The Pleasure Of... Pauses

A break, for now.

It’s been a difficult, galvanizing, flickeringly hopeful couple of weeks, out there. In here, our little cocoon feels all the more precious for the sense that it’s starting to crack, ready or not, which is both tantalizing and infuriating (wear a F*CKING MASK, people). It’s only June, but the summer feels... combustible. I’m doing my best to watch and listen and learn as the protests continue, support and amplify what I can, and claw out some time every day to write the best and most honest version of my book: one that reckons fully with the racist history of this country and the blind spots of my mostly white feminist subjects, even the most revolutionary-minded among them. 

To do that, I have to be ruthless. The fog of the past three months is thinning, as X gets chunkier and chattier. He’s a bit more predictable (and quite a lot more delightful) these days, so I actually have a writing schedule now, and we’ve moved things around in the apartment so I have a new little desk area in which to do it. But the days don’t get any longer. I’m teaching a class for Catapult right now (this one, on cultural criticism, which I love) and I am still reviewing, albeit less frequently. And there are other writing experiments pulling urgently at me.

So with all that in mind, I’ve decided to put this not-a-newsletter on a temporary pause. I don’t want to just miss weeks, so I am taking a break for the rest of the summer—though I may pop in now and again when I publish something new. I still want to maintain this as a space of joy, and a place to think about pleasure and its politics, but I also want to be able to devote more time to it, and bring it back better and brighter.  Thank you so much for coming along for the ride so far, which it turns out is almost a year—I sent the first missive on July 12 last year. Or possibly a million years ago, who knows?

A few things that are bringing me joy just now, that are not a babbling baby:

First, a few culinary experiments: For the first time ever, I made jam! And also cooked clams! Not together. The jam was to use up a flat of apricots from, of all places, Costco. I followed David Lebovitz’s very simple recipe, which I find still a smidge on the sweet side. Still, turns out it’s incredibly easy and satisfying to make jam! Clams too are very easy! I made this NYT spaghetti vongole recipe, which worked OK, but I think maybe I’ll try a creamy version next time. These are the kind of recipes that are really more technique than anything, and they take confidence—often the easiest things to cook are the scariest, somehow, because you know that the people telling you how easy they are have them down in muscle memory. I don’t. But I would like to.

What is an anti-racist reading list for? I really appreciated this piece by Lauren Michele Jackson, as I’ve been vaguely uneasy about the collapse of important reading into opportune buying. I am heartily in favor of both, and deeply invested in bookselling, publishing, and author-ing as economic endeavors—but still, but still. I have so much to read for the book, including a major chunk of research on James Weldon Johnson (more especially his wife, Grace) and the early years of the NAACP, but I want to make time to correct my shameful under-reading of canonical Black authors, beginning (why not?) with James Baldwin. We’re also dipping into Criterion’s Black Lives collection, which is free for anyone to access. (Anyone, at least, who can stay awake, while their baby stays asleep, for a whole movie. Godspeed, I hate you.)

I wrote last time about the NAACP’s 1917 Silent March against lynching and anti-Black violence. Apparently it was the inspiration for today’s massive march for Black trans lives, in Brooklyn, in which thousands of protestors showed up in white. The pictures are incredible. History, happening.

(Photo: Corey Sipkin, via Newsday.)

The Pleasure* Of... Learning

Taking to the streets against racist violence, 103 years ago. And again, in spirit.

*“Pleasure” has always been a rough approximation for what I’m trying to explore in this space, which covers something more like joy, happiness, rootedness, and connectedness, and the ephemeral sensory and cultural experiences that are far more powerful, and vital, in generating them than we often think. But that’s less snappy. Also, the slightly debased, cheap and cheerful associations of pleasure usually work for me, even if what I’m discussing is not obviously pleasurable. 

But not this week. This week, there’s only fury and energy and purpose. For white women like me, for white parents, there’s listening and learning. Taking part where we can, donating, and sharing what we can.

