Seventeen years ago I went to a conference with my friend and colleague Jenni. We were both students, idealistic and outspoken, committed to making our society accessible to people with disabilities. We were making this happen by forcing the campus to comply with the ADA, and coordinating a task force for the Governor's office with the objective of reforming structural (translation: boring) policies.
The keynote speaker of the event was Paul Miller, disability civil rights advisor to the Clinton administration. I was sitting next to Jenni in the front row of the auditorium when their eyes met.
In the course of this crazy life I have never experienced the kind of electrical zap I watched fly between Paul and Jenni.
The event was in Olympia but our pals from the Governor's office had arranged a dinner at the creole restaurant staffed by deaf-mute folks in Pike Place Market, sixty miles distant. I didn't want to go but Jenni dragged me along, partly to accelerate my reluctant social acclimation, partly as potential chaperone.
They flirted mildly over dinner, then Jenni offered to give him a ride to wherever he needed to go. I found myself seated at a sticky table in a shabby bar next to the airport, observing them make goggly eyes and talk about art.
It is really boring to watch other people fall in love.
I let out a heavy, burdened sigh, then proceeded to interrogate Paul about his dating history. Once I confirmed that he was not a big STD risk I announced that I expected to be in the wedding party. Then I left them to it.
I was right: I had just inadvertently crashed the first date of a couple who would (and did) fall in love so hard nothing this side of death could stop the romance.
Paul was already a leading civil rights expert, a committed and reasoned insider activist. He was eminently honourable in every way, someone who made a real difference to the world through his professional work. He was a pivotal figure in my professional life, offering mentorship and entrance to the madness of Washington DC, laughing when I refused to go. My rambunctious daughter called him Paul Watermelon, and she was sad when we couldn't make it to the wedding - the first time I knew people who, upon such an occasion, appeared in the pages of the New York Times.
Paul became the husband of my dear friend, the father of her children.
Now he is gone. The nation is deprived of incomparable expertise. Jenni is widowed, their daughters orphaned.
Seventeen years is not long enough for an epic love story. My thoughts are with the family.
This is a journal of displacement, documenting my decision to leave behind a place and life I loved in search of something different and somehow better. Not because I wanted to, but rather because it was necessary.
The rationale is simple: to stay alive I need medicine and access to doctors. To get that, I need health insurance, money, or to live in a country with socialised health care. One foot followed another from school, to marriage, to England.
Concerns like love, familial devotion, friendship, and intellectual curiosity have never taken precedent. Why? Because I could not afford them.
Just like any other poor kid growing up rough, I did my best with paltry resources. Desperation breeds innovation, though never the socially appropriate sort. I followed the rules with ruthless persistence, other people break them, but we are all criminals by definition - because we are pursuing what is not allowed.
So, just like any other poor kid who kicks it, I have obvious and stereotypical problems with the consequences of surviving. If you grow up hungry you never feel full.
Here on the other side, safely ensconced in the life it took thirty-nine years to find, I haven't been sleeping much. I am massively freaked out not just by what I have lost, but also by what I have gained.
The couch in the living room, the bookshelves, the flat itself, the fact that I can help my kid pay for university - it is all equally painful and exhilarating. I don't want to talk about it, I don't want anyone to know, yet at the same time I want to shout - look at this!
Because it isn't just about owning something, but being seen to own it. The objects are the visible manifestation of success, and my interest in austere architecture is no different than another person's thirst for Cristal. Like Biggie Smalls says Get a grip motherfucker. . .Yeah, this album is dedicated to all the teachers that told me I'd never amount to nothin. . .
Aubrey is, of course, the embodiment of awesome.
Happy birthday wishes to the young gentleman! Perfect presents for a 14 year old boy? Keyboard, cake, sonic screwdriver, and tickets to see a live production of Yes, Prime Minister. Obviously.
Aubrey at fourteen. Photo courtesy famillionarity:
The office is the last bit to unpack: abandoned manuscripts! Traces of quixotic careers! Xrays of my fractured pelvis and cracked skull! Photographs of everyone I've ever known loved or hated! What fun.
Though the installation created a sticky tugging sensation - possibly the last strands of my working class identity shredding against the sharp edge of reality.
Regardless: the books are unpacked. I can now sit here in the reading nook, a childhood fantasy finally realised, reading favourite nursery rhymes.
