Saturday, June 27, 2009

I went out to a trendy restaurant yesterday, the type of restaurant where maybe 200 pieces of silverware were suspended from ropes tied to the ceiling. I ordered an ahi tuna and pineapple sandwich and a ginger lemonade. A stand-out meal, really. While I was eating it I was thinking, maybe this is exactly what I want my life to be, going out to a stylish cafe and ordering odd food while discussing travel and jobs and movies with my most interesting friend. It does make one feel automatically trendy, even me in my ancient jeans and sandals and pulled-back hair.

No such experience today. I thought about going out but convinced myself otherwise. Laundry is done and the bathroom is clean, I made my own dinner. Funny how satisfied I am with the mundanity of it. Like there's nothing else I want, nothing I need from out there.

Monday, June 22, 2009

From a great interview with Toni Morrison in O Magazine:
Everything I saw or did was potentially data, a word or a sound or something for the book, and then I really realized that for me writing meant having something coherent in the world. And that feels like…not exactly what I was born for, it's more the thing that holds me in the world in healthy relationship, with language, with people, bits of everything filter down, and I can stay here. Everything I see or do, the weather and the water, buildings…everything actual is an advantage when I am writing. It is like a menu, or a giant tool box, and I can pick and choose what I want. When I am not writing, or more important, when I have nothing on my mind for a book, then I see chaos, confusion, disorder.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Some provocative posts in the past couple weeks on one of my new blog faves, Living El Paso. El Paso newcomer/blogger David's enthusiasm is infectious, and he offers up some great suggestions on how to improve the city. In this post, he brings up El Paso's isolation as both a good and a bad thing. "Isolation has actually benefited El Paso in a few ways. Since it acts as a buffer, our economy hasn’t suffered like cities on the West & East Coasts." Hmm...good point.

Comments for another post center around El Paso's "brain drain" problem. A commenter writes, "...The reality is that if you can find a job, the city can be very good, but I’m meeting way too many people who have been sitting here 1-2 years, living with their parents, looking for work, and when your student loan comes due, well- people start moving."

Writes David: "I guess you could compare El Paso to gambling. When you are winning, you are feeling great and anything is possible, however, a few bad hands and all you want to do is get up and leave." Well put.

Lucky me, I guess I drew a good hand. I haven't had problems finding jobs and I'm not saddled with debt, so my view of the city tends to be sunny. I like El Paso's relaxed feel and I don't want it to turn into a clone of Austin, Dallas, or San Antonio. But I know economic growth has to be a priority. For me the question is, how do you balance El Paso's easygoing attitude with creating more opportunities for people who grow up here and for talented people who might want to move here?

A little analysis to prod El Pasoans in the right direction is definitely worthwhile, especially from people who have lived in other cities. Hopefully Living El Paso will be around for awhile with more insightful posts.

Friday, June 19, 2009

I'm working this summer, so no more trying to occupy three vacant months for me, but the pace at work does seem slower these days. More people are gone for vacations, there are slightly fewer newsworthy incidents. Some space to breathe, finally.

My so-called social life has slowed to a crawl, too. Zero messages in my inbox, do I care? I feel like I'm at a point where I feel more lonely when I'm with people than I am actually being alone. Does that make any sense? I'd rather cocoon myself in my bedroom watching "In Treatment" or "The Wire" than make uncomfortable small talk with people I kinda know but not really.

Bitterness talking? Maybe, but I think summer is a time to lose people. For awhile at least, expecting you'll get them back later. Yeah, like school, knowing you'll have that first day when you get back to scope out who grew a few inches or got a new haircut or has a new boyfriend. In the meantime experience solitude, forget everyone, dig your toes in the dirt and wear ugly shorts and watch the sunset all by yourself.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The perfect summer song: "in your eyes/the light the heat/in your eyes/I am complete/in your eyes/I see the doorway to a thousand churches/in your eyes/the resolution of all the fruitless searches."

