Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Painful new features

Why is it so hard to start blogging again after a break…what is the biggest problem – perfectionism? Lost the pipeline of paragraphs-in-development? Inertia? Maybe it’s more specifically June-July, Dallas heat.

I have been thinking for a while about retiring the Endorphin Index and Addiction Archive – they are getting repetitive anyway, I always eat and drink too much and buy too much art and worry about family and have a hard time dragging myself to work – even I run out of different ways to say that.

But inspired by artist-blogger’s Tilly Strauss’s list of “grateful for,” which I find more inspiring for its no-frills format, I have been wanting to do two new sections: Grateful For and Grieving For. Tilly is an internet friend and responded on her blog, http://tillystudio.blogspot.com/ , that she liked the idea of a Grieving list. She has been doing a gorgeous multi-media series on the topic of her divorce and several pieces of that had to do with grief, so I knew it wasn’t too far from her consciousness.

While driving to work this week (isn’t that everyone’s best time to think?) I started on a Grieving list and it seemed to stretch out exponentially. So now I am having creative blockage writing it down – will it scare most people?, will it offend certain people?, will writing and reading it make me feel worse? Can I really focus on a Grateful For list or is that just a feeble thing offered as a balance to the long list of complaints? And I also realize that the Grateful For and Grieving For lists have different qualities, not just quantities. Grieving is sometimes, at least for me, easier to identify. Grateful I take for granted – or do I? Of course the relative weights and merits shift often, if not constantly. But there is still a sense of Sad-Bad List and Good List, the two being separate.

Now, maybe that last sentence is something to focus on – can I take things to another level so that I see good in the grief, at least some parts of it? Yeah maybe, but not tonight. I am intimidating myself with this idea – stop it. Of course I am good at finding grief in the good. I think I was born with that skill!, certainly had it back as far as toddler years, LOL.

(Not necessarily in priority order – please readers, don’t nitpick about that, I am trying not to obsess about it.) Husband, job, house, sister/father, cousin-sister-friend, other important family and friends. Those that are not part of the problem are usually an important part of the solution!, or at least make the process bearable. Friends include internet friends! Therapist, therapy family, favorite authors, favorite painters – my art collection. Blog readers!, if not already covered in the friends mention. The renewing human body that absorbs so many of my excesses. Dogs – when they are good, and I guess as a learning experience even when they are bad. The good parts of my genetics. The low cost of living in Texas.

Certain aspects of the jobs I used to have – special handling of my special talents, projects that utilized both sides of my brain. A work dress code relaxed enough to allow Chucks. Two living brothers, a living mother. The slimmer body I used to have (and didn’t appreciate…but that’s another story). The available credit I used to have…the retirement savings I used to have. The healthy feeling of my feet and legs in the cooler temperatures of mid-June London and Paris – the energy and stamina I had there, sigh.

WOW! The Grieving list was relatively short! Am I too drunk, too tired to keep listing or to amplify my thoughts...or maybe (maybe) writing down the most compelling bad-sad controlled it somewhat.

There may be more, or a lot more, next time - but that's OK. (I can state that with certainty after a big gulp of Chardonnay.)

Friday, June 4, 2010

London 2003 - Dukes Bar, WEDNESDAY night

(isn't this stolen web image JUST like me?, LOL)

[After a long day of sightseeing I spent a couple of evening hours at the Victoria & Albert Museum, where I had already had a glass of wine…one of the many pleasant features of their weekly “Late View,” where selected galleries were open late and there was food, wine and live music. K. had originally agreed to go with me but then said she was very tired and had too much work to do. I knew this was a working trip for her but it was still a little disappointing and I had trouble suppressing the thought that she had never been gung-ho about the idea anyway... I had noticed that her ideas got canceled less than mine did.]

It wasn’t all that late when I got back to the room, but K. was prone on top of her bed, in her jeans and t-shirt, as if she had had a surprise energy wipe-out in the middle of doing something. She stirred when I entered the room but wasn’t able to say much. Although her laptop was open on the sofa, the screen was dark – in fairness, that was probably a screen saver feature, but I had enough bitchy feeling left in me to suspect she might never have turned it on, because there were no papers sitting around and her briefcase was closed. However, it seemed obvious she wasn’t up for any social activity, and I admonished myself that there was little point in my taking her wipeout personally.

I shrugged off my coat, picked up the key again and stated pleasantly that I was going down to the bar. Any remaining doubt I might have had about how K. was feeling was settled by her not making any pretense of joining me, unusual for her since she is definitely the over-commitment, “Do till you drop” type (which of course I envy/admire). Instead, in response to my announced leaving, she slid down to an even flatter position on the bed, which moved her to the zone of appearing so pathetic that I felt I couldn’t (didn’t want to) have any residual resentment over finishing my evening alone. I laid the room key down on top of a spiral pad to carry both downstairs – although the prospect of attempting to get down detail on even my few days so far was still overwhelming, making trip notes was going to be my prop/justification for sitting at a table alone to have more wine.

This time I sat in the outside room – nearest the entrance, not the seating area closer to the bar. There seemed to be fewer people here. I saw clusters of fancy-looking couples out together, which was kind of depressing given my solo social state, but at least they didn’t seem too drunkenly loud yet. My waiter, the younger-looking bar employee from the night before, introduced himself as Tony. He remembered me well, asking, “No most post cards?” Hoping I sounded wittily appreciative and not too desperately grateful to have made conversational contact, I laughingly replied, “No, it’s my diary tonight…I did 20 post cards yesterday.” Tony seemed properly shocked (which isn’t the same as being impressed) at this postcard count.

