The Pleasure Of...Milestones

Enjoying the whizzing sound of 2020 passing by.

If you’re reading this… we made it. A relentlessly difficult year, in which we were all forced to reckon with our life choices and circumstances as we rarely are, by having to spend so much time at home, with a drastically reduced social life, stripped of so many daily pleasures and distractions that soften that reckoning most of the time. But I’ve felt enormously grateful this year, and I don’t think I’m alone—grateful for my family, my relative security, and for the baby and the book that have kept me hyper-aware of every passing day. Oh, your pandemic passed in a fog of sameness? Mine was a bit more like trying to do long division while clinging to the back of a speeding truck. Either way, here we are at New Year’s Eve and all I have to say is, cheers. We made it to this arbitrary temporal marker, and I intend to drink a flock of champagne and zoom with as many friends in as many time zones as we can muster.

We’re also at the end of my favorite probably-fake Scandinavian lifestyle concept, romjulwhich I read about a few years ago in a now-shuttered magazine desperate to find the new hygge. It’s (supposedly) a Norwegian word for the period between Christmas and New Year, and seems essentially to be an embrace of its particular mixed feeling of sluggishness and restlessness. More generously, it’s about reflection on what’s passed and the setting of intentions for what’s to come, but without any of the stiff-upper-lip, forced-march connotations of resolutions. In practical terms, it’s the usual stuff for surviving deep winter: getting out into nature during the daylight hours and lighting candles in the dark, eating and drinking plenty, and spending time with friends. (I recommend the phone if you are sick of screens. It’s a little-known function of the device you may be holding right now. Got a funny sort of bent bone-shaped icon, like a handle, though for who knows what? Try it out!)

And yes, like all the advice for surviving winter, or lockdown, or illness, or all the above, it’s infuriatingly obvious. Drink water, take walks, feed yourself, talk to people, don’t overdo it, sleep in your bed not on the couch, read books, clean your teeth. This I think is what is the most annoying part of all this, for those of us who have all been taught to believe that Adversity will Teach Us New Things. Adversity is incredibly dull, and so is anxiety, and they don’t lead to revelation, except of the dullest kind. We know all this already. Yet we have such a novelty bias that we keep hunting for the new thing, impatient for spring. But it’s a long way off, and if you live in a cold place it’s going to be stew and snow boots and mulled wine and low sunshine and chunky sweaters and stupid television and chocolate and magazines and naps and thermals, for a while yet. And if not resolutions—who has the energy?—it can perhaps be hopes, intentions, the spark of a new idea. 

This was the pre-Christmas treats setup of an enterprising local restaurant: Mulled sh*t, baked goods and picnic tables. I intend to basically camp out here.

Share ThePleasureOf

Relatedly, perhaps, I wrote a piece about self-help, way back in the summer, which was finally published this month at the TLS. It’s a review of two books about the relationship between self-help and literature, but more broadly about how and why we read, and (as always) a plea to read whatever and however the heck you want. I was also very kindly invited on the podcast to discuss it, so here’s that episode (apologies for the Stalin content.)

Otherwise, I am, like you, watching and thoroughly enjoying Bridgerton, perfectly judged nonsense for this time of year that I imagine was expressly cooked up in Shonda Rhimes’s romjul lab (appointed in my imagination with only the finest scented candles, cashmere, and spiked hot chocolate). And if you enjoy either Him With the Sideburns or Her in the Tight Yellow Dresses, please immediately dive deeper into Netflix and watch their other excellent projects: Crashing, a tragically short-lived burst of Phoebe Waller-Bridge pre-Fleabag brilliance, and the glorious Derry Girls.

Happy New Year, friends, and thanks for reading. My winter candle/mulled wine fund lives here, if you are feeling generous.

Please do reply and tell me what warm drinks are getting you through the season. And if you have recommendations for good walking boots or discount cashmere, do share.

Leave a comment

The Pleasure Of... Tasting

Why it’s okay just to dip in a toe. Plus Iranian poetry and a recipe for apple cake.

Welcome new and vintage readers! I am getting these out when I can, but I aspire to regularity. Please feel free to reply and let me know what you think, and thank you for being here.

If you’d like to read more of my writing, you can visit my website or buy my book.

