Nihilism for Optimists

Johann Heinrich Füssli, Gunther’s Wedding Night, 1807. Public Domain

I believe we should read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us with a blow to the skull, then why are we even reading it? So that it will make us happy, as you write? My God, we’d also be happy if we had no books, and the kinds of books that could make us happy, we could write ourselves if we had to. We need books that affect us like an accident, that hurt us like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, as if we were lost deep in the woods, far from humanity, like a suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea inside us. That is what I believe.
—Franz Kafka, letter to Oskar Pollak, 1911

Almost exactly one year ago, as the United States unceremoniously handed the mantle of Western Democracy With its Shit Most Together to Germany, I wrote my first installment of Deutschland über Us, and thus began a weekly investigation of German current events, translated and parsed, often misspelled, complete with dubious pronunciation guides that some people still take way too seriously.

Now, as the Internet prepares to swallow up the Awl network and the world becomes just that much more stupid for it, I find myself writing the penultimate contribution to what I only half-jokingly wish to call my Gesamtkunstwerk (guh-ZOMT-koonst-VAYRK), the total work of my life. For the past twelve months, I have had the good fortune to combine all of my great loves—Germans, getting yelled at by Germans, cursing, digression—into one thing. It has been great. (For me. I don’t know how it’s been for you. Hopefully not terrible.)

So today, you guys get my unifying theory of the world. Here it is. Everyone, including and especially me, should read more books and less outrage porn—and the sort of books we should read in place of that fiftieth hot take on some shit we already agree with and are mad about? Well, today I make my case for the books that punch you in the fucking face.

Is Eminem Dad Rock?

Image: Peter Pham via Flickr

Eminem resurfaced for a BET Hip Hop Awards freestyle aimed at Donald Trump, and he got scorn from all sides: people who do not buy Eminem’s political awakening, people who get real mad on the Internet when someone is mean to our very stable genius-in-chief, and people who snicker at lines like “That’s an awfully hot coffee pot / Should I drop it on Donald Trump? Probably not.” If Em’s late career is rocky, this attempted comeback has been rockier still—his subsequent album release, Revival, received even less enthusiasm than the BET thing. You can visibly see him struggling for his place in a crowded market that no longer feels so empty without him, as he lashes out at mumble rap while trying on trap beats. The derisive term we reserve for this kind of fade into irrelevance seems appropriate: Eminem is dad rock.

You’re probably wondering how Eminem, who is a well-documented dad but not much of a rocker, can possibly fall under the umbrella of “dad rock,” and the answer is simple: dad rock is a fluid term, routinely jumping boundaries and rarely agreed upon (though this Pitchfork video is a decent start). As someone who likes some late-career Springsteen albums (yeah, plural), I’d even suggest the term can be endearing sometimes. Eric Clapton, Journey, Billy Joel, Foo Fighters; just as there have been, over the decades, many evolving species of dad telling you to turn down that goshdarn racket, so, too, are there many forms of dad rock that the proverbial dad takes as Good Old Days gospel.

New York City, January 16, 2018

★★ A yellowish wrong-way sunrise glowed briefly in the west, where the clouds had temporarily left an opening. A bank on Fifth Avenue had salted its sidewalk, hours and hours ahead of time, while the only ice in view was a cloudy and glassy frozen puddle at the curb. The office was warm for a while but the cold would take over by the end, as it always did. Out in the dusk, there were occasional motes of something or other flickering in the edge of the field of view. None of them, on inspection, were snow yet.

Inside the World of Pet Anti-Vaxxers

Image: Army Medicine via Flickr

If you call your pet a “furbaby,” it is possible that you think of your dog or cat as your child. Perhaps you set aside a portion of broiled salmon for Bella at dinner. Maybe you and Peppermint dress up in matching Halloween costumes. Perhaps Buddy’s birthday party has more guests than your own. (No judgment—I do all of the above with Artemis, my two-year-old mutt.) Or, it is increasingly possible, you are a pet anti-vaxxer, a growing movement of pet owners, breeders, and even veterinarians who are against the standard recommended inoculations that usually recommended by boarding kennels.

This issue has been covered in the Brooklyn Paper, with veterinarian Amy Ford of Boerum Hill’s Veterinarian Wellness Center claiming that “[i]t’s actually much more common in the hipster-y areas,” and in the New York Post, with Stephanie Liff of Clinton Hill’s Pure Paws Veterinary Care noting that “[A]utism doesn’t even exist in pets.” But unlike what these articles insinuate, pet anti-vaxxers don’t see themselves as working in the same movement as human anti-vaxxers, who (inaccurately) claim that vaccines cause autism. The idea of dog autism is too complex and understudied for anyone to make conclusions (not that inconclusive scientific studies have stopped human anti-vaxxers). But the pet anti-vax movement still owes its momentum to its human counterpart and pet anti-vaxxers do use the “vaccines cause autism in humans” example. There is a parallel distrust of Big Pharma and a veneration of “holistic” lifestyles and alternative medicines in the pet anti-vax movement.

The Hills are Alive With The Sound of Mozart

Image: SorinNechita via Flickr

Happy 2018! It’s been a little while, hasn’t it? Even my very last column was technically written last year, so it’s nice to be diving in. You might be wondering where I went, and the answer: Bavaria. I know what you’re thinking: it’s January. And that’s so right. You’re 100% correct. It is January, and it is insane to travel to a place where it is also winter. But compared to my hometown of Chicago where on any given day it at best 4 degrees (today it is a BALMY 14), Bavaria, with its averages in the low 40s Fahrenheit, felt absolutely tropical.

