August 28, 2008

The whole world is watching

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 3:00 pm

I happened to be in Chicago this time forty years ago, visiting my aunt, the last few days before I started high school.  I walked around a city buzzing with the excitement of the Democrat Party convention, but by the time police and demonstrators were fighting on the streets I was safely indoors.

I grew up in an intensely political family.  My grandfather had been among those called to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and my stepfather openly claimed to be a Marxist.  (I like to tell people that the house I lived in as a teenager had an 8 foot tall painting of Lenin’s head on the family room wall.) Though he now usually votes Republican, later in 1968 my father’s name would appear amidst hundreds in the tiny print of a full page ad in the New York Times headlined “Thinking Men Think Humphrey”. 

Like hundreds of thousands of others we felt the loss of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, only months earlier, as if we ourselves had been bereaved, and forty years ago I watched horrified the news films of the riots outside the convention.  I kept an occasional journal when I was a kid.  I still have it, in storage in England, but I know how the entry I wrote that night in Chicago began:  “Remember this date,” I wrote, “because history will.”

Well, I was only 14, but I wasn’t wrong.  I’ve heard a lot about 1968 this year, rather more from the BBC than the American networks.  I assume the preoccupation with that year is because most of the journalists running the shows are just a little older than I, that is, approaching the ends of their careers, and feeling nostalgic for a time when they had newly come of age.  For several months the BBC has been airing four minutes each afternoon: 1968 Day by Day.  If you are old enough to remember that year, or want a sense of how it felt to live through it, it’s worth listening to, which you can do online.  Unfortunately, for copyright reasons – I guess because there is music and archival material – you can’t subscribe to a podcast or download a week at time unless you are in the UK.  You really do have to listen day by day.

This is the first convention season for 32 years that I’ve been in the US, and though I have enjoyed watching the speeches and the razzmatazz, frankly these gatherings were more exciting when I was a kid.  It’s all too stage managed now and the long primary season really does mean it is all over bar the shouting.

It’s also, incidentally, hard to imagine now any candidate thinking an ad in which he gained endorsement of academics and other “pointy-headed intellectuals” would do him (or her!) good.

That phrase was coined by George Wallace, a third party candidate in the 68 election, who had been resoundingly elected Governor of Alabama six years earlier with the declaration:

I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say, segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.

He carried five states in 1968.

Though he later said he had been mistaken about segregation, I cannot imagine that the governor who tried to prevent black students entering the doors of his state university, or presided over state troopers breaking up a voter registration campaign with dogs, whips and tear gas, could imagine just how far we have come these forty years.


After I wrote this I learned that the 1968 Season on BBC Radio is coming to an end this week.  I don’t know what permanent links they will leave up.  I’m hoping they’ll be selling a dvd — it really was brilliant.

August 24, 2008

Ping pong’s coming home

Filed under: A long way from home,misc — Duchess @ 2:40 pm

Most Brits have probably already seen this by now, but Americans may enjoy hearing the Mayor of London look forward to 2012 while incidentally revealing the origins of ping pong and other Olympic trivia.  Keep watching past the introductory niceties.

My Ex, who sent me the link, said I was going to have to explain Boris Johnson to the Yanks, so I’ll try.

As you can tell by his accent, Boris is a toff, with aristocratic forbears on both sides of the family.  Educated at Eton and Oxford, he is a journalist and Tory politician and recently resigned his seat in Parliament to run for London’s Mayor, beating the Labour incumbent in May of this year.  He’s also something of a television celebrity after guest appearances on popular comedy shows.

He’s probably the only politician in Britain who is usually referred to solely by his first name (during the Mayoral election the Labour Party was said to have issued fines for any party member referring to him that way, because it might make him seem too popular). 

He has made something of a career of issuing apologies, to people as far away as Papua New Guinea. Here was his insult to them:

For 10 years we in the Tory Party have become used to Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing, and so it is with a happy amazement that we watch as the madness engulfs the Labour Party.

