Category Archives: Editor’s Pick

The Wait: Is There Such a Thing as a Good Miscarriage?

Photo by Michael Coghlan (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The due date was July 5. I let this day pass like all the others, without even mentioning it to anyone. By this point, a couple of days will go by without my thinking about the baby I would have had, about what all our lives would have been like. It’s a Sunday, and I spend the day watching my daughter play in a tiny pool shaped like a giant turtle. She climbs in and out, in and out.

At Lenny, Jessica Grose recounts the agonizing waiting period after an inconclusive ultrasound and considers whether there is such a thing as a good miscarriage.

Read the story

The Race to the Bottom of the Sugar Bowl

brown and white sugar cubes

Beth Kowitt, in Fortune, explores food manufacturers’ race to find a sugar stand-in that ticks all the boxes: cheap, “natural” (i.e., plant-based), and actually tastes like sugar. Amid the science, stevia leaves, and sucralose, she takes a step back: if sugar is such a health hazard, why don’t we just… eat less sugar?

There seems to be an obvious solution to all of this that would be much easier for everyone: Why not just eat less sugar? “As we move away from sugar, we are facing this dilemma that nothing tastes like sugar,” says consultant Woo. We know, after all, that our expectations are not set by nature. In the U.S. products tend to be sweeter than in Europe. For example, a liter-size bottle of American Dr ­Pepper has 108 grams of sugar, vs. about 73 grams for the U.K. equivalent. Why not just drop the threshold in the U.S. market too?

Several of the big food and beverage manufacturers have pursued this path, vowing to cut sugar in their products. Coca-Cola says it has already reduced it in more than 200 of its sodas. For its part, PepsiCo has committed that by 2025, at least two-thirds of its volume will have 100 calories or fewer per 12 ounces. (A can of Pepsi has 150 calories, for example.) General Mills has begun slashing sugar in its cereals and yogurt. Nestlé and Dr Pepper Snapple have made pledges of their own.

The challenge stems in large part from what the rest of the market is doing. “They’re afraid that consumers will taste 20% lower sweetness and go to a competitor,” says DuBois. Paul Bakus, Nestlé’s president of corporate affairs, told me that the company has to walk a narrow line between being nutritionally superior to the rest of the market and not sacrificing taste. “We want to reduce sugar where possible as long as we don’t put ourselves at a competitive disadvantage,” he says. “How do you compete if your competitors aren’t following the process or rules or guidelines?”

Read the story

Portrait of the Risk-Taker as a Young Man (or, There’s Something About Spencer)

x-ray of a broken arm

In Victory Journal, Laura Yan profiles Spencer Seabrooke, who breaks world slacklining records walking across loosely tensioned, inch-wide pieces of polyester suspended hundreds of meters in the air. Early in the piece, she talks to his mother, who knew early on that there was something a little different about Spencer.

“He’s never experienced pain like other kids,” says Maureen Kimble, Seabrooke’s mom. She is a sprightly woman with bright eyes, a closely cropped pixie cut, and an enthusiasm she clearly passed on to her son. She tells me about an instance shortly after he started kindergarten when he was run over by a bus. He had multiple fractures in his arm and tire marks in his skin. Kimble met him in the emergency room. “He was so not worried about it,” she says. The tread marks were etched in his flesh for weeks.

While he was getting his cast changed, a stranger saw him in the elevator.

“What happened to you, little boy?”

“Oh I got ran over by a bus,” Spencer lisped. “But it was just a little bus.”

Read the story

‘Three Hours of the American Way of Life’: Football as Fantasy in Ukraine

football sitting on a field

Photojournalist Alexey Furman and writer Robert Langellier spent time with the Azov Dolphins, a football team in a town close the front lines of the violence in Ukraine. In a sad, intimate piece in Roads & Kingdoms, they explore the hope and hopelessness of young Ukrainians.

“I really like history,” he says. “I found a source that says the U.S. owes Russia $12 trillion. So Americans started this war in Ukraine against Russia, so that the documents proving this will be burned. It says the Americans want to start a third world war to find these documents and burn them.”

