Archive for June, 2010

a chimpanzee manifesto

Fred Clark, as ever, cuts to the heart of a recent debate between the Krugman/Delong alliance and Everybody Else. Krugman and Delong say we should spend government money to help the 10% of Americans who can’t find work, find work. The Grown Ups say we can’t do this obviously compassionate and necessary thing, because Bad Things Would Happen. The Bad Things are cloaked in jargon or, more commonly, left unspecified. Hands are waved. Arguments like this one really, really tweak my always-trigger-happy class resentment like woah. It’s becoming increasingly hard for me to see conservative ideology – and, indeed, much of modern capitalism – as anything other than a figleaf protecting the brass balls of the superrich.

We’re chimpanzees. We confabulate madly to justify decisions already made before we knew we had made them. We’re engrossed in power and dominance games. The White House press room is a great example (oh, Helen Thomas, no.) Those reporters cannot come out and write the obvious, necessary things – the things Fred Clark, for example, writes – because they fear they will lose Access to Important People, and their chimpanzee balls and ovaries shrivel at the prospect. Judith Miller could not simply point out that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction and that his (secular) Ba’ath party had no connection whatever with the (religious) al Qaeda and that Congress was being very thoroughly lied to in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Those of us who did point these things out until we were blue in the face – and I claim no special insight here, there were ten million of us on the streets that Saturday – weren’t listened to, of course, because we had no Access. You had to be at least that deluded to ride that ride. Chimpanzees that fell in line with the dominant narrative of the day got plum embedded assignments and Halliburton contracts and, what was it? Nine billion US dollars in cash, in steel containers, “lost” somewhere in Iraq? Yeah. Everyone was lying, but it is in the nature of chimpanzees to go along to get along.

I do it too, God knows, the most corporate and compromised person in any of my personal circles. I have baby chimpanzees and an eye on the prize and I want some of that river of lost cash so my kids can go to good colleges (for-profit institutions engaged in the sale of privilege) and thus obtain precious precious Access. I listen and retell stories in my own bit of the great chimpanzee collective confabulation, our great work, our oral Wikipedia, the first draft of a bullshit history that is itself trying to defend the victors from their victims. I try to tell the good, useful software from the cynical rip-off, smart decent CEOs from sleazy embezzlers. I try to inject a laudably Fred-like note of clarity and sanity into the proceedings. But I can’t unchimp myself, can’t not want to be liked and accepted, can’t not want to keep what I have and maybe get some more for the kids. So, moral weakling that I am, I have to pay attention to where I am slipping, to the gross things I let myself off so lightly for (I fly too much, I eat meat, I drive a car, I speak politely to bankers.) I see the master narrative working away at my weak spots, singing its siren songs, tempting me.

Jan has a stack of newspapers – the arts and culture sections of the FT and the Times – and try as I might to simply read them as if I were chatting to Grant about books, I can’t separate the cheerful gossipy absorbed enthusiast’s conversation about stories from the dreary vuvuzuela of Capitalism Victorious. I can’t see the World Cup or Wimbledon as anything but huge cynical spectacles arranged to distract people from the fact that we are ruled by thieves. This is, of course, my own fault thanks to my massive ignorance and lack of engagement with sport – I do see that football and tennis can be beautiful – but I also see their utility to a malign elite. Say one urban black kid in a million gets to be a college basketball or football star, gets to be rich (and have his brain pounded to jelly, in the case of football); the others might just shut the fuck up, toe the line like good beta and gamma and delta chimpanzees in case the magical hand in the sky – the A&R guy, the reality TV audition, the lottery, the Dragon’s Den – comes down and chooses them next time. Bread and circuses. Retirees in Reno and Vegas feeding their Social Security through slot machines, and voting Republican in case they hit the jackpot.

