The Pleasure Of... Lowering the Bar

On naps, news overload, list-making, and chaotic magicians.

This hasn’t been a week of great joy. I’ve been in a holding pattern, quiet and tired, my to-do list getting longer and longer. It’s been hot, and I’ve been hiding from it, impatient for the weather to change. Stuck in that space where the (self-imposed) pressure to do more means I don’t do anything much. My impulse is to berate myself out of this restless funk. Sometimes it works. Deadline panic works, sometimes. But I am learning that what works best is just riding it out: long walks, long naps, letting my attention wander. Reminding myself that powering down, lowering the bar, is okay.

For the past few days it’s been easy to let my mind flit, fixated on the news, which means fixated on Twitter, tugged along in its turbulent wake. I can’t do anything, pinballing between parliamentary yelling on one coast and cable-news yelling on another, but I can pretend to myself that watching it unfurl is a civic duty. Time dilates in this mood: I’ll see a tweet about the Emmys, and remember jarringly that that was also this week. I watched the damn thing (yay, Phoebe!) but it was a million years ago. 

Also this week, I applied for a major fellowship, wrote a proposal for an archival project, sent out a few pitches for articles, put together the beginnings of a proposal for a new book, taught the second session of my class—like, I got stuff done. I went to the Brooklyn Book Festival, a networking event, and coffee with an editor friend. I went to a three-year-old’s birthday party! But still there are boxes unchecked on my list, always, and it’s hard to escape the feeling that when I listen to my body rather than, I guess, my ego, I’m cheating. Letting myself off the hook. Lazy. I think of that joke about how being a writer is great if you loved the feeling of always having homework you hadn’t finished, life as eternal Sunday night. 

Writing this out I’m reminded that pleasure is a question of focus, too. It takes work, or if not quite work, then at least determination, decision, attention. It’s easy to let joy drift by. Pleasure and celebration don’t follow automatically from finishing a difficult task, and we tend to assume that working for that celebration, thinking about it, planning it, is somehow antithetical to the whole idea. Joy should be spontaneous! Shouldn’t it?

We assume our memories are better primed than they are for joy and relaxation. It is, of course, incredibly easy to think of a million pleasurable things to do when I’m on deadline, but somehow that never translates into keeping a list for when I’m not. The idea of a list for joy sounds monstrous, somehow. But sometimes it’s hard to call things to mind. When I have a rare, low-deadline-pressure week, my mind goes blank. So in lieu of things I have, in fact, done this week in the name of joy, here’s a stab at that list. Small, domestic things, mostly. The everyday pleasures it is easy to forget.

Walk, or take the ferry, to Hunter’s Point to visit the gorgeous new library that just opened this week on the water. I mean, look at it! (Pic by Max Touhey for Curbed.)

Make yogurt. Prep all the random vegetables in our CSA box. Take Friday evening off, have a glass of wine and finish the half-eaten tubs of ice cream in the freezer. Catch up on the fall previews of arts & culture stuff and put some exhibitions and films and events on the calendar—and not just things I want to write about. Buy plane tickets for a trip in November. Clean out my closet and do some new-season window shopping. Read some poetry. See some friends.

Try not to worry so much about doing things right or wrong. 

Good thing/My thing:

The MacArthur Genius grants this week were a ray of sunshine, including a lot of wonderful writers. Ocean Vuong, who is thirty damn years old, was also longlisted for the National Book Award, and I’ve been dying to read his books for a while (an excuse to go to the library!) And Saidiya Hartman, who is simply an extraordinary writer and researcher, and whose Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments blew my head off this year. I’ve never read anything that gets inside history this way, and although I struggled to articulate it, I’m pretty proud of how this review turned out. 

Culture Thing:

I could preface this, as is my instinct, with a disclaimer about how I don’t really read YA, but I am always wary about what that disclaimer is doing—preserving my intellectual bona fides? To whom, or against whom? Like there’s someone waiting in the wings to take my PhD away if I admit to loving something silly. Something easy. Something charming. Anyway, disclaimer aside, earlier this summer I really enjoyed Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On, which is a queer rebellious riff on both Harry Potter itself and the vast and vibrant fan fiction world it inspired, and I loved its sequel Wayward Son, which came out this week. I am a sucker for warmth and humor and a road trip, for anything that subverts the conservatism of children’s books, and also chaotic magicians. I haven’t read Rowell’s other books, but there is something thrilling about seeing a writer evolve to the point where they can do whatever the fuck they want—in this case, writing a novel (two, now) about characters they created within the universe (and then, at a remove, within the fandom of that universe) of another novel. I liked Constance Grady’s review at Vox, and this piece by Dana Schwartz at LitHub:

In the literary community, fanfiction is almost uniformly dismissed as frivolous, associated a certain unseriousness that misogynists love to ascribe to teenage girls. But the strange relationship among Rowell’s books (not to mention their explicitly fanfic-centric plots) force light onto the all-too-fine line that exists between metafiction, so often exalted as high art, and fanfiction, so often dismissed as high art’s downfall.

Dismissing teenage girls—their brains, their commitment, their ideas, their vision for their own lives and for the future of the planet—is habitual, and boring, and tired, and can we just… stop? It’s not like Serious Men are covering themselves in glory lately.