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World Edition - The Atlantic
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World Edition - The Atlantic
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How to Stay in Touch With a Friend on the Other Side of the World
Every week, The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship. This week she talks with two women who met in junior college in India, and who knew each other for only 10 months before one of them moved to Canada. They say they were just "study buddies" when they parted ways—their friendship grew through emails, online chats, and Skype sessions across the miles. They discuss what it takes to keep in touch with a friend on the other side of the world, their joyful reunion on a Canadian vacation, and the worst fight they ever had—over a Harry Potter spoiler. (Spoiler ahead, dear reader.) The Friends Kshitija Desai, 34, a stay-at-home mom who lives in Mumbai, IndiaReema Jayakar, 34, a postdoctoral fellow in clinical neuropsychology who lives in Hanover, New Hampshire This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.Julie Beck: How and when did you two meet?Kshitija Desai: We met in junior-college French class during our very first session. She came to ask if she could sit with me.Reema Jayakar: This was grade 11 in Mumbai. It was the year 2000. In India, you finish high school in grade 10, and then for grades 11 and 12 you go to junior college. So you've left all your high-school friends and you don't know anyone at this new place.Kshitija: We were starting over, essentially.Beck: And you were in the same place for only a short while, right? How long exactly?Reema: Ten months maybe? I knew when I started junior college that my family might be moving to Canada, but there are so many steps to immigration that we hadn't publicly announced it. I don't think I told Kshitija until a couple months before I was leaving. At the time, we were friends, but I don't know that I would characterize our relationship as emotionally close. I had lots of other friends that I was worried about leaving and, to be honest, I didn't feel that strongly about saying goodbye to her.Kshitija: Yeah, I agree. We did spend time together, but it was mostly study buddies. It did come as a shock when she told me that she was leaving. It was like, Well, we've only barely begun. It was very hazy whether we would keep in touch. At that point, Reema had a very strong personality. If she didn't like something, she wouldn't mince words. I think now she's a bit more measured in her responses.Reema (left) and Kshitija (right) on a trip to India in 2011. Courtesy of Kshitija Desai.Reema: I've learned to be nicer, because I don't want to hurt people. I know I was more temperamental as a teenager.Kshitija: There were more arguments that I didn't win than I did. I was a little bit afraid of her. I can say that because she knows. But we outgrew that stage of our friendship.Beck: After Reema moved, what made you feel like, This is someone I really want to keep in touch with?Kshitija: Initially she was just writing to this small group of friends. I was one of those. She was telling us about how she was settling in, general updates. Eventually we would share what was going on in our lives—academic, romantic, professional eventually.Reema: We connected over chats on MSN Messenger or Yahoo Chat. The more I got to know her, the more I wanted to stay in touch.Kshitija: When I look back on it, it surprises me how much we got across. When you read words, it doesn't always come across the same as in person. But we did manage to communicate a fair bit through email, and eventually we evolved to voice chat, and then video.Reema: In the first three years that I was in Canada, I was living with my aunt and her family. We all shared two computers, so it was really hard to set up a time to be like, I want to be on MSN Messenger for two hours chatting with my friends in India. I remember staying up until 2 or 3 a.m. just to talk to Kshitija or one of my other friends.Kshitija: And mind you, it was in the middle of my day, so I would have to justify to my parents why I was on the computer talking to my friends and not spending my time studying.Reema: Eventually she told me that she wanted to visit me in Canada. And I said, "Oh, yeah, yeah." A lot of people say that, but who's going to make the trip halfway across the world, especially when you're young and you don't have any money? I couldn't believe when the plans got set in motion for her to actually visit for three weeks.Beck: Kshitija, when did you decide "Let me bite the bullet and go visit her"?Kshitija: Between 2005 and 2007, I was working freelance, and I didn't know it, but I was basically funding my trip to Canada. Toward the end of 2006, when we started discussing the trip, it just so happened that at the time, Reema was working at a travel agency.Reema: I was working at a travel agency that specialized in bringing people from India and the Middle East to Canada and the U.S. I was able to help Kshitija plan her trip on a budget. She stayed with me and my parents for about three weeks and then she traveled, and I joined her for one of those weeks of travel.Beck: Okay, tell me everything about this trip. You hadn't seen each other in five or six years, and the last time you saw each other you were casual friends. So what was it like to see each other in person again?Reema: For me, the stakes were pretty low because this was home turf. If her trip didn't go as planned, I had very little to lose. So it was a much braver decision for her. But I was excited because by that time, I did feel like this was someone I gelled with. And now we would have a chance to be independent adults with money, and do all the things that two girlfriends can't really do when you are only 15 or 16.Reema Jayakar (left) and Kshitija Desai (right) on a 2007 trip to the Althabasca Galcier in Canada. Courtesy of Kshitija Desai.Kshitija: It was the best trip I've ever been on. And I've been places, but the time with Reema and her family—I really, really cherish it. I was expecting a warm welcome, but it was a super warm welcome. Her parents treated me so nicely. It was basically like my own house for three weeks. And I was heartbroken to leave.Reema: For me, what was really significant was, up until that point, I was happy with my life in Vancouver, but I never really paid attention to all the beautiful nature. I wasn't really an outdoorsy person. But every day, Kshitija would come home from her explorations and we would go through all her pictures. I was still working, so I wouldn’t go with her everywhere. She helped me connect to this new place that I had immigrated to and really fall in love with the natural beauty in the Pacific Northwest. I would look at her pictures and see that place