Summer

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

Snowdonia

On the way to London

Clyro

Leaves

Pause

Wet Streets
Wet Streets

The last time I posted anything on this blog, I was sitting in California drinking a Firestone DBA, probably in a t-shirt, glowing with post-run-on-the-beach-in-winter smugness. And now I'm sitting on my couch in yoga pants and a sweatshirt, with a giant box of tissues at my elbow, willing myself not to turn the heating on because if last winter's gas bill was anything to go by, we can't really afford to have the heating on.

We've become one, this couch and I. But now I've run out of "quirky independent comedies with a strong female lead" on Netflix and I have that antsy-ness that comes when you're on the cusp of feeling better but not quite feeling better yet. It's in this state that you might start to think that going for a run is a good idea, or that a few beers will heal you completely, but then you'd get your sports bra on and collapse on the bed in exhaustion, or a few sips into a pint and start wishing it was juice.

Anyway, we came back from California on new year's eve. We landed in the morning, disoriented and buzzing. While we waited for his father to pick us up from Heathrow we sat and drank coffee and talked at each other, about the films we'd watched when we should have been sleeping, about the Instapaper-ed articles we'd read, and about the things we'd do this week, this month, this year. And then we got home and crawled into bed and slept for hours, until it was dark outside and the rain had ceased.

On new year's day we went for a walk, just as it was turning dusky outside. It's becoming a tradition, this particular kind of new year's day walk: I suggest it, he protests but ultimately agrees, and then he complains for the entire length of the Iffley Road. The complaining makes him feel better, and me a bit more subdued, so that ten minutes in we're both in a similarly mellow state. This year, like most years, it was misting and the sky was ice blue. I put my hood up to keep the rain off my face. I wore two sweaters and a heavy winter coat. "See?" I said. "Isn't this fun?" "This kind of walking is pointless," he said. "What kind of walking has a point?" "Well," he said. "If we were climbing Mount Kilimanjaro…" "Which is actually something I wouldn't mind doing someday," I said, half serious. "Me either," he said, half joking, and I remembered that after he asked me to marry him he'd said, "I'm sorry we weren't somewhere spectacular, like the top of Mount Kilimanjaro," which I thought was funny, and then a few days later, at a dinner, some family friends told us about their daughter, who'd also recently gotten engaged. "They climbed Kilimanjaro," they told us. "And he proposed at the top. It wasn't a big surprise, though."

On this particular pointless new year's day walk Christ Church Meadow was almost entirely flooded. As we floated out past Merton, the bells began to ring and ring: 7500 changes to commemorate Merton's 750th anniversary. The wind felt wild, and the streetlamps glowed a hot orange.

***

For a few weeks I still had tan lines from swimming in an outdoor pool, and a fresh resolve that comes from taking actual time off work, from thinking and assessing. The tan lines have faded now. The resolve is still there, somewhere. In a sense I feel that this has already been a long year. Already I have done things: I've started re-learning how to drive a stick shift, joined the local triathlon club so that I can go along to the coached swim sessions, gotten my first ever prescription for glasses, booked a trip to Berlin, filed my tax return weeks early, cleaned out the garden shed. Last year feels blurry and far away. It doesn't feel big, or momentous, though I guess big, momentous things happened: Book published. Got engaged. But it sort of felt like those things - nice as they are - were really just the start of something. Like the sum of last year is the building blocks for a slower, subtler, more meaningful change.

I took my time over resolutions this year. I don't really do them - not in the insidious women's magazine sense, anyway ("Take myself out on a date once a week. Lose that pesky five pounds. Be more accepting of who I am.") But over the last few years I've taken to jotting down a few notes for myself at the beginning of each year, to varying degrees of prescriptiveness. This year I ended up with just one thing. It's vague, maybe more like a mantra than a resolution, but I was feeling vague at the time, and vaguely excited, and anyway vague can nurture lots of smaller, more specific things.

Next month is my birthday month, so in a sense I always feel like the start of the year really comes in March. January and February are punctuation marks - the pause between the frenetic end of one year and the we're really plunging in now start of the next. For the duration of that pause we're still half-frozen. We sit in our cold front rooms, looking at the weary floorboards, playing games with ourselves to avoid switching the heating on, listening to the incessant rain beating the windowpanes, wondering when, when, when will it be lighter out? I don't mind the cold as much as the light, though I'm no great fan of the cold, either - it's just that I can bundle myself up, insulate against a biting wind, whereas there's no antidote to the gloomy grey days that end sharply at 4:30pm and become long black nights. No antidote except to wait. And anyway sometimes even the misery of a cold can be a kind of pleasure. I watch six films in one day and don't feel guilty. I feel sorry for myself, but I don't feel guilty. "Go ahead," he tells me. "Feel sorry for yourself today. You're sick. You're allowed to feel sorry for yourself." And I am, so I do, and it makes me feel better, and less sorry for myself.

Recently

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.

wintering

In November we spend a week in the countryside, looking after children and animals and a great big farmhouse. The bathtub is so large that I can't comfortably read in it; I stretch out, my full length, and my toes just touch the end of the tub, while the top of my head brushes the other. There's certainly no way to negotiate a way to hold the heavy issue of Vogue I'd planned to leaf through. I come downstairs and say, "the bathtub is too large!" I didn't know this was a problem you could have, but there you are: a bathtub definitively built for two, not one - or for one much taller than me, at least.

We drive the kids to rugby practice (I stand on the sidelines, watching, trying to understand the rules; he brings me a cup of tepid brown water masquerading as coffee and stands beside me, trying to explain) and pick them up from school. The autumn colours are lingering; "This is the road with the pretty trees!" I keep saying; "This is the A361!" he replies, bemused. The garden is patrolled - or should I say owned - by an aggressive rooster who fears us a lot less than we fear him. Once I'm chased all the way to my car, and then into my car, and I sit helplessly as the rooster continues to peck at the side of the vehicle, and I wonder if I can explain to the rental company that I'm sorry about the dents but have you ever been chased by a rooster?

In the kitchen we're kept warm by the Aga, charming if inefficient, and one night we sit outside at the pub, jackets pulled tight around us, the dogs on leashes yapping at every passing leaf. It seems odd that we are grown-up enough to be actually acting as grown-ups; that is, to be the people in charge, even when we don't feel up to the challenge, even when we feel quite like children ourselves, wanting to be taken care of, to ignore the world, to succumb to the belief that if I can't see them they can't see me. Most of adulthood, if I'm understanding it correctly, is about this kind of surprised realisation of accidental, arbitrary authority. I am alarmed as much by the prospect of being in such a position as by our apparent capability: not that we are brilliant at being the only grown-ups in the house, or even totally competent, just that I had always expected that this was something you'd have to be meticulously taught, something that didn't come naturally, something that only years of practice (and the kind of confidence you only get from having Done Something Substantial - started a brilliant career, had kids, bought a house, whatever) could equip you for. At one point, over-tired, I turn to him and say: "I don't want to be responsible anymore!" But we are, irrevocably, and so we bear our responsibility responsibly.

It bothers me a little that we can't seem to be this way just for ourselves, that we need to be needed in order to act our age; but then, I think, who can, really, who does act their age, except when it's required?

***

Back at home, I read the proofs of my book and let piles of post and other work stack up on my desk. The rain is coming down hard outside. I look out at the almost-bare cherry tree, black against the bland grey sky. A few leaves still cling to the branches; they shiver violently in the wind and remind me of fish, suspended on hooks. A sinister image for a seemingly sinister day (a big black fly has taken up residence in my study; its constant buzzing causes me to feel overly anxious). But later the rain stops and the clouds break apart and there is just one fresh hour, before nightfall, when it is warm and radiant out after all.

***

One weekend in December we come home to discover that friends have brought us a small Christmas tree, from a farm in Wales. It smells cool and fresh and I find a pot for it and give it warm water. I have this very particular image of a memory (or memory of an image) which isn't mine: my parents' first Christmas tree, the first Christmas tree that they had together in the first house they lived in together, before I was born. It's a photograph, from the mid-1980s, I guess, or thereabouts. Slightly faded, in that particular yellowy faded way that photos get, with thick white edges. My father is on a bicycle, in shorts and a long-sleeve top (this is California, after all), with the Christmas tree tucked under one arm, or maybe balanced in the palm of his hand. His other hand is on the handlebars. For some reason the poignancy of that moment, frozen arbitrarily by my mother's camera, and the memory I have (which may not even be real) of being told the story of that tree, has instilled in me a sense that this is a very special occasion, this first tree. So I'm happy to have it, even if it's extraneous. Ours is about the same size as theirs was, though I'm not sure I'm quite a confident enough cyclist to have been able to carry it home by bike. I buy a string of cheap fairy lights from the hardware store and tell everyone I know that after five Christmases together we finally have our first Christmas tree.

***

The shops are full and the streets clogged with people buying things, but at the same time it feels like everyone has evacuated the city. The houses on either side of us have gone dark and quiet. At the pool, I have a lane all to myself. I go to the library in search of a particular book, and even though there's nobody else about, I receive whispered directions from the librarian; I turn the pages silently; I muffle a sneeze. While I'm reading it gets dark, and by the time I unlock my bicycle the stars are out. A fingernail-clipping moon hangs over All Souls. The Iffley Road, deserted, seems wider and longer than usual. I'm tired when I get home: I need to pump my tires.

***

The Saturday before Christmas, we drive up to Suffolk for a wedding. This is a crazy thing to do; I know it's a crazy thing to do, he knows it's a crazy thing to do, but we do it anyway, because this is what being young is all about: driving to other people's weddings three days before Christmas. Someday the kids of the people whose weddings we're constantly attending now will be having their own weddings and they will do the same sorts of things and we'll laugh and say, "what a stupid thing to do!" and then, presumably, feel humbled by our own forgetfulness, our own antiquity. Anyhow I rent a car and we dump our finery in the boot (me: a silk merlot-coloured dress and a pair of diamond and sapphire earrings that used to belong to my grandmother; him: a black suit, reluctantly, after discovering that the jacket that accompanies his kilt has been decimated, since he last wore it five years ago, by hungry moths) and drive to Suffolk. Towards the end of our journey we pull over and change in the car, and then we drive for twenty minutes or so down narrow, flooded roads to this little old church perched on a hillside. There's nothing else around; we're not far from the coast, and there's an edge-of-the-world feeling, or an end-of-the-world feeling, perhaps, even though the Mayan apocalypse was yesterday and we're still here. I complain about the parking conditions (I drive the car up a steep muddy bank at the side of a field, like everyone else; he tells me I'm still sticking out; I tell him that's tough, I can't move, the wheels are stuck, we're going to be fucked when we want to get out, if they didn't want people to block the road they shouldn't have chosen to get married here, blah blah blah). My high heels, and they're very high indeed, sink into the mud as we walk to the church. We're shown to pews and given candles to hold, and as it grows dusky outside the church window is stained bluer and bluer. After the couple is married we try to light Chinese lanterns, but there's a strong wind and only a few of them take to the dim sky. The reception is in a school gymnasium, decorated with fairy lights and bunting. We eat roast pig and spend two hours ceilidh-ing; I take my heels off and develop a blood blister the size of Alaska on the ball of my right foot. I haven't had a blood blister of any note since I was a freshman in high school, when I was on the track team.

