A Man For All Cities

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I remember, on a hazily hot July afternoon amidst the fallen pillars and broken stones of the ruins at Olympia in Greece, being thrilled to decipher one word in engraved ancient Greek whose harsh outlines had been softened by the rain of thousands of years: POLIPOLIS.

Correct me if I'm wrong, and steal that little sunny moment of smugness, but that means 'many cities'. I then figured that the slab I was running my finger over was talking about the old Olympics - that participants had come from many cities so on and so forth, blah blah blah. At that moment, standing on the site of one of the wonders of the ancient world amongst pillars which fallen thousands of years ago, where wars had been suspended in favour of sporting competition and cowering pilgrims had knelt before the giant statue of Zeus holding a man-sized statue in the palm of his hand, a place known throughout the world as one of past grandeur, glory, and civilisation, I felt like I could conquer the fucking world because I understood one word on an old stone.

You couldn't have hidden my ego behind Zeus, had he still been sitting there.

Another time - a grey Sunday in London. An impromptu trip for two to the capital, born of waking very early in the morning for a hotel restaurant breakfast shift which didn't need us, and standing, directionless, on the hill facing the ugly brick and cement backside of the hotel.
"Do you want to go to London?" she asked. I didn't see why not.
We were High School poor - enough money for a coach ticket and maybe a bite to eat somewhere, but not much else. This was why we got up at 5.30 am on Sundays for a little pocket money. I confess I was a bit keen on her. I wanted her to like me. I changed into jeans and a sweater from my black weskit and bow tie, and in a moment of foolishness, I decided to leave my glasses at home. We met half an hour later at the bus stop, and head off across the Island to the ferry.
My eyesight back then wasn't terrible, but it wasn't great. As my optician put it, I could see a bus coming from the other end of the street, but I couldn't see its number.
I hadn't been to London very much before, and when we came out of Victoria station, fresh tube tickets in hand, I became incredibly intimidated by the feel of the city around me. The height of everything was oppressive, and the fact that I couldn't see anything clearly wasn't helping. I got scared, claustrophobic.
It was something I felt whenever I went into London for years afterwards, finally dispelled by living nearby and becoming more and more familiar with the life and the feel of the city around, above, and under me - motion in all dimensions, in all directions, as far as I could see.

I think the feeling I had when I stepped out of Victoria station was one of panic for good reason - I was out of place. I didn't really know how to deal with London. I mean, what do you do?

I picked these two moments to illustrate a couple of times when knowledge and experience, or a lack of both, evoked different feelings.

To say that someone is cosmopolitan is to say that they are at home in many countries, that they are worldly. The word cosmopolitan comes from Greek for universe, or all-encompassing (thank you Wikipedia) and the good old -city suffix. All cities.

New York challenges me in ways which leave me feeling simple, uncultured, and ignorant. Inexperienced. Naive.
Feeling as though I don't know nearly as much about Korean, Chinese or Brasilian cuisine as I should. Or speak enough Spanish. The variants of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism which pepper the city are either vaguely familiar or completely unknown to me. Politics, movements, sexualities, civil rights, drugs, activism, music, alcohol , problems, injustice, freedom, pumpernickel bagels.

Krissa has answered hundreds upon hundreds of inane, 'What's that?' questions.
She even puts up with me ordering bizarre things off takeaway menus to hear her try and pronounce them on the telephone (Moo Goo Gai Pan from Astoria's excellent 'No. 1 Chinese' is my current favourite).

I started off on this tack because of the co-incidence of two things - the first being Krissa recommending that I start reading 'Geek Love' by Katherine Dunn, a book we borrowed from fish a while ago. With a title like that, and, I'm unashamed to say, because it had come from the bookshelves of one of the internet's foremost literary ladies, you would forgive me for thinking that it was about Internet romance.

Oh no.
Instead I am now a hundred or so pages into a story which repels and compels me, with the latter winning. It challenges me in my graphic imagination to conjure disabled or freakish individuals, described with a super-realist's touch for the repulsive and unsavoury. A 'geek' used to mean someone who bit the heads off living chickens in front of an audience.
Apparently.
Now I'm all for books which challenge you, which evoke feeling and emotion with words, but there is something bitterly compelling in the gruesome detail. Something which has me wondering at my own preconceptions and prejudices, working loose those old fundamental assumptions and maybe decades-old untouched thoughts about appearance, personality and, well, it has to be said, deformity.
These are all unusual things, challenging and changing things. Taking you on a tour of things you haven't thought of or fully explored yourself and pointing gleefully at the macabre and perverse on the way.
You might think it pretty extreme...and for the most part, it is.
How many people will have to come to terms with the sort of problems of sexual identity expressed in the novel 'Middlesex' by Jeffrey Eugenides? Not that many, it has to be said, but the book is outstanding; I know the book did a few rounds amongst bloggers and made the bestseller lists around the world. So maybe the world, after walking a few miles in that character's shoes, is a little more used to the idea of hermaphroditism.
Maybe.