for the first time through her eyes. When I saw how in love she was with Vancouver, it made me realize how lucky I was to be there. Even today, I still have this reaction of, "Wow, this is so beautiful!" And before she visited me, I never had that reaction to almost anything.Kshitija: Vancouver was amazing. I've been places as a tourist, and all you get to do is sightseeing. But I really got to explore in a way that a person living there might. It was priceless for me to go wherever I wanted, at my pace. Not like I had to check these things off a list.Reema: By then, we were also Harry Potter fans, and that was the year that the sixth book was out. Kshitija had read it, but I had only read the first five books. I started rereading them. Kshitija had book one with her. When we left my parents' house and spent one week in the Canadian Rockies, we were literally on trains and buses sharing that one book, reading together. Then one of the evenings that we were in a hotel, I was napping or something. Kshitija went out to explore on her own and she came back with the sixth Harry Potter book in hand, to give to me as a gift.Kshitija gave Reema Harry Potter jewelry after she completed her PhD. Courtesy of Kshitija DesaiThere's also a backstory to this story—Kshitija somehow let slip what happens at the end of book six.Beck: Oh my God!Reema: I was livid.Kshitija: I was scared of what I had done. I was petrified.Reema: Julie, have you read the books?Beck: Oh, I have. I appreciate you trying not to spoil a 14-year-old book for me, but I do know what happens.Reema: At the end of book six, Dumbledore dies. She tells me that and I exploded. All the skills I had gained in holding back my temper just went out the window and we had this huge meltdown in the hotel room. I was screaming, Kshitija was crying. We probably spent the whole night fighting. It was the worst day of our trip, over Harry Potter.Kshitija: The book that I bought for her, the sixth book, was more like disaster management. I wanted to make sure that she got to read what actually happened as soon as possible, rather than worrying about it. I didn't even mean it as an actual spoiler. She was just clarifying her memory and saying, "Dumbledore hasn't died. Dumbledore hasn't died yet." And I was like, "Not yet." I said it without saying it. I ruined that moment. But we did read the book together.Beck: Now I have to ask, obviously: Which Harry Potter house are you guys in?Kshitija: I'm a Hufflepuff. I value loyalty tremendously and that's what they're known for.Reema: I feel like I'm more like the person who says, "We sort too soon, and the Sorting Hat isn't always right." I think people can change and evolve over time.Beck: How did your friendship progress after the trip? Reema mentioned in her email to me that at a certain point, you guys made a commitment to talk every day. What were the logistics of that like?Kshitija Desai (left), Reema Jayakar (middle) and a mutual friend in Mumbai. Courtesy of Kshitija Desai.Reema: Soon after that, Kshitija moved to Essex to do her master’s. When she was in Essex, we didn’t have smartphones, but I'm pretty sure we Skyped or talked every day. It was all the things that friends do. Like, "Here's this outfit, make sure it looks okay for me." Or, "Oh my God, I had a really bad day." By that point, we kind of left email behind. That was the time when we became emotionally close and started sharing everything about ourselves with each other.Kshitija: My Canada trip was in 2007, and it was the end of 2008 when I started my master’s. I felt like I was ready for it. But you never really are—to be away from your family, doing everything on your own. The first month was emotionally very hard for me. You need somebody, that little voice in your ear, that keeps telling you, "You can do this, just keep going.” Reema was the voice in my ear. Sometimes it would be as simple as I'm doing my work and she's doing her work, and we're just video calling for no reason.And then eventually she moved to Atlanta, and she does not deal with change very well. So I tried to be there for her.Reema: When I moved to Atlanta, Kshitija was getting ready to leave London to get married. I was so sad. I'd already missed another wedding of a close friend of mine in India, and I was about to miss Kshitija's. And I cannot believe how she kept me a part of everything to do with her wedding. From showing me outfits to Skyping with me late the night before the wedding to having her family send me photos and updates while it was going on. I wasn't at the wedding, but it felt like I was.Beck: A challenge that I have found with long-distance friendship is that because you're not in the same place, you're not making memories together, but rather living separate lives and updating each other about them. Has that been true for you?Reema: Not for us. We’re both very good at articulating our internal experiences and our emotional universes. Somehow, we never tire of hearing about the other person's response to things. Of course, Kshitjia wasn't there when I was flirting with some cute guy or when this big thing happened in my family, but she knows how to emotionally react to it in a way that makes me feel like she was actually there. There are probably only a handful of people in my life who know how to do that across the miles.Kshitija (left) and Reema (right) on a trip in India in 2011. Courtesy of Kshitija Desai.Kshitija: Yeah, I agree 100 percent. It would have been awesome to have had more time in the same place, but for all we know, we might not have gotten as much time to spend with each other as we do online. Because we can multitask and talk to each other while we're doing other things.Reema: What fascinates me is Kshitija and I are not introverted homebodies or anything. She has a lot of friends in Mumbai and when I moved to Canada, I already had a best friend in India, who I'm still best friends with. Then I made new friends. And somehow that never made me think, Why do I need to get close to this other person? What we had to offer each other still added so much to our lives, despite having the other wonderful best friends that we've known for longer.Kshitija: My family situation is such that my best friend from school is my close sister-in-law. She is married to my husband's brother; we live in the same house. I have her, but I have Reema, too. They play different roles in my life, but they are both very important to me.Reema: Mindy Kaling says that a best friend is not a person. It's a tier. I love that. Having multiple people doesn't diminish one relationship relative to the other. In fact, I think it enhances them.If you or someone you know should be featured on The Friendship Files, get in touch at friendshipfiles@theatlantic.com, and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique.