We take about an hour to say goodbye to people, moving slowly around the room. Then we start driving again. At first it's quite pleasant; we feel very adult, sober, leaving the party before midnight, driving away, chatting away. We turn the radio on, the rain has stopped for awhile, we take the gentle curves of the B roads smoothly, like in a car advert, passing through little villages, past trees, hedges, fields. On Radio 4 there's a programme on about William Carlos Williams. Various people read out bits of his poems; I remember my mother reading me "This is just to say" when I was little.

"Forgive me/they were delicious"

"He was a doctor," I remember out loud. (So was Chekhov, I've just learned, which makes me feel a little better about my own sort of double life, if also somewhat abashed). There's this pleasing period where we're just driving along on these British roads, listening to people talk about William Carlos Williams, whose poems I recognise from my own American childhood, who I knew was a doctor as well as a poet, and we remind me of what I imagined adulthood should look like during that American childhood: we become, briefly, the thing that no one ever really is. Then eventually we're out on bigger roads, and the rain is falling harder, the visibility is poor, and the mood is tenser, because I can feel how little control I actually have over any of it - the car, the weather, the million little stresses - and because we're both tired, and suddenly wondering if we've been a bit ambitious. The roads are virtually empty, though, and finally we get where we're going for the night.

The next day, driving down the M11, the sun breaks through the clouds and I ask for my sunglasses, and there's a moment on Desert Island Discs, just after Dawn French talks about her mother's funeral, when Etta James is singing "At Last", that feels particularly sweet. And when we get back to Oxford we have our little Christmas tree, and leftover beer from an impromptu party earlier in the week.

***

Since my pool is shut until the new year, I go for a swim at the community pool off the Cowley Road. I'm secretly hoping for Christmas music, like last year, but there's just generic Radio 1-ish music coming through the speakers. At one point, about halfway through my swim, I recognise "Gangnam Style," which I last heard in a grubby nightclub (is there any other kind?) in central Oxford on a Saturday night. The pool is basically empty: there's a lifeguard sitting on the bleachers with his head in his hands, one man doing laps in the next lane over, pleasingly just a little bit slower than me, and an elderly man in the big slow lane, paddling doggedly up and down the length of the pool, looking disturbingly, desirably serene to me, with my pounding heart.

***

On Christmas eve, we take a bus into town and do all our shopping. It's raining hard but it's also unseasonably warm. In the covered market we run into some friends and pause to say hello next to a hanging deer carcass. Later we split up to buy gifts for each other and reconvene at the King's Arms. I have half a pint of bitter; when I complain of hunger he buys us a pickled egg and a packet of salt and vinegar crisps, puts the egg in the bag, shakes it up.

***

I like the long stretch between Christmas and New Year's Eve, particularly when we're not at home, are excused, for a time, from the daily indignities of responsibility ("What's making the fridge stink? Is this broccoli too old to eat? Can I borrow 55p? I hope the postman didn't notice that I'm not wearing anything under my dressing gown. I hope we remembered to put the right bin outside. I hope that red wine I just poured all over the front room won't stain the floorboards." and so on). One day, when everyone else has gone out for a little while, I go into the garage and use the cross-trainer for half an hour. It's an old machine that someone rescued from a skip and it makes an awful creaking noise, like it's too tired to go on, it wished we'd left it well enough alone so it could rot slowly in the persistent English rain, but eventually I get used to it, and my boredom transforms itself into exercise-induced elation. I listen to music and feel pleasantly, mildly high, even though in reality there's little as mind-numbing as using a piece of gym equipment in the corner of someone's else's garage, with nothing to look at but stacks of old boxes and children's bicycles, long retired, leaning up against the walls, and bottles of wine and vodka on wooden racks. I have a memory of being in college, using the campus gym, which was in a basement and stank of sweat but sure as hell beat running outside in the middle of a Boston winter. It was also a social thing, a bit of a game. I ran very fast on the treadmill and was always gratified to see someone I knew there, a friend from class, a boy I almost-liked, someone whose presence, whose acknowledgement of my presence, validated the efforts I was making. Otherwise I was just running in place for an hour, working up a sweat but going nowhere.

Lately

It was strange trying to adjust to what seemed to me to be two very separate existences. There was me at home and then there was me in London, on buses and trains and in the underground, in the crush, my bag caught in the barrier at rush hour, a matter-of-fact woman striding up to me, aggressively, resentfully helpful, yanking my bag out of the barrier and hoisting it over, saying nothing, moving on, and me saying nothing either, moving on, sliding past the suits on the escalator, sliding into a full carriage, making an unlikely space for myself beneath the raised armpits of a tall woman in a silk shirt and Nike trainers. I was not a commuter, of course, I was not any different (or differently indifferent to the lure of the rush and the rush of the big bright city) than I had been elsewhere, at other times. I read books in between all other activities, tried to suppress the feeling of being a fraud but having to go through with it (whatever 'it' was) anyway. No, it was not like my life here was so different: it was just that my life in Oxford happened at such a different pace. For a start it was not just my life but ours - a conscious decision, a thing that seemed both sweet and necessary - otherwise, how would we survive the slow, long winters, the cold weeks between paydays? When we woke on a weekday morning pressed warmly together, the dawn having shimmered into day a few hours ago, most of the commuters already commuted and sat stiffly at their desks with the first cup of coffee, I thought things like: we don't know how to pay our rent and we don't ever stop working, even though there's no guarantee that any of it will work out, but at least we have this. This is something other people don't have, this is something other people want, maybe, but are too afraid to pursue. Whether it was true or not, or meaningful, didn't matter: it helped.

There was also, in more general terms, the dreamlike quality of Oxford life. There was the sense of having been suspended - although not in time, exactly. In fact it was continually amazing to me how old I could be made to feel, even at just 25. Each year a new crop of kids asserted themselves as the rightful though temporary owners of the place, and each year I was - exponentially, it seemed - even older than them. Leaving the swimming pool one evening I overheard a boy saying earnestly to two friends: "But you guys are still so young, you know? It's different for me, I'm already 23."

The thing John Fowles had written about the Greek island Spetses, where he lived for a few years in the early 1950s, seemed a truth about Oxford as well - and he had lived here, too, so perhaps, even if just deep down, without realising, he understood its relevance to here too: “In no place was it less likely that something would happen; yet somehow happening lay always poised."

In Oxford, I thought: even if I wanted to make something happen, I'm not sure how I could. But I went to the pub optimistically enough anyway: it seemed like some big, positive change was always about to occur, though really it was just the acrid smell of smoke and the sound of preliminary fireworks being set off.

Whereas in my other life, things were happening all the time; I was overwhelmed by things happening. I made things happen. That was the whole point. I strode hurriedly through parks, down side streets, lost but too busy, too rushed, to admit it. I was largely irrelevant here - invisibly unsettled, passing through, mostly anonymous. I kept being confused by the layout of the Bloomsbury, kept getting turned around. But I was starting to be able to locate myself on the map, to find my way. That was happening.

***

Night. Outside the drunken hordes stagger home from the pub. Inside the heating is on, the laundry is drying on radiators and bannisters. The house, indifferent to the change of seasons, goes on silently containing all the stuff, the multitudes, the cobwebs, the history, as it has for many years now, and many different occupants.

"Home, we may say, is the action of the inner life finding outer form; it is the settling of self into the world," I read.

So I go to London and spend a few hours between meetings in the library and eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the bus ride home. I look at sample spreads for the book and respond to queries from a copyeditor. And I make my money one blustery Wednesday by painting a large trellis, my shoes stained blue, my hair tucked under a wool hat, Radio 4 humming in the background. It's nice to be outside, in the cold, to feel my hand cramping around the paintbrush, to be fed fresh coffee and homemade biscuits, to let the rain and the mud not really matter.

"Private As Guts": On Two Weeks of Watching the Olympics

Artistic discipline and athletic discipline are kissing cousins, they require the same thing, an unspecial practice: tedious and pitch-black invisible, private as guts, but always sacred.

Leanne Shapton, Swimming Studies

1. The Winner

To have a winner you must also have a loser. Loss is implicit in the success of a champion. The gold medalist is only standing on the podium because he has beaten his opponents - hordes of them, over the course of his career, hordes of people with exactly the same dream and the same drive. But the hordes become invisible; you see this One Man, this One Woman. You see this kind of greatness as something somehow attainable and natural. It isn't. It’s unlikely, like winning the lottery. We're amazed by Michael Phelps and his 22 medals, and we should be - but here’s what we should be even more amazed by: all the people who finished second, or who never finished at all. All that relative mediocrity, which would be triumph enough for most of us.

***

When it's particularly, painfully close, you find yourself thinking, why is it this way? why is it so unfair? How can something so minute - 1/100th of a second, two points - be so significant, so decisive?

"The drama of sports - surely lost in a coin toss - comes from pitting two well-matched people against each other and seeing how they fare. But in this case the match has turned out to be *so close* it reminds us how slender the notion of a winner can be - milliseconds, millimeters, tenths of a point awarded from a judge." So writes Rebecca J. Rosen about the "dead heat" between sprinters Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh in the 100 meters at the United States Olympic trials.

That kind of closeness makes it all seem arbitrary: if two contestants are really so equally matched, what's the deciding factor? Not skill, or strength, or speed, but a breath of wind at just the right (or the wrong) moment, an errant cry from the crowd, a superstitious ritual misperformed. So you, the remote spectator, start to earnestly wonder if you could actually affect the outcome of something which appears to be completely out of your control. Is it coincidence that when I change out of the rain-soaked jeans I wore throughout their confidently won first set, Andy Murray and Laura Robson lose the next set, and ultimately the match? In retrospect, surely my mild discomfort was worth enduring in order to ensure a second gold for Murray and a first for Robson.

