die Welt obliges on the other two: a fucking paradoid schizophrenic is “ein verdammter paranoider Schizophrener” (pardon me for being underwhelmed; I don’t really think verdammt ‘damned’ is very strong, but hey, ich bin kein Berliner) and I’m not trying to suck my own cock is “Ich versuche nicht, meinen eigenen Schwanz zu lutschen,” which is a straightforward translation. Schwanz literally means ‘tail’ but is used like English prick and cock, and lutschen means ‘suck’.

The French can do themselves prouder. should give its translator a bonus for capturing the tone so nicely – not just the idiomatic vivid coarseness but the colloquial grammar too. “I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock” – so beautifully transcribed by The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza with a fucking comma splice that would normally get cock-blocked at the copy desk but conveys the tone more smartly than a period, let alone a fucking semicolon – shows up as “Je suis pas Steve Bannon, j’essaie pas de sucer ma propre bite.” If you don’t speak French, you won’t know what’s missing from that. Well, whoever did it up for knew, and kept it in: “Je ne suis pas Steve Bannon, je n’essaie pas de sucer ma propre bite.” See it? ‘Not’ in standard French is ne…pas, but in colloquial French the ne is normally dropped. Oh, by the way, bite (pronounced like “beat” in France and “bit” in Québec) doesn’t have anything to do with biting. It means ‘cock’ tout court, nothing else – apparently it comes from an Old Norse word for a wood beam.

I couldn’t find a French news source willing to talk about cock-blocking; I’m not sure if it’s because it’s a killing offence in French culture to cock-block someone. But the vulgar intensifier for paranoid schizophrenic once again shows what the go-to is in the language: “putain de schizophrène paranoïaque“, ‘whore of paranoid schizophrenic’. Yes, French is a language that makes much use of prostitution-related taboo words, especially in France. Quebec has a different angle, famously using liturgical terms, but fuck me if I could find a Québécois news source willing to give me the goods. Even Huffington Post completely sanitized it (to the point of prissiness) for the Québec audiences, which surprised me given how lively of tongue they can be in la belle province.

OK, but how about Spanish? If we’re going to cover European imperial powers, we can’t do without Spain and all the countries that speak Spanish because of it. I gotta tell you, Spanish is what started me on this exploration. Lucía Leal, of the newswire Efe, tweeted:

Scaramucci llama a Priebus “un puto paranoico esquizofrénico” y dice: “No soy como Steve Bannon, no estoy tratando de chupármela a mí mismo”

That covers two of our three phrases right there. The fucking paranoid etcetera is ‘a paranoid schizophrenic whore’ – putting Spanish in the same sex-worker-cussing set as French – and suck my own cock is down as, roughly, ‘suck me it to myself’.

But wait! There is, of course, more than one Spanish-language news source. El Mundo gives a different version: “no estoy tratando de comerme mi propia polla” – ‘I’m not trying to eat my own cock’, except polla is formed not from a word meaning ‘rooster’ but from one meaning ‘pullet’. And they actually give exegeses on the cock-blocking:

Oh, Bill Sine viene. Voy a filtrar la puta cosa (fucking thing) y ver si puedo joder (cock-block, literalmente “bloquear la polla”, una sofisticada metáfora traducible como “impedir que alguien lleve a cabo la penetración”) a esa gente del mismo modo que bloqueé la polla (cock-blocked, pasado de verbo regular) a Scaramucci durante seis meses.

So they translate cock-block directly as joder, which would be translated back as fuck or fuck up, and then explain that it’s literally ‘block the cock’, “a sophisticated metaphor translatable as ‘keep someone from carrying out penetration’.” How very helpful! But before they explain all this, they tell the reader, “A partir de este momento, la presente crónica es para mayores de 18 años.” Which means, roughly, “From this point on, the present article is for readers 18 years of age or older.” This Spanish journalist, Pablo Pardo, is by far the most conscientious of the bunch. He even explains the autofellation: “en lo que Lizza considera una referencia no a las habilidades de Bannon como contorsionista, sino al aparente interés que éste tiene en salir en los medios de comunicación”: ‘which Lizza considers a reference not to Bannon’s ability as a contortionist, but to the apparent interest that he has in his appearance in the media’.

Isn’t translation fun? Truly, if you had not realized, translation is one of the funnest things you can try that are actually technically impossible but you get close enough (making me the right kind of Manhattan being another). All the English retranslations herein are by me, and if they suck, apply for a refund at Or you can give better ones in the comments if you wish.

Let’s keep on with the imperial power languages. How about Portuguese? Brazilian Portuguese is a language for anyone who likes fun things that look easy but will leave you sucking your own – um, tongue. But the trickiest part is the pronunciation, and you’re reading this. From UOL Notícias I get these two: “Reince é um esquizofrênico paranoico de merda” – meaning ‘Reince is a paranoid schizophrenic of shit’, putting Brazilian Portuguese in the coprophilic set – and “Não sou Steve Bannon, não estou tentando chupar meu próprio pau,” which is like the Spanish but uses pau for ‘cock’, which is a word that also literally means ‘stick’. They left out the cock-blocking thing. Sigh.

Well, whatever. Go to European Portuguese and you get what Diário de Notícias gives us, and it’s boring: “Não procuro chupar o meu próprio pénis.” You can see it: they use pénis. ‘I’m not trying to lick my own penis.” Thank god they have wine in Portugal. Especially because they didn’t even try with “Reince é um esquizofrénico paranoico.” Do you see an expletive? Jackshit.

Quick, let’s call in another imperial power of yore to save this. Who? The Dutch, of course. They’re known to be frank. I got a nice hit from de Volkskrant, which opens with three quotations, the first of which gives us “Reince is een fokking paranoïde schizofreen.” If you can’t sort that one out, there’s no fokking hope for you. The next is even sweeter, possibly my favourite out of this whole fucking thing: “Ik ben Steve Bannon niet, ik ben geen zelfpijper.” That means – literally – ‘I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m no self-whistler’ or, of course, using the colloquial sense of pijpen, ‘…I’m no self-cocksucker.’ Isn’t it lovely that Dutch has such a compact way of saying it? Talk about getting to the point. So to speak.

Alas, the third quote wasn’t the cock-blocking one. The article doesn’t give us that. I’m going to have to give a gold star to the Spanish and Italians, who at least attempted the cock-blocking. Translation, I mean. Who else can I turn to?

The Scandinavians, of course. Have a piece of Danish. Denmark’s TV2 sets us up nicely. “Åh, der kommer Bill Shine, lad mig lige fucking lække det og se, om jeg kan sætte en kæp i hjulet på dem, som jeg gjorde mod Scaramucci i seks måneder.” You can see which quote that is. Yes, the cock-blocking! So… how is it rendered? ‘Oh, there comes Bill Shine, let me leak the fucking thing and see if I can put a stick in the wheel on him as I did with Scaramucci for six months.’

Put a stick in the wheel?

OK, my Danish isn’t fluent, but some Dane can tell me if there’s a sexual reference there I’m missing. Dammit. How about the other two? One is down as “Reince er en fucking paranoid skizofren.” Well, that’s straightforward. Fuck do you expect? It’s not that distantly related to English (yes, it’s North Germanic and English is West Germanic, but never forget the massive Danish and Norwegian influence in the Old and Middle English periods due to invasions). How about Bannon? “Jeg er ikke Steve Bannon. Jeg prøver ikke at sutte min egen pik.” Well… it means the same as the English. But now you know. But hey, do you want to know how to write it in Swedish? “Jag är inte Steve Bannon, jag försöker inte suga min egen kuk,” according to Aftonbladet.

There are, obviously, many more languages I could look it up in. Some of them might even have nice translations of it. But I don’t want to wander into ones I have less-than-basic knowledge of. So just let me leave you with one more: Icelandic. I get no cock-blocking from the high cold vikings, but RÚV gives me the other two. It tells Icelanders that the Mooch is not Steve Bannon: “ég er ekki að reyna að totta minn eigin böll,” which translates even more directly than most languages – Icelandic, like English and unlike most other Western European languages, makes common use of a present progressive aspect. Ég er ekki að reyna really means ‘I’m not trying’ and not ‘I don’t try’.

The capper, though, and the one that reminds us of the particular pertinacity of the Icelandic, is this: “Reince er fjandans ofsóknarbrjálaður geðklofasjúklingur.” Icelandic prefers to use Icelandic roots rather than Greek or Latin ones for things when it can, you see, and that sentence there means ‘Reince is a fucking paranoid schizophrenic.’ Except fjandans doesn’t literally refer to anything sexual or scatological at all. It’s used as an expletive like English fucking, but it’s actually a devil reference, cognate with English fiend. And then the rest is… fiendish. It even looks a little bit like sounds you might make while sucking your own cock. With a lot of tongue action.

27 Jul 05:22

Is Schlager Music The Most Embarrassing Thing Germany Has Ever Produced?

by Rebecca Schuman

Deutschland über us.

Image: Bengt Nyman

When you think of German music, what comes to mind is probably:

…or, if you’re feeling classy:

…or, perhaps, if you want to be snarky, this; or, if you have excellent taste, this; or, alas, this.

However, what you probably don’t realize — because this is Germany’s best-kept (or at any rate least-translated) cultural secret — is that the most popular genre of homegrown music, in the most important country in the world, is the aural equivalent of nuclear war. It’s an oeuvre that makes Christian rock seem subversive. As Nico Roicke put it in the Guardian a few years ago, what I’m about to show you is “Germany’s most embarrassing musical genre” — and this is a country that brought us a phenomenally unnecessary reboot of Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It.” (DON’T MESS WITH PERFECTION.)

Allow me to introduce a category called Schlager—pronounced SHLOG-uh (literally “hits”), but not to be confused with Goldschläger, (GOLT-schlay-guh), though the latter is, interestingly, what the former would both taste like and do to your brain if distilled into liquid form. Schlager is a form of pop so insipid and saccharine that it is possible the Communists built the Berlin Wall to keep it out.

I feel like you need to witness some right now, before we talk any more.

Don’t worry, there’s an unfathomable amount more where that came from.

As German columnist Teresa Fries writes in her latest on Young Person’s Blog jetzt (“now”), for reasons neither she nor I can fathom, far too many Germans of a Certain Age live their lives under schlager’s thrall. Of the current top five albums on the German charts, two are schlager records. To put it into perspective, that would be like if the number three and four albums on the US Billboard Hot 100 were Christian rock about cats. (To be fair, the current top two albums in Germany are German-language hip-hop, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

Fries writes of her own young-Boomer-aged parents’ habit of watching several hours of schlager specials on TV every night before they go to bed — there’s the Spring Festival of Volksmusik, the Summer Festival of Volksmusik, the Great New Year’s Schlagin’ Eve Spectacular (my approximate and excellent translation); and on and on forever.

Judiciously, Fries describes her decision, as a grown adult, to sit with her parents on the couch while they enjoy this entertainment, as a “true test of love,” one whose extent she doubts they understand. When, in elementary school, she discovered she’d been slightly hard of hearing her whole life, she assumed she had “simply tried, while in the womb, to develop some sort of self-protection mechanism against the musical taste of my parents.”

Now, you may be asking: BUT HOW DO I KNOW I AM LISTENING TO SCHLAGER AND NOT NORMAL TERRIBLE POP MUSIC, REBECCA? Oh, you’ll know. But, on the extremely unlikely off-chance that you’re not sure, here’s a concrete blueprint.

One: Schlager contains lyrics that are maximally chirpy, predictable, simplistic and very, very, very, very rhyming. If your average terrible pop song rhymes ten times in thirty seconds, a schlager hit (REDUNDANT) rhymes fifty times in thirty seconds. Like if your Golden Retriever learned German and then wrote a song. Here’s an example Fries provides, by the schlager superstar Michelle (one name).