World Edition - The Atlantic
The 'Love Hormone' Could Be Used for Weight Loss
Scientists suspect that one element of the obesity epidemic is that the brains of obese people respond differently to images of delicious, calorically dense foods. Obese individuals’ brains seem to light up at the sight of donuts, pizza, and other calorie bombs, even when they’re no longer hungry.Some studies have suggested that this heightened activity might predispose people to overeating. Today, nearly 40 percent of American adults are obese, and obesity is predicted to become the leading cause of cancer among Americans, replacing smoking, within five or 10 years. (Though it’s still not clear yet which comes first—the obesity or the overactive brain activity.) “Part of the reason for the obesity epidemic is that people eat when they’re not hungry,” says Elizabeth Lawson, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a neuroendocrinologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.[Read: How therapy can cure overeating]A remedy for this over-activation in the brain might come from an unexpected source: oxytocin, the brain chemical often associated with love and social relationships. Oxytocin is sometimes called the “cuddle hormone” because it’s released during sex, childbirth, and breastfeeding. People who are in the early stages of falling in love have higher levels of oxytocin than normal. The drug ecstasy also increases concentrations of the hormone in the blood.Oxytocin has a variety of other surprising functions. A form of the chemical, Pitocin, induces labor, and another form might help treat stomach pain. Early studies have suggested the hormone might boost social skills among kids with autism. Now, Lawson and other researchers are investigating whether oxytocin might also prevent overeating.Lawson and her colleagues recently showed images of high-calorie foods to 10 overweight and obese men. She found that the regions of the brain involved in eating for pleasure lit up when the men viewed the images. A dose of oxytocin, compared to a placebo, weakened the activity in those regions, and it also reduced the activity between them. Meanwhile, oxytocin didn’t have that effect when the men viewed images of low-calorie foods or household items. Lawson’s colleagues presented the research, which has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, last month at Endo 2019, the Endocrine Society’s annual meeting.“One of the key ways oxytocin works in limiting the amount of food that we eat is that it speeds up the satiety process, or reaching fullness,” says Pawel Olszewski, an associate professor of physiology at the University of Waikato in New Zealand who was not involved with Lawson’s study. “Then, oxytocin works through brain areas that are associated with the pleasure of eating, and it decreases our eating for pleasure.”[Read: Why comfort food comforts ]That’s just one of the ways oxytocin shows potential as an obesity treatment. Previously, Lawson and her colleagues found that the hormone improves insulin sensitivity and encourages the body to use of fat as a fuel for the body. Lawson’s other studies have shown that oxytocin reduces activation in the hypothalamus, an area of the brain that controls hunger, and increases activation in areas of the brain associated with impulse control. To Lawson, the results together suggest that the hormone creates less of a need to eat, reduces the compulsion to eat for fun, and improves impulse control when it comes to actually reaching for that second slice of cake. Oxytocin, in other words, appears to make food seem less rewarding.Other researchers have found that oxytocin might weaken alcoholics’ dependence on alcohol, drawing parallels to the hormone’s effects on how some obese people’s brains perceive food. A study published in the journal PLoS this month showed that oxytocin cut the desire to drink among alcohol-dependent rats. It’s not clear what this anti-drinking element of oxytocin has to do with its love-hormone properties, if anything.So why can’t we just pick up bottles of oxytocin at CVS? For one thing, most of these studies have been very small; 10 is a minuscule sample size. They’ve been largely conducted on men, so future research would need to be expanded to women. The entire mechanism behind oxytocin’s effects on eating behavior and metabolism needs to be firmed up, and the safety of using the hormone over the long term needs to be established.The way Lawson’s and many other studies have been conducted is by putting oxytocin in a nasal spray and attempting to shoot it directly toward the brain. But it’s not clear how much of the drug the person is actually getting through this kind of application, and researchers are still working on making it more precise. To answer some of these questions, Lawson is currently conducting an NIH-funded randomized, controlled trial that will administer oxytocin to obese men and women for eight weeks.Finally, even if all of these studies are successful, it’s important to remember that there are myriad reasons—social, economic, biological, cultural—that people become obese, addicted to food, or addicted to other substances. An oxytocin treatment might only work for some of them, and even if it did, not all obese people desire to lose weight. “Its effectiveness may depend on the reason for why the obese individual is obese,” Olszewski says.Still, a drug that helped even a fraction of America’s 93 million obese people would be a major breakthrough. If all of this research bears results, many years from now, there may be another reason to love the love hormone.
