4.30.11 lucky

For those keeping score at home, my visit with the surgeon happened earlier this week.

The first puzzle of the appointment occurred when I asserted that I am allergic, or otherwise opposed, to pain medication.

The doctor seemed quite concerned, and suggested various options as I stared quizzically before halting the debate with the comment "Really, it will be fine. This stuff isn't what i would call 'pain.' I've had worse. It won't bother me."

This kind of statement always makes people uncomfortable, but fine - on to the question of surgical dressings, where, once again, severe allergies complicate otherwise normal proceedings. The surgeon rifled through possibilities and I listened for a bit then asked "But I don't really need them, do I?"

He put down his pen and stared at me. "Ah. Well. there will be a certain amount of. . . seepage."

I shrugged, and said "Listen, I don't know if you have my complete medical files, but I can assure you this delicacy is really not necessary. At the height of the cancer years I would have a couple dozen biopsies in the morning and go straight back to school. No dressing, no pain medication, sometimes not even local anaesthesia. Honest. Skin cancer was, and remains, the least of my troubles."

My variety of full disclosure is rarely favoured by, oh, anyone, and this doctor doesn't know me at all so I continued. "Really. I was never coddled, not for a second. My mother took the position that the genetic disorder would be a fixed feature of my life so I needed to learn to live with it. And by that, she meant live, not convalesce."

For this, of course, I thank my mother every day, whether she knows it or not.

The doctor blinked and replied "Quite sensible, really. Probably the only way to look at it. Though very unusual."

Shrug. What is the alternative? For me, cancer is just an irritating permanent characteristic. Like my cowlick, or the fact that one foot is half a size smaller than the other. On a simple biological level I do not have the option of being anything other than what I am, so there is no point worrying about it.

Though I was referred to plastic surgery specifically because of the bits of nonsense on my face, and I was hoping he would give a brusque all-clear. But no.

Much to my chagrin he verified that I need the biopsies, and if they are positive "it will all have to go" - meaning sections of my lip or chin. Though he, like me, thinks the thing on my lip is benign, and anyway "that will be the least severe scar." My history simply precludes hoping for the best. Heavy sigh.

This was all predictable, if not desirable. The only surprise? Upon examination (my directions included a vague wave toward my back with the comment "there have been a couple hundred where I can't see them") he agreed with the other specialist about two suspicious lesions. And then he found at least four more that fall in the category definitely cancer though we won't say so until the histology report comes back.

I thanked the very nice man for his time, assembled my gear, and walked out through the lobby waving my arms like an orchestra conductor and chanting "Cancer, cancer, cancer, cancer, I'm such a lucky girl."

The patients and visitors in the lobby did not appreciate this display of high spirits.

On the train home I was exhausted and morose and Byron (always so attentive) asked what was wrong.

"Um. I'm riddled with cancer!"

He grabbed my phone and started to snap photographs as he said "So what? You've always been riddled with cancer!"

True. And how awesome is it that I have friends who make me laugh?

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4.25.11 belief

Belief in magical bunnies is a prerequisite for receipt of Easter baskets.

So obviously, everyone in my household believes!

Though I suspect this long tradition is drawing to a close, since the elder child is twenty, the younger fourteen.

No more babies!! No more coloured eggs!! No eager rush to the baskets, no yelping joy at what was contained therein!

Though the offspring did condescend to accompany me to the BFI to see Mr. Horatio Knibbles.

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4.20.11 integrity

One of the most irritating aspects of my grownup life is the fact that I spend a great deal of time with people who care about academic rankings.

This is repugnant to me not because I disagree that it is important to strive for excellence - oh no. My problem with rankings is the fact that they are meaningful in a factory where input = output.

How does that translate to education, where standards can only be reliably applied to basic and largely irrelevant goals like achievement on standardised tests, or the performance of school sports teams?

It is literally impossible to assemble a committee who agree on what 'excellence' means for a host of subjects like literature and history. Both are prone to fads and fashions, but they are also an integral part of a comprehensive education.