I was sure this guy was the one I had seen on the Dukes web site, making a martini at a counter stagily set with a heaped silver dish of olives and an over-large lemon that had a strip missing (ostensibly cut off to make a garnishing twist for the drink). Tony himself was shown with a smirky expression that could have meant a personality disorder or just shy nervousness at being photographed for the web. Even if I hadn’t seen him on the Dukes site, Tony would have seemed familiar, because he kind of looked like a Central Casting Italian (which is probably cliched racism, but seems to reflect how people’s minds work) – meaning, medium-sized, early-mid-aged Italian type, with the expected accent but also the expected English ability, so that he could talk to you in enjoyably-accented English (enjoyable to listen to, adding to the evening ambience and whatever sense of Anglophile superiority one might have had).

In retrospect, Tony was a very significant character of my week, even if just by my learning his name. Funnily (embarrassingly) enough, when I got home and unloaded the extra business cards that I had taken in my purse (packed despite my insecurity/self-consciousness that no one anywhere on the globe would want to know Sarah) in case I made some Brit pen-pal friends, I had to admit to my socially-challenged self that I had hardly learned anyone’s name in England except Tony, “Sam Elliott” (who may or may not have really been the Gilberto so familiarly mentioned on Graffiti Wall as the go-to man for offsite Italian dining), the Canadians Mary Ann and her sister (sadly, I had no clue of the sister’s name) that I met at Tower of London, and also from Monday’s tour, guide David and John-the-driver (David’s term for him).

Maybe it was because of the hour – later than when I had come down the night before – but tonight my table top held no snacks, no nuts or crackers. I didn’t know if this was something to do with the table size (a two-seater tonight instead of Tuesday’s four chairs), or with the time of day. Maybe it was assumed that everyone in here now had already had dinner and wasn’t hungry, although I would have thought that by Continental standards, any time prior to 10:00 was too early to assume that anyone had a full stomach.

At several daytime (and sober) points of the trip, I had entertained the idea of having champagne next time I found myself at a bar – the concept seemed appropriately romantic and celebratory, since I was on a special trip (maybe even the “trip of my lifetime,” since it was possible I would never get the money together to come back after this) – but when asked for my order in an actual bar, I continued to vote for Chardonnay, even though I was never quite sure whether Chardonnay was actually the variety of white wine I was being served. Maybe I subconsciously went for Chardonnay because in the U.S. such a request often gets you a generic potion, and here I was hoping I would get a similarly cheapish bar brand of white wine, and thinking that this would be easier and better to chug than something truly special or expensive.

Tonight I made a feeble attempt at “branching out” and instructed Tony, “A white wine…whatever you think…” He seemed happy with my pliability – or maybe he and the bar staff were tired of looking for a bottle of Chardonnay for me, since for all I know, actual Chardonnay is in short supply in London. Whatever Tony’s personal thoughts were on the matter, I have to say that the wine he promptly brought me tasted a lot like the “Chardonnay” I had had the night before (and the white wine of Sunday’s room service).

As a change from my usual procedure, I forced myself to try sipping it slowly – my previous gulping style wasn’t conducive to nursing the wine long enough to last for a decent amount of writing. The writing needed to be my focus tonight, and I wanted to get a big chunk of writing done, in my real notebook – not on the back of something, like an afterthought, as happened the night before. Just having brought down the notebook had increased my feeling of trip-recording/diary pressure, although it also felt nicely official and validating to have a dedicated notebook. A notebook that was already partially filled might have lessened the pressure, but I always pack fresh new ones for a trip…as if I might get marooned, and inspired (out of boredom due to the marooning), and write my way through all the empty pages.

The wine helped push down the curling tendrils of writing-panic – more wine would have been a stronger anxiety suppressor, but I needed to be mindful of the delicately narrow balance between alcohol-triggered creativity and confusion born of too much alcohol. I knew I had crossed over to confusion on Postcard Night – I was embarrassed to remember how after I finished each postcard I started murmuring aloud the sentences I had just written, to see if they made sense or whether I had left out key words. I wanted to stay in an anxiety-managed but still coherent zone for as long as I could manage it tonight. This zone shares a highly permeable border with the land of compulsive writing and rabid getting-down of details, but I knew there was no way to avoid all the discomforts of such proximity.

I really did have just one glass of wine, although since the Dukes bar was generous with portions (which felt almost virtuously welcome here, since as a guest I only had to stumble upstairs to get to a safe sleeping place), it was not a small one, although not inappropriately overfilled either. Rather surprisingly, Tony didn’t bring me any unwanted refills – maybe he was busy, or my table on the side of the room was away from his main circuit of other customers, but he proved to be easier to manage than Gilberto/Sam E. had on the previous night. I don’t think I sounded more insistent or stern with Tony than I had with Gilberto, but maybe Gilberto had picked up on the negation (“No means yes”) in my giggly/slushy tone, a sound that I didn’t have enough grape in me to achieve tonight. It also helped that now I was alert enough to signal by dragging my hand up to cover my glass when I saw Tony come through the doorway. Or, maybe the lesser emphasis on refills was a feature of this outer bar room, somehow related to there not being free snacks on the tables when I sat down.

