Thursday, October 4, 2012

Eight things I loved about September

~ 8 ~ Paralympics: I'll be honest: I didn't watch as much of the Paralympics as I would have liked. I managed to take in the opening ceremony and became so annoyed with Jon Snow's inane commentary (if you were lucky enough to miss it, he did nothing but list off the tragic wars each country had been in, until Germany showed up, at which point he chose to comment on their hats) that it took several days for me to feel interested in watching again. Channel 4's coverage seemed incomplete by and large, with much of it consisting of Clare Balding and Adrian Adepitan sitting in a studio talking about things that had happened, rather than showing those things. Then, suddenly, it was the closing ceremony and Rhianna was sailing Annie Lennox's steam punk ship up to do a little sing-song with Chris Martin.
But on principle, see, I really liked the Paralympics. I liked that so many Britons were keen to watch, and show up at the stadium. I liked that Channel 4's coverage, though not as good as the BBC's Olympic Games coverage, was so thorough and immeasurably better than what NBC provided (or, rather, did not provide). This past summer was one that bolstered the British spirit: the Queen's jubilee, Andy Murray, the Olympics, the Paralympics, and so on. Britons' genuine enthusiasm for the Paralympics was a reason to feel pride in this island of rain that I seem to now be calling my home. Britons are sometimes just a little too self-critical for my liking, and you start to wonder why any of them ever stay. The summer of 2012, however, was one in which people allowed themselves to admit that –– despite the rain –– there are reasons to stick around.

~ 8 ~ Visiting Devon: Devon is one such reason to stick around. Jenn and I travelled down to her native turf in September to celebrate her grandmother's birthday. Much of the family on Jenn's paternal side were there, including several people I had never met before, which provided for another thing about which I am consistently happy, regardless of month: Jenn's family don't hate me. Or, if they do, they are very good at hiding it. I usually feel pretty welcome around my future in-laws, which, obviously is a good thing.
Devon itself, meanwhile, was lovely and not too terribly rainy. We had a barbecue at Jenn's grandparents' house, and as the resident Texan I was placed on grill duty. It's in my blood, see. I don't read so good, but I have innate talent for putting animal flesh to flame. And I was happy to do it. Social gatherings are always awkward things for me. But if I can stand there focusing on a given task, rather than having to try to figure out what to do with myself, I am more comfortable. Everyone claimed to be happy with their food and no one had to be taken to hospital with food poisoning, so I suppose I did alright.
There were also opportunities for walks on the beach and a visit to On The Waterfront in Exeter: a pub/pizza place on the banks of the River Exe.
On the way to and from Devon we made little side trips to Cheddar Gorge and Killerton respectively. I wish time and money allowed Jenn and I the opportunity to do stuff like this more often. I am pretty sure one of the reasons I so often get frustrated with life in the Soggy Nations is that I get very little chance to see more of it than what exists outside my door. I don't get around as much as I'd like.

~ 8 ~ Driving an Audi A4: The reason I don't get around much, of course, is that I don't have a car. Oh, sure, that makes me environmentally friendly and I save hundreds of pounds a year, but great googly moogly is it frustrating. I think this is especially true for myself: someone who has so long attached his sense of freedom to cars. It is legal for a person to drive in the United States when they are 16 years old; on my 16th birthday I insisted upon taking the day off from school to get my license. Being without a car in Britain makes me feel like a bird with clipped wings.
I was delighted, then, when Jenn and I decided the most effective means of getting to Devon was to rent a car. Rant goes here about how much the UK train companies suck for making their services so inefficient and expensive that renting a car is the more intelligent choice. And I don't mean the more convenient choice. Remember that Jenn works for an organisation that encourages people to use public transportation; I work for an organisation that promotes Britain's natural landscapes. We are the sort of people who go out of our way to be all Earth-friendly, yo. But here it was just plain stupid and Byzantine to travel by train.
So, I rented the cheapest thing Avis offers. When I showed up, however, the guy behind the counter clocked my American accent and asked: "Do you mind driving an automatic? I've got one here and most people aren't comfortable with it. They'd prefer a manual."
Huh? Who can't drive an automatic?
"Yeah, no problem," I said.
And on that I was given the keys to an Audi A4. Oh, my sweet baby Jesus in heaven, that was a nice car. I need more of that sort of thing in my life. I have decided that I need to become obnoxiously wealthy so I can own one.
Also, completely to my surprise, it was fuel-efficient. A diesel, it sipped petrol and we were able to drive from Cardiff to Devon and back, with all the side trips between, for just £40. That same trip in the Honda I used to own would have cost roughly £100.

~ 8 ~ An evening at the Hardwick: Our friend, Laura, turned 30 in September and decided to celebrate with about 60 birthday parties. One of those involved a small group of us staying the night at the Hardwick, the gastro pub/hotel run by Great British Menu regular Stephen Terry in Abergavenny. Terry doesn't have a Michelin star to his name but has worked for a number of chefs who did and has competed against several who do on Great British Menu. In other words, he's one of the best chefs you're likely to find in gastronomically deprived Wales.
Actually, in fairness, I don't eat at enough fine restaurants to claim that Wales is gastronomically deprived. I just know other people say that, and it is a claim that seems to be backed up by the dearth of Michelin-starred restaurants in Wales (there are just four [a]). For my own part, though, I have never eaten at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Not once. So, going to the Hardwick felt very much like a treat.
And by and large it was a treat. Assuming you like your treats on the salty side. Don't go there if you have high cholesterol. I went there healthy, though, and had a good time. Between seven people, we ran up a bill of £500 ($804), which made me feel a bit sick, but I suppose that's what you pay for salty fine cuisine. I'll bet Stephen Terry drives an Audi.

