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Entries in kara vanderbijl (74)


In Which We Spy Through The Panes



Christmas Eve was an excuse to get out of the house. Shortly after lunch, we’d pile into the car with some idea of a place we had never visited and a vague sense of how to get there. Dad drove. Even after the invention of compact discs, we listened to a cassette my parents had picked up during their honeymoon in Indonesia, a black market recording of Boney M and The Eagles singing carols.

When we lived in California we returned each year to Balboa Island, which is the West Coast’s idea of Venice, Italy, all charming wrinkles removed. Celebrities and business tycoons and doctors and lawyers and heirs and the deeply deeply in debt build lavish homes along complex cul-de-sacs of water canals that eventually lead to the Pacific. We walked, jaws slack, fog-chilled hands wrapped around cups of hot chocolate, along the narrow sidewalks between the mansions and the water and looked through wide-open windows as strangers enjoyed their Christmas dinner and opened their presents.

Far from any relatives of our own, we spied through panes frosted with spray-on snow, attempted to understand what it is like when people and their loved ones willingly stay in one place, go through the same golden motions all silent, holy night. We each picked a house we would live in, given the chance, a spot on the map in which we’d want our story to take place.

Some years later we were stranded on an island a few miles off the Bay of Marseille. My father had asked the ferry attendant whether or not there was anything open on Christmas Eve on either of the two islands we were to visit, one of them home to Monte Cristo’s Chateau d’If, the other a sad strip of summer condominiums and a small convenience store; the man had said, yes, yes, of course, everything is open, restaurants, bars, the Chateau! The prison was indeed open for our visit — boring, empty, drafty — and as our stomachs rumbled in anticipation we climbed back onto the ferry and drifted further from the city towards the second island, where a restaurant reputedly served a Christmas duck just for hungry VanderBijls. When we finally realized that we'd been hoodwinked  — that the only thing barely open on the island was the convenience store, cashier nodding off into the dusk, the ferry had turned its back on us, not to return for two and a half hours. 

It almost never snows in Southern France but it gets cold, especially on the water in December. The mistral howled against tightly-closed shutters. My mother purchased chocolate, gone chalky with age, from the little store and we huddled in a small shelter on one corner of the island waiting, hungry, foreign and terribly alone in the deepening darkness. By the time the ferry came back, we were dancing and belting carols at the top of our lungs just to keep warm. 

In subsequent years we returned to resort towns like St. Tropez, small enough that most people around for the holiday could crowd eagerly into cafes to have a croissant and a hot chocolate at 4 PM, hours away from the beginning of the festivities. They’d return home in plenty of time to grandparents and the traditional thirteen desserts, one for each of the disciples and one for Christ, which they would lay lovingly on the table before attending Mass at midnight, turning up the corners of the tablecloth so visiting saints would feel welcome to partake in their absence. 

Our own return home was quiet. We came together, later, around the table, just like our neighbors’ scavenging saints; it was laden with a few reminders of my mother’s Mennonite childhood — ham, potato salad, pfeffernusse, cold fruit soup. Before bed my brother and I were allowed to open one gift, but we could not choose which one. This was a reconciliation between my mother’s traditions and my father’s. She grew up opening gifts on Christmas Eve to Julie Andrews records, whereas my father opened his on Christmas morning in the house his father built in the Indonesian tropics. Joel and I would pull the last chocolate from our Advent calendars, let it melt on our tongues as we blew out the candles and said goodnight.

For the past few Christmases it has not been the meals or the music that I have missed as much as the excitement we all felt climbing into the car on our way to whatever sense of home we could find. And how is it fair that we can’t do it this year? When we learned so early on that nothing mattered but being together, and because we were together we could face the many moves and the foreign language and the wind blowing across the Mediterranean? When thousands of other families won’t even look at each other across the table, will spend their time staring into screens, dragging fingers under the sharp folds of shiny paper?

I had never had to limit my imagination by telling myself that I may never return home: I sincerely believed we would settle, even if it were just two or three of us. But last year we reunited in Marseille for the last time, two-thousand twelve's map already charted and exploding in diverse directions. And had we ever considered that visiting a place for the last time is a lot like visiting it for the first time? My mother pushed trinkets from our home into my hands, possessions that she and my father planned to give away before leaving for the Middle Eastern desert. My brother waited for a call from his Air Force recruiter. On my last morning, he fried me an egg and sat across the table watching me eat and cry. We drove to the airport, and I looked long at the smallest details, opening the window to catch the last of the marine air.

There is nothing fair about the leanness of this time of year, when we must drag ourselves back to our roots to be counted, pulling our baggage behind us. Some of us will sleep in bedrooms converted into gyms or offices, others in caves (because there was no room for us), exiled by quarrel or by choice or just by growing up. So if you get the inkling that you may have come home this year, even if it is just for a moment, leave your curtains open. Turn up the corners of your tablecloth. 

