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Archive for June, 2008


I can’t tell you why Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 classic novel–and the subject of a recent spate of articles in entertainment magazines–is such a favorite of mine (perhaps it is even the favorite). I first read Brideshead Revisited as a high school student looking for a different state of mind: I was tired of Orwellian politics, Salinger-esque angst, Shakespearean epics. I was even tired of the dreamy, druggy worlds conjured up by obscure beat poet and, no doubt, regular acid-dropper Richard Brautigan (which was certainly different, though not much else can be said in its favor), and the heavy, racy words of Rushdie, who I did not quite understand (I still may not quite understand).

So I picked up Waugh, who was like nothing I had ever read before. At the time, I thought he must have been writing just for me: the gentle, lolling tone, the exaggerated tenderness, the polite reproaches (narrator Charles Ryder gets a “grand remonstrance” from his cousin Jasper, but it is neither hot nor heavy, just a careful, English avoiding of the subject at hand), all bound together by a profound and often undeserved nostalgia. It was quintessentially English; the words were beautiful (I once read that Waugh had later disparaged the novel for being too sappy, too verbose, and was saddened to know it), the characters drawn, in their flapper dresses, their fedoras and flannel suits, to an ideal I knew and loved above all other literary things.

So at first, I don’t think my adoration of the novel–an unusual choice anyhow for a 15-year-old American girl–had anything to do with its specific themes or nuances. It was an escape; and though the characters be tortured, I found it a respite from other things. It was easy on the mind, so to speak. You know from the beginning that Charles Ryder is a tragic character, and you can see from the start that his embroilment in the Marchmain family’s sordid affairs will be his ultimate undoing, but because this is all set out for you, you also know that you can then enjoy the lavish surroundings without disappointment or surprise.

I’ve since re-read the novel enough times to be able to quote it, often at alarming length. I find myself sometimes saying slightly odious things to people: “Oh! It’s like when Julia Flyte tells Charles Ryder that she can’t marry him because it would be like ‘setting up a rival good to God’!” and then when they nod blithely, probably frightened by my sudden intensity, I realize I’m being unnecessarily pretentious without even meaning to.

But the words have seeped in, by now. When I first came to Oxford–which was something I’d dreamed, in one form or another, of doing for years–they (some production company or Hollywood crew) happened to be filming a feature-length version of the story, which I found slightly sacrilegious (“how can they fit all of that into two hours?” I cried desperately to my poor boy, with the tone of someone who doesn’t believe in editing) but also deeply appropriate. My first summer in England–in Oxford, no less, the sight of so much of Ryder’s sweet remembrance, and of course the novel was being adapted to film. Some of our friends got jobs as extras and wore jaunty boaters and elegant suits. The city itself didn’t need much alteration for us to believe that it was the 1920s again.

After one particularly boozy evening at the Turf Tavern, we staggered out onto New College Lane and whirled around under the Bridge of Sighs with a friend of ours, a student at Hertford College (where Waugh attended) working towards a doctorate in archeology. I suppose, in my cider-soaked friendliness, I had let slip some wisp of admiration for Waugh, because our friend suddenly offered to take us into the college, to see the “Waugh Room”.

“The what?” we said, as we came into the main Hertford quad. We followed our friend into a room with lots of books on low bookshelves: the room where Waugh had apparently spent a lot of time as a student, now nicknamed after him. I tried to take a picture of us in the room but missed; now the memory is only marked by a photograph of a poster on the wall, featuring the black-and-white face of a 1920s era girl with a smashing hat.

So today, in California, I sit down to read a back issue of Vanity Fair (I say “read”, but what I mean is gape at the photographs of half-naked celebrities), and what do I find but a feature on the new Brideshead Revisited, replete with photographs of the actors lounging around, in costume, at Magdalen College (which I pass by every day on my way from our Cowley road house to town). “The new production of Brideshead Revisited,” writes James Wolcott, “will strike some as a sacrilege to the memory of the TV landmark [uh, what about the novel??], but it too has a dream cast and luxury settings–why spurn another opportunity for lavishment?”

And I find, in fact, that I agree with the magazine, in principle.

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I never realized how differently we see matters of fashion until today. I mean, I knew we have different opinions, and I knew that I sometimes need a reality check from someone less taken by the whimsical but utterly impractical styles of Vogue, but I hadn’t fully understood that sometimes, where I see one thing, he sees something else entirely.

I was in the bedroom, trying on my mom’s cast-away clothing (a slightly juvenile ritual we go through each time I visit her, or vice versa). First she gave me a dress–polka dotted and colorful, nicely cut. I modeled it in the kitchen to the (admittedly tame) approval of the men. So I was feeling good about the next piece: a dark navy wraparound dress with bell sleeves. In front of the mirror, mom and I admired how well it hugged my curves, how lovely the fabric, how all around fabulous it was. Privately, I thought its finest feature was the way it hung on my rear, but I never got a chance to showcase this to my love: as soon as I entered the kitchen, he said one word, with a wrinkled nose:

“No.”

