Monday, February 28, 2011

How the Oscars failed to catch fire - apart from Melissa Leo

I know some people get rather excited about the Oscars. I noticed the breathless updates on Facebook.

“Oh I thought xx, should have won. Did you see her outfit?”

I found it more difficult to get into the mood this year. Maybe it’s not easy to do glamour after returning from a kids birthday party in North Carolina.

Difficult too when you only possess a batty old TV without even the luxury of a remote control. You thumb through the channels on a tiny button but are likely to miss the Oscars because there seems to be a 50 percent chance of hitting commercials at any given time on American TV.

Then when I did hit on the Oscars it was half way through Achievement in Sound Editing. Excuse me but when did sound editing become an achievement? Achievement in Pressing the Off Switch on the Tape Recorder.

Although maybe sound has moved on a bit since I last tried to edit it., fleetingly and fumblingly.

My tardiness in arriving at the ceremony meant I missed the apparent highlight and what appeared to have been an Oscars first; Melissa Leo using the f word at the ceremony.

You would have thought in more than a century of Academy awards somebody would have inadvertently used the f word. I often find myself inadvertently swearing. Fortunately my daughter is usually around to reprimand me.

Apparently Leo also lowered the tone by flirting with 94-year-old Kirk Douglas who managed to upstage hosts Anna Hathaway and James Franco. I have a mahogany cabinet that could have upstaged the hosts, but at least Hathaway made up for it with her dress at the end of the ceremony.

Leo said Douglas calmed her mood, although not to the extent that she was able to suppress the pesky f word.

Douglas, told her. "You're much more beautiful than you were in The Fighter,". Leo's quick-witted reply was: "You're pretty good looking yourself. What are you doing later on?"

Going back to the home probably.

I wonder if Douglas made it until the end of the night. The Oscars can drag because of all the nerd awards that are given out before the awards people really care about. Last night’s ceremony really seemed to drag.

And while I was glad to see The King’s Speech win best movie and to see Colin Firth win his first Oscar, the element of suspense certainly seemed to be missing last night.

Fortunately there were plenty of fine frocks to keep the commentators going. Very few of them appeared to stand out to me apart from the outfit wore by Cate Blanchett.

Although I’m a big fan of Cate as an actress I had real reservations about this one. Maybe she expected a rather wild post Oscar party. Certainly if somebody had chucked up on the back of her frock, she probably wouldn’t have noticed.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Prostituting the newspaper industry

If prostution is the oldest career in the world, re-posting is the blogisphere's equivalent. I fear I am drifting into online ho-dom, but at least I'm admitting this is a re-post. And I don't need to because nobody read my posts or commented on them in the winter of 2010. And I'm ashamed to admit I made one post in the whole of February. Forgive me father. I have re-posted.

Newspapers in the 21st Century barely resemble the place I was first introduced to when I worked on my local paper at school.

The Citizen in Gloucester used to be crammed into offices down a narrow Medieval lane. On the upper floor the journalists bashed out copy on bulky typewriters the size of modern photocopiers and chain smoked in murky corners.

Below them the 'inkies' toiled away in a mini print works. By 2 p.m. all the court copy, minor crime and council material had been transformed, by a mysterious process from messy and double typed pieces of paper sprewed from the hukling typewriters into newspapers that rolled out by 3.30 p.m.

I never understood how handing over a piece of toilet paper full of copious xxs and crossings out, could be translated into legible copy.

By 4 p.m. I was on the bus home, clutching a copy, with page 4 prominently displayed in the hope fellow passengers would pick up on my by-line.

It's one of the fallacies of rookie journalists that members of the public actually care who writes a story. In reality you could use the by-line "Adolph Hitler" and few would pick up on it. A couple might pick up on that to be fair, but not Hugh Jass, for example.

By the time I took a journalism diploma the industry was already changing. Although we showed up in Cardiff with our typewriters, which would be left in a drop zone in the middle of the "Woodie" pub during extensive after course drinking sessions, an online newsroom arrived half way through the course.

A heavy night at Cardiff didn't normally involve waking up with a woman you didn't know; more likely a strange typewriter.

Many a dual was fought over a man who woke up with another man's typewriter.

When the course "newsroom" became automated, for a couple of weeks I found it almost impossible to write copy directly onto a computer. I missed those tiny pieces of paper that meant stories were segmented up into their constituent parts. But finally the small blue typewriter was abandoned in favor of new technology.

Some time earlier modern technology had hit the industry like a digita tsunami. In great secrecy media mogul Rupert Murdoch had moved his London papers to a vast East End compound in Wapping, dispensing with hundreds of 'inkies' in the process sparking a virtual siege by the trade unions.

The industry was becoming a lot cleaner and a good deal more clinical.

Still the characters from the old days lingered on.

One of them was Alan Carr, a formidable former sub (or copy) editor on the Daily Mirror, who had been hired to teach on our course.

Carr had a face that was made for East End pubs. Pitted and gaunt with dark eye sockets Carr conjured up images of darts, overflowing ash trays and the collective mutter when the last orders bell was rung.

Carr was the guy you didn't want editing your copy. Except here he was taking home all of our pathetic, fledgling efforts at news.

