The Pleasure Of... Second Homes

Figuratively speaking, folks, I'm a freelance writer. Also cartoons, Nirvana, and HGTV.

I had lunch with my new editor this week, and we talked a lot about Paris, and learning French. French classes are one of the things I promised myself when I sold the book; the other was a new desk chair, which is a significant upgrade aesthetically and lumbar-support-ily from the old IKEA one I’d been managing with before. But it’s French (and this place for learning it) that I’m excited about.

    I started going to France, and learning French, very young, and it’s always felt like a second home, an alternate reality where I am a different—not better, but refreshingly unfamiliar—version of myself. When I was 14 or 15, I went to France for two weeks with school, with girls I mostly didn’t like (I didn’t like most of them.) My parents came along as chaperones, to get a free trip to France, which they realized was a terrible deal before we’d even left London, stuck on a coach with a horde of feral girls. 

My exchange partner, Pauline, was shy and kind and awkward. Her best friend was this strange, fascinating girl, an only child named Antonine, some kind of child genius who lived in a huge house nearby and insisted on being called Mina, after Winona Ryder in Francis Ford Coppola’s gloriously absurd Dracula. Mina played Nirvana songs on guitar while I tried to bluff my way through explaining the lyrics to In Utero. (“Rape Me”: “Irony??”) We fell into an odd and intense friendship, along with Pauline’s older brother Guillaume, who adored Mina and fascinated me—his bedroom was a work of art, wallpapered all over with images of supermodels and a huge poster of La Reine Margot, which I valiantly tried to follow without subtitles. (The next year it was a pristine, cream-and-red library: he’d made faux Gallimard covers to wrap around all his books. He’s an art historian and curator now.)

When the two weeks were up, the family invited me to come on holiday with them and Mina to the coast. We sat on the beach with cassette Walkmans (more Nirvana), ate the local version of saltwater taffy, and I learned the French version of the daisy-petal game—not just “he loves me, he loves me not,” but “il m’aime… un peu, beaucoup, à la folie, passionnément, pas du tout.” That there could be these stages of love and being loved, that it could escalate like that and then shut down so abruptly, enthralled me. The odds were so much better, the stages so much more exciting—even if at that point we were still playing it with the actors from 90210.

My school friends couldn’t believe I’d volunteered for two more weeks among these profoundly uncool French teenagers. But that was the appeal, I think. In French I had no idea who or what was cool. That summer was probably the closest to fluent I’ve ever been, talking and thinking in a different language all day, and I loved it. I was different in French. My words didn’t come with strings attached, nuances to entangle me, the stifling knowledge of all the implications of everything I said. I didn’t know if I was clever or naive. I didn’t know who I was in French, and now I want to find out.

Small Pleasures: Spidermen/women/pigs!.

On Sunday, we went to a matinee showing of Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse in 3D, at the Museum of the Moving Image. You don’t need me to tell you it is both eye-meltingly visually dazzling and charming as hell—everybody else got there first. But as always, I advocate culture at your own pace, and it’s a joyful way to spend two hours.

Good Thing in a Bad World:

I am intrigued to see how the Times’s extraordinary-sounding 1619 Project on the long history of slavery is going to look digitally, since we gave up our paper subscription. They have been doing very creative stuff on mobile—I loved this guide to hikes in the five boroughs—and I trust this will get good treatment that lets the writers shine. Here’s hoping it kicks off a much-needed rethink of how the history of slavery in this country gets understood and taught, and if you aren’t following Nikole Hannah-Jones everywhere (she spearheaded the project), well, get on that.

My New Stuff:*

Speaking of great design, I always love writing for Curbed, and I was delighted with the final version of a big piece I wrote for them earlier this summer, about classic television and its impact on interior design, from I Love Lucy to Frasier via Dynasty and tons more. It’s part of a great package on design and TV, including lots of HGTV content which I’m always here for, so enjoy.

*Still working on my snappy subheads. Happy Friday.

The Pleasure Of... Fresh Starts

But not quite yet. Also literary icons, weird herbs, and SoulCycle schadenfreude.

