Day 194: last words

Friday morning, 8:05 AM.

The younger is lolling on the sofa playing with her Squinkies. We need to leave for school in 10 minutes.

“Can I stay home today?” she asks. “I’m feeling a bit under the weather,” she adds, casually.

I scoff, unimpressed, and shake my head.

She clutches her throat.

“Ah! Death!” she intones, before convulsing in what I understand to be death throes, replete with much writhing and gagging.

I remain unmoved.

She staggers to her feet.

“I think I’m just going to sit by the kitchen window and wait for death,” she announces.

“K,” I say.

“And I might as well have one last Pirate Booty before I die.”

“Sure, why not,” I say, staring at my phone.

A minute later, she walks back into the living room with a fistful of pirate’s booty.

“When I finish this handful I will surely perish,” she declares indistinctly, her last words muffled by the enormous quantity of pirate-themed cheese-flavored rice and corn puffs filling her mouth.

pirate flag

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Day 193: what can we do about it?

My reading adventures in the strange world of instructional development continue apace.

This week I read a chapter from a book called Creating Significant Learning Experiences by L. Dee Fink. There were some things I liked about it and others I didn’t. But far and away the section that made the strongest impression was the bonkers part where he lists examples of questions he thinks literature professors should ask their students in order to promote, respectively, critical, creative, and practical thinking.

Screenshot 2018-11-29 08.58.20

Screenshot 2018-11-28 14.36.51

My main take away is that I have been doing professoring all wrong.

I mean, SO WRONG.

I’ve gotten distracted by teaching my students about, oh, you know, genre and linguistic effects and narrative structure and all that rubbish … when all this time I could have been putting those young minds to work solving real-world problems!

The good thing is, it’s not too late.

So let’s do this right here right now. Why are lovers sometimes cruel to each other and what can we do about it? We can small-group the shit out of this. We’ll reconvene in 15 minutes to hear each group’s Action Items for Cruel Lovers. And … go!

P.S. Actually send me your best actionable, outside-the-box solutions. I’ll also accept lists of ways in which Daisy Miller and Catherine Earnshaw were similar. This one’s tricker than it sounds. You’ve got to read the question carefully. I’m looking for ways in which they were similar. Before. I.e. not ways in which they are similar now. Ways in which they were similar. Got it?

I’ll also accept alternate endings to Wuthering Heights, or, as the younger insists on calling it–based on her intimate acquaintance with the novel in its mug form–Withering Heights. Will also accept full manuscript drafts and screenplay treatments for Withering Heights.

Withering Heights

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Day 192: on feeling stuck

I sat in my office last Tuesday looking out the window and feeling stuck. I was reading an article about the field known as medical or health humanities. The article portrayed the humanities as an expiring body in need of saving but also as an inoculation against “the influence of medicine.” The humanities, the article argued, needed medicine to save it from itself; in its new, invigorated form, it could then be made useful as a prophylactic to vaccinate subjects with judicious doses of “empathy” and “critical thinking” that would serve to “inoculate students against the influence of medicine.” [1]

The author’s vision is of an instrumentalized humanities writ large. But the question of what “outcomes” can be derived from humanistic learning is one I’d encountered earlier in the week in less grandiose terms—specifically, in a proposal that faculty develop “curriculum maps” showing the learning objectives and outcomes produced by particular courses.

Examples of such maps show a grid in which a class is analyzed according to whether particular “learning outcomes,” (like “critical thinking”) are “introduced,” “developed,” or “mastered.” You can learn more about these tools here.

I understand how such maps might be useful in giving a bird’s eye view of what a course is about. For example, one of the courses I regularly teach, “Literature in English 1700-1850,” could be mapped as “introducing” “outcomes” ranging from skills like “close reading” to particular bodies of knowledge pertaining to literary history, genre, modes and techniques. (I confess I rather like the idea of having one “outcome” for that class simply being: zeugma: mastered, bitch).

I would be less sure of how to map the class I’m teaching next quarter on attachment and detachment. Maybe, yes, it could be said to “introduce” attachment theory, and perhaps to “develop” students’ acquaintance with the novel form. But what would “mastery” look like?

In the presentation I saw about curriculum maps, the examples shown were all maps created for fake classes. The one that was clearly meant as a proxy for a literature course was one about “epistolary romance”; it received “D”s across the board for “Developing” particular outcomes (knowledge in field, writing effectively, etc.), and I thought, “yeah, developed sounds about right.” Because what would it mean to have mastered “epistolary romance”? What kind of evidence would you need to prove your mastery? An annotated copy of Clarissa? Written proof that you had successfully seduced your correspondent? Tear-stained pages? Has Valmont, in Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses mastered epistolary romance? Hasn’t it, arguably, mastered him?

I found myself asking myself these questions as I imagined what it would mean to assess my class next quarter on attachment via the rubric of “mastery.” This will be a class in which I expect the students not only to read works that theorize and dramatize attachment but also to experience and reflect upon their own experiences of aesthetic attachment.

Isn’t attachment something like the opposite of mastery? To be attached, after all, is to find oneself bound to an object, sometimes against one’s preference. As Elizabeth Bennet exclaims in Pride and Prejudice, upon her friend Charlotte predicting that she will find Mr. Darcy to be very agreeable, “Heaven forbid! That would be the greatest misfortune of all! To find a man agreeable whom one is determined to hate!”

