3-D Blogging

We tell our children they should never, ever agree to meet or provide personal details to the people they encounter on the internet — after all, that 12 year old they’ve met playing on the penguin website is most likely to be be an unshaven, unsavory thirty year old weirdo. And do not get me started on facebook. We all know that no one on social networking websites is actually in high school. They are all bored workers at law firms and investment banks, having fun for the first time in their lives pretending to be people they weren’t ten or fifteen years ago. Or worse.

And so I am a little nervous about admitting that the three bloggers I met in London were astonishingly normal, for fear that might make my children think it’s okay for them to have coffee with unsavory weirdos. Come to think of it, these three bloggers weren’t actually normal. They were more than normal — hospitable, kind, welcoming, funny, smart and (yes, I know you want to know), really good looking.

I met Ingrid, from The Girl in the Cafe first. This is only appropriate, because what made me love Ingrid’s blog so much is that she writes so beautifully about London, a city she moved to several years ago from Copenhagen so she could pursue her dream of making and writing films. I didn’t actually spot her for a while after I walked into the cafe near Piccadilly Circus, because she had her head down, marking up her film script with a very cool pink marker. Ingrid loves romantic comedies, and she is writing a marvelous script in that genre. Because I’ve been so immersed in Shakespearean comedy, which shares a lot with romantic comedy, it was really, really fun to have her tell me the story of her movie. And then we went to see Steve Carrell in Dan in Real Life, which was very funny. I left the cinema seeing Ingrid and her blog in an entirely different way. It was as though she’d popped out of the monitor and become even more real. Now I can hear her voice when I read her blog and imagine her in her seat at the cafe near the cinema.

A few days later, after an abortive attempt to make it to Cambridge to see litlove (who knew that a single tree could disrupt service between two cities so completely?), I had lunch with Michael, who describes himself as an unrelaxed dad but, in fact, is anything but. Michael works by the British Museum, so I met him there, and we had a lovely lunch of Korean food, which really took the edge off all the hummus and apples I’d been sustaining myself with. Michael and his wife have just doubled the number of children in their house, adding a daughter in the last month or so. He looked remarkably fresh for a man who’s got that much going on. His blog too seems different somehow after meeting him. It’s still the same interesting and thoughtful place but it seems to have a sort of accent and background it didn’t have before.

And then, on Thursday, the day before I left London, they got that tree off the line and I managed to get myself to Cambridge. Here I met not only the lovely litlove, whom I’ve been reading since she and I began blogging at almost the same time, but her husband who is, oddly enough, a British version of my own husband — tall, blond engineers both, guys who will go out to the store and get the stuff you need to have lunch with your friend, and then take your friend on a little tour of Cambridge that includes the best place to buy sweatshirts without a single sigh or a bit of impatience. I don’t know where these men come from, but am amazed that there is actually more than one in the world. (Actually, to be fair, litlove’s husband is his own very unique person — down to his nice sense of humor and his love of being on the water rowing — but there is something about his tolerance and patience that reminded me so much of my own husband, perhaps because I have been feeling so grateful to him for taking on the herculean task of caring for our three boys while I was out having tea and soup and going to the theater.)

There is, of course, only one litlove, and she was just so much fun to spend the afternoon with. I had seen her picture, so knew what she looked like, but it’s really not the same as meeting someone and sitting around in their rooms and eating the yummy soup they’ve whipped up for you. Her blog gives you the impression of an enormous amount of intellectual energy, and so does she, of course. But what I didn’t realize is how extremely good she is, a person without any malice or edge or regret. It’s hard to describe this really, but I left thinking that both litlove and her husband approach life with the openness, curiosity and fearlessness that comes from knowing that there is only one such life and it is full of good and interesting things.

That, in fact, is what I thought about most on the airplane home (well, that and why it is that they FEED you so much on airplanes). That there’s really no time for regret or anxiety because there’s just too much to see and do. So I leave you with one of my favorite London views, something I was so struck by every time I walked past it on my way to Paddington Station. My brother’s apartment is close to the Paddington Basin, which is an arresting place: a combination of the 21st century, with lots of steel and glass, and a different time, best represented by the Westminster Fishing Club, whose pink door looks toward the enormous Marks & Spencer headquarters building and serves as a reminder that cities, like people (and like bloggers) are made up of many layers and if we are lucky, we will get to see as many dimensions of them as we can while we are still here.

