living underground in the real world

the March 18, 2013 issue of The New Yorker

In keeping with the unceasing battle to keep up with the persistent flood of New Yorkers that is the birthright of all NYer subscribers, I am steadily working my way toward April. This is something of a minor miracle for me, this thing of reading a New Yorker during the month in which it was published. May is staring me in the eye, bearing down on me.*

I have a few thoughts about this particular issue.

First though, here is an unrelated photo of Jacob’s mother’s dog, Shelley. Shelley was recently rescued from a bad situation that left her with not a lot of teeth and not a lot of trust in human beings. Simultaneously, she is the cutest dog of all time. As I type she is six hours away from me (she lives a fun urban life in friendly Montreal), and I’m seriously considering a midnight drive just to scratch her ears in the morning.

photo 5

Onward.

We begin with “Adam Gopnik on Philip Roth,” quite possibly the most New Yorkery way to begin of all time.

Anything emerging from the overly fecund brain of the Baby Boomer Blah Gopnik lost my attention roughly a decade ago (remember when his Wikipedia casually mentioned that he wrote with a “high degree of confidence and sophistication“?), and as a matter of principle I figure one less feminist reading Roth sounds like a sound idea, but I read this one anyway. It was, you know, useless. To, well, me. I’m sure some people were interested. I’m not particularly interested in those people, but live and let live or whatevs.

The next Talk of the Town was about Dr. Seuss. Perfectly fine, whiteboys ahoy. Biz as usuz. Then a light piece about filming the bible. Hilarious, or something. The last TotT is about a A GUY WHO BOUGHT A $12,000 BIRKIN BAG. The piece, by my gal Ariel Levy, isn’t about WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH FUCKING NEW YORKERS TODAY, it is simply a fluttery persiflage about gayboys and their newest toys.

By this point in the mag I was disgusted but unsurprised that by page 25 I had read nothing interesting or resonant or non-rage-inducing. Such is the experience of having read TNY since you were five years old: you read shit you’d click by if it was on the internet in a hot second. You don’t know why you read it, but if it’s delivered to you through the mail and printed with cheap smeary ink (are my hands always oily, or has the quality of TNY ink become actually disgusting lately?) in ACaslon Regular, you read the shit out of it, and go to bed feeling like you’re somehow a worthwhile human being—though you’re troubled throughout the night by the niggling suspicion that Catching Up With New Yorkers does not, or, rather, should not, constitute the sole requirement for being a functioning member of civilized society.

Moving on. The first article, by Jill Lepore on torture, was fascinating and reaffirms your belief in the goddamn magazine.

THIS IS HOW THEY GET YOU.

TNY is a constant sucker punch festival. You’re honestly curious about what your President (ugh) is doing to all those prisoners he promised to fairly handle when he came to office and subsequently ignored, and by the end of the article you feel the full weight of being a human being in this world and all these other deep thoughts, and your rage at Ariel Levy fucking around with fucking dudes with twelve thousand dollar purses is all but evaporated.

Next is a piece on how Florida is literally falling into the ocean. Not being a fan of Florida, this is interesting and horrifyingly amusing to you.

Then a long one about the INSANE SHIT happening at the Bolshoi Ballet. Eye-opening and bizarre and well-reported and the kind of stuff you subscribe for. It had the odd effect of making me retroactively thankful to my grandfather’s family for moving to the US long before I was born, lest I be born in Russia.** What a horrible thing to think, right? Read the article, my friends. It involves lye being thrown at a former ballet dancer’s face. And no one is surprised, because apparently in Russia this is just how it is.

Turn the page, and we come to what I personally*** thought was an extremely heartfelt and honest and thought-provoking Margaret Talbot piece about transgender kids. I have learnt through bitter experience, however, to never ever ever write anything on the internet that could be even mildly construed as being critical of any choice any transgender person makes, even if you were just honestly asking for help thinking through a few things, even if you admitted your 10+ years old thoughts on the topic maybe might not line up with your current thoughts, etc etc, lest you want to be massively and severely spammed and ceaselessly labeled as a transphobe by others on the internet. So I, having certainly learned my lesson (toe the line or shut the fuck up, cis girl), I will now shut up lest the article has not been deemed sufficiently trans positive by the community at large. 

