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Winter to Spring

Mon, 2017-03-20 11:17
The changing of the seasons, illustrated

The crows make cut-paper silhouettes in the snow.

Winter stalled. We kept undercover. We didn’t believe the news. The trees threw sticks while the kids built schools of blocks and taught plastic smiley faces to read. The sky was the color of paper.

At the edge of the solar system Pluto sends a cold-hearted Valentine.

The storm came and set up a thick crust of snow no good for forts or footprints. The shrews and mice tunneled beneath and occasionally ran across the road. I saw one in the evening and thought it was a dry leaf until the car lights picked up the shine in its eyes. Midwinter dirt and frost stuck to boots and coats, socks and gloves, hats and hands.

The houseplant delivers small bouquets of red.

Moment by moment the light returns. Underground the roots are waking up and neighbors tap the maples for sap. Gallons of sap boil down to a few cups of syrup. It is a long process. There will be a slow burst of new color soon. The trees offer bits of crimson out the tips of their branches. The houseplant extends its red messengers.

The daffodils turn their star faces up to the sky.

Yellow arrives first in small bundles — the crocuses then the daffodils rise up to open bright blooms. Graylight shifts to yellow, to green, to pink. On this we can count. Spring is in the air.

Spring Is In The Air!

(Previously: Fall to Winter)

Amy Jean Porter is an artist who lives in Connecticut.

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

Chuck and Jimmy

Mon, 2017-03-20 10:45
And now they’re dead.Photo: Missouri History Museum

As a certain kind of America passes away so that a meaner, uglier one can be born it is still something of a surprise when the remnants of the earlier era shuffle off, if only because it reminds us that they walked the same earth as we did (and are lucky to get off of it before the real horror comes down). There’s plenty to read about the passing of Chuck Berry and Jimmy Breslin if you are so interested — and you should be: We’re busy murdering the word “iconic” by applying it to anything that has lasted longer than ten minutes, but these are two actual icons, legends who spawned legions of imitators, men whose innovations were so profound that it is impossible to notice their influence in the world anymore because even those they influenced have themselves inspired imitation —but here are a couple of places to start.

These Times obits (Berry, Breslin) are also worth a read, and here are collections (Berry, Breslin) of their greatest hits.

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

Skipping Ourselves To Death

Mon, 2017-03-20 10:19
Apologies to Rod Serling

[We dissolve to a shot looking toward a metal spacecraft, which sits shrouded in darkness. An open door throws out a beam of light from the illuminated interior. Two figures silhouetted against the bright lights appear. We get only a vague feeling of form, but nothing more explicit than that.]

FIGURE TWO: So they were the most advanced civilization in the history of their planet, but now they’re all gone?

FIGURE ONE: Yes. If they had avoided some of the obvious mistakes, they could have ruled the universe, but success always contains within it the seeds of its own destruction.

FIGURE TWO: What happened?

FIGURE ONE: Well, the usual issues that complicate things for a species of this sort… avarice, jealousy, a lack of foresight… They told themselves they were living in a meritocracy, when really the richest amongst them had grabbed control of their political system and convinced many of them to go against their own interests through misguided tribalism and irrational fear. Meanwhile, they engaged in a sustained campaign of planetary destruction even way past the point when it had become clear that the damage they were doing was unsustainable.

FIGURE TWO: Interesting. And they weren’t able to save themselves through technological innovation?

FIGURE ONE: Technological innovation, ironically, is what brought the whole thing down. The rich can only keep their boots on the neck of the poor for so long. Revolutions happen and then society’s wealth is reallocated, for a brief time at least. The bad blood is washed away and a new order exerts itself. They could have survived it. The pillaging of their planet was nearly beyond repair, but they would have eventually come up with some sort of scientific solution, even if it had to be imposed on them after an emergency. This was not a race whose extinction was inevitable by any means.

FIGURE TWO: So… why couldn’t they work together to solve it? Surely they saw what was happening. They had mastered the atom, after all. What made the whole thing fall apart?

FIGURE ONE: Instead of focusing on making their world more equal for everyone or fixing their environmental issues, their best minds came together to ensure that they were no longer subjected to the tyranny of passively enduring sixty seconds or less of theme music while they sat on their couches and had televised content streamed at them hour after hour, hour after hour until they wasted away. Hour after hour… hour after hour… hour after hour…

[The camera slowly moves up for a shot of the starry sky, and over this we hear the Narrator’s voice.]

NARRATOR: The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply [SKIP OUTRO]

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

Christopher Willits, “Clear” (Boreta Remix)

Mon, 2017-03-20 09:27
Winter is over, in a strictly technical sensePhoto: Mariano Mantel

It’s spring. Nothing will get better — in fact, it’s all going to get a lot worse — but at least the birds will be chirping and the weather will warm up. So there’s that. And here’s this, which is pretty enjoyable. Enjoy! It’s spring.

https://medium.com/media/24f2bab051fa50fa8159d4546f490d8b/href

Christopher Willits, “Clear” (Boreta Remix) was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

New York City, March 16, 2017

Fri, 2017-03-17 15:45

★★★ The schoolyard was still icebound and the sidewalk snowbanks, yellow-stained, pressed in on the streams of parents and children coming from opposite directions toward two different doorways. A pair of wide-axled strollers locked up at cross purposes in the turbulent flow. Trembling rivulets of meltwater covered the glass side of the Apple Store. A man pointed a cameraphone at the building from across the street as the roof kept shedding ice. One flat chunk came flying and flipping down to land with a light crunch outside the protective rope. Out on Broadway, something fell heavily on a totally unprotected patch of pavement by the corner of the furniture store. The sun was warm and the air was not. Cleared snow lay in thick broken slabs. A canopy stood swaybacked with its unshed burden. At rush hour, some of the puddles were all liquid water, free of slush. The halal cart, missing at dinnertime the night before, had found a place to park.

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

The Wheel And The Knife

Fri, 2017-03-17 12:59
The ecstatic and drastic rituals of Russia’s radical Christian sects.Khlyst ‘radenie’ or “circle dance.” Wikimedia Commons

Whether at home or on the road, a true servant of God must always be alert to the snares of the devil. The year is 1717. The Russian Orthodox monk Antonii is on holy pilgrimage. Weary from his journey, he stops in a home for wayfaring strangers outside the town of Uglich, north of Moscow. There he meets two widows, Kapetolina and Avdotiia. From their conversation he realizes that they must be heretics. He pretends to be a fellow schismatic, and begs to meet their teacher. They refuse — it is forbidden — but they promise to ask his permission in the future. Antonii thanks them for their consideration. The next day he denounces the two old ladies to his superior, the archimandrite.

