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Archive for April, 2009

Ben’s Big Gig

Some months ago, the Man went out for a routine pint, and when he came home, he said, Yeah, Ben and I are going to do This Really Cool Thing.  And I said, That’s Great, in that way you do when a loved one is talking excitedly at you in some dark hour and you’ve just been called from a dream involving a train journey through Egypt with lots of women dressed up like 1920s flappers.

So the months crawled by, punctuated by occasional visits from Ben (“Twitter’s finest geek songwriter”), pub meetings, and one particularly memorable evening during which the pros and cons of having someone make knitted tickets for a performance and then sell them on etsy were heavily debated (at the end of it, I can confidently say that my best–and possibly only–contribution to aforementioned Really Cool Thing is coining the term “knickets”).  This Really Cool Thing blossomed into Ben’s Big Gig, an amalgamation of music, humour, poetry, and, naturally, groovy technological things I don’t really understand, and Ben’s Big Gig is suddenly about to happen.

So while the boys are holed up in some wifi-enhanced Jericho pub sorting out videos, set lists, Twitter accounts, live streaming, timing, and all the other things I never knew you needed to worry about, I thought I’d do something rather more simple and wholeheartedly recommend that if you live in or near Oxford you make your way to the North Wall Arts Centre this Friday, 1 May at 8pm so you can find out what it’s all about (or just to enjoy some fabulous songs written and performed by a talented local artist).  The great thing is, if you can’t make the gig, you can still watch it live online by visiting this site.  It’s Gig 2.0!

Oh, and did I mention it’s officially endorsed by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall? That’s way cooler than knickets (oddly enough, they aren’t doing knickets…)

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(Just in case you were curious about what sometimes happens to a blog post after it’s been a blog post for a little while)…

I.

Math was always a problem. Fear of the protractor, the calculator, the quadratic equation.  Fear of the x and of the y.  The points on a graph mapped times, speeds, distances but to me, the granddaughter of a naval engineer, the niece of a mathematician, the daughter of a man who didn’t understand why I didn’t understand, they were random.  What I really wanted was something to make me whole, to root me, not to slice me and square root me.

They say the world is made up of numbers, if you look at it the right way.  But I’ll tell you this: when I stood at the crest of the tallest hill in the canyon and looked towards the horizon, there was no way it was made of numbers.  Height gave me false perspective; I thought I could see the curve of the earth.  The oil rigs like stationary pirate ships, the blue outline of an island against a blue sea and a blue sky.  The grass beneath my feet; yellowing perhaps, if the season was nearing summer, starting to turn to gold dust.

Looking westward.  Towards Point conception, the Western Gate, what the Chumash call Humqaq, “the raven comes”.  Traditionally an opening into the celestial world.  Now home to the light house, the railroad, the air force base.  A quantum leap away from the mystical, into the physical and the engineered.  We live on 14,500 acres of land divided into 136 parcels, 8 ½ miles of south-facing coastline (we learn at an early age that what they taught us in school is wrong, that the Pacific Ocean is not always to the west).  The roads contained, sometimes washing away in rainy season, then rebuilt.  This is where the northern California ecosystem meets the southern California ecosystem, an overlapping of flora and fauna.  Rare species, intertidal areas, migrating birds.  Signs up year-round that say, snowy plover nesting season, please be careful.

Have equations alone made this place?

(I read that while taking his first hot-air balloon ride, the mathematician Carl Gauss realized that all parallel lines meet and that space is curved. Gauss: known as the Princeps mathematicorum, the prince of mathematics. Presiding from a hot-air balloon, loving what he called the queen of the sciences.  Saying space is curved.)

II.

The space in my room curved at night when I didn’t want it to.  My father told me that when he was a little boy, lying in the dark, the corners of his bedroom used to recede before his eyes.

–What did you do?  I asked him.
–I listened to the radio.
–Is it the same thing?
–I don’t know.

I thought I could feel space swallowing me.  So for years I lay half-asleep hoping the space wouldn’t swallow me, some nights, like the ones spent splayed beneath the Milky Way, tracing the trail of the stars across the sky, easier than others.  This is how math makes me feel.

