I've just been informed that my presence is required at a black tie function at King's College.
My agent also tells me that there are fancy dress literary parties in my near future.
Clearly, this means that I will have to fly to the states to buy a new dress. West coast friends: I'll be back in November. The specific itinerary has yet to be determined, though I'll definitely be at the Rosyvelt cd release party.
This morning I attended a harvest festival celebration in the Jesus College chapel. Staring about in bemusement, it struck me again that I live in Cambridge.
This place is literally as far away from my rural working class provenance as it is possible to get, without learning another language.
I ditched my culture and country on a whim; the results could have been disastrous. The fact that I like the place is rather peculiar.
It is conker season!
Over the course of the summer I claimed that I was not working. Or rather, I believed that I did not accomplish anything, despite the fact that I finished several interviews, published an essay, continued to whittle away at two or three secret projects, and mostly stayed on top of all the technical site work. Even while hanging out with friends I was deeply immersed in research; my notebooks are full of observations and character sketches.
The problem is that my work is only tangentially related to producing anything real and concrete. For the most part, I think. The value of any particular thought process is impossible to evaluate; it is not possible to know in advance which fleeting impression will be useful, let alone what will be published.
If I am sitting in my pajamas eating cinnamon jelly beans and obsessively checking social networking sites, an observer might think that I am not working. But perhaps I am considering adjustments to the sites I run. Or I could be doing research for a story. Or I might be corresponding with far-flung friends and collaborators, which is necessary to maintain my sanity and productivity. I wouldn't be able to categorize the experience if pressed. I'm not even sure that writing this sentence constitutes work, though it would appear to fall in that category.
Last week I was pondering a piece about drag racing in the rural Pacific Northwest. To facilitate the process I retreated to London, where I elected not to socialize with any of my friends. Instead I visited the British Dental Museum. I spent most of one day at the Hunterian. I also went to the Tate Modern to see an installation of work by Pierre Huyghe. Along the way I read several newspapers, two gossip magazines, started Gilead, and contemplated an essay about the nature of storytelling by Michael Frayn.
Did these excursions relate in any way to the topic I was writing about? Yes and no. While a pilgrimage to stand in front of Caroline Crachami's tiny skeleton might seem a waste of time, I am concerned with the question of who owns a story - the participant, the author, or the audience? Dr. Hunter's curiosity cabinet, while fascinating, contains many specimens collected by dubious means. Charles Byrne did not want to be displayed, yet here he is, a giant rendered and left to languish behind glass. Or what of poor Mr. Jefs, plucked from his grave?
I went to the Tate somewhat haphazardly, without knowing anything about the artist or his work. The first object in the Huyghe exhibition is a huge neon sign proclaiming I do not own Tate Modern or the Death Star.
The objects and films in the gallery proposed questions about place and possession that reflected all the points I was considering while assembling an essay about riding in fast cars. The Frayn essay offered observations about memory and subjectivity that were directly pertinent to my ethical quandaries in writing nonfiction. The Robinson novel contained the sentence It seems to me some people just go around looking to get their faith unsettled.
Wandering through a city visiting museums, sitting in pubs taking notes, exchanging text messages and email with friends, even staring vacantly at rivers are all integral to whatever final product I create. The fact that it doesn't seem like work probably has more to do with my class antecedents than any true value of the experience. I am paid to do this, after all.
I read her book from beginning to end and wanted to get a pen out and cross out everything that was not true.
Read more about another discredited book.
The puzzling thing is that the publisher, as has happened with similar cases, claims to have vetted and verified the material. Perhaps my experience is unusual, but three publishing houses in three countries have handled Taxidermy without ever once inquiring about the accuracy of the content. Five or six others have published excerpts.
My stories are of course true, except the name changes and the omission of a few identifying details that would distress family members. I can even prove it, since so much of my life has been conducted in hospitals and courtrooms. There are medical records, testimony transcripts, photographs of my lacerated body, and of course, visible scars.
But critically, the editors have not asked.
When I repudiated January and my birthday I gave myself an alternate day - September 9 - to commemorate buying the boat.
Boat Day was quite splendid the first two years. It is a genius time to go cruising up the river - cold, calm, easy to navigate, with migrating birds everywhere.
