Erin Keane

Jeffrey Toobin is back on CNN in an incredibly awkward segment and I have questions

On Thursday afternoon, were you also surprised to see disgraced legal analyst and Ryan Murphy adaptee Jeffrey Toobin re-emerging from a seven-and-a-half-month shame hiatus to reclaim his seat at CNN, where he had been placed on leave following an incident in which he was observed by New Yorker and WNYC co-workers masturbating on camera during a work Zoom call? In his first few minutes back on the air, Toobin performed a ritual act of penance — which, in a concession to discipline, I will not describe as "self-flagellation" — and after witnessing the good-natured grilling by anchor Alisyn Camerota, I still have questions beyond her opening salvo of "What the hell were you thinking?"

Is the cable news on-air legal analyst hiring landscape so dire that the network had no choice but to hold Toobin's position for him for two-thirds of a year while he worked on becoming, as he told Camerota, "a person people can trust again"? Was his masturbation incident, as Toobin said, a "deeply moronic and indefensible" choice that made performing community service while "trying to be a better person" necessary, or was it "one terrible mistake," as an unnamed CNN executive told The Washington Post, that shouldn't "define a person"? Is the cable news audience this hungry for legal analysis from makers of "deeply moronic" decisions? (And what Olivia Pope knock-off advised Toobin to tell us he has been "working in a food bank" in order to improve himself, like a slacker staring down the end of junior year and desperate to cobble together an adequate college application? Is it possible to cringe so hard at the TV you develop a cramp?)

Does this set a precedent at CNN that the entire staff understands and feels comfortable with? Would the network hire Toobin today if he hadn't already been a contributor before he got fired by the New Yorker as a result of their internal investigation — which Toobin assures us revealed no further incidents than the one caught on camera? If so, is this climate of forgiveness transparent in CNN's job postings? What types of previous workplace misconduct that might come to light during a pre-employment background check would qualify for red-flag status in the network's HR department? If he had gone Inner Toobin (don't look at me, I didn't name his Harvard column!) during a CNN meeting instead, would the network have fired him for it? If the answer is no, how many times can CNN's on-air talent masturbate in front of their colleagues before HR takes action? Is there a different number for workers who don't appear on air? Is this information shared with all new hires in an orientation, or just the men?

Are the four years Kathy Griffin has remained fired from her CNN gig after one terrible mistake, compared to Toobin's seven and a half months of personal leave, an example of a gender grace gap? If one agrees with the network executive that a terrible mistake shouldn't "ruin [a person's] employment opportunities for life," is there not a wide terrain of other opportunities available for someone of Toobin's experience and stature, outside of TV news celebrity, that could keep him from eviction or ruined credit? To paraphrase Ebenezer Scrooge, are there no Substacks, no Netflix option checks, no quiet consulting gigs? Is downgrading a man's celebrity status considered a cruel and unusual punishment in the media industry? On a scale of one to "flashed by a coworker," how degrading should we understand that to feel?

And finally, how should viewers expect CNN to handle legal analysis of stories about workplace sexual misconduct or harassment, especially when covering the industry itself? Level with us: Just how awkward is that going to get?

Here's why 'every American' can relate to cults

"If you ask me where I'm from, I'll lie to you," Lauren Hough writes in the first line of her debut essay collection. "I'll tell you my parents were missionaries. I'll tell you I'm from Boston. I'll tell you I'm from Texas. Those lies, people believe." The truth is she was raised all over the world in the infamous Children of God cult, a detail she kept secret for years until, with the help of the internet, she was able to connect with others like her. It turns out, as "Leaving Isn't the Hardest Thing" (Vintage Books, out now) reveals in prose that crackles with dark wit, sharp observations and stunning revelations, surviving a childhood shaped by an abusive cult with her ambition intact may have uniquely positioned Hough to see not only authoritarian religions, but America itself — its military, its criminal justice system, its bigotries, the precarious edge upon which it positions its working class — through the clearest of eyes.

Hough's book has been hotly anticipated since her HuffPost essay, "I Was A Cable Guy. I Saw The Worst Of America," went viral in 2018. In that essay and 10 others, Hough writes about navigating her way through a multitude of identities, regions, and subcultures, daring to tell the truth about America from the inside and out.

I spoke with Hough by phone last week, shortly after the delightful news broke that Cate Blanchett would be joining her in narrating the audiobook. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

One thing that I was really struck by in this book is how deeply it grapples with loneliness, particularly a specific kind of loneliness that occurs when a person is surrounded by others — first in living in group homes with the Children of God, and then with your family, and then with roommates in tiny spaces. It reaches an apex in the scenes when you're incarcerated in solitary confinement. America is supposedly this obscenely chatty, gregarious country and people, but studies also show that we're also a really lonely country. What do you think creates this paradox?

It's funny you said "chatty," because I figured out a long time ago if I talk a lot, I don't have to say anything. When you meet people, if you seem earnest — well, not earnest, I avoided that — but if you seem like an open book, and you have plenty of stories to tell, and you drop in, "Yeah, my parents were missionaries, f**king hippies, don't know what to tell you," and change the subject, people don't ask any questions. They think they know everything there is to know about you. I think we just don't connect. Nobody who's ever asked, "How are you?" in America has actually meant the question or wanted an answer. And I think that's becoming really apparent with the pandemic, because now people ask, "How are you?" and you get a world full of tragedy.

People will tell you their answer now. But are we ready to hear it?

We're not. We're just unloading on random strangers. How are you? Well, my dog died last week. Everybody has this tragic thing, and I don't think we're capable of pretending anymore and answering, "Fine, how are you?" and moving on from the conversation. We're all experiencing that loneliness right now. We're just, deeply, deeply, deeply desperate to connect.

That brings up the question of whether we're being reshaped as a people by the pandemic. Everyone is going through this big trauma but isolated from each other. As Americans, we still want to buy into this myth that this is a country where you can always start over — fresh start, clean slate, you can be whoever you want to be. Do you think that we will be able to move on for real from this? Will we just clean slate, memory-hole this last year?

I hope not. Everyone's talking about going back to normal, and normal wasn't that f**king good for a lot of us. Normal was awful. I hope we don't go back to normal. I hope we experience something together and remember it, but we're really good — as a country, as a culture — of just shoving s**t down and not thinking about it.

The term "essential worker" has become such an irony-laden term over the last year, as we apply it to the folks who stock the shelves and run the checkouts at the supermarket, or work in the warehouses that service our two-day shipping, despite the the humiliating and debilitating demands that are placed on them. And that ties in closely to one of your running threads in the book about how class and labor and gender intersect, how the American workplace's principle of your time is not your own when you're on the clock then manifests itself as thereforeyour body is not your own. What do you think that the mainstream media misses about America's working class, when they have such a narrow slice of it they want to focus on — namely white, conservative, straight cisgender men without college degrees?

I think the biggest problem there is the working class isn't sitting in a diner hanging out all morning [talking to journalists]. The working class is sh**ting in a Big Gulp cup in the back of their work van, because there aren't any bathrooms around. It's been infuriating to watch. People will gladly cheer for essential workers, but won't pay them.

