31 December 2009

Curse You, Red Baron!

It appears I have lost my mobile. And before you say, "AGAIN?", let me remind you that last time I didn't lose it; it was stolen. Also, let me say that this time the whole thing is mysterious. I had the phone in my pocket as I walked down the street at 7pm, and the next time I checked for it (two days later), it had vanished. And I wasn't pick-pocketed. My hypothesis is that it fell out on the train; my hope is that it's somewhere in the house and will yet be found; my determination is that the phone I buy to replace it will be cheap. In fact, I've just spent half an hour looking at replacement phones, in the process of which I discovered that Vodafone, who are The Devil, are a cheaper devil than my other options. Unfortunately, if you realise you've lost your phone at 5pm American time on New Year's Eve, which falls on a Thursday, you can't do anything about it until January 2, so there seems to be no way to arrange to have a phone waiting for me when I return. Although I think I will be able to set everything up so I can go
out and buy the phone when I arrive in WhereIlive, then just ring them and have it all taken care of.

But this is not what I wanted to write of. I realised after I wrote this morning that I forgot to describe my travel odyssey. Although it wasn't really an odyssey - more of an exercise in stasis.

Everything was fine until I hit Toronto International Airport. I even got to catch up on my film watching by seeing District 9 on the plane (a depressing movie, but good). Once I got to Toronto, though, it was a nightmare. Someone just tried to blow up a plane, so security was increased, which is fair. And I have nothing against being subjected to increased security measures, either. But, argh, did it take TIME. First of all, it took about an hour to get through Customs. Somehow I got behind a huge group of Germans: presumably a flight from Germany
had just arrived. All these people needed, as per the recent regulations, have their hands or thumbs scanned and recorded. Of course, given that this is the advanced digital age, all the sensitive scanning machines kept reading wrong, or reading too quickly, so the passengers had to scan all over again. As a result, I stood in the queue for an hour (although just once I considered saying to the nearby guard, "I'm an American: can't I go first because it'll be quick?" But I considered that I've spent the last 18 months insisting I was German, and I couldn't commit such an act of hypocrisy. Also, it wouldn't have worked).

But that hour was as nothing compared to the queue for security. There I stood for nigh on two hours. We weren't brutalised, and I even got to speak some German with the German family behind me, but the sheer boredom was crushing. We stood, and we stood, and we stood, and what seemed like once every ten minutes a person would go through the magic door that led to the metal detector, and all the rest of us would extract from that a tiny drop of hope that someday it would be our turn, too.

Then, finally, it was. And I went through the metal detector, and...I went off. I thought, They're going to take me into the little room! but, no, all was not lost. In fact, nothing was lost. All that happened was that I got a full body pat down like everybody else, which offered a nice opportunity for me to chat with the pat down woman about how, precisely, one pats down for maximum effectiveness and bodily delicacy simultaneously, and I had my bag searched, which has happened to me twice before. There, too, I got into an interesting discussion, this time with the girl who searched the bag, and who was very interested in my books. We got to talking, and one way and another it turned out that she had terrible trouble with her writing. Of course she did, because this is my life, and that's exactly the sort of thing that happens to me. So she told me her specific problem (just discomfort, really), and I suggested a solution (write a little every day), as well as some words of general wisdom ("Good writing involves the fewest number of words necessary, plus adjectives. But that means all the words you do leave in have to be vivid!"), and we parted with me remarking that "It's a pity. I wish we had an hour together, because then I could really help you." Which was a true wish, but under different circumstances.

And all this time there was no water.

Nonetheless, I made it to my plane! Because it was also delayed. And on the plane I had a glass of water, and when I arrived here I had a raging headache.

Now, as I said, I have no problem with these security measures (although some chairs wouldn't go amiss). But standing there in these queues I did think to myself that if I had come to the U.S. as a foreigner on vacation and experienced this, I would never come again. It may be the greatest country in the world, but it must be the worst country to get into (or perhaps second worst, after Israel). In addition, I vowed that I would get to the airport three to four hours early for my flight out, because "I am going to WhereIlive to see my friends, and I will get on the plane EVEN IF I HAVE TO QUEUE UP ALL NIGHT." And wouldn't you know it, this morning in the paper there was an article about how airlines are terrified that there will be no holiday flyers, and another in which it was suggested that passengers arrive at the airport at least an hour before they normally would. Bring it on, 4 January! (when there's also supposed to be snow, by the way) You will not stop me from doing everything in my power to return to WhereIlive: I will be like the postman.

Not that I'm not having a lovely time, even despite the phone thing. My mother bought me a beautiful coat with which we're both very pleased, and tonight I will wear it to the New Year's Eve milonga.

Happy New Year, reader!

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As I write this, I can look out the window of my parents' back porch and see snow falling in fat fluffy flakes on the evergreens. Not ten feet from me (although with a door in between), there is a bright red cardinal pecking at the seed and suet block my parents have hung up as a bird feeder. He is MASSIVE, and I wish my father were awake to see him.

As you may have guessed, I am at Parentshome. Neither of my parents is awake yet, because who gets up at 8 in the morning when they don't have to, except for people who are trying to reduce their return jet lag by vaguely adhering to British time? So I get up between 7 and 8, and am hoping to until I leave four days from now.

My parents are glad to see me, and I am glad to see them. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that my parents are, well...getting old. My father will be 80 next year, and that's just plain old. He's now very very deaf, and although his brain is very sharp in the present, his memory, simply in terms of remembering things that happened a few months ago, or in terms of remembering that he told you about things that happened a few months ago, is very bad (although now that I write that down, I see it's quite interesting: he certainly does remember some things that happened months ago. Which suggests that he retains the canonical memory structure - I remember those things that interest me - just in a naturally degrading form). He doesn't have Alzheimer's, that's for sure, but the memory and the ears are bad. My mother, meanwhile, has aged by becoming slightly deafer and more like a canonical old lady: she takes forever to do things (where she used to just take half of forever), and she is intensely worried about making people happy, so that even the most ephemeral of whims deserves half an hour to see if she can gratify it. Also, neither of them can drive at night along a route they don't know well. For the first time, they didn't pick me up at the airport.

This is all sobering. They are not at a stage yet where they need to be worried over, really, and they're certainly not at a stage where they need any kind of watching (and they would be livid at that suggestion), but they are at the stage where you need to start worrying about the time when they'll need to be worried over. For a long time I assumed that when they got old they would come live with me in a granny flat arrangement, but they've made it clear they don't want to do that, so I was pleased that when this time I suggested they might want to think about moving from this rather isolated suburb at least closer to the city, they said yes, it was possible. More people, more activities, less driving.

Actually, the driving deserves a little more discussion. I tried to get my driver's license renewed in time for it to arrive while I was here, but, alas, that did not work. This means that I cannot drive! And this means that if I want to go anywhere - which I do: there are Twinkies and peanut butter to buy! - I must be driven by a parent. And so far that parent has been my mother.

Reader, my mother has always been a bad driver. Now, there are many kinds of bad drivers. I myself, although not bad, am certainly a bit too quick, and sometimes more cavalier than I should be. But my mother has always been the worst kind of bad driver: the kind that calls itself "defensive," but really means "timid and hesitant." And now, now she has become a terrible driver. It's not enough to depress the brake - she must depress it firmly and abruptly, so that the car and everyone it lurches forward and then back. It's not enough to wait until there are no cars to make a turn - she must wait until there are no cars, but also a gap long enough that we can make the turn in the leisurely manner she chooses; as a result, there will be massive no-car gaps into which anyone could make a tidy left turn, but my mother will sit there watching the empty space because it "won't be big enough, I know." It' s not enough to drive the speed limit - she now drives a good five to ten miles under the speed limit. All that, and still when we pull into a slot space she misjudges every time and moves the car so far forward that the underside of the front bumper scrapes the divider. I am a terrible slot space parker: it takes me at least two goes to get in (fantastic parallel parker, though. Go figure). But even I, who am thus empathetic, cannot bear sitting there in the car with my mother as we inch into the slot (inch! that's what makes it so galling. There's plenty of time to judge, or to sense), just knowing that in a few moments I'll hear scraaape, "Sorry."

Still, the woman wants to buy me a new winter coat, and to pay for my continuing therapy, so I can't be too condemnatory. Oh, and, y'know, she gave me life.

Oh, well, I've had a problematic relationship with my mother ever since I started to grow up. When I was little, people used to tell me all the time that I looked like her, and relatives would remark on the similarity of our movements. This is great when you're 8, but when you want to be your own person that similarity turns into a kind of threat - "Will I just be my mother? Will people [will my mother] only ever see me as a replication of her?" And that's still floating around underneath, these days: I still retain an instinctive fear - although it only comes out at certain moments - that my mother is trying to control. I feel this not at all with my father, but then in many ways my father and I have much more similar personalities, quiet and gentle (although there's no doubt that it's the personality similarities between me and my mother that cause many of our difficulties) - and, of course, my father is much more passive than my mother, so he's unlikely to try to control me.

