June 26, 2015
This happened in a café in Amsterdam.
There was giggling. There was mild screeching. There was even, I regret to say, a brief scrabble under the table to facilitate the transfer.
We were in a state of relief and benevolence. Relief, because we had given our first choral performance in Amsterdam. Benevolence, because my friend Helen was recovering from a foot injury. The cast she’d been wearing for weeks had only just come off and the whole area – leg, ankle, foot — was still tender. Standing on a hard floor in a cold church and singing for an hour hadn’t helped. Neither had the long walk to a café after the concert.
By the time we sat down and ordered the first round of drinks Helen’s convalescent foot, laced into a vaguely orthopaedic oxford, was swollen, red and puffy around the ankle. Assessing the damage, it occurred to me that Helen and I could swap shoes. My feet are bigger than hers and I was wearing slip-on ballerinas with padded insoles.
This seemed a brilliant solution.
Did I mention we were a little tipsy?
Sober, it might have occurred to me that Helen’s comfort in a pair of oversized ballerinas was, ipso facto, contingent on my discomfort in footwear a size too small.
Even worse, much worse, Helen’s vaguely orthopaedic oxfords did not match my outfit.
I was wearing a fitted black dress, mid-length, a leather jacket and lacy tights with my black ballerinas. The dress for singing, the jacket for edge, the tights and ballerinas for, well, prettiness. A touch of grace. The vaguely orthopaedic oxfords – chic on Helen – distorted the effect. Wearing them, I went from genteel biker girl to strict KGB operative: Lotte Lenya as Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love, with her mulish expression and a switchblade embedded in the sole of her brogue.
It was not the look I’d been going for. It was jarring and borderline freakish. This bothered me.
But this was before I discovered the Amsterdam Factor.
The Amsterdam Factor is a phenomenon that creeps up on you, takes you by surprise. It snuck up on me when we left the café and went off in search of culture.
After all, we were in Amsterdam: birthplace of the Dutch Golden Age, capital of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, a port city steeped in history and art, trade and finance.
And the first piece of culture we encountered, the very first one, was the Amsterdam Museum of Prostitution.
This was housed in a tasteful canal-side mansion. There was a dignified plaque by the entrance.
We went in, but we didn’t stay long, just long enough to check out the pictures hanging in the lobby. These were photographs of a few of the museum’s exhibits, the coming attractions, if you will. There were photos of handcuffs and pulley devices, photos of men in partial animal costumes and a few shots of very competent-looking women in masks and thigh boots. What was strange was the overall tone, the ethos of the joint: it was matter of fact — tolerant, casual and dissipated all at the same time. Studying these images, it dawned on me that what I was wearing –vaguely orthopaedic oxfords wedded to a leather jacket and a fitted dress – was absolutely fit for purpose in Amsterdam.
In a city with one of the most jaded sexual palates on earth, the incongruous and jarring is not just the norm, it’s a necessity.
The unaccustomed is actually the customary.
That’s the Amsterdam Factor.
And it’s not just the obvious erotic displays in the red light district, women in underwear gesturing to you from inside lit-up booths: the startling, decadent invitations are everywhere, usually when you least expect them. Making our way from the Rijksmuseum to the Van Gogh Museum, from cultural point A to cultural point B as it were, Helen and I passed a small grocery store. There in the shop window, laid out between a stack of Pringles and a pyramid of Diet Cokes, was a sexual device so complicated, so abundant in possibilities — parts springing from it, holes and gashes cut into it –it seemed to speak to every conceivable carnal taste. The shape of a torso with the bulk of a carton, it was hard to know what to call it.
We Instagrammed it to Helen’s husband.
He texted us right back.
Let’s just call it a kind of chair, he said. An unusual kind of chair.
He was half right. A kind of chair, that would do as a description, but in Amsterdam, there was nothing unusual about it.
May 20, 2015
I blame Amsterdam.
The prospect of going there, and singing there with my choir was very exciting. I’d never been to Amsterdam. I was in such a pleasurable tizzy about the whole thing that I organized a special travel outfit to mark the occasion: a ladylike dress, a belt, tights, boots, spring gloves, leather jacket (my daintiness has its limits), bracelets, earrings and a silver doo-dad to keep my hair in order.
