In 1989, during a performance of Hamlet at the National Theater, Daniel Day-Lewis walked off the stage. Like Hamlet, he claimed, he’d seen his father’s ghost. He never took to the stage again. With this week’s announcement that Day-Lewis is retiring from acting, it looks like his film days are over, too. And when Daniel Day-Lewis commits to something, he really commits.
Cue the public mourning for one of our most dedicated actors, a man as famous for avoiding the cameras as he is for standing in front of them. Day-Lewis embodied Acting with a capital A, embracing all of its finicky pretense. The end of his career may also be the end of an era for the great method actor — and the brilliant, if reluctant, male movie star.
In an essay in Harper’s, Zadie Smith examines Jordan Peele’s film Get Out, and Dana Schutz’s painting Emmett Till — recently exhibited at the Whitney, despite claims that a white artist should not be allowed to profit from black suffering — and the impossibility of ever drawing a hard and fast line between “black” and “white.”
Now I want to inch a step further. I turn from the painting to my children. Their beloved father is white, I am biracial, so, by the old racial classifications of America, they are “quadroons.” Could they take black suffering as a subject of their art, should they ever make any? Their grandmother is as black as the ace of spades, as the British used to say; their mother is what the French still call café au lait. They themselves are sort of yellowy. When exactly does black suffering cease to be their concern? Their grandmother—raised on a postcolonial island, in extreme poverty, descended from slaves—knew black suffering intimately. But her grandchildren look white. Are they? If they are, shouldn’t white people like my children concern themselves with the suffering of Emmett Till? Is making art a form of concern? Does it matter which form the concern takes? Could they be painters of occasional black subjects? (Dana Schutz paints many subjects.) Or must their concern take a different form: civil rights law, public-school teaching? If they ignore the warnings of the letter and take black suffering as their subject in a work of art, what should be the consequence? If their painting turns out to be a not especially distinguished expression of or engagement with their supposed concern, must it be removed from wherever it hangs? Destroyed? To what purpose?
The crowd is its own character in Julius Caesar; they are there to be angered, to forgive, to protest, and most importantly, to be persuaded. In Oskar Eustis’s controversial production, the ensemble sat among the audience for most of the play, standing up to protest only midway through the show. This became confusing during one of the final performances, when a 24-year-old, right-wing activist named Laura Loomer rushed the stage after the assassination scene in the Senate, shouting “Stop the normalization of political violence against the right!” (“We’re not promoting it,” an actress onstage said to Loomer in the moment. “This is Julius Caesar.”)
Hunt was born into the industry. He picked in the groves as a teenager, studied citrus in school. Aside from a brief prodigal period—long hair, VW van, the seventies—he has been here in Florida, working with oranges, his whole life. The Hunt Bros. packing house is a technological marvel, a Rube Goldberg machine of whirring, spinning, weighing, cleaning, sorting contraptions capable of marvels that McPhee would have delighted in. As we walked through, though, it was hard not to notice the way the machine was sorting out so much fruit, the small, useless harvest of greening. All the sorting technology in the world makes no difference if you don’t have the right fruit to put in it. We went for a drive in the groves after.
Only a person with Hunt’s experience can navigate a grove. To an outsider, it is like entering a hedge maze, an endless geometric trap of rows and rows of citrus trees. As we cruised the acres in his truck, there was never a spot where you couldn’t see some effect of the disease. When an owner abandons a grove, it creates problems for the neighbors. Without maintenance, a deserted grove is a breeding ground for psyllids, the bugs that carry the disease. The only way to stop them from spreading is to push and burn the infected trees. That’s what they call ripping the trees from the ground, pushing them into a pile, and lighting them on fire. Hunt pointed out evidence of this, swaths of land scarred with rows but no trees. He saw that as a good thing, evidence of owners who had taken care of their property. All around he pointed to abandoned groves, crippled-looking gnarled trees with useless fruit. These were the bad neighbors, he said, ones who cut their losses and walked away and left the problem for everybody else. One day their trees will have to burn, too.
Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son is one of those books people collect in multiples, saving extra copies to give to friends. I used to joke about handing it out in place of Halloween candy. Fortunately, Johnson wrote so much more: two collections of plays, three books of poetry, two short story collections, nine novels, a novella, and a book of reportage. He was dedicated to his vision of the writing life and embraced the mystery of the creative process with his students. After his death on May 24, there was an outpouring of appreciation for Johnson’s life and work from readers and writers, students and friends. We’ve asked for further thoughts from some of the people he reached through his books, his friendship, and the classes he led at various universities. We hope this collection adds further warmth and insight into the extraordinary work Denis Johnson gave to the world. —Aaron Gilbreath
Denis Johnson’s editor, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux
In the end, for me at least, Denis was unknowable. We worked together in two different phases on a lot of books, but somehow I always felt he was over there and I was over here. It didn’t seem personal, more existential. He had a genial surface, a sunniness and generosity and humor that were joyful to experience. Who wouldn’t have loved basking in that warmth? But other waters were always running in Denis, and I don’t think many people, except his wife Cindy, got a look into them
Our work together was usually easy. Denis wasn’t interested in editorial intervention, nor did he need it. But I learned that he could take what might have been an offhand remark much too deeply to heart. I believe Denis was greatly vulnerable always, and I suspect this was part of why he kept his distance from the saturnalia of literary life.
Denis told his students at Iowa that they should want to be Shakespeare, the only thing for a writer to want. That he certainly wanted it for himself and his work — not only in fiction and poetry, but in journalism and drama — shows the relentless drive of his ambition. Ambition is the noblest quality a writer can have. Fighting all the impediments to it, internal and outward, is the writer’s daily task. Jesus’ Son is about the force of addiction and the only thing that can overmaster it: the ecstatic experience of God. Train Dreams is about solitude. I think it’s arguable that these books, which are among his great achievements, speak to two poles of his experience. Readers will keep coming to them always, which tells you that here, as elsewhere, he hit the nail on the head.
Novelist, essayist, cultural critic
Denis was gentle, funny, good-hearted; a sweet, impish, and concerned man. You wanted to be around him. Maybe because in his early years he lost time to drugs, he felt life was precious. You felt that reading him, felt it being near him.
I was fortunate to meet Denis in 2011 in Kyoto. We were doing a week-long gig together. Riyo Niimoto, a writer and journalist, was teaching at the Kyoto University for Art and Design where he had recently started the first MFA writing program in Japan. He wanted Denis and me to discuss our writing with Japanese novelists and our experiences teaching in MFA programs. Denis hadn’t visited Japan since he was eight or nine, when his family lived there for a few years. He was full of joy retrieving Japanese words, pieces of his childhood. He was writing about it in his mind, you could see that. Denis embraced every experience, he was always observing life, and his beautiful sentences rose and fell with its rhythms.
Writing was everything to Denis. Writing and his wife, Cindy, his children, his close friends, they were his life. He had no time for bullshit. Award-winning, acclaimed, sure, but Denis was resolutely straight ahead. Writing was a calling, not a career.
I didn’t know Denis’s cancer had come back. We were talking by email about friends’ dying. His last sentences to me, sent on April 10: “Another day this side of the grass — I’ll take it. And it’s the only day there ever was — today. Every breath is sweet. Love, DJ.” It kills me — this glorious, graceful man gone from our world. A magnificent American writer. One of our best, ever. Denis Johnson had it all, and he took it to the limit.
Painter, professor at the Yale School of Art
FEAR NOT are the words inscribed across the pinnacle of James Hampton’s Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly. In 1982, DJ and I drove from Florida to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC to see the throne. DJ had become obsessed with Hampton’s work after hearing me describe it as one man’s visionary sculpture of his dialogue with God, and he insisted we stop in Eloree, South Carolina, the artist’s birthplace. At the Stop-n-Go on the corner of Hampton Street, DJ asked everyone in the store if they had ever heard of the artist, but no one had. When we arrived at the Smithsonian and DJ finally saw the throne, he said, “I couldn’t take it all in, and I was a little frightened.” Hampton’s lifelong work about redemption, a whale-sized gold and silver tinfoil sculpture created all alone in his garage, brought DJ to his knees. That night in the motel DJ began writing a poem in the bathtub. Later, he bolted up in bed. “I have to go home right now,” he said. “It was too much for me.” So I drove him to the airport. As he got out of the car he snapped his fingers and said, “Fear not.” Five years later he finished the poem.
