is everything an MLM

Last week, I linked to a NYT article about the spread of CorePower Yoga: how its business model is contingent upon enrolling thousands in expensive “teacher training” courses, even though there’s already a surfeit of teachers out there. The company makes money from the teacher training, and teachers’ own labor becomes devalued, as they’re encouraged to teacher for less or teach for donations (appealing to yogic principles of service and selflessness as a means of excusing it).

I remember the first time I was told I should do teacher training, back in 2010 — I’d been going to the same hot yoga (not Bikram) studio for two years. You’re not supposed to be competitive at yoga, and I wasn’t competitive with others so much as with myself. It became natural to go every day, to pull “doubles” (when you attend two classes in a row) on weekends. There’s a cultishness to yoga — a natural outgrowth, I think, of intense physical and spiritual experiences — and it’s fair to say that I was addicted. I didn’t know my teachers in any capacity other than the 90 minutes of interaction, but I felt strongly about them, venerated them, craved their approval.

So when one of them casually said I should think about teacher training, I bashfully shook my head and averred, but I was secretly thrilled. I knew it would never happen — I was bad at handstands! I was a grad student and absolutely did not have thousands of dollars!— but I’d turn the idea over in my mind every day, when I was feeling dissatisfied or aimless or insecure in the rest of my life. I could be a yoga teacher! I could spend my life in stretchy fabrics, with great arms, eating açai bowls and friending students on Facebook!

My studio wasn’t a CorePower studio, but it was clear, even then, that the teacher trainings — along with the retreats, everywhere from the Texas Hill Country to Bali — were the real money makers for the teachers leading them. And if I hadn’t been a grad student, already scraping to pay the monthly student rate, I would’ve been so susceptible to those appeals: to my ego, to my desire to cultivate a side hustle I was “passionate about.”

I know a lot of people go to teacher training knowing full well that it’s basically Advanced Placement Yoga, not a direct conduit to actually becoming a teacher. But certainly not all — and they’re the ones still struggling to pay off the cost of the training, taking whatever classes they can at the local 24 Fitness. (Not that there’s anything wrong with 24 Fitness — it’s just not what most yoga practitioners imagine when they imagine themselves teaching).

The yoga teacher recruitment model is strikingly similar to an MLM (Multi Level Marketing scheme; think Avon and Amway, but also think LuLaRoe and Herbalife and Lipsense and DoTerra; also please listen to Jane Marie’s incredible MLM podcast). MLMs are called pyramid schemes because the person at the top — the very first recruiter — is the one who reaps the benefits of every other recruit. But I find the metaphor of the pyramid useful in terms of structure: the integrity of the whole is contingent upon the retainment of each individual part; at the same time, growth can only through continual expansion of the base.

When I tweeted out the piece, a fellow academic responded: “This sounds….familiar: ‘CorePower churns out thousands more “certified” teachers than the company offers to employ.’”

She’s referring to the overproduction of PhDs: too many people coming through grad school, and too few sustainable academic jobs. And as anyone in any field understands, when there’s way more qualified applicants than jobs, the existing jobs can demand more of applicants (more qualifications, less money) while applicants lower their own expectations (for compensation, for benefits, for job security, for course load and service, for location).

So why don’t academic departments just decrease the number of PhD students they accept? Because those students have become an integral cog in the contemporary university. A recent report by the National Research Council on"Addressing the Nation's Changing Needs for Biomedical and Behavioral Scientists" found that the number of new PhDs awarded every year “is well "is well above that needed to keep pace with growth in the U.S. economy and to replace those leaving the workforce as a result of retirement and death." The report suggests that there should be no increase in the number of PhDs, but does not call for a decrease: “to change suddenly the numbers of people could be very disruptive to the research that’s going on at the present time.”

Put differently, those PhD students are providing (cheap!) labor in labs; to decrease the flow of incoming students would necessitate a dramatic rethinking of the funding/viability of various labs. The Humanities don’t have labs, but they do have massive numbers of undergraduate courses that need teaching. In English programs, it’s some version of “comp,” or composition; in foreign language programs, it’s intro language classes; in communications, it’s public speaking. Many of these courses are mandated “core” in some capacity, ensuring an unwavering stream of students, and an unwavering demand for (again, very cheap) graduate student labor to serve them. To decrease the number of graduate students, again, would be to decrease the supply of cheap labor. To rectify the loss, you’d either have to hire adjuncts or more professors (both more expensive than graduate students) or decrease the number of admitted students (and a loss, to the university, of an income stream).