Du und die, das geht nie
(DOO oont DEE, DOSS gayt NEE)
Das geht nicht mal irgendwie
(DOSS gayt NISCHT mall EAR-goont-VEE)
Einen Mann zum Wahnsinn treiben
(AYE-nun MONN tsoom VONN-zinn TRIBE-un)
Das kann keine so wie sie

Or, more or less:

You and she
will never be
Never, no way
no-how, gee
To drive a man
to be crazy
Is all from her
you’ll ever see

Two: You can recognize schlager by its subject matter, which is never, ever, ever political, risqué, or even too grumpy. (The latter is probably why so many Germans rightly find it offensive.) Schlager songs are usually, as the above demonstrates, about love as envisioned by an animate American Girl doll. But they can also, as Roicke pointed out in the Guardian, touch on such disparate subtopics as “being on holiday, country living, life on the Autobahn, living with animals and living with animals on the Autobahn;”

Three: Every schlager song climaxes in a particularly simplistic and soaring melody, reminiscent of what your 1980s keyboard’s “boogie” setting would write if it became sentient.

Though its roots trace back to the operettas of the late Weimar Republic, the true origin story of schlager involves the postwar Wirtschaftswunder (VURT-shofts-VOON-dur, or “economic miracle”) of West Germany, a period where, thanks to a bunch of important stuff that God invented history professors to explain to you, people in the Federal Republic got to enjoy all manner of Western consumer goods — including, of course, the Devil’s Music. So schlager really came into its own in the postwar years, meant as it was to lure Germans away from Rock ’n Roll’s unapologetic Americanness, sensuality, and (usually stolen) blackness. I’m not sure what the precise formula for OG schlager was, but I’m guessing Pat Boone + Lawrence Welk x fourth-grade German poetry project ^ just the tiniest hint of oompah.

The hits inexplicably kept chugging through the sixties, now in place as a stalwart against the so-called ’68 Group, harbingers of West Germany’s version of the cultural revolution:

And on and on schlager plodded, like the treacly chords of its own hooks, through the disco era, and then sharing radio space with actual greats of the German New Wave in the eighties (Nena 4Lyfe!), experiencing a dip during reunification and Germany’s total takeover by the baby Backstreet Boys in the mid-nineties, and on and on like the interminable repetition in Wofgang Petry’s seminal Verlieben, verloren, vergessen, verzeihn, to the present, where we can find schlager hits 24 hours a day on the dedicated German channel “Gute Laune TV” (GOOT-uh LOW-nuh, or “good mood,” which Fries points out is a misnomer of the highest order).

I feel sort of bad picking on schlager, because I suspect that Germans’ relationship to the alleged Music of the People is not unlike that of Teresa Fries and her own parents — or, for that matter, me and mine. I can make fun of my own mom as much as I want, but if someone else does it, I am legally obligated to kick their ass. So, even though schlager is categorically awful, do I as a non-German have any right to diss it? I’m not sure I do. In fact, I will totally understand if what I have coming to me for voicing this particular opinion is my very own Schlag to the face. If only there existed a violent cinnamon liqueur to dull the pain.

Is Schlager Music The Most Embarrassing Thing Germany Has Ever Produced? was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

11 Jul 02:47

Has No One Told The Tumblr Girls About Gustav Holst?

by Fran Hoepfner

Classical Music Hour with Fran

Image: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

First things first: Gustav Holst was a Virgo.


Lots has been on my mind lately! I’m thinking back to Rimsky-Korsakov’s adventurous Scheherazade, but also about the types of loud triumphant music played over the Fourth of July weekend. Music made popular by, well, pops orchestras. And then it dawned on me that I had yet to come anywhere close to our sweet friend Holst and his Planets.

Composed between 1914 and 1916, and finally premiering in 1920, Holst’s The Planets was a seven-movement orchestral suite about, uh, the planets. He was British; this stuff is always pretty straightforward with those folks. It wasn’t intended to be scientific, nor was it rooted in Roman mythology. This was purely astrological, which is why it felt essential to tell you that Holst is a Virgo. Of course this ought to start making sense now. He frequently consulted a book by astrologer Alan Leo (who was, yes, a Leo) called What Is A Horoscope And How Is It Cast? in order to subtitle each of the movements. And he did horoscopes for his friends! Extremely nice. And cool. I’m thrilled to announce that Gustav Holst is also now my friend. (I am an Aries — is that not clear?)

We’re going full Bernstein this week, using his 1969 recording. So, like any good horoscopes section, Holst’s Planets begins with Mars, the Bringer of War (or, you know, Aries). This is the most popular movement of the suite, and if you know any of them, it’s probably this one. It’s very prevalent in pop culture, see?

hell the frick yes

It’s got a deeply memorable militaristic drive to it. It opens with a droning clicking noise that may not sound like an instrument you’re familiar with, but it’s actually the string players hitting their strings with the wooden side of the bow. I played timpani on Mars, which was a fine thing, but with some distance, I’ve learned to really appreciate the strength and richness of the brass without having to constantly count out my own part. Mars is the only movement of The Planets I’ve played; like I said above, it tends to be isolated and played by younger orchestras or for bigger pops events. That’s fine, no doubt, but taking it out has always felt wrong. On one hand, I don’t think it’s significantly easier of a piece, and on the other hand, Mars is much less annoying (sorry!) when contextualized within the other planets.

Like Venus, the Bringer of Peace. This is the longest movement in The Planets and one of the most thoughtful and elegant. For all of Mars’s repetition, Venus feels much more broad in its sound. It begins quietly, thoughtfully, with the French horn. It takes time to establish itself, encroaching almost cautiously into the listener’s eardrums after the pounding melodrama of Mars. I’ve always been fond of the violin solo at the 2:17 mark and that melody that follows on the strings. It floats just on top of the orchestra with a lightness that somehow also has body and depth to it. It’s an antidote, truly, to the movement before it, and a cleansing balm going forward.

Mercury, the Winged Messenger is a straight-up goofy piece of music with some fucking crazy-ass wild percussion throughout. Remember when Hermes was voiced by Paul Shaffer in the Disney’s version of Hercules? Look, I know that’s Greek, and this isn’t that, or Roman, or scientific, but c’mon. Listen to this movement and tell me you don’t hear a little flying jazz band conductor. This sounds like Paul Shaffer without sunglasses.

Ah, and now we’ve come to the crème de la crème, Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity. There’s no official structure to a seven movement orchestral suite the way there is a sonata form to a symphony. But Holst said that The Planets were intended to mirror the stages of life, consider Jupiter prime adulthood A.K.A. feeling sad and weird on Friday nights and quitting your job. I love love love this movement. It is, to me, hands down the best. It does, in fact, bring jollity!! To me!! Even when it slows down a bit at the 3:04 mark, there’s an overwhelming heroism to the music. It’s deeply optimistic, summoning a joy from further within than the passive kind associated with Top 40 radio.

From here we enter something of a musical denouement in the fifth movement, Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age. Isn’t that just how these things go, you’re spry and fun for a second and then you’re old as all heck? Saturn is an odd movement, a real dramatic shift. It’s certainly less memorable on its face: there are no big hooks to Saturn like there have been in past movements. It feels wise and old, troubled and conflicted. Its sound is more abstract than its prior movements, a big reminder, to me, that this is 20th-century music. It’s getting weirder. More modern. More troubled. Saturn really comes into itself right around the big crescendo right past the 4-minute mark. At 4:44, there’s an unsettling back and forth between the strings and brass and percussion. It sounds like a horror movie!

Uranus, the Magician follows with a big, brassy announcement of itself. The magician is here, folks. Please log the hell on. This is some Sorcerer’s Apprentice-sounding shit. There’s some xylophone here that would make our old friend Saint-Saëns proud. Uranus is exciting, a genuine thrill ride throughout. It’s letting Holst go full weird which, this late into the suite, honestly rules. It’s possible on this listening that you’ve taken the Planets very seriously. That’s fine, but please don’t forget this is a guy who used to read people’s horoscopes for fun and is a Virgo. You’re meant to enjoy this. It’s supposed to unsettle and amuse you.

The final movement of The Planets is Neptune, the Mystic. For those (nerds) demanding (like nerds do) to know where Pluto is, the answer is: Pluto wasn’t discovered yet. And so, the end of The Planets manages to feel inconclusive without even trying. Neptune is a sweeping and haunting finale. There’s a women’s choir that features throughout, representative, in my guess, of the mystic herself. It really does sound like an old-fashioned version of a ghost. You have expect there to be a creak of a hallway (maybe it’s just my apartment though). It’s hard to classify The Planets as a piece of music, impossible to nail to a particular mood or feeling or state of being. It ends with a fade out, something we’d view as a cop out these days, but for the time it was written, feels unresolved in a deeply artful way. Space is infinite, you know? And Holst is a Virgo. Don’t forget.

Fran Hoepfner is a writer from Chicago. You can find a corresponding playlist for all of the pieces discussed in this column here.

Has No One Told The Tumblr Girls About Gustav Holst? was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

25 May 02:48

My Electric Bike is Not ‘Cheating.’ And It Could Replace Cars for Millions of People

by Pam Mandel

“Hey, no fair! You’re cheating!”

The guy was wrapped head to toe in black Lycra. He had clip-in cleats and a racing helmet. I was wearing a skirt and blue suede shoes. He was annoyed because I’d passed him. He was riding hard, I could see his effort and as I pulled out on the left, I could hear him breathing.

This stretch of road doesn’t look like much, but it’s an uphill grade. When I’m heading into town, I hit it from a right turn or a full stop, both of which kill my momentum. It’s nowhere near the gut emptying climb before you reach my house, but it’s not a coast, either. Road bike guy had probably come from the park at sea level; he’d likely been climbing for a mile already.

There would be no denying the guy was stronger than I am. I put out my back and ate my feelings the better part of the winter. He’d drop me in a second were we on the same ride.

But we weren’t. He was training on his skinny tire racing rig, I was on my electric assist commuter bike.

I turned to look back at him. “I’m riding a bike,” I said. “That’s not cheating.”

“Argh,” he growled “okay, okay.”

“Would you rather I was driving a car?” I asked.

“ARGH,” he growled again, “You’re right, I guess…”

I waved, and then, he was well behind me. I had to be at a meeting in 45 minutes, I didn’t have time to talk bicycle politics with Lycra guy. Plus, I like to think he got my point.


I’ve been riding an electric about three years now. I’m on my third model. I got the first one on clearance at a bike shop that was going out of business. The bike was supposed to take the pain out of my commute, but the battery would not hold a charge for long enough. I’d get six blocks from home and have to drag 50 pounds of machinery up that steep hill. Eventually, I put that bike on Craigslist and got a newer model, an equally heavy cruiser with fat tires—but more range. I put saddlebags on it and rode it everywhere including commuting 18 miles round trip into downtown Seattle rain, or shine. The weather could be a burden some days but the ride itself never was.

This spring I had a “friends and family” hookup on a European electric bike, designed explicitly for commuting. It came with all the stuff—lights, fenders, a rack for your panniers, there’s even a bell bolted to the handlebars. It’s got skinner tires than my cruiser and a control panel that tells me that I hit 30 miles an hour on that one long downhill stretch past the Luna Park, the kitschy diner with the sweetheart tattooed waitresses. That’s the bike I was riding when, dressed in a skirt and blue suede shoes, I passed the roadie in black Lycra.

I have been that guy. Kind of. I didn’t own a car. I rode a bike everywhere—I’m not exaggerating, I do mean everywhere, and sometimes, on the weekends, I would chew up 50 miles of road just because the weather was nice. I was always in cleats and bike shorts, my body fat was practically nonexistent, I ate like a teenage boy; it was awesome.

And then I crossed age 35, and then 40, and then this is a story you don’t need me to tell you. I began working primarily at home, and I moved to the top of a stupid hill. So there I was at home, eating snacks and not going anywhere and generally becoming spongy and middle-aged and honestly, kind of lazy. I admit it.

I tried for a while to ride. I’d bust out my sturdy old commuter, the same bike I’d logged 100 plus miles a week on. I’d ride into downtown Seattle for work, and then, on the ride home, I’d quit at a place where I could load my bike onto the bus for the last brutal uphill grade. The bike racks are great—I’m glad they exist—though they’re a hassle for a short person with weak upper body strength. Sometimes, they’d be full and I’d have to wait for the next bus, and then the next.