Logically, of course, there's no way I can own the disappointment of losing, or absorb any of the blame. I certainly can't claim any credit for a win, much as I like to tell people, and only half-jokingly, that it was the way that I tapped the table three times at crucial moments that led the Red Sox to that historic victory in 2004. But the beauty of sport is the uncanny way it includes each and every spectator.

The act of participating in sport is a lonely, personal thing, even where teams are involved. Private battles of will and physical prowess - "private as guts", to borrow Leanne Shapton's phrase - are fought publicly. A race or a game or a gymnastics routine becomes the tangible manifestation of private doubt or private pain being overcome; it’s what’s invisible that counts, and the result is not really of this one contest but of thousands of hours of tedious solitary practice. And yet every contest also expands to become something not just relevant but urgent to the millions of people who have no connection to it at all, really, but who watch anyway, transfixed, transformed for an instant.

Think of it this way: you don't know the athletes, and you likely never will. Unless you've placed a bet, nothing hinges on one pair of rowers being better than another pair of rowers, for you. You're not even there, hearing the oars hit the water; you're here, in your living room, hearing what some sound technician has decided an oar hitting the water should sound like. You’re seeing the event from a hundred different angles - the slow-motion close-up of the tennis ball bouncing in the sun, the water sliding down the shaved arms of the swimmer, the long line of runners stretched like hungry ants down Victoria Embankment - like you're omnipotent. And when it's over you'll feel you've been part of something, even though you haven't, not really: you've just been sitting in your living room, clenching your fists, pausing the live feed to get a glass of water (watching is thirsty work), listening to the comfortable patter of the commentators bantering. And you will get up from your sofa and proceed to the kitchen and wash a few dishes, the humdrum-ness of your life ultimately unchanged by what you’ve just witnessed.

(It’s obvious that by “you” I mean me, here. Maybe you do know the athletes. Maybe you are one. Maybe you were there, maybe you didn’t hear the oars but felt the roar of the crowd instead. And I don’t know if this changes things.)

2. The Viewer

The artificiality of watching sport this way - from a distance - makes it a simultaneously lonely and communal exercise. We’re united in our remoteness from the thing we’re watching. Maybe I'd be writing a very different essay if I had actually been to an Olympic event. As a matter of fact, although I live in a country that’s hosting the Olympics, I'm not at all qualified to tell you what it's like to live in a country that's hosting the Olympics. I haven't been to London in weeks. I'd go, but I can't afford it - or at least this is what I've been telling myself. For a few days I check the relevant website religiously, watching tickets become available. Just a few clicks, a few hours on trains and tubes, a hundred pounds, and I could be at the Aquatics Centre, I think: I could be at the center of things, part of the crowd I’ve been watching and hearing and envying for days. But where would I get a hundred spare pounds? Where would I get those spare hours? And so by the time I’ve mulled it over and decided maybe it is worth it after all, the tickets are long gone, the swimming’s been over for a week, the games are declared closed, and I’ve missed my chance.

So I sit at home, in Oxford, not very far away but also very far away indeed. And I watch things happen on my laptop screen.

***

"TV tennis has its advantages, but these advantages have disadvantages, and chief among them is a certain illusion of intimacy," writes David Foster Wallace. One morning, I watch a two-minute video about filming the Olympic games. "The aim is to take the viewer where the athlete is", the narrator says. I'm delighted by the way a camera on the end of a rope can follow a diver from the the board all the way into the water, or the way a camera on the bottom of the pool can show the swimmers from an angle you would never naturally see. But it's not that these ingenious contraptions and unique vantage points are placing us where the athlete is - it's that they're placing us simultaneously with and distinctly apart from the athlete. We experience a sense of intimacy and a sense of distance concurrently. Like a childhood memory: you see your four-year-old self from the outside, looking in. You remember the cat lumbering into the room, scratching at your leg, drawing blood, but you relive it as an observer, not a participant, and so you become somehow both.

"TV sporting events are something we make, and they have a tension at their core: On the one hand, we want to feel as if we watched from the stands, but on the other, we want a fidelity and intimacy that is better than any in-person spectating could be. Our desire is for the presentation of real life to actually be better than real life," writes Alexis Madrigal. And of course the oddest thing of all is that this is real life - I mean, me, sitting here, hearing impossible sounds, seeing these human forms in motion from an impossible combination of impossible angles: that's how I experience the Olympics, that's how I experience any televised sporting event.

***

Mainly, though, I am watching for the spaces in between. My favourite scenes are always those that occur in anticipation of an event or in the relief after. It’s nice to see the athletes in the moments before they compete: headphones on, jacket zipped up, eyes down. It’s nice to see them when it’s over, too. They smile and laugh together and slap each other on the back or hug or cry or look disgusted. You think: well, of course. They're colleagues, compatriots, as much as competitors. I like it, too, when the commentators make mistakes or jokes; when they tease each other, laugh, get confused or excited, are as amazed as I am. These are the best moments because they take you out of the picture completely; you're no longer split, half of you with the athlete, the other half hovering over the stadium in a hot air balloon. You’re you again, they’re them; this is the realest moment, no matter where you are, the coming back down to earth moment.

3. The Body

Often the competition hardly matters at all. It's compelling enough just to watch limbs move. We watch a lot of longer events: the men’s 10,000m, the women’s marathon, the men’s 1500m freestyle, the women’s marathon 10km, the men’s individual time trial. I think, at the start of each: I cannot possibly watch this race in full. But by the end I'm riveted; I haven't moved in ten minutes, twenty minutes, two hours.

The feet of the runners look like the spindly limbs of gazelles fleeing from a predator. I admire the apparently languid stroke of the swimmer who beats his own world record by more than three seconds; the gentle two-beat kick, the arm sliding through the water. The shots from below show these swimmers suspended, impossibly light and graceful, even after nearly a mile. The open-water swimmers sway and splash, glancing up occasionally to orient themselves; someone on Twitter says it doesn't make for very good television, does it, but I disagree entirely, and I'm too absorbed to disagree publicly. The marathon runners, even two hours into their race, have perfectly composed faces. Only at the very end - the last push, the final few metres - does Tiki Gelana grit her teeth, belying the effort it's taken to carry herself to the finish line. They all collapse as soon as they cross the line, but soon get back up again. Gelana jogs past the crowd, wrapped in the Ethiopian flag, like Bradley Wiggins gets back on his bike and cycles blithely back the way he came, in search of his family, looking like he might happily retrace his steps all the way back to the start of the race if he needs to and ride it again.

[N.B. These moments - the final moments of a long-distance race - are particularly astonishing. Something about the sheer distance involved, the investment of time, makes the conclusion more immediately poignant. For almost two hours I watch a group of women swim the Serpentine and yet when the end comes it's too quick and too soon. It's agony to watch them in the last stretch, British medal hopeful Keri-Anne Payne not quite able after all those kilometers to push herself into third place. The gap between her (1:57:42.2) and the bronze medalist (1:57:41.8) is nothing in the context of a 10km swim, but it’s also everything. The marathon is the same: hope is prolonged, dragged out, making the finish more bitter than sweet. For most of the race there's the sense that anyone could win it, or nearly anyone, at least, even though you know that’s not how these things work, even though you know the chances of anyone but the winner winning have been steadily diminishing since the starting pistol presaged the end. And then, suddenly, it's the same old story: just one winner. A dozen, two dozen people behind her who have all pushed themselves to exhaustion, and for what? A race that's over in 10 seconds is a shocking culmination to years of grueling training, but at least that’s only 10 seconds of waiting, only 10 seconds of footage to scour in the aftermath, searching for clues as to why it was someone else this time.]

***

David Foster Wallace again:

Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The human beauty we're talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings' reconciliation with the fact of having a body.

Nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. This is true, isn't it? It's all about the amazement of seeing a body - the thing we all share, though we don’t all resemble each other, though we can’t all do the same things with the bodies we have. True there are plenty of sports that require animals or apparatus, but at the centre, still, is the human form. The dressage horse is magnificent, but so, supposedly, is the rider’s control.

The footnote to Wallace’s claim above, by the way, is this:

There’s a great deal that’s bad about having a body. If this is not so obviously true that no one needs examples, we can just quickly mention pain, sores, odors, nausea, aging, gravity, sepsis, clumsiness, illness, limits — every last schism between our physical wills and our actual capacities. Can anyone doubt we need help being reconciled? Crave it? It's your body that dies, after all.

There are wonderful things about having a body, too, obviously — it’s just that these things are much harder to feel and appreciate in real time. Rather like certain kinds of rare, peak-type sensuous epiphanies (“I’m so glad I have eyes to see this sunrise!” etc.), great athletes seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter. Granted, what great athletes can do with their bodies are things that the rest of us can only dream of. But these dreams are important — they make up for a lot.

I think of that giddy point in a run when you think, I could keep going indefinitely! And then, a few minutes later, maybe, you're thinking, I can't breathe, I can't lift my legs, I can't keep going even one second longer. But you keep going anyway, because you know deep down that this is not Pushing Yourself at all, that you haven't even approached the gentle foothills of Pushing Yourself; you’re still on the plains of Taking It Easy. You've run four miles, which is nothing, and done it pretty slowly, and you’ll walk for a few minutes when you want, stretch a tight hamstring, skip through the songs on your iPod, searching for just the right thing.

I remember going to a track meet in high school and running the 800 meters, which was my preferred distance (for reasons unknown, since I wasn’t particularly good at it, and it was a pretty grueling race - you always had to run too fast for too long). I never won anything - in fact I quit the team halfway through the season - but I always had a strong finish. I always had plenty of energy to sprint the last 25 meters while the girls at the lead of the pack were crossing the finish line and collapsing. And I remember the coach suggesting, at this particular meet, that I should have run hard enough that I found it difficult to accelerate at the finish. That if I found it easy, I hadn’t done enough. Okay, I said, pretending to pay attention. But I never changed my tactics: wait until the end is in sight, I thought, then put the pressure on, not the other way round. I was too scared to find out what it might be like to reach that final stretch and discover that I had no reserves, nothing left, couldn’t go faster. I was curious, but not curious enough to actually discover the exact point at which a task becomes actually impossible.

So to watch others do this now, to see them testing the limits, pushing the limits, playing with the very idea of limits, both satisfies and provokes that curiosity.