In retrospect, I can see it was way too elaborate. Not for life – it was fine for life – but it was terrible for modern day air travel. I’d completely blanked out the reality of airport scanners and trace detection portals and uniformed personnel coming at you with wands and beepers.
I was too caught up in visions of cobblestones and canals, and gabled houses with adorable window boxes, and what it would be like to walk, very solemnly, past Anne Frank’s attic. As I mentioned, I’d never been to Amsterdam before. This despite the fact I’ve lived in Britain for two decades and Holland is ridiculously close by jet, one of those quickie flights where you’re still trying to open the bag of airline nuts, going at it with your teeth and the plane’s already starting its descent into Schiphol Airport. Up, down, you’re there. That’s the reality.
It wasn’t the first reality of the day. When I walked into Heathrow and saw the stack of plastic trays on the security line, my little fashion bubble burst. It dawned on me that I’d dressed for a completely different era of air travel, and that almost everything I had on, had to come off. Boots, belt, jacket, jewellery, the silver hair doo-dad — all of it unzipped, unbuckled and peeled away in a fair imitation of the world’s worse strip tease.
I padded through the X-ray machine looking like I was wearing a beach cover, my ladylike dress, minus the belt, demoted to what my Grandma Lena would have called a shapeless schmatta.
What ever happened to airports?
When did they turn into glorified bus stations?
They used to be so glamorous. Romantic. Mysterious.
They used to be the setting for women in cunning hats and three-quarter length gloves dashing lightly into the arms of men who looked like Gregory Peck. All the men wore suits, with very white shirts.
We all know what happened, why it is that airports have come to acquire the charm and efficiency of a hospital waiting room during peak flu season. What happened, of course, is the awkward marriage of two contrasting isms: egalitarianism and terrorism. Today, flying is far more affordable for far more people and it affords far more opportunities for a lunatic with an agenda to render the experience deadly.
But knowing that is one thing; accepting it is another. And the night before I went to Amsterdam, draping my clothes on the bedroom chair, I was still pretending that a flight to a foreign country was an occasion, as opposed to an ordeal.
The cabbie who drove me to the bus did, in fact, look a little like Gregory Peck.
March 18, 2015
“You walk around with that on your head,” he told me, “no one will ever ask you out.”
And my new favourite sunglasses, the one’s I’m convinced are so wonderful they will actually change my life – he called them tacky.
“Blue lenses?” he said. “Wrong, wrong, wrong. They look ridiculous.”
“Hang on,” I said. “What if I wear them with this lipstick?”
“Especially with that lipstick.”
That’s how he talks to me.
And he’s not even gay.
These damning verdicts — bad hat, naïf glasses, tragic cosmetics — were delivered while I was perched on the edge of his sickbed. Sickbed’s a bit of a misnomer; he wasn’t ill, just convalescing after a minor operation. And while we’re at it, it wasn’t even his bed; it belongs to my daughter, his niece, who’s away at university. But it’s a nice bed in a sunny room and, six hours after the minor op, my bro-in-law had colonized it, built himself a little nest with extra pillows, Al Jazeera on the laptop and a stack of painkillers on the bedside table. In between belittling my wardrobe and sipping the tea I’d carried up for him, he urged me to admire the hole the surgeon had made in his stomach. Some kind of pink sludge was trickling out of it.
“I’m not going anywhere near that,” I said. “It’s gross. You’re gross.”
That’s how I talk to him.
If you heard us on tape, you’d swear you were listening to a couple of 12-year-olds, adolescent brother and sister competing to see who could be more obnoxious, more clever with the put downs — a 12-year-old’s version of clever. I suspect we act like this because we think this is how a brother and sister are meant to behave. Mocking. Alert for vulnerabilities. Bothering each other.
I say suspect because we’re not really sure how it works, what the protocol is for this brother-sister business.
It’s new for us.
