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Book Marks

I’m not sure who decided I was a huge Jane Austen fan, but at some point, about ten years ago, various pieces of Austen-related kitsch started showing up in my house. It seemed innocuous enough at the time. And I get it. When gift-giving time comes, my friends and family see a Pemberley-branded tea cozy or a set of Lizzie Bennett cocktail napkins and think, “Alison reads books and knows a weird amount about English history, I’m sure she’d be tickled pink to receive these totes pink Mansfield Park slipper socks!”

I don’t want to be a jerk about it. My friends and family are trying to be thoughtful. And it’s probably not worth it for me to get into the fact that I find most 19th century English novels* just the side of “eh?” Nor is it fair for me to bombard them with lists of my favorite writers on the off chance that one of them might be able to scare up John Milton hand soap or a Flann O’Brien snow globe** or something.

As it happens, I do like Jane Austen. I find her books appealingly darker and meaner than a lot of folks would have you believe and contrary to the general consensus, I’m not sure any of them necessarily end “happily.” She’s not in my Top Ten, but she’s a great deal more appealing than a lot of other writers people assume that I must just love ( eg: Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, JD Salinger, pretty much all of the Beats and Haruki Murakami).

In the meantime, I’ll make do. I’m a pretty clumsy person and my seemingly endless supply of Mr. Darcy band-aids sure do come in handy.

* I like Thackeray and George Eliot quite a bit. I’ve long been a fan (like since adolescence) of the Bronte sisters and their psychotic seriously? the fuck? Gothic potboilers. But in general, I don’t love 19th century novels unless the books explicitly address how miserable it was to be a sexually repressed, psychologically hamstrung hypocrite with terrible neighbors, uncomfortable underwear and weird politics. Which is why I vastly prefer Russian and French novels of the period and I probably like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James better than you do.

**For serious: I want one.

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California

This kid—let’s call him Sam—dropped by the store a couple weeks ago. He’s been a regular customer since he was a wee thing (which was about a minute ago in adult time). He wanted to sell a couple of LPs and give us a preliminary goodbye. “I’m going to San Francisco,” he said.

Sam couldn’t have had a worse audience. He’s maybe, maybe, twenty-one, skinny, with a baby-face, a touch of an Eastern North Carolina drawl and that placid, lightly glazed look of a precocious stoner. He wears hip-huggers and moccasins and leather vests without shirts underneath. The overall effect is something like Tom Sawyer role-playing Jim Morrison. And maybe that works for him[1]. It likely charms the pants off the young ladies. It doesn’t however do much for our typical weekday afternoon crowd. All men, save me, and the next youngest was at least thirty-five and looked like he’d been having a terrible day since around 2010.

Sam gave us a breathless spiel about selling everything and chipping in with his friends/bandmates to buy a sweet 1977 van with “swizzle seats.” He and his boys had pooled their resources and arrived at a figure in the 7K range on which they planned on living until the band broke or whatever.  I kept a peripheral eye on the back of the store and caught a few customers actually wincing at the details.

After he left, my coworker posited that their sweet ride would likely not get them as far as Tennessee before breaking down. “And that wouldn’t be the worst thing,” said a customer. “That way they’ll have reasonable excuse for coming home before they actually get to California, blow the seven grand in two weeks and start hating each other.”

“Seven thousand dollars spilt five ways is basically a vacation in San Francisco,” said another customer. “Not even a particularly luxurious one.”

“They should just book a hotel and see the sights,” said the first. “Maybe take a little road trip down the coast. Ditch the van. Sell it, if it’s still running at that point. Fly back in a month. Re-enroll in school next semester.”

It was a good suggestion. Pragmatic, mature, responsible, yet not without a sense of adventure. We all nodded because we’re all adults and because we’ve already had opportunity to fuck up our lives in various ways. We’re still paying off debts accrued when we were Sam’s age. We’re at the I’m not trying to be an asshole, but you need to think long and hard about that Mumford & Sons neck tattoo, my man age. Which is to say we sound like parents (some of us are). Which is to say we sound resigned. Which is to say I don’t remember the last time I considered packing up the car and driving off into the sunset and disappearing into the west.

I know there are plenty of people who want to go west for totally good, clean, justifiable reasons. They like redwoods or computers. They enjoy volcanoes and rain or conversely the secret thrill of living on a faultline in a major metropolis without a naturally occurring supply of drinking water.  I wasn’t one of them.

I spent my long, complicated university years stuck in the south, going to shitty punk shows and skipping classes. When not hating myself and my life in equal measure, I recreationally pined for the West Coast. I had it my mind that a clean slate and a little gold dust might be a better treatment for depression than, say, Zoloft. It wasn’t the craziest idea in the world. After all, wasn’t America a country founded for escapists by escapists? How was throwing everything in the hatchback and seeing how quickly I could put three thousand miles between myself and my shit life in the armpit of North Carolina any different than my ancestors taking good hard look at the British Isles and deciding to blow[2] that damp, class-obsessed popsicle stand and give humid, race and class-obsessed Virginia the old college try?

