Friday, 20 April 2018

Home School


There have been a couple of bombings in Austin, anonymous packages left on porches and one of them set off by a tripwire. No-one knows what is going on, but people have been killed and Austin is just down the road, relatively speaking. Now one of the bombs has gone off in a FedEx depot on the outskirts of San Antonio. Someone on facebook suggests that it seems like the sort of thing Atomwaffen Division have been known to get up to. I've never heard of them, so I have a look on Wikipedia and discover them to be a neo-Nazi organisation who, aside from anything else, somehow have a presence in San Antonio. I find this last detail particularly bewildering because I would have thought that, had I grown up preferring the company of white people to such an extent, San Antonio would be the last place I'd want to live; but then maybe my expectations of logic and consistency are outmoded, given events of the last year or so. Atomwaffen Division might have cells in Kenya or Bombay for all I know.

This is on my mind as I cycle to McAllister Park, as I do each morning. I imagine tripwires strung across the trail waiting to blow me to bits, but it's just one of those thoughts you have and about which you can do nothing. What will be, will be.

I cycle to McAllister Park every day, a round trip of twenty miles which keeps me fit, roughly speaking. Now that I work from home, my daily commute has become a separate oxbow of my time, its own phenomena divorced from the need to actually get anywhere in a geographical sense. About nineteen miles of the journey follow a greenway called the Tobin Trail through countryside and undeveloped land, away from the traffic. It's mostly cyclists, runners, people out walking their dogs and so on.

The point at which I turn around and come home is a covered pavilion at McAllister Park, near some bogs. I usually stop off and take five minutes rest while drinking my flask of iced tea. Usually I'm alone, but today there are others, women with small children. I listen to them as I drink my tea and realise that these are home schooling parents who have, for whatever reason, chosen not to send their kids to a regular school containing teachers. I am told that if you are able to demonstrate that you can teach your kids at home to a reasonable standard, then the American educational system is okay with that. It sounds dubious to me, and the term home school seems suggestive of parents who don't want their offspring learning about no darn evolution or any of that fruity stuff, but then what do I know? My wife's cousin Jenni was home schooled, and Jenni is wonderful, so either I have it completely wrong or there are exceptions.

I sit drinking my tea listening to the screech of free range children. I listen to their parents. They sound normal enough, although it turns out that two of the kids - brother and sister, both very young - are named Samson and Delilah. I don't know what to conclude from this realisation.

Cycling back, I pass a discarded plastic water bottle at the side of the road which runs through McAllister Park. I pass discarded plastic water bottles all the time, but every once in a while it annoys me enough to impede my progress. I get off and pick up the water bottle with the intention of popping it in the blue recycling bin which I will pass as I exit the park. I pick up the bottle and notice another about five feet away, then a plastic carrier bag swaying in the breeze, caught in the thorns of a bush. I might as well finish the job, I tell myself, as usual.

Litter annoys me, but this type of litter particularly annoys me because it's almost certainly runners or cyclists, the sort of self-absorbed wankers who habitually purchase bottled water. They're happy to improve themselves, but not the planet. That's asking too much, so they presumably just drain the bottle and off it goes into the grass to spend the next five hundred years half-lifing into the soil. I see them every day, self-important old codgers in bright green lycra on the weirdest, most expensive bikes money can buy. They don't believe anything is legitimate unless they've spunked away a ton of money on it, so you'll see them in their artisan cycling socks, glowing in the dark on streamlined Branestawm contraptions with an unorthodox quota of wheels and the seat mounted in the last place you would expect to find it.

Having been raised right, I can't even imagine what it must be like to drink a bottle of water then just lob the bottle into the hedge. I didn't even do it as a kid, and I wasn't even a particularly enlightened child. Were I running the show, littering would carry a mandatory ten-year jail sentence, but then a lot would be different were I running the show.

I'm now standing in the grass with two plastic bottles in a carrier bag pulled from a bush. I can see a flattened beer can about ten feet away. I sigh and pause the music on my Discman so as to be able to hear the warning rattle of any rattlesnake which may be in the area. Poor People's Day is a great album, but I don't want to die. I gather up the beer can, then another bottle, then notice a second plastic carrier bag down near the pipe which allows water to pass beneath the road in the event of flooding. There is something in the carrier bag. It seems to be a turd, specifically a human turd. I suppose someone was caught short, maybe a little kid, and so we end up with a shit in a bag tossed from a car window.

The toilets are situated about one hundred yards down the road.

Poo under other circumstances constitutes a fertiliser, but this one is in a fucking carrier bag.

Where do you even start?

What the fuck is wrong with people?

Thankfully the smell isn't that bad, and I've been able to pick the thing up without coming into contact with its precious cargo. I empty the first carrier bag, spilling plastic bottles and a beer can out on the road, put the bag of poo inside that, then tie it at the top. I manage to squash all of the bottles with the can into the other hand, get back on my bike, and ride off towards the bins.

As I arrive home, I hear from my wife.

'They've caught the bomb guy,' she tells me, then adding, 'he was home schooled. He blew himself up before they could catch him.'

His name was Mark Conditt. He was 23, white, and was described in the New York Times as follows:

Mr. Conditt grew up as the quiet, socially awkward oldest child of a devout Christian family that held Bible study groups in their white clapboard house, where an American flag hangs from the front porch.

Mark Conditt didn't approve of same-sex marriage, described himself as a conservative, and wished to see an end to the sex offenders register; and, as I said, he was home schooled; so this is, by pure coincidence, the second time today I have found myself thinking about home schooling.

I feel there's a pattern in all of this, but maybe it's just me.

Friday, 13 April 2018

The Road to Nowhere


'Let's go see the painted rocks,' Bess suggests. 'I've never been up there and I've always wanted to go.'

I already know what she's talking about because this isn't the first time we've discussed the trip. The internet has this to say about the painted rocks in question:
On a bluff along the banks of the Concho River in west-central Texas lies the most remarkable rock art site on the Edwards Plateau. The Paint Rock pictographs number over 1,500 and cover nearly a half-mile of a limestone cliff face a short distance upstream from the town of Paint Rock. In tones of red, orange, yellow, white, and black, native artists painted animals, such as buffalo and deer, human figures, some appearing to be clasping hands in a dance or ritual, and a kaleidoscope of geometric designs on the high bluff. Some left their handprints, perhaps as a way of signing their work or merely indicating that they had been there.

