Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Russian aide-memoire

Have you ever had the crazy feeling that you’ve remembered something that you haven’t thought of since… well, since the very day you first experienced it? Not the run of the mill stuff, the university paths you traversed, the check-out desk at your town library, the way you walked to your primary school every day, and not the color of your first boyfriend’s head of hair. Not what you wore on your wedding day, or your cubicle at your programming job. Certainly not the off-ramp at Roosevelt Road. No, none of those things.

No, I mean remembering something that happened years and years and years ago, that has truly not crossed your mind since. Something that you’ve only remembered now, just this very day, this exact moment, in fact, because you were reading something entirely unusual for you -- perhaps Chekov’s short stories in a small bound volume -- or Isaac Babel’s description of studying at home with his grandmother in Odessa -- and you let your eyes wander away from your book for a moment, as you remember your own grandmother and her house, and the dark wood furniture in her living room, the cart with her African violets standing at the dining room window, the claret-colored and scratchy bouclé brocade of the single settee with its heavy silken twisted fringe, and the patterned carpet on the stairs that went up.

And upstairs, the room where you’d had to nap in the afternoon as a really young child, with books ranged everywhere, on every surface and every shelf. The patterned wallpaper, its endless repetitious dots soothing you, and the slanting few rays of sunshine sneaking between window sill and the roof of the next house over. A calm somnolence overtaking you after you’d read in quick succession several issues of Fate magazine, with its séances and banshees and visitors from the dark beyond. The sheer curtains hanging dead still in the heat of the late summer afternoon.

It’s a strange and wrenching feeling. Deep inside, you remember, and you feel. Your gut twists. My God! That couch! I remember it! My grandfather, sitting downstairs in his chair, wearing his glasses after cataract surgery, like black binoculars over his eyes, and all so he could watch Laurence Welk on Saturday evenings at six. “Is that a colored gal singing?,” as Aretha, or Dionne Warwick, or someone belted something out on TV. “Yes, Grandpa, it is,“ I answered, already knowing enough to be embarrassed at age 10. Clearly, the glasses weren’t a complete success.

Yet, how weirdly unsettling. You haven’t thought about this since the very day it happened, maybe 41 years ago or so. What the hell?

It’s reading that does it. You get started on one track, reading the stories of this brilliant and eccentric Russian Jew, Isaac Babel, whose life was brutally cut short in 1940, his work only translated quite recently. It’s as if a lovely window has briefly opened into the past, and you’re transported through it, remembering your own history, nothing like that of people in Odessa, but unique and odd and beautiful to you all the same.

And then, that sudden self-awareness: is it possible that I’m remembering this, for the first time, 41 years after it happened? Where’s that memory been all these years? And is it possible, is it really possible, that I’ve been alive and doing things every single damn day since? Forty-one years of doing stuff, every day and every minute, since this moment I’m remembering for the very first time right now?

What is the stuff of life? What are we? Where have the years gone?

And how in the hell can time just go and go and go? My life is just careening past me.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

Virtual reality

The place where virtual reality rubs up against physical reality is really rather strange. I’ve been mostly off-line the last few weeks, finishing my paper and then jetting off to London. Mr D and I were competing for scarce internet resources at the hotel in Fitzrovia, so I mostly gave up my dilettantish online existence in favor of his businessman‘s (remunerative) one. And thus I also gave in to the recently mostly untasted pleasures which attach to living one’s life in the real world.

So I was off touring Buckingham Palace and later eating Japanese fare in Piccadilly, and soon after that, examining volume 18 of the complete human genome at the Wellcome Centre for the Medical Sciences, and then, still later, browsing through easel bins of aboriginal art in a gallery near Fitzroy Square. Getting up close, too close in the museum guards’ minds, to portraits at the National Portrait Gallery. Lying on the grass in the park by the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, watching the clouds scud by overhead, with all of London below, the Thames winding across the cityscape. All of this, experienced in real life, rather than seen on the 7 inch by 10 inch screen of my netbook. Having traded incipient carpal tunnel syndrome for seriously aching feet, I longed for a nice sit down and a chat. Thus I sent out a few invites to London bloggers I “know,” hoping for an in-person experience or two, once Mr D had left town.

The first? Belgian Waffling. Knowing, via her blog, that she’s terribly shy and awfully busy, I felt a bit stalkerish as I initiated contact. “Care to get together?” We arranged to meet for coffee at St. Pancras, just before her Eurostar train back to Brussels. As I trundled along through Tube tunnels, I wondered if I’d recognise her, or if she’d even show. I mean really, why bother?

