Austin is a town full to the brim of clubs, coffee, conversation, dinners, friends, fun. . . in fact, there are so many things to do here I have officially run out of time, and this portion of the trip just started!
Somewhere in the manic schedule we managed to see Ann, a friend of Byron from infancy and now an interesting adult. She had many fascinating stories of their shared childhood, and also offered up insider tips on things to see and do.
The opportunity to shop in a place where the prices and aesthetic are close to my idea of sensible? I'm there. I had money in my pocket, and found all sorts of things I would have loved even a few months ago, but, surprise! I didn't buy anything. I didn't find anything I wanted!
Diligent efforts reveal I'm finished with vintage, but hate new clothes. What a conundrum.
My kid had more luck, though we're traveling strictly with carry-on luggage. I'm not quite sure how we'll transport antique ventriloquism dummies.
First impressions of Texas: cars, big cars, old cars, old big cars, then some trucks. With confrontational bumper stickers and gun racks? You betcha.
However, the weather is cool and grey - much more to my liking even if this is a temporary respite - and I feel much better, I promise, no really. And I'm not being facetious for once, the random flare of icktastic illness has abated. As predicted. Maybe I was just allergic to California? Shrug. These matters are beyond boring.
Unfortunately, this just means I can get back to all the neglected chores. In my impoverished rural youth I did not fully appreciate that a glamorous cosmopolitan lifestyle would entail so much . . . laundry.
Five weeks on the road? I can wash my unmentionables in a sink, but the boys need clean socks.
I bundled up all of our tatty garments and ventured down South Congress, where I found the Worst Laundromat in Known Universe.
Though the gentlemen living under the machines were quite polite.
Flying toward the next destination I was overwhelmed with waves of homesickness. Home: a tautology. Homesick while "home" - what is home?
This nonsensical intellectual rift has been a constant companion since 1989 and thus, like a whining child, is best ignored. I attempted to apply literature to the wound but here is a tip: never trust a "realistic" contemporary novel that opens with a nonstop train journey from Cambridge to Paddington.
Next up: Austin.
Final observation: here in California, despite plentiful allocation of street and private options, valet parking dominates the commercial landscape. Hotels, stores, bars, restaurants - even cheap shoddy restaurants!
And all the attendants, regardless of heritage, look like Jason Bourne.
Why? Are they anticipating a sudden call for an undercover mission, are they hoping to be cast in a movie, are they so bored they have nothing better to do than lift weights, or do they just enjoy the aesthetic?
Impossible to tell. They no longer talk to me! Whereas in my youth they recognised me as a peer (or perhaps a tasty morsel) now they are all approximately the same age as my grown-up daughter. Golly, I love getting old. So many annoying distractions have vanished.
Fun facts: in the UK and EU I have full health insurance cover based on residency and treaty agreements. Elsewhere I get by with "travel insurance" which means that if I break a leg, I can get emergency care. If I am incapacitated by an accident I am eligible for evacuation services.
Otherwise? The policy excludes pre-existing conditions. Everything wrong with me is related to the genetic disorder. So functionally: nothing is covered.
Before I hit the road I hassle my GP for sufficient medication to see me through, then cross my fingers it will last. If I develop minor complications I coerce friends (and strangers if necessary) for appointments and scrips, then pay out of pocket. The last time this happened Ayun hooked me up with a doctor pal, I found a dodgy pharmacy willing to fill a dubious prescription, and I wore sunglasses night and day until the problem cleared up. Allowing an assortment of NYC uberhipsters to form bizarre opinions about my eccentric sartorial choices. Fun!
But if the complication of the moment requires more than antibiotics there isn't a good solution. Right now I should see either an endocrinologist or rheumatologist (probably both) to run my bloodwork. Do you know how much it costs to check your anti-nuclear antibodies and sedimentation rate? Bushels and bunches. Between the clinic time and tests I can run up several thousand in charges, for a confirming diagnosis that consists of the following: you have systemic lupus, we prescribe complete rest.
They would also tell me to take prednisone, but I am philosophically opposed, so we will ignore than injunction.
In fact, because I know what the doctors will say and how much it will cost to hear the words, I just skip the appointments.
I have been living with auto-immune madness since 1986, so I feel comfortable pushing the boundaries. If I get 23% sicker I will take myself in for tinkering and tune-ups, but that won't happen, if I just avoid the sun for awhile.
