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Aaron Gilbreath
Aaron Gilbreath has written essays and articles for Harper's, The New York Times, Kenyon Review, The Dublin Review, Brick, Paris Review, The Threepenny Review, and Saveur. He's the author of This Is: Essays on Jazz, the personal essay Everything We Don't Know, and the forthcoming book Through the San Joaquin Valley: The Heart of California. @AaronGilbreath

Black America Unwittingly Provided the Soundtrack to Its Own Displacement

Smith Collection/Gado/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images

While working from a coffee shop here in Portland, Oregon, I spotted a college student wearing a Nas t-shirt and reading Hanif Abdurraqib’s book Go Ahead In the Rain, about A Tribe Called Quest. (You can read an excerpt here.) Portland has been called the whitest city in America, and there was one person of color in this coffee shop. Shop staff frequently play R&B, Fugees, and beat tapes here, which keeps me coming back, but any longtime Portlander is aware of the way Black art frequently decorates our city’s white spaces, especially in neighborhoods where gentrification has ousted longtime Black residents. By chance, I was reading Tre Johnson‘s piece in Slate, “Heard but Not Seen.” Its subhead is “Black music in white spaces.” While visiting New Orleans, Johnson disturbed by how the music that captures the Black American experience now plays in the kinds of white restaurants, coffee shops, and spaces, where people of color are few, and where it embodies displacement.

A white friend said that Black culture is American culture, and that the two are, as a result, linked. True. And yet that’s what makes it all the more painful to find myself in mostly white spaces with their Black soundtracks, doing something intimate like eating with a friend, doing something public like shopping or working out—always in a place that’s using that music not only to create a vibe but a communal experience for their customers. The music’s been recycled for consumption, with little care for the context of this consumption. Embracing Black music is not the same as embracing Black people, after all, no matter how often our music is created with a specific gaze toward our experience. How many times, while our music plays, have one of us been dismissed, followed, or harassed in these spaces? What was playing when those two brothers were being kicked out of a Philadelphia Starbucks? On the loudspeakers and PA systems in stadiums, as hip-hop music blasts to keep the crowd hyped, and celebrate big plays, Black men and women tie on aprons and stand behind concession stands, walk the rows and aisles, sweep the floors—even as a nation denounces players’ rights to kneel in protest. It’s as if the music gets to stand in for us. Increasingly we’re in the background as our music is pushed to the fore.

My nana, Alice, and her best friend Ms. Sarah were two Black women among many who worked the assembly line at a General Motors factory back in Trenton, New Jersey. They wore their bodies down making cars that it would take them years to afford themselves, and I imagine them singing Tina, Aretha, the Supremes to get through hourslong shifts. How those anthems of Black homes, Black marriage, Black communities, Black love, Black sex, Black strength fell in lockstep with their lives! Now that’s all been replaced; the factories and homes and communities have gone away, often literally replaced by boutiques and upscale restaurants and Flywheels. Yet the music remains. As Tina, Aretha, and the Supremes have been replaced by Rihanna, Cardi, and Beyonce, so have the bodies. I once spent a summer as a high schooler working alongside Nana; now I’m an adult in the city, a Black man pedaling in the dark, alone with these rows of white bodies and Lizzo’s joyous, lonely voice.

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Can Japan Break Its Addiction to Disposable Packaging?

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Japan is infamous for its excessive, often elaborate, plastic packaging. Want a single slice of cake? At a department store, it will likely come in a box graced with an ice pack and plastic utensil, wrapped in a bag which is wrapped in another bag that gets taped shut, even if you want to eat it a few feet from the point of purchase, even if you request, “No bag, please.” With the system stacked against ecologically minded consumers, how can people opt out of all this and reduce the waste they generate from supermarkets, restaurants, and convenience stores? For The Japan Times, journalist Andrew McKirdy collected all the disposable waste he generated in a week, from straws to bottles to shopping bags, then tried to spend a week without using single-use plastic. Experts warned him it would be tough. It was.

