My left leg has finally healed sufficiently that I can go on my daily bicycle ride; my right foot has not, but I can push off from the heel and that is good enough.
Riding in East Anglia is often accompanied by a crashing wind coming straight off the Fens. The best part is when the wind is at your back, relentlessly driving you across the flat fields, nearly knocking the bike off the path. It reminds me of being a kid on the ferry to Canada and jumping up on deck, letting the air carry me aloft.
But the wind can only be at your back in one direction; riding home again it is also relentless, each stroke of the pedal moving the bike only incrementally forward. I know this, know that I’ll also have to ride with one hand holding down my skirt, but I would still choose the difficult ride if that is what is required to experience the other.
After my ride I walked out to Lammas Land and the folly, listening to an album I’ve never heard before, the wind whipping my hair up and around my face until I could no longer see anything.
This is what I love about Cambridge:
The other night at a party littered with international academics Jean attempted to quiz people about how old they were when they lost their virginity. I was the only person to answer willingly. Jean gave out his stats (if you want to know, ask him). Byron and Rachel had to be prompted but they disclosed.
Everyone else just stared at us. Two refused emphatically, then started to debate the definition of virginity, and what constitutes sex.
When you associate with people who live on a spectrum that starts with theologically imposed chastity and arranged marriages on one end, and profound decadent hedonism on the other, these conversations can sometimes lurch in directions one does not anticipate.
At some point one straight white man said You wait for the right person your entire life-
Only to be interrupted by another straight white man who retorted But you have to do something while waiting!
I blinked and took notes, but did not join the discussion as I cannot relate to the concept of the right person as some kind of ideal that can be sought, or obtained.
Last year in Seattle Jeffrey told me about his theory that if you ask people for their virginity story and they tell you immediately, it means you are good friends. If they decline or lie, he said” talk about the weather while taking tiny steps away from them until you can no longer hear them speak.
This model presumably works in the context of the west coast indie-alternative scene in which he dwells. But of course when he tried it on me my mouth dropped open in shock and I refused to answer. Though I was apparently exempt from his schematic since we’re still good friends.
Later I sent a text with an abbreviated version of my very sweet story involving someone I loved with all my heart, who later succumbed to injury and violence. What happened between us, whether bad or good, was true and I do not regret any of it.
Life is a complicated adventure.
I spent the day exchanging email with people to promote the book, scrambling around putting things in order, and somehow also managing to conduct an important secret conversation.
During the course of a discussion with my agent she asked about my weekend and I filled her in.
I signed off with My life is sometimes quite peculiar.
She replied Yes, I’d noticed that!
I sleep with my hair knotted up on top of my head but since I’ve taken to brushing it the whole mess slips around and falls apart. Last night it all came streaming down across my face and neck, waking me.
I swept it back in place and stretched out, blankets pulled up to my chin, listening to the rain hit the boat.
Outside the crocuses and daffodils are blooming. Spring is here, everything is changing, and that is brilliant.
The other evening Rachel grabbed my journal and started to read through the scribbled notes and character sketches. Ten pages in she found a description of a secret plan that might change my life significantly. She borrowed my pen and scrawled NO!! at the bottom.
Lucky she didn’t read a recent journal that starts with Note to self: do not make stupid mistakes and repeat lessons learned before age twenty-one.
On her last night in town a crew assembled at Jean’s flat to eat tasty food and drink lots of red wine.
It was an eclectic bunch of historians, linguists, barristers, mathematicians, immunologists, and artists, born in six different countries and most of us living far from home. There were no English people present until Paul showed up at two with an emergency supply of cigarettes, by which time we were all laughing uproariously.
Somewhere around three in the morning a fabulous boy turned to me and asked a technical question about (look away now if you are squeamish) fisting; someone else needed to know about female ejaculation and I found myself practically running a disease prevention seminar.
I never talk about the fact that I have a degree in health education, but lots of people seem to sense it.
