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Dear Care and Feeding: My Best Friend Has Turned Into a Mommy Influencer, and It’s Getting Ugly

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My close friend Nancy has two children: a 6-year-old and an 8-year-old. Both kids are funny, bright, creative, kind people, and pre-pandemic I loved spending time with them and being a part of their lives. Since we all began social-distancing, Nancy seems to have fallen down a sort of rabbit hole of “parent influencers” on social media, and it’s … kind of weird.

Before, Nancy’s social media was pretty standard for a parent: a few photos, text updates, and occasional videos. Now her feeds are saturated with filtered photoshoots of the kids posing next to toys and activities and trying on various outfits. From what Nancy has told me, the kids lose interest in creating this content pretty quickly, and aren’t interested in spending the afternoon putting together a photoshoot. Nancy herself seems frustrated and annoyed whenever she talks about it, too, making me think that she doesn’t really enjoy it, either. I know that she has made a small amount of income from sponsored posts, but she’s not in need of money (her husband works long hours and makes a great income) and seems to spend what she gets on materials to create more content.

I’m not a parent myself, and I know better than to tell someone else how to raise their children. But this is kind of weird, right? I don’t see it as abusive, but I also can’t imagine that the kids enjoy having a camera in their faces constantly. And Nancy’s frequent use of filters and image-editing software makes me worry that they could become insecure about their looks or appearance when they’re older. I’ve tried innocently asking Nancy if the kids are doing any non-content-related activities (“Does Sally like that paint set I sent over? Is little David still obsessed with the sandbox?”), but she’ll direct the conversation back to her social media presence. Is there anything I can do here? Or is this just part and parcel of becoming a parent these days, and I’m out of the loop?

— Uncertain

Dear Uncertain,

Yeah, I find this pretty weird. We all take pictures of our kids and some do choose to share these pictures on social media, but staging daily photoshoots and manufactured moments—when you could just be photographing your kids learning and being themselves and living their one-and-only childhoods—is definitely not a universal parenting rite of passage. My best guess, since you say she doesn’t need the money, is that Nancy is bored? Which is not to say that she doesn’t have anything to do; obviously, caring for and raising kids takes a ton of work and energy. But perhaps that alone hasn’t been enough for her in this isolating, socially distanced time. Maybe she just started sharing more on social media to feel connected to someone, anyone, and then got carried away. I’m not trying to excuse her behavior, just understand it—and it’s possible that if you, her friend, ask her why she’s really doing this (and perhaps subtly probe whether she’s thought about ways to get whatever that is—attention, online connections, a hobby, a little extra cash—by some other means?), it could prompt a little necessary reflection on her part.

It’s hard, because saying anything too critical could put your friendship at risk—even among very close friends, it’s tough to explicitly challenge or question someone else’s parenting choices. In addition to asking Nancy what she’s getting out of this, you could try pointing out that it seems like a lot of work for both her and her children. You could ask whether the kids have expressed anything besides annoyance—do they try to find a way out of the staged photo shoots? Have they said how all this makes them feel? If Nancy vents to you after a hard day on set, you could question whether she’s ever thought about slowing down or stopping altogether. I tend to be blunt, so at some point I’d probably ask if she has any concerns about the potential risks or downsides of her children’s images being widely and publicly shared. But in the end, unfortunately, I think there isn’t a whole lot you can do if she’s determined to continue.

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From this week’s letter, I Hate How Mom Culture Is Changing My Personality: “I just don’t think I like other parents or what being a mom has made me socially.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

I need help mediating a conflict between my two adult children. The oldest, “Wendy,” is in her late 20s and works for a nonprofit. The younger one, “Kay,” works in the corporate sector. Both are happy with their jobs. Wendy, however, is constantly riding Kay for working for a Fortune 500 for-profit company. This has caused a lot of tension between them over the years. I’ve been pretty up-front with Wendy that she needs to back off (she ratcheted up the comments in the summer of 2020, with racial tensions high), and since then she’s calmed down a little.

Kay just applied, and got accepted into, a mentoring program that pairs adult women with tween and teen girls in need of support. Kay’s mentee is Black and we are white. Kay was excited to share the news, but Wendy immediately jumped on her for being a “white savior” and implicitly communicating that the mentee needed a white woman because she couldn’t get appropriate mentorship from others in the Black community.

I’ll be the first to say that both my children are way more informed about social justice, activism, race, etc. than I am, mainly because they are both plugged into social media. I know Wendy has a lot of strongly held opinions because of her work at the nonprofit. But isn’t it good that Kay is volunteering with a reputable organization? Why would Wendy be upset about this? What is my role here, as the parent of two adult children—especially when they bring their conflict to our biweekly family dinners?

— Stuck in the Middle in Santa Monica

Dear Stuck,

Without knowing anything much about Kay or the group in question, I can’t definitively answer your first question, but if it’s a good organization and she can really be of help to a mentee through this volunteer gig, it seems like a fine thing to do. Wendy likely isn’t upset about the mentorship itself; she’s looking for reasons to pick apart Kay’s choices because she thinks her sister is a sellout. It sounds like the two of them have real points of disagreement on various issues, and Wendy believes Kay is in the wrong.

I know you want your kids to accept one another and get along. You’re within your rights to let them know how their fighting makes you feel, and ask them not to spend the whole family dinner arguing. But this is probably not a conflict you can resolve for them. You already feel stuck in the middle, and that’s just going to get worse if you try to mediate or force an understanding that does not currently exist. They are adults; they need to figure out their relationship themselves, if they can, and it could be that the distance between them when it comes to values, priorities, personalities, etc. is too wide right now. It could also be that they’ll talk and work things out—but I think the only genuine and lasting resolution between them will be one they work out on their own, not one that is overly influenced by or imposed by you.