I do not recommend this method to other people: it is dangerous to avoid treatment for potentially life-threatening disorders. If you are sick, go to the doctor!
However, if you are trying to eke out some kind of life in a disastrously bad system (like say the United States) here is a trick: I haven't been to any check-ups or taken any medication for this disease for more than five years. Yes, I get sick - but it isn't documented and therefore in a purely technical sense I do not have the disease.
Even the Germans couldn't catch me on this one. No records = no diagnosis.
This isn't remission, it is some kind of psychological disorder created and nurtured by idiotic health care policies.
You might ask why I continue this charade in the United Kingdom, where pre-existing conditions do not matter. The answer is simple: I didn't know for sure if I would stay, and didn't want to be refused cover (or charged extortionate rates) if I ended up back home again. Now I am worried that the Tories will dismantle the NHS. Either way: fake it 'til you make it.
By now my habits are so entrenched they transcend economics. It is likely I will one day push it too far, wait too long, skip a critical test. This is what your health care policy does, America: it kills people.
They are shocking and hilarious in equal measure, offering up plentiful reminders of both the past I have left behind, and the future I can have - but do not want. They are extreme depictions of the pinnacle and ruination of the American Dream.
I love them.
Meandering down a Santa Barbara side street in the twilight I was not at all surprised to encounter Andreas, last seen where? Paris? Berlin?
My friends do tend to wander. Though right now I would prefer to have them over for a dinner party at my own house.
Summary, Week 4, Great American Road Trip: I miss London.
I'm honestly too tired to continue this holiday but one day ventured forth to the mission to see the the commemorative plaque for Juana Maria, because when I was about ten years old I loved Island of the Blue Dolphins.
US health care reform repeal vote: told you so.
In fact, I predicted every aspect of the anti-reform movement. I said from the start that developing an entitlement program (while heroic in aspect) would be a heartbreaking, difficult slog. Displacing the financial obligation to individuals and businesses, neglecting to offset the complexities of interstate commerce? Huh - right. Good luck with that. I've been paying attention, I am a journalist and a trained bureaucrat, I have a personal investment as an expat with cancer. I might want to move home someday, if I can, but I think the health care bill as currently organised is a big fucking mess.
I said Yeah, nice idea, get back to me in ten years and let me know how that went.
People replied Something is better than nothing.
Forcibly reforming the mercenary insurance industry would have been a more elegant approach, but that was impossible . . . why? Because of the lobbyists, and money interests? Or something like that. What happened to Yes We Can? The sentiment vanished under political expediency.
Of course I appreciate the fact that the United States system of checks and balances works to protect the institutions and citizenry from abrupt and disruptive ideological reversals. Six years in the United Kingdom has confirmed my admiration of that aspect of my homeland. And the health care debate is far from over; we're looking at a brutal bloody fight to save some scrap of the reforms.
But in the meanwhile, people I care about are still going bankrupt trying to pay medical bills. People I admire are working until the second they enter hospice care just to maintain access to health insurance. People I love are dying for lack of health care - in one of the wealthiest nations on the planet.
Santa Barbara: what to say? Great place, if you want to view the first offshore oil rigs in the country. Awesome, if you enjoy literally kicking homeless people out of the way to shop for high-end handbags.
I've never been anywhere with such extreme disparity of wealth on display. Oh, and that big economic "slowdown" we aren't calling a "depression"? Eminently visible on the main street, after various chain stores have departed, and the remaining lack critical elements like "customers." We're definitely in Ronald Reagan territory: it is a vision of what the Tories would like to do in England, except for the weather.
It is in fact too hot and bright for me to venture to the beach; I am not supposed to go out in the sun, and if I try to disobey my immune system puts the smack down within about twenty minutes. The question is, do I want my serving of systemic lupus small or large? Discoid rash, joint pain, and lethargy = many hours in a cool dark room.
But I can go out in the dark, and we walked down to the dock one night to watch birds flying in the moonlight, listen to the water, make wishes on falling stars.
Best. Thing. Ever.
75 fahrenheit, sitting on the beach every morning with my notebook, drinking coffee and watching shoals of dolphins play in the waves, walking barefoot on the sand every evening at sunset. Jealous, England? Don't worry: I miss you more with each passing day, no matter how idyllic.
