In case you were wondering, wearing an outfit normally reserved for parties and performances whilst traveling by taxi, subway, and mercilessly long international flights is not a good plan.
Home again - more about the fabulous trip when the jetlag fades!
Note to self: find and pack pajamas for the trip!
I am very much looking forward to rampant American consumerism to deliver various goods and services that are scant on the ground here in this picturesque city. The top picks are always moisturizer, sunblock, lipstick, and black tights - you know, the basics.
Though recently I was forced to accept the truth: the tights I love have been discontinued. Without warning; I did not have an opportunity to dispatch agents to snap up a lifetime worth of Nordstrom brand opaque hosiery before they disappeared from the shelves. The pairs I brought over, and purchased on various other trips, have been completely shredded by boat maintenance tasks and death-grip bicycle pedals.
I am in mourning and have not found any alternative options that suit. DKNY doesn't cut it. If you can see bruises through the mesh the tights are not by definition opaque.
It is very exciting that the weather is improving here. By the time I get back it will be warm enough to plant a new garden for the boat! Maybe I'll even manage to avoid falling in the river. I can't wait.
Happy birthday to Byron, the best friend a person could hope for!
While making arrangements to meet various people in Portland, I realized that I do not in fact know enough about my own neighborhood to make plans.
Yes, I know where my friends live - but everything else has changed so much I hardly know what to think. Chez What? is gone, I hear, along with assorted other landmarks I could reliably count on. There are coffeeshops and bars and restaurants and record stores where once there were merely boarded storefronts.
The worst by far is the fact that The Jockey Club was torn down to make way for, I don't know, an expansion of the community college or something along those lines.
I wasn't a regular at that bar (or any drinking establishment as I was a pure and innocent youth - do you believe me?) but it was the nearest place to meet people or take visitors. One of my fondest memories from Portland involved sitting in a corner as my friends played Truth or Dare, which ended with the bartender doing a striptease on our table and someone kissing a taxidermied moose.
Of course, I didn't play. That would be telling.
The talented and amazing Marisa Anderson will be performing a set before my reading next week!
March 21, 7pm
The Michele Shocked song Anchorage came out the year I finished high school; at the time I was driving endlessly around Washington state, doing community organizing and resisting the urge to commit suicide. I had a random assortment of tapes in the car and that track was on one of them, though I do not recollect now if it was mine or something abandoned by one of my wounded friends.
A little over a year later I found myself standing next to the commissary on an army base in Alaska, a teenage bride clutching a baby, staring at a moose. That song started playing in my mind, and it struck me quite forcefully that I was supposed to identify with the narrator, not the old friend.
I was an efficient and bureaucratic child: in an attempt to escape my fate, I obtained certificates from the appropriate experts stating that I was not allowed to live in Alaska. When the desired transfer was turned down I had my Senator intervene to bring the young husband home. Military personnel and spouses will appreciate that this is a significant accomplishment, particularly given that I was only nineteen years old at the time.
I grew up in a military town, and I have no bias against the military aside from a fervent belief that our armed forces deserve a pay raise and better benefits. Even though I did not support the then-current Desert Storm offensive, I could have remained a military spouse without significantly challenging any of my core beliefs. I may look like a wildcat radical but essentially I am a populist who believes that appropriately managed government programs are the solution to most common problems.
The feeling I had that day in Anchorage was not truly about Alaska, or the army, or any external factor. What I slowly realized over the course of two years, during which time I only lived with that boy for a few months, was that I was still compromising my own integrity no matter where I lived. I had settled - for someone who only loved me incidentally; for a shockingly meager paycheck; for a life without dreams.
That relationship ended, predictably and brutally, with an argument ostensibly about money that was really about two people realizing that they had squandered their youth.
I am inherently a responsible, practical person, and that has often been my downfall. It would be easy to allow myself to be trapped by the expectations and needs of other people, to sublimate myself to work, family, obligations.
I've spent the last eighteen years resolutely destroying the suicidal girl who stayed alive only because her testimony was required in a product liability suit.
Today I've been reading The Lives of the Muses. My favorite so far is Lou Andreas-Salome, writer and analyst, unattainable tormentor of Nietzsche, lover of Rilke (whose first name she changed to Rainer), colleague of Freud.
I like her story because she did not simply inspire the people who loved her; she also directly influenced their lives, and in fact seems at times more powerful and engaging than the men who remain famous. Alice was just an engaging child who asked Lewis Carroll for a story; Lizzie Siddal was a beautiful junkie who despaired over the Bohemian life she chose.
Give me instead a woman who, long after she ended their affair and took up analysis as a career, advised Rilke against therapy, saying:
While a succesful analysis might free an artist from the devils that beset him, it would also drive away the angels that help him create. A germ-free soul is a sterile soul.
Byron is the handiest research subject in my attempts to figure out this flirting thing, but he isn't a very good specimen as he is such a (notorious) natural. Also, and this is critical, he certainly is not more socially evolved than I am. In fact, though he can exert charm effortlessly, he is often completely clueless about the motivations of other people. He thinks that all banter is just good fun. I have to point out that people are not just being friendly when they invite him up to look at their etchings. He is always surprised to learn that what he thought was innocent flirtatiousness was in fact an explicit offer of sexual favors.