It was really a hunger for human contact, but I didn’t know it yet.  Do you know how it is to go to sleep with wildfires raging?  Ash in your eyes, the sky heavy with debris, and you think, what if the fire creeps too close, who will know, who will help me?  And you realize you will just have to be ready to drive away as fast as you can.  The next day, under the red sky, you drive to town and while you are there the fires do creep too close and the men from the Sheriff’s department won’t let you back home.
Yes, that was the night, the night I called a friend and said I’m coming over, even though the highways were closed and it would take me over an hour to detour.  The night I tried to take a shortcut and found myself climbing a hill in my little car.  The atmosphere so clouded by fog and ash that I could scarcely see a foot ahead of myself.  I was suspended, myopic.  To my right was a drop, of indeterminate height.  The gas meter flickered low, my phone long out of range.  The road too narrow for me to turn around.  Hungry for human contact I had literally driven myself into the heart of nowhere.  How I got through I don’t know.  When I saw the lights of other cars skimming the midnight air I cried.  Then, later, at the gas station finally, in an Edward Hopper painting, a woman in heels came out of a sports car, asked me questions about the town, the road closures.  How far to Santa Barbara? she wanted to know.  Human contact.

But space is curved and then there you are back again, in that horrible isolation, that wonderful isolation.  You wake and wait all day, until the darkness closes in on you and to leave the house is suddenly an exercise in courage.  All the night sounds, the coyotes close, the owls, once or twice the squeal of a wildcat.  Cattle braying on hillsides.  The opposite of city sounds.  I thought the fear that ate me was self-induced, but then, anyone who has had to speak to their dog just to remember the sound of their own voice can be forgiven a certain hunger, a certain uneasiness.

How do you hate something and love it so much all at the same time?  How do you yearn for it, dream of it, and yet know, when a drop of that old fear, that old craziness, spills into your heart, that it’s isolation that’s made you (at least in part) what you are?  Is there an equation for this, a graph, a theorem?

III.

Aerial maps make it look like crumpled parchment.  Hills flattened by a bird’s eye view.  The receding seawall, with dates of construction carved in concrete: 1916, 1925, 1930.  Somebody built this wall.  Somebody else will see it disappear completely into the sea.

This has been a working cattle ranch since 1791 when a grazing permit was awarded to Jose Francisco de Ortega; I didn’t know we had dates like that in California until I looked it up, thought everything was 20th century, thought art deco was ancient.  The Hollisters bought the Rancho Nuestra Senora del Refugio in 1886, held it until 1964.  The family, rootless now, fragmented, live in townhouses and nursing homes.  One descendant lives in Prague.  And I who am not related, but feel related, chase dreams and ghosts in Oxford.  How we are scattered, the children of this ranch.

All parallel lines meet.

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On Clothing

dsc01984I look at the Sartorialist and then buy Primark dresses from eBay.  I have a pitiful collection of shoes.  My boots constantly need repairs, my ballet flats have paper-thin soles that flap when I walk, my heels are woefully under-used.  Why care about something so transient?  I don’t know, but if I had money I suspect that the first thing I’d do is squander it on dresses.  Why am I late to work every morning?  Partly laziness, partly indecision.  Standing in front of the hallway mirror thinking, will this do?  who cares?  but will it do?dsc01987

One of my favorite pastimes is to peruse online shops for hours, actually hours, on end.  Select things I would buy if I could.  I hate this lustful nature of mine, this hunger for things; but I seek comfort in it anyway.  I like to think about what Jeanette Winterson wrote in her preface to Oranges are not the Only Fruit: “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.”  And I think: if a clean shirt or a new set of silk underwear (ah how I’d love to order sets of silk underwear, how I’d love, even, to have matching underwear, something that said “sexy” and not “you need new pants”) extinguishes the fear, the oppresive mould of our youthful poverty, allows us some freedom of thought and imagination, then why not?  Why not buy eBay dresses and lust after shoes we can’t afford?  Why not consider our appereance carefully in the mirror, consider whether or not we feel comfortable with the reflection?  Perhaps it’s shallow; but sometimes it’s the best we’ve got.

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The Curve of the Earth

Math was always a problem. Fear of things, of tools meant to help.  Fear of the protractor, the calculator, the quadratic equation.  Fear of the x and of the y.  The points on a graph seemed random, even if they were actually mapping times, speeds, distances.  I suppose what I really wanted was something to make me whole, to root me; not to halve me, to square root me, to spin my brain.

They said the world was made up of numbers, if you looked at it the right way; but I’ll tell you this: when I stood at the crest of the tallest hill in the canyon and looked towards the horizon, there was no way it was made of numbers, no way it was made of anything but plain earth.  Height gave me false perspective; I thought I could see the curve of the earth.  The oil rigs like stationary pirate ships, the blue outline of an island against a blue sea and a blue sky.  The grass beneath my feet; yellowing perhaps, if the season was nearing summer, starting to turn to gold dust.  Did equations dictate that shift in colour?