Unlike the other tutors Alan didn't shield us from the withering intolerance of Fleet Street. Copy was returned with so much red pen on it, it was difficult to read the original words.

If you had "boring, boring, boring" written on your story, you breathed a sigh of relief.

One of my friends had a story on a golf game returned with: "What a load of balls" written on the top.

When the course tutors posed as emergency service works on the end of the phone, the two words: "Fireman Carr" were enough to send the reporter into a fit of paralysis and to leave the conversation without getting details of the fire. Carr would occasionally break from character and burst through the door like Nicholson in The Shining to scream: "Ain't you going to ask about the fire then?"

I knew Carr was losing it to some extent when he presented a lecture on measuring copy with a ruler. I may not be the most techni-savvy reporter, but even I realized you could probably do that on the computer.

Eventually his contract wasn't renewed. Some of the women on the course took exception to Carr. The time when he said they should smoke because everyone in the newsroom would be dragging on a cigarette seemed to be the turning point.

"Smoke,'ve got to fecking smoke, aint ya."

When I started work on a newspaper Carr lived nearby and he would call me occasionally. Although he put the fear of God into people I missed him in a way. He represented the industry back in the days when Britney Spears' fashion faux pars did not a story make.

Carr wouldn't last five minutes in today's politically correct newspaper world. I can imagine him waving his ruler around and yelling: "What the fack is Twitter?"

But in a world when we can spend eight hours lost in the depths of the internet and not talk to any colleagues before we head home, characters are welcome.

And I can still hear his voice now when I write certain things that wouldn't pass the Carr test.

"Emerge. You don't emerge. How does a person emerge into something?"

And if, like me, you have been in newspapers for too long, you begin to wonder if you will ever be able to emerge as a viable member of the human race. Rather I fear that one morning I will look in the mirror and Carr's mocking features will stare back at me.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Colonel Gaddafi and the American Dream

When I was at school I was fixated with a girl called Lisa. She was pretty with lustrous raven hair, dark eyes, immaculate make-up and sharply dressed in a manner somewhat too corporate for school. And she had perfect white teeth.

I seldom plucked up the courage to talk to Lisa who acted like she was 10 years older than me. She probably wouldn’t have noticed me had I lay twitching on her desk at the start of Geography.

I was a bit of a nerd whereas she seemed so self confident and composed. No matter that she wouldn’t know who Marcel Proust was if he slapped her in the face. Given that Proust died in 1922 it wasn’t a likely scenario.

Lisa didn’t even seem to notice when our English teacher set us a poetry challenge; it was the whole class against myself and Stuart White, the dumbest kid in the class, who wouldn’t know who the Prime Minister was if she slapped him in the face; a more likely scenario than a Proust slap. Despite my Stuart White handicap Team Us won, defeating the rest of the class.

At my moment of triumph I squinted in Lisa’s direction through my murky National Health Service glasses; only to see her digging for gum in her designer handbag.

Time went by and I forgot about Lisa. And Morrissey made my glasses trendy, although I had invested in some less obtrusive ones by then anyhow to avoid the Proclaimers jokes when I was out with my brother.

Some years later I was visiting home and boarded a bus when I saw a woman struggling up the stairs with a couple of kids, probably because you could smoke upstairs in those days.

There was something vaguely familiar about those dark eyes surrounded by even darker rings. Shocked, I realized it was Lisa. Her eyes were the only familiar feature. My school crush was wearing shapeless clothes, stained with baby formula and her hair that used to be so carefully coiffured was stringy and bedraggled. But most shockingly, her perfect white teeth were stained yellow.

I muttered something at her and she muttered back. I was rather keen to get back to the Stone Roses on my Walkman.

I only say this because Lisa reminds me a bit of the American Dream.

When we were kids we used to listen wide eyed to tales of the Land of the Free where the trees dipped with dollars (and I don’t mean Dollar Tree) and people owned refrigerators big enough to house a family of four.

When we were kids our parents used to also tell us to beware the Bogey Man and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

Because, let’s face it, Gaddafi was running Libya when we were kids.

So when Gaddafi tells us Osama Bin Laden is behind the revolt in Libya, we have to take these comments and shove a mountain of salt over them.

That would be why the protestors are writing signs in English and hoisting the flag of the old monarchy.

Most of the protesters don’t want to hang out in a cave and plan jihad. They want nice cars and big fridges. They want a big juicy slice of the American dream. I can't actually believe they want to go to Wal-Mart, but maybe they do.

They certainly want the democracy that many nations in the west have had in some form or another since the 19th Century.

I hope they get it but there’s no guarantee that democracy will bring wealth and an end to corruption, although anything is better than the likes of Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak.

They can dream but I wonder if they are too late for the American dream. I have a colleague who’s from Michigan. Apparently they’re pulling down large parts of Detroit because it doesn’t work anymore.

And that big Cadillac might not run for much longer if the Libyan crisis continues to push up the cost of gas.

Maybe even Colonel Gaddaffi wants a slice of the American dream. Why else would he dress up in brown robes like one of the most seedy of Liberty Tax wavers who are appearing beside the highway at this time of year?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Keeping up with the by the book Smiths

As demonstrated by my previous posting, the Witch of the Wine Department, I am not a big fan of by the book people.

