Archive for November, 2006

language: or, what are you talking about?

This morning crackheads broke into my car and stole my iPod. I told my hippie mechanic, whose birth name really truly is Jerry Lewis:

“Crackheads smashed my passenger window.”

“Friends of yours?”


“Then how do you know they were crackheads?”

Jerry obviously felt he had made a telling point, but I was underslept and annoyed and I meant to use the word crackheads in its derogatory sense. Even if my iPod wasn’t sold to buy crack, the thieves betrayed the same sorry failure to contribute to the common weal as if they did in fact piss their entire lives away for a twenty-minute high. They probably got $50 or so for the iPod and the other bits and pieces they lifted. It will cost me about $700 to replace it all. It occurs to me that my hippie mechanic is the one who stands to profit. Maybe that’s what he meant!

Language and its limitations, easily-overlooked differences in register and misunderstandings with their comic and tragic consequences are key themes of Imaginary Boyfriend Rory’s wonderful book (hardcover now on sale at Powells.) Rory is an able deployer of rhetoric himself. This passage, for example, defied my expectations, made me laugh and then forced me to think hard about my own ideals for a civil society. Not bad for three sentences:

On the edge of the floor experts on monetary policy, gender counsellors, engineers, colonels with bare midriffs thrust their hips out at the drunken audience from under the spinning disco ball. I wondered whether the waiters thought this enactment of every Islamist image of Western decadence was how we behaved every night. I enjoyed it very much.

One of my superstitions is that if gay men ever stop dancing, our cities will fall; so this really spoke to my heart. Part of Rory’s interest in rhetoric is in its failure modes:

Even in the stable context of our office, with good translators, it was often difficult for us to understand Iraqi guests and for them to understand us. Molly joked that the family pride, vendettas, genealogies and avarice of the sheikhs echoed my home life in the Scottish highlands and made them easy for me to communicate with, but the truth was that the most basic concepts, like “civil society” or “Sharia law,” meant very different things to each of us. What was a lived experience for one side was often an abstract concept, learned in a textbook, for the other. Too often, the sophisticated and controversial points that we imagined we were making were experienced by our listeners as sonorous platitudes.

When rhetoric is deployed in the service of hypocrisy, its failure is even more catastrophic. This, of course, is the story of the war. I am told there were people who believed in the imaginary WMDs, but I never met any of them. I am no apologist for the loathesome Baaths and their rape rooms, but the USA should never have invaded Iraq. This was obvious even at the time. In January and February of 2003, everyone I knew was marching in the streets, trying to prevent the invasion. We failed. We should have tried harder. The real question was how much we would value the lives of people we had never met. The answer was that we could never value them enough. Here is Rory defending the Coalition’s failure to protect Iraqi property.

“Governor, maybe it is better that a little computing equipment gets stolen than that more people get killed.”

And he said: “What are you talking about? Would you let the mob go stampeding into your office and loot your computer equipment?” We had no answer. Of course, we would have shot anyone who tried to break into our compound. The governor left that meeting certain that we were not prepared to give him the level of protection we gave ourselves. And from then onwards almost any hope of cooperation was lost.

All animals are equal, but… Can the West and the rest of the world ever find a common language? Esperanto, house music, the high-realist novel? The Magic 8-ball says: Outlook not so good.

Back at the office, Barbara sacked the translator because of the argument over the cigarettes. He left shouting, “We are coming for you. We will not rest until you are driven from this province screaming.” I walked with him to the door and there he stopped, took my hand, and said, “Rory, you must study E. M. Forster. It is the only way to understand our cultures. ‘Only connect.'” He walked out onto the street, turned, and shouted again: “Only connect.”

Yeah, good luck with that.


Like so many of my imaginary boyfriends, Rory Stewart is a beautifully educated, raven-tressed, quite dotty Brit. See also: Simon Schama, Robert Graves, Graham Greene, George Orwell, Hugh Laurie, Tony Slattery and Danny O’Brien. Big Daddy G lives in London, so he gets in on a technicality. My reasons for marrying blond, blue-eyed, completely sane Jeremy are left as an exercise for the reader.

To return to my theme, which is Rory and the dottiness thereof: at the end of 2001 he walked across Afghanistan. Just after the Taliban were deposed. On foot. Over the mountains. Did I mention that he walked? Along the way he adopted a dog and named him Babur. My ex-(real life)-boyfriend used to say that the English were dotty about animals, as if that were a bad thing. Rory wrote about his Afghanistan journey in The Places In Between, which is a heady trip of a book, like climbing a mountain made of turquoise.

