31 August 2009

May I Show You the Garden?

Ah, communities!  People form themselves into them naturally, it seems.  We are, as BF would say, social animals, and part of this seems to be that we form societies whether we will or nay.  

To pause, I'd just like to say that my room faces out onto a large tree and, below, a courtyard: a most charming view. Alas, this tree does not quite hide the view of, and rather more importantly from, the college bar, which means I must remember to close my curtains, which is a drag.  But when it's daytime and I'm (reasonably) dressed, the tree is very soothing to look upon.

Right, communities.  I read something once that said the English are a clubby nation:  they love to have their groups and clubs, to include and exclude. But this seems, in fact, to be the tendency of all nations and peoples.  Even I, deeply isolate and much in need of private time - and, in fact, scared of groups - partially like to be part of a group.  But the trouble with groups is that after a certain point (or perhaps a certain number?) they subdivide, rift, and generally become more complex.  A, B, C, and D like each other, but one day A inadvertently insults B.  B tells D, who has always harboured a vague suspicion of A, and instantly D is on B's side.  D tells C, who mentions that she's been told to A, who is alarmed, and tries to speak to D.  And so something that was nothing becomes A Big Deal.  This example is hypothetical (it really is - and in this case you know it is because I have no friends named C or D - or B, actually), but you know the sort of thing.

I've been musing on these group complexities for the last couple of months, and this musing has been reignited by being back, since I'm part of a group again.  For a while I thought that the mystery behind these eventual dust-ups was that in a group where the members are of both genders, all involvement seems eventually to become sexual tension:  she likes him; he likes her; they see each other every day; they hang out in each other's spaces = liking turns into however-transient lust turns into sex (or unrequited desire for it).  And there the trouble begins.  And since everybody else in the group eventually knows that the sex or sexual longing has occurred (since the other thing groups seem to specialise in is gossip and badly kept secrets), the trouble often widens.

I discussed this with a friend of mine yesterday, however, and he had a much more plausible explanation for these tensions.  He believes that what happens is that, because they spend so much time hanging out together, people come to believe they know each other much better than they actually do:  revelation and exposure in some areas leads to the mistaken belief that one has obtained revelation and exposure in all areas.  Believing this, people make assumptions that certain behaviours or emotions are the case, or must be the case, in a given situation, and when it turns out they're mistaken, there the trouble begins.

I think to myself sometimes that these sorts of dust-ups and loyalties and discreet grudges with occasional virulent outbursts are the provenance only of those who live together in a cluster, but then I realise that of course this isn't true: one only has to look at academic departments (or, of course, families where everyone is grown up) to see how the construct persists into work and intellectual life.  

Before I started writing this post I had tons to say, but now I find it flown from my brain like a bird from an open cage.  So I'll just say one more thing...When I went to the Tuesday milonga, who should be there but Santa Claus!  He'd apparently stopped coming to the practicas here, so no had seen him for a while - although S.A. told me he'd seen him at a milonga the week previously, not in the company of TBC, the young German girl.  This time, too, he was not in her company (and, I noticed, after two months his tango skills had not improved one bit.  But that's neither here nor there).  Then he showed up at this week's practica!  Interesting.  Back from holiday?  Renewed interest?  Or, didn't work out with one young thing, so he thought he'd go back to the shop where he got the first one to see if they have a replacement model?  None of these probably, of course, but I can't help wondering.

And finally, for how long is one allowed to clean one's wound (as S.A. once so beautifully put it) over an ended relationship?  It depends on the length of the relationship, no doubt, and its intensity, but can one legitimately make three months of hay out of two weeks of involvement? I say no.  And I also say that when one does so, it unintentionally slips from the sorrowful to the comic.  I know one shouldn't laugh at another's serious emotions, and I know one shouldn't laugh at things that are a big deal to someone else, but, oh dear, I can't help it.

This has been a curiously arch post.  I'll have to work on that for next time.

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26 August 2009


Emotions are very strange things.  And THAT would seem to be a truth so universally acknowledged and agreed upon that I need say no more.

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24 August 2009

Good God!