An investigation begins; arrests are made. Gradually, the truth emerges: the women belong to a sect, which has long met in secret. Its leader is a former soldier who says he is Christ. Its members include a farm worker, a cloth-seller, a merchant of butter. They do not drink or marry. They say they do not fornicate. Instead, they meet at night in secluded houses, sing hymns and dance to exhaustion.

The 1717 investigation marks the entry into official history of a group that called itself God’s People, but which was widely known as the Khlysts. In their rituals and beliefs, the Khlysts tried to solve an old puzzle: How to live in a world without God, where holiness is missing and even his prophets are silent or far away? Their answer was to pursue ecstasy, everywhere, even at pain of death. In time, the Khlysts gave rise to a rival, or offshoot sect with very different ideas. These were the Skopts, and they believed that the way to holiness lay in extreme renunciation: not just of sex, but of the very organs that mark sexual difference. Now, their practices might seem grotesque or obscene. But they carry a lesson, of how hard it is to square belief with life and how much we might need to give up if we want to make life paradise.

This was the question posed by two Christian sects, the Khlysts and the Skopts, which operated in Russia several centuries before the revolution of 1917. Both were heretical offshoots of the Orthodox Church. One was accused of leading its followers deep into the woods of sexual profligacy. The other publicly urged its members to engage in self-castration. Both were frequently persecuted by the state, and widely despised by the people.

The story of the Khlysts begins in the 17th century, in the province of Kostroma, with a peasant (and perhaps, a runaway soldier) named Danila Filippovich. Unusually for the time, Danila could read and write, and he knew Scripture. He travelled across Russia and preached. One day in 1645, on a hill in village of Gorodina in the Province of Vladimir, the godhead descended upon Danila in his fiery cart, trailed by angels and seraphim. Henceforth, he regarded himself the Living God. He issued commandments like Moses on Mt. Sinai. He announced that there was no teaching but his. From now on, the only book that mattered was the “dove-like” book written in the heart by the Holy Spirit. To prove his point, he took all the books he owned, put them in a sack, and threw them in the Volga River.

After fifteen years of wandering, Danila came across a spiritual son in the manner of St. Paul. His name was Ivan Suslov. According to legend, his parents were both a hundred years old when he was born, and they were so poor they used a broken pig trough for a cradle. When Suslov was thirty-three, he met Danila, who named him his Jesus Christ. He worked miracles. Twice he was crucified, and twice he rose from the dead. The second time he was also flayed, on the order of the czar. When returned to earth a young girl covered him in a sheet which stuck fast and became a second skin. He levitated, and he flew. With Danila, he visited heaven three nights in a row. He was buried in the village of Kriushino in the province of Kostroma.

A family of Khlysts, early 20th century, from the University of Alberta Library

Suslov and Filippovich gathered many followers. After their deaths (or, ascensions) those followers recruited followers of their own. They called themselves the Christs, or Khristy. Outsiders, noticing their habit of flagellating themselves, nicknamed them the Whips, or, in Russian, Khlysty. The Khlysts believed that Jesus was born like any other man. He was no different from other men until the age of thirty, when the Holy Spirit anointed him and made him God’s son. And if the Holy Spirit could enter one man, it could enter others as well, even women. It stood to reason then that there could be many Christs, and many Mothers of God. The Khlysts’ aim was to bridge the world of the supernatural and the present, to merge divine time with our own, but hardly any of them would admit to it in public.

The great Russian folklorist Andrei Sinyavsky has called the Khlysts the most interesting, as well as the most impenetrable, sect in Russian history. This is because the Khlysts kept the true nature of their beliefs hidden from the profane. Novices, upon being accepted into the sect after long trials, had to take a special oath: “I vow to keep secret all that I shall see and hear at meetings, never sparing myself, never fearing the knout, the stake, the sword or any other torment!”

The Khlysts believed that lying was a sin, but only when the lie was committed before God. To conceal themselves from persecution, they became masters of dissembling. When missionaries denounced the Khlysts to their face, they acted horrified that anyone could believe such horrible untruths. When priests asked, “Have you sinned?” the Khlysts would reply: “I am guilty before you. Father.” When the priests gave them wine to drink at Mass they would keep it in their mouths and wait until the service was over to spit it out.

The Khlysts called their communities “ships” or korabl’ because they felt themselves to be abandoned on the sea of the profane world. Each ship had a helmsman. If it was a man, he was called their “Christ.” If the community was run by a woman, she was known as the “Virgin.” They abjured onions and garlic, for they were thought to mask the odor of sanctity which they detected in one another. They avoided meat, because it was the product of copulation. And they avoided the potato, believing it to be the true shape of the fruit with which Eve tempted Adam.

For all its prohibitions, the core of the Khlysts’ religious practice was about a conscious pursuit of ecstasy. They called their main rites radenie, a word that means zeal, but also connotes fervor, and joy. Radenie were typically conducted at night, in a cottage far removed from neighbors. Here, the Khlysts sought God in dance. In ones or twos, they spun like dervishes, twirling until the candles in the hut blew out and they collapsed exhausted, drenched in sweat. Sometimes they would gather together in larger numbers for ‘ship,’ or ‘round,’ dance in a ring around a vat of water. As they danced, the Khlysts spun in a circle and flagellated themselves. Suddenly, a whirl would appear in the water, a sign that the Holy Spirit had appeared. Sometimes the water would boil and bubble, and the baby Jesus would appear in the steam. Then the Khlysts would take the water home and consume it, getting “drunk” on what they called “spiritual beer.”

Music was a mainstay of Khlyst worship. They had a gift for composing hymns. According to a Khlyst saying, “A song (pesenka) is a ladder (lesenka) to God.” Their music was strange and haunting. It had something in common with the music of American Shakers and shape-note singers. Frederick Cornwallis Conybeare, an English scholar of religion, wrote of once seeing a group of them in procession on the solitary plains between Yerevan and Mt. Ararat. He called it “the most stirring devotional music I have ever listened to, adding “No one who has encountered them will forget their deep-set intensely gleaming eyes, their spare emaciated frames, their reposeful manner. They seem to have dropped out of another world into this one.”

In this world though, the Khlysts were treated with constant hostility and suspicion. Their night-time rituals gave rise to many unsavory rumors. It was thought that they engaged in group marriage, and that their radenie ended in orgies. Numerous police searches and raids failed to turn up anything salacious. But the Khlysts varied — every ship was governed by its own Christ, and each Christ obeyed the will of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes this meant that their worship veered off even further from the mainstream.

In Ivan the Fool, Sinyavsky relates how in the mid-19th century, “a 29-year-old ‘Christ’ by the name of Vasily Radaev confessed that he had slept with all of his female followers.” During an interrogation he explained, “I copulated with them all, but I did not allow others to, I copulated with them not of my own free will, but by the will of the Holy Spirit.”Radaev seems to have stumbled upon the old antinomian principle that the only way to fight sin is with sin. The Skopts, an offshoot of the Khlysts, came to the exact opposite conclusion. They made the suppression of sexuality the absolute center of their belief, and they pursued this goal by means that have inspired lasting revulsion, as well as misunderstanding.

