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Archive for December, 2007

Eeyore Finds His Tail (in a most unexpected place)

If you ever find yourself wondering: where does confidence live? then let me tell you about the power of trying on dresses you can’t afford. This does not, I’ll grant you, sound very much like the sort of thing to restore cheer. After all, it can be just as crazy-making to realize that you can’t even buy the things in a place that are on sale. But yesterday, after I’d spent the better part of the morning lashing out at everybody who tried to talk to me and then more or less the entire afternoon sulking, I put together a formula: two full meals + an hour spent in Anthropologie trying on everything I want regardless of how expensive it is, twirling in front of the big mirrors in the dressing room despite the fact that someone might be watching + the purchase of an absurdly colorful new coat + time spent wandering the aisles of a bookshop = restored faith.

It isn’t always as easy as all that. But it should be. And sometimes, with the help of people who care, it is.

One dress, a silk patterned with reddish flowers and a lovely brown ribbon round the waist, caught my particular fancy. Even the woman sitting on the couch waiting for her daughter to emerge from a fitting room said it suited me. I didn’t buy it (in a classic case of relative-poverty-of-youth, I couldn’t afford both it and my new coat, but I’m about to embark on an expensive trans-atlantic adventure with my shiny new macbook) but I did feel infinitely better about myself in it.

Then I twirled around in a garishly red little dress, admiring it and its slouchy pockets. “It’s lovely, but I don’t think we live far enough into the country for that to work,” Xander finally told me. “I mean if we lived somewhere where you could go running around barefoot. But we don’t, we live on Hurst Street.” I pictured myself flouncing around East Oxford with no shoes, or perhaps in green wellington boots up to my knees, and was inclined to agree with him. I am unfailingly charmed by “the country” (as evidenced by today, when I chose not to go in to town but to stay wrapped up in cashmere sweaters and wool blankets typing and watching the wilderness outside try to decide if it is going to be wet and cold, or merely damp and cold) but do not, at present, live in it.

And this has been at the crux of my fashion struggle for some years now: balancing one’s lifestyle with one’s fancies. I fancy the red country dress, but as Xander wisely pointed out, it does not fit my present lifestyle. I am too inclined to acquiesce to desires, and to ignore entirely the circumstances under which I get dressed every morning. My fervent hope is that as I get older (and wiser, so they say) I shall also learn better to balance these things, and so look less foolish when I step out the door. In the meantime I have my “eeyore has fond his tail” coat—blue, with bright flowers stitched on and shell-like buttons—to remind me not to get so insufferably teenagy whenever I feel the cloud of a bad mood settling over me.

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Since I’ve been in California (the first time I’ve been back since March of this year, when I spent a few early-spring days soaking up as much thin warmth as I could before returning to Boston) I’ve adopted a new ritual, one which I seem to have absolutely no control over. It is almost as if some sort of timepiece has crawled its way into my consciousness, embedded in thoughts and dreams—for the instant the digital clock on the oven hits 9 PM, my body drapes itself wearily upon the couch, my eyes hover half-open for a moment before shutting fast, and my breath becomes sleepy.

Last night I caught the household milling around me, wisps of conversation floating into half-attentive ears: “she’s asleep,” “what are we going to do about her?” “do you think she wants a blanket?” No, I thought, I do not want a blanket. If you give me a blanket, I will sleep here all night, and wake up with the buttons of my jeans pressed into my skin and my arm numb from all my weight crushing against it. I think what came out of my mouth, however, and in the form of a feeble mumble, was, “mmmm num num.”

In the morning, we awake drenched in hot sunlight. The two comforters my mother has kindly placed on the guest bed seem excessive and I throw them off dramatically, leaving my skin to soak up bright yellow lines of sunshine. It is rarely any later than 8:30, and we find we cannot find sleep again, so we get up. We have breakfast. We marvel at the morning.

It’s something to do with the light, of course. But also to do with the stillness outside. When nature itself seems to be sleeping, curled in on itself, the hills lying flat, black silhouettes on a navy sky, no artificial light but a small stream from the house spilling onto the silver line of driveway, it takes all my will to convince my body that it, despite all of the world’s cues, should stay bright and awake.

