Monday, 28 April 2008

"Haunt" Tracing

Or, how I spend three days talking without pause . . .

We've all had friendships of "proximity" -- at the water cooler, the sand box, or the shared fence. While they last, these sorts of friendships are great fun -- and a natural and necessary part of life. But more often than not, (and sometimes even surprisingly so), when you take away the shared props and bonding basis, only the ghost of former friendship remains. Perhaps most friendships are of this sort, and realistically, they do have value -- as long as you can accept the limited shelf life.

However, there is another kind of friendship, too. The rarer kind; the kind that really lasts. This friendship might be based on mutual interests, too, but it is lit from within by some indefinable kind of chemical spark. The kind that doesn't need constant feeding. Even if starved for years, a true friendship can go from dormant to vital -- especially if given the rich compost of unfettered time.

I wonder: Does each person have an essence that remains unchanged -- no matter how many changes they might undergo? If you come to know the essence or the core of the person, do you always "know" them . . . even if time and distance get in the way?

When I was 20/21, I had a little box room in a sort of boarding house for American college students. Mabledon Court. WC2. At the edge of Bloomsbury; the rough, ungentrified edge near the gateway train stations of King's Cross, Euston, and St. Pancras. Down the hall from me was Michelle, from Minnesota. Unlike most of the other students, we two commuted across town to Queen Mary College on the Mile End Road. We were both English majors; unsurprisingly, we shared the love of reading. But books alone, although they are good food and a marvelous touchstone, aren't quite enough to make a friendship.

Sometimes friendship is like spontaneous combustion; and sometimes (often, in my experience) this sort of friendship burns out quickly, too. My friendship with Michelle was slower to spark, and it took time to build. She was cautious, I think, about making new friends -- and I was all over the place, spreading myself thin with new experiences and acquaintances. However, by the spring of that year, we were intensely close friends and that friendship was part of the magic of living in London for a year and discovering who I was (or rather, wanted to be).

Saying goodbye to London, and returning home to my senior year in Texas, was a wrench. At first, Michelle and I saw each other regularly -- in Texas, and New York City, and Connecticut, and Minneapolis -- and of course we corresponded frequently. But over time -- and 20 years is a long time -- our visits were reduced to my occasional visit to New York City. The last time we saw each other was fall 2002 -- when I stopped in NYC on my way to West Point to visit my brother. Michelle met me at my hotel room, and we talked in the hallway for a couple of hours -- because my children were tucked up in bed.

Sometimes life gets in the way of friendship -- we all know that. Soon after I saw Michelle in that hotel hallway, my marriage broke up . . . and it took a long time to mend. Mending it was so involving, and so emotionally draining, that many friendships got neglected. It all seemed too much to explain, and I couldn't always understand what was happening to me, anyway. My life had lost a describable shape, and my future was a frightening blank.

Although I sent Christmas cards, I was never sure if Michelle received them. We moved six times in those five years -- and I wondered if Michelle had moved, too. I thought of her, though, particularly when a shared favorite crossed my path again. Nanci Griffith, May Sarton, Gifts from the Sea -- these were amongst the memories that I had shared with Michelle. If I lived to be 100, I doubt that I could think of them without thinking of her, too.

When I decided to start a blog, I named it Bee Drunken -- it had been a poem that Michelle and I discovered together, and we had dedicated ourselves to living that 21st year in the most "be drunken" way possible. Becoming "Bee" again was so intermingled with this friendship; I couldn't bear to be Bee without being in touch again with Michelle. So I decided to Google her. (I know that other people would have thought of this option long, long ago; but as I stated, in my opening blog, I am a computer idiot -- or more kindly, innocent.)

I asked Michelle if she minded being blogged about, and she just laughed -- wryly? The truth is, Michelle is already very much part of the public domain. As a writer for BusinessWeek, her byline is all over the Internet. And as I discovered, when I googled her, her life in the last couple of years has been part of a social experiment of sorts. I will be writing more about this later, because it is fascinating, but if I've piqued your interest you can read this article . . . just as I did, one February day.

