Friday, February 8, 2013

shades of red, errrr pink.

It turns out that one of the nicest men in archery wears pink boots, but that, as they say, is a horse of a different color.

It all started out because of a conversation about guns.  Specifically, my general heebie geebieness in connection with them.  Which is funny because everyone else in my entire family has had some sort of up close and personal connection with them. My father, a soldier, used to bring them home.  My sister could have been on an Olympic team. My mother shot throughout her pregnancy with my brother until she couldn't lie on her belly any longer, which might point towards the origins of his interest in the sport, now I come to think of it.  The fact is, I am secretly proud of the fact that I have never so much as had a light sprinkling of cordite on my hands, much less fired one.

The person with whom I was having the conversation happens to own several of the damn things. Well, slightly more than several; seven, I believe.  In all fairness, he has to carry one as part of his job but still, seven?  Our conversations go something like this: Me "guns give me the heebie geebies, people get shot". Him "But what if someone broke into your apartment?" Me: "I'd run like hell; I'd be terrified of hitting them".  There then follows a circular discussion during which I concede that no legislation on earth is going to stop the villains getting them and people need to be able to defend themselves but counter with the fact that even in situations where people are licensed to carry concealed weapons they often don't use them in extremis because they are simply not trained to do so.

Like I said, it's a circular discussion.  On this particular occasion we somehow got onto things I would like to shoot, which, as it turns out is a much older, but no less deadly a weapon: a bow.  And the desire to shoot one has been around for almost as long as I can remember but somehow I had never managed to do so.  So one day, about 5 or 6 months ago, the gun owner, The Cop (as I like to think of him) texts me a link to a range.  An archery range here in Chicago.  An archery range, as it turns out, not far from my house.

I took a careful look at my options and considered all the possibilities for oh, maybe 3 seconds, and signed up.  I wish I could say that I hated every moment of that first session.  I can't. Despite the fact that my arm was bruised the color of red wine grapes by the end of it.  I wish that I could say that my interest in getting long pointy tubes of metal tipped with feathers into a yellow circle on a piece of paper 5, 7, 10 yards or more away from me waned. It didn't. Quite the reverse, in fact.  It grew. And grew.  Until I was at the range on both my precious days off and thinking about being there a lot of the time I wasn't.

And then came what I now mentally refer to as "the conversation".  My instructor, the pink boot wearer, possibly in an effort to deflect my evident amusement at his footwear tells me that he's read about a guy on the interwebs who has made a longbow from some red oak and a few tools from Home Depot.  At which point he might just as well have said "free crack" to a junkie and pretty much got the same reaction.  I started, mentally at least, planning how and when I start on such a project.  Oh, who am I kidding?  I did some actual planning followed by some actual purchasing of wood and tools followed closely by a lot of actual planing and sanding of wood.  Arcus Illegitimae was born.

Which brings me back to the gun question.  Having recently acquired a beautiful, sexy,  dream of a bow, Arcus Rouge, I find myself not only loving having my very own to shoot with but thinking about the next one, Arcus II (Arcus Illigit. had a fatal flaw and will have to be recycled into something else), because I want to know that a longbow is like to shoot.  Will it stop at two bows?  Highly unlikely.  But here's the twist in the tail - I finally get it.  I get why The Cop has so many guns.  Like he says: "Each weapon has a different function so one is distance, one is accuracy, one ornamental, one is your baby and there's one you couldn't pass up..." It's not about the destruction or the damage it could do. It's about recognizing the pure beauty of the tool in your hands and what you can choose to to with it.

Oh, and my archery instructor?  His boots are pink because he's a civil engineer in his non-archery life and he uses spray paint to mark surfaces he's working on. And wherever I end up in the world of archery, I will never forget that it took a cop and a man in pink boots to start me on the journey.

Monday, September 24, 2012

13: Unlucky for some...

Today I have been living in Chicago for exactly 13 years. An unlucky number for some, it has always been a positive in my life and today more so than ever.  Inevitably, with the passing of time and anniversaries memories come flooding to the surface.

