Friday, 18 May 2018

Starving Artists

We're on a fact finding expedition to something called the Starving Artists Show. Bess and myself have been gearing up to hitting the craft fairs in the hope of selling our respective works and generating a bit of wonga, and this constitutes research. I've been painting on canvas, and I need to know what to expect - what the standard is at this kind of event, how much people generally charge and for what? This will be new ground for me because I've previously only sold my paintings intermittently and have always worked in acrylics. Now I'm trying my hand at oils, meaning I'm effectively having to learn all over again.

The Starving Artists Show takes place in la Villita, roughly speaking a nineteenth century village of small limestone buildings at the heart of San Antonio, and which arguably was San Antonio back in the good old days of rickets and slavery. Today it's an artists' community just south of the city centre, meaning it's mostly galleries, stores selling hand crafted nick-nacks - some quite nice, some fucking awful - a couple of eating places, and general artisanal shite. I mostly think of the pieces sold in la Villita as art for people who don't really like art, but who otherwise pride themselves on knowing what they like. If you're after something with the intensity of a Billy Childish woodcut, then la Villita probably isn't where you're going to find it. On the other hand, it's not a bad place to pick up handmade Mexican folk art.

We begin with a visit to one of the stores because Bess is friends with the woman who works there. They talk and I wander around the shop, picking up clay figurines and inspecting them. The world of mass-produced injection-molded souvenir tat in which I grew up is long gone, but I still can't work out how I feel about its replacement. I like that the precious things of the shop were made by a human being, and I suppose they're nice enough in their own way; but they operate within a system of values which I don't understand. There's nothing here I really need to own, and I can't see the point of having anything you can't claim to need by some definition.

We move on, having had the obligatory discussion about our respective cats. The narrow streets of la Villita are lined with temporary tents and awnings, and each is hung with art of one kind or another, and all of it for sale. The standard is better than I'd anticipated. I'd expected lurid Disney characters scrawled by persons with more enthusiasm than talent, and although that stuff is here, it's thankfully in the minority. On the other hand, I'm surprised to realise that my own fledgling works in oil - of which I'm happy with less than half of those painted so far - are probably above average compared to most of these efforts. There isn't actually much I'd be happy to see hung in a gallery, the one exception being the work of an old guy specialising in Western themes, with desert landscapes painted at least to the standard of Frederic Remington. His canvases are large and he's asking hundreds of dollars for them. I too would be asking for hundreds of dollars had I painted them.

Moving on, the best work seems to be mostly what you could just about call Post-Impressionist, tending towards the representational, and competently so, but with a slightly wild approach to colour. There are plenty of abstract works, if we're going to call them works, but patently produced in the belief of splashes of colour being sufficient in and of themselves. The best abstract painters, in my view, tend to be those who learned to paint like Titian before moving on to non-representational realms of expression. You make a better job of breaking rules when you're at least a little familiar with what they are. I don't think those selling their work today have arrived at the abstract by quite the same route.

I look at the prices. There isn't much under one-hundred dollars, and those which are tend to be tiny nick-nacky canvas squares with a single twee image - a heart or a peace symbol which can't have taken more than a half minute of fingerpainting. I've been thinking of selling my canvases for around sixty dollars, at least those I like, so I guess I won't have to feel guilty about the possibility that I might be overcharging.

We turn the corner into the next street and it seems to be getting worse. More and more I'm seeing Frida fucking Kahlo. I don't have anything specific against Frida Kahlo, beyond that she tended to paint the same tea-towel self-portrait over and over again, but she was never the saviour of modernism - if anyone still remembers what that was.

We reach the lowest circle at the end of this second street - Mexican folk art and Día de los Muertos skulls embellished with the catchphrase Go Spurs Go. The San Antonio Spurs are the local basketball team, none of whom are actually from San Antonio because their success is such as to be able to afford players of ability
greater than any of the local hoop-shooting fucknuggets can apparently muster. The Spurs are a big deal if you don't have much else going on. When you see them, you call out Go Spurs Go to show your support and to affirm membership of the tribe. Personally I couldn't give a shit about the Spurs, and Go Spurs Go painted on a flowery skull is possibly the dumbest thing I've seen in my entire life.

