30 June 2009

A Murder of Crows

In the spring semester of 2008, I had a student, JJ.  He was one of those people I found irritating on sight.  I think I thought he was pretentious, and I know I thought he was pompous and full of himself.  My evidence was: he wore a full suit to teach; he had a full beard and moustache, and he had snippets of deeply canonical poetry pasted on his door (Yeats's  "Politics," an excerpt from Blake's The Book of Thel - those lines about the golden bowl).  On reflection, I stand by that last one, because to proudly demonstrate one's allegiance to such works manages to display simultaneous pomposity and callowness.  But the others, I admit, were just prejudice.  Also, he had an annoying voice.

Anyway, when he got into my class he did reveal himself to be an old-fashioned textual critic, the sort who disregards any kind of historical background or cultural evidence, and that is a problem.  Still, before I had more than the tiniest inkling of that, I dismissed him with contempt.  And thinking about this last night while I was washing my face, I thought, I should have behaved better. I should have given him a chance.  He angered me very much when, in our fourth or fifth class, he blithely ignored the directions I had given for what text to read and explicitly read the one I had said not to read, but that's not really much reason to take against someone, and I was the teacher, so I ought to have been more mature and above it.  I regret it.  You have my apologies, JJ.

All of which is to say, today was my first day of teaching.  And I don't think I did too badly.  In my big class I had to introduce them to the eighteenth century, which is my worst century, but I don't think they saw how nervous I was.  And in my one-on-one meeting (with a student who can't meet me at the same time as all the other students in my other class, which I'll be teaching tomorrow) all I did was take him through the syllabus, which took ten minutes.  Actually, I quite enjoyed that meeting not because it took ten minutes, but because the student didn't want to sit on my futon sofa, and so asked if he could bring in a one-person desk that was in the corridor.  So I sat in my comfy desk chair and he sat in his tiny desk, and it looked as if I were some professor who bizarrely insisted on strictest formality even when I was teaching in my office.

Which brings us to tonight's picture, which is, cunningly, a picture not of where I teach but of where I am taught:  my ballet class studio.  I took it from the corner from which we depart to do our grand allegro (the left back corner.  Coincidentally, I like to stand at the left-hand barre toward the back, which is not in the picture, and I become silently snitty if I don't get to stand there.  People are weirdly territorial about their ballet barre spots).  If you look, you can see the rosin "pit" in the far diagonal corner...

Tomorrow I move back into my own lovely flat.  I have heartily enjoyed staying with my friends, but I am looking forward to getting into my own, known, space.  I shall go stand in the charming alcove that is what I almost love best about my flat, and I shall be glad.

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27 June 2009

Seduced by Books

Temperature at noon:  34c/94f (felt like 39c/102f)

In Christmas of 2008, at the department Christmas party, MCLSJB (who knew me, but not well) said to me, "Hey, Dr. [Me], did you know that there's a twenty-four lingerie shop in town?"  I said, "Really?!?"  And he said, "I knew you'd be interested in that."  I couldn't fully believe that there would  be such a shop, because  (a) WhereIlive is very religious, so a twenty-four lingerie shop seemed a curious addition to town, and (b) Who needs a twenty-four hour lingerie shop?  A few days after the Christmas party, though, I drove past where he said it was, and there it was!  Many weeks later, I finally got around to going in, and it turns out to be much more than a lingerie shop.  There are costumes!  There are DVD's!  There are...items! Quite a broad array, in fact.  Being me, I got into a chat with the woman behind the counter, and she told me that their busiest time is between midnight and 8am.  Who would have guessed?  Well, apparently one person, because my friend BC was utterly unsurprised.  According to his logic, this would be the best time to sneak out for your sex shop needs:  no one you knew would observe you.  Anyway, ever since then I've been tickled whenever I drive by the twenty-four hour lingerie shop, as I love the oddness of its existence.  So today's picture is:   The Twenty-Four Hour Lingerie Shop.

I love the slogan:  "Home of the naughty."  Oh, you minxish shop, you!

All of which is a rather odd opening for a post that will now turn out to be about books. Shortly before I left WhereIwas to come here, I decided one night that I would sell as many of my belongings as I could, including as many of my books as I could.  I'd lived without these things for a year and hadn't missed most of them, my logic went, so selling them would be no big deal.  Today, therefore, I went through my books, preparatory to taking them to the used book store (alas, not twenty-four hour). 

Well, it turns out that shucking off books is an altogether more complicated endeavour than I imagined.  Books, I should not be surprised to learn but was interested to discover, involve a good deal more than simple "need."  They involve memories, and background, and life.  I have a book of Seamus Heaney's poems:  I don't even like Seamus Heaney, but that book was given to me by my parents, and you can't sell a book your parents gave you, and inscribed.  I have a book of Pre-Raphaelite art, and strictly speaking I don't need it, but I love Pre-Raphaelite art, and that love is part of who I am:  even if I never open it again, having it on my shelf announces to people a little bit of what I'm like.  Obviously I wasn't going to sell my rare books, or my sentimental books (Sheep out to Eat, anyone?), but I have many, many more books than those.

I was most surprised by my reaction when I came to the box of contemporary poetry books. I've never thought of myself as a lover of contemporary poetry, except for Simon Armitage, but looking at the Philip Larkin, the Patrick Kavanagh, and even the Ted Hughes, I just couldn't bring myself to put them in the "to go" pile.  They are, in some inarticulable way, essential to me.

Well, I'm a book person.  Still, standing there in the midst of this sea of reading matter that I might never come back to permanently, and that will cost me a small fortune to ship anywhere, I was surprised by how interwoven these objects were with me.  They don't define me, and I don't need them, but in some curious way they are elemental for me.  Hm.