4. The National Anthem

If it's about being human, about the universal human experience of being in a body, it shouldn't matter where the winner is from. But obviously it does, to some extent. We keep track of which countries win the most medals. We raise flags and blare national anthems. We want the country hosting the games to perform as admirably as possible. “Urged on by massive home crowds and a cheerleading press that defied predictions of Olympic cynicism, British athletes ran, cycled and rowed their way to their highest medal count since Britannia ruled the seas in 1908. At these Games, the United States and China might be coming home with more gold, but this country of 62 million roughly the size of Michigan reminded itself of its uncanny ability to punch above its weight,” writes Anthony Faiola.

But I don't think of the champions as representing their countries so much as representing themselves, though their countries may well be part of themselves. Still, it all culminates in this moment of - what? Not national pride, exactly - this moment of acknowledging one's roots, I suppose, of acknowledging one's home (or adopted home, as the case may be). This is where I came from, this is the place in which I became the magnificent creature you see before you.

“You can follow the Olympics two ways,” writes Ian Johnson:

First, there’s the right way: you pay attention to the athletes and root for great performances. You see them cry and hug each other in joy or look away in disgust at a bad performance. You empathize with them as human beings and debate issues like whether Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian of all time or just the greatest swimmer. [...]

Then there’s the way I watch the games: as a statistical survey of geopolitics and destructive public policy. Individuals matter, to a degree, but more as products of systems than as distinctive personalities. I admire Ye Shiwen’s performance but wonder more about why the country’s swimming coaches get paid almost as much as the central government spends on preserving the country’s dying folk culture. I think Phelps is a great physical specimen but wonder why Americans are getting fatter and fatter.

It’s irrelevant at times - there's the camaraderie amongst athletes from different countries who train together, or the fact that it’s impressive to watch a young woman at her first Olympics blast past all the old favourites to take gold no matter where she's from (what, for instance, does Johnson make of 15-year-old Lithuanian gold medalist Rūta Meilutytė, who trains in Plymouth?). But place still matters. Not just history, heritage, citizenship: setting, too. Here’s Jonathan Meades, writing in 2008:

The entirely despicable, entirely pointless 2012 Olympics - a festival of energy squandering architectural bling worthy of a vain third world dictatorship, a jobbery gravy train, a payday for the construction industry, a covetable terrorist target - will occupy a site far more valuable as it was. It was probably the most extensive terrain vague of any European capital city: the English word wasteland is pejorative and lazy. Further it more or less states that the place has no merit - so why not cover it in expressions of vanity.

I don’t think the 2012 Olympics are entirely despicable or entirely pointless - that much is obvious. But when I watch the games I know that I also willfully ignore political and economic implications. I pretend that I can’t understand because I’m not from here (if ever there was a lazy excuse, that’s one!). To watch the Olympics on a screen is one thing; to visit or acknowledge its (albeit temporary) place on the map, its corporeal form, if you will, is more complicated. I think of the Olympics as an idea, not an actual destination. And perhaps I have deliberately resisted the urge to visit the site. I claim a scarcity of time or money prevented me from going to London, but maybe it’s just that this way of watching - my way of watching - only works if “the Olympics” remains a sufficiently abstract concept.

(I watch the faces of the American athletes as "The Star Spangled Banner" plays; sometimes I can see their lips moving. Do they really know the lyrics, I wonder, or are they, as we have all sometimes had to do, just pretending?)

5. Look Away

And why am I so compelled? Why can't I look away - or, rather, why don't I want to, even for a second? Why do I feel bound to watch two and a half hours of swimming heats - not even semi-finals, let alone finals - accompanied by the soothing voices of Andy Jameson and Adrian Moorhouse, who I've come to think of as dear friends? Is it admiration, envy, desire? The spectacle of skin and muscle, the parade of flesh? Yes, probably. And it’s also for the narrative: how will I know who to root for if I don't see the whole context, if I’m not wholly immersed? Why would I skip over parts of a story I’m so thoroughly enjoying?

There's something compelling, too, about my own reactions. I'm surprised to hear my voice as Victoria Azarenka hits a ball into the net and I pump my fist and shout "yesss!" - to cheer for the negative, to celebrate the opponent's mistake, feels like it’s verging on being unsportsmanlike, and moreover it seems to have been involuntary. Where did this visceral enthusiasm come from? And where does it go, where does it hide, during the daytime, during all the ordinary hours?

And then there's the tragedy of sport. Simultaneous with the realisation of winning is the acknowledgment of an ending/a new beginning. You must either do it again or give it up, burn out or fade out. The achievement must be matched - if not by you then by someone else, someone younger, faster, better. The likelihood of a repeat performance, let alone one four years later, is difficult to gauge - who will you be then? How can you guarantee that the circumstances, the wind, will be right?

So these people - these champions, these almost-champions - repeatedly enact a kind of Greek tragedy. The exposure of this drama is like peeling skin back, revealing a roadmap of veins and sinew. It’s almost indecent, but we're hungry for it. Show us what they feel so we can feel something too. Let us think that tears of joy are also tears, even if unconsciously, of mourning or of fear. When the games close, when the flame is extinguished, we arrive at the moment of understanding: the moment of knowing how small this is, even while it looms so large, how fleeting, how insignificant.

***

The question is this: is watching sport an exercise in great empathy or great selfishness? Am I watching and thinking, good for her, I enjoy this success vicariously, this is a just payoff for the sacrifices she’s made throughout her life? Or am I watching and thinking, if only it was me, but it will never be me, it can never be me? Here is a celebration of a human experience that very few will share, and yet I know as I watch her reaction that it's my reaction, too, it's everybody's reaction. It's a physical reaction, though we're not sharing the same physical space, though she has just enthusiastically finished an 800m race while I've just enthusiastically finished a glass of wine. My shoulders shake too; my voice cracks too; I’m a mirror, a mimic.

On Not Taking Photographs

Awhile ago I broke my phone - accidentally and quite shockingly, almost violently. I’ve long suspected that my phone is the only camera I have any inclination to use these days, and the incident has confirmed this, because although I have a DSLR and although a friend has very kindly lent me a much older iteration of my trusty iPhone, I have taken precisely four photographs in the last two months (all on the iPhone 3G - the DSLR and its lenses lie in a drawer). The first was of the sun shining on a hillside and the quality is very poor. My disappointment at not being able to capture the particular quality of light, my sense of impotence, if you will, was so acute that it was nearly a month before I could bring myself to take another shot - this time on a hot bright day, the Summer VIIIs in full swing, the blurred image inadvertently evoking the rush of the boats and the cries of the coxes. I remembered why I used to obscure my iPhone shots with overbearing Hipstamatic filters; it’s like making the hole in a worn pair of jeans wider, trying to be honest about its flaw and in so doing highlighting it to such a degree that the flaw becomes somehow a thing that enhances, not detracts.

Anyhow, as I wait for news from the insurance company about whether or not the damage to my phone is reparable, I’m not really taking pictures. And I’m trying to see if it changes things. I do think I notice differently: I'm not looking for photographs in my landscape anymore. And I don't think this is necessarily a good thing. I like the version of myself that believes there's a photograph around any corner, maybe this one, maybe now. Now I just walk right through the world; the trek to and from the pool is uninterrupted by my need to document the evening green of the rugby pitch or the progress of the leaves on the trees outside Greyfriars. Strange skies and patterns are ignored. Moments are noted wistfully and then quickly forgotten.

On the other hand you probably couldn’t accuse me of not being "present" in my landscape; I'm interacting with it on a very ground level, there's no filter. Except that you could, because my mind, as always, is often elsewhere. Miles away, as they say. In another world altogether. That’s the thing you can't control and you can't blame on technology or anything but human nature, if there is such a thing.

Shopkeeping

For a bit of cash and human interaction, I work sometimes at a shop nearby. Occasionally the owner goes out to run errands, and I mind the shop on my own. I enjoy this, the banality of it, the notion of being, even if briefly, for half-hour periods, a shop-girl (I think of the Steve Martin film, of pale, elegant Claire Danes showing gloves to wealthy men; this is not at all like that, and yet in a sense it's the same thing, really). Often nobody comes into the shop, and when they do I smile and say hello. A profoundly benign gesture, empty and yet also grand enough to bridge any gap: what kind of day is this man having? What kind of day am I having? Where does he come from? Where do I come from? Where are we going? But none of this matters, because all I have to do is smile and say hello, and in a little while, maybe, he will come and stand at the counter holding a card, which I cannot read too much into (he’s chosen an ambiguous one, a blank card, letter-pressed, it could be for a birthday or a celebration or a love letter or a bland note of thanks, for a wife or child or friend or brother), and I will say, “two pounds fifty,” and he will give me - what, the exact change? No, a five pound note, and I will operate the cash register with a confidence I don’t quite feel (the math here is obvious, but it isn’t always, and although there was a brief period of my life during which I was fluent (or fluent enough) in the language of calculus, I often stumble over subtraction, taking my time, trying to appear outwardly calm while inwardly my brain, instead of performing the necessary calculations, laughs at me for not knowing them automatically), and I will produce his £2.50 change. I will try to deposit the change in his hand as helpfully as possible. He will put it in his pocket, loose change, clanging around. We’ll both say thank you, although this transaction requires no thanks, particularly. He’ll leave. The music will go on playing. I choose music that I like. When the shop is empty there’s still the whir of traffic outside. We drink tea. I watch three men run past - lithe, athletic. The buses block out the sun as they pass. Boys, hoods up. A woman pushing a pram. Suits, leather jackets, parkas, parked cars, sirens, singing schoolchildren, drunks, a dull steel-grey sky, a row of red brick houses that look too large for their purpose. The sounds of acceleration and braking, the revs of engines as they pass, like the city is breathing.

On time, photography, technology, and proof

1.

"[An image] is an appearance, or a set of appearances, which has been detached from the place and time in which it first made its appearance and preserved - for a few moments or a few centuries." (John Berger, Ways of Seeing)

I've been sifting through the paper record of my existence. I'm in the process of renewing my visa to live in the UK and am required to prove various things - that my partner and I live, for instance, in "a relationship akin to marriage", that we have lived together for at least two years, that the marriage our relationship is akin to is a genuine one - "not like a marriage of convenience". These are trickier things to prove, as it turns out, than they sound. There's plenty of evidence that I exist - bank statements, letters, a birth certificate. There's evidence that he exists. But how much documentation is not here, has no corporeal form! Somewhere I read that it can help to include photographs of yourself and your partner with your application - proof, of a sort, that you've been in the same place at the same time many times. But the hard-copy photograph has been a casualty, at least for me, of convenience. I spent $900 shipping books across the Atlantic when I moved here, but felt fortunate that I had no photo albums to fret over. My pictures are on laptops or online; all of the images of the two of us together are in iPhoto, mostly unseen and thus forgotten; or else on Facebook, tagged, organized into neat albums, depicting holidays and long summer nights.

