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Updated: 39 min 21 sec ago

Jared Screams About A Bat

Fri, 2017-08-11 15:53

GENERALS KELLY and MATTIS are having an unspoken battle over who can be most like the dad from “The Wonder Years.” IVANKA, brooding, is pinpointing where it all went wrong. STEPHEN MILLER is playing Battleship with KUSHNER DAUGHTER. He can see where her ships are and she knows it, but she is enjoying that STEPHEN MILLER thinks he is superior to her, a child. He is also mansplaining mercantilism. JARED is wearing a cardigan. In other words, everyone is being themselves.

And then a bat gets loose. An actual living and breathing bat—a winged mammal. It’s flying into corners, trying to escape, because it’s trapped inside the Trump White House. As the bat is panicking and spiraling and chirping, everyone becomes an even worse version of themselves, if that were possible. It’s utter chaos.

STEPHEN MILLER [nasally]: You may have sunk my battleship, but I’m privatizing war in order to enrich myself. So who’s the real winner now?

[The bat flaps its wing six inches from IVANKA’s face.]

IVANKA [startled into presence]: Can someone remove the animal as soon as possible?

[JARED is stifling a scream but, as usual, not succeeding. KELLYANNE CONWAY enters. She is group messaging SENATORS SASSE and COTTON on her second, secret phone line. The bat flies into her hair but she doesn’t react because she is comfortable with both vampires and vermin.]

KELLYANNE CONWAY [not looking up from her phone]: General Kelly, who has been assigned to pest control this week?

GENERAL KELLY: We don’t have that responsibility delineated, Mrs. Conway. An unfortunate oversight on my part. Jared has been assigned to miscellaneous duties so he will be charged with ridding us of the animal.

[JARED looks at his fingernails and notices several millimeters of white cuticle. Biting his nails usually relaxes him, but not this time. He is so afraid of the bat he can’t even enjoy what his wife calls a disgusting habit.]

GENERAL MATTIS [squatting so he is eye level with KUSHNER DAUGHTER]: Little girl, are you aware that your opponent can see your battleships?

KUSHNER DAUGHTER [not looking up from Catcher in the Rye, the book she is reading between game moves]: General Mattis, I wasn’t born yesterday.

GENERAL MATTIS: Did you learn that sass from Mr. Salinger?

STEPHEN MILLER [flipping over the board game]: General, I wanted to review my internal memo with you.

GENERAL MATTIS [respecting chain of command]: You don’t report to me, you recalcitrant loser. But if you did, I’d make you pick up the game before you addressed me or anyone.

STEPHEN MILLER [enjoying the sound of his own voice]: Moving forward, whenever we text each other, we should use the white skin-tone emoji. Not the default yellow one.

GENERAL MATTIS [ignoring STEPHEN MILLER]: How do you suppose a bat got inside?

KUSHNER DAUGHTER [sensibly]: It followed the air currents. We have drafts because the other general is renovating. Mommy said we are building a confessional so we can lean into the leaks.


KUSHNER DAUGHTER [seeing through STEPHEN MILLER]: He thinks you’re the other general, the one he reports to now.

GENERAL MATTIS [curtly and tiredly]: Will someone get him away from me immediately?

[KELLYANNE CONWAY shepherds STEPHEN MILLER from GENERAL MATTIS. Then, speaking for the first time ever, KELLYANNE CONWAY and STEPHEN MILLER scroll through Twitter together and laugh whenever another person points out that there really is a TRUMP tweet for every occasion. Meanwhile, the bat is feasting on the puddle of strawberry daiquiri leaking from the mini fridge.]

GENERAL KELLY [kicking the mini-fridge]: I thought I said no mini-fridges. Who the fuck plugged this back in?

KUSHNER DAUGHTER [correctly]: Steve Bannon, most likely.

[There is crosstalk and chaos. The bat flies from the daiquiri and circles IVANKA who is FaceTiming with NARENDRA MODI.]

IVANKA [softly]: Please hold, Prime Minister. [She closes her laptop, and then slightly raises her voice.] God damn it, Jared, just shoot it already. Shoot them all.

KUSHNER DAUGHTER [to GENERAL MATTIS, who nods approvingly]: Apocalyptic violence is deeply woven into the American character.

[Someone walks in. No one really recognizes him at first. It could literally be anyone, because there is a giant hole in the front of the White House where the door used to be.]

KELLYANNE CONWAY [squinting her eyes]: Oh God it’s Jeffrey Lord. Tell him—[KELLYANNE CONWAY looks around shiftily, but there is nowhere to run to. Construction crews have cleared out all the good hiding spots.]

[JEFFREY LORD is nosily asking GENERAL KELLY whose car is parked out front.]

JEFFREY LORD: Its license plate is, S-H-O-P-N-G-A-L. Not that I care. I just feel like the spot should be reserved for the President’s motorcade.

GENERAL MATTIS [to KUSHNER DAUGHTER, who shrugs]: Shopngal?

KUSHNER DAUGHTER [guessing, but correct again]: Kellyanne.

JEFFREY LORD [looking around like he’s in Wonka’s chocolate factory]: Wow, so this is the White House.

IVANKA [powerfully]: Jeffrey, it’s really not a good time. Jared is trying to trap a bat, my father is in New Jersey, and I’m daydreaming of two minutes from now when I don’t have to be talking to you.

