Saturday, 29 July 2006

Hot to Trop

In three hours – at 4 a.m. – I head to St. Tropez. When I found out, I was in tears.

I don’t care how glamorous it sounds. It doesn’t matter where you are – 18 hours a day (the average you work when travelling, unless it’s a one-shot interview, which this isn’t) is not glamorous anywhere. Besides, I worked all of last weekend and this weekend I had a party to go to and then the Cartier polo on Sunday, which I’ve been looking forward to for months. I didn’t need to be hot to Trop until late Sunday night (though I was stressing out a bit about getting from the polo to the airport).

When the deputy bureau chief called me an hour ago, it wasn’t a question of whether I could go. It was: Get there. When the magazine gets in this mode, they steamroller all objections. But comp time (and they are stingy with it) and them paying for my unused polo ticket are not the same as time with friends and an event I’ve been wanting to go to since last year.

I want to get eight hours’ sleep (maybe more), go to my second ballet class, paint my toenails, pick up my contact lenses (they’ve already been sitting at the opticians’ for weeks), check out the very last of the sales, and go to a drinks party in west London. (And I want the Fig to call, and to be apologetic in that call, but hello, in my dreams.) I do not want to navigate St. Tropez, a place where I surely do not belong, and will feel it acutely at every moment.

I couldn’t think of whom to call at midnight here and 7 p.m. on the east coast on a Friday night, so I called my grandmother. I talk to her nearly every day, but I’ve never complained about my job to her, partly because she loves to hear about the glamour of it, and partly because the job is why I live in London, at least three thousand miles further away from her than she'd like.

“I guess you’d better send out some resumes,” she said.

“How can I send out resumes when I’m never even sure I’m going to ever be around actually to go meet with anyone?” I said. Then I said something I’ve never said aloud before: “This job is ruining my life.”

She said she didn’t know enough about the field, and then started telling me a story about she and her friend Connie and a trip to France they took in the mid 80s. Halfway through, I started to laugh.

“I knew I could lighten your mood,” she said triumphantly.

I’ve been speaking to her nearly every day for the past four years, but she’s never played the role she played tonight, and she was brilliant.

In conversation, I often refer to my grandma as one of my favorite people on the planet. It’s amazing how even after all this time there are still new reasons why to add to the list.

Thursday, 27 July 2006

To the Pointe

Tonight I did something I’ve been thinking about doing for years: I took a ballet class. (Cue image of Babar in pink tutu – it’s okay, that’s what’s been in my head, too.)

I took a ballet-inspired class at Canyon Ranch several years ago when I got sent there on assignment, but that doesn’t really count – it was in the can-do atmosphere of a spa. Tonight was an honest-to-goodness ballet class, barre and all (or should I say, barre none?)

I felt terribly conspicuous from the moment I walked in. I knew I would.

“Have you ever done ballet before?” asked Katarina The German Pixie.

“Um, well, there’s a video of me dancing the Waltz of Flowers somewhere, but it’s so old it must be the kind you can’t play anymore.” Cue stares from the four sylphs in the class.

I spent the next hour not bothering to try to remember which position is which – frankly, I’m not sure I ever knew -- and just trying to copy the person in front of me. I felt like the pixie was laughing at me the whole time, until I watched her demonstrate some steps and realized she's just one of those terribly smiley people who always looks like she's laughing. Still, I enjoyed the class.

I don’t know why I’ve had ballet on the brain for so many years. I was forced to take ballet, tap, and jazz at ages five and six – I liked tap the best, because it made noise – and I know I was thrilled when we moved to Florida, and my mother never got around to finding a new ballet school. (I didn’t realize it then – none of us did – but that must have been the beginning of her illness.)

All I can remember about my childhood ballet class – besides the wrist corsages my parents bought us for the recital – is that all I really wanted were pink ballet shoes, not the practical black ones my mother insisted on. My shoe habit is ruinous enough and I have a history of buying equipment for hobbies I only flirt with, so when I finished the class tonight I promised myself if I attend nine more, the pink ones are mine.

