the frozen one

“Do we have any more toothpaste?” yells the younger.

 “Why? The tube is mostly full,” I say, walking into the bathroom.

“But that one’s soooooo disgusting,” she says, wrinkling her nose.

I pick up the shiny red tube of Colgate Optic White Advanced and inspect it as if doing so will disclose something to me.*

“Huh, so, you don’t like that one? I didn’t realize you still didn’t like adult toothpaste. Hold on, I think I have some of the kind you like in the closet.”

I root around in the chest of drawers in the hallway and hand her a lurid green and purple tube.

“Ewww … No!”

She reacts as if I’ve just handed her a tube of poo.

Berry bubble???!” she continues, reading the description on the tube. “That’s so gross. That’s some kind of baby toothpaste that probably expired, like 5 years ago!”

I’m mildly surprised to discover that we concur that berry bubblegum flavored toothpaste is a revolting concept.

I peer at the tube, which is adorned with trolls. I vaguely recall buying multiple tubes in bulk some time ago, and it must have been when one of those similarly luridly colored movies came out so, to be fair, it probably is pretty old. But also surely chemically imperishable, no?

“Wait, so you think the minty one is gross and also this one is gross. What have you even been using??”

To me, we have pretty much covered the toothpaste spectrum: there’s sickly-sweet pink goo for babies or laceratingly minty enamel-scouring white for the advanced. Pick your poison.

“I like the frozen one,” she says tentatively.

The frozen one.

I’m frowning, puzzled, as I open the bathroom trash can and fish out the old tube.

I start laughing.

“OK, I’m sorry, you won’t even try the Trolls toothpaste because it’s for babies, but you like the Frozen one???”

Elsa and Ana’s sparkling blue eyes peer out at me from the scrunched-up tube, which I now hold aloft.**

“I looooove Elsa, so I only use Frooooozen toothpaste!!” I trill in a sing-song voice.

The younger is now laughing hysterically.

“Noooooooo!” she gasps, between giggles.

 “I looooooove Elsa, even though I’m really more of an Ahhhhhhhhna, and I only use Froooooozen toothpaste!” I sing even more flamboyantly, and the younger is laughing so hard I think she might expire.


* Optic White is a strange name. The brand that came up with the name, Lexicon, says that “in our review of more than 300 products in several countries, the word optic did not surface. Our research showed that, for consumers, the combination of optic and white triggered strikingly positive associations.” Surely their research also revealed that Optic White is the name of the paint color made by Liberty Paints (“If It’s Optic White, it’s The Right White”) in Invisible Man?

** Note that it is their eyes that sparkle, not their teeth, which are barely visible. It strikes me that a better avatar for toothpaste would be a Big Bad Wolf (“Grandmother, what white teeth you have!”).


know enough

The younger and I stepped out to walk to school this morning.

“it’s a beautiful day!” I exclaimed as the sun pierced through the June gloom skies.

“I guess.”

Her tone felt like a rebuke.

“What???” I protested.

You, what????” she countered.

“It is a beautiful day!” I insisted.

She shook her head and sighed.

We crossed the street, catty-corner, and as we made our way down 21st street in silence I barely took in something on the sidewalk, indistinct, grey, a piece of gum, maybe, a dirty fragment of a squishy toy.

“I have to stand up and give out awards today, like at the Oscars,” I began.

“Ugh!” she exclaimed, a little too vehemently, I thought.


“I just saw a dead baby bird.”

“What? Oh! Was that …?” I half-turned back as we walked. “I saw something, I didn’t realize.”

“It was so tiny.” She looked at me.

“Oh!” I exclaimed.

“It didn’t even have feathers.” She looked at me again, as if she was asking me a question.

“Oh that’s sad,” I said. “No baby bird. No bird life.”

(The evening before, looking at an agitated bird I had disturbed by picking a lemon from the tree in the backyard, I had wondered aloud, “What do you think it feels like to be a bird?” The younger had rolled her eyes and shaken her head.)

“What do you think happens when we die?” I asked.

What?” She wrinkled her face and shook her head. “No!!”

“What?! No, what?!”

“No!!!! You are always asking these …. questions! Like, from your podcasts or something.

“They are not from podcasts,” I insisted, indignantly.

She continued to shake her head while sighing and growling in irritation.

Now I sighed. “I’m sorry it’s just that, I, I like you, so I want to know you, I want to know what you think about things!”

“You do know me,” she fairly spat. “You know enough.”

Now I remembered my friend telling me yesterday that her friend had told her that her daughter’s school encouraged parents not to ask questions, nor to react emotively to any disclosures that might be made.

“Okay, fine,” I conceded, chastened.

We walked in silence then, except for when a quickly suppressed giggle escaped me when we heard a boy walking behind us exclaim to his friend, “Dude, the Across the Spider-Verse soundtrack just dropped!”

The younger glared at me and shook her head.

On the last block before we reached the school, a girl about the younger’s age was trying to stuff her sweatshirt into her backpack on the sidewalk and shot us a sheepish glance as we walked around her.

“Sorry,” she mumbled.

“It’s all right!” I said cheerfully.

Stop,” spat the younger at me under her breath.

I sighed and we crossed the last intersection before the corner where we would part ways. This is always a moment that demands immaculate timing in executing precise choreography.  

“OK, have a good day,” I said as we approached the sidewalk.

“OK,” she mumbled.

“I love you,” I said as I reached to pull her head towards me and leant in to kiss it just at the moment we stepped up onto the sidewalk corner and before our trajectories divided.