And then there she was, raising an eyebrow. A slight wave of the hand. Glancing up from under her thick dark fringe. “It’s you, isn’t it?“ Sitting at a table at Pain Quotidian with her bags and suitcases arrayed around her. All in black, very elegant looking, and much more slight than I’d imagined. Who are these slim young things, anyway? She’s charming and witty in person, and she makes a very pretty pout when expressing dismay or embarrassment or alarm. Plenty of that to be had, to be sure. We covered a multitude of topics, assiduously avoiding fraught things like marital discord (presumably hers) and existential angst (always mine) and kept to the ordinary spheres of work, children, and writing blogs. After all, though we know “of” each other, we don’t know each other. It’s such a funny feeling, to be aware of so much of another person’s inner life, as expressed in written posts. Yet face to face, it’s awkward to broach those tender subjects. Not on, really.

She is very funny and sweet, and whilst laughing and enjoying the moment, I also felt sure that I was but one in a long string of old, dull, blank faces just like the ones she encounters all day long in her corridor of ennui. I so often feel like an extra in everyone else’s busy life, always at the edge of the scene, the shiny foil reflecting the star’s unique qualities. Too much superficial living and moving from place to place, never in one spot long enough to be the protagonist in any of life’s dramas. Sigh. That being said, when I create my own dramas, it’s not a particularly good thing, so perhaps standing at the periphery is better. Jury’s still out on that one.

She soon buzzed off for her train to Belgium, and I rejoined the lovely Mr D, armed only with a curiously inept and non-descript description of the blog meet.

“How was it? Okay?” he asked.

“Mmmm. Yeah, it was… it was fine. Nice, I guess. She‘s lovely. So fashionable. Clever. Very entertaining.”

He gave me a sharp glance. “You seem a bit distracted.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I just feel kind of odd. I’m not sure it was the right thing to do. Now I feel funny. I don‘t know if I like meeting people in real life. I feel kind of …weird.”

He rolled his eyes and laughed. “Oh, for God’s sake. You need some lunch. Come on, put your shoes back on and let’s get out of here. I‘m in the mood for Thai.”

A few nights later, it was a quaff with the lovely Pochyemu, of ItsMostlyAboutMe. We met at The Stag in Ascot. Miss T and I came bombing up to the tables outside the pub, thinking we were late. I almost didn’t recognise the luscious Danielle, hunched as she was over her mobile phone, Twittering. Which is entirely my fault, the tweeting, but we’ll get into that in a moment.

She looked up and simply beamed with delight. “Sit out here with me. I’m having an illicit fag. It‘s a fantastic night!” Her earrings sparkled, her lavender pashmina accentuated the roses in her cheeks, and her cloud of hair gave her the look of a modern-day pre-Raphaelite maiden. She’s quite the beauty, that girl is. We restrained ourselves, having only a pint each -- though I was so busy talking I didn’t notice that Miss T drained all of her Stella and most of mine. Good thing, in fact, as I was driving and didn‘t want a repeat of my night in Woking gaol, circa October ‘05. Danielle and I mutually reveled in the fact that I hadn’t actually slain Pochyemu at our last bloggy meet-up in February. Nor had I left her unconscious in a snow drift in Windsor Great Park, to be nibbled at by foxes as she tweeted her last. No, she left our winter evening unharmed, free to go on to finish her dissertation late in the spring. Free to write a paper that received the very highest mark in her class. Thank God I spared her, because the world needs an expert on the Baltic states’ security issues and Estonian national identity. Much more useful than what I’ve been faffing about with, but we can’t all be so prescient, can we?

I took her to task for abandoning blogging in favor of the 140-character pleasures of Twitter, and though she tried to look chastened, she didn’t make a very convincing job of it. She’s unrepentant, I think, and there’s only me to blame. Because I suggested on that fateful night seven months ago that she sign up for Twitter, so she could tweet from my car boot as I “abducted” her. She obliged at that very moment, logging on over pasta and salad, and the rest is history, albeit in 140-character installments. She did promise to make a stab at blogging more often, and I looked daggers at her, which I hope will terrify her into compliance.

All in all, a stupendous evening. We meet again in October, we hope.

