August 11, 2016
… was never as nice as what our waitress had on.
Our waitress Rosi always looked great, carrying all that food and drink to keep us happy, never spilling so much as a dollop of sauce down the front of the starched dirndls she wore. She must have had a closet full of these dirndls –red, green, brown, black versions of the Austrian national costume with its hug-me-tight bodice and full pleated skirt. This is a very corny garment, a dirndl, channelling Disney, oom-pah bands and that creepy strain of Nazi gemutlichkeit – think Eva Braun at play on the terraces of Berchtesgaden – but Rosi, a non-Austrian, managed to make it look cool.
The brown was her favourite, she told me (intimacy is inevitable with the person who knows all your dietary quirks – your preferred brand of vodka, your anxiety about meat touching veg) and the night she wore it you could see why: the color was perfect with her dark hair and eyes and the olive cast to her skin. Rosi is Greek. Every year she comes over to Austria to work the ski season, November through March. There are no jobs back in Greece, not since the economy tanked in 2008, and with the Austrian locals disinclined to take on those 12-hour shifts, six days a week, five months a year, Rosi’s annual migration is a win-win for everyone – not least the 18 of us in our corner of the dining room, cranky as toddlers after our day on the slopes.
In contrast to Rosi, we did not look great. The men shaved for dinner and one of the women showed some éclat with her nicely tailored trousers, but she was the exception and it was clear to anyone who bothered to notice that the rest of us were living out of not very promising suitcases. By the second night I was back in my old black jeans and, for a dash of color, the big red bruise I got when I tumbled off the tow lift. Of the younger members of the party, the boys came down to dinner in t-shirts and football jerseys and our last meal there two of the girls – my daughter was one of them – showed up in helmets and ski goggles. We were having fun, and we were noisy, voracious and confident that whatever we needed, Rosi would deliver.
We left Austria and Rosi’s care the end of March. Three months later the UK voted to leave the European Union. Come October it seems Austria may do the same: a far-right candidate named Norbert Hofer is predicted to win the re-run of the presidential election there. Hofer’s an extreme Euro-sceptic, with an extreme anti-immigration agenda –a Marine Le Pen without the awkward father. In the global context, Hofer’s expected win is a disquieting prospect: xenophobic, isolationist and a return to the kind of nationalism that in a country like Austria has nasty implications. On a personal level, it’s even more worrying. I’m not worried about Rosi – she’s a natural survivor, one of those people who’ll do fine wherever she ends up and look great in whatever national costume she’s required to wear — but I am worried for us, for me. If Hofer shuts the borders and boots out the immigrant workforce, then who’s going to put up with me in matters pertaining to vodka and the proximity of meat to veg? Every nation on earth, immigrants represent the group that works harder than any other, the group that, traditionally, will go the extra mile. That’s why employers hire them.
Hofer just hasn’t thought this one through.
January 27, 2016
was a green wool mini-dress with a zip down the front and a big ring on the tab of the zipper, the kind of ring just begging to be pulled down (hello boys). All in all what you’d call a flirty little number and as such completely inappropriate for the occasion, which happened to be the burial of our stillborn daughter. I wore it to please my husband. It was his favourite dress and, having failed to give him a viable baby, I figured the least I could do was get through the day in something he liked.
That tells you something about my logic at the time.
I kept making small, precise decisions that struck me as useful and sound and that of course turned out to be extremely goofy. For example, my parents flew over from America for the funeral and my husband’s parents came down from Scotland, four large, not very young people and I decided the best way of getting to the cemetery was to cram all six of us into our compact car. My father and my husband’s father book-ended my mother-in-law on the back seat, the men’s knees jammed up around their ears. I rode shotgun, perched on my mother’s lap with the baby in her shoebox-sized casket perched on my lap. Despite the obvious clown car implications I persisted in thinking this was a sensible idea, the most efficient means of resolving the day’s transportation issues.
In retrospect (this happened a while back) it’s obvious to see why my logic was so specious, by which I mean borderline bonkers. I was operating on intellectual idle. Consciously or not, I’d switched off part of my brain, the part whose job it was to retain and process key information: information such as the baby on my lap, the hole that awaited her, the mound of dirt that would cover her. The fact I now owned a cemetery plot, not a piece of real estate I’d planned to add to my portfolio. None of this data was digestible. So I shut it out. I brain blanked it.
Brain blanking works. It does the job. Sometimes too well, a side effect I was reminded of not long ago ago when I forgot – actually forgot – to brake the car at a busy intersection. I ended up in the middle of the highway with cars swerving to avoid me, their tires screeching. I rested my head on the steering wheel (the car had conked out so I had time for reflection) and I thought: Brain blank. I hadn’t realized I was there again, in shut-down mode, but it made sense; I’m in the middle of a divorce and there’s a lot of unpalatable information I’d prefer to ignore.
The thing is, I thought I was handling this marital split, acing the paperwork, dodging the emotional shrapnel, avoiding the divorce bore scenario at parties. But the truth is insofar as I’ve been handling it, it’s been through the means of managed idiocy. And there are consequences. Like leaving my wallet under the desk at my office, which I did last month. (Luckily the office cleaners are extremely honest as well as a tad lazy so the wallet was still there when I returned.) Or the night, not long ago, when I removed a hot roasting pan from the oven and realized I’d forgotten to put on oven mitts. My friend Martyn, who tended to my third-degree burns, said it was a real Ross Geller moment, exactly like the Friends episode involving bare hands and a pot of hot fajitas. I’d forgotten about that aspect of brain blanking; forgotten the fact of forgetting — to brake at an intersection, to check your bag for your wallet, to protect your hands before coming to grips, literally to grips, with a pan full of boiling goose fat.
What I was wearing at my most recent dinner party … was salve and a microbial cellulose wrap.
December 29, 2015
…was sweatpants and the occasional party frock, because it’s all about fun, right?
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.