Portland exerts a strange sort of magnetic pull, never demanding anything but instead tempting -- with a wealth of humour and charm.
I could only stay a day or two, and that just isn't enough time to catch up with the Chicken House, 19th Street, Lli, Gabriel, whoever is around, the people I miss & love.
This trip was no exception, in fact it was part of the same scattered pattern. But the really brilliant thing about Portland is that the friends there are never judgmental or needy or grasping; they accept that I wander through, and know they can see me elsewhere.
The only real shock of the visit was the fact that Erin Scarum owns a vintage Mercedes. See! If she can do it, so can I. Though admittedly, Erin drives while I'm just a passenger, but really, you can't have everything in this life.
The main purpose of the trip was to stand in the front yard and stare at the freshly painted facade of a beloved bungalow.
It took an entire decade to scrounge up the money to fix my house because the repairs were, in a word, expensive.
When I bought it in 1996, I didn't expect that I would need a budget equivalent to the cost of the mortgage to fix the dry rot. Silly me!
I never knew that it was possible to spend that much money (number redacted in an effort to shield my cheapskate self from the knowledge) over email but hey! It had to happen. Of course I nearly chewed a hole in my lip from the anxiety, but Marisa supervised the project, the contractor was factually awesome, and the result is entirely professional. In fact, completely amazing.
We stripped off one hundred years of rot to install insulation and cladding, fixed the foundation, and commissioned custom sash windows throughout. We had new tile in the bathroom, refinished all the floors, and completed the job with a pristine paint job top to bottom, inside and out: a phenomenal effort to reveal a totally beautiful house under the layers of muck.
I always believed it was true. If only I could live there! But alas, that is not to be. The new tenants are as awesome as the property, and I hope they stay on to enjoy the place for a very long time.
Back in the states on a flying visit to take care of business (for instance, inspecting the massively expensive and stressful renovation I arranged for the Portland house. . . over email).
Jetlagged and bemused, whatever should we do with ourselves?
How about take a tour of everywhere we've ever lived!
The first stop was Olympia, and a hike down to the beach because Byron lived (rough, as we would say in the UK) in the woods for awhile.
I commented that I've never walked in that forest before, and he was baffled. How, why?
I said "I was busy. I went to college to get an education."
That pretty much sums up my experience of Olympia, and youth, and, oh, everything.
We were in Shelton by lunchtime and stopped at the cafe my daughter loved at age four. It hasn't changed at all - except that it was empty. I presume it will be gone before I visit again.
I'm not nostalgic for those years: it was a grim time, with a long commute to work on one side and a longer drive to watch my grandmother die in hospice on the other.
But I do miss the peninsula, and the genius antics of my little girl. I wish that she could have been with us for the tour - but she doesn't even remember Shelton let alone the Pine Tree Restaurant:
The drive across the Key Peninsula to Kitsap County is a dreary display of clear cuts and the occasional unexpected memory: I never remember the bits of my childhood spent in wrecking yards until I am confronted with a visual prompt. Then, from nowhere, the details of tedious long trips, broken metal, and guard dogs flood in. Only to be forgotten again, posthaste.
Since my aunt and cousin committed suicide the family has functionally ended. Shut down. Closed up shop. Yes, the homestead is still there, and is in fact a wrecking yard. There are a few blood kin wandering around. But the family is dead.
This means that I have an opportunity to create something new, and I've decided that the mother of my smallest cousin is officially and forever part of my real and chosen clan. No matter what happens, or how far any of us wander.
Family is what we choose, not what we are given. I can grieve for the junkies and drunks, the brilliant and violent people who share my DNA. But I'm going to hang out with the sweet and kind people who love their babies and take care of all the creatures around them:
Over the course of the week I did manage to see every house we together or separately inhabited, and also a few friends (both old and new). But I missed Susan and her new house, Jenni and her new life, and Kathy who just moved back from NM. Or Kath-E, if you knew us when we ran riot in Tacoma back in 1988.
My lodgings were in a very tall downtown hotel with a view of the bay and ferries. When my son tired of me gesturing and saying "My home! My mountains!" we went outside and wandered around, staring at the old haunts, marvelling at the brash and optimistic city.