· If you missed Tuesday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

· Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My fiancé and I recently tried to talk to his anti-vax parents about COVID and our wedding. It did not go well. They refused to consider vaccinations, which we expected, but were also offended at the idea of wearing masks. Since then, we’ve changed to asking for a negative test the week of the wedding, which we’re waiting to see if they’ll agree to do.

The bigger problem is that my future in-laws and my fiancé got mad at each other during that conversation. I’m upset, too, but my feelings feel secondary in all this. This has dug up a lot of old wounds for my fiancé, some of which he’s only just telling me about. Growing up, and even in early adulthood, his parents belittled him, got physical with him, invaded boundaries, and didn’t take his mental health or autism diagnoses seriously. All the COVID stuff is the last straw for him. He’s trying to see a counselor, but in our area, there are not enough openings for him to get in quickly. I won’t say he’s handled everything perfectly, but I also see his family not taking his pain seriously. I’ve tried to challenge him when I see him overreacting, but mostly I’ve been supporting him, telling him that his emotions are valid and he is loved.

I just don’t know where we go from here. His brothers are siding with his family, and I feel like I’m the only one who sees how much pain he’s in. I also greatly feel like this is my fault. I’ve made comments to him over the course of our relationship that I didn’t love how his parents were treating him, and it was my idea to have a conversation with them about COVID in the first place. The wedding is less than two months away, and I feel like I’ve just turned this into Romeo and Juliet. How do I avoid the tragic ending, and really, what’s my role in this anyway?

— Coronavirus Crisis

Dear Coronavirus Crisis,

First, this is not your fault at all. You were absolutely right to want to talk to your families about vaccination—you have an obligation to all your guests to ensure that your wedding doesn’t become a super-spreader event. If it helps to know you aren’t alone, I know several people in the same situation, trying to convince parents or other relatives to get vaccinated so they can attend their child’s/family member’s wedding. I don’t think you’re headed for a Shakespearean ending, but I can see why you’re upset! And the truth is, there is not much you can do about this, other than listen to and support your fiancé (which it sounds like you’re already doing). Your feelings and opinions about your in-laws are important, too, but ultimately, it’s his decision as far as what he wants his relationship with them to look like. If they’ve been dismissive of his situation and mentally and physically abusive for years, there may not be much of a relationship to salvage or a reconciliation in sight. That would be hard for all of you, especially with your wedding so soon, but it would not be your fault, either.

From what you’ve shared, it sounds like your fiancé has reached his breaking point with his parents, and they may be unable or unwilling to change or do whatever else needs to be done to remain in your lives beyond this wedding. It seems likely that you haven’t so much come between them as you have shown your fiancé another version of what family can be, and what real love and acceptance looks like. Before, perhaps he wouldn’t have felt he had anyone if his parents and/or siblings stopped speaking to him, but now he has you. The adjustment may be hard, but in the end it may well be a good thing if he decides he can no longer endure poor treatment from his family. Sometimes you can’t just keep papering over all those old and new hurts, or pretend that everything is okay when it’s not.

In addition to being there for each other, I hope you both get the support you need from others who love you, and from good therapists if you can find them. I’d urge you not to let yourself think of any outcome here as a “tragedy”—you’re not trying to force a separation between him and his parents; it sounds as though their behavior has done that. They can make different choices if they want to be at your wedding, or have a relationship with their son. Continue to listen to your fiancé and validate his feelings, and try to take comfort in the fact that while you cannot solve this problem for him, you’re being as supportive as you can.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a 30-year-old wife and mother to an 18-month-old. I’ve lived in the same area my entire life. I’ve wanted to move for years now—partly to experience something new, partly because I currently live in a super conservative, very hot state. Both my husband and I are progressive and love nature, and our current location is sorely lacking in both respects. Adding in the pandemic and having a young child, I frankly don’t feel safe in a culture dominated by people who deny COVID is an issue and refuse to enforce mask mandates or require vaccines. I’ve also been through quite a few traumatic events in my current area, and I feel constantly reminded of these events as I’m going about my daily life.

The problem is that my husband is extremely attached to his immediate family. They live about four hours from us and we see them regularly. I love my in-laws; they are great people, and I want them to be part of our lives. However, the thought of moving further away from them is very distressing to my husband. To him, family is everything, and he feels like if we move away we will never see them. Now with a grandchild in the mix (my son is their first grandchild), it makes it that much more emotional for him. My family is also within a couple hours’ drive, but there is not the same pressure to stay within a certain distance of them—if I announced I was moving tomorrow, they would cheer me on and begin planning their first visit.

I’ve really tried to be sensitive to my husband’s desire for familial closeness over the years. But sometimes I feel like my need to relocate is secondary to his need for regular family contact. A big dream for my life is indefinitely on hold because of this. I love my husband and his family, but I feel very stuck right now in this dynamic. Am I selfish for wanting to move? I want my son to know my husband’s family, but I really hate my current environment. I still think about moving constantly, and my desire to move doesn’t seem to be going away despite my best efforts to talk myself out of it.

— Stuck in Texas

Dear Stuck,

It’s not selfish to want to move, and you have real and valid reasons for wanting to change your current situation. Your husband should be able to at least have the conversation with you. You might discuss it and stay where you are, but you haven’t even really gotten to that point, because it sounds like he’s not willing to entertain the possibility.

