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Archive for August, 2008

I was flipping through the Observer magazine yesterday when I came across this article, by Harriet Green, which begins with black, bold lettering: “Welcome to the era of anxiety”. It goes on: “Generalised anxiety disorder is the world’s biggest mental health problem. But do we really have anything to worry about?”

On the facing page, the author holds up a sign that indicates she is worried about the credit crunch, global warming, drinking too much, her sex life, the price of her house, and, of course, being worried.

I waved the magazine excitedly at The Man (who has, if you’ll notice, graduated from being The Boy as his beard has reached an epic stage and he could no more be mistaken for a boy as I could).

“Look!” I cried, pointing. “Who does this remind you of?”

We had a good giggle.

But, as Green points out, “I accept many of my concerns seem unserious. And in public I make light of them, happily casting myself as a kind of female Woody Allen. But when I’m at home those ridiculous concerns can take over.”

Mine took over in spring of 9th grade, when I suddenly and seemingly spontaneously lost the ability to sleep peacefully, something that up until that point I had had no trouble doing at all. My body shook, my head spun, and I lived in a sort of bubble of terror.

To confound matters, I had just acquired my first boyfriend (which is not a term, at the age of 14, that necessarily means the same as it does later, and in this case it meant someone to make out with in the library stacks and hold hands with between classes, more a social rite of passage than a romantic affiliation) and I remember thinking, as I lay awake at night wondering if I was ill or just an insomniac: I have to get to sleep. I can’t be sick. If I don’t get to go to school tomorrow, I don’t get to see him.

To be in darkness was unbearable; I left the light on all night (almost a sin in our solar-powered house) and sometimes, when I thought I could hear the silence crawling into my ears and playing in my head, I put a CD into the boombox and listened to celtic guitar, or medieval chanting, at a volume just quiet enough to not float through the floor and into my parent’s bedroom. I was just old enough to recognize the shame in waking them for such a trivial matter, but just young enough, too, to wish that I could.

This was when I discovered that nights are twice as long as days, and a thousand times as lonely. By dawn I would drift into a state of half-sleep, and the singing of the alarm clock an hour later sounded like relief to my soul.

To comfort me, my father told me that when he was little and trying to get to sleep, he used to get the feeling that the corners of the room where forever receding; but by nighttime I felt alone again. I didn’t try to make a connection with my mother’s famous highway panic-attack, which crippled her driving confidence for years (only recently has she begun making the trek down to Orange County again on her own), or the stresses (mostly social) of my first year in high school.

Instead, I sought rescue in routine, and a host of obsessive-compulsive activities. I started sucking on “Moonlight Mints,” homeopathic, supposedly-sleep-inducing sweets my mother had picked up in an airport at some point, each evening, trying to convince myself that they were in some small way making me weary.

If the sleeplessness passed, the worry certainly never did. Five fretful years later, I found myself in a doctor’s office. I had passed from innocently anxious to severely obsessive-compulsive and back again. On the eve before I started a new job, I awoke with a jolt to all my old symptoms: the walls of my room seemed to be receding before my very eyes, I couldn’t be sure if I was nauseous or not, my heart beat fast. I went upstairs (I was staying the summer in my parents’ house) to the living room and flopped down on the couch. I fell asleep re-reading the same dull passage in Cosmopolitan about how to make your guy lust for you even more, but all summer long I battled with sleeplessness and shakiness, until one panicky evening, my father suggested that I might be suffering from an anxiety disorder.

“What?” I said.
“You know, panic attacks, that sort of thing,” he said. “Look it up.”
I went online. I couldn’t believe this had never occurred to me before. Every single one of my symptoms was named as an indication of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I felt instantly, physically better just knowing this.

I told the doctor that it wasn’t the worry, so much, but the physical symptoms, that I needed help with. I wanted some kind of reassurance that this was normal:

“I’m just amazed at how physical the manifestations are,” I told him. He was a physician’s assistant I had never seen before, our family doctor being on holiday, and he looked at me kindly.
“There’s no need to be embarrassed about it,” he said. “It happens to a lot of people.”
“Oh,” I said, trying to decide if this made me feel better or worse. I wanted to tell him about the way the room spun, the way my stomach churned and my heart raced how I shivered even in the heat of a California summer, but part of me worried (yes, worried) that he would tell me how unnatural this was. It had certainly not occurred to me, however, to be embarrassed about it.
“Sure,” he went on soothingly. “It even happened to me, when I was going through a really stressful time. You are talking about loose stool, aren’t you?”
I wanted to laugh with relief.
“No,” I said.
“Ah,” he murmured. And I fancy that, despite his advice to me, he was slightly embarrassed now.