Here’s a little bit of what I know about the history of protest against racist violence in America. In 2017, when my colleagues and I put together the “Hotbed” exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, we were trying to illustrate the way that different strands of progressive activism came together in a unique concentration in Greenwich Village, in the early decades of the 20th century. The exhibition marked the centennial of women’s suffrage in the state, but what interested us were the overlaps between voting rights and other movements. The same people showing up to fight for the rights of workers and women, and against war and lynching. (My book is about the same subject, specifically the women in those fights.) 

There were plenty of caveats to this intersectional version of history, and the biggest was around race. On the one hand, the NAACP was headquartered just north of the Village and its founders, most of whom were white and Jewish, were active in related causes as well; white activists contributed to The Crisis and black writers to white progressive publicationsoccasionally. We featured a fascinating white English feminist, Elisabeth Freeman, who used a  suffrage speaking tour to the American South as cover for gathering information for the NAACP about a lynching in Nashville. Her foreignness perhaps enabled her to speak out more freely against racist violence in the US than was possible or palatable for American women; and her whiteness undoubtedly protected her as she did so.

On the other hand, most of the activists we featured in the show accepted as a basic truth that there was a thick, uncrossable line between black and white America, and that people’s experiences and expectations of life were fundamentally different on each side of that line. Even in their progressive sympathy for the injustices African Americans were suffering under Jim Crow, they could not quite reach empathy. 

Our focus was also on techniques of protest, how different movements learned from each other. Young women left their factory benches and draped themselves in sashes to commemorate their fellow workers killed in the Triangle fire; suffragists learned that getting shoved and attacked by male onlookers while the police watched (or joined in) could shock neutral observers into support. Everyone learned the power of numbers, pageantry, and press attention.

In 1917, the NAACP organized its first march in New York to protest ongoing violence against black Americans—what are sometimes still called “race riots” but are more accurately described as campaigns of terror, pogroms or massacres. The specific occasion was a killing spree in East St. Louis, Illinois, after black workers were brought in to replace striking white laborers at a local factory. Spurred on by the rumor of a robbery committed by an armed black man, these furious white men unleashed a wave of terror that began on May 28–103 years ago to the day from the start of the protests over George Floyd’s murder. On July 2nd, there was a reprise, in which white mobs killed at least 100 people. (There was eventually a Congressional investigation into the events that indicted several police officers—not, in this case, for causing violence but for standing by, or running away, while it raged.)

The march up Fifth Avenue in solidarity on July 28 was carefully organized by the NAACP, who decided against a racially mixed event. An appeal went out to black New Yorkers that was framed as a sign of solidarity with, indeed an obligation to their race, who were the principle victims of the violence. Nearly ten thousand smartly dressed men, women and children lined up in separate rows, the women all in white, echoing a signifier of purity and respectability regularly deployed by the suffragists. They walked in silence, accompanied only by “muffled drums,” carrying banners said things like “Race Prejudice is the Offspring of Ignorance and the Mother of Lynching.” It was a peaceful, dignified, march, and certainly drew attention to the cause. But the violence continued. And continued. And more than a century on, here we are. 

(Incidentally, we wanted to include the image of a female Black Lives Matter protestor in the closing image of the exhibition, a photomontage of historic and contemporary protest against a backdrop of the first Women’s March, meant to illustrate how overlapping causes still, well, overlap. We weren’t allowed; museum higher-ups claimed—among other things—that it might upset the hypothetical visiting child of a police officer.)

Here’s the footage, anyway. It’s quite something.

Credit to Bill Morrison, who worked with us on the exhibit, uncovered this newsreel, and used it in his excellent documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time.

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The Pleasure Of... Carbs

On carbonara, Girl Scout cookies, and cooking in French

Cooking has always been an uncomplicated pleasure for me, a form of relaxation and solitude and creativity (and procrastination) that’s reassuringly concrete—there’s always something to show for a few hours in the kitchen, even if its evanescence is the point. But in this strange world we find ourselves in—at least those of us who are lucky and healthy and sheltering in stable homes—cooking has become a less simple and more public undertaking. All the buried things, the politics and logistics and labor and expense of feeding ourselves, are bubbling unpredictably to the surface now. I find my attention pulled between recipes that are elaborate projects and those that are easy and cheap and only use what, in theory, I have in my pantry. Worries about supply chains and the ethics of delivery and cultural appropriation in the food world chase each other around, while visions of sugarplums (or sourdough) dance in my feeds.

