On the road again we drove through endless gorgeous countryside, with wildflowers blooming everywhere. San Francisco offered moments of sanity after the hustle of LA.
The event at City Lights was one of the best of the whole tour — almost too much fun.
Hiya and Jonathan, Jen K, and Gordon were just a few of the friends I caught up with. The cheese posse from Rainbow gave us a cooler full of tasty food that lasted the rest of the journey; I was still eating the ginger cookies on the flight to the UK.
Portland – what can I say? There was a party at the 19th street house and I slouched on a sofa overwhelmed with nostalgia as I talked to Anna Ruby, Ana Helena, Stevie, and Marisa. People grabbed me and held on tight; I’ve missed the rampant physicality of these people more than I knew.
The event at Reading Frenzy was hugely fun, thanks to the beneficence of Chloe. During the Q&A I said all sorts of things I did not mean, with assistance from the rowdy crowd.
Stevie mischievously asked So Bee, why do you have cancer?
I replied Maybe a wheat allergy, or possibly negative thinking.
We laughed and laughed. I’m not sure if the audience got the joke.
The Seattle reading was always going to be the hardest: after all, the book alleges that the environmental toxins of my hometown poisoned my body. Saying so to an audience of locals was alarming, but at least my cousins didn’t show up.
I reminded myself that I moved away, on purpose. More than once. The anxiety I felt over being there was redeemed by the fact that I was able to see Jeffrey, Scott, Jenni, and Tizzy.
Onward to Olympia and the tender care of Stella and Al, who organized a really great event and then threw an excellent party. I talked to scores of people I didn’t know when we were all in college together.
Cliched but true: youth is wasted on the young.
In Illinois I carried an umbrella to protect against rain; in California, to shield myself from the sun. In the land of short shorts and flip-flops I remained entirely covered in black clothing. Several people stopped me on the street to compliment my style and ask if I’m from New York.
This was very odd as strangers only talk to me if they want directions. I started to wonder what had changed.
I didn’t tell my mother about the memoir until the day before the tour started, when I sent email telling her that she should not read it, tell the family about it, or come to any of the events.
This advice was offered out of sensitivity to the potentially catastrophic reaction of the surviving relatives. Imagine my surprise then to find my mother, her sister, and assorted cousins were all going to meet up in Los Angeles when I was there. Then imagine me walking into a hotel room and finding them holding copies of the book.
I figured that the book would not alienate me from my parents; I am after all an only child and therefore hard to shake. But I didn’t know how my mother would feel, or if she would understand that the work is a tribute to her strength. I was relieved and surprised at her reaction: she seemed to like the book. Or at least, she didn’t rage at me.
Many amusing things happened in Los Angeles, not least a trip to Disneyland with my family, during which my mother told me all sorts of things about my early life and illness that I had forgotten. If anyone winced at the details in the book… I can assure you that the reality was much worse.
One of my cousins turned up for the bookstore reading, and at a critical moment I stopped and asked her to verify the veracity of the story. She gleefully told the crowd that it was all true.
During the festival I stood in the Akashic booth hustling my book for hours and at one point Jerry Stahl stopped to chat and buy a copy. I predicted that Byron would ask if he is more attractive in person than the Ben Stiller movie version so I tried to pay attention; the answer is yes.
I met so many other writers I can’t even make an adequate list but here are a few highlights: Nina Revoyr, Jervey Tervalon, Gary Phillips, and Ron Kovic, who is also more interesting in person than as portrayed in film.
One night I found myself at Chateau Marmont with a gaggle of writers, musicians, and assorted lovelies, which as usual kicked off an existential crisis. Why, you might ask? It is not entirely clear, but in those situations that would have been beyond the imagination of my younger self, I often feel… sad.
Another night we went to a party for The Nation at Arianna Huffington’s house. I watched hordes of people dancing attendance on Gore Vidal, who looked distinctly unamused.
I observed another famous writer screaming at his teenage daughter, but I’m not naming names.
The thing that impressed me the most was a glimpse of the Huffington garage as we waited for the valet to bring our car around. Even the rich and famous have utility shelves and old mattresses.
Los Angeles was the start of a deeply unexpected response on the part of various people from my past: the book, strangely, has served as a point of reconciliation.
Of course, I do not wish to be reconciled with lots of these people. The basic rule of thumb for anyone wondering if they should get in touch: if I’ve ever punched you in the face, don’t bother.
During one interview, the person talking to us had clearly not read either book. She asked assorted peculiar questions, culminating in Bee, how does your life differ from the main character in Lauren’s novel?
I said I’m not a murderer.
The midwest is unbelievably vast. We found ourselves at various points on the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Highway, at the largest truck stop in the world, and near the Ronald Reagan birthplace memorial.
Since Lauren was the designated driver I was in charge of anecdotes, and rattled happily for hours. One unexpected bonus of traveling with a new person is the fact they do not know all of your favorite stories.
We arrived in Iowa City thirty minutes before the reading. As we pulled into a parking place Lauren’s phone rang; our publicist was calling to tell us that the reading would both be filmed for the university and broadcast live on the local NPR affiliate.
This made no difference to me, but Lauren was planning to read a chapter that is not, shall we say, FCC friendly.
