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New York City, February 20, 2017

Tue, 2017-02-21 18:23

★★★★ Sunrise brought a bright smooth spectrum to the cloudless sky. The eerie tropical warmth was off the atmosphere; it was cool and the coolness was of a piece with the clarity. Reflective beads in the yellow thermoplastic marking on the roadway glimmered through a layer of caked-on dirt. Deep shadow and bright highlights made rustic upper-story stonework look too authentically rough-hewn to be up where it was. A legion of figures helmed in blazing light advanced uptown in irregular order. A step sidways into the shade brought down a curtain that seemed to muffle the sound along with the sight. Once the sun had passed its peak, the air and the light took on the character of autumn. The synthetic fibers in the dark jackets of the police shone. An officer cautioned sun-dazed marchers not to trip on the feet of the barricades. Further down the street, where the rally was thicker, the crowd was deep in shadow. High in the distance the cranes atop unfinished ultraluxury apartments glittered. The crowd in its jacketed enthusiasm felt suddenly like the crowd on the way into a college stadium, with the whole game yet to go.

New York City, February 20, 2017 was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Help Desk: Fury Road

Tue, 2017-02-21 14:26
Notes from the federal government’s IT departmentImage: Quinn Dombrowski8:57am

The federal government’s IT Help Desk staff logged onto their computers and phones. It was that limbo period that began each workday. If someone didn’t kick off conversation, before federal government workers started calling in with their computer issues, it could make for a long, awkward shift.

“There’s so much TV now,” Gary said to no one but also to everyone.

“Are you watching ‘Peaky Blinders’ yet?” Robin asked disinterestedly.

“No. Are you watching that show on HBO?”

“You know, I always mean to but I don’t know how to stream,” Robin jotted down a note to herself to learn how to stream. Ask kids?

“It’s easy to stream. You just — ”

“I like to go to bed early on Sundays,” Cindy announced. “A Tylenol PM on Sunday nights about 7 o’clock is my one indulgence,” she said, like she didn’t keep a handle of brown liquor in her desk drawer.

“Has anyone else noticed that ever since Trump got here the questions have been less IT related and more existential in nature?” Art asked philosophically.

Everyone ignored Art because they were still mad at him for not inviting any of them to his wedding a few weeks ago, his third or fourth.

“Last week,” Art continued, “we had that data scientist from the Department of Education who had to ensure that Betsy DeVos’s personal iPad always stays connected to office wifi. And then that park ranger who tracked every bald eagle he spotted, with latitude and longitude coordinates. His new boss wanted photos, strong visuals, he said, not numbers.” Art opened his Greek yogurt and skimmed the water from the top.

“And that US Attorney who was directed to prosecute every dead person who cast a vote for Clinton. He didn’t know what good a database of dead people would do. Is that existentialism or nihilism? Neither? I haven’t used my philosophy degree in a long time.”

Gary, Robin and Cindy all exchanged glances. They hadn’t noticed what Art was referring to.


“Fedgov Help Desk. How can I help you?” Robin asked as she picked up her phone.

“Hi. I’m at the Environmental Protection Agency and I need help. I have all these files and I want to save them after my agency is dismantled. That way if I decide I want to do the whole Calexit thing I have a template. Like why reinvent the wheel if we have a perfectly good agency already?”

“Okay, that sounds like a fairly routine task. Can you tell me who I’m speaking with?”

“My name is Gale.”

“Hi Gale. Have you considered printing them?”

“I don’t want to print them because that wastes paper, but I also don’t want to email them to my personal email because I don’t trust the administration to not be reading all my emails.”

“That’s sensible, Gale.”

“Oh fuck. Gotta go. Mike Pence is here to give us all Communion. I’ll call you back.” Gale said. “He’s early today,” she said as she hung up her phone.


“Fedgov Help Desk. This is Cindy speaking.”

“Hi. I found this number taped onto my monitor. I am one of the clerk typists and I need help.”

“You called the right place. What’s wrong with your computer?”

“Nothing, I don’t think? The stickie says Help Desk with this number I just called. It’s taped right on the monitor like it’s a saying from a fortune cookie.”

“Okay, well, this is the IT Help Desk. We help with, like, password resets, if you need a printer connected, if your email inbox needs more storage, that sort of stuff.”

“He said he poisoned the water cooler this morning so anyone who’s taken a drink since 10am might get really painful diarrhea. Is that IT?”

“Who is he, ma’am?”

“Steve Bannon. He’s wearing shorts today.”

“So why again are you calling the IT Help Desk?” Cindy waved Robin and Gary over. She mouthed ‘Bannon’ to them. “Is this number taped to all the computers in your office?”

“I didn’t use the same computer yesterday. We have to find a new seat every morning and we can’t sit next to the same person two days in a row. To avoid humanizing our colleagues, he says.”

Cindy opened her desk drawer and pointed to her whiskey and then to her phone. “What’s your office, ma’am? Do you work for the federal government? This is the IT Help Desk.”

“He cleared out the Office of Legal Counsel. He calls it JUG now. Justice Under God. Today we’ve been assigned to write essays about why the Federal Reserve must shrink the money supply. The winner’s essay will become the executive order and the loser’s will be leaked as fake news an hour beforehand.”

“I think I’ve heard of that,” Cindy said as she opened a work order, and began logging the caller’s information.

“I don’t even know what the Federal Reserve does, only that his t-shirt last week says it should be abolished. He wears that t-shirt or a Harvard Business School one or a Coors Light one, like one of those t-shirts you get for free when you buy something else.”

“Is there an IT problem I can help you with?”

“Can I turn my computer into a time machine, I guess?”

“What’s happening now?” Cindy began typing into her work order.

“He’s slurring his words. He has brown shit, peanut butter, all over his face. He just pulled a dog whistle out from the pocket of his cargo shorts. The German shepherds in the hallway will bark after he blows into the whistle. There must be like thirty of them out there. When they’re all barking, it’s like the world is ending or something. That’s what it feels like.”

“Oh God,” Cindy said to Robin and Gary.

“Now he’s on all four barking along with them. Like he’s really going for it, and one of the dogs is licking the peanut butter from his face. Maybe it’s dog food though, I don’t know. The dog is licking his face aggressively.”

“Can he see you? Or hear you right now?” Cindy asked. “Is this safe for you?” she looked to Robin and then to Gary and then even to Art.

“Now Stephen Miller is here and he is huffing Sharpie markers like a white collar war boy. He is handing the other Steve, older, fatter Steve, a document. It looks official. One of our essays. Here’s Kellyanne now. Steve and Stephen, she’s saying. She’s resting her head on Stephen’s shoulder, younger, skinnier Steve, but he’s not reacting. He’s just, like, breathing shallowly.”

“So they’re all at the Justice Under God office? Right now? With you?”

“She’s addressing the entire room now. Remember, when we’re leaking to the media, she’s screaming to us, this is high level, ladies, and she’s clapping after every word. Don’t clap call clap the administration clap a car wreck clap. It’s not a car wreck. It’s an opportunity for collision shop owners who were badly hurt by eight years of Obama policies. Murdered even. She is telling us to leak that President Obama murdered collision shop owners.”

“Do you want me to call 9–1–1?” Cindy asked. “My boss likes me to put a resolution down before I close out the work order. I can write that you didn’t have an IT problem, per se, but that I called 9–1–1 for you?”

“No, it’s fine. This happened yesterday and it will happen again tomorrow. Thank you.”


“I’ll get this one,” Robin said as her phone rang.

“Hi, Merrick. Welcome back!” Robin said loud enough for everyone else to here. “We missed you!” Robin cupped the receiver and then put Merrick Garland on speakerphone. “He’s back at the DC Circuit. Judge Garland, you’re on speakerphone just so you know.”

“Thank you for your service,” Art said, both to thank Merrick Garland for his service and also to pander to his co-workers who all seemed to love Merrick Garland.

“Judge Garland, you’ve probably noticed we updated your operating system while you were nominated to the Supreme Court,” Robin said.

“I did notice and I appreciate that very much. I can’t find a document, that’s why I’m calling. I think I had it saved to my desktop, which, I know, I know, it’s bad practice. We should save to a networked drive. It was the last thing I was working on before President Obama called me, and I lost my head for a minute.”

