I started writing the Guardian article about two hours before it was due. There was just enough time to hand my rough draft to Iain for edits (he suggested perhaps five, all minor and most about British word usage), and turned it in without further revision.
The editors asked me to expand the piece by one third, and thirty minutes later they accepted my changes with only one small request for clarification. The essay as published on Saturday is almost identical to the first version I scrambled out without enough caffeine Thursday morning.
For better or worse, this is how I work – intermittently, with sustained bursts of productivity. I write every day for several hours, and take notes incessantly, but I produce a finished product only in thrall to an external deadline.
This is because I write for the sake of writing, not to create a marketable commodity. But when I have agreed to produce something for publication the reason is even more basic: I was trained in a very specific and disciplined method where an essay as properly formulated is constructed and executed while a timer clicks in sixty minute intervals.
When I made the mistake of mentioning this to my agent she replied by text I’ve decided you’re going to do fiction next. I want a good literary novel by the end of the summer please.
I said that I lack the skills for such endeavors and she responded Well write about your past disguised as fiction like every other first time novelist!
When I pointed out that Lessons in Taxidermy mines all of the bits of my history I am willing to put on public display, and that my ethical code does not allow harvesting outside of certain boundaries, she just said Nonsense!
Susan is of course overly optimistic. The other day Jeffrey was telling me a scandalous tale and shopped just short of the juicy bits, saying I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination!
I protested But I don’t have one!
The other day Rachel suggested my next book should be called Advice I gave Rachel that she didn’t take!
Jean retorted Or you can be really charitable and write ‘Continental Influences on the Common Law of Contracts 1600-1800!’
That sounds like great fun! I have a hidden yet sincere love of legal history. David says I missed my calling and should have been an ethnographer, but I find legal principles more interesting than… people.
On his last full day in town Gordon and I lounged around on the boat for hours chatting, then had a drink at the Fort St. George. We tried to meet various people but only managed to transfer our drinking to the Eagle, where we gossiped about esoteric aspects of punk history:
You don’t want to know what I have to say on the subject, but he did! Around the time we bored of the topic Rachel finally caught up with us:
Gordon daid my next book should be Robot No More: an Inspiring Tale of Becoming Human which is pretty hilarious, since of course I’m not yet finished with my research on that subject. On the walk over to the Maypole I spotted Iain (the music teacher version) chatting with some buskers and then he spontaneously joined the show:
Over the course of several days I polled everyone I met on the question of what I should do after the wedding in New Jersey: hang out in NYC doing stuff I’m familiar with and seeing friends, or setting off on an unknown adventure?
The only person who voted against adventure was Josh, though I caught him unawares while he was paying for groceries. Greta cast the final vote (strongly in favor of mystery) before I went ahead and bought tickets to a destination that is top secret.
At the Maypole Gordon hazarded the guess I know; you are going on a Watsu retreat!
I admitted ignorance and he said Shiatsu in water! You’ll love it! There will be lots of naked hippies in a hot tub!
Karen interjected And bodily fluids!
Gordon continued and one will say, Hey sister need a backrub? You’ll respond, Why yes, yes I do!
I shuddered and denied that this is my plan just as Rachel absconded with my journal again. Sarah said It’s amazing the liberties she takes with you!
Rachel hollered I’m not afraid! before adding comments to the last week of entries.
Back on the topic of my trip Gordon said I actually think she is going outlet shopping!
Sarah hazarded To the Leggs store to buy panty hose in eggs!
I honestly don’t know which of the two options would be worse.
After we said goodbye Sarah called after me Don’t drink the patchouli!
Last night I was lounging around in rooms at Sidney Sussex talking with new people and old friends when Rachel commented Really close friends aren’t supposed to confess they’re in love with you, they’re meant to live with the pain!
I asked Gordon if he agreed and he reported They’re not supposed to admit it to themselves!
In entirely separate news I called James to talk about the upcoming trip to New Jersey. We haven’t spoken directly in at least four years and he was amazed at what he perceived as a dramatic difference.
He said Your voice has changed!
