Thursday, 13 October 2016


It's late summer, 2013 and there's going to be a science-fiction convention right here in San Antonio, something called Worldcon which happens every year and is apparently a big deal. I read a lot of science-fiction and I also write science-fiction, but I've never really quite been able to bring myself to think of events of this kind as having anything to do with me. Advertising will typically centre on some person from Babylon 5 being in attendance to sign copies of his autobiography, but that's a television show. I suppose it's science-fiction, technically speaking, but foremost it's a television show. I can't think of a television show I'd watch rather than read a book, and were there one, it probably wouldn't be science-fiction. I vaguely recall having seen two or three episodes of Babylon 5 - one of the good ones, according to its devotees - but it did nothing for me and it seemed to lack a sense of humour.

Apparently I have what is termed an elitist or snooty attitude, meaning I think I'm better than everyone else because my opinions do not reflect those of the majority. All I know is that after the first ten minutes of most television dramas, I'm usually restless and I begin to wonder is this really all it is?; and then my mind wanders to whatever I've been reading of late, meaning I begin to lose track of which character is which and why they just said that to wossisname. It's difficult to avoid a certain sense of superiority when it dawns on you just how easily satisfied so many of your contemporaries appear to be - predicated on their being able to sit through an entire hour of this shit - but then, doesn't everyone regard themselves as superior to those around them? Psychosis aside, is there anyone who genuinely thinks I'm the same as other people, or even I'm much worse than everyone I know?

Still, Roberto will be in town, and he's been making noises about Worldcon, so I figure maybe I should go. It might be interesting and it might even be fun, which probably wouldn't be the case were I to go on my own. When I say Roberto will be in town, I'm referring to San Antonio but I suppose I also mean America because he's Italian. I know Roberto only through an internet connection. He's one of a seemingly dwindling international group of persons who frequent an internet stoop dedicated to the science-fiction author Clifford D. Simak. Simak wrote quietly contemplative and distinctly pastoral science-fiction novels which achieved some popularity throughout the fifties, sixties, and seventies, but he seems to have been largely forgotten in an age wherein the term science-fiction has come to mean generically bland CGI splattered noisily across a screen. The appeal of Simak has apparently determined that those still reading his novels tend to be people who, like myself, don't like loud noises and probably come across as kind of boring to those who do.

Of course, no corner of the internet would be complete without a few disagreeable wankers, and we've even had to banish a few ornery varmints from the virtual stoop upon which we Simak readers perch with our pipes discussing how we all preferred the old beige before some dang fool tried to modernise it and only ended up making it worse; and there's Old Bill who seems eternally committed to proving that he loves Simak so much more than the rest of us, who signs his missives from the bluff, as though he's not sat whining at a fucking computer in a house with electricity, gas, and running water. Old Bill took particular issue with my views on Simaks' somewhat disappointing A Choice of Gods of 1972. I had the impression that Old Bill felt I should have consulted him before expressing an opinion, and he referred to things of which I would probably have had a better understanding had I grown up in the bosom of nature like what he did - oblivious to the fact that I lived on a farm for the first decade of my life.

Anyway, Roberto is one of the more communicative members of the group, even though he sometimes claims to struggle with English. We struck up some kind of rapport when he was ordering a framed print from an artist based somewhere in the American south-west. The problem was that the postage to Italy was extortionate, and in any case he didn't really care about the frame. In the end, he bought the print and had it delivered to me in San Antonio. I removed the artwork from the frame, repackaged it in a sturdy cardboard tube, and then mailed it to him from England when I flew back to visit my parents. It was a convoluted process, but he seemed happy and I was glad to be able to help out. He and his wife have been to America before, notably visiting the small town of Millville, Wisconsin in which Clifford D. Simak was born. This time they're visiting my end of the country, so it seems like an idea to meet up, and their holiday coinciding with Worldcon suggests itself as an opportunity of which we should probably take advantage.

Happily the kid is staying with his father this weekend, because since learning of visitors from Italy most of his conversation has been limited to jokes about Mario Brothers and pizza. It's already sufficiently nerve-racking meeting new people without having to worry about Junior breaking into a few verses of Do the Mario, regardless of the potential irony that he is himself vaguely Italian if you go back a couple of generations.

My wife and I pick Roberto and Rosanna up from their hotel, and I suddenly realise that I'm now the guy showing the out-of-towners around the place I live; which is weird because I was still the foreigner when I woke up this morning. I'm in a position equating to authority and I'm not sure I like it.

We go to eat at La Fonda which specialises in a local variation on Mexican food. It's been called Mexican food for people who don't like Mexican food, but that's really just snobbery and doesn't reflect the quality of what they serve. The place is no Blanco Cafe or Bandera Jalisco, but the food is nevertheless decent, and it seems a prudent choice given Roberto's stated suspicion of anything involving volcanically hot chillies.

We eat, trying not to dwell too long on matters of what Simak may have had for breakfast or who we think would have won in a fight between Simak and any other science-fiction author of his generation. We talk about life in Italy, England, and the United States, and how we all came to be here. Roberto's English is heavily accented but excellent, despite the doubts he has expressed in his virtual missives. He is a little older than I am and reminds me of Carl Sagan. He perhaps speaks slowly for fear of not being understood, but his caution gives his words surprising gravity which works well in conjunction with a powerfully dry sense of humour. Rosanna, his wife, speaks no English but Roberto translates, and her Italian sounds sufficiently close to Spanish for Bess and I to follow the general thrust of what she says. My fears were that this initial meeting might seem incredibly awkward, but we've had a wonderful time.

We meet again the next day. It's Saturday afternoon and Worldcon is in full swing, but we've agreed that we don't really care for much of it. We just want to browse for books we haven't read in the dealers' room, so we're going to do that on Sunday morning because it will work out the cheapest in terms of admission. It's Saturday afternoon and we meet in the heart of San Antonio at their hotel. Bess drops me off so I'm on my own with the visitors and another guy, Kevin who has travelled a couple of hundred miles from somewhere in the north-east of the state, a town on the Louisiana border. He's another fan of Simak and he's here for the Worldcon and to meet Roberto and myself. He's young and chatty, and he seems like a nice guy but our meeting under such circumstances makes me feel somehow uncomfortable.

Meeting was once easy. You went to the pub, and beer and ciggies would do the rest, and even if the person or persons you were meeting turned out to be arseholes, you wouldn't mind because - fuck it - it was a night out. Unfortunately though I no longer smoke, and I'm no longer particularly keen on the booze, and in any case they don't really have pubs in America, just bars, which are a different thing entirely. Meeting is no longer something I do so I'm out of practice, and bereft of a common purpose involving alcohol or tobacco, I'm no longer even sure how it's done. Additionally, one version of the story has this as my home town and I'm showing my friends around; but I've only been here two years and I'm still pretty much lost past the end of our road; and Kevin is a genuine American so he's showing us around by default, taking the lead, which I somehow find both annoying and at the same time a great relief.