Part of me feels this is the right way to be: attuned to the rhythms of something greater than oneself; lying and rising to moonlight and sunlight. Another part of me craves the proximity of a city. I think of Oxford, where I’ll soon be, and how refreshing it is to be within walking distance of one’s friends, to have the glow of streetlights to guide you home late at night. I find I cannot reconcile these duel desires except to console myself that each belongs to me, in some way (or I belong to each, perhaps more accurately); that each draws me and repels me with equal force, and that no-one except myself would ever demand that I make a permanent choice about lifestyle when I am still so young. And so I free myself.

This afternoon, inspired by bright skies and dramatic clouds, we drove down Santa Rosa road for tea with the Cadwells. Their house from the outside blends into the countryside: a simple, one-story cottage, with a tiled roof and vines climbing up its sides. Inside it looks like something concocted in a Bohemian reverie: dark wood with cracks and character, bright teal walls in the kitchen, peach colored ones in the office, and yellow ones in the lounge, tablecloths with flowers and patterns that only someone high could come up with, but anyone can appreciate. There are papers strewn about and wildly imaginative artwork displayed above a creaky piano that has been out of tune since I first met the Cadwells, about twelve years ago. We sat at the dining table and drank tea from delicate cups with saucers and ate lots of things with sugar (mini macaroons, honey-filled biscuits, English Christmas pudding that Xander carried all the way from Britain), alongside English Stilton cheese with persimmons and walnuts.

Meanwhile, Clara’s baby, nine months old and dressed in a striped jumpsuit, crawled his way around the table and bounced happily from open arms to open arms, deigning to crack a smile only on rare occasions but mostly looking slightly disgusted with the gluttony of the adults. Once he tried to feed Olive a slice of persimmon; she took it willingly in her teeth before he suddenly yanked it back, as if he had decided at the last moment that in fact she would not do, this silly aunt of his: not worthy of persimmon slices, not worthy of his efforts. Olive, collapsed in giggles, ruffled his hair and he snuggled deeper into her lap. Outside, the light was trying to turn to dusk but only half its heart was in it: the brightness lingered, settling over the horizon, shooting down over the fields below.

We decided to make an attempt at wine-tasting further down the road. We arrived just as they were closing up the tasting room at Sanford, but very kindly, we were served anyway, and I learned to properly swish the wine round my glass (something I’d only partially mastered before), and that, according to Xander, you get the strongest taste by making silly sucking noises through your teeth (the air does something to the wine, allegedly). We watched the sun simper down towards the horizon, hesitating, shooting glorious rays our way, coyly hiding behind bare tree branches, teasing, taunting, until a fuzzy grey darkness finally covered us.
On the way back we looked at real estate ads in local papers: this one’s just $24 million, and look! A bargain at $15 million.

Earlier I had been caught up in thoughts of how I wanted a house like the Cadwells’—shabby but warm, with the smell of a wood fire in winter and the french windows opened wide in summer. Now all I thought was: how do people in the modern world afford to make a home of their own? Whilst I ponder that, I shall work out how to cover my $100+ electricity bill—the product of the first month of a Boston winter, and quite a change from my September bill, which was only $12 (I am reminded yet again to be thankful that I no longer live there). The bar graph on the bill looks like an error, but it isn’t—it’s just a map of the jump between seasons.

Now we are home, and it is 7:30, and one suspects that as the clock strikes 9 I will again become hopelessly sleepy.

