Month: August 2005

08.31.05 standard

Several years ago my friend Polly turned up at one of my parties toting an infant she had given birth to in her home about twenty hours earlier. She was, as was her way, completely unfazed. In fact, she was probably more energetic than the rest of us. This seemed to set an impossibly high standard.

But this morning we went to a brunch in Grantchester to visit Don and Barbara and wish her a happy birthday – and they introduced us to their brand new baby boy, born at lunchtime yesterday after a quick dash in a van and twelve minutes in the hospital.

We sat in the garden of a thatched cottage, toasting her with champagne, marveling at her hospitality and cheer.


8.27.05 inky

The most recent issue of the East Village Inky features a story about our recent visit to New York City… including an illustration of me sitting on the beach at Coney Island. This is a rare spectacle, you should definitely buy a copy.

On the next page Ayun offers a drawing of an additional adventure we had while standing in line at Nathan’s Famous. She did in fact try to do some kind of crazy yoga dance, and then went tumbling backwards before landing on a pram.

What the illustration fails to capture is the fact that we were standing in an oppressive (and potentially violent) crowd. The bit I didn’t get at the time was her motivation to start the shimmy.

Can this really be Issue Number 28? My goodness.


8.25.05 holiday

Byron flew to San Francisco on Saturday, and arrives back in England today at lunchtime. During his whirlwind visit he presented a paper at a conference, had meetings with various colleagues, went on madcap shopping adventures to track down new trousers, spent a few evenings with Jen K, and drove to Sonoma for an overnight house-party-river-adventure fifth anniversary celebration for Hiya and Jonathan. It is safe to assume that he also spent a lot of time talking to his interns, checked in code several times each day, and probably thought of some new important mathematical innovation.

How did he manage all this? I doubt that he slept more than a few hours all week. This is his normal routine, at home or away.

This schedule is not sustainable. His primary stated reason for moving to England was to relax, but he has already managed to forfeit five weeks of paid leave, because he is too busy to go on holiday. We both have a fairly demented (and very American) notion that we are on vacation when we get to travel for work. We return home from intense trips and wonder why we are so tired.

This is the end of what people call summer hols for the children. It has also been raining steadily most days. The most ambitious thing we’ve attempted was a dash to Ely one rare sunny afternoon to look at the Cathedral (I haven’t yet managed to find the church with Etheldreda’s withered hand, but my children do not enjoy such morbid curiosities).

Other than that, I’ve been sitting in my pajamas on the boat, researching places to go for an official holiday trip. Various friends have offered extremely helpful tips; now I just need to choose and book a hotel room before I give up in confusion over distances and train schedules.

I’ve also been reading the hilarious A Fete Worse than Death  (dunno how to make the accent mark) by Iain Aitch. This is possibly the closest I will get to the sort of holiday I would enjoy, as my family members consistently veto excursions to view things like ferret racing and historical re-enactments.

They couldn’t be coaxed to go to Grantchester to watch local women being rolled around in barrels – even when we thought one of our friends would be in a barrel. Though to be fair, half the family would prefer not to go outside. Ever.


8.18.05 dates

Byron went to Estonia for a conference, and we tagged along because Tallinn sounded interesting. Byron was away all day and most evenings with his colleagues, and the rest of us huddled in a hotel room avoiding the rain. The children watched Nickolodeon shows dubbed into Russian, I walked around fetching groceries, and we read a lot of books.

One evening I caught up with Byron in the market square, and met an Italian man who lives in Iowa City.

Cesare was surprised – he said me that he heard me speaking on NPR without knowing that I was married to one of his friends.

The observation that our world is excessively small still holds, even so far from home.

Tallinn is in fact beautiful – splendid even – with an old town center that has not been developed into a boring homogenous shopping mall. I took a great deal of pleasure in my walk up and down Toompea and through All-Linn in search of comestibles.

We went to the oldest functioning pharmacy in Europe, and a marzipan museum, where we bought a kitty to take pride of place on the girl’s birthday cake. But because I couldn’t find a cake she wasn’t allergic to, the kitty was destined to go home with us and make an appearance on an organic cake – and because she was gracious about the whole thing I knew that I would end up throwing not one but three parties. My daughter is now fifteen years old.

This is perplexing, but nonetheless true. She likes us, which is an honor.

Her birthday also marks the mysterious moment when Byron and I decided that we didn’t in fact hate each other, and despite (or because) of the scandal it caused, we’ve been together since that day twelve years ago.