I’m not at liberty to disclose the details yet, but the book I’ve been working on has a home, and I’m in the happy, teetering-on-the-edge moment where it’s all possibility. I’m wildly ambitious for this book, and feel like I have a right to be, and also feel like it’s real from the start. My first book didn’t feel real until far too late, partly because I was working full-time and found it hard to focus on, partly because it was a project that had been brewing for good decade, and partly because *nothing* prepares you for the weirdness of a book with your name on being out in the world. It’s beyond surreal. But the fact of its existence means that now I can imagine the new project as an arc leading to an actual end point, something solid, a victory arch not a rainbow, and I know I need to assemble and pile up the bricks, not just wait and pray for rain.

At college, Pete De Bolla, one of the professors I loved & feared the most, told us early on that we should expect to be reading for at least three hours a day. I still think about that, not that I ever really manage it, despite telling myself it is literally my job, or at least 50% of my job. It still feels like shirking, so I sit in front of the computer and pretend that’s work instead. But I’m trying to make space for it. Yesterday I went to the park and sat under a tree and read a book I need to read—not for three hours, but for a while. That physical separation from my screens and devices, and time to read and think, will be a big part of the schedule I have to work out. Because it’s real now. 

The Pleasure Of… Summer Suppers

It’s difficult, of course, to think about making a big new start in August, a sybaritic month before pencil-sharpening September. I am the nerd who made calendars counting down to the beginning of the school year, but I’m trying to enjoy the last of summer, mostly through food. In Vermont we picked blueberries off our friends’ bushes (different varieties, different tastes, from almost citrus-sharp to floral), and are eating our way through a giant punnet of them; we have a quart of maple syrup from their neighbor’s trees, and fudge and cheese from the country store. Back home I’ve been getting local farm boxes via FreshDirect, an irregular delight, this week from Hepworth Farm, with herbs I’ve never tasted before (Mexican Mint Marigold! Flowering dill! Red Shiso!), and a glut of vegetables including corn, tomatoes, arugula, baby eggplant, cucumbers, and a purple pepper. I’m racing joyfully to get through it. We made Melissa Clark’s Green Goddess Pasta Salad (adapting the herbs to what we had) and it was incredible. I hate the name but that dressing is insanity.

The Pleasure Of… Tribute Reading

Bittersweet, of course, but I’m learning so much. I read Beloved and Jazz when I was a teenager, and felt rattled by them in ways I was not quite able to parse, so it’s been fascinating to hear from those writers for whom she was an inspiration for the opposite reason, because she was speaking to them, about them, and for them. The experience of reading across the difference of race and nationality is both intimidating and galvanizing, and I want and need to do it more. I was in a room with Morrison when I was on the National Book Critics Circle board, and we gave her our Ivan Sandrof lifetime achievement award at the ceremony in March 2015. We were recognizing her primarily as an editor and critic, rather than as a novelist, and she spoke about the history of book reviewing and the convention that lumped together all books by black writers as somehow related and a niche—a cultural ghetto. I remember how excited we all were that she was able to come, since travel was difficult for her and she was understandably selective, but her presence, her gravitas and humor, were breathtaking. It honestly felt like we should have been kneeling. Her speech, and poet Rita Dove’s gorgeous introduction, are online, and the video is here.

The Pleasure Of… Pressure

It has been hard to feel much good in anything in this week of terrorism. I’m taking heart where I can from boycotts and backlash against donors to this monster of a president, using capitalism against capitalists like Stephen Ross. It’s a good day to read about Florence Kelley, socialist, NAACP co-founder, and pioneer of the consumer boycott as one of the few ways middle-class women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century could exercise political power. It was double-edged even then, nudging up against the often coercive, conservative morality of the Progressive Era. But honestly, NOT acquiescing, not letting these people get on with their lives in peace, feels like something. Katie Rosman’s New York Times piece is revealing for how desperately people do not want to be made to think about their complicity. (She tweeted that “I have never been screamed at for (very respectfully) doing my job like I was in the parking lot of Soul Cycle in the Hamptons.”) Pretty much the only person who comes out of this not stinking is the teenager who works the front desk. 