Well, I love them both very much, and they me. And, despite whatever complications, you can't say better than that.

And tonight I am off to Philadelphia's New Year's Eve milonga. Perhaps my driver's license will come, so I won't have to take the train.

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26 December 2009

After the Thanks

Reader, when you are a 41-year-old woman - or perhaps just when you are this 41-year-old woman - it turns out that saying, "No, thank you" to an internet match, even when you have corresponded with this match to an extent that allows you to be 95% sure that "No, thank you" is the right answer, and even when all your instincts tell you "No, thank you" is the right answer, is a tense business. What if this is it? you think. Not in the sense of what if this is "the one," (a concept I don't believe in), but what if this is "the last one"?

There are women who don't worry about this, I know. There are magical women who just believe someone will come along for them, or who don't much care if someone does. God, I wish I were those women. We never notice the things we don't worry about (I, for example, don't worry that I'm stupid, or that I have poor taste in clothing, or that I'm too short, or...or...the thousand other things I never notice because I'm not worrying about them), but I, at least, notice the things I do worry about. And I worry about this, as you know. And I wish I didn't. Well, sometimes I don't: and that's a start.

My new year's resolution, by the way, is to eat more carrots. More green vegetables, too, but really more carrots.

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There are some things I will never understand about the English as long as I live, and two of them are their mania for discomfort and the way some of them positively race toward old age. Here I am at my nanny's, and when I tried to take a bath at 2 in the afternoon there was no hot water. She'd obviously set the boiler to come on once in the morning and once in the evening (because I could have a hot bath at 8), but to be off completely in between. Madness! Why not just split the difference and keep it on constantly at a low level, so people could have baths anytime they liked? Plus, she'd set all the thermostats so that they heated up the house to 15 c (59f) during the day, but only heated up to a toasty (or perhaps reasonable, depending on how you look at it: 70f) temperature at night, so that all through the
afternoon I had to huddle on the couch in the chill, with a cold nose, or lean against the Aga. I am well aware that the response to this is, "Put on a jumper," but you know what? If you can afford special Christmas trays (that's right, not just dishware but trays), you can afford to heat your house to a livable level more than once a day.

Understand, please: this is not a complaint against my nanny. One of the things that's always mystified me about English houses is the way that many of the older ones just have no heating in the hallways: there are radiators in the rooms, but the corridors are like icy winter paths. All right, now we're all conserving energy, but back when these houses were built we were not trying to do that, so what's the point? That you should be made extra glad to get in a room by enduring a bit of suffering in the corridors? For God's sake, call me American, but I'm going to stand by my belief that it's a basic right of life to have a radiator in the hallway. You can turn it off if you like, but at least you should have the option to live in comfort if you want (and, again, surely low-level heat throughout all areas of the house that are frequently used evens out to be cheaper than high level heat in some rooms but icy breezes floating in from others?). I say: I am a human being, and I should have the basic right to bath whenever I like and not suffer when I step into the corridor. As should all humans everywhere.

Then there's the fact that she's moved her bedroom to the ground floor. Okay, it used to be at the top of the house, and that's about as far away from the kitchen in the basement as it's possible to be (let's leave aside the whole Lord Lucan and lack of natural light-influenced question of whether you want to have your kitchen in the basement at all), but I know she didn't move down to the ground floor because she wanted to be closer to the kitchen. She did it because she was worried about climbing so many stairs. My God, I wanted to say when she told me this, you're 63! And not one iota weak or reduced. But, oooooo no, the time is coming! So, hey, let's welcome it with open arms. Okay, this house is designed by a person who has a total disregard for house layouts or for good sense (giant dining room and small room on ground floor; on first landing, small room; then up to second landing, where
there is the parlour and another small room; then third landing with one small room; then top floor with large bedroom and another small room: it's as if the [obviously Victorian] architect tried to think about the most awkward home layout possible). Anyway, the house admittedly has a long and steep central staircase, but if I lived here I'd be running up and down that staircase every day (I did it three times in a row today, in fact, and intend to do it for half an hour tomorrow), just to keep myself fit and oiled. But no! There is a mindset that some of the English, in particular, seem to have - although my German last boyfriend's family had it, too. It's the "Oh, I'm getting old," mindset. They rush toward old age with open arms, apparently eagerly anticipating reduction and decrepitude, and luxuriating in it when it does come. It's the chronological equivalent of never opening your windows, and I just don't get it. Uch, make it a bit of a challenge for Deterioration, and you'll keep him at bay for a bit longer: why wouldn't you want to do that?

- Mind you, I never understand those people who go out for a walk on Christmas day, either, and that seems very English. Not that I don't like a walk, but why on Christmas? Who wants to amble around in the freezing cold chit-chatting in a great awkward bunch when you could be at home in the warm playing with your gifts and having a real conversation with one or two? If you're going to go for a walk on Christmas, at least stride purposefully, to warm yourself up, or amble with one person, so you can talk.

Anyway, rather ironically I wanted to write this post about all the things I'm thankful for. I've had quite a lot to be thankful for this year, and if you can't express thanks on Christmas, when can you? (all right, on Thanksgiving, but I don't celebrate that anymore. Or on New Year's Eve, but I won't have time to do it then.) And the first thing I'm aware of being thankful for is that I have a nanny who has a giant comfy house, in which I can spend my Christmas eating Indian food from Marks and Spencer while I watch meaningless TV (well, at the moment I'm watching David Bowie and Bing Crosby singing together, and that's not meaningless). And that I have two living upper-middle class parents with an equally nice (if not even nicer) home to which I can go in two days, and who are willing and able to buy me the foodstuffs I demand.

Next to that, of course, I'm most thankful that I'm not in Otherhome. My university has been very good to me, and I've been very lucky, and I'm thankful for both those things and the profound basal-level happiness they've been able to give me. As I am blissfully thankful to have found work here, and to have found the kind of work I have. And while you might expect me to say that after that I'm happy that I discovered tango, I'm actually not. What I'm happy for is that I discovered my beloved VTTT through tango, and that I made the tango friends I did, because all those people have turned out to be more than tango people, and they've connected me to at least one person who isn't a tango person at all, but for whom I'm very thankful, O.M.

I'm thankful, too, that I have the freedom to make my own life. That doesn't just mean that I'm thankful that I have a portable life - I don't own a home, and books can always move - but also that I'm thankful that I have the money and the education, which really means the power, to make a new life for myself when the old one is unsatisfactory. And I'm thankful, too, that I have parents who support me while I do that. And I'm thankful that I do the kind of job I do, which - although harder than some people think, and in certain ways very boring, or at least tedious - allows me immense freedom and immense pleasure, and is, in a way, a job of luxurious privilege.

I'm thankful because, as bad as my personal life is, it isn't as bad as it was in 2008: I haven't
had my heart broken; I haven't been made bereft, and I've even managed to go on five dates - which, okay, isn't much to some people, but considering how many dates I went on last year (0 to 1, depending on how you look at it), is fantastic. I even got to do some kissing in the course of the year (although not when I expected to do), and I love kissing. So I'm thankful for that, too.

I'm thankful, too, that I fell in with a group of people who so obviously like me. Never before in my life have any concentrated number of people made it clear simultaneously that they find me special, meaning both important and unique, and although I still retain all my fears and worries, in very small ways the sense of being consistently loved and valued, as if that were a given, has made me confident.

I'm thankful for my therapy, because it has done me some good. And I'm thankful that my life is simple - again, a byproduct of money, but also of good planning and my own ability to pleased with relatively little in most areas, which is good. And also for
my physical capacity: I can still run up and down those stairs!

And I'm glad that I'm mentally alive. Okay, I'm not the youngest girl in the room by a long shot, and I'm terrified at the thought of taking my clothes off in front of a man (that's not an exaggeration), but I know, as a constant if not constantly conscious knowledge, that I'm interesting: that I have thoughts, and ideas, and knowledge, and a hell of a lot of good stories, so I'll never be boring, and I'm never bored to be alone with myself. I am, indeed, never alone with a Strand.

And finally, I'm just thankful to be alive, and fascinated by the experience. Remember that flagstone in Edinburgh that said, "It's a grand thing to get leave to live"? Well, it is. Every day of it, no matter how sad or fearful I am, something interesting happens, something to think about or tell about or store away to remember later. That's why I could never commit suicide, worse luck - I'll always want to experience tomorrow's interesting thing. And I am thankful for that: that life, whatever it might be like at any given microcosmic
moment, is alway bursting at the seams with occurrences, and is always a grand thing just in the very fact of its existence.

