Month: March 2006

03.31.06 outfit

In case you were wondering, wearing an outfit normally reserved for parties and performances whilst traveling by taxi, subway, and mercilessly long international flights is not a good plan.


3.28.2006 adventure

The first and most startling adventure happened immediately upon settling in for the tedious transcontinental flight: the stranger next to me attempted to make small talk. I hardly knew what to think as no seat-mate has ever talked to me on a plane (and I might remind you that I fly more every year than most people do in a lifetime). And, instead of glaring at the fellow, I made at least an attempt at idle chitchat before retiring to stand near the rear toilets and play with a borrowed iPod.

The first destination was home: parents, dinner with my only surviving grandparent, catching up on news of cousins and aunts and uncles, new babies, more cancer, a stumbling economy, local hatred of Wal-Mart; small-town America, my family, the Olympic mountains at sunset, and a tremendous sadness over the fact that I live so far away. And profound relief that I escaped.

Then Portland, another lost home, where I made the mistake of jumping on the light rail without asking anyone for advice. This meant that I landed randomly in a part of the city no longer even marginally recognizable, and had to use my phone to ask for navigational advice from Gabriel which was accurate but confusing) and Marisa (who wanted to come rescue me though I refused).

Wandering through the Mississippi neighborhood I was bemused to find, instead of boarded storefronts, a swanky collection of restaurants, cafes, bars, bike shops, even an upscale plant nursery. Quite a change from olden times. I’m guessing that my old street is no longer a crack corridor.

After a quick stop at the house to say hello to Gabriel and the rest of the Liston clan (who often drop in from Colorado) it was onward with Marisa to a birthday party at Kelly Point Park in honor of the delightful Anna Ruby. It was immensely bewildering and sweet to sit there in the spring sunshine talking to EB, Stevie, Erin Scarum, Ana Helena, Chris, the two Alex-es (both U. and Thunder Pumpkin), and a host of people I had never met before. I truly love and miss my friends even if I rarely tell them so:

The party devolved to a room full of folks stripped to their skivvies gathered around a roaring wood fire. People laughed and gossiped and made long-distance phone calls to badger Stevie’s younger brother for his perspective (as a representative male) over various points of developmental physiology.

When asked what I wanted to do, the answer was invariably just hang out with you so the only full day in town was spent talking to sts over breakfast, lounging on AR’s bed, rambling around, eating lunch at a taqueria, dropping off a package for Chloe, and drinking tea at Half and Half.

The reading itself was great fun and I had a chance to chat with Nicole, Sonny (who is planning to visit!), Loree (we commiserated over the need to sell the Seattle house), Ally (hurray!), and a score of other friends, along with a sizable number of people I met for the first time.

Shemo hatched a plot to stage a special private basement show in honor of AR after the reading and I took on the task of keeping her out of the house until ten that night, no easy task as my friends are not really the sort to hang out in bars, an opinion I share in the smoking states, especially when I’m high on performance adrenaline.

But we ended up at at a bar, where I listened in bemusement as a group of people all solemnly agreed that passion dies in long-term relationships. Normally I would never comment on such things, but apparently I have unwittingly become the sort of person who has these conversations, and I insisted forcefully that relationships that last for years can in fact be hotter than those that last only as long as initial infatuation. Oh, and that I wouldn’t accept less.

At the appointed hour we convened in the basement and Anna Ruby was delighted and surprised. Everyone else drank whiskey and Stevie held me tight and I wanted to stay in that basement forever:

I never want to visit Portland, mostly because I miss everyone so much, and I knew that it would be painful to leave. AR made tortillas and black beans and salsa for breakfast, Ana Helena dropped in and I learned that she will be in Barcelona on and off this year (which means I will certainly see her), along with instigating a comparison of lingerie that forced me to defend my honor and state emphatically that I am wearing the same identical set of unmentionables that I sported the day I moved away.