I asked how, and he said that it isn’t an accent but rather an adjustment in tenor and tone. He went on So, you just giggle a lot and say ‘awesome’ all the time now?
This is fairly accurate.
On Sunday afternoon Jean and Peter found me on the street and pulled me into a taxi to race off to Grantchester. We had a leisurely pub lunch and lounged around in the shade at the Orchard – clearly, a perfect day!
We were chatting about various people and I realized that although Rachel has known me for three years in often unruly circumstances she still thinks it a good plan to let me tell brutal and hilarious stories about what we’ve individually and collectively been up to – this is quite strange and amazing!
Sarah has known me the same length of time but exclusively when I am on my best behavior. On Saturday she had a snapshot of how I act when loose in the world, and her (admiring) comment after one of my more excessive but typical encounters was Wow – Bee is really mean!
This is true, but to state it more precisely: I do not exercise feminine wiles. I do not accommodate or ignore destructive behaviors.
In other words, I tell the truth, even if implied social codes tell me to keep my mouth shut.
This can be lots of fun at parties!
The last few days have featured madcap adventures and I have been particularly delighted to watch social worlds colliding. Endlessly fun!
Plus, isn’t Gordon just the best?
There isn’t room on my boat for the sort of drunken debauchery implied by a Cambridge party, so Jean kindly offered the loan of his flat for the revelries. I didn’t take many notes because I was busy having fun, so an observation:
My friends are so lovely!
I promised to start a scandalous rumor but I haven’t had my tea yet so I’ll leave it to your imagination.
The adorable host
A yummy dinner planned by Rachel and executed by helping hands. Leeks! Who knew:
Never put Jean in charge of the camera
Rachel sending racy texts from my phone
Gordon, the guest of honor
Iain on being a skinhead:
You could wear the fashion and listen to the records all you liked, but until you had your hair shorn you were simply a rude boy, which in Margate was shorthand for someone who was too scared of their mother to take to the barber’s chair.
Gordon is visiting from San Francisco!
Yesterday I met him near Russell Square to attend an event called Cheese Never Sleeps at the Horse Hospital.
During the course of the party I fell into conversation with a writer named Michael Collins and liked him so much asked if he would like to be my Official New Best Friend.
He agreed, contingent on me revealing my deepest, darkest secret – and I complied.
We stood around eating cheese and laughing and when we could corner Iain my New Best Friend (TM) described to him at length how we would gradually edge him out of the picture and then drop him completely.
Gordon (and later Rachel when she heard) protested over their relative friendship status. I pointed out that Old Best Friends generally know my phone number.
Iain suggested NBF should marry me and I think we both agreed it would be a good plan, though I can’t remember exactly since it was getting so late, and of course I’m opposed to the institution of marriage on principle.
Someone started talking about foreskins and since I’ve never encountered one in my dating life I surveyed the assembled crowd as to their circumcision status.
Everyone who travels under a particular passport answered in amazement Of course, I’m American!
The British claimed to be mostly intact.
I’m already ramshackle and the weekend is really just starting, but on the train back to Cambridge Gordon served up presents! Tamari almonds, yum!
Cows are grazing on Midsummer Common for the first time since I took up residence on the river!
Plus, the ducklings in Jesus Ditch are hatching! First of the year:
On Sunday night Jean invited me over for a dinner with two of his old friends from South Africa. They told hilarious stories about our host in his youth while the young man in question protested that it was all exaggeration.
I believe his friends!
One of the best parts of living in Cambridge is the fact that people speak in enormous unravelling paragraphs featuring words like tonsorial. In my misbegotten childhood the possession of a huge vocabulary was never considered an asset; I always had to hide the fact that I was a walking, talking dictionary.
It was great fun to hang out and engage in endless chatter with Paul, a new and extremely decadent friend who took notes about the wine. I excused myself to take a call from Rachel, who arrives in the UK soon. We have already started scheming!
That call lasted for about twenty minutes, which would normally be a record for me, except (and this is dramatic news) the other day I talked on the cursed device for two and a half hours.
My reputation has been ruined.
