Author Archives


I’ll Be Loving You Forever

Richard E. Aaron, Jason Kempin / Getty

Rebecca Schuman | Longreads | August 2019 | 15 minutes (4,077 words)


“You are not wearing that shirt right now.”

Even in this establishment’s near-black 4 p.m. lighting, the bartender, a guy about my age dressed in the Portland Gen-Xer uniform (“Henry Rollins, but a dad”), has made out the faded names and visages adorning my bosom: Donnie. Danny. Joe. Jordan. Jon.

“Oh,” I tell him. “Not only am I wearing this shirt, but I’m about to go see these very motherfuckers. With Gretchen, my best friend from middle school. Who I haven’t seen in years. She was on my gymnastics team, and she flew in from Wyoming. Just to do this.”

When I’m excited I tend to overshare, but I do not admit that the pint of Kölsch I’m ordering is for Gretchen and me to split. I am 42 years old, and if I drink more than half a beer I will sleep through the “rock concert,” as we used to call them, which I have paid $162 to attend.

I can attempt to explain, using human language, the extent to which Gretchen and I were fans of New Kids on the Block. I can explain that my room was a four-walled decoupage of Tiger Beat pin-ups. I can explain how I had the bed sheets and comforter. The trading cards. The marbles (why?). The comic books. The bubblegum (a bit too on the nose). How I had, God help me, the dolls, which my little brother took great pleasure in arranging in flagrante and placing on my bed. I can explain all of this in words, but it’s the kind of thing best expressed in scream — specifically, the scream of a 13-year-old’s terrifying nascent sexuality, sublimated in real time into something safe in its simultaneous unattainability and ubiquity.

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On Truth and Lying in the Extra German Sense

Illustration by Homestead

Rebecca Schuman | Longreads | June 2019 | 15 minutes (3,962 words)

Would you like to know if you’ve gained weight? If you’re annoying, or too talkative, or not as smart as you think? If you’re doing something, literally anything, the wrong way? Just ask a German and they will tell you immediately. Germans do not do this to hurt your feelings. There isn’t even a single long word in German for “hurt feelings,” they just translate the English directly (verletzte Gefühle), and everyone knows that direct translation from the English is how Germans demonstrate their disdain. There is, however, a common and beloved expression for an individual who makes a big show of having hurt feelings, and that is beleidigte Leberwurst, or a perennially “insulted liver sausage,” because hurt fee-fees are for weak non-German babies.

After all, Germans are just being direct: unmittelbar, or literally translated, “unmediated.” Their assertions are simply unverblümt, or “not putting a flower on it.” They’re not mean, they’re freimütig, or “free-hearted.” They’re just being forthright: offen, “open,” which is a good thing, ja? Germans couldn’t even begin to imagine why being brutally honest would hurt someone in the first place! If the truth hurts you, isn’t that more your fault than the truth’s?

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Blowin’ Up the ‘90s

Mark Terrill, Associated Press / Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Rebecca Schuman | Longreads | December 2018 | 11 minutes (2,795 words)

The ’90s Are Old is a Longreads series by Rebecca Schuman, wherein she unpacks the cultural legacy of a decade that refuses to age gracefully.

* * *

The 1990s did not end on January 1, 2000. The monumental anti-climax of Y2K — a computer “bug” that was supposed to screech our Earth to a Scooby-Doo foot-cloud halt, but instead did bupkis — was a truly apt expression of the preceding decade. But even discounting Y2K, I’ve got some serious issues with the alleged “turn of the actual millennium” as the endpoint of the most intentionally underwhelming decade of the 20th century. And not just because 2000 (zero-zero) is so obvious and overplayed — though there is, of course, that.

The actual termination point of the ‘90s required an attitudinal shift that would decentralize the role of Generation X as the admittedly-petulant target of all culture and advertising — the thawing of the winter of the bong-ripping couch-slacker’s discontent; the disappearance of gin and juice from house-party bars; the centering of the hot tub on The Real World; the sobering realization that both men and women were from Earth and just sucked; the demise, for that matter, of Suck itself.

In point of incontrovertible fact, the 1990s would not end in the United States until the aughts’ resurgence of aggressive consumerism and even more aggressive vacuity came to dominate all aspects of sociopolitical and popular culture. So the only question is: When was that? There are more potential answers than squiggles on a Fido Dido sweatshirt.

Was it in 2001, when the original Fast and the Furious premiered? 1996, when Blur released that WOO-hoo song? Was it 2010 — you heard me, two thousand and ten — when enough grandparents had shuffled off the mortal coil to make the primary avenue of written news consumption digital rather than paper?