I said a regretful goodbye to my mother, promising to come back soon, promising to arrange another European trip for her. What sort of daughter leaves home and stays away? Difficult and disobedient just about sums it up, though the older I get the more I have in common with the women who founded the family.
We don't even know our original surname, let alone why the great-grandparents fled from the old country. There are no documents, no letters, just a few photographs - and I look like them. I am like some of them, specifically those who left after 1917: disorderly, impetuous, itinerant, political, profligate, sneaky.
Driving toward San Diego I was thinking about the complexities of leaving your country of birth; nowadays it is at least possible to call, write, visit. When my people moved the choice was more disruptive, brutal, final.
I live between two places, never quite part of either, feeling the distance as pain and displacement, but my great-grandma would have called that a luxury. When she left Europe she left everything, everyone. And the map kept changing behind her as she continued moving for another eight decades without ever settling down. Though I doubt she cared all that much - I suspect her runaway heart was never fixed on any goal, person, or place.
We deviate from each other in a few critical ways; for instance, I was successful in acquiring citizenship in my new homeland. I divorce the people I break up with. And, of course, I have brought my children along with me, and would never leave them behind, not under any circumstances, no matter how extreme. I don't understand how any parent, male or female, could function otherwise, though I come from a clan known to discard babies.
But that is a mystery for another day, because as the car sped down the freeway I realised we were near San Juan Capistrano and asked Byron to stop.
Bushwhacking my way through a list leftover from the cancer years, this is Childhood Ambition Number Five: I wanted to see the swallows.
In the intervening time I've studied history, moved country, toured the Vatican, visited the Alhambra, paid tribute to the Infant of Prague. I know just a little bit too much about ecclesiastical controversies, imperial ambitions, and the factual destruction of native communities.
It is very difficult, at age forty, to feel simple delight while contemplating the fountains in the courtyards of Father Serra's missions.
But of course the place is beautiful, the conservation impressive, and as always, it was good to say hello to Peregrine.
Though I was too late to see the swallows.
I couldn't eat the food when I lived here, and nothing has changed. After several encounters with dubious meat (how is it prepared - what precisely are they doing to make it so greasy and foul?) I gave up. From now on, I will subsist on yogurt and energy bars.
It is possible I will also reverse a firm anti-whining policy and moan about this, if you happen to be within earshot. I was so excited to eat tacos! It is so unfair they make me queasy!
Lucky boys, they can eat anything. Except the elder can't have, uh, gluten. And the younger one is picky. Leaving us all with . . . yogurt and energy bars.
Pretty soon I'm going to be the weird lady with an ice chest full of food, no matter the occasion.
Lesson of the week: beach towns are rarely known for the excellence of the espresso.
Oh, and if I wished to frolic in my knickers I would do so, without paying for a so-called swimsuit. Why are modern bathing costumes so ridiculous?!
My idea of beach attire? Black clothing toe to knuckle to chin. Though I left my umbrella at home this time. Living dangerously!
Since 1988, no matter where I am in the world - from Tacoma to Olympia, London to NYC - I just have to think "I wonder what Karl T. Steel is up to right now...." And hey presto! There he is!
I have too many commitments to see friends this week, let alone on my anniversary, but how could I ignore the startling coincidence that KTS once again showed up improbably nearby?
And he is entitled to celebrate my romantic achievements - he represents continuity in the narrative. He is the only witness who was not a direct participant. He watched movies about the Romantic Poets in my first boyfriends parents basement, knew my first husband (KTS assessment: "scariest person I have ever met"), was friends with the majority of the interstitial players even if he did not know I was dating them, met Byron before I did. He is the only person I see regularly who truly understands, in a visceral way, the setting and characters in the stories. There were long stretches in which we were cordial enemies, but Karl was always somewhere just around the corner.
We poured the Malibu sand out of our shoes and headed to the city to pick him up at whichever academic conference he was attending.
Back at the hotel to tidy up I listened as Karl filled us in on all the latest news of life in Brooklyn, his partner, his job. Who would have predicted KTS would grow up to be a medievalist? Not me: I did not expect any of the bedraggled kids in our crew to manage more than a move to the next town over. We did not have an auspicious start, did not have resources, connections, money. I remain amazed that any of us are alive, let alone educated and employed.
