Are You Sure You’re Not Guilty of the ‘Millennial Pause’?

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It took me two years to post my first TikTok. I’d press “Record,” mumble into the camera, and hastily hit delete before anyone could see just how awkward I was on video. I took the plunge only after practicing enough to eliminate any telltale signs that I was a near-30-year-old trying to be cool. Or so I thought.

Apparently, I’m still guilty of the “Millennial pause.” After hitting “Record,” I wait a split second before I start speaking, just to make sure that TikTok is actually recording. Last year, @nisipisa, a 28-year-old YouTuber and TikToker who lives in Boston, coined the term in a TikTok about how even Taylor Swift can’t avoid the cringey pause in her videos. “God! Will she ever stop being relatable,” @nisipisa, herself a Millennial, says. Gen Zers make up a larger portion of TikTok’s base, and have grown up filming themselves enough to trust that they’re recording correctly. Which is why, as short-form video comes to Instagram (Reels), YouTube (Shorts), and Snapchat (Spotlight), the Millennial pause is becoming easier to spot.

Unfortunately for me, today’s most culturally influential social platforms are not geared around Millennials anymore, and the pause is far from the only giveaway. Millennials—and their mannerisms—defined the online ecosystem that has ruled for a decade plus, treating sites such as MySpace, Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter as the jungle gyms in their internet playground. But now that we’re well into the TikTok era, the cracks are starting to show. Instagram and Facebook, while still popular, are attempting to capture the magic of TikTok by pivoting to videos and other ultra-sharable content that doesn’t come quite as naturally to Millennials (even ones born in the early 1990s, like me). Now that Gen Z has all the attention, the internet quirks that Millennials have called their own for years can feel a bit stale, if not downright cringey. The first generation to grow up with social media in the mobile web era, Millennials are now becoming the first generation to subsequently age out of it, stuck parroting the hallmarks of a bygone digital age.

Once my eyes were opened to the Millennial pause, I started noticing my age in every part of my internet experience. I get confused whenever Instagram changes its layout. I use GIFs to make jokes in Slack. I have posted song lyrics on my Instagram Story. The range of mannerisms is so broad, the signs such a staple of my online behavior for the past 15 years, that it’s not even worth trying to fight them.

Naturally, Gen Z has picked up on them too, and the mockery that was once reserved for Boomers is now coming for me. “The way the quintessential Millennial behaves online is basically a bunch of silly little nuances strung together to create a personality that is very giddy and excitable about the normal or mundane,” Michael Stevens, a 24-year-old TikTok creator based in New England, told me over email. His impressions of Millennials have received millions of views on TikTok. Those “silly little nuances” include starting videos with a sigh, doing dramatic zooms into their own faces for emphasis, and using phrases popularized on Twitter and Tumblr—like “doggo” and “I can’t even”—in real life. “My husband just went to the new Trader Joe’s next to our house and I think it wins the internet for the day,” Stevens says in a Millennial parody from July. “If this is adulting, sign me up.”

Millennial internetisms exist because they were, at one time, the mainstream way of talking online. In 2014, someone tweeting that Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope and Ben Wyatt gave them “all the feels” would have been acceptable, but now Gen Z just uses it as fodder for some secondhand embarrassment, the same way that Millennials groan when their Boomer parents try to navigate an Apple TV. Millennial-isms have made for a whole genre of parody. On TikTok, the creator Bianca Scaglione makes Millennial parodies for her 910,000 followers, specifically skewering their awkwardness on a livestream. (“And then they accidentally end the live by trying to do a filter,” she captioned one impression.) Other creators have mocked Millennials for how they pose in photos (taking selfies from above is so over), for using Gen Z phrases (“slay, bestie”) on TikTok, for adopting something called a “BuzzFeed accent” when they talk to the camera. The list goes on: Millennials take Instagram way too seriously, using portrait mode and filling their captions with forced puns. They love to turn their social-media bios into lists—for instance, mine would read: “Kate. Ravenclaw. Cat mom. Knitting enthusiast. PA > OH > NYC.”

And, given their need to insert themselves into every new internet trend, Millennials are also sometimes active participants in their own critique. Since they can’t beat the Gen Z creators parodying them, some Millennials have joined them, re-creating the fashion, hair, and makeup of their youth in similarly popular videos.

Millennials aren’t the only generation that has been boiled down to broad and often unflattering stereotypes online: the notions that Boomers hate change, for example, or that Gen Xers are slackers. In 2019, the phrase OK Boomer took off online across both Gen Z and Millennial users as a symbol of collective exhaustion with battling the stereotypes handed down to them from above. That same year, a Facebook group titled “A group where we all pretend to be boomers” launched; 285,000 members still role-play daily, posting pixelated memes about cars and asking things like “DID anyone ELSE LOSE POWER??”

But that kind of mockery is different. Although Boomers fell out of the internet zeitgeist, they never had as far to fall as Millennials—the first cohort to watch their youth fade in real time, with evidence of their growing irrelevance meticulously documented in memes, trends, and headlines published on the very internet they once reigned over. They’re no longer the hot new item brands are scrambling to attract, nor the ones the world is turning to for the next fashion trend. The internet has moved on, and Millennials can either adapt or, like a Gen Xer still listening to Pearl Jam, not care if their choices make them seem old.

None of this is necessarily a bad thing, even if it bruises my ego. A 35-year-old desperately adopting the mannerisms of a 20-year-old is a different kind of cringe. Instead, in spite of the occasional embarrassment, the Millennial tics that remain have gone from trend to nostalgia. And besides, when Gen Alpha comes for Gen Z’s internet, you better believe I’ll have been taking notes.

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12 Books to Help You Love Reading Again

Reading is hard right now. The pandemic has pushed our already scattered attention spans to a crisis point. But even before 2020, stressors such as political chaos and the allure of our phones made it harder and harder to find the time and focus to get lost in a book. Even when we’re not living through a distracting moment, we will inevitably have personal fallow periods when reading as a habit and a respite just doesn’t happen.

Certain writing is able to grab us and shake us out of these ruts—by presenting a breakneck adventure we feel compelled to see through; by gently opening us back up to the thrill of a good story; by allowing us to spend time in the mind of a fictional character. When they appear to us at the right moment and in the right way, these books can act as a bridge that leads us back to the rewards of literature. Below, our staff members have compiled 12 books that rekindled our love for reading after a dry spell.

The cover of Heartburn

Heartburn, by Nora Ephron

After I had my twins in the summer of 2020, when my brain was as sludgy as risotto and I couldn’t imagine finishing a CNN chyron, let alone a novel, my very brilliant friend Annalisa recommended Heartburn as a “gateway” back into reading. I finished it in a few days, sucking up the chapters like air or a cocktail. The book is a lightly (very lightly) fictionalized version of Ephron’s own devastating marital crisis, when she discovered that her husband, the former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, was having an affair with a mutual friend while Ephron was pregnant with their second child. Somehow, it’s hysterical. Ephron’s tone throughout is part stand-up comic, part beloved friend sending a bitchy, meandering email. In one paragraph, her thoughts turn from despair to suicidal ideation to the habits of “neurasthenic,” poetic sad girls to this take on that famous genre: “Show me a woman who cries when the trees lose their leaves in autumn and I’ll show you a real asshole.” Did I mention that recipes are folded into the text? An actually perfect novel. — Sophie Gilbert

The cover of The Plot

The Plot, by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Recently, during a particularly grim stretch of months, I was desperate to get lost in a book. I kept searching for something that would echo what I was feeling: serious reflections on sickness, grief and loss, the world ending. But I couldn’t finish anything. Getting to the last page always seemed like hiking up a mountain; it would be worthwhile, even beautiful, but also exhausting. When I read The Plot, I realized I’d been picking the wrong material. The title of Korelitz’s twisty thriller feels like a wink to the reader. It is, in fact, a plot-driven book about the power of a good plot. (Things kick off when a writer steals a dynamite story line from a dead person.) That’s not to say the book is only action; it plays with meaty questions about artistic ownership, gender, and creative identity. But Korelitz leans into the drama and the fun. Sometimes, when you want a book to take you away, you have to choose one that doesn’t hit home. — Faith Hill

The cover of Intimations

Intimations, by Zadie Smith

Reading about the pandemic may sound like a terrible idea for someone trying to move past the misery of the pandemic. But Smith’s Intimations, a collection of essays written during and about the isolation and anxiety of 2020, serves less as a bleak reminder of our social-distancing era and more as comforting evidence that even one of the most clear-eyed authors struggled to shape her thoughts. Some passages come off like first drafts, but that moved me: Smith seemed as reluctant as I was to contend directly with the virus’s toll, as torn as I felt about attempting to turn my dread into sourdough. Absorbing her musings, especially about writing, reassured me; her prose was as beautifully structured as ever, but she wasn’t forcing herself to find answers. At barely more than 100 pages long, Intimations is a literary compass, compact and unassuming, but essential to finding a way forward. — Shirley Li

[Read: The literature of the pandemic is already here]

