"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A sunny day in Oxford and reflections of the country and the city

 Hello again. It is now my 5th day in the UK, and today I come to you bearing pictures. The weather since I arrived has been absolutely glorious (although too hot if you go out past noon), but knowing it won't last, I decided to take my camera out with me today and capture the sunshine. 

I spent most of the morning at Christ Church Meadows, which is a beautiful expanse of lawns and meadows threaded through by the rivers Charwell and Isis (Charwell is pronounced Cherwell, unless it's actually called Cherwell and pronounced Charwell....I can't remember). I've gone walking there several mornings this week, and it's certainly one of my favorite bits of Oxford so far. There aren't too many people, especially if you go early. The tourists are all too busy lining up to take a tour of Christ Church college, so that leaves you with a few joggers, absorbed in their own exercise, the one homeless guy who stands at the same point of the river bank every morning with his radio and bids you a very polite "Good morning, miss," and a handful of fellow contemplators of nature. Oh, and the cows and the ducks. I ran across this little family sunning themselves on the bank this morning.

Most of the ducks are either adults or gangly adolescents at this stage, but these ones are still quite cute, I think.

Once you get down to the Isis, the larger river, there are swans, too.

This is how I spent my morning, then:

A book and a pastry by a beautiful river - I couldn't ask for more. I took refuge from the sun on a shady bench and read for an hour or so, until I got the urge to start walking again.

The more I travel, the more I think I'm a strange kind of country girl. I love so dearly some of the trappings of the city - theater and opera, nice clothes, gourmet food, good public transportation, beautiful architecture - and I'm very much a fan of creature comforts like running water and a comfy bed. I hate bugs and creepy-crawlies, and if I'm out in the sun too long my skin burns and my feet swell.

And yet, the contrast in my feelings between the moment I was hustling along the busy street on my way to Christ Church this morning and the moment I stepped off that street, through the college gates, and onto the path leading into the meadow was very strong and in favor of the meadow, not the street. There's a whole other side of the city that I dislike - the throngs of people, the constant humming and rumbling noises and the sharp sounds of cars backfiring or people yelling that always startle me out of my skin, the fumes and stinks, the never-ending barrage of obstacles, from street crossings to people begging you for money. The city, to me, is like an endless series of difficult choices: where should I step? With whom should I make eye-contact? On which side of the street should I walk? At which café should I buy my lunch? What should I buy for lunch? Is this a good neighborhood to be walking in? Is that car going to stop for me or not?

What I prefer is to be walking along a single dirt path, preferably even along a natural path, like the bank of a river, with my picnic already packed and only one book in my bag to read, with no need to talk to any one I meet unless I feel like bidding them good morning, and no buildings or traffic hemming me in and forcing me into somebody else's path. My mind roams so much more freely when my feet walk freely.

I'm not saying the country is a place of perfect peace. Actually, I found it harder to sit and read my book on my little shady bench today than I did a few days ago in the café at Blackwell's bookstore. There were little flies and bugs to be flicked off my arm or my foot and pigeons taking off suddenly, making the branches rattle overhead, and even the occasional walker going by. But the bugs were small and not very gross, the pigeons were pretty to see flying, and the walkers went calmly on their way without either of us disturbing the other.

The thing is that more and more, it seems, the things I like about the city - the food, the arts - are moving out to the country. In the UK, there's a whole slew of 'gastro-pubs,' where they serve haute cuisine in tiny little country towns. And traveling theater companies sometimes land in the darnedest of places. And the fact is that I don't take advantage of half the cultural offerings a given city has to offer, because more often than not the energy it would take to go out and take the harrowing journey to get where I'm going, outweighs the pleasure of the event itself.

When I was in Paris, I spent entire days cooped up in my tiny room because the thought of striking out on the streets was far too tiring. But of course I don't want to spend my life staying in. More and more, recently, I've been feeling a little stifled indoors. Maybe the last few years of small dorm rooms are finally catching up to me. Or maybe this summer, during which I got to visit Yosemite and camp along the north coast and hike in the local hills a fair amount, has rekindled an outdoorsy feeling in me.

I think what I'd really like is to have a grand country house with plenty of space indoors and outdoors and a driver to take me to the station when I wanted to go into town and enough room to host friends and invite musicians and writers and other interesting people to stay and a stage on the grounds where traveling theater companies could put on plays and a beautiful kitchen where I could cook up my own delicious dinners and a great big workshop space to accomplish all the creative projects that my daily walks around the countryside would inspire.

Alas, it's not that simple, is it?