I have spent an unnecessarily and perhaps questionably extensive amount of time researching in this subfield, and I present my findings to you now in a perplexing new format (I believe it is called a “list-cicle”?) that is apparently the only thing young people are able to read.

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The Gilded Age of (Unpaid) Internet Writing

Apple Computer / AP, Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Rebecca Schuman | Longreads | September 2018 | 12 minutes (2,976 words)

The ’90s Are Old is a Longreads series by Rebecca Schuman, wherein she unpacks the cultural legacy of a decade that refuses to age gracefully.

* * *

In 1998, my first real job — at which I was terrible — was as an editorial assistant for a New York book publisher. My breathtakingly privileged days consisted of emailing mean jokes about the assistants I didn’t like to the assistants I did, and slacking off at my desk during my boss’s long lunches. That’s when I discovered these things called “webzines.” My 1993 black-and-white PowerBook had been powerful enough for abysmal college essays on Heinrich von Kleist, but not for something called a browser, so it was not until my entrée to the professional world and its professional-issue Windows 98 that I began “surfing the ‘Net” in earnest.

In the nascent years of online ubiquity — when CHHHHHHHHHH BEEboo BEEboo BEEboo became a household noise, and not just something for extreme nerds — the web was both very big and very small. In 1996 there were only 100,000 websites in the Whole Wide World. (Today there are almost two billion.) Plus, aside from a few early leaders in e-commerce, ’90s sites were usually personal homepages, accessible only to the visitor patient and accurate enough to type the precise address, down to the tilde. Alas, what made the webzines of the late ’90s the best was also what would end up making the internet the worst: anyone could publish anything about anything, and very few people expected to be paid.

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Bridget Jones’s Staggeringly Outdated Diary

Miramax Films / Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Rebecca Schuman | Longreads | July 2018 | 11 minutes (2,918 words)

The ’90s Are Old is a Longreads series by Rebecca Schuman, wherein she unpacks the cultural legacy of a decade that refuses to age gracefully.

* * *

I spent most of the ‘90s smoking and being a poseur, but in between packs of Gauloises I also read a lot, so long as it wasn’t the books that my teachers and professors assigned. My literature of choice was all about the same thing: cool contemporary adults wigging out about their relationships, a genre that would soon fall under the terms “chick lit” (see: Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, 1996) and its somewhat lesser-known counterpart, “dick lit” (see: Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, 1995).

Bridget Jones was acid-tongued but also prone to disastrous pratfalls, just like me! And High Fidelity’s Rob Fleming was unambitious and antisocial, just like me! I loved these protagonists so much, in fact, that when I stood in front of a chagrined Hornby at a signing in New York and thrust out my dog-eared copy of his book, I proclaimed that it had “helped me through some very difficult times,” and then I smoked a cigarette indoors, and everyone seemed pleased, especially me. In revisiting these tomes of my youth as an aging poseur, I’ve had both a not-insubstantial craving for nicotine and a series of horrifying revelations. Namely, these books — despite their cool Gen-X setting, cool Gen-X props (cigarettes), and cool Gen-X openness about failure — are some inveterate Baby Boomer bullshit.

Reader, if you think I’m aiming to incite a Quarrel of the Ancients and the Even More Ancients, you are correct. These cool Gen-X novels, written by people born in 1958 (Fielding) and 1957 (Hornby), are basically different iterations of a familiar Boomer trope. It’s the same romantic wish fulfillment — the uncomplicated, largely imaginary, white-bourgeois heterosexual sort — you find in the offensive and pre-antiquated self-help bestsellers of the same decade, namely The Rules (Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, 1995) and Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (John Gray, 1992).

Whereas the Gen-X motto of whatever encapsulated the extent of our desire to mitigate other people’s love lives and often our own, our elders — unencumbered by slackitude; seemingly aghast at our normalization of casual sex — saw in us a deep and aching need for what the Germans call das Happyend. Romantic fatalists of the ‘90s needn’t worry, you guys! For every (white, bourgeois, heterosexual) romantic problem that appeared in our midst and on our bestseller lists, there was a corresponding solution straight outta Levittown.

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When ‘The Real World’ Gave Up on Reality

MTV / Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Rebecca Schuman | Longreads | June 2018 | 9 minutes (2,208 words)


The ’90s Are Old is a Longreads series by Rebecca Schuman, wherein she unpacks the cultural legacy of a decade that refuses to age gracefully.

* * *

The most appropriate single epithet for MTV’s unscripted housemate drama The Real World is pioneering. Granted, given what the show and the oeuvre it birthed have since become — an indistinguishable procession of aggressively vapid ab models who take turns getting alcohol poisoning in a hot tub, no matter the show’s setting or purpose — the positive connotations of that word make it painful to use.