Some schools start PhD programs — even though they know that their institution is not prestigious enough to place its graduates in “good” jobs, unless they are truly stellar — as a sort of labor generator: lure students with the promise of tuition remission, and you’ve got at least four years of their labor. Some MA programs also provide tuition remission in exchange for TA’ing; others are simply “money makers,” with no opportunity to TA, just the opportunity for 10-40 students pay full tuition, even if the chances of moving on to a PhD program (or full-time employment in their field) is small.

We talk a lot about how “for-profit” colleges (Cappella, Phoenix, dozens of others) exploit students’ internalized belief that the only way to pull themselves and their families up through the capitalist system is a degree — no matter if they have to take out massive amounts of debt to do it, no matter if they’re steered towards degree programs (massage therapy) in which there’s little chance to find employment that will even cover your loan payment, let alone allow the student to pull themselves up the class ladder. (Of course, a degree can provide that route — but usually it can be obtained for much, much less at the local community college.)

For first generation college students with little or no inherited knowledge of how college or student loans work, for-profit colleges can be incredibly appealing. They target you; they tell you that you could have a different life, a secure life, a career, everything you’ve dreamed of, just by enrolling. (For the twentieth time, read Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed for an in-depth account of how for profit colleges target, recruit, and exploit these populations)

But academia — specifically, higher ed — does something different. Like my yoga teacher, they affirm what so many of us wanted to believe about ourselves: that we’re good enough, smart enough, potential-filled enough, to go to grad school. Maybe it started when you wrote a paper you were particularly proud of, and your professor told you, off-handedly, “maybe you should think about grad school.” Maybe someone else in your life — the parent of a friend, someone you nannied for, your parent — told you the same. When my undergrad professor told me as much, it was like someone had unfogged the windshield of my life: oh, yes, there’s the road in front of me!

Everyone I met in grad school had some version of this story. Once the aptitude was discerned, in our minds, into something like destiny. You ask for letters of recommendation, and your professors write them. You apply to grad schools, and some accept you. Instead of thinking about should I go to grad school, it becomes which grad school should I go to? And because you’ve already made the decision, it’s difficult to divert when the road conditions become more and more difficult.

Bad funding situation? You’ll make it work. Too many MA and PhDs means you have to “professionalize” (go to many conferences, publish many peer-reviewed papers) on your own dime? You’ll make it work. Take out loans to cover that conference travel; take out loans to live over the summer because there’s no funding available; take out loans to finish your dissertation because your school ran out of it; take out loans to travel to MLA to be one of 15 people interviewing for a job you don’t want. Again: You’ll make it work. You’re already too far down the road.

Job market’s so tight that you have to move away from your partner for a year of a post doc, then another post-doc across the country, then a job in a place far from family that pays less than a high school teacher? Again, you’ll make it work. You get to do something you love, the refrain goes. All jobs are bad, someone will tell you.

To give up is shameful, but why? Where does that shame come from? We internalize the failure as our own, instead of a failure that was set up, save for a select few, from the start. Put differently, getting spit out by the contemporary academic establishment isn’t a mark of failure; it’s a sign that the system is working as intended. Those who aren’t spit out are absorbed into the pyramid — as adjuncts, as tenure track. And no matter how much they advocate for ethical treatment, no matter how much they support graduate unions, there’s only so much you can do when your university keeps admitting graduate students.

Which isn’t to say there’s nothing. I’ve always deeply admired the Communications program at the University of Wisconsin, which only accepts as many PhD students as it honestly believes it can place in jobs. That means incredible selectivity, but it also means keeping its numbers incredibly low. (I didn’t get accepted there, which maybe should have been a sign that I should’ve have kept going!) I know a number of professors who are increasingly working with graduate students, from the beginning, on how to “professionalize” towards career paths that may or may not lead outside of academia. I know tenured professors who fund graduate student travel to conferences, and who only publish in open-source journals, and who speak frankly to their undergrad students about the realities and debt and burnout incurred through the graduate school process.

