Archive for May, 2009

The days of late have been English-hot.  We sit outside in the daytime and my dreams at night are infused with the images from other people’s stories.  Climbers on snowy Oxford rooftops.  A weather balloon in Padua.  African pelicans.  I wear my panama hat even indoors because it reaffirms the season.  This is the hat I bought to go to Morocco, I say, because once it was just a ladies’ hat in Marks and Spencer but the second I laid eyes upon it, two years ago almost, it became part of the journey.  A traveller’s portable shade.

Yesterday we fixed my bicycle, swept the entrance to the house, pulled weeds up, had an impromptu barbecue.  In the jungle of knee-high, hip-high grass that’s blossomed in our garden, frogs leaped from blade to blade and the smoke dissapeared into the dusky blue.  From the garden pathway, looking away from the house, towards the sun dipping, the trees heavy with their summer leaves, this might be anywhere.  This might be miles away, no, worlds away from anywhere else.  An island of green and smoke; a paradise for the dispossessed.  Very Heart of Darkness, I say, only cheerier.

We still haven’t unpacked from Wales, though we’ve been back a week.  As if it’s summer now, so that’s okay.  Seasonal lethargy, the usual wanderlust of these months.


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22 May, 2007

DSCN1537Two years ago today I arrived in Oxford.  I can still recapture the feeling in my breast—not the feeling upon arrival, but the feeling an hour after, walking from Jericho towards town.  I retraced the line that the taxi had taken, made my way towards Christ Church Meadow, where girls in summer dresses were sunbathing, and boys lay reading in the shade.  The first really glorious day of the season, I’d heard.  The sky certainly looked the part, all Mediterranean azure blue.  The feeling I had was what I can only describe as freedom: independent, and as yet unfettered by human ties, memory, history.  This day could have been my first on Earth, if I’d wanted it to be.  The girls in their sundresses specters; watching me, envying me as I envied them.  The tourists (and already I felt separate from them, I was separate in that moment from everyone, and also strangely open to them, connected through my separateness) taking photos, posing before the great stone face of Christ Church, lounging on the walkways, resting on benches.  A jogger or two, passing me by.  There I was: someone with no past and no future, no childhood, no family, no education, no knowledge, really.  And what happened after was not so much a reinvention as a distillation.
I made my way across the city; how imposing she was, how beautiful under the sunlight, how golden her stones and welcoming her gardens!  It was the first and only day in my life, perhaps, that I had not known what would happen: not known where I would be five minutes from now, even—for we cannot predict our movements in a new geography.  Now, I would not go back to that feeling willingly, but then, it was perfect, and with everything I did, everything I saw, I was building my own world.

We met, of course, at a pub; if you were going to write a story for yourself, whereby you came to Oxford and fell madly in love, would you choose any other meeting-place than an old tucked-away tavern, with low ceilings, strong cider?  Hidden from the street.  Only accessible by two alleyways.  There I turned to him and we spoke for the first time.  My coming to Oxford is synonymous with my falling in love.  No way to separate the two; and why would you want to?

The night was long, and full of shadows.  Past the Radcliffe Camera, viewed for the first time under a midnight sky.  The smell of books wafting up through the grates.  We wound up, he and I, at a dingy bar off the High Street, where we have never since been, where I kissed him, or he kissed me, and in that moment of kissing, the freedom was lost forever, but in its place something better, something stronger, grew.  No longer was I untied to this place, history-less, loveless, separate, alone.  It was me and I was it.  You cannot foresee something like that at the time, of course, but you can just begin to feel the edges of it.  You can think, as you wake in a strange bed the next morning, to another blue sky, another day full of golden-stoned structures, that something is happening that you are powerless to predict or prevent, but then you simply forget it, let it happen, because the way that he offers you his phone number on the envelope of an old electricity bill, the way that he kisses you just before you get on your first Oxford bus, take your first trip as someone who belongs here, dissolves all else.

To think in two years I have seen hundreds of Oxford days, each one of them taking me further away from that moment of arrival.  To think that we have shared hundreds of Oxford days.  That to mark this day, this anniversary, I take the day off work, we go to the pub at midday and share a drink.  We let the time slip away from us completely; have bacon sandwiches in the afternoon, repose in the lounge.  The day covered by bright grey clouds.  In the evening we get on a train; this is an ordinary day, an extraordinary one.

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Recently, a friend blogged her commentary about this year’s (spectacular) Eurovision Song Contest.  Read the post here; but then read the comments.  She suggested I might be interested in contributing to the discussion on the difference between US and UK/European entertainment tastes.  It turns out I was so interested that my brief comment on her blog has turned into an entire post on my blog.  So think of this as an extended comment, if you will.