The origins of the Skopt sect are unclear, but they seem to have been an offshoot of the Khlysts, from whom they borrowed the practices of the radenie and the round dance. To this they added the radical principle of castration. The Skopts (their name means ‘the Castrated Ones’) believed that in Paradise, the first people created by God were without sex. Breasts and genitals were only added to the human form after the Fall. They were thus literal fruits of Satan, deformities, and as such, had to be cut off.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Like the Khlysts, the Skopts practiced their faith in secret. Their symbol was the dove, their patron was St. George, and their instrument was the knife. They called castration “mounting the white horse” or “receiving the great seal.” There were greater and lesser seals. To have one’s nipples and testicles excised meant becoming an angel. Losing the breasts and penis as well made one an archangel.

Before accepting castration, a Skopt prepared for death by saying farewell: “Farewell sky, farewell earth, farewell sun, farewell moon, farewell lakes, rivers and mountains, farewell all earthly elements.” If they survived the procedure, which was conducted without anesthesia, they would find themselves reborn in a heavenly body.

The Skopts’ first recognized prophet was a man named Kondratii Selivanov. He was a peasant, born sometime around 1732 in the province of Orel. In his youth, he belonged to a Khlyst ship headed by a Virgin Mother named Akulina. A prophetess named Anna recognized the young beggar as the true son of God. Selivanov began preaching, but he had trouble persuading Akulina’s congregation to accept castration. So, in his words, he “set out across the damp earth,” showing everyone purity. In time, he acquired one disciple, then many.

Kondratii Selivanov, the Skopt prophet (engraving, 1845)

Eventually, he had so many that the authorities became alarmed. Selivanov’s disciples were exiled to Riga. He was imprisoned in Irkutsk. There, he began to preach that Akulina had actually been the Empress Elizabeth, in disguise, and that he was her son, the Tsar Peter III, escaped from the grave. This was treason, and it earned him the knout.

But then, a reversal of fortune: Peter III’s son, Paul ascended to the throne. He revered his father. He even crowned his skeleton before crowning himself. Then he summoned the Siberian stranger who claimed to be his father to St. Petersburg for an audience. It is unknown what they discussed in their meeting. According to one rumor, Paul asked Selivanov if he was his father. Selivanov replied that if Paul would take up his cause (castrate himself), he would become his spiritual son.

The Emperor did not castrate himself. Instead, he had Selivanov confined to an asylum. But soon the Emperor was dead, and a new Tsar — Alexander — was on the throne. Alexander freed Selivanov from prison. He went to live with some wealthy merchants who followed his faith. One of Alexander’s ministers, a chamberlain named Alexei Elyansky, took a special liking to him. He conceived of a plan to turn all of Russia into a single Skopt ship. State prophets would direct every branch of government. Elyansky and twelve other castrated holy men would command the army. The Tsar would be advised at all times by Selivanov himself. Special prophets would serve on battleships, “so as to offer the captain advice with the voice of heaven before going into battle.”

The tsar rejected Elyansky’s scheme, and had him confined to a monastery. In 1805 though, Alexander visited Selivanov before leaving for his first campaign against Napoleon. Afterward, persecution of the Skopts largely ceased; they were warned not to engage in any more castrations, and not otherwise harmed.

A family of Skopts in Yakutia, early 20th century

Selivanov died in 1832. For decades, his followers refused to accept that he was dead, awaiting his return. Despite their inability to procreate, their numbers continued to increase. At their height in the late 19th century, they may have had as many as 100,000 followers. They became known for their probity, frugality, and devotion to hard work. Some managed farms. Others lent money, but never to other members of their faith. Many grew rich. They lived as model citizens — honest, respectful, and careful not to draw too much attention.

Still, they were persecuted by the government, church, and society. Some were exiled to Siberia. Others fled to Romania, where they dominated the horse-cab business. In Russia, they were tried in the courts, courted by missionaries, studied by ethnographers and denounced by the bishops. Though they inspired disgust in many, they also elicited a curious fascination. The most sympathetic treatment of the Skopts came from members of the revolutionary left.

A Skopt icon of the lambs of God (1845)

The radical opposition had long felt a kinship with the Skopts and other schismatics. Heresy was the Russian way of revolt, the thinking went; breaking with orthodoxy was the first step in breaking with the Tsar. Populists, nihilists and socialists all sent representatives to the different sects. One of the most perceptive students of the Skopts, was the Bolshevik Vladimir Bonch-Bruyevich. He went on to become Lenin’s personal secretary and helped set the Red Terror in motion. Later still, he helped organized a museum of atheism in Moscow where a display on the Skopts featured as a central exhibit.

They make a strange pair: the hardened Bolshevik, using terror to usher in modernity, and the archaic-seeming sect mutilating their bodies to remove the taint of original sin. In their own way, the Skopts had embarked on a social experiment no less radical than that of the revolutionaries. In pursuing castration, they removed the great stumbling block to utopia: desire. After all, what makes us more selfish than love? The Skopts redirected the passion reserved for children and lovers to the community as a whole — they lived in communes, not families, and held property in common. Their kin were determined by belief, not blood.

In other places and times, this would be known as communism. Across the centuries, the Khlysts and Skopts ask, is it better to live for joy or purpose? Dance, make love, get drunk on the joy of the body say the Khlysts, to the sound of whips. Mortify the flesh, punish the body, and be free, say the Skopts, to the sound of bells.

The Wheel And The Knife 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, 2017-03-17 12:27
New York Public Library’s Rose Reading Room, South HallIllustration by Forsyth Harmon

I’d been resolved not to fall into another of those situations with neighborhood baristas, those relationships of daily small talk and incremental intimacy, where before you know it, it’s plain too late to ask their name. So months back — maybe even a year ago? — I’d introduced myself to you. I’d tried to remember, I’d repeated it to myself, but yours was an unusual name and — I’m sorry — by the next day it had escaped me. A “k” in it, somewhere? That’s all I’ve got. I have a weird name too. Yours, however, did not have the retentive advantage of being shared by a character in a global cultural phenomenon.

Here was the thing that made seeing you a suckerpunch: today, earlier this afternoon, walking through the subway, you’d appeared quite firmly and clearly in my head. You, a person I barely knew and hadn’t seen or thought about in a year! I’d felt a surprise at the thought of you, a what are you doing here? So I didn’t believe it, when, an hour or so after this, I looked up in the South Hall of the Rose Reading Room of the New York Public Library and there, a few tables over, was someone who looked exactly like you. I stared so hard that I felt the person opposite me — an elderly man peering down his spectacles at a laptop which bore a union jack sticker — cast a reproving glance. Like, stop gawping young lady and get to work. I kept gawping. They looked exactly like you because, yes, they were definitely you.

