Friday, December 25, 2009

This doesn't feel like Christmas


I have a sneaking suspicion Christmas used to be more exciting than this when I was a kid.
For a start it's almost 4 am and my daughter is soundly asleep while my wife is downstairs wrapping up her presents.
If it had been left to me I would just now be trying to ascertain what stores are open at almost 4 am on Christmas Day.
When I was five-years-old I don't think I'd have been asleep at 4 am. On one occasion I stayed up most of the night in fervent expectation that some old guy with a white beard would leave a few eclectic offerings at the bottom of my bed.
Of course I didn't believe that rubbish some adults told us that Santa arrived down the chimney, because we didn't have one. Nor did I believe there was one Santa for the whole planet who visits x billion kids in one night. I'm not sure how anyone can fall for that.
But I did believe in Santa, although I rationalized it. I figured every local authority employed a few Santas that went round the houses ringing door bells. Hell maybe they had a Santa budget and a Christmas Committee that would make great fodder for the local newspaper when they implemented Santa cuts.
My thought process didn't make for an easy night. For a start, I'd listen out for the bell to ring for hours on end, probaby pissing off my parents no end.
Then after I finally fell into a fragile sleep for 10 minutes, I would feel the wonder of the magic stocking at the foot of my bed and eagerly trace the outline of the presents through the fabric.
I didn't actually get stockings. My mother put our presents in a couple of pairs of her hose (tights as they are known in the UK) which is just plain wrong now I come to think about it.
Then when we were finally allowed to open our presents at around 5 am we would rip them open enthusiastially and cherish each one, even the apples and walnuts that my parents used to pad out my mother's hose.
Often there would be a book about ghost stories and my sister and I would tell each other tales under the tree.
In the case of my daughter it's different. She'll wake up at about 9 am, yawn a lot and ignore most invitations to get excited about Christmas. Then she'll matter of factly open her presents and bug me to get out my chainsaw to remove them from their Fort Knox approved packaging.
I'm tempted to use her reaction as an allegory on how Christmas has lost its excitement and meaning.
But maybe she's just like that.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Yakety yak

The Chinese don't have a Year of the Yak but, if they did they would surely devote it to hairdressers.
I braved the salon early this morning in the vain hope that the hairdressers woudn't have oiled their jaws with coffee at such an hour.
My good intentions were in tatters within 10 seconds. That's how long it took for my least favorite sylist to catch my eye and to lure me across the room to her tatty torture chair.
No sooner had I recovered after a close to strangulation encounter with the black gown she had clingwrapped round my neck, than she was subjecting me to a barrage of questions about Thanksgiving, her matronly hams fiddling with various razors and bottles by the mirror.
I desperately played for time, talking slowly and mumbling something about recalling a turkey. The subtle hint that I was at Supercuts for a haircut as opposed to a cross examination was left to dy up on the cutting room floor.
My hairdresser continued into a spiel about how she didn't want to get up at the "arse crack of dawn" to visit her father on Christmas day but perhaps he wouldn't force her to do breakfast because her sister had moved to Georgia and they were close before, but nobody had liked his first wife but now they were divorced the situation was better and perhaps they would do breakfast and perhaps they wouldn't and did I want the back of my hair flattened off or rounded?
She had to repeat the last bit because I was flatlining.
In such situations I tend to be polite but monosyllabic. Maybe I have been beaten into submission by hairdressers. Back in the UK they'd always go on about their holidays but here in the US nobody has holidays so they talk about turkey and how oyster dressing makes them flatulent.
The only hairdresser I have ever had who hasn't submitted me to a verbal ordeal was a taciturn Russian woman I went to in Ilford who was more likely to cut my ear off than talk it off.
But unless I stand up to hairdressers soon I am going to snap because the alternative will be ending up resembling a montage of all of the early Jackson 5 because I'll be too rattled to ever get my hair cut.
Maybe I should have blurted out: "I'm sorry. I thought I came here for a haircut rather than a monologue on your dire and dysfunctional Christmas arrangements."
But knowing me I'll just continue to nod my head and run for the door as soon as she puts down her yakkety scissors.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Death of TV

I'm old enough to remember the birth of television on our street.
That's not to say I was around in 1925 when John Logie Baird succeeded in making monochromatic silhouette images move on a screen.
But I recall the odd brown box that arrived in my parents' home one morning in the 1970s and the air of pioneer excitement and they fiddled with clunky dials and a picture fought its way out of a snow storm.
Back in those days there were just two channels, BBC 1 and BBC 2 and two colors, black and white, as well as the unedifying spectrum of greys in between. We could get ITV on a sunny day but my parents didn't approve because they were forced to watch adverts for commercial appliances, the latest transistor radios, twin tub washing machines or Cliff Richard spinning at 45 revolutions per minute.
Early TV provided a script for our childhood. We hid behind the sofa when we heard the alien theme tune of Doctor Who thumping through a vortex of time because we knew the Daleks were about to appear. We shared our early years with the avuncular presence of Ronnie Barker in Porridge and John Cleese strutting through the corridors of The Ministry of Silly Walks or beating up his Austin 1100 with a tree branch in Fawlty Towers.
And it sounds like a chiche, but some TV-less neighbors did come to our house to watch the wedding of Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips in 1973, although our mother was at pains to point out she didn't look like a fairytale princess; more like a horse.
Then there was adult TV, which meant something different in our childhood than it does now; the serious grown-up drama that my parents were addicted to such as When the Boat Comes In and Dennis Potter's Pennies from Heaven.
Color arrived in our home at some point in the 1970s. I can't remember when but I recall the characters from Dougal and the Magic Roundabout suddenly gaining the hallucinagenic hues of their LSD addled creators.
As we grew older TV ceased to lose its novelty and charm. It was just there in the corner of the room like a goldfish or picture, although I still have fond memories of the monotone voice that read out the football results on Grandstand and the game we played predicting what score came next based on its cadences.
At some time in the next decade I drifted away from TV. When I returned in the mid 1990s it was a curiously different creature from the one I had grown up with. The feeling was mildly disconcerting. It was as if I had been going into the garden to feed a reliable but unaminated pet rabbit every day for a decade, only to notice one day it had grown green tusks.
For me the green tusks of reality TV first arrived in the form of Changing Rooms. The plot was simple. Take two sets of neighbors who are good friends, add garish paint, some MDF, a ridiculous fop with a name like Llewelyn-Bowen and get them to decorate each other's homes, resulting in neighbors who weren't such good friends.
The other reality TV show that I first noticed was Airport, a fly-on-the wall about Heathrow airport. I was suspicious from the outset. I'd spent long enough hanging around Heathrow Airport waiting for delayed flights to not want to watch this kind of thing as a leisure activity.
My cynicism did little to arrest the forward march of reality TV.
About 10 years ago I attended a lecture by Peter Bazalgette a TV executive who outlined the vast popularity in Holland of a show in which random people were put in a house and eliminated by public vote. Bazalgette explained audience numbers peaked when two housemates had sex, which equated on the small screen to two grainy figures wriggling around in a sleeping bag.
The scene was set for Big Brother and the rest is history. I have lost track of how many tedious series of Big Brother have been filmed or the cast list of desperate wannabes the show has enabled. But by hanging on every action of these characters the media has transformed them into vacuous celebs who are famous for being famous.
Characters like Jade Goody made being talentless a talent. And they lived and died in the glare of tabloid TV.
Today I have more than 30 channels on a basic cable package in the US. I can surf them for hours without finding anything I have a remote interest in watching.
Reality TV is TV whether it's Wife Swap, the real housewives of whatever place you can think of, the Kardashians, The Osbournes, Hulk Hogan's daughter, men who catch crabs in cold places or men who force themselves to eat enough food to feed an African village for a week for a certificate.
And Bazalgette's monster has spawned in a way Frankenstein's never did. You can vote on America's best model, singer, dancer, cook. Surely America's top snail racer or sewage technician will soon be a mere lazy flick of a channel away.
Meanwhile I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of here is in its umpteeth series on British TV and the soiled underwear of dozens of minor celebrities we had forgotten about is being paraded across the tabloids. TV has surely reached a parlous state when the departure from the show of Jordan, a woman famous for her gravity defying breasts, and I can't think what else, causes the viewing figures to plummet by two million.
If this isn't bad enough plans are now afoot to make the bushtucker trials, the stomach churning tasks the D-listers endure in I'm A Celebrity, such as eating kangaroo testicles and witchetty grubs, the centrepiece of new prime-time series.
Stateside our obsession with celebrity shows few signs of abating. In Colorado a father apparently pretended his son had floated off in a hot air balloon to raise publicity for a reality TV show he had pitched named The Science Detectives.
Perhaps he should be rewarded with a few bushtucker trials.
In DC a couple up for consideration for The Real Housewives of DC crashed a state dinner at the White House.
The monster unleashed by TV executives more than a decade ago who realized they could save money by avoiding high quality productions and using members of the public instead of actors, is out of control and nobody's going to round it up any time soon.
And as TV increasingly becomes fragmented and rendered obsolete by the Internet, it's hard to escape the conclusion that TV's going to be voted off this challenge.
Years ago when I first saw those flickering shades of gray it seemed like the beginning of something. Little did I realize I was peering into a golden age and contemplating the beginning of the end.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Last Days of School