Even when I tell him ahead of time that it will happen.
We have divergent abilities to understand our fellow humans; I may not know how to chit-chat but I have certainly always noticed when someone tried to seduce me.
Perhaps the fact that we are both so obsessed with work is the root cause of our mutual clueless-ness.
I've been reading assorted biographies of dead writers and artists and keep running across the concept of inspiration. I'm not sure that I completely agree that an idea has to come from any old place; things sometimes just happen. But it is true that large swaths of my work take the form of an answer to a question.
The best example: one sunny day in Portland I stood silently on a sidewalk as two people I knew and liked, both bespectacled girls in braids, had a slap fight in the entry to the health food store on Fremont. They were standing on the sensor for the automatic door, and I watched it open and close, open and close, open and close, instead of looking directly at the fight. I could have stopped the altercation, but I elected to stand aside and remain silent. The episode ended when the manager came out and said Excuse me, ladies, can I help you?
When I told that story to Inga she was shocked. Why didn't you do something, she asked? I replied that they were both in my community; I knew one better than the other but I had no part in their feud. It did not seem my place to interfere.
But her question made me think about why my instinct was to observe rather than take action. Thinking about the reasons opened up a flood of unwanted memories.
As a child I witnessed countless altercations. When I grew up I engaged in passionate and violent relationships with beautiful criminals. I know what rage tastes like; I know how to protect myself, and I have never been afraid to attack first.
It would have been easier from any angle to continue to lead a fighting life. I have been conditioned to act out of anger. I love my hometown and, insofar as I was capable of feeling anything after the accident, I loved those boys. But I made a specific and deliberate choice to walk away and create a life that is not contaminated by violence of any kind.
From my perspective, it doesn't matter why people hurt each other. There are always valid perspectives and excuses on both sides. Why did the fight at the health food store start? Who cares? Both of those girls felt that they were right. Besides, it was more than slightly ridiculous to witness some kind of turf war erupting over the bins of organic vegetables.
The fights I've witnessed or conducted were just the same: a strange mixture of bathos and animosity exploding over transgressions that, years later, I do not remember. I rejected violence not because I was weak or scared, but rather because I find it easy and banal.
I responded to Inga's question with a long email that succinctly outlined what would end up, within the week, as the Fighting essays. The fight itself was not inspiring; fights are in fact squalid. But when I had to account for my instinctual reaction I wrote what I feel is the best part of what would later become a memoir about danger.
The other night I watched Bride and Prejudice, and my primary response is that they should have cast someone else as the lead male character. Darcy is supposed to smolder, not annoy.
Also, in the book Lydia ran away and had sex with a nefarious soldier, thus ruining her own life and the prospects of her sisters. In the movie the Lydia character surreptitiously sneaks out to ride the London Eye with a fellow we are to believe is disreputable because he lives on a narrowboat.
This is the second movie I've seen recently that equates life on the water with moral turpitude. The other one was bad enough I forget the name but coincidentally cast Jennifer Ehle (you know, Lizzie) in the role of a woman who lives on a narrowboat. We are notified that she is bad news with the following additional clues: she is a single mother, she has dreadlocks, and she has a tattoo. She has a posh accent and rich parents but insists on living precariously. And, in a movie about the dating habits of a bohemian London crowd, she is the one who has the worst sex life. Until she hooks up with the slutty bad boy character.
Of course historically the people who made lives on the rivers and canals of this country were disparaged. There were even, for a time, laws that restricted children living with their parents on the boats. This is a classic example of the way an autonomous subculture that fulfills a significant, and dirty, public need is depicted by the cultural elite. For other examples see coal miners and migrant farmworkers.
But come on, people. Industry and technology have changed the world. We narrowboaters are not the gypsies of the Philip Pullman books, the immoral wastrels of dumb romantic comedies, nor are we any different than any other neighborhood in this town. Here in Cambridge, and from what I can tell in Oxford and London too, we're a representative mix of retired folk, sporty types who like the outdoors, and professionals from various respectable fields.
That may not be sexy but it is the truth.
My body is too fragile for extremes of weather; in the winter, my fingers are so cold I imagine they might snap off (and I could in fact get frostbite without the required low temperatures other people need for that achievement). The heat and humidity of summer do not bother me, but sunlight does: it is not an affectation that I wear sunglasses even in the dimmest light. My experience of photosensitivity is profound - the world is white and dazzling and painful. If I am not cautious sunshine can trigger a potentially lethal auto-immune disorder. Even if light did not hurt me, the sun would still be a monumental enemy, given my history of skin cancer.
Yes, friends, it is true: I am exquisitely sensitive. I should have been born to an era of fainting couches. But I am a rugged peasant and loathe medical authority so I ignore the injunctions of doctors to stay home and rest.
One of the main features of my life here in England is daily bicycle rides to distant villages: Waterbeach, Fen Ditton, Coton, Grantchester, pedaling as fast as possible through common land.
Spring and autumn are the best seasons for these trips, after the cold and before the tourists swarm the town. I ride to feel my legs moving, feel my heart racing; to be in the countryside and hear the birds sing, and find myself surprised every time by the sight of thatch-roofed cottages and elderly country churches.