Unfortunately, I forgot to celebrate my own fake birthday last week.
And, as today is the sixteenth anniversary of my idiotic teenage marriage, it seems like a bad time to wedge in any kind of compensatory partying.
I've been away in London working (more on that later). At some point I also went out with the East London Massive.
While it is true that I know a lot of wild people, I can say without any amount of exaggeration that the scientists are the maddest. They go drunkenly leaping over bollards in heavy traffic, tackle each other on staircases over canals, break their fingers tumbling down steep hills, all the while conducting raging debates about esoteric concepts.
When I made a decision to stop hanging around murderers and thieves I thought my life would calm down. I was wrong - the scientists are often not even tethered to reality. As Tarski said You will not find in semantics any remedy for decayed teeth or illusions of grandeur or class conflict.
Today I was supposed to go to London. I was packed and had my finger on the speed dial to get a taxi when I noticed the date and dissolved in the worst panic attack I've had in recent memory.
What to do when irrational fear takes over your life? Book tickets to Venice, apparently. I ran away to Rome with Gabriel when the actual events unfolded all those years ago. Italy offers the consolation of history, at the very least. All I want to do right now is stare at Caravaggio canvasses in dim churches.
I've been spending a great deal of time in the borrowed flat, which has caused me to fall madly in love with London. Though note to self - apartment life does necessitate awareness of nudity. The neighbors notice if you wander through the kitchen naked at breakfast-time.
I never cry over anything that happens in my own life, but I leave these exhibits streaming tears.
The aspect of Cambridge life I missed the most over the summer was my daily bicycle rides. Walking up and down Denny in the middle of the night does not at all compare to the wild pleasure of riding fast along the river through bucolic pastures and common lands.
This week I have ridden to Fen Ditton, Waterbeach, and Grantchester. The weather is turning to autumn - cool and bright - and I feel like the luckiest person in the world.
I finally opened my mail. The oncologist has issued orders that I undergo cancer tests four times per year (as opposed to stateside schedule of annually, or never, depending on the insurance plan). This means that my immediate risk of developing a particularly lethal cancer is higher than had been presumed. How high? I'm guessing between thirty and sixty percent based on factors like the genetic disorder and adolescent exposure to radiation.
Golly! I feel vindicated in my hunch that I needed to push for the referral, though also mildly annoyed that I will have to structure my future travels around testing. It was way more fun to pretend that I will never get sick again.
When I had dinner with Ana in San Francisco (this would be the Ana from the KTS wedding, not the Ana in Barcelona) she was busily organizing her next project: an erotic novella with a Christmas theme. When she innocently asked Where in the country do they cut down trees? it was clearly obvious that she needed to see where I grew up. Although we only just barely knew each other I immediately started to woo her with promises of clear cuts and Kristmastown, USA. The Charm Offensive is mighty and powerful; she tried to resist but finally relented and flew up for the last week of the trip.
Ana wanted to find a lumberjack to learn about the woods, and a bad boy for character study and personal amusement. The credentials to qualify as a lumberjack were vague, but her Bad Boy criteria were specific: tall, tough, tattooed (preferably including neck), smart, and emotionally unavailable.
It was perhaps not entirely practical to search for a lumberjack in the bars of Capitol Hill, but a girl has to make do with the available resources -- and I figured we could find a bad boy without too much effort. Everywhere we went, people wanted Ana's number, and more than one stranger immediately asked if they could visit her in SF. Bartenders served her endless free drinks, and since Ana doesn't drink and I don't touch hard alcohol (no, I won't tell you why) we often forced Byron to, as they say, take it for the team.
During the day we trekked all over Seattle and Tacoma making new friends and haphazardly researching the history of logging. I showed her the original encampment at Alki, and the true Skid Row, and we picked blackberries at Camp 6 on Point Defiance. Each excursion was fantastically amusing; though after a few days immersed in my highly efficient antics Ana did think to inquire Have I joined a cult?
At night we scoured all of my normal haunts with no success, until a last minute flash of inspiration took us to Kincora, where whole tables of bad boys turned to stare at us as we walked in. I found this fellow from the peninsula named BP and he admitted quite reluctantly that he used to have a wood business. I had forgotten that hanging out with smut writers cranks up the innuendo (and adventure) ratio. Ana gained valuable insight on the technical aspects of logging, but more importantly, the culture of my hometown. BP looks and sounds just like my cousins and may well be one; in the middle of his anecdote about hurling flaming axes I interrupted and asked him to verify that people used to nail live kittens to trees. He shrugged in agreement, much to the horror of those who grew up in civilization.