I have a lot of regrets about my pathetically short career as a teacher.
But not parting with $29.95 to buy The First Days of School isn't one of them.
The book by Harry and Rosemary Wong is the bible for new teachers. You see them showing up during the new teachers induction, its perky green font sticking out of their shiny, new tote bags. If they ever forgot it you saw them turn pale and give the kind of look reserved for the first passenger on the Titanic who does a lifeboat count.
For the uninitiated the Wongs write about how being a teacher is the best career in the world. Turn to page 106 and there's Harry dressed for success resplendent in a waistcoat in the door of his classroom, his hand outstretched to connect with those of his students, radiating Oriental efficiency from every pore.
"I love to stand at the door on the first day with a giant smile on my face, hand stuck out in an invitational pose, waiting for those 'little darlings' to come down the hall," the caption reads.
I don't want to shatter any illusions here, but I tried a similar thing and gave up after the second spurned handshake. The sight of a tsumani of 12th graders rolling my way convinced me I would be crushed into a pulp on the first day of school unless I retreated.
It didn't end as suddenly as that but I was crushed over the next few weeks.
I can't pinpoint exactly how and why I failed but I found it hard to act like a teacher at times.
It takes a few semesters to click into the mindset of a teacher which is similar to that of a prison guard. Always be suspicious and assume the little darlings are lying or on the make unless you have evidence to the contrary in the form of a pass, an email or something else official.
I had some effective teaching moments but I failed to be a classroom cop.
And at the final reckoning I realized two months in I was already beginning to hate the humorless automotan I knew I had to become to keep order. It was hard to switch off at times. I was barking orders at my daughter across the supermarket aisle and middle aged ladies were giving me funny looks.
As Wong correctly points out, the most important factor governing learning is classroom management. On many afternoons the words of the great classroom Confuscius would come back to haunt me at the end of another 90 minutes of hell under artificial lighting when I sat in the middle of a maelstrom of paper balls and mangled desks.
My head of department took a dim view and rightly so. Desks out of line and books thrown around were tantamount to an invitation to riot. From then on I was fastidious about lined up desks and paper on the floor, although they didn't always listen.
And my thoughts were out of line with my departent head on one key area. I felt the uneven desks and papers thrown around were a symptom of a general lack of respect, rather than the cause of the chaos.
Wong says humans have a success instict. I'm not sure this was the case with all of my 10th graders. Indeed some seemed to have a failure instict and told me they saw their future in shoplifting. This leads me to conclude either Wong is wrong or some of them weren't human.
With this in mind I spent 10 minutes of one of my lessons looking to see if any of my students had small antenna pointing out of their heads.
It broke up the lesson and wasn't any more useless than some of the activities suggsted in the local authority's curriculum guide; jigsaw activities; fishbone maps; sequential episode maps; thematic maps etc.
I considered doing a sequential episode map with my kids and changed my mind. This was, afterall, a class that took 15 minutes to sort themselves into four groups.
But they were good at some group activities. Fighting for one. With no effective prior direction and little preparatory work two of my 10th graders successfully managed to beat each other to a pulp, while I hopefully pressed the red panic button.
"Why didn't you break it up? You played rugby back in Britain," one student asked me afterward.
Those exaggerations always come back to bite you.
So now my teaching career is practically over and although I'll miss the prospect of working without pay next year, it's not all bad. For one thing I have more time to read Wong's tome.
Wong said schools should organize a first day of school celebration where the teachers should stand at the bus stop and welcome them. "Wave and smile like it's aunt Mabel whom you have not seen in 14 years and the airplane has just pulled up to the jetway."
Hmmm. I feel I need to contact Wong or find him on Twitter. I actually had an aunt called Mabel. She was objectionable and flatulent and last cracked a smile the day Prince Albert died.
My family never failed to crack open the champagne at the sight of her oversized backside waddling away to the bus stop.
On the subject of flatulence, Wong doesn't tell you what to do when someone breaks wind and the whole class runs screaming to the door.
I suppose if I'd had the classroom management thing down to pat they would have remained glued to their undersized chairs, their nostrils twitching, fearing my withering gaze more than the odor.
My kids weren't really like that but my fellow teachers told me it took time to get it right. Nobody listened to Lenin and Trotsky much at first. It took a civil war and a lot of upheavals before Stalin came in to impose some heavy duty classroom management.
Nor does Wong devote any lines to insects which, to my mind, is a grave omission in The First Days of Schools.
It only took an oversized fly to reduce my best class to chaos. Just when they were calming down the infernal creature would reappear to torment me. When one student tried to swat it on a girl's head, the victim wanted to see me outside to press charges.
They don't tell you how to deal with that kind of thing on the training course.
My fellow teachers told me there's a lot that you learn on the job. I have nothing but admiration for these heroes of the education system, who go into a war zone every day without complaint.
That's not strictly true. There was a guy I met sometimes at the photocopier who reminded me of Travis Bicker, the De Niro character in Taxi Driver.
He told me the conditions were getting worse, the kids were getting worse; nobody wanted to learn.
"I gotta get out of teaching," he told me in a New York drawl.
He was drawn and on edge. I wondered what he would do next.
The day I realized he was six years younger than me my mind went on a loop and those words kept circulating in my head. "I gotta get out of teaching."

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A gray Saturday in Virginia

Today is Saturday and it could be the first day of the rest of my life.
But then so could any day.
The leaves lie limp on the tree outside the office window and there's a grayness hanging over the squat buildings of the toy soldiers' compound across the street and the gantries of the great shipyard beyond.
Soon the leaves will turn into a beautiful portfolio of red and russets although it's hard to imagine anything beautiful growing from the limp yellow offerings hanging outside the office.
It's funny how a densely populated city on a Saturday afternoon can feel like the surface of the moon. There's not a soul on the streets, trash is being kicked along and abandoned in cold corners by an aimless wind and even the linear highways are bereft of all but the occasional car. I hear a low whirr from my office window and it's gone.
There's a scanner voice out there in the areas of the office that still lie in quasi darkness like the half abandoned strip malls round these parts.
And information lies all around me, but nobody's making any sense of it. My redundant notepads are still here, a testament to two years of collecting information for people who will quickly forget.
Who now remembers Mary S. Thomas, two counts of child neglect or Christopher A. Judkins, abduction and kidnapping?
These nefarious acts that scour and scar and ruin existences, are commonplace on the yellowing pages of my notepad. The shorthand outlines take on a life of their own on the page. I can't even recall if they made it into print.
So many lives and deaths are forgotten about. Today I am driving through the city to see a woman whose uncle was blown away outside a convenience store two years ago.
It was the first day on my job as a crime correspondent. I heard the call but my predecessor went out and covered it. She wrote of the everyday nature of death. The school bus that had just disgorged its cargo when the youth worker was peppered with bullets outside the store.
The store closed for a while. Then it reopened. Life went on.
A few days later I went on the peace march. A small crowd lighted candles and placed flowers on every street corner of carnage, before they went home to finish off another day. So many victims: all forgotten now.
My predecessor ignored the quotes I had collected and put her name alone on the story. I only cared in passing. She went on to the education beat but left soon afterwards. Everbody's forgotten about her now.
Like the wind that batters old papers and sends them skidding from gutter to sidewalk, we are buffeted along uncertain paths and we play many roles before we return to a second childhood.
And we forget. Many of us completely, but some of us not so well.
I have a problem forgetting. Like I said I am a collector. I hoard memories, I miss faces; I reguarly make futile searches on Facebook for my best friend at university.
I miss people. I miss whole continents. I often see the late afternoon sun caught in the windows form a dazzling sculpture of mirrors on cliffs of Positano when I close my eyes.
Then I open them again. And it's still a gray Saturday in Virginia.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The First Month of School

Today I saw a girl in a busy hallway who I dimly recognized.
"Mr. Cifaldi," she said, and gave me a look as if she was unsuccessfully trying to reconstruct a relic from a lost age.
"Macaulay." I mumbled, as I struggled to remember her name.
Then it all clicked into place. I think the expression is epiphany. I should know as I've spent most of the week trying to teach epiphany in My Left Foot to a bunch of unreceptive 10th graders.
Roberta was another new teacher at my school back in the day, somewhere in the Jurassic period or at least in the dark ages when Beowulf was written.
A month ago to be exact.
We hung out one lunch time on the whirlwind induction week and talked about teaching. In measured tones and idealistically.
Have I mentioned it was only a month ago? Before the age of students.
Neither of us has got out much since; not out of our classrooms let alone into the sunshine.
Except when the school holds fire drills.
And the only contact I have had with my fellow students on the career switcher course has been on taut emails when they have described their nervous breakdowns.
The girl who landed a job teaching at the school I wanted to teach at quit after a week-and-a-half.
She couldn't stand another day trapped in a "windowless hell."
My classroom hasn't got windows either. And it can resemble hell.
Whenever an administrator comes in and all hell is breaking loose I tell him or her we are rehearsing Milton's Paradise Lost. There's a limit to how many times I can use that excuse.
The trouble is that, while I like many of my students individually, collectively they can become a rowdy mass that's hard to bring to heel.
But then sometimes, against all odds it works. The class is silent and I have to pinch myself to believe it's true.
Then a few minutes later it isn't. I'm floudering like a big filleted, flat fish on a beach as the tide recedes.
And inevitably time becomes the tide. I'm looking at the electronic slab of a clock, at the angular red letters on the gray wall, wondering if my material will run out before the bell. I know chaos could ensue on the next digit and if I lose their attention for a second, I'm doomed.
But let's look on the bright side. I survived a month and June is just round the corner. Kind of.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Jockey's Ridge




