Sunday, 29 August 2010

Whomever said “Patience is the greatest of all virtues” was a masochist.

All waiting and no payoff makes Jack a homicidal maniac—or at the very least one anxious motherfucker. As you may have read from this blog’s premise, He (The Englishman, not a dude named Jack) and I are going through the United States’ thrilling immigration process. This is a charming bureaucratic labyrinth filled with hobbits and gnomes all demanding passwords that were lost in the mail and magic beans accidentally rerouted to an embassy in China. Just when you find the pathway to the secret key that leads to the door marked ‘Future’ you are forbidden entry because you didn’t initial Section 5b of the Municipal Maze Clause. Instead it’s back to Start where you can pass Go and collect three more months of solitude.

This joyous little puzzle designed by the American Government is called the K-1 (Fiancé) Visa. It’s a procedure so overly complicated they had to create a flow chart just to keep the details straight. While it would appear to be convoluted to prevent fraud, I am starting to believe it was put in place by kitten-torturing sadists laughing maniacally as they slam down bleeding red rejection stamps the size of Buicks onto the hopes and dreams of couples all over the world. I imagine the adjudicators at the overworked and understaffed processing center in California to be frigid heartless bastards embittered by a sorted love life just awaiting the chance for revenge. They feast on the misery of aspiring newlyweds—cackling over the tears of the geographically separated. Or maybe I’m just impatient.

Today marks two months since our application was filed with no update other than a cashed check, not surprisingly the only step processed at warp speed. Though our wait time is still well within average guidelines, the fact that it’s been over 60 days simply for permission to get married is ludicrous. It’s not at all as the movies and sitcoms have led me to believe. I went into this thinking we’d move in together, file some notarized long forms to official and important people and eventually be taken into a room where I’d be grilled on things like the location of his birthmarks and how often he uses the bathroom. We’d adorably laugh at our cultural differences until one day his green card would appear—cue the laugh track and roll the matrimonial credits. Everyone wins. Little did I know we’d be tossed into the world’s busiest DMV line while remaining on our respective sides of the Atlantic (imagine that scene in Beetlejuice when they take a number that resembles tickertape as they wait for their afterlife caseworker), only I have no idea what number I’m holding and only one window is open for business.

Because of the intricate forms, ever-changing guidelines, and vague instructions time seems to have stopped. I find myself getting offended by calendars and aggravated when the seasons aren’t changing fast enough. In a matter of seconds I can obtain a quiche recipe, blueprints to my childhood home, the Pythagorean Theorem and Paris Hilton’s birthday but I can’t get my fiancé into the country in under seven months? In an age of instant gratification this seems unacceptable. Now if you will excuse me, I have more pacing to do.

Maybe I should take up smoking for dramatic effect.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

American [nouns], American [verbs]

I wrote an essay to myself once, trying to figure America out. You know, the way de Tocqueville, Twain, Thoreau and a bunch of other writers whose surnames didn't begin with T did. And you know what kind of unites them? The fact that none of them could really define it. So what the hell was I trying to do? Well, I was flying to Montreal and I was bored, and listening to Bruce Springsteen (chalk him up on the list of American Commentators), and I had a notepad. Seemed to make sense at the time.

The problem with writing about America is repetition. Whatever you think about it, someone has written about it before. However, right now in the endless running battles between the Left and the Right, the great thinkers of our generation are so preoccupied with beating down each other that there seems to be a lack of people actually talking about the whole. The coin is spinning, and right now each side is so caught up arguing about which way it should fall that nobody's actually watching the thing as it rolls towards the edge of the table.

I'm not saying I am that commentator; the above metaphor alone should be cause for exclusion on the grounds of Prime Wankery. However, I love talking about America. I do a really rubbish Devil's Advocate bit; I defend America when talking to Americans, but with a cautionary note in my voice, and I explain why America is dumb to non-Americans, despite having a pretty extensive knowledge of why America is, in many ways, actually pretty awesome. So that nobody comes away with any changed opinions of the country, but have a story about a guy they know who went there and said this about that, which conveniently backs up exactly what they want to say. I'm a kind of sycophantic sociologist.