Upcoming Pleasures

I’m looking forward to this event on Monday in Bryant Park with Alicia Malone and a fantastic line-up of female critics, celebrating her book The Female Gaze, about women film directors. I interviewed her last year, and I’m excited to meet in person.

The Pleasure Of... Getting Out

Literal crickets.

August, like February, is a tough month for the most die-hard New Yorker. I don’t hate it, because I’d still take heat over slush any day, but something happens after the last day of July, a simultaneous setting-in of everything bad about the summer (festering garbage, grey blankets of humidity, soaking thunderstorms followed by the unforgiving ice of subway AC, the Sunday-night feeling that summer’s nearly over and you neither had as much fun nor got as much done as you’d planned, the relentless certainty that anyone blessed with both money and sense has gotten the hell out of Dodge. And although I’d love to make the case for the city in August, its sweaty slowness and relative emptiness, I’m writing this sitting in a hammock in Vermont, and I couldn’t be happier to be a few hundred or ten million miles away.

We got here last night after five hours on the trundling train, all the way up the edge of the Hudson, and now everything around me is green and buzzing with life. Of course this is slightly terrifying (I am one hundred percent the city girl in the romcom who tries to go hiking in high heels and shrieks at the sight of snakes and spiders) but it’s also peaceful and actually cool in the shade, and nothing smells like a rodent died inside a radiator. But more than anything being all alone in the country with people I love means a few days of focusing on how I feel rather than how I look (in the broadest sense), just reading and sleeping and eating and walking and swimming in a beautiful place, the wind now and again rippling through trees like a waterfall, the only version of a vacation that I ever really want.  

And hammocks! Every time I’m in a hammock I think about Middlemarch, reading it (or perhaps even then re-reading it?) in my teens in the garden of a house in France, twisting my back out of shape, the old paperback edition I still have from school, its spine held together with tape, the pages buttermilk-yellow and soft like velvet under my hands and falling out in lavish chunks, tiny print scrawled all over and underlined, flopping open across my knees at my favorite scenes. Or I think about Brazil, the trip my friends and I took the day we graduated from college, almost twenty years ago, a blur now of fresh papaya and deserted beaches and eggs fried in butter, cachaça and endless bus rides and a low-level sense of being out of place and bewildered and grateful. The hammocks were everywhere in the beach towns, colorful and cheap in the markets, and I only regret being too sensible to bring one home to London. Hammocks are fundamentally not-sensible, and for that reason they are ideally suited to late summer, to self-indulgence, and all the things I’m trying to celebrate here.

Recent Writing:

I got to go back to the New-York Historical Society a few weeks ago to celebrate the opening of the new exhibition in the women’s history gallery, which focuses on the women photographers of LIFE Magazine. For my piece on the show I interviewed the show’s co-curator, and my brilliant former colleague and friend, Sarah Gordon, and we went deep on lots of the things we talked endlessly about when we worked together, about what women’s history really is, what it can do, and how to do it better.

A panel display at the start of the show offers a brief introduction to the life stories of the six photographers, but their biographies aren’t the focus of the show. I ask Gordon whether this choice, to focus on work rather than character, indicates an evolution of women’s history away from its sometimes oppressive focus on biography. She explains that while the show certainly wants to create a wider awareness of these women’s work and their names, it is not just a question of establishing individual fame. At the Center for Women’s History, the goal is “to integrate women’s history into all of history.” The exhibition therefore aims to show how the photographers’ work fit into a larger frame, how it was “integral to LIFE, to Henry Luce’s vision of America, to this sharing of images and stories about American families, politics, culture, art, race, labor,” Gordon says. “It’s about their work, their connections to these themes, to these topics, more than their own biographies. That’s the women’s history, to me.”

A Force for Good

Contingent Magazine, where I published the LIFE piece, is a great new history website put together by a group of historians including Erin Bartram, who not long ago wrote a brilliant, viral essay about what the academy has lost, and continues to lose, by continuing to train and encourage smart people for a profession that is eroding faster than icebergs under their feet. To be clear, I blame the corporatization of the university and right-wing legislatures gutting higher-education funding over the past twenty years and more for most of the current crisis, not people with the temerity to want to be scholars and teachers and to believe that should be a livable profession. Anyway, Contingent’s name nods to that crisis in “contingent” labor and also to an understanding of how history happens, and if you like what they’re doing, please do send them a few dollars to keep doing it. (For what it’s worth, they paid me more than the Atlantic online for a history piece last November.)