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25 December 2009

Men, Actually

I am spending Christmas Day at my nanny's, but without my nanny (who is spending Christmas at a friend of hers - we're like a Christmas chain!). I was going to watch Love, Actually - a film I dislike but am willing to watch solely for the moment when Bill Nighy says, "Thank you, Ant or Dec" - but it turns out that it's on an inaccessible channel. So instead I thought I'd write an incidental post.

Maybe a month ago my FTT asked me in a tone of some astonishment why I preferred men. Girls, he said, were so much better: softer and...well, actually softer was the only specific attribute he picked out, but the general impression was just "better." In a vague way ever since then I have thought on and off about what it is I like about men, what it is that makes them appeal to me more than women (bearing in mind that I don't think sexual attraction is a matter of choice, and that I can't imagine ever being homosexual, or having homosexual desire - please note that I'm not saying this isn't possible for some people: just not for me. I'm very firmly heterosexual. So I guess what I've really thought about is what I like about men, not why I prefer them, since it's not really a matter of preference).

So... What I Like About Men

Perhaps funnily, one thing that I like about men is precisely that they're not soft. Men are hard, but both unexpectedly and in an unexpected way. When you're a woman, you don't notice that you're soft, although I suppose you are. You're just the way you are, but your areness becomes the norm. So what I like about men (this is the unexpected thing) is that they don't feel like me. Their bodies feel different, and they feel surprising because all that time of living with myself, and interacting with my own body (putting cream on it, putting my hands on its waist and hips, clasping its hands or rubbing them) has made my own body what's the norm for me. But men are so much less pliable than me! I don't mean they have big muscles - I actually don't like muscly men, but have always preferred slim ones or ones who aren't overly developed. I mean that they have more musculature - no matter how skinny or under-gymed they are, they just feel harder. And that difference is attractive to me. Plus, they don't have breasts. Now, when you carry breasts around all day they're not that interesting: you sort of forget about them, except as objects that fit into tops or as pieces of your body you need to worry about sometimes (cancer, sagging, size worries as mentioned). But I've danced with women, and embraced them, and to me breasts against me feel weird: they interfere with my breasts. Whereas a male chest, that I fit against; it accommodates me.

Also, men are bigger. Well, that one needs no explanation.

But also, I like it that men feel rougher. I don't mean they are physically rougher, but rather that they feel rougher. When I stroke the place where my neck turns into my shoulder, the skin feels like some kind of smooth fabric, but when I put my lips on a man in the same place it's a little more tacky, a little less refined. I love it when men don't shave, and even when they do shave it I love it that their features are rougher than mine, that men tend to be physically sharper than women (even the chubby ones).

And there are things I like about them mentally, or perhaps it might be better to say in terms of character. Men tend to be less likely to perseverate on emotion than women. Now, here I have to be careful, because I don't care for men who are solely practical, or who follow that tedious cliche line about how women are "complicated, and they, the man, just doesn't understand emotion. That's a kind of maleness I always suspect is posturing, really, and I know there are men who understand and experience emotional perturbation or complexity. But men seem to be much better than women at recognising when there's been enough emotional perturbation. So they do all the frowning, and the considering, but then at a certain point they also make a final pronouncement and move on. Women can sit there for hours going over meanings and possibilities and maybes - the time for this is infinite. With men, it's finite, and I like that.

But also, you know, they shave their faces with creamy white foam! And they have straight hips, so that when they wear their trousers slung low you can see their stomachs that are somehow different from ours! And they're damp in the neck! And they have tender neck napes, neck napes that are like an unexpectedy revealed secret: so different from the napes of women's necks. And they smell different! Not their aftershave, or their sweat, but just their natural smell: it's darker, and lower, and somehow...firmer.

And all of that is just...lovely. It's just right. So that's what I like about men.

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24 December 2009


Christmas approacheth. In fact, it approacheth so fast that it's basically here, if you work by the "horological" time system, in which a new day begins at 12am. I, however, work on the "chronological" time system, in which a new day begins at the moment you wake up, and
the old day lasts until you go to sleep.

Today, the day before Christmas, I am moved to think about other people. A number of years ago I told a friend of mine that I never believed people liked me very much, because I couldn't believe that they would like someone who sat around in her gnome pyjamas all day (as, in fact, I have done today), who was often irritating, and who could be boring. His response was, "Aren't you underestimating other people?" This had never occurred to me before. And for some reason - perhaps because of the hair straightening - this popped into my head again today.

I find it mystifying that anyone could find me attractive. This is, first of all, because I'm just...me. But it also because I have such a clear notion of what men find attractive: large breasts, nice bottoms, youth, good hair, a beautiful face. And I have none of these things. Also, I can be irritating. Reader, I find to my own shame that I have been brainwashed by the media without being aware, and, worse, while believing that I had not. But I find it nearly impossible to believe that someone might look past my small breasts and my no-longer-anywhere-near-my-twenties-ness, and my terrible nose, and my hair of the damned, and love me anyway. And I finally it even more impossible to believe that there might be men who find small breasts attractive, or like what time does to a woman, or who might think that my non-mainstream hair is not of the damned, or who might value personality above the physical. Oh, I can say it when it comes to people finding my friends attractive, and I can even believe it for them, but I cannot believe it for myself. I found Mr. Fallen, with his at least an extra stone of girth, wonderful; I found Irishboyfriend, with his wire tooth thing and his missing fingertop, sexy -- in fact, those were the very things I found sexy about him. But, oh, my goodness, I think, why would someone find me attractive? And perhaps that underestimates me, but it also underestimates other people, and makes them very shallow. And for that I am ashamed.

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23 December 2009

Don Juan to Be Done with That Book?

I am Byroned out. I have read philosophy; I have read secondary materials about philosophy. I have thought - actively thought - long and hard about where that philosophy finds expression in the works of Lord Byron, and what he does with it. I have been impressed by Byron's mental skills - at first I said he was smart; then I believed he was smart; but now I know he was smart. I have re-read The Giaour not once, not twice, not even nice, but as many as ten times: I now live a life where bits of The Giaour pop into my head unbidden in appropriate situations (yes, there are situations where bits of The Giaour are appropriate). I have revised my book twice, and now I'm in the process of revising it a third time. And for the first time ever, I just have had enough of Byron.

I sit around and worry about this book. Both publisher's readers have pointed out its central problem: it's a book about Byron's philosophy that doesn't really seem to enmesh itself in the philosophers or philosophical ideas that surrounded Byron. It falls down when it comes to connecting Byron to philosophy and when it comes to its readings of philosophy. And when I finish this third revision it will fall down in that area again (although to a much MUCH lesser extent). 75% of the time I consider this book a failure: I have not been allowed to do what I wanted to do (write a book about how Lord Byron developed a philosophy) because literary analysis being what it is I can't really do that (if you say, "Byron became a sceptic," people quite rightly ask, "Well, did he read Hume? I mean, maybe he just followed Hume; where does he differ from him?"); what I have done instead, which is showing Byron in light of the philosophy of his time, I have not done well. 25% of the time, however, I see things in a different light: I am not a philosopher; I have no training in philosophy; I have no real interest in it; despite this, I have managed in the course of four years to read and come to grips with a whole bunch of Enlightenment philosophy, and actually to have ideas about where it's being mirrored, and how, in some literary work. I have gone from zero to about 45 in four years, and that's no mean feat.

But let us pass on from this: if I am sick of Lord Byron, let me write about him no more here. Instead, let me chit-chat about some of the fabric of my life.

First of all, there is still snow all over the place here. I took the train into London today, and outside the windows there was an England as close to the English idyll of Christmas cards as you could wish to see. White countryside? check. Suitably blanketed livestock? check. Nestled farm buildings? check. For goodness sake, there was even low-lying fog garlanding the whole landscape!

It's a good thing the view was so nice, because the trip to London was pretty much a waste. After much hard thinking, I have decided to have my hair straightened. -- Sorry: relaxed, as the salonnières keep reminding me. -- The process I will be undergoing relaxes and smoothes the hair by adding protein to it and sealing it in. The hair is not straightened, but rather any curls are reduced to waves, the frizz is sleeked down, and you can straighten or control it in a fraction of the time it normally takes.

All my life I have burned to have smooth, sleek hair, so I am willing to pay the not-small sum of money this process costs (it lasts for three months). My trip to London was to visit a salon - apparently the only one in London - that does this (none do here in WhereIlive). This visit took five minutes, and in the course of it it turned out that not only do they charge £130 for the process (which I was willing to pay), but they also make you buy a special shampoo and conditioner, at the cost of another £30. Plus £20 to get to London again to have it all done.