If I look different it is because I have grown friendly in my old age, not because my appearance has changed. Stevie didn’t believe me but Ana agreed upon inspection that she’d seen the undergarment before.

Marisa and I realized that we were flying at the same time on the same airline so Anna Ruby dropped us at the airport, and when saying farewell became the most recent friend I’ve used the l-o-v-e word in reference to. Marisa and I were able to hang out for a few extra hours, sitting on the floor and eating chocolate AR packed for us.

The visceral, awful, searing sorrow of departure only hit my mid-section when she walked away to board the plane.

The borrowed iPod offered up a song from another local friend that I played over and over to hear a familiar voice singing I’m doing fine just fine / I’m doing fine.

Then the fellow next to me tapped my arm and wanted to talk about the gadget. What exactly has changed in my demeanor to make strangers think they can talk to me? It is very confusing, as I certainly look the same as I ever have.

San Francisco was deliberately planned as respite and offered up lots of fun. I had breakfast with Jen K to catch up on gossip and thesis progress, and drinks with Hiya, who insisted on introducing me to various people as her “famous writer friend.”

They were all invariably more dazzled to be introduced to Gordon, described by Hiya as the “world famous cheesemonger.” I hung out with Anna, and Freakstorm, and a whole passel of beautiful vivacious children. I kept Gordon up too late every night talking, wandered around the city, and admired the Doggie Diner sign:

Other highlights include sitting in a kitchen in my jammies without any lipstick on (unusual to the point of nonexistent in my life; there are people convinced that I never take it off) talking to Fran at midnight; running into friends around town; walking on a beach at sunset while Gordon taunted me about his vision of a film version of my book.

He claims that he would cast Britney Murphy. Good thing he is a cheesemonger and not a film director.

I spent an afternoon blissfully alone at a laundromat, without anyone expecting anything of me, no deadlines to meet, no appointments to keep, listening to old punk music on the new borrowed iPod, eating jellybeans, and reading celebrity gossip magazines.

There was also a party courtesy of the cheese crew, at which I caught up with Daphne, Soulmine (and her lovely boys), and Jaina Bee, along with meeting lots of new people, and witnessing the evisceration of a pig:

Marisa, Sarah-Jane, and Amanda showed up toward the end of the party which made me very happy. Though at one point as I told Marisa a story she blinked and interrupted to ask another one of her patented Big Questions.

When I shrugged and said it’s complicated she wanted a better response, which just isn’t within my repertoire. I mean, I had to write a book to answer a question she asked me in 1999!

The most interesting point is perhaps the fact that I have been telling the same stories for years.  Before March of 2006 people chose to interpret them differently than they do now, even though my script has not changed.

If I am mysterious (and I was informed by yet another reliable witness during the SF trip that this is true – even when I am at my most forcibly transparent and telling the absolute stark truth) it is certainly not deliberate.

I presume anyone paying attention can figure out the back story without confirmation of my specific actions or beliefs. If not… whatever.

Oh, and in my continuing study of flirtation, I only managed to take one SF vote, from Gordon: he says that I do not flirt. But he agreed that such things are regional and cultural and that someone who grew up in California would have a different scale than someone who grew up in the Northwest.

Before the journey started I didn’t want to go at all. At each new juncture I dreaded the next and wanted to stick in the time and place forever. San Francisco was no different and I spent a great deal of the last morning telling people that I really did not want to fly away again.

But in Seattle I met Gabriel and his cowboy hat at the downtown library. Even standing inside the lobby it seemed like a fantasy, something impossible and odd, because it wasn’t there when I lived in the city (or at least not until the very end of my residence). We took a cab to Capitol Hill just in time to interrupt Jeffrey’s band practice. Gabriel was delighted to have an opportunity to play:

On the subject of clothes: I was dressed similarly to other adventures with Gabriel, including the jacket I wore to Italy all those years ago, and the scarf I bought in the market in Florence. He had on the hat and sweater we bribed him with to stay with us on the Breeder tour, and probably other things I failed to make note of.