I hope wherever you are, your August gives you a chance to escape & breathe.

The Pleasure of... Procrastination

Pleasure is what happens while your to-do list is making other plans.

This past weekend obviously put the lie to my whole “get out into the heat” celebration of last week. Over 100 and humid isn’t running weather in anyone’s estimation, and the pool at the weekends is a little much. Now that the worst of it has broken, for now, I’m back to running and swimming and generally being the summer cheerleader I’m able to be because I don’t have to commute into Manhattan every weekday and can generally mooch about drinking iced coffee and going to the park. I do, however, have a deadline looming* for a piece that I need to finish. Hence, procrastination.

Procrastination is not a pleasure in itself; it nags like a bodily ache, one that you brought on yourself—a stupid bruise, a hangover. I know full well that the only way out of it (to paraphrase a friend’s tattoo) is through. I know that hitting send on the piece will be a weight off my neck. But I also know that I’ll have lost something, and not just the ideal version of the piece that hangs around tantalizingly before I throw the real thing together and shove it at my editor. I mean the little revelations that come when your mind is casting about for some other thing—any other thing—to latch onto. I’ve had to strong-arm myself off Twitter a few times this week (bless you, Self Control) but when I’m in this mood it’s especially irresistible, serving up enough little gems (book recommendations! Exhibitions to check out! Interactions with smart people and boosts for my work!) to keep me at it like a rat tapping the lever for its cocaine-laced sugar pellets. I’ve found it easy enough to cold-quit other social media—namely Facebook—so I suspect blunt prohibitions work better than complicated negotiations with my better angels. To that end, I’m reviving my rule that I simply don’t visit it at the weekend. If that works I’ll try restricting it to afternoons only. First-thing-in-the-morning Twitter is a recipe for a useless day.

I’m also trying not to think too much about my book proposal which is officially out there in the world. Pray for me, sacrifice goats, send ~vibes~, I’ll take what you’ve got.

A few places my wandering attention has snared itself this week:

THE PLEASURE OF… READING WHAT YOU LOVE.**

Since I rarely review fiction, contemporary novels aren’t really work, except in the whole keeping-up-with-the-culture thing that traps you if you are even nominally a Book Person. I know “buzz” is self-serving industry-generated nonsense, but it can still feel as though there’s constant pressure to read what is new, or hot, rather than what you love. And anyway, this can be weirdly hard to figure out and find, partly due to the combination of hollowness and hyperbole that book marketing entails: A lambent meditation on the nature of time, family, and healing, or whatever. The reason I ended up reading (and loving) Sally Rooney’s Normal People is that the UK edition basically *told you what it was about* in the inner flap in a way that American editions seem deeply reluctant to do. Perhaps the spoiler-terror that is inhibiting movie and TV criticism is starting to infect books as well, so reviewers and blurbers and flap-copy-writers are terrified to talk about plot. If there is one, which in literary fiction there often isn’t, really, which is fine but… I’m a realist. I like a story.

All that is a very long way of saying that I *loved* Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers, which is now out in paperback. The story jumps between the mid-80s and 2015, focusing on the AIDS crisis in Chicago and a group of friends and lovers, and it is heartbreaking and so smart and warm. I think it resonated with me because it’s essentially, and pretty explicitly, a war novel, exploring what it’s like to live as a man under the constant fear of death (or survivor guilt) and as a woman, to bear the grief of more and more loss—exacerbated of course by the fact that your government refuses to acknowledge there’s a war going on at all. Related recommendation, the brilliant French film BPM [Beats Per Minute], which is streaming on Hulu, which really beautifully juxtaposes the emotional stakes of loving and losing people amid the daily, grinding, frustrating work of activism. Important trailer note: the sappy speech that plays in voiceover about living your life to the fullest is, in context, a joke. The character and the film are a lot smarter and angrier than that.

