Joan Didion is a badass, or at least she plays one in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. There’s something so cool, so self-assured about her writing that even the stupid shit that San Francisco junkies say and do starts to seem cool by association when she writes about them. Or maybe its her photograph on the cover of the secondhand copy I bought from Book Culture near Columbia U. The photo, which is in black and white, shows a model-thin Didion in a slouchy scoopneck tee and no makeup, eyebrows arched and expression unreadable, an ashy cigarette balanced between two fingers of her right hand. (Hey kids, smoking is cool! Buy some basics from the Gap!)
All the essays strongly evoke a time and a place: California in the 1960s, New York in your twenties. All the essays come off a little blurry, as if told through the soft focus lens of nostalgia or the pot haze of a group home in the Haight. The best essays (Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream and, of course, Goodbye to All That) have a story anchoring them, the worst (On Morality) are bloggy: honest, but self-indulgent and aimless. A few are interesting messes, not very intellectually coherent but potent (the titular Slouching Towards Bethlehem, On Self-Respect). A harsh wind blows through them all, usually the Santa Ana of her upbringing and mine, as if warning of something more ominous to come.
I used to worry that I had waited too long to read Didion, that I should have read her in my twenties. Happily, I was wrong. There are some sentences that would not have rung as true then as they do now that I’m thirtysomething with some serious regrets under my belt. Like this one:
[P]eople with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things…[they] exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve…the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life…
Ugh, I Internet-hate every cover of this book (Internet-hate: the caps lock rage of the anonymous commenter who in real life impassively types away). All of them are variations on the same theme: a good-looking blonde whose face is either partially or entirely obscured + the author’s name in type so enormous you would think the book is called “Ian McEwan” by Sweet Tooth. Anyway, the novel itself is a good time, a high-minded but not snooty dressing up of an espionage tale that brings to mind Auster’s line in City of Glass of the private eye whose first person “I” narrates detective stories. It also features a metafictional trick I thought I saw coming but that, like any good spy, double crosses me. Or, as the NYT puts it, “Sweet Tooth is sort of a younger sibling to Atonement, less epic and grave, with lower stakes, more fun and an apparently happier ending.” Yep, that about sums it up.
New York is the kind of city where, on a Tuesday night, [Big Credit Card Company]* will treat you to a 4+ hour, $700+ dinner at Del Posto that begins with a truffle-everything selection of amuse-bouche and ends with a magic box whose trap door reveals an exquisite selection of petit fours, all so you can review its new dining app. What a world we live in, my middle class mind marvels. What a world. Or, as Precious Panda puts it, ”This is why capitalism will end in a bloody revolution with our heads on a pike.”
*Anonymity preserved so I can keep eating on The Man’s dime.
3+ years and $1000+ later, I am holding my race medal backwards.
NYC Marathon: the adult version of Christmas Day!
"In some way you seem to me like a child, Edna. You seem to act without a certain amount of reflection which is necessary in this life…."
Ugh, The Awakening. Unfortunately, being one of the first or the only doesn’t actually make you good. Like so many fallen women of the 19th C. novel, Edna Pontellier discovers that she is more than a wife and a mother and from there the story flows. But unlike Jane Eyre, Emma Bovary, and Isabel Archer - heroines and whole persons, all of them - she lacks agency, character, and moral imagination. She wants, and that is all. When she doesn’t get what she wants, she drowns herself. I don’t blame her. After spending 180 pages with Edna, I wanted to give up, too.
After the longest run of fine weather I can remember on this coast, it’s finally getting cold in New York. Christmas cold. Tights and turtleneck cold. Possibly even winter coat cold, if you’re a native Californian. That’s how the security guard checking student IDs at the Widener Library door could tell, anyway.
You can’t be nostalgic about something you don’t remember, which explains why I’m generally not a nostalgic person. But there are some days so perfect that it would be a pity for them to circle the drain, bound for an eventual burial at sea like so many other, more prosaic ones. Ragnar. The last pool day of the summer. A long, beer-sleepy afternoon spent shucking oysters at Tomales Bay. The day P. and I landed at Heathrow on the red-eye and managed to stay on our feet long enough to play double-decker bus roulette, watch the sunset over London from Hampstead Heath, and stand through all three hours of the Royal Opera House’s production of La Traviata. These days deserve to be kept behind glass (cloche/museum/butterfly pinned to foam board), suspended in amber, shut in a cool dark place, away from the decaying effects of light, air, and human fallibility. They are a different species from their more evanescent counterparts, like the first time I held a quince or cupped a firefly in my hands. But they are all of them worthy of bottling, or pickling to borrow from Rushdie. I don’t know where I’m going with this. I guess I’m just looking for a little comfort at the end of a bad week.
Next to The Big Short, never have so many people commented about a book I’m reading as they have with Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. Apparently, everyone read it in elementary school. (Oprah might also have something to do with this.) I understand why: the story is universal and simply told. Although the Hunger Games trilogy has since erased my memory of most of the novel, I do remember thinking how peculiar it is that one man’s life can feel so long yet so short at the same time. Basically the kind of deep thoughts you think when you’re high.
I have this love/hate relationship with Justice Breyer. Everything I read about him makes him seem like a righteous dude: Bay Area native, former Congressional staffer, lover of literature. And then I read his exasperatingly ponderous opinions and I long for the seductive clarity of a Roberts. When I was at DOJ for the semester I went to hear Justice Breyer speak and it was like meeting that cranky old man neighbor who refuses to throw your balls back over the fence.