Share

I currently have at least four good books (and two TV shows) that I’ve started recently and left hanging, not counting everything I ought to be reading for book research. There’s always a miasma of guilt around unfinished books, a mutual inkling of failure—did I fail this book, or did this book fail me? But I’m trying to rethink it more generously: the buffet approach, rather than finish-your-broccoli-or-you-can’t-have-dessert.* Over the past few months I’ve found it difficult to start anything new, especially when it’s a book I’m sure is good, or less-than-good in an interesting way, that I’ll want to think and talk and maybe write about. It’s easier to put it off in favor of rereading or doomscrolling—a thing already finished, or unfinishable.

So in trying to recognize, understand, and jettison these little weights I carry around, I’m learning to enjoy just getting a taste. I’m talking first pages, first episode, first chapter: enough to get oriented, but not really to start the journey. I recently bought Shuggie Bain, which won the Booker last week, and read to page 30. I’m roughly the same depth into Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, and Robert MacFarlane’s Underland, and Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness, and Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half. I’ve managed just a single episode each of the latest season of The Crown and The Queen’s Gambit**, not out of any ascetic aversion to bingeing, nor simply because I’m too damn tired to stay up past ten, but because the  sample is enough for now. I’m eager to finish all these things, but I’m sensitive to certain topics and moods right now. I’m sensitive, for instance, to bleak stories about mothers and sons. I don’t want my heart wrenched right now, I need it warmed. 

There’s so much ambient pressure around culture. Read this (not that). You will love this. Everyone is talking about this, right now. It makes me defiant and stubborn.*** Not finishing a book or a TV show—or not finishing it yet—doesn’t matter to anyone but you, and it’s up to you how much it matters. Binge culture insists that you should consume the whole thing in great greedy gulps. But with apologies to literary publicists, not being able to put something down isn’t the only measure of value. I like having started, so that when I go back it’ll be like meeting someone I vaguely know at a party, grasping to place them: Bulgaria? Iowa? Glasgow? If I’m remembering parties correctly, that game of how-do-I-know-you? is a lot more fun than the cold hello.

Share ThePleasureOf

Of Writing

My latest Feminize Your Canon column is up at The Paris Review, on the Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad, known reductively but not inaccurately as the Persian Sylvia Plath. This was a really challenging piece to research and write, given how little I knew going in, but I’m pleased with how it came out. Here’s the opening:

In 1954, a nineteen-year-old poet walked unannounced into the office of the literary editor of Roshanfekr (The Intellectual), one of Iran’s most prestigious magazines. Her fingers were stained with green ink, and she trembled with nerves as she handed over three poems. One of them, the twelve-line “Sin,” described in explicit detail her affair with the magazine’s editor in chief. Different translations give different nuances to the opening of the poem: “I have sinned a rapturous sin / in a warm enflamed embrace,” (Sholeh Wolpé) or “I have sinned, a delectable sin, / In an embrace which was ardent, like fire” (Hasan Javadi and Susan Sallée) or “I sinned / it was a most lustful sin / I sinned in arms sturdy as iron, / hot like fire and vengeful.” (Farzaneh Milani) Across these variations, there are a few scandalous constants: the heat, the embrace, the pleasure, and the boldly unashamed I

Of Cake for Breakfast

This is the method from a longer, more involved recipe that I’ve made several times now, cutting so many corners it’s become a circle, and now takes roughly ten minutes and a single bowl. The original called for a springform pan; I only had a loaf tin (a decent one, because $20 kitchen upgrades are pleasures with an exceptional ROI.) This carried the delightful bonus of any cake made in a loaf tin (or “pan” I guess), that it becomes officially acceptable for breakfast. It is especially good warm, with ice cream.

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees and put 1 stick butter on the stove top to melt in a little bowl. Lightly grease a standard size loaf tin.

  2. Peel two regular eating apples and cut into small cubes. Toss them in lemon juice if you have it handy, to stop them browning, otherwise just work quickly.

  3. In a large bowl, whisk 2 eggs until foamy, then 1/2 cup granulated sugar, 2tbsp calvados and 1tsp vanilla essence. (If you don’t have calvados, you can do as I do and work your way through the random fruit brandy sampler pack you have stashed in the back of the bar, but this is probably a good excuse to buy calvados.)