Kara VanderBijl is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about seeing other people. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing for This Recording here.

"Bitten by the Night" - Jenee Halstead (mp3)

"Garden of Love" - Jenee Halstead (mp3)


In Which We Begin To See Other People

"Jumping", Gladys Nilsson



When he told me he thought I should see other people, I jumped at the chance to please him. 

I saw, in no particular order: 

— a barber named Lenny with a bald spot between his eyebrows

—  a much older man, but only because we took the same bus every day

— the insides of too many peanut-butter sandwiches

— an accountant, Chris, whose number fell out of my pocket at the same moment I saw him reading Game of Thrones on the Brown Line

— a man who bit his fingernails and then touched his iPhone

— Rahm Emanuel at the finish line of a 5K

— my neighbor’s chocolate lab, the existence of whom we were ordered to vehemently deny

— a person I believed to be Robert Downey Jr

— three waiters at breakfast joints who denied they had Earl Grey

— a gentleman with whom I exchanged no words, only glances, over piles of underthings at the laundromat

— a woman who whispered “Thank you, Jesus” when another woman got off the train

— the Turkish Consul General at Lenny’s barber shop

— a hipster who vocalized the “x” in “xmas”

— Chris, in a bookstore; I pretended I didn’t recognize him

— someone shorter, but only because we were sitting down the whole time

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

— a small child eating a piece of kimchi

— an ancient hippie listening to a transistor radio outside the public library

— an otherwise educated-looking individual who referred to the store as “Bloomie’s”

— a man who vacuumed and shouted into his telephone at the same time

— five-thirty AM

— two women who mistakenly equated “yes, I live here” with “I know the name and location of every restaurant in the city”

— a woman on a regional train who took off her shoes and put on slippers for the three-hour trip

— Canadians

— a young woman carrying a Target bag inside a beat-up J. Crew bag inside a beat-up Anthropologie bag

— Madonna’s hands on another person

— a man who reached out to touch my elbow although he was surrounded by women and I was trying to ignore him

— someone swimming in Lake Michigan

— an abandoned chicken nugget

— a man who knelt to pray over a homeless mother and child, then stood up and walked away

— no snow

— three Santas near the tree in Daley Plaza

— Lenny’s cousins, all equally bald except for one

— a couple in the bar across the street; I made bets on whether or not they’d hook up

— a person who opened a K-cup and ate the coffee grounds inside as if they were yogurt

—  a row of women with equally straightened hair and identical Longchamp bags waiting for the train at Southport

— a man on the train who poured coffee from his travel mug into a used Starbucks cup

— a banker, a financial advisor

— one of my old French students in a beret (he attributed it to the weather)

— an average number of doctors and lawyers

— two people who made uncomfortable small talk during the entire commute simply because they happened to be acquainted and on the same train

— Chris’ mother buying nylons at TJ Maxx

— a cashier at Trader Joe’s who tapped into the rich inner emotional life of the woman in front of me while simultaneously checking her apples for bruises

— a baritone

— the bottom of two boxes of Raisin Bran

— a man who flossed through an entire episode of Parks & Recreation

— Lenny’s ex, who finished his sentences and his plate of spaghetti

—  a street performer singing carols off key

—  someone else leaving a friend’s party early, although presumably not for the same reason

— drunk boys who could presumably still afford cabs

—  Chris, again, over lunch, but only because he insisted and agreed to stop reading G.R.R. Martin

—  my hairdresser standing in line at the bank with an updo

— the UPS delivery man who left me three notices in beautiful calligraphy

— Lenny, the morning after

— the chocolate lab peeing on the landlord’s roses

Kara VanderBijl is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about Downton Abbey. She twitters here and tumbls here

Paintings by Gladys Nilsson.

"Hunting For You" - Robbie Williams (mp3)

"Different" - Robbie Williams (mp3)


In Which We Visit the Barren Wasteland



Downton Abbey
creator Julian Fellowes

In the beginning, we only needed a rudimentary knowledge of geography to differentiate between Downton Abbey's characters: upstairs or downstairs? The social niceties separating the classes were easy, even pleasant, to memorize. Now, halfway through Season 3, those days of ease are just a fond memory.

Remember when you could tell a member of the family and a servant apart by the cut of their coat? No more, no more. Sons-in-law come disguised as revolutionaries, distant relatives as poor drunkards or promiscuous teenage flappers. You can tell their worth by comparing them to each other in a certain light, usually right around the time the bell rings for dinner.

Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) has suddenly become important to Downton, as if by being absolutely useless he has made himself into the most useful character. Everything can be blamed on him. The assassination of the Archduke in Sarajevo. Why the eggs are overcooked in the morning. Dark days for Sybil. Why after Season 3 the show's ratings dipped dangerously low. Now, midway through, his most redeeming feature is his adorable dog.

