Friday Reads: Some Progress

Friday Read: The Group by Mary McCarthy

Some mysterious force led me to read Mary McCarthy’s The Group this week. I didn’t know anything about it, though I’m familiar with its author, and the only time I can remember seeing anyone reading it was on an episode of Gilmore Girls. (Rory reads it while waiting to buy tickets for the Chilton formal in the season one episode, “The Dance.”) But I saw it on the shelf when I was browsing at my local bookstore on Monday, looking for something engrossing to distract me from the awful cold I’ve been battling, and felt like I had to pick it up. This was my method for choosing books until about age 16, looking up and down the shelves of the bookstore or library until I felt a tingle looking at a spine or reading the jacket copy. Since then, I mostly know what I’m looking for when I go to pick up a book. The description on The Group‘s back cover was fairly simple: Basically, a group of eight Vassar graduates take on adulthood in the time between the World Wars. I didn’t know if it would be the consuming read I was looking for, but I took it down from the shelf and carried it with me as I continued to look around. The only other book that I considered buying was Edward St. Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose Novels, but ultimately decided that it was darker than I was feeling. So, I bought The Group and hoped for the best.

I finished it within roughly 30 hours. It begins as seven members of the group watch the eighth, Kay Strong, get married in St. George’s Church in Stuyvesant Square, just weeks after their Vassar graduation in 1933. They don’t know the man she is marrying, Harald Petersen, and many of them are not even sure that they particularly like Kay. But, they were a group in college and are therefore obligated to be there. This feeling, a sense of obligation to keep up friendships that may not exactly be right for you, was the first of many that I identified with as a young adult. As the book continued – the following chapters, for the most part, focused intimately on one or two of the women – I found that I recognized myself in each woman as she confronted the realms of sex and relationships, career, friendship, and family. (Of course, my white, privileged, East Coast upbringing had a lot to do with my basic identification with these characters, who were all white and privileged and, if they weren’t from the East Coast, very much embraced an East Coast mindset, which was probably much more of a thing in the 1930s than it is now.) In the later chapters, several of the characters become mothers, which is not something I know anything about yet, but I was able to imagine that I would be just as terrified as Priss Hartshorn Crockett – incidentally, one of my favorite character names ever – was of caring for a newborn. During the moments when I wasn’t reading The Group, I kept thinking about how very similar the lives of women – of a certain class – are 80 years later, even though so much “progress” has been made.

The big differences I spotted mostly had to do with attitudes toward sex and careers. If The Group took place today, I don’t think Dottie Renfrew would hastily get engaged to near-stranger out of shame and regret for losing her virginity to a roguish man to whom she develops an attachment. And I don’t think Polly Andrews would have had to settle for a career as a medical technician, where she didn’t have much chance for advancement. In fact, I think all of the women would have a much wider array of career options, though they still might face pressure from their families and romantic partners to pursue certain lines of work. They would certainly still have to deal with sexism in the workplace, though it might not be so obvious today as it was then. One of the characters, Libby MacAusland, is told that she should become a literary agent rather than an editor, because editing is a man’s job. And so she becomes a successful literary agent. If that same scenario were to happen now, it would be more likely that a woman would be told that her character or attitude was not right for the job, and that would be that.

What I loved most about The Group, though, were the character studies and the social history. The women are all easy-to-recognize types, just like the main characters in The Group‘s successor, Sex and the City. But that doesn’t mean that their inner lives aren’t interesting or surprising. And while they grapple with the same problems that women do today, though from a different place in society, their vocabulary and frame of reference for those issues are completely different. I paused often as I was reading to look up literary references, historical events and figures, and even food that was mentioned. That experience alone would have made this an enriching read for me. Luckily, The Group had much more for me to chew on.

***

Otherwise…

I finally finished Dombey and Son and was very happy to find the phrase “dank weed” in the text.

And now I’m just getting into Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titanas well as Jessica Hopper’s The First Collection of Criticism By a Living Female Rock Critic.

What else should I be reading? I’m taking suggestions.

Friday Reads: Folk Tales

Friday Read: The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt

I’m still (still!) reading Dombey and Son, so I thought I would recommend another book to you that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about lately: The Children’s Book. Loosely based on the life of E. Nesbit, the novel focuses on the family of Olive Wellwood, a writer of children’s fairy tales in late nineteenth and early twentieth century England. I like and have returned to this book many times since I read it six years ago for two main reasons: its portrayal of the intersection of art, politics, and the domestic realm – the Wellwoods are Fabians – and its successes (and failures) in telling the stories of an incredibly large cast of characters. Also, Byatt is really the best at interpreting folklore and applying it to her own fiction, and reading her characters’ grappling with the tellings and retellings of fairy tales fills me with a weird kind of joy that I’m finding difficult to put into words. The Children’s Book isn’t considered one of Byatt’s best, but I think I learned more from it – as a writer, storyteller, and history student – than I did from her best-known and -loved novel, Possession. If you’re in the mood for the opposite of a beach read, this might be worth tackling.