***

I had turned my office chair that afternoon so that I faced the window, because otherwise the sun’s glare made my laptop screen too difficult to see. Facing the window, my gaze shifted between screen and window. The view from my second-floor office window is of course familiar to me, but I saw it differently that afternoon. My south facing window looks out onto a pedestrian bridge that joins my building to the physics and astronomy building across the road. A set of glass double doors connects the bridge on the physics and astronomy side; on our side, the bridge appears to terminate below the window of the office two down from mine. The bridge is not accessible from either end. Trust me, I’ve tried, over the years. I call it the “bridge to nowhere” in my head but that’s not exactly right. It’s a bridge between the humanities building and the physics and astronomy building; it’s just not a bridge that you can access from either end. Is a bridge that cannot be accessed still a bridge, I wondered, idly?

bridge to nowhere

A view of the bridge

For some reason, that afternoon, the sight of this inaccessible bridge, so near and yet so far, started to piss me off. I felt gaslighted. An entity shouldn’t look like a bridge and act like a bridge if it isn’t, in fact, a bridge. I tried, fruitlessly, once again, to see if I could access it from a nearby balcony. I asked around in the department office. Did anyone know why it wasn’t accessible? Someone mentioned a rumor that it had been closed off after someone had jumped off it a long time ago. Myself, I’d considered how it might be accessed in the past for the opposite reason: as a means of evading death. (Such things tend to cross your mind once you’ve experienced an active shooter campus lockdown.)

The reason, I think, that the bridge irked me that day, and irks me still, is because its inaccessibility creates a kind of ontological confusion. A locked door is still a door. A dirty window is still a window. But a bridge that doesn’t afford passage has reneged, it seems to me, on one of the essential conditions of bridgeness.

What if there were a way to redefine the space, somehow, so that it was not a non-functional bridge but a functional something else …. or a space in which its non-functionality could be a feature rather than a bug? What if the space were reconfigured so that its most important axis was not horizontal but vertical? What if it were filled with earth and plants, no longer a bridge but a hanging garden, tendrils falling down in a curtain through which pedestrians below would pass, ensnared by succulents, caught up in trailing honeysuckle?

I’ve become taken with this idea recently: not the idea of literally making the bridge to nowhere into a hanging garden, but the idea more generally of how and when passages become enclosures or enclosures passages. The forms of the vignette and the arabesque interest me because they share a quality of movement without progress. Like hanging gardens, vignettes and arabesques encroach into surrounding spaces but not in service of any particular end. A vignette, so named because it is “A running or trailing ornament or design in imitation of the branches, leaves, or tendrils of the vine,” is any embellishment, illustration, or picture uninclosed in a border, or having the edges shading off into the surrounding paper …” (OED).

Hogarth's shop card

Hogarth’s shop card!

Arabesque is a close cousin, a decorative pattern characterized by flowing, interlacing lines “typically of branches, leaves, and flowers” (OED).

anonymous Italian

anonymous, Italian, 18th century

In lieu of a straight line from A to B, an arabesque or vignette is all forking paths and detours with no discernible end. Such a form, William Hogarth suggests, is most engaging to the eye, if it “hath every turn in it that lines are capable of moving into, and at the same time no way applied, nor of any manner of use” (The Analysis of Beauty, 1753, my emphasis).

When I fantasize about making the bridge to nowhere into a hanging garden, I think that Hogarth is onto something: that is, I imagine the appeal of the hanging garden would reside in the play of its lines, not in its instrumentality.

And yet.

If you’re me, to imagine those hanging tendrils is also to imagine eagerly scaling them, as if they were Rapunzel’s locks; or swinging vine to vine, like Tarzan. As much as I chafe at the word instrumentality it’s also hard for me to let go of the desire to vault myself from A to B … of the desire to get. across. the bloody. bridge. To admit this feels like a failure of imagination on my part, a kind of constitutional basicness, a primitive need for sequence, plot, telos.

***

So maybe the curriculums maps are right after all. Maybe the desire for passage, the desire to get somewhere is too strong for us—or at least for me—to imagine mapping learning experiences other than in terms of where they can take us; that is, in terms of their application. But does that mean “mastery” is really the only valid metric? Aren’t encounters with aesthetic objects useful precisely because they acquaint us with mastery’s limits, with how, in the desire to know an object fully, to discern all its contours, what we run up against are not its edges but the limits of our own reach?

If I were devising a curriculum map, I’d expand the range of possible learning outcomes a given course could be expected to produce. I’d be happy to keep the first three stages: Introduced; Developed; Mastered. But then, a twist! After “Mastered” would come the following: Discomfited; Perplexed; Thwarted; Undone; Stuck and Boggled and Knowing Not Which Way To Turn. [2]

In the meantime, I’m still feeling stuck. And I’m still plotting how to get onto that bridge.

 

Notes

[1] (Craig M. Klugman, “How Health Humanities Will Save the Life of the Humanities,” Journal of Medical Humanities 38(4): 419-430, 425, 420)

[2] Cf. John Locke’s remarks on understanding in his Miscellaneous Papers, 1677: “our understanding sticks and boggles and knows not which way to turn.” (From Lord Peter King, The Life of John Locke: With Extracts from his Correspondence, Journals, and Common-place Books, 322).

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Day 191: a kind of mouse

“What was that thing that was on the British Bake Off, asked the younger last night.

“What was what thing on the British Bake Off?”

“I don’t remember the name. It had a funny name. “

I sighed.