Now that is a lot of money: £180, to be precise (my basic math skills have not yet deserted me!). And at today's exchange rate, £180 is worth $297. So I say to myself, why not have this process performed in the snuggly environs of my parents' house in the States? At a salon mere steps (well, tire rotations) from my parents' home, a nice woman will perform it on me for as little as $250, including free shampoo and conditioner. Not only that, but the largest drawback of the process (aside from the possibility that it may all be a rip-off, and I may not get the glossy hair of my dreams) is that you must wait four days before washing your hair after you get it done. Not that I couldn't take that (although my scalp would get very itchy), but I bet you look pretty manky after four days of not washing your hair. So how much better to have only one of those four days pass after I reappear here in WhereIlive? My parents, as I said to S. today, do not care how I look if I don't wash my hair for three days; the people on the plane will only care for eight hours, max. If I get my hair finished by 4pm East Coast time on Saturday 2 January, I can wash it again at 9pm English time on Wednesday 6 January. Which is precisely what I plan to do, as I rang and made the appointment tonight.

I was talking to S. because once I realised I was going to spend around $300 the amount looked huge - much bigger than £150. So I needed him to talk me down and tell me to do it.

Anyway, the upshot was that the trip to London was pretty much a waste of time. What did I get out of it? Two small books to give as presents,
one narrow silver ring that cost £5, and that I'd been looking for for months, one £3 olive pashmina to replace the one that vanished, and a subpar panino I could have got right here at home. Oh, AND a Krispy Kreme glazed donut that I bought to eat on the train to save the whole trip, but when I started to eat it it turned out to have raspberry jam on the inside despite being on the creme shelf, and I hate raspberry jam filling, and I'd really been looking forward to the creme. So I got a bunch of piddly stuff, a subpar panino I could have got right here at home, and an irritating donut.

Still, it wasn't all bad, because I also got to see this sign:

It's a yoghurt ad, but it made me laugh anyway. It also made me think of that Pulp song, "Do You Remember the First Time?"

It also wasn't all bad because while I was there I somehow began thinking about teeth. I have always allegedly had a bit of a hang-up about teeth in boyfriends: I have often said that I like a man to have "good teeth." But ambling down the slick streets of late-afternoon London, it occurred to me that I've only ever actually had one boyfriend with well-aligned, undamaged, white teeth, and he was the boyfriend I liked least. Aside from him, there have been small teeth (husband), teeth involving extremely cool metal wire grip (Irishboyfriend), teeth with central gap (Mr. Fallen), and strange teeth that were shorter on one side than the other. In fact, if I think not very hard about it, I realise that really excellent teeth always slightly disconcert me: they look so fake. So I must now acknowledge that when I say "good teeth," what I really mean is "not teeth of the Shane McGowan level." Or a few levels above.

And then I came home to a spectacularly messy room. For some reason, it's bestrewn with bras. Why do I seemingly have so many bras? And, perhaps more significantly, why do I leave them out, rather than putting each away before I get out a new one?

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19 December 2009


"What's a best friend?" someone asked me a couple of days ago when I was talking about them, and although this question at first seems breath-takingly stupid, if you give it a second it reveals itself as actually breath-takingly troublesome.

I mean, what is a best friend, really? I can't say a best friend is the person who knows you best, because sometimes you
know someone is or will be your best friend when they know you hardly at all. I can't say a best friend is the friend you've known the longest, because by that logic your best friend would simply default be the person who's known you longest, and that's obviously not correct. I can't say a best friend is someone to whom you'd tell things you wouldn't tell anyone else, but because in one way or another that description fits all my friends. Your best friend doesn't even have to live close to you: for a long time now, I've had Situational Best Friends (SBF) and a Best Friend; the SBF is my best friend where I am, but my Best Friend is my long-term BF.

So what would I say a best friend is? I would say a best friend is someone to whom you can tell your news and your troubles knowing not just that they won't judge, and not just that they will consider those news and troubles thoughtfully and objectively, but also knowing that they will not try to do anything with them. This is why it's so hard to explain what a best friend is - because it's so hard to explain what that last phrase means. Of course a best friend will say if they're concerned for you, and will tell you things you don't want to hear sometimes if they think you're thinking or behaving foolishly, but it seems to me that a best friend must also give a sense that they're in it with you, whatever "it" is: if you're happy, your best friend is at least a bit happy, too; if you're sad, your best friend listens and respects your sadness (although not forever). A best friend is someone you tell your stuff to not just because you need a receptacle for secrets or a well for troubles, but because you know they want to hear just because they're interested, and that they're interested just because they're your friend. Which I guess is just a complex way of saying that a best friend is the person who listens to you most carefully.

Although not just that, of course. Best friends know you best, and so know how you'll react in a given situation, or how best to help you in such a situation. Best friends make the right noises at your confidences. And maybe most of all your best friend is your best friend because, for whatever reason, you just like seeing them a little better than you like seeing anybody else. This is also, I think, why they're the receptacle of your secrets: you tell your secrets to your best friend because you want to, because you want to become entwined with them that way.

See? Best friend is hard to explain.

All of this comes up not because of but linked to the fact that my closest friends here tell each other everything. I mean, they tell each other stuff I would never dream of telling anyone. As a result, they know each other very well, but not in a way that gives any sense that that knowing is special or unique: this is just the kind of stuff you know if you know a person well, is the suggestion. And because we behave as we see modelled, I've now done this with a few of those people. And you know what? It's quite nice. It does feel like I'm just doing what you do when you know a person well, and perhaps because there's no sense of such tellings as a big deal, or of the revelations as shocking, it simultaneously brings you closer to the people and relaxes you. Oh, you think, this isn't such a big deal after all. And now I am known. Both very pleasant sensations.

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We have had a huge amount of snow here - at least 6 inches - and the result is that WhereIlive looks (a) beautiful, and (b) quite like home. I LOVE snow. Have I said this before? I'm sure I have, but it bears repeating. I mean, I really love snow.

In honour of the snow I'm going to tell a story I would never tell to a crowd of strangers, but which I can tell on the internet because I can pretend no one's listening. Two years ago, I went to London over New Year to be with Mr. Fallen. I flew from Otherhome, and on New Year's Eve day in Otherhome it was perhaps fifty degrees F, with not a cloud in the sunny blue sky. I was so excited to be going. You know that excitement where you wish you could physically push time forward, and wish there was some way to make all intervening events happen faster so you could arrive at your conclusion as quickly as possible? That's how I felt.

We all got on the little RJ that was going to fly us from Otherhome to Chicago (where I would get the plane to London), and shortly after we taxied onto the runway the flight attendant informed us that we would be delayed because it had started to snow in Chicago. Okay, whatever. We sat there for twenty minutes, and then he came over the P.A. and informed us that we would be further delayed because the snow had caused Chicago to space more widely its incoming and outgoing flights. We sat there and sat there for perhaps an hour, and I stared out the window at the afternoon sun shining out of the crystal blue sky, thinking to myself, There can't be that much snow in Chicago if it looks like this here. And at the end of the hour the flight attendant's voice came again, telling us that we were going to delay still further because...CHICAGO HAD CLOSED THE AIRPORT DUE TO SNOW!!

And I wanted to stand up and scream, "I am going to London to get laid, and this plane will get to Chicago so I can catch my connection IF I HAVE TO FLY IT MYSELF."

But I didn't, and we sat on the tarmac for twenty minutes longer, after which we were cleared for take-off, and I thought, See? How much snow could there have been? Typical American overcaution. And when we got to Chicago there was a full-scale blizzard. (although we still departed reasonably on time. Someone on that flight told me that international flights, unlike domestic ones, are very rarely delayed, and even then not for very long.)

So what moral might we draw from this? Well, one possible moral is however much I love snow, I love sex with someone I'm attached to even more - a good moral, I think you'll agree. Another possible moral is that you shouldn't hold the announcements of your airplane personnel in dismissive contempt - and I will say that this experience taught me that moral, because I never have done so again. Or you could just take this as a random story that I find funny, which is how I take it.

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17 December 2009


I was going to write this post about some news I got about Irishboyfriend earlier this week, and I still will, but first I want to write a tiny bit about what I've been doing, and what it's made me think, yesterday and today.

So I've been revising my book again since Tuesday, as I mentioned in my last post. Yesterday I finished cutting and pasting chapter 2, then typed it up and went to bed. Today I read chapter 1, revised it a little, then printed it out. I don't know why this took a whole day, because I scarcely did anything to it, but it did.

When I got told I needed to do more revisions to the book, I was told that I needed to integrate the philosophers' ideas more thoroughly with what Byron was doing. I was in
despair, because I had no idea how to do that: I just didn't. So I wrote to a very wise friend of mine, older than I and very successful in my area, and asked him to read parts of the book and make some suggestions. Which he did, with great care. I've tried to take the questions he suggested for the parts of the book that he did read and apply them to all my revisions, most notably, "Can you find a way of making the philosophy do more to expand the notion of instability?" With chapter 2 I could juuuuust about do that, but with chapter 1 it's a real struggle. I have no idea how to do that.