Bess and I stand and stare for at least a couple of minutes, trying to imagine what it would be like to be so stupid as to get excited by Go Spurs Go painted on a flowery skull.

We beat a retreat, across South Alamo Street to the Hemisfair Park, which is where they held the World Fair back in 1968. I would have been three, and Bess would not yet have been born. It's been fifty years since the World Fair, so in addition to the Starving Artist Show, we have some manner of celebration marking the anniversary.

We watch Native Americans dancing on a stage for fifteen minutes, chants and drumming amplified through a PA. The theme of the 1968 World Fair was the coming together of cultures. Much like the crafty things of the shop, I'm not sure how I feel about this, about Native Americans reduced to a dab of ethnic colour in the sideshow, but then again, maybe that's preferable to their being rendered invisible. Maybe there isn't a single right answer to the question.

We eat Mediterranean food from a truck - probably khlea - and watch a German choir, many in lederhosen, choiring along to a CD of oompah band music. Then we ogle vintage cars with massive tailfins, vehicles resembling spacecraft of the fifties; then flamenco dancing performed by a troupe with a generation gap seemingly excluding anyone between the ages of about eight and sixty, so it's mostly old women and toddlers. I seem to be the only one confused by this.

Finally we head back to the car. We have the knowledge we need for the craft fair at which we'll be setting up shop in May, and if it all goes tits up, then I can always fall back on Frida Kahlo…

Frida Kahlo as Ariel from Disney's Little Mermaid, and big swirly letters running along the foot of the canvas: Go Spurs Go...

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Jersey Shore and the Labyrinth of Fear

Seven or eight young Italian-Americans come into town, and everything changes. By this standard, every story is a Jersey Shore story, as every Jersey Shore story is exactly that - seven or eight young Italian-Americans come into town looking to party, and everything changes.

And so as long as there are stories, there are Jersey Shore stories. When the stars go out and the universe freezes, around the last fire on the last world, there will still be Jersey Shore stories to tell. And when we are done telling them, at long and final last, in the distance will be a strange wheezing, groaning sound as Mike gets out of bed, rubs the sleep from his eyes and thinks about maybe grabbing some breakfast. And out he will presently step into the day - gym, tanning parlour, then laundry...

I believe this. I believe this because to disbelieve this is to disbelieve that stories have power.

To set Jersey Shore and the Labyrinth of Fear before our psychochonographical eye, we might discuss the day when Shakin' Stevens rode high in the Englishland charts with his cover of Green Door, a day upon which President Carter began talks with Giscard d'Estaing over what was to be done regarding the Lithuanian hostages, and when Marvel Comics carried the first advertisement for Hostess Twinkies to be counted as official Marvel Universe canon. We might discuss these things, but we're actually referring to Curtis Phallocrat's amazing novelisation which came out a little later; besides which, Shakin' Stevens is like this totally iconic Englishland singer and you probably haven't heard of him, but I have; and I wouldn't want you to be confused.

So, let us instead cast our thoughts back to that fateful day upon which Jersey Shore and the Labyrinth of Fear first appeared in the hallowed halls of WHSmiths. WHSmiths is like this totally iconic book store in Englishland and everybody goes there. It's really amazing. You probably won't have heard of it, but I have.

The Cartoons were riding high in the charts with their cover of David Seville's 1958 novelty hit, Witch Doctor; Freddy Got Fingered entered its third record-breaking week at the box office, cementing its reputation as the best-selling film of all time; and meanwhile Maurice Augières had just broken the land speed record in Dourdan, France. These may seem like unrelated facts, but only to those who understandeth not the magic of psychochronography, which is a means of examining important cultural events in terms of their impact by means of mentioning other stuff which happened at the same time; so if it seems like it's just a review, then you are to be pitied, my unsophisticated friend. We travel in spaces much deeper.

Dourdan is like this totally iconic place in France. You probably haven't heard of it, but I have.