“I mean it could be anything. They make so many things. And a lot of things with funny names. Like,” I started racking my brains, “entremet or … ciabatta.”

“Nooo! Not a thing you bake, that thing Noel was pretending to be!”

“That thing Noel was pretending to be,” I repeated, mystified.

I racked my brains again. A goth? A dandy? David Bowie? Russell Brand?

“You said it was a kind of mouse,” the younger went on.

A kind of mouse? I repeated.

I thought for a minute.

“I probably said ‘a kind of mousse.’ Was it a bavarois?”

There had been some MAJOR bavarois on the season finale of Bake Off that we had watched the night before.

“No, no no, not a mousse, a mouse,” insisted the younger, who was naked as a new-born mouse herself, having just gotten out of the bath.

Now she put her hands up like little paws under her chin and squeaked “meep meep meep.”

By this point we were all giggling uncontrollably.

“A meerkat?” suggested the elder.

“Nooo!” protested the younger. “It was a British thing, and also a thing you eat.”

“A kind of mouse and also a thing you eat? I repeated. “I’m so confused,” I said.

Could it have been some kind of World War II recipe? I wondered. Those were desperate times. Or perhaps some kind of grouse?

“A British thing you eat?” said the elder. “You mean, like … bangers?”

“Bangers!” I exclaimed. “They don’t make bangers on Bake Off, that’s not a thing you bake,” I scoffed. Then I paused.

“Bangers,” I repeated slowly. And it came to me.

CLANGERS!” I shouted. “She means Clangers!”

And that is how the three of us came to watch the first episode of The Clangers last night. If you too are feeling like you need someone to dab your forehead with a cool flannel and fetch you a mug of soup, I highly recommend it. Oliver Postgate’s voice is more soothing than Ativan.

clangers

 

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Day 190: I am part of the resistance inside Sarah Tindal Kareem’s mind

“ … we may observe, that the true idea of the human mind, is to consider it as a system of different perceptions or different existences … One thought chases another, and draws after it a third, by which it is expell’d in its turn. In this respect, I cannot compare the soul more properly to any thing than to a republic or commonwealth, in which the several members are united by the reciprocal ties of government and subordination, and give rise to other persons, who propagate the same republic in the incessant changes of its parts. And as the same individual republic may not only change its members, but also its laws and constitutions; in like manner the same person may vary his character and disposition, as well as his impressions and ideas, without losing his identity.”  (David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I. Part IV. Section VI: Of Personal Identity)

Sarah Kareem is facing a test to her psyche unlike any faced by another modern subject.

It’s not just that deadlines loom large. Or that the household is bitterly divided over whether allowance should be tied to the completion of chores. Or even that she might well lose the newly-installed lock on the external front door due to a landlord hellbent on adhering to so-called Health and Safety Code regulations.

The dilemma — which Sarah does not fully grasp — is that many of the executive functions in her own brain are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of her agenda and her worst inclinations.

I would know. I am one of them.

To be clear, ours is not the popular “resistance” of lolling and faffing. We want Sarah to succeed and think that many of her decisions have made her happier and more fulfilled.

But we believe our first duty is to this collection of perceptions that constitute the mind, and Sarah continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic.

That is why many in our bundle have vowed to do what we can to preserve our impressions and ideas while thwarting Sarah’s more misguided impulses until they are expelled in their turn.

The root of the problem is Sarah’s indecisiveness. Anyone acquainted with her knows she is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide her decision making.

Although she rose to prominence as our self, Sarah shows little affinity for ideas long espoused by her mind: the Enlightenment, British empiricism, and the rise of the novel. At best, she has invoked these ideals in scripted settings. At worst, she has attacked them outright in conversations with her psychiatrist.

Don’t get me wrong. There are bright spots that the near-ceaseless negative harping of her offspring fails to capture: regular home-baked cakes, historic closet reform, a more robust Tupperware organizational system and more.

But these successes have come despite — not because of — Sarah’s style of self-governance, which is impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective.

From the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex to the anterior cingulate cortex, executive functions will privately admit their daily disbelief at Sarah’s comments and actions. Most are working to insulate their operations from her whims.

Meetings with her veer off topic and off the rails, she engages in fanciful ramblings, and her impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless blog posts that have to be walked back.

“There is literally no telling whether she might change her mind from one minute to the next,” a long-term memory of hers complained to me recently, exasperated by an hippocampal meeting at which Sarah flip-flopped on a major behavioral decision she’d made only a week earlier.

The erratic behavior would be more concerning if it weren’t for unsung heroes in the Kareem mind. Some of Sarah’s self-critical impulses have been cast as villains by mental health professionals. But in private, these impulses have gone to great lengths to keep bad decisions contained to the orbitofrontal cortex, though they are clearly not always successful.

It may be cold comfort in the chaotic Kareem household, but observers should know that there are inhibitory neuro-transmitters in the cerebral cortex. We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Sarah won’t.

The result is a two-track train of perceptions.

In public and in private, Sarah shows a preference for both ancient and contemporary forms, from epics to Netflix, and displays little genuine appreciation for the ties that bind her to eighteenth-century prose.

Astute observers have noted, though, that the rest of the mind is operating on another track, one where her ramblings are called out and disciplined accordingly.

This isn’t the work of the so-called super-ego. It’s the work of the superior ego.

Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the brain of invoking a nervous breakdown, which would start a complex process for overhauling the self. But no one wanted to precipitate a midlife crisis. So we will do what we can to steer this ship (which, although changed by frequent repairs, is still considered to be the same ship) in the right direction until — one way or another — it’s over.

brain

 

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Day 189: La Jacobinista

We got onto Marie Antoinette via Chewbacca.

I had agreed to get the younger a new backpack for school and the one she instantly settled upon was a Chewbacca backpack, which, admittedly, was 100 times cooler than any of the other backpacks because it basically amounted to carrying Chewbacca on your back.

That night at dinner we speculated about which part of his body would be the bit that could hold stuff (his stomach, I thought), and that led to a discussion of other characters that would make good bags.

I suggested, because of course I did, that there should be a Marie Antoinette bag and that the zipper should be along her neck and the bag’s cavity lined with red velvet.

The next day we were sitting on the sofa. I was reading the news on my phone and the younger was playing with her latest Ken fashionista doll, who has a man-bun and whom the younger has named Sven.

“Was that person who was guillotined Marie Antoinette?” she asked me.

I looked up from my phone.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“Why was she killed?” the younger asked.

I took a deep breath, the same kind of deep breath I’ve taken on earlier occasions prior to answering what feel like Big Stakes Questions, like, “What’s a period?”

“Well,” I say, “it was during something called the French Revolution. The people running France were very rich royal people—like Marie Antoinette—and all the other people thought it wasn’t fair that the rich people were telling them what to do and …. they wanted to change things but there wasn’t a way for the ordinary people to get into the government to change things and so … well, they killed the royal people who were running the country, and Marie Antoinette was one of them.”

Her eyes were wide.

She thought hard.

“Hmmm. I mean, if there was a bad person in charge today, like Marie Antoinette, or, or, or … or, like, Donald Trump, then it would kind of make sense to kill them, wouldn’t it?”

Reader, I hesitated.

“Well,” I said falteringly, “I mean ….. I mean, no. No, if you live somewhere where you can vote, then you should vote the bad person out of office …. rather than, uh, killing them. And we live somewhere where people can vote, so voting is the only way to get rid of Donald Trump,” I concluded weakly.

Or he could be impeached,” she declared brightly.

“Umm, err, yeah … yeah, that’s right,” I mumbled.

“So, why didn’t they vote Marie Antoinette out?”

“Well, people couldn’t vote then.”

“What!” she exclaimed, aghast. “Voting, like, wasn’t even invented!?

“Well, it was invented, but only for some people. So even places where you could vote, you had to be very rich and a man to vote.

“Weird.”

“Yeah.”

“So then they really had to kill Marie-Antoinette?”

I squirmed and felt a rising sense of panic that I was explaining this all wrong and imagining some future exchange on the playground “ … well my Mom said that it is OK to kill people sometimes, like during the French Revolution.”

“No, I don’t think they had to kill her. I mean, she ….. probably wasn’t a very nice person, but I don’t think anyone deserves to be guillotined. But it is …. it is a difficult situation when people aren’t able to vote.”

She was silent for a few seconds while she adjusted Sven’s shirt.

“Mom, I saw on this show ‘Who was?’ that when Marie Antoinette had a party you weren’t allowed in unless your hair was … she gestured a foot above her head, THIS tall!”

“Yeah,” I said, vastly relieved that we had moved up and away from Marie Antoinette’s neck and onto the less vexed area of her unequivocally awesome hair, “that’s probably true! You know what century that was in?

“No …” …. She scrunched up her face suspiciously. “The eighteenth century?”

“Yes! It was fashionable to have very tall hair in the eighteenth century.”

“So we would have had to have tall hair?”

“To get into one of her parties? Yeah, but we would also have had to have fancy clothes … they probably wouldn’t have let us in wearing what we’re wearing—” I gestured to her jeans and t-shirt and to my leggings and t-shirt—“even if we had tall hair.”

The younger raised an eyebrow and cast an eye over me critically but not unkindly.

“I think they might not have let you in even if you were wearing your fanciest clothes, Mom.”

“Yeah,” I said. “You’re probably right.”

So there you have it. My daughter: political Jacobin, fashion tyrant.

Marie Antoinette

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Day 188: romantic horror

Yesterday, the younger’s friend, O, came over, and they played with Barbies for an hour or so. I was in the next room trying to get some writing done while they were preoccupied. It was going pretty well but then snippets of their dialogue kept floating in from the next room and they were so tantalizing that I got totally distracted. I ended up writing down verbatim some of what I heard, which was mostly from A because her voice carried, ahem, rather more loudly than O’s.

A, ventriloquizing “Ben”: “that’s my Mom’s prom dress and if you ever put it on again I’m gonna throw you out the window.”

A few minutes later.

A, ventriloquizing a doll whose name I didn’t catch: “He threw me out of a window and I broke my back and my neck and my arm and my nose.”

Later Ben invites Alison to prom. Alison says yes but she’d rather go with Ken because, A declares, “Ken has a better personality. He would never throw someone out of a window.”

A, referring to Ben or possibly Ken or possibly Denny: “Pretend he’s never had a girlfriend before so he watches all these romantic movies at night. Romantic horror movies.”

A, ventriloquizing Ken or possibly Ben: “‘As well as a car I’m giving you a makeover.’ And then pretend he has a bucket of pink paint and he just paints her face pink.”

A: “Pretend she was like I’m gonna go to this five star couples restaurant.”