Wednesday, 26 July 2006

The Salad Days, Meta Edition

Last week I got a call from the magazine I once wrote a column for – the column that became a book – wanting to write an update on how I was doing. The timing was strange: A few weeks before, while in Spain, Julio’s publicist recognized me from my column, something that still happens (but continues to surprise me). At the same time as the Spain trip – and after more than a year – my name finally came up on the NHS waiting list (“the envy of the world” – ha!) for treatment for binge eating.

I agreed to talk with the writer, though I warned her that I don’t weigh myself anymore, let alone publish the number. She’s new to the magazine, and it was obvious from the first couple of minutes I spoke with her that she had never read my column, not even as research for an interview. (I’ve never dared to interview someone without reading their book / listening to their album / watching their film, and I’ve always been shocked when my subject is shocked that I have taken the time.) It was more difficult to answer her questions than I would have expected, mostly because it all ended five years ago.

All I really can remember now is endless Boca burgers (which I told the writer I’d never eat again) and baby carrots and cottage cheese (I might eat them separately, but rarely, and definitely never together). The two years I wrote the column are in the cardboard box full of unsorted photos in my head marked “Salad Days” – not so much for the greenery I consumed (though I did make a giant salad every week and keep it in Tupperware) but for all the crazy, often-un-column-related things my friends and I did during those years. Just last week in Cornwall I was reminiscing about a beach trip – Summer of My Zebra Print Halter Top (ok, a little column related – I wouldn’t have been wearing something like that if I hadn’t lost weight) – where my best friend and I had so much fun that as we drove home, we speculated that we’d never be able to go to that beach again because it would never be as much fun. We haven’t been back.

The writer seemed surprised to hear that I only keep the book in my flat in a language I don’t speak (Dutch), so I quickly explained that I can’t bear to read anything I’ve written. When I have to choose clips to send to anyone, I find reading my own work like pulling off hundreds of Band Aids quickly while a packed stadium’s worth of people scratch their fingers across a blackboard. (Hyperbole? Me? Nah.)

She asked me why I’d written it, and I told her about the publicist in Spain, the one who’d said: “I was glad you wrote the book – I always wondered what happened to you. And I wondered after the book, too.”

* * *

When I got off the phone with the writer, I Googled myself – something I rarely do: I hate reading my own work, and I long ago stopped reading reviews and comments about the book. For every 10 emails or blogs or reviews that liked my book, there’d be one really cruel, cutting comment, and that would be the one that would play in my head in an endless loop. The comment itself never bothered me nearly as much the sense I often got that the person had misunderstood – or in some cases, had gotten the facts totally wrong. Not that I think nobody can criticize My Preshus Book – just that some of facts on which some people had built their incredibly vitriolic cases were just wrong. But you can’t go e-mailing everyone who writes something nasty or wrong trying to set them straight, can you?

Last week, I did. I read a blog with an entry titled “I Am [Beth],” where she talked about her inability to stop eating after doing long training runs for a marathon. “I Am [Beth],” she wrote at one point. “And that kinda sucks.” She talked about how I binged on doughnuts and then wondered why I wasn’t losing any weight. One of her commenters wrote that she used to see my column and think “Why doesn’t she just lose the weight, especially since she’s profiled in a big magazine.” (As I wrote at the close of the column, I so wished that losing weight in such a public way would have kept me on track – that’s why I did it in the first place – but it didn’t.) Neither the post nor the comment are the worst things I’ve ever read about myself, but something in me snapped. I have never binged on doughnuts, something I wrote in an anonymous comment, though it’s clear the commenter is me. (I would have e-mailed the blogger, but there was no link.) And I never once wondered when I was bingeing and running why I wasn’t losing weight – I don’t even think an ultramarathon could have kept me from gaining with some of my binges.