I can really only speak about British and American television here, and as someone who doesn’t own a TV and hasn’t for several years now, you may want to take anything I write on the subject with a massive grain of salt.

But I’ve always felt that the best British television tends to fall into one of two categories: the classic (often costume) drama, or the witty/deadpan comedy show.  Neither of which is something we tend to do particularly well in the US; instead, we’ve chosen to perfect the art of the sitcom, the slick crime show, the glamorous reality show (which, yes, tends to take itself just a little too seriously).  We (in the US) are subsequently afraid to laugh at our own product, because we haven’t set it up as something to be laughed at.  We can laugh at the jokes in a sitcom, or the spoiled 16-year-old girls on MTV who cry because Daddy bought them the wrong colour Humvee, but there’s always a flashiness factor that wows even the most skeptical audience (myself included), and suddenly, making fun of these things seems almost more trouble than it’s worth.  It’s like staring at a remarkably shiny diamond, glinting in the sun.  Pretty.  Interesting, even.  But eventually you need to avert your eyes.

The reason, I think, is this: there’s a culture of celebrity in the US–specifically television and film-related celebrity–so powerful, so pervasive, that what we create when we create a TV show is not just a conduit for entertainment.  It’s actually a shrine to this celebrity culture–something like the grand European cathedrals, only in a modern form, an offering not for a god but for an entire race of beautiful, smooth-faced people who spend their lives behind a camera.  The entertainment industry is as much a religion as it is a business; so it’s only natural that we’ve come, over the years, to take it undeservedly seriously.

Obviously, there’s a culture of celebrity in Britain, too–and if ever there was a nation that had perfected the art of tabloid journalism, this is it.  The difference is that there’s also a culture of entertainment which hasn’t been lost somewhere in the CSI footage of dead bodies and unlikely lab experiments.  We’ve forgotten how to be merely amused–now we demand that we’re actually (in the truest sense of the word) awed when we look at a screen.

There are exceptions to this on both sides of the Atlantic, of course.  And it doesn’t exactly explain the cheesiness factor of Eurovision; but Eurovison is, I suspect, a beast so unique that it will defy any categorization, any sociological explanations that we try to attribute to it.  The only thing left to say about the song contest, then, is this: it all has to do with Graham Norton’s commentary catchphrase.  “He’s huge,” Graham said so many times over the course of the evening that I lost count, “in the Balkan states.” Greece’s Ricky-Martin lookalike?  Huge in the Balkan states.  Azerbaijan’s entrant?  Huge, I’ve heard, in the Balkan states.  Meaning that we should all look Balkans-ward to find the secret to that amazing Euro-pop sound.

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9-5 Phobia

Last night, half-awake in someone else’s house, wallowing in those strangely lucid moments before a heavy sleep, I got to thinking about my 9-5 phobia.  I mean my fear–however irrational–of being bound to a job which requires my presence in an office or–horrors–cubicle between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm, Monday-Friday.  I’ve often considered the origin of this fear (it wasn’t always with me), tried to decide whether or not I should fight it or submit to it.  But listening to the night-snuffles of sleeping dogs last night, a new thought occurred to me, and I was just able to hold it in my mind before I dropped into a dream about ordering Chinese food with an old friend near an unamed harbour. 

The thought was this: I’m a project-based worker.  It’s why I always had a freakish love of writing essays and research papers as a student, why I’m happy to devote years of my life to writing a book but bridle at the very thought of spending a week chained to a desk.  It’s why I think I’ll make a great freelance writer but a terrible anything else.  I want the work I’m doing to have shape; moreover, like an overprotective mother, I want to see it through, from inception to final presentation.  I’ll happily write late into the night, wake early, devote weekends to a project; but the endless toil of  working for an organization, the banality of spending a few hours each day doing things which will never result in a finished product, makes me feel actually, physically ill. 

I don’t know what this says about me.  Perhaps that I’m vain, that if I put in time and effort, I want to see a result more tangible than increased profit figures or a well-organized office–I want to see something that is all my own.  Or perhaps that I’m obsessive, unable or unwilling to multitask but happy to pour every last iota of energy into a single sentence.  Perhaps it’s only an inability to move beyond the simple reward systems of primary school. 

Whatever it is, it’s a huge and increasingly undeniable part of who I am and how I work.  It occurred to me too, that in my current position, I’m wasting energy at an alarming rate; my days split between, essentially, two jobs (my office job and my writing), I can’t concentrate properly on either.  But at the moment I need both to survive–without the office job, I couldn’t pay my rent, and without the writing, I couldn’t stay happy.  As good old Yossarian might have said: it’s a Catch-22.

