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Robert Altman Week

Friday
Jul112014

In Which We Learned Everything From Him

Dial Drunk Dad

by SARA BIVIGOU

1. Everything I know about drunk dialing I learnt from my father. Of course, the booze is always an excuse.

Once you’ve got it into your head that you are going to call someone then you will. You feel playground emotions: happy, mad, sad, bad, lonely, are overwhelmed by them. Giddy, you pick up your phone. A surge of useless adrenaline when you dial. The beats that your heart skipped when the person answered are now throbbing in your head. Your head is a banging drum. You speak and only listen to respond. What you’re saying matters little, that you’re talking, that the person you are talking to is entertaining this conversation with a drunk you, that’s important. If you’ve done it right and drunk just enough the talking is a blur. Words out of your mouth faster than thoughts. What even are thoughts anymore? Just speak. How do these conversations ever end? You never remember. Regret in the morning.

2. The last time my father called me, slurring but peppy was to catch me up on his day. My father the doctor, the doctor who lives in a small bachelor’s flat in Libreville, Gabon. He lives in the centre of the city alone. But he is thinking of moving to Moanda, now that he is 60. He is thinking of moving to where he has more friends and some family, a cousin maybe. He doesn’t need the fast pace of capital city life anymore, he doesn’t need the big airport. Last time my father called me about a week after his fourth fiancee broke up with him was to tell me he had a brain tumour.

3. A list of the illnesses my father has called to tell me he is afflicted with:

gout

arthritis

pneumonia

presumed heart attack, as in darling I’m calling you now to tell you I am unwell. Your father is sick. His heart is pumping heavy. I can hear the blood in my head. It hurts when I breathe. Listen *and he breathes deeply, exaggerated, strangled* At which point I begin to panic and shout at him. Why is he calling me? He needs to call his doctor. Or an ambulance. I am going to hang up, I say, I am loud and elaborately slow you’re going to call someone to take you to the hospital.

4. I haven’t seen my father since I was three years old. Which is to say I don’t ever in all my life remember seeing him with the eyes in my head. To me he is a voice over the telephone. An idea of a person. A presence felt as an absence. A square of air where a man should be.

5. My favourite family story is the one of how my parents met, in 70s London, on a foursome date gone askew. Good only slightly lapsed Catholic girls that my Mum and her friend (and fellow Modern Languages student) Sylvie were they’d never first date alone, they’d always bring each other. My father asked Sylvie out and respecting her arrangement would invite his friend Didier, for even numbers. The four of them met at some tourist trap restaurant in West London, had drinks and sat down for dinner. By which time Sylvie had demoted my father from conquest to fourth wheel, realised she fancied Didier more. Didier and Sylvie flirted insanely, intensely and are still married with 2 children today. My parents chatted politely, fell in immediate like and all consuming love over the course of the following year. My grandparents begged mum, to the point of almost disowning her, not to drop out of university, to wait to get married. She ignored them. My father was in the process of becoming a doctor, she was going to be a doctor’s wife who could learn many languages at home, while looking after their four children. They had it all planned out like so many 22-year olds do.

A small wedding, maybe 40 people, at mum’s stepdad’s house in Port-Gentil and they moved back to London very shortly after. Within a year my mother was pregnant with her first son and two more after that with me. My father qualified. Something happened. I probably won’t ever know what exactly - his pride, her annoyance, his wandering eye, her hurt. Mother pregnant again in 1984, another boy. But father left before he was born, did not meet him until 2008, when he was taller than him and thin like he used to be and still somehow his exact likenesses. The lesson that my mother drilled into all of us so solemnly that it felt like our family’s pledge: never get married in your twenties.

6. My first full year not in my twenties I got married.

7. Things I’m sure love isn’t:

a feeling

uncalculated

Disney

contagious

singular

8. When you grow up without father a heavy myth engulfs you. There is this gross familiar idea of daddy issues, which is a wariness of your needs. The fear that they are bigger than those of others. Can any man love you enough? Will he be crushed by what you lack? You yourself are constantly checking to see if the hurt is showing. Jutting out like a broken hip bone, revealing itself embarrassingly like spinach between your teeth. You worry that your dadlessness will be used to pinpoint all your sadness. That it is the cause for everything that is wrong with you.

I wonder if my romantic history would be the same. So full of silly strife, of messy longing. I have stalked boys. Been infatuated too many times. Let them cheat on or with me. Shimmed up drainpipes into their bedrooms. Done everything they’ve asked me to, even when that’s meant nothing that felt good. I collected their moods and eventually always took revenge whether it was offered or I had to hunt it down. Found a way to cut the sleeves of all shirts, thrown a lot of records at walls. I’ve been hung up on too many feelings, belly full off useless pride. For a time the saddest most sentimental sort, bad at letting go, even of the worst fucking stuff. And always tired. Eyes either sore from crying. Or itching from the need to cry.