To my surprise (I’ll resist saying, “to her credit!”), she put up a post saying she was embarrassed she hadn’t double checked her facts, and that although the previous post tone was haughty, she’d been a big fan of the book. I’m trying to resist e-mailing the commenter…

I've Been to London to See the Queen (Her House, Anyway)

Yesterday, in the middle of trying to crash a story on the Middle East crisis and another on Colin Farrell (how’s that for multi-tasking?), I got to go to a private opening of the staterooms at Buckingham Palace.

I loved it. Because they’re not yet open to tourists, and because few self-respecting Brits would go to that sort of thing, I had the rooms almost to myself. I could look at portraits of royals (like the Winterhalter ones of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert) that I’ve only seen in books. I could stand at the top of grand staircases and look down without anyone jostling me. I stood in the courtyard imagining carriages pulling up the grand entrance in the 19th century. Then I stood before the thrones in John Nash’s awe-inspiring throne room, examined the ceiling of the room where Prince Charles and then Prince William were baptized, and listened as someone from the “F division” – food division – explained how they used rulers to set the table precisely and (my favorite factette) that menus were sent up to the Queen in French. Apparently she’s very good at French, and can spot any error.

If I hadn’t desperately needed to use my phone (see “crash a story”) – and you can’t in the palace – I might have stayed for hours.

Sunday, 23 July 2006

More Than Words Can Say

After six days of sun and fun (and wine) in Cornwall – more on that in a future post – I came home Wednesday night to do something I never thought I’d actually have to do: Write the inscription that will appear on my mother’s tombstone.

She died nearly three years ago, and the lack of a marker on her grave has been a family flashpoint. My grandmother – my mother’s mother – doesn’t think she should have to do it (and I agree) and I won’t get into all the theories I've come up with for why my father won't just get on with it. When I’ve brought up the subject in the past he asks for “suggestions” – his way of telling you that he is not going to do it unless you make the first move and then nag the heck out of him. I am the writer in the family, and as an inscription undeniably involves words, this is his way of pretending that he is doing it; he’s just delegated it. (Less than 12 hours after she died, I had to write her obituary, but that was because he didn’t think she needed to have one in the paper. The experience remains one of the most excruciating of my life. I don’t remember crying too much when I called friends to say she had died, but it took me more than a half hour to get through less than 100 words about her on the telephone with a stranger. And then they have to read it back to you to make sure it’s accurate!)

I never thought I’d actually have to write the tombstone inscription, though. Partly because it’s just not something I ever thought about anyone having to do (don’t you just check the boxes for “mother,” “daughter,” etc., fill in the years and the name and…?), and partly because it’s gone undone for so long (three years in December) I couldn’t imagine at what point it would become urgent. But somehow – maybe because my sister’s getting married; or maybe, more boringly, because I sometimes have these flashes of wanting to clear out my “to do” lists – it is.

With a family history as checkered as ours, it takes a surprisingly long time to write the less than 10 words that will appear – and that probably only we (my sister, father, grandmother and me) will ever read. In what order do we put “mother, daughter, wife?” (I have my own opinions.) Then there’s my problem with “dearly loved,” which sounds like the tombstone equivalent of words that you’d never speak; only write. (When’s the last time you said you “dearly loved” your mother?) So “much loved”? Then who knew (I didn’t until I started Googling) there was actually a reason to the symbols that appear on Jewish tombstones: women get a candle; men a Star of David? A broken branch means someone who died young. Is 61 considered young? Probably not for the purposes of this, but it certainly seems so to me.

Wednesday, 12 July 2006

Who Gives a Fig?

I haven’t kept a proper journal since before I moved to London, and even when I kept one it was in fits and starts. Occasionally – very occasionally, because how many times can one pore over one’s own angst? – I used to read them and wonder if I should destroy them, because anyone coming across them would have to think how whiny and solipsistic I was. That’s because the journals would always stop abruptly just when things got interesting – either good or bad.