Ana and Byron and I, with the occasional disapproving assistance of Jeff, rapidly developed a code of conduct to prevent what Ana called cock blocking. The boys were often parked with friends while we girls trekked from restaurant to bar to after party, interrogating potential candidates about their backgrounds in the forest and their relative badness. Whenever Ana had a line on a good research subject I melted away to spend quality time with my scintillating new friend Mark at the Bus Stop, officially my favorite bar in the whole world.
The intensity of the search leached into every aspect of our week, turning even the smallest and most routine outing into an adventure. One afternoon at a cafe we were plotting our next excursion. I was trying to implement some level of organization on a chaotic plan when I noticed that a barista in short shorts was cleaning the counter next to us - over and over again - and shimmying to a theremin version of Loving You by Minnie Ripperton. The performance certainly wasn't intended for me, though I could not tell which of my companions she was going to hit on. I left for a moment and when I came back she was practically giving Byron a lap dance; this is what happens when you spend your free time with notorious flirts.
There has been much debate over whether or not people flirt with me, and my relative ability to reciprocate. I explained the hypothesis to Ana and she brushed it off with a brusque People are flirting with you. Pay attention! So I did, checking with Ana for expert advice along the way. In the course of one week I recognized two pickup attempts, and at least four people overtly flirting (and that is a conservative count verified by Ana; the number of presumed but unproven is higher).
I found this quite puzzling. I have approximately the same clothes, hair, spectacles, lipstick; nothing about my appearance has changed, but people are interacting with me in a substantially different way. Various friends suggest that the flirting has always happened and that I just failed to notice. Historically this is perhaps true, in limited circumstances, when I already knew and loved the person. I've certainly never lacked friends, suitors, or conquests, even when I wanted to be alone. But something in my manner has changed in the last year. I am more tolerant of ambiguity, and willing to talk to strangers. Do I know how to flirt? According to impartial witnesses, yes. Do I practice the skill? Rarely - and judiciously. To summarize: this year I have become almost friendly.
One night we went to see Laura dj at the Crescent, a bar I had never been to previously. We arrived late, after the crowd was uniformly wasted, and my ass was grabbed by strangers more times than.... well, ever; strangers have never previously dared touch me. At some point a drunk girl grabbed my arms and tried to make me dance. I protested that I don't know how but she started shoving me around and grinding, and when I failed to have rhythm she took offense. I had to kiss her and gently shove her off on other partners.
Just before closing Byron and Jeff took the floor to sing a duet of the Roberta Flack song Feel Like Making Love:
Jeff threw a dinner party in our honor and a whole crowd of people turned up. I was, of course, delighted to see old acquaintances and make so many new friends. Xin and Niki both emailed that they couldn't make it, and of course many of the Bus Stop bartenders were working, but Shannon, Ramona, Matt, David, Jessie, Sarah, Darlene, Sheila, Julia, Lynnette, Joey, Holly, Zoe, Kristi, Laura, the Sexy Mailman, and very tall Mark all turned out, along with others I've forgotten or did not get a chance to talk to.
I was particularly pleased by the opportunity to hang out with Ade; there are very few people in the world who can laugh at my wicked stories (the ones I will never publish), fewer still who have stories to offer in return. We talked and talked and the party pulsed and the guests consumed astonishing quantities of alcohol. Ana went to bed long before the guests left as there were neither lumberjacks nor bad boys present; Byron locked himself in his room at two in the morning; and Jeff kept pouring champagne into my cup until my brain went fuzzy. The raucous antics upset the upstairs neighbors, who tried to intimidate us by filming the scene, until Holly screamed Do you want to see my pussy? at the camera.
It was easy to get caught up in the socializing and neglect the reason for her visit - but I was determined to take Ana to the peninsula:
Along the way we stopped at a chainsaw carving school:
The main destination was Shelton, where nothing has changed since I moved away eleven years ago:
The place still has a functioning mill:
And is officially Kristmastown - a perfect setting for lumberjack erotica!