Sunday was a day of refracted sunlight and benign clouds that rolled across the azure skies of the Outer Banks without threatening cause any serious damage to anyone's mood.
When I first woke up the beach house felt the same as always. The holiday light still seeped through the plantation shutters in the morning, illuminating memories of long, lazy weekends in the days when I had more ahead of me.
But for the first time in nine years the familiar family portraits had gone from the bedroom walls and heirlooms were poking out of boxes on the floor. Order had been replaced with uncertainty.
Visiting my inlaw's home hasn't always been a pleasant experience and I confess there have been times when my foot has slipped off the accelerator as soon as we turned into their street and the car almost stalled.
But the idea of them selling up, leaving and searching for a cheap house in the dead heart of North Carolina after all these years filled me with sadness.
When I climed to the roof deck and looked over the sea and Sound, I wondered if it would be the last time I would gaze beyond the weather vane at the gentle roof contours upon a quiet Sunday by the sea.
And then, as if by instinct, I drove down the main highway averting my eyes from the neon signs, the strains of Kate Bush's Cloudbursting driving me onward from the stereo.
I turned off the highway into Jockey's Ridge State Park, where a vast sand dune towers over the flat inlets of these barrier islands.
With the sun still low in the sky and the clouds scurrying overhead, Jockey's Ridge was almost deserted.
Recent rains had formed lakes in the sand that weren't here the last time I walked across the dunes. Now they gleamed in the sand like circular washing basins that trapped the clouds and turned their fleecy undersides dark with refraction.
So I walked and I took photographs and I thought and felt the morning drift away as the sand warmed up on my feet.
And I wondered where the sand on the dunes would be when we were all displaced and gone and mankind had been rendered as insignificant as a glassy grain in the egg timer of history.

Friday, September 4, 2009

First Day of School

I haven't blogged for ages because I was recently offered a job teaching English at a local high school.
My first reaction was surprise because I had been on about 300 interviews. This quickly turned into euphoria and then panic at the thought of telling my bosses at work who were lining me up for the dizzy heights of covering the city of Newport News.
The Washington Post was meant to be offering me a job in its Hawaii bureau but the letter failed to arrive. We live in a new condo development and the mail is unreliable.
The first thing that hit me about school was the requirement to be somewhere the next day at 7:30 am. I didn't really know what 7:30 a.m. looked like but, in fact, it was similar to 8:30 a.m. with the requirement for even more coffee.
I haven't looked back or slept since.
For the last week I have been familiarizing myself with school procedures.
Monday was tough. We were trapped in an introductory meeting for about three hours without a bathroom break. Now it's one thing explaining away the fact you have never taught, quite another the fact that you are a new hire who has wet his pants in front of the whole school.
I made it without an accident but it was a close call. It felt like being back at school.
For the rest of the week I have been trying to make sense of the craziness, the bell schedules, the online tardiness procedure, the absence procedure, 504 plans, blocks, AYPs, SOLs and HELPs.
The only thing I seem to have remembered is where the red panic button is on the wall of my classroom. A successful lesson involves not pressing it within the first five minutes of class.
And nothing is simple. Searching for a grade 10 text I decided on The Great Gatsby because a- The Great Gatsby is a great novel and B - there are at least 30 copies in the school book closet in a decent condition.
But one of my colleagues came over all skeptical when I mentioned Gatsby. I could tell by the criss crossed lines that appeared on here forehead.
"That may be more grade 11. You'll have to check with the Grade 11 teachers that they're not using it."
So plan B is A Farewell to Arms. But there appear to be only 26 copies - leaving me about 4 short and many are in a dilapidated condition. So do I tell the class most can have a copy but three luck souls will have to buy one?
It's these kind of considerations you don't think about when a small light goes on one night and you think: I want to teach.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Charleston cemeteries







The last time I was in Charleston there was a lot of heat and a lot of kids.
At times like this escape is in order. I hastily made my excuses and headed into the labyrinth of old streets with my camera looking for the nearest cemetery.




Although I live in Virginia it doesn't feel a lot like the real old Antebellum south. There are too many wide highways and gleaming new buildings up here. Virginia has progresss and that doesn't always look pretty.

Antebellum is one of those curious pleasant-sounding words that describe something unpleasant.

To me the word conjures up sleepy images of plantations, festooned with Spanish moss and hammocks swaying under the Magnolia trees, rather than the days of strife and bloodshed that led up to the Civil War in a south scarred by the monstrous system of slavery.

The specter of the war still limps around some of these quiet streets and you can find a few old timers who still curse the Yankees.

But the good news for the visitor who has passed through hundreds of miles of hideous strip malls and Piggly Wiggly stores to get here, is that General Sherman didn't.

Charleston is a living museum and its churchyards are some of the most atmospheric places in America.

I've always had a fascination with cemeteries, be it the blackened necropolises of Glasgow where ghasty stone angels hold court against a sky of leaden clouds, or the quirky ivy-choked Cornish churchyards where gulls wheel high above the crashing turquoise sea.

When I was in Cairo years ago I wanted to visit the Cities of the Dead where the vast tombs have been converted into homes and given minaret towers. I was overruled by a partner at the time who had heard stories about tourists being stoned by the local kids.

At least I got to visit the grandest cemetery of them all, the Pyramids of Giza where some rather powerful people were buried under oversized headstones.

I have photographed seas of plain white crosses that stand like mournful sentinels over the empty fields of Flanders, celtic crosses beside monasteries in Ireland and tombs like small houses in Cuba.

If there was a world cemetery tour and I had the time, I would sign up for it.

Some people may find my fascination with such places morbid but I am always moved by cemeteries because they are a small window into the vastness of time and the transience of life.

They make you wonder who the people under the slabs were, what kinds of lives they led and, mostly importantly where they are now.

If I had the answer to that question I could become very rich. I might even be invited onto the Oprah show.

Cemeteries can be mourful and romantic. In Charleston they have a ghost tour where they recall how the ghost of Annabel Lee appears at the Unitarian Cemetery. Apparently Lee used to meet her young sailor lover here before her father found out about it and locked her away. The tale of doomed love inspired Edgar Allan Poe to write the poem Annabel Lee.

A day after hearing this tale I visited the Unitarian Cemetery to photograph it for a travel feature, but a downpour meant I only managed one uninspiring and hurried shot.

But there was no rain on the day I visited the chuchyard of St Philip's and the recent memory of fountains, hyperactive kids and extended family, led me to spend some time here, although I missed the grave of former Vice President and all round reactionary guy John C. Calhoun.

All of which gives me another reason to go back there.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Art of Being a Crap Dad


I have this recurring nightmare that I'm on the shortlist for the Crap Dad of the Year award.

Imagine the Oscars and then whip away the red carpet and set it in a dingy, smoke-filled bingo hall in New Jersey and you've got the idea.

The bingo hall is full of dads who have left their offspring somewhere en route but can't remember exactly where.

In the dream a couple of dads come up and make speeches about how being a Crap Dad is an art form, thank the director and the sound man and recall a tale about how they sent their kids to school wearing their pants inside out.

Crap dads aren't like some of the fathers I report on. Dads who smoke crack around their kids are Bad Dads - Crap Dads are something else entirely.

You know you have been rumbled as a Crap Dad when you drop your daughter off so late at daycare that all of the other kids are midway through their midday nap. The teachers can expose a Crap Dad at 20 paces with their piercing stares.

You make the situation worse by apologizing too loudly and dropping your keys, causing about seven babies to jump up in their cribs and start wailing as you head for the parking lot.

I wasn't that late today. But I was late enough that the rest of my daughter's class was already outside involved in a rather frightening pursuit called Water Play.

(let's face it. If most of us were lined up against the wall and blasted with a hose in all weathers we'd probably describe it as water torture).

But Zara seems to like it. Unfortunately.

She methodically put her clothes in her bag and put on her water shoes, ready to go to water play. She hung up her bag.

Then the worst thing imaginable happened. All the other kids came back into the building, wet with shining morning faces. Water play was over and it wasn't even 9.30 a.m.

"You missed water play, ha ha." they screamed. It struck me as a conspiratorial cacophany.

Zara crumpled into a heap. I muttered a few meaningless words of consolation and put an arm round her, all to no avail.

So I beat an embarrassed retreat thinking if I'd been an assertive parent (ie. a mother) I would have confronted the teacher, asked if they could do water play for five minutes longer and threatened to withdraw her from the daycare if she refused.