And this was his apology, following a formal complaint to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office:

I meant no insult to the people of Papua New Guinea who I’m sure lead lives of blameless bourgeois domesticity in common with the rest of us.

Though I would maintain that class war still wages in Britain today, I wasn’t surprised that Boris squeaked through in May’s election, despite the capital’s Labour voting tradition. In the UK, though we don’t on the whole care for toffs, we like our politicians clever, which he undoubtedly is, and we especially like them if they are funny as well.

Finally, Yanks probably won’t know that Boris’s statement “Ping pong’s coming home” is a reference to the official anthem for the 1996 European Championships, held that year in England, whose chorus is “Football’s coming home”. We take our football (the soccer variety) pretty seriously, even though we lose, but it is also characteristic that the words to the anthem were written by comedians.  We know how to laugh at ourselves while we lose gloriously (it’s the irony gene).  Every Brit, even ersatz ones like me, can sing along with this song. If you are a real glutton for British punishment, the link is below. 

Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to more Boris on the subject of how you reconcile playing Wiff Waff with passing the Port to the left.  It seems to me that if we introduce this extra element to the competition, we might have a real chance at a medal.

Phew. That was a lot of explaning.  How did I do?

August 22, 2008

Olympic moments? did you say moments?

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 11:00 pm

If you throw out the odd seconds, the Romanian woman who won gold the other day in Beijing ran exactly twice as fast as I ran the London Marathon in 2001 (2 hours 26 minutes to my 4 hours 52).

I was never an athlete of any sort.  I was the kid who was always picked last for any team (in fact sometimes the team that got me also got a few extra points to make up for how bad I was).  I never once made a hit in softball.  In basketball I broke my glasses (I claimed I was simply keeping my eye on the ball).  I came last in the 50 and 100 yard dash, and I don’t think anyone ever asked me to run further.  Basically I was a chubby, extremely short sighted kid who thought being told to go outside and play was a form of punishment and gym class was serious torture.  In high school I successfully petitioned to have canoeing counted as a team sport (well, there were two of us) so I could graduate.

Nevertheless, though the “physical education” I was forced to endure taught me nothing more than I was weak, uncoordinated, incompetent and unattractive, I eventually learned, all by myself, that exercise works a lot better for me than drugs to control depression, an illness that has troubled me all my life.  Divorce is pretty depressing and it demanded something big.  My marriage counsellor thought my idea of joining a gym might help.

Six months after my husband and I separated, and more than twenty years after we married, I ran those 26.2 miles.  It was neck and neck between me and a guy in a Rhino suit, but I think I just beat him to the finish line at Horse Guards Parade, London.

Because I have done it (sort of) I find it kind of scary that anyone could keep going all those miles exactly twice as fast as I ran, but just this week I’m focussing on a different way of looking at the maths, which tells me I was once half as good as an Olympic gold medallist.  And she is nine years younger than I was when I ran it (she’s 38; I was 47).  And I don’t think she’d had four children.  I’m feeling pretty impressed with myself.  I mean, how many things are there that you would be really glad to do half as well as the best in the world?

If it weren’t in storage in England, I’d post you a picture of my medal.  It’s kind of brownish and says Flora on it, which is a British brand of margarine, that year’s sponsor, but it’s good as gold to me.

August 13, 2008

Going to the CIA by accident

Filed under: A long way from home,family,misc,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 9:23 pm

The Baby and I were talking about my father, her grandfather, whom she barely knows. I was trying to remember when she had last seen him, but she was very clear.

The last time I was there, she said emphatically, was when you went to the CIA by accident.

Right. I had almost forgotten that.

I had taken the two younger children, my son the Actor (then about 15) and the Baby (10), on holiday to the USA. Among other places, we went to my father’s house in northern Virginia, partly to visit with him, and partly so I could show these British children some of their American heritage.

One morning I borrowed my father’s car just to drive it as far as the underground – I guess it was about 20 minutes. I wanted to take the kids into Washington DC.