The Paint Rock site is unusual in that it is one of only a handful of sites in central and northwest Texas. Rock art is much more prevalent, more ancient as a rule, and better preserved in the Lower Pecos and Trans-Pecos areas. While it is impossible to know the date of the earliest pictographs at Paint Rock, archaeological investigations at the site have recovered arrow points and sherds of earthenware pottery. These artefacts indicate that the site was used at least as early as the Toyah period (ca. A.D. 1300 – 1650), and are reflected in drawings of hunters carrying bows and arrows. Paintings of horses and a church demonstrate that use of the site by native groups continued after contact with the Spanish.

'How far is it?' I ask.

'Two, maybe two and a half hours drive.'

It's Saturday morning, the sun is out, and the boy has gone to Ruidoso with his dad this weekend. It's not like we have anything else on.

'Okay.'

We drive up I-10 so far as a town called Junction, which is about half the distance, getting on for a hundred or so miles; then take the smaller US-83 heading north towards Paint Rock. The strangest thing is that we're suddenly no longer in the hill country. The hills have levelled, the valleys have filled in, and even the plants at the side of the highway seem different. Looking on the map, I find we really are miles from anywhere. We have another hour of driving in a straight line, and we'll pass through a town called Menard, then one called Eden, and that's it, nothing else for miles and miles, just rolling planes on either side. It's not quite desert, but something in that direction with small scrubby trees, cactus, yucca and not much sign of human endeavour aside from the thing we're driving along. It feels as though we're quite high up, and the landscape reminds me of what we saw on the way to Roswell a couple of years ago.

We talk about nothing, or we listen to Lewis Black and Jim Gaffigan on CD. We pass through Menard, which has a population of several thousand, but still somehow seems a bit too small to have been left out here on its own. We're fine for gas so there doesn't seem to be any really good reason to stop.

Eden is about the same, and we make the predictable jokes: so this is where it all happened, and we talk about looking for a garden centre for the sake of a wearyingly obvious photo opportunity.

'I have the Road to Nowhere stuck in my head,' Bess tells me as we're expelled from Eden by agency of internal combustion rather than Himself upstairs. 'Was that the Talking Heads?'

'Yes,' I sigh as the song glues itself to my own internal jukebox.

We're on the Road to Nowhere…
 

Sun, sand, cacti, not much else, and we have about forty miles to go. Eventually we're there. Paint Rock has a population of just 273, according to the sign. I do a mental calculation and work out that this is probably less than the population of my local supermarket on an average weekday. It's a dusty road with buildings and a lot of space, propane tanks behind wire fences and no discernible corporate presence. We stop at the grocery store opposite a building purporting to be a Wool Warehouse. This would strike me as odd given that I've been in Texas since 2011 and am still to see a single sheep, but I'm too preoccupied with trying to imagine what it must be like to live in a town with a population of 273, at least forty miles from the nearest Dairy Queen.

There are two guys sat at tables eating tacos in the grocery store. The cashier is stacking shelves or something. They look at us but don't say anything. I buy tea and some sort of flapjack. The cashier fails to make the usual observation regarding my accent, which is nice. Maybe she realises that you ain't from around here carries a potentially disturbing subtext in a town where only 270 other people can actually be said to be from around here; and by definition almost everybody ain't from around here.

Bess returns from the khazi just as an enormous rooster struts up to the door outside and begins pecking on the glass. We watch him for a couple of seconds, sharing the inevitable jokes about what a big cock. He takes to marching back and forth as though waiting to be allowed in.

'Can you tell us how we get to the painted rocks?' Bess asks.

'Did you make an appointment?' the cashier asks in return. 'You need to call Betty Jo. She arranges all of the tours.'

'Do you have her number?'

The woman looks around herself. 'You know, I don't have it. Sorry.'

We return to the car, Bess fiddling with her phone, looking up a website. 'Here it is.'

She connects the phone to the speaker system by special magic of a kind I don't quite understand, or even see as necessary. Betty Jo answers. She sounds very old.

'Well, I'd just love to show you the paintings but you see I just got back from this morning's tour. I'm so sorry. You see I'm ninety and I can't manage more than one tour a day. I just can't do it.'

We wave our hands in the air as though she can see us. It's an inconvenience, but it is what it is, as they say. We're not going to force a ninety-year old woman into showing us the rocks if she's already knackered.

'Where are you from?' asks Betty Jo.

'San Antonio,' we tell her.

'Oh my - and you came all of this way. I'm so sorry.'

'It's fine. We'll make sure we phone to make an appointment next time.'

We turn around and head back towards Eden. It's been a day out, so we're not complaining. As we reach Eden, we take a left and head down US-87, reasoning that we may as well take a different route back for the sake of variety. The land east of Eden is a little more populous, significantly more farmed, and for the first time ever I see fields full of sheep here in Texas. In fact I see more sheep than I've probably ever seen before in any one day; so that clears up that one particular mystery and explains the Wool Warehouse, although it's only now that I've realised it had struck me as unusual.

We pass through a town called Melvin, which I find pleasing, and then the more familiar territory of Fredericksburg where we stop for something to eat, German sausage in my case. We seem to have had a pretty good day without really doing anything.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Rah Rah Rah


I haven't mowed the lawn since October because there didn't seem to be much point. The grass wasn't doing anything and we kept getting rain. It's difficult to mow the grass if it's too damp. Then, as January kicked off with a completely uncharacteristic couple of weeks so cold, grey and wet that it felt as though we were living in England, the grass became what may as well have been a wheat field, thick green stalks at least tall enough to hide most of the cats.

Texas has now resumed operation within established meteorological parameters, so it's hot and sunny again. In fact it's so hot and sunny that I've been sunburned whilst out cycling. Today, I'm going to spray on some sunblock before I go out, probably for the first time since late September. Unfortunately we're all out of sunblock. I'm not going to get burnt again, so I amend my plans. I'll walk to HEB, the local supermarket, pick up sunblock and the usual groceries, then spend the rest of the morning working on the lawn. My working on the lawn is long overdue and will be good exercise. Furthermore, this plan gets around the annoyance of making two trips to HEB - one for sunblock before I get out on the bike, and then the usual one for the day's groceries on the way back.