More than 12 hours later Zara's still talking about it, but she doesn't seem too upset.

Still I worry. What if in 20 years time she looks back on the water play incident as the point when childhood ended and early angst set in? Did Jeffrey Dahmer have a 'water play moment' as a child that changed his life for ever and turned him into the sort of guy who cut up people and kept their skulls in his fridge?

I hope not but I'm scared to sleep because the Crap Dad dream may return. What if I end up as one of those shuffling out of the bingo hall clutching a gold over plastic Crap Dad Oscar?

Monday, August 17, 2009

A desperate retreat for the English language

When I worked in North Carolina I once carried out a survey on students' reading habits asking them if they has ever read a novel by Charles Dickens.
A few had "heard of the dude," and some even confessed to having ploughed their way through Great Expectations.
But some hadn't the dickens what Iwas talking about.
"He wrote The Raven, didn't he?" asked one girl, referring to the Edgar Allan Poe classic.
"Didn't he write Charlotte's web?" one student of Elizabeth City State University asked.
Over at Elizabeth City's library the woman looked at me blankly when I asked her when somebody had last taken out a novel by Charles Dickens.
I expected her to say: "Don't you know those books are just there to fill a state quota or to eat up space on the shelves."
It was further evidence, if any more is needed, that these are parlous times for the English language.
Those who care about language are now on the front lines of a battle that's looking about as desperate as Verdun.
Kid's don't write full sentences anymore. They text.
Maybe one say I will attend a meeting at a godforsaken library at the end of the world where we'll sit around a candle and talk in hushed and revential terms about vowels.
It's all a great shame. I recently rediscovered Great Expectations and managed to separate it from the bad experience I had at school.
There can be few novels of the 20th century that match Dickens for his clever characterization. And Dickens is genuinely funny.
Mrs. Joe who thunders around threatening Pip and Joe with a cane, which she has named Tickler, is the heir to a whole host of frightening matriachs depicted in subsequent TV shows be it Hattie Jacques' terrifying matrons in the Carry On Films or Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances.
Nor should other classics of the Victorian era be left rot in a jar labelled The Past. There are no shortages of cynical social climbers in the 21st Century but there can be few better depictions than Becky Sharpe in William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair.
Emily Bronte's classic Wuthering Heights may seem more disconnected from present times but it is really? In this era of broken homes many youngsters live with sorrow and the spectre of brutal and bullying father figures such as Healthcliff.
Nor should we leave out classic American authors. In the depths of the recession John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath serves to remind us we have been here before and it was a lot worse then.
So make for the library and grab as many classics as you can before it's too late.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Internet is doing my head in

The Internet is doing my head in and that's official.

In the four minutes of each day that I allow myself to be away from the screen I now check my head in the bathroom mirror to see if there's a dent in it caused by overexposure to the Internet. Then I worry I may have missed an email and rush back.

Sometimes I wryly try to imagine how I did my job before the advent of the Information Superhighway as it used to be called in those pioneering days when it was new and mysterious.

How did I research facts? How did I network? Did I have to talk to people face-to-face? How scary must that have been?

The first newpaper I interned on used heavy typewriters, vast inky behemoths that would swallow your fingers if you missed the keys.

Make a mistake on the tawdry bits of paper you fed into the beast and you were told to bash "xxxx" over it. Our copy was such a mess it was amazing that it ended up as newsprint at all. But then there was a whole floor of mirky production people downstairs to check it.

These days when I write a story it appears on the website (dailypress.com) two minutes later. It calls for concentration because my grocery list could easily end up online if my mind wandered.

Today I have spent a while clicking on the 'most read' section to see if "Man shot by gun in old clothing" is going to climb up the list past "14-year-old still on the run," or "Death of homeless man was not a homicide." I'm thinking "Cat bites woman," might get more hits if the headline was "Woman Bites Cat."

For light relief there's always Facebook. I can browse the pictures of a colleague's wedding, see a former colleague holding up chickens, see an unknown relative of another former colleague visiting New York and view butterfly photos from another former colleague with a liking for butterflies.

I have a lot of former colleagues. I start to get paranoid about this and wonder if there's a website for people who are paranoid about colleagues becoming former colleagues.

But before seeking that I have to decide whether to poke back someone who poked me on Facebook because she thought I was somebody else.

And there's always the Facebook quizzes - what kind of serial killer would I be? A not very pleasant one I'd assume as serial killers tend to be...

I'm told once you have compiled the 40 things about yourself note on Facebook it's game over. You have to discard the site like that tattered old Operation game you had when you were a kid.

But I still regularly check Facebook, although I'm not sure if I should be sad about missing Live Q and A with the MLM LeadSystemPRO co-founders. I'm sure they are a lovely bunch, but you wouldn't want to take them down the pub.

Anyhow Facebook is apparently passe and pedestrian now in a cyber universe that moves at quite a zip. The idea is to go on Twitter and get as many followers as possible because this may confer you some kind of advantage in the afterlife.

Twitter makes you feel needed because people email you with interesting looking links. Unfortunately when you click on them most seem to be selling things, although I can't work out what.

Still it must work for some people as there are so many of them out there describing themselves as Internet Entrepreneurs, who devote a lot of energy to posting messages of such excrutiating positivity that they are obviously manic depressives. Be absolutely determined to do what you do/ don't allow yourself a negative thought/make sure your pets ooze positivity - that kind of thing.

I'm tempted to post: "My life sucks and I can't go on," for the hell of it to see how many followers I lose in a cyber second.

Anyhow I'm told Twitter is meant to be a vehicle to get people to see your blog, but they'd need to be confused or drunk if they are still reading mine this far, especially as I'm sure it's not maximising interactivity potential.

And that's when I'm supposed to reel them in like big gullible guppies and sell them something, I guess. At this stage the strategy starts to come undone like the line of knitted undergarments I thought I'd market on EBay once I learned to knit.

My aim is to get off of here and to reconnect with my family if I remember what they look like. Maybe we can cook sausages over a camp fire a long way from here and sing songs 100 miles away from the nearest internet connection. Yeah - I know, you don't need to plug in now.

I have promised to give it all up soon. At least after I've updated my blog.

As soon as I connect with my first buck toothed girl from Luxembourg that's it. I'm going to swich off the computer and dust off my type writer.

Monday, August 3, 2009

A user friendly heart of darkness







The mosquito-ometer at the visitor center of Congaree National Park was set to "brutal."



Had there had been a boredom-ometer inside the center it would have been set to "tres bored," if the attitude of the ranger who was intent in engaging me on every minute detail of his grand trip to Europe a decade ago, was anything to go by.



In the end I had to fake a bathroom break for my daughter and headed outside to take my chance with the mosquitos.



If Congaree National Park doesn't have the profile of, say the Grand Canyon, that's because it's in the middle of rural South Carolina and isn't quite as dramatic.



You can easily blast past on the road to Columbia without realizing you are passing the largest remnant of old-growth floodplain forest remaining on the continent.



But unlike the Grand Canyon you don't have to take a second mortgage out on your home to visit Congaree, which is free, and instead of fighting your way through the crowds to glimpse a ravine, the only pests at Congaree are pests.



Once we had realized foul smelling bug spray was our best friends the mosquitos kept at bay, although they were always buzzing away in the background, waiting for the spray to wear off like scavangers biding their time to attack the laggers in an army of occupation.



At least at Congaree a three-mile boardwalk ensures visitors can see the savage beauty of the swamps and gaze up at the highest trees on the eastern seaboard without descending into the mud.



Not that it's any old mud at Conagree. It's actually called "muck" and it's the famous Dorovan Much which made newspaper headlines in the 1980s, according to the information for the boardwalk trail. I made a mental note to check out those headlines.



My daughter was more interested in the spiders' webs across the trail and the turtles that snapped up the bread thrown to them by a fellow visitor on Weston Lake.



It reminded me of feeding the ducks in the park. You have to hand it to the National Park Service for making America's answer to the Amazon Rain Forest so user friendly.






Saturday, July 25, 2009

Poetry in Dry Places


Hollow canned soundbites nibble at the nether distance of the bedroom.

I find it hard to take it seriously; the southern twangs of the healthcare debate.

"I don't think Speaker Pelosi's going to do that but if she did it would be a direct slap to the Democrats ... I don't see the bill being there to get enough votes on the floor."

The arcane language of power yawns from C-Span and takes on a life of its own like the drool that oozes from the jaws of a sick old dog. I can hardly bear to raise a heavy eyelid to watch.

"Doctor Gingrich has some amendments on that."

When did he become a doctor? I wouldn't let him operate on me. He's done enough damage to my brain already.

"My mother is in her 70s. She could not have gotten that knee operation that changed her life under this bill."

Oh - and there's a specific provision that mentions your mother? The below provisions exempt Mrs. Patty Bumpus of Little Rock, Arkansas.

"It may be we can sit on Saturday and move to Monday 3, and Tuesday 4 if necessary."