The fiction was utterly perfect.

Well-written, written by a black woman who was not Zadie Smith (miracle!****), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (I write her name here only for the pleasure of typing her name), about a black working-class character. Since the days of The New Yorker Whiteboy Watch, their non-whiteboy contributor numbers seem to have steadily crept up. Not steadily enough, but this particular complaint doesn’t resonate so much these days with me when I open the mag. Anyway I loved the damn story, it broke my heart and I couldn’t stop thinking about the main character for the rest of the day.

The magazine was rounded out with a nice foodie bit by Jane Kramer, a review of “Consider the Fork” by Bee Wilson (feel free to buy it for me and send it to me c/o LL, 25 North Front, NP, NY 12561, it looks real good and I’m already $40 over my book-buying budget of $20 for this month), all about how our cooking implements came to be. The magazine excels at dishing out this sort of everyday anthropology, doesn’t it? It’s nice. Did you know butter knives are blunt as a sign that you’re not meant to attempt to murder your dining companions? That prior to the invention of flatware our teeth looked vastly different (now we mostly have overbites, where previously “the top incisors clash[ed] against the bottom ones, like a guillotine blade”?)? That the Chinese stir-frying technique was developed to stretch meat and fuel oil (by cutting everything into thin pieces, meat would go further and everything would cook faster)? (I knew that one, bet you did too.)

The miracle of the cuiz (as we call it, chez Lagusta’s Luscious) is discussed too—I often think about how instantly the food processor evaporated centuries of pounding and mixing work—and, since it made women’s work easier, expectations for women’s work were ratcheted up [as Kramer puts it, “The American housewife…now had the time and curiosity to…take up cooking well.”], because women always get fucked over, no matter what. (See: changing quilting styles after widespread availability of sewing machines. And a trillion other examples. The article talks about nothing like this, I am currently off on a mega-tangent.).

I liked the Kramer piece a lot. But I have to mention one sour note: I was completely put off by her nonchalant description of her “awkward and cramped” sad-sack kitchen that apparently is so horrible to cook in that she needs to be “consoled” by her other kitchen, in an Umbrian farmhouse.

Where is this horrible first kitchen, you ask? This kitchen so terrible that some of her more esoteric kitchen items, like the mortar and pestle and the paella pan, actually have to sit on a shelf gathering dust? You guessed it, my friends. The good old UWS, a nabe so chockablock with New Yorker Magazine vibes that probably ol’ Kramer couldn’t even conceive of anyone reading her piece who wouldn’t instantly sympathise with the plight of a poor New Yorker New Yorker writer whose Upper West Side kitchen used to be a maid’s room and thus the comfort of an UMBRIAN FARMHOUSE is required in order to fulfill her duties as a dilettante locavore.

It’s not that I didn’t like the article. I did. It’s not that I think Jane Kramer isn’t great. I’m sure she is. It’s just that this sort of breezy, accepted, the-way-it’s-done lifestyle, or, as the kids say today, this unchecked privilege, turns my stomach when it pops up in the magazine, which, let’s face it, is sort of one of the hallmarks of the magazine.

Living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and also having a summer UMBRIAN FARMHOUSE***** puts you in the top .01% of fancy people on the planet, and the fact that there’s no acknowledgement of that, that this casual fanciness is taken as normal, burns me up.

The piece ends with a question: “How do the Polynesians cook now?” It’s a reference to a description in the book about how Polynesians stopped cooking in clay pots after they sailed two thousand miles from their clay pot-using home hundreds of years ago. Her question is meant to say that she liked the book so much that it brought up more questions for a sequel, but it irked me. Any one but a dilettante locavore knows how “the Polynesians” cook now. If you know enough about food to be reviewing a food writing book, you shouldn’t be playing dumb about the cuisine of part of the country you live in. The truth is, there is some serious food insecurity in Polynesia today, some serious health issues related to how horribly corporatized the food system has become in that food paradise—I could go on. (In brief, Polynesians today eat a lot of microwaved Spam, not claypot poi.)