About five minutes down the road I remembered I did not have my driver’s license with me (in England you are not required to carry it when you drive, and because it is large and doesn’t easily fit into a wallet, I usually don’t).

Oh, don’t be silly, Mother, said the Actor. You are not going to get stopped!

A few minutes later I remembered I hadn’t brought the map either, but once again my son took charge. Not a problem, he said, I’ve memorised the directions.

So we carried on. I spent the day dragging the kids to every monument and memorial in the Capital. It was post 9/11. Visits to the White House were suspended and trips up the Washington Monument had to be pre-booked, but otherwise we saw and did pretty much everything a good tourist is meant to do: we trooped up the steps of the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, wandered in the then fairly new sculpture garden at the Roosevelt Memorial, and walked sombrely past the names of the Vietnam dead (which I found deeply moving, and no doubt the children found dull, but they humoured me).

At the end of the day we rode the train back to Virginia and the Actor directed me as we picked up the car and headed toward my father’s house. We were nearly there when the Actor told me to take the next right.

Here? I asked.

I think so, he hesitated, and I turned. The sign, invisible from the main road, said, CIA. Authorized Personnel Only Past This Point.

Oops, said the Actor.

I looked around in a panic. The road was designed with a thick hedge of trees and bushes entirely separating the lane heading towards the CIA from the lane heading away. There were no turns to the right or left and no way to go back.

I had no choice except to carry on and eventually stop in front of a speaker on a post rather like the ones where you order at drive thrus. Only I didn’t think they would be selling me a latte. We were still a long way, I guessed, from any building.

A stern voice asked me to state my business with the CIA.

I said I didn’t have any business. I had taken a wrong turn and just wanted to get back on the main road.

The voice ordered me to continue forward into a parking area, stop in front of the chain link fence and follow the instructions of the officer.

I said, Please can’t I just turn around?

The voice bellowed, Follow the instructions of the officer!

I pulled in and parked.  Through the rear view window I saw a man in combat uniform sporting a machine gun almost as tall as he was saunter towards the car. I rolled down the window and waited for the inevitable question.

Can I see your driver’s license?

I explained that I came from England where it was not necessary to carry the license.

Okay, he said, Can I see your passport then?

I regretted that I did not have my passport with me.

He strolled around to the back of the car and examined the number plate. As he did so the Baby asked, in a whisper, What does the CIA do?

Without hesitation my son answered, They kill people.

The officer returned and said, in some exasperation, Well, can I see some kind of picture ID, please?

I said I thought I must have something… I shuffled wildly through my wallet and in a moment produced the only one with my photograph on it.

Reader, I handed the officer my Bodleian Library card.

A look of real sadness came over his face as he turned it from front to back. Ma’am, he said, I’m trying to help you here.

Well, anyway, things went from bad to worse and the officer pointed out I wasn’t giving him much to go on when I couldn’t find either the registration or insurance documents in the glove compartment. Nevertheless, he finally let us go after running the number plates to see if the address I gave him matched. You’ve got a couple of kids in the car, he said, by way of explanation, but I think it was the Bodley ID.

Back home, my father found the story hilarious. The turn towards his house is right after the CIA turn and it seems it wasn’t the first time that mistake had been made. His new house cleaner had also gone to the CIA by accident, only because she was Hispanic and driving an old beat up car, the disembodied voice directed her to pull into a spot where swords came out of the ground, surrounding the car and creating a cage. She was scared out of her wits. My father laughed until he cried as over and over he threw up his arms to demonstrate just how the swords had come up.

I guess, compared with your average encounter with the CIA, we came off pretty well.

August 12, 2008

The way we live now

Filed under: A long way from home,family,misc,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 6:25 pm

The Baby and I spent a couple of days with Lawyer Sis, about two hours’ drive south, before Baby was due to join her beloved cousin, Buggy, Lawyer Sis’s middle child, in LA.

