The Pleasure Of... ???

On life indoors, Zoom, and what helps.

So... here we are. Trapped in the funhouse mirror/horror movie version of the joyful domesticity I’ve been used to celebrating here. Oh, you want to bake bread? How’d you like that bread leavened with existential despair? (I baked it anyway. I had yeast in the freezer and a stockpile of flour. It was good and insanely easy.)

I see people sharing and parsing the pronouncements of experts—doctors, epidemiologists, economists, and those who play them on the internet—the same way Greek seers prodded the entrails of birds for answers. We toss around phrases like “the foreseeable future” like we’ve ever been able to foresee it. Amid all this, I’ve accepted that I need to tune everything out—the panic, the predictions, the statistics—in order to function right now. I wrestle with this, ethically: how do I swim responsibly in oceans of information without drowning? Other people seem able to do it, but I can only manage to get my toes wet, ready to scurry up the beach when I have to, terrified of what the riptides might do. I’m not sure if this is cowardice or self-preservation—probably both. I fundamentally don’t believe that anxiety, or terror, or rage, or dread, are more morally justified than joy and hope, even under pandemic conditions. More than anything, I think they’re attempts to ward off pain. Nobody wants to be caught unawares, to be the innocent fool, the first victim, the one who didn’t look over her shoulder, who took the dark shortcut. The grasshopper, not the ant, her cupboards bare of pasta and beans and toilet paper and the better flavors of LaCroix. At the same time, though, the limits of the ant-brain have become pretty obvious. What good is it really for your cupboards to be stocked, if everyone else is at a loss? What good is it to be prepared without singing?

I know that interesting times are supposedly a curse, but I also think it’s a blessing to be interested, which I am, deeply, in how this is playing out in different places, and forcing us to reevaluate how we’ve set up these fragile systems we told ourselves were ironclad. I’m interested in what is being unearthed: the chains that link us together, how our decisions and movements affect one another, how our money circulates and what happens when it stops. How do we manage our basic needs when it isn’t just one sector of the population, easy to cordon off and vilify, that needs help surviving, but everyone? In the US, my one wild hope is that all this might reveal the futility of a system that ties benefits to employment—when even *this* disastrously nihilistic Administration is forced to contemplate sending bailout checks to every citizen. If there are no atheists in foxholes, then I guess there are no fiscal conservatives in a pandemic. 

But I’m no economist, or politician, or macro thinker: I can’t manage statistics, only stories. So I’m curious about domestic life, how this enforced, close-quarter indoor living might be reshaping families and relationships, and assumptions about childcare, education, and what we value. What work looks like, what achievement means, what we’re ambitious for. It’s there in the office-dwelling fathers suddenly seeing how relentless childcare is, how draining to energy and creativity and patience. In freelancers doling out work-from-home productivity tips and lessons in dealing with uncertainty. In middle-class parents acknowledging that teachers should be paid a million dollars a year, and blithely comfortable New Yorkers realizing that delivery workers and grocery-store clerks should earn hazard pay.

In the meantime, we gather together. My inbox is filling up with invitations to virtual cocktail hours and catchups with friends I haven’t seen in months or years. We’re checking in, and we’re checking up, and over and over again we’re exclaiming how great it is to see each other, to hear each others’ stories. My friend Marianne mentioned on Instagram that she’s found dating apps to be busier than ever, not for meeting up, but for simple connections, conversations that are deeper and more honest. “People aren’t just bored,” she wrote, “we are remembering we need each other.” Her book Help Meby the way, is great: the memoir of a year spent trying to follow the advice of a series of classic self-help books, and figuring out that it’s impossible to help yourself in isolation. I interviewed her just over a year ago, in a cafe in north London, a lovely conversation over tea and cake and wine. A simple thing I hope we can do again soon. 

I wrote a little thing about being home with a newborn in this weird moment, for Slate’s great Coronavirus Diaries series. Because hey, maternity leave is a myth.