I do have a handful of hard-copy photographs, accumulated over the years, residing in a small envelope. Now I see them in a strange light: I consider each one, ask myself, what does this photo prove? I realize that none of them prove anything. None of them mean anything except what they mean to me. I dig through drawers, excavating my own study. There is a photograph of my partner holding a friend's (then) newborn baby. That baby is now a wild-haired creature of two and a half, who leads his parents by the hands out of a café, proclaiming, "let's go for a walk!" The photograph is a record, but seems not to represent a real thing: I can remember my amazement at holding such a small human, but that amazement has been replaced by my amazement at how that small human is bigger now, can express himself. Is the photograph of the baby or the evolution of our amazement?

On my computer are hundreds, maybe thousands, of photographs. These photographs, suspended as they are in a kind of virtual space, have no narrative other than the one that context can suggest: you see what, chronologically, came before, and what came after. You see the photo you took hours or days before and the one you took hours or days or perhaps only seconds after. But each captured moment is whole without these dubious clues, too; each image is self-sufficient - like what you would see if you were to walk around with your eyes closed and then, at irregular, distanced intervals, open them, for just an instant.

"The camera relieves us of the burden of memory," writes John Berger in About Looking. "It surveys us like God, and it surveys for us. Yet no other god has been so cynical, for the camera records in order to forget."

2.

Facebook bought Instagram. I don't know what this says or what it will mean, least of all from a business or industry perspective. And I don't think I need to speculate on it, because everyone with a brain and a blog has already done so - a perfect illustration of how difficult it is to keep up these days. Already what I'm writing about is old news, even if it's something still ongoing; everything moves too quickly; it's impossible to settle into one moment or one issue.

So you may already be sick of reading about how Facebook bought Instagram, sick of reading about any associated topics. But it seems to me (right now, in this moment) that technology - or, rather, our conversations about technology, our thoughts about it as a subject - is all about time. In fact it seems to me that our conversations and our thoughts in general - whatever subject we land on - are all about time these days. Manipulating time, prolonging the present, connecting with the past or the future or both, "viewing the present as increasingly a potentially documented past", as Nathan Jurgenson writes in his essay on "The Faux-Vintage Photo":

The momentary popularity of the Hipstamatic-style photo serves to highlight the larger trend of our viewing the present as increasingly a potentially documented past. In fact, the phrase "nostalgia for the present" is borrowed from the great philosopher of postmodernism, Fredric Jameson, who states that "we draw back from our immersion in the here and now […] and grasp it as a kind of thing."

In a recent essay on "techno, dancing, and the augmented self," Cheri Lucas writes:

In Generation Ecstasy, music critic Simon Reynolds writes that while techno can be performed live, it is seldom born in real time. Instead, it is programmed and assembled sequence by sequence and layer by layer, using synthesizers, drum machines, and other electronic instruments. Later, it’s the dancer who actualizes the sound in physical space, who translates electronic into corporeal and sensual. “Techno is an immediacy machine,” writes Reynolds, “stretching time into a continuous present.” The beats that drove us were quick and constant—a hypnotizing measure of time itself—and dancing was an intimate, often carnal, yet largely public interpretation of what now looked like.

When I started to write this post I thought it was going to be about photography, about the faux-vintage aesthetic and what it means. But as I began to write and read, I realized it was not about that at all, or at least, not all of it was about that. It was an essay on time, of course, and it was reading Lucas' piece that convinced me of this. The quest or compulsion to interpret "what now looked like" is increasingly complicated. We can now reside in a "now" padded as heavily with what has been and what might someday be as we want, and yet in a sense "now" itself is obsolete. Already we're moving on, even as we arrive. We're nostalgic but not really looking backwards; we're manufacturing the impression or representation of nostalgia, aware that we should or do feel it, but unable to pause long enough for breath to transform that awareness into anything constructive (or destructive), to let it sink in, pull us down or lift us up.

3.

So what about the faux-vintage aesthetic? "The cosmic significance of Hipsta/gram is not physical," writes Matt Pearce in his excellent piece "Shoot Hip or Die":

It ages digital photos for distribution in a digital world. But nothing really gets older online; the only aging of things here comes from the erosive force of changing human sensibilities. The black of that North Face jacket looks just as black, but the point of wearing it has faded a little. Here there is only the appearance of getting older because everything else has gotten much newer. The pixels do not outwardly become worn. They are like grains of sand. If one is destroyed, it's too small for us to know it's been annihilated. And there is so much sand.

Interestingly, both Pearce and Jurgenson allude to a supposition that "Hipsta/gram" (Pearce's amalgamation of Hipstamatic and Instagram) is transient, a temporary aesthetic - a fashion, perhaps. Maybe they're right; Instagram users, irked by Goliath's purchase, are already lamenting the inevitable decline of the service - but maybe this resentment is really a mask for a more general change of heart. As my friend Ben Walker put it, "I was starting to get bored of the faux-retro photo style anyway (real retro photos are another thing entirely), and the new iPhone camera takes higher quality photos that don't need retro filters to look good."

Walker goes on to write of his own impending fatherhood, and of a corresponding attitudinal shift. "There's so much great stuff on the internet, but very little of it is to do with what's going on right now," he writes. "These days […] I'm less and less worried about missing out on new stuff (new gadgets, apps, social networks, bands, memes) and more excited by finding and maintaining old stuff (organs, pianos, old gadgets, piles of wood). All of which sounds suspiciously like I'm getting old."

Even to acknowledge that "I'm getting old," as we all are, is to slip out of the rope-binds of the constant present, to evade the lure of online perpetuity. Nothing gets older online; the North Face jacket, as Pearce points out, never fades. But meanwhile I see wrinkles under my eyes that were not there when I first moved here, and a part of me is pleased when the Instagram filter obscures such details, casts a weathered sheen over a new image, makes it (by projecting it simultaneously into the past and the future) timeless. Why are we drawn to the evocative falseness of "Hipsta/gram"? For the same reason we may be about to reject it: because I am getting old, and you are getting old, too.

4.

"During the course of the play the table collects this and that, and where an object from one scene would be an anachronism in another (say a coffee mug) it is simply deemed to have become invisible. By the end of the play the table has collected an inventory of objects." (Stage directions for Tom Stoppard's Arcadia).

One of the photographs I encounter on my journey through the small envelope in my study is of my 12th grade English class in 2004, just before graduation. There are five of us, including our teacher; one student is missing, so in his stead we have written his name on a roll of paper towels and placed it in the center of the table. We lean forward slightly, to fit into frame. The photo was taken on my old Minolta; I know this because I can see the lens cap on the table in front of me, and because it's in black and white. I used to use only black and white film - partly because it meant I could develop photos myself in the dark room and partly because the incongruity of it appealed to me, in the same way, perhaps, that now I tint my photographs with Instagram filters or manipulate them with HDR software.

I think of the tension between the accumulative nature of memory - the inventory of objects that collect on the metaphorical table - and the way an image seems to isolate a moment even as it binds it to either what is being represented or who is viewing it (or both). In another photo - one of my favorites - a good friend, wearing a formal black dress, empties bath salts into a tub at midnight in an expensive hotel. It was taken just after we had graduated from high school, and my memory of that evening is composed of linked-but-isolated episodes: sitting on the night-blackened beach with a few friends, gulping red wine from a lone bottle that had miraculously materialized just as we were about to give up any hope of finding something to drink; eating apples next to a swimming pool; watching a few disconcerting minutes of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. And yet the photographic evidence of the evening reflects none of this; it reflects only the spaces in between the memories.

The photos I have from that evening are, in a sense, the frame or foundation for a structure of memory built to evoke nostalgia; I took them knowing full well that someday I'd be sentimental, and I knew this because part of me was already sentimental. As soon as you remove yourself from a situation, even if for an almost-unmeasurable instant, just to press a button, you give yourself the opportunity to see what "now" looks like from a different vantage point. What if I'd had the option to pre-fade the photos, create them with the scars and scratches that time has now given them? "Instagram enhances the narratives we weave by mimicking the materiality and randomness of old photographs," writes Laura Fettig:

The hike you took, the latte you drank, the sunset you saw, that day at the park with your friends - these events become subtle markers for the kind of life you lead. Instagram isn't just about sharing photos or networking: it's about starring in your own movie. It's about making sure your life looks beautiful, and not leaving it up to chance.

At the end of her essay, Fettig describes finding "fistfuls of crumpled and faded photographs" at her grandmother's house. "I laid them out in good light and took a picture of each of them with my phone," she writes. "50 years from now, or 100, or 200 - who will be able to tell the difference?"

5.

In Croydon, after a long period of waiting on glistening red chairs while children, in various states of hysteria, run screaming or laughing past us and a disembodied voice calls ticket number after ticket number to counter after counter, I'm invited to submit my application for further leave to remain in the UK. I have curated a large selection of documents that I hope prove all of the things I need to prove; I slide folder after folder across to the woman on the other side of the glass.

"Are these personal photos?" she asks me, holding up a folder that says, "personal photos".

"Yes," I tell her. I have gone through the special trouble of having them printed out, directly from Facebook, with URLs, dates, comments from friends and family members, still visible. I worry maybe it looks like I'm trying too hard, but in a sense, this is all the real proof I have to offer, even after five years of co-habitation. I know what a farce it makes of proof, but I also know that in all the implied moments between these photographs is everything they could possibly need to know.

"Oh," she says, smiling soothingly. "You can take these back. We don't look at photos."

6.

Berger again:

Images were first made to conjure up the appearances of something that was absent. Gradually it became evident that an image could outlast what it represented; it then showed how something or somebody had once looked - and thus by implication how the subject had once been seen by other people.