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26 June 2009

Which God and Good Men Had Quite Given Up On

Temperature at 10pm: 24c/76f

Today I went to Walmart. It has a new logo, so that will be the photo of the day (because I forgot to take a photo of anything else):

I hate Walmart. I consider it the abode of the devil: it's a non-union shop, which in my opinion is just about the worst crime a business can commit short of actual illegal activities; and what's more it treats its employees horribly (no doubt the two are connected) and uses its ubiquity to keeps its suppliers in a stranglehold. Nonetheless, it is the only place in WhereIlive that sells two items I need. Of course, as my friend BC pointed out, the devil always has items that you can get nowhere else, and that you at least believe you need. Which made me feel simultaneously a little guilty (that I felt I needed these things) and vaguely justified (since this point seems to prove that Walmart is indeed either the abode of the devil or the devil himself). Possessing these conflicting emotions, I descended to Walmart, which did have the two things I needed, and where I was reminded of one thing I like about Walmart: as the woman above suggests, everyone who shops there is of a size that makes me feel slim. Indeed, when I first moved to WhereIlive and first went to Walmart (where I had to shop for a little while, until I got my first raise and had enough money to move on to Target), I had the same experience that I had when I attended my one and only Weight Watchers meeting: despite being a good twenty pounds overweight, I looked around and thought, I don't need to lose any weight at all. I am a sylph! This time, I briefly revelled in the fat people, whisked my two items off the shelf, and hustled myself out the door to...

My first ballet class here. And, indeed, my first ballet class for something like four months. On the one hand, ouch. My calf muscles will hate me tomorrow, and my demi pliè was really a knee bend of about four inches (shameful), while my arabesque was about 15 inches off the floor (even more shameful). Plus - oh, the humanity - after months of teaching myself not to pull my weight back in tango...I pulled my weight back on the pirouettes! And on the promenades! Apparently tango and ballet are not remotely related in this way, at least.

On the other hand, given that it's been four months, not bad. Fluffed the pirouettes, couldn't penchè more than about a foot, but I whipped through the petit allegro, beat my feet as required, and managed to hold my relevès where, er, relevant. So I am rather more sanguine than I was at the start of the class. Also, because it was baking hot, I was actually more stretchy than I might otherwise have been, and got more stretched than I might otherwise have got. Both good things.

Also today I put for sale on e-bay many handbags. For a very long time, I loved handbags, and I collected (to the extent that you can collect something you use) witty or beautiful ones. Then, when I met Mr. Fallen and needed to save money so I could go and visit him, I suddenly and totally lost interest in buying handbags; I found something better to spend my money on. Still, that left me with something like 35 handbags (yes, you read that right). Well, after a year without those handbags I find I don't need them at all - and what's more, I do need money to live next year. So off they all go. Well, not quite all...I can't bear to part with the one that looks like a pot of flowers, or the one that looks like a woman's torso, or the one with the ostrich feathers. But the others? Consigned to e-bay! Just wait until next week, when I put my fancy dresses up for sale and take my outerwear to the homeless shelter...

Although it may not seem like it, I have been having weighty thoughts while I have been here; I just haven't been able to settle enough to write them (I'm staying with friends until my flat comes free on Tuesday, and I find it hard to relax and focus fully when I'm not writing in my own space). I shall try to be a bit weightier tomorrow.

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25 June 2009

Second Day

Temperature at noon:  35c/96f

Today's hot news (no pun intended) must be that I got my car.  Here is something that will give you a sense of what WhereIlive is like:  the man I sold the car to, who is kindly lending it back to me for a month (in itself a demonstration of what people are like here), parked it outside my former and soon-to-be current flat, rolled down the windows slightly, tucked  the car keys under the front floor mat, and left it there overnight.  As he well knew would be the case, no one stole it.

So I slipped the key out from under the floor mat, hopped in the car, and drove.  And it turns out that, as someone said to me yesterday, driving a car is like riding a bike:  I killed no one, and I even drove on the busy main road! 

This car and its possession are curious things.  At home, I have never once felt the need of a car. I have very occasionally wished for one, to get me to the big Tesco, but that's not need.  Nor, indeed, have I felt the want of a car.  If I want to go somewhere, I hop on my bicycle, or on my legs, and go there, and it never occurs to me that I might do otherwise.  By the time I'd been here for 24 hours, however, I yearned to have my car, felt the absence of a car keenly.  This is certainly in part because it's almost impossible to get anywhere here without a car (it's more than a mile to the nearest decent store), but it's also because everybody has one.  A testament to the power of ubiquity, and thus simultaneously a testament to the power of lack of ubiquity, perhaps.  If no one had cars, how many people, I wonder, would want one?

And here is today's photo:  

This is a photo of the view from my office window (well, strictly speaking, it's also a photo of my office window). If one overlooks the large building at the bottom, I think, it's a beautiful view.  It relaxes me every time I look at it.

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23 June 2009

Home. Ish.

Temperature: 32c/94F (feels like 38c/102F, according to weather.com)

Well, you are no doubt saying to yourselves, where are you? Are you back in the States? Is it weird? I can answer these questions. Yes, I am in the States. And...kind of.

First of all, I stayed up until I left at 4:50 in the morning, got to Heathrow at 8, then got on the plane at 10. I then went to sleep for five hours. As a result, the sense you get while on the plane that you're going somewhere, that you're moving from Place A to Place B, was missing. So when I landed in Newark it somehow wasn't as odd as it might be. You will no doubt be pleased to know that there was no weeping this time.

Some things, though, are very odd. For one thing, American paper money is weird. It's all the same colour! And it's really long. I have to crumple it to fit it in my wallet. You guys need to fix your money.

For another thing, everyone speaks in this very strange accent. I realise, of course, that to some degree this is my accent, but since I haven't heard my accent pointed at me in person in many months, it's odd. And the accent here in WhereIlive is very odd: I never heard a Southern accent sound so...Southern before.

For another other thing, everything seems hugely expensive. My lunch today cost $6! That seems very expensive to me. Perhaps, I thought walking back from the bank, everything seems expensive because now I'm used to thinking how much things are worth in pounds? In other words, I know that eighteen pounds is very cheap for a dress, and that 75p is a good price for a packet of biscuits, but I have no notion of whether $6 is a reasonable amount for lunch. My axis of comparison has altered. Or shifted.

But the other odd thing is the one I anticipated (which is nonetheless odd): being here is perfectly real and normal. First of all, nothing in WhereIlive has changed. Okay, a car dealership closed down (hurrah!), but that's hardly a giant alteration to the fabric of the town. And aside from that truly nothing has changed. When I walked into my department this morning, it felt as if I'd only left yesterday. My office was a bit of a shock, since I'd forgotten that I'd left boxes of books piled in it, but that was easily adjusted to. I ordered a hoagie from my favourite hoagie place, and I'm eating it right now. In five minutes I'm going to go off to the bank... Even the tango music I'm playing in the background feels perfectly normal, despite the fact that I've never played tango in this office, or this state, or this country, before.

