Monthly Archives: January 2013

My Five Favorite Words Right This Minute

Today (well, most of the time) my metaphorical cupcakes are words. I do tend to love words in a way usually reserved for people. I’ve been reading so many inspiring words lately, too, which makes me giddy and obsessive about producing chewy, delicious sentences of my own: I finished Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides which just sprawls and unfurls in gorgeous, painful ways. I’ve read several short articles online that are exactly the type of taut wisdom I’d like to produce for the internet generation, like this, this, and this.

And I know many people out there are anti-Kindle, but besides using it for such practical and lovely things as traveling (many many books in one infinitely packable package) and for reading tomes that have a brick-like length and weight difficult for commuter reading, I love the dictionary feature. As I read, any word I come across that I don’t know I can click on and find out the definition. Instant gratification and I’m getting smarter? You cannot ask for more than that, people.

For now I’m going to tell you five words I love the most right now, the five that are bouncing around in my head making me want to, as they say, use them in a sentence.

Funny enough, they are sort of interrelated. Eugenides used luminescence in his novel, and I didn’t need to look it up; doesn’t it have such a lovely onomatopoeic quality? The word lights up just like the lighting bug it would describe. And he also used translucent several times, and I didn’t need to look this one up either because I remember so specifically learning it in fourth grade science class (transparent, translucent, opaque. I’m sure reflecting and refracting were part of that lesson too). It has such a gauzy quality, and it’s so specific. I like specificity. It is also pleasing to the tongue. Roll it around your mouth, you’ll see.

These reminded me of my favorite word ever, iridescent. I first stumbled upon that one in a deck of cards for a board game I cannot for the life of me remember the name of or how it was played. I just remember a little stack of white cards, each with four words printed on it. I liked to string them together as insults (they had nothing to do with each other, and it had a Mad-Libs absurdist quality to it to say them together.) But that’s when I first saw iridescent. It’s another shiny word that really sounds like what it means.

So those are three words related to light, and I think it all makes sense subconsciously: my brain is fighting the ubiquitous (Latin root! I want to make out with this word too) gray dreariness of London the only way it can: with words.

The other two words are connected as well. One is oblique. Say it out loud. It has a cheerful sound, despite its meaning, which I did have to look up while reading Eugenides’ book. And I keep looking it up because I can’t hold the definition in my head. I want it to mean something else. I keep having the thought, “London is oblique to me.” But that’s not really true: London isn’t deceptive or devious. What it is, is opaque. London is dense, and obscure to me. I cannot penetrate it, just like light can’t. But I’m working on it. Every now and then I have a translucent London moment. Maybe they will string together and the city will open up and become transparent to me.

In any case, how lovely, opaque brought me full circle, back to my fourth grade lesson on light.

The flattening squash of the “que” in both oblique and opaque is somehow comforting. Is that strange? It is further bizarre that these words with negative connotations are turning me on right now? Am I just perverse, or are there words that don’t have positive meanings that please you aurally, and therefore inspire you?

What are your favorite words this week?

 

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Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense, London | Tags: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Souvenirs

I used to collect shot glasses when I traveled. I think it started with my first Hard Rock Café experience in high school, but it expanded beyond generic restaurant chains. Now I probably have…I’d like to know how many I have. I have over 20 from Hard Rocks alone (I know, don’t judge) so I wouldn’t be surprised if I have 75. All that cheap glass, made in China, has sat wrapped up in a box for a decade. I always meant to display them – I even had two racks – but I was never quite that organized in my decorating.  Now they live in my storage unit. If I ever get around to living in my own place in America again, they will get…I don’t know, sold on eBay? Would anyone want a collection of someone else’s travel memories? I replaced shot glasses with magnets, but they are fun and cheap and easy to display. You can’t totally break your addiction to tacky kitsch I’m sorry to say.

These days I am more discerning about what makes an appropriate souvenir, a true and revealing, unique memento of a place. I try to avoid things that are mass-produced in China (magnets notwithstanding). I tend to buy art books (and postcards, which are not cheap anymore, a euro each at most European museums) of collections I like. But I also try to get something locally made that really evokes a culture. My parents often come back from trips with small prints bought from street artists. Since this fits my art geek persona, I dig it. Some sort of rendering of a locale, created by someone who lives and works there – what could be a better way to remember a place?

They aren’t so easy to come by.

