Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

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SpaceX’s launch of Falcon 9

  1. You all should read this four-part series by Tim Urban at WaitButWhy (the link goes through to all of the content in one place, don’t worry) on space exploration (/colonisation) and Elon Musk. Not least for the two incredible videos of the Spirit and Curiosity rovers landing on Mars. I suggest that, once you get to the part about the Hubble Space Telescope, you soundtrack your reading for as long as it takes to listen to this.
  2. I saw my lovely friend Ella (long-time readers will recall her former incarnation on this blog as the Duchess) for a quick hour-long lunch last week, and it was great. She teaches in Vermont, so I haven’t seen much of her, except on FaceTime, for months. She was back for her mother’s birthday, and we went to a little Italian cafe on Kentish Town Road where the inefficiency of the service is compensated for by the outstanding quality of their pasta. We had lasagna and chorizo-mushroom penne and talked about office politics and our families and laughed a lot. I’d been having a particularly shit morning that day, so it was especially nice to just let go with an old friend, even briefly.
  3. My old college had its annual black-tie ball this weekend. This is the first year I haven’t gone. I went last year with some friends in the year below me, even though I was no longer a student or even participating in the life of the college much (despite still living in Oxford), and it was, overall, a mistake. I think one of the hardest things about graduating is knowing when to stop going back (at least for a few years); this is the time. I’ll probably return with some other friends to use High Table dining rights this summer, and it was great to see pictures of people I did know enjoying themselves and looking fly, but it’s not my place anymore. Or at least not in the same way. And that’s okay.
  4. Prince died, and even though I don’t think I’ve ever consciously listened to any of his music, let alone been a devotee, it seemed really, really sad. He was obviously a taboo-breaker and an outrageously talented instrumentalist: one of my coworkers reminisced about seeing him, in concert, hurl himself across the stage, lean backwards over a piano, and play, while upside-down, exactly the right chords at exactly the right moment. That kind of gold dust shouldn’t die at 57.
  5. I’m writing fiction again. That’s all for now. Hooray.
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Travels with Choir In Search of America

I. home

Going through immigration and border control at Dulles (the worst airport to have ever existed in the entire history of the world). I use my American passport, which saves me about twenty minutes. The immigration official eyes my customs card. “You carrying anything?” I’ve declared the presents I’m bringing for my family–a college coaster from Founder’s Day for my father, a mint Aero bar for The Kid, and a jar of lemon curd for Mamacita. “No sir,” I say. “Just chocolate.” He smiles and taps my passport twice on the counter. “Good girl. Welcome home.”

II. tales of the city

After our first evensong, there are people I recognize in the congregation: my darling and long-unseen friends Jon, Red, and Chelsea, all of whom I met when I was still in high school. Red lives in Ohio, so seeing her is particularly unexpected, and we jump around and shriek a lot. Jon suggests that we go out. “Hell yes,” I say, “but I don’t know this area, so where should we go?” He says, thoughtfully, “I think we should go to a gay bar called Freddie’s in Crystal City.” So we do. There are cheeseburgers, our waitress is a beautiful transvestite with eyebrows of Platonic perfection, I get a cocktail with a flashing ice cube in it, and we all get drunk enough. Jon, who is going to do postgraduate work in musical performance this fall, sings karaoke (Aerosmith and Scott McKenzie), and just at the end of the night, I get drunk enough to sing some too. When I get down off the stage, a ghetto-fabulous man sitting at a nearby table offers his hand for a high five and says, “Darling, that was gorgeous.”

III. bringing down the house

The next night we go back, but we bring the Duchess. She and Red get on like a house afire. We meet a group of amazingly camp anesthesiologists, and somehow get sucked into a poker game which apparently runs on Freddie’s front porch every Monday. The players have names like Donny and Junior, and most of them seem to have been in Vietnam or Kuwait. The only other female in the joint is a sweet butch woman named Lani who has the most perfect country-western voice I’ve ever heard in real life. She plays Texas hold’em with a preserved scorpion in a jar next to her on the table. She says it’s her lucky charm. They invite us to come to a baseball game the next day. We say yes, out of midnight goodwill, knowing full well that in the morning we’ll agree not to turn up. They all think that the Duchess and I are dating. We choose not to correct them.

