Thursday, September 30, 2010

Enduring dirty, filthy rain in Virginia

I have come to dread rainy days in Virginia. And not just because my waterproof appears to be more water than proof these days.

The worst aspect is I am forced to spend my day avoiding the purveyors of predictable comments. I spy them as soon as I come in the office. While I am picking up a newspaper I sense them sidling up to me with a grin that's 98 percent Gorgonzola and 2 per cent Brie.

"So this must remind you of home," they'll quip.

I'll make some affirmative noise and plough on head down, water dripping between my shoulder blades.

Of course what I want to reply is: "No it f... well doesn't. I have never, ever seen rain like this in London."

For the uninitiated London rain isn't like Virginia rain. It's steady and persistent. Or it's light and drizzly and although people stereotype London as a city of perpetual rain, it's actually surprising how little it rains. As I had to trudge up to the Tube station and back for 40 minutes every day, I should know.

It rains even less in Norwich where I have also lived. Apparently the city's annual rainfall is comparable with Jerusalem's. In contrast I spent a year in the Welsh capital Cardiff where it did appear to rain every other day. But still it's steady and predictable precipitation.

In contrast when a tropical storm passes over in Virginia, the heavens open for days on end and dirty, filthy rain falls like nails from the skies. There are tornado warnings and high winds. Homes flood and trash cans blow over. Small dirty creeks become huge dirty tidal invasions that sweep into kitchens. In short, it's messy.

While Paris is meant to be romantic in the rain with the lights glittering on the Eiffel Tower, you can't say the same of Hampton Roads with a wind whipping sheets of rain across six lanes of Interstate.

Still it's hard to convince people not in the know. The same people tend to think it snows all winter in England whereas we haven't had a white Christmas for decades.

"We might as well be in Seattle or London," they'll say.

I have never been to Seattle but I can't believe it rains there like it does in Virginia.

The flipside is Virginia certainly has far more sunny days than London. Those days of blue from a horizon to horizon uninterrupted by a cloud are almost unknown in Britain.

But it's now rained for five days in Hampton Roads. I can't remember that happening back home.

In the spirit of the week I have been thinking of songs about the rain and it's suprising how many there are.

Here Comes the Rain Again by the Eurythmics was the first 12 inch version I ever bought (how embarassing to even know what a 12 inch version on vinyl is).

Then there's I Can't Stand the Rain by Tina Turner which we used to unkindly sing to a room mate at college who was dating a girl called Lorraine who he wasn't overtly keen on.

Then there's I'm Only Happy When It Rains by the greatly underrated Garbage, the so brilliant Happy When It Rains by Jesus and Mary Chain and Rain by the Cult. Then there's I Wish It Would Rain Down by err um Phil Collins. Yeah not all British imports are cool.

My list forces me to admit my musical taste is rooted in everything pre 1997.

Anyhow the sun's meant to come out tomorrow. But I'll believe it when I see it.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Greta Garbo and the perils of looking back

I admit I spend too much time thinking of people who disappear and fade away.

In many ways life is like one great big Interail trip. You stop at exotic destinations, have soul searching conversations with complete strangers, take their email addresses and never talk to them again.

But I am different in that I take a little bit away from each conversation; I may forget some of their more annoying habits. The tendancy to go on about their pets or their collection of beer mats. I don't want to lose a certain expression, a connection or a joke shared. I'm like one of those infernal English explorers of the 19th century who wants to collect. I know the Elgin Marbles should go back to Athens but I find myself liking them too much.

So I find things that pass sad and poignant and I sometimes fail to consign the past to the lock box labelled 'history'.

I still remember a rainy day in an English city when I passed the river and saw a shock of hair in a red car and realized it was the woman I had spent almost a decade of my life with.

And more worrying than the realization of the long nights we had spent cooking together and drinking wine was fact my ex-wife had made off with the decent car and left me with a Renault.

They don't sell Renaults in the USA. The French may have been useful allies when it came to the small matter of winning independence but it seems their cars aren't worth importing.

But I'm so much evolved now, having embraced the American dream. Just remind me to make sure I have electric windows and central locking the next time I buy a shiny, new Chevvy. Windy windows just isn't so cool in the 21st century. But it does have indicator lights as opposed to arms that you can activate every time you need to turn.

Still there have been other girls and other cars back in the day; familiar faces coming over the bridge in their golden jalopies. But my stubborn pride has prevented me dialling a number on my cell phone and making the connection.

Generally women seem to be better at holding a grudge than guys. Just today I received an email from a former colleague who hadn't bothered to remove the "Happy Christmas" subject line. I may only hear from him once a year but he's reliable and there to update me on my old life; at least twice a year.