Listening to KTS talk about research libraries and plenary talks I started to laugh wildly. He narrowed his eyes and asked "What?!"
"Nothing. I mean, look around you, we're having this conversation in Beverly Hills. I live in London, you live in New York. We have gray hair! It is just that. . ." How to summarise? "We've come a long way from Spanaway."
Over dinner we caught up on the adventures of friends, plans for the future, and at some point he asked "How is your health," in that forced, fake way with a sideways stare, the patented KTS signal that he "cares."
And I'm sure he does; we've been lurching in and out of each others lives so long it must mean something. The interesting bit though is the way the question is framed and presented - the fact that while we've mostly lost the accent, we still talk like we're from the place. We ask the question because we've learned this is the right question to ask, because we've learned the etiquette - though not, based on our seventeen year old raw selves, because the inquiry is anything either of us would bother about.
I laughed and waved my hand. "Fine."
And I am fine, though the tumours-in-waiting feel like they are lit up with neon. To me this is inconsequential, to normal or new friends frightening. But KTS is that rare creature, an old friend, someone who met me long before I was in remission. He knew me before the accident - he was supposed to be in the car - and he came to the hospital and sat with me after, listening as I talked fast around a dislocated jaw, bruised heart, shattered brain. He twitched, but he listened, and he laughed.
He doesn't remember that day (or does not want to admit the charge) but he is demonstrably one of the most loyal and compassionate people I have ever known. He does not indulge in surface hypocrisies, he just gets on with the work. He isn't scared of real trouble, or if he is, he doesn't turn away from a crisis. He shows up. He, like me, is wildly judgmental and scathing, but a faithful and true friend when it matters.
Who better to share our anniversary?
I never say maudlin things in person, reserving sentiment for this journal. I feel honoured to have known KTS more than half a lifetime, and hope that he sticks around for a couple more decades. I mean, really. He laughs at my jokes.
Today we decided to go to Malibu and live out our Rockford Files fantasies. Except, you know, the car.
In theory this was our anniversary, but of what exactly? It has been fifteen years since we rocked up at the 24 Hour Church of Elvis, got hit with a magic wand, signed some papers, accidentally ended up on the evening news. Though in my view that was simply the day we scammed a discriminatory system, the day I became officially eligible for health insurance.
The only vows we took, the only promise I could have made given the distrait circumstances? To remain friends.
In my life marriage is an institution without relevance or meaning except insofar as it provides a good cover story. Marriage is an economic contract, and I've always been married to someone or other. Why? Simple: our society offers no other shelter to a freaky kid with cancer. Everything else - love, devotion, desire - has always happened elsewhere.
A possible anniversary is our first meeting, one autumn day on Red Square in Olympia, when I was still married to someone else. James and I were sitting on a bench amidst the falling leaves, with crows hopping around at our feet as we discussed Barthes or similar shit. I was wearing one of my shiny junior bureaucrat outfits, Byron showed up in a rugby shirt: both of our uniforms misleading the other about everything of importance.
We didn't hook up then, neither of us were interested. Though I do remember idly thinking Why precisely did I sacrifice my youth?
That, my friends, is Byron's real function in the world - underneath and between formal and scientific achievements he is a trickster. He can't help it.
But that isn't any kind of anniversary, because it wasn't any kind of event. I still had a lot to endure, including a tediously dramatic and violent break-up, a new and perilously fragile love affair, a custody fight, and of course, critically, a career.
When people ask how we met I tell the story of living in the Dundee House, how Byron was always sleeping with the wrong person, and eventually I was elected to evict him. We laugh uproariously about how he lived in a van in the front yard with an extension cord running through the window until I unplugged it once too often.
There are telling little details about sitting around in the back yards of punk houses drinking cheap beer and reading celebrity magazines. Piquant anecdotes about ransacked computers, major appliances held for ransom, rides to airports and hospitals, studying at the Smithfield. We were young, and fairly stupid, though it didn't feel that way at the time.
If I had to pick a specific moment for our anniversary as acknowledgment of romantic entanglement it would probably be the day I stood in a dusty living room next to the typewriter shop on 4th Avenue and heard Sugar Kane for the first time.
