Last March, life was suddenly not good. In the real world, this was because people were dying, en masse, each alone; in the world of the The New York Times’ “lifestyle” sections — Travel and Food — it was also because life was suddenly deprived of the two things that “good” usually means: world travel and dinner parties. In March, both activities were suddenly replaced by hunkering down, so, naturally, people started glamorizing the awfulness of hunkering down. And then coping got boring, or thinking about coping got boring, and what had already been boring got exhausting. When quarantine’s tropes started to feel like cliches, it seems that people used to having “good lives” needed help figuring out what they were supposed to be doing to feel like their lives could still be good ones.
The newspaper adapted, hoping to “help readers lead a full and cultured life during the pandemic.” They appropriated the space usually occupied by the Travel section for a new virus-lifestyle section called “At Home.” The section strives to make “life a little more bearable, a little fuller, a little more interesting.” It sees itself as “a library of diversions,” “a serendipity machine,” full of “good advice for living a good life” and “suggestions for how to live a little better.” If the goal isn’t a “full and cultured life,” then it’s a “mentally healthy life,” an “exciting life,” or an “agreeable life.”
These adjectives stress me out. When the pandemic started, I had recently caught myself making decisions as if my life was an object I could hold at arm’s length and evaluate. Several months into a (supportive!) PhD program, I had ran smack into academia’s funhouse mirrors of ego, full of nerves while the more adjusted displayed their literary appetites, culinary abilities, and social connections like trophies. I started to feel like, rather than being merely experience, everything that happened to me would someday be aggregated and assessed by a very brilliant critic who would tell me whether I had done and been enough to ensure my financial stability, close relationships, and so on.
So, despite myself, when life was suddenly not supposed to be good last March, one of my many feelings (terror, anxiety) was also, somehow, relief. This relief is exactly what At Home, for me, takes away. And yet I still read it, wanting to feel in touch with someone, anyone who could tell me how I was supposed to be coping. Even as I felt politically allergic (ahem, superior) to the actual advice, I also could bask in their authority.
At Home conjures a new, lockdown-compliant portrait of the good life, and invites you into it. It teaches you to keep a sourdough starter alive, to tell your kids you lost your job, to re-socialize your newly agoraphobic toddler, to invite another couple to form a quarantine pod, to talk to friends about money. It helps you know “What to Say When People Tell You Their Coronavirus Fears,” and how “to get out of your head.” For months the section’s headlines were absurdly spliced into the NYT homepage (desktop and mobile), nestled between articles about mass death. They’re now at the bottom, but At Home remains a happy oasis amid spectacular violence—a haven where the pandemic is euphemized as “this difficult time for the nation and the world,” “this extraordinary time,” or simply, “right now.” These are the “Best Ideas For Living Right Now,” all of them in 34-point NYT-Cheltenham font, accompanied by large pop-art graphics of people eating ice cream and hugging each other.
At Home’s coverage is often class-specific: details on Manhattan galleries chasing collectors to the Hamptons; instructions for diplomatically adjusting the wording of your wedding invitations if you’re determined to conjugate despite it all; what to do if you’re “itching for a ski vacation”; whether it’s okay to “use connections to jump the line for a specialist.” On the one hand this shouldn’t be surprising. It’s not news that people use newspapers and mass media generally as sources of ambition-sustaining imagery and escapist pleasure: the Travel Section makes you want to travel, the Food Section makes you want to cook, and so on.
Even those of us who are not Hampton-bound art collectors can enjoy reading about them and imagining that, in some other life or future, we too might be so enviable/despicable. After crisis threatened the lifestyle fantasies so many of us enjoyed, people scrounged around for aesthetic instruction on what a fantasy of a pandemic American good life should look like. It’s that void At Home stepped in to fulfill.
The good life, the At Home team realized, had become the good home—sentimentalism redux!—and people wanted to know what to do there. Early on, you could turn to At Home to calibrate your new habits, to make sure that they were good, appropriate ways to live by checking that other, successful people had picked them too. At Home is infrastructure for continuing to dream about social ascension, even if the imagery has had to change. Its existence shows how responsive new media culture is: the minute one set of fantasies is called into question, the New York Times springs into action to deliver a new repository of imagery, as if growing back a severed limb.
