Sunday, March 28, 2010


Suddenly almost without warning it is spring.
After interminable weekends when the snow hung around, a dirty and unwelcome guest at a wake, the skies are an eggshell blue and the trees have burst into a million pastel blossoms.
Spring can be kind to the most inhospitable of vistas. Even in the ugliest parts of Tidewater where acres of concrete strip malls rot away in a careless 1970s timewarp, the presence of a tree full of white blossom can soften the scene.
The meanest of shotgun shacks is elvated to something more noble by a cathedral of soaring whineness in the form of a cherry blossom in the front yard.
But inevitably my thoughts turn to England, not the streets crammed full of grimy back-to-back terraces and the rumble of the nearby Tube line but the open hills and Dales.
I think of that time in Pately Bridge when we drove into the small village in the Dales to see the streams choked with daffodils and high cirrus clouds like vapour trails in the sky.
And another year we climbed the high fells over the grave, gray mirror of Ullswater in the Lake District where Wordsworth wandered loney as a cloud and was moved by a host of daffodils as numerous as the stars in the Milky Way.
But maybe the last word on spring should go to Gerard Manley Holpkins, a priest whose life was often as lonely at Wordsworth's clouds.
I can still imagine him in a country churchyard at Easter recalling the miraculous day the stone was moved from the tomb and Jesus had risen from the dead.
Perhaps because we painted eggs at Sunday School when the read the Easter story, I can never associate the Resurrection with the stoney and arid deserts beyond Jerusalem. Rather it took place on a spring day when the clouds moved in and out of the sun flitting its rays on the verdant English hillside; as if Jerusalem was built in England's green and pleasant land.
And Hopkins was with his flock but apart from it, forever a stranger, locked in his own thoughts and reveries.
Still, when he wrote his sprung ryhthm, he gave a motion and a vibrancy to nature that he often failed to find in his own life. His poem Spring is no exception.
"Nothing is so beautiful as spring—
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing."

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Anthem for Doomed Condo Associations

I'd be more concerned about my diffidence if I wasn't so diffident.
But lately I've been wondering about the word I've clung onto so proudly for so long.
The online definition alludes to shyness. I'm not sure I trust this. Words were like solid and unmoveable anchors when they were trapped in the weighty pages of the Oxford dictionary. Now they float around in cyberspace.
It's less about shyness than about not giving a rats, although there doesn't seem to be a proper term for this. Existentialism, maybe.
That's not to say I go through life unconcerned about everything and everyone, just that I have given up caring about large sections of it.
Take the email we received this morning from the guy who has been positioning himself for the last 18 months to become the chairman of our homeowners' association.
I always have to pinch myself that there are people who actually want to do this kind of thing.
"The team of homeowners that actively participate on the website are fighting hard to make this a better place to live," he writes.
"We want you to be proud of your neighborhood and excited to have people visit you here. We DON'T want this to turn in to a transient apartment-like property where nobody takes pride in the fact that you're invested in this property. The more homeowners that engage in the idea, the less people that will treat OUR neighborhood like a dump.
"I'm offended by those people. They are lowering the value of a home that I purchased with hard earned money.
"Are you offended? Fight back. Get involved. Bring your knowledge to the forums and bring your complaints. Let's talk them over and formulate solutions. I dream of a neighborhood where you wouldn't dare blemish it because you know that 183 other passionate homeowners won't stand for it."
Sure C. - and I dream about a private apartment with a built in pool and umlimited supply of Ben and Jerry's and a big security guard on the gate who will ban all access to people who use capital letters in emails because it's a sign of passive aggression.
And no, I'm not offended by these people C. refers to and I have little desire to drive them out of our perfect community with an AK-47 in hand.
To some extent my reaction is driven by the fact he's referring to people who dump trash outside the dumpsters. And, let't face it, we've all been there. It's a rainy night, the dumpter's full and one faces the unpleasant dilemma of whether to leave it on the ground or to take it back home where it will be smelling even worse than before 12 hours later.
I can only conclude I need to be fighting against myself. But I'm not sure I can be bothered.
Also, if I had the energy I might point out to the Man who Would be Dictator, that property vales are more determined by the fact we were all dumb enough to buy in a plummeting market than by a few people offensive people missing the hole in the dumpster.
I'm even cynical about the idea of "hard earned money." I wouldn't be surprised if some people round here bought their dream condos on the proceeds of crack cocaine sales.
Does that count as hard earned money? Maybe it does because I'd rather be paid for eight hours making calls in an office than hanging out on the mean streets all night engaging in transactions that could end up with a bullet to the brain.
Life is relative and, if I wasn't so diffident, I'd take this guy aside and give him a synopsis of the genocide in Darfur. I'd tell him that at a poetry reading yesterday I read Wilfred Owen's Anthem to Doomed Youth.
"What passing bells for these who die as cattle/Only the monstrous anger of the guns."
Which reminds me that they probably didn't have storm doors in the trenches.
And that it's OK for me not to get excited about our new storm door. And if I don't grouch about the cost, do I really have to hang out in Lowe's for an hour while we agonize over designs that all look, frankly like doors to me?
But maybe I'm not playing this happy family, wholesome American communities thing the way I should be.
Maybe I should take an interest when my wife says.
"Dad, I'm putting all of his long sleeved ones down on the bottom."
Which is to say perhaps I shouldn't be someone who didn't even know he has long sleeved and short sleeved ones and who finds the whole thing about as stimulating as the Mutual Banking Code of Practice, which is the code of practice for Australia's credit unions.
So there.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A shot o' the green stuff