So here's me, reeling a little bit, it has to be said, under the weight of a bundle of kitsch preconceptions and (non-judgmental) prejudices that are undergoing a daily battering at the typing hands of Katherine Dunn, and then I go out for a drink with Kate, Biscuit, Mike and Krissa.
At a gay bar.

It just so happens that I'd never been to a gay bar before.

I think, had I not been reading the book I'm reading, I would have taken it more in my stride. I'm NOT suggesting that the first-time experience of a Manhattan gay bar is comparable to the challenging mindset of seeing things from the perspective of an albino hairless midget who lives and works in a family-run freakshow.

I'm saying that to me, dawdling along in my little world of limited knowledge and experience, both reading the book and being served cocktails by a muscly half-naked man talking casually about methods of anal drug-taking (and I KNOW that this is an horrifically pigeonhole-able example, but it did happen), are new things. They're like stepping out of Victoria station without my glasses on and suddenly realising that I'm not sure how to deal with it all.
They're both an addition to that experience, an extension of my knowledge.

I'm still reading the book, and I'm still compelled.
There's a difference between feeling threatened by your lack of experience and geniunely being threatened. I was nervous to begin with in the bar because I thought it was an environment I knew nothing about, where I didn't belong -both of which are utter crap - I was drinking with friends and trust me, I know more than a little bit about drinking establishments.
And that night with friends at Splash, I chilled out, I relaxed, and I enjoyed myself.

It's difficult to feel threatened by a book which presents you with something you haven't seen or known before, unless it's a heavy Swedish encyclopedia being held above your head.

Anyway.
Sitting on a bench in Brooklyn Bridge Park the next day eating my lunch and looking at the vista of downtown Manhattan, I set to thinking about sophistication and what it means to be cosmopolitan.
I think it would mean being au fait with the culture and manner of the whole world, where nothing is new to you, nothing is surprising. You are at home everywhere, understanding of everything, never nervous, never impressed...

And while there is of course something in that which appeals to me, I don't want it - I don't want to be like that.

I want to go on discovering, go on asking these 'What's that?' questions, expanding my experience whilst at the same time knowing that while in the future there might be a day when I'll know my way around the menu in a Korean restaurant, a day when I'll be able to talk sideburns with a Hasidic Jew, and maybe even a day when I'll try a pumpernickel bagel, I am going to be jealously guarding and enjoying the continuous rollercoaster that is my epic ignorance of the world until the day I die.

Eight Weeks

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Now you may or may not have noticed that there wasn't a diet post last week.

If you didn't notice you probably clicked on to another blog, and thought that there has been a general lack of posts going on around these parts, and if you did notice, you observant so-and-so, then you probably had a little chuckle to yourself at the big brash diet blogger who suddenly shied away from the limelight.

Well yah boo sucks to you, you naysaying naysayer, you.
Going around saying nay like that.
Who do you think you are?

Well, everyone else, here's what happened. At last week's Weight Watchers' meeting I weighed in and was so surprised at the readout that I thought I'd better not post it for fear of soliciting cries of fie and concern from you gentlefolk.
I wasnae well, y'see, and so I thought that the reading might be awry through me being a little feverish and chill-ridden.

According to the scales, I had lost 5.8lb in one week.
So I thought I'd leave the publication of this overweight pilgrim's progress until this week, when the true story of what was going on had emerged.

And true enough, last night I stepped onto the scales and I was exactly the same weight as last week. I like to think that I was maybe a little lighter through illness and then marked time, consolidating matters.

Or whatever. Point of fact is that over the last two weeks I lost 5.8lb, bringing my 8 week total up to 23lb lost.

Krissa and I are more active, and we're playing tennis at every given opportunity...and I feel great.