Nonetheless, there are a couple of odd blips at the moment. First, I've already had an Issue That Needed a Boy: I can't transfer the sound files from the usb I got to the ITunes on my PC. Panic! Outrage! Sulky irritation! I thought, A Boy would know how to do this. But there was no boy around! Still, the only result is that I'll sort it all out tomorrow. So I guess the only real blip was when it turned out that, after I agreed to substitute in and teach a course on very short notice, they refused to accommodate my request that the time of my other course (enrollment: 6) be changed to make room for a standing appointment I have. Very surprisingly, I took a stand. I think I may even have told them that in that case I would refuse to teach it. You would have to know me very well to know how unusual this is: I am terrified of alienating people, so I almost never stand up to them (although most people assume me to be quite different, because I have very clear opinions and beliefs. But an opinion is not an assertion, is it? And I suck at assertion). But stand up I did. So I suppose I have changed. Or else I'm so joggled by jetlag that I'm a different person.

And what's more, I got the change I wanted.

My friends here are glad to see me. And I them. So that's lovely.

I've decided that each day I blog while I'm here I'll post a photo of something from my life here. Here is the first one, a sign for a restaurant I saw in LaGuardia airport in New York. For private reasons, this sign made me laugh; more publicly, I admire the wit of the neologism. Way to stick together (I assume) running and burrito!

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21 June 2009

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19 June 2009

West Coast

There's a wonderful song by Coconut Records about leaving, and I think of it tonight as I blog.

On Monday morning I'm leaving for the States for two months.  That's not a bad thing, as past posts have pointed out (and, as my friend Jennifer said, at the very least if it's awful I'll be reminded of why I decided to stay here).  But it is odd.

Today was my last lesson with the VTTT before I leave.  I went to his house; we had our cup of tea; we practised milonga because I'm bad at milonga.  We danced to a song called "De Pura Cepa," which I call to myself "the train song," because it has these irregular noises that I think sounds like a train whistle (or the Popeye theme).  And it was absolutely real, because it was reality.  But wandering back from doing my washing, listening to that song, I realised that at this time next week that reality will be a memory, like a dream, and my reality will be totally different.

This is not the first time I've thought this about leaving one place for another, but every time I think it, it amazes me.  I am here, now:  these tree leaves feel green and damply soft under my fingers; this grass rubs under my feet; that music comes out of the speakers while I try to dance to it; this face is right in front of me when I talk.  But in less than a week these leaves, this grass, that music, this face will all be pasts, will all be things that I will have to recreate or imagine if I am to have them.  Yet they are real now.  Yet they will be fantasy then.  That always seems unutterably odd to me.  This is my reality now, and in a week something totally different will be my reality. And in funny way, that makes this reality even more clear to me:  like it's etched in crystal.  Does that make sense?

Which leads me to say, I also almost can't believe that I'm coming back.  For 15 years, whenever I've left England it's been a year or more before I returned:  England was where I visited, and the States was where I lived.  But this time England is where I live; the States is where I visit. And to tell you how that makes me feel would be to sit across from you, and whisper in a murmur in your ear, and laugh that laugh that I like best of my laughs, the one that's like a gurgle of happiness; to tell you how that makes me feel would be to kiss you with my hands in your hair and a smile in my throat while I did it.

And tonight, I must tell you, all of us (that would be seven) crowded into or around my bathroom, and watched as O. cut S.A.'s hair.  Despite much commentary from the observing throng, she did a very good job indeed (particularly good considering that at one point there were four people in the small bathroom space, and there were always at least three hovering by the door). And although he didn't look anything like bad before, now he looks terrific.  La nuca de un Don Juan.  Un Don Juan amable.

I  bought a ticket to a second viewing of Arcadia, and even as I was doing it I thought I should buy two, because the price was so fantastic.  Now it turns out I should also have bought it for a different day.  So tomorrow I'll fix that, and then I'll have a ticket to take someone else to Arcadia.  Plus one viewing with S.  Yum.

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18 June 2009

Tickled Wooden

I love these men, and this clip, so much that I just had to put a link on here:

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Even at Arcadia, There Was I

Today I went to see a matinee of the revival of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia.  This is, of course, my favourite play, and I was thrilled to be seeing it.  But not as thrilled as I was after I'd had the experience.

In order to care about any discussion of a play, it probably helps to know the plot.  When I get my students to tell me a plot, I make them do it in five sentences (including one semi-colon), and it must begin, "So there's this..."  Arcadia is a complex play, so I'll give myself six sentences.

So there's this English country house, and in 1809 its inhabited by a number of people, including a young female maths genius, Thomasina Coverly, and her tutor, Septimus Hodge, and Hodge's friend Lord Byron.  Septimus Hodge sleeps with the wife of a terrible poet, who challenges him, by letter, to a duel as a consequence, but with much wit Septimus manages to avoid the duel.  In 1993, an overeager Byron academic discovers the three letters in a book owned by Byron and draws the conclusion that Byron fought a duel with the poet, who disappears from view after 1809; a female colleague of his is highly dubious.  It gradually transpires that in fact no duel was fought, and that Thomasina early discovered the second law of thermodynamics, but the modern academics don't know that because the evidence has disappeared (there is a mathematician in the modern house, so the maths is explained).  We also learn that Thomasina died in a fire the night before her 17th birthday.  At the end of the play, the modern academic's assertion is debunked, and Septimus and Thomasina, who have kissed earlier, first have a discussion about the end of the world, and then dance; she asks him to come to her room, tells him that she will wait up, and when he says he won't come they continue to dance, and two of the modern characters do the same, melding time.

Wooh.  Okay, two semi-colons.  But pretty good.

There were problems.  Of course there were.  Perhaps the biggest of these, for me, was the man playing Septimus Hodge, the tutor.  This character is really the star of the play:  he's the wittiest, and the sexiest, person on stage.  In order to be that, he has to be very fast, so that the conversations he has are more like repartee on his part than anything else ("Septimus, what is carnal embrace?" "Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one's arms around a side of beef").  The actor, however, decided to pause before giving the answers, which rather destroys the impression of wit. What's more, he often uttered his witty lines in a manner highly reminiscent of Rowan Atkinson, and that was just weird.  Added to all this, he was thick about the middle.  I'm sorry, but Septimus Hodge is just not thick about the middle!  He is raffish, and raffish means slender.  