JEFFREY LORD [not going anywhere]: I can help with the bat. Jared, do you have a bucket and a broom?

JARED [exasperated, and sweating, for once]: A what and a what?

KELLYANNE CONWAY [accepting that she must talk to JEFFREY LORD]: Jeffrey, Jared’s not handy.

STEPHEN MILLER [smarmily]: Lord Jeffrey. I haven’t seen you since Election Night. [STEPHEN MILLER extends his hand like he is literally full of shit.] You were the first to call it.

JARED [snarkily]: 10pm, like the rest of us.

KELLYANNE CONWAY [declaratively]: Wrong, Jared. I knew we would win the instant my aunt shared the Obamaphone meme, early in 2012.

[KUSHNER DAUGHTER reminds GENERAL MATTIS that KELLYANNE CONWAY first campaigned for TED CRUZ. Meanwhile, STEPHEN MILLER is so desperate for an audience that he pitches his emoji policy to JEFFREY LORD, who applauds for it.]

JEFFREY LORD [still clapping]: Leak this memo. The left will say it’s a hate crime.

STEPHEN MILLER [bellicosely]: And the President can wage a trade war full of brimstone and braggadocio.

JEFFREY LORD [doing weird things like smelling the drapery and feeling the undersides of tables]: You’re losing me, but sure.

[GARY COHN strides in, avoiding the coterie of white nationalists and beelining to JARED.]

GARY COHN [charitably]: There’s my college boy.

JARED [sulkily]: Gary, I can’t do anything with you today. I have trap this bat.

GARY COHN [frowning]: Jared, do you know who wears cardigans? People who take themselves seriously but not their work. We have an opening in my money league if you’re interested. It’s me and Larry Summers, his Jared—Tim Geithner. The Romney boys, Sheryl Sandberg and Elena Kagan. Justice Kagan doesn’t meet the net worth threshold, obviously, but we front her the money. She usually wins anyways. [GARY COHN rolls up his shirtsleeve.] It’s a tattoo of her “Dog Mom” bumper sticker. I finished in last place last year. A deal is a deal, despite what your father-in-law says. You in? [GARY COHN scrolls through his email and reads STEPHEN MILLER’s emoji policy proposal.] No. We’re leaving them the Simpsons color.

KUSHNER DAUGHTER [not so much defending STEPHEN MILLER as articulating exactly what he is thinking]: He feels hemmed in by PC culture.

GARY COHN [sending JARED a fantasy football invitation]: There’s no such thing as political correctness. It’s called the fucking zeitgeist. Jared, are you in?

[IVANKA hops back on her call with NARENDRA MODI. JEFFREY LORD is unable to trap the bat into the bucket as he promised he would. The GENERALS race back to New Jersey to stave off a ridiculous war with North Korea. JARED and STEPHEN MILLER continue to not make eye contact with each other. 

Then there’s noise from the dark room down the hall. It’s an animatronic bass singing “Take Me to the River.” But it’s also STEVE BANNON. He’s laughing heartily. Not since PRESIDENT NIXON last lived there, forty-five years ago, has someone sat alone in the White House, laughing in the dark, as often as STEVE BANNON does. He’s also nursing by hand a baby bat. When it’s strong he will release it into the fray to join its mother.]


Image: Christian Reusch via Flickr

It's Not A Lifestyle, It's A Diet

Fri, 2017-08-11 15:27

Clean eating – whether it is called that or not – is perhaps best seen as a dysfunctional response to a still more dysfunctional food supply: a dream of purity in a toxic world.

It’s some kind of great irony that one of the biggest factors that separates humans from the rest of Hominoidea—our enriched diet thanks to the advent of cooking, which allowed our brains to grow—remains our greatest source of bodily anxiety to this day.

Consider The Roly Poly

Fri, 2017-08-11 13:01

Life hides in small places. Turn over a wet rock and you’ll find a few roly poly bugs doodling paths through the soil. Poke one, and it’ll curl up its armored body into a ball. And the thing is—even though roly polies live a bug-like existence, they’re not bugs at all, they’re land crustaceans, related to shrimp, brine shrimp (Sea-Monkeys®), krill, crabs, crayfish, lobsters, and other marine arthropods with two-branched limbs and segmented bodies.

Stretched out to its full walking length, a roly poly is about the size of an Ibuprofen caplet. When startled, a roly poly will curl itself into a pill-like ball—a Claritin D if it’s a baby, and Tylenol pill if it’s an adult. This curling-up action is called conglobation. Roly polies conglobate as a protective measure, as well as to retain moisture. If they dry out, they die. And if they’re fully immersed in water, they die. If not for their ability to roll up into a cute little ball, which makes them endlessly fascinating to kids, a roly poly would be your run-of-the-mill creepy crawly, like an earwig or Paul Manafort.

Roly polies have grudgingly adapted to land. They live where few others can, noshing on harmful funguses that can add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, in addition to devouring soils rich with heavy metals. Unlike marine crustaceans, whose gills distribute gases throughout the bloodstream and body, land crustaceans have spongy gills that store oxygenated water inside their bodies as they gulp down mulch. In essence, a roly poly is a Sea-Monkey® that doesn’t have its shit together, and only a creature as small as a roly poly could make that into a feature instead of a flaw.