Poet, author of Magdalene and The Kingdom of Ordinary Time
When Denis Johnson came out with The Incognito Lounge in 1982, the world of poetry trembled. In that extraordinary collection is the poem titled “Now,” which is as close to perfect as anything I’ve ever read, and the central poem of my writing life.
The poem is an experience. It’s happening to the poet as he writes it ─ not a record of an experience, not a memory ─ the experience is occurring to him word by word ─ a stepping into space without a rope. A waking awareness, a contradiction of his own impulse (Darkness, my name is Denis Johnson), and a series of urgent questions lead him and us to the very brink of radical transformation.
Denis was the first sober writer I had ever met. He was almost bursting out of his skin with aliveness. I watched him in wonder. How could someone so alive walk into rooms without holding something in front of his face? The poem “Now” suggests how.
Author of the novels The Missing Person and Inside
When I learned as a graduate student that I could take a workshop with Denis Johnson at the Michener Center, I was nervous to meet him and also electrified. Few books meant more to me at that time than Jesus’ Son and Angels. I loved his work because he didn’t write like anyone else — he was gritty and lyrical, sacred and profane. I guess it’s not surprising he didn’t teach like anyone else either. I think his process was intuitive, mysterious perhaps even to him. He was shambling, unguarded, and had no prepared speeches. He didn’t line edit your work or give lectures on structure, or whatever conventional workshop leaders might do — but a lot of the things he said have never left me.
Once, a young person in our workshop handed in a seemingly autobiographical story about a child. It wasn’t, to be honest, very accomplished. Denis’ main comment was “It’s good you’re writing about your childhood now, because when you’re older, you won’t be able to remember it the same way,” which struck me as both generous and nakedly sad.
When I went to his office to ask for advice on the novel I was just starting to write, Denis more or less shrugged at the impossibility of offering advice. “You have to learn to write this novel, and anything you learn won’t teach you how to write the next one.” It was infuriating to hear and also, I now realize, true. In class he talked about Raymond Carver, about what it meant to him to study with Carver at Iowa; how as a young writer, an undergraduate, he just wanted to be in the library where Carver had been, to sit in the same chair. He wept as he said this. Later that semester a friend of mine, a literary agent, came to town and wanted me to arrange lunch with Denis. When I asked him about it, he blanched. “Do I owe her money?” “No, you’re one of her idols” I said stubbornly, and insisted they meet. (This makes me cringe in retrospect — I wonder how often he must have heard that, and what a burden it must have been.) We took him to lunch. He ordered a cheeseburger, and when it arrived it was not done the way he ordered it. He wept a little at this too. It made me smile, and now it amazes me to remember it — how little armor he had, how he chose to live without it.
Fiction writer, author of Pull Me Under
I was lucky to be in Denis Johnson’s workshop at the Michener Center two years ago. He was an unorthodox and beloved teacher. That first day, he told us he was a crier. But we shouldn’t worry, it usually passed quick. He cried three times that semester: One over Mavis Gallant’s “The Latehomecomer,” one over how hard writing is, always, but how beautiful to get it right, and one I forget.
He said that if we didn’t feel like submitting stories to workshop, we didn’t have to. “What’s best is to just sit around and talk.” One day he brought in two metal balls and made us all hold them and decide which was heavier. The difference in weight was very tiny but we found we could usually tell the heavier one if we didn’t think about it too hard. Denis was DELIGHTED by this. We spent an hour holding the balls; he was practically bouncing off the walls with excitement at how much more our minds knew than our brains. And he never said, “This is like writing,” or anything like that. He was just awestruck. We left class early that day and walked over to Crown & Anchor where he ordered a burger and gave the name “Elvis.”
I submitted two stories to workshop that semester. One was previously published, but I wasn’t happy with it anymore and unsure why. He knew. It was the ending. Who knows more about endings than DJ? “This sounds very END-Y,” he said of the final paragraph. “But it’s not really an ending.” But he liked the story in general, which was good, because he HATED the next story I put up. It’s one of my most memorable Michener moments.
The second story was a shitty first draft with magic in it. I volunteered because no one else had anything. I thought I was being gracious. Denis hated that fucking story so much, it was shocking and, in retrospect, just as delightful as the metal balls. He hated it so much he gesticulated wildly with the pages, yelling “Is this your best work?” He knocked his Red Bull off the grand old table onto the blue carpet. I said, “It’s a first draft?” and blacked out. Afterward I tried to flee but fell off my bike in the road in front of everyone.