We do not change much externally, Gabriel and I. Also, when asked he said that I am not mysterious. Though being understood by an extremely confusing person might not be a social asset. At least he is not shocked by whatever new situation presents itself! Plus he is the most positive person I know, which is a comfort and boon in the midst of chaos.

Somewhere at the start of crashing with Jeffrey we realized that all three of us have extremely large heads — despite our quite different body types, we all wear the same hat size. I make a rule never to share headgear but they both seemed lice-free so I willingly sported Jeffrey’s hat after Gabriel had in turn worn it.

The boys insisted I was adorable but it was all way too John-Hughes-1980’s-chick-flick for me:

Three of my most favorite people in the world are named Byron, and it was almost unbearably amazing to have breakfast with two at once (though also odd when trying to tell stories).

I met Byron Number One at Governors’ School oh-so-many years ago (um, seventeen? How is that possible?); it is a privilege and a pleasure that I know him as an adult, and have the opportunity to enjoy his work. Byron Number Three aka Gabriel was also entranced, and it was hard to drag ourselves away to drive off to see a bit of the county, but we had a lunch date with my mother.

Oh, my mother: the most brilliant, sarcastic, and totally genius parent a person could hope for. Over lunch we talked about hot rods, and family vacations, and the history of Italian cuisine in the county.

It was sad to say goodbye, but I promised to visit again very soon. On the way out of town, working on our top secret project, I showed Gabriel various sites, including the only thing that kept me alive after the accident – a dock in Southworth – none of which will be described here. But I’ll give you one photograph:

Jeffrey is a bachelor and, well, I’m not quite sure why. He is one of the most romantic, ethical, and talented people I know. Ladies of Seattle, what are you waiting for? This fellow is prime real estate.

We went out every night including several visits to the Bus Stop, my new favorite place in the world, where everyone has a crush on everyone else, and strangers tell me they like my dress.

The first night as Jeffrey introduced me around to various folks one of the people running the place, a guy with a fierce demeanor (like, you know, my blood kin) and tattoos running up his neck, said Bee? Have we met?

I replied No, I live far away (wondering if he might be a misplaced cousin but never willing to pursue that line of enquiry) but he wrinkled his brow and said Are you a writer?

Um, well, yes. . .

Lessons in Taxidermy! I loved that book! he said, before enumerating his reasons why.

I laughed and put my hands across my face, as I’ve never been recognized just from the author photo.

In fact, I chose the picture that would be the most misleading. I pointed at Jeffrey and said Most of my friends haven’t even read it! Jeffrey here is too sensitive.

Gabriel is a bandit. He was, I’m sure, just having fun — but he made an entire venue of jaded hipsters jump up for the first and only time that night to dance madly to Thank God I’m a Country Boy:

Another night we hooked up with Anika for dinner, but she had sadly injured her back and needed to retire early. We ended up at the Hideout and when I set my stuff down at the bar a drunk obnoxious hipster boy grabbed my wallet. I plucked it back again, and evidently failed to emit my standard do not even fucking try, buddy message because the sozzled young gentleman decided to talk to me.

Again, I would like to note, this does not happen in my life. Ever. I was sufficiently bemused that I actually talked back at the fellow, who decided it would be a good strategy to inquire about the contents of my messenger bag. I answered in detail and since this post is already excessively self-involved may as well share the information: sunglasses, sunblock, notebook, three black pens, camera, lipstick, packet of tissue, band-aids, flashlight, two mobile phones, two pairs of gloves, a scarf, and a packet of cough drops. He was just trying to suss out the need for two mobile phones (one for Europe, one for the states, if you must know) when Jeff plucked me away.

I took the opportunity to ask Jeffrey if, from his perspective, I flirt. A fellow child of the rural Northwest, he did not hesitate before saying Yes. You raise your eyebrows and say sarcastic things – that is flirting.