***

And here are some other things I read this week:

“The Tampon: A History” (The Atlantic)

Anne Helen Petersen on Stitch Fix and fashion tech (BuzzFeed)

“What Silicon Valley Can Learn From Seoul” (NYT)

Why being happy at work might not be such a great thing (Science of Us)

Laura Snapes’ takedown of Mark Kozelek (The Guardian)

Sean Fennessey on Chance the Rapper and A$AP Rocky (Grantland)

A country festival comes to New York City (SPIN)

***

Also, Jean Ritchie, Appalachian folk singer, died this week at the age of 92. She had one of my favorite voices of all-time. If you’ve never heard her before, here are two of my favorite recordings:

“O Johnny’s On the Water”

“Barbara Allen”

A little melancholy for a Friday afternoon, but I think they’re beautiful.

Naked Friends

To celebrate her birthday, my friend Liza asked a group of us to go to Spa Castle, a Korean mega-spa in Queens, located not too far from the Whitestone Bridge that connects Queens to the Bronx, and far enough from the last stop on the 7 train that you have to drive there from the subway station in Flushing.  For $50, you can gain entry to Spa Castle’s facilities – which include various saunas, heated pools, restaurants, and meditation areas – for the entire day. Any spa treatments – like facials or massages – are extra. The same goes for food and drink. I’d heard enough of my friends talk about their wonderful and weird Spa Castle experiences that I immediately agreed to accompany Liza on this excursion.

I woke up on Saturday after getting about four hours of sleep, having stayed out way too late the night before. Before heading to the subway, my roommate Lee and I went to the deli and inhaled bagels and Gatorade, both of which I feel are very important to consume when one is hungover. Feeling not quite ill but not exactly well, we met up with the rest of our party – we totaled 8, 7 women and 1 man – and started our long journey to suburban Queens. I spent the whole subway ride not saying more than a few words to anyone, attempting to hide my exhaustion with sunglasses and a Panama hat.

Once at Spa Castle, I sort of floated through the entry process, unable to grasp what exactly was happening to me. I paid the entry fee and was given a plastic wristband with a circular censor attached. (It looked kind of like a fake watch.) The censor had a number on it – mine was 2437 – that I was linked to for the rest of the day. I entered the spa through the women’s locker room, where I was directed to take off my shoes and put them in a shoe locker. I surrendered my Birkenstocks to a shoe-sized locker numbered 2437 and moved into the main locker room, where I was handed a small green towel and a “uniform” of a light pink t-shirt and long, faded brown shorts. I found a larger locker, also numbered 2437. There, I deposited most of my possessions, aside from a book, sunglasses, sunscreen, and a hat. I changed into my bathing suit – an adorable red one-piece I got at the beginning of last summer – put on my uniform, and set out to explore the actual spa.

Immediately, I walked into a shower-lined room just off of the locker room. It was full of hot and cold tubs, as well as several naked women. A few of my friends joined me there. We all looked around, confused and fully clothed, for a way out. One of my friends pointed to a sign at the entryway that apparently all of us had ignored. “THIS IS A COMPLETELY NUDE AREA,” it said. We agreed that the way out was probably not through that room.

We eventually found actual entrance to the spa and made our way to the upper floors, where we found enough space for all of us to lounge on the sundeck, a smallish patio that looked out onto rows of houses in suburban Queens. I collapsed on a chair and commenced applying SPF 70+ sunscreen. (I know there’s not really a difference between that and like, SPF 30, but I’m still holding out hope that it’s more effective.) I spent the next few hours moving between the sundeck, on the fourth floor of the spa, and the pool and bar areas on the third floor. It felt like I was attending a bizarro adult day camp. Every time I went inside, I was required to put my uniform back on. (Men, women and children all wore similar but distinct uniforms. Men had blue shirts, women pink, and children maybe a grayish color. We all had the same heinous brown shorts.) When I wanted a strawberry daiquiri, I “bought” it using my wristband – I would be officially charged for it on my way out of Spa Castle – and was told that only three alcoholic beverage purchases per wristband were allowed. I started to feel like walking around barefoot, both inside and outside, was normal.

an outdoor pool at spa castle

an outdoor pool at spa castle

After a lot of sun and a little time in the heated outdoor pool, Liza and Jeff went to their massage appointments while the rest of us ate a late lunch at the “Sky Garden” restaurant. Everyone else got various hot Korean dishes, but Lee and I – still hungover – got the best chicken fingers and French fries I’ve ever had. After a few fries, Lee announced that they “came correct.” She wasn’t wrong; they were perfectly crispy, I think from tempura batter. When we finished, we met up with Liza and Jeff on the second floor to check out the “Sauna Valley.”

