Recently at an event someone asked me about how I choose what to write in this journal.
The site started as documentation of moving away from Portland; when I started writing the topic was fairly restricted. Over the years my life has changed, and the journal has evolved, though principally I do regard it as an exploration of leaving home.
This means that many subjects are simply never addressed. I lead a busy, complicated life, and it is difficult to find enough time to work on the projects I find most absorbing, let alone document the minutiae of my existence.
People who know me in real life often wonder why they do not appear in my writing, or are merely listed rather than described. The reasons are varied.
I think that my children deserve privacy (and my son has dictated that I do not write about him). Relationships with various other people, either now or historically, are similarly out of bounds.
My friends are aware that I am trustworthy and capable of restraint – if anything, I am too inclined to keep secrets. I could never, for instance, write a proper kiss-and-tell, and not just because I used to date criminals. The only confirmation you will ever have about my love life is the fact that I named the correct father on the birth certificates.
Anything else you hear or believe might be true – or maybe not.
There are a few people and experiences I feel that I should write about, but resist for fear of stirring up more trouble. One of the most significant is the phenomenon of lost friendship. I know how to talk about my enemies, and about the people who care for me. But what about that other category, the people I love who no longer speak to me?
I’m not talking about people who drift away, but rather friendships based on true devotion that are abruptly severed. I find it wrenching and painful to even think of two of my favorite people, and have no relative grasp of why they decided to hate me.
There are facts, which portray all sides in a negative way, and impressions, which make me think that abandonment (specifically my reckless rejection of projects, plans, places) is the legitimate cause of the problem in both cases. But I would have thought the grievances would fade as time passed. I know that I am difficult, stubborn, and contrary. I’ve made no secret of any of my own worst qualities, and accept and apologize for the fact that I have hurt people.
What I do not understand is why anyone would choke a friendship that is valued, or reject offers of reconciliation that are genuine. Essentially, I do not understand the utility of holding a grudge.
If I had the choice, I would still know everyone I have befriended in the last six years. I couldn’t say that about any other era of my life, and it is confusing to realize that growing up does not necessarily lead to greater social maturity.
Byron took his midlife crisis to Portland today. He was there for work but also drove around the old neighborhood in a moody fashion, reporting back on the changes (major gentrification would be an understatement). He dropped in on Gabriel and later was able to surprise everyone at a party commemorating the fourth anniversary of Stevie’s accident.
I wish I could have gone! When I think about Portland I feel queasy with longing.
Despite the fact that one of the other people at the party hates me so intensely she extends the friend ban to my whole family, regardless of age or connection. When Byron turned up at the party, despite her injunction that no Lavender could attend, she had to leave.
Byron thought it was funny. I find the whole thing peculiar.
Learning to recognize the signs of flirtation is rather extraordinary, not because my daily life is much different (though it is – people keep offering unexpected favors), but rather because I can look back at the past and see various incidents in a new way.
For instance, it occurred to me to wonder why, as an adolescent, I was so frequently shoved into bodies of water. It happened often enough that I always had a change of clothes in my car trunk (along with a case of brake fluid; I was nothing if not prepared).
I asked Byron if that sort of behavior counted as flirtation, and he shook his head in exasperation before replying in the affirmative. I confirmed the concept by asking Iain (to give the hypothesis a more global test), who also agreed that such things are routine.
I do not particularly understand why pushing people into a lake, ocean, or hot tub is a sound mating ritual (except insofar as it is a shortcut to nudity) but… whatever.
Reliable sources tell me that many boys flirt just by moping in my vicinity; that is clearly something that I would never pay attention to as such behavior is not entertaining. Byron would be the prime example, as he mostly just played the guitar and stared at the wall, dreaming that I would be his life partner without mentioning it. For years. But there are many other incidents that do not fit that description.
One recent encounter: I was wandering around and ran into a friend. He said You look hot today.
I said replied It is unseasonably warm.
He laughed and said That wasn’t what I meant.
I stared quizzically and moved along to my next thought, which was likely something along the lines of Is that the church with the William Morris painting in it?
The argument that my lack of flirtatiousness derives from pure stupidity is growing on me.