I’m resting between rounds of late nights with guests and my days feature a lazy walk across Coe Fen and the Sheep’s Green along a creek where I stop and hang out with polliwogs before venturing further to conservation land bordered by what I suspect is rapeseed:
This town is so sleepy the taggers at the train bridge don’t even turn in alarm when they hear someone approach, a fact I find hilarious. Next to the tracks I usually see rabbits hopping through bushes about to bloom, and I stop and look at the flowers growing up through gravel:
When I’ve gone as far as my injured leg allows I turn back and sit under the willow tree next to the Mill, reading novels and writing in my journal:
Yesterday evening I watched the sunset on the Backs, then sat on the fountain in the deserted market square, listening to church bells ring.
Later as I walked down Trinity a lorry came barreling down the ancient street, popped the curb, and came within two inches of smearing me into a bloody pulp on the cobbles.
I didn’t even flinch; I just kept walking.
Recently as I marched through a London club some strange boy commented I like your dress!
I frowned down at my outfit; I was wearing my boring basic black skirt and shirt, not a dress, but I remembered my manners and resisted the urge to correct the fellow. Instead I said an emphatic thank you and continued on my way.
When I fetched up with friends I described the incident, since it is so rare for strangers to talk to me at all, and Susan suggested that it wasn’t actually my clothing that was being admired.
Iain said You would just pick any compliment apart, wouldn’t you?
When they are not accurate, yes.
Jeffrey started to protest over the honor of my (as Mark Mitchell would say) legendary milky white bosom because someone with lesser attributes was fronting more exposed cleavage. I put my fingers in my ears and hummed as he delivered a soliloquoy on the subject until he laughed and said I’m sorry, was that inappropriate?
From there talk ranged but ended at a predictable juncture where I said In the states nobody hits on me!
Jeffrey said That is a lie!
Integrity imperiled, but believing myself to be truthful as I have not noticed such things, I said Prove it! Nobody has in front of you!
He rolled his eyes and replied True, nobody has in my presence, but I have hit on you several times!
My mouth dropped open in shock.
I have been conducting extensive research into the subject of flirting for a little over a year. When I explained this to Marisa she wanted to know why, and the reason is simple – and illustrated by Jeffrey’s comment – I was getting in more trouble lacking basic skills than I would if I understood what the heck was happening around me.
I figured I would have proof of the success of the scheme if a stranger hit on me. That benchmark proved consistently out of reach, mostly because I am obtuse and stern, though I did have a few rather alarming interactions with people, that Ana Erotica patiently interpreted after the fact.
She told me that Jeffrey had hit on me, but I didn’t believe her – the only odd thing I noticed about our friendship is the fact that he is solicitous of me, unlike anyone else I’ve ever hung out with. And that he found my research project annoying.
Once I understood the complexity of the endeavor I decided to abandon the project. Why?
Because the various practical aspects of flirting as described by those questioned are, fundamentally, outside the scope of my skills. It is literally impossible for me to turn on the charm to impress anyone – I am friendlier than I’ve ever been in my life, but I remain unconcerned about what other people think of me.
M made the following observations:
You’re a stone cold fox with tunnel vision. People flirt with you all the time, you just don’t notice. I’m going to get one of those clicker things and spend an entire day with you making a tally! Grown men shout at you in the street that you’re beautiful!
I replied That is just crazy street behavior!
She sighed in exasperation. No, that is crazy street flirting! This is a really small toolset. I bet in a year you’ll have the skills and when you look back at the journal entries you won’t even understand what you were talking about.
Her prediction may come true, but that does not mean I will choose to exercise the skills, if acquired. Why? Because my recondite adventures reminded me that I’m a love magnet, even when I am scrupulously unavailable. In fact, there may be a correlation between the two facts. I have a few adorable friends who deserve and want to be loved without finding what they are seeking, while my overly committed adult life features a need to routinely fend off declarations of true love.
I asked Gordon why this is true and he gave me a laundry list of my desirable attributes. Followed up by a pointed order to accept the compliments. I asked – but why love? Why not something light and superficial?
He replied Well… you’ve got gravitas Bee. Sorry.