Just f**king pay people. Nobody needs to be cheered. It's like being a veteran, being thanked for your service while they cut VA benefits. Support our troops — but not if you need anything!

America hates talking about class, right?

Yeah, we really do.

Which means hating talking about a lot of things that intersect with that, too.

We just don't like to be inconvenienced. We'll gladly support essential workers as long as it doesn't mean anything about our lives has to change at all. It's funny talking about it right now, because I just tried to commit career suicide the other night, and it backfired on me — apparently I suck at that. I picked a fight with Amazon, and told people to cancel their [book] orders. I really thought I'd get in trouble. And apparently, it's not a bad idea to make bookstores love you.

Most people have heard my name because I wrote an essay about needing to pee. When I was trying to figure out how to write it, I was talking to a couple guys I knew and I asked them for stories. Do you guys remember anything that happened? Because I don't remember 10 years. I said to my friend Andre that really, I just remember needing to pee. He was like, well, there's the essay.

I don't know that a lot of people who work in offices understand. It depends on the office, I mean, if you're working in call center, I'm talking about you. But yeah, I don't think people understand how you have to ask for a day off and beg and have a really good excuse or you just don't get one.

And we're seeing now, with sick leave, how do you stop a pandemic when people have to work sick?

And working through sickness or injury has lasting effects. I have this sentence you wrote on opiate addiction highlighted: "People are in pain, because unless you went to college, the only way you'll earn a decent living is by breaking your body or risking your life." It's so rare, almost like a Bigfoot sighting, to see this point about addiction raised in discussions about class and work in America. There's often a romanticization of "the trades" out there by people who do work in offices, who seem to want to ignore how physical that labor is, and how a lot of people can't keep doing it for their whole life.

Not at the pace that we're required to work in our Protestant work ethic. A month off in August, like the Europeans have, might have a lot of effect on how our bodies feel. But we don't have time to heal. We can't go to a doctor. How do you get better if you don't get medical care? Even if you have health insurance, you don't have time off to do it.

There's constant jokes about rednecks and their opioids. It's not "rednecks and their opioids," people are in pain. And the doctor prescribes them opioids because they have to go back to work the next day. Or their buddy gives them a few because they have to go back to work the next day, and it's really easy to get addicted. I got addicted after I had a sinus surgery. It took maybe a week of intense pain and horrific withdrawals that were real. And I don't even like opioids, I get nauseated on them, so I don't take them. But yeah, it's really easy to get addicted.

Let's talk about the word "cult." Your book is not a tell-all cult memoir. But you write about your childhood with the Children of God as the big secret you carried for much of your life. If you start listening for the word "cult" it's kind of everywhere these days. Donald Trump voters are a cult. QAnon is a cult. CrossFit is a cult. On one hand, maybe we're diluting this term. But I think your book also makes a strong case that cult-like leadership behavior shapes a lot of our mainstream institutions, too.

Yeah, I think that's what I wanted to say with that. I spent most of my life just twitching at the word "cult." But when you start talking about and thinking about what it actually was, it's not all that different from what most of us experience as Americans, or as employees of a store that want you to be loyal to the store instead of paying you [well]. We throw the word around a lot, but maybe it's appropriate. And maybe it's fine that it's diluted, because it's apt. Our groupthink, our tribalism, our gather together to follow personalities instead of policy [tendencies] in politics. It's kind of bizarre, but I thought [being in a cult] was this huge secret, and it turns out pretty much every American can relate to it.

There's aspects of it in how you write about the military. There's definitely strong parallels made to mainstream religions, as well, and evangelicalism.

That was the shocking thing, coming out of the cult and realizing none of their beliefs were really that weird.

I really thought it was just a Children of God thing: We thought the Antichrist was coming, there would be a mark of the beast. And now, there are entire Facebook groups dedicated to warning you the vaccine's going to insert the mark of the beast into you. And it's still a little baffling to me. I really thought the end of the world would be more exciting and less f**king stupid. I'm supposed to be fighting the Antichrist, and I'm just not putting a bra on and watching Netflix.

Speaking of Netflix. There was that "SNL" musical sketch a few weeks ago about women who like murder shows, and in the end, it takes that little turn when Nick Jonas comes home and is like, baby, let me introduce you to the cult show. There was a violent crime in my extended family, and I get twitchy about the idea of it popping up as a story on one of those murder comedy podcasts. So I wonder what it's like for you to see cult shows — docuseries like "Wild Wild Country" and the NXIVM exposés — out there in the pop culture discourse?

It doesn't make it fun to tell people you were in a cult when people start thinking about NXIVM. That documentary is problematic for me anyway, because you're asking people who've been out of a cult for a week to explain what happened to them. I mean, f**k, it's been 20 years, I still don't know what the f**k happened to my family. I wrote a book about it, but it's not an easy thing to explain. You can't be the expert on your own life, which is a really weird thing to say for someone who just wrote a book about my own, but — [laughs] I'm f**king selling it here —

This career suicide you keep trying to commit is not going to work.

I'm going to tank the book, goddamnit! Nobody read it. Please don't read my book. The more I tell people not to, they're just going to. We don't really follow orders really well. I do love that about Americans. [Laughs.]

I used to think we were watching the crime shows, especially as women, as homework. What situations to avoid, and what men to avoid. But we kind of already know not to get into a stranger's car. Also, now we do it as practice, to get any place you get in a stranger's Uber and drive around. I used to think we're doing this as homework, but I don't think — we're just feeding off of people's tragedies for entertainment. I don't know why we do that, except maybe our home lives are really too hard to look at. It's easier to look at something shocking and weird in someone else's life than understand why our lives are f**king miserable.

To go back to what you were saying earlier about companies that demand loyalty from their workers, maybe we're also looking for recognition in these more extreme cases?

Yeah, it might be. It also seems like more of an easy fix: Don't join a cult. Cool. Wrote that one down. If he starts branding people, you should probably leave. Those are all pretty easy fixes. But you know, we're looking at the next 20 years of our lives before we can retire going to work every day for a company that is a cult because they don't want to pay us or give us time off, in a country where we can't even get f**king health care or our college paid for. "Walk out when they start branding people," is pretty easy advice but we can't really escape our own lives.

Yeah, maybe it's supposed to make us feel a little better to like we're not we're not there yet.

America is kind of founded on Oh, at least I'm not that guy. That is what we've got.

You were joking earlier: Don't read my book, don't read my book! For writers who write memoir and essays, people read their work and they feel like they're very close to the writer. When in truth they only know what you're allowing them to know. This is a crafted work of art, and they're the reader, not a confidant. You've probably experienced the weird side of that: people feeling like they know you well enough to comment on you as if you're either a very intimate friend, or even like a character on a show that they watch. I'm curious about how you navigate that public attention now as a writer in light of what you've written about having to keep so much of your life private for so long.