There are so many good and ethical actors within the system. But it’s not enough to counter the absorbing, flattering, hope-igniting energy of contemporary academia, which subsists on the infinite stream of students so eager for someone to tell them that the thing they love to think about it, the thing that feels nourishing and explosive and electric, they can have that thing all the time. That’s how I used to talk about my path to grad school: I wanted a way to think about the things I was thinking about for the rest of my life. All I needed was that one teacher to tell me I could. What I didn’t realize is that there were, and are, so many paths, professional and otherwise, to think about those things for the rest of my life.

To suggest as much, though, feels subversive — or at least un-American in some weird way. Of course you should pursue your dream! But what if “my dream” was actually just a fear of other options + an addiction to compliments + a few well-written undergraduate papers?

When I first suggested that yoga teacher training was an MLM, someone rightly responded: “it feels like everything today is an MLM.” That’s what happens when an industry is fully enveloped by capitalism: When a hedge fund buys a yoga company — or when universities are figured as money-making businesses, with actual consultants hired to lead them. You can blame massive constructive initiatives intended to lure students, but the real problem is the one no one wants to talk about: the massive divestment of state funds, aka tax dollars, across the board. Over the last thirty years, our elected officials have decided that higher education isn’t a societal investment. It’s a capitalist business that must sustain itself. It doesn’t matter how much the head of a graduate department wants to increase graduate pay when the budget has been squeezed so tightly and tuition has already exponentially risen to counter it. There’s no there, there.

The fault with thinking of academia as a pyramid scheme is that there’s no one at the top — just the increasingly ambivalent structure, the ever-reproducing base. You could say administration profits, or football coaches profit. But it increasingly feels like a system in which no one wins: not the students, not their parents, not the graduate students, not professors facing increased belt-tightening, axing of departments, and continual fights for whatever meager resources remain.

Most of the academics I know have weathered a heinous job market and continually heinous budget cuts. Some have found something like equilibrium. Others struggle against the omnipresent atmosphere of lack and precarity, like treading water but knowing one day the will to keep going will go away. Some — and they are almost entirely white men whose experience of the academia remains rooted in a model that hasn’t existed for 40 years — are sick of people’s bitching.

Every day, I miss teaching. I miss students. The work my former peers are doing is so important and I am in awe of their resilience and fortitude. I want it to be valued so much more, not less. And, to be clear, I’m not arguing that the graduate portion of academia is exactly an MLM. But thinking through the similarities is clarifying.

This current iteration of the academia is contingent not just on exploitation, but on erasing testimony of it. Like anyone who’s left an emotionally and financially exploitative system, I need the refrain repeated: Just because we convinced ourselves it was okay, doesn’t mean it was — or is.

Some Things I Read and Loved This Week:

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"We became the Main Street media, because our office is on Main Street"

Today I hand the newsletter over to my pal Molly Priddy, who’s writing Part Three in our series on what to wear when you don’t want people to hate you. (Lyz Lenz wrote the first; I wrote the second). Reading recs are hanging out at the end, but if you want more wry joy in your life, you should follow Molly on Twitter.

The other day on Twitter, I made a list of things I’ve worn in order to perform my journalistic duties out here in Northwest Montana, 45 minutes from Glacier National Park and 90 minutes from the Canadian border.

The list was basically made up of safety equipment I’ve had to put on so whoever I was following around felt better about me following them around: hard hats (construction sites), safety goggles (any kind of manufacturing facility), avalanche beacons (checking out an avalanche in Glacier National Park), welding helmets (watching welders throw sparks), over-ear protection (manufacturing), snow pants (covering dog sledders), nomex (wildfire coverage), nitrile gloves (watching a photographer take newborn pics), and a beekeeper suit (field of BEES).

Being a reporter in Montana means you’re going to cover something outside at some point. You’re going to have to go to the source of a story, which might be a house that exploded due to a gas leak and the guy who owned it liked to make his own ammunition so the firefighters tell you to wait behind a tree so as to not get shot by the fire.

Eventually, you figure out that you need an outfit that would work both in a governmental meeting and if you have to go outside for a tour of logging operations. Most Montana journalists have a story about how they wore the wrong shoes the day nature decided it was time to start flooding.

If you’re a small-town reporter (high five!) like I’ve been for the last decade, you’re still expected to wear through some shoe leather. It’s also a unique way to get to know a community, warts and all. When I first took this job, I presented much more femininely in my looks even though I always wore pants. I had long hair, looked young, and am white, so I could get basically anywhere without suspicion or much scrutiny.