This week I was organizing my notes on the subject and realized that one of the people who hit on me last year was not, in fact, a friend – but instead a stranger. Believing otherwise was just an optical illusion.
That leads to the question: What is my definition of stranger given that I travel, perform, and meet hundreds of new people every year?
Tricky to explain; anyone who turns up at one of my shows or uses one of my web sites is automatically not a stranger. Anyone introduced to me by friends, anyone who lives in a series of houses in Portland and San Francisco, anyone who hangs out at the Bus Stop, writers represented by my agent or published by the same companies, a certain kind of expat, most who dwell in a couple of west coast subcultures, and most mad scientists automatically go in the category loosely understood as known. This is distinct from an idea of friendship, as I also know my enemies.
A stranger would then be someone who knows nothing about me except what they see, and still tries to talk to me. If you exclude taxi drivers, people asking for directions, and bartenders (and Ana definitely wouldn’t let me get away with that legerdemain), I know for a fact that only three strangers talked to me last year. Those were all awkward chats on airplanes.
If the hypothesis that the person in question was in fact a stranger is valid, my odd statistics have been completely flawed, though I wasn’t really paying sufficient attention at the time. Now I am normal! Or something.
The whole thing was both amusing and rewarding, though I still have no desire to talk to strangers.
The other day my mother wrote to ask if I remember going on an easter egg hunt in a Bremerton park and finding the prized golden egg – a mighty achievement in that destitute town. I had forgotten, but her query brought the whole experience back instantly: the sloping hard-packed earth, the pine needles on the ground, the chaos of other children running helter-skelter, grabbing and shoving.
When I went to the stage to exchange the shiny egg for a special prize the woman in charge handed me a doll, and I did not know how to ask for what I really wanted. I walked away in tears, but my mother understood and patiently took me back to exchange the toy for Play-doh. How old was I then? Perhaps three.
I was not raised with religion, but I did have a family, and holidays were always very important. Today I should be at my grandmother’s farm, sitting at the big oak table, laughing with my aunts and uncles (never the cousins – I hung out with the grownups). But they’re mostly all gone, along with the farm, and I live on the other side of the world.
Recent events back home have been very difficult for everyone concerned and I could not go back to help. I wrote to my mother and said I’m sorry– and I am. I feel real sorrow over the fact that I grew up and away and have lost that family, even if choosing a different life was the right thing to do.
She wrote back that I am not allowed to be sorry – never, not about anything.
This is the first Easter my son has been away from me, the first year in my entire adult life that I have not been woken by children clamoring for their baskets.
December was dark, April is bright. I will not see my son for an entire month and by the time we meet again he may well have grown the two inches required to exceed my height. Everything is changing, and this is wonderful and painful in equal measure.
I know that I am a lucky person, but I recognize that life is a series of perilous and fortuitous choices. I’m crying right now but tonight I’ll have dinner with Jean and whoever else shows up, and laugh, and feel endlessly thankful for community, friendship, family, springtime
Another satisfied customer:
At some point in a crazed decadent series of days in London we were lounging around a hotel in various states of disrepair. My son was secreted in a closet reading novels while my grown-up daughter had sequestered herself in the living room watching Old Yeller and yelling out descriptions scene by scene.
I was completely overwhelmed by an exquisite moment listening to a Stevie Wonder record as Jeffrey talked about his latest crush. What I felt was an incredibly intense and overbearing sensation of perfection, like watching a white swan gliding down a black river, or the swifts swooping above the Brighton pier, or the hometown dock at midnight when nothing separates you from a swift surrender, a complete sensory and intellectual cessation – just dropping – nothing at all except this sense that the world made sense, for an instant, a moment, forever, or maybe it didn’t, but it was amazing.
Then my daughter pointed out that we were not paying attention to the fact that Old Yeller had a brawl with a bear and Jeffrey hollered back We have bigger problems!
The girl responded I’ll listen to your problems when you’re wearing gingham! and I dissolved in helpless laughter, the hilarity shattering any vague idea of profundity, and that was also perfect.
Later I asked Jeff Why is my life so weird?
He replied You like adventure.
I said True, but not as much as I’ve had recently!
