Running on Empty

A newspaper column on the Internet.

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Båts Against the Current: How Ikea Nearly Ruined My Marriage

This 2011 essay received an honorable mention in the 2012 Erma Bombeck Writing Competition. The website where it used to live is shutting down. I’m reposting it here so that it has a home. 

In every relationship, there is one person who enjoys Ikea, and another who finds it a blue and yellow Abu Ghraib of the soul. I like Ikea. When I moved into my husband’s apartment in New York, he had an Ikea bed. More accurately, he had a pile of broken bed parts with a mattress flung on top. The mess could have easily been reconstituted into a bed with a $10 replacement part that Justin refused to return to Ikea to buy.

The first time we visit Ikea together – four years, one marriage and one child into our relationship – I prepare for our visit with the diligence of a Secret Service advance team. I determine the closest of greater London’s four Ikeas, studiously compare cots and bookcases, measure walls and rooms,  compile an annotated shopping list. The goal of this prep work is to expend less of our time (and Justin’s patience) on operational matters and more on marveling at cartons of 99-pence doodads.

And the plan works, for the most part. On the day of our visit I consult tags, make notes and cross-reference, while Justin pushes the stroller and breathes in a way that resembles the relaxation exercises they showed us in birth class. We are ok, and then we realize that the van is due back in an hour and a half, and that the baby needs to eat, and that we still have to procure our purchases from the giant joyless warehouse part of the store.

In the dim-lit aisles we load a dolly with boxes whose heft suggests the amount of marital discord contained within. Then comes the checkout line, which looks exactly like passport control in a developing country: disinterested checkers  processing lines of people with overloaded carts and the defeated, desperate look of those who have come too far in their journey to turn back. We emerge with a Hensvik cot, a Stuva dresser/shelf unit, an assortment of clever nylon boxes to organize toys, and an Expedit bookcase.

The Expedit bookcase comes in two oblong boxes, each of which weighs as much as a collapsed star. On each box is a decal bearing two cartoons. In the first panel, a vaguely human shape with a frowny face and a hammer stands before a jumbled pile of boards. This image is crossed out with a decisive X. In the next frame, the humanoid has made a friend, and the smile they exchange over the pile of boards means that assembly of this product requires two people.

I know one thing about these mute genderless persons: they are not married. Because if they were, Ikea’s graphic designers would be legally required in a third panel to render the rage, frustration and recrimination that comes with building the Expedit bookcase with the person you love.

Justin hates building Ikea furniture only slightly less than he hates actually being in Ikea. He does not enjoy assembling things, not when he could honor the talents and training of a local craftsman by paying him for his work. He is upfront about this.

I love building Ikea furniture. Transforming a pile of particle board and screws into a piece of furniture with at best a five-year life expectancy makes me feel like God molding man from the clay of Life. In my heart, there is only marginal difference between the family heirloom cradle my great-great-grandfather carved in Italy 100 years ago and the one I pieced together one afternoon with an Allen wrench.

Exactly five days after we moved to London, a Harvard Business School professor published a paper called “The ‘IKEA’ Effect,” which said that consumers love the things they buy more if they have to put in a little bit of labor before they can use them. People crack an egg into a bowl of powdered corn syrup and convince themselves they’re baking from scratch; I push a drawer front onto a wooden dowel and fancy myself an artisan. I am just as unhandy as Justin, but I believe that I’m not, and this, I realize, is about one hundred times more insufferable.

When our daughter goes to bed that night we tear open the boxes and spread the Expedit’s guts across the living room floor. The arguments begin instantly. A completed Expedit will fit neatly into the space along the wall (I know, because I measured it!) but there is not enough floor space to lay it flat during assembly. Furniture must be moved. After a cursory glance at the directions, Justin begins hammering and screwing with grim determination so that he can get this over with as soon as possible; I refuse to proceed until I have parsed every step of the directions (or “specs,” as I secretly and sadly call them in my faux-contractor head).

Of course, we install one of the pieces upside down, and of course, we discover this only when it’s too late to even begin to think about fixing it. Whatever material this monstrosity is made of – some NASA-grade invention that manages to be both heavy and flimsy – would not survive a second attempt at construction, and neither, I suspect, would our marriage. The Swedish probably have a word for the time you spend convincing yourself and your partner that the furniture is “supposed to be like that,” and another for the air of mutual resentment that permeates a room when two-college graduates realize that a sexless cartoon is a better builder than they are.