Neither one of us grew up with an opposite sex sibling. He has brothers; I have a sister. We’ve been in-laws for a long time, but that’s a different level of connection, courteous and indirect. Disinterested. Then something happened, an inner shift, the tectonic plates realigning. Nothing was said or even acknowledged, but there it was, this gradual assumption of new roles. We had morphed into a parody of brother and sister.
We’ve been making it up as we go along, trying stuff on, mimicking what we’ve seen in movies and old sit-coms. Monica and Ross. Ferris and what’s-her-name Bueller. Scout and Jem. It’s like a crash course in fraternal conduct: Sibling 101.
So far we’ve aced the Intimacy of Insults as well as Proprietary Disapproval. We sailed through Bathroom Slurs (Light a match, would you? Was that my towel you used?), but we definitely need remedial work on what I call Appropriate Advice Giving. You know, the part where the brother sits the sister down – or vice-versa — and tells her/him frankly, and with real concern that she/he has chosen the wrong job/partner/house/friends/pet. The problem is despite the fact we’re both grown ups, in fact, grown ups with grown up children of our own, neither of us seems capable of imparting much in the way of life wisdom.
We’re both clueless.
At least that’s what we take turns telling each other.
January 15, 2015
That’s all, just the miracle of neoprene to protect the extremities.
Because of course the water was cold — 6 C, around 43 F — just about bearable, i.e., not freezing, not literally. Ice is my cut-off point. I don’t break ice to swim.
I’m not that hard core.
I know someone who is, a woman all the way hard core, who breaks the surface ice with her heel and shoves the fragments aside to make a lane for herself through the water. I’ve seen her a few times at the riverbank club, the two of us the only ones out that early in the morning. We usually chat, a brief discourse about the weather or the big male swan who’s had a go at both of us: what’s his story?
These encounters are always very civilized, but they’re also slightly surreal, because what we don’t acknowledge, not ever, is the essential weirdness of the situation, the fact we’re standing there naked in winter with goosebumps and river hair.
I ran into the ice breaker on the train to London not long ago. We were both dressed so it took us a while to realize we knew each other, and in what context. Even then, having figured it out, one of those shared lightbulb moments, we didn’t talk about the riverbank club.
The first rule of riverbank club is you do not talk about riverbank club.
We didn’t talk about swimming because it’s a boring subject. Images of flesh and dark water and the inscrutability of ice aside, what is there to say? You get in. It’s wet. You swim. You get out.
The only halfway intriguing aspect has to do with why.
The ice breaker and I have never discussed our respective motivations (the first rule of riverbank club…), but I suspect the reason she breaks ice is because she can.
I say this because the reason I inch down a soggy ladder into a body of water that, duh, gets colder every day is because I can.
It’s something I can control. This matters because there’s a certain amount of slippage in my life right now. Without going into details (I’m striving for discreet), I can reveal that events are out of kilter, emotions are running high and my future is undergoing what a self-help manual might refer to as an interval of readjustment.
And this small business of lowering myself into a near-icy river is one of the few obstacles I’m able to surmount. Or dismount, as it concerns descending a ladder.
I start my descent. Urged on by my internal pep squad, who rally the crowd with a chorus of, Come on, come on, you wimp, I pry my fingers off the sides of the ladder, release a series of dog’s-tail-caught-in-the-car-door yelps and, with the neoprene booties deceiving the rest of my body into thinking, Well, this isn’t so bad, I sink backwards into what turns out to be – every single time! — aquatic hell. Thermoreceptors in overdrive, I flirt briefly with cardiac arrest. I’m mid-river by this time so it’s swim or drown.
Simple, really and only marginally insane.
But marginally insane is the current state of play for me and at the conclusion of my version of the ice bucket challenge (sponsorship welcome, btw), I get my pay off: the drug of smug. Of all the endorphins the brain supplies after a bout of physical activity, this has to be the best– the obnoxious, buoyant balm of self-regard.
November 16, 2014
What can I say about this flower necklace?
I’d never worn anything like it before.
Each flower – there are three of them – is the size of a deflated satsuma and dyed a deep red. In-your-face blood red. You can adjust the length of the chain so the flowers lie either just above or just below the collarbone. I advise below to limit the risk of chin abrasion.
It’s a lot of necklace.