Another time he told us about going on a weeklong silent retreat. He thought he and his roommate liked one another and looked forward to talking. When the week was up, he eagerly greeted his roommate. His roommate quietly said, “I had a very expensive watch, and it’s gone.”
His joy and sorrow were on the surface. He didn’t give a shit about hiding them. So many of us hide them in public and call them back when we write. As if they will continue to respond!
Now I remember the third time Denis cried. He was talking about what makes a story interesting; how it’s the little things, how all the tricks we try as writers are often bullshit. And he wells up with tears and says, “There’s nothing more fascinating than watching a guy trying to untie a knot from his shoelace. Nothing.”
There’s something wonderful about a teacher who insists he knows as little, or less than you. It makes you feel like maybe you can write.
Author of The Queen of the Night and Edinburgh
In the spring of 1994, Denis Johnson was my workshop teacher and thesis adviser at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I remember he had the sort of charisma that is impossible to imitate or fake — everyone was either in love with him, or for the few who were not, annoyed that everyone was in love with him. He told stories of when he was a student there in poetry — of how this or that famous writer was not so beloved, he assured us, in workshop. But he made it more than gossip: “You don’t know what someone can do just from what they show you here,” he said of one poet who used to drive him crazy and was now one of his favorites. In that little anecdote was a story about the long game of writing, and the false intensity of a present that feels so permanent.
For me, he was important in several different ways. He was a poet who also wrote fiction, which I was too at the time—this was not so common then. I remember with one of my stories he said, “This has the feeling of a lit match carried through a storm.” He then spoke of the importance of guarding one’s original inspiration all the way to the end. That story was an experiment in writing about the queer punk scene in San Francisco in the early 1990s. (The writing of certain stories in the beginning of your career has the feeling of something that makes you as you make it — this was one of those for me.) It was not easy to present that kind of work in 1994, and so to be greeted like this by him alerted me to my own powers. It conferred the feeling of graduating from that place as nothing else did.
Emily Rapp Black
Author of Poster Child: A Memoir and The Still Point of the Turning World
I met Denis Johnson as a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin where I was a student in fiction in the early 2000s. On the first day of class we were nervous and star struck, but Denis was friendly, chatty, kind, and more than anything else, he was open. Within the first hour, Denis read aloud from J.D. Salinger’s APerfect Day for Bananafish. In the middle of the story he stopped and wiped his eyes, his voice cracking with emotion. “Isn’t that a beautiful line?” he asked. I wish now that I could remember which one.
He could have entered the space of eager graduate students arrogantly, even cruelly, and we likely would have accepted it. Certainly his epic reputation made many of us assume he would be anything but kind, least of all so emotional. Instead he read aloud from one of his favorite stories and burst into tears, as he continued to do throughout the semester. His great empathy and willingness to be vulnerable, not venerated and worshiped, made him a terrific leader of workshop. It is a model, I believe, of how to remain an artist — even when one becomes a kind of cult figure.
I also credit Johnson with giving me the greatest editorial gift, although at first it felt less like a gift and more like a massive moment of embarrassment. One day he announced he had hired actors to read aloud our stories for workshop. Hearing my overly long, overly lyrical story go on and on and on for more than an hour (Four metaphors per page! Overkill!) while I slashed phrases and lines taught me an invaluable lesson: The best way to edit is to read aloud. To this day, I read everything aloud, from short stories to essays to entire book-length manuscripts. So thanks, Denis. You are missed, and you will be remembered.
Fiction writer and reporter
It was my first fiction teacher, Michael Parker, who turned me onto Denis Johnson in undergrad workshops in Greensboro, North Carolina. Jesus’ Son was the gateway, the pocket-sized paperback with the blackboard cover that I read behind the counter at the bookstore where I worked, a place where I shelved serial romance novels and saved copies of Shotgun News and Hustler for regulars. Reading Jesus’ Son, I felt as I had when I’d first heard the Velvet Underground, from whose lyrics Denis had stolen his title. These were perfect sentences that sliced straight through to the core. Here was a writer acknowledging the things I’d suspected to be true of human beings and the world, confirmed and transformed into bleak, electric language. The words were simultaneously blistering and healing; they stayed with me like scars.
