The Pleasure Of... Deadlines

Mince pies, accordions, and Karens.

I’m flying to London at the crack of dawn on Tuesday, and then getting a train the next morning to Edinburgh for my sold out (!!!) talk on lost women writers at the National Library of Scotland on Thursday. Before then we have our health insurance for next year to sort out (don’t get me started) and a house to clean and a party to prep, and of course I have to pack, which generally means embarking on some long-overdue clothes-mending project, like yesterday’s quest to find leather glue for shoes somewhere along Ditmars Boulevard. (Incidentally, why is every shoe mender in the land stubbornly cash only? It costs like fifty bucks to resole shoes!) I also have edits on one piece still due and a heap of prep to do for all the antisocial fellowship applications that are due the first week of January. Why, people? Note to academia: breaks and holidays do not exist merely as convenient places to slot in more work.

Anyway, I am not here to talk about the pleasures of railing against illogical systems, but to celebrate the focusing energy of the pre-flight countdown. I am not habitually good with deadlines, enjoying the whooshing sound as they fly by, etc, but flight deadlines are appealingly concrete. They do the work of prioritizing for you, or in this case, confirming what I already knew was the priority: Mince pies.

For about five years now, I’ve been on a one-woman mission to share British Christmas excellence, namely mince pies, with Americans, and if the TED talk people are listening, I’ve got the talking points worked out already: no, meat is not involved, and no, currants aren’t the same as raisins, and no, it is not insane to slide a teeny little slice of Stilton on the top of your pie. Like most kids I grew up thinking mince pies and their cousins, Christmas pudding and Christmas cake, were gross abominations. How dare dried fruit raise its wrinkly old head when chocolate exists? Then at some point in my teens, around the same time as I woke up to coffee, I connected the delicious, spicy, fruity, boozy scent of Christmas with its flavors. (I’m still not sold on the cake, though. Too solid, too much commitment. Instead I am seriously considering giving this ginger stout cake a go, unless I can track down McVitie’s Jamaica Ginger Cake at the Irish food store, in which case I’m just buying three of those):

Getting traditional British foods in New York is hit-or-miss, so I’m excited to check out The Butchers Block in Sunnyside, which an Irish bar owner friend of T’s told us about a few months ago, when his company did a British-themed trivia event for the Smithsonian channel (long story). I’m hoping it can replace my annual pilgrimage to Myer’s of Keswick in the West Village, which is delightful and festive but ruinously priced for the same stock you’d find in a dusty corner shop in any English town. 

My mince-pie making has evolved in ambition over the years. Early on I would buy the filling from M of K, approaching ten dollars for a small jar of Tiptree, which especially stung knowing that Sainsbury’s probably did five different, superior versions for half the price that would never be imported here. I gussied it up with extra orange zest and juice and brandy, but then realized that M of K also sold the sine qua non of mincemeat: suet. It is only to my knowledge made by one company, Atora, in a primary-colored packet that looks exactly the same now as it did in my childhood, a solid fat that melts and binds all the other ingredients. For the last couple of years I bought my suet (thankfully now in a vegetarian version) and raided the Whole Foods dispenser bins for the nine different kinds of raisins and currants the filling requires. I couldn’t find candied peel so I *candied my own*. I’m not messing around here. I loosely follow Nigel Slater’s recipe, and Delia’s for the filling, and agree with Nigel’s dictum that most commercial mince pies are too big, too sweet, and too heavy on the pastry. So I make mine in a mini-muffin tin, open-faced, topped only with a dusting of icing/confectioner’s sugar. I am happy to report that their appeal is constant: American friends now check to make sure I am making them, and children spit them out. 

Culture This Week

We did an out-of-character thing this week and went to a private concert in the lounge of an apartment building in downtown Brooklyn, a recital that we were invited to by our friend Rob, organized by his buddies in the Brooklyn Accordion Club. Two Czech musicians, plus two young students from the Prague conservatory, played cello, violin and accordion—and one of the students kicked off with a piece from Bach’s cello suites, and I, whose classical music knowledge could fit into one small mince pie, got to be all I know this one!! There was also lots of tango, and it was a delight. 