One For The Dictionary

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There should be a word for the feeling you get when, trying to feel as un-hungover as humanly possible the morning after a great party, you come back to the computer and see all the google results for 'brandy cocktail'.

And Your Face

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Spring has sprung, and with it a host of realisations about the city I call home.

New York can be beautiful.
I'm not talking about the aesthetic merits of the architecture of an individual building, nor the sweep of majesty presented to the upward-pointing eye beneath the looming towers of smoked glass, steel, concrete and brickwork. And not even the sense in which an ant farm can be beautiful, when you being to understand a little of how the teeming mass functions as a whole.

I'm talking about sunshine and warmth - something, as a March visitor and an October immigrant, I haven't seen in New York. I'm talking about the blooming of the spindly black-branched trees which were so much background in Winter, the sensation of sitting in a packed city square at lunchtime and enjoying the sun through the flowers in the trees, the breeze on your face, and the sight of traffic and buildings and tarmac and blue sky and architecture and youth and beauty and age and grace and curiosity and all of these sights and sensations in one sweep of your eyes up and around from your lunchtime reading.
And the sound of it all.

I know warmth and weather has a lot to do with it, but come on, I'm letting them have a lot to do with it, and I'm seeing the city in a whole new, brighter light.

Hell, I liked it here when it was colder than I'd ever thought possible.

Saturday

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We woke up late, ate a light breakfast of fruit - Krissa making a delicate meal of half a cantaloupe melon, me fighting with a grapefruit - and we gathered our things for tennis.

We wandered out onto the courts in the breeze and the sunshine and played for a little over an hour, not playing for points, just knocking balls about, having fun, laughing, running for errant balls before they bounced into serious people's games.

We stopped when we were tired enough and sat on the bench next to our empty court, watching the other players. Balls shot back and forth on all the courts, irregularly, but with a short, effortless rhythm, like complex clockwork filled with all the sounds of the coming summer.

We walked back to our apartment from Astoria Park, and we went out again almost immediately, buying bagels and coffee and sitting in the square while old ladies gossiped across concrete chess tables with their shopping trollies parked around them, and skateboarders rattled across the tiles and leapt and skidded past the Greek statuary under the shade of the trees.

We picked up our laundry, came home again and abandoned our plans for the Museum of Natural History, and packed a bag with books, the New York Times, a blanket and some fruit, and headed for the park by the river. The wind had picked up, but we laid the blanket out on the gently sloping grass and started to read. We half watched the wedding party posing for photographs in front of the river and the bridges between the passing oily barges, the tugs nudging and towing them past the waterfront. We ate apples, took silly pictures, kissed, watched a black dog cracking a broken white frisbee.

We finally decided that we were cold, and decided to come home for a pot of tea before going out for the evening's meal. The shadows were long on the streets of Astoria, but we always crossed to the sunny sides of the streets.

Coming back onto the street where we live, we spotted an air conditioning unit next to a tree with the note, 'This works, please take - free' sellotaped onto the front.

This sort of thing isn't unheard of in New York. If you've got something cumbersome like a desk or a table and you want to get rid of it, you could try and sell it, but it's far easier to just cart it out onto the street and wait.

Anyway, behind the air conditioner was a 20" television with a built-in VCR...with an identical note.

I'm not kidding, I'm not lying, I'm not making this up.

We have just enjoyed a practically perfect Saturday afternoon, and we got a free television.

I may be right, I may be wrong,
But I'm perfectly willing to swear
That when you turned and smiled at me,
A nightingale sang in Herald Square.


I read an article in the New York edition of that haplessly global publication, 'Metro' yesterday, and it was written by Ryn Gargulinski, a New Yorker who has moved to New Mexico. So says Ms. G, 'culture shock is not some obvious, earth-shattering thing...I was erroneously waiting for that bolt of lightning from the sky, or candy-coated dreams of taxi cabs...'.

You see. When people move, when they transplant, they're expecting a shock of something. A change wheeled in by stagehands accompanied by a twenty-trombone fanfare and a choir straining four types of harmony out of the phrase 'What do you mean, you don't know what crisps are?'

But things don't happen like that, especially when the day to day business of change occupies you so directly there is little time to reflect on differences.

I haven't exactly made it secret on here, but I'll continue to allude to it in non-Google-friendly phrasing - I'm working at a large store in Midtown. Some might say that it is the most largestest shop in the world. Today I had cause to sit for a second next to a window. The window looked onto a balcony which wasn't meant for people, and below Broadway and 6th Avenue toiled away, the whistle of a traffic policeman shrieking above the rumble.