What I usually say about America is that it is in possession of the greatest potential of any country on this planet. In a purely scientific way; potential as stored, unused energy: the great power/great responsibility argument from Spiderman, or Peter Parker's Power Paradigm (go ahead, it's ok to hate me. Every sigh has a teeny carbon footprint; you can't get self-righteous). There have been plenty of outbursts of this potentiality in the last hundred years or so. Hiroshima' every Olympic Games since the 1930s, Orson Welles, the moon landings, Vietnam... ok, it's kind of hard to talk about America's place in the twentieth century and beyond without drawing attention to its baffling fondness for shitting all over ideologies it doesn't agree with, but there you go.

So you have this potential, which comes from two things: the circumstances of the nation's birth, and the self-mythologising that Americans seem better at than any other nationality.

It really was a great experiment, and the experiment is still going on. Founding a country on a set of principals, rather than on tribal, religious (whatever certain Americans would say) or other grounds which would base the country's foundings on exclusion of a particular group- the United States invited everyone who shared common ideas of positivity to join them. Then they got all arsey in the 1950s about immagants comin' over an' takin' their jobs and their women, but the principal is sound. OK, so it took until the 1960s to get a Catholic president, and that didn't go down too well, and a goddamn century and a half after saying "hey, you're alright!" to African Americans before one of them became POTUS (I love that acronym. It's kind of adorable), and they've still not had a woman C-in-C (it's getting hard to think up presidential synonyms) (and I pray to God [or at least put my faith in Darwinism] that Sarah Palin doesn't get there first). Perhaps E Pluribus Unum should be amended to have " long as Whitey goes first" after it. But I digress. It's too easy to slip into stereotypical observations about the apparently hypocritical division between the intentions and the reality of America.

And there's the kicker (I feel I should replace Shakespeareanisms like "aye, there's the rub" for nonsensical American sports-slang here). America is the the only country founded on intentions. The Declaration of Independence is the equivalent of a 17-year-old talking about when they move out of their parents' house: "I'm gonna have this really sweet pad with all my buddies where everyone can do what they want and we'll party all the time, man this is gonna be awesome." And then they end up paying the Mexicans next door to do all their cleaning, and they go across the street and steal a bunch of snacks from the Asian grocery store, and when they get wise, the Middle-Eastern place next door. Are you getting the satire here?

We get it, America. You're not like other countries. Everybody knows your name. But then, pretty much everybody knows Michael Jackson's name. You gotta do something that keeps you from degenerating into a circus freak suffering pre-mortem decomposition.

So America writes songs. And novels, and screenplays, and plays, and blogs, and op-ed pieces, and YouTube comments. The self-myth is something uniquely American. I don't know whether it grew out of insecurity; a young nation needing to prove itself (John Winthrop's City on a hill sermon on The Mayflower), boasting about its wide rivers, broad deserts, fertile plains, the whole gamut of frankly ostentatious landscapes. There's the immigrant element as well. However shitty your life in the Old Country was, nostalgia's a bitch, and so you sing songs of your homeland, and eventually that elegiac, lyrical style settles itself in the songs of the new country.

Take Bruce Springsteen (yes I bloody love him is there a problem with that? no? ok). New Jersey is comparable to Yorkshire- working class, proud of it, and proud of the hardworking spirit of its inhabitants. Somehow Springsteen can throw out references to places as stupidly-named as Mahwah and inject it with the romance of drudgery. We have the Arctic Monkeys singing about Rotherham, but the whole point of it is the utterly unattractive status of the post-industrial north of England. There are no ballads to Birmingham, no loving paeans to Liverpool, not in the modern canon anyway. Obviously The Beatles don't count because they were making it up as they went along.

The point is, America is extremely good at talking about itself unselfconsciously. That's the admirable side to patriotism, being so proud of the place you're from that you want to share it with the world. It's when you make the transition from sharing to imposing your values, ideologies and culture on other nationalities that patriotism becomes, as Wilde put it, "the virtue of the vicious".

I know very few un-patriotic Americans. I know those who rejected the Bush presidency, apologised for the behaviour of their military, hung their heads in shame at Michael Bay movies, but still defended their belief in America's, well, not superiority as such, just America's firm sense of itself. And in doing so won more respect than they would have done just pretending to be Canadian.