Having less wine may have contributed to my somewhat negative mood, or maybe this was just a classic symptom of being past the halfway point of my trip, on the waning end. Wednesday was my fourth day of being in a hotel where clearly all the other guests had a more glamorous, affluent life than mine. Although now comfortably ensconced in the Dukes bar, I didn’t feel settled there and reflected that I was kind of ready for a change from this posh hotel. I really didn’t fit in at Dukes, although none of the staff or other guests had been rude enough to outwardly hint at this.

My lifestyle was probably several cuts above that of most of the brown-toothed Dukes employees [who by their accents I guessed were immigrants from Eastern Europe], but this perspective didn’t ameliorate my state of covetousness toward the other guests. A somehow wealthy-seeming and otherwise imposing lady (in a simply cut skirt and blouse but with real-looking gems in her necklace and earrings) came walking out from the room that was nearer to the bar, and she called out a hello to Tony as he was leaving a table near me. To her bossily plaintive comment, “We were here at Christmas but you weren’t here!”, Tony replied in a respectful/seemingly sincere manner.

The act of my writing was mostly involving, but in other ways almost boring, as I flew [well, maybe not that weightless of a transition] back and forth between a chronological listing and important/must-get-down stuff that I was compelled to add even out of sequence. Since I have shifted mental gears like this for most of my life, I was able to stay on track (such as the track was) and the wine (even one glass of it) helped the interruptions feel less schizo than they would have normally. Despite the loud conversation in the bar (the volume was high only by genteel Dukes standards), most of the words were pretty easy to tune out, except for snatches that I absorbed intermittently and reacted to in a patchwork combination of interest and annoyance.

I admit that some of my gut responses were born of jealousy… The two couples at the table near the window were having a conversation guaranteed to intimidate an American of my working class – I heard one of the guys mention “my new BMW” more than once, in a tone meant to convey that this was one of a series of the car that he had purchased. It’s not that I would never hear this in the States, but my attention was grabbed by how somehow similar and yet subtly different it sounded here. The matter-of-fact tone and brevity of his comment almost seemed to express modesty, yet the fact that he had announced a purchase and specified a brand name had to be some form of a grab for attention. It seemed to me that in America this category of rich but pretending-to-be-modest people was fairly rare – American rich people either hid their money completely or shouted the exact (or inflated) amounts of it from the rooftops.

I tried to keep in mind that I wasn’t versed on all the class complexities of London bar conversation – these people weren’t necessarily old money, they could even have been ordinary suburban dwellers, but I now had a general idea how expensive it was to park, buy and gas a car in the London area, and a BMW, while not the highest-price option, was still an expensive car. The men were wearing office-type suits and the ladies were in nice blouses and skirts which could either have been nice office clothes or cocktail-time attire. No one had on anything traditionally English-tweedy or elbow-patched, but I was kind of hoping to see or hear something English-cliched so I could more neatly categorize this group. My desire was met when the other man at the table, who looked beef-fed (with a thick head, broad shoulders and blond hair like a Midwestern football player), said in a somewhat grim tone that I think was meant to convey casual pride, something about getting a “viller” in Mustique and inviting everyone there to visit. I almost clapped my hands in glee at the classically British-Continental pronunciation of “villa” (a luxurious country house) with an “R” stuck on the end – this was the kind of people-watching/listening I had been wanting.

I realize that a broader cross-section of classes go on sun holidays from the U.K. as compared to the U.S. – since southern Europe is not so far away and there’s a big business in all price ranges of vacation rentals and timeshares in Spain and other countries that get hot and sunny for at least most of the year. However, I had a dim idea that Mustique was not a cheap resort, and it struck me that the beefy guy mentioned it in the kind of commonplace way a Texan would refer to going to Galveston or Padre Island for the weekend.

Even allowing for real estate agency hype on the sites I found in my later web research on Mustique, the prevalent adjectives “luxury, privacy, celebrity” reinforced that we weren’t talking about a place in any way resembling the Texas Gulf Coast. This “unspoiled” Caribbean island (with only one hotel but many private “villa rentals”) was originally developed by the British for its sugar trade, then purchased by a private individual, and was only opened to outsiders in 1968. Between the original development by the first British people and the 1960s opening to visitors, I was struck by a couple of timeline items – “the native tribes were quickly decimated with the arrival of European planters” and “the English fought off invading French troops.” I doubt that today’s visitor has any awareness of anything in any way turbulent in the island’s past.

Per Villa-Rentals.com, the Mustique development company provides a video library with over 500 movies!, a number that is meant to impress us since the island is only 1 ½ miles by 3 miles and contains less than 200 homes. CaribbeanVacationGuide.com explained, “The tiny island is not easily accessible without a private plane or yacht,” and told me that these private planes have carried homeowners and visitors “the likes of” Mick Jagger, Phil Collins, Princess Margaret, Kate Moss and Calvin Klein.

Even before realizing that Princess Margaret was a Mustique fan, I knew I had little in common with a person who was talking about going there. I was getting fussy from reminders of my economic and cultural status, which was definitely a part of my looking forward to a return to more modest activities and more laid-back creature comforts. When I changed hotels tomorrow I would be in a different part of town, and I thought I had seen on an Internet map that there was a movie theater near the St. Giles. I felt a disproportionate sense of excitement that I could soon enjoy the simple pleasure of seeing a movie (and not feeling much concern about what movie might be showing), which told me that I was definitely on the low end of my trip if I was craving the kind of time-killing comfort I would have availed myself of at home.

