Friday, 24 March 2017

Gospel


'There's this church I'd like us to go to,' Bess told me. 'Our security guard preaches there, and I've told him we would go.'

It seemed an unusual suggestion given that I've spent most of my life avoiding churches, or at least avoiding the services taking place within; but on the other hand, I tend to trust my wife's judgement on most things.

I intersected with the Church of England only infrequently whilst growing up, mostly weddings, funerals and baptisms and probably not quite reaching double figures. The Reverend Dilwyn Morgan Davies made regular visits to Ilmington Junior and Infants School, pootling the hundred yards down the road from St. Mary's to deliver unto us a weekly sermon during school assembly. He resembled Spike Milligan's impersonation of a Church of England vicar and all I can recall were his overly dramatic performances stretching out each syllable of his own name, then Mattheeeeeeeeeew, Maaaaaaaaaark, Luke and [pause for breath] Johhhhhnnnnn, none of which left me with any enduring impression of who these people were or why it might concern me. With hindsight, he was good with children in that he made us laugh, and he was a lot more entertaining than the anonymously stuttering pink-faced goons presiding at most services I've witnessed since.

My view of religion is probably too messy and sprawling to be of much use in the context of this particular sermon, but could probably be distilled to if it works for you, then fine. Whilst history is a testament to the many unspeakable crimes perpetrated in the name of one religion or another, I would suggest that the overwhelming majority of these crimes derive from human ambition expressed as power structures within which religion tends to have been co-opted as one of a number of supports. If you're one of those people who genuinely seem to believe that religion must be wiped from the face of the earth in order for a better society to come into being, then I'd suggest you're as bad as any witch hunter, any inquisitional wielder of a burning brand, or any snake oil selling televangelist bleeding money from his flock; and I'd also suggest that you haven't really made an effort to appreciate what religion is, what it does, or why it would mean anything to so many people. If that's too hard to understand, then it's the wiping things from the face of the earth detail which is the problem, not the identity of whoever may be calling for the wiping.

Anyway, Bess had told me that some guy from her work place was a preacher at a church, and she had asked me to come along to a service. I said yes because it would be a new thing for me.

She'd already been to a service a few months earlier when I'd been tied up with something or other. The security guard was actually one Reverend Gregory Harris and it was his church, inherited from his father, the previous incumbent. It was called the White Robe Missionary Baptist Church and was situated over on the eastside - the black neighbourhood, so to speak. I'm still a little phased by large American cities being so clearly racially divided, but then I've only been here five or six years and segregation was a recent thing in this country. The service, so my wife reported back, had been small but powerful. The congregation was just a handful of people gathered in a church resembling what I would think of as a village hall, and which could have stood a few repairs here and there. It was at the opposite end of the scale to the huge evangelical money-hoovering schemes I see at the side of the highway heading to Austin, buildings gleaming as though from the covers of seventies science-fiction paperbacks, places I avoid because I don't want to be either mugged or brainwashed by anyone less intelligent than myself.

My experience of Baptist churches is limited to Helen Martin battling a rival grandmother in Don't Be a Menace to South Central When You Drink Your Juice in the Hood, and skits on southern rap albums, skits mostly using organ swells to emphasise a testimonial condemnation of persons who be playa-hatin' on Master P and that sort of thing. So realistically, I really didn't know what to expect, although I felt anything in the vein of Helen Martin's spontaneous breakdancing was probably unlikely.

The place was small and, as promised, not in a great state of repair, but you could see that they had done what they could with it. There were four rows of pews, and with padded seating which made for a nice change. There were nineteen of us once everyone had arrived, a couple of kids, some Latinas, and just four white people - which I found oddly comforting. You get less bullshit flying around in the absence of white people, and I say that in the awareness of being one myself. A woman introduced as Miss Wells played the piano. The instrument probably could have stood a little tuning, but I have a vague memory of piano-tuning being expensive, so she made do with what she had. She played well, with bluesy passion and a real feeling for the music, and so well that it ceased sounding like an early Residents album after just a few minutes. Miss Wells also led us in song, mostly compositions of just one line repeated over and over, mostly relating to having faith in Jesus as you would expect; and because it was just one line repeated over and over, it was easy enough to join in, so we all did; and of course we clapped our hands. Seen from outside it would have struck me as odd, but I was taken by the moment and it felt pretty good; and - just like on the telly - our song was augmented with random interjections of tell it like it is or amen to that and the like, and all quite natural and heartfelt - none of the showboating or ostentatious piety I've seen elsewhere. The singing brought us all together in such a way as to make it seem ridiculous that anyone should feel self-conscious or awkward in the company of these strangers. I've resentfully muttered along to the hymns in the few church services I've previously attended because I've always felt like an intruder, like I'm required to do time before being given the secret code, but this felt entirely different.

Song alternated with sermon, readings from the New Testament delivered with warmth and in terms of our daily lives, and even with jokes. I still feel that the major problem with many faiths - or at least certain brands of Christianity - has been a tendency to focus on the speaker more than what is said, so it becomes a money-spinning fan club with no real currency in the message of doing unto others as you would have done unto you, because that would interfere with the direction in which the dollars are supposed to flow. Here I realised that the emphasis seemed different, and that the message was heard very well, and that the message was helping some of these people get through the day.

This was underscored by the individual testimonies which followed. Members of the congregation stepped forward and told their stories - personal trials and tribulations, poverty, death, cancer, domestic violence, and more; and in each case thanks were given to the man upstairs for his help in getting them through their troubles, for keeping them straight. My inner Richard Dawkins - thankfully a fairly muted voice these days - rationalised that these people had simply found God in their own strength of character, which may be true but misses all of the important points. If that which serves as your point of focus helps you in times of trouble and isn't hurting anyone else, then maybe what we call it is secondary.

The full service lasted about two hours, never once seeming to drag, and what most impressed me about it was how honest it felt. It was a communal experience. We had two preachers and Miss Wells at the piano, but we were all of us involved in one way or another, and there was nothing which felt forced or like it was going through the motions. It felt like we had been brought together by a message, albeit through the agency of a messenger, and the experience had done all of us good. This was no emptily ritualised worship thrown dutifully in the general direction of the heavens. It was something fundamentally human and real.