My first job in that field? Teaching sex ed in a juvenile detention facility. When I looked younger than most of the kids in the classes.
It was nearly dawn when it was time to say goodbye. I offered good traveling wishes to Rachel and we embraced. She exclaimed That was almost like a real hug!
When Jean introduces me to people he says things like (imagine this in a posh South African accent, which for the uninitiated sounds like 19th century boarding school British) Her book is about growing up with seven different kinds of cancer!
I shake my head; he hasn’t read it so this synopsis is quite misleading. Then I patiently explain that it isn’t about cancer at all. The book is about danger.
Not the danger of growing up with a rare genetic disorder and two kinds of cancer. Not the peril implied by poverty and violence. Not the ramifications of a horrific accident, or any of the other sundry things that happened in my early life.
The book details all of those experiences, but it is about rejecting that legacy and choosing to take real risks – like falling in love, raising children, finding friends. From my perspective it is more dangerous to care about someone than it is to simply stay alive.
Marisa arrives in a few days and she says that she is looking forward to being a stranger.
That is one beloved feature of life here that has evaporated for me. It took longer than normal but it is now impossible to go anywhere without seeing at least half a dozen people I know, if not more.
I want to be anonymous again, but the imminent publication of the book will just exacerbate the whole issue.
Jeffrey will arrive after Marisa leaves and presumably he will join the clamor for a book release party. Though he recently lost his camera, so there will be no damning evidence to post on myspace.
When I told Byron the camera disappeared he said Let me guess – drunk, at karaoke?
Yep. Now the world will have to do without photographs of us acting, as Jeffrey says, adorable:
My favorite part of the publishing life (aside from writing sentences) is the book tour.
There was a time when I was too frightened of my own voice to even talk in seminar; it was an excruciating ordeal to give talks or present academic work. I thought that I had a phobia about public speaking.
But apparently I just disliked talking about policy analysis. This might have something to do with my impatience with people who fail to grasp simple concepts like, oh, the necessity of civil rights laws.
When I started reading pieces of my books to audiences I was surprised to find that instead of cringing I felt a rush of pleasure. People who met me on the road back then were always puzzled by my demeanor – whether they knew me in real life or via the work they expected the somber and wary person I had always been.
Instead they found me giddy, laughing, even if I had just read a piece that made the audience cry.
When I’m interviewed journalists routinely ask if writing Taxidermy was cathartic; the answer is no. I do not believe in the book-as-therapy model. Writing it the first time was painful. Writing it again after the theft was actively destructive. The winter I ran off to Gabriel’s family homestead to work on the manuscript stands out as the lowest point of my entire adult life.
I finished it, and went through the rather grueling process of getting it published in the states, because I had a political agenda (refer back to early career in disability civil rights implementation).
Performing, on the other hand, is a tonic. Standing in front of an audience I found that I could say things I would never even whisper to the closest friend.
Travel for endless weeks telling strangers shocking stories about poverty, violence, and cancer? Fun!
I like the actual performance; it is brilliant to hear an audience laugh. But I also like traveling. It is no burden at all to be on the road, passing through towns so fast you don’t even know where you are, driving too much, flying too often, skipping from anonymous hotel rooms to borrowed couches, sleep deprivation, odd meals at strange times, meeting scores of new people, visiting old friends.
One major difference between the U.S. and the U.K. in terms of publishing is the fact that the culture of touring is different here. There are occasional events and lots of festivals – but the stateside model of fifteen readings in seventeen days spanning two coasts with a stopover in the Midwest is not the done thing.
I feel deprived of a special treat!
My agent texted to say that she would be a bit late to meet me. When I replied in my standard positive fashion she wrote back You’re always so amenable. Do you secretly seethe with resentment?!
The answer is no. If I feel resentful I state my case and move along; seething is not my style.
We met at the South Kensington tube stop to walk over to the V&A for a fabulous private party with actual celebrities wandering around. It was quite interesting to talk to various other writers and several people who are employed by Orion.