The cover of Turtle Diary
New York Review Books

Turtle Diary, by Russell Hoban

Turtle Diary doesn’t move very fast. It doesn’t have any real dramatic tension, either: The book’s two melancholy and otherwise unconnected narrators, William and Neaera, encounter no obstacles in their shared quest to release three sea turtles living at the London Zoo back into the ocean. The zookeeper is an eager accomplice. Their journey across England, their charges tucked in the back of a rented van, is eventless. The turtles slip easily into the water and swim away. This is not a book that screams Don’t put me down! And yet, after I had spent more than a year with my attention frayed by the dual demands of editing stories about the pandemic and caring for my baby—after I had spent many months too distracted to think about books—I kept reading because of Turtle Diary’s calm, its quiet interiority. However undramatic, the turtles’ release is a transformative moment for both William and Neaera, and afterward, they feel more at ease in the world and with themselves. Only a book could capture the intimacy of a shift like that, and offer the pleasure of sharing in it. — Sarah Laskow

The cover of In the Dream House
Graywolf Press

In the Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado

To borrow the architectural metaphor that animates In the Dream House, this isn’t a memoir you read so much as one that you wander through, room by room. I toured it, so to speak, in less than a day, trying to wean my brain off social media and reacquaint it with the slow, analog pleasures of following a single narrative for an extended period. To tell a difficult story about domestic abuse within a lesbian relationship, Machado resorts to an unconventional, fragmented structure. A mesmerizing narrator, she weaves personal narrative with intelligent and often darkly funny interrogations of literary and pop-cultural tropes. Chapters are short and given intriguing titles such as “Dream House as Schrödinger’s Cat” and “Dream House as Noir.” (The chapter “Dream House as Famous Last Words” is simply the sentence “‘We can fuck,’ she says, ‘but we can’t fall in love.’”) The effect is accumulative and devastating, and the memoir’s many pieces add up to an inventive reckoning with cultural silence. — Lenika Cruz

[Read: The shadow pandemic]

The cover of Goodbye, Vitamin
Henry Holt and Co.

Goodbye, Vitamin, by Rachel Khong

After Ruth’s fiancé breaks up with her, she quits her job, returns home, and helps care for her father, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. It sounds like a bummer of a premise, but Goodbye, Vitamin is actually one of the most life-affirming books I’ve ever read. When I’m in a reading rut, it’s usually because of stress, which leaves me unable to focus on a dense narrative. This novel is the perfect antidote: It’s a short read, and most scenes are less than a page long; many are just a couple of lines. It’s a story told in small everyday moments, and the knowledge that Ruth has limited time left with her father imbues each with meaning. Its comforts are deeper than escapism; by showing, never telling, it demonstrates that all the moments of our stupid little lives, even the hard and mundane ones, add up to something profound. But it’s really funny too! Khong expertly balances the silly and the sublime until the last page—even now, years after I first read it, thinking of the book’s final lines can make me cry. — Julie Beck

The cover of All About Love
William Morrow

All About Love: New Visions, by bell hooks

In the blustering December days following the death of the Black feminist titan bell hooks, the first wave of the Omicron variant rapidly overtook New York City. Under such foreboding conditions, I rarely seek out nonfiction that isn’t explicitly work-related. But in reading so many moving tributes to hooks, I was compelled to revisit All About Love: New Visions, a brisk, personal read. Interspersing cultural analysis with anecdotes from her own life, hooks ponders what love could look like in action. “When we choose to love we choose to move against fear—against alienation and separation,” she writes. It’s at once an incisive critique of elevating romantic connections above all other kinds and a guide to employing what hooks calls a “love ethic” as a communal balm. This is the kind of nonfiction that feels like an invitation. All About Love holds the same enthralling power over me now as it did when I first encountered it as a college freshman. When I arrived at its final pages again, I was comforted by the thought that more awaited me—in the rest of hooks’s Love Song to the Nation trilogy, in her broader oeuvre, and in the other nonfiction it guided me back to. — Hannah Giorgis

The cover of Trio

Trio, by William Boyd

During the Trump era, I stopped reading books. Maybe this is understandable. The human brain is no more designed for a sustained assault on its attention than the human body is designed for metabolizing Froot Loops, and that’s essentially what Donald Trump’s presidency required: the unremitting ingestion of Twitter’s neon birdseed. Yet still I was alarmed. For two-plus years, I’d been a daily book critic at The New York Times. How on earth did I lose the skill to stay with a novel? Two things got me reading again: the election of a dull, steady, Twitter-indifferent president, which gave me the permission I needed to lose myself in fiction, and the arrival of a galley of Trio. It takes place in Brighton during the swinging ’60s, and though its scope is less ambitious than some of Boyd’s cradle-to-grave pseudo-biographies, it’s great fun nonetheless, focusing on a trio of characters (an actor, a writer, and a film producer) involved in the desperate and occasionally redeeming project of making art. I was instantly transported by their excesses, frailties, and deceptions. Boyd, an expert conjurer of worlds, writes with his customary energy and wit. Plus, one of his minor devils has the unimprovable name of Janet Headstone. Who could resist? — Jennifer Senior

[Read: The exquisite pain of reading in quarantine]

The cover of Piranesi

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

I read Clarke’s jewel of a novel during our first pandemic winter. At a time when creative virtuosity was the last thing on most of our minds, Piranesi floored me with its imaginative heft. A man called Piranesi lives in a house with many rooms that is sometimes flooded by the sea. He can’t remember how he got there, but he occupies his time by mapping its cavernous, statuary-filled halls. He fishes for food and makes coverings for his feet. (He wonders, at one point, whether he can knit socks from seaweed. He decides he cannot.) He also catalogs and gives names to the few people he knows or eventually discovers exist: the Other, the Prophet, 16. The reveal—why Piranesi is in the house, who his compatriots are, why his memory is so hazy—is wildly inventive. Clarke explores grand themes (consciousness, hubris) with tenderness and contrasts brilliantly austere environs with her protagonist’s warm curiosity, which registers like a beating heart. Reading along, I felt the pleasure of trusting a master storyteller; gently, slowly, she illuminated the dark until I was, like Piranesi himself, standing in the bright light of the world outside the house. — Jane Yong Kim

The cover of The Three-Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin

After numbing my early-pandemic terror by getting lost in video games, I became immersed in a story that was, in part, about gaming through the apocalypse. Liu’s sci-fi landmark, The Three-Body Problem, opens with scenes from China’s Cultural Revolution in the ’60s and then traverses decades in which aliens seem to be messing with Earthly affairs, leading humankind’s brightest minds to treat their everyday reality as a puzzle to be solved. One character becomes mesmerized by a multiplayer virtual world that seems to hold clues about the mounting glitchiness of meatspace. Other characters devote themselves to quests—for hidden knowledge, for interstellar connection, for the reform of our species—with the kind of fervency that blots out all other pursuits. Devouring the book felt like completing a series of mind-bending challenges on the way to some unimaginable final level. But Liu’s exact prose and restless, point-of-view-switching narrative style paid off the obsession in a way that no game could. — Spencer Kornhaber

[Read: What happens if China makes first contact?]

The cover of The Thief
Greenwillow Books

The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner

I felt like a ragged cuticle in 2020—exposed, inflamed, sensitive. Everything was overstimulating, even books. As the year dragged on, I decided that if reading was impossible, I’d try rereading. I began with Turner’s 1996 novel, which I’d loved in middle school but mostly forgotten. Set in a preindustrial Hellenistic world with a vividly imagined history and mythology, the book’s titular pickpocket, Gen, is a charming scoundrel who’s sprung from jail and drafted for a mysterious mission. The reasons why he travels across the country, and what his companions need a thief for, trickle out slowly alongside intrigue and banter. Turner’s story is heavy on politics and reality, which makes its mysterious supernatural implications irresistible. And when I reached the crucial, climactic twist that gives the entire journey a new meaning, the revelation of a character’s true identity and my giddy original discovery of it more than a decade ago rushed back. I immediately picked up its sequel, just as I had the first time around, and read all the way through the five other books in the series—ending with the serendipitously released 2020 conclusion, Return of the Thief. — Emma Sarappo

The cover of The Diary of a Young Girl

The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank

Early in the pandemic, I noticed that my daughters, who were 10 and 7 then, had stopped reading. Once the snow-day giddiness of those early weeks faded and some semblance of routine returned, they seemed incapable of losing themselves in books. I couldn’t blame them; my reading time was mostly spent refreshing websites that gave the numbers of the infected and dead. And then, one evening, I picked up Anne Frank’s diary. The choice was maybe morbid (and it’s possible they weren’t quite ready for it), but I sat on the floor in their room and began reading a few entries to them before bed. I’d forgotten how the diary starts with Anne in freedom, all earnestness and schoolgirl obsession. The girls loved it. And then Anne’s life begins to contract. What menaced her was so much more dangerous and deadly than COVID; they understood that. But they also couldn’t help relating: Anne peeks out the window of her attic to catch a glimpse of sky and rooftop. At one point, she wonders, “When will we be allowed to breathe fresh air again?” They kept asking for one more entry, and I kept wanting to slow down. Reading was giving them pleasure again, but I knew, as they didn’t yet, how her story ended. — Gal Beckerman

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Hotel Earth

Cornices overgrown with moss, the stoop
With nettles, flower beds
Hardly discernible beneath brambles and weeds—

Next door was a place where drinks
Were sold, so I ordered
A glass of red wine. The Earth?

