Monday, November 28, 2011

Why I'm still feeling queasy after Thanksgiving

I kept rather a low profile during Thanksgiving. To be honest I’ve never really seen the point of this schmaltzfest, unless you happen to be a turkey farmer in the US who gets to hit pay dirt twice in the space of a month. And what kind of an American expression is pay dirt, anyhow? What does it mean? You get paid so you have to go out and do something really dirty. Which may ensure you don’t get paid again for a while. Apparently it refers to gravel with a high concentration of gold in it; not like any gravel you get round these parts.

In short I didn’t post anything on Facebook saying 'I’m so Thankful.' That’s partly because I’m a curmudgeon, although I am thankful I don’t live in Syria or Somalia, even though I have this recurring dream that I have been transported to a war zone. I'm not even sure if the feeling of peace and thankfulness was enduring because sometime overnight on Thursday it was replaced by the urge to get a cheap flatscreen TV or pair of designer sneakers and not care if it involved trampling a few elderly women half to death to get them the next morning.

But really I don’t like Thanksgiving (apart from the day off work, of course) because it’s one of those glib and smug rewritings of history for the benefit of people of European descent so that we can pat ourselves on the back about how great America is as our stomachs grumble for the rest of the afternoon parked in front of Real Housewives of Atlanta or New York or Redneckysville, Alabama.

So what are the origins of Thanksgiving? According to the Northwest Herald which is, I presume a newspaper in a cold place, it’s….

“The proclaiming of a day of thanksgiving traditionally dates from the autumn of 1621, when Plymouth Colony Gov. William Bradford invited the local Wampanoag Indians to join the Pilgrims in a three-day celebration of feasting and recreation. The Pilgrims were especially giving thanks for surviving the harsh winter of 1620-1621, during which half of the 102 Mayflower passengers had died, and for the bountiful harvest, which hopefully would help them to meet the challenge of the upcoming winter.”

But there’s also some kind of school lesson plan that does the rounds about how the Indians gave the Pilgrims their corn, that ensured survival, taught them to hunt and they all lived happily ever after. This is surely the tale that prompted my daughter to ask: “If the Indians didn’t have microwaves how did they teach the Pilgrims how to make popcorn?”

This is from the lesson plan.

“Tell first winter the Pilgrims spent in their new home was very cold. Food was in short supply. Some days they had only enough food for each new person to have five kernels of corn for the day. Finally spring came. They planted food and it grew. All the pilgrims did not die. From then on, when a time of Thanksgiving came around, the Pilgrims put five kernels of corn on each plate to remind themselves of their blessings. Let us also remember: (Written on the poster paper).”

Well that’s as clear as mud then. What is clear is that a few years later the Indians weren’t happy bunnies with a valid cause as the settlers took their land and drove them out. Philip, or Metacom, the second son of old Massasoit, the longtime friend of the English, became the head of the Wampanoags in 1662.

King Philip’s War between the Indians and the settlers that was waged from 1675 to 1678 was a bloody affair and the single greatest calamity to occur in seventeenth-century Puritan New England. Nearly half of the region's towns were destroyed, its economy was all but ruined, and much of its population was killed, including one-tenth of all men available for military service. Proportionately this was one of the bloodiest and costliest wars in the history of North America.

For the next 200 years or so the protracted and intermittent genocide of the Indian people continued, as they were pushed west to the badlands of Oklahoma until somebody decided they wanted those lands too, perhaps after hitting pay dirt in those hills.

This is one reason why Thanksgiving leaves a bad taste for me. The other is the way we celebrate the Pilgrims as Godly and goodly when they were religious extremists who used to kill women who acted in a peculiar way as witches. These folks were more extreme than the tea party. In modern America they would probably be going around cutting beards off Amish people (predominantly men folk).

America makes such a big deal about the Pilgrims and the Mayflower Compact, that’s made out like a precursor to the Constitution, that they tend to forget the first successful English speaking colony was in Virginia not New England.