So I’m committing at least the outlines of the Fig to paper, if only because I feel like I ought to force myself to do things like this every once in a while. And because only a week ago I was on a dizzying high that now seems like a distant memory.

He’d e-mailed while I was in Spain, saying he’d bought me a “bloody silly present” (I loved the idea of the present, as much as the phrase “bloody silly present.”) That was when I stopped worrying about when I’d see him again – clearly he thought he’d see me again, even if he hadn’t clued me in on that yet. Later, he said he was heading to a stag ‘do (= bachelor party) in Dublin that weekend. From the airport came the call that made me decide the bloom was off the Fig.

I was sure he knew I was angry, but maybe not. On the Fourth came a one-line e-mail wishing me a happy “we-beat-the-Brits day.” I ignored it. An hour later came another e-mail, telling me I was awfully quiet and asking for a reporting-related favor. Because so many reporters have been so crummy to me (and because every once in a while someone is unbelievably generous), I am a big fan of attempting to put karma back into the world – if something is going to take me less than 15 minutes and doesn’t compromise my own reporting, I will help just about anyone. So I got the document he needed. In the course of sending brusque e-mails back and forth about the document, he mentioned he was being lazy and asking the first American he knew – not something I wanted to hear on a Tuesday, deadline day, from someone who really had little business asking me for a favor in the first place.

He called Wednesday to say thank you. We chatted briefly. I’m terrible at confrontation, but I decided to give it a shot. I said, in a half-joking tone, “When someone’s doing you a favor you might not want to let them know it’s just because you’re being lazy.”

This led to a conversation about a couple of other things, from which I figured out he had no idea I was annoyed on Saturday. After a couple of (wrong) guesses, he wouldn’t let me tell him exactly what it was that annoyed me – he told me to e-mail it to him so he could cringe in private. (I didn’t.) He also told me to e-mail him my address.

“Why?” I said.

“Because I’m clearly in the doghouse and I’m not going to see you,” he said.

I paused and said tentatively, “Well, I’d kind of like to see you.” (So much for The Rules.)

He said, “Well, I’d like to see you, too.”

There were a few more minutes of conversation – in which he accidentally called me “darling” – and we hung up. On Thursday I got an e-mail from him that closed: “See you in 57 hours” – from which ensued a ridiculous, dizzying countdown. I returned to adding rooms to my castles on air and polishing the hall of mirrors.

You could say there was nowhere to go but down, and in fact that’s where things went. Saturday night was bad enough, and Sunday morning – on the phone; hello, on Saturday we were walking as far from each other as possible while staying on the same sidewalk! – was worse. (I’ll save details for a future post, as this one is already long enough.) We haven’t spoken since.

For the record, the Fig was so named because his surname includes the word “fig” and the first time I thought he disappeared, I tried to joke to a friend, “Who gives a fig?” (Unfortunately, I did – and still do.) But figment of my imagination in terms of boyfriend potential – see comments for the previous post – seems sadly apt.

Sunday, 2 July 2006

The Bloom Is Off the Fig

Days like yesterday remind me of the movie Kissing Jessica Stein. Not because I’m about to give up on men and try playing for the other team, but because of how well I think the film captured that tiny little moment where you suddenly decide you like someone (Jessica warms to Helen suddenly, when Helen uses the word “marinate”) – or in my case, suddenly begin to think maybe, just maybe, you might not. Or at least, that my (admittedly overactive) imagination was dead wrong when it filled in all the blanks on the person.

It’s the Fig on my voicemail, shortly after noon. The Fig does not call. Like most British men, and most men in general, he prefers texts. But he’s missed his flight to Dublin by two minutes (they closed boarding) and is really annoyed.

I call back an hour later – I was having lunch with a friend. He curses repeatedly, and I try to be sympathetic. He tells me I’m one of three people he called. As we said in elementary school, I feel special.

We chat and he insists on “translating” several English phrases for me, something I have repeatedly told him is not necessary (never mind wanted). I tell him I know what they mean, and if I don’t, I’ll ask him. He says he doesn’t trust me to do that. Um, what-the-f?