Part of my admiration of nature today included this tree, which is in the part of the Christ Church gardens that's off limits to visitors, but which you can see through a little side gate. I'm not sure I've managed to convey it in this photo, but it's the most magnificent tree. It grows up as tall as the main building, which is pretty tall and impressive itself, and I wish I could have gone and stood under it to look up at its branches from below - I think it would have been beautiful.

I also noted this tree, which peeks over the wall of some college I don't know the name of, right near the Radcliffe Camera. I took a picture of it when I was last in Oxford, two years ago, which is below.

As you can see, it was a little less bright and sunny that day. I was there in October, so that's understandable. But I just love the gold-green tint of its leaves and the way it reaches up over the roof. Either it's planted on a raised terrace, or it's very very tall.

So, this has been quite a rambling post.

I did promise yesterday a bit about the play I saw last night, which was the Globe's touring production of Hamlet. To be brief, it was an excellent production, very clean and clear and engrossing. The group was small, and most actors played a few parts and did so very well. The Hamlet was actually a foreigner, possibly a true Dane, which added to his seeming an outsider and a loner. All the actors either played instruments or sang, and the show began and ended with rousing, period music which gave it all a very old-theater, carnavalesque feeling that I liked a lot. The play within a play was particularly well done, with some clever curtain movements and a really fantastic rendition of the prologue/dumb show. Here's a quick picture of the stage that I snapped today on my way past - can't see it very well, but my camera battery was dying and that's the best I could do.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


This is not a post about my first impressions of the UK because I've been here before. But even when one has traveled a lot, and to the same place, it's funny how disorienting it is to get on a plane, sit in the dark for 10 hours trying to sleep, and then step out onto a different piece of land. And it's funny how the little things get me every time - the license plates being yellow and oblong, the change of currency, and even, yes, the accents. I had to look down to hide my giggles as I walked through the airport, hearing people pattering on in odd accents as if it were entirely normal, which of course it is, just not to me.

So now I'm here, that is, in Oxford (I'm not going to school here, btw, just visiting). Miraculously, I seem to have brought the weather with me from California, and every morning so far my tired, jet-lagged eyes have opened to a very bright sun shining through the window. I keep forgetting to bring my camera when I go out, so unfortunately I don't have any pictures yet to share with you all, but you can imagine me strolling beside a calm river or threading through throngs of tourists or glancing frantically right and left and left and right every time I cross a street.

I've spent most of my time so far walking around and browsing through bookstores, and I've been noticing for the first time the differences between UK and US covers of the same books. I suppose it's because I've been paying more attention to current publications recently, so I can really see the difference between two editions that have been published simultaneously, instead of just chalking up the disparity to reprints over time. I think that designing book covers must be a fascinating job, because you get to essentially present your visual interpretation of the book, like a stage director, and see other people's as well. I suppose it appeals to me in the same way costume design appeals to me. But I wonder if you have to have a strong background in art or graphic design to get into that field.

But anyhow, so far I've resisted any book purchases because I'm sunk deep into Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, which I strongly recommend to anyone who likes historical fiction and anyone who doesn't. It's the story of Henry VIII's wife debacle told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, an unlikely hero but an entirely captivating one. I'm only about a third of the way through, but I have no doubts it will continue to be excellent, especially since the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies is getting lots of praise as well. In this case, I have the American cover, which I like better - it's got little historical portraits peeking out from the 'o' of 'Wolf' and the 'a' of 'Hall', all set against a brilliant crimson background.

Tonight I'm seeing the Globe theater's production of Hamlet in the courtyard of the Bodleian library. Hopefully, I'll have time to write a bit about it tomorrow, before I head to Germany for the weekend.

Friday, July 13, 2012

10 Things I Like About This Trip

Here I am with another list. Since I've been feeling kind of nervous about my upcoming trip, I thought I'd make a little list of things I'm looking forward to.

1. Great theater. I just read today about a new season of plays being put on by the Michael Grandage Company in London, which include a Martin McDonagh play ("Cripple of Inishmaan") starring Daniel Radcliffe and a new play about Alice Liddell Hargreaves and Peter Llewelyn Davies starring Judi Dench and Ben Wishaw, about which my feelings can be summed up by alksjdfldkjfpsodiflk, more or less. In addition to that, I've already got tickets to see some amazing shows in Oxford, London, and Edinburgh.

2. Fish & chips. I like them a lot.

3. Taking pictures. It's been a while since I really played around with a camera, but I'm sure I'll have mine out a lot over the next few months.

4. Living out of a suitcase. This may sound a bit odd, but I'm actually looking forward to it because I've spent the summer surrounded by my collected stuff, as I said in my last post, and I'm very ready to live a lean life now. I keep paring down my packing list, trying to pack very light, or as light as I can for a year-long trip.