Afterwards we had food, barbecued chicken, brisket and beans with cornbread. I found myself sat next to the Reverend Larry Smith who had also spoken that morning. He told me he was born in Louisiana but had spent some time in England, which he mentioned because I'd brought it up, telling him, 'I'm not from around here - I guess you can tell by the accent.' Despite his earlier half hour under the spotlight, he seemed a shy, retiring type, so I figured I might as well do the honours with regard to the jolly old elephant in the drawing room.

'I was at Greenham Common,' he told me. 'That was back in the nineties.'

'You were at Greenham Common!'

'I was in the air force, you know?'

I've known several people who were at Greenham Common, but they'd all been on the other side of the fence; and now here was a guy who'd been paid to load bombs onto the aircraft which had drawn protesters to the base in the first place.

'So how did you find England?' I wasn't even sure I should have asked, given the potential for a seriously uncomfortable answer.

'I liked it, but you know when you're on a military base you don't really get to see too much of the outside world.' He asked me about England and why I wasn't there any more, so I told him about getting married and how much I hated the cold. 'It must have been rough for you if you grew up in Louisiana with the heat.'

'Well yeah, I didn't like the cold too much, and it rained a lot.'

I told him I had been a postman for twenty years. 'Outside in the wind and rain, and you know how sometimes the cold just gets into your bones and there's nothing can shift it...'

'I'm a mailman myself.'

'You deliver the mail too!' I couldn't help laughing. We both laughed.

'I got me a route over on the westside. I been doing that seventeen years.'

At that point we had finished our food, so we said our farewells and left. I still don't feel particularly converted, but we left with that glow you develop in the company of good people, or in this case, great people with whom I feel honoured to have spent time. The world can be a shitty place, but I try to maintain a belief that no-one is deliberately evil and that the majority are generally good, and every so often it's nice to be reminded that this is surely something more than just a belief.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Coco Loco


I first saw Coco when she was just a facebook avatar, a weird grin with pigtails and eyes so wide set they seemed to be making separate journeys around to the opposite sides of her head, like characters in a novel by Jules Verne. The photo had been taken during Oktoberfest, hence the pigtails. My wife knew her from work. The woman had picked up the name Coco when a colleague likened her behaviour to that of a guest at a chimpanzees' tea party. She flounced and pouted, complaining loudly that some prohibitive condition or other would not have applied had she been born with a penis, and then once Sherlock Holmes had turned up to apply his characteristic wisdom and insight to the mystery, the problem always turned out to have been her own doing.

She hadn't understood some detail.

She had neglected to include some part of the code, something so simple that even I understood what had gone wrong when my wife described it to me, and I'm not a programmer.

Everyone had reminded her of that one element, that repeat offender blind spot, and she had testily informed them that she knew perfectly well what she was doing, thank you very much; and yet it always turned out that she hadn't known what she was doing.

It wasn't her fault.

It was never her fault.

It was because of sexism, despite her being the highest paid person in the company anywhere below the level of management. It was because of every possible reason other than her having screwed up, and so it was observed that Coco the Chimp is flinging her faeces around - everyone duck.

They would all rally to locate and tackle the problem, to write the code as it should have been, as it would have been had anyone else been on the job.

'I fixed it!' Coco would beam, dancing from one cubicle to another waving metaphorical pompoms, having taken no actual role in correcting her own mistake beyond providing the initial problem.

'I am a good programmer. I am a good programmer,' she would tell herself over and over, sat alone at her cubicle, broadcasting like some horrible motivational radio station; and yet the simple repetition of the words somehow never made it so.

'How are you enjoying your stay in Texas?' she asked me, screeching across the table at Taco Garage with what might be the least sincere smile I've ever witnessed, the smile you keep ready for a foreigner. It was the first time I met her and was able to put a face to the pigtailed avatar. Bess and I had been married a year, but stay seem to redefine this as a temporary arrangement - not how do I like Texas, but how am I enjoying my stay?

How's married life working out for you?

Will it last, do you think?

Owing to the frequency with which she dropped them, I assumed passive-aggressive observations of this kind were learned behaviour, a pre-emptive defence mechanism designed to put the other person off guard before they could properly formulate the realisation of Coco being a bit of an idiot. She had somehow devised a way of kissing your ass whilst flipping you off at the same time. It was confusing, annoying, but also quite impressive.

She'd address my wife Bess as Beth, and with much greater frequency when getting pissy over something, revealing the affectation to be anything but the innocent slip of the tongue she made it out to be. She would claim my wife's programming victories as her doing, having supposedly helped with the parts my wife didn't understand whilst undermining her own story with gibberish about programming in the cloud; and even I know what a cloud is.

She tried to give us her swimming pool, one of the kind which can be set up in the yard and filled with water. It was twenty feet across and free because she was having a proper pool installed in her own garden. I said no, immediately detecting a situation which would become horribly complicated, and because I quite liked our garden as it was without some shitty used pool taking up space; and it would become horribly complicated, because every part of Coco's world was horribly complicated - her two boyfriends for example. She couldn't decide which she liked more, and so she'd been sat between them when we all went out for dinner, not even an example of free-thinking polyamory, just someone who couldn't decide and was taking the general concept of awkward to a whole 'nother level, as they say. Eventually she married the former Scientologist and spent a year planning what she clearly hoped would be the most magical wedding of all time, something to make even the most saccharine coated Disney extravaganza seem like one of Joseph Beuys' more harrowing performances. She spent a year telling everyone about the wedding. It didn't matter who they were or whether they were interested. Sometimes she would be moved to tears in contemplation of how beautiful the wedding was going to be, and the rest of us began to worry about what she was going to do after, with no more magic to look forward to, just her and the former Scientologist sat around their pool and beginning to realise that nothing had changed.

The day of the wedding came and went, and on Sunday the 11th of May 2014, I tried to write about it in an essay provisionally entitled Wedding of the Century.
We were heading for a wedding to be held at the Newhaven River Inn which is near a town called Comfort. It was to be the wedding of the century, at least in the imagination of one of the participants. The rest of us, despite having already had a year to think about it, were yet to be convinced. In fact we anticipated disaster. An event carrying that much expectation seemed destined to failure, not least because of who was involved...

