Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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1. The Radicalization of J.D. Vance

Simon van Zuylen-Wood | The Washington Post Magazine | January 4, 2022 | 6,044 words

Five years ago, J.D. Vance was enjoying the success of his acclaimed 2016 memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. Today, he’s running for Senate in his home state of Ohio, bankrolled by tech-con icon Peter Thiel, and competing with Ted Cruz to tweet the most abrasive MAGA platitudes. How we ended up here isn’t the primary goal of van Zuylen-Wood’s intellectually driven feature, though; instead, it’s an attempt to answer the question of where “here” actually is. Watching Vance preen for prospective voters and explain his equivocations is maddening, sure, but it allows van Zuylen-Wood to tease apart the philosophical paradox at the heart of Vance’s attempted makeover. “Vance’s media strategy seems to be that by playing Don Jr. on the Internet, he can push for more substantive populism in real life,” he writes. “The success of that tactic may depend on how far removed he truly seems from the Brookings Institution-to-Netflix pipeline he was riding until recently.” Inside (beltway) baseball? Perhaps. A crucial preview of the next few years of so-called culture wars? Definitely. Don’t say you weren’t warned. —PR

2. This Isn’t the California I Married

Elizabeth Weil | The New York Times Magazine and ProPublica | January 3, 2022 | 6,115 words

I recently drove up the Pacific Coast, from Venice Beach to the Bay Area. It took 10 hours to get home, but it didn’t feel long, even with a 3-year-old in the back seat. We drove up Malibu’s coast in relentless rain before dawn, watched the sun rise in Santa Barbara, spotted rainbows against green hills near San Luis Obispo, and felt the sun on our faces as we reached San Jose. But for every beautiful bit of coastline and landscape I saw out of the window that day were sights I did not see, nor wanted to think about: the drought-stricken reservoirs, the scorched old-growth forests, the lands scarred by the one-two punch of fire and torrential rain. Yet, despite California’s climate crisis, there’s still no place in the U.S. I’d rather live. I was reminded of this road trip as I read Elizabeth Weil’s poignant, eye-opening piece on the state’s wildfire problem, and what it means to live in California now. “Did choosing to stay here mean a life defined by worry, vigilance and loss?” she asks. Weil also speaks with climate futurist Alex Steffen, who explains we’re living in trans-apocalyptic times: “We have this idea that the world is either normal and in continuity with what we’ve expected, or it’s the apocalypse, it’s the end of everything — and neither are true.” Yes, the world’s in bad shape, and loss and grief are inevitable, he tells her, but it still might be possible to build a better future. It’s a bleak but necessary read, and a call for us to wake up, to recognize that the California we once knew is gone, and to face the world as it exists. —CLR

3. How Plastic Liberated and Entombed Us

Jeannette Cooperman | The Common Reader | Dec. 29, 2021 | 5,500 words

To say that we’re losing the war on plastic is to flatter ourselves with a lie. The fact is that we’re not even fighting it. As Jeannette Cooperman details in this lyrical essay, humans are addicted to plastic despite knowing — despite always knowing — that the stuff is dangerous. “Is it self-hatred, to embrace with abandon a substance you know to be cheap, tacky, often garish, and entirely synthetic?” Cooperman asks. “A substance that, when made into a bag, had to be imprinted with warnings, lest a child think it a toy and suffocate?” Weaving history and philosophy, poetry and science, Cooperman offers insight into how and why we got to this point. Her essay is also an elegy for the natural world and our appreciation of it. “We try so hard to fake beauty, just so it will last longer,” she writes. “We miss nature’s point.” It’s hard to read this piece without looking up, taking stock, and wishing for a war. —SD

4. The Long Afterlife of a Terrible Crime

Ryan Katz | The New Yorker | January 3rd, 2022 | 4058 words

Regina Alexander’s mother Elizabeth was murdered in 1971 by the McCrary family, just two months after Regina was born. The McCrarys were ramblers, linked to the murders of at least 10 other women. Decades later, when Regina comments on a blog post about the killings, she unwittingly starts a conversation among the friends and families of the victims, one that would eventually include replies from ensuing generations of the McCrary family. Ryan Katz’s New Yorker story examines the horrific, insidious toll that violent crime exacts on the follow-on generations of both killer and victim, those who, because of their family ties, are forced to pay for the crimes for the rest of their lives. —KS

5. Fall Risk

Madeleine Watts | The Believer | March 25, 2020 | 5746 words

Madeleine Watts’ essay was published in March 2020, but the dis-ease she describes from unexplained fainting episodes is very relatable as the pandemic endures. As she examines her life and experiences leading up to and after being declared “weak with no known cause,” Watts suggests that “Our bodies are the containers for our thoughts…” It’s only by considering life stresses in hindsight (terminal family illnesses, immigration concerns, and fear for her own health) that it becomes easy to see why her body would suddenly shut down from sheer overload: “…the body sometimes articulates things that the mind cannot.” —KS