Still sober enough to efficiently multi-task, I listened to this foursome by the window while scribbling fairly furiously about what I had eaten and who had annoyed me in the last several days of my trip. I wasn’t sure what the exact mix was of my being a little trip-fussy (thinking about home and simple, non-Dukes comforts) and being more specifically annoyed with the personalities of the two couples. There was also a mixture of my being intimidated by their apparent wealth, degree of sophistication, and London-ness – and my strongly wondering how much class they really had by London standards. It was inarguable that they were from a different country than I was, but they were less surely of a vastly different class than me.

They spoke in gay (upbeat) tones and what I was pretty sure (from the brandy snifters and wine glasses in front of them) was a glibly liquored manner. I continued to struggle to categorize them – just when I became bored by the pedestrian nature of their topics, such as “We’re due for a parent-teacher meeting soon…” (spoken by a man and woman in unison) and “I’m feeling a bit nervous about having the laser surgery…” (from the blond lady, slightly plumper than the brunette one, but still very trim, with a short, smooth bob of hair) – they talked about something closer to what I would consider a human interest category. The Mustique Guy went on about a mutual friend who, according to him, continued to “Look for the wrong elements in her relationships.” This seemed a bit non-macho as a topic – I think Craig and his male friends occasionally discuss their single friends’ psychological problems, but my impression is that they have to be drunk on whiskey, and/or high on cigar smoke, to do so. Unfortunately for my piqued interest, the group immediately went from talking about the girl who loved wrongly to discussing mutual friends who had died. I couldn’t always identify the voices and I wasn’t facing the table – I was only clear that it was the beefy blond guy who had mentioned Mustique because I turned to stare when he first said that vacation word, and I also knew from that same brief look to blame him for the reek of cigar smoke that continued to permeate the room.

I think it was the Mustique Guy who said in a loudly heartfelt way that so-and-so was “a great chap…” and “You know his wife died of cancer…?” Everyone murmured appropriately after hearing the C-word, and when someone mentioned that the specific disease was breast cancer, they uttered a group “Umm-hmm” at the unfortunate commonness of this disease. When the guy continued, “He calls my son every morning, to check in with him,” this comment got a few approving-type murmurs too, although it sounded odd to me. How many male family friends call someone’s young son every morning, to the approval of the parents? Maybe these people were desperately looking for any type of positive socialization for their kids – all four of them went on about how their kids watched “too many DVDs,” a complaint which certainly put them closer to an American-middle-class range of parental problems.

They conversationally ended their evening with what I felt was a letdown of jet-setting class – the brunette lady with slightly past shoulder-length hair cut in an expensively casual/girlish style giggled that she had had too much wine, and oh dear, now she had to make her way on foot to the Tube. My surprise at hearing this went along with my disdain at the OLDH tour agent’s Monday question of what tube stop Dukes was near, but I was beginning to realize that my dismissal of the subway was misguided snobbery – how silly of me to think I knew what was and was not within proper social parameters for an upper class of people. And how logistically narrow-thinking I had been – probably their fabulous/palatial (historic?/inherited?) London homes were right by a tube stop and they had learned it didn’t make sense to drive and have the hassle of parking…or maybe they lived in a suburb that was very ritzy but near enough the city to be on a tube stop. My never having ventured onto the subway didn’t show any kind of superiority, it just made me look more like an ignorant American tourist.

Belatedly, my limited degree of altruistic concern for my fellow man kicked in and I realized it was doubtful that these people were sober enough to drive their own cars home anyway. I assumed that Britain had little tolerance for drunk driving, and in this (as in few other U.K. cultural and legal things) I was correct. Per the U.S. Department of State’s Consular Information site, “U.K. penalties for drunk driving are stiff and often result in prison sentences.” A novelty site with semi-serious travel info, “American Girls Are Easy” (subtitled, How to Find a Man in Europe and Leave Him There) says that the British are “extreme” about drunk driving and gives the interestingly practical example that if your date is “caught with keys in his pocket and he’s within 50 feet of his car, he can be arrested for a DUI.” I’m not sure how reliable a source “American Girls” is for U.K. facts, due to the goofy meanness of some of its tips and insights (example: “There’s nothing noteworthy about the dogs in Britain, but you might be curious to know that the nation’s number one road kill is the hedgehog”) but I was impressed that the site went to the trouble to clarify (in its acid tongue) a common subject of tourist confusion: “Great Britain is England, Scotland and Wales. The United Kingdom is Great Britain plus Northern Ireland. Most people don’t understand this technicality, nor do they care.”

Tony didn’t protest my request for my check much more than he had expressed disapproval (with a small frown and a slight shake of his head) at my refusal of more wine. I was gratified that I felt clear-headed after my one glass of wine – this made it easier than usual to figure out how much British money to leave, and I felt more confident than usual about my calculation. Maybe I had drawn energy from the process of writing out my inner thoughts (having finally started in earnest to belch forth a degree of detail that it was unlikely anyone would even pretend interest in)…and/or maybe I had finally arrived at the exactly optimum amount of alcohol I should consume in order to have a solo evening with a doable amount of creative output. I felt I had at least a little more writing in me still, even without having another drink (this lesser than usual need for alcohol signified true inner fire), so I went across the small hallway to the drawing room, a new setting for my creativity.