Part of the problem here is that in the original production Septimus Hodge was played by Rufus Sewell, who in the part looked like this:

I think we can agree that he looks both raffish and not thick about the middle.  Of course, what he really looks is Byronic, which is exactly what Septimus is supposed to be.  And which this man was not.

And then...oh, dear...he missed out one of my very favourite lines.  After Septimus comes back from not fighting a duel at 5am, he says to the butler, "The dawn, you know:  unexpectedly lively. Birds, frogs, rabbits...If only it did not occur so early in the day."  And this man didn't say the last sentence! Which makes the whole statement pointless, really.  To be fair, I am an almost uniquely aware viewer of Arcadia, since I basically know it by heart...But to forget such a line?

Also, the people playing the two academics yelled at each other too much.  I just don't feel those characters would do that.

But what was good about the play, you will say?  And I will tell you:  Ed Stoppard as Valentine Coverley.  He was marvellous.  As I said, the play normally belongs to Septimus, but in this case it absolutely belonged to Valentine, and this was simply because Ed Stoppard was the best thing on the stage (although the two main women were also excellent).  It didn't hurt that he was pleasing to look upon (yes, he is Tom Stoppard's son, and if you look you can see that he got the curious bottom half of his father's face), 

but to be honest, he could have looked like the back of a bus.  Man, he was so good!  He made the character seem as if he'd just wandered in from the street -- not as if he was the product of a page, but rather as if he were a complete and actual human being. I suppose this is what is meant by "he inhabited the part," but in this case it was more that the part inhabited him.  I simply believed that that person was Ed Stoppard, and that Ed Stoppard was that person. (funnily, I think I said this was what I liked about David Tennant's Hamlet:  that he was so human.)

And then there was something else... As I may have mentioned before, Arcadia is one of only two pieces of literature that make me cry every time (the other one is Middlemarch).  I always cry at the end.  But this time I cried all over the place!  The first time was when, early in the first act, Thomasina and Septimus discuss the fact that her father is always hunting something, and at the end of that discussion Septimus says, "Yes.  Even in Arcadia, there am I."  I'm not sure why that made me cry: perhaps simply because until I heard it said aloud, I never realised how well it captured the elusive but true ubiquity of death in life.  And I cried a couple of small times after that.

Because of the crying, the end of the play is always a bit of a tense business for me.  What if I don't cry?  Does that mean the play isn't any good anymore? Or I have become cold-hearted? But if I do cry, am I just faking it because I know I'm supposed to cry?  Well, there were no worries this time:  I cried so fully that big tears actually dropped onto my hands.

I used to say to people that I cried because 1.  They are so happy;  2. You know she's going to go upstairs and die; and 3. She gets to dance with Rufus Sewell, and I do not.  And this time I did cry for the first of those - it's a charming scene - and the second - it's a poignant scene - certainly (I want to say at this point that the tutor was very good in this scene.  When she asks him to come up to her room:  "You must come."  "I cannot come."  "You may come."  "I may not come."  "I will wait."  "I will not come."  [I'm sorry if this is wrong, but I'm working totally from memory, and this exchange is not one of the parts I remember well] he gave absolutely the sense of desire and frustration necessary).  But I cried for another reason this time, and I think it was because...this was life.

Now, doesn't that sound like another one of my depressing utterances?  "You dance with a hot guy, you're happy for a minute, then you go upstairs and burn to death. That's life, baby."  But in this case that's not what I mean.  I mean just the opposite in fact.  You know she's going to die, and he's going to go mad with self-blame and self-loathing (thus becoming the hermit in the recently built hermitage:  "How does one acquire a hermit?"  "Well, one could advertise..." "But surely a hermit who takes a newspaper is not a hermit in whom one can have complete confidence."), but in this moment they are utterly happy.  And that, it seemed to me at that moment and I think still seems to me now, is life:  terrible stuff might be coming, and death surely is, but on the way or in between we can be exquisitely, completely, delightfully happy; our knowledge that the world is running down, or that we are, does not interfere with our concrete happiness.  And that's poignant, but it's poignant because it's wonderful.

I will be going to see this Arcadia again.

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17 June 2009

The Return of the Joke

Here is a joke, one that I sometimes think these days has metaphorical application to my own life:

There is a great hurricane, and an entire town ends up under water.  A man takes refuge on his roof.  A member of his synagogue rows by in a boat and says, "Jacob, get in my boat!"  The man says, "No, thank you, I'm praying to God to rescue me."  A second boat with a member of his synagogue comes by, and the man in it says, "Jacob!  Get in the boat!  I'll row you to safety."  The man says, "Thanks, but no.  I'm praying for God to rescue me."  A third boat comes by, and the synagogue member in it says, "Jacob, please!  Hop in my boat.  It's not a problem, and I can save you."  The man says, "No, no.  I'm praying to God and waiting for him to rescue me."  No other boats come by, and the water rises, and the man drowns.  He goes to the afterworld and there's God!  The man says to him, "Lord, I prayed and prayed to you.  Why didn't you rescue me?"  And God says, "What do you mean? I sent three boats!"

I'm here every night.  Try the veal.

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16 June 2009


What becomes of missing in this hyper-connected age?  This is actually a question I've puzzled over quite a bit over the last two years or so.  Mr. Fallen lived here and I lived in the States when we were involved, and because I never asked if he had skype - it never occurred to me - our relationship was conducted through e-mails, and was thus like an epistolary relationship of old. Him I certainly missed.  I've talked to my parents via skype every two weeks while I've been here, and I've never missed them, but I wouldn't have missed them anyway (I think of them about once an hour, so they're always with me).  And, as I've once said, I miss very few people, and the friendships I had in WhereIlive were mostly not very deep, so when I left WhereIlive for here I never expected to miss the people I left behind.

But the people here are different:  I see them every day, often for quite a few hours at a time, so I've become quite attached to them, and thus when we separate there's the potential for missing.  

Now, over this past week TB went away on holiday. And I was very interested to see what happened,  because I was interested to see if I would miss someone who was away for just five days.  But one thing I forgot was that for TB, at least halfway, technology is a constant companion.  And so it was that all of a sudden at 2am on Thursday (11 hours after departure) up popped a skype message, and we had a tiny chat.  I enjoyed it, but I did think, If we chat while you're gone, how will I have a chance to miss you?  This was not enough to deter me from participating in skyping, though, so there were also random connections on Friday and last night.  And today TB came home.