I started on a second paragraph, but had begun to bore even myself. It was just a day out in the country with a ton of people we didn't know, and Coco screeching and getting my wife's name wrong, and cooing like a googley-eyed Care Bear over those members of her family which had turned up because they were actually still talking to her. It was okay, but nothing memorable aside from being a conspicuous display of money which went on too long, and we left with a little bag of small white pebbles with which to commemorate the event. Then many years later I discover them to be sugared almonds and that this is a common marital tradition over here.

My wife is allergic to almonds.

After the wedding, it was the honeymoon and a series of lurid heart-shaped photographs of herself and the Scientologist on the beach; and although we've heard bad things about the Church of Scientology, both my wife and I began to wonder how bad it really could have been. The Scientologist seemed like a genuinely nice guy, so how come he ended up with Coco?

After the honeymoon, it was back to the usual onslaught. How she couldn't stand it in Texas with all these Republicans and rednecks, then right in with the jokes about camels and joining Al-Qaeda when the Moroccan guy takes a couple of weeks holiday. She's from New York, she reminds us on a daily basis, where everyone is wonderful and no-one tolerates racism; and it's true in that she's certainly more liberal than most.

Her daughter has married a man she has known for a matter of months, and they've just had a baby, and now the husband has decided to go for gender reassignment surgery. Coco tells us she is going to be as supportive as fuck, because that's the kind of big-hearted New Yorker she is, leaving the rest of us to wonder why it didn't occur to this guy to mention his gender dysphoria nine months earlier; and if this is genuinely none of our business, then maybe we shouldn't have to hear about it all the fucking time, and particularly not with diagrams of penises bissected and inverted on the office whiteboard whilst we're trying to get some work done.

'They turn it inside out and make it into a vagina, but he'll have to use a dildo so that it doesn't close up. That's what happens.'

Thanks, Coco, but we're trying to eat right now.

Still, it probably isn't any worse than when the dog had cancer, inspiring cross section anatomical diagrams of dogs' arseholes on the whiteboard, because she knew we'd all want to know how the vet was going to proceed.

Still trying to eat, thanks.

Every day she petitions my wife to take lunch with her, sometimes popping the question before Beth has even sat down, because eight hours of Coco the chimp talking about dog's arseholes, her dream wedding, and why she hates the entire state of Texas is just not enough. If they do lunch she gets to keep that monologue going all the way through.

'Do you have any plans for lunch?'

'No, I'm just going to grab a sandwich today. I can't go to lunch with you.'

'Oh - well I guess I'll just have to eat an old shoe then,' because apparently that's what you say. It's supposed to make the other person feel guilty.

I finally get to see the swimming pool with my own eyes when Beth and I are invited over for dinner, one evening - the pool which was going to make Coco's life perfect back in the days before the wedding was going to make her life perfect. It's just a pool in a back garden in a leafy part of San Antonio. Since we've arrived Coco and the Scientologist have spent most of the time telling us what a pain in the arse it is to keep clean. I get the impression that it's less for swimming, more for sitting around whilst drinking Martinis. Then the other previous boyfriend turns up, the one who lost out to the Scientologist. I expect it to be awkward, but oddly it isn't because he seems one hell of a lot happier than the last time we met.

'I always read your blog,' she tells me grinning like she expects a cookie. 'An Englishman in Texas,' she adds, proving to me that she knows what it's called and must therefore be telling the truth; but I hear variations on the theme all the time.

Let me know when your book is coming so I can buy one.

Sure.

We eat something that's been roasted and drink wine, beer, or iced tea. The food is okay.

'Do you make fish and chips for yourself?' she asks with the volume the rest of us keep in reserve for the hard of hearing, and again with that smile, already congratulating herself on all that cultural sensitivity she wields like a master swordsman.

I don't answer because I'm actually in the middle of a conversation with the Scientologist, and the interruption seems unusually rude and stupid. How does he put up with this, I wonder.

Eventually she leaves. They sell the house and vanish from our lives, somewhere cold and liberal, where they just know everything will be amazing and magical, and they'll finally have the perfect life they've always deserved once they're settled and Coco has an obscenely high-paying job based on her countless skills, not least of these being her people skills. People just gravitate to her. She doesn't know how it works. It's just a gift.

I remind myself that I only met her a couple of times, and most of the suffering was experienced by my wife, but often it feels as though I was there too; and that's the magic of Coco.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Machynlleth


Everything seemed to be in flux back in September, 2006. I no longer recognised nor understood either the world nor my place therein. My landlord was dead and I was on borrowed time, the sole occupant of a house without an owner. I'd been told to continue paying my rent to the solicitor who was handling my landlord's affairs, but no-one had told me what was happening or what would happen. I was usually in Mexico at that time of year. Twelve months before I'd been over there with Rob Colson and we'd celebrated my fortieth birthday in Oaxaca, but now Rob was getting married and I had a girlfriend and it was all spinning out of control. I couldn't get a handle on things. I was just biding my time, seeing where the cards fell.

Marian wanted to visit some place called the Centre for Alternative Technology. This was supposed to be us getting on a train and going off on an adventure, but it all sounded a little dry to me.

'Aren't you interested in renewable energy sources, Lawrence?' This was the kind of question she habitually asked, phrased so as to coax you into giving the answer she was after. It was cut from the same cloth as so don't you care about the little children?

It turned out that the Centre for Alternative Technology was in Machynlleth, Wales at the northern tip of Powys, so I said okay because I've always liked Wales. The presence of mountains is usually enough to swing it for me.

We left from Euston station on Wednesday the 20th of September, according to a bank statement somehow still in my possession. We found a bed and breakfast, one I am unable to locate by looking at a map, but which I suspect may have been situated along Heol Y Doll because I recall the window in our room affording a good view of the hills to the south of the town, overlooking the fields on the western side. The bed and breakfast seemed to be huge, many floors and with a room tucked away everywhere you looked. Marian was unhappy with the bed in our accommodation and announced that we had to change, which meant that I had to do something about it because I had a penis, making it my job despite that the bed seemed fine to me.