Being in the epicenter of a reality-bending information war between Ukraine and Russia, Dima, like most in Mariupol, has no idea what to believe. Half the time, people don’t even know who the combatants are. Some think the shelling from the rebels was actually the Russians, some the Americans. Some believe the Ukrainian army shelled itself in order to blame the rebels.

What is beginning in the U.S. has been ongoing for years in Ukraine. Disinformation has split a country into brutal civil strife.

American football, though, is an escape. Dima likes the Miami Dolphins, though he can’t name the players. “They create miracles on the field,” he says. The only place he knows he wants to go besides Kiev is Miami, Florida. He wonders if football can someday take him there.

“When I play American football, I feel like I’m in America,” he says. “When I’m in practice, I imagine playing in the NFL on one of the great teams in one of the great stadiums with lights shining on me and people applauding me. I’m jumping to catch the ball. It’s a great moment.”

Dima mentions that dolphins, by nature, aren’t supposed to be in the Sea of Azov. They aren’t well-suited to the pollution and the increasingly shallow depth, so when they slip through the Kerch Strait and find themselves in the Azov, they often get rescued and thrown back into the Black Sea.

Read the story

The Needle and the Damage Done: ‘What kind of a childhood is that?’

Photo by Urban Seed Education (CC BY-SA 2.0)

At The Washington Post, Eli Saslow profiles Zaine, Arianna, and Zoie Pulliam — three kids 17 and under deemed “opiate orphans.” The Pulliam kids exemplify a generation of children whose parents have died of drug overdoses as a result of the opioid epidemic.

Nearly everyone in Zaine’s life had been anxiously monitoring that line for the past year and a half, ever since both of his parents died of heroin overdoses in April 2015. His parents had become two of the record 33,091 people to die of opioid overdoses that year in a national crisis that has been worst of all in rural West Virginia, where health officials estimate that overdose rates are now eight to 10 times higher than the national average. Middle-aged white men in this part of the country have lost a full year of life expectancy during the past two decades. Middle-aged white women have lost more than two years. The opiate epidemic has essentially wiped out an entire generation of health advances, and now West Virginia has begun to focus more of its resources on prevention and preservation among the next generation entering into the void.

These children are sometimes referred to by health officials here as opiate orphans, and three of the most recent ones live in a small house in South Charleston: Zoie, 10, who believed that her parents had died in their sleep; Arianna, 13, who was just starting to wear her mother’s old makeup; and Zaine, 17, who had been the one to discover his parents that morning on their bedroom floor, and whose grades had begun to drop ever since.

Madie, 53, had retired from her maintenance job at the public schools and moved into the house to help take care of the children after the overdoses. “Mah-maw,” they called her, and she told salty jokes, cooked their breakfast and slept in Zoie’s bedroom when she had nightmares.

But, on some nights, it was Madie who couldn’t sleep, when neither her doctor-prescribed antidepressants nor her occasional swallows of Fireball whiskey could quiet her grief or her rising anxiety. She had once struggled with addiction herself before getting clean. She had raised a daughter who had become an addict. Now she was responsible for three more children in a place where that same disease had officially been classified as a “widespread, progressive and fatal epidemic.”

Read the story

A New American Pastime: Putinology

Photo by Kai Schreiber, via Flickr Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

For The Guardian, Russian-born journalist and author Keith Gessen breaks down seven theories about Vladimir Putin that have gained traction as a result of a diversion that’s become popular with Americans in the Trump era: Putinology.

Putin’s recent ubiquity has brought great prominence to the practice of Putinology. This enterprise – the production of commentary and analysis about Putin and his motivations, based on necessarily partial, incomplete and sometimes entirely false information – has existed as a distinct intellectual industry for over a decade. It kicked into high gear after the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, but in the past few months, as allegations of Russian meddling in the election of President Donald Trump have come to dominate the news, Putinology has outdone itself. At no time in history have more people with less knowledge, and greater outrage, opined on the subject of Russia’s president. You might say that the reports of Trump’s golden showers in a Moscow hotel room have consecrated a golden age – for Putinology.