Happy people don’t abandon everything and light out for the territory, no matter how shiny the gold, how seemingly free the (stolen?) land, how alluring the charms of God-sanctioned polygamy. You can’t sell something as dumb as manifest destiny to a contented soul. You need frustrated, impatient, hungry folks who hate history and have poor impulse control. You need Americans, whose privileged majority is entirely comprised of people that leave. When the going gets tough, the tough gets packing. We don’t, as a general rule, stick around to clean up our messes. If there’s a chance of a way out we’ll take it, which has a lot to do with why so many towns (some not that small) have been in death throes for years. Feeling oppressed in Poland? Super. You’ll love New York. New York got you down? How about Ohio? Ohio too crowded? How about Oklahoma? Oklahoma too dusty? Try Southern California? Southern California too hot? Try Seattle. “I mean, it’s nice here, mom. But I’ll never get anywhere in publishing if I can’t run into Tao Lin at a Bushwick Party.” And so it goes.[3]

But I didn’t. I was either too smart or too scared to risk it on my own. Caution and cowardice can look pretty similar. At the time, I usually felt like I suffered from the latter. Failing to act didn’t stop me from daydreaming. I invented a whole other alternate life. [4]  It hinged on an unseized upon moment in 1995 when I sat in the car in a strip mall parking lot with my then roommate and once best friend playing hypotheticals. “We could not pay rent,” I said. “We could not pay rent and drive to California,” she said. It was September and hot. We’d been enrolled at the same terrible state university for two weeks. We already hated it. We lit fresh cigarettes.  We listened to music from California and watched the sun disappear into the west. We would not follow, but it was nice, for a moment, to imagine that we might.


[1]Having spent a longer period of my adult life than most in the less glamorous margins of the music industry, I suspect “fake it ’til you make it” is as sound a strategy as any other if you’re looking for attention.

[2] That probably wasn’t a good idea either, given the cash crop-growing, institutional racism participating, wrong side of history inhabiting that move would go on to entail. At the very least if my forefolk had stayed on the left side of the Atlantic, they probably wouldn’t have gotten involved with slavery and I might have single-payer health care. Win/Win.

 [3] I think the game resets if you settle in the country from which your ancestors once emigrated. I’m not sure you’ll get extra lives, but your kids might end up with duel citizenship, which is almost as good.

 [4] I kept up with the exploits of that other me for years after I stopped dreaming about the Golden Gate Bridge That Alison didn’t stay in Bay Area. She ended up following a guy to Chicago. He broke her heart and she spent a couple of years trying to make it as a journalist before decamping to Oregon shortly after her thirty-second birthday. I haven’t checked in on her recently. But I think she took up mountain biking and married to a one-time drummer turned pastry chef. She’s probably produced a kid or a memoir by now.

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About Time

As you get older, things tend toward slowness. You’re not inclined to move as fast or talk as fast or eat as fast or fuck as fast or whatever as fast. You want to savor the moment. You want to enjoy every flavor. You want to not stumble over yourself and faceplant in the middle of the snow-slicked running trail.[1] Slowing down is not such a bad deal. Sipping on single malt is far more enjoyable than shot-gunning a PBR. And given enough time, I’m sure almost anyone can have an orgasm.

The only thing that doesn’t slow down is time itself. You know, the Time that shuffled casually through your twenties and barely trickled through high school? The same Time that was regularly outpaced by stones when you were a kid? Remember when summers lasted for decades and school years could be measured in geologic periods? How any single class (not necessarily gym) taught by a gym teacher could stretch into millennia?

These days Time has trained up into a pretty fast pace. It only accelerates[2] with each passing year. 2009 feels like just last year. In ten years, I full expect 2014 to seem like last week.

When did this happen? I don’t know. Sometime around late 2006, maybe? It wasn’t a hard, fast line I crossed. Given the soggy circumstances of that particular summer, it’s far more likely I stumbled, tipsy, off the youth platform and found myself on the slightly faster, if shabbier, grown-up train. Day passed before I had a chance to get to know them. Then one day I  realized I was north of thirty-five and 2006 was something like five years ago. I would find myself saying things like: “Isn’t Margaret pregnant?” And my friends would roll their eyes and say: “Margaret’s kid is in the first grade. Are you high?”

Many of my close friends are younger than I am. Some of them are only just now nearing onset of adult time. I feel for them. I may have even tried to warn them about its encroachment. Trying to explain adult time preemptively is futile. Young people don’t want to know about it. [3].” The realization that life is really and truly, no joke, passing you by can be sobering at best.  It prompts panicked 4am variations on a theme of Fuck Me, I Don’t Have Any Savings. You find yourself fixated on many once dull topics (health insurance, retirement, equity, taxes, credit ratings, health). And lots of once enjoyable things (parties, drugs, random hook-ups, fame, uncomfortable shoes, ancient, poorly insulated apartments) start to feel significantly less awesome once lived in for a while.

