Thursday, 22 February 2018

Winter Wonderland

The Winter Wonderland is staged in the parking lot of the school, Sunday afternoon, and I'm trying hard to work out why. It doesn't really seem to be about anything beyond kids having a limited quota of fun and promoting the school, but maybe that's all it needs to be. Furnished with the snow cone which is apparently stipulated in his contract, Junior wanders off to find his buddies. We stand and watch the snow slide for about a minute. Somebody invented a machine which makes snow, and they have one here today. There's a line of hyperactive kids climbing steps, then tobogganing down the snowy incline on the plastic sleds provided. It probably helps if you're twelve and haven't grown up loathing snow, or indeed almost anything cold, as I have.

There's a crowd gathered a little way off, and it's only a little way because the parking lot isn't particularly big. I can see very small children stood on a stage singing something religious. Bess and I make our way to the front, but the voices of the children are drowned out by their own backing tape.

Down past the school entrance, a line of tables has been set out with fun activities, but the whole thing is beginning to remind me of Fun Land from the first episode of Father Ted; and to further map the extent of my imagination, one table is manned by the science teacher who reminds me of Andy Dwyer from Parks & Recreation. He seems to remember us so we stop at his table, which is the only fun activity of obscure methodology. He has three trays of iced water and he invites us to probe each with a finger and to guess which is the coldest. They all feel about the same.

'One of them is colder,' he insists, showing us the labels, regular, with added sugar, and salt water. 'Like to take a guess at which is coldest?' he asks again.

I guess that it's salt, but I can't remember why - something about water taking longer to boil if you add salt when making spaghetti.
Salt it is, Andy Dwyer from Parks & Recreation confirms happily, because it freezes at a much lower temperature. He whips out a thermometer and shows us: fun and educational.

We wander off, past the face painting and into the school. The building is essentially a church welded onto a school because it's a religious institution - although thankfully not one of those which favours intolerance and brainwashing. It's a proper church too, and pretty big, not just some chapel or vaguely theological outhouse. It reminds me a little of Coventry cathedral and is conceivably of about the same vintage.

We look for familiar names in the alcove where the ashes of wealthy patrons are kept, without success. Our boy's grandfather is apparently here somewhere, as is his great aunt, Barbara Jean. It's odd to find myself attached to a family with relatives interred inside a church, like King John at Worcester Cathedral.

We walk up the aisle towards the altar, enjoying the stained glass and the organ music bellowing forth above our heads.

'That's what you want,' I observe, 'proper organ music, not piped crap from a CD or whatever.' I'm thinking of the Christmas service which featured kids singing along to muzak piped from a laptop.

The organ ceases.

We both turn and there's a man up there. He looks pissed off. 'I'm trying to practice.'

We look at him.

The church is empty but for the three of us, and the door was open so Bess and I didn't need to jimmy the lock in order to effect our entrance. We were talking, as opposed to shouting or singing sea shanties whilst howling with laughter and throwing up. I'm a little surprised the organist could hear us up there in the organ loft, or whatever you call it.

'There will be a service later if you'd like to come to that,' he adds without making it seem as though we would be particularly welcome. It sounds like an awkward afterthought from a man suddenly aware of his own knobesque qualities.

'Okay,' we say and leave.

Just beyond the slide, there's a patch of fake snow set aside for snowball fights and the like. We watch Junior stuffing snowballs down the backs of garments worn by his various school friends; and we notice a child whose anonymity I'll preserve by calling him Juan, son of a legitimate businessman who makes an honest living importing legal materials from Mexico. Juan is at a different school these days. I suppose his father is the man I'll need to see if it all goes tits up next time I renew my green card, if you know what I'm saying.

By this point we've probably extracted all the fun there is to be had from the Winter Wonderland. Junior is still busily terrorising his friends, so we go to the supermarket for cat food, then return thirty minutes later by which time even the kid is bored.