You might be able to trick yourself into thinking certain scientific fields can be judged by abstract standards, but real innovative research of any kind certainly cannot. The sciences, like the humanities, are highly creative and as such unwieldy. Look at the history of any major scientific breakthrough (while thanking the trained historians who have collected the stories) and you will note a proliferation of themes of luck, happenstance, and mercy.

And how were most of our famous scientists educated? In a traditional manner nearly impossible to replicate in our corporate and scattered times. Up until about thirty years ago rankings and ratings were an element of judgment, not the engine of policy, and back then the emphasis was on a classical education.

But it is difficult to quantify a classical or liberal arts education: so hopelessly old-fashioned and impractical to teach a broad curriculum, to nurture debate and investigation. Even if that is also irrefutably the foundation of, oh, civilisation as we know it.

It might be easy for a government agency to develop metrics to say this-or-that institution is "better" and even "best" but to compile or interpret that data you must first ascribe to a whole set of beliefs that are simply repugnant. Should a student be judged simply on attendance and numerical output, as opposed to effort or interest? Should a scholar be judged on how many papers he or she has published? Grades and stats are not a verifiably accurate way of judging academic achievement, they are just. . . available. The obvious flaw is the fact that quality and quantity are two different things.

Kind of like honour and honesty.

This is of course a bitter little diatribe, but I'm not a critical outsider; my alma mater was rated the "best" liberal arts college in America when I was there, and the graduate school I attended is currently recognised as a top school for public affairs. Yet we were never subject to grading or testing. So what informed those rankings? The overall reputation of the institution, the career placements of graduates, and our stated satisfaction with the programs.

While I dislike college towns, I am fervently in favour of the kind of education offered by the traditional universities. The danger I see now is that the coalition government, with the new research directives, is harming institutions that have done a pretty good job of looking after their own business. For eight hundred years.

Intellectual integrity should not be on sale to the highest bidder, and should certainly never be prostituted for government funding.

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4.18.11 quality

Headline: South Cambridgeshire tops quality of life survey.

The villages are indeed quite nice. If you like villages. I do not. Nor do I wish to pay London rates to live in a place without public transit, libraries, schools, movie theatres, cafes, stores, or poor people.

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4.16.11 memo

Memo to middle-class middle-aged people who fancy a midafternoon shag on the sidewalk in front of the Old Bailey: DON'T.

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4.15.11 distance

My walks around the city grow ever more ambitious, with jaunts starting at Cafe Oto spooling onward to Abney Park Cemetery, the deer herd at Clissold Park, Blackstock Road, Leather Lane, then a ramble past the bustle of the central neighbourhoods to watch the sunset from Primrose Hill.

How many miles do I cover? I do not know. Though I'm walking on average four or five hours every day - so it must be quite a distance.

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4.14.11 migration

The blogosphere is ablaze with chatter about whether or not Tory immigration policy is racist. The answer is debatable; I believe it is merely xenophobic, but that isn't much comfort to those of us who are actually immigrants, now is it?

When David Cameron evokes words like "discomfort" to describe how he thinks native-born British regard new members of the community it makes me feel, hmm, "unwanted" and perhaps even "sad."

Of course, I think that "feelings" have no place in "policy" as the "government" should focus on "facts" but hey! What do I know! I'm part of the problem.

I am also white, educated, employed, and English is my first language, so I doubt he is talking about me - but it is so hard to make these subtle distinctions. How can a Tory communicate the ideals of isolationism, without alienating people like my family and my friends? The answer is, not easily, and so far not well. He makes a valiant attempt with phrases like "good immigration, not mass immigration" but then loses the plot.

Because who, exactly, are we talking about? Migration from the continent is categorically not part of the conversation, because the UK would have to exit the European Union to control that border. This strategy would be highly unpopular with UK citizens living in Provence or on the Costa del Sol. So, even though migratory workers from former Soviet nations are the main problem if you ask an average Brit down the pub, we can't even talk about it - let alone adjust working standards to accommodate the influx of cheap labour.

