Sunday, December 4, 2011

This is Christmas, ish

Turns out, Legos can be kind of festive. Thanks, St. Pancras Station.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Portrait of a Master's

After a year of full-time graduate studies, you sort of wish the confirmation of completion felt slightly more consequential: 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Brought to You by the Victoria Line

There are at least five things in this Underground advert that induce discomfort in just about everyone I know. Can you find them? (Hint: the fact that men are represented in pink is not one of them.)

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Closing the Door

On Saturday, I take a midday train to Brighton to meet my flatmate and some friends. This is a Bad Life Choice, not because of Brighton or my flatmate-slash-friends, but because it is an unnaturally sunny weekend in late September, and the trains and streets and pebbled beaches of the town are overrun with tourists and big-city-dwellers chasing the last few drops of holiday spirit all the way to the water's edge.

There are bodies everywhere. On the train, I beg a seat from a Russian girl who has packed it full of M&S lunch accoutrements; my feet are grateful for the 58-minute rest. People are crammed into the aisles and one another's corners. It is hot. The current of weekenders pouring from the station toward the sea when we reach Brighton does little to alleviate the sense of claustrophobia.

Last night, I leaned against a wall on the stage of a little box theatre in west London while people poured champagne and made speeches and told stories and read Shakespeare in recognition of a transition in its life. A playwright stood near me and confessed his own dislike of crowds, and I found solace in the knowledge that other introverts exist, that not everyone enjoys the sensation of life moving on every single side of their self, that other people prefer watching the world with a shoulder to the scenery.

I find myself wishing for another wall in this city, a place where the crowds will pass, where people neither push nor slow you, where there is room to choose your own pace. But there is too much open air, too much sun, too little summer remaining for space to be left. When there is, it vanishes as suddenly as it appears, bodies closing around it like the surface of quicksilver.

Brighton is an attempt to distract myself on the morning after the show closes, the morning after I cueing my last video and clearing my last stopwatch and offering my last batch of brownies on the altar of dwindling morale. In an abstract way, I knew I would miss all of it when it ended. I knew I'd miss boarding the Tube at 4:30 every afternoon and making my way across a particularly odious patch of city green, miss knowing that I'd be contributing my time to something productive, miss the deliciously quirky little family of artists that managed to widen their own borders enough briefly to let a few fankids peek inside. I knew I'd miss the energy I get from working live events, the satisfying exhaustion that settles in my body at the end of the night, the drowsy underground journeys home peppered with mellow chatter and the occasional packet of chips.

What I did not expect was the rush of loss I felt standing at the edge of the stage as speeches were made, the sensation of something being removed before you are finished with it, of the fear that the horrible line at the end of the show was finally coming true, the one that says, "you will never be here again."

I used to hear that line sometimes at the end of a performance night, collecting MP3 players from the stage after the last group had exited. It would echo up the staircase, and even muffled by the door, the only way I was able to cope with its brutality was to remind myself that I was exempt for the moment, that later I would make my own final exit, that I would do it my own way, quietly, without the fatal honesty of anyone else's words urging me along.

Had I exited the way participants do, I would have had a neat farewell: a voice narrates you down the stairs, into the lobby where you switch off the lights and push through a set of double doors into another space bursting with noise and light and friends. It gives you the time to stop midway, to look back, to consider the space, to release it. You pass a sign affixed to a downstairs window: "Please respect our neighbors and leave quietly."

I always assumed my goodbye would be much the same: a quiet walk after a long night, last ones out, building empty, full of unspoken significance, a satisfying cliche of a departure.

Instead, the closing reception went long, with all the theatre staff huddled in groups on the stage, clutching champagne flutes and exchanging stories. I didn't stay to see the lights turned on, then off again, but left with the rest of the company in a split-second decision executed quickly, a collective movement toward bags and coats in pursuit of the last train. With a few halfhearted motions to organize props and a rush down the staircase, we pushed through the front door with its duct-taped handle, let it crash shut behind us, and spread out across the midnight pavement at a brisk pace toward the station. We were not quiet. We were neither contemplative nor significant. We did not think of the neighbors.