And what does Putinology tell us? It turns out that it has produced seven distinct hypotheses about Putin. None of them is entirely wrong, but then none of them is entirely right (apart from No 7). Taken together, they tell us as much about ourselves as about Putin. They paint a portrait of an intellectual class – our own – on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

Read the story

What Murderers Will Never Tell You About Their Childhood

Photo by Donald Tong

Mitigation specialist Jennifer Wynn investigates the upbringings of defendants to humanize them enough to convince at least one juror to bypass the death penalty for a life in prison without parole. Wynn shares the stories of three of her clients — men charged with murder — whose lives are marked by poverty, substance abuse, untreated mental illness, and extreme child neglect. Read the full story by Elon Green at Mel Magazine.

Jennifer Wynn’s job is to make jurors feel sympathy for people who’ve committed unspeakable crimes

“We hear all about the victims,” Jennifer Wynn told me recently, “but we never hear about the defendant’s story.”

Wynn, cheerful and salty, is a mitigation specialist. She is engaged by defense attorneys, mostly in capital cases, to investigate and compile the life story of the defendant. The material Wynn gathers, often heartbreaking and brutal, is used to convince the jury to deliver a sentence other than death. (In non-capital cases the same person is called a sentencing advocate, and they similarly argue for a less-severe sentence.

She has now done mitigation work on 30 murder cases, 25 of which were death penalty-eligible, and won them all.

When people share with you their deepest, darkest secrets — the worst things they’ve done — they need validation. These are people who, for the most part, have been told their whole lives, You’re a piece of shit. They’re bullied, they’re picked on, they’re shot at. Then they act out, and society says, See, you are a monster. Then, people like me come in and say, No, you’re not a monster, and you still do deserve to be part of the human race. The system is fucked up, and I tell them that. It’s the first time they’ve ever heard that.

Read the story

‘Have You Ever Had Trashcan Nachos?’

guy fieri on stage

Helen Hollyman spent a lot of time plumbing the depths of America’s leading purveyor of Donkey Sauce™ to produce this in-depth profile of the man behind the sunglasses, Guy Fieri. But what did she really learn? Is Guy Fieri the American dream with frosted tips?

Over these past few months, I’m not sure if I’ve ever met Guy Fieri, but I don’t think it matters. In his new book, Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen explains why he puts on his famous costume—American blue jeans and rolled up T-shirts—every night to perform on stage. “Those whose love we wanted but could not get, we emulate. So I—who’d never done a week’s worth of manual labor in my life—put on a factory worker’s clothes, my father’s clothes, and went to work.” Fieri’s rockabilly-meets-NorCal aesthetic may in fact, be his wardrobe of choice, but the moment the organic kale-eating millionaire entrepreneur rolls into your town in his ’68 red Camaro with his white spiky hair and that bowling shirt decked in flames, he’s suddenly transformed into your friendly, wacky neighbor. He’s here to eat some “off-the-hook” food with you, bump fists, and tune up the jams. He’s the kind of guy who makes you believe that you want to have a few beers together at the local dive, and if you stumble into a bar fight, you know he’s got your back. And when it’s all over, he’ll crank up a song from Van Halen’s 5150 album and make you a sashimi taco that is just awesome.

In an increasingly divided country, Fieri provides viewers with a distraction that promotes positivity and faintly displays a former America. Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives is a fuzzy moving image of the United States, where small towns with restaurants that celebrate the dishes forged by a long history of the blending of cultures happens. It visits the cities where the product of hard-working Americans is delicious, and when you take a bite, you can taste their version of the American dream. On these menus, this concept is still possible.