I know, I feel like saying as Kevin explains something else without having been asked, I live here, and yet I'm aware that it's not like I'm actually bringing anything useful to the table.

We wander through the Alamo, or at least through the church because it requires no admission fee, but the day is baking hot and it's beginning to feel like we're just using up the time for reasons no-one has quite defined. We could talk about Simak as we wander around the city, but I'm feeling increasingly uncomfortable about Rosanna's partially inevitable exclusion from the conversation.

Kevin mentions Jethro Tull for some reason, and I tell him that I also enjoy their music, prompting his thoughts on the same at a level of detail far beyond anything I've ever cared about. I just listen to the records because I like how they sound, and it feels like I'm being lectured. The only note of accord we strike comes when someone mentions Old Bill who writes from the bluff. It seems we are all at least united in considering him a bit of an idiot.

We go for ice cream at Baskin-Robbins for the sake of something to do, but the place has no tables and we end up all ludicrously squatted along the low window-ledge outside the place watching our fellow tourists crowd into the Alamo. It's too hot and it's difficult to talk and ice cream is dripping onto my hand faster than I can lick it from the cone.

For fuck's sake...

Rosanna takes a photograph of the three of us, the Simak dudes. I resemble Sir Les Patterson in a stetson, which irritates me so much as to inspire the realisation that I must take charge and rescue this encounter from itself, this meeting which isn't so much a meeting as a random juxtaposition of people who vaguely know each other. Rosanna's only concern is that she gets to pick up a few artsy-crafty things for the folks back in Italy, so I've decided that's what she's going to do. I know just the place. There's a massive craft market over by Mi Tierra cafe and bakery, and it's a Mexican craft market so they have great stuff there - hand-made and hand-painted and absolutely no tat, and there's really nothing which is ever considered too weird for sale in a Mexican craft market, so they're always great places to look around even if you're not buying.

I am going to lead my people forth across the town of San Antonio unto the Mexican craft market, and they will see that it is good, and Rosanna shall be happy, and everyone wins. So we trek and we trek following Commerce past the hotel where Roberto and Rosanna are staying, and at each corner we stop and I tell them it's only a little further; but eventually we realise that it isn't, and it's ninety in the shade. Roberto thanks me for making the effort, but he and his wife feel the need to get back into the air conditioning of their hotel. Later I realise I had been leading my people east along Commerce, and Mi Tierra is west. I've only been here a couple of years. I don't have much cause to visit the centre of the city.

Next morning, Kevin, Roberto and myself convene at the entrance of Worldcon. We stump up an admission fee and go and buy books. Roberto's face lights up as he encounters a brace of early editions of Simak novels with covers he's never seen. He has a long talk with the dealer working the stall and I get the impression that this might be the highlight of his visit. It makes me happy for him. I pick up a few books for myself, and the three of us talk about what we've read, what we would like to read, who sounds interesting and so on.

'This guy is supposed to be pretty good,' Kevin observes picking up a novel by Mark Hodder, so I get to be the arsehole who had the bloke in the back of his cab, once again.

We marvel at the Lego and eventually leave as the place starts to close, each going his separate way, Kevin back to the north-east, Roberto to the hotel and eventually to Italy.

It ended well.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Back to School

Here in Americaland the school year begins half way through August, about a month earlier than it did in England. The back to school advertising campaign therefore begins to make itself felt around the end of July, this year intruding on my own existence mainly as Brec Bassinger's face plastered all over my local supermarket. Back 2 School Solved, the campaign promises, cleverly substituting a preposition for a numeral so as to give mega-wicked shout outs to text-invested juveniles whilst simultaneously fostering the falsehood of a new school year constituting a font of conundrums so fiendish as to tax the wisdom of Gandalf himself.

What will the kids wear this year?

What will they eat?

Clothes and food in that order, would be my suggestion.

You may remember Brec Bassinger from such shows as Bella and the Bulldogs, according to Wikipedia, although I don't, and I'm not even convinced that Brec is a name; but I suppose Bella and the Bulldogs is popular with the yoots, so there she is in my local supermarket, peering over the top of her sunglasses and promising to unravel the enigma that is back 2 school. She goes undercover in the television commercials - a false moustache, a comically unconvincing disguise, and a surreptitious wink to the viewer as she infiltrates the school to see what sort of shit the kids be into in the two-double-zilch-six. Suddenly she spots a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lunch box...

'Sweet!' she declares, as the mystery dissipates and all becomes as clear as an unmuddied lake. That which was unknown and unseen to the eyes of men is now known.

Back to school in England - at least from 1977 to 1981 - was mostly just grinning kids with pencils and folders. It was depressing, but without any obvious suggestion of George Orwelling anybody into believing we might be looking forward to it. Maybe some were, but for the most part I hated school, notwithstanding those details which made it seem endurable - mainly the art lesson and break time.

So far as I can tell, Junior accepts school as a necessary evil. He doesn't seem to hate it as I did, although I think he's remained more or less impervious to Brec Bassinger's enthusiastic anticipation of the new academic year and all those cool Steven Universe backpacks it will herald. From his generally cheerier disposition I gather he at least appreciates the difference between this school and the place he attended before, a military academy seemingly specialising in churning out the sort of loyal overmoneyed Republicrat drones for which Texas is unfortunately renowned. Back to school isn't so bad as it may once have seemed, I suppose.

It's also back to school for us, his parents, or at least his mother and stepfather. We are invited in for some parent-teacher thing one evening. We meet the teachers we've already met on a number of occasions and they show us around the different class rooms.

We see some kind of general workshop equipped with screwdrivers, benches, handsaws, and a couple of 3D printers because we're living in the future, and a teacher assures us that the kids will be making stuff this coming year. Next we visit a drama studio with one wall taken up by mirrors just like in Billy Elliott despite this being Texas; and then a miniature television studio with cameras and editing equipment which makes that to which I had access when taking my degree in Time Based Media back in the eighties seem somewhat pitiful; and finally the maths room, or maths lab, or the room where they do sums. A teacher explains to us how she will be concentrating mainly on the genius-level kids and the rest will just have to do their best, but I think she's some kind of assistant who's there to help out the regular maths teacher, and it won't be quite so Darwinian as it sounds.

Junior's English teacher is present, so I take the opportunity to have a word with her. I can't actually remember what subject she teaches but she was born in England and moved to San Antonio at the age of eleven, so obviously I'm curious. It turns out that she grew up in Surrey, but I experience a brainfart and am unable to recall quite where that is - below London somewhere. I don't know if I've been there.

