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.