God forgive me, I do find this intensely interesting. A huge part of what makes Hilary Mantel sing on the page – and Patrick O’Brien too, come to that, and Vikram Seth and Jane Austen – is the acute ear for these negotiations and confrontations, the lie told so often it starts to sound true, the master narrative nudged towards Reformation or Revolution by daily repetition and recapitulation (hahahaha, see what I did there?) I saw this in my Master’s thesis too, reading the mid-nineteenth-century Irish journalists who wrote The Nation when there was no nation, who created The United Irishman when Ireland was not united. Those men – John Mitchel, Charles Gavan Duffy, William Smith O’Brien – wrote the Republic of Ireland into being. A thing has to be thought before it stops being unthinkable.

This is what we are going to have to do. We have to dream up a good world for our grandchildren (it took the Young Irelanders seventy-odd years, it will take us at least that long.) We have to dream up sustainable and carbon-neutral societies, civil rights, human rights, equity for the poor world. We have to tear down the walls that keep the poor people out, because a walled garden whose only function is to exclude is not paradise. It is a fortress and a prison. (McKenze was a child when the Berlin wall came down; last night I tried to explain to her what it was like for us, growing up in the Cold War, thinking that the world would probably end in nuclear war before we were thirty, then finding in the space of six months that all our atlases had become obsolete. I said, it was as if Palestinians and Israelis were hugging in the streets. As if the two Koreas were reunited.)

Because Fred is right. The unemployed people are not an economic problem; they are our friends. The people in the poor world are our brothers and sisters. The Foxconn suicides, the war in Congo are embedded in this MacBook on which I write; my whole lovely happy life is predicated on exploitation and poverty. It’s not okay. Activism has to become a habit with me, prosaic, wonkish activism: pressure on Apple and other manufacturers to examine their supply chains; pressure on Arizona and the federal government to reform immigration and education, and to create jobs and provide more opportunities for working-class kids than the military or a football concussion; pressure on the press corps to stop telling so many transparent and idiotic lies. We can’t make a paradise on earth, we can’t extricate ourselves from accommodations that are also deals with the devil, we can’t ever make things perfect or pure because to do so is to build walls that keep people out. And also because we are chimpanzees and weak. We can’t, in fact, win – this is the long defeat, life ends in death. But we can be on the right side, sticking up for the truth and against bullies. We can say the things *we* want to have happen until they drown out the idiocies of macroeconomics and neoconservatism, and become the new Overton Window. It’s not just about walking away from Omelas; it’s about going back with an EMT team, breaking the kid out of that cage and sending her to college.

paradise is from ancient persian and means a walled garden

Oh, God, where did I leave you? Shoreditch? Damn. We struggled back to Cambridge that night and got the girls to sleep by about a million o’clock. Monday they played, we worked. Tuesday I schlepped down to London again for work. I’d booked a hotel for Tuesday night, then changed my mind and tried to cancel, then realized it was already too late to cancel without paying in full, so I lured Jeremy down to the Big Smoke to keep me company. Thanks to confused arrangements I sat in Gower Street for twenty minutes growing increasingly cross, then walked around the corner to Paradiso to find Jeremy and Grant already seated at an outdoor table.

“We were about to call the hotel and ask if there was a woman sitting outside looking VERY ANGRY,” said Grant.

I ordered a bottle of Pinot Grigio. It was an incomparably mild and lovely London night. Miss Ghostwood 2010, the beautiful Tallulah Mockingbird, was gracious enough to join us. We talked about every possible thing: Books (we all worship Hilary Mantel with an unholy passion and have progressed beyond Wolf Hall into her memoir and her earlier novel, A Place of Greater Safety. Edward St Aubyn is clever and bitchy and shallow but fun reading for a middle-aged European trip), People We Know (we love you all and are thrilled you’re doing so well. Except for that one guy, we hate that guy), Marriage And Relationships And Kids And So Forth, and Stuff We Are Planning To Wow The World With (no spoilers, sweetie!)

The hotel was, well, cheap. And close to work. And breakfast was included, and the full English was pretty much a full English, you can’t go far wrong. But the liquid purporting to be coffee was, how shall I say? Regrettable. J and I snuck off to the British Museum for a quick culture-gorge. They’ve planted a Representative South African Garden out the front, with jade plants and agapanthus and rare precious Elephant Foot Plants. J said: “The bees have been visiting all differently-coloured flowers and have stratified pollen sediments on their legs. You can see the different layers.”