There’s also a certain irony in seeing descendants of these white settlers who drove out the native people arguing for the kids of Mexican immigrants who sneaked into the country, to be sent back south as punishment for their parents’ actions. Just saying.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Preconceptions Gone with the Wind

I have never appreciated the attraction of Gone with the Wind, believing the film to be a cliche of star crossed lovers, garish sunsets, Magnolia trees and the old south. I had seen parts of the movie and knew a couple of the most famous lines "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." and "Tomorrow is another day."

What more did I need to know? What was the point of giving up four hours of my life - more like six when you build in commercial breaks - to watch this predictable mush in overwrought costumes?

But while I was aimlessly channel hopping last night I chanced on Gone with the Wind and decided to stick with it because there was nothing else worth watching. And then a funny thing happened. I got hooked and my old preconceptions were gone with the wind.

Most of all I got drawn into the character of Scarlett O'Hara. It stuck me it's been a long since since I saw such a fascinating character on the silver screen; manipulative, impulsive, scheming, yet charming and despite all her flaws she draws you in, even after all the decades that have passed. There are people we encounter occasionally who burn so brightly that we can't help walking into the flames, even though we know we will come out singed. And Scarlett is one of those people.

Gone with the Wind has been described as one of the greatest love stories ever told. If this is so then love is clearly destined to be one step removed from torture. The relationship between O'Hara and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) is at best dysfunctional and at worst abusive. And yet these two manipulative people are fixated with each other. The only people who don't realize it is themselves, although perhaps they get an inkling at the end when it's too late.

Watching Gone with the Wind made me realize that we have lost at the same time as we have gained at the movies. The backdrops may look crude at times and the sets appear clumsy by today's standards. But while we can create special effects with stunning accuracy somewhere along the line we've lost the raw passion and the emotion.

Back in 1939 there were fewer distractions to shrink the big screen. David Selznick, the producer kept many details of Gone With the Wind secret. Numerous big name actresses were auditioned to play the role of Scarlett O'Hara. The successful candidate Vivien Leigh was an outsider from England who was little known in the USA.

The film was first shown to an audience that did not know what they were about to see.  People were permitted to leave, but the Fox Theater in Riverside, California was sealed with no re-admissions and no phone calls out.

The audience only realized they were part of a grand design when the name of Margaret Mitchell, the author of Gone with the Wind came on the screen. The reception was apparently thunderous and the film ended with standing ovations. This is the classic stuff of a golden age of film that may never be repeated.

Yet while Gone with the Wind can look antique its themes of a nation divided and a conflict that rages between the sexes, are as relevant now as 75 years ago. Gone with the Wind has the flawed motif of ideal love - that felt by Scarlett for her cousin's husband Ashley Wilkes that fades and falters like his character and notions of the old Antebellum South. The roguish Butler copes better with the cut throat world of Atlanta after the Civil War while O'Hara thrives in chaos.

And then there's the strife and the pride and the battles for turf that may not be on the terrifying scale of Gettysburg but can be just as destructive. But more than anything else Gone with the Wind is about the contradictions of the human spirit all bound up in Scarlett who is despicable but admirable, and at turns childlike and scheming. We don't need a Scarlett. Mitchell herself when asked what may have happened to the lovers after the novel ended suggested Rhett Butler may have found someone who was less difficult.

But while he may not have needed a Scarlett life must surely have been a lot less colorful without her.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The last colors of fall - Lake Maury

Pride comes before a fall, or if you live in Virginia, it's a hurricane. And after a fall comes freefall and a nothingness in the darkness.

When I wrote a while back about my dread for October my dread was misplaced because October was crisp and colorful, temperate and beautiful. But by now the gulf between my everyday life under artificial lights and the beauty of nature is growing just as nature goes into hibernation.

It's hard sometimes to deal with the minutiae and the deadly nuances of office politics when there's a vastness out there waiting to swallow us up. Four mind numbing hours of vastness just to get to the mountains and then a world of sweeping wind kissed escarpments, and I spend most of my days starting at a screen or out of the window at the sickly saplings that grow from the asphalt.