One of my classes at the University of Montana’s School of Journalism was about how to be a reporter, and the professor suggested mimicking the clothing and general look of where you are about to report so as to make the people there more comfortable with your presence. This is a nice thought, but I’ve learned from growing up where I report that people can spot that a country mile away. The new Patagonia coat (called Patagucci up here), the creased khakis, the squeaky new hiking or cowboy boots — it all says, “Hello, I’m from a city and believe you won’t be able to tell!” when it’s trying to say, “Look at my empathy! I’m even dressing like you!”

I write for a small weekly newspaper, with a circulation of about 35,000. We’re independently owned and only about 12 years old, and I’ve watched the community be wary of us at first and then grow to accept us, years later. It was interesting, then, to watch the rise of distrust in the “mainstream media,” while those same people praised our local coverage. We became the Main Street media, because our office is on Main Street. People trusted us more because if they really get mad, they can come down and talk to us about it. And they do.

You’ve got to prove your rural chops before people really trust you, and luckily for me, I grew up in Missoula with a dad who was a) in the military, and b) took me hunting and fishing. I cannot tell you how many doors both of those subjects have opened for me just because I can speak that language, but I do know it has made interview subjects — not always men! — more comfortable with my presence. I also grew up shooting guns, and having some fluency on that subject has also helped sources trust me.

But even though I can speak to these traditionally masculine subjects, I found a new wariness in some interview subjects when I started presenting more masculinely with short hair. I always wear pants, usually have some plaid or flannel going, and if I’m not wearing leather boots, I’m wearing dark-colored sneakers. I blend into the scenery of white people wearing outdoor-activity clothing until they clock that I’m not actually a guy (I’m also pretty tall, at 5’10”).

This is when the Smile of Placation comes into play. I can speak the languages of masculinity here, but I’m not actually part of the club. I learned this a long time ago, when I took hunter’s education and was the only girl in the class. My masculinity can’t threaten theirs, or the whole interview is blown. I’ve been in many one-on-one situations with men who could easily harm me, and if it ever gets tense, I flash a big smile, tilting my head in a feminine manner.

This isn’t to say every man I’ve encountered or been alone with has threatened me. But I did find it easier to ask tougher questions when I presented more femininely, as if it balanced out in people’s minds.

But even though I present masculine of center, I’m still white. The county in which I live is more than 95 percent white, and our readership is largely white. I’m invisible in a way a reporter of color would not be, which AHP and Lyz also touched on. To understand how big of a deal this is in Montana, consider a story from February of this year in which a Border Patrol agent detained two women just because he heard them speaking Spanish.

White people around here love to tout how far back their roots go. You can go to any public meeting and feel the expectation of more gravitas if you say, “My family has been here for four generations” or “I’m a fifth generation Montanan.” So readily do they forget that English isn’t even close to the first language to be spoken in a land with seven remaining reservations for the Indigenous population. I covered a politician from the Blackfeet Reservation who chuckled about to folks crowing about five generations of history when her family here went back hundreds of generations.

Newsrooms in Montana, including mine, are still glaringly white, and so is the coverage. That has to change. There was a burst of coverage on the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women last year, from the Associated Press to my own newsroom. And while I’m proud of the work, it should have come years ago.

As I spent time thinking about how I present myself as a reporter to get the job done, the common thread I kept coming back to was sincerity. People around here, and I suspect most everywhere, can tell when you’re being disingenuous. They can tell if you’re there to use them or if you actually care about their story and perspective. You can’t fake that in local reporting for very long, no matter what accessories you’ve put on.

What I Read and Loved This Week:

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this land is your land

Earlier this week, I traveled to Oklahoma to give a talk at the University of Tulsa, where friends from grad school have ended up teaching in a vibrant media studies program far larger than one might expect for a school of 3300 undergrads. When I go to give a talk, I still have to do my normal job, so I spend a lot of time in faculty offices with the occasional break for a class visit, which are always the highlight of the trip. (I don’t miss grading, but I do miss teaching very much).

Other than hanging out with other people doing media studies on a daily basis, the other highlight is what I love about reporting: getting to know a new city. It’s how I met Providence (RI) and Starkville (MI) and Greenville (IN) and Northampton (MA). love a college town (my favorite will always be my own, in Walla Walla, WA) but I’m most fascinated by a mid-size city like Tulsa, which has gradually then seemingly all at once become “cool.”