When he was finished with his conference and work dinners we left the kids at the hotel and walked around the old city pretending that we were on dates. I’ve never been on real dates, and I’m not sure that he has either; but we persevered.

Byron took one day off and we rode the high-speed ferry over to Helsinki to visit his friend Vappu, a girl who attended the same alternative high school as an exchange student. She showed us around the market, and her apartment, and it was eerie to be in a place where people wandering the streets look just like my relatives.

I didn’t see myself reflected in the population, but I did see dead ringers for all of my aunts and half of my cousins. My charismatic elder child exerted her charm on our hosts, the boy fell asleep on a tram, and we bought paper doll books before waving goodbye. The border guard on the Finnish side attempted to banter with me, which was less painful than normal because we were both equally awkward and slow in our quips.

On the last day we went back to the beach and the boys built sandcastles with ferocious intensity. I went wading in the Baltic in the shadow of an abandoned Soviet watchtower, clutching my skirts as high as possible. Then my daughter and I sat hunched against the wind, watching the engineers of the family exerting serious effort to build a canal.



8.14.05 crack

Our Seattle house was situated above these steps; the people in the picture are my old neighbors:

Crack Staircase.

Gee, I loved that house. Especially coming from a neighborhood in Portland where, when we moved in, it was normal to see corpses on the corner. Or have a high speed chase end in your yard. Or spend major holidays sitting in the stairwell, waiting for the celebratory gun volleys to halt.

Everything is relative; I thought we got off lightly in Seattle when we were robbed – and the thief only took a birthday cake and a bottle of wine.


8.10.05 everyone

Over the weekend the older child begged for a trip to London; she desperately needed to see the Mr. Clement show before it closed. I was opposed in theory not only because of the bombings, but because I do not wish to see undercover police officers shoot innocent people in the head. But since I walk through life anticipating imminent destruction I rarely let these things dictate my actions.

It seemed statistically improbable that we would get blown up.

The first thing we saw upon entering King’s Cross was a poster for the film Me and You and Everyone We Know. My daughter stopped, pointed, and exclaimed Hey! I was in one of her movies!

I nodded and nudged her to move because she was blocking pedestrian traffic. But the poster appeared around every corner, in every tube station, throughout the day. Byron didn’t notice because he was lost in his own internal world of maths but the small boy, who appeared in The Swan Tool, counted dozens of posters throughout the day.

The children were nicely distracted by the posters, and the macabre toys they purchased at the store featuring the Mr. Clement show. They did not even notice that we were evacuated from Liverpool Street Station.


8.8.05 video

Oh, glorious day – Cambridge has a new independent movie store! Mr. Stacey’s Most Excellent Video Emporium is located on Mill Road, which to me may as well be on the other side of the planet, but it is there! I visited, I browsed, I borrowed. I am pleased.

Today I watched Y Tu Mama Tambien. Byron asked me what I thought of the film and my first response was to say I’m glad I have never known boys like that.

I do not enjoy scatological humor, or any of the other characteristics of normal teenage boys. But seconds later, I realized that I was mistaken. Because in my teens I dated someone who looked and acted like the Gael Garcia Bernal character; in fact, my duplicitous boyfriend was prettier, wilder, more intense – not least because we both survived those years. He was also more damaged than the character on the screen, and that is the point where I say goodbye and forget. I will never talk to him again, but I do appreciate what we learned in those years.

The film itself? It was a nice thing to watch on a rainy afternoon after a week of dealing with sick family members. I haven’t decided if the main message is the idea that one is only truly liberated when death is imminent, or if the film conveys the concept that the punishment for freedom is death. Either way – we all die, so it doesn’t really matter.

I also find it extremely fascinating and cool that Alfonso Cuaron directed the best yet Harry Potter movie.


8.8.05 sturdy

During my first visit to England I sat on the banks of the river next to the Fort St. George, staring at the narrowboats, and announced that I wanted one. After we moved here I went to the Boat Open Day and decided that the idea was feasible; within a few weeks I had purchased one, and it has been a singular joy. When I have to travel for work I dream about my boat. Everywhere I go, I wonder could I moor my boat here?

The idea of letting strangers walk through the boat was too difficult (for many reasons) so I went to the latest Open Day as an observer once again. But we bought Camboaters shirts and sat idly on the decks of other boats, talking about mooring policies and eating biscuits.

One of my new boat friends said So you are a writer?

I nodded.