“Judge Garland, this is Gary. I saved everything on your desktop to your Dropbox.”


“Judge Garland, I’m so sorry,” Gary said sheepishly. “Your Dropbox password expired so I reset it to SupremeCourt17. It was back when,” Gary pantomimed a gun to his head, “Well, you know. Next time you log in, change it.”

“Gary, that’s fine. Please don’t worry. It’s not your fault. Who could’ve predicted any of this?”

“Not ‘House of Cards,’ that’s for sure.” Gary winked to Robin, who jotted down, watch ‘House of Cards’ onto her notepad.

Help Desk: Fury Road was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Make America A Great Novel Again

Tue, 2017-02-21 12:27
There’s a Pulitizer Up For Grabs But You May Have to Go to Gitmo to Get ItAnd other answers to unsolicited questionsImage: Susana Fernandez“I believe I am the one who can adequately chronicle these ridiculous times effectively! What’s your best advice to writing the Great American Trump Era Novel?” — Novelist Nat

If traditional media is the enemy of the American People, where do artists reside on the spectrum? Surely there is a sculptor out there doing work that would decimate the current administration. Would anyone see that decimating work? Possibly. If they ran out of gas next to a museum and were forced to wait inside while some staff searched for a can of gasoline. If the naked Trump statues of 2016 proved anything, it’s that there’s definitely a market for anti-Trump art. A free market, where one can wildly photograph it. But when protest art is as ubiquitous as Economist magazine covers, what could possibly be more shocking than presenting the current administration as it is? A weird mess.

There were no great 9/11 fictions. There were books that used 9/11 as a backdrop or plot device ham-handedly. The American novel is not particularly ascendant. When asked for the greatest American novelist of the last 50 years, people generally respond with Philip Roth. This is a shockingly bad answer. Portnoy’s Complaint is great. Goodbye, Columbus is pretty good. How many books can one guy write about a teacher sleeping with his students? About 20 is the answer. There’s nothing all that interesting about sleeping with students! Sure, they’re young and sexy. But they don’t know how to fuck! They also won’t get your ‘Gilligan’s Island’ jokes.

What does the American novel need to thrive? Possibly a villainous adversary in the White House. I was a great fan of all those Czech novels written behind the Iron Curtain. Kundera, Klima, Hrabal. Maybe American writers need to be oppressed to write transcendently. As poets, we’re always acting oppressed. No one pays attention to poetry. No one makes movies about poetry. But novels do have a rather well-worn path into the world, even if they never really get read. They will sit on your coffee table. Someone will ask “Are you reading that?” You’ll answer “Oh, yeah, I’ve started to. Mmm hmm. It’s supposed to be good.” Later it will be replaced on your coffee table by flowers. Or a different book. Or cheez-its.

The novels that have broken into cultural consciousness are the ones they make HBO shows and some movies about. Dystopian versions of the possible future like Hunger Games and dystopian visions of the past like Game of Thrones. Also the current fad of unreliable lady narrators in Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train.

Can you write an unreliable lady narrator dystopian book about the Trump Era? Sure. Hurry up. It might be over by the time you get it finished. Don’t adapt something you’re already writing to be the Great Trump Novel of 2017. Start over. Entirely. A novel from the point of view of Kellyanne Conway might be interesting. She is an unreliable lady narrator. But it seems like she’s already on the wane. Ivanka Trump! Now a novel from her point of view might be pure gold. Part-Lolita, part-Confederacy of Dunces. OK, so we have a main character. Is she unreliable? I’m pretty sure she only smiles in public. It’s a nice smile, but she probably saves it up for Canadian Presidents. And everyone else gets the fish eye.

Ivanka’s in on all the important meetings. In the corner probably scheming to gain the Oval Office for herself someday. She loves her dad but also knows that he’s nuts and a lech. She’s his main confidant and conscience. And from her point of view she probably is freaked out by all these lunatics that have latched onto his star.

I think the novels of today must reflect the technology of today. Filled with snaps and texts and emojis. I don’t know how to include snaps in your novel, ask your agent or editor. They probably know how to do that. I am only saying novels should have that. It’s ridiculous when novels don’t. People go to great lengths that unbelievable not to include stuff that everybody uses every day to do practically everything. And I’m not talking about cutting and pasting everything you’ve ever typed into Slack. But somehow use this technology everyone uses in some way.

Then, start deciding who should play your thinly veiled Ivanka Trump figure in the movie version. No one reads books, movies and TV are the only thing that truly matter. Jennifer Lawrence. OK, that didn’t take long and she’s perfect.

You want to make sure you make it into something that can be trilogy or a series of trilogies. The first 100 days could be the first book. Just a hair over 200 pages. And you can cut out the boring parts like signing Presidential decrees or whatever. Maybe there is an alien invasion. Of the White House. And since the place is in such disarray it’s Jared and Ivanka who figure out how to defeat the aliens. Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. No one in the Trump Administration ever does.

Jim Behrle lives in Jersey City, NJ and works at a bookstore.

Make America A Great Novel Again was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Words Mean Anything Don’t Anymore

Tue, 2017-02-21 12:03
Thought you was Sarah Palin bad? You no have idea.Image: Chapendra

Here some are statements from highlights of the few past weeks. These actual are things that are known to been have said by government official representatives.

I am very proud now that we have a museum on the National Mall where people can learn about Reverend King, so many other things. Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice — Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and millions more black Americans who made America what it is today. Big impact.I am proud to honor this heritage, and we’ll be honoring it more and more.—Trump’s Black History Month remarks, Feb. 1, 2017Well, I think there’s contributi—uh, I think he wants to highlight the contributions that he has made, and I think through a lot of the actions and—and, and statements that he’s gonna make, I think the contributions of Frederick Douglass will become more and more.—Sean Spicer, Feb. 1, 2017 to the White House Press Pool in response to a request for clarification on Trump’s Frederick Douglass comments.We have seen — and, by the way, General, as you know, James “Mad Dog” — I shouldn’t say it in this room — Mattis. Now, there’s a reason they call him “Mad Dog Mattis” — he never lost a battle. Always wins them and always wins them fast. He’s our new Secretary of Defense who will be working with Rex. He’s right now in South Korea, going to Japan, going to some other spots. And I’ll tell you what, I’ve gotten to know him really well. He’s the real deal. We have somebody who’s the real deal working for us, and that’s what we need. So, you watch. You just watch. (Applause.) Things will be different.—National Prayer Breakfast, Feb. 2, 2017One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores, with not even a thought about the millions and millions of American workers that were left behind. The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world.—Inauguration Day Speech, Jan. 20, 2017I’m making this presentation directly to the American people, with the media present, which is an honor to have you. This morning, because many of our nation’s reporters and folks will not tell you the truth, and will not treat the wonderful people of our country with the respect that they deserve. And I hope going forward we can be a little bit — a little bit different, and maybe get along a little bit better, if that’s possible. Maybe it’s not, and that’s OK, too…We’re issuing a new executive action next week that will comprehensively protect our country. So we’ll be going along the one path and hopefully winning that, at the same time we will be issuing a new and very comprehensive order to protect our people. That will be done sometime next week, toward the beginning or middle at the latest part. We have also taken steps to begin construction of the Keystone Pipeline and Dakota Access Pipelines. Thousands and thousands of jobs, and put new buy American measures in place to require American steel for American pipelines…You know what uranium is, right? This thing called nuclear weapons like lots of things are done with uranium including some bad things…I — I think you would do much better by being different. But you just take a look. Take a look at some of your shows in the morning and the evening. If a guest comes out and says something positive about me, it’s — it’s brutal.Now, they’ll take this news conference — I’m actually having a very good time, OK? But they’ll take this news conference — don’t forget, that’s the way I won. Remember, I used to give you a news conference every time I made a speech, which was like every day. OK?— PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP HOLDS A NEWS CONFERENCE TO ANNOUNCE HIS NEW NOMINEE FOR SECRETARY OF LABOR, FEBRUARY 16, 2017 [01:16:56]Yesterday the president set — had an incredibly productive set of meetings and discussions with Prime Minster Joe Trudeau of Canada, focusing on our shared commitment to close co-operation in addressing both the challenges facing our two countries and the problems throughout the world., there is — I can’t say it clearly enough. There was nothing in what General Flynn did, in terms of conducting himself, that was an issue. What it came down to, plain and simple, was him misleading the Vice President and others, and not having a firm grasp on his recollection of that. That’s it.— Sean Spicer’s Valentine’s Day press conference, Feb. 14, 2017Michael Flynn, General Flynn is a wonderful man. I think he’s been treated very, very unfairly by the media — as I call it, the fake media, in many cases. And I think it’s really a sad thing that he was treated so badly. I think, in addition to that, from intelligence — papers are being leaked, things are being leaked. It’s criminal actions, criminal act, and it’s been going on for a long time — before me. But now it’s really going on, and people are trying to cover up for a terrible loss that the Democrats had under Hillary Clinton.I think it’s very, very unfair what’s happened to General Flynn, the way he was treated, and the documents and papers that were illegally — I stress that — illegally leaked. Very, very unfair…So I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. (Laughter.) I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.I thought for a while the two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two. But honestly, if Bibi and if the Palestinians — if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.As far as the embassy moving to Jerusalem, I’d love to see that happen. We’re looking at it very, very strongly. We’re looking at it with great care — great care, believe me. And we’ll see what happens. Okay?—Joint press conference with Trump and Netanyahu, Feb. 15, 2017You look at what’s happening. We’ve got to keep our country safe. You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this. Sweden. They took in large numbers. They’re having problems like they never thought possible. You look at what’s happening in Brussels. You look at what’s happening all over the world. Take a look at Nice. Take a look at Paris. We’ve allowed thousands and thousands of people into our country and there was no way to vet those people. There was no documentation. There was no nothing. So we’re going to keep our country safe.—Trump post-election campaign rally, Melbourne, Florida, Feb. 18, 2017DAVID MUIR: Let me just ask you, you did win. You’re the president. You’re sitting …PRESIDENT TRUMP: That’s true.DAVID MUIR: … across from me right now.PRESIDENT TRUMP: That’s true.DAVID MUIR: Do you think that your words matter more now?PRESIDENT TRUMP: Yes, very much.DAVID MUIR: Do you think that that talking about millions of illegal votes is dangerous to this country without presenting the evidence?PRESIDENT TRUMP: No, not at all.— First interview as sitting President, with ABC’s David Muir.