On the first evening we had barbeque on the deck. Lawyer Sis and Brother in Law are on a low carb diet, but they cheerfully provided everything required for anyone who still believed in sampling the major food groups. We all ate on paper plates.

After dinner we made popcorn in the microwave, climbed into the SUV and went to one of the last drive-ins left in the state. I hadn’t been to a drive-in movie for thirty years, and definitely not since they’ve abandoned those speakers on poles in favour of tuning in your radio. It was a lot warmer with the windows rolled up. The movie was dumb, but at a drive-in I guess the movie isn’t really the point.

The next morning Brother in Law put on a suit and went to work, while my sister, in her pajamas, fielded emails and phone calls from the office while entertaining me and coordinating her kids’ arrangements.

Late morning she drove me to the near-by holiday town where our brother bought an investment property a few years ago and has since then been in litigation with the former owners and the realtor. We got back around noon to find the Baby had just got up and was casually eating cereal out of a paper bowl. I had assumed the paper of the previous night was in honour of deck dining, but Baby, who makes herself at home here, knew it was the house norm.

In the afternoon we rode a ferry, bought a hostess gift for the Baby’s upcoming visit, reclaimed my youngest niece from her Greek grandmother, and smuggled my little dog under my sweatshirt into the ferry passenger cabin on the return ride, because it was way too cold to follow regulations and sit with him outside. Fellow travellers who spotted my subterfuge only smiled.

Home again, and very tired, we ate cold cuts off paper plates and cancelled the bowling alley we’d booked, though my energetic sister was keen to introduce me to “cosmic bowling”. I think that’s bowling with music and moving lights, but no doubt I’ll find out eventually.

Instead we turned on the Olympics, and as I watched the first American tele I have seen in many years, I was struck by the prescription drug ads. We have nothing like that in the UK and I wondered how British GPs would respond to the repeated suggestion “ask your doctor”. I was quite taken with the drug that stops you needing the loo when you’re on an outing and thought even Her Majesty could use that one (I once heard that royal protocol dictates she has to be within a hundred yards of one at all times). Alas the side effects, which apparently they are required to mention (they start speaking very fast at that point), make it sound not really worth it: among others, dry mouth, headache, stomach cramps, liver damage.

It turned out to be pretty much the same with all the drugs they were recommending. As soon as one looked like it would just fix me up there were threats of heart palpitations, strokes and dizzy spells, not to mention the assaults on my poor liver, already well dosed with red wine. Since they announced that women shouldn’t take the drug for reducing prostates I guess they are required to list all possible contraindications too.

Meanwhile the Lawyer Sis and Buggy’s father exchanged breezy emails about Baby’s travel arrangements.

Now I know it is not polite to make fun of someone who has invited your sixteen year old daughter to be a houseguest for a whole week, but I’m making an exception, not just because his name is St John (pronounced, quite correctly, Sin Jin – and trust one of us to find the only guy this side of Jane Eyre called that), but because he denied his child until the Lawyer Sis slapped a paternity suit on him. (And when I tell you that in divorcing the father of her first child she got him excommunicated for good measure, you probably won’t be messing with her.)

Baby thought St John’s (Sin Jin’s) email about her upcoming visit was very funny:

Our place is an old Spanish house built up in the hills with a great view. It’s hot in Los Angeles and we have palm trees everywhere, so you’ll get to wear sunglasses and a cute dress when we head out to explore Hollywood. Don’t have sunglasses or a cute dress? Save your pennies and we’ll take you shopping. Vicki knows all the best places, whether you like the latest thing or really old grungy stuff. You’ll live like a rock star for a week! Well, maybe like a back-up singer anyway.

The next day we were up early to dodge the Saturday traffic. In the ferry line my sister and my daughter applied their make up. I felt a little underdressed next to them and fumbled in my bag to see if I had remembered the lip coloured, almost invisible, lipstick I sometimes wear. Nope. As usual I had forgotten it.