Let's take a look at the novel.

'What is it?' asked the Situation uncertainly.

'Ronnie lost it again,' admitted Snookie sadly, and they both gazed across the dance floor to where Ronnie could be seen yelling red-faced at the unfortunate Sammi. Thankfully the music was loud, so no-one could hear what Ronnie was shouting, but the shape of his lips seemed to be forming rude, insulting words. He looked very angry.

'What's going on?' asked Jwoww as she came back from the bar with her tequila.

Situation pulled a face and pointed to their quarrelling housemates.

'Oh man,' Jwoww exclaimed. 'Again?'

This is a clear homage to the fight scene in Bleak House by Charles Dickens, because the magic of Jersey Shore is that it can be used to tell any kind of story, and here it has been used to tell a story which harks back to the fight scene in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, as originally serialised in Sounds music paper by none other than Alan Moore. Sounds was published by the British Natural Party which is a racist organisation because Nicky Crane was on the cover of the second Oi! album and he was a famous racist. Alan Moore has since refused to comment upon the time when he was drawing cartoons of Buster Bloodvessel for a Nazi skinhead magazine.

Charles Dickens is like this totally iconic author in Englishland, and we'll just pretend he didn't get his best ideas from watching Jersey Shore for the sake of argument. They all read his books over there in Englishland. They probably haven't heard of Jersey Shore, but we have, which is probably why they don't realise where Charles Dickens has been getting all of his best ideas. You probably won't have heard of Charles Dickens, but I have.

Shame on you, Alan Moore.

Friday, 4 May 2018

Writing on the Wall

We've driven to Austin on the spur of the moment. Bess took the day off for a doctor's appointment and something at the bank additionally requiring my signature, and suddenly we had the whole day free to do with as we chose. So here we are at Austin Graffiti Park because Bess wanted to take a look at the place before they dig it up and move it to some other site out near the airport. It's officially known as the HOPE Outdoor Gallery, with the acronym standing for Helping Other People Everywhere. It was a housing project on the side of a hill, abandoned and ruined leaving only the walls, adopted by local graffiti artists, then made official during some SXSW event or other.

I quite like some graffiti art, although I don't really care whether you call it art or not. I particularly like the stuff I've seen sprayed on the side of Union Pacific railroad carriages which I encounter on an at least weekly basis as I follow the Tobin Trail beneath the bridge at Wetmore. I like what I see sprayed all across the southside of the city, which owes at least as much to the tradition of Mexican muralists as to anything else; and back in 1999 when I first visited Mexico City, I walked into the hotel bar on my very first night and met a couple of guys from the New York based Tats Cru - south of the border for some family wedding - which is probably equivalent to meeting royalty in graffiti terms.

Here in Austin, it's overcast and my enthusiasm probably isn't what it could be. We drove past a guy with a tail and I am now primed to expect idiocy. He looked to be in his late thirties and additionally wore a fedora, which is always a bad sign. His tail was long and bushy, yellow with black stripes, extending down from the seat of his pants almost to the ground. I realise how irrational it may seem to take such a profound dislike to a stranger based solely on their unorthodox appearance, but I'd probably go so far as to say that I actively hate the guy.

We find a place to park, then follow the street back along to the HOPE Outdoor Gallery. It's just a ruined pile of concrete junk set into the hillside, but with every surface a chaotic riot of colour. Empty spray cans and trash are strewn all around, and the place swarms with visitors climbing up and down worn slopes to the higher levels. It resembles the sets you always see in post-apocalyptic wasteland films, and I'm feeling a little underwhelmed. Worse still, the guy with the tail was apparently on his way here. He's set up shop with a marginally less irritating friend. They occupy the small central plaza of the site. They seem to be practicing circus skills with musical accompaniment from a smart phone hooked up to a battery-driven amplifier. I assume it's battery-driven, but maybe someone found a way to generate electricity by harnessing the annoyingness particles given off by useless wankers.