The man that killed the ram, sir, was up to his knees in blood / And the boy that held the pail, sir, was carried away in the flood.
From the spectacles on my face to the bags I carry to the desk I own, my love of vintage objects is partly emotional, partly practical. As much as I like the shape and history of old things, I have always liked the price more. When the things I lust after become expensive or cross the date line to "antique" I lose interest.
I'm not a collector. I'm thrifty.
That is why furnishing the flat is so difficult - even with enough money and time to figure it out, I just cannot bring myself to pay what people are charging. Throw in complications like tricky size requests and the search starts to look masochistic. In all my travels through town and discussions with dealers, it was widely agreed that my need for a small sensible wooden dining table (with built-in extensions) is valid but impossible. They don't exist - at least not in Zones 1 - 3. Presumably because a large number of people are hunting for the same.
Eventually I found my way to the excellent Danish Homestore website. They have lots of big names but also a very good selection of less known and therefore less expensive stuff. The only question was - could I handle buying something so big off the internet without seeing it first?
Several weeks of failed local searching made the answer an emphatic yes. I bought a Poul Volther table because it was beautiful, and cheap. The delivery fellow called it a good investment piece because nobody knows about Volther (yet).
How strange. I really am turning into a grownup.
My obsession with home furnishings will subside as of midnight tomorrow, when my attention will turn to more useful topics. Like jellybeans.
Now that I have something to sit on, I need something to eat with. Cutlery - what a quandary!
I have looked everywhere in this vast metropolis, with no joy. Merchandise on the market is either too expensive, too old-fashioned, or too ambitious. Why, oh why do designers think they need to be creative with the shape of a spoon? It is a spoon. It is meant to ladle soup. The shape has been standardised over time because it makes sense.
Even the Scandinavians failed me.
Though in my muttering progress it occurred to me that a solution might be closer to hand than expected, and wrote to my mother. Why yes, she replied, I inherited the Lavender silverware - a complete set of Chevron (aka Standard Oil) commemorative cutlery.
This brings up many practical questions, like whether or not one can pack a gold-plated service for twelve in carry-on luggage. But also more importantly, how will I feel eating from the forks I remember so distinctly from childhood Thanksgiving dinners?
Difficult to guess, but I'm sensing that the answers will be fraught and frightening. And anyway, I need to eat now, not whenever I can arrange for delivery.
So instead of spending real money on new stuff (preferred option) or shipping family heirlooms (next best option) I bought off ebay.
Tauba is the first stateside friend to visit, though I was so distracted by the search for furniture it was hard to drag myself away to socialise. There were many exchanges of which neighbourhood are you in? and random failed hookups before we actually managed to meet and catch up on news.
She pulled us away from our current favourite leisure activity of "moving boxes from one room to the next" to go see Glasser playing in Hoxton. We stopped in backstage to say hello and blink at the the band, wearing clean room suits and doing some kind of aerobics to warm up before the set.
Many interesting new people were encountered, though I talked of nothing but couches. I've never had one before - it is a very big decision! Tauba and Brent agreed with my analysis that paying full price for a Knoll is perhaps not a wise choice, when living with teenagers. Or at least, I prefer to believe they did.
Home again I made the decision - it will be a faux Knoll for me! While not the most extravagant of my life choices, this is certainly most bougie.
And I feel no shame.
The neighbourhood continues to delight, not least with shopping options like Casa Mexico. They have chilis, sauces, beans, and TORTILLAS!!
A favourite leisure destination is Hackney City Farm, where I made a new best friend:
I have continued unpacking (with one hand, moving very slowly) and yesterday found my baton. And I still know how to twirl! Though a demonstration will have to wait until I recover from the latest malady.
I also found a Kienow's bag, last seen in Portland circa 1996. Will the archives never end??
On that subject, my entire surviving wardrobe has been restored to me. There isn't much left - the majority of my books and clothes were ruined by flooding when I moved to the United Kingdom - and I am not fond of the remainders.
97% of the dresses will be sent back to storage, deemed "no longer age appropriate." Though that is a fungible category, and I change my mind every few years; the lucky dress is not the only garment that has survived the cull. I'm still wearing shirts I owned in high school. . . and carrying bags I played dress-up with as a child.