Westminster Fishing Club

And Then the Lighting of the Lamps

Lighting of the LampsLondon in the winter is a place that’s perpetually darkening — the clouds always seem to be moving in and evening comes surprisingly early, especially if you, like me, are sleeping in a different time zone and find it difficult to wake up before lunchtime.

Yesterday though was a breathtakingly clear, silvery winter day. After lunch (with the very, very nice U-Dad, with whom I ate something far better than hummus and apples), I walked home through Green Park and then through Regent’s Park, and as I walked I could see it becoming evening all around me. It was extraordinarily beautiful, and I was not at all sad to see the day end so early. Well, a bit sad — which is how I feel about having to go home tomorrow.

Tonight (after a really fun trip to Cambridge to see litlove — about which I have much more to say in my next post!) I saw the most amazing production of Much Ado About Nothing at the National Theatre. Much Ado is a comedy that’s perpetually darkening — the witty banter of Beatrice and Benedick, for example, is shadowed by Claudio’s brutal accusation of Hero’s infidelity just as he and Hero reach the altar. Beatrice and Benedick are the only middle-aged lovers in all the comedies (there is a strong suggestion that they have loved each other before, and that Benedick dumped Beatrice, so having a history together is what makes most directors cast them as middle aged.) And so love for them is a little more rueful than it is for younger lovers, although still giddy enough for this to be a satisfying comedy, and to keep the darkness at bay.

What struck me most tonight (aside from the wonderful performances, the great staging and the really terrific music and dance) is that very little separates Much Ado from Romeo and Juliet — they share, for example, a friar who has the bright idea of suggesting to a young woman in love that her troubles will all be cleared up if she’ll just pretend to be dead for a while. Now why didn’t I think of that when I was in my twenties? In one play she comes to life to reunite with her lover and in the other… well, not so good. There is also a challenge to a duel, one avoided in Much Ado and one unavoidable in Romeo and Juliet. Much Ado ends with marriage; Romeo and Juliet ends with death. But very little more than chance and luck seems to separate the lovers in the comedy from the lovers in the tragedy. Maybe that is the point, in fact.

And so to bed, after one last cup of tea and a little bit of packing.

Is Eros All?

eros2

Having been here in London for a total of three days, I have come to the conclusion that if a play isn’t about sex, it isn’t going to show up on the London stage. Okay, I’ll amend that a little: if a play is about finding the perfect nanny, or battling orcs, it might sell a couple of tickets, although god knows why anyone would still be buying tickets to The Lord of the Rings. (Over the summer I went to see it with my two boys and it was bad, bad, bad. The only bad thing I’ve ever seen in London. Perhaps that is because it wasn’t about sex.)

But sex is clearly all. This occurred to me early, as well as often, beginning Saturday night, a few hours after my arrival, when I was directed to exit the Picadilly Circus underground station via the statue of Eros. Naturally, I was on my way to see The Country Wife, a restoration comedy about…. YES! Sex. What is there to say about The Country Wife? Let’s see. Wycherley has a low opinion of enduring married love. A low opinion of women’s fidelity. A really low opinion of what motivates men. (Do you really want me to tell you what motivates men? YES! Sex.) It was very funny, very cynical, and featured the guy I saw over the summer in a Harold Pinter play called Betrayal, Toby Stephens, as the rake who decides he will have better access to the women of the town if he lets a rumor go about that he is impotent. This is a plot device I wouldn’t have thought could work but, it turns out, this rumor gives him unfettered access to women, all of whom fall in his lap, as it were. I will say this — he was charming. I think he might have been wearing the exact same pair of jeans he wore in Betrayal. And yes, when I wasn’t laughing, I was wondering if they were his favorite jeans.

Last night I saw The History Boys, which was pretty great. You’d think that this play would be mostly about education, and how we learn, or at least that’s what I thought. In fact, it is mostly about the link between education and seduction. Its tragic turn naturally comes about because of misplaced passion.