I can tell that you understand and care about what he wants (and perhaps he also cares about what you want), but the fact remains that your respective wishes are opposed and ultimately based on completely different concerns. As you aren’t going to be able to single-handedly change any of the problems you’re experiencing where you are, your concerns can only be assuaged by moving to a new environment. Your husband’s concerns can actually be addressed while living elsewhere—if the two of you are truly committed to addressing them. I think you do need to hear and make space for his feelings about moving farther away from his family, because he obviously needs to express those feelings—and it sounds like you have listened. But he needs to understand that the conversation cannot always end or get shut down by those emotions: While emotions are valid, they won’t lead you to a resolution in this case.

If I were you, I’d want him to try to explain why he believes he’d never see his family again. I suspect he won’t be able to, actually, because it doesn’t seem like a factual or rational statement. (Also, four hours away is not all that close! Do you really see them all the time now, or more like three to four times a year? If the latter, that could be close to doable even if you do move farther away.) If he can get to the point where he admits there are plenty of ways you could choose to remain closely connected to them, even if you do wind up moving, then I’d encourage you to talk in more concrete, specific ways about how the two of you would prioritize that: Do you commit to a certain holiday or school vacation in Texas every year? Do you make sure you get a place big enough to host his family? Do you start a “family visit” fund so that you always have enough money set aside for trips to Texas? etc. Your shared wishes for your child have to be a big part of this conversation, too. Your spouse wants your kid to grow up knowing his family—again, that’s a fine and valid wish, but what does he want for your child besides that? There are real reasons you believe you all might be better off elsewhere, other things you could prioritize, things your kid could benefit from, and ideally the two of you should be able to acknowledge and discuss all those points as well.

A tougher question, one I pose not to push or pressure you in any way, but because I think you might eventually find yourself asking it anyway, is: Should your husband remain resolutely opposed to a move for any reason, is that a deal-breaker for you? It might be, and it might not; you’re the only one who can answer that. If you are ever sure, one way or the other, that could also be something you try to communicate to him—not an ultimatum so much as a statement of fact: You’re just not sure that you can be content or happy raising your family where you are.

If you keep trying to talk about all of this with him and he remains unable to move beyond an emotional reaction to have a real conversation, I’d consider going to see a therapist together—even just a few sessions could really help you get out of a communication pattern that (thus far) hasn’t been productive.

— Nicole

More Advice From Slate

A few years ago, my brother Sterling married his boyfriend, Cooper. Cooper is a great guy and we love him. He’s also a moderately famous athlete. Cooper isn’t out to the public. I understand and respect this decision: His field can be homophobic and he’s already sick of being seen as the token representative for his race. By request, I don’t talk about my relationship with Cooper with anyone other than my closest friends, and I don’t share pictures of him on social media. I have twins who are young preschoolers. They adore their uncles. They are, in the way of preschoolers, very chatty. I’m worried my kids are going to out Cooper in a way that causes heartache. Do you have any advice?

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It’s Been 5 Years Since Russian Cash Was Allegedly Funneled Into The Trump Campaign. Why Wasn’t It Charged Until Now?

Imagine for a moment if it had come out during the 2016 campaign or in the first year of the Trump presidency that GOP political operatives were accused of illegally funneling Russian money into the Trump campaign.

Now, some five years later, that’s precisely the accusation federal prosecutors are making in a new case in DC.

What took so long?

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Is This the Definitive History of Black Cinema?

Birthed from a Twitter thread, which was itself birthed from the much-ness of being Black during a pandemic and another round of Black Rights protests, writer Maya Cade’s Black Film Archive is now live.

Specifically tailored for the cinematically curious in the digital era, the archive catalogues Black films from 1915 to 1979 that are currently available on streaming services and online platforms. The films are categorized by decade, with easily accessible links to where they are streaming. Cade, who is an audience development strategist at the Criterion Collection, meticulously scours through streaming services on a regular basis, updating the archive weekly.

However, what’s so revolutionary about the project isn’t its collection, or even the daunting job of scouring through myriad streaming platforms, watching all of these films, and curating them in one place on a regular basis. The thing that truly sets her effort apart from other “best of” and “deep cuts” lists you’ve previously encountered is Cade’s goal to provide context to a history of Black cinema that is often forgotten. Knowing this, Cade has personally watched every film that she’s included on the site.

Slate caught up with Maya Cade to ask her about the process of creating the Black Film Archive, brutality in Black cinema, and the meaning of accessibility.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Nadira Goffe: What inspired you to create the Black Film Archive?

Maya Cade: Honestly, during the pandemic, I kind of just asked myself a question I’m sure many of us were asking ourselves: What sustains me? If I’m sitting home alone in my own thoughts, what do I have? And so I started a really long time ago watching a film a day, mostly new films to me.

I started the Twitter thread of just listing the films. And then, midway through the thread, I’m like, this is bigger than just a listing … an issue a lot of people have with films of the past is, “Okay, cute. This one’s available. But, what does that mean for me?”

What’s so cool about this project is that it emphasizes Black film history, providing context to Black films that’s largely unknown or forgotten. What made you want to make Black film history accessible in this way—and what does accessibility mean to you?

I think making Black film history accessible is an act of transforming collective memory, because like you said, a lot of what is considered Black film’s past [are from] the ’80s and ’90s, and we are somewhat more familiar with those films—mostly the ones that played on BET, that are kind of just around. So for me, I think to intentionally preserve, intentionally collect, it means to remember—and to remember is to reimagine what Black cinema in America can hold.