I walk to HEB, then consider the garden once I'm back home. I'm going to need to go over the whole lot with the strimmer, cutting the grass to a length which won't clog up the mower every three feet. I excavate the strimmer from where it's been buried in the garage for the last six months. The engine starts without any problem, but I need to adjust the head, to draw out a greater length of cutting cord from the drum. I experience difficulties of a kind roughly described in the facebook rant which they inspire:

Strimmers, trimmers, whatever the fuck you call them - why the childproof cap on the cutting head, or in my case adult proof? Why do the instructions appear to refer to a completely different piece of machinery? Why can't I get the fucking drum out of the bastard housing? It moves this way, it moves that way, and it doesn't move any other way so how the hell am I suppose to unscrew it, and no there aren't any points I can squeeze so as to release something or other whilst attempting said unscrewing, despite the lying Trumpesque instructions? Why are such things designed so as to penalise persons like myself who, whilst not completely mechanically inept, don't spend seventy-two hours a day thinking about grommets and wingnuts?

My frustration is such that I give up. The lawn can wait. Maybe I'll see if I can buy a replacement head at Lowes. I don't want to think about it, not today. I should have just gone out on the bike. What a waste of a morning.

I'll make that rice thing, I tell myself, that will cheer me up. I'm kind of hungry and it came out pretty good when I made it yesterday, and that was really just an experiment. I wanted to use up the leftover rice so I patted it flat and fried it until crunchy to make biscuits. I've since had a look at online recipes for the sake of comparison, and there was one which seemed worth trying, which suggested topping each rice biscuit with a mixture of salmon, mayonnaise, and finely chopped spring onions. I cook up some rice, pat it flat, then leave it in the fridge for a little while. Cooling means it will keep its shape when I fry it, so the theory goes. Yesterday it worked perfectly. Today, despite having fine tuned my improvised recipe, it's a disaster. The rice sticks to the non-stick frying pan, taking on a form resembling loose gravel rather than biscuits; and the fucking smoke alarm goes off, and it takes a whole minute to find the bloody thing; and there's oil everywhere and I'm beginning to feel as though I should never have got out of bed.

'Hello,' Bess calls as she arrives home a little later.

I'm in the bedroom and I call back. 'Hello.'

'Hello,' she calls a second time with the intonation of a question, apparently bewildered to find the house empty.

'Hello!' I call back, louder and with a subtext reading I heard you the first time, for fuck's sake!

'Okay!' she protests as I enter the front room. 'You don't have to be mean.'

'I already said hello.'

'I didn't hear you.'

'I haven't had a very good day.'

We go out to eat because we have an appointment at the school so it will save time. We go to a Greek place because it's near the school. We eat our kebabs and realise that we did this last week - an appointment at the school prefixed by hastily consumed kebabs. The coincidence is funny, although it's a different restaurant in a different part of town and a different school. This is the high school, the one our boy will be attending come August. Tonight it's something for the parents, or step-parent in my case. Neither of us really know why we come to these things beyond that it seems to be expected. The maths teacher will tell us that he or she intends to try really hard to teach maths to our child, and the other teachers will doubtless make similar promises. I always assumed this sort of thing would be implicit in the fact of it being a school. I don't know why anyone would need reassurance of what, for example, an English teacher will attempt to do in relation to a child in his or her English class. I don't know why it needs stating.

We scoff our kebabs and head for the school. The parking lot is full with parents still filtering into the front of the building. We're ten minutes late but I guess it doesn't matter. Clearly we aren't the only ones. We enter the building and I notice that the woman in front of us and the one behind both wear heels so high that their feet are nearly vertical and they have difficulty walking. Parents' evenings at Junior's previous school were distinguished by a surprising quota of mothers with terrible face lifts, and I wonder if high end stripper clothing is going to be the thing at this place.

We enter the main hallway where a trio of schoolgirls are sat behind a table to greet us and provide directions. They are teenagers and their smiles are either dazzling or subject to corrective braces so that they may eventually be dazzling. I don't understand them, or why they're here after hours. They must be volunteers. I don't understand people who enjoyed school or who thought of it as the best days of their lives. I don't understand team players or any of their over-enthusiastic like.

We are directed to an assembly hall, possibly the school canteen by day. Chairs are arranged like tree rings around a central podium, and there's a table of cookies and bottled water at the back from which we can apparently help ourselves. Unfortunately we spot Devil Boy's mother almost immediately. She is someone we were trying not to think about, and she's right over there looking back at us but pretending she's only looking in our general direction - a strategic affectation allowing us to pretend we haven't seen her, which is what we do. We both knew Devil Boy would be attending this school. He was friends with our kid about six or seven years ago, but even at the age of five he was weird and creepy with something cruel and unpleasant about him, so it was a massive relief when his family moved away; but now they're back, and we don't want to have to deal with Devil Boy or his social climbing mother. We choose seats positioned so that we don't have to see her, or catch her eye and fake our mutual surprise.

Oh how wonderful - you mean your boy will be here too? Gosh! How long has it been? Those two will have some catching up.

Bess and I glance at the itinerary, a long list of who will be speaking. There will also be prayer.

'How long is this going to go on, do you think?'

Bess doesn't know. 'A couple of hours maybe?'

Some woman is speaking from the podium, welcoming us to the school and to the adventure which will be our child's learning experience up until the year 2022. She introduces a priest who invites us to stand. We all bow our heads to mumble our way through the Lord's Prayer, apart from me. I had anticipated tedious scholastic information, statistics on how great the school is and why we've made such an amazing choice in bringing our kid to its door, but this feels a little as though we're being inducted into a cult. I don't have any specific objection to the Lord's Prayer but this doesn't seem like the time for it, at least not to me. That whole deal about the separation of church and state doesn't apply here because this is an expensive private school. Bess and I aren't the ones paying for it though. We're merely the parents.

'Now what we're going to do,' the woman tells us once the chorus of amen has died away, 'is come forward and get to know each other, so if you'd each like to come out from your seat - you can go back when we get to talking about the curriculum - just come up and talk to anyone you've never met. Get to know each other.'

'Fuck this,' Bess suggests. 'Let's get out of here.'

I'm flooded with relief because I thought it was just me. We shuffle along to the end of our row and head out the building, for the parking lot. We've been here less than ten minutes.

It's a school, and an expensive one, so I'm going to trust them to do what they can to teach our kid. That's their job. I don't need reassurance, or promises. If he doesn't sail into an overpaid position as CEO of some tediously thrusting corporation in September 2022, I'm not going to have a nervous breakdown or start looking for anyone to blame; and I don't need to be part of the family.

It's the school he wanted to go to, and they seem like they mean business, and that's enough for me.