It takes an hour – or maybe two, or maybe twelve – before we finally, sweatily hoist the shelf against the wall. Justin is silent and fuming. I am ashamed of the barking, shrewish harpy I have become and how little time it took me to get there.

In the Ikea showroom the Expedit looked like a chic, sleek place for books to preen themselves, like an airy Berlin gallery. In our living room, decoupled from its showroom lighting and cheerily artificial surroundings, it looks like what it is – a cheap, hulking mess that dominates the room with the charm of Cousin It. And because the house is so old and the floors are so warped, it does not even lie flush against the wall, but lurches forward at a 15-degree angle like a drunk about to vomit.

I look over at Justin, who is sweating and tired and covered in a fine particulate dust that probably contains asbestos. He works so hard. Today he spent what little time he has outside the office in a place he hates because his baby needed a bed and that’s where his wife wanted to buy one. That is love.

I know all this and yet I am still furious at him, and that is marriage.

Why has Ikea caught on? We think it’s so great. We line up in droves for meatballs and Lack tables, but at the end of the day your marriage is worse and there’s an ugly bookshelf in your living room. This is no way to live. Yet still we beat on, båts against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the great blue box off the freeway.

What I Think About the New Stanford Logo

Stanford University unveiled its redesigned online logo this week. Here’s what the new Stanford font looks like, compared to the font it replaced. A lot of people have criticized the redesign. I looked at it and was really disappointed. And then I remembered

IT’S

JUST

A

FUCKING

FONT

and I was so ashamed that I cared about this for even more than a second that I had to squeeze my eyes shut and shake my head fast to rid myself of the memory.

A Google search for “new Stanford logo” yields 20.5 million results, because the correlation between people who care about the new Stanford logo and people who get things onto Google is high. (For fun I opened up a new window and searched “Sudan oil conflict,” and that got 12.7 million results, because people directly affected by “Sudan oil conflict” have other things to do.)

I don’t know how or why the new logo came about. I like to imagine John Cioffi was bouncing a tennis ball against the wall and said “I think I want to redesign the website” and John Hennessy looked up from Assassin’s Creed III and was like “sure” and six hours and three baskets of chicken strips later it was live.

That’s probably not how it happened. They probably paid more money than I have earned since graduation to a firm who gave a Draper-style presentation on why the curves of this new S are intrinsically better suited to a 21st century university. It really doesn’t matter. It’s not Comic Sans. It’s not the Graffiti Creator. It’s the word “Stanford,” in red, in letters marginally different from the last red “Stanford.”

This is a university whose whole identity is based on innovation. It is a place where people are daily engaged in the creation of artificial intelligence and robots and probably a bunch of other stuff in the CS department that goes straight to the Department of Defense. It’s a university whose students celebrate everything from shopping period to Wacky Walk as evidence of their iconoclasm. And everyone is acting like they just changed the lunch menu at the senior day center.

I didn’t like the new font. I didn’t like it because it’s not what was at the top of the page when I registered online for classes each quarter. I didn’t like it because it was slightly different from something I felt perfectly comfortable with and the world is changing in many other threatening ways that I can’t control. Then I read this post and by the time I was done scrolling to the bottom I had seen the logo enough times that it didn’t look new any more and I stopped caring.

People don’t like change. They really don’t. Even if it’s a really small change to something of minor significance in a place whose greatest asset they would otherwise swear was a willingness to accept change in all forms. It’s a font. It’s just a font. It’s. Just. A. Font. 

That’s all.

 

 

Leave My Pants Alone

I woke up in London not so long ago to find that right now, somewhere in Manhattan, there are Americans who think it’s okay to invite someone back to their flat for a shag, to ring a friend on his mobile, to say “cheers” when toasting nothing more than the successful purchase of a sandwich.

British slang in the US is a thing now, says the New York Times – and the BCC, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail. Without complaint or resistance, Americans are allowing Britishisms like “ginger” and “brilliant” and “rubbish” to plant their Union Jacks across the broad flat plains of our freedom-loving vernacular.