Little did I imagine, all those years ago, that I would end up living in one of my favorite cities in all the world.  A fact especially surprising given that I never, in my wildest imaginings, thought I'd even visit here, much less end up spending the largest portion of my in this amazing place.

Oh sure, it's had its less than wonderful moments.  I have seen more of the inside of a divorce court than is strictly necessary in one lifetime.  And I am more familiar with the insides of  INS buildings than I would have thought possible. The US government now possesses not one but three separate sets of my fingerprints, and is absolutely certain I did not arrive here with either a drug habit, criminal record or TB.  I have sat next to more strange people on public transport than the pope has new underwear.  At least, that's what I suspect, although the figures on the pope's underwear purchases are hard to come by.

But on the wonderful side I have met the most amazing people who, in taking me under their respective wings, have allowed and encouraged me to become the person I was really meant to be; no small feat considering the original material: a very uptight, boarding school educated englishwoman.  I am able to be here because of qualities that are essentially down to what I attribute to the American generosity of spirit: I have a therapist (thank you Dr. S), I have a studio (thank you BA & Adam, Nic), I have friends (too many to list), I have causes to fight for (thank you Dawn, Jenn, Tara for opening my eyes) and things to think about (thank you Jon) and last, but not least, a slightly nutball cat, Malu.

So on this, the dawn of my 14th year, I want to say this: thank you.  It may only be two small words but the sentiment is huge.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

i am not there, i did not die

I am writing this to you, RMM, knowing that you will never read it.

There are so many things I want to say about the brush we had with each other's lives.  About the dance of ideas shared, the common recognition of troubles scaled, of simple joys experienced.

I know so little about you but I knew these truths: that you loved your family beyond measure, that you treated people with love and respect, that you had wild schemes and deep ideas about how life could, should, might be lived.

I know that you had a tattoo on your calf that made me laugh, it was so perfect and so perfectly unexpected; I'm willing to bet you loved the reaction you got to it.

I remember the nights you gave me a lift home.  We talked about so much and I came to realize how much you loved people, what a huge and gentle heart you had.  And I wanted you to know this; I desperately wish that somehow you had managed to hold on, that somehow you had managed to see a glimpse through that black, all-encompassing fog to a life on the other side.  Because it would have come.  It would, I promise. Eventually.

And what makes me saddest of all is this: that there were so many people at your memorial. So many people who loved you, for whom there were so many memories of happy times shared with you.  And I am left wondering this: if you had known all this, if each of these people could have somehow shown you what a huge hole your leaving would leave in their lives, of how much you were valued, of how much you were loved would you still have done it? Would you still have been able to do it?

And there is a tiny whisper, deep, deep down, "yes".

Not because I knew you so incredibly well but because I know this disease, this demon:  I recognize it in all it's ugly, rotting, all-pervasive slimy form.  It's a fucking awful thing to struggle with and worse to die from.

You will be missed RMM, you made a difference to me, to my life and to many others.  RIP.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

thoughts on st. paddys 2012

I wrote this at the end of a long day dealing with all things St. Paddys...

"I am enjoying yet another St. Patrick's Day working at a well-known Irish place in Chicago.  Well, enjoying is perhaps too strong a word for it. Enduring is probably a more accurate one.

I am not Irish and make no pretence of ever having been, either now or in my past genetic history.  However, as a transplant to this grand nation of small nations, I have come to recognize the importance, at least to some, of having some sort of cultural shorthand, a way of saying "this is where I'm from and this is the heritage I value most because I identify heavily with it".

St. Patrick's Day seems be an opportunity for anyone, and I mean absolutely anyone, to claim to be Irish for a day.  And not only that, to aspire to the lowest possible cultural stereotype, namely: drunken public behavior dressed in clothing of a color can best be described as 1980's green, genteely referred to by some as "kelly" and drinking fluids of the same color.

So today I have had to pick up reams of toilet paper spread about the ladies bathroom. Twice. I have had to go into one of our men's bathroom to stop three young men from playing football with a soap dispenser, and have fielded dozens of phone calls from a variety of sources which range from the sublime to the ridiculous and everything in between.

