Month: March 2009

03.31.09 words

I caught the virus bedeviling half the world and have been moaning in a pitiful fashion in between coughing fits. Nobody has been at all sympathetic, because as a friend pointed out, if I’m complaining that means I’m not really sick.

People only worry if I insist that I am fine. That kind of declaration usually means I’m about to end up in the hospital. Or should be there already.

This is a valid observation. Though I wish that I could take cold medicine! Poor me!

While wandering around clutching woefully ineffective cough drops I was thinking about pain and perseverance and was somewhat startled to realize that it has been exactly twenty-six years since I died.

Or will be, next week. I’m not sure of the date (I was busy… dying) but it was certainly early April of 1983 when I was hacked apart and stitched back together crooked.

Although I was young enough to have fanciful notions, and was a big fan of the Time-Life paranormal phenomenon books, there were no tunnels of light, no angels to guide me. In fact, my last thoughts before the surgery were focussed on not waking up: an urgent need for death, wishing the pain away, forever and ever, and then I was gone.

When I woke there was a nurse screaming at me and I was furious that someone had saved a life that was worth nothing and cost too much.

The anger did not dissipate. I did not learn to be thankful, not then, not even when the terminal diagnosis was retracted. This makes sense; the tests and surgeries were really only just starting. At age twelve I had four scars on my body. Before my sixteenth birthday I had accumulated over three hundred. Then I had an accident that smashed the very few functional bits leftover.

Until my late twenties I was reasonably certain the doctors should have let me die.

Now I’ve made it to the advanced and improbable age of thirty-eight I am more perplexed than anything. Sure, I wrote a book about the whole mess, but I do not have any particular wisdom… other than a fantastic ability to spell and define large words.


3.25.2009 day

A friend insisted that I listen to Why Do Good Girls Like Bad Guys, presumably because he felt that it was topically relevant.

I was amazed and said You know I’m not …. good, right?

He paused and considered the point, then replied Well. You are ethical.

True! Though that is not at all the same thing.

I was hoping DMX would offer a solution to the mystery, but he has nothing new to contribute aside from some catchy rhymes.


3.24.2009 day

Today is Ada Lovelace Day. Among many other intriguing features of her life, Lady Augusta Ada Byron was the (neglected) daughter of Lord Byron, a poet described as mad bad and dangerous to know. Countess Lovelace was however uniquely talented in her own right, working and providing patronage for Charles Babbage – including writing programs for his Analytical Engine.

Our pal Byron was named after an obedient sixth grader his mother taught in a small town in Texas, though anyone who knows him would say he has more in common with the incendiary thinker who supposedly kept a bear in his rooms in Cambridge. Why? Because nobody had thought to specify such actions were against the rules.

The 2009 Lovelace and Needham Awards have been officially announced.

Guess who won the Needham?

Our pal Byron, of course.


3.23.2009 brilliant

Two years after Mary died, I have not been able to wash the dress I wore to the funeral.

The problem, I suppose, is that when I emptied her remains into the Puget Sound a fine sprinkling floated back, covering me in a light dusting of dead junkie auntie.

Somehow it seems wrong to shove the garment in a charity bin – though keeping it is nowhere near as macabre as the fact that my daughter is still carrying a pill vial full of the same ashes.

Lately I have been thinking about Mary more than normal, because various events (global, economic, personal, whatever) have made me wonder why so many people fail to understand what they are looking at.

My aunt was brilliant, hilarious – and a bad mother. She was smart, observant – and a thief. I loved and hated her in equal measure, miss her desperately; but I always knew exactly who and what she was.

Nothing that has happened in the current economic crisis, or the scandals sweeping through the lives of people I know, has surprised me at all, for similar reasons. I expect institutions to fulfill stated objectives, and people to act according to their own particular nature. Good, bad, or indifferent.

I’ve never had any relative problem consorting with people who make choices I would never make. Quite the opposite – life would be dull and lonely if restricted to hanging out in comfortable places with people who share my values.

That does not mean that organizations or people do not deserve affection, attention, and management. I’ve bought and sold houses, worked in government, run a business, married unwisely, scampered all over the world, and had a great deal of fun along the way.

I’m not making a value judgment about, oh, anything. I object only to the false naivety that allows people to be shocked to find that banks are banks, real estate is real estate, thugs are thugs, and liars are liars.


3.22.2009 taller

Yesterday I took my kid to the Institute of Astronomy for a planetarium show and talk about the Chandra Satellite. The whole thing was classically Cambridge in that it was awkward but sheer genius. Mainly though, I was amazed to realize that my baby was as large as the PhD students running the booths.

Later in the evening he had one of those ominous ravenous sessions that signals a growth spurt…. and this morning my youngest and last child woke up officially half an inch taller than me. He must be five foot seven now – at age twelve – amazing!

