SARAH THANKAM MATHEWS
The pandemic helped transform one writer’s debut novel
FOR SNEHA, the protagonist of Sarah Thankam Mathews’ engrossing debut
novel, All This Could Be Different, the future seems promising as she lands a job and a free apartment in a new city. But as she forges ahead, the traumatic history she keeps to herself collides with the present. When Mathews began writing the novel in February 2020, she was struggling to write a different book. She took a break and refocused on how she and her Brooklyn neighbors would cope with the growing threat of Covid-19. “What grew out of that anxiety-spiral-meets-moment-of-clarity was I built this online Slack network that was sort of a neighborhood-based mutual-aid network,” she says.
What started with a few flyers snowballed into grassroots community assistance. “We supported 23,000 people during those first seven months with a week’s worth of groceries,” she says of the initiative, named Bed-Stuy Strong. “And by the end...we’d raised and redistributed $1.3 million.” The project transformed her initial concept for a novel, originally a satire of the modern office, into one more relatable for the times. “I hope more than anything that people take away this idea that each of us is a finite unit of power,” she says. “And if you join up all these little finite units of power, we can really move to reshape the society we wish to see.”
few weeks ago, toward the end of hectic workday, a writer — let’s call her Sarah — took what she thought was her usual dose of CBD. She had recently been gifted a new bottle from the same brand she always takes, and though the label was different, Sarah didn’t really notice. Two hours later, she was a lot more relaxed than she expected to be. “I was eating dinner and suddenly staring into space,” she recalls. Her husband was amused; she was worried. Then she realized that what she’d taken wasn’t CBD at all, but something called delta-8 THC. It claimed to be just as legal as ultra-mild CBD, but this one got her stoned.
Like well-known delta-9 THC — essentially, weed’s active ingredient — delta-8 THC does, as Sarah discovered, get you high. But the products wouldn’t exist without its less-intoxicating predecessor. After the 2018 farm bill legalized industrial hemp (defined as cannabis that contains less than .3 percent THC; as opposed to marijuana, which contains a lot more), American producers set to work seeing what they could chemically isolate from the newly legal plant. Mostly, this was CBD. But then, they got creative.
First identified in the 1940s, delta-8, which is naturally present in very small amounts in cannabis, was mostly reserved for animal studies. “Delta-8 THC typically gets made by a synthetic process, which is a cyclization reaction from CBD,” says Linda Klumpers, a University of Vermont chemist who co-authored a review of delta-8 studies. By adding acid and solvent to CBD, it changes the molecule, and you get delta-8. No one really took delta-8 seriously until a glut of CBD allowed for experimentation, and led to a whole new range of products that goes beyond just getting high.
The problem with delta-8 products made from industrial hemp, however, is that there are no federal testing requirements — those are implemented on the state level when it comes to delta-9 — so you don’t necessarily know what you’re getting. Grant
Boatman of Canna River — which makes vapes, gummies, and other products that include a variety of hemp-derived cannabinoids — says their products go through rigorous safety testing (lab reports are available on its website), but that can’t be said for many on the market. “We go above and beyond to make sure the products that we buy, the raw materials, are all clean,” he says. “[But] there’s a tremendous amount of bad actors that just don’t care.”
On top of safety concerns, there’s also the problem of whether or not it’s actually legal. While some states have made laws specifically outlawing on a federal level the sale of delta-8, advocates claim that since it’s derived from a legal substance, it should be allowed; others say that since it’s an analogue of a federally controlled substance, it has the same legal standing as delta-9 THC. Shawn Hauser, a Colorado lawyer who specializes in cannabis law, explains it’s not really about the legality of the molecule itself. “For products that are interstate commerce and intended for human consumption, they have to be legal under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act,” she says. “And delta-8 products are not.” But like with CBD, the FDA is so far only cracking down on companies making health claims.
In states with legal weed, some operators have opted to use CBD extracted from marijuana plants, which aren’t legal for interstate commerce, but do have the benefit of being part of a regulated market — offering the customer more confidence. “Because of the FDA’s absence, these state programs include very robust regulatory frameworks — kind of like mini FDAs,” says Hauser. They control everything from packaging guidelines to manufacturing standards to testing requirements. Alexi Chialtas, whose company WUNDER is licensed to make cannabis drinks under California’s marijuana program, sees expansion of available cannabinoids as an opportunity to target moods, not skirt state law. “We ultimately decided to blend delta-8 THC and delta 9-THC, and then also CBD, because we appreciated the experience,” he explains. “It is the closest to kind of this unwinding [feeling], more complex high, if you will.”
