road trip notes ii: a good story

This is a story about Vegas but I promise not to quote Baudrillard.

This is a story about Vegas but I promise not to quote Baudrillard.

Poetic license is an age-old concept. Traditionally poets have been free to invoke place as a territory between invention and creation.

(Eavan Boland)


Day one: Santa Barbara to Las Vegas. We get a late start, but we drop into the desert at just the right time, as the light is glowing pinkest, on the edge of the edge of darkness’s swift descent. When we arrive we spend 45 minutes driving circles around the hotel parking garage, the air con giving me goosebumps, the sat nav spluttering. When we finally make it inside there’s a line 20-deep at the check-in desk, mostly men in wrinkled suits and small groups of women plotting the fastest route to drunken oblivion. “What happened,” the receptionist says when we finally make it up to the desk, “late flight?” As if you couldn’t possibly deliberately arrive at this hour: as if we might miss something. (At the time this makes me anxious and hurried – we must get up to our room as soon as possible and dump our things and get back out and see everything we can before it’s too late! – but by the morning this seems absurd, since it is virtually impossible to distinguish morning from night here.)

I put on a dress and we go for a walk down the strip. It turns out Vegas is exactly what you’d expect minus any glamor at all, which maybe is exactly what you’d expect. The Bellagio is in aggressively bad taste, all thick-carpeted casino floors, a fug of desperate smoke, $60 buffet dinners, stone-faced dealers in ill-fitting uniforms. It’s impossible to tell where one thing ends and another begins; even the distinction between outside and inside is not always clear, and we flit along like moths, drawn to the lights. Everything has a mechanical, industrial feel, the slot machines being worked like a production line, the constant procession of tourists like the shuffle of shift-workers at the end of the day.

Underpinning it all, though, is the sense that this is a child’s city, constructed in the imagination of a 10-year-old tycoon. “What would you like your city to look like?”, someone asks him, and the child points apparently at random: “the Eiffel Tower here - the Statue of Liberty there - Venice here - a Disney castle there - a pirate ship here - a giant candy store there…”

A friend tells a story of being in a cab once, heading back to the airport after a weekend in Vegas. His cab driver suddenly says - look - out there! - and points, and there are a couple of guys dragging suitcases along a desert road, in the remnants of their smart suits, sleeves rolled, collars stained, armpits seeping. They’re aimed, loosely, for the airport. Happens all the time, the cab driver says, reeling past. They come out here and they lose everything. All they have left in the world is a plane ticket back to wherever they came from.

I don’t know if this is true, but it’s a good story, which in a way is a metaphor for the city itself.

As we walk down the strip we pass a parade of loiterers with cardboard signs: homeless vet, please help; need money for food; need money for weed. One couple, 18 or 19, in old Doc Martens, sucking on fresh ice cream cones, have set up a sign that reads: “We need money for rent this month!” I don’t know if this is true, but it’s a good story. Maybe they are sitting there laughing at all of us, passing by: their hat is as full as anyone else’s, after all – fuller than the homeless vet’s, even. Maybe in an hour or so they will get up and spend the money on booze and new boots and then go home to their parents. Maybe they really do need the money and maybe if they sit here long enough, over the course of a week, or a month, they will make enough to cover their rent. Maybe that is not as stupid as it sounds, actually: crowdfunding, Vegas style. A child’s dream of the future: a kind of quasi-adulthood. (“The Eiffel Tower here…and a giant candy store there…and when you grow up you can sit outside and eat ice cream at midnight!”)


For some reason I’m reminded of all this 10 days later, in Ojai, the end of the trip. Within an hour of arriving at our motel we meet JJ and Moonblossom (“it’s not my birth name,” she says). For two days we’re neighbors and I never once see him in a shirt; she, meanwhile, wears a heavy black sweatshirt and radiates an unnerving calm with vaguely religious undertones. They sit on the terrace outside their room all day, smoking weed and sipping beer. Their story is that they both have kids with other partners and fucked up pasts but after all that they finally found each other and now they’re drifting around in a van stuffed to the gills with all their possessions, making a documentary, for which an anonymous donor in London has given them funding. They believe in past lives and one night JJ tells us about how his most recent past life was as a polygamous cult leader who died in the 1970s, just before he was born. Some of my wives are still alive, of course, he says. So I looked one up and found her phone number and decided to call her and tell her I was the reincarnation of her husband. She didn’t seem too surprised. She just said look, that may be, but you were a real asshole, so why the hell would I want to hear from you now?

I don’t know if this is true, I hope it is, but either way it sure is a good story.

road trip notes i: surface

In Utah I start reading Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, even though we’re in a completely different part of the state.