The Pleasure Of... Curveballs

FELIX NAVIDAD!!!

So my otherwise chill and drama-free pregnancy took... a turn... on Wednesday morning. At my scheduled OB visit, after we’d discussed the final stretch, and the various plans/expectations for delivery, inducing, pain relief, etc, I was checked over physically, assuming everything was fine. FUNNY STORY. Turns out I had been walking around, for some unknown period of time, with my cervix dilated halfway to all-the-way, and that the irregular, mild, and generally quite ignorable cramps I’d been dismissing as Braxton-Hicks faux-contractions were, well, actually contractions. Contractuallies. Quietly and unobtrusively, while I was writing and going over edits and going to birthing class and failing to go to yoga and making plans for the big day IN MARCH, my little man was gearing up to experience a New York February. 

Still assuming this was all some kind of false alarm or at least, a slowable process, we got in a cab from the doctor’s office to ride twenty blocks south to Mount Sinai West, which we toured two weeks ago. Back then I was convinced that in the delivery room I’d fixate on the blowsy, blood-colored peony print on the curtains and wallpaper border, that brand of hospital decor that somehow just accentuates the institutional ugliness. But in the moment I didn’t even notice they were there. 

The rest of the day was spent waiting, in a series of less and then more private rooms, while it still seemed possible that we’d be sent home and told to come back in the morning, or in a couple of days, or perhaps that the whole thing was a false alarm. Underneath all that, though, was progress, slow and anything but steady, and at some point it became clear that no, we’d be going to a delivery room tonight, not next week. I didn’t have any drugs, because I wanted to be able to move around and because the slow onset got me used to the pain. By the time I was tired enough and feeling enough to want some of the edge taken off, I was being asked, and then told, to push. 

There is so much to say about all of this, this most banal of miracles. I have thoughts on everything from commodity-healthcare to nursing training to the relationship between aesthetics and emotions in recovery; about the gaps between people and protocols, the conflict between science and experience in pregnancy and childbirth, the myths around instinct, and the strange way time works in institutions, and in our minds and bodies. I’m interested in the way that we narrate huge experiences, and how surprised I was that everything was like something else, rather than a series of brand-new sensations, or perhaps that’s just the way our minds and bodies process the new. Also, the postpartum physical battering is no joke. I’m recovering pretty well, but the whole “you forget the pain once you hold the baby” is bullshit straight from the minimizing-of-female-pain playbook. Getting stitched up was the worst, most miserable part of the whole experience. 

TL, DR: pain, relief, boredom, terror, *enormous quantity of effluvia*, human baby!!!!!

So that’s where we are. His name is Felix Jeremy (after my beloved dad). He was just under 6lb, and three and half weeks early, but he missed being born on Leap Day. He’s a tiny little blue-eyed redhead with scratchy fingernails and chicken legs, and, well. I knew I wanted to do this. But I’m surprising myself, hour by hour, with how much I want to do it. It’s a trip. (My posting schedule may be a bit erratic over the next few weeks, and likely somewhat baby-centric. Little X is very chill and sleepy right now but I am pretty sure that isn’t going to last...)

Finally! I’ve never shared this link before, but if you enjoy reading my rambling, there has probably never been a better time to ask you to buy me a coffee

The Pleasure Of... Ikea

No, really. Also Dime bars, urban cool, and doomed heroes.

My deep love of Ikea goes back to my childhood, when we would go to Switzerland on holiday to visit our friends and ex-neighbors (hi, MacGilps!) who’d moved to Geneva. The first year we went, it was just me and my mother, and I was about nine. Our friends were living in a big modern flat with a balcony and slideable floors, and ingenious furniture like an expandable circular table and a kids’ bed that could fold down at either end as the child grew. Things were shiny white, accented with primary colors, or pale wood, and it all seemed so chic and modern. Our furniture at home was heavy and mahogany and handed down, designed for a Victorian house, not the glassy, flat-roofed little midcentury box we lived in. Everybody’s furniture, that I knew, was like that, in the late 80s: rounded and squishy and floral and heavy and dark. Nobody had blinds on their windows, or pale wood floors with geometric-patterned rugs, or modular cube-shaped bookcases. 