The saunas were in separate huts, all of them arranged together to look like a village. Each sauna had its own theme and apparent method of healing, from Himalayan salt to LED lights. I sat in the gold-plated Gold Sauna and the 57-degree Ice Land and the 180-degree Loess Soil Sauna, which looked and felt like what I imagine an actual sweat lodge looks and feels like, with art painted on the walls and grass mats on the floors. (It was also my favorite sauna.) After our group decided we were through, we split off to check out some other things. Lee, Jen, and I went back in the pool, where I spent a long time letting massage jets pummel my back. It was after 5 o’clock at that point and since I had last been in the pool, it had filled up with screaming, mostly unsupervised children. Somehow, this did not ruin the experience for me. I was just happy that I wasn’t responsible for them. (Though  next time I would rather go back on a weekday, just to avoid the kids and the bachelorette parties and, hopefully, the canoodling couples taking selfies in the pool.)

By the time our group next convened, Lee had left to go back to Brooklyn and everyone else wanted to check out the Meditation and Sleeping Rooms. I opted to dry off again on the sundeck – my bathing suit and my uniform were both wet – but after I realized I was getting sunburned, I ended up in the Sleeping Room, genuinely one of the most bizarre spaces in which I’ve ever spent a significant amount of time. When I walked into the almost dark room, all I could see were uniformed people sleeping on fancy white leather recliner chairs that looked like they belonged in an Upper East Side dermatologist’s office. The only thing I could hear was the sound of drizzling rain being piped in through speakers. Though I was slightly worried I had stepped into a sci-fi movie, I found my own recliner in a curtained-off area. I don’t know if I truly fell asleep, but it was the nicest nap I can remember taking in a long time. The chair was way more comfortable than I ever could have imagined it to be and I found the sound of the rain so pleasant that a smile crept onto my face and didn’t leave until well after I had exited the room.

All of us wandered out of the Sleeping Room around the same time and discussed what we would do next. Katie and Kara decided to head back to Brooklyn for dinner. That left five of us to do the only thing we hadn’t done yet: the Indoor Bade Pools, located in the very strictly nude area off the locker room. Liza, Jen, Jess and I thought that maybe we would just go in in our bathing suits. Was anyone really going to tell us that we couldn’t?

Back in the locker room, we put our clothes in our lockers and scoped out the nude area in our bathing suits. The four of us walked back and forth between the nude area entrance and the lockers several times.

“I think you have to be naked,” Liza said. “I saw a woman in there wearing bikini bottoms, but that was it.” All of us hesitated before unleashing a chorus of “hmmm” and “I don’t know.” Jen and Jess said that they felt like we should just do it, but also didn’t seem totally decided.

“I think what we need to decide,” Liza said, “is if we can be naked friends.” More shy, mumbling discussion followed.

“I’m just going to do it,” Jess said. Jen agreed with her and Liza still seemed hesitant. I walked away, pretty much sure that I couldn’t “be naked friends” with them, people with whom I have had intimate friendships for nearly a decade.

Why, I wondered, is this such a big deal? A lot buzzed around my head as I walked nervously from my locker, to the bathroom, and finally back to my friends to tell them what I had decided, which was that I was going to skip the Bade Pools and wait for them outside. I recognized that I felt nervous and scared and prudish. I was being a baby, I told myself. But there was something else, a deeper feeling that I’ve been trying to reconcile recently, that was behind my reluctance. It was shame.

I’m ashamed of my body almost all of the time. This shame often informs my behavior and decisions. For example, I like wearing one-piece bathing suits now because I think it hides some of the weight I’ve gained over the last few years. I avoid tight clothing, purposely choosing items that hide parts of my body I dislike. My diet and exercise are directly related to how I feel about the way my body looks. I analyze myself in the mirror and talk down to myself after stepping off of the scale and I carry that self-criticism with me until I can find something else to raise my self-esteem.