I know that there is a school of thought that says we make our own luck, and I would agree that some part of that is true. But I have a more mystical side, too, and it acknowledges the role of serendipity and unexplained good fortune in life. Because not long after reestablishing contact with Michelle, I received an email which trumpeted the good news that she would be coming to London for a visit. Amazingly enough to me, as I have been in and out of London for most of my adult life, Michelle had never been back. Thus, not only was she visiting me, she was revisitng a time and place whose memories had been entirely untrampled by fresher experience. Happily, all the stars aligned -- and not only was I able to join her for some "haunt tracing," but the English weather conspired to give us some rare glorious spring days for our jaunting.

So all of this is background to understanding just why this past weekend, spent in London with Michelle, could have been the set-up for disappointment . . . but instead was like one long wordy ode to the glories of friendship. Never for one minute was I unaware of how much a gift it was to be given time with my friend -- time without constraint or consideration for the needs of family, jobs, houses or other pressing obligations. As Michelle would say, it was delicious; we ate it up.

And yet: I suppose there is always an inherent melancholy to haunt tracing -- particularly the haunts of 20 years ago. The evidence that life has moved on is always incontrovertible. Mabledon Court is an inexpensive hotel now, and I wonder how many travellers (or even immigrants) to this country spend some time in its box-like rooms. (A kindly African man let Michelle see her own rooms, and she was amused to see what a "dump" we had lived in.) I hope, like us, these new inhabitants are too excited by the possibilities of London to mind their claustrophobic, spare sleeping place much.

Our most-beloved haunt, The Hermitage, had closed more than fourteen years ago. I had tried to visit it soon after, soon enough to find the notice on the door announcing that the owners had sold up and moved to Greece. We wasted much time wandering around looking for a Cranks -- the vegetarian restaurant that had been a neighborhood favorite, and was still listed on the Internet. Perhaps it had only been recently swallowed up -- by the ongoing march of Starbuck's and that sort. We ended up eating a late, and rather indifferent lunch -- but we were too engrossed in conversation to notice or care. Another favorite, Troubadour Cafe in Earl's Court, was still going strong . . . but the soothing candlelit atmosphere and delicious "white" coffee was gone -- replaced by blaring music and weak lattes and cappuccinos.

And yet, none of this really mattered. London had changed, like we had changed -- but the essence of London was still there, and it still beckoned to us and beguiled us. We drifted rather aimlessly around Regent's Park, and as we climbed to the top of Primrose Hill the city lay at our feet. I had been telling Michelle about some secret heartbreak, and as I looked down from our green perch I realized that time had, almost imperceptibly, healed me. I felt a rush of love and gratefulness -- partly for Michelle, partly for Everything.

Serendipity ruled the day: at one point we got lost, somewhere in the beautiful neighborhood of St. John's Wood. We had gone off my map, and were relying on only my dubious sense of direction. Without knowing, we had drifted onto the famous Abbey Road -- a place that neither of us had visited before. Except for the graffitti on a pair of pillars, we couldn't have distinguished the famous music studio from any of the other beautiful houses in that area . . . and yet there was still magic in realizing that the The Beatles had recorded most of their timeless music there. The ghosts of London always make marvelous companions for the imagination.

There were also new treasures to discover -- particularly at the gorgeous shops on Marylebone High Street. I relished introducing Michelle to some of the things that I currently love in London. At Daunt's bookstore, I bought Michelle a copy of Nancy Mitford's great English classics -- because she had never read them. I also found Coetzee's Life and Times of Michael K. and Lessing's The Grass is Singing down in Daunt's South African section. (I had been searching for these books for weeks!) Daunt's are known for their travel books, and rather idiosyncratically, they group fiction and travel literature by country. Michelle's little daughter absolutely needed a china mug, painted with quirky brown chickens, from Emma Bridgewater. We shared a plate of colorful macaroons (in the French style) at Paul -- a haunt that I share with my dear friend Jenni.

Everything about the weekend was a delicious bon bon -- beautiful on the inside and out.

Mostly we just talked -- and London was the backdrop for that conversation. On Friday, we estimated that we talked for twelve straight hours without pause. I probably did more than my share of talking, as Michelle is the most marvelous listener. It would be tempting to say that journalism has honed her listening skills, but actually, she listens in just the same way as I remember. She fixes you with her big brown eyes; she nods; she occasionally repeats phrases; if you are lucky, she laughs with much gusto and appreciation. She listens with great attention; quite a rarity, in my experience. I enjoyed the fact that the occasion for her visit to London was a journalism award for "Best Communicator."