He was quick with the observation You are so used to danger you like to keep it close to you.
I didn’t think before saying Not on purpose! Quite the opposite!
Jeffrey sighed and replied I don’t know, I don’t have an answer… your life may be weird, but it is beautiful.
This is true.
Jeffrey flew away today. I’ll miss him.
Walking through Shoreditch staring at the array of bars and restaurants and stylish people, I turned to my companions in wonder and asked Why don’t I live in a place I want to be, with people I want to look at?
Jeffrey didn’t understand, because he had fun in Cambridge, but Byron shook his head mournfully; he feels it more than I ever could, since he prefers the wild flirtatious antics available elsewhere.
Within about half a block I had sorted out this dilemma because I remembered that I never look at other people, especially those who want the attention. And, more significantly, the Shoreditch scene (while attractive) looks a lot like home, in the sense that everyone is wearing ironic T-shirts.
Later, standing around a hipster (I have not identified the equivalent local term) bar, Sunok asked why I don’t move to London. I shrugged and said If I were here I would just be thinking about the next place.
She looked at Peter and he clarified She is the traveling sort.
This is true, and something I did not know until Sarah-Jane pointed it out to me, several years after I decided to abandon everything familiar – and accept the consequences.
The trick is that I do not enjoy living in Cambridge more or less than anywhere else. Each city has advantages and disadvantages, is equally lovely and horrible in its own special way. My relative happiness has almost nothing to do with the place itself.
If asked I might say the worst town I’ve ever lived in is Shelton – but why? Because my time was divided between a job that crushed my youthful ideals, and shifts caring for my grandmother in hospice. The only clear memory I have from that year is watching her face as she died, and falling to my knees sobbing (much to the dismay of my stoic family – we do not collectively indulge in emotions).
Photographs tell a different story, of a small beautiful house, and funny neighbors, and my four year old daughter laughing as she made a snowman. I wish that I had access to those memories, but it is sufficient to know that life did in fact continue, that I did not succumb to the looming depression that could have exterminated any hope for the future.
In fact, I did not let myself fall apart until much later, when I was safe. The deepest gloom I’ve let invade my life was definitely triggered by external events – 9/11, a broken tailbone, a stolen manuscript, work woes. But more significantly: I had people nearby who wanted to take care of me, who would make sure that falling apart did not translate to suicide or worse (and in my opinion there are worse choices). One dark winter in Portland featured the most wretched emotions I’ve ever encountered. But I had friends and family nearby. I knew there was help if I needed it.
Not that this would have been obvious to most observers – Byron and possibly Gabriel being the exceptions. I do not complain, or protest, or even talk about problems that might make sense to other people. I do not need assistance when traumatized – I am an expert at crisis management.
The things that I truly had no capacity to cope with were all positive – friends, community, extravagantly good times all hurt when first encountered. Back then I had no relative ability to appreciate the brilliant life I had created from scratch. Understanding that fact was frightening, because it meant that I had to change in a fundamental way I had never considered.
Disease and poverty conditioned me to anticipate and accept pain as my daily reality. At the same time: I have a good mother, so I am a good mother. Taking care of children is easy. Friendship, fun, other kinds of love? Scary!
It took assiduous effort to live in a new way, and the whole thing has been horribly painful at times. People are messy, and emotions are risky. Learning to take what was on offer did not lead to greater certainty; falling in love with a city mysteriously translated to the choice to leave, a short distance at first and then all the way to the other side of the world.
This feels right; my friends, my home, allowed me to figure out that I’m the sort of person who keeps moving on.
While I miss elements of each discarded life I get a huge thrill out of every new adventure. I am endlessly thankful for all that has happened, good and bad, and quite curious to see what is next.
The other afternoon I found myself in a London hotel room having a food fight with Jeffrey – I bounced cinnamon jelly beans off his head and he scored a few into my cleavage and I fell about giggling – not realizing until hours later that it has been nineteen long years since I engaged in such antics.
Why? Because until, oh, Monday, if anyone threw something at me I would have had flashbacks to the blinding white light that took over my brain when the car I was driving at age seventeen was struck, not once but twice, at high speed on a rural highway.