My interest in the magazine ended with a cool review of a Jay DeFeo retrospective at the Whitney. I had no idea who this Jay DeFeo was, but I liked her the more I read about her work: “In 1970, she got back to concerted studio work. She did so notably with photographs and paintings of her own dental bridge, which a gum disease had necessitated. Alternately grotesque and weirdly seductive, like a darkling grotto of sensuous forms, the images celebrate a triumph of rigorous aesthetic detachment over self-absorption.”

Cool.

Some Sasha Frere-Jonesiness on Bowie, some Denbiness on some boring-looking movies, and we’re out.

(The existence of the cartoon caption contest, having replaced what is in my memory an entirely Roz Chast-dominated cartoon column with mainstream pablum and almost never a Roz Chast, is entirely loathsome to me, and I shall not deign to mention it further except to say that this really really really works and sometimes almost makes it bearable [if you can temporarily try to forget about what Roz Chasts you are probably missing out on].)

My god, it’s 1:30 AM.

Time to read in bed.

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*Horribly, I started this post a week ago. May is now here, leaving me in the position of writing an outdated blog post about an outdated magazine issue.

**Today Odessa is part of Ukraine, as my Ukrainian friend Petro points out to me periodically. Ah well.

***Don’t you hate the phrase “I personally”? So useless. But it makes sense in this context, because I am fighting with the internet and the internet really likes useless phrases. 

**** Obligatory note that I happen to adore Zadie Smith.

*****And here I ask you: how many Umbrian farmhouses do you think actually exist? Because fuck me if half of Manhattan doesn’t escape to a goddamn sun-dappled Umbrian farmhouse when the humidity climbs. Does Umbria have a Fairway and a Zabars? How are these Upper West Siders getting their bialys all summer?? (Side note: would I take an Umbrian farmhouse with a Zabars nearby, if offered? Of course. Do I love bialys? Of course. Does this mean I can’t talk? I wonder.)

5 Responses to “the March 18, 2013 issue of The New Yorker”

  1. zoe p.

    Deeeeeeelightful. I think I read the thing about the history of the fork, but not very thoroughly.

    Reply
  2. Daniela

    This is totally not related to your post, but would love to read your thoughts on this thing that has been going around in my mind for several years now. I am reaching out to you because, after reading your blog for some years now, well I like how you think.
    I have been wondering throughout the years why it is that the highest rates of vegans exist only in economically developed countries. My first answer to this was, once a human being has not only fulfilled its basic needs, but has an exceeding of commodities, only then we can focus on other things, like human o animal rights. I don’t know if we agree with this, but here comes my big issue, hence veganism is profoundly linked to capitalism. Although I truly believe that all animals are here for their own reasons, and not for us to use. I don’t know what to do with this. The gap between a person from the Montaña de Guerrero, Mexico, where they are literally dying of hunger, being almost vegetarian, not because they have a choice, but because meat is just a luxury for them, and I a vegetarian because I believe that eating animals is wrong. What can I tell those people when I am at field work, when I tell them that I don’t eat that precious meat, when deep inside me, I know that what allows this dietary choice is the system we live in, the same one, that makes them live in poverty. Here in Mexico almost all the vegans I know are in a privileged position, except for one, and I see how her mother struggles because she wants to support her child, but doesn’t have enough money.

    I hope I have made my self clear, being English my second language it’s difficult for me to structure my thoughts.
    I would like to hear your thoughts on this.

    Reply
    • atsugal

      Got a lot of thoughts on this! I’ll make a whole post on it–soon. This is vital stuff for vegans to discuss, and not enough of us do.

      Reply
  3. Liz

    Sometimes I feel like we are living in the same brain. Hopefully this is not an insult. xo

    Reply

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