Today, though, she tilted her head away ever so slightly as I leaned in so that all I kissed was a gauzy curtain of hair, my lips never meeting scalp, the missed kiss leaving me slightly off-kilter like the sensation of trying to step up onto a step that isn’t here.* I half- gasped, half-laughed as our paths divided, she continuing straight, me veering right, and we both looked back, her eyes narrowed, a glare with a smirk not quite piercing through.


*“Another part of the ritual was to ascend with closed eyes. “Step, step, step,” came my mother’s voice as she led me up—and sure enough, the surface of the next tread would receive the blind child’s confident foot; all one had to do was lift it a little higher than usual, so as to avoid stubbing one’s toe against the riser. This slow, somewhat somnambulistic ascension in self-engendered darkness held obvious delights. The keenest of them was not knowing when the last step would come. At the top of the stairs, one’s foot would be automatically lifted to the deceptive call of “Step,” and then, with a momentary sense of exquisite panic, with a wild contraction of muscles, would sink into the phantasm of a step, padded, as it were, with the infinitely elastic stuff of its own nonexistence.” Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory (1966).


Iona notes 2022, June 18-July 1


Some kind of personality switch seems to have affected both children upon entering the house we are staying in.

“I feel like going for a walk,” announces the younger.

“Does anyone want to do this puzzle with me?” asks the elder.

After her walk, the younger finds me in the kitchen starting to make dinner.

“How can I help?” she asks.


Cousin T. gets in late, the epic journey from London to Iona made more epic by his sleeper train arriving late into Glasgow, causing him to miss his connecting train to Oban.

After dinner he announces, “There’s a slightly squashed Alphonso mango that I brought from London at the bottom of my rucksack, if anyone wants some.”


Walking to the shop we pass cousin N. pushing his baby in her stroller. We discuss what kind of fish he’s catching these days and order some langoustine and mackerel for the following week.

My cousin L. tells us about a concert we might be interested in going to.

“It’s a benefit concert for the Scottish Refugees,” she explains.

Seeing my puzzled face she adds, “I mean, the name’s unfortunate, they’re a Scottish organization that helps refugees, not refugees from Scotland.”

A woman outside the shop warmly greets Mum, who has no idea who she is. At first we assume it’s someone Mum knows but doesn’t recognize but it turns out that the woman has mistaken Mum for her sister. The woman works at the Argyll Hotel, where my aunt often stays when she visits. We were hoping her visit might overlap with ours this year, but “groups of Americans” had booked out the hotel, she reported. Our friend from the Argyll confirms, while maintaining an admirable poker face, that the hotel is currently hosting an American group calling themselves, “soul collage.” A few minutes of intense speculation as to the nature of said collaging follows.

That night I half-jokingly announce that there are three subjects I would like to propose as topics for dinner-time conversation during the trip. 1. UAPs AKA UFOs: what’s the deal? 2. Is the Google AI really sentient? 3. Do we have free will? We never actually get beyond the first topic, which we revisit throughout the trip, egged on by the younger, who mostly doesn’t weigh in but listens intently. “it’s fun listening to you all debate these kinds of things,” she confides sheepishly. I draw a line, though, when the conversation starts drifting into the paranormal. It’s strange: I believe in aliens, and they don’t scare me—in fact, the idea of aliens being real makes me feel warm and secure in the way that I find it reassuring to hear the hum of other people’s activity when drifting to sleep. By contrast, I don’t believe in ghosts; and they terrify me.


The kids and I settle into a routine of watching movies on the television in the sitting room at night. At home we have a Roku for streaming TV and movies on our projector, so there is no such thing as stumbling upon something that’s halfway through. The kids therefore find the roulette of flipping through channels novel, and I find watching half of a mediocre movie just because it’s on comfortingly evocative of my childhood. One night we settle on a Robin Hood film from 2010 starring Russell Crowe. When cousin T. hears we’re watching Robin Hood he is excited.

“I wonder if it’s the one we watched in Islamabad!” he exclaims.

Probably not, I say.

It turns out he’s talking about the 1950s British television show starring Richard Greene, of which cousin T. was a big fan, although it also created certain false expectations later dashed when he came to live in England.

“I went to Nottingham and saw their so-called forest,” he recounts, disdainfully. “I wanted to see if it was real. It was very disappointing.”

“But then,” he continued, brightening, “one time I was in Stirling and I visited the castle Glamis from Macbeth (“Glamis is nowhere near Stirling,” Mum interjects). And then, when I came to Iona, your Uncle D. showed me the tombs of the Scottish kings including Macbeth—it was real!”

Cousin T. hasn’t been to Iona since he joined us here one summer when I was a kid, and this trip has put him in a nostalgic mood. He has also now warmed to his theme, which is emerging as geographical-sites-in-the-U.K.-with-literary-connections. He admonishes for me for not yet having taken the kids to Stratford-upon-Avon, and urges me to remedy this blunder on our next trip.

“When you were a baby your parents came to visit me when I was at Warwick, and we went to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Stratford and you stayed awake and didn’t cry during the whole performance!”

This detail makes me doubt the story, because I cry at everything—though, come to think of it, I shed not a single tear at Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood.


One drizzly day the kids and I walk to Columba’s Bay. We pass a group of Americans and whisper furtively about whether they look like soul collagers. Columba’s Bay is an especially good spot to find beautiful pebbles. The abundance is dazzling and almost overwhelming. It’s like being … in Target. You know? I decide I want to find a pink perfectly egg-shaped and sized stone. Once I start sifting through pebbles, I find it difficult to stop. I feel that I could spend hours, days, years, sitting here looking for the perfect pebble. I never do find one that is quite perfect but the kids do—a massive greenish yellow perfectly smooth egg-shaped stone, hereafter known as The Dinosaur Egg.

