Responding to Juleyka’s callout for stories of family members living under authoritarian rule, reader Colleen touches upon the experience of her Dutch stepmother:
She spent four years in a Japanese POW camp in Indonesia—from age 12 to 16, and her brother from age 9 to 13. When they were liberated they went back to Holland as displaced persons.
The experience was NEVER talked about. No counseling. Nothing.
When she reached 18 she joined the Dutch Royal Navy, immigrated to Canada in her mid 20s, then to the U.S about age 28. She met my father and, for some unknown reason, married him. They had two daughters, who are now 53 and 52 (I’m 73).
My step-mom was a lovely, funny, gracious, manipulative control freak. Her mother taught me how to cook. Oma [“grandmother” in German] did not speak English, and I did not speak Dutch or German, but we flowed through the kitchen with smiles, laughter, and words that neither understood. Needless to say my step-mom had a wonderful effect on my life.
The period was one of the most critical in Indonesian history. Under German occupation, the Netherlands had little ability to defend its colony against the Japanese army, and less than three months after the first attacks on Borneo, the Japanese navy and army overran Dutch and allied forces.
Initially, most Indonesians joyfully welcomed the Japanese, as liberators from their Dutch colonial masters. The sentiment changed, as Indonesians were expected to endure more hardship for the war effort. In 1944–1945, Allied troops largely bypassed Indonesia and did not fight their way into the most populous parts such as Java and Sumatra. As such, most of Indonesia was still under Japanese occupation at the time of their surrender, in August 1945.
The Dominican Republic, where I’m from, is among the countries in the Americas that had authoritarian rulers for multiple decades. Almost all of my uncles and aunts, and both my parents, were born during Rafael Trujillo’s reign of terror, which began in 1930 and ended with his assassination in 1961. His influence on the country, and on my own life, is still felt today.
When I was growing up, adults in my family talked politics all the time, almost as much as they talked baseball. But in our family, politics was personal because my father’s father briefly worked for Trujillo, as an assistant of some sort. At our weekend family gatherings, some aunt or uncle could be found surrounded by nieces and nephews like me, breathing in a fresh retelling of a hand-me-down story from my grandfather’s past—in hushed whispers, of course. My grandfather himself never uttered a single word about his work with the dictator, and he took that part of his life to his grave a few years ago.
In some versions of my relatives’ stories, my grandfather was the official food taster, to whom his boss’s meals would be presented for inspection and sampling. (To this singular culinary task my family attributed his strict adherence to mealtimes and table manners.) Other renditions described him as a personal secretary of sorts, handwriting dictated letters to society families whose daughters were “invited” to lavish balls thrown at the executive palace, where many young ladies were summarily deflowered by the head of state in well appointed bedrooms.
(Having studied Dominican history, I am highly suspicious of the circumstances that may have led to my grandfather working for such a man. The autocrat was known for conscripting people into his service or else.)
I am partially a product of the codes and mores established by my grandparents, who raised most of their children during the Trujillato. I was raised to accept and respect strict hierarchies in my own family and in organizations in general. I was expected to prefer and defer to men for decisions, control, and public leadership—all things I slowly unlearned and relinquished as an immigrant in 1980s New York City, where the only valid code was hard work.
Dominican author Junot Díaz has said that all Dominicans are Trujillo’s children. I interviewed him in 2007 just before his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was published. Much of the plot takes place during the Trujillato, which the novel presents as a cosmic curse that befalls the island nation. This is what Díaz told me about Trujillo’s place in his own life:
The evil of the father lasts. The consequences of those kinds of patriarchal traumas last to the point where the person no longer has contact with the origins of that evil. I had no concept that I was Trujillo’s son. I had no concept until I was reading, got older, went traveling, and I was like, OK, my dad was a total copy of Trujillo. I mean he grew up in the military, during the Trujillato. He thought Trujillo was a great f* man, and we had in my family—and this is very common in many Third-World families—a dictatorship in the house. La dictadura de la casa. And everyone has different dictaduras, but the one that I lived under was a dictadura that would’ve made Trujillo very, very comfortable, because he helped design it.
The idea of having a genetic link to Trujillo—an evil force so pure that it warped an entire country—has stayed with me ever since. His legacy sometimes cautions me when I encounter limited thinking, when I consider untapped reasons for choices I’ve made, and as I raise two sons whose worldview I hope to make more capacious and expansive than mine.
