Monthly Archives: October 2008

Early to rise, early to grump

Four times this week, I’ve woken from my deep and blissful slumber at 6.30am. And not just because one of the cats is aggressively scratching the door in an attempt to persuade me that it should be fed.

Each time I have reluctantly emerged disheveled and groggy from under the duvet (which I believe for legal purposes I have to call a comforter in the United States, despite the fact that it makes it sound like some kind of security blanket), and reached for the closet to pluck out my dressing gown. Ten minutes later – having finally managed to find the armhole in the pitch blackness of the room, put it on, taken it off so that it wasn’t back to front like a straitjacket, put it on, taken it off again because it was inside out, put it on again, and finally grappled in the bottom of the closet to find the missing waist cord – I get my day started.

Now, this week was an unusual week, given that I had very early starts at work, but nonetheless there are always two or three days a week where I have to get up an hour earlier than strictly necessary. That’s sixty minutes of lost sleep, making me sixty times more likely to be grumpy by the end of the day (as I’m sure The Special One will happily confirm with a world weary roll of the eyes).

And the reason? Clearly it’s not a desire to go for an early morning jog along the Atlantic Ocean coast. Nor is it a willingness to skip merrily to a delightful little patisserie nearby, to pick up croissants and fresh baguettes. I mean, I would, but trudging through the cold to get a loaf of Home PrideWonder Bread just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

No, it’s because The Young Ones have to start school at 8.15am, and given that we live an hour or so subway ride from their educational establishment, one of us always has to get up at 6.30 to wake them and make them lunch.

I’m not complaining about making the kids lunch, obviously. Well, I am, but that’s a different matter. In the end, despite a certain amount of grumbling, I’m happy to accept the role. What I struggle to understand is why they have to be at school at 8.15am.

The strange thing is, they seem to be the lucky ones, with other kids having to be at school for 8. Of course, I understand that parents work, and so dropping them off before they head off to the office is a necessity for some people. But in New York, most kids at high school either live within walking distance of school or get the subway on their own. Classes finish at 2.30 or 3, but show me a kid who wouldn’t swap an hour of freedom in the afternoon for an hour of extra bed, and I will show you a 13 year old who probably has extra-curricular commitments as a shoplifter.

In the UK, school starts at 9, and finishes around 3.30. Much more civilised if you ask me. Maybe there are studies that show kids are more receptive to learning early in the morning, and I would kind of understand that, and should certainly respect it. All I can say is that there are studies that clearly show that I am substantially more tetchy having got up at ridiculous o’clock in the morning.

It’s time for change in more ways than one, I can tell you.

The pipes of peace

I’ve said it before, but New York is a city packed full of people who just don’t know when to stop. As the old Chinese proverb says, “Start argument with New Yorker on Tuesday, kiss goodbye to weekend.” And if a New Yorker fails at something, expect them to keep trying until they’ve finally achieved it. Or at least until they’ve died trying.

The lack of limits extends to the workplace too. I wouldn’t be surprised if the New York branch of Workaholics Anonymous resembles HarrodsMacy’s on the first day of the January sales. I know plenty of people who spend more time at their offices than at home, and it can’t just be because of the way that that woman in accounts/man in the postmail room looks at them.

The fact is that New Yorkers play hard, but work much harder. It’s probably the only city in America where employees complain about getting ten days off work per year because it’s twice as many as they ever intend to take. Some people wonder how the city supports so many fast food outlets, but frankly if it wasn’t for lawyers and architects ordering in chicken parmigiana at 10pm, half of the Italian places in New York would close down.

Given the level of commitment to work, the buskerstreet musician on the L platform at 14th Street/Union Square is a refreshing breath of fresh air. Masquerading as a guitar twiddling, pan pipe blowing Peruvian, Manuel Pugo (I’ve occasionally had the misfortune to get up close, and have seen his CDs) is the antithesis of a New Yorker. Despite the fact that his music is blasting out every morning (generally covers of much loved classics such as ‘The Sound Of Silence’), I have yet to see him blow his pan pipes in anger, or give more than an occasional strum. It’s almost as if he’s on doctor’s orders not to perform for more than three minutes a day, for fear that further exertion will cause him to spontaneously combust.

He mimes along quite happily, and occasionally gives a muted yelp into the microphone. But mostly he talks to commuters, and gives me the kind of look that says “you’ve been coming to this platform for six months now and you’ve not put money in my guitar case once.”

Clearly I give him a withering stare in return. If he hasn’t managed to work it out yet, the aforementioned look roughly translates as “pick up your sodding instrument and use it, and I might consider giving you some cash.”

I think my money’s perfectly safe, sadly.

Back to the future

If you’d have spoken to me on the morning of May 1 1997, I’d have been a nervous wreck. As Britain went to the polls, it felt like it was time for change. After all, Britain had been controlled by the Conservatives (largely Margaret Thatcher) for 18 years, and the country was crying out for a new way of doing things.

Despite a tide of sentiment that was fundamentally in support of change, and even with The Sun coming out in favour of Tony Blair, I think plenty of people spent many hours worrying that the polls had been wrong, and that John Major would be swept back to power on the basis of fear of change. More to the point, Labour had made a habit out of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, so anything was possible.

As it was, Blair won a landslide majority, and Britain found itself with a Labour Prime Minister for the first time since 1979. The feeling on the streets of London (where I lived at the time) the following morning was like nothing I have ever experienced. People smiled, for a start. There was a real sense of public optimism, and a feeling that the UK was entering a whole new era. Put simply, Britain felt like a different kind of place.

Of course, that feeling didn’t stop dodgy dossiers, the Millennium Dome, slow handclapping at the Women’s Institute and cash for honours, but at the time, it was a new dawn for the country.

Fast forward eleven years (and head 3458 miles west), and America is potentially on the verge of the same monumental mandate for change. I’ve got that nervous feeling in my stomach again, despite polls that suggest there’s more chance of me being elected President than that funny little man with the grey hair. I’m reading the news voraciously, and I spend any spare time on this site looking for evidence that the country is turning increasingly blue. It feels like there’s never been a more important American election in my lifetime.

I’m actually out of the country next Tuesday, but when I return on Wednesday, I’m hoping that the immigration officers have smiles on their faces, and that the taxi drivers thronging in the arrivals hall have an extra skip in their step.

May 2 1997 felt like the start of a new chapter. Here’s hoping that November 5 2008 is the beginning of a whole new book.

Playing ball

Something strange has happened to me over the last six months. Something I always swore would never happen to me. Something vaguely shameful for a thoroughbred Brit whose very masculinity is defined by an overwhelming desire to eat pie, chips and gravy before watching a footballsoccer match.

Reader, I like baseball.

I have no idea how this happened. As far as I was concerned, the only game with a bat and a ball that was worth its salt was cricket. You know, the game that takes five days and generally ends in a draw. That doesn’t mean there’s no excitement in cricket though. As a kid, I once broke a school mate’s nose playing cricket, accidentally swinging my bat backwards into his honk in flamboyant search of a boundary as he