“What?” I said. I figured I’d misheard. Maybe he had been talking about something else. Maybe he had been responding to a voice in his head, or maybe he had made a mistake with his eyes, and thought I was wearing a trash bag. But surely he’d come to his senses.

“Oh, no,” he said again. I blinked.

Really?” I said.

“It’s the sleeves,” he told me. “They look like something a forty-year-old woman would wear.”

“Look at this face,” I said, gesturing wildly. “Does this look like the face of a forty-year-old-anything?”

“No,” he told me. “That’s exactly the problem. It’s–it’s completely incongruous.”

Back in the safety of the bedroom, I considered myself in the mirror. My buttocks looked fabulous; my breasts looked rounded, my abdomen looked–astonishingly–flat. But there it was: floppy forty-year-old-woman sleeves. I tried hiking them up, but no. All I could see was a middle-aged body with a twenty-something face.

How can two people see the same thing so differently? And which one of us is right? More importantly, to a girl trying to make her way in the world with some semblance of fashion sense, how on earth am I supposed to know what really looks good and what doesn’t? The worst bit is, I can’t even write this off to his being a man: he’s shockingly good at picking out clothes for women, and some of my all-time favorite pieces were spotted not by me, or a trendy girlfriend, but by my own true love. I trust his judgment; but I also trust mine, and I’m fascinated by how oppositely we can react to something as simple as a little navy blue dress.

The next thing I tried on was a forest green turtleneck jumper, which I liked mostly for its color. It had a seam in the back and the first thing he did when I came into the room was frown and ask if I was wearing it inside out.

No,” I said emphatically, trying not to sound too petulant.

“Oh,” he said, his face falling.

But I put it in the “keep” pile anyway, just in case.

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A Cooling Down

It has cooled down, finally, become duvet weather again overnight–windows open, we reach first for the sheet, which we cast away days ago when even the featherweight of the fabric was enough to jerk us sweating from a tossing-and-turning sleep. But a heavy wind, which persists through the day, causes us to get up and seek out the long-abandoned summer duvet. We awake as two duvet sausages, enjoying what it feels like to be wrapped in fabric come morning, not swimming in our own perspiration.

We go to a friend’s farm for the day; on the drive over, we stop by the Parkway Market, a pillar of my childhood, to buy a bottle of impromptu champagne. In the wine, beer, and liquor section of the store (which is substantial), there is a line of champagne bottles atop a shelf. They have a few pricey varieties of bubbly, but these look dusty, as if no one has given them a second look in years. In the refrigerator, however, is just what we need: a chilled bottle of a $4.99 variety. The kindly Asian man who has been the sole employee of the store for as long as I can remember looks up from his lunch to attend to us.

We drive on, down Santa Rosa Road. We turn off at the farm. There is infrastructure now, and detritus, where once there was none; the way I remember the farm is very different from the way it is now, but I suppose this is because we used it merely as the backdrop to our own (mostly horse-related) adventures. My knowledge of the place is punctuated by remembrance: this is where we used to ride along the river to cross; this where we set up a makeshift arena, complete with a series of crossbar jumps; this is where it was flat enough for long enough to gallop full speed; here we had to wrinkle our nose at the smell of fertilizer, and here the trampoline used to sit, where we would sleep on hot nights. Now we walk down to where the sheep are kept; they look as if they might wilt under their wool in the burning sunlight. We think we can feel a heat literally radiating from them, so we feed them quickly and head to the strawberry field to pick some berries for our champagne.

“I read somewhere that strawberries have more vitamin c than oranges,” says our friend.
“They do,” says my love. “They’re not actually berries. They’re aggregated droops.”
“Aggregated DROOPS?” I echo, giggling.
“Yes. Aggregated droops. D-R-U-P-E-S.”
“Oh,” I say. “Drupes.”

Inside, we pour a small glass each and drop our aggregated drupes into the fizzing liquid. I have had something stuck in my eye since dawn, and it starts to wear on me. I retire to the office to apply eyedrops. I swoon into a chair and look helplessly around me. We decide that the only thing to do about it is to go to the cinema, so we head to town to catch the new Indiana Jones–which is more (and I don’t think I’ll be ruining it for anyone by saying this–I may even rescue a few helpless souls from the experience) X-Files-meets-Tomb Raider than hunky- Harrison-Ford-blunders-his-way-through-the-archaeological-mysteries-of-a-jungled-country. The good news is that a solid two hours of holding my eye in a certain way seems to have set free whatever was trapped, and I feel like a new woman.

“It seems Harrison Ford is easy on the eyes,” someone says.

At dinner, we eat a little too much because it is just that good. And when we step outside to go home, a tiny chill has set in, so that I have to put my cardigan on.