The book of Rory’s you really should read, however, as soon as you can get your hands on it, is The Prince of the Marshes, his account of a stint as deputy governor of the province of Maysan in Iraq. The title turned me off at first: I thought he was calling himself the prince of the Marshes, which came off all entitled and I can’t stand those Brits.

But he’s actually the other kind. The closest I can come to describing it is that it’s as if someone we know was writing from there; sure, someone with far better Farsi than ours (no, he doesn’t speak Arabic) and who has spent his time usefully in the Black Watch and Foreign Office and not just been lumping around in tech all these years, but still someone skeptical and curious and funny and with that combination of subversiveness and reluctant idealism that, you know, we try to have.

Rory knows that it’s more complicated than that. There are people in Iraq he likes enormously, and disagrees with. There are people he dislikes and distrusts, to whom he accords great respect, at least in public. He tries to work out peoples’ agendas and to decode their rhetoric and affect. He makes mistakes and learns from them. He is doubtful and worried and scandalized by the conduct of the Coalition, but he wants very much to put things right. He just isn’t sure how. He is always thinking.

Let me put it another way. Those of you who have read Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels know that Consider Phlebas is the most provocative, because it views the liberal generous enlightened enfranchised Culture from the outside, from the point of view of its enemies. And that the Culture novels only work at all because they’re about Contact with other Cultures; otherwise, there’s no jeopardy, just silly little First World problems.

Well, the West is the Culture, the Coalition Provisional Authority is Contact and Rory Stewart’s book is a non-fiction Culture novel. All of which makes it one of the most frightening things I have ever read.

the greatest american holiday

It’s been a very difficult year, not so much for me as for many people I love. Nevertheless there’s plenty of things big and small to be thankful for:

Julia’s first steps; Claire teaching herself to read; Jeremy’s Constellation and Self-Healing Sound Field; the girls’ brand new second cousin Kate; Leonard and Sumana, Kate and Asa, Ian and Katherine getting married; Adrian and Sam having Tabitha; Yoz and Bob having Dexter and moving to San Francisco; Danny, Quinn, Gilbert, Ada, Shannon, Bryan, Cian, Ruairi, Jack, Salome, Milo, Shannon Lee and Peter the Rocket Scientist all moving to San Francisco; Garfield, Olga and Madeleine coming to visit; Jo getting British citizenship and Grant getting his UK visa; Mark P. getting his Australian visa; Mark B. buying a house; me getting my labor cert; Jeremy’s new job.

And more generally: meds that save lives; the Democrats taking the House and Senate (may they deserve it and act wisely); gay marriage and plenty of it; three of my imaginary friends in the Infertiliblogosphere finally having children (Cecily and Tori, Wavery and Huck, Karen and Maya); food (special mentions to Range, Blue Plate, Chez Spencer and Incanto); hot water; the Long Now; the de Young; San Francisco Parents for Public Schools; San Francisco Public Library; Media Night at School of the Arts; Oz Farm.

my favourite morgans

Portrait taken by a random hiker

Originally uploaded by yatima.

de young at heart

Nadonomo has been a total catastrophe. I’ve drafted a major report, reinvented my riding career, been to Oz and Los Angeles, spent time with Jeremy’s parents and thrown a sizeable party for Julia’s first birthday, and the month isn’t two-thirds over. I need a nap.

Today was great fun, though nap-free, because we took Jeremy’s dad Richard to the de Young. I have fallen for Herzog’s lacy copper blocks in a big way, and the museum has become one of my favourite places in San Francisco. Richard is a wonderful architect – he built the house Jeremy grew up in, and where Jeremy and I were married. Richard approves of de Young very much, so now I can like it officially as well.

(If you’ve read Sean Wilsey’s hilarious and horrifying Oh the Glory of It All – the Mommie Dearest of social San Francisco – it is very unsettling to see Dede Wilsey’s name everywhere. Nevertheless.)

We spent some time in the sculpture garden, which has never been a particular favourite of mine. For a long time I’ve leaned towards clever, pointed installations, preferably at Burning Man, ideally built by unprofessional artists: a submarine rising out of the desert, coloured lamps that line up to spell the words “Let go.”