For years it never changed, said the bartender.
Now kids won’t come around at night.
Doors close by themselves

As if clouds were gathering—bang!
Footsteps climb the staircase, one, two—

I paid the tab. Does anything stay

There—hatred, the capacity for love?
There’s the baby in the red striped sweater
Against blue sky, my left hand

Holding her, my right the camera.
She’s smiling at you.
We’re invisible, like the sea.

This poem appears in the September 2022 print edition.

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You Don’t Want a World Without Manual Transmission

I drive a stick shift. It’s a pain, sometimes. Clutching and shifting in bumper-to-bumper traffic wears you out. My wife can’t drive my car, which limits our transit options. And when I’m at the wheel, I can’t hold a cold, delicious slushie in one hand, at least not safely. But despite the inconvenience, I love a manual transmission. I love the feeling that I am operating my car, not just driving it. That’s why I’ve driven stick shifts for the past 20 years.

That streak may soon be over. When it comes time to replace my current car, I probably won’t be able to get another like it. In 2000, more than 15 percent of new and used cars sold by the auto retailer CarMax came with stick shifts; by 2020, that figure had dropped to 2.4 percent. Among the hundreds of new car models for sale in the United States this year, only about 30 can be purchased with a manual transmission. Electric cars, which now account for more than 5 percent of car sales, don’t even have gearboxes. There are rumors that Mercedes-Benz plans to retire manuals entirely by the end of next year, all around the world, in a decision driven partly by electrification; Volkswagen is said to be dropping its own by 2030, and other brands are sure to follow. Stick shifts have long been a niche market in the U.S. Soon they’ll be extinct.

We can’t say we weren’t warned. For years, the stick’s decline has been publicly lamented. Car and Driver ran a “Save the Manuals” campaign in 2010, insisting that drivers who “learned to operate the entire car” would enjoy driving more and do it better. A #SaveTheManual hashtag followed. Shifting gears yourself isn’t just a source of pleasure, its advocates have said, or a way to hone your driving. A manual car is also less likely to be stolen if fewer people know how to drive it. It’s cheaper to buy (or at least it used to be), and it once had lower operation and maintenance costs. You can push-start a manual if the battery dies, so you’re less likely to get stuck somewhere; and you can use the stick more easily for engine braking, which can reduce wear and make descending hills easier and safer.

But the manual transmission’s chief appeal derives from the feeling it imparts to the driver: a sense, whether real or imagined, that he or she is in control. According to the business consultant turned motorcycle repairman turned best-selling author Matthew Crawford, attending to that sense is not just an affectation. Humans develop tools that assist in locomotion, such as domesticated horses and carriages and bicycles and cars—and then extend their awareness to those tools. The driver “becomes one” with the machine, as we say. In his 2020 book, Why We Drive, Crawford argues that a device becomes a prosthetic. The rider fuses with the horse. To move the tool is to move the self.

Crawford argues that this cognitive enhancement is possible only when you can interpret the components of the tool you’re operating. As a rider must sense the horse’s gait, so must a driver grok the engine’s torque. But modern automotive technology tends to inhibit that sensation. Power steering, electronic fuel injection, anti-lock braking systems, and, yes, automatic transmissions obstruct the “natural bonds between action and perception,” Crawford writes. They inhibit the operator’s ability to interpret the car’s state and capacities through a healthy feedback loop of action and information. To illustrate the point, he tells a story about test-driving a 400-horsepower Audi RS3 with all the options, including a paddle-shifting automatic transmission. It was powerful and capable, he says, but “I could not connect with the car.” That description is a common one among gearheads, a way of expressing that the human operator and the machine are out of sync.

The stick shift has become a proxy object for that loss. When manual transmissions were the norm, drivers had to touch and manipulate the shifter, in tandem with the clutch, constantly while operating a vehicle. Passengers saw this action taking place, and shifting gears became imbued with meaning. It represented the allure of the road, for all its good and ill, and stood in for the human control of a big, hot, dangerous machine screaming down the pavement. The manual transmission’s impending disappearance feels foreboding not (just) because shifting a car is fun and sensual, but also because the gearshift is—or was—a powerful cultural symbol of the human body working in unison with the engineered world.

Crawford admits that he might connect with the Audi if he put in enough hours at the wheel. But even knowing this, “the car left me cold,” he writes. In part, that’s because the coarse feedback that one gets while driving an all-electronic vehicle might be—or feel—too subtle for a brute human mind. Cars have, in a way, become too good. Human understanding slips off their surface, like ice off a hot hood.

The decoupling of humans from their driving machines will accelerate in years to come. If the automatic transmission made the stick shift a monument to lost control, the autonomous (self-driving) vehicle aims to do the same for steering wheels. At that point, the loss will be so complete that it may not feel so alienating. Any pretense that the automobile is a prosthetic will be eliminated, so car passengers can move on to other things. Like people on a train, they might settle into a book or take a nap or open up an Excel spreadsheet.

But fully autonomous cars might never be in widespread use, and even mostly autonomous cars could be a long way off. In the meantime, the automotive industry will take away drivers’ control in slow, lumbering steps, just as other industries have for other appliances, apparatuses, and services. You can now flush a toilet or operate a sink not with the force of your hands, but by means of sensors. Web and product searches yield the results some third party wants you to see, rather than the best matches to your requests. Maps, now digital, show points of interest in place of raw information; travelers let the apps that host those maps tell them where to go and how to get there. Customer-service agents follow scripts to solve your problems, your doctors follow automatic diagnostic templates, and the streaming platforms on your television calculate which shows you should watch next.

People rued the decline of the stick shift for years before the “Save the Manuals” campaign (and hashtag, and merch) spun up. But it may be no accident that the formal crusade arose just as computation overtook culture, steering human lives in the direction of technology companies’ and data aggregators’ needs. Around that time, all the apps and services just mentioned (and many more) became widespread.

[Read: I’ll shift for myself]

The manual transmission, however marginal it has become during the smartphone age, remains a vestige of direct, mechanical control. When a driver changes speeds, their intention can be fruitfully realized in gratifying action, meshing literal gears. Even when your hand slips and the gears grind, the device still speaks in a way you can understand.

To lament the end of the manual transmission is to eulogize much more than shifting gears. When the manual dies, little about driving will fall away that hasn’t already been lost. But we’ll lose something bigger and more important: the comfort of knowing that there is one essential, everyday device still out there that you can actually feel operating. Even if you don’t own a stick, or if you don’t know how to drive one, its mere existence signals that a more embodied technology is possible—that it once was common, even—and that humans and machines really can commune. The stick shift is a form of hope, but it’s one we’ll soon have left behind.

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The Problem With Being Too Cautious in Vaccine Trials

Late last month, the CDC confirmed that two young children had been diagnosed with monkeypox. Although almost all infections in the United States are associated with men who have sex with men, the virus is spreading rapidly and, through household exposure or other transmission routes, could soon turn up in other populations, such as infants, adolescents, and pregnant people (including their fetuses).

Public-health officials recommend the Jynneos vaccine for household contacts of, and others recently in close contact with, people who have monkeypox. But this shot suffers from the same problem as many vaccines developed against emerging infectious diseases: It has never been rigorously tested in people who are pregnant or under 18 years old.

In vaccine research, the usual presumption has been that people who are pregnant or under 18 are uniquely vulnerable to being harmed by medical research. But in many cases, that means that they end up being studied last—and are systematically excluded from the benefits of innovation during epidemics.

Pregnant and lactating women were excluded from early COVID-19 vaccine trials. Although they were still allowed to get shots, only about a third of them were fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of 2021. Many women who were pregnant or planning to become pregnant mistakenly believed, according to one poll, that pregnant women should not get vaccinated. Meanwhile, children under 16 were left out of initial COVID-vaccine trials, and some age groups waited more than a year longer than adults for vaccine approval.

[Read: Monkeypox vaccines are too gnarly for the masses]

This routine exclusion of vulnerable populations, such as children and pregnant people, in research trials is largely due to paternalistic ethical norms among scientists, who set the standard for the lawyers and ethicists who oversee research regulations. We, however, believe that some important factors—including the harms and inequity of not having proven vaccines during pandemics—are given too little weight. Vulnerable populations are least protected at a time when they are most in need of protection.

This outdated approach means that governments and foundations invest too little in preclinical research, novel clinical-trial designs, and vaccine-development policy and advocacy for pregnant patients and children. As a result, during epidemics of emerging diseases, pregnant patients and children suffer disproportionately, and future generations have a higher burden of disease because of the consequences of infections occurring in utero: birth defects, neurodevelopmental disorders, cardiovascular diseases.