I gave up. It wasn’t fun. Riding a bike should be fun.

Everything changed when I shifted to an electric bike. If you haven’t ridden an e-bike, you might think it’s a scooter masquerading as a bike. There are models that work that way, but they also have a mode called “pedal assist.” Maybe you remember learning to ride as a kid. Some patient adult ran along with you, holding you upright. They pushed you off and you felt the momentum behind you as you launched into the world of feeling the freedom that is riding a bike. That’s how riding an electric bike feels—only it’s the bike’s motor that gives you the momentum, the whoosh feeling of moving forward, gravity on your side. Electricity made riding my bike all about that freedom again, and not all about fitness. Or my lack thereof.

My electric bike hasn’t replaced my road bike as much as it’s replaced my car. I am rarely too tired to run to the post office or down to the supermarket—it’s at the bottom of that hill—to get milk. When I need to head downtown for a meeting, I ride, knowing I won’t be wrung out and sweaty on arrival. On a gorgeous spring evening, I rode my bike to the bar to meet a friend for drinks. And yeah, I had to drink in moderation, but I have to do this if I drive, too.

And my bike, it counts. Literally—there’s a bike counter on the bridge I cross to get into downtown, and it registers one more rider every time I roll past it. More bikes means more infrastructure for cyclists. More infrastructure for cyclist means riding a bike is easier and safer. Easier and safer cycling means more bikes. More bikes mean fewer cars. I think we can all agree that fewer cars on the road are a good thing.

Don’t shame my electric ride. Without it, I’m another anonymous driver taking up space and fuel and resources that could be used to promote the freedom of riding a bike. We’re not on the same ride, road bike guy, but we are on the same road—and we both want to make it better.


1. “Murder Machines: Why Cars Will Kill 30,000 Americans This Year” (Hunter Oatman-Stanford, Collectors Weekly, March 2014)

A bump to this previously featured piece at Collector’s Weekly. Pedestrians and cyclists haven’t always been second-class citizens on the road. But undoing years of car-first thinking has been fraught with conflict.

As cities attempt to undo years of car-oriented development by rebuilding streets that better incorporate public transit, bicycle facilities, and pedestrian needs, the existing bias towards automobiles is making the fight to transform streets just as intense as when cars first arrived in the urban landscape. “The fact that changes like redesigning streets for bike lanes set off such strong reactions today is a great analogy to what was going on in the ’20s,” says Fried. “There’s a huge status-quo bias that’s inherent in human nature. While I think the changes today are much more beneficial than what was done 80 years ago, the fact that they’re jarring to people comes from the same place. People are very comfortable with things the way they are.”

2. Streetfighting woman: inside the story of how cycling changed New York (Peter Walker, The Guardian, March 2016)

As New York City’s former Transportation Commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan helped reclaim 400 miles of city streets for bike paths. The Guardian profiled her work.

Urban transport is, Sadik-Khan argues, amid a “Copernican revolution” in which streets are remodelled around human beings, whether walking, cycling or on buses, rather than alone inside a speeding metal box.

“In the United States we spent the last century building our cities around the car, but we damaged our cities in the process and were really getting diminishing returns on that investment,” she said.

“If city residents don’t have a choice but to drive everywhere then our cities don’t stand a chance of surviving in this century. So we really do need to provide new choices for people to get around. We need to face the fact that the way our streets are designed has, in the past, made the decision for its residents.”

The intention under Bloomberg, she says, was “kind of flipping the script in how our streets were designed and who are they designed for”.

3.What I Learned Living One Year Without a Car In Seattle (Sara Bernard, Seattle Weekly, May 2017)

It’s not easy to give up your car, especially in a place like Seattle where the weather is often bad, the hills are steep, and our public transit leaves much to be desired. Sara Bernard admits that she doesn’t always love the ride.

When I had a car, I’d often drive to Olympia on Friday evenings to visit friends. The traffic was excruciating. I always crossed my fingers that maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t be so bad this time, and it never worked. I’d always be stuck in a red-taillight-hued crawl for significant chunks of the drive, and it rarely took less than two and a half hours (without traffic, it should be about an hour and 15 minutes). I’d always arrive stiff-necked and agitated. When I no longer had a car, I learned that an express bus goes to Olympia for $3.75. I’d gaze out the window, breathe deeply, and listen to podcasts. It took two hours, but then when had a Friday-evening drive ever taken less than two hours?

For me, then, moving from car-lite to car-free was not really that painful. I’ve stood in the cold for 30 minutes waiting for a bus and been really, really mad about it. I’ve biked in the driving rain countless times, and, yes, I truly and desperately hate it—to-the-point-of-tears hate it. But somehow that soaking misery is not quite enough to make me want to spend thousands on a car, which, now that I don’t have one, seems like an utterly insane sum.

04 Apr 00:39

Inside McMansion Hell

by Arianna Rebolini

An interview with Kate Wagner, the ugly-house blogger.

To fully appreciate McMansion Hell — Kate Wagner’s biting and hilarious blog skewering those “ugly houses that became ubiquitous before (and after) the bubble burst” — one needs to understand McMansions. To understand McMansions, one needs look no further than Wagner’s McMansion scale, aka the 10 Circles of McMansion Hell. The graphic is representative of the blog as a whole: aesthetically lo-fi, but thoroughly considered; accessible to laypeople, but clearly created by someone read up in architectural theory.

courtesy of Kate Wagner / McMansion Hell

Wagner is a 23-year-old grad student researching acoustics at Johns Hopkins. Anyone familiar with her blog — primarily real estate listings annotated with her chastening commentary — will recognize the colloquial efficiency of the categorizations she’s created. For the sixth circle of McMansion Hell: “House is ok, garage is not.” Circles eight through ten: “More roof than house.” Circles seven through ten: the all-caps “TURRET.” (Turrets, like columns, excessive roof lines, and illogical windows are common objects of Wagner’s disdain.)

It’s a satisfying explainer for those who hate these sprawling suburban houses but maybe haven’t been able to articulate why, but it’s also genuinely educational. Spliced between photos calling out excessive windows in New Jersey (“scream holes”) and useless status symbols in Delaware (“what is the point of tray ceilings SERIOUSLY though”) are primers on architectural history and theory, and a regularly updated master list of further reading. It honestly might be your new favorite blog.

I got Wagner on the phone and talked about the driving (angry) passion behind McMansion Hell — where her interest began, how these houses became ubiquitous, and why she’s totally fine with tearing them apart.

courtesy of Kate Wagner / McMansion Hell

Tell me a bit about the background of McMansion Hell.

Kate Wagner: I started the blog in July 2016, basically because there weren’t really any good ugly house blogs. I didn’t think anybody was going to pay any attention, but then I wrote this piece on the blog called Why McMansions Are Bad Architecture and it kind of went viral. I don’t know how, but it did, and then suddenly I started getting tens of thousands of people following my Tumblr. I’m in the middle of putting together a book proposal and working as a writer for several other publications, so this sort of kickstarted a career for me, which is really awesome, honestly. I’m really grateful that it happened.

It seems, as a reader, that an important factor of your success is that you’re obviously really knowledgeable about what you’re talking about. You’re able to point out, to people like me who might not know why these houses are so off-putting, what exactly makes this kind of architecture and design bad. That’s something you study, right?

KW: I study architectural acoustics at the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins. My thesis is a taxonomy of concert halls. I’m trying to get a PhD so I can write a book about concert halls.

Have you always been interested in architecture and the functionality of design?

KW: Yeah, ever since I was a little kid. I rode the bus in North Carolina — in Southern Pines, which is about an hour south of Raleigh — and my sister and I were the first ones to get on the bus at 6:30 in the morning, and the last to get off in the afternoon. The whole time I was looking at houses and trying to picture the lives of people who came out, trying to see how the houses were different from each other, and being really fascinated with the ones that were a little funny looking. I was an HGTV junkie as a kid. I loved watching Candice Olsen on “Divine Design”; I was always really into “House Hunters.” I started writing about postmodern architecture in high school, for classes but also privately. That was the easiest way for me to get into architectural theory. Now my horizons are a lot broader, but honestly, reading Learning From Las Vegas in high school was what got me interested in the idea of writing about architecture from a theory standpoint.

The blog is so funny, but there is real, evident anger behind it. What bothers you about what you’re seeing?

KW: First of all, I hate the wastefulness of it. You don’t need that much space. These houses are just so horribly constructed; they’re huge energy sinks, part of a completely unsustainable lifestyle, which is also driven by the car and the isolation of suburbia and exurbia.

Then, the pretentiousness of it. It’s appropriating architectural languages of the past, like certain types of columns, in order to denote an appeal to authority, architecturally. By putting columns on your front door, it’s saying you have the same amount of power as an institution like a bank or government office. We’ve codified certain symbols as symbols of wealth. But that started a long time ago, and it’s a whole other can of worms. Now, though, the cheapness of the material — there’s an irony there for me. It’s making this bold statement of wealth, but you can’t afford to do it with good stuff.

Also just the roof lines bother me the most. [Laughs.] They make no sense, and they’re huge, and they’re at so many different pitches, and anyone who knows anything about roofs knows the more complicated the roofs are, the more likely they are to leak. Can you imaging re-roofing a house like that, after ten or twelve years? It would cost more than buying a new house.

courtesy of Kate Wagner / McMansion Hell

Looking through the pictures on your posts, you start to realize how consistent these markers are. Like, I’d never noticed how many windows are on these houses. How could you need so many windows? What are some of the elements you see again and again?

KW: Usually the roof lines are the number one. The windows not matching, or there being too many windows, or windows in illogical places. That’s pretty common. The use of foam architectural detailings. I don’t know how trendy this stuff is; it was pretty trendy in the 2000s, but some of it has gone a little out of style. Vinyl siding is pretty much out of style now, but that was a marker.

I honestly think it’s the size of the houses. The two-story entryway. They’re not scaled at all to the human being. For me to stand in front of this house would make me feel so small, and I think that’s part of the point. They’re not homey, because they’re just so huge.

All of these things are sort of codified throughout the blog. I devised a scale of how McMansion-y something is based on certain architectural features, as a way to taxonomize. That no one has really done so is interesting to me. I wouldn’t say it’s vernacular architecture — which is designed and built by the people who would use it — because there are huge corporations, lots of industry, money, lobbying involved. But it is uneducated. There’s so much American housing that hasn’t been studied in any sort of academic way, and of course the blog is not the way to examine that, but it’s part of a greater research project of mine, which is to document the changes in American housing in the last 40 years, architecturally and economically and sociologically.

The tagline of the blog describes these homes as coming before the bubble burst. Can you talk a little about the economic environment that led to this surge of McMansions?

KW: I think the financial crisis and McMansions — there’s no causation. It’s all correlation. When markets are good, people build houses that are huge. That’s why the average housing square footage has gone up yet again this year. When markets are good, people buy huge houses, and they’re not going to stop until that way of life is no longer sustainable financially, which means we run out of oil.

What happened with the financial crisis is that because of the riskiness of the loans that were being lent at the time, you saw more people borrowing more money than they could afford, to build houses that were too big for what they needed. They were risky assets the entire time.

You’ve looked at different countries on the blog, but this aesthetic does kind of feel specific to the U.S. Is that real, or do I just think that because I’m here?

KW: I’m only now starting to study the McMansions of other countries because there’s so much to study in my own country that I could never run out of material, but I think the main differences are in size. In Canada, the house are just a little smaller. They’re still ugly and stupid, but they’re not quite as huge. Australia, for at least a couple years, had larger house sizes than the U.S. But also it’s hard to navigate the real estate listings there so it’s hard for me to get a bigger picture of the what the average is for those areas. Since I haven’t been to those places, I can’t get as good of a feel of how their suburban landscape is different from ours. But I plan on visiting eventually.

courtesy of Kate Wagner / McMansion Hell

Could you identify states here that are the worst offenders?