Yelling "I'm a private person!" if you've just written a memoir is kind of like yelling, "I'm not crazy!" but it doesn't really jibe with the fact that I just put out a book of really personal essays. But they are kind of a snapshot. And I don't know that people understand that. We don't really understand the parasocial relationship as consumers. I understand a little more now that I'm on the other side of it. I whine a lot about not getting a book tour [because of the pandemic] because I feel like I'm getting robbed, but at the same time, I do get to avoid a whole lot of people trying to hug me. I don't think people wrote reviews of any David Sedaris book talking about how much they wanted to hug him. I don't think that happened. I don't think anyone's ever called Augusten Burroughs "brave" in a review, and I think there is a little bit of a sexist bent to it.

I put the book out. And that's what you get. We're all in therapy to figure out walls versus boundaries. And I'm trying to step away from Twitter a little bit. I mean, I'm still compulsively tweeting, God help me. But I'm trying not to put so much personal information out there. I got on there because I wanted to connect to other writers and figure out how to publish a book, but that's done now. And while I'm still trying to connect to people — we're all f**king lonely, sitting around in the pandemic, trying to talk to someone — but yeah, I don't want to be consumed, and it feels a lot like I am being consumed for entertainment.

You are a very funny writer. I think there is this perception out there, perhaps, that comedy is natural, it's innate, it's easy, if you're a funny person anyway. Not that it's a craft, a skill, that takes conscious work. You use humor very skillfully and adeptly in your essays in a way that feels like an act of writerly generosity, and it's a craft element that isn't always highlighted when we talk about essays on difficult subjects.

It is a skill level. How do you make child abuse hilarious?

How did you develop that muscle? Because you are very purposefully funny about topics which are also horrific.

Gallows humor has been around for a little while. I didn't invent it. We joke to process things.

I can get kind of emotional writing something and I want to make a point and I want to drive it home. But you have to add a little bit of levity or give people the tools to read it. Especially in the beginning, we add a few funny things to like, Hey, we're going to get through this. It's not going to be that bad. I'm not going to make you need a shower after you read this book. It's just practice. And Twitter came in handy there a lot. How to tell a joke? Follow a bunch of comics and watch the way they work, watch how they arrange a story so that it's funny, not tragic. The most tragic things can be the funniest. I just think it's the way our our emotions work. We like that release.

Who are you reading right now? What books are you excited about?

Speaking of serial murderers and podcasts, Elon Green wrote this book ["Last Call"] about a serial killer in the '90s who was killing gay men in New York. And he did it a different way, I think, than any of the podcasts. I tweeted about this other day, but really, really the worst thing I think that can happen to you besides being murdered by a serial killer, is to have someone on a podcast giggling about it. He put the victims in it first. He tells their stories. And they're treated with such tenderness. And he doesn't make them the perfect victim. It's this history of gay New York, which of course, I'm fascinated by because I was too scared to go to New York. So I like to read about it.

Your book gives a really great snapshot of a particular time in gay D.C. too, and also in the South, which is often overlooked in LGBTQ narratives. Like what it's like to try to find the one gay bar in a 100-mile radius of your rural town.

You don't think about it when you're living it. But any Gen Xer is now really horrified when it occurs to us that people are talking about the '90s like we used to talk about the '60s.

Jesus Christ. [Laughs.]

I'm sorry I just ruined your week.

I routinely feel old. But Don't Ask Don't Tell was only repealed 10 years ago. And I feel like that's something that has been memory-holed fast, like, well, that's over! In the same way that people tried to pretend that because we elected a Black man president, racism is now over! And the progress we have made feels so fragile right now. I think it's important that books like yours and Elon Green's are chronicling that time, which was not that long ago. But it is often treated like ancient history to be swept under the rug.

Yeah, we really don't like to look at our pasts. Which is the f**king problem. Because we're doing it to trans people now. There's a [North Carolina state] law that just passed where teachers have to report to parents if a kid doesn't fit the correct gender performance. And that's every tomboy. Every boy who's a little bit into art. And God help us, lesbians like to clearly pretend that trans rights have nothing to do with them. But it does. If someone is being oppressed, it really does affect all of us. And forgetting where we came from doesn't f**king help. We haven't won yet. I don't know that we're ever going to win. You do actually have to still keep fighting these things. Because yes, gay people are allowed in the military. And now finally trans people are allowed to be in the military. But they're not allowed to play high school sports?

People like to say about the generation coming up that they're not going to stand for this bigotry any longer, so its days are numbered. Is this the last gasp of institutional bigotry trying to sink its claws in before it's replaced? Or are we going to be fighting the same fights for years to come?

I mean, I thought Gen X would get rid of a lot of it because we were always watching MTV and they told us racism was bad. And we watched "The Real World," and we watched our favorite gay character die of AIDS. I thought we would make some changes. We've made a few. I have a lot of hope for the next generation that they'll make a few more. But that's a lot of weight to put on an 18-year-old.

Did anything good happen in 2020?

It's been a hell of a year, literally. A deadly pandemic that continues to claim lives, while a robust disinformation campaign actively undermines the public's understanding of its severity, prevention and treatment. People out of work and industries devastated, with inadequate bandages offered by our federal response. Police rioting in the streets of our cities when those they are supposed to serve and protect dared to demand they do so in the names of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and so many more. Right-wing domestic terrorism on the rise. A brutal election made even more stressful by a lengthier decision timeline.

To top it all off, an attempted coup, for chrissakes, made not the least bit less alarming by its foretold inevitability.

Every day brings a new opportunity to uncover abuses of public trust, analyze our various civic and epistemic crises, and expose the corrosive mendacity and unchecked greed of undeserving clowns in positions of ever-growing power. You read our work; you know. Amid all of that bad, was there anything to celebrate about this awful year, save its passing — if we even make it to December 31? It felt like a dare: Name something good that happened in 2020. Just one.

We like a challenge. Here's what we found. (We had one ground rule: No picking "the outcome of the presidential election.")

Some of these are personal experiences, while some are communal. Some show how art and artistic experiences endure, despite the brutal circumstances. Many came out of deliberate and accidental attempts at making the best of an otherwise crummy year. Some are moments in time that we're preserving and reliving in appreciation, but many are ongoing pleasures and satisfactions you can seek out if they appeal.

Yes, some are born of schadenfreude (and a need to laugh at the absurd death rattles of the outgoing administration) but most from genuine affection. All are sincerely appreciated. So here they are. May this question be easier to answer in years to come.