In critical theory, I think we often use the definite article—theorizing the good life, rather than a good life—as a deliberate reminder that the notion that a life can be good or bad is normative and political. Certain things—money, intimacy, prestige, and so on—have to line up to make a life recognizable (within certain contexts, like for instance the Times’ obituaries) as “good.” No such reminders here: At Home hopes to prescribe a life accessible to everyone, as if every home were a Home, a one-size-fits-all domestic dreamscape. The newsletters are full of cutesy qualifiers revealing the team’s self-consciousness about class (“most of us”). But the section’s title lets slip that the good life is now happening at home. If you can’t be home, it’s implied, your life is not the good life.
All of this happens in a disconcertingly intimate tone, a new New Sincerity: “Welcome,” the newsletter often begins. “How are you?” In the spring and summer, it was written by Sam Sifton, Food Editor and in-house metropolitan lifestyle guru. The totalizing first-person plural runs wild: “We’re anxious about the coming months,” he writes, speaking for all of us, “about what happens when schools start or don’t, when the sun stops coming up early and falling late… Will we still be alone, or alone together? Will we be safer, or less safe?” I think he wants you to feel like you can crawl into “we” and curl up there for comfort.
“How can we help?” At Home’s team always wants to know. “We love to hear from you… we’ll read every letter sent.” They tell stories of readers’ unordered umbrellas, ants in the basement, lockdown wardrobe choices. “It’s a funny thing, what’s happening with us, with this growing community of ours at home and At Home,” Sifton wrote in September. “It’s refreshing and awful at once… to discover how resilient and kind and optimistic we are, even as a sense of foreboding envelops some, bringing a kind of lethargic anxiety, an abiding loneliness.”
Gross. All this collectivity makes me feel icky, like I’m on the outside of a great big group hug between domestically competent people who own bespoke cookware, which is not where I want to be.
But sometimes it’s just earnest enough, the apostrophe feels genuine, and I (ambivalently) feel held. One week a reader asked to be told, “forcefully,” to clean. And Sifton, heir of the New York literati, a man who certainly didn’t clean his own stove for most of his life, very tenderly recounted how to do so:
Take the grates off if your stove has grates, and get them soaking in warm, soapy water. Make a paste out of baking soda and water to scrub the stovetop — don’t use anything abrasive. Get all the gunge off everything with elbow grease and time. Wipe down the front of the stove with all-purpose cleaner. Clean up the grates and dry them. Put everything back together. The gleaming result is its own satisfaction.
I feel a tiny rush of affection, reading it, even as I imagine an intern googling “best stove cleaning techniques.” Like some quarantine diarists, Sifton crafts himself as an earnest connoisseur of the banal (jovially exclaiming “To the mailbag!” in the middle of a newsletter; announcing with wonder that he’ll be visiting a bookstore). But if you read it for long enough, Sifton and his colleagues feel less like distant personalities and more like imaginary friends with bad politics. “It’s more intimate than the usual relationship between The New York Times as an institution and our readers,” the Travel editor admits. Normally I’m hungry for writing on the complex, relatable struggles of others, but these days I think I just want a famous fantasy dad: “I get how it’s hard,” Sifton writes.
If you’re feeling petty, like I usually am, At Home looks like a profit ploy in a struggling industry—touchingly personal life advice with colorful gustatory content gets clicks (and has done, in other forms, for a long time — the advice column dates to the seventeenth century). I think it goes a lot deeper: At Home paints a vivid fantasy of togetherness in isolation. Sifton’s newsletters try to induce collectivity, to make quarantine feel like a social environment. The section’s raw idealism looks a lot like the old centrist optimism about people of all walks of life coming together in crisis. (In what might have been a bout of self-awareness, Melissa Kirsch, who took over the newsletter for Sifton in the fall, once asked: “Do our critics’ experiences speak to yours?” Melissa: no. But then, maybe also yes.).
There are so many ways to be annoyed with At Home. At Home is absolutely an apparatus of class reproduction; the shared ideation it conjures holds a devastating social order in place; no one needs that much starter dough. But I still click on its headlines and scroll furtively, as if eavesdropping. What am I hoping to find? Like everyone else rubbernecking on the internet, I’m scrounging for feelings, any feelings — horror, smug superiority, fascination, insecurity, pleasure —and At Home is a treasure trove. But, despite myself, I too am indulging in the same old desire to find a way to like how my day-to-day life looks, a desire that, as it turns out, gets stronger rather than weaker when I don’t like how life feels. My domestic ideal isn’t much like Sifton’s — these are not the lifestyle trappings of success that I’m looking for — but At Home is still a space for imagining that something good will come of pandemic banality. Even if it’s just becoming the kind of person who knows how, with total aptitude and tenderness, to clean your stove.
Lily Scherlis will one day have the cleanest stove ever.