~ 8 ~ Lindy hop: People often assume that my love of Strictly Come Dancing translates into a desire to dance. I can see why people would make such a logical leap, but being fascinated by something does not always equate with wanting to do it. Bull riding, for example. I can watch hours of bull riding, but I have no desire whatsoever to tie myself to an angry 1-ton animal. But, in this case, when Jenn came home one day and suggested we sign up for Lindy Hop classes, I decided I wanted to do it.
Have you ever watched those Lindy Hop videos on YouTube? Who wouldn't want to dance like that? But, as it turns out, that stuff's really super hard. After a month of going to classes, Jenn and I are still struggling with the basic step. I have the rhythm of an old car tumbling down a hill. That's an image that probably doesn't make a great deal of sense, but I can see it in my mind and I assure you: the sound of the old '54 Hudson of my imagination being tumbled down a Nevada hillside is wholly arhythmic. It is an image that best describes my dancing: clunky, graceless and deeply saddening. But I'm sticking to it. Jenn and I are dreaming we will somehow have progressed enough by our wedding day to do some sort of impressive first dance.

~ 8 ~ Pulphead, by John Jeremiah Sullivan: As a writer, every once in a while you will come across an author who makes you sit back and think: "Oh, that is it. This person has hit it. They've grasped that intangible thing."
This may or may not make sense to you. In my writing I feel I am always reaching for something, trying to encompass something in a beautiful-perfect way. Like when you hear a song and the beat makes you move or grunt involuntarily. Have you ever had that happen? You're at a bar and some whatever band is playing blues, and in a perfect moment it goes from being a bunch of dads killing time on a Wednesday night to something pivotal, a mile marker in your life: I was there when all the notes came together and all the band seemed to lurch at exactly the right moment, everything aligned, the harmonica player wailed through his harp and suddenly I felt myself shouting "Oh!" –– a moan that had not been thought or processed but was issued simply and purely from my soul.
As a writer, you –– or, at least, I –– ache to figure out how to create that moment with words. How to describe a feeling or thought in such a way that the reader will think: "this is the thing in its best form." Barbara Kingsolver does it pretty much all the way through The Lacuna. Hemingway and Kerouac had a tendency to hit it, then veer pretty far off the mark attempting to hit it again.
That's more or less how I feel about John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead. The reaction I had to the book, which is well-written, funny and informative, was more one of thinking: "See. There. That's almost what I'm trying to do. This is what I've been aiming at."
He gets at it, whatever it is, in the way that I'm always trying to. His is closest to the style I'm trying to develop. If you like books that are good, I suggest buying a copy. There is a tendency in reviews to compare Sullivan with Hunter S. Thompson, but I think that is a lazy comparison based, it seems, solely on the fact that both are writers from Kentucky.

~ 8 ~ Doctor Who: Well, that series came and went pretty quickly, didn't it? Though, I'm not sure how much more I could have taken. Each episode made me cry. Also, can someone explain to me why the Doctor couldn't just go back in time to wherever Amy and Rory were sent by the weeping angels? I didn't quite get that one. Indeed, why would the Doctor have any sense of his friends being dead unless, as in the case of Rose, they have been zapped into a parallell universe? He can always just go back to a time before they died and hang out with them.
One thing you do have to like, though, is that the Doctor has now been written to a clean slate. He's erased all record of himself throughout time and space and he is now companionless. Which means he can be moulded into something new and different. Whether writers will choose to do anything with such an opportunity remains to be seen.

~ 8 ~ Parade's End: Just before the Olympics, Matt Smith was in a one-off drama in which he portrayed 1948 gold medallist Bert Bushnell. It was a fun little show but it really felt like the subtitle could have been: "The story of how Doctor Who won gold in Olympic rowing in 1948." Matt Smith playing any character is still Matt Smith.
Parade's End was a short drama series that ran through September starring Benedict Cumberbatch, who, of course, is best known for playing Sherlock Holmes in another of Steven Moffat's wildly successful projects. In this case, though, it was not Sherlock Holmes set around WWI. Cumberbatch managed an entirely different character –– a wholly believable and wholly different person. He was helped, of course, in the fact that he had a brilliant (albeit occasionally difficult to follow) script from Tom Stoppard.

[a] There are just 10 in the whole of the United States, so obviously it is a system that is not the final word on great cuisine


Anonymous said...

Dr. Who couldn't go back to see Rory and Amy where the weeping Angels had them because them killing themselves had created a paradox that caused the space and time thingy to go all crazy and shit so the tardis couldn't land.

Anonymous said...

Yep-Devon is lovely, and Lindy hop is hard.....