It’s pouring here, and indeed it is pouring plays about sex. Tonight, I am going to see Shadowlands, which is about… what else? C.S. Lewis’s late in life marriage. Pouring it on, tomorrow, I will be seeing not one but TWO Harold Pinter plays and, no, they are not about finding the perfect nanny or battling orcs. And then, Thursday, best of all, I am going to see Much Ado About Nothing, which I am reading right now, and really enjoying for its depiction of a woman and man determined not to love. Shakespeare would agree that eros matters much, particularly in the comedies, where the failure to love properly is the focus of much of the action.

Which brings me to Wallace Stevens and Jane Austen, for whom the sex is all formulation was a bit complicated. I give these insights to you free of charge, particulary to those who are getting here via google because you have a paper due in English class tomorrow and you would love to be able to talk about Stevens and Austen and sex in the same breath. Let it never be said that I do not have sympathy for those who (a) procrastinate and (b) try to do everything.

Stevens seldom wrote directly about love and sex. And when he did, he observed not that sex is all, but that sex is not all that: “If sex were all, then every trembling hand/Could make us squeak, like dolls, the wished-for words.” My conclusion is that this had much to do with his complicated and not very satisfying relationship with his wife Elsie, who seems to have entered a sort of spinster-ish old age very early in their marriage. There is something bitter about these two lines, which makes me think that if he is expressing something he believes to be true, then he is being less than honest with himself. And that is because sexual desire is very hard to deny, and cannot be dismissed so easily. When you do try to deny it, it just crops up in other places. I haven’t thought a lot about it (this is, after all, a blog), but I’m going to guess that Stevens simply transformed sexual desire into other sorts of passion — for some communion of word and life, for beauty, and for a hearty embrace of good food.

As for Austen, after reading Claire Tomalin’s terrific (and short) biography, I’m inclined to think that Austen and her sister Cassandra (neither of whom ever married) also answer, in their choices and lives, the question of where eros goes when it cannot find direct expression in one’s life. For Cassandra, as for Elsie Stevens, eros is tamped down by going early into old age. (And I’d question whether old age is truly a place where eros doesn’t live. Look at Harold and Maude.) For Jane Austen, who seems to have loved once, and been unable to marry the man she loved, and then refused to marry anyone else, eros lives in a series of remarkable novels, novels which explore how we love well and how we love badly.

In The History Boys, one of the students, the sexually precocious Dakin, says, “The more you read, though, the more you’ll see that literature is actually about losers . . . It’s consolation. All literature is consolation.” If literature is about losers, then we are all losers, of course, because we are all concerned with the great issues literature takes on, particularly the question of how to love well. And the things we learn about love in literature, whether it is that sometimes we have to bury our desires to survive them, and sometimes we love so badly we cannot continue, and sometimes we are lucky and learn to love properly, are the best sorts of consolations, because they show us that we are not alone in our struggle with this most important of all questions. That is a consolation I would not want to have to do without, and, fortunately, here in London, will not have to do without, as long as the statue of Eros is pointing the way to the theater.

All Packed Up With Somewhere to Go

I’m leaving in a little while for London, where I have heard the sun will actually be shining — for maybe 6 hours — when I arrive.  Here is my carry-on suitcase.  Naturally, the heaviest thing in there are the three comedies I’m bringing.  (I’ve got two others in my purse.) I am so looking forward to a long read on the plane, and a little time to collect my thoughts about London and how it will fit into the next book I am writing.

 Oh, and here is my travel tip of the day:  three ounces of fluids?  That’s a lot of liquid.  If you’re only going for a week, bring the size you get when you stay in hotels, which is about an ounce, maybe less.  You’ll be fine.  And if you run out of conditioner you can try Cam’s suggestion — go to the local pharmacy and buy some.  It’s an inexpensive way to partake of the flavor of the place you’re visiting. 

 While I’m in London, I plan to wear a lot of brown and black and green.  I am going to see some theater.  The History BoysMuch Ado About Nothing.  Maybe Shadowlands if I have time.  It is expensive there.  I will be eating hummus, energy bars and apples. 