Or out of here altogether. Does anyone look out of the windows over the lawns and suggest going out instead for a picnic? Let's have Pims and at least we can slap the Democrats on the grass instead of the floor.

"Well over 100 amendments have been filed ... If the process had moved more quickly and we had allowed for some of the free market processs and cost control principles."

After paying $4 for a packet of rice crackers at FarmFresh I could use an injection of free market principles and cost control.

I could also use the off switch, if I hadn't lost the remote control. As the debate meanders on my soul is saved by an anthology of poetry.

Did Dylan Thomas care about heathcare as he careered over the insane cliffs of Wales, high on spirits both liquid and literary, back to his boat house?
And what would I give for someone to throw open the windows of Congress during the minutiae of the debate and let in the words of the great poet like a flood of salty estuary water in this driest of places.

In the mutardseed sun/By full tilt river and switchback sea/Where the cormorants scud/In his house on stilts high among beaks/And palavers of birds/This sandgrain day in the bent bay's grave/He celebrates and spurns/His driftwood thirty-fifth wind turned age/Herons spire and spear.

Monday, July 20, 2009


The Pool Monkey

I love swimming pools that sparkle like blue quartz lapping on marble where the only company are statutes of Aphrodite.
Or infinity pools perched on the edge of the Mediterranean, where you feel like you are going to tumble over the cliffs of antiquity and lose yourself in the sunset.
Not that I can recall swimming in any pools like that.
Instead our reality on humid Sundays is the pool at the local state park. My memories of cocktails beside the pool of the Sheraton in Luxor recede at an accelerated rate as we approach the chain link fence, our spare clothes in the latest line of stylish trash can liners from Food Lion.
To get here we have driven about 40 minutes because we succeeded in moving into the only condo complex on this side of town without a pool.
Instead we pay $130 a month for a worker to stand outside our house picking his nose while pretending not to notice that our postage stamp sized lawn has died.
On many occasions we have deliberately averted our eyes from the almost deserted blue pool at Steeple Chase just five minutes from our home.
In contrast the pool at Chippokes Plantation State Park is usually full of ill behaved kids who have been disgorged from a nearby connurbation. Tattoos and ankle bracelets abound.
On the positive side my book on the history of ancient civilizations is in little danger from thieves.
The pool was clean on Sunday; most pools are compared to the municipal gunk fest that was Elizabeth City's public pool.
But there was a disconcerting smell wafting over from a nearby drain.
There are other hazards here such as horse flies, which are so named because they are almost the size of a horse.
There are plenty of rules about eating by the pool, using inflatables, pets and not entering the pool in your work clothes - as if.
However, the first time were were here somebody thought it was a good idea to take their monkey for a swim.
Like a surreal sequal to Jaws, the pool cleared as the frightened animal careered towards a group of kids snapping its razor sharp teeth.
The staff who are so zealous about food regulations seemed fine to give the monkey a pool pass.
The monkey incident coincided with an early pool experience for my daughter.
Now she can't understand it when she visits the pool and there's no resident pool monkey.

Saturday, July 18, 2009


Cat Call

I've spent most of the working week yearning for the weekend. But now it's here I'm at a loss about what to do other than eating and sleeping, which is normally fine with me.
I've been restless today, so much so that by 1 p.m. it was time to resort to a desperate Plan B.
I located my camera and held a photo session with my cat.
Strangely enough for an animal that seems to have been here under foot for ever there are few photographs of him in the vast family archives that are dominated by our daughter.
If she's the queen of the archive, Gigi is a mere footman hanging around on the margins.
To his credit he doesn't seem to care. While Zara will pout and pose, Gigs just lulled around on his fat tummy, obligingly looking towards the lens on demand.
Gigs used to go outside to hunt but since the unfortunate revenge incident with the neighbor who trained her dog to urinate on our lawn, he's been on home confinement.
He took it badly at first but the wunderlust quickly faded from his eyes as he piled on the pounds.
For such a large beast he can be easily overlooked which is probably why he likes to engage in toe crushing antics and make the occasional lazy swipe at my wife's ankles on the stairs. Unlike previous felines I've found myself accidenally owning he isn't overly affectionate or pretty.
Perversely this makes for a better photoshoot. Naomi Campbell may make for a better picture that Kathy Bates, but I'm sure Bates is easier to work with.
Thinking about Gigs it's hard to believe that the ancient Egyptians endulged in cat worship and mummified their felines.
The historian Herodotus recalls how if cats died in a house fire, all the inhabitants of the home would shave their eyebrows.
If Gigs succumbed to the inevitable, - maybe one day he'll topple over on the stairs because his legs can no longer support his giant white furry gut - we'll all be sad.
But there'd be no mummification going down and I'm keeping my eyebrows.
And that's not just because of the few times he's slipped into our closet and displayed his affection for my T-shirts in the most unpleasant way imaginable.
But then the British have always been bemused by the notion of animal worship. When tombs at Beni Hassan in Egypt yielded up tons of mummified cats decades ago, the British explorers didn't bother to make records of the find.
They were simply shovelled up and shipped to England where they were used as fertilizer.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Bog blog

I realized something profound about the States today. I still can't belive it's taken me more than three years for the penny to drop about spending a penny as we'd say back in Blighty.
No matter how far you walk across an American city you'll never find a public lavatory.
The fact I've just realized this has led me to question a great British institution, that so many of us back home take for granted.
Indeed when a local authority in Torquay once tried to shut the town's loos, it provoked a revolt among the locals shamelessly championed by the newspaper I worked for.
So what was the big deal? Will we Brits shackle ourselves to an unpleasant anachronism just because it's always been there?
I have a lot of memories of British public toilets from an early age; few of them were pleasant.
There was the Street Toilet, a pungent smelling place normally sunk into a concrete walkway, obliquely Gothic and resplendant with its chequer board tiles, broken windows, shattered seats and graffiti.
As a teenager you learned a lot about life from the graffiti on the stalls, hence the smug expression when your parents finally told you the "facts of life."
Even more sinister was the Park Toilet, a low slung green or grey place always in the most shifty and overgrown part of a public park frequented by equally shifty men in long raincoats.
The Beach Bog was a safer but not much more pleasant proposition, where the smell of the briney sea and a nearby fish and chips stand mingled with the sharp tang of urine.
And don't even get me started on the Bus Station Bog with its baleful pale yellow strip lights and chicken wire over the stalls. The Bus Station Bog was strictly a place of last resort for the most dire of emergencies.
Inner city pubs also boast their fair share of abysmal toilets, although I am fortunate to have never experienced anything as horrendous as "The worst toilet in Scotland" as depicted in the film Trainspotting.
Rather peculiarly the British Toilet Association asserts that the UK's loos were once "the envy of the world."
Not as I recall them, although at least you can sit on them if you feel brave enough, unlike the notorious toilets of France.
The British Toilet Association says the county needs better toilets now and needs to "stop the rot."
To my mind the rot was rather well established in the 1970s.
I'm not sure why the public lavatory idea never caught on in America but I'm quite glad.
Americans refer to toilets as "rest rooms." Frankly there's no way I'd want to take a nap in any of these places.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

A sad end to the freak show

There's nothing like a celebrity death to bring out the worst in journalists.
And there are few celebrities bigger than Michael Jackson.
So when news of Jackson's death started to filter through, the usual newsroom antics weren't far behind.
Bets were discussed on whether Patrick Swayze would also die on Thursday making it a trio of Farrah Fawcett, Jacko and Swayze in one day.
There was consternation that Jacko's white gloved supporters would be out moonwalking en masse on the streets, or that there would be a tsunami of wailing in Japan.
The usual puns on Jackson's songs were soon up on Facebook - Beat it, Killer, 20 percent off the Jackson Five etc, while one writer was taking odds on Madonna also shuffling off her mortal coil.
It didn't take long for the first Jacko jokes to follow.
There was so much tweeting on Twitter it apparently ground to a halt.
Nobody seemed to be sad about Jacko's death, except perhaps greedy plastic surgeons and a man famous for bending spoons.
I'd like to say I didn't join in and was above it all but, you know how it goes.
But now that it's all over Jacko's death has left a queazy feeling in the pit of my stomach because it casts an unpleasant hue on our sickly celebrity-obsessed society.
Long before his untimely death Jackson had ceased to become the kind of celebrity anyone aspired to be.
He wasn't like Marilyn Monroe or James Dean who were still uber cool when they died. He was a grotesque corruption of one of the most talented artists of the 20th century. He didn't seem to be black or white; male or female, man or boy. In his later years he appeared to have dropped in from Mars.
Nobody who shed a tear to the melodies of Ben at a school disco could ever equate the prodigious talent that was the teenage Jackson with the porcelain freak show who slept in an oxygen cylinder and dangled a baby from a hotel window.
But surely it's an indictment on us all that instead of caring about putting together the tortured pieces, we bought the popcorn and sat down hungrily waiting for the the final chapter of the macabre show to unfold like the crowds who came to see the hangings at Tyburn.
Martin Bashir's famous interviews brought home to us how disturbed and out of touch with reality Jackson really was.
But they also shed light on something else; the sinister nature of Jackson's relationship with his father Joe who thought little of beating, intimidating and bullying his kids towards perfection, sacrificing Michael's childhood for fame and fortune.
By the time Michael Jackson brought out the album Thriller in the 1980s, the perfection blueprint seemed to have worked. Jackson could sing, dance and perform like no other artist in the short history of pop.
Pity it was exactly what dad ordered; an act.
And when the cracks began to show they weren't just in the face Jackson tried to create to look less like his father.
They were to split a brittle human being into a million pieces, all of them hurtling groundwards toward a gaudy Neverland where child abusers stalked the Carousels.
Not that anyone cared. The intervention strategies we see every day on reality TV don't seem to apply to the famous. We watched appalled as Jacko's kids were paraded round with their faces covered. And nobody did a thing about it.
The Jackson tragedy should be a lesson to all of us who push and punish our kids into being the superstars we never were.
It should bring it home to us that being ordinary is nothing to be ashamed of and everything to aspire to.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