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Taking Care

We decorated the tree last night.  The process was eminently enlightening.  We discovered that certain ornaments are creepy (a wooden cat with a string you pull to make his legs splay open, for example); certain ones are too partisan (an elephant was relegated to the box, whilst a donkey was allowed to swing free on the branches.  my mother has steadfastly refused to display the special edition white house ornaments we get each year from a lobbyist my father knows.  “not while he’s in office,” she says).  Xander is partial, I’ve discovered, to old-fashioned looking ornaments: simple, wood, Christmas-y.  I seem to be partial to animals and flamboyantly colored, almost garish representations of things like musical instruments that have very little to do with Christmas, really.  I spent a good deal of the evening worrying that he would find our tree–a rainbow assortment of bicycles and baubles, and creatures and angels, with its colored lights and ramshackle stand–too camp, too California, having strayed too far from the Christmas ideal.  He, I think, spent most of the evening worrying that my family now thinks he’s very bizarre (he is, but not a one of us is in any position to judge).

The result of his careful arranging, and our wrestling with the tree to get it into the stand, is actually  very pleasing–the result, I suspect, of our both having been in charge of Christmas in our respective houses for so long.  The tree is just the right balance of tradition and unabashed flamboyance–California meets Charles Dickens, or something.  The ultimate Christmas compromise, and it works very well, as it turns out.
I am now sitting watching how the tree handles the daylight: have you ever seen a fully dressed Christmas tree in California sunlight?  It looks utterly out of place, no matter the season.  But I may as well not be in California at the moment, for I am on the couch, and Xander is talking to relatives in Oxford whose voices I can hear, and the house phone has just rung, and someone from another part of the state is on the line.  We are inundated with communication, and wildly, absurdly global, it seems.  The world shrinks and then expands at our whims: we are in the remotest spot, where cell phones do not work and radio crackles gently, but we have technology at our command, and can close ourselves off to the outside, or open up to it, at the tap of a key.
And then there’s our Christmas tree, with its motley array of ornaments, a product of compulsiveness and–perhaps a better word here–care.  Yesterday we had a lovely lunch at Chef’s Touch in Solvang (a respite from the faux-danish-ness); panini-pressed sandwiches followed by a persimmon pudding.  We overheard the chef discussing the pudding: his Grandmother’s recipe, he said, and, when we inquired after it, also “what sealed the deal with my wife”.  We had to have some–not only to see what such a powerful pudding in the flesh, but also because, you have to admit, “persimmon pudding” sounds wonderfully poetic–almost erotic, the sort of food I imagine Greek gods and goddesses licked from each other’s fingers whist draped in swathes of golden fabric and ivory robes.  
The pudding was indescribably delicious (the gods would not have been disappointed, I assure you), but what was equally delicious was the care the chef seemed to be putting into his work.  I don’t just mean putting into his food, either, though clearly there was that: I mean also the way he interacted with his customers (just the two of us and a middle-aged man with a beer and a sandwich), the way he prided himself on the persimmon pudding, the way he cheerfully gave us our portion “compliments of the chef” and invited us to the open house later (“we’ve got to dress the tree,” we said.  “oh, screw the tree!” he cried.  “no, we’re not going to do that,” Xander said back.  “it would be very prickly.”); the way I felt, after having eaten, sated both in spirit and body, as if I was part of something, a good something, and it was completing me, and I was completing it.
So when we came home and decorated our little tree, each of us bringing the expertise of years and the prejudice of place, and reached a tidy balance (example: we’ve never had white lights on a tree before, but this year, they hang alongside the colorful ones), you could call us compulsive, or downright weird (and you’d be right, on a superficial level).  Still, I’m inclined to think it’s necessary care: what is the point of doing something, especially something symbolic, or something important, or something that earns you a living, or something that holds weight and meaning, if you don’t take care?

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Moving Weather

I am sitting and watching the rain (yes the rain, and not, mark you, the SNOW, or the ICE, or some unimaginably horrific combination of the two).  The deck is shiny with water and there are cactuses lining the wall, and the hills in the distance (shrouded in fog) meet at a point in the middle, where, if it weren’t quite so misty out, you could see a sliver of the Pacific Ocean.