For people able or inclined to follow the more traditional marriage/home-ownership/kids/job-with -advancement path, I imagine adult time creeps in between the other benchmarks. For those like me, who took a different road (by choice or necessity), it is more unsettling. Apart from a few wrinkles, a touch more humility and the fact that I’ve stopped apologizing for my guilty pleasures, I’m not so different from my younger self. I could be bound in a nutshell and count myself eternally twenty-nine were it not for all this damn adult time.

But chin up, kids. It’s not all bad. Adult time provokes focus and forces consideration of priorities. Did I really need to suffer needlessly for so long for failing to live up to someone else’s expectations? Do I really need to spend years working too hard to achieve something just for the sake of empty achievement? Do I really want to go back to graduate school to for a degree I don’t really care about to (maybe) get a job I don’t really want?  Do I really have to waste my nights failing to meet the beauty standards/romantic expectations of some guy I met on a dating site? Wouldn’t I rather keep in my occasionally lucrative and not-unsatisfying career path and spend any extra time and money on travel and dinners and music and people I love? Of course I would.

I was never going to get exactly everything I wanted. I think I always knew that. Adult time forced me to make peace with maybe not getting exactly anything I once thought I  wanted.  My grown-up life may not be glamorous,  but it’s happening and it’s sometimes pretty sweet and it’s real, which is more than I can say for all the other things that didn’t happen along the way.


[1]I’m fine, thanks.

[2] Unless I’m on the phone with tech support or sitting in a traffic jam. Maybe there’s something to that. You can have immortal life. But you have to spend it sitting dead still in a rush hour bottleneck while a mumbly dude who sounds about as miserable as you are repeatedly asks you if you’re sure you’ve reset the modem.

[3] I’m sure it sounds depressing in the same way that “Going out all the time will be less fun” sounds depressing when you’re twenty-five. Part of that is a communication breakdown. What you mean is: “It’s better to have a glass of wine and watch Netflix than go to the bar and deal with a bunch of shitty, entitled twenty-five-year-old hipsters acting exactly like I did when I was a shitty, entitled twenty-five-year-old hipster.” What they hear is: “Your nights will not longer teem with breathless, luminous possibility. You will sell out, settle, get boring and wear bad jeans.”

Cooler Heads Prevail

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It’s been extremely cold here for what feels like an ice age or one of those winters  “Game of Thrones” people go on about. The kind of cold currently scaring people off the sidewalks is serious, legit cold, though I’m absolutely positive someone from THE NORTH will quibble and tell me I am weak and recount the time the snow was higher than rooftops and the only way to get water was to cut and melt pieces of the glacier that ate New England back into 19-Legendy-4.

And you know what? That’s fine. I’m a southerner.   I think snow is frankly annoying. I grab a sweater when the temperature drops below 65. I don’t even own a puffy coat. You can have your snowmobiles and your hockey games and overwrought confessions of infidelity in the ice-fishing hut. I like my long summers and lush foliage even if I do have to put up with terrible, morally reprehensible history, horrifying politics, willful ignorance, impenetrable humidity and the occasional giant, flying cockroach. If it’s necessary to stand around stiff upper lipped in double-digit negative wind chills to impress someone, then I don’t really don’t care if they think I’m weak. Because seriously? Fuck that. No one likes the cold that much, not even the storied race of Vegan Communist Viking Lumberjacks that all the kids want to dress like these days.

I blame climate change for this particular mess of frigid. Is it still some iteration of the preposterously named Polar Vortex? I don’t want to watch enough Weather Channel to find out.

In the past, I’ve enjoyed dressing for winter weather, as it avails me the chance to wear cute boots and cashmere sweaters and velvet party dresses. But by winter weather, I mean tights-and-cardigan weather as opposed to snowsuit-and-hypothermia weather. I’m wearing two sweaters on the reg these days. I like to think I pull it off with panache, but honestly I look like an addled antiquarian book dealer and a bit like my father when he went through that Argyle sweater vest period.  I can deal with that. The real frustration for me is the hat issue.

In general, I’m a fan of hats. I have vintage fascinators and pillboxes hanging from my bedroom walls. I know that all the best occasions to wear a picture hat usually involve horse races. I wear broad-brimmed sunhats whilst sitting by the sea. I think there’s a time and place for top hats, trilbys, bowlers, berets and the rest (though maybe so much fedoras). I think it’s terribly sad that only reactionary asshole bigots still have love for the tricorn.  And I believe, at some point in the future, I may very well overcome my prejudice against newsboy caps. But winter hats? Not so much.

