Waving at You from the Other Side of a Lull
Did you ever read The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer? (The latter did the fabulous etched-in-my-mind-for-eternity illustrations.) I loved that book. I seem to recall that my elementary school actually put it on as a play, too, if that wasn’t just a fever dream. One of my favorite parts, on the page or off, is the way that the Doldrums are represented—really, the way many mental and emotional states and concepts are represented, including Rhyme, Reason, pointless busywork, the passing and savoring of time—and the Doldrums are where I found myself marooned last week. It was a sensation that I identified as a “problem” but may in fact be Something Else, a hint, or a signal light that may be best described as the following quandry: I know what I want; I know what I need to do to get it; I continue to not do that. Perhaps you’re familiar?
Part of it is probably what this book I read recently, The Perfectionists Guide to Losing Control, would call Procrastinator Perfectionism—meaning that I feel like until the situation around the process is perfect, there’s no point in starting. Back when I worked full time for magazines, the situation was never totally perfect, but deadlines forced my hand. I don’t blow deadlines. Never have. But now I make the deadlines, and it turns out I am bad at that. You see the problem. Also we lost power for 48 hours last weekend in these historic rains and that really threw a wrench in the works, in re: working.
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A plunge into natural darkness, however, is not the worst thing, in terms of throwing things into perspective: we were safe, we were together, we had options. (Not to be all “finish your plate there are people starving in wherevertheheck,” but compare the typical experience during the great Laurel Canyon power outage of 2023 to the situation in Turkey, or Ukraine? Come on. Also, for what it’s worth, Hugo was in total heaven. Turns out that for a golden retriever everyone being together all the time is the absolute ideal, even if it feels like you’re living out of your car.) The point is, I guess, perspective. Maybe this resistance that I’m facing isn’t a problem, per se. Maybe it’s—gird your loins, she’s getting her inspirational hand gestures out!—an opportunity for growth. Maybe instead of a pit or a wall or a flat tire or an endless dirge this is where I elect to grow the hell up and get over myself and actually, you know, put up or shut up. Get to work or quit talking about it, Codinha. (I only speak to myself like I’m on a sports team when I really need a boost.) Anyways, I’ve been trying to get over the hump over here.
If you, too, think you might be a perfectionist, which, to be honest, I did not until I started to read this book, it comes with a free online quiz to identify your particular flavor (I am a child of 90s teen magazines, I love a quiz). It also bears a fair amount of both important and helpful advice, delivered in a non-condescending fashion, including the ultimate importance of self-compassion and staying present. (The author, Katherine Morgan Schafler, used to be an in-house therapist for Google, so she knows a thing or two about the wear and tear of the grind that self-induced pressures put on high achievers.) I found this below bit interesting in re: the process:
A key difference between adaptive and maladaptive perfectionists (what some theorists believe is the key difference) is that adaptive perfectionists find a way to enjoy the process of striving towards a goal, whereas maladaptive perfectionist don’t. Perhaps that’s because adaptive perfectionists set intentions and goals, whereas maladaptive perfectionists only set goals. When you only set a goal, you win on one day, the day you achieve the goal. When you set an intention, you start winning from day one because you keep getting the opportunity to honor the intention.… For adaptive perfectionists, success is not defined by whether you win or lose, stay or leave, push forward or quit. Success is experienced as an internal state. When determining their level of success, maladaptive perfectionists ask, “am I meeting my goals?” Adaptive perfectionists ask, “am I living up to my intentions?”
By the way, there’s lots of great writing about The Phantom Tollbooth, including this 2011 piece by Laura Miller at The Paris Review, and this Kate Washington essay for LitHub ten years later about her own experience in the pandemic-era Doldrums. The latter includes this lovely chewy aside to consider: "So much language—evocative, punchy, rich—comes from the sea and the world of sailing, words we never think of: aloof, close quarters, a clean bill of health, knowing the ropes, aboveboard. The language of seagoing feels far from my landlocked life, but resonant when so many of us have been marooned, becalmed, the wind taken out of our sails.” Isn’t it great when you get a chance to take a step back and think about something like how incredible language is? That you make a mouth sound or scratch out some characters and can assume that someone listening or looking can understand what you’re trying to say, based on where you live? That the lights turn on when you press a button? That clean water runs when you twist a tap? Do I sound like someone who accidentally took an edible at a party? I guess I’m feeling better!
In an attempt to force myself out of the aforementioned funk I watched a lot of things this week, including countless episodes of Abbott Elementary (excellent, easy comfort food, trad sitcom style, and often funnier than it has any right to be, on Hulu), and Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (also Hulu). I remember hearing the raves about this movie when it came out at Sundance 2022 and it did not disappoint. The divine Emma Thompson’s laid-bare performance is “brave” for obvious reasons—she appears fully nude at one point, and for more than a fleeting moment, and though I don’t think it should be quite so radical to see a lovingly documented, unaltered 60-something female body, these days it certainly is—and less obvious ones. It sort of feels like a play, or a movie that would be Very Important to Film History (and probably currently being remade by HBOMax) if it had come out 50 or 60 years ago: two people, one set, lots of talking. I mean, that’s my kind of thing. Maybe it’s yours too? It’s a wonderful movie, I think. I recommend it. It’s very much about sex and sexuality, and though it’s never lurid, you can take that into consideration if you’re on an airplane or train car or something.