A slanting charge of sunlight competed with the flickering spot lamps above my seat, and the warmth of it was on my back. Then a shrill song pierced the low comatose noise of the city, it warbled, and it trilled. I turned to look along the balcony, rough with rubble and the fragments of broken glass from years gone by but I couldn't see the bird who was singing.

And all of a sudden I thought of London, a city I know much less well than New York, and of a song from a long time ago, and then the song made me think of Vera Lynn and the time in which she was famous, which made me think about the Downs above the town where I grew up, and the old foundations of the fledgling radar towers there buried under hungry gorse, and the tiny yellow flowers in the summer and the rabbits scurrying to ground beneath them and the view and smell of the sea and the jumble of tall town houses on the slopes.

So I had a pang of homesickness, but it made me happy to hear birdsong in such a manically concrete and human place.

Blurtle

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I'm being crap about blogging, aren't I?

Still, never mind.

Yours adoringly (seriously)

Stuart

PS: I'm still here, I'm just knackered. Werk and all that.

Six Weeks

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Down a mere and disappointing 1lb to 17.2lb lost total so far.

Still, it's better than a kick in the head, as my old drill instructor used to say.

One Foot And Then The Other

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The annual AIDS walk is coming up.

In case any of you missed the last few episodes: AIDS still kills. HIV has become more and more livable - advances in medication have been miraculous, giving sufferers longer, more precious existences.

AIDS still kills, and anyone with HIV can develop it, with no order, no warning, no longterm prior indication. That's it.
That's the deal.

The advances in the treatments for HIV give me hope.
Here was this duo of diseases that the world stood aghast at ten years ago, shocked at our unpreparedness, our ignorance, and we have worked, we have striven...and we have made advances. The mercilessness of AIDS is not an absolute - it cannot be. Given time and means, we can beat it.

Time happens of its own accord, it is true, but means, well. We all face a daily battle to ensure that we can eat and live and prosper, but the ability to further research for disease rests upon each of our shoulders - the power is in our hands.

The thing in your hand right now is a mouse...so use it to click on this link:

Donate To the NY 2005 AIDS Walk: Change The Course Of The Epidemic

Let me address a few issues you might have.
AIDS is still overwhelmingly real. In the developed world the rate of spread may be dropping, but it is dropping from a rate which is too high. In South Africa, without wanting to blind you with statistics, here's an indication of how bad things are: Sesame Street in South Africa have introduced an HIV positive character. Education and prejudice and the need to do something are all there. All that is lacking is action.

Please: donate if you can. $1 is the minimum...how would you be if you skipped a bottle of mineral water tomorrow? A chocolate bar? A newspaper?
I think you'd be okay, no? You'd cope.

Meanwhile, there are phalanxes upon legions of workers waiting to solve one of the most vital medical enigmas of our time, just waiting in the wings.

The link is there, peeps: it's even through Amazon.com, on the basis that most of you have an amazon account...

Everything is gratefully accepted.

New York City Life

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7.00am Wake up
7.20am Get out of bed. Shower, make coffee
8.00am Leave house, after eating toast, printing freelance proofreading script, kissing wife.
8.10am Catch subway train. Sit and proofread a TV script about Argentinian cattle farmers translated into English from German.
8.40am Disembark. Enter current place of work still reading script. Fold script and put away as elevator reaches right floor.
9.00am Start intense, finickety work. Consider bringing in sunglasses the next day, and disregard the idea for the 8th time.
12.00midday Stop work, head to office, sit, eat sandwich whilst continuing to proofread script, editing with a too-thick pen which you know will be hard to read later.
1.00pm Stop lunchtime freelance proofreading. Start the afternoon's work.
5.30pm Stop day's 9-5 work, walk to Times Square. Meet and kiss wife. Catch subway home. Proofread a bit en route.
6.00pm Arrive in Queens. Rush home, change.
6.30pm Arrive at tennis courts, worrying about the feeling of imminent rain on the wind. Play tennis anyway.
7.25pm Stop tennis, kiss wife. Return home.
8.00pm Go out on errands. Grocery shopping, drycleaning, ATM.
8.40pm Shower (again). While in shower hear wife bemoaning fact that most of the OC is in fact over. Do small victory dance. Wife orders Chinese food.
9.00pm Sit down to Chinese food, watch half of Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
9.15pm Embarrass self in front of wife at how excited you are to see a childhood film.
10.00pm Start proofreading.
11.30pm Finish proofreading. Return script to Germany via email.
11.34pm Fall asleep.

