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.