It is warm, and pleasant, and when I go outside, it does not hurt to breathe with cold.  In case you were wondering, it should not hurt to breathe when you go outside.  
We had the most fabulously bizarre last few days in Boston.  First of all, IT SHOULD NOT TAKE THREE HOURS TO GET A CAB IN A MAJOR AMERICAN CITY.  Second of all, IT SHOULD NOT TAKE THREE HOURS TO GET A CAB IN A MAJOR AMERICAN CITY.  And third of all, IT SHOULD NOT TAKE…etc.
You see, all we needed was three cabs: one to take us to the post office, so that I could mail a variety of boxes to California and the UK; one to take us to the Salvation Army, where I could drop off everything that didn’t make the cut; and one to take us to a kind friend’s apartment, so we could have somewhere to store our luggage after moving out of the apartment.  
It should have been simple, but actually, what ended up happening was this: we called a cab at 11:45 AM. It came at 3 PM, said cab arrived, and we took it to the Post Office, where we spent an hour with the world’s most surly and unhelpful agent (“the return addresses goes HERE.  have you ever gotten a letter in the mail?”).  I then went to take my last university exam EVER (it involved labeling articles of clothing from 20th century American fashion: for instance, a picture of underpants: “jockey shorts”; a very silly looking haircut: “mullet”; etc.).  While I was test-taking, X called for a cab to go to the Salvation Army.  I arrived home at about 5, and it still hadn’t come.  Well, fine.  Roundabout 7:30, it still hadn’t showed up.  ????!?!?!?!?!?!?!  Not fine.
We waded through snow and ice at 4 AM because none of the cab companies were even picking up their phones anymore (“oh, it’s miranda?  quick, don’t answer!”).  
“I don’t know how you’re meant to function here, unless you have a car,” X astutely observed.
“I don’t either,” I agreed–then added something to the effect of, “but I also don’t know how you’re meant to function here with a car, given the lack of parking.”  Then I stepped in snow up to my knee and my suitcase slipped on some ice and I worked myself up into a royal huff that has only recently subsided, with the aid of a shower, some food, and about twelve hours of heavy sleep.  
However, we are here, and it is wonderful, and I am done done with school–well, with university, at least.  Assuming I labelled all the underwear and hairstyles correctly on that exam………
Boston seems to have chosen my last few days there to play the role of cruelest city–which is a shame, because I know it has a soft underbelly, a kind face, which it shows at admittedly rare moments in winter, but which it generally allows one to see at least a hint of.  I left it and felt nothing but grateful to be out; and having spent four years there, I’m sure there are things I will miss, but all in all, I have the sense that I am glad I lived there for awhile (whilst young and limber–all that slipping and sliding and falling on one’s back would take a toll on an older body), and equally glad that it is not to be a place of permanent residence for me.  I kept telling X, “we’ll come back in May, and I’ll show you around then,” and telling myself, “you’ll remember why you liked this city then.”  It was moving weather: horrible, mean-spirited, testing body and soul, asking you with each droplet of snow, each patch of dark ice: “what are you willing to do for the sake of a deadline?”
It is a strange thing, to be done with one phase and not yet on to the next.  I can’t say I’m not enjoying it either–and am looking forward, with extreme pleasure and excitement, to my imminent move to Britain.  Until then, I suspect we shall go for lots of walks on the ranch, drink lots and lots of tea and coffee, and probably do our best to read through all the books on my shelf before New Years.  Wish us luck.

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addendum

my knee now hurts from the run.

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A Simple Truth That Never Quite Sinks In…

I am done with my thesis! Yes–all done. 100 pages done.

I wish I could say that at the moment I finished, there was fanfare and champagne, but actually what I did was go for a run in the cold and come home and do some more work. Then I woke up this morning and slipped on some ice on the way to work and fell flat on my back (sounded like a sack of bricks…), took three wavering steps, slipped again, made it to the end of the road, fell again, got all the way to the train station and into Cambridge, then slid my way to the office building.

Moral? Writing a 100 page thesis on the use of narrative structure to convey political messages doesn’t make you any more graceful. Like the time I turned four and thought I would just wake up and be able to draw a heart (this was a huge ambition of mine as a kid), and found out that actually, just because you’re older, doesn’t mean you don’t still have to learn.

Turns out that’s still true.

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Where Do Days Go?


