Thursday, 24 February 2011

VII. Edges, Interstices, and Inside New York

This will quite probably be the most difficult chapter I've had to write thus far. Because it is a reflection not only on past events, but on distant past events—events that happened over half a year ago. Events that fundamentally contribute to who I am now. So it might be quite intense, and quite personal. But the distance is why I am finally ready to discuss these things without the danger of exaggerating them beyond proportion. And the distance itself is of two types: temporal and spatial. Besides the time that has elapsed, I am now over 3,000 miles away, in a magical place that hasn't been any less magical than it was when I first stepped off the bus in October. Now I can properly assess what has happened, and what the consequences are.

To begin at the beginning, I need to backtrack to last January, or to be more accurate last November. I'm not sure exactly when, because there hadn't been a beginning. Not exactly. He had been there all along, and so had I, but we hadn't truly known each other until we did. It is difficult to explain, but that is how these things are. There had been an e-mail, though. A long one. And a beautiful response. We spoke the same language, and at the same time we were learning a new one together. I began to rediscover myself, to reinterpret myself, to redefine myself.

It was so pure. And it was romantic, the most romantic relationship I've ever had, by virtue of the fact that it was pure. I hadn't thought such a thing was possible: a more-than-friendship friendship that was intimate, but the complete opposite of friendship with benefits.

And it never really ended. But it did. But it didn't. That was what made it so painful. He wanted it to end, but I resisted, and then I wanted it to end, but he was already gone. And I need closure for things, definitive closure, in person closure. There was never the opportunity, though, because he didn't want to (or, perhaps, was unable to) confront me. He sent me elusive texts, postponing our meeting for a later date, until I finally woke up. I finally realised that the dream was over.

So I wrote him a letter. It had to be a letter—e-mail is too dangerous, texting is too casual and inordinately short, face-to-face conversation was impossible. I left it on my desk before leaving for the Met opera to see La Traviata (it was my first time, and to my surprise I actually quite enjoyed it). And he wrote back, a short notice. I hadn't expected him to, and when I saw what he had written I laughed. I actually would have preferred to receive no response. He said that things had indeed changed, that his perception of me had changed—for someone who was almost 20 I acted much younger. But that was precisely why I had written him a letter in the first place—because he had just turned 20 (exactly six days before my birthday), and didn't nearly live up to his age. Perhaps in the end we did speak the same language after all.

Words. I care so much—too much—about them. I remember them, over and over again. Physical actions I can easily forget, or excuse as merely circumstantial mistakes. Shit happens to all of us. But the words—they stay forever, especially if written down. That is why they are so dangerous. That is why they are the greatest risk. And that is why our relationship had been so pure—it was constructed entirely from words, from thoughts, from emotions.

I invested everything. I had so much feeling, more than I'd felt for a long, long time, and I gave it all away. I gave him my heart, in the fullest sense. And then he completely let me go; he just lost interest. Yes, there had been a reason, a terrible misunderstanding, and it had partly been my fault. But I thought we had fixed things, and that our connection was stronger than ever given the intensity of what had happened. He promised that we would have a semester of contentment. Ironically enough, it was—but just that. Contentment is infinitudes away from happiness.

Regardless, I knew from the beginning that it was just a dream. That it would end, as all dreams must (even for Descartes). And as I noted in my last chapter, there is something to be said for first impressions. I hadn't liked the way he looked at (through?) me one time; I cannot quite explain it. But I am a risk-taker, and a dreamer. I had to do it. How could I have known how great the risk would be? And even if I had known, how could I have helped it? I am a big believer in happenstance, in seizing the moment. And to this day he was the only person I ever truly fell in love with (or, rather, the only real and living person).

But no matter. I have recovered, finally. And I am a better—a newer—person for it; it felt almost like going through purgatory. But the greater purgatory was what happened to me over the summer. It was spectacularly ill-timed, or perhaps maliciously well-timed. I had already lost myself, in the fullest sense, and I had to give myself away again—but this time for a book, a collective miracle, rather than a person. Inside New York.