Is that collective memory why you decided to only include films from before 1979?

After the commercial failure of The Wiz, major Hollywood studios used it as a reason to not invest in Black cinema anymore. I’m pretty sure it was the most expensive film up to that date. And so for it to fail … you have Motown who is investing in this, they get their top players to be a part of this film. You’ve got the who’s who of Black Hollywood at the time coming together.

So major studios are saying, you know, we did everything we could—we also got a major Hollywood studio director to direct this film, so they’re thinking from every avenue. We got Lena Horne, we got Diana Ross, we got Michael Jackson in this film—we have all of these people coming together and at this time they’re not seeing it, why should we invest in Black cinema? So the ’80s ushers in a very independent Black film that almost feels like a separate kind of moment than the rest.

How did you define a Black film for the purposes of this project? 

I think that the films here are in conversation with each other, but not every director has the intention to speak to a Black audience. What does that mean next to films that are abundantly clear that this was made for Black people, whether or not we agree with the message of the film? I think the context of today evolves of course, but there’s something to be said about films that do speak to Black people.

In this first iteration, it was really important for me to say: This is available. I want to give you the context that you need to decide to watch this film, and you can make the choice if you want to. … I am not the person who is dictating what a Black film is. I’m giving you the tools for you to decide if this is something you want to engage with.

I just thought that the service would be better suited to put the decision in the hands of people and not me at this moment. I think part of the reason why it’s an evolving archive is because Black film is expansive and the conversations that we have to have about Black cinema are also expansive.

[Read more: The 50 Greatest Films by Black Directors

When creating archives, there’s always the question of: How much of this can I make that celebrates the multiplicity of Blackness but is removed from the white gaze? I love centering Black ownership of creative projects, but I hesitate to eliminate that white gaze, because doing that can negate an entire history of exclusion and oppression, both generally and in the film industry specifically. Acknowledging that history, to me, makes the efforts of Black filmmakers more triumphant. It enhances the revolutionary act of making a film as a Black person.

Exactly. I hope people see this as, “let me comb through my Auntie’s DVD cabinet and find something to discover.” I hope [at] the bare minimum that’s what this is, because I think there’s a lot to be said about how film is segmented. It’s something I think about all the time. If you think of how Black cinema exists online, it’s as a pie. As more [streaming services] come up, the pie keeps getting cut in smaller and smaller pieces. And so it’s harder and harder to know where to find things. Which is exciting—it’s a task I brought on myself, which I’m elated to do, because I think acts of service for your community are essential.

In a moment like now where you have films like Candyman, Get Out, Antebellum, and Sorry to Bother You—which include brutality and trauma against Black bodies as a core part of the film—what do you think the archive offers for people to counter that notion that Black films are generally based in brutality and trauma?

I think the first thing that the archive negates is that all Black films are traumatic. … Just a quick scroll through and that is removed. The second thing it negates is the fact that we’re seeing Black film as a binary in general. It’s not either “this” or “that.” There are multiple “and”s—I think the archive offers those “and”s. A part of this conversation that’s missing is that a lot of the Black film trauma conversations are based on the idea that conflict has not happened in other films.

There’s a complexity here, because horror has been a canon that Black auteurs have used to work through the traumas of the Black experience. And yes, that is what we’re seeing now. But there were also comedies that came out last year, romantic dramas that came out last year— there was just so much. What is written about: I think that is the criticism.

And what’s recognized and nominated for awards …

Black people, I think we should do our own digging. How we want to be represented in a film doesn’t begin and end at a news article. There’s a lot of complexity about what white decision-makers in cinema want the representative of the race on screen to be. But … there’s so much more than that in our conversations about Black representation. There’s just so much more than what has been written about. And I challenge us all to kind of discover those gems.

What did building this archive make clear to you about the way Black films interact with each other?

I think it made clear to me that only certain Black films are even in the space of interacting with each other. When people program for certain streamers, they’re only thinking of certain films. … But then there’s a wealth of film that we haven’t even begun to touch, to think about, to consider. So, for me, how these films are in conversation with each other … it’s with the known things to some people and the unknown—how what we know about some films that maybe you’ve seen once or twice can be paired with films we’ve never seen or we’ve heard of, but never had the opportunity to see. So that conversation I think is important.

What I’m hoping is coming up is making that conversation clear, having pages that really do double features and talk through what that means. Perhaps to have a film like Shaft with a Blaxploitation by a white director, what are the differences there? What are some similarities?

[To have people question,] “These are available. I know these now, what am I going to do with that knowledge?” I think for white people that are visiting the site, who are in a position to champion films, “how in my capacity am I going to champion films to be preserved, celebrated and seen?”

I also have a new favorite film from looking at this. So that’s exciting.

What’s your new favorite film?

It’s a new favorite, not the favorite. Killing Time.

It’s a short. It’s a dark comedy. Essentially, this woman is trying to decide what to wear as she prepares to kill herself. And she goes through a lot of “what does it mean to be a person and ponder life?” [It’s] incredible. It rarely plays, but it happens to be streaming right now. I would not have known about this film if it wasn’t for this project.

What do you see as the future of the film archive?

So, I think the future of the site is that it is a place where people can come to evolve their Black film knowledge and really feel like they belong, whether that’s in the films themselves or in the platform itself, it doesn’t matter to me. For people to have a relationship with cinema, it’s really important. Especially as we’re having these conversations about trauma and, “there’s only this in Black cinema; there’s only that in Black cinema.” To know that there is so much, and [for the archive] to be a place that answers: What is Black cinema history?