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World Edition - The Atlantic
How the Columbine Shooting Changed American Teenhood
Jake Wakefield, who graduated from high school in Fort Collins, Colorado, in 2003, recalls that April 20 was the date of his Senior Ditch Day. One reason for the chosen date was “a tongue-in-cheek thing,” he told me; April 20 is an unofficial cannabis holiday. But he remembered students talking about another reason: “If someone wanted to re-create Columbine, the seniors wouldn’t be there, so we’d be okay.”This second reason was sort of a joke, as far as Wakefield remembered—but it was still on seniors’ minds on Ditch Day. For Wakefield and many others who attended high school in the years shortly after the Columbine High School shooting, on April 20, 1999, the tragedy became a cultural touchstone, imprinting itself on teens’ minds and coloring their high-school years with nervous jokes, new fears, and new routines.When I spoke with people who were in high school around the time of the Columbine shooting about how the school experience changed, one of the first things that came to mind for them was the introduction of school-shooter drills. Wakefield, who was in eighth grade at Lucille Erwin Middle School, in Loveland, Colorado, when the shooting occurred, underwent his first drills that same spring, which he remembered felt somewhat “rushed,” albeit “well intentioned.” He recalled a drill in the school gym where “they had us line up as far away from the door as we could, and all in a line against the wall.” He said he looked up at the small windows of the gym and thought, There’s just enough room to fit a gun through, and we’re all perfectly lined up. I wonder if they’re going to rethink this plan eventually. Wakefield went to a different middle school for ninth grade and then moved up to high school, where he said the drills were “more ironed out.” (The school districts mentioned in this story either did not have records of specific school policies or did not return requests for comment, so policies are described as the students remember them.)[Read: The developing norms for reopening schools after shootings]After the Columbine shooting, schools moved quickly to take measures they hoped would prevent another attack, and in the process created the school environments that today are second nature to students across the country. While previous school shootings had stoked fear in students and parents, Columbine was at that point the deadliest high-school shooting in U.S. history, and it resonated on a national level. Some schools introduced surveillance cameras and locked more of their doors; some brought in armed officers. Drills like the ones Wakefield recalled, in which schools practiced their response to a shooter, were quickly popularized—they were actually called “Columbine drills” at first, the criminologist James Alan Fox recently told NBC News. (According to the National Center for Education Statistics, as of 2016, 95 percent of public schools conduct lockdown drills, in which students simulate the experience of hiding in locked classrooms.)Jill Westendorp, who graduated from Southwest High School in Minneapolis in 2000, told me that “there were doors all over” her school, which consisted of two separate buildings, and before the Columbine shooting, “most of them were unlocked” during the school day. Students could walk freely in and out of whichever door they wanted, and Westendorp said she was never concerned about violence at school. After the shooting, “they put electromagnetic locks on all of the doors that would only release if the fire alarm was pulled,” she told me. Students were able to enter and exit through just one set of doors, she remembered.The safety measures that some kids experience can leave them with warped perceptions of what going to school is like. When Nicole Martin’s daughter started high school this year and asked for a new backpack, Martin, who graduated from high school in 2001, was shocked. “I was like, ‘But you can’t carry one?,’” she told me in a Twitter direct message. “My husband thought I’d sprouted a second head when I said that.” Martin was remembering the backpack ban at her own high school, East Carter High, in Grayson, Kentucky, which was first put in place after a shooting there in 1993, in which a teacher and a custodian were killed. When Martin’s daughter told her that she was, in fact, allowed to carry a backpack, Martin responded, “Oh, a clear one, right?”After Columbine, Martin said, security measures increased. She recalled that even though her high school had already experienced a shooting, Columbine was something of a turning point. “In a way, it was still a little easy to imagine that what had happened before [at my high school] was a one time thing,” she said. The shooter “had carried the pistol in his backpack, so get rid of backpacks. A teacher and a janitor had died, but no kids did. Columbine was that kick in the head that no, the kids were sitting ducks and could be killed, too.”The effects of these sorts of school-safety policies are still unfolding. Researchers don’t yet have a clear idea of whether lockdown drills and other measures are actually effective in preventing a shooting, and though they’re meant to protect kids, they can also do damage. Exposing kids to shooter drills at young ages can give them unnecessary anxiety about a risk that is still relatively rare. And students of color tend to get disproportionately targeted by some of the post-Columbine disciplinary and law-enforcement measures.[Read: Active-shooter drills are tragically misguided]For many students who attended high school after the Columbine shooting, this is all they know. And for those who attended high school before Columbine—even just before—many things were entirely different. The year 1999 is, for many, a bright line that divides one type of school experience from another. Laura Lineberger, who graduated from West Mecklenburg High School, in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1998, told me that she “never feared for a school shooting, ever,” and that her high school never had a lockdown drill while she was there, as far as she can remember. Lineberger is now a teacher at a school in downtown Raleigh; she said that lockdown drills started there approximately five or six years ago. Her students have “grown up” with drills. “They expect them; they know what to do,” she said, especially by the time they get to high school.The former students I spoke with also pointed to shifts in teen culture as a result of the Columbine shooting. After the shooting, stories spread quickly; some media outlets fixated on the black trench coats the shooters wore and reported that they had been influenced by goth subculture. Later research and reporting found that many of the media’s theories were inaccurate, but they changed the way some teens who fit these descriptors were treated at school. Meghan Bishop, who was a junior at Beaverton High School, in Beaverton, Oregon, in the spring of 1999, remembers her school focusing on “What makes a person go and do this?” News of the Columbine shooting “came out at the time of The Matrix. My friends loved The Matrix; my boyfriend at the time had one of those trench coats, and all of a sudden [people wondered], ‘Okay, does that make you a shooter, because you’re wearing a trench coat and dark glasses and you’re kind of a loner?’ So he was singled out.” She told me that her boyfriend, who went to a different high school, was “disciplined for coming to school in a trench coat, even though … he just really liked The Matrix and computers.”Parents, school administrators, and other adults also viewed video games as a cause for concern; the Columbine killers were reportedly fans of the shooting game Doom, which was released in 1993, and observers worried that it had influenced them. “I remember so many people talking about it, so many people worried about,Is playing video games going to make my kid shoot up a school?” Wakefield said. “Before Columbine, video games were just kind of like something everyone did. You’d go rent a video game from an old Blockbuster or something. I’d remember playing games with my sisters. After Columbine, video games started to be seen as something that the fringes played.”For some students, Columbine created an undercurrent of anxious jokes and banter. Wakefield told me that the Columbine shooting was a consistent subject of conversation among his middle-school peers (until the September 11 attacks, after which “that was all we talked about,” he said). “A lot of it was talking about what we would do if there was a shooter in the room, what we would say if they had a gun to our head,” he said. “A lot of middle-school-level bravado: ‘Oh, yeah, if a gunman came after us, we’d just karate-chop them in the neck and we’d save the day. I’d be great—we’d take the gun from them and then we’d be the hero.’”The joking and bluster sometimes gave way to real fear. Wakefield said that he and his classmates would talk about the design of their school buildings, “loosely planning what would happen if there was a disaster like this.” When he started at a new middle school in ninth grade, he analyzed the school’s structure with his friends. “There’s more corners that we can hide behind” compared with his previous school, he remembered discussing. “If we can make it to the parking lot, we can hide behind a car or something. There’s lots more cover here.”The Columbine shooting led some students to grapple with violence that already existed at their school. Westendorp, who went to high school in Minneapolis, remembered that at first the shooting felt “a little bit more removed.” But then a teacher “sat down with us,” she said, “and she’s like, ‘People do bring guns to school. We’re here to keep you safe, but you’re not immune to this. It could happen. It could happen anywhere.’”Katreena Lloyd-Williams, who graduated from high school in 2002, remembers that at Audenried High School, in South Philadelphia, where she went for part of her freshman year, metal detectors were in place before Columbine. “That school was kind of known in the neighborhood as not the bad school, but a bad school,” she told me. “There was always something going on there.” Even so, Columbine changed how Lloyd-Williams thought about the dangers of going to school. “The violence that happened in the school, it was something that was very personal,” she said. “You knew if you weren’t fighting with somebody, then you weren’t going to be a target. When I thought about Columbine, it in a weird way took away that peace of mind. You realize: Okay, so somebody could just be pissed and come in and shoot everybody. I never thought that way. I just thought, Oh, I keep my head down, I mind my business, I’m good. That definitely freaked me out a little bit.”Still, the Columbine shooting felt “removed,” Lloyd-Williams told me, “because it was across the country, [and] a mass shooting wasn’t so common” at the time. Today, she attends Temple University as an adult student, and she thinks about the risk of a shooting much more often. “That’s so in my head when something happens. Oh my God, this is a big campus, there’s a lot of kids here, anything could happen. And I know that I didn’t think about that before.”Lloyd-Williams’s point is one that stood out in all my conversations. For many people who were students in 1999, the shock of the Columbine shooting punctuated their high-school years in a way that is hard to imagine in 2019. Now about 57 percent of teens worry that a shooting could happen on their campus. Most of the people I spoke with remembered the hour, even the minute, when they found out about the shooting; they recalled crowding in front of a TV in a school classroom, turned on during class by a frightened teacher. “I remember eating dinner that night with my family, and my mom sitting across the table from me, and she started crying,” Westendorp told me. “I had literally never seen my mom cry.” The Columbine shooting was, for many, a moment when the impossible suddenly seemed possible; today, teens, families, and schools know this all too well.
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World Edition - The Atlantic
Why Grown-Ups Love Talking Like 3-Year-Olds
I recently had the honor of meeting an award-winning literary sort, a man wry and restrained and overall quite utterly mature, who casually referred to having gone through a phase in his 20s when he’d been “pilly”—that is, when he’d taken a lot of recreational drugs. The word had a wonderfully childish sound to it, the tacked-on y creating a new adjective in the style of happy, angry, and silly. My writer-acquaintance, I recognized, was not alone in bending language this way. On the sleeper-hit sitcom Schitt’s Creek, for instance, one of the protagonists, David, speaks of a game night getting “yelly,” while his sister describes a love interest as “homelessy.” Meanwhile, back in real life, one of my podcast listeners informed me of a Washington, D.C., gentrifier who declared that a neighborhood was no longer as “shooty-stabby” as it once had been.Pilly and its counterparts are not just charming, one-off neologisms; they’re signs of a broader shift in how Americans nowadays are given to putting things. More and more, adults are sprinkling their speech with the language of children. Young kids tend to simplify language, leaving out verbs (“Daddy home!” a toddler might say as her father walks in) or using words in incorrect but intelligible ways—plurals like feets and deskses are common; my daughter, at age 3, described herself as “a talky kind of a person.” The adoption of some of these linguistic tics by adults—in the form of pilly and many other terms—has given rise to a register we might call kidspeak. It’s a new way of sounding “real,” with a prominence that would challenge a time traveler from as recently as the year 2000.Examples of kidspeak are everywhere, once you start to look. Take our newfangled use of the word because, as seen in sentences such as I believe in climate change because science and You’re reading this article because procrastination. Even 10 years ago, such constructions would have sounded like a clear grammatical error from someone still learning to speak English; today, they have become so widespread that the American Dialect Society crowned because 2013’s Word of the Year. The rhetorical appeal is easy to see: Stripped of its of, because transforms from a way of elucidating one’s case to a puckish refusal to do so. It helps its speaker hide behind the authority of the