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Archive for July, 2009

Tuesday Thoughts

One of my great guilty pleasures is the “Writer’s Rooms” feature in the Guardian Books section, probably because it combines two of my passions: writing, and critiquing other people’s homes.  On which note I must say that I simply do not understand writers who position their desks anywhere but directly in front of a window.  If I had to stare at a wall (even an expensive wall in one of London’s most exclusive postcodes) all day I’d go mad.

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Natural High

It would be too easy to turn the whole wretched thing into one of those “tragedy of the modern era” stories you see in publications like People and Time.  Young girl, private school, possessed of a certain type of intelligence and ambition, studies herself silly in the hopes of going to a good college; then gets into the good college and studies herself silly in the hopes of getting a good job.  Makes herself sick–physically, but mostly emotionally–doing so.  It’s this era of relentless competition that’s  to blame; it’s the speed at which we live, all the pressures, the sheer strain of surviving.  She’s one of many faces in the magazine article, with a caption, a rueful smile, a cautionary tale.

But the truth is I went to an ordinary college and I succeeded at school, whenever I did, mostly out of an unnatural love for reading books.  I never felt any outside pressure to perform and if I was ambitious it was only in the vaguest of ways.

I didn’t even actively worry, most of the time.  It was only at night, thoughts of the day subdued by the strangeness of the dark, that I started to feel that things were wrong, that I was–quite literally–upside down.  The vertigo came first; then fear of the vertigo, fear so strong that I would feel dizzy and ill just to think of it.  And once you’ve started that useless cycle of thought, it’s going to be a fight to free yourself from it.

So it’s simple, not tragic, to explain: I worried. And then, because I worried, I worried some more.

Is my anxiety inherited?  Self-induced?  An inevitable result of living in a fast-paced world?  Probably all three.  After a few half-hearted attempts to find a life-changing shrink (hint: never see someone because someone else has told you to; but for God’s sake if you do, don’t tell the therapist that’s why you’re there) I gathered that, like most other things, my inclination to fret has many roots and many reasons, only a few of which I have any measure of control over.

But it wouldn’t be fair to say I’m a victim of anxiety, or indeed of anything.  This is not a girl versus the world story.  If it’s got to be anything then let it be a girl versus herself story.  And it may sound lazy but in some ways the biggest thing that girl ever did to help herself, and by extension everyone around her, was to get over her prejudice and ask her doctor if there was anything he could prescribe.

There was.  Would I say it changed the way I thought, turned me into someone else?  No.  But a few weeks after swallowing the first pill, I started to notice something.  It was subtle, but what it felt like when I could feel anything was the world, having been capsized, finally righting herself.  If you imagine what it’s like to live with your jaw constantly clenched and every sound accompanied by the kind of noise you get when you can’t quite tune into a radio station, and then to wake up one morning to find your whole face relaxed, each sound clear–well, that’s it. I remember a feeling of euphoria hitting me one day.  I’d just moved back to Boston after a summer at home in California; I had a new apartment, it was the best season to be on the East Coast, and the window was wide open to let in the city air.

But there’s a point at which you have to say to yourself that, having re-learned what life without unhealthy anxiety is like, you’re going to need to re-learn how to live that life unassisted by anything but sheer will-power.  I had a few false starts.  More than a few false starts, even.  I remember calling the Man in tears, a few months after I’d got my degree and moved back to Oxford, saying I didn’t know why I felt so sad, and could he please make the dizziness stop?  It was midwinter and each breath was full of nothing but cold and empty air; so I decided to wait.  But in springtime it wasn’t any easier; I sweated through the sheets at night and had, one weekend, to cut short an already short few days away so I could get home, where I’d left my pills.

But then, about a month ago, I was due for a routine check-up with my doctor, and we had a casual chat, while he sneezed profusely over his keyboard and cursed his hay fever and I sent my regards from a mutual friend, and it’s funny how you can tell sometimes that the timing is right.  So I’m, as they say, weaning myself off.  It’s a slow process, as it’s meant to be.  And this time around, I’ll be able to use the knowledge I’m armed with.  Will everything be perfect after?  Of course not. I’ll still fret, I’ll still obsess, and I’ll still have ups and downs.