Two of the folks who worked on my book shook their heads and informed me that I do not look like my publicity photographs. This is true, and generally surprising to people when they meet me for the first time. One of the women said You’re…. blonder… than I expected.
The museum currently features an exhibit devoted to Kylie Minogue and I wandered around staring at her tiny little costumes. My publicist caught up with me next to a video projection screen and we talked about marketing and promotion bathed in the glow of a pop princess.
After the V&A party ended Susan took me to a launch for the Cheap Date Guide to Style, and we graciously allowed Byron to join. He has never attended publishing parties before as he was sure they would be dull; he was shocked to observe ravishing hedonism and instantly declared a desire to change careers.
Back in Cambridge at the weekend I was pleased to hear from Rachel, who told me to buy a lot of wine and meet her at Jean’s flat. I dutifully collected up four bottles thinking it would be funny to offer such an abundance but the place was full of strangers when I arrived so I left most hidden away in my bag.
This proved to be useful as the party was still rocking long after the respectable people wandered away to bed. The extra bottles contributed to assorted drunken antics, including a group effort to make me dance. I resisted, a sexy girl tried to drag me up off the couch (sensing a trend?), but luckily I had the excuse of the broken toe.
Rachel grabbed my phone and sent racy text messages to people she hasn’t met, this time without signing her name. After she described one particular revelry Gordon wrote back to query who had been involved.
I texted I’m pure and innocent!
He retorted That isn’t an answer!
To which I replied True, but it is an accurate description!
The taxi driver offered to get a wheelchair when he dropped me off at the emergency room but I said No worries, I’m only a little bit broken.
My injury did not even warrant a place in the examination rooms. I sat in the waiting area with my naked foot gingerly perched on top of my shoe, reading magazines that I brought with me.
Two and a half years after moving here I am still endlessly impressed with the medical system. One excellent example: the emergency room is for actual emergencies. My broken bits were not a high priority, but that is reasonable and fair.
During the x-ray I was surprised to find myself on the verge of a panic attack. There was absolutely no reason to be upset, which is probably why I started to shake. If I’d been truly ill or expecting another death sentence I would have been calm and serene.
Three hours after triage my prediction was proved true; the doctor said that no intervention was required but told me to rest and keep the broken toe elevated.
I interpreted this to mean Spend several days dragging recalcitrant children out to see cultural attractions.
I took the visiting teenager to London and showed him Covent Garden, Carnaby Street, the slides at the Tate Modern, the Tower of London, and the desk Marx used at the British Library Reading Room.
The boy is obsessed with Napoleon so we checked out the military tributes and crypt at St. Paul’s. I hobbled up the five hundred odd steps to see the Whispering Gallery and the view from the dome. The tricky bit was getting back down again – the broken toe provided a challenge but worse yet, the wind kept whipping up my skirt. The injury itself is proof of my lack of coordination; it is surprising that I survived the descent down perilous stairs half-hopping, two hands holding my clothing in place.
It would take more than a broken bone to prevent me from fulfilling my duties as a host.
It may be a contrived holiday, but personally I always loved the school Valentine box ritual as a child.
This year I’m alone for the big day, which is bad enough, but guess what special treat I contrived to give myself this morning?
A spectacularly broken toe. Yes, indeed; even doing laundry can be hazardous in my life.
Anyone who has ever lived with me would report that I have one bad habit that is singularly intolerable: I am extremely obsessive in my consumption of music.
This takes the unfortunate form of a tendency to listen to specific things over and over. Not just a type of music, or a particular artist – I am capable of listening to the same song all day long without any variation.
I recognize and put the smack down on most of my compulsions. But when it comes to music, I’ve decided that so long as I have ten songs playing I am fine.
Bystanders might not agree, and a few have been known to shriek in rage when I hit the play button for the seventeenth time in an afternoon.
When I walked off the plane from the most recent Seattle trip I flipped through the borrowed iPod, selected an album I’d never really listened to that suited my mood, and turned it on.