Refugees are already restricted and evaluated by high and harsh standards. News reports about children in detention centres makes most people cringe, and on a case by case basis the public, given the choice, would probably accept displaced persons - but the numbers are currently insignificant as (unlike Spain or Italy) rafts of people rarely wash ashore.

Sure, there are violations of student visas and sham marriages, but couldn't the government control that with existing methods? In a word, yes.

So what does that leave? Highly educated employed people pursuing economic opportunities. Who are now facing a hostile and overly complicated set of immigration restrictions that discourage us from making the move.

Racist, maybe, xenophobic, certainly. Stupid? Without a doubt.

The best measure of the utter idiocy of the speech is the fact that the BNP is complaining that the Tories stole their platform.

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4.12.11 truly

Yours truly, Anika, Byron, Marcus at the Tate:

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4.10.11 party

In the midst of the waves of visitors we threw a party, collecting an extremely random assortment of people at Jaguar Shoes for a belated fortieth birthday celebration.

If you were not invited, blame Facebook, or Byron, either way! I wasn't in charge as, although it was partly in my honour, my bad luck with birthdays was felt to preclude direct involvement in the planning.

The whole thing was hilarious, not least because our friends, when offered the opportunity, imposed their own natural social segregation. All the scientists and business people congregated together, all the literary types huddled on the other side of the room, with just a few confused new recruits and Noam attempting to mingle.

It was too loud and intense to do otherwise - Saturday in Shoreditch is a vomitus mad frenzied phenomenon I would normally avoid, preferring the serenity of my clean modern apartment. I routinely decline invitations to events in my own neighbourhood because, um, I need to wash my hair. Or something.

But it was quite nice to watch as the drunken crowd surged around us all night.

Toward the end I was explaining my position on weddings (loathe the symbolism, love the spectacle) when my agent said something indicating that she believes I am "cool."

This halted all philosophising. I protested "But I'm not!"

She shook her head and informed me that I am "beyond cool," and I was flabbergasted.

This exchange weighed on my soul through the rest of the evening, until I rolled the drunks out to the curb and said goodbye to the last stragglers.

On the way home I interrogated my companions about the subject.

Anika said "That surprised me to hear, since you hate cool people."

What a conundrum.

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4.9.11 view

London is a city largely without a view: there are very few hills, fewer tall buildings for the wandering public to ascend, and the river is bereft of commuter traffic.

For a person like me, who grew up on a peninsula between two mountain ranges, hiking up and down steep hills for even the smallest routine chores, using ferry boats as regular transportation, this is rather odd.

When you go walking around this city the main experience is not of vista and distance but instead of surprises - alleys and boulevards making sharp turns toward unexpected delights. True fact: if you are not sure of your route, even St. Paul's Cathedral can sneak up on a person. One moment you are in shadow, looking at store windows and puddles of urine, and the next! Standing in front of the grand facade.

It is possible of course to climb to the top of St. Paul's, the Monument, and a few other old buildings. But unlike Berlin, NYC, Houston, Seattle, there is no easy way to gain access to one of the skyscrapers if you don't work there already. There are no swift elevator rides into the sky.

But earlier this week a consortium of charities arranged extremely limited access to the BT Tower - closed since the early 80's due to risk of terrorism - and I was able to snaffle two tickets.

In order to enter the building you have to provide a passport and endure security controls more intense than certain international border crossings. Then an attended elevator ride whisks you up so fast your ears pop as an odometer on the wall informs of the reckless pace and height of the trip.

What did I see when the doors opened and I walked out, blinking in the sunlight? Xtina, of course. We never make appointments to see each other, rarely discussed our plans even when I lived in her house, mainly because we often end up in the same place at the same time. If I buy tickets for an event, there is literally a fifty percent probability that she has independently purchased a ticket not only for the same time but the same row. She is so mysterious.