We go home, and as we pass through Olmos Park we witness some sort of medieval re-enactment deal unfolding, except it's all a bit brightly coloured and comical, and the costumes are like something from It's a Knockout; so the day hasn't been a complete waste of time after all.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

My Wife's Rock Group

It's Sunday afternoon and we're in La Madeleine, which bills itself as a French bakery and café. It's a chain restaurant which does a fairly good job of acting like it isn't - in so much as that the food is decent and suggests both human agency and the possibility of someone at head office actually having been to France. I usually have the chicken friand - as it's called - because pastry encasing anything savoury is a novelty in Texas and should therefore be cherished. Instead I have a croque monsieur with a parfait for after. I'm not even sure what a croque monsieur is, but I vaguely remember the name from French lessons at school.

The cashier has a strong French accent, which I find quite exciting. I make a mental note to introduce myself once I've been sorted out with coffee and everything. She will be the first French person I've encountered on this side of the Atlantic, and I will introduce myself as a fellow European. But the moment never comes. My Gallic cashier is busy and in any case, Bess has already spotted the other women of her rock group, which is why we are here.

Six months ago, Bess began painting rocks, decorating small stones with colourful mandalas of acrylic paint. It was something she'd seen on facebook. People have taken to painting rocks and leaving them to be found in public places. The idea is simply to brighten the day of some random stranger. Bess often protests that she has no artistic ability and can barely manage a convincing stick figure, but her recent efforts cast doubt upon such a claim. The first rocks she painted now seem primitive and unfinished, just cheery coloured spots in haphazard configurations; but she's kept at it and developed her talent, and now turns out pseudo-fractal designs of astonishing beauty and precision. They have the look of patterns grown upon the shell of a sea urchin expressed as a firework display. The random strangers who have found them in parks, malls, diners, or on walls have been mostly delighted and have expressed their admiration for my wife's work on facebook. Her fame has become such that the aforementioned random strangers now make specific requests for one of her rocks, even offering to pay. The problem is that such offers miss the whole point of the rock being something found and unexpected, a little bit of magic in what might be an otherwise colourless day for someone you will never meet. Nevertheless, we've now met a few random strangers in parking lots, encounters co-ordinated through social media with me tagging along just in case one of them turns out to be a nutter. Usually my wife will exchange rocks rather than just dish them out because it seems more fair and places the two parties on an equal footing, although those rocks she receives in return tend to score higher for enthusiasm than craft. Society being what it is, we've seen plenty of them decorated with poorly rendered Disney characters. I suppose it's the thought that counts.

Today is probably the next step up from an exchange of painted rocks in a parking lot, because there are five of us and we're in a café. As usual, I'm here for support, although thankfully the other three seem approximately sane, just middle-aged women who like to paint rocks. Examples of our work are passed around, notes are compared about what's been going on in the wider world of giving painted rocks to random strangers, and then they all get out their paints. This is something I hadn't anticipated. My wife is taking a class. She has become a guru.

I hadn't really given much thought to how long we were going to be here, but I didn't anticipate it being for much longer than it takes to eat a chicken friand and drink a coffee. I need something to do because I'm not a middle-aged woman and am as such perilously close to the perimeter of my comfort zone.

'Give him a rock to paint,' one of the women suggests.

Someone hands me a couple of small rounded stones and a brush. Bottles of liquid acrylic are being passed around the table so I take dabs of what I need - yellow ochre, black, cadmium red, a yellow of some description. First I paint the Mexica sun symbol representing the current age of the world by agency of the red and blue ollin glyph at the centre. It's the first thing that comes to me because I've painted it so many times. Next I paint a traditional gnome with beard, boots, and a tall conical cap. I feel that gnomes have been under-represented in much contemporary fiction, so I've written them into a few of my own things and they're never too far from my thoughts.

After twenty minutes or so we all seem to have enough done to show everyone else. Bess has been demonstrating her technique to the others. They seem to be getting it, although their efforts are not quite so polished.

'It's an Aztec sun,' says the woman to my left, and they all coo over my efforts.

'He's an artist,' my wife explains.