trapped in the past


It occured to me the other day that I am sinking into yesterday.
I only need to say "yesterday" and I think of the sad chords of the Beatles song. And when I think of sinking, I imagine the fabled bogs on Dartmoor and the tales my parents used to tell me when I was on holiday there about Old Uncle Tom Cobley who loaded his friends on the back of a gray mare cum makeshift taxi service on the way to Widecombe Fair.
Widecombe Fair was one of those jolly japes that ends in tears. All the people on the mare mysteriously disappeared - my parents speculated they were sucked up in a bog - but on a ghostly night out on the moor you can still hear the "old mare in her rattling bones."
Dartmoor can be a bleak and windswept place but I miss it to bits.
I have fond thoughts of the weak sunlight on the day I followed a flint strewn path by a clear stream up the escarpment into trees that radiated the reds, oranges and yellows of fall. And the pictures I took of the gnarled trees that had bowed to the wind on the edge of the bare moor.
We stood there smugly in our fake Barbours admiring a distant church tower and heard the peal of bells carried by a hestitant wind on one of those timeless afternoons.
The girl I was with then drifted away later like one of the grey tinged clouds that race across the rocky tors and are a distant memory 20 minutes later.
I don't think about her much now and when I do my thoughts are most pervese.
I find myself wondering what happened to the Italian-bound leather wedding album that cost about $3,000. I mean what good are such fragmented memories to anyone?
Is there a day of the year when someone somewhere brings it out and lights candles for all the failed marriages since Adam and Eve started bickering over fruit?
And how could all those weeks of agonizing about cake colors and who to invite have ended more than seven years later with a phone call that went something like: "How's the cat?"
"He's dead."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"Because I didn't."
And the line went deader than a feline for ever. Just like that. And now I can never think of the conversation without conjuring up an image of Paul Daniels in his faux magician weaseldom.
"You'll like it. Not a lot but you'll like it."
- I'll like it about as much as a dead cat but what is dead can't be made undead nor said unsaid. I think that's my problem.
Dartmoor on the other hand is less easy to erase. It has a lowering presence and majesty.
Back in the day when I was consumed with enthusiam about journalism and its infinite possibilities I went up to Princetown to take pictures of the hulking great Victorian prison whose granite walls cast a shadow that even a sunny day can't dispell.
The jail, like the prison project I labored on at journalism college, speaks to my past but says little of the future.
Back in the 19th century desperate prisoners would attempt to flee the prison's damp and cavernous spaces in ankle chains only to be cut down by the wind on the moor, flurries of snow and those lurking bogs.
I fear the past is becoming my ankle chain too.
I have worked at places where young reporters have looked at me blankly if I've mentioned Duran Duran. When the Reflex was number one in the charts, the only reflex they were aware of was a twitch in the birth canal.
And to the Ipod generation, the charts are a meaningless concept as alien as a granite prison anchored to a moor.
It used to matter to be Number One; but then I suppose it used to matter if your suit of armor was properly oiled.
Mention Top of the Pops and Pan's People - the dance group my father used to be overly attentive to in the five minutes before he was slapped by my mother - today and you might as well say: "I went to school with Emily Bronte - nice girl, a bit gloomy, though."
I'd like to say I'll get over my obsession with the past but it seems to be getting worse.
Today in 7-Eleven I found myself muttering the words of a Doors song and I can't get enough of the Stones every time they are played on the radio; I end up thrashing my arms around in my car, gathering more strange looks as I veer across the Interstate.
The Stones aren't even my generation but I think I need to buy their cassette.
And every time someone talks about Jon and Kate, Kirstie's weight or Cher's daughter's sex change, I alternately want to disappear into my shell or scream.
Then my mind goes into overdrive. I want to find a way I can turn the conversation to Napoleon's ill fated retreat from Moscow but start talking about 1812 at a party and everyone looks at you like you're a freak.
It's worth persevering to my mind. The next time you are wedged in a kitchen sipping watery Millers between two crushing bores in baseball caps who are jumping up and down about the Steelers' latest win, try loudly interjecting with an observation about how Hannibal made a key strategic error in the Second Punic War. It's worth it for the reaction.
Because let's face it - the past beats the present hands down. There were great movements, ideas and thinkers all cast in the foundry of constant fear and the spectre of suffering.
Today's generation has it all at the push of a button. But by being visually richer we are spiritually poorer. Somebody else has given us the imagination thing and we have burned our own imagination out on the X-box.
Meanwhile the answer lies unopened on the library shelf.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Cruel Summer

It's been a June of bouts of unremitting heat and leaden skies split apart by thunder here in Virginia.

During such months you have to wonder about those madcap adventurers who made the trip across the Atlantic more than 400 years ago to simmer in a mosquito-infested swamp at Jamestown and to freeze and starve in between unedifying episodes of cannibalism.

To me the New World remains a bewildering and unforgiving place at times. Away from the cities the trees seem taller and more savage than in Europe, the brackish waterways darker, more mirky and muddled. I feel if I look over my shoulder I will glimpse heavily tattooed people flitting through the half light of the forest and spirit demons exorcised with their drums.

Where man has left his mark the cities of Virginia can also be unforgiving on the eye, sliced up by hulking, concrete freeways that divide rich from poor and strip malls that are vast Saharas of cracked concrete and testaments to prosperity lost.

Faced with the slabs of downtown Newport News and the sickly, sulphorous residue of the coal dumps at the shipyard that linger in the nostrils for half a mile up the Interstate, it can be easy to lose hope like the souls in the ghetto to the east, who live and die prematurely on the wrong side of the tracks.

Sorrow lingers down here in the streets with numbers but no names. My landmarks are the half remembered scenes in the half light where the only color is the yellow of incident scene tape and the blue lights piercing the gloom. I measure the distance of the blocks by the footfalls of the marchers who come to remember the prematurely dead.

The candles and makeshift photographs taped to cardboard are a world away from the solid war memorials that occupy pride of place in every English town but they share a common heritage that seeped into the bloody ground.

Many a time on a homicidal intersection I have yearned for a peaceful stream and an English meadow. Grantchester with its sleepy homes and bunched willows draped over the flowers of the water meadow, seldom seemed so alluring. The Old Vicarage where Rupert Brooke wrote of the lilacs in bloom, never so unattainable.

Brooke, the flowering of English youth, died on a Greek Island, in some corner of a foreign field that is forever England, on the way to one of the bloodiest theaters of World War I.

The longer I am away the more easily I slip into the Arcadian/American view of England as a place of antique steam trains, Shakespearean theaters, old maids riding through the mist and sleepy afternoons caressed by the sound of leather on willow.

It becomes more convenient by the day to airbrush from my mind the ugly asphalt of the A12 and the tower blocks of Barking, of walking the gum strewn gauntlet to Blockbuster past the crack addicts and hustlers and the schools of the East End with their grubby walls and high steel fences.

But for an island so densely populated England is yet to give up its gentle charm and the countryside is seldom further than an hour away.

On the days when the storms muscle their way up the James River, sucking the oxygen from the sky, I am increasingly far away recalling the gentle contours of Wenlock Edge and the clouds that rise like pleasure balloons over the escarpments on a Sunday afternoon.

It's becoming increasingly hard to forget about those blue remembered hills.