When I return, I think it will feel more like spring, as Mandarine so smartly pointed out a few days ago. 

Good News and Bad News

packing list
In a piece of huge cosmic unfairness, I was recently informed by that authoritative source of all things organizational and nutritional — the New York Times — that as long as my house is messy, I will never lose a single pound. (You will be fat, in other words, if your house is messy.) Actually, I think they tried to put it in a nice way, which is to say that those who are organized, or get organized, well, they also tend to lose weight. That’s the good news, at least at this time of year when a lot of people have that goal on their resolution list. The first thing I said is the same news, but somehow it seems like bad news. It’s all in how you look at it, news is, I mean. Just ask Noam Chomsky if you want someone to tell you that in a more eloquent (and even more incomprehensible) way.

Now, let me hasten to add that I’m quite happy with my body, which works very well, and is pleasing to me and those who have a right to care about it, like my husband, and anyway, I used to be painfully skinny when I was an emotional mess in college and so I associate my curves with my happiness and have come to like them quite a bit. Still, is it really possible that if I pack a neat suitcase for my trip to London I will lose ten pounds while I’m there? If not, can I, like SUE the New York Times? (I know the answer to that, being a Legal Professional, and it is, obviously, no.)

Having already told you what my children think I smell like and confessed how messy my office can get, and revealed that I sewed the world’s ugliest cheerleading costume in the 1970s, and also that my triumphant moment in the year 2006 was throwing away my couch, I feel that I can show you my packing list, even if it does contain the shockingly intimate revelation that, in fact, I do wear underwear. I am even bringing some on my trip. Eye makeup remover? Of course. It’s not that I’ve begun to channel Amy Winehouse, but I have recently decided that I like eyeliner. It’s hard to get off, though, so you have to resort to a commercial product because spit doesn’t work that well and I don’t think it’s too sanitary either.

I’m wearing a brown sweater dress next week. A lot. Jeans, my favorite corduroy skirt. Turtlenecks. Boots, ones that my husband thinks are a little S&M and I think are chic in an equestrian way. I will buy, before I go, one brown belt and one pair of brown gloves. I will also buy ten of those little plastic airplane container things for my explosive liquids. I am carrying on my bags, dear reader, because I don’t want to waste a moment in getting into London.

I can’t think of anything I have left unsaid here on BlogLily, now that I’ve shown the world how many toiletries and electronic gadgets I travel with and how my packing list sits on top of a very, very messy pile of mail I have to deal with.

I’ll get back to you on whether my neatly packed suitcase results in the loss of that ten pounds, okay? If it does, I’m going to write a whole book about it, and make a zillion dollars. No, make that pounds.

Rain, Rain

Rainy January

Why yes, a huge storm did blow out the power for millions of people in Northern California and it did indeed dump a ton of snow on the Sierra. And yes, we are all of us pretty wet here. But really, how bad a storm can it be when the princess plant outside your window still has big, blowsy purple blooms all over it, and the only snow you encounter is snow you’ve voluntarily driven to be in? (Which is the case with my husband and two of my boys, who are skiing this weekend, happy about all that snow, even though they’ve been warned that there is a LOT OF IT.)

We are weather wimps here in the Bay Area, we really are. That is why I’m a little nervous about my trip to London next week. What passes for cold here in the Bay Area looks a lot like spring to the good people of Great Britain. Do I have gloves? Well, no, unless ski mittens count and I’m afraid in an urban environment I’ll look like a total idiot if I wear my ski mittens to the theater, and anyway they’re so bulky I won’t be able to bring books if I bring them. A hat? Yes, in fact, I do. I asked for one for Christmas and it does cover my ears. But I know already I’m not going to do well in the coat department, in my Bay Area coat that I so rarely button up that I’m not sure it even has buttons. I’ll have to run from pub to pub, gloveless, and keep warm through the good offices of a lot of beer and tea. But not at the same time. I have standards.