Anyway, when I printed out chapter 1 today and was walking home, I thought to myself of how I was going to go back to my room and sort out how to do this on my own. This is never what I would do, but I thought of sitting down on my bed with my manuscript bits, reading them, and trying to figure out where and what to fix. And then I thought, not in a resentful way but just in a factual one, that this is why people come in twos. If I had a partner I would still have to do all this work on my own, but I would know that in the background there there was someone who would give me a pat, or who would be waiting to go out to the pub with me when it was done. Not someone to help, but someone to be there if I needed help and they could give it. I thought the same when I gave my big dinner party a few weeks ago: I didn't really want someone to help me do stuff, but I wanted someone to watch out of the corner of their eye to see that I still didn't want someone to help me - or to notice that I did.

Anyway, to the real post! Earlier this week I discovered that Irishboyfriend's wife is going to have a baby! You will perhaps wonder if I was jealous, and I wondered that myself. I certainly did feel some sort of jealousy at the news, but without very much analysis I noticed that this jealousy was of the fact that Irishboyfriend had a wife (which is to say, I felt a particular manifestation of a general jealousy), not of the fact that she was having a baby. In fact, I had a chance to test this hypothesis later, because two nights ago my cousin wrote to tell me that his wife was having a baby! And I was pleased! (well, as pleased as I can be, as I believe that my cousin and his wife will someday get divorced [and not some day in the very far distant future], and I'm sorry that a kid will have to go through having its parents get divorced. But maybe not...I mean, if I had to peg one of my cousins certainly to get divorced, it would be this guy's sister, 'cause her husband for sure is gay and has already cheated on her [with a woman, though]. So maybe my cousin and his wife will not be the ones for the chop...) I like babies, although I've never particularly wanted one myself, and I'm pleased other women keep producing ones for whom I can buy cute clothes and charming books.

BueNO. I did not find out about Irishboyfriend's (well, I guess I should call him FormerIrishboyfriend's) baby via an e-mail or a letter, but rather via a facebook update, which told me he'd reactivated his running blog, and when I went to his blog he had written that he was reactivating it because his wife would be having a baby about the time of next year's Boston Marathon, so he thought he'd write the blog about his training and her pregnancy in tandem. He felt that this gave the blog nice narrative tension: "Will I be able to make the marathon, or will the baby decide to show up on the very day of the Marathon?" (I paraphrase).

Uh-huh. Well, I'm not making any remarks about that narrative tension, or the question, or what it might reveal about FormerIrishboyfriend. Instead, I thought I would honour him and indicate what a successful father I think he'll be by telling The Soup Story. The Soup Story is one of my most famous stories about FormerIrishboyfriend; it is perhaps equalled only by The Kettle Story, but I think The Soup Story is more appropriate here.

Many years ago, when I was still involved with FormerIrishboyfriend, I got sick. Now, for me "sick" has a specific meaning. It's not like, a cold, or the sniffles: "sick" means I am confined to bed, genuinely too ill to work or otherwise to function without great effort (I don't often get sick). So there I was on my bed of pain, and ThenIrishboyfriend came to check on me. "Can I get you anything?" he asked. "Well," I said. "What I'd really like is a bowl of soup. Could you make me a bowl of soup?" "Okay," he said. Then he teased, "But I only do this once." And he made me a lovely bowl of cream of mushroom soup.

The next day I was still sick, and still in bed, and he came over to check on me again. "Do you need anything?" he asked. "Well," I said, "I'd love it if you'd make another bowl of soup." And he said, "I told you I only do that once." And he did not make me a bowl of soup.

The worst thing about this story is that I stayed with him for at least another year after that, and in the end he broke up with me.

He's said he's had a lot of therapy since we broke up.

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14 December 2009

Working on Working

This seems to be the week of random single memories, because two days ago I had one about my father, and tonight, while I was doing my ballet barre in the kitchen (perfect location, it turns out: warm, big, quiet), I had another. I was holding onto the countertop and moved my hand forward so it touched the edge of stove, which, to my disgust, was lightly coated in grease. And this made me remember weekend mornings with Irishboyfriend - not every weekend, but a fair number - when I used to make him a breakfast that included very thin potato slices, fried. In this memory, which was all the days smooshed into one, it was sunny, and I was in my favourite flat in Massachusetts, and he was in the bedroom reading while I cooked the potato slices, wearing a long white nightgown I used to have but since have lost. It was the grease on the stove that reminded me, of course, because the grease in which I fried the potatoes went everywhere, but what a nice memory to spring from grease: bright but n
ot hot, alone cooking for someone I loved in the next room, my feet bare on the boards and my long white cotton nightie circling around me.

Anyhoo (BUEno), that's just by the by. I've been working today, and knock wood it's been going pretty well. Of course, that may be because a good deal of the work has been cutting up my chapter and repasting it so the narrative runs differently. And when I say, "cutting up" I mean, cutting up," and when I say, "repasting," I mean "with Scotch tape." For some reason, this is the only way I can successfully reshape a piece of writing of any length; I suspect it's because it's the only way I can see it all before me and get a sense of its rhythm. Anyway, now half my desk is covered with little strips of paper containing a sentence or two sentences and the other half is covered with sheets of notebook paper alternatively taped to partial typewritten sheets and covered with a paragraph of handwriting followed by a partial typewritten sheet. As I said, it's been going well - I just feel bad about killing so many trees.

Tonight at dinner I had a most interesting and wide-ranging conversation with S.A., on subjects both mentionable and none of your business, thank you very much. One of the mentionable subjects, however, was my hypothesis of this morning (while I was making my first cup of tea in the kitchen) that men raised by single mothers are better than other men. In this hypothesis, men raised by single mothers are better than other men; it seems to me, from my experience, that they tend to be more open to discussions of emotions, more interested in talking aimlessly about the world (this is a vastly important skill, I think), and less rigid about gender expectations. Also, they seem to be more relaxed and open generally. Also, also, they like to dance - an attribute very rare among men. Exhibits in favour of this hypothesis include:

My FTT - okay, rather conservative in the gender expectations department, but surprisingly open (given that) to discussions about emotion and psychology, and deeply deeply (deeply) interested in clothes.

Now, I recognise that this hypothesis has a number of pieces of evidence against it:

Exhibit A: Dr. Heier. Well, his parents were married until he was around 18, so maybe he doesn't count. But he was certainly vastly closer to his mother than his father, and he was not in any way relaxed (although neither was his mother), and he certainly had stern gender expectations - if a film possessed the merest hint of male homosexuality, you could feel him practically go rigid with discomfort.

Exhibit B: The many men I know who are relaxed and open, and chatters, despite being raised by both parents. Okay, that kind of throws a spanner in the works.

So perhaps I'm going to have to work on this hypothesis (which is why it's a hypothesis, not a theory). If I work empirically, however, I could draw the conclusion that men raised by strong mothers are, subjectively (me being the subject), better than other men. This is because: first of all, in my experience men with strong mothers are not afraid of, and often know how to deal with, strong women (yes, strong women have to be wrangled, just as do strong men. That doesn't mean you shut them down, but it does mean that there are ways to be strong and tempered, and ways to be strong and dictatorial. A man who has had a strong mother can avoid the risk of a strong woman becoming the latter). Second, men with strong mothers seem to have learned, somehow, to engage in conversation - that is, to listen and engage with other people - rather more pleasantly and effectively than other men. And they tend to be fairly comfortable in the realm of emotion, or at least of discussion that is not rigidly goal-centred. They also tend to help out more around the house. Also, they tend to notice what you're wearing (hey, it matters to this subject).

Although this post really isn't going anywhere, I'll end with some supposition as random as the rest of the thinking. My supposition is that all these benefits come into being because of the increased communication exposure gained by growing up with a woman. Women talk more than men, and by and large they like to converse more than men. Now, the fact that women openly enjoy this and to some degree expect the same from the people they live with means that the men who grow up with strong women are to a degree forced to join in. But I actually don't think force comes into it. I think we largely do and are comfortable doing what we see modelled: we think this is what all people do. Men who grow up with someone who chats randomly, who helps out as a matter of course (something women also tend to do more than men), who is open and comfortable about discussing emotion, and who pays attention to her own appearance and that of others, will simply do the same - they think it's what people do.

Or so I believe tonight.

At some point I'm going to blog about feminism. But I think everyone involved, reader and writer, will have to gird their loins for that one.