See also:

Trump's grammar in speeches 'just below 6th grade level,' study finds

Words Mean Anything Don’t Anymore was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

The Cold

Tue, 2017-02-21 11:27
Adventures of Liana Finck

Liana Finck’s work appears in The New Yorker and Catapult, and in her Instagram feed. Her first book, A Bintel Brief, was published by Ecco Press in 2014.

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

Bing & Ruth, “The How of it Sped”

Tue, 2017-02-21 09:05
“Welcome” “back.”Photo: John Garghan

If, for the fifth week running — even after a break, even after amazing weather that briefly let you believe everything might be okay —you woke up this morning thinking, “Gah, we are really still doing this, huh?” I want you to know that you are not alone. You are in the majority. That will not keep the terrible things from happening, but at least it’s not just you. Does that help? Sorry, I’m not happy about it either.

Here’s something very pretty from the new Bing & Ruth record. That’s what I’ve got. Good luck out there today. Enjoy.

Bing & Ruth, “The How of it Sped” was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

New York City, February 19, 2017

Mon, 2017-02-20 16:45

★★ Sunrise took the little clouds from purple into pink. For a while they had whitened to a metallic sheen, but then they lost their shine and their shape with it. The warmth was disproportionate and totally unjustified; it was not enough for t-shirts alone but people went with it anyway. The worker putting trash bags in the sidewalk cans sang loudly and hailed passersby. Boulders of snow stood separately from one another on the unpeopled green of the Sheep Meadow, the ruins or remains of snowmen. Saddle horses stood immense and placid unto motionlessness, awaiting riders. A shirtless runner overtook and passed a bicyclist in a parka with a fur-rimmed hood.

New York City, February 19, 2017 was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

New York City, February 16, 2017

Fri, 2017-02-17 17:48

★★★★ The outdoors was bright, cold, and windy in a thoroughly appopriate way. Chalky spots of slush crust stuck to even otherwise gleaming paint jobs on passing vehicles. The wind rattled drily in the trash bags and sent pain creeping into bare hands, but it was not enough to cut short a walk. As the streets began to darken, pink shone on facades in the middle distance and a little loose pink cloud drifted above the street. Venus was clear and bright, though not as bright as the rooftop light bulb that had looked for a moment like Venus.

New York City, February 16, 2017 was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

What Was the Suzuki Violin Method?

Fri, 2017-02-17 13:38
Teaching tiny people to play music.Image: TheeErin

In a house at the edge of a long and narrow river, I am crying. I am three years old, anxious to play the first notes on the tiniest of violins available, as a woman in a long dress instructs me to lift the instrument from the space beneath my elbow, hold it tightly between my neck and chin, and gently cross the strings with my bow. I know the violin; long before I am ever allowed to hold the instrument, I watch as men in tuxedos shimmer under lights at the symphony, as women in the lobby kneel with the smallest of passersby, allowing young children to closely inspect their instruments as they describe the make and function of each body’s parts. More than anything, I want to stand before an audience, to strike each sound with its own careful resonance and put forth the sum total of a cumulative tradition of presence. Through pursed lips, I steady my wrist, ease the reeded shape through my shaky grip as the teacher pauses, carefully adjusting my frozen posture as I try through both sweaty palms and stilted frustration and to begin.

In the years to come, I — like the half-million pupils each year that start with the Suzuki method — would grow into a small and adept violinist, a competitive student in a system that has churned out more accomplished players than perhaps any single method in history. Renowned musicians like Hilary Hahn, Rachel Barton, Jessica Guideri, Jennifer Koh, and David Perry each began with the program (“Among Pros, More Go Suzuki,” the New York Times suggested in 1982), and the method has grown to dominate the global conversation on musical pedagogy and youth education. Taking on students as young as three and four years old and squashing what once required years of study into a strict, incremental approach in ten books of sheet music, the Suzuki Method has largely subsumed all others as a sort of default method of violin instruction, one that now extends to numerous other instruments like viola, cello, piano, flute, organ, and even voice in renowned institutions across the world. Conferences like the Suzuki Association of the Americas meet annually with lectures and presentations and the system has its own strange and sprawling digital presence in forums and blogs, Facebook groups, Instagram tags, and YouTube channels, a surprising number of which are dedicated to video evidence of students completing the entire program by the age of six.

The method takes students through a ten sequential books, beginning with a few variations on “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and following through famously complex works from Mozart, Bach, Corelli, and others. The pieces largely come from the sort of standard Baroque repertoire that would be taught formally throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, updated with a mix of children’s folk songs from Germany, France, and Hungary. Though completing the program doesn’t necessarily mean mastery, students who have the commitment to make it through the grueling 89 pieces (granted, some are movements in larger concertos and sonatas) tend to go on to play with high school orchestras, audition with conservatory programs, and make their way into the meticulous circuit of metropolitan symphonies in cities around the globe. Though most students either fall out before finishing or matriculate into public school programs rather than continue with the ear-oriented formalism, the full Suzuki program itself tends to take about ten or so years to complete, though this can vary widely under certain circumstances.

In the late 1940s, Dr. Shinichi Suzuki developed the method while working in his father’s violin factory in Nagoya, Japan. Despite being raised by violin makers, neither he nor any of his siblings ever had any aspirations to become musicians until one day in 1915, when a seventeen-year-old Shinchi allegedly heard a recording of Schubert’s Ave Maria. Inspired to devise his own self-education process, Shinichi spent the next few years listening to the recording over and over, slowly working out the mechanics of the song and instrument. Six years later, Shinichi moved to Berlin to study under the mentorship of German professor Karl Klingler, married German concert soprano Waltraud Prange, and returned to Japan to begin teaching his experimental ear-training technique to young students throughout the Tokyo area.

