Every New Year’s my husband, John, and I go to my mother’s house in Seaside, Florida. On New Year’s Eve I make Lee Bailey’s Pasta with Golden Caviar and on New Year’s Day I make black-eyed peas with andouille, and on both occasions we drink lavish amounts of Veuve Clicquot provided by our friends Joyce and Rod, who are possessed of a seemingly bottomless cache. Then, on January 2, John and pretty much everybody else in town pack up and move out, leaving the dog and me to get on with the real business at hand: my annual attempt at accomplishing two very important missions. The missions stay the same because I never actually accomplish them. What happens instead is that I reread all the John D. MacDonald and Robert B. Parker novels in the house, sleep, walk the dog, and sleep some more. But I digress.
Back to the missions. First I endeavor to find inner peace and learn to breathe by booking a massage every day and signing up for yoga, a practice in which I last engaged the summer before my fortieth birthday, more than a decade ago. Last year I got as far as the first massage. The masseuse rubbed some oil on her hands and then she stroked my face and told me to “let go of all that which does not serve you.” This woman is really, really nice and gives one of the best massages I’ve ever had, but in the immortal words of my friend Rick Smythe, “Naw, that ain’t gonna happen.” And it certainly is not going to happen in ninety minutes, or even in ten ninety-minute sessions. When I finally stopped laughing, I got completely freaked out by all the stuff I tote around in my head and heart that does me absolutely no good, and then I realized it wasn’t even a metaphor.
Which leads me to the second mission: to go through the ever burgeoning amount of actual tote bags containing all the work I meant to finish, mail I meant to answer, and magazine articles I meant to read during the previous twelve months (although at this point, it’s really more like seventy-two). Last year, I took a whopping eleven bags with me and then I brought them all back home. Currently, they are stashed beneath the desk at which I am typing, ready to be reloaded into the car for the annual trip. In 2009, I left a particularly heavy bag in my Seaside bedroom with the firm intention of coming right back and dealing with it. I didn’t, of course, and now I have no idea what’s inside, but on top there’s a September 1998 New York Review of Books with a cover story on Elizabeth Hardwick by Joyce Carol Oates, which means that I’ve been carrying it around for fifteen years and three months. It would take me maybe twenty minutes to read the essay, but now it’s become a Thing, a reminder of my almost pathological procrastination and countless other inadequacies and of Oates’s own terrifying productivity. She has written seventy-eight pieces for the New York Review; I have written two. She is also the author of more than forty novels and a whole bunch of poems and short stories, none of which I have read, and she also teaches. At Princeton.
So this year, I’m changing the plan. I’m going to read the damn Joyce Carol Oates story and then I’m going to dump out the remaining contents of the bag and all the other bags too. If I weren’t sure I’d be breaking some town ordinance, I would set fire to it all. Next I’m going to dump out the electronic tote bag that is my e-mail inbox, in which I have 25,652 new messages. A few months ago they were down to a modest 4,000, but then my computer got hacked and the nice man in India to whom I paid five hundred dollars to retrieve my lost e-mails retrieved every single one I’d received since 2008. At first I was going to make them another mission—I’d go through all the missives from the past two or three years and respond. Because when I get an e-mail, unless it’s a life-threatening one from one of my editors, including the fearless (and astonishingly patient) leader of this magazine, I rarely reply. What I think is this: “Man, I need to take more than two seconds to craft an answer, so I’ll save it and jump back on it in just a little bit,” and then I never do.
I have lost out on potentially lucrative speaking engagements and festive parties and made a whole lot of people mad or at least a little perplexed. This week, for example, I ran into a very nice man, an orthopedic surgeon from Chattanooga who is the son of one of my husband’s law partners. He reminded me—in the nicest of ways—that I’d failed to respond to the e-mail he’d sent two years ago asking for my grillades recipe. Naturally, I didn’t remember the e-mail or even the brunch I’d given where he’d tasted the grillades in question. This was a screw-up of many dimensions. First of all, it’s always good to have a top-notch ortho man in your list of contacts. You never know when or where you might break a leg. Also, since the guy’s father is one of the most refined, polite people I know, it would have been, at a minimum, polite of me to get back to his son. Finally, since I often write about food for a living, it’s not a bad thing to have people in various cities around the country talking about the tastiness of my grillades.
So, in this space, I’m answering his e-mail. As for the rest of you, sorry, but I’m deleting all the others. Then I’m making two resolutions. I’m going to answer my e-mail. When it comes in. And I’m throwing out all my tote bags. If I don’t have them, I can’t fill them up.