A few years later I was on a plane to Austin, Texas, a place I had never been. We whipped through dense clouds, landed with a sickening thump, and hurtled along the tarmac. I was disoriented and green when I arrived at the Michener Center for Writers as a prospective student. Down the stairs came Denis, whose sentences I knew by heart. He introduced himself, as if he had to, and said, “I was thinking about making a pot of coffee. Want some?” We stood and talked in the kitchen and that day felt like a beautiful augur. In Austin, he was the first person who helped me.
Denis later returned as a visiting writer and I was a student in his fiction workshop. I had not expected the writer of Angels to wear Hawaiian shirts and drive a cherry-red convertible, but who was I to judge? I decided to think of it as a character he was maybe trying out, the Denis Johnson who lived in Austin. I knew that back in Idaho he lived in a remote part of the state near a place named for a local bar, the Good Grief. In class, he was grand and occasionally admonishing, prone to laughter and tears. He hired student actors to read our stories back to us, which I hated at the time. Sometimes he alluded to his past in a far-off way, or spoke of the war-torn places he reported from in Seek, or mentioned his teacher Raymond Carver. In private, talking over stories, he was serious, rigorous, and generous. We sat in his office at Michener and talked about language, the kind of words that exist between people thrown together in certain circumstances of place or misfortune; the kind of language that is never spoken aloud.
A few days after I first met him, Denis invited his students and the visiting prospective fellows over to dinner at his rental in South Austin. Denis and Cindy’s kids drifted in and out of the house, there were plates of spaghetti and salad, and there was a sort of languidness about everything. Off to the side of the kitchen, normally a pantry or a laundry room, was the place Denis wrote. The door had been left slightly open. When you are a young writer you are always looking for clues not only in how to write, but how to be. I remember seeing a small plain table, a stiff uncomfortable-looking chair, a pad of yellow paper, and a typewriter with an index card taped on the wall above. On it, I imagined the three rules he frequently dictated (“Write naked. Write in blood. Write from exile.”) or a quote from Whitman he often recited, though I didn’t let myself look long enough to tell. Some dirty clothes were tossed on the side of a washing machine. I saw Denis just a couple times after our workshop — the years in which he published Train Dreams and Tree of Smoke — and I still try to square the image of that red convertible with the idea of that stark, demanding little room.
Fiction writer, author of Spectacle
In the early 1990s I lived in Boston and worked in a bookstore in Harvard Square. There was a night I went to a talk by T.C. Boyle, and during the Q & A someone asked what we should be reading. Boyle said Jesus’ Son. The bookstore I worked in was about to close down for good, so we didn’t carry Jesus’ Son. I couldn’t find it anywhere else and eventually I forgot about it. A few months later I was in Seattle helping my brother move and I was staying with a friend from college. There was a day my friend was at work and my brother and I were fighting, so I went for a long walk.
This moment is now personally significant, marking the first time I had walked alone aimlessly through a city I didn’t know. I ended up in a bookstore that had one copy of Jesus’ Son that I found while looking for something else. The next day I was in the Seattle airport. I was feeling bad about leaving my brother after our fight, I was feeling bad about a lot of things, so I started Jesus’ Son in a dark mood and read it in its entirety, sitting there, waiting. I’ve heard people say reading something great makes them feel less alone. But reading something great often has the opposite effect on me. With Jesus’ Son, I was acutely aware of my aloneness, even in that crowded airport. Coming out of the book, I remember looking up at the strangers around me. It’s hard to describe the feeling, but I’m thinking of a line from the first story in the collection: “…he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.” Something like frustration. Some beautiful awareness of our limitations. I still can feel it.
Editor at Rolling Stone, author of Searching for John Hughes
A few minutes after I saw the news that Denis Johnson had passed away, I took down Angels, his first novel, off my shelf and started to read it for the first time in over a decade. This is something I find myself doing whenever somebody whose art I appreciate passes. A few days earlier, I found myself revisiting Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger after Chris Cornell died, and I binged on more than a few of Nora Ephron’s films after her passing in 2012. This is how I cope.
Johnson’s books are scattered around my apartment. Like so many others, I read the stories in Jesus’ Son at the moment in my life when I found fiction really starting to impact my thinking. I’ve always kept a copy the way some people always have a Bible or specific bottle of Scotch in the house, but this night I decided to go back to the start of his career after reading a few of his poems to get warmed up. I reread the entire book in one sitting.