Much of the program’s proto-viral success lies in its track record for dazzling parents and educators alike with incredible outcomes from students of all ages. In 1936, Shinichi’s first student, the three-year-old Koji Toyoda, quickly delighted Tokyo newspapers after only four years of study, going on to win numerous awards in competitions, and eventually serving as concertmaster of the Berlin Radio-Philharmonic Orchestra. Others like Kenji Kobayashi would perform with world-renowned orchestras, earn coveted academic positions, and go on to start their own studios with the program, helping to expand the mentor’s message beyond the small island country of Japan to radically alter the course of music education globally. In 1958, students at Oberlin College would present a short film in which hundreds of Suzuki students performed Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins, inspiring academics like John D. Kendall to bring the method to the States himself, where over 350,000 children and adults alike still continue their education in the style to this day.

Image: Nimajs

Through exposure to tonal exercises and early ear-training, the core of the program is built on the idea that nurture, not nature, has the most prominent impact on a child’s potential success in the arts. In his proleptic autobiography, Nurtured by Love, Shinichi notes that the “wrong education and upbringing produces ugly personalities, whereas a fine upbringing and good education will bring forth superior sense and feeling…all children adapt the vital forces of their organism to their respective environments.” Developed in Tokyo the 1930s, a time when music education was largely split between upper-class finishing schools and a handful of competitive conservatories largely confined to the West, Suzuki’s radical assertion that all could be musical — something that wouldn’t become fashionable in musicology circles until John Blacking’s How Musical is Man nearly three decades later — struck a chord with the global public, selling a methodic meritocracy where talent was built, not bred. Unlike most educational forms of the early-mid twentieth century that proposed the rigorous study of counterpoint, sight reading, and harmonic theory alongside performance, the Suzuki Method instead required all songs to be performed from memory, noting that, like language, children “add [each song] to their vocabulary or repertoire, gradually using it in new and more sophisticated ways.”

Shinichi Suzuki. Image: Nimajs

The parallels with language run deep. Music, like language, can be broken and into phoneme-like minutiae, taught as an accumulation of mechanical gestures, and applied to more and more complex pieces as a child’s talent grows. Elsewhere in Nurtured by Love, Suzuki writes of a certain biological aptitude that, like language, children have for musical instruction. Like Noam Chomsky’s famous assertion that a certain “Language Acquisition Device” allows children to grasp the complex constraints of even the most difficult languages in ways no longer accessible later in life, Suzuki finds that young students have a natural proficiency for aural acquisition, an assertion that later boarders on a sort of pseudo-scientific TED Talk bio-essentialism not limited to the musical parallels between certain Japanese nightingales and Osaka dialect. At one point, Suzuki invokes a certain 1941 lab test between Denver and Yale universities on children allegedly raised by wolves, who, after being socialized by the animals from birth, began to grasp objects with their mouths instead of hands, took water and food not limited to raw meats and vegetable “in a dog-like manner” and even had “head, breasts, and shoulders thick with hair.”

While so much of this pop psychology feels certainly dated in hindsight, the success of the program can’t be disputed. Freeing music pedagogy from the glut of developmental theory — which, beneath all else, showed even more impressive results with Suzuki — felt like an important victory for alternative education, and the number of independent teachers committed to the method would balloon into the tens of thousand throughout the 70s and 80s. Where most methods preached of righteous self-discipline, Suzuki’s focus on empathy and socialization through childhood development was one that made classical music — long out of fashion with North American students, especially in the late 90s when I began — approachable in a way that no other method would quite realize, at least not under the same constraints. Its encouragements of playful experimentation and agency gave the violin new life, so much so that the Times once, in reference Max Weber’s Rational and Sociological Foundations of Music, suggested it to soon displace the piano as the “consummation” of a new “bourgeois music culture,” a new, inexpensive default for youth musical education across the world.

The method isn’t without detractors; the program has long been the source of ire from competing methods, none as effective at ‘hacking’ the old institutional systems and streamlining youth education into the sort of blunt metrics and visible milestones that the American public education system loves, quite like Suzuki. Most recently, composer, author, and teacher Mark O’Connor turned heads when, in 2014, he boldly accused Shinichi of fictionalizing entire sections of his biography in promotion of the method. Where Nurtured by Love boasts of Suzuki’s achievements under the mentorship of German professor Karl Klingler, O’Connor revealed in a series of blog posts that Suzuki in fact had only auditioned to study under the professor, and was never accepted to study at the Berlin Hochshule where Klingler taught. O’Connor goes on to out Suzuki as never earning a PhD, never being endorsed by renowned cellist Pablo Casals, and never “mentored and watched after” by Albert Einstein, as are purported by his writing. Academics like John D. Kendall would go on to repeat these same inconsistencies, printed and reprinted by the press until firmly detached from realities, woven into a spotless narrative that bolstered both men’s reputations. “Of course Kendall had a huge stake in the potential Suzuki empire — he ran the SAA (Suzuki Association of the Americas) as its president for 30 years beginning in 1971,” O’Connor writes. “Was it all just about money, selling an exotic product from Japan to unsuspecting American violin kids?”

Image: TheeErin

Counter-allegations, namely from the SAA themselves, would suggest that the stunt was done in promotion of the O’Connor Method, his own school with emphasis on the folk traditions of North America, but with a such staggering amount of archival research substantiating his findings, much of O’Connor’s outrage feels warranted. Whether or not a PhD is necessary to develop experiential education methods, much of Suzuki’s success in America was still bolstered by evidence of his institutional acceptance under a former Berlin Philharmonic concertmaster and without that, it’s both bizarre and, well, kind of impressive that the system ever got off the ground to begin with, almost purely on the electric success of the method’s world-of-mouth travel.

And so almost three years after this discovery, what, if anything, has changed? The Suzuki method is still overwhelmingly the dominant school across North America, and no other method has come to close delivering results with the same Earth-shattering impression glamor that the program once held, and perhaps never will. Even with a dubious background and an autobiographical manifesto bolstered by strange pseudoscience, what Suzuki brought to youth education has made the violin now more approachable than even the most seasoned competitors, allowing children, especially in low-income communities, to start on a path toward success in the arts. For all its faults, the fact that one particularly charismatic man from Japan — one who never attended college, barely studied at the professional level, and, especially in videos, seems barely able to perform some of the pieces himself — could radically alter the course of youth education feels like a wild and historically unprecedented development in a vastly conservative field of study. With his death in 1998, Shinichi Suzuki left a warm, humanistic impact on a procedural pursuit almost never associated with such, and even as his methods have been largely debunked as having more to do with rigorous practice than he’d ever admit publicly, the Suzuki legacy lives on in testament to his vision.

What Was the Suzuki Violin Method? was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Forget ‘1984’ — Today, Orwell’s Essays Matter More

Fri, 2017-02-17 12:52
Forget ‘1984’ — Today, Orwell’s Essays Matter MoreYou’ll get more from “Why I Write” than from ‘Animal Farm.’Image: Luca Cerabona

To the surprise of absolutely no one, George Orwell is everywhere these days. His seven-decade-old dystopian classic, 1984, recently made waves by topping a bunch of bestseller lists. Orwell’s earlier (and arguably greater) allegory, Animal Farm, is also getting its due. That both novels are suddenly on the radar of people who probably haven’t given Orwell a second thought in years is hardly surprising at a time when war refugees are painted as national security threats, white nationalists hold positions of power in the White House and an American president is openly involved in an abusive relationship with the English language.

Orwell, the pen name of the Indian-born Eric Arthur Blair, speaks to us in this moment not only because he understood that words have the power both to shackle and to liberate, but also because 1984 inscribed on the literary imagination a vision of what a mass-media-fueled totalitarianism might look like. (He also envisioned what a mass-media-fueled totalitarian victory might look like — a critical aspect of the book’s plot that many people who haven’t read 1984 since high school have probably forgotten. The novel is not a manual of resistance. It is a chronicle of a crushing, obliterating defeat.)

The fact that Orwell was clear-eyed enough, meanwhile, to perceive the brute peril manifest in both Stalinism and in the fascism of a Mussolini or a Hitler provides commentators across the political divide with handy phrases to wield against their ideological foes:

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.Big Brother is watching you.War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.

(Recent events suggest a tasseled loafer stamping on a human face forever might be a more likely scenario.)