Three months later I know every last word and intonation and I’m still listening. In fact, since I have a Walkman phone now, I’m listening more than I would have before.
Efforts to change this have been unnerving, and mostly include adding extra songs from the same artist. It is unfortunate that my brain seizes on random enthusiasms, though I suppose it is good that I’m not in a Rhinestone Cowboy sort of mood.
This winter will forever be connected to a specific album I never approved of in the first place.
Spring is imminent. I need to find some new music.
Tonight over a sushi dinner my daughter said Tell Dylan about the ducts – nobody believes me!
I sighed; that particular story has been removed from my repertoire of anecdotes.
During the scant few months her father lived with us he did not know how to drive. Every morning I would make the trek to drop him off on base, thirty miles away, then drive home with the baby. In the evening we picked him up again and headed for the campus where I was attending graduate school, another thirty miles south. After my class I would then drive the sixty miles home and we would all collapse in various states of exhaustion.
Adjusting for other chores that would put my daily commute at something like two hundred miles a day – while still experiencing massive panic attacks during every single drive.
My lovely daughter, then two years old, only put up with it if I kept the Beauty and the Beast soundtrack on constant rotation. Even then she was inclined to break out of her car seat, so I often drove (manual transmission, no power steering) with my right hand in the back seat, attached to her leg.
The bit of the story she most enjoys (and definitely remembers) is what happened during the three or four hours each night she hung out with her biological father.
To add a piquant detail, remember that he would have been dressed in his Army uniform, he was often armed, and that the school was, well, extremely liberal.
What did her father think was suitable entertainment?
He broke into the heating ducts and took the baby prowling through the walls of the seminar buildings.
I thought this was a good use of their time, and also highly amusing. My classmates… didn’t.
Next week my UK publisher is throwing a party at the V&A and I’m sure that the whole thing will be terribly fascinating.
When I mentioned it to Mark Mitchell he replied I want to know what you’re wearing from head to toe, in case I need to stage an intervention. Then he tried to argue once again that a grey silk dress he shuffled me into at Barney’s was gorgeous.
I responded In Bewitched terms it was more Samantha’s mother-in-law than her mother.
He did not object to my stated dress choice for the bash. I cleverly neglected to tell him which shoes I’ll wear (he will not approve – nor would Trinny & Susannah – I’m crossing my fingers they’ll attend!).
I’ve been terribly remiss in reporting on other fun parties, including a trip to London to celebrate Iain’s birthday. It was lovely to catch up with Suzy and Ian from Nude Magazine, chat with Susan, and meet a few new people. Iain and I played dueling cameras:
On my birthday Sally hatched a plot with Jean to have a bunch of us over to her cottage to meet some people from South Africa. Of course everyone forgot except me, but the event was hastily organized at the last minute.
Jean and Peter shared a cab with me out to Grantchester where we had an excellent dinner and super conversations with an eclectic crew of people from all over the world. When the wine ran out Byron convinced Don to run home and plunder his supply.
My spooky ability to suss out lies was mocked by Byron, who does not believe in the concept of truth. In fact, the first time we ever spoke he tried to pass off a series of stories that had no basis in reality. I was feeling charitable that day so I just stared at him and announced to assembled friends that he was a liar.
Sally says that Byron is the devil. This is not entirely accurate, though he is a trickster. He can’t stand up straight in the cottage but he still danced:
Oh, what delicious words…. even if I mostly huddle against a radiator, I still feel the genius thrill of knowing that regular life is cancelled in favor of fun.
I miss them.
I’ve been reading a biography of Bruce Chatwin that is exacerbating my pre-existing nervous disorder around discussing writing projects. He spent something like thirteen years telling everyone he knew about a book that was never published.
My tendency to claim that I am not working at all seems like a comparatively good tactic.
Yesterday I was rummaging around in a cupboard and found a one hundred and fifty page manuscript that I decided to abandon a few months ago without consulting my agent.