Did you grow up under an authoritarian regime? Did your parents or other close family members? Please share your stories with us at firstname.lastname@example.org and describe how you think the dictator’s legacy shaped you.
At 3 a.m. I’m jolted awake. The room is dark and still. I grab my phone and scan sports scores and Twitter. Still awake. A faceless physician whispers in my mind: To overcome middle-of-the-night insomnia, experts say you ought to get out of bed … I get out of bed. I pour a glass of water and drink it. I go back to bed. Still awake. Perhaps you know the feeling. Like millions of Americans and hundreds of millions of people around the world, I suffer from so-called mid-sleep awakenings that can keep me up for hours.
One day, I was researching my nocturnal issues when I discovered a cottage industry of writers and sleep hackers who claim that sleep is a nightmare because of the industrial revolution, of all things. Essays in The Guardian, CNN, The New York Times, and The New York Times Magazine recommended an old fix for restlessness called “segmented sleep.” In premodern Europe, and perhaps centuries earlier, people routinely went to sleep around nightfall and woke up around midnight—only to go back to sleep a few hours later, until morning. They slept sort of like I do, but they were Zen about it. Then, the hackers claim, modernity came along and ruined everything by pressuring everybody to sleep in one big chunk.
Pour one out for Delta, the SARS-CoV-2 variant that Season 3 of the pandemic seems intent on killing off. After holding star billing through the summer and fall of 2021, Delta’s spent the past several weeks getting absolutely walloped by its feistier cousin Omicron—a virus that’s adept at both blitzing in and out of airways and dodging the antibodies that vaccines and other variants raise. In late November, Delta made up essentially all the SARS-CoV-2 infections that researchers were sequencing in the United States. Now it’s a measly 0.1 percent. As for the rest? It’s an Omicron show.
The global portrait’s a bit patchier, but by and large, “Delta won’t be able to compete,” Karthik Gangavarapu, a computational biologist at UCLA, told me. “My suspicion is that Omicron will take over.” It’s a fair shift from the tune many experts were singing just weeks ago, when they wonderedwhether Delta and Omicron might co-circulate in a vicious variant one-two punch. Katia Koelle, an evolutionary virologist at Emory University, told me she used to worry about that possibility when the world knew little about Omicron’s competitive edge, but “less so now.” Katie Gostic, an infectious-disease modeler at the University of Chicago, agrees that Delta’s doom is probably nigh. And if so, “good riddance,” she told me.
Russia-Ukraine is becoming a trial of strength between different parts of the conservative universe.
Night after night, the host of the top-rated show on Fox News repeats Vladimir Putin’s talking points justifying aggression against Ukraine and opposing U.S. aid to that threatened sovereign country. Tucker Carlson’s influence is felt across right-wing social media, where it is amplified by figures such as Steve Bannon, Mike Cernovich, Glenn Greenwald, and Mollie Hemingway. A highly visiblecoterie of socially conservative intellectuals also argues the case against helping Ukraine.
People seeking to obtain an exemption from the shot have found that some clergy see no theological foundation for an excusal.
Religious texts such as the Bible, the Torah, and the Quran don’t say anything about vaccines—of course, all three texts predate them by hundreds of years. So when faith leaders face questions about immunizations, they generally offer their own interpretations of the scriptures. Such questions, particularly about the applicability of religious exemptions, have become more urgent during the pandemic, forcing clergy to take hard stances for or against excusals.
Even though the Supreme Court recently struck down a federal vaccine-or-test mandate for businesses with more than 100 employees, many Americans still must receive a COVID-19 vaccine in order to resume in-person work. Some people are seeking ways to skirt the obligation, and religious exemptions, which stipulate that a person’s spiritual beliefs can free them from a medical requirement, present one way to do so. In private Facebook groups, for instance, people swap tips on how to convince employers that they don’t need a shot, while others are hiring consulting services for help obtaining an exemption. Many people requesting exemptions have tried to strengthen their case with a written statement from a religious leader, but to some clergy, agreeing to support a person’s claim feels unjustifiable. Instead, faith leaders I spoke with are trying to assuage congregants’ misgivings about the vaccines, and are pushing back against attempts to circumvent public-health measures with scripture.
Old songs now represent 70 percent of the U.S. music market. Even worse: The new-music market is actually shrinking.
Old songs now represent 70 percent of the U.S. music market, according to the latest numbers from MRC Data, a music-analytics firm. Those who make a living from new music—especially that endangered species known as the working musician—should look at these figures with fear and trembling. But the news gets worse: The new-music market is actually shrinking. All the growth in the market is coming from old songs.