Monday, May 18, 2009

My work station

I've always found "work station" to be a strange expression.
It makes me think of trains whirring in and out, a bustle of commuters and routes that go places.
Whereas my work station doesn't involve anything much going anywhere.
Instead of direction there's accumulation and inertia. There's a mountain of papers that threatens my keyboard like a mini Aberfan. Sometimes they slide into my arms when I am on the phone and people wonder why I sound like I'm wrestling with a baby seal mid conversation.
Sometimes it's hard to find the old gray phone under the detritus of my desk and when I find it I have second thoughts.
The receiver is probably clogged up with the germs of reporters long since past; I try not to hold it too close to my ear.
If Aggie MacKenzie of How Clean is your House? fame were to see it she'd probably squeal in that high pitched Scottish voice of hers, take a swab and present me with a petri dish that looked like a Jackson Pollock painting.
Although I tell colleagues, tongue firmly in cheek, my desk represents a new generation of one stop filing, that I can put my hand blindly into the abyss and pull out a gem of information, the truth is more random. Rather than the stat I'm looking for on arsons in York County in 1973, it's more likely to be the remains of last October's chicken sandwich.
At least I didn't request mayonnaise.
I console myself with the thought there are women with more disordered handbags. Like a former colleague called Christine who used hers to house a collection of chicken bones dating back to the mid 1700s.
I'm told such behavior is not the norm for women.
Some days I pledge to have a purge, motivated - if nothing else - by a desire to find out if my desk is a lurid shade of bubbegum pink under those papers, or just gray like everyone else's.
Desk clutter isn't a new problem for me. Crowded desks have followed me my whole career, like an old friend, or an alarming stalker. I never know how they get there.
When I was working as a features editor in England, one of my colleagues invited to my work station, on a one way ticket from hell or Hellesdon, a neat Nazi who ran an operation called Clutter's Last Stand.
The spurious context was it might make a decent feature.
Mrs. Clutter - I can't remember her real name but am haunted by her bob - ritually humiliated me for the best part of a day and made me get on my hands and knees under the desk while she assaulted my hind quarters with a vacuum cleaner. I was getting alarmed by Mrs. C by the end of the day.
Two months later she called me up and asked if I was interested in a follow up visit. As papers cascaded onto my lap I told her there was no need to because the desk was still immaculate.
Maybe my desk needs another Mrs. C in its life. It's tired and lackluster and needs someone to whip it into shape with some Vim and a vacuum cleaner attachment.
But there is surely something noble about its decline. When I look upon my desk from afar my eyes mist over as if I have stumbled on a relic from an antique age.
In an oblique way it makes me think of Shelley's poem Ozymandias.
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Uncle Ho saved me from being a teenager

Uncle Ho isn't a particularly popular figure in the United States compared to, say Uncle Sam or Colonel Sanders.
This is probably just as well because if some bright spark decided to open a chain of Ho Houses, people could get the wrong idea, although it's hard to see how they could be more seedy than Waffle Houses.
Being British I am a firm champion of impossible causes, such as the England football team. it almost goes without saying that I had something of a soft spot for Ho Chi Minh, the mythical Vietnamese Communist revolutionary, Prime Minister and President, notwithstanding the often brutal and misguided nature of his regime.
Uncle Ho may have deprived a whole generation of Vietnamese people from making an easy buck not to mention those McDonald's fries that taste like cardboard, but he saved me from being a teenager for at least four hours of my life, an achievement that should not be belittled.
I'm always suspicious of people who say their teenage years were the best of their lives, a fad that seems to have been growing recently with those wretch inducing prom photos that periodically appear on Facebook. I'm convinced these people now have selective memory loss or were on drugs.
For many good reasons I have made every effort to erase the memory of those years, as effectively as Stalin airbrushed Trotsky out of Soviet history.
I didn't even have to destroy my class photos as a teenager. As soon as my parents opened the envelope, removed the health warning from the photographer and and pulled out images that were more like join-the-dots puzzles than liknesses of a human being, there wasn't the remotest prospect of them parting with their hard earned cash for images that would scare away the few house visitors they had.
Of course acne isn't the only curse of the teenage years.
There's this strange parallel universe you enter in which you come to come to believe tight stripey jeans, lemon colored wife beater shirts and pointed shoes with buckles on the side are the epitome of coolness.
If I had attended an respectable school I may have survived, by cosseting my teenage angst and rampant hormones into a blazer.
Unfortunately I attended the School of Hard Chavs, a place where burgundy staypress trousers, fledgling moustaches and streaky hair were the order of the day, the classrooms and the disordered places in between.
Even the brightest of students tried to dumb down. One photo that does survive from those days is The Grim Trinity, otherwise known as the official image of the three brightest kids in school.
I can't remember how I made the list. I believe I had to spell my name and get all the letters in the correct order.
Demonstrating my impeccable judgement, I chose to wear a jacket that the most evasive of backstreet car salesmen would be proud of, drainpipe trousers and appear to have injected a generous amount of "Sun-In" into my hair. I would have owned a Ford Capri but fortunately I wasn't old enough to fail my driving test.
I was in good company. Even Keithy, formerly so square that we avoided him for fear of being injured by his right angles, had reached for the Sun-In and was spouting the beginnings of a moustache every bit as pathetic and light deprived as my own.
Being away from school provided little respite from being a teenager; in fact it only made it worse. On Saturday nights I would join forces with Dan whose natural teenage awkwardness was excacerbated by an unkept shock of hair the color of the top of a Duracell battery and an unfortunate limp.
Hyped up on cheap lager we'd stagger from disco to disco with the sole purpose of being insulted by girls. Or so it seemed. A for effort, E for achievement, D for desperation.
Most nights we ended up sat on a wall, chain spitting on the pavement while I tried to think of ways to trade in Dan for a cooler friend I never found until one day I stumbled on Uncle Ho.
For a bizarre reason I never understood our school had been selected to take part in a United Nations youth conference in London and I was one of of the members of the three strong delegation.
Our hands, stained with nicotine from unsuccessful teenage smoking escapades, were all over the envelope. It finally came apart and a small label beating the mystical name "Vietnam" floated to the floor like a slogan from a fortune cookie.
The envelope marked a strange phase when we departed from our school's moto, which I recall was "bugger it," (it sounds better in Latin) to do some real research.
One of the big ticket debates at Westminster Hall was slated to be Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia and I was the delegate in the hot seat. I assiduously visited the library and studied Vietnam's pragmatic and often disastrous form of communism and the country's late spiritual leader Ho Chi Minh.
My life was transformed. By the time I attended the plenary sessions I genuinely believed in Vietnam's right to occupy Cambodia, an argument strengthened by the fact that the UN still recognized the muderous regime of Pol Pot as Vietnam's legal representatives, notwithstanding the not inconsequential matter of two million deaths in the killing fields.
I was winning the argument and winning over the girls from a Catholic school in Bedford, until I made a sartorial gaffe by wearing a rat grey leather jacket on the second day and narrowly lost the diplomatic high ground.
But some of the gravitas of being Vietnam carried over to the parties at the University of London, the type where you end up in a clinch in the elevator with some unknown girl from Stevenage and spend breakfast the next day clearing your throat and avoiding her glassy stare.
Soon the crescendo was upon me. On the last day the conference convened in Westminster Hall and voted on the resolutions. Knots formed in my stomach and my hands shook as my alloted time drew near. When I stood up to speak about Pol Pot's atrocities there was a dull murmur in the hall.
The arguments that had been so persuasive with the girls from Bedford were having little effect. But then I had a mental image of the mystical figure of Uncle Ho, his long whispy beard hanging in the jungle breeze.
Abandoning my script I launched into a diatribe against American imperialism. The conference erupted into whoops of delight, clapping and cheering. It was a low trick, perhaps, but Uncle Ho had saved me.
We narrowly lost the vote but I didn't care.
For at least four hours the sartorial horrors and gawky angst of being a teenager had been vanquished. Uncle Ho had rescued me from being a teenager.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The American Dream