By the time we got to the airport Baby had all her gels, blushes, lotions and creams packed into a clear plastic bag, her British passport stowed and her American one ready to display for a picture ID and a note of her booking reference for her e ticket. Once again I was impressed with the poise and maturity of a child only just sixteen who travels all by herself so easily across oceans and continents.

We left her in the security line. She was in LA, almost a thousand miles south, long before her aunt and I, fighting Seattle traffic, were home.

August 3, 2008

Hearing voices

Filed under: family,forty quarters — Duchess @ 1:30 pm

My father keeps calling my cell phone, which is not a good way of getting in touch with me, because the phone mostly doesn’t work. I’ve told him that, but though he likes to talk these days, he never was much good at listening.

His recent messages say:

“I don’t know what you’re doing out there.” and

“Someone told me you’re running a Bed and Breakfast out there.” (Thank you, brother, dear) and

“It’s 11 here in Virginia, so must be 8 am out there. I don’t know what your schedule is. Are you running a Bed and Breakfast or something?” (well, if I was, 8 am wouldn’t be a very good time to call me, would it?) and

“I’d like to talk to you about what you’re doing out there.”

My father hasn’t learned the names of my children (and no, that is not because he is suffering from senility – though he’s 84 he retired only a few years ago; up until then he was running a prestigious university programme). So I guess it is not all that surprising that he didn’t pay much attention when I told him what I am doing “out here”.

The short answer is I’m house sitting for my mother and her husband while they are hanging out in interior Alaska. The official answer is (as advised by my former boss and reported to the local head hunter firm back home) that I need to spend a few months in the US looking after the affairs of my elderly parents.

I guess the real answer, if there is one, goes something like this:

I have lived pretty much all my adult and working life in England, though for a while I’ve wanted to return to the US. It never was the right time, mainly because of the children, but twelve months ago everything seemed to be coming together. I thought I had sold my house in rural Oxfordshire. I was one of three candidates about to be interviewed for a prestigious job in New York. My youngest child had declared she wanted to finish high school living with me near NYC, and the man I loved was negotiating to buy a beautiful home where we could be together.

By New Year every one of those plans had been smashed. Nevertheless, it was pretty clear I couldn’t carry on living the way I was. My elder son had long since moved to the US. In September I had put my elder daughter on a plane to Uganda. My younger son was in his final year at university and rarely home, and my younger daughter, at school in Oxford, preferred to be at her father’s house in the city and near her friends, than out in the country where there were no shops or cinema and where she no longer knew the local kids. My job was more often tedious or frustrating than engaging. I came home every night to an empty house and cooked the same solitary meal. I watched real estate television obsessively. When I didn’t go to work I often spoke to no one except the dog all day long. I used to wonder, if I died, how long it would take to find the body.

Reader, I did not die; I came to this little island instead. My mother needed a housesitter and I needed to change my life. I got a part time job with a local non profit (now winding down) and yes, I am renting out part of the house to tourists, though the economy is so lousy there aren’t many of them (and it’s Bed Make Your Own Damn Breakfast). Otherwise I have been walking the dog and writing (mainly this blog – not much fiction yet).

I bought a return ticket I’m going to be using soon.

Meanwhile I have been rehearsing in my head the conversation with my father and I am not enjoying it. I’ve tried calculating when he’s likely to be out, so I could call and leave a message and get the credit without actually having to talk, but he’s always in.

When we talk my father will say over and over as if it’s some mantra, “Forty quarters! Forty quarters! Forty quarters!”

I know that I need to pay into Social Security for 40 quarters. Not that I’ll ever get much in the way of government cheques with only ten years’ credit, but because 40 quarters is the minimum to be eligible for Medicare. There is no way I can live in the US when I am old unless I sort that out.

My father will say, What are your plans?

It won’t be okay to have no plans.

My father will say, I think you should consider finishing your PhD.

Now this is big and this is fairly new, though it was the theme of our last conversation. My whole life he has told me that one thing no one should ever do under any circumstances is get a PhD. I can’t tell you how many times he shouted at me for even considering it: Why don’t you do something that will keep you out of the Poor House?