Also: my dear friend Sarah—who is very entertaining and very much not an unbelievable jerk—sent me this piece this morning, on Life Among the Karens. It’s magical. Enjoy.

Me This Week

I’m not big on the pleasure of the pan, as a rule, but occasionally books are really, really bad. Back in October I reviewed Hardcore History podcaster Dan Carlin’s book on disasters for Air Mail, ex-Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter’s new newsletter (everyone’s doing it!) and, well, it was bad. Here’s why.

The Pleasure Of... Irreverent Tradition

On cranberries, champagne, and historical vigilance.

Thanksgiving and the season it inaugurates are among my favorite times of the year. To find a balance between the sense of obligation and of pleasurable capitulation to tradition, I’ve come to believe that lowering the stakes of it all is key, and embracing only what you can get your arms around comfortably. I’ve realized that all I ever want, personally, from any of these wintry light-in-the-darkness celebrations, is champagne, candles, pigs in blankets, people I love, and a minimal amount of dealing with the cold/public transportation/unruly strangers. My Instagram feed over the past few days has served up a lot of basically identical turkeys and pies, and then pictures of other places, other foods, from people who’ve opted out of the holiday entirely, or live in places where it’s merely Thursday. I like the idea of keeping to a few basic observances—the date, the food, the gathering, the decorations—and then doing whatever you want inside that. Often that means reinventing what the holiday means and what’s being celebrated, which I think is not just allowable, but necessary and good.

As an expat in the land of Thanksgiving, I never took part as a child in any historically questionable pageants about settlers and Native Americans, but growing up in the land of Universal Christmas, I did act in Nativity plays that, at the time, few people thought to question in terms of acknowledging religious diversity or disbelief. Today these plays are getting remixed and reimagined so that the celebration can serve and welcome everyone, and it’s clear to me that the only way to preserve the positive elements of a tradition is to look at it square on, each year, and decide what deserves to stay. One nice thing about British Christmas is that there’s so much of it that I’ve found it fairly easy to embrace with a straight face as an atheist, for its message of peace and hope and joy and generosity, and also crackers and chocolate and fairy lights and mince pies. Despite my skepticism last week I do rather like the ritual of gratitude as a salvageable meaning around Thanksgiving, but I chafe against the public performance of it. Some things, I think, are better said to the people you love than to the internet at large. But I think they are worth saying. A moment of grace.

One thing I am trying to do around this particular holiday is lift myself out of enormous ignorance about Native history. I was grateful to this New Yorker piece about the relationship—more wars than feasting—between the Wampanoag and the English colonists, and about the Civil War era invention of Thanksgiving, the mythmaking purposes it served, then and now. It highlights a number of books that dive deeper into that history, and discusses some of the (very small!) steps being made to redress the total writing-out of Native voices from it. In that spirit, this website can help identify, as a starting point for learning more and acknowledging that history, the Native land you are currently occupying. I’m sitting on Lenape, Canarsie, and Wappinger land, here in Astoria.

Reading (and Cooking) This Week

This is also, inevitably, a season for thinking about food, and I’m looking forward to taking some time to enjoy Paul Freedman’s beautiful new book, American Cuisine, a history of regional variety and industrial homogenization, of dominance and decline. My contribution to the Thanksgiving table this year was this cranberry riff on a key lime pie, which I made on the recommendation of R. Eric Thomas, whose newsletter is much funnier than mine. It’s such a tart, refreshing flavor after all the heavy mains that I think it’s a keeper, I think I’d play with the quantities more next time (it makes a huge amount), and stick closer to the original gingersnap crust. I’d serve it straight from the fridge, since it rather lost its structural integrity at room temperature. (The verdict from the two toddlers at our table, by the way, was 50/50: one spat it out with an expression of profound betrayal, one burst out of his high chair asking for more.)

Writing This Week

I’m delighted to share that I’ve taken over the  Feminize Your Canon column at The Paris Review, which means I’ll be writing a monthly essay on a neglected woman writer. My first one is about one of my book subjects, the novelist, memoirist, and tireless labor reporter Mary Heaton Vorse. I’m grateful to the editor, Nadja Spiegelman, and to my predecessor, Emma Garman, for letting me take this over (read Emma’s great pieces here) and am open to suggestions for people to include in the future.