Reader, I married him.

We started at the Royal Graves of Ur – irresistible carnelian and lapis lazuli and gold – and walked through rooms and rooms of Sumerian and Assyrian and Lydian and Phrygian art. Walls and walls of cuneiform, part of Assyria’s royal library: sketchy, inaccurate astronomical observations and thousands of words on the meaning of entrails, deformed babies, other omens:

“So many sophisticated civilizations,” said Jeremy, “almost no science.” They were doing pretty well by the standards of their day – fire, agriculture, writing, cities, leisure, art. But how frightening it must have been, the unknowable world; eclipses, fire flood and famine, the world beyond the walls. On to the Oxus Treasure, four horses driven abreast, a chariot worked in gold. Wicked Lord Lytton looted another like it when he was Viceroy of a famished India.

And suddenly we are in Ancient Europe, with the birth of farming in Iran – the garden of Eden, between the Tigris and the Euphrates. Room after room, culture overload. At last, Sutton Hoo. We spent a long time looking at the cloisonne work on the shoulder clasps. You can’t see it, but the blue squares are themselves checkered dark and light blue: it is millefiori glass. The workmanship. Jeremy said he couldn’t figure out how the thing was made. It made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

Too Much British Museum Girl! Work, back to Cambridge, last day in Cambridge, work, lunch with the XenSourcers and their babies. Packing, too much stuff, bags too heavy. Jeremy threw up all night the night before we left. Taxi to the station, train to Stansted, easy well-designed interchange to the terminal, standardly horrible Ryanair flight to Carcassonne. Julia whined all the way: “I want my Janny NOW!” That’ll teach me to call it a short flight. Ninety minutes is long when you are four.

Janny! And Julia’s comical Joy Face. Hiccups with the car rental nobly surmounted, culminating in us pushing away an abandoned rental that was parking us in. A Peugeot 305! Brand new and great fun to drive. The children were each allowed to choose one name for it; they both chose Twinkle; so it is Twinkle Twinkle, Little Car. Les Oliviers and its large cool rooms and breakfasts and dinners on the terrace. It is too hot at lunch time. All the trees came down and now there is a view across a fallow field to a stand of trees with the hills beyond. Oh my God, the food: pistachios and olives and creamy Brie. Apricots and nectarines that you can’t eat without juice running down your chin. Crisp cucumbers, unctuous avocados, sausages, ham, hard boiled eggs, hummus, lashings of rose wine: it is Elizabeth David and Enid Blyton all rolled into one.

Saturday night, a party in the village square. Tomato salad with mozzarella and black olives, roasted leg of duck with green olives. Dancing and dancing and dancing, a smoke machine, lasers, the macarena, conga lines. Three generations of Fitzes getting their funk on. Carrying Julia home, where she fell asleep instantly in my arms. Sunday afternoon, a visit to one of Jan’s friends. Swimming in her pool in a walled garden on a hill surrounded by vineyards. The garden itself, cherry and apple and almond trees, rose rooms, a gate with frog ornaments, a green porcelain lion. The wind farms turning in the distance. This morning, climbing the hill to the ruined castle. The village full of walled gardens. The girls sitting in the window of the curtain wall.

The first time I came to Les Oliviers, a girlfriend, not even a daughter-in-law, I looked at the yellow-walled room with the twin beds in it; and the thought that I might one day fill them with Jan’s grandchildren was too presumptuous even to be allowed to form.