Similarly I don't really know why we're here, and neither does Bess. Over the past couple of years we've seen enough of the school to have some faith in its teaching staff. We trust that they know what they're doing, and the kid seems to be learning stuff, if the endless liturgy of facts and statistics he spends evenings barking at us in lieu of conversation is any indication.

'Did you know that there's a fish which can literally fly out of the water, like it can really fly?'

'Yes,' I say, leaving my wife to make the encouraging noises.

'Let me see,' he elaborates as though particularly glad that we should have asked. 'Um, well it literally flies. I'm not joking. Basically it like literally flies out of the water,' and he's off on a halting reiteration of whatever he retained from school that day, usually seguing into drivel from the internet, a video of the man who ate the world's hottest chilli pepper, observations shared by the really important YouTube people, the sort of inconsequential crap which even Brec Bassinger probably doesn't care about that much.

Still, right now we're waiting in the hall by the lockers. They're the sort of lockers you see in teenage dramas set in American high schools just before you switch the television off and read a book instead, which I state because we didn't have lockers in my day, just crappy sports bags tattooed with badly rendered logos of heavy metal bands in blue biro. Junior's locker is by happy coincidence next to that of the girl he likes. She's not quite his girlfriend so much as a friend who is a girl, so far as we can tell. She likes riding bikes, Minecraft, and sheep. We've met her but we don't know anything else about her, or even whether there is anything else about her. Anyway, when the lockers were assigned, our boy found he was right next to Minecraft-sheep-cycle Girl, so he was very happy about that.

The teachers are going to see us all one on one - or presumably one on two in our case - and each will give election promises of how much more educated our child will be under his or her tutelage by the time June swings around and the school year draws to a close.

'Isn't that what they've just been telling us?' I ask. 'It's like they don't think we believe them.' I imagine the boy turning up on the first day. Teachers are sat around playing poker. One points in the general direction of the library and mutters knock yourself out, Brainiac.

'Yeah,' confirms Bess. 'I really don't feel we need to see every last room. Maybe we should duck out before they start up again.'

So we duck out, and get the rest of our evening back.

We attended similar events at the previous place, the military academy. All I can recall are overmoneyed facelifty crackers grilling teachers about whether their seven-year old will get extra credit for reading more books than is scholastically required by the curriculum. I guess tonight's gathering was mainly for the benefit of parents of that type, those who lay awake at night worrying over the certainty of little Poindexter's future career in the upper echelons of management, the kind of parents who probably shouldn't have bothered having children in the first place.

A week passes and we're back again, this time at some sort of pool party in Alamo Heights, a stone's throw from the school. I have even less idea what this one is about, but suppose it's just a social thing for the sake of it, so what the hell? Why not?

The day hasn't gone too well, and I've been running late in everything I've done. I make a pie and some coleslaw to take along to the pool party because it occurs at the time of evening during which we're normally eating, but the pie is a pain in the ass to make, taking much longer than anticipated and involving a lot of swearing. I'd been hoping to fit in some weeding for the sake of both the garden and exercise but I don't get time, so I decide to swim instead.

The pie turns out okay, and is a definite improvement on the underwhelming crap
dished out by the food trucks at the previous pool party. Minecraft-sheep-cycle Girl is a no-show unfortunately, so Junior takes to the centre of the pool and spends on hour practicing his diving. He's very good.

I swim the length of the pool about six times but I'm too poor a swimmer for it to be pleasurable and I keep getting dive-bombed by little kids. It also bothers me that I seem to be the only adult in the pool aside from one of the teachers, so after I feel I've suffered enough, I give up and climb out.

I notice the English teacher and remember that Marian was from Surrey - Richmond or Twickenham or one of those places filled with horsey types. It occurs to me that the English teacher may even have been at school with Marian. Nothing would surprise me any more.

As I look for my wife I pass a girl I'll call Eva. She's in the same class as our boy and clearly has a thing for him. She's a tall, skinny and endearingly pushy kid about whom Junior's grandmother said, 'I really get a kick out of that girl.' We all think Eva's great, so we've been trying to coax the boy in her general direction to sadly little avail. Eva's star burns mystifyingly dim set next to that of Minecraft-sheep-cycle Girl, whom we must therefore assume has hidden qualities.

I suppose what will be will be.

The kid has a couple of friends here tonight, but there he is alone at the centre of the pool doing his own thing at the beginning of a new academic year. I suppose he and I probably have more in common than I realise.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Whatever Happened to the Loki Lads?

At the time of the sun going below the earth, Fenrir son of Loki did have a great thirst upon him, and for this reason he was to be found once again drinking ale at the longhouse of Utgard in the land of Jötunheimr. In silence he watched as two serfs at the end of the hall held up a series of tableaux carved in relief upon great oak panels. The two serfs held first the one relief, then another, and then a third and yet more. Old Ganglati had seated himself at a table to one side from which he did tell the story that was seen upon those oaken panels. He shuffled his runestones and addressed all who would hear tell of the swimming match.

'Kjartan Ólafsson coming in from behind there, and King Ólafur Tryggvason sees not what is about to happen for the waters of the Vimur are still in his eyes and his vision is obscured.'

'Come on, Tryggvason,' Fenrir did mutter to himself before taking a gulp of his ale, words of encouragement for those who could not hear him. 'Come on, son.'

The serfs set down their relief and took another from the pile for to show the guests of the longhouse. The tableau showed Ólafsson pressing down upon the crown of his opponent, ducking him into the waters as Ganglati continued to give account.

'We've seen the king in this position before and it would be only a fool that would decree so soon an end to this match.'

'Hello, Fenrir. I thought I might find you in here.' The words were spoken by the serpent Jörmungandr who had come in from the cold of the ice and snow, for it was still upon his brow and his shoulders, and his face wore the look of an unhappy dog. 'Can I get you anything?'

Fenrir raised a hand to silence his brother, for this seemed a critical moment in the relating of the swimming match. In truth, he did not even set eye upon his brother, for he was so rapt.

'I'll take that as a no then, shall I?' Jörmungandr shook his head and sat himself down upon the bench, whereupon the serving-maid Ganglöt did attend to him. 'What do you fancy this evening,  Jörmungandr?'

'It's nice of you to offer, Ganglöt,' Jörmungandr smiled, 'but I think I'll stick to the ale if it's all the same.'

Ganglöt did giggle in a most pleasing manner, and then went away to fetch an ale, and so the serpent did turn his attention to the swimming match as related by means of oaken panel and the testimony of old Ganglati. 'I expect the king will be up against Eirik of Oprustader in the play-offs.'