We are all familiar with the mentality. I’m sure there have been times when I have almost killed myself on the highway to file a story on deadline, only have some weasel squirm up to my desk the next day to tell me: “That was a good story.”

Then there’s a silence while I wait for an arsenic bomb to drop.

“But you forgot to include the Great and Little Snoring tag,” With the career limiting effect that three rather inter-related people and a three legged swine from Great and Little Snoring, didn’t get to see the story on their village’s category on the website.

Fortunately all the world isn’t by the book. If it was we would never have seen the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building and most significantly of all the Angel of the North.

Conversely if there had been a few more by the book people on the Titanic somebody might have pointed out icebergs can be dangerous and “can we fit a couple more lifeboats on there – just in case.”

A rather annoying British consumer TV show called That’s Life that was on when I was a child hosted by someone family members referred to as Esther Rancid used to hand out a “Jobsworth” award. This would go to people such as parking attendants who would see a woman giving birth in a car and make sure to slap a ticket on the windscreen. That kind of thing.

Surely one of the most deserving recipients of the award I have come across is the committee that runs the Salford Lads Club in Manchester.

In 1986 the iconic band the Smiths decided to pose outside the building for the album The Queen is Dead – without permission.

I mean, how cool is that? The Smiths come along and make your beaten up building famous. What a great piece of free advertising.

According to Wikipedia, members of the committee that ran the club weren’t all rushing out to buy the album. Actually they were furious.

Lawyers acting for the club sent out a letter stating: “Inclusion of the photograph may generally cause any person reading the [album] or listening to the record to attribute the material to the club, its committee or its members ... we would cite for example the reference in the song Vicar in a Tutu to the singer being engaged in stealing lead from a church roof, or indeed the very title to the album itself and the tenor of the title song."

It took a few years for these members to see the Smiths’ legacy might not be such a bad thing after all.

“Over the last few years the club has begun to embrace this more recent legacy and welcome the fans to the club,” Wikipedia states.

Unfortunately examples of by the book mentality remain as stubborn as Middle Eastern despots. Stop me if think you’ve heard this one before.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Night of the Wind Chimes

I've always hated wind chimes, tinking away sadistically in the night.
I hear them now and they are the distance between us, they are shut out there with the lonely wind.
There are so many miles across this vast continent and they chime with the emptiness of a long distance train, rattling the freezing rails.
There are scattered lights across the prairies that go out one by one as midnight approaches.
There are peaks of ice as hard as granite, huddling and hidden and unforgiving in the twilight.
And there's a phone call that he's gone, passed away in the night, serenaded by wind chimes.

"Piggy back, piggy back," my daughter demands.
I carry her upstairs to the dark room and wonder if Jack is ascending a spiral staircase at the same time, finally free of his straightjacket body.
"Listen, Zara," I say as she picks herself up from a heap on the bed. "I have something to tell you."
"Grandpa Jack has died."
"Ok," she replies and there's a short pause. "Let's play soccer."
Let's leave the wind chimes out there in the night to play their solitary tune.

Edenton on a Saturday

I groaned inwardly when I woke up this morning, as I recalled I was meant to be in Edenton at 10 a.m. to interview an elderly geezer for a boating feature.

I groaned again when I realized I'd assumed my wife would be back when I set it up. Now I would have to drag the kids down to Edenton, too.

We finally got on the road and my lateness was compounded by an episide when I drove past the last gas station in civilization and had to double back. The only gas station I found didn't even have a slot to shove my credit card into which raised the grim prospect of a conversation with the cashier.

As it turned out she didn't pay me much attention as she was recounting to two other women a robbery that had taken place at the gas station an hour earlier involving many death threats.

"A good pistol whipping was had by all," I thought I heard her say as I retreated to the pumps, only to find the gas cap wasn't facing the pumps. I always do that.

To compound my problems the print-out with the old guy's number on hadn't printed out correctly and was missing a digit. I tried to retrieve it in my cell phone, as I swerved all over the road, but ended up calling an electrical appliance company twice.

Did I mention the electrical appliance company is owned by the guy who used to be my personal banker? In other words this guy has now been screwing me over for most of the time I have been in America in various guises. I'm not sure if $180 is a good quote for the repair of a dish washer that cost $175 new two years ago.

Eventually I found the old guy's number but the voice on the other end was that of his wife who sounded clinically dischuffed when I informed her of my tardiness.

I finally landed up in his driveway, after wrongly visiting his neighbor and pumping his hand vigorously only to be asked: "And you are who, exactly?"

The funny thing, which I alluded to in an earlier blog, is that the elderly boater turned out to be really interesting. He was encapsulated by tropical seas peppered with the white sails of yachts as a child flicking through back copies of National Geographic, which he first looked at in the hope of catching a glimpse of naked African tribeswomen.

He built his first boat at school but had to sell it to buy his first love an engagement ring. The first love transformed at some point during his life into the clinically dischuffed voice on the end of the line.

Then as a physicist working on the weapons that were maiming and killing so many during the Vietnam War, he had a conversion on the road to Damascus. He decided to take a massive pay cut and move to rural North Carolina so as he could teach in the first desegregated schools. He wanted to be where history was happening.