“Cool,” which is to say, a certain type of bourgeois, with a certain aesthetic that unites it with larger cities while still maintaining a feeling of quaintness. In Tulsa, for example, there’s a gorgeous new book store, an ever-expanding number of breweries, co-working spaces in rehabbed brick buildings, coffee shops in rehabbed brick buildings, airy restaurants with farm-to-table menus in rehabbed brick buildings. There’s a walkable downtown, a First Friday art walk to get people there, a cultural tourist site (the Woody Guthrie Museum) and public (in this case, actually private) outdoor space (The Gathering Place).

Tulsa’s “coolification” has been facilitated by the fortunes of George Kaiser, who, in addition to underwriting dozens of projects (including The Gathering Place) around town, sponsors a program awarding $10,000 to anyone who moves to Tulsa to work for a year. But similar transformations are happening in mid-size cities across the country. “Mid-size” is an elastic term here: it applies to places like Missoula, where I live (population ~120k), but also to Boise, Idaho (~225k), Waco, Texas (~140k), Des Moines, IA (~220k), Salt Lake City (~200k), Albuquerque, NM (~560k), Chattanooga, TN (~180k)and Savannah, GA (~145k).

Some of these cities, like Savannah, have lived in the population imagination with some vestige of worthwhile-ness, but others, like Boise or Des Moines, are not the sort of place anyone out of state would think of moving, save for a spectacular job opportunity. It’s not that these cities were unwelcoming or “bad” so much as unexceptional — at least, again, in the national imagination. (The regional imagination is another thing altogether — a lot of these places have long been “the big city,” with all the connotations that accompany that label, especially if you’re from a rural area).

But something’s happened over the last ten years. New jobs for creatives and the highly educated continued to cluster in urban areas (Seattle, the Bay Area, New York), where cost of living has continued to skyrocket. Slightly smaller cities that used to provide a haven for creatives without corporate paychecks (Austin, Portland, Asheville, Nashville, Los Angeles) rose as well. Even if millennials could make ends meet in one of these places, it was incredibly difficult to buy a house — at least not in the urban core that drew you to the city in the first place. Affordable real estate was in the suburbs, a monster commute away, in traffic or broken subway systems that only continued to get worse. At the same time, many of the jobs that drew people to the city were becoming, or had the potential to become, “remote” — do-able from pretty much anywhere with a solid internet connection.

Cue: the mid-size city migration. Our parents’ generation went to the suburbs. But many of us have internalized the notion that the suburbs aren’t cool — and lack the walkable culture we’ve become accustomed to in the big city. So we move to a “cool” affordable city and contribute to the cool-ification — and, in the process, make it less affordable for those who’ve lived there before.

At least that’s what I did — and what many people I’ve met cities like Des Moines and Boise and Spokane and Waco did. It’s not just millennial creatives making this migration: in Boise, I met dozens of retirees from California and Seattle who’d cashed out on their homes and downsized to condos in Boise, often trailing one of their millennial kids so as to be closer to grandkids. In Des Moines, you can start the bespoke leather shop you’d have to keep on Etsy somewhere else. You can move your food truck to a brick and mortar. You can buy a car to get you out of town, and afford a plane ticket to get you to whatever large city you need to get to. You can take entrepreneurial risks and save for a down payment on a home. You can model your newly expansive lifestyle on Instagram to compel your still-urban friends to move. And you can frequent the cool restaurants and cool events in town, keeping the newly cool-ified business economy alive and thriving.

There’s 10,000 more words to write about what this sort of migration does to a city. When you look at a political map, it helps explain the ever-expanding blue dots in “red states” like Utah and Tennessee. It contributes to the spread of “air space” — the feeling, documented extensively by Kyle Chayka, that every coffee shop in America looks and feels the same. Some people integrate fully into the local economy, but others who work remotely maintain their urban salaries and help drive up home prices — a disaster in places that have failed to think meaningfully about how to maintain affordable housing. This migration is largely (but certainly not exclusively) white, and while many of the mid-size cities listed above are also very white, others have been home to communities of color (an odd phrase, I realize) for generations, or provided affordable housing to recent refugees and immigrants.

Thrillist recently released a list of the Best American Cities for Creatives (That You Can Actually Afford to Live In). The list is pretty deeply flawed — in part because many of the cities it lists (hello, Nashville!) ceased to be affordable in the last ten years because of creatives moving there. When I posted it to FB, someone noted that a truly comprehensive list would include stats on what creative migration might do to a city: a gentrification-potential quotient. That might not keep people from moving, but it might keep people who do move to think about how to live once they’ve arrived.