One cannot go away for eight weeks but one returns to a world full of changes!  Where to begin? First, my friend I., who was happily (if, I thought, certainly temporarily) involved with a new girlfriend when I left, is now girlfriend-less and pretty unhappy about it.  Tonight he was off to ease his sorrow by meeting some friends in a pub to drink a few pints and then go for a run.  ("Shouldn't it go the other way round?"  I asked).  Apparently this is something his friends do as a regular leisure activity.  He and I are scheduled to meet up sometime tomorrow early evening.  I doubt I can help him, but I can buy him a drink and give him a pat - no running involved.

Second, my lovely friend M. G. has a boyfriend.  When I left the scene she was despairing of ever finding anyone, but three weeks ago she met a man through a mutual friend, and now they're beginning to go out.  He's a painter!  He's thoughtful!  Hurrah!

Third, they've put new washers and dryers in the laundry huts.  They work much better, and they don't look as if someone installed them in 1950 and forgot about things after that.

Is there no end to it all?  Apparently not, since two days after I arrived I was stung by a wasp, something that hasn't happened in about ten years, and today I moved yet again, from where I was staying into a new room.  If my unpacking had not revealed to me that I left the Black Bag of USBs in Parentshome, I would have a picture of this room in this post, but until I sort out the USB situation you'll have to trust that the room is small but comfortable, rendered cozy by the fact that I brought a richly coloured duvet cover from WhereIlive, and that a delightfully cool breeze is coming through my window.  As this implies, my desk looks out the window, and that I like very much indeed.

On the negative side, only two things.  First, the room is in a residential block the other side of campus from where all my friends live.  I was hoping to live closer to them, but since "closer" would mean ten yards instead of 50, and since I may move in a month, I can live with it.

Second, and rather more depressingly, I received comments from my second book reader.  While these comments were neither as particular nor as deep as my first reader's - both good things - they do reveal a couple of elemental problems in the book that I truly don't know how to fix.  It's not that I won't fix them; it's that I don't see how to implement them, or don't see how  to implement them without writing an entirely different kind of book, one I neither am equipped to write nor want to write.  I have e-mailed my editor and told her this, essentially pleading for help, and we'll see what happens.  If someone gives me some guidance, I could still have it all wrapped up in time for the book to be produced within the time frame I'd originally imagined, but still...it's wearying to be back at square two.

And now I will do some fiction writing before I take approximately one-and-a-half steps and go to bed.  Hurrah for being back!

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20 August 2009

A La Retour

Bags are in the process of being packed; clothes are in the process of being ironed; errands are nearly finished. But today is my father's birthday, so before there is the leaving tomorrow there is the feasting tonight. My parents and I are going out to dinner, and I'm writing this as I wait for them to finish dressing.

Yesterday I went and had lunch with my acadend/frientance G. An acadend is someone one never sees outside academic settings - usually conferences - but with whom, in those academic settings, one acts as if one is dear close friends. G. was originally an acadend, but because he lives in the same city as my parents, and because last summer he came to London while I was there, he has morphed into a frientance. We had a nice time, and he was interested in what I was up to, but as I was walking to the train station I reflected that these days I have a lot of people in my life whom I need to palliate in some way or some area, and very few people with whom I can be frank and fully relaxed. This is a tense position, and one I'd like to change.

There are parental stirrings, so I'll have to finish this when we return...

It's five hours later, and the dinner was delicious. Now I'm exhausted, but how many final nights does one get? (two so far, in my case) So I wanted to finish this.

Of course I'm excited to go; I've made that clear before. Over the past few days, as I've had occasion to sit down with various people and tell them what my aims and goals are, I've had to give quite careful thought to what I hope will happen and what I think will. Tonight on the way to dinner my father said, "I hope someone gives you a job." God bless him, I hope so, too. I'd like to say I'm not normally one to make predictions, but that would be a lie. It's true, though, that I'm not normally one to make predictions about myself: I'll make predictions about what other people will do or say, or about how specific situations I'm heading into will turn out (which I suppose is a prediction about myself, but feels more like a "here's what I bet will happen" sort of prediction). In any case, one to make predictions about myself or not one to make predictions about myself, I'm going to make some predictions now about the next year. I don't expect these to come true; they're just things I sense will happen, with no facts or reasoning behind them. So I guess you could say I'm making intuitions, not predictions. And here we go:

I think nothing will change, but I think I might just get a job for next year. "Nothing" is a broad word, so let me be more specific. I think I'll meet more people (new academic year, more tango...); I think some more people might be added to the core group I know; I think there will be changes, and perhaps re-changes, in the relations of the group I already know. But I don't get the sense that I'll acquire a partner. I do get the sense that I'll have more ammunition in my job search, though. I also get the sense that, because I'm freed from The Book and in a curious way from other work - because I can do what I want in a stimulating environment - I might very well have a very intellectually interestingly productive year.

Tune in next July to see if I'm right and, if I'm wrong, whether I'm wrong pleasantly or unpleasantly.

But either way, this time tomorrow I'LL BE ON THE GROUND IN LONDON!!!
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14 August 2009

No Navel-Gazing, for Once

I was going to write a contemplative post about leaving WhereIlive for Parentshome, and thus preparing to leave America for England, via one stop, but then something actually happened!  There was a real occurrence!

I was driving down WhereIlive's busy main road (in fact, a minor highway) this evening, when the light ahead turned red.  The large shiny pick-up truck ahead of me stopped, and I started to stop just a fractional moment too late, so I had to hit the brake hard in order to avoid crashing into him.  Only, when I hit the brake hard...it didn't work.  So I stepped down on it again.  And it didn't work.  And then I slammed into the truck.  Fortunately, I wasn't going very fast by that time, and the truck was apparently built of concrete (that's what it felt like when I hit it, anyway), so it didn't get a scratch on it. This was particularly fortunate in light of the fact that when I got out of my car to go tell the truck's driver that everything was fine, it turned out he spoke only Spanish.  He looked plenty nervous, which I suspect was because he didn't speak any English, but I also wondered if it might be that he didn't have any insurance.  I don't know how to say "insurance" in Spanish (as a friend of mine said tonight, that's next semester), and he clearly wasn't looking forward to engaging in conversation for whatever reason, so I think we were equally pleased that the truck was unharmed - as was the car.  Nonetheless, I had to drive it back home, without any brakes unless I depressed the pedal all way (when, fortunately, they worked).  

I rang my friend, and her husband came over with brake fluid and filled up the container.  Then he filled it up again.  Then the brakes got less spongy, but they still didn't work, so he filled it up a bit more.  When the brakes still didn't work, we concluded that there was an invisible leak in the brake line, so we left it.

I could say that I was overcome with fear - and the whole experience was pretty scary.  I could tell you that I wept - it was the sort of experience that might call forth tears of fear, or relief when it was all over.  But the real truth, sadly, is that once I realised I was still alive the very first thing I thought was, Oh, God, how much is this going to cost?  A response ingrained by all those years of being poor, but once more applicable.

Funnily enough, for years and years I had a chronic stress dream in which I would be driving very fast, and when I put my foot on the brakes to slow down, they wouldn't work.  I remembered this dream just after the truck had driven off and I'd pulled into a parking lot next to the main road to call my friend.  It is, I reflected, very strange to have a stress dream come to life.

Still, at least I had an exciting final night!

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13 August 2009

The Way of the Eye

As I was driving home from the office this afternoon, I started to cry.  It wasn't particularly dramatic - I didn't burst into tears - but it was both plentiful and consistent.  I could see to drive, but I would say the tears were pouring out of my eyes, and at one point I did start to sob.  Now, crying in the car is a bit of an awkward situation.  My policy about crying these days is that I'll do it openly; if I start to cry in public, I won't stop myself, because I think that crying must be for a reason, and also because it's very hard for me to reveal my vulnerable emotions to people, so if I do so by accident I don't want to stop it. But crying in the car... I always wonder, can other people see you?  If they can, then crying in the car is not really like crying in public:  it's really more of a voyeuristic situation.  In this case, I just decided to believe they couldn't see me, so I continued my drive home dripping tears and giving the occasional sob.