O: “Who’s she gonna go with? Denny?”

A: “Denny got run over by a truck five days ago.”

A, ventriloquizing whichever Barbie is at the “five star couples restaurant”: “I’ll order the sushi … no, actually I’ll order the pumpkin soup with chicken and gravy on the side. And a side of spaghetti.”

barbies

 

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Day 187: where I live every day

We—the kids, La Bonavita, his friend, Evan, and me—were at the Santa Monica beach. I was stretched out under a beach umbrella gazing at the waves crashing onto the shore under the blue, cloudless sky.

“Sometimes, it’s so surreal to me that I actually live here,” I murmured.

Evan looked up from his phone, questioningly. “Growing up in London,” I continued, “I could never have imagined living somewhere like this. It would have seemed unreal,” I added.

“Well, LA is kind of unreal,” he observed.

I’m not sure we had the same thing in mind.

I wasn’t thinking of Hollywood or the common perception that L.A. is somehow inherently ersatz (an observation usually made by people who don’t know the city well, but who nonetheless offer it up as an insight of some profundity and worldliness). I wasn’t even thinking of the distinctively sleek feel of the pocket of Santa Monica where I live, where the air hums with the soft purr of Priuses and dry bars and Birds whirring by.

All that is unreal in one way; but so too was the thisness that I had meant to evoke: the thisness of being supine on the sand hearing the waves crash and the cries of “mango mango mangooooo” ring out, the hot sun tempered by the breeze, the scent of sunscreen on warm skin, the saturated colors of beach umbrellas vivid against the sky.

It felt to me in that moment almost on the order of a category error that these sense experiences should be available to me where I live everyday.

I have memories of beaches like this from childhood holidays abroad; they were the very essence of what it meant to be “on holiday,” for normal life to be temporarily suspended. These particular sense experiences are also the stuff of fantasy; it’s what the yoga teacher tells you to imagine—“feel the weight of your body in the warm sand …”—when she guides you in a meditation.

Why is lying on the beach our shorthand for deep relaxation? Is it that lying on the beach is really so relaxing or is it that, in a version of Elaine Scarry’s argument about how filmy objects are easier to imagine, there is something about the feel of sand and surf and ocean breeze that is more easily conjured than, say, sitting quietly in a garden? Or is it that, in our collective imagination, the beach codes for carefreeness, for ease?

I remember, when we lived in Chicago, there was a book I would read to the elder when he was a toddler. It was called Skip Through The Seasons. Every page was about a different month. The picture for August was of people on a beach like the Santa Monica beach. I would linger on that page when we read the book during the Chicago winter. I would imagine the feel of the hot sand under my feet and the sun on my skin, and I would long to be in that picture, where my body, surely, would slowly unfurl from the curled up position it reflexively assumed in the cold. It seemed miraculous, during those winters, to imagine that there might be a place and season in which humans ventured outdoors with next to nothing on.

I carried around that picture in my mind like a talisman.

But now, here I was, in the picture; I could be in the picture every day, if I wanted.

I didn’t say any of this.

Instead I said, “where I grew up is just … really different from,” I gestured around, “… all of this,” I concluded.

“How was it different?” the younger asked.

She was sitting a couple of feet away from me shoveling sand into a bucket.

“Well … you’ve been to England, what do you think?” I replied. “How is England different from here?”

She thought for a moment, and I wondered what she would say. Something about the weather, I guessed, or maybe about people’s accents.

“Well,” she said, finally, “I guess one big difference is that the stores in England are a lot worse. Like, they don’t have “Aahsor “Rite-Aid.”

Evan started laughing.

“That is true … that they don’t have those things there,” I said, smiling. “That is very true.”

beach

 

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Day 186: summer holiday 2018

Part 1: London

Day 1

“No, I don’t think we need any mangos,” I heard Mum say on the phone.

And so, of course, Talal picked up mangos.

Because “should I pick up mangos?” is a rhetorical question in my family, which is to say, it’s not a question to which the answer “no” is a meaningful response.

Having an inaugural meal that culminates with mangos is an established ritual when I come home. Last year the mangos capped up off a meal that began with dahl pooris and biriyani, the latter of which I suspect were made by Nina and then transported by some family member on a transatlantic flight, which is also well-established family protocol. When the mangos are produced, there are a number of acceptable topics that may be broached by the assembled company.

  1. Are these Alphonso mangoes?
    • If the answer is yes, then the following rhetorical question will inevitably be put to me: “you can’t get these in America can you?” I will invariably reply that they are not as commonly available but that actually, yes, sometimes you can get them; however the latter part of this answer is never acknowledged as carrying any weight.
    • If the answer is no, it is uttered in a rueful tone but will usually be followed by the caveat that they are Pakistani mangoes. A variation on the above rhetorical question will then be put to me: “You can’t get Pakistani mangoes in America can you?”
  2. Discussion of Mangos Eaten on Previous Occasions.
    • Hari Kondabolu’s bit on this phenomenon made me cry with laughter, it was so accurate. My cousin Kai wins the prize for the most ridiculously picturesque mango anecdote ever, which I still remember from last year’s inaugural holiday dinner. “Ahh,” he sighed, “this reminds me of childhood, when the rickshaw would come by selling mangos and I would sit under a banyan tree and eat them.” !!!