I then beat a hasty retreat from a bakery whose products are all pre-wrapped, then buy a tomato, five potatoes, a carrot, an onion, a jar of jam and a can of tomatoes at a supermarket. The cashier is unconcerned when I say I don’t want a bag, but she looks at me like I’m some kind of eccentric when I say I don’t want my potatoes placed in a smaller plastic bag either.

I am beginning to feel slightly embarrassed, and that only increases when I buy three slices of ham at a different supermarket’s delicatessen counter. The clerk agrees to wrap them in paper, but he tells me they might fall out if he doesn’t then put the package in a plastic bag. When I ask him not to, he looks at me like I’m a full-blown lunatic.

There is another awkward moment when I buy a baguette and a smaller piece of bread at a bakery. The clerk puts the baguette in a paper bag but puts the other piece of bread in a plastic bag. My request to put both in paper is met with confusion, and as I’ve had enough of making a fuss in shops that I often visit, I smile, accept defeat and take my plastic-wrapped bread back home.

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The Early Years of Elif Batuman’s Interest in Russian Authors

AP Photo/Charles Krupa

What if author Leo Tolstoy was murdered? Consider the evidence: late in life, the great Russian author started ending his daily journal entries with the phrase “If I am alive.” He and his wife, Countess Sophia Andreyevna Tolstaya, fought so much he wrote his novella The Kreutzer Sonata about a husband who murdered his wife. (Granted, Tolstoy did give her his diaries, which detailed his sexual escapades, including the fact that he’d a child with a serf who lived on their property.) He had an associate who was trying to get control of the copyrights to his early manuscripts. Tolstoy’s wife made a strange statement on her deathbed. These are the puzzle pieces that a young Stanford student named Elif Batuman used to investigate the circumstances of Tolstoy’s death.

Before Batuman started writing for The New Yorker, she harbored a profound interest in the famed Russian author. At Granta, Batuman recounts her wild academic goose chase and how it led her to the ranks of other Tolstoyans at the International Tolstoy Conference in Russia. The four days she spent wearing sweatpants and flip-flops after her luggage got lost en route to Russia is the tip of the iceberg. This piece is a comic examination of both a subculture and of the depths of her own youthful imagination, which became her first book, The Possessed, about the people obsessed with Russia’s great authors.

The morning panel was devoted to comparisons of Tolstoy and Rousseau. I tried to pay attention, but I couldn’t stop thinking about snakes. Perhaps Tolstoy had been killed by some kind of venom?

‘The French critic Roland Barthes has said that the least productive subject in literary criticism is the dialogue between authors,’ began the second speaker. ‘Nonetheless, today I am going to talk about Tolstoy and Rousseau.’

I remembered a Sherlock Holmes story in which an heiress in Surrey is found in the throes of a fatal conniption, gasping, ‘It was the band! The speckled band!’ Dr. Watson assumes that she was killed by a band of Gypsies who were camping on the property, and who wore polka-dotted kerchiefs. But Watson is wrong. The heiress’s words actually referred to the rare spotted Indian adder introduced into her bedroom through a ventilation shaft by her wicked stepfather.

The heiress’s dying words, ‘the speckled band,’ represent one of the early instances of the ‘clue’ in detective fiction. Often, a clue is a signifier with multiple significations: a band of Gypsies, a handkerchief, an adder. But if the ‘speckled band’ is a clue, I wondered drowsily, what is the snake? There was a loud noise and I jerked upright. The Tolstoy scholars were applauding. The second speaker had finished her talk and was pushing the microphone along the conference table to her neighbor.

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China’s Communist Government Has a Strong Hold on Chinese Corporations

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JD.com is the largest e-commerce company in China. In Communist China, it’s not enough for large companies like JD.com to be profitable — they must serve the goals of the Communist Party and benefit the country as a whole. For The New Yorker, details the clever ways that the company uses rural villages’ existing social networks to recruit new customers and employees, which has allowed it to improve Chinese life and possibly help slow the exodus to cities by giving villagers an incentive to remain in the countryside.