Americans seem to revel in St Patrick's Day. As March 17 approaches the radio is buzzing with the news of Irish celebrations at local bars and the stores are filling up with cutsie shamrocks and Leprechauns.
If you are called Reilly or O'Mally or Sullivan you will be expected to show up to work wearing green and hailing "top 'o the morning."
I always find it strange that nobody in America gives a damn about St Andrew's Day, St David's Day or even St George's Day, although there are surely as many Americans of English descent as there are Irish.
Then again the English don't even care much about St. George and there is considerable evidence he never even set foot in Blighty.
As someone with a last name that is Irish/Scottish I am bemused by all the Paddy Day's euphoria. Admittedly a great-great grandmother back in Scotland, who probably wasn't so great, changed the spelling of our last name from McAulay because it sounded too Catholic.
But even with the present spelling I can boast IRA terrorists with my last name, inevitably with the moniker "Mad Dog" somewhere in the mix.
I have been to Ireland a few times and have been intoxicated by the place on each occasion, usually literally and metaphorically.
There is surely no other city in the world than Dublin where an old man can turn to you as you rattle on a bus down Rathmines Road in the early hours of the morning to a half remembered B&B and tell you his life story through tear-stained eyes.
Waking up to a sunny spring morning in Dublin through bleary eyes and driving to the Wicklow Mountains is probably the closest thing you can get to a perfect morning in the western hempishere, as long as you blot out thoughts of Ballykissangel.
And Glendalough with its magical lake and monastery ruins, its towers with conical roofs and its Celtic crosses on the shore, is enough to make the most ardent atheist a believer.
Further west there is the magic of the peninsulas of Cork and Kerry where high mountains plunge into the Atlantic, and the long and lonely beaches of the Dingle Peninsula that are deserted for most of the year.
There are also a lot of Americans.
The best advice for Europeans who don't want to be plunged into the mentality of a mall in the middle of Ohio while in County Cork is don't kiss the Blarney stone.
Of course, we ignored this advice and joined the tortuous line up the castle keep to slobber on a rock that bore the spittle of half of New Jersey.
Many of the American visitors were showing signs of pathological impatience as they waited for a glimpse of the sputum rock that would make them talk even more, if that were possible. Subtle telltale signs gave their agst away such as hypperactive use of their cell phones and dangling their children off an 80 foot high castle Michael Jackson-style.
After some years of living in the US I have realized Americans are much misunderstood abroad. Either that or the loudest Americans travel to Europe, leaving the decent, softly spoken inhabitants of the USA at home.
The beauty of Ireland can be captivating but it's also deceptive. A major reason why western Ireland doesn't resemble Manchester today is the Great Famine of 1740-41, a black chapter in the history of the country and its English masters.
The famine is just one sad episide in the blood-soaked history of a country that has seen civil warfare and sectarian strife until recent years.
A decade ago in Northern Ireland I was chilled to drive through a village on the Antrim coast where the sidewalks were all painted garish red, white and blue and the forbidding red hand of the Ulster freedom fighters greeted travelers at its margins by a police station entrenched in barbed wire.
It seemed hard to believe this forbidding and shuttered up village was in the same country that boasted little pastel colored towns such as Kinsale in Cork, renown for their dancing and seafood.
In America it's easy to gloss over the bloodshed and the dark days of Ireland and think the whole place is one great big party full of smiling redheads poisted to do the Riverdance at the first invitation. It's a mentality that gave the IRA freedom fighter status Stateside for many decades, until the fall of the Twin Towers brought home the real horror of terrorism.
But the subtle irony of all things Irish in America wasn't lost on the pop group the Pogues who once wrote.
"Where e'er we go, we celebrate
The land that makes us refugees
From fear of Priests with empty plates
From guilt and weeping effigies."