When you give yourself up to something so utterly that you become consumed by it, you die in a certain sense. I am not joking. I did die a certain death this summer: that of stagnation. It was living in New York, it was sitting in (for all intense and purposes) a basement from seven to ten hours a day, five days a week, eyes glued to my laptop screen, staring at jumbled up words that usually had to be completely reconstructed. I began to question everything about myself, all of my most fundamental convictions. I began to "undefine" myself, if you will. Case in point: I had always loved e-mails, and thought of it as my medium (the validation of which was Spectator Books, but that will be the subject of another chapter entirely). I grew sick of it; it took me an agonizing amount of time to type even the simplest message. Everything I said seemed stale, like a repetition, but without variation. I doubted myself; at times I even hated myself. I was so frustrated, and the rut didn't seem to be getting any shallower. I lost a tremendous amount of confidence at the exact moment when I should have had it, when I had the perfect opportunity to make the most use of it. Everyone on staff—the other editors and the writers and the photographers—were so friendly and willing to do whatever I asked of them and beyond. Columbia's Center for Career Education staff were very helpful as well—and provided free, essentially unlimited coffee and tea that tasted like candy, as well as occasional sugary delights—as were the Bartending Agency and Translation Agency managers (between which our office was sandwiched). It truly was an incandescent job, and I knew it was the job I was meant to have the summer before I left New York for an entire year. I needed to be fully immersed, to be Inside Inside New York, living and breathing and becoming it, before I could want to leave it.

But it didn't go at all according to plan: I didn't change, even after I had familiarised myself with the staff members and the general editing procedure. I was still stuck, utterly devoid of motivation to do anything. Outside of the office I could only think about looming deadlines and how far we were from meeting them (so in a sense I did truly live my job), and how I myself was slowing down the entire procedure by not submitting content on time or editing fast enough. On multiple occasions I would just lie down and not move, not think (or try not to). I couldn't even read—apart from my Oxford assignments, I only trudged through three novels the entire summer, and didn't absorb much of any of them. Every day felt the same, and it only grew worse as our deadlines drew closer and closer and I could no longer be in denial about the whole situation.

And I could not get away. My temporary escape was actually New Jersey, as I went home every weekend I could so that other people could take care of me. I even went on a Vermont retreat with Columbia's Bhakti Club, during which I picked blueberries the size of quarters, hiked up mountains, meditated both to silence and to music, and ate myself into an orgy. There was no cellphone reception in the cabin we stayed in, which was exactly the way I wanted it—I had to be cut off from all forms of communication. And these moments of escape worked, but they were only moments. I was gone, gone, hopelessly gone; I was drained, in the deepest sense. I kept blaming the insufferable heat (it shot up to above 100 degrees Fahrenheit in early July and our apartment had no AC), as well as the fact that I never really had a chance to "crash" after finals, but these were just excuses. The situation was only exacerbated by my denial, until I thought that I would never really resurface. At one point I did not think I was a writer anymore, or had ever been one. I could not even look forward to Oxford; I had an essay assigned for one of my tutorials and four entire months to do it, but I did not manage to even begin before my departure. It seemed as if the book would never end: I even worked when I was on my family vacation in Tennessee, staying up until odd hours in the morning, because we had not met our early August content deadline.

I know I am repeating myself, and that this probably does sound exaggerated beyond all meaning, but I swear it is true. There is no other way for me to convey the depth of how I felt. It was one of the most frightening periods of my entire life. And it had its physical toll too: I missed my period for almost four entire months (it came back literally the day I finished everything I could possibly do for the book). The week before I left for Oxford, I met up with one of my closest friends from secondary school, a friend who understands me more than I understand myself sometimes. We hadn't seen each other for months, and she almost didn't recognise me. "You look different," she said. "I can't quite explain why." But after a few moments she could: "You look older, somehow. Aged."

She was right. I had aged; I was tired and weary beyond belief. I couldn't really feel anything. I wasn't happy, and I wasn't sad either. I had had moments of this before, of course—who doesn't?—but never to this extent, and for this long. At many points I almost gave up.

Almost, yet not quite. Despite how unbearable it all was, I knew that it would end eventually, and that Oxford was a future reality. And it did. It just took forever and three quarters. It
finally ended, and the miracle is now a tangible product and it is beautiful, 515 full-colour pages with a spanking white cover. At first I wasn't quite convinced that it was right, but after seeing it on the physical book I know it is perfect, for three reasons: it a) is not at all overwhelming, b) really stands out on the shelf, and, most importantly of all, c) invites readers to make New York their own. A blank canvas, shall we say. Because the book truly is not complete—it is only the beginning, as Al and I declare in our introduction. Only the beginning, like so much else.