In the early 90's I was fed up with courtesy, responsibility, rules. I'd been alive twenty-one years and never experienced liberty, because my existence was defined by disease and the abstractions of honour. When I hooked up with Byron it was explicitly and irrevocably a one night stand.
I didn't want him to be my boyfriend, I already had one. Not to mention the misplaced husband: I was overbooked and ambivalent. But if I put that record on the turntable right now it brings back waves of terror, because whether I wanted to or not I had fallen in love.
What was the date? Nobody remembers. The ensuing mess of trouble was appalling, and it took several years before I would even admit we were dating.
I'm not nice, he isn't stable. We hooked up when he was still an undergrad, and I was just finishing graduate school. We were poor, and then we were parents. We have been confronted with all manner of catastrophe both material and emotional. Pick a trauma, any trauma: been there, done that.
Which day is our anniversary - which event do we memorialise, which achievement do we promote? We've survived a lot, but where is the value in that? I am voracious. I am a perfectionist. I always want more.
Marriage is an economic contract, and as such it can be cancelled. Friendship is a vastly more challenging proposition. Romantic love is impossible.
But I'm ok with impossible. I'm alive, right?
So today is our anniversary, because fifteen years ago we undertook a legal agreement conjoining our finances. Seventeen years ago we hooked up for a one night stand that never ended. Eighteen or nineteen years ago we fell improbably and quite inappropriately in love.
And no matter how you reckon the numbers, this has been a grand adventure.
I wanted to go to a medieval jousting banquet somewhere near Anaheim but the children objected on aesthetic grounds, and Byron claimed to be "allergic."
See? My birthday is always so difficult!
Given the constraints of the guests, my nostalgia for childhood misadventures in California, the fact that I already miss England, and Byron's academic affiliation, the destination was obvious. We collected up my mother and the children from their Disney sojourn and ventured forth to spend the day on the Queen Mary.
We went on tours, drank root beer, watched the sunset over the docks, ate Beef Wellington in the Winston Churchill restaurant. And I wasn't even being ironic!
I was diagnosed with terminal cancer on my twelfth birthday. Today I turned forty. Happy birthday to me!
My life is pretty fuckin' fantastic, bro. To use the local vernacular.
Traveling back down Gene Autry Way, everything here is familiar and known. Comfortable. Understood. References to public scandals I've never heard about about feel correctly calibrated. I no longer recognise the people in the newspaper, but I get the cadence.
The real puzzle is not the fact that I live in a different country: it is the fact that I am no longer poor. I'm living out the classic story of the country boy seeking his fortune in the big city, but how many of those novels have happy endings?
The music of my youth certainly offers no solace; those artists, like my relatives, indulge in suicidal ideation. I'm far too materialistic and violent to join that cult, so I have switched to the only modern genre that reflects my concerns.
Yes, it is true: I'm driving around Beverly Hills in an SUV and I am sufficiently decadent to enjoy the experience. Though like Dr Dre says, I still got love for the streets.
Lesson of the week: paparazzi are NOT allowed to visit Travel Town.
I am mystified by celebrity culture. I know lots of famous people, and they are notable mainly for being "people."
My personal version of the star tour includes only one sacred destination:
Rhetorical question: when traveling on my American passport, how long does it take for extreme drama to come snarling toward me like the most lethal sort of emotional hurricane?
Answer: something like three minutes.
There is no way to predict exactly what will go wrong, but something always does. This winter the controversy is in my so-called private life, and while I normally refrain from comment I am now far too old to obey the rules of etiquette imposed by blood kin.
I do not listen to toxic gossip. I do not recognise the claims of false authority. I do not care what any of my elders think or feel or desire at all when the fights break out. I don't care who is "right" - I don't think anyone is morally correct when they act in anger.
Specifically, I am exasperated and disgusted by the bizarre argument over how to allocate the ashes of a beloved cousin. He committed suicide. That is sufficiently destructive.
There are only a dozen or so of us left and you know what? We are all we have. We hold the memories. We are already scattered, disconnected, and if we do not take care of each other we do not have a family.
Love isn't enough. Love didn't protect Chris when he was little, and it didn't save him in the end. Love is a feeling, not an action. You can feel all sorts of things, but your actions are the only bit that counts.