I have endured beer on my clothes, heat, sticky floors, a lack of any kind of break except to nip to the bathroom and one fairly disruptive computer emergency. I have printed and folded 250 menus, wrapped silverware and rustled up extra tables, seemingly from thin air. I have tried to soothe disappointed potential customers who are surprised when I tell them at 6.50pm that there will be no table for their party of 6 people at 7.30pm (while inwardly raising my eyebrows yet again at the lack of foresight that allows for utter surprise that there is no such magic table for them no mattter whom they claim best buddyship with).

As I try to field yet another call over the disasterous cacophony that are the pipers (does anyone understand that piper are traditionally Scots not Irish?) and as my head begins to thump I tell myself grimly: this will be the last one. THE VERY LAST ONE. Because I'm damned sure this ain't part of my heritage or, for that matter, anyone who truly believes in the wonderful cuisine, culture and heritage that is truly an Irish inheritance.


Monday, May 23, 2011


I was in a coffee shop last week, quietly minding my own business, enjoying a cup of my favorite brew and playing my sixth game of scrabble of the day on my i-pod when I overheard a conversation about the upcoming ‘rapture’.

According to the baristas discussing it, some geezer had predicted from various calibrations of dates in the bible, that Saturday May 21 2011 was going to be the date upon which all those Christians of a good and pious nature would be called to heaven and the rest of us left to make our way in the hot place.

Now, I must come clean here. Despite years of consistent bombardment via the Church of England, I am not a believer in God. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I would dearly love to, but I just can’t. Mostly because, the infinite beauty and immensity of all that is within the universe outshines, for me, the narrow definition that seems to describe ‘god’.

I am not jumping on anyone else’s right to believe in ‘god’, I respect whatever choices anyone wishes to make; provided of course, that their belief system doesn’t involve the wholesale killing or suppression of another group which doesn’t adopt their views or precepts. It’s just that I find it hard to base my entire belief system on a book which, at best, is missing a few chapters and at worst, written many years after the fact, by at least 3 and possibly more entities, has been systematically translated and edited in the intervening centuries, probably more than once.

My father used to tell a story about Chinese whispers which, I suspect, may have come from his early military training. Briefly, it was about a general who was in difficulties and needed more troops. So he sent a runner with a message, who passed it on to another, who passed it on to another, who arrived at the required destination with the message “Send three and fourpence, I’m going to a dance” causing, no doubt, a great deal of confusion, if not hilarity. Thus proving that messages, however clear their original intent can very easily be distorted – the original had been “Send reinforcements, I’m going to advance”.

And thus we come to the rapture. Assuming that Harold Camping’s figures were correct, and I have no doubt that he checked and double-checked them, they were based on an incomplete, and much Chinese-whispered, set of information.

So, while the original message may have been “Greetings from Heaven” it might well have been mangled to “three things from seven” and put dear old Harold's calculations on entirely the wrong track. And while I feel sad for all of those in their best party gear, having run their credit cards up to the max in anticipation of an imminent trip to heaven, I have been enchanted by the idea that this is a country where such ideas can not only be expressed, but also pursued without fear of anything except perhaps a little gentle ridicule.

And while may not have been quite the rapture that was envisioned by those calculating its oncoming from the bible, but the whole thing has certainly enraptured me.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


In my family, I am the eldest of three children. While my brother and sister are useful members of society (doctor and teacher respectively), I am but an artist with a day job. Which is fine with me, but doesn't exactly leave the old maternal unit with a matching set on the parental boasting scale. The couple of redeeming features being that I am "interesting" and that I live in Chicago.

Once upon a time, long, long ago, when I was but a lowly bench jewelry designer, my brother Andy, an avid cave diver, asked me to make a present for his then girlfriend and now wife, Rhiannon. Sure I said, excited to be asked, without much thought as to what, exactly, I had said yes to. As they are both experienced cave divers he wanted his gift to be personal to them and he asked me to make earrings based on the plastic arrow points cave divers use to mark the direction out of a cave system.

A particularly challenging project because whichever way you looked at them, they were rejects from the 80's. Large plastic triangles with slits cut in them making them look like a futuristic S and entirely current; if you were living in the era of Boy George which, I might add, we had passed more than a decade and a half before.