Time Passed

It's 2012 now. I didn't do my usual end-of-year post to mark the transition. I started doing this a few years ago. I didn't intend to make a habit of it, but I make habits very easily, by accidentally doing the same thing over and over again, and so it became a habit. I thought about it this year, after we'd had our nice Christmas with family and I had eaten a lot of turkey and nibbled at the Christmas pudding and taken naps and baths and read so many books in a short space of time that I was getting them mixed up in my head and was feeling ready to get back to making things again. But everything seemed too small to bother writing about, and simultaneously too large to even comprehend, too large certainly to fit in a few paragraphs - "time passed, or maybe it didn't," as Geoff Dyer writes. Last year, while time was passing, or maybe not passing, I worked. I went to Scotland and wore espadrilles in the rain and they didn't dry out for weeks. We re-visited Wales, we re-visited New York. I left my job - "without one to go to!" as they say, biting their fingernails, but of course that was the point, to leave without having a clear sense of what came next. And I'm going have a book published this year, as a result of what happened last year when I had no clear sense of what comes next, and even so I still have no clear sense of what comes next, though that feels right somehow, that feels okay.

Anyway, instead of a chronological list of things we did last year, or things that happened to us, here's a random assortment of things I (think I) learned last year.

- Everything takes longer than I think it should. - Related: I'm nearly always at least ten minutes late. - I like stuff (clothes, clutter, knickknacks, bric-a-brac) a lot less than I thought I did. - Making food! Awesome! - But chopping things quickly? Still a struggle. - Being on the radio is fun! - I get annoyed by the internet. - But I'm also pretty good at shutting stuff off. I like leaving my mobile phone in a drawer upstairs and ignoring it. I do this on an almost daily basis, and often not deliberately. - Decisions: still difficult! - London isn't entirely evil. - Oxford can be a cruel city, too. But I still like living here. - Reading is necessary for a healthy mind and body. - So is swimming. - Walks, wilderness: also good. - Other people's advice doesn't really matter. - Except when it does. - But trying to get somewhere using someone else's route is the surest way to get nowhere at all. - I don't hate Christmas pudding as much as I thought I did.

I probably learned other things too, and I probably didn't really learn all of those things last year (I mean, decisions have always been difficult, and remind me about the third point next time I tell you how much I want a new pair of boots), but there you go: an assortment. That's all, an assortment.

p.s. The photo is from the walk we took on New Year's Eve - through the mist and the slippery hills in Cumbria, with some friends. Later we drank a lot of champagne and made little pigs out of lemons, pennies and matchsticks. It was nice.

A Partial Map of December

- On my way to the pool I take a detour down a residential street. I peer through windows as I pass; I see a man bent over a guitar, a woman bent over a baby. Later, on the walk home, I notice how I have two shadows, how it looks like the fainter shadow is chasing the stronger shadow along a low wall on Aston street. - I go to a gig. I'm too short to see the band so instead I watch their shadows moving on the ceiling. I'm with a friend who's very tall. He can (presumably) see the band, but later on we go to get fresh bottles of beer, and then linger outside in the hallway, where it is impossible to see but much easier to listen.

- One afternoon, as I am recovering from a winter cold, I listen to the rain. I write this:

The front room was glowing yellow, because of the strange, smoggy light that the sun was managing to give off from behind its protective layer of golden clouds. It was raining, quite hard, but in the way it rains when you know it will only rain for a minute, or a few minutes, maybe ten - a summer shower, it had the sound of a summer shower, and people walking past were bent against the falling rain with the same surprised faces you see in summertime - women in skirts who left the house on the tricky promise of a blue sky. On the horizon, above the low roof of the shed across the street, the sky was bright. We went to the window to observe; the rain was actually hail, stones bouncing forcefully off the bins and the garden path. Sometimes when it really hails here the stones fall through the chimneys and bounce out into the house, melting, covered in soot. But soon the hail turned again to rain. The light went darker; the clouds were ablaze now with sunset-yellow, pinkish, purplish, almost bruised in their centers, but light on the edges, like a depiction of heavenly clouds in a Renaissance painting.

Then I take a long nap.

- I fall asleep sitting up at my desk, engulfed in sheepskin, reading something. When I wake up it's black outside, but, surprisingly, I have no crick in my neck.

- Because my usual pool is shut over the Christmas period I have to go further afield. I cycle to Summertown one evening; on the ride home I have the city more or less to myself. I pass the blackened lawns, the buildings shrouded in scaffolding and mesh. I make myself remember this - the blackened lawns, the buildings shrouded in scaffolding and mesh - all the way home, even when I stop at Tesco, just before it shuts, to pick up lettuce leaves and avocado.

- Later that week I try a pool off the Cowley Road, across from the police station. I cycle there late in the evening again, the road wide and empty. I insert a pound coin into a locker, stash my shoes, my coat. There is almost no one else around - a woman, a man, and me. The water is cloudy and green; I imagine that it feels a little thicker than I'm used to, smells vaguely medical - iodine, disinfectant, the smell of waiting and worrying. There is a library nearby and so the sign outside says "Swimming Pool Library". I wonder if anyone else finds it funny, if maybe it's a private joke in Oxford, the Hollinghurst reference in Temple Cowley. I wonder if I'm being undeservedly pretentious: I've never actually read the book. Does just knowing about its existence - even knowing, loosely, what it's about - qualify me to share the joke, or do I need some deeper understanding?

When I roll my head to breathe, I can half hear the Christmas songs, playing through speakers in the big room.

- I'm obsessively but irrationally repulsed by the Christmas shoppers, their laden-down shuffle, their vulgar worship of Things. I don't want Things, I tell myself, I'm already mired in Things. I spend what maybe adds up to an hour every day looking for Things, Things which are always obscured by other Things. But then again I want a new dress, new shoes, this, that. I only don't want these things when I don't think of them: and when I don't think of them I feel free and am not sure what to put in this new space.

- I can't remember, or maybe I never knew, which state Yellowstone National Park is in. I look it up. Then I look up the distance between where I grew up and there: about 1200 miles. Then I look up the distance between where I am now and there: "We could not calculate directions".

- I wonder about the veracity of this, from Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad: "I understood what almost no one else seemed to grasp: that there was only an infinitesimal difference, a difference so small that it barely existed except as a figment of the human imagination, between working in a tall green glass building on Park Avenue and collecting litter in a park. In fact, there may have been no difference at all." And regardless of its truth, the important question is this: do I want it to be true?

- "I don't know why I do what I do. If I did know, I probably wouldn't feel the need to do it." - Paul Auster.

A Short Personal History of Cameras

1.

In my last year of high school, I took a photography class. I’d wanted to take one for some time - it was what all the cool kids did, snapping moody photos of each other between classes, disappearing later into darkrooms to develop their relationships. But I had spent the last three years distracted by a misguided devotion to music, culminating in the purchase of a pickup for my violin that only served to amplify my hopelessness, so it was only as a senior that I finally admitted a kind of interest in the visual arts.

For most of the year I used a big black Minolta SLR that my mother had given me. She had lugged it around Italy and carried it to parties and school functions and finally decided that, impressive as the object itself was, clear and striking as the photographs it produced were, it did nothing that a much smaller digital camera - a silver Canon, sleek, practically pocket-sized - couldn't do. Unlike her I liked changing the lenses, the aperture, the shutter speed. I liked the bulk, the extra baggage. I liked the sense of control the camera gave me. I could choose to make a photograph blurry, to overexpose it, or, even more fascinating, to clarify a high-speed object, to freeze a runner, which was the most artificial thing of all: to suspend forever something that, in everyday life, was never suspended for more than an instant. Later in the darkroom were other opportunities to interfere with the image. By taking a photograph out of the developer too soon, you could create the illusion that the photographer had only been half-present, that her attention had been elsewhere; the foggy, not-quite-there quality made it seem like a dream, like a Renoir or a Monet, everything viewed through an impressionist haze. I liked the process of developing film (gently groping in a blacked out room), of making contact sheets. I liked the chemical smell, the faint glows of light, the clinical precision.

For my end-of-year project, I took photographs of things I found washed up on the shore. It was a short series - three, maybe four black and white images, each item (driftwood, half a styrofoam cup) alone, against a sand backdrop, quite close up, framed carefully. I printed them in the darkroom on 8.5” x 11” paper and matted them on foam board. The Minolta - built more to look impressive than to withstand the pressures of use - broke shortly before the project was due, so I shot the series on my grandfather's old Nikon. This was a beautiful object: black and silver, simple, small but appealingly heavy in the hands. I took it down to the beach; I took my photos. It was a very bright sunny day. I shot just one roll of film, taking one or two photos of the sea itself, not for the series, but for personal context, perhaps. Context for the memory of the day.

The photographs turned out better than I could have hoped. I don't mean that they were technically very great, or compositionally even competent. I don't know about that. I am not and never have been a Photographer, though I am, as so many are nowadays, a photographer in some sense - a documentarian of my own life. What I mean is that these were the clearest photographs I had ever taken. Whether it was because the Nikon was made better than the Minolta or simply that the way it felt to handle my grandfather’s camera made me better at taking pictures, I don't know. Either way, the photographs were, in their own austere, adolescent way, rather beautiful. I mounted them proudly; I don't think I had been particularly proud of any of the work I had done that year, although I had enjoyed it, but I was proud of this series. You could feel the heat of the day, though you had no idea what sort of day it was really.

2.

On a recent family visit to New York, I read this:

"Photography is a medium of inescapable truthfulness. The camera doesn't know how to lie. The most mindless snapshot tells the truth of what the camera's eye saw at the moment the shutter clicked."

It's from Janet Malcolm’s profile of the German photographer Thomas Struth, which appeared in the September 26, 2011 issue of The New Yorker. I find it an unusually, almost disturbingly aggressive article - it's as if Malcolm the interviewer is actually Malcolm the interrogator. At one point, describing his education with the artists Bernd and Hilla Becher, Struth says: "For example, a typical thing Bernd would say was 'You have to understand the Paris photographs of Atget as the visualization of Marcel Proust.'" Malcolm responds:

‘"I don't get it. What does Atget have to do with Proust?" "It's a similar time span. What Bernd meant was that when you read Proust that's what the backdrop is. That's the theatre." "Did you read Proust while you were studying with the Bechers?" "No, no. I didn't." "Have you read Proust since?" "No." "So what was the point for you of connecting Atget with Proust?" Struth laughed. "Maybe it's a bad example," he said. "It's a terrible example," I said. We both laughed.’

Although it is a false image, I picture this conversation taking place in a tutor's rooms at Oxford, Struth the student upon the settee, sleepy and hungover and possibly very brilliant but unable to overcome the vast chasm of academic hierarchy. "So what was the point for you of connecting Atget with Proust?" is the tutor's way of inviting but not inviting a commentary, a way of curtailing freedom to speak by tempting it. Naturally the student nervously concedes the point, and they both laugh about it. I feel an automatic, undeserved sympathy with my fictional version of Struth and an even more undeserved animosity towards my fictional version of Malcolm.