I’m part of the Missoula problem. But that doesn’t mean I can’t try and mitigate it — through voting, of course, but also by not buying a home to Airbnb (and thus diminish the already tight rental market), by donating to the local food bank, by buying books at the cool and slightly less cool local bookstores, by supporting local news. None of this wholly negates my contribution to the larger problem. But it’s something.

There’s so many ways you can be part of a community without displacing or demolishing what made you want to move to it in the first place. But it’s such a fine line. A vibrant downtown, every store front filled, new and excited energy — few people would say they don’t want that for their town. But there’s a way to do it that doesn’t simply map (white, bourgeois, urban) understandings of cool onto a place that, whether you knew it or not, has always had its own version of a cool — even if it’s been dormant for decades.

What I Read and Loved This Week:

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switching between inboxes until i pass out

I was in New York this week, spending some time in the office for the first time in nearly a year. Like most people who’ve left New York, I have such ambivalent feelings about it: each trip is a mix of a rush of adrenaline (The city! I’m so cosmopolitan! I walk fast on crowded streets! I love the subway! CENTRAL PARK! There are such good snacks in the office!) mixed with profound reminders of what pushed me to leave in the first place: the $14 beer, the crush of people, the busy-ness of it all. Get home at 10, fall into bed, wake up and repeat.

Of course, part of the busy-ness of this particular trip was a factor of absence: I had to pack as many meetings and drink and lunches into one week, plus try to do my job. I was coming off five exhausting days of reporting down in Waco, and all of my carefully maintained anti-burnout habits went to shit. I’d re-installed Twitter on my phone for reasons that seemed justified at the time but I can’t even remember. I didn’t have room to bring a book, which I’d been reading instead of aimlessly scrolling, but that was bullshit, too: I could’ve made room. At work, I spent hours doing what tech writer Casey Newton describes below:

Some of it was aimless, but some of it was actually responding to emails, setting up appointments, making sure things were order so that the rest of the week wouldn’t collapse on top of me. But that didn’t mean it was efficient, or calming, or a great use of my time. The problem with thinking as much as I do about burnout is I know exactly what I should be doing to alleviate the symptoms — yet the pressures of the things causing those symptoms are so great that I can only gaze, pitifully, at the solutions from afar. By Thursday, I felt like I’d been hit by a garbage truck. My brain stunk. Friday, I flew home, refused to get internet on the plane, and spent six hours writing and staring blankly ahead as seemingly everyone else on the plane finished the last third of A Star is Born. It was glorious.

Describing this reminds me of the rhetoric around healthy weight loss: it’s not about a diet. It’s about lifestyle change. Taking Twitter off my phone helps me feel like less of an robot on the to-do treadmill but it doesn’t take entirely off that treadmill. I have to willfully hop off myself — which requires a reorientation not just towards my mobile device, but “work” and its overarching place in my life.

A few months ago I met someone here in Montana who’d moved from a high powered job in a coastal city. He still did that job, with the same office, still got paid about the same — but he worked significantly fewer hours, in part because he was completing the same tasks, only on his own timeline, without the compulsion to “perform” work by being in the office for long hours. But he’d also reoriented his life away from his job. “No one moves to Missoula to work,” he said.

But I had. Theoretically, I moved to be away from the city — from that feeling that’d returned to me this past week, a squeezing of the heart, a heaviness of the chest, the fear that your ability to keep your chin just above water will one day fail. But moving to Montana allowed me to work more — I wasn’t commuting, which meant more time to work. Moving away from a city won’t change your relationship to work. Neither will meditating, or facials, or any of the other solutions to burnout that are actually about focusing you just enough to make you a better worker, instead of admitting that trying to work more — and focusing all of your self-bettering energy on that goal — is the problem itself.

On Thursday, I walked a mile through the spitting rain to a recording studio to go on Seattle public radio with a rabbi and a pastor to talk about burnout. I’ve been thinking a lot about religion’s place and potential within the burnout schema — in part because some of the writers I respect most on the topic have been working through these ideas. It’s not that faith, or God, will take away your burnout; rather, community, and reorienting oneself away from the American god of capitalism, might.