Proper fashion bloggers would call it a statement necklace.
I’m not a proper fashion blogger. At best, I’m a faux fashion blogger, which has a nice ring to it but is actually about the fact I use clothing as a jumping off point for what I want to say as opposed to actually having anything useful or insightful to say about clothing itself.
Even so, I know enough to be able to claim, categorically, that this big red item around my neck was definitely a statement necklace. And as a statement, it dovetailed nicely with the occasion, November 9th, incidentally my birthday but, much more importantly, Remembrance Sunday.
In the UK, Remembrance Sunday is the day to officially honor all those who served in the two World Wars and in places like Burma and Palestine, The Falklands, Northern Ireland and the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan – battles and conflicts not necessarily sanctified as wars with a capital “W” but still occasioning the same realities: death, injury, loss.
The ceremony for Remembrance Sunday is relatively brief: prayers, readings, a military band and a two- minute silence. After the silence, poppy wreaths are laid at the base of a war memorial. This year, my choir was performing at a Remembrance service being held at a local air base. The base is a museum now, the hangar filled with jets and bombers, even an old Concorde that you can board.
We were scheduled to sing (“For the Fallen” by Douglas Guest) after the prayers and before the bugler’s rendition of “The Last Post.”
That’s why I was kitted out in a dress and a pair of decent shoes, and a piece of statement jewellery that, under normal circumstances, I would not have felt stylistically brave enough to wear.
The symbol of Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day on the 11th is the red poppy.
It represents all the soldiers who’ve died in service and harks back to the men –boys, really – who lost their lives on the poppy fields of Flanders.
By the end of October, artificial poppies have sprouted on half the lapels in Britain and it’s an unwritten rule that all public figures –even D-list celebs pitching diet aids on late night infomercials — have to wear one.
I buy a poppy every year. Actually, I buy several, because mine are always falling off or snaking down the lining of my jacket. But to sing at a ceremony for fallen soldiers, surrounded by soldiers and veterans and their families, called for something more, well, durable. The big red necklace Claire gave me nicely solved the problem.
I’d never sung at a Remembrance service before. In fact, other than buying the aforementioned poppies every year, I’d never particularly, consciously, honored those people who’d fought and died in battle.
I grew up in the Vietnam era — in America, a divisive time. Opinions were wildly polarized; you were for or against our involvement there and, in the course of taking sides, the soldiers themselves seemed to lose shape and consequence, became shadowy pawns. In certain quarters, acknowledging them became tantamount to supporting the war itself. There were very few grey areas: if you had long hair and a poncho, you were a commie sympathizer. If you had short hair or wore a business suit, you were a right-wing warmonger, a tool of the military-industrial complex. Of course, the term military-industrial complex originated with Republican president and former general Dwight D Eisenhower, who used it to warn the nation about the dangers of the arms industry, but that was an inconvenient fact for both sides of the Vietnam debate.
You could say it was not an era epitomized by clarity of thought.
But now, years later, in a country not my own, I had the distance – in all senses — to be able finally to pay homage to all those who went, willingly and unwillingly, into battles not of their own making.
It’s strange to write about this in an earnest voice, particularly strange if you live in Britain where sincerity is often experienced as embarrassing or — even worse — as indelibly American, but the truth must be told: that day, that moment, there I was in a blue dress and a big poppy necklace, just one person out of a thousand in an echoing hangar, all of us grateful, moved and completely untouched by cynicism.
September 29, 2014
I don’t know if the outfit was a catalyst for the revelation or if the revelation inspired the outfit, but, anyway, here’s the revelation:
50 is the new black.
Think about it: 50 is the new black.
I can’t believe everyone isn’t saying this.
I can’t believe it’s not a mantra, a mantra for the zeitgeist.
Most of all, though, I can’t believe the extent to which the British marketing industry is trying to ignore this, pretending it’s not so, hoping it will just go away. It’s as if most of them — manufacturers, advertisers, trend spotters – have decided the 50-plus audience is dull and toothless, not worth bothering with. Negligible.
Three words come to mind:
Head. Sand. Buried.
Anyone with any sense knows this is Britain’s next great consumer revolution.