I tossed it in the recycling bin and went back to searching for my boat safety certificate.
Mash wrote to ask if I remember a dinner party we threw, which involved blindfolding the boys and driving aimlessly around the southern end of the county to make sure they did not guess the destination. Which, if either of us could remember, was probably an elementary school playground.
That would have been a typical weekend excursion, when we had grown bored of standing around in supermarket parking lots. Other amusements the crew indulged in were a bit more esoteric.
We forked lawns. We had an effigy that we would string up in each others forested yards. We threw dog weddings.
As David recently commented, we were extremely innocent and good. If we skipped school (and we were only caught once, when eight of us went missing on the same day) it was to go to the city to see a play.
There were no drugs, no drinking, no smoking. Sex, if it happened (and for most it did not) was a secret.
We were honors students, and we took over the International Society in order to have an officially recognized clubhouse.
Yet, at the same time, we were the social pariahs of the school – the kids who couldn’t ride the bus for fear of what might happen. The ones always suspected of wrongdoing, because we had strange haircuts.
One evening in Seattle Jeffrey asked if, when I achieve something, I think of someone or something in my past. I replied The high school vice principal who told me I would not be allowed to graduate…. and then had to retract his statement when I won more merit scholarships than anyone else.
I’m not motivated by the memory. I have no need to settle scores, and nothing left to prove. It is just that the look on the face of that small gray man with the twitchy moustache was a pure distillation of every other fight with someone attempting to exercise false authority over my life.
Today I was interviewed by a journalist who noted that my book betrays no hint of bitterness about the facts presented.
I replied that there are a lot of people who feel bitter about their perfectly pleasant lives. Attitude is incidental to experience. I could mope around and complain, but what would be the point? There are so many interesting new adventures to pursue.
Later in the evening I managed to catch up with Satnam at a pub. He moved here in October but our schedules have never allowed us to have a long chat about the strange experience of living in this town.
I warned him ahead of time, exactly like Don warned me, but it is hard to grasp in the abstract. Cambridge is a beautiful, exhilarating, and exasperating place to live – particularly if you come here from Seattle.
Satnam was surprised that I’ve cracked the social scene but I knew people here before I even arrived. That is one of my primary skills and a trait I inherited from my paternal grandfather (along with poor eyesight and a silly surname). Wherever he went in the world he always found someone he already knew.
During another recent interview in London the journalist asked me to describe the place where my family homestead is located – a small and obscure town on a peninsula hardly anyone has heard of – and he looked puzzled and finally interrupted to ask for the name.
But I have family there, he said. There is a street named after my family.
I blinked in astonishment and replied So, we might be …. cousins?
Several people have inquired why I will be traveling so much when I claimed that I would not do so this year. The answer is simple: I’m restricting myself to ten weeks on the road. While that may sound like a long time, it is a drastic reduction from what I’ve grown used to. That is why California in June is a temptation, not a certainty – I might not be able to work out the time.
Knowing that I am stuck here makes me feel itchy and restless.
Amy Joy wrote to say that my daughter looks exactly like the photo of me at seventeen, if the girl were the sort to brood. This is true – she is my physical clone. The only contribution from her biological father is the fact that she is the first person in my entire extended family who does not have pale blue eyes.
This means that, if anyone gets recognized when the book comes out, it will be my adorable youngster. She is much more capable of handling the attention; in fact, I would send her out to do the press if I could. Her capacity for chit-chat is in fact legendary.
The other night I accidentally went to the Granta on quiz night. I didn’t play but could not resist whispering answers to the strangers at the table next to me as they did not know basic facts such as the last name of the Angie immortalized in the Rolling Stones song, or how many members formed Sister Sledge.
My primary talent is the acquisition of trivial knowledge.
Spring is filling up – a teenage visitor arrives from Seattle any day. Rachel will be back in town for awhile, Marisa will be here in early March. Jeffrey might visit after that, and Gordon has asked if I’ll be around immediately after. Eli is talking about stopping by on her way to perform in Vienna. Byron Number One will be in the country on and off throughout the spring and summer.