You had the same butch haircut I remembered. Red flannel shirt. You were hunched over a textbook with a yellow highlighter in hand and I wondered what you were studying to become or what you already were, other than the person that had made me a soy matcha latte most mornings for a period of five or six months. We’d shared a little history, minor dramas, all of which had been intensified by me being the only one in the place between the hours of 8am and 11. Which, of course, I now realize, is probably why it shut down.

There’d been the guy on the bike, do you remember him? It was a morning after snow, the roads slushy with it, and I’d looked up out the window and watched him fold right off his bike into the tarmac. And just lie there, on his side, like a bug. You and I had met eyes in surprise, slight horror, then both rushed outside. We’d helped him up, got his bike locked up, called his work, got him in a cab to a medical clinic and the whole time he’d barely said anything, stunned with shock or pain. His bike stayed there, locked up outside, for weeks, causing me to fret each time I saw it. There was him. And then there was that guy who’d peevishly swiped a napkin one summer morning, remember him? You’d yelled at him fruitlessly as he made off with it down the street, sauntering. It was the first time I’d seen seen the waving of white fabric as an antagonistic gesture.

Now, I wanted you to look up and see me, but also not, because there would be unavoidable and false romance in the moment. I thought of that scientific study that claimed that if a pair of strangers did a certain sequence of things, culminating in them staring into each other’s eyes for four minutes, they would, apparently, fall in love. I felt that if you, two desks away, were to raise your gaze and meet my eyes under the pink-flushed clouds of these ancient high ceilings, it would almost as excruciating as staring into a stranger’s eyes for two hundred and forty seconds. Because if you looked up, you’d recognize me, probably, and you’d see me writing and the excruciating thing would be you not knowing that I was writing this, about you.

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.

Awlcast Episode Nine: Handwashing

Fri, 2017-03-17 12:26
Talking hygiene with Lindsay Robertson.Image: UGA College of Ag & Environmental Science

How many times per day do you wash your hands? Do you wash your hands after riding the subway? When you’re on the subway, do you touch the pole? Do you cover your mouth when you sneeze, using the crook of your arm rather than your dirty hands? How often do you sanitize your phone? Do you carry Purell with you? Do you wash your hands after you shake hands with new people? Are you self-conscious about how much you wash your hands? Are you using non-antibacterial soap? When was the last time you got sick? Do you know how contagious norovirus is? Do you take probiotics? We discuss and overthink all these questions and more on this week’s episode of the Awlcast, with our special guest, “a person whose hands are almost always clean.”

https://medium.com/media/6342a8bec2f09c0e2e09d9db34c75f65/href

Awlcast Episode Nine: Handwashing was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Eight Weeks Later

Fri, 2017-03-17 12:13
A reflection in versePhoto: Tricia

Every week that passes makes it easier to forget
That once there was a time you weren’t always this upset
You’re not yet at the point where all your anguish comes pre-reckoned
But still, when awful news drips out at every single second
It feels almost ambient, like water or the air
You can’t recall an age when all the terror wasn’t there
It’s only human nature that eventually you’ll settle
And not spend half your life in demonstrations of your mettle
It’s hard to wake each morning when the world must be resisted
You get exhausted trying to be the woman who persisted
You need to take a rest, and if you don’t you’re going to drown
And that’s too bad, ’cause now’s when all the real shit comes down

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

Banish The Shakes

Fri, 2017-03-17 12:05
Paul Ryan’s Cheat Day: Shamrock EditionImage: Maria J Aleman

Everclear’s “Father of Mine” sputtered out of Paul Ryan’s car radio. The aux cord must not be jammed into the socket tightly enough, Paul Ryan thought. Even though he knew every word by heart, the skips distracted him. It was a perfectly good first-generation iPod, so some dirt from his pocket or his bag must’ve accumulated inside the headphone jack again. He visualized himself entering his office, bending a paperclip to clear the lint from his mp3 player, and he felt strong.

His phone chimed. Representative Kevin McCarthy bragging that he Facetimed with Trump. Trump wants to know what a health savings accounts is. Can you send him one of your Powerpoints? Do you have a Powerpoint about health savings accounts, thinking person emoji, sarcastic face emoji?

He twitched and pressed on the gas.

Why would Congressman McCarthy text him that? Didn’t he know Trump messages him daily? Didn’t he know that Trump doesn’t actually care what a health savings account is? No one fucking cares what a health savings account is. They’re a fiction, a metaphor for no socialized medicine. No shared responsibility. There’s no such thing as society. Just individuals and families.

Fuming, Paul Ryan U-turned into a McDonald’s parking lot. When he woke up that morning he wasn’t planning on it being a cheat day, he even puked in his mouth during suicides at boot camp, which usually means it will be a good day. But the iPod skipping, this text, repealing and replacing Obamacare, it was all unraveling him.

“Fuck you,” he said to himself. “It’s St. Patrick’s Day.” A Shamrock Shake could reset this day, this week, this 115th Congress.

The drive thru speaker reminded him of a confessional. Fast food orders should be confessed, he thought. There’s no reason anyone has to be obese. It’s a choice. Paul Ryan was choosing to cheat that St. Patrick’s Day, and tomorrow he’d as easily choose to not eat anything. He’d choose to call Tony Horton and choose to challenge him to a box jump contest until one of their knees blew out. And then he’d choose to open a bag of Doritos and he’d choose to breathe in so deeply that the orange residue would tingle the back of his nasal cavity. He’d choose to restrain and he’d choose to transform that restraint into power.

“Bless me, Father,” he said to the drive thru speaker, feeling like a son of a bitch.

“Excuse me,” the voice responded. A thick and deliberate Boston accent. Kennedyesque in its fakeness, Paul Ryan thought.

“Bless me, Father.” Paul Ryan doubled down. “It has been five weeks since my last confession, my last cheat.” The first travel ban, Paul Ryan thought. “I’ll have one Shamrock Shake, please.”

“Three forty nine. Please pull around,” the voice said.

Paul Ryan did as he was told. When he arrived at the window, he recognized immediately the person waiting for him.

“Senator Edward Kennedy.” He said his name like he was going door to door again, campaigning for his first race. He was so terrified that he actually sounded sincere.

“I’m the ghost of Saint Patrick’s Day Past, son. We thought, God and I, if we could somehow reach you, then you wouldn’t dismantle the healthcare law I dedicated my entire life to enacting.”

Even in death liberals still talked down to him, Paul Ryan thought. “With all due respect, Senator. You died before President Obama signed the bill.”

“And so we, God and I, beat Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher at beer pong,” Ted Kennedy’s ghost continued, “and while they were drunk and passed out, I snuck down here.”