As a consumer group, the 50-plus age band accounts for 76% of the UK’s wealth. Come April 2015, this group will be even richer, with the law shifting to allow them early access to their pension funds. And they’ll be dipping into that money, spending it to enhance their emotional, social and physical well being; this is a group obsessed with self-improvement, with all things quality of life.
50-, 60-, 70-year-olds comprise the serial generations that invented teenagers, that codified sex & drugs & rock & roll. That made a religion out of challenging the status quo — in fact that made a religion out of making religions. These were the first generations to trudge through mud for music festivals, espouse free love and communal living and make a whole lot of useless, exuberant noise about smashing the state.
Most importantly, we — I’m in there — are the tribe that sanctioned the concept of choice, life as a menu of options.
Keith Richards is our poster boy.
Does anyone really believe this tribe will take ageing lying down? Take death lying down?
We don’t have to! Thanks to technology, both conditions – decline and mortality – have been upgraded from inevitable to governable. Stem cell therapy will be available to halt not just the effects of menopause but the process itself and, on an even more fundamental (and slightly creepy) level, scientists are developing the ultimate life option: human enhancement. For a price, presumably a really staggering price, this cocktail of chemical, electronic and genetic engineering will allow us to surmount evolution and live longer, better, stronger.
Why buy a retirement condo when you can lay out the cash for a new self?
For a tribe committed to the concept of perpetual reinvention, this is very attractive stuff.
It should be even more attractive to marketers, the prospect of an aspirational, acquisitive audience with money to burn.
Bizarrely, it’s not. Instead, the 50-plus market is subject to sad-dad commercials for elder insurance (cue grey-haired gramp in a pastel sweater vest puttering around the garden), sappy ads for Nordic cruises (cue grey-haired couple staring into the sunset) and all those Viagra promos with a man in a plaid shirt who clearly needs to be talked in off the ledge.
There have been a few signs of a more targeted approach. A new cruise ad that shows a middle-aged couple gassing it up on the dance floor. Clairol urging us to defy time. Clinique insisting our skin has a future at any age. At least the (older) women and the lone male in those spots look as if they know there’s still fun to be had out there.
Because that is what’s missing in all of this: the fun factor, that hint of former wildness. The British media seems unable or unwilling to assign fun to us, to allude to a previous level of coolth.
They’ve neutered us.
The BBC has just launched a comedy series called Boomers, ostensibly for and about the 50-plus audience. I say ostensibly, because the night I tuned in I couldn’t find a single appealing or even identifiable character in the entire show. The episode I saw centred on a retirement party. It’s an age-appropriate theme with a certain amount of psychic and comedic potential, but the actual plot line – or should I say plod line — concerned the retiree’s anxiety over food preparation. The retiree, played by Alison Steadman, was incensed because one of the guests was getting underfoot in the kitchen, co-opting the Hors d’Oeuvres and acting territorial over serving platters. Ms Steadman complained to someone that this was ruining the party.
This is how the BBC perceives the Who generation?
They just don’t get us.
August 11, 2014
I looked like an aquatic flasher.
Clifford’s Cove is at the bottom of a tall wooded hill. To get there you walk down Claire’s driveway at an acute angle, cross the road and find the gap in the wild grape bushes. Duck under, follow the shaded path and – last leg – try not to take a header off the rocks that lead to the beach. It’s a short trek from porch to cove, but there’s lots of opportunity for slippage.
The tide was out. I left my coat on the flat boulder where Claire and her cousins used to have tea parties and picked my way through kelp and shingle to the shoreline. The water was icy, what a New Englander might describe as brisk. When it was deep enough,I launched into a surface dive.
As my feet left the seabed (swimmer’s lift off) I thought about the surprise of buoyancy and the first time I experienced it, that sensation of being suspended in an unsubstantial medium. I was six, messing around in the bay in Bridgehampton with my father. He was keeping a light grip on me as I hopped through the water, one foot pushing against the sandy bottom — pretend swimming. Then everything changed. Both my legs rose up behind me and I was afloat. At some point my father had let go. I was swimming, for real. It seemed both a miracle and my natural state.