Anyway. I guess I’m back to liking him again since he says such spot-on things about law and literature:
The French language gave me an entrée into another culture. It allowed me to discover different means of expression, a different way of life, different values, a different system of thought. Because when you’re a judge and you spend your whole day in front of a computer screen, it’s important to be able to imagine what other people’s lives might be like, lives that your decisions will affect. People who are not only different from you, but also very different from each other. So, yes, reading is a very good thing for a judge to do. Reading makes a judge capable of projecting himself into the lives of others, lives that have nothing in common with his own, even lives in completely different eras or cultures. And this empathy, this ability to envision the practical consequences on one’s contemporaries of a law or a legal decision, seems to me to a crucial quality in a judge.
On Saturday we squeezed into a rental Hyundai with a pair of friends, our overnight bags, and a bag of Bugles, and headed south with the birds to Washington. Our mutual friend, R., was marrying the love of his life for the third time. (The first was for Allah; the second, the state; the third, the charm, friends and family.) I had met R. because we were in the same small section, and we became friends because we had certain things in common. We both lived on the other side of Morningside Park so we walked home together after class. We both didn’t care about law school, particularly the gamesmanship of it, though I cared about learning and he got much better grades. We both came from single-parent families, and had known firsthand what it was like to grow up in a household that was living paycheck-to-paycheck and on the verge of bankruptcy.
Every summer I made the mistake of offering R. food while he was observing Ramadan. Not my fault: he is a white kid from New Hampshire. I never could remember that he was observing in solidarity with his then secret Muslim Pakistani girlfriend. Their story is a long and strange one. It involves a dorm room at Northwestern, a conversion to veganism and Islam, and a federal government shutdown, among other twists and turns. Luckily it’s also one with a happy ending. As they exchanged their vows in an old bumper car pavilion, I got the eerie sense that maybe, just maybe, love does conquer all. If you want it enough. If you give enough. If you’re lucky enough.
We left them on the dance floor to make the long drive back to NYC. P. and I were home by midnight, and out the door this morning in desultory fashion, hash browns in our hands and nothing in our heads. I was unloading my coffee from my bag when my coworker, my friend, received a call: her father was dead. Heart attack. I missed her running by my door, and heard the news from the coworker she told before she fled. Together we rushed downstairs to find her, to make sure - what? that she was okay? that she wasn’t alone? We pushed through the turnstiles. Not in the lobby. We walked outside, into the blinding sunshine, the current of morning commuters.
And then we saw her. Her back was to us, her face in her husband’s shoulder. Her body was inert. He was holding her arms and staring at nothing, the expression on his face terrible. They stood there like that, not moving. We all stood there. I looked the other way, and then, in a distant voice, I said we should go back upstairs.
You know that grandmother who clips newspaper articles and sends them to her grandchildren with handwritten notes attached? I have basically become that person, except over email.
My first TV love. Best day ever!!!!!!
Swimming in Lasker Pool is one of the best parts of summer in NYC. It’s “free,” it’s outdoors, it’s in Central Park. It’s staffed by a crew of late teens and early twentysomethings, the thick, cheap, primary colored cotton of City-issued tee shirts covering but not concealing their ropey muscles and shrugging postures, like sheets thrown over furniture. The summer I studied for the bar exam I used to roll out of bed and trot over in flip flops one or two mornings a week. The sun would be rising low over the trees in the North Woods but already be hot on the skin, making slipping into the coolness of the pool a delight. By the time I walked back to my apartment I was usually halfway dry, my skin satiny with evaporated chlorine. This summer Ginger and I met once a week after work. There were more people in the evenings, and after stashing our things in the 1960s-style municipal locker room we would split up. Ginger joined the stronger swimmers criss-crossing the expanse of the pool with mathematical regularity. I would join the beginner swimmers who slowly patrolled, in counterclockwise fashion, the rectangular block of water rippling adjacent to the lanes, our bodies pondering the irregular pattern of peeling paint on the floor. On sunny days the water was dirty with the random detritus, both seen and unseen, of strangers, but we would be treated to a nice sunset straight out of the cinema so it evened out. Towards the end of the summer it began to grow darker, earlier, and we would scramble out of the pool shivering in the dusk and in the flood lights. The last night, the sky went lavender with storm clouds. It started to rain, the surface of the water freckling with droplets. I started laughing; I had never swam outdoors, at night, in the rain. I don’t know why this memory came to me tonight, after having spent the last week with my oldest friends in the world, halfway through vacuuming and four loads of laundry.
Steak (tartare) + glass of red
Croissant + black coffee
Runny egg on toast
Egg sandwich + black coffee
Means making ragu at midnight on a weekend because you want to, not because you have to.
Things I should write about but will only list, in the style of a mental montage, per the slow, Internet-fueled deterioration of my brain:
Met Bill de Blasio in the basement of a Brooklyn dive bar with open mic comedy night overheard overhead. Went to a LOTR-style wedding in the Catskills in which the bride’s Vera Wang dress came with a $12,000 price tag (!!!!!!). Ran to Westchester County via Inwood and Van Cortlandt Parks. Pulled the lever and received my first “I voted!” sticker. Discovered that I am in fact too old to be staying out until sunrise, even on my birthday. Devoured the Hunger Games trilogy in a week. Summer’s vanished, and for the first time since I moved east and turned adult, I’m a little sorry to see it go.