Saturday, June 13, 2009

I think vacuuming is my new hobby.
No freakin' way, this is too awesome.

Friday, June 12, 2009

UK Holiday, Part 3

Actually, Part 2 was pretty much the end of my holiday. I mean vacation. It was another long plane ride back during which I watched “Marley and Me” and tried to explain to the English guy sitting next to me about the death penalty and why Texas executes so many people each year.

I don't think that after only a week you can really say you've really experienced another culture, especially if you pretty much just hung out with your sister and went to tourist sites on your own during the day. But I suppose the thing that stood out to me most in the UK was the sense of history and tradition. At the Tower of London I saw a group of young students there on a field trip, and I wonder what it’s like growing up with that long history of kings and queens and castles in your consciousness. And being surrounded by so many old buildings, how could you not constantly be thinking of what came before? In America, history starts in 1776 and you can go weeks without seeing a building that’s more than 30 years old.

It surprised me how relieved I felt being back on American soil. Getting off the plane at the Chicago airport where I had a connecting flight, a customs agent checked over my paperwork and then said in a bright Midwestern accent, "Welcome home." And Chicago isn't much at all like El Paso, but I did feel like I was home.

I don't know exactly how to explain the feeling of being back in the US after being in the UK. The word that comes to mind is spaciousness. The airports are bigger, the houses are bigger, the cars are bigger, in places like El Paso there’s empty land as far as you can see. The day after I came back I was driving on the highway in the desert heat and a Guns ‘n Roses song came on and I found myself appreciating just how American that moment was.

This trip was a big deal to me, even just proving to myself and everyone I could handle the planning and finances and getting from one place to another. Travel turns out to be a mix of luxury and personal edification and accomplishment. “You’ve been to Europe?” Yes. For months I held off on starting on new things until after I had done this. I wonder what's next. More new places, more meeting new people, more adventures, I hope.

Monday, June 08, 2009

The highlight of my day: trying Strawberried Peanut Butter M&Ms from the vending machine at work.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

UK Holiday, Part 2

The next-to-last day of my journey I boarded a (short) flight from London to Manchester, then bought a ticket at the Manchester rail station for Liverpool. I had said good-bye to V. earlier that morning before she flew back to New York. I was now traveling solo. That scared me a little.

There were only about five people on the train when I boarded it. Maybe that was the first sign that I wasn’t in London anymore, that there wasn’t a huge crowd of people everywhere I went.

I began to get more nervous as the train got closer toward Liverpool. I put away the copy of the Guardian I had been reading and stared at the steep walls of rock near Lime Street. I tried to think of interesting topics of conversation to bring up. What do you say to a person whose blog you’ve been reading for six years? A person you know both everything and nothing about?

I got off the train and didn’t see him. Oh crap, he forgot. But I also remembered I hadn’t checked my e-mail in a week. I imagined the e-mail waiting there in my inbox, canceling the whole thing.

I walked around the terminal some more, looking for some place with Internet access, then saw a guy in a black sweater and jeans that I thought I recognized. “Stuart?” Luckily he looks just like his picture on Facebook.

He was taller than I expected and had a thicker accent than I expected. I think like a lot of Americans, I’m not too familiar with northern English accents.

A true gentleman, he took my bag so I could drop it off at the hotel I was staying at. Our agenda for the day was a tour of the city: Liverpool’s two cathedrals, Penny Lane, the Cavern Club, etc.

To be honest, I didn’t expect to be very awed by the cathedrals in Liverpool, not after what I had seen earlier that week. But the Catholic cathedral was amazing. I imagine this is what the Catholic Church had in mind in issuing Vatican II. It’s a very modern place of worship with its non-traditional stations of the cross and stained glass that seem out of an abstract painting.

Right afterward we went to the Anglican cathedral, which was much more traditional. I was more than happy to see some more Gothic architecture. Stu informed me it took 100 years to finish. 100 years? He said he used to have school performances there, and I couldn’t imagine that.