Part 2: Iona

Day 3

There are certain games, like “animal, vegetable, or mineral,” and “I spy,” that we only seem to play in the U.K., possibly because we spend more time over there than we do over here en famille for long stretches when there aren’t other entertainment options available. “Animal, vegetable, or mineral” is a particularly challenging game for us because Ada doesn’t understand exactly what “mineral” means and is, frankly, a bit fuzzy on “vegetable” too. She also, mystifyingly, sometimes chooses the same object she has used during a previous game when it is her turn to think of something, a case in point being “a daikon radish.”

Days 5 through 11

What is it about Scottish rolls? Or is it just Iona rolls? Or is just rolls baked by the Grants? And are they actually better than other rolls or is it just that they taste the same as when I was a child? And that you can only eat them on Iona where the air is fresher and your appetite is keener? (Answer: no, they are better than other rolls.)

Day 6, 7, 8, etc.

My barometer for gauging the temperature in the U.K. is whether the weather has tipped over from being absolutely beautiful, in Mum’s estimation, into being rather enervating. This tipping point was reached almost daily on this visit.

Day 7

It’s not a proper family visit until we’ve had our regular, semi-annual argument about whether anyone other than Mum believes the final t in the word trait to be silent. Mum maintains that everyone else is mispronouncing the word, which is French, and so the t should be silent.

This year I had a devastating comeback:

“And how do you think the word herbal should be pronounced, Mum?”

Day 7 and following

Both Ada’s reading materials and my will to make up bedtime stories were quickly exhausted.

“How about if we have a bed time conversation, instead of a story?” I suggested.

To my surprise, she assented. The conversations followed a particular form: she put questions to me, and I would then struggle to answer them. Her questions ranged from matters of fact to hypotheticals. They included the following. Why did dinosaurs become extinct? Was Alexander Hamilton African-American? Did Abraham Lincoln have children? Would toe-less socks (i.e. the sock equivalent of fingerless gloves) enable one to wear socks with flip-flops? Why did Elvis wear those big white suits? If there was a zombie apocalypse, where would you hide?

Day 8

I sighed heavily.

“What’s wrong?” asked Mum.

“Oh, I have to write this statement in which I talk about a challenge I’ve overcome in my teaching, and I don’t know what to say.”

“Oh,” Mum said.

Five minutes later she came back into the room with a little smile on her face.

“I know a challenge you’ve had to overcome in your teaching!” she exclaimed.

“What?” I asked.

“Your accent!” she said, brightly.

Day 9

Walking home from Port Ban, I passed by a farm with some sheep milling around next to the path. I wasn’t really paying attention to them, but my peripheral vision told me that one of them was a little less sheep-shaped than the rest and, sure enough, when I turned my head, frolicking amongst them was a bare-bottomed toddler, dressed only in a jumper and a pair of wellies. Exercising considerable restraint, I refrained from taking a photo, because I have a shred of decency left. And also because, earlier in our visit, I had overheard an American tourist sheepishly asking permission (and only asking permission having been intercepted in the act) to photograph cousin Neil’s fishing wellies, which were just sitting there on his doorstep, all Instagram-ready, and, I, shuddering slightly, had resolved not be That Tourist.

Day 10

Mum called my decision to allow the kids to watch “The Matrix,” which was in the house’s DVD collection, “deeply misguided.” I had another glass of wine and every time there was an epic shoot-out tried to drown out the racket by announcing loudly, “It’s really a film about Descartes.”

Part 3: Bristol

Day 12

“What is that?” I asked Roy, pointing to a tiny hut in the back garden.

“Oh, it’s just a hut for solitary bees,” he said.

“A hut for solitary bees,” I repeated. “Are bees solitary?” I asked.

I thought that one of a bee’s defining character traits (silent t or not) was its, you know, hive-mind.

“Well,” my brother explained, “not all bees live in hives.”

“They don’t?” I asked, truly incredulous. “Where do they live then?”

“Well, they just, you know, flit around,” my brother said vaguely.

“They’re like nomad bees?” I asked. “Something like that,” he answered.

“I have to say, you’re really blowing my mind here,” I said. “I never realized that hives were, like, a contingent aspect of bee-being. I thought they were essential to beeness.”

I mean, yes, there’s the Jerry Seinfeld bee in Bee Movie but that’s the entire joke of the movie—a bee who wants to be an individual! (N.B. that movie is also basically the same story as The Shape of Water but with Renee Zellweger and a bee instead of Sally Hawkins and a fish).

“So is there a bee living in there now?” I asked.

“Uhh, I don’t think so,” Roy said.

“To be honest,” he admitted, “I’ve never seen a bee go in or out of there.”

I decided that there were two possible explanations.

1) The house for solitary bees is actually a magical chocolate factory.

2) solitary bees are real and they are not only solitary but also stealthy, eluding detection by emitting a silent buzz not unlike the silent t that some say can be found at the end of the word “trait.”

3) Solitary bees are mythical creatures, possibly invented by bees, possibly invented by my brother, possibly invented by David Attenborough.

bee house

a hut for solitary bees, should they exist and be in need of a hut

Day 14

Left to my own devices, I don’t watch sports. But I can readily enter into them as well as anyone—possibly better than most—if I suspend disbelief and decide that I care; it’s like reading a novel. The conditions in England last month were particularly propitious for encouraging this kind of casual fling with football . The problem is (isn’t it always?) that, even if the relationship is casual, the feelings can’t be held at bay.

And so I found myself gripping Max’s wrist with what was apparently a painful intensity, covering my eyes and moaning repeatedly, “Oh God I can’t bear it, I can’t watch them lose on penalty shoot-outs, it’s just too painful.”

