What do you do for work?
I’m a journalist and essayist who has written for lots of different publications, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Guardian, Elle, and The Believer. I’m also the author of two books: a short story collection called My Father, Dancing, and a memoir called One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets. Despite my essay for The Woolfer also having the word “father” in the title, I do write about other things, including my mother, culture, education, race, and social justice. Finally, I teach, coach and edit creative nonfiction writers including a few Woolfers!
Favorite new discovery?
That I can use the Alexa app on my phone when I’m out at night to “drop in” on my children at home through our Amazon Echo. This eavesdropping comes in handy to see if they’ve turned off the television by their bedtime or if they are nicer to each other when I’m not around as I suspect. It’s also fun to freak them out by moaning like a ghost into my phone and having it projected into our living room through our smart speaker.
For a magazine feature and my first ever podcast, I’ve spent the last year and a half reporting on a demonstration of universal basic income being held in Stockton, California. I got lucky in a right-time-right-place way and am the only journalist who has access to follow the recipients of the monthly $500 disbursements over the whole 18-month trial. My stories will come out in October. It’s been fascinating and humbling to get to know these individuals, who were all randomly selected, and to hear them talk so openly about money. There’s an uncanny amount of overlap in their stories about why despite working hard, they can’t get ahead or even stay afloat. (Hint: their choices generally aren’t the problem.) Advocates talk about a universal basic income providing an income floor and I’ve started to think about this metaphor literally. I see these individuals as balanced on rafters. One small push—an ER visit or fender bender—sends them tumbling below. And too often, they never recover from the fall.
No real ones that I can share here without getting into trouble, but I have a ridiculous amount of handmade ceramics in my house. For the last four years, my nine-year-old son has been taking ceramics at Artshack, a wonderful nonprofit ceramics studio in Bed-Stuy run by two friends (and fellow Woolfers), and my twelve-year-old daughter was also involved in their kid design lab, and they have both brought home truly beautiful and functional pieces over the years. Whenever I go to one of Artshack’s holiday sales or gala, I can’t resist picking up more vases or bowls made by their members and supporters. They’re gorgeous and usually a great deal and all the proceeds go to making the ceramic arts affordable to underserved communities.
Something no one knows about you?
I was the stand-in for Martha Stewart’s hands for a series of commercials she appeared in when launching her Kmart line back in 1988. Those were my hands placing the Martha Stewart glasses in the cupboard and plumping the Martha Stewart pillowcase. Working on those commercials was my first job out of college. My parents knew Martha socially back when she was the go-to caterer in Westport, Connecticut, which helped me land the gig. There was a tiny budget and we were shooting three commercials in a week. I served as the gofer, set decorator, catering facilitator, and stand-in. Martha was forty-seven at the time, younger than I am now, and I recall that it was the male director who suggested that her hands looked too old in the shot. But she hadn’t been offended, because, she said, her hands were the hands of someone who had gardened, cooked and made things all her life. Those sun spots, dry skin, and cracked cuticles were her badges of honor.
Goal for the next 6 months?
My husband is a comparative literature professor who writes often about 20th century literature and the big modernist thinkers. And while I’ve read some of the work by the writers he loves the most (Joyce and Beckett), I’ve barely skimmed the work of his favorite philosophers (Benjamin, Adorno, Agamben). I used to think that the window for this kind of study in my life had closed and my lack of knowledge in the area that he is most passionate about didn’t matter. We still “got” each other. But approaching our 15th year anniversary this year and with the empty nest not yet close but at least visible on the horizon, I want to make sure we don’t turn into one of those couples who sit opposite each other in a restaurant in silence. I also want to prove to myself that I can still make my way through a meaty text and prove to him that I care about what makes him tick. So my plan is to read at least one book of philosophy in the next six months.
Most fervent wish?
That Elizabeth Warren becomes our next president.
Last google search?
My friend Vincent, who appears in my essay for The Woolfer and still lives in the same 5th floor walkup in Greenwich Village at age ninety-nine, called me the other day to let me know that he’d gone viral. A travel vlogger named Drew Binsky, who somehow heard about Vincent and his world travels, looked him up and made a video about him. So I turned to Google to find it. As of today, the video has 3.2 million views.
For Father’s Day we reprinted an essay you wrote twenty years ago. How do you feel now about that young woman? What advice would you give her now?
I’m struck by how much my sense of myself and my power in the world was drawn from my father. Even the writing style of the essay is an homage to his style as a writer. Because he was a little bit famous in the world as the chief book critic for The New York Times for many years and infamous in my own world for being an arbiter of taste, it makes sense that even years after his death, I was still seeking his approval in some way. But I’d tell my younger self now that while having a strong father figure to react against was instructive and helpful, I would find more confidence and power when I learned to listen to myself. Of course, letting go of his hold on me was another kind of loss, even as it allowed me to really know myself for the first time.