The Pleasure Of... Ingratitude

On joy vs. gratitude, the history of the 90s, and cheekbones.

Thanksgiving week counterprogramming? Not exactly. I’ve been thinking a lot (idly, I admit) about gratitude, and the difference between what I’m trying to do, and understand, here, with regard to joy and pleasure specifically, and how it’s different from gratitude. Innumerable magazine articles and self-help books recommend keeping a journal to chronicle the things we’re grateful for, but I’m skeptical about what this actually does for our happiness. (Hashtag #blessed.) To whom are we grateful? And what does that gratitude require of us? Like so much in contemporary self-help and self-care culture, the obligation to record and voice gratitude seems to arise from a blended religious and consumerist impulse: our guilt over having so much, in comparison with our neighbors or the rest of the world, can be assuaged by performing gratitude, voicing our submission to a vague higher power in an effort to inoculate ourselves against reversals of fortune. Ingratitude, by that logic, is a sin, a risk, an immodest display. But ingratitude is also a kind of self-determination, an effort to reclaim and assert our own power. Think of King Lear, and Cordelia’s refusal to perform gratitude (her recognition that the performance undermines the truth of the emotion) as the beginning of her self-determination. Which doesn’t exactly end well, of course, but that’s tragedy for you.

Of course I’m not advocating not saying thank you, as part of the basic obligation of being a human being in a society. I’m not suggesting there’s any upside to not thanking the person who makes your coffee, or gives you a gift. I say thank you all the time—probably nearly as much as I say sorry (hashtag #British.) But performative gratitude—the posture of gratitude, a stooped thing—is something that I notice a great deal with regard to particular forms of work, and I’m increasingly suspicious that it stands in opposition to justice and political action and other things we desperately need. Gratitude is deeply threaded through the culture of academia, creative work, cultural institutions, and even journalism, in a way that works to keep corporate employees silent and acquiescent—especially in the US, where corporations have barely any checks on their power over their employees. This kind of obligatory gratitude strikes me as superstitious, verbally crossing oneself before any expression of joy or pride, and certainly before any complaint. It’s an expression of powerlessness, a shrug that says, I have no right to anything more. 

Anyway, perhaps because I actually watched some impeachment hearings and the Democratic debate on Wednesday, I am feeling especially frustrated by anything that feels like fatalism, that shrug of powerlessness. So in place of passive gratitude, I want to celebrate active pleasure, that’s sought out and fought for. I want us to lay claim to the work we do well, and the worth we bring into the world. That said, I remain extremely grateful to the hardworking baristas of New York, and also to highly educated career diplomats with actual moral spines, especially when they’re Geordies.

Less Abstract Pleasures

I don’t time my reading well for this, because I keep finding myself writing about books I haven’t had the weekend to finish. But, there’s time: Later by Paul Lisicky doesn’t come out until March, but I got an advance copy (for which I am grateful, to the lovely publicist who sent it to me, but which I also earned!) It’s a memoir about a year the author spent in Provincetown in the early 90s, and about what life was like for an HIV-negative gay man in this strange isolated seaside town at the height of the AIDS crisis. After reading Rebecca Makkai’s wonderful The Great Believers this summer, and then earlier today reading about the new Broadway play, The Inheritance, that apparently did very well in London but is getting pretty brutal reviews here, I’m curious what’s going on with a contemporary literary reckoning with AIDS. Works dealing with what is known and remembered and passed on (and perhaps also dealing with the toxic gratitude of survivor guilt.) Perhaps it’s the aging of the survivors, or the sense that these stories are for and about all of us, not a persecuted minority, or that the 80s and 90s are far enough away now for more clear-eyed reckonings. Anyway, Lisicky’s book is beautiful so far, intense and surprising, and is giving me a lot to think through. 

Less cerebrally, this week I’ve been deriving great joy from The Good Place, which feels like it’s hit its groove after a slightly disjointed start, and also from the excuse it has given various magazines to do photo shoots with Manny Jacinto and his downright impeachable cheekbones. It didn’t hurt that he just got arrested with Jane Fonda and friends protesting government inaction on climate change. Here, enjoy.  