Finally, the extremely interesting, entirely different than I was expecting, Mr London Street. What was I expecting? Frankly, I’m not sure. But I had dinner with an staggeringly witty guy who was -- shall I say it? -- even more opinionated than I could have imagined from his blog. Honestly, I’m not sure what I was thinking, but I kept being shocked and startled, uttering the dumbest things I’ve ever said. I might have been blonde for an evening.

“Goodness, you’re so much taller than I expected!”

“Gosh, you’re so much more three-dimensional than I imagined!”

“Gee, you’re very thin … compared to how you describe yourself in your posts.”

Then he mentioned Ricky Gervais (who‘s also from Reading, as it happens), and I was suddenly fixed upon the idea that he looks a bit like Gervais. Not to mention that he’s blindingly funny. I ended up toward the end of dinner alternately giggling and parroting on about God only knows what. This is how Americans get such a bad rap. Simply can’t keep up in conversation. Or maybe we really are just all a bit stupid, as every third Brit is so happy to tell you. Bastards.

So Mr London Street and I traded compliments back and forth, and ate delicious tarte tatin which set my diet back by a couple of years at least. Whatever he’s doing to lose weight and lower cholesterol seems to be working a treat for him, so if it’s tarte tatin, I say “Bring it on, baby.” And a most gentlemanly guy, making sure I got the last train of the evening out of the Reading station. Left to my own devices, I’d have wandered off toward Slough, most likely. What a ditz I am.

One more point for now. Interestingly, MrLondonStreet wasn’t shy about letting me know what really sets him off, in terms of faux pas in the blogosphere, and if you promise not to let him know I told you, here are the three biggies: txt spk, ALL CAPS, and too many exclamation marks!!!!! I mean, who knew??? So if you want to get a mention on his THE WEEK THAT BLOGGED, be sure that you don’t overuse the punctuation!!!

Srsly!! HE HATES IT!!

Otherwise? I’m still ruminating over the significance of meeting virtual personalities in person. Perhaps because I’ve kept in touch with so many real friends via the internet -- moving from the physical to the virtual realm -- I find that reversing the process feels a bit strange. How do you transition from flat, silent screen to living, breathing, (perhaps even pulsating, in MrLondonStreet’s case) flesh and blood?

I’m not really sure about it yet. I’ll let you know when I figure it out.


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

30 years plus one day

The sashes were rattling something fierce last night at the Grange Fitzrovia Hotel. With the sheers blowing in over the sills, and London's silvery city light palely shining on the carpet, there was a rather romantic moonstruck feeling to it all. Or there would have been, had it not been for Mr D's wretched racket of snoring, which was enough to wake the dead as well as the living.

I tell you this, dear Reader, because I wouldn't want you to suffer under the illusion that Mr D is perfect. No, far from it. He has his human flaws, just like the rest of us. You might even agree with me if I enumerate just one or two.

For example, there's his "engineer's mind." Kind of like that "Zen mind" thing that everyone's always banging on about, but much more irritating. An engineer's mind likes to think that it's logical, reasonable, orderly. In this, it's confused. It tries to quantify the unquantifiable, and goes on to make you think that you're the one being difficult.

Imagine, if you will, choosing a house (12 or 13 times, because you keep getting moved by The Company). One half of the married duo looks at 7 or 11 houses, and picks one -- with a back-up plan for a second if the first choice falls through. Naturally, first choice is 1) the most expensive option and 2) furthest location possible from the workplace. But it's close to the school, and has a nice kitchen, and it's really pretty.

The second half of the blissfully wedded pair looks at the same set of houses, and hates choice #1 (too expensive) and abhors choice #2 (brutal commute). But instead of just saying, "Oh, let's look around more, wait a few months, rent something for a while and see what comes up...," he says, "I know! I'll make a chart and we can analyse the problem!"

The chart's drawn up, and houses are given scores of 1-5 for categories such as 1) commute, 2) price, 3) proximity to good golf course, 4) number of rooms, 5) quality of electrical wiring, 6) size of garage, and 7) age of roof . Strangely enough, choice #6, a medium-sized ugly house with a massive garage, circuit-breaker box of recent vintage, within 3 miles of work and 4.5 miles of golf course, wins! Who could have predicted that???