And tomorrow I get my hair cut and blown dry straight, in anticipation of a formal dinner for O.'s birthday tomorrow night! Reader, I love getting my hair straightened. I know we should love ourselves the way we are, and I do. It's just that...I really love myself the way I am with straight hair. So I am looking forward to tomorrow. And Wednesday I have a date! And I am interested to see if my loved straight hair will make any difference to my date!

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12 December 2009

It's Not a Fling, You Know

Mmmm, I'm so tired, and I should go to bed, because I'm still under the weather, but I HAD to write.

There's this guy at tango; let's call him The Flying Scotsman. He's very well known in the WhereIlive tango community (eye roll), in that everybody hates him. This is first of all because, as a friend of mine put it, he's an asshole. This is a word I very much dislike and actively try not to say, so the fact that I used it will give you some idea of how apposite it is: there is really no other word to describe him. In addition to that, however, he is a terrible dancer - he does, in fact, dance like a train. And the worst bit of it is, he's a teacher.

Now, every tango dancer has of course had lessons from someone, somehow. But the thing about most tango dancers, at least in WhereIlive, is that you can't really tell with whom they've had lessons: they may develop their own style (subject for another post), or they may have no idiosyncracies and simply dance well (or badly), but they don't bear the clear marks of one teacher or another. Unless they've had lessons with The Flying Scotsman.

Twice in two months now I've danced with young men at a milonga - the second time was tonight - and I have instantly identified them as having had classes with TFS (which is to say I guessed, and when I casually enquired where they'd had lessons, they confirmed my guess). They both have a distinctive style: it would be most accurate to say that they are mannered without being skilled. First of all, TFS teaches that the main means of guidance is the hand. This is not true in tango, and it's difficult to convey how both unpleasant and potentially downright damaging it is to have someone pushing you with considerable force here and there in the small of your back. That's bad, but to add insult to injury (literally) he teaches them to cross their ankles and do a "one foot flat, one foot posed on toe" position as the final or resting position of each step. I'm sure the theory behind this is that it looks suave, but in fact it just looks posey and pretentious. Also, when I danced with these men it rapidly became clear that they have no real experience. They're just beginners, but they've been taught all these advanced flourishes. And as a result they're just not much good: you'd have to take them right back to the beginning to fix them.

I cannot conceive of what woman would ever find it enjoyable to dance with these men. I understand that TFS does some quite interesting stuff in his lessons: he talks a lot about posture, and weight and body placement. So I'm willing to believe that there are things to be learned from him, and I'm willing to believe that a woman might find it enjoyable to learn from him, at least when it comes to those things. But to dance with someone who dances like that seems to me not just unpleasant but, even in the short run, painful: the damage to your back muscles would perhaps be small, but it would certainly be noticeable.

I did consider telling tonight's young man what he was doing wrong, but then I thought about how long it would take, and how bad it would make him feel. So I just requested that he be a little lighter in guiding me (by my back).

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Scriptora Judaica

Writing, reader, is a strange exercise. It is my job. There is no way around that: whether I am a fiction writer, or an academic writer, or a teacher, at least 50% of my job involves picking up a pen or putting my hands on the keyboard and writing. And yet, unless I am commenting on a student paper, writing is always in some degree terrifying. Now, it is true that on a small number of occasions I am filled with the Muse (although, because there was no prose when the Muses were invented, my Muse would have to be Calliope, Muse of Epic Poetry - that's her over there), and then the words come pouring forth, but even though at that moment there is no fear, there is fear on either side of that moment, because there's always the possibility that that won't happen again. I have had long periods of writer's block (LONG periods of writer's block), so I am familiar with that feeling.

I've never been afraid of the blank page, but I suppose that page is really a metaphor, a metaphor for the commencement. Only I've never really been afraid of the commencement of a piece of writing, either - in fact, I'm very good at opening paragraphs. What I'm afraid of is the long thickness ahead, the places where, after the good beginning, it all goes wrong and doesn't work, or can't be made to say what I want it to say, or to have the import I want it to have. "Terror" really does describe the feeling I have in this regard when I pick up the pencil (which is how I start most academic things I write, at least).

But sometimes, reader, after I pick up the pencil...it all goes right. This is not to say that the words pour forth, that I write for hours and hours until I've finished some golden production, but rather that as I get into the writing of that first paragraph I get a feeling that it's all going to be fiiiiiiiiiiiine. It feels that drawn out and smooth. That doesn't mean there won't be difficulties along the way, or that I won't at some points feel hopeless and as if I can't scratch through to what I want, but there's a moment's knowing that it's all going to be okay; it's going to work out after all. And that moment, with its combination of joy, relief, and a curious reminder of my own power, almost cannot be beat.

Meanwhile, it is the second night of Hanukkah. Now, I'll be the first to admit I'm not much of a Jew-y Jew, but for some reason Hannukah brings out the Jew in me. Perhaps because I light the menorah in the dark, and the quiet, and recite a prayer while I do it, and therefore am somehow in a meditative state, performing this action is the only time in my life that I feel a member of a community. In the real world I don't much care for communities, either - my childhood showed me that groups are pretty much always out to get you (although I was thinking at brunch this morning how very much I like looking across the table, and down to my left and my right, and seeing that everyone seated there is a friend of mine) - but on Hannukah I draw great satisfaction from the realisation that all over the world other Jews are, or have been, or will be, doing exactly what I'm doing at that moment: that I am a Jew, a member of the Jewish community - a survivor, a brick in an old wall, a member of an indestructible certainty. Yes, I'm proud of that, and restful in it.

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"You have to let him miss you." I should have included this in the ealier list of wise utterances. My friend Jennifer said it to me years ago, when I was going to cancel a trip to New York (to see Arcadia, so you can imagine how blinded by love and worry I was) to stay with Irishboyfriend. After the bra thing, I think it's the piece of advice that resonates most strongly in my life, not just with reference to me and men but with reference to me and other people, and with reference to women and men generally. I think of it often, almost always when I'm about to do too much for someone (of either gender) or to be precipitate in some way (usually with a man): I hear Jennifer saying this in my head, and I haul myself back.

I possess a general desire to have situations resolved immediately: if I send an e-mail, I want the response in an instant (and, conversely, I find it very hard to leave an e-mail unanswered in my own inbox); I very seldom leave phone messages because I have no idea when the person will call back, and I can't stand waiting for them to do so. I remember almost twenty years ago when my Anglo-Saxon professor was explaining to us how mysterious and worrisome life and the world seemed to the Anglo-Saxons, and he said, "But even today the world is a mystery in many ways. When we drop a letter in the mailbox, we have no idea whether or not it will get where it's going." I felt a chill go down my spine, because that had always been one of my greatest concerns (which is why I feel a good deal of sympathy in that scene in When Harry Met Sally where she puts a letter in the box, closes the little door, checks to see it's gone down, puts another letter in the box, closes the door, checks...with each letter separately). Anyway, the point is that it's therefore all of a piece that if a man doesn't get in touch with me promptly I get tense. Or used to, before I figured out how not to do this (which is: go off and force myself to focus on something else until I get sucked into that, instead).

But this is not just me. I have a friend now who's just embarked on a new relationship, and she has worked herself into a wire-tight knot because the man occasionally won't text as often as he did, or because the wording of his e-mails (which she parses like a philologist in search of a lost root) seems less-than-ideally sweet. And I just think, and try to say, "Calm down!" I say wise things like, "Remember, you're checking him out, too: he doesn't have all the power," and, "Usually what we think is behaviour based on feelings about us has very little do with us," or even just, "He's stressed!", but I see so much of the me I used to be - and could very well be again if I don't keep my head if I ever have another relationship - that I worry and wonder.

This tension over contact and its significance seems to be limited to women. At least, I've never encountered a man who worried over it as many women I know do. I wonder why this is? First of all, are there men who worry in this way? (or, do all men worry in this way, but they don't share it with women? Hmm...) Well, presumably yes, since there are men who do everything - or rather, since there's some man out there doing each thing there's some woman out there doing. So, then, I wonder why this worry seems to predominate in women. No doubt it's because generations of women have sat by the phone waiting (as Dustin Hoffman nearly says inTootsie), and have passed the belief that one waits and worries while one waits on to their daughters. And no doubt it's also because women tend to be more anxious than men (there's a question in its own right: why?). And of course women are encouraged to be openly vastly more insecure than men. But why is it, I wonder, that women tend to feel you should be there - whichever of those two words you choose to put the stress on - and be there consistently and immediately, or else love is going, and men don't tend to think so? I wonder what difference has been trained in there, or is biologically inherent? And I wonder how I'd go about researching it...

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10 December 2009


Well well well well well. A very enjoyable date.

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09 December 2009

Bed, Rest

My great-grandmother (or maybe my grandmother, since my mother inherited them from her) used to have these lovely little bed jackets. A bed jacket is an item you don't see much anymore, given that the time when women used to spend their mornings lounging around in bed, even receiving visitors there, is past. Today, however, I wish for a bed jacket, as I am self-confined to bed for the second day in a row.