“Ronald Reagan wouldn’t drink,” Paul Ryan simpered.

“Trust me, son. If I couldn’t get elected President, do you think the American people will let you become President after all the deaths your Obamacare replacement will cause?” Ted Kennedy manifested a political cartoon, the one of Paul Ryan’s healthcare plan pushing 24 million people off of a cliff, but the paper slipped through his fingers because he was a ghost.

“They’re preventable diseases. Obesity. Diabetes. Hypertension. They’re avoidable. Why should I pay for the treatment of illnesses people don’t have to get?

“Society is individuals and families, son,” the ghost answered.

“Will the Shamrock Shake complete your order? Anything for a work wife, perhaps? An egg McMuffin?” Ted Kennedy turned to the cash register. “My work wife was Barb Boxer. Whatever happened to her?”

“Did you know we’re not supposed to say ‘work wife’ anymore?”

“What do you call the women who accompany you when you go get coffee?”

“Colleagues.” Paul Ryan imagined Hillary Clinton and one of her aides emailing about banning the use of the term ‘work wife.’ Adding the term and its definition to the sexual harassment trainings the Department of Labor mandates. Another regulation to bog everything down. Paul Ryan gripped his steering wheel like he was about to accelerate his car into the building.

A teenager in a McDonald’s uniform walked into the booth where Ted Kennedy was sitting. “Holy shit. It’s that man who works for Trump.”

The Ghost of St. Patrick’s Day Past vanished.

“I don’t work for Mr. Trump, sir,” Paul Ryan lectured. “And thank you for coming to work today. It’s an honorable choice, full of — ”

“Not full of healthcare. At this fucking job.”

He gripped the steering wheel tighter.

“Full of quiet dignity. I flipped McDonald’s hamburgers one summer during college.” Paul Ryan stumped. This is why he entered politics. To explain how work generates your own fortune. Fortune, not privilege. He smiled as he remembered he was the Speaker of the House.

“This guy works for Trump,” the employee said to his manager.

“I work with Trump. With him.” He reached for his phone. He tapped in Trump’s private email address. The subject line read “Dismantling society.” The body read, “I have ideas about this.”

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

The Brain

Fri, 2017-03-17 10:43
The Adventures of Liana Finck

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

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

Ross From Friends, “In An Emergency”

Fri, 2017-03-17 07:44
How young were you when this week started?Photo: Zach Korb

Remember Ross From Friends? The act, not the character. The last time we had something from them was back in April of 2016, which in the old time scheme was nearly a year ago but in the way time flows now was several lifetimes back. Sweet Christ, the way time flows now this Monday was nearly a year ago. I cannot believe how long this week has been, and I spend at least nine hours of every 82-hour day complaining about how long the weeks are these days. This week was long, is what I’m saying. But anyway, it’s Friday now, and here’s something new from Ross From Friends. Enjoy.

https://medium.com/media/655e2ab852a0328c7d2f66970412b925/href

Ross From Friends, “In An Emergency” was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

New York City, March 15, 2017

Thu, 2017-03-16 17:57

★★★ A crew of three was bashing at the ice encasing a parked car, using heavy snow-breaking tools. There jagged ice stuck to the vertical faces of the walls on the plaza and smooth sheet ice lay on the sidewalk outside. The younger boy complained that he didn’t look like himself, because static electricity was plastering his hair down. The whiteness on the sky became cloud cover, and a burst of tiny snowflakes blew around briefly. More bits of snow and bits of sun appeared tentatively and simultaneously in the deep cold of afternoon. The late-day wind whipped along the cross street, throwing down the hood as soon as it went up. Slush lagoons held the curb cuts, and for a moment, in the confusion of cleared and uncleared surfaces, the bike lane on Sixth Avenue looked like the sidewalk.

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

The Art of Listening: A Hagiography

Thu, 2017-03-16 13:32
My dad’s fifty years of going to live shows in New York CityImage: Tim Obresmki

In 1978, my dad, a soft-spoken medical intern, walked into one of the flimsily partitioned exam areas of the St. Vincent’s Hospital emergency room and saw John Cale in pain, his black leather pants and jacket covered on one side with the damp white paint he’d slipped and fallen in. He listened to Cale’s complaint and ordered an x-ray (“pretty much the only thing I knew how to do at the time”). After delivering the order, he returned to the exam room to tell the patient he knew and admired his music, and had seen him perform a week prior at CBGB. Cale, having listened politely to this green doctor, and still waiting in pain in his paint-covered clothing, looked at my dad and said, “You look like a respectable guy. What’s a respectable guy doing in that shithole?”

At this point in the story, my dad interrupted himself to make sure I knew who John Cale was; of course I did. “He was only with them on the first two records,” he explained. “He’s a very influential guy and had a rich career subsequent to the Velvet Underground. He played the viola, and he brought chaos, a very chaotic and discordant sound, and their later records, they don’t have it.”

My dad is a rock music fan, a fanatic, a pilgrim, a supplicant who has been taking in live music at shitholes, “civilized” venues (City Winery, The Bitter End), and everything in between, three or four times a week for the last fifty years. He slowed down his pace in after I was born in the eighties, and is making up for it now in his semi-retirement by adding a handful of multi-day festivals (Governor’s Ball, Primavera Sound, Panorama, Northside, Solid Sound, Way Out West) each year.

It is not uncommon, of course, to love music, and plenty of people are obsessive fans. Even so, my dad’s devotion is extreme, both in the vigor of his appetite and in the extent to which live music is the central enterprise around which the rest of his life is ordered. He has been to thousands, maybe tens of thousands of shows in New York City. He is an institution of music history with a crack memory; just as his mother could remember every meal she’d been served at every Italian wedding she’d been to in her life, my dad can remember every band, every show, every song. But he isn’t stuck in time. His feet are bad now and his hearing half-shot from the noise, and there are a million easier ways to listen to music that don’t require leaving the house, yet out he goes, night after night, maneuvering his way through the scrum, getting close enough to the stage to see the sweat drip down a performer’s hairline and feel the bass vibrate in his sternum.

My dad’s first concert was a Byrds cover band at the Fordham gym in 1966. A friend’s older brother got them the tickets, and my dad and his friends returned to the Bronx twice more that year to see The Supremes and The Mamas and The Papas. The next year, as high school seniors, they voyaged with some frequency along the West End Line (now the D train) from the elevated 79th Street station in Bensonhurst to the bowels of the West 4th Street Station to see shows and order soft drinks at folk venues in the Village. They saw Bob Dylan, Buffy St. Marie, and The Byrds (the real band, this time). They saw, at the slightly shabby by then but still extravagant old Brooklyn theaters like The Fox and The Paramount, variety shows put on by DJ Murray the K, in which musically and racially diverse acts — Cream, Smokey Robinson, Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels, The Who, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas — played two or three songs apiece.

