Well hello

I haven’t blogged since moving back to New York, and this is a consequence of the strange type of inertia that takes over when everything is competing for your attention. I try to keep myself ridiculously busy to stay functional/calm/generally sane. Fortunately I’ve been productive when it comes to writing, as I’m part of a group called the Columbia Fiction Foundry where I get advice on how to mercilessly edit Novel #2. There’s a group of about a dozen of us who meet up monthly and mutually eviscerate in the best of ways and get people in the publishing industry to talk with us about what the hell is going on. And I need that.

Last night I did a reading as part of the Hearth Gods series in the East Village, and while I think my delivery could have been better, it reminded me just how much I love performing. And I want to do more of it. It’s the same rush I got onstage when I used to dance, only now I’m not hiding behind a massive costume, and if I mess it up, it’s all on me. It’s just me and my voice and pages and pages of large print. The way the paragraphs work on the page is so completely different from how they sound out loud, or in the internal-monologue voice of a silent reading to myself. It reminds me that above all else I must always keep writing. Even if a time traveler appeared right now in front of me and said, “Tough luck, Kite, I’ve seen the future and you never get that book deal,” I would still write, because I have to write. It’s. What. I. Do. And I can’t even remember an age when I wasn’t dreaming up stories. I can’t excise part of myself just because it hasn’t gotten me precisely where I hoped it would by this point in my life. The encouragement I’ve been getting from people who have been reading Novel #2 – and really, really liking it – keep me convinced it is worth sinking so much time and effort. I simply Have To. There’s no other explanation I can give, and no other explanation I should.

As for New York – I am still only just revisiting certain parts of the city for the first time since returning, and it’s a weird punch in the face through space and time whenever I find a reminder of my former life here. A street sign or a shop awning or a particular junction will catch me, and I’ll fall. With no bang and slight whimper I am back there, back then. I am 16, 18, 21. In my turquoise blazer and my turned-up jeans, a fake flower clamped at my skull and a chip on my shoulder and that swelling suspicion that there is a future that may indeed be very bright even if I have no idea what it will look like once the lights dim to a level my eyes can take. (After all, I have been short-sighted for as long as I can remember.) I always had a head full of fiction and fingers that went painfully, pathologically dead at the slightest brush of cold, and wouldn’t wake up until they were damn well ready to and there was nothing I could do about it, yet I was still always forgetting my gloves. Standing with a man I thought might love me or a boy I knew never would, but that was fine, because I was 16, 18, 21 years old, and those ages feel impossibly young – or, rather, what lies ahead of them seems so interminably long. Home is a place where you feel safe alone, and even happier alone, taking it for what it is and knowing it will do likewise for you. The open roof over your head when you walk down the street here may turn your lungs black from a lifetime of breathing it in, but I don’t want any other air. And good luck ever seeing the stars from down here where the lights are always blazing, but the hundreds of lit-up windows I can spot from looking out my own hold just as many worlds, and at least there’s a chance they are the kind I may someday get to explore.

I don’t want to ever live anywhere other than here or London ever again. I know this place, I trust this place, I feel like I own this place whenever I walk through Grand Central, and I certainly don’t feel as tiny and meaningless as so many people claim cities make you. And I’m becoming very interested in the aspects of it that have vanished or are in the process of doing so. I won’t romanticize the Bad Old Days of “Ford to City: Drop Dead” when riding the subway alone late at night as a small woman was a risk instead of the most commonplace action available, but history is there to be chronicled, and if I am a writer then I am a storyteller and there are rich seams to mine here. Above all, I think of my mother when she was my age – at 29, nearly 30, she was getting married and leaving this city for the first time.

ring

This is my mother’s ring from when she finished nursing school. It was one of the few sure shots you could take with your life when you came from where she did. She was 20 years old, and tiny: barely five feet tall and maybe 90 pounds soaking wet. Her Manhattan of the 1970s looked unrecognizable compared to what it is today: specifically, the East Village, Alphabet City, and the Lower East Side were drowning in drugs and violence, and she had to deal with every overdose, stabbing, and shooting that came through the emergency room doors. Nursing, too, looked a lot different in the 1970s: specifically, some idiot decided that wearing latex gloves got in the way of the nurturing role, so my mother spent most of her time with her hands soaked in stranger’s blood. And because she was so small and unintimidating in appearance, she got handed the toughest cases, the ones where patients were handcuffed to the beds with police at the doors. Every now and then she’d get followed home by somebody she’d been working on. Understandably, she quit after 10 years in order to have kids. She’d saved enough lives and wanted to make some for herself. I inherited her bony fingers and now I’m the only other person this ring fits. The metal’s not worth anything but it’s got a very satisfying weight to it. I walk the same New York streets she did, where now there’s absolutely nothing to fear, but I still like the feeling of curling up my fist with this big chunk of metal on my finger. She gave me my street smarts. I like to think that if she could be an angel of life in a place like hell, then I can take on just about anything here.

(She says don’t panic about the ebola case here. Trust her on that one.)