The first Ikea opened in London in 1988, the internet tells me, right around the time of our trip, saving my mother from whatever elaborate import schemes she was planning. The idea of flat-packed, self-assembly furniture was, I’m pretty sure, brand new, and the cheapness seemed impossible. The first store, near Wembley Stadium in north London, was a long and inconvenient drive from our house, so going there was a huge event. I loved it. Mum and I would spend the whole day going over every inch of the showroom, pulling out the drawers and opening cupboards in all the mock-up kitchens to see what was tucked away—a chopping board! A rubbish bin! A spice rack! An ironing board! I was transfixed by the installations that showed an armchair being endlessly mechanically pummeled by a machine, by the ubiquitous blue and yellow bags, by the cafe with its cheap snacks and dessert made of what in Britain we called Dime bars, hard caramel coated in chocolate, but which in Sweden and thus Ikea were called Daim, and by the ritual of filling out your order form with the little pencil and hunting up the item in a warehouse the size of an aircraft hangar, interspersed with wire bins full of grabbable wonders like bags of tea lights for 50p.

The catalog(ue) was a portal in my imagination, with its promise to make small spaces expand. I grew up in a tiny 7x9ft bedroom until college, torn always (as I still am) between my abundant love of clothes and books and stuff, and the stress and claustrophobia of having to cram too much into inadequate space. I campaigned for years for an Ikea loft bed, and for a long time slept on a mattress I could fold up into an armchair. I endlessly rearranged my furniture, trying to press the walls outward somehow, the way the Jenga-like brilliance of Ikea room sets promised to unfold space like a series of stage sets. Ikea cemented my fantasy of sleek city-center living, promising breakfast nooks and foldaway desks and concealed storage, balconies just big enough for a folding chair and a bistro table. Like a starry-eyed tiny-house-hunter, I waved away the complex maneuvers and perfect organization, discipline and tidiness required to fit a full life into a postage-stamp studio.

When I moved to New York, with two far-too-big suitcases, into partially furnished grad student housing, I assumed I’d go to Ikea for everything, but the roommate I lived with for my first, very weird year, had other ideas. A sheltered girl from rural New Jersey, she stocked the kitchen cabinets with canned food she never touched (I recall a lot of sauerkraut), even though I’d never known a place where food was so abundant, close to hand, and freely available around the clock—apparently I lacked the imagination to plan for the apocalypse. It turned out she’d already ordered furniture for our common space, a matching set of glass-topped tables on curlicued wrought-iron legs and curtains with swagged pelmets, and a pale wall-to-wall rug she made me pay for. Furniture for her came in room “sets,” a term I’d never heard, and beds were made with sheets and quilts and blankets, the way my grandmother made them. When I floated the idea of a trip to Ikea, she protested that it was for college kids, and this was what a grown-up apartment looked like. I countered that my parents had tons of Ikea furniture, and she retorted, joking-not-joking, that she and her family weren’t “cool London people.” I wanted to yell back that we were twenty-three, and we lived in New York, just about the only place that people in London think is even cooler, and she’d made our apartment look like the “before” shot in every home makeover we featured in the design magazines I worked on before I came to grad school. I was a terrible snob, sure, but I honestly didn’t know, at the time, how different different parts of America were—I assumed everyone gravitated to cities, that trains went everywhere, and that she would know New York better than I did. I was constantly shocked by physical and cultural distances. (I still am, even now.)