If you’re wondering what precisely there is to do in Bavaria, let me tell you. You can eat a whole variety of sausages, cabbage, plus a lot of spätzle (topped with melted cheese). You can go to some old palaces. You can go to some modern art museums. And if you want, you can take a highly functional and short train ride to the city of Salzburg, Austria, which just so happens to be the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

New York City, January 15, 2018

★★★ Loose little clouds drifted and evolved. The light through the windows was warm and the draft through the windows was chilly. One pockmarked snow pile remained between the end of Citi Bike rack—rust now blooming in the joints of its base—and the end of the no-standing zone. The scourging cold had subsided to mere numbingness, but breath showed on the air and kept showing.

Awl Ends

It is with a mixture of disappointment and relief that we are announcing the cessation of editorial operations on The Awl at the end of this month. For nearly a decade we followed a dream of building a better Internet, and though we did not manage to do that every day we tried very hard and we hope you don’t blame us for how things ultimately turned out. We’re intensely proud of what we managed to accomplish over the years, and while most of the credit goes to an astoundingly talented team of writers and editors, the greatest achievement any site can claim is in the quality and fervor of its audience, and on that score we feel like we were the most successful organization ever. All things reach a natural end, and that end has now come for The Awl, but we could not be more grateful for the way you made us part of your routine and took us into your hearts, so instead of saying goodbye we would just like to say thank you. Yes, you. Thanks.

Photo: Madison Scott-Clary


Image: mark sebastian via Flickr

Tom Garland was with the company for six months when he volunteered to have the ESM chip implanted under his skin. Consenting to the minor procedure was a relief. It was the not consenting that drew the ire of colleagues, both male and female, who insisted employees refusing to be chipped were opposed to a safe work zone, or had something to hide.

“Only take a few minutes. And then there won’t be any questions,” said his human resources rep, Melanie.

Which to 25-year-old Tom was what compromised the voluntary aspect of the initiative. Had there been questions? He worked for a woman, Veronica Barnes, with whom he’d developed a professional and courteous rapport. He had voted for Hillary, considered himself progressive, and was respectful of colleagues. He was raised to be deferential toward women, which found him holding doors and giving up subway seats even to younger females. Both of which were sexist in a certain sense, although he saw his behavior as gentlemanly.

It was his hereditary aspects that implied there were questions. His maleness, his white privilege, his social media-encouraged anxiety at having a cyborg-ish microchip surgically implanted in his shoulder, allowing his employer to track his movements and emotions. The ESM chip, or emotional safety monitoring, detected heart rhythm, breathing, stimulation, swelling, and muscle contraction, feeding it all into an algorithm that measured emotional state. Anger, sorrow, happiness, arousal, rage, despair, lust, stress; it all lurked inside Tom Garland, who like everyone else was impacting the company safe zone.

The Donald Trump of Mexican Wrestling

The lights dim in the Arena Coliseo in Guadalajara and a troop of ring girls emerge from backstage. A spotlight scans into their midst, revealing a blond giant with an American flag propped on his shoulder. The color guard of girls sticks with him as he walks towards the ring and the lights come up, revealing a giant Trump face printed on the flag and stars and stripes airbrushed onto his tights. A masked wrestler stands with his back to the newcomer, pumping up the crowd. Waving the girls away, the American creeps up behind him and beats the Mexican wrestler to the ground with the flag while the crowd howls in disapproval. The giant is Sam Adonis, maybe the most perfect gringo to come down to Mexico to fight in lucha libre.

Adonis was born Samuel Polinsky in Monroeville, Pennsylvania in 1989, the son of Dan Polinsky, of a Pittsburgh wrestling promoter. Alongside his brother Matthew (AKA Corey Graves, now a WWE announcer) Polinsky wrestled with promise at a few regional outfits in the U.S. without much success. A move to Europe boosted his standing, but it in Mexico, where he’s been wrestling since the middle of last 2016, that he finally hit his stride.

Adonis came to Mexico as a rudo, the lucha libre equivalent of a heel, and he lit on his current act when the election rolled around. “I had no idea it would work that well,” says Adonis, about the Trump shtick, which has made him one of the most bankable rudos in Mexican wrestling. “It’s almost something like “South Park” would do, you know. It’s in your face and it’s political, and at the same time, it’s just “South Park.” That’s how they look at it here…I knew it would be a sensitive topic, but I knew that I could make it work.”

Haint Blue, the Ghost-Tricking Color of Southern Homes and Gullah Folktales


There was once an old witch-woman who lived in the woods. She was ugly as sin but helpful, and she could fix any number of problems if you asked her politely. Her name was Old Betty and she had one friend, a fat old razorback hog named Raw Head. One day, some asshole hunter stole her pig pal and slaughtered him. She couldn’t let that stand. She pulled out a book of spells, performed some secret incantations and rituals, and poof, she had her friend back. Except he was changed. He had bloody, bear-clawed hands and a raccoon tail. He walked on two feet and his skeleton was a bloody mess of flesh and bones and muscle and sinew. Worst of all, he carried around his own pig head, clutched in his big bear claws. Fortunately, the witch was into all this shit, and so she welcomed Raw Head back into her life and together they went forth, seeking revenge.

Raw Head is perhaps the most hideous of boogeymen—assembled from parts borrowed from various species, which somehow makes him even more fearsome than Frankenstein’s Homo sapiens mix-and-match monster. While the story of Raw Head originated in 1500s England, it really took root in the American South, where Raw Head and his sidekick Bloody Bones became oft-invoked figures used to scare kids and bond adults. According to Appalachian historian Dave Tabler, the word haint can refer to an angry dead spirit, but also to “an undefinable something that scares the bejeevers out of you.” Raw Bones is a haint story, and haint stories are the reason that southern porch ceilings are often painted a pale, sweet, powdery sky blue—a group of light shades known collectively as “Haint Blue.”