I only know for sure that when you grow up without your father it is possible to fantasize him out of all proportion. The first lies I ever told were all about my dad. He was an astronaut, then he was the one who put the pictures in children’s books, then he was busy and I saw him yesterday and he’d be back soon. And now what?

9. Things I'm sure love is:

amorphous

10. One long afternoon-evening home alone, two-thirds of a bottle of medium sweet merlot down. I don’t know why I dialed my father’s number. 11 digits. What did I want to say to him? Maybe I was sick now? No, I was angry. I had a story to tell. The click that connects an international call, then ring ring, ring ring.

The giddiness, the banging in my head.

Ring ring, ring ring.
Ring ring, ring ring.
Ring ring, ring ring.
Ring ring, ring ring.

11. He did not pick up.

Sara Bivigou is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in London. This is her first appearance in these pages. She tumbls here and twitters here.

"Strange Weather" - Anna Calvi ft. David Byrne (mp3)

"Ghost Rider" - Anna Calvi (mp3)

Thursday
Jul102014

In Which Dorothy Thompson Could Not Forget Vienna

The Potent Man

by ALEX CARNEVALE

They say it's dead, but for me better the corpse of Vienna than any other place.

The sight of Sinclair Lewis sober was extremely rare. His wife, the writer Dorothy Thompson, had to rely on Vienna's key strength to ressurect her husband from his hangovers: coffee. "Coffee in Vienna is more than a national drink," she wrote. "It is a national cult. Palaces have been built for it: palaces where there are satin-brocaded walls, deep divans, onyx-topped tables, great windows curtained in gold-colored silk. These palaces are center of Vienna's most perfected cultures." Every cafe in town was an institution in itself, "sometimes a club, sometimes an office, sometimes just restaurant, but always full of life, atmosphere, and - smoke."

Vienna's black marketers gravitated towards the Cafe Atlantis, across from the Imperial Hotel. The Lewis' apartment was not far from there. Christmas in Vienna in 1933 might have been a sedate affair had it not been for Dorothy's parties. It was there she felt a final distance in her marriage and realized she was in love with one of her guests: a German artist and writer named Christa Winsloe.

It was Dorothy's third lesbian infatuation. She wrote in her journal, "It has happened to me again, after all these years. It has only, really, happened to me once before." There were aspects of women that she missed in her messier relationships with men, and probably ones she never wrote down. What she would say was that women had softer mouths, and that sex was like, "being made love to by an impotent man."

Dorothy saw the relationship that Christa had with her ex-husband. As she saw, what they shared was as close to loving as a lesbian woman could have with a man. "For two divorced people," Thompson would say later, "they are the most married couple I have ever seen."

Christa Winsloe

It was a fight between the two ex-marrieds that precipated Dorothy's entrance into Christa's life. Christa and her ex had fought on New Year's Eve, driving her into Dorothy's arms. They talked for hours. "We kissed each other and she called me 'liebling' and said 'I will write to you and telephone, and you will not get rid of me.' And I felt full of beatitude." Dorothy checked her enthusiasm for the young relationship at the door, trying to convince herself she would be happy to have simple friendship with Christa.

Her own marriage was getting worse at the same time. Lewis' drinking had worsened, and although his wife was pregnant, he did not treat her any more sensitively. She practiced ice skating in order to prevent weight gain from the pregnancy. One night she came home to find Lewis had wrecked the apartment in a drunken rage, destroying all the rented furniture. He hit her for the first time in their entire marriage when she objected.

posing for a bust

For her, this was the last straw, although Lewis still tried to reunite with his wife, writing, "You seem to me in my mad life my one refuge and security. You see, I don't care a damn - not anymore at least - for fame and all those amiable experiences, but only (and this is a not-too-easy contradiction) for you and Mickey on the one hand, and Freedom (whatever that empty thing may be) on the other." A geographical separation made the two feel a deeper alienation, constituting a second violence. (Lewis had relocated to London while Dorothy wrapped up their affairs at their summer home in Vienna.) Just before leaving Vienna, she also lost her pregnancy.

with her son Michael

She pretended to forgive Lewis, but instead of returning to London, she took the train to Berlin to report on the rise of Nazism. Fleeing that damned place, she moved to Portofino with Christa and a gay butler named Giovanni. She kept her husband apprised of her living situation, informing him that the Italian manservant "does everything but our hair." She also told him how "terribly funny it is sharing a house with another woman."

Much later he would call her to tell her the news: this tendentious alcoholic was the recipient of the Nobel Prize. "Oh have you!" Dorothy responded. "Well, I have the Order of the Garter!"

The initial attraction between Sinclair Lewis and Dorothy Thompson had always been a bit of a longshot. Lewis' friends called him Red; he was losing that hair, and precancerous lesions from acne dotted his visage. According to her, he looked like he had "survived a battle with flamethrowers." The day her divorce became final she invited him over for dinner.