Of course, I was afraid of what my friends would think about my body, though my brain told me that I was really afraid of something different. It was that in exposing it to them, I’d be exposing it to myself. That would be it. I couldn’t deny that my body was anything but regular. No fatter or flabbier than I imagined it to be on my worst days and no skinnier or smoother than I thought it was on my best. Opting out of getting naked in front of my friends would allow me to continue to fool myself into thinking that I could improve my body somehow, make it more desirable to be seen by others, and most of all, by me.

But there was something more specific that I was nervous about, which I’m nervous to even write about here. It was my pubic hair and the fact that I groom it… minimally. It’s not out of laziness, but rather very intentional. I like the way it looks. I’ve never liked the waxing trend – Brazilian or otherwise –  and have never gotten even a simple bikini wax, preferring to just – and I know that this is probably bad in its own way – shave the area that might be exposed to the public when I’m wearing a bathing suit. I’ve never had to explain my preference to men, but have had a hard time explaining it to other women, many of whom have expressed disgust at the mere existence of pubic hair. Which I suppose is why I was nervous to reveal my bush, the likes of which I’d only seen represented in period films, to my friends. I didn’t want to think about them thinking that my pubic hair was gross.

But then suddenly, it didn’t really matter. After I told them that I didn’t think I could do it, Jen, Jess, and Liza hurried to the nude area, the fronts of their bodies covered by the small green towels we’d received when we arrived at Spa Castle. “Fuck it,” I thought. I got a new towel from the front desk, took off my bathing suit, and hurried myself to join them in the showers.

It felt very strange for about thirty seconds. The worst part was first realizing that everyone else could see my body. And then it was like, “Wait, but I can see theirs.” I tried not to look at the others, but then I couldn’t help it. That’s what their bodies look like, I thought. Nothing was surprising. They were just bodies, as regular in their own ways as mine. And if anyone thought anything about my pubic hair or my breasts or any other part of me, I was very happily unaware.

We didn’t really talk until we were all in one of the hot tubs, at which point we all burst out laughing. We agreed that it was weird but, in a very unique way, fun to be naked around people who normally wouldn’t see you without anything at all on your body.

“I can’t wait to read your blog post about this,” one of my friends said.

I told them that I hadn’t even thought about writing about it until that point. I’d been too concerned with being psychotically self-conscious.

Once I got more comfortable, I lost my inclination to look away from the other women in the room. I found I enjoyed looking at their bodies, not in the sense that it was very stimulating, but more in that I felt a kinship with them. Like, “Oh, you also have a body that doesn’t look like a movie star’s.” Or maybe it was simpler. Maybe it was just, “You also have a body.”

My friends and I tried a few different hot tubs. And then the sauna, where the heat necessitated we use our towels to sit on rather than cover ourselves. Our conversation didn’t stray too far from the experience we were having in that moment and how silly it was that we thought we might not be able to have it at all. We jumped in the cold tubs for a bit and then went back to the showers to wash up before heading home.

I felt a sense of freedom the second time I showered that I didn’t have the first time. I wasn’t trying to hide myself or look away from the others. I just showered as I would at home, with my back facing the shower jet. But in this instance, everything else was on display to a bunch of other nude women.

When I was finished getting dressed and ready, I met the others outside the locker room, where they’d reunited with Jeff, who had had a solitary naked experience on the men’s side. I felt a little sorry for him, that he didn’t get to experience the anxiety of our, as Liza called it, “Twelve Angry Men conversation,” and the thrill of just deciding not to care about any of our insecurities. We checked out and figured out how we were all getting home. While we waited for an Uber to get us back to the subway, Jen commented on how relaxed I looked. “I feel amazing,” I said, which was the absolute truth.

At home that night, I ate two pieces of pizza and drank a Diet Coke while watching a truly horrible Israeli movie about Haredi Jews, which I stuck with because of my intellectual curiosity in the culture and religion portrayed more than anything else.I was so physically and mentally exhausted that I ended up sprawled on the couch a quarter of the way through the movie and stayed like that until it ended. I was happy to be alone. I got in bed and read about Hasidic dynasties on Wikipeda on my phone until finally giving in to a very deep sleep.

Slipping Into Tomorrow Too Quick

Tonight, to procrastinate doing actual work, I made a playlist mostly of songs that remind me of this time of year. (And a few that don’t. I just was reminded of them as I was making the thing.) There are a bunch old favorites on here – I’m sure a few have been on other playlists I’ve shared – because I badly needed some comfort music on this cold and rainy day.