Somewhere in the midst of the mail and the e-mail, the phone calls and the cab rides, the deadlines and the meetings, it has been borne in on me that Martha Stewart is in trouble.
The business pages are dutifully reporting the accusations that she used insider information to dump 4,000 shares of drug developer ImClone Systems on the eve of its bad-news announcement about a cancer remedy. The TV talk shows and the newspaper columnists are mocking her, making jokes about what colour of wallpaper she'll get in her prison cell if she's found guilty. I have been meaning to rush to her defence for some weeks but the truth is I've been busy. Heavy workload plus a major freelance project, family wedding, the laundry, the lawn . . . you know the drill. Somehow, the rush-to-the-defence-of-Martha column just keeps getting pushed off another week, while paint-over-those-ugly-marks-on-the-kitchen-ceiling drops yet further down the things-to-do list at home.
This state of busy-ness, this perpetual overflow of professional and domestic tasks which once left me simultaneously calculating how a couple of days vacation might be used to catch up on domestic chores while a quiet Saturday trip to the office could get the paper work under control, is hardly unique. Show me a contemporary white-collar worker who doesn't suffer from it. And it's why some of us love Martha.
Don't get me wrong: I have no particular affection for the person, who is so clearly, so thoroughly, not nice that she can't even manage to hide it. No doubt if I watched her television shows I would be mightily annoyed by this person, since all those who have seen them tell me she's mighty annoying, but hey, who's got time to watch daytime television? Not me.
No, I am a fan of Martha Stewart Living, the monthly magazine featuring articles on decorating, cooking, crafts and gardening. Martha Stewart Living is as easy to mock as all things Martha and I have to admit that the monthly calendar it features is weirdly silly: What kind of person schedules everything from the cats' veterinary appointments to "go stargazing." But once you get past this little reminder of the control freak who publishes it, you can abandon yourself to the gorgeous photos of green peas, pink cosmos and seaside retreats, articles on how to refurnish old furniture and recipes for scones.
Some of Martha's detractors ridicule this stuff or suggest it makes women feel inadequate because their homes aren't this beautiful. But why bother reading the thing if it makes you feel inadequate? I read as a gentle form of self-congratulatory escapism. It makes me feel soothed and relaxed, as I flip between pretty pictures of things that I might dream of having, pretty pictures of things that I can proudly announce that I already have, and pretty pictures of things that I can just as easily forgo. Really, who needs a jam safe with an etched glass front? Like some kid trading hockey cards, I turn the pages: Don't want it, got it, got it, need it.
Truth is, Martha Stewart Living is really good time porn. Without ever mentioning dirty words like servants and heaps of money on the one hand or working parents and TV dinners on the other, it offers the harried and the stressed luscious vistas of leisure, not merely the time to seed, to prune, to quilt, to preserve, to refinish, but also the time to savour the results.
It is believed that it was Colin McEnroe writing in The Hartford Courant in 1994 who first coined the phrase time porn. He was remarking on the unrealistic quantities of leisure on television shows such as Seinfeld and Cheers, where the characters seemed to have nothing better to do than hang out with friends, but I think lifestyle magazines are the quintessential examples of time porn.
Like real porn, the magazine is portable, easily hidden and can be casually acquired. "Oh, I just bought a few magazines for fun," I will say nonchalantly as I drop a copy of Martha Stewart Living on the deck at the cottage, because summertime is the season in which I have time for time porn and, of course, I would never subscribe year-round to such a frivolous publication. That's another reason I don't watch Martha Stewart on TV: It would require reading a television schedule or programming the VCR, both of which suggest a commitment. Who wants to admit they are committed to porn?
Before I discovered the joys of Martha Stewart Living, my favourite time porn was the catalogue of the outdoor outfitter and clothing manufacturer L. L. Bean. It lacked the articles but the pictures were just as pretty and it had the added virtue that it arrived at the door unbidden, letting me savour images of muscular men chopping wood with their golden retrievers at their side or slim women drinking coffee on docks without having to actually go as far as to pay money for the thing. Occasionally, I noticed they would sneak a laptop into one of the pictures to suggest some degree of verisimilitude, sort of like those phony plot lines in blue movies: "Oh, it's the plumber. Come in."
Oh, I'll just do half an hour's work on my next novel before I take the canoe for a paddle. Oh, tomorrow, I'll go stargazing, after I've finished pruning the roses.