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I Think My Husband Is Trying to Destroy My Credit Before We Divorce

Pay Dirt is Slate’s money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Athena and Elizabeth here. (It’s anonymous!)

Dear Pay Dirt,

I have a dilemma regarding my husband and my credit score. At the holidays, I took out a department store card. I never received the card, nor did I receive any billing statements. I wrote to the store through its website in December and January and never received a response. My credit score was 750 at that time. I found out that it has dropped over 100 points. I found a bill from the store dated in June just this week when I was looking for mortgage information. The bill had dropped behind my husband’s desk and was under the baseboard heater. My husband is asking to separate, but I think he is deliberately trying to ruin my credit in advance of doing so. How do I proceed now? Do I just pay the bill? Do I try to speak to someone? Do I go to a credit bureau to fix things? My husband denies everything, but I do not believe him.

—Hung Out to Dry

Dear Hung Out to Dry,

The first thing you need to do is call the company, explain what happened, and close the card. If you signed up in-store with an initial purchase, you knew you had a balance on this account, and I’d recommend trying to negotiate this amount down as best you can. It is frustrating that no one replied to your online inquires, but you should have called the customer service hotline after you did not receive a response. If you didn’t charge anything when you opened it, report the fraudulent purchase when you call the company. The company has so many days to reverse the charge. If that doesn’t work, write to the credit bureaus. You will need proof of your communication with the company and all the steps you’ve tried to take to fix it. You’ll want to keep all records throughout this process, as well as figure out a better system for monitoring your bills going forward.

Then you’ll want to obtain your free annual credit reports from the three bureaus and go over them with a fine-tooth comb. A 100-point drop in your credit score is pretty significant, and you need to be fully aware if there’s anything else that has contributed to this. If any debt has been taken out in your name by your husband, it’s better to know now than before divorce proceedings happen. Different states have different laws on how debt is handled during a divorce, so you’ll want to ask your attorney about this. You may also want to temporarily freeze your credit and change your passwords on any accounts that aren’t shared. Good luck.

Dear Pay Dirt,

I’m the writer who reached outabout the prenup. I really appreciated your response! I’m going to use my company’s EAP to discuss with a lawyer, and my fiancé and I have had a robust conversation about discussing the intricacies of our financials with family members.

All of which is to say, now he has a question on the specter of student loans. I have none, and he has $35,000. He is under no illusions thatJoe Biden will pay off his loans, nor does he expect me to contribute (and would be mortified if I tried). But he has not been paying his student loans during the COVID moratorium and is in no rush to exceed the average amount he pays monthly (over $300, including interest) once that resumes—even though he has $15,000-plus in savings.

I get it, savings are hard-earned. But the fact of the matter is the minuscule amount of interest he earns by keeping that money sitting in the bank is being outflanked by the interest accumulating on top of his student loans. Wouldn’t it be better to take a good chunk of that savings to pay off the debt? I’m not suggesting he sign over the contents of his account, but surely it’d pay to get more of that debt off his plate? His other finances are in order. Or should he just increase his monthly payment?

—My Fiancé Is Rolling His Eyes as I Write This

Dear Rolling His Eyes,

Aaaah! I’m so excited to be hearing from you again, and I’m happy that the response was received well. It sounds like it opened dialogue for a positive financial conversation, which is just what that situation needed!

Now, let’s get to the student loans Biden won’t pay. Your fiancé is correct in refusing to liquidate his savings account to pay his student loans. You are absolutely right in saying a few thousand dollars will affect how much he pays over the lifetime of his loan. But right now, I wouldn’t recommend it. If the past year and a half has taught us anything, it’s that our economy can be flipped at a moment’s notice. It’s now more important than ever to ensure you have an emergency fund that can cover three to six months of expenses. It’s fantastic that he has $15,000-plus, but I wouldn’t touch it.

There are still a few ways he can lessen the amount he’ll pay over time. You already mentioned one thing: increase his monthly payments. He can start with the debt snowball method, and once he sees how quickly the extra payments add up, he’ll be tempted to increase his payment amounts even more. (This is an especially good strategy if he’s already hit that six-month mark for emergency savings.) He can also look into refinancing his student loans, possibly lowering the interest rate. And finally, he should make sure his savings are parked in a high-yield account. Let me know how it works out!

Dear Pay Dirt,

My dad died when I was in elementary school. I received a modest amount of life insurance money, which my mom put into an investment account. She would withdraw money from this account to pay for things on my behalf—like clothes or the private school she insisted on sending me to. She chose not to work, and her new husband was often unemployed or underemployed. We basically all lived off my Social Security survivor’s benefits. She cut me off financially as soon as I graduated high school and the benefits stopped (so maybe I cut her off financially?).

Although I lived very frugally, by the time I finished college, the account had dwindled to almost half of what I had originally received, but I haven’t touched it since. Now the balance is almost back to the original amount I received from my dad.

I am not very financially literate, but my husband is. He has invested wisely in the stock market, so much so that he could retire now if he wanted to (he’s in his early 40s). I honestly feel like he could invest my money as wisely, if not better than the mutual fund, but I have an emotional attachment to this money, because it’s basically all I have left from dad. Also, due to COVID, I haven’t been working to be able to watch our children. I like having my own nest egg, especially since I know all too well that something could happen to my husband at any time. In case things go south for whatever reason, I would at least have enough to get by for a year or two.