The miracle could not have been possible without the support of any one of the members of the INY 2011 team. Yes, there were multiple blunders and miscommunications and too many shitshows to count, but we managed to pull through somehow. We just kept going, instead of dwelling on how far behind our goals we were. I am eternally grateful to everyone for sticking
through, despite all this, despite me and my insanity. For believing in me, despite my complete and utter incompetence at times. For being so unbelievably talented and able to function under such extreme pressure: all of the editors worked extra hours beyond their contract, no matter where they were—be it Israel, India, Ireland, or a farm in Wisconsin (the alliteration is purely coincidental).

And, of course, there were the funny moments in the office. We had such a lovely group dynamic; I didn't want there to be any sort of a hierarchy (except logistical when it came to editorial procedure). We worked together, with each other, not for each other. Everyone told ridiculous stories. We shared food, mangoes in particular, and preserved their remains. We went on lunch excursions that were only supposed to last half an hour but ended up being at least twice that amount of time. We indulged in our complimentary dining and nightlife reviews. My most memorable was at GILT restaurant at the New York Palace Hotel, and involved a ten-course meal with seven courses of wine, virtually the most expensive dinner I have ever had. I was even able to take a picture with the Michelin-star chef, Justin Bogle, afterwards.

Me and Justin Bogle

I also saw several off-Broadway shows for free: The 39 Steps, which is based upon a Hitchcock film, and STOMP, which completely revolutionised my conception of music and dance. I actually saw the latter twice, the second time because one of the dancers is the husband of my Academic Advising Dean at Columbia; we met up after the show and I got an autographed poster from the entire crew.

Me and Alan Asuncion

So it was ultimately the people who helped me pull through. And it wasn't just Inside New Yorkers: I had the best flatmates in the world, who cooked for me, coddled me, inveigled me into playing ridiculous video games (i.e., Fuzion Frenzy), shared movies and books with me, and made me feel so much at home (practically like a baby)—even when I didn't have the mental energy to respond to their efforts. There was also the random hipster from LA I met on the subway after going to Bushwick for a warehouse concert; he was starting a history degree at Teachers College, and wouldn't let me say no to lunch the next day (and many more meals after that, as well as evening excursions, one of which was to see The Big Lebowski under the glittering nighttime expanse of the Brooklyn Bridge). He also gave me music, lots of good alternative songs, and insisted on accompanying me at 7am to meditation sessions at the Bhakti Club flat every week. Things never quite ended with him either, but this time it was completely my fault. [I might never see him again, but there is a chance—albeit an infinitesimal one—that he will read this entry. Anything can happen, after all.] And my friend Zach, who was living at Columbia over the summer to work in his lab (where he was trying to create a molecule, something utterly inconceivable to my limited brain), and hung out with me on a number of occasions—the most memorable of which was when we went to see a comedy show and I danced like a chicken on the stage and almost won first place, but deliberately didn't. Bhakti Club people, who widened my mind with discussions over good food and interesting film clips every Wednesday evening, as well as hosted the aforementioned meditation sessions and the Vermont excursion. My dear friend Sruthi, many thousands of miles away in India attending law school, who sent me e-mails every day and let me vent to her, over and over again, in seemingly endless despair. My other dear friend Yun, who made me a playlist that I listened to over and over and over, and who just generally believed in me, even when I couldn't believe in myself. And, of course, my family, who welcomed me home with open arms every time and didn't bother me about my work, allowing me to hide from everything, if only for two days.

These are the people who kept me alive, just barely. These are the people who kept me sane. And I cannot thank them enough; this chapter doesn't even begin to convey my gratitude. I am an incredibly lucky girl. Incredibly incredibly lucky, and I marvel at this every single day. Every single minute.