  4. Sift together 1 cup + 2 tbsp flour, 1tsp baking powder, and a pinch of salt. I just measure all of this into a wire sieve set over the bowl. (The original recipe calls for this extra 2tbsp to be almond flour, but we are a nut-sensitive household so I just use a bit more flour.)

  5. Sift and stir in half the flour mixture, then half the melted butter, then the rest of the flour and butter. It’s a very sticky batter.

  6. Stir in the apples & scrape it all into the cake pan. Bake for 50 mins.

  7. YOU’RE WELCOME.**** 

* Not in our house, the baby loves gnawing on tiny trees.

** Does The Queen’s Gambit get better? Because that first episode was Not. Good, and I’m not sure why everyone loves it so much?

*** Taurus, why do you ask?

**** I am not a professional cookbook author for many reasons.

The Pleasure Of... Waiting Together

Queues, street meat, seasonal-vegetable imperialism, the best hand cream

It’s a gloomy Monday morning, and cool enough that the radiators have clanked on again. The arrival of heat in a Proustian surge of burning dust and clicking pipes is a very New York ritual, more tentative than it used to be in these days of mild, damp, changeable fall weather. Like not having a washing machine in my apartment, and not being able to buy cheap sliced bread without sugar in it, not being able to control the heat was a shock when I moved to New York. Now it seems normal (if bad!) to be flooded by heat overnight sometime in October, able to regulate it only by cracking a window. It’s an idiosyncrasy that anyone who has lived here for any length of time can remember, and I’m particularly attached right now to these little moments that are reminders of the density of the city (which is not a ghost town!), with thousands of people, in their different lives and spaces, sharing an overlapping happening.

That feeling of secret sharing, an unacknowledged marker of time and the seasons changing, is why I’ve always loved the moment of the clocks going back or forward. I hadn’t even thought about the clocks until this week, when I got hit with an unexpected wash of sadness, because for the past four years they’ve gone back on the morning of the New York City marathon. I wasn’t going to run this year but T was, for the fiftieth anniversary of the race. The first time I ran, it was 2016, and I vividly remember going to the marathon pavilion in Central Park the next day to get our medals engraved, waiting in a tightly snaking line, leaves underfoot and a chill in the air, trying to stretch out my tight calves and eavesdrop on everyone’s race stories. It was the day before the election when, I fully and firmly believed, the short national nightmare of candidate Trump would finally be over. We would celebrate.

And here we are.

Early voting started on Saturday morning in New York, and the lines at our polling place, one of two in the neighborhood, wrapped the building twice and snaked up and down the surrounding streets, and there was a similar sense of collective will, the rare thing when strangers have the same priorities. Like the protests this spring and summer, the presence of all these people (masked and distanced) was no doubt sharpened by months of isolation, or at least reduced contact with people. And yes, long lines to vote are a sign of suppression or incompetence or both, but here and now they are undeniably also a sign of enthusiasm and the desire to be part of something. Of ending something, four years late. Here’s Tony’s video about it all (the meat is explained below.)

… Of consuming (for a cause)

We followed up our (well, T’s) abortive attempt to vote* with a far more successful attempt to secure some smoked meat from a guy with a DIY smoker set up in the street around the corner from us that’s closed to traffic, who was raising money for the local mutual aid network. (How very 2020.) We were at the front of this line, so got to watch as juicy slabs of brisket and pork belly were carved up and tucked into sandwiches—banh mi with pickled carrots, or Texas-style with a cheese sauce and hot pickled red onions (that were, um, hotter than the baby was expecting. Oops.) He dug the meat though, which we doled out in a frankly miserly fashion because it was delicious and too good to waste on a baby. 

In other street news, I’ve now done yoga next to a bike lane twice. It’s weird and not exactly restful but giving me what I need: a real workout, a sense of community, and a shared acknowledgment that, yes, things right now are weird, and not restful, and that we need each other. 

… Of caring (for our bodies)

Since everything old is new again, pandemic/lockdown-wise (sigh), and we are all going to be washing our hands a lot and therefore in need of intensive hand-lotion repair, allow me to share the best hand and foot cream I’ve ever used: this lavender sage shea butter lotion from Avry Beauty, a professional salon nail care line.