And finally, me (kinda)

I actually have an exciting new project to share *next* week, but for now, I’m delighted by the news that Hallie Rubenhold’s excellent The Five, about the women who were murdered by Jack the Ripper, won the UK’s prestigious Baillie-Gifford nonfiction prize this week. It’s as good an excuse as any to re-share my review from May for the Washington Post, which was also a diatribe against the true-crime genre and its effacing of the humanity of (usually female) victims. The book is a fascinating dive into the realities of life for the poor in Victorian London, the cold comfort of addiction, and despite their brutal endings (which Rubenhold doesn’t describe in any detail), the women’s stories are full of life. 

The Pleasure Of...Target(s)

(Titles are hard, okay!) On consumerism & goal-setting, plus singleness and cake,

I wrote last week about the pleasure of spending time with friends for no externally-motivated reason beyond you want to and you can: no holiday, no celebration, no anniversary, no pressure. I might have mentioned that the three of us went to Target together. I never go to Target in New York, because I’m not completely insane, but in suburban North Carolina, the wide-open aisles and the sheer size of the place are straight out of my deepest urban-European fantasies of American consumerism. The hot-ticket Marimekko and Missoni collaboration items that get snatched up online are just hanging around on the clearance endcaps, ready to pick up at $6 for (to take a random example now sitting on my coffee table) a glass tray and $3 for a scented candle in the matching multicolor zigzag print. I also bought an all-purpose (and I guess, on-brand) festive paper garland that says Joy. I got some clothes and fresh hand towels and a pair of replacement cabinet knobs for the bathroom, which are shiny and pink copper and the best kind of house upgrade—for about seven dollars and less than seven minutes, I got a little something that makes me a little happy every damn day. Perhaps it is bordering on insane to go to a chain store on vacation and buy cabinet knobs to bring home in my carry-on. But, well, it’s what we do.  

This isn’t really about Target, or about my friends and our idiosyncratic vacation habits in particular, but has to do with the conundrum of choice among the endless possibilities for acquisition we’re presented with every day. There is plenty that is environmentally damaging and perhaps even morally wrong about big-box stores like this, but I generally believe that it’s less about what we buy than *how.* Or rather, we should talk more about how. It is obnoxious but also true that the things in my home and wardrobe I love most are the things with stories and memories attached that aren’t just « J. Crew was having a sale! » Posters from gallery shows T and I visited together; art our friends created; things we bought on vacation, or received as gifts, or bought with prize money, or to celebrate big professional wins. At the same time, there’s also real and repeating joy in the things we bought that fit, that work, that are well-made and built to last, even if they came from a chain store on sale. (Living-room curtains in a pattern I love. The stainless-steel kitchen work tables. The solid burr coffee grinder. A pair of heavy, mint-green Vornado fans.) Making space for these things, and making them last, is an underrated joy. And it’s the choice that matters, amid all the clamor and endlessness of holiday consumption.

Right, holidays. For freelancers the end of the year is always a challenge to balance the onslaught of social and financial obligations at a time when editors are running out of money and time to commission anything. Fortunately a few projects I pitched earlier are coming to fruition around now, so I’m going to end the year in a reasonably strong place, busy but mostly just with following through on earlier commitments. So I have the luxury of stretching in new directions, taking stock, and setting targets for next year. There’s still enough time left in the year that this list-making and goal-setting feels optimistic, not panicky. Thanksgiving is a nice time to do this, but the couple of weeks after that holiday tend to feel like some of the busiest. My favorite season for this is the week between Christmas and the new year, the long festive hangover of chocolates and pajamas, at least in my ancestral homeland, interspersed with the odd brisk walk and setting up new plans and journals for the new year.

That end-of-the-decade what-have-you-accomplished meme barely lasted half a day before the backlash and ironic takes began, but taking stock of the year, if not the whole decade, is something I value getting the chance to do. Marinating and ruminating on what’s next without feeling the pressure to make it happen right now. 