I’ve subscribed for a while to the New York Times’s weekly newsletter, Five Weeknight Dishes, which like everything else has become a reflection on anxiety and domesticity and the way we live now. But it’s a nice way to have someone else do the basic but sometimes exhausting work of figuring out what you might want to eat. This week I made this roasted cherry tomato penne, a very simple dish that was unexpected enough to be interesting, using a method that I would never have come up with on my own, of roasting the tomatoes in the oven under a blanket of cheese and breadcrumbs, and then stirring in cooked pasta at the end. It’s rich and summery, despite the oven, and also cheap—even though the headnote calls for the best possible version of all the ingredients, I doubt you need heirloom fancy cherry tomatoes. You’re roasting them, after all. I guess you could go to town on the cheese, but I used Parmesan from Costco and breadcrumbs from the freezer, and it was great: rich, sweet, and a little oily. I’d advise easing up on the oil and going long on tomatoes, and also subscribing to the New York Times Cooking Comments Instagram feed because… it’s wild.

Last night I made carbonara, because this is not a time for low carb anything. I’ve tried this a lot, with varying degrees of accidental scrambled eggs, so this time I worked from Claire Saffitz’s Bon Appetit recipe, halving the quantity of pasta and eggs, but otherwise resisting my usual temptation to cut corners and pinch pennies. I didn’t have guanciale but good quality, fatty bacon worked fine, and otherwise I followed it to the letter, even bothering to separate the eggs, and obeying the parts that seemed crazy, like pouring boiling water into a hot skillet of bacon fat (hissy but otherwise uneventful). And guess what, it worked. Not just worked: it was probably the best carbonara I’ve ever had, thick and silky and rich, and I wish I’d made the full amount. I really want to make it again with guanciale, and that’s rare for me, wanting to throw out my own tweaks and make it just like they said I should. And make it for everyone I know. (God, I miss having people over for dinner.) I’m late to the Claire Saffitz love-fest, but we honored her carbonara and the last of our Girl Scout cookies by watching the appropriate episode of Gourmet Makes (a series where she reverse-engineers and upgrades mass-produced treats). I’m not sure I’ll ever get around to DIY-ing Samoas and Thin Mints, but it’s nice to know I could. One could. If one needed a project. 

My other foodie pleasure this week came from these two new books, a belated Mother’s Day treat that we were able to pick up (joyfully) from a human person in the doorway of Astoria Bookshop. Most of the time I feel vaguely resentful when things feel like they’ve been cooked up in a lab specifically for me, but I choose to be defiant about these. The first sentence of Melissa Clark’s book declares that she doesn’t speak French “but I cook in French,” and I like the idea that cooking is a language, with its own levels of native and acquired fluency, vocabulary (ingredients) and grammar (techniques), and the power to communicate. I also cook in French, I think, or at least it’s the language where I feel most at home. Both these books, by writers I love, share a refreshing sort of confidence—these aren’t Americans pretending to be French, or expressing a slavish devotion to the superiority of France, but ones that understand the quirks and silliness and miscommunications of crossing cultures, while also appreciating the way that cooking and drinking are consecrated in French culture. (I’ve always sort of wanted to write a history of Anglo-American Francophilia, its strange blend of debasement and longing and contempt.)

In the meantime... My latest Paris Review “Feminize Your Canon” subject is Fanny Fern, once the best-paid columnist in America, who wrote candidly about a huge range of subjects from a perspective rooted firmly in her identity as a woman and a mother. Writing this two months postpartum gave me a fresh appreciation for what she notices about babies and children, and the importance she gives to that attention, and also inspired me to think more carefully about the notion of sentimentality. I’m mulling over the idea of a book club linked to this series. Would you be interested in an online discussion of some overlooked works by women writers? Please do reply and let me know. You can always reply with comments, by the way, and I love to hear from you!

As ever, please do share this not-a-newsletter if you like it (hit the button below) and if you’re so moved, you can buy me a coffee (or a packet of pasta). Happy cooking!