The Four Seasons Total Landscaping fiasco gave us a reason to laugh at 2020
by Ashlie D. Stevens
"We as a nation need to remember where the travesty of the Trump administration died with a whimper"

Verzuz battles brought us together to bond over live music again
by Melanie McFarland
The pandemic took live music away from us. Verzuz gave it back and brought us closer to the musicians we love

Thank you, Gritty, rallying with us to save our democracy
by Amanda Marcotte
The chaotic orange mascot for the Philadelphia Flyers became an icon of democracy in 2020

TikTok teens trolling Trump in Tulsa: A high point in an otherwise low year
by Mary Elizabeth Williams
In this otherwise terrible year, Gen Z scored a small victory by landing a blow to Trump's MAGA delusion

Weird Al's "We're All Doomed" nailed this sh*tshow of a year
by Matthew Rozsa
In a single music video, Weird Al and The Gregory Brothers summed up the zeitgeist of 2020 as a "raging hellscape"

"Schitt's Creek" was my saving grace in the early shutdown days
by Erin Keane
When Moira Rose wailed, "Pick up a hammer and nail this coffin shut!" I felt it in my bones

Fanny packs are back, baby! A weird fashion silver lining in a sweatpants year
by Hanh Nguyen
I imagine this is how the first Scotsman who adorned himself with a sporran felt – proud, ready to tackle anything

We needed to hear Melania Trump say "Who gives a f*ck about Christmas"
by Erin Keane
It was hard proof that Melania Trump is just as bad as the rest of her clan — and we all heard it

Ronan Farrow's voices (and other audiobook delights) helped me get through this year
by Hanh Nguyen
Reading while I jog or do chores? Great! But also, give me all the random voices and accents while you're at it

"Kentucky Route Zero," a magical realism masterpiece, is proof art can thrive in trying times
by Keith A. Spencer
The video game is a 21st century combination of a Southern Gothic and magical realist novel

Getting engaged in this otherwise hellish year: An act of faith in a shared future
by Nicole Karlis
A good year is simply when it ends with the people you love still there

This year, we conquered breakfast
by Justin Pelofsky and Alex Wittenberg
The pandemic forced us both to slow down and crack the morning meal code

During a dark year, a dream realized: How the pandemic brought me back to school
by Mary Elizabeth Williams
I wouldn't be in my master's program — a dream I've long deferred — without the pandemic rearranging my life

The people in the TV who talk to me: This is what comfort in 2020 feels like
by Chauncey DeVega
In my kinder and gentler personal version of Cronenberg's "Videodrome," my favorite shows kept me company at home

'Govern me, daddy': How Kentucky's Governor Andy Beshear became a clean-cut sex symbol for the coronavirus age

Of all the wild turns 2020 could have taken, I doubt anyone had "Kentucky's new governor becomes a sex symbol during the coronavirus crisis" on their bingo card, but here we are. Or rather, here we were until Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, 42, delivered a loving yet stern call-out during his press briefing Wednesday to defiant bingo halls that weren't closing to enforce social distancing to reduce the spread of COVID-19. These updates, live-streamed daily at 5 p.m. Eastern time, have become must-see and -listen events for Kentuckians thanks to Beshear's combo of trustworthy information, empathy, and uplifting we're all in this together messages. "If you are a bingo parlor in Pike County, you ought to be closed by the end of today," he said, with unmistakable concern in his eyes. "Those parlors cater to an older and more at-risk crowd." Forget being brave enough to face the toilet paper-hoarding supermarket crowds, there's a new benchmark for courage: Andy Beshear's not scared of angering stir-crazy grandmothers in order to protect his people.

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Here are 7 must-read novels to kick off 2020 right

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Now that Ivanka can't pretend there's not a gigantic mess in the White House, she appeals to her core audience

On Thursday, as the House of Representatives voted to proceed with a formal impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump, his Senior Advisor Ivanka Trump — first daughter, daughter first — met the extraordinary circumstances of this historic moment with an unusual reaction of her own: She acknowledged that the dumpster she’s sitting in is actually on fire.

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Ronan Farrow's high-wire act: Why it matters that 'Catch and Kill' is such a page-turner

Most stories about journalism, outside of active war zone reporting, are not exactly thrilling to observe. Journalism itself — the grinding, sometimes grubby, day-to-day practice of it — rarely is. A lot of the work behind even the most explosive stories can be tedious; for every heart-racing secret meeting in a parking garage, there are thousands of hours spent waiting to be called back by people who do not really want to call you back. Even acclaimed films like “The Post” and “Spotlight” — built around the biggest, era-defining investigations — must work their cinematic tension exquisitely to make document diving and note taking exciting enough to watch, let alone stand for Best Picture.

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Americans are sitting so much it's becoming a public health issue

It seems that exercise trends and a rise in the popularity of standing desks have not been doing much for our sedentary lifestyles: A new study finds that American are sitting more than we were 10 years ago.

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The paradox of toxic masculinity: Why gender norms are set up to privilege straight white men — who in turn 'are eating themselves alive'

Novelist Jared Yates Sexton catapulted onto the national media radar in 2016 when his dispatches from Donald Trump presidential campaign rallies — prompting me to ask him once, "how does a nice creative writing professor end up covering the presidential election?" — revealed a cultural insider's perspective on the rise of Trump. He avoided the press pen and moved among Trump's rowdiest supporters, where he was able to observe up close the toxic levels of white-male rage directed at Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and their supporters, which Trump exploited all the way to the White House.

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Game of Thrones recap: Don’t send a king to do an assassin’s job

The opening shot of “The Long Night,” episode three of the final “Game of Thrones” season — which we know will bring the fight between the dead and the living, foretold in that very first episode, to Winterfell — is a close-up of a pair of shaking hands. Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) is not a warrior — he knows this, we know this — but the scholar and former Night’s Watchman has refused to hide in the crypts with the women and children, so into his trembling hands a pair of dragonglass daggers go. The dead are coming, and if they’re lucky the ensuing battle will make heroes of a few, along with the expected martyrs. A good deal more will be slain on the field, where the best they can hope for then is to stay dead where they fall.(Melanie McFarland, Salon’s TV critic and your regular guide to “Game of Thrones” episodes, is off this weekend, so you’re stuck with me, a person who dreads long battle scenes so much she signed up to recap one of the most important in TV history to date. Just picture me in Night King “bring it” stance.)Even the battleworn among them are terrified, with good reason. If you want to make the Lord of Light LOL, make plans. Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) skulks off to the crypts, wine sack in hand, to wait it out with Varys (Conleth Hill) and the women and kids. Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) is wheeled to his rendezvous with death, the blood-red leaves of the godswood rising menacingly above the ramparts, where Theon (Alfie Allen) and a handful of extras will guard him until the Night King comes to finish old business.

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'They were our electorate': David Carr's daughter explains why MSNBC, CNN and Fox News elected Donald Trump

Documentary filmmaker Erin Lee Carr is known for her incisive portraits of complicated, dark subjects: "Mommy Dead and Dearest," the HBO documentary that led the current media avalanche of attention on Munchausen syndrome by proxy victim Gypsy Rose Blanchard's murder of her mother Dee Dee; "Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop" and "I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter," both of which, like "Mommy Dead and Dearest," examine the intersections of technology and criminal law; and "At the Heart of Gold," premiering this month at Tribeca Film Festival, about the U.S. gymnastics team sexual abuse survivors whose powerful statements at the sentencing of Dr. Larry Nassar captivated a nation in the midst of reckoning openly with the #MeToo movement.

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Is Amy Klobuchar is being smeared by sexist 'mean boss' stories?