From now on in the light will quickly disappear. I'll stand outside the concrete awnings one night and grumble about the endlessness of it all with a colleague and the next time I'll have the same conversation it will still be dark and hopeless and light years until the spring.

It could be worse I'll tell myself. I could be in Wigan. If you ever find yourself in Wigan in November when even the rain looks brown you might want to slip into the nearest pub, ducking the darts that are aimed at your head, and drink yourself into oblivion.

Unbelievably there are probably worse places to be in northern England in November than Wigan. Perhaps Warrington or Middlesbrough. How do people ever get up in the dark in Middlesbrough and make it to their cars without cutting off their heads as an act of mercy?

The fall here has a beauty but it's fading fast. I went out in a hurry to capture it as the leaves danced and buffeted me down the footpath.Mocking, mocking and moving south. No time to go far. Lake Maury again. Just like last year; so we run to stand still like Joyce's character in a Portrait of the Artist his hands pinned by his side as he circles the track.

We laughed at Joyce then. We didn't take him seriously. Until the passage about the walk by the Liffey won us over. Nor could we appreciate the frail beauty of Gerard Manley Hopkins. We couldn't get beyond the pale and wan face and the repressed and unmanly priest, going through the motions to shut out human nature while betraying himself all the time with his pen in the rhythms of the natural world.

Only now can I appreciate it, in a time and place far removed when his words echo back across the years like an old friend whose letter you find after a long absence.

Spring and Fall:

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The science of stability balls and other stories

I only started to ponder why I found myself staring at stability balls on a Friday night when I was (um) staring at stability balls on a Friday night.

I'd like to say I found myself at the Y because I'm so dedicated to reinventing my body but the reality is less impressive. Nic informed me that Zara was claiming I had promised to take her to the "interactive zone" although my recollection was of a less definite term. I'm not sure when the word "perhaps" had morphed into a promise but by the time I got home it was cast iron.

I have been on my intensive fitness program now for two-and-a-half months and the folks at the Y keep moving the goal posts; or rather they keep fitting new distorting mirrors. I am convinced they bring in a more grotesque mirror every week. How else can I explain the fact all these intensive work outs seem to be having so little impact on my gut?

In saying that these work outs are clearly having an impact on upper arm strength. These days if anyone is handing around babies at work I politely decline for fear I'll accidentally snap off a couple of limbs with my super human strength.

Still I feel like confronting the folks at the Y and telling them I wanted this program to flatten my gut, not to turn me into the Incredible Hulk with a gut. If I had wanted that I could have stayed at home, painted myself green and ripped up my shirts. Believe me people do this kind of thing in my neighborhood. Not for purely altruistic reasons either.

The gym is bearable if a trifle dull. I always forget head phones and find myself watching TV screens from afar. This being American TV there's always a lame show with celebrities trying to dance and another show about two waitresses which is probably better without words, although the brunette can become quite alluring 14 minutes and 24 seconds into the random hill program on the elliptical machine. But who's timing it?

At least I don't feel out of place in most parts of the Y where there are people more out of shape than me. The exception is the weights room downstairs which attracts football players and guys with bulging muscles and eyes. Last week I was pulling down about 50 pounds when I eyed a guy opposite me who seemed to be in direct competition and appeared to want me to know he was pulling 100 pounds.

When I went to walk away he blurted out: "Excuse me." I assumed he was going to inform me he had just out pulled me when he said: "Did you used to teach?"

It dawned on me this was one of my former students. We proceeded into a rapid fire conversation about how bad the rest of his class and all of the teachers (except me) were and by a stroke of luck I recalled his name.

Tonight I encountered another student but he either did not recognize me or did not want to acknowledge me. The last time I spoke to him I reprimanded him for plagiarism. My advice for any students out there who are minded to cheat is this; if you are going to rip off another person's work, don't use word for word the thesis of a leading academic on Macbeth comprising some elaborate and complex theories that have nothing to do with the essay topic when you haven't even mastered the art of tying your shoe laces or keeping your pants up in class. It tends to raise suspicions.

Still Kevin's parents were nice enough, although I did get worried when they emailed me to ask on his progress two months after I had quit.