I'm not moving back, Seattle. Though I do love you.
Make a Wish and similar charities either did not exist or did not reach my hometown in the year I was diagnosed with two different kinds of cancer and a rare genetic disorder. If they had, I would have asked for something along the lines of a trip to England and a visit to the set of a certain science fiction television program.
But they didn't, so instead, I got a television of my very own. I curled up around the pain and the remote control and watched endless cryptic episodes of Doctor Who, wishing myself away. Anywhere, everywhere, elsewhere.
I was raised to be fierce and fearless, but those traits do not explain much at all. What saved me, what literally kept me alive? My imagination, my curiosity, and a peculiar idea that the universe promised enormous glittering adventures. With an electronic music soundtrack.
There was no encouragement for this aberrant thought, and plenty of proof against. But no matter what happened, no matter how bad it got, I always believed that there was something more out there. Poverty, disease, and despair nearly killed me. But I put my faith and pennies in wishing wells. I put my effort and skills into creating a family, building a community, and speaking out.
Twenty-seven years later I'm still alive, and I still have cancer. But I'm in England. And I get to do whatever I like, whenever I wish.
Including an unlimited supply of mad field trips. Isn't it lucky my kid also likes the show? If I needed an excuse I would say we went for his birthday - but really, we went because we are both huge fans:
If I say "just doing a little thing I like to call. . ."
My loved ones shout in response "PLANNING!"
Well, someone has to do it.
I ordered the turkey several weeks ago (not a November bird in these parts: I have to ask someone to raise and slaughter specially), making a wild guess about how many people might be at my table on a date in the distant future.
This week, although the holiday is still a whole month off, I need to find canned pumpkin. And since all the other displaced Americans in the city will be about the same business, I had better do it right quick!
I really do hope I can find some. Rendering it from scratch is tedious beyond description, and makes my hands crack and bleed.
Fifteen! Can you believe it?
Happy birthday, kid:
I was talking to an old friend about a mutual acquaintance who stopped talking to me about ten years ago. She asked what happened between us, and I shrugged. "I don't know," I said. "I didn't do anything, so I can't comment."
There was a disbelieving double take. "You don't know what happened?"
"I was't around, I wasn't there. I was literally not in the country."
More probing, more shrugging. I said "I didn't steal her money, kick her dog, or fuck her boyfriend. Though I could have, I resisted. Therefore, I did nothing wrong."
My friend paused with her hand over the restaurant bill. This summary of my Rules for Life was apparently surprising, though it should not have been. I am exactly as advertised. There are no hidden depths.
The end of the friendship in question had a dramatic impact on my life, because that particular friend demanded fealty from other people, told them to choose between us. Whereas I would never do anything of the kind; I value loyalty, but I do not demand it.
When I throw parties, everyone is invited, perpetually and without prejudice.
Rumours trickled back that my crime was not a specific action, but rather, lack of devotion. I wasn't sufficiently supportive. I did not meet unspecified standards, and to this day I do not know what they were.
I could make counter allegations but I don't see the point. Ten years ago I needed help. But I never asked for assistance, never revealed my vulnerabilities. I just did my absolute best to lead an ethical life.
That is all I had to offer, and all I expected in return.
I am the dependable and consistent friend who turns up at the hospital, offers rides to bail hearings, slogs through the endless tedium of trauma, and comes out on the other side without any resentment or regret. I am good in a crisis.
But I am admittedly awful at all the sensitive and subtle parts of life. I am impatient and irritable when forced to make small talk. I do not care about petty concerns, do not want to know about rivalries, do not listen to complaints. I will probably put my fingers in my ears and hum if someone decides to talk about their relationship. But if the relationship falls apart? I'm the one who keeps showing up, when life gets difficult.
Even if I wanted to feel or act differently, the reality is that I can't change. Why? Because I don't have time. My eccentric children and unwieldy career take up all the slack in my schedule. I've made a conscious commitment to a challenging partner, and we both travel incessantly in service to work and family obligations. I live with chronic pain and the management of complicated medical problems. My extended family members have a habit of committing suicide, with all the attendant chaos that implies. I'm busy.