Next day, I take the strimmer to a lawnmower repair place which has a sign describing itself as the best little mower house in Texas, but strimmers aren't really their thing. I head home, dropping in at Lowes on the way because what harm could it do to ask?

The guy working in gardening equipment takes about thirty seconds to fix the thing. It seems the part I had been wrestling with had screwed itself on so tight - presumably while the strimmer was in use - that it hadn't actually occurred to me that it could be unscrewed. I was going at it all wrong.

It feels as though a storm cloud has broken.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Maya Family


The family is having its breakfast. The man is called Uaclahun Ben by the Tzolk'in calendar, that being the day of his birth. It is a fitting name, for ben means reed which refers to rulership, and Uaclahun Ben is ruler of his family. It is morning and he has the face of a bat, by which we mean to say that he is still tired. His family makes much work for him. His wife is called Chikchan. She works at the three hearth stones making her tortillas, filling them with beans and white corn for her family. Her eyes look in different directions as though she had recently noticed some stinging insect settled at the end of her nose, and the distance between the lowest part of that nose and her upper lip is very great. It is like the distance from Chichén to Mayapan. It is a very long way. It would take a man a considerable time to walk from one to the other. Uaclahun Ben and Chikchan eat with Ahal-Togob, the oldest of their children. He was named during a moment of levity, for his name means He Who Causes Unhappiness, and regrettably it almost seems that the Gods have seen fit to ensure that Ahal-Togob is named by way of an instruction. There are other children, but they do not directly feature in our story. Perhaps they are staying with grandparents.

'You must eat your beans and white corn,' Chikchan tells her son. 'You must grow to be big and strong.'

'He does not need to be any bigger,' observes Uaclahun Ben. He shakes his head and sighs. 'Already he is like some tall tree, but for the fact that he does not bear the sort of fruit we can use.'

'I can eat no more of your beans and white corn, mother,' says  Ahal-Togob. 'Later I shall meet with the delightful Itzel. She is very beautiful and pleasant. I therefore wish to make a good impression.'

Suddenly a little fearful, Chikchan turns to her husband. 'Uaclahun Ben, do you recall what I told you?' she says to him. 'Our son will bring the delightful Itzel to visit with us this evening as the sun sets. Tell me that you have not forgotten this arrangement?'

'I have not forgotten this arrangement,' says Uaclahun Ben.

'Now eat your beans and white corn,' the mother again reminds her son.

'I fear I cannot,' says Ahal-Togob, making a face like a frog. 'More beans in my belly will mean that Itzel will not be our only visitor this evening as the sun sets, for I myself shall be visited by Ki'zin the Farter!'

Chikchan makes a face, puckering her mouth as though it were the bottom of some animal. Uaclahun Ben does not react because he has heard it all before.
***

Later that day Uaclahun Ben is about his work at the Temple of Yum Kaax. He is drilling holes in the front teeth of Lord Ix Etz'nab. He rotates a wooden drill by means of a length of twine. The drill is tipped with coarse sand. Lord Ix Etz'nab ceases his moaning and holds up a hand for Uaclahan Ben to stop.

'What is wrong?'

The older, fatter man splutters a little. 'It is rather painful.'

'Yes. That is the point. Were there no pain, such as might be if some person invented a potion to stem all feeling, then the Gods would not recognise that you have made a sacrifice. Do you see?' It seems as though Uaclahun Ben addresses a small child.

'But must it really be quite so painful as it is?'

'When I have drilled holes, I shall inset your teeth with jade fragments. Then the pain will be gone, and we can all get on with our day.'

'But does she really have to do that?'

They both turn to regard Ixchel. She is sat at the feet of Lord Ix Etz'nab. In her hand she has a reed tipped with the teeth of the shark, which she jabs at the Lord's toes.

'What?' she asks, chewing the gum of a certain tree.

'I'm sorry,' Uaclahun Ben says to Lord Ix Etz'nab. 'She is my new assistant. She has just started today.' He turns to address the young woman. 'Yes, what exactly are you doing?'

'Innit right then?'

'I couldn't say because I don't know what you're doing.'

'My dad said it would distract from the pain.'

'One thing it doesn't distract from is your being a pain!' says  Uaclahun Ben. 'This father of yours, this man of wisdom, does he too work in ceremonial dentistry?'

'Naaah, silly,' Ixchel laughs. 'He's a dung collector.'

'Well then, how about this? We agree there's probably not much I can tell him about collecting dung, and he can similarly keep his advice regarding my work to himself. How does that sound?'

'Sorry, I'm sure,' mutters Ixchel, at last ceasing her ministrations upon the feet of Lord Ix Etz'nab. She stands and goes to attend to the painted books.

'One just can't get the staff these days,' says Uaclahun Ben to his patient.

'I will also refrain from advising your father on how to raise simpletons,' Uaclahun Ben says quietly to himself as he resumes his work, although it seems as though he addresses his foolish assistant. 'Patently the gentleman is very well informed in that regard.'
***

Later that evening as the sun is setting, Ahal-Togob brings the delightful Itzel back to meet his family, just as he said he would. Uaclahun Ben immediately recognises the woman because she is none other than Ixchel, his new assistant at the Temple of Yum Kaax. It transpires that she is not very bright and sometimes gets her hieroglyphs mixed up, even those of her own name. That was how this comical misunderstanding came about. Uaclahun Ben pulls a series of faces as a result, and all of these faces suggest that he finds the situation annoying and awkward. Elsewhere there can be heard a short, sad tune of four descending notes blown upon a conch shell.

Friday, 23 March 2018

People Who Want Money


I answer the ring of my cellphone, the cellphone for which only my wife has the number and, as usual, I can see that it isn't her on the other end of the line. There's a pause and the voice asks for my mother-in-law.

'You have the wrong number,' I say, delivering the familiar speech. 'This isn't her phone.'

I only have a cellphone for use in emergencies. It's registered to my mother-in-law because she signed up with some kind of esoteric plan whereby she gets her own phone at a cheaper rate if she has more than one.

'Maybe you can help me anyway,' the guy suggests. He asks if I'd like to make a charitable donation to a fund for cops because it's a very risky job. I'm a stranger in this country, by some definition, but I'm fairly sure cops are paid to be cops. For a country in which handouts or financial assistance of any description are seemingly regarded as the gateway drug for raging Communism, it's surprising just how often I am asked to give generously to people who already work for a living.

I hang up.