You can actually feel it soaking in and making your skin softer. This was a gift from my friend Grace and because she’s a fancy bizh, I assumed it would also be extremely fancy but no! It costs less than three earth dollars, and is available in a bunch of other scents (Rosewater! Honey matcha!) Unfortunately if you are not a professional nail-salon-haver, it’s not that easy to buy except on Bezos’s Evil Empire, so searching for it sent me down a rabbit hole of professional nail suppliers. Worth it.

Share

…Of reading

Not much, honestly, that isn’t wasteful doom-scrolling or comfort re-reads, but thanks to my friend Bari, I had a lovely chill evening leafing through the swanky vegetable cookbook Six Seasons by Joshua McFadden. It has a smidge of that bossy dude-bro chef-talk I don’t like (do this my way or you’re a philistine), but the recipes and the set-up, heavy on the larder-stocking and advance-prepping, are very much the way I like to cook. I also like to think about food in seasons (he gives summer three parts, hence six in all), an approach that offers equal parts indulgence and denial: eating asparagus, say, only in early spring when it’s at its best, then after a few weeks putting it away until next year. Of course, as Alicia Kennedy touched on recently in her newsletter, the dominance of seasonality in food writing is a frankly bizarre denial of the variety of actual weather in most of the world.

The descent of autumn and cooler weather upon New York City makes the media psychically foist upon everyone else a sense of change, whether it’s actually happening to them or not. 

Seasons, she suggests, are in the mind (of the powerful), and to keep insisting on their universality is to deny the reality of that power and of a changing climate. The challenge, then, is to think about how we can conjure the pleasure of seasonal change, the shared experience, the evolving menu, the movement of the light, without demanding conformity or denying reality.

…Of writing

Nothing new by me, but I was interviewed by Rachel Thompson at Mashable UK for her piece about the history of the single positivity movement, and of course, Marjorie Hillis. I LOVE the image they created for it, by (the remarkably named) illustrator Bob Al-Greene:

And here I am banging my drum:

“But what I think is still really important about her work is the way she championed pleasure and self-indulgence in a really upfront way, which I think is still radical and subversive for women to do,” adds Scutts. “She doesn’t believe you can buy your way to happiness, but she certainly argues that surrounding yourself with beautiful objects, dressing well, and taking the time and energy to treat yourself well, even if nobody is watching, are vital and valuable.”

Thank you for reading, and to those of you who generously supported my coffee habit last time. You can do the same here, or buy my book! And if you enjoyed this, please do share it.

Share ThePleasureOf

*He’ll go back this week, when the lines are less crazy and the baby less cranky…

The Pleasure Of... New Starts

On chaos, art, and fantasy.

In Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia, a character explains chaos theory in this way: “When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you stir backwards, the jam will not come together again.” 

The other day I pulled out a jacket I haven’t worn since the spring. It’s sunflower yellow with black toggles and I love it dearly, but it gave me chills to pull it on, thinking of all the places we haven’t gone and things we haven’t done since I last wore it, day in day out, walking back and forth to the sculpture park on the water, where I still walk almost every day. The exhibition has changed (it’s now a collection of alternative monuments—this NYT article on it is great) but the view is the same. I’m struck by how far away and how close the spring feels, when X was a newborn and the lockdown was total and eerie but we could say surely, by June we’ll be back to normal. Surely, by September. Surely, by Christmas. And here we are. At least we’re decked out with a gorgeous new header and logo, thanks to my brilliant friend Lucy Ellis.

We have started to venture out a little from our hermetic bubble—on the bus and subway (once each) and to MoMA, where we introduced X to modern art via one of his namesakes, Félix Fénéon. It took a while to get past the temperature checks at the door (hot day, heavy baby) but once we did, it was both familiar and eerie in its three-quarters-emptiness.

I’ve taken the ferry a lot, and have a local cafe I’ve turned into an occasional office, trying not to think too much about what I’ll do when it’s too cold to sit outside. Invest in fingerless gloves and big scarves, I guess, and channel my inner Parisienne.

Portrait of a mother on deadline.
September 7, 2020

Amid all the disasters of local and national leadership over the past half year in particular, one bright spot is local activism and people showing up for the community. Our open street, around the corner on 31st Avenue, is just a few blocks closed to cars that now hosts yoga classes, free book fairs, voter registration and census events, and donation drives for the local food pantry. (The yoga is surreal.)