However, by changing the scale, I finally managed to create them from textured silver. To the surface I fused a thin layer of gold leaf using an ancient Korean technique called keum-boo which involves heating the silver many times to bring a layer of pure silver molecules to the surface and then using a special technique, bonding gold leaf permanently to the surface. I was trying to represent the two parts of the halocline layer sometimes seen by cave divers and described to me by Andy in tales of his diving adventures.

A halocline is the layer at which a body of salt water meets a body of fresh water, giving the illusion of the surface. According to my brother, sometimes divers are caught out by it because it looks so much like the reflective surface of, well, the surface and are fooled into taking off their masks thinking they have reached oxygen.

I don’t know why, but the idea of the halocline has stuck with me. In thinking about it recently I have come to the conclusion that it’s for lots of reasons: one being that essentially the same thing, water, can hide its true nature with an illusion of oxygen simply by virtue of the fact that one contains salt and one does not.

For a long time I wondered if his choice of cave diving represented an addiction to the adrenalin of a dangerous sport until I began to talk to him about it and learned that his feeling about it was more akin to an explorer trying to reach lands of which others have only dreamed. And I came to another startling realization and it's this: that cave diving gives to him exactly what being in my studio gives to me, it’s just that his involves exploring physical depths and mine involves exploring the depth of an idea.

And so, while we may be different, and we are, what separates us is an illusion because where we're trying to get to is essentially the same albeit that our routes are poles, or in this case, caves apart.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

stormin’ the teacup

One of my biggest gripes about living here in the US is that the news media seems to be hell bent on making everything as frightening as possible. In the last decade I’ve survived everything from a deadly flu pandemic to a full scale invasion by terrorists and plenty in between. The thing that annoys me most, and on a regular basis, is the weather reporting.

Now where I'm from, the weather reports are pretty understated. By which I mean the hurricane of 1987 was, and I quote “actually, the weather will become very windy”. The “very windy” weather was, in fact, hurricane force winds. In one single night, they went on to devastate much of south-east England’s woodlands, losing nearly 15 million trees, about 4% of England’s total.

Living here, I’ve become used to the ‘storm in a teacup’ factor. Listen to what’s being said, then scale it back by about 25% and stripping out all hyperbole and eventually reach some kind of information I can actually use. So you can imagine when weather anchors started talking about the Great Blizzard of 2011, I dialed it down in my head to maybe a foot of snow, blown around a bit and everything back to normal by breakfast time.

Hah. This time I should have paid attention.

On the day in question, Tuesday February 1st, I had been invited to a surprise party. By late afternoon, it had begun to snow. So light and feathery, it was blowing in all directions and dancing around against a pale gray sky. By the time I had to be at the party it was blowing a gale and I had begun to feel a little like an Antarctic explorer trying to get to base camp as I walked towards the party. By the time I reached my destination my face felt it had been sand blasted with ice and the breath sucked from my body.

All, of course, forgotten at the ensuing party with the liberal application of alcohol, friends and dirt cake. Although the numbers were down and every time the birthday boy’s almost-brother-in-law went out for a smoke on the balcony he comes back looking 50 years older, his hair is white with snow, it still all seemed like a little bit of overkill on the weather reporting front.

That was, until it came time to go home. Amid alcohol-fueled goodbyes and offers of a comfy couch to sleep on, I stepped out of the condo sure that it would be nothing more than a few inches of snow and that I could jump in a taxi and head home. My first hurdle came in getting out the door of the condo building. It was stuck. After leaning on it with all my weight the snow drift keeping it shut gradually gave way, giving me just enough room to get out.

That should have been my first warning. By the time I reached the nearest junction, I felt like turning back; the wind was blowing hard in every direction, there were already 2 foot drifts and it was hard going and, not a taxi (or any other kind of vehicle for that matter) in sight. As I crossed Lincoln Avenue, I had a tiny flash of fear that something could happen to me out here and no one would know. They’d just find my iced up body with my purple-gloved fingers grimly clutching my laptop bag and a look of surprise on my face as the thaw set in.