I wake up very early for the first several days because I don’t realize there’s a blind on the skylight in my bedroom, and the sky starts to get light around 4am. When I mention this, the others insist I do in fact have a blind and I am obliged to concede when the younger points it out to me (it was just so subtly flush with the window frame as to have been imperceptible to me) and then kindly lowers it for me. The next morning I sleep late and stumble down into the kitchen. “Can I make you coffee?” the younger offers.

How can I preserve this magic, I wonder to myself.


I haven’t been paying much attention to the news but one night I sit down with Mum as she watches the Channel Four News on the day of the earthquake in Afghanistan. I recognize the reporter—a salt-and-pepper haired man, speaking gravely in that unmistakable British-reporter-on-location cadence—as a boy I used to babysit—the son of family friends—now grown up.


“I want to learn to cook,” the younger announces.

We make chocolate chip cookies, and she writes the recipe down in her notebook. The next day we make shortbread, and she writes that recipe down too.


Cousin T. wants to make his Famous Greek Lamb—which I remember being delicious, a kind of stove-top roasted leg of marinated lamb. There is no lamb available at the shop and I am wondering whether we will have to get in touch with our sheep-stealing Tindal roots. But then we hear a rumor of someone on the island who might be able to sell us some Hogget, which (I discover) refers to a sheep that is Not a Lamb, Not Yet Mutton. The Hogget is savory but tough; but perhaps it would say the same about me.


Cousin T. also cooks abundant Bengali food while on Iona. Chicken, daal, rice, and vegetables one day; the next day, my favorite: daal pooris with aloo bhaji and fried eggs.

We have reached peak Tindal Kareem.


After an agonizing delay—stormy weather having stalled the ferry, which sent the younger into a tailspin at the prospect of her reunion with her cousin being forestalled—the rest of the family finally arrive—and amidst all the squealing and hugging and biking and sea-plunging and long-jumping and jellyfish-rescuing and hottubbing and jigsaw-puzzling and cartwheeling and G&Ting and karaokeing and Wimbledoning and scavenger-hunting that ensued, there was not a moment in which to jot down a single other note.


Fatal Vexation

We must cherish joy where we find it in these dark times. For me, today, that has meant savoring the fact that David Hume, in his magisterial six-volume History of England (1754-61), records no fewer than seven people in English history as having died from vexation and / or disappointment. 

These are their (somewhat abrupt) stories.

  • “Aldred, archbishop of York, who had set the crown on William’s head, had died a little before of grief and vexation.”
  •  “The affliction for this disaster, and vexation from the distracted state of his affairs, encreased the sickness under which [King John] then laboured; and though he reached the castle of Newark, he was obliged to halt there, and his distemper soon after put an end to his life.”
  •  “Harris, an alderman of London, was indicted, and died of vexation before his trial came to an issue.”
  • “The high-spirited nobleman [Southampton] retired from the council, and soon after died from vexation and disappointment.”
  • “Drake himself, from the intemperance of the climate, the fatigues of his journey, and the vexation of his disappointment, was seized with a distemper, of which he soon after died.”
  • “[Walter Devereux, first Earl of] Essex died of a distemper, occasioned, as is supposed, by the vexation, which he had conceived, from his disappointments.”
  • “That gallant Englishman [Sir John Norris], finding that he had been deceived by treacherous promises, and that he had performed nothing worthy of his ancient reputation, was seized with a languishing distemper, and died of vexation and discontent.”
  • And, just to end on a high note, a non-fatal case of vexation:
    • “But though he [Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, son of Walter—so genetic predisposition to fatal vexation] affected to be so entirely cured of his aspiring ambition, the vexation of this disappointment, and of the triumph gained by his enemies, preyed upon his haughty spirit, and he fell into a distemper, which seemed to put his life in danger.” But then, Elizabeth I sent him “some broth” and “a message” and Essex was “restored in his health”!!! (True, he is executed the following year, at age 34, having “given reins to his ungovernable passions, and involved, not only himself, but many of his friends, in utter ruin.” But still.)


Detail from engraving by Jean-Baptiste Simonet, illustration from Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther


The Well Wrought Bun

I’ve been fiddling around a lot with my hair recently—mostly pinning it up in various configurations. Partly, it’s because my hair has grown really long in quarantine. Also, until quite recently, I’ve been between knitting projects and braiding hair is soothing in a similar way to knitting yarn. Most of all, my threshold these days for what might be considered a diverting indoor activity is very low. I’ve been inspired, in the various hairstyles I’ve attempted, by a number of iconic updos that have featured in recent movie nights. My kids like Star Wars for the epic battles but I’m in it for the epic hair. I’m not crazy about the original side buns; but I really like Leia’s (much more flattering) braided bun in the ceremony at the end of the first movie. People always pan Return of the Jedi but, in hair terms, it will always and forever be my favorite because of its rich interplay of braided updos, and, also, Ewoks.

Now the kids and I are half way through the Hunger Games film series—which is set in a dystopian world that did not quite so brazenly mirror our own when I read the books back in the 2010s. If only we had the Mocking Jay. Katniss Everdeen: an excellent shot; also a very strong braid game. And braiding your own hair is hard—even when you’re not also in a life-or-death reality show. Braiding your own hair demands considerable upper-arm strength. That’s probably why Katniss is so good at them. Or maybe it’s the other way around; maybe she’s good with a bow and arrow because her arms are so strong from all the intensive braiding.