About eight years ago my parents took me to England. It was my first time out of the country, and even if I had been in charge of our destination (to be honest, I might have been, I can’t remember) I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect place to go. I had just graduated from eighth grade (I say “graduated” as if it signified something more than the simple slipping by of time, but the way some of my colleagues dressed, in pastel taffeta gowns, long as prom dresses, with bows and ribbons and flowers, it might as well have. My best friend and I each wore simple knee-length summer frocks and looked terribly understated; unfortunately mine had an open back, and I didn’t wear a bra–something I didn’t think would be a problem when I got dressed and shrugged a nice black cardigan on to cut the chill from the morning fog, but something which, by day’s end, I was terribly uncomfortable about, as evidenced by the photographs of my classmates and I on the school deck, everyone holding flowers, arms round each other, except me, with my arms crossed firmly across my chest).

I had a passport, with a very unfortunate photograph (a rite of passage, that first “deer in the headlights” identification photo). We had bought new luggage. It was a two-week trip and in my mind that seemed to be a forever-long trip. I was thrilled to my very core; sleepless with excitement. I read guidebooks until my thumbs were raw and the ink had bled from the pages, and then I simply dove into my Agatha Christies and my Exxon-Mobil Masterpiece Theater programs (does anyone else think the marriage of an oil company with some of Western culture’s greatest stories is a very odd one?).

London was dizzy (I say that about every city I visit; perhaps I am not someone who can settle down in a city, and the phrase says more about my own character than about the character of the place). My parents had not been in England for 15 years, when they had toured Wales by bike or something appropriately young-couple-ish. They had loved Wales, so we went back, at the end of our own trip, after London (Churchill’s War Rooms and the clutter of Oxford Street, Notting Hill and the flea market where I could have spent all my money, if I’d been allowed, walking through Hyde Park with my father and taking a rowboat out on the pond), Bath (the best hotel room I have ever stayed in, and one of the best travel meals: fresh baked bread, cheese, fruit, Schweppe’s Bitter Lemon, and chocolate eaten half-naked under a fluffy down blanket at dusk), a charming town called Dunster where my mother managed to lock my father and I into our hotel room (accidentally, I hasten to add) while she jaunted around the village, exploring antique shops and tearooms blithely whilst Dad and I wondered if we would have to jump out of the window to escape, and Cornwall, where I ate pasties of all different ilks (a curry-flavored one proved particularly delicious) and marveled at how a landscape that, in its strictest geographic sense, I was familiar with (a coastline was where I had grown up, after all), could seem so wild and different from anything else I had ever known.

We drove through the Cheddar Gorge; we rode an old steam train to a crumbling abbey and had some fellow-tourists photograph us standing beside the stone skeleton. We went to the British Museum where I saw the Rosetta Stone and then got grumpy because I was hungry; we went for many and long walks with food in our backpacks and no particular destination, and laughed a lot–once so hard I fell over, and a pair of stone-faced sleek-haired Euro backpackers narrowed their eyes (I would say wrinkled their noses, but I don’t think skin that tight can wrinkle) at the crazy laughing family. I doubt they could tell where we were from–no discernable words, after all, were coming from our gaping mouths, just gasps and giggles–but I’m sure they figured we’d been let out of a madhouse in whatever country had once housed us. We ate carryout Indian food in inns and hotels all across the United Kingdom; I was always afraid this was against the rules, and that the proprietors, who were always very kindly when we showed up on their doorsteps, would find out, kick us out, and then warn all the other kindly innkeepers not to let us inside, but this never happened, and we had many a great meal sprawled out on the floor. There were always leftovers that my mom thought we could have for lunch the next day, but about an hour after dinner she would reach a hand into the bag and start munching, and that was that.

We also ate a lot of chocolate. I’m not sure why, exactly, except that it seemed like the perfect snack: smooth, cool, rich, full of calories and energy for long walks. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten as much chocolate as I did the first time I was in England.