You would think, and indeed I thought, that those skype talks (and one of them was quite long) would have prevented missing; I certainly didn't feel any missing over the five days (I did keep looking for TB in the canteen, but that's not missing:  that's just habit).  But when I came in for dinner tonight and saw TB at a table, I suddenly realised that there had been missing.  In fact, in a funny way that skyping had produced more missing:  I could see the voices, but it wasn't really conversing, and I guess that half-conversing had, without my realising it, made me feel the extent to which face-to-face conversation can't be replicated.

So now I know that the wonders of the digital age - the instant messages, the video conversations - don't stop the missing.  Of course, we're just animals at bottom, so naturally we want the smell of someone and the feel of their self, not just their written or spoken voice, or a moving image of them, however real-time and reactive.  

(although those things are lovely, too, and lovely in a different way, just as a conversation is differently lovely - neither better nor worse, just different - from a letter.)

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13 June 2009

That Bee-Like, Bubbling Busy Hum

...which is what Byron grants to London in Don Juan.  I went to London to meet some friends today, and, as the last couple of times, was struck by how utterly different it is from here.  Here is extremely nice; it has its own vibe, a rather village-y feel that I enjoy (I love towns small enough for you to run into people you know on a regular basis).  But London is, well, London.  It's crowded and busy and this makes it most unpleasant, but if you are seated somewhere above, as I was today when I went to my favourite patisserie, it also makes it lovely to observe.  

Also, London has a smell.  Or, to be strictly accurate, London at night has a smell.  Or, to be even more accurate, London at night in summer is lovely, and part of the loveliness is the smell. Whenever I think of London at night in summer the streets are always relatively empty (probably because the places I've gone at night recently have been out of the centre), the weather is fine and balmy, and there is a smell that smells, calmly and deliciously, of London at Night:  not hot, not thick, but a sort of warm, gentle smell.  One walks slowly through the relaxed summer evening, thinking how unhurried and enjoying it all is, the people glad to be outside or glad to be able to be outside, somehow even the streets more genteel and elegant (even when they're not).  To be outside on a summer night in London is a fine thing.

You will say to yourself - and you would be justified in saying - why has she illustrated this post with a picture of a column in some unidentified ugly area?  Well, that column is in fact a column in the King's Cross tube station, and every time someone comes to visit me here and we go to King's Cross (that is, every time someone comes to visit me here, since KC is our terminus tube station), I point to that column say, "That column is where Mr. Fallen kissed me good-bye before we parted, the first time I came to visit him."  Which it is.

(the man kind of ruins the lonely glamour of the picture, but you try taking a photo in King's Cross tube station that has no one in it.)

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12 June 2009

Nobody Else Remembers

Although I like Ted Hughes better than I like Sylvia Plath (which wouldn't be hard), I always found his poetry to be more than anything else eminently parody-able, until a couple of years ago, when I finally read this poem from Birthday Letters:

The Daffodils

Remember how we picked the daffodils?
Nobody else remembers, but I remember.
Your daughter came with her armfuls, eager and happy,
Helping the harvest. She has forgotten.
She cannot even remember you. And we sold them.
It sounds like sacrilege, but we sold them.
Were we so poor? Old Stoneman, the grocer,
Boss-eyed, his blood-pressure purpling to beetroot
(It was his last chance,
He would die in the same great freeze as you) ,
He persuaded us. Every Spring
He always bought them, sevenpence a dozen,
'A custom of the house'.

Besides, we still weren't sure we wanted to own
Anything. Mainly we were hungry
To convert everything to profit.
Still nomads-still strangers
To our whole possession. The daffodils
Were incidental gilding of the deeds,
Treasure trove. They simply came,
And they kept on coming.
As if not from the sod but falling from heaven.
Our lives were still a raid on our own good luck.
We knew we'd live forever. We had not learned
What a fleeting glance of the everlasting
Daffodils are. Never identified
The nuptial flight of the rarest epherma-
Our own days!
We thought they were a windfall.
Never guessed they were a last blessing.
So we sold them. We worked at selling them
As if employed on somebody else's
Flower-farm. You bent at it
In the rain of that April-your last April.
We bent there together, among the soft shrieks
Of their jostled stems, the wet shocks shaken
Of their girlish dance-frocks-
Fresh-opened dragonflies, wet and flimsy,
Opened too early.

We piled their frailty lights on a carpenter's bench,
Distributed leaves among the dozens-
Buckling blade-leaves, limber, groping for air, zinc-silvered-
Propped their raw butts in bucket water,
Their oval, meaty butts,
And sold them, sevenpence a bunch-

Wind-wounds, spasms from the dark earth,
With their odourless metals,
A flamy purification of the deep grave's stony cold
As if ice had a breath-

We sold them, to wither.
The crop thickened faster than we could thin it.
Finally, we were overwhelmed
And we lost our wedding-present scissors.

Every March since they have lifted again
Out of the same bulbs, the same
Baby-cries from the thaw,
Ballerinas too early for music, shiverers
In the draughty wings of the year.
On that same groundswell of memory, fluttering
They return to forget you stooping there
Behind the rainy curtains of a dark April,
Snipping their stems.

But somewhere your scissors remember. Wherever they are.
Here somewhere, blades wide open,
April by April
Sinking deeper
Through the sod-an anchor, a cross of rust.

I certainly like this poem because I think it's very good - and in a way I wouldn't expect from Ted Hughes (it being far less terse than any of the others of his poems that I know) - but I mostly like it because it brings it home to me what "nobody else remembers" means, and it reminds me that Hughes has earned that phrase.  When I say, "Nobody else remembers," I mean somewhere there's an Irishman or a German man who has forgotten:  one kind of sorrowfulness.  But when Hughes says, "Nobody else remembers," he means nobody else remembers:  the only other person who could remember is dead.  Which puts my puny regret definitively in the shade.  Perspective is always useful.

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Last night (which is to say, the night of June 10), I had a dream about Mr. Fallen.  This surprised me considerably, as did the content of the dream.