I think part of the reason for my hesitancy to let my husband invest my money is because of the financial abuse from my mom, and I also would be devastated if something happened to it because it came from my dad. I fully trust my husband, but I just keep hitting a wall when trying to decide what to do with this money. Should I leave it in the same account, let my husband handle it, or do something else entirely?

—Blood Money

Dear Blood Money,

I’m sorry your father died when you were so young. My mother passed away my freshman year of high school, and I had family who used me for my Social Security checks. It sucks. But please know that your mom financially cut you off, and not the other way around.

Because of the history of financial abuse you’ve endured in your past, wanting to keep your nest egg away from your husband is completely justified and understandable. All women should have their own money set aside, whether they are happily married, eyeing the exits, or a cat lady of one. Marriage does not equal financial security, especially for a woman. Anything can happen, and you want to have your own money that is easily accessible.

I think you should hire a certified financial planner to help you go over your inheritance and develop an investing strategy that you feel comfortable with. CFPs can be either fee-based, where you’re charged a flat fee for using their services, or they can earn commission off of financial products they sell or manage for you. I would start with a CFP who will regularly manage your portfolio and work with you to develop a financial strategy that you feel comfortable with. (You can ask friends or search local social media forums for recommendations for trustworthy CFPs, too.) I’m excited for you and your new investing journey!

Dear Pay Dirt,

Since graduating from grad school in 2011, I’ve been working full time for the same nonprofit and steadily paying my federal student loan bills (until the COVID reprieve that started last year). I’ve been paying the minimum each month, which barely scratches the interest. I am hoping my loans will be forgiven under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program within the next year.

My loans are $92,000—almost $20,000 higher than they were when I graduated. And I just found out my loans are about to be transferred to a new loan holder. The last time that happened, I “lost” a year or so of qualifying payments, setting me back another year and causing me great anxiety. I don’t want this to happen again; frankly, I don’t want to pay any more than I already have! It has been a huge weight around my neck, directly preventing me from saving money, owning property, starting a family, or moving out of the nonprofit sector for fear of losing loan forgiveness. (Yes, I regret believing that I needed this degree—big time.) If loan forgiveness fails me, I see no way out of this hole. I would love to find a trustworthy student loan counseling service to help me navigate this, and I see businesses offering help but am not sure which ones to trust. I’ll soak up any advice you have for me.

—Trapped in a Bottomless Pit

Dear Trapped,

The issue with the PSLF program is that one day it may no longer exist. There are millions of others who are hoping that the program will still be around when their loans are up for forgiveness, so you’re not alone in your fear of being stuck here forever with this debt.

When your loans were transferred to a new servicer, this should have been accurately documented in the National Student Loan Data System. The information is usually available within two weeks of the loan transfer, so by the time you were notified, your payments should have been correctly documented for the PSLF program. Was there a gap in the paperwork sent to the Department of Education? I bring this up because if it was a fault on the servicer’s end and not yours, you could potentially get those payments credited toward the amount you need for the forgiveness. It’s worth your time to pick up the phone and try to get some answers.

If that doesn’t help, I recommend making an appointment with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. It is the largest nonprofit credit counseling center in the United States and helps those with credit issues as well as student loans. I would ask for guidance on the PSLF program, the missing payments, and how to approach the student loan debt before trying to refinance with a private lender or any other options that might pop up on your targeted Google results. NFCC also may be able to point to other programs or resources that can help. And remember: You’re not alone.

—Athena

Introducing the How to Do It Podcast

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Policy vs Positioning Has Dems in a Stalemate

On Capitol Hill – among the Democrats alone since the Republicans have absented themselves from the process – we’re seeing one of those legislative stand-offs that seem insoluble and which, for the Democrats, raises the real risk of disaster. These crises tend to resolve themselves, eventually. Because both sides eventually see that they’re courting disaster and draw back from the brink.

But there’s something a bit different this time. And it’s worth teasing out what that is.

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What Does Global Health Justice Look Like With a Seven-Figure Drug?

Over the past decade, our ability to alter the human genome has rapidly improved, largely due to advancements in genome editing technologies like CRISPR. Scientists are vigorously pursuing the ultimate goal of making any change to any DNA sequence in any cell of the body. The versatility of these tools has opened the door to treating a range of debilitating diseases, from prevalent neurological conditions to rare forms of cancer. Yet, alongside promising therapeutic applications, we should be worried about the potential unethical and inequitable uses of these technologies.

Universal concern over the potential use and misuse of genome editing reached a peak in 2018 following the surprise announcement of the first edited babies. He Jiankui, a professor overseeing a university lab in China, publicly disclosed his efforts to engineer HIV immunity into human embryos. The international scientific community decried He’s experiment, and the Chinese government eventually filed criminal charges against this rising young scientist. He Jiankui is currently serving a three-year prison term after a Chinese court found him guilty of “illegal medical practice”.

Criticized as unsafe and unnecessary, altering human embryos for reproductive purposes arguably crossed a line and added urgency to the question: How should human genome editing be regulated? A national approach is clearly flawed. A menagerie of different country-level regulations would likely lead to medical tourism—traveling outside of one’s home country for access to a restricted medical procedure. But what would governance on a global scale look like?

In 2020, the United States’ National Academies and United Kingdom’s Royal Society released a report describing what boxes should be checked before attempting to initiate a pregnancy with an edited human embryo. For instance, doctors should sequence the embryo’s DNA to look for any unintended changes.