On Friday, the New York Times published a story with a deceptively understated headline: “How Amy Klobuchar Treats Her Staff.” The first implication carried by such a headline is “poorly,” of course — happy workplace families, being all alike, are not stories. The second is “exceptionally so,” positioned as crucial information for voters to have going forward into the interminable Democratic presidential primary.

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'There's no way to save up money': 'Maid' author Stephanie Land on the rigged math of being poor

"I'm sorry I'm so distracted," Stephanie Land says to me. Not that I could tell.  At that point we had been on the phone for 45 minutes talking about her new memoir "Maid," which chronicles the years she spent working as a housecleaner, balancing hard physical labor in a low-wage, high-stress job with single parenting and college, and throughout our conversation Land's focus has not ever appeared to waver.

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Here's what a skeptic learned from consulting psychics, astrologers, tarot readers, empaths and more

Victoria Loustalot didn't set out to write another memoir, exactly, when she decided to spend a year interviewing psychics, astrologers, tarot card readers, shamans and other mystic art professionals about their work to examine what's real, what's fake and what's just wishful thinking in the relationship between them and their customers and fans. Unlike her acclaimed memoir "How You Say Goodbye," this story — "a skeptic's search for an honest mystic," as it's billed — wasn't initially meant to be about a personal journey. And yet a psychic she visited on a bachelorette party trip gave her a preview of a future relationship that ended up coming eerily true, and after she embarked down the path of investigation that became her new book "Future Perfect," she told me, "it ended up being by far one of my most personal projects."

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wins the rigged conservative shame game - by refusing to play

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez can’t win.

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A literature professor explains what everyone gets wrong about Hunter S. Thompson

It's easy to appreciate Hunter S. Thompson first and foremost for his style, for that famous Gonzo prose knocked off so often (and often so poorly) it's almost startling to revisit his work and realize how clear-eyed and articulate both his fear and loathing always were on the page. In Timothy Denevi's new biography, "Freak Kingdom: Hunter S. Thompson's Ten-Year Crusade Against American Fascism," fear and loathing receive a re-appraisal as the rhetorical framework that Thompson employed deliberately and with very specific ends in mind while creating some of the most influential journalism of the 1960s and '70s.

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With Kavanaugh's Confirmation, the Patriarchy Strikes Back

When Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, made the dramatic announcement on Friday afternoon that she would vote in favor of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, she took pains to paint herself first as supportive of Christine Blasey Ford, the professor who testified to the Senate that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school (an allegation the judge denied under oath), and of the #MeToo movement in general.

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The 'Roseanne' Revival We Really Needed is the One They’d Never Make

In the end, ABC’s experiment of reviving “Roseanne” — a sitcom once beloved for its portrayal of the loving and lovingly imperfect working-class Connor family during a time when such families were hard to come by on primetime — was a failure.

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'Bullsh*t Jobs' is the One Book Every Millennial and Generation Z New Graduate Should Read

When I graduated college in the late ’90s, I carried forth into the cold wage-paying world the career wisdom of Lloyd Dobler on how to avoid losing my soul to undesirable work. Big-hearted slacker Lloyd (John Cusack), the hero of Cameron Crowe’s 1989 romantic comedy “Say Anything,” is asked by the father (the late, great John Mahoney) of his date, valedictorian Diane Court (Ione Skye, in a once-in-a-generation role), what he wants to do now that they have graduated from high school.

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It's Too Early To Forgive Male Celebrities Taken Down By #MeToo

Even F. Scott Fitzgerald learned — flogged-to-death quote from his unfinished novel “The Last Tycoon” notwithstanding — that second acts in American lives are possible, as he wrote in his less-frequently quoted essay “My Lost City”: “I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York’s boom days.”

Several recent stories suggest a collective hope for second acts endures, as speculation gathers on how celebrity men disgraced by #MeToo reporting might stage comebacks after being accused of sexual harassment, misconduct or abuse, and losing lofty platforms and incredibly lucrative jobs as a result.

The truth is America can’t resist a second act; our national myths are founded on them. A fervent belief in personal reinvention for men (of mostly European heritage) runs through the country’s creation. And so it’s no wonder that after several months of what was described as a “reckoning” — the falls from grace of many powerful men accused of sexual harassment and abuse, sparked by the New York Times and New Yorker Pulitzer Prize-winning exposés of Harvey Weinstein’s long trail of rape and abuse allegations and fueled by the rallying cry of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement — which is by no means over yet, we're simultaneously waiting for the curtain to rise on the next part of the story.

Whiling away the days in shamed exile? Boring. A redemption arc — now there’s a story.

The possibilities are so intriguing that similar comeback narratives have been floated recently about Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Mario Batali and Matt Lauer, all wondering if — but mostly about when and how — the fallen heroes will stage their triumphant second acts.

Louis C.K.: Just tell jokes about it!

Earlier this week, The Hollywood Reporter talked to a number of comedians about whether or not a comeback is feasible for Louis C.K., who admitted to acts of sexual misconduct after years of rumors about his abusive treatment of women comedians finally became a reported story in the New York Times.

THR posits that this is basically a done deal, as in, “the question is not really whether C.K. will eventually come back but when, where and how” perhaps because the “consensus is that while his behavior was clearly wrong it was not at the level of a Harvey Weinstein, James Toback or Bill Cosby.”

Christopher Titus thinks C.K. should avoid the mea culpa interviews. “He needs to work on his best comedy about how he was a douche and how he is trying to make amends to women.”

Comic Sean Patton echoes that notion, saying, “The only way he comes back is if he heals — he should do an hour special that breaks down why it was wrong and how he’s made amends.”

Both [Carolines’ executive talent producer Louis] Faranda and [Comedy Cellar owner Noam] Dworman say they’d hand C.K. their microphones tomorrow.

If a genius like C.K. could just apply his talent to his current predicament, this thinking goes, he could buy his way out of exile with the powerful currency of his act. (Self-deprecation, it would seem in his case, would qualify as “punching up.”)

Charlie Rose: Just make yourself the story!

Meanwhile, at home in tony yet low-key Bellport, Long Island — the “un-Hamptons,” if you will — Charlie Rose lurks where he once held court, an April 12 feature from THR reports. Rose was fired from CBS and PBS for sexual harassment allegations made by eight women, including Kyle Godfrey-Ryan, who worked for his show in 2003 and 2004 and, according to THR, “feels both anger and sympathy” for Rose.

"I believe he is struggling, and it pains me knowing he is in pain," she says. "Charlie's entire life was defined by who he was as a journalist — and he is one of the best we have ever had … [but] Charlie used his power, at times, to assault many women who worked for him. This pattern went on for almost 30 years," continues Godfrey-Ryan, who says she endured Rose's nudity as well as phone calls expressing his fantasies of seeing her naked in his pool.

The consensus among Rose’s friends seems to be that he won’t return to the public eye, but an ostensibly accidental tweet — simply the letter “H” posted on March 18 on his timeline, which had been silent since he posted his statement responding to the accusations on November 20 — elicited an outpouring of enthusiasm from fans who would love to see him return to work.