“It will be objected that the book deals too much with mere appearances,” Abbey writes in the introduction: “with the surface of things, and fails to engage and reveal the patterns of unifying relationships which form the true underlying reality of existence. Here I must confess that I know nothing whatever about true underlying reality, having never met any. There are many people who say they have, I know, but they’ve been luckier than I. For my own part I am pleased enough with surfaces - in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance. Such things for example as the grasp of a child’s hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of a friend or lover, the silk of a girl’s thigh, the sunlight on rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear water into a pool, the face of the wind – what else is there? What else do we need?”

This is a surface trip; for ten days I am on the surface, just rolling along. One night we exhaust all other options and sleep in the car, seats reclined and windows cracked for air, and when I close my eyes I see the road stretching out before me, feel myself moving along its humming surface. On Route 6 – endless, empty Route 6, lonelier, they say, than its brother to the north, the loneliest highway in America, which has become something of a tourist attraction – I use cruise control for the first time in twelve years of driving. At first it disturbs me, and I’m glad there is no one else on the road, glad that I can see literally for miles and that there is nothing ahead or behind me. For as long as I can remember I’ve had a recurring dream that I’m in the passenger seat of a car that, I gradually come to understand, is driving itself. It’s not an alarming dream except for the realization of powerlessness – nothing bad happens, I just glide along, being driven – but cruise control is the closest I’ve ever come to a waking experience of that dream. “I hate this!” I say to my husband, and my heart beats faster in panic, and Jenny Lewis sings through the tinny speakers, and then after awhile I start to tap my now-idle right foot to the beat of the music.

“I love this!” I say, feeling the effortlessness of it.

So it goes. He drives, I drive, he drives, I drive.

I take us up to Cape Royal at sunset. We’re hurried, racing the sun. The road is long and winding and narrow. I take it quickly but not too quickly: roads like this are ingrained in me, make me deeply homesick for the coast-hugging ranch on which I grew up. We are 8500 feet above sea level and yet with every twist in the road I expect the sea to be revealed. Instead there is canyon, sudden glimpses of it: a rift in the landscape, a pause, a mark on the surface. I let the wheel do the work mostly, and I turn the music up. We make it just in time to see the sun go down over the Grand Canyon, which is no bad thing to see in a lifetime. We share a beer, semi-chilled, from the cooler in the back of our car. There’s a French couple cooking dinner at their camping stove on a picnic table, and another couple sharing a joint, sitting hip-to-hip on the stairs down to the overlook. We stand at the edge of the overlook, leaning on the railings, with our beer, nonchalant, just having a beer while the sun sets over the Grand Canyon, no big deal.

Here in this high, dry country I think about the surface in relation to water: the frontier, the moment of entry, of submersion. “To enter water is, of course, to cross a border. You pass the lake’s edge, the sea’s shore, the river’s brink - and in so doing, you arrive at a different realm, in which you are differently minded because differently bodied,” writes Robert Macfarlane, echoing his friend Roger Deakin, who writes of crossing that border: “leaving behind the land, you go through the looking-glass surface and enter a new world, in which survival, not ambition or desire, is the dominant aim.” I’ve been obsessed with this particular surface, and its various meanings, for so long that I no longer know what to make of it. So for ten days on the road I don’t take a single stroke. In Yosemite we see some pretty fine lakes and I wade out to my hips, glad for the cold water on my hiking-damaged toes, but I’m not tempted to flop in, as we see one enthusiastic boy do, boots and all, and wallow; nor do I want to get in and do any kind of actual swimming, turning the lake into a stage for the performance of a daily ritual that only makes sense, I suddenly think, in the context of my day-to-day suburban existence. I only want to dip my toes in; that’s as much as I can bear to be in that different realm, that new world. Even in Las Vegas, where I wake and go to the window and am greeted with dawn in the desert and the sumptuous view of three massive, empty turquoise pools, I don’t go in.

He drives. I drive. He drives. I drive.

Back in California, we speed up and down the 395, trying to find somewhere, anywhere at all, to stay. There are no motels, no hotels, no hostels, no campsites with a vacancy. In Mammoth Lakes I’m laughed at by a girl at a Quality Inn; you won’t find anything here, she says, smugly. “I’m glad they don’t have a room,” I say too loudly as I exit, “it feels like the Bates Motel in there.” But it’s 8pm and she’s right. Who are these people, I rail? These people who plan so far ahead, who are sitting there all superior in the burger joints and bars of Lee Vining, June Lake, Mammoth Lakes, these people with rooms? We don’t even know how desperate it is then: all we know is that we’ve exhausted the options in the area and that we need gas. That gas station in Mammoth is a low point. I wonder if anyone would notice if we just slept there, in the car, next to the mini-mart. I think of the other couples I have known who have had extravagantly long honeymoons: they go to places like the Cayman Islands or Dubai; they travel first class and stay at all-inclusive resorts and lie on a beach with trashy novels and sugary cocktails, slowly turning a dark, even shade of smug. Whereas I am sitting in a dirty rented Chevy on a Saturday night in Mammoth, wearing a down vest I have owned since I was fifteen years old and trying to remember if sleeping in your car is illegal or just discouraged. Why can’t we just do what normal people do? I say to my husband. I realize that the people I am thinking of, the normal people, are people I don’t actually know: people I follow on Twitter or Instagram, of whose lives I get glimpses from which I extrapolate entire lives. I realize that if you looked at the Instagram version of our trip you would think that we were those kinds of people.