The thing about this crying was that it arrived totally out of the blue.  I wasn't feeling particularly sad, or particularly anything.  Still, I suppose, I am about to leave WhereIlive, and I had just come from a meeting with my Head of Department that had made me realise simultaneously how very much I want to leave here and how likely it is that I won't be able to, and I am still trying to pack stuff up and organise before I go, and I haven't been really happy since I came back from visiting Otherhome.  So probably I was feeling particularly something, but I just didn't know it.

A couple of months before I left Otherhome, a friend of mine there who reads the blog asked me why I was so sad on here all the time.  At the time, I told him that was a good question, and I still think it is.  So tonight, given the crying, I had a bit of a think about why I'm so sad, and I think I came up with the answer:  at a very elemental level, I'm alone, and I have been alone for a long time.

I have a good career that I'm good at and I love, but it's a career that doesn't bring me into contact with people I can confide in, or  just chatter to, on a regular basis.  Even if I were a scientist, simply another form of what I am, my job would bring me into more regular contact with people, because I'd go into a lab every day.  A few years ago I moved to somewhere where I knew nobody, and since then I've made one close friend here.  At Otherhome I have friends, a few of them close, but first of all all these (including the one here) are new friendships, and second of all - and much more important - friends have their own lives, and families, and they go home.  As awful as it sounds, you don't build a life with friends, although you have friends in your life.  

What this means is, that I simply have no one to be with, and I have no one to simply be with.  I always thought of myself as pretty much a loner, but it turns out I'm much more socially oriented than I thought.  I don't mean I like social groups - as it happens, I intensely dislike large groups, and one of the worst things about my visit to Otherhome was that it wound up being dinner with a large group of people, when I would have much preferred three or four.  What I mean is, I need to have someone to tell myself to, and it turns out I need someone to support me, or to share my burdens in some way.  In the meeting today I told my Head of Department that part of why I want to leave here is that the only person I have to discuss my leaving here with is...myself.  No one says, "I don't want to pack up all those boxes again!"  or, "Okay, I'll drive the truck when we go," or, "So the South didn't work out for you.  That's good to know."  I have no one to give me courage, or push me to make the decision.  I give myself courage, and that means I have to be both supplier and expender.  And that's hard.  

That, I suppose, is why Mr. Fallen mattered so much, and matters so much.  I have no one else.  I love my job; I love what I read, and I find it endlessly interesting, and I want a companion who'll find it interesting, too.  But there's no such person.  I love my hobby, and I could do it all night long, but there's no one to dance with in the kitchen, or to waltz with for a few tiny steps on the streets of Oxford (or wherever - I'm planning a research visit to Oxford, so it's much on my mind).  And I have these thoughts, you know?:  Do serial killers care about their victims' emotions?  How much is a fair price for a prostitute?  Are we really horrible, or really good? Will I end disorganized and often thoughtless, like my mom?  Am I nice?  Was William Blake crazy?  Did Byron mean that joke?  Did Hopkins mean that one?  What makes literature so great?  What happens after we die?  If your brain swelled enough, would it bulge out of your nose? Am I doing what's right?  How do we know what's right?  Have I been fair to my sister?  How do they get the newsprint off fish-and-chip paper?  They're not important, or really relevant, but they're my thoughts, and my questions, and I have to deal with them all alone.

Long long ago, now, when Boyfriend J. and I broke up, I decided  that I just couldn't do it anymore:  I couldn't make that kind of investment and have it end painfully.  So I told my friend J that I was just going to have a series of Celebrity Fantasy Boyfriends - celebrities that I would pretend were my boyfriend (serially).  Not in a stalker-y fantasist way:  I would pretend that they lived in Boston, where I happened to live then, and I would insert them into my life.  And I did.  Oh, now it occurs to me that I've told this story before.  But I have to continue.  Anyway, the Celebrity Fantasy Boyfriends were really successful.  If I went shopping and wanted someone to help me make decisions, I would pretend that whichever CFB I was on was with me, and we'd discuss things in my head; I'd supply both sides of the conversation.  If I was having trouble with my thesis, I'd chat with the CFB about it - some of them turned out to have remarkably good ideas.  And it was funny, and sort of cute, if rather eccentric.  But I was always still alone.  And if I did it now, it wouldn't be cute or funny:  it would be pathetic.  And since I've been alone a lot longer, it would also be vastly painful.  The reminder of my alone-ness that it would provoke would be commensurately higher.