As soon as they were married and things started to go sour, Thompson began looking outside of her marriage for what the man inside it could not provide. She entertained her guests at the Austrian villa where she and Lewis spent their weekends. She kept meticulous, anonymous notebooks on the activities of her and her lovers. One reads

I went for a walk with E. and in the woods he turned suddenly and put both hands on my cheeks and we clung together. His mouth tasted deliciously of love, like the smell of semen, and I could have lain down with him right there in the woods then and there as I could have done for five years, except that we agreed that we wouldn't.

As she got older, the affairs turned into even more questioning events. Lewis would come home drunk and strike their son, only inspiring a new round of "What does it all mean?" Household staff could only watch in shock as the couple's bitter arguments went from room to room.

Their son Michael's nurse observed to Dorothy that "he worshipped the ground you walked on. When he heard you were coming home from a trip he would send for the barber to shave him, insist that all his clothes should be in apple-pie order, dress as though he were going to court. And then, often you'd hardly be in the house, when he'd start a quarrel, and then, as likely as not, he'd call the car and leave the next morning."

Dorothy's affair with Christa Winsloe ended when Christa fell in love with a man, an Italian basso named Ezio Pinza who she had seen perform in Salzburg. She tried to reassure Dorothy that this was only a passing infatuation, but Thompson realized Christa had become another person who no longer knew how to return her feelings. She wrote,

Like all love I wonder now if it was ever there. Oh, yes, it was there, but didn't all the threads run from me to you, and none really run back? You will not answer me, not help me, perhaps only because you do not want to hurt me. I write with my eyes full of tears, and my heart full of tears, and I wish they flowed because of someone else, because then perhaps you would comfort me. Or would you? Why is it that one's own love can sustain one for so long without any reciprocity, and then, suddenly, it can't anymore?

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

"Dreaming a City (Hugheskova) (Demo)" - Manic Street Preachers (mp3)

"Between the Clock and the Bed (Demo)" - Manic Street Preachers (mp3)

Wednesday
Jul092014

In Which We Assume This Will Be Hell To Clarify

Hard to Say is This Recording’s weekly advice column. It will appear every Wednesday until the Earth perishes in a fiery blaze, or until North West turns 40. Get no-nonsense answers to all of your most pressing questions by writing to justhardtosay@gmail.com or by dropping us a note at our tumblr.

Hi,

Lately I have been getting into a lot of fights with my mom about my boyfriend Tim. Even though Tim and I live together in an apartment about twenty minutes away from my Mom's house, she frequently asks him to come over to help her out with tasks around the house. The chores are menial but I resent that she feels she can occupy his time. He feels he can't say no to her but is far from eager to pitch in.

There is another complication to my problem. My dad left when I was four after cheating regularly on my mom. My mom likes and appreciates Tim, but she also continues to encourage me to monitor his comings and goings so that the same thing doesn't happen to me. It makes me paranoid and sometimes I find myself wondering. I've explained this to Tim and he says he doesn't find it out of the ordinary, but I'm worried these two things will drive him far away - possibly to Alaska or the former Soviet Union. How do I handle this ticklish sitch?

Lake T.

 

Dear Lake,

At first it may seem like these are really two separate problems, each requiring their own unique solution. In reality, one complements the other quite well. If your mother actually believes Tim is cheating on you, she will stop asking him to help out around the house.

Maybe you're not comfortable lying to your mom about Tim's "fucking around." After all, she raised you, presumably by herself. Why not be vague and say that you and Tim have been having some problems. When she asks what kind of problems, you must select the only problem that couples have that no one would ever want to get involved with, even your mom: religion. Inform your mom that Tim really doesn't mind helping her, but because of these problems it's hurtful to you to have him spending time there when you need your space. Cry during this, and if the moment strikes you, weep. I once saw a friend sob like a baby while simultaneously sucking fluid from a juicebox full of Juicy Juice. I assure you I never was able to forget it.

Hey,

My friend Judy is a lovely little thing. Her one problem is that she tends to get a little fresh with the guys right away. She rags on them about voting for Obama and loving Christian Dior. Guys that meet her say she seems to operate on her own orbit. As a result, it feels like they don't get to know the real Judy. How can I tell her to tone it down a smidge when you are first getting to know someone?

Virginia M.

Dear Virginia,

Men love charismatic women, so I can only assume Judy's behavior borders on extremely inappropriate. I had a Pekinese who was like that and suffice it to say she later became the star of All Dogs Go To Heaven.

To correct a dog's behavior, it is only necessary to offer some trifling reward. You must do the same with Judy. You say she has trouble making a first impression. Find a man who can last a bit beyond that. When he is unable to tolerate her, you will know to get a new friend. If he tolerates her, then your problem is likely solved.

It's also possible that Judy doesn't need your help. Operating in your own orbit is hardly the worst thing you can do. Think of Luna Lovegood

Illustrations by Mia Nguyen.

"I Don't Want To Be Your Mother" - Rachael Yamagata (mp3)

"Miles On A Car" - Rachael Yamagata (mp3)