But I’ll say this.  The other day, I met a newborn baby for the first time; and then I went to the pub and wrote a few thousand words over a pint of cider while I waited for the Man to meet me, and at a certain point I looked up and I felt euphoric.  And the euphoria had nothing whatsoever to do with the little white pills I was-or-wasn’t taking.

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Playlist/Reading List

…on the shelf:

  • The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  • The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh edited by Michael Davie
  • Selected Poems by Louis MacNeice (a constant presence, of late)
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  • British Poetry Since 1945 edited by Edward Lucie-Smith
  • Towards the End of the Morning by Michael Frayn
  • Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

…on spotify:

  • Stuart Murdoch
  • Polly Scattergood
  • Florence + The Machine
  • Fleet Foxes
  • Neko Case
  • Regina Spektor
  • Take That (Yes, really.  I’m convinced that in many ways “Shine” is the ultimate walking-down-the-street-on-a-sunny-summer-day tune)
  • Johnny Flynn

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Local Colour

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There seems to have been a mass-migration of Tibetan monks to our street.  It’s nice; it adds a splash of red-and-orange to the grey-green Summer streets.  The sky can never decide from one moment to the next whether it wants to be blue or hide behind the auspices of a silver cloud duvet.  The trees are still in all their midsummer glory, and the area at the back of our garden still looks like a jungle.  Ruined watering cans in a haphazard pattern near the compost bin, which is nearly concealed now by the low branches of a greengauge tree, some brambles stretching over from the neighbours’ garden.

On the way home that dude with the massive sideburns passes me going the other way.  I can’t remember if I’ve ever seen him on a bicycle before, but then I realize I’m getting him mixed up with the short man who wears what appears to be the uniform of a Scottish highland regiment, complete with cap and kilt, and marches up and down the same road murmurring to himself, and if you lean close enough to hear the murmurs you realise he’s only saying a string of obscenities over and over again.  So it’s quite possible I’ve seen the dude with the massive sideburns on a bicycle before.

The potted plant I brought upstairs to my new study has been bled of colour; a tired and pallid thing, it droops over the dresser, missing the sunlight it used to lean towards.  I keep meaning to move it.  And in the garden, the Man points at three new pots of herbs and says, “If you’re ever out here and stuck for something to do, I’ve been moving them into the sunlight during the day.”  The birthday bonsai tree, meanwhile, has not come out of its neglect-induced coma, leading me to believe that trees were never meant to be made in miniature.  Isn’t that the point of trees?  To dwarf you when you’re a child?  Yes, that’s the point of trees.  Forget life-giving; they’re simply meant to be large.  Sprawling.  Let them sprawl.

And with the students mostly gone, now, in this quiet time, even the pub has changed colours.  I’m finally seeing all the people we live so close to without knowing; we’ve crawled out of hiding, slouched down the street and converged in an ale-soaked hive.  More crazies, and more lovelies, than I ever thought possible.

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Saturdays in our house are a kind of homage to smug liberals everywhere.  The recent discovery of the East Oxford farmer’s market makes it worse.  It used to be Sundays, but the Observer just isn’t as good as the Saturday Guardian, and by lunchtime we’re sitting at the kitchen table reading columns out loud to each other while we eat our locally-grown vegetables and freshly baked bread.  It’s almost disgusting.  No; it is disgusting, but endearingly so, don’t you think?

One of my greatest Saturday pleasures is Tim Dowling, the front-of-magazine columnist who writes about…well, nothing, really, and writes it well.  These last few weeks his pieces have been rather lackluster , but I eat them up even so, and I always, always want to root for him, especially when he writes about googling himself (am I secretly hoping he might take the practice up again and find my blog?  Yes, maybe.  So what.) and discovers there are people out there who think he’s a twat. He is not, as far as I can tell, a twat.