In the English-speaking world, roly polies go by many names. Maybe you called them pill bugs when you were a kid. Gardeners love coming up with names for them. Some names are not very pleasing: woodlice (ew), carpenter’s flea (bleah), sow bug (yuck), pill worm (ugh, squish it). And then you’ve got some good ones: doodle bugs, cheesy bugs, butchy boys, boat builders, bibble bugs, odimadods, woozy pugs, chisel bobs, potato bugs, tomato bugs, granny greys, Billy buttons, tiddlyboars, monkey peas, peaballs, crunchy bats, chitty bobs, and chuggie pigs.

Roly polies come from the family Armadillidiidae, in the order Isopoda. There are many different families of roly polies and pill bugs that live in more arid regions of the world. The bluish-grayish roly polies are the most common ones that I know, but you might be more familiar with ones that are more brown or tan where you live. It really depends on how much time you spend looking under rocks. When it comes to identifying differences between different families of roly polies, you can really get into the weeds. It’s like trying to figure out why the Klingons developed ridged foreheads after the original sixties Star Trek. Of course there’s a canonical answer—will knowing it unlock a hidden layer of the universe to you? (Here’s a field guide to identifying Klingon foreheads for your nature walks, by the way.) Anyway, the blue-gray roly polies have sharply angled antennae that stick out even during conglobation, and the brownies have antennae that tuck in. For the casual observer, unless you’re experimenting with macro photography, one person’s roly poly is another’s pillbug, and that’s fine.

Here are some quick and dirty facts: When a roly poly gets sick, it turns bright blue or purple, which is striking in the way an oil slick can be beautiful. Roly polies can snozzle up water with their anus. Instead of urinating, roly polies excrete an ammonia gas. Roly polies eat their own poop. Why would they do that? Well, a roly poly needs a certain amount of copper jangling around its weird little body to live. Each time a roly poly makes a grumpy, it voids all of its copper, and it must return the copper to its body—by any means necessary. That just seems like finding a penny on the sidewalk everywhere you go, but it’s always tails.

So. Knowing all of these intimate details—what is it, exactly, that roly polies do? And why do they do it?

No matter how much humans try to fuck it up, the web of life is a fairly self-sustaining system where all living things contribute within their means to fostering life on Earth. Roly polies play their part, it’s part of their basic operating system: Roly polies’ gill-like lungs allow them to thrive in places where not many other creatures choose to live—moist places (sorry if the word moist is like cilantro to you) with lots of dead plants to munch on. In these quiet spaces, a roly poly finds purpose.

Like earthworms and snails, roly polies help in the decomposition of fauna, returning organic matter to the soil, “where it is further digested by fungi, protozoans, and bacteria, hence making nitrates, phosphates, and other vital nutrients available to plants,” explains a natural resources guide. And, unless you have a tsunami of roly polies flooding your garden, these creatures are not pests. They don’t eat live vegetation or chew through leaves, to settle their tummies after gorging on chocolate cake, ice cream cones, pickles, Swiss cheese, salami, lollipops, cherry pie, sausages, cupcakes, and watermelons, like a very hungry caterpillar. In the natural world, decay is part of life, and a roly poly helps return the nutrients captured in dead vegetation to the soil.

Because of their need to live in damp areas on land, roly polies are particularly suited to thrive in places where few other species can go, like where polluted water has settled into the ground, leaving harmful heavy metals in the soil. Roly polies can eat these heavy metal deposits, like copper, zinc, lead, and cadmium—removing the toxic metal ions and restoring the soil to its natural state.

In this small way, roly polies contribute to the fight against climate change. And they do more. A PBS report on roly polies cited a Yale study about how land crustaceans play a role in slowing climate change:

[Roly polies] consume fungus that is responsible for breaking down organic matter in the soil, a process that releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As the atmosphere warms, the fungus activity increases, resulting in more carbon released and even higher atmospheric temperatures. It’s a dangerous vortex. But when [roly polies] and their kin are present, they’re able to mitigate the effects of increased temperature by consuming more of the fungus. They’re small, but [roly polies] may be protecting us by slowing climate change.

Fossil fuel ideologues can remove articles about climate change from the EPA’s website, but climate change is beyond debate. I find some comfort in knowing there are creatures out there built to maintain a balance whenever balance is possible, but roly polies can only do so much on their own. While they may not have very complex operating systems, roly polies are a benign force: strange land crustaceans driven by obscure purposes to survive. Even the smallest of creatures, ones so inconsequential that we often mistake them for bugs, are not beyond our notice.

Image: Dave Huth via Flickr

Dynamite with a Laser Beam

Fri, 2017-08-11 11:52

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Sputnik launched the Space Race and shamed a man onto the moon, but what it rarely gets credit for is birthing an art form: the psychedelic laser light show. In its wake, the US government funded hundreds of planetaria, many more than anyone needed or wanted. To compete with free love and color TV, these surplus domes were forced to diversify their programming. Enter Pink Floyd, and generations of weed-reeking teens.

