Monday, November 23, 2009

Friendships are way better than cookies. But cookies are pretty damn good.

I was reunited with a tin on Friday. Yeah, if I was organised I'd get off the sofa, take a picture of the tin, and show you, not tell you, but bollocks to that. It's a small, round tin with a Thomas Kincade picture on the front, and this is my seventh reunion with it. We're quite fond of each other by now, this tin and I.


This probably isn't a very cool thing to say, but I love tradition.

I'm not talking about church weddings or fish-on-Fridays here, although I've had some great times with both of those (you can tell I live in a Catholic country when the only outdated traditions that spring to mind are religious). It's the ritualised, people-centric part of traditions that do it for me. Meeting up with old college friends and falling straight back into rows about how to pronounce garlic bread (emphasis on the "garlic" or the "bread"? It's kept us bickering for nearly 20 years now). Gatherings of my extended family where the first question from the clan is always "crash the car on the way here, Sarah?" thanks to the time I arrived at a christening having wrapped the A3 round a telegraph pole at a glorious 1mph. You get the idea. Especially since living overseas for a chunk of time again, anything that pulls me towards the people I care about is worth having.


So, the tin. The tin is a gift from a dear, dear friend. Karen has done so many things that make me think "When I grow up, I want to be like her". She moved alone to Paris (from Arizona; not from, y'know, Fontainebleau or somewhere) in her late thirties because she'd always wanted to do it so thought she'd better get on with it. She published her first book last year. The first time I went to her home, she fed me with home-made madeleines, because she'd been reading Proust and felt inspired. Karen just lives her life properly somehow - and she's brilliant, brilliant company for someone scrappy like me.

The first year we were in Seattle, Karen was telling me about a "holiday season" cookie exchange she'd been to - one of those "we should all do this all year round" American ideas which essentially ends in a shedload of cookies for all concerned. It sounded great, but I was entirely unlikely to manage one cookie, let alone a batch for sharing. Cooking, I'm sorted. Baking...yeah, not so much. It requires precision and patience, and typically I try to possess neither.

So Karen, expecting nothing (and receiving nothing too, it must be confessed), brought me round a tin of these incredible 1,000-calorie cookies for Christmas. It was our first Christmas in Seattle, and those cookies were a tiny sign that perhaps, just perhaps, we were starting to be rooted there. It was a new ritual, but one that involved little round biscuits and one of the most interesting people I knew. What's not to like?

Each year, usually about April when I remembered, I'd return the tin to Karen, and each year around Thanksgiving, sometimes more like Christmas, she'd re-gift it to me, full again of the same amazing cookies. It made us laugh, and it made me feel connected in a land where lots of the other rituals were still quite odd. And then we moved to Dublin, and I thought, oh, well, that was nice whilst it lasted. But no! We've been here for three Christmases now ) and the tin has found its way to us each year - sometimes hand-delivered, sometimes in the mail.

It makes me cry a bit now, that tin, when I see it, because it's a really tangible symbol of a friendship that's almost all virtual at the moment. I can think of Karen baking the cookies in her gorgeous house with the view of "our" lake, and I know the trip the cookies have taken. And each time I open the tin for a cookie, I think of Karen and grin. It's a great excuse for sampling often - this year, they didn't even make it home before I had to eat the first one.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

That extra weight really suits you*: the best backhanded compliments I've ever received

A good while ago now, Antonia put up a post about the nicest things anyone's ever said to her. Antonia comes across as the sort of person it'd be pretty easy to say cool things about, and the list was as you'd expect - articulate, and funny, and pretty moving in parts.

It got me thinking, as I suppose in part it was intended to, about the nicest things anyone's ever said to me. The more I thought, the fewer I could think of - the reverse of that "think of a carrot" thing. See, now whatever else you try to focus on, a carrot's floating there like an unasked-for mental episode of Bugs Bunny, isn't it?

What I did come up with made me giggle. Nothing as straightforward as praise. Mine are the nicest backhanded compliments anyone has ever paid me:

"You do the motorway driving, because you drive like you don't care"

In September of the year 2000, Alex and I went to Italy for a week. We've been friends literally since I was born, but we hadn't been away together for years, and this was a post-apocalyptic holiday for us both in different ways. My manifestation of the end of the world was best demonstrated by driving like a maniac on the roads, which in Italy largely went unnoticed. Which is why, when it came to driving, Alex very logically divided our duties. She took the cities.

"You've got the biggest knockers I know - help me out here, would you?"

Ol is part of my college gang and one of my closest friends - the type who's seen you at your very worst from every possible angle, and doesn't give a shit. There are a few people in my life for whom "boundary" is an utterly irrelevant word - we'll be honest about anything, any time, if the question is asked. Ol's one of them (no shit).
Back in 2001 we were both living in London and kicking around a lot together. I was in John Lewis one Saturday afternoon (I remember this because I hate shopping) when my phone rang. Ol, with a vital question, requiring knowledge he assumed I'd have. Apparently friendships can indeed be no holds barred - including asking for a quick 0898 impression in the middle of the cookware section. Nigella would have been proud.