We talked about all of the subjects we've always talked about: books and writing, above all; then family and relationships; travel; food; politics; the environment; memories; music; shoes and clothes; and assorted pop culture detritus. We also talked about marriage and motherhood -- two subjects new to us since our long-ago London days. I never felt that there was a veil between us; but only that open-heartedness and complete attention that is rare, even with close friends.

Although our haunt tracing was not a complete success, it was a delight to discover that we have so much more in common than just a shared past. Our visit was part sentimental journey -- but the greater part, by far, was about a friendship that still has the stuff to run and run.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Fingersmith Review by Ninebel

"Ninebel" is the blogonym of Jenine -- who comments here sometimes; who I have known for more than half of my life.

I was fortunate to meet Jenine my first semester of college, and that's a fur piece down the road now. We've been suitemates and housemates, and we've been to each other's weddings. Jenine's wedding was in Oakland, CA by the way. Almost exactly 10 years ago . . . so Happy Anniversary, Jenine and Dan! I can remember the date, not because I'm good at that sort of thing, but because it is more or less the same date as my youngest daughter -- who was, literally, a babe in arms and in full attendance at the big event. (I left out the crying bit; is that still scar tissue, Jenine?)

Despite all of this prior knowledge, though, it had been many years since I talked to Jenine more often than . . . let's just say Christmas cards and the very odd email. Blogging has brought this funny, beautiful friend back into my life -- and for that, I am truly thankful. She has a great writing "voice" and her precise, fine sense of word selection always delights me.

Jenine is my only "prior" who actually has a blogging habit. Somehow it didn't surprise me to find out that she has been into the blogging thing for a long time now . . . she was always "most likely to blog." When we were in college, Jenine always knew the coolest music. She was also the most likely person to set aside studying in order to burrow into a good book. I've always admired her for her catholic and eclectic tastes. She is one of the few people I know who can take on P.G. Wodehouse and science fiction and mysteries and "lesbian Victoriana" and love them all.

So did lesbian Victoriana catch your eye? Because that is my segue for Fingersmith -- a short-lister from Booker Prize 2002. Apparently, "fingersmith" was slang for a light-fingered thief . . . and another kind of delicate fingering ability as well. The Life of Pi took the prize in 2002, and I'd like to know if Jenine considers it the worthier piece of literature. To be honest, I probably wouldn't have picked up this particular book -- despite my love of the Victorian era. But Jenine gives it such a seductive write-up that I am now determined to add it to the ranks on my to-read bookshelf.

Oh, and you can feel free to read ahead . . . because Jenine has refrained from spoilers.


Feeling Broody

Sometimes I lose track of which expressions are English, which are American, and which are universal to the English-speaking world. Do Americans describe themselves as "feeling broody" when they develop the urge to nurture offspring? In England, it's a common euphemism.

In this case, though, it's not me who's feeling broody -- but my chicken, Ralph. (If my husband were reading at this moment, he would now start breathing normally again.) What follows is an illustrative country tale . . . on how you spot broodiness in a chicken, and what to do (or not) about it.

I should have known something was up when I tipped out Sunday's leftover pancakes and only one chicken came running.

As I've mentioned before, the one thing you can count on with chickens is their insatiable greed. They would, and could, eat happily all day long. One not-very-fine day, I lazily dumped some stale bread out of our kitchen window instead of sprinkling it on the lawn, or taking it to the compost heap as I would usually do. I was stunned to see how quickly the chickens came running! And quicker than you can say Pavlov, the minute I unlatch that window they are racing to the spot . . . hoping for human grub, which surely makes a nice change from nutritionally balanced pellets.

According to a website called "Raising Chickens," chickens have "interactive emotional states similar to humans. They feel jealousy, greed, pleasure, affection and camaraderie." Well, personally I can't vouch for all of these traits: but I will definitely agree with "greed," and I will throw in "competitive" too -- which I suppose is a negative form of camaraderie. If you give Ralph some bread, usually Lauren will be right there, open beak at the ready, trying to get his fair share. (Just like children!) So really, I should have noticed when leftover pancakes only yielded one greedy chicken.