Technically it's a Mixteca-Puebla style sun that I've painted, but I'm not a dick so I don't say anything. Thankfully the gnome doesn't really require explanation.

Friday, 9 February 2018


According to my diary, it was Sunday the 15th of February, 1998. I took my four channel Tandy mixer around to Ed's house, along with a couple of effects boxes - graphic equaliser, compressor, that sort of thing. It was a pretty basic set up, but I expected it would do the job, even though the actual details of what the job would entail were unclear. Ed was in a group called Attack Wave Pestrepeller, an improvised noise thing, and on this particular Sunday they were going to improvise noise in Ed's kitchen accompanied by a group of madrigal singers. No-one quite knew how it was going to work, or if it was going to work; but the singers seemed keen on the idea, and if anyone had grounds for reservations it would have been them, given that Pestrepeller probably weren't going anywhere near the Figgy Pudding song.

I knew Ed because we'd both been involved with small press comics publishing, and then discovered further common ground in weirdy music of the kind which often prompts witless twats to opine I wondered when they was gunna finish tuning up. Ed's enthusiasm extended to his publishing a magazine called The Sound Projector, and he roped me in to write for it, although most of what I came up with now makes me wince. Ed and I had recorded together, and I gather he had formed the impression of my knowing my way around a mixing console, which I do; and additionally he had this band with Harley, another cartoonist, and Savage Pencil.

My introduction to music beyond the Beatles and whatever shit Dave Lee Travis was playing that week had been facilitated back in February 1980 when I started buying Sounds music paper on a weekly basis. By far my favourite regular features of the paper were the tangential cartoon strips drawn by lil' Alan Moore under an assumed name, and Savage Pencil's superb Rock 'n' Roll Zoo, which probably changed the entire course of my life. Rock 'n' Roll Zoo was hilarious, vicious, amazing, fucking stupid, resembled a drug-addled scrawl, and couldn't be arsed to come up with a punchline half of the time; and I would probably still be hailing Savage Pencil as the greatest cartoonist of his generation had I never had the misfortune to meet the miserable fucker. As of Sunday the 15th of February, 1998, I was yet to meet the miserable fucker, and was therefore understandably excited to find myself in the immediate orbit of someone whose work I'd admired to the point of adoration.

Despite being mildly starstruck, I managed to contain my enthusiasm when introduced to Mr. Pencil who, after all, was really just some bloke Ed knew. I refrained from explaining how oh darn - my tail's fallen off again had probably been the greatest punchline in the history of graphic arts, or how he was probably directly responsible for my ever bothering to draw comics in the first place, because it would have been undignified and I didn't want to embarrass the guy. On the other hand, maybe that's what he actually wanted. It was difficult to tell. He was this little bloke, kind of rounded with a massive, grey beard and eyes suggesting sleepless nights - the self-made grumpy hamster of outsider art. He didn't look particularly happy and he didn't say much, at least not to me.

He had a Moog synth so I plumbed that into my mixer, then added Ed's Hammond organ - or whatever it was - and then Harley's guitar, assuming I correctly recall that he was playing a guitar; and there was a single microphone for the madrigal group at the other end of the kitchen. It was going to be chaotic, and my job was to attempt to maintain some sort of balance. The internet describes it thus:

Savage Pencil conceived the idea of combining the fearsome noise of Attack Wave Pestrepeller with the voices of madrigal singers. The idea was to combine two different sounds, but also two different approaches to making music; the singers, who could sight-read music, would be forced to improvise and sing without sheet music to guide them. The idea was tested in Ed's London kitchen, causing maximum distress to the neighbours for long, painful hours. The five singers struggled to be heard over a cacophony of feedback, organ drones and bitter grunts from Sav's Rogue Moog synth, although the handheld tape recordings of the sessions magically extracted the true essence of the event.

I'm thanked on The Cruel Sea, the CDR they released of the recording, although not thanked in the specific sense of having been involved. The magic which somehow just came about, perhaps as a sort of interference pattern resulting from the proximity of such fucking massive talents all in the same place, was, I might argue, essentially down to me keeping Savage Pencil's synth at the same volume, despite his turning the fucking thing up a notch every time I brought him down, so as to allow whatever the others were doing to be heard. Bizarrely, the Pencil seemed to appreciate this.

