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Archive for January, 2009


“The great man is he who in the midst of the crowds keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

–Ralph Waldo Emerson
Last night, on something like a whim, we went with some friends to an opening at Modern Art Oxford. I like art, but I have to be honest: the real art, at events like this, is the crowd (the free wine doesn’t hurt either). And Oxford’s artsy hordes didn’t disappoint. Girls in striped dresses and red heels, or outlandish outfits straight from a very colourful fever dream, men in suits and bad floral ties snapping photos, an appearance by the Lord Mayoress of Oxford (wearing of course the strange medal around her neck which only a society whose lawyers still wear white wigs could condone).

I thought of this rumination on the flâneur, by Baudelaire: “The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the middle of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.” I thought that the real joy of a museum is not necessarily what it holds but who it draws.

Put another way, in Graeme Gilloch’s Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City: “The flâneur is that character who retains his individuality while all around are losing theirs. The flâneur derives pleasure from his location within the crowd, but simultaneously regards the crowd with contempt, as nothing other than a brutal, ignoble mass.”

Eventually, when I was done regarding the crowd with writerly contempt whilst simultaneously basking in the glow of it, I wandered around the actual exhibits: Raphael Zarka’s “Encounters” and Regina José Galindo’s “The Body of Others”. Zarka’s highly geometric series of photographs and sculpture (see the photograph above, courtesy of The Man) were easy on the eyes and pleasant to behold (I only mention this because it is, as you shall presently see, so deeply in contrast to Galindo’s videos). The photographs, images of huge isolated structures (mainly concrete), were not in themselves extraordinary, though they were nicely rendered; it was the knowledge that these structures, which were man-made but utilitarian in nature, had only become art through Zarka’s transposition of them, which made the exhibit thrilling.

But then maybe it’s hardly surprising that I liked Zarka: “True to Zarka’s interest in the essay form,” writes Acting Director of Modern Art Oxford and the exhibition’s curator Suzanne Cotter, “Geometry Improved consists of a literal as well as speculative narrative of formal enquiry…he describes himself as a collector, rather than a maker of objects…the artist sees his work more akin to the cabinet of curiosities, an activity of subjective classification, in which objects are freed from the weight of history and combined in such a way as to suggest new interpretations.”

This is only intertextuality redrawn, where intertextuality refers to the relations-between-texts (texts in this case not necessarily referring to words on a page, of course); and a refreshing view on the act of creation. But on a personal level I like it because there’s an extent to which it describes the genre of writing that I engage in (and with)–and therefore the genre of my book. Freeing objects (places, texts) from “the weight of history”, combining them, suggesting new interpretations. It sounds lofty but just about doable, doesn’t it? If you don’t believe me, read Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel.

The second exhibit I visited was Regina José Galindo’s The Body of Others. If I hadn’t been on my third glass of free wine, I doubt I would have lingered for more than a few cursory seconds, but my senses had been dulled by Oddbins’ Own white and I found myself as if hypnotized, drawn to the horrific images of Galindo, naked, being hosed down, forced to her knees, and Galindo, naked, pregnant, tied to a bed, and Galindo, naked (are you seeing a theme here?), being drawn on by a Venezuelan plastic surgeon, and Galindo (clothed this time!) swinging (as if hung) from a bridge, reading poetry, and Galindo, clothed, carrying a bowl of human blood, leaving red footprints. The worst of all was Galindo, clothed, with her head forced into a barrel of water, like a perverse aping of the torture scene in a spy film. We see enough of this kind of violence already, don’t we?

But to give the artist her credit, there was, downstairs, a tiny video installation, a 23 minute long film entitled “Rompiendo el Hielo” (Breaking the Ice), which I found very good indeed. The subheading read: “I sit naked in an extremely cold, empty room, waiting for the public to dress me,” and this struck me as almost uncomfortably poetic, as if it was a line from a text, now stripped bare of context and as naked and cold as Galindo herself. The Man and I stood for some time, watching the artist seated on a bench, watching the people watching her. What I liked about the video is twofold. She ends up clothed, first of all, which is (at least in comparison to, for instance, the video of her cowering by a wall with a heavy spray of water pushing her down) almost an admittance of hopefulness (the public will, if you give them long enough, at least metaphorically dress you).

But also (and I can only hope this was deliberate), the idea of the video mirrored the thoughts I’d had earlier about the flâneur; about our place in the crowd, about our being both within and outside of it. “The flâneur derives pleasure from his location within the crowd, but simultaneously regards the crowd with contempt, as nothing other than a brutal, ignoble mass” again. For a moment, anyway (or 23 minutes of cold) Galindo was a true flâneur, and we, by extension, got to taste the flânerie firsthand.

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It’s another grey-skied lapsang souchong Thursday.

The Man fixed the electricity problem. I do love men, don’t you?

I’ve got three blog posts to write today. (Yes, I really am sticking to a schedule). I’ve spent the morning doing anything but work. I’m organizing old photos and music. I plan on making lists at some point, lots and lots of lists, but I haven’t even begun thinking about the lists. I’m watching the birds dig around in the wasteland that is our back garden in winter. They’re sending dead leaves and wet twigs everywhere.