There were no other guests in the drawing room at this weeknight hour of 10 pm, but the empty room had a better vibe than on Monday – that night K. and I had had to look at other people’s dirty dishes on some of the low tables, but tonight everything was completely clean and quiet. The peaceful atmosphere didn’t immediately make me sleepy but it didn’t encourage my work ethic either – I was suddenly moved to fold shut my notebook and pull out my trusty purse book. I did pretty well at managing my guilt that I had stopped writing, because I was feeling rather kind to myself, given my mostly successful solo adventures of the day and my numerous countable pages of writing output this evening. It also seemed possible to make a case that although four days in London had provided me with enough material to potentially keep scribbling all night, for sleep and health reasons it would be better to set a limit on writing and concentrate on reading Ann Rule’s published words.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

London 2003 - Dukes Bar, Tuesday night

Although I knew that K. would be busy tonight with the business dinner she had told me about in advance, I was proud that not only did I have productive (productive-seeming/sounding) solo plans but I was looking forward to them. Combining task (at least purpose) and vice (more kindly, indulgence), I was going to venture into the Dukes bar, past the imposing mahogany door that opened from the lobby. All I really knew about the bar was that I had seen nicely dressed people walk through the door and heard politely/moderately loud laughter drift out.

My bar-centered mission was to write postcards – I find drinking or dining alone in public more comfortable if I have some kind of mission or project underway, and writing becomes a much more involving type of project when the motivation/output (such as postcards) is designated – instead of left frighteningly, loosely (shades of drunkenly) creative. I had also had thoughts of starting a London trip diary tonight, but even after just three days in London, that scale of a writing project loomed as so giant that I knew I would need to have way more than my usual amount of wine (beyond personal responsibility considerations) to step across the anxiety threshold.

Given these considerations of otherwise scary writing scope, I was glad I had the postcards to focus on, and the idea of doing them in a bar seemed much more fun than doing them holed up alone in my room – or God forbid, schlepping the postcards home to mail from Texas. Home postmarking was surely the worst scenario for any travel correspondence.

As previously, I felt frumpily underdressed when entering the Dukes lobby, although (somewhat unusually for me) today I was at least monochromatic in a brown sweatshirt (a generic brand from Oshman’s) which almost matched my brown stretch jeans (another generic brand, from Mervyn’s). Most of the few other guests I had seen at Dukes looked posh to a somewhat intimidating degree, which was not surprising considering the price of the rooms at Dukes – although of course I wasn’t paying for the room, I had peeked at prices on the web as soon as K. gave me the name of the hotel. I had seen one no-nonsense blond type guest (not a young, trendy blond – more like a Camilla Parker-Bowles) wearing tennis shoes, but the shoes were immaculately clean and worn with a pinstripe double-breasted shirtwaist dress. I can’t say the dress looked good with the shoes but the contrast did upgrade the footwear a bit.

It was a little scary opening the door to the Dukes bar without any previous view of what went on inside. And walking in, I wasn’t sure if it helped or made me more uncomfortable that the bar was so intimate (i.e. small like the lobby) – two rooms, each almost smaller than private home living rooms (and filled up with more tables and upholstered chairs than you could cram into your home), a partial wall with a fireplace between, and a bar counter to the left. The first room seemed to have more people in it so I walked toward an empty table (that just happened to be near the bar) in the farther room, trying not to think about whether people I passed were looking at me – all the conversations sounded to be in alcohol-fueled high gear so maybe no one noticed the new arrival. I felt a little bad about taking up a table that had four chairs around it, but the few two-seaters were all occupied. The bar itself didn’t have stools in front and was used only as an area to serve from – in any case, I would have felt uncomfortable bellying up to a bar so petitely sized (the scenario would have seemed like getting drunk in a friend’s kitchen).

The bar furniture, although a bit commercial-looking (in the thinness of the upholstery, etc.), could have worked in a private living room, and the walls were painted a dark solid color like people use when they want to seem artsy or at least show off their artwork. I’m embarrassed (fearing my memory loss implies alcohol intake) to say I can’t remember the exact color of the walls – eggplant?, dark gray?, navy? – something that hovered on a borderline between classy and ugly.

Somehow the homelike setup and colors looked comfortable and elegantly natural here, whereas in the U.S. – other than maybe at really expensive hotels in some of the oldest, most traditional American cities – a similar setup would have looked like a decorating project, with the fabrics too shiny and the artwork looking too manufactured.

I had misunderstood the Dukes web site description of its bar, having gotten intimidated by the glamorous professional photos (and the hotel prices) and not comprehending the down-to-earth meaning of the adjective “comfortable”:

Famous for its Martinis, the bar at Dukes is a comfortable and relaxing place to enjoy the company of your friends or a contemplative drink [what a nice way of saying, “drinking alone”]. Guests can enjoy a cocktail or glass of champagne at any time [“any time” sounded intriguing…?], but perhaps it is best to wait until after the theatre before sampling one of the famous cognacs.
Even a Graffiti Wall poster had mentioned the Dukes bar (I should have realized that if a Rick Steves bargain-hunter acolyte had come here, the place could not be too glitzy), with the suave-sounding advice to “Ask for Gilberto, who makes the world’s best martini,” followed by the instruction to take a cab to such-and-such Italian restaurant in Soho. The restaurant was a logical follow-on of the martini experience, because “Gilberto can call his nephew the owner.”