And then, the other day, I had a revelation: part of the reason I’m so enamoured of Dowling (apart from envying his ability to turn the boring into the amusing) is that he’s American born.

I came to this revelation whilst watching the recent episode of Mock the Week with Tom Stade as a guest.  You need to know two things about this:

  1. I had not previously heard of Tom Stade, and;
  2. American accents and Canadian accents SOUND THE SAME TO ME*.  Maybe I should be more discerning, but I’m not.

So I heard Tom Stade speaking and I had this weird thought: aw, another American.  And every time he said something funny, I laughed louder than I did for Frankie Boyle and co., and every time he said something almost-funny-but-not-quite I laughed anyway, and then I realized that this is my own brand of patriotism, and I’m somewhat relieved to have found it.

My patriotism has been missing for awhile now.  I meet fellow Americans in bars and at dinner parties here, and sometimes they’ll say, but honestly, don’t you miss the US? And I’ll have to admit that what I miss most is not the beloved nation but my weird, lovable little family and the weird little ranch where I grew up.  They’ll name chain restaurants, routines and traditions, products you can’t get here, and I won’t feel that warm fuzzy feeling I probably should.

I thought I was weird.  But now I know: give me an American writer (/comedian/actor/radio host/etc) living (or at least performing) in the UK, and I’ll support him (or her) with the passion of a true patriot.

*Upon futher investigation, I learned that Tom Stade is Canadian, not American.  So before writing this post I double-checked that Dowling is, as I had always suspected, a fellow citizen.

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The Impossible Dream?

Over breakfast, I’ve been perusing Forbe’s list of the most influential women in media.  I keep thinking, wow, another news anchor.  Another morning show co-host.  Another…cooking channel sweetheart turned television goddess.  It isn’t a list of the most influential women in media, it’s a list of the most influential women on TV.

Here’s why: the list is generated based on money, fame, audience, and power.  Money?  When did media become about money?  Around the same time it became about the brigade of sleek blondes sharing banter with square-jawed, loose-tounged anchormen in front of a camera.  I have an antiquated sense of “media”.  That it’s about information, provoking thought (or at least, in its own, roundabout way, encouraging it), reaching out, using the world as a playground.  I still think Thomas Friedman was on to something when he wrote about journalists needing to become “information arbiters”, people who don’t create the news but gather it, digest it, and then present it.

Silly me.  Clearly what really matters is money and fame.  This is a culture of celebrity worship, after all.  So I salute all the writers, bloggers, and journalists who did make it onto the list, in spite of it all.  I’m particularly pleased to see Dooce on the list–a first-time entry, renowned for her sarcastic and unabashadly honest approach to blogging about family life.  She’s a neat 26 on the list, not bad for someone who’s literally built a life for herself, her husband, and her children based, when it comes down to it, on writing.  Part of me wants to be jealous of her, but most of me rejoices in the idea that this is, in spite of what it may look like (and indeed what Forbes may have us believe), not an impossible dream.

Dooce (aka Heather Armstrong) on the realities of her livelihood:

“There are days where I sit there and cry myself into a bundle in the corner because either I am blocked and can’t write or there is nothing to write about. I don’t ever get to take a break or go on vacation. If I don’t write for two days in a row, people write to ask if I’m dead.”

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DSC02624_2Just as I was finishing up yesterday’s post, the Man came upstairs into the study and said, “I want to read you something that will make you feel much better about our finances.”  He then sat down on the bed and read me this article, from the Guardian Saturday magazine.  It’s a long and excruciating tale of financial and personal meltdown, and I won’t go into great detail (yet), but the idea is this: Edmund Andrews, experienced economics reporter for the New York Times, finds himself, at the age of 48, in a bit, but not much, of a pickle.  Recently divorced, and engaged to Patty, another divorcee, he’s paying his ex-wife $4000 a month in alimony and child support, leaving him, he says “just $2,777 a month to live on.”