Although the weight room is scary, it's the stability balls that really do my head in. If the program asks you to do crunches on one it's anything but stable. You find yourself drifting across the running track and coming into conflict with the grumpy, cursing old man who walks round and round every time I'm here whistling for his imaginary dog.

I am enduring the Y but will need to spice things up to keep going. At the moment the only saving grace is Prophet Monster Man, a character with the beard of a crazy preacher, big saggy and potentially soiled track pants and a moss green T Shirt who looks like he swallowed a baby whale for breakfast. Yes Prophet Monster Man makes me feel a lot better about my gut.

But right now I need a plan. I need to invest in the cutting edge of technology - a Sony Walkman perhaps so as I can listen to my tape of The Queen is Dead.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Cottonmouth - my arse

I'm always skeptical about those warning signs at nature reserves and the like about bears, mountain lions or escaped T Rexes. Do people ever see these bad creatures I wonder or do the men and women in funny hats just like to scare us?

I have become a bit less skeptical ,though. The first and only time I was in the Everglades at an infernally hot place called Shark something-or-other I asked the warden if we'd see alligators. She shot me one of those "dumb tourist" looks that Brits in London usually reserve for Americans (maybe she had been on the wrong end of this) and informed me it was (obviously) highly unlikely that I'd see one.

We stepped out of the visitor center and peered into a murky pond only to see four reptilian eyes staring at us. Yes there were two gators right there behind the visitor center.

Last week on the day Zara was off school we went to Back Bay in Virginia Beach. It was a gorgeous fall day and the water was glittering a deep azure. The only serpent in our paradise was - well literally that. A prominent sign warned of the presence of deadly cottonmouth snakes. There were also signs about poison ivy, although I was somewhat less concerned about the ivy than the snake and I made sure to watch the path ahead.

The trail led us to a small secluded beach and then back again to the asphalt path, which we set off along. Suddenly Zara drew my attention to something I was about to stand on. I did a double take and thought it was an old tire; then again I started to realise it was a dead snake. Then it moved.

Rather alarmingly the aforementioned deadly snake was right in front of me and it seemed none too happy, opening its white mouth in a menacing way. This was clearly not the time to do a Steve Irwin and wrap the old chap round my neck before heading merrily for the beach.

We beat a retreat but I returned to take a photo of the thing. As you can see I didn't get too close which is why the photo is rather uninspiring. But it was more than close enough for comfort.

We continued to the beach where, Zara did her best to destroy a sensitive coastal ecosystem. I could have yelled at her to get off the dunes but it was such a perfect afternoon I didn't have the heart too. If the truth be told it brought back memories of how much liked to jump around and slither on dunes when I was seven years old or thereabouts.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

My open tripe session at the writer's group

Mike - he's also open to ooh aren't you a big girl's blouse (before running away etc.)

A couple of weeks ago I attended an open mike session for a writer's group. I'm not sure exactly what possessed me but the event popped up on Facebook and while I ignore most of those invitations to crappy events for church pig pickings or to occupy some half empty city center, when I'd rather be occupying my own bed, this one sounded interesting.

I had images of Bohemian folk in a smoke filled bar, dropping their clever verse into a mike. On the way out a literary agent hanging in the shadows would take me by the arm, tell me I was discovered and I was on the way to the $3 million deal for my first novel.

OK that last bit's wishful thinking. I would have settled for a few eclectic Bohemian people. Or just a beer really.

However, by the time I hit the highway with a crumpled up sheet of Mapquest directions in my hand, once again cursing the fact I never got the light fixed in my car, my original enthusiasm melted away with every mile of lumpy interstate. The venue was a library. Libraries don't usually serve beer or serve as hang outs for Bohemian types.

Libraries are usually the haunts of old biddies who read Nora Roberts. Although in the city where I work they tend to attract a fair amount of flashers who like to display their Charles Dickens to the aforementioned old biddies who might even welcome the odd fleshy interlude between chapters of Nora.

This library was in a crumbling suburb on a chilly seafront; we're not talking Greenwich Village.