Ikea was no easier to get to in New York than in London, but I made it somehow, and was enormously relieved to find prices that were still low, and familiar products like Billy bookcases and Poang armchairs and duvets and duvet covers and many other things that had earned me blank looks in Bed, Bath & Beyond (what the fuck a comforter was, I had no idea.) There were catalogs and platters of meatballs and still everyone used the blue bags for their laundry. It was, as ever, a hassle to get to, a hassle to haul things home from, and a hassle to knock them together. The products are still flimsy and disposable, and yes, I’d still rather be able to curate a home full of vintage pieces that somehow fit perfectly in our limited and very particular space.

And yet.

This week we bought and assembled two big new Ikea pieces, a linen closet and a bookcase, the first big pieces we’ve had delivered from Ikea since our wall of Ivar shelving several years ago, which I love: solid untreated pine, shallow adjustable shelves, happily overloaded but without a trace of bowing in the middle like the Billy invariably will. (The trick, always, is buy the solid wood.) Currently they’re standing mostly empty while we enjoy the sense of possibility, the abundance of space before we fill it. Much of our apartment feels like this right now: poised on the edge of chaos. Four weeks to go.

Reading Pleasures:

I’m loving, and savoring, Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles—I’ve never read her before, and have always had reservations about contemporary novels based on classical mythology; I think the Greek/Roman-hero stuff felt too boyish and militaristic to me, or too rooted in magic and fantasy. Anyway, I’m always curious about the lightning-in-a-bottle nature of literary bestsellers, and this is the definition of what they call an “assured debut”—astonishingly confident in its tone and world-building, in the voice of its narrator, Achilles’s lover Patroclus, and other characters (her Odysseus, in particular, is spot on.) It doesn’t try to bridge the gap of centuries with endless description, but instead wields detail like magic (like the boys spitting olive pits at each other and laughing when one lands, still wet with fruit flesh, in Patroclus’s ear, the night before Achilles goes into battle.) It is making me salivate with excitement both for her follow-up, Circe, and for Emily Wilson’s Iliad translation, and I’m parceling it out as slowly as I can now we’re at Troy and I know how it ends…

I’m also reading Nancy Cott’s lively new book, Fighting Words, about American foreign correspondents between the wars, which I’m reviewing so won’t say any more about, and I have a couple more fun review books to read. After that, I’m looking forward to gearing down, stocking the cupboards and freezer as far as we can (so cute when parenting blogs tell you to make endless lasagna—how big do you think my freezer is?!) and keep pulling the apartment together. We’re getting there. With a little help from my Swedish friends. 

I’ve been lax at this but, please, if you know anyone who might like this newsletter, do pass it on. You can always reach me by replying to the email, and I’m eager to hear what’s giving you joy this week!

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The Pleasure Of...Screen Time

Many flavors of eye candy.

I write this with my cheek warm and smushed from the forty-seventh nap of the weekend (slight exaggeration) (very slight), which—amid an unexpected plunge in the temperature—means you would need a small forklift to get me off the couch today. Luckily it turns out you can get quite a lot of joyful entertainment beamed to your brain and eyeballs without having to do any work! Some highlights from my recent all-over-the-map viewing—not counting the appropriately incandescent Portrait of a Lady on Fire, on which I can only agree with Bong, via Indiewire:

As he breezed into Soho House, Bong spotted “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” director Celine Sciamma, who was snubbed by the Oscars but came to town for her single Spirit Award nomination. He handed her his Best International Feature statue. “You should be holding this,” he said.

  • Parasite’s victories made for happy Oscars viewing last Sunday. This GMT-raised girl still relishes being able to watch the ceremony in real time, sitting on the couch with T reading everyone’s repetitive Twitter jokes to each other and judging outfits. Despite all the frustrating/absurd/baffling things about it, I live for the ceremony’s combination of extreme pageantry and big-picture unimportance, and for the random documentary producers and technical experts and directors of animated shorts getting their breathless moment in the sun.