And then it was time to see some Beatles landmarks. It was a fairly long bus ride to see Penny Lane where the landmarks from the Beatles song are—the banker and the barbershop, the "shelter in the middle of the roundabout."

On a walk down the “real” Penny Lane, I saw the Penny Lane street signs all covered with graffiti that Stu said often get nicked (er, stolen in American).

I love landmarks that aren’t all tourist-ed out, and such was Penny Lane.

Then back to the city center to see the Cavern Club where the Beatles were discovered. The real club was demolished and is now replaced by a power substation, which I thought was funny. The “new” Cavern Club really does seem like a cavern given that it’s underground and very dark. Over glasses of Pepsi I remarked it was a lot smaller than I expected. A young folk rocker was playing on the tiny stage and an American singer was set to go next.

The weather had been really bright and sunny that day, “blue suburban skies”, but after the Cavern Club a downpour began and I didn’t think to bring an umbrella. My sweater got soaked as we headed to the Albert Dock. Stu assured me it was “Liverpool rain” and would be over fast. Fortunately he was right.
As we walked through the city, I got the feeling Liverpool would have been quite a different place had I visited even ten years ago. The Liverpool I saw was bright with upscale shops and restaurants that Stu readily noted were recent additions. It seems like the sort of city that’s always been a gem but only now is getting the polish it deserves. The European Capital of Culture 2008, woo hoo…

I found out what a Superlambanana is and saw the gate to Liverpool’s Chinatown. Liverpool has a Chinatown?

I have to say I really enjoyed the half-tourist, half-autobiographical tour. It seemed every block held a story (There’s the FACT Centre!…There’s where the Beatles used to go drinking…There’s where I went to secondary school).

Dinner was at the Everyman Bistro, which is attached to the Everyman Theatre playhouse. The underground bistro had gourmet food served cafeteria-style, something I hadn’t really seen before. I took a bowl of pasta with roasted vegetables, very tasty, especially since I hadn’t eaten all day.

We sat down and the inevitable conversation about blogging began (and later Twitter and Facebook and Spotify). The conversation meandered to writing and school and our respective futures. Stu told me I seemed like a laidback person, which I thought was funny since I tend to think of myself as the queen of anxiety.

But I think the day went by with a minimum of awkwardness. We reached my hotel and I thanked my host for the tour. “This is a very nice place,” I said. And I really meant it. There was definitely a cheerful vibe to Liverpool that wasn’t there in London. A different side of England and I liked it.

And, of course, meeting one of my blog heroes was pretty amazing, even though to be honest, it almost doesn’t seem real to me now. But there are my pictures and this, so I guess I can’t question it, just say it’s one of those rare moments in life I’m really glad to have experienced.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

I'm slowly but surely working my way through weeks of old TIME magazines. "The Meaning of Michelle" was on the cover a few weeks ago. What a title. I doubt that Michelle Obama reads anything about herself in the media, but she seems like the kind of person who would laugh if she saw an article like that. Amid all the attempts to probe her psyche, there was one part that I especially liked:
So on a cool day in March, she dispatched a regiment of role models to schools across Washington, including singers Alicia Keys and Sheryl Crow, Ann Dunwoody, the first female four-star general, and Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel into space...

"There are so many kids like that," she observes, "who are living inches away from power and prestige and fame and fortune, and they don't even know that it exists."

Which is why that night, the women leaders reassembled at the White House for a dinner with more than 100 students from schools across the city to celebrate Women's History Month. Tonight is your night, Michelle told the girls. So don't be shy. "Poke and prod and figure out how [these women] got to be where they are and what you can do in your lives to get yourselves ready for that next step. Tonight we just want to say, Go for it! Don't hesitate. Don't act with fear. Just go for it." Because all the women in the room, she told the girls, see a little bit of ourselves in you.