I wondered how well the American Dream was doing last week. I was in one of the cavernous parking lots that comprise downtown Hampton when I heard shouts turning the air blue.
It was an unusual sound to hear in this part of Hampton. I'm not saying it's the kind of place where you overhear snippets of conversation about last night's performance of Madame Butterfly, just that it's close to the cop station.
I turned and saw a grizzled man in a motorized wheelchair making stuttering progress down the middle of the highway as if his power button was cutting in and out.
Two large American flags were flying behind his wheelchair and his head was jerking around as eratically as his contraption.
The object of his anger, a middle aged woman was strolling nonchantly down the sidewalk.
"#@**&&^^^," shouted the man, or words to that effect, casting aspirtions on his lady friend's fidelity.
A couple of cars swerved to avoid him, but otherwise this rather disturbing tableau diminished down the road, leaving Hampton to the peculiarly soulless silence of parking lots in the early afternoon.
Whiskery men in wheelchairs draped in America flags tend to conjure up one powerful motif; that of the aftermath of the Vietnam war, although for all I knew this character could have fallen out of a window.
In Oliver Stone's film Born on the Fourth of July, Ron Kovic, played by Tom Cruise, joins the Marines as a clean cut personification of the American Dream and ends up a mental and physical cripple.
In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, Kovic - now a grizzled and angry veteran - has a wheelchair fight in Mexico with another veteran played by Willem Dafoe, in a performance that goes some way to expurging memories of Dafoe's excrutiating candle wax sex scenes with Madonna in Body of Evidence.
I'm not sure if any universities offer courses on the American Dream but if they do Vietnam is surely taught as the gloomy low point, discussed with relish by a Trotskyite lecturer in sandals whose one ambition in life is to spit on the Staute of Liberty.
If America went into World War II like the calvary coming to rescue Europe and Asia from the scourge of tyranny (the atomic bomb aside), it got pulled into Vietnam like a dazed rotweiler at a boistrous kids' party and left with the exteminator's gun to its head.
But although Vietnam threatened to tear America apart, the intangible dream has lived on. America remains the richest country in the world and the place more people aspire to live in than any other country.
The phrase "American Dream" was first used by James Truslow Adams in his book The Epic of America in 1931.
He said the American Dream is "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement."
"It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position."
So, in other words it's a dream of a meritocracy as distinct from those class ridden Europeans.
This is interesting because I always thought the American Dream was about refrigerators, and large ones at that. When I was a child my parents almost bought a house from a mysterious character known as "the man in America."
The "man in America" had been sent there by his company and reports about the land of opportunity would occasionally filter back. The immesurable wealth, the cars as big as sideboards and inevitably the refrigerators large enough to hold a party in with all your friends, were greeted with wonder back in Blighty.
America in the late 1970s seemed like consumerism gone mad. It was the ultimate in luxury goods.
In the end the "man in America," who as kids seemed as exotic and distant as the man in the moon, returned to Britain and proved himself to be a total pain in the backside. My parents, in their wisdom, instead bought the house next door so as we could endure years of confiscated footballs from the former man in America.
The experience left me no closer to understanding the American dream, although there's a wealth of literature that points to its hollowness.
What, for instance, could be more marvelous than the Long Island of the 1920s as depicted in F Scott Fitzgerald's classic The Great Gatsby? There were big houses on the shore and jazz parties that went on until the early hours. And the self made Gatsby with his bright suits and his joviality, was the personifiation of the dream.
Except for the fact he was morbidly obsessed with someone else's wife, the fickle Daisy, who he tried to impress with his shirts.
"It makes me sad because I've never seen such--such beautiful shirts before," Daisy told him in a clear indicator that her case shallow waters didn't run very deep.
In the end The Great Gatsby merely exposed the dream as a sham as did the tragic descent of the handsome, wonderful and talented Fitzgerald himself.
Today nobody talks about the dream much. The news channels are more interested in the people being laid off, those working on minimum wage and working two jobs.
Yet many of us still drive cars the size of small tanks and own I-pods and other devices that would be unheard of in Chinese villages.
The dream's been shrunk a good deal but its's still here. Somewhere.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Escape motivated

Adults, my course tutor told the class last week, are escape motivated.
I remember the comment and its exact time because I was staring at the clock to see how long we had left until I could escape from the lesson.
I've made a mental note to myself to spend a few dollars on a watch battery; it's worth it to alleviate the neck ache from all that clock staring.
I have to agree with my tutor whose name I can't spell or pronounce other than remembering it's a name straight out of the Godfather. I'm thinking Luca Brasi but that's clearly not his name, although it sets me off down numerous confused and overgrown thought paths such as why my wife would have named her former cat after someone who is slow witted and brutish. Hang on, that's according to Wikipedia. Which means he probably had the mental acumen of Albert Einstein and was great company at baby showers.
Whatever the merits of Brasi - apparently he was loyal - I total concur with the escape motivated comment.
No sooner have I arrived in work than I am itching to escape. Unfortunately this means a mindless round of visits to courtrooms and jails. After five minutes in the jail corridor I find myself itching to escape back to work.
I'm the sort of guy who paces around impatiently on station platforms waiting for the train to arrive and then after two hours in baggage class facing the wrong way and nursing a flat hamburger that's taken 80 minutes to cool below the temperature of your average red dwarf, I can't wait to disembark.
Unless it's Doncaster, which is like the British equivalent of Newark. You ask directions and are told 'turn right after the two dead dogs on High Street and left again by the three dead dogs outside Smiths.'
I've made some notable escapes in the past, although none of them have involved Steve McQueen-style motorbike antics or years of chipping through a prison wall like in the Shawshank Redemption.
It's funny how that always happen in movies. Spend eight years chipping through the wall of any prison I've been to and you'll be nowhere near freedom - you'll end up in the cell of a large homicidal brute who wants to kill you or do other unmentionable things to you for messing up his nice clean wall.
But there are certainly times when escape is the only option. I'm thinking of a beautiful sunny day beside the Sea of Galilee on a press trip when the organizer insisted we had to spend more than an hour in a museum devoted to the woeful remains of an old boat dredged up from the sea bed.
Cue a bathroom break and a sprint to the great outdoors where I bumped into Lorna who had had the same idea and was whining that the guide was treating us like a bunch of school kids.
On reflection, the urge to escape probably goes back to our childhood when we willed the school bell to ring - and that was five minutes into the lesson.
Of course there are times when escape can be construed as bad form. One is usually compelled to sit (or stand) through one's own wedding even though there's a multi layered cake out there somwhere and you want to get to it before some filthy guest, who you didn't want to invite in the first place, gets their dirty, freeloading paws on it.
Ducking out of funerals is also seen as bad form. So too is drinking so much whisky that the room starts spinning round.
But although there isn't much to be said for funerals, the one silver lining is that as a teenager adults don't pay you a lot of attention at funerals. You are abandoned in a room and the bottle of whisky is standing there too, looking as lonely as you. It's surely only natural to want to make friends.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Sock it to me

I have no sympathy for some of the figures in history who claim to have had dilemmas.
Did Julius Caesar agonize about crossing the Rubicon? Did Napoleon think should I, shouldn't I invade Russia and have to eat his horses? What about Robert the Bruce in his cold, abject cave when he saw a spider struggling to build a web and resolved to try, try again?
Tis all insignificant compared to the dilemma I have every morning when I attempt to find matching socks.
There are days when I've woken up earlier than the rooster for an early assignment or my red eye course on a Saturday. I've had enough time to slowly read War and Peace backwards, underlining all the names with "ski" in them.
Still, one way or another, I have come unstuck in the socks pile, lost my temper, hurled disparate apparel at the cat and ended up running out late wearing one red sock and one blue one.
My course colleagues didn't buy my excuse I was making a patriotic gesture.
My wife can't believe I own so many brown colored socks by the same manufacturer of such crazily different designs and periodically asks me if I was on LSD when I chose them at Wal-Mart.
Well, of course you have to be on LSD in Wal-Mart just to survive the experience.
To be fair I've never taken LSD: I was concerned by those drug talks at school when they warned you about 'flashbacks.' Admittedly if you got a flashback and you were again in Wal-Mart I'd call that a bonus.
In retrospect buying a job lot of the same socks would have made a lot more sense but mornings just wouldn't be mornings if everything matched.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Missing


I'm a serial misser. The longer I live, the more I miss. It's a problem I'll have to start managing before I start missing the missing half of my breakfast cereal before I've finished it.
Here's what I miss in no particular order.

1 - Britain; almost everything about it, my family, the way rain clouds can grow suddenly out of a pale blue sky and the reassuring medieval church spire that rises from the hazy fields behind my parents' home. It's like nothing bad can happen with that view even though it was probably the last thing peasants saw as the black death claimed them back in the Middle Ages.

2 - The gentle contours of the Norfolk Broads from How Hill with its antique wind pumps and the sail of a wherry drifting down an unseen waterway.

3 - The fields of bluebells that carpet hidden glades on the Cotswold escarpments in March.

4 - Edinburgh from Carlton Hill, its spires, monuments and gothic spikes scraping the sullen Scottish skies.

5 - Driving into Pately Bridge on a spring day after rain with the daffodils choking the verges below the drystone walls and the village pond.

6 - Eating a searing curry in Brick Lane looking onto a street scene more Calcutta than London.

7 - The Corner House and its characters, the councillor who celebrated his flatulence, the red eyed man who called you his "buddy". The second pint and the realization work was about to get a lot more interesting.

8 - The ever increasing cast of characters consigned to the past like a play half remembered, a pair of piercing blue eyes and a curious nose, the Hugh Grant caricature, a man with a face like a Groucho Marx mask, a ginger haired man, even.

9 - The myriad coffees with my friends when I never wanted the cup to empty.

10 - The House of Commons terrace bar on the nights when the street lights blurred and sunk into the Thames.

11 - The days in Paris when we were too enamoured to leave the hotel room and got to the Sacre Couer at 1 a.m. when they were turning off the lights.

12 - The villa in Positano and the way the dome of the cathedral caught the gold of the early morning from the table in the lemon grove.

13 - The day I picked up a shining new Buick in Vegas and knew the long, open highway was mine.

14 - The stars that overlapped in the whorl of the Milky Way that night on the beach in Brittany.

15- Fires on a cold night in the forest and the faces of long lost friends that rose and fell in the flames.

16 - The days when I could run like the wind on the beach and not care about a thing.

17 - The ruined monastery, swallowed up in moss beside the shallows of an Irish river.

18 - the sound of the choir rising and falling with the breeze in the cathedral close.

19 - the yellow and pink rose bushes we planted in our garden before the tenant let them die.

20 - the chaos of the parties, the intrigues, the embraces, the giddy unpredictability of being carelessly young.

21 - The hours spent at Watersmeet poised above the rushing waters with my camera.

The shadows don't fall so long in the new world. I walk through vistas and pass out the other side without my feet leaving an impression. The angles are sharper, less forgiving and the sky is a solid blue drawn in by an artist with a paint gun.
If I return to the old world will I miss the new one? Most certainly.