He built his yacht himself on a school teacher's salary and finally got to sail on turquoise waters past those dreamy Caribbean Islands he saw so many years earlier between the covers of National Geographic.

So it was worthwhile; he even offered to take us out on his boat some time.

And so was Edenton on a balmy February day. If I can erase the memory of Jax using that menu as a weapon of mass destruction, it's actually all good.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Life Measured in Days

So I'm on my cell phone in the car and the sunlit fields are slipping by.

"Listen to Jack's breathing," my wife says from a hospice somewhere in the midst of a gray day in Canada, a few hours removed from here.

I hear a labored murmuring, a hint of a death rattle perhaps.

"They say he has just days."

"Yes." There's not much I can say because it seems far removed from reality. The last time I saw Jack was a couple of years ago. He was clutching his tennis racket and asking me where the nearest tennis court was.

Now he can't even clutch the sides of the bed. He's lost the power of speech and is as gray as the Canadian winter.

At such times I think of The Hollow Men by T.S. Eliot. "Shape without form, shade without color, Paralyzed force, gesture without motion."

But there's motion here and not just the lurch of the car. There are birds that swoop across the wide fields in giddy celebration of the oncoming spring, there's a jauntiness in the hedgerows and a stirring in the trees. There are children on the swings; they laugh and go up and down mimicking the parabola of life. There are days ahead of lengthening nights and warm evenings by the sea. The buds will soon be leaping up on the branches if the warm weather holds.

I doubt if Jack will see the sun again.

And removed from its heat they shift in the shadows and pick over what's left, unable to feel it degrading to dust in their hands.

A day ago his girlfriend arrived. She blocked the nurse trying to give him morphine and tried to take him out of there.

"We go home, we go to the casino," she said to eyes that reflected back the space they stared at.

They staged an emergency meeting; they barred her for a day. They said she was crazy.

But I can understand denial in the presence of death that turns black to white and white to black.

He said he'd beat it, but we all knew it was rhetoric as hollow as Eliot's bleak verse.

And in no time at all life is no longer measured in seasons, or even months but tiny, mean days.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Introducing the Twitter twits

There's a middle aged guy who used to work at the office who occasionally shares his not so enlightened views on life on Facebook.

I'm not sure if he drinks and updates but it certainly appears that way. During the Golden Globes, for example, he spouted off dozens of incoherent sounding updates full of typos on the state of Lady Gaga's bottom and the like.

At other times these comments have been embittered and included personal attacks.

While nobody really takes the rantings of a former employee very seriously, social networking gaffes have already landed some well known figures in cyber hell.

Twitter, in particular, seems to land people in trouble.

Although I signed up to Twitter some years ago and was surprised to be able to secure @davidmacaulay before my beardy namesake who writes illustrated books got there, the attraction wore off after I tired of the competition to see how many random strangers I could get to follow me back.

Now I can't see a lot of uses for Twitter unless you want to overthrow a Middle Eastern despot.

There's an academic called Nir Rosen who may be wishing he never discovered Twitter after Tweeting about how Lara Logan, the TV reporter who was subjected to a sex attack in Egypt was "trying to outdo" rival news correspondent Anderson Cooper.

Rosen quit his job but not before issuing a half-hearted apology of a Tweet that read.

He wrote: 'Ah f*** it, I apologize for being insensitive, it's always wrong, that's obvious, but I'm rolling my eyes at all the attention she will get.'

One of the most expensive gaffes on Twitter was that of footballer Darren Bent of Tottenham who berated his boss Daniel Levy on Twitter – putting him in line for an £80,000 fine.

Fashion designer Kenneth Cole didn't fire himself for his twittish tweet but I imagine he was left with more color in his face than in his outfits.

During the demonstrations in Egypt, Cole sent out a  tweet from @KennethCole reading "Millions are in an uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online."

The tweet went on to provide a link to the collection, but it was taken down about five hours later, when Cole said he was sorry on Facebook.

The gaffe led to a satirical fake Twitter feed that attracted thousands of followers called (at)KennethColePR.

Tweets on this site included "Rolling through Germany? Gestapo by our new Berlin store!" and "Jeffrey Dahmer would have eaten up our spring collection!"

Social networking is a scary new world. I'm sure I'm not alone in posting something after a few glasses of Pinot Noir, only to see it the next morning and to think.....hmmmmmm.

But while it's tempting after a bad day at the office to post something humorous about your boss being a blood sucking maniac with buck teeth, small man syndrome and a blonde mullet the size of a mulberry bush, the rule of thumb on social networks has to be 'if in doubt, don't be a bird brain - just leave it out.'

Monday, February 14, 2011

Road Trip to Wilmington - part 2

I woke up on Friday hoping it would all be better. I had been having a pleasant dream I was at home.

But often vacations can transform your horizons in one glorious sweep of the hotel curtains to reveal a beautiful vista and a breathtaking blue day.

Unfortunately, it didn't take me long to realize the curtains were already open. And I couldn't see much light. I went over to the window to view sheets of freezing rain coating the parking lot.

I didn't have too much time to enjoy the view. Jackson was already bouncing up and down in his crib and screaming like the Energizer Bunny and Zara was already into the second episode of Wizards of Waverley Place. I often ask myself how I can manage to A - hate a show but, at the same time B - know nearly all of the words due to repetitive exposure.