But strangely, I began to enjoy my journey. It was so peaceful. There was no traffic and it was awe inspiring with drifts of snow in beautiful shapes and the wind sweeping it up and back down into new drifts. It took me almost 40 minutes to get home, a journey which normally takes about 25, and in parts the snow was up to my knees. The hardest part came in trying to get down the path to my apartment building as the snow was up to my butt.

Reaching home I was tired, soaked, and bits of my body were colder than they had ever been before but I was exhilarated, it had been the most amazing journey home I had ever had. I had been given a chance to experience a dramatic force of nature at it’s most humbling and had lived to tell the tale.
So to all those Chicago weather anchors I say “Storm in a teacup? So what? Bring it on!”

Thursday, November 25, 2010

airport scanners

The worst thing about having a major car accident and ending up in hospital is not waking up in the ER, it’s not even having your painkillers administered by enema, or even finding out that half your limbs won’t work properly for a good few weeks; it’s the bloody irritating mess it makes of a recently acquired pedicure.

As the product of an English boarding school education I’m a grand master at getting undressed and re-attired in a very modest fashion with the artful draping of clothing, towels, etc. It came as a very nasty shock during my stay in hospital that not only could I not dress or undress myself but that someone else had to take care of deeply personal things like wiping my bum. However, with the administration of suitable drugs I soon got the hang of it and although I can say I was never fully comfortable with it, it made me reconsider the fragile artifice that I carry around as my modesty.

I swiftly came to the realization that it is totally artificial. Mostly in the sense that, especially in a hospital, most of what I have, they have seen many, many, many times before and probably in both better and worse shape than mine and almost certainly in every shade of the currently available skin color range. And so what am I objecting to? The fact that the bits I was born with or grew into, my bits rather than anyone else’s, were going to be seen by a near-stranger? By which I mean a medically trained professional.

For a while in the late 80’s and early 90’s, the artists and paintings of the Impressionist movement were hugely popular. You couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting another exhibition, discussion or book on the subject. Transferred onto mugs, printed onto posters, reproduced as canvasses, screened onto shopping bags, umbrellas until we all became not only sick of it but totally immune to it’s transcendent beauty, simply because it seemed to be everywhere, on everything.

“What has all this got to do with airport security?” I hear you asking. Well, I think we should all consider the wider issues (apart from the obvious elephant in the room, being blown to smithereens by a bomb concealed on a fanatical nutter) and I would humbly submit they are these:
  1. What steps are being taken to ensure that the people who have to scan our bodies all day, every day, won’t become totally immune to the simple and breathtaking beauty of the human form? Who will be there for them when they are unable to look at yet ANOTHER body, much less want to have sex with it?
  2. For those passengers going through a dry spell in their love-life, getting a pat down could be seen as the nearest thing they get to a good time, and who are we to deprive them of this modicum of fun? Because I am willing to stake a fair proportion of my not inconsiderable poverty on the fact that it’s a lot less fun for the TSA employee than it is for us.
  3. .And if a TSA employee or two are standing behind a screen laughing at whichever bits of my anatomy they find amusing, well I say, “go for it”. I’m happy to bring a little laughter into what must be a singularly thankless and largely tedious job.
And, in the final analysis, in a culture where we continually expose our intimate thoughts, secrets and ideas via social media outlets, where an alarming number of people seem to be delighted to show off their bodies to millions via an uncensored, unlegislated internet via webcam, I am at a loss to understand how, exactly, the body scanners represent an invasion.

Friday, July 2, 2010

common language

George Bernard Shaw made the observation that England and America are two countries separated by a common language. I would venture to add my own two cents worth when advising my fellow countrymen preparing to live in this grand nation of small nations; forget everything you know about the English language.

My very first brush with the complexities of language use in the US came with my first order for coffee. Ordering phrases typically start with the pragmatic “can I get” which sounded so rude to my untrained ear. But a “thank you” is often countered with the cheerful “you’re welcome” for which the Brit equivalent “my pleasure” sounds so much more staid.

In the early days, I was often caught up not by the big stuff but by the small stuff. It took me a while to realize that ‘quite’ used before something was generally a positive pronoun whereas in England it can, and often does, mean the reverse.