Was it worth it? Yes and no. The question is impossible to answer. Like Berlin on New Year's Eve, I would have changed many things, many many things, if I had an opportunity to go back. But I don't, so there's no use thinking about it. What matters is that I learned so many important lessons, lessons that will stay with me all my life. I might make the same mistakes again, but what matters is that I will try harder and harder to avoid them. I am more conscious than ever of myself and my limitations, as well as my aspirations and desires. And that is something. That is definitely something.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

VI. Meditations on Time and Miracles of the Bungy Jumping, Essay Writing, Scarborough Fair, and Rabbit Year Variety, With Dashes of YouTube Footage

Too much has happened since my last chapter, and I'm not quite sure where—or even how—to begin. My life has been insane, and that is putting it relatively lightly. It always has been, but these past several weeks (this entire term, in fact) have been more surreal than ever. What is also surreal is the fact that it is already fourth week—i.e., halfway through Hilary, as well as halfway through my entire Oxonian study abroad experience. Where has the time gone?

Time. Such a strange concept, because it is at once so abstract and so conventional. For me, however, it does not exist: at least not in the conventionalised sense. Yes, I am forced to use its vocabulary; we all are. But if you really think about it, it is just an excuse, and the most abused excuse of them all. If you tell someone that you "don't have time" to see them, what you are really saying is that you don't want to see them. But you have to obey the rules of polite society, so unless you want to come across as completely uncouth, you refrain from being so direct. Which is absolutely fine—even necessary, to a certain degree. It still bothers me, though.

Re: time as an abstract concept, I remember studying pre-Columbian societies of North America in an anthropology class I took at Columbia two years ago, and being fascinated by their formulation of it. Time, for Native Americans, is not a strictly chronological progression of past into present into future; the past is enmeshed within the present, and the present is enmeshed within the future. They view the past not as something detached from them, but as something perpetually with them. Viz., when an event happens is less important than what the event actually is. Which to me is fascinating, because I am a romantic, and one of the fundamental characteristics of Romanticism is an obsession with the past as something completely different and detached from the present. This difference is what gives it value; what invests it with a certain kind of new life.

But no matter. I am still living in the present more than ever before, and enjoying every millimoment of it. Things have settled into patterns, yes, but there are always disruptions—or should I say surprises. Biggest case in point: last Friday evening I met David Kirke, the man who invented bungy jumping. The situation was utterly bizarre—it was the reception after a short dance performance (Project Volume's Intonation) at Oxford's Modern Art museum (the museum itself is very small; there are only two rooms of exhibitions, but the café on the ground floor is lovely and not overly expensive for the quality of its fare). The reception was in the basement, and I sat down in the back because I had to leave early. He saw me and asked if I was American. I was surprised because I hadn't said anything, so he couldn't have judged from my accent. He explained that my clothes gave me away, which didn't really help because I thought that what I had on—lots of plaid, greys—looked very European. He then asked what college I went to in Oxford, and what I was studying. I told him. He also went to Oxford but to a different college (Corpus Christi), but he whipped out the book he was reading, Milan Kundera's The Joke, and tore off its last page, upon which he wrote down the name of a friend of his, Paul Torday, who is a famous novelist who went to Pembroke. He also gave me his own phone number and e-mail. Intrigued, I gave him my e-mail and the link to this "novel." He then promptly gave me the names of three other people to get in touch with, one of whom is the daughter of Harold Pinter's widow (apparently he knew Pinter and had also met Beckett at one point during his stint as an editor). At that moment I left. But since then we have exchanged many whimsically abstruse e-mails, upon which many of his friends have been cc'ed, and I will eventually get to meet these friends in real life. It's quite exciting, but also a little daunting; they are all terribly accomplished people. I do enjoy meeting people, though. Each new person I meet is like a mystery to be unravelled, a story in him or herself. And it goes without saying that I love mysteries and stories.

[Oh, and this was his explanation: "One of my detours in life is to know that when a lady has beautiful or beautifully ordered handwriting she will be what she says she is and expect the same from you yourself." I always knew that there was something to be said for chirography. And for first impressions. More than something to be said, in fact. Presentation deserves more credit than it gets these days.]