When you ask "what is America", the question is the answer. This was where I started my essay on that flight nearly four years ago. You don't ask "what is Norway?", or "what does it mean to be Portuguese?". You may as what is in those countries, or what it is like to live there, but America is the only country that exists philosophically as well as physically.

It's a state of mind.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

An Open Letter to The Golden State

Dear California-

I am sick and tired of your bullshit. Scratch that—your inherent flawlessness and endless adoring masses has been making me physically ill for decades. Your tanned blonde sirens, leather-skinned Orange County housewives, New Age medical professionals and frivolous surfers have hypnotized the world. The Beach Boys have urged the country’s entire female population to emulate your example. John Steinbeck published hundreds of pages describing your utopia of ripened fruit and American Dreams. Chefs both aspiring and adorned flock to your delicious hillsides just to smell your wine and feast on your harvests. Children from distant nations reenact gunfight scenes in the streets, shooting each other with invisible pistols from Hollywood’s infinite cinematic offerings. Hippies and freethinkers migrate from every state just to bask in Berkeley’s stale pot smoke. Everyone wants a piece. Everyone wants that chance to go west and claim stake in a place where the sun never sets, the earth shakes, and gold and gay rights flow like bong water. I’m fatigued with your fanaticism.

I am a Chicago Girl, born-and-raised. I like my hot dogs toppling with needless condiments, pizza slices inflexible (food should not fold), weather ever-changing, and city centers near man-made beaches. I want my wind to be stinging and my seasons up for debate. I relish in corrupt and melodramatic politics, thrive on rickety elevated transport, and swoon at the unfathomable architectural marvels that await every corner. I am of the Second City, the Windy City, the City of Big Shoulders—Chicago is a force to be reckoned with. We are fed up with being a forgotten metropolis.

Look, I realize you aren’t in this alone. Everyone knows you are working quite closely with your accomplice (New York) but it is your monopoly on the Pacific—and the coolness factor of an entire nation—that I take issue with. You two simply cannot have the whole country. I’ve had it with the way you waltz into the cafeteria with your supermodel cohorts, smug freedoms, and scenic geography—acting like the Pied Piper of Suave as residents of other states rise up and dance to your tune without looking back. Your debonair countenance entrances our promising youth and talented idols until they are powerless to resist—leaving our once vibrant land increasingly barren. Most of your army in vogue were once of other cities and lands. You steal our best and brightest then brand them with California’s finest. It simply isn’t fair.

Yes, I too will soon journey to Magicland and see for myself what all of the fuss is about. Eventually I’ll be among millions of misplaced and newly enchanted San Francisco inhabitants frolicking in the vertical streets trying to find my footing amidst creative homeless and stoned dwellers. I will feel the ground shake and squint in the rapid clouds of fog—feeling the sea breeze on my face as my legs ache from dramatic elevation. Perhaps an anti-war academic will feast on my flesh, transforming me into a California-loving zombie and I will succumb to the frenzy. They will find me wandering aimlessly along the Golden Gate Bridge with glazed over eyes and dreadlocks muttering about dilemmas like gig indecisiveness or having spoiled fine wine in my cellar. Regardless of what happens to me know this: I love the City by the Lake and you will never take my freedom.

With Love and Spite,


Thursday, 19 August 2010

Why I'm Leaving (Apart From Love)

Most people in the office don't wear ties. I guess if you wear a tie for long enough, you start to think about nooses. Neese. Noosae? Noose. I like just "noose". Plural the same as the singular, like sheep. I make up word games for myself between the hours of 10 and 4. My office days are parenthesised by two windows of work first thing in the morning and last thing in the afternoon. "Parenthesised" makes me think of anaesthetised. On a Monday morning, if you start on the backbeat half a bar earlier than normal, you can sing "thirty-seven-point-five hours to go, I wanna be sedated" to the tune of the Ramones song.