Next evening, we're at the school again. It's just parents, something which won't take long, but it's mandatory. Our boy has another few months before graduation, so we're here to find out about that and about the impending trip to Washington DC. The whole class will be going and they'll be staying in a hotel for the best part of the week, so there will be a lot of juggling involved. Unfortunately we're ten minutes late for the meeting because we stopped off to eat at the Greek place over by the Quarry. The Quarry is about a minute from the school, so we thought we had it all worked out, but our food took longer than anticipated to arrive.

Anyway, we're here now. We shuffle awkwardly amongst the folding chairs, trying not to be the annoying latecomers. The teacher is telling us about someone who will be acting as a chaperone on the school trip. We each need to give our child ten dollars in an envelope, and this money will constitute tips for the woman, a way of showing we're thankful for her hypothetically vigilant dispensation of justice when one of our precious little ones attempts to let off a fire extinguisher in a hotel corridor.

Personally, I'm confused.

Another woman steps up to speak. She's very excited about something, but I can't understand what she's saying. Her voice is way up in the Minnie Mouse register and her accent peppers whatever she is trying to tell us with additional syllables. I've lived in Texas for nearly six years, but I'm still not used to it. She speaks fast and it sounds like she's playing a Jew's harp. She delivers words resembling formal edicts punctuated with improvised twittering based around um and you know, over and over. I have a horrible feeling she's actually the mathematics teacher we met last time the school called us in for some parental event.

Everybody looks at the forms in their folders, apparently prompted by something our speaker has been explaining.

I guess it's just me then.

Fifteen minutes of this and it's over, and we're done, and we can leave. We shuffle from the room exchanging pleasantries with Duncan's mother, then Mr. and Mrs. Pace. They're the only parents I recognise.

'So who are we tipping again? Who needs our ten dollars?'

Bess tells me it's the woman with the voice of Minnie Mouse.

'The maths teacher? Does she not already get a wage?'

'She isn't a teacher. She's one of the parents. She always volunteers.'

'Oh - okay. That makes more sense, I guess.'

I feel a little guilty for my uncharitable sentiments.

'I still couldn't understand a fucking word she said though.'

'Me neither.'

Maybe this is what it's like to be old.

Friday, 16 March 2018

The Future of Art


I discovered art as a teenager, the age of fourteen or maybe fifteen; and by art I mean fine art; and by fine art I mean painting. I vaguely recall being taken to see the Dalí exhibition at the Tate back in 1980, and I was given Painting in the Twentieth Century by Werner Haftmann for Christmas, 1982. From this point on I began to regard certain paintings as though they were pieces of music in terms of how important they seemed - or what they said to me, if you prefer. Marc Chagall's I and the Village had at least as significant an impact on me as that first Joy Division album. Art - by which I still mean painting - seemed like this alternative universe with its own parallel history, its own languages, and I found it very exciting.

Having fixated on Italian Futurism, I myself took to painting in a  style heavily derived from the work of Fortunato Depero. I attended art foundation course, and then took a fine art degree at Maidstone College, although most of this course of study - if that isn't too generous a term for my four years of pissing about and mumbling - was dedicated to time based media, specifically film and video. I had unfortunately lost most of my enthusiasm for this mode of expression by the time the course came to an end, rudely depositing me upon the doorstep of the rest of my life.

I returned to painting from time to time over the years which followed, gradually developing the sort of ability which I probably should have picked up at art college, and doubtless would have done had I not spent all that time chasing what was ultimately an artistic dead end, at least for me. I didn't even manage a life drawing class, because I was seemingly developmentally a couple of years behind most of my peers and was mortified at the thought of having to sit there drawing a nude woman. I mean, a real nude woman - what if I got so aroused that I spunked my pants? Whilst I really wish one of my tutors had sat me down and forced me to learn how to draw and paint properly, obliging me to learn techniques taught in art schools at the turn of the previous century, I have only myself to blame. Art education at the end of the twentieth century might be caricatured as a load of bollocks about self-expression bypassing the requirement for actual talent, but I see it as having had more to do with the motivation of the individual. If you really wanted to learn, you could go a long way, but if you didn't have it in you then it probably wasn't meant to be. I suppose for myself it's simply that my timing was out.

Another factor might be that I realised I didn't actually have much interest in or sympathy for the contemporary art world as it was by the time I graduated. In terms of art history, by the end of abstract expressionism - excepting rare outliers - fine art became something else, divorced from ordinary life. It became an exclusive club founded on inflated sums of money, wearying novelty, something with its own private language which defies criticism and the identification of nudist emperors by looking down its nose and declaring that obviously you don't understand. It embraced the new purely for the sake of the new.

One of my wife's friends is an artist, and a contemporary artist, meaning that's how he makes his living. One of his pieces was a spunk-stained sofa, an old living room couch upon which he did what I feared would have befallen me had I taken a life drawing class; and this he sold as art. We attended an exhibition of his work, by which point he'd moved on to conceptual pieces wherein a model of, for example, a microscope or a pair of binoculars, is made from wood physically cut out of a painting - oil on board - of a subject pertaining to the resulting model, the image of a bacterium or else something seen from a distance. It was amusing and quite clever, but I need more from my art than amusing and quite clever, and this wasn't sufficiently amusing or quite clever enough to dispel the conceit of Spunky Couch or whatever he'd called it. Not everything has to have the sledgehammer populism of Soviet propaganda, but Spunky Couch struck me as a smug man marching up and down a street with a placard reading you are stupid! Such art supposedly defies our expectations, asking why a man can't slap one out over his sofa and then stick it in a gallery, but as soon as we answer, we're told that we don't understand because we're too vulgar. Art creates its own elite, generates its own audience inculcated with the correct responses.

At the other end of the spectrum we have Painting with a Twist, a corporate chain of venues as much as painting classes for people who probably won't end up ejaculating over household furniture.

Invite your friends, sip your favourite beverage and enjoy step-by-step instruction with our experienced and enthusiastic local artists. You'll leave with a one-of-a-kind creation and be ready to come back again. We also host private parties for every occasion. From birthday and bachelorette parties to corporate events and team building, we'll help you celebrate your creativity.