He gave me some pills, which I took home and promptly stashed away. I was genuinely afraid to take them. I read the possible side effects (always a mistake). I flipped through my copy of Overcoming Anxiety for Dummies so often that the pages started to look tired, trying to convince myself that what the doctor had prescribed me would help. Finally, egged on my parents, who I think were growing weary of having a 19-year-old worry-wort wandering the corridors at night, I swallowed the first pill. I awoke in a panic several hours later.

“Um, I think I’m having a bad reaction to the pills,” I told my parents, holding out my hand to show that it was trembling.
“I think,” my father suggested delicately (bless him), “that you might just be worrying about them.”

A few weeks later I wondered why I had made such a big deal of it.

But Harriet Green adds another perspective to her article, which I take to heart because, well, it’s really aimed at people my age: “we are entering a new age of anxiety. As the economic situation worsens, so fretting in the general population rises. In the past year, oil prices have risen by 50%, basic foods such as rice have soared by as much as 70% and house prices are plummeting at a faster rate than we’ve seen in a long time. Those in the know are starting to whisper that we’re heading for the mother of all recessions.” Or, as Merryn Somerset Webb, editor of MoneyWeek, so comfortingly puts it: “People are anxious, and they are right to be…People under 40 are not used to losing jobs or being made redundant.”

In other words: this is a hell of a time to be a newly-indoctrinated adult. Adulthood, I’ve recently learned, is hard enough (who knew that paying your own rent could be so painful?—let alone paying for, say, a second degree from, say, a foreign university?). But being told that in the current climate, we’re right to be anxious adds another layer to it entirely. A new age of anxiety? But I thought I’d already had my age(s) of anxiety.

So I’m starting to think that what remains to be done is follow the advice of Tom Hodgkinson (editor of The Idler, who, if you’ll remember, was partly responsible for the pig-roast in a London traffic island): “Anxiety will drive us back into our comfort blankets of credit-card shopping and bad food—the system deliberately produces anxiety while simultaneously promising to take it away,” Hodgkinson is quoted as saying in Green’s article; he “encourages us to take matters into our own hands and simply shed the burden.”

Yesterday, we went and pulled up all our potatoes and had a gorgeous Sunday roast, complete with chilled rosé and a peach-and-shortbread pudding. Of all the places I’ve lived (and, granted, there haven’t been so very many), England has perfected the art of the Sunday: shops close early still, and the most famous tradition (apart from churchgoing, which frankly I can take or leave) is centered around eating, and, in our young lives, good friends. I know I’ll always have a battle with anxiety—and maybe it’ll be a bigger battle because of the environmental and economic climate, I don’t know. But I do know it’ll be an easier battle with things like long, lazy sunday lunches to look forward to.

“Let us be lazy in everything, except in loving and drinking, except in being lazy.”
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

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It occurs to me today that Sunday is, without doubt, one of the best days of the week.  You can, for instance, as we’ve done today, have tea in the morning, read the Observer Magazine, then head to the pub down the road for a cheap lunch (and a pint) whilst perusing the rest of the paper.  And all this before the frenzy of potato-picking-and-washing (fresh from our garden, some of the tiniest potatoes I’ve ever seen!), cooking, crossword-doing, chattering: a wine-soaked evening ritual that ends inevitably in a serene sigh, a weary sinking into bed, half a chapter read before eyes droop and drool crawls out the corners of our happy mouths.