But alas, pioneering is accurate. Before producers Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray had the idea in 1992 to choose seven strangers at random, deposit them in a New York City loft, have their lives “taped” at a totally grungified 42-degree angle, and find out what happens, the very thought of someone going on television for no other reason than to live in an apartment with a bunch of randos was extremely novel.

What we so easily forget now, in an age where the country’s only housewives are Housewives, is that The Real World‘s early seasons were beloved by young adults precisely because they showed the largely-unremarkable exploits of largely-unremarkable (if mildly telegenic) young people. By “early seasons” I mean 1992-1996 — the 1997 season, shot in Boston, would mark the show’s transition from unscripted soap opera to unapologetic grotesque, a.k.a. what we now consider the reality-television standard. This transformation is one of the most notable — possibly most ignominious? — legacies of the ’90s, perhaps even more so than the mushroom cuts, black chokers, and off-kilter camera work.

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It’s Like This and Like That and Like What?

Death Row / Interscope Records, Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Rebecca Schuman | Longreads | May 2018 | 11 minutes (2,912 words)


The ’90s Are Old is a Longreads series by Rebecca Schuman, wherein she unpacks the cultural legacy of a decade that refuses to age gracefully.

* * *

In the entirety of 1990, exactly one hip-hop single made it to the top spot on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. This was “Ice Ice Baby,” and the LP whence its dope melodies came, To the Extreme, also ruled the Billboard album charts for the final eight weeks of that year — knocking off the previous number one, another rap record, Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em. (It turned out that if U were Vanilla Ice, U could, in fact, touch this.) As the nineties rush-rushed in, aching to break out of the previous decade’s noxious forcefield of Aqua Net, one thing was clear: American Top 40 radio was ready for hip hop — so long as it was squeaky clean, or, failing that, performed by a white guy with the wackest eyebrows in history.

By the end of the decade, the landscape had shifted almost beyond recognition. Synth-pop was the stuff of nostalgia nights; rock was emitting the first gurgle of its death rattle (which sounded like this); and what had heretofore been called “hardcore” hip hop was so ubiquitous in “mainstream” (read: white) culture that its ubiquity became a bit in Mike Judge’s 1999 cult classic Office Space.

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You’ve Reached the Winter of Our Discontent

Universal Pictures, Illustration by Katie Kosma

Rebecca Schuman | Longreads | March 2018 | 9 minutes (2,305 words)


The ’90s Are Old is a Longreads series by Rebecca Schuman, wherein she unpacks the cultural legacy of a decade that refuses to age gracefully.

* * *

After Richard Linklater’s Slacker became an unexpected box-office hit in 1991, every major studio in the United States dropped untold amounts of money trying to clone its success — that is, to duplicate a film that cost $23,000 to make and whose entire raison d’etre was that it did not care about success.

Some offerings, such as Cameron Crowe’s Singles (1992), succeeded in spite of their own distributors’ low expectations. Others, such as then “indie comic” (!) Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites, succeeded in spite of, or probably because of, their own craven cynicism. (There was also Threesome, Lord help us all.) These films relied, without exception, on two crucial tropes: the cynical cool of rejecting ambition and popularity, and the mopey, tortured Gen X man-child who embodied that cool.

In the nineties, the rules for how to be cool were pretty simple.

  1. Having a job (or four) was cool, as long as you didn’t try very hard at it. (Having a “career trajectory” was decidedly not cool, which is probably why I am 41 years old and have never had one to speak of.)
  2. Wearing a vintage grease-covered gas-station attendant uniform as a jacket was cool if its original owner was that weird older cousin who bought you beer. (Buying an expensive jacket crafted to look like a vintage-replica gas-station attendant uniform was extremely not cool.)
  3. Weed was cool. (Doing coke and being all ’80s yuppie aggro was not cool.)
  4. Being nasty about famous people who were way too popular was cool, which is probably why I thought it acceptable to proclaim, in the arts column I wrote with my friend Justin for my college newspaper, that I wanted to shoot Jewel. Shoot Jewel! What did Jewel ever do to me? She seems very nice. But Jewel didn’t subscribe to the Vassar Miscellany News, so it was a victimless crime.
  5. Numbered lists of how to be cool were definitely not cool.
  6. It was cool to view everything at an ironic distance, including the concept of ironic distance itself.