IV. i’m a stranger here myself

Philadelphia. The day has been one of unclean hair and hangover and boredom and discomfort, and now we’re at a party thrown for us by one of the churches we’ve just sung at. There’s plenty of wine but I’m too tired to talk to anyone, so I take a cab home on my own. Halfway down Rittenhouse Square, I discover I’ve lost my phone charger, so I ask the driver to take me to a pharmacy. There’s no one behind the counter. I’m leaning over it, trying to make out the writing on the various boxes of electronics, when a woman appears. Her name tag says SHANNIA. She says nothing, but her glare is very eloquent. “Hi,” I say. “Do you have any chargers for iPhone 5?” Her stare becomes indifferent. “No.” I point at an empty hook, from which swings a tag that reads IPHONE 5 CHARGER. “You do stock them, though?” She glances, barely, at the hook. “We sold it.” I apply my most pleasant smile, as though it’s lipstick. “There aren’t any more in the back?” The woman does not move a muscle. “No.” Recognizing the uselessness of any further attempts, I leave. The taxi driver must see the look on my face as I emerge, because he rolls down his window and says sympathetically, “No luck?” “Afraid not,” I say, trying mightily to keep cheerfulness in my voice. The driver makes a face, starts the car again, and says, drily but not unkindly, “Welcome to Philly.”

V. the innocents abroad

Leaving New York by way of Newark. Jersey’s reputation is well deserved if the security people are anything to go by. They are all women, and all are using a tone of voice best described as a bark. I take off my ring in case it sets off the metal detector, and put it on top of my bag. One of the women snarls at me, “Put that back on your finger.” She sounds like Marlon Brando playing Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. This tickles me. I comply. As I’m about to go through the detector, she barks again: “This a laptop?” She’s grabbed my backpack and is feeling the contours of something heavy and rectangular. Fuck you, I think, almost happily. I can do this too. I raise my voice. “No ma’am.” Flat tone, disinterested eyes. The “ma’am”, as intended, does not sound courteous. “What is it?” she snaps. “It’s a folder,” I say. The less detail, the better. Subject, verb, object, now fuck off. And it works. She puts my bag down, says nothing else, motions me forward with a jerk of her head. The guy on the other end of the metal detector winks. Good girl. Welcome home.

In 2013, I have

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. I don’t believe in the New Year starting in January, either; for me it has always started with a new academic year, in the autumn, and all of that post-Christmas guilt stuff is just an excuse for self-flagellation and meanness. What I do for New Year’s, instead, is to list what I’ve done over the past year. That seems more likely to produce, on the whole, happiness. And even bad memories are worth more than half-assed, panic-induced vows to improve my life.

So, in 2013, I have:

climbed a fell

taken a Virgin train first class, for free (!)

given a speech at Burns Night

done four live radio broadcasts from Manchester, over a week during which, apart from the broadcasts, I did nothing except revise medieval dream poetry and watch baking shows with the Duchess

learned to lay a fire

gotten naked–for the children (and it’s not often you hear someone say that) (aka participated in the naked calendar produced by ExVac, Exeter College’s own charity which takes disadvantaged children for a week’s holiday in the spring vac)

woken up at 5:30 a.m. for May morning

drunk red wine in a mortarboard

This happened.

This happened.

contemplated suicide

revised for Finals

worn a corset in public

commissioned a dress

sat Finals

been trashed

graduated from university

applied to do postgraduate work, and been rejected, and been devastated about that, and then been kind of okay with it

swum naked in the Adriatic

danced in an Italian bar until two in the morning

Fano

sung Bruckner motets for bewildered but enthusiastic Italians, also at two in the morning

read seventy-nine books (beginning to end)

bought twenty-three secondhand books

met Philip Pullman, and chatted about The Faerie Queene with him

watched all three series of Game of Thrones

moved house

become identifiable by sight at Gloucester Green book stall

walked on the North York Moors

IMG_0941

become unwittingly hooked on The Great British Bake Off (shoot shag marry: shoot Mel and Sue, shag Paul, marry Mary. Obviously.)

written eighteen different cover letters for job applications

interned in London, twice

joined Pottermore, and done absolutely nothing on it

discovered that the five-year plan I thought I had isn’t actually the five-year plan I want, and changed it accordingly

laughed so hard I spat water all over the kitchen

cried so hard I couldn’t see the next day

landed a job

gone out every night in a week

...and they all had red eye, The End

…and they all had red eye, The End

created a graph in Microsoft Excel

started to write poetry again, and submit it

won a mention in the Southwest Review’s poetry competition

cooked a Christmas dinner

flown home for the first time in a year

bought alcohol without being carded (in the States, no less)

started to realize that you can be happy and uncertain at the same time.

skeptical amiability

skeptical amiability

Happy New Year’s, you guys. I hope that Santa brought you everything you asked for, that your New Year’s Eve is safe if not sober, and that the coming twelvemonth (a word that needs bringing back) is good to you!

Happy New Year from (most of) L'Auberge Anglaise! (missing Darcy and Half Pint, who's taking the picture)

Happy New Year from (most of) L’Auberge Anglaise! (missing Darcy and Half Pint, who’s taking the picture)