Day one was the Centre for Alternative Technology which meant walking a little way out of town and catching a bus. It was basically an old farm up in the hills turned over to windmills, waterwheels, solar panels, demonstrations of composting and so on. The public get to walk around, and if they're interested in renewable energy sources, they will almost certainly have at least as much fun as Marian did. Personally I found it okay, undoubtedly worthwhile, but not actively fascinating. Marian took her time, stopping for rests, reading everything that there was to be read and pushing every button on every interactive display that there was to be pushed. We were there four or five hours, which seemed like a lot to me. Our approach to the exit became one of those exercises in mathematical philosophy where one is forever crossing half of whatever distance is left to cross. I bought a mouse pad recycled from pulverised orange juice cartons at the gift shop to use up some time, then came back to find Marian still giggling and pushing buttons to operate animated displays designed to educate the under tens.

Eventually we escaped, and ate, and I suppose we must have found something or other to talk about for the rest of the evening.

Next morning, I got up early and went out for a walk. I followed the main road south out of the town, then followed a path up into the hills. We had ascended this same path on the first afternoon, fresh off the train, but I wanted to go further and without stopping. It took me about thirty minutes to get to the top of the hill looking down over Machynlleth and across the Dyfi Valley. I could see our bed and breakfast. In fact I could see the window of our room - which made me happy, possibly because it was far away.

I celebrated by smoking a fag and my phone rang.

'Where are you?' She sounded pissed off.

'Look out the window. I'm on top of the hill.'

I waved.

'Can you see me?'

'Yes.' She didn't seem to appreciate the novelty.

'You sound pissed off.'

'I didn't sleep very well. This bed is as bad as the other one.'

I trudged back down to the town and we had breakfast at the White Lion. The White Lion also had a room going, so we were going to switch accommodation rather than move to a third room in the other place, but first we had things to do and sights to see. Marian wanted to return to the Centre for Alternative Technology and do it all again.

'But we went there yesterday,' I countered, not unreasonably in my view. 'We spent four or five hours there.'

'I thought you enjoyed it?'

'I did,' I said, genuinely bewildered, 'but why would we want to go again when we were there only yesterday?'

Marian went on the defensive. 'You know, Lawrence, I'm fairly sure that I told you I wanted to come and stay in Machynlleth so we could visit the Centre for Alternative Technology.'

'What? Every fucking day?'

I wasn't backing down this time, and she grudgingly agreed we would travel by rail to a town called Borth, the appeal of which was that it was on the coast, had a beach, and there was some kind of animal sanctuary nearby. We returned to the bed and breakfast, rearranged the contents of our backpacks accordingly, then set off. Borth was pleasant but not particularly memorable, and the animal sanctuary was nice enough but the weather had turned cold.

'I'd like my cardigan now, please,' Marian informed me.

I had to ask what she meant.

She explained that her cardigan was in my backpack, and she would like it now because it was getting cold.

The cardigan wasn't in my backpack because I'd taken it out back at the bed and breakfast, having assumed I'd somehow picked it up and stuffed it in there by mistake. Marian explained that she had put the cardigan in my backpack because there was no room in her own, and that I should stop messing about and just give her the damn thing because it was getting cold.

'No really, I don't have it,' I said.

'Why not?'

'Because I took it out, because I didn't know why it was in there. Maybe you should have told me you put it in.'

'I have to explain every simple little thing to you, now? Is that how it works?'

I should just have said yes. We caught the train, following a long walk on an increasingly chilly beach back to the station. Neither of us said a word. I made overtures but Marian refused to speak to me, even to look at me. My crime was too great.

That night we stayed at the White Lion, which was nice because it was an old half-timbered room with wonky floors and a television so we could watch Pobol y Cwm. We had a couple more days, so we ate at restaurants and went for walks. It was okay. It wasn't the worst holiday, but I've had better, and the world still didn't make any sense when we caught the train back to London.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Saturday Morning


The boy is with his father this weekend, which means his room comes under my jurisdiction and is thus included in my daily round of sweeping things up and trying to prevent the house too closely resembling a tip. The Paw Wars poster fell from the wall above his bed on Wednesday and lay at an angle at the centre of the room for several hours. Junior would have picked it up but had been busy with his game. 'What's it doing on the floor?' I asked.

'I have no idea how that could have happened,' he explained at an angle to my question.

The Paw Wars poster is printed on thick card and is probably marketed as suitable for framing, so my five blobs of blu-tack just weren't up to the job. I don't know what Paw Wars is supposed to be. It doesn't even fucking rhyme properly.

The poster shows a squirrel and a groundhog, both cut out from existing photographs, apparently battling with light sabres like you would see in Star Wars.

Ha. Ha.

The thing has always struck me as being a very special kind of lame, and I have a hunch I know how we ended up with it, which doting relative sent it our way on the grounds of it being both a real hoot and just the cutest thang you ever did see; but why Paw Wars specifically? Both squirrels and groundhogs have paws, it's true - but then you might argue that so do humans, albeit by a different name, and Game of Thrones was presumably called Game of Thrones because the title made a fuck of a lot more sense than Hand Wars - in reference to most of those involved being in possession of said appendages. The majority of mammals also have a colon, but perhaps Colon Wars was already taken. I don't know and I have no intention of finding out.

Anyway, having googled Paw Wars, it turns out to be a series of short YouTube videos recreating scenes from Star Wars using footage of domestic pets and a relentless stream of creaking puns, the sort of thing which is probably funny if you're thirteen or thereabouts. That said, I'm not convinced the Paw Wars poster is even directly related, at least not beyond the shared theme. Not that it matters because I'm replacing the bastard with a Pokémon poster. I bought it at Michael's yesterday whilst looking for something by which to organise all of the nuts, bolts, screws, washers, and nails in the garage. The poster shows a host of peculiar looking Japanese cartoon monsters all lurching towards the viewer wearing the usual determined grimaces of children's entertainment taking itself too seriously. I roll up balls of blu-tack, then stand on the bed and press the poster to the wall.

'Bess!'

'What?" She comes in from the other bedroom.

'What do you think?'

'Looking good.'

I step down from the bed. Behind us on the other wall is a poster of Marvel superheroes, similarly purchased from Michael's a month or so earlier. Having once had a heavy comics habit, I know who most of the characters are supposed to be, but I'm out of my depth with this Japanese stuff. 'Bulbosaurus is the only one I know, but I don't think he's on there.'

Bess points to a thing resembling a cross between a turtle and a flower right at the centre. 'That's Venusaur. He's evolved from Bulbasaur,' and she gets the name right too. In this regard I've turned into my own grandmother indulging me and my boundless enthusiasm for that Captain Thunderbirds show.