I love bed. I used to spend hours in bed. At night I would get in bed and do my grading there, assisted by my handy bed desk. In the morning I would wake up and do my reading there, assisted by my handy knees (incidentally, best way to create a secure prop for your book with your knees: get yourself into position and then pigeon-toe your toes. For some reason, the grip
is much stronger, so your knees don't slide down). After I finished a paper or a chapter I would climb in there to revise it. But now I don't spend so much time in bed, and I don't know why (although I do still spend a lot of time on the floor reading. Don't knock the floor, baby! Sitting on the floor against some sort of perpendicular solid, preferably slightly scrunched up, is to me the most pleasant and comforting of reading positions). I've opted to spend a second day in bed because I'm trying to recover quickly, but so far the only result is that when I get out of bed, or when I sit up, my head swims and I get the sensation of sort of being stoned. I feel like the woman who wrote Seabiscuit! And it's so boring. And I have no visitors. Although I could have visitors if I wanted, but I don't really want because, although there's almost no more delightful vision than that of sitting up in bed talking to a visitor (more delightful might be the visitor getting on the bed with me), if someone came to visit I'd have to put on my pyjama bottoms, and that's a drag.

Anyway, confined to bed as I am, I discover that suddenly all the stuff I hate doing seems like the most desirable activity in the world. I want to go to the gym! I want to work on my book! I want to write student recommendations! Instead, I am experiencing forced leisure - except it isn't really leisure, because I can't really concentrate, so I can't read, for example.

A couple of days ago I was talking to someone who said, "I don't really think about work when I'm not working." I found that a most extraordinary fact. But...but...who doesn't think about work when they're not working? Well, this person, apparently. But I think about work all the time. But then, I'm working all the time.

Or so I thought.

I started to think about how often I work, and in my rudimentary calculations it's not a lot. If you add up the time I spend on facebook, or doing tango, or watching stuff on youtube or iTunes, I don't work much more than most people - in fact, I probably work less (although God bless O., who said, "Well, as a writer you're working all the time." I love it that someone thinks creative writer is my real job). The difference is that work is always hanging over my head. In fact it's been that way ever since I was in grad school: when I was working on my Ph.D. I used to feel guilty every time I went to the movies, feeling that I ought to be at home waiting for an idea to come, or working, although ideas rarely came, and I rarely worked, when I was at home for those otherwise-movie-wasted hours. Also, I intersperse my work with so much play that I frequently have work "left to do." So perhaps what I ought to do is just do my work, and get it over with, and then have my fun. This is not a new idea, but it's one I'm going to try again in earnest.

When I first went to Otherhome, in the first semester I was there, on the days I didn't have to teach I would do my own work from 9-5, with an hour or so for lunch, and then at 5 I would start my preparation for the next day's classes. And it worked a treat! As did the working earlier this term, where I read all morning and afternoon without checking e-mail. But I'm thinking of something even firmer. I'm thinking of just working until the work is done, then stopping, rather than filling in the time with more work.

Once or twice over the last few years I've tried imagining what I'll do when the book is finished: not what I'll do next, but what it will be like to have nothing to do for a bit, what I'll do with all that leisure. And always, not so very far beneath the surface, is a feeling of confusion and cold dread. I really have no idea who I'll be without some ongoing work. And that's not good.

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08 December 2009


A good deal of "meeting" people on the internet involves evaluating the likes and dislikes they list, or list for you. This has always struck me as a somewhat odd way to evaluate someone - as if everyone who loved, say, Everything is Illuminated is exactly the same sort of person - but for some reason when I was puttering around the kitchen yesterday it struck me particularly forcefully as bizarre. Perhaps because I was thinking about something math-y, and that made me think of Dr. Higher, and that made me think of how we change, or might change, or should change.

There's something about this way of considering someone that seems to me to imagine them as eternally going to be the person they are at the present moment: "Ah, you do not dance tango. Thus, you never will dance tango. Thus, you are out." But before I met Dr. Higher I had no idea what an algebraic geometer was, or a sheaf, or a bundle. And now I miss having someone to talk to me about those things, and although I wouldn't say I remain actively interested in them, I do perk up when I hear about them. And before I met Irishboyfriend I couldn't have cared less about George Whitfield or Father Ted, but now Ted, at least, is intrinsic to my life (also, I know how to give a pill to a cow). And look at tango, or iPhone apps, or the hundreds of other things I've started to pay attention to that I never even knew existed to be paid attention to before.

So it's odd to learn about someone based on their interests, and perhaps even on their likes and dislikes. There ought to be some way to get a sense of their personalities: are they thoughtful? Do they remember things you say? (this one should come very high) What do they laugh at? Because it seems me that although your interests change, your approach to those interests is probably unlikely to change radically by the time you're, say, in your thirties.

Although there, too, I think I might be wrong. I've known people to undergo radical changes in their personalities or approaches to life or understanding of the world quite late in the game. So who can say?

I was thinking about that the other day, too, because I was thinking about the fact that it looks as if my VTTT might be single again. Although I'm not really attracted to my VTTT, and I certainly don't think we have enough to support a relationship, he is objectively an attractive man, and on hearing this news I did think, Hmm... But my VTTT is 13 years older than I, which I've always considered too large an age difference, and I was slightly surprised to discover this change in myself.

I always thought that adulthood was a monolithic state: that at some point you arrived at a stage where you were certain - of what you knew, of what you believed, of how your world would go, of how you felt - and that was adulthood. But I surely must be an adult by now, and that's not how it is at all. There are just as many surprises, and reconsiderations, and adjustments and changes, as there were when I was 20 - more, in fact. Which I suppose is healthy - better than being set in your ways, better than having the conservativism that comes from certainty - but is also rather wearying. Or perhaps it's better to say, rather surprising.

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Sickness and Health

I'm home sick in bed. Well, under normal circumstances I'd be home, but I wouldn't be sick and in bed. This development is very annoying, because I was supposed to start writing today, and although I'm not running a fever or rendered incompetent, I'm just sick enough that I have no attention span, and thus can't produce. Grr.

Also, my sickness is interfering with...my date! That's right: I have a date. I know it's a date, because I made it -- and I made it in date-y language, so unless the other person is mentally deficient, they must recognise that it's a date. So if it turns out not to be a date as far as they're concerned, that's no fault of mine. Unfortunately, my sickness means I've had to postpone: my date was for tomorrow, but even though I'm on the sickness mend, I won't be mended by tomorrow. So I've had to put it off, hopefully only until Thursday. Reader, I will keep you, as it were, updated. Hahahahahaha.

But neither sickness nor dates is what I wanted to write about today.

My parents, I often think to myself these days, did a remarkably good job of raising me. They gave me a reasonable set of moral standards, and a hell of a lot of good sense: I recognise that I'm likely to be happiest with an age-appropriate mate; I accept that there are different stages of life and different experiences and behaviours appropriate to them; I think carefully about my decisions. And when I think about how my parents managed to shape and influence me in lasting ways, what immediately springs to mind is things they've said to me. Of course, a lot of the influence parents and other role models have is silent and subtle, absorbed by unconscious observation, but in my case - perhaps because I'm so word-oriented - a good deal of the way my parents continue to influence me is via actual verbal advice and observations they've given. Especially my mother. She's a difficult woman, my mother, but she's certainly had some very wise things to say. So I thought I'd use this post to ruminate on the best pieces of advice I've received, from my parents and elsewhere.

"When you're married to someone, you have to see them every way. You see them healthy; you see them sick. You see them happy; you see them irritated. You see them good; you see them bad." My mother told this to me years ago, just as part of a discussion we were having (weirdly, I remember exactly where we were: she was wiping a kitchen counter, and I was getting something off the back stairs). I remember it not just because it sometimes seems to me a useful way to evaluate a partner (would I want to stick with this person when they're being crabby?), but also because it reminds me, and has reminded me when I've been in relationships, that you're in it for the long haul, and that you can't just quit because the person turns out not to be quite as nice as you'd like.

"Always wear a bra, or else your breasts will sag." My mother told me this when I was about 19 or 20 and succeeded, frankly, in scaring the crap out of me. Years later she revealed to me that her breasts had always sagged, so the advice was based on no experience and thus was largely worthless, but it was too late! The damage had been done. And now when I get up in the morning the second thing I do (after turning on the computer: before e-mail, it was the first thing I did) is put on my bra. I have been mammarily traumatised. Thanks, Mom. Still, as she and a number of other people pointed out to me, it can't hurt, and to be honest it probably has helped me in the breast department.