For the country’s leading tycoons, keeping in the government’s good graces is a well-established habit. During our conversation, Liu repeatedly spoke of company strategy in terms of deeper ambitions for the country as a whole, framing economic advancement as a civic virtue. A thirty-year economic miracle was not enough in itself, he said; one also had to “lead society in the right direction and bring in positive energy.” “Positive energy” is a phrase much used by President Xi Jinping, and my conversation with Liu took place less than two weeks after the Chinese Communist Party’s Nineteenth National Congress, which had signaled a tightening of Xi’s grip on the country. It has become evident that, compared with his predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, Xi demands more direct and explicit fealty from corporate titans. Recently, he stipulated that all publicly listed companies must establish a Party branch in the workplace.

Ryan Manuel, a political scientist at the University of Hong Kong, told me that, until recently, there was a cautious symbiosis between the government and Chinese tech giants, an outgrowth of forms of Internet supervision dating back to the early nineties, when the Web first came to China. But Xi, Manuel said, is now “putting the onus of censorship on the companies themselves, and dealing with them the way he managed his anti-corruption campaign.” The message is clear: as long as executives follow the Party line and police their own organizations, companies will be given permission to thrive, and championed as evidence of China’s soft power. But if there are transgressions the Party will target company leaders, even people as famous as Liu or Alibaba’s founder, Jack Ma—or Wu Xiaohui, the billionaire C.E.O. of Anbang, one of the largest insurers in the country, who, in May, was sentenced to eighteen years in prison after being convicted of fraud and embezzlement. Manuel said that, in such cases, the charges are frequently opaque—“corruption,” “ideological failings”—but the fates of the company and of its top executives are sealed.

As a result, the recent public utterances of business leaders have displayed a new caution, coupled with an extravagant eagerness to demonstrate loyalty to the Party. A couple of weeks after I met Liu, he was named the head of a poor village south of Beijing, and he quickly unveiled a five-year plan to increase its wealth tenfold. Last year, he made a remarkable announcement on TV. “Our country can realize the dream of Communism in our generation,” he said. “All companies will belong to the state.”

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When Media Miscalculations Pivot Talented People Out of a Job

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Anyone who has ever worked retail or food service jobs (raises hand) or droll office jobs (raises other hand) has a solid baseline against which to assess their current job. Former Deadspin editor David Roth worked enough dead-end jobs in what he calls a “fluorescent mehscape of anoffice” to know when he found great media jobs, but even those soured or squeezed him out, and he ended up basically where he began: at the mercy of other people and forces he could not control. For Hazlitt, Roth writes about the media plague that was known as “pivoting to video,” a plague he both contracted and unwittingly became the face of for a short time.

Facebook lied about the demand for video content. Many websites listened to Zuck’s overinflated numbers and replaced writing with video. Many writers like Roth suffered, and it’s still unclear how much video people even want to watch online. Sure, media is a fickle industry. Things change constantly. Great jobs end. Writers and editors struggle to find new ones and wonder if this one should be their last media job before they pivot entirely to different professions like advertising or nursing, because damn, dude, you’re getting old, and media’s getting even tougher than it already was. Thankfully for readers, Roth has stayed in media. He’s as incisive as he is hilarious, breaking down the dark comedy of media work in the internet era and his own wonky place in it. His sentences are killers and all the more proof that we need him publishing. “Much of my job,” he writes, “there and everywhere else I have worked, has amounted to wading every day into the internet’s sprawling garbage lagoons in search of eye-catching chunks of floating trash that I might show to other people on the off chance that it might amuse or disgust them; I did not always enjoy the smell, but I’d worked enough other jobs to know that there were worse places to spend your day.” But even in that grim environment, he found reasons to work hard and take pride in his projects.

My next workplace understood video not as the secret future of the internet, but as a useful if modest part of an uneasy present. The sites that comprised the larger company were popular and profitable and powerfully in flux, as they had been ever since an aggrieved tech billionaire, using a honeybaked WWE antique as a cutout, successfully sued them into bankruptcy. The coterie of venture capitalists that had bought the sites at a discount briefly attempted an ambitious pump-and-dump asset-flip, then punted and brought in some consultants to justify and oversee layoffs and buyouts in advance of a different and more desperate kind of sale. Everything at the place atrophied as ownership looked for and found ways not to spend money on workers and work it no longer even pretended to care about. The satellite office where we shot our videos emptied first of people, then fixtures and furnishings. On the last day there, before management let the lease run out, I booted a wildly oversized tennis ball, one of the inexplicable promotional doodads that had been left behind, and knew that, wherever it landed, it could not hit anything that could break or wasn’t already broken.