'I don't know any of them.'

'Well, I don't know all of them,' my wife admits.

As a fifty-one year old man, I was able to identify most of the characters on the superhero poster, even setting the kid right on a few points.

Actually, I rather think you'll find that's Medusa from the Inhumans. The Scarlet Witch is over there next to Hawkeye.
 
I feel my ignorance of Pokémon characters redresses a balance, handing something back to the kid. He will return on Sunday afternoon and the poster will allow him to once again lecture us on subjects for which we care nothing, beyond that it obviously makes him happy; which has been the whole point.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

...and Ten Things Which America Does Just Fine


Art. Before anyone starts, I'm not referring to Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko - both of whom are probably more interesting in terms of art history than what they actually painted; and I'm definitely not talking about Andy bloody Warhol. After many years of study I've concluded that fine art should be divided into two main categories, specifically landscape art, and everything which isn't landscape art. Even a century later, the first and foremost of these two categories is still dominated by the work of Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, and others of the Hudson River School - if you ask me, which admittedly you didn't, which is why I'm telling you. José María Velasco should probably also be included here on the grounds of his having been the greatest landscape artist of all time. He was Mexican of course, but it's the same continental land mass. Landscape doesn't really get any better than the three aforementioned so far as I'm concerned. Some of that European stuff was okay, but hanging one next to a Bierstadt is like having the Venga Boys open for Led Zeppelin, quite frankly.

I've failed to take any non-landscape based art into account in this argument because it's mostly shite and doesn't matter.

Dangerous Arseholes. Sadly this isn't really a boast, but it cannot be denied that we lead the world in the field of dangerous arseholes, and despite stiff competition from the United Kingdom, Russia and the Islamic State, we've recently leapt ahead quite some way. Many of the world's leading trigger-happy fundamentalist shitheads now regard us with awe and envy, having found themselves suddenly seeming about as dangerous as characters from Harry Potter. I'm not sure why this should be, particularly as we have a constitution which is supposed to prevent the sort of situation in which we now find ourselves. Part of the problem may result from people who've never been under any pressure to grow up or to think adult thoughts. We seem to have a few of those, and once they get into any kind of position of authority, it's always trouble. Whilst I'm sure the Republican party was founded on at least some honourable principles - providing we don't look too hard at how capitalism actually works, and is actually shown to work by the last two centuries of history - it seems very difficult to find a Republican who appears significantly informed by those principles, whatever they are or were. Mostly Republicans just seem to be guys who like money and authority, because authority is the thing which means they get to keep their money. Online Republicans tend to spend a lot of time going on about freedom, freedom from government interference, freedom from taxation, being oneself, being an individual, being a rugged cowboy out on the lonesome trail answering to no man, no how, no siree; and yet in person, send a man in uniform into the room and they can't bend over backwards fast enough to kiss his ass, call him a real American hero, and loudly address him as Sir, Yes Sir! Also, for lovers of freedom, they sure have a lot to say about what the rest of us get up to in the privacy of our own homes. It wouldn't be so bad if there was some kind of organised opposition to this tendency, but instead there's the Democrat party which stands for the same thing whilst feeling a bit guilty about it. Almost all of our dangerous arseholes conform to some quality detailed here, with minor variations being in ratios of gun ownership and fear of anything different to oneself.

 
Healthy Geographical Distance from the Following: Timothy Griffiths, Shaun Robert, Theresa May, David Yeomans, Nigel Farage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeremy Clarkson, James Delingpole, Razorlight, Boris Johnson, James Whitaker, Hugh Grant, Harry Potter, that pair of fucking twats who opened up a café specialising in cornflakes in Hackney or wherever it was, Hamilton Bohannon*, Tony Wakeford, Chris Evans, Steven Moffat, David Gibson, Bob of Bulkington near Coventry, anyone who ever won or was nominated for the Turner Prize, Radiohead, Paul Mercer, Miriam Rahim, Tunstall Asaf, Juliet Prouse, Dennis Landers, Franklin from The Sun, Jimmy Savile, Billie Piper, Richard Callaghan, Supergrass, The One Show, Margaret Thatcher, General Pinochet, Marcus Brigstocke, Dennis Cattell, Marian Galton, Ludwig the mechanical cartoon egg thing from the seventies, Jamie Oliver, James Nesbitt, Stephen Frost, Alexis Petridis, Alexander McCall Smith, Electric Light Orchestra, Hamilton Bohannon*, Hamilton Bohannon*, Hamilton Bohannon*, Matt Smith, Harley Richardson, The Archers, anyone who ever observed that the shipping forecast sounds a bit like poetry...

History. One of my favourite examples of online sneering is the Britsplanation of American history which runs that we don't have any because the country is only two-hundred years old, whilst simultaneously lambasting our supposed assumption of there having been nothing much to speak of before white people turned up. I've always found American history fascinating, particularly all the stuff predating Christopher Colombus colonising a completely different and much smaller landmass whilst simultaneously wiping out the sum total of its indigenous population; and while it would be an exaggeration to suggest that this interest is why I ended up in Texas, it is at least why my gaze was already trained upon this part of the globe. I never found English or European history particularly exciting, and most of it seems to have been heavy metal wrestling mascots fighting over different kinds of mud in the pissing rain, parallel to which Mexico was engaged in building an elegant, philosophically sophisticated, and criminally misunderstood civilisation; and the people here in the northern continental blob were no less worthy of note. The Tuzigoot ruins in Arizona, for example, are at least as impressive as anything built by the Normans, and they were at the northern end of a trade route stretching all the way down into South America without anyone having bothered to invent the wheel, but you know - wurgh wurgh wurgh two-hundred years old wurgh wurgh wurgh Egbert of Wessex Magna Carta boring churches blah blah blah...

Hope. My life in England was often about getting by, making do, holding out and hoping the check would come before the bailiffs as everything became steadily worse, wetter, harder, and an ever more steely shade of battleship grey. English society had become, in my experience, a treadmill designed to keep me alive and generating just enough money to pay for the things which it told me had to be paid. Under circumstances other than those in which I happily find myself, America would probably be the same, but it feels like a country which is at least trying. We have our problems, not least being dangerous arseholes, but it at least feels like this place has the potential for improvement, like it wants the best for its people on some level, even when the actions fail to match the words. It is a land in which we still have possibilities beyond the crushing promise of the future being the present but with more security checkpoints. I thought this was just me until a couple of similarly transplanted online individuals expressed more or less the same sentiment on facebook, and one of them was Wreckless Eric so fuck you.