There are too many examples in my stories.
I asked Byron if the girl who cornered me in the bathroom of the Spar years ago had motives that were not entirely platonic.
He finds these discussions tedious. He pointed out that the girl was so explicit we were ejected from the bar because of her antics. That encounter was rather routine and the preface of a predictable scandal. Back then intimacy was about autonomy, which makes sense, and revenge, which isn’t very noble.
Why didn’t I acknowledge the truth? Because she was dating the person I was trying to divorce, and I did not want to question or understand her motives. The easiest solution was pretending it was all a misunderstanding.
Unfortunately I was a reckless and troubled girl: risk and danger were just about the only things that caught my attention.
That description is no longer accurate. I have grown so light-hearted I am almost dizzy.
Here in the UK there is a huge amount of pressure to decide on a career at age fifteen. The subjects you study, and the test results on your GCSE’s, determine whether you leave school at sixteen or go on to sixth form, and what you are allowed to study if you remain in school.
Sixth form can loosely be interpreted as the equivalent of a US associate degree, with the attendant choice between vocational and academic work.
My daughter has experienced this rather intensely since her mock exams predicted A star grades in double English: there has been a push to choose university-prep English as her A level course.
Numerous tutors and the intake staff at the sixth form college have been quite strident on the point. The fundamental message is that she must choose her future career now. She is in fact a talented (published) writer, with a verbal acuity that will serve her well in life. Her advisors think the path toward a degree in English is already clear.
They also say she will go to Oxford or Cambridge, whether she likes it or not.
But the child wants to study art and philosophy.
When she announced her intent, the tutors quickly started to hector along the lines of don’t choose now! Wait and see! By which they mean, wait until your inevitable top test scores assure you have to do exactly what we already decided on your behalf.
Art and philosophy are, from a safe middle-class perspective, frivolous.
I feel mildly conflicted only insofar as it seems that she should have the opportunity to coast around some more. In the states she would have three more years to meander before making big choices.
Other than that, I think that art school is better than studying English. What can you do with an art degree? It isn’t clear, but within the ambiguity lies the genius.
My fundamental belief is that people should study what they love, regardless of practical application. When I was sixteen I achieved the highest possible grades and test results in AP literature, composition, and American history.
Two months later I was kicked out of the honors program and ended my secondary education in voc-tech, where I took a certificate in photography. Since I couldn’t be Ralph Eugene Meatyard I wandered off with my art scholarship and studied…. health education and organizational theory.
I did a graduate degree in public administration and worked in government. Now I’m a writer, editor, and publisher. Should I have studied English, just because I had a perfect verbal score on the SAT? No. My choices were extremely wise; I gained life experience and perspective that would not have been possible otherwise.
All of my favorite people are artists, writers, musicians, and mathematicians: people who think and create. None followed a traditional path to arrive at their vocation.
They all work hard – arguably harder than people who chose the path of least resistance.
If my kid wants to study art and philosophy, that is her choice to make. She has excellent role models to show her that the choice is risky and rarely leads to financial security.
Recently a friend loaned me a copy of a film screened on the BBC awhile back called Decadent Action. The motto that sticks in my mind is featured on a pamphlet the protagonists hand out at a festival: Shop Now, Riot Later.
The very funny film offers an activist model of consumption, based on the premise that pleasure is a valid goal.
I’ll never be dissolute enough to qualify as a true libertine but I am in fact a hedonist. I work hard not just for material security but also to acquire new and novel experiences. Travel, food, friendship, trinkets, adventure – no matter what I have, I always want more.
Even when I was poor, sick, and very young, I had high expectations. I’ll never be the sort of person who accepts mediocrity.
Decadent desires are not inherently wrong. It is possible to lead an indulgent, defiant, and deeply ethical life.
James has been either my best friend or mortal enemy for nearly eighteen years. When I asked him for a suggestion regarding the recent NYC event in which I had to take a “personal risk” I expected him to say something smart and interesting.
When he said be wrong I was unnerved and angry.
But I’ve been thinking about his comments: he followed up on the first email with a couple of paragraphs specifically saying that I should tell a story in which I am clearly the antagonist, and definitely doing something destructive.