I followed a sign to an over lit room where a woman asked me to sign a piece of paper. It took me a few seconds after sitting down to survey the new habitat which was little short of dismal. Not only did I appear to be the youngest person in the room - and that's saying something these days - but the folks sat in the hard chairs were a certain type of geriatric. I couldn't quite put my finger on it but they looked like they thought a lot of themselves and ate too many lentils.

The moderator was a white haired man who must have been about 80, although he seemed to have the energy levels of an 18-year-old. In no time at all he was launching into his tedious piece of prose about a military plane landing on an aircraft carrier, banging his fists on the lectern and shouting and screaming for effect.

I'm not really sure if his stuff was any good and I'm hardly an accomplished judge anyway. I was too distracted by his wild hand gestures.

Then a portly middle aged Jewish woman started reading from her recently published book. The material was serious and disturbing, touching on relatives lost in the Holocaust, and yet her delivery was flat and the prose seemed uninspiring. She was talking about the biggest tragedy of the 20th Century like she was reading a recipe for strawberry jam.

One woman was shy about reading, telling the group her material was terrible. They persuaded her to get up and and read it out. They told her it was great but their faces said terrible. It wasn't terrible; awful perhaps.

There was some kind of academic. His writing wasn't at all bad and he seemed to know it. As he read it he puffed up in a self indulgent way and eyed the mere mortals below him hoping to see in their faces recognition of the crushing superiority of his poetry. When a less accomplished writer took the stage after him I could hear him quietly tutting under his voice and making disparaging remarks to the woman next to him.

So the torture under the bright lights dragged on and I found myself developing a neck ache from looking at my clock. To my horror the white haired man finally called my name, his brows knitting when realized I was going to read blog extracts.

(yes folks the best seller is going rather slowly so I was forced to fall back on Brits in the USA).

So I went up to the lectern and read a couple of blogs, succeeding in injecting some feeling into the work when in reality the brightly lit, half empty library room had left me feeling flat. I didn't stumble on my words - I didn't turn into Rick Perry. But neither did I inspire and the elderly people in the room looked at me afterwards as if I had just popped out of a flying saucer, plucked a small aerial out of my head and cried: "Hello earthlings."

At least they clapped politely while one elderly woman said she had been moved by my pseudo poem and subjected me to an unexpected hug that was so intense I feared she's go into cardiac arrest.

Having read a couple of pieces, I declined the opportunity to read again. The door was looking very appealing.

At this point College Lecturer Man took the stage and smugly and slowly read a poem that was probably as long as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner but 100 times more tedious. It made me realize there was a limit to the number of words that can be written about the upper reaches of a river. College Lecturer Man seemed blissfully unaware of this as he slowed down his diction so as each word fell like rocks into the souls of us mere mortals.

I shuffled out of the library, shell shocked - stoned into submission by College Lecturer Man. I didn't hang around for post mortems or to talk about the forthcoming December Grand Poetry and Lentil Eating Slam.

I didn't breathe until I reached my car. I had escaped but something was bothering me under my right arm. With a feeling of mounting horror I realized I had carried out a prosthetic limb that the clutching woman had left behind during her bear hug....

by way of disclaimer there is one rather blatant lie in this posting. Just saying.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Losing Sir Jimmy

It hit me in a strange way. I had not thought about Sir Jimmy Savile for decades but when I read about his death this week it was like a big, gaudy diamond studded medalion had fallen to the ground and shattered into a million tasteless pieces.

That's because I grew up with Jimmy. In the days when we were kids and were subjected to the worst of deprivations - brown floral print wallpaper, chequered flaired trousers from the jumble sale, orange pullovers and three channel TV ( although BBC 2 was a snow storm), Jimmy was often there with us. There he'd be presenting Top of the Pops, hanging out with bands with names like Mud and Slade who came from towns without hairdressers, sporting his bling before bling was invented and trademark fat cigar, a cigar it seems he never smoked.

Some time later the former wrestler underwent an unlikely transformation to fairy godmother when Jim'll Fix it was born. Jimmy became the man who made kids' dreams come true. He'd review their letters and select kids, their experiences would be filmed and they would return to the show to receive their medallions in the 'magic chair.'