Right now my problem is more of an aversion to trendiness. I'll shelve my stuff until the "inspired by Mad Men" fad has passed. Ugh! While I am aware that knowing is interchangeable with following I just can't help it. I feel itchy when I wear clothes I see in magazines.
The other night I took my son to Doctor Who Live, where we queued to queue to queue as vendors worked the crowd.
I gestured at a woman peddling fluffy pink balls of sugar and asked What is it called in our language??
Kid, sighing. Cotton candy, Mom.
When she was about twelve my daughter diagnosed this tendency to misplace common words - including the names of, you know, the children - as nominal aphasia. She blames my history of head trauma (three skull fractures before my eighteenth birthday).
I dispute this claim; if my forgetfulness were truly pathological, someone would have noticed. Right? And I would not have earned a childhood reputation as a spelling bee champ and human thesaurus.
If the (admittedly real) brain damage had smashed the word centres of the little gray cells, surely my days would be less cluttered with cogitation, debate, and dialectic.
Census kinda dude (what do they call that here?) came by today and I was able to proclaim my status as a British citizen for the first time! Then I registered to vote.
Oh, the power!
Except of course I always live in places where my vote is rather incidental. I still cast a ballot in Seattle, for instance, but that city is so progressive (with a sincere and bombastic devotion to retaining military dollars and encouraging assorted sinister industries - oh, hometown! The contradictions!) it hardly matters.
Life in Hackney will, I suspect, be similar in outline. My new place is in the historic heartland of the Nonconformists. It is hard to imagine this neighbourhood ever flipping into a Tory stronghold.
I am thankful every day that I chose England over Germany, but events this week illustrate the reasons in a specific way.
Private health insurance companies, with few exceptions, are able to refuse cover of pre-existing conditions. If, like me, you have a dominant genetic disorder, a secondary cancer diagnosis, and a free-floating auto-immune disorder variously acknowledged or disputed by specialists, it is rather hard to define anything as a "new" symptom.
My skin, jaw, eyes, and endocrine system are all known villains. My reproductive organs are potential turncoats. The medicine I take to stay alive is slowly eroding my bones. The fact that I cannot be exposed to sunlight causes vitamin deficiencies. General metabolic mayhem induces anaemia, insomnia, etc. Treatment has caused a raft of allergies, precluding everything from antibiotics to opiates.
In the states, it was necessary to obfuscate facts to remain covered by insurance, but somehow figure out how to tell enough of the truth to receive adequate care. In Germany, according to both my friends and the brokers I talked to, the same would be true, except I would be hampered by the language barrier.
In my own colloquial universe I know how to wink and nudge a conversation in the correct direction. I forfeited that right by moving to England, and crossing yet another border would have been a colossal mistake.
This month I've managed to thrash my body comprehensively as I shifted boxes around. But if I presented myself to a medical practitioner complaining only of current symptoms, they would not be able to prescribe proper treatment, because they would not understand the complexity of the situation. Yes, I have pulled muscles, a seemingly ordinary injury - but that fact cannot be understood in isolation from the history that haunts my frame.
My GP, for instance, is baffled - and never talks to me for more than thirty seconds before pulling out a pen and scribbling referrals.
Yesterday I consulted an acupuncturist, who displayed shock at the constellation of trouble on display. She asked You have been living with chronic severe pain for 20 years??
It was liberating beyond belief to tell the truth, because I live in a country where there is no penalty for doing so. I will receive correct (if rationed) care here, no matter what I say.
Normally thwarted by capitalism, today my enemies are whimsy and cliche.
I've just spent an unjustifiable amount of time searching for plain, high quality furnishings. I do not want bookshelves shaped like giraffes, coat hooks modelled after antlers. I just want some shelves, and some pegs.
When I had no money at all I thought cash would solve all of my problems. That was, apparently, a category error.
Sweeping through all the boroughs, London Design Guide clutched in one hand acting as map and bible, I have been largely disappointed. I can appreciate the quality of current design. I just don't like most of it.
Though perhaps it is my genetic heritage shining through. No matter how long I search, how far I travel, I always end up at Skandium.
I bought a rotary telephone. Then I used it. To talk to a real live human!
I wish that I could be in Denver to celebrate, because today is especially important in the annals of history. Why? Because seventy years ago, John Aubrey Cook was born in Tennessee.