At least there was breakfast to look forward to.

Half an hour later I was playing the game in which you have to hold Jack Jax down in a wooden chair while he at the same time giggles and tries to ensure you don't hold him down. There's some equasion here from high school physics about balancing forces.

What they don't tell you at the end of the experiment is; the Jax will always prevail as long as hotel breakfasts are unadulterated grease fests.

Going on holiday with kids as a single care giver makes you into one of those people you really don't want to be, the type you see with kids the world over, a constantly worried Anal Andy.

"Watch him," I snapped tersely at Zara as I went to the buffet counter to barge some sedentary grazers who were cooing at the waffles, out of the way with my elbows.

"I want THAT egg," I heard a small voice beside me, say, rather too close for comfort.

"Zara," I almost screamed as Anal Andy kicked me in the ribs. "You are supposed to be watching...."

A crash followed as Jackson turned a bowl full of milk and fruit loops over on the table and started giggling.

After the breakfast ordeal it wasn't even 10 a.m. and I was desperately seeking something to do in Wilmington.

We drove through the old town, under trees hanging with Spanish moss. There are appealing looking pubs and cafes. It would probably have been quite nice if it wasn't pouring with rain.

Suddenly I drove past the Cape Fear Museum. A cunning plan formed. It was indoors, it had a parking lot and Zara had professed an interest in museums. In short it was an ideal place for the kids on a rainy day.

The staff appeared friendly. They smiled sympathetically.

"Ah, visiting a museum with the kids on a rainy day, are we," said the woman at the reception desk.

"We are indeed," I confirmed as evidenced by the fact I was buying a ticket.

The woman gave Zara a museum sticker and she became excited in the way kids do about stickers. (wait until she gets her first parking ticket) The woman gave Jackson an odd look, probably because the only stroller I could find in the back of the car for him was Zara's old pink Princess stroller.

And we were off to Exhibit Number One, the dinosaur bones of a fearsome looking giant sloth with a latin name of slothus-mother-in-lawus, or something of that ilk.

The museum proved to be fairly kid friendly; not at all like those staid air conditioned museums in communist countries that are themselves like relics.

"Here's the broom used by Fidel Casto in the revolution and that's the only exhibeet in the museum. isn't it gret..."

That kind of thing.

I was somewhat confused by the Michael Jordan science gallery but it appears he's from Wilmington. There's a nice kid scaring exhibit in which you open dust bin lids to find an angry looking rat/possum/raccoon staring at you.

The Cape Fear Museum ate up a good two hours. We headed into the old town for lunch. Resolved never to do the Golden Corral thing again, I found a light airy, artistic looking place called Caffe Phoenix. The servers were friendly to Jack Jax and a mere 10 minutes after our arrival there was no problem with him intimidating neighboring diners because the place seemed to have suddenly cleared.
It's a strange sight seeing a man in a suit trying to eat tortellini while sprinting down the main street in the rain.

The rest of the day was spent slumped in the hotel room after a large glass of red wine, trying to read a book, while deciding if Wizards of Waverly Place is more annoying than The Suite Life on Deck.

But it wasn't all bad. By Saturday the sun had come out and we walked on Carolina Beach as well as checking out the ramparts of Fort Fisher, the scene of a savage Civil War battle not to mention the awarding of more stickers.

Zara had taken the battle reenactment too seriously. "Where's the bloody bodies?" she asked loudly, within earshot of the elderly sticker provider.

Only the floral belt continued to haunt me.

Zara was insistent we returned to the McDonalds at Emporia to get it. But only I was privy to the damning piece of information that we were going to return by a different route. Should I fake a visit to a different McDonalds that I could pass off as the one we visited on Thursday, so as I could ask about the belt?

Then at Fort Fisher I suddenly found it under the driver's seat.

All was well under southern skies.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Road Trip to Wilmington - Part 1

I've been away for a while on a road trip. After two-and-a-half weeks of juggling work and looking after the kids I was in need of a road trip and a chance to get away from everything.

 I happily went about booking hotels and planning my route in blissful disregard of one huge writhing serpent in my Eden, the fact that I would still be looking after the kids, so there was a 100 percent chance that they would be coming with me.

This didn't stop me having a carefree Jack Kerouac-like view of the whole thing in advance. I would drift from place to place feeling totally chilled, I would hang out reading in chic bars, far away from the demands of work and the internet, the need to update my blog and the requirment to view the wedding photographs of total strangers on Facebook.

Impediment Number One was Zara. When I suggested she'd have to "throw a sickie" to get off school for one of the two days (the school was closed the other day for the teachers to bicker at each other), she threw a strop and declared this was lying and it was beyond her remit.

Fortunately an inch of snow fell overnight Wednesday and inevitably Zara's school closed down. The next time I want this to occur, I'll probably dump a few styrofoam peanuts outside the school, make an anonymous call saying snow's expected and achieve my objective.

We set off rather late to Wilmington in North Carolina, a destination I had chosen because it was further south, so inevitably warmer but didn't involve driving all the way to Florida.