5. Reading. I've done a fair bit of reading this summer, given my usual (very slow) rate, but in the last few weeks I've fallen off a bit. I've also realized how much fun it is to read in a group, and so I'm very much looking forward to being in literature classes again.

6. Making new friends. Don't get me wrong, I do love my old friends, very dearly indeed. But there's a particular joy in making new friends, no matter who they are. I believe it's Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park (correct me if I'm wrong) who bemoans the particular pain of parting with new acquaintances because there is still so much to know about them and learn from them. I find there's a particular pleasure that's the flip side of that pain. And what better way to find that than to move somewhere I've never been and where I know no one!

7. Having lots to write about on this blog. I do love blogging, but sometimes it feels like I'm scrambling for interesting thoughts. In that vein, I also find my creative mind is very fertile while traveling, so I'm looking forward to indulging that part of myself and taking some time to write.

8. Traveling to Germany for the first time. After studying German language and literature for five years, I'm very excited to actually go there and try out my chops. To add to the fun, I'm going there to attend a wedding, which will be the second wedding I've ever been to, and the first where I wasn't employed in some capacity. I also know no one else who will be attending except my sister, who I'm going with (I've never met the bride or the groom :)), so I have no expectations except good ones.

9. Wearing my winter clothes again. San Francisco summer notwithstanding, I've been living in shorts for a while now, and while I'll miss it very much indeed, I'm also looking forward to pulling on my beautiful winter coat again.

10. Getting to the other side of the scary moment of transition and sinking into the fun and wonder of the actual trip.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Pre-departure thoughts

Oops. I was doing really well there for a while, blogging a couple of days in a row. Then I got busy. Sorry about that.

I leave for England in 8 days. How is that possible? Half of my desk is covered with things-I'm-bringing-to-England. I've made a preliminary packing list. It's kind of starting to feel a little bit real. But only a little, because even up until the moment I step onto the plane, it will still be unreal to me that I'll be thousands of miles away in another country, on another continent, starting the new phase of my life, which I've been planning for SO long.

It's odd, though, how as I begin this year, I'm already thinking of next year. I spent the last month-and-a-half sorting through all my belongings, from childhood toys to college notebooks, and in addition to making me feel hopelessly materialist and sentimental, that process also gave me a very strong desire to start establishing a space where I can live with all my objects, where I can hang the pictures I never hung up or admire the books that are currently packed carefully into cardboard boxes.

So I thought I'd do a little 5-year plan here, before I set off, a list of things I want to achieve in the next few years. In no particular order, I'd like to:

Move into a house with friends.

Own a cat.

Earn a master's degree.

Start earning my keep.

Get something published (could be a story, a few articles, a book).

Write something (could be a novel, a series of short stories....This should probably come before getting something published).

Travel to New Zealand and/or Scandinavia

Start playing around with my video camera again.

Start playing music again.

Become a more accomplished seamstress and sew more of my own clothes.

Become more fit.

I guess that's it for now. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is literally all I know about what I want to do after this year. Who needs plans, anyway?

Right now, I'm focusing on this year, about which I'm both very excited and pretty nervous. I'm starting to get intermittent bouts of butterflies in my stomach. I'm an odd combination of ambitious and not adventurous. I'm both curious and timid. Which is why I'm going to England, not, say, India.

So even though I have a very strong nesting instinct, which is making me dream of a nice big house with a nice big kitchen and a library and a workshop...I'm going to indulge my wanderlust a little before I give into my nestlust.

My next post may be coming to you from England. Maybe I'll even start posting some pictures of my travels here. Who knows? I'm practicing exploring and not knowing.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Review: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

I actually saw this film over a week ago, on opening day, which is unusual for me. It was quite fun, actually, because no one in the theater seemed to know what to expect. And when you're seeing a movie with the words "End of the World" in the title, you can feel a little apprehensive about how the movie's going to turn out.

It turned out that this unassuming little comedy was both funnier and more tragic than I anticipated, that the two leads delivered better and different performances than one might have expected, and that the story and the imagery have stayed with me all week, enough to make me want to write up my thoughts on it even though it's a bit late.

The story is very simple: an asteroid is headed toward earth, nothing we humans can do, and so the world, that is to say earth, will be over in approximately three weeks. What makes it clear from the first 2 minutes of the movie that this is not your average movie about the end of the world are three things.

First, we are told that the asteroid is "commonly known as Mathilda." Despite it's extreme premise, this movie is utterly grounded in reality. Of course we would name the asteroid. We are forever giving natural disasters female given names, in some attempt to domesticate them or make them seem more like wrathful goddesses and not random events, maybe. The asteroid that will signal our final end is no exception.