“I miss U on tv!” replied one fan, adding a sad emoji face. “Please come back,” another implored. “We've all made mistakes in life but it's how we learn and grow that matters,” writes another. “Keep your head up. This too shall pass.”

At 76, it might simply be time for Rose to retire. But there still remains some interest in how Rose might have reported on the #MeToo movement and his role in it. Godfrey-Ryan, who tells THR that she is rooting for Rose to undergo a transformation and get his second chance, thinks “someone as brilliant as Charlie” could have found a way to pull it off.

"He could have dived into research about the male ego and tried to get to the root of why this pattern of abuse is so common with positions of power. He could have used this moment to change the state-of-play in journalism," she said.

Louis C.K. and Charlie Rose don’t have similar careers — one’s a profane comedian, one a venerable TV news anchor — but they both occupy a similarly breathless stratosphere of respect from audiences who apparently find a certain combination of intellectual rigor and relentless self-absorption irresistible.

If geniuses like these two men can apply their superior talents to telling their own sordid stories, evidently, fans won’t be able to help but welcome them back into the spotlight.

Mario Batali Who Just Do Good Stuff?

On April 2, New York Times food writer Kim Severson reported from a meeting between Mario Batali and a member of an ad hoc war council of trusted advisors who have been helping the celebrity chef “figure out how his life and career might recover from a disastrous turn.”

That disastrous turn, as Severson explains, happened to be the fallout from allegations of “a decades-long pattern of abusive behavior” in the workplace and at his friends’ restaurants, “from lewd, drunken propositions to physical groping, including one incident at the Spotted Pig in the West Village in which a woman appeared too intoxicated to respond.”

Fired by his TV network gigs with his branded merchandise yanked off shelves, he has largely dropped out of professional sight, following a time-honored script of celebrity scandal-weathering.

In his downtime, Batali's been working on some ideas for the next act: Create “a new company led by a powerful woman chief executive,” traveling to Rwanda and Greece to work with refugees and launching a program to travel with fellow chefs to work with displaced Rwandans. Good deeds are a time-honored PR strategy for repairing a damaged reputation, and one of the handiest tools in a beleaguered celeb's box.

It might even work, although one of Batali’s advisors cautioned, in regards to the entire industry, “this is not a scandal, this is a paradigm shift. The old ‘wait it out and return appearing humbled’ prescription no longer applies.”

According to Severson, though, while his fellow food celebrities might be shunning him publicly, privately, some “suggest the time has come for a more nuanced approach to replace the scorched-earth policy toward men who have harassed women — one that allows something resembling redemption.”

And the guy to pull that off just might be Batali, they’re saying — he’s that talented, and has a committed fan base calling for his return. A bold charitable gesture would give his more conscientious fans reason enough to claim that he’s a good man under it all, so can't we move on and get back to business?

Matt Lauer: Find out if anyone actually misses you first

Disgraced former “Today” host Matt Lauer, fired from his plum NBC perch after a laundry list of allegations of sexual harassment and predatory behavior in the workplace came out back in November, recently emerged from the actual Hamptons to let himself be spotted — oh so casually — by Page Six at the same Manhattan restaurant where Donald Trump’s embattled attorney Michael Cohen was dining.

Lauer, who ate with the owner of Modell’s Sporting Goods, “is said to be testing the waters for a public comeback by coming out of hiding.” Now that his marriage is over, “he’s ready to restart his life, pals say.”

This is a shrewd approach — let the gossip trickle out that Lauer is considering a comeback, and see how people react. Too much shade and he might, like the groundhog after seeing the shadow of his bold-faced name, decide to retreat back to the Hamptons to continue to lick his wounds and wait for the details around his firing to become a bit fuzzier in the collective memory.

After all, Lauer — unlike C.K. and Rose and Batali — is not often hailed as a genius. He’s a decent TV anchor who is now known as “the guy with a dungeon button in his office,” and that guy is a guy the entire universe can probably live without. He wasn't even particularly beloved before the terrible stories came out. And as Harvey Weinstein could tell him, when the guy everyone secretly hates gets taken down, few will stand around cheering for him to get back up.

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Should We Let 'Roseanne' Speak for the Rust Belt?

ABC’s “Roseanne” revival is officially a hit, and not only because it’s reaping the fruits of network TV nostalgia like “Will & Grace” and “Fuller House” before it. Because of the scrutiny the national media has placed on voters like those at the center of the show — a working-class household headed by white Baby Boomers with high school educations in post-industrial middle America — “Roseanne” is under the microscope not only for whether its humor holds up, but for what the show and its reception might tell us about the state of American politics. Critics and viewers alike are watching for the intersection points between the politics of its outspoken eponymous star, a Donald Trump supporter, and the politics of the show itself.

When Trump made a point to call Roseanne Barr and congratulate her on the premiere’s high ratings, and then praised the show’s success in a speech, saying “it was about us,” he cemented the show’s place in the current culture war. Now “Roseanne” can’t possibly be just a TV show. It’s going to be the blue-collar story we talk about, no matter how many other shows today, as my colleague Melanie McFarland points out, also depict the struggles of a struggling America.

This is by design. There was no way America could watch “Roseanne” in 2018, knowing what we had been told about the show ahead of its premiere, without wondering what it could tell us about “Trump voters” as they have been reductively painted by reportersand think-pieces galore. The premiere delivered on that promise, painting Roseanne Connor's "it's about jobs!" support for Trump against her sister Jackie's "nasty woman"-style preaching in an intrafamily war of archetypes: It's snowflakes vs. deplorables, round 37!

Barr herself told a room full of TV critics back in January, "I've always attempted to portray a realistic portrait of the American people and of working-class people. And in fact it was working-class people who elected Trump.” In fact it wasn’t, but Barr — who is in many ways Exhibit A, as a Trump supporter who paid $1.78 million for a macadamia farm in Hawaii — is hardly alone in believing in this wildly persistent myth.

Back in January, executive producer and co-showrunner Whitney Cummings explained in an essay for Vulture that one reason she wanted to work on the new “Roseanne” — aside from the fact that the original had been a touchstone of her childhood, like so many of us who grew up loving the snarky, loud, loving Connor clan — was that “giving my brain to a show that touched the hearts and got the eyeballs of so many working-class people is how I could finally do my part to help us all make sense of the election. Working on 'Roseanne' meant I could write for characters who had different beliefs and experiences than me and who may even have voted differently than me.”

Since Cummings tasked the act of reviving a beloved sitcom with the responsibility of "help[ing] us all make sense of the election," consuming “Roseanne” became an act fraught with meaning. White liberal viewers are supposed to tune in not because Roseanne's perspective will necessarily resonate with them, but because it’s not supposed to — watching the unapologetic Trump voter be the heroine of her mixed-politics family is more an act of penance for co-signing Hillary Clinton’s dismissal of the "basket of deplorables” and for freezing out Trump voters in their own personal circles after the election.

