oh, timing. sometimes one has both a relatively significant life change to announce and a pre-jury-duty photo of the williamsburg bridge in the foreground of a dawn-drenched simmering hellscape to share; which of those things should one hold back to avoid cheesy new-beginning imagery? i'm no good at holding things back.
after a decade of highs, lows, hot husbands, and listicles, the ladymag and i have parted ways. it wasn't entirely a surprise; given what's happened across the industry over the last several years, everyone still in print knows that they're in for a wild ride. i've gone to work with my heart in my mouth since 2008, when my magazine faced its first big round of layoffs, and my first feeling when it happened to me—my department was consolidated with several others, and my editorial position was eliminated—was relief; when the worst thing finally arrives, you don't have to be afraid. you just become the next version of yourself, right?
i loved my ten years editing a women's magazine; i wasn't paid very well, but my colleagues were kind and the work was deliciously weird. the way my workload waxed and waned over the course of each month left me plenty of time to do my own writing, and every year or so i'd resolve to get back into it. i never did, exactly, but i would.
two days after my layoff i was in california with family. let's all raise a glass to dumb luck in vacation planning! my sister and brother-in-law are artists—he's been doing his thing for several years now, and she went full-time freelance a year ago—and we've had dozens of conversations over the years about stability and passion, the man versus the muse, all the fun holiday chats. she had champagne and sparklers waiting for us when we got to their place in los angeles, and she and i finally started using hard numbers as we talked about work. you sound more like you when you talk about writing, she said; you sound more like you, now.
my other first feeling was that i need to write for a living; i need to stop pretending that that isn't what i've wanted all along. it feels a lot like nausea, but it's motion sickness.
i've bristled at bourdain's casual pot shots at vegetarians for years, but i felt i should consider some of his more thoughtful remarks before making conclusions. i started with kitchen confidential, his blockbuster memoir, in which i learned that
Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, and an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food. The body, these waterheads imagine, is a temple that should not be polluted by animal protein. It's healthier, they insist, though every vegetarian waiter I've worked with is brought down by any rumor of a cold. Oh, I'll accommodate them, I'll rummage around for something to feed them, for a 'vegetarian plate', if called on to do so. Fourteen dollars for a few slices of grilled eggplant and zucchini suits my food cost fine.tony, toni, toné. for ethical vegetarians like me, the consumption of meat and the pure enjoyment of food are mutually exclusive. my body is nothing like a temple (i was a pack-a-day smoker for 11 of the 22 years i've been vegetarian), and i don't give two shits about how much healthier or sicker i'd be if i ate like he does. i've gotten pretty good at telling when a chef is welcoming a challenge and when straying from the side salad will cost me $25 and an hour of staring at a pile of listlessly steamed vegetables called something like "the haystack." kitchen confidential's vegetarians aren't people like me, though, or people at all: they're just jokes, part of the shtick bourdain turns on for appearances like his larry king live segment (and "rematch") with jonathan safran foer. don't we get it?
bourdain's follow-up memoir, medium raw ("a bloody valentine to the world of food and the people who cook"), wastes no time in waddling back to the inflatable punching clown that is The Vegetarian Perspective in a Tony Bourdain Book. he opens by covering his head with a napkin and devouring ortolan, an endangered (and protected) songbird that had the bad luck to be blinded, force-fed, drowned, roasted, and stuffed into his yap.* bourdain is uncompromising in his pursuit of self-satisfaction, you guys! zero fucks given re: jonathan franzen's beloved birds (aside from the ones franzen himself ate before he could get to them, maybe)! in case we waterheads were still unclear about his feelings on our feelings, he doubles down on them in his chapter on meat:
PETA doesn't want stressed animals to be cruelly crowded into sheds, ankle-deep in their own crap, because they don't want any animals to die—ever—and basically think that chickens should, in time, gain the right to vote. I don't want animals stressed or crowded or treated cruelly or inhumanely because that makes them provably less delicious.that deliciousness point isn't universally accepted, actually, as cnn reported last year.** the main point here, of course, is that improvements in animal welfare which benefit human consumers directly and immediately are the only improvements a reasonable person can care about. and how he cares! bourdain is so grossed out by factory farms' cheap, shitty meat that he's developed classy socratic dialogues to steer his little daughter away from fast food ("Is it true that if you eat a hamburger at McDonald's it can make you a ree-tard?"). refusing to consume animals for their sake, on the other hand, is acceptable strictly in the context of an ethos too exotic to criticize with confidence.
