To see the light

Men, radiance, love

I’m happy to say that last week’s newsletter—in which I asked where men’s voices are in the conversation about women hitting the wall—got a very strong response from readers, including a few men! Smart ones, who wrote to me about how they see these dynamics in their own lives and aren’t always sure how to help. (Women wrote me too, the kinds of breathless replies we send each other when one of us really nails the description of a particular detail of our oppression; these are my reason for living.) These exchanges with men buoyed me and reminded me that plenty are willing to talk about these things in private, if not “on main.” It’s hard to imagine what could change that.

Last week I wrote that men don’t even care enough “to do the performative-but-compulsory momentary work of re-posting and hashtagging their support, the way white people do with racial equity content.” This week I thought more about why that is, and have to admit that it’s tricky. Any man who dared to post his support of women during this time would be flagged as a try-hard, a fraud, a dirtbag, an opportunist, or a liar. Not branded necessarily, but definitely flagged.

And that’s not exactly women’s fault. Some men have been masquerading as feminists (or woke, or emo, or other words for sensitive) for decades in order to get laid or get away with shitty behavior. There is good reason why demonstrative allyship is greeted with skepticism.

But I get why men wouldn’t want to take this risk. Sadly, social media has had such a flattening effect on so much of our communication. For all its ceaseless noise, it’s also silencing. I imagine a man tweeting about women’s lost employment, the way a white person might about racial injustice, something like, “It’s 2021, people. Women deserve better. I’m saddened and horrified by these numbers. I vow to do what I can to educate myself and be a good husband and father.” I can then imagine the swift, merciless replies: “LOL.” “Wife guy.” “Wow get this man a medal.” “Ten bucks says this guy is a murderer.”

I guess puncturing the bizarre public silence (stalemate?) on “women’s issues” (that are actually everyone’s issues, duh) would require that men do it anyway. Like, why not? Go ahead—risk looking like an over-earnest wife guy, or a cynical skirt-chaser. Risk being accused of turning flesh-and-blood struggles into memes. You might get some cruel replies, but that’s okay. At least they’re not death threats. Buck up and take it like a woman.

I’m neither entirely serious nor particularly hopeful this will happen. But this week I am grateful for all the aging punks in my life who do care about justice and all the ways this world fucks different people over, and grateful for all of those willing to have difficult, messy conversations with friends and partners. That is a big part of how we move things forward, even glacially.

I found myself looking at forty-dollar tinctures a lot this week, tiny bottles of herbs and “superfoods” to which are ascribed on beauty and wellness sites a truly magical array of powers. I explored many different concoctions, but kept coming back to this one, called The Light Ray, a collaboration between Wooden Spoon Herbs and CAP Beauty, a “jammy tincture designed to reveal radiance and luminosity from the inside out.” It’s actually forty-two dollars. The word “jammy” is both tantalizing and disgusting—it evokes the “jammy eggs” self-satisfied home cooks (like me) position atop their noodle soups and grain bowls, as well as the regrettably named British cookie the “jammie dodger,” those shortbread sandwiches with jam in the middle, which judges on the Great British Baking Show refer to constantly.

In any case, “jammy” makes me think of something a little bit thick, saturated with color, densely shining with nutrients and sweetness. I’m honestly amazed at how much work that one little word is doing in that product description. That’s good copy writing for you. Speaking of, “C the light” is the tagline. I wanna C the light! I thought when I read it.

But do these things do anything, or does it just feel good to stand in the kitchen and squeeze a dropperful of “Emotional Ally” down my throat? (And isn’t that enough?)

This morning I talked to one of my sisters on the phone and described the anxiety I felt this week. I think it must be astrological, I heard myself say, because everyone I know is feeling some version of this. My sister, walking a dog in a New York City snowstorm, said That’s very Californian. I think it’s the pandemic. And I had to laugh at myself.

Anyway, we’re all fucking tired. We want radiance, boosted, optimized moods, deep, nightmare-less sleep. We want to think we’re in a dance with the moon when we’re really just precariously employed and trapped in our houses. I think often lately about the extent to which I participate—want to participate, should participate, am being hoodwinked into participating—in the wellness-industrial complex. Increasingly, its promises are over the top and its copy is not always jammy—more often, the bottom feeders of the self-care internet use language that is incoherent, sometimes downright meaningless. The astrology internet might be the worst offender. It made a lot of sense when I found out that the content on the astrology app Co-Star is generated by artificial intelligence. But others are written by humans, and yet are similarly filled with linguistic slippages, glitches, and errors. I sometimes have to read my horoscope out loud just to make sure I’m not losing my mind.

This is for a longer essay but I’m deeply interested in the natural food movement of the last century, the back-to-the-landers with their heavy whole wheat bread and lentils, cloth diapers and long braids. It’s a lineage I feel very close to (to which I owe my commitment to wholesome eating, birthing like an animal, and a generalized humanistic concept of freedom) and am also very alienated by, especially now that it’s been warped by capitalism into just another sphere of privilege. That 1960s and 70s rebellion against the convenience-obsessed powdered and packaged 1950s was radical, and fascinating. And it was also appropriative and weird and spinning its own fantasies—of purity, virtue, renunciation. And it was so white. Hippie Food by Jonathan Kauffman is a good book on this, but I’m taking suggestions for others.

Has anyone really smart skewered “wellness” at book length yet?

This week my literary diet was entirely made up of women losing themselves to obsessive love. (My jam, to continue the theme.) I finished Megan Nolan’s debut novel Acts of Desperation, which comes out in a few weeks, and finished writing a review of it, which I’ll post when it’s up. It seemed like it was going to be formulaic, but it ended up being very smart and very dark.

I also started reading Tabitha Lasley’s Sea State, which was published in the UK last week. Lasley is a journalist who set out to write a book about oil riggers in the North Sea and then started sleeping with one of the rig workers. A married one. Not a big talker. I absolutely love a book that thinks it’s going to be one thing and then must give way to what it actually is. And I’m glad Lasley’s ended up the way it did, as a meditation on brute masculinity, forgotten towns, risk and danger in love and work, passion, and, of course, journalistic ethics. Her writing is superb. As soon as I hit send on this I’m making a cup of tea and diving back in to find out whether Caden (eye roll) gets caught by his wife.

One funny thing that comes up as I read these books is that the men are so underwhelming. These smart women throw themselves headlong into these insane relationships and the whole time I’m like…this guy? That’s funny because I lived one of those stories and wrote one of those books. I have ever more empathy for the bystanders in my life.

A few good things I read this week:

  • This essay by food writer Kim Foster about a year of sobriety after many years of drinking

  • Hilton Als on Tove Ditlevsen

  • This Romper piece by Lynn Steger Strong about Britney Spears as a vulnerable new mom