Both Katniss and Leia in Return of the Jedi wear a version of the style I’ve most often attempted lately: two braids—just regular pigtails—pinned across the top of my head. This hairstyle, the internet insists, is called “milkmaid braids,” which is gross, and makes the look sound less woman warrior more Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which is not what I am going for. That being said, it is a hairstyle that I associate with both falling and shame, so maybe the identification with Hardy’s tragic fallen heroine is apt. Until recently, I hadn’t worn “milkmaid braids” in decades. But it’s a hairstyle with which I have an intimate and somewhat traumatic history, because it was the regulation hairstyle during my two years at the Royal Ballet School in London, which was, as its name signals, no rustic barn but, rather, an extremely forbidding and rarefied institution.

The “Junior Associate” wing of the Royal Ballet School (for students between eight and eleven), which I joined in 1981, is also, I should say, a genuinely illustrious program in the history of ballet. The School was created in 1948 by Dame Ninette de Valois, a renowned ballet dancer who danced with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes before going on to found the Royal Ballet and its affiliated school. I recall her (quite vaguely and possibly unreliably) as a romantically witchy long-haired old lady (kind of like Mags from The Hunger Games) who would occasionally sit in on our classes along with Jocelyn Mather, who was the head of the program, and whom I recall as having a more forbidding Margaret-Thatcher like aura. When they visited our class, it was a big deal. Also—and this may have been the most thrilling aspect of the program—our classes were actually held backstage in the Sadler’s Wells Theatre—I was, in fact, I just learned today, part of the first year of students who took classes there. My Mum would drop me off and I would dash in the stage door of the theatre, saying hello to the doorman on the way in. This aspect of the program—the feeling that I had been granted entry into a magical secret world—I treasured.

But it was also a world that had an extremely rigid set of codes and customs (perhaps all magical secret worlds do). As such, the school’s insistence that all girls wear their hair in “milkmaid braids” was very much in keeping with the school’s general philosophy. Although simple in concept, so-called milkmaid braids are not a simple hairstyle to create. First of all, it is a style that demands symmetry: a severe center parting from the top of the forehead to the nape of the neck (my hair has always resisted—and still does—parting down the middle). Then, the two braids—or plaits as we call them in Britain—had to be aligned so that the band they made across the head when pinned up would not be lopsided. Finally, the braids had to be pinned in place across a fidgety and impatient child’s head. Suffice to say that it required a great deal of maternal labor, as well as hairspray, to hold my plaits in place. And then—and this is where the true perverseness becomes apparent—then the braids had to stay neatly coiled on top of my head for the duration of a ballet class: a class in which there would be piroutteing and leaping. The more I think about it, the more perverse the regulation milkmaid braids seem, and the more inevitable their public fall.

Pride comes before a fall is the theme of a long narrative account of my days at the Royal Ballet School that I recently found in an old box of papers. The account is loftily titled “My Training,” and I wrote it when I was twelve for a school project about dance. I explain in the narrative how my ballet teacher “suggested I go for an audition at Sadlers Wells for the Royal Ballet school.” I continue:

“My mother agreed partly because it was near where I live. There were two auditions and most of the dancing was quite easy. A lot of it were [sic] teachers twisting you around to see how flexible you were. I was very excited when I got into the final audition for hundreds of girls and boys applied each year. When I’d finished that audition there was a wait of maybe a month or two to see if you were excepted [sic]—I was!”

Once, I got in, though, I did indeed feel excepted as well as accepted: that is, I felt like I didn’t fit in and I chafed at the school’s strictures:

There were two classes a week in the Junior associate course and I had a nice teacher. The only thing I didn’t like was the DIARY. The DIARY was a diary you had to write after each class saying which exercises you had done and what had happened. Mostly we did the same exercises each week so I usually put something like, “we did the exercises the same as last week except for the pliés. Then we did stretching exercises—if you want to know what sort look at last weeks page.” It would have been a very boring diary to read, we were also meant to keep dictionaries in which we wrote down the new french terms for exercises that we had learnt.

When the next year came around another audition came around and it turned out that exactly the same people as last year had got in except now there was one extra girl. [This was the Royal Ballet School’s version of the Hunger Games: you had to re-audition competing against hundreds of other children—every year, just for the privilege of being allowed into the classes—which, to be clear, my parents also had to pay for.] This year I had a teacher called Miss Young whom I didn’t like so much so my diary also changed, now it was more like, this, “I think Miss Young picks on me on purpose—she keeps blaming me for all the exercises that go wrong” or “Miss Young was actually nice to me today—she probably isn’t feeling well.” The teachers were meant to check the diaries once but that one time mine wasn’t among them, and the person who won the prize for the best diary was the only one who had kept her diary up to date.

The school’s regimented ethos was most visible in the precise and unforgiving nature of its uniform:

The uniform was a white leotard, pink socks, pink ballet shoes with pink elastic. You wore [a] belt according to how old you were. First year I had [a] white belt, second year [a] blue [one]. Your hair was worn in plaits across the top of your head with bows matching your belt on each side. On my first ever class my hair fell down in two long plaits—in front of everyone.

