28 September, 2006

sensory overload

Life has taken on a frenetic pace lately and I have been simply too overwhelmed to post! Not that I'm complaining. But honestly, since last Thursday when I was waxing lyrical about duck, it's been all I could do to remember what to pack in Avery's various bags for her various activities, and get her to them, and to mine in between, much less keeping a record of what we've been up to. But I'm going to give it a try, because so much interesting stuff has been happening.

My screenwriting class was a revelation. It's hard to believe I've got the second class today and can I just confess right now that I have not seen a movie in the meantime? At least, I don't think collapsing in front of a Lord Peter Wimsey BBC production that I've seen at least five times counts as "seeing a movie." Or "film," I should say, as the incredibly enthusiastic people in my class would do. The first thing, practically, that the instructor said was, "There are some stupid people in this world who think they can write screenplays without going to see films. That's about as dumb as saying you can write a novel without reading novels. They say they don't want to be influenced by someone else's style, but that's rubbish. They're just lazy." Meekly I held up my hand and said, "I'm afraid I'm one of those stupid people." Films are mostly too scary for me, or too violent, honestly. Whatever I see on screen stays in my head forever, and most of what's out there, I don't want in my head. So war movies are out, gangster movies, most spy movies, certainly psychological thrillers. Forget all the Armageddon/apocalypse scenarios. I already think that way! So the films I can see are few and far between. At least I had seen "Match Point," but not in the theatre, of course, just on DVD. The last movie I saw in a theatre? Dopey "Scoop," the Woody Allen Scarlett Johanssen vehicle this summer. Anyway, it was very much an introductory afternoon, where Mike Harris, the tutor, told us we'd be writing a ten-minute short film script and an outline for a full-length feature. Oh really? I got paired up for a character -development skit with a Lebanese girl called Dalia, and we had good fun, so we're going to pair up again today. I have got to start seeing some movies, even though my taste is so plebeian. I remember when we left the theatre after seeing Avery's beloved "Ice Princess," John complained, "It was a little formulaic." "John, it was a Disney movie with the word 'princess' in the title. I think formulaic is the least of our worries."

I raced against the clock to meet Avery and her babysitter at the stable, and watched Avery jump the tallest jump she's ever done, two feet high. Alexa, her trainer, has I think accepted her now, which feels good. "Get your American bottom back in the saddle, Avery, what do you think would happen if she decided to bump you off?" She was riding an enormous horse, not even a pony, and insisted that she was very sweet. I could just see LARGE.

That evening John and Avery stayed home while I went to a dinner party hosted by the head of the "UK Friends of the National Museum of Women in the Arts." At least, that is what I was meant to do, but for awhile it was touch and go. No taxis to be found, so at last in desperation I jumped into a pedicab, one of those bicycle-driven buggies run by the Russian mafia. What was I to do? After a perilous journey between ginormous red buses, the skinny little kid driver let me off at an address that must, to him, have sounded close enough to the one I wanted, but was in fact at completely the other end of town. "Is the same thing, this road," he insisted. Wearily I said, "Is not the same thing" and hailed a real taxi, whereupon we got caught up in the aftermath of a water-main break in the Bayswater Road, and I was very late to the dinner. It was the sort of party where you play musical chairs between courses so as to talk to as many people as possible. At first I sat next to a property developer who told me all about his extra-curricular project, writing "The History of Culture." Yep, THE History of Culture. I would imagine it'll take him awhile. Then I was next to the world's greatest expert on Van Gogh. I'm sorry to say that after a cursory discussion of the Kandinsky show (she didn't like it either so I felt vindicated in my lack of enthusiasm) we fell to talking about senior girls' schools in London, since she has a girl older than Avery. Then I sat across from a really cool guy, married to a painter I know slightly, and he was talking about his childhood in Burma, where he met an expatriate Italian fellow making fresh mozzarella in the Burmese countryside. Also how he nearly died from eating malaria-infected strawberry ice cream. Another one of the long list of things that has never happened to me, as my father would say. All in all a lovely evening.