'Shouldn't you be working in a fucking bank or something?' I mutter as I watch the man with the tail juggling some kind of semi-circular dingus. He has the tip of his tail held between his teeth so that it doesn't get tangled up in whatever the fuck he's now started doing with a hula hoop, because having a tail can be such a pain  - always getting caught up in things. I can feel my inner Hank Hill beginning to bristle as I prepare a speech about growing up, responsibility and so on.

'This is why people voted for Trump,' I tell Bess.

'I know,' she sighs.

We climb up one of the banks past giant nopal cacti sprayed lurid dayglo shades which nature never managed. This too annoys me, at least a little. It suggests a lack of respect for the natural world, as does the scree of plastic spray can detritus; but, you know, just so long as cunts get to express their precious creativity...

We pass a couple of young women on their way up the slope. One has short blonde hair, ostentatiously large spectacles, and a wide, unpleasant mouth.

'She's an artist and activist,' I growl quietly, in obscure reference to iO, occasional co-host of MTV's Catfish whose name is differently capitalised so as to challenge the phallocratic orthodoxy of having a normal fucking name like everyone else.

The corner of one wall is sprayed with the words TRUMP 4 LYFE in silver.

'See,' I say. 'I told you!'

We climb back down, then along, and then up the other side. Here and there we can see the remains of some lovingly rendered image sinking beneath a sea of hastily sprayed tags and markers.

'Why would you spray your stupid fucking name over that? How does that add to anything?'

'I know. It's dumb.'

Kids pick spray cans from the ground, shaking them to see if there's any paint left, occasionally adding a name to the chaos, or the Beautiful Chaos as one piece would have it; except it's no longer beautiful. It's just chaos.

Later I will learn that permits were once required, ensuring that only persons with either talent or something worth saying could add to the graffiti park, so what I'm presently seeing is what has happened since whoever looks after the place stopped caring.

It will be demolished anyway, so what does it matter?

Find a spray can and express yourself.

Most have expressed themselves as names. There's a shittily drawn eye in a pyramid submitted by someone who probably believes themself to be a bit of a deep thinker, and most depressing of all are the wonky school logos, Central Catholic and the like. I've never really understood people who enjoyed school but I can accept that they exist and probably had their reasons, but proudly spraying the name of your school on a wall seems like the most retarded thing I've ever heard of. Proud to be a drone, it seems to say, proud to be a component! Check out this awesome barcode I just had tattooed on my forehead.

What else can I tell you? I'm a good company man through and through. Ha ha! Guilty as charged.

I'm a tool. Hear me roar in accordance with accepted community standards. Here's my roaring permit if you need to see it.

'So,' I say to Bess, 'they're going to move all of this to some other place?'

'That's what I was told.'

'I can't see the point. Can you?'


'It's not like there's anything special here.'

Later I read that they're moving a token lump of wall for the sake of physical continuity, but this crap will otherwise be bulldozed to make way for some new development.

Yet, the longer we hang around, the more we begin to see the place as it was. Here and there, an image emerges from the Jackson Pollock scrawl. There are lost wildstyle tags in jagged letters six foot high, pink, blue and other strange contrasts of colour, names you have to know to be able to read. There are faces and heads, Snoopy and el Chavo - a child played by an old man in a slightly disturbing Mexican kid's show. There are traces of what you could even call art, now drowning in the free expression of JOSH and Central Catholic and some witless Biblical reference needlessly sprayed across the once relatively proud visage of something that was either an armadillo or a futuristic robot. This is what happens when you give people free reign. Despite the best of intentions, they never have anything to say that's worth saying, and next thing you know - oh dang, look who we just voted for!