KW: Oh yeah. If I’m just like, oh, I need to find a good McMansion right now, my go-to places are northern Virginia, southern Maryland, the D.C. suburbs. New Jersey — all of it. The whole thing. I find some pretty heinous ones in the southeast in general. Marietta, Georgia, is particularly horrible. Colorado’s pretty bad. Texas, always. Texas ’til the end of time.

That makes sense, everything bigger in Texas.

KW: Texas is particularly horrible.

Have you had to deal with angry or offended readers?

KW: I’m still waiting for someone to be like, “That’s my house!” but no one has yet.

That’s good.

KW: No one’s ever even been like, “You’re wrong. I hate this, and you’re wrong.” Which is hilarious, because I totally expected that to happen, since the internet is evil.

You are in a sort of rare position to not be getting hate for something you’re doing on the internet — which is probably a good sign. Do you ever feel bad, though, about tearing apart these places which has been or will someday be someone’s home? Or is it more like, listen, make a better house and I won’t make fun of it.

KW: It’s not like it’s a witch hunt. I’ll include the city or the county, but I never link to the real estate listing. I try to be vague about the square footage and the price so people can’t just look it up. I try to give them privacy in that way. But I think that I don’t particularly feel bad because the people who build these houses obviously have enough wealth where they don’t really need to care, honestly. I don’t want to be deciding factor between someone buying a house or not buying a house, but at the same time, these houses are so exorbitant and so stupid that I feel like they’ve already been sitting on the market forever, and nothing I say is going to change the fact that they’re not really wanted. They’re just so huge and so expensive and so bad. But also I just don’t feel bad at all, really. (Laughs.) There’s a reason I don’t crap all over apartment complexes, because people live where they can afford to live. But at a certain point you’re not living where you can afford to live; you’re living in excess.

courtesy of Kate Wagner / McMansion Hell

Do you see a reversal in the trend? It feels like people are embracing minimalism, but that might just be my own urban bubble.

KW: In architecture, yeah. You see the tiny house trend, and younger people tend to do less. I read somewhere that my generation and the generation before care more about experiences than assets. Their idea of having a good life is doing things like traveling and living in the city rather than having a huge house and a nice car and all of the things that for so long was the sort of American ideal. Technology also changes things. When you live in a world with such pervasive technology, which in some ways is erasing borders, there’s no room for tribalism or any of the things that keep us locked in one place. So I think minimalism is definitely appealing to the financial situations of young people who are saddled with debt, or it’s appealing to people who get more from doing things than from having things.

But still, people ask me all the time if the McMansion is going to die, and I know Business Insider wants it to die so bad and I appreciate them, but it’s not. Fewer people are buying old, but more people are building new. That’s sort of what’s emerged as the trend.

There will always be people who want a huge house.

KW: For a lot of people, their idea of personal wealth and success is a huge house. Is there something wrong with that? I’m a super environmentalist, so I would say yes, of course there’s something inherently wrong with having and creating this huge waste of space. But at the same time, it’s still somebody’s home. If that’s their dream, then that’s their dream. I’m not going to insult that person specifically; that’s why I make up characters. But no, it’s not going to die until that way of life is unsustainable, until people literally cannot afford to live that way. And the only way that can happen is if we run out of oil. Or Florida falls off into the ocean.

Inside McMansion Hell was originally published in The Hairpin on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

22 Mar 21:28

Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Brilliant Fleabag Is Getting a Second Season

by Madeleine Davies
Image via Amazon/Fleabag.

Greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt women who can’t even call themselves feminists: Rejoice! Fleabag, the series written by and starring the quick-witted and luminous Phoebe Waller-Bridge, has been renewed for a second season.

Waller-Bridge confirmed the news to Radio Times on Saturday, saying, “We cracked [the first season] open so that she would be able to have a life beyond it and also there are so many more stories and story strands and character strands come out of this series.”

As for ideas on what the second season will be about, she says, “I think I have one...We are all trying to make it work and have the same team back.”

The first season of Fleabag, which is available on Amazon in the U.S., was made up of a compact (though deeply affecting) six episodes and based on Waller-Bridge’s one woman show of the same name. Since Fleabag’s televised debut, the writer/performer has been signed to UTA and has been working on a new series for BBC America called Killing Eve, “a brilliantly fresh take on the cat and mouse thriller.”

The wait for more Fleabag is gonna be a long one. Waller-Bridge, pretty busy these days, says the second season won’t debut until November of 2018.

14 Mar 22:34

Watch the Hilarious Trailer For Veep's Sixth Season

by Bobby Finger on The Muse, shared by Joanna Rothkopf to Jezebel

Veep, the funniest and most joyfully vulgar show on television, is returning for its sixth (!!) season next month, and I’d completely forgotten until seeing the hysterical trailer HBO dropped Monday afternoon.

In it, we see Selina dealing with her loss (spoiler, she’s not VEEP or POTUS anymore) by appearing on CBS Sunday Morning (“This last year has been fun! Really fun!”), taking a humanitarian trip to a region filled with land mines (she instructs Tony Hale’s Gary to walk ahead of her), and volunteering to clean up graffiti, but not finishing the job:

Image via screengrab.

I can’t wait to laugh again! It’s been so long!

Veep’s sixth season premieres April 16 on HBO.

03 Mar 01:47

I Read A Book About Brahms And All I Got Was This Obsession With Clara Schumann

by Fran Hoepfner

Classical Music Hour with Fran

Keep it 100, Clara. Image: The Currency Commission.

The main thing to know about me right now is that I am neck-deep in this Brahms biography. I am on a Brahms train, baby, and the next stop is 500 more pages of Brahms. And while every single fiber of my being is screaming, “write about Brahms this week,” I also know that I’m going to be tempted to write about him for the next month. So in the meantime, I want to write about one of his closest friends and maybe maybe maybe the love of his life, as well as the first female composer for this column: Clara Schumann.

Schumann (née Wieck) was born to be a famous pianist, namely because her father decided at a very young age that that’s what his daughter was going to become. He had her learning piano when she was a toddler, and even before she was 10, Clara was recognized as one of the most promising musicians of the mid-19th century. When she was 11, she met Robert Schumann, who was 9 years older than her, who dropped everything to move into her house and teach her piano and one day marry her. Nice. Nice nice nice. Extremely normal and good thing from the past.

The Schumanns are often recognized as a power couple of the time — your Beyoncé and Jay-Z, your William H. Macy and Felicity Huffman, you get it. But like many celebrity power couples, the woman is often more notable than the man. For a long time, it was easy to overlook Clara Schumann; Robert was the composer of them, really, and she was just the performer. But that’s wrong! It’s extremely wrong! She composed too! She performed all the time! Robert went insane (got mercury poisoning? Had syphilis? Who even knows when you’re living in the past, baby) and threw himself in the Rhine, while she went on to raise their seven children while also almost constantly on tour. (Okay, so a nanny or something like that probably raised those children, but you get it!!)

Image: Franz Hanfstaengl, via Wikimedia Commons

Descriptions of Clara Schumann in my big Brahms book are fairly consistent: she was serious, melancholy, only ever truly happy when playing piano but also constantly crying anytime she wasn’t playing piano. She and Brahms met through Robert when Brahms was only 20 (very hot age to be) and the two were inseparable for approximately two years while her husband was in an asylum. While they probably didn’t ever consummate their relationship, she did write him letters that said things like, “every letter from you is like a kiss.” In addition, there’s a brief but wonderful quote from Franz Liszt in this book, who at one point wrote of Clara as, “a consecrated, faithful stern priestess whose eyes look upon men with a sad, penetrating gaze.” Obviously, I love her.

The piece I found myself most drawn to her in small but significant repertoire is her first and only concerto: Piano Concerto In A Minor, Opus 7, composed when she was a mere 16 years old. So this is pre-Brahms, pre-Robert Schumann. This is Clara as Clara Wieck, and her work is still clearly steeped in a certain seriousness and straightforwardness.

Some context, perhaps, in her work is necessary: following the death of Beethoven (one of whose piano concertos I’ve previously written about), there was much to be figured out about the state of German music. Was it going to follow in the footsteps of ol’ Ludwig Van — fairly traditional meditations on a normal classical? Or would it move in the direction of composers like Liszt and Mendelssohn and Wagner, the early German Romantics?

Clara’s piano concerto comes approximately 8 years in history after Beethoven’s death, and even the opening movement, an Allegro Maestoso (!) feels fairly Beethoven-esque. It’s powerful and serious, heavy with emotion and straightforward with its themes. However, when the piano slinks over the orchestra around the 1:20 mark, there’s something much more delicate and coy. Clara’s music doesn’t feel as overtly tragic as Beethoven’s often did. There’s a little run at the 1:50 mark that’s purely joyful. So much of this movement in particular transforms into something lovely. I don’t mean to diminish her work as only lovely, please believe me. I just feel the urge to fight against this perception of her as this cold, mean woman. Look at this teen! Look at her write something so complex and genuinely beautiful! No German composer deserved her, as far as I’m concerned.

The first movement in fact leaves off on something of a cliffhanger, tumbling into the second movement, a Romanze. This is the shortest of the three movements, and it is a romance if I ever heard one. It’s meditative and hopeful! Hopeful! She wrote this with the help of Robert Schumann and it’s possible, no doubt, it was about a romance with him. She could have been crushing, is what I’m trying to say. Regardless, there is a cello solo that comes in at the 2:20 mark that, in tandem with the piano, is one of the most gorgeous and elegant melodies I’ve ever heard.

Image: iClassical Com

The original theme from the first movement returns in the third movement, an Allegro non troppo. It’s hard not to love the final movement of any piano concerto, in which just about every single piano part just goes right the hell off. I’m talking runs and sweeps and scales and just about every hand slamming down on the instrument all at once. No doubt there is some power in this movement. We’re back to that general Beethoven-y sound, this bubbling complexity, the back and forth between the piano and the orchestra.

There’s a part right at the 7 or so minute mark where it feels like the piano and the orchestra are talking to each other — not quite fighting, but certainly dancing around each other, about to square off.

I truly cannot believe Clara started working on this before I even had my learner’s permit, but there you go. The Allegro non troppo reaches a tense finale — it’s a balancing act, no doubt, between the lightness of the piano and the heaviness of an orchestra, like someone pulling on a tightrope as an acrobat walks across. The last minute on that piano is just — it’s insane. It’s amazing. It’s playful and forceful all at once. I’m so proud of her, this melancholy teen who would later own Liszt by simply looking at him. Women rule.

Fran Hoepfner is a writer from Chicago. You can find a corresponding playlist for all of the pieces discussed in this column here.

I Read A Book About Brahms And All I Got Was This Obsession With Clara Schumann was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

16 Feb 00:19

Deutschland Über Us

by Rebecca Schuman

How’s it going over in the last bastion of liberal democracy?

Image: [martin]

Guten Tag, friends, and Willkommen to a thing in which I investigate everything that’s happening in and around the Federal Republic of Germany, where the Earth’s last remaining sentinel against widespread nuclear armageddon, Angela Merkel, offers us a full Pantone array of sensible suits, ruthless punctuality, and a foreign and domestic policy that made her a close ally of Barack Obama, but unapologetically “center-right” in a political landscape that also includes the Pirate Party.

We Americans might feel a a whiff of Gewissensbiß, as Nietzsche would say (the “bite of conscience”), that Germans of all people get to lord their comparatively progressive, inclusive worldview over us for the next possibly-four years. After all, how bad did it have to get for the Volk who brought us the Holocaust to feel fully justified in putting this bad boy on the cover of Der Spiegel?

Der Spiegel, by the way, means “the mirror,” as in, Germans are supposed to see themselves reflected in it — and what they see is a metric fuck-ton of superiority to the nation who, only a few decades ago, had to chop their best city into four pieces because they couldn’t even be trusted to do that themselves.