In the nineties, the worst insult you could lob — or get — was to be a sellout. Dominant mass-produced mainstream culture — literally anything, the exact moment it became popular enough to no longer be confined to your friend’s basement and maybe a ‘zine — deserved to be mocked. If you were lucky enough to like something before it got big, then you found yourself flush with the only currency Gen X accepted. Read more…

I Think, Therefore I Am Getting the Goddamned Epidural

Illustration by Annelise Capossela

Rebecca Schuman | Longreads | November 2017 | 16 minutes (3989 words)

Until I was 34 weeks pregnant, I only considered the act of childbirth in blurred, vague terms, and this meant I was unusually impressionable. Hence, the entrée in week 35 of one Ina May Gaskin, legendary midwife, and successful deliverer of eleventy-dillion babies at what definitely didn’t seem like a very creepy commune in the middle of Tennessee. “You must read Ina May,” explained my friend Charlotte (not her real name), who’d recently driven 80 miles across state lines to push out her second child in a midwifery center. “She will make you SO CONFIDENT about what your body can do,” all caps in original. I was intrigued — and, a few hundred pages deep into Spiritual Midwifery and Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, equal parts tentative and enamored.

Both books consisted primarily of first-person accounts of sublime natural birthing. “The ecstasy of birth was so wonderful,” wrote one mother, named Kim, after her daughter simply “slipped out.” Another went for a two-hour hike in the middle of labor. “I could feel my baby move me open, and when the intensity of the rushes increased, I just leaned on a tree.” First-time mother Celeste, furthermore, wouldn’t call labor painful — she’d call it “INTENSELY NATURAL,” all caps, once again, in the original. Then there was my favorite, Mary, who “visualized [her] yoni as a big, open cave beneath the surface of the ocean,” and “surrendered over and over to the great, oceanic, engulfing waves. It was really delightful — very orgasmic and invigorating.”

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Hello, Lenin? (Berlin, 1997)

East Berlin, August 1990. Image by Sludge G (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Rebecca Schuman | Schadenfreude, A Love Story | Flatiron Books | February 2017 | 10 minutes (2950 words)


This excerpt was adapted from Schadenfreude, A Love Story: Me, the Germans, and 20 Years of Attempted Transformations, Awkward Miscommunications, and Humiliating Situations that Only They Have Words For, Rebecca Schuman’s memoir of her adventures in German culture.

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Ostalgie. n. Longing for the good old days of the German Democratic Republic, from east and nostalgia.

My German flatmate was named Gertrud, and I lived with her in the former East Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg, which was, according to Herr Neudorf, my professor back in the U.S., where “all the punks lived.” Gertrud was from Chemnitz, a town in the former German Democratic Republic that was once called Karl-Marx-Stadt. And while she definitely possessed her genetic allotment of efficiency — she was punctual everywhere she went; she never ran out of or misplaced anything; she traveled everywhere by bicycle, even in the dead of winter, and knew how to maneuver through traffic with a deft mixture of caution and aggression — her tenure as my mentor, cultural ambassador, and only German friend led me to the greatest epiphany about the Germans of my short life: It wasn’t that Germans didn’t like me. It was that West Germans didn’t like me.

East Germans (Ossis) like her were patiently curious about the way I did certain things — walked around barefoot, answered the phone “Hello?” instead of barking my last name into it, failed to stand up and move toward the train door a full stop before I was due to exit the U-Bahn — whereas West Germans (what we would now consider “Germans”) could be mortally offended if I changed from my outdoor shoes to my indoor shoes (Hausschuhe) five minutes too late for their liking. According to Gertrud, this was not because, as I had assumed before, I was a patently offensive person — it was because Wessis were spoiled pains in the ass, who assumed they were better and more cultured than their Eastern counterparts just because they’d had uninterrupted access to Coca-Cola for the last half-century.

Look, I’ve seen Good-Bye Lenin! and The Lives of Others more times than I can count. I’ve taken a tour of the Hohenschönhausen Stasi prison led by a former inmate, who described in excruciating detail the time she was made to sit in the water-torture machine for seventeen straight hours. I am aware that the division of Berlin ripped families apart and killed people. I know the Stasi were among the most brutal surveillance forces ever to exist. But I’m just saying: there were things about the Ossi mentality that I very much preferred. Things that had less to do with guaranteed employment and lack of toxic late-capitalist morality than people being way less uptight about all of the things I did wrong, such as drink water from the tap.

It turns out I wasn’t the only one suffering from early-onset Ostalgie. In this I was joined by a rather sizable demographic — one that has, alas, all but disappeared in the intervening decades. This disappearance is not, as you might think, the natural result of twenty-first-century German capitalism’s sensible-suited dominance, but rather it owes to the whims of Mother Nature herself. I speak here of the venerable extinct creature known as the East Berlin Oma, or granny: violet of hair, slow of gait, thick of dialect, crotchety of disposition. If, in the late 1990s, you happened upon a purple-coiffed Dame of Friedrichshain, Prenzlauer Berg, Treptow, or Lichtenberg and asked her about reunification, chances are she would tell you without hesitation she preferred things the way they were before. Read more…