We pass a young couple. The boy is long-haired, skinny as a rake, over six foot, and he looks about seventeen at most. He wears a psychedelic top and circular rose-tinted Lennon specs. He's either got himself lost on the way to a costume parade or undercover cops are getting younger and younger. There's a third possibility - that he's just some hopeless twat trying too fucking hard like everyone else here - but I'm not thinking about it because I know that if I do it will annoy me.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Eyewitness News

Our local news programme is broadcast by KENS5 and is called Eyewitness News, or at least I think that's how it works in so much as that I assume KENS5 is the name of the station. It seems to alternate with CBS. We get the CBS national news before six, and then the local stuff afterwards on the same channel, up until half past - at which point the immeasurably more informative Wheel of Fortune comes on. Our anchorman is usually Jeff Brady, distinguished by his eyebrows being a different colour to the rest of his hair, like Max Clifford; and like Max Clifford, he's a white guy. All of the news team are white, apart from a few unusually pallid Latinos. It still strikes me as odd that here in San Antonio, a city wherein a mere 40% of the populace are anything other than Hispanic, a city wherein most kitchen sinks have three taps - or faucets if you really must - hot, cold, and Cholula sauce - and yet our news is brought to us by the whitest people you've ever seen. Last week we had a light brown guy vaguely resembling Barack Obama sitting in for Jeff, who was presumably otherwise indisposed, but today we're back with Jeff.

Except I'm not because I've missed the first minute, so I turn on in the middle of a news report brought to us by Henry Ramos. Some kid has been shot. We focus on the boy's father for a little longer than seems comfortable. He is distraught, in tears and rocking back and forth saying that his boy was amazing, over and over.

'He was amazing,' he says. 'He was amazing. He was amazing.'

The police are claiming that there is some discrepancy between the evidence and the father's statement. In the house they have found three handguns, an AR15 - which by the way stands for army rifle - a shotgun, and more than fifty live rounds of ammunition. Maybe the guy was protecting this innocent weaponry from liberals and other people who hate America.

The next minute, we're into the weather. Bill Taylor seems to be on the television all the time. He may even be his own channel by this point. He's one of those big grinning wardrobe shaped men who walks like a crab and seems to have been modelled on John Wayne. His grin reveals a large gap dividing his two front teeth, and his speech is often peppered with cornball jokes of the kind you see in old shows such as Leave it to Beaver. The weather has been record breaking, although which record it has broken this time is left unstated so maybe it's a figure of speech. Anyway, there was a storm last night and it's been raining a lot. Bill warns us that the water level of the San Antonio river is rising, which is what tends to happen when it rains around here. Bill shows us footage of rainfall and pictures of water. He grins and flaps his arms and cracks jokes, but he really could have just left it at it's been raining a lot.

We return to the main desk. Jeff talks about his experience of it having rained a lot, and then we go to Sharon Ko for a traffic report. It's been raining a lot so there's a lot of water on the roads and highways, and Sharon shows us footage of what that looks like in the hope that it will inspire us to take care when driving. It doesn't rain much in our part of Texas, but when it rains, it rains a lot and so the rivers fill up and there is water on the roads and we all have to drive carefully. That's how it works.

Three minutes in and we inevitably go to the subject of the Final Four, with the guy who resembles Barack Obama now relegated to reporting from somewhere downtown. The Final Four is some kind of major basketball event which has taken over the city. Everyone is coming to San Antonio to see it, and everyone is excited apart from me. There will be live bands and everything. The Obama guy asks Dan Gavitt what makes San Antonio such a great city in which to host the Final Four. I don't actually know who Dan Gavitt is, but here's his answer:

'Some of it is the history of the tournament here. Some of it is the culture of this great place. I mean certainly, you know, the river walk, proximity to the Alamo Dome, hotels… It's such a convenient place for everyone to attend the Final Four. It's special.'

So there you have it. While Dan explains, text runs along the bottom edge of the television screen, briefly referring to news items either less important or less local: President Trump has done something or other, there have been shootings, something about a mosque in Canada, then cures for cancer, and a claim made that social media is making America look bad in the eyes of the rest of the world.

Regardless, we're still concerned with sport sport sport sport sport, and now specifically the news that Trevone Boykin has been arrested, and that's really his name. He's some big cheese football player and he was born in Mesquite, Texas. To further establish the theme of local boy made good then more recently less good, we are told that he was arrested right here in San Antonio back in 2015 for assaulting one of our very own cops. This time he has tried to choke his girlfriend and has broken her jaw, which we can see from the footage of her trying to speak through a swollen face.

Go Seahawks!