The 200 most popular new tracks now regularly account for less than 5 percent of total streams. That rate was twice as high just three years ago. The mix of songs actually purchased by consumers is even more tilted toward older music. The current list of most-downloaded tracks on iTunes is filled with the names of bands from the previous century, such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Police.
The Bowlin family knew they had a history of malformations in the brain. But they had no idea how far back it went.
Of the three Bowlin sisters, Margaret, the middle one, was the first to show signs. She began having seizures as a toddler. Then the eldest, Bettina, had a brief and mysterious episode of weakness in her right hand. In 1986, as an adult, she had a two-week migraine that got so bad, she couldn’t hold food in her mouth or money in her right hand. The youngest, Susan, felt fine, but her parents still took her for an exam in 1989, when she was 19. A brain scan found abnormal clusters of blood vessels that, as it turned out, were in her sisters’ brains too. These malformations in the brain can be silent. But they can also leak or, worse, burst without warning, causing the seizures, migraines, and strokelike symptoms Bettina and Margaret experienced. If the bleeding in the brain gets bad enough, it can be deadly.
The real prize in Ukraine is the end of American influence in Europe.
Vladimir Putin likes to say that playing chess with the United States is like playing against a pigeon: It struts around the board, knocks over the pieces, shits everywhere, and then declares victory. Playing chess with Europe, in contrast, must be like playing with a child who has forgotten the rules of the game, claims to have invented new ones, and then sulks when no one wants to play.
For so long, many people in Europe, including the U.K., have comforted themselves with platitudes that “hard power” no longer matters, that spheres of influence are outdated, and, even, that geopolitics itself has become somewhat passé. Then Russia sent 100,000 troops to the Ukrainian border. Suddenly playtime was over and once again the future security of Europe was being decided by someone else, somewhere else.
In attempting to succeed in the Trump-era Republican Party, some politicians are masquerading as what they imagine voters want, with results that ring almost comically false.
In 2013, Bobby Jindal, then the governor of Louisiana and a presidential hopeful, delivered some tough love to the Republican National Committee: “We must stop being the stupid party.” Specifically, he continued, “we must stop insulting the intelligence of voters. We need to trust the smarts of the American people. We have to stop dumbing down our ideas and stop reducing everything to mindless slogans and taglines for 30-second ads.”
Even in the pre-Trump GOP, this was a bracing message, but Jindal was the person to make it: Known for his wonkish mien, Jindal had graduated from Brown at 20, scored a Rhodes Scholarship, become the youngest president of the University of Louisiana system, and then won the governorship.
Years after these titles were popular, they’re still worth picking up.
Hundreds of thousands of books are published in the United States each year, and this dramatic influx of titles largely runs the calendars of the publishing and media industries—usually to the detriment of any work that isn’t brand new. Even best sellers or novels by famous authors get lost in the deluge, and books that were beloved on release can fall off readers’ radar quickly. But many were popular or critically acclaimed for good reasons, and they’re worth revisiting.
Here is a list of 15 fiction titles from the past two decades that you may have forgotten about in the years since. Some are from familiar names such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood, and Louise Erdrich; others are by authors you may not have heard of at all. These selections include plenty of drama, and there’s an undercurrent of gentle comedy, even in novels with dark themes or plots. Their characters define love in many different ways, and they seek fulfillment across geographies and time periods—contemporary London, Vichy France, Nigeria, North Korea. Ultimately, these stories are bound together by a compassion for their characters’ struggles and shortcomings—a quality that only our finest writers are able to cultivate.
Just like exercise and sleep, engaging with the arts is a necessity for a full and happy life.
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
If someone asked whether you like the arts, you’d probably say you do—at least in theory. According to the advocacy group Americans for the Arts, more than two-thirds of U.S. adults say the arts “lift me up beyond everyday experiences.” Still, only 30 percent attended a concert of any type in 2017; 23 percent went to an art museum; 6 percent attended a literary event. Fewer than half actively created art of any kind.
The No. 1 reason for this mismatch between values and behaviors is, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, that we don’t have time for art—we are weighed down by our day-to-day responsibilities. Maybe you play a little background music while you work or do chores, but even before the pandemic, you rarely saw a live performance, let alone visited a gallery or watched a play. And reading poetry? Perhaps not since high school.