He kindly doesn’t point this out. “Because we’d be bored,” he says. He goes to the bathroom and I peel a banana and realize that we haven’t eaten for hours. The last meal we had was a whole state ago, back in Tonopah, Nevada, at a microbrewery with a giant smoker out back. After lunch I’d bought a beaten-up copy of Adrienne Rich’s selected poems from an unexpectedly well-stocked second hand bookshop. It was so hot outside that it felt like the street was burning through the soles of my shoes. Now it’s northern California cool, all trees and mountains. When he comes back we decide to drive south, to Bishop, which I remember from my childhood; an Autumn weekend spent there with my parents, hiking long loops, the dog running circles around us the whole time. It’s big-ish, I say, and hope I’m remembering it right. I am: there are plenty of motels. But there is not a single vacancy, and we follow other cars doing the same dance, pulling in to a Super 8 or a Comfort Inn or a La Quinta, spying the hastily handwritten “no vacancy” signs on the office windows, pulling back out. We are simultaneously competitors – god how pissed I’d be if one of them got the last room somewhere! – and comrades, sympathetically giving way even when it isn’t our turn to give way, inclining our heads at each other as we glide by: sooner or later we’ll all disperse into the nights and crank back our seats and nap fitfully until dawn.

The morning after – after we have found a spot on a dirt road just outside of Big Pine, under the relative protection of an oak tree, a hundred yards or so from another car – I drive us back up to Bishop, and we have the most magical huevos rancheros I have ever eaten at a vast diner full of keen outdoorsy types and weekending southern Californians. “Just have to go and have my morning bowel movement!” a large man at the table opposite us declares before ambling towards the toilets; he is gone a full fifteen minutes. From our table I go online and book the first room in the first motel I can find that’s anywhere near Yosemite, a victory which colors the rest of the morning, as we sail all the way back up towards Lee Vining. He falls asleep as I drive and I set the speed at 70 and tap my foot to Neko Case until we turn off onto the 120, at which point I suddenly need a level of alertness that surprises me, as the road curves and dips and climbs, climbs, climbs towards the park entrance. The car ahead of me is tentative, which gives me an excuse to go slower than I normally would, to actually look and exclaim, even though no one is listening: wow! wow! I keep saying.

Surface: beauty is surface. Skin deep on the earth. I don’t know but if I had to guess I’d say the word I use most often on this trip is wow! At first I think: how shallow. I may as well be on a beach in the Cayman Islands, sipping my daiquiri, staring at my raisin toes. All this beauty, and what? How many canyons can you possibly look at? Zion. Grand. Bryce. By the last one we both thought we were all canyon-ed out. We were grouchy from driving too much. We got there and we shouted and parked and shouted some more and then sulked and got on a shuttle bus, sullenly, and defiantly did our chosen hike in half the time the guidebook recommended because we knew we had to get back on the road and drive another god-knows-how-many hours to Ely, Nevada - and still, still, we were stopped in our tracks: wow, we said. Not an exclamation but a sigh. Isn’t it amazing, we said. We elbowed past droves of hikers, sprawling Mormon families, foot-dragging teenagers, and still felt like we were the only people on the planet who knew this place, who could feel its particular magic. How many times can you say wow, look at that! How amazing. How incredible. How beautiful. Wow. Look at that. Wow. I think of what Robert Macfarlane writes about language and the way it shapes our perception of place, our relationship to landscape. Even a book which takes this place-making power of words as its central theme acknowledges that words are not always enough. “Language is always late for its subject,” Macfarlane writes. “Sometimes on the top of a mountain I just say, ‘Wow.’”

I think too of another thing he writes in that same book – a note about the question, ever-present in writing about place, of “how to represent perception in language” when perception and place are so intimately linked; when, in other words, our bodies are the main instrument with which we have both to experience and to express place. “Our bodies archive experience,” writes the geographer J.D. Dewsbury. They are, he says, “fleshy machinic entities that grapple constantly with the matter and thought of the world.” The most intimate connection there is: between the surface of the skin and the surface of a place. What does the body know? How do we express it in words?

He drives. I drive. He drives. I drive.

We punctuate the driving with hikes: a sudden, severe change of speed. I like hikes with hills, hikes that make you really work for the reward, so that you feel the landscape not just in your legs but also in your lungs. Switchbacks become a kind of ritual: like a pilgrimage, he says, as we back-and-forth our way towards Angel’s Landing. Or like swimming laps, I say. Like any repetitive, meditative action: a kind of communion with place. What does my body know – climbing this hill, treading this path? My trail running shoes, purchased almost a decade ago, soles worn thin, give me close contact with rock and soil, and I prefer them to my hiking boots, even if I’m less protected, ankles occasionally twisting, giving out: somehow not a sign of precarity but an underline, an emphasis. This is the terrain, this is the topography. You feel it most keenly when you misjudge it, when the surface interferes with your inertia. Wow. So shallow. My raisin toes encased in these shoes, these sweaty socks, but I’m still staring down at them after all. “What else is there? What else do we need?”