We were sitting in a bar - not a pub, but a bar, like the bar in an English college.  He looked nothing like himself, nor like anyone else I know, but he was himself.  We were having a conversation.  Either it was one of those awkward "we're being friends!" conversations, or it was just a regular conversation, but in any case I did not want to be there, doing that.  I think, actually, it must have been one of those "we're being friends!" conversations, subgenre "we're being friends having a civilised talk about why our entanglement ended," because the only actual piece of interaction I remember is that, in response to something he said, I suddenly snapped, "Well, I certainly didn't break up with a woman for no reason!"

Strange dream.  I suppose I had it because I recently found out we're both going to be at a conference later this year, and I've been thinking about that lately.  

It made me remember, though, that back when I applied to the conference, when I was much more sorrowful and hence much more bitter, I did have a recurring daydream that he and I would go to the pub for just such a civilised conversation and that I, filled with disguised rage and woundedness, would go up to the bar and ask for a pint of red wine.  In this quite elaborate daydream, the barman would be puzzled and protest, but I would insist.  I would then take this pint back to the table and upend it over Mr. Fallen's head.  Red wine stains, and in my daydream his clothing (of which he has very little, I believe) was irretrievably ruined.

Actually, maybe this dream was some sort of distilled version of that daydream...

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11 June 2009

Good Things about Towns

In less than two weeks I'll be returning to the place I came from.  I use this rather elaborate phrase because I can't say "home."  By the time I return, I'll have lived here for 12 months, and I'll be returning for ten to twelve more.  That would make this home, but the place I lived just a place I'm visiting. (Incidentally, isn't the application of the word "home" curious?  For example, here I live in a hall of residence, so that isn't really "home."  But nowhere else is home, either, now.  Even before I came here, although the town I lived in contained my home [my house] I never considered that town home.  For years I've called my parents' house "home" [as in, "I'm going home for Christmas"], but it hasn't been home for nearly twenty years.  Home is, it would seem, an elastic and complex concept indeed; it can mean where you lived as a child or almost anywhere you live, but it can't mean somewhere you live that you don't think of as "home.")

Anyway, as is clear from this blog, I usually don't have much that's good to say about the place to which I'm returning.  But in fact there are many good things about that place, and a number of things I'm looking forward to.  So, to give it its due, I've decided to make a list of them:

1.  The Cupcakes - hands-down the thing I'm looking forward to most.  My ex-town has a bakery that makes the best cupcakes I've ever had.  It's not really the cupcakes:  it's the icing.  First of all, there's about two inches of it.  Then, it's so creamy, and fluffy, but simultaneously sugary, that it floats me nearly to Nirvana.

2.  My Cat - It's been a whole year!  I love my cat!  I want a cuddle.  I hope she doesn't hate me for leaving her.

3.  My Home Department - I love my department.  The people are nice; I have an office that I like; and I have colleagues who are also friends.  In fact, my department is basically the one place in my former town where I do have friends.  I never thought I'd want to go the office, but when I lived there I used to go every day, even when I didn't have to.

4.  Ballet - You know how sometimes you go somewhere, and you find something you never expected to find?  Well, I never expected that in the tiny town where I lived I'd find a superb adult ballet teacher, but I did.  Alas, she's only running two weeks of classes while I'm there, but you can bet I'll be taking at least two classes both weeks!

5.  My Flat - I painted it myself; it has hardwood floors; it has three rooms and an alcove.  Enough said.

6. My Former Students - Who are now my friends.  Yes, I've been writing to them, and, yes, I've enjoyed that, but it will be lovely to be able to talk to them.  

7.  My Barre - In my flat I have a portable barre, which I take into the living room and use to give myself a full ballet barre nearly every night.  I've never been able to find such a thing here, and I have to do the barre hanging on to the back of a chair.  I'm so looking forward to having something the right length and height.

8.  Endangered Species Superdark Chocolate - I don't know why, but even though I've been able to get chocolate with the same cocoa percentage here, it's never tasted as good.  I'm going to buy 20 bars and bring them back!

9.  Jimmy John's Subs - Vegetarian, involving avocado spread and a delicious roll.  I might have one every night!

10.  The outdoor pool - Which is lovely, because you can float on your back and see the trees above you.  Yum.

11.  Free printing - I can print out as much as I want at the university library, and it won't cost me a cent.  Here?  5p per page.  Nicely, I'm starting on a new project, so I can print all the necessary articles there and bring them back.

12.  It Will Be Very Hot - This is not something I normally like - at least, I don't like as much as heat as the town's weather provides (40c/104f during July).  Because I haven't been hot for a very long while, however, and because the heat there is stunning in its strength and continuity, I'm looking forward to the experience.

So, essentially, my first day there could look like this:  buy a cupcake, go to the department, print some stuff, stand outside to appreciate the heat, swim, eat a sub, go to ballet, come home and wander around the flat, petting the cat.  Oh, wait - that's pretty much what my days were like when I lived there.

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Think of Your Life as a Long Tunnel...

"Life is big.  People are small," said a play review I read the other day, and it's true.  One should remember this and forgive other people their foolishnesses and embarrassments, I think.  But somehow one should remember it and forgive oneself, too - a much harder task, in my experience.
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10 June 2009

And All Around the Night Sang out Like Cockatoos

There's a Cure song called "Like Cockatoos."  It's not a very good song - it's one of those songs where there's way too much music and way too little lyric - but towards the end it has a couple of lines that go, "'There are a thousand things,' he said, / 'I'll never say those things to you again.'" For the past couple of days I've had those lines stuck in my head, and I don't know why.

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06 June 2009

Scenting the Future

Walking down the street today I smelt suddenly a car fume or oil smell that is absolutely English: it doesn't exist in the States, or anywhere else I've ever been.

Getting used to places is a very quick process.  For a short while - maybe a month, maybe two - they're somewhere unfamiliar, and then they are just home.  This may be especially true for me, because I have the happy attribute of never missing anywhere I've lived before; as soon as I leave somewhere, it's as if I've never lived there (except England, of course.  The same, incidentally, is true of people.  In my whole life, I've missed seven people).