Friday afternoon saw me in the pouring rain collecting all Becky's girls from school, along with Avery, to go ice skating and spend the night so Becky and Mark could get away for the weekend. It was quite something to pile all four girls plus me into a taxi, with four backpacks, PE kits, skate bags, skating outfits, etc. Of course we had to skirt the same water main break as the night before, but eventually we got to the rink and the girls spent several blissful hours going around and around, helping Ellie who had never skated before. Avery had an impromptu lesson with a slight blonde girl called Nicola and had the time of her life, so we'll make it a Friday tradition. Home in a completely circuitous route along Knightsbridge Road, listening to the taxi driver drone on and on about Mini Coopers, since I had made the fatal mistake of telling him we were planning to buy one. What I don't know about their chassis, fuel capacity, paint choices and nought-to-sixty in whatever seconds is not worth knowing. I fed everyone papardelle with fresh tomato sauce, and we tried to watch "Bringing Up Baby," a screwball comedy with Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, but somehow it had got downloaded in Spanish, or subtitled, or something, and we had to abandon it. Ellie decided she was homesick, so John invented a game where he poked the little tip of her nose down and said, "Toy," then let it up again and said, "Girl." They must have repeated this a hundred times, and then it was off to sleep with cozy hot water bottles.

John made breakfast for them the next day and then they were collected by another family to spend the night. How empty and quiet the house seemed when they were gone! We sauntered off in the direction of Covent Garden, passing a lane called "Haunch of Venison Yard." Do you supposed at some point it intersects with "Leg of Lamb Alley"? I went off to my class at City Lit, which I thought was a day-long seminar in creative writing, but turned out to be the first of eleven Saturdays! It was great fun, though, so I'm going to continue. I did not find it easy to write fiction, I must say. I think I'm going to have to start slow, namely doing what I usually do which is to embellish real life, much to John and Avery's dismay. "But that's not what happened!" they bleat. "So what, if it makes a better story?" is my point of view. It was entertaining to be in a room with 20 people all of whom look around all the time for a good character, as I do. At one point during the day the classroom door opened very, very slowly, and a diminutive Asian head peered into the room, looked around at all of us 21 white people and asked hesitantly, "Is this... Chinese?" When she had gone, everyone burst out laughing. I'm not sure non-writers would have found it so funny! The main exercise was this: the tutor gave us each a sheet of paper on which was written:

seen on a street in South London on the morning of Boxing Day, 2003

perched on the bonnet of a car: a Teletubby toy (the green one, Dipsy), rain-soaked but otherwise in good condition, possibly new

in the road in front of the car: three plastic sunflowers and a broken pot

in the gutter nearby: a pair of men's underpants

No-one about, and no sign of accident

How did they get there, and what happened?

Well, then we had 30 minutes in which to write a story that encompassed all these facts! It was jolly difficult, I can tell you! At first I thought I simply could not do it. Then some ideas came, and while my effort wasn't brilliant, at least I had something to read aloud when my turn came. All the other students are so very English! Their stories were all dismal, sometimes a bit funny in a ragged pathetic way, all about cigarettes and hangovers. So many Englishisms: electric fires, "tat," which means junk, references to knickers and terraced houses, fairy lights and y-fronts (English for tidy-whitey briefs!), going "off my box" and "sorting out the children's breakfasts."

Then trying to line up who would read next week, an original piece of about 2500 words. The tutor asked, "Arthur, can you read?" "Yes, I can read."


"Ah, that's good. AT LAST." Everyone laughs.

Sunday we dropped Avery off at the stable for an afternoon of mucking out, making friends and riding. John made work phone calls and I confess I simply collapsed, trying to rein in and remember all the things I'm sure I'm forgetting. Halfway through the afternoon my computer exploded, or died, or went off its box or whatever, the point being that I spent most of Monday walking in the rain to and from the Apple Store, first dropping off the body and then going back to hear the diagnosis. I know I am nearly alone in thinking this, but the Apple Store is the seventh circle of hell. Hundreds of people dashing about buying cameras, queueing up to talk about their laptops, finding out that if you have the 80-gigabyte or whatever iPod you could drive from San Francisco to New York 25 times and never have to listen to the same song twice! Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the product, from my point of view. Just awful. My reward was to take Avery to the dreadful ballet store after school and choose a not-too-dreadful skating outfit, for her beloved Friday afternoons with Nicola. Oh, the whining toddlers being kitted out with their first tutus, and the spoiled Yummy Mummys with the ubiquitous chunky hardware-covered handbags hanging over their arms, saying, "But dahhhling, the pink one fitted you so much better, now be a good gull and try it on again for Mummy." Rrrrrrr.