'He's very good, isn't he?' I heard him mutter to one of the others, marking my apparent graduation from just some cunt Ed knew to a person who is able to do things. It would have been nice for this to have been acknowledged in the above account. I feel somewhat sidelined by the suggestion that what you hear on The Cruel Sea occurred just by agency of some crazy magic, but never mind.

Anyway, we all went to the pub, because that was what we did in those days. The neutral environment seemed like it might be more conducive to conversation with my sullen hero, but it wasn't to be. I spoke to his wife, who was lovely and possibly long suffering. I spoke to himself and he ignored me. Being two decades past, I can no longer recall what I said, but it was almost certainly something safe, possibly something about the synth he had brought along, but he nevertheless ignored me. I made two or three direct addresses, at least one of which was tagged onto some utterance from elsewhere across the table. In each instance he looked directly at me for just a moment, then spoke to someone else, mostly prolonged name dropping from what I could hear. His voice took on the world weary drawl of a retired colonel or some jazz wanker. 'Yes… that was when I went to Los Angeles to interview the Grateful Dead...'

Realisation dawned upon me that for all his talent, the cunt wasn't actually worth talking to, and that contrary to assumptions, I wasn't amongst friends.

This is why you should never meet your heroes, I told myself.

They always turn out to be arseholes.

Every fucking time.

Then I count all of the heroes of mine whom I've met, some of whom I now count as friends, or at least chummy acquaintances, and I realise they don't always turn out to be arseholes.

It was just him.

Friday, 2 February 2018

High Society

We're driving along a certain road through Alamo Heights, and we're driving slowly because it's dark. The road winds down a hillside and Bess snatches glances at a map she has displayed on her phone. We pass another road on the left, a junction with bright lights illuminating expensive cars tended by smartly dressed men. The scene suggests valet parking, which is what we're looking for.

'How do we get back there?' Bess is trying to make sense of the directions given by her phone.

'We turn around,' I suggest.

We do so, returning the way we came, passing the junction of brightly lit motor vehicles before taking a right.

'What are you doing?' I ask. 'It was back there.'

'I don't think that was the road.'

'Did you not see all those cars?'

'Yes, but that wasn't their address.'

'No, but if their house is on a corner - as that one was - then it will be alongside a second road other than the one given as the address,' I explain, fully aware of my having begun to sound like Peter Cook. 'I therefore put it to you that we've just driven right past the place we're trying to get to. Turn here.' I point.

We approach the cars and the lights from the other direction.

'This must be it,' I say.

'I don't know.'

'That's valet parking if ever I saw it, and the invitation said there would be valet parking.'

'Okay.' She winds down the window and asks the guy who is about to open her door. 'Is this the Pace residence?'

He smiles and confirms that it is, and tells us he will be happy to park our vehicle.

'No, we just wanted to know we had the right place.'

'Let's just go with the flow,' I say. 'You saw the streets around here. We could end up having to park miles away.'

Bess concedes the point. We get out and a complete stranger climbs in and drives our car off around the corner, albeit a well-dressed complete stranger.

Some years ago, back when I was living in England, I developed a fascination with Mexican culture and by association a taste for Mexican food. I made my own salsa, but more often than not I'd buy a jar from the local supermarket because it would keep longer. I favoured Pace brand salsa, which was slightly harder to find than the better publicised version made by Old El Paso, but actually tasted like salsa; and now here I am, roughly fifteen years later on the other side of the planet, arriving at the home of the Pace family because our kids go to the same school. This is one of these things I could never, ever have foreseen. Pace were bought out by Cambell Soup in 1995, but it's the same family, and that's why they live in such a huge house, and why their parties offer valet parking.