So, yes, I turn 30 next month. I was dreading it but then I figured I needed to do something special to acknowledge that the passing of time is not a detriment, not a failure, but just a part of who I am. The way I saw it, the best possible thing to do would be either go somewhere known and loved, or plop myself somewhere completely new and force myself to wander and figure it out. In the end I decided to do both. I’m jetting off to Copenhagen and then London. In the former, I have an old friend from the San Francisco days. In the latter, I have a trusted net of people and places. Plus, on a more practical level, I have a load of vacation time from work that I have to either use or lose by the end of the year, so why not…

I am always looking for a good story.

Advertisements

The Atlantic subway reefs

Right now, Hurricane Sandy is battering New York City (and elsewhere). Best wishes to everybody there – not to make light of the situation, but even with a natural disaster, I’d still rather be there than in California.

The New York City Subway tunnels have flooded, which is bad news because all the salt and gunge in the water is going to mess up the system to no end. I think this piece in the Guardian is premature, a bit hysterical, and scaremongering – come on, the subway has been there over a century, and it may be shut down for a while but it is CERTAINLY not irreparably destroyed. The MTA workers know how to pump out the water and make repairs. It certainly doesn’t warrant any comparisons to 9/11. Do not underestimate the resilience of New York.

I’d just like to draw your attention to a better relationship between the subway and the sea that has grown over the past several years. Hundreds of old subway cars have been stripped and then sunk along the Atlantic coast in order to create artificial reefs. Within months, the metal surfaces become covered with algae and barnacles, and schools of fish stream through windows and doors. Mussels, sponges, sea bass, flounder, tuna, and turtles have all thrived among the old cars, which include the iconic “Redbirds” phased out of service in recent decades. In fact, these reefs have become such excellent habitats for marine life that fishermen have gotten nasty in competition with each other.

Right now New Yorkers have had quite enough of the ocean in their subway, but it can’t hurt to remember a nicer time. Here are other people’s videos. I’d love to swim there someday. It’s like Titanic for New Yorkers!

From “NW” by Zadie Smith

The view was cross-hatched. St. Paul’s in one box. The Gherkin in another. Half a tree. Half a car. Cupolas, spires. Squares, rectangles, half moons, stars. It was impossible to get any sense of the whole. From up here the bus lane was a red gash through the city. The tower blocks were the only thing she could see that made any sense, separated from each other, yet communicating. From this distance they had a logic, stone posts driven into an ancient fields, waiting for something to be laid on top of them, a statue, perhaps, or a platform. A man and a woman walked over and stood next to Natalie at the railing. Beautiful view, said the woman. She had a French accent. She didn’t sound at all convinced by what she’d said. After a minute the couple walked back down the hill.

Natalie Blake looked out and down. She tried to locate the house, somewhere back down that hill, west of here. Rows of identical red brick chimneys, stretching to the suburbs. The wind picked up, shaking the trees below.

She’s describing the view from Archway Bridge, Hornsey Lane. Also known as the suicide bridge. I never noticed the three swords and the crown, the banner of the old Middlesex County Council, on the side of it until a summer evening when I was running downhill from Highgate into Holloway so fast that I was afraid to even try slowing down because I knew I would only trip and fall. In the next chapter she talks about the market on the Kilburn High Road, and I know that when she mentions the pet shop she’s referring to the exact same one where I bought the cage and toys for my budgie Trevor. The old Woolworths and the McDonald’s and the shuttered Gaumont State Cinema are not some throwaway names just there to flesh out an idea of what a high road should look like – they are the places I used to shop, used to pass by all the time. It’s funny knowing that millions of people will read the same sentence in that book and not have the same mental image of the Kilburn High Road that I do. It all seems so clear, so salient to me. She is talking about X and I know X and if I went to X then I might walk right past one of these characters, and if I may be so bold as to inject a bit of dreamy narcissism, then maybe when X is going to Y then there’s somebody in the background who’s an awful lot like me because I used to be there. I’ve walked past stories like hers and not noticed because I was just trying to get to the bus stop. When you live someplace like London, someplace where Zadie Smith can describe that same view you used to have from your bedroom window when you hoisted yourself up onto the too-high ledge on your forearms, and you can remember it perfectly and know that she’s got it spot-on…well, you can’t just go quietly into something less, can you?

Why am I always so homesick? Because if I’m going to aim high then I’m going to aim for the very top. I call it ambition, not looking backward.

The view from Alexandra Palace, summer 2012:

 

My London: Science! (And snacks) (And lots of brackets (or parentheses))

I have promised Maren & Barrie a guide to all the horrible (used very loosely) things in London that I adore. I might as well put them up here. Why not? Instalment one: the weird and wonderful science of the capital encompassed in two lesser-known museums: The Wellcome Collection and the Hunterian Museum.

The Wellcome Collection occupies a huge frontage along the Euston Road – you can’t miss it, but it’s not particularly a tourist destination. This is a shame, because the curators there pull out some amazing ideas and find ways to make medical science accessible and relevant to the layperson. They say their general aim is to “explore what it means to be human,” and they definitely win all my prizes for public engagement.