He must think things have got really desperate.

If you finish your PhD, he says, some little college would hire you, even as old as you are.

Thanks, Dad.

Because you need forty quarters. How long will it take you to finish?

I say I don’t know.

He says, Where will you live?

I don’t know.

How will you live?

I don’t know.

Well, what are you going to do?

I don’t know.

You need forty quarters.

I’m assuming that it is better to keep telling him I don’t know than that I am drawing up a short list of elderly American friends whom I could marry for their Social Security. (Widows get benefits.) Or that my latest “plan” is to live part time on my narrow boat, illegally moored on the Oxford Canal, and part time in a van in the USA as a peripatetic cleaning lady.

Because I have worked out that only 12 hours a week at $15 an hour, 25 weeks a year for 10 years gives me the minimum income to qualify for 40 quarters. I’ll be 64 and a half, ready to retire right on time.

August 1, 2008

When all else fails, read the manual

Filed under: misc,writing — Duchess @ 5:05 pm

I have been rereading recently Anne Lamott‘s 1994 book, Bird by Bird, subtitled “some instructions on writing and life”.  Except for Strunk and White’s classic (and very different) Elements of Style (my writing Bible since I was an undergraduate), this is the best book about practicing writing I know.  It is much more about how to get your head around doing it than teaching any technique or rules, but it is full of entertaining stories and good advice.

Early in the book Lamott discusses the fear we all have that the great idea we came up with daydreaming in bed turns out to seem really terrible when we face the blank screen or page.  And as soon as writers know for sure how very, very bad it is:

every form of mental illness from which they suffer surfaces, leaping out of the water like trout — the delusions, hypochondria, the grandiosity, the self-loathing, the inability to track one thought to completion, even the handwashing fixation, the Howard Hughes germ phobias.  And especially the paranoia.

Lamott likes to read to her classes a poem by Phillip Lopate, reminding them that they can either be “defeated and disoriented by all these feelings” (and I would add demoralised), or they can, like Lopate, use the feelings to shape their work:

We who are
your closest friends
feel the time
has come to tell you
that every Thursday
we have been meeting,
as a group,
to devise ways
to keep you
in perpetual uncertainty
discontent and
by neither loving you
as much as you want
nor cutting you adrift.
Your analyst is
in on it,
plus your boyfriend
and your ex-husband;
and we have pledged
to disappoint you
as long as you need us.
In announcing our
we realize we have
placed in your hands
a possible antidote
against uncertainty
indeed against ourselves.
But since our Thursday nights
have brought us
to a community
of purpose
rare in itself
with you as
the natural center,
we feel hopeful you
will continue to make unreasonable
demands for affection
if not as a consequence
of your disastrous personality
then for the sake of the collective.

Sadly, it seems, most of her students don’t get the poem. Lamott tries to teach them to focus on writing, rather than publication.  Writing, she says, “can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up.”

Then she tells another story, a propos of very little, but it is, nevertheless, like most of the stories in the book, quite good:

“My son, Sam, at three and a half, had these keys to a set of plastic handcuffs, and one morning he intentionally locked himself out of the house. I was sitting on the couch reading the newspaper when I heard him stick his plastic keys into the doorknob and try to open the door. Then I heard him say, ‘Oh, shit.’ My whole face widened, like the guy in Edvard Munch’s Scream.  After a moment I got up and opened the front door.

‘Honey,’ I said, ‘what’d you just say?’

‘I said, “Oh, shit,”‘ he said.

‘But, honey, that’s a naughty word.  Both of us have absolutely got to stop using it.  Okay?’

He hung his head for a moment, nodded, and said, ‘Okay, Mom.’ Then he leaned forward and said confidentially, ‘But can I tell you why I said “shit?”‘ I said, Okay, and he said, ‘Because of the fucking keys!'”

Freely hosted by Powered by WordPress. Theme by H P Nadig
Close Bitnami banner