I don’t know who you self-hating Anglophiles are, but now might be a good time to quietly pull you aside and say kindly what your friends and family have been thinking ever since you started going “on holiday”: You sound like a bloody tosser. Please stop.

Read more . . . 

‘You Fucking Fail. Then You Do It Again.’

I’ve been having some trouble with writing lately. Not the what, or how well, but the why. The whether.

When I watched Hurricane Sandy unfold, the stories of destruction and tragedy, the words at my disposal felt shamefully trivial. Then the election happened, and again the stakes seemed too high to reduce to a handful of characters. And then I started thinking about how many words there are out there, just the raw sheer volume of stories and Tumblrs and tweets and articles pouring into the ether every minute like the water rushing into the PATH stations, and wondering if the addition of substandard ones just cheapens the value of the rest.

Then I fell down one of those existential rabbit holes.

In the right state of mind the writing life is one of endless renewal. Every blank page or screen is a bright fresh morning; every day yields the opportunity to teach or learn or be surprised.

In another, less charitable state, writing is also a daily scavenger hunt for new ways to disappoint yourself. There is literally no limit to the exciting story ideas that will ultimately lead to dead ends. Every week sees the launch of a quirky new independent magazine or online journal that will not want to publish your stuff. And do not forget your own boundless capacity for hackneyed, awkward prose! Thanks to the technologies of self-publishing, you don’t even have to wait for an editor to save you from yourself. Just post that sucker, and bam – your half-baked idea is out there, for good.

I write with two specters sitting on either shoulder. One of them says “Just put it out there! Don’t wait for permission! This is how it gets done now! Dorothy Parker would totally have had a blog!” And the other one says “Would this be equally at home on a Blogspot with unicorn pictures in the margins? Are you a wry original voice or a non-ironic version of A Room of Jean’s Own? Is it more embarrassing to call yourself a writer and not publish anything, or to call yourself a writer and publish this?” And I can’t tell which is wearing the devil horns and which the angel’s shroud.

A brilliant cartoon by Michael Leunig.

I miss my office in New York. Everyone there was a writer, the freelance, self-employed kind with nowhere else to work. You could turn to any other person in the room at any time – say at the coffee pot, or in line to use the printer – and say Hey, do you ever wonder if your dreams are just humiliating delusions? and they would say Sure! and you could say Great and go back to your desk feeling better about things. Now I write at home or in the public library. I know I’m not the only person who thinks these things but it can feel that way in a room alone, or in a room with an old man scratching his nuts and reading a communal copy of The Telegraph.

There is value in waiting to write or speak until you have something to say. But you can also ride that to the point of paralysis. I can tell that I am worrying too much about what happens to the words once they leave my control when I stop writing. Or when I write and won’t show it to anyone. Or, worst of all, when I write and let the worry infect the work until I don’t recognize the voice at all, and then go back to not writing.

It’s comforting to remember that none of this is new. I had similar angst about six months ago. I thought about it, then I wrote about it, and then I moved on. In a recent email my high school English teacher reminded me that I once burst into tears when I couldn’t get an in-class essay to read just the way I wanted it before the bell rang. Maybe I just need to put in my calendar a semi-annual reminder: your job is to write, not to worry about what happens next.

And alongside this reminder I will pencil the note to read and re-read this interview with Elizabeth Gilbert until I have it committed to memory (who is such a good writer and it is NOT FAIR to dismiss an author as “chick lit” just because their work receives a critical mass of positive attention from women aaaggh let’s talk about this later):

I’ve always been really surprised—and I really remain very surprised—at people who don’t think they have the right to do their work, or feel like they need a permission slip from the principal to do it, or who doubt their voice. I’m always like, What? What? Fucking do it! Just fucking do it! What’s the worst that could happen?! You fucking fail! Then you do it again.

For a Family Abroad, a Thanksgiving Journey

It’s late Tuesday night after work and I’m elbow-deep in a bowl of pumpkin batter for my daughter’s London preschool class. The children are encouraged to share with the class their Special Cultural Traditions. Last week was Dewali. Before that it was Black History Month, which in Britain is October and not February. Next month I will dress her in a red shirt and black pants so she can play Hunter #4 in their safely secular Christmas performance of “Peter and the Wolf.”

