Believer Recommends VIII - Believer Magazine
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Believer Recommends VIII

by The Editors
May 1st, 2020

Podcast

“Man Against Horse,” Radiolab

Matt Kielty, Rachael Cusick, and Simon Adler

The town of Prescott, Arizona, is a strange place. Conservative in more than one sense of the word (the last census clocked it at 92.93% white) it’s a good city for anyone who wants to live in a stately Victorian home, and wear ornamental spurs and wide-awake hats. The past is still present in Prescott, a variety of pasts, in fact, one of which is preserved in the back room of the Smoki Museum—where pictures and placards tell the story of white men who appropriated and performed Hopi rituals at a time when the Hopi themselves weren’t allowed to practice them. Prescott is a town that lives for cowboys, and so it makes perfect sense that Prescott is a place where men and women go every year to try and outrun horses.

Heather Radke and Matt Kielty reported on 2019’s Man Against Horse Race and their story on it for Radiolab is a delight. In prime Prescott fashion, the origin of the race goes: a city councilman, owner of a shop on Whiskey Row, bet a police officer that a man could outrun a horse in a fifty-mile race. They did this, and now there’s now an annual race, held every October.

The origin story of the race either appropriates from the Welsh, or by coincidence recycles the story of two men who met at the Neuadd Arms in Llanwtyrd Wells, in 1980, over pints of Felinfoel stout (I’m guessing), who bet on the merits of man’s ability, over the course of fifty miles, to outrun a horse.

The details don’t matter so much as why it is that men gather in drinking establishments all across the world to argue over the proposition that, on the surface, makes no genetic sense. There is the revenue, of course: money from those who now stay at the Neuadd Arms every year, or what money Man Against Horse coordinator Ron donates to Prescott food banks. But the story of the bet—is it only another recapitulation of a phallic fight waged between two men in the name of proving his superiority over an unwitting and graceful animal? Heather Radke, author of the forthcoming book Butts (Avid Reader Press, 2021), considers the converse.

“The butt maybe made us human,” she says, at the start of the Radiolab piece, and calls up evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman. “Preeminent butt muscle scientist,” Lieberman, around 1992, put mini pigs on treadmills with a mirror in front of them. While the small pigs ran toward their reflection, Lieberman made the first in a series of discoveries that helped him understand how humans evolved to be runners: nuchal ligament to keep the head in place, short toes, arched feet, an elongated achilles tendon, twisted hips, and butts. Butts, he says, stabilize us, and the muscles fire only when running. His theory is that one of the reasons homo-erectus developed bigger butt muscles was to help them run for long distances to chase down mammals faster than they were—animals that couldn’t sweat, and would, over long distances, collapse from exhaustion.

The latter half of Radke and Kealty’s piece is reporting from the field: they rent a car from Phoenix, drive to Prescott, and talk to the men and women there to race horses. A competitive horse rider named Troy says he would beat a twelve-year-old in basketball, if he could. When Kealty walks up to the parked Subarus and asks the ultrarunners why they’re here, most respond with conflict-averse statements about friendship and the pleasure of running the course. No one’s out to beat the horses, they think, until a real contender shows up. His name is Nick. He’s capable. Radke drives the winding path up Mingus Mountain to find a view. Kealty runs with his microphone to get a quote. A horse trips and falls. Men and women in elastane jog at a steady pace. In the end, “Man Against Horse” isn’t the story of what two men in a bar can do with their phallic bravura, but just the opposite: it’s a story of what comes in the wake of a cocksure bet, the lasting story, the one of our butts. 

Hayden Bennett, Deputy Editor

Podcast

Season 2 of The Dream

Jane Marie and Dan Gallucci

My recent Instagram ads have included: wellness tracking urinalysis strips, a daily probiotic supplement that comes in a green apothecary jar, and a can of CBD-infused sparkling water. The wellness-industrial complex is an endless source of fascination (and fear) for me, so when I saw that Season 2 of The Dream was about Big Wellness, I started listening right away. 

Each episode focuses on a different facet of the contemporary wellness world: vitamins and supplements, placebo effect, and healing quantum vibrations, among many others. The host, Jane Marie, narrates with a tone that ranges from resigned skepticism to disgusted incredulity, while still maintaining a brassy empathy for those who have been duped and damaged by their forays into wellness. Though The Dream is clear about its view of the corporate wellness industry, it doesn’t malign those who seek out alternative health. 

Instead, The Dream asks who is selling what to whom, and through what means and machinations, contextualizing snake-oil salesmanship within the capitalist project of the five-trillion-dollar industry, which is invested in keeping consumers worried about toxins, sickness, and, as Goop puts it, “failure to thrive.” The show consults experts like Catherine Price, author of Vitamania, to talk about the Wild Unregulated West of the American supplement industry (did you know that Salt Lake City is known as the Silicon Valley of Dietary Supplements?) and Anna Merlan, author of Republic of Lies, to discuss the overlap between medical conspiracies and alternative health treatments.