Can you name twenty-six bands or artists, A through Z, who, in alphabetical order, had their creative peak after the previous artist but before the subsequent one? It starts easy; Abba, Blur, Coldplay, but you quickly run out unless you're careful. You can drop the prefix on "The" bands, obviously. You have to start pretty early in the 1950s and even then it gets difficult as you get to the end. You get some interesting combinations, and part of the challenge is matching the progression to the advancements of my own personal musical tastes. It doesn't always work: Oasis; Portishead; Quaye comma Finlay. And the (The) Roots, because I have controversial views on the creative progression of Radiohead, and don't want to get drawn into an argument. As if there were anybody in this office with whom I could have an argument about Radiohead. I'm particularly proud of White Stripes, Xiu Xiu, Yeasayer, but then I got stuck on a recent Z band. The time limit on such games is however long it takes until someone comes to me with some work to do, which makes it unreliably finite. I keep a running list of countries of the world and their capitals on a notepad file in my documents. My knowledge of geography is pretty weak, so small victories like Rabat, Morocco (and spelling Morocco right first time) are what passes for job satisfaction. The best thing about home-brewed mind games is that you can bend the rules.

The worst thing about intra-office mind games is that nobody knows the rules. Animosities roughly follow the chain of command. It's a two-way street; contempt drips down the chain and resentment clambers up. I am stuck somewhere in the middle so that to the untrained eye or pervertedly logical mind or perhaps just a non-English-speaker, between contempt and resentment I appear to have found contentment. The irony appears to have escaped my colleagues only because they don't seem to know what irony is. Or forgot what it was long ago. Irony describes the taste of the water in the office kitchen. We have a tap water cooler, though at least this ensures water cooler conversations that are less pretentious than those in offices which dispense water from those huge bottle which will one day soon become the primary form of currency on this little island. I imagine they make wonderful floatation devices for when the waters rise, and the city sinks at every high tide.

I have two low baffles around my desk; one in front dividing me from the desk opposite, and one to my side, blocking out light from the already-pathetically-light-impoverished window. I have these two low walls because I sit on the end of a row. The guy next to me only has one. Personal items and photographs must be stored overnight in your desk drawer. Everyone has a mug. They commemorate sporting events, or proclaim the drinker-from-which to be a totally crazy chick, or call attention to the owner's love of cats. I have no mug. Well. Actually. I have a mug, and I am very fond of it. It is a cream-and-orange Penguin Classics mug, showing the front cover of an early edition of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four (no hyphen in "Eighty Four". These things are important). It was a gift from someone who appreciates the mundanities of the office life. Working for a government department (War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Unemployment is Work. Arbeit Macht Frei?), I like the idea of indulging my caffeine addiction (coffeeslave in Newspeak) in an Orwell mug. And I call the confidential waste bins that line the corridors Memory Holes, but only in my head. See comment above re: coworkers and irony. But in reality I buy my coffee from the grumpy vending machine in the tiny cafeteria because I refuse to bring my mug to work. It's a small step from leaving personal items overnight to paying into the company pension fund.

Someone told me once that you can't lead a horse backwards out of a stable because it doesn't believe that anything it can't see exists. I am part of the generation that has managed to separate pride from prudence and refuses to think of a future that it can't see. So I have two walls of my own, and these must be surrendered when I leave. Two walls, and a tie.

It's a game. I wear ties that straddle the borders of taste; trench warfare in smart-casual no man's land. I want people to look at me and wonder if I really think that the ties I wear look good, or if I am taking the piss. There isn't enough ambiguity in my office. Some regions have a stark and rigorously-enforced caste system based on pay grade, whilst others are more liberal. Cross-cultural programme try to promote understanding between sections, but the only understanding that is gained is that cross-cultural programmes are a waste of everybody's time. It's the twenty-first century anthropology; studying isolated groups in the same office environment. Does the work done affect the dynamic within the group? Nature or nurture? But back to the ties. I have a glorious blue paisley monstrosity, and an art deco three-tone grey number, and pink, cubist flowers on navy blue silk, which I like to wear with a shirt that looks like it was made from a tea towel. I have a black and orange, diagonally-striped tie just a little too wide at the bottom, and when I wear it with my orange and brown pinstriped shirt I want to start smoking and being casually, institutionally sexist, racist, homophobic, listening to Mud and Slade and generally acting like it's 1975. On those days, I really feel my sideburns.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Pulp Non-Fiction

Before we go any further, know this:

We hate you, and want you to hate us. What other explanation could there be? Perhaps it's arrogance, or jealousy. Or hubris, or insecurity. We will go out of our way to create an atmosphere of antipathy towards ourselves. We won't use guns, we won't use bombs, we'll use the one thing we've got more of: that's our sentimental, saccharine and florid prose.