This week, however, is Thanksgiving. We are Americans. Thus the mini-muffin tray and the can of Libby’s I’ve been saving in the back of the cupboard for the last 11 months. No eggs, though. You can’t bring treats with eggs. Or nuts. Some rules supersede special traditions.

I did not expect this, that my child would be the one in the class from someplace different. Not someplace exotic. There is nothing exotic about being an American in London, or in most of the world for that matter. Our culture precedes us like medieval minstrels, a garish parade of Miley Cyrus and KFC and “Friends” re-runs everywhere, always, in perpetuity.

Read more…

The Column Migrates

The trees outside the window are rustling in the wind and there’s a gray rain falling – but it’s only a brisk wind, only a light rain. How powerless it feels to sit here in London and think of friends and family trying to dig out from Sandy’s mess on the east coast. Ugh. 

There’s small news here regarding this space. I’m going to be blogging for the Huffington Post, which means  that many future columns intended for this spot will instead head straight over to that site, with a link to the column here.

Thanks for reading this. And now, onto my first HuffPo column: The Most Famous Breasts in Britain.

The top-selling newspaper in the United Kingdom – for the benefit of my friends in the US – is a daily tabloid called the Sun, whose areas of editorial expertise include football, punny headlines, sex scandals, celebrity gossip, an unforgiving stance on welfare cheats, and enormous breasts.

Read more…

On “The Newsroom”

A few months ago I saw the trailer for the new Aaron Sorkin series “The Newsroom” on one of the sites I frequent as a registered member of the effete liberal media. I watched Jeff Daniels rail against a fading America and I thought This is going to be such a great show! My journalist friends and I will love this! “The Newsroom” will be to us what Entourage is to assholes!

We set our TV record box to pick up the show as soon as it premiered on Sky Atlantic, a channel that cherry-picks the best of American cable television and, besides Nick Jr. and ESPN America, is the only thing we watch. (Don’t judge. Twenty-three hours a day, we shop at our neighborhood stores, chat up the locals and do our immigrant best to assimilate. When it’s time to watch television, we are like Americans who go abroad and let nothing but McDonald’s and imported bottled water pass their lips. Please don’t make me try to care about British television.)

We finally watched it this weekend. And it turns out that “The Newsroom” is not so good at all.

This isn’t a critique of how realistically the show captures life inside a media organization. It’s annoying when journalists complain about their fictional depictions. All professions are dramatized when they appear on television, but only journalists are in a position to subject the rest of the public to complaints about it. See the angry critical response to season 5 of “The Wire”: I believe I know how ‘corners’ work even though my hometown has a Pain Quotidien, and 84 percent of what I think I know about the American shipping industry comes from Frank Sobotka’s storyline, but those are not the type of pens newsrooms typically stock!! How did David Simon get this so wrong??

Besides, I’ve never worked in TV, so I don’t know how accurate the set is. Maybe in TV they really do the thing where people leap from their desk with a phone to their ear and shout across the room. Maybe when news breaks everyone in TV really does have a roommate who happened to have signed off on the relevant government contract or a sister who is sitting in a secret meeting with the top executives of the disgraced firm right now and whose first instinct is to quietly excuse herself to go leak some news.

My problem with “The Newsroom” is not the way it portrays journalists, but the way it portrays people – especially female people.

“The Newsroom” is full of gruff but honorable and able men who stay cool in crisis and dismiss the weak and stupid with puncturing words. It is also full of women whom the story insists are equally competent, but who flutter and collapse at a rate disproportionate to their male colleagues – and at a rate that undermines everything else I’m supposed to believe about their characters.

A key plot point in the second episode hinges on the premise that a female producer who spent three years setting up live satellite links in Peshawar and the hills of Afghanistan can’t understand the new office email program. I’m expected to believe that another young woman is a promising young professional, even as she’s shrieking at her boss for sleeping with her roommate in the middle of a staff meeting.

And I find it distastefully noticeable how many of the one-dimensional characters who appear as stand-ins for the foolish superficiality that Daniels’s character hates, the people at the receiving end of those preciously cutting lines that Sorkin does so well, are women.

