gall and gumption

Monday, May 11, 2009


A couple of weeks ago Leslie came to DC for the wedding of the daughter of a friend of hers. She invited me and I agreed to go, though I would not say that I graciously agreed to go. Well, after I agreed to go I discovered via a survey of my wardrobe that I didn't really have anything to wear. So the day before the wedding Leslie and I went on a sort of ramble around downtown that included a few stops in shops. Yes, we could have gone to a mall out in the burbs somewhere but I didn't see what pleasure there would be in that for Leslie, not to mention that it adds an extra helping of loathsomeness to the shopping experience for me. Downtown would have to do. We ended up, mostly by happenstance and cluelessness, at Macy's. By then, possibly thinking about the prospect of more shopping, I had decided to wear this one skirt I have that I rather like, but I needed a top to go with it. If I happened across a nice dress, then fine. But if not, then all I'd need was some simple little top and I was sure I could find that.

You see, I am sort of passive about clothes. I mean, my clothes consist of me repeating myself over and over again, like when I was 10 years old and insisted on wearing my hair exactly the same way every single day, to my mother's exasperation. I would have worn the same clothes too if I could have gotten away with it. But on the clothes she was fierce. Now all my clothes sort of look the same, and then, of course, I wear my hair pretty much the same way every day too. Oh. My. God.

It was the usual misery, much relieved by Leslie, who kept things interesting by picking up various items, examining them for a moment, and saying, "You know what this says? This says 'I never want to have sex ever again.'"

Eventually we found a little blouse that, well, left it on the table so to speak. And you see, I might have framed the whole issue in those terms, sort of theoretically, but would not have actually done anything about it had Leslie not come shopping with me.

So this past Friday I stopped at the Target in Columbia Heights to pick up some dog treats and a collar for Sweetie. (I bought her a new one a few weeks ago, and it fit, but then I had to throw it away because she rolled in something Very Very Nasty.) I popped into the discount store downstairs--Marhsall's?--that's kind of like TJ Maxx or Filene's or those kind of places. It looked like they had just put a new shipment of clothes on the racks, but I didn't stop there. Instead I went to the housewares in the back to look for kitchen gadgets and interesting dishes. I didn't need anything, but I go there looking for something to sort of perk up the kitchen. I'm more likely to cook if I like the dishes I eat off of. It's like total foraging going there, because you never know what you'll find. Which is sort of relaxing.

This time, though, I stopped and asked myself why I was really there. And I realized that I was -- there is a certain element of fantasy when you go shopping not under compulsion. I mean, it's a form of daydreaming. You look around and imagine roasting things in that ovenproof dish from Le Creuset; or you imagine how the nice blue Portugese glasses would look on the table; or maybe this week there will be some curtains that you'll like. It's aimless browsing, and mentally you're trying things on just as you do with clothes except with clothes you actually have to try things on.

And there's a certain amount of fantasy in shopping for clothes. I observed years ago that the artful expression of the intent to be beautiful can sort of create beauty. That is, a woman's attractiveness (which is a social asset) owes a lot to art, and by art I don't mean "getting herself to look like a 21-year-old fashion model." Women who are skilled at this art of transformation look interesting no matter what sort of features they were born with.

Now, for the past four years my shopping for clothes has just been completely functional. When I need something for a job interview I go get it; otherwise I don't think about that sort of wear at all. I like sweaters, so I look for sweaters, and I like skirts. I'll pick something out because I like the design, or the texture of the fabric, or because it goes with other things that I have. Or I just go to Target and buy maybe five T-shirts. I buy clothes because they look nice, not because I think I look nice in them. Then I wear them to death.

That's what I realized in that store on Friday, and it came to me with something of a jolt. I don't really know what it means, but it seems to suggest that I haven't even been trying. I choose and wear clothes to be invisible, and any other effect is probably an accident. It's like I've stopped seeing myself. That's why I was in the cookwares. I'll tell you, it took the fun out of looking at kitchen gadgets. Which is probably a good thing.

I'm back working onsite 40 hours a week at the Big Scientific Institution. I think I'm still getting used to it. I just finished editing a book for a publisher in California. And maybe I'm a little drained by all of this. I'm sort of in a rut with Tbe Notebooks. I probably need to spread everything out and see again where I am. It's not that I haven't been writing, it's just that I haven't been doing the kind of writing that goes anywhere. It's all a little too spread out and diffuse.