I have a cousin-in-law - if that's an actual term - who regularly attends Painting with a Twist. Paints, brushes, and canvas are provided, and although I gather you're welcome to do your own thing should you feel so inclined, generally the group will follow the lead of the organiser, painting whatever subject has been picked that week. My cousin-in-law has an arts degree of some description, and yet regularly returns from Painting with a Twist with a fresh irony-free canvas depicting Winnie the Pooh or characters from The Lion King, so whatever her artistic awakening may have been, I'm guessing it probably wasn't Marc Chagall's I and the Village - or indeed anything I would recognise as art on my terms; and somehow I can't help but feel that this is where Spunky Couch and its like have brought us - that same retreat into the safety of the soft, rounded, and childish as is currently promoted by most contemporary media right now, the same rebellion against intellect and qualification we see in the political sphere - because we don't really need to grow up in order to be dutiful consumers. In many ways, it's actually better that we don't.

Wasn't art supposed to make a difference of some description? Wasn't it at least supposed to be more than a diversion?

I've therefore decided to start again. I'm painting, and I'm painting in oils for what is somehow the first time.

That's not strictly true. Someone gave me a blank canvas, already primed and stretched back in 1987, so I borrowed some oils and had a go, but the results weren't great. Having noticed that art supplies stores now sell ready made primed and stretched canvases I bought a stack of them in 2015 and took another shot, but that was similarly a bit of a disaster because I was still using oil as though it were acrylic.  Now it's 2018, and I'm going at it again, but this time I've sought the advice of both Sean Keating and Chris Hunt - acquaintances respectively encountered at different stages of my existence, and both well accustomed to working in oils. I've decided I'm going to paint something every Sunday afternoon, something quick rendered in the general spirit of the Impressionists with the emphasis on light and mood. I'll be working from life, no gimmicks or novelties, no crowd-pleasing kitsch, no talking down to anyone, no Winnie the fucking Pooh, just good, honest painting in the hope of making the world a better place in some small way. At the time of writing, I've produced four canvases, each arguably improving on its predecessor as I ease myself into the application of new techniques, relearning how to do that which I picked up during many years of working with acrylic. Of these canvases, I've somehow already sold one for sixty dollars.

This enterprise is partially inspired by my wife and the rocks she paints, as described here. We're collectively trying to add to the global stock of beauty - or thereabouts, and to serve as an example by aspiring to do something of greater relative worth than either the kitsch or spunky couches with which we're supposed to be satisfied; and once I've generated sufficient quota of respectable canvases, we're going to start hitting the craft fairs.

With all of this in mind, we are now driving across San Antonio, just a little way down the Austin Highway after eating at a Caribbean place near where we live. We find the house easily enough. They could have come to our house, but it turns out that they're both allergic to cats. The woman produces pours - assuming that's the plural form of pour as a noun. A pour is a canvas upon which acrylic paint has been poured, allowed to mix, and then to set, forming a colourful pattern much like what can be seen in a blob of oil. She contacted my wife through facebook to propose a collaboration, so Bess is going to paint her mandala-style designs upon canvas pours. I'm here because we do everything together and I'm told that the husband of our pour artist is himself a painter, and that he has exhibited his work in galleries and should be considered a professional. He sounds like someone worth knowing.

We are invited in.

The place is full of canvases, large and colourful, abstract designs which remind me a little of Roberto Matta or satellite photographs of Jupiter's upper atmosphere, and I get talking to the guy. He took up painting just two years ago following an injury at work. He seems fascinated by the fact that I'm from England and tells me about the time he and his wife visited London. He tells me he's had his ancestry dissected by one of those companies which extrapolates such information from a DNA sample, and some of his ancestors were English. Otherwise he's also about 40% Native American, which makes sense being as he has that sort of face. There are postcards of Mexican pyramids on the wall.

'Chichén Itzá,' I exclaim happily. 'I've been to Mexico a few times but I never made it that far east.'

'It's a beautiful place,' he tells me. 'You know all of those pyramids, they are built upon a secret chamber. All over the world, they have found open spaces below the pyramids.'

I vaguely recall reading of a cave system beneath the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, a subterranean structure supposedly divided into seven chambers bearing suspicious concordance to ancestral Mexican myths of Chicomoztoc, the Seven Caves from which the Nahuatl-speaking tribes were reputedly born; but I have an uncomfortable feeling our host is referring to something else entirely, one of those things modern science can't explain, at least providing you ignore whatever existing explanation modern science has probably already given.

We talk about painting instead. I ask about the one I saw on his facebook page, three figures arranged before the Mexican national flag. It seemed reminiscent of the murals of Diego Rivera, and therefore not without promise.

'The Child Heroes,' he tells me. 'They were young boys who defended Chapultepec in the Mexican-American war.'

I recall Niños Héroes, a tube station one stop south of Balderas in Mexico City. I guess that the children would be those whom the station commemorates. If I knew the story of the Child Heroes, it seems I have since forgotten it.

He shows us the rest of his work. It's mostly representational, a little raw but not bad. The exhibitions turn out to have been stalls at comic conventions, and he shows us large canvases depicting Catwoman, Harley Quinn, and some other Batman character I don't recognise. I sigh inwardly. Harley Quinn's mouth sits at a peculiar angle, distracting me from questions of why anyone would wish to buy such a thing, let alone why anyone would want to paint it in the first place.

So much for that idea.

The meeting makes me feel bad for our hosts, and uncomfortable at my own uncharitable regard. I could lie and say it's wonderful work and that at least you're expressing yourself, but I'm not sure anyone who copies a character out of a comic book is really expressing anything, and I don't know that a pat on the head and well done, you is really fair on any of us.

I don't want that to be the future of art, so from this point on I'm going to shut up and get on with it.



Friday, 9 March 2018

Automotive Commercials


Everybody loves a car advert, and having moved to San Antonio, Texas, I seem to see quite a lot of them. Here are my ten favourites. Readers of a more down to earth disposition are advised that what follows may contain traces of sarcasm.