The snow was soon a distant memory on Route 58 to Emporia. It felt a bit like a roadtrip because I saw sights along the way, mainly broken down gas stations, unhinhabited roadside shacks and schools the like of which you wouldn't take your least favorite neighbors into (notwithstanding that dog mess on your front garden incident).

Route 66 it ain't but at least this is a snapshop of American life. We stopped at Emporia by the Interstate where some locals have made a valiant attempt to break the world record for how high fast food signs can be shoved up in the air. At a soulless McDonald's (OK the word soulless is unnecessary here) I presided over Zara trying to break another world record, the longest time it can take anyone to eat four chicken nuggets, while Jackson grabbed her fries and threw them at the elderly people on the next table.

McDonald's at Emporia helped me answer one of the great mysteries of life, namely, where do elderly people go on a Thursday afternoon.

We escaped from McDonald's and got onto I-95 south into North Carolina. At this point the whole notion of a road trip evaporated. I-95 is flat without interest. You gaze at trees and more trees. if you are really lucky you might see a river. Then 100 miles out you see the first sign for South of the Border. This surprised me because I had been told this huge, tacky faux Mexican experience on the border between North and South Carolina had closed down.

Even if this was true, it would take about a decade to remove all of the signs.

Falling asleep at the wheel is the biggest danger on I-95. I called friends and my wife. My sister, who I hadn't called for months wondered why I had called twice. The maintenance man from a property we lived at five years ago, wondered why I had called at all.

At least it took me only 30 minutes longer than MapQuest said it should to get to Wilmington. At this point, to use an expression that perplexes Americans, things went pear shaped.

The trouble with MapQuest directions is once you make a wrong turn you are up that unpleasant creek without a paddle. The names of the streets that were supposed to crop up didn't and a high bridge took me over the river past the battleship North Carolina. I did the gas station thing but when I asked about the Country Inn and Suites, the woman shrugged her shoulder and rattled away in Spanish.

By this time freezing rain was falling from the southern skies. Suddenly Zara started to go into meltdown mode over a floral belt for her jacket that she had mislaid. "Go back to McDonalds, go back," she screamed.

"What? 200 miles?"

Zara's meltown combined with Jackson's diaper blowout. At such desperate moments you realize you have no carrier bag and the wipes are missing in action. I yelled at Zara but her meltdown had extinguished any prospect of movement. To search for the wipes in the dumpster that was once an SUV, meant Jackson was likely to kick poo all over the back seat. To not search equated to paralysis in the freezing rain. Finally I spied a packet on the floor.

By the time I found the hotel it was almost dark and raining steadily. It occured to me I could have experienced a similar Country Suites experience in an identical hotel five minutes from my home. And I could have gone back for swim gear.

Still we had to venture out again to the strip malls near the hotel in search of food. I shied away from upscale looking places, which wasn't difficult as I couldn't see any, to somewhere more child friendly.

I have normally shied away from Golden Corral altogether. Within five minutes of arriving, I knew why. It was something to do with the greasy plastic plates and the pea encrusted high chair I was trying to squeeze Jackson into.

We had only just sat down over our slops, when Jackson wriggled out of his harness, twisted around, stared at the woman on the next table and started banging on her plate with his fists.

"He's lively," she said.

I had figured I wouldn't get too much kid-related grief at a place like Golden Corral, but it didn't take long for the familiarity of the woman on the next table to grate. I had come on holiday to get away from all the administration and the headache of finding rental house tenants and here she was telling me how it was imposssible for her to get a place to rent without a job and a job without an address, her false teeth threatening to jump out of her mouth and into Jackson's lap to become a toy he wouldn't want to give up, at any point.

"It's like catch, whatsit," she said.


Now I don't want to appear unsympathetic and I felt bad for her that she was going on about GC like she'd treated herself to a day on the QE2. It was just that I didn't feel like talking.

I wanted to escape but Zara was doing the world record thing again, this time with four pieces of macaroni cheese.

I'd dreamed of seeing undiscovered places. I'd thought of Jack Kerouac. And here I was at a particularly unappealing Golden Corral in anywhere America in the rain.

Tomorrow can only be better, I thought as I caught a yellow light that became a red light, heard a clicking noise and saw a flash illuminate the intersection and the puddles in the rain.

"Pretty," sighed Zara.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Unsettling thoughts at 3:54 a.m.

I know 3:54 a.m. is a funny time to be alive and checking on my blog but this waking up in the middle of the night thing happens to me sometimes.

The first problem with this is the fact time never stands still so it's already 3:56 a.m. Well time moves in diverse paces and if one minute is a snapshot of our lives we seldom have time to collect our thoughts before we are on to the next.

For me 3:57 a.m. is a sobering time. If I wake up in the night I am either ambushed by night fears or I can see clearly. I think of the song I Can See Cearly Now the Rain Has Gone, but really I can't because I associate it with an advert now, for coffee, I think. In saying that "advert's" not a term I should use, certainly not in copy. It's an English term.

Even now after half a decade in the states I can throw people with these terms. An official asked me if I wanted a coffee yesterday and I said: "That's so kind."

She told me I had confused her because in American this meant I was declining whereas I seemed to be accepting.

I told her it would help me see more clearly now the rain was gone. I didn't tell her City Hall coffee wasn't so good.