Trump voters, for their part, can tune in to feel absolved of all charges of racism, homophobia and misogyny via the show's cleansing of Roseanne's motives: she supports a woman's right to bodily autonomy, she loves her black granddaughter and her gender-fluid grandson. See? No deplorable! When Roseanne gets her laughs from the studio audience — and make no mistake, the laugh track is on her side — perhaps they are supposed to feel by extension that they are finally being painted in a favorable light by the very liberal Hollywood elites they are constantly being told to distrust by their president and preferred pundits.

Then both sides are supposed to come together, harmonicas in hand, and play the theme song? I guess? Then what?

This seems like an absurd amount of weight to put on the shoulders of a single story, but we've been here before. When venture capitalist J.D. Vance published his memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” in 2016, during the height of Trump Mania, much of the rest of the country embraced him as the designated Poor White Appalachian Explainer, using his family’s specific story as a way to generalize about the socioeconomic challenges facing people of Appalachia and its diaspora, and by extension, the white, working-class Trump voter.

Historian Elizabeth Catte, whose book “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia” offers a corrective to many of the generalizations in Vance’s book that outside readers were quick to embrace, explains the "Hillbilly Elegy" appeal in an interview with Salon. “They really thought that they had learned a deep truth from this book, and that they could now deploy this truth out in the world to understand these really complex things that were happening around them.”

In a 2009 TED Talk, novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explained the dangers of relying on “the single story” to try to understand people and places from afar. The “single story” many Americans grew up knowing of the entire continent of Africa, for example, informed her college roommate’s ignorant assumptions about what a young woman from Nigeria would be like. “She asked if she could listen to what she called my ‘tribal music,’ and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey,” she said.

The true culprit, Adichie elucidates, is power. “It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power,” she said. “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”

We should no more turn one network sitcom into the definitive story of the working class than we should have enabled a venture capitalist’s memoir to dominate the discourse about poverty, addiction and voting trends in Appalachia; however, ABC and the producers and stars of “Roseanne” enjoy power in the entertainment industry that other storytellers don’t, so their narrative rises to the top. "Roseanne" isn't likely to fade out of the cultural conversation any time soon, but at the same time, we can set our sights on seeing a post-industrial Midwest that is wider than any single living room.

In the introduction to a new anthology from Picador, “Voices from the Rust Belt,” editor Anne Trubek underscores the urgency of the stories in her collection, which are part of an effort to rectify what she calls the "narrative inequality in this nation: some stories are told over and over while others are passed over."

Trubek, founder and director of Belt Publishing (which published Catte’s “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia”), acknowledges that defining the Rust Belt in objective terms is tricky, because its designation is political and historical, not geographic. She lands on a post-industrial Midwest, “anywhere an economy was previously based on manufacturing and has since been losing population" as a broad definition, which seems to include the Connors' home of Lanford, Illinois.

But as this collection of 24 essays shows, the loss of a manufacturing base is only one facet of the Rust Belt. "The first sign of the coming apocalypse is the art walk: the Typhoid Marys of gentrification," writes Eric Anderson in "Pretty Things to Hang on the Wall," an essay on the commodification of the artist's life as a gentrifying lifestyle set against the backdrop of post-industrial Cleveland. Anderson, a comic book store owner, had once worked in steel mills where he'd seen "water so polluted that nothing would float in it . . . dead rats with tumors exploding out of their sides," and yet has good reasons not to view an infusion of privileged young artists into his city as an unequivocal good sign.

How and why people come and go in the Rust Belt is a running theme. In the haunting essay "The Kidnapped Children of Detroit," blogger and self-described "Detroitist" Marsha Music writes about the city's history of white flight from the perspective of being one of the black neighbors who stayed:

One day, we'd be outside with our friends, black, brown, and white, on the warm summer days before the start of the next school semester, playing jacks and hopscotch, riding bikes.

The next day, our white friends would be gone.

Her essay details the patterns of block-busting and restrictive housing covenants and out-migration to the suburbs that left once middle-class urban neighborhoods poorer and underserved by the 1960s, but it's the personal perspective on this public story that gives the essay its impact. One illustration comes by way of her grandmother, who saved up her wages as a domestic worker in the 1950s only to find her purchase of a home blocked by the white neighbors, and only changed her plans after the block club paid back her down payment plus some, which she used to purchase a home in a middle-class black community.

"My grandmother chuckled at the end of her story, at the irony that by the time of her telling, thirty years later, Clairmont and Woodword was all black — the block club had obviously been unable to buy its way against the changing times," she writes.

The newest developments in Detroit's racial and housing politics are placed in the crosshairs in Aaron Foley's "Can Detroit Save White People?," a scathing indictment of neoliberal gentrification practices that threaten to erase black people and black culture in the urban core decades after whites first abandoned it. (Foley is the author of "How to Live In Detroit Without Being a Jackass," if you're wondering how blunt he can be.) Those themes are hardly unique in the region to Detroit, as Henry Louis Taylor Jr., founding director of the Center for Urban Studies at the University of Buffalo, demonstrates in his essay, "Will Blacks Rise or Be Forgotten in the New Buffalo?" Neither of these are questions that surface often in hand-wringing outsider analysis trying to suss out what exactly is holding Rust Belt cities back, which is precisely why Taylor's call for an economically vibrant Buffalo to be "a just city" instead of a "white hedonic latte city" is so valuable.

Absent also from the typical narratives are histories of the region's LGBTQ communities and their gathering places, such as John Lloyd Clayton's fond ode to a crumbling late Cincinnati gay dive in "A Night at the Golden Lion Lounge," where beers were cheap, nobody under 30 would be caught dead without being paid, and none of the unfashionable regulars ever hooked up.

And while Dearborn, Michigan's robust Muslim community has garnered much coverage, "Cleveland's Little Iraq" offers a glimpse into the personal journey Huda Al-Marashi, a transplant from Queens raised in California by Iraqi immigrant parents, undergoes to bond with her new city's small community of Iraqis, whose numbers steadily climb from 2006-09, during the height of the war. "[We] heard harrowing stories brought from Iraq, of friends gone out to buy groceries and losing their lives to roadside bombs, fathers assassinated on their way to work," stories that, as Al-Marashi writes, "made the Iraq War more real to me than any of the country's past conflicts."

Work in the Rust Belt is represented not only by factory workers but also by ecologists, urban planners and small museum directors, and the overwhelmed case worker in Dave Newman's deeply empathetic essay "A Middle Aged Student's Guide to Social Work," in which he demonstrates how unstable jobs teaching writing at the university level have become — enough for him to go back to school to become a social worker. At 40 and working an unpaid internship, Newman tries to find his way in and around the system of regulations he's still learning that often keep him from helping those who desperately need it.