(I read, today, that while taking his first hot-air balloon ride, the mathematician Carl Gauss realized that all parallel lines meet and that space is curved. Gauss: known as the Princeps mathematicorum, the prince of mathematics. Presiding from a hot-air balloon, loving what he called the queen of the sciences.  Space is curved.)

The space in my room curved at night when I didn’t want it to.  My father told me that when he was a little boy, lying in the dark, the corners of his bedroom used to recede before his eyes. What did you do?  I asked him.  It went away, he said.  I listened to the radio and it went away.  I thought I could feel space swallowing me.  Is it the same? I asked.  I don’t know, he said.  So for years I lay half-asleep hoping the space wouldn’t swallow me, some nights, like the ones spent splayed beneath the milky way, tracing the trail of the stars across the sky, easier than others.  This is how math makes me feel.

It was really the hunger for human contact, but I didn’t know it yet.  Do you know how it is to go to sleep with wildfires raging?  Ash in your eyes, the sky heavy with fine debris, and you think, what if they creep too close, who will know, who will help me?  And you realize you will just have to be ready to drive away as fast as you can, and the next day, under the red sky, you drive to town and while you are there the fires do creep too close and they won’t let you back home.  Yes, that was the night, the night I called a friend and said I’m coming over, even though the highways were closed and it would take me over an hour to crawl through late night traffic.  The night I tried to take a shortcut and found myself climbing a hill in my little car, the atmosphere so clouded by fog and ash that I could scarcely see a foot in front of myself.  To one side was a drop.  The gas meter flickering low, my phone long out of range.  The road too narrow to turn around.  Hungry for human contact I had literally driven myself into the heart of nowhere.  I was not so much panicked, though I might have been, as fascinated, horrified.  How I could through I don’t know.  When I saw the lights of other cars skimming the midnight air I cried.  Then, later, at the gas station finally, in an Edward Hopper painting, a woman in heels came out of a red sportscar, asked me questions about the town, the road closures.  Human contact.

But space is curved and then there you are back again, in that horrible isolation, that wonderful isolation.  What good is math when your day looks like this: you wake, you walk, you eat, you walk again, you eat again, you read until the darkness closes in on you and to leave the house is suddenly an exercise in courage.  All the night sounds, the coyotes close, the owls, once the squeals of a wildcat.  Cattle braying on hillsides.  The opposite of city sounds.  I thought the fear that ate me was self-induced, but then, anyone who has had to speak to their dog just to remember the sound of their own voice can be forgiven a certain hunger, a certain uneasiness.

How do you hate something and love it so much all at the same time?  How do you yearn for it, dream of it, and yet know, when, this week, an inkling of that old fear, that old craziness, spills into your heart, that it’s isolation that’s made you (at elast in part) what you are?  Is there an equation for this, a graph, a theorem?

All parallel lines meet.

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Sunday People Watching

I like watching people watching each other.  The two girls on the bus, their eyes following the roller-skating ginger-bearded man on the pavement.  The girls in front of me turning their heads at a trio of boys carrying champagne.  “He was fit,” they say, drawing out the “i” in fit. Earlier, where they are sitting, was a man with a magnificent yellow Mohawk, having ice cream with his friend.  They seemed to be having a sensitive discussion about relationships, life journeys, one of them was talking very seriously about skate parks, saying he just felt he needed to be in a city where they were prevalent.  Every so often their heads, too, would incline towards the glass, they would let slip a smile or a snigger.

People watching is almost invariably more pleasurable when the weather is good.  This is not just because there are, inevitably, more people out, and dressed a little more brightly, but also because of the way the sunlight affects them, and makes them look, and the way that a woman standing with a dog next to a spring green tree sprouting small leaves is suddenly poetic in a way she wouldn’t be if there was a drizzle over the city or a monochrome grey in the sky.  Shadows do more interesting things like this.

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So I know no one wants to hear about my illness, but the fact is, it’s the most significant thing that’s happened in my life over the last few days and I can’t help it if it colours my perspective.  More importantly, I have eaten, since Monday, a bowl of cereal, a tiny tub of yoghurt, two bowls of plain pasta, a bag of lightly salted crisps, and several slices of toast (sometimes with butter, sometimes without), so you’ll have to forgive me if I seem to be fixated on the trite, but I want to bring up a few things today, in no particular order:

1) First, let’s discuss men who wear sweatbands (I mean the ones that go round your wrists, not the ones round your head, though that would be weird on a whole different level) whilst doing something ordinary and untaxing–say, walking down the street eating a pack of crisps.  Wearing a perfectly respectable shirt and jeans.  And flip flops.  Not trainers, but flip flops.  (Did you ever see anyone play sport in flip-flops and look anything but silly?  Come to think of it, did you ever see anyone play sport in flip-flops period?) Because I just don’t understand this one.  Maybe in the 1980s this was cool (it made you look preppy, sporty, ready-f0r-anything?), but in 2009, it just makes it look like you’re either a) suffering from worryingly overactive sweat glands, in which case why is that crisp Jack Wills polo so miraculously dry? or b) strangely concerned with dripping sweat into your crisps or indeed, c) both.  So I guess what I’m trying to say is, boys, get a grip: either on a tennis racket, in which case, please feel free to wear wristbands to your hearts’ content, because Roger Federer does, and it seems to work for him; or on reality.  You look silly.