That Bloke out of Pitch Black.
It's funny how whenever some young gentleman with an unusually small penis attempts to compensate for his deficiency by noisily passing us on the highway at speeds in excess of two-hundred miles per hour, the vehicle is almost always a Dodge. This correlation is reflected in Dodge's television advertising which, up until recently, featured actors portraying the Dodge brothers as a couple of sneering depression-era shitheads mysteriously transported to the present day in order to pull wheelies in contemporary motor vehicles; but these two have been replaced by Vin Diesel, squinting from behind the wheel and providing a voiceover proposing terms by which we might refer to him and his high-speed pals as we express our inevitable disapproval, because we be haters. Call us irresponsible, he growls, call us shitheads - or words to that effect because I can't remember what he actually says and I didn't bother to write it down. It doesn't matter, he concludes, because we can't hear you, and the reason he can't hear the musty condemnation of us disapproving suit-wearing cuboid squares is because his mighty Dodge engine is revving so loud as he throbs along at a million miles an hour like a super sex penis of manly power. Of course, the reason he's saying all of this is because a rich man in a suit is paying for his oral performance as though Vin were a common prostitute; and I have it on good authority that Vin Diesel was dressed as Shirley Temple when recording his voiceover in the studio, and he even had a huge lollipop with a red and white spiral design, and the engineer had to keep coming into the booth to take the lollipop away because Vin kept knocking it against the microphone and spoiling the take. I also have it on good authority that Vin Diesel started crying each time he had his lolly taken from him. I'd happily tell him all of this to his face, but of course I know he wouldn't be able to hear me.

Grinning Family.
Ancira is a local dealership. I think they specialise in Nissan, unless that's just the one showroom. I'm not really sure how it works and I don't care enough to find out. Anyway, being a local car dealership for local people, Ancira have wisely chosen to make their own television adverts featuring themselves, April and her father, Ernesto. For some reason I was under the impression that the gentleman's name was Jeff and that he was her husband, so let's pray to God that I'm either thinking of a different advert or getting my wires crossed. I suspect Ancira advertising may place emphasis on the great savings to be had when you buy a truck, or at least a vehicle of some description - based on this being the theme of most automotive advertising rather than anything I remember watching. The aforementioned savings, if they are indeed a selling point, are probably made by not bothering with either actors, acting lessons, or anything you could reasonably call a script. Instead we are treated to a series of stilted, implausible exchanges between members of the Ancira family as they discuss the great savings to be had when you buy a truck, or at least a vehicle of some description, punctuated with awkward pauses and the kind of grinning I haven't seen since I was a regular subscriber to Fiesta, a gentleman's interest publication which encouraged photographic contributions from its readership. The aforementioned selection of Ancira family members also includes the children, who seem a bit young to be in cheesy television adverts, although I'm sure they had a blast filming the thing on someone's phone. I'm in my fifties but I still recall many aspects of childhood, and I know for sure that I didn't give two shits about savings made on automotive purchases.

Timely Fuck-up Preventative.
A slightly drippy woman has picked up a specially commissioned cake for her friend's baby shower. The word girl is spelled out on the top of the cake because, being a baby, there is not yet anything else which differentiates the guest of honour from others of its generation. A cake baked, for example, so as to resemble the original 1959 edition of William Burroughs' Naked Lunch would be potentially confusing. Another friend of the drippy woman sees the cake and points out that it has incorrectly identified the child's gender, because the child is male; and any righteous sword bearer of internet justice who can't tell the difference between what I've just written and Jerry Falwell blaming earthquakes on homosexuality can go fuck themselves.

'Oh shit!' exclaims the slightly drippy woman, or words to that effect. In all the excitement of laughing at jokes cracked by her salad during lunch, she must have forgotten the kid's gender, or else the baby was produced by a friend in whom she has very little emotional investment.

'Buick has an SUV for that,' the voice-over helpfully announces, implying that the vehicle in question - a Buick Encore - has been specifically designed to cater for the needs of those wishing to make last minute culinary amendments; and so our woman swerves through traffic, even turning corners and that sort of thing, returning promptly to the cake shop, thus preventing a misgenderisation disaster which they would have been talking about for years to come.

I had to conduct some research before writing this account, possibly because, being from England, I was previously unfamiliar with the term baby shower, and my primary association with the name Buick was as an onomatopoeic sound effect signifying emesis in an issue of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comic. All I took from this advertisement is therefore that women tend to forget the gender identity of children fairly easily, and that had the slightly drippy woman been driving any other vehicle, she would have been fucked.

Singing Boss.
I had a look on Google utilising car advert like a boss as my search term, and found that the commercial I'm looking for is not yet on YouTube but probably refers to the Acura RDX, which is apparently a type of car. I was looking for the current television advertisement for the Acura RDX, which I've seen on many, many occasions, and certainly enough to inspire a mad dash for the mute button on the remote each time it comes on; and yet so far as I am aware, I've never actually encountered the name Acura before just now, even though clearly I have; which at least means that all that stuff about how advertising works is bollocks invented by wankers who would very much like to continue getting paid for producing something of no value. Anyway, I found the 2015 Acura RDX commercial, and the similarities were sufficient to suggest my being on the right track. I don't actually remember much about the current advert beyond that it's annoying and makes use of the phrase like a boss, possibly suggesting that we, the viewers, should either drive like a boss, live our lives like a boss, or both. Aside from the point that bosses often prefer to be ferried around by a chauffeur, my principle objection stems from the fact that anyone who ever used the term like a boss in any context whatsoever is a fucking twat, so the suggestion that I might aspire to do something like a boss is annoying.

For what it may be worth, the 2015 advert features a woman driving her Acura RDX like a boss whilst singing along to Rapture by Blondie, and she's so lost in the moment that she misses a phone call from some important looking men in an office, who accordingly pull the faces which squares pull when confronted with reckless spontaneity. Amongst the usual YouTube comments about how it's the funniest thing someone or other has ever seen, we inevitably find:

Dumb commercial. That woman probably wasn't even born when the song was first out. She probably had no clue about it until she got hired to do the commercial. She sings like she is clueless.

Amongst the many retorts responding to the above as part of what expands into a truly Pinteresque debate, we find:

I and everyone here are now questioning your sexuality. You're either gay or women confuse and frighten you. More likely, though, it's your disgusting pot belly, neck beard and extra nipples that have you lashing out at women with your insecure cheap shots. These are just a few of my theories that are most certainly, all true.

So there you have it, whatever it may be.

Words for Wow.
Here's how different people express themselves when they first set eyes on the new Spunkenwangel Motherfucker, growls the voice, although I'm paraphrasing and I can't remember which truck is being advertised so I've just made one up. I've a feeling it might be some General Motors leviathan, although it could just as easily be a Chevrolet. I don't care enough to be able to retain information of such minor consequence. Anyway, the advertiser has rounded up a bunch of real dudes who definitely aren't actors from assorted libraries, opera houses, and university philosophy departments, and is showing them a new kind of truck in order to gauge their reactions. The point is that we all express ourselves in different ways, but each recorded report conveys the same semiotic information, specifically that the truck in question is the most amazing thing these guys have ever seen, so you should probably think about getting one. One of the men says, 'yes, sir,' presumably as short form for yes, sir - that is indeed an impressive truck. I think another one mumbles something like, that sure is an awesome truck. It's disappointing in so much as that the advert seems to promise grown men literally shitting themselves and going mad simply because of how amazing the truck is, or at least just one of the fuckers expressing something a little stronger than a general admission of the brisket having tasted pretty good this evening. Maybe they were distracted, still puzzling over Fermat's last theorum or what Jean Genet had to say about morality in Our Lady of the Flowers. That must have been it.