I never saw “The West Wing” or “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” I am new to Aaron Sorkin’s work and this NPR-on-cocaine style of dialogue that no more resembles real human conversation than a Bond script does. I don’t like it as much as I thought I would. It seems an attempt to obscure – at least in this series – deficiencies in character that no amount of rapid-fire banter can compensate for.

It’s not that I don’t buy the contradictions between a character’s professional competence and personal chaos. All good fiction is a web of internal and external conflicts between characters. But it’s the effort to manage those competing selves that makes a character compelling, the ways in which that façade slips and cracks despite their best conscious effort that is interesting to watch. Don Draper’s personal world is infinitely more fucked up than any Newsroom character, but it’s his terror at having a truth discovered that makes his slick exterior compelling.

Nobody’s even trying to hold their shit together in “The Newsroom.” They pivot between soaring monologues on high-minded issues and child-like simpering over their personal lives. That’s not how adults act. That’s how I thought adults acted when I was 13.

(Speaking of high-minded rants followed by navel-gazing: Maybe there wouldn’t be a need for shows lamenting the death of journalism if actual journalists – say, myself – wrote about stuff that mattered instead of complaining about TV shows. Just a thought.)

Extinguishing the Flame

Hello! This column returns, after a lengthy and unexplained absence occasioned only by vacation and laziness. We crossed the Atlantic, crossed the country and are now back home in London, a city transformed – at least temporarily.

London said goodbye this week to the Paralympic Games – an event that got way more play and publicity here than in the US, I gather – and to what has been an unbelievably festive and friendly five weeks in this city. We’ve discussed here before the exceptionally English response to the distressing prospect of hosting an Olympics. Then the Opening Ceremonies happened. I don’t know what the response to the ceremony was outside the UK, but the British loved it. They looked at the dancing peasants and the giant Voldemort and the tribute to socialized medicine and they said Yes. That is so us. And from then on everybody loved the Olympics and no one could remember ever having said anything different.  

The traffic that the moaners said would keep us trapped in our homes never materialized; it even stopped raining. Organizers fixed the glitches that made it so hard for UK residents to buy tickets, and people snapped up seats to every event that would have them. The week before the Opening Ceremony it wasn’t cool to talk about the Olympics; once they started, I hardly knew anyone who didn’t want to go.

We did not get tickets for any Olympic event, despite my strenuous and unsuccessful efforts to get my husband a seat for the men’s hammer final. (We did attend the Netherlands Olympic Committee’s official party, and that was so incredible I don’t have words to describe it beyond orange, tall, Heineken. All I can say is that a Dutch pop star flown in for the event sang a cover of the top summer single in Holland, and it is a rap about riding a bicycle, which is exactly what I would imagine the top single in Holland at any given time to be.) I could not believe what an incredibly hot ticket hammer throwing was until we watched the event on TV (televised Olympics in the UK: so much better!) and I understood that of the 80,000 people in the sold-out stadium that night, 12 of them were there for the hammers, and 79,988 of them for men’s 100 meter final happening across the track.

Instead we bought tickets to the second most-anticipated 100 meters of the Games, featuring Oscar Pistorius – aka the Blade Runner.

I love Oscar Pistorius. He is as fast as anyone with no legs has ever been, which is awesome. I was already psyched and then I read this New York Times profile that explains that Oscar Pistorius is both inspiring and also a little bit insane, and I love that. This is not the same thing as being a legitimate sports fan. I could not name any of his competitors or other events planned that night. I arrived at the Stadium Thursday night feeling like a tourist instead of a true believer.

From the dispassionate, completely objective perspective of a journalist, OMG YOU GUYS THE PARALYMPICS WAS AWESOME!!! The Olympic Stadium is beautiful. Anish Kapoor’s Orbit, the tower that in photos looks like a freak Erector Set accident gone awry, glows blood-red at night like a brilliant living thing. The event staff – all volunteers – were ridiculously nice.

A word about the red-and-purple uniformed army of volunteer “Games Makers” scattered across London for the last month: I do not know what kind of national talent search unearthed this many English people who are both helpful and without any apparent social phobias. They have been so nice, not just at the venues but all over the city. Olympic volunteers going to and from work have helped me carry the stroller up the stairs in the Tube, given directions, and chatted at bus stops. Red-and-purple-shirt people, thank you for your time, your effort and for making London a kinder and less awkward place this summer.