There is a wedding to attend in New Jersey in April, assorted literary events to look forward to, and the possibility of the west coast in June. I’ll be in Berlin for part of July, and then there is the big question of where to spend the rest of the summer – Seattle? SF? NYC?
I’ve resorted to carrying a calendar around with me – for the first time since I walked away from my career in government.
The post today included a stern letter from the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine. They point out, correctly, that I have fallen six months behind schedule on cancer tests.
My excuse is that I’ve been busy. Though if I’m being honest the truth is that I have a superstitious belief that avoiding doctors is the easiest method to stay alive.
This irrational notion persists – and unfortunately, it feels good. I only grasp my profound stupidity after the tests, while waiting for results.
The journalists who have interviewed me here in the UK invariably ask about my medical status and I reply that I’m the healthiest person I know.
This is, mysteriously, true. Or not proven otherwise, at least.
The fact that I am at risk of developing another lethal disease is incidental to that fact so I never mention it.
Lots of people need to believe that I’m safe and well. Including me.
The UK Lessons in Taxidermy release date is officially March 21. If you tune in to BBC Radio 4 at 9AM that morning you can hear my demented squeaky voice talking about the book on Midweek.
If you are inclined to pre-order, Amazon has a good price at the moment. Otherwise you’ll be able to purchase it in all the standard bookstores.
You will also be able to find the book at every Tesco nationwide.
The supermarket version has a different cover, featuring a photo of my face:
Recently Scott and I were reminiscing about the Bad Old Days and I remembered that an ex-boyfriend spread a rumour that I might not know who fathered my first child.
At the time I was incredibly indignant about the accusation. Because, as I reminded Scott, I might have been immoral but I was always very organized!
He replied “Immoral, But Organized” is going on your tombstone.
That would be hilarious, though it is no longer accurate. Somewhere in my mid-twenties I acquired an ethical code, and later in that decade learned empathy.
Now if I had the capacity to feel envy I might be almost human. Or at least, I would better understand some of the puzzling behavior of my comrades.
During the course of the conversation I also recollected one of the various stunts I pulled off – a Rotating Date that featured a ferry ride and assorted other amusements, switching partners at short intervals.
Scott remembers attending, and that I ordered everyone to have a very specific and odd amount of money on hand, down to the last cent. Neither of us can recall who else was there that night; my bad boyfriend, James, and Pell-Mell for sure. Most likely Kath-E, Byron One, Buffy, all from Governors’ School, and probably Dave-E (an adult and mentor who must have been a true friend if he suffered the general insanity of my behavior and still showed up for both my graduation and wedding).
I wrote to Mash to inquire if she has any memories of that adventure but she has large gaps because of the accident – and it is likely she was in the hospital anyway. She said that she still has one of the Rotating Notes locked in a cupboard somewhere.
It might be interesting to look at the document – hundreds of pages of late eighties teenage drama as documented by me, James, Mash, Scott, David, and other people who disappeared long ago…. though most likely it would be too painful to even open the cover.
January is officially finished!
The day was sunny and warm and I jumped on my bike and headed for a distant village, only discovering halfway there that my leg is not in fact healed sufficiently for such antics.
While pedaling I reviewed my mental files and decided that this was the easiest winter I’ve ever had. There were many opportunities to feel grief-stricken, but each was entirely legitimate. I was variously lonely, homesick, sad, and confused, but at least I felt something. Negative emotions are as important as the other varieties. Twenty years ago I was just numb.
One of my primary strategies for improving the winter is avoiding medical interventions; this was harder to accomplish with my mother here asking pointed questions, but I somehow managed it. Then, because I am diligent if contrary, this afternoon I started the long process of booking a dozen critical appointments.
That decision in turn led me to open a few months of ignored mail, where I found a royalty check! Spring is starting well.