Okay. I am genuinely angry—still—at vegetarians. That's not shtick. Not angry at them personally, mind you—but in principle. A shocking number of vegetarians and even vegans have come to my readings, surprised me with an occasional sense of humor, refrained from hurling animal blood at me—even befriended me. I have even knowingly had sex with one, truth be told.*** But what I've seen of the world in the past nine years has, if anything, made me angrier at anyone not a Hindu who insists on turning their nose up at a friendly offer of meat.one wonders what would happen if bourdain rolled into a deeply authentic place in, say, southeast asia and was offered a binder of his host's finest kiddie porn. no principle is worth the unforgivable condescension of morality out of context, amirite? bourdain's parenthetical about his mother-in-law is very nearly too pathetic to address at all, but i would note that when i was a junior in high school, my beloved boyfriend's ultra-catholic italian family invited me to stay at their home the night before we all went up to pasadena for the rose parade and the rose bowl; when his mother served us "vegetarian" soup made, alas, with chicken stock, i at sixteen was able to root around and find the balls to thank her and decline it as politely as possible. she made me sleep under the christmas tree that night, and two decades later i think she still calls him every now and again to make sure we haven't somehow gotten back together.
I don't care what you do in your home, but the idea of a vegetarian traveler in comfortable shoes waving away the hospitality—the distillation of a lifetime of training and experience—of, say, a Vietnamese pho vendor (or Italian mother-in-law, for that matter) fills me with spluttering indignation.
No principle is, to my mind, worth that; no Western concept of "is it a pet or is it meat" excuses that kind of rudeness.
"I feel too lucky—now more than ever—too acutely aware what an incredible, unexpected privilege it is to travel this world and enjoy the kindness of strangers to ever, ever be able to understand how one could do anything other than say yes, yes, yes."you know what? yes is easy. yes is sucking up to your mother-in-law. heaven forbid you should actually have to think on your feet and come up with a gracious way to turn down someone's offer of hospitality for moral reasons. i'd sleep under that christmas tree again.
to be continued.
*that's the traditional method, anyway; bourdain claims his ortolan was merely hoodwinked with a cloth and then soaked with armagnac after death, which makes the whole scene completely respectable.
**from cnn's piece on dog smuggling from thailand to vietnam:
A common belief is that stress and fear releases hormones that improve the taste of the meat, so the dogs are placed in stress cages that restrict their movement.an opening scene for bourdain's next book, perhaps?
Eventually, the dogs are either bludgeoned to death or have their throats cut in front of other dogs who are awaiting the same fate. In some cases, they've been known to be skinned alive.
"Dogs are highly intelligent animals so if you kill a dog and you have a whole cage of dogs next to the one that's being killed, those dogs that are going to be killed next know what's going on," [the director of a Hanoi-based animal welfare group] said.
the freedom tower mural at henry m. jackson playground, across the street from our local fine fare (which reopened during the lower east side blackout after sandy when the owner saw people lining up outside the steel shutters; runners with flashlights would take orders and venture back into the dark aisles to fill them). you can see the actual freedom tower a block or so later down east broadway.
st. mary's, where hearses park for funerals during the week and the sidewalk is full of worshipers after ten o'clock mass as i pass on the way to the wild bird fund on sundays.
for about a month we shared the street with a film crew for the cobbler ('[adam] sandler plays a lonely new york shoe-repairman who senses that he’s let life past him by. but when he discovers a magical family heirloom that allows him to literally “walk in another man’s shoes,” he embarks on a great adventure with far-reaching ramifications.') no word on whether or not sandler's character, like the actual shoe-repair guy, also makes shabbos keys for our neighbors (who can't carry house keys on the sabbath but can "wear" them as tie clips or belt buckles).
