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It hits hard, when you’re the sort of person inclined, as I am, to the critical analysis and evaluation of others’ behavior, when you do something yourself that you know is legible. By legible I mean open to readings that endow said action with a meaning beyond the immediately obvious and literal. All the chattering I do, spoken or un, about other people and their foibles returns with a vengeance – I have made myself available to skeptical treatment that is all the worse for the the fact that I will probably never hear it, only sympathetically imagine it.
I’ve done a few things that cause this rather reflexive – even paranoid – reaction in me. The other day I threw a strop outside of my house because there was a summer street party on and someone had stuffed my rubbish bin full of street party debris. The neighbors, with whom I’ve exchanged less than a hundred words since I moved here last November saw me do this, and now I avoid them at all costs, even more diligently than I avoided them before. I can almost hear them discussing my over the top reaction in their bed at night, which sits a few meters away from mine behind, of course, the wall between our places.
Even worse, perhaps, is the fact that I moved to this street in the first place. My current house is on the same street as my home during my previous marriage. It’s a street that runs for two blocks, so it’s not like once living at the bottom of 5th Avenue in Greenwich Village and then moving, a few years and a divorce later, to the same street on the Upper East Side. Or even the bottom of Tottenham Court road in Soho and then moving to one of those flats that sits atop Warren Street Station. My new place is exactly 50 house numbers away from the old one. And given the opposing sides of the streets, that places me 25 houses away from the place that I used to call home.
You can understand why I can hear, echoing, the readings of this development. “He wants to reset the clock. To start over. He’s trying to get it all back. Can you imagine, out of all the streets in London, or even just North London, he picked the selfsame one???”
One of the jokes, perhaps a bit defensive, that I used to make is that I can now go back to my old GP and simply claim that they have my house number wrong. I never bothered to transfer to another doctor, as I’ve not been to a doctor since I last lived here. Full circle, the trip has been, to the point that even the NHS won’t notice I’ve ever been gone.
I can’t decide if I am an incredibly sentimental person or a completely anti-sentimental person. Probably it’s the sort of geometric arrangement where everything meets at the poles, and the least becomes most and vice versa. But I do know that, on the one hand, there were clear reasons to me why I chose to buy this house, reasons that of course had nothing to do with my previous incarnation on this street. They are solidly sensible, middle-class sorts of, reasons. The space afforded, quality of presentation, school catchment zones, relative un-horrificness of the commute. And of course there’s a Waitrose in walking distance. When asked or prodded, I respond, “I am good at the real estate business. If I picked well once, why wouldn’t I pick the same thing again?”
Definitely not a clincher in the decision, but something that was at the back of my mind, was the fact that when my daughters visit, as they are doing right now, they are in a neighbourhood that they know and love. That, during our last visit, when I still lived in Highbury, they begged me to return to over and over so that they could run into their friends at the park behind their old school. Which of course, now, we do.
But the funny thing is: now that they’re back, and recognized constantly on the street by people that are strangers or half-strangers to me, mothers of their friends or their old friends themselves, they draw away, reluctant to engage, half-heartedly waving and saying “hi” but basically pulling me back toward our house. And then they say, or at least the oldest does, “Please can we go home now. I’d rather just be at home with just my sister and you.” The same thing on the way to the park itself, that object of fascination and long bus rides just last year. “It would be cool if people were there. But I kind of hope they aren’t and we can just hang out. Is that weird, dadda?”
If I were honest, I’d reply that it is a bit weird, but at the same time utterly understandable. For we, as a family, are town people – the bourgeoisie, if you take the term literally – and we I think corporately believe in the “good fences make good neighbors” stuff. They are sisters, but they seem to have inherited my only child’s love of solitude, or the relative solitude of family life behind chained front doors and closed shutters. I can’t remember ever knowing my New Jersey neighbors during my childhood. And now they themselves, my daughters, primarily live in New Jersey. Plus ça change…
I wonder further sometimes whether all of this has anything to do with my interest in the novel as a form. After all, as I tell my students over and over again, the form gets its start in an increasingly bourgeois-ifying world, when the doors are more often shut and the shutters more often pulled. One started to wonder – as I tell my classes – what exactly is happening over the reception room, the kitchen, the bedroom next door. And so the novel pulls down the walls, doll house style, and shows…. The spousal argument in the reception room, the euphemized or not sex in the bedroom, the man with his children who normally live in New York, feeding breakfast to them in the kitchen one Kellogg’s box and yogurt pot at at time, and wondering what exactly it is that we’ll do together today to make day fourteen of thirty-nine go well in a memorable sort of way.