So on Sunday night, tired and grumpy after a weekend of socializing I went on an iTunes binge. Mainly because I had a craving for some Engelbert Humperdinck songs. I know. I know. But here's the reason: after I got attacked in St. Kitts I spent weekends at the house of my friend Margaret, who was about 84 and lived in a lovely house near the beach. She had read the story in the paper and we ran into each other at the supermarket. When she saw me she took me in her arms and said, "Oh, my dear. Come and stay with me." So I did. She was a widow. Her husband had built them this house on the hill overlooking the sea and then he had died. She had a tenant downstairs, a student at the offshore veterinary school, but the tenant went away for a short break of about a month or six weeks in the summer and Margaret didn't like to be alone. My weekend turned into a longish month. So we helped each other out that way, and she pretty much left me to my own devices. Three weeks after the attack I got fired by the psychopath who owned the paper. So then I was there in St. Kitts not knowing what I would do next. I considered going to Antigua and working for the Stanford-owned paper there; someone on the staff had expressed some interest in hiring me but I was supposed to talk to this Trinidadian man who never had any information about anything when you could reach him at all and after a while I realized that that was the point. I did not want to go to Antigua or to work for Stanford (I deeply mistrusted his whole way of doing business in the Eastern Caribbean), but at the moment I didn't see any other possibility if I wanted to stay in the islands and do journalism. Plus there were other things, personal, fallings-out with people I had thought were friends and people who had never been friends suddenly turning extra nasty because I didn't seem very lucky right then and didn't have anything they could use. This had never happened to me before, but then, I had lived a sheltered life. Anyway Margaret's house was shelter, and we were good company for each other, because she was kind and funny and not a lot of people knew that about her; she appeared to them to be just this old plantocrat lady you'd see about, mostly alone and hardly speaking when she was with friends.

In the mornings she would put an Englebert Humperdinck cassette on the stereo and waltz about the house in a blue caftan, singing along. On the days when the cleaning lady, Agatha, arrived, Agatha would sing too. On a couple of mornings I even felt sufficiently free of my own worries to join in, waltzing around that room that was so full of light and so open to the sun and the sea breeze and the view of the hills to the south and Nevis, its one peak ringed by clouds, rising behind them. Margaret had other favorites too. She really liked Rudy Vallee, a taste that was utterly beyond me. But one day she paused, as if struck by a thought, in the middle of her dancing and singing with Rudy, and she said to me: "When I was young we used to listen to these songs about the moon and holding hands and getting married and living in a little cottage, and we'd think 'Oh, Yes! That's what I want.' And then you get it and you find out that it's all a lot of nonsense!

She came from a plantocrat family and had married another plantocrat. Because of course that's what you did. She had never had a job. All her concerns and interests centered around family and friends and her solitary domestic pleasures. She was afraid of a lot of things: of stairs, of being alone in her house at night, of driving alone on the Southeast Peninsula's winding roads. But one night we were sitting in the living room doing needlepoint and watching a movie on TV and I still didn't know what I would do and I found myself quietly in tears. "Now then," she said, "You stop that." And I did. This was a woman who could not put her foot on an escalator, but she knew what courage was.

A few weeks later I was asked to run a paper in Nevis, which is how I ended up there. I was, again, rather visible. But I remember the afternoon after my last day on that paper, when I had made up my mind to leave at last, I went to this beach hotel which I will not name, and sat on a lawn chair and looked out at the sea and felt free and I liked the feeling. I really wanted a quiet life. Well, I did at that moment. If you've hung around this blog for any length of time you know that I do get a yearning from time to time to go back to the islands and write news.

Why am I telling you all this? You are probably wondering. Well, my domestic and working routine has just undergone a big change and that routine, my quiet life, keeps me from having to think about some things. And now that it's busted open all sorts of odd things are sort of leaking into my consciousness, memories, old fears, habits I hadn't thought about, self-doubt. Especially self-doubt. The routine takes care of that; so much time per day to write, so much time to think about whether it is of any use or interest to anyone but me, so much time to editing, and so much time to dogwalking and dogdriving which is what we do after dogwalking now. And until I figure out how to get my writing projects back in purposeful motion I get to contemplate what my life feels like when I'm in slack time (Let it not be too long, Lord...). Interesting things happen, but it feels as if I dreamed them.


At 7:46 PM, Anonymous Max said...

this is lovely, not surprisingly

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