He would grow up to pursue a lifetime of service. He is a minister, therapist, husband, father, grandfather, friend. He has survived all manner of mishap yet remains serene. He is a truly spectacular person, in the most humble yet extraordinary of ways.
The government is taking away my child benefit? But I never bothered to claim it! Drat. And this is surely just the first of countless other social supports that will be destroyed in coming months.
The longer I remain alive, the more I am aware of structural barriers to success. From the vantage point of 39 years of age, it is obvious that my scummy little urchin self was not meant to accomplish much of anything. I was certainly not meant to smash my way to the other side and start shouting that I was shackled, subverted, sabotaged. What have I ever asked for?
I'll put it in bold to underscore the point:
Access to educational and employment opportunities.
No more, no less.
It is simply not acceptable that wealthy nations retain archaic class structures. We can eliminate poverty. We can create equality. Yet the electorate chooses retrograde Tories, lying Lib-Dems.
The government is going to slash and burn in an epic fashion, not because it is necessary. Oh no. They will do it for ideological reasons, and they are clever enough to spin a semi-convincing story claiming otherwise.
Don't believe the hype. Read history. Examine the facts. Hold your politicians accountable.
Move. Unpack. Repack. Move. Unpack. Repack. Help kid move. Send 50% of stuff back to (more expensive) storage. Entertaining? Not.
My arms are thrashed from all the work, but most of the clutter has been conquered. I have sorted, sifted, allocated, pondered. And, as always, the archives are my enemy.
I suppose I keep it all because my life has been so improbable. Photographs, letters, transcripts, are all that is left to prove facts I'm only halfway convinced are true.
This epic move to the Big City has detracted from the more urgent fact that my kid is leaving home for university.
Dismay! Regret! Poignant moments galore!
She has been camping amidst the boxes in my living room while trying to find a flat. What, you say - shouldn't she have a dorm room? Why no. That would be too civilised. Apparently freshers (many literally fresh from the countryside) should be able to magically conjure accommodation without any assistance or advice from the institution, in the most expensive city on the planet.
Lucky the girl has me, not least my obsessive research skills. I've spent the last few days haunting online advertisements to sort wheat from chaff, or rather, legit from fake, pandering & prostitution from innocence & ineptitude. Difficult does not begin to describe the task.
With a last fervid push of assistance from Byron we finally sorted it out. She has a place fourteen minutes walk away, in a household more reminiscent of The Young Ones than I thought possible in real life.
4, 3, 2, 1, watch out world, Mina is launched!
A review of the former lives dragged out of storage shows that I own a really nice oak desk, a fine pressed wood rocker, a scientific cabinet, an Eames chair, some Wegner couches, and assorted bits both practical and pertinent.
But while these fragments of former lives are a good start, they certainly will not suffice. What will I put my books on? Where will we sit to eat breakfast? My son has no bed!
The problem is, I have never spent more than ten bucks on a piece of furniture. Guess what? That heuristic is rather difficult to sustain in the middle of London, with no car.... Know how much it would cost to replace the industrial desk I bought in Portland for one dollar? £1,500 minimum. If I could find one.
Before I moved here I had a fantasy that I would buy everything I needed in my own neighbourhood, and while that is a factual impossibility I have quite enjoyed meandering around and looking at the shops.
For instance, SCP has turned into a Kiosk popup shop for the design festival thingy. You have to be brave and buzz for entry, but it is worth it to see the Jasper Morrison shop. I needed a broom, and I bought one at Labour and Wait. Unto This Last offer a really neat concept & execution if you like new stuff.
Elemental has some shelves I might buy, though then again, I might not. I would like to purchase stuff from Two Columbia or Ben Southgate, though neither has what I want in stock right now. Arch 389 is intriguing, Speedies great fun. Columbia Road and Broadway Market are cornucopias of food, flowers, trinkets, and wonder.
And of course I adore Cheshire Street; that is a contractual requirement.
Washing windows. Photo courtesy of famillionarity:
For three quarters of my adult life I have earned as much or more than my partner. Going way back to my teens, this included a stake of cash - an emergency fund - consisting originally of blood money from the accident. Thanks to that haunted reserve I was able to cover rent, buy books, stay in school, demonstrate my academic skills, long enough to earn merit scholarships sufficient to pay for my entire education.