My Writing, Elsewhere

In a rare bout of hot-take-itis I tweeted about Emma Watson’s self-partnering stance, and that evolved into a longer piece that I am quite happy with. Much of what’s there—about the history of coverture, and the problem that single women pose to capitalism and patriarchy, is taken from my book, so as ever, go pick up a copy if you want to read more!

Foodie Pleasures

I think this cake is the best incarnation so far of my loaf-tin adventures: Orange Olive Oil Pound Cake, via the wonderfully named Eugenia Bone at Epicurious. Now I am going to finish it, and go make a start on this slow-cooked bolognese for the weekend. Happy Friday.

The Pleasure Of... Other People’s Houses

A lazy Saturday morning in velvet pajamas.

I’m a day late on this because I was traveling yesterday to North Carolina, to spend the weekend with Susan and Sarah. We do this about every six months or so, holing up in Susan’s 1920s house in Winston-Salem, about which she’s written extensively (its book stacks, its front porch) and which has had its own Apartment Therapy tour which makes it feel like my celebrity house-friend. The three of us, Susan, Sarah, and I, have been friends since grad school, *cough* years ago, but it’s only in the past five years or so that we’ve made this trip a fixture. Often we’ll drive out to a cabin in the country, but secretly what I think Sarah and I love most about coming here is the chance to just be in this house, a big, warm, inspirational, colorful cocoon. We have our rituals: More cocktails than is wise the first night, then a lazy day, a trip to the big suburban Target, a pit-stop for cheeseburgers or barbecue, a little some vintage shopping. We make more ambitious plans and then abandon them because we’ve lost the day just sitting on the porch or in the sunroom, talking about poetry and families and homes and TV shows and our big and small plans, things we’ve bought and want to buy, changes we want to make. I come home with a list of ideas, writers to discover, music to hunt down, changes to make to my apartment, before I remember I’m not working with two floors and a couple of thousand square feet. 

The fullness and fascination of Susan’s home, which she shares with her pooch Millie, is a reminder to me in some fundamental way that, well, we are not rehearsing here. I’ve spent so much of my adult life allowing the temporariness or imperfection of a situation to dictate how it looks, how much energy and money I spend on it. It’s easy to overestimate the time and money it takes to make a room look, if not finished, then thought-about: painting a wall, framing a picture, replacing an imperfect piece of furniture with one that’s better, if not ideal. I spend a lot of time saying no to things that might be beautiful and bring me joy, because we have to fix this other thing first, and reorganize that, and clear out that closet, and it’s only at some ever-vanishing distant point that we can decorate. An inaccurate, inhibiting word, carrying its own condemnation, of frivolity and superfluity. So I appreciate the jolt that comes when I walk into this space where things have been chosen, where everything is interesting, and where you want to walk around and look at everything—not just because it’s new to you, or because you care about the person it belongs to, and certainly not because it’s valuable in some objective way as art, but because it feels chosen and purposeful, designed without being precious. I’ve been guilty of thinking that my spaces aren’t worthy of being designed. That design has to start from a blank canvas, not an already cluttered apartment with pieces chosen for their practicality or affordability, not their beauty—but of course a blank canvas is paralyzing in its own way. Design feels like what comes first, and decoration like what comes at the end, but I need to a word for this, for threading aesthetics all the way through, no matter the size of the space or the time it’s going to last.

^ In a corner of the living room, repping McSweeney’s, where Susan writes a lot.

Life, Elsewhere:

It was the NYC marathon on Sunday, the first time I’ve been just a spectator, which is an anxious sort of experience, it turns out, trying to read into what’s going on via the pace on the tracker, trying to figure out how to get across town to cheer, and then how to pick someone out of the crowd. I think the anxiety made it harder to enjoy the spectacle, but the marathon isn’t exactly enjoyable—it’s too big and emotional and overwhelming for that. Anyway, I’m immensely proud of T, and looking forward to running again. Soon.

Reading, Elsewhere:

I’m so far enjoying James Gregor’s Going Dutch, a novel about a hapless Columbia grad student looking for love, I suppose, and I’m always interested in how romantic themes and plots get filtered through more literary genre lenses, and also always here for the weird thrill of recognition of novels set in and around Morningside Heights.

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