But women can make me start to feel odd and paranoid. A miscommunication in an email led a friend to de-Facebook me once for six months; it wasn't a clean and clinical de-Facebooking, either. She felt she had to obliquely attack me in at least three status updates first.

Then one sunny day she emailed me again out of the blue one day, saying she was under stress at the time.

We're cool now but she'll probably de-Facebook me again if she read this blog. I guess being de-Facebooked is one of the worst things that can happen to you a decade into the Millennium. Sure I've been de-followed on Twitter but that's not nearly as serious.

De-following isn't always permanent, but I have also had female friends who have done a Captain Oakes and never returned from the great white anonymity of the virtual Ross Ice Shelf.

I'd like to email them one day pointing out I'm a boorish guy whose circuits are of a most rudimentary nature, but I wish them well. it's just that I'm not wired up for the 21st Century. I might get by in a cave but, come to think of it, I'm not good with my hands.

Of course, pride gets in my way and I never do. I have a mental image of the estranged party withdrawing themselves from society like Garbo. But the reality is she's probably forgotten about me altogether, got on with her life and is at a much more interesting phase.

Looking back, to totally misquote Freud, is the mark of an emotional cripple. It's time to see if this wheelchair has a fourth gear.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Jim Carrey, the fall spirit and a life less ordinary

Somebody sent me a message today asking me if I was well and was getting into the fall spirit.

I could only think of Jim Carrey in Liar, Liar when I confirmed I was indeed getting into the fall spirit and was marginally well.

In Liar, Liar Carrey is a lawyer who finds his career horribly compromised when his son makes a wish that he becomes incapable of lying for 24 hours and the wish comes true. Such a burden would cripple a lawyer for 10 minutes so 24 hours of truth is clearly a career death sentence.

Likewise as I typed my cheery reply a curmudgeonly beast inside me was roaring: “Lady. It’s pouring with rain outside and my shoes are wet; it’s gray and lifeless in the office. Let’s throttle back on fall spirit; at least until a day when the sun’s shining.”

The only fall spirit I’m contemplating comes in a small bottle after the day I’m having.

And it’s not even the worst day I’ve had for a while; not like the day the dog was put down, or the fan blew on my car the same day as I had just spend $200 on new tires.

Nobody has been particularly rude to me, although nobody has been overtly polite to me either. The ice caps haven’t started to melt at a more rapid pace than hitherto since Sunday and nobody has parked in my spot outside the condo. I imagine a lot of unpleasant things are still going on in Darfur but I really wouldn’t know as the only TV news I catch up with is on US channels that hardly ever even cover events in England or France.

Admittedly I’m not really looking forward to tonight’s trip to Petsmart or a session on an exercise machine that is becoming more squeaky by the day.

It strikes me that in reality I’m allergic to routine. It makes me twitch and get up from my seat a lot to walk around aimlessly to the mail boxes before realizing I’ve been there before and there is still nothing interesting beyond a couple of council agendas.

I’ve got to the stage when I enter my existential crises on my outlook calendar before I even have them.

Until I can find a store to buy some of that elusive fall spirit, I’ll keep seeking out a life less ordinary.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Why my cat couldn't care less about Brad Pitt

Well let's just say my cynical attempt to drive up blog traffic by throwing in random references to Angelina Jolie and sexuality like confetti at a wedding, wasn't entirely successful.

I'd say 14 page views does not make my blog the Huffington Post. Not even the East Tuftington Post. And if East Tufington isn't a small town in South Dakota it certainly should be.

Jennifer may have lost Brad to Angelina but she can take comfort in the fact she has had one more page view on my blog than her love rival. I just hope that wasn't me going into my blog to check the views.

Perhaps the world of Brad and Angelina drives magazine sales because it seems so exotic whereas in reality we mortals spend most days cruising Prosaic Street and staring morosely at red lights outside Taco Bell.

In saying that there's nothing exotic about the expression Brangelina that sounds like a make of dish washing powder and should only be used by the laziest journalists alive. The words "Brad" and "Angelina" really don't go together in the same neat way as say "Lindsay" and "jail."

In contrast my life is a tad less star studded. I thought I saw Brian Dennehy today until someone told me he was dead. I find no evidence of this on the Internet but it seems I had confused the actor with the guy who came to fix the telephones, anyhow.

And I have to confess I had a conversation today about cats' bottoms with a colleague whose feline is sticking his backside out of the litter box and spraying whatever delightful chamber she keeps it in.

It surprised me how knowledgeable I was on the subject. I went effortlessly into a spiel about the merits of covered cat boxes compared to rolling and automatic cat boxes and the unique qualities of cat crystals versus clumping litter.