Good. That out of the way, some corrections, clarifications and addenda:

Overly clicky flashlight: This was a battery-less torch powered by hand-squeezing motion, the sort of thing that millionaire inventors develop for use in earthquake-prone third world countries (like America? ooooooh satire). It actually proved kind of useless as it was impossible to erect (hur hur) a tent whilst using it as it required near-constant pumping to remain alight. This year, we learned our lesson, and brought a car into the campsite.

Vinyl-covered Kremlin: My friend Chris found this in the basement of his apartment building in SF, along with most of his furniture. It proved very useful for exactly four days.

Steep, disjointed hills of San Francisco: fuck you, bitch. Steep, maybe. Disjointed? You just jealous of my adopted topography (adopography?).

Encapsulated spontaneity? Sure, why not. I was on a Kerouac kick that year, except with a credit card and internal flights instead of riding the rails. So, uh, not at all like Kerouac, which is kind of a good thing as I think he was a bit of a tit really. Point is, I had the time, money and motivation to be spontaneous that year. I've tried telling her this but somehow we only seem to spend time together in situations that end up being awesome. I think this is a good sign.

Oh, and thanks, I've now got the Tetris music stuck in my head.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

I Can Tell That We're Going to be Friends

It all started with an unknown California phone number illuminating my screen like a beacon of curiosity. I was driving through the Arizona darkness on a stretch of desert highway somewhere between Phoenix and Los Angeles when something started vibrating. At first I wasn’t sure if the sound was part of Bjork’s Volta—blaring from the car stereo and bouncing off the passing cacti—or in fact coming from my purse. I picked up the phone and was greeted by He; an excited, inquisitive ball of energy wrapped in a charming British accent. He wanted to proclaim his arrival and know my whereabouts. It’s a shame I hadn’t a clue who he was or how he acquired my contact information.

As it turns out, the Internet is quite useful. He had obtained my number from the aforementioned messageboard, where I distributed it like bits of stale bread to hungry pigeons in an attempt to gather the World’s Largest Arcade Fire Fan Campout Desert Extravaganza (I may have been a bit ambitious). I wanted everyone there and ready for a hurdy-gurdy dance party. He was already waiting at the campsite equipped with an overly clicky flashlight, more British accents and a tent the size of a vinyl-covered Kremlin. I introduced myself, and within a few hours we were running through the polo fields to greet the next arrivals—our shadows monstrous on the lush grass bathed in floodlights—with an Arcade Fire flag and a future.

It was this unbridled enthusiasm that would later inspire him to hop a plane from the steep, disjointed hills of San Francisco to the flat, structured grids of Chicago to see that same illustrious Montreal band with me a few weeks later. Maybe it was the fact that he was enamored with an often-shaking city in California living out the dreams in a Steinbeck novel or the refrain from a Bruce Springsteen song, but He was seemingly unstoppable. He encapsulated spontaneity. It was as if every step we took together was instant nostalgia for seconds passed. Alas, back then He was just a friend staying in a faraway state about to ship off to his faraway home across the sea.

So yes, we’re getting married. There is much more to the tale, but I’ll spare you the potentially nauseating details for now and return to feverishly checking our visa application status on the USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) website just to be greeted with bureaucratic stagnancy. It’s as if our lives are stuck on the first level of Tetris with a broken fast-drop button. We know exactly where we want the pieces to lay, but we’re forced into a virtual Purgatory until further notice.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

She and me (That's how it starts...)

Think of the most romantic moment of your life; work that memory of yours hard. I want you to taste that memory. The eyes that you looked into, the skin you touched and the hair you smelt. Or perhaps there was nobody there but you. A letter dropped through the door onto the mat, and you opened it, and read the words you were longing to read; or the words you didn't expect to read; or the words you never thought anyone would ever write to you.