For the first time, Fenrir drew his eyes from the tableau of the oaken panels to set them upon his brother with a gaze measured equally in restraint and warlike intent.

Jörmungandr gulped, understanding the fullness of his error. 'I mean if he wins, of course.'

Fenrir did then speak but his words were so quiet as to be unheard, their import revealed only in the sour furrow of his brow and the vigour with which he then drained his vessel of ale.

Jörmungandr set forth a smile with some caution. 'Well, you wolfed that down!'

'Very funny.' Fenrir took a carved token from within his robe of the kind serving as a stake to those who enjoy the sport of gambling, and he snapped it in two pieces in a spirit of disgust. No more did he attend to the speech of old Ganglati who did now give account of the victory of King Ólafur Tryggvason as his aides held aloft a wooden panel carved with a tableau of the same.

At that moment the serving-maid Ganglöt returned from the barrel with a great vessel of ale which she set before Jörmungandr, and as Jörmungandr took his first refreshing mouthful, a voice was heard, fluting and fussy like that of a woman.

'So this is where you've got to. You'll spoil your dinner, you know. I thought you said you were coming straight home.'

The words did cause great surprise to Jörmungandr who spluttered as his eyes became most wide and he did spray a froth of ale forth upon the table.

'Hello Gullveig,' said Fenrir to the woman who had spoken the words, then adding a diplomatic 'pet,' as though the endearment were an afterthought.

The woman Gullveig, betrothed of Jörmungandr, stood at the side of the table regarding these two sons of Loki with a certain measure of disdain, although she had not forgotten her manners and returned Fenrir's greeting accordingly, and in doing so, noted that he was without ale for the serving-maid Ganglöt had taken away his vessel. She turned then to her betrothed and said through lips drawn tight as the fundament of a scared man, 'Well, at least it's nice to see that your brother doesn't need to get drunk to enjoy himself. You should take a leaf out of his book, Jörmungandr.'

At that moment the serving-maid Ganglöt set another large vessel of ale down before Fenrir, who rubbed his hands together, licked his lips, and said, 'lovely. Thank you, Ganglöt.'

Gullveig rolled her eyes and looked up towards the rafters of the longhouse as though seeking fortification from above. 'Jörmungandr,' she began, 'you do remember that your uncle Thor is coming over for dinner this evening?'

'How could I have forgotten?' Jörmungandr spoke with a bitter tone, being well aware of the appointment, and finding himself less than happy at having been reminded. Swiftly he drained his vessel then called out to Ganglöt that she should bring him another. Noticing that his betrothed now regarded him with displeasure he submitted a diplomatic smile and told her, 'Holtland courage, dearest. You've said yourself how much he does go on.'

A great crack of thunder could be heard splitting the heavens all across the land of Jötunheimr. It was like a great bell which sounded within the building and all who were present felt it beneath their feet.

'Silly old sod,' said Fenrir with feeling.

Jörmungandr rolled his eyes, clearly thinking that his point had been illustrated very well.

'All the same,' Gullveig protested, 'he's your uncle, and it's your job we're thinking about, so it would be nice if I weren't the only one making an effort.' Her eyes did then seem heavy with dew as though she would soon burst forth with tears. 'And we still need to replace the mat in the guest bedroom after your father's little accident, and Berit will soon be closing up shop for the evening. I mean what are you going to tell Thor if he asks about the mess?'

'I'll tell him Loki had one too many when he came to stay at Jul, and I'm sure he'll be able to work out the rest for himself. You can hardly see the stain and they are brothers, you know? Sometimes you seem to think I'm made of mats.'

'Don't be so silly, Jörmungandr. I just want us to make the right impression is all.'

Jörmungandr's head sank forward so that it was upon the table.

Gullveig pursed her lips in the manner of a duck or some other water bird. 'Can I trust you to pick something up from Berit's hut and hurry home once you've had your drink?'

'Yes, darling,' said Jörmungandr with his face still pressed to the wood of the table as though conceding defeat to a powerful enemy.

'Never mind buying a mat,' Fenrir quipped in dour spirit as Gullveig took her leave of the longhouse, 'she believes that you are one! A door mat!'

At that very moment, the lur-horn did sound, played by old Ganglati to formally conclude his account of the swimming match. He blew four descending and mournful notes upon the instrument, with the last drawn out longer than the others, and it did seem to all as though the music made mock of Jörmungandr's sorry lot.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Writers' Group

It's late 2007 and I've been writing short stories. At the beginning of the year I finished my second novel, the second destined to never be published - at least not in its present form - and I've been thinking about this writing thing. I've traditionally grown bored of just about everything else I've ever tried to do before it went anywhere. This is the problem with honesty when applied to one's own endeavours. If you're doing it properly - whatever it may be - you're fated to never be entirely satisfied, which is why most people elect to suspend critical faculties and just churn out drivel with aspirations of nothing greater than adequacy. That'll do, they tell themselves. Besides, who'll know the difference? Fuck It.

I've been writing short stories, really just stupid jokes expanded and embedded into something with beginning, middle and end. It's like playing riffs on a guitar, doing the thing over and over until the fingers learn to get the job done without your having to think about it. I'm trying to get better, but I'm more or less having to teach myself, so I start to look at the noticeboard in the library to see if there are any writers' groups in the area.

Miraculously I find one, and sometime around the beginning of 2008 I am sat in the front room of a house in Woodward Road with four or five others. Woodward Road is where the real money lives, at least in East Dulwich. It's a nice place - cases lined with books, not even paperbacks, and a pine coffee table - so as usual I'm subconsciously waiting for the security guard to escort me from the premises. There are a million bedrooms upstairs, and the staircase has a bannister of the kind children once slid down in plummy tales of the forties. Enid Blyton was born within five hundred yards radius of where I'm now sat with my mug of tea and a biccy. In just over a year I will be delivering mail to this house in my job as a postman, and I will once again encounter my hostess, but of course she won't remember me and will find my greeting confusing, like I'm a fan asking for an autograph.

Today though, we've all been introduced. She reads a story she's had published in some women's magazine - Family Circle or one of those. Against my expectation, it's very good.

Richard reads some of what he's been working on. It resembles science-fiction - which comes as something of a relief to me - and it's well-written, but there is an off-putting subtext relating to Richard's earlier comments made about his correspondence with another more famous Richard, namely Dawkins. He and Joan - a much older member of the group - discuss some ongoing campaign intended to get Dawkins to admit to being a twat for not liking God, or something of the sort. It doesn't sound unreasonable in spirit, but this shared view of themselves as thorns in the side of a person who may or may not have bothered to read their letters scribbled in green crayon seems cranky.