I’m also (perks of the trade, or in this case friends in the trade) lucky enough to have my hands on a galley of Find Me, André Aciman’s sequel to Call Me By Your Name, although I had to put it down to finish the Makkai and I’m now terrified to finish it, because I’m scared of what will—or more specifically, won’t—happen. I went on a bit of a *journey* with CMBYN, not initially loving the novel as much as a lot of people did, finding it exhausting to be stuck inside Elio’s head, and put off by Aciman’s occasionally twee stylistic flourishes. The film adaptation felt how I wanted the book to feel, and I think made some smart excisions (the preternaturally insightful little neighbor girl with leukemia, OY) that make it more of its own thing, and for me, easier to love. Find Me so far feels more like Enigma Variations, an uneven novel that tracks, essentially, the sentimental and sexual education of a man who is considerably less charming than Elio, and which also makes clear what Find Me confirms, that Aciman is, um, not great at writing women! Sigh. (Honestly in my fantasy Elio grows up into BPM’s fierce activist Sean, not least because the actor, Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, sort of resembles, and deserves to be as famous as, Timothée Chalamet.)

I’ve just found out I have a very exciting opportunity to interview the lovely Téa Obreht, so I am finally going to read The Tiger’s Wife and her new novel, probably on the train to Vermont next week. Work that is indistinguishable from pleasure. 

THE PLEASURE OF… JUST DESSERTS

After linking last week to that excellent Artforum essay I was very happy to see that Warren Kanders resigned from the Whitney board as a result of several more artists pulling out of the biennial in protest at his weapons-manufacturing wealth. Predictably, he whined about being targeted and harassed by politically engaged protestors who wouldn’t let him get on with his money- and reputation-laundering in peace. Sorry they picketed your fancy townhouse, dude. Be grateful they didn’t have, oh I don’t know, tear gas.

Also, Equifax leaked a bunch of customer data and had to pay a big fine. You can go to this site and get your share, at least $125 if you were included in the breach. It took a couple of minutes and is roughly 125x better than nothing. Accountability is tasty.

Until next time!


*Mmmaybe “blown” is more accurate. But it was a loose one! Which are the worst…

** I would be remiss here not to shout out the book I have unabashedly loved the most this summer, Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston, which is a romance novel with an absurd premise that it is nonetheless utterly charming, extremely funny, a glorious respite from political realities, and that rarest of things: a book by an American that features actual convincing usage of British slang by British characters. It is a pure, fun, sexy pleasure and you can thank me later. (I hate the cover, but you can’t have everything.)

The Pleasure Of...Sweating a Heatwave

On running, the 80s, summer moods, the Fitzgeralds, The Souvenir, and protest.

I went for a run in Los Angeles recently, seven-odd miles in midday sun. I was staying in La Brea, on the edge of a peaceful grid of streets shaded with jacarandas that bloomed and shed shamelessly, purple clouds and carpets, where the 1930s houses were beautiful and human sized, from a time when rich people were willing to see their neighbors, and before automobile supremacy ripped the heart out of the city. I wanted to stay in the shade and away from traffic, but was also scared of getting lost and of trespassing accidentally, so I found myself after an hour or so, hot and tired, on Beverly Boulevard, endless brightness and concrete and heat, forced to keep going. You’re strong enough, I started telling myself. You know you are

In the six or so years I’ve done it seriously(ish) and regularly(ish), running has been a process of unlearning. Mostly things about myself—you’re fragile, you’re lazy, you’re a bookish, indoor person, not the type of person who runs marathons—but also things about effort and endurance. I can still remember that panicky dread I used to feel about half a mile into a run, when my brain registered that this was going to happen and was going to hurt and was going to last for a while, and started screaming at me to stop. Fighting down one’s frankly kind of melodramatic brain takes all kinds of tricks: mantras, music, breathing, counting, whatever works, and then whatever works the next time. Because you have to fight it every single time.

It took me a long time to admit to myself that I have a tendency to summer depression. It didn’t make sense to me, because I love hot weather, but loving it was part of the problem. I was stuck in the fear of not making the most of it. The legacy, I guess, of growing up in a place where summer was stuttering and capricious, and hot weather a sign that called for a response: picnics, sundresses, hammocks, beaches, beer in plastic cups. Even after fifteen years in New York, where summer is a sweaty, stinky certainty, I still feel pressure to hold it in case it escapes. This year, I realized that what matters is going outside anyway, and doing something physical—running, swimming, yoga, walking, cycling—in the heat. Despite the heat. 