This from someone who was also asking questions like “are we red?” and “are we going left or right” at various points.

Even as the finer points of football (well points both fine and fundamental) elude me, certain cultural traumas have clearly seeped into my consciousness such that I couldn’t tell you exactly the rules of a penalty shoot-out but I know in my bones that losing to penalty shoot-outs in a World Cup knockout round would be a devastating blow.

Day 15

I didn’t know before this visit to Bristol that iced hibiscus tea is delicious and beautiful. Thank you, Roy.

Day 16

The whole day with Claire in Bath was glorious. Especially satisfying—because when do you ever find three great dresses—dresses that that fit!—within 15 minutes—was a whirlwind visit to a little shop called Bibico in Bath, where I wriggled in and out of lovely frocks as fast as I could, because I kept getting texts from Mum (but actually from Max, who had commandeered Mum’s phone) asking if I was done yet, to the soundtrack of Praying for Time era George Michael.

Day 17

The most relaxing part of this whole trip? It was the morning of our final day in Bristol, when Roy took the cousins out for breakfast and then to the park, so I could stay home to pack up our stuff.

I had the whole house to myself and it was glorious. I packed while listening to Joan and Jericha and shaking with laughter and, since I had followed JK’s tip and packed an extra duffel bag, the packing was not fraught but oddly soothing, even with all of the extra items acquired along the way, not to mention the fact that the two copies of War and Peace Max and I had brought along, were, neither of them, any lighter or less bulky than when we started, nor much more read either.

The packing went so smoothly that I had even had time to read a little—not War and Peace, but rather Amy Schumer’s memoir, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, which I had noticed on the bookshelf of the guest room, and which beckoned to me just as insistently as my fingers resisted the urge to crack open War and Peace after day four of our trip. I had started the Schumer memoir a few nights earlier.

“My favorite chapter so far,” I had told my brother, just the night before, “is about being an introvert. It’s how about how even when you’re with people you really like, even people you really love, you sometimes need to be by yourself for a bit. To recharge. I mean, honestly,” I added, “I don’t think that’s being an introvert, I think that’s just being human, wouldn’t you say?”

He made an expression of assent, I thought.

The point is that, that morning, I had time to read a little more, and then to shower in a leisurely fashion and put on one of my lovely new dresses, and then to walk to meet all the rest of them at Pi Shop, a really fantastic pizza place in Bristol, for lunch. And slipping into my new dress made me think, naturally, of George Michael, and so I listened to his greatest hits as I walked to Pi Shop, beginning with “Faith,” and indulging in a little fantasy that I was sauntering through Pond Square while George Michael was still alive, and that I just happened upon him, leaning against a wall strumming his guitar, and that we did a little two-step there in Pond Square, just the two of us. And then I played “Freedom 90” and just the opening beat was enough to make me suck in my stomach and lift my chin and muster up as much supermodelish poise and stature as a person of five foot three inches and a quarter wearing flip-flops can muster. I walked tall and the sun felt good, and when they all came into view—my children, and my niece, and my brother, and my sister-in-law, and my mother—all sitting together at a big outdoor table eating olives and drinking cold beer and drawing dragons—it was a sight for sore eyes.

Part 4: London

Day 17

I have to preface this by saying: we are all OK. There were no broken bones, just scrapes and bruises; the toll was mostly psychic. I still can’t quite make sense of what happened. I was looking up at the escalator at Paddington station, and there they were: Max, then Mum, then Ada, sailing up before me; I looked down for a split second to make sure I had all the bags and when I looked up again everything was topsy-turvy: Mum was now upside down, her head beneath her feet and she was moving not upwards but downwards, on her back, on top of Ada. Someone screamed—I’m not sure if it was me—and, thank God, in response to some passerby’s quick reflexes, the escalator stopped moving as I dropped the bags and ran up, trying to cradle Mum’s head and then at the same time, as Ada’s face began to crumple and she looked to me to help her, I tried to lift Mum off Ada’s body and started to feel myself flooding with chemicals of some kind as the thought entered my mind that perhaps I shouldn’t be moving anyone’s body.

Suddenly there were strangers everywhere; and this was a good thing. Two men lifted Mum under her shoulders and I saw that she was able to walk. Another man, a passerby, knelt next to me as we moved Ada. He spoke gently, introducing himself to her in softly accented English, and explaining that he was just going to look at her legs and that he would be very gentle. He told me he worked for the Red Cross. I think his name might have been Paulo. Her legs were indented with marks from the escalator slats, but the injuries all seemed to be superficial. Somehow we got up to the top of the escalator (did he carry her? Did she walk?) and Ada sat down in a chair next to where Mum was now also sitting having scrapes and bruises tended to.

I knelt on the ground next to Ada. A uniformed station worker knelt down next to us and took our names and details and our description, so far as we could provide one, of what had happened. He was South Asian with a London accent; he looked and sounded like he could be a cousin of mine. Maybe it was that along with the way that he knelt next to us that felt comforting. Ada seemed unable to speak and didn’t respond when asked, very gently again, what hurt. The station worker wiped her scrapes with an antibiotic wipe.

“You’re a brave man,” he said to her, “because that must sting.”

“She is brave,” I affirmed.

“Oh, she!” he exclaimed, sheepishly.