But walking down that street, and smelling that smell, I thought to myself that if I get to live in this country permanently I will take a moment every day to give thanks that I'm here.  I'll never take it for granted.
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04 June 2009

Now and Then

BF's first boyfriend was a friend of mine, M.V.  They were together for quite a while, and when they broke up she was the instigator.  They had always been ill-matched in certain ways, and the relationship was one that had never been going to work out, so neither was surprised, but M.V. didn't want to break up, and still loved her.  After the break-up he moved to California.  He and BF "stayed friends," and a couple of years later he came to visit.  What a flurry there was about the house after he arrived!  He fixed various things that had been languishing unfixed!  He performed various manly manual deeds! He may have changed a fuse!  I know he fixed a faulty light fixture, because he and I stopped by the hardware store to buy something necessary to that procedure together.  As we were walking home, discussing what exactly he had to do, he suddenly said to me, "Oh, who cares? I'm only doing it so she'll fall in love with me again."  I was, and remain, so surprised by this.  He knew:  he knew why he was doing it, but, more importantly, his tone said he knew that it wouldn't work.  He knew, and he did it anyway.  

I don't know what he would have said if I'd asked him why he was doing it, knowing.  Would he have said that somewhere in him a tiny tiny bit believed that fixing all that stuff just might change her mind?  Would he have said that the pleasure it gave him to do those things outweighed the pain caused by the knowledge that the cause was hopeless - or that it didn't, but he couldn't help himself anyway? Would he have given me a long, carefully thought out disquisition about the complexities of emotions?  Would he have told me that he couldn't control his feelings, so he was just going to ride them out, no matter the sorrow involved?  I've thought of that moment often over the years, but I've never known whether he made that exclamation out of exasperation, or self-anger, or a desire for honesty, or a combination of all three.

Today I've been reading John Locke and revising my third chapter.  I am not pleased with my third chapter.  On the other hand, I also booked a ticket to go see the revival Arcadia before I leave.  It's my favourite play, and I'll be seeing it four days before I go.  Even better, it'll still be showing when I get back, so if I like it I can book to see it again!

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A Bit of Self-Serving

I don't usually post my extra-blogeal writing on here; I've got a personal moral quirk about it.  I don't mind when other people post their academic or creative writing on blogs - in fact, I often like it - but this space is for me so much for a particular kind of writing, that to insert other forms feels odd and wrong (I was thinking today that once the book is to be published I'll have to start a professional blog, to alert people to that fact, and I can guarantee that one will be way less interesting than this).  Recently, however, I revised an old novel in the hope that it might be published.  It looks as if that's not going to happen, and although I don't mind (it's very old, and even after I revised it I didn't like it that much), there are a couple of portions I added during the revision process that I'm very proud of.  I figure it's highly unlikely that these will ever see the light of day, and if the novel does get published I think the publisher won't object if a snippet's already appeared, or I can cut it out, so I've decided to re-produce the bit of which I'm most proud here.  It might help to know that this comes at a point in the novel where a married person has become involved in a highly charged but still platonic relationship with a member of the opposite sex...


            The necessary ingredients of a good and lasting romantic relationship are difficult to achieve and frequently underrated: respect, support, thoughtfulness, forgiveness, patience, interest, individual fulfillment, and a willingness to work are not particularly glamorous or much valued virtues. But one component of a romance built to last has the benefit, at least, of being enduring love’s naughty secret: deception.

            Or perhaps deception is too strong a word. Say instead discretion, secrecy – wise suppression of certain facts, occurrences, and knowledges. Everyone who dreams of finding lasting love dreams that in doing so they will find someone who understands them better than anyone else does.  Few people consider that such comprehension must include an understanding of what the beloved does not want to hear, or cannot bear to know, as much as it includes an understanding of the beloved’s other needs and hopes. “I love you,” is perhaps the sweetest phrase the world has made, but it is rendered much sweeter when it is not followed by “more than I loved the one before you,” and even sweeter when that is not followed by, “and much more than I loved the twelve I loved before that.”

            Imagine, if you will, that each new lover is an unknown country. Arriving at its boundaries, the one who loves must begin to make a mental map. How unadulteratedly delightful that cartography is at first (and, indeed, for much of the time afterward): ah, this feels like this; I hadn’t expected…ah, that way; I’ll certainly remember that for next time…this makes you smile; this makes you laugh; this is why you do what you do; these are the secret springs and urgings that propel you. Towers are marked, declivities discovered, even swamps and fens that would otherwise be, perhaps, unwanted in a new land are made lovely by virtue of being in this land, known only to this fresh, intrepid map-maker.

            And yet at the same time, to know a country fully is to know its dangers as well as its delights. Anyone who chooses to settle in a given area, to make a home there, soon becomes aware of the grounds to be avoided: here is a minefield; here is a cave that is small but, once entered, impossible to get out of; here is a plain where nothing will ever grow, here a field that one expects to be filled with grain but that instead is barren, here a quicksand so innocuous-seeming and yet so dense that it must never be gone near, never mind stepped upon. Mapping these is as much a part of coming to know one’s chosen land as is learning which fields to lie down in, which doors to knock at for sustenance and refreshment.

            The list of discretions to be observed with a given partner contains items well known to any: do not mention the comeliness of a restaurant server (at least not for many years); do not suggest that perhaps one’s partner could spend less money on shoes, or on gadgets; do not compare the partner’s cooking, or dancing, or housekeeping, unfavorably to that of your parent of the same sex; do not describe in elaborate, fully realized detail a sexual fantasy involving a friend or co-worker known to both parties (at least not for many years); do not say, unasked, “that makes you look fat.” Yet each list also contains entries as unique as the lover to whom they apply, entries learned by means of respect, thoughtfulness, forgiveness, patience, and interest: don’t buy those kinds of trousers, they remind me of my father; don’t mention that time I fell down and you laughed at me, even though you laughed because I looked cute; don’t say “lick,” because it makes my flesh crawl; pretend I look good in this piece of clothing – stop, hold, avoid, understand, don’t speak.  The ability to be silent, and to know when to be silent, is perhaps the greatest asset a lover can possess.

            And yet, and yet…(and this is something that the outraged declaimers against romantic deceit understand) at what point does such wise silence, such loving discretion, slip into, well, deceitfulness? There is a reason, after all, why there are sins of omission as well as commission. What are the steps from “I won’t tell you that because I know it will upset you,” to the subtly differently inflected version of “I won’t tell you that because I know it will upset you,” to “I won’t tell you that”? How easy it is to slip from other-loving silence to self-serving avoidance! And then, to be fair, such slippages are not always clear to the one who slips. At what point does forgetting to mention become deliberately forgetting to mention? How much of lying to the beloved is also lying to oneself? Of those insignificant moments that turn out to be significant, how many of us recognize them as significant at the time? How and when do we realize that doing what is right is actually doing what is right for me?