This at least is how Dave McCullough tells it, and he’s basically the grandaddy of the whole laser-Floyd phenomenon. In 1970, McCullough was president of Audio Visual Imagineering, a brash upstart on the national laser scene. They’d just landed a plum contract with the Hayden Planetarium, at the Museum of Natural History in New York, where it was McCullough’s intention to blow minds—specifically those minds deadened to the splendors of his craft through prolonged exposure to Laserium, his predecessors at the Hayden. “The thing about laser shows back then,” he told me over the phone, “is most were infantile. They were just dumb.”

Laserium had been content to toss on a pop song and shoot random squiggles at the sky. Not McCullough. For AVI’s first show at the Hayden, he pioneered a new mode of laser-based expression: The Floyd songs were actually synced with the lasers, and for the first time these lasers merged to form images, rudimentary cartoons. The big-city Boomers ate it up, as did their counterparts in the provinces, whose formative experiences, enshrined in retro books and sitcoms, would lodge the Floyd show between the Tastee Freeze and Tunnel of Love in the country’s collective pop-cultural unconscious.

At the Vanderbilt Planetarium on Long Island last summer, more than half of the audience for its weekly Floyd shows was under the age of twenty-one. But Dave Bush, seated on a folding chair in the Vanderbilt’s back office, did not seem surprised. Bush is a fit, tanned tech coordinator in his mid-to-late thirties whose mellow voice, soothingly devoid of inflection, has ferried thousands through the solar system in his sixteen years at the Vanderbilt. Though he’s not much for the music (“I’m more of a Zeppelin guy,” he says) Bush came alive discussing the details of the Vanderbilt’s latest acquisition: a state-of-the-art laser machine manufactured by none other than Audio Visual Imagineering.

“I mean, lasers are lasers. I had appreciated them,” Bush said. “But this system…I’m pretty much blown away.” Audience response so far has been awed, fervid. Crowds have swelled; involuntary gasps of pleasure shot way up. That night’s Floyd show, a medley of tunes from The Wall, was set to start in just a couple of hours. In the meantime, Bush had a galaxy to lullingly explicate—already, a crowd had formed for his signature Friday night show, a freestyled tour of the cosmos—and I was left alone with Steve, Bush’s teenaged summer assistant.

I had come to the Vanderbilt with the vague notion of writing a piece on cultural memory and the waning Boomer nostalgia circuit, but Bush’s demographic breakdown instantly altered my mission. Why would teens choose to spend their Friday night here, at the Vanderbilt, reliving what could very plausibly be at this late date their grandparents’ adolescence?

One teen—impressively bearded, floridly high—had seen The Wall just last week, and was almost alarmingly eager to discuss his Floyd fandom.

“I’m a die-hard Floyd fan,” he said. “I actually want to get a Pink Floyd tattoo!” I pressed him for insight into Pink Floyd’s lasting appeal.

“I don’t want to sound politically incorrect or anything, but…” Here the boy’s voice grew quiet, confiding. I nodded, got ready to grimace. “…it’s great music to get stoned to.” I sighed in relief and, like some kind of narc, asked if he was high at that very moment.

Oh yeah,” he said. “I’ve been trying not to make eye contact with you. I didn’t want you to know.”

I was touched, and also furious, that a random teen would want to conceal his drug use from me. Had he, in his stoned delirium, somehow mistaken me for an adult? To correct this misperception, I told him that I, too, had once gotten high and watched a Pink Floyd laser light show at the Vanderbilt Planetarium.

“You did?” he asked.

I did.

I wasn’t myself a Floyd fan, and pitied my school’s small clutch of revivalists, the kids play-acting their parents’ youth in $30 Zeppelin t-shirts. I liked kazoos, peppy Scandinavian art-pop ensembles, sensitively arranged odes to mid-century Illinois senators—the vanguard of alternative youth culture, circa 2006.

My motives were more complex, or so I flattered myself at the time. Like many Americans raised outside the mainstream of US culture (in my case, as part of the vast insular world of Long Island Orthodox Jewry, with its own schools and gyms and rabbi-sanctioned Chinese restaurants) I grew up fetishizing a notion of secular teenhood gleaned mostly from films which ripped off or paid humble tribute to John Hughes’s homeroom-cosmology.

When my proto-Reddit raving about God’s non-existence got me booted to the local public school, I felt like I’d stepped into a theme park modeled on a favorite fantasy series. There they all were, just like in the movies—nerd-strangling jocks with absent fathers, imperious and unpleasant popular girls, hot-tempered proto-policemen, English teachers with boundary issues, even, incredibly, a large mohawked punk. I wanted to start a food fight, kiss a crush in the snow, brood attractively on a classmate’s suicide. I wanted to revel in suburbia, try every advertised ride, even the Floyd show, rusted as it was even then.

Weed was crucial to this project. Smoking it sent me into deranged tailspins of anxiety and self-doubt and so I smoked it constantly, hoping with sustained practice to break through to the state of slit-eyed hilarity I’d seen on reruns and the faces of better-adjusted friends. This phase of my life came to a kind of end at the Floyd show, most of which I spent ignoring the chintzy laser-shapes above me in favor of the far bleaker images taking shape in my mind—say, the workweek cubicles of the bald nostalgists surrounding us, old show posters scotch-taped to particleboardWithin an hour, the lobby was filling with Floyd fans. Bush had, if anything, drastically undersold this thing’s youth appeal: There were enough teens here to fill a small rural high school, or the cast of a racially problematic CW soap opera. There were white kids of every description: Khaki-shorted meatheads, pimpled nerds with intense stares, even a clutch of neo-hipsters with gauges and dyed hair.