Despite providing a list of experimental do’s and don’ts, this report did not settle how to—and who should—oversee the ethical use of this technology on a global level. To answer this question, an advisory committee to the World Health Organization began a two-year inquiry looking specifically at this issue.

In July, the committee, composed of leading scientific experts from around the world, released two reports: a framework for governance and recommendations on human genome editing. These documents provided several case studies, covering the many different ways genome editing can be used to alter human cells, ranging from curing diseases through to enhancing physical ability.

The report addressed the clear harms of altering embryos and suggested ways to monitor unethical research on a global scale. For instance, the committee recommended creating a whistleblowing mechanism for scientists to report illegal activity.

The committee also confronted an equally, if not more, concerning consequence of human genome editing that has received much less attention than embryo editing: Following in the footsteps of other therapeutics such as cancer drugs and vaccines, genome editing therapies appear to be on course to further amplify existing global health inequities.

The committee stressed a need for global health justice, recognizing that as genome editing technology progresses, many countries are poised to be left behind. If not addressed, patients with rare genetic diseases may be left finding their cures siloed in high-income countries where hospitals have the sophisticated equipment, trained staff, and payment structures necessary to offer these therapies.

To date, gene therapies for diseases like Leber congenital amaurosis (a hereditary eye disease) and spinal muscular atrophy (a degenerative nerve disease) are approved in several countries. Gene therapies, which randomly insert a healthy version of DNA into the genome, work differently than genome editing, which makes precise genetic alterations. Approved gene therapies currently on the market are priced anywhere from $300,000 to $2.1 million, staggering numbers for individuals even in high-income countries. Pharmaceutical company Bluebird Bio recently pulled its gene therapy for beta-thalassaemia, a rare blood disease, from European countries over disagreements about price setting, signaling the difficulty of bringing these expensive, lifesaving therapies to patients.

So, what does global health justice look like for a seven-figure drug? More importantly, who’s role is it to ensure that patients around the world benefit from future genome editing therapies? To begin answering these questions, we must start with understanding where the technology is now, where it’s headed, and who will most benefit.

In the U.S. alone, billions of dollars are going toward developing genome editing technology to treat a long list of debilitating diseases. This approach is called “somatic cell editing,” a less controversial counterpart to “germ cell editing,” which involves altering egg, sperm, and embryos. Changes to somatic cells will not be passed down to future generations but can still be used to cure a disease for the lifetime of a patient.

The landscape of diseases that could potentially be cured using genome editing is vast. Scientists are developing new ways to target cells throughout the body, from neurons in the brain to retinal cells in the eye. Early research and clinical testing, conducted in China, the U.S., and elsewhere, have shown the potential of this technology for correcting muscular dystrophy, Huntington’s disease, and even certain forms of blindness. Despite promising early results, genome editing therapies are still in clinical trials and no treatments are approved by regulators to enter any country’s health care markets. While still hypothetical, these clinical efforts are clear indications of what the future therapeutic landscape may look like.

Experts point to efforts to cure sickle cell disease as foreshadowing how genome editing will affect patients and health care systems. Sickle cell disease is a genetic condition that results in distorted red blood cells, resulting in a reduced life expectancy of 42–47 years in the U.S. Multiple clinical trials to cure sickle cell using genome editing, led by industry and academic groups, are underway, but the final cost of any approved treatments will inevitably be enormous. These procedures involve removing the cells from the bone marrow of a patient, altering the DNA within those cells, and reinserting the edited cells back into the body. This process requires sophisticated equipment, highly trained personnel, and long stays in a hospital. Projections estimate that this therapy will be priced well over $1 million per patient, in line with the most expensive approved gene therapies, but this time for a much larger patient population—approximately 100,000 people in the U.S. live with sickle cell disease.

Large insurance companies and state Medicaid programs are scrambling to find ways to cover a future influx of genome editing treatments, challenging traditional ways of paying for drugs. In the U.S., individuals who are on small-employer insurance plans or don’t have insurance will find accessing these procedures extremely difficult, if not impossible. What, then, for people in low-income countries who could benefit from such treatments?

Assuming that a cure for sickle cell disease may be one of the first approved genome editing therapies, with the potential to benefit millions of people globally, how will a multimillion-dollar treatment help shift the needle toward global health equity?

The short answer is that it won’t. Indeed, if left to the market, global health inequities are likely to only be exacerbated. A different approach must be embraced to create effective treatments that are not only safe, but broadly accessible and also affordable. This was the mindset behind a collaboration between the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, pharmaceutical company Novartis, and the U.S.’s National Institutes of Health.

This collective effort aims to create a genome editing cure for sickle cell disease and HIV that will work for patients in low-resource settings like Africa or rural America. In short, they want to introduce genome editing molecules directly into the body without removing any cells, cutting down on cost and time. Technologically, this is a herculean goal. But if successful, it would offer an accessible cure for the 12–15 million people in Africa living with sickle cell disease, 90 percent of whom will not reach 18 years of age without interventions.

If the Gates project succeeds, will it be a one-off experiment or a model for future therapies? Translating this cross-sector collaboration into a standard approach for developing accessible cures would benefit from international oversight, a role that some say the WHO could fill—but many also wonder if it is up to the challenge.

The world is currently experiencing a disastrous example of global health injustice. While only 1 percent of people in low-income countries are vaccinated against COVID-19, U.S. citizens will likely begin lining up to receive booster shots in the coming months. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the WHO has worked to promote equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines through initiatives like COVAX, aiming to deliver doses for at least 20 percent of countries’ populations.