Studies conducted after COVID-19 vaccines became broadly available showed that pregnant women infected with SARS-CoV-2 had a higher risk of serious illness and of losing their baby if they were unvaccinated. Meanwhile, according to the CDC, 1,180 children have died of COVID-19 in the U.S. since March 2020, the overwhelming majority of whom have been unvaccinated.

The harms continue to unfold: Many parents report that they are reluctant to vaccinate their children against COVID-19 because there have been too few studies on children conducted to date. Sadly, a similar pattern played out during Ebola epidemics in West and Central Africa in the 2010s.

Novel and reemerging infections are disrupting the world more severely and frequently than ever before. In the past two decades, three new coronaviruses have profoundly disrupted societies and economies in multiple regions of the world; existing diseases, such as Ebola and Zika, spread from remote, sparsely populated locations to major urban centers around the globe. Although governments, industry, and foundations have invested heavily in the development and deployment of vaccines for Ebola, Zika, SARS-CoV-2, and other pathogens, these research initiatives have generally left out children and pregnant people.

[Read: What should worry most Americans about our monkeypox response]

In 2019, the FDA approved the Jynneos vaccine, which is designed to protect humans against two related poxviruses (smallpox and monkeypox) and to have fewer side effects than the original smallpox vaccine. At the time of the decision, studies in animals had shown that Jynneos protected against infection; studies in nonpregnant adults showed that it caused an increase in antibodies that was believed to be sufficient to protect against infection. The primary target for the vaccine at the time was people working in laboratories on viruses related to smallpox, but the U.S. government still placed an order for millions of doses of the vaccine in case of a wider smallpox outbreak. In such an event, children would be among the most vulnerable to disease, and fetal complications would be expected in a smallpox or monkeypox outbreak. Nevertheless, the government did not require the manufacturer to formally study the vaccine in these populations.

We believe that the government and the biomedical industry need to work together to shift the paradigm for vaccine development to one in which children and pregnant and lactating patients are prioritized throughout the process—from early-stage research to delivery—rather than being left to the very end.

First, Congress, the FDA, and leading vaccine manufacturers must work together to encourage vaccine studies in children and pregnant people. Second, the FDA can revise its guidance to vaccine researchers to streamline development and approval for patients of all ages. Finally, the National Institutes of Health can also work to develop vaccine-research centers and fund scientists dedicated exclusively to children and pregnant people. Trials in these populations require special expertise to recruit volunteers effectively, communicate and manage concerns about potential harms, and collaborate with regulators, given the distinct immune-response profile and stricter safety requirements for studies in these populations.

The larger issue is that lawmakers, regulators, and other public officials frequently have difficulty recognizing when they are causing harm by being overly cautious—and even more difficulty changing policy after they have been made aware of that harm. This problem became apparent in the contentious debates around COVID-19 protections in schools and has resurfaced again as monkeypox patients struggle to gain access to an FDA-approved drug. When public health is at stake, policy makers need to recognize that equitable access to innovation is as important as protection from harm.

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Modern Men Are Still Figuring Out Fatherhood

A stomach-twisting thrill animates the Taken movies. As bullets fly across each progressively more ridiculous sequel, Liam Neeson kicks down the door to the pantheon of cultural Super Dads and asserts himself as its king. Here is a paragon of fatherhood, the films suggest; here is a dad endowed with “a very particular set” of parenting skills, a man who may struggle to connect with his daughter emotionally but can unleash a hail of violence each time she encounters a band of licentious kidnappers.

If today it’s hard to watch Taken without at least some disgust at the glorification of Neeson’s bloodshed, perhaps it’s because the traditional conception of fatherhood his character embodies has begun to fall out of step with shifting understandings of masculinity.

Discipline was for generations the father’s domain, and righteous anger gave fatherhood meaning. A rage like Neeson’s could be justified as defining a family’s realm of acceptable behavior. But in Raising Raffi, the journalist Keith Gessen’s memoir of his first years parenting his son, discipline becomes a “quicksand of confusing implications,” Daniel Engber writes, “where the angry dad exerts control but also loses it.”

As Gessen and his generation search for solid ground on which to define fatherhood, they explore alternative sites of meaning divorced from anger: Chris Bachelder’s 2011 novel Abbott Awaits follows a father embedded not in the epic struggles of an action hero but the tedium of raising an un-kidnapped toddler—sitting in a parked car, cleaning vomit, scraping raisins from the creases of a high chair. The photographer Rashod Taylor captures with his camera the vulnerability inherent to raising a Black son in contemporary America. And the comedian John Hodgman ponders how his attempts to appear relatable and approachable leave his son seriously disturbed.

But children are often more thoughtful than those who care for them assume, Elissa Strauss argues. If fatherhood’s future foundations are ambiguous, no longer grounded in anger, violence, and discipline, perhaps they ought to be decided alongside the little philosophers. Unlike Liam Neeson, modern men don’t need to go it alone.

Every Friday in The Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

Liam Neeson in "Taken"

(20th Century Fox)

The Taken series is every father’s fear—and fantasy
“The appeal of Taken is Mills the superdad honoring all those ‘I’d take a bullet for my kid’ promises by making others take bullets for threatening his kin. The result is high in entertainment value for dads and non-dads alike—the Taken series has made $600 million worldwide and counting for a reason. As with most action movies, there’s something cathartic about seeing unambiguously bad people get their comeuppance, but the franchise goes about it in a much more unsavory and emotionally manipulative way.”

🎥 Taken
🎥 Taken 2
🎥 Taken 3

An illustration of an angry dad

(Pablo Delcan and Río Delcan La Rocca)

Why is Dad so mad?
“His book proceeds as so many dad books don’t: with a father’s careful, piercing introspection, and a deep analysis of anger. ‘You’re a bad dada and I’m never going to listen to you again!’ his 3-year-old son says to him in one scene, after getting yelled at during bedtime. ‘I felt he was right,’ Gessen says. ‘I was not a good dada. But I didn’t know what else to do.’”

📚 Raising Raffi: The First Five Years, by Keith Gessen
📚 Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, by Michael Chabon

an illustration of a parent with a new baby

(Katie Martin / The Atlantic; Getty)

The book that captures my life as a dad
“[Chris] Bachelder’s short but indelible novel spills forth with kitchen-sink wisdom; it was exactly what I’d been missing as a young father, struggling to make sense of my irrevocably changed existence. For all the profundity that one experiences when becoming a parent—the primordial love; the humbling wonder—there’s also a lot of dullness and mundanity. Child-rearing is an immense task consisting of many mind-numbing moments. Among the reasons Abbott Awaits is remarkable is because it collects these moments and pulls them to center stage. It makes the everyday aspects of middle-class parenting objects of study, of tender observation.”

📚 Abbott Awaits, by Chris Bachelder
📚 Rabbit, Run, by John Updike
📚 The Information, by Martin Amis

Rashod Taylor with his son

(Rashod Taylor)

The life of a little Black boy in America
“In my photo Deep Sleep, it looks like my son is sleeping, and it’s beautiful. But for me, the image also has this postmortem look. It reveals my fears of him not coming home one day and having to bury him, like so many other Black parents have. There are things I am already teaching him that other kids his age are not thinking of. Like, Hey, we probably shouldn’t wear a hoodie at night. At the same time, he’s just a little boy in the United States.”

📷 Little Black Boy, by Rashod Taylor

a cigarette in an ashtray

(Doug McLean)

Cujo’s unexpected lesson about parenting and art
“[John] Hodgman takes unlikely comfort from Stephen King’s novel Cujo—and not just because the book features a haunting, astoundingly insightful passage about the way parents imprint children with their flaws … Hodgman explained what the book’s masterful characterization and radical formal decisions taught him about parenting and art: that doing something well requires risking terrible mistakes. Accept it, and loosen up.”

📚 Vacationland: True Stories From Painful Beaches, by John Hodgman
📚 Cujo, by Stephen King

A kid pondering on a pile of ABC blocks.

(Katie Martin / The Atlantic; Getty)

Want to understand Socrates and Sartre? Talk with your kid.
“Let us not ignore the radical nature of this. A philosopher, a man, has written a whole book arguing that the setting of the home and the daily act of parenting can lead to profound philosophical insight and debate.”

📚 Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy With My Kids, by Scott Hershovitz
📚 The Philosophical Baby, by Alison Gopnik

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Andrew Aoyama. The book he’s reading next is Gideon’s Trumpet, by Anthony Lewis.

Comments, questions, typos? Reply to this email to reach the Books Briefing team.

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A New Eruption of Iceland’s Fagradalsfjall Volcano

About eight months have passed since the last eruption of Fagradalsfjall volcano, located about 25 miles from Reykjavik, Iceland. On August 3, following thousands of local earthquakes, a fissure opened in the Meradalir valley, and lava began flowing across the valley floor. Thousands of locals and tourists have since made the hike to the site—about a four-hour round trip—to witness the new eruption.

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The Radical Fringe That Just Went Mainstream in Arizona

It might be nice one day to wake up and feel serene—even hopeful—about the state of American politics. To know that all of those people who have been warning about the growing threat to democracy are way ahead of their skis. But today is not that day.

