The Los Angeles–based writer powers through the last stretch of summer with cardio drudgery, high-concept takeout, and reading as a necessary distraction.
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Roxane Gay has nothing good to say about her exercise bike. Or the elliptical machine. Or a long walk. It’s “all horrible,” the writer explains by phone, her tone as blank as her post-workout selfies on Instagram Stories. “34:33 cardio,” a recent caption read, her face glistening and joyless beneath a hot-pink head wrap. It qualifies as #fitspo, but Gay’s version refuses to conform to influencer banalities. “What does it mean to live in an unruly body?” asked Gay in a prompt to writers for her 2018 pop-up magazine with Medium. In the previous year’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, Gay offered up her own answer in unsparing, incisive detail. Lately, that unruliness is matched by Gay’s commitment to fitness tedium. For her, there’s longevity to consider, and weight loss—“but not in the way that is toxic,” she points out. “I just recognize that, in general, it’s required for stamina.”
Girding for the long haul seems wise in a year worn down by pandemic, social injustice, and election malaise; amidst all that, Gay is juggling book projects, a New York Times advice column, and screenwriting, plus a podcast she cohosts called Hear to Slay. But a new collection of Audre Lorde’s work, edited by Gay and out this week, speaks to the need for a deeper kind of stamina. “Unfortunately, so much of what Lorde was writing about 30 years ago is still applicable today,” says Gay, who imagines that Lorde would be “absolutely unsurprised” at what little has changed. Themes of police violence, housing instability, and the marginalization of Black women surface in the book—alongside the sensory pleasures of a kiss or hair washed with fresh flowers. “She valorized the body as much as she valorized the mind,” Gay writes in the introduction.
It’s Lorde’s 1977 essay, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” that resonated most, Gay explains, “because, especially during times like these, we tend to question the value of art and poetry and literature. And it does matter.” Here, in a three-day wellness diary, Gay similarly nurtures the body and the mind, from a night-owl rereading of Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom to a VR workout she actually enjoys.
Thursday, August 27
8:30 a.m.: I wake up because my wife [Debbie Millman] has a meeting and is up early, and once I am up, I am up even if I am still tired. I have the worst habit of checking in with the internet, first thing in the morning, so I look at my phone and immediately feel even more exhaustion because there is no such thing as good news anymore. I read for a while and have a granola bar and some water.
Noon: I work out with my trainer three days a week. Since the pandemic began, we’ve been meeting over Zoom, so we do our thing for 45 minutes, mostly arms but some core and legs, too. She’s into that whole body thing. Then I get my cardio in. Normally I do cardio first, but my days have been getting really hectic. Now that the world has found a way to function virtually, I have to sit in way more meetings than I would like to. It’s kind of obscene how many meetings I have [to sit in], and it’s obscene how many of those meetings could simply be an email. But I digress. I hate exercise. I love complaining about exercise.
1:35 p.m.: My assistant Kaitlyn, who is incredible, stops by with my weekly order from a local purveyor of fresh foods and charcuterie—many peaches (for my wife), basil, some pasta, a sandwich, and eggs from a local farm. Also, Kaitlyn, who is incredible, brings coffee for which I am grateful because in 25 minutes I have to teach a three-hour writing workshop via Zoom.
7 p.m.: I was in meetings or teaching all afternoon. I did not have time to eat. I am the cook in our little family, so while my wife was in a meeting (there’s a pattern here), I make dinner so it will be ready by the time she finishes around 8. Thursdays are pizza night. I do not particularly care for pizza, but she is a devoted fan. I generally make my own dough and the whole shebang, but tonight I use a pizza kit from Lupa Cotta, a local pizza maker here in Los Angeles.
9 p.m.: Cable news is terrible. We do not need news 24 hours a day. I also don’t need to watch the Republican National Convention. It will only make me furious and disgusted. Of course, I end up watching. Ivanka, a.k.a. Evita Junior, basically makes it seem like she is the co-president, and the president drones on and on, struggling to read the teleprompter for more than an hour, as his assembled, unmasked audience offered tepid, forced applause, standing up and down to the orange menace. How does Ivanka get her hair so straight like that? It’s unnatural but I am curious. Does she sleep with an iron on her hair? Does she remove her head when she is in repose? I don’t know. Anyway, this is the opposite of wellness.
10:30 p.m.: I am good and riled up and I love to bake to relax, so I bake some cookie bars and make my own frosting. I don’t eat any, but they are under a glass dome and look perfect and I am quite pleased with myself. I will have a piece tomorrow. The food thing is complicated. I had weight-loss surgery, so it’s a constant battle between what I want and what I should eat and what I shouldn’t and what I can and what I cannot.
11 p.m: HBO sent me an Oculus Quest VR headset as part of an upcoming event they will be having. It is way cooler than I expected, and there’s this game on there called Beat Saber and it is most intense workout. It is the only exercise I have ever, in life, found fun. I can’t beat Level 11. By the time I am done, I am drenched in sweat, as in drenched. The future is wild.
