Stolen decadence

Cake, drag, other defiant adornments

Well, my basic sense that things are hopeless remains intact. As an increasingly cantankerous lefty, now with a few wiry grey hairs falling in front of my spectacles as I write (hello gravitas!), it’s compulsory to begin nearly every thought this way. But I did pause mid-week to feel the feelings and enjoy the pomp and the mittens and the memes. The twinkling eye contact made by Kamala Harris and Barack Obama over their masks as they fist bumped was significant and made me teary. Gaga’s voice gives me chills. Amanda Gorman was radiant. And I always, always welcome a parade of beautiful wool coats. I’m pleased to be breathing a little easier as we re-join climate accords and such. I baked a vanilla cake with buttercream frosting—some small symbolic grave-dancing as Trump and Melania receded from view. When my nine-year-old asked why we were having cake on a weeknight, I said I’m just happy Trump is not the president. “Figured,” she said, licking batter off her finger. “It’s a holiday.” Yes. Every day that I am not aggravated first thing by that toxic narcissist will be a holiday.

Still, the world feels like too much. Even this strange, pared-down homebound world. Just now, as I was typing that sentence, I got a notification on my phone from Buzzfeed: "2021 is the year for your ‘cute home decor in the background of your Zoom call’ flex with these affordable 37 products." God, I have to remember to turn notifications off. Does it feel like the longer we’re at home, the more aggressively we’re being marketed to? Now more than ever, capitalism wants us shopping from the moment we open our bleary eyes. Well, first feeling inadequate, then doing some compensatory shopping. 

That notification—specifically the words “Zoom call flex”—give me a feeling I used to have commuting to San Francisco to work at a startup. The billboards lining the eastbound stretch toward the Bay Bridge are particularly dystopian in the sense that they are particularly nonsensical, all written in the vile insider non-speak of Silicon Valley and filtered through the bullshit-generating machinery of local boutique branding agencies (I also put in some time working at one of those). The ones that aren’t for weed delivery are all like “Looking for UX designers? Bio-hack the cloud and monetize your incubator.” After work, I used to idle there in traffic reading those billboards and think that even a visitor from a generation prior would feel like they’d landed on the surface of Mars if they saw this stupid shit. The funny thing about that is they’re colonizing Mars, too. Lol.

I’ve been trying to spend more time offline and trying to remember some of the things I liked doing before This. One thing I really miss is playing music. Not just playing, but going to band practice. Some years ago, my band practiced on Tuesday nights in the Tenderloin in San Francisco, in a dank, sometimes rat-infested practice space right next door to Aunt Charlie’s Lounge, the neighborhood’s only gay bar. Tuesdays the bar had a drag show, so we met there for a pre-practice drink (no—two, sometimes three), then went next door to play, usually making it back about halfway through the 10pm show, enough time to have a couple more drinks and zhuzh a few dollars into the performers’ sequined bodices. (I think of the Dorothy Parker line: “Where’s the man could ease a heart like a satin gown?”) We jostled for space in the narrow corridor of the bar, drank through one another’s straws, shouted to hear each other, sang lines from songs into each other’s faces. What I would give for a night there, the smoke, womb-like dim pink lighting, thick, filthy carpet underfoot. I wonder if there will ever be nights like that again. Will we ever again see spaces like this and not think about spittle and sweat, germs?

If you want to be transported, watch James Hosking’s short film Beautiful By Night, which is about these very drag performers at this very bar.

Adventures in baking continue apace. For those who’ve been following this newsletter for a few weeks: tomorrow morning I make petit fours over Zoom with Howard of Great British Baking fame. I’m nervous—there’s ganache involved.

On Sunday I made bagels that were so satisfyingly bagel-y—New York bagel-y—that I couldn't believe it. I even Instagrammed them. My dad thought they were excessively seeded (“Enough seeds?” he wrote on the family thread, to big laughs; I heard it in Larry David’s voice, as I do with certain texts from him) but I think they’re lovely.

This, after last week's disastrous outing, when the dough (badly proportioned, apparently, in some mysterious way) slipped through my fingers and plopped like melting skin onto the sheet pan, forming small misshapen balls. I did boil and bake the balls and they tasted delicious; still, I was overjoyed when this next batch came out looking like what they are. When I reported on the failed batch to my mother over FaceTime, she told me that "bagel balls," like donut holes, are a thing. Of course—for the gal who won’t permit herself the indulgence of a whole bagel. That felt very New York, too. We used to rip out the bread-y middle to cut down on calories. If bagel balls had been a thing when I worked an office job in Manhattan in my 20s, hungover and highly caffeinated, I can imagine allowing myself just one for lunch. Sad! The morning my mother told me this I defiantly ate two balls, with extra cream cheese.

My reading week was dreamy. My kids spent the long weekend with their dad and over three days I sat in my velvet chair and read LOTE by Shola von Reinhold, a long and brilliant British debut novel that has taken up much of my mental space this week. It’s hard to even begin talking about the book without writing an entire essay (I might have to write an entire essay about this book), but it’s nominally about an individual who continually escapes into her historical “transfixions”—figures from history who have an outsize physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual effect on her. She’s especially interested in the Bright Young Things of 1920s Britain. She becomes obsessed with one figure, a forgotten Black modernist poet named Hermia Druitt, and goes on an epic quest—via a small-town residency at a bizarre conceptual art foundation—to find out more about the poet and the scene that fetishized, embraced, rejected, and ultimately erased this poet. More broadly, the book is about queerness, race, history, precarity, academia, art, self-presentation, hustling, survival, and the life-granting power of romance, daydreams, and decadence in a world that wants to destroy you. The book is a heavy lift: 460 pages, a bit labyrinthine, filled with its own odd terminology, but engrossing and funny and truly dazzling. One of the smartest things I’ve read in a while. It has become one of my “transfixions.” Do I sound like I’m blurbing?

I'm currently reading Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry, a novel that feels like a movie, filled with the dialogue of a couple longtime Irish drug-smuggling partners as they sit at the Spanish port of Algeciras waiting for a boat to or from Tangier. A bit against my better judgment, I’m deeply charmed by these two maudlin knuckleheads reminiscing at midlife about love and crime. Been meaning to get to Barry for some time. He does not disappoint.

I also reread two Chekhov stories this week, “The Bet” and “The Schoolmistress,” just to remember how good he is.

Meanwhile, my stack of books to read grows and grows like a beanstalk that will soon break through the ceiling. So: more soon.

A few good things I read this week: 

  • This NYRB piece by Greil Marcus about three new Robert Johnson books. 

  • This Dwight Garner review in the NYTBR of a new biography of the monstrous Lucian Freud

  • This Atlantic piece about writers (well, two men, Dylan Thomas and Herman Mankiewicz) and their drinking