Kiss. One thing about America is that we do big and stupid really well, as I'm sure even our harshest critics would agree. Of course, it's important to remember that sometimes big and stupid is good - great even, and for evidence of this one need listen no further than the recorded oeuvre of Kiss. Whatever argument you may wish to draw against the excellence of Kiss vanishes as unto dew upon a summer's morn once you actually listen to Kiss. No-one really understands how this works. It just does.

Mexican Food. You really need to be here to appreciate Mexican food, either in Mexico itself or a little way from the border. That stuff you eat in London in some overpriced glass box named Zapata and served by an eighteen-year old wearing luminous orange tights and with the beard of W.G. Grace - it isn't Mexican food. It's probably just salad with a shake of Tabasco sauce, which is something else, and will remain something else regardless of how many traditional Aztec rocker-stamp animals are printed down the margin on the menu. Mexican food isn't about slopping four gallons of sour cream and guacamole over a bag of Doritos. I've seen counter arguments amounting to huh - can't see what's so difficult about chopping up a few tomatoes, but you really have to eat the genuine article to appreciate the difference. I don't even know what informs this difference given that the ingredients are all fairly straightforward, and yet what you eat over here in the Mexican equivalent of a greasy spoon - formica tables, plastic forks, radio tuned to some horrible Tejano station - makes most allegedly Mexican food I've eaten in England seem fussy, ridiculous, overpriced, and most likely prepared by someone who never actually ate Mexican food. You'll just have to trust me on this one. I don't understand it either.

Nature. I grew up on a farm in Warwickshire, in the very bosom of nature, you might say, and I grew up as part of a generation which spent most of its time outside in wellies. I saw rabbits and foxes, but not very often. I don't recall seeing frogs until I moved to London in my late twenties. I never saw a snake, and the only badgers I have ever encountered have been the lifeless two-dimensional kind found at the side of major roads. I've had this sort of conversation with overly defensive English people on a number of occasions. I'll mention the millions of bats I watched swarming from beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin at sunset, and Timothy will be reminded of the bat he once saw at a Happy Eater just outside Daventry and will thus dominate the rest of the conversation with discourse on the same. 'Of course, they're mostly pipistrelle bats around our way,' he'll inform me at pornographic length, apparently having forgotten that I lived in England up until five years ago. 'Pippies, we call them.'

Anyway, I now encounter snakes, turtles, lizards, deer, possums, vultures, wild turkeys, roadrunners, coyotes, stick insects, and raccoons, and half of those on a near daily basis. Some of the snakes are of a kind which could kill me should I be bitten and unable to reach a hospital. I've encountered at least one turtle which could have bitten off my fingers had I got too close; so these days I even know which turtles are safe to pick up and how to do so without having them piss all over me - which they tend to do. I have more nature than I know what to do with. I have nature coming out of my ass, if you'll pardon the expression.

Proximity to Mexico. We're right next to Mexico, and England really isn't. If you don't believe me you can look it up on a map. Here in Texas we're so right next to Mexico that we can drive for about an hour and then look directly at it from across the other side of the river. Of course, this might change if our new President gets to build his wall, despite that it won't make much difference to immigration - if we're going to keep on pretending that that's really a problem for the sake of argument. Personally I'm hoping he'll get confused and build the wall along the top of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, thus making our part of America Mexico again. He can keep California though. I'm not too bothered about that one.

Sunshine. When I say America, I suppose I actually mean Texas - or Mexico Norteño as I like to think of it; and Texas has a lot of sunshine. That half a week of the English August during which it only rains in the morning doesn't really compare.

*: Names withheld because I can't be bothered to argue with the fuckers should any of them ever resurface from the netherworld of perception.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Ten Things Which America Doesn't Really Get


Bacon. It's all streaky. I once encountered proper bacon in an establishment describing itself as an English style pub, and was so surprised I had to get the waitress to ask the chef where he bought it. Apparently he had it flown in from North Carolina.

On a similarly carnivorous theme, lamb isn't particularly popular over here either, meaning kebab shops are sadly few and far between. There are a couple of Mediterranean places which do a decent doner kebab, but they never quite get the pita bread right, or the chili sauce, or the fat, grumpy bloke who calls you my friend but otherwise refuses to speak English following a long, long evening of being addressed as Stavros by horizontally-inclined beer enthusiasts.

Beer. Sadly no-one in America ever just nipped down the road for a pint, so it has come to be regarded as an exotic practice. Beer tends to come in bottles, either your regular swill or artisan beverages with knowingly stupid names like Burst Radiator or Enraged Skinhead, most of which taste like what you get when touching the two terminals of a standard nine volt battery to your tongue. Bars - which are what we have instead of pubs - tend to serve either Miller Lite or Budweiser, neither of which really count as beer; excepting the fancier places serving Burst Radiator, Enraged Skinhead and others on tap to men who spend the evening talking about different kinds of shit beer. In England I generally encountered unorthodox beers in a pub, usually by means of a decision-making process concluding with the words, fuck it - I may as well have a pint of that, I suppose, whereas here the activity seems spiritually closer to stamp collecting. This is why I stick to Mexican beer, and because it actually is beer.

Civilisation. This entry was going to be Government, but then I'm not sure any country really has the hang of that one, and the broader heading allows for discussion of contributing factors. Colonial America was founded seemingly with the intention of getting around the problems of what happens when you have hereditary leadership, meaning no Kings or Queens and that the job of President should go to whoever the people generally feel is best suited. Unfortunately this now amounts to who can afford the most effective advertising campaign, meaning it's usually the upper classes, in turn meaning that we're slipping back towards a dynastic model of leadership. This is justified by the erroneous notion of how those with the most money must be really amazing to have earned their fortune and are therefore well-suited to telling the rest of us what to do. All sorts of factors have contributed to the evolution of the English upper classes, and not all of them necessarily meaning we get terrible people at the end of the process. Some may be arseholes, but I've met a fair few who aren't, and who are very much aware of the mechanism of their privilege and who tend to have genuinely benefited from an expensive education - as you would hope. Here, on the other hand, being upper class is just a case of having a shitload of money, regardless of how it was obtained, and the American upper classes are pretty much just Terry and June from the English sitcom of the same name but with a mammoth bank balance. I know this, having stood behind them in queues and listened to their gormless conversations about Bon Jovi and alt-country and the Obama dictatorship and a better standard of person in their shitty golfing slacks. This is why socialism has become a bad word amongst those who have no actual experience of it and don't really quite understand what it means, namely because our upper classes are people who genuinely believe that money makes everything right, and that the best deal is the most popular, simplest, and therefore the cheapest - which as anyone who ever shopped at the Dollar Store will tell you is not necessarily the case.