What an interesting perspective.

It was, as ever, painful to say goodbye to Gabriel at the train station, though I promised to try to visit more. He had been driving me to our various destinations but it became my task to return the rental car.

I haven’t driven in years but found, to my absolute amazement, that I not only knew what to do, and remembered how to get around, but…. get this… I am no longer afraid to drive!

There was nary a flashback nor twitch throughout a morning of dodging commuter traffic in a killer city that has the capacity to remind me of every horrible event of my childhood and youth.

Life, to summarize, is good.

Flying back to England I decided that while the west coast is no longer my home, knowing as much makes the visits vastly more entertaining.

I might be adrift in the world, but I am in fact having fun.


3.17.2006 notes

Note to self: find and pack pajamas for the trip!

I am very much looking forward to rampant American consumerism to deliver various goods and services that are scant on the ground here in this picturesque city. The top picks are always sunblock, moisturizer with sunblock, lipstick with sunblock, and black tights – you know, the basics.

Though recently I was forced to accept the truth: the tights I love have been discontinued. Without warning; I did not have an opportunity to dispatch agents to snap up a lifetime worth of Nordstrom brand opaque hosiery before they disappeared from the shelves. The pairs I brought over, and purchased on various other trips, have been completely shredded by boat maintenance tasks and death-grip bicycle pedals.

I am in mourning and have not found any alternative options that suit. DKNY doesn’t cut it. If you can see bruises through the mesh the tights are not, by definition, opaque.

It is very exciting that the weather is improving here. By the time I get back it will be warm enough to plant a new garden for the boat! Maybe I’ll even manage to avoid falling in the river. I can’t wait.


3.14.2006 striptease

While making arrangements to meet various people in Portland, I realized that I do not in fact know enough about my own neighborhood to make plans.

Yes, I know where my friends live – but everything else has changed so much I hardly know what to think. Chez What? is gone, I hear, along with assorted other landmarks I could reliably count on. There are coffeeshops and bars and restaurants and record stores where once there were merely boarded storefronts.

The worst by far is the fact that The Jockey Club was torn down to make way for, I don’t know, an expansion of the community college or something along those lines.

I wasn’t a regular at that bar (or any drinking establishment as I was a pure and innocent youth – do you believe me?) but it was the nearest place to meet people or take visitors.

One of my fondest memories from Portland involved sitting in a corner as my friends played Truth or Dare, which ended with the bartender doing a striptease on our table and Byron kissing a taxidermied moose.

Of course, I didn’t play.

That would be telling.


3.10.2006 oddity

Byron has always had admirers; he is sensitive, attractive, and a minister’s son, with the attendant social skills that implies. But since he has embarked on his current career the ladies (and a fair number of boys) swoon over him in veritable droves. It is fascinating to see what quantifiable success does to a social life.

Though I am reminded of a conversation I had years ago with a famous friend. I inquired why a recent relationship had ended and the answer went something like: She was a starfucker and I never get recognized in restaurants.

That conversation happened around the time fans of the magazine were gossiping about my decadent shopping habits (vitamin supplements and organic vegetables) and luxury automobile (a fifteen year old Volvo with a dodgy title), though before someone started a rumor that my unschooled children were secretly enrolled in elite private schools.

I had fair warning from friends that leading a visible life would offer perks and punishment in equal measure. Yes, I get to meet and know so many interesting and fun new friends. But it is also a fact that some people are scared to talk to me, or resent my perceived success.

The ability to travel extensively is paired with a lack of sufficient time to rest, or congregate with those I love the most.

I could go on and on but nobody wants to hear a fortunate person complain about the challenges of leading a brilliant life. I certainly do not have sympathy for myself on the issue, let alone other people who drone on about such things.

The only tricky thing that I ponder is the essential oddity of never knowing whether a person likes me as an individual, or for what I represent. But I think that might be a question that everyone has to face… sooner or later.