And while the opioid crisis in the region isn't an under-covered subject at this point, Ben Gwin's "Rust Belt Heroin Chic" chronicles the experience, in harrowing detail, of a recovering alcoholic and single father in graduate school trying to co-parent a child with a heroin-addicted ex. Likewise, the Flint water crisis is illustrated in chillingly domestic terms in Connor Coyne's essay "Bathtime," about reeling from terror every time his toddler attempts that simplest of toddler pleasures: taking a sip of water from the tub. "You feel it, visceral in your gut, like someone sucker punched you and you want to puke. They might be making themselves sick from something much worse than suds and whatever scum has been washed away by the day's play."

The two dozen writers in "Voices from the Rust Belt" can't possibly cover all of the wrinkles and shades particular to a place whose boundaries aren't even unanimously agreed upon, but it's a good place to start. The danger of all single stories is how they flatten their subjects, reducing the complexities of a people and a place to easily digestible narratives, then in turn demand the people themselves conform to those narratives. If we are serious about bridging geographic and cultural divides, we do need more media representation of those living outside of the coastal urban centers and the affluent suburbs. But we should resist the easy solution of dumping all of our political and cultural hopes and anxieties onto one fictional family's kitchen table.

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Does Melania Trump Deserve Any Sympathy Whatsoever?

The recent news cycle has not been kind to Donald Trump’s marriage, no matter what the state of that union had been before Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal spilled their guts on their alleged dalliances with the President of the United States. Even a whiff of celebrity infidelity is usually enough to create a sizable pile-on of public support for the cheated-upon spouse, but over the last two weeks headlines have been conspicuously silent on that front. In the wake of each woman’s televised interview, attention has not exactly pulled away from Melania — we know she stayed behind in Mar-a-Lago as per “tradition” for Spring Break last weekend; she is said to be “focusing on being a mom,” — but noticeably absent has been vocal outrage on her behalf.

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Donald Trump Jr.’s Celebrity-Villain Divorce: Forgive Yourself for Staring

The New York Post broke the news that Vanessa Trump filed for divorce from Donald Trump Jr. this week, and public response has run the gamut from delighted scorn to handwringing over the spiritual utility of Schadenfreude in these ugly times. (OK, maybe that's just me.) Even some journalists, of the ilk that both Donalds Trump, junior and senior, constantly insult, have found themselves on the side of The Mooch here. “Really weird and upsetting to see folks acting gleeful at the Don Jr. divorce news. It’s his private life and he has five kids,” tweeted Sam Stein of the Daily Beast. “Leave it alone.” MSNBC host Chris Hayes agreed, calling Stein’s tweet a “100% Correct Take.”

These are admirable defenses of a fellow human's feelings. As a person who has been trying to combat within herself the discourse-rot that Junior and his father have encouraged over the last few years, I sympathize with the desire to just “leave it alone,” lest I let myself be tempted by the meme-ification of someone else’s sorrow.

And yet Donald Trump Jr. is undeniably a public figure. If the Clintons and the Obamas embraced the celebrity culture surrounding the presidency like none since the Kennedys, the Trumps have exploited it, ruthlessly and with unprecedented efficacy, all the way from Fifth Avenue and NBC into the Oval Office. As the old chestnut goes, live by the sword, die by the sword, and nowhere is that maxim honored more thoroughly than in politics and celebrity culture. Just like his father and his sister Ivanka, Junior has wholeheartedly embraced both cutthroat worlds.

Anyone's divorce has a way of dredging up our own feelings about the end of relationships — disappointment, heartbreak, humiliation, regret, relief, hope, the whole messy ball of human emotions. But high-profile divorces take that to the next level, and can easily turn into a collective exercise in projection. When a celebrity couple splits up — Anna Faris and Chris Pratt, to cite a recent example — it can trigger an irrational sense of introspection from strangers. They seemed so perfect for each other; they looked so happy — is anyone actually happy? As someone who's been through a divorce, I get it. Nobody knows the truth about a marriage except the two people in it, says conventional wisdom, and humans rather like knowing things. When there’s a villain in the mix — via infidelity, abuse, Scientology, general haterade, whatever — the public can rally around the innocent party. Cue the Gloria Gaynor — maybe we will all survive!

I’m not saying divorcing a Trump is exactly like leaving Scientology, but the slice of Americans who were genuinely sad that those crazy kids Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise couldn’t make it work is likely small and very sheltered.

To most of America, Donald Trump Jr. is first and foremost a reality TV personality, having appeared regularly on “The Apprentice” for a decade. If a Real Housewife gets divorced, few question whether the headlines are earned. And if said Housewife has crafted a heel persona, all but the most sanctimonious pearls are going to remain unclutched. Even before his run as the head large adult son of the Trump presidential campaign, before he “out West”-ed himself to the New York Times style section, and even before his whopping seventy-three appearances on “The Apprentice,” Trump Junior displayed, after a period of laying low in early adulthood, a taste for the limelight to rival his old man’s. In 2004, he recreated his proposal to Vanessa, in what the Post called “a taste-deprived ceremony,” at the Short Hills Mall in New Jersey in exchange for a free engagement ring. Paparazzi and TV crews were the only “invited” guests, according to the Post. Look, if I know which mall you got engaged in and you didn’t skip geometry with me in 10th grade, you’re definitely a celebrity.

Between his current iteration as “not here to make friends”-style Twitter brawler and Fox News guest to his past as the face of elephant slaughter, the case for Junior’s famous-villain status among the haters is solid.

Vanessa Trump, on the other hand, has kept a fairly low profile as spouse and parent during Big Papa’s political ascendance. She hasn’t helped herself to a White House fiefdom like Jared Kushner or a chair at the Trump propaganda organ like Eric’s wife Lara. The ghastly incident in which Vanessa had to be rushed to the hospital after opening an envelope of white powder sent to her home — a despicable act of terror against anyone, I don’t care what your politics are — appeared to be even more unfair, if that’s possible, when we consider her status as a relative bystander in the Trump political spectacle. Meanwhile Donald Jr., who’s supposed to be running the family business, continues to fling himself into every spotlight he can find — which I suppose is part of his job description, in a way.

There's long been a mandate to leave the children of presidents alone, even though it's been broken time and again, and across partisan lines. Neither Chelsea Clinton nor the Bush twins deserved the media scrutiny, often mean-spirited, that their fathers' jobs brought them. The tide seemed to have turned in the Obama administration, when a GOP staffer had to resign after her snark about Sasha and Malia during the 2014 Thanksgiving turkey pardon went viral. Barron Trump should absolutely be free to grow up as normally as he can in the White House without fear of unwanted media attention, too.

But an adult son of Donald Trump's who worked tirelessly — "if it's what you say, I love it" — to get the president elected and is in possession of an IMDB rap sheet a mile long enjoys no such freedom in America. He may be working toward a classy and conscious uncoupling from Vanessa, and, having been through this as a kid, he will likely do a better job protecting his kids than his own father did. But Junior shouldn't be surprised if a narrative emerges in the wake of Vanessa's filing casting her as the Katie to his Tom. Vanessa could end up becoming an accidental Resistance icon, no matter who she votes for. After all, she's pulling off something more than half the country only dreams of doing — she's divorcing a Donald Trump.

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