"The first time, you don't have to get it right; you just have to get it down." My father said this to me when I started writing my dissertation and was finding it so hard to get onto paper what I wanted to say. I remember this observation (or warning) not because I've come to accept it as true, but because I still get upset when I can't say what I mean in my first draft: every time that happens, I reassure myself by saying this.

"I had a very difficult relationship with your aunt. But now it's worked out, and although it's still problematic it's a very valuable relationship to me." This is another one I remember because it forces me to question myself. When I think about my own lack of relationship with my sister, I think of my mother saying this, and I wonder if someday it might still all work out. I wonder if I should hold on, just in case it one day turns into something valuable.

"I don't think cross-cultural relationships can work." This is a strange one. When my mother first said it to me, my blood ran cold (I've only ever fancied people from other cultures!), while at the same time I was aware of its strangeness (my mother is an immigrant from a family of cultured upper-class German Jews; my father is a member of a working-class Protestant family: when he told his mother my mother was Jewish, she said, "Don't say such a thing!"). As it happens, I don't agree with this statement, but I do think it has a truth in it, in that I don't believe a relationship can work if the two people have nothing in common (studies have shown that opposites do not attract), and in particular if they don't have language in common. Which is to say, I think both partners in a relationship must share fluency in a language. I also think that it's incredibly important for the partners at least to try to know each other's native tongues - maybe things didn't work out with Dr. Higher, but they wouldn't have worked out a lot sooner if I hadn't had some sense of German. That helped me to understand him a little better.

"Remember, it is a job." Not from a parent, but from my advisor. This definitely counts as one of the top most useful pieces of advice I've ever got, although it's also almost totally opaque. In fact, it work so well precisely because it is almost totally opaque. You know how you often wish that things came wrapped in drama or an announcement of their own importance? Well, this actually did. When my advisor took me out for tea after I passed my defence, she said to me, "This is the last thing I'm going to say to you as your advisor: Remember, it is a job." Dun dun DAH. At the time it was so rhetorically effective that I didn't ask for clarification, but I think that's just as well, because it's meant that I have been able to give it many meanings. I think of it at the end of every semester, and now every term, when you have to do all the little draggy stuff like recording grades or marking late papers: these are the parts of my job that are a job, and I have to accept that they're part of it. I think of it when I have colleagues I don't like: they're not my family; it's a job (actually, my advisor told me this is what she meant). I think of it when I have to do committee work, or check my Works Cited for typos, or when I don't get my way about something, or when I'm writing all those boring recommendation letters. Remember, it is a job.

"Either you're in or you're out, but if you're in, you're in." Yeah, can you believe it, my sister said this to me. She said it about someone else, but I nonetheless often hear it ringing in my ears. This is another one that comes up when I have to check the Works Cited for typos, but also when I'm having trouble writing and decide to "give myself a break" by checking e-mail every five minutes. It's actually quite useful.

"They always star Bruno Ganz." You have to say this to yourself in a worldweary voice, which is how my mother first said it to me,
although the tone was for no particular reason. I'm afraid this one offers no larger life lesson; it's just something I remember. I was telling my mother the plot of Knife in the Head, a quite good but also quite odd German film, and in introducing it I said, "It stars Bruno Ganz." This was her reply. What I think she meant was that for a long period it seems as if every German film had Bruno Ganz in it - although what she may have meant was that a certain kind of German film - thoughtful, slow, Important - always seems to star Bruno Ganz (both are true). In any case, even now Bruno Ganz shows up in a surprisingly large number of German films, and whenever I see him I think of this line.

"If a man doesn't know what he wants after three weeks, he knows but he's too scared to tell you." This came from MCLSJB, less than a year ago, but it's proven very handy. It's not just that when I've taken this as a rule of thumb about men it's turned out to be true, but also that it's a good way of separating the sheep from the goats: when I look back I discover that male wafflers I have known have also proven to be less-than-brave or less-than-frank in more important ways, too. But it's also turned out to be a useful tool about myself. Before I would waffle potentially endlessly about difficult decisions, but now I remember this utterance, and after whatever constitutes three weeks in the given circumstances (30 seconds, if I'm deciding on lunch; 3 weeks, if I'm deciding to go home for Christmas), I just ask myself what I really want, then go with the immediate answer. Well done, MCLSJB!

And now I find myself fading away with illness. I need a nap...

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03 December 2009

Leafing Though

Reading is a curious thing. It takes much more time than, say, watching a TV programme. It also offers much less immediacy, since when watching TV you see the characters that in reading you have to make up in your head. It's an isolated and isolating activity.

And yet we do it. You're reading this right now, for example. And if you are, you chose to, rather than doing something like talking to a friend, which would
seem a much more enriching activity. And not only do we do it, but we talk about it, and not only do we talk about it, but sometimes we are interested to hear about it even if we haven't done it. O.M. was telling me last night that she'd been reading Catherine Millet's new book, and even though I haven't read it and she didn't tell me the plot (which I already knew, from reading articles about it), I wanted to know what she thought of it. B. wrote to me from Russia telling me he'd enjoyed Our Man in Havana: I haven't read it, but I quite like Graham Greene and, although I have no plans to read Our Man in the near future, I was interested to hear that someone I liked had read a book by someone I'd liked. In that case, it was partially because I now will make a mental note to read it, but it was also because just generally I like to know if you're enjoying the book you're reading or not.

What is it that makes reading so enjoyable, I wonder? And what is it that makes it for some people, in a world where there are many other options besides reading books, a thing they still do as a matter of course? You get drawn into other worlds, certainly. And you have to do some of the drawing yourself, which I really think is part of the attraction: you envision the characters and the situations, and so you're more interested and invested in them. But at the same time there's the fact that the author is doing a good deal of the work - most people have favourite fictional characters, for example (the man who appears in Markheim, for me, or Henry Tilney, whom my friend K and I decided in college would be the perfect husband, and for whom I've always maintained a residual fondness), which suggests some authors do especially good jobs of creating characters, or at least that character - and the fact that that work is being done, and an experience offered to you, is very soothing. Certainly this passive reception is a large part of the attraction of reading, but so is the active reception. And then there's the thinking. I don't just mean the thinking about larger issues that a novel might raise - I mean even just the simple act of going back over the plot in your mind, thinking about what the characters have done and what you've particularly liked.

Following on from that, as I've said I'm currently reading Tender is the Night. It's certainly depressing, yet...I like it ("I like it; I like it"). Essentially, I like
Fitzgerald's writing very much. I sometimes think that I pay a lot of attention to the way in which literature is written - the use and placement of words and the effect those have on tone or weight - because I'm a writer myself, but really it's probably just something that's happened as I've got older. In any case, Fitzgerald is very good in this way in Tender: he deploys words to effect extraordinarily well. Also, he's a very keen observer of human emotion, and a very good comprehender of it. For example, the main character, Dick Diver, is deeply attracted to the young Rosemary Hoyt, but even as he embarks on an affair with her - or wavers toward doing so - he retains his belief that his wife is the most beautiful woman he knows, and that they are deeply and necessarily bound to each other. His desire for Rosemary is fresh, but his love for his wife is deep, and seems (at the stage I've reached, anyway) to outweigh his desire. Yet his desire pulls and haunts him. Fitzgerald clearly comprehends that and how that this might be the case, and not only does he comprehend it, but he portrays the feelings vividly enough that the reader accepts them (understanding them is a different story).

There's a really marvellous portion of a chapter, in which Diver is haunted by a description of an at least sensual encounter Rosemary may have had in a train compartment: he imagines a request to pull down the curtain, eagerly granted, and the question, "Do you mind if I pull down the curtain?", becomes a refrain he can't get out of his head. It comes to him in several different situations, and with several different metaphorical meanings, in the next couple of chapters, and one gradually comes to see the way in which lust - or at least an utterance that inspires lust - can become a kind of warning against itself: "the curtain" gradually, metaphorically, becomes the veil that Diver draws in front of his desire for Rosemary, or his tendency to imagine her in this arousing situation, so the words that indicate arousal themselves become a warning against further arousal. Very well done on Fitzgerald's part.

Yet the book has very little apparent style, or perhaps it might be better to say very little apparent idiosyncratic style. All that Fitzgerald deploys stylistically seems designed first and foremost to give reader clear access to the situation and the characters' experience of it (not that this always works, I hasten to add, and some plot developments seem very odd. There are some bits I don't get at all). And thinking about this in the kitchen tonight while I was making my milk, I thought that perhaps that's the sign of a great prose writer: a great prose writer makes style secondary to the desire to communicate his or her world. Which is not to say the style need not be apparent, or even foregrounded. But the goal is always to make it do service to the communication, so that even overt style is used for a purpose, a purpose of clarity.

In any case, as the woman in the play does not say, You've a way with you, F. I'm sure I like it.

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