Strangely, for all the ambient hauntedness of that moment, this was also one of the happiest and most productive times I’ve had at any job. Ownership didn’t just not-care about what we were doing, but was actively and obviously not paying attention to any of it; the plugger sent up from Miami to oversee the sites before the sale seemed not to have even heard of them before. But as long as we stayed within the budgets agreed-upon back when everyone was still pretending to care, we could do pretty much whatever we wanted. The lack of institutional support necessarily limited the scope, but the totality of that neglect allowed us to try things, and keep working on them until they got good.

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Purging the Unhealthy Value System of the American Literary World

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

When searching for a publisher for her sixth book, Janice Lee realized she had internalized more of the commercial publishing economy’s value system than she wanted. In a brilliant essay for Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Lee interrogates the way America’s cultural values push against her own values and have influenced her behavior, and she narrates her efforts to dismantle the dominant linear idea of progress, success, artistic development, and “making it” that many of us writers inherit. The concept of success, even the subtler concepts of big versus small presses and breakout novels, are wrapped up in authors’ self-worth, desire for external validation, past trauma, and capitalism, which has turned art into products and human beings into resources. This is a searing, crystalline essay, as practical as it is beautiful, and in it, Lee’s cut a path for other writers who want to free themselves from indoctrination. “It is difficult to see how we are restrained by our own internalized oppression,” she writes, “and then, to blame the systems we participate in when we don’t feel supported, understood, heard, seen.” She asks: What if books were bridges and not products? Can’t they be something other than commodities?

How can we all heal from the trauma of a publishing industry that is just another extension of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy? How might we move beyond the myths of meritocracy and the capitalist paradigms where legitimacy and success are so closely linked, casting so many of us as undeserving, mediocre, invisible? Publishing “success” often looks like the escape we are looking for, especially when we have trained our entire lives to survive in this system. Everything has taught us that this is how we survive and get ahead, to jump on the train and go along with it, along with everyone else, and so when we get left behind, we feel shame and humiliation, we think that we must have done something wrong, that perhaps someone forgot about us or made a mistake. There has to be another way. We have to be more conscious of the ways in which we have all internalized publishing supremacy, the harm of unconsciously assigning more worth to books or authors that have had more commercial success, of using language that feeds the idea of linear progress and hierarchy.

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Responding With Weapons to Racism in Colorado Territory

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The American West was filled with people with pistols and places to hide, and many vigilantes’ violence and escapes made them legendary. California’s Joaquin Murrieta is one of the most famous, but Colorado Territory had its own, though nowadays, few remember them. For 5280 magazine, Robert Sanchez narrates the bloody tale of Felipe and Vivián Espinosa, two Hispano settlers whose presence in Colorado’s San Luis Valley predates American ownership of the region, and he reexamines their motives. Seven thousand Spanish descendents moved into the San Luis Valley before territorial annexation, but as soon as Mexican ownership was transfered to the United States, the white settlers and legislators started creating problems, and some Hispano settlers retaliated. History either erased the Espinosas and their Hispanic communities, or they framed the brothers as what Sanchez describes as “Spanish-speaking, sociopathic killers without an origin story—or, at least, not one based entirely on facts.” That racist framework is finally being rewritten.

The Chicano Movement of the 1970s gave rise to a new narrative, reimagining the pair as Hispano protagonists fighting on behalf of an oppressed people. Songs and at least one screenplay have been written about the pair. The Vendetta of Felipe Espinosa, a novel published in 2014, sought to untangle the brothers’ faith and familial past as a way to understand their murderous motivations. Wild West Exodus, a British tabletop game, includes a version of the brothers, with Felipe described as a “rogue, desperado, thief, mariachi, and to many, a bold freedom fighter.”