Regardless of how prescient Orwell’s novels might seem, his powerful, tightly argued essays remain far more relevant in our current batshit cuckoo political climate. Those readers who pick up his fiction seeking to navigate today’s fraudulent, profoundly cynical rhetoric could well miss out on the best, most concise, most penetrating writings of a man whose constant intent was to interrogate his own beliefs, while holding those in power accountable for theirs. As George Packer, the editor of two excellent editions of Orwell’s essays once put it: “In his best work, Orwell’s arguments are mostly with himself.”

Orwell was an essayist first and last. In his commentaries, columns and criticism — he wrote that the unquiet age in which he lived had forced him to become “a sort of pamphleteer”— he found something original to say about everything from the dehumanizing nature of imperialism (“Shooting an Elephant”) to Leo Tolstoy’s strange, late-in-life attack on Shakespeare (“Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool”) to the beauty and deathless vigor of the natural world (“Some Thoughts on the Common Toad”).

Ultimately, though, many of Orwell’s sharpest, most memorable essays were about the uses and abuses of language. “[O]ne can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality,” he declared. “Good prose is like a windowpane.” With the possible exception of “Write what you know,” that’s as compact a literary credo as one is likely to find. But succinct as it might be, it fails to acknowledge that Orwell’s prose, for all its clarity, was rarely mere glass. At various times, particularly in his essays, language assumes all sorts of roles: scalpel; microscope; mirror; weapon.

Take a passage like this one, from an essay exploring why H.G. Wells (one of Orwell’s boyhood heroes) could never grapple with the true nature of totalitarianism because he “was too sane to understand the modern world”:

Because he belonged to the nineteenth century and to a non-military nation and class … he was, and still is, quite incapable of understanding that nationalism, religious bigotry and feudal loyalty are far more powerful forces than what he himself would describe as sanity. Creatures out of the Dark Ages have come marching into the present, and if they are ghosts they are at any rate ghosts which need a strong magic to lay them. The people who have shown the best understanding of Fascism are either those who have suffered under it or those who have a Fascist streak in themselves.

That line, “creatures out of the Dark Ages have come marching into the present,” is still chilling 75 years after it was written — and not only because the modern reader is aware of the scale of the horrors about to be unleashed on Orwell’s world. (The death camps; the Red Army’s rampage of mass rape across a defeated Germany; Hiroshima and Nagasaki; anywhere between 60 and 70 million human beings killed — perhaps more — by the time WWII was over, with civilian men, women and children accounting for at least three-quarters of the dead.)

And yet how many of us have thought, in recent months, that creatures out of the Dark Ages have come marching into our present? Creatures who want women to shut up, stay home, bear children (whether they want them or not) and obey, damn it. Creatures who believe that the diktats of an unhinged leader are not only legitimate, but “will not be questioned” by the hoi polloi.

Consider this passage, from the 1941 essay, “England Your England”:

One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognizes the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty. In certain circumstances it can break down, at certain levels of civilization it does not exist, but as a positive force there is nothing to set beside it. Christianity and international Socialism are as weak as straw in comparison with it. Hitler and Mussolini rose to power in their own countries very largely because they could grasp this fact and their opponents could not.

A love of country — as irrational and unconditional as it might be — is a trait common to people who live in wildly different nations, with wildly different assumptions about everything from how much spice to put in one’s food to how often one should take a nap to how much a country should spend on its military. But it’s precisely because it’s a universal modern impulse that patriotism (or rather its crazy inbred cousin, nationalism) carries such force. In many countries, an intense, xenophobia-fueled patriotism is the only expression of even nominal power available to the poor, the disenfranchised, those left behind. Donald Trump and his advisers grasped this fact; his opponent did not. Or not tightly enough, anyway.

It was in the often-anthologized essay, “Why I Write,” that Orwell came closest to a distillation of his responsibilities as a politically engaged writer:

Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 [i.e., roughly the time when he fought for the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, and got a bullet through the neck for his troubles] has been written, directly or indirectly, AGAINST totalitarianism and FOR democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects.

With that in mind one can read Orwell on Dickens (a man “who fights in the open and is not frightened … a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence”) or the peculiar attitude of the English toward militarism (“English literature, like other literatures, is full of battle-poems, but it is worth noticing that the ones that have won for themselves a kind of popularity [among the English] are always a tale of disaster and retreats”) or virtually any other topic and always come away with a sense of a writer engaged in a long, long struggle to set his own ethics against the savage banalities of his age. (It’s worth noting here that, for all his combativeness, Orwell is far from a puritanical scold. One would be hard pressed, for instance, to read his unsentimental homage to the English pub in the essay “The Moon Under Water,” with its sweet, unanticipated ending, and not respond with something perilously close to “Awww.”)

Orwell never apologized for his politics — specifically, he did not apologize for being a Democratic Socialist in the postwar British vein — but instead bolstered his beliefs by exploring everything, absolutely everything, through a political lens.

So long as I remain alive and well, I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us. —“Why I Write”

Orwell’s essays — more so than his novels — endure as a tonic, and an admonition: Be clear in your arguments. Be curious about the world. Above all, be skeptical of demagogues and of rhetoric grounded not in verifiable facts or demonstrable results, but in hoary appeals to blind nationalism, scapegoating and racial tribalism. “Political language,” he wrote in 1946, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Right now is as good a time as any — and better than most — to turn from Orwell’s novels to his essays, where language itself is held to account and the only wind the reader encounters is the bracing gale of a fearless mind at work.

Forget ‘1984’ — Today, Orwell’s Essays Matter More was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

More Collective Nouns

Fri, 2017-02-17 11:57
For everyday use.Image: Daniel Lombraña González

A passion of teachers

A sigh of poets

A swallow of psychopharmacologists

A growth of stoners

A handle of drunks

A denial of Republicans

A pyramid of polyamorous people

A table of chemists

A floss of dentists

A torture of lawyers

A tray of servers

A bubble of elites

A tempest of teapots

An armada of Mormons

A catechism of Christians

A revelation of Catholics

A query of Jews

A nirvana of clouds

A disturbance of Jedis

A box set of DJs

An encyclopedia of librarians

A cancer of smokers

A fistfight of bros

A shrug of celebrities

A hot-air-balloon of politicians

A dream of peace treaties

A disaster of wars

Josh Lefkowitz won the Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Prize, an Avery Hopwood Award for Poetry at the University of Michigan, was a finalist for the Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize, and won First Prize in the Singapore Poetry Contest. His poems and essays have been published at The Hairpin, The Rumpus, The Huffington Post, and many other places. He has also recorded humor pieces for NPR’s All Things Considered and BBC’s Americana.

More Collective Nouns was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Four Weeks Later

Fri, 2017-02-17 11:50
A reflection in versePhoto: Tricia

It isn’t just the way that there’s no limit to the lies
It isn’t just the fear that comes with every new surprise
It isn’t the audacity, the bluster and the bluff
The dumb aggressive ignorance that sells itself as tough
It’s not the chronic chaos and the basic lack of skills
It isn’t all the idiots who see these things as thrills
It isn’t the erasure of the line through “laugh or cry?”
It’s everything — and all the time — that makes you want to die

Four Weeks Later was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Stranger of the Week

Fri, 2017-02-17 10:57
Westbound L trainIllustration by Forsyth Harmon

“It’s your favorite time!” you shouted to about twenty seven captive people, of whom I was one.

How did you know? This was my favorite time.

Months back, when I spotted those signs on the subway cars that say “Hold the pole, not our attention. A subway car is no place for showtime” I wanted to wield a Sharpie and efface them. How dare they. A subway car is exactly the place for showtime. The only place.

“Showtime showtime showtime!” you shouted as you cleared the carriage, happily shooing and clapping away passengers who shuffled off to find other poles. You were young, solo, tattooed and wore a “THRASHER” t-shirt. As you prepared your stage I noticed that I was rearranging myself a little in my seat. Sitting up a little straighter in readiness like the good audience member I was.

I love showtime like only a non-native can. To a person who moved to this city at the age of 25 from London, where making eye contact on the tube is basically illegal, the eruption of a momentary circus on public transport seemed miraculous. When it first happened I wanted to call someone. Do you know about this? These guys who do these crazy acrobatics and spin around poles and yet manage to not kick anyone in the face? I’d drink it in and think “this is so New York!” not quite knowing what I meant by that except that it was good and it was not London. I soon realized that the “the most New York” thing about it was not the spectacle itself, but the way in which almost everyone on the train would calmly ignore it. In this respect, I wish to remain a tourist.

