The Pleasure Of... Back to School

Choices, change, & overstuffed backpacks

During the summer holidays I used to make calendars counting down the days to the first day of school, and blu-tack them over my bed, crossing off the last days of summer and freedom with joyful X’s—an anecdote that’s probably more revealing than anything else I could tell you about myself as a child. So September, the rentrée, will always get me, with its lists, resolutions, blank notebooks, new pens. In New York we’re not there yet; it’s still too muggy for sweaters and tights, but it’s turning, and every 80+-degree day feels like the last one. I like this transitional phase, buying the last of the corn and aubergines and tomatoes before it’s all potatoes and squash and dark greens and roasted root vegetables, stews in the oven and cake and tea. I’m a warm-weather lizard but the cold has its pleasures: faster running, reading on the couch while the sun goes down. The season turning lets us flex the muscles we need to process big, unwanted changes, to mourn what’s passing and face what’s coming. This week has also felt transitional since I’m still jet lagged from London and Paris, which means waking early and afternoon naps, and doing my best to embrace Ursula K. LeGuin’s truly inspirational work schedule:

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People seem to have powerful preferences about the seasons, summer lovers, summer haters, those who live for fall and sweater weather. But during this in-between week, I’m embracing ambivalence, my sadness at summer ending, my joy at the autumnal restart. This problem with favorites runs deep. When I first moved to New York, people back home in London would ask me if I liked it better; then I’d sit around with fellow English expats arguing out our preferences, conversations which mostly devolved, as immigrant storytelling tends to, into litanies of what we missed from home. I found the choice paralyzing, destabilizing, weighted with unwanted meaning, like those questions about what you’d save from a burning house, as though it were possible to think past the horror of a home on fire. What if I’m wrong? What if I make the wrong choice? What if what I choose says something about me that I don’t mean? We’re constantly asked to make these kinds of choices, to define ourselves as this-not-that, team X or team Y, to assert clear, zero-sum preferences for weather, drinks, outfits, vacations, politics. I mostly envy people who are fixed in their likes and dislikes—most of my closest friends are people who are boldly decisive about small, daily things. Of course, I do have tastes and preferences and things I hate, but I’m getting less certain all the time. What might I discover if I try this thing I don’t think I’m going to like? In my late twenties I toyed with signing up for a dating site, but I fell at the hurdle of the age cutoff. What if the perfect guy was one year older or younger than where I placed my limit? (As it happened, he was.) I know we have to make rules for ourselves to get through the day. But when it comes to preferences, I want to stop ranking and choosing and excluding. I want to learn new things. 

So whatever it means, back to school. Please enjoy this photo of me  (on the right) and my best friend Lucy at age eleven, ready for our first day at secondary school. Even in my enthusiasm I am a total mess, but boy were my notebooks ready. 

Reading Pleasures.

I’ve been flitting around, reading articles, a couple of novels, including Louis Bayard’s absorbing and melancholy Courting Mr. Lincoln, about Abraham Lincoln’s young adulthood, his courting of Mary Todd and his concurrent, intimate friendship with Joshua Speed. I linked above to Brandon Taylor’s newsletter, and I am very excited to dive into his novel Real Life, which comes out in February (galleybrag, I guess.) I met Brandon in the spring at the Minneapolis book festival and he was delightful—I love this essay he just published too, about childhood fears and how they shape us.

(A lot of) My Work This Week

Two big pieces of mine came out this week, both of which I wrote over the summer and were difficult and time consuming, and so I’m quite proud of them. The TLS asked me to review a new edition of Zelda Fitzgerald’s Save Me the Waltz and a scholarly variorum edition of Gatsby—not really comparable, but emblematic, I argued, of their wildly different levels of literary status. I didn’t dig into SMTW’s racism as much as I wanted (which it shares with Gatsby, but inflected differently, reflecting the difference between northeastern Princetonian racism and the Alabama-princess variety.) Anyway, the piece is here (paywalled), and I was also on the podcast!! If you are in the UK, you can pick up the paper copy *with my name on the cover* which made me very excited.

(A reference to the iconic!! episode of Sex & The City in which Carrie is invited to appear on the cover of New York magazine as an embodiment of the “single and fabulous” lifestyle, but gets drunk preemptively, so that her hungover-to-shit photograph ends up slapped with the tagline Single and Fabulous? The question mark is the kick in the teeth.)

I’m also really proud of this story, at Narratively. It’s one of those rabbit-hole dives that came about during research for the Hotbed exhibition at New-York Historical, about a nationwide 1915 contest to find a universal outfit for women. Cut for space (and the fact that it was impossible to confirm) is the mysterious personal life of the woman at the center of the story, Mildred Johnston Landone, whose brother-in-law (I think) was an infamous eugenicist, inventor, and all-around weird dude named Brown Landone (or some variation thereof), who I am pretty sure had a relationship with Mildred’s teenage son from a previous relationship, serious enough that they lived together, and for him to list the younger guy as an “intimate friend”—in place of any family—on his draft card in 1918. But it’s very unclear what happened to any of them, and my days searching turned up blank. Census records are a hell of a drug. 

And finally, back to school(s)

New York schools just instituted a moment of silence for 9/11, and announced today that they aren’t going to penalize students who walk out for the 9/20 climate strike. After 18 years, there are no kids in school who remember 9/11, so memorialization gets codified as we pass from memory into history. At the same time, there’s—at least among kids—a new urgency about the future. It’s good to look back, and forward.

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