The Pleasure Of...November
Nostalgia, dark mornings, and questionable-but-wonderful holidays.
|Joanna Scutts||Nov 1, 2019|| 2|
When I was little, Halloween stretched out and merged with Bonfire Night, or Fireworks Night, or the Fifth of November, which I much preferred. I’ll take staying up late and eating marshmallows while things explode over the stress of dressing up in costume and pretending not to be scared of scary things. To celebrate this extremely questionable British holiday, with its ritualized burning of Catholic political rebels, the little close of 30 houses where I grew up held a bonfire party in a tucked-away area lined with garages. For days beforehand we’d gather leaves and wood and build up the bonfire pile, and on the night itself a few intrepid neighbors whose garages weren’t too stuffed with junk would slide the doors up and set up tables of food. We stood as close to the fire as we dared in our puffy anoraks, charring marshmallows on sticks; I don’t think we ever thought to do anything more elaborate with them than burn our fingers pulling on their blistered skin and breaking their hot gooey centers into our mouths. Somebody would nail a Catherine wheel to the wall (a fun opportunity to learn about medieval torture devices!) and depending on the presence and enthusiasm of older teenagers or daredevil dads, various low-key rockets would spurt and whistle up from the flat roofs of the garages, from which we kids were ordinarily firmly (yet ineffectually) banned. The morning after we’d come back out to hunt for spent fireworks cases, rake in the ashes, and once, I remember, trying to bake potatoes wrapped in foil in the embers.
On a different night we’d go up to the heath, the big common where the local council set off a much more impressive fireworks display, and usually there was a fair, and when we were older, flasks of booze. It was always dark and cold and sometimes damp, and I have incredibly vivid memories of trying to grip the thin wire handle of a sparkler in my mittened fist and write my name in the air before its glowing dandelion-head of sparks died in a tiny red sunset. Other kids lit fistfuls together but that always felt reckless and wasteful to me. I always shook them one at a time out of their thin paper packets, and thought of them as wildly precious, like Christmas crackers. All my most intense childhood joys are laced with the faint scent of something burning.
It’s November now, and here in the US there’s no politically problematic pyrotechnic coda to Halloween, just the anticipation of Thanksgiving at the end of the month, and already I’m getting interiors catalogues full of fancy glassware and candles and piled-up dishes. (Solidarity to Deadspin and pour one out for Drew Magary’s inimitable Hater’s Guide to the Williams-Sonoma Catalogue.) I’ve always loved Thanksgiving as, essentially, bonus Christmas with weirder side dishes—marshmallows have their place, and it is burning the roof of a child’s mouth, not anywhere near mashed potato—and no pressure of presents. I know its origins are violent and terrible, and for many, many people it’s an incredibly stressful holiday. I’m lucky that I’ve never experienced it as an obligation, never celebrated it with anyone other than my chosen family, never had to choke down some relative’s awful political opinions with my dry turkey. With all that baggage, I’m surprised and heartened by how Thanksgiving endures, how few people seem to opt out entirely, and treat it as just another day. There is no other holiday in America that reaches anywhere close to its universality, its basic sameness everywhere: cooking, drinking, eating, sleeping.
But first, the marathon! I went with T to the massive expo yesterday to pick up his number and shirt, and even the people taking pictures of their runners in front of various backdrops in the Javits Center made me emotional, so I will be a weepy mess cheering people on at Mile 17. I know from experience as a runner how incredible and important the spectators are, so if you are in New York please go find a spot on the route on Sunday for a little while.
Not a big culture week! I’ve been cleaning out closets, rewatching the reliably delightful Schitt’s Creek (and marveling anew at the brilliance of Annie Murphy, who plays Alexis, and gets a lot less attention for it than she deserves), and also reading Elizabeth L. Cline’s The Conscious Closet, which is making me think more deeply than I expected about waste and the value of clothing. I also enjoyed this Lit Hub piece by Ruth Madievsky about the cognitive dissonance of discussing Jia Tolentino’s (excellent) Trick Mirror in a “self-care” book club, and its frankness about, uh, intellectual snobbery and internalized misogyny. And with that, I’m going to yoga.