I also came to a kind of Camp David accord with my wife today when we agreed to clean out the cat box on alternate days. Now the cat's up to 20 lbs and growing, skipping a day is no longer an option.

Skipping a reminder is still an option, it seems. Today was my cleaning out day but it seems there is an inverse relationship between enthusiasm to clean a cat box and the amount of pinot grigot one consumes.

Angelina eat your heart out and please try not to be too jealous about my life.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Decoding the magic mix - sex, Twiglets and Angelina Jolie

I finally redesigned my blog to lose the seedy yellow polka dot background that looked like wallpaper from a hotel suite in the Rockford Files.

The redesign didn't take long. It seems that background templates have moved on a lot since I first set up this blog a couple of years ago. I just hadn't realized Blogger boasts all these exciting new features. I am forced to ask myself what I have been doing all this time? Yeah - I know. Trying to work out how to do the Rubik's Cube and removing dust from my Depeche Mode 45s.

Well - you know what they say. New blog; new me. I'm not sure if they say that but they might as well. My sharp new design suits witty and sardonic entries but let's ditch the morose experiements with poetry for a while. Or at least let's ditch the woolly poets in favor of sleek, minimalist ones.

I once met Ted Hughes at a reception, although I was too intimidated to talk to him and risk being told to "booger off" in person. I saw a large shambolic figure, like an overgrown sheep. I found myself wondering why two women committed suicide over this guy. Not that having women commit suicide over you is any kind of badge of honor.

I have decided if I'm going to have poetry in my blog it's going to be edgy and sharp. Like William Carlos Williams. "So much depends upon a red wheel barrow; glazed with rain water; beside the white chickens."

You can't argue with that.

Also I finally got round to reading the statistics on my blog page views, which has led me to think about a new direction. In general the page views are disappointingly low but there are some pointers. One superflous mention of Jennifer Aniston and the chart peaked to a weekly high with 14 views.

Going back to the all time high the entry that saw the most views was entitled: "Sex, lies and Durosheds."
Notwithstanding the fact this described a rather desultory trawl I took through an empty parking lot during a worn out, blue phase to rival Picasso's, it obviously received the most hits because of the use of the word "sex."

The only logical conclusion I can draw from this is that sex sells so by making my blog more sexy I might be able to boost hits to at least get my blog out of the gutter of the blogisphere onto the pavement of the blogisphere where I can at least sneak a peak at the Blogisphere Cafe.

Mind you a blog I wrote about Twiglets also received quite a few hits. In the immortal words of Paul Daniels they like it - not a lot.

It's clearly a cue for me to adopt the nefarious grin of the magician and to disappear behind a velvet curtain to reappear with the magic formula; as long as I don't emerge looking remotely like David Copperfield. I really couldn't stomach that on a Tuesday after devouring my boss' leaving cake.

Jennifer Anniston clearly has blog appeal but there must be celebrities with more blog appeal; Angelina Jolie for instance, which means I can also throw Brad into the mix - with sex and Twiglets and maybe Beachy Head, which also attracted a few page views.

Uh hum - Ok. Here goes........

As a post script, this approach worked beyond my wildest expectations with well over 1,000 hits to this posting since I made it. I have since tried a similar approach with my little visited blog Rhyme and Reason with a post about Lady Gaga and the sex lives of elephants. Only time will tell if the formula will work here too.

Monday, September 20, 2010

How Jennifer Aniston and friends have led us to sloppy speech

An article in today's Daily Mail about meaningless Amercanisms and sloppy speech, written by Philip Norman has made me realize how far I've been led down the path into la-la nonsense land without even realizing it.

I read through a list of 50 examples and realized I was falling into the traps by the time I reached example number one. Only the other day I used the phrase "guys" to a group of women.

Norman isn't kind to America in apportioning blame for this slackening of the good old Queen's English.

'Like most infuriating words and phrases, this comes from the U.S., mainly through the dippy-matey atmosphere of TV’s Friends," he says of "guys."

There are many more crimes we can lay against the door of Friends but I won't go into that here. But maybe if it had never existed I wouldn't be forced to read dull headlines about Jennifer Aniston every time I stand at the supermarket check-out.

On the subject of supermarkets Norman mentions the habit cashiers have of asking. "Do you need a bag?" which he says is shop checkout staff’s automatic question to customers with numerous purchases and no way of carrying them.

This is obviously a British thing as US supermarkets aren't so obsessed with the environment. Cashiers all ask "paper or plastic?" but they don't send round Mike Tyson to rough you up when you inevitably opt for plastic.