Yes, Germans must be feeling pretty good about themselves these days, because if there is one thing they love more than passive-aggressively ringing their bicycle bells at pedestrians, it’s being right all the time. That’s why last week’s mortifying moment at a Fed Cup tennis match — when a singer belted out the wrong version of the German national anthem, the Nazi version, the Deutschland über alles version, and not the current one, that begins Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit, or “unity, justice and freedom”—is the best thing to happen to the Fatherland since Knight Rider started streaming.

Because suddenly they’re not the bad guys for having the Nazi anthem (and the Nazis) in the first place. No, we’re the doofuses who are so illiterate in other languages that we can’t Wikipedia Deutschlandlied, and apparently also (at least unconsciously) so insecure in the shadow of our own little Dorito Führer that we have to remind Germany what they did so that we won’t look so bad. (Hint: It didn’t work.)

Well, Germans, I’m here to take you down a Kerbe. We may have recently ruined our democracy (something you know nothing about), but you recently ruined the best thing about your television. Germans will attempt to tell you that the best show on German television is something called “Tatort (“Crime Scene,” literally “place of the deed”), a program that’s been running for 47 years, and is sort of “CSI” with bad lighting, dramatic pauses that are much too long, and intermittent nudity, that even the most cynical citizen of the Federal Republic will halt the entirety of his Sunday evening to watch.

(The Germans don’t seem to care what we do with “Tatort” here, so you can watch entire episodes on YouTube. Here’s one. It’s got at least one naked butt.)

Other Germans will attempt to tell you that they only watch American television, and this can mean one of two things: That they illegally stream our good shows in English, or that they watch our terrible shows dubbed. (Germans love “The King of Queens:” Fact.) But what only the most self-aware will admit is that the true treasures of the Teutonic Fernseher (literally, “far-seer,” as in, zis contreption lets you see ze sings zat are far away) are the scores of cheaply produced reality shows, which go by the most German word possible, by which I mean it is a compound of two English words used incorrectly: Doku-Soaps.

It’s not that our own docu-soaps aren’t ridiculous. Clearly they are. But every show in the U.S. at least has a gimmick to suck viewers in to the banality of its particular brand of evil: This family has twenty-five children! These people have been stranded on an island with only a television crew and plenty of food and water a slight distance away! These women all married rich guys at one point or another! These women are all little people — but they’re ALSO bitches! To be featured on American unscripted television, a person or situation must be extraordinary in some way, either enviable or pitiable.

In Germany, the more normal the situation, the more likely it is to be televised. I think the most popular reality show in the history of German television would be a crew filming a random 55-year-old couple while they go to the grocery store and complain to the cashier that the box of chocolate breakfast cereal they always get has decreased a gram in volume but increased three cents in price.

Case in point: An entire show called “Versicherungsdetektive (“Insurance Detectives”) that follows the exploits of two dudes who go around investigating the middling instances of fraud that may or may not occur when a nation insures every single possession it owns. In one episode, the Insurance Detectives ran an iPhone over with a car (and it was unscathed) just to prove that a guy lied when he claimed his grandmother dropped his and cracked the screen. (They eventually discovered that he’d whacked the screen with a hammer in order to get his insurance to pay for a new model.)

But even the Insurance Detectives pale in comparison to a series called mieten, kaufen, wohnen (rent, buy, live), which is sort of like our “HouseHunters,” except the properties are unremarkable three-room walk-ups, and every potential tenant, being German, is chronically unimpressed.

It’s masterful. Or, at any rate, it was. I’m sorry to say that one month and three days before the election of Donald Trump, the show ended its eight-year-run in a shameful rubble-heap of its former might.

For reasons I cannot begin to fathom other than that apparently Germans enjoy ruining perfect things, in its later years the producers of mieten, kaufen, wohnen decided to add a level of intrigue by creating false conflicts between the Makler and the client. Aki is a vegan, but agent Peter loves to eat Hackfleisch, a.k.a. chopped up bits of raw meat spread onto bread that no German under the age of 112 eats in earnest. How’s that going to go?????? Unwatchably, like this scene with a schoolteacher made to wait for twos of minutes for a Makler named Hanka, who apologizes unconvincingly about traffic.

Mieten, kaufen, wohnen was once a nominally unwatchable show that I somehow couldn’t stop watching. In its new incarnation, both the agents and the potential clients—nary a professional or even amateur actor among them—spent the episodes playing out scripted conflicts.

The unbridled genius of mieten, kaufen, wohnen was that it took the German propensity for literalism to its most delightful apex, and made a reality television show that actually depicted reality — which, being reality, is unremarkable. And now it’s destroyed. Nice job, Germans. (Note: For any Germans out there, I do not mean “nice job” literally. I am being sarcastic. That is when you say a thing that is the opposite of what you mean in a mocking voice. It’s a form of something called “humor.”)

The good news, I suppose, is that this means the Germans aren’t kicking our asses at everything nonstop. Sure, they still have a functioning democracy for now. But the shame of what they did to the best show on their television will outlive them all.

Deutschland Über Us was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

07 Feb 00:40

Haruki Murakami’s Metaphysics Of Food

by Elaheh Nozari

How meals and cooking are his most deeply intimate subjects.

The homes that sandwich the passage are of two distinct types and blend together as well as liquids of two different specific gravities. First there are the houses dating from way back, with big backyards; then there are the comparatively newer ones. None of the new houses has any yard to speak of; some don’t have a single speck of of yard space. Scarcely enough room between the eaves and the passage to hang out over two lines of laundry. In some places, clothes actually hang out over the passage, forcing me to inch past rows of still-dripping towels and shirts. I’m so close I can hear television playing and toilets flushing inside. I even smell curry cooking in one kitchen.
The Wind-Up Bird & Tuesday’s Women from The Elephant Vanishes

Food writing gets a bad rap for being fluffy and bougie, which isn’t quite fair since food is such an essential part of our existence. Outside of the establishment of bona fide culinary writers, many fiction writers have touched on the sensory and emotional aspects of food, from Marcel Proust to Nora Ephron, but no one has tapped into its prosaic humanity quite like the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. This is not lost on Murakami fans, and there are a few blogs devoted to the food his characters prepare, like What I Talk About When I Talk About Cooking. Murakami writes intricate plots with an extremely high level of emotional intelligence, but no matter how fantastical his stories are, his characters remain relatable, and food provides the balance between surrealism and normalcy. He weaves food into his stories in a mundane way that communicates the deep-seated reasons of why, how, and what we eat.

The amount of space given over to food in Murakami’s novels is unusual. In Dance Dance Dance, not a day goes by in the narrator’s life that he doesn’t tell the reader what he ate. Food has nothing to do with the plot, though: the book is about a guy searching for a prostitute he once loved. Murakami details the unnamed character’s diet with remarkable banality. In one scene, he’s staying at a luxury hotel and announces he’s tired of the breakfast spread, so he goes to Dunkin’ Donuts and gets two plain muffins. (“You get tired of hotel breakfasts in a day. Dunkin’ Donuts is just the ticket. It’s cheap and you get refills on the coffee.”) This guy is living in 1980s Japan, but this detail makes him immediately more familiar and accessible.

“Whether you take the doughnut hole as a blank space or as an entity unto itself is a purely metaphysical question and does not affect the taste of the doughnut one bit.” — ’A Wild Sheep Chase’ (Image: Kricket)

After Dark is a short novel that starts in a Denny’s at precisely 11:56 P.M. Within the first few pages we meet Takahashi, a trombonist-slash-student who’s come to Denny’s for a late-night snack of chicken salad and crispy toast. He proceeds into a short monologue about Denny’s chicken salad, explaining that even though it’s all he orders there, he still looks at the menu. “Wouldn’t it be too sad to walk into Denny’s and order chicken salad without looking at the menu? It’s like telling the world, ‘I come to Denny’s all the time because I love the chicken salad.’” Takahashi’s self-consciousness about his love of the chicken salad (which another character is quick to note is probably full of “weird drugs”) is relatable.

For Murakami, how we eat is a reflection of ourselves. In 1Q84, The Dowager is a wealthy septuagenarian widow who eats natural ingredients and French-influenced lunches like “boiled white asparagus, salad Niçoise, and a crabmeat omelet.” She eats small portions and drinks her tea, “like a fairy deep in the forest sipping a life-giving morning dew.” You get the sense from her diet and table manners not only that she’s well-bred and refined, but almost enlightened. Compare her to Ushikawa, a sleazy lawyer-turned-private-investigator whose family left him and who has no life outside of stalking people under the guise of work. He’s a self-loathing scumbag and he eats like one, too. Where the Dowager eats fresh vegetables, Ushikawa eats processed food like canned peaches and sweet jam buns, and goes days without having a hot meal. The Dowager treats her body like a temple, Ushikawa treats his like a garbage disposal. She is at peace with herself, he is not.

Yuki, a 13-year-old girl in Dance Dance Dance, has a similar diet to Ushikawa. Though she is of a vastly different demographic, her propensity to eat crap stems from the same feelings of being underloved. Her parents are wealthy and famous, but they’re estranged from each other and neglectful of her. She’s doesn’t have any friends until she meets the narrator, twenty years her senior, who becomes her platonic companion-slash-babysitter. In one scene, he calls and asks if she’s been eating healthy. “Let’s see. First there was Kentucky Fried Chicken, then McDonald’s, then Dairy Queen,” she says. When they hang out, he steers her away from junk food. Later, he takes her to a restaurant where they have roast beef sandwiches on whole wheat bread. He says, “I made her drink a glass of wholesome milk too. The meat was tender and alive with horseradish. Very satisfying. This was a meal.” The narrator takes on the role of nurturer that Yuki’s parents have cast aside, and nourishes her literally and figuratively.

Image: Joseph Nicolia

Murakami often shows his characters preparing meals to convey their independence. In Dance Dance Dance, Yuki’s mother’s boyfriend is a one-armed poet who cuts ham sandwiches so perfectly that the narrator wonders aloud how he slices bread with one hand. In Norwegian Wood, Toru watches Midori in awe as she theatrically prepares lunch one afternoon (“Over here she tasted a boiled dish, and the next second she was at the cutting board, rat-tat-tatting, then she took something out of the fridge and piled it in a bowl, and before I knew it she had washed a pot she had finished using”). Midori had taught herself how to cook in the fifth grade because her mother didn’t take care of household things. When we meet her, she’s essentially an orphan: her mother is dead, her father is dying, and her older sister is engaged. Despite her abandonment, she takes care of herself well.

Cooking meals is more than a signal of independence though, it’s an introspective behavior that provides order to the chaos of the outside world. In 1Q84, the two main characters, Tengo and Aomame, unknowingly enter a dystopian universe where they have no control over their lives. At one point, Tengo is being watched by the aforementioned sketchball Ushikawa and he’s wrapped up in accusations of fraud for ghostwriting a best-selling book. The routine of coming home every day and cooking allows him to step away and make sense of what’s going on around him. He often makes elaborate meals out of whatever’s in his refrigerator. Murakami has said that improvisation is his favorite kind of cooking. In one scene, Tengo makes “rice pilaf using ham and mushrooms and brown rice, and miso soup with tofu and wakame.” Cooking is not a chore for Tengo; he “use[s] it as a time to think “about everyday problems, about math problems, about his writing… he could think in a more orderly fashion while standing in the kitchen and moving his hands than while doing nothing.”

You don’t need to go to therapy to know that food can provide comfort, but for Murakami, comfort is also found in the mindfulness that comes from preparing it. In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Toru is newly unemployed and spending most of his time cooking and looking for his lost cat. At the beginning of the book, the phone rings while he’s making spaghetti (chapter 1) and a tomato-and-cheese sandwich (chapter 3), and he tries to resist answering it until he finishes preparing his food. “I let the phone ring three times and cut the sandwich in half. Then I transferred it to a plate, wiped the knife, and put that in the cutlery drawer, before pouring myself a cup of coffee I had warmed up. Still the phone went on ringing.” Toru is mindful of each unremarkable step in the sequence; by letting the phone ring, he’s trying to block the outside world from intruding on his routine.