Okay, here’s the literary part of this post. Today, in a cafe with the son who did not go skiing, I read A Comedy of Errors. The comedies are lovely books to take on a trip, because they are small. The Yale Shakespeares I checked out of the library are particularly small — that’s mostly because they don’t contain a lot of annotations and definitions. So you have to guess sometimes at what sexual joke is being made. You’re pretty likely to be right if you guess that a word or phrase refers to (a) a cuckold; (b) a woman’s willingness to engage in sex; (c) a man’s penis. Sometimes I go with all three, just to see what might happen.

A Comedy of Errors, for those who only dimly remember, is the earliest comedy, and the broadest and most slap-stick of them all. It involves twins named Antipholus — the sons of a merchant — separated at birth in, what else?, a shipwreck. Separated with them are another set of twins, named Dromio, who are their servants. Plausible? Well, no. But it is still very funny when the twins who are the travelers in search of their lost brothers come to town. Apparently, Syracuse, where they end up, is a very small town, because they keep running into each other with very funny results.

There is a lot to say about Shakespearean comedy, but today I am really only interested in one thing, which is plausibility. That subject arose when I mentioned the opening chapter of my new novel to my husband, a chapter in which a woman, who has run away to London to escape from trouble in her life back in San Francisco (no, this is not autobiograhical!) and packs in her suitcase a huge amount of cash, realizes, when she is waiting to go through customs, that she is not supposed to bring all that cash into the country. I thought this would be funny and interesting. My husband thought it was not plausible. She is a lawyer, he said. She would never do something that stupid.

Ah, but there you have it — in fact, people in books MUST ALWAYS do stupid things. You can’t have a book full of sensible people. That would be a how-to guide — you know, a book in which someone like Suzanne Summers tells you how to eat right and be fit. In a novel, Suzanne Summers would be secretly packing away quarts of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia, while lecturing the world about how to be fit until her personal assistant, a plucky young woman from New Jersey named Margo, tells someone when she is drunk about the Ben & Jerry’s and then someone begins to send Suzanne Summers blackmailing letters in which she is told to do increasingly insane things, all of which are for the good of some segment of the population she despises like people who are a little fat (or a lot) and people who have big noses. Obviously, I would much rather read (and write) the novel than the how-to book.

And so it goes in A Comedy of Errors, the least plausible of plays. Does anyone care? I don’t think so. And that’s because we all want to laugh, and we want to be entertained, and we want to see just how far things will go before they are set to rights. That is the promise of comedy, I think, and the promise of the new novel I am writing. Just how much trouble can my characters get in before things are settled? I am looking forward to finding out, while I warm my hands by whatever heating system is in the pub closest to my brother’s apartment.

Looking Back

The Pinter play last night, Betrayal, was wonderful. For one thing, it was at a really small theater (the Donmar, not the Apollo, but you make do with the photo you’ve taken). And maybe because you are so close to the stage there, the play itself (which tells the story of a seven year affair beginning with its ending and then proceeding backward to its start) is almost too much, it being the story of secrets concealed and revealed. Samuel Beckett’s tribute to the play sums it up: “That last first look in the shadows after all those in the light to come wrings the heart.” It was an amazing evening to be at the theater.

Before that, oddly enough, I saw a matinee of Boeing, Boeing, which was an expertly done, beautifully staged and costumed production that was also about secrets concealed and revealed — only because its origins are French, the whole thing was farce rather than drama. I wonder how many French plays are set on stages with multiple doors, for all the entrances and exits of lovers in hot pursuit of or retreat from each other? Toward the end, as it gathered momentum, the whole thing was beautifully funny and although so slick, there’s something to be said for being in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing, which seems to be the case everything I’ve seen this weekend.

And here are a few more things about London:

Where else but in the UK would a chain bookstore like Waterstone’s (in fact) have an entire section devoted to nautical fiction? My husband would like that.

I love the number of people out and about. In San Francisco, when I walk through Union Square, the tourists all seem so dazed, in their matching nylon windbreakers, wondering why it’s so cold — they’re in California, after all, land of the Beach Boys. Here, in Trafalgar Square, they all seem so young, and to be having so much fun. Although their feet hurt, they look like they’re going to get up and do something great when they’re done cooling off.