In Brighton, I try to distract myself from the lack of closure, try to enjoy the sun and the seaside air and the curving lanes of shops and restaurants teeming with visitors in sandals and sunglasses. I tell myself to let go, to live in this moment, the new one, and then into the one after that, unable to reconcile the need to move forward with the sense of openness I still feel toward that strangely compelling space and that vibrant group of artists. I can't shake the feeling that there isn't a neat line here, just a narrowing and a slight shift, like the flow of bodies across this city, one thing brushing up against another, an ambiguous mass of motion without any clear borders or direction.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

As Long as You Hit That Wire With the Connecting Hook at Precisely 88 Miles Per Hour the Instant the Lightning Strikes the Tower, Everything Will Be Fine

My six-year-old friend turns seven on a Sunday. She celebrates in a flowered sundress and sparkly pink shoes with impractical heels that force me to piggyback her home for lunch.

"Beauty is pain," I tell her, trying mentally to calculate whether the calories consumed by carrying her for 15 minutes entitles me to a slice of birthday cake.

"What?" she asks, somewhere behind my right ear. I can hear the nose-wrinkle in her voice, the one she uses when she doesn't understand me. Mostly she and her four-year-old brother are used to my accent by now, so this slightly-distainful query is reserved for moments when I forget that she is a quarter of my age and speak to her as though she is fully-baked.

But it's easy to forget she's a child. She's bright and observant and very, very reasoned in her approach to the world. We go to the cinema a lot, just she and I, mostly to kids' films, but not indiscriminately; the other day, she voluntarily informed me that she was no longer interested in seeing Smurfs 3D because she saw a trailer and it looked a bit, well––she wrinkled her nose.

For her birthday, a classmate's mom makes her a Back to the Future cake in honor of her current favorite film. Later, she will insist that she was not crying when she first saw it, but there are definitely tears in her eyes.

The Back to the Future obsession baffles most of the adults in her life, especially since she simultaneously harbors a penchant for all things Princess. But when my friend's dad showed her the film for the first time, she was confused, and asked a lot of questions, and then watched it again, then again, then again until she understood the film's take on time travel and alternate realities and the necessary combination of automobile speed and inclement weather for jumping chronology. She has the book. She requested that her birthday party be BTTF-themed (her mother wisely opted for an ice cream Sundae party instead).

Sometimes I watch my friend and her brother in the evenings when their parents go out; we have tea and brush their teeth in wild, enthusiastic patterns until everyone has toothpaste on their noses, and then we read. This is my favorite bit, the cuddling and the quiet, the even flow of a story, the way the kids' breathing lengthens and slows.

We try to get her brother straight to sleep, but my friend and I usually chat after her stories, our conversation as meandering and varied as a newly-seven-year-old's thoughts are expected to be.

We talk about Santa Claus, about what we'd say if we met him on the stairs Christmas Eve night, about whether he'd give us a ride around the block, and where would be safe to walk home from.

I tell her I'm glad we're friends, and she turns sideways on her pillow and looks at me, serious. "Are you going to have a daughter?" she asks, unblinking.

I've learned not to be shocked by these things. They are just thoughts; she is just seven.

"I don't know," I say. "What do you think?"

She stares at me for a moment. "No, I don't think so," she finally answers, her face serious and a little apologetic, like a fortune-teller who has just turned over a combination of cards whose meaning she isn't comfortable revealing.

"Do you think we get to choose?" I ask her, always curious about the way she reasons through things she doesn't understand.

"Yeah, I think so." She is decisive. "My mum got to choose. She wanted one boy and one girl and she has us."

"How lovely for her," I say.

My seven year old friend is staring at the ceiling. "Where do babies come from?" she asks.

I shrug and give her my best Bambi eyes. "What do you think?"

Her face goes stony. "No, seriously," she says, facing me full-on. "Where do babies come from?"