Not a single one of them appeared to be high.

Take the girl standing solo by the vending machines: Anna. Had her father never shown her The Wall, would she have made it through senior year? The first half on the way to school, the second driving back—the album almost perfectly spanned the length of her commute to and from her Catholic girls’ school on the North Shore. Or the young couple by the benches: She a freshman at Berklee who sometimes slips Floyd references into her classwork, he some guy too boring to describe but nonetheless a major Floyd fan. “Today’s modern music is like, dubstep and all that stuff,” he said. “It’s not like, real music. Not many people make music like this anymore.”

The crowd lined up and filed into the theater. A wild-haired giant of a planetarium technician strolled the perimeter pointing out exits, then asked us if we were ready for The Wall. Softly someone yee-hawed, and the lights began to dim.

I am not a professionally trained laser critic. I’m not even a self-taught yet passionate laser blogger. My range of reference, when it comes to laser light shows, is limited to that one other light show I saw, ten years ago, in a state of all-consuming panic and despair. Maybe if I was less of a rube (or had even the slightest interest in the music of Pink Floyd) I’d have noticed all the ways in which the McCullough-less AVI was extending or winkingly commenting on the Pink Floyd laser show tradition. Maybe, watching that green laser-baby tumble through laser-space, I’d have had a series of thoughts along the lines of ‘This is good,’ ‘Cool, baby,’ and ‘The progenitors of punk were too quick to write off the progressive rock of the 1970s—this music is imaginative, complex, and does not make me want to puncture my eardrums with whatever instrument is handy, no matter how sharp or potentially bacteria-ridden that instrument may be.’

But those are not the thoughts I thought, sitting there.

Through the fog—the metaphorical fog of extreme boredom and the literal fog of the Vanderbilt’s brand new, room-filling fog machine—I surveyed my fellow audience members and reflected on reflection, on reflection’s purpose and utility at each stage of the middle-class suburban life-cycle.

The Boomers in the room, and the Xers too, were there for that sound that calls up all the fond associations of teenhood minus the slammed bedroom doors and failed biology finals and endless dull waiting around in parking lots and chain donut shops and half-finished basements. The teens in the audience were there to fetishize that imagined past and (though they weren’t aware of it then) to make some past of their own to fetishize in the future. The children present, the five- and eight-year-olds brought along by their parents, were there because they had no other choice and would probably not remember any of this, unless it all came flooding back to them ten years from now, high like their parents and like their parents’ parents before them, and there to see another moronic, unending Pink Floyd laser light show.

All this sociocultural theorizing, I was sad to learn, had killed only three and a half minutes. I had already resigned myself to the show never ending, to starting a new, diminished life right there in the Vanderbilt, when the show mercifully drew to a close—only to instantly start back up again with renewed intensity for a shameless and totally unwarranted encore. If I had been watching a live act, and not the pre-programmed light-pulses of a complicated slab of machinery manufactured somewhere in Florida (the exertions of which this audience nonetheless felt the need to applaud), I’d have strongly considered some light heckling. After a few more minutes of furious inactivity I was finally allowed to leave, as the lights came on and the audience filed out into the humid, rain-slicked summer night.

All this was nearly a year ago now. At the time I was miserable, I know I was miserable: Exhausted, sweaty, confused about why I’d come to the Vanderbilt at all. But time has once again done its thing. From the vantage of the always-worse-seeming present—all the mistakes and wrong turns of the last ten months laid bare—the memory of that night has already, improbably, begun to glow.

The Most Annoying Couple, Part 2

Fri, 2017-08-11 11:30

Cut Copy, "Standing In The Middle Of The Field"

Fri, 2017-08-11 10:18

Will SoundCloud die? I have no idea, but given the way everything has gone thus far this year I wouldn’t put much money on the chance of one of the few things that is actually good about the Internet surviving. Anyway, here’s something new from Cut Copy. Listen to it now before SoundCloud disappears, which could be as early as the end of the day. Enjoy, it may be the last time.

New York City, August 9, 2017

Thu, 2017-08-10 17:53

★★★★ A little haze floated above the bright and warm morning, to keep expectations from going completely wild. By the middle of the day, though, the facts were in. People lingered against the buildings, working their phones. Bicycles and pedestrians were going in all directions, at all speeds. Grill smoke rose from a trailer parked on a corner by Broadway. A vendor sold mango from a wheeled shopping basket; a mailman in a uniform t-shirt at an ice cream cone on the sidewalk, standing beside his mail cart. The air in the shade of the cross streets was simultaneously warming and bracing. Trumpet vines swung in the wake of a passing U-Haul.

Thick As A Rain of Blows

Thu, 2017-08-10 12:59

A year or so ago there was a spate of explainer articles asking: “is Donald Trump a fascist”? The answers ranged from scholarly equivocations to frenzied rants on the impending Trumpian Third Reich. Even with the work of countless writers, theorists and academics who have studied fascism in minute historical detail, the answers to why these political movements (or specters of them) arise remain unsatisfying. A detailed study of historical documents and key figures will not reveal the reasoning of the individuals involved. “Reason,” in this case, will betray the historian, because fascism itself is a mockery of reason.