the mural-bird in the alley west of the great wall, the first chinese restaurant on the south side of grand street en route to chinatown. i feel like his name would be alvin or nelson.
if you look to your left when you get to this tag you'll see STEAMS BUNS, one of my favorite lower east side awning-slogans. if you keep going down essex and hang a right at delancey you'll hit another, AS OLD AS HILLS, just before the williamsburg bridge.
i couldn't keep the staircases straight for the first several weeks i took the subway to and from the office; i get turned around easily, and street names and directions slip away from me like wet bar soap. i go right if i emerge in front of the orchard mural, and left if i'm in front of the leaping fish. right orchard, left fish. right orchard, left fish.
Glorify me!the "list 10 books that have stayed with you" meme that's been bouncing around facebook for the last year or so made its way to me via my friend sarah just a few days before someone published a statistical analysis of said meme that's been bouncing around the internet this week (harry potter crushed everyone, including jesus, even though the average meme-participant's age was 37, which would have made them about 21 when harry potter and the sorcerer's stone first sank its claws into popular culture). as for me? this site is my list, maybe; it's about more (and less?) than books, but it's certainly about the ones that have stayed with me. either way, i don't know that i'm interested in making a list of 10; i'd have to talk about the goldfinch, which was so sensationally meh that i think and get angry about it least once a week, and i'd probably have to talk about gravity's rainbow, which i still haven't been able to begin in any significant way even though i know i need to complete all of pynchon's novels before declaring once and for all that he can suck it. i do love lists, though, and i like tag. i've been thinking about all of that as i've walked to and from the subway on the way to work this week—i've been thinking about transit and daily routines a lot as well, as joe just started a new job up in the bronx and we're trying to figure out how to get him there and back via some combination of actions that won't drive him nuts—and i think i'd like to tag people and ask them where they go. boil some broth on those tongueless streets, would you? in other words:
For me the great are no match.
Upon every achievement
I stamp nihil.
I never want
to read anything.
What are books!
Formerly I believed
books were made like this:
a poet came,
lightly opened his lips,
and the inspired fool burst into song—
if you please!
But it seems,
before they can launch a song,
poets must tramp for days with callused feet,
and the sluggish fish of the imagination
flounders softly in the slush of the heart.
And while, with twittering rhymes, they boil a broth
of loves and nightingales,
the tongueless street merely writhes
for lack of something to shout or say.
(vladimir mayakovsky, from "the cloud in trousers" [max hayward and george reavey trans.])
take/share 6 photographs of things you see every day. one batch, that is, of 6 photos. the sun coming up over the buildings across the street? excellent. a rusty-but-stately old manhole cover on the sidewalk outside your apartment (above, an everyday sight of mine)? delicious. your own feet in the shower? sure, if you want to take things in that direction.
i tag you 6: baby jo, dave, erin, lisa (east), lisa (west), and sarah.
Helen warned me that pigeons—were I to emphasize them—could put people off, “ever since Woody Allen called them rats with wings.” (It was a character in “Stardust Memories” who said that.)
But then she started telling me, in tones of awe, why she loves them. “You know they dance. The males dance for the females—every time they see a female they start dancing. There was this male pigeon I will never forget. Well this guy, it was a snowstorm, a really bad snowstorm, and he was down by the Chelsea Pier, and he had no feet, just stumps, but he just started dancing this really wild dance for a female nearby him. It was as if he was saying, ‘Hey baby, come on, we’re all going to die anyway, let’s dance.’ It was just amazing. Pigeons are very stoic, exceptional animals.”