Angels was a novel that, when I read it at around 24 or 25, I told myself I had to read. Today, I realize maybe I was reading it the wrong way. I was under the influence of Jesus’ Son, and the idea that Johnson — like Lou Reed, who wrote the song the book gets its name from — was sketching a certain kind of person he had observed and wanted to write about; people living on the fringes, messed up people, criminals, junkies, and “weirdos,” as Matt Bell writes in his moving eulogy. I’d thought Johnson was commenting on those people, and nothing else. Like many other things in my twenties, I was so wrong. While he writes about people who are messed up, what becomes clear is that Johnson didn’t necessarily believe we were born sinners, his characters didn’t come out screwed up and weird. They’re victims of America, its weirdness and dysfunction; American dreams turned into nightmares.
Poet, author of Dearest Creature and Scattered at Sea
When I first read Denis Johnson, his poetry and prose knocked the wind out of me in the best way, and his writing has never failed, upon frequent re-readings, to leave me breathless. On every level I love his work: the mind behind it, individual sentences or lines, how he humanizes “twistedness” and all that seethes within his characters, his dark grace in dealing with insane behavior and suffering (including the self-induced variety), his intensity on the page, his gift for making the strange relatable and the relatable strange, and the weird humor that gleams beneath.
I began with the prose. When Jesus Son came out in 1992, I was stunned by the stories’ mix of beauty and harshness, and the way he wielded images. Then I backtracked to the poems. After that, I had to ask myself, how the hell was this guy so good at both genres? Had anybody ever written about being high, caught the glory, hilarity and crazy desolation better than him? When I read his work, I re-learn that writing about extreme states or violence or being under the influence never need be limited to just that, but can be a deep dive into the hallucinatorily human, into our wildest capacities. His fiction goes way beyond ‘poetic prose’ for me. Car Crash While Hitchhiking and Emergency are two of my favorite stories, ever. I’ve never read a poem of his that didn’t give me a wonderful shiver.
Novelist, author of The Animals
I’ve been looking over my friend Denis Johnson’s writing in the silence after his demise, marveling anew at the moments of grace in his work, the way he turns toward the spirit, the divine, just when it seems that to do so would be, is, utterly impossible. Yet is it not true that whenever we reach those moments in his books and stories and poems and plays, what we come to understand is that he has been quietly, deftly, directing us toward our own souls with every scene, with every sentence, with every word? So that when the great surprise comes and we stand face to face with that bright light that is — what? God? the universe? our very selves? — there is no great surprise at all. He has been telling us all along that it is coming: a reckoning which is, in the end, deliverance itself. Oh how he hands you the great gift you think is a bullet, a feather, a small smooth pile of pills like tiny blue stones, a whole collection of objects which, when you look later, is only your own heart held wild and beating in your hands. What a marvel you were, my friend. And so what a marvel you will ever be. Godspeed. In those darkest of nights I will forever think of your light. You saved me. God knows you saved us all.
Donald Trump’s presidency seems to have only been kind to comedians and the wealthy. At the Paris Review, humorist and expatriate David Sedaris tallies the many reasons for his current state of shame and sadness, which comes from being an American traveling the world in times of Trump. As always, Sedaris’ greatest gift is his ability to laugh at the absurdity of life.
Eight. I join my family on Emerald Isle for Thanksgiving and have a great screaming fight with my Republican father, who yells at one point, “Donald Trump is not an asshole!” I find this funny but at the same time surprising. Regardless of whether or not you voted for him, I thought the president-elect’s identity as a despicable human being was something we could all agree on. I mean, he pretty much ran on it.
Later in our argument my father shouts, “He’s the best thing that’s happened to this country in years,” and, “It was just locker-room talk.”
“I’m in locker rooms five days a week and have never heard anyone carry on like Trump in that video,” I argue. “And if I did, I wouldn’t think, Wow, that guy ought to be my president. I’d think he was a creep and a loser.” Then I add, repeating something I’d heard from someone else, “Besides, he wasn’t in a locker room, he was at work.”
The credit cards that once empowered many Canadians are now allowing people to bury themselves in debt they can’t recover from. In The Walrus, Raizel Robin writes about this new middle class. It’s an aspirational one that lives paycheck to paycheck, is not always willing to give up certain lifestyle choices and luxury activities, and relies on Payday loans that only compound their problems. Some financial analysts warn that the day of reckoning is approaching.