White Supremacist Dad Fail.
We see two dads. Both are loading up their cars with materials their respective daughters will need later that day. They are taking their respective daughters to play football, or some kind of sport requiring that one turn up with a whole load of kit. The respective daughters stand watching but offer no assistance, despite being twelve or possibly thirteen years of age and able bodied. The dad who bought the Honda is able to load his car without incident. The dad who foolishly drives some other brand of motor vehicle is meanwhile engaged in a ludicrous dance, hopping as he struggles to open a rear door with his foot, arms failing to contain all the equipment he is carrying. Balls, tennis rackets, oars, and self-inflating life rafts spill comedically from his grasp, he falls over, and probably quacks his pants too, although we don't actually get to see that detail. His daughter looks on with the faint sneer of a monocled Nazi officer, wishing her father had bought a fucking Honda and wondering whether she might have been adopted; or possibly she just looks a bit disappointed. I don't really remember. The thing I couldn't help but notice about this particular advertisement is that the Honda family are white whilst the hilarious loser clown family appear to be African-American.

That's kind of a troubling message you're sending out there, Honda. It's probably a good job our president hasn't yet seen the advert, because he'll do his bollocks when he does. He really hates that sort of thing. You can ask anyone.

Hominid Sales Unit Loves Her Job.
Once again I've forgotten the make of car advertised, so let's say it's a Sturmey Archer. This series of commercials visits the Sturmey Archer showroom, particularly focussing on the work of a particular saleswoman whose well-ordered personality and generic dispensation of moderately quirky humour seems to foreshadow Janet, the humanoid artificial intelligence from The Good Place. As with much contemporary entertainment, her humour mostly takes the form of well-known phrases of which the humorous element is simply their repetition - I hate when that happens, and that sort of thing - delivered so as to effect safely eccentric ideas such as that you don't have to be crazy to work here, but it helps! In one commercial, the showroom is surrounded by a horde of customers so numerous as to squash those at the front against the glass, somewhat suggesting a zombie apocalypse. We hear a low moan from the crowd as hands begin to beat against the glass, seeking entrance and subsequent access to great savings. An ordinary person would find this alarming, and yet Janet - as I'll call her - smiles beatifically because she understands that these people are keen to snap up a bargain Sturmey Archer vehicle in the sale.

'I love that sound,' she says, as though referring to some angelic choir.

It's a fucking good job I wasn't drinking coffee.

Bewildering Celebrity Hamster.
I already discussed this one under the heading of Grinning Fool Plays Air Drums back here, since which, new data has emerged. World Car is a local dealership in the general vein of Ancira, as described above, and so their commercials similarly have the look of having been made on someone's phone. Here's my earlier account of the stars of the commercial:

She is small and Hispanic, and he physically suggests a scenario in which aliens discovered the ruined body of Hoss from NBC's Bonanza on some distant asteroid and attempted to surgically restore him but, lacking any understanding of human physiology, found themselves obliged to use an Alfred E. Neuman heavy issue of Mad magazine for reference. Released back into the wild in the general vicinity of San Antonio, he was cruelly incapacitated by a thorn which became embedded in his mighty paw, but luckily the Latina woman happened to be passing and they've been faithful friends ever since.

This was written when I believed these two individuals to be employees, or perhaps even the owners of World Car, because this at least explains what they're doing in the advertisement. However, I recently learned that the large gentleman with the hamster cheeks is actually a local television celebrity of some description. In other words, these two have actually been paid to lend their own particular charismatic magic to the brand image of World Car. I'm sure they're wonderful people, especially if either of them happen to be reading this, but fucking hell...

Noel Edmonds' Stacked Deck.
He looks a bit like Noel Edmonds smoothly reimagined for the Hollywood retelling of his life, a little more handsome, tidier beard and so on; and he stands in a field with trucks. He has an audience, men and women with their children, but he's specifically addressing the children. 'Adolf Hitler used to drive Jews and homosexuals to the gas chamber in a Ford,' he explains - or words to that effect - 'so which truck do you think Daddy should buy? Do you think he would be wise to buy a nice award-winning Chevy Silverado, or do you think he should buy the Ford regardless because you're a Nazi-sympathiser and a fucking tool?'

There are other Chevy adverts in which Noel Edmonds 2.0 similarly puts loaded questions to members of the general public. They're mostly variations on a theme, and this one seems to be the most annoying. There's one in which we're told that members of the general public who are definitely not actors were so awestruck by the advertised truck as to be lost for words, followed by footage of the same group clambering all over the truck in question whilst exclaiming yes, sir, or now that's what I be talkin' 'bout, amongst other cliches; so it seems they weren't actually lost for words at all, not even figuratively speaking.

Never Confused.
Ram trucks - which I refuse to render as RAM in case it generates a thermonuclear quotient of testosterone - are made by Chrysler, according to Wikipedia, and they're somehow related to Dodge, which figures. I assumed they were just General Motors with a different logo, which just goes to show how much I know. Ludicrously massive trucks resembling a Claes Oldenburg version of a Tonka toy, complete with silicon boob-job tyres, are fairly popular in Texas so I see a lot of them. They're all more or less the same thing, and there's no real need for you to drive one unless you're directly involved in stock, rodeo, lawn care, or agriculture. So if you're a dentist driving one of those things, the rest of us are usually making jokes about how you probably have a fairly small penis, hence the overcompensation; and we've been making those jokes for fucking years now, just not to your face.

Ram's macho advertising campaign only underscores this possibility, and to the point that all those gravel-voiced cowboys just off-roadin' an' a fishin' an' a huntin' an' a pullin' out the ol' tree stump seem positively homoerotic, so much so that even I'm a bit turned on, and I was never confused. The latest advert features a few ladies ruggedly hanging around as the men grunt and squeeze the rubber grips of their galvanised metal tools, but they're not fooling anyone.