the re-cycle

In addition to home beautification projects, I also gave some attention during my time off to the sorry state of the world and my contribution to that sorrow.  That’s why I have a new bike.  I’ve decided that the whole oil spill thing in the Gulf is at least 50% my fault (and the fault of people like me) — because, really, would they be drilling for oil in the gulf if I was riding my bike to work? Right.  It’s more like 75% my fault.  The rest was so inevitable, greed and politics being what they are, that it’s actually pretty much 100% my —  our — fault.

It seemed wrong to buy a new bike, though, particularly when there are so many bikes out there looking for good homes via the miracle that is craigslist. And I really lucked out — I found this great bike on craigslist and I bought it from a very nice young woman with no real desire to ride it.  I stuck a basket on it (after taking votes on the important question of wire vs. wicker on facebook) and now I’m trying to ride it everywhere.

How’s that going?  Well, the first time I took it into the city to work (I had to watch four youtube videos of how you load your bike on the bus before I had sufficient courage to do this), it rained.  Still, I rode it from the bus terminal to my office, down Market Street in the pretty great bike lane the City of San Francisco has created for people like me.  Several guys on bikes stopped and chatted me up at red lights.  One handed me his business card and asked me to call him if I ever wanted to meet and have a drink.  What that was about I have no idea.  People don’t generally chat me up.  Maybe it was the cute bike.

Shelley! Byron! Water! Cats!

I never thought I’d take such an extended vacation — I blame it entirely on the Italian people, because it was in Italy that I discovered how much I really like lying around and staring at the stars, the ceiling, and out the window which, basically, is what I’ve been doing this entire summer, when I was not grilling or eating peaches.

But I did have one or two thoughts about Italy and now that I am out of my extended vacation haze, I realize that mainly they are about the romantics and water.

Hiking along the Cinqueterre with my English professor friend C, which is where I went after London, we kept coming across places where romantic poets had spent time in the sea, sometimes tragically, sometimes not so much.

I’d like to say first that it was really fabulous being on vacation with someone who has her English literature down cold. While I struggle to remember when Hardy died, and whether he is a Victorianist or something else, C not only can tell you the answer to these questions (I think she would say he might be both) — but she can tell you what happened to Hardy’s heart (not to mention Shelley’s) (ick), and a little bit about Hardy’s wife. More on that later, after encounters with water.

The Cinqueterre is quite beautiful. In fact, the Ligurian coast, where there is pesto and lovely fish everywhere you sit down, is a wonderful place. Many of you probably already know that. I, however, did not, so I am going to say it several times, because the wonder of it all is still fresh for me. Italians are kind, gracious, fun, and have an interesting habit of always asking you when you arrive at a restaurant without a reservation, even if the restaurant is completely empty, whether you have a reservation. Upon learning that you do not, shoulders are shrugged, mouths are twisted around in expressions that vary from regret to hope to disdain, and then prego a table is produced. This is the theater of the miraculous, and after a while it became a delight, sharing in the sorrow of not being able to have something and the giddy joy at having it produced after a small emotional struggle. Yes, it was only a table in an empty restaurant, but it stood for all of life, and we felt it as such. Particularly if we had already had a drink or two before dinner, which, dear reader, we sometimes had.

Shelley — I have to get to Shelley. In the interest of actually posting something before August ends, I have not looked up these facts, so please don’t use them if you are writing a term paper on Shelley, because you might not get the grade you want. Apparently, Shelley and his friends came to Italy in the winter — for obvious reasons. My impression is that they were a dark, brooding lot, with a lot of sexual experimentation going on, a loosening of constraints both social and literary, and also, they were likely there for the food.

During this trip, Shelley apparently went out in a boat and, in a storm, the boat sank and he drowned. When the body washed up on the shore, and his friends found him, someone (probably Byron) had the bright idea that they should make a funeral pyre right there on the beach. Unfortunately (and I am sorry, but this does make me laugh, even though it is very disgusting), they didn’t realize that it is not a good idea to try to make a funeral pyre with a body that’s water-logged and they couldn’t get the whole thing to blaze up in the way they’d imagined. So, this group of insane and impractical writers and lovers and hangers on, removed Shelley’s heart and brought it back to England with them, the body being a lot more complicated to get home.