He only wants to talk about whether the conception of baby Suri involved a turkey baster, and whether George Clooney is, as he puts it, “ambidextrous.” Ugh. He doesn’t believe me that Footballers’ Wives is shown on BBC America because it is an ITV show. He starts talking about how there’s really no jetlag when you fly from the US – a statement I resist touching because it is wrong and stupid on so many levels. Never mind that he’s been to the US exactly once, more than 15 years ago.

He has to go and sort out his boarding pass and I make a joke about drunken texting from the over-the-top birthday party I am attending in the evening – drunken texting being part of a long-running joke, if indeed anything can be called long-running when you’ve known someone for three weeks. He pauses and says, “You do what you like,” and starts some explanation about roaming fees (which cannot possibly be more than a pound for a text message) for why he won’t respond. I absolutely loathe cheapness – I think there’s a certain parsimony of spirit that comes with it. And who likes being told – as essentially he just has – exactly how little your company is worth?

I can feel the ice creeping into my voice. I can't stop it and am not sure I want to. "Have fun," I say. "I'll speak to you when you get back." I can tell he knows I'm irritated but probably isn't sure why.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, 1 July 2006

You Say Potato

In my old job, I used to joke about how many hours of productivity were lost as we all scurried into each other’s offices, trying to glean what the boss really meant in his terse e-mails (some of them maybe a sentence fragment long)! But that’s nothing compared to the energy single women expend trying to decipher e-mails, texts, and even actual conversations with men – entire countries could be powered.

At the moment I’m dealing with a British man who’s perhaps as much an Americanophile (is that a word?) as I’m an Anglophile. He loves American slang (whereas I prefer English English, preferably said in his posh accent). He’s only been to the U.S. once (two days in New York when he was 18) but last year he wrote an article arguing for the greatness of America – that “they trust you there and they’re pragmatic.” (Ha.) Yesterday I shattered his illusions and told him that a bunch of the things he thought existed there – supermarket bag boys (and courteous ones!), two domestic first class mail stamps equals one overseas one, right turns on red, passing on the right and left, valet parking – are not ubiquitous. (And maybe I’ve been gone too long, but when were you ever supposed to pass on the right?)

His ideas of the U.S. – including his ideas of “dating” (a concept that literally does not exist in England) – come entirely from books, TV, newspapers, and his family’s 35-plus-years-old experience (they lived in Chicago for a few years before he was born). So I can’t even begin to interpret half the stuff he says or does: Is he being English, male, faux American, thick, infuriating, or some combination of the five?

I haven’t seen him since this, when he told me at the end of the evening that he couldn’t make any plans until he had a medical problem that’s making him incredibly tired and irritable sorted out – but there’s no guarantee about when this will be sorted out. We were exchanging emails every day, but after more than a week of that, I did start to wonder if I was ever going to have an offscreen conversation with him again. Then while I was in Spain I got an email from him saying he’d bought me a “bloody silly present” (love that phrase) because it made him laugh and referred to a ongoing strand of the conversation. Hmm, I thought. Well, I guess he assumes we're going to see each other again.

Yesterday I got an email saying he was heading to a stag ‘do (bachelor party) in Ireland, and did I want to meet up next week when he was back. I wrote back saying I wasn’t trying to be coy – yes, I have learned the hard way that British men have ridiculously fragile egos – but that I was busy all next week (true) and it would have to be on the weekend or the week after. I was promptly slayed by two female British colleagues (as the only single person in the office, my life acts as soap opera if I allow it), who said: “What could you possibly be doing all week?” I told them I don’t break plans for men – a sentiment most of my American female friends would understand – and they were horrified. “Can’t you rearrange?” they wondered. Well, no.

Let’s hope the Fig’s (aka the Guy’s -- nickname to be explained if there actually are any future posts about him to warrant it) reading of Americana is sufficiently broad enough to include The Rules.