Dan reads a couple of short stories, vignettes I suppose you would call them. He has the common touch, something which sounds like inherent talent and an ear for dialogue. Later he joins me outside the front door for a smoke and we talk about Charles Bukowski, which is nice. He shows me his book, copies of which he has had individually published through a website called Lulu. I'm impressed.

The woman who organised the thing, who runs the group, reads part of a story about junkies, but it doesn't ring true. It's well-written but feels voyeuristic, stuffed with gastronomically enunciated fucks and shits as though revelling in its own filth, like Irvine Welsh sat with his writers circle, each competing to see who has the most outrageous junkie anecdote.

I chanced upon this gentleman who routinely shot up using the vein in his old chap. My, dear fellow, it was utterly ghastly. You can't imagine...

The story about junkies doesn't really work read aloud by Libby Purves on Woman's Hour just before Carla Lane pops in to tell us about her latest unfunny sitcom. I ask the author whether this stuff is autobiographical in any sense, feeling certain that it isn't.

'I work in social services,' she explains with a smile which answers my question. She's an anthropologist.

I think of the junkies I've known - dull and deeply unglamorous, just walk-on parts in the lives of the rest of us, not even interestingly dangerous and definitely nothing worth boasting about when in the sort of company which might find them exotic. Maybe I've just known the wrong junkies.

Finally, Joan reads. She's old with white hair and a sad, weatherbeaten face. She's not quite stately, but she moves slowly as though treading with care upon what path still remains. She isn't here because she's hoping to get published. She just writes.

She reads a story about a young woman on the day of her wedding, and the period detail suggests the thirties or maybe the forties. The groom never arrives. He's been shagging the bride's sister all this time, and the two of them have run away together. Joan's voice is clipped, each word spoken just above a whisper, and with a wrench of profound discomfort I recognise the account as a true story. This happened to her, and she's been trying to claw her way back from it ever since.

She concludes the account and it feels as though a great weight has been lifted, or at least that it has been lifted from the rest of us.

I read a short story called The Sixth Day, chosen because it's supposed to be funny, or is at least reliant on a sense of the absurd, and I hope this will work for my audience of strangers. Because I've been writing science-fiction, it feels as though I've avoided baths, showers and a change of clothes for the last week, and now I'm about to read out a list of the bestest characters from Babylon 5 and Stargate: SG1, followed by thoughts upon who would win in a fight with whom. The Sixth Day is just over seven-thousand words, and as I reach the end of the first page I begin to appreciate that it's far too long to be read in its entirety. We're going to be here all fucking evening unless someone stops me, which of course I hope they won't because I want them to like it; but actually I do because the sound of my own droning voice stumbling over sentences apparently composed by a self-important twelve-year old brings me almost physical pain. Everyone laughs in the right places, but I'm so aware of all that is wrong with what I've written that I just want it to end. There are certain crimes against grammar and composition which will forever elude detection until you've heard them read out in your own voice before a group of people whom you're hoping to impress.

Eventually somehow, it's over.

'There were rather a lot of adjectives,' Richard points out, not unkindly, and there really were.

Five years later, I've applied all that I learned from the writers' group - at least the three meetings I attended. I've been published and I'm now living in San Antonio, Texas, way over the Other Side of the World which, coincidentally, was the title of the second novel destined to never be published, the one rewritten as Against Nature. I'm still teaching myself how to write and I think I'm better at it these days, in so much as that I'm finely attuned to my own screw-ups even if I'm not always immediately sure how to set them right. I look for a local writers' group, although this time it's more of a social thing because my wife is worried that I will wither away if deprived of human company. She doesn't really realise that I'm just not that sociable, but I guess it might be fun so I find something on the internet.

We meet in a coffee house called La Taza, something like twenty of us all sat around a table in an area specially cordoned off for the occasion. Everybody gets five to ten minutes, reading either the homework - usually a thousand words on a subject decided at the previous meeting - or whatever they've been working on if they've been working on anything. We take turns, working anti-clockwise around the table. The meeting is organised by a Vietnam veteran called Gene, an older, immediately likeable guy. He speaks in a soft voice and reads a story about something he saw in Vietnam, something he saw from a helicopter as I recall. He has the gravity and the presence of a man who has been in proximity to events so horrible that they cannot be described. He has nothing to prove to anyone and his reading reduces the room to silence just as did Joan's account of her ruined wedding.

Others read but leave no strong impression until we swing around to my side of the table. At the far end is the one person reading from an open laptop rather than loose sheets of paper or a notebook. He has a beard like Philip K. Dick and as our attention turns to him, he taps at the touchpad, closing a few windows and locating the document upon which he is currently working. It's as though we've interrupted him but he doesn't mind. He smiles and delivers a preamble, science-fiction awards, things he plans to do, things about which he is hopeful, then eventually he reads for ten blandly, competent minutes - meetings in slick futuristic cities.

Nevertheless, he's preferable to the next guy - Roy, or something like that. Roy is balding and bespectacled with large lips which appear permanently moist, maybe early forties but it's hard to tell. He looks as though he's been drawn by Dan Clowes.

'What do you have with you, Roy?' Gene asks. 'Do you have the latest installment for us?'

Roy is apparently a regular, and he's been giving us a chapter at a time. 'I'll need to ask the minors to leave the table for a short while, if that's okay?' he says, and there are a few noises of amusement or maybe anticipation, although probably not so raucous as you might get in England. This is Texas, and at least some of the group are either God-fearing or else not well disposed towards an excess of agricultural language.

A young-looking guy who read earlier stands and goes to buy coffee from the counter at the far end of the shop. He is followed by a bored-looking girl who has been playing with her phone most of the time. I would guess she is about sixteen and couldn't give a shit about the writers' group, but her mother does, and that's why she's here.

Roy watches the two of them depart, and then gives us a recap of the story so far. It's a spy thriller. We rejoin the narrative in a hotel bedroom in some exotic place associated with casinos. Two women have recently enjoyed sexual congress with a dynamic man, and Roy's descriptions focus on straps playfully tugged from shoulders, lingering glances, terse words delivered icily and all of the usual crap you would expect. Worse is that his voice drones and he stutters and seems to have difficulty reading his own writing. Not one sentence escapes his lips without having doubled back upon itself, but eventually - thankfully - he's done.

'The plot thickens,' someone observes, which is the kindest that can be said.

I read an excerpt from Against Nature, which seems to go down well, and both Roy and Philip K. Dick are eager to speak with me once we're done. Roy in particular seems to be engaged in an attempt to tell me about his writing for reasons I don't quite follow. I'd much rather talk to Gene, but never mind.

For the next meeting I tackle the homework with one-thousand or thereabouts words on the subject of gnomes and cannibalism. Roy splutters through the next lurid chapter, which is once again suffixed with somebody observing that the plot thickens.