But being singularly uncurious about my chickens, it took me about two days to casually mention to one of the kids, "Hey, have you seen the skinnier chicken?" (I keep half-hoping that they will decide to cross the road one day.) After a bit of looking in Ralph's usual hangouts, "he" was found in the nesting box -- which is located on the 2nd floor of his little chicken condo. Oh dear, what could the matter be? Was he depressed, sulking, tired? It took my oldest daughter only a few minutes to come up with the answer: Ralph was broody. (My oldest daughter is quite handy with Google, but she is also the only person in the family who actually read the chicken handbook. She is the "brains" of the outfit, while little sister and mommy do the grunt work.)

In other words, Ralph thought that he was about to be a mother. He was trying to keep the eggs warm, bless him.

At first I was confused. Over time I have grown to think of Ralph and Lauren as a gay couple -- conveniently ignoring that they must have some sort of poultry ovary, as they do in fact lay eggs every day. This illustrates at least a couple of things -- and not just that I am a ding-a-ling. (Although, clearly, my parents probably should explained the "birds and the bees" a little more carefully; that, and/or let me have pets when I was a child.) First of all, my momentary confusion regarding Ralph's natural instinct to hatch offspring shows the importance of WORDS -- of naming things. Over time, "Ralph" became a boy in my mind . . . because he had a boy's name. This gender confusion was aided and abetted by my natural tendency (again, I blame my parents) to "gender" all animals. In my mind, dogs are boys and cats are girls. Fish are neither. Rabbits are girls. Horses, boys. Cows, girls. Chickens -- boys. In fact, I think a chicken is the exact equivalent of an adolescent boy. (If you don't agree with me, read this for an insider experience.)

When we were in Texas, I just happened to read a story in People magazine about a "man" who was having a baby. Did anyone else catch this one? Now, as you will probably guess, the man had once been a woman -- and thus, still had most of the female equipment, sans breasts. However, "he" looked just like a man! It was quite disconcerting, I have to admit. Anyway, this came to mind when I realized that Ralph was broody. Momentary confusion . . . and then the other shoe dropped.

After I got my confusion under control, I turned to my children to see what they were going to do about the fact that Ralph had been hunkering down in the nesting box for days. Again, a little Internet research came in handy. Isn't it wonderful how the Internet not only allows us to self-diagnose, but also to cure those problems which plague our animals? A helpful, if oddly spelled, site called "Omlet" offered two possible solutions: (1) remove all of the eggs from the nest, or (2) dunk the hen's belly in a pail of cold water.

In case you haven't guessed, a broody hen is not particularly accommodating and will not willingly abandon her job. Removing the eggs is pretty much impossible if the hen is actually sitting on them. (Dunking her belly also seemed to involve many dangers -- not to mention technical difficulties.) In the end, the children used a carrot and stick maneuver . . . which I didn't happen to witness, so really can't be held liable if any of you decides to contact the RSPCA. The next thing I knew they were bringing in a large bowl containing FOURTEEN EGGS.

Poor Ralph. She really DID think she was having a brood.

As Omlet so helpfully tells us, "if you are not removing the eggs everyday there is more chance that a chicken will go broody." Somehow, between their father's tender care and jetlag, the chickens were ignored. For days.

Let it be a lesson for all of us. If a child or an animal is being too quiet, it is probably up to no good.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Coetzee Addendum

So, today I was chatting to a South African woman who I pegged to be a literary type. I know that you will not be surprised to learn that I managed to insinuate Coetzee into the conversation.

(For some reason, we were talking about Oprah. Apparently, Oprah is HUGE in South Africa. Who knew? Her show comes on prime-time television, and my friend claims that she has helped heal the country's difficult race relations.)

Anyway . . . this woman said, and I quote, "Nobody in South Africa had every heard of Coetzee before he won that Nobel Prize." She backed up this mindboggling claim by saying that she had been part of a book group that included professors -- and that NONE of them had heard of this feted author, this man who has a good chance of taking home the coveted Booker of all Bookers!

(If you are just joining me, please see my post on the upcoming Booker of all Booker awards to learn why I am boring people with Coetzee reviews.)

Now Coetzee won his first Booker -- for Life & Times of Michael K -- in 1983. This award was given a full twenty years before his Nobel Prize! I don't get it.