I'm not claiming moral superiority. I am just saying I know my limitations and understand my inadequacies. I'm quick to apologise when I do something wrong, and slow to abandon a hopeless cause. I'm also forty years old.
I have my priorities sorted and my methods have taken me where I need to be. Yes, I've lost a lot along the way - not least people I love and genuinely miss. But I would not be alive if I had remained in those places with those people. My life from birth until age thirty was intolerable; if I had been paying attention to the details I would have succumbed to the family tradition of annihilation. This claim is not an exaggeration.
The fact that people keep asking about this one fractured relationship is strange. I reckon it is also evidence of hope, and love. For and from that community, directed at both of us. I certainly wish her well, and hope that she has found what she needed. If she wants to know me again, she has my address.
It has been a year since I sold my boat, bought a flat, and moved to London.
Do I miss life on the river, or anything at all about Cambridge? In a word: no.
The friends I made in that town were transient, or will stay in touch, and there isn't anything else to lament. I was never much of a boater, because I was hardly ever there - I hated the town so much I took every opportunity to travel, staying on the road more than half of the year, and when I couldn't leave the country I would dash away to London and burrow in borrowed accommodations pondering my next move - and isn't it lucky I said no to Berlin?
This first year after relocating to London has largely been about restoration: gathering up the fragments of my life shattered by immigration and putting them in order, not least in the domestic environs.
My son has grown progressively concerned that I am becoming bourgeoisie, but when my daughter drops in she looks around at the tidy bookshelves and carefully arranged furniture, sighs, and says "No. She is just unleashing the OCD."
True. While I am capable of making wild leaps from one place to another, most of my habits have followed me from infancy to age forty.
No matter where I live, I still have an unhealthy tendency to rub my eyebrows, tap my broken collarbone, assassinate dust bunnies, and keep my shit organised. And, so long as nobody touches my desk, all is well.
The rules I live by are proscriptive and precise. I require ownership of a home that costs no more than 25% of annual combined income to run. I do not cook or clean - except when I wish to do so. I need access to medicine, but I do not like to spend any time at all with doctors. In matters romantic, I don't care, but I don't share. My children are my responsibility and their own property. Lately the universe is complying with these rules, and I am happy. Surprised? Me too.
Except for one thing: I want a car.
The desire for an automobile feels like bicarbonate of soda has been dropped on my brain.
I am, to be completely honest, obsessed.
But the ride of my dreams is a Volvo 240 (not manufactured since the early 1990's but still superstitiously "safe" in my imagination), and research has revealed it to be an impractical choice here in the UK. The car wasn't popular in England originally because it doesn't really accelerate, a feature I love, but regardless: there aren't enough around to warrant even searching.
I've been forced - forced! - to choose another model. Looking around, the only thing that really calls out is. . . Mercedes embassy cars.
Can't you see it? It would be so excellent to lounge around in the back of a bullet proof extra long vehicle, leaning forward occasionally to tap on the glass and insist the chauffeur oh-I-mean-Byron hurry it on up.
Several people have been disturbed by my earlier comments about method, writing, and fame. My daughter has in fact threatened to steal my notebooks - so I suppose I should clarify.
Yes, I was committing that foul crime of being punker-than-thou. If I call others out on the tendency, I have to admit my own transgressions. Hands up: I believe that you don't need to fuck other people over to stay alive. But the vessel for that message - the way in which I communicate with the larger world and earn a living - is the publishing industry.
I harbour deep suspicions of the industry because it is an industry. My experiences to date have confirmed this, though if you are an aspiring writer you should turn your eyes away now.
I've been writing zines since 1983, designing web sites since 1994, and publishing my work in traditional media since 1997. I've done it all: cult, underground, mainstream, popular, feminist, punk, books, newspapers, magazines, whatever, whenever. While I've gained the highest enjoyment from trading handmade anonymous zines by mail, I probably learned more from having my books sold through a major supermarket chain. Either way, the point was just to get the stuff out there.
Lately there has been a bubbling debate about which forum is "better" or "more important" but I can assure you each is equally frustrating, for different reasons. Zines were more fun for me before zinesters started to codify the experience, build resource centres, and start library collections. Teaching classes and offering accreditation in what started as an underground revolutionary DIY movement is antithetical to the reasons I started writing. While I still have a strong affinity with the independent publishing world, that doesn't mean I will ignore that it has sometimes been co-opted by corporations and institutions.