So that's what I'm off to do. Krissa has fallen asleep on the futon behind me, bless her, and her entirely deniable yet cute little falsetto snore is calling me to rest.

Five Weeks

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Well, five weeks have gone and we are halfway through our pre-paid meetings allowance at Weight Watchers.

Squaring up to the scales last night, it turned out that I had lost 2.6lb in the past week, making a total of 16.2lb lost in the past five weeks, and at long last I can say that I have lost a stone.

I am pleased about this for two reasons - firstly, the weight loss itself is very gratifying, and I'm liking how light on my feet I feel when I run or play tennis...secondly because whenever anyone finds out that I'm both British and on a diet, they ask how many stone I have lost.

So...yeah! Not doing badly. I think the new job may even be helping.
Krissa and I bought Summer Tennis Permits over the weekend, and there are courts next to the running track in Astoria Park, and despite rain and unexpectedly early closing, this summer is shaping up to look pretty active, which I like.

One Liners

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My current job leaves me, at the end of the day, with a crook neck and a headache.
There is nothing I can do about this, except maybe for wearing sunglasses.
I will not wear sunglasses in my current job.
That would look weird.
Speaking of weird, last night I dreamt I was wandering in the tomb of one 'Ulug Beg'.
It was very impressive.
This is very weird.
I am madly in love with my wife and becoming more so by the day.
Earlier this evening I saw a bald man.
He had a North London accent.
He was wearing a West Bromwich Albion football shirt.
He was in our local liquor store, buying champagne.
He seemed very fussy, in his North London accented way.
This part of Queens is mine to be British and Foreign in.
Interlopers will be greeted with a stern frown.
From behind the red-wine-for-ten-dollars-and-under rack.

Part Of The Madding Crowd

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When waiting on a subway platform in New York, while the madding crowds slowly barge and bump and bumble their way along to their chosen boarding spot on the expanse of dirty granite pave, take a moment, and try and spot the batteries.

Scattered around, in the filth between the tracks, under the scampering paws of the subway rats, are literally thousands of expired AA batteries. It's a bit weird, but I suppose with the number of personal stereos the subway system has carted around over the years, the used batteries had to go somewhere. Once you see one, you might see its companion (they had to arrive in pairs, right?) and then all the others...like the playing cards in Sex and The City (or so I am reliably informed) only with more grime.
Why not make it a game? The most I've spotted from one place on a platform without moving was twenty three. Just a little thing I've started doing after three days of Queens-Midtown commute.

Tra-la.

Moving to New York was a little odd. It has a very powerful presence; you cannot escape the fact that you are in one of the great cities of the world, and at the same time, the ethnic and socio-economic harlequin that she is, New York is all-encompassing, varied, ever-changing and restless. It is not easy to feel like a part of the city. New York was the first place I experienced in the United States. I arrived as a tourist, I fell in love with a beautiful woman, and I left knowing that I was coming back to stay.
But from the moment I came back; from the moment I touched down at JFK and I made my laborious suitcase-laden way across the airport terminal linoleum clutching my passport with all the immigration papers stuck and stapled inside, I felt like a foreigner.

The feeling of being foreign goes much further than simply having to repeat myself two or three times when ordering coffee at Dunkin' Donuts. (I mean, if in that situation things go really bad I can, at a pinch, switch to schoolboy Spanish. One more for the handbasket express, please.) It's more to do with New York's spinning complexity, and watching it dance on from the sidelines - the vantage point of a resident who has only the meagrest part to play. It's been something that I had almost become accustomed to. Riding the subway into Manhattan from Queens was something I did in the afternoons to meet Krissa outside her building, or to go to the library, or for a walk down Broadway, a linger in the cafe in the Barnes and Noble at Union Square.

This week everything changed with the start of my first real job in the city. I leave home to make work for 9 o'clock, and I finish at half past five. I am jostled on packed subway trains. I am offered a copies of Metro and AM New York. I am tempted by coffee shops between my subway stop and my building, and I am leant a spring in my step from my personal stereo. I know the morning and evening security guards. I know what Midtown looks like from 20 floors up on sunny days and a misty day, and best of all, I know what it feels like to be part of the city.

In a funny way, it's worth working just for that.

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