The Man and I exchanged a glance–if either of us had close to $3000 a month to live on we’d be beyond thrilled, but then again, we don’t have kids or years of living comfortably already behind us–and then he carried on.  Patty is a mother of four, and Andrews gets his two children at weekends, so they decide that in spite of Andrews own doubts about his financial situation and Patty’s current unemployment, they should…buy a house!  Because that’s what adults in these situations do, apparently.  Look at the price tag ($480,000, in this case), realise they’ll never be able to afford it, and then go ahead and buy it anyway.  In Andrews’ case, buying the house involved a mortgage loan officer and a few interesting snags–carrying too much debt in spite of his $130,00 salary because of a second mortgage, under his name though his ex-wife was responsible for the payments–and the assumption that Andrews would be able to refinance because the value of his house would be higher in five years.

So there he is, digging this hole.  A few months later he goes to the ATM and discovers he’s got just $196 (his allegation that “we didn’t have enough cash to cover more than a week’s worth of shopping” did puzzle the Man and I for some time–even for a family of four it seems a little extravagent to drop $200 a week on groceries), and thus begins a long few years where he and Patty spiral into debt, maxing out every credit card they can get their paws on until they owe $50,000 “in credit card debt alone.”

And so here they are, now.  Still struggling along–“I have no idea when I might be able to get credit again,” writes Andrews, “much less retire.”  He claims it hasn’t been a total loss, that having the house was good for his family, that he and Patty are as close as ever.  And at least he’s got a book out of it, which will presumably appeal to millions of credit-starved hole-diggers and victims of economic downturn alike.  And as an economics reporter he has a better handle on the situation in its wider context than most.

But I can’t help but feel a little sick reading the story.  The Man was right, at least: it did make me feel better about our own, often precarious financial situation.  Student loans aside, neither of us is in deep debt, and I berate myself when I go more than £10 into overdraft on any given month–say, £20 into overdraft.  Recently I found myself mired in credit card debt, which my parents were thankfully able to help me out of.  But I didn’t borrow the $15,000 that Andrews had to from his family–my bill was for $600.  Andrews would probably laugh at us, and our pathetic little money worries.

So I have to suppose it’s about scale: someone used to earning upwards of $100,000 a year has a completely different idea of how things work than someone who literally lives paycheck to paycheck.  The middle-aged high earner has lost all sense of what it’s like to really economize.  It’s been so long since things were stripped down to their essence, since it was survival and not luxury which mattered, that it’s impossible to revert to that primitive way of life.  Or maybe the kinds of people who find themselves $50,000 in debt at the age of 50 never lived paycheck to paycheck.  Maybe that’s the problem.  Maybe it’s the downside to landing yourself a solid and dependable job straight out of college.  If all you’ve ever known is security, how can you make yourself think differently?

Make no mistake, the Man and I are not in an enviable financial position, but there are things about the way we comport ourselves during these lean years that make me think it’s a temporary position, and that, in fact, our having struggled as we do will ultimately turn out to be a good thing.

Because I’d like to think that even if we find ourselves struggling, twenty or thirty years down the line, with kids and needs that extend beyond eating, drinking, sleeping, and being together, we’d know when–and, more importantly, how–to stop.  Living on the edge of financial ruin–and surviving–has been an enormous experience for me.  I grew up in the lap of relative luxury.  I never thought, let alone worried, about money.  (Especially as a university student, that classically tight time, when I was earning an income from part-time jobs in addition to the allowance my parents gave me, and didn’t pay a single bill.)  But it’s been good for me to find myself where I am now, and the Man and I have mostly been alright.  I have a hard time imagining that should we come up against serious financial hardship later in life, we wouldn’t be able to sacrifice everything, just as we have now, in order to avoid descending into that dark place that Andrews and his wife find themselves now.

Or maybe that’s just my youth speaking.  In any case, the article did exactly what the Man promised it would, and as I spent the next few hours reviewing my own finances, I found myself laughing a little.  We’re all allowed some smugness, aren’t we?

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