And it's all followed up by that explanation, that parsing of the chart (can charts be parsed?). "But look, my dear, it's all logical, and the best score, as you can plainly see here, is for this one, this house #6. Shall we make an offer on it then?" *sigh*

On the other hand, I can't complain too much. He loves to travel and won't rest until he's seen every sight to be seen in a given location. Since arriving in London on Sunday morning, we've toured Buckingham Palace, the Royal Mews, and the Queen's Gallery. We've gone through the Cabinet War Rooms, eaten lunch at Inn the Park in St. James' Park, ridden the London Eye, and wandered through the Burlington Arcade drooling over sapphires and cufflinks and lovely leather goods. All the things we neglected to do while we lived here for three years. We're better tourists than residents, apparently. We even took in my favorite annual exhibition, the BP Portrait Award show at the National Portrait Gallery. And all this in just three days.

And with that, I'm off to Grant & Cutler for some o' them furrin books. Maybe a Liewe Heksie picture book? Or an instructional text on Elementary Chichewa, for my next trip to Malawi?

Ta ta for now, m'dears! More faults to come, later, as they come to mind.


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

My love, 30 years on

Thirty years ago today, at 4:40 in the afternoon, Mr D and I were walking down the aisle. Or rather, I was walking down the aisle, because he was already there, waiting, at the front of the church. This was to be one of the few times in our lives together that he would be on time, and I would be late.

I was primping in the back, the last minute fluffing up of a terribly ill-advised perm. The pianist was playing, transitioning into the music that was to be my entrance, when suddenly Max, the minister, bustled through the double doors and said, “Just hang on a few minutes. Go back, go back! We’ll have this all sorted out in a second or two.” My heart sank. Was this going to be cinematic-style tragedy? The bride left sobbing, groomless, in the narthex of the church as the husband-to-be skittered off through a side door and ran away for parts unknown? I retreated to the bride’s room, and now worried, stared at myself in the mirror and wondered, “Was it the perm, after all?” And then I felt sorry for myself for a few minutes, as I imagined the sorrow and the embarrassment I’d feel soon enough, as a jilted bride in this day and age, for God’s sake.

Because who even was getting married in 1979? No one, that’s who. Everyone at Wellesley was going off to be a trainee at Citibank or Morgan Stanley, or continuing on to grad school at the London School of Economics, or learning the ropes as an intern at Sotheby’s or Christie's, or doing some other highly important thing. Getting married was the idiot’s move.

“What are you doing after college?” began a conversation in Tower Court’s dining hall.

“Oh, I’m getting married. In September,” I answered.

“Ummmm. Yeah. But what are you going to do?”

Oops. No good follow-up answer for that question. Indeed, what was I going to do? Vacuum? Dust? Work at minimum wage out there in the wilds of Oregon, as a married person? Any answers were worryingly vague.

And now, on the very wedding day, even this lame plan of mine looked to be scotched. Because suddenly it appeared I wasn’t going to have the chance to walk down the aisle at all. Oh, woe!

The music began again, and someone popped a head in and said, “Okay, it’s time!”

My Dad walked me down the aisle, and there was Mr D waiting for me. Pleasant surprise! We were married on that hot September afternoon thirty years ago, fumbling with rings and getting our words wrong, and soon after, we were out into the church garden for pictures and into the reception hall for a light dinner buffet.

“What was that all about?” I asked my sister later.

“What?” said Martha.

“The hold-up? At the beginning. The reason we didn’t begin at 4:30?”

“Oh thaaaaaat. Well, there were lots of bats flying around in the eaves,” said Martha.

My dad laughed, “Yes, and Harlan said, 'Oh, you know my brother Lee – he couldn’t afford white doves, so they made do with bats instead. I’m pretty sure it’s good luck though.'”

And yeah, it probably has been good luck. We’re still married, and happily so. I feel incredibly lucky, especially after almost pitching it all in a couple of different times. I must say, it’s mostly down to him, to my dear husband. He said when we married, “I don’t believe in divorce.”

There’s something to be said for that kind of dogged persistence and single-mindedness. It’s partly what’s necessary, to keep a partnership going, because there’s always going to be one person who’s a little less in love, a little more cranky, quite a lot more angry, a helluva lot more tired. The roles and the moods shift back and forth – sometimes one person’s sick of the whole thing, sometimes the other one has had quite enough for today, thank you very much. Yet the certainty that it’s permanent means that you get up the next morning thinking about compromise, and adapting a little bit all over again.

And of course we remember that we did get married for love, and not because we had to, or because we had no better ideas for what to do that Saturday afternoon. We’ve sailed through the good parts, and slogged through some really grim bits, but underneath it all there’s been the surety that it was a plan for the long-term: the very very very long-term. Until death do us part.

Happy 30th Anniversary to us! Hurrah, hurrah, and hip hip hooray!