I wanted a hand-carved Buddha in Thailand. I didn’t see them anywhere – I ended up with a gold-plated tacky thing that exactly matched all the Buddha statuary I saw there. I purchased it at a temple gift shop, theoretically blessed by a Buddhist monk. Okay. I wanted to get a wall hanging of some sort in South Africa, but didn’t see any real artists creating anywhere we went. There were some nice prints of the townships that were unique and interesting…but I don’t know, that doesn’t seem the sort of thing a white person should have hanging on her wall. I got this instead:

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The man I bought it from said it was hand-carved, and explained the polishing process. I don’t know if it’s true. On the other hand, my local guide-friend explained Africa doesn’t have any infrastructure for mass-production, even though I saw this pensive guy in a lot of places alongside roads. I think there are popular motifs and these Zimbabwean (wait, what?) men hand-make and sell them. I hope so anyway…

On the other hand, when you look at that, do you think: South Africa? Probably not. I love the colors and smoothness, the minimalist play on Rodin’s “Thinker.” Of course, this means I bought a souvenir that is an imitation of a Western European masterpiece.

Oops. Not doing so well with my local quintessential souvenir, am I?

Still, I find it thought-provoking and beautiful, and when I look at it I think of my two weeks on the bottom of the world. At least it’s not cheesy, like a giraffe (because I didn’t see any giraffes there and it would be all LIES!)

I went to Amsterdam in October and was once again determined to buy art. I love that city, its quaint and lovely architecture. I was hoping to get a local artistic rendering of the city itself.

This is what I ended up with:

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So, yeah.  Doesn’t look much like Amsterdam, huh? I didn’t have time to check out every corner of the city for local art markets, so my options were limited. I stumbled into one small patch of artists’ tents, and none of the artists had painted their hometown. I bought a few postcards from a man who did prints of his Amsterdam etchings, but they were black and white, not really what I wanted.  This artist (Rebecca) did abstract impressionistic landscapes with gloppy paint, like a much latter day Van Gogh. This is her home, and her vision. Why should I dictate what she chooses to paint to suit my touristy needs?

But no one’s going to know I bought that in Amsterdam.

So despite my good intentions, I guess I’m not buying hand-crafted, ideal souvenirs that capture the spirit and identity of a place. Nothing show-offy that immediately tells people where I’ve been. I’ll keep trying. I guess it’s good that I’m conscious of how my purchasing power effects the places I visit. I’m putting my money toward those who create locally. I think.

Should you worry about supporting local artists and artisans? What are your favorite souvenirs? Talk to me, dear reader.

Categories: Travel Musings | Tags: , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

The Wilds of London

The first time I saw a fox in London, I was waiting for a bus on a side street in Islington. It shot past, low to the ground and tail streaming, racing toward the Angel Tube station across the street, as if it were desperate to catch a train. It was running toward a highly congested (even at 9pm on a Tuesday night) area of London’s Zone 1. “Was that a fox?” I said out loud to the woman also waiting at the bus stop, who laughed along with me in strange delight.

I have since discovered urban foxes are a “thing;” Mary Poppins wasn’t a scam. I’ve seen them several times in my own neighborhood, and I love it: “View Halloooooo!” I like to think they appear just for me, a good luck charm, a symbol that things are peculiar and wonderful here in London.

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I haven’t seen a fox in a while. Maybe they’re hibernating for the winter. What I am becoming acquainted with in these early-darkening, ceaselessly gray days are the well-known, much-feared poisonous spiders here in the wild jungles of the London metropolis.

Haven’t heard of them? Oh, right that’s because they don’t exist…well, they only exist for me. They are a bit of a bad luck charm, a symbol of something. I just don’t know what.

Since moving into my flat near Stoke Newington, I have been bitten in my sleep four times, presumably by spiders, though I have never seen one in my bedroom. The first three were spread out over three week intervals. Then I got bitten two nights in a row: once on my arm, once on my face. I am not someone prone to allergies; I have never had a bad reaction to food or animals or insect bites. Yet here I sit with a ballooning left arm and a goitery face.

I have friends in actual exotic places like Australia and South Africa and Japan who aren’t experiencing this kind of wildlife.

Right now my arm is swollen and red from my wrist to my bicep. It’s sore and I’m experiencing waves of intense itching.  The texture of my skin has changed to sandpaper, oddly tacky and firm. It’s like my arm isn’t my arm. When I touch it I can’t believe it’s part of me.