In addition to my recent feature at Vela, I'm also now running a column there called Placed. Here's the general idea:

“Place,” writes the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, “exists at different scales. At one extreme a favorite armchair is a place, at the other extreme the whole earth.”
Curated by Miranda Ward, Placed will address relationships to place, very broadly defined: the body is a place, the earth is a place, a favorite chair is a place, a city, a café, a corner shop, a cubicle, a lake, a mountain, a road. Placed is interested in work that addresses place on any scale, from the banal to the sublime, and that stretches beyond simple description to use place as a springboard to explore or weave together other ideas and stories.
Essays are likely to address, in various ways, certain kinds of questions: how do we form and maintain and describe relationships to places? How do we develop a sense of place? How do we shape places, and how do places shape us?

The first piece went up on Wednesday, and while I'll be contributing regularly as well, I'm actively seeking contributions by other women writers for future installments - so please do get in touch if you have something or know someone you think might fit the bill!

Recent Writing: Dream Body

I wrote an essay for Vela (which, by the way, has a beautiful new website) on exercise, discipline, control, and the body:

"Geographers write, too, about the idea of place as something fluid, processual, always-becoming, “not a given but something immanent, forever forming, and in progress.” The body is a place – the first place, the place we must make peace with – and like any other place, it is in a constant state of flux; it changes from moment to moment, year to year, gets older, bigger, smaller, more and less capable of performing certain tasks."

Read the full piece here.


Recent writing: The Billfold

In a recent piece for The Billfold, I added up how much it's cost me to settle in the UK. I was surprised to discover that the actual total feels low, I guess partly because it doesn't include more abstract or tangential things like the cost of international travel, the time I've spent doing research, filling out forms, on the phone, in appointments, that I could have been working, the money I spent shipping all of my books cross the Atlantic ($900, if you're wondering), and so on — but also because this whole ongoing process has been such a huge presence in my life for so long, such a source of deep and constant anxiety. The precise impact of that is hard to convey in numbers. On the other hand, it's still a hell of a lot of money to spend on paperwork.

Anyway, here's an excerpt:

"I always knew that living 5,000 miles away from where I grew up would mean that my life took on a slightly different shape than the lives of friends back home. I knew, too, that no matter where my partner and I ultimately chose to live, we would have to jump through a series of convoluted bureaucratic hoops. But, I didn’t have any sense of what the privilege of jumping through those hoops actually cost."

Here's the full piece...

I was also very pleased to find out that my essay 'The Purest Form of Play,' which originally appeared on Vela, earned an Honorable Mention for nonfiction in the Winning Writers 2014 Sports Fiction & Essay Contest.


Today while I was out running I noticed that the leaves are already falling from some of the keener trees. If I think about it, this is no surprise: it's early September, still warm, but sunsets come early and violently, the rose hips are bright on the bush, and I can hear pop music pumping out of the house next door, which means we have new neighbors. This is the true signal of Autumn here. I hear their footsteps and their doors slamming and yesterday they took a parcel for me while I was out, but my guess is I will probably never learn their names and I certainly wouldn't know them if I saw them on the street; we just share walls, that's all. It was a shitty run, which happens sometimes, and I felt very strange out there on my own. Usually when I'm having a good run the feeling I get is one of intense belonging, intimacy with the city. Things feel very close together. Oxford is round and bowl-like and it's actually quite difficult to run any distance here and not butt up against the ring road, not have to climb and descend hills. Today when things went wrong and I stopped running I felt very far from home, even though I was only a few miles away. I felt out of place. I think it's good to feel this sometimes. I noticed it the other day when I was out taking photos with my SLR, for work, and people were treating me - well, I was treating myself - like a tourist. I was waiting for things to line up in just the right way and meanwhile people were trying not to walk across my shot and maybe thinking well, it is a beautiful city, but god damn, will you get out of the way already? Which is a thing I often think when I'm in a hurry to get somewhere and people are stopped in the middle of the street with their cameras trained on something. But there I was, walking around with a camera hung around my neck, feeling intensely unlike myself. I'd thought maybe it would give me a sense of purpose, an excuse to behave in a way I don't often give myself permission to behave (lingering, looking, getting in the way) but I just couldn't wait to get back to being my usual self. I was practically dizzy after half an hour.

Anyhow today, on my run, I walked for about five or ten minutes and I swear those five or ten minutes lasted far longer than any other five or ten minutes I experienced all day. And during this vast expanse of time I looked up and saw that the leaves were not just turning but falling. At a junction I waited for the light and there was a sea of papery yellow leaves at my feet.