In this freshly cleared subway car I could now see the man opposite me. He sat, dolorous, with a giant trash bag at his feet from which sprouted a shiny red helium balloon bearing a cursive message of affection. This whole edifice was fenced by haphazard plastic roses. I have always loved this day. Loved it best on the subway: everyone carrying the anxious hopes of their roses, or the monstrous, cellophane-suffocated disappointments of bears with paws sewn to plush red hearts.

Michael Jackson’s “P.Y.T.” began playing from your radio and your routine began. You spun and flipped and you were great. I put my book away to look at you. Perhaps made vulnerable by their roses and bears, everyone else looked at you too. We all wanted to love you. We clapped vigorously when you were done and as you came round a young woman looked you in the eye, placed a dollar in your baseball cap, and said, in a very deliberate and sober way: “You are very talented.”

Beside me, a vampy lady of a certain age, Cruella de Ville-ish in black-splotched white fur, turned to me with her pencilled eyebrows arched high: “He was good!” She was very surprised. I just nodded, eagerly.

Stranger of the Week was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Clark, “Peak Magnetic”

Fri, 2017-02-17 09:01
What day is it today?Photo: GollyGforce

Have you noticed that every weekday feels like a combination of Monday and Friday now? Monday because your day is filled with misery and sadness and disbelief and a perpetual, pervasive desire to be anywhere else but where you have to be; Friday because of the persistent sense that everything’s going to end shortly and the concomitant inability to focus or invest too much in anything you’re attending to — why should you, when it’s all going to be over soon? It’s no way to live and yet it may be the only life we have until the end of all our weeks comes down on our heads. The good news where you are concerned right now is that today is indeed an actual Friday, and you hopefully have the upcoming actual Monday off. The bad news is… well, everything else.

Here’s something new from Clark, whose Death Peak comes out in April, a thousand Mondays and Fridays from now. Enjoy.

Clark, “Peak Magnetic” was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

New York City, February 15, 2017

Thu, 2017-02-16 21:44

★★ Morning was neither dark nor bright, neither mild nor cold. Something had wetted down the pavement and a floating dampness was the only distinguishing feature. Things brightened into a sunny and mellow afternoon. A man walked along 17th Street cradling a lacrosse stick. The blue and still-light evening sky had rain falling out of it. With the coat hood up, it was as if it wasn’t happening.

New York City, February 15, 2017 was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Money Trouble

Thu, 2017-02-16 18:25
Can this exploitative economic system be saved?Photo: The Hamster Factor

Now that we have decided the Enlightenment was a mistake, how long will it be before we come to the same conclusion about capitalism? As Voltaire was rumored to have said, “Sans la sauce un homme est perdu, mais le même homme peut se perdre dans la sauce.” Wise words indeed, and ones which resonate down to our very age. Anyway, here’s a long-ass piece from a recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement that takes a look at capitalism in crisis (although, to be honest, when is it not? What a drama queen, capitalism) and what is to be done.

How to save capitalism from itself

You will very surely argue against certain premises of this piece, while equally strongly asserting that other aspects are absolutely correct. Or maybe not, maybe you’re some hip young renegade who only takes time away from typing “Bernie would have won” under tweets by people you disagree with to loudly deny that there was ever any worthwhile element to capitalism. And who is to say you’re wrong? (I mean, lots of people, but whatever, if the Internet has taught us anything it’s that no one ever admits they are wrong or sticks around long enough to learn that someone has even suggested that they might be.) Either way, I want to second this review’s recommendation of Marc Levinson’s An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy, which argues that the supercharged economy from the end of World War II up until 1973 was an irreproducible anomaly and everything that anyone has tried to do to juice it since has been a bunch of economic [extreme “jerking off” motion], the failure of which has unfortunately resulted (not without help from people who have a vested interest in this being the case) in a distrust of government as an agent of social change. I am someone whose limited general intelligence and particular lack of facility with numbers means that he can only grasp simple economic concepts when described in relation to blowjobs, and even I found this book easy enough to understand; you will surely get a lot more out of it.

An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy

Alternately you could just wait for the fires to come, they surely won’t be long now. I mean, capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction, those fuckers are sure to sprout any second, right?

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

The Politics of Platforms

Thu, 2017-02-16 15:10
Some shit that’s happening on YouTube, I don’t know.Photo: Vulkan der NachtIt makes sense that YouTube would become home to such a performatively self-aware economy. It is, after all, one of the most mature of the major social platforms. It is extremely culturally productive, and can claim genuine stars as its own. Above all, it pays. And in the people who depend on the platform to pay their bills, it inspires a peculiar mixture of paranoia, desire, gratefulness and disdain that shows up clearly in their work. YouTube’s peculiar relationship with the economy within it is fraught, promising and poorly understood. It’s also unique among social-media platforms — but maybe not for much longer. For now, most of the biggest internet platforms are understood as venues for communication, expression and consumption. YouTube has given us a glimpse at what happens when users start associating social platforms with something more: livelihoods.

Imagine if the dinosaurs had someone who was able to explain everything about meteors to them: They would still all die, but they would be incredibly well-informed about the thing that was going to cause their extinction even as it hurtled towards them. Anyway, John Herrman is our meteor-explaining dinosaur, and here he discusses PewDiePie, which is hopefully something you don’t know a whole lot about. I mean, really, how awful for you if you do.

YouTube's Monster: PewDiePie and His Populist Revolt

The Politics of Platforms was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Why Does This One Couch From West Elm Suck So Much?

Thu, 2017-02-16 14:33
Comparing notes with other unsatisfied owners of the Peggy sofa

When I was a kid my grandma had a couch on her front porch that was, as a result of some sort of thrifty post-wartime craft project, stuffed with crumpled-up newspapers. Every couch I have sat on since then has felt unreasonably, needlessly luxurious. Poly-Fil? Foam? Goose feathers? Forget about it. The only couch anybody needs is a metal frame pulled from the curb, a few pillow cases, and a stack of old newspapers.

But in spite of myself, as a 28-year-old, I find myself drawn into the same capitalistic pitfall that many young professionals are drawn into — a need to prove my adulthood with mid-century furniture. And more specifically, a need to prove that I’ve graduated from Walmart bedframes and second-hand plywood shelves scooped up from the sidewalk.

This is why, a few weeks after moving in with my partner, Kevin, we decided to buy a couch from West Elm. The couch would be the most prominent piece of furniture in our small apartment and our first big purchase together — a gigantic spongy representation of our shared style sensibility. We chose a West Elm design called the “Peggy” in a deep rusty orange color. We would each put a fat $600 towards the couch, and that money would be an investment into our new life together. It was more than we were used to paying for a piece of furniture, but the price seemed to be proof of enduring quality. I looked at the image on the West Elm website and saw an entire montage of us laughing on the couch with friends, reading the Sunday paper on the couch, drinking obscure liqueurs on the couch (would this be the couch on which we would discover that we loved Cynar or Chartreuse?), moving the couch into a larger apartment, covering the couch with tarps while we painted the walls around it a daring color, giving birth on the couch, dying on the couch.

This is the moment when I need to warn you of something vitally important. No matter what Apple commercials and jewelry ads tell you, you should never, ever view an object as a metaphor for your relationship. Engagement rings are the biggest racket in history, and even if you love each other, one of you will lose your ring. If you buy a couch together, either the couch or the relationship will break, and the two things will have no correlation.

The couch came, and our old one, a vintage leather Craigslist number, left. We loved our new couch. It was a little uncomfortable, but probably just needed some throw pillows to soften it. We sat on the couch at the end of each day and congratulated ourselves on our good and prudent choice and searched for throw pillows that didn’t have any words or foxes on them.