(from "new york too busy to care? center rescues city’s injured birds," epoch times 08.30.14)
at JFK i overheard her telling another member of our group that she'd once gone to the ukrainian border to examine the potatoes grown for chopin vodka, but i'd have picked her out anyway: there's a certain kind of lightweight trench coat one only sees on traveling wine-and-spirits journalists. when we were on the jetway waiting to board our plane to reykjavik, her companion wondered if martin miller was still alive. "he died in december," i blurted, because i am only sometimes able to remember that real life is not like watching jeopardy! in your living room.
we coincided a few days later when i was working my way through the group with questions about ethics; it had shocked me to learn that, for example, the new york times asks its travel writers to sign statements saying that they haven't taken a press trip in the last five years (my magazine allows its writers to go on press trips and has given its blessing for each of mine). she'd just written a book about press trips, as it happened. her co-author used a pseudonym; "i, of course, will be the baroness," she said.
i didn't really get the baroness thing until we shared an armrest on our flight back to new york the next morning. i mentioned somewhere over greenland that joe and i would be celebrating our wedding anniversary that week, and she told me that her marriage had soured quickly. she'd lived in her husband's castle for four years,* she told me, and was miserable; after nine years, he wrote a single line—I DISINHERIT MY WIFE—and killed himself with a shotgun.
we exchanged contact info when we parted at customs. "i don't have my other cards with me," she said, "so i'll give you a baroness card." "i haven't got one of those yet," i said, and she laughed.
*09.16.14: four months, that is (i tracked down a copy of her memoir and just finished it).
i'm a really lousy multitasker, so it's terribly exciting when i manage to pull off something like rolling into a friend's daughter's first birthday party with a handmade gift and a big weekender full of clothes for an international press trip.* behold your sock dog, wee violet! i'm martha sandiego or carmen stewart or something! i'd been staying up late reading the first two books in laini taylor's daughter of smoke & bone trilogy, though, and i managed to sew one of the poor little sockshund's forelegs ninety degrees past the direction in which it should have faced; thematically appropriate for the series, but potentially disturbing for a stuffed animal.
this laini taylor trilogy: you know of it, yes? last week i was reading a think piece on supernatural YA fiction—not that new yorker piece on dystopias, another one i can't seem to find now—that name-checked taylor's stuff with glowing praise. that's just the sort of thing i should check out from the library and read on the subway and at three in the morning so i'm not tempted to bring it on the plane to reykjavik and squander hours in which i should be resting up for my one half-day of free time, i thought, and i was right! i don't want to say too much about the plot, as it features some excellent surprises, but i will say that it revolves around karou, a seventeen-year-old blue-haired art student in prague who was raised by devils who collect teeth. like john cry-your-face-off green,** taylor has a knack for dialogue that's both smart and plausible; it's particularly enjoyable as the story gets weirder and the conversations shift from gossip in a local cafe to other topics in other places. she's also fantastic at tucking supernatural flourishes into previously-conventional settings, à la neil gaiman's wonderful london underground in neverwhere. she also also burdens her heroine with brutal consequences for seemingly-trivial decisions, as philip pullman does with lyra in the his dark materials trilogy, and has a stunning, kelly-link-esque imagination.*** it's probably terribly lazy to describe an author primarily by comparing her to other authors—here's a diligent review if you'd prefer one—but in my defense, i think reference points can be particularly useful when one is clattering around in this subgenre. there are walls full of supernatural YA at what remains of brick-and-mortar bookstores, and trails of names are handy when the covers all look the same (these books, i'll warn you, have silly covers). on silly, i was prepared to fling daughter of smoke & bone from my person when it became clear that romance was quite central to the story, but don't make that mistake: karou is a real character, not a vampire's girlfriend like twilight's bella or even a cool fighter and eventually-catatonic wife like katniss in the hunger games. if i have the willpower to wait a few weeks before going back to the library, i'll be reading the last third of her story on the beach in california, and probably crying my face off.
*it's also terribly exciting, if we're being honest, that i managed to cram clothes and shoes and plastic animals enough for an international press trip into a big weekender. imelda marcos i ain't, but joe's the packing talent at our place, and asking for his help before flying off without him would have been kind of shitty.
**i did not cry my face off when i read green's the fault in our stars, though i did like it and did almost cry a little bit when i saw a skinny foreign tourist girl on the subway with an "okay? okay." shirt a couple of weeks ago.