We spent time talking about the gift of the Sabbath, and the actual aim of Lent — which isn’t to give up something you love, but give up something that you grasp in times of turmoil or indecision or boring, as a coping mechanism, instead of confronting what’s actually going on. You don’t give up chocolate cake because God doesn’t want you have things that you love. You give up chocolate cake if it’s what you turn towards instead of God.

Even outside of Christianity, it’s a valuable framework — and reminds me of what Kevin Roose described in his piece about ditching his phone and “unbreaking his brain.” He enrolled in a program that “focuses on addressing the root causes of phone addiction, including the emotional triggers that cause you to reach for your phone in the first place. The point isn’t to get you off the internet, or even off social media — you’re still allowed to use Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms on a desktop or laptop, and there’s no hard-and-fast time limit. It’s simply about unhooking your brain from the harmful routines it has adopted around this particular device, and hooking it to better things.”

It’s all about what you do when your mind wanders and grasps. Do you give it the quick and easiest fix? Do you sit with the discomfort and name it for what it is? Do you push yourself towards another, more nourishing activity? Do you double down on more work because it’s the thing you know you’re good at, and will restore your sense of value? It’s going to take me a very long time to unlearn the idea that I’m only as valuable as my ability to work more than everyone around me. But I’m trying.

In interviews, people keep asking me if I’ve cured my burnout. Of course fucking not. These past two weeks made that very clear to me. It took years for me to internalize the idea that “everything bad is good, everything good is bad”; it’ll take years to unlearn it. Which sucks! I would very much like to unbreak my brain right now. But listen: it sucks so much less than slowly and ambivalently drowning in my to-do list, passing out as a I click from inbox to inbox.

This Week’s Things I Read and Loved:

If you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. You can subscribe here. Please forgive any typos or weird sentences; the lack of attention to small detail is what gives me the mental space to write this thing. If you have ideas for “just trust me” articles or any other feedback, just respond to this email.

Part 2: What to Wear When You Don't Want People to Hate You

This is the second part in a series on what women wear to report. The first part was written by Lyz Lynz; this part is written by me; the third part will be written by Molly Priddy. You can find the first part, and a longer explanation of what we’re doing here, in last week’s newsletter.

If you’ve been reading the newsletter for any amount of time, you’ll know that I appreciate anything that demystifies the reporting process, but I actually think that “demystifying” is a highfalutin word here — it suggests that there exists some complicated journalism alchemy, the sort of thing that gets taught in journalism classes. But the stuff that Lyz talked about, and that I’m going to talk about and Molly’s going to talk about, are not mystical. They’re just intentionally invisible.

These are the ways we learn how not to get the shit kicked out of you, how not to get thrown out of an establishment, how not to have some guy follow you to your car and ask if you want to follow him back to your place. They’re safety advisements, but because we’re professionals, they’re also tips on how we do our jobs. How we get people to talk to us about their lives and things that are going on in them, and the cities that buttress them, instead of fearing us or stigmatizing us or calling us fake news for all to hear.

The first time I wrote a reported story about the West, I still had my Idaho driver’s license. I’d moved to New York, but had been a grad student and/or transient academic for years before, and I never wanted to give it up. So when I went to very rural Idaho to report on a school that was arming teachers in the classroom, I used that license like a passport. It was one thing to tell people I was from Idaho. It was another to get ID’d at the bar and pull out the one issued to me the last time I was passing through my hometown in the Northern Panhandle.

The school district hadn’t wanted me to come. They’d told me they wouldn’t talk to me if I did. I showed up anyway, and they decided they had to. I met with the superintendent, some teachers, the guy who spearheaded the initiative on the school board that put it through. Everyone was very cordial. The thing that made me stick out was my knee-length puffy-jacket, a staple of East Coast climates that just isn’t done in the frozen portions of the West, no matter that the temperatures are just as/even colder.

There was microbrew on tap at the bar in town, but no one ordered it. Regulars just went back to the fridge, grabbed a Coors or a Bud Light, popped the top, and signaled to the bartender. I’d buy a bottle for $1.50 and tip at least $5. Two bottles, tip $10. The bartenders were eager to talk, introduce me to others. If someone talked to me for awhile, I’d buy him the next Coors. I wasn’t recording. I was just getting the lay of the land. If they wanted to talk the next day, we’d meet in a place that wasn’t filled with Coors and other people’s observing eyes.