At six minutes past, we return to the traffic. A woman stands blue-screened over footage of traffic crawling along our major highways, one scene of the same thing after another. We can see an ambulance on the hard shoulder in the final scene, lights flashing.

'There's been another accident on I-35,' our woman tells us, presumably having just noticed it on the monitor, off camera.

So that's what those flashing light van things are for.

Jeff promises that we'll be curing diabetes right after these messages. The screen is a montage of burgers, fries, tacos, and all manner of greasy food. My guess is that someone will be telling us how this sort of food is bad for us, particularly if we don't want to catch diabetes.

The messages are a trailer for Wheel of Fortune, then one for Neighborhood Eats, a morning show in which some guy checks out different diners and eating places right here in San Antonio. All the trailers I've seen for the show seem to feature him eating burgers.

There's a facebook group dedicated to this same thing called Eat in SA, but I got tired of the discussion about burgers.

Hey! I had a really great burger at this place the other night.

San Antonio has many great restaurants and eating places with cuisine from all over the world, and as you might expect given the cultural composition of the general populace, some of the Mexican places are so good that I'd happily bear arms for them should it ever be required; and yet there's somehow still people seeking that elusive perfect lump of ground beef in a fucking bun. My position on this is that whilst a decent burger can be nice every once in a while, it's basically children's food and is as such fairly limited. In a city where you could be eating the mole poblano served at Guajillos on the corner of 410 and Blanco, if you're still looking for the perfect burger, then frankly you're a fucking idiot, to my way of thinking.

The Neighborhood Eats trailer is followed by commercials for Champion AC, World Car Nissan, Conn's Home Plus, and Chevrolet. We're nine minutes in.

Next up is Real Men Wear Gowns, a regular feature of Eyewitness News dedicated to men's health, although usually covering health issues which apply to more or less everyone. Tonight we're looking at men's diabetes, or diabetes as it is also known.

'We know there is no cure for diabetes,' Jeff tells us, 'but researchers right here in San Antonio are working to change that,' and so follows the report from Jeremy Baker, who reminds me a lot of Kenny, Earl's gay friend in My Name is Earl. Kenny - or rather Jeremy - introduces footage of Mr. Rodriguez who presently suffers from men's diabetes. We learn that it's good to eat fresh vegetables and to engage in regular exercise, but it's bad to sit on your arse stuffing your face with the sort of crap beloved of the guy on Neighborhood Eats; so that's another one of life's eternal mysteries well and truly cleared up. Mr. Rodriguez says that he is going to try to get more exercise in future, and the rest of Real Men Wear Gowns looks suspiciously like an advertisement for Forxiga, a pharmaceutical product which already has its own advert and which some medical dude just happens to be studying.

At eleven minutes past the hour we go back to more commercials, beginning with a particularly weird one for Aramendia Plumbing, a local company working to a presumably tight budget. The adverts feature horrific CGI gremlins knackering someone's bathroom, as discovered by horrified overacting children. It's followed by a commercial for Rooms to Go, then a trailer for yet more of Bill Taylor's weather - coming up later on Eyewitness News - then Popeye's fried chicken with that irritating bloody woman, Ram trucks, then Chevrolet, yet again.

At fourteen minutes past, we learn of a question which will be included in the 2020 census. The question is are you a US citizen? The State Representative for El Paso has been campaigning against the inclusion of this question in the census, rightly suggesting that it will skew the results by leaving those who aren't citizens reluctant to fill in the census for fear of being rumbled, then personally loaded into a cannon by the president and fired back over that wall he keeps saying he's definitely going to start building any day now. The question seems to have been included because Ted Cruz, who was born in Canada, asked for it to be included. Ted Cruz, for the benefit of anyone unfamiliar with this wonderful man, is essentially an unfriendly version of Grandpa Munster.

Sixteen minutes in and Jeff tells us about how recent weather conditions may have impacted upon local agriculture, specifically those with strawberry farms whose livelihoods may be left in tatters by the winter we've just had, which has been a really weird and screwy one by Texas standards, but that's just one of those things rather than anything to do with climate change because climate change was invented by lefties who never learned to drive and are jealous of the rest of us with our cool sports cars.