The Prairie Lights staff were fantastic. When I asked for some ideas of things to do in town, they assured me that there was absolutely nothing… but when I asked about large balls of twine or cheese tourism they had many suggestions.
By the time we split to fly to other destinations I was excessively thankful to travel with Lauren. She is calm, professional, a cautious driver, funny, and believes in rest stops. I’ve been on tours that took me to the outer edge of sanity, and had lots of fun, but sometimes it is a relief to act like a respectable grownup.
Which may not sound consistent with the fact that we were crashing on couches and going to drag shows in our spare time, but somehow the whole thing seemed quite genteel.
Lauren was flying in from New York and would meet me at Quimby’s just before the event. I wandered in early and had some time to say hello to a few friends. When AEM showed up I apologized for throwing away all of her potted meats, but was able to hand her copies of Cambridgeshire Life and Lady magazines, along with a box of Man Size Tissue and that candy that claims it isn’t for girls.
Joe Meno reported that he took my book on a plane trip. He said that when he got to the Road Trip chapter he shouted No! Why?? – much to the consternation of the people in surrounding seats.
The only thing I remembered for sure about Lauren was that she had curly hair, but we managed to find each other and work out a set that would last for the whole tour.
By the time I went on stage jetlag had kicked in; I’m never nervous during events but at one point it literally looked like the words were floating off the page. I was sufficiently confused that I started to laugh at the phrase suction catheter and had trouble restraining myself from giggling through the rest of my piece.
I met several people I’ve only known via the internet, had dinner with Dan and AEM and Lauren, and then we set off for the wilds of the midwest.
It is true that I lack assorted basic social skills. I do not want to chat about the weather. I do not enjoy the banal routines of daily life. But give me an opportunity to go on a month long trip with a writer I’ve only met once over lunch? No problem.
Read deeply harrowing and personal stories to crowds of strangers? Sounds like fun!
The strategy was to travel with as little luggage as possible. This meant that my trip packing consisted of locating a sturdy plastic bag and filling it with black t-shirts and amusing gifts for AEM.
By the time I had trudged through King’s Cross my plastic bag was fraying. Before I made it to Heathrow, the handle had given way completely. I bought some magazines and tried to shuffle everything into a new bag, but that one ripped immediately.
The only thing I really want out of an international flight is an aisle seat. Clutching my possessions, now spilling every which way out of three ripped bags, I found my seat and settled in. Just as the flight was about to take off a man in a fluorescent vest stopped and asked to see my boarding card. He squinted at it and told me that I needed to move to a different seat. Unfortunately, that one was occupied.
The man with the vest sent me to a progression of other seats, all with people already in them, setting off a chain reaction of a dozen disgruntled people arguing with stewards who were also perturbed at the (unexplained) changes.
I decided to take up residence in the coffee service area and observe. I was still standing there, laughing at the chaos, when all the other passengers were sorted and the flight was ready to depart – and there were no vacancies left in the cheap seats.
By staying out of the way (and remaining cheerful) I somehow managed to get promoted to a swanky new seat in first class.
My bags were in tatters as we approached customs, and as I struggled to pull them together I saw the posters. I had completely forgotten that you are not allowed to bring most food to the states. It wasn’t clear if this injunction included my cans of spotted dick and meat paste, but I am a law-abiding citizen and could not face the prospect of a conversation with border patrol on the subject. I turned in at the first restroom and threw most of the food in the garbage.
Relieved of the heavy tins, my stuff was much easier to carry. I figured out the public transit system and arrived at Dan’s house in the evening. Janice asked what I wanted to do the next day; a museum? Some cultural attraction? I felt no shame (I’ve never enjoyed any punk credibility and never will) in saying emphatically: I need to go shopping. They blinked at me in confusion but helpfully provided directions to the stores.
I had only a few hours to acquire the items I would need for the trip and any items that are hard to find in the UK. I rushed from one store to the next, buying a five year supply of dental floss before arriving at my primary destination: the lingerie department of Nordstrom. Some might say that my dependency on this department store chain is unhealthy, but I have done extensive research and can assure you that it is impossible to get the exact items I require anywhere else.
Or at least not in the English stores I have access to, which is baffling; how can a nation have such an obsession with breasts, without a corollary effort to manufacture and distribute undergarments that are attractive and ergonomic?
It doesn’t make much sense that I had to fly to Chicago to buy German underwear, but there you have it.
Recently during a trip to Edinburgh I stopped at the Writer’s Museum and jotted down the following quote:
To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour. — Robert Louis Stevenson
I’m flying out tomorrow and I’ll be on the road for an entire month. Hope that I can meet many of you. Spread the word if you know folks who live in the cities I will be visiting!
Lessons in Taxidermy reviewed in Time Out Chicago:
There’s little sense of comfort in Taxidermy; it’s a brutal story, told with no sense of victimhood or blame. The result is a terrifying tale of a woman trying to live a complete life with a body that fails her in the most horrific ways imaginable. It’s the type of book that breaks a reader’s heart in the first five pages and repeats the process on each page for the remaining 155. The lone relief comes from knowing Lavender, now relatively healthy, survived it all to write such a stirring memoir.