I have a lot of stories like that at small bars. If it’s not in Idaho, telling them that’s where you’re from still serves as a recommendation. Same for currently living in Montana. For the time when I lived in New York, I was always careful to talk shit: “I live in New York now, can you believe it.” Most people from the West don’t just dislike New York but actively have no interest in going there. The hassle! They’re not wrong. It’s easy to prove your bonafides by describing, for just one minute, the experience of entering the Brooklyn Trader Joe’s.

I’m making this sound simple but it isn’t. I spent so much time thinking about what to wear to gathering of women who’d fled from a polygamist sect, and what to wear during the subsequent week when I was just in town, absorbing life, trying not to be a conspicuous outsider. What do you wear in the summer when you go up to a conservative county to talk to people about the rise of the far right? Cut offs and a tank top isn’t professional, but my twee Anthropologie dresses will just me look like a fool. What do you wear when you’re hundreds of miles into the Navajo reservation, away from the tourist sites, the only white face for miles? How do you draw less attention to yourself than you already are? How do you make yourself as small as possible?

When Molly and I first started tweeting about this, a male journalist responded that the only uniform he’d ever worn was a different sort of reporting lanyard. Can you even imagine.

At Trump rallies, I usually wear overalls and a flannel, not because overalls signify anything (they don’t, anymore) but because they have many pockets for stuffing things. I’ve attended Bundy/anti-government rallies. I wear something similar. I never wear anything with a Patagonia label, even if that’s the garment needed. Someone at a Bundy event outside Modesto once told me that he could always tell the reporters in the crowd because they were the only ones whose boots weren’t shined. I laughed and didn’t shine my boots, but still wore them. There’s a way to dress where you’re not trying to be someone you’re not but you’re also not trying to be something flagrantly in opposition to who they are. That’s what I go for.

That applies to church, too. Like Lyz, I’ve gone to a whole lot of reporting church. To be honest, it makes church much more interesting (in my case!) if you’re approaching it from that anthropological perspective — which isn’t to say Christians are foreign, or exotic, to me. They’re not. Which is part of why it’s so easy for me to attend these (almost always very white) services. I know the Lord’s Prayer. I know the doxology. I know how to pass the peace, and how not to be awkward in the opening greeting when you’re supposed to shake hands with attendees. I know how to roll with the punches when a church decides to go crazy and dip the host in the juice, instead of serving separately. I can sight read a hymn. I figure out appropriate dress, which is usually nice jeans and sweater, but can sometimes (and especially on Easter) require modest dress with slight heels and/or sandals.

Lyz quoted a passage from Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah profile of Dylann Roof, in which she made the act of reporting the story part of the story itself: This black body of mine cannot be furtive, she writes. It prevents me from blending in. I cannot observe without being observed.

In many situations, my white body it permits me that furtiveness: that ability to observe, untroubled. To do my job. We privilege that sort of untroubled observation, consider it pure, somehow. But that’s a fantasy, and one that favors the bodies that can achieve it. Because no observation is neutral; neutral observation itself is not always “best” or most true. Sometimes you need a style like Eli Saslow’s, who ability to efface himself from his reporting has yielded some of the most compelling portraits of life in America in today. But not always.

In his writing on cinema verité — a style of documentary filmmaking intended to offer the unbiased, “fly on the wall” perspective — filmmaker Werner Herzog declared that it “plows only stones.” Yields nothing but hard rock. That’s a very Werner Herzog thing to say, but I think about it constantly. In reporting on Roof, Ghansah could not become furtive. But that reporting also won a Pulitzer Prize. People oriented themselves to her differently. Her presence made them uncomfortable, made them feel observed, or accountable, or any number of other things that made them speak to her the way they did. That discomfort was the route to a much larger truth. Herzog would call it “ecstatic truth” but I’ll just call it sufficient to render the essay canonical.

Writing this makes me think of how much time I’ve spent in my life trying to fit in: not to become invisible so much as not become a problem. Sometimes I wonder how much better my reporting could be if I had the gumption to be a problem — to ask people harder questions, the type that would piss them off, infuriate them, tell me truer things. Why don’t I do it? Because I’m not brave enough? Good enough? Trained enough? That’s the heart of all this, isn’t it? How do we balance the primary impulses of the job with the fundamental impulse towards self-preservation? I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know that it’s only getter harder.

This week’s things I read and loved:

As always, if you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. You can subscribe here. And please forgive any typos or weird sentences — the slight imperfectionism is what allows me to make the mental space to get this done every week.

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