Second, the terrible news is delivered in the same breath as the movie's first joke, which you've already seen if you've seen the preview, but which I won't spoil here just in case. Suffice it to say that we do not hear the news from a serious American newscaster or from a clipped BBC voice; we hear it from a classic rock radio station host. This is a movie about a world without hierarchies, where authority and order lose all meaning. It's a slightly anarchic film, both in subject and treatment. So it's perfectly appropriate for a radio host to take over the duties of a newscaster and twist them out of all recognition.

Finally, again within the first couple of minutes, we see our hero, Dodge react to the radio announcement with just about exactly no emotion. His wife's reaction is fairly explosive: she makes a run for it into the night. But in response to both these slightly big events in his life - he's going to die soon and his wife has just left him - Dodge just kind of carries on numbly. He goes to work. He goes to the gym. He talks to the cleaning lady, who is also carrying on, although with a little more good humor.

The movie's real brilliance is to show the way that individuals react to a crisis. And, surprise, surprise, they don't all react the same way. Much of the film takes place on the road, as Dodge and his neighbor, Penny, drive around in search of their various last-minute desires. Their story is wonderful and their growth as characters fascinating, but there is also another story going on in the background of every shot. Through the windows of the car, we see the world reacting to its end in the most diverse way imaginable, with despair, elation, determination, and sometimes even, incredibly, unfailing hope. I imagine that the prep for this movie involved the filmmakers asking every one they knew what they would do, given three weeks until the end of the world, and then collating all those answers into the background of this movie.

In most movies about the end of the world, whether it's by alien attack or lethal virus or something else, people tend to react to extreme circumstances with extreme emotions, usually limited to a set of two or three extremes - violence, heroism, or terror. But in this movie, some people react with perfect mundanity. They mow the lawn. They go to the beach. They get married. They have a dinner party. They try to figure out, in a bumbling way, how to best spend the rest of their lives. They try to distill their priorities and values down to one thing that they can accomplish in just three weeks, and of course their efforts go awry, and they realize (some of them at least) that this is an impossible task. So they just keep living until they, and everybody else, die.

Basically, this is a movie that takes a universal human preoccupation - we all have a limited time on earth, how best to spend it? - and ekes out its essence and delivers it in a very small, modest package. The story of the end of the world turns out not to be any different from the story of one person dying prematurely from disease or some other misfortune. What's great about this movie is that it hits just the right tone in dealing with this tragedy, which is both large-scale and small-scale, both communal and individual at the same time.

Don't be fooled by my philosophizing, though. This is not remotely a philosophical movie. It's a comedy, after all. You might have noticed that all of the stills I found feature just two people: Dodge and Penny (and occasionally their dog). For most of the movie, it's just them, and their relationship is wonderfully and hilariously portrayed. The only other movie in which I've seen Steven Carell is Little Miss Sunshine, but as Dodge I think he has a lot more nuance. His melancholy is very complex, it comes and goes, it has multiple sources, and it feels very real.

And it is perfectly balanced by his co-star, Keira Knightly, who as Penny is equally complex, but more on the manic side of the spectrum. One review called her a "blithe spirit," which is about right, except that she turns out to be not so blithe, to have problems and questions of her own. It's very refreshing to see Knightly playing a modern young woman instead of a grand historical dame, especially after her unfortunate turn in A Dangerous Method. Her performance as Penny reminded me of the good old days when she was an unknown actress playing a girl who just liked playing soccer in Bend It Like Beckham. When she comes on-screen, you don't think, oh, there's Keira Knightly. You think, oh, there's a character. She doesn't even have a grand entrance - when she first appears, it's in the background of a shot, and you might not even notice her.

Her character also lends the movie another great charm, which is its soundtrack. Penny is a lover and connoisseur of records, and the movie is filled with extended sequences in which we get to hear classic songs at full length and without interference. The movie opens with the meaninglessness of music, as the radio show host announces both a disaster and the next song in the same breath. But it ends with the great meaningfulness of music, as a record plays and evokes for us an entire relationship, and entire person, and both a deep sadness and a comfort about what the end of the world actually looks like and sounds like.

Despite it's long title, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a perfect little package. Its humor is witty and understated, and its humanity is palpable. Its mood falls in some incredible nether zone between heart-warming and heart-breaking. When I walked into the theater to see this movie, the guy who tore my ticket stub was wearing a promo t-shirt with a picture of the asteroid and the words "Nice knowing you." When I first saw it, I experienced only the requisite interior chuckle and moved on toward my seat. But at the end of the movie, one of the characters says almost exactly those same words, and their meaning was utterly different. If only to discover how much those three words can mean, please go see this movie.