I know that America has a class system, contrary to the claims of the recklessly idealistic, but I was never convinced of it being a direct correlation to anything I remember from England. Alamo Heights is full of what I'm told are the American upper classes, but mostly they just seem to be regular yahoos with too much money. Take away the big house and the superfluous ceremony and you're still left with some grunting knacker stood in Walmart in his pyjamas stocking up on beer and Funyuns; but I now realise I have it wrong. It's Christmas, and the Pace house is decorated with the extravagance of a department store, but it's kind of tasteful with not a ho-ho-hoing animatronic Santa to be seen. Inside the house, the walls are covered with art, actual canvasses - mostly abstract expressionist - and the guests hail from some demographic other than the cigar and face lift set which doubtless still clog up PTA meetings at the San Antonio Academy.

Junior rushes off in search of other kids, and we say hi to Ava, the daughter who knows our boy from school. We always try to encourage their friendship because Ava is intelligent, a good influence, and she doesn't take shit from anyone. She's shot up this last year, tall, skinny and a little awkward, but she's a great kid. Everybody loves Ava.

Bess introduces me to Ava's mother. We've met before but it was brief and a long time ago. As we talk, my initial impressions are proven. These people may have a ton of money, but they read books and are able to converse on subjects other than ball games, taxes, or favourite Disney character. I present Mrs. Pace with a pork pie, introducing it as an English delicacy, which I suppose it is because you can't buy them here, at least not without having to spunk away seventy dollars on refrigerated postage from some artisan mail order operation. I only ever want one pork pie a year, usually around Christmas, but my craving has been such that I've ended up making them myself. This has been quite an undertaking given that the required hot water pastry can be a bugger to work with. As I present Mrs. Pace with the pie, it feels as though I have lapsed into a peculiar east-European accent.

I bring you a gift from my people.

'It's supposed to be eaten cold,' is what I actually say. 'Maybe with pickled onions and some cheese. It's a traditional Christmas morning thing.'

I get the feeling she's slightly bewildered by my offering, but nevertheless hurries off to place it in the fridge.

Bess and I mingle in search of food. There's a huge silver platter piled high with what turns out to be jam sandwiches - a surreal effort most likely aimed at the younger guests. An eccentric cubbyhole below the staircase has been converted into a bar, so I grab a glass of wine, and we head for what seems to be the dining room. Music is provided by professional carol singers in pseudo-Dickensian atire, three of them giving voice in the doorway of what is probably the living room. I suppose it's a little hokey, which is true of most things associated with this particular holiday, but at least its not some fucking soundbar belting out Jingle Bell Rock, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas or any of the usual festive atrocities.

'You remember, Ty?' Bess tells me, propelling me towards a tall, cheery man of a physical type resembling a classical Greek hero and with a proud head of curly locks.

'Of course,' I bellow happily as I shake his hand. 'You have a lot more hair these days!'

He's glad to renew our acquaintance but seems puzzled by my comment, and about ten minutes later I will come to a realisation that actually I don't remember having met him before, and I thought he was Mr. Bertha, our boy's similarly statuesque but shaven-headed teacher. Never mind. It's Christmas, and we've all had a few.

The buffet seems an odd selection, as though some crucial element is missing, but it's smoked salmon and caviar, amongst other things, so I'm not complaining. We fill our plates and head outside into the garden. Ava passes in the dark with an entourage of pouting girls, and the boys are similarly arranged in their own small groups, daring each other to perform retarded acts near the fountain.

We head for the garage and watch Santa doing his thing for a little while. A sequence of small children are ferried to his knee for photo opportunities, and I'm not even grimacing. Maybe it's the wine. I have another glass and we go back inside. We look at the art, and I try to explain abstract expressionism to my wife, about how the painting is a thing in itself rather than a representation of something else, about edge tension and surface and all that good stuff. It's been a while since I found myself having to think about any of that kind of thing, and Bess isn't convinced.

Eventually, we're partied out, and we find the boy wandering around on his own, which is more or less what we've been doing too. We leave and our car is driven around to the front gate for us. We've probably managed about an hour, but I didn't hate any of it, and that's good going for me.