Read the story

On the Thin Line Separating Honesty from Rudeness

good-friday-1734261_1920

Just like beauty, rudeness is confusingly both in the eye of the beholder and a universal phenomenon, something we’re supposed to recognize in an instant. At The New York Times Magazine, Rachel Cusk explores the complicated question of politeness from various angles — from Brexit and the Trump presidency to airport security checks and in-store shopping etiquette. But she also dives deep into the fundamental difficulty of separating honesty from being plain rude.

Are people rude because they are unhappy? Is rudeness like nakedness, a state deserving the tact and mercy of the clothed? If we are polite to rude people, perhaps we give them back their dignity; yet the obsessiveness of the rude presents certain challenges to the proponents of civilized behavior. It is an act of disinhibition: Like a narcotic, it offers a sensation of glorious release from jailers no one else can see.

In the recollection of events, rudeness often has a role to play in the moral construction of a drama: It is the outward sign of an inward or unseen calamity. Rudeness itself is not the calamity. It is the harbinger, not the manifestation, of evil. In the Bible, Satan is not rude — he is usually rather charming — but the people who act in his service are. Jesus, on the other hand, often comes across as somewhat terse. Indeed, many of the people he encounters find him direct to the point of rudeness. The test, it is clear, is to tell rudeness from truth, and in the Bible that test is often failed. An unambiguous event — violence — is therefore required. The episode of the crucifixion is an orgy of rudeness whose villains are impossible to miss. The uncouth conduct of the Roman soldiers at the foot of the cross, for instance, can be seen in no other light: Anyone thinking that Jesus could have done a bit more to avoid his fate is offered this lasting example of humanity’s incurable awfulness. They know not what they do, was Jesus’ comment on his tormentors. Forgive them.

Read the essay

A ‘Constellation of Meaning’: The Rumpus Interviews George Saunders

Photo by David Shankbone

Last week, Maria Bustillos released a blockbuster Humanities Kit in which you can experience George Saunders teaching Anton Chekhov for yourself.

In Kate Harloe’s interview at The Rumpus, George Saunders reflects on the creative process for his new novel, Lincoln In The Bardo, bold compassion as the right course of resistance under a Trump presidency, and how his interviews, notes, and scenes coalesce into the “constellation of meaning” that inform his nonfiction work.

Rumpus: There are so many characters in this story. Did these characters flow out of you during the writing process or were they more of a conscious creation? Did you think, “I need a character that represents this or experiences this kind of suffering?”

Saunders: No, it was definitely the first thing. My general approach to writing fiction is that you try to have as few conceptual notions as possible and you just respond to the energy that the story is making rather than having a big over plan. I think if you have a big over plan, the danger is that you might just take your plan and then you bore everybody. I always joke that it’s like going on a date with index cards. You know, at 7:30 p.m. I should ask about her mother. You keep all the control to yourself but you are kind of insulting to the other person.

Rumpus: I don’t want to leave the topic of your book, but I love what you said about starting a piece with as few conceptual ideas as possible. Do you approach nonfiction the same way? For the New Yorker story you wrote about Trump, for example, did you begin with a similar kind of open-mindedness?

Saunders: It’s a different form of that. With nonfiction, I go in trying to be really honest about what my preconceptions are. In the Trump piece, I knew I didn’t like Trump and I confessed that to myself and also to my interviewees. I’d always say, “I’m a liberal and I’m left of Gandhi and I don’t like Trump and this article is me trying to understand why you do.”

My theory for nonfiction is that nobody can be free of some kind of conceptions about whatever story they’re writing. But if you can find a way to build those into the story, then the story becomes a process of deconstructing and heightening and sometimes changing those notions and that makes dramatic tension. The initial statement of your position, and then letting reality act on you to change it, is pretty good storytelling.

All I really know in nonfiction is that when I come home, I’ve got all these notes and I’m trying to figure out what actually happened to me. I usually kind of know what happened, but as you work through the notes, you find that certain scenes write well and some don’t even though they should. Those make a constellation of meaning that weirdly ends up telling you what you just went through. It’s a slightly different process, but still there’s mystery because when you’re bearing down on the scenes, sometimes you find out they mean something different than what you thought.

Read the interview