3.9.2006 anchorage

The Michele Shocked song Anchorage came out the year I finished high school; at the time I was driving endlessly around Washington state, doing community organizing and resisting the urge to commit suicide. I had a random assortment of tapes in the car and that track was on one of them, though I do not recollect now if it was mine or something abandoned by one of my wounded friends.

A little over a year later I found myself standing next to the commissary on an army base in Alaska, a teenage bride clutching a baby, staring at a moose.

That song started playing in my mind, and it struck me quite forcefully that I was supposed to identify with the narrator, not the old friend.

I was an efficient and bureaucratic child: in an attempt to escape my fate, I obtained certificates from the appropriate experts stating that I was not allowed to live in Alaska. When the desired transfer was turned down I had my Senator intervene to bring the young husband home.

Military personnel and spouses will appreciate that this is a significant accomplishment, particularly given that I was only nineteen years old at the time.

I grew up in a military town, and I retain a fervent belief that our armed forces deserve a pay raise and better benefits. Even though I do not always agree with specific military campaigns I could have remained a military spouse without significantly challenging any of my core beliefs. I may look like a wildcat, but essentially I am an incrementalist who believes that appropriately managed government programs are the solution to most common problems.

The military also offers poor smart kids education, training, and durable skills they do not have the opportunity to gain elsewhere.

The feeling I had that day in Anchorage was not truly about Alaska, or the army, or any external factor. What I slowly realized over the course of two years, during which time I only lived with that boy for a few months, was that I was compromising my own integrity no matter where I lived.

I had settled – for someone who only loved me incidentally; for a shockingly meager paycheck; for a life without dreams. All because I needed health insurance, and he felt guilty.

That relationship ended, predictably and brutally, with an argument ostensibly about money that was really about two people realizing that they had squandered their youth.

I am inherently a responsible, practical person, and that has often been my downfall. It would be easy to allow myself to be trapped by the expectations and needs of other people, to sublimate myself to work, family, obligations.

I’ve spent the last eighteen years resolutely destroying the suicidal girl who stayed alive only because her testimony was required in a product liability suit.


3.8.2006 muse

Today I’ve been reading The Lives of the Muses. My favorite so far is Lou Andreas-Salome, writer and analyst, unattainable tormentor of Nietzsche, lover of Rilke (whose first name she changed to Rainer), colleague of Freud.

I like her story because she did not simply inspire the people who loved her; she also directly influenced their lives, and in fact seems at times more powerful and engaging than the men who remain famous.

Alice was just an engaging child who asked Lewis Carroll for a story. Lizzie Siddal was a beautiful junkie who despaired over the Bohemian life she chose.

Give me instead a woman who, long after she ended their affair and took up analysis as a career, advised Rilke against therapy, saying:

While a successful analysis might free an artist from the devils that beset him, it would also drive away the angels that help him create. A germ-free soul is a sterile soul.


3.5.2006 party

I may not have mentioned this before, but I live in an incredibly dull place.

The aesthetics cannot be faulted: the town is breathtakingly beautiful, awash in ancient churches and gorgeous university buildings. The surrounding countryside is tranquil and serene, and I’ve never been as soothed by landscape in my life.

In terms of work, this is quite likely the best place for me to live (for now). I’m surrounded by people who think for a living. I’m no longer the odd one out; I can talk easily about what I do, without worrying that it will cause an awkward gap in the conversation or solicit unwarranted attention. Or at least I can pretend that this is true, which was never possible in the states.

But while the cultural offerings are plentiful – with museums, classical concerts, plays, and lectures all competing for attention – by moving here I unwittingly cut myself off from an entire familiar lifestyle. Yes, there is a music scene, but it is much smaller than one would expect in a university town, because the indie rockers and punks do not typically matriculate at this particular institution. Likewise, they rarely settle here.

There is precisely one good video store, and it is so far away I rarely make the time to ride over. There is exactly one good restaurant (though in this opinion I am biased as I deny standing to places that cost more than thirty pounds sterling per person on average).