I forgot to say that they were selling little bronze horse votives in the shop at the British Museum; and that Jeremy bought me one.

little more than a list of things done, with a pig

Hard to blog when there is so much going on. We went back up to London on Thursday night to watch the amazing Miss Jo as Tallulah Mockingbird as the Log Lady in the first annual Miss Twin Peaks 2010. She was brilliant and hilarious, but by the time we got standing room on the 10.52pm stopping train to Cambridge, my brain was melting and leaking out my eyes. I took the last Mersyndol and slept groggily till 9am. Friday I worked. Saturday we took the girls to the Scott Polar Research Institute Museum, which is rather fun; there were Inuit kayaks and models of the ships that went to each Pole and tins of pemmican and wrappers from chocolate bars. And they were careful to disambiguate Ant- from Arctic, which is good because I am fussy about it. Julia scored a seal, whose name, we are told, is Sealie.

Next we went to the Museum of Zoology, where Julia saw the whale skeleton and said rather gobsmackingly: “I remember this. You brought me here when I was two.” Gobsmackingly, because I did. The museum is fantastic, full of skeletons and stuffed animals and things set in resin, all side by side in an old-fashioned large white room. We loved it. After that we had scones and jam and cream, and then home where I could not keep my eyes opened and napped while Jeremy made spag bol, and then awake (barely) for another splendid episode of Doctor Who. Today we caught the train to London – I earned some cross looks from nice ladies in the seats across the aisle for explaining to the girls that the British had actually stolen the Parthenon frieze from Greece. In Shoreditch we met Grant and Kirsty and all walked over to Hackney City Farm, which is remarkable for its excellent donkey and humble, radiant pig. And then I had my perfect moment after all, sitting in the sun in the garden there while the children played. Now the boys are making bangers and mash and the little girls are watching In The Night Garden and Kirsty and I are communing with the great world in the Net.

To clarify: I am blogging. Kirst is trawling OKCupid, looking for lerve!

dialectic and praxis, women and love

Look, I know how foolhardy it is to even try to recreate one perfect day; so sue me. We were up as I mentioned at hideous a.m. and out of the house by 8, having coffee and a sausage roll and a meringue at my favourite Cambridge delicafe, Origin8. Then we caught a double-decker bus to the station and Grant just materialized at our side, handsomer and funnier than ever. And we took a taxi out to the Orchard Tea Rooms.

Where it was frickin freezing and we huddled, chilly, in deck chairs grimly eating scones. Oh, whatever; it wasn’t until we were walking back through the meadows and I stood in a fresh cowpat that I realized that none of this actually matters, that I was just so very happy to be with my best boys and girls. There were cows, well, steers, grazing by the river. I had been reading Temple Grandin’s Animals In Translation, in which she describes the charming curiosity of cattle, so I got down at eye level and one of the beasts did come up to us, all liquid eye and prehensile tongue. Then Claire made a sudden move and he trotted away.

I had a funny exchange with Grant, then or later; about how hilarious I find it that I have such a great job, since I had assumed from an early age I was too delicate a flower, by which I mean too utterly useless, ever to survive in a market economy. That I needed a tenured job because otherwise I would not be able to hold down a job at all. How weirdly things turn out.

“Have you considered,” he said, “that maybe you were wrong in the first place?”

The kids made it all the way back to Cambridge, more or less, and we met Kirsty and Chris at Fitzbillie’s and had rather great brunch, and then walked to an art store and bought sketchbooks and paints and markers for the girls, and then to the pub in Midsummer Common, the Fort St George, for cider. Lovely wandering conversation, gossip and politics and ideology, dialectic and praxis, books; mad fun for wonks.

I failed fast that evening, shivering like someone woken at 3am, and indeed the girls were already out like lights. But Jeremy had the perfect cure for what ailed me: Doctor Who! In real time! Sleep fell from me, and it was a splendid episode and all. Chris cooked for us, a fabulous eggplanty pasta sauce. And then I was gone.

Hangover! It was brutally hard to get started on Sunday morning but at length we were all in a punt on the Cam and I was bonding with Rory, our guide, a townie, over politics, to Jeremy’s considerable amusement. Then to Dry Drayton where I was introduced to Thokki and reacquainted with Freydis, two very respectable Icelandic horses (they are not ponies, no matter how small; they are dignified.) Keir dropped us at home where Grant was waiting to roast a chicken with us, and Chris came by as well. We blanched broccoli and made spinach salad with pumpkin seeds and roasted an eggplant and put away two bottles of only-passable sauvignon blanc, made delectable by the company.