***neil gaiman: "kelly link is probably the best short story writer currently out there, in any genre or none. she puts one word after another and makes real magic with them—funny, moving, tender, brave and dangerous. she is unique, and should be declared a national treasure, and possibly surrounded at all times by a cordon of armed marines."
i flew home from iceland on tuesday morning just before another flurry of earthquakes turned the aviation alert orange. i don't really want bárðarbunga to erupt and flatten the tourism industry again, but i wouldn't have minded being stuck in reykjavik for a while.
teach yourself icelandic
mér er kalt á fótunum, i have cold feet
á laun, in secret
jafna sig, steady oneself
vera i goðu skapi, to be in good spirits
innst í hjarta sínu, in his innermost heart
hábúar (colloq.), "air-dwellings"
a year and a half later, a nurse at the university hospital wheeled my bed up to a wall-mounted phone so that i could call my mother and tell her i'd tried to kill myself. i've been thinking about what sort of feeling i'd share with robin williams if i could, and i thought at first that it would be how i felt delivering that news—but shame doesn't save people.
can love? as andrew solomon writes in the noonday demon, "love forsakes us from time to time, and we forsake love. in depression, the meaninglessness of every enterprise and every emotion, the meaninglessness of life itself, becomes self-evident. the only feeling left in this loveless state is insignificance." could all of our anecdotes and multimedia tributes and exhortations to look out for one another have made a difference? do they make any difference now?
i'd share the shore re-exposed when the tide of my depression went back out, no one but the moon to damn or thank for it. i would share being nineteen. i don't think he was able to feel that.
the missus and i headed out to sunset park last night for a rooftop screening of pulp: a film about life, death & supermarkets. the director, florian habicht, saw pulp's farewell show at radio city* in 2012 and invited jarvis cocker to his latest project's debut at the london film festival. they decided at an ensuing cafe meetup that florian would go up to sheffield, scare up and film a bunch of locals, and then follow the band's final hometown performance in motorpoint arena. the documentary they put together (quite together: jarvis watched three different cuts back to back before giving florian notes) is even more enjoyable than i, the easiest of easy marks, thought it would be: butchers at castle market speak of jarvis's family's affinity for fish,** a tween girls' dance troupe performs to "disco 2000," an elderly singing group accompanies a guitarist upstairs at the market through "help the aged," an old knifemaker notes that if he had his life to live again he'd spend it making knives. the concert footage is as marvelous as that radio city show was for me (i still can't bring myself to delete the long, terrible iphone video i took of "this is hardcore"). the rooftop venue is as close as we get to something as lovely as cinespia (no graves out there among the warehouses, but the moon was bright and the whole block smelled like baking bread). i came extremely close to breaking my no-talking-to-celebrities rule and introducing myself or awkwardly asking for a picture one of the ten jillion times jarvis walked by, but my willpower kicked in right when my nerves settled down, thank god. i'm a little sorry that i didn't try out for the pulp karaoke contest jarvis and florian judged at the afterparty even though "like a friend" wasn't on the song list—in the words of youtube's jerseygurl620, there is a dark remote corner of my heart only [that] song can access—and a smidge sorry that we left just before a nine-year-old won the whole thing with "this is hardcore," but who am i kidding? nights like that are the superb fairy-wren songs that tell me this town's my baby.***
YOU CAN EVEN BRING YOUR BABY: PEOPLE YOU WILL MEET AT PULP KARAOKE
01 the girl who marched up to jarvis and said, "mister cocker, may i shake your hand?"