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A Quick Meme

This was easier than working on my book, and felt infinitely more productive.  To sit down and finish something in one go is a rare pleasure indeed…thanks to Academic, Hopeful for providing the inspiration…

  1. What’s your current obsession? I have far too many.  Today’s list includes: money; my future career; whether or not I can be bothered to go for a run; the abrupt end of my MA.  How I can fund a seven-week hike around the southern tip of England.  Africa and the possibility of a trip there.  Travel in general.
  2. What’s you favorite color and why? Green.  I no longer remember why, but I do remember picking it when we learned about primary colours in the first grade.  Blue?  Red?  Yellow?  No.  I like Green. I should have known right then that I was destined to make things more difficult for myself than necessary.
  3. What are you wearing today? Dark jeans, brown jumper with elbow patches.  No socks or shoes.  My classic Saturday outfit.
  4. Why is today special? For its un-specialness.  The Man and I get to flop around the house drinking tea and spending impromptu moments snuggling.  It’s been too long since we had one of these days.
  5. What would you like to learn to do? Control my anxiety.  Also: make my own dresses, dance the tango, and mix cocktails more complicated than a gin and tonic.
  6. What was the last thing that inspired you? A talk by two writers, one of whom described her life when she was working on her first book as impoverished and antisocial, the other of whom pointed out that jealousy is a waste of energy.  I’ve been taking both of these things to heart ever since.
  7. What’s the last thing you bought? Some apple juice from the pub yesterday.  The last non-edible or non-disposable thing I bought was several weeks ago–a book from Blackwell’s used section on representations of Oxford.
  8. What are you listening to right now? Music and wind.  Music: mostly Stornoway.  Wind: mostly stressful.
  9. What’s your most challenging goal right now? Writing The Book by September and staying sane doing it.
  10. What’s the last thing you read? I’ve been especially enjoying Sharon Olds’ poetry of late.
  11. If you could have a house totally paid for, fully furnished anywhere in the world, where would you like it to be? Nestled in green hills.  Big garden–with rose bushes.  Within walking distance to the pub and a body of water.  Cycle distance to the train station would be nice, too.  Alternatively, I think I could quite happily reside in the center of a not-t00-big city as long as we could have a garden and/or a deck or terrace of some kind.
  12. What would you like to have in your hands right now? An advance cheque for my first book.  However great or small.
  13. What would you like to get rid of? Debt and guilt.
  14. If you could go anywhere in the world for the next hour, where would you go? For a massage.
  15. What super power would you like to possess? I toyed with the idea of saying telekinesis because of the prospect of being able to make my cup of tea come to me; but actually I think I’d quite like to be able to speak and understand all languages.  If nothing else, think how employable I’d be…
  16. What’s your favorite piece of clothing in your own closet? The garment generally known as my “anti-dust bunny coat”–sometimes described as something an Eastern European elf might wear, a glorious embroidered coat from Anthropologie.  When I wear it, I am not, according to my family, allowed to express any self-doubt or debilitating anxiety.  Everyone should have one of these, because, believe it or not, it works like a charm.
  17. What’s your dream job? Writer of things for which I am regularly paid.  Also, while we’re at it, can I have a column in the Guardian’s Saturday magazine?  Thanks.
  18. If you had an unexpected $1000, what would you spend it on? Tickets to a far-away place.
  19. What do you find annoying? People who walk too slowly down the street.  Petty rules and regulations (e.g.: no hot food on the Oxford Tube.  One of these days I’m bringing the stinkiest brie I can find on board to prove the ridiculousness of this rule).  Astronomical visa renewal fees.
  20. Describe your personal style. Confused but well-meaning.  I secretly want to dress like I’m living in 1940s rural England, and I’m attracted to flowery, vintage-y things (especially paired with wellies), but can most often be seen wearing jeans and a blazer.  Or a dress and a blazer.  I have an unhealthy love of blazers.
  21. What fashion show would you want tickets to? My knowledge of high fashion is sad at best, but I’ve always had a penchant for Marc Jacobs.
  22. Whose closet would you want to raid? Someone with expensive but unusual taste.  Including lots of well-preserved vintage pieces.  In my size, obviously.  Meaning she has to have very small feet.  Know anyone who fits that description and wants to donate their collection to a starving artist?
  23. What are you most proud of? The things that I’ve done, in spite of circumstance or ease, because they make me happy; sticking with writing and moving abroad come to mind.
  24. The beautiful bloggers I’d like to know about are: Anyone and everyone who is reading this…

→ Now the rules of this tag:

1. Respond and rework: answer the questions on your blog, replace one question you dislike with a question of your own invention.