So: it was a good summer, hot and busy, and it's pretty much over now. Here are some photos of it.

More lake swimming

Late summer light

Evening light

Lake swimming


On the way to London



Recent writing: Leave to Remain

I have a new essay up at Vela. It's about the process of acquiring indefinite leave to remain in the UK, and becoming a permanent resident - though really it's more about the process of waiting for this to happen, and the sense of feeling somehow trapped during this extended period of application and not-quite-residency. It's also (perhaps as everything I write ends up being) partly about what I've called "the wild in the banal", the way everyday life can seem so strange if you look at it closely enough:

When I was younger I used to fantasize about having a button I could press that would pause the world around me while I caught my breath, had a nap, figured out a solution, came up with something witty to say. My current situation is the opposite of that fantasy – someone has pressed the pause button on my life, and I am suspended, watching the rest of the world go by.

The pause button on my life was pressed by the UK Border Agency. Three months ago I applied for indefinite leave to remain here in the UK, where I have lived with my British partner for the past seven years. I have held, over the course of these years, a student visa, a post-study work visa, and an unmarried partner visa, and I am now, at last, eligible to apply to settle permanently.

The application process is like taking a leap of faith into an abyss. You take the “Life in the UK” test (“Is the statement below TRUE or FALSE? Getting to know your neighbours can help you to become part of the community”). You fill out a 50-page application form. You send a large envelope containing bank statements and pay slips and utility bills and your passport and, for reasons I cannot quite fathom, a photocopy of every enclosed document. You pay a £1,051 fee. And then you wait.

Read the full piece...

Recent writing

My latest post for Vela went up last week. It's about running, fear (of failure, of limits), and exploration (of a sort):

In this way running is actually just an effort to do something new – or, rather, to see the same things from a slightly different perspective. What does this street feel like at the end of a 10k run? What does it do to my conception of the city to shorten the time it takes to get from here to there on my own two feet, to discover a new route, to think of that particular street corner as the place I had to walk for a bit, or that stretch of road as the place that everything felt effortless and good?

Read the whole thing...


Over at the Landscape Surgery blog, I wrote a post about what being a cultural geographer means to me. This is part of great a series of posts by fellow students and researchers in the department of geography at Royal Holloway - "The Self Portrait series is a project designed to highlight the missing ‘I’ within geography." (And it was Freshly Pressed today!) Here's how it begins:

The truth? I’m still not sure I am a geographer.

Over the last year I’ve become more comfortable claiming to be one, or at least marginally less fearful of being exposed as a fraud. But at parties my go-to response to the dreaded question of “what do you do?” is: “oh, I’m a writer.” If the conversation survives this admission, and I happen to mention that I’m doing a PhD, and I happen to mention that the PhD is in cultural geography, I might make an attempt at explaining how these things are linked. I might say, “I write about geography.” This is not really an explanation, but if you say it confidently enough, it almost sounds like one.

Read the whole piece...

What I Read This Week - 1st December

Attempting to revive this particular practice; sometimes a bit of discipline is necessary to counter the stupefying influence of winter's short grey days and long dark nights. - Night Life (Amy Liptrot at Aeon)

I am obsessed, seeing the world through the prism of corncrakes. I read scientific papers and follow research on their migration routes. They’re all that people ever ask me about. I accidentally replace other words with ‘corncrake’ when I’m typing; I change my ringtone to a corncrake’s call; I set a Google alert for corncrake references in the world’s media. Somehow this bird, this creature I grew up with but never really noticed, has become my ‘thing’. It is what I do with myself.

- Tablescapes (Leanne Shapton)

I began to photograph and paint these tablescapes when I realized I navigated my week and work based on the topography of my desk or tabletop.

- Towards hope, new conversations, carrying on (Hannah Nicklin)

I told her to remember to love what she does. To acknowledge that it’s much easier to feel the scared and overwhelmed, but to know in those big empty spaces which feel difficult to hold open are ripe for filling with whatever you want to. It won’t be predictable. It will be difficult. It shouldn’t be in some ways, and in others that slippery, sticky difficulty is precisely what making a thing is. Why it’s good. Don’t be desperate, be angry. I told her to get political. I told her to remember to love herself and not lose herself to what she does. Remember to enjoy it, especially when it’s easier to feel the other things.

- A Time-Lapse Detective: 25 Years of Agatha Christie’s "Poirot" (Molly McArdle at The Los Angeles Review of Books)

I think it has something to do with the competing forces of his ridiculousness — the spats, the mustache, the syntax inverted — and his brilliance. One would flatten him into a joke; the other, elevate him to inhuman heights. Together they make him human. The sheer volume of Christie’s writing, and now also a quarter century of Suchet’s performances, forces us to recognize in this dainty, dandied man a fundamental dignity. We want to protect him, just as he would protect us.