Oh the shame of it! I can still see it in my mind, although what I see is myself as if I’m outside of my own body and I can’t tell if it’s because I am remembering myself as I looked in the studio’s mirror or because I’m seeing myself from the point-of-view of a very stern impartial spectator. Probably both. This is what I see in my mind’s eye: I’m standing in a line of other girls in white leotards (white leotards!)—it is the end of the class and we are doing some simple sautés in the center of the room, and we are doing it line by line, which means that there are other girls on the side watching. As our line jumps together, I see my own face, rosy and shiny with sweat half smirking-half frowning as the two plaits tumble down and bounce on my shoulders as we finish the exercise and the girls watching from the sides titter. I know I wanted to cry but I don’t remember if I did.

The feeling that your hair is about to fall loose when you are dancing is a very particular feeling. I would liken it to another feeling with which I’m also familiar, one that I suspect is more familiar to women than to men: it’s the feeling when you are walking, carrying, say, a computer bag in your left hand and with a purse or shoulder bag slung over your right shoulder; you are carrying a very full cup of very hot coffee in your right hand and you suddenly realize that the shoulder bag is about to slip down your right arm causing you to drop the coffee but—and this is crucial—you realize this in time to perceive the exact chain of events that are about to occur but not in time to stop them from happening. It is a similar feeling when you are doing posé turns across the studio, and you can suddenly feel quite distinctly that the crucial pin, the one that is keeping your bun together, is about to come loose, and that, when it does, the whole thing will fall apart. It’s like a game of Jenga or, even more so, like that game Kerplunk (which I remember finding as a child much too stressful to be fun) where you have to remove plastic straws from a plastic dome without allowing any marbles to fall through the lattice made by the interlacing straws. By contrast, the feeling of a well-wrought bun is immensely comforting: instead of feeling either weighed down by the bun’s gravitational pull or pinched and pulled by hairpins, you feel, instead, buoyed, secure.

Twelve-year old me doesn’t say anything further about the hair incident in my written account. Instead, after recounting the humiliation of my hair’s Fall, I begin a new paragraph:

At the end of the second year I or rather my mother got a note saying I was growing wrong—(my body was getting too long for my legs—) and I probably wouldn’t get in at the next audition. I decided it would be better (or rather my pride did) if I just left at the end of the year without going in for the audition at all—so endeth my Royal Ballet career.”

Reading these lines now, I feel a lot of compassion for—and also anger on behalf of—the twelve-year old me trying to lightly play off an experience that was in fact very painful to me at the time. I didn’t quite get it right here; there was no “note” saying I was “growing wrong”; rather, as I see from the correspondence that I also found recently while going through old papers, at the bottom of the acceptance letter my parents received telling them I had been admitted for a second year of study, Jocelyn Mather added a rather ominous note asking if she might “have a word” with my mother “at the beginning of next term.”

mather note

I don’t know exactly what she said to my Mum during that conversation, but I suspect that what my Mum was trying to emphasize, in communicating to me that it had to do with the way my body was growing, was that the School’s concerns were not to do with the way I danced.

Nonetheless, I remember being devastated—feeling rejected and humiliated. At the same time, I also didn’t feel terribly surprised; and part of me even felt relieved. I had always felt slightly out of place in the program, and also guilty that I didn’t enjoy the classes more when they were so special and rarefied. My Mum was not like the other “ballet mums”—almost all of whom seemed completely immersed in the ballet world—and I was not like the other Junior Associates either—for one, I did not like to smile while I was dancing nor being told to smile, as I think is evident from the group pictures below. (Also evident: I am not pulling my stomach in and in the second picture I am not holding my arms in first position and I have a large band-aid on my right knee.) For another, I was also the only girl in my class who wasn’t white, a fact that tended only to be obvious when I was tan from a family holiday. “You look almost black!” I remember one of the girls whispering to me once, her eyes wide—was it in shock or awe? I smiled uncertainly, suddenly self-conscious at the stark contrast between my brown limbs and white leotard in the mirror.

royal ballet 81royal ballet 82

I am wearing the braids now. No bows. No Royal Ballet class through which my pinned plaits must hold their shape. No bow and arrow either; no battle royale through which my braids must hold steadfast. But I do feel that they are holding me steady, nonetheless: hugging my scalp, holding my head together—not too tightly, not too loosely, not perfectly wrought but well-wrought enough, which, perhaps, is just right.

braids June 2020



I’ve been going through a lot of old papers recently and today I came across a lot of artwork I produced in my teens. (Be forewarned, then, that what follows is simply a sampling of the artwork I encountered, and that, like most children’s artwork, it is unlikely to be of interest to anyone other than my Mum and me.)

For me, though, this was a really exciting discovery–it had been at least twenty years, maybe more, since I opened these sketchbooks and folders. In viewing the contents I found myself marveling–not at the work itself, but at how much time I devoted to making art, and in recalling the combination of freedom and discipline that constituted my art instruction.

The practice was to spend time, a long time, looking, really looking, and making marks on the page that were as authentic as possible to what you observed. That was it.

The objects we were encouraged to draw included: still life (the art room always had objects and plants in various shifting configurations for this purpose); the human body (we had life models who would pose for us at school, and we were also encouraged to draw ourselves); and landscape–in this case, the urban landscape of North London. I remember the many hours I spent, to my Mum’s slight concern, hanging around King’s Cross in the years when it was a pretty barren and seedy area in the midst of huge construction. My friends and I would take the bus from school and then park ourselves somewhere on the building site and spend hours making drawings of piles of rubble and half-demolished buildings.