2. Tag 7 other people you would love to learn more about. (see no. 24)

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Writing, for me, will never be a straightforward process.  I’m realizing this lately.  I’ve reached a stage in The Book whereby everything about the project disgusts and repels me.  Even a single sentence has the power to fill me with so much doubt that I tell the Man, calmly and confidently, that I’m thinking of just giving it up altogether.  I’ve become a Queen of Melodrama (“where are you going?” I cry when he gets out of bed, puts his trousers on, and heads downstairs).  Mostly what I think to myself when I sit down to do some work on the wretched project is: I wish I was writing something simpler. My next book will definitely be a novelNo more genre-crossing, mind-bending, intertextual nonsense.

Then I remember that even if I was writing a straightforward novel, I would be struggling just as much.  I do have one, hidden in a folder on my computer somewhere.  I’ve never written a single bit of it in a logical way; it’s all bits and pieces, tied together by the tenuous string of a single character.  And every few months I decide to make a massive change to the entire premise.  Which means that though I’ve been thinking about the book for years, I may as well have cooked up the idea yesterday.

On days filled with denial, I like to think that it’s anxiety that makes me like this, that if I had a steady income, a stronger foothold in the literary world, I would be able to sit down with my laptop on a Saturday afternoon like today, listen to the wind and the rain and the overgrown tree in our front yard lashing against the window, and push forward.  But I’m inherently doubtful and inherently scattered in my thinking.  That, in many ways, is the whole premise of this book.  And it’s not a bad thing.  So remind me, will you, next time I say something in a telenovela-worthy tone of voice, like, “that’s it, I’m starting over, this just isn’t working,” that my process isn’t any better or worse than anyone else’s.  It’s just mine.

*see here

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Yesterday we woke in a converted manor house somewhere near Cheltenham.  The sky cracked like an egg over the lake.  Silver light flooding the morning.  This house was translated from a dream of mine, I’m sure of it.  When we drove up in the taxi on Wednesday I felt a little like I imagine Charles Ryder did on seeing Brideshead for the first time.  The lake, the gardens, the rolling green humps beyond.  I went swimming.  An indoor pool; the air thick with warm mist.  I’d forgotten what it feels like to submerge your body, to float, to push against the water.  Things I used to know so intimately, lost in the move.  Remembered in an evening.  We ate in the dining room, sipped after-dinner drinks.  Slept thickly.  In the morning, we read the paper and drank fresh-squeezed orange juice while looking out onto the grounds.  He skimmed news headlines while I read a story about child welfare officers in London.  A family of seven, a self-harming mother.  Squeezed into a single room.  And here we sat with all this space.

After breakfast I went for a stroll around the grounds.  Found a swing overlooking the lower lake; snuck past a slumbering swan.  Sat on a bench in the garden batting away insects.  Sank my wellies into fresh grass.  Gazed up at the house itself; precise, stately, exactly measured.  Touched the stones with my toe before I came back inside.  Somebody built this place.

Then trains.  Maybe it was the rhythmic motion, maybe the journey on that swing to childhood and back, maybe the unusually early hour at which we woke, but I fell almost instantly into sleep.  Awoke in Swindon, hating the sound of the word.  Swindon.  Listening to a man on his mobile saying, “I can see you but I don’t know how to get to you.  I can’t get out of Swindon station!”  Slept again.  Didcot.  A concrete jungle.  Gone were the yellow fields of rapeseed; the same rapeseed we’d seen driving to Bath at the weekend, the same yellow, the same green.  A doze.  Oxford.  Oxford under a heavy sky; will it rain?  He had to go to work so I got on the bus by myself, carrying my bags wearily now.  No glamour in the journey down the Cowley Road.  The corner of Leopold failed to interest me as it usually does; the murals only looked depressing under the gloomy light.

I started to think about this schizofrenic existence we lead.  I have one foot in the manor house, one foot in the poor house.  My last day of school yesterday, indefinately; but have I ceased being a student because of it?  I think my mind is having trouble catching up, my body struggling to adjust to how swift, how vast, the changes are.  I suffer wanderlust in this season and have dreams of hot, fragranced places; but also, I’ve taken to wearing a six-year-old pair of shoes whose heels have rubbed off because they smell less than the rotting ballet flats I own but seem more seasonal than the boots I wore all winter until the soles began to peel back.

It requires great leaps, this modern way of living.  Great leaps of the mind, great leaps of faith.

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