Here's the thing with socialism: if you want to be a part of civilisation, then you are obliged to pay taxes as a contribution to that civilisation, given that the civilisation in question is about more than just you. Taxes pay for roads, emergency services, and general infrastructure, and it really isn't down to you to decide who deserves what, and it is about the whole rather than what's directly in it for any one person. If you don't wish to pay taxes or be part of civilisation, that's fine. You have the option of fucking off to the forest or the mountains or else discovering your own country using a road you've laid yourself rather than one of the ones we paid to have built for you, and you should be ready to generate your own electricity when you get there.

Any civilisation worthy of the term tends to be comprised of people who make things and do stuff rather than spending their time asking what do I get out of this? or whining about how political correctness is destroying their lives.

Law Enforcement. My experience with the police force in England has generally been consistent with the idea that whilst there are doubtless a few bad 'uns, these are persons who have somehow eluded rigorous checks in what is otherwise a fairly extensive training program. I could be wrong about this, but I sometimes get the impression that the training procedure of our police force is a guy who asks would you like a gun? Hopefully I'm very much mistaken.

North-East. England has Newcastle-upon-Tyne, home of the greatest accent known to man, and we get fucking New York. You'll know if you've ever met someone from New York because they will have told you about a million times and will have pronounced it Noo Yawk Cidee in an attempt to be cute. Additionally they will probably have described the place as some sort of free-thinking utopia in a land otherwise dominated by record-burning Ku Klux Klansmen who hate black people, improvised jazz, and anything resembling Communism. The only New Yorkers I like tend to be rap artists, persons such as MOP, current title holders of the world's greatest improvised exhortation to party heard on a rap record, which was bang your head against the wall, come on! during some song on the Warriorz album. Those guys can do no wrong so far as I'm concerned.

Pork Pies. I only get the craving once a year, and I could possibly purchase one from a certain mail order outfit specialising in fancy foreign foods, but the $70 refrigerated shipping cost is prohibitive considering that I'd probably eat half of the thing and then go off the idea, as I have done in the past. My dad always used to have a pork pie for Christmas morning which was apparently part of some tradition, although I don't know if it was just him or whether it's some more widespread observance. Here in San Antonio we traditionally have pork tamales on Christmas morning. A tamale is made from maize flour - and pork in this case - steamed in a corn husk. They're from Mexico and of pre-Colombian origin; and they're okay, but it just isn't the same.

Come to think of it, the cakes are all a bit weird too - kind of dry and far too sweet and always with that cream from a fucking spray can. Greggs should seriously think about opening up over here. They'd make a killing.

Rebellion. This is something with which American teenagers - or sometimes older people - engage between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one. The epitomy of American teenage revolution is Michael J. Fox dancing to Depeche Mode on the hood of a car stalled in gridlocked traffic and in doing so teaching the grown-ups a thing or two about what it means to be young. Rebellion generally occurs once you're done with the scouts and before you get a job selling car insurance to those seduced by advertising for Dodge vehicles. Sometimes it's difficult to believe that this is the same country which came up with Elvis, the Ramones, and MOP.

Ska. As Wikipedia is my witness, Ska is a musical genre that originated in Jamaica in the late fifties and was the precursor to rocksteady and reggae, combining elements of Caribbean mento and calypso with American jazz and rhythm and blues. It is characterized by a walking bass line accented with rhythms on the off-beat. It isn't, and nor will it ever be, twelve white dudes from Vermont in pork pie hats playing a song with a chorus sounding more like U2 than Prince Buster. Sorry. I don't make the rules.

Sweets. Candy always sounds like a euphemism for something illegal, and in a few cases it actually is. Our chocolate bars mostly taste like the supermarket's own brand products, and I'm talking Wavy Line or Happy Shopper rather than Waitrose. We have Cadbury's, but mostly sold only in stores frequented by a better standard of person and accessible only by means of vehicular transport.

Vehicular Transport. If you don't drive in America you're pretty much screwed unless you're conveniently married to someone who does, as I am. It's easy enough to walk around the centre of whichever town or city you may be in, but I would guess there are not many people living in the centre of their town or city. Most of us are in the suburbs where there's no nipping down to the shop on the corner for a can of pop and a pork pie, or even a tamale. Given this heavy emphasis on automotive travel, you might think this would be an area in which America excels, but sadly no. The extent and scale of our roads and highways combined with a population density much lower than that of the United Kingdom means that a traffic jam is something to be endured for slow moving minutes rather than stationary hours, but America has chosen to compensate for this relative freedom by having everyone drive trucks the size of your average fishing trawler. The fucking things are enormous, resembling giant Tonka toys, and whilst I can see one might justify such gargantuan vessels on a ranch, or if engaged in a business requiring that one travel with a fleet of lawnmowers in the back, otherwise there's really no excuse. Dental assistants are rarely required to convey injured bison back from the creek so far as I am aware, so they most likely choose enormous trucks as compensation for some deficiency, although obviously I have no idea what that could be.

A recent television commercial for the Dodge motor company shows actors portraying the Dodge brothers - Horace and John - magically transported from 1914, newsboy caps and all, leering with joy at their legacy of giant-sized Hot Wheels cars pulling wheelies and revving engines. Their joy is clear from lurid smiles comparable to those of fetishists who take sexual pleasure from pooing in their own pants and who have presently done just that. The commercial is hard to watch, and it's annoying, and I guess the assumption is that rest of us are expected to want to share in this sort of excitement.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Tits


I've had another sleepless night for no reason I can identify, except possibly that it's uncommonly fucking cold and Bess and I have let Kirby stay in our room. Usually the cats get either the rest of the house or outside when we retire depending on which they prefer, but Kirby often spends the night on the corner of our bed because she's generally well behaved. Last night was the exception to the rule and she spent the hours of darkness walking across my face or otherwise engaging in cat aerobics; although I have a feeling I wouldn't have been able to sleep anyway. These days if I can't get to sleep - which admittedly isn't often - I get up and spend a couple of hours writing stuff no-one is ever going to read, then return to bed when I'm properly knackered; but on this occasion it hasn't worked.