Around when the throw pillows finally arrived, the couch began to disintegrate in small ways. We would scooch across a cushion at the wrong angle, and a button would pop off, leaving a fraying hole behind. We would lean back slightly too far, and all of the cushions would shift forward and over the edge of the couch in unison. As soon as one button had fallen off of our couch, it was like a spigot had been turned, allowing all of the other buttons to fall off, too. I emailed customer service and asked if this was normal. They sent me a button-repair kit, indicating that this probably happens a lot. The kit was backordered, so it arrived two full months later and contained a wooden dowel, two buttons, and some directions that didn’t make sense. One direction was to “Hold the cushion properly and make sure the pointed end of the stick is all the way through, until you can see both ends of the stick on each side of the cushion.” I tried in earnest to follow the directions, but the wooden dowel would not fit into the buttonholes, and the entire exercise left me with fewer buttons than I started with.

I became obsessed with the extremely banal mistake I had made as a consumer. You know how you’re not supposed to talk about the weather or your commute because they’re boring? The same is true of couches. The craziest fucking couch in the world is still not more exciting than the Q train running on the R line because of scheduled track maintenance. But I was obsessed, and all I could talk about was the couch. The more I talked about the couch, the more I heard from people having the same problem. It turned out that an unusually large number of our friends owned the same exact couch and were extremely miffed at West Elm about it.

For many young professionals in their 20s and 30s, the next stop after Craigslist and Ikea is West Elm. One friend, Scaachi, had bought the couch when she and her boyfriend first moved in together, just like me and Kevin. Another couple we know got the Peggy after moving into the apartment they had bought together. Everything at West Elm has the allure of being just out of the price range of recent college grads but reasonably affordable for someone who’s been saving. And with the price comes an irrational sense of faith in the furniture’s quality. Shawna Delgaty, a friend of a friend, said she was drawn to the Peggy sofa’s “affordable-but-adult” price range. “It was certainly the most money I’d ever spent on a piece of furniture,” she told me.

One friend emailed customer service after four buttons went missing, and customer service told her to hire an upholsterer. Another friend was simply told to buy a crochet needle and fix them herself. She bought the crochet needle and tried to re-thread the buttons but eventually gave up. Kevin Fanning, a friend who has a Peggy sofa with a missing button at his office, says, “The missing button (which there doesn’t seem to be any easy way to fix, short of buying a new couch) constitutes about 90% of my daily work-related frustration. Every time I look at it I lose my mind.”

Since West Elm doesn’t have product reviews on their website, there is no real reason to know how widely disliked the Peggy sofa is until you buy one and then join the strange ad hoc community of Peggy truthers on the internet. As far as I can gather, the Peggy sofa has been on the market since 2014, which means that three years of consumers have been buying it and then immediately trying to warn others against making the same mistake.

There’s the woman in Denver who left a 700-word review on her local West Elm’s Yelp page, describing why she’ll never shop there again after buying the Peggy: “To have created a detailed training guide with colored pictures on how to repair your sofa means you’ve probably received hundreds, if not thousands, of calls, emails and visits about this awfully made Peggy sofa. You have to do better, West Elm.” Another woman with similar complaints took to West Elm’s Facebook page: “I have furniture from IKEA that is 6+ years old, that has moved across the country (twice!) that has held up better than this couch.”

And then there are the Instagram Peggy trolls. Every once in awhile the couch will appear in a carefully styled photo on the company’s Instagram page, and warnings pour in under the photo. “This is literally the worst couch I’ve ever bought,” writes one commenter. Others echo: “Got this couch in gray, and it’s falling apart!!!” and “This was my first big furniture purchase and I am so disappointed.” and “This is the absolute WORST piece of #furniture I’ve ever purchased!!!

Possessed with a fervent and slightly unhinged desire for truth and justice on behalf of the entire Peggy community, I went into two different West Elm stores and asked patient employees what they thought of the Peggy and if they would recommend it to somebody. They unanimously agreed that it was a great couch. I asked whether the buttons ever posed a problem, and one said that as long as I didn’t have pets or kids, it was fine (but here’s what a dog or a cat would look like on the Peggy in case you’re curious). In both cases, I asked what the expected lifespan is for a West Elm couch like the Peggy. Both store employees told me that between one and three years was normal for a couch with light use.

My partner tried to quell my obsession, suggesting that we buy a new one and forget the whole fiasco. But it was past the window where we could return the couch for a refund, and buying a new couch once a year sounded like the most frivolously boring way to spend money that I could think of. I would rather take an annual vacation to Iceland or join Equinox or buy $1200 of Haribo gummies every year.

On New Year’s Eve, we had a party. Twelve minutes before midnight, as a roomful of twenty or so people pounded cheap champagne and listened to the Weeknd, there was a loud crash, and the whole apartment shook. I ran out of the kitchen and into the living room. The couch had collapsed on the floor, surrounded by startled guests who were miraculously unharmed. A leg had snapped off, and the whole thing had toppled over. Tipsy friends set about propping the 300-pound piece of garbage up with stacks of books. I went to find Kevin and tell him the good news. “Happy New Year!” I said. “We’re getting a new couch.”

Why Does This One Couch From West Elm Suck So Much? was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Let Yourself Be Seduced by Saint-Saëns’s ‘Bacchanale from Samson and Delilah’

Thu, 2017-02-16 13:26
Classical Music Hour With FranNicolas Poussin’s ‘Bacchanal Before a Statue of Pan’

A thing you may or may not know about me in my life is that outside of classical music, I have straight up awful taste in music. It’s true. If there’s an EDM remix of a Top 40 pop song, I love it and I’ve probably bought it on iTunes. I think my friends quietly dread whenever I offer to send them a song I’m into, and my girlfriend has a longtime habit of calling the music I listen to “fuck music” (in the worst possible sense). Look, I’m not proud.

In turn, because it’s Valentine’s Day Week, and in vaguely apocalyptic times, people seem hornier than ever, I’d like to offer up the classic equivalent of such music, one of my all-time favorite pieces: Saint-Saëns’ Bacchanale from Samson and Delilah.

To refresh your memory, Camille Saint-Saëns was a Romantic-era composer from France. When last I wrote about Saint-Saëns, it was in reference to his Danse Macabre, a spooky little tone poem. When I was researching him back in October, I stumbled upon an anecdote about his love life that I’d like to bring forward. Saint-Saëns was married to a woman named Marie-Laure Truffot (great French name), the 19-year-old sister of one of his pupils. Saint-Saëns, for what it’s worth, was 40 at the time. The past, baby!! That said, it has long been suggested that Saint-Saëns may have been gay. Who knows, not me, certainly, though this theory did come up in the Tchaikovsky biography I read. Anyway, in 1878, three years after marrying Truffot, the two went on vacation and he bailed. Like, truly he ghosted on her. He left their hotel, where they were staying together, wrote her a letter that said “I’m never coming back,” and they never saw each other again. The past!!! Was!!! Nuts!!!!!!! I run into my exes every day of my life because, well, it’s a small city, but whatever.

What’s Spookier Than Saint-Saëns’s ‘Danse Macabre’?

The year before that, however, was the year that Samson and Delilah premiered. The Bacchanale is the big dance from Samson and Delilah, one of Saint-Saëns’ most renowned operas based, of course, on the biblical story of these two idiot lovebirds. During this scene in particular, the characters are celebrating a — guess what — bacchanale (a festival for Bacchus, who loved to drink and bone) and Samson and Delilah are slowly seducing each other. It’s sexual, trust me, opening on this very coy oboe solo.

Admittedly, one of the reasons this piece has always resonated with me is its highly percussive sound. Not unlike Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony, this also has one of my favorite timpani parts I’ve been lucky enough to play. If you listen for it relatively early on into the piece, you can hear it come in around the 2:01 mark. It just goes back and forth between two drums, but it’s key to the whole piece. It’s the heartbeat of it — the rhythm, the seduction. But even beyond that, there are some enthusiastic crash cymbals and triangle. I mean, Saint-Saëns made triangle sound sensual, kudos to him.

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Just Listen To Shostakovich’s ‘Symphony №5’

And then about halfway through the piece, after building up to this heavy, exotic-sounding dance climax (heh), the Bacchanale switches gears around the 3:51 mark. It becomes… suddenly very sweet? Very romantic? It’s one of those scenes in a romantic movie where the couple is just so into each other that everyone else fades away. Except in this case, all of the Philistines are the ones who melt away into the background. Trust me, it works.