Traditional media has never been any fun at all, though in the past it was at least lucrative. But in the last ten years the money has ebbed away, making it hard to understand why people think it is somehow an honour to contribute. If the pay isn't there, what is the point? They're using our indie cred to burnish faltering reputations, and because we're cheap. We go along with it because. . . uh . . . I don't know why.
My dear friend Iain listens to my complaints about the utter gall of people who ask me to (for example) donate work to publications owned by AOL. He just laughs and points out that my perspective is very working class. Rich people don't mind: they don't need the money, so they don't object. Upper class kids see every encounter as potential for networking. They aren't worried about paying the mortgage.
The vast majority of people in the world work to stay alive. Some people are lucky enough to work because they like the job. A very small fraction work because they love their work, and I fall in that category. But within the rarefied confines of academia and the creative industries, only the tiniest sliver of a percentage of people come from an impoverished background. Those of us who fought our way out of a real ghetto are more inclined to see our success as another kind of ghetto. We are, I can assure you, the most annoying creatures.
The fact is that publishing, like any other business, is a business. Even if a particular company is prettied up with bells and buttons and right-on slogans, they are still trying to make money in a brutally competitive marketplace. If you want to be a "successful" writer there are defined ways in which you must work, and by which you will be judged.
I do engage with the industry, I just don't trust anyone involved on the business side. The other writers I know are much the same, though many will lie to your face and claim otherwise. We're writers, after all. Our trade is based on manipulation of fact and creation of fantasy.
But back to the fundamental question: basically, I work because I can't stop, because it is what I do. My method is ascetic: self-denial and self-mortification are part and parcel of the process. While this tendency is fundamentally at odds with the hedonism and decadence of my private life, it is true.
Recently my agent had a birthday party. I gave her an architectural stamp set and a card with a photograph of a manuscript: my latest work in progress, fifty thousand words in a particular literary form.
She sighed in exasperation, because there is only about a ten percent chance that she will ever read the book. While I have achieved a reputation as the laziest writer in her charge, it isn't actually true. I do produce work, every day. Then I throw it away.
Why? Well, why not?
I write because I am a writer. Writers write. This is an inherent issue of identity, entirely separate from the pragmatic reality of the publishing industry. There are only two realistic reasons to publish: to earn money, or be famous. Last year I earned a living sufficient for my esoteric purposes, so that leaves the pursuit of fame.
My thoughts on fame are not at all complicated: I believe celebrity is degrading and demoralising in a literal sense - fame strips people not just of privacy but also of propriety. I would not do anything whatsoever to improve my public profile, and I say that out of both conviction and experience.
I've been interviewed, reviewed, profiled, appeared in so many publications I can't keep track of my own clippings file. I have also refused to appear on major national television and radio programs, and in every single print publication that violates my sense of autonomy, no matter how prominent. Every time I get a press request, I make a conscientious effort to determine if there is a "good" reason to say yes. Mostly, I say no.
This is largely about my family - I learned the hard way not to allow my home or children to be photographed. I would never participate in a reality show of any kind, for any reason. My body, my children, and my opinions are not on offer to the highest bidder. Plenty of people disagree with this metric, and I have no opinion about their actions. I only know what is right for myself and my family. Compromising for even a single minute would be abhorrent. Even if doing so would fulfil childhood revenge fantasies.
To state this in a different way: I have turned down more opportunities than most people could even dream of.
There are many valid reasons to cultivate a career, not least simple survival. But after you have figured out a way to make a living, after you possess the respect of your peers, what is the motivation for more? I like the perks as well as anyone: free drinks, free trips, hotel upgrades, trinkets and swag are admittedly awesome. But being recognised in restaurants is creepy, not gratifying.
I'm reasonably content with what I have achieved, and am fully aware of how I could do more. The question is, at what cost? Giving up control of your own image, at the very least. Beyond that even minor fame generates waves of jealousy and resentment from colleagues and loved ones. If you want to be really famous, you have to be prepared to sacrifice not just a private life but also simple morality. Life is different on the other side.