Arizona Republicans are nominating an entire cast of characters who argue not only that Donald Trump won the election in 2020, but also that the state’s results should be decertified—a process for which there is no legal basis. These Trump-endorsed candidates—Kari Lake for governor, Mark Finchem for secretary of state, Abraham Hamadeh for attorney general, Blake Masters for senator—all won their respective primaries this week and are now one election away from political power.

[Read: The Kansas abortion shocker]

Some strategists might frame these Republican wins as a gift to Democrats, and you can look at it that way. Democrats will be more competitive in the upcoming midterms than they might have been if more reasonable Republicans were on the ballot. Moderates and independents abound in Arizona, and they aren’t going to be excited to vote for a passel of kooks. But that doesn’t change the simple fact that the fundamentals are on Republicans’ side this year: Joe Biden is still unpopular; inflation is still high; America might soon be entering a recession.

“Nobody should be popping champagne,” Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist and the publisher of The Bulwark, told me. “This is the most antidemocracy slate of candidates in the country. We’re in a very dangerous situation.”

“Stop the Steal” candidates are running—and winning—all over the country. But Arizona concentrates a lot of them within a single geographic area—like an ant farm of election deniers.

Lake might prove the most significant of these candidates. Lake’s lead over her top Republican opponent, Karrin Taylor Robson, had grown to nearly 3 percent when the gubernatorial primary race was finally called in her favor on Thursday night. Before becoming an enthusiastic proponent of Trump’s election lies, Lake was a local TV-news anchor, making her a household name in Arizona and giving her something that many political candidates lack: confidence in front of the camera. Like Trump, Lake has a difficult-to-describe magnetism with Republican-base voters; they simply cannot get enough of her.

Throughout her campaign, Lake has called Biden an “illegitimate president” and vowed that, if she becomes governor, she’ll be reviewing and decertifying Arizona’s 2020 election results—despite multiple audits (and even a partisan review) showing precisely zero evidence of widespread fraud. Even ahead of the primary, Lake claimed to have evidence of funny business; the NBC reporter Vaughn Hillyard tried to get Lake to share some of that evidence, but she would not. Lake and Finchem, the cowboy-hat-wearing would-be secretary of state whom I profiled last month, have been cooking up new ways supposedly to prevent fraud—by banning voting machines and early voting. Both Lake and Finchem primed voters to believe that, if they lost, only fraud would explain their losses. Of course they did. That’s the new Republican playbook, and these two know it better than anyone.

Lake’s opponent in November, Katie Hobbs, is Arizona’s former secretary of state and a run-of-the-mill Democrat who will probably try to position herself as the sane, competent foil to Lake’s wild-eyed conspiracy monger. That’s a solid strategy—maybe the only one that can work. But Hobbs is so run-of-the-mill that she’s boring. And what Hobbs lacks in personality, she makes up for in baggage, after a former staffer successfully sued last year over discrimination. For Arizonans who are still fans of democracy, though, Hobbs is the obvious choice—an apt example of the “Terrible Candidate/Important Election” scenario that my colleague Caitlin Flanagan described this week.

[David A. Graham: Well, the cover-up sure isn’t making January 6 look any better]

Arizona Democrats like Hobbs do have a genuine shot at defeating this slate of extremists. The basic fact of these Republicans’ extremism makes all Democratic candidates look better by comparison. Many independent voters, who count for something like one-third of all Arizona voters, and moderate Republicans would probably have happily voted for any Republican but Lake; come November, some of them may be willing to turn that into any candidate but Lake. Plus, Democrats seem to have gotten their groove back in recent weeks. Lawmakers in Washington, D.C., reached a long-elusive deal on sweeping climate legislation; gas prices are dropping fast; and the overturning of Roe v. Wade might energize an otherwise sleepy set of Democratic voters just in time for the midterms.

And yet. Despite what hopeful Democrats might tell you, Arizona isn’t a purple state; it’s more of a lightish red. And this year remains an excellent year for Republicans—probably the best chance for any Republican extremist to make it into elected office not just in Arizona, but anywhere in the country. “When the political party in power has a president running in the mid- or upper 30s and inflation is high and people are feeling recession-y?” Longwell said. “You’re in a danger point. You just are.”

The danger of a Lake or Finchem election in November is pretty straightforward, as I’ve outlined in previous stories. State leaders can easily cast doubt on an election’s results if the outcome doesn’t suit them, and this entire slate of Arizona Republicans is clearly prepared to do that. Governors and secretaries of state can tinker with election procedures or propose absurd new requirements, such as having every voter reregister to vote, as the Republican gubernatorial nominee in Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano, has suggested. What happens if the outcome of the 2024 presidential election comes down to a closely divided Arizona? What if such a pivotal state was run not by Democrats and Republicans who are loyal to the democratic process, but by conspiracy-drunk partisans who won’t stop until they see their candidate swearing on a Bible? There’s a reason Trump has endorsed this slate; he knows these candidates will be pulling for him no matter what.

Maybe the most important thing to note is that whatever happens to these Trump sycophants in November, they’ve demonstrated that a not-insignificant number of Republican voters want them—the cream of the conspiracy crop—to lead their party. In Tuesday’s primary, Rusty Bowers, Arizona’s Republican speaker of the house who did not cooperate with attempts to overturn the 2020 election results, lost his State Senate race to an election denier. Lake, who has become a household name in Trumpworld and raked in campaign donations from across the country, will be well positioned, whatever the coming election result, to be a MAGA superstar.

If you’re still tallying up Trump’s primary wins and losses as an indicator of his grip on the party, you’re missing the point. The man’s enduring legacy is figures like Lake and a GOP packed with cranks and conspiracy theorists. “They will be defining the next generation of Republicans, and [Lake] will be among the next generation of leaders,” Longwell said. “If she wins, or even if she loses.”

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George Clooney’s Tequila Is Taking Over Rap


In the beginning, there was Hennessy. “The Genesis,” the first track on Nas’s 1994 debut studio album, Illmatic, packs in four mentions of the cognac brand. “Take this Hennessy,” Nas says. “Pass that henrock, pass that henrock,” says Nas’s younger brother, Jungle. “We drinkin’ this straight up with no chaser,” replies the rapper AZ.

In the decades that followed, Hennessy became a fixture of rap lyrics. 2pac’s 1996 hit “How Do U Want It” called Hennessy “a favorite of my homies when we floss on our enemies.” In the 1998 song “Weed and Hennesey,” Master P rapped: “I smoke weed, and Hennesey / Just to make it through the days man.” Six years later, the references were still everywhere; in 2004, Trick Daddy boasted “See I know how to control my Hennessy” on his Thug Matrimony track “Gangsta Livin’.” Cristal champagne and Patrón tequila soon became rap staples, too, popularized by songs such as Jay-Z’s “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” from 1996’s Reasonable Doubt: “Waddle off the champagne, Cristals by the bottle.” In the 2006 earworm “Snap Yo Fingers,” Lil Jon rapped about mixing Patrón with Percocet: “I pop, I drank / I’m on Patrón and Perc, I can’t thank.” As rap evolved from its homegrown roots into something glossier and more commercial, the liquor name-drops evolved, too, into a kind of lyrical shorthand for opulent, larger-than-life success and its pitfalls.  

But in recent years, I’ve noticed that, seemingly out of nowhere, a different liquor brand is everywhere. Turn on any hip-hop or Top 40 radio station and you’ll hear it too: Casamigos this, Casamigos that. Everyone seems to be obsessed with Casamigos. The Atlanta rapper Lil Baby name-checks the tequila on both Nicki Minaj’s “Do We Have a Problem?” (“She a lil demon off that Casamigos”) and Drake’s “Girls Want Girls” (“We got 1942 Casamigos, it’s getting heated”). Saucy Santana has referenced the brand on at least four separate songs since December 2020. Soulja Boy released a whole song called “Casamigos” last year. How on earth did a relatively new brand of tequila—one co-founded in 2013 by George Clooney, of all people—seize hip-hop culture and challenge Hennessy’s reign so fast?

Casamigos’ rise to rap prominence arguably began with Young Thug. In September 2018, the Atlanta-based artist released “Sin,” on which Jaden Smith joins him and raps, “Casamigos got me spinnin’.” There had been a handful of lyrical nods to the brand as far back as 2015 (for instance: in The Game’s “Quik’s Groove”), but “Sin” marked the first time a rapper with such clear pop-crossover appeal had name-checked it. (A year earlier, the tequila had been sold to the British drinks giant Diageo for at least $700 million, which also likely kicked its distribution into higher gear.)

By late 2021, artists from all over the country had also started citing the tequila, sometimes as a kind of truth serum or as creative inspiration, in their lyrics—among them the Atlanta rapper K Camp (“Casamigos to the head, I forget what I said”), St. Louis’s Smino (“Casamigos got me so honest, I’m sorry”), and Brooklyn’s Fivio Foreign (“Casamigo help me get in the zone”). This year alone, the brand has been referenced nearly 100 times in rap songs indexed on the lyric-annotation platform Genius.