Nothing factually binds me to Kitsap County, to anyone or anything in the Northwest. I love the landscape, I love my family, but I make a choice when I visit. I won't make that choice if the (real or metaphoric) knives are out. I've been cut enough.
The last time I talked to him Chris said he was proud of me. Why? Because I got out.
I choose to remember that moment. I choose to remember the cousins running through the fields, laughing.
Denver featured several inches of snow every day alternating with temperatures several notches below zero (fahrenheit!) every night.
Now this is what I call "weather." Though not at all remarkably, the city continues to function. We kept driving. We went to dinners, parties, my kid went skiing. The airport remained OPEN.
Though my stateside phone cannot spell jousting - clearly, this country has mixed up priorities!
Now I'm in Los Angeles, where the sun shines, the people are surgically modified, and even the coffee has pretensions. And it is all good:
I'm driving around endless ugly sprawling suburbs listening to AC/DC and feeling mournful. It is just like being young again, except for the music.
The most shocking visible difference? Despite excessive fuel costs, people appear to be driving ever larger vehicles. I'm a child of the seventies, I remember fuel rationing - and everyone switched to smaller cars, even my grandparents. And they owned a petrol station!
I guess folks nowadays need the new bigger cars to drive to their new bigger houses in new bigger suburbs?
Gosh. The economic crisis is so. . . real. And intrinsically unnecessary.
Btw, my Seattle number works, if you know and need it. Though I'm not there or anything.
Ten years ago I had never really ventured past the Rockies, never been to Europe, never traveled alone. I didn't have much money but scraped together enough for a birthday trip to NYC, booking a ticket that connected in half a dozen cities before depositing me in the middle of the night in a shuttered and frozen Long Island airport.
Along the way, despite my best efforts (and a faux fur hat with kitten ears), I had collected a menagerie of fellow travellers who needed assistance and succour. After I transported and delivered the fractured stepfamily, the elderly man, and the blind woman to a central Brooklyn subway station I thought that I could finally start the adventure.
I caught a yellow cab and gave the driver the address, but he claimed he did not know how to find Fort Greene. We finally found Karen's house thanks to my nonexistent navigational skills, and I said a quick thanks to a dear friend not knowing that she would vanish from my life forever.
By the time I argued my way through another woeful taxi ride to Pam's flat I had been in transit for nearly twenty hours in subzero weather, wearing clothes more suited to the temperate NW because anything heavier was impossible over a fresh half-sleeve tattoo.
I was so relieved to slip the key into the lock, and hear the thunk as it turned. . . and then, snap! The key broke off in my hand.
My host was out of town, the neighbours asleep. Whatever to do?
I picked the lock, of course.
What an auspicious start!
Next up: an historic blizzard! I was food poisoned not once but twice! Byron arrived to join the fun but instead succumbed to the same vomitous malady, and we spent New Year's Eve alternating between retching and watching ominous movies that pondered the question of what would happen to civil liberties if there were ever a serious terrorist attack against the city.
Once he departed I recovered just enough to borrow a strange suede coat and rummage up a warmer hat before meeting Ayun, with brand-new baby Milo strapped to her chest. We walked around in the slush and went shopping at Vivienne Tam for some mysterious reason - Greg, or Urinetown, had been nominated for an award that would necessitate grown-up clothes at the ceremony. As we trudged through upscale downtown NY she (Ayun, that is) informed me that my hat looked like a fuzzy brown toilet seat cover, a fair claim, and ten years later she likes to remind me of that fashion transgression.
I wish one of us had been sufficiently geeky to take photographs. Though I continue to wear the hat, so we could stage a re-enactment. We would just need to borrow a fresh baby.
The only true trauma occurred when I took off the coat and hat, revealing my inked arm. Strangers talked to me! Museum guards flirted with me! For the first time in my entire life!
Oh the horror.
The trip, while dire, was super fun - and it set the agenda for the next decade in both outline and subheadings.
Generous people (or hippies) would say my thirties offered "learning opportunities" and "emotional growth." I call it chaotic unacceptable nonsense. Same difference!
Since then, everything has changed and everything is still the same. I just keep moving, so far and so fast I often forget which country I am standing in.
Happy New Year! Cheers to the past, the future, the probable and the impossible! Happy birthday to all the sad winter babies and remember: spring is coming soon!