However, I am constantly bemused and befuddled to be asked in stores "did you find everything?" which warrants the obvious reply "if I hadn't I would have asked before checking out."

America is probably also to blame for the widespread use of the word "issues." The term "I'm having issues or an issue" has come to replace problems and has jumped over from the therapist's couch. It's common knowledge that all Americans have a personal therapist and a mobile one if they are on the road.

The phrase "I'm good" is also an Americanism. I haven't quite slipped into this one yet but have retreated somewhat from the proper response: "I am very well, thank you," so I'm clearly on a slippery slope.

Cool and OK are now so enshrined in Western culture as to be incapable of extraction from our mangled language. On the issue of using the word "cool" over the age of 30 in a built up area after dark I am guilty as charged and need to be taken to a place and told to "get a life." I also wear dad jeans.

Lately I have also found myself using number 47 on the list "heads up" as in "I thought I'd give you a heads up, that this will be published etc." I can blame America for this one. I'm not even sure what it means but wonder if it's obliquely linked to the toss of a coin.

According to Norman, Friends, or maybe we should call it Fiends, is also to blame for the widespread use of "can I get?" which has replaced "please may I have?' in coffee joints etc. I'm possibly guilty on this one but I also point the finger at the servers as accomplices. Something nonsensical I've noticed recently is the phrase: "What can I get you started on?" that is asked in restaurants and coffee joints. It merits the reply. "I don't just want to start it. I'd like to eat the whole meal, thank you very much."

It's like when a waiter asks me: "Would you care for a roll?" I'm so tempted to quip back. "Yes bring me one and I'll care for it all night. I'll provide a rounded education and child support before I devour it."

Fortunately for the rest of my dining experience I usually meekly respond: "OK - thanks."

I'm certainly thankful for Mr. Norman for making me aware of some of the linguistic traps I wasn't even aware I was falling into. I'm a happier bunny today for reading this. And I don't find myself saying that often about the Daily Mail.

Read more:

Thursday, September 16, 2010

There are no turtles at Innisfree

Butler Yeats would despair at these twilights
There are no mists here now that cloak the lake;
Or islands that drift in reflected clouds like Innisfree.
No evenings full of linnet's wings
No glades of bees or purple noons.
How could the poet scribble away?
To the clump, clump clump of althletes on the circular path.
Where the trees have hard edges
Like shapes on a child's cutting board.
There are no far flung hills here
Spread out lonely and lovely in Sligo green
Just thickets and a dense conspiracy of trees
And the smell of the festering lake in between
There's no Sleuth Wood on Lake Maury or promise of glens.
Or islands that glitter like silver foil shaking out to sea
There are no salley gardens where maidens walk with snow white feet.
And cry for those young and foolish years.
In America now we are immune to such love
We'll rationalize it all out in the therapist's chair.
We'll walk on and move on or take a pill
And never take the time to think.
There are no turtles near the Island of Innisfree
To fight for the crumbs with the fish and the geese
Or darker ripples in the lake's depths
Where esturine creatures cast a cold eye on life.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

On the ramparts of Fort Monroe

On Friday while I was at Fort Monroe I found time to climb up the grassy ramparts of the old stone fort and to take in a beautiful sunny morning over Hampton Roads.

The water glittered, a ruby red light glowed in the lantern of Old Point Comfort lighthouse and the sun played on the mellow stone of the sleepy widows by the Casemate Museum.

The rolling grass ramparts made me think of places back at home like Pickering Castle in North Yorkshire, a fortress on the edge of the tumbling moors where the dark forces of history have been rolled over with a large lawn mower and anointed with the smell of new mown grass.

If you take the old stream train to Pickering and stop for tea in the town square, you could be forgiven for thinking the world is a harmonious place of dancing light, never touched by an evil thought.

The reality is less comforting. After three days of being left with a bawling infant and a high maintenance five-year-old, I was getting close to snapping this morning when the aforementioned five-year-old woke me up before 7 a.m. to ask me if she could open some candy.

There are a million tasks on the to-do list and no time to do them. I was starting to wonder if I would finish the day with even less hair than when I started it. I was wondering if Sponge Bob on three TVs would finally render me as incoherent at Patrick.

Then everything changed when I took a phone call from my wife who is in Canada looking after her father who has been diagnosed with lung cancer. Nine years ago the photographers on my newspaper were looking at images of people jumping from tall burning buildings, wondering which ones weren't too harrowing to use.

There are things I don't like to dwell on, but I am thinking about them now.