One relatively obscure scholar of fascism, in his own extremely unorthodox way, offers a compelling thesis on the persistent question of “why” fascism happens. The German writer and academic Klaus Theweleit, writing in the 1970s, suggests that fascism can be best understood through the fascists own words. He presents his argument as a kind of collage, both in form and content. His text includes hundreds of images, from vulgar Robert Crumb comic strips, to postcards and propaganda posters, to paintings, engravings and murals of nude women from all eras of art history.

The core of his text is rooted in the journals, autobiographies and novels of freikorps members, but he also borrows widely from the culture of the time, expertly using snippets of famous poems and novels from German literature, as well as the work of psychoanalysts like Freud and Wilhelm Reich, to piece together a terrifying picture of the fascist subconscious. What these texts reveal, according to Theweleit, are a kind of bizarre psychosexual politics, rooted in psychological repression, violence and, most importantly, fear of the feminine.

The experience of reading Male Fantasies, Theweleit’s two-volume text on the German, proto-fascist, freikorps militia movement between WWI and WWII, is less like hearing a professor lecture in an auditorium and more like an intimate, drunken night with a friend shouting their disappointments in your ear. First published as a 1000-page thesis at the University of Freiburg in the 1970s and translated into English about a decade later, it is a sprawling exploration of the fascist subconscious.

The central argument is this: fascist men fear women and women’s bodies and wish to destroy them. “Women’s bodies” are metaphorically represented as a kind of enormous, all-encompassing, liquid, sexual power. Femininity is a swamp, a flood, a morass, ready to envelope and drown the hard-bodied exterior shell of the “soldier-male.” This “feminine flood” is translated then to other enemies: communism, Jewishness, the chaos of the outside world and the chaos of our own psychology.

Henri Rousseau’s La guerre, 1894.

The first volume of Male Fantasies sets out to categorize women into two groups as they relate to the freikorps soldier-males.

The first group includes the “Flintenweib,” the rifle-wielding, castrating woman, whose gun-slinging (and all the Freudian phallic associations that come with said gun-slinging) poses a physical and psychic threat to the soldier-males. Also in this category are “red nurses,” women whose proximity to the battlefield, proletarian class background, unmarried status and willingness to work alongside men, represents a kind of errant feminine power.

In the second category, were “good women” or “white nurses.” These women are the “pure mother figures” and “sisters” who, because of their upper-class background, commitment to home and country, sexlessness and vulnerability, are uniquely “above any suspicion of whoring.”

This flattening and bifurcation of femininity into “good” and “evil,” “threatening” and “nonthreatening,” “red” and “white,” can also be seen in the case of the most prominent Flintenweib of our time, Hillary Clinton. Though she attempts to present herself as a “white nurse,” and indeed, wore all-white outfits during her most high profile political moments over the past election year (while accepting the democratic nomination, on the third and final presidential debate, and later, during Trump’s inauguration ceremony) she was unable to sway public reaction in her favor.

Her detractors remained repulsed by her “masculine” qualities and her “feminine” failures: her ability to achieve power and wealth, and her inability to keep her husband happy. Clinton’s sexual inadequacies are frequently referenced in the t-shirts and bumper stickers seen at Trump rallies, with slogans like “Even Bill Doesn’t Want Hillary” and “Hillary Sucks. But Not Like Monica.” In April of 2015 Trump retweeted an anti-Hillary slogan that read: “If Hillary can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?”

For Theweleit, the origins of this fear and disgust of women are also rooted in the natural world. Women’s overwhelmingly alluring destructive ability is represented in the form of bodies of water: “the enticing (or perilous) deep.” In the natural world, women are a disembodied and inhuman force, and the ocean is therefore, by extension, “the irreproachable, inexhaustible, anonymous superwhore, across whom we ourselves become anonymous and limitless, drifting along without egos.”

Alfred Böcklin’s Die Frieheit, 1891.

Similarly, history itself is presented as a flood, where masses of faceless crowds and shabby armies threaten the soldier-male with destruction. “Blood, blood, blood must flow/Thick as a rain of blows” goes one “favorite song of the fascists,” with the singer adding a phrase at the end of each verse to specify the enemy of the moment: “to hell with the freedom of the Soviet republic” or “to hell with the freedom of the Jewish republic.”

According to Theweleit, bodily excretions of all kinds, the “floods, morasses, mire, slime and pulp,” represent an unmatchable psychological power against the soldier-male, both pleasurable and unbearable. The feminine body, where the soldier male originated, is the ultimate site of horror.

Trump is a man obsessed with the horrors of women’s bodies. He has publicly called attention to the “blood” and “bleeding” of two prominent female journalists, Megyn Kelly and Mika Brzezinski. In response to Hillary Clinton arriving late to her podium during a commercial break, Trump suggested she had been using the washroom, stating: “I know where she went, it’s disgusting, I don’t want to talk about it.” What women’s bodies do is, to Trump, unspeakable. Their genitals are, like some distant landscape, located “wherever.”

The most salacious rumors surrounding Trump, involving the so-called “golden showers” videotape, seem plausible precisely because they fit into his obsession with feminine liquidity. The flip side of the fascist preoccupation with sexuality was their insistence on order, cleanliness and hygiene. In an oblique response to the “golden showers” allegations Trump proclaimed, in true fascistic form, that he was “very much a germophobe.”