02 the guy who asked jarvis to autograph his relish
03 the pregnant woman who performed "monday morning" with a talcum-powder finale
04 the guy in a hoodie pulled up over a ball cap who earned the chance to perform "sorted for e's & wizz" by photoshopping his head onto lil' kim's body
05 the girl in the gin line with panther-frame glasses
06 the gangly frizzy-haired kid who wore a marvelous cockeresque maroon suit, performed the first half of "babies" with flawless moves, then fell off the back of the stage ("i have fallen off the stage many times myself," jarvis noted)
07 the guy who "performs karaoke in bars around the world," showed up in a white jacket with black piping and an embroidered crest ("a good jacket," per jarvis) and simulated his own reverb for "disco 2000"****
08 the girl who earned her spot when, informed that the nine-year-old had already claimed "this is hardcore," said "i can fucking beat a nine-year-old," then went for it with a delivery that sounded like nancy sinatra talking in her sleep ("you had a difficult song with a minute of nothing at the start, and you handled that well," jarvis said; "also you drove me to this place, full disclosure."*****)
09 the girl who came onstage dressed like an old lady ("help the aged") and sang-talked slowly (joe: "she's shatnerizing this?"), stripped down to a black one-piece bathing suit over the course of her performance, then asked for the glasses she'd whipped into the crowd ("i actually need those to see.")
imaginary reading group discussion questions
01 would you have introduced yourself or awkwardly asked for a picture with jarvis cocker?
02 what would you wear to pulp karaoke? what would you sing for it?
03 what would your family's superb fairy-wren song be?
04 is it reasonable for a nine-year-old to sing "this is hardcore"?
05 is it reasonable that joe wanted me to come home with him even though i don't get sleepy? (the walk back to the subway was sketchy, he argued.)
06 should i hunt down those panther-frame glasses?
*gather ye dirty while ye may indeed.
**not quite as squicky as it sounds; his saturday job was at the fishmonger, which, as he explained, made it difficult for him to chat up girls later that night (he soaked his hands in bleach for ten minutes to try to get rid of the fish-stink, "and then i smelled of fish and bleach, which was even worse").
***so are brooklynvegan commenter fights about show recaps, if we're being honest.
****he weathered some serious glitches on the part of the karaoke machine with professionalism. "if we were scoring for accuracy you'd be the top, but we're not," said jarvis.
*****i thought that was a metaphor until he explained that he was afraid of not having a ride home. the crowd booed her (high) score.
i'd been working on a second post about my trip to hawaii, but i realized somewhere around the catholic church on my walk to the subway this morning that i need to write a poem about it? as the F train rumbled up i pulled out the little muji notebook in my giant mom-purse and discovered a rumpled piece of hotel stationery covered with notes from my second night on maui, maybe ten flights below where i took this photo. being forgetful is both a pain in the ass and occasionally quite exciting. i took a few more pages of notes.
i went on a press trip to hawaii last month. i told you about this, yes? i climbed into a plane in new york at dawn and hatched like a chick twelve hours later in honolulu, where a handful of writers and i were coddled and hustled all over the islands for a week. wellness-themed press trips are sort of a cross between the amazing race and america's next top model: at each new destination someone draped a lei around my neck and someone else put a drink in my hand, and each time i retired to my room i found a little gift and a note wishing me a pleasant night's sleep. one night there was a photo of me on my nightstand.
our last day on oahu began when we crawled out to greet the sunrise with a cleansing ritual on the beach, where the morning's first surfers already bobbed like flotsam out near the horizon. we considered water deities: hey, kanaloa! hey, namaka! there was unironic chanting. the woman leading the cleansing encouraged us to think about the constellations of choices that had resulted in our gathering on the sand, everything that we and our ancestors had done to generate that particular smattering. the implication was that the smattering was fortuitous—outside of honeymoon in vegas, it seems like most people consider themselves fortunate to end up in hawaii—but it was a gentle implication.
i'm estranged from a few of my relatives and dislike most of the rest. i know little about my grandparents' parents and almost nothing about anyone who came before them. at some point during world war one we pretended to be french, and some cousin of my grandmother's kept a pet lion in upstate new york. my grandfather's mother was known to light a cigarette before picking up the phone if someone called her in the middle of the night. as i walked into the waves on waikiki, i thought about how my aunt ran away from home and ended up at her sister's nunnery in san francisco, later the site of my sister's wedding. i thought about how a tiger decided not to eat my great-grandparents on the road to nham khan. i floated on my back in the amniotic water and considered my grandfather, too old and sick to go back to england, and the coins he gave me to buy myself a pint from him when i married joe in oxford. various writers' toes brushed against me as we pinwheeled in the water. "thanks, grandpa," i whispered.