Indeed, while the largest chunk of our household expenditures goes toward groceries, transportation, and shelter, many Canadians seem uninterested in prioritizing needs over wants—according to a recent cibc poll, only half of those surveyed were willing to cut spending on non-essential items in order to keep up with bills. Our debt load is, in a sense, the result of an aspirational burden. “Middle class” once meant exactly that—the median in household net worth, or the point at which half the population has a higher income and the other half a lower one. A 2013 internal government document deemed middle-class incomes to be anywhere between $54,000 and $108,000—that’s quite a spread. Middle-class status has thus become more of a state of mind than a demographic bracket. Federal finance minister Bill Morneau recently admitted as much, defining middle-class Canadians, in part, according to the “lifestyle they aspire to.”
But it’s hard to deny the fact that such lifestyles tend to be defined by consumption, or what one American sociologist has dubbed “upscale emulation.” A bankruptcy lawyer I spoke with has helped clients in just this fix—clients such as the Toronto architect crushed by $105,000 in tax debt and $75,000 in credit card debt who still managed to vacation in the tropics four times a year with his wife. Or the divorced, self-employed Toronto chiropractor who made $4,900 a month and insisted that both her kids attend private school—until the Canada Revenue Agency froze her accounts. We spend our way into the standard of living we feel we deserve, buying stuff that makes us who we think we are, or want to be.
“I want to punch them and make them take off their damn sunglasses,” the bartender said. I’d said something uncharitable about the guys at the far end of the room, but the bartender heard me — and shared my disdain. He went on a tirade about how “those tech bros are rude, entitled, and synonymous with everything I hate about the neighborhood.”
Tech bros might be the cane toads of cities like Seattle and San Francisco. Cane toads were imported to Australia in the ’30s to keep the bugs down; brogrammers are meant to do the same, but the crop isn’t sugar, it’s code. Cane toads were wildly successful at reproducing, but if you ask the women trying to navigate the brogrammer-riddled dating pool, reproduction is not in the cards.
My judge-y conversation with the bartender was last spring, but it’s not a new discussion. Back in 2014 for Dame, Tricia Romano shared her own dating trials and those of women who want to spend time with guys who are — go figure — interested in them. In spite of a sea of more recent apps, this is an issue tech bros haven’t been able to disrupt.
The exact same scenario has been playing out in San Francisco for the last few years. One woman, Violet, a 33-year-old who has lived in the Bay Area for eight years, with one of those in the “belly of the beast,” Palo Alto, experienced many of the same things I and other women did. They had money, but they were boring. They had a lot to say about their job, but their development as a complete human being seemed to be stunted. And they exhibited little to no interest in the other person at the table.
One woman, Bridget Arlene, spent three years in Seattle for graduate school, and said that she actually moved out of the city, in part because of the type of available men—most of whom had computer science or engineering degrees and worked for Google, Microsoft, or Amazon. “The type of person who is attracted to these jobs and thus to the Seattle area seems to be a socially awkward, emotionally stunted, sheltered, strangely entitled, and/or a misogynistic individual,” she wrote in an email. Arlene said that she was once contacted by a Microsoft programmer on OKCupid who required that she read Neuromancer before “he would consider taking me out on a date. He was not joking.”
It’s not just the dating pool that’s been affected. Spaces that have traditionally been held for — and by — subcultures have lost their character as new residents seek out places that aren’t dominated by sunglasses-indoors-throwing-their-money-around dudes.
This wasn’t what I’d signed up for. I’d moved back to Seattle, in particular to Capitol Hill, because when I’d lived here during the ’90s it was a beacon of diversity for weirdos. (I stress “weirdos”—there are few people of color in Seattle.) The weirdos were: young gay boys, old hippies of varying sexuality, straight artists and musicians, softball lesbians, punk-rock dykes who played house music, metal musicians, ravers, or people into the fetish scene. They were not straight, white guys from flyover country or California imported by a software company. They spent their time doing things other than making Jeff Bezos more money.
The problem has become pervasive enough in Seattle that when I went with a few girlfriends to Pony, one of the last true gay bars on Capitol Hill, I was shocked when I found out that the adorable pair of 25-year-old boys talking to us were heterosexual. They were there because—as one of them told us—”It was the only place on the Hill on the weekends where there are no bros.”