We rented an Airbnb place for tonight and the next two nights in Paris. We are in Paris because, due to extravagant airfares, I had to cancel a trip to see the kids last September. “We could do other things with that money – great things” I said on the phone. Disneyland was broached, by one of us, both of us, so we are here.
I saved at least £1500 by staying in an Airbnb in Paris rather than the park itself. Earlier this year, they visited the proper Disney World, in Florida, with their mother and their new step-father, so I felt I could get away with it.
Somehow I missed the right stop. I had convinced myself that we were staying on one of the spurs off of Place de la Nation. When in fact it was Place Voltaire. And so we backtracked. And we are here.
What was interesting though was the entry to the apartment. Here are the instructions that the owner sent us:
Hi Michael, a few information to get in my home…
- First, when you are in front of the big brown door on the street, you’ll have to make the following code : 472B.
- Then, in the hall, you’ll see on your left some mailboxes. Mine is the one with ‘X’ written on it and a little orange sticker. You can open it with a coin, or your own key… And get the 2 sets of keys which open the door of the flat.
- To open the glass door in the hall, put the green pad that hangs on the keys on the black pad just beside the door.
- Then my flat is at the 5th floor, on your left. The very little key opens it. You’re home!
I let you the phone number of my friend if you have any problem : (phone number hidden). Could you confirm when you’re home that everything’s okay? (I am currently in Rio so I just woke up…)
If you need any information about the house, ask me!
Despite all my apprehensions, the directions worked to a T. So much so that I developed a soft sort of respect for our landlord of three days. But my girls, at least temporarily, had other ideas.
It was dark upon entry. We had to use the light on my iPhone to guide us around. Clearly the woman who rented us this place is a person with a penchant for atmospheric lighting. Children react badly to such things, especially when they are initially sceptical about what we are doing in somebody’s flat, off the beaten path, rather than – as my daughter put it – a ‘hotel like the ones in Memphis or wherever.’ She meant a chain hotel.
And so there was a bout of worry to get over. Things seemed to improve when we turned the TV on. I cannot now seem to turn it off, but we will get to that in due time. Nonetheless, I had to turn some pictures – I think a cover of a book about transvestites – over before they would sleep. The French love images – in every corner someone or something peeps out in this place.
But the point of Paris, especially to young Americans, which I was once, is estrangement. I hope that is what happens and it sticks. They are starting Paris in a different place than I did. But let’s hope it sticks.
My father burst into tears today. His face scrunched up like a child’s – like himself as a child, his face as a child – and the tears began to flow. Did he leave himself like that, visible, just long enough for me to see before plunging his face into his hands? He will be 70 next month.
He cried because he’d fucked his flight reservations. For the second time this week. The day before he flew from the US, he called me in a panic to say that he’d messed up, really messed up. That he was supposed to fly out of London and back home on Friday but had somehow booked the return for Sunday. He asked if we would be around over the weekend, if it would matter if he and mum stayed on. I responded that – as he already knew – we were taking the kids to Paris on Friday night.
During his stopover at JFK on the way here, he managed to change the flight. As it turns out though, he changed it to the wrong day – Thursday, today, instead of Friday, tomorrow. Which we discovered as we tried to print out his boarding passes in my kitchen – he is obsessive about printing his boarding passes at the earliest possible moment – and the screen indicated that the flight in question was delayed, but would begin boarding within half-an-hour.
Upon examination, we further discovered that the flight he’d thought was booked for Sunday was actually booked for Saturday morning. He’d confused the dates. And even more: we remembered that Saturday morning was the date and time we’d agreed they would leave all those months ago when he was booking his trip.
After the tears, a phone call which sorts it out at a price of $1000 for the two of them. He’d already paid $1000 to sort it out, erroneously, earlier this week. He has the money to cover it – and I remind him of as much. I also bark when, in the midst of the tears and the calling, he utters the phrase, “I’m not sure I can take this much longer,” which I know refers to my mother. I reply: “This has nothing to do with anything other than an airplane flight. What does it have to do with anything else?”
He is gone now – off to a hotel by Heathrow where he will anxiously pack and repack his bags and perhaps take the shuttle over, a night early, to try to pick up his boarding passes, which we never were able to print. Of course one wonders about senility, given what an expensive debacle he’s made of his travel arrangements for this trip. When others speculate, I ward them off.
My barking is not a new thing. I suppose I learned it from him. But it is odd, when one is 38 and one’s father is 69, how quickly the tone shifts. How quickly the once scolded son becomes the scolding son, on alert for faux pas, childish projection, and other behavioral anomalies. I do it to my children, bark, and I do it to my parents too now.