x—and avoid all the messiness of actual argument. In many ways, it channels the stubbornness of the little boy who asserts nothing more than “Because!” when he’s asked why he scribbled on the wallpaper with a Sharpie.Or have you noticed that, to convey emphasis or surprise, many young women have begun appending an uh to their sentences? “No-uh!” “Move-uh!” “It’s for you-uh!” Most adults would recognize this as a habit small children typically outgrow by middle school, but women have begun retaining it in adulthood—one can catch it everywhere from the speaking style of the comedian Aubrey Plaza to the local Chipotle. That women have started the trend is unsurprising, as women usually introduce new constructions into a language. Before long, research shows, men tend to catch on.Then there are exclamations like I’ve had all the illnesses!, which one delightfully droll student of mine recently told me after I asked why she’d missed class; another student told me that his father, a veteran bird-watcher, has seen “all the birds.” This phrasing dates back to a 2010 comic strip by the artist Allie Brosh, in which her character seeks, with ingenuous ambition and little result, to clean “all the things!” It reflects the cutely narrow view of the child who recounts to us specificities of her life, assuming that we, as adults, must be already knowledgeable about them: “At the park, we were doing the jump game and Michael told us we couldn’t take turns until the Juicy Loops were gone!” (What’s the jump game? The Juicy whats? And who’s Michael?)Clearly, kidspeak affords its users certain rhetorical advantages—the way it playfully softens blows is part of why younger people on social media now often couch what they say to one another in the toddler-esque. But what made bright teenagers and 20-somethings start imitating 5-year-olds in the first place? And why are many older Americans following suit?The slang of earlier decades offers some clues. The 1920s gave rise to the bee’s knees, know your onions, and be yourself! (meaning “calm down”)—phrases that were less childish than jaunty, cocky, pert. The 1930s and ’40s brought “hep” slang like reet for “right” and chops for “ability.” In the 1990s, veggies jumped from the lips of mothers spoon-feeding their infants to the menus of pricey organic restaurants.Perhaps no era’s slang more closely resembles the kidspeak of today than that of 1970s America—a time of linguistically jolly childishness that gave us words and phrases like to boogie, warm fuzzies, space cadet, and far out. The parallel isn’t so surprising when you consider the tumult of those times: the Vietnam War, Watergate, stagflation, the energy crisis. After an interregnum of relative prosperity and peace, gloomy sentiments have returned with a new force, thanks to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the financial crash of 2008, the looming collapse of the environment, and the rise of a dangerous superannuated adolescent to the country’s highest office. The horrors of the real world are enough to make a person seek the safety of childhood by any means, including linguistic ones.Moreover, young people today are afraid in ways that generations before them were not. They’re also facing new, compounding economic hardships—many Millennials and older members of Gen Z depend on their parents to help cover exorbitant rents or student-loan payments. Surveys confirm intuition here: A pair of 2016 studies led by April Smith, a psychology professor at Miami University, in Ohio, showed that over the past few decades, young people have become newly fearful of reaching adulthood, agreeing more and more with statements such as “I wish that I could return to the security of childhood” and disagreeing with ones such as “I feel happy that I am not a child anymore.” Is it any wonder that another example of today’s kidspeak is referring to grown-up activities with the ironically distancing term adulting?Given the magnitude of recent social and political unrest, not seeing the upheaval reflected in language would have been surprising. And social media have only quickened the pace of change. What 50 years ago might have been a ripple among people in one city now permeates the nation; as marvelous as Brosh’s “all the things!” cartoon is, no 1970s-era technology would have enabled a self-published comic strip to attain international reach and coin a new idiom.A generation understandably spooked by “adulting” may well embrace the linguistic comfort food of childlike language. And once established, the habit can easily make the jump to those of us more advanced in years. After all, a kid lurks inside every one of us, and few people are immune to the sheer infectiousness of creativity. Young people are the primary drivers of language change, but even we “olds”—as the young are wont to put it—like to change things up now and then. (We’re old, not dead.) As new slang creeps across generational divides, however, it inevitably stirs up people’s deepest linguistic anxieties. Does the new trend of kidspeak represent a dumbing-down of the English language—and of American society as a whole? Just the opposite: With the rise of kidspeak, we are actually witnessing English’s enrichment.It has long been ordinary for one language to borrow from another (schadenfreude, hara-kiri), and even from a dialect of the same language: Black English has lent mainstream English words like diss and the “angry” meaning of salty. Kidspeak extends our word stock in exactly the same way that Old Norse, French, and Latin once did. On the internet, for example, kidspeak refers to a “smol kitty” and a “smol baby,” but not a “smol mailbox” or “smol Blu-ray player.” Smol, then, is not merely a way of spelling small, but a more specific term referring to diminutive cuteness. Just missing out on becoming Word of the Year at the American Dialect Society’s 2019 meeting was the monosyllabic yeet, seemingly meant to mimic the sound of something being thrown into a container or through a net (and often pronounced with a celebratory gesture to that effect). One now speaks of “yeeting” an empty can into the trash, and the word has even developed an irregular past-tense form, yote. We have kidspeak to thank for introducing these new layers of playfulness and subtlety into our repertoire.English today is arguably more fertile than it’s been since Shakespeare’s time, and those itchy about the novelty of kidspeak might consider that not so long ago pedants were insisting the proper person should say “bal-coh-nee” for balcony, stamp out “nonwords” such as standpoint, and use obnoxious to mean “ripe for injury.” Their arguments failed miserably when presented to everyday speakers, who tend to have good intuition about how language should work.Amid today’s dreadful news cycles, the emergence of kidspeak is something to celebrate. This new slang is a totally natural and endlessly witty collective advancement of the American idiom, wielded selectively and with a fundamental irony by people fully in command of the standard language forms. It makes for more interesting, nuanced talk. I, at least, am glad to be living with the English of right now, surrounded by all the new words.This article appears in the May 2019 print edition with the headline “Why Young Adults Are Talking Like 3-Year-Olds.”