There is absolutely no independent publishing scene. Although I have a few zine friends in town, we have no clubhouse. There is nothing like the Hugo House or the IPRC to sustain my social needs.

Probably the worst thing: I don’t have sufficient space to throw my enormous parties.

For the most part, the lack of distraction is good for me. I’ve accomplished more in the last year than I would have back home, with shows and events and readings to attend.

But I do miss my old life sometimes, and I am currently spinning with joy over an upcoming trip. I’m going to spend some time with my family, arrive in Portland in time for Anna Ruby’s birthday party, do a reading, and then fly to San Francisco, where I will see countless amazing friends. Then I will rendezvous with Gabriel and embark on a four-day working road trip: an abundance of riches.

It will be strange to go home again; the trip has the possibility of swinging perilously from exultation to morbid sorrow. But I am still extremely pleased to be going.

In a similar vein, Byron went to Seattle to give a talk at TechFest and had various madcap adventures with Jeffrey, Anika, and assorted people I haven’t met yet.

It is odd to reflect on our life in that city; we weren’t even there long enough to unpack, and rarely went out. I was writing a book and nursing a broken tailbone and had decided to hibernate instead of socialize (despite – or maybe because – over two hundred people showed up for the housewarming party).

This was a necessary rest, after leaving behind an existence that often looked more like a community centre than a private life.

Byron had ditched the vicissitudes of a start-up for a job with a major company, splitting his time between research and development, which kept his mind engaged in a hyper-real fashion. We owned a beautiful house on a hill, and, for the first time ever, enough money to pay bills.

But we were both confronting questions about what we wanted from life:

Material possessions and stability, or uncertainty and adventure?

Familiar experiences or new?

Stay or go?

I didn’t want to leave the landscape of my youth, and refused to consider various possibilities on principle. Byron, in his impetuous and curious fashion, continued to tempt me with options of a whole new life far from home.

I said no several times, until the day he called and asked Want to move to England?

Five weeks later, we were here.

Life in the UK is certainly different, in ways that are both delightful and strange. I do not regret the move.

Though it is nice to know that I can always go home to visit, and that the west coast party continues unabated.


3.3.2006 etchings

Byron is the handiest research subject in my attempts to figure out this flirting thing, but he isn’t a very good specimen as he is such a (notorious) natural. Also, and this is critical, he certainly is not more socially evolved than I am. In fact, though he can exert charm effortlessly, he is often completely clueless about the motivations of other people.

He thinks that all banter is just good fun.

I have to point out that people are not just being friendly when they invite him up to look at their etchings. He is always surprised to learn that what he thought was innocent flirtatiousness was in fact an explicit offer of sexual favors.

Even when I tell him ahead of time that it will happen.

We have divergent abilities to understand our fellow humans; I may not know how to chitchat but I have certainly always noticed when someone tried to seduce me.

Perhaps the fact that we are both so obsessed with work is the root cause of our mutual clueless-ness.



3.3.2006 animosity

I’ve been reading assorted biographies of dead writers and artists and keep running across the concept of inspiration. I’m not sure that I completely agree that an idea has to come from any old place; things sometimes just happen. But it is true that large swaths of my work take the form of an answer to a question.

The best example: one sunny day in Portland I stood silently on a sidewalk as two people I knew and liked, both bespectacled girls in braids, had a slap fight in the entry to the health food store on Fremont. I could have stopped the altercation, but I elected to stand aside and remain silent. The episode ended when the manager came out and said Excuse me, ladies, can I help you?

When I told that story to Inga she was shocked. Why didn’t you do something?

I replied that I had no part in their feud. It did not seem my place to interfere.

But her question made me think about why my instinct was to observe rather than take action. Thinking about the reasons opened up a flood of unwanted memories.