And then, being on a roll with stories of hearts and writers, I wanted to tell you too that (according to my friend C, in whom I have complete faith), when Hardy died, his literary executor, who sounds like a bit of an idiot, had the bright idea of storing Hardy’s heart inside a biscuit tin, but without a lid. Apparently, one of Hardy’s cats … well, do I really need to go on? This, apparently, is the sort of thing you learn in English graduate school — along with the interesting fact that Hardy did not speak to his wife (although they lived in the same house) for over a decade — and when I asked my friend C why he began speaking to her again she informed me that the decade of no speech ended with Hardy’s wife’s death, not with some event that got him talking to her again, although she might have been a help in choosing a better literary executor, had he only thought to ask.

So, what’s left? Ah. Byron. Byron is memorialized all over the Cinqueterre in part because there doesn’t seem to be anywhere he didn’t take a long swim from or to. And what a swimmer! In addition to a lovely grotto named after him, there is a little sign in Portovenere that tells you he swam from that small village to another larger place that took us quite a while to get to on the train. Perhaps it was faster to swim, but I’m afraid if I’d tried that, I would have met Shelley’s fate.

My next post, which I hope will be far more timely than this one, will be about Dickens, and the conference in Genoa I attended with C and a bunch of Dickens scholars who assembled there to discuss Dickens’s sojourn in Italy. More conventional than the romantics, and certainly more practical, Dickens was nevertheless no less interesting. More on that next time, dear reader.

Oh, and by the way, when you hike this weekend, don’t wear those cute high heels, okay?

London Summer Evening

The thing I love best about traveling is being lost, a condition that is both literal and figurative. Literal, because I am useless at translating what I see on a map to what I see on the sidewalk and figurative because you are never really yourself in a place that is not your own. In Shakespeare, people are always going into magical green worlds, losing themselves through disguise or magic, or both, and then returning, transformed. At its best, going away can accomplish that. Certainly, yesterday, walking along the Thames, thinking about Dickens and Twiggy, and that great scene in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando where Orlando ice skates on the Thames, I felt happier than I’ve felt in a really long time — which is how you feel when you realize that the heaviness of being yourself isn’t there any more. Across the lacy Hungerford bridge on my way to the National Theater, I came upon the carnival that is the south bank of the Thames on an extraordinarily beautiful Friday night.

My boys will love seeing the skateboard/bmx bike graffitied area that’s beautifully placed under Queen Elizabeth Hall.

I am very fond of the strange feeling of being morning awake (because that’s what time it was in California) in the evening. All around me was that wonderful summer, after-work feeling, where everywhere you look you see handsome British guys in those skinny suits that you never see in San Francisco standing around talking to lovely women outside pubs, everyone holding glasses of beer.

The great thing about traveling alone is that it’s pretty easy to get a single ticket for cheap. And that’s what I had for the production of Gorky’s Philistines at the National Theater. The theater wasn’t that big, and the seat was great. All around me were (a) people with posh accents; and (b) Russians. The babel of voices was wonderful. The play’s like that too– not the posh accent part — but lots of people talking over each other excitedly or incredibly morosely about LIFE. It occurred to me that you don’t often hear anymore, not when you’re in your forties anyway, much about the meaning of life, how you should live, whether there’s any sense in making decisions. Apparently, Gorky cared a lot about these questions. My program told me that he’s more judgmental than Chekhov and that, like Chekhov, he was interested in furniture. I was happy to know that (I think this has to do with materialism, but I won’t go into that now). And there is indeed a moment in the play when someone talks to a sideboard. Or a cupboard.  Something I did not know, but now do, is that Chekhov (I think maybe in the Cherry Orchard) has someone talk to a piece of furniture also.  Who knew?

The whole thing was not as absurd as it sounds, and the actors were all skilled, and resourceful and clearly having fun. I came away thinking that one thing you should do when you travel is make sure you get in a little time to think about life.  Or at least eavesdrop on other people doing that.

In love with the theater as I am, I’m going to see what looks like a silly, fun comedy called Boeing, Boeing at 3 and then to balance the comedy, a Harold Pinter play at 7:30 (it’s called Betrayal, and really, the title’s all you need to know). After that, on to Italy.

Oh, and a few other things about London.