With the exception of a thirty-foot safety pin and maybe the porcelain apples, the sculptures at the de Young aren’t in that ironical vein. I looked at Zhan Wang’s Artificial Rock, a tall nugget of stainless steel that has never impressed me much. It looks a bit like the aluminium foil left over after your last burrito.

I decided that if Approved Art was conceptually inscrutable compared with Black Rock work, it had better outdo Burning Man in technical finesse. And in fact Artificial Rock meets this new standard. The steel is polished to a mirror-bright gloss so that it shatters the copper museum and the grassy knoll over Turrell’s earthwork into fragments. You have to get right up close to see your face in it, and when you do, there are two or three faces looking back at you, interspersed with architecture, art and sky.

I’m not saying it will replace the Thermo Kraken or Orbicular Affect in my affections any time soon, but it did repay closer attention. Not everything does.

claire: thoughts on power

“Power is the opposite of pretty.”

“Crows in their power say ‘Caw! Caw!'”

i will stop with the funny-kid posts when she stops cracking me up

C: Where is Rowan?

J: He’s at his school.

C: What’s his school called?

R: Phoebe Hearst.

C: What’s my school called?

R: Mandala.

C: What’s Cian’s school called?

R: Paul Revere.

C: Paul Revere Spiderman?

J (laughing): Cian goes to Paul Revere Spiderman school?

R: Claire! Get your own blog!

C: “Get your own blog!”

more morgan stories

I left Salome a voicemail.

“Joan the Morgan lady said we’d be riding with two other people. Stop making that face. Yes, I know that you are making a face. I know you hate people, but what if these are nice people? What if they are Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis?”

So as we were sitting in the Jetta parked by the logpile on Tennessee Valley Road, drinking hot tea and waiting for Joan to arrive, we looked for Johnny and Vanessa.

Salome: There’s Johnny’s truck now.

Rachel: No way. Johnny wouldn’t drive an SUV.

S: Unless it was biodiesel.

R: Every car Johnny touches turns to biodiesel.

S: Yeah, I heard that about Johnny.


R: I heard that when Johnny Depp poops? It’s brioche.

Our fellow riders, Fred and Angelique, were indeed wonderful people, and shall be known henceforth as Johnny and Vanessa.

the post in which the last four weeks’ worth of posts all come together

Bebe is forgiven. I’ve been a bit on the cold-and-witholding side lately, what with the her-sending-me-to-the-ER and so forth. But this morning Julia had crunchy snot in her eyes again, so I put on the soothing ointment, and she was perturbed. I pointed her at the cat for comfort.

Julia threw her arms around Bebe and rested her white head against the cat’s black fur. They snuggled like this for a good minute or two. Julia kept turning her head because she was fascinated by Bebe’s purr.

Also today: Salome and I rode the Morgan lady’s stallion and colt up and over the Marin headlands to where the sunlight turns silver and pours into the open blue eye of the sea, and you can see the Farallons out on the horizon and the Golden Gate Bridge and the white city of San Francisco through a gap in the hills. You can see the curvature of the globe. It was so impossibly gorgeous that it made Narnia look like Pyongyang.

the negotiator

C: But I don’t want to!

R: Excuse me, Claire?

C: Yes mummy?

R: What is Rule One?

C (thinks): Yeah whining?

R: I think not. I think Rule One is in fact, No whining.

C: But I want Yeah whining!

R: But I want No whining!

C (cunningly): How about Medium whining?

julia’s word is uh-oh!

Claire challenges my authority about something.

R: No!

C: Why?

R: Because I said no! And my word is… ?

C: What?

R: Law! My word is law!

C: My word is why.

julia’s toddlerhood: any day now

Last week she figured out how to stand on her own. She lines up her lovely fat thighs under her center of gravity, then very deliberately lets go of the sofa or whatever else she is using as her prop. Last night was the best yet. She released the arm of the Poang and wobbled on her feet for almost a minute, trying to will her back foot up so she could take a step towards her daddy.

Jeremy held his breath, I held my breath, the Milky Way held its breath; then with a smile like the light of ten thousand suns she folded back onto her round bottom.

How we cheered!

it’s nice when the pain stops, but it’s not the same as not getting hurt in the first place

Yay, a woman is House Speaker Elect. The first one. In 2006. Sigh.