Yet their effort has been met with little success. Vaccine hoarding by high-income countries has presented itself as a significant obstacle to COVAX. Global vaccines access has also been stalled by an unwillingness of countries to agree to a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights associated with COVID-19 vaccines and related technologies.  

The global pandemic has clearly illustrated a need for an organization that can show moral leadership, safeguarding the health and well-being of all citizens. The WHO has sought to do this over the past 18 months. Now the WHO’s advisory committee is calling on the organization to play a similar “moral” leadership role for genome editing, but vaccines, which have been around for more than a century, are a stark difference from genome editing, a technology with numerous unknowns.

Oversight of emerging technologies is outside of WHO’s original mission, but that function is beginning to change. WHO is currently assisting countries with evaluating how emerging technologies will affect the well-being of their citizens, and gene editing technologies are, arguably, one of the most significant new technologies for addressing health-related challenges. Even though WHO is still securing its footing on the rocky terrain of emerging technologies, it may be the best organization to help society direct its moral compass toward global health equity.

Part of this process will involve convening governments and policymakers, anticipating and articulating potential consequences of genome editing on health equity, and fostering innovative collaborations to ensure that genome editing therapies benefit all. Low-resourced countries were left on the periphery during the COVID-19 pandemic. Let’s make sure that geography doesn’t impede access to the benefits of future genome editing therapies.

Future Tense
is a partnership of
Slate,
New America, and
Arizona State University
that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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Sometimes You Can Judge a Book by Its Cover

On this week’s episode of Working, Rumaan Alam spoke with graphic designer and creative director Rodrigo Corral. They discussed his work designing book-cover art, where he looks for inspiration for designs, and how he corresponds with authors when creating a cover for their work. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rumaan Alam: I’ve wanted for a long time to talk to someone for this show who designs book jackets. Just to establish for our listeners some of your work, because I think that a lot of people are going to know your work, I’m going to mention the cover of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, which shows a hand covered in sprinkles against a pale blue backdrop; or I’ll mention John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, which has a black cloud sitting on top of a white cloud with this lettering that looks like chalk on a blackboard; or I’ll mention Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which has a spray-painted silhouette that looks like graffiti, but it also looks like a Rorschach test.

If you go to the bookstore right now in this country, you’re going to see paperback editions of Rachel Cusk’s Outline, Transit, and Kudos which each have these arresting photographs on the cover: a seashell perched in the sand, a praying mantis trapped in a plastic cup, a view from an airplane window.

I’m only mentioning a few of your designs, but I think this gives a sense of what it is that you’ve done that really caught my attention, which is book design. What does the brief look like when you’re designing a book jacket, and how is that different than when the task is to design a hotel logo or an illustration for a magazine article?

Rodrigo Corral: There are some overlapping qualities between a logo and a book jacket. There is a creative brief in publishing. We refer to it as either a tip sheet or a cover memo. It has the key elements. You have a title, author, is it a hard cover, a paperback, comparison titles—”comp titles” as they call them—and a brief description of the book, because that should give you a baseline to know what you can do.

What we try to do is really dive into the text, almost naively reading a manuscript thinking, Well, why did the author pick this? It’s almost like a series of whys upon whys upon whys. All the covers you mentioned, as you’re listing them, I’m thinking you could line up 10 people in a room and show them those covers, and for most of them, they might not even register any of the elements. They may not even see the silhouette on The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, or they might not make heads or tails of what the bubbles on the clouds on The Fault in Our Stars mean.

But personally, those ideas come from the content—responding to the content of the book, and it staying with me and feeling like it has power. It has lasting value. Readers want to go on a journey. They want to feel like in some ways they’re discovering something, they’re learning something, they’re gaining something. I think a jacket just gets to add to that story.

The jacket also has to do this other thing, which is to persuade the reader to take the journey in the first place. Because the jacket is sitting on a table at a local bookstore, or it’s sitting on the shelves at the library, and it has to communicate something.

Presumably, the brief that you’re getting from the publisher—because every publisher wants their books to sell a million copies—is: “Give us the most arresting possible thing, really capture the reader’s attention.” Is that always the foremost in your mind, standing out on a crowded table? Or is that something that you leave that to the marketing people to worry about that?

I think about it as far as this: Understanding that our lives are so much around a laptop, a cell phone, and today, more than ever, we’re seeing things for the most part digitally first. I try to take that into account.

Beyond that, I’m really trying to get to the most effective and impactful solution that is true to the content of the book. That can sound pretty naive, or earnest, but it’s really what I try to stay focused on. I’m aware of what’s out in the marketplace, but I’m not trying to get too wrapped up in that.

What’s so interesting to me about this is that you are an artist, you’re thinking visually, but you’re negotiating when you’re designing a book with a sensibility that doesn’t necessarily think that way. You’re dealing with an artist who works in words and not in images. You’re almost translating something, right?

Do you have to like the book that you’re designing the jacket for? You said you need an emotional connection to the material. You designed the jacket for Crossroads, by Jonathan Franzen, which is coming out this fall. What if you had hated that book? What if you had thought, I don’t get it. I don’t understand what this novel is attempting to do. I don’t know how to create a face for it. Has that ever come up in your work?

I’m sure it has. I can’t believe after the many years I’ve been working that I still think back to the days of school, but I still have the voice of my professors saying like, “You have to keep yourself open and as curious as possible if you want to have a career as a conceptual graphic designer—as a graphic designer, period. If you want longevity, you have to stay as open as you possibly can.”

To listen to the full interview with Rodrigo Corral, subscribe to Working on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or listen below.