We also saw actual wildlife: a fox, a seal, and a deer!
Somewhere out in the countryside we stopped at a Chevron, and when I went in to inspect the restroom (gas stations represent my true cultural heritage) Ana finally found a real lumberjack! Or at least, someone who hauls logs. Her approach was simple - she walked over and said I like your truck. By the time I was done tsking at the overflowing waste baskets and lamenting the lack of gritty pink soap she had acquired extensive insider information from her logger; I came out just in time to take their picture.
With one mission accomplished we returned to the wild decadence of our city search. Ana dressed in a dashing little sailor suit, pointed to her nautical theme necklace, and said Tonight I'm going to hook me a man!
I introduced her to countless suitable people but somehow none of the boys matched her exacting standards. On the final night we had nearly given up hope; standing in front of the Bus Stop at midnight, I explained the problem to Zack and Greg. Both fit most of the profile - tall, tough, tattooed, intelligent, and, as the kids say, hott. But evidently they were too sincere; like me, they can be menacing when appropriate but wear their hearts on their sleeves:
The three of us stood on the sidewalk watching with various levels of amazement as Ana swept through the Cha-Cha, selecting and rejecting with ruthless force. When she made her final choice and zipped past us on the way to see a show at the Comet Greg asked Do you think she knows she is going out with a drug dealer? I just shrugged; we agreed that we did not understand the ways of Ana, though the whole thing was excessively amusing.
For the most part the Seattle trip was extremely good; there were visits with family, meetings with colleagues, parties with sketchy hipsters, and a dinner cruise featuring several hundred computer scientists. One of my favorite people in that crowd asked in amazement Whatever are you doing on the Ship of Geeks? But I would never turn down a chance to go on a boat ride.
However, the trend of meeting people from the past continued; the most amusing happened when we ran into someone Byron once had a fling with, and learned that she was working two doors down from the apartment I was staying in.
The coincidence meant that we had to be friends, and she very kindly offered to be my surrogate mother for a shopping excursion; she picked out my new lipstick and then insisted that I try on dresses and show her each one. I've never had such a ladylike afternoon, nor have I ever found three new dresses that I liked and could justify purchasing. Left to my own devices I never spend money on myself, and I left the tags on for a week - but all three eventually made it into my suitcase. I will presume the person who took this picture wanted to get a good shot of one of the dresses:
I didn't run into anyone I recognized but nearly every night I met someone else who grew up on the peninsula. Conversations went something like this:
Stranger: Do you remember that time when those kids were murdered, except the one who just got an extra smile carved into his face?
Me: Yeah, my dad cleaned up the blood splattered restroom where he went to wash afterward. The sheriff took away the towel dispenser as evidence and still hasn't returned it - my folks are still irritated twenty-five years down the line.
After Hometown Connection Number Eleven I was convinced that I would run into someone I've dated, and that they would foolishly try to speak to me. I prepared to blithely introduce them around - This is X, that sociopath I've mentioned - we haven't talked in sixteen years! Or Oh, this is Y, my serial rapist ex. Don't think you've met?
But my strange luck held out - the people I met remained familiar strangers, the final one spotted at 2 AM at the Jade Pagoda (RIP). I nodded a hello, left a big red lipstick print on Jeff's cheek, and headed back to the apartment to finish packing.
I was only back in town for about ten minutes before I ran across just about everyone I know - this is in fact a very small town.
So small, cows sometimes control traffic:
Iain and Xtina went on holiday and very kindly offered to lend their flat. London is irresistible even if I have not yet unpacked, let alone recovered from jetlag. And, of course, I enjoy living out of suitcases.
The first night in the big city my talented and amazing agent took me out to a cabaret. Between the music acts and burlesque she leaned over and asked So, did you get a lot of work done during the trip?
I looked away and mumbled Um, I did some... research....
Byron laughed and interjected Yeah, she researched snogging! That is commendable use of British slang; but since I did not need to leave town to be hedonistic it might be more accurate to say that I was skiving. (Translation: Noun. Neglecting one's duties or work.)
Six weeks of decadence has drained my ability to protest an essential innocence; I just smiled and pressed a hand to a weary brow.
It is time to get back to work.