As any casual binge-eater can attest, we sometimes eat to fill a void. In the short story “The Second Bakery Attack,” a newlywed couple wakes up in the middle of the night unbearably hungry. They’ve only been married two weeks and aren’t completely at ease with each other (“we had yet to establish a precise conjugal understanding with regard to the rules of dietary behavior. Let alone anything else.”) Long story short, after unsuccessfully scrounging for food in their kitchen, they drive to McDonald’s to rob it, but instead of demanding money, they demand 30 Big Macs. He eats six, she eats four, and as soon as their hunger vanishes, they feel closer to each other.

Image: OiMax

In Kafka on the Shore, when Kafka runs away from home, he stays at a hotel and eats a big breakfast of toast, hot milk, ham and eggs. It’s a warm, nutritious meal that should fill him up, but he’s not full. As he looks around hopelessly for seconds, the voice in his head (“the boy named Crow”) interjects, “You’re not back home anymore, where you can stuff yourself with whatever you like…you’ve run away from home, right? Get that through your head. You’re used to getting up early and eating a huge breakfast, but those days are long gone, my friend.” He’s just left a cushy but lonely life at his father’s home with the vague intention to “journey to a far-off town and live in a corner of a small library.” He’s chosen a place at random (“Shikoku, I decide. That’s where I’ll go. There’s no particular reason it has to be Shikoku, only that studying the map I got the feeling that’s where I should head.”) He has yet to reach his destination or realize the subconscious reason behind wanting to leave home, but his insatiable hunger is indicative of his itinerancy; it’s like he can’t feel full unless he’s secure.

There is a telling passage in Kafka on the Shore about the myth from Plato’s Symposium, that each person was made out of two people, and then God cut everybody in two so they’d spend their lives trying locate their missing half. This idea — and the corresponding one that humans are inherently lonely — is palpable in many Murakami stories, especially when his characters are eating. Midori and Toru’s courtship in Norwegian Wood takes place over meals. They meet for the first time at a quiet diner near their university: Toru is eating alone (a mushroom omelet and green pea salad) and Midori, who recognizes him from class, leaves her friends and goes over to introduce herself. She asks if she’s interrupting him and he responds point-blank, “No, there’s nothing to interrupt.” The reader realizes that Toru has feelings for Midori when she doesn’t show up to school and he ends up having “a cold, tasteless lunch alone.”

Image: nadja robot

While one relationship is built over sharing meals in Norwegian Wood, another comes undone in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Toru takes care of household duties like grocery shopping and dinner while his wife, Kumiko, is at work. She usually is home at 6:30 p.m., but one night she doesn’t return until 9. Toru starts preparing a stir fry of beef, onions, green peppers, and bean sprouts when she comes home, but as he’s cooking it, she starts a fight with him because he doesn’t know that she “absolutely detest[s] beef stir fried with green peppers.” It’s exactly the kind of irrational fight you start when you’re annoyed at someone and need something to pick at, and it foreshadows their future as a couple. A few chapters later, she doesn’t come home at all, and Toru aimlessly putters around the kitchen and eats breakfast alone. This is more heart-wrenching than it seems: they’ve never once missed breakfast together since they’ve been married — it’s the beginning of the end.

In an “Art of Fiction” interview in the Paris Review, Murakami says his job as a fiction writer is “to observe people and the world, and not to judge them.” He describes with incessant detail his characters eating and preparing food, and their behaviors immediately become familiar to us when we view them through this lens. We’ve all experienced Yuki’s cravings for junk food when we feel empty inside, Tengo’s mesmerizing waves of calmness as we cook dinner at home after a stressful day, and both Torus’ sense of loneliness and yearning when we eat a meal alone that we’d rather be eating with someone we care about.

Murakami uses food to convey universal feelings of comfort, love, partnership, and independence. As Toru observes while eating a cucumber in Norwegian Wood, “It’s good when food tastes good. It makes you feel alive.” That he makes this observation in regards to a zero-calorie vegetable that tastes mostly of water suggests that you can find satisfaction in even the simplest of things. You can eat the cucumber without tasting it, or you can live, and appreciate a refreshing taste hidden beneath bitter skin. We don’t eat to merely survive, we eat to experience life.

Haruki Murakami’s Metaphysics Of Food was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

25 Jan 02:01

In 1895, Ida B. Wells's Wedding Announcement Was on the Front Page of the New York Times

by Aimée Lutkin on Pictorial, shared by Joanna Rothkopf to Jezebel
Image via the National Portrait Gallery.

A journalist, activist, and one of the founding members of the NAACP, Ida B. Wells was born to slaves in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi. She prioritized her work over romantic relationships, but eventually, she did get married, and in a rare turn of events given her background, her wedding was noted in the paper of record.

The New York Times is unearthing and contextualizing notable announcements from their archives in a new recurring series called “Committed”; in this one, reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones (who herself was one of the founders of the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting) opens with some background on Wells’ relationship to Ferdinand L. Barnett, a lawyer and owner of the Chicago Conservator, whom Hannah-Jones characterizes as “‘a race man’ and a fellow feminist.” Though the announcement was just a small blurb on the front page, Hannah-Jones writes that “the nuptials of a black woman, born into slavery 33 years earlier, could make the front page of The Times, speaks to a woman who was, by definition, remarkable.” Ida B. Wells had by that time, however, been doing remarkable things her whole life.

Image via The New York Public Library.

According to the National Women’s Hall of Fame, Wells’s parents died when she was a teenager from yellow fever, and she worked to support her brother and sisters as a schoolteacher in Memphis. While traveling to her job, she was approached by a train conductor who insisted she move from a parlor car to a smoking car reserved for black passengers. She refused, and when he grabbed her, she bit him. Wells brought a suit against the railroad and won in circuit court, though the win was later overturned in the state court.

Her career as a teacher ended when she denounced the educational standards and conditions for black children. She became part owner of the Memphis Star, but was run out of town when she wrote articles about the practice of lynching black men. Hannah-Jones reports that Wells openly said that lynch mobs formed to kill black men after they would have consensual sex with white women, justifying murder by calling them rapists. Wells regularly toured to speak about lynching, and was part of a delegation that went to President McKinley in 1898 to demand action in the lynching of a black postmaster in South Carolina.

Her speaking and writing careers kept her so busy she rescheduled her wedding three times. Hannah-Jones writes that on the day of the wedding, interest in the ceremony was high:

When the day finally came, the 27th of June, 1895, the event was fitting for an icon. “The interest of the public in the affair seemed to be so great that not only was the church filled to overflowing, but the streets surrounding the church were so packed with humanity that it was almost impossible for the carriage bearing the wedding bridal party to reach the church door,” Ms. Wells wrote in her autobiography.

At the wedding, Wells’s bridesmaids reportedly wore “lemon crepe dresses set off with white ribbons,” while she wore a “a white satin trained gown trimmed with orange blossoms.”

Image via The University of Chicago Ida B. Wells Papers.

Wells, who kept her last name following her marriage, had four children. At first, she maintained her touring, but took a break after her second child. Her great-granddaughter, Michelle Duster, has worked to maintain her legacy, according to the AP, and began an effort in 2012 to erect a statue of Wells in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, in honor of the 150th anniversary of her death.

Image via AP.
10 Jan 21:44

Do Cats Like Fried Chicken?

by Christine Friar

An Australian experiment in carnivorous attraction


A parks department in Victoria, Australia is under investigation this week because supervisors finally noticed staff had been using the company credit card for non-parks-related activities. Concerning charges found on the statements include $347 at a jewelry store, $898 at a mountain bike shop, more than $5,000 at a Best Buy-esque home entertainment store, and thousands of dollars at a high-end hotel and spa. All of this seems like some pretty straightforward “we’re going to fire our dumb employees” stuff, but one part of the investigation really stands out to me.

The team also charged $260 at a local KFC over seven visits, and instead of being like, “Hey, we were hungry and got some team lunches,” they’ve made the genius claim that all of the chicken was used to address the nation’s feral cat problem.

According to the Guardian:

A senior Parks Victoria staff member, who did not wish to be named, explained to Guardian Australia that “KFC is widely known to be the most effective bait for luring feral cats”.

The genius of this is that Australia’s cat problem is very real—feral domestic cats were reported to “devour an estimated 75 million animals every day,” and had “wiped out about 28 native Australian species” as of 2015. So if these parks employees were, say, the kind of people who would use government funds in order to solve problems inside of the nation’s parks, they might ostensibly be spending on things like feral cat bait.

In supporting their claim, though, the team has had to make a case for why KFC is effective cat bait, which means that a bunch of Australian doctors and scientists are now weighing in on whether or not cats like fried chicken.

Dr. Alan Robley, a senior scientist with the Arthur Rylah Institute for environmental research in Victoria, explained that, “Fried chicken is included in the national guidelines for trapping feral cats and is used due to its scent and prolonged freshness.”

Dr. Christopher Dickman, a biologist and feral cat expert from the University of Sydney, confirmed “it is a popular bait with a strong aroma that is very attractive to carnivores.” But also, “There hasn’t been any data published on it so the information we have is anecdotal, but it does work for luring feral cats, though mainly in urban areas… Cats in remote areas are more suspicious of new foods, but cats in urban areas are more used to living close to KFC outlets and are familiar with the smell.”

So while that anonymous parks source might have been optimistic with the “widely known” part of their fried chicken explanation, it’s definitely about to be more widely known. Fried chicken: doctor and government-approved cat bait.

Do Cats Like Fried Chicken? was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

03 Jan 22:05

In France, You Really Can Tell Your Boss to Fuck Off on the Weekend

by Maddie Stone on Gizmodo, shared by Aimée Lutkin to Jezebel
Image: Flickr/CC

What’s that? It’s 9pm on a Sunday night and your boss just sent you an email, subject line “URGENT”?

A month ago you would have clicked on the message, saw that he wanted that report first thing in the morning, and hauled your ass out of the blanket nest you’ve been happily stewing in for the last eight hours. But this is 2017, and you live in France. Va te faire foutre, as they say.

From Sunday, French companies are required to guarantee their employees a “right to disconnect” from devices after normal work hours, as part of a broader national effort to tackle “always-on” work culture, The Guardian reports. Overuse of our computers and smartphones, including compulsive after-hours email checking, has been blamed for everything from anxiety to sleeplessness to “info-obesity,” a fancy-sounding term France apparently made up to describe yet another familiar syndrome, “burnout.”

“All the studies show there is far more work-related stress today than there used to be, and that the stress is constant,” former French education minister Benoit Hamon told the BBC in May. “Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash—like a dog.”

Under the new law, companies with over fifty workers are required to open negotiations with employees to agree on their rights to unplug. Any company that can’t reach a deal with its workers is compelled to make after-hours expectations explicit.

The legal right to say “fuck you, boss” after hours was packaged as part of a sweeping and controversial French labor reform effort. Similar email amendments have been introduced in both France and Germany before, but until now, none had been signed into law.

The catch, according to the BBC, is that companies are expected to comply with the email rule on a voluntary basis. Time will tell how effective a labor measure with no enforcement is—but hey, at least France is trying to do something about the problem. Here in America, we’re just slowly replacing meals with algae to fit in more email time.

[The Guardian, BBC]

22 Dec 03:47

Björk Excels At Everything But Still Gets Shat On By Sexists

by Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
Image via Getty

Last weekend, Björk was a featured guest at Houston’s Day for Night, a multimedia arts and music festival lynchpinned by Björk Digital, her traveling massive art installation that uses virtual reality to immerse fans in her world. In addition to that, she played not one but two DJ sets on a line-up full of male DJs and electronic musicians, which seems to me like a pretty generous use of her time and labor! Apparently, though, some media attacked her for the basic act of DJing, something they didn’t do to the guys, and so she’s posted an open letter about how that is baldly sexist bullshit.