Yeah, it didn't quite happen like that. I met She in a field in a valley; gentle warmth radiating from the earth, baked but soft, like chocolate brownies, amidst palm trees and gruff, reassuring mountains... alright, I gotta stop that. It was Coachella 2007, Thursday evening, as folks were arriving and setting up camp. She had a flag and a boyfriend, I had a couple carloads of friends from San Francisco and the UK, and a girlfriend. We set up in a rough corridor of fans obsessed/enamoured with/y'know, kinda fond of Arcade Fire, courtesy of Us Kids Know. Well, courtesy of She. She had organised the partitioning of an area of campsite for us to congregate and talk about Montreal, the Butler brothers and that tall ginger guy who looks like Napoleon Dynamite. She had done this group camp thing before; with, um, Radiohead fans. Yeah.

It wasn't an auspicious kind of meeting; for me it felt like I was collecting friends. I spent most of that year trying to collect friends. I spent '06-'07 in San Francisco on a study exchange program. It was a year spent in bars and parties and restaurants and classes and apartments and parks and in the back rooms of San Francisco's only independent Pirate Supply Store. I had around 50 weeks to collect experiences, memories and ticket stubs before I returned to Loughborough, and Norwich. So I was on a hang-the-expense, if-it-feels-good-do-it kind of trip. Pay attention to that intention, it turns out kind of important a little further down the line.

So there we were. Like-minded people meeting and talking and laughing and drinking, in a hot-as-balls desert location that nobody in their right mind would think a suitable venue for a three-day music festival. Oh, California. Crazy...

Flash forward three and a bit years, and we're getting married.

What the Eff? You know, I'll let her fill you in on the details. She's good at that; my memory's awful, even when it comes to happy memories. If time is a river, my memory is one thousand, seven hundred and thirty-three yellow plastic ducks, released at the same time, all sponsored by a child or a family or a corporation or a Rotary Club or a Masonic Lodge or boy scouts for £1/$1 each with the proceeds going to charity and the winner getting a bike or a blue plaque or a pat on the back. They bob down the river, most of them staying all together but a few get lodged between tree branches, or stuck in weeds, or fished out by a curious heron, and stay where they are. And that's my memory.


So. She is American as St Patrick's Day and The Godfather; I am as English as Neil Gaiman and Burger King. See, because Burger King is American but someone once told me it was originally an English chain, and because it is "King" it suggests monarchy, which England is, and... oh, nevermind, the analogy made sense to me. I want to live in America, She wants to live in England, setting the scene for a comedy of hilarious misunderstandings and, oh, wait, not that at all.

We each want to be in the other's country. And be with each other. Well, shit. Solution: get married, move to San Francisco! Look, it makes more sense if she explains it, ok?

This is just the rambling introduction that will be tied together intricately and satisfyingly as the series/movie/novel/blog progresses. Trust me.


What happens is, we use this blog to discuss the progress of my visa application so I can actually go to America and marry this most excellent of women and we can start living the way we want to live. In the meantime, we will be posting here about exactly how we plan to go about doing this. And some random stuff as well.

I write fiction and songs, she writes journalism and insightful, incisive and surprising emails. Some of these may appear here. Sometimes I might post about a nice meal I had. Sometimes I might go weeks without posting (I say "I", I don't want to cast aspersions on Her productivity/motivation). Kind of going for a bittersweet, arms-reaching-towards-each-other-in-a-futile-ballet-of-ocean-divided-love (yeah, the Atlantic is like the world's biggest cock-block right now), rising towards a cathartic, sickening conclusion when we get married and go all lovey-dovey. I wouldn't read this blog if I were you.


Also. We both kinda like music, so, uh, here you go.

Songs listened to whilst writing this post, dithering beforehand:

British Sea Power: Waving Flags
Mountain Goats: Distant Stations
Journey: Ask The Lonely
Nirvana: Tourettes
Chris Isaac: Wicked Game
Laura Marling: Shine
Mountain Goats: 1 John 4:16
Broken Records: Slow Parade
Jets To Brazil: In The Summers When You Really Know
The National: Fake Empire
The Magnetic Fields: The Luckiest Guy On The Lower East Side
Manic Street Preachers: 4st 7lbs
Bruce Springsteen/Seeger Sessions Band: Mrs McGrath
Gomez: Bring It On
Aesop Rock: None Shall Pass
TV On The Radio: Walking The Cow

Note: no symbolism is to be inferred by the use of any of these songs. Especially not Journey.