I tend to swim most days in the river or, if I’m lucky, at the seaside in places like Maine or North Norfolk. If I go three, four days without swimming I get fidgety, peevish. I’ve spent some time thinking about this, my relationship with water and swimming, trying to assess whether it’s a question of passion, an activity I happen to love.
I finally decided emotion doesn’t come into it; it’s more basic than that.
Swimming is simply a fact of my life. It’s one of those constants, like reading or my daughter.
It would definitely go to the top of the list of things my father taught me.
I’ve been composing this list all summer, adding bits to it, editing it down. I call it, secretly, ‘Lessons Learned from my Father’.
It’s kind of soppy, this list business. I know that. And it’s hard to ignore the slightly creepy, Little Dorrit overtones– the writer as daddy’s girl – but in all fairness the occasion of my father’s 90th birthday just a few weeks ago has made me want to focus on this stuff.
I gave a toast at his birthday party. A number of us gave toasts. Mine was about the life he created for his family, his realization of the American dream. I tried to keep it short because the truth is, these big raucous parties, no one wants to listen to someone rambling on in a self-referential fashion; they just want to keep drinking and gossiping and complaining about the food while eating a lot of it.
As a result, my list has yet to see light.
Here it is: 10 Lessons I learned from my father
1. How to swim.
2. How to fire a gun: a .38, a .22, a .45 Smith & Wesson and a muzzleloading rifle.
3. How to make mini-balls for a muzzleloading rifle. (You melt a bar of lead in an iron kettle then pour the liquid mixture into a mold. When the mixture sets and cools you trim the edges of the mini-balls until they’re uniformly smooth and round.)
4. How to paint a swimming pool. (Our record was 45 minutes.)
5. How to respect the people who work for you.
6. How to sand and varnish a deck.
7. How to ‘antique’ a piece of furniture. (Whack it several times with a heavy chain.)
8. How to tell a joke.
9. How to face an audience so you can do things like tell jokes or give toasts without your knees clacking together.
10. How to love a child.
Some of these lessons have been less useful than others. For example, I’ve yet to find a situation that calls upon my mini-ball trimming skills. Most of my furniture already looks as if it’s been whacked with a heavy chain, and not in a good way. Finally, it has been conveyed to me, rather emphatically, that I do not know how to tell a joke, and should stop attempting to do so. But the first and last items on the list, numbers 1 and 10 – they’re with me every day.
July 24, 2014
… was a black cocktail dress with spaghetti straps, a chiffon shrug, my mother’s gold bling and a sixties updo.
The party was in a function room at the Sheraton in Weehawken, New Jersey, where the Hudson River laps gently against the edge of the parking lot. The birthday boy himself drove us there from the Hoboken apartment. It was a six minute trip in his Toyota people mover but all told it had taken a lot longer than that for me. There was a transatlantic flight. There was the task of packing for a multi-faceted trip, one that encompassed festivity, work and the pea soup heat of a New York summer. The pug and all her meds had to be temporarily disposed of, there was that to do, and all those zero hour chores — bills, calls, lists –to check off before double locking the front door of the Cambridge house and climbing into a waiting cab.
You’d think I’d have the whole business down to a science by now.
The problem, of course, the self-imposed stress factor, is in the packing. My friend Claire — another American based in Britain – says I pack like a Victorian spinster on the brink of a perilous sea voyage.
She may be right. It’s not as if I seal the lid of my perfume bottles with wax or sew my money into the stays of a corset, but I do approach each trip as if it’s my last, a journey into the unknown and exotic.
And we’re talking flying over to New Jersey.
Even so, and even now, 20 years after moving to Britain, two decades of going back and forth, each trip seems terribly important, the distance vast, the differences even vaster. The process of readying myself for these visits is an acknowledgement of how important they are, these occasions that bring me back to what was once my home. And, the last ten years or so, the particulars behind these jaunts, the defining elements, have been momentous, tied in with all the big stuff: illness, death, marriage. (I can’t remember a time I came over just to bop around.) Given that, the weight and attention I accord to packing, the time spent pondering what to wear when, makes a certain amount of sense: I’m suiting up for ritual and ceremony, a process that demands more than just tossing a cardie and a pair of jeans into a carry-on bag.