I have met him again, twice—he came to Evensong in Pembroke Chapel on Sunday, and on Monday afternoon I joined him at the Madding Crowd, a delightful off-the-beaten-path pub in Oxford. He bought me tea and we asked each other questions, after playing a very interesting game that reveals your personality through animals. He gave me a book to read about the "Life and Inebriated Times" of four famous British actors: Hellraisers by Robert Sellers. I'll bring it with me to Scotland this weekend (10-hour bus rides cannot be spent sleeping and thumb-twiddling, although I rarely ever indulge in either of those activities).

So Oxford has taught me that anything is possible. Literally. Second case in point: I've learned in the past several weeks that work and play are not at all antithetical. Rather, they are in the greatest feedback loop of all. You cannot have one without the other, and it's always best to "err" more towards the latter, especially when one is writing about Modern Drama (Synge, Beckett, Pinter, Stoppard, et al). Proof: I went to Kukui (the sleaziest club in Oxford but also the most prototypical) on a Tuesday several weeks ago, got back at 2am, twiddled on Facebook for half an hour (merely necessary procedure), but managed to finish a 3500-word essay that was supposed to be 2500 words in five hours, with the help of an impromptu Numa Numa dance party at 8am. And it most certainly was not bullshit. I had cancelled tutorial for this very essay the previous week (at 1am the day it was due, not the greatest move), because I knew that if I had tried to write it then it would have been bullshit, and I do not ever bullshit an English paper. It would be tantamount to killing my soul, and I am not exaggerating.

[A quick but related interlude: last week I finished a 3,300-word essay in a little less than three hours, submitting it five minutes before it was due. I had to deliver a hard copy to the porter's lodge, where I was accosted by a Middle Eastern gentleman and his British friend. The Middle Eastern gentleman asked me if he could take a picture of me with the essay. Then he had the British gentleman take a picture of both of us, with the essay. Utterly bizarre... but story of my life.]

The post-Kukui essay was on John Millington Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, one of the masterpieces of 20th-century modern drama. It espouses pretty much everything that I have always believed about identity, and the tenuous line between fact and fiction. Essentially, identity is a collaborative construct. You are not the only one in charge of "who you are": other people have expectations of who you are, and vice versa, and you can only fulfil these expectations to a certain extent. But you become them to another extent—it is the antithesis of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Public performances can lead to the truth, and this is exactly what happens to Christy Mahon. I am not a fan of summarising great works of literature, however, so I'll leave it at that.

The unfortunate conclusion of all this is that while I thought Oxford would improve my habit of writing essays on time, it seems to have exacerbated the situation. I am having loads of fun, though—despite the extreme last-minuteness I am hardly ever stressed when writing essays anymore. That is not to say that they come effortlessly. Not at all. I have struggled, and quite painfully too, but that is what all writers have to go through, no matter how many successful works they have already produced (in fact, the more successful the work the greater the expectations and agony will be). Pain is a necessary component of creation, of saying something new, something different, something meaningful: in a sense, it creates and gives value to meaning.

But as I have learned the difficult and painful way, it can only go so far. There are limits to everything. "It" being the fact that there are only so many good essays you can bang out in three hours on the day they are due (submitting them just on time, or several hours late), and the probability of this happening is directly proportional with your familiarity and fondness with the text. So my method worked for Beckett and Synge because I believed in them so much, but I mistakenly thought it would also work for Tennyson even though I did not identify with him as much—especially not The Princess, which was ironically more absurdist to me than Waiting for Godot or Pinter's The Birthday Party. I wonder what that reveals about my personality...

Enough about academics, at least for now. Several more miracles have occurred since I last wrote, and I will explain them in a pseudo-organised manner because I cannot ever resist the opportunity to indulge in a) Roman numerals and b) lists:

I. I went to Scarborough Fair on Tuesday, January 25th, with my dear friends Jennie, Maggie, and Fitz. Jennie and Maggie and I sang it at the Pembroke Master's Recital (a twice-termly event held in his beautiful lodgings), accompanied by Fitz on the guitar. I first sung it in eighth grade chorus, and I had kept my teacher's beautiful arrangement ever since, because I hoped that I would have another opportunity to go back. And I have, with three incredibly talented people. It wasn't pitch-perfect, but we still did it, and it was incandescently magical.

II. Inside New York 2011—the long-delayed product of my endless and excruciating summer—finally arrived in my pigeon hole on Saturday, after I had practically given up on ever seeing it. It is beautiful, and the cover is perfect. It (and the many people involved in its creation) will be the sole subject of a future chapter for sure. It does not deserve any less.