"You? Seriously? I didn't know you went to Cambridge"

I last heard this one about a month ago, out for dinner with a group of friends I've known for a couple of years now. I'm always ridiculously pleased by it. Not that I have anything against my "Cambridge' tag. I made some everlasting friends there (yes, even the ones who phone with random questions in the middle of John Lewis) and got to read books for four years in one of the most beautiful settings you could ask for. For someone like me who aspired to live largely in dreamland, it was a great place, and my particular college wasn't too pretentious or full of those over-corrected public school types you'd see in their house scarves earnestly selling the Socialist Worker outside the arts block before jumping into Mummy's Merc to get to their "place" in the country for the weekend.

It's not like, these days, where I (one) studied exactly takes up much room in conversation either, let's face it. Still, I'm always pleased when people are surprised by this because I've always most felt I belong, as we are all sick of hearing about on this blog, is the forest. Oxbridge and the Forest of Dean aren't by any stretch mutually exclusive - look at Dennis Potter, for starters - but they aren't the most intuitive jump, either. And I'm prouder of my origins than any transitional seat of learning, so I'm glad that, essentially, that's what shows through first. Sure, if I need to, I can whip out the Ivy-league cred, but that's not what informs me for the most part.

*I've never heard this one personally, but it's still one of my all-time favourite "What now?"s.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Now I lay me down to - oh, bugger it. Time for the headlamp and something to read.

I'm a chronic insomniac. Not all the time; that would be exhausting (ha ha) but often enough. It's a consequence, as far as I can tell, of having one of those twitchy minds that doesn't ever properly switch off. There was an Observer article last year which pretty much summed up how it feels, although "lively minded" is probably a pretty generous way of phrasing it in my case.

Fortunately we're a house of book lovers, and when everything else has failed, and believe me, it fails -"good" insomniacs are able to override sleeping pills with their concern about not being able to sleep, which is just as fucked up as it sounds - I turn to my insomnia shelf. It's the first bit of any bedroom that gets assembled (because the absence of the insomnia shelf is in itself enough to drive me to a sleepless night, and yes, it's as pathetic as it sounds). The key to insomnia shelf books is to find things that are soothing in their familiarity but not gripping enough to keep me awake at night (oh, the joys). Often, for that reason, it's collections of essays and things with a finite end to them, or something with chapters which aren't so gripping as to make me lunge for the next one.

My three current favourite can't sleep-won't-sleep books:

Dan Savage's The Kid and The Commitment - but mostly The Kid. Dan Savage writes beautifully about adopting a kid with his boyfriend and, then, later, their debate over whether or not to get married (the kid was all against it). I bought The Kid when I was pregnant with Jonah and ridiculously insatiable about reading anything baby-related. I knew of Dan Savage - everyone in Seattle knows Dan Savage and, in fact, my lovely friend Kim once mistook him for a waiter at his own naked sushi party, so I was especially on the look out for him- but this book was still a revelation. It's soft and sweet, and irrevent and hilarious, and unbelievably moving.

Primary Colors
by Anonymous (well, not Anonymous any more, but he is still according to my book cover). I just love this book so much that it has big soothing ability. Henry, and Daisy, and especially Richard Jemmons, make me all giggle, and sit up a bit straighter because they're smarter than me and they're FICTIONAL, dammit! And I love the world that they live in, so that's comforting too. The first night I ever spent in my little flat in Kentish Town, my first ever own home, I watched the film of Primary Colors on my little portable, eating Chinese takeaway with a plastic fork because I had no idea where my cutlery was, and lying on the futon mattress that was my bed that night until I figured out how to assemble my bed. When the movie was over, I dug out the book from my pile of boxes and curled back up on the futon. That tiny little flat, piled high with random paraphenalia, felt like home right away.

Relatedly, The West Wing scripts - seasons 1 & 2. I took these on the plane with me when I moved to Seattle. Mum and Dad dropped me off at the airport with suitcases that weighed more than I did, and Dave was meeting me at the other end, so I just needed something to occupy me for 9 hours that wasn't going to let me get all sniffy about leaving everything behind, and would keep me excited about everything that lay ahead. Script books are perfect for calming down excited minds - you get all the action in your head because you read them in "real time" - and if having Aaron Sorkin's mind going on in your head isn't enough to exhaust you enough for sleeping, I don't know what is.

Hmm. So, books that help me to sleep that have obviously also, now I think about it, helped me to calm down under all sorts of other circumstances. Memo to self: Calm Down Already (not a chance).

Monday, November 9, 2009

I haven't even been near a sodding lift for months and still just thinking about this gives me the heeby jeebies

I will do anything I can to avoid lifts, particularly those afterthought-type lifts you get in shops that are really about the showy staircases highlighting the storeys full of consumables you're supposed to be coveting.
Said lifts are invariably tucked away in the far reaches of the store, where not even the delivery boy thinks to go for a crafty fag. They're about the size of the inside of a postbox (and no, I will never voluntarily be trapped in a postbox either, but then, who would? Surely I'm not alone in this) and, my particular worst fear, they have those fucking doors that pause before opening.