The traditional woolen stocking cap thing never set well with me, or rather on me. No matter how many knit reindeer or pom -poms or (god help me) those absurd twee animal ears you put on the thing, I look like a fat thumb whenever I wear one. And when I take it off, I look like a fat thumb with the tragic hair of the chronically unwashed. It doesn’t matter how recently I’ve showered or what sort of haircut I have at the time (though when long it really tends toward unfashionable grunge territory).

So I buy these faux fur monstrosities that I hope will make me look like Julie Christie in “Doctor Zhivago.” I have little confidence that this is the case. Judging from the sidelong glances I get whenever I wear my hat around town, I’m guessing the actual effect is closer to Nana’s Friend Lola Visits Canada or Blossom in the Tundra.

Given this situation, it was probably ill-advised to maintain the pixie cut through the winter (thus making the hat even more of a necessity).  I would probably buy some preposterous velvet hooded thing if I thought I could maintain my self-respect[1]. Whatever. I gravitate toward some version of form even when I try to be functional.

Thus my ears stay cold as I pine for spring.


[1] It’s hard to balance on the edge of witchy/hippie/Renaissance fashion without falling head first into Lady Alysonne Nightwood of Coven Oh God, Seriously? when you’re not the sort of rail-thin fashionista type that can literally make anything work with a smoky eye and a couple of lines of cocaine. Those girls can wear dolman sleeves and velvet snoods and look like movie stars, whilst the same ensemble makes me look like I’m trying too hard to be accepted by my fellow wenches at the Ren Faire.

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Skin

Tomorrow I’m going to the dermatologist. I don’t  mind going because my doctor is a soft-spoken, sort of glamorous person who wears cute skirts and give me fancy sample products I can trade for cat sitting and other favors.

Early on in my appointment, my moles will be assessed.  I will be told that I handle sunlight about as well as a vampire and that I should wear  100SPF under my  Hazmat suit should I chance meet daylight. I find this grossly unfair. The other women in my family run around, say, the beach at noon and turn a nice golden brown without additional  unsightly blemishes and disapproving looks from the medical community. I, on the other hand, tend toward a veiny, splotchy blemished pallor that not even the most besotted of poets would ever confuse for ivory and a tendency to redden at the first opportunity. Experience shows that I can tan, though it takes several painful variations on the theme of salmon and maybe a second degree burn to get there.

This didn’t used to be a problem. As a teenager, my personal style icons tended to be either slightly goth or mostly dead. And because I had neither a waif-like build nor a natural tendency toward flowing Pre-Raphaelite tresses, flowy skirts and a pasty complexion were really all I had going for me. Inclined to be contrary and unwavering in my belief that evident enthusiasm for things (like warmth and/or daylight) would brand me as a loser or maybe a poseur (or both), I spent most family beach vacations hiding in the condo, reading the Western Canon, stealing my mother’s cigarettes and trying to act like I didn’t want to go swimming. I thus preserved my pallor and kept my moderately unhealthy adolescence safe from any potential benefit of sunlight and sea air.

In general,I went to great lengths to appear as unaffected by the wonders of nature as possible. No wilderness adventure for me. My version of badass inhabited an urban jungle somewhat resembling the cinematic East Village in the 70s and 80s, full of great bands and artists and fashionably tragic Nan-Goldin-ish waifs with probable drug problems and cute vintage party dresses.

By the time I hit my mid-twenties, most of my teenaged affectations, though I still stopped short of committed enthusiasm for forests and mountains and waterfalls and the smell of green things around you and all that transcendent shit. The jig, however, was up. Maybe my friends caught me lingering overlong at creeksides or perhaps my habit of ruining party dresses by running around in the spring rain like some clumsy offspring of Cathy Earnshaw and a Wordsworth poem tipped them off. Or maybe it was just that no one believed my subscription to Outside was an accident. Whatever the case, I clearly remember having an argument with a roommate and failing quite completely to convince her that outdoorsy-ness was a dealbreaker in romantic relationships.

She just rolled her eyes and said something about not fooling anybody and “ Seriously, Alison? You’re totally going to marry some mountain climber, whose best man is a Sherpa guide. ”

I blushed and stuttered with the shame of the FOUND OUT, but I didn’t argue. Because as a match, that actually didn’t sound so bad and really I’d been waiting for someone to call me on that bullshit for years. By the time I admitted to being secretly outdoorsy, the secret part was probably unnecessary.

I don’t want to overstate this. I’m still far more likely to wear crinolines than hiking boots and the last time I was anywhere close to the Appalachian Trail, I was in a car. But the more time I spend outside the more time I want to spend outside if you know what I mean. If you ask me to tag along on your adventure, I’ll probably go, because why not? I’m far more likely to regret the not doing, even if the doing sometimes sucks while I’m doing it.

And yeah, sure, I’ll even wear sunscreen.