We were also encouraged to spend time making sketches of art objects, whether images of artworks we found in books or objects in museums. Many times, we’d show up for art class and our wonderful teachers would encourage us to go and park ourselves at one of London’s museums all day and just draw for as long as we could. Those were well-spent hours.

at the British Museum

east pediment


Assyrian spirit

at the Victoria and Albert Museum

victoria and albert purse box

drawings from books



schiele black ink


I took ballet classes very regularly throughout my childhood and teens. Although the sketches below were made from photos, I also remember observing some classes and making very quick sketches from life. Drawing dancers while they are moving is really really hard.

greek dancersdancers

Life drawing

One day I want to write more extensively about the I think fairly unusual fact that in my mid teens (15, 16) I spent a lot of time making pictures of the naked human body, not least my own. We regularly had life models in our art classes at school. I drew myself naked all the time. I happily posed for my (female) friends in my art class. My friend from college, Sarah Jane, tells how, when she met me, she was startled by how much I seemed to like my own body–which I still do–even though it never did look in the least bit like the bodies of models I saw in magazines.

I think now that although at the time I happily embraced Sarah Jane’s notion that I just had a naturally “healthy” body-image, the truth is slightly stranger. For me, the combination of practicing ballet and painting made me regard my body almost as an abstract aesthetic object: a form that could be endlessly rearranged to make beautiful shapes.

I’m struck now by the fact that, in the third picture below, where I’m sitting cross-legged, my breasts look really uneven. Everyone’s bodies are, of course, asymmetrical; both my body and face are quite strikingly so and, while I’ve certainly felt self-conscious about this at times, I don’t think it ever occurred to me when I was making these drawings that what I was seeing was anything other than a pleasing combination of curve and line and light and shadow. Maybe that’s what comes from hours gazing at Grecian ruins in the British Museum.

The technique, by the way, in the brown-colored sketches before is one I only have ever used in secondary school. The head of the art department, Joe Kusner, had developed this technique: he would brush liquid potassium permanganate onto brown paper. We would then make sketches on the paper using charcoal and use lemon juice (which would bleach the potassium permanganate solution) to add light. I still really love the atmospheric effect it creates.

tendu self-portraitcross legged self-portrait

cross leg lemon

portraits and self-portraits

This is a watercolor I did of my Mum in Iona in 1994–so the summer I turned 20. I think it may have been the first time we went back to Iona after my Dad’s death.

Mum watercolor

I find both the self-portraits below quite strange, but I like them as a pair: one ethereal, one earthy, almost as if my face is made of clay. I think I was maybe 14 or 15 when I made both of these.

self portrait potass lemonself-portrait acrylics

things from home

I still have the waistcoat from which these details are taken. I actually wore it at my father’s funeral, when I was 18. I probably bought it at Camden Lock market.

Pakistani fabric

The two items below remind me so strongly of home. My parents were both devoted drinkers of Lapsang Souchong tea. Loose tea was kept in the Japanese-style caddy (made in Sweden)!


chocolate bar design project

For one of my GCSEs–the two-year courses that, in England at the time, you took between the ages of 14 and 16–I chose a graphic design course. It was probably my favorite course, besides English, and this project–designing a chocolate bar–was my absolute favorite. It involved a lot of “research” consisting of buying and consuming the full spectrum of chocolate bars available at the shop around the corner from my house. Honestly, what I love most about the image below is the border, of which I was especially proud. I drew it in black and white and made photocopies and hand colored each page individually using felt-tip pens, which I remember finding incredibly soothing.

choc final idea


belongings, collected

  • Shoeboxes containing Christmas tree ornaments individually wrapped in newspaper, two
  • Plastic water bottles, the kind you might use while hiking, two
  • Box containing some kind of insulating tiles for soundproofing (maybe?), one
  • Carry-on sized suitcase, one, in which was packed the following:
    • Dog bowls, two (one plastic, one wooden)
    • Ceramic bowl decorated with dogs that the kids bought him one year for Christmas, one
      • Was it meant for humans or dogs to drink out of? We could never tell. It was from Anthropologie, so I don’t think it was ever intended to have any use-value as such
    • Zip-lock bag of dry dog food, one
    • Black white bandanna, one
    • Pair of Williams sweatpants, one
    • Monogrammed residency graduation jacket, one
    • T-shirts, two
      • striped, one
      • with some kind of nihilist quotation on it, one
    • Bills, two
    • Long letter his ex-girlfriend wrote him after he met me and broke up with her, one
    • Contact lenses, an odd number—which is always irritating with contact lenses, isn’t it
    • Clothing that belonged to his Mom that I kept after we went through a bunch of her old clothes and were deciding what to give to Goodwill, three items
      • fleece socks, one pair
      • Cream-colored linen dress that I kept because I thought it was pretty, but I never wore it, one
      • Her wedding ring, which I zipped in the right-hand pocket of her fleece jacket; at first I put it in with the contact lenses in a zip-lock bag but that felt wrong, one
    • Beach umbrella, one
    • Boogie boards, three (three!)
    • Beach chair, one
    • Foldable cart for carrying beach gear, one
    • Beach bag, one, in which I housed:
      • Several Russian dolls, well-used and well-loved in this house. They will be missed



Six Feet Over

In darkness, and with dangers compassed round,

And solitude; yet not alone, while thou

Visitest my slumbers nightly, or when morn

Purples the east: still govern thou my song,

Urania, and fit audience find, though few.

(John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 7, l.26-31).


Just a quick note to say that I’ve temporarily decamped to a new space:

Why would I create another site when I have a perfectly adequate one here? Did I need another blog? Did the world?