            Being human is a tangled business, and loving – fully loving – is perhaps the most snarled and un-tidyable of its many threads. Who would be a lover, with its complexities, its compromises, its inevitable acceptances and losses? But who would not be a lover, with its exhilarations, its completions, its quiet delights and certainties? Who, alas, can love and be wise?

            And yet, and yet…(as the outraged declaimers against romantic discretion do not understand, or understand but will not admit) it is unwisdom that makes us fall in love in the first place. And if it is also unwisdom that brings us to the dreadful, anguished end of one love, it is again unwisdom that makes the new love that follows. And in that new love discretion (silence, secrecy, suppression, deceit) will come to play its knotty role again.

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01 June 2009

Que Onda

I'm reading through my book at the moment, and all in all it's a bit of a tense experience. Because there are things I know I must add, I have to keep a vigilant eye out for things I can take out - in order to make space.  Because the publisher will send it off to be typeset right away if the second reader gives it the okay, I have to be sure that everything I say is what I want to say, said as elegantly as I want to say it.  Plus, I read with a host of imaginary and very cruel reviewers whispering in my ear.  Still, the book is not as bad as I thought, and the very fact that I'm reading through it means it's nearly done.  That last part is nearly unbelievable to me:  what on earth will I do, now that I'm not "working on the book"?

In other news, I give the date 6 out of 10.  He was nice, and I would see him 
again, but it didn't set me afire.  Since he hasn't made contact since we went out, however, I think any decision-making has been taken out of my hands.  Still, it's nice to know that I'm not a hideous undesirable troll ("trasgo" in Spanish, in case you're interested - I looked it up, since I was pretty sure that at least one of my Spanish-speaking friends wouldn't know it in English.  Actually, it seems that "troll" can also be "troll" in Spanish, but that's no fun, is it?  In the event, I had a brain cramp and had to use "asqueroso," instead.  Which is pretty good, since I learned that one months ago, for a totally different purpose, ended up never using it, and yet was able to fish it out last night).

I am not in a position to be picky about men, God knows, but having done some thinking in this area over the last little while, I am moved to observe that one thing I need in a partner is also one thing I've never had in any of my partners:  silliness.  This lack is very strange, since I am extremely silly myself, much given to goofy thought-wanderings and zealously foolish behaviours, and all my close male friends have been admirably silly - so you would think finding a partner willing to be silly would be not only a snap but also logical for me.  But apparently not: the only one who was possibly silly was Mr. Fallen, and he wasn't around long enough to qualify as a partner, even.  So perhaps I should use this as my benchmark:  can you be silly?  Will you play hide-and-seek in the turbine hall with me, as S. did?  Will you make ridiculous extended jokes about the people in the coffee shop line, as T.C. (T.C.!) did all those years ago?  Will you make acronyms out of everybody's nicknames?  Will you give people nicknames?  After Mr. Fallen let me go I decided that I would attempt to circumvent other sorrows by asking all possible future boyfriends three questions early in our relationship:

1.  What do you think the human soul looks like?
2.  Do you know who William Blake is, and do you like him?  (this later changed to "Tell me the last three books you read, and did you like them?", since I figured my chances of finding another Blake lover amongst the general population were pretty slim.)
3.  What is your relationship with your mother like?

To this I should perhaps add a fourth:

4.  Would you consider yourself silly?  

(Incidentally, tonight at dinner I found myself sitting at a table with one other woman and four of my male friends, and when I began the tale of my date by saying, "Well, it wasn't that good," all the men went, "Ohhh" in a supportive empathetic tone.  This made me feel vividly how wonderful my male friends are.)

Meanwhile, last night my friend A.D. danced salsa with all the girls at a small gathering for over an hour.  He never flagged, and he never wanted to stop, even though he was literally pouring with sweat.  And he looked utterly different from any way I've seen him look before:  so at home, and so satisfied.  I have seen this before, with the FTT and his look of velvet happiness when he dances, and with S.A. and his face of receded-inward vanishment.  And I remember that after the first time I went dancing with T3 in the States he wrote me a note in which he said that seeing me dance was the only time he'd seen me completely happy. I thought about it then, and I realised he was right: it's the only time I'm fully relaxed, unthinking, forgetful of myself, and thus fully happy, for any length of time. So perhaps I look like A.D., or the FTT, or S.A., or whatever version of that is mine, when I am dancing, with that great bolt-like tide of delight coming up to my brim.

I said to S.A. a couple of weeks ago that I thought perhaps multi-lingual people were different people in their different languages;  he, who knows many multi-linguists and is one himself, said, yes, they are.  I was struck last night - or struck again, since I've been struck before, but not so forcefully for a long time - by the way in which different situations can suddenly strip people, or clothe them, revealing selves you never knew existed before.  A.D. was a different person, a person at home in a way I'd never seen him, and suddenly the whole culture he'd grown up in, its expectations and norms and the different version of him that inhabited it, was open to me, in a way it never had been outside the salsa (and bachata) floor).  It was as if I'd never seen the real him before.  In fact, it wasn't as if:  I don't think I had.

Yes, tomorrow is my birthday.  If anyone had asked, I would have said, "An hour's solid tango dancing, with minimal pauses, only to discuss technique: that's what I want."  But no one did, and I did not have the guts to force this wish on anyone.  So let us hope that by next birthday (the one I'm looking forward to:  I've decided, in the end, to celebrate this one for forward-facing reasons: I can't celebrate the year past, or much of the present, but I can celebrate the possibility of the future)...let us hope that by next birthday there is someone to whom I can make this wish known, who might fulfil it for me.

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Let Someone Else Do the Talking, for a Change

I feel like writing but have nothing to say, so I thought I'd use this post to display one of my favourite poems.  It's a translation from the original Irish, and no one seems to know when the original or the translation was produced - although they know the original is from pre-colonial Celtic times.  It's absolutely unclear what it means, or even to what situation it refers.  I find it lovely, and haunting, and I like the fact that it forces the reader to make sense of it, literally: to account for its thought process and movement. Interpretations are welcome.

Lovely whore though,

Lovely, lovely whore,

And choosy –

Slept with Conn,

Slept with Niall,

Slept with Brian,

Slept with Rory.

Slide then,

The long slide.

Of course it shows.

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