It was good that she was there, because she is one of the only friends who can tolerate my disgruntled rants about cancer charities. Not that I disagree with their premise; I was conditioned to expect treats in exchange for trauma and that instinct has served me well. But my major illness happened at a historic moment when no foundation funding was available, so I feel slightly cheated. Where is my goodie bag? To summarise: I have "issues." Xtina just laughed at me and said "Your prize is you get to be alive."

True! I also get to live in London, and on that particular day see the most amazing view, more precious because it is so rare. Xtina and Kevin departed after awhile but Byron and I lingered for hours, staring down at the city, pointing out landmarks to each other.

The miles I walk every day take on a new meaning when viewed from above.

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4.8.11 hypocrisy

The Government has announced a new social mobility strategy.

Nick Clegg, David Cameron and pals have made public statements condemning the "who you know" culture that gives preferential access to educational opportunities and jobs based on social connections. They say that under this government everyone should get a "fair chance."

The initiative is fascinating, not least because Clegg, Cameron, Osborne and associates were all privately and expensively educated. They are, one and all, people who obtained internships and career placements through family connections.

Social mobility is of course a good thing. Though achieving such is incredibly difficult, and comes at a high cost. I survived childhood cancer, worked my way out of poverty, and emigrated to a new country, all to improve my economic status - none of which can be said about the Tory or Lib-Dem leadership. I'm just about the perfect poster child for social mobility, but these politicians don't speak for me or to me.

They don't understand what I gave up when I left my home and family. They don't know the abject despair of poverty, or the piercing uncertainty and pain of immigration.

They don't know what it feels like to go hungry so you can feed your kids. They don't understand that debt is a deterrent to education. They do not grasp that normal people make difficult choices based on rational economic principles and limited budgets.

Why, or how, could they?

One example: last year a close family member committed suicide. I couldn't go home for the funeral, because of UK immigration travel restrictions, and because I was broke. Has Nick Clegg ever had to consider a scenario of that nature? No. If he has encountered trouble of any kind, he has always had plenty of cash to throw at the problem.

I would like the same kind of "fair chance" Nick Clegg enjoyed. Also, David Cameron's dining room furniture.

But if I had depended on family connections to make my way in life I would be working at a gas station in Silverdale, Washington.

Instead, I went to college and grad school and built a precarious new life, without help or assistance from anyone, and the corollary, no respect or acknowledgment. I worked harder than you could imagine to get here, and the reward? I get to watch with amazement as the coalition dismantles the immigration policies that brought me to this country, seemingly without even a vague understanding that they are hurting the exact same business community they seek to improve.

I get to listen to deceitful, sanctimonious speeches about education. While my academically gifted elder child takes out large education loans. And my talented, inquisitive fourteen year old son moulders on a wait list for an entire year because there are no state secondary school places whatsoever in Central London.

The main problem with the coalition is not their policies (they don't seem to be in agreement even amongst themselves). No.

The problem is the smarmy hypocrisy.

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4.6.11 renovations

Construction has commenced on my Portland house.

When I bought the place in 1996 it was boarded and derelict, yard strewn with broken glass and stolen cars.

I pulled the boards off the cracked windows and had the cars towed away, but never made any other gestures toward renovation. We lived without a thermostat until Polly showed up in the middle of the night to install one, without bathroom doors until Donna offered carpentry services, without proper running water in the bath ever.

That particular indecency was only fixed when I moved out and Gabriel and Danielle moved in. They decided to have a homebirth and I agreed that proper bathing facilities were required; unfortunately, the plumber arrived hours after the baby was born.

Eventually they also tired of the squalid kitchen (was it really once a meth lab? Dunno, though there were mysterious burn marks all over the place) and arranged to replace it. During the remaining years of their residency the house also acquired a new furnace but essentially remained almost completely the same as the day I bought it, and therefore untouched by saw or scythe since, oh, 1960.

I sound like the most dreadful slumlord, but the issue is a bit more complicated than you might imagine. For one thing, I do not earn a profit from the house. The rent covers the basic 1996 era mortgage payment, but I pay over that for running repairs, management, taxes, and other charges. I could set the rent much higher, but I intentionally provide a subsidy to the people who live in the property. This is my utopian, idealist contribution to the neighbourhood and community: instead of selling or charging market rates, I rent to artists and musicians with children, who could not otherwise afford to live in a central location.