So I have a slow day, forcing myself forward through the drudgery of my usual housewifely chores at quarter speed. I make the mistake of having the radio on and tuned to one of the stations which isn't wall to wall Tejano, but it's mostly news about how our President-elect is planning to outlaw rainbows believing they promote homosexuality, or he's appointed Dylann Roof to be the next Minister of Black People. A few weeks ago I made a mental note to avoid the news, but I keep forgetting. Later I go out on the bike, but it's still fucking cold. Frost is infrequent in Texas, but we compensate for the shortfall with icy wind of the kind Alex describes as a cold winter bastard in A Clockwork Orange. The Nahuatl speaking Mexica of Tenochtitlan - Mexico City as it has been since 1521 - associated their land of the dead with the north and divided the mythic realm into nine tiers, and one of these regions was called Itzehecayan roughly translating as Where the Wind Is Like Obsidian Knives, possibly deriving from some ancient fact-finding mission to San Antonio in the middle of January, or Izcalli as it would have been by their calendar.

It's been a long, slow day and by the time evening comes we decide to eat out seeing as the boy is staying with his father. We get in the car and Bess asks, 'Where do you want to eat?'

'Fuck it,' I say. 'Let's go to Hooters.'

Hooters is a sports-fixated restaurant chain seemingly sold on the idea of all the waitresses having great big tits. It was parodied as Bazooms in an episode of King of the Hill, and when I first moved here I was surprised to discover it was real. It seemed like an anachronism, something left over from Benny Hill's little known tenure as governor of Texas, but Bess had told me that despite any other concerns, the food was good, which primed me with the puzzling notion that people go to Hooters for the food.

Sure.

'Isn't it kind of er...'

I didn't need to finish the question for obvious reasons.

'Kind of,' she told me, 'but the food really is good.'

So along we went. The place is clean, bright, and cheery, but not quite with the depressing efficiency of McDonalds, and there are a million flat screen televisions attached to armatures all around the ceiling. There is a football game in progress, or handegg as it should probably be known. I don't know who is playing because it's not a game I understand - the Washington Racists versus the Fresno Basset Hounds or something. We are seated and tended by a waitress called Meghan who seems nice but is thankfully not my type. Being a happily married man, none of them are really quite my type even without taking the age gap into consideration. Having reached fifty it has come as a great relief to find that I'm not significantly attracted to younger women. I always feared becoming a dirty old man, but most women under thirty now seem physically peculiar to me, somehow nascent and unformed. I suppose the media has spent so much time presenting a certain female type as a physical ideal that I mistook it for how we actually work, and thankfully for the most part we don't. Although were I still in my twenties, I'm sure my nuts would have exploded before Meghan had even brought our drinks.

According to Wikipedia, an older version of the Hooters Employee Handbook reads:

Customers can go to many places for wings and beer, but it is our Hooters Girls who make our concept unique. Hooters offers its customers the look of the All American Cheerleader, Surfer, Girl Next Door.

So actually they're mostly just regular gals, admittedly very presentable regular gals, but far from the megatitted trainee strippers I'd been expecting. One of the team seems to be wearing a vest top which somehow has straps which, buckled tightly, make it appear as though she's transporting a couple of blancmanges - wibble wobble wibble wobble - but she's the only one. It comes as a bit of a relief. Despite the above protestations, and despite my inner Ben Elton, I am nevertheless a man who knows what he likes and who responds in certain ways to certain things even if I sometimes wish I didn't, and I'd probably find breasts above a certain volume something of a distraction whilst trying to navigate a menu, particularly with them hovering mere inches from my face.

Bess describes another branch of Hooters where most of the waitresses seemed to be moonlighting as strippers and had those weird fake boobs which appear solid and overinflated, more like what I expected; so either that's just a different place or Hooters has been reigning it in a bit, going for a more family friendly vibe. The sign outside displays the name Hooters written with the oo as the eyes of an owl, although the oo also resembles tits; and okay, so owls make a hooting noise but the chain knows it's not fooling anyone. I had assumed the owl allusion might be part of some recent self-conscious rebranding, but apparently it's been around more or less from the start. Nevertheless my inner Ben Elton still isn't having it.

Hooters is selling sex, isn't it? Its success is reliant on the objectification of women, on reducing women to objects set on parade for our pleasure. Well yes, and three men sued the company for sex discrimination back in 1997, specifically for denying them employment and presumably because being men, their knockers weren't much to look at; to which Wikipedia responds:

In employment discrimination law in the United States, employers are generally allowed to consider characteristics that would otherwise be discriminatory if they are bona fide occupational qualifications (BFOQ). For example, a manufacturer of men's clothing may lawfully advertise for male models. Hooters has argued a BFOQ defense, which applies when the essence of the business operation would be undermined if the business eliminated its discriminatory policy.

So it is what it is, as they say. It's a symptom of a condition of society, and if we need to get pissy and start shaking fists, there are probably a million more deserving targets. The waitresses here seem just like waitresses anywhere, only with slightly less clothing and it's hard not to feel a little sorry for them. Even if you're a complete idiot and all you have going for you in this world is breasts, waitress at Hooters was probably never anyone's dream job; and it really doesn't feel like a strip joint. The place is rammed, and about a third of the customers are women, and there are children running around. The men are mostly big, hairy trucker types, paunchy and balding, oily jeans and baseball caps featuring the logos of agricultural feed suppliers. I just hope none of them came in here expecting to score. Surely no-one is that delusional.

Meghan brings our drinks. I order smoked wings and my wife has a burger. When the food arrives it really is delicious, and so delicious that you actually would go out of your way to eat it; so it genuinely isn't just about the boobies, which is a nice surprise.

A place like Hooters will always have its knockers etc. etc.