Struth’s photograph of the inside of the SolarWorld factory outside Dresden has been reproduced for the article. ‘How will your pictures show that what is being produced at SolarWorld is good for mankind?’ Malcolm asks Struth:

‘"Just by the title." "So photographs don't speak." "The picture itself is powerless to show."’

I observe the image. It makes very little sense to me; I don't know what's happening, except, in a broad sense, because of the caption, that solar panels are being manufactured. The photo is quite small on the page, surrounded by thick blocks of text. It is industrial and futuristic; lots of horizontal lines, blues, whites, silvers. I feel virtually nothing when I look at it; but as I continue to look, I get the impression that I want to like it, and the reason I want to like it has nothing to do with it and what it means. No; I want to like it in spite of Malcolm, a woman I do not know who has written an article about a photographer I had not even heard of until today. I choose this reason arbitrarily, and it is no doubt influenced by external factors: I have had more coffee than usual, it is unseasonably warm for October, I am broke, I am a writer, searching for something to write about, I am on holiday. All of these things which have so much to do with me and virtually nothing to do with the photograph. A medium of “inescapable truthfulness” - but what kind of “inescapable truthfulness”, exactly?

3.

A few days later, I encounter the question of context again, this time in a midtown gallery. The exhibit - "Beyond Words: Photography in The New Yorker" - is a selection of photographs that have appeared in the magazine, curated by former visuals editor Elisabeth Biondi.

"Every picture in The New Yorker, even a portrait, makes an editorial statement," Biondi writes. "When published, the pictures are bound to the written word, illuminating and strengthening the context of the magazine. After publication, strong images assume a new life, beyond their original context." Even this exhibition is not devoid of context, of course; someone has placed certain pictures in certain places, created an invisible narrative. But I deliberately do not take a copy of the guide, so that I can view the photographs, at least at first, without any extra insight.

I pause next to a portrait of Agatha Christie in her old age. My eyes are drawn to her thick, elderly ankles, juxtaposed with Amy Winehouse's fragile-thin legs, bent under her as she smokes a cigarette on a hotel bed, in the next photograph. And there are the Romanovs (I have to consult the guide later to identify them) in a rowboat, seemingly quite adrift. And there is Gertrude Stein, at her desk, looking like she's in an Edward Hopper painting. In some instances there is no context even to be offered by the guide: anonymous children in an anonymous park, blurred as they leap over a wall; men, women, rooms without names.

Later that day we visit the International Center of Photography, but I am all photographed out. I spend an hour on a bench, taking advantage of the free wifi, checking emails on my phone, sending tweets to friends I want to meet up with while I’m here. My shoulder hurts from carrying the extra weight of my DSLR. I have hardly used it; the only photos I seem to take nowadays are with my ubiquitous iPhone. And maybe that’s the fairest way for me to photograph things now: using the device with which I communicate, consume and create, often simultaneously, seemingly constantly. The real camera feels artificial. The photographs I take with it do not reflect my experience, only what’s there on the other side of the lens; they reflect back to me what, as Malcolm writes, “the camera’s eye saw at the moment the shutter clicked,” but what the camera’s eye saw does not always have anything to do with what I saw, just as what is there to be seen does not always have anything to do with how it’s understood.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had in the summer with a friend of mine, a skilled amateur photographer who finds the proliferation of high dynamic range imaging applications for smartphone photography a little disconcerting.

“It’s practically defying the laws of physics,” he told me. “A camera shouldn’t really be able to do that.”

“Yes,” I said, myself an avid user of just such an app, “Maybe. But sometimes - often - that’s the only way for me to capture what it is I am seeing.”

4.

Back home in England, I assess the contents of my memory card and realize that I forgot to take any pictures of New York. I apologize to people who I might otherwise have bored with a protracted viewing of my holiday photos. I say I was distracted, I was busy seeing my family and my old school friends and telling cab drivers that I was sorry I couldn’t give them directions, but I don’t live in Brooklyn, either.

But this is not entirely true. I did take photographs. I did not take the sort of arty shots that a person like me, who dallies with but has never had enough patience or passion for photography, takes in order to feel that she understands or at least appreciates the form. But I took a blurred photograph at Coney Island of family friends, arms in the air, mouths open in joy or horror, coming down a ramp on the Cyclone roller coaster. I took a photograph of my mother in a green field, bending over her father's grave, holding a red umbrella against the grey sky. I tried to take a photograph of the deer running through military rows of little white cemetery crosses, but the deer moved too fast; they were not even blurry, they had simply left the shot by the time my finger had found the button. I took a photograph of a painting I liked at the Brooklyn Museum. I took a photograph of some fake-denim leggings (“Chic Style!") for sale in a CVS, some fishermen on a windy beach in Montauk, a neon sign outside a café where we had BLTs and mugs of sickly sweet coffee.

5.

One morning I come across Andrew Motion’s review of Magnum Contact Sheets in the Guardian. Motion quotes editor Kirsten Lubben:

“The contact sheet...embodies much of the appeal of photography itself: the sense of time unfolding, a durable trace of movement through space, an apparent authentication of photography’s claims to transparent representation of reality.”

I often feel that I have devolved as a photographer, since those first heady days when I wielded my mother’s discarded Minolta and spilled developer on my hands and learned that patience and luck were as integral to taking a picture as a good eye. Then I was eager to explore the science and logistics of the art; now I cheat, I download applications to manipulate images that are being taken on my phone - my phone! - and upload the finished products to the weak and weary acclaim of my Facebook friends and Instagram followers. I have not held a physical photograph for years; I see my own images exclusively on screens, expandable, rotatable, contextualized with my own text. And I don’t know what process professional photographers use to select their images now, but I do know Motion is right about contact sheets - the advent of the digital camera made them “instantly obsolete”.

But then again, maybe my current camera of choice has, in its way, actually improved my photography. My photos are not and never have been very good - not very beautiful, not very interesting, not very thought-provoking, not very well thought out. But now, taken and stored as they are - impulsively, on a multi-use device - they are nothing more or less than a perfect record of my time unfolding, a kind of never-ending, interactive contact sheet.

6.

Now it is winter, or nearly winter. Night falls at 4 pm; rain falls all day, sometimes. It is hard to find the desire, let alone an opportunity, to get out and take pictures. All my photographs of this place are repetitive anyway - always the same views, the Merton playing fields, the Radcliffe Camera (of course: the biggest, most beautiful camera of all), the telephone wires on my suburban street, over and over again. These days I don’t even need to leave the house. I realize I’ve been unwittingly working on a series of photographs for a few months now: shots from my desk, taken through the study window, of the cherry trees and the painted pink wooden chair in the garden, rotting and unstable after a year in the sun and rain.

I mean to juxtapose the photos, to observe the reddening and yellowing of the leaves, the falling of the leaves, the bareness of the branches, happening quickly, in these still shots - to speed up time, or clarify its passing, at least. But I don’t. I don’t need to, I guess, because I know that on my phone, interspersed with shots of the tarte tatin I made the other night and the bit of cornicing that fell from our living room ceiling earlier this month, is this linear, visual representation of the march of time, the change of seasons, the thickening of the weeds in the garden we don’t tend to enough.

This explains a lot

Part of the resistance against making decisions comes from our fear of giving up options. The word “decide” shares an etymological root with “homicide,” the Latin word “caedere,” meaning “to cut down” or “to kill,” and that loss looms especially large when decision fatigue sets in.

- From "Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue?" by John Tierney, New York Times Magazine, August 17th, 2011

(Belated) Sunday Rant: Banks

So, banks. We all use them, right? I guess some people don't. Some people probably don't trust banks, and keep their cash in neat little stacks under the mattress (doesn't that get uncomfortable?), but a lot of us use banks. They're a necessary evil. And I've never met someone who was enthusiastically supportive of their bank. No one has ever said to me, "Yes! I LOVE my bank! They make things easy for me and they give me cake and whisky when I've been especially good at managing my money!" No one has ever even said to me, "Oh yeah, my bank, they're pretty helpful, actually." People have often, however, indicated how terrible/horrible/painful/stressful the experience of using a bank is. They say things like, "Wow! It would be easier to saw my own left leg off with a butter knife than access my account online!" and, "Oh yeah! Last time I went into a bank, I waited seven weeks to talk to someone. It was really boring, but at least I finally got to see what I'd look like with a beard."

My life is quadruply stressful, because I have a bank in the USA and a bank in the UK. Do you know how many things can go wrong when you have TWO banks to deal with? Especially two banks that can't interact with each other, because there's a magic force field halfway across the Atlantic which prevents transatlantic transactions?

Here are just a few of my favorite bank-related memories:

- That time I wanted to wire some of my own money from my bank account in the USA to my bank account in the UK. My UK bank was like, "Sure! We can do that, no problem! Just fork over a 50% fee, wait four weeks, and you'll be on your way!" And my US bank was like, "Um, you want to send money WHERE? To ENGLAND? I think I've heard of it, didn't we beat them in a war once?" And then, after a lot of hemming and hawing and looking up of obscure codes, they were like, "Ohhhh yeahhhh, THAT place. No problem. Just fork over a 50% fee, wait another four weeks, and you'll be on your way!" Unfortunately there was no money left to send myself after I'd paid all the fees.

- That time I wanted to access my account online. In fact, every time I have ever wanted to access my account online. In order to do this, I need a pointless little keypad that I stick my card into to produce a code. Which means I obviously also need my card. But! That's not enough! I ALSO need a special (very lengthy) code that's written on a laminated piece of paper they once sent me in the post. These things allow me to successfully log in about 80% of the time. The remaining 20% of the time I get a little red error message that says, "Sorry! We're unable to log you in because WE'RE IDIOTS you recently used the back button on your browser." Yes, yes I did use the back button on my browser, once, in 2004. SORRY.

- That time my card got eaten up by the cash point outside my local Tesco. I asked an important-looking Tesco employee if he could help, but of course he couldn't help, because the cash points attached to his store are nothing to do with him. He pointed out that a lot of people had lost their cards in those machines lately. "Maybe you should ring your bank!" he said. So I rang my bank. At first all they could say was, "Um, I dunno, we can't really help you, have you talked to the store manager?" But finally they suggested I go into a branch the next day. As the next day was Sunday, I went in the following Monday, and was seen by a very friendly representative who could see that some unusual activity had been flagged up on my account, but who couldn't understand what that unusual activity was, because the person who had flagged it up hadn't put anything in the notes. Finally he looked through all my recent transactions and decided that it was probably because I had withdrawn some cash in Wales last weekend. He lifted the restriction on my account, and ordered me a new card, which arrived promptly three weeks later.