Historians have finally begun to examine that record, investigating the plight of civilizations wiped out or marginalized by settlers. “These citizens were made to feel like they were foreigners, and the historical record traditionally treated them that way,” says Virgina Sanchez, a genealogist and historian who has studied life within southern Colorado settlements and is the author of Pleas and Petitions: Hispano Culture and Legislative Conflict in Territorial Colorado. “The Espinosas are an important part of that history if you’re using them to understand the deeper, day-to-day hardships and prejudices that faced non-Anglos trying to survive within their own country.”

Nick Saenz, an associate professor of history at Adams State University who has studied Hispano settlement in southern Colorado, argues that while the Espinosa brothers are “like folk heroes” within the San Luis Valley—if not outright celebrated, then happily accepted—it’s a disservice to history if the narrative focuses only on the murders. “This is really the story of two distinct groups of people, with different languages and cultures and ideas of what this land should be, and they find themselves smashed together in the same place at the same time,” Saenz says. “More than anything, this is a story of survival. Ultimately, one side got to tell that story.”

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Brazil’s Roads to Destruction

AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills

You’ve probably slammed on your brakes after a squirrel darted in front of your car. (Maybe, one time, you didn’t slam your brakes fast enough.) Imagine a road through a rainforest or a tropical savanna, a road teeming with not just passenger cars but logging trucks and mining equipment and heavy machinery, the carriers of industry. That is Brazil’s BR-262. Measured by roadkill, it is one of the earth’s deadliest roads for wildlife. BR-262 cuts across Brazil from the Atlantic coast to the Bolivian border and is causing the rapid decline of Brazil’s iconic giant anteaters through direct collisions and habitat fragmentation. And it’s one of many similar roads in Brazil, which has the fourth largest road network on earth.

For The Atlantic, Ben Goldfarb travels 112 miles of BR-262 to assess the disturbing impact roads have on wildlife, and how scientists and the burgeoning field of road ecology work to understand and moderate that impact. Roads do improve peoples’ quality of life, but there also are what he calls “the brutal costs of infrastructure.”

Often, practicing road ecology means knowing when a road shouldn’t be carved at all. Fernanda Zimmermann Teixeira, an ecologist at Brazil’s Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, pointed out to me that no amount of eco-friendly engineering can blunt the habitat destruction that will follow the paving of certain Amazonian tracks. It occurred to me that, in a tragic twist, wildlife crossings and fences could even become a form of green-washing, a cynical tactic for laundering a harmful road’s environmental reputation. “We cannot talk only about mitigation—you have to talk about avoiding roads,” Teixeira said. “Passages won’t make any difference if we change the whole land use and burn everything.”

Yet new routes are coming, whether we’re prepared or not. The International Energy Agency has estimated that more than 15 million miles of new road lanes will be built by 2050, nearly 90 percent of them in the developing world—a trend the ecologist William Laurance calls an “infrastructure tsunami.” Many of the regions slated for massive road networks—Sumatra, Central Asia’s steppe, the Peruvian Amazon—harbor our planet’s most intact habitat.

Conservationists have staved off some especially frightening projects: A highway that would sunder the Serengeti’s wildebeest migration lies dormant, fought to a standstill by local activists. But the Hydra only sprouts new heads, forcing scientists into hard decisions. “The way I see it, many of these roads are going to be built whether we like it or not,” Rodney van der Ree, an Australian road ecologist who often consults with foreign governments, told me. He recently helped persuade officials in Myanmar (also known as Burma) to add underpasses to a highway that could disrupt the movements of leopards, tigers, and elephants. “From a biodiversity standpoint, they shouldn’t build the road at all,” van der Ree said, “but at least it’s a better outcome than it was.”

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Rural California Feeds the Nation, But Too Many Rural Residents Can’t Feed and House Themselves

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

If you eat California lettuce, broccoli, or strawberries, chances are it came from the Salinas Valley. Situated in Monterey County, south of San Francisco, this so-called “salad bowl of the world” boasts an $8 billion agricultural economy that feeds America, but low wages and a dearth of low-income housing make it extremely difficult for many families to house and feed themselves. In Salinas, almost half of all elementary school students are homeless. For The California Sunday Magazine, Brian Goldstone profiles one family of five to tell the larger story of the many families who sleep in their cars and shelters, and the people who try to help them. Both parents work. Their three children attend public school, but a cascade of events left the family living in their minivan. There are a number of services to help the working poor here, but official definitions of homelessness are so skewed that many people in dire need cannot access these resources. Many families find help at the Family Resource Center and from school teachers like Cheryl Camany. “In Monterey County,” Goldstone reports, “approximately 8,000 schoolchildren were homeless last year, more than San Francisco and San Jose combined. For many of these kids, the safest, most dependable part of their lives is the school they attend.”