This trip the occasion was joyful. My father’s 90th. There were close to 120 of us in the Sheraton function room and the dance floor was packed. The D.J., a sedate middle-aged man, played dreamy standards from the 30’s and 40’s, jazzing it up every now and then with a little something from The Platters. There were toasts and a master of ceremonies. The mood was mellow and affectionate, the average age 70. I drank far too much vodka and discovered my friend Tom was a wonderful dancer. It was the nicest party I’d attended in years and the black cocktail dress and chiffon shrug were absolutely right. I had packed well.
July 14, 2014
I actually put some thought into this get up, hoping the right ensemble would turn things around.
Because these job interviews have not been going well.
I walk into the interview. We shake hands. They ask their questions, I give my answers. I ask my questions and then … nothing. Dead air.
I’m a little hazy on what goes wrong, why it always turns so flat and sour. Is it me (the interviewee), them (the interviewers) or the situation itself?
Here’s the situation: for the first time in years I’m looking for a staff job. The time is right — our daughter’s now at university. While she was growing up I worked freelance. I did corporate writing, magazine articles, the occasional newspaper feature. People hired me to name things – products and companies. I moved on to fundraising projects, still freelance. It was all about the holy grail of balance. Raise the child, run the household, earn some money and maintain the semblance of a professional profile. There were dry spells of no employment and there were periods of far too much of it. I remember one vacation in New York where I worked round the clock for two weeks with my daughter parked in front of my parents’ TV. But then, nothing’s perfect, right? What mattered, I stayed in the game. And I did my weekly stint in the kid’s classroom, joined the PTA, helped run a local youth club. To my way of thinking being a mother actually augmented my skill base. After all, who’s more efficient, more proficient than the person who’s been keeping all those balls in the air, all those years, right?
It seems no one’s buying it, not in my case. Or to put it in another context: no one’s booking that second date. (I mention this because I’m convinced interviews are a lot like dating. In fact, I’m convinced everything is like dating.)
Admittedly, there are all sorts of valid reasons I’m not getting these jobs, not even making it through to the second round of interviews: The wrong qualifications. Not enough experience. Sometimes the chemistry’s wrong, which is fair enough. What’s not fair is being told I have too much experience. That’s the work world equivalent of the perennial break-up line, It’s not you, it’s me (#everythingislikedating).
If my interviews were a graphic novel, the thought bubbles over the heads of the interview panel — it’s always a panel — would read, “Oh God, another one of those opt-out-revolution mothers.” “She can’t do the job.” “ She’ll never fit in.” My thought bubble would say, “Of course I can do your fakakta job. What I can’t do is the interview. I’ve lost the interview knack. “
I used to sneer at the random Hollywood star who refused to audition after making it big, who found the idea insulting. Self important, delusional: that was my assessment. I get it now, though. The star is good – great – at his job, which is acting. Everything he has, his energy, his time and talent, went into achieving that and along the way and of necessity, he lost his auditioning skills, discarded them the way a snake sheds a redundant skin. Then some director calls and demands he go back to square one. The actor stands there, looks at the phone in his hand and thinks, Do I really have to do this, this stage of my life, go out and audition like a novice?
There are courses out there targeted to women like me, mothers returning to the full-time work force. Lots of articles as well, tons of them on-line and in magazines and all of them can be boiled down to one collective title: Re-Entry Strategies for Moms. They always feature a section on the interviewing process, with its comprehensive list of do’s and don’ts. Every time I flick through one of those lists, what to say, what to wear, the art of eye contact, I can’t help but think, Do I really have to do this, be interviewed like a newbie, this stage of my life?
April 14, 2014
… was a coffee colored dress from ASOS online, an LK Bennett cardie in royal blue (how apt) and, in an unconscious nod to my roots, a crumbly leather jacket from Manhattan’s lower East Side, once the schmatta center of the universe.
You could think of it as something old, something new, something net-bought, something blue, because I was feeling pretty solemn and ceremonial about this interview. It was the last stage of my UK citizenship process, a final test before they’d give me a passport.