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The Pleasure(s) Of.. Spring

Florals for spring? Groundbreaking.

I was sent roses this week by my mother-in-law, and they’ve opened up cartoonishly over the past few days. There’s something so flagrant about roses that it’s easy to forget that they’re also beautiful, mathematically so, swelling open together and dying while I watch. These are saturated at the edges and pale at the hearts, pink and orange and a slightly unhealthy mauve, the color of the shadows under my eyes. There’s a tree outside our living-room window that I’ve been watching bud and come into leaf over weeks, brightening and brightening with the sun and this slow, uncertain spring. Nothing particularly special about it, except a freshness you can almost taste. After all this time inside I’m feeling starved for natural beauty like this, the joys of spring—overwritten, overwrought, overdone, but urgent nonetheless. It’s a craving that I’ve found impossible to feed through a screen, although going out still feels sort of irresponsible and illicit, and it’s hard to breathe properly through a mask.

Today is my first American Mother’s (Mothers’/Mothers?) Day, the impetus for the roses, and dinner tonight from our beloved local Italian that reopened for takeout just in time. Despite very much enjoying roses and wine and heart-emoji texts from friends and, y’know, having a sweet and healthy baby, I’m kind of a crank about these normative holidays, with their unimaginative rituals and casual cruelty to everyone whose family relationships are fraught or fractured for whatever reason. I don’t, as a rule, blanket-hate social media, by which I mean Instagram and Twitter, but on days like this I can see why people do, since the worst of it is on display, the low-level competition and strenuous performance of life as it is supposed to lived, according to some script you never chose. I feel strange even claiming today as mine, since our parenting so far has felt so wholly shared. I know at some point our roles will differentiate and our relationships with X will evolve, but right now mama still feels like a weird nickname somebody else assigned to me, that I’ve accepted a little grudgingly. Not mine yet. 

A few things I have been enjoying and thinking about: 

My friend Sarah (and a ton of people on Twitter) shared this gorgeous, sharp-edged piece by Sabrina Orah Mark in the Paris Review, about parenting and writing and academic hoop-jumping, the whole process of contorting yourself for a future that shimmers and vanishes when you try to grab it. (Dorothy: A Publishing Project, which published her novel Wild Milk, posted a great picture of all the orders that had come in since that piece went live. This is how it’s supposed to work.)

I’ve been making my way slowly through the BBC/Hulu Normal People adaptation, fascinated to see an interpretation of a book I spent a lot of time reading and thinking about last year. I’ve been trying to get past how the characters look, because one always mentally casts a novel, and actors are obviously always better looking than, well, normal people. Rooney’s characterizations reveal without describing: Marianne’s face, blank “like a piece of technology,” her eyes blinking cursors; Connell as wholesome “as a big baby tooth.” It’s standard to protest that the supposedly outcast girl is too pretty, but to me, she mostly looks too physically fragile. I always saw Marianne as intimidating—brainy, quiet, unsmiling, and imposing. Ungainly, rather than pliable like the popular girls. The actor playing Connell, on the other hand, isn’t fragile enough—he’s 24, and looks even older.

But what actually bugs me is the way the adaptation takes out so much of the politics. My take on the novel, somewhat imperfectly expressed in this piece, is essentially that Rooney is using the structure of romance to explore the political potential of human connection, updating most openly George Eliot and E.M. Forster. The way that an intimate bond, far from being narcissistic or selfish, actually opens lovers up to a sense of responsibility in, and to, the wider world. But the adaptation doesn’t really do that. The political elements of the novel—the rigged class system, the flailing of young people in a late-capitalist economy that has sold them out—are muted here, always folded back into the personal. (It’s a tiny but telling thing, that by casting an Asian actress to play Connell’s new girlfriend, the show implies that his flinching at Marianne’s boyfriend’s anti-Asian racism is personal as much as political, which diminishes it for me.) Anyway, maybe I’ll change my mind when I’ve seen the whole thing. Maybe even write about it properly! In the meantime, this piece by Michelle Orange is the best thing I’ve read about it.