The stadium was full. As many people came to see the Paralympians that night as came to see Usain Bolt defend his 100 title. It was an electric atmosphere. We saw the blind runner Mahmoud Khaldi’s exuberant victory lap after winning a gold for Tunisia in the 400 meters. We saw the final races of decorated blind runner Assia El Hannouni of France, who also won Most Enthusiastic On-Podium National Anthem Performance for her belting of “La Marseillaise.” Watching an athlete represent their country at the highest level of their sport is unbelievably exciting. I now almost understand Justin’s religious commitment to the World Cups of anything. Almost.

Even knowing this, even after seeing the unexpected fervor with which Britons eventually embraced the Games, I was unprepared for the energy of a full stadium screaming on a home team. Never have I heard the sound a stadium makes when united in support of a team; never have I felt that energy that seems to propel an athlete forward by the force of its will.

When Hannah Cockroft crushed her opponents in the wheelchair race for athletes with cerebral palsy, the crowd went crazy. When wheelchair racer David Weir won his third gold medal in the 800, they screamed like mad. And when a 19-year-old Jonnie Peacock soared down the straightaway and beat – yes – Oscar Pistorius, it was a sound like nothing I’d ever heard. I get why sports writing (this included) so often sounds clichéd and why it soars when a writer strikes the right note. It is a magical thing to experience.

There is a book my daughter likes called “Oscar’s Rotten Birthday.” Oscar the Grouch is mad because everyone on Sesame Street is planning him a birthday party and he hates birthdays. But then it turns out to be better than any birthday party he can imagine – mud cake, stinkweed flowers, broken toys for presents – and by the end the only thing Oscar has to be grouchy about is that it won’t be his birthday again for a year.

That’s kind of what happened to the English and the Olympics. They moaned and complained because it’s the only thing they know how to do when faced with something new – that, and retreat into awkwardness – and then it turned out to be more exciting and inspiring than they believed it could be. I love them for agreeing, as a nation, to let themselves enjoy it just this once, even if now – bless them – they are a little embarrassed about having gotten so carried away. I will not forget the London I saw this summer, even as the trash can lid slams back down.

 

“Well, that was fun,” the Evening Standard’s editorial pages said yesterday. “Now can we have our city back?” 

Coaster Day

A few weeks ago my friend had a birthday and decided to spend it riding roller coasters. She arranged a day outing to Thorpe Park, a Six Flags-style amusement park outside of London. I bought a ticket, made childcare arrangements, waited for the appointed day, got on the train to Thorpe Park, looked out the window and thought to myself Holy fuck, I do not want to do this.

I loved amusement parks as a child. Loved them. I planned my entire year around the annual appearance of a skeezy traveling carnival in our church parking lot and still remember how my friend and I wept after we waited an hour for the Zipper and were told we were too short. I once asked my cousin “Would you rather have a million dollars, or go to Disneyland?” He wearily pointed out that with a million dollars you could easily afford a Disneyland ticket, but I brushed him off because I did not really believe that mere money could purchase an experience as wonderful as Disneyland. I imagined an adulthood of endless weekend trips to carnivals, an annual Disneyland pass and unrestricted access to a Dionysian world of loops, corkscrews, death drops and funnel cakes.

What changed? Age, I guess – you start to notice the relentless materialism of the Disney machine and the film on the water in the flume rides and Jesus Christ, does that Monkey Cages operator only have one hand?? Maturity stole some of the joy, and the rest fell hostage to a case of motion sickness that started sometime in my twenties and has come to manage my traveling life with a roadie’s leering aggression. I stopped going on roller coasters, and as a result they stopped being fun and just got scary.

So I don’t know why I said yes to this little adventure. I don’t want to go on these roller coasters and I don’t want to be the wimp who stands to the side and I don’t want to be the person the coaster-cam captures mid-vomit, and there’s no way to avoid all three of these things. On the shuttle bus from Staines train station to the park, I twist around in my seat to talk to the person behind me, and when I turn back around a wave of nausea washes over me. We aren’t even in the parking lot yet. This is bad. This is so very, very bad.