Theweleit describes the military academy, an environment where the cadet learns to become hardened to external pain and is expected to exercise authority over his inferiors and accept wholly the dominance of his superiors. He argues that most men are stuck at a pre-Oedipal stage of development, still unable to reject “the mother” and fully individuate themselves. The periphery of the body remains unformed and undeveloped in these “not-yet-fully born” males, making them vulnerable to external stimulation and attack.

The soldier-male fears both its interior self –ego-less, without a sense of the “I,”– as well as its boundless exterior. On the battlefield, the soldier-male is allowed to experience the flow of desire that he so greatly fears. In this sense, Theweleit writes, “only in the act of killing or dying—penetration or explosion—can he burst his boundaries; this rule is never broken. There must be a rush of blood, either within him, or out of the other.”

Clinton herself can be seen as representing the uncontrollable, repulsive flood implied in the slogan “drain the swamp.” The fascistic impulse is to contain the flood, to “lock her up” in the steel cage of a prison cell. The most quotable highlights of the Trump camp, “grab ‘em by the pussy” included, offer perfect Theweltian summations of our current political times. The urge has remained the same, just under a century later, to contain, control, and humiliate women.

Male Fantasies leaves the reader with a warning. Our psychological needs have not changed even as historical events around us have. We still have the same desire to find freedom from ourselves, to escape from and destroy the things we fear, and to flock to those who promise us safety. In the final section of the text, Theweleit insists that “only in the most minimal sense can fascism be seen as a problem of economic development towards the end of the twenties.”

He notes: “The men they [the Nazis] addressed were the not-yet-fully-born, men who had always been left wanting; and where was the party that would offer them more? […] The word they repeatedly scream at the party congress is ‘whole’—heil, heil, heil, heil, heil—and this is precisely what the party makes them. They are no longer broken; and they will remain whole into infinity.”

Hubert Lanzinger’s Der Bannerträger (The Standard Bearer). Oil on wood, ca. 1934–36.

Male Fantasies reminds us that war has “bodily significance” that transcends the everyday political-economic system. The promise of fascism is no less than the promise of world-historical greatness, of brutal ecstasy, domination over your enemies, and the gory catharsis of the “bloody mass.” Theweleit pushes us to realize that these are desires that could lie just below the surface of any society.

Today, we remain obsessed with bodies, our own and those of others. There exist several multi-billion dollar industries dedicated to the monitoring and control of women’s bodies (the celebrity gossip industry, the weight loss industry, the cosmetic surgery industry etc.). Meanwhile, we ignore the inevitable decay of our own bodies: their clumsiness, inelegance, their foul smells, and degrading spasms.

Fascism promises transcendence from our small ugly lives, and envisions a brighter future. It promises freedom from the wretchedness of living in the world and in a body.

This is why Theweleit urges us to take seriously what may at first appear ridiculous to us. The strange language of fascism is a “language of expression” brought on by extremely common psychic wounds.  He writes, “No man is forced to turn political fascist for reasons of economic devaluation or degradation. His fascism develops much earlier, from his feelings; he is a fascist from the inside.”

In other words, political issues are first and foremost rooted in psychological motivations. There is no “rational” world to escape to when the call of battle tempts frustrated men. There is no escaping ourselves.

Drops of blood from BL Eg 1821, ff. 1v-2. The British Library. Public Domain.

How To Have A Big Crush On The Violin

Thu, 2017-08-10 12:05

Every week, I struggle not to write about friend of the column Camille Saint-Saëns. I’m not quite sure why! He’s by no means my favorite composer, but his work has always had an odd staying power for me. Perhaps it’s because in my years as a musician, I found myself playing his work the most. It never made much sense to me at the time: shouldn’t students of classical music be concerning themselves with Beethoven and Mozart and Tchaikovsky around Christmastime? But no, time and time again, I found ol’ C-C S-S’s name plopped down onto my music stand.

I get it now (mainly because I’m old): Saint-Saëns’ music is the classical (or, well, Romantic, but still) music you give to someone who doesn’t know whether or not they like classical music. No doubt there’s value in so many composers, but for the truly uninitiated, Saint-Saëns’ music is capable of bringing such light and color that it becomes impossible to turn away. And in light of writing last week about the piece that made me fall in love with the cello, here’s the piece that made me fall in love with the violin: Introduction et Rondo capriccioso (Itzhak Perlman, 2012).

As a percussionist, it’s easy (or so I found) to grow to resent instruments like the violin (or the trumpet, or the flute). These are showier instruments with more notes, more to say. They get all the good parts! They get to wear big long dresses (if said soloist is a woman). They get to hold their instrument in a delicate case versus a pack of mallets and a timpani that’s impossible to pick up without someone helping you. So rarely are they forced to rest for minutes on end waiting to play on big note then sink back into the shadows. But that’s the price you pay when you play an instrument that requires a giant mallet. Same, of course, goes for big solo pieces like the Introduction et Rondo capriccioso. And yet I’ve never not been totally won over by this piece, whether it’s Perlman playing it or the concertmaster of my high school orchestra or some extremely gifted 12-year-old in a youth symphony I once subbed in for.