- Maps to Get Lost In: Visual Editions’ Where You Are (Shuan Pett at The Millions)

Dyer often performs autobiographical dissections in his essays, but rather than a contained whole this is a sprawling collage of youth filtered through forty years of hindsight. In mapping the homes and haunts, the sports, sex, trouble, and death of his youth, patterns emerge. For instance, there’s the link between geography and lust with Shane, an American girl that lived a few doors down – “First mouth kissed, breasts fondled, and (just once) first vagina touched.”

There is no single way to read this map – starting from the appendix or the grid or leaping through the cross-references – and as a consequence narrative time collapses. His mother is both dead in 2011 and alive playing badminton, while sex with Janice Adams unwinds to their original meeting at the model shop where they both worked. Maps contain all times: the past record, our present location, and future daydreams of movement.

What I Read This Week - 16th September

Or, more accurately: what I read last week, ish. - The day Harry Redknapp brought a fan on to play for West Ham (Jeff Maysh at the Guardian)

"Half-time I made five substitutions, and we only had the bare 11 out – I was running out of players. Then we got another injury, so I said to this guy in the crowd, 'Oi, can you play as good as you talk?'"

The rest of the tale is hallowed football folklore.

- You Can Do Anything: Must Every Kids' Movie Reinforce the Cult of Self-Esteem? (Luke Epplin at The Atlantic)

Through complicated plot machinations that involve a taco stand in Van Nuys, a quintet of sassy racing snails, and an arrogant French-Canadian racecar driver, Turbo qualifies for the Indianapolis 500. After a rocky start, Turbo surges to the lead in the last lap only to suffer a terrible crash that obstructs the other drivers and neutralizes Turbo's racing powers. Mere feet from the finish line, Turbo withdraws into his shell, uncertain that he has the inner strength to succeed. Now fully invested in his brother's quest, Chet yells at him: "It is in you! It's always been in you! ... My little brother never gives up. That's the best thing about you." Newly inspired, Turbo inches across the finish line, fulfilling his self-actualizing journey and proving that one needn't be human nor drive a car to win the country's most prestigious auto race.

- A job or a baby shouldn't be a choice (Lucy Mangan in Stylist)

One of the greatest marks, I think, of a civilised society is that it enables its members to make certain major life decisions free of external considerations. The NHS, for example, is a great and shining beacon on civilisation because it allows people to choose to go to the doctor, to maintain their health without having to worry about whether they can afford it or not. A society that has an NHS is saying, in essence, that some things are so important that a price cannot be put on them in the usual fashion. Instead, we will take collective responsibility for these things and together we will have something that makes life better for all.

Having children is one of those things. It’s not quite as clear-cut because, biology being what it is, only women give birth and it has been hard, historically, for us to keep in mind that a) men are involved at the beginning and, increasingly, after the labour bit, b) women are still people even when something is growing in their tum-tums and c) repopulation is quite important if you want your species and your sales to flourish

- On (not) growing up on Twitter (Sarah Wanenchak at Cyborgology)

My Twitter SN – dynamicsymmetry – is a name with a lot of personal meaning for me as well, and is my account name in a number of other places. Rather than establishing boundaries, I’m tearing down walls and letting everything mix. I’m drawing as many connections as I can. I’m trying to make it clear that this is all me.

What you need to understand about this is that it’s as much intentional as it is accidental – and yes, it is both of those things at once. Realizing early on what was happening with my Twitter account – which, incidentally, I only signed up for in order to play Spymaster – I elected to continue to erode borderlines as I saw more of my colleagues establishing them. I felt jumbled and confused, especially as my graduate school career careened along, and I decided to make my Twitter an experiment in owned unprofessionalism. When I have a opinion on pop culture or fandom, it goes there. When I have something to say related to academia, it goes there. When I attend writing conferences and academic conferences, livetweets go there. When I suffered a mental health crisis last summer – which, incidentally, was profoundly influenced by issues in my academic life – I tweeted about it relentlessly. Twitter became a confessional space, and then a supportive one. And because by then it was at least in part an account that I used to maintain professional academic connections, it felt like a political act as much as a personal one. I wanted to fight stigma. I wanted to talk openly about what happens to graduate students when things go badly awry.

- PLUS: Women We Read This Week at Vela (including Jenny Diski's "Learning How To Live", one of my favorite recent reads)


I can't get enough summer this year. I'm trying a new thing and swimming in the mornings, instead of the evenings, and the warm sun on my back as I cycle home in flipflops and a t-shirt, towards coffee, breakfast, a view of the leafy garden, is too nice. I love Autumn, but I don't want it yet - itchy jumpers, the crisp cold, the smell of tea and smoke, the leaves flapping and falling like fish. I have dresses that still need wearing. But the rose hips in the garden and the influx of new, impossibly young neighbors tell me that I better hurry up and get my coats mended and start wearing socks, so I'm attempting to adjust gracefully, to enjoy the fresh air on my evening walk down the Iffley Road and the golden light on the buildings just before dusk and the infectious sense of excitement that spreads through a university town in September.

