Of Owls and Memories

Ten years ago to the day I took the Pilot V7 which is always in my right-hand trouser pocket and I drew an owl on my forearm. I can’t remember where I was, nor who with, but I remember there being no reason for it. I write on my hand inveterately – that’s what the pen’s for – but I almost never go behind the wrist, and the owl was back nearly as far as my elbow. I also can’t draw, even when I try hard – and I wasn’t trying hard. I scribbled ‘fOwl’ next to it because I’d just started working on a series of videos – the FaceOmeter weblog (!) – but I wasn’t consciously trying to come up with a design for anything, even though a version of the owl eventually ended up on the CD art for To Infinitives Split. Likely, what I was really doing was killing time. I was playing a show in Exeter that evening with The Dapper Swindler (my first time back in the town since moving from there to Oxford the previous summer), and there was probably a bit of sitting around. I desperately want to tell you that I had a feeling, some premonition that it was going to be important. It might even be true.

Anyway, it’s a decade later and the owl is still there.

I draw it on most mornings over the faded lines of the previous day’s. Sometimes (especially in winter) he lasts for as long as 72 hours. On other occcasions, I forget about him and go up to a day with bare skin. But he’s always back in the end, staring up with an amicable smugness. Almost without exception, every person who has noticed it has asked why it isn’t a tattoo, and there are two reasons. The first is that I am a massive wuss and extraordinarily afraid of commitment. The second is that I am a massive wuss and extraordinarily afraid of losing stuff.

This picture, which hangs in the National Gallery under the titleĀ This is what a Multi Looks Like, was taken on the morning of the 31st of October, 2007. The photographer is the Swindler himself, who has placed his Digital SLR on auto-timer on the roof of the Peug (which is just visible at the bottom of the frame). We’re standing outside the North Bridge Inn, at that time the best pub in the world, where we had played the show the previous night as part of a Princess Bride reunion (the first since the tour ended three months earlier and the last until we met up in East Prawle this year). I won’t bore you with the entire setlist – although I do still have the entire setlist, thanks for asking – but we played most of the PB soundtrack, ‘Song for the Summer’, ‘Cosmic Picaresque’, ‘Mellow Drama’, ‘Stuffed Animals’… all the classics.

The approximately 24 hours between drawing the owl and posing for that photo still rank as one of the best days of my life. I’m not going to tell you exactly what happened. Interestingly for an oversharer like me, I’ve never really talked about it – to the extent that writing this post feels strange, even treacherous. I will tell you, though, that there was a real owl involved – a wild one, a wise one, silent and graceful and skimming low over the water in the night – and, well… Well. If you drew an animal on yourself for no reason and then had a mindblowingly good day in which that same animal featured very prominently and entirely unpredictably, would you be able to wash the drawing off?

What I don’t know, as I smile for the above photo, is that I’m around 8 hours away from being punched quite hard in the stomach outside a pub in Oxford which is now a reasonably pleasant Indian restaurant. It should have occured to me as every atom of wind left my lungs and I creased over onto the picnic table that perhaps the owl was not a universal bringer of good fortune. At that point, though, I hadn’t decided to keep it – it was simply still there, through thick and thin, a memento of inexplicably good times. It’s always been like that: I didn’t ever decide that it was never going away, it just became incrementally clear that this thing was part of my arm now.

You see, there’s a third reason I never got it tattooed: I like drawing it on all the time. I like that I have to take fifteen seconds every couple of days to remember why it’s there, what it means, and why that matters. I like that the size and texture and expression of the owl alter very slightly over the numerous reiterations. I like that it has moods. I like that I can’t take it for granted. An intense overthinker, I like making time for a part of myself which is not really a product of thinking.

At both ends of the scale, 2007 was perhaps the year in which I was most thoroughly… myself. I did the Princess Bride, finished my undergrad, goofed off in Paris with the Swindler, buzzed around in the Peug playing shows and writing songs, made videos, and got into Oxford, but I also had some of my most difficult struggles with mental health, hurt some of the people closest to me in huge and unforgiveable ways, and found my new home desparately and relentlessly difficult for all sorts of reasons. At the end of 2007, and ever since, I’ve chosen to remember that year fondly – not because everything about it was good but because of the intensity of all. I cherish the tone that it set by becoming platonic to me (and of me), the gifts it gave me in terms of friends, memories, and tunes, and the lessons it taught me about what was important and how to be better. I’ve never aspired to get back to 2007 – that’s not the name of the game, time moves forwards – but I keep carrying it on my arm. Sometimes I don’t really think about it, and sometimes it’s useful.

Another song I played at the North Bridge on October 30th, 2007, was a cover of Kimya Dawson’s ‘My Rollercoaster‘. I don’t play covers that often, but this was (and is) one of my favourite songs and the gig was at the point where there were really only people I knew in the room. I decided to quote the best, and last, lines of the song here before I noticed that I already did so in my 2007 end-of-year-post – I suppose I’m just maniacally boring and predictable, although I do also find something reassuring in the fact that Dawson continues to have meaning (and more or less the same meaning) for me a decade later:

Life is a highway, and I’m gonna ride it
Every day’s a winding road, yeah!
My rollercoaster’s got the biggest ups and downs
As long as it keeps going round, it’s unbelievable

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