1:33 a.m.: We are both night owls, so we go to bed quite late because once we get in bed, we end up talking and so on and then it’s an hour later and we begin to calculate how many hours of sleep we’re going to get and then it’s a race to fall asleep, but I need to read before I fall asleep so I actually end up reading until 3:07 a.m. and then I go to bed.
Friday, August 28
10:55 a.m.: I woke up late and I am thrilled. For the past several months, I’ve been waking up at 7 or 8 a.m., quite against my will, and am then unable to fall back asleep. I generally get 5 hours of sleep and I can make that work, but when I am able to stay asleep longer, it feels so luxurious. And when I am up, I feel EXTRA awake, like my third eye has opened and I can accomplish anything. That lasts around ten minutes. Anyway, I do my cardio (35 minutes and 33 seconds). It’s terrible.
12:30 p.m.: I have a turkey sandwich with bread-and-butter pickles and tomatoes, then shower because I have a meeting with a showrunner, to be considered for a writing room, and I need to prepare.
1:45 p.m.: The meeting went well, I think, but I’m a guppy in the TV ocean so I am not optimistic. I peek at Twitter, which I have been using less because it’s not a healthy reflection of the world, but also it kind of is and everyone is mad at Mark Zuckerberg. This is self-explanatory. There is some bullshit in my mentions and I have far less energy for engaging with it in unproductive ways than I used to, so I just close Twitter. I love myself enough to do that.
4:30 p.m.: My new obsession is art collecting. I know how that sounds, but really it’s the fantasy of art collecting, as I am a writer who writes about things like Black feminism so I won’t be getting any original Basquiats anytime soon. Regardless, I love looking at art, so I browse Artsy and then I go to Bisa Butler’s website because her quilts are magnificent. I would love to own one someday but until then, I am glad I can see images of her work. I am glad an artist like her is out in the world, representing.
7:35 p.m.: I learn that Chadwick Boseman, a.k.a. T’Challa, a.k.a. Black Panther, a king among men, died. I am genuinely bereft. I really enjoyed his work and he was so young and my mom has Stage IV lung cancer (she’s doing well), so I was also in my feelings because I know how horrible cancer is for the patient, for the family, for everyone in the constellation of the disease. Reading has always been my escape, so I dive into The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw. It’s a wonderful short story collection. The world is a hard place.
The view from Mulholland Drive.COURTESY OF ROXANE GAY.
9:30 p.m.: My wife and I haven’t left the house in . . . a couple weeks at least, so we decided to drive along Mulholland Drive. It was a gorgeous, crisp, clear night. We pull over at a couple scenic overlooks and just enjoy the stars and the stunning views of the city, all the sparkling lights. Then we go to Ralph’s for coffee filters.
Saturday, August 29
1:30 p.m.: Another day, another workout. I do 35 minutes and 33 seconds of cardio and hate every moment of it.
2:30 p.m.: I don’t have a skin-care regimen. I use shower water and it’s fine. But I love Rihanna, so when it was released, I bought her skin-care line. I had nothing on my calendar, so I decided to amuse myself by trying the products out. I used the cleanser and it was fine, smelled nice. Then I used the Fat Water toner serum because it looked cool, and, well, it basically felt like I was burning my face off. My face felt like someone had scraped it raw for the rest of the day. It was very terrible. The moral of this story is to just stick your face under the shower and let God handle your skin.
7:30 p.m.: This local restaurant Vespertine has been doing these take-away meals on the weekends because their dining room is closed. While the regular restaurant serves this outrageously expensive fine dining, with sort of hostile but interesting food, the take-away meals are all themed and elaborate and beautiful and delicious—an homage to French Laundry; a vegetable celebration; Cuban food honoring the chef Jordan Kahn’s Cuban roots. This weekend, the theme is Japan. We go and pick up the food, and my wife’s friend Dee Dee comes over and we enjoy a really nice meal. One of the entrees is Wagyu beef, and they send along a seasoned cast iron pan (!?!) so I make the meat. There is also tonkatsu and soba noodles and miso and tofu and sashimi and black cod and rice and Japanese desserts. I’m allergic to seafood, but I still have plenty to choose from. Everything is beautifully orchestrated, as it always is at Vespertine. Dee Dee brings some red wine from Bolinas, which is great. It is wonderful to hang out with a friend and relax and get a little lit.
Vespertine's Japan-themed dinner, complete with a cast iron pan for the Wagyu beef.COURTESY OF ROXANE GAY.
10 p.m.: I love P-Valley on Starz, so I catch up on this week’s episode because it is the weekend and I am trying to act like it is the weekend and resist opening my laptop. I work too much. It’s a real problem.
11:30 p.m.: I am not a dog person but I am married to a dog person and we’ve been talking about getting a dog, so I check in on the dog we have been watching via the internet to see how he’s doing, I guess. We are going to name him Maximus Toretto Blueberry Millman Gay. I am really nervous. I have never had a dog and I don’t ever want to be licked by the dog because I have a phobia of animal saliva, but this guy is awfully cute. A pandemic and the collapse of an empire seems like a pretty good time to adopt a small furry creature.