Chart of references to Casamigos in rap lyrics, from 2013—2022

Tahir Hemphill, a multimedia artist and researcher who created the searchable rap-lyric database Rap Almanac, has also noticed this trend. “When you talk Hennessy, you think about Black & Milds, Yankee fitteds, Timbs. You think about Hennessy, henrock,” Hemphill told me, dipping into a dramatically lower register. “Casamigos is definitely a different lifestyle.” He thinks its popularity in hip-hop has to do with the way the brand speaks to a modern take on the finer things: “It’s imported; it has four syllables; it’s [in the] Spanish language,” Hemphill said. “It makes you fancy.”

This tracks with one of the reasons rappers started mentioning specific brands of alcohol decades ago.“It’s not just ‘I ordered champagne’; they want to tell you how expensive the champagne was through the brand or how top-shelf it is,” Tuma Basa, the director of Black music and culture at YouTube, told me. “Artists are trying to paint an accurate picture of the lifestyle that they’re selling to the audience, who’s living vicariously through them.”

Though Casamigos doesn’t conjure the ostentatious grandeur of Cristal, with its gilded, extravagantly priced bottle, many of the brand’s advertising campaigns have leaned heavily on images of Clooney himself, looking gently windblown on a motorcycle or sipping tequila alongside his co-founder Rande Gerber. The 23-year-old Brooklyn musician Cassius Cruz, whose song “Pienso en Ti” mentions the tequila (“Shit got me on go, Casamigo”), told me that Clooney was part of the tequila’s appeal. “Whenever I reference alcohol in my music, I’m kind of cloaking myself in those projections,” Cruz said. “I want to take that coolness and that suave vibe and superimpose that onto whatever I’m doing.”

But some of the recent Casamigos lyrics seem to be doing something more nuanced than that too. Take the first verse of “Neo,” from the 28-year-old Portland-raised artist Aminé: “Just touched down, we in Euro / Italy summer, Lake Como,” he raps. “Driving on the boat next to Clooney’s house / Sippin’ on a lil Casamigo.” Although that scene might seem like a standard-issue lifestyle brag, it also contains a playful contradiction: Many would surely consider Aminé and his friends, young Black people, out of place in the rarefied setting of Clooney’s Italian vacation home. The disconnect between that staid European milieu and, potentially, a rowdy group of newly moneyed young Black men is fun, the kind of wink that rappers such as Jay-Z and Ye have also deployed to smugly satisfying effect.

Inevitably, all these Casamigos references end up seeping into the larger culture. On TikTok, videos tagged with “casamigoschallenge”—featuring eager participants downing a shot (or much more) of Casamigos—have netted nearly 200 million views total. In the past few years, parties advertising Casamigos open bars or Casamigos-forward cocktail lists have been joining, and in some cases appear to be replacing, the Hennessy-centric events that have long dominated nightlife in some cities with sizable populations of Black people.

Casamigos’ sudden dominance is especially notable when you consider it in historical terms. After all, earlier generations of Black consumers, Nas and other rappers included, didn’t just spontaneously decide to start buying Hennessy en masse. French cognac producers had been building ties with Black American consumers since the early 20th century, beginning with the U.S. soldiers stationed in Europe. After the end of World War II, Hennessy became the first spirit brand to place ads in Black-owned magazines such as Ebony and Jet. When President Barack Obama was elected, Hennessy made a limited-edition cognac that now sells for more than $1,000 among collectors. By the time Hennessy brought on Nas as a brand ambassador in 2013, it had long since established itself as the most popular cognac in the United States, largely because of Black consumers. By Illmatic’s 20th anniversary in 2014, Hennessy was promoting a documentary about the album’s creation.

[From the December 1995 issue: Don’t call it cognac]

For the brands that embraced it, hip-hop ended up being an accelerator of sorts. In 2002, a Courvoisier spokesperson told Fortune that Busta Rhymes’s infectious (and unsponsored) paean had helped the cognac line “achieve double-digit percentage growth” that year. But the relationships between alcohol brands and hip-hop artists have also sometimes been complicated. In 2006, Jay-Z had been emphatically rapping about Cristal for at least a decade when an executive at the company that produces the champagne made a comment suggesting that the brand was less than pleased with its popularity among rappers: “We can’t forbid people from buying it. I’m sure Dom Pérignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business.” Jay-Z responded by boycotting the brand and acquiring a competing one, Armand de Brignac (colloquially known as Ace of Spades). He also rapped about the slight on 2009’s “On to the Next One”: “I used to drink Cristal, them muh’fuckers racist / So I switched gold bottles on to that Spade shit.”

Cristal is not the only brand that has alienated Black customers by seeming to try to distance its image from hip-hop culture. In 2018, the organizers of a mega-popular Black party series known as Henny Palooza—which had begun as an impromptu gathering thrown by a few friends in New York in 2012 and evolved into a multicity, ticketed event with thousands of attendees—tweeted that Hennessy had never sponsored Henny Palooza because it didn’t “value us, us being the young, ambitious, creative minorities that are actually the culture that they claim to be a part of.” (At the time, the company instead pointed to its “long history of supporting the African-American community,” and a Hennessy spokesperson told The New York Times that the company does not comment on details of any sponsorships.) The party series got sponsored by D’Ussé cognac instead—a brand partly owned by Jay-Z.

According to Liz Paquette, the head of consumer insights at the alcohol-delivery service Drizly, Casamigos sales now outpace both Hennessy and D’Ussé in New York and Atlanta. In New York, it’s the best-selling brand of any spirit in 2022 to date.

Casamigos has been very coy about its founders’ views on its prevalence in rap. Much of its publicly available marketing materials don’t seem to be targeting Black consumers in the way that, say, Hennessy’s Nas-led 2021 film tribute to Black businesses did.

In 2015, Casamigos launched another campaign called “House of Friends,” featuring young people sitting around a campfire, strumming guitars amid a few scattered tequila bottles. It’s idyllic in an early-2000s-Hollister-ad way; it’s also remarkably white. Through a representative, Casamigos’ co-founder Rande Gerber didn’t answer a question about the brand’s popularity among rappers in particular, opting instead to give a conveniently generic statement: “​So many people are drinking it more and more every day and they spread the word,” he said via email.

What Gerber didn’t say, but what seems true to me as someone who has been listening to rappers name-drop liquor brands since well before I could legally drink, is that Casamigos has edged out Hennessy in part because of the brand’s own canny self-positioning. Its price point is high enough to seem luxe but not so high that it feels inaccessible; its bright, simple packaging makes it an appealing social-media prop; even its founders’ silence on the topic of Casamigos’ role in hip-hop can be read as a strategic move intended to keep the brand’s demographic appeal as broad as possible.

Or maybe the reason is simpler than any of that. Hemphill’s Rap Almanac does linguistic analysis of songs, and when we chatted about Casamigos’ popularity in hip-hop, he offered a theory that seemed almost suspiciously obvious. It was the kind of theory that comes not from studying hip-hop formally but from having been immersed in it, from having belted songs with friends at parties and recited verses in the mirror alone. “It might just be,” he said with a laugh, “that Casamigos is more fun to rhyme with than Hennessy.”

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Between Not Wanting to Live and Not Wanting to Die

If you are having thoughts of suicide, please know that you are not alone. If you are in danger of acting on suicidal thoughts, call 911. For support and resources, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text 741-741 for the Crisis Text Line.

Shortly after 2 p.m. on January 31, 2019, I left my Dartmouth College office to kill myself. It was 11 days after my 57th birthday.

At my desk, I had written and torn up numerous letters to my wife, Glennis, and our daughter, the essence that they remained my be-all and end-all, above and beyond any actions I might take. I realized that no suicide note could alleviate their grief, but—always a perfectionist—I kept polishing drafts. Then I texted and emailed my closest friends and family to say that I loved them, and sent Glennis a more explicit note, asking her to “come home to hold our daughter.” Ten days earlier, my psychiatrist had emailed my psychotherapist to say, “Jeff appears very depressed with suicidal ideation, thoughts of jumping from something high.”

Outwardly, I was surrounded by everything I could possibly want: a happy marriage, a rebellious teenager, a stimulating job, a warm home in rural Vermont, friends near and far. I bathed in love and enjoyed financial security, along with very good health insurance. I wouldn’t have changed anything, except my soul-eating depression.

By January 2019, I had lost all hope for recovery. So many treatments had fizzled. Clinical depression and ordinary life stood across an impassable ravine. When well, I could barely imagine being depressed, and when depressed, I couldn’t remember ever feeling well. In Inferno’s final circle of hell, Dante’s sinners freeze instead of burn, trapped in an icy lake. Depression feels like that. While in a catatonic stupor, I spent months doing crossword puzzles and watching tennis highlights. Anything that helped squeeze the hours forward—time marked by the death of the senses, a quashed libido, the same dirty khakis and T-shirt.

It’s strange how much our minds can hurt us. Each night, as sleep overtook me, my last thought was the hope that I would not wake up again. Any way of dying that would hurt my family less than suicide. But I did wake up, again and again. “In late January,” my medical record states, “Jeff had his first episode of suicidal thinking and related behavior.” From my office, I drove 10 minutes to the White River to throw myself off a bridge and into the ice-cold water.