In my afternoon’s perusal of the Observer today, however, I started doing that thing.  You know the thing I mean, for even if you don’t do it yourself, someone you know inevitably does: the half-mumbling, the sighs, the frustrated slap of hand on paper, the shaking of the head.  The Man was watching the football and I was leafing through the news section.  We ate our sandwiches (roast beef and horseradish sauce and bacon and brie, respectively), salads, and chips in contented, domestic happiness, but a cloud started to come over me as I reached the end of the paper.  It’s not that I expect–or even want–reporting of nothing-but-the-happy-bits.  No; what I want is to be able to vent at my newspaper.  So with that in mind, a summary of the day’s stories, as selected by, well, me:
In this story, we learn that Oxford University has decided to give a better chance of being selected for an interview to applicants who live in low-income areas of the country.  It sounds nice, I suppose–state-school educated youths given a chance to breach the iron gates, handed a golden key to a previously inaccessible city of eternal learning.  But what I suspect this policy will actually do is hurt upper-middle class youngsters, whose families may not have the monetary clout to send their children to posh schools but who otherwise have known no real financial hardship.  Such students might perform just as well as their counterparts on both ends of the financial spectrum, but now they’re left out completely, while advantage is given to the very poor and the very rich.  Like affirmative action before it, the policy has admirable roots but suffers from flawed implementation.  (Bear in mind this is all speculation).
This one just makes me angry.  No, no, no, and no again: offshore drilling in the USA is NOT the answer to the energy crisis.  John McCain can champion the cause till the cows come home, but Nancy Pelosi should know better than to hint that “she might allow a vote on the drilling ban if it was part of a wider energy agenda,” and Obama too–it could be part of a new energy strategy, in theory–but on its own, “more oil” doesn’t sound especially new to me.   And I know the high price of gas has hit people hard; I know it’s painful, and I’m thankful that I live in a place where not having a car is a viable–even a preferable option–and yes, I feel for the families and the individuals who have struggled as a result of rocketing prices, but I have also felt that there’s one good thing that’s come from all of this, and it’s that for once, people have started to think about alternative energy, and alternative (read: public) transportation not in the hazy terms of dreamers and environmental radicals, but as real possibilities.  Why squander the opportunity to turn this into strong action?
This is just ludicrous. 
This article makes me wonder where the balance lies between the most basic quality of life (just having a roof over your head) and the slightly less basic, but no less desirable, kind of qualities, like having a garden behind your house.  If we have to destroy people’s green spaces in order to give other people a chance to own a home, then the line must be very fine indeed, and as someone with a lovely garden (and an enormous appreciation for the things), I hope there’s another solution somewhere.
And in the 7 Days section, we learn the following things: that Sam Cameron, wife of Tory leader David, has “had rave reviews for her newly designed handbag…retailing at a mere £775“; that “the world’s most expensive house” has just been purchased by an anonymous Russian for about £400m; that a king penguin (yes, you read that right–I had to scan the paragraph several times to make sure) has been granted regimental knighthood by the Royal Guard in Norway; and that olympic swimmer Michael Phelps adheres to a 12,000 calorie-a-day-diet (again, you read that right).  
This is truly the stuff that the Harper’s Index is made of.

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So it turns out that the violinist-who-used-to-live-next-door (occasionally we could hear a few notes floating through the walls and into the kitchen) is actually part of this group, who we heard last night at the Cellar.  As per the wonderfully circular world of Oxford, Joe Allen works at the Corner Club, neé QI, which almost everyone we know has connections to.  I like this sort of smallness: not stifling but familiar; large enough still to be surprising, and pleasantly so.
The Cellar would probably more aptly be called the basement.  Cellar implies wood, and warmth, and (quite possibly) wine; but the place reminds me far more strongly of a friend’s spacious under-house hideout–a dingy, dark, sticky-floored hollow perfect to listen to music by.  The beer is cheap and the ambiance appealingly sparse; and all confounded by a sense of wonder that you can be here, underneath ancient alleyways, listening to a thoroughly modern selection of youthful, pretty musicians.
Joe Allen, accompanied by Angharad Jenkins on the violin and Chrissie Sheaf on the drums, has a sound that reminds me of Damien Rice, or possibly Stephen Fretwell, with operatic elements (and the shining sounds of an electric violin, which I’m starting to think is something no band should be without…).  The threesome has clearly mastered the art of performance: that is, their music is, in rare fashion, actually enhanced by their physical presence.   At one point I was smiling so widely that a friend looked at me curiously (presumably thinking the £1.50 Foster’s had gotten to my head); it was just that good, in a heart-soaring kind of way.
In bed later that night, we were aroused from our half-sleep (books on our chests) by a series of bangs, followed by shouts on the street which sounded distinctly different from the drunken yelps of late-night returners, or the fierce calls of virile men aching for a boozy fight; so we rose on our knees and peeked our heads out of the window.  Down the street, not half a block, we could see an enormous, orange crown of flames pouring out of an alleyway; billows of white smoke came running down towards us and we smelled the acrid flavour of something wrong, something electric.  
Firefighters had arrived on the scene silently, and we watched their figures dart and flit until the smoke had been shrunk and the fire reduced and our necks had begun to ache from craning.  A father and son went out into the street to assess the danger, but otherwise no-one showed any signs of stirring.  We could have gone on sleeping and never even known.  
The whole street seemed precious then, fragile, but ours: the violinist next door, who you know only from the sound of her strings and her Welsh voice, turns out to make you smile harder than you’ve smiled all day; and firefighters do their job with austerity, guided by the blinking blue lights of their trucks; and we are somehow in the middle of all this.