My daughter was born in my first year of university, and I went back to school and work six weeks later. It took two and a half years (total) to finish a four year undergraduate degree, because I was too thrifty to linger. In that time I always had a job, sometimes several.
Graduate school followed the same pattern: I held down at least two jobs, usually three, and also nabbed whatever scraps of scholarship or assistantship were available. While, remember, raising a kid with only a patchwork of help from friends and family. While pursuing a divorce from a threatening, recalcitrant, and then vanished spouse. While undergoing nasty, dangerous cancer tests.
I was working a policy job in the Governor's office before I finished grad school, and jetted straight into my preferred career upon graduation. Do you know how many ADA compliance experts were roaming the land in 1994? I was an advance scout of a rare (albeit cranky) breed. Paul Miller assured me that the world was my oyster, if I would only consent to attend cocktail parties.
But that was beyond me, not to mention the ugly clothes required by state service, so I quit and ran away to Portland. Where I became a first-generation web designer. And one of the first people to figure out how to monetize the work.
I picked up freelance and consulting gigs, started writing, moved into publishing, raised my kids, and supported my partner while he was in grad school.
I did not receive government aid, aside from a brief desperate few months of free milk as I recovered from the high risk delivery of my second child. I never applied for housing assistance, health care, disability income support. I did not have a wealthy or even middle class family behind me to help out with infusions of cash. And, critically, I did not fund my life on pure debt.
When I bought a house (and it was my very own demented plan) at age twenty-five I looked at over a hundred properties before selecting a derelict building in a dodgy neighbourhood, because I could afford the mortgage on my scant earnings. Gunshots every night? Drug deals in the garden? Who cares! It was mine and I did not need anyone to help me keep it.
Growing up poor, having cancer as a child, becoming a teen parent, working my way through school, the debacle of my first marriage, all conspired to make me self-sufficient. I had no reason to believe the world benevolent, no reason to trust anyone.
In fact, quite the opposite. If you have noticed gaps in my life, people appearing and disappearing, it is almost always about money. I can tolerate many bizarre extremes of behaviour, but if someone borrows (as opposed to asking for a donation, which is fine) money and fails to pay it back, that is the end of our acquaintance. As a general rule they would not agree, accusing me of all manner of cold-hearted treachery. But from my side of the argument, it comes down to cash. $50, $300, $50,000, it doesn't matter. I keep accounts. I know.
Saying that, I do not ascribe to the bullshit bootstrap ideology of the Lavender clan. I do not agree that anyone should have to work as hard as I did, do not wish my experience upon others. I do not think that people who need help are weak or inferior. Quite the opposite: I wish that some mysterious individual or agency had been there to help in those years when the budget did not stretch far enough to feed four people. I wish that I had been able to choose an education, career, and spouse because I wanted them, not because I needed the health insurance.
I left my homeland in search of a more reasonable society, where sick kids get the medicine they need without worrying about how to pay for breakfast.
One of the most basic tenets of feminist philosophy is the concept that domestic labour should be summed up and acknowledged. That has never been my problem, because I am not especially domestic. My children are feral, my household chaotic. I do not cook or clean or care.
No, my complaint is slightly more advanced: I object to the fact that my work, the jobs I have held, the income received, is subsumed by the very presence of a man. Who kept kith and kin together in the dark years? Who conjured a lavish life on a tiny budget? Who offered up not just practical bureaucratic advice but the visionary frantic energy required to launch this spaceship of a family? Me.
I joke about being a kept woman to my own detriment. This comes from the same contrary urge that made me claim to be retired during the years I was the sole support of my family, the same itch that spurred me to claim I had no career whatsoever when my book was in the front display at Borders. Funny? Maybe. Fun, no.
I find it difficult to ponder communal assets, not because I feel undeserving, but rather because I am aware that anything shared can be taken back again. But I do know that my contributions - either material or oblique - are worthy of payment.
The trick is that a lifetime of striving and deprivation means that when I get what I truly deserve, it feels strange . . . and people talk. From the creepy fans gossiping about my grocery shopping habits in Portland to the more current muttering about European profligacy, it is all the same flavour of pernicious nonsense.
It would be nice to have recognition that any treats I have snatched for myself were earned through sheer bloody persistence, not luck or virtue or by the grace of another. But that is probably the one thing I will never get, because you can't save up and buy it from the store. Civility is a value, not a commodity.