I grew up one of five brothers. In 2015, the eldest, Bill, killed himself. He was 60 when he jumped from a ledge into one of the gorges for which our hometown, Ithaca, New York, is best known. As kids, we loved to hike those gorges. We crossed the Triphammer bridge countless times—on foot, on bicycles, in cars, day and night, stoned and straight. I was 11 when someone stole my Schwinn bike, built like a tank, and hurled it off that bridge. The cops retrieved it from the gorge below, in fine condition.

For Bill, suicide was the culmination of several years of spiraling paranoia. He’d convinced himself that his wife of 30 years had had an affair, and they underwent a painful divorce. A year before his death, he left his job as a toxicologist in Colorado and transferred to a new position in Pennsylvania, alone. Setting up the empty apartment—all the bedding, furniture, appliances—was too much for him. In an email, he admitted, “There hasn’t been any food in this house in over a week.” On a street corner, the police picked him up during a psychotic episode. They took him to a hospital where he received a full round of electroconvulsive-therapy (ECT) treatments. These proved futile. After more than two weeks in the hospital, he was released with only a Post-it note with the date of a future appointment jotted on it. Pretty quickly, he began a death spiral.

[Read: Surviving anxiety]

Bill first attempted suicide the evening of his release, when he drank a 12-pack of Budweiser and took a medley of prescription drugs. The next morning, our brother Steve and his wife, Sue, knocked on his door. No answer. They got a key from the apartment manager and found Bill unresponsive on the floor. An ambulance took him to a second hospital. When he returned to his apartment, he made another suicide attempt with identical methods and a similar outcome. This led to a third emergency stay at yet another hospital, with equally disappointing care and results.

After quitting his job, Bill moved back to Ithaca, where he slept on a sofa in our parents’ apartment at a retirement home. His psychiatric treatment waned. He called his 26-year-old daughter to ask her permission to kill himself, which she denied. In our last phone conversation, Bill told me that he was constantly obsessing about suicide. (In retrospect, he had clearly returned to our hometown to take his life.) Helplessness blanketed all of us.

It was spring when he jumped. He left behind two children and four suicide notes: “Please give these to my family. I can no longer endure this terrible pain every moment of every day and evening. I have no hope that I will get better. I do not wish to live a moment longer. Please respect and celebrate my life.”

I wrote his obituary. At our parents’ request, I made no mention of mental illness or suicide.

A suicide in the family significantly increases the chance of a copycat performance. Four years after Bill’s death, I stood on the bridge over the White River. The winter sun couldn’t break through the cold. Was I crying? I can’t recall. I hesitated. Between not wanting to live and not wanting to die, there is a tiny platform, just big enough to stand on. But it’s like standing on burning coals.

Glennis was at the airport, on the way to see her parents, when she got my text message. She phoned me multiple times. I answered the fourth call. She asked where I was, and I told her. Sobbing, she begged me to go to the hospital. She promised me anything if I would just get off that bridge. I hesitated, and backed away from the edge. Did love ground me? Fear? Or some residual hope?

Glennis stayed on the phone with me while I drove to the hospital, making one detour—at my office to shred the letter I’d written. At the hospital, I was stripped of any possessions I could use to hurt myself: coat, belt, watch, khakis. I could keep my iPhone, but worried: How to charge it? The rooms were like prison cells, and my dinner arrived with a cardboard fork.

I convinced Glennis and my psychiatrist that I’d be better off at home than at that forsaken facility, and they reluctantly agreed. But I couldn’t be left alone—not even for an hour. So Glen and I clung to each other on our couch, as seconds crawled to minutes, days to weeks, months, impossibly, into years. My sadness dripped, like an open tap, eventually flooding all the rooms. How do you relax with a suicidal husband at home? When Glennis eventually had to take a trip, Steve came to be by my side.

At Dartmouth, I continued to teach my courses in the department of film and media studies. I felt I was a fraud and an imposter, barely functioning, but my students and colleagues seemed not to notice. Somehow I passed as a fairly normal faculty member on campus. My medical record from that first February reads: “The overwhelming feeling of despair has shifted to numbness.”

In the days after my near-suicide-attempt, another one of my brothers started sending me postcards. I got one every day: from Texas, say, or British Columbia. On a postcard depicting “A Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm,” he wrote, “For the sake of all of us, you don’t have permission to go.” More postcards arrived—of New York, Florida, California. Wherever he bought the postcards, I know he didn’t travel to all these places. On the front of one, a city skyline; on the back, the promise that my pain would one day be “a distant memory.” A sunset complemented a quote from Marcus Aurelius: “Be satisfied with success in even the smallest matters.” An image of “James Bond Island” in Thailand accompanied a blunt insight: “Dad is fucking insane, plain and simple.”

On the sixth anniversary of Bill’s suicide, on a postcard of Mount St. Helens, he confessed that he still felt guilty that he hadn’t done more to try to save our brother. Probably nothing could have helped Bill toward the end, but I remained within reach.

Picture of artwork made by Katrien De Blauwer
Katrien De Blauwer

Mental illness has ravaged my family for generations; nature married nurture and multiplied in toxic ways. My brothers and I grew up in a white, Protestant, middle-class home, at the dead end of a suburban street. We enjoyed arcadian boyhoods, with woods to explore, animals to catch, forts to build and burn down. We also beat the hell out of one another. Parental love came with preconditions, namely educational achievement. We grew accustomed to our father’s response to an A grade: “Why not an A+?” Four of us completed Ph.D.s, including me. The fifth went into business, and made more than the rest of us combined; still, all her life, my mom lamented that “Stephen had slipped through the cracks.”

I don’t remember my mom or dad ever saying a kind word to each other. I saw them embrace once: in the kitchen, Christmas 1969. For years, Mom slept on a couch in the living room, for reasons obscure to her sons. Well-intentioned but anxiety-ridden, she mostly screamed at us. Her childhood had its own troubles. Her mother was born in 1911 in Winter Quarters, Utah. Orphaned at 5, she was taken in by an aunt, who kept her home from school to do housework and locked her in a root cellar, secured by a trap door with a chair on top. She told my mother that at 8 she had been raped by a bishop of the Mormon Church. In her 80s, my grandmother wrote and self-published a memoir, which passed over these childhood traumas. In it, she raves about her son but never once mentions my mother.

[Read: Can you cure mental illness? Two centuries of trying says no.]

My father grew up on a farm in Fort Wayne, Indiana. When he was a teenager in the 1940s, his mother underwent ECT for depression. Pioneered in 1938, ECT was being used more and more, but remained experimental, and I don’t know what effects it imparted, good or bad. As a man, my father had two obsessions: money and science. He was a well-respected engineering professor at Cornell, but he desperately wanted to be rich, and he desperately wanted to win a Nobel Prize, neither of which he achieved.

What he did do was deliver a formidable share of mental illness to our table: the undiagnosed and untreated bipolar condition that formed the jagged backdrop of our childhoods and young-adult years. He gambled on high-stakes investments and mostly lost, terrifying our mother. He never showed emotions other than red-in-the-face anger. After many years of manic activity, my father finally slammed into his first depression when he was in his 50s. His mother had dementia and was accusing him of stealing her money. (Money, his beginning and end.) I was an undergraduate at Cornell at the time, and we met for lunch one day. I remarked that he looked “tired,” his eyes clearly worn by tears. Taken aback, he asked if his fatigue was so blatant. As he talked about his mother, he started to sob. A first.

Unfortunately, my dad wasn’t the kind of man who asked for help; he was in the grin-and-bear-it school of mental illness. It took two more decades, and a catatonic episode, before the family managed to push him into the arms of a psychiatrist. He received a diagnosis of bipolar type I—mania with depression—together with his first dose of lithium. Once on medication, my dad acted in comparatively normal ways—for him, anyway.

In his 90s now, he’s nearly beyond language, beyond being hurt by the words of a recalcitrant son. So I can admit that, as far as I am concerned, he accomplished one cool thing when I was growing up. In his lab at Cornell, he made a synthetic diamond out of a dab of Jif creamy peanut butter, squeezing it under tremendous pressure. I still own that diamond. Who else can claim such a hard-edged heirloom?

The first psychiatric assessment in my medical record, from June 2008, reads: “46 y. o. M with h/o of childhood trauma and anxiety disorder, with elements of GAD, OCD, and subthreshold PTSD, with depressed mood.” A little bit of everything: general anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder. In deference to my authoritarian father, it states, I am “bothered by loud noises, groups of strangers, cars in the rear-view mirror, in general potential ‘male aggression’.” There’s also a visual snapshot: “He is dressed casually in T-shirt and khakis, sneakers without laces. He wears rimless glasses, makes good eye contact, and is pleasant/cooperative, though sporadically tearful and dramatic.” Still today, the portrait stands.