V.S. Naipaul (another Booker and Nobel winner) once said of his own work: "I am the kind of writer that people think other people are reading." I myself am the kind of person who owns several Naipaul novels, but hasn't read any of them. Is it possible that Coetzee is this kind of author, too?

Anecdotal research tells me that Coetzee is the reclusive type of writer -- not given to schmoozing or self-promotional activities. (In other words, he is unlikely to appear on the Oprah show -- touting his latest book.) Then if you add in his typically grim subject matter, his controversial place of origin, and a certain "highmindedness" shall we say . . . well, it just doesn't add up to "good beach read" or "Airport bestseller," does it? But to be entirely unknown . . . I just don't get it.

The novel that Coetzee wrote after Disgrace is titled Elizabeth Costello. The protagonist is a woman this time, which is atypical of the Coetzee novel. (Will she be a counterpart, or foil, to Professor David Lurie?) I can't wait to read it! And I am going to read it . . . as soon as I finish The Blind Assassin, and The Life & Times of Michael K, and my other Booker books, and the upcoming Booker shortlist, and The Beauty Queen of Leenane . . .

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Booker update: Disgrace

Warning: Plot Spoilers ahead!

Personally, I don't read books for the plot . . . and tend to avoid genres which are entirely plot-driven. However, if you are desperate to read Disgrace for yourself -- and can't bear "review" type articles, do not read any further.

Friday night I was at a dinner party, and I happened to be sitting by a man who had spent many years working in South Africa. Of course I was pleased to be able to insert the author "J. M. Coetzee" into the conversation -- particularly as I had just finished Disgrace and was eager to discuss it. Unfortunately, my dinner partner couldn't recall much about the book . . . and our conversation soon moved on to South African politics. (You know how certain men are fonder of informing than being informed?) However, he did say one thing that caught my attention: "All South African novels and plays are about one thing: Apartheid."

While I can't speak to the veracity of this rather sweeping statement, I did consider it as it might apply to Disgrace. While not overtly about apartheid, Disgrace is definitely about the end of an era -- embodied by the protagonist, a 52 year old white English Professor named David Lurie. If you look for symbolism, which I found almost impossible to avoid in this instance, it is not much of a stretch to read this tale as a sort of death rattle of Afrikaner rule. Actually, "death rattle" is probably misleading; whilst Lurie's existence is presented as a death rattle, the Apartheid Era is clearly over -- so more of a death mask, really. There are clashes between Nature and Culture, Black and White; and in each case, white culture is the loser. The white daughter becomes pregnant with her black violator's child; her farm is given over to the care of the man who was once her hired hand. Strangely enough, these events are presented, not so much as"tragedies," but as the natural and inevitable consequences of everything that has come before. Lurie's daughter is seen as willing to compromise and adapt; Lurie is not, and so must face his own extinction.

It is always interesting to approach a novel that has already been judged to be a Very Important Work of Literature. (This book won the Booker Prize in 1999, and Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003.) Instead of reading to discover if it is a good book, one automatically reads in a sort of defensive position -- not for the IF, but rather for the WHY. I found it impossible to read this novel without my graduate student glasses -- that particular sort of intellectual lens which looks for meta- and inter- textual meaning in everything. On more than one occasion I filed this novel under a personal category which goes something like this: Book which is Interesting to Discuss. (In my experience, some books -- particularly the sort described as "literary classics" -- can be more enjoyable and satisfying to discuss than they are to actually read. Kafka's and Faulkner's work are examples that come immediately to mind.) Although this book is never boring, there is something cool and dry about it -- something that keeps the reader at an emotional distance. It is a book that opens itself up to intellectual interpretation more than emotional involvement.

I wonder if this is the essence of the Coetzee style, or more a consequence of this book's narrative voice? It doesn't take long to realize that Lurie is going to be an unreliable narrator -- and that gap between what Lurie describes and observes, and what you sense as a reader that he gets wrong, inevitably contributes to one's emotional detachment. The novel begins -- not with the inappropriate affair with his student, from which his personal "disgrace" unfolds -- but rather with a description of his weekly assignation with a prostitute. He describes their relationship as one of "moderated bliss;" it is fairly obvious, from his comments, that he thinks he is entirely in control of something that does in fact threaten to control him. (The prostitute, Soraya, cuts him off entirely when he calls her at home.) We discover that he is twice-divorced; a serial philanderer. He is obviously terribly lonely, while also convinced of his self-sufficiency and temperamental disinclination for intimacy.