By 4:02 a.m. I'm not so sure if I can see more clearly at this time. I certainly can't see where this blog posting is going. Just hours after posting about old people, something slipped in my back and I have been walking around like a geriatric ever since.

Which brings me to another cultural difference. At home people will readily ask you what's wrong as you walk through the newsroom with the gait of someone who had wet their pants. Here people won't ask, but you know they are thinking: "what the heck?"

I think the same thing when I check the stats on my blog these days - 60 something views this week on a post about Anderson Cooper, 30 something on one about old people, 3,500 on a post about Justin Bieber. So the cynical strategy worked but who are these viewers? They never leave comments. I wonder if they are actually viewers or some strange computer generated phenomenon.

I half caught an interview tonight by Piers Morgan with the Winklevoss Twins, who say they invented Facebook before Mark Zuckerberg stole it. It was rather strange to see this chisel cut duo in their expensive suits and frat boy hairstyles banging on about their working class roots and how they were fighting the good for social justice. They left me unconvinced and sure there are worthier causes, democracy in Egypt, that kind of thing.

I was struck by the review by Rachel Dillin in the Oklahoma Examiner, mainly because it was the first thing that came up on Google. Morgan, said the reviewer, was combative towards his guests the entire time. Really? it didn't strike me that way. But maybe this is another cultural difference to bear in mind as Brits like Morgan take over the world as we know it.

By British standards Morgan and even Simon Cowell are hardly combative. It's surely time to unleash Jeremy Paxman on America, assuming he can avoid those embarassing gaffes with the word "cuts."

By 4:21 a.m. it's become clear that I am losing the plot and my thoughts are becoming increasingly fragmented. I blame this on being a single dad for at least two-and-a-half weeks while my wife is in Canada. Things have spiralled out of control of late and I am hoping the baby isn't still in the freezing car. A quick check reveals this isn't the case and it's now 4:22 a.m. What is it with Bieber anyhow?

The house is starting to look like Francis Bacon's studio. My back problems make tidying it up a non option. So I have decided to go away on a road trip. I may be gone some time.

Enjoy the silence. Failing that you can always tune into Jeremy in trouble with that pesky c word.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The thing about old people....

Old people are a curious phenomenon. They’ve done more than the rest of us and seen more history than the rest of us.

But we are uncomfortable seeing them and don’t want them around.

This thought hit me today at the bank, when a wizened old lady was regaling a young customer service manager with a story from her youth and assailing him with her book of memories.

“Yes, yes, very interesting,” the young man replied with the air of someone who was on the sliding deck of the Titanic and has just been informed a lifeboat berth has become vacant.

“My mother was born in 1891. She died from TB,” the old woman rattled on regardless.

“That’s fantastic. I wish I had more time,” the young manager said and then spied his clients approaching through the door. I assumed he had texted them asking if they could come in two hours earlier.

“Ah sorry. I have a meeting,” he said, beads of relief breaking out all over his forehead, and moved across the floor with the speed of Ben Johnson on performance enhancing drugs.

The manager did what they tell you to do on the management course. He promptly delegated.

So it was down to a young woman to talk to the old lady, complete with a smile so phony it must have been causing lines of hurt to open up behind her ears.

“She was an executive on Chicago Corporation back in 1901 the old woman continued.”

“Nice,” the young woman spat between her chewing gum.

Meanwhile I tapped my fingers impatiently on the counter because the young woman had been diverted to the old woman, leaving no woman or man to process my request.

I looked over waiting for the old woman to say: “I’m 91 you, know.”

Old people say that sort of thing. It’s funny but you’ll never hear a young person saying: “I’m 21, you know.”

Or: “I’ve still got all of my teeth,” for that matter.

My own theory is that we don’t want old people around because they are wrinkly and not very photogenic. We are secretly look-ist and in the fast-moving 21st century we can only really be bothered to spend time around people we’re hitting on.

It’s sad but true. It’s like an experiment Tyra Banks recently carried out when she stuffed cushions down her dress and pretended to be a fat person. At this point the owners of boutiques seemed rather less willing to hang around and talk to her as they were when she looked like Tyra Banks, for instance.

It’s a shame because old people can be interesting. I wonder if this would take off as a slogan.

“Excuse me sir, would you be interested in donating to our Old People Can Be Interesting initiative, sponsored by Kelloggs Froot Loops and the Rahm Emanuel for President campaign?”

The more gray hairs I get the more I become interested in this theme. Of course, I don’t have as many as Anderson Cooper. And even when I do I doubt if I’ll have so many women wanting to clutch me to their bosoms.

The fact is old people can have many interesting stories to tell. The only drawback is they can take rather a long time telling them.

I once covered a story about an old guy called Stan and his land dispute. It was a sympathetic story and he was very grateful. The trouble was he latched onto me after that and would call me frequently to regale me with undiscovered aspects of his life.

“I used to collect furry caterpillars in my toilet bowl …. I’m 82, you know.”

I tried not to be rude but when you have a fast-moving demanding job, you just don’t have the time.

I’d gesticulate to my colleagues to call the other line so as I could pretend I had another urgent call. I even feigned dropping a heavy book on my foot once to escape.