I’m heading off to Italy in a few moments, for my walking trip with my friend C along the Ligurian coast. But more pictures to come, if there are internet connections when I arrive. And then it’s back to London for a few more days of theater with my boys. By then, it’ll be time for musicals!

London Summer Evening

The thing I love best about traveling is being lost, a condition that is both literal and figurative. Literal, because I am useless at translating what I see on a map to what I see on the sidewalk and figurative because you are never really yourself in a place that is not your own. In Shakespeare, people are always going into magical green worlds, losing themselves through disguise or magic, or both, and then returning, transformed. At its best, going away can accomplish that. Certainly, yesterday, walking along the Thames, thinking about Dickens and Twiggy, and that great scene in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando where Orlando ice skates on the Thames, I felt happier than I’ve felt in a really long time — which is how you feel when you realize that the heaviness of being yourself isn’t there any more. Across the lacy Hungerford bridge on my way to the National Theater, I came upon the carnival that is the south bank of the Thames on an extraordinarily beautiful Friday night.

My boys will love seeing the skateboard/bmx bike graffitied area that’s beautifully placed under Queen Elizabeth Hall.

I am very fond of the strange feeling of being morning awake (because that’s what time it was in California) in the evening. All around me was that wonderful summer, after-work feeling, where everywhere you look you see handsome British guys in those skinny suits that you never see in San Francisco standing around talking to lovely women outside pubs, everyone holding glasses of beer.

The great thing about traveling alone is that it’s pretty easy to get a single ticket for cheap. And that’s what I had for the production of Gorky’s Philistines at the National Theater. The theater wasn’t that big, and the seat was great. All around me were (a) people with posh accents; and (b) Russians. The babel of voices was wonderful. The play’s like that too– not the posh accent part — but lots of people talking over each other excitedly or incredibly morosely about LIFE. It occurred to me that you don’t often hear anymore, not when you’re in your forties anyway, much about the meaning of life, how you should live, whether there’s any sense in making decisions. Apparently, Gorky cared a lot about these questions. My program told me that he’s more judgmental than Chekhov and that, like Chekhov, he was interested in furniture. I was happy to know that (I think this has to do with materialism, but I won’t go into that now). And there is indeed a moment in the play when someone talks to a sideboard. Or a cupboard.  Something I did not know, but now do, is that Chekhov (I think maybe in the Cherry Orchard) has someone talk to a piece of furniture also.  Who knew?

The whole thing was not as absurd as it sounds, and the actors were all skilled, and resourceful and clearly having fun. I came away thinking that one thing you should do when you travel is make sure you get in a little time to think about life.  Or at least eavesdrop on other people doing that.

In love with the theater as I am, I’m going to see what looks like a silly, fun comedy called Boeing, Boeing at 3 and then to balance the comedy, a Harold Pinter play at 7:30 (it’s called Betrayal, and really, the title’s all you need to know). After that, on to Italy.

Oh, and a few other things about London.

  • That whole traffic reduction thing? It’s working. Although I am grateful to be told whenever I look at my feet before I cross the street which direction I should be looking, were I to mistakenly step into the street, the worst thing coming toward me is now likely to be a bicycle.  I guess making it expensive to drive in central London has made the streets safer for bikes.  Isn’t that great?
  • Is it really possible that all of London is going to stop smoking on July 1? Every bus I see tells me that this is going to happen. I won’t be here then, but I’ll be interested to hear if it’s true.
  • If you decide to spend all your money on the theater, it’s still quite possible to nourish (I use that word in its loosest sense) youself, over the course of three days, for not very much money, if you got to a Tesco and buy the following: one bar of Green & Black’s dark chocolate, three pots of yogurt, a thing of hummus, six apples, three bananas, three bags of salt and vinegar chips, and a bag of pistachios. Plus, an awful lot of water. I must admit that I’m going to have to spring for a really large salad with a lot of tomatoes and lettuce because I fear I’m not getting enough veg. But otherwise, I don’t see why you have to spend your time and money in London eating. Instead, walk everywhere, drink a lot of water, and spend your money on theater tickets.  When you arrive in Italy you can make up for the lack of veg.