In Episode 7, “Green Eggs and Scams,” The Dream confronts the most famous face of wellness: Gwenyth Paltrow and her wellness empire Goop. Jane talks to Bonnie Patten, the Executive Director of Truth in Advertising, about how the consumer watchdog group successfully sued Goop over false claims that a $66 jade egg would do everything from balancing hormones to preventing uterine prolapse. Later in the episode, Patten notes that “Infowars and Goop and Moon Juice are all selling the same product. It’s just to different audiences.” When Jane Marie asks Patten what sort of person wants to start a vitamin empire founded on dubious claims of efficacy, Patten answers, “Someone who wants to make a lot of money… Wellness sells. For better or worse. It’s cheap to make as a general matter, and consumers are willing to spend.” 

As Jane Marie says in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, “All of this is about control and managing anxiety—the whole wellness industry… It’s about existential dread, a hundred percent.” From fear of death to fear of aging to fear of gaining weight, wellness has successfully transformed an ever-shimmering spectrum of anxieties about our bodies and ourselves into a lucrative business model. Faced with uncertain futures and dwindling faith, people are turning inward, adopting new rules of living that provide them with black and white certainty: If you are doing this you are good, clean, and healthy; if you are doing that you are bad, dirty, and sick. The Dream pulls back the curtain on Big Wellness, and after a few episodes on the vitamin and supplement industry, which is protected by a powerful lobby and legal loopholes (see: The Proxmire Amendment), it starts to look a lot more like Big Pharma.

There’s a clip of Gwenyth Paltrow promoting her Goop Skincare line on The Tonight Show that I think about a lot. To prove the purity of her skincare formulas, she and Jimmy Fallon dip McDonald’s fries into a small white pot of Goop face cream. To me, this image is a distillation of the contemporary wellness industry—an unholy marriage between celebrity, aspiration, fear, and the limp, oily, ubiquitous fry of capitalism. 

I have tried ill-advised juice cleanses, dabbled in fad diets, and still swear by the power of endorphins. I like to think that I look at wellness with a critical distance, like when I would pass the Health-Goth juice bar that opened up near my old apartment in Logan Square, and look at the rows of black glass bottles and the aloof employees in stylish black aprons. But I’m not immune to the promises of the wellness industry. I too want to believe that the gummy vitamins I see on Instagram will detoxify my body, reduce my stress, and make me into some better version of myself. I fear my “failure to thrive” just like anyone else. I googled the juice bar recently. It closed three years ago, but if it were still open, I suspect I would now buy the $12 bottle of cleansing juice, feeling more virtuous with every sip.

—Karen Gu, Editorial Assistant

Memoir

Heaven

Emerson Whitney

In college, one of my friends used to ask people what the central enigma of their life was. What was the one aspect of their experience they always found themselves grappling with, the thing that always resurfaced, even after they felt they’d resolved it? She was always asking good questions like this. She said her’s was deciding whether she wanted to be with people or be alone. She thought she might be a hermit but she wasn’t sure. I had never thought of my life in those terms, as orbiting around some core inquiry. I felt afraid to answer. It’s not easy to answer a question like that. 

In Heaven, Emerson Whitney bravely explores their life’s central enigma through theory and narrative. Whitney’s childhood was itinerant and marked by their mother’s alcoholism and abuse. What relationship, they ask, does this early trauma have to their adult identity? “I’ve always been afraid that people… look at me,” they write, “and then look at my mom, look at any of these circumstances and think, oh, of course.” As the book develops, Whitney widens the aperture of this interpretation, and models what it looks like to move beyond the question of causality. Through childhood remembrances and choice cuts of theory, they produce an account of themselves: a body of information about what they know to be true and how they know it.   

One of Heaven’s greatest pleasures is its sentence-level precision. Whitney writes with a crisp, distilled lyricism. Milky memories appear, disorienting at first, and then intensely vivid. Each detail feels as though it has been selected with care, and in general, this is the experience one has as they make their way through the book: that they are in the hands of a writer who cares a great deal about getting things right. There is little ego, little self-protectiveness. Whitney writes like someone who—to borrow from a statement Barry Lopez made in this magazine not so long ago—has gotten over themselves. Whitney has not answered the central question of their life, because that question is unanswerable. Instead, with Heaven, they have named it, and opened themselves up to what lies beyond it. And that is something to be admired. 

—Daniel Gumbiner, Managing Editor 

Film

Sorry to Bother You

Boots Riley

I don’t know if you call Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You parable, satire, or forecast of our collective doom, but it’s all these things, and it’s one of the most surprising, authentic, funny, and chilling films I’ve ever seen. The screenplay appeared in McSweeney’s before the film, and the acting, staging and music are as original as the language and story. Here’s the trailer. We need a new word—maybe the Germans have one—for the particular blend of dread and wonder that art can evoke when it’s as real as this. 

—Joshua Wolf Shenk, Editor-in-Chief

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