We’re in a heatwave now. This is the hottest July ever worldwide, on the heels of the hottest June. Yesterday was a day of storms; I ran in the evening, when it was heavy and wet. The day before was sunny and humid; I ran in the morning, when it wasn’t much cooler. A four-mile race in Central Park last Saturday morning started at 8am, when it was already over 80 degrees. All those runs were hot, red-faced, eye-stinging, soaked-shirt hot. The thing is, you learn. I am trying to take lessons from the physical things I do, and not turn them into worries that will stop me getting out in the first place. The pool is always crowded, but the precise nature of that crowd is unpredictable; sometimes it gets in the way, sometimes it doesn’t. Yes, running is uncomfortable when it’s hot, but the nature of that heat is likewise unpredictable.

Sometimes there’s a little breeze in the shade like encouragement; sometimes it feels like breathing underwater. So I make little adjustments. Spray-on sunscreen. Stopping at the water fountains. I have decent running sunglasses now. I wear a visor, and since I now know it’s not enough, I’m going to start wrapping my buff, an insanely useful little wrap of cloth, around my wrist to mop the sweat. I need music, not podcasts, when it’s hot out, and so I recently unearthed and started carrying my ancient little clip-on iPod nano, a brilliant little piece of tech that is the lightest way to get music when there’s no pocket in my shorts big enough for my phone. 

I go slow, but I go. 

Cultural Pleasures

Since Cannes I’ve been curious about The Souvenir, the new film from Joanna Hogg, patron saint of Women Going Through It in High-waisted Shorts. It’s roughly autobiographical, about a young filmmaker trying to figure out how to see clearly and be honest, and I found it tense and troubling and gorgeous, and fuel for my slowly cooking and extremely unformed fantasy project about films set or made in 1983 as a kind of unexpected historical hinge point (see also My Beautiful LaundretteCall Me By Your Name, A Room of One’s Own, and, oh lord, The Big Chill.)

Writing Pleasures (Not “The Pleasure of the Text”?)**

I’m currently working on a piece for the TLS about new editions of Zelda Fitzgerald’s Save Me the Waltz and TheGreat Gatsby. I read Save Me years ago and have found it tough going: some dazzling lines, a spine of steel, imagery that is often completely off-the-wall, feminist in complicated ways and racist in simple ones. This feels important to note in a week of scream-inducing idiocy about racism (there’s only so many ways to yell racist is not an insult, it’s a foundational social structure before you just pass out.) Zelda’s alter ego Alabama simply sees a world divided into people who are human and people who aren’t. While she fights for her own life, she can’t see the lives of others. 

I did recently talk to Lisa Taddeo, author of the incendiary Three Women, which I highly recommend for its startling language and boldness and intimacy, if not necessarily for its broader gender politics. Fascinating, though, and Lisa was a delight, and it was fun trying to write this for Mel Magazine, a website aimed at dudes. 

Activist Pleasures

I’m extremely curious to check out Adrienne Maree Brown’s book Pleasure Activism, which advances “a politics of healing and happiness that explodes the dour myth that changing the world is just another form of work.” In my research on feminist activism in the 1910s I am really trying to foreground the way that pleasure, friendship, intimacy, and joy shaped women’s political commitments, so I am super curious about a version that roots that idea in black feminist history. I read about Brown and her book in a New York Times article about avoiding “guilty pleasures,” a concept I can get behind, although (a) I feel like this piece is written every three months and (b) always lean heavily on justifying stereotypically female pleasures like The Bachelor, a show that makes me want to kill myself and everyone around me. YMMV!

Finally, this open letter, “The Tear Gas Biennial,” by artists Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson, and Tobi Haslett is straight fire. TL;DR: Protest is painful, philanthropy is money laundering, pay your fucking taxes, fund the arts, live your values. 

Happy heat waving!

*Slight title alteration as a result of getting ahead of myself. Sorry!
** God, no.

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