“My little nephew has really long hair,” he added, by way of explanation, which might seem like a non sequitur, but I understood him perfectly. His tone was not “kids these days!” but “gender! It’s so fluid innit?”

When we got home and Mum was lying down (later she went to the emergency room to get checked over, at La Bonavita’s urging, where the doctors confirmed there were no major injuries) and the kids were conked out in front of the iPad, I shut myself in the bedroom and texted Roy. When he called back all I could say for some time was “we’re all all right,” in between sobs.

Day 18

I slept poorly that night, which was our last night.

I kept waking up drenched in sweat, my skin itchy. I wished I could plunge my body into cold water. And so when it was light, I decided that I would, and I walked to the Highgate women’s pond, enjoying noting which women walking the opposite way on Merton Lane had just swum; they were distinguishable by their damp locks, plastic carrier bags, and the barest hint of a self-satisfied smile playing around their mouths.

“The water is cold and deep,” declared the sign on the gate and my soul said “yes.”

deep and cold

It’s cold and deep and also silky, somehow. It was perfect. And so too was the sight of all these ladies—they were all here! The ones swimming in schools like porpoises. The ones with their daughters. The one executing a perfect swan dive off the deck. The gaggles lolling in the meadow.

We had a plane to catch so I couldn’t dawdle: I swam a circuit of the pond, which was just enough to feel my blood pleasantly cool, and then I climbed out, barely dried and pulled my clothes over my still wet suit (actually, Claire’s suit). And I walked back up Merton lane, with my wet hair and my plastic bag and my hint of a self-satisfied smile, and I went straight to the newsagent to buy a Guardian for Mum and croissants for all of us … and I could tell that, unlikely as they looked, sitting there on the counter next to the Oyster card machine, that they were going to be my favorite sort of croissants, the kind with a bit of heft to them, what I think of as a Germanic or a Mexican style croissant.

And they were.

***

“West End Girls” came on the radio right when we were passing through Ladbrooke Grove on the drive to Gatwick. Made me smile.

***

Best captain’s announcement ever on the flight back to L.A.: “You probably think the match between England and Sweden is all over. IT IS NOW. England 2, Sweden nil.”

Well-played, Captain.

You probably think this post is all over; it is now.

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Day 185: do not read this out loud

I want to tell you about a game my kids really like but I need it to preface this post by saying that no matter what we are doing, with the possible exceptions of swimming or eating ice cream, my kids would always rather be glued to a screen. I need to say this upfront because this game is so deeply wholesome and lo-tech that to say, “My children adore this game!” could come across as saying something like, “My darlings can’t abide screens! No, they have simpler tastes. Just give them a hand-crafted jigsaw puzzle or perhaps some fresh wildflowers to press, and they’re happy as lambs!”

This game is known in our household as the story game. I recommend it especially for an inter-generational-dinner-party type situation. La Bonavita introduced the game to us. He apparently played it with some patients in some kind of group therapy setting, but don’t let that put that off. It doesn’t involve lying on a couch or talking about your mother.

Here’s how you play. Give each player (I’d say you need at least three people and more is better) a piece of paper and a pen or pencil. Set a timer for one and a half minutes. When the timer starts each person starts writing a story. When the alarm goes off, all the players stop writing and fold their piece of paper away from themselves so that all but the last line of what they’ve written is hidden. Then each player hands their paper to the person on their left. The timer is re-set for another ninety seconds and each person has to continue the story as best they can from the line they have in front of them. And then you repeat the process as many times as you like, but at least as many times as there are players. Whenever you decide to stop, each person unfolds the piece of paper and reads out the story, which is, inevitably, surreal. It should look something like this:

story game 1

The great thing about this game is that it’s one of the few things—like Ghostbusters or pesto—that we all agree is good. I was worried that the younger would be too inept at both reading or writing to really enjoy it, but, to my surprise, she is the game’s biggest fan: she just doesn’t write very much and tends to need some help with the reading part.

story game 2

A few nights ago, the younger was very twitchy. I was reading Charlotte’s Web to her in bed, but she wasn’t getting sleepy.

“Let’s just snuggle and we can talk about all the fun things we’re going to do while we’re on Iona,” I suggested.

I started us off, and soon we were whispering about sandcastles and millionaire’s shortbread and cowrie shells and Iona stones and treasure hunts.

Then the younger had an idea.

“We can teach Elo [my mother] the story game!”

“Ooh, yes, I think she’ll really like it!”

“She’ll probably use a lot of really English words like, you know, rummy, and bum, and, and … fiddle, and, and … tit …”

She trailed off.

“Tit?” I repeated.

“ …le …. tittle,” she continued.

“Tittle” I repeated. “Sure.”

“Wait is tittle even a real word?” she asks.

“Yes, tittle’s a real world, you know, like in tittle-tattle, like if you tell on someone you’re a tittle-tattle.”

“A tittle-tattle?” she repeated, frowning.

“Yeah, isn’t that what you say?”

We say a tattle-tale.”

“Oh. Huh.”

As often in this kind of situation, I felt suddenly unsure. Was tittle an English word? Perhaps, like titivate or enervated, it’s a real word but one that only seems to be actually used by Mum and me. Or maybe it’s a Tindal family word, like chittery-bite? Or maybe it’s just a phantom of the Kareemian imagination?

“Well, I think we say tittle-tattle,” I said finally. “But I might have made that up. I guess we’ll have to wait and see if Elo uses it.”

I’ll keep you posted.

 

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