Anyway, the point is that certain farmers are probably fucked.

'The weather we've had could be berry bad for business,' Jeff quips.

'Oh no you didn't,' we hear Bill Taylor chortle in response.


Enjoy your new jobs at McDonalds, farmers! Ha ha!

At seventeen minutes past we join Bill Taylor for the weather yet again. I've lost count of how many times we've had the weather so far, but it feels like this is the third or fourth instalment.

It's been raining a lot.

This is the section of the news which feels like some sort of CGI showreel. Bill talks and grins us through seven or eight variations on the same basic bit of information, utilising a bewildering series of maps, graphs and imagineered forecasts. It takes a full three minutes to get through the lot, during which the text running along the foot of the screen announces the advent of a pinball machine themed to the songs of hard rock group, Iron Maiden. The pinball machine will be called The Legacy of the Beast, and definitely no more storms tonight, even though it has been raining a lot.

Now we see Bill wander across the studio to meet with Joe Reinagel, the sports guy and another one of those big grinning wardrobe shaped men who walks like a crab and seems to have been modelled on John Wayne.

A couple of weeks ago my wife and I got a new kitten. She just turned up on our doorstep so we took her in. She seems to have bonded with Jello, a slightly older cat who now seems to regard her as his kitten and occasionally grooms and bathes her with his tongue. Daisy, which is what we've called her, is not yet allowed outside. When Jello comes in, she always perks up, running to meet him, tail aloft and meowing happily.

This is kind of what happens when Bill and Joe meet, and I think we're supposed to find it cute by some definition. They joke, but their humour is tedious, mostly upper arm punches and how 'bout those Cowboys! Tonight they're talking about the Final Four. We see footage of sports dudes arriving by coach from Chicago right here in our city! Then we see footage of a plane landing.

'It's an exciting time for all of us,' some guy declares. As a news item, this amounts to the event which is going to happen soon is still going to happen soon.

Next we learn that the San Antonio Spurs lost, or they won but in a bad way, or something happened, or maybe it was a draw. Joe describes some aspect of this as crucial, and we go to footage of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs head coach, mumbling something in relation to whatever Joe just told us.

'It doesn't mean crap. None of that stuff matters. It's kind of cool and we did that for a long time; and other than that, it's worth a cup of coffee or something.'

That's what he actually says, so I have no idea what any of this could be about beyond that it seems to devalue Joe Reinagel's assignation of anything being crucial. More interesting to me is that the coach's name is Gregg, spelt the same way as that of the bakery.

Anyway, we're onto the subject of whether or not there will be a ban regarding sports persons kneeling for the national anthem, or possibly failing to kneel for the national anthem, whichever is worse. This doesn't actually seem to be a news item so much as a rhetorical question.

The final commercial break advertises the upcoming Selena festival celebrating the life and music of Selena, who was a big deal here in San Antonio. This is followed by something about wheelie bins, then Alamo Toyota, and finally the Texas State Aquarium.

We're back to Eyewitness News for the Final Play, as Joe calls the feature, usually with a grin or a wink to signal that we're in for a real treat right after these messages.

Better hold onto your hats, kids. This one's a real doozy, yes sir.

This time he's dispensed with the usual chortling preface to what is almost always YouTube footage of some sports person falling over or failing to catch a ball. Instead we see a baseball player at the edge of the field exchanging his bat for a hot dog with some supporter. This occurred during a game.

Ordinarily we would pan across to Jeff, Joe, Bill and whatever the lady newsreader is called all chuckling away.

Have you ever in your life seen anything like that!?

We pan across tonight, but just for a few seconds. Usually we get half a minute of banter as they describe people falling over or recall previous side-splitting instances of sports persons failing to catch balls.

We must have run out of time.

It's over.

I can't remember much beyond more weather than we could possibly need and sport sport sport sport sport…

Six hours later, thunder splits the heavens and I am woken by brilliant flashes of lightning.

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.


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.