My books for next term arrived yesterday. I’m quite excited to read W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, but otherwise I’m unimpressed. Beloved I read years and years ago and despised. I hope I was wrong about it, that I was just being a snotty teenager, but as I recall, my general impression was, why does Toni Morrison have to write like this?

I’m digging KCRW this morning. My tea is just the right drinking temperature and I’m bobbing my head around to the Dandy Warhols and Loudon Wainwright, and Michael Franti. Not the most promising way to start a day meant to be rife with accomplishment, but good fun anyway. I’ll check back later.

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In the Dark

My knowledge of electricity is so poor that I can’t even tell you what’s gone wrong with ours, only that something has. A lightbulb upstairs burned bright for a moment, there was a popping sound, and all the lights went out. We still have electricity–plug-in lights work, computers are charging happily–but our house is dark and here I sit, on the couch, having hunted for the fuse box and failed. It’s just too dark to look for a fuse box. Kind of a catch-22, that. Are we horrible people if we leave it till morning? Don’t answer that.

What I can’t decide is if I should, in present circumstances, escape by having a run. Because here’s the problem: it’s also dark outside the house. Not much of an escape; but at least I could feel the night city air on my face and pretend I had a glowing house to come home to. Here the light from candles flickers and the orange glow of streetlamps patterns the curtains, forms blocks on the walls. It’s a strange in-between feeling. I’m almost too restless to sit still; almost to restless to move.

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Rusty Bicycle Update

Looks like they share our opinion…can’t wait to see what it’s like inside. They’re open as of tomorrow apparently, and as I also get paid tomorrow, I think we might be able to afford the luxury of a pint or two…

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My parents were never happy unless they had spent part of the day exercising vigorously. We took camping holidays so that they could ride their bikes up mountains. I thought this was normal, so as soon as I was old enough to walk, I started walking with great zeal. There’s a story about how when I was five or six I led a hike and actually wore out an adult family friend. Again, I thought this was normal.

How I started running, though, is different. I actually used to loathe it. When I was about 12, the high school track coach recruited a friend and I from middle school, so a few days a week we would train with the cross country team. I know why he chose my friend–long legged, fast–but as for me, shorter, slower, my only guess is that he foresaw a dogged endurance in me that I didn’t actually yet possess.

My first year in high school I joined the track team, of course. I used to listen to Belle and Sebastian’s “Stars of Track and Field” to make myself feel better (or at least a little more indie). It was the most exhausting and miserable thing I had ever done. I’d never been fitter, but I was 14, and this didn’t strike me as much of an accomplishment, really. I was more interested in my first boyfriend, and getting good grades so that I could go to a college far, far away, and in reading as much as possible in as short a span of time as I could. There was a glamour about running track, and every once in awhile I thought I could feel the lure of it (“You only did it so that you could wear your terry underwear and feel the city air run past your body…”) but mostly I spent every day dreading the long afternoon hours spent running in circles and through the tiny towns around the school.

I was never made to be a sprinter, and I would never have wanted to (I don’t know what pleasure can be got in only a few seconds of exertion) but I equally hated the competition of long runs. As soon as I knew I had to run faster than somebody else, I stopped wanting to run at all. This is, if you couldn’t guess, not the best attitude for a competative runner to have. We’ll say this: I was never very good at track.

Halfway through the season, my long-legged friend developed knee problems and had to drop out. Then I developed a swollen foot that I milked for as long as I could, and when it had healed, I went and told my coach that I thought it would be best if I left the team. “Is that what you want?” he said (he was slightly scary and I had spent all day in anxious anticipation of this moment). I told him it was. “Okay,” he said, and that was it, I was free. I joined the lacrosse team. I wasn’t any good at the game itself, but the months of running had done my body good, and I could run far more effortlessly than anyone else on the team. This didn’t matter to me, much. I just wished I looked as cute as the other girls in their little shorts at practice.

The first thing I experienced that nebulous thing they called “runner’s high” was on the beach at home in my second year of high school. I was running over spring break to stay fit for lacrosse, and I was so surprised, and enthralled, by the feeling that running was good, that I actually threw my watch (which I had to hold in my hand anyway because the strap had broken) into the ocean. This is why I remember the day, and though it seemed like a good idea at the time, I now can’t begin to understand what was going through my mind when I did it. In retrospect, it seems symbolic–I didn’t want to run because someone else wanted me to, I didn’t want to compete with a clock–but we’re rarely so self-aware in the moment.

In Boston, running is a serious sport, and I liked going out into the city and feeling a part of something. Even on the muggiest summer day or the iciest in winter you could count on having at least a few other silent, dogged companions.

I’ve not been the most impressive runner, but I’ve been doing it fairly consistantly for years now. The only person I’ve ever found that I can run with is the Man, because I don’t feel the pressure to be competative (he’s faster than me–a lot faster–and there’s absolutely nothing I can do about that), but nowadays I mostly use running as a chance to be introspective and physical at the same time. I like being both a part of the place I’m in and an observer watching it happen. Nobody bothers you if you’re going faster than them.