The problem with all of this is that with such numbers in attendance, we're just taking turns at the equivalent of a microphone. There's no time for feedback, no-one to tell me I'm really hammering those adjectives into the ground, or to tell Roy that spy thrillers might not be his forte. There's no nipping outside for a ciggie and discussion of Charles Bukowski, so I leave it at two meetings.

Eventually I encounter Roy again, beyond the group. I cycle past him each morning on the Tobin Trail. In fact I've been cycling past him every day for about six months and somehow it's taken me this long to work out where I recognise him from. Etiquette demands that those using the trail generally nod, exchange a greeting or acknowledge each other in some way as they pass because that's good manners, and Roy distinguishes himself by doing none of these. Having waved at Roy or said good morning a couple of times, I  eventually gave up. He's always on the trail with two old, slow moving people which I guess must be his parents. I also guess that the elaborate sexual scenarios of his spy thrillers are probably not drawn from experience, aside from that he possibly spends a lot of time thinking about them.

I used to wave or nod my head in greeting, oblivious to our having met, and he'd just glare at me. After a while I dispensed with the acknowledgement, leaving just the glare. It's as though he's daring me to say something, or he somehow resents my presence in this part of his life. It's as though I've seen him blow sailors, a whole boat's worth all lined up and rubbing their hands together in anticipation, one after another, and now I have power over him.

I have no idea what the look could mean.

Thursday, 15 September 2016


Texas is hot at this time of year, and it's difficult to appreciate quite what that means until you've lived in it. As with anything, just visiting is something different. Back in England, I'd fallen into the habit of spending most of October dreading the approach of winter, followed by several months of freezing wet misery and darkness, and most of that time spent working outdoors in close proximity to the freezing wet misery and darkness. Do I really want to move to a country which won't oblige me to spend six months of each year thinking about topping myself whilst shivering and waiting for my socks to dry? was never a question I had to think about at any great length.

I moved, assuming that it would be the end of weather-induced melancholia for me; but instead the calendar simply swapped around, so now it's July and August which are the toughest months. The heat soars to such extremes that I'm obliged to get all outdoor activity done before midday - shopping, gardening, cycling or whatever - then take shelter inside with the AC turned up full in every room. It isn't quite a symmetrical inversion of how much I once dreaded winter, because it doesn't last so long and I'd rather be too hot than too cold, but it can still be an endurance test, a period of time during which you just have to keep on going until it's done and you can breath again; and it is unfortunately during such times that I tend to notice other reasons to be less than cheerful, and as the days get hotter and the soil turns to dust, it becomes more and more difficult to keep going forward.

I am not an inherently happy individual. I experience happiness but it isn't my natural state of being, because that which makes me happy is by definition fleeting and impermanent, and the world is full of depressing shit, and depressing shit tends to be eternal and enduring.

Rather than happiness, I aspire to contentment, which is simply purpose combined with the absence of depressing shit - either because I don't know about the depressing shit, or because I'm ignoring it for the sake of maintaining my sanity. This usually just means I'm ignoring facebook. Most of the time I maintain a general sense of contentment because on the whole I'm exceptionally lucky in terms of my lot; and certain things season my contentment with happiness: my wife and our home, decent food, the wilderness around San Antonio, books and music and cats...

I'm not even sure how many we have these days.

There are seven cats inside, and an indeterminate number of strays which I also feed in the mornings - five at present. They sit in the yard casting a meaningful gaze at the back door when I get up in the morning, each one waiting to be fed. A couple of them have become so tame that it's difficult to keep myself from thinking of them as our cats, as part of our extended family; although the rest are undeniably feral. They seem pleased to see me, but they keep their distance.

It is August. The heat is punishing, shifting up into three figures on some days. The creek has dried, no water anywhere, and facebook idiocy has left me wishing to sever almost all ties with the rest of the human race - which happens with some frequency - and on top of it all, Mr. Kirby has gone missing.

Mr. Kirby is one of the feral cats, almost family, but not quite.

We have a female cat called Kirby who went missing on the same day that Paul Ebbs - celebrated author of children's drama serials - cracked facebook jokes about teaching cats to swim by placing them in sacks with housebricks before throwing them into a body of water. It transpired that people liking all the stuff he doesn't like on social media - specifically people posting pictures of cats - was quite literally destroying his life, so you can see why he would be angry.

I defriended Paul Ebbs and went out to look for Kirby. She was missing for nearly three weeks, and each time my wife and I went looking we thought we'd found her, but it always turned out to be a male cat with similar markings, one of the local strays. We knew he was a male cat due to his massive furry bollocks, and so we provisionally named him Mr. Kirby for the sake of something to call him. The original Kirby eventually came back.

Mr. Kirby took to lounging around in our back yard, hoovering up the food that our own cats couldn't be bothered to finish. Eventually I started buying food for the outside cats too, because if we're to live in a neighbourhood full of strays, as we do, they may as well be well-fed, relatively healthy strays. Of course, as the sage Paul Ebbs has taught us, not everyone likes cats; but thankfully most of our neighbours do, and Stephen from across the road told me how the street used to have a real problem with rats and mice, which the presence of cats seems to have sorted out. Additionally, the local feline population appears to have stabilised, with all the females having been trapped, neutered, and released by city authorities.

I feel I've got to know Mr. Kirby reasonably well. He flinches a little whenever I stroke him, but he seems otherwise glad to see me. He's an odd-looking cat with a distinctive hooting meow, and sometimes I ask him whether he's a cat or a goose - because I talk to the cats, which is probably inevitable. He's long and skinny, grey with black stripes which turn to spots when he rolls over, suggesting that - like Kirby - he has some Bengal somewhere in his ancestry. He also has certain Siamese characteristics, the slim muscular build and that meow. He's built like a lollipop - a long, thin body with a massive head - and the slant of his eyes makes it seem as though he views us with suspicion or even disdain. Sometimes when I see Mr. Kirby, the words come to me: I don't want that boy in the house again, he looks like a sheep-killing dog, which is supposedly what some person's conservative father said of the youthful William S. Burroughs.

It's been three days since I've seen Mr. Kirby. Ordinarily he's outside the back door waiting to be fed with the rest of them every morning. Cats disappear from time to time, then show up again a week later because that's what cats do, and this is particularly true of strays. Well-meaning people take them in, or they get trapped in someone's garage, or maybe they just go wandering. Sometimes it'll be a road accident, but thankfully that doesn't seem to happen so often as you might expect. Even so, Mr. Kirby seems like an old cat, so I can't help but be concerned.