I've had a taste of it, and I'm not interested in the full menu. This is a matter of principle, but I am not alone in the belief. I know plenty of actors, artists, musicians, scientists, and writers who pursue their craft for the simple joy or the cursed obsession inherent in the trade. They have varying levels of public recognition, and rarely pay attention to such matters. Some are famous, some are obscure, but they don't care because that isn't why they are doing the work.
I also know plenty of actors, artists, musicians, scientists, and writers who place the desire for fame ahead of any other factor. They are willing to do anything to be recognised: lie, steal, cheat, take credit for the work of others, whatever it takes. These people consider fame the most important and only valid measure of success.
It would be satisfying to think that the principled craftsmen win in the end, but generally, we do not, or at least not in our lifetime. Could we do anything differently? I know that I can't. I am sometimes careless, but never mercenary. I am literally not capable of selling out in the classic sense, because no amount of money or attention is worth it. I won't do shit work just to see my name in print. I won't claim credit for work I didn't do to make myself seem more important. If hurting other people on purpose is a requirement to get ahead in this career, I quit.
The other day my daughter mentioned to a university classmate that she was homeschooled, and the other student recoiled in shock and disgust.
My kid said "What? You are acting like I was raised by the Klu Klux Klan. I wasn't. Homeschooling is simply another form of education."
I would have said superior but really, the proof is in the pudding: this strange kitten I raised would appear to have all the required life skills, contrary to predictions of those who disagree with or discount unschooling. Not least the fact that she was accepted to a prestigious university. Where her performance generally exceeds that of her traditionally trained colleagues.
The early years were not easy, nor would I make the same choices if we had better options or more money. But this is what I had: a very bright, clinically hyperactive child, in a bankrupt school system. I worked within the existing framework where I could, swapping her in and out of enrichment programs, running parent associations, helping start charter schools. But none of the free or public options worked for my child, not least because her driving inherent commitment to justice is disruptive to petty tyrants and third grade teachers.
Homeschooling didn't really 'work' either, but at least she survived childhood with her natural exuberance intact. As she pointed out to her colleague "I just went roller skating. A lot."
This is fundamentally true, and a good summary of my educational philosophy. When pressed for details about her curriculum my daughter just shrugs and says that growing up with me is like being enrolled in a perpetual debating society. I apply the Socratic method to life in general; every meal is a seminar.
I dropped out of school at fourteen, had two kinds of cancer and a baby in my teens, but finished graduate school at twenty-two. I am married to a world class research scientist who cannot do arithmetic or algebra; he has a PhD but never finished junior high.
We were both reckless, rackety students, and it didn't matter at all. Or rather, we couldn't have done it any other way -- we didn't fit in, and we couldn't change. Our children are much like us, and so far. . . it doesn't matter.
The only thing that actually does matter? Belief. We imagined we could do it, no matter how often other people said no. And critically, we met the occasional trickster or helper who was willing to tell a crazy poor kid that they could change the world.
I'm not saying that education is important or necessary. In fact, I think that formal education is toxic unless or until people want to be there. Too many students are passive consumers, instead of active scholars.
But at the same time I think that there are many people with cracked brains and eccentric ideas who would excel in academia, if they had the chance. My daughter is one of those people and it has been an overwhelming lifelong struggle to help her get there. The baby who talked in full sentences, the toddler who could memorise and recite monologues, the child who had such severe behavioural 'challenges' she attended school for no more than two years, total? That kid is happier and more productive in her competitive university than any of the docile youth who knew how to sit still.
Whether or not she remains in academia is irrelevant; whatever career she chooses, whichever life she pursues, her education has served her well. She has an investigative mind and enough confidence to take her wherever she wishes.
If I ran the world, my very first policy change would be this: I would tell all the weird kids YES. Believe to achieve, fake it til you make it. There might be a lot of compromise and lashings of heartache, but what is the alternative? Despair? Death? Watching television? Follow your dreams where they lead, and if you want to do it, go to school.
Here are some tips I compiled for my offspring and occasionally force on friends:
1. If you are a weird kid, go to a weird school.