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Last time I went to the hospital, when I was bitten on my right wrist, smack dab in the middle of my cherry blossom tattoo. They gave me antibiotics, but I don’t think they sped up the recovery. I just have to wait this out. I will survive it, it’s not that big a deal in the grand scheme.

But in my current state of my mind, these bites are a perfect metaphor for how I feel about London: like it is rejecting me, attacking me, needling me to give up and leave. What if somehow I’m allergic to London, a city I have longed to live in?

I know this is homesickness talking. I’ve arrived at that point where the adrenalin and novelty of figuring out a new place have worn off, the bleakness of winter has settled in, and I have learned that even more than New York, London is a distant city. It’s not a great big friendly invitation to a “cuppa” tea. It is a jungle, a space overcrowded but hidden. It’s hard to meet people and make connections.

I suppose it’s a byproduct of that polite British aloofness. No one will be rude to you here…they just won’t talk to you at all.  I’ve done an informal study of pub culture compared to American bar culture. English people go to pubs, with their friends, to drink. Heavily. Period. There aren’t men leering at women, trying to chat you up. They are too immersed in their mates and cups.

I almost miss the unwanted attention. It was nice to at least feel visible. The grass is always greener, right?

These, my friends, are first world problems, though who has ever classified a poisonous spider bite that way. I’m trying to look at my life patterns, the time of year, and recognize that I’m just in that wistful slump after the initial romantic has mellowed. I’ve only been here four months. Is it surprising that I don’t feel completely settled, that this isn’t quite “home” yet? I’m at a low point that aligns with the winter solstice. As the days slowly (so slowly) get longer again, so too will my desire to get out and explore come out of dormancy.

As with these treacherous spider bites: I just have to wait this out. I will survive it, it’s not that big a deal in the grand scheme.

I look forward to seeing another fox, though. Those are pretty cool.

Categories: London, Travel Musings | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

What’s the Best Book You Read in 2012?

In 2012, I set a goal to read 50 books; I read 59, which was a full 30 more than I had read in 2011. I was thinking I should do a sort of year in review thing, but the problem is I probably only read 5 books published in 2012. Most of them were just pulled from my never-ending list of recommendations and impulse-buys from Strand. I have no comprehensive view of “The Year in Books.” Now that the real experts have released their top 10 lists of the best of 2012, I’m just adding to my to-read list exponentially.

 

I read a good mix of fiction and nonfiction – 32 to 27. My favorite book of the year was, surprisingly, The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. I hated the film of No Country for Old Men so much I assumed I would hate his books. I finished The Road in 2 days, put it down, and cried for 10 minutes. That is the test of an effective book, if it can move me to some sort of visceral response. It’s very rare.

 

This year I discovered David Foster Wallace and read three of his books. I’m grateful to still have so many to slog through, but I take it very personally that he committed suicide 4 years ago. How dare he deprive the world of his genius? And that’s the thing: he’s clearly brilliant, with a mind that can comprehend depths and worlds beyond my understanding, but when I read him I always feel a level of humanity and generosity. He seemed like the type of person I could argue with about silly things. I desperately wish I could have been his friend.  This is again, a rare find, a writer with such a personal voice that you can really identify with.

 

I continued my march through David Sedaris, and am down to one unread title. He best publish a new book soon. I found Bill Bryson, a funny travel writer whose voice is also unique. If you haven’t read Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood yet, I suggest you do, because Star Cursed, the next installment in the lives of the Cahill sisters comes out in June and I can’t wait!

 

I read some big best-seller titles like the Fifty Shades and Dragon TattoobBooks. Usually I find them “meh,” but fast and entertaining. I read some books by lady authors – essays, memoirs – and tried to pin down the secrets to their success: Nora Ephron, Tina Fey, Sloan Crosley (whom I really didn’t like, but I still don’t quite understand why.) I read a novel called A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert that I got bored with in 2011. Upon giving it a second chance I would put it in my top 15 books of 2012. Funny how you just have to be in the right frame of mind sometimes. It’s a very zen thing, bringing the right book into your life at the right moment to appreciate it.