John joined us at the riding ring on Tuesday, since he was working from home that afternoon, and he said, "You know, you're the only mother here. Don't you think it's maybe time for you just to drop her off and go somewhere, then pick her up at the end of the lesson?" "Well, no, I just don't feel ready yet for her to ride and me not be there. What if she had an accident and I wasn't here?" I reasoned. "Oh, and you'd be so much help if you were here! What could you do?" "Ride in the ambulance with her," I said. "Please," he said, and we both looked up to find Avery in the dirt and the pony dashing madly about the ring. "What happened?" we both asked Alexa, and she said airily, "Oh, he just decided it would be nicer not to have Avery on his back for awhile." So much for my vigil! She finally falls off and I'm not even paying attention.

Thursday morning found us at a sweet senior school tour, at Francis Holland Graham Terrace, distinguished from its sister school Francis Holland Clarence Gate. Founded by some canon or other in 1800-something, it's a lovely place just off Sloane Square, filled with gulls aged 3-18, in blue and white checked uniforms. We caught a glimpse of Avery's beloved crush Edwina, sitting in a science lab. Our tour was run by a perhaps 12-year-old called Amelia, who assured us of her complete happiness at Francis Holland, how friendly the gulls were, how good the food. "When I arrived I was really quite a shy person, but now they're all my friends," she said, quite touching. The very impressive headmistress gave her talk about league tables and percentages of grade As, and extracurricular activities and so on. A very nice place. On from there to the first of doubtless many interviews with Avery's headmistress, in her formidable office whose intimidating proportions are only slightly leavened by all the handmade cards lining the walls, "With love from Arabella," and "Happy Christmas from Kate," etc. She assured us that Avery was doing very well in everything, and that we should "aim for the top" when looking for the proper senior school. All very nice to hear, but the contradictory nature of her conversation is amusing. "Now, the pressure can get quite silly, and I don't want you getting neurotic about it. I always say, your job is to support your daughter and pay the fees, to be quite rude about it, and your daughter's job is to learn. The teachers' job is to teach, and my job is to worry. We all know it's time to face Armaggedon." Well, that's jolly. "Should we apply to a rather easier school, do you think, as a backup in case she doesn't get into one of the schools you really like?" I asked anxiously. "Mrs Curran, if Avery doesn't get into one of the three I mentioned, something drastically dreadful will have to have happened. I remember one year, three days before the exam, one of our top girls was walking her little dog, when it was attacked by a larger dog. In reaching out for the lead, her hand was savaged. And it was her RIGHT HAND. Obviously she could not sit the exam." There was no mistaking the apocalyptic nature of this story. We can only try not to get a dog before next January, or if we do and happen to be walking it, just let it get savaged rather than sacrifice Avery's writing hand. For heaven's sake. "The gulls all know that the real world is beckoning, however much I might protect them like billy-o." I had never heard that phrase actually spoken before.

After school we were all hanging about on the pavement (of course in New York we'd be hanging around on the sidewalk, but that's neither here nor there) when our friend Jill beckoned to Avery and introduced her to an enormously tall, impressively built man with larger-than-life handsome features and quite a lot of subtle jewelry. Who on earth? She introduced him with the succinct phrase, "This is Tom, and he rode in the Hampton Classic." Well, immediate bonding. He'd competed in Adult Jumping, and wasn't the weather foul? Did we have a house in the Hamptons, did Avery have a pony? I simply can't fathom who this man is, or how he was related to Jill, but it was a very cool moment, bonding with some tall dark stranger introduced by our famous artist friend. John and I just sit back and watch in wonder as our child becomes truly cool before our eyes. Of course, to her it's all normal, but somewhere inside both of us is a little Midwestern kid who was raised on wieners and applesauce! How did we get here. We just have to hope that Avery continues to let us go along for the ride.

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