The proliferation of delta-8 has opened the door to experimentation with more obscure cannabinoids, like delta-10 THC and hexahydrocannabinol, also known as HHC — which has scientists more concerned. “Delta-10 THC has never been studied in people,” says Klumpers. “In fact, I couldn’t even find any study of delta-10 THC in animals.”
While HHC, which is made by hydrogenating delta8 or delta-9 THC, has been studied in animals, it’s still unclear if it could have any adverse reactions on humans. Mark Scialdone — an organic chemist who patented the process to make a form of HHC called HHCA — notes that there could be unforeseen consequences from ingesting a molecule that hasn’t gone through human testing. He points to the discovery of hydrogenated vegetable shortening, which improved shelf stabilization of food products, but introduced a new wrinkle to the American diet. “What we now know is that hydrogenation of fats makes trans fats in the process,” says Scialdone. “Could [chronic use of ] hydrogenated cannabinoids over many, many years, lead to chronic health conditions? We just don’t know yet.”
to paraphrase Cher Horowitz, searching for authenticity on a social media app is like trying to find meaning in a Pauly Shore film. Yet that hasn’t stopped Silicon Valley from trying. Apps like VSCO, Cluster, We Heart It, and Dispo all aim to take the pressure off curating one’s flawlessly Valencia-hued Instagram grid in favor of a grittier and more real social media experience, as if there were such a thing.
Social media is an inherently inauthentic experience, one that relies on playacting various expertly curated personae to a select audience of followers. Whether you’re posting latte art from your NOLA vacation or trying to craft the perfect Jordan Peterson quote tweet dunk for clout, there is a tacit understanding that you’re not behaving anything like your real self, because that version of you is far more boring than the one you put out online.
One app, however, is willing to bet that your real, authentic self — zits, raccoon eyes, flyaways and all — is a lot more interesting than you think. BeReal, a French photo-sharing app with a mind-numbing valuation of $600 million, is a combination of Instagram stories and Snapchat, joining the ephemerality of the latter (you can only post once a day, which disappears after 24 hours) with the mundaneness of the former. Because the app sends you notifications reminding you to post every day — and because you can’t see your friends’ posts without posting yourself
— you’re basically required to post what you’re doing, regardless of whether it’s interesting or not, which means your feed tends to be full of a lot of poorly composed photos of laptop screens and swivel desks. To add insult to injury, the app also requires that you post a selfie with every photo, and there are no filters or editing software you can add to make that blearyeyed TweetDeck stare look any better. The app’s rather ominous mission? To help you “discover who your friends really are in their daily life,” according to its website. (BeReal declined my interview request, directing me instead to a press packet, which I suppose is their right for $600 million.)
Given these myriad limitations on what you can post, one would think BeReal would be a massive flop, a venture relegated to the margins of tech startup history like Yo or Cuddlr or Whisper or Lulu. Yet it has flourished among an audience of zillennials exhausted by the hyper-FaceTuned aesthetics of their Instagram feeds. “There’s a spontaneity about it which takes the edge off,” says Joey Gingold, 28, a product manager at a parametric insurance firm. His first photo wasn’t particularly exciting — it was of a sidewalk he happened to be walking down when he received a notification reminding him to post — but then again, that’s kind of the point: As he puts it, BeReal provides a glimpse into the actual realities of its users, however mundane they may be, serving as a reminder to stop and appreciate the little things. “I have always thought that taking pictures is kind of a [reminder] to be ‘in the moment,’ even if it’s silly,” he says. “The notification BeReal sends is kind of a trigger to drop what you are doing and recognize the moment in a way.”
The fact sheet the company provided to me when I reached out for this story includes the following rather dramatic pronouncement: “Warning! BeReal will challenge your creativity. BeReal is life, real life, and this life is without filters.”
Since downloading the app a few weeks ago, I have not achieved similar moments of Zen clarity; mostly, using the app has served as a reminder to me of how truly boring my everyday existence is. (Most of my photos are variations of me lying down in bed typing on my computer, my chin in the selfie shot angled at various unflattering positions.) What it did do, however, was serve as a reminder to me that other people’s lives are just as dull and non-photogenic as my own.
Because I am somewhat outside what I assume is BeReal’s target demo of terminally jaded, wide-legpants-wearing zoomers, I only have about six or seven friends on the app, but all of them were posting pretty much the same type of content I was: goofy, unposed midwork selfies; day trips to museum exhibits; and the occasional road-trip vista shot or two. It turned out to be a starker departure from my friends’ typical, hypercurated Instagram Stories than I had expected: a true authentic moment in time, however fleeting it may be, no snarky caption or sleek filter required. And it did feel voyeuristic in a way to peek into the lives of people I don’t even know particularly well: Even if they weren’t showing me anything they thought was interesting, I certainly thought otherwise.