A few years ago, I visited their exhibition of skeletons found underneath London, discovered during construction projects throughout the city. One of the locations was found to be a cemetery for prostitutes, who could not be buried near churches; another sat beneath a mint in the City of London proper. Pathologists were able to study these centuries-old remains and determine the most probable causes of death.  I learned that 1. untreated tuberculosis does horrible things to bones, 2. being buried beneath a mint that makes copper coins will stain teeth bright green, and 3. EVERYBODY IN 16th CENTURY LONDON HAD ANKYLOSING SPONDYLITIS (and also 4. “ankylosing spondylitis,” a type of spinal arthritis, is difficult to spell)

There’s now a Pizza Hut on the site in the southern suburbs where bodies from the old Merton Abbey were found. Welp.

Anyway, the Wellcome Trust also sponsors an annual photography award, highlighting the crossover between art and science that is so popular these days. These are not your boring high school textbook pictures – there are some truly amazing works created in the everyday work of scientists. These are caffeine crystals:

And now for something not completely different, but a bit more grisly. Tucked away behind the London School of Economics and the Royal Courts of Justice, there is a museum of unsightly pickled body parts. It’s the Hunterian Museum, part of the Royal College of Surgeons, and it’s brilliant.


(Photo from Londonist, because mere mortals are not allowed to take photos)

John Hunter, an 18th century doctor and eccentric collector of all things pathological, bequeathed his collection to the Royal College, where it is now on public display. A face with smallpox? Got it. All sorts of syphillitic tissues? Got them. Bones of an 8-week foetus? Yes. Tumors? All over the place. The skeleton of Charles Byrne, the Irish giant? Got it, though in respect of his last wishes he may be buried at sea in the future. On the non-human side, they also have an exhibition of extinct animal remains, including a woolly mammoth. In total, the museum has over 3500 specimens, fossils, and drawings.

When I see a painting made centuries ago, with astonishing technique, I’m always amazed at how a person could possibly create something that looks so flawless. The same applies to anatomy and pathology – you can’t help but be amazed that from some basic chemical elements, humans have evolved such specialized organs. The specimens are simultaneously mundane in their familiarity and shocking in their dislocation. Where once they held life and performed specific functions, they’re now suspended and out of context and useless, essentially mere scaffolding. The human has been taken out of them, and just the basic structure remains. Disease and dysfunction aren’t too surprising, when you think of it – what’s amazing that more things don’t go wrong.

One thing to appreciate is how tastefully and soberly the exhibits are put together. This is not a circus sideshow. Everything is well-lit and minimalist in presentation. John Hunter himself wasn’t the most respectful of the people behind his specimens back in the 18th century – he knew very well Byrne didn’t want to be displayed after his death – but the Royal College of Surgeons has put together a top-notch collection of things you’ve probably never seen before, meaning You Will Learn Something. You’re not allowed to take any pictures, but you’re free to draw. This is obviously not a place for anybody with a weak stomach – there are lots of foetuses and faces – but if you can deal with it, the Hunterian is a fascinating place to visit off the beaten track.

If you have an appetite after this (dammit Kite, you’re morbid) and it’s Thursday, Friday, or Saturday, wind your way down across the river to Borough Market, London’s food heaven. I used to go here on my lunch breaks when I worked nearby, and you can make a satisfying snack from samples alone. Along with food, there’s also kitchen stuff and flowers for sale. Hell, I once came back into the office with a tiny lime tree from Borough Market tucked under my arm, which I think made this guy who sat across from me and was pretty cool think I had utterly lost the plot. (Well, both that and the time he asked, “Does anybody have any food?” and I casually replied, “Yeah, I’ve got eels in the fridge,” because I did, and I’ll gladly share those slimy non-kosher bad boys.) That tree died pretty quickly, because citrus is meant to grow in Andalucia, not Archway. Anyway. Ostrich burgers? Yes. The old-school cart making bubble-and-squeak sandwiches? Bigger yes. If you’re looking for vegetables, don’t buy from the first few shops you see when you come in – the better values are likely to be found further inside. Also, there’s this one stand with a woman who makes amazing mushroom paté. Eat it. Buy a jar and eat it. Eat it all.

**THE DETAILS**

The Wellcome Collection

183 Euston Road  NW1 2BE

Opening: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 AM – 6 PM (open later Thursdays)

Admission: Free

Tube: Euston, Euston Square, Warren Street

Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons

35-43 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, WC2A 3PE

www.hunterianmuseum.org

Opening: Tuesday-Saturday, 10 AM – 5 PM.

Admission: Free, but suggested donation of £3

Tube: Holborn, Temple

Borough Market

Southwark Street at Borough High Street, SE1 1TL

Opening: Thursday-Saturday, hours vary (but go early)

Prices: Kind of up there, but the food is gooooood.

Tube: London Bridge