Camany’s ability to call attention to the scale and consequences of student homelessness had recently been paying off, and the mandate taken up by the resource center was being embraced by others: pastors and city leaders, school administrators and teachers. “There’s so much injustice outside these walls,” said Maria Castellanoz, a third-grade teacher, “but in my classroom, I make sure every student is treated with the dignity they deserve.” Over time, she had come to recognize the signs of homelessness among her students without them having to say anything. When she spotted a kid hoarding snacks underneath his jacket, she brought him extra food the next day. When students nodded off in class, she let them sleep, tutoring them later so they wouldn’t fall behind. All this had altered her understanding of what teaching should look like and what a school was for.

But there’s only so much a school can offer. It can’t give families apartments, or money, or jobs that pay a housing wage. It can’t pass stronger tenant-protection laws or prevent exploitation by unscrupulous landlords. Oscar Ramos, who heads the elementary teachers union, told me that he feared the long-term effects of such widespread volatility — that this “toxic stress,” as pediatricians have termed it, would leave its mark on the physical and emotional health of his students well into the future. “The more I learn about what these kids are carrying,” Ramos said, “the more overwhelmed I get.”

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Thou Shalt Not Mess With a Mom in a “Mamacita Needs a Margarita” Sweater

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Proud, bold, feminine yet threatening, and frequently touting alcohol use and caffeine dependency, the slogans American mothers plaster on their shirts, mugs, and sweaters broadcast their identities as exhausted super-women, as well as their need for recognition and connection. For The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino explores what she calls “sassy mom merch,” which has proliferated in our era of Etsy, Amazon, and social media, but whose spirit Tolentino recognizes from her years eating at Cracker Barrel as a Texas youth. Where does the desire to wear the slogan “This mom runs on caffeine, wine, and Amazon Prime” come from? What does this #momlife phenomenon say about being a woman in America? As one successful t-shirt maker told Tolentino, “When you put out a little signal on a shirt, like, ‘I’m struggling too,’ it starts a conversation. Anytime I wear something like that, I always have people comment, or I get those random smiles. It’s sort of like when you’re nursing in public: someone gives you a smile and a thumbs-up, and you know you’re O.K.”

Social media exacerbates two competing impulses in the performance of one’s everyday self: aspiration and honesty. Women, in particular, find these impulses rewarded on the Internet, where the ever-present cultural interest in female desirability and failure—in encouraging women to balance atop pedestals in part because it is satisfying to watch them fall off—is codified in the form of public comments and likes. My colleague Carrie Battan recently wrote about the rise of the “getting real” moment for Instagram influencers, in which women who have built their public identities on meeting an ideal version of womanhood offer a moment of catharsis to their audience: all of this is constructed, they say, and it’s anxiety-inducing, and there’s so much that you don’t see. But this form of expression doesn’t seem to cut back on aspiration so much as complicate it—women are now encouraged to be both very perfect and very honest at once.

The mom-centric Internet has been working out this tension for almost two decades: so-called mommy bloggers turned aspirational honesty into a profitable genre long before Instagram existed. (Quite a few of the best-known mommy bloggers have since upended the lives that looked so perfectly-imperfect-but-mostly-really-perfect, getting divorced, or leaving their religion, or both.) Social media and smartphones have brought motherhood real talk to minimally hierarchical online spaces, such as Facebook groups and messaging apps like Marco Polo. “People ask for support, people talk about things that might be embarrassing elsewhere,” Heather Plouff, an Etsy seller in New Hampshire and a mother of three, told me. “The hashtag #momlife is this big community, where we’re all a little sassy, and we love our children, but we also know that children can be a real pain in the ass.”

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