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When we’re kids, we don’t have the ability to do all the things we want to, though we have a certain freedom from obligation that makes them tantalizing. And when we’re adults, when we finally could, conceivably, do things like travel all over the world, sit on the couch and read a book all day, eat ice cream for dinner–we have too much obligation.

Sometimes, I wonder why it is I know that I could write a novel, or an essay, but not a short story with any depth. When I sit and read other people’s short stories, there is an effortlessness that I find unobtainable. For me, everything is either tied to what I know already, or there is not enough room in 10,000 words to create a world, and a people to populate it.

Here is what Jeanette Winterson writes in her introduction to Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit–which, if I’m really going to be honest, is probably my favorite part of the book:

“I…couldn’t bring myself to hold down any job that hinted of routine hours.”

There is something unspeakably alarming about routine hours. It is odd for me to feel this way: I like routine. I adhere to one. I can’t do anything in the morning without a bite to eat, not even the dishes. I like knowing the general rhythms of a week–Sundays that, aided by wine and a heavy meal, stretch out for ages; Mondays that feel flat in comparison (almost a buffer day: a day made to get back into the swing of things); Thursday nights when he goes to football and I curl up on the couch. But still.

She also writes this: (and I know it’s long, but I couldn’t weed much of it out without feeling I’d given something up)

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was written during the winter of 1983 and the spring of 1984. I was 24. At that time I was sharing two rooms and a hip bath with the actress Vicky Licorish. She had no money, I had no money, we could not afford the luxury of a separate whites wash and so were thankful of the fashion for coloured knickers which allowed those garments most closely associated with our self-esteem, not to be grey. Dinginess is death to a writer…the damp small confines of the mediocre and the gradual corrosion of beauty and light, the compromising and the settling; these things make good work impossible. When Keats was depressed he put on a clean shirt. When Radclyffe Hall was oppressed she ordered new sets of silk underwear from Jermyn Street. Byron, as we all know, allowed only the softest, purest and whitest next to his heroic skin, and I am a great admirer of Byron. So it seemed to me in those days of no money, no job, no prospects and a determined dinginess creeping up from the lower floors of our rooming house, that there had to be a centre, a talisman, a fetish even, that secured order where there seemed to be none; dressing for dinner every night in the jungle, or the men who polished their boots to a hard shine before wading the waters of Gallipoli. To do something large and to do it well demands such observances, personal and peculiar, laughable as they often are, because they stave off that dinginess of soul that says that everything is small and grubby and nothing is really worth the effort.”

After I read this, I thought it is probably why, before I sit down to do a task, particularly to write something, I must always clean up first. I do the dishes, I reorganize the lounge to my liking, I file papers away, I wipe the kitchen counters and hang the laundry out to dry. Because it is summer and our energy bills are low, I sometimes do do a separate white wash. Then I put my focus where it’s meant to be; but never before. Despite my Californian propensity towards nudity (bare feet, sandaled feet, short shorts, short skirts, and very little clothing at all when I’m home alone, sometimes, or in the hours just before bed) I loathe to work without proper attire. If I really want to get something done, I get dressed.

“To do something large and to do it well demands such observances…”

Surface truths: I first learned this phrase when I was reading Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the 12th grade. Surface truths are what keep you afloat, I learned. They are things like polishing your boots before sloping through a muddy, bloody war, or–less dramatically–cleaning your kitchen before sitting down to lose yourself in a mess of words, even though you don’t have a handle on anything else, like rent or a proper job. In Conrad, one colonist at a far outposts of the jungle paid such meticulous attention to his own appearance that he looked, despite being away for years, as if he was just freshly arrived from Europe; he did it so as not to go mad, so as not to let the wilderness infringe. Another man read the same book over and over, obsessively, so that he would not forget himself. The further they journeyed down the river by steamboat, the more ludicrous such things seemed; and the more necessary they became.

In Hurst Street, we have finally found a decorator to repaint our house, to replace the mouldy linoleum in the bathroom, to repair the tiny crack in our bedroom wall that has been bothering me of late. We will not (indeed, do not) live in dinginess!

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“Speaking to The Guardian this weekend, Rushdie said: ‘I am not trying to prevent him from publishing his stupid book but if they publish it as it is there will be consequences and there will be a libel action.'”

This in response to the publisher’s delay of Ron Evans’ secret service memoir, which Rushdie “says portrays him as ‘mean and arrogant'”:

“Apparently these [excerpts] claimed that the security guards protecting Rushdie during the fatwa against him ‘got so fed up with his attitude that they locked him in a cupboard under the stairs and all went to the local pub for a pint or two’.”