2) Shops.  Let’s talk about shops for a moment.  I don’t mean the high-street, high-fashion variety, or the second-hand charity kind, or anything in-between.  I mean, I sometimes don’t know where to go when I need to get something very basic, like, say, Vogue (just this once, don’t ask the inevitable “need?” question–remember, I’m ill).  Not either of the two corner shops within a stone’s throw of our house, certainly–though I can go to either if I need the basic ingredients for a meal, and one or the other if I’m short on newspapers or booze.  Not the Co-Op down the road, either, apparently (I stuck my head far into the magazine rack to check, but all they had was Cosmopolitan and about a billion tabloids, so I bought the Cosmo and spent a furious half hour on the couch wondering how the editors get away with it all and, if they really know all the secrets to success, happiness, self-confidence and a sizzling sex-life, why anyone bothers to buy the magazine anymore–shouldn’t we all be out fucking and shopping?).  I struck gold at the newsagent across the street from the Co-Op, unsurprisingly, but here’s the thing that gets me: the newstand seems to carry just as much food, and as many household odds-and-ends, as the Co-Op.

I always thought that newsagents, like newsstands, were temples to the printed page, where glossy magazines and dozens of newspapers in dozens of different languages stood proudly on display, while cigarettes and the occasional bit or bob hid behind the counter, but this is obviously and vastly untrue.  There’s even one on the Cowley Road with a post office and, allegedly, a dry-cleaning service.  I’m just not sure that in the US, there’s a comparable complexity of shops.  Sometimes I want to pop into Boots, which I’ve had a hard time learning is not, despite appearances, synonymous with CVS, to buy something I think I should be able to get there–a magazine, a house-cleaning product, laundry detergent–only to be whisked by the crowds past baby clothes, expensive perfumes, women standing idly at designer perfume counters, seven aisles that encourage you to shampoo-condition-colour-moisturize-stylize your hair, and a thousand other things I didn’t know I could use to improve my appearance.

3) On a similar note…when I’m sick, there are two things that I crave invariably: lots of love and attention, and an infusion of brand-name artifical American goop.  The former has been bestowed well and kindly upon me by the Man, who has been nothing short of angelic these last few days; but the later has proven far trickier to get hold of.  Specifically, I want Gatorade, I want PowerBars, and I want saltine crackers.  The first and the last I can more or less find replacements for, but there is not, I don’t think, in all of England, a single PowerBar.  Ordinarily, fake food shot up with vitamins, made chewy and artifically flavourful, wrapped up in shiny plastic, would not particularly appeal to me, and I certainly wouldn’t mourn its absence in a country which has given me so many other good unwholesome foodstuffs, like Jaffa Cakes and Curly Wurlys (they do know how to name things here).  But PowerBars are like comfort food for times of physical woe, and when I’m sick I get particularly irrational about this.  Obviously.

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Rewriting the Beginning

I’ve been trying to rewrite the beginning of the book for the last week or so. I’ve already re-written it so many times it hardly even seems real to me, but I’m comforted by the fact that this time, it’s more of a re-organization.  At least I’m fundamentally at peace with the words, the ideas.  I dream of coming up with something perfect, something snappy, but the truth is, it is what it is, and at a certain point we have to leave it.  I was never much of an artist, but when I was younger I enjoyed making sketches and pictures, and I would always ruin the image at the last minute by trying to do too much.  It seems like simple enough advice; but I’m trying to weave Flaubert, Oxford, cab drivers, mythology, Max Beerbohm, and Agatha Christie into something elegant, and surprisingly enough, this is proving to be rather difficult.

In other news, the Man and I watched “My Fair Lady” earlier (I’ve been ill, and he’s been nursing me back to health, whilst simultaneously nursing his own football-induced wounds, so we’re a bit of a pathetic pair at the moment–picture me on the couch at midday, holding a teddy bear and sobbing at the happy ending of “Beauty and the Beast”).  And I have “all I want is a room somewhere” stuck in my head.  Lucky for everyone I’m not much up to singing, at the moment.

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