I’m not proud of my actions because when you are in the bank and you see other people going through the motions it’s scary how transparent the Enduring Old People charade can be.

In some cultures elders are treated with respect and dignity.

But in the west it seems a token old person is a dribbling, nonsense spouting individual who we tolerate on Christmas day and maybe the day after if our patience lasts.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Anderson Cooper feels the heat in Egypt

A friend said she wanted to clutch Anderson Cooper's small grey head to her bosom, after seeing pictures of the CNN reporter being repeatedly punched by pro Mubarak supporters.

I am pleased to report I have no desire to clutch Anderson Cooper's head to my rather insignificant bosom, although you had to feel for Anderson and all of those other journalists who wre roughed up in Tahrir Square this week.

Maybe not anyone from Fox News. Well not too much anyway.

Anderson managed to keep his 'war correspondent cool' for the most part, even if he did look a bit startled like his gray alter ago, Groundhog Phil, when he was pulled into the daylight to give an improptu weather forecast.

Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who strikes me as being a tad right wing, had some rather constructive comments about two New York Times journalists who were detained by Egyptian authorities this week.

I don't feel any anger over this. Do we feel happy? Well -- uh -- do we feel kind of going like, "neh-neh-neh-neh"?  he said.

Apparently Limbaugh became more serious about journalists being detained by thugs later in the show when the same thing happened to some reporters from Fox.

Limbaugh said nothing about wanting to clutch any journalists to his rather enormous right-wing man boobs, which sparked a tsunami of relief in the media world.

The events in Egypt gripped me one day this week. There were some rather far off live scenes of Molotov cocktails being thrown across bridges, cars being torched and the sinister sound of automatic gunfire into the Cairo night. The feeling of fear seemed to ooze from the television screen. It was like seeing history at its most frightening, the Paris Commune, the Russian revolution etc.

By Thursday night the streets had turned very ugly indeed and Anderson was broadcasting live from a secret location. He kept going on about it to embelish his bravado. Rumors that he was really hanging out in the basement his great auntie Betty's home in rural Georgia and pretending he was in Cairo, were probably inaccurate.

These are frightening times in Egypt and who in their right mind would want to be there?

Well actually I wouldn't mind.

This may seem like a strange statement but when you are a journalist part of you is addicted to the big story. The few times you have been involved in one, the adrenalin has pushed me forward to amazing feats of endurance. When it's removed, you can miss it like a drug.

As writers, there's always a part of us that's unhinged and obsessed with the danger. We are vulnerable to alcoholism and a number of other thrill seeking activities.

Admittedly we aren't as unhinged as painters who are apt to slice off the occasional ear when the going gets tough.

So if the call came to go to Egypt, of course, I would be on the next plane. I've actually only been sent to Egypt once, to find a guy who had kidnapped his son and was hanging out in a hotel in Hurghada. When I arrived there, I was appalled by the father's choice of sleazy friends and asked his girlfriend why he was hanging out with these sleazebags.

"They're the journalists from the nationals," she informed me.

As I'm unlikely to find myself in Tahrir Square any time soon, I'll have to content myself with the happenings at City Hall. I think a pawn shop is up for a use permit next week.

I'll sign off with my first attempt to post a YouTube video. When Anderson describes his attack he says:
"Suddenly a young man would come up to you, look at you and punch you in the face."

Sounds like any night club in the north of England when one of the locals has erroneously thought I'd called his pint a poof.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Groundhog Day - WTF?

OK whaaat the heck is this all about?

I think I offended some of my colleagues today by saying “what’s with this giant rat that pops up from the ground and predicts the spring? I thought America was a nation of TV weather people. Can’t they do a better job than a lousy rodent?”

“It’s not a rat; it’s a groundhog,” replied one.

“Is that some sort of over-stuffed hamster?”

“No. It’s a groundhog. It’s Punxsutawney Phil.”

“What that bald phony who advises people about their marital problems on TV? I knew he’d gone to ground but….”

“No. That’s Dr. Phil.”

“Well what is it? Is it a prairie dog?”

“More like it.”

“But why?”

An outbreak of shoulder shrugging.

Officially Punxsutawney Phil came out of his cozy den on Wednesday, also Groundhog Day, to make his much awaited annual weather forecast in front of thousands who braved muddy, icy conditions. His handlers declared that Pennsylvania's prophetic rodent had not seen his shadow. Questions on whether Phil needed a pointy stick up his backside to be roused were politely ignored.

"He found that there was no shadow," said Bill Deeley, president of a club that organizes Groundhog Day in the western Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney. "So an early spring it will be."

Sorry, Backtrack. Rewind. How the hell does he come to that conclusion? How does he even know the rat-thing didn’t see his shadow? Even if he knows he didn't see his shadow why does that an early spring make?

And how dumb is the rat to predict an early spring when half of America is freezing in a giant snowstorm? It's 70 degrees here, though (smugly).

Apparently this tradition goes back 125 years and is traced back to a German superstition. I don't even want to ask why he lives in a place called Gobbler's Knob.

And I really can’t believe Phil is this old.

Thank goodness we don’t have this sort of silliness in England. If you discount the community where they chase a cheese down a hill and break their legs.

Or the burning tar barrels or mud snorkeling. I’ll quit while I’m ahead.

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...