A Year

Tara and I are in New York. I packed ahead of time to practice managing the car seat, the stroller, a changing bag, and a three-week suitcase. She’s growing while I’m shrinking, and it was a puzzle to figure out what each of us would need in New York’s Indian summer and Ireland’s blustery autumn, multiplied by a daily estimate of up-the-back poos and down-the-back milk, then pared down to the load my back can haul.


This time last year, I had just quit my job in Seattle. I’d originally meant to stay there for two years, and it had been more than four. I felt it was time to come up with a plan for the next half of life. I was a renter. I had no debts and no children, and was prone to being single. And I had a Green Card, at last. That added up to the freedom to go anywhere, and what I wanted was to go where my roots could grow. Whatever tribe and livelihood would bring me joy at fifty, I wanted to point toward now.

So I handed in notice to a company that had been very good to me, and conceived a few notions for a few months off. I would drive across the country to a six-week silent meditation retreat. Then I would go to Zambia, to see where I was born. I might start writing again, to discover what was on my mind. And after that, I’d move either back to Brooklyn or back to San Francisco, and settle in near old friends.

There were a lot of ‘I’s in those plans.

But it turned out that notions weren’t the only things conceived by then. A baby had picked me, for her own private reasons, and apparently, for the rest of my life I’d have company. “A wolf pack of two,” I joked at the time, but I was wrong by at least an order of magnitude.

Here’s something I wrote in 2008, in an essay about not having kids:

I’m bound up in an individualistic, transaction-based culture, rising and falling by my own efforts, and I don’t like to need anything from the people I like and love. That membrane of separateness, of self-reliance, is as fragile and illusory as a soap bubble, and a child would pop it instantly.

I was dead right. Independence was an illusion, and she dissolved it long before our shared waters broke. It took me all those months of pregnancy to grasp how babies make the world swell with love, and to learn to rest on that support.

All the baby gear I packed for this trip was infused with friendship. The car seat from Lisa, installed by Gordon. The stroller from Leelila, put together by Devin. The diaper bag from Tricia. The clothes and blankets and burp cloths from a dozen more friends. Our neighbor Keith loaded them all up and drove us to the airport, where he insisted on carrying Tara through security and all the way to the gate. On the other side, our New York friends were waiting to meet her and spoil us more.

Tonight she’s sleeping in Crown Heights, and I’m marveling that it’s a year today since I first learned of her existence. I didn’t know it would be this easy to be us.

cropped-stripes.jpgPhoto: Keith Cormier


On Mulberry Street in Nolita, a sign in the window of a narrow boutique proclaimed goods from Quimper.

Up swam the image of the road sign on the outskirts of my home city: “Welcome to Limerick, Twinned with Quimper, France.” A name pronounced with a Breton bang, not a whimper: Kam-pare.

Looking at the striped shirts in the window, I realized that it was 25 years since I’d spent a summer as a jeune fille au pair in Quimper. The two strawberry-blonde girls I’d looked after, Amelie and Sophie, were now matrons of 30 and 32, the same ages their mother and father were then. It was possible they were singing “Gentil Coquelicot” to children of their own. It was possible they would hire Limerick teenagers to babysit this summer.

That July was the bicentenary of the French Revolution. I don’t remember much of the commemoration, beyond a few fireworks and trying to follow Gerard Depardieu in the Danton repeats on Canal Plus. Mine are the pre-internet memories of a lonely 17-year-old, keeping watch for the postman who brought letters from the boyfriend back home, and sneaking slabs of chocolate up to my room to eat at night in torn baguettes. Chocolate sandwiches; more evidence of French genius. Those were a better salve for my misery than then the vinegar that was supposed to repel mosquitos. I splashed it on my skin and placed saucers of it around my bed to trip over, but the Quimper mosquitos took it as a condiment, and were as ravenous as drunks outside a chipper.

The family had a Minitel terminal in the living room, and Jacques, the dad, showed me how it worked. I have hazy grayscale memories of television program listings, and some of way of paying local council bills. I didn’t see a future of Spotify and eBay. It seemed a bit like having the Motor Tax Bureau in your house—handy, but hardly desirable.

I spent the days watching the French Smurfs, who, it turned out, were Belgian, vaguely racist, and called Les Schtroumpfs. The nuns in the convent three doors down gave me cherry brandy, and I decided that they fancied the refined Irish Jesuit who had arranged my stay. In the evenings I slouched in the town square with a book and my Walkman, turning over the Van Morrison cassette my boyfriend had given me for my birthday. I wished I had someone to invite me to the creperies and bars.

The loneliness was worth it. I ate new things, wrote letters and learned French. And then I went home, and the Berlin Wall fell, and Ireland qualified for the World Cup, and I forgot all about Quimper, beyond a private nod every few years at that sign on the way into Limerick.