 

There were certainly some disappointments. I read Swamplandia! by Karen Russell because it was nominated for a Pulitzer last year. I really did not like it – have any of you read it and enjoyed it? I didn’t like the structure or care about the characters. I read Americana by Don DeLillo, who is one of my favorites, but man did I NOT enjoy this one. There’s a weird feeling of betrayal when you don’t like a book by an author you love. Most of my travel writing books I really enjoyed, which just shows where my head is, though I feel like I didn’t read as many of these as I intended to this year, having been derailed by classwork. I also need to make a more concerted effort to read the classics – I think I only got through one or two this year. I reread the Sally Lockhart mysteries by Philip Pullman, which I remembered having such a strong reaction to as a teenager, and it’s funny, I can still feel exactly that reaction and where it happened, but in a detached way…the painful reality of growing up and losing your ability to get swept up in a bit of romance.  While I’m still not good at completely letting go of finishing a book once I start it, I am better at taking breaks during the crap books so I’m not stalling my reading altogether. This is why I read so few in 2011 – I kept trying to read things I didn’t want to read and then I just wouldn’t read at all.

 

This is a terrible strategy. There are too many books in the world to not always have one engaging you on your nightstand or ready for a commute in your purse. At this very moment, I have 35!!!!! purchased, unread books on my Kindle and bookshelf. 35! And I am stuck in that bad place where I “have to” read things again, between school and my part time writing gig. I’m trying to sneak in books I’m excited about between those assigned just to remember what a joyful intelligent form of escapism reading can be.  When I am deeply involved in a book, it’s all I can do to force myself to do anything besides read it.

 

Sometimes it keeps me awake at night worrying about how I will ever read everything I want to read in this lifetime. There are just too many books to be excited about! My goal is to read 75 this year, which seems lofty and unmanageable but I am determined to try. Despite my 35 books ready and waiting, I’m curious about what you read and loved this year. I love adding new books to my ever-growing stack. Excite me, people. I am always ready for a good mindblowing escape.

Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense | Tags: , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

In Memoriam

Over the holidays, I started thinking about a blog about family. About the funny little paradoxes of family. Family who want to show their gratitude and love so they try too hard to be helpful; their assistance makes things take twice as long, results in things broken or done wrong. I was thinking about the little O. Henry dramas of real life, when you get a gift that isn’t quite right but you just have to love it so hard because of the love and thought that went into it, even though it sort of symbolizes a fundamental disconnect in how your family views you and how you view yourself. Even if it’s just pajama pants.

You learn to cherish pajama pants because of your family.

Family is complex, and frustrating, even in the moments of its purest distillation of love.

Last week my godfather died, and my kaleidoscopic view of family shifted again.  Irritation melted away, and I longed to find myself trapped in the web of family that I have sometimes worked so hard to extricate myself from.

My godfather, my uncle, was the eldest of his siblings, seventeen years older than my baby father. He was the oldest member of one generation, I was the youngest of next. Every year until I was a teenager, he gave me a Barbie doll for Christmas. This is what having a godfather meant to me. I thought it was a contractual obligation. He smoked a pipe; I loved the way it smelled. To this day smelling pipe tobacco slaps me with a strong sense memory of his corner property, yellow house. He had a dry and subtle sense of humor. The older my father gets, the more he looks like his brother.

I can’t say truthfully that my uncle and I were very close; I was a shy little kid, and being so much younger than everyone in my family (my oldest cousin is probably pushing sixty; my youngest is seven years older than me) I generally tried to sit in a corner and not be noticed. In recent years I’ve tried harder to connect with my father’s extended family, four siblings and eighteen cousins, but my uncle has been unwell for several years, and his whispery voice made me nervous, afraid of missing his words – situations where communication is not easy always give me anxiety. And so, even as I have tried harder to ask questions about the family history, my relationship with my godfather has slipped away.

And now it is gone, and there are certainly some regrets.

No matter how close he and I were, he is in all my memories of rambling restaurant Thanksgivings and December 26th Bethlehem Christmas round-ups, family weddings and family picnics, sitting on a folding chair on the uneven brick patio of the house I grew up in. He is part of the fabric out of which my life is woven. There are five siblings on my dad’s side: they are the reason the rest of us exist, they knit us into a family. Despite two sibling spouse deaths in the last decade, this feels different. I suppose we are clannish that way; I’m sure my sister-in-law would agree we swarm to protect our own from outsiders – it takes them a long time to become an insider. This death feels like a loose thread, the start of a greater unraveling that I am not prepared for.