Our parents encouraged us to write, but there was much soul searching because we couldn't think of anything we really wanted Jim to do for us. I believe I asked Jim to fix it for me to ride a historic Penny Farthing bicycle. In the event, Jim didn't fix anything for me or my sister and my mother became outraged a few series later when another kid stole my idea and got to ride a Penny Farthing. I didn't really want Jim to fix it for me anyhow. That would involve the whole nation being exposed to my unpleasant brown plaid flared trousers. Nor did I really want Jim to balance me on his knee and say "now, then, now then."

Remarkably Jim'll Fix It ran from 1975 until 1994. Some kids apparently wrote to Jim mistakenly believing his name was Jim'll.  I was interested to read the original Magic Chair was later replaced by a robotic chair designed by Kevin Warwick of Reading University. A few years ago I interviewed Kevin after he wired up his body and house with sensors that meant doors would open when he walked in, lights would go on as well. Kevin told me he was working on a project with his wife in which their thought processes could go automatically onto a computer screen. I thought this wasn't such a good idea.

But I suppose the real lesson of Jim'll Fix it is about how television can distort the young mind. Jimmy, the quintessential radio star who wasn't quite killed off by video, attained this image as a benefactor, a man who was deeply involved in charity and made dreams come true for children.

However, numerous reports suggested other things about Sir Jimmy (in Britain annoying people who do too much high profile charity work are usually knighted). In a recent interview in the Mirror his best friend and personal assistant Janet Cope revealed he hated being around kids.

Sir Jimmy even upstaged her wedding by wearing white and turning up in a Rolls Royce. She recalled: "When the ceremony ­started he lay down across four chairs so people would look at him rather than us. Later he gave a speech which outlasted the best man’s.”

Savile emerged as an egomaniac in a documentary with Louis Theroux which had some sinister undertones. He addressed some of those persistent paedophile rumors in a later interview in the Guardian.

Jimmy died alone. His relationship with women was always unconventional and he claimed he never spent a whole night with a woman. Perhaps he didn't want to make the coffee the next morning. Or he feared she'd be accidentally blugeoned to death by his bling in the night.

"When he talks about women, girls, he often mentions brain damage in the same breath," the Guardian reported. "Nooooaah. That's a generalism," he protests. "My logic has always been to sip at the cup of life and never gulp at it. Now ladies, God bless them. Marvellous . Lovely. If you sip at them. They will enjoy you enormously, you will enjoy them enormously. Then you go to bed on your own and you wake up not disillusioned. You wake up with no brain damage."

In short Sir Jimmy wasn't the kind of guy you'd want to hang out with, although I would have loved to have interviewed him. He was egotistical, flamboyant and strange - he clearly had mother issues. Yet it's the characters who make life a vibrant tapestry and save us from the reality of faded floral wallpaper and Jimmy was certainly different...

According to his personal assistant he didn't get married because he didn't like to be told what to do. There's some saying here involving the words "chord" and "struck," that keeps going round my head.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Day After Halloween

There was a strange lull the day after Halloween
A new shade of gray painted down the street
The tombstones blown and flapping to the earth,
The candy wrappers strewn on straggling lawns
The ghouls drifted directionless in the November breeze
That went out and bought some fine white teeth
at some time during a drizzling night
On the curious rounds of trick or treat.

On the morning by the daycare, by the blasted church
My feet crunched on the bones in the tiny leaves
Oblivious to the once fine filigree,
Oblivious to what lies underneath
There were fine ideas once on this thoroughfare
and elegant ladies on the sunny street
But the homes are now weary and coated in grime
They've seen far too many Halloweens.

We talked about pumpkins, of carving the eyes
and lighting up a memories from another time
But instead another year passed on by
And we left them to rot in the sodden ground
We fool ourselves with these empty ideas
Is there any more empty vessel than this gourd with hollow eyes?
That mocks us from the pumkin patch
and mouths empty words at the November skies.

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...