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Zoo hoo

I’m not sure if ‘zoo’ is Latin for: “place where miserable children traipse around in the vain hope of seeing animals in hibernation.” If it isn't it should be.
Curiously, whenever we suggest going to Virginia Zoo in Norfolk, I feel an initial bout of enthusiasm, which may explain why we’ve been there about four times in the last two years.
Last Sunday we went to the zoo for Zara because we feared she would feel left out by all the attention being lavished on Jackson less than a week after he was born.
The first time we took her there she was two-years-old and had to be pushed around in her pink Princess stroller. Our hopes she would take an interest in the animals was dashed at the first stop off, the hairy black pig in the barnyard enclosure. It probably has a proper name but, for all intents and purposes it's a hairy, black porker.
After the pig no show we gamely upped the ante, introducing her to camels, lions and finally giraffes and elephants, all to no avail. Our daughter remained listless and disinterested.
In contrast on Sunday Zara was raring to go, talking incessantly about seeing her favorite animal the zebra, because it began with ‘Z’.
Unfortunately, getting my wife out of the house and on the road at the best of times, can be about as smooth and coordinated as the relief effort post Hurricane Katrina.
With a new born baby in tow, I should have started packing the car a week earlier.
We got on the road by 4 p.m., resisting all calls to return for forgotten items.
After speeding through Norfolk we barely made it to the zoo before the announcements that the place was about to close, were sounding out.
So our zoo experience, once again, was a whirlwind tour of animals that gamely failed to present themselves on demand.
At least you can rely on the black pig. He was right on cue, sunning himself and raising his trotters in the air in a foul smelling salute to his audience. Zara was interested, this time and we strided enthuiastically on to see a big old Yorkshire pig, magnificantly obese and puffed up as as befits the largest county in England.
My wife pointed out most of the swine at the zoo were from England. It had never occured to me when I lived there that I inhabited a center of pig excellence.
Things went downhill from then on. We needed water and the Beasto was closed. Nor did the handily-placed drinks machines that dispensed water at $2 a time work.
We proceeded to the nocturnal house, which Jackson should have honorary membership of, but didn't see many of the snakes and reptiles because of the mass of kids crowding around the tanks.
By the time we got to a monkey display, the phalanx of unruly kids had grown into a bristling army that marched on fizzy drinks and Little Debbies. There seems to be an informal rule at the zoo that as soon as someone pulls a camera out to take a picture, this is a cue for a couple of people to stand between lens and subject and not to move until the sun goes down. Or maybe that's just what happens when I take a picture.
We walked on past Land of the Tiger, a half constructed maze of faux Oriental temples that is due to open at some undetermined time in 2010. Probably December 31. It started me wondering what happens to the tigers during the construction period. Does a flyer go up in the zoo cafeteria asking for volunteers willing to let a tiger sleep on their couch for six months?
The interactive praire dog habitat with viewing bubbles seemed more promising. Zara and myself took turns looking out of the bubbles to see gray mud. We persevered with more bubbles because there was a group of people behind a nearby fence pointing in our direction, leading us to assume praire dogs had been sighted.
My wife later informed us they were pointing and laughing at the stupid people who had missed the signs and were looking through the bubbles for praire dogs still in hibernation.
With the zoo announcements picking up the urgency of an woman who had clearly skimped on lunch and was manically fiddling with her keys, we headed as quickly as it is possible for a family with a five-year-old and a baby stroller up to the optimistically named Okavango Delta.
The real one is the world's largest inland delta in Botswana. The one at Virginia Zoo comprises plastic cliffs and a bit of grassland and water. I've seen worse attempts but frankly you'd have to drink sherry all day to think this resembles the real thing.
At this point Zara threw one of those Catch 22 child strops that are so hard to deal with. She wanted to climb onto the aluminium rhino but didn't because it was too high and screamed at all attempts to be hoisted up there. But when we abandoned the rhino to press on, she screamed that she wanted to go on the rhino.
The climb up the Okavango Delta display wasn't promising; the meercats and a number of less interesting animals were hibernating. Even the fennic fox that can normally be relied on to pose for the cameras had gone AWOL.
There was no sign of the zebras and the elephants and giraffes had forsaken the delights of the delta for their concrete bunkers but at least they could still be viewed.
Only the lions were gamely gathered for the visitors but, by this time Zara was so disconsolate about the rhino setback, she had no interest in seeing them.
The last 15 minutes were a race to the gate to avert the prospect of spending the night at Virginia Zoo.
I hope not to return any time soon. Virginia Zoo is a pleasant enough place compared to the bleak animal jails that masqueraded as zoos when I was growing up in Britain.
But it lacks something. More specificfally it lacks penguins. Surely no zoo is worth its salt without feeding time at the penguin pool.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Snow again