From this morning’s FT:
Monday’s emergency summit of eurozone leaders is likely to set the tone for markets for the week and could even be the tipping point in the Sisyphean epic being played out between Greece and its creditors.
A ‘Sisyphean epic’ is an interestingly semi-oxymoronic concept. Sisyphus’s whole story in Greek myth is a bit epical – meaning, at least, that it’s a long story, and a rather convoluted one. (Some versions of it have him as the father of Odysseus too – which would at least make him the progenitor of the greatest epical protagonist ever).
But generally when we today refer to Sisyphus, we’re talking about the end of his story, which involves a tragical turn. And in particular, we don’t so much remember the hubris or even the chain of events that lead to his punishment – but only the punishment itself, the perpetually fruitless rock rolling. It’s hard to think of this scene, the only one most of us know, as epical: Coming soon, to a cinema near you – the latest and bestest CGI epic masterpiece: Sisyphus Rolls His Stone, Forever – in 3D.
But despite – or perhaps because of – its oxymoronic nature, the concept of a ‘Sisyphean epic’ does have a certain ring of truth when it comes to Greece, and its citizens, and citizens around the world who are dealing with life in the age of austerity. Sisyphus receives a form of punishment disproportionate to his crimes, and one that turns the momentary crisis into a perpetual situation. But most importantly, Sisyphus’s end mirrors the festina lente experience of life under austerity – an ever increasing struggle for ever diminishing possibilities of reward. For what Sisyphus’s problem is is not simply pushing the stone up the hill over and over and over again. It’s also – perhaps more deeply – the fact that he must be aware of the fruitlessness of his task, as well, hellishly, of his inability to do anything other than to continue to participate in this sadistic game.
For, true to the oxymoron, austerity shrouds life in an anti-narrative structure. Not non-narratives: there are stories, struggles, and the like. But, as with Sisyphus as he time and time again dramatically shoulders his stone and once more begins his ascent, the stories and struggles are haunted from the start by an ever decreasing chance of a turn, a resolution, a positive accomplishment at the end. The stories keep running, but for more and more, the efforts that would be chronicled are rendered absurd right from the start. But we, like Sisyphus, are doomed to to keep on playing them out nonetheless.
One of my brilliant PhD students quoted this passage from Charles Baudelaire’s A Painter of Modern Life in his thesis:
Dandyism appears especially in those periods of transition when democracy has not yet become all-powerful, and when aristocracy is only partially weakened and discredited. In the confusion of such times, a certain number of men, disenchanted and leisured ‘outsiders’, but all of them richly endowed with native energy, may conceive the idea of establishing a new kind of aristocracy.
It’s tempting to rewrite this for our times. It doesn’t require much of a transformation to do this.
Hipsterism appears especially in those periods of transition when democratic meritocracy has not yet completely disappeared, but when a new aristocracy is being born out of what remains of it. In the confusion of such times, a certain number of men, disenchanted and leisured ‘outsiders’, but all of them richly endowed with the inherited and rapidly redoubling spoils of their ancestors, may conceive the idea of establishing a new kind of aristocracy.
According to The Financial Times today:
In 1975, more than a decade before the Big Bang that deregulated the City, the average London financial services worker was paid about £3,800 a year, a salary that was outstripped by a sizeable proportion of other professionals. Academics were paid about £5,000, around a third more, while natural scientists and engineers received roughly 10 per cent more than finance workers.
Now the average London financial services salary is about £102,000 including bonuses while academics are paid about £48,000, natural scientists average about £42,000 and mechanical engineers £46,000.
Most Americans – me included before I moved here – have a difficult time reading British “class” through accent and its other accoutrements. Sure, there’s My Fair Lady cockneyism on the one side and chinless Royal Familyism on the other, we can detect that, but between lies just a fast undifferentiated middle. Which of course not how British people hear it, not in the least, as they sniff each other out with the subtle discernment of dogs testing each others’ asses.
But on the other hand: Americans are completely indiscernable to Brits as well. They can’t detect the subtle differences of speech and gesture that mark the well-born or earned-through from the other sorts, and all the complicating and obsfucating play that goes on in between. But whereas Americans default to “rich and polished” when they hear Brits, I think Americans are assigned a lower and more ambiguous place in the eyes of my hosts here. The best analogy I can come up with for where we are placed is the way that Dante handles the virtuous non-Christians in Inferno. Greek philosophers and the like aren’t mixed into the bottom, not quite, but they don’t quite merit the middle berthing either.
They are placed in Limbo, for lack of anywhere else to settle them – technically in the game but ultimately not really.