Home and Garden Television, better known as HGTV, has forged a reputation as a television ratings giant in the past couple of years, more than two decades after the channel launched in 1994. Late last year, Kate Wagner noted the timeliness of the channel’s launch, given its niche — real estate as reality television programming: it surfaced amid the Clinton administration’s push for “huge mortgage reforms in order to stimulate growth in the home-building sector and provide more housing for lower-income Americans.” As home sales spiked, HGTV offered a glimpse into “the national home-buying and home-selling fervor,” Wagner wrote.
And interest in the channel’s offerings has not waned. Last year, an academic design journal devoted an entire issue to “Learning from HGTV.” An academic paper in American Quarterly in 2012 noted that HGTV briefly “became the object of public scorn” in the wake of the collapse of the housing market, as Americans found the programming “complicit” for its tendency to depict homes as “investments.” But it survived, and even thrived, as the players in its shows land celebrity magazine cover after cover.
“Puzzled, I asked a few Hollywood publicists if they could explain why the celebrity news media cared so much about the El Moussas. The head of publicity for one big studio responded, ‘Is that a fragrance?’” Barnes wrote.
Barnes sees the El Moussas as “fascinating — not as newsmakers, but as a window into the evolving celebrity news business.” A former US Weekly and Hollywood Reporter editor tells him the evolution is due to “the effects of a culturally divided America.”
Barnes explains President Donald Trump is divisive; tabloid magazines catch heat for putting him or his relations on their covers. The Kardashians’ ratings “have plummeted,” and “most movie stars have little tabloid tread left on them,” he adds, noting that Jennifer Aniston is still not pregnant. Plus, there’s the hunger for clicks in our age of digital news: “If there is no news, just glom onto something tiny. In Touch recently did an entire article about a basic Instagram post by Mr. El Moussa. (See it here!’),” Barnes wrote.
Over on The Ringer, Amanda Dobbins wrote late last year, in a piece titled “The End of Celebrity As We Know It,” that more than three million people regularly watch Flip or Flop, “which is more than the number of people who saw Will Smith’s most recent movie or bought Lady Gaga’s album.” She interviewed Lindsey Weber of the podcast Who Weekly, which regular discusses HGTV stars: “Anyone can do anything on the internet now. So now we have all these people that just exist because we have a democratic platform where anyone can do something that makes them notable,” Weber told her. Dobbins concluded, “If you are looking for a career change right now, you could do worse than midlevel celebrity; the market has never been more open.”
But is the rise of HGTV celebrities a window into, or a reprieve from, a “culturally divided America”? Read more…
Parents of all stripes struggle to keep their kids in school, off drugs, and on track for adult life and careers. In Texas Monthly, writer John Nova Lomax narrates the struggle he and his wife went through with their son, who liked trashing cars and quitting jobs more than attending university. After the young man finds direction and identity in the Army, the lingering question becomes: at what personal cost?
We’d all entered into a toxic scenario called hostile dependency. He needed us for everything, we hated ourselves whether we indulged him or didn’t, and he despised himself for having to ask. We fought for weeks: John Henry and me, John Henry and his mom, John Henry and Kelly—all of us angry and terrified and just plain sad. No, I couldn’t co-sign a year’s lease on an apartment for him. No, I wouldn’t sign up for four years of tuition and living expenses for classes he might periodically show interest in attending. No, I couldn’t buy him another car, and he wouldn’t ride the bus or settle for a bike.
Often our arguments would end with John Henry pointing out how much better I’d had it when I was his age. And it’s true, I had. Thanks to a small inheritance, the many, many errors of my misspent youth—dropping out of two colleges, burning through cars and jobs on a pace equal to his—were softened. I had a safety net and he did not, and I felt terribly guilty about it. But nevertheless, I could not give him what I did not have. At the end of all these arguments, he’d shuffle back to his little backyard house behind ours, his shoulders slumped, his head hung low, feeling that much more hopeless about his lot in life. As for me, I’d feel like a failure because I couldn’t provide what many of his friends with wealthier parents could: that newish SUV, the four (or five, or six) years of worry-free college and study-abroad programs, followed by an internship at a cool company with prospects. In short, a plan. I could not give my son a plan, other than the military, England, or else.