On Monday I was hungover and jetlagged and exiled from my happy home, bound for London with a rolling suitcase that broke en route. The bus took a ludicrous 45 minutes to get to the station. All was dire! Until I got to the hotel and saw all my colleagues and realized, possibly for the first time, how smart they all are and how much I like them. Then I met Grant and Kirsty and Jo for dinner and had the same revelation about them.

I think this is the first time I have been in England medicated and healthy and sane. I kept having strange third-party high realist visions of myself as a competent and likeable person. Odd. And with this it is suddenly possible to not feel threatened by new things or people; to respond to things as they are, instead of continually dancing around all the abysses only I can see. At one point during the conference our CFO was making incredibly stupid jokes, and we were all half-laughing half-groaning, which was his point, and I put my arm around him and said “I love you,” which is a thing I never do; but it was true.

The conference went okay. The other best moment, for me, was when a newish colleague called me “Amanda” by mistake, and later explained that it was because she thinks I look exactly like Amanda Seyfried. Since I’d been feeling oldish and frumpy around the new women hires, many of whom are seven feet tall with glossy hair to their waists, no lie, and since I have loved Amanda Seyfried since the first season of Veronica Mars and not only despite but secretly even because of Mamma Mia, this made me gloriously happy. I walked on air all the way back to the Underground.

What with the good mood and the sanity and all, I spent the whole journey to Kings Cross looking at the other people on the train. Good Lord! Women of London, you are so beautiful and stylish! Your colour choices are fashion-forward, and your statement necklaces fill me with awe! Straight men and lesbians of London, how do you not fall madly in love every time you turn your heads?


Our flat this time is a different address but the same management company, and they use the same rather pungent bathroom cleaner. So every time I walk into the bathroom I am vividly reminded – of being in the bathroom in Cambridge, which is where I am.

in which we cross the atlantic

Oh hi there! How are you? Since we last spoke I have been to New Orleans, returned to San Francisco to collect my family and brought them all to Cambridge, England, except, as Julia keeps pointing out, for Bebe the cat, who is not here. Yesterday was pretty epic, in fact, starting with the old white dude who got all huffy when a guy from India politely asked him not to cut into the queue at the airport – “It’s called having MANNERS!” spat the old white dude, why is it always old white dudes? I mean, some of my best friends are old white dudes, but dudes! ANYWAY – and a decentish flight punctuated only by Claire’s early-morning projectile nosebleed which, what?

Where was I? Other than covered in not-even-my-own-blood I mean. Um, Heathrow, Heathrow Express, Paddington, change at Edgware Road for District and Circle Line, Kings Cross which is where I finally lost my mind – England is so fricken crowded that your personal space is much smaller than it is in San Francisco and after a while this encroachment and the sleep dep and the crowds and noise combined to make me HOMICIDALLY PSYCHOTIC – and had to be consoled with an egg salad sandwich. And so to Cambridge, which is pretty, and our flat, which is smaller than last time but closer to the river and the Co-op. We shall see.

We staggered out for dinner by the river last night and fed the ducks on the way home and the children were out like lights by 7.30pm and you know what that means, don’t you? Yes, it means that they woke promptly at 2am ready for play and it is 6.25am as we speak and I have spent the last four hours and 25 minutes trying to keep them from making more noise than a pair of annoyed parrots with kettledrums attached to their feet, which is unbelievably STILL a less horrible jetlag experience than last time. Next up: Grantchester with Kirsty and the Godfathers. Birds are tweeting. It’s good to be here.

the child garden


Originally uploaded by Goop on the lens

i have a new theory

…concerning the multiverse, in which other Rachels elsewhere are engaged in feats of world-saving derring-do, while I have been given the job of quietly raising my children and reading good books and learning to ride well.

It follows from this theory that all the other Rachels are as consumed with envy of me as I am of them.