I was the only visitor in that Mulberry Street store on that rainy Thursday afternoon a few weeks back. I wasn’t a customer—I didn’t want to buy a striped fisherman’s shirt for $125. (I have a suspicion that they’re so 2012, but I live in Seattle, so I can’t be sure.) I just wanted to say, “Quimper?

An open-faced Swede was minding the store. He looked famous, and though I couldn’t put a name to his famous twin, I seemed to have pre-warmed feelings to transfer. My Quimper-Swede had grown up on a farm four hours north of Stockholm, himself and a brother, out in all weathers and running free in hard-wearing clothes. He showed me the nubby woolen undershirts and long johns that are Swedish army issue, and told me how well they retain heat when they’re soaked. It was May. I didn’t want woolen long johns either. I wheeled around and patted some hemp t-shirts to keep him chatting about the clothes of northern Europe, and their superpowers.

I recognized the Stutterheim raincoats that appeared in one of Seattle’s hipster boutiques this winter, tagged with an elaborate story about the power of Melancholy and Creativity—yes, capitalized—in the Swedish artistic tradition, within which these raincoats have situated themselves. They are based on the traditional raincoats that were worn by “generations of Swedish fishermen,” as well as various Swedish geniuses. Bergman was mentioned. The taped seams “quoted” the original coats, according to the tags and brochures—much as Tarantino might, you assume. The hood had a special shape that made it easy to look to sideways crossing the street, should you still care about life over death. The racing green version was a tribute to the designer’s grandfather’s 60’s Jaguar, but also to the forests of the Island Arholma. Each coat was signed by the seamstress who had sewn it.

These auteurist raincoats had made me laugh in Seattle in February, and in itself that was worth a good half-minute’s consideration about buying a four-hundred dollar cycling poncho. I resisted.

Those Quimper shirts that were the stars of the window display had their own biography, too. They were designed by a Breton fisherman and adopted by the French Navy, who between them seem to draw more glamorous following than their Swedish counterparts. These are the very shirts we’ve seen on Chanel and Picasso, on Seberg and Bardot, on lovable Jean-Paul Gaultier, on Alexa Chung and Cara Delevigne. They are still made on the same knitting machines in the factory that produced the originals in 1938, woven tightly enough to make the shirts slightly stiff and boxy. Now there’s an organic, fair trade cotton version, and children’s sizes, and yellow stripes as well as blue. Do not think the stripes are frivolous: they are intended to make men overboard visible on the waves, and the 21 stripes, it is said, represent each of Napoleon’s victories.

Write a story on that copybook shirt, and charge five bucks a line. Lend me a Swedish grandad to go with the long johns and a French granny for the sheepskin slippers. Tear up an H&M halter top, and replace it with an instant heirloom. Trace me a heritage, weave me a lineage, and tell me, oh please tell me, who I am.

My affable Swede knew exactly what ministry he was in.

He had trained as a physicist, and once worked at a particle collider lab in Switzerland. Not that one: a smaller collider, bigger particles. He discovered that he liked what textiles can do. There’s a fabric now, he says, that uses carbon nanotubes to bounce bullets. It’s not stiff like Kevlar, which tries to spread the force. It’s as soft as waxed cotton, but when hit, it rebounds ballistic force. We agreed that it can only be a matter of time before the Swedish Army and the French Navy place their orders. I looked at him and saw the same globe-bouncing resilience. Who wouldn’t want to be a Scandinavian Millennial?

People are tired of disposable, he says. They want craft, they want stuff that works and lasts. It’s a good business to wake up the old heritage brands—or make them up—and make people feel interesting for discovering them. That’s what he and his partners do, though he didn’t put it in those words. The Americans are at it too, re-making Filson and Pendleton, inventing Shinola. You learn that this is the last raincoat you will ever need, assuming that your need for a raincoat is based on repelling raindrops. When the rain soaks your ankles, you have the only long johns you’ll ever need, assuming that you bought them to conserve your latent heat and not your latent identity.

These are northern clothes for hard work in dank weather, but the real graft goes into the myths, not the seams. It’s done by the artisans, laboring over concepts deep into the night. The curators, crossing the seas to select, reject and juxtapose. The founders, forging origin myths and riveting features onto canvas. They are tireless and bright-eyed, and they will always find more for you to need.

Miles and years have collapsed. Everything has joined us in the endless cycling present, and I can’t tell any more if that’s middle age talking or internet age, but I am streaming Nouvelle Vague’s deadpan Frenchy cover of Road to Nowhere as I write this, and it’s so soothing that they were three verses in before I heard David Byrne’s warnings.