He was too busy to take much notice as he is in the midst of making a film with his mates, so I just waved goodbye before spending my day finishing plans for our trip and fiddling around on the river.

Happy Mothering Sunday, if you are the sort who celebrates such things, and also resides in the relevant country!


3.10.2009 vermin

I was forced by circumstance to spend the entire evening in a house, and you know, I dislike the things in general. Let alone the English version.

Just as I was about to eat dinner a mouse sauntered across the kitchen.


My inherent reckless nature carries me through all sorts of sketchy situations, but I do not like vermin.

Lacking any other solutions (like a cat, a gun, a mousetrap, or Gabriel, who likes to stab them with forks) I decided the only sensible solution was to protect myself with very loud music.

So I dragged in a speaker and blasted Gravy Train at a hole in the wall for a few hours.


3.9.2009 subject

Tonight I was invited to another dinner party, but decided to send a bottle of whiskey instead of actually attending.

I’ve hit my limit on academic antics for the week.

Satnam will be cooking, and he is a world-class gastronome, so that is a wee bit sad…. though while he caters to all the sundry paranoid food issues of other guests, he callously disregards my problems with certain spices (we’re the only two working class people in this particular set, so fair game). But I’ve been queasy too often already this year!

On the subject of Scientists I Met In Portland Though See Randomly Elsewhere, I was somewhat startled to find that I showed up in the online diary of someone I ran into during a very early morning breakfast in a cafe just across from the Cours Saleya in Nice, France, awhile back. Mainly because I do not like to be photographed at all, let alone at 8:30 AM.

The photograph captures one of the main reasons I love Europe and wanted to move here in the first place – cafe culture, in the old-fashioned sense, ordering one little bit of something and then sitting and watching the world pass by ….

Even though I can’t drink coffee.


3.7.2009 subject

Last night I went to a dinner party with a crew of academics.

They had a special surprise on offer – a man they excitedly described as the worst misogynist, completely anti-feminist!

When they introduced us they prompted him to express his views on the subject, and he started on a stereotypical rant.

I turned away and said to the room at large I’m not going to fuck him, so why should I care?

There was a collective gasp, then silence, then he went away and hid for a few hours.

I cornered and interrogated him in the kitchen later, but he didn’t want to be friends.


3.6.2009 clarification

Reply to email requests for clarification of terms:

Yob, defined.

Though as Iain points out in his hilarious new book everyone should buy, the term can now refer to people of any defined gender, and is generally based on loutish behavior rather than simply social class.

Whereas ‘chav’ in street terms is more about style and fashion, the terms are often confused or conflated.

Nobody is ever called a hesher though. That is one of the many linguistic hangovers from my working class youth that has not been useful in adult life.


3.6.2009 smile

Earlier today I was wandering around in the spring sunshine and I smiled at a White Van Man.

He dropped his coffee and almost fell out of his vehicle.

Later I was buying groceries and also smiled at the checkout dude – who, when asked for the single school voucher (some wacky loyalty scheme that supports, uh, schools) owed the purchase, handed me half his packet. Something like…. forty vouchers.

If only I had understood this mighty power when I was young and careless! Now I am old and hampered by “ethics” … and nobody has ever accused me of being a tease.

Does that mean I shouldn’t smile?


3.5.2009 headlines

Admittedly my standards are low – I grew up on the Kitsap Peninsula and all – but really. This is Cambridge, one of the few stars of the known intellectual universe as acknowledged by posh pretentious people everywhere. So why is the local newspaper so…. bad?

Headlines today:

Blackmail Claim Over Road Toll Funding

Ghost Claim Amid Sewer Repairs Row

Yobs Attack Pet Rabbit in Garden


3.4.2009 dial

Remember how I acquired an iphone in late December?

Tonight I needed to call someone and after poking at the device with no success finally held it out to one of my companions and asked Um, how do I dial?

After a baffling instruction session I managed to ring a number previously programmed into the device. Though I did not speak, at least this is progress. Of sorts.

Maybe one day I will even figure out country codes! Though likely only after the system is archaic.

3.3.2009 finally

I finally figured out a practical purpose for facebook: it offers abundant opportunities to test the maxim living well is the best revenge.

Though I didn’t really need assistance with that one.

Something I will need help with, however, is the laborious and expensive process of replacing the furnace in the house I own in Portland.

Gabriel has managed to hire someone. Now to find the money. I know, I know, “responsible” landlords keep a reserve of cash for emergencies. Or at least a credit card. Whereas I don’t even have a bank account.



3.2.2009 original

More adventures with home ownership:

The company that services the furnace in my Portland house turned it off because they detected a gas leak, then indicated the whole thing needs to be replaced.