The snow was back yesterday, although I hardly noticed.
We've just had a baby boy and the last three days have been a half waking, half sleeping netherworld of nocturnal nurses' visits, feedings and alarming stops at 7-Eleven at 2 a.m. to see the winos gazing in wonder at the ageing cooked goods.
We probably isn't the right word here. Nikki endured the last two months of pressure and pain, was transformed into a human pin cushion of wires, gainfully gave birth and now gets sleep in 20 minute increments in between feedings, if she's lucky.
I can only look on in awe from the sidelines, trapped in an abstract world of admiration and befuddlement. I am like Iggy Pop's passenger, riding through the city's backsides looking at the full moon under the bright and hollow sky that Jackson was born under.
I am relegated to ancilliary tasks, skirting around the edges of the action, which is the best place to be.
That's when I first noticed the snow. On Tuesday night after we brought him home, I realized I had left a jar of formula in the car.
By the time I ventured outside heavy duty sleet was driving across the parking lot. Within half an hour the cars and grass were coated white.
It was pretty but snow has long since ceased to be a novelty around these parts. When we had our first snowfall in January we cleared a large section on the front page, ordered an extra shift and ran my online snow updates, which said little new apart from the fact that more snow was falling, every hour.
The schools closed for three days. Even though there was hardly a ghost of the white stuff left on roads for the last two of them, Hampton Roads had to prove it couldn't cope with more than four inches.
It also snowed for the next two Saturdays. The snow was soon relegated from the front to the back of the paper. It became commonplace, boring and somewhat seedy.
Even two weeks after the big snowfall you could see it hanging around at times at the sides of parking lots, like an unwelcome guest at a party, now black, stained and swept into corners so as passers-by could throw cigarette butts in it.
And now, in March, snow in southern Virginia is nothing short of ridiculous.
So the snow hasn't interested me much. Even my daughter seldom remarks on it now, although there was one chilly night when I gave in to her and went outside to make inconsequential snow balls and went through the motions of making snow angels.
And there was one day on the way down to North Carolina when I stopped by the Dismal Swamp Canal to walk through the crisp new snow and to wonder at the fresh crispy whiteness of a world in which the sun cast the shadows of the trees on the glittering crystals covering the grass.
Before I got back in my car and left it all behind.

I Don't Queue : Does That Make Me Unpatriotic?

I'm bemused by the scenes from Westminster today. People are queuing for 24 hours to see a wooden box. OK, it's a fancy box surround...