There are many stories I could tell to satisfy James. Some are more entertaining than others, but we’ll set aside the torrid ones as I’ve never really cared that much about sexual politics.
After the accident I asked James if he would have cried over my death. He said no, and although I knew he meant that he simply could not cry about anything, I stopped talking to him for an entire year. He was invisible to me, even though the distorted adolescent world we lived in dictated we sit next to each other all day at school. After we reconciled I had not in any sense forgiven him.
Over the next eight years, through various moves and scandals, as we baited and cared for each other, I never forgot. I didn’t scheme or plan my revenge, but I did eventually make him cry, standing on the corner of Division and Twentieth in Portland the night before I married Byron.
But it is unlikely that James wants me to tell his secrets to confess my own wrongdoings.
I took my daughter to Amsterdam and it may well be the perfect city: boats and bicycles everywhere!
It was quite lovely catching up with old friends and meeting their new child; Amy Joy and Dishwasher Pete have produced an extremely nice infant:
Today the headline on the local paper concerned a machete attack in Parker’s Piece. I was pondering this as we walked across Christ’s Piece (for those of you who do not live in the U.K. think “park”) as my elder child chat chat chatted away.
Suddenly she gasped and exclaimed Did you see that?
Some man just got all up in your face and hissed!
I didn’t see anything of the sort!
Later some other fellow was apparently trying to make eye contact and wiggling his eyebrows at me.
I denied any such thing happened, so she reminded me of the time some random person in San Francisco tried to talk to me as I ignored him. Eventually he hollered at my daughter Hey! Tell your mother that she is beautiful!
Though I didn’t know that part until the child mentioned it hours later. I am immune to such things.
Happy Valentine’s Day if you are into that sort of thing!
Last week our collectively muddled travel plans required me to take the younger child to Paddington Station at an extremely early hour to meet his father, who had been in Oxford lecturing and supping at high table and similar fancy things that keep him in that other academic town.
Luckily, Iain offered to meet me and be my guide to bits of London I would never have found on my own. He is efficient, so the day included stops at Best Shop Ever, Magma, Alfie’s Antiques, Skandium, Daunt’s bookshop and Marylebone High Street, and Selfridges. Then we proceeded to Get Stuffed, a taxidermy store that is fascinating and scary.
We tried to visit Curious Science but it was closed, then ended the day chatting over tea and coffee at the S&M cafe.
Such a glorious trip would not go unnoticed by my elder child, who clamored to be taken to the city immediately to buy Moomin paraphernalia and comics.
I only fended her off for a day before succumbing to the pressure. We decided to stay overnight to maximize the experience and ended up with discount tickets that put us in the front row at the Theatre Royal to see The Producers.
Iain and Xtina generously joined us on the second day for a tour of the area around Brick Lane. We popped in and out of a series of excellent shops, ate, hung out at a real coffee shop (oh, how I miss Portland sometimes), and checked out the Geffrye Museum.
It is always better to see a city from the perspective of people who live in it every day. I’m pleased to have such interesting friends.
All year long people have asked What are you working on now? and I’ve answered Not much.
This is true insofar as I throw away ninety-eight percent of what I write (and this is not an exaggeration). I have produced enough material for two long books but didn’t like any of it, so I erased the lot.
Lately though I have been working very intensely on a top secret project that has required me to research the fashions of the eighties. Specifically, this involved opening my yearbooks.
Oh, the horror of the decade. The best picture I’ve found so far is an image of the punk kids sitting in a hallway, hunched over their lunch trays, squinting up at the photographer suspiciously. It was not in fact safe to eat in the main lunchroom, and this is I am fairly sure what inspired the attitude and posture of cool that infected my social scene.
But regardless, the fact is, looking at the photographs, we were simply not in any way radical. The strangest thing about my appearance? I had straight short bobbed hair.
Not by current standards a transgression. Though back in the day revolutionary.
Tonight as I walked to the movie theatre a man approached and said Oh my darling, canna ask you a question?
I looked him in the eye and said No.
Then I marched away as he reeled in bafflement and started to shout entreaties.