“!!!! happy winter solstice !!!” she begins, with characteristic charm and enthusiasm. (That’s four exclamation points before, three after.) And then:

last weekend i djd twice at a festival in texas . it was a magical event with some of my favorite musicians djing : aphex twin , arca , oneoh trixpoint never and matmos ... the list is endless !!

most of us played mostly other peoples music and would slide in instrumentals of what weve been working on recently

i am aware of that it is less of a year since i started djing publicly so this is something people are still getting used to and my fans have been incredibly welcoming to me sharing my musical journey and letting me be me . its been so fun and the nerd in me editing together pieces of others peoples songs for weeks , gets to share the different coordinates i feel between some of the most sublime music i know .

but some media could not get their head around that i was not “performing” and “hiding” behind desks . and my male counterparts not . and i think this is sexism . which at the end of this tumultuous year is something im not going to let slide : because we all deserve maximum changes in this revolutionary energy we are currently in the midst of.

While I couldn’t personally find the media report mentioning desks, I did see several reviews that lamented her DJing—which is kinda like the STEM of musicianship—rather than performing her music; specifically, songs from 2015's Vulnicura, her most straightforwardly emotional album. Björk addressed that, too:

women in music are allowed to be singer songwriters singing about their boyfriends . if they change the subject matter to atoms , galaxies , activism , nerdy math beat editing or anything else than being performers singing about their loved ones they get criticized : journalists feel there is just something missing ... as if our only lingo is emo ...

i made volta and biophilia conscious of the fact that these were not subjects females usually write about . i felt i had earned it . on the activist volta i sang about pregnant suicide bombers and for the independence of faroe islands and greenland . on the pedagogic biophilia i sang about galaxies and atoms but it wasnt until vulnicura where i shared a heartbreak i got full acceptance from the media . men are allowed to go from subject to subject , do sci fi , period pieces , be slapstick and humorous , be music nerds getting lost in sculpting soundscapes but not women . if we dont cut our chest open and bleed about the men and children in our lives we are cheating our audience .

So basically, Björk, one of the most inventive pop musicians of our time, has been pushing music forward in a visibly drastic fashion for 39 years, writing albums about freakin’ atoms and putting together art that relies on the cutting edge of technology before anyone else in popular music deigns to try. But dudes are mad if she’s not singing about her breakup. Which, though she is 51 and accomplished enough to be exempt from this kind of bullshit—not exempt from artistic critique, of course, if it’s merited, but definitely exempt from bullshit—it affected her enough this week that she felt she had to speak out. As she notes, she rarely does so, preferring to stay focused primarily on her artistry. Even Björk, though, a grown woman and visionary who is constantly infantilized and otherized because of her spirit and nationality, gets sick of this shit! Kudos to her for snapping on ‘em.

She ends her note:

lets make 2017 the year where we fully make the transformation !!!

!!! the right to variety for all the girls out there !!!

22 Dec 02:33

Meet the Brave, Audacious, Astonishing Women Who Built the Standing Rock Movement 

by Anna Merlan
The “flag road” at Oceti Sakowin . Photo by Tod Seelie for Jezebel

BISMARCK, NORTH DAKOTA—In April, Joye Braun left her home in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, and moved—first into a tipi, then into a yurt. She’s rarely returned home since. You would expect her to sound exhausted, but on a recent December day, with freezing, punishing winds whipping across the plains and snowdrifts piling up around her, she was exuberant. “This isn’t my first rodeo,” she said, laughing.

Braun is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe and a community organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network. Cheyenne River’s territory borders that of the Standing Rock Sioux, and Braun came in April to help build the movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline. That movement was a historic, sustained civil rights action that led to real change: On December 4, the Army Corps of Engineers blocked the portion of the project that was near Standing Rock land by denying an easement requested by Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind it. ETP has been ordered by the Army Corps to seek an alternate route.

It’s not an exaggeration or flattery or romanticism to say that women built the Standing Rock movement, and will sustain it through whatever fight is yet to come. Braun is one of a group of organized, dedicated, phenomenally tough Native women who spent months living outdoors and engaging in direct action to kill the “black snake,” as they often refer to it, and who are prepared to keep fighting ETP even if they refuse to stop drilling in violation of the Army Corps’ orders. (ETP said in a press release they expect to finish the disputed portion of the project, but didn’t provide a timeline or openly confirm that they’ll keep working in violation of the easement denial.)

Women have comprised the majority of the “water protectors” (the term coined by another IEN organizer, Dallas Goldtooth). The International Indigenous Youth Council for Standing Rock was founded by a young woman named Jaslyn Charger. Women led numerous demonstrations at the site, standing toe-to-toe against police from all over the country and private security hired by ETP. At the hands of law enforcement, they endured threats, tear gas, rubber bullets, freezing cold water from pressure hoses, mass arrests, and forced strip searches when being taken into custody on minor charges. Along with male and non-Native allies, they’ve faced what they say is a campaign of legal intimidation, but the most serious charges were levied against Red Fawn Fallis, a 37-year-old Native woman charged with “attempted murder of a police officer.” (The charges were dropped without explanation in late November.) The most serious injury sustained at Standing Rock was by a non-Native woman, Sophia Wilansky, whose family says police threw a grenade at her and nearly severed her arm. (Law enforcement has accused demonstrators of throwing explosives.)

LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux and the former tribal historian, owns the land that Sacred Stone Camp rests on, one of the water protectors’ largest encampments. Allard’s family has been in North Dakota since the 1800s, and she’s been a driving force in the Standing Rock campaign. “I come from a long line of bigmouthed women,” she says. “My grandma, my mom—they always stood up.”

The pipeline was her time to stand up, she adds. “I’m the closest landowner. It’s me who’s first facing the devastation of the pipeline, having to face those people.”

The fight was even more personal than land ownership for Allard. She has 18 grandchildren and gave birth to three sons.

“My one son is buried on top of the hill,” she says evenly. “Nobody’s going to put a pipeline next to my son’s grave.”

Standing Rock’s women activists weren’t militants or “extremists” or “paid agitators,” as Energy Transfer Partners has variously claimed, and they weren’t just from North Dakota. Amber Morningstar Byars, 31, is an artist from Santa Fe, New Mexico, and part of the Oklahoma band of the Choctaw nation. She plans to attend law school after finishing a Bachelor’s degree in Indigenous Studies, but first, she found time to travel to Standing Rock twice this year. The first time, she participated in prayer and peaceful protest. “We went up to the burial grounds and the sacred sites that were dug up by Dakota Access. We prayed. We just prayed. We all sang to our ancestors and asked them to watch over us and our sites and help us win this uphill battle.”

When Byars returned in November, she was laden with $8,000 worth of supplies and donations she raised through a GoFundMe campaign: “I rented a 20-foot U-Haul and filled it with five cords of wood, medical supplies, donations, food.”

That trip, she was also one of a group of demonstrators who were attacked by police with tear gas and water hoses on November 20, in one of the ugliest incidents of this winter.

“I’ve never been exposed to such violence,” she says. Byars was teargassed, and still suffering from the after-effects weeks later. “We’re calling it black snake lung.” She tried to go for a run a few days after returning. “I was hacking up pieces of my lungs. I can still taste that chemical taste in my mouth and my nasal cavities. My clothes are ruined.”

Byars says she and others suffered from chemical burns on portions of their skin that was exposed. “We were just contaminated. This is real. Nothing could’ve prepared me for that. I knew what I was getting into when I went up there and aware of the consequences, but there’s nothing that can prepare you for that kind of violence.”

Native women were also among the thousands of veterans who descended on the camp recently to support the water protectors. Marisa Van Zile lives in Michigan and is an enrolled member of the Sakogowan Chippewa. She joined the Army as a 27-year-old single mom looking for a reliable way to provide for her family, and recently completed an eight-year contract. She visited Standing Rock on several occasions, traveling with both other Native women and other vets.

When Van Zile got the news that the Army Corps had decided against Energy Transfer Partners, she saw it as “not a bad thing,” but not necessarily the jubilant victory described in the media. When the news came, she had just finished bringing donations over to the Sacred Stone camp with a group of other women before breaking for lunch.

“I got a little bit of cell reception and could check Facebook and I seen the announcement,” she says. “We just ate our bologna sandwiches. I said, ‘We might as well have two pieces then.’ That’s kinda how we treated it. Just shook our heads up and down: ‘Let’s finish and get these donations taken care of.’ That’s how it felt. It didn’t feel like my heart started fluttering or anything. It’s not bad but I’m not gonna start crying. It wasn’t that emotional for me.”

Van Zile’s tribe fought environmentally destructive mining practices for years, she points out. “My tribe battled these big mining companies for almost three decades. I know what this feels like. I was born into this.” As such, she’s used to companies finding ways around the law, and the government turning a blind eye. “You can’t just take somebody’s word. You have to watch.”

Van Zile points out, too, that other Native-led environmental movements aren’t getting the attention that Standing Rock has garnered. “Indigenous people all over the world have similar battles going on, against things that are devastating the land and the water and cultures.” She points to the Wisconsin-based Ho-Chunk nation, who have been fighting to keep their ancestral burial mounds intact even as mining companies try to destroy them to reach copper deposits underneath, or mining under the Menominee River, damaging the ancestral lands and water of the Menominee tribe.

“Standing rock, the Menominee River, I take them all personally,” she says. She sees them as a religious and spiritual struggle as much as a political one.

“The one thing we have is prayer,” she says. “That’s one thing my dad told me. We don’t have all the money in the world but we have prayer. What’s going on at Standing Rock proves that prayer works. What happened with my tribe, prayer works.”

LaDonna Brave Bull Allard (C) of Cannon Ball, North Dakota, talks with Maj. Gen. Donald Jackson of the Army Corps of Engineers during a demonstration against the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline outside the Corps headquarters November 15, 2016 in Washington, DC. Photo via Getty

Allard, the owner of the land where Sacred Stone is located, agrees with Van Zile that the movement at Standing Rock isn’t over, and that it connects with broader environmental issues.

“The simple fact is that the black snake is not dead,” she says. “It cannot go through the water. It cannot go through the water anywhere. I don’t care if they move it ten miles up, 50 miles up, 50 miles down, it cannot go through the water.”

Allard also isn’t surprised that women took control of the water protector movement. “Because it’s our responsibility,” she says. “Our responsibility for life. We don’t have a choice.”

“I don’t know of any man that’s standing up,” she adds, witheringly. “They sit in camp and talk about themselves.” A moment later, she softens that a bit: “Let me clarify that. We have a lot of male allies who came and stood with us. Our native allies, the people that came from all areas to stand with us, they are very respectful, very powerful, and I honor them every day.”

Allard says that “overwhelming people” have come to join the movement: “When we first opened the camp, I said anybody was welcome, anybody who would stand with me. I don’t care how you pray, how you look, as you long come stand and pray.”

Those people, she says, plan to say “for the long haul, until the pipeline is gone. So we still have a lot of work to do. Someone asked me the other day when is this ended? When every pipe is out of the ground and the work is ended.”

Joye Braun, the community organizer, sees Native women as having an innate and spiritual connection to water that informs their environmental activism.

“Women, we’re life-givers,” she says. “Whether it’s about the Keystone XL pipeline, [proposed Canadian pipeline] Energy East, uranium mining, mountaintop removal, it all affects water. We start life in water, in the womb.”

In the midst of the fight against the now-defeated Keystone XL pipeline, Braun says her 22-year-old daughter, who suffers from tonic clonic seizures, had what their family consider to be a prophetic vision.

“In our culture, those who have epilepsy can see things that no one sees,” she explains. “She was telling me that the snakes were coming.” Her daughter saw “the water on fire, and the earth on fire,” and a line of people marching against the snakes.

“The women were standing in front,” she says. “And then behind the women were the men and behind the men was the nachan [chiefs] and behind them were the children. And behind the children were the animals. Four legged and winged and swimming things that don’t have a voice.”

Braun says her daughter isn’t alone in having visions or dreams about women’s place in the Standing Rock movement, and the broader Native fight against environmental atrocities. “Lots of people had dreams and visions out there where the women are in front,” she said, quietly, from her yurt, as the snow continued to fall. “It has always been the women.”