Don’t get me wrong: I am very grateful for the gains, especially McCaskill who seems right on, and Casey who is awful but better than Santorum. And I am glad Rumsfeld is off to do his harm somewhere else. But this Congress needs to address the deficit, find a way out of the quagmire and reboot international diplomacy. This is not going to be a picnic. This is umpty-tum years of difficult, dangerous and thankless work, that if it succeeds, will take us to… where Clinton left us in 2001.

Sigh. Anyway, I’m kind of beating myself up because I made a bad mistake last week. I don’t usually second-guess my choices as a mother, but that’s because those choices matter to me more than anything else, and so I usually get them right, or right enough.

But Friday’s call – to take Julia to the ER instead of the pediatrician – was the wrong one, and it was Julia who suffered for it. The doctor prescribed stinging eyedrops every three hours while she was awake. It was horrible – Jeremy and I both holding her down and squeezing open her sore eyes to drop liquid in them that made them burn. The pediatrician, when I finally got through on Monday, gave us a soothing ointment instead, that we apply while she is sleeping.

Her eyes are better and she’s perfectly blickety now. But after we did the eyedrops on Monday morning, she stood on my lap and leaned her whole weight against my shoulder, taking shuddering breaths; and I can still feel her little body trembling in my arms.

there and back again

A day in LA for work. Things it is not interesting to observe about LA: there are freeways, there is smog, it is hot. These things have been said. You might as well say “Shut up, Ann Coulter.” Things it may or may not be interesting to observe about LA: the palm trees float like jauntily upturned mops; the planes hem-stitch the evening. A final observation: spending a day in another city leaves me as drained as a nosebleed.

a few ozecdotes

Jeremy: I downloaded this ancient Persian font – you know, sticks pressed in clay tablets. Cuneiform?

Jamey: Cool!

Rachel: I love a man in cuneiform.

our terrible awful no-good very bad day

I had hoped to leave for Oz at about noon, but Julia woke up with conjunctivitis. I tossed up whether to call her pediatrician or take her to St Luke’s. My good experience on Thursday tipped the scales in favour of St Luke’s, and…

…it took three hours to get the prescription. And another three hours to work through five pharmacies to find one that had the right eye drops in stock. We left just in time to catch the commuter traffic. That stopped. And started. From Sausalito. To Santa. Fucking. Rosa.

It’s seventy miles to Cloverdale. It took us three hours. My God, how I wanted to be somewhere else.

The blessed wonderful kids slept from about five to about seven-thirty, and we reached the Oz turnoff at about eight. After being on the verge of tears all day, I actually cried with happiness as we came down to the farm.

After that of course, everything was magical.

stupid cat

Bebe has literally bitten the hand that feeds her. Last night she was perched on my hip in bed, and I needed to turn over to drain the snot from one nostril to another. (What?) So I tipped her gently from her perch and onto the soft blankets. This enraged her. She brooded darkly upon her sense of wrong, then darted in and savaged the soft underbelly of my left arm.

So far, so perfectly normal domestic scene in this house of the cantankerous cat. This morning, though, there was a hard red coin-shape around one of the toothmarks. I traced its outline at 9am, and a much larger outline – a biscuit-shape, perhaps – again at 3pm, which is when I left work to go to the ER.

I shouldn’t say this in a public forum, but St Luke’s, the local hospital where Julia was born, offers what is by US standards superb emergency care. Today I arrived at 4pm, where the admitting nurses were very sympathetic and called me “sweetheart”. My sexy boy doctor was seeing me by 4.40pm.

“You’ve done this before,” he said when he saw my outlines around the infection.

“Last time I got a cat bite I spent three nights in hospital,” I confessed.

“What, do you torture them?”

“No, but I’m going to start.”

I have ten days’ worth of broad-spectrum antibiotic horse pills, but that’s the least of it; they gave me a shot in the backside as well. As the needle was going in, the nurse said (sympathetically): “A lot of people find that this hurts. There’s no lidocaine in it.”

I gasped and though more-than-several tears came to my eyes, I bravely did not cry. I am limping, though. You would be too if you’d been skewered with caustic chemicals right next to your sciatic nerve.

Of course I get no sympathy from anyone, because all my friends are afraid of Bebe and think I should probably have her killed. I have to admit, this episode does show her to be a very, very stupid cat.


That’s National Do Nothing Month. I’ll try to get some stuff done, but based on my performance so far this year? Things are gonna be late, deadlines missed, chocolate eaten, windows stared out of. Thanks for your attention to this matter.