Theoretically, I could have gone to that restaurant – I love Italian food, and before my trip I had promised myself not to skimp on nice meals in London, regardless of other budget concerns. That resolution had sounded good at home but so far my mood/energy just hadn’t been right for me to make an big effort to get somewhere I would eat alone – even on Sunday night I had settled for a place that I could easily walk to (and hadn’t actually eaten a meal there). K. had said that on previous trips she took cabs out to restaurants people had told her about – this was really her only exposure to London outside her office, since she usually only had time to get the day’s work done and then have dinner before bed. Her meal experiments were impressive compared to my having so far settled for simpler food closer to the hotel, but I thought she had sounded a little sad and lonely (though in a strong, brave way) when she talked about journeying out to eat by herself.

I thought my Dukes bar experience (once I relaxed a bit more on the question of whether people were wondering about me) would be a good compromise between the familiar (with my room right upstairs) and the new. The drinking aspect would provide some mood-shifting as my usual thoughts and hangups were shifted around a bit – sitting alone at a public place where the meal was the focus, and forking up pieces of food in a conversation-less vacuum, was less appealing.

With my vantage point facing the bar, I immediately noticed a dark-haired person delivering drinks who looked like the unnamed man pictured on the Dukes site next to the description of The Bar. The professionally posed web photo had captured him deftly placing a twist of fruit peel in a fresh martini, surrounded by a full bottle of gin, a silver dish piled high with olives, and a plump round citrus fruit that had a strip of peel missing. Without stepping out of my introverted zone to ask someone, I couldn’t tell if this was the web-famous Gilberto. He did look a bit young to have a nephew who was a restaurant owner, but maybe Italian men aged more attractively in London than they did in the U.S. (at least, as pictured on “The Sopranos” TV series).

Another hotel-uniformed man seemed to spend more time behind the bar than at the tables, but that didn’t necessarily mean he was Gilberto either. This guy was short and wiry, with a craggy face and thick silver hair – he looked kind of like an Italian-esque (and shorter) version of the actor Sam Elliott. (The real Sam has had an impressive, although somewhat B-level, career in supporting roles and had recently been on-screen quite a bit – 2002’s well-regarded “We Were Soldiers” was followed by “The Hulk” in 2003. He has been married to actress Katharine Ross, who he met on the set of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” for two decades, which is surely close to being a Hollywood marital record. My friend Pam went to college with Sam but turned down a date – Sam had not exactly blossomed yet, personality- or looks-wise, and in her own bloom of sexy blond youth, Pam felt she had better options.)

Although I saw both Sam Elliott and the dark-haired younger man do things with a cocktail shaker, I wasn’t really tempted for a martini. I knew that not having one would weigh heavily with the nephew’s-restaurant Italian meal on the list of opportunities I was missing while staying here, but I really wanted a drink I could nurse while (coherently) writing. My alcohol consumption goes up and down, but my tolerance for the effects seems to decrease with each year and in my 40s, I have become very cautious regarding mixed drinks.

When Sam Elliott asked what I wanted to drink, I said a glass of Chardonnay, hoping it would turn out to be something approaching the wine at the Terrace on Sunday – unfortunately, it didn’t occur to me that since I was at Dukes and not Le Meridien, I would end up with the same poor runner-up that had been served with my BLT from Dukes room service. Heard and seen up close, Sam’s Euro-gravelly voice and rough appearance (I would say “rugged” appearance, but that seems more like a Hollywood Sam Elliott term than one for a London Italian waiter) reminded me even more of the movie star, who some critics and fans lament was born too late to capitalize on the cowboy films he would have best suited.

My remaining guilt at taking up a table for four had taken a delicious turn over my enjoyment of the table’s dishes of mini cheese crackers and mixed nuts (which were just as good as Le Meridien) – generous portions of both, with me as the only consumer. My glee diminished somewhat when I remembered I hadn’t washed my hands after using the computer keyboard and mouse after who knows how many other people – but this thought didn’t occur to me until about five handfuls each of nuts and crackers had been consumed, so I figured the contamination had probably already occurred and there was little point in getting up to go to the ladies’ room.

I just loved these nuts, and I was intrigued by them – the variety and freshness of the nuts and the generosity of the portion might be a European thing (since I hadn’t encountered it in America), but with my stubbornly Colonial viewpoint, I couldn’t stop believing that bar nuts were an American concept. However, the assortment (cashews, almonds and pecans, or maybe they were walnuts) didn’t contain peanuts, so this placed it in a different category than peanut-reliant American bar offerings. I especially admired the flavoring of the London nuts – not smoky and salty, but just the right amount of salt. I was still probably taking in too much salt but I wasn’t aware of it, and surely this unknowing state is the food experience that every consumer wants/needs.

I was still a little nervous about coming in alone, but I continued to take comfort from the official-seeming folder containing my work project and my sense of purpose in pulling things out of the folder. As I worked on my postcards, congratulating myself on the cool ones I’d picked out and thinking/hoping they made me look tasteful/discerning and not like your average Euro-tourist, and managing to write something different on each one, the bar traffic thinned and Sam Elliott became increasingly attentive to my table.