Of course not! And do I need to eat dinner at a restaurant, or to hug my friends, or to travel to faraway places to see far-flung loved ones?

No, I do not need any of these things in the sense that I can survive (I am surviving) without them. Such activities do not constitute the necessities of life. But how sorely I miss all those things and many more that are not necessities but which make life so much sweeter.

In making another site—another blog—then, I was giving expression to the impulse I articulated in my previous post: the impulse for more than enough, for what is superfluous, gratuitous.

So, if you’re not in the mood for any content right now that gilds the lily or over-eggs the pudding, you should definitely not subscribe to Six Feet Over here.

Because if you’re in the market for useful information, top tips, or proven data, Six Feet Over is definitely not for you. Subjects explored in recent posts include: a Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth dance number performed to a song by Cole Porter; Mary Ainsworth’s Strange Situation procedure; the uncanny eighteenth-century genre of eye portraits (I even tried making one myself—see below!); sewing inspiration from The Sound of Music; a taxonomy of masquers; and much more.

You see? All utterly useless.

Oh, actually, I take it back. I did have some tips for mitigating the coronavirus catastrophe on a global scale.

I know the prospect of venturing beyond the duck-rabbit hole’s cozy confines may seem unappealing in these troubled times; but you can rest assured that, those tips for global-catastrophe-management aside, Six Feet Over’s content is not viral in theme; moreover, its readership is so very small that its potential for going viral is negligible.

I hope to have assuaged any qualms you may have, and to see you there. I’ll be keeping an eye out for you.

warm eye

Govern thou my song, Thalia, and fit frivolists find, though few.


Fattening the Curve

“… wherever, for the sake of the necessary motion of the parts, with proper strength and agility, the insertions of the muscles are too hard and sudden, their swellings too bold, or the hollows between them too deep, for their out-lines to be beautiful; nature most judiciously softens these hardnesses, and plumps up these vacancies with a proper supply of fat.”

(William Hogarth, Analysis of Beauty, 1753)


Remember when you didn’t know what “flattening the curve” meant?

Like you, I am now all too aware that the phrase refers to slowing the speed at which a virus spreads, and that, in our current moment, the phrase is usually invoked in reference to social distancing as a practice that it is hoped will diminish the rate at which COVID-19 is devastating the world.

But cast your mind back, back through the mists of time to February.

Back then, I, for one, would have taken the phrase “flatten the curve” for a Hogarthian term of art in reference to the necessary measures needed to correct a “too bulging” line.

plate 49

William Hogarth, Analysis of Beauty, Plate 1, Figure 49

Or perhaps, along the same lines, I might have taken it for a mantra used in a barre class to be repeated under your breath as you contract your abs.


The other day, after her bath, the younger was standing in the hallway in just her underwear admiring herself in the mirror.

“I have a 4-pack!” she announced proudly. “Let’s see what you’ve got,” she added.

I rolled my eyes and pulled up my shirt.

She examined my torso, frowning.

“Are you tensing?” she asked.

“Umm, I think so?” I said, uncertainly.

Finally, she declared, “I don’t see much.”

“A 1-pack?” I suggested.

“Let’s say a 2-pack,” she said generously and then added, consolingly, “don’t worry, I know you’re still really strong.”

This was more than a week ago, before I’d really settled into to my daily supining regimen, which has since become a full-blown lifestyle.

Now, this lifestyle, to be sure, comes more naturally to me than to others. You could say I have a gift for it. Remember how in Working Girl (which I just re-watched, and recommend you do the same) Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith) tells Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford) that she has a head for business and a bod for sin? [1]

Well, I, rather less impressively, have a head for blogging and a bod for slothing. [2]

In days gone by, if I didn’t have to go to campus, I could easily spend 75% of my day supine on my sofa, which is where I do the bulk of both reading and writing (yes, I’m there right now). But these days I’m really cultivating that muscle: the supining muscle, which you develop by relaxing into the posture.

You know how in yoga when you’re standing in Tadasana, your instructor will intone, “Feeeeeeel the soles of your feet siiiiiiinking into the earth”? Well, cultivating your supining muscle is like that that except you have to feeeeeeel your bum siiiiiiiinking into the sofa.

Maybe this doesn’t appeal to you. But too bad, because this isn’t for you, it’s for the public good. So suck it up and lie down.

I might be wrong, but “fatten the curve” has a lot of potential as a new public health slogan. Like:

Fatten The Curve To Flatten the Curve.

And then there could be a little illustration. See, I’ve made a rudimentary prototype:


The stick person on the right is, yes, a bit bigger than the one on the left. But that is on purpose, you see, because the person on the right is fattening the curve.

The benefits of committing to this form of inaction are, I submit, both ethical and aesthetical.

Let me be clear; I am not advocating for complete atrophy. Strong muscles are important; I am myself, as my daughter observes, very strong. Moreover, there is surely no supine sweeter than the supining of muscles fatigued by extreme exertion. So do whatever you enjoy—I recommend dancing like there’s nobody except the people you live with watching, because there isn’t—unless you’re live Instagramming your performance to the world—to keep your muscles supple and your blood flowing.

But the hard-bodied physical ideal that reigns supreme—here in Los Angeles at least—feels impoverished. It’s an ideal that, as Milton says in Paradise Lost (admittedly in a slightly different context) “perverts best things” by reducing their value “to their meanest use.” Hogarth reminds us that it is “for the sake of … necessary motion” that muscles are “hard” (my emphasis). But we are not beholden to necessity. Nature, given a chance, “most judiciously softens these hardnesses”—and supining your self is one way to encourage her softening effects.