He asked What do you write?

I replied (as is my custom – or bad habit) Books.

Everyone laughed — which is why I like the people who live on boats. Other sorts of people are confused or offended by my natural reticence.

When Stevie visited she consistently tried to help me with the small tasks I could not perform when we lived in the same town, and for the first time in my life I could say Don’t worry, I’m strong.

I could not reliably turn a doorknob or hold a paintbrush three years ago, but now my wrecked arm is sturdy enough to hold a steel-hulled canal boat against the shore.

Jen K. mailed photographs after her latest visit and when the children opened the envelope they said That is what you really look like, mom.



8.4.05 blancmange

The August 1 issue of The New Yorker has a review of the Michael Winterbottom film 9 Songscontaining this quote:

There is a fine film to be made about the retreat from worldly obligation into erotic rite, and Brando and Bertolucci made it in 1972. But what ‘Last Tango in Paris’ proved was that our skin-grazing view of a body makes us more, not less, enthusiastic to grasp the shape of the soul that it enshrines. Sex, in other words, is a surprising revelation of character, and when the characters in question, like those in ‘9 Songs,’ are drab to the point of inane, their lovemaking becomes as heated and gripping as blancmange.

Now, setting aside the fact that this is hilarious (and I had to look up the recipe for blancmange), I doubt very much that the director of the film was trying to make any large statements about the nature of the human soul. I hadn’t read anything about the movie when I saw it, and while it was surprising in many ways, my primary response was disbelief that it passed the censors uncut with an 18 certificate.

This movie, friends, is the first mainstream manifestation of the tenets of what might be described as alternative-feminist porn. My eyebrows were raised less by what happened on-screen (multiple scenes of real explicit consensual sex and a female lead allowed to enjoy herself without negative narrative consequences) than by the fact that anyone can rent the movie from the indie shelf of their local videostore.

Whereas one of the main criticisms of the film in other publications is that it is not porn, because the action is kind of boring. Which makes me wonder: have these writers watched any porn lately? I think not.

Maybe there was some kind of artistic statement underlying the whole scheme (Winterbottom originally wanted to make a film of the Houellebecq novel Platform which might be interpreted to contain philosophy of … some kind). But in practice, the movie basically shows an extremely normal no-hope relationship based around physical contact and rock shows.

One hopes that this is how many people conduct their lives in their teens and twenties. One knows that the average mid-30’s scientist is more likely to be worried about marriage and mortgages (though I can attest that the British Antarctic survey folks tend to be marginally hotter than other flavors of scientist – they’re the extreme sports-people of the research community). But fundamentally, there is no plot and no attempt to make a grand statement. Except, perhaps, for the whole thing about screening real sex at Cannes.

The seriously depressing thing about this movie followed the UK release. The established (former child star) mid-30’s male actor, Kieran O’Brien, rightfully proclaimed It wasn’t difficult for me to make and I’m really proud of it…. I was quite prepared to talk to anybody anywhere about how proud I was to work on the film and how good it was… I was always the opposite of ashamed.

The young female actor, Margot Stilley, said It isn’t shocking… If you know you are going to watch a film like this, it’s not abrasive. It’s normal sex that everyone has, not crazy stuff.

Of course, it was Margot Stilley who was pursued by tabloids, watched her family being harassed by the press, and eventually asked that her name be withdrawn from the promotion of the film.

Now that the movie is being screened in the states I presume that there will be even more backlash. C’mon, people. Double standards are so tacky.



8.3.05 sweater

Gabriel confirmed that Maria Fabulosa offered the cowboy hat as a bribe so he would stay on the Breeder tour; but he also reminded me that I sweetened the deal by giving him the best sweater I have ever owned. Four years later he still wears the thing, so I asked him to describe it:


The skanky sweater is a cardigan, a little short in the waist and sleeve, pale brown and a wee bit stripy, fairly fuzzy and somewhat itchy. It does have a few holes and occasionally smells a bit off. It is of a three material blend that no one can identify. Against all expectation, it may be the sexiest piece of clothing I’ve ever owned.

I guess it was the combination of sweater and hat that inspired the old man in the Castro to call me a freak when I walked past. To my knowledge this is the only time a stranger has audibly referred to me as a freak.


We all pitched in to feed and entertain the roadies, but later I contrived to provide Gabriel with an official wage. After we got home I tracked down and purchased more than two hundred of the small books he converts to tiles.

One of those became the cover art for Lessons in Taxidermy.