While I certainly hope the last bit isn’t true (it’s hardly comforting to think of security guards shutting their own wards up in cupboards), there is something to be said for the brilliance of Rushdie responding to allegations of his attitude with the phrase “stupid book.”

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Valencia Oranges

So I was perusing the books in the downstairs bathroom at the boy’s parent’s house. Every time I’m there I find something I want to read. This time it was Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, and I was very surprised. I never thought I was someone who wanted to read Jeanette Winterson.

I’ve tried, you see.

It goes like this: I first heard of Jeanette Winterson through a girl I spent a month living with, at a summer school for the arts in a hot, horrible inland place. Her name was Caitlin and she looked as if she had never spent more than five minutes in the sun, despite living all her life in sunny Santa Monica. She had thick, dark hair that she straightened every morning, though I could never tell why, as it seemed to fall straight to begin with. She used to spend actual hours in the shared bathroom applying stage makeup, which she’d gotten after a school production, to enhance the pale moon glow of her face.

She woke up at 5 a.m. no matter what, and because she did, I did too, and I would go for slow runs around the campus in half-darkness until I became too tired, and then I would lie back down in bed and go to sleep until the bathroom was free and I could have a shower. Because I was leaving the building so early, I had to lodge a water bottle in the front door so that I wouldn’t be locked out. Once, the door shut anyway, so I had to sneak around to the back of the building and tap helplessly on the glass until my other roommate, who rather pragmatically had not tried to wake up at such an ungodly time, came and rescued me.

Caitlin appealed to me for reasons I could never place. She was mysterious, though whether or not this was an act I never quite discovered. She liked to shut herself away; she had a fickle appetite, and a fragile look about her: on hot walks to the strip mall where we would rent DVDs and buy groceries, she used to breathe heavily, as if her tiny physique was not used to such strenuous activity.

We spent a lot of time in the campus café, where we befriended a pair of 26-year-old music students. One was a composer with shocking blonde hair and a slightly dark edge. The other was cheerier. I was 16, so I had a crush on everyone, but especially these two. I drank more coffee than any 16-year-old should just to be close to them. And to her. My favorite thing was to watch her talking to them about God and philosophy; she stumbling charmingly, them enchanted, me sipping a hot latté, sweating into the cup.

My favorite way to pass an evening was to order Thai food and sit with a cold Thai iced tea while watching episodes of Queer as Folk, much of which I think I enjoyed because of its softer pornographic aspects, with my two roommates. I ate a lot of ice cream, too. I spent a lot of time forgetting that we were meant to be there studying, and suddenly it would be midnight and I would have to write a poem. I was nursing a longstanding crush on a boy back home, so I thought a lot about him, too, and knew I would never have the courage to act on it.

Caitlin was trying to decide if she was gay or not. She never said this outright, but she let it stand between us as a barrier: I’m having an identity crisis, how about you? I had never thought about thinking about being gay or not, but suddenly I wondered if it was the sort of thing that might just appear, out of the ether: borne of a single doubt. One day we were exploring the darkened rooms and theaters of the campus together; we had the sense that we weren’t supposed to, which made it a thrill. We stood backstage, cramped by boxes and curtains. She said, “this would be such a romantic place to make out with somebody.”

I thought of what it would be like to reach across the darkness for her lips, which were, as always, painted redder than their natural shade; and in that moment discovered my own essential straightness: if it had been the boy from back home, or even one of our café men, I might have gotten a thrill of sexual pleasure from the thought, but as it was, all I felt was blank.

I think I wanted to fall in love with her, for poetry’s sake, but I never could, quite.

I was just emerging from the awkward throes of a particularly uncomfortable few teenage years, and vestiges of the clumsiness remained. I wore the same Belle & Sebastian t-shirt every other day, with huge dangly earrings and khaki shorts. I hadn’t yet learned to cut my hair in a flattering way, so it just hung limply on my shoulders, thick and sun-bleached brown. I didn’t really know how to converse with people, so mostly I just admired from afar. The first time I had to read a story out loud to a workshop group, I burst into hideous, childlike tears midway through, and I didn’t even know why.

“Every writer could stand to read a lot more Virginia Woolf,” said Zay Amsbury, the impossibly hip teacher with the black glasses, the shiny bald head, the twenty-something slouch. He wrote a story in lilting singsong rhythm once and read it to us and we all fell helplessly in love with it. “It was a beautiful love affair…” is how it started.

So when I got home, I bought Virginia Woolf, but it would be three years before I would pick it up (and then another three years before I would be able to struggle through the first sentence). And I bought Sexing the Cherry, because Caitlin said that Jeanette Winterson was a genius. I’ve still never read Sexing the Cherry.

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