On the ramparts of Freedom's Fortress where slaves were released from bondage 150 years ago, it was refreshing to feel the fall breeze on my face. I am free and I'm alive and suddenly I feel very grateful.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Under Crape Myrtle trees

Today I wondered about people who explode into a million colors and dazzle the night sky
And woo the sighing crowd before they fizzle and fade,
I'll spend long nights and cold wakeful dawns solemnly recalling,
Before the memory dims and faces lose their fine features
And one day I'll find her corpse coiled up on a cold beach morn
One sharp day, years after I called off the search.
Or I'll share a coffee with a soul long departed
She’ll look through me but I am of no interest;
I'm that old coat discarded down the line.
I'm last year's fashion in an antique spa town that's lost its allure.
So summer has slipped from the patched up highways
Now the sun congeals like egg white on the glass
And the heat is rushing fast out of the afternoon
It’s running and folding into inevitable grayness
And on the road of white from iron stile to bleached out sky
There will be another walking beside me soon,
A gaunt figure on a frostbitten road
The explorer whose cadaverous face tears like parchment,
revealing the pages of the rotten book of days,
Who walks in pain on Giacometti limbs;
And gives the lie to the promise of all these dead end roads;
So today I wrapped myself in the soft entrails of summer
I clung to the Crape Myrtle under its pink baroque domes
I twisted into the hazy distance in Mariners Park
Until the thud of wheels on asphalt became a far away hum;
There are flattering avenues where I can hide from approaching winter
Lush grass under trees that rushes up to embrace
There’s a mirage here of perpetual summer
There are skies as blue as upturned lagoons.
There’s a soft lie and a deception I want to believe.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Woe is Wal-Mart

The imminent threat of a hurricane can be the catalyst to brave the most inhospitable of places; hurricane shelters, rain filled ditches and the like.

On Tuesday I gritted my teeth and headed into Wal-Mart.

I have had an aversion to Wal-Mart ever since I came to America but I would advise any Brit who still believes Americans have white teeth and are relentlessly polite to take a trip through the hallowed concrete halls of Wal-Mart.

As soon as you are through the dirty glass doors and have passed the grab-a-toy machines that never yield up anything remotely cuddly, the Wal-Mart experience proper begins. There is a usually an employee loitering around the carts whose job may originally have been to hand them out. He or she either lost motivation two decades ago or wasn’t briefed properly because the unsuspecting shopper ends up having to get their own cart and using it to shove the aforementioned recalcitrant employee out of the way.

Inevitably about two minutes into the Wal-Mart experience one of the wheels of the bulky rat-grey carts will start to emit a loud screech and the cart will keep lurching to the left.

Ideally you would want something more bijou but you don’t want to be patronized by a member of staff who might say” “Where do you think you are? FarmFresh?” Nor do you want to brave the recalcitrant employee on the door who by now is looking into a grubby notebook, probably trying to make sure the store is making its daily quota of obese customers.

So you press on with the wonky cart that screams like a cat being castrated every 20 seconds and lurch to the pet shop section because your daughter likes to see dead goldfish floating in tiny glass containers.

Wal-Mart has some advantages. Its size means contact with fellow customers is filtered out and you can buy wine for less than $3 a bottle.

Unfortunately Wal-Mart’s biggest selling point, cheap goods, appears to have been bought at the expense of employees’ pay, benefits and overall happiness.

If you are lucky you may see them smoking and spitting on the asphalt outside the store as they recount the woe that is Wal-Mart.

First time visitors to Wal-Mart can make the mistake of believing the employees are there to help them, because they wear vests saying: “How May I help you?”

These vests should actually read: “Just don’t ask” because if you dare to confront them, you are liable to be snarled at. A friend recounts a story of how employees wearing the infamous vests tried to run her down in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

I certainly think Wal-Mart can be bad for your mental health. As soon as I start to look around and take in the environment, I feel myself sinking into some kind of social underclass. Loiter for too long in the densely packed areas such as the thoroughfare by the wilted lettuce section, and you will feel like an extra in an episode of the Jerry Springer show.

And Wal-Mart, in its wisdom seems intent on dragging the experience out. On any given day the vast store will have about four tills operational out of 30 leaving you to stand behind a psychotic mother of six who is able to multitask by tugging her stretchy pants over her vast love handles while simultaneously beating all of her family with a copy of the National Inquirer.

Two days before an expected hurricane Wal-Mart seemed a bit different. There was a small huddle of people in the camping section trying to work out how batteries go in flashlights and people had crates of water in their carts instead of Miller Lite.

I’m hoping I bought enough water because I have no desire to go back any time soon.

Lost by the Sea

 A tiny tragedy in an ocean of sadness makes barely a ripple. Still, I was taken aback to receive an email from a former wife (the one I nev...