I’ve seen a few articles talking about the sex in this show, and while I’m not sure that it always works—there’s still inevitably something awkward about TV sex, over and above the awkwardness that’s being performed—this piece at Vulture is interesting, going in depth on the way the show used an intimacy coordinator, and the kinds of rules and safeguards that are becoming standard in a post-Weinstein world. These standards for good sex scenes, as articulated in the piece, fascinated me:

They’re realistic but surprisingly graphic, raw and genuinely sexy, never pornographic but quite explicit, and never too “clean” or overly cinematic. 

It’s an almost impossible line to walk, even if everyone watching agreed with what constituted “pornographic” versus “genuinely sexy”—what is allowed, artistically, versus what is gratuitous. (Garth Greenwell is maybe the best person out there at articulating this question of art and sex, and this piece is prompting me to finally read his novel Cleanness before I have to return it to the library.)

I hope you have a great week, and thank you for coming on this journey from Mother’s Day flowers to pornography with me. Joys of spring, indeed.

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The Pleasure Of... Marking Time

Moving forward, with the help of lipstick and sparkling wine.

One of the (many) things I was not prepared for, in having a baby, was the suddenness of no longer being pregnant. It comes on slowly, at first needing imagination to make it real, and then needing imagination to make it go away, to remember that won’t last forever. Because Felix was so unexpectedly early, the abruptness of becoming unpregnant smacked me particularly hard, and left me clawing after it, just a little, through this whole huge part of my brain that was all of a sudden emptied. It no longer mattered if I didn’t go to prenatal yoga, or what went in my hospital bag, or what I ate or drank. All those tiny adjustments, all those big ones, suddenly over; the special pillow, the special clothes, everything I didn’t buy, suddenly irrelevant. The first in the series of sudden, jarring losses that will mark the stages of his growing: clothes that no longer fit, a once-essential toy or tool or trick rendered cosmically useless from one breath to the next. 

But it’s liberation as well, such liberation, to heal. My recovery has progressed strangely due to the strange state of things just now, but since getting past six weeks postpartum (and meeting with my doctor through video chat), I’ve felt every day that I’m coming back to myself.

My birthday this week marked eight weeks with the baby who’s no longer a newborn, and no longer feels like a stranger. I took a little birthday money and squandered more than one naptime on the Sephora website, choosing frivolous and vital things, lipstick and powder and eyeshadow, soap and conditioner, even though I haven’t needed to look presentable in months. “Need” being relative and subjective here, of course. I never wear much makeup, but I rarely wear none, and I miss it. My skin hasn’t magically cleared without it, and I’ve realized—comfortingly, perhaps—that it’s not something I do for other people. Even stuck inside, I prefer to look, in the mirror and in a Zoom chat, like myself, the way I want to see myself. So, new lipstick. I also threw out a bunch of old products, so once this new stuff arrives I’ll still have less than I started with. It feels like maturity to buy the thing that works, that I definitely want and will definitely use, instead of a bunch of cheaper things that aren’t right. So instead of buying more experimental half-sizes, I sprang for a full-size version of a lipstick sample I’ve used up and love—specifically this rich and indelible NARS pencil, recommended to me by friends, in a soft brick red called “Dolce Vita.” I’m still a sucker for bargains and deals and samples. But I’m also learning not just what I like, which is easy, but how to let myself have it, which is not. 41 seems like a good time to start committing to my favorites. To have signatures, not placeholders. 

For my birthday dinner, we ordered delivery from M. Wells, the restaurant in Long Island City where I celebrated my fortieth last year, with my family—usually a (wonderful, lavish) steak house, but since that would hardly travel well, we ordered a fig and pistachio pate, key lime pie, and a bottle of pét-nat called “La Roue Qui Tourne,” plus Thai noodles from a different takeout place. Sam made us a batch of Boulevardiers and hung the bottle from the doorknob, and after dinner a crowd of friends turned up for a surprise Zoom party which I had absolutely no idea was happening, and kept being more of a surprise as new names showed up in the virtual waiting room. I still want to hug my friends. But this was a wonderful substitute. My dear friend Grace, who organized the party, once made a new year’s resolution to drink champagne and wear lipstick more often, a vow I think about often, and every now and again, remember to live up to—at the very least, on my birthday.

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