"It's one of those events," she says looking back, "that stand out in my mind as, This is why I'm here."
Yes, we do have a very cool First Lady.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

UK Holiday, Part 1

I imagine that if I were an English literature, history, soccer, Shakespeare, or Beatles fanatic, going to the UK would have felt sort of like going home. But I’m none of the above, the truth is I just wanted to go somewhere different and far away, and plane tickets to London were cheap and I knew it would be the perfect place for a vacation. I went to England not really knowing what I would find. It would be something new, a place to discover. Accompanying me on the journey was my younger sister V., the New Yorker.

A vacation is supposed to be relaxing, right, but in the weeks before I left vacation planning started to feel like a second job. I had never planned a trip before, much less an international one. My copy of Fodor’s was dog-eared by the time I got done. I spent hours combing through reviews of hotels and hostels. I bought a voltage adaptor. I memorized the approximate dollar-pound exchange rate and looked up train schedules and Tube fees and museum opening and closing times. I typed out itineraries and e-mailed them to V., what do you think? It was like I was back in school doing a complicated group project.

The day finally arrived. I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and an apple in my car outside the airport. What the heck am I doing? What if something goes wrong?

The nine-hour plane ride was not nearly as fun as I expected. Sleeping in such cramped quarters was not easy and I ended up losing my headphones.

After getting off the plane V. and I stood in line for immigration.

“Where are you staying?” a dark-skinned woman with a British accent asked after she had scrutinized our passports and immigration cards.

I named the hostel we were staying at. She eyed us suspiciously. “What is the address?”

I stated the address on my reservation printout.

“What area of town is that in?”

Ummm…the South Bank? I really did not know exactly where this place was other than what I had read on She probably thought my sister and I were running away from America with no place to stay. Oh no.

“How long are you staying?”

“A week,” I said.

Finally she stamped our passports and handed them back to us. We were in.

First impressions of London: busy and diverse. The racial diversity surprised me, even starting at Heathrow Airport. Workers at shops and hotels were more often than not Indian, African, Middle Eastern, and Eastern European, and tourists from America, Germany, Australia, Japan, China, France, etc. lined the streets. In America, racial diversity is kind of a given, but I was surprised that it is also the case in London.

It was a mob at the ticket line at the Tube station where we bought our all-important Oyster cards and we were off.

It was a 30-minute ride through the suburbs of London to where we were staying. A British woman’s voice announced the stops and reminded us to “mind the gap” between the train and the platform. People read tabloids and I stared out the window and was amazed at how vines grew on walls and wild flowers grew between the train tracks.

Our hostel was above a café on a street with lots of little shops and bars and restaurants that V. said reminded her of NYC. I thought so, too, except for a few unmistakably old and English buildings and the red double-decker buses that ran up and down the street. We checked in and lugged our suitcases up about five or six steep flights of wooden stairs into the girls dormitory.
My first thought was to collapse on the bed and go to sleep after the long international flight. The perils of jet lag. But sleep could wait. We were in London. I thought about how far away from home we were, the seemingly never-ending miles of ocean traversed on the plane. We were on the other side of the world.

We went for a walk on the London Bridge, walked through the financial district, saw about a million more red double-decker buses drive by.

Eventually, we encountered Millennium Park and the London Eye and had to take a ride. The Eye feels like you’re in space pod, but I suppose that’s the idea.

The next day was the Tower of London, which to me is THE haunted castle, complete with thick walls and dark chambers, narrow stone spiral staircases and history of executions, murders, and dungeon imprisonments. You can feel the ghosts even when it’s broad daylight outside. I think it would be a scary place to be at night.

In one area, a moving sidewalk takes you past the Crown Jewels, which are too opulent to be believed. The U.S. has no equivalent, which I have to say I’m glad for.

The grandest cathedral I’d been to before London was the cathedral at Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, and I didn’t see how anything could be any grander, but of course St. Paul’s Cathedral trumps it. Princess Diana married Prince Charles there. John Donne is buried there. ("No man is an island, entire of itself..."). I ask myself now, how did I not get a picture of St. Paul's? Here's a good picture.