The fact is, friends and work and hobbies and interests cannot take the place of a partner.  And because I, in fact, have very few friends, and am a grown-up with a grown-up's life, and with a job that's particularly isolated, I am really, basically, almost always alone.

If I don't stop this, I'll cry again, and since that would be prompted crying it would be self-indulgent.  Instead I'll say that one of the things I thought while I was crying was that I really hoped it wouldn't last that long, because I had an eye doctor's appointment later.  As it happened, it didn't last that long.  As it also happened, I did feel myself starting to cry again on the way to the eye doctor, but I stopped myself - I was worried that having cry-y eyes would somehow mess up my field of vision test.  I have a family history of glaucoma, and since I have inherited the family terrible vision, I'm always worried that I've inherited that, too.  In fact, however, it appears I have, at least for the moment, not!  Hurrah!  My field of vision is fine, and although I have a quirk in my right eye it is not even pre-glaucomic.  So although I seem to have inherited every other negative distaff trait going, for another year I have slipped out of the noose on that one.  And so, we might say, today has been both a bad eye day and a good eye day.

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11 August 2009

The Costa Leaving

Every now and again, starting last week and again today, I'll suddenly be overwhelmed by a truly surprisingly powerful sense of how glad I'll be to get back to Otherhome.  I know I'll be poor, and I have a lot of worries to contend with over there, but at occasional moments a powerful feeling - really a feeling, not a knowledge or any kind of cognitive experience - of eagerness to return, and of anticipatory relief at the relief I'll feel to do certain things there, pushes me.  Tonight, for example, I suddenly felt how much I was looking forward to getting a cup of Costa tea when I get off the plane.  This makes no sense - I don't particularly love Costa tea, or find it better than other tea, or even find it better than Starbuck's tea, which I can get here - but the vision of going to that Costa in the airport and getting a paper cup of tea, handing over my pounds to get it, elicited immense relief.  

Now, is the Costa a symbol of the country I'll be glad to get back to, or a particular experience (that kind of queue, with that kind of result at the end, that cafe surroundings) that I've somehow come to love and miss?  Impossible to say.  Perhaps both.  

Also, today I saw Julie & Julia, an utterly charming piece of ephemera involving a terrific and delightful performance from Meryl Streep as Julia Child.  I think I'll go see it again just for that performance.  What I'm now dying to see, however, is Mesrine, a film about a French gangster starring Vincent Cassel.  Why?  Well, first of all, I love Vincent Cassel:  he's a terrific actor, but also namelessly odd, and slightly off-putting, and that makes him very intriguing, and attractive, to me.  Also, I think the movie looks great.  As of now, it's only out at Otherhome, and I'm afraid it'll be gone by the time I get there.  Fingers crossed, Vincent!

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06 August 2009

America's Next Top Composition

I'm watching America's Next Top Model, a show I have absolutely no interest in when it's not in my view, but which I find addictive when I turn it on.  I expect it's the clothes.

Anyway, two days ago in Spanish class we had to write a composition, our second.  I was quite nervous about this, since it was going to be about music and movies, both of which the class had studied while I was away.  I've studied them on my own since, but I've felt slightly out of the loop in class ever since I returned, so I just wasn't confident.  Since the composition was on Monday, I took the weekend and went through all my flashcards.  There must be about five hundred by now, and I sorted out the ones I certainly know from the ones I was shaky or terrible on.  The second set I just ran and ran, until I felt mildly more confident.