Another hurdle arose in the assigning of cultural identity. Growing up, if someone said “I’m Irish/Scottish German/French” etc, it generally meant one of two things; they were either born in the country they claimed as theirs, or their parents were. After my initial ignorant aggravation, I slowly began to realize that it’s a cultural shorthand, a marker, a way of saying which tribe you belong to without having to go through a whole series of cultural identifiers.

So, for example, here in Chicago, if you were Irish that might indicate a whole host of things which might include Catholicism, family in the police or firefighting profession, a certain kind of political outlook. Or, of course, it might not. But it certainly made me think and it made me wonder how else you might declare yourself in a vast country filled with so many different nationalities, faiths and cultural constraints.

Language is, of course, a two way street. A few of my ‘Englishisms’ have made it into local usage here. My work colleagues now ‘nip out’ as opposed to ‘run out’, I’m required by one of my friends to verbally use the word ‘schedule’ even for a quick cup of coffee and a natter because she loves the way it sounds.

On arrival I was enchanted by the use of the word ‘fall’ for autumn. I had assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that this was an evolution in the language and that the word autumn had fallen into disuse. As it turns out it’s a preservation; fall was the word used by the original pilgrim settlers. People often remark that I speak ‘proper’ English as if that’s some sort of preserved standard to aspire to. What I think they hear is not the language preservation but the accent, which, by all accounts, can fool anyone.

After all, as I tell everyone who asks me, I’m from Alabama.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


I have a guilty secret. Actually, more accurately, I have several, but for the sake of some pseudo-propriety, I’ll stick to this one for now.

And it’s this: I am addicted to SkyMall magazines. For those of you who are lucky enough not to have to make regular domestic flights, or have been living under a rock for the last couple of decades, Skymall is one of the free magazines on the back of every seat along with the instructions on what to do if the airplane you happen to be on falls out of the sky.

In fact, it’s got to the point where I won’t even read it during the flight in order to savor the pleasure of a more luxurious read when I get home. In short, it’s a magazine full of those essentials you never knew you couldn’t live without. A kind of consumer Pandora’s box but without the carnage or guilt.
After my most recent trip to the wilds of Florida, I began to wonder why this magazine holds such a strong attraction for me. After all, I don’t exactly need an underwater pogo stick or a kitty litter artfully disguised as a pot plant or spy camera disguised as a common pen. Or do I?

And yet here’s the rub: a lot of the items so lavishly photographed seem to be exactly the kind of thing I just didn’t know I needed until that very moment.

Let’s get one thing straight; I’m in no way a conspicuous consumer. Well, unless you count the art supplies and the chocolate. I come from a long line of recyclers from my grandmother (plastic bags) to my dad (jokes). My grandfather famously ‘recycled’ one of the shelves in the hall closet into safety bars for the bunk bed we slept on as kids. Not really that odd, you might think, until you saw the strange boomerang-shaped holes in the hat shelf the next time you went to put your coat away.

The older I get, the more conscious I’ve become that the practices I grew up with were largely green. Take a shopping bag with you, take your shoes to be repaired, dry your laundry on the line, and bathe once a year whether you need it or not. So perhaps this secret love of such blatant consumerism is firmly rooted in a lifetime of enforced recycling practices. But closer examination brings with it the realization that it’s not the products that I actually want, it’s the ideas they generate.

As an artist with engineering tendencies, I have designed and made things all my life. At the dreaded English boarding school after a particularly gruesome game of field hockey, I once designed a hockey stick with motorized cart which grew, in time, to have not only a seat and hood, but stash of food, a heater and, in it’s final iteration, a TV. It’s truly amazing what cold, wet wintery days out on the fields with wooden sticks and shin pads will inspire.

And so the real appeal of the SkyMall magazine is the magnetism of all those people sitting out they’re saying “what if”. What if you could actually pogo UNDER water? What if my kitty litter box actually looked like a houseplant? And then actually got someone to make it.

It’s not really so much about the consumer goods for me; it’s more of a quick check to see if there are other people out there like me. And it’s with a large tinge of relief that the last time I looked, there were.