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World Edition - The Atlantic
Barr: Trump Is the Real Victim
What possible reason was there for Attorney General William Barr to hold a press conference about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report before the report was released?The answer, based on his brief remarks Thursday morning, was not to instill public faith in the process, for he did little of that. Nor was it to answer questions from the press, for he did little of that, either—bristling at a few reporters’ questions before tersely exiting the stage.[David A. Graham: Why won’t Barr just release the Mueller report?]Instead, Barr seemed most interested in painting President Donald Trump as a victim. Although, as has been endlessly noted, there’s no crime of “collusion,” the attorney general repeatedly used that phrase, echoing the president’s own tweets, both before and during the press conference: “The Special Counsel found no collusion by any Americans in the IRA’s illegal activity”; “There was no evidence of Trump campaign collusion with the Russian government’s hacking”; “After finding no underlying collusion with Russia.”If those remarks made Barr sound less like the nation’s top law-enforcement official than like a defense attorney for the president, he was just getting started. Even more remarkable were his comments on the question of whether Trump obstructed justice. Put yourself in the poor president’s shoes, Barr pleaded: In assessing the president’s actions discussed in the report, it is important to bear in mind the context. President Trump faced an unprecedented situation.As he entered into office, and sought to perform his responsibilities as president, federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct before and after taking office, and the conduct of some of his associates. At the same time, there was relentless speculation in the news media about the president’s personal culpability. Yet, as he said from the beginning, there was in fact no collusion. And as the special counsel’s report acknowledges, there is substantial evidence to show that the President was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks. Since the report has not been released, it’s unclear how much of this analysis is Barr’s and how much it draws on Mueller’s report, but it’s not especially persuasive either way. In short, the attorney general is saying that the president’s possibly obstructive efforts were not corrupt because Trump sincerely believed he was the victim of a conspiracy. Because the president was “frustrated and angry,” Barr seems to think it was reasonable for him to, for example, pressure the FBI director to drop an investigation.Beyond that, “federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing [Trump’s] conduct before and after taking office, and the conduct of some of his associates” for good reasons. Trump’s first national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, had lied to FBI agents within the first few days of the administration. His former campaign chair Paul Manafort had, according to emails, tried to use his campaign position to settle debts with a Russian oligarch.The reason that the feds were snooping around the White House and Trump campaign was that Trump kept hiring people who were breaking the law, and others who pushed its boundaries. (Curiously, Barr cited the indictments of Russians in the probe but didn’t mention any of the Americans who have pleaded guilty to crimes uncovered by Mueller’s probe.) That dishonor roll doesn’t even get into Trump’s bizarre campaign statements, like his weird plea for Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails—which Trump’s defenders insist was a joke, but which Russia doesn’t seem to have taken that way.Barr continued: Nonetheless, the White House fully cooperated with the special counsel’s investigation, providing unfettered access to campaign and White House documents, directing senior aides to testify freely, and asserting no privilege claims. And at the same time, the president took no act that in fact deprived the special counsel of the documents and witnesses necessary to complete his investigation. The claim that the White House “fully cooperated” is, charitably, incomplete. Trump did not block aides from testifying, but he also fought hard against sitting for an interview of his own—and, in fact, never did. And the notion that an individual touched by a federal investigation deserves praise for not depriving the investigator of documents or witnesses will strike many prosecutors as novel; this sort of cooperation is generally regarded as a minimal requirement, not a demonstration of good faith. Apart from whether the acts were obstructive, this evidence of non-corrupt motives weighs heavily against any allegation that the President had a corrupt intent to obstruct the investigation. The idea that Trump was acting out of sincere motives is a perfectly good political defense of the president—if not an especially convincing one, given his repeated prevarications and the corruption of the many people he hired. But political defense is not supposed to be the attorney general’s job. Barr’s victimhood narrative will likely go over well with Trump, but it does nothing to bolster the credibility of the Justice Department, or its conclusion that there was no obstruction.
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World Edition - The Atlantic
The Irony of Mueller-Report Profiteering
When the Justice Department releases the Mueller Report this morning, it will publish on the Special Counsel’s Office website. By federal law, it will be placed in the public domain. That means you’ll be able to download the report for free to read on your computer or smartphone, or to print out, or to email to your friends who don’t know where to find it.That’s not stopping Barnes & Noble, the bookseller, from offering its own version of the Mueller Report as a free download to its Nook tablet-and-app ebook platform. “We’ve received strong demand from our customers for this report,” Tim Mantel, the company’s chief merchandising officer said in a statement, “and want to make it as easy as possible for them to access it for free as soon as possible.”Barnes & Noble is also selling a print edition of the report, with an introduction by famed constitutional law expert Alan Dershowitz. The paperback costs $9.20. If Dershowitz isn’t your bag, don’t worry, there will be other options. The Washington Post’s edition, for sale on Amazon for $10.50, promises “exclusive analysis” by the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning staff, a prospect the book’s publisher, Scribner, claims will make the edition “the most complete and authoritative available.”