I became a British citizen — a Britizen — a few years ago. It was a real business getting that done and I stalled on applying for a UK passport because that was going to be another to-do. I’d have to hand over my American passport. I’d get it back, but it was a creepy idea, the symbol of my American citizenship disappearing for an unknown period of time, keeping me caged in Britain while it was gone. I finally got round to it last month, mailed everything off: the forms, my U.S. passport, the little photograph — the one that makes me look like someone who used to be presentable before she discovered crystal meth. Two weeks later, I got a phone call asking me to report for an interview at HM Passport Office.
They wanted to conduct an identity check.
The man on the other end of the line said, “Do you understand what this is about?”
“Um, you want to make sure I am who I say I am, that I’m me?” That’s what I said, but I was thinking: You’re doing this now? Isn’t it a bit late in the day? I mean, you already let me into the club, made me a citizen. I have the certificate to prove it, the one with the big royal seal at the top of the page.
We agreed on a day and time for the interview.
The passport office is in Peterborough, about an hour train ride from Cambridge. It’s a cross-country route through the fens, which, this time of year, are in riotous bloom. Green marshes, fields of loamy earth, acres of eye-blinding rapeseed and those low, twisted trees you see in Constable paintings. Halfway there, Ely Cathedral rises majestically over a housing development and everywhere you look there are waterways – the insane and brilliant system of canals and locks that keeps East Anglia from being swallowed up by the sea.
I looked out at all this water and greenery and thought, I’m a citizen, this belongs to me as much as anyone, and it occurred to me I was probably the only person on the train thinking about that, the idea of pride of place. But that’s what it’s like when you’re an immigrant; you jump through so many hoops in order to belong that you don’t let yourself take it for granted. You’re always a little grateful, like someone who’s lucked into a great second marriage. (Not, of course, that there was or is anything wrong with my first marriage, to America; we’re still together, thank you very much.)
The man in the passport office seated me in a little booth, a countertop between us and said, what I’d already been asked over the phone, “Do you know why you’re here?” I gave him the same answer and then he got into it, a series of questions that seemed plucked out of the sky, that leapt from topic to topic: Where were your grandparents born? Where in Eastern Europe? Give me the names of the shops on either side of the post office where you mailed the passport application. Your father, what’s his life like? I kept saying, “Really? You want to know that?” and then I reminded myself, you’re not on a date with the guy, this is not the time to act mysterious, pick and choose what you want to say. Just tell him everything he needs to know.
So I did.
It got oddly emotional, because all mixed up with the bits and details dredged up from whatever wrinkle of my brain – he even asked me to describe the route I take when I bike into the center of Cambridge, every lane and alley I pass — I had to talk about why I’d come to Britain, what I’d left behind and how you go about creating an existence, constructing a world, in a new land. It turned into a conversation about the stuff of life, defining and marking it, which is actually the true meaning of ceremony.
After 20 minutes of this he shook my hand. Apparently I’d passed; her majesty had decided I was, in fact, me.
I got out of there and headed for the train station.
Peterborough is not attractive. There’s an important Gothic cathedral in the center of town, but the rest of the place has been stripped down and rebuilt according to the punishing standards of ‘70’s moderne, all flat glass storefronts and plastic signage. It’s also been pedestrianized in such a way that the main street is one long wind tunnel; the dress I was wearing turned out to be a terrible mistake, flapping wildly in the breeze and threatening to expose my undies to the general public. I had to clutch it as I ran to catch the 2:18 to Cambridge, not wanting to spend another hour in Peterborough. I managed to make it, and as I flung myself down I saw someone had left a Sainsbury bag on the empty seat across the aisle. It was full and bulging, the proverbial suspicious-looking unattended package. For the good of my country, a citizen acting in the interests of national security, I alerted the conductor. She thanked me, saying what a relief, she was really hungry. The bag contained her lunch, and she’d forgotten where she put it.
My UK passport arrived two days later, unceremoniously dropped through the letter box, the pages blank, the retina detection symbol on the front cover affirming that from now on I would enter the gates of Britain in the literal blink of an eye.