- That time my US bank cancelled my debit card. Luckily, I was in the US at the time, so I went into a branch and asked the lady at the counter, above which was hung a sign that said, "We're here to help!", if she could help me. "Oh no," she said. "I couldn't possibly help you. You'll have to call that number, see, on the back of your card? They can help you." So I called the number. I sat on hold for a day, maybe two, and presently I was put through to a chirpy woman who was able to identify the problem immediately. "You went abroad without telling us," she admonished. I felt like a child who has been caught doing something he knows he shouldn't do but can't help doing, like eating ice cream before dinner. "But I live abroad!" I said. "You know this. You regularly send mail to my address in the UK." "No," said the chirpy lady. "We have no record of any address abroad." "But you send mail to my address in the UK!" "No," said the chirpy lady. "We have an address in California."

So now, every time I move an inch, I feel like I should call both of my banks and assure them that IT'S OKAY! IT'S JUST ME! SHIFTING POSITION A LITTLE, BECAUSE MY FOOT HAS FALLEN ASLEEP!

But if I'm honest, some of my aggression towards banks - maybe most of it - can be accounted for by the fact that banks are all about money, and money stresses me out, even at the best of times. Banks stand there, on high streets and in strip malls, like living monuments to mortgages, loans, debt, wealth, capitalism, materialism, social (im)mobility, long work weeks, the American dream, the credit crunch. They represent what we have but also what we don't, what we can never, have. And they add unnecessary complication to an already complicated thing.

Maybe I'd be willing to live with a lumpy mattress after all.

Sunday Rant: Stop Ruining Good Things With Bad Gags

I just got back from a trip to New York. I'm one of those people who really enjoys the process of getting somewhere, particularly the bit where you're not allowed to use your phone, or the internet (I've used wifi on a plane once; the thrill lasted approximately a minute, after which point I was a) frustrated with how slow it was, and b) annoyed that I could now see that I had a bunch of work-related emails that I was definitely not going to answer, because I was ON A PLANE, but was nevertheless going to worry about for the remaining three hours of the flight). I'd probably like it if you still had to take ships across the Atlantic. Think about it: two weeks (I've made that timeframe up, I have no idea how long it takes to get a boat from England to the USA) of uninterrupted reading, writing and thinking time, all set against the dramatic backdrop of the sea! Anyway, the advantage of air travel (apart from, you know, the advantage of air travel) is that you get to watch films. As this is basically the only time I watch films, I have to cram a lot into a few hours, so I watched three on the way out. And I know I'm behind the times here, but Bridesmaids? Really?

If you haven't seen it, it's about a woman called Annie who gets picked as her best friend's maid of honor even though her life isn't perfect. I mean, other stuff happens, but I think that's the crux of it, and I had been led to believe that it was some sort of brilliant, funny, clever example of how women can be brilliant, funny and clever in films. In theory I'm not much of a feminist, but I'm willing to get behind something that portrays women as independently hilarious and witty, and who doesn't like to laugh?

So imagine my chagrin when, having reclined my seat back and asked for a glass of red wine to accompany my chicken and root vegetable mush, I discovered that I wasn't laughing.

At first I thought maybe it was me. I was being judgmental, I needed to loosen up, my brain was too focused on worrying about whether or not I'd locked the back door and turned the gas off. Then I thought it was probably just a bit slow; maybe they were just getting all the bad gags out of the way before building up to a mind-blowing climax. But somewhere during the seemingly interminable "two bridesmaids trying to one-up-each-other-with-not-very-amusing-speeches-at-an-engagement-party" scene I began to think that maybe I was forming what might be called an Opinion.

Here's what I see: this film is the female equivalent to something like The Hangover (by the way, I almost never read reviews or articles about films - which may make my writing about a film somewhat questionable - but I'm 99% sure that about a million more qualified people have already said that).

I don't mean female equivalent in the sense that it's taken the things that The Hangover does for men and adapted them for a female audience, I mean it's exactly the same, but with women as the principle characters. Which is fine! It's great, actually. I mean, I guess it's great. I guess it's great that it's now okay for there to be a scene in a film during which a bunch of women vomit on each other's heads and shit onto expensive dresses, or during which a woman gets wasted on a plane and the end result is not a questionable one night stand but a comedy tackle from an air marshall. So yay! Crass, heavy-handed physical comedy is now gender-neutral! But wait. It's still crass, heavy-handed physical comedy, even if women are doing it too.

In fairness, there were a few good things. I really like Kristen Wiig. I wanted to give her a hug and then hang out with her. And it was pretty weird to see Sookie from Gilmore Girls not being Sookie (wow, I think this is the most times I have made pop culture references in a blog post, or possibly my life, ever).

My absolute favorite moment in the film happens when Annie, exasperated and exhausted, is sitting at a bar with her cop (boy)friend, talking about how her best friend from childhood is getting married and seems to have all her shit together. "I feel like her life is going off and getting perfect and mine is just like phrrr.. [makes sound of things going bad]," she says.

I don't think I know anyone who hasn't had a thought like that. I know a lot of people, myself included, who have thoughts like that a lot. That's a good line. That's a good moment for a film to have.

But it was not really a laugh-out-loud-funny film, not most of the time. There was too much noise and too much padding around something that was strong enough to stand on its own. I'm inclined to like a film about a woman who doesn't really know how to make her life work in the way she wants it to. I don't need a scene where her housemate's Vicky Pollard-inspired sister (see! pop culture!) lifts up her tracksuit top to reveal that the huge tattoo she accidentally got last night is now infected to make me like it. I don't need a scene where a bride-to-be shits in the street under cover of a merengue-like wedding dress to make me like it. In fact, as you may have gathered, these things make me less inclined to like it.

I keep wondering what happened to subtlety. Why is subtlety not cool? Why can't we just make and enjoy a film that celebrates how funny it is that none of us have any clue how to be grownups, how funny it is that we don't all have cup-holders in our cars or a lot of money or a job we like or a sense of what's good for us? That stuff is funny, and it's funny because it's true, and because it's a little painful but less painful when we realize we're not alone, not because it resembles the cartoons we used to watch when we were kids.

10 Things I'm Worried About Right Now

Well, I didn't plan to wake up today and make some toast and put a load of laundry in the machine and then burst spontaneously into tears and have a meltdown about everything, but that's exactly what I did. Oops.

So I thought it would be fun to make a list of all the things I'm currently worried about and share it with you! And then I thought that if I did that it would take me so long to write everything down that by the time I'd got to the end of the list I'd have found new things to worry about, so in fact the list would be never-ending, and let's face it, you don't want to read a never-ending list of things I'm worried about, and I sure as hell don't want to have to write one.

So how about ten things I'm worried about right now? YAY! I bet you can't wait! In no particular order except the one in which they occur to me:

1. Michele Bachmann.

2. Have I become one of those bloggers who overuses capital letters? Should I go back through everything I've ever written and edit out the capital letters so I don't sound like just another one of those girls?

3. Do I have a "voice"? I went to a talk on "developing your voice as a writer" once. I don't really remember anything about it, but I do know that it's a thing lots of people say is important and I do know that sometimes, after I wake up feeling like the world is about to end, I write like I'm writing now, and sometimes, when I'm calmer and I've been reading a lot of Geoff Dyer, I write like this. Is there an overlap? Am I just inconsistent?

4. Seriously. Is Michele Bachmann for real?

5. How on earth am I ever going to earn enough money to buy the Man dozens of crisp white Brooks Brothers shirts that I can wear to lounge around the house in?

6. How on earth am I ever going to earn enough money period? I want to be able to buy a big house in the country and fill it with children and dogs and expensive shoes and artwork, or at least to not end up sleeping in the gutter wearing a plastic bag to shelter myself from the unrelenting autumn rain and living off Tesco Value white bread (that stuff isn't really even bread anyway, it's like chemicals in a squishy package).

7. What if writing was supposed to be my hobby, not my job?

8. What if I'm destined for obscurity? Not even miserable, spectacular, Jude Fawley-esque obscurity, but plain, simple, "I'm just existing in the margins of things" obscurity? Why does the prospect of that scare me, when fundamentally I value happiness over fame and glory?

9. Does my hair make my face look fat?

10. Should I worry that all of my worrying probably makes me more prone to disease?

BONUS #11: Was this an appropriately diverse list of things I'm worried about? Did I get the balance right? I don't want to bring everyone down by being too serious, but also I don't want people to think I'm not serious enough. Life is no laughing matter but also nothing but a laughing matter.

Dead rats I have known

Yay! I have a summer cold. This enviable situation is improved by the fact that a) we're having a heat wave, and b) there's a dead rat under the floorboards in the lounge. I'm only guessing that it's a rat. It could be something else. But I'm guessing it's a rat because it has that unmistakable dead-rat smell. The first time I smelled it was in my dad's grey Toyota 4x4. The car I learned to drive in (long before I was legally allowed to drive) - we'd take it down to the beach in the evenings and I'd practice releasing the clutch and rolling smoothly forward. And one day, summertime, we climbed inside to go to town to get groceries and there was this faint whiff of...something. We thought maybe we were imagining it, but a few days later it was more pronounced, and a few days after that it was almost impossible to set foot inside the truck without gagging, and eventually we figured out that a rat had climbed inside the engine and died (rats were always climbing around in the cars, but most of them had the dignity to die elsewhere) and we just had to wait the smell out. So we spent a few weeks driving with the windows down.

A few years ago one died under the floorboards in the hall. Impossible to extract without ripping up half the house. Halfway across the world, I felt weirdly nostalgic for my rural California childhood.

Now I keep thinking I should just use my cold as an excuse to enjoy curling up in bed and watching movies all day, but it's actually not that fun to be curled up under a duvet sipping hot drinks and lunching on hot soup when it's BOILING OUTSIDE (not something you often get to say here, to be fair, and my annoyance at being ill during a heat wave has just as much to do with the fact that I'd like to actually enjoy the summer weather as it does to do with physical discomfort). And, also, the coolest, most appropriate sick-room in the house, the lounge, has been appropriated by a decomposing rodent. Yay!