Despite all this, there was one constant refrain to our trip (well, two, but the other one was my nickname, “pile girl”, chosen because as we drove around the country, I sat in the backseat with an enormous pile of luggage, food, and souvenirs–funny but not especially profound): “fifteen years ago–” one of my parents, or both, in tandem, would say, and then work themselves into a state of extreme nostalgia. The sun burned brighter, the sky was bluer, the grass was greener, fifteen years ago. Things were the-people-were-nicer-the-world-was-smaller-the-air-was-clearer-the-water-was-cleaner-the-streets-were-emptier-the-locals-were-more-local better, fifteen years ago. I don’t think my parents actually consciously thought this–and I don’t think they had any complaints about our own English journey–but they said those three words so often it became a running joke, and I would roll my eyes at the word “fifteen”, and they would laugh, but finish the sentence, and then we would look around, as if trying to determine what had changed.

I hadn’t even been born fifteen years ago; the England I knew was one from books, one that had died before the 1950s had even begun, and I couldn’t reasonably feel nostalgia for something I had known only in my 13-year-old-imagination. But I did. “Oh yeah?” I wanted to snap, when Mom or Dad let loose a sigh and murmured, “you know, 15 years ago this was definitely not a Gap”, “well 50 years ago it wasn’t even a building!”

It’s not that they objected to the changed version of a country they had only known years previous; it was that when time changes a place, slowly, steadily, and inevitably, with the same dogged persistence of a marathon runner beating out 26.5-miles-of-strides, and you see that place anew, you also see yourself anew. You see yourself having undergone the metamorphosis of time, swept by the years, chiseled by the wind, altered by the everyday. You see yourself having changed too; in ways perhaps you couldn’t have imagined. Who would have thought that charming cottage would become a bustling Starbucks? Well, who would have thought my parents would have a teenage daughter the next time they saw it?

And for me, who had known the places I was visiting only from guidebooks, and storybooks, and pure guesses, the changes were not indicative of anything in myself. It was not the roaring 1920s anymore, and I secretly mourned the loss of ladies in shiny flapper dresses and men in fedora hats, but this was something that had nothing to do with me. I could only rail silently in my own head that I had subscribed for so long to a dream of someplace where time had entered a book and then stood still; but this, I realize now, is part of the process of growing up. Other kids had dreams too, and imaginations that played outside the realm of the possible, and they, too, in silent, secret ways, allowed these dreams to flow from being hopes to being escapes. I found solace in knowing that I could read; and that I could create worlds with my own pen and notebook (a green spiral-bound one, on that trip, which shows me to be an extraordinarily prolific 13-year-old).

But say that in a few years, I return to Dunster (I can’t even remember where it is anymore, but I presume it isn’t so far from Oxford that a trip would be impossible), and I look up at the Yarnmarket Hotel, at the window that my Dad and I peered anxiously from fifteen years ago, and find that it’s not the Yarnmarket Hotel anymore–it’s something else, it’s been knocked down, it was the Yarnmarket, and then it was rubble, and now it’s a shiny new fill-in-the-blank, and that window isn’t even a window any longer. And I try to retrace our steps, take the walk to the Castle and along the footpaths, and discover that the footpaths have been paved, and that the hike we took is now an impossible hike, for the giant highway overpass that cuts the land up. I’m not saying this is what will happen: I’m saying what if. And suppose I see that among all those things I deem to be terrible, I also see something new, and exciting–something, like the internet, that connects people in oft-beautiful ways; and I see kids playing football in the new stadium that used to be just-a-muddy-field-but-at-least-it-was-untouched, and they’re yelling and running and happy.

Well??

Well I guess I forfeit my right to judge the place on how it has changed until I realize that what I would be looking at, in that hypothetical situation, would not be Dunster, but myself: and all the things that could have happened to me, in the time it took the Yarnmarket hotel to be destroyed, and all the people I could have met since the footpaths were made of grass, and all the years that I have put on since I was a 13-year-old-girl sloshing through a muddy field.

(whew…bit of a long one there…about the photos: top, Dad and I, on that first trip, reading a newspaper in Cornwall somewhere; just above, Cowley Rd. construction–click to enlarge and read the very polite message on the sign.)

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