I loved Petite Maman by Celine Sciamma (also Hulu; I swear, this newsletter is not brought to you by Hulu). It’s wonderful, enrapturing, quiet, about love and time and memory and magic and childhood and parents. I don’t want to tell you too much about it and ruin anything, but if you liked Portrait of a Lady on Fire (and if you didn’t, my god, why not?) you know you’ll be in great hands, here. I’d follow Sciamma pretty much anywhere. Elif Batuman wrote a typically excellent profile of her for the New Yorker when the movie came out last year, if you needed further convincing.
Vengeance (on Amazon prime). This one was interesting. I thought I’d hate it because I don’t normally love B.J. Novak’s whole thing, but he’s doing something here, about culture and society and our tendency to monologue and not actually ever listen, that worked for me. John Mayer has a funny cameo early on, and there’s a part that’s allegedly Marfa that I feel like is definitely not Marfa (Marfa friends, please advise!), but it held my interest. In my house we definitely talked about it afterwards and again the next day, which is definitely not true of every streaming product, let tell you!
I talked to Kali Uchis for this month’s Elle magazine. Her new album comes out today, and about it I will say that it would not surprise me if a lot of babies are born in December as a result. It is a very groovy record!
I greatly enjoyed this little news blip about wildlife thriving in the demilitarized zone. A good reminder that we’re not the only living creatures in town.
A wonderful little podcast episode. As detailed in a 2015 episode of the “Criminal” podcast, in an attempt to discourage illegal dumping and other unneighborly behavior in their neighborhood, a pair of (non-Buddhist) residents install a Buddha. It worked! “Dan and Lu put the Buddha up as a sort of desperate shot in the dark, a truly random attempt to curtail dumping and crime and he accidentally created a sacred place for members of Oakland's Vietnamese Buddhist community, and curtailing crime in the area by 82%.” What if we treated public spaces as sacred, instead of like someone else’s problem to deal with?
For the fashion folks, this—Raf Simons, Matthiew Blazy, and Pieter Mulier in conversation, for i-D Magazine—is what one of my former editors in chief would crow about as a “real coup.” The three first met at Raf’s namesake label, moved together to Calvin Klein, and now hold some of the most interesting roles in fashion (Prada, Bottega Veneta, and Alaïa). It’s mostly just nice to be in their company, and to hear positive experiences from what can be such a harsh industry by reputation—these are three incredibly brilliant, creative minds, who all have such a deep well of respect and affection for one another. (Fashion is actually really full of stories like that, they’re just not as sexy as “my scary skinny mean boss” ones.) I also love what Raf has to say about all of the industry bullshit specifically, of which there is a lot, of course. “I think the problem is that the judgement on fashion brands these days is really about scale,” he says. “People talk about how well handbags sell or whatever, but why is it not still interesting to be very small but very meaningful? Because it’s the actual creation that matters most.” An attempt at “scale-ing” a business seems to doom a lot of good ideas, in the fashion industry and beyond. This comes up a lot in my world! Bigger is not always better! It’s actually very often worse! Anyway, the interview is one for the books.
I was successfully targeted on Instagram by this traditional-style (i.e. NOT SWEETENED TO AN INCH OF ITS LIFE) chai company and I have to say, I’m personally really enjoying it mid-afternoons, lately.
Apparently we are possibly on the precipice of another writer’s strike in Hollywood, and this decadently dishy “Letter from Los Angeles” by Joan Didion somehow still suits the mood, despite being from 1988. It begins with an earthquake, winds its way through real estate booms and the Spellings’ famously enormous Holmby Hills estate, incredibly still called ‘The Manor,’ and ends up in various Writer’s Guild negotiations. It’s a wide-ranging saunter and a piece of great writing, and I suspect in terms of Hollywood’s internalized caste system and various backroom machinations, only some of the players’ names have changed.
The earthquake bits felt especially relevant given my personally observed response of most Los Angeleans to an approaching natural disaster last week, which was a mixture of pretending it wasn’t happening, in long lines outside comedy clubs and valet stands at awards season parties along the Sunset strip in the driving rain and wind, and operating their cars like total maniacs, even doing things like occasionally abandoning them in the middle of the road. Didion writes: “People brought up to believe that the phrase ‘terra firma’ has real meaning often find it hard to understand the apparent equanimity with which earthquakes are accommodated in California, and tend to write it off as regional spaciness. It is in fact less equanimity than protective detachment, the useful adjustment commonly made in circumstances so unthinkable that psychic survival precludes preparation. I know very few people in California who actually set aside, as instructed, a week’s supply of water and food. I know fewer still who could actually lay hands on the wrench required to turn off, as instructed, the main gas valve; the scenario in which this wrench will be needed is a catastrophe, and something in the human spirit rejects planning on a daily basis for catastrophe.” Where is the lie!
Okay! That’s all I have for you this week. I am hopeful that when I write next week’s letter the sun will still be out and I will have gotten a lot more work done. (And that if I haven’t, I can be nice to myself about it.) I hope your week is going okay, too? Thank you, as always, for being here. I love you.
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