People pay plastic surgeons to fill up their vacancies with a proper supply of fat (I know; I’ve marveled at the results on Montana Ave., back when I used to walk on Montana Ave.). But you can achieve superior results for free and in the comfort of your own home by reclining on your sofa.

We all need a proper supply of fat to plump up these vacancies—to fatten the curves of our bodies but also to flesh out our daily trajectories—trajectories that, these days, feel increasingly skeletal, reduced to the bare outlines of existence.

In my case, the existence contained within those outlines is comparatively luxurious: I’m still getting paid; I can easily work from home; I have a yard, for which I have never felt more grateful. And, although (my prolific blogging and Instagramming of late notwithstanding) I am “working,” it seems wrong to use the same verb to describe what I’m doing and what essential workers and others adjusting on the fly to alternative modalities are enduring.

So I feel aware that a paean to the fat of life might seem glib or jarring at the present time; if there was ever a moment when needs must, this is surely it.

And yet.

(One of my supervisors at Cambridge once wrote dryly in the margins of one of my essays, “Thank God for “And yet”!”; he noticed that I tended to rely upon the locution when I had written myself into a corner and needed to get out of a tight spot.)

Where was I? Oh yes, and yet, it’s a grim irony of the way our world is organized that even as some people are literally working themselves to death, others, like me, have copious amounts of unstructured time on their hands. And this is why I find myself here, writing this entirely gratuitous essay. This is the fat that is helping me to plump up these meager, vacant days. I hope, if nothing else, it softens the hard edges of your day too.



[1] I was struck while watching Working Girl—which features a lot of both Griffith and Ford semi-clothed—that there is a beguiling softness to both of their bodies, a softness that—even though in many ways we see a much broader range of bodies onscreen now—is rare these days.

[2] I can’t believe “slothing” is a real word! But it is! I just found it in the OED!


Rendezvous At The Counter: A Tale of Forbidden Touch

I decided last week that I need a new knitting project, not because I need to remain “productive” in this period of social isolation, but because knitting has proven an effective method of self-soothing in the past. However, I find myself in an awkward position: on the one hand, my knitting skills remain … rudimentary. On the other hand, I am really bored of knitting rectangles, i.e. blankets and scarves.

I put this problem to Dr. Lake and she suggested that I knit myself a poncho, which was a good suggestion since a poncho is basically a rectangle with a hole in it. And I’m already a pro at holes—have made several in my previous knitting projects without even trying! After perusing possible poncho patterns, however, I started to feel that I am not a poncho person.

That is, I was not inspired as I scrolled through pictures of poncho-clad ladies strolling carelessly on the beach living their best poncho lives until, all of a sudden, I read the words midnight rendezvous capelet and my heart skipped a beat, because it struck me that perhaps I am a midnight rendezvous capelet person.

In a gesture of radical hope, therefore, I have decided to knit myself a midnight rendezvous capelet.

I describe this as a project of radical hope because embarking upon it entails committing to at least three debatable propositions.

  1. That I have the knitting skills to make such a garment (Louise, what do you think? Mum has her doubts. If you don’t think I’m up to it, could you recommend, shall we say, a more basic capelet? Something in the line of a happy-hour-with-colleagues-capelet? Or perhaps an elevenses capelet?).
  2. That rendezvous—that is, a meeting of at least two people, in which at least one person has to leave their home—will be an existent social practice at some time in the future.
  3. That I and also other people with whom to rendezvous will exist in the future. (One might ask: is a midnight rendezvous capelet still a midnight rendezvous capelet if there are no vous with whom to rendez? But let’s not ask that question.)

Even if all of the above conditions were to obtain, it remains true that I’m really only “a midnight rendezvous capelet person” in an aspirational sense; I’m usually tucked up in bed by 10pm. I’m trying to recall, in fact, the last time I stayed out after 10pm and I honestly can’t remember. Have I ever stayed out past 10pm, I wonder? Anything that happened more than a fortnight ago now feels indistinct, bathed in the sepia-tinted glow of yesteryear.

Ahh, the very very very early 2020s. It was a simpler time, wasn’t it?

EHA, do you remember how, in the olden times of Before March, we’d rendezvous at midday for lunch on Montana, and we’d often sit outside, sometimes at a table just 2 or 3 feet away from other people?

Katie, do you remember how, Before March, we went to plyojam and got all sweaty in a room with other people and then we went to Trader Joe’s and we didn’t have to queue somberly outside before entering and I didn’t even wipe down the cart handle?

KJ Rabbit, do you remember how, Before March, we had a midday rendezvous at that place on La Brea and when you asked if you could get something left off your sandwich the woman at the register was a bit snippy, like, “Umm, do you have an allergy or is it, like, just a preference?”

Oh, what I wouldn’t give for a snippy person at a counter now!

And, speaking of counters, remember when surfaces were just useful things to put other stuff on, and not death traps needing to be constantly wiped down like the sneeze-droplet-filled-germ-lairs that we all now know them to be?

That’s how I know that all those pictures of poncho-clad ladies are from Before March: they’re all languorously draped over various pieces of furniture without a care in the world! One woman, who clearly has a death wish, is leaning on a banister, and there’s no Lysol in sight. Doesn’t she know banisters are high-touch areas?

Knitting a midnight rendezvous capelet would also, then, express another hope: that we will at some point in the future once again inhabit a world in which, we will not only rendezvous, but, by God, we will also sidle up to counters and blithely lean on them with wild abandon.