We wait in line at the entrance turnstiles with cautious-looking parents, amped-up kids and a group of drunk girls in slutty superhero costumes. A member of our party gets held up while security searches his enormous backpack. I’m hoping that maybe he has drugs in there and we’re all going to get thrown out but he doesn’t, and we’re set free in a popcorn-scented hellscape. I see the roller coasters looming over the park, and it’s fair to say that I don’t want to go on a single one of them. They are huge and roaring and scary and make me feel like one of those kids in the Jurassic Park Jeep. I don’t need this.

It’s decided that we should start our day with something called the Vortex, a giant ring of seats that rises into the air and then swooshes around like a club being swung by an invisible giant. A glance at the kid behind the controls confirms that it’s actually controlled by a 16-year-old tweaker, and that’s not any less upsetting.

We take our seats and pull down the heavy harnesses that fit a lot more snugly than they did when I was twelve. I know that these are safety inspected and that nothing can actually hurt me; I know that this ride lasts for barely 90 seconds. Still, I am tingling with fear. I look over at the birthday girl, who is clapping with excitement and so plainly happy to be spending this day with friends. Do I need people like this in my life? Aren’t we supposed to giving up on new experiences and settling into our ruts? I don’t want to be strapped into this death trap. I don’t want thrills. I want my rut.

The machine grinds into gear and the ride begins, swaying at first, then swooping across the metal platform, then swinging up into weightlessness before plunging back down. It’s terrifying, but deliciously so. I see this feeling of gleeful abandon on my daughter’s face every day when I push her on the swings, but I can’t recall the last time I felt it myself. When the ride resettles itself onto the platform, I am laughing. And not sick.

After that, Thorpe Park is fine. It’s even fun. I don’t throw up once. I learn a lot. Skeeball horseracing requires utter concentration. The English call cotton candy “candy floss.” They also serve fried cod as a refreshment to people who are about to ride the corkscrew, and it’s decisions like that that ensure the Empire will never rise again. And while at first it’s so much worse to look, after a while it’s so much better if you do.

Suffering Olympic Fever

I was on a bus in north London last summer when a lady got on, took the seat behind me and immediately began complaining to her seatmate about the driver of her last bus. Then they started complaining about our bus driver, then about the new bus routes, and then about traffic in general.

“And just wait ‘til the Olympics!” one woman said to her companion.

“The Olympics?!” the woman said, as shocked to hear the Olympics were happening as I was to learn that anyone didn’t know that. “In this country??”

I’ve thought about that woman every time I hear someone in London complain about the Olympics, which happens every time I hear someone in London talk about the Olympics. If you want to understand the mood in the city on the eve of the Games then read this report from last week’s New York Times. It perfectly captures the bah-humbug, bloody-hell, couldn’t-be-bothered attitude that marks the city’s response. Never mind the energetic pronouncements of its public officials, particularly the outspoken and ambitious Mayor Boris Johnson. The word on the street – and on the Tube platform, the bus, and anywhere else more than two Londoners have gathered and have already talked about the weather – is that hosting the Olympics here was a bloody stupid idea.

There’s the traffic. And the crowds. It’s expensive (£15 billion) and scary (the company tasked with providing security guards announced last week that – oops – there won’t be enough) and tickets are impossible to get. If Beijing’s goal in 2008 was to give the world a preview of the new Chinese century, London’s aim in 2012 is to grit its teeth and bear down until the whole thing ends. The Olympics are Thanksgiving, and the world is London’s in-laws.

This is a strange thing to see as an American. In the U.S., regardless of where the Games take place, the Olympics are a quadrennial explosion of nationalistic pride, unabashed boosterism and a flood of marketing tie-ins. All the ads are Olympic-themed. People suddenly care about swimming. Olympic fever in London is more like an actual fever, or at least a low-grade flu that everyone wishes would go away as soon as possible.

Tomorrow night, the Olympic torch is running past my house. They are closing off the street. There will be traffic. There will be crowds. I have heard all this in the last few days. But I also have a fond memory of getting up at 2 a.m. to watch the Olympic torch run through my hometown in 1996. There was no grousing, no whinging, just a bunch of people standing in the dark whooping wildly for a guy with a flaming stick. It’s called Olympic spirit, London. Stiff upper lip, now, and get on with it.