  • That whole traffic reduction thing? It’s working. Although I am grateful to be told whenever I look at my feet before I cross the street which direction I should be looking, were I to mistakenly step into the street, the worst thing coming toward me is now likely to be a bicycle.  I guess making it expensive to drive in central London has made the streets safer for bikes.  Isn’t that great?
  • Is it really possible that all of London is going to stop smoking on July 1? Every bus I see tells me that this is going to happen. I won’t be here then, but I’ll be interested to hear if it’s true.
  • If you decide to spend all your money on the theater, it’s still quite possible to nourish (I use that word in its loosest sense) youself, over the course of three days, for not very much money, if you got to a Tesco and buy the following: one bar of Green & Black’s dark chocolate, three pots of yogurt, a thing of hummus, six apples, three bananas, three bags of salt and vinegar chips, and a bag of pistachios. Plus, an awful lot of water. I must admit that I’m going to have to spring for a really large salad with a lot of tomatoes and lettuce because I fear I’m not getting enough veg. But otherwise, I don’t see why you have to spend your time and money in London eating. Instead, walk everywhere, drink a lot of water, and spend your money on theater tickets.  When you arrive in Italy you can make up for the lack of veg.


I am, at this exact moment, in the airport, on my way to Europe.  It is not the case that I’m fleeing the country because I couldn’t get the damned podcast headphone thing to work, it’s just that I’m fleeing the country because ….. TA DA…  I’m going on vacation, and it came around way sooner than podcasting, apparently, ever will.  We’ll get to those questions someday, but I’m left thinking that really, a good question, which is what all of you asked, is in many ways a satisfying thing all by itself.  (And Mandarine, I know that was a Monty Python thing and so did Doug, but I cheated and had to google it and I know it’s imprinted on both of your DNA.)

Tomorrow, I’ll be in London for a day or so, and then I’m going on to Italy, for some hiking and some hanging out.  I figure, after a month or so of being out of touch, the best way to get back in touch is to take a long break from work, and work, and work, which is what’s been on my mind for the last month.

I would like to just say that I believe I am the only person on this hugely crowded flight to Gatwick who’s looking forward to being in the air for all those hours.  I’m all alone in seat 33 H,  my children and lovely husband being home finishing up school and other things.  I’ve got a great book of Chekhov short stories, ones that were translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and if that doesn’t do the trick, a magazine, and then my beautifully working computer, the one that works fine as long as I don’t try to hook any gadget more complex than my digital camera to it.

It’s great to be back in touch.  I’ve missed you guys. Next wireless connection, I’ll let you know if I’m right about being the happiest person on the flight.

xo, BL

At the Bottom of the Hill

was the ocean. The Mendocino coast is rocky and wild. In places, the rock formations are eerily lunar. You feel like you’re somewhere no one has ever been before.

The road to Gualala winds north through dairies and ranches and then narrows into the redwoods. But every once in a while, you’ll come around a curve and see the ocean out there, to your left, to the west. The ocean smells like earth, and rain and salt.
The children measured the span of a 2,400 year old redwood by making a human chain, with their arms stretched around it. So huge, but still, something an eleven year old boy can touch, while thinking about how the Greeks were at the height of their civilization when the tree began growing. And there were frogs everywhere — one boy spent a lot of time walking around with a frog on his cheek, then his forehead and finally hanging onto his hair. I should mention that these were very small, friendly, sort of cute and not slimy frogs. Their abundance is a sign that all is well in this environment. On the shore, my son found a small pair of antlers bleached white by the Gualala River. They became his talisman and good luck charm.

On Thursday, we kayaked down the river, stopping for science experiments in the rain (there’s a lot of oxygen in the river, which is a good thing) and then lunch in the rain under a tree. At the end of the day, the sun came out and a small group of us (my son and I, the intrepid teacher, another parent and three children) kept going along the river to where it gave out into the ocean. We pulled up on a sandy beach and walked over a sand dune and there was the Pacific, quite wild, a lot of crashing waves and driftwood. I learned that, with good enough rain gear, you can do almost anything. After a childhood of wet feet and hands, being out in the rain and actually having a nice time was redemptive.

Certainly, I never would have guessed that I’d love kayaking in the rain as much as I did. The kayaks were one person boats — very light, they skimmed along the water, even where it was quite shallow. Ahead and above were canopies of trees, green and gold in the mist and the rain. It was more beautiful than I can say.