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From the Ranch, which is wild and isolated, we went south along the coastline under cover of 4AM darkness. When I awoke we were going past the gray skyscrapers of downtown LA; I fell again into a restless sleep, and then we were in Santa Ana, Orange County, hot, sprawling, everything made to the scale of the car, nothing at all human about the wide-laned boulevards and the parking lots you could lose yourself in, if you aren’t careful.

The next day we took a train, then a subway, then a taxi, from Santa Ana to West Hollywood. Along Melrose, the city transitioned in fifteen minutes without us even knowing how: first it was gas stations and Subway Sandwiches and a funky little shop with candy and soda behind a counter, and then it was Hip Boutique This and Hip Boutique That; we sloped up a hill and arrived at the shaded house of a weathered hipster-art dealer with Rolling Stones hair and a striped boating shirt and skinny jeans and a cigarette slumping out of his animated mouth.

Then my cousin picked us up and drove us to Santa Monica, and we settled into her little apartment, tucked behind a house and a hotel, across the street from the beach. I had a bowl of cereal. We all walked down to the 3rd Street promenade; we had a beer and some tapas and enjoyed the sea air, which cooled a hot day.

The next morning we pushed our way through the Farmer’s Market and got a bus back to Union Station–an hour and a half along Santa Monica Boulevard, straight shooting but slow going along a desolate span of city. By the afternoon we were in Santa Ana again, with its thick, oppressive heat. I stood in front of the hotel air-conditioner to get cold beneath my skirt. We sloshed our way through the faint humidity and the overbearing sun to the mall, artificially cold, for a lemonade and a helping of gelatinous food-court Chinese.

By evening we were in Irvine, with its Stepford streets, its emptiness, its frightening placid air. We had dinner in the depths of an enormous Persian restaurant with our friend, an immigrant from Iran, and went back to her place for tea and to look at photos of her family, coffee-table books on Persian art through the ages and the Iranian mountains. We fell into a dense sleep at the hotel with the hum of the air conditioner in the background and awoke to a telephone ringing that called us each back from our respective dreamlands.

California is one big dreamland; populated not by cities but by islands, built not to the scale of the human condition (which would require downtown areas, and walkable distances, and a shrinking of the broadness of it all) but to the scale of industry, of the ultimate machine–connected by freeways and emptiness, full only of one thing: an unspoken ennui, a longing-without-knowing, a perpetual sense of the surreal.

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An Amusing Game

Can you guess where this quote comes from?

“Ye gods and little fishes…can it be? George, it’s my own particular, one-and-only, four-starred pussy. The super pussy of all pussies.”

a. A Porn Star
b. Ian Fleming
c. Agatha Christie

Amazing, the things I read as a kid and didn’t bat an eyelash at…

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This Be the Post

“Well honey…I’m gonna have a fling.  It’s what you get for spending so much time with that hoe.”

My mother goes outside cackling with glee and flings broccoli at the bushes beyond the walls.  She just found out yesterday that my father used a hoe, and not his bare hands, to uproot all the thistle bushes on our parcel of land, and she is mock-angry.

My father sits placidly with his laptop on his chest, fuming at the wind, which is making everyone a little crazier than usual.

This is my family.  I do not know how else to explain them.

Except maybe with this interaction–
My mother, at the kitchen table, listening to a rap song called “The Dusty Foot Philosopher” that she has recently taken a shine to, seems to be whispering rapidly to herself over coffee–not entirely unusual, except that what she seems to be saying is gibberish.  My father looks at her.  
“Are you practicing the Iranian President’s name?” he says.
“Yes,” she tells him matter-of-factly.

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Still

There is no sign on the hillsides that it may become dark in the next hours.  I used to mark the time by the crawl of shadows up the hillsides, you see.  If the shade had crept halfway up the hill, I knew I didn’t really have time for a walk before twilight set in.  Any less than halfway, and if I was quick, I could be out and back home before the crickets started their nightly din.

How long since I spent a June here?  Two years!  I had forgotten how the heat strikes you; how squinting in the sunlight all day gives you a pleasurable headache by the evening, how wide the sky seems when there are absolutely no clouds in it and how gold the brown hills look.  There’s a heavy wind blowing, but it’s less heavy today than it was yesterday and it will, we think, taper off in a few days’ time.  Until then we are buffetted when we go outside and the sea is full of heavy, frothy, heaving whitecaps.  

6 PM: in the throes of a langorous summer day, I am supine on the couch in a skirt and a thin strapped black shirt.  “I can see your bottom,” he says (my skirt has hiked up); I cannot bring myself to care–my feet sweat, my temples pulsate slightly, a breeze comes in through the window.  I read once about Oxford that “Summer is more summery here than anywhere else I know; not better, certainly not sunnier, but more like summers used to be, in everyone’s childhood memories”* and I think this probably couldn’t be more true; but summer here, on the ranch, is more lethargic, more dreamlike, more like summers could be, in everyone’s vague and half-formed fantasies, than anywhere else I know.  

*Jan Morris, Oxford

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