One aspect of Coetzee's work that I really admire is his attention to detail. You never get the sense of any waste or excess in his novel; every little thing seems like an important "sign," and a carrier of meaning vital to one's understanding of the whole. In the first chapter of the book we learn that Lurie, who was once a professor of modern languages at Cape Town University College, has now been reduced to "adjunct professor" of communications at the Cape Technical College. Thus, from the very beginning, it is established that every aspect of his existence is in "decline" in some way. His talents belong to a vanished world -- a world that has no relevance in this time and place. He keeps himself at an intellectual remove -- with his tendency to quote from French or Italian classical texts, and his absorption in writing an opera about Lord Byron's last significant love affair. He distances himself with irony, but never fully grasps to what extent that is true. For instance, he disdains the subject of "communications" -- but his reasons for doing so are pretentious and ridiculous. The true irony, of course, is that he has so few communication skills to employ -- much less to teach. The only real relationship he has is with his daughter, Lucy, and even this is fraught with misunderstanding. She constantly tells him: You're not listening to me; or, You don't understand. His ex-wife tells him, "you were always a great self-deceiver. A great deceiver and a great self-deceiver."

The relationship he has with the student Melanie is largely a figment of his imagination. They have a few encounters -- and while we are not privy to the young woman's thoughts or motivations -- it is clear that she is ambivalent, at best, about his attentions. On one occasion, he comes perilously close to raping her. Yet when offered a chance to apologize, and professionally rationalize his actions, he refuses to do on some quixotic "moral" grounds. He later tells his daughter Lucy, "My case rests on the rights of desire . . . On the god who makes even the small birds quiver." (In his "defense" against charges of sexual harrassment, if front of a university committee, Lurie claims to have been a "servant of Eros." It reminded me so much of Woody Allen's infamous "the heart wants what it wants" when he was caught having an affair with his 30-years-younger semi-step-daughter.) Lurie is a vain, oblivious conqueror -- still styling himself as a romantic hero.

Throughout the book, Lurie insists on his own irrelevance -- and marvels at each fresh incidence that threatens to bring him lower still. He loses his career and his reputation; his car is stolen; his house is broken into; and most importantly, his daughter is violated. In each case, he is powerless to intervene -- or he declines to intervene. At the beginning of the book, he is reminiscing about his "magnetism" toward women and his "flowing hair." By the end of the book, he is like a mad Lear who has lost everything. He sleeps with a woman who repulses him -- but congratulates himself on "doing his duty." Bandits set his head on fire, and he has to douse the flames in a toilet bowl. Despite all this, one gets the feeling that he doesn't really believe in these false protestations of humility. It doesn't quite occur to him to apologize for anything; rather, he is deluded and arrogant to the end. He spreads his hands in mock supplication -- mea culpa -- but you don't believe a minute of it.

Although Lurie may seem a despicable character, somehow he seems more so in my retelling than the actual telling. Perhaps this is because there is no authorial judgment between the lines. Coetzee treats his protagonist quite seriously, but he allows the "facts" to speak for themselves. It is one of those books that reads fairly simply, and then becomes more complicated the more that you think about it.

It was only after I finished the book, and began trying to piece it together in my mind, that I realized that it was entirely lacking in the comic element. Is this a Coetzee trademark? (When I asked Sigmund if he wanted to read some Coetzee with me, he replied, "God, no. He's way too miserable.") While it was a meticulously crafted story, I wonder if that lack of humor is a flaw in some way. Isn't life, no matter how tragic and pathetic, full of funny bits, too?

Final judgment: I think that I admire this book, rather than love it. Best of all Bookers? I don't think it would get my vote.

Interestingly enough, Jenine and I were having an off-blog conversation about Margaret Atwood last week. She finds Atwood a cold writer . . . perhaps in the same way that I find Coetzee cold? Anyway, she is going to give Atwood another try -- with The Blind Assassin, the Booker winner of 2000. Several of us mentioned reading this book; has anyone else gotten started?