My startle reflex has not vanished. Earlier in the week Josh walked up behind me without warning at dinner, and when he leaned in to whisper in my ear I shrieked. Then I looked at his shocked face and dissolved in laughter.
This new ability to play even as I feel the same complicated neurological response is a change, a calibration – and quite welcome!
There is one critical fact to report: Jeffrey inherited a Winnebago!
Just imagine. My summer is not yet fully booked – road trip, anyone?
Jeffrey would be the perfect housemate if I were in the market for one. I’ve happily taken up residency in the living room of his bachelor pad (featuring an almost non-stop party) and it was no burden at all to host him on my narrowboat (featuring ferocious swans peering in the windows), though he was not able to stand up straight. Who really needs to anyway? The river is more than enough compensation for cramped quarters.
I dragged Jeffrey along to a birthday “do” (as the English would say) at a pub, and hung out with lots of fab friends:
We had additional mad pub adventures with Jean and Paul and assorted posh academics, then took Jeffrey out to observe a typical English night after the pubs closed. Stepping over the drunks and puddles of vomit, avoiding the woman trying to break a store window with her handbag, skipping away from another woman who wanted to touch Jeffrey’s hat, I treated him to a midnight kabab:
One night at a pub a skinhead leered at me and asked Are you a Personality?
Then he squinted drunkenly up at Jeffrey, and inquired Are you two Personalities?
He explicitly meant, were we performers? Famous? We just stared at him, then took our drinks to another section of the room.
At some point during days of revelry and travel Jeffrey told me Boys are afraid of girls who laugh loud!
Oh, cool! I said, and laughed and laughed.
We tried to get tickets to see Verdi’s Messa da Requiem performed at the Ely Cathedral but it was sold out. I cleverly assumed practice would happen the afternoon of the show and hauled the crew out to see my prediction come true.
We had a picnic in the sunlight on a hill in the grounds next to the King’s School, foals gamboling in the field below, Jeffrey wrestling with my son, and the day was so wonderful I wanted to fall asleep and stay there forever.
The tall men toured the Octagon Tower, my kids sat and listened to the music, and I hung out in the Lady Chapel, staring once again in amazement at the smashed stonework, the Green Man presiding over it all.
Cycling out to the Orchard at Grantchester we ran into Richard on the path behind the pub.
He smiled and said I saw you in the Guardian!
I halfway fell off my bike and yelped Oh, god (feeling virtuous that I did not curse in front of his lovely child).
As we locked the bikes I asked Byron Did you hear that? My cover is blown!
He laughed and mocked me and I said See you pretend to be supportive but you aren’t at all!
He replied I am supportive. I support you in getting over your fear of success!
This is an example of how those we believe close can misunderstand important aspects of our interior lives. I’ve never been afraid of success – when my work gets recognized I am pleased. But not because I, me, myself wants the attention. I am simply the vessel for the message, and would prefer to be invisible.
Occasionally that is not possible; the nature of the world and my brand of work in particular demands a figurative representation, and I sometimes willingly sacrifice my privacy. But the whole thing feels creepy.
I grew up in a small town and have been trying to disappear in a crowd ever since.Over tea at the Orchard Jeffrey remarked You can take comfort from the fact that it was someone who already knew.
He then went on to talk about crushes (yes, this is his favorite topic) and he said I think the whole concept of people falling in love with someone because of their talent is very problematic – also very honorable and above the crushes based on looks. But talent crushes don’t translate to anything in the real world – they are the highest maintenance and the least likely to last.
This is true, but then again, you never know what people see. The other day a highly perceptive and entertaining friend called to say that he had read my book. He smothered me with compliments that slid right out of my mind and then asked Do you still have the scars?
I was baffled, and thought perhaps there was a language gap because neither of us is British, but he meant the query earnestly.
I said Of course – where would they have gone?
They are not only visible, but often on display – my lacerated neck is rarely covered even in the deepest gloom of winter. I said You can see them if you look!
When I told Jeffrey this story he shrugged and remarked Well, you don’t wear damage like an ornament.