You reach your chosen floor, the tinny upright coffin containing you clunks into place, and then the doors metaphorically wander off for a coffee and a gentle browse through the review section of the paper before strolling back in a while later, slinging their jacket on the back of a chair and thinking: "What was it I was going to do before? Oh yeah, open. That's it". By which point, I'm a gibbering wreck. I've calculated how many weeks my bottle of water will last me (and yes, I do keep one with me at all times just in case), rootled through my pockets for random pre-masticated cereal bars and other discarded kiddie foodstuffs that might help me for a day or two, obsessively checked my phone coverage (non-existent) and established that there's no way I could reach to climb out the roof of the lift, to say nothing of the fact that this would mean CERTAIN DEATH, Speed style.

I know why, at least, I'm such a pathetic specimen when it comes to confined spaces.
When I was about seven, and my kid sister about five, we were playing upstairs in our gran's house when we knocked over the wardrobe. God knows what we were doing in the wardrobe; I don't think Narnia was in our bloodstreams at that point. It must've just seemed like a good place to play.

With the wardrobe firmly front-forwards on the floor, there was no way out for us. We yelled and screamed and banged, but our family was used to us playing "actively" (read: like screeching banshees) so nobody paid any attention. Quite possibly they were all at the end of the garden hoeing beans or something (it was that kind of a garden); equally possibly, we were in there for five minutes rather than the several days it felt like.

It was an empty wardrobe, fortunately - well, full of my sister and I, but no clothes to suffocate us or anything grim like that. Maybe more sanguine kids would've found the whole thing quite interesting - in fact, I don't remember my sister being particularly concerned - but sanguine is a word I can spell far better than I can embody. I was freaked out by it then, and I'm freaked out by it now. Trapped, in the dark, with no way of getting out and no proof that anyone knows we were in trouble. Lovely.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Why I'll always fall for the drummer in the band

Dave and I were watching {500} Days of Summer a couple of weeks ago. There's a scene where the cute geeky guy is taking the piss out of the Zooey Deschanel character for her love of Ringo Starr. It's something like this - I can't remember the exact quote but you get the gist:

Tom: But he's the drummer! Nobody falls for the drummer in the band.
Summer: Exactly. That's why I did.

Dave poked me, and I grinned back. It's always, always, been my point. Why would you go for the lead singer? Firstly, everyone's going to fall for the lead singer, and dude, unless you've got the brains of Mo Mowlem and the body of Britney, you're screwed. On a bad day I have the body of Mo Mowlem and the brains of Britney, so I'm doubly screwed. Secondly, what's interesting about the lead singer? He hasn't learned to do anything much; he just warbles a bit and looks tortured. As for the guitarists; they're just wannabee leads with too much of an acne (or attitude) problem.

Whereas the drummer: he has all sorts of mental hand-eye coordination shit going on; plus, he has to enhance a tune, but tunelessly (well, percussively). And most to the point: who the hell chooses to be a drummer? Back there behind the kit with their brushes and sticks and pedals, where nobody can see or hear you? Bound to be the most interesting people to be around.


Last Sunday, we were up at the coffee shop reading the paper in blissful silence (gotta love the neighbour-kid-swap thing) when I suddenly leapt out of the sofa squawking.

"The "guess where I am" quiz - it's the Forest" "

Dave looked at me with a gaze best described as benign bewilderment mixed with a healthy dose of "here we go again with the sodding Forest of Dean". So I tried to explain why I am so relentlessly in love with the place of my birth, that tiny, chippy, loyal place that was the perfect place to grow up tiny, chippy and loyal. Look, Dennis Potter explained it better than me (no shit) in that final interview he gave with Melvyn Bragg:

my Forest of Dean childhood, well ... it is a strange and beautiful place, with a people who were as warm as anywhere else, but they seemed warmer to me, and the accent is almost so strong, it's almost like a dialect.

In wittering on (at one point I said, to Dave, Dave who grew up in Oxford, for God's sake, "surely you see that, objectively, the Forest is the most beautiful place in the world?"),I realised that I have pick-the-drummer syndrome. The Forest of Dean is the ultimate hidden-behind-its-louder-mates, quirky, curious place. To stretch the metaphor tighter than a drumskin (sorry); from the outset it looks all dodgy haircuts and bits of wood, and sure, it is exactly that - but there's something incredibly compelling about just doing what the fuck you like but doing it with passion and vigour. Not all, but most of the people I know who are simultaneously the most driven and the most optimistic (sickening, right?) come from the same 10-mile patch of old oak and cedar. It can't just be the homemade scrumpy that brought this out.

Anyway, so that's that. I have pick-the-drummer syndrome for all sorts of aspects of my life. I think it's why I loved Seattle so much. If you're living in London and think of moving to the US, you pretty much think New York or possibly, possibly, San Francisco. Seattle isn't even the bass player in this particular band - most people, let's face it, think it's in Canada so it's not even in the same damn band.

It's why, when picking our kids' names, we deliberately printed off the Top 10 and automatically discarded them.

And it's certainly why I married a man who, when looking at a guidebook to Sicily, said, "Let's go west - the book says everyone goes to the east". Now all I need to do is find him a pair of drumsticks.