It turned out that the conceit of the composition was that I was the movie critic for a Nicaraguan newspaper (a Nicaraguan newspaper?), and I had to describe the film I'd seen the night before, a musical.  I had to say whether I recommended it, what the plot was, and what the music was like.  "Be creative!" the directions said.  Ka-ching!  Making up a plot?  This is my area of expertise!  Being creative?  Not quite as strong a skill as making up a plot, but still:  an area of experience.  Almost immediately, however, there was a problem:  you know how sometimes you know something, but you're not sure you know it?  I knew the way to say "musical" was "una pelĂ­cula musical," but I just couldn't believe I knew it; for some reason "a movie musical" sounded bizarre to me.  So I had to work out a way to say it was a musical without using that expression.  Then there was the problem that after I was a sentence into the plot I realised that I didn't know half the words I needed.  So the plot took a sudden turn into a totally different area.

Still, I very much enjoyed writing this composition.  It was deeply silly, and it was full of private jokes.  And apparently my teacher loved it, too, because she gave me 100%! Even though it was filled with small mistakes! (and when I finished it I thought it was filled with big mistakes, so getting that grade was even more pleasant).  In fact, I'm so tickled by its silliness, and so amazed by the fact that I didn't make any huge mistakes, that I'm reproducing it here, as tonight's photograph.

I'm not going to explain any of the private jokes - they'll be clear to those who know them - but I do need to explain two things.  First of all, just in case, I should explain that, although I do have a friend named Alejandro, I named the dog "Alejandro" not out of spite, but rather because that friend is the person who explained the difference between "perro" and "pero" to me.  Second of all, although my teacher corrected  my "ahora...ahora..." construction, I didn't mean "sometimes...sometimes...." I meant, "now...now...," in the sense of  "now it's like this, and now it's like this."

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03 August 2009

The Bit Before the End

When I was in college, I used to go out clubbing pretty much every Saturday.  The last year, I lived in a studio flat on my own - God, I loved that flat!  Clubbing is a very smoky activity, and sometimes when I came home, smoky and often sweaty, I just couldn't stand going to bed like that, so I'd take a shower.  I loved standing there in the shower at two o'clock in the morning:  whether it was the decadence of it, or the unexpectedness, or the silence, I don't know.  But I loved it.

I remember this because last night I went out dancing with my friend TT, and when I got home I was so smoky that I wanted to take a shower.  I didn't, because I knew I was going to have one today, but just wanting to made me think again of those showers.

Funnily, the dancing (which was only okay - there wasn't enough good music) brought up something I'd been occasionally remarking on for a couple of weeks now:  the way that, occasionally, a fade-out line can be the best part of a song.  The club played "Let's Get It On," a song I highly enjoy both because it's so luscious and because it contains the ludicrously tacky come-on line, "We're all sensitive people, with so much to give."  But more than enjoying it for that line or for its unabashed heat, I love it because almost right at the end, before an emphatic  hand-clap, Gaye sings, "I been sanctified."  That makes the whole song for me - I think it's the mingling of the utterly secular with the sacred, and the way that raises the secular to the level of the sacred.

Other songs that provide a similarly pleasurable final moment are Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer," where the moment in fact is almost identical:  right at the end Gabriel sings, "I've been cleaned in the river, cleaned in the river" (the similarity increased by the fact that the song is a series of sexual metaphors).  Totally different, but providing the same enjoyment, is The Cure's "The Man Inside My Mouth," where really right at the end Robert Smith half says/half sings, "This won't hurt at all...," which is in itself totally different from the moment at the end of "Raspberry Beret" where Prince sings, "Where have all the raspberry women gone?"  Actually, I like that one best of these three, because it captures perfectly the nostalgia of the song, while giving it an unexpected bittersweet twist - that is, you think it's just a song about an enjoyed sexual memory, but then it turns out to be about a yearning for something lost.

Conversely, one of the least interesting deployments of this final line tag is at the end of "Black Coffee in Bed," by Squeeze (nice eyeliner, Glenn Tilbrook!), an otherwise wonderful song.  Backing vocals are supplied by Elvis Costello, among others (those others including the lovely and talented Paul Young), and right at the end he sings, "No milk and sugar!"  (it's cut off in the previous version.)  It adds nothing - it's merely cute, and a moment for the listener to think, Ah, Elvis!  Sigh.

I shall keep an ear out for more of these moments...

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