@yoga_agora holds classes 7 days a week, all by donation. Located at 31st Ave/31st St. 💕

Monday - Friday: 11a and 6p
Saturday & Sunday: 9a

📸: @astorialive
October 1, 2020

We’ve donated books and diapers, and over the summer I talked with a candidate for city council about how to make these changes longer-lasting, how to reimagine the city more equitably moving forward. I’m reading—and hoping to write about—Kate Soper’s new bookPost-Growth Living, which connects the changes we have to make to stave off climate disaster with the changes we all want to make in our work lives. Turning on something she calls “alternative hedonism” (very much in the spirit of this letter), it’s all about reframing sacrifice as opportunity, and challenging “growth” as the sole metric of economic wellbeing.

I’ve been torn all summer between intense focus on what’s at hand (a screaming baby will do that to you) and hazy imaginings of a different, very vaguely contoured future. That’s resulted in a good deal of digital-window-shopping for real estate, near and far, which sounds like a disgraceful cog-in-the-capitalist-machine exercise but which I find helpful, in uncertain times, in visualizing vast nebulous things like who I am and what I want. Most of the time, it makes me grateful for what I have and where I am, but sometimes it opens a window to alternatives. Along similar lines, Window Swap, a crowdsourced glimpse into other people’s lives all over the world, remains one of the pandemic’s purest pleasures.

This is, of course, a strange time to be talking about pleasure. Even the word is an offkey squawk in the (increasingly damp) deck orchestra of our national Titanic. I won’t spend every week rehearsing a disclaimer, but it feels necessary, in starting this letter up again, to reiterate what it’s about. My goal is to celebrate specific joys, both fixed and fleeting, but also to question how we describe and judge them, how we can make them a priority in our lives, and why we should. There is so, so much to be angry about right now, and every reason to be terrified. But rage and fear are exhausting, and often paralyzing. I need hope to get me moving—at least a glimpse of better things. This is part of what I’m writing about in my new book, set in a moment of extreme political turmoil and ideological polarization more than a hundred years ago: How activism spreads within friendships and communities, and how friends literally pull each other from the sidelines into the parade. 

Reading

The quote at the top, from Stoppard’s play about AE Housman (which I reread last year and is a touchstone for my slowly evolving novel), comes via Mason Currey’s newsletter Subtle Maneuvers, which is very good even though that spelling of “manoeuvres” hurts my heart. It’s one of several I’ve been enjoying lately about writing and books, including The Reading, a very charming creative-writing advice column, and Elizabeth Morris’s Crib Notes, billed as “succinct book reviews for new and busy mothers” and focused this month on accessible, pleasurable, romantically-infused novels, which are all I want at the moment. Oh, and I just finished Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea, an absorbing, lavishly overwritten fantasy that I enjoyed, though I wish its balance tilted more towards people than spectacle. And I will never look at honey in quite the same way again.

Writing

Hardly anything that’s not the book, but I’m happy to share this piece on the complicated and underappreciated Alice Dunbar-Nelson, for my “Feminize Your Canon” column at The Paris Review. Here’s a taste:

In April 1895, the up-and-coming poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, whom Frederick Douglass had dubbed “the most promising young colored man in America,” saw a poem by a young writer, Alice Ruth Moore, accompanied by a photograph in which she appeared stylish and beautiful. He wrote to her immediately at her home on Palmyra Street in New Orleans, expressing his admiration, and they began an intense epistolary courtship that lasted two years. […] The Dunbars embodied the aspirational ideal of the educated, cultured African American, allowed access to the white halls of fame and power as long as they were willing to remain, flattened and fixed, in the roles of representatives of their race.

Finally…

Thank you for reading. I am really happy to be back doing this and hope to get a letter out once a week on Friday afternoons. I would love to hear what’s giving you pleasure or getting you through these days—just hit reply to send me a note. If you want to support this letter with your hard-earned cash, thank you! You can buy The Extra Woman, my book about Marjorie Hillis, the 1930s queen of unapologetic pleasure, buy me a virtual coffee, or simply forward this post to someone you think might like it.

And please, please, please, Americans: vote.

Share ThePleasureOf

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.)

Loading more posts…