  • Speaking of films that should be holding more statuettes, Little Women is playing this week at Moving Image, so I went to see it again last night. I’m writing a piece about modern costume drama and female filmmakers, and while I feel the frustration of giving a women-centered film its only Oscar in the shape of the pretty-dresses-well-done award, the clothes are so important here. This time around I became particularly obsessed with the push and pull between warmth and display, with all Jo’s thick woolen socks, and her waistcoats, and those genius little wool body wraps they all wear; also with how the clothes work in different spaces—the crush of hoop skirts in the stairwell at Meg’s first ball, and the contrast between Jo in the colors of the autumn landscape and Laurie in his stark, urbane black-and-white during the proposal scene.

  • Speaking of costumes and spaces—I went to a screening of the new Emma. (period included) this week, a gorgeous and very funny adaptation that’s definitely more indebted to Clueless than to the novel, giving Emma more mobility and breathing room than the book does. I liked the decision to make Mr Knightley outdoorsy and rugged, and not visually much older than Emma, which some adaptations do, but plausibly in his early thirties, and also the choice to make her “accomplishments” extremely mediocre. Her gloriously crap portrait of Harriet is a lovely running visual joke. It was also fun to see half the cast of Sex Education popping up in supporting roles…

  • Speaking of which, I tore through season 2, screaming into the void all the while my unanswerable questions, including: Where is the backstory that explains how several hundred people from south London migrated to this one spot in rural Wales, to attend, basically, an American public high school in a castle? Why hasn’t the endlessly stylish Eric stolen Otis’s damn anorak and burned it? Why doesn’t Otis appreciate the goddamn view from his goddamn palatial breakfast deck, and where is this house and can I please have it, along with Gillian Anderson’s entire wardrobe? And so on.

    Speaking of WTF: Diamantino! This was our Valentine’s Day viewing, and I’m still not sure who I need to sue at the Criterion Channel. It’s a Portuguese farce that dares to ask the questions we all want answers to, like: What if Cristiano Ronaldo were a charming naïf who missed a crucial goal in the World Cup final, then learned about the global refugee crisis, and what if the lesbian secret-service agent surveilling him for evidence of financial crimes decided to pose as his new adopted son, and then it got weirder? There are soccer fields full of romping Pekingese puppies, evil twin sisters, a Brexit-style campaign for Portugal to leave the EU, and lots of references to Um Bongo, the deeply racist fruit juice that we grew up drinking in the UK, which apparently only exists there and in Portugal. Anyway, I don’t quite know if I’d recommend this movie, but I haven’t seen anything quite like its Pierre et Gilles meets Jane the Virgin meets early Almodovar meets James Bond batshittery in a while. Here’s the trailer.

  • Speaking of batshittery, my beloved Magicians is back. I was very uncertain about this season after they killed off the/a central character in a brutal way that affected me far more than I expected it to, but they are doing some very interesting and honest things with grief and consequences, and giving me ideas about narrative daring and how a story and an ensemble can bend without breaking. Plus the costumes are absolutely stunning, far more so than you might expect from a random little cable-channel sci-fi show, and I wish there was a chance in hell that the designer could win the Emmy/Oscar/EGOT she deserves.

The Pleasure Of... Midtown Soup

On difficulty, serendipity, and melted cheese.

Hating midtown is usually a default stance for New Yorkers, for an unsurprising list of good reasons: crowding, chaos, garbage, office buildings, chain stores, soullessness. But because I don’t commute to an office, because I don’t *have* to be there often, I take a certain amount of joy in the characteristic feeling, in that belt that wraps Manhattan below the park into the mid-20s, of being at once dwarfed and swept up and shoved aside. All anyone wants from you there is for you to get out of their way. And while the avenues are predictable, shiny wide boxes and people in suits, the side streets are still full of surprise, doors to other worlds and little set-pieces of street pageant—guys unloading something enormously impractical in the middle of traffic, holding you up as they maneuver, say, a huge gilded mirror on a handcart over broken paving and around trash mounds, for mysterious reasons and mysterious clients. If some basic essence of this place lies in getting things done in the most difficult way possible, in the smallest space, and on somebody’s back, then here’s where you see it. And if some other essential part lies in stumbling through just the right door, among thousands, then this week we were unexpectedly in tune with the city.