Rock music was young and so were the crowds. Kids listened to songs on the pizza parlor jukebox after school and carried their transistor radios around on class trips. None of the adults in my dad’s Italian neighborhood listened to rock or motown, much less talked about it, but his recurring summer job at the Parks Department brought him into Manhattan and past newsstands displaying Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy and The Village Voice, little scraps from another dimension. In his senior year of Catholic high school, one of the brothers mentioned in class that his favorite album was Pet Sounds, and used words like “symphonic,” suggesting an alternate reality where adults listened to popular music as seriously “as if it were high art.” He felt validated.

My dad went to Woodstock, of course, driving himself and his friend George in his mother’s Ford Galaxie. “We were there for the music,” George told me, “not the drugs or the sex.” In his college town, upstate, my dad saw Simon & Garfunkel, the Grateful Dead, and the Temptations. He drove back to the city on weekends to see Led Zeppelin, The Kinks, and The Who. The Fillmore East opened and brought in psychedelic west coast acts like Jefferson Airplane. He went to nearly all the shows in the Schaffer Summer Series at Wollman Rink in Central Park coordinated by the city. Tickets were one or two dollars a pop, and he got to see Miles Davis perform.

The Fillmore East shuttered in 1971, and in its wake came venues like Irving Plaza and the Ritz and the Academy of Music on 14th St, a small venue where my dad saw the Rolling Stones after scraping together fifty dollars — an obscene amount of money — to buy a ticket off a guy on the street. The biggest acts — the Kinks, Joni Mitchell, David Bowie on his Ziggy Stardust tour — drew crowds that allowed them to “invade” Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. Downtown, at smaller and less “respectable” places like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, he saw early performances by Debbie Harry, Patti Smith, and Iggy Pop (“An amazing show. He was sliding around on the ground and cut his skin on some glass and was bleeding. Incredible performance.”)

He saw Bob Marley & The Wailers from the fifth row at the Apollo (like many white people in the seventies, my dad was inspired by the movie The Harder They Come to pay closer attention to reggae). He dabbled in the parallel world of folk venues for the proto-“City Winery crowd” — The Bottom Line, The Bitter End, Folk City — just enough to see Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, and Randy Newman. Madison Square Garden booked the very biggest acts — Pink Floyd, David Bowie on his Station to Station tour — of which my dad saw “not as much as I should have, in retrospect.” He paused, and sighed deeply, becoming philosophical. “I suppose I need to focus on what I have seen and not on what I haven’t.”

He left the city for a few years for medical school in D.C., but did his best to keep up his pace, sometimes driving to Baltimore for shows. He dragged George, who was visiting, to a high school gymnasium in the suburbs to hear a new guy, Bruce Springsteen, play. It was always possible, according to my dad, to get great seats for even the most popular shows, though he did offhandedly mention lining up to buy tickets at 4 a.m. (“it was just what you did”). Even with the advent of Ticketmaster in 1976 — I can remember him and my mom tying up both phone lines in our apartment for hours when tickets went on sale — he often walked to the ticket windows to buy in person, on the belief that that way you could get better seats. But like recreational drug usage and all-nighters, my dad’s music avocation, which put him in good company in his teens and twenties, became a quirk and then an eccentricity in his thirties. I told him about a study I read claiming that most people stop listening to new music by age thirty-three, and that musical taste ossifies even younger. “I find that so depressing,” he said, sounding stricken. “That’s really horrible.”

In the eighties, which he calls his “black period,” he got out much less. He met my mother and early in their courtship took her to her first concert, a Hall & Oates show, which my dad thought sufficiently benign but my mother “acted was the loudest thing she’d ever heard.” She came around, even attended a Talking Heads concert while nine months pregnant with me. “We were lucky to have your two grandmothers around, so I did get out to some concerts” he assured me. The summer series had by then moved from Wollman Rink to Pier 84 near the Intrepid then back to Central Park, where he saw Paul Simon, Neil Young, Van Morrison. When said he regretted that he “kind of missed out” on some good bands from that time — The Smiths, The Cure, New Order — as a result of long work hours and a young child, I reminded him that I heard him play their records in our apartment when I was a kid. “Missing out,” to my dad, means never having seen The Smiths live. He has since seen Morrissey perform, by his estimate, five or six times.

He got to see Lucinda Williams, as well as a few other notable shows (Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison), at the Lone Star Café — famous to me for its giant iguana statue on the roof, and famous to my dad for “a crowd with lots of people only marginally interested in the music.” I’ve seen him shush people and toe back the blanket of ostentatious festival spreaders. I don’t want to give the impression that he’s picky — he’s not — but he prefers concerts where the crowd’s reverence towards the music and the musicians approaches his own. “Radiohead, Belle & Sebastian, Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, they draw really good crowds [and] that makes a big difference to me. If you are getting a lot of interference, that’s a detraction. I like the crowd to be quiet — not somber — just intense and excited. But not drunk excited. Sigur Ros has the best audiences; they’re so quiet, but energized.”

He came late to the Pixies and Nirvana, and was grateful for MTV’s “120 Minutes,” which he watched and also taped so he could watch again. These tapes proved a boon to my own social cred, as watching them on Sunday morning allowed me to give the impression to my middle-school peers that I’d stayed up till 1am watching MTV instead of having fallen asleep re-reading one of the Chronicles of Narnia. He liked not just the videos and performances but the snippets of backstory and interconnection among bands: Marc Olson and Victoria Williams and Lou Reed and Vic Chestnutt and R.E.M.

By the time I turned ten in 1993, he experienced a full-fledged renaissance. “You kind of had a life and friends of your own,” he told me, “so I went out more, and also I started dragging you to concerts, sometimes against your will.” He frequented the Mercury Lounge, the Knitting Factory, and the Bowery Ballroom — his personal Valhalla — where “the sound was very, very good, and it seemed to be everybody’s favorite place to play.” At the Bowery, he saw Luna, The Lemonheads, Belly, and Wilco when Yankee Hotel Foxtrot had just come out. He told my mother he wants to be buried there, just in case there is an afterlife. He took me to see Liz Phair at the Hammerstein Ballroom and again at Town Hall; I was twelve and it took me some time to realize that “Fuck and Run” is not a song about a girl giving the middle finger. In 1995, he took me to see Sleater-Kinney play at Tramps, where he also took me to see Pulp, though, tragically, I have no memory of that concert. He tried taking me and a friend to a Yo La Tengo and Magnetic Fields show at NYU, but had to hustle us back to the apartment between sets because we’d fallen asleep.