She is not messing around, but neither am I. I maintain my pretense of ignorance and my Bambi eyes, and it works.

"Can I try your glasses?" she asks.

I put them on her.

"Woah," she reels a little, "it's like everything is in 3-D!"

"Yeah, that's kind of the idea."

She looks smart in them and I tell her so.

She puts on a stuffy voice and tells me she is a stuffy news woman. I try not to be offended.

"Can you see without them?" she asks as I take them back.

I tell her I can see shapes, but not signs, and I run into things, so if she keeps them I'll be forced to wander the streets until I find an obliging gentlemen to walk me home. I bat my Bambi eyes at her in demonstration.

"No," she says, wrinkling her nose again. "You're not nice enough for that."

(By 'nice,' she means 'pretty.')

Which is when I decide it's her bedtime.

Sometimes I think of my seven-year-old friend as my junior or a mini-me, partly because we share a first name and partly because we share a handful of personality quirks––she loves to read, has an overly-analytical mind, is a bit too clever for her own good.

The other day, her brother asked to watch Rio (again); his dad asked me why kids like to watch the same things over and over and over, and demanded I back up my answer with actual research.

Google spit out a Q&A with a developmental psychologist who explained that children are trying to master new skills, so repetition is key to learning a story or song or series of movements, and once a child has learned something, they want to celebrate by watching it again and again and again. My seven-year-old friend peered over my shoulder as I read out the highlights of the article, realizing as I did that this explained her preoccupation with Back to the Future, that the repeated viewings were an attempt to get her head around a tricky concept, and once she had, she wanted to hang onto that comprehension.

"That's just like me with Back to the Future!" she announced, triumphantly. "I was trying to figure it out, so I had to watch it over and over!"

It is this announcement that feels indicative of the paradox that is my friend: she is at once a child and not a child, representative of expected patterns yet strangely self-aware. She is young, but her occasional perception of this makes her feel other, older maybe, slightly off-model, but in a good way, a fascinating one, the kind you want to read with and take to the cinema and carry around in sparkly shoes because things spill out of her unannounced, connections that are unexpected, observations that are sharp, threads of logic that are strange but sound, and the opportunity to witness one of them is enough to make a day feel as though it was worth waking up for.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

It's Alive

So it has come to this, she thinks, balancing an enormous mug of instant coffee as she climbs back into bed, back beneath her upside-down duvet, back below the open window humming with the noise of industrial machinery. The restaurant downstairs cleans its garden every Saturday morning.

It’s a neutral enough sound, the consistent sort of ambience you don’t notice after a while, peppered by the parabolic roar of airplanes and the occasional garble of loudspeaker from the fire station down the road. At least two people are awake in the world today, she thinks: the pilot and the person running the patio-washer. She reviews this in her mind, then pauses, willing to concede that there are no guarantees on the pilot.

Two slices of toast consumed, she lies back again, feeling the slowness of her body that has been increasing steadily since yesterday, since around noontime when she handed in her dissertation. Their department had been crypt-like as she and her flatmate had entered the building midday, exhausted and tense despite having completed their writing two days before.

“Is it weird that I am nervous?” her flatmate had asked, clutching the bound copies of her analysis of global energy corporations’ websites to her blazer.

She had shrugged and punched the button for the lift. “This isn’t the hard part,” she had said. “You’ve already done all the work.”

But she also knew that both anxiety and relief hit at strange moments, that her own waves of terror and joy had come at odd times: while placing dishes in the kitchen cupboard, while reading a novel in her favorite café, while holding the first bound copy of her project in the copy centre. The second-floor lobby of the media/communications building was a natural enough place for reality to make a cameo.

In the lift they had faced the half-mirror, smoothing their rain-dampened hair and swiping stray dots of mascara from their cheeks. In the room, the beleaguered department staff had languidly marked their names off a list, claiming the CDs with the digital copies of their work and affixing yellow cover sheets to the printed versions. She had scanned the room for boxes of bound documents, or piles, or a forklift (her 85-page project was heavy enough), wanting to feel that her participation in this ritual of pain was part of an extensive and honorable initiation, that her words were adding a stone, however small, to the edifice of collective knowledge, that this would somehow feel bigger than her. 