Please write back with any helpful comments, commentaries, or book reviews. May -- when the Booker short list will be announced -- is swiftly approaching!

Thursday, 17 April 2008

You Can't Go Home Again

Musings on my recent trip to Texas . . .

I've never read Thomas Wolfe's best-known novel, but I have always admired its title. In fact, I think that it is one of the all-time great book titles -- encompassing, as it does, childhood, memory, family legacy, sense of place, and questions of identity. Furthermore, it manages to do all of that it in such a simple, memorable way that it has become part of our cultural phraseology. Certainly it has been echoing in my mind since adolescence, and every time I travel to a place that I once lived I think of it.

"Home" is a complicated concept for me. Is it a family, a house, a town, a national identity? These have all been fluid containers in my adult life. I consider well-known definitions:
Home is . . . "where the heart is;" "where you hang your hat;" "where they have to take you in." I don't know about you, but I could easily name more than one "place" -- and yet, there is no one place. It has been a long time, and maybe never, since I could think to myself: I belong here. Even when I was a child, living in Temple, Texas from ages 5-18, I would secretly think to myself: Yea, but I was born in Germany.

Revisiting a place is never the same as belonging to a place -- as being a part of its daily rhythms. As a visitor, even a welcome one, you are an irrelevancy. You just don't matter anymore because you belong to the past tense. Even if you once belonged, that little space in which you once resided has since filled up -- and then you have been changed, too, and probably wouldn't even fit that space even if it were available.

You realize that you have been relegated to a Christmas card list -- you are no longer on active duty, friendship-wise. All of your old favorite places are just trips down memory lane.

It has been two years since my family left Houston -- a place that surely qualifies as a frontrunner, should I ever be required to name a "home." I have lived there, on and off, since I was 23 years old. Important friendships happened there. Meeting my husband happened there. I received influential education there. I have so many layers of experience and memory there. And yet, I don't really belong there anymore. As if to confirm that fact, during my recent visit I kept on getting lost. Not really "lost" -- but more of a subtle disorientation. I had lost my edge; I had forgotten which lane to be in, and misplaced some street names. Some of that was due to my faulty memory, and some of it was due to the fact that Houston is always, always changing. As my friend Laura said, (borrowing from that genius Joni Mitchell), "they paved Paradise and put up a parking lot." If Houston is about anything, it is about the future. It is about constant construction and the need to widen yet another freeway. Every year, new places spring up while others are torn down. Yes, I know this happens everywhere . . . but in Houston it seems to happen in double-time.

I was terribly saddened to discover that the West University JMH (the little grocery store that has been part of West U since the 1950s) had closed its doors for good. It had been a link to the past; it had been the antithesis of corporate sameness and the strip shopping center; it had been a link to my past. When my oldest daughter was a toddler, we lived down the street from JMH and we used to walk there nearly every day. When I was a full-time working mother, I would swoop in for that evening's dinner. When the weather turned hot and humid, the girls and I would go for coke Icees or ice cream. Two years ago it was there; now it's gone.

There are native Houstonians, plenty of them -- but "my" Houston has always been a commuter town in flux. Graduate students and oil-and-gas executives -- they come and go. When I think of "my" Houston from 13 years ago I realize that no one is still there. Everyone is somewhere else, and for some, I don't know even know where.

My children think of themselves as Houstonians -- still, after two years in England. They pouted all the way to the airport; the youngest one cried on the plane. When we arrived back "home" to our current house in England they both sulked and refused to talk to their father -- He who made us leave Houston.

My children slip in and out of accents as easily as they change their clothes from coats and boots to shorts and sandals. How long, I wonder, will they hold stubbornly to this notion of being Houstonians? When will they become more English than American? My oldest daughter has lived in Texas for 6 out of 14 years; my youngest daughter has lived in Texas for 5 out of 10 years. With every passing year these proportions will become less solid, less significant. I realize that, like me, they will probably never be one or the other -- but some strange homeless hybrid always a little prone to "the grass is greener" syndrome. When we lived in Houston, my oldest daughter dreamed of going to Oxford. Now that we live near Oxford, she dreams of American universities.