When I picked my OB-GYN a few years ago, it was because she was absurdly convenient to where I was working, and now that I no longer have that job, the trek to her office is impractical but already layered with nostalgia, for the visits and the changing weather and the places we went for lunch afterwards. The Shake Shack at the end of the block is closed for renovations. That was our first stop, back in the summer when we knew it was real: milkshakes and burgers on a bench by a playground, looking around at all the strollers and kids and saying “well then” to each other a lot. Other places close to the office or the ultrasound place further south, clustered closer as walking got harder. 

On Thursday, we were on the bus down Columbus to midtown planning on one of earlier, perfectly fine but unexciting spots, Bareburger or the Flame Diner, when we passed a little ramen place and I suddenly knew what I wanted. I haven’t had any food cravings and almost wish I did—instead I get suddenly, powerfully hungry, but the particular taste I’m after is elusive. Nevertheless, when I see it, I know it, so we jumped off the bus and went to Terakawa, just beating the rush, sitting up at the counter next to a family with two kids, the serious-faced younger one wielding her chopsticks with far more grace and skill than I ever will, and a couple of solo diners hunched over books. I had a basic miso ramen with a side of incredibly fresh, light pork gyoza, and T had the spicy house ramen, which was creamy and smoky and peppery at once. We’re loyal to our local, Tamashii, where we always go after getting home from a trip, but I don’t mind admitting that this little hole-in-the-wall was better, brighter, stronger-flavored, with that magic that comes from a kitchen tinier that the one in our apartment and the feeling of getting in on a secret.

Two days later, we found ourselves back in midtown, a little further south  and east, cold and hungry, and ducked into La Bonne Soupe on 55th, a French bistro which has been around for decades, though I’ve never actually eaten there before. They serve maybe the best French onion soup(e) I’ve ever had, the kind where the Gruyère comes loose in little soft rubbery bundles and you burn your tongue in your impatience. They do a lunch deal that’s $25 for soup, salad (with their house dressing), bread, a drink, and dessert. Which, for midtown, or anywhere in town, is not bad at all. 

I keep thinking about this recent piece by Jeremiah Moss about the East Village, one of the few New York-is-dying laments that I’ve loved, because its quirks are so specific and its rage so eloquent. The piece really gets at what it means to sanitize a city—“scouring it all the way down”—and what’s lost when life gets so much easier for its residents, on the surface at least. I’m wary of romanticizing poverty and difficulty, but I also think we don’t interrogate ease and abundance—and what they cost—nearly enough. (On that note, too, I’m also still thinking about The Good Place finale...)

A couple of pieces from me this week: this Guardian profile of Jenny Offill, whose excellent new novel Weather is finally out. I had such a blast chatting with her, having for some reason thought she would be serious and standoffish, but she was so warm and smart and funny, and a good sport about ending up in the rather loud and expensive Breslin, adjacent to the Ace Hotel lobby. (Another pro tip, for midtown south this time, if you have serious carb cravings—the Breslin does an excellent and truly mountainous “assortment of pastries” for $15, a decent breakfast for at least three people.) (No, this did not make it into the profile.) Do pick up the book! And then read my friend Lucy Scholes’s excellent review in the Telegraph.

I was less happy about Anne de Courcy’s new book about Coco Chanel and the French Riviera from the 1930s through the war, which was interesting, but definitely triggered my rich-people-are-monsters-and-glamour-is-a-tool-of-fascism sirens, so it was fun to review in a publication aimed at rich people. Don’t mind me, I’ll be over here in the corner eating peasant soups and sharpening my pitchfork.

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