I had allowed myself to gulp the first glass of wine so as to get my writing juices going, but I really did try to slow down after that for literary clarity (if for no other reason). However, Sam E. was doing that dangerous thing – which rarely happens in most restaurants because the waiters are too busy and/or the managers are too cost-conscious – of topping up the glass frequently, so that I lost all sense of how much I was drinking. During the course of my Dukes Bar evening, I have a vague awareness of having had 7 or 8 half-glass refills, which I guess comes out to about 4 total glasses. Surely this was way too much for my small stature and my increasingly middle-age tendency toward water retention, but it’s difficult to refuse an Italian man with a ready wine bottle (I don’t mean for this last phrase to sound as dirty as it might).

Not surprisingly, my lips felt gradually looser and I began to get a bit more conversational with Sam E. At one point I held my hand up over the top of my glass (I was already at that point of questionable sobriety where I had to carefully measure the motion so I didn’t tip the glass over) and when he poured more anyway (which was easy for him to do since my hand wasn’t really all that close to the glass), I told him I was getting out of control and could no longer write articulate postcards. I had just caught myself crossing out the words “acceptable” and then “respectable” in my attempt to produce the word “perspective” on a Stonehenge postcard to Tim. In a way this didn’t matter, since Tim is a very understanding brother and it wasn’t Tim’s only postcard – I was sending him a series of three cards like he has sometimes sent me from trips (it must be a weird family thing) but I know he is very conscious of proper grammar and spelling (in a non-judgmental way). Bottom-line, it wasn’t a problem to send Tim a card with words crossed out but it was important that the final word be correct, and I was losing confidence that I could evaluate whether any of my final words were correct.

I didn’t go into all this detail with Sam E., but my no-more-wine message finally came through loud and clear. In a classic (Italian?) macho manner, he shrugged away my (probably fake-seeming) protest and growled, “You sound like my wife…” as he poured me another half glass. (When Sam Elliott finally agreed that I could stop downing wine and brought me my check, I saw that I was only being charged for two glasses of wine. This struck me as an interesting concept of customer service and guest-consumption liability.)

Slightly past the midpoint of my wine refills, I heard someone say, “Sarah!, I didn’t know you were here!” Immersed in creative postcard phrases and Chardonnay, my temporary befuddlement at the interruption led to a gratifyingly free-and-loose sensation (almost like, “What continent am I on?”) before I recognized K. as the speaker. She was in full business-to-evening (less authoritative and more gushy) mode and dress, perhaps with an alcohol enhancement of her own. After a maybe slightly guilty sounding, “I didn’t know you were here?!” she introduced me to her business acquaintance François with the tag, “Sarah has already seen more of London than I have.” François was young and attractively dark-haired, from Belgium, and I was later told he likes the ladies – I realize this information plus the inclusion of the “ç” in his name seems like another Euro-cliché, but apparently such types really do exist on the Continent. It was fun although a bit startling to have my solo outing interrupted by someone I knew, and I made chit-chat with the two of them about Stonehenge in what I hoped was a more animated than inebriated fashion. After K. said, in a tone somewhat confiding of her own intake, “The martinis here are so delicious…don’t you think?” I stopped trying so hard to act sober, lt my enthusiasm flow and let my hands wave about for emphasis. What the heck, we were all in European mode here… I said I hadn’t been disappointed in one sight that I had seen so far. I believe I also made some quirky comments about the Stonehenge sheep, which I hope I was able to relate back to whatever point I was trying to make.

After K. and François went off for their 9:30 reservation (how Continental was this?! – a late dinner, and at a French restaurant), I maintained my glow of satisfaction about my week in London. Maybe glass-full metaphors are too obvious for philosophizing that takes place in a bar setting, but I tend to be a glass-half-empty, negative perceiver and this focus on the good stuff (the glass-half-full perspective) was new to me. I continued to be surprised at myself when I told people that I genuinely was enjoying the sights and truly was not disappointed in the trip so far.

Maybe I had had a sudden leap in maturity and my London good feeling was a combination of well-managed expectations and self-fulfilling prophecy, in that I had repetitiously told myself that if I could just get over the ocean, everything would be OK. I’m usually so much better at the negative repeated messages than the positive ones, but maybe this time the mind-over-matter focus of so strongly wanting to go on this trip actually helped me to achieve a positive slant on things. Or possibly, because the whole flight aspect of the trip was so horrible to contemplate and only slightly less horrible to endure, I was overextended worry-wise from the over-ocean part of the trip and had only calm positivity left to face my on-ground adventures – I wish managing my anxiety was really as simple as this theory tries to make it sound.

I wasn’t sure what time I had started the postcards but it was feeling like two hours ago, or some other long period – multiple postcards are like Christmas cards, the addressing and individual note-making aspects always take much longer than one thinks they will. The addressing part had been easy since I had such a neat list to start with – I continued to feel almost giddily self-congratulatory over having a cleaned-up, large-font list to copy from, even though it wasn’t pristine since I had written “Ps” and “Ds” on it to remind me at Christmas which people needed to be sent a Photo of our dogs and which also needed a signature from the Dogs (a couple of people have actually called me when I forgot to sign for a dog, asking, “Has something happened to Marley – did you not want to tell us?”). After some dithering over whether more people should get postcards, or more of the people I had already sent to should get additional postcards, or whether I should keep more postcards for myself, I put the postcards aside with a sense of accomplishment…and actually felt like making a few trip journal notes.