Amelie and Sophie, those little Breton girls who once stayed put in 1989, appear in seconds when I search for a name and a place. They are both still in Quimper, but they’re also on a screen in Seattle. There’s Amelie, grown now but still round-faced and strawberry blonde and—bizarrely—cuddling a huge white rabbit. The French version of LinkedIn says she does logistics for a maritime import-export company, which could mean that she sends striped shirts to New York City to be sold to the likes of me. And Sophie, it seems, is in a similar line, with sadder results. She is serving a suspended sentence for helping a coke dealer to rent cars and move money.

I wish I had left her safely back in 1989 watching the Belgian Smurfs, but Google itches like a Quimper mosquito bite, and I’m compelled know more than is wise.

Killing You Softly. With Their Song

My good friend Andrew has written and directed a show called _Perfect Harmony,_ which is back at the Fringe NYC Encore Series. Here’s why they revived it: _BackStage_ called it:“Sharp as a blade.. clever… magnificently hilarious! Lovely to ridiculous to riotous. Perfect Harmony as close to perfect as any Fringe show can be.” TheaterMania just said “Well-nigh perfection!”

It’s at the The 14th Street Y, 344 East 14th Street, from the 21st to the 24th. I wish I could see it. Go in my place, if you can.
Perfect Harmony website.

Life Before

Photo by Tim, 2001

Photo by Tim, 2001

My caption from 2004: “These are accidental portraits of the buildings that were the city compass (and camera hogs, too). We looked for them whenever we surfaced from the subway or climbed onto a roof deck. We triangulated from them on bridges and in strange conference rooms, and steered by them in tug boats and canoes. The towers were Downtown. More useful than True North, in the self-appointed center of the world.”

New York Marathon Notes, Fort Greene

fort_greene_marathon.jpgA woman jogs down Flatbush, beaming and punching the sunshine. Her legs, in shorts, are peculiar. Slack, velvety folds jiggle, like a Sharpei, and it takes a moment to work out that this is the extra skin she must have grown to contain pounds and pounds of fat, now melted. This is her day.

A block behind her, a middle-aged woman sprints off the course and in behind a dumpster on State Street. A moment later, another follows, and they squat side by side, round white backsides bared. They’re already running as they hike their shorts back up.

I have whippety friends who finish the New York Marathon in under three hours, but the born-to-run amateurs bore me as they piston past, looking comfortable and determined. It’s the mid-pack runners I go out to see every year, with their strange gaits and unsuitable bodies, and all the fear, doubt, and bewildered joy that comes from their audacious try.

And New Yorkers respond like proud parents, lining the whole route and cheering until the Sweep Bus rolls through. When volunteers try to hand them leaflets for Freddy Ferrer’s doomed mayoral campaign, they are too busy urging to take notice.

At Lafayette and Cumberland, a couple has hired a DJ to play on the steps of their brownstone. They pass out party food and Fort Greene dances to songs for apartment-dwellers:

Knock three times on the ceiling if you want me
Twice on the pipe, if the answer is no…

“AwRIGHT, Wendy, that’s what I’m TAWKING about,” hoots the DJ as a Bridget Jones trots through in a spangled bra. English women like to run in lingerie, bless their wobbling butts. Italians wear serious running gear–CoolMax everything, coordinated in green and red. Irish runners wear baggy cotton t-shirts with makeshift flags pasted on the back, or bright green soccer jerseys and Leprechaun hats. The French frown, seemingly puzzled by strangers screaming “Go PhilLIPPE!”

A woman with a carefully liplined mouth hoists a blue banner with a message in Korean up a lamppost, then climbs up after it and scans the pack for her person.

Some of the runners want to stop and join the party. They wiggle for a minute or two, dazed and thrilled at running through New York City in the sunshine, where pretty girls dance at them and the cops give them drinks.

Eight miles in, some runners are already walking. A passionate Brooklyn woman in a baseball cap makes it her mission to coax every runner. She crouches in front of them, backing away and yelling encouragement as if these were their very first steps outdoors. “Come ON, Mario. You know you can do it, baby!” Mario doesn’t look so sure.

“RUNNING FOR PAT,” the t-shirts announce, or “LEUKEMIA SURVIVOR.””Jennifer’s Mom” and “Cathy’s Daughter” run side by side. Some want to SAVE THE RHINOS. One woman is 50 TOMORROW. Another knows what it means to MISS NEW ORLEANS.

Other stories aren’t sloganized, but you can guess at them all the same:
I’m So Over You, Dickhead.
Three Years Sober.
My Sister’s In Iraq.

As the sweep bus arrives, Fort Greene turns its back on the stragglers and faces the DJ booth to do the Electric Slide. By now I’ve danced for two hours on this street corner, but as soon as choreography is called for, I concede that I’m a white girl, and saunter off to Sunny’s Bar.