Today is my uncle’s funeral. This is the hardest part of being far away. I feel strongly that I should be there today, more for my father than anything else. He has lost a brother, a person he knew the length of his life, a person who is part of his context, a connection to his own parents and history.  I can imagine his grief, and I’m sorry I’m not there to ease it, just by my respectful presence. I am fortunate that while I was home for Christmas I got to travel to Pennsylvania with my parents to see his family, and I sat in a room with all five of the siblings. It’s the last time that will ever happen, and I’m one of the only people who got to witness it.  That is more meaningful I suppose than being home to witness a box being lowered into the ground. There is nothing I could DO if I were home now. Except be there.

But being there is important.

So I write this as a way of being there, connecting across distance, of throwing myself at the web, of acknowledging my place in it and my gratitude for it. My heart is already in Bethlehem, but I hope my words can create a bridge for its easy import and export. It seems trite, it seems small, but it’s all I have, it’s all I can do.

Dear Uncle Frankie,

Thank you for helping to create a family tapestry on which I am grateful to claim a small corner. May your journey now be easy, and joyful. You will be sorely missed.

Much Love,

M

Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Controversy: The Great “XO” Debate

As I have dedicated this blog to the serious, reflective, and thought-provoking study of subtle and significant cultural differences, it’s about time I took on the most controversial topic of all: xogate.

In the interest of thorough, hard-hitting journalism I’ll briefly explain that in the generally accepted American parlance, “x”s stand for kisses, and “o”s for hugs. Because I’m not that interested in thorough, hard-hitting journalism, I’m not going to bother looking on Wikipedia right now to discover the genesis of this strange custom, though I believe “o”s have the encircling nature of a hug, and when you kiss someone your mouth puckers into an “x,” lips crossed as if disembodied from your face. At least if you’re doing it right.

Before I moved to London, I had some friends who spent time in England who tended to sign messages and letters with an “x.” I don’t mean as a signature like they were illiterate, I mean in place of “Love,” the way most Americans would use “xo” (times however many are appropriate to your level of affection for the recipient of said message or letter.) I didn’t put two-and-two together until I met some actual British people and almost from the first Facebook comment or message they sent me, I got “x”-ed. It seemed a bit forward, but it made me feel good, like I was special, significant, that these people sought my “x” back.

Then I came to England and discovered EVERYONE “x”s EVERYONE over here.

Basically from the first message from a British person, you’re likely to get an “x.” I imagine they sign their inquiries to customer service and government representatives this way. Sometimes you even get an “xxx,” but I don’t honestly believe this has any emotional significance, it’s more like a tic. Maybe that button on their keyboard is stuck pressed down.

I’ve never seen an English person “o.” All this is rather amusing to me, given the standoff-ish nature of the Brits, who would never “x” or “o” you in the world of physical contact. This isn’t Europe with double and triple-cheek kisses for your postman. You’re lucky to get a curt nod from the English, let alone a hug, God forbid a kiss.

So perhaps it’s all rather hypocritical of British people to hand out written “x”s like they are a warm, physical people with a lot of extra love to give. In any case, I didn’t want to get involved. Before I got here, I was determined to continue signing my emails and messages with the patriotic “xoxo” formula my American breeding dictated. I considered “x”-ing the transcribed equivalent of a Madonna-level faux-English accent. I didn’t want to be a poser. I’m not British and I still say trashcan and bathroom and zucchini and comforter. I want to hold on to the all-encompassing generosity of the “o.”

But now I find myself seduced by the “x” alone. There is something sleek and sophisticated about it. It’s just more grown-up than that desperate reach of the “o,” which begs “LIKE ME!” The “o”s roundness makes it too inclusive. The “x” is sharp. Its slashes say “no.” The “x” doesn’t care. It is exclusive. The “x” kisses you – an intimate gesture, but only on paper. It actually is the perfect English symbol. It’s aloof, easily withheld through deletion, but still, it’s cooler than you are, like how a kiss would sound if kisses had hot Northern accents.

So sometimes I just use the “x” to sign off. Just one, simple and elegant, not trying too hard. Not screaming for acceptance in a country where I speak the language but don’t understand the customs. Every time I end an email, I’m tortured by a sense of betrayal for my native land, which opens its arms to envelop me in infinite roundness, no edges or hard, definitive lines to hurt me. It hugs me and lets me known I belong.

I blow America an “x” and turn my back.

Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense, London | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

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