The trip notes had to be done on the back of the address list since I hadn’t wanted to intimidate myself (inhibit my writing impulse) by bringing a writing pad. I tried to start out in day and time sequence but as I thought of more “important” things that I really had to record, the calendar structure loosened up. Making travel notes feels like a big “suck” of concentration and energy although in some ways the intense involvement is enjoyable, as if I am doing something important – when really, all I’m doing is spouting off about my food and drink indulgences and my half-formed philosophies. The most suck-like aspect is that once I start making trip notes, no matter how tentative and sketchy they are, I feel like I need to write more and more, and record still more supposedly humorous and interesting happenings and layered complexities of trip angst – the pull to get everything written down intensifies.

I did start to feel that suck in the Dukes bar but since I hadn’t started the trip notes until after the postcards, I soon got tired and even the suck could only pull me so far. I only wrote a couple of pages, and I was able to keep my notes very brief instead of getting into the crazed-feeling, long and detailed paragraphs that I sometimes do.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Minor Adventures in Losing It

Not to justify the amount I drank at our Sunday night Memorial weekend party as appropriate, but I do think my prescription anxiety meds combine weirdly with wine. The medication helps me let go of anxiety. With 3 bottles of wine (slight exaggeration) I let go of a lot of memory too. It is interesting to have people tell me what I did and said and to have no recognition/recollection as they tell me things. Yes this is extremely disturbing from an alcohol abuse perspective (public service announcement) but taking the space-station view it is kind of interesting.

I was reminded on Monday that on Sunday I had made social plans (news to me…that was lost when the tape erased) and although I felt quite toxic that morning I love the friends I had plans with so I showered and got in the car and was social…and ate a lot of salty food and drank Cokes so that did not exactly help with detoxing.

Not remembering things was only part of my surreality on Monday. I felt rather detached from my body – I mean my consciousness was not in synch with the rest of me. Or it wasn’t Sarah’s consciousness. This is hard to put into words but so interesting. Getting cleaned up and dressed was mostly routine although my short-term memory was shot…I had to be careful to remind myself to take with me directions, hostess gift, etc. The mechanisms that would normally remind me with nags/guilts were still inactive…I was functioning on very low power, in terms of careful-obsessive thoughts.

Getting into my car and driving out of the driveway felt strange. Almost like when more than a week goes by without driving, like when you have been sick or traveling by plane, and then back in your own car at last you sort of take it on faith that your body will know what to do with the gas pedal and steering wheel, not to mention all the other actions and reflexes required. Yep, very disassociated. Of course I got on the road anyway!, but not the highway.

When I walked into Tom Thumb to buy some hostess flowers I had a flash of a new surreality, a new questioning of what would normally be so nonthinking…was I wearing pants? Was I wearing clothes? Really, I was just not in Sarah at that hour of that day. I felt fabric with my hands and glanced down as a double-check but I still didn’t feel completely reassured. I was not in my center.

But I kept thinking – as the disassociation continued for a few more hours, until I got tired and fussy and thus more like my Sarah-self… Isn’t not being myself something I usually think would be preferable? To have a break from myself?

Like a minor out-of-body experience? Not caused by trauma…just caused by 3 bottles of wine (again, slight exaggeration) plus pharmaceuticals.

That afternoon I enjoyed the people I was with but when I did a lot of talking, I felt clunky. I talked anyway, and that was interesting too. Managing my concerns over feeling clunky was something I knew I needed to do. People are not perfect. I don’t have to be perfect. I don’t judge myself objectively in conversation and it’s important to minimize the critic when I perceive it. My self-improvement goal is to be less self-critical and to move forward. But on Monday I was clunkier than usual and my meds didn’t mute the self-critic as efficiently as usual – I can only assume they were not being processed efficiently by my still-polluted liver and brain. But I maybe didn’t care since I was not quite myself. Yes, interesting.

This morning I was looking for a lavender shirt and found a darker shade shirt, also from Chico’s. I stared at that shirt with a where-did-it-come-from look. Still can’t access memory of wearing this thing! I can tell it’s not brand new and I must have gotten it with my Chico’s online order (OK, maybe orderS) last year. I probably wear it with black pants – I somehow know that much – but I don’t remember what I accessorize it with. And for me – with a drawer OR MORE for each color jewelry (pink and red have their own drawers, orange has 2! drawers, etc.), this is odd.

That was kind of interesting, probably more interesting than scary. (Maybe the shirt had been hidden behind another one that I recently moved?) But I am scared for my brain that right now I can’t remember the name of that shade of purple. I have another, older shirt that color, a sweater that color, and Chucks that color. I receive compliments when I wear the color. But…drum roll…I DON’T KNOW WHAT THE COLOR IS CALLED! Will have to Google but I am still a little…maybe…worried about brain cells.

Although today was a long day. And I have various anxieties floating about that pull my mental resources. And not so many days have passed since the big drunk episode.

Damn it – that shade, blue-gray-purple, is not exactly seasonal for June, and will be hard to find on a retail website (and I am trying to stay off shopping websites, right?...) Google didn’t bring up the right color name… I even dared to look at Converse shoes but the shade I wanted is called Aster Purple by Converse, and I thought this color was a one-word name…

Boy, now I feel lost in space. Lands End calls it Alpine Purple. I know there is a simpler word for this!

OK I am pouring out the rest of my small glass of wine and eating a bowl of pasta with vegetables.

Big breath. I am not crazy. The color name is not important.

It has been a long day. I am a middle-aged woman. I still have plenty of brain power…for important things…which this is not.

Big deep breath.

I may need a pill to sleep. Or more pasta.