I’ve got a bit more to go to the end. As many of you guessed, on occasion sleep and my love of hot showers won out over words. Still, it was exciting and fun and productive enough during the evening I did get to write. But I’m considering the great downhill to be at an end. Now it’s just a cruise to the finish today and tomorrow and possibly Monday, with my children away at soccer games and friends’ houses. I’ll be happy to type “the end.” But first, a quick peek to see what what everyone’s been writing and doing in the last week!

The Gualala River (Where the Great Downhill Ends)

In a few days, I’m leaving for the Gualala River (on the north coast of California in Mendocino County) with one of my sons. I’m chaperoning the annual sixth grade field trip. I’ll be back in a week.

Here’s a progress report.

Novel: almost done. It will be complete when I return from this trip, which involves kayaking, hiking, and outdoor science learning for the children (and for me too, I suppose). What’s even better than all that worthy wilderness activity is that this trip will also involve the writing of the final chapters at night, when the tired kayaker/hikers are asleep.

Blogwriting: Temporarily on hold. I’ll be back October 7. Until then, I’ll miss hearing all of your virtual voices. Don’t do anything too too terribly exciting while I’m gone!  Oh, and don’t forget:

Your Toothpaste Is Now, Officially, Dangerous

That, anyway, is what I considered telling my children, before they left this morning for a week with their cousins in New England. Unfortunately (or fortunately) this news would not have had much impact on them. They already believe toothpaste can kill them. That’s why they don’t like to spend much time brushing their teeth.They feel the same way about all other personal grooming products. They understood, long before United Airlines, that shampoo, conditioner and soap, liquid or otherwise, are the instruments of evil. I had to do exactly nothing when I checked their carry-on luggage for forbidden items. None of those things had even been packed. Now, if there was some plot to blow up airlines using action figures, we’d be in a world of hurt.

I thought it would be hard to tell them about the latest plot to blow up airlines using liquid concoctions. But the truth is, when I did give them an executive summary of this news (omitting the stuff about toothpaste and shampoo, lest it lead to further intransigence on the subject of personal grooming), they laughed. Even after they read the story in the New York Times, they still thought it was pretty funny. Perhaps it was because this plot is like something you’d see in a cartoon, where the bad guy is so patently ridiculous that even a French adventure hero like Tintin could deal with him with just a look and a “zoot.” It’s hard to imagine how somebody could blow up a plane with a tube of Crest.

Of course I didn’t like seeing them run up the corded-off ramp toward the security checkpoint. I don’t like it that people want to blow each other up. I don’t like having to tell my children this. But children have innate good sense about this. They already know that people will try to hurt each other. And at least they are able to laugh at adult efforts to do so, even when, under it all, there is something deadly serious going on.

Anyway, to take the pall off the page from all this, I’d like to record here the rules the children came up with for behavior on this trip. Let me say that there are six children on this trip: my three and three of their cousins. They range in age from 13 to 6. There are four boys and two girls. The only adult who will be with them is my husband. He was an Eagle Scout. He loves this kind of thing. The other adults love him and make plans to stay in swanky hotels while their children are gone.

The children would never voluntarily have come up with these rules had I not asked them to talk about the one thing they cared the most about in how people treated them. They would have much preferred to trade burps and talk about why the cheese on their pizza could stretch so far. I want it out there now: I am a bossy, rule making person. I can’t help it. In about three years, my children will be making fun of this quality. But they’ll never forget how important it is to take turns when you talk, which is rule number 1 at our dinner table. (Nobody does it…. not yet. I have hope.)

So, here they are:

  • Cousin number 1 (boy, eleven years old): I like hugs.
  • Cousin number 2 (boy, six years old): No excluding.
  • Cousin numbers 3 and 4 (girls 12 and 13): Kisses. (lots of giggles)
  • Cousin number 4 (girl, 12) Inside voices (cousin no. 2 having just shouted in her ear about the kissing thing)
  • Cousin number 5 (boy, eleven years old): No hitting.
  • Cousin number 6: Positive. Say nice things.
  • Aunt, who is not going: Be helpful to your uncle.

I know it’s been said before. Children should rule the world (with a little adult help making the lunches). Yes, there would be a lot of messy hair and cavities, the occasional Lord of the Flies moment and I do not even want to think about how they’d handle commuting. Even with all that, were they to have more say in how things go, we’d all be having a lot more fun and we’d most likely be much safer than we are today in the nasty, divided, violent world we’ve all gone to so much trouble to make for them.