He comes back on the Monday, but something is wrong with him. He's noticably thin - suggesting the aforementioned garage scenario - and he's hungry, but he isn't eating. He puts his face into the bowl of food but that's all, then moves on to the next bowl of food as I dish it up as though this helping of the exact same thing will be more to his liking. He's not eating, he's not drinking, and his muzzle and front paws are all messed up. I can't tell if it's dried blood or just dirt, like he's had to tunnel his way out from somewhere; and he coughs as though trying to sick something up, and his tongue sticks out even with his mouth closed.

Truthfully, Mr. Kirby seems prone to such injuries. Every few months he'll show up with a crippling limp looking as though he's been in a fight, but he always recovers. He's like the cat equivalent of a retired superhero, old and a bit fucked but he could still kick your ass.

This, on the other hand, is something different. He isn't drinking. He isn't cleaning himself. He sits out in the porch as the August heat climbs and climbs. I wonder if he was hit by a car and broke his jaw, or whether he has some sort of bronchial infection, or - as my wife suggests - a cold. She has known cats to catch their equivalent of a cold and to not eat or drink for days as a result. It could be that he was stung in the mouth, given that we have some genuinely terrifying wasps in Texas. My fear is that he's having problems with his teeth, and something has gone bad and has become infected.

It could be any of these or none of them, and each diagnosis seems to bring some other symptom to disprove it. For a couple of days he doesn't eat or drink so far as we can tell, although clearly he wants to, and so my wife makes plans to get him to the vet. It's not an easy choice because the vet is always expensive, and we can't save every single stray in the neighbourhood, and more than anything we're afraid that the vet will take one look at Mr. Kirby and decide that there isn't much point to keeping this sheep-killing dog of a stray cat alive.

My wife has the cat box, so I find Mr. Kirby and pick him up. I'm not convinced he's had food or water for three days, and his face seems to be swelling up on one side, yet somehow he's still stronger than most humans. I've never picked him up before, so I never realised that he was solid muscle. He doesn't want to go in the cat box, and I can't hold him. It's like I'm in a fight with some bloke in a pub car park. He runs, out the porch door and to the fence. We go after him, but he's through into Frasier's garden leaving me just one last reproachful backwards glance.

Why you do this?

The next day is so hot that water catches fire as it comes from the hose. The air is still and it burns my skin and I feel terrible. Mr. Kirby didn't show when I fed the other cats at the usual time, so it's probably the last we've seen of him. Whatever was wrong didn't seem like something which is just going to right itself, so he's probably crawled off to find somewhere to die. I look around but I can't find him, and I can't see him from over the fence. I don't bother going out today because it's far too hot. At one point I lay on the bed and experience a vision, one of those quirks of memory or thought or something where an image flashes momentarily into the mind's eye, clear as day for a fraction of a second.

I see the front room at the basement flat in Lordship Lane, the place I lived for a decade up until about 2007. It's the front room as I knew it in the early afternoon following a customarily exhausting morning at work. I'm be prone on the sofa, aching and barely able to move with the gas fire on, but the room is still so cold that I can see my breath. The winter sun is blinding through the net curtains, although it has barely risen above the roofs of the houses across the street. My entire existence is saturated with the knowledge that life is exhausting, and that I'm barely getting by, and it will only become more exhausting and more difficult as I go on. This is a horrible thing to remember right now.

In the evening I knock on Frasier's door but there's no answer, so I let myself into his back garden on humanitarian grounds. I have the cat box but I'm expecting I'll probably just find a corpse. Frasier's garden is huge, wild, and strewn with junk, and my search comes with its own soundtrack of pitbulls snarling away in the next yard along. I don't find what I'm looking for. I suppose that's a good thing in so much as that we don't know he's dead for sure.

The next day, Mr. Kirby is back.

He still looks a bit fucked, but he's alive and meowing, even though the meow is more of a croak. I dish out the food but it's business as usual. He sniffs but doesn't eat, but we're just glad he's alive, and tonight we'll get him to the vet if it kills us. Then a few minutes later my wife calls me back to the porch to tell me that he's cleaning himself. I move a provisional bowl of food under his nose and slowly he begins to eat. It isn't much, but it's something. He spends the afternoon lounging in the hot sun, and we decide to postpone the visit to the vet, weighing how difficult he is to catch against the possibility that he definitely seems a little better.

The next day, he looks clean, he's hooting away, and he eats three bowls of food seemingly without pausing for breath. I return to my original theory of Mr. Kirby being more or less indestructible. Whatever was wrong with him - bad as it was - he got over it, just like William S. Burroughs - all those years as a heroin addict and the fucker still lives into his eighties. It occurs to me that maybe Mr. Kirby is William S. Burroughs reincarnated as a cat, which would also explain the look he sometimes gives us. I don't believe in reincarnation, but I expect William S. Burroughs did, which may be the deciding factor.

A couple of days later a storm system over Louisiana sends rain our way, and it pours for days. The creeks fill and the temperature falls to a more manageable level.

Life goes on.

The moment has passed.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Telly & Poo

I'm cycling along the Tobin Trail, the stretch between Holbrook Road and the Austin Highway, and there's some bloke stood at the side of the path with a camera and a tripod. He waves me down and introduces himself as a reporter - John Salazar for Time Warner Cable News. It's just him with the camera, but he has one of those huge microphones embellished with a square collar sporting the company logo, the kind of thing you usually see thrust into the faces of murderers or politicians as we try to get to the truth of the facts.

'Do you live along the creek?' he asks me.


'But you use the trail?'

'I ride along this way every day.'

This makes him happy, and he explains that he's doing a feature on improvements the water company are supposed to be making to the sewerage system. The pipes come close to the trail in several places, and the trail follows Salado Creek. San Antonio is one of the most flood-prone cities in the United States, and the flooding usually pops one or two of the pipes every so often, mainly when the weather turns particularly Biblical and prone to dramatic subtropical storms. This means we occasionally get sewage spilling across the trail or into the creek, ominous black water smelling of toilets in Wigan. The worst I've seen affected a section of the creek which widens out into a semi-permanent lake just past Los Patios. I gather a subterranean pipe of some description burst below the lake bed, resulting in a fountain at the centre of the water. It went on for days and days, looking very much as though it were about to bloom into some aquatic horror from a Godzilla film or one of Gerry Anderson's combined spaceship-submarine jobbies.

John asks me if I've seen any evidence of similar problems with the sewer system. We're standing next to a drainage outlet full of smelly black water, and there's a sign stuck into the earth, informing us of the hazard and promising that a clean-up operation is progress.

'Just back there on Holbrook.' I point in the direction from which I've come. 'It was gushing up out of the manhole and across the road, but it wasn't that bad, I suppose. It's been worse.'

'Is it still that way?'

'It was fine just now. They've put up one of those signs.'

This doesn't seem to be the environmental disaster he's looking for. 'Have you seen it that way in other places?'

