Last night, I watched the Serena Williams/Maria Sharapova match in the first round of the US Open. Last year, I was in New York around this time, visiting the city for the first time and watching the US Open in person. I wish I could say more of what it meant to watch Serena Williams play on Ashe, how the largest stadium in tennis went quiet to watch her ball toss, the way you could hear her shoes swipe across the hardcourt. It was a ridiculous inversion of scale, particularly where I was seated with my friends, way up in the nosebleeds, so far away and yet, she was utterly visible. She got off to a fast start that day, against Kanepi, but the match soon turned more complicated, as they sometimes can with Serena. She’s a slow starter by nature, and sometimes she jumps out with such intensity and purpose that it’s almost like she startles herself and she loses focus. In last night’s match, against Sharapova, the only person she startled was Maria.
As much as it meant to me to watch Serena play in person, I try not to think of that trip very much. All told, it was one of the most uncomfortable and painful experiences I’ve ever had. And it made me never want to return to New York. Indeed, if I weren’t publishing a book, I’d never go back. It was brutal. To spare you the grisly and gruesome details, I’ll say this: I couldn’t walk properly for two months because I had two enormous blisters on my feet, which burst, resealed, refilled with fluid, and burst again over a two day period. The end of the trip involved me hobbling out of Billie Jean King Tennis Center to get my bag and then dragging my suitcase approximately half a mile, on blistered feet, through first a park and then some sort of petting zoo until I reached the Uber pick up, at which time I had to hobble through LGA and then through MSP and then finally home. I had to take an Uber to workshop for about two weeks before I was okay, and even then, walking was painful, for months, as I’ve said.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst of it was letting myself get bullied into doing things. Not by people who were bullies exactly. But I let myself believe that when you go to a city, you’re meant to do things and go places and get caught up and eat food, but not just any food: the food. There is a kind of righteousness to tourism. I mean, I understand it. Life Under the Algorithm dictates certain values. This is of course not new. Kierkegaard had much to say about the aesthetic life--life mediated through one’s sensory experiences and maximizing those experiences, the pleasure principle as a way to combat boredom and existential dread. It’s also part of what it means to live a life mediated via capitalism. Almost every summer, a flock of my friends migrate to Paris, to Spain, to Australia, to Montreal, not to partake of the waters like a character in an Austen novel or Mavis Gallant story so much as to achieve an aesthetic bliss. I find it kind of funny, in a way, rest as ethic, as a way of combating capitalism, and yet rest has been aestheticized and transmuted into another capitalist enterprise. Anyway, I let myself be swept up into it, and what I had to show for it was days of increasing physical and emotional misery, and a sharpening fury at the idea that this was allegedly what we were supposed to be doing with our time.
The other thing is that the trip to New York came after a long summer of doing very little in terms of writing and thinking. My friends encouraged this. They said rest, rest, you wrote two books, rest, you deserve a rest, and so I listened because I had a little money and could afford not to take a job or chase down freelancing. I gave myself over to rest, and it put me into a depressive fugue that almost killed me. I don’t understand our contemporary notion of rest. I do not understand the aesthetic principle of doing nothing as a way to combat capitalist machinery. Mostly, when I am at rest, I am deeply miserable, in a way that causes me psychic and actual human pain.
We fetishize pleasure in all its forms. That is not a new thought either. But I do wonder if and how our pleasure might be organized under and by capitalism. The idea of rest, of boredom, of taking flight to partake in beautiful locations, of beautiful food, of wine, of cheer, of beautiful people. It’s all consumption. I went to the US Open not even because I wanted to exactly. It felt like a cultural imperative that I, having resources, spend them in such a way, as though, again, pleasure were an ethic, a moral force. It’s all very depressing. And gay, I guess. Homosexuals are very passionate about pleasure as morality.
I went to New York last month, and aside from a few concessions to doing things, I resolutely refused to leave the apartment I was renting with a friend. When people suggested things to me, I said no interest! Or I’m not doing that, but thank you. I stayed indoors. I went to cafes. I worked, which felt good and freeing. My mind was my own and my time was my own and I was my own. Some people were mostly fine when I said, no thanks, but their casualness made me wonder why they had suggested things for me to do in the first place. What is this cultural impulse toward diversion? Toward blasting yourself into a million pieces so that you can partake in as much as possible. That isn’t fun. It’s capitalism, friends. It’s just the same old thing. Consumerism at its peak. Do not get my wrong. I think socialists are nerds. It’s the righteousness with which people shove cultural itineraries at me that baffles and enrages me. Facebook and Twitter are a series of people raising their hands and demanding to be given suggestions of things and places to do and to see and to taste and to drink so that they might be transformed by aesthetic experience into a better, happier, glossier version of themselves.
Which I understand. Who hasn’t wanted to be more than they are, better than they are, anywhere else but where and when and how they are. Life is about wanting another life, a better life. We are all on fire to transform. This too is an old idea, ancient even, inextricable from our fundamental understanding of the spiritual and the holy and the divine. We cry out for sublimation.
Serena Williams beat Maria Sharapova 6-1,6-1. She played like she was, not mad exactly, but determined to erase a bad memory. The memory in question might be the two victories Sharapova secured against her in 2004. The WTA Championship of that year was the last time that Sharapova beat Serena. Some people say that Serena swore to herself that she’d never let Sharapova beat her again, and to date, it might be the most one-sided rivalry in sports. Rivalry is...a misnomer for the degree to which Serena Williams has completely and thoroughly beaten Maria Sharapova. It’s less a rivalry and more like a grudge.
I joked on Twitter that Serena was showing us the value of swearing vengeance upon your enemies, and it’s a principle I stand by in this life, which is all you need to now about the social reverberations of that trip.
I watched the match from the comfort of my own own, under my blankets and air conditioning, happy for the company of myself and myself alone.