The neighbourhood has changed from a frightening ghetto into a swanky area frequently featured in the pages of Dwell and similar housing porn publications. Where once drug dealers crawled the curbs, now hipsters haunt boutiques. My house has not kept up with the changes, but that has been a practical and deliberate choice.

Think of this as anti-gentrification. That is what I try to do, when visions of dry rot keep me awake at night.

Beyond the social considerations, it took awhile to find the large sum of cash required to do the repairs. Then once I had enough to make a refinance possible, the mortgage industry faltered.

In the meanwhile Gabriel and Danielle moved out, and a new family moved in, christening it The Harmelodic House. They operated in the fine North Portland punk house tradition, using the basement as practice space, putting on shows in the living room, and I didn't want to disrupt their lives for what eventually became urgent repairs.

But now they have moved on to other adventures, and my beloved neglected house is finally getting the tender attention she has always deserved.

Foundation, porches, insulation, siding, floors, tiles, new custom windows throughout. . . oh, the pain! I can't go back to supervise (therefore breaking a key cardinal rule of sensible renovation) and have to rely on email and photographic accounts of progress.

Marisa is helping keep an eye on everything, and the contractor and his crew are fantastic. Though this is still the sort of thing a normal person would call "stressful."

The exterior has already been stripped away, foundation exposed, rotten porches taken down.

Found so far: newspapers from 1932 as insulation, and a mummified possum.

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4.4.11 tempting

Aside from Anika visitors this week include Marcus (Sweden, France, SF, though you might remember him from Las Vegas escapades if this journal goes back that far), Andrey (encountered most recently in Austin TX but more frequently seen in Saarbrucken), Andreas (stumbled across him in Santa Barbara in January, normally found in various European capital cities), and Mercy Less (Roller Derby, everywhere).

There are scores of people who have just moved here (including Lindsey, Portland, sister of Leslie from Seattle by way of Chicago and Olympia) and an abundant crop of local friends issuing tempting invitations every day. This is just the start of spring - I have houseguests and visitors and events scheduled straight up to the final second before I leave for my summer trip, and a queue of people requesting sublets.

Overwhelming? Why no. In fact, it feels like I pried open a rusty door and stepped back inside my very own life, after seven years of grim exile.

My Portland house functioned as a community centre because I liked it that way. I'm not especially friendly but I love crowds and action and I adore introductions. New, different, and difficult are words I privilege over concepts like comfort and certainty. I want to keep moving all the time, and when I am stuck at home I need that place to bristle with entertainments.

When I moved to Cambridge Don warned that I would not like it. He cautioned me on all the dangers that would prove most lethal, suggested that if I insisted on the course of action I should at least acquire a house suitable for hosting parties.

I listened, and believed him, but what was the alternative? I couldn't afford to live on Portugal Place, and regardless, it was impossible to throw my sort of parties anywhere in that town. Cambridge might have charm in abundance, but as Don said - it wasn't the right place for me.

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4.3.11 life

I have two children. I have two passports. Clearly, I should therefore get two Mother's Days.... right?

My daughter agreed but had to rush away for the weekend, telling her brother it was his turn to take care of the holiday. He however maintains that the prevalence of celebratory days cancel each other out, and thus, I do not deserve any attention at all.

Heavy sigh!

Though with both children boycotting the tomfoolery I did receive more tributes from friends and strangers. Byron took me out for a long walk around Mayfair and short visits to Dover Street Market, Liberty, and similar to choose a present, followed by coffee drinking and bus rides.

Anika (you will remember her from Seattle adventures) turned up late in the day and we wandered around the flower market, then had supper at Saf. Daniel (London by way of SF) joined us for a chat at Jaguar Shoes.

Quite an excellent day, whether or not you agree with the sentimental and specious aspects.

Happy Mothering Sunday, if yer into that kind of thing.

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