I grew up in a violent household. I watched my aunts and uncles beating the shit out of each other and their children. I had a baby with someone I met in criminal court. I know what rage tastes like, I know how to protect myself, and I have never been afraid to hit back.

It would have been easier from any angle to continue to lead a fighting life. I have been conditioned to act out of anger. I love my hometown and, insofar as I was capable of feeling anything after the accident, I loved the hooligans I dated in my youth. But I made a specific and deliberate choice to walk away and create a life that is not contaminated by violence – of any kind.

From my perspective, it doesn’t matter why people hurt each other. There are always valid perspectives and excuses on both sides. Why did the fight at the health food store start? Who cares? Both of those girls felt that they were right. Besides, it was more than slightly ridiculous to witness some kind of turf war erupting over the bins of organic vegetables.

The fights I’ve witnessed or conducted were just the same: a strange mixture of bathos and animosity exploding over transgressions that, years later, I do not remember.

I rejected violence not because I was weak or scared, but rather because I find it easy and banal.

I responded to Inga’s question with a long email that succinctly outlined what would end up, within the week, as the Fighting essays.

The fight itself was not inspiring; fights are in fact squalid. But when I had to account for my instinctual reaction I wrote what I feel is the best part of a memoir about danger.


3.2.2006 disreputable

The other night I watched Bride and Prejudice, and my primary response is that they should have cast someone else as the lead male character. Darcy is supposed to smolder, not annoy.

Also, in the book Lydia ran away and had sex with a nefarious soldier, thus ruining her own life and the prospects of her sisters. In the movie the Lydia character surreptitiously sneaks out to ride the London Eye with a fellow we are to believe is disreputable because he lives on a narrowboat.

This is the second movie I’ve seen recently that equates life on the water with moral turpitude. The other one was bad enough I forget the name but coincidentally cast Jennifer Ehle in the role of a woman who lives on a narrowboat. We are notified that she is bad news with the following additional clues: she is a single mother, she has dreadlocks, and she has a tattoo. She has a posh accent and rich parents but insists on living precariously. And, in a movie about the dating habits of a bohemian London crowd, she is the one who has the worst sex life. Until she hooks up with the slutty bad boy character.

Historically, the people who made lives on the rivers and canals of this country were disparaged. There were even, for a time, laws that restricted children living with their parents on the boats. This is a classic example of the way an autonomous subculture that fulfills a significant, and dirty, public need is depicted by the cultural elite. For other examples see: coal miners and migrant farmworkers.

But come on, people. Industry and technology have changed the world.

We narrowboaters are not the gypsies of the Philip Pullman books, the immoral wastrels of dumb romantic comedies, nor are we any different than any other neighborhood in this town.

Here in Cambridge, and from what I can tell in Oxford and London too, we’re a representative mix of retired folk, sporty types who like the outdoors, and professionals from various respectable fields.

That may not be sexy but it is the truth.


3.1.2006 ride

My body is too fragile for extremes of weather; in the winter, my fingers are so cold I imagine they might snap off. The heat and humidity of summer do not bother me, but sunlight does: it is not an affectation that I wear sunglasses even in the dimmest light.

My experience of photosensitivity is profound – the world is white and dazzling and painful. If I’m not cautious sunshine can trigger a potentially lethal auto-immune disorder. Even if light did not hurt me, the sun would still be a monumental enemy, given my history of skin cancer.

Yes, friends, it is true: I am exquisitely sensitive. I should have been born to an era of fainting couches. But I am a rugged peasant and loathe medical authority… so I ignore the injunctions of doctors to stay home and rest.

One of the main features of my life here in England is daily bicycle rides to distant villages: Waterbeach, Fen Ditton, Coton, Grantchester, pedaling as fast as possible through common land.

Spring and autumn are the best seasons for these trips, after the cold and before the tourists swarm the town. I ride to feel my legs moving, feel my heart racing; to be in the countryside and hear the birds sing, and find myself surprised every time by the sight of thatch-roofed cottages and old country churches.