06 Sep 11:45

The First Indigenous Woman Elected To The House Of Reps Has Delivered A Powerful Maiden Address

by Tom Clift

Labor MP Linda Burney has used her moving first speech in Federal Parliament to call for the constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians, while also condemning those who would seek to water down the Racial Discrimination Act.

The new member for the NSW seat of Barton and first ever Aboriginal woman to be elected to the House of Representatives, Burney entered the Lower House wearing a cloak made by fellow Wiradjuri woman Lynette Riley, who also sung a traditional song from the public gallery.

“I was born at a time when the Australian Government knew how many sheep there were but not how many Aboriginal people. I was 10 years old before the 1967 referendum fixed that,” said Burney. “I’d ask all of those listening this afternoon to imagine what it was to be a 13 year old Aboriginal girl in a school classroom, taught that her ancestors were the closest thing to stone age man in existence and struggling with your identity.”

Five Reasons The New Parliament Is Going To Be An Absolute Mess

Burney spoke about the power of reconciliation, calling Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generation “one of the most remarkable moments of my life.”

“As the words rang out across this chamber, this land and around the world, ‘for this we are sorry’, the country cried, and began to breathe again,” she said.

“Members, in this term of parliament I want to stand in this place knowing that the document on which it is founded finally tells the truth,” she continued. “Recognition of the First People in our nation’s constitution is the next step in the path we are walking towards a country that can look itself in the eye, knowing that we have come of age.”

A former school teacher, Burney also touched on the importance of education, and said that the government must commit to specific goals such as raising the birth-weight of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and reducing the rate of juvenile incarceration. “We cannot be satisfied that this is a fair country while so many of our young people are locked up, most of them Indigenous,” she said. “There is no justification for the incarceration of a 10-year-old.”

Burney went on to speak out against the efforts of some conservatives to walk back anti-discrimination laws, saying that “too often these calls to amend the Racial Discrimination Act come from those from whom this kind of discrimination is totally alien.”

She concluded her speech with a message to young Indigenous Australians. “If I can stand in this place, so can they,” she said. “Never let anyone tell you you are limited by anything.”

Feature image via Linda Burney/Twitter

The post The First Indigenous Woman Elected To The House Of Reps Has Delivered A Powerful Maiden Address appeared first on Junkee.

02 Sep 15:37

Other Countries Don’t Just Offer Paid Parental Leave. They Make It Work.

by Ester Bloom

How do our fellow nations do what seems so impossible here?


We know that being a working mom in America is a joke, the kind of joke that makes you ugly cry in a public bathroom stall while you pump and try to compose an email on your phone at the same time. Women know that we can be fired during our maternity leaves, like Michelle Tan of Seventeen, or not hired at all lest we get pregnant and divert precious start-up dollars away from more important priorities like in-office stripper parties.

We know that, in certain states, we have a terrifying, and rising, maternal mortality rate.

Texas Is One of the Most Dangerous Places in the Developed World to Have a Baby

And we know that, should we get pregnant, the odds are overwhelming that we won’t get any kind of paid leave at all, so any time we need to spend recovering from the physical trauma of labor and delivery, let alone nurturing a newborn creature which is about as easy-to-handle and self-sustaining as a trout out of water, will come at a very real cost. As ScaryMommy’s senior editor recently put it, “we spread ourselves so thin we’re ready to dissolve.”

Other countries, from Angola to Zimbabwe, make paid leave possible! How?? What are the ups and the downs? Let’s take a look at a few other countries that, despite having way less money than America does, have their shit together.


Moms get 90 days of paid leave at 100% salary after which many of them they can take advantage of day cares on the premises, and moms without on-site childcare get an additional four weeks (albeit unpaid).

[also] the employee is entitled to time off from work, for up to 1 day a month, during pregnancy and until 15 months after delivery, to provide child care to her and her child.

The employer pays for the leave and is reimbursed by Social Security.

Bosnia & Herzegovina

New moms are entitled to one full year of paid leave. Also, the rules state that “a woman may take shorter maternity leave, however, not shorter than 42 days after delivery.”

Did you catch that? Women must take a leave of at least 42 days. Here, 25% of new moms have no choice but to limp back to work after only 2 weeks.


14 weeks, paid. Dads get 8 days, paid.


We’re not going to talk about Finland. It’s too upsetting.


Up to THREE YEARS at about 65% salary, funded by the state, plus numerous other benefits and protections. And moms who weren’t part of the FT labor force before reproducing are still entitled to a parental allowance from the state.

As an employee, you are entitled to parental leave until your child’s turns three. You are not obliged to work during this period. Your job remains open to you and your contract cannot be terminated by your employer. Parental leave can be taken by the mother and father individually or jointly. Grandparents may also be entitled to parental leave if the parent is still a minor or is in the final or penultimate year of a training course that was commenced when the young parent was still a minor. The grandparents only have a claim for periods during which neither of the child’s parents is taking up parental leave themselves.


Three months, paid.


70 days before childbirth and 56 days afterwards, paid, as well as up to three years unpaid.


18 weeks, paid for by the Government via Social Security.

The nitty gritty is kind of interesting:

In accordance with the Maternity Leave Trust Fund, launched by the government on 6 July 2015, employers will pay the equivalent of 0.3 per cent of the basic pay for every employee, irrespective of gender and age, to establish a fund from which maternity leave will be paid. Main objective of this Trust Fund is to end discrimination where employers engage more men than women to avoid the payment of wages during maternity leave.

Moms also enjoy free pre- and post-natal medical care.


Ninety-eight days, divided between late pregnancy and postpartum, paid for by Social Security. Also subsidized healthcare for her throughout the process, as well as her new baby.

South Africa

At least four months, paid for by the state. The law stipulates that “workers may not go back to work within 6 weeks after the birth unless their doctor or midwife say it is safe.” If you miscarry late or if your child isn’t born alive, you may still claim six weeks of pay.


Having worked six months, a woman is entitled to 84 days, paid. Under certain circumstances, her employer must also foot the hospital bill.


Six months at 100% pay, subsidized by Social Insurance.

In May 2013, Vietnam increased the duration its maternity leave. Female workers are now entitled to six months of maternity leave as opposed to the four months that they used to be entitled to. If a female employee has more than one child, she is also entitled to an extra 30 days for each additional child. With this increase, Vietnam’s maternity leave period is among the longest in Asia. Only five other Asian countries either meet or exceed the 14-week International Labor Organization (ILO) standard. …
Maternal subsidies may differ from company to company. However, it often times equals to the salary of two months before leaving for birth.


Women who have worked for an employer for a full year qualify for 98 days of leave at full pay. A little weirder: something called “compulsory leave” kicks in “at least 21 days before confinement.”

What can we learn from this?

  • It can be better to be a pregnant woman in Tanzania than in Texas.
  • GDP has little to do with how generous various nations are when it comes to maternity leave policy. Kazakhstan, for example, is 50th worldwide in terms of GDP, while the US is 1st. It still makes this work.
  • Lots of countries turn to their national version of Social Security to fund, or help employers fund, paid maternity leaves. For the most part, employers are not expected to handle the cost of subsidizing pregnant employees on their own.
  • In numerous countries, leave can, or sometimes must, begin while women are still pregnant. That is at worst patronizing and at best a recognition of how debilitating late-stage gestation can be. With my most recent pregnancy, I worked until the Friday before my due date because I felt like I had to. But not everybody can — and the stress, frankly, isn’t good for anyone.
  • If Angola can make paid maternity leave happen, America can.

Other Countries Don’t Just Offer Paid Parental Leave. They Make It Work. was originally published in The Billfold on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


Read the responses to this story on Medium.

31 Aug 08:44

How to Talk to a Woman Who Is Trying to Take a Dump

by Joanna Rothkopf
How to Talk to a Woman Who Is Trying to Take a Dump
Image via GongTo/Shutterstock.

These days, many women walk into public bathrooms with bowels full of digested sandwiches (ew) and salads (nice) with the end goal of taking a satisfying shit.

Yet, that doesn’t mean you can’t talk to them.…

Of course, not all women are open to being approached because not all women are single and looking. Some are married (but even they aren’t totally off-limits) and some are icy bitches who will stomp on your foot and report you to your Home Depot floor manager.

However, if a woman walking into a bathroom hoping to take a monster crap is single and hoping to meet a boyfriend (or even a new lover), she will almost always be happy to hold it in indefinitely to give you an opportunity to eject your fragile masculinity all over her.

Her acknowledging your grunts on the way to the porcelain throne doesn’t always mean that she is super interested and wants you to ask her for her number or anything serious like that. Sometimes, it’s simply a case of you physically blocking her path.

If you are able to create a spark with her and build up her attraction and interest for you, she might then be interested in giving you what turns out to be a fake number, or in ignoring civility and releasing her bowels all over the floor.

Here’s how a woman’s attraction for a man works when she is attempting to take care of her biological needs and how you can use that to get what you want more than just a quick conversation with you...

What to Do to Get Her Attention

1. Stand directly in front of the bathroom door (maybe one foot in front of it so you don’t look like a fucking freak).

2. Wear a smile that says, “I’m feeling calm now, but that could change at any second.”

3. If she hasn’t already looked up at you (how dare she?), simply get her attention by blocking the entire door with your body and yelling, “Hey slut!”

4. When she looks up at you, probably thrilled to be getting some male attention, gesture to your stomach and say, “Hold it in for a second,” and pretend to be holding it in, so she, a human with the intelligence of a puppy, can understand.

If she doesn’t understand (or, perhaps, won’t, because she’s recently heard the term “feminism” and is confused), simply gesture that you want to court her for sex at your spare but frightening apartment that you share with a Craigslist goblin.

In most cases, you won’t have to go to that extreme because girls don’t feel whole unless a man is looking at them, so you’re actually doing her a favor, but some girls have real gastrointestinal disorders and will be hesitant to delay their explosive diarrhea because they are feeling nervous or excited about what is happening.

5. Then, do what we call “Acknowledging the Awkwardness” by quickly noting that you recognize that she’s probably prairie dogging right now, and that the entrance to a public restroom isn’t the sexiest place to pick up a girl, but also that your agenda is more important than hers, and also girls shouldn’t even be pooping outside the home anyway.

What to Say When She Says “What the Fuck Do You Want?”

You: [Smile again in your trademark “I’m not a stalker” way] :) Hey—I know it’s not normal to talk someone who is clearly in digestive distress, but I’ve been staking out this bathroom for four hours waiting for a pretty girl to be vulnerable, and here you are. I’m Rick, what’s your name?

Woman: Fuck off, please.

You: [Add in some humor to get her smiling and create a spark between you] Cool... Nice to meet you “Fuck off, please.”

Woman: [Probably laughing and having a great time. If she hasn’t stripped nude, she will soon.]

Common Mistakes Guys Make When Approaching Women Who Are Trying to Vacate Their Bowels in Peace

1. Giving up too easily

If she senses that you’ll be cool if she tells you to put one “up yours,” she definitely will. If they are scared of you, on the other hand, they’ll do whatever you want.

2. Letting her go into the bathroom alone

Sure, if she has to really drop a deuce (and isn’t lying about it as an excuse to leave the conversation), let her. But you should always follow her into the bathroom and stand either outside the stall or sit in the stall right next to her’s and make charming conversation while she’s doing her business. If you succeed, that’s not the only business she’ll do that day (sex, or at minimum, a quick tug).

3. Being polite

It’s a fact—girls like mean guys.

How to Talk to a Woman Who Is Trying to Take a Dump: The Secret

The key to talking to a woman who is trying to take a dump (or pee pee, or give birth, or who is in the midst of a demonic possession) is to have the right attitude and behavior when you approach her.

The right attitude is to be confident and oblivious-seeming, so that if she thinks your come-on is bafflingly invasive, you can default to ignorance. This is a good tactic because if she calls the police, you can say, “It’s all a big misunderstanding, officer,” and be mostly telling the truth. This works 99 percent of the time.

Of course, virtually every woman who is trying in earnest to enter a bathroom is not in the mood to be picked up. However, you can only find that out by starting a conversation and seeing whether or not she shits on your Chacos.

Who knows, she might just be your perfect girl.