It was V.’s idea to see the National Portrait Gallery, Britain’s "Hall of Fame" where countless royals are immortalized. I loved it. I got misty-eyed in the 20th century portrait exhibit because it reminded me of me and my friends, the people I’d read E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf and James Joyce with. I thought about our conversations, our desires to achieve, our attempts to see the world differently. Would they ever amount to anything?

On Saturday V. and I decided to escape the crowds and go to a place called Blenheim Palace near Oxford. It was here where I felt like we could be at Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley in “Pride and Prejudice.” A very proper elderly man greeted us at the door, and I realized later his picture was also in the tourist pamphlet for the palace. I wonder how he must feel showing off his family home to busloads of tourists.

We bought sandwiches and sat outside overlooking the gardens. I tried to imagine living at a place like this but couldn’t. “Now do you feel like you’re in England and not New York?” I asked V. She nodded. I think she enjoyed that part of our trip the most.

Saturday night V. and I stayed in a real hotel rather than a hostel. I loved our hotel room, which was small but very continental with the most comfortable bed you can imagine. Thank God for a private bathroom. We ran out to a store and I bought pretzels claiming to be made with a “Genuine American” recipe (chuckles) and a 7-UP. Did you know that 7-UP tastes totally different in Britain? V. bought some yummy ginger cookies to bring back to the hotel. Once I figured out how to turn on the TV we watched part of a documentary about British music and watched a panel of comedians take apart the week in UK culture, which we laughed at despite our lack of cultural context. I decided I like the BBC.

On our cloudy last day in London we took in Westminster Abbey. It’s beyond majestic, everything I’d imagined it to be and more. I have a thing for Gothic architecture, which up to this point I’d only seen in history books and in movies.

The abbey is lined inside with chapels that contain tombs of notable people. It gave me goosebumps to see where Elizabeth I is buried. The coronation chair dating from 1300 is there. It looks old and wooden, somehow I was expecting something grander. The throngs of tourists with their audio guides kind of killed the reverential ambience, but I stayed a long while at Poets' Corner, where T.S. Eliot, Ben Jonson, John Milton, William Shakespeare, etc. are memorialized. Somehow I had always imagined Poets' Corner to be a real graveyard with gravestones and tufts of grass growing between them, but instead the poets are memorialized on tiles beneath your feet or with monuments on the walls inside the abbey.

A priest offered a prayer for world peace at the top of the hour. V. bought a coffee in the cloisters, the quietest part of the abbey.

Like at St. Paul’s, it struck me that Westminster Abbey was as much about power on this earth as reverence for God. Why so much effort into a building when there are poor people living to be helped? But it’s hard not to feel that God dwells among us in Westminster Abbey.

There was no changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace on Monday due to the Bank Holiday. Darn, my planning had failed.

But we did see Big Ben.

I decided we couldn’t leave London without seeing Trafalgar Square.

Near Trafalgar Square V. and I tried the obligatory fish and chips at 10 pounds a plate. Tasty, especially soaked in malt vinegar, but I kind of felt like we were at Applebee’s. I think the stereotypes about British food are true, unfortunately.

Our last stop in London was Kensington Gardens, where I promised a friend I’d take a picture of the Peter Pan statue.

Maybe I didn’t know much about London, but I know I expected it to be old and beautiful. Which it was. I loved all the antiquities among the new buildings, the bridges, the narrow staircases, the endless monuments, the grassy green squares where people lay out on blankets to enjoy the weekends.

What I didn’t expect was for London also to be hyper-charged, tough, and crowded. I think I spent as much time in the Tube as I did seeing the sights, the dark and dank Tube with its constant streams of people rushing in and out of the stations, the hardened faces in train cars where standing room only is the norm. Tourists just like us were everywhere. Traveling through the city exhausted me, and I know I could never live in a place like that. But it’s the beautiful London I’ll remember, the London that exists in my pictures.