In Oxford, I think I’ve started to use running as a sort of meditation. One of my regular routes takes me around Christ Church meadow, and though I love the place anyway, it takes on a different tone when you’re breathing hard and your legs are moving fast. Suddenly the beauty–which varies in colour by season, but never in quality–is something that invigorates you, moves you, not just something that you move through. I actually run better on days when the light is doing spectacular things to the trees and the spires. Luckily that is most days, here. And on the way home, going down the Iffley Road, I pass the track where Roger Bannister ran the first four-minute mile and I think that though I will never run a four-minute mile, here I am running anyway.

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More mince pies than you can shake a stick at. If you liked them before Christmas, you sure as hell won’t want to see another one after, and if you didn’t like them before Christmas, well…I don’t envy you. A bout of “unseasonably cold” weather (you didn’t see this coming? after how many centuries? really?). Lots (and lots and lots) of subsequent talk about how cold it is. Very beautiful snowflakes. Weekend girls with bare legs, pretending that it isn’t unseasonably cold out. Lots of sniffles and coughs. Frost making art deco patterns on the cars at night. Stoic cyclists. Bare branches. A flurry over hot alcoholic drinks before Christmas (mulled cider, mulled wine…) followed by a general laziness about them after (who can be bothered?). Potatoes for dinner, every night. Root vegetable feasts and homemade soups. Log fires. Coal fires. The smell of log fires and coal fires on the streets. Scarves. Girls in very cool boots. Pubs, but not pub gardens. A brief glorification of the English summer (“oh, I can’t wait for June…”) followed by a berating of the English summer (“ugh, it’ll just rain the whole time anyway). A general sense of polite but vaguely uncomfortable waiting.

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I woke up this morning and thought, I’d really like to go for a run today, only it was pissing with rain, the streets slick and the eaves dripping. So I hunkered down in the study with several cups of lapsang souchong tea (there’s nothing like drinking tea that smells of woodfire smoke in winter to make you feel the season in your bones) and got to work. Several hours later I was so absorbed in my work I was surprised to notice that the day has cleared entirely, the sky blue through the empty branches of the plum tree outside my window. No, I still haven’t gone for my run.

I’m doing research, and in order to continue this post I’m going to have to admit once and for all something that I have a hard time saying aloud. Every time the words escape my lips I give a little schoolgirl giggle, blush furiously, and backtrack out of embarrasment. But, I’m writing a book (yes, a book, b-o-o-k and no, you do not need to tell me how unlikely literary success is in this age), and today I’ve been searching for information on the best way to pitch said book to literary agents.

The problem, of course, is that said book belongs to a genre that is nebulous at best. It’s certainly not fiction, but it’s also not a biography, an analysis of current events, a how-to book. Okay, so it must be something else? How about memoir, or narrative nonfiction. According to one site memoir is “the only nonfiction subject that must be treated as fiction,” while “narrative nonfiction…is still nonfiction and you would submit a proposal.” Which is fine, except that my book is not memoir, strictly speaking, and neither is it narrative nonfiction, strictly speaking, if I’m to believe what I read (narrative nonfiction: The Perfect Storm, Seabiscuit, et cetera). The only way I’ve ever been able to pinpoint what I’m writing is by comparing it to other things, kind of like a movie pitch. It’s The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton meets Sun After Dark by Pico Iyer meets The Flaneur by Edmund White meets All Souls by Javiar Marias (which is a novel, confusingly) meets Isolarian by James Atlee–you get the point. And obviously, the more I think about it, the deeper I fall into the abyss of finding the genre.

So I’m stepping away from that for awhile. Something I read this morning advised the author to “look at the value your book offers to the reader,” and that’s something I can do much more easily. It makes me think of Roger Mudd asking Ted Kennedy in 1979: “Why do you want to be president?” and Ted Kennedy botching the answer, not knowing, not being able to compensate for never having thought about a question that sounds too basic to be problematic. It was one of the greatest lessons of my undergraduate degree: if you’re going to run for president (or write a book, for that matter), you should sure as hell be able to answer the question “why.”

Why? Because I’m too young to write a book; because there’s no reason I can think of for someone to remain silent because of age or experience. Because while we may be entering an era of austerity, the election of Barack Obama indicates that we’re finally, eight years late, exiting an era of intellectual shrinkage. We’re becoming curious again*, and suddenly, the way in which we view the world–as individuals, as a generation, as the human race–is becomming important. Because sometimes a city is not just a dot on the map but a state of mind, and this affects us, whether we think about it or not. Because the art of experiencing place is a universal art; there is a backdrop to everything. Because the more we think about where we are–physically, geographically, generationally, emotionally, intellectually–the better we’re able to understand where we’re going. And because there’s always something to be said for a few pretty words on a page. It’s finer entertainment than anything else I can think of.


*Obama: “But those values upon which our success depends – hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism – these things are old.”

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