Anxiety and depression sleep together in my bed, but gradually depression stole the covers. Over the years, I struggled with what came to be characterized as “major depressive disorder,” and took a cornucopia of medications. Nortriptyline, paroxetine, venlafaxine, buspirone, sertraline, citalopram, pregabalin, mirtazapine. None worked. Optimistically, I tried lurasidone, bupropion, and vilazodone, followed by aripiprazole, amitriptyline, and zaleplon, which also made no difference. Then Restoril, protriptyline, desipramine, escitalopram. Nothing. My psychiatrist began to talk ominously about “treatment-resistant depression.” Nonetheless, I carried on with fluoxetine, temazepam, triazolam, and trazodone. A perfectionist, I was appalled by my failure to get healthy. I almost came to despise the patients who got relief from these medications.

In addition to the pharmacopoeia, no mental illness would be complete without psychotherapy. I started with hypnosis, now forgotten. Eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) offered better results. EMDR involves recollecting traumatic events while tracing with one’s eyes the back-and-forth movement of, say, a pencil. Research suggests that this engages both hemispheres of the brain, allowing the left side to relieve the right, which somehow can help alleviate anxiety. I also undertook cognitive behavioral therapy, behavioral activation therapy, and acceptance-and-commitment therapy, and practiced mindfulness. Somehow, I never quite learned how to meditate.

Like tennis partners, my psychotherapist and I lobbed thoughts across her coffee table.

Jeff: I feel despondent about teaching this spring; I don’t know how to manage. My memory sucks. How can I teach if I can’t recall who directed Red Sorghum?

Psychotherapist: Try to remember that you have taught these courses many times before … Trust that you will remember how to teach them again.

At wits’ end, in January 2017, we decided to do ECT, often turned to when all other approaches fail. Still controversial, principally because of the resulting short-term-memory loss and the tenacious hangover from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, ECT provides a statistically greater success rate than antidepressants. I would receive 13 rounds, over a month.

[Thomas Insel: What American mental health care is missing]

During each procedure, as I dropped off to sleep, the doctors would verify my medical-record number, 502400442-9, with the end mysteriously pronounced “two check nine.” Waking dazed and confused in the hospital always felt like the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the astronaut comes upon himself in a faux French bedroom. Bit by bit, and then powerfully, ECT brought relief. After the last treatment, my journal reads, I “enjoy listening to music (Leonard Cohen live) for the first time in years.” I stood in our local grocery store in amazement and realized, “The coffee on this shelf is not in pain. And I am not in pain.” An epiphany in aisle two.

The short-term-memory loss was temporary, but real. Behind the wheel, I negotiated our small town with difficulty. I forgot the addresses of friends; I drove the wrong way down one-way streets. At home, routine activities presented challenges. “I cook asparagus on the grill without olive oil and then don’t turn off the burners,” I wrote one day. But there were some advantages to short-term-memory loss, like the opportunity to see great movies twice, such as 20th Century Women and Manchester by the Sea, having no recall of the first viewing. At the same time, my long-term memory dramatically improved. Knowledge of French and Italian, suppressed by chronic depression, flooded back. Che bello.

I felt, suddenly, full of energy. I started spending hours on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, divulging intimate details about my life. I got out of bed after four hours of sleep, refreshed, and drove to my office at 3 a.m. I coolly informed my friends that I was a “Renaissance man.” I dyed my hair red and got an ear pierced for a golden ring. I made connections wherever I went, filling my phone with new numbers. And my libido returned with a vengeance. Strolling in downtown Montreal hours before driving our teenage daughter to the airport, I insisted that Glennis try on lingerie at a local shop. When she refused, I slipped into the store to buy some regardless. I kept a running tab of how often we had sex.

These behaviors added up not to mental health, but rather to hypomania, the flip side of a depressive mood. It includes euphoria, extreme talkativeness, inflated self-esteem, excessive sociability, big increases in energy, little need for sleep, hypersexuality, recklessness, and grandiosity, as well as irritability and aggressiveness. I checked off all but the last one.

Depression manifests internally, with its ravages largely hidden from others. Hypomania is the opposite. I felt terrific, like a fish in water. My friends, who saw bits and pieces interspersed with mostly normal conduct, rejoiced in my improved state of mind. But my wife and daughter knew that something was wrong.

When depressed, I had taken a rear seat as a parent, and Glennis had picked up the necessary habit of telling me what to do. Now I became intent on having a greater role in the household, and felt either ganged up on or pushed aside when Glen and our daughter made decisions without me. Frustrated, I grew alienated from my family. They hadn’t even had the chance to process the collateral damage from my depression, and suddenly I was behaving like a different person. And they felt scared.

A month after my “recovery” with ECT, Glennis pointed out that I was easily distracted, repeating myself, talking excessively, and obsessively multitasking—all telltale symptoms of hypomania. She told my psychiatrist that I was “not better.” One evening, after I went on and on about yet another day of walking on water, she screamed, “I don’t care how fucking fantastic your day was!” While flying high, I started to believe that she actually preferred me depressed. With reckless bravado, I proclaimed that I “would be fine if we split up.” The gulf swelled between us.

I want these ups and downs to make sense; I wish that medicine, rather than chance, governed my moods. But after 18 months, my hypomania flattened, providing an opening for a depressive shift. I had gone to Ontario to see Robert Lepage’s Coriolanus. A lost night’s sleep on the floor of the Toronto airport (a curse upon Air Canada) seems the only conceivable trigger, other than a random metabolic shift. Shortly after I returned, I entered this understatement in my journal: “My mood has not been great lately.”

And so began the two years and seven months of my life’s most debilitating depression. As my mood darkened, ECT stepped forward—a “maintenance dose” to set me right. At this point we knew that ECT could induce hypomania, and yet I could not have cared less. But ECT betrayed me; this time it didn’t help.

[Derek Thompson: Why American teens are so sad]

I turned into a walking shade, uninterested in the world of the living. I stopped hoping that I would get better. Depression was my destiny. And that’s when I started to mull over suicide. In deep winter, I plotted my escape. I had to scale my inertia to get to that bridge, proceeding from contemplating to planning to acting.

As with childbirth, chronic depression can only be experienced, not explained. Dante’s description of the “dark wood” grazes it: “It is so bitter death is scarcely more.” Scarcely more, but more. At the last second, in the face of that greater bitterness, I backed away from the edge. I obstinately opted to carry on through the woods.

Six months later, my psychiatrist prescribed tranylcypromine sulfate, an older kind of antidepressant, which actually provided me some relief. It bumped me up to anhedonia, an intermediary plateau of indifference. I didn’t feel better, exactly, but felt a little less lousy. Thoughts of suicide subsided.

As I meandered in my fog, the coronavirus pandemic unfolded—the masks, the quarantines, the isolation, the sicknesses, the deaths. The pandemic didn’t make my depression much worse; rather, it resembled it. I explored a few more treatments. With the blessings of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont, I got doses of transcranial magnetic stimulation—pulses of electricity to my brain—five days a week over a six-week period. It felt like a little woodpecker was tapping on my head. Cool, but nothing changed. Four doses of ketamine, an experimental treatment for depression, left me floating in oceanic peace for a moment, but I couldn’t fully relax, worried that my tormented mind would run riot. A two-week trial of Subutex, an opioid substitute, caused an uncontrollable need to vomit, but it also gave me one good day. I spent it productively editing videos.

Then, in May 2021, I experienced a revolution. Anhedonia evaporated, and happiness returned. Glennis and I celebrated our 23rd anniversary. I enjoyed salmon, hot showers, and remote garage-door openers. After years of creative barrenness, two ideas for film projects leapt to mind.

Around this time, my diagnosis was updated to bipolar type II—a milder version of what my father has. I was prescribed lithium, which probably helps on the high and low ends. (But it bothers me that, as a side effect, my hands shake, in part because my father’s do, too.) Mental illness robbed me of years of my life and conferred no particular wisdom or virtue. And I can’t assume that it won’t return. But this year’s medical record reads: “59 y. o. Male presents today for f/u of treatment for Bipolar Type II, currently in remission.” Remission never felt better. I’m not euphoric, just happy (knock on wood). I often cross the White River without thinking of what didn’t happen there.

Was this latest turnaround triggered by the springtime? A trip to D.C. with my wife and friends? Trace levels of a new medication? I don’t know. I do know that the idea and the ability to write this essay would have been impossible under other circumstances. I am sharing my story of mental illness because I hope it’s a tale worth telling. My dad might have been ashamed, but I am not. Revealing it is not weakness, but a kind of resilience. I hope my story provides some comfort and solidarity for those who suffer or have suffered.

Over all these years, my brother has kept sending me postcards. I have more than 700 of them now: from all 50 states, Central America, Canada, Asia. Whatever he writes, the message is love. One of my favorites reads, “Snow!” It describes how all day long he kept going out into the freezing yard to poke tiny holes open in the hummingbird feeders so “the little fellers” wouldn’t starve.

Recently, while on a vacation in North Africa, I mailed a postcard, for a change, to him:

I’m in Rabat, Morocco. Just talked with Glennis, on my way home soon. Sitting under the March sun, my back against the wall of the Medina, I’ve found my square meter of happiness. I’m ready for whatever comes next.

Love, Jeff.

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