When Gabriel asked for a quote, they replied that they could not install a new appliance because they did not do the “original duct work.”

Huh? It is possible – even probable – that the “original” work dates back to the year the house was built. Uh, 1910 or so? Certainly not more recently than the 60’s, when the place started the long slide toward dereliction.

I’ve owned it since 1996 and during that entire time I have never done any sort of repairs or improvements whatsoever (aside from having the stolen cars towed away). I’ve certainly never done anything with the ducts. In fact, I didn’t even have a thermostat when I lived on the premises!

Gabriel has all the maintenance records to prove that the company who turned it off are the only people who have touched the blasted thing this century, but that does not seem to be sufficient.

Logically, shouldn’t it be possible to just call up a company and get a furnace installed? I’m often thwarted by capitalism, but this whole thing just seems ridiculous.

There are five or six competent adults in the states working on figuring out a solution, and I’m sure that it will be fine in the end, but I’m frustrated that I am too far away to help…. and meanwhile, Gabriel is cold.


3.1.2009 isolation

Recently someone nonchalantly commented You have no friends – nobody in Cambridge likes you.

This is approximately true. Rachel, Sarah, and David moved away. Jean is about to go. Paul and Karen are still around, though busy doing whatever it is they do. Even though a hundred guests will turn up for one of my parties, Satnam is the only person who reciprocates invitations.

The shopkeepers at the corner store, farm store, Bacchanalia, Rick the bike mechanic, and the coffee guy in the market square are all up for a congenial chat. Fellow boaters nod hello.

Other than my offspring, that is the sum total of my social outlet.

Living in such a truncated fashion has been fucking with my head – hence the frequent forays to London, where Xtina, Iain, my agent, a dozen new friends, peripatetic visitors, and fun are located. Though that is obviously just a temporary solution. Unless or until I make a more permanent move, I still have to deal with the reality of life in this small city on a daily basis.

The other evening I was chatting with some pompous academic types (this is a cultural subset, I have no particular problem with academics as a larger sociological phenomenon) and I said something offhand about the fact that I am not friendly.

One of the people interrupted and said No, you are extremely social and charming…. with people you enjoy.

The underlying and unstated truth? When I encounter a posh accent I am filled with loathing and a strong urge to smack someone. This is the main reason I have taken to listening to an ipod at all times – the accent is hard to escape in the town that provides the definition of Establishment.

Obviously a character flaw, but who knew? This hazard never occurred to me before I moved here. I was the spoiled and fancy one back home.

Something else I’ve noticed after a couple of years of amazed bewilderment: my acute powers of nonverbal self-defense make no impression on beggars in this city.

While nobody in the states would ever panhandle me, the hardcore homeless (and there are only about a dozen permanent residents living rough hereabouts) see me as one of their own. They don’t even try a scam – they just expect me to share, as if paying duty to a fellow traveller.

They are of course correct – and some of the nicest people I’ve met in this country.

How peculiar and interesting.

None of this, however, has at all alleviated my spring trip anxiety. I have exactly three weeks in the states (or anywhere beyond the boundaries of the UK) between now and …. the mythical date I acquire a British passport – quite likely two years hence.

Given these parameters, it is fairly important that I do my best to maximize not just familial responsibilities (visiting dying grandma is on the top of the list), and see as many friends as possible, but also get in enough time doing the things that truly make me happy.

Like riding the ferries around the Puget Sound. Over and over, for no good reason.

Or just sitting on the docks at Illahee or Southworth, alone, staring at the water, for endless hours.

Four and a half years of brutal social isolation has given me abundant time to work, think, and figure stuff out. At the same time I have grown convinced that I do not belong anywhere, and that is, in fact, true.

Though this week I compiled a list and started to write to the folks I might see during the trip.

I was not expecting much and was thus amazed to instantly have offers of places to stay in NYC, Boston, Providence, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle.

It is not at all clear where I will end up, but I am truly humbled to have access to so much hospitality.


3.1.2009 hit

This morning my kid wandered by wearing aviator shades and a false mustache and I started laughing, then insisted he sit down and watch Sabotage.

Of course, he thought that I was insane, and switched to a P. G. Wodehouse tape posthaste.

While I have not followed their progress closely, I maintain a special affection for the Beastie Boys, because way back in 1984 I watched them open for Madonna on the first night of her first tour.

I was nearly delirious from cancer, malnutrition, and the general physical strain of the treatments, and remember nothing about the main part of the concert except rolling my forehead back and forth against a rail, wishing to be well, or dead.

The one exception to this was noticing the Boys were not a hit.

Instead, they were booed off the stage, screaming back at the angry audience FUCK YOU SEATTLE!

Since that marvelous evening I have never listened to the band except in similar situations. I think they are a perfectly appropriate soundtrack for horrifying medical treatments. Why not!