As summers go, this one has been good, and not just weather-wise ("The best in years!" everyone keeps saying, which is true: certainly the warmest, driest summer I've seen in six years of living here). In retrospect it feels full of moments and feelings that I want to remember but can't find a home for, writing-wise, which is maybe how summer should be: bricolage, a series of discrete memories strung together by an imaginary thread. We went to California, New York, Wales. We went surfing, climbed peaks, drove for miles and miles, ate hot dogs in Manhattan and Vietnamese sandwiches in Brooklyn, stayed up late drinking too much port with friends, spent time with family, watched films. That sort of thing.

What I've Read Recently

I figured "what I've read recently" is more accurate than "what I read this week". I'm in California, and even though I'm basically working as usual, time has turned a bit funny. The other day (yesterday!) we drove into town, timing it so that I could avoid the two-hour period on weekday afternoons when the pool is occupied by kids, and it was only when we were at the gym, and I was about to get out of the car, that I realized it was Saturday, not Friday. I have written a bit though - here and here and here, if you're interested.

- Too much talk for one planet: why I'm reducing my word emissions (Charlie Brooker at the Guardian)

When it comes to comments, despite not being as funny as I never was in the first place, I get an incredibly easy ride from passing wellwishers compared with any woman who dares write anything on the internet anywhere about anything at all, the ugly bitch, boo, go home bitch go home.

- Field notes from Colombia, Part 6: Learning to need and needing to learn (Roxanne Krystalli)

With apologies to Ralph Waldo Emerson and his ode to self-reliance, there is beauty to needing others. It is in those moments that I realize the world is connected in ways that I cannot deny and in which I experience my own smallness not as a handicap, but as an opportunity to marvel.

- Yes, you have to choose. But can’t you choose everything? (Julie Schwietert Collazo)

Hastings’ advice makes me crazy because it reinforces the erroneous idea that writers have to be of the world yet never quite fully in it. That they don’t have to figure out how to make it all work because, well, writing’s just more important than anything: a healthy relationship, other hobbies and interests, and, possibly, the joys and, yes, the frustrations, of having kids.

- On Writing (and Evolving) Online (Cheri Lucas Rowlands)

So I wondered: What’s the point of setting up an account on another publishing platform? Am I saying anything new? Does this space offer a different angle of me — an extension of the Cheri you encounter here — or am I just repackaging my thoughts?

A writer who publishes on various platforms on the web is like an animal peeing in different places. I’m simply marking my territory — expanding the Cheri Lucas Rowlands brand far and wide. While this analogy makes me laugh, it also makes me feel rather dirty, but I get that that’s what we do these days.

- The Walls We Build Around Us (Nick Rowlands)

Writing, for me, was therefore a public act, and the words came into existence only so they could be released into the wild. I knew my mum kept a diary, but the idea of writing solely for myself had never crossed my mind. I had no real concept of the transformative power that the process of writing itself holds. Looking back now, this seems laughable: I have always been an avid reader, and if reading the words of others can be so moving as to elicit a strong emotional and intellectual response, it stands to reason that producing such words yourself could have a similar effect.

- Antidote for Personal Narrative (Lauren Quinn at Vela)

If my life as a writer sounds anticlimactic, it’s because it was. Sure, it gave me an excuse to get into adventures and to immerse myself in sketchy situations in the name of having a “cultural experience,” but in Cambodia those experiences grew increasingly unsettling. I got spooked. So I spent a lot of time alone in my apartment, with the AC off to save money, repeatedly checking my email to see if some editor had written me back. I did a lot of writing, but I also did a lot asking—asking to be heard, asking to be let in, asking for validation. I did a lot of reading, examining websites to determine what was publishable, and I did a lot of rewriting, trying to mold my voice into something publishable.

There was not, I should say, a lot of money involved in this scenario, but there was some. There were not a ton of clips garnered, but there were some. I wasn’t a dismal failure as a writer. I just wasn’t happy.

- The Startup as Manifesto (Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic)

What I love about all this is that it's so explicit: this is a hypothesis about people's relationship to their phones and the places around them. Is it a good hypothesis? Do people want to sketch-and-extend, rather than Instagramming or what have you? I don't know. But I'm glad someone is trying to find out.

- PLUS - Women We Read This Week at Vela

"Where does your writing live?"

[A]t least to the more mobile and networked of us, place has become less about our origins on some singular piece of blood soil, and more about forming connections with the many sites in our lives. We belong to several places and communities, partially by degree, and in ways that are mediated(Malcolm McCullough)

I keep imagining a kind of perfect online mobility: not having a website or a singular blog and trying to keep this one plot of web-land mine, but taking all of my content, all of my stuff, with me wherever I go. Finding a way of being on the Internet that better respects the fluidity of self.