Going alone — not always, but more often than not — is his M.O. My mother, as she got older, found the shows too noisy and claustrophobic (“I worried about how I would get out if there was a fire”), and she didn’t like how my father always had to be in the front. She was less interested in the music that he and I liked, and she started to see a compulsive aspect to his concert-going, too. She was approaching fifty when she got aggressively and oddly hit on at a Moby concert by a bunch of young people rolling on Ecstasy who couldn’t stop touching her. She put her foot down and stopped going to concerts with him when she’d rather be reading a Maeve Binchy novel in a quiet bath.

I, regrettably, found it awkward running into kids from my high school while I was seeing Radiohead with my dad. When I left for college, my dad reconnected with George, who had also been busy raising a child, and introduced George to all the music he had missed out on over the last two decades, burning him a prodigious amount of CDs. He also, a few years later, befriended a man, thirty or so years his junior, who he had sold a Magnetic Fields ticket and then kept running into at concerts. Well-matched in their laser focus, they sometimes meet up at shows and have developed a friendship. At a My Morning Jacket concert in Philadelphia, my dad told George, “Jim James has a really great scream!” George admires my dad’s obsessiveness and memory for music and appreciates their “music mentor/ prodigy” relationship, but George can’t keep up. “He still goes to more concerts in a week than I do in a few months,” says George.

Since everything in New York comes full circle if you stick around long enough, my dad now treks out to his native borough for shows, to Williamsburg Music Hall and Prospect Park. “Do you listen to the Fleet Foxes?” he asked me recently for the dozenth time. He has no cap on how many times he will see old favorites. “It’s maybe not as much of a thrill when I get tickets, just because I have done it so many times before,” he said of Wilco, which he’s seen upwards of a dozen times. “But even when I’m not that thrilled to go, I get there and hear them play and I walk away so happy.” He plans trips to the Bay Area, where I live with my husband and two children, to line up with Outside Lands and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. I guess this is in order to maximize his enjoyment: play with grandkids till 11am, BART to music festival, return after midnight for ice cream with daughter.

My dad can’t account for his concert-going in any way that seems adequate to its magnitude. “I started going out a lot when my stereo system broke and I never really got around to set up a good listening space,” he said, then broke off. This is patently absurd. He tried again: “I’ve always loved seeing live music. It just sounds better than a recording. You could have really good equipment and a listening room that sounds great, but you miss the spontaneity of it, the way bands rework songs in ways that sometimes aren’t so good, but sometimes you actually like better and think, I wish they would have recorded it that way. And you hear things you didn’t notice before. You hear all the little mistakes but you also hear good stuff, too.” This seems right yet could just as easily account for the predilections of someone who went out to, say, a dozen concerts in a year.

I asked Jeff Trevino, a composer and Assistant Professor of Music and Technology at California State University — Monterey Bay, about what draws people to music and what we get from listening to it. Songs, he suggested, can offer completeness and resolution in ways life can’t. They can offer an opportunity to express and console, to fantasize and inhabit roles, to take comfort in being a part of something big, both the sound and the crowd. I assume these truths apply to some degree to my dad, though I can’t picture him ever expressing his interest in these terms. Words like these are part of my language, not his, and I’ve often felt that what he couldn’t convey to me in words he expressed in the piles of CDs he would buy me or burn for me and leave in piles in my bedroom when I was at school, not just things he liked or that I already listened to but things he knew I would like when I heard it, and in the tickets for nearby concerts that he still occasionally sends me.

Long ago, he and my mom were in his teenage bedroom in his mother’s house, looking through his old albums, when my mother heard him say, more to himself than to her, “I used to be afraid I would spend my life in a rock and roll fantasy.” But his life, outside of music, is pretty buttoned up: he’s been the dutiful son, patient doctor, faithful husband, exasperated (and loving) dad. To see my dad’s face light up and his body relax at a concert is to know that that is where he feels free, where he can experience the kind of heady joy and pathos and wonder that gets dimmer and more constrained in most of us as we age. His rock and roll fantasy is, in that sense, the realest part of his life.

Maybe there isn’t a rational way to account for my dad’s concert-going practice, which is what I think it is, a habit and an effort. It is as much of an expression of will to inhabit a world of beauty and meaning as an oil painting or a prayer. These days, his favorite bands to see live are the Mekons and the Feelies and other “smaller bands that have been doing it for forty years, never really breaking out as stars, just doing good work putting out record after record of good music, even though a lot of them have other things they do for money. You hope that if you go their shows, they can keep on going.” He likes it, too, when musicians tell little stories about their experiences, the way Steve Earle tells him “about jail and his problems and his views on gun rights,” the way Jon Langford and Sally Timms joke and banter with one another. He knows there’s persona, yet “you feel like you know them, like you know their lives. Like they are people you would just really enjoy spending a few hours with.” Which, in his way, he has.

The Art of Listening: A Hagiography was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

What’s Going On With This Girl Scout Cookie Art?

Thu, 2017-03-16 13:18
Deconstructing the “accent ingredient.”

It’s almost springtime, the drunk St. Patrick’s Day parades are still happening, and the weather is unseasonably cold. You know what that means: it’s Girl Scout Week!!!!!! It’s COOKIE TIME! Have you already ordered yours? I have not because I’m very busy blogging as you can see. But I spent some time perusing the options. If you navigate over to girlscouts.org and click here on “Meet the Cookies,” you too can learn that there are approximately twice as many types of cookies these days with names that sound like parodies of Girl Scout Cookies. If you put your zip code into the “Find Cookies!” nav bar you can find cookies near you.

But I’m not here to talk about names. Everyone knows that thing about how there are two names for the same cookie and it just depends on which bakery they’re made at. Everyone knows this. Look it up. Fine, here you go:

Why are there two bakers?
Girl Scout councils contract with one of two licensed bakers, whose recipes and ingredients may differ slightly. Contact your local Girl Scout council to find out which baker they partner with.

I’m here to talk about ART. Specifically the images of the cookies and their companion visual accents, the main or highlighted ingredients for each cookie. For the Peanut Butter Patties®/Tagalongs® and the Peanut Butter Sandwich/Do-si-dos®, the accent is obviously a shelled peanut, a perfect little light-brown legume, split down the middle with one of those seductive notches at the top. For the Lemonades™ and the Savannah Smiles® it’s two little eighth-triangles of lemon. For the Thin Mints® it’s a poorly photoshopped sprig of spearmint.

The Shortbread/Trefoils® one is very good and straightforward: a sugar cube.

The gluten-free (!!) Trios are business (oats) in the front, party (peanut and choco chips) in the back:

But what on earth is going on with the s’mores???? There are two types of s’mores. They are both called Girl Scout S’mores™, which is extremely confusing because they look quite different:

Chocolate and marshmallow: very simple. So what the fuck is going on in the right-hand picture? The accent ingredients have been melted into their liquid for and for some reason there is just…a few blobs of viscous, semi-opaque white goo on the naked graham cracker:

The GSA call this “yummy crème icing” but I call this “no.”