A few months back there was a big one on the other side of the Austin Highway, I suppose behind Oakwell Farms riding stable where they have all the horses. It stunk worse than I've ever smelled it, so bad that the trail became briefly impassable for about a week and the air was full of mosquitoes; but they got it sorted out in the end. I tell all this to John, adding that so far as I can tell, none of it seems to be chemical waste, which would trouble me a lot more.

John asks what I think of what SAWS are doing to deal with the problem of poo on the trail - SAWS standing for San Antonio Water System. I get a feeling he maybe wants me to say that I'm disgusted, outraged, flabbergasted, mystified, and all that good stuff; but the truth is, I don't know what they're doing beyond that I suppose they must be doing something, so I don't know whether they're doing it well or not. My understanding of San Antonio's sewer system is rudimentary at best, so I have no idea what it would take to make it work better so as to prevent further poo spillage, if that's even possible.

'I'm sure they're doing their best,' I tell him.

He asks where I'm from and how long I've been here. He seems an amiable and friendly guy. He sets up the camera for a shot which will establish my credentials as a cyclist, just in case any viewers don't know what that is, and so I ride back the way I came, then come around the corner - not looking at the camera - and off towards the Austin Highway.

Twenty-four hours later and I've been on the news. The kid has seen it at his grandmother's house so now I'm famous. The clip is on the Time Warner website, using snatches of my speech to construct a narrative, but the recording of my voice came with a certain level of background noise which cuts in and out as I deliver my lines, emphasising the editing process.

'It's not the worst that I've smelt,' I tell the viewers, implying further aromatic secrets I'm keeping to myself. The pick of the crop of my complaints are followed by footage of a SAWS official explaining what they're going to do about all the poo, then cut back to me as though I've just been told the news.

'If they are, that's good,' eventually concluding with a Pinteresque declaration that, 'sometimes it's worse than others.'

I'm introduced as a San Antonio newcomer, and I look like a fat old sack of shite on the screen. These days my face seems to consist entirely of jowls, so that's how I speak - a bubble of noises escaping like farts from big bollocky drapes of flesh swinging back and forth. This is why I don't like to see or hear myself on film, because it reminds me that I'm turning into Richard Nixon. It's not that I suffer from a dearth of self-esteem or anything, but that's mainly because I tend to avoid all evidence of my long having ceased to resemble Johnny Depp because it's not like I need reminding.

Last time anyone I knew made it onto San Antonio news it was Chun, a Chinese woman who worked with my wife. She was involved in a traffic accident so traumatic that she forgot how to speak English and was only able to converse in Chinese, which never happened, and to this day no-one has been able to work out quite how such a detail found its way into the story.

I suppose I shouldn't complain.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Generic Internet Argument

Maybe they do, or maybe they don't, so I respectfully suggest it probably depends on which bears you're talking about. Wikipedia defines woodland as low-density forest forming open habitats with plenty of sunlight and limited shade. Taking the trouble to look on Googlemaps, even a five-year old will be able to see that the nearest ecosystems conforming to Wikipedia's definition of woodland from the Chicago Bears Soldier Field football stadium are either Grant Park to the north, or the southern limits of Ping Tom Memorial Park. Both are about a mile from the stadium, so you're telling me that Jay Cutler - who is currently worth forty-million dollars - is expected to travel up to a mile from the stadium during practice or even a game in order to take a shit, because as you quite clearly imply with your rhetorical question, Jay Cutler, quarterback for the Chicago Bears defecates exclusively in woodland. Your proposition makes no provision for his bowels to be emptied in any place besides woodland, and whilst you may well find the argument upsetting or possibly trivial, I am simply restating what you have written. If you don't like that, it isn't really my problem. Maybe you should think about what you're saying before you hit submit.

An article posted on the CBS Chicago website dated December 30th, 2012 states:

After the renovation in 2003, Soldier Field definitely isn’t lacking when it comes to facilities. It has doubled the number of restrooms and ensured that each facility is compliant to ADA standards by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Every single restroom is fully equipped with baby changing stations and there are fourteen family restrooms throughout the stadium. Solder Field prides itself on being a green facility complete with recycling and energy-conservative initiatives. Restrooms at Soldier Field are equipped with state-of-the-art Dyson Airblade hand dryers which replaced the paper towel system. The result is an abundance of family-friendly restrooms that are clean and efficient for the 63,000 people who visit the stadium for a Chicago home game.

Nevertheless, when Jay Cutler needs to pinch off a loaf, rather than avail himself of any of the available restroom facilities of the stadium which - as I have demonstrated - are extensive, he simply has no option but to travel a distance of just under a mile along South Lake Shore Drive to Grant Park where he takes to the trees, drops his pants, and then produces a stool presumably in full view of anyone else who happens to be making use of the park's facilities at that time? Chicago law has this to say on the subject:

No person shall urinate or defecate on the public way, or on any outdoor public property, or on any outdoor private property.  Except as otherwise provided in subsection (b), any person who violates this section shall be fined not less than $100.00 nor more than $500.00, or shall be punished by imprisonment for not less than five days nor more than ten days or by both such fine and imprisonment.

(b) Any person who violates this section while within 800 feet of a parade route which is not open to traffic shall be fined not less than $500.00 nor more than $1,000.00 or shall be punished by imprisonment for not less than five days nor more than ten days or by both such fine and imprisonment. For purposes of this section, the term “parade” has the meaning ascribed to the term in Section 10-8-330 of this Code.

I've looked for a clause excepting Chicago Bears players but I can't seem to find one. Funny that, because you have quite clearly described their toiletry preferences to me, and those preferences are exclusively limited to outdoor facilities of low-density forest forming open habitats with plenty of sunlight and limited shade.

That's what you're saying? That's what you're telling me?

I'm writing this whilst sat at the computer with a window to my left, and through that window I have a good view of the eastern edge of Gilcrest Park which covers approximately thirty-two acres and is heavily wooded on our side. I have lived in this house and made use of the computer in this room since September, 2002, and do you know how often I've seen Jay Cutler parking up on Lafayette Highway and then vanish into the trees in order to take a shit? I have not seen that happen once, and nor have I seen any other persons playing for or otherwise representing the Chicago Bears engage in this deed which you seem to insist occurs with such frequency. Perhaps it was simply that I was looking away at the time of the defecatory action in question. I mean there are twenty-four hours in a day, and I sleep for at least six or seven, then I am at the computer for no more than ten leaving a massive eight hour window during which Jay Cutler can pop along and just curl one off as he pleases without my noticing, so obviously that must be what's happening because you say it is, and you obviously know everything.

As for the Pope's alleged Catholicism - nice straw man, but I'm not even going to touch that one.