I've been thinking about this, thinking that really the closest thing I have to a website that accurately reflects my online presence is my Twitter feed. It's where I post links to my own writing, to others' writing, where I post photos, thoughts, quotes. It's temporary, in a way that seems apt - because let's be honest, most of the stuff I post on Twitter won't matter in a few years or a few weeks or even a few days, and that which does will find a way of living on anyway; it will become part of memory, or conversation, or new work.

And then I was thinking about this: I was thinking about Medium, and Hi, and my continual struggle to find a home for my writing online that feels right (feels write?). The question is, as Nick Rowlands puts it: "How, exactly, do you organize your online presence? Where does your writing live; how is it compartmentalized; to what extent should you strive for an overarching coherence?" My own blog has become a wasteland, a weekly-when-I-can-be-arsed depository for other people's words, and at first I thought this was because I just didn't like the design or the name or the promises it made anymore - that design and that name and those promises belonged to a different, older version of me. When I started my blog I was about to graduate from college, about to move to a new country, about to try to get a job, or into grad school, or something. I was newly in love, and I couldn't see past the next six months of my life: I would graduate, I would move to England, I would move in with him, but then what? We were from different places, and logistics might at any moment demand that we live an ocean apart, and maybe I was too young to be in this kind of love, and... And I knew I wanted to write, but I didn't know what that meant, or would mean. And I read blogs to try to situate myself in the world, to try to find my place, and I posted things on my own blog for similar reasons.

Now, though, if I've written something polished enough to be publishable, it goes somewhere else. I've recently become a staff writer at Vela, which means I get to be part of something bigger than myself on my own. And my thinking goes: if it's not good enough to live somewhere else, somewhere other than this controlled blog-habitat that I've created, then it's just not good enough. In some ways that feels freeing - it's streamlined, simple - but in other ways it's worrying: what does "good enough" mean? Who gets to decide that? Where's the space to write without the pressure of an imagined audience or editor? (Should there even be one? Or is that what the scribbled-in-late-at-night notebook is for? If only I could read my own handwriting.)

So I've been trying to figure out what to do about this - whether to try to change my blog somehow, to redesign it and restructure it in a way that fits now but will probably feel uncomfortable later, or to start (yet another) Tumblr, or to just give up, or what. I don't have that much time to worry about this, to be honest, because there are all these other things vying for my attention: Book! and PhD! and Oh, I Want to Write Another Book! and Holy Crap That Gas Bill is Big! and Other Stuff! So it sort of occupies my thoughts late at night after a few beers as I'm sitting on the couch watching an episode of Criminal Minds or whatever other mindless good-guys-catch-bad-guys thing I can find on Netflix, and I think: I should figure this out. I'll figure it out tomorrow.

But the thing I keep coming back to is this: you know how you take the Internet with you now, on your phone? How you're just walking around with this thing in your pocket, interacting with it when you want to, and that interaction is often rooted in the place you're standing, but not tied to it? That's sort of how I want to be online, too: living in my imaginary Volkswagen bus, taking my possessions (my links, my pieces of writing, my faux-nostalgic photos) with me from place to place.

So maybe this is what Medium is, or what Hi is. This is where we write. This is where we write about place. And what we create here is tied to us, wherever we are. Maybe it's easier to be in the world, and to write about the world, when the tools for doing so are as mobile and networked as we are. "This is a hypothesis about people's relationship to their phones and the places around them," Alexis Madrigal writes. This is a hypothesis about people's relationship to the many sites in their lives, the multitude of polyvocal, perpetually in-process places and communities we belong to -

"World is crazier and more of it than we think, Incorrigibly plural."

Or - I don't know. Maybe I'll figure it out tomorrow.

What I Read This Week - 30th June

A very light list this week; I'm trying to finish a rough draft of something and have reached that stage of semi-productivivity whereby the hours of sitting uncomfortably, staring out the window, wondering why I can't focus my eyes on the screen, are punctuated every so often by an hour of good, solid work which seems to make the idleness and frustration worth it. But really, who am I kidding: I've mainly been watching Wimbledon, which (at times) is poetry enough. Anyway, two interviews:

- Rebecca Solnit profiled by Susanna Rustin in the Guardian:

For 25 years, Solnit has supported herself as, what her website styles, an "independent writer", unattached to any magazine or university and without a salary. She laughs as she says she is thinking of throwing a party to mark the anniversary. "In the early days I would measure my success by how many weeks or months it was since I had to do office temp work, and then the office temp work fell by the wayside. I was always making a very modest income, but I was thrilled to be doing the work – or thrilled when I wasn't cursing under my breath. But I would end by saying, 'These are the problems I wanted to have. If your editor is driving you nuts, then you have an editor and you're being published.'"

- Leanne Shapton interviewed by Kate Kellaway in the Guardian:

The ex has the power of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca – a woman you could never be. Even now, I am not entirely over my jealousies, but the book has helped me laugh at them.

Bit old, this, and quite short, but I have such a crush on Leanne Shapton, I couldn't resist.