Grantham has always been the secret point of the show; with Lady Mary, his shadow, he is the measure by which we see how quickly and drastically the world changed after the Great War. As the way of life at Downton proves more and more ridiculous, Lord Grantham and his eldest daughter begin to melt into the background like a pair of antique armchairs that you occasionally, and painfully stub your toe on. They’re a bit obtuse, but you could never bring yourself to get rid of them.

Granted, neither has had much of a chance to be exposed to the wider world — if they’ve seen anything of the struggles of the past decade, it has been within Downton’s walls, where it has undoubtedly been easier to control. While Matthew was off fighting in the trenches and miraculously jumping out of wheelchairs, Lord Grantham was busy... moaning that he couldn’t fight. And while her sisters were stitching up the wounded, Lady Mary spent her time trying to snag Sir Richard Carlisle. This is no longer just a matter of being out of touch with reality; Lord Grantham and Lady Mary live in an alternate universe.

Poor Matthew. He could not have known that by wedding Lady Mary he was jumping straight into bed with her father. Their lovers’ quarrels, tender at the beginning, have a sharper edge now that Matthew’s tensions with the Lord of Downton have increased regarding the management of the estate. He pleads with his wife to love her father but “believe in me!”, a phrase Mary cuts off by kissing him. Whenever they’re in bed together, it feels like it might be the last time.

They’ve been married for roughly five minutes, but the question of when they will produce an heir has already put a desperate damper on their relationship. Matthew nobly takes responsibility for their failed attempts, given his accident during the War, but we secretly suspect that Lady Mary’s uterus has been the barren wasteland all along.

When doctors in London confirm this fact and “fix” it, we’d expect an apology would be in the works — “Hey, honey, sorry I’ve let you feel awful about yourself for the last month or so, my parts were broken!” — but she’s already too focused on getting knocked up. Knowing, as we do, that Lady Mary isn’t given to gushes of maternal instinct, her rush to produce an heir points to ulterior, perhaps even subconscious, motives.

It is only a matter of time before the battle lines being drawn come into effect. Between those who have doggedly chosen a side and those who waffle between sides depending on how much it benefits them, the house is in considerable disarray. Sybil’s death cast a long shadow. Everybody looks at her and Branson’s baby as if they cannot imagine a being so pure, so free of intentions.

Downton Abbey is the social experiment par excellence, answering the pressing question, “What matters most to me?” Many viewers will admire the family upstairs — their hair, their games, their elegant ways and “flapper flair”. How can we help it, we’re shamelessly pinterested in such things! What we feel for those below might be an indulgent humor, perhaps pity; this we will find virtuous, as if pity had anything to do with compassion. Nevertheless, the social upheavals and injustices affected hired help the most. What the war had done to unite them only death can accomplish now, striking them all equally and without preference.

It ruins the cathartic effect if we demand too much of our entertainment, but Downton Abbey must provide a few things if it is to keep our attention through any more tense dinner gatherings.

First, Matthew must be soiled somehow, even if that would be more painful to watch than anything. I suspect being caught masturbating somewhere on the grounds would do the trick, which would also do us a favor by rendering Lady Mary mute forever. We should allow Lady Edith to be happy for the length of an entire episode. Mrs. Crawley should wear bloomers. The stock market should crash a few years early, or else Downton should burn to the ground, whichever smokes Lord Grantham out first.

Recent developments do beg the question, however: what will happen next? Fellowes had a good thing going when he threatened his characters with removal from Downton, a plot twist all too easily avoided by Matthew's money. Bates and Anna have been reunited, and Matthew and Mary are wed. At this point, it seems that most roadblocks have been sidestepped or overturned, which can only mean one thing: "winter is coming."

Bates is exonerated of his crimes once Anna finds proof that the late Mrs. Bates committed suicide in order to incriminate him. When he returns to the house, it means trouble for Thomas, whose position as the lord’s valet is immediately called into question. O'Brien's elaborate plan to rid Downton of Thomas nearly succeeds when Alfred catches him trying to kiss the new footman, Jimmy, and all hell breaks loose. It appears that nothing will be able to keep Thomas at Downton any longer. Threats of a bad reference make his future prospects grim, at which point Lord Grantham intervenes for no conceivable reason other than the House's big cricket game is coming up and Thomas is the best pitcher. Once again, the lord of the house has unknowingly assisted in either its ruin or salvation. We won't know for sure until next month.  

You can't help but feel for Thomas. He's a selfish opportunist, but he has shown more consistently than any other character that he will spare nothing, not even his reputation, in the quest for his own happiness. That gives me hope for Downton.

Kara VanderBijl is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about living near Vasquez Rocks. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"You Believed" - Corrinne May (mp3)

"Just What I Was Looking For" - Corrinne May (mp3)