That moment, however beautiful, never lasts forever, and just after the 5-minute mark, the Bacchanale starts to push back into its original theme. Except, you know, this is music, so it’s that much more this time around. Including, and I know you’re rolling your eyes at me as you read this, an insanely wild timpani solo. You both do and don’t know it’s coming, but it’s exactly what you want right at the 6:24 mark.

Let me have this for a moment.


The cellos and basses, of course, God bless ’em, join in with the timpani and the whole thing just rushes together in the last minute of the piece. It’s an explosion, really, of sound and texture and debauchery. It’s a full-on nightclub banger if I ever heard it; it just happened to be written in 1877.

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

Let Yourself Be Seduced by Saint-Saëns’s ‘Bacchanale from Samson and Delilah’ was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

What America Needs Now Is Horror Movies

Thu, 2017-02-16 12:57
Stay spooked.Image: Khánh Hmoong

Recently, in the lobby of a suburban Maryland Cineplex, I spotted a poster for Patriots Day, Peter Berg’s movie about the Boston Marathon bombings. Only a few weeks had passed since Donald Trump’s victory, and I was a raw nerve. Now I was looking at a blown-up image of Mark Wahlberg in police gear, topped by a quote proclaiming, “THE MOVIE THAT AMERICA NEEDS RIGHT NOW.” Says who?

A quick Google search showed that the quote probably came from a Nov. 18 Mashable review. Patriots Day, the article says, arrived “in the wake of this year’s divisive election and numerous incidents of unwarranted police violence” as “evidence that, while there will always be evil in this world, there will always be more good people than bad.”

That’s just the tip of the anodyne iceberg. The “movie America needs” praise has been lavished on just about every awards hopeful from 2016. Virginia Postrel, a Bloomberg writer, praises Hidden Figures as “offering patriotic balm for the fractured body politic.” Loving, according to attorney Ted Olson writing for CNN, is “an antidote to the dispiriting and debasing poison that we have been through these past brutal months.” La La Land has been heralded as a “tonic” (The New Yorker) and a “magical musical [that] will transport you from Trump-World” (The Guardian).

I like poignant movies and escaping real-life uncertainty by watching in a dark theater as a plot unfolds and neatly concludes. Ruth Negga is breathtaking in Loving. I’m thrilled that Hidden Figures explores an unfairly overlooked piece of U.S. history. All of which is to say: What I’m about to argue has little to do with the quality of these movies. (Except La La Land. The key ingredient in that saccharine tonic really is white nostalgia.)

The notion that America needs to feel better for the sake of feeling better is problematic — maybe even risky. It’s true that many people are in an emotional tailspin. An American Psychological Association (APA) survey published this week recorded a statistically significant uptick in stress levels for the first time in a decade; 49 percent of respondents described the election outcome as a source of anxiety. An ABC/Washington Post poll from January found that 35 percent of Americans reported additional stress as a result of Trump’s victory. The rest, though, felt unaffected (52 percent) or better (12 percent). Meaning, almost two-thirds of Americans said they weren’t freaking out, at least not more than usual.

My point? As the ABC/WaPo pollsters noted, “Sometimes stress can be good. It can help you develop skills needed to manage potentially threatening situations.” Like a corrupt and bigoted White House, the forces that gave it power, and the wrongs it blatantly wants to commit.

So here is a modest proposal: When it comes to movies, maybe what America needs is horror.

If this seems like a bizarre pivot, hear me out. I’m an acolyte of the horror genre, the kind who once subjected a college professor to a paper about the religious symbolism in 28 Days Later. Horror is, in my nerdy and sincere opinion, an under-appreciated cultural medium for grappling with our base fears and instincts. In his edited volume The Horror Film, critic and theorist Stephen Prince puts it well: “Musicals offer courtship rituals; Westerns and war films give us lessons about American empire…. But only horror goes straight to the deepest unease at the core of human existence.”

When it comes to movies, maybe what America needs is horror.

For starters, horror tests the limits of physical and social sensibilities. What shocks or disgusts viewers — and why? In George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead, the black male protagonist hits a white woman when she attempts to leave the house that’s protecting them from zombies. How staggering and, to some viewers, upsetting that act must have seemed when the film debuted in 1968, even with the hordes of flesh-eating undead staggering across the screen. More recently, in 2016’s The Witch, director Robert Eggers reveals the abject stuff of supernatural forces in the first few minutes of his 17th-century thriller. Religious zealotry, collective paranoia, and sexual fears — all very real and very contemporary — deliver the enduring shocks for the movie’s duration.

Horror films push viewers to locate what scares them: an invading force from a distant place? A terrible secret that might be buried in the house next door? Or perhaps some aspect of their own existence? Poltergeist, The Babadook, Let the Right One In, and The Stepford Wives offer prime examples of this psychological prodding. Then there are movies like Funny Games and It Follows, which upend expectations of societal and personal security. By extension, they ask how far you’d go to protect yourself and those you love — and, in some cases, if you’d go as far for a stranger. The answers can be unsettling.

Good horror movies reflect immediate social anxieties and abiding fears that humanity, in both the individual and collective senses, is under threat. The great ones go even further: “[I]t isn’t just that these traumas trigger these films,” film historian Tom Gunning once said, “but that we understand these traumas through these films.” My favorite fright-fests adjust the lens one additional time. They pose the provocative question: What if you’re the monster?

That’s what first-time director Jordan Peele, of Key & Peele fame, asks in Get Out, a thriller debuting later this month. The movie is about a young black man who visits his white girlfriend’s parents in suburbia. Things start out awkwardly, in the vein of Look Who’s Coming to Dinner. They veer into horror, though , and not because the girlfriend’s parents are, say, white nationalists out to kill a black man. That would be too obvious.

In its rave review of the movie, Variety explains: “Get Out represents a searing political statement wrapped in the guise of a more innocuous genre: the escape-the-crazies survival thriller, à la Deliverance or The Wicker Man, where sympathetic characters are held captive by a deranged cult. Except in this case, the crazies are the liberal white elite, who dangerously overestimate the degree of their own enlightenment.”

Get Out is a movie about the sociopolitical moment — sorry, epic crisis — we find ourselves in, reinforcing why many viewers are stressed about Trump’s America while shaking others out of their complacency to face their complicity. Or trying to, anyway. “We go to the theater to be entertained,” Peele told Forbes, “but if what is left after you watch the movie is a sort of eye-opening perspective on some social issues, then it can be a really powerful piece of art.”

To drive the point home, Peele is curating “The Art of the Social Thriller” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from Feb. 17-March 1. He’s selected a dozen movies that influenced Get Out — all of them relevant to the Trump era and the currents of history that ushered it in. Rosemary’s Baby is about rape culture and women losing agency over their own bodies. Rear Window is about being trapped by circumstance and drawing conclusions based on limited information. The People Under the Stairs is about social inequality, greed, and class oppression.

Get Out and the classics that inspired it are, in my humble opinion, the movies that America needs right now. The country doesn’t need a patriotic painkiller or hollow reassurances about national goodness so that we can all sleep more soundly. It doesn’t need, as the Bloomberg review of Hidden Figures argues, “a new national story… that can acknowledge past injustices without becoming defined by them.” That sounds an awful lot like an endorsement of a narrative conveniently built on alternative facts, in which unlikely triumphs are exaggerated and systemic failures are glossed over.

In that January ABC/WaPo poll, 71 percent of white people — more of them male than female — said they didn’t feel extra stress because of Trump’s election. Yet more than half of Hispanics and nearly 40 percent of black people did. The APA survey captured different but no less upsetting figures: 54 percent of Hispanics and 69 percent of black people cited the election result as a source of stress. Only 42 percent of white people said the same.

There’s good reason for this disparity. Injustices, both realized and promised, inexorably define the world for the people they afflict or threaten. Pretending otherwise is playing with fire. Injustices, though, should do even more, disturbing people who aren’t directly aggrieved so that they can start to be better, not just feel better. Wielding the almighty power of pop culture, horror can help. And if you think that power doesn’t exist, I refer you to Geoff Nelson of Paste. “‘It’s just a movie,’” he wrote in his review of La La Land, “is the apologia of people who have never been victimized by culture.”

What America Needs Now Is Horror Movies was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.