III. I had the most unconventional Chinese New Year celebration last week. It involved buying a corset, making big bows out of bin liners, and dressing four British gentlemen up in raw bacon. Come to think of it, all of my holiday celebrations this year have been unconventional, to say the least (Thanksgiving, Christmas, the Western New Year). But this was by far the wildest of them all.

The corset, bows, and raw bacon were integral parts of costumes for the Lady Gaga bop that my college had inappropriately scheduled for that evening. I originally wasn't going to go; I thought it was an outrage. But the side of me that is crazy and likes to have fun triumphed, as it so often tends to. And my darling friend Isabelle (who I call Alice from Wonderland because she resembles her so much in appearance and personality) persuaded me. She is such a delightful girl: every day for her is a costume day, although I suppose her norm would be the inverse of the conventional norm. She also has a lovely ring between her nostrils (something I would never ever dare to do), evidence of which is on her blog.

All Lady Gaga-ed Up

Needless to say, we made quite an entrance into the Pembroke Chapel and formal hall afterwards. Thank goodness our dear Chaplain, Andrew Teal, is (dare I say) over-the-borderline sacrilegious, and quite proud of it. Another person who loves to have fun.

And we will have a repeat of this, relatively soon. We're going to London the last weekend of term for a shopping and art gallery extravaganza and dressing up as swans. Black and white feathers, roses, more glitter, et al. will be involved. Already very excited.

Here is video footage of the meat costume and a brief episode involving cider and a funnel, which ironically never ended up making it into the club.

IV. To merge my novel with one of Woolf's, I have met Septimus. I am Clarissa, and I always have been. They never met in Mrs. Dalloway but we have. We have met, we have transformed fiction into fact, and we are rewriting the novel as we live it. [We will, in fact, host a party on May 14, the publication of the novel, for which I am buying flowers.] I am not quite sure what will happen; it is one of the strangest friendships I've ever had. But he, like David Kirke, speaks my language. We were all at the wedding of Irony and Circumstance: I was a bridesmaid, he was the illicit love child, and David was best man, the shadow hiding in a corner of the church. Quite perfect.

So as I have already indicated several times in this post, I have finally developed my YouTube presence. I made a channel several months ago just for the sake of having one, but didn't think about actually making use of it until now. But make use of it I have, and make use of it I will. I've already posted some rather humorous video clips from family vacations, as well as several of my passably mediocre piano performances. I'll be making more recordings in the future too: of not just Oxonian shenanigans, but also of myself reading aloud (which works perfectly for what I am studying this term). Thinking aloud too, perhaps. It's quite amusing. And it'll expand this novel into a new dimension, a dimension that is only possible through the medium of the Internet. Quite thrilling.

I end with this, an excerpt from John Stuart Mill's essay "What is Poetry?", that resounds with a point I made in my last chapter:
Eloquence, as well as poetry, is impassioned truth; eloquence, as well as poetry, is thoughts coloured by the feelings. Yet common apprehension and philosophic criticism alike recognize a distinction between the two: there is much that every one would call eloquence, which no one would think of classing as poetry. A question will sometimes arise, whether some particular author is a poet; and those who maintain the negative commonly allow, that though not a poet, he is a highly eloquent writer.

The distinction between poetry and eloquence appears to us to be equally fundamental with the distinction between poetry and narrative, or between poetry and description ... Poetry and eloquence are both alike the expression or uttering forth of feeling. But if we may be excused the seeming affectation of the antithesis, we should say that eloquence is heard, poetry is overheard. Eloquence supposes an audience; the peculiarity of poetry appears to us to lie in the poet's utter unconsciousness of a listener. Poetry is feeling confessing itself to itself, in moments of solitude, and bodying itself forth in symbols which are the nearest possible representations of the feeling in the exact shape in which it exists in the poet's mind. Eloquence is feeling presenting itself forth to other minds, courting their sympathy, or endeavouring to influence their belief, or move them to passion or to action.
So in Mill's terms, I am an eloquent writer—or, rather, I strive to be one. Eloquence. I like the sound of that. I very much like the sound of that.