[Read: The Mueller-Industrial Complex collapses]This isn’t anything new. The Post also added its analysis to an edition of the Kenneth Starr report on the Clinton investigation, in 1998. But back then, many Americans weren’t yet online, and they certainly weren’t glued to the internet like today’s citizenry. Ebook readers like Kindle and Nook didn’t exist. If you were lucky enough to have a brand-new 56k modem, it could have taken an hour to download a large PDF.But today, your grandfather and your 6-year-old both know how to find the report on laptops, tablets, and smartphones. So when Barnes & Noble offers a free download of the report, they’re mostly taking advantage of the opportunity to market the Nook reader and app, a platform many might have forgotten about entirely in light of Amazon Kindle’s market share. Attention is a powerful force, and marketers know that huge barrels of the stuff will be focused on all things Mueller today. Might as well take advantage of it. (Barnes & Noble refused to comment for the record.) That’s nothing new, either. With consumer attention fragmented across the internet’s shrapnel, advertising has become about hitting countless narrow targets, which are then aggregated into a profitable market. So when something really does become a national or global phenomenon, attaching huge swaths of the population’s collective eyeballs all at once, the marketers chomp at the bit to take advantage.Earlier this week, Game of Thrones offered one such rare example. Improbably, the fantasy epic became an international sensation, making it a lusty mark for promotions and tie-ins. There were Game of Thrones Oreos. Duolingo, the naggy language-learning app, offered a course in High Valyrian. Adidas released a set of Ultraboost sneakers themed after the great houses of Westeros. The Mueller Report is Game of Thrones for the real world—minus the dragons, but with all the political intrigue. It’s no surprise brands want to take advantage of it.And then, of course, there’s what comes next: Once the report is released, anyone is free to use it for any purpose, including commercial use. That means you can do whatever else you want with the report—no copyright restrictions prevent you from making motivational posters, screen-printing t-shirts, or embroidering ball-caps with its excerpts. You could also market your own print-book edition of the report to compete with the ones Barnes & Noble is selling.But of course, this isn’t a prestige TV show, it’s a years-long investigation into Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. And unlike all the votive candles and “Mueller Time” t-shirts people made to stir up juju for Mueller indictments, this is the report itself we’re talking about. The end result of an investigation into the possible corruption of the highest U.S. office by a foreign power, cut apart and sold off for scrap.The whole maneuver makes for a funny echo of the possible corruption the Mueller Report set out to investigate. Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn has pled guilty to lying to federal agents. Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort has pled guilty to conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen has pled guilty to lying to Congress.[Read: The Trump Organization says it’s “Not Practical” to comply with the emoluments clause]Even if the contents of the Mueller report don’t snare the president for conspiracy with a foreign power, Trump has profited personally from his presidency anyway. His 2017 travel ban excluded nations where he has investments. A $60,000 Kuwaiti consular party was moved to the Trump International Hotel, reportedly due to political pressure. He makes frequent use of his organizations properties, including the Trump National Golf Club and the Mar-a-Lago club, spending millions of taxpayer dollars in the process. The initiation fees at Mar-a-Lago doubled to $200,000 after Trump’s election, signaling to some a direct intention to use the club as an ante for political access to the president.Efforts like these are abnormal at best and unconstitutional at worst. But they also represent an extreme version of the same logic that lets Barnes & Noble hawk its e-reader app by means of the taxpayer-funded Mueller Report. If the government produces raw materials that citizens can exploit for profit if they choose, then why not take advantage of the opportunity? The analogy is a false one, of course—commercializing public-domain documents is not the same as profiting from public office in violation of the emoluments clause. But the spirit of the free ebook download risks advancing the same end, one in which the government is not a civic organization that serves its people and asks nothing in return, but just another resource to mine for profit.
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World Edition - The Atlantic
A New Way for 2020 Candidates to Attack Trump
President Trump issued the second veto of his presidency Tuesday to extend U.S. participation in Yemen’s civil war. In so doing, he acted against the will of the American public, the U.S. Senate, and the House of Representatives, allying instead with Saudi Arabia and the autocrats who rule it.The Saudis are leading a brutal military campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen. U.S. support for that campaign is a stark departure from the “America first” foreign policy that Trump has pledged. As Benjamin H. Friedman noted at Defense Priorities, “None of the limited U.S. interests in the Middle East—preventing the emergence of a regional hegemon, preventing large-scale disruptions to the global oil supply, and eliminating transnational terrorists who directly threaten the United States—justify supporting the Saudi-led war in Yemen.”So how did Trump explain his veto?“This resolution is an unnecessary, dangerous attempt to weaken my constitutional authorities, endangering the lives of American citizens and brave service members, both today and in the future,” he declared in a statement.The explanation is preposterous. There is no Constitutional authority for the president to enmesh America in a foreign war that Congress rejects. Indeed, as David French observes, “If a president can fight when he wants, where he wants, and for as long as he wants, then Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 is meaningless.” And if the danger posed to Americans by Houthi rebels were sufficient to justify war, the U.S. would be at war in dozens of other countries, too.As if all that weren’t enough, the war is also a moral abomination, resulting in heavy civilian deaths due to indiscriminate airstrikes. Millions are on the brink of famine.“All of the aid organizations involved in providing humanitarian relief in Yemen have been clear and consistent in urging an end to U.S. support for the Saudi coalition,” Daniel Larison explained. “They understand what the consequences for the civilian population will be if the war is not brought to an end, and they can see that the war won’t be stopped as long as the foreign patrons of the warring parties continue providing unconditional support. When Trump vetoed S.J.Res. 7, he was proving yet again that he valued good relations with despotic war criminals more than the lives of the many millions of Yemenis being starved and subjected to the most horrific conditions imaginable.”In 2016, when Democrats chose an interventionist hawk as their nominee, Trump was able to obscure his militarist instincts enough to run as a candidate who would keep America out of dumb wars. Now he has flagrantly kept the country enmeshed in a dumb, brutal, immorally waged war even as the public wants out.In 2020, the opposition party needs a candidate who can call Trump out for a foreign policy record that aligns with Saudi values more closely than American values, American law, the will of U.S. citizens, or the promises he made to voters.
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World Edition - The Atlantic