Let’s first break down the language of the title. We know what “introduction” means because, um, of course we do. “Et” is French for “and.” Again: duh. Past columns have established a rondo as a bit of a round or a dance. And capriccioso suggests it’ll be a little free of form, which especially makes sense in terms of this being the Romantic era. No longer do we hear the precise violin solos that often sound like a beautiful algebra problem. When the violin enters a few seconds into Introduction et Rondo capriccioso, there’s a desperate longing to it, clawing over the hum of the orchestra. But that’s not the type of piece this is. It quickly sets off on a wild and evocative ride just at the 0:53 mark, speeding up and then quickly returning to its initial melody. The prologue of the piece comes to a close at the 1:38 mark, and violin takes on a sharper and more wry personality.

Saint-Saëns wrote this piece for the Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate, who requested the composer write him something “fresh and young as spring itself.” The two men were nine years apart and maybe a little horny for each other? Who am I to say, really. Any music is crush music when you really think about it. What an instruction, though, that I feel truly guides the tone of the piece. It’s almost as if Saint-Saëns is reinventing the violin with this piece of music. He’s composed what’s more or less an aria for it. It exposes such dazzling depth within the instrument and allows the violinist to show off a little all they can do. At once it’s both sweet and a little dangerous, wilting and commanding.

And we must discuss––it’s my column, not yours, so we must––the part in which the violinist plays double chords. It happens occasionally throughout the piece, and while it certainly wasn’t a new technique, it packs such power into this piece of music. Let’s hone in on the part around the 3:00 mark. The soloist plays a short dance––a call and response––with the orchestra, before sprinting upwards and landing back down on two strings. It’s as if the soloist is fighting for dominance with him- or herself––commandeering not one but two notes at the same time. But then, after the orchestra takes on the melody for a few seconds, the violin returns around the 3:44 mark and re-establishes the melody as something much more coy and coquettish. When the double chords return again around the 4:38 mark, there’s an undeniable romanticism to it. Here’s a part that requires its soloist to play with themselves, a duet all of one’s own.

I really don’t know how anyone could listen to Saint-Saëns and not immediately want to listen to everything else he’s ever done. In the final moments of the Introduction et Rondo capriccioso I feel so fully amped and ready to click play on just about any other piece within his repertoire. The violin is just trucking along as the woodwinds build up to the orchestra’s climax and it is such a gesture of a power and force. The double chords, even, make one final triumphant return in the end, shadowed by a long timpani roll (that’d be me, of course, waiting an entire piece for that mere part). But something you learn in years of playing an instrument is that it’s not, of course, all about you, because it’s always—literally always—about the violin.


You can find a corresponding playlist for all of the pieces discussed in this column here.

Image: Shinichi Kouroki via Flickr

A Poem by Alane Lim

Thu, 2017-08-10 10:30

After the Fall

In summer, the mushrooms and moss
dusted the forest floor in colors
from white to oxblood violet,
singles and clusters
that blossom among the bric-a-brac
here and there with no order to them,
as when gardeners averse
to arrangement toss the seeds
of rose and larkspur towards nowhere,
towards everywhere à la joie de vivre.

You characterized the forest like this,
like the world was streams of magic and ether.
I was skeptical, listening half intently unless it was wintertime;
hot chocolate and cold worked wonders.

It makes sense now, I think. It is autumn.
Here, beloved, I held you last
during that interregnum of warmed seasons,
when cool rains falsified the first fallings of late December.
The ground is paved with leaves, fog, and the fantastical
and I think of the stories I have forgotten already,
as though I ever knew them.

The seasons are no longer strange to me,
though the fall is more wintry than usual.
It is too cold, too cold for my visit.
I will wander the old ways for the last time,
spread a few leaves about as I exit
to create the myths anew again
in an array of orange, yellow, black, and brown.


Alane Lim is a materials science graduate student at Northwestern University, and a published science and satire writer. She has previously taken poetry classes at Johns Hopkins University. You can follow her on Twitter @thisisalane.

The Poetry Section is edited by Mark Bibbins.

Ryuichi Sakamoto, "Andata" (Electric Youth Remix)

Thu, 2017-08-10 09:46

If you were surprised to learn that it’s actually Thursday today I wouldn’t blame you: This week—all weeks now—has already gone on so long that it’s a fool’s errand to keep track. All you can do is have faith that eventually it will come to an end, either because of simple chronology or the nuclear holocaust they keep promising. In any event, here is some music for the morning. Play it about 7000 times and it should get you to noon. Enjoy.

New York City, August 8, 2017

Wed, 2017-08-09 18:00

★★★★ Work backwards from the moment the sinking sun above the roofline of the apartment block merged with the reflection of the reflection of the sinking sun in the windows below it: the day was beautiful yet somehow out of joint. From a desk, near the workday’s end, it had seemed as if the daylight were palpably slipping off toward autumn and darkness; what was left after the commute, though, was still long and bright, till the clouds and the buildings blushed pink together. The sky was clear and simple only after it had been layered with clouds in complex profusion, the highest layer sliding by slowly and a little dizzyingly. People were out on Broadway in the no-traffic lanes, slumped at the tables there. A scaffold was coming down and the sun inside its frame hurt the eyelids. The more the humid morning breeze gusted, the softer and easier it felt.