Do I have a suggestion for how they could have done this differently? Yes, just put the chunk of chocolate and mini marshmallow just like the normal one. What gives, Little Brownie Bakers? I mean thank goodness someone took the time to give the melted marshmallow jizz some nice angled lighting to give it that beautiful sheen. I bet it’s still warm.

Anyway, how many boxes have you ordered? Sound off in the comments.

What’s Going On With This Girl Scout Cookie Art? was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

And Her Little Dogs Too

Thu, 2017-03-16 12:39
What happens when the Queen dies?Photo: magsThe newsreaders will wear black suits and black ties.… Listeners to Radio 4 and Radio 5 live will hear a specific formulation of words, “This is the BBC from London,” which, intentionally or not, will summon a spirit of national emergency. The main reason for rehearsals is to have words that are roughly approximate to the moment. “It is with the greatest sorrow that we make the following announcement,” said John Snagge, the BBC presenter who informed the world of the death of George VI. (The news was repeated seven times, every 15 minutes, and then the BBC went silent for five hours). According to one former head of BBC news, a very similar set of words will be used for the Queen. The rehearsals for her are different to the other members of the family, he explained. People become upset, and contemplate the unthinkable oddness of her absence. “She is the only monarch that most of us have ever known,” he said. The royal standard will appear on the screen. The national anthem will play. You will remember where you were.

Depending on how fascinated you are with the quaint, antiquated monarchical traditions of a quaint, antiquated monarchy you will have an idea of how interested you might be in an article about what happens when Britain’s monarch dies. But everything about this article — the reporting of which “involved dozens of interviews with broadcasters, government officials, and departed palace staff, several of whom have worked on London Bridge directly. Almost all insisted on complete secrecy” — is fascinating, even if you don’t care a whit about how they do things on Knifecrime Island. Has the world changed or have you changed? Save it for when you’ve got some time.

Operation London Bridge: the secret plan for the days after the Queen's death

And Her Little Dogs Too was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Feud Season 3: Brahms vs. Wagner????

Thu, 2017-03-16 12:27
Classical Music Hour with FranImages: Bernd Sieker and ::Lenz

A huge part of my 600-page Brahms book is the various feuds Brahms had with other composers at the time. Feuds are very en vogue right now, and why wouldn’t they be? Our whole country is in a feud. (This is a timely joke.) The deal with Brahms is that I think he was honestly for a time a normal artist type. That’s not to say he was a normal person — artists are not normal people — but he was a Textbook Creative Type, if you will. Sometimes upbeat and charming, other times moody and sarcastic. He was horny all the time, constantly crushing on his female co-workers (uh, choir students), but never seeing anything through. He was also constantly dragging other composers, either in magazine articles or via letters to peers, as this debate in the New German School took hold on central Europe.

The big fight amidst this argument about the New German School (which was not necessarily all new, nor all German, nor was it a school) started with Richard Wagner in an article he published in which he made the case that the truest meaning of music would be to combine it with poetry or the written word. I’m paraphrasing, but basically he said opera is king. This went against those like Franz Liszt who essentially believed programmatic music — music that told a story — was the gateway forward. And then you had conservative folks like Brahms who were like, “Okay… well… I’m just gonna keep composing normal symphonies not necessarily based on anything but melodies I’m interested in right now.”

But not unlike most feuds, the deal with Brahms and Wagner was that they also did kind of like each other. The two met only once in January of 1863, mostly just to play and chat — Brahms was nearly 30 and Wagner nearly 50. They were ultimately respectful of each other, though Wagner got in a few barbs, namely around the fact that Brahms would be nothing without Wagner paving the way. Which, sure! A very natural old-person opinion to have. Like when your parents maintain they’d have been better at school if they had the internet. The two shook hands and departed on pleasant terms, also known as, “Wagner talked shit about Brahms for the rest of his life.”

Wagner has been tricky to write about for this column. His complicated history — the arrogance, the malevolence, the anti-Semitism, not to mention his relatively dark and nationalistic music is often hard to parse through. I, myself, am also not an expert per se on operas, which makes a lot of his work more unapproachable to me. I often conflate him with Mahler, another German composer, whose work I also have a tough time puzzling through.

https://medium.com/media/30228bfff11672c0f1414944e5daef3a/href

Regardless, in the early days of writing this column, a dear friend passed along the overture to Tannhäuser (Berliner Philharmoniker, 2003) and I instantly loved it. Because I organize my classical library alphabetically by composer, poor Wagner was often down at the very bottom and the Tannhäuser Overture just sat down there which it really ought not to have.

Tannhaüser is an opera that was written almost 20 years before Brahms and Wagner met. It’s got a pretty classic opera plot: medieval setting, dashing minstrel-knight, goddess of love, all of that jazz. It centers itself in part around a theme of “spring,” but even that’s pretty loose. I think one of the reasons I found myself instantly drawn to Tannhäuser is that it reminds me of a handful of pieces I’ve written about here before. It’s got this pastoral, natural tone not unlike Smetana’s Moldau. A bit of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances. Because it’s German, we can’t, of course, discount the influence of Beethoven.

The Overture begins with the woodwinds and brass in an optimistic but relatively dense melody. It builds, adding strings, and at its first big crescendo around the 2:11 mark, you can really feel the depth and scope of the Tannhäuser. There’s some immense power behind this crescendo. The horns blaring over the strings descending down their scales. When the strings overtake the horns at the 3:07, their melody is intensely wistful, almost in mourning.

Because it’s an overture, it touches on quite a few different themes. It’s a little jarring sometimes — in the way that a normal Broadway overture would have some tonal whiplash from time to time. Around the 8:40 mark, it slides into what sounds like a dance. It’s simultaneously upbeat and worrying, as if Wagner is building to something you can’t predict. With a big roll of the timpani, he ushers in a jovial climax that you can almost bop your head along to.

That’s the thing about Wagner for me. Even without knowing Tannhäuser, it immediately seemed to familiar to me. Wagner is so ingrained into our classical musical landscape — I mean, we all know this guy, but come on — that it’s impossible to listen to him and not feel a deep sense of familiarity. For all of his snark towards Brahms for “making him what he was,” be it direct or indirect, Wagner did kind of shape classical music in a world beyond Beethoven. He also didn’t like Jews! The world is rich and complicated and stupid.

A year after they met, Wagner was preparing to do Tannhäuser in Munich and learned that Brahms, in fact, was the person with the deluxe manuscript of the opera, given to him by a mutual friend. Wagner and his associates were furious that the score had ended up in Brahms’ hands and demanded it back for the performance. Brahms refused.

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

Feud Season 3: Brahms vs. Wagner???? was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.