Over the years, the girls will probably continue to be sentimental about Texas -- especially if we only visit in April (as opposed to the summer, when the heat and humidity and mosquitoes are unbearable). Their feelings about their Texas "home" will be less and less rooted in what is real. Can a place be "home" if you don't actually live there? I doubt it; I really do.

However, just living in a place doesn't make it home either.

I am most "Texan" when I am in England; when I am actually in Texas, it can feel very strange and foreign to me. When I am in Texas, I am reminded why so many of my decisions have led away from that place.

My parents were both Army brats and they lived all over the world. They chose life in a small Texas town so that my brother and I could have settled childhoods -- so we could have both an internal and external definition of "home." But they brought their outsider outlook with them, and I grew up dreaming of big cities and other cultures. My brother and I left that small town and have continued to move and move. Our children have peripatetic childhoods. They are confident and insecure in that way that people are when they have to learn how to constantly "fit in" to something new. They will have the rich identities and language skills that I always longed for . . . and they will probably hate me for it.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Moderation or Excess?

Today, on our whistlestop tour of the Texas Hill Country, we visited the LBJ Ranch -- apparently known as the "Texas White House" during its time. As we rode in a little bus around the ranch, and listened to anecdotes about the main characters -- former President Lyndon Baines Johnson and his wife Lady Bird -- I couldn't help but notice the differences in the way they approached life.

LBJ was definitely a man of excesses: he worked hard and played hard. Apparently he was relentless in the pursuit of any goal -- and he dreamed BIG. It is hard not to admire a man who aimed for "The Great Society" -- and wanted no less than to bring education to all citizens, to eradicate poverty, to ensure civil rights, to conserve natural resources, and to provide free health care to the elderly. Of course, LBJ was also a rascal with a big ego -- and not above cheating, lying, tall-tale-telling, drinking too much, smoking too much, and definitely cussing too much. He died at 65 -- already on his third heart attack. According to interviews, he repeatedly warned his wife that he would never live to a ripe old age.

Lady Bird, on the other hand, was a model of gracious restraint. She was measured in both word and behavior -- and one assumes consumption of libations. Rather than try to tackle every wrong in society, she concentrated her energies on conservation -- and became known, specifically, for her efforts to beautify Texas highways with native wildflowers. She died last summer, at the age of 95, and managed to be one of those persons who inspire nothing but quiet admiration. Even the most generous critic couldn't say the same about her controversial husband.

So what's the best approach to life? Moderation? or Excess?

I'd like to think of myself as a Carpe Diem person, but I'm pretty sure that I'm actually a moderate: someone who usually remembers to apply the sunscreen, eat a well-balanced diet, and stop drinking before I'm actually drunk. But oh, do I admire those who throw all their energy at the Universe and don't stop to count the personal cost.

When I was in Fredricksburg, browsing all of the kitschy-cute, country stores, I came across a plaque with the following Motto To Live By:

Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, martini in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming "WOO HOO, what a ride!"

It goes against my nature, but I want to be THAT person.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Perfect Day in Texas

Recipe for a Perfect Day:
four cousins, ages 10 -13
a true blue, cloudless sky
eggs, bacon and biscuits for breakfast
long walks in the sparkling fresh air
fishing down by the creek
badminton family tournament
making cookies -- sugar and snickerdoodle
lots of horsing around, tomfoolery, and juvenile jokes
a weenie roast
toasting marshmallows under the stars

I hadn't really planned on posting from Texas, but I felt moved to honor this perfectly splendid day . . . and since my family is pitiful when it comes to taking photographs, words will have to make do.

I do not worship any god, and every now and then I feel that lack -- especially when I feel overwhelmed with gratefulness and I want to give thanks.

After days of oppressive humidity, a cracking storm washed a swathe of Texas clean last night. When the day dawns so fresh and bright, a person just can't help but feel reborn.

Eating breakfast with my family -- parents, two daughters, and niece and nephew -- I had a moment of intense, palpable happiness. As I looked around the table, sunshine streaming through the windows, Nanci Griffith singing in the background, perfect tender biscuits being drizzled with honey and butter, I felt profoundly glad to be there.

Like winter moles emerging from hibernation, we've frolicked in the sun as if energy and youth were limitless.

My oldest daughter summed it up: "This has been one of my perfect days."