But all her visual exploration had turned up was a low pile of documents on the ledge of a window in the back, and then an assistant’s voice had interrupted her, offering a half-slip of yellow paper that constituted her receipt.

“Congratulations,” the woman had said, and for all its ordinary politeness, it had shocked her. For whatever reason, she had only been expecting an impersonal acknowledgement of completion, and against the anticlimax of the empty room, the word had marked a descent, the realization that This Thing would no longer, need no longer, could no longer be held. It had signified the moment where the present tense (“I am working on my dissertation”) became the past tense (“I was working on my dissertation”), and the future (still tense) suddenly stretched out before her in a completely new condition.

They had claimed a table in the café downstairs, her flatmate choosing a place where she would neither have to look at food nor sit in an orange chair, texting classmates for status updates and relearning how to breathe deeply.

They had watched the Branding students collect at a nearby table, effortlessly cool with their vintage boots and bedhead, several of them sporting animal print. She and her flatmate spun their post earrings idly. “It’s like a nature show,” one of them had murmured. The Branding group was upbeat, connected, celebratory. It occured to her that, regardless of her age or accomplishments, the world will always feel like one large high school cafeteria.

Finally, their own classmates had begun to drift in, more dazed than anything. They piled around the table to debrief, first the socially-active Costa Rican and the street-savvy New York PR specialist, the Taiwanese cartoon (if you met her, you’d see), then the Indonesian celebri-phile and the Indian journalist. Between inquiries about their classmates’ projects and general well-being, a palpable calm had descended, deepening into lethargy. In the silences, their emotions had been reflected in one another’s faces, relief all but crowded out by a collective exhaustion. It had looked a lot like defeat.

From her bed she can hear the rain beginning again, a curtain of tiny droplets rushing against the terrace. It is a satisfying sound, she thinks, this warring of the elements, this unrelenting baseline of water on stone.

CONGRATULATIONS and HOW DO YOU FEEL? a friend had e-mailed from Portland on Thursday night. On Wednesday she had been euphoric, playful, impish even. She had put on a lime-colored face mask and made a Shrek joke for her flatmate, unprovoked.

On Thursday, during a lingering evening-tea-with-friends, she had felt energized, inspired as they talked of job options for the Next Phase, eager to start something creative and substantial.

On Friday she had felt subdued, but attributed it to the fact that she hadn’t had her coffee yet.

Today, Saturday, is marked by a gray numbness. She is not tired—tired feels like something. Tired has a weight, a direction, a pull. This sensation is force-free and motionless, like a deflated balloon, present but unremarkable. She recognizes it as the emotional letdown that often occurs post-project but that only gets its own name when applied to pregnancy, which she feels is unfair, given that the academic birthing process was two months longer than the infant-human sort. It is a small consolation that the product of her labor will not require any upkeep.

Instead, she nurses the coffee in her mug, surrendering to the reality that the beverage can no longer simply be called a necessary evil in her life, that it has moved beyond the means to an end. The end, after all, has come, and here she is, gone all Gilmore-girl, favoring bad coffee over no coffee and treating small mugs as jokes that aren’t funny.

It is a minor thing, this beverage, in the scope of life. But it is a Thing, perhaps the only Thing, she realizes, with which she can still define herself within this landscape. No longer a student, her next task is to chart a new course through this city, to find alternate spaces into which she can settle.

But to change everything at once is terrifying, and from her recent life of coffee and content analysis, only the former proffers itself as a temporary constant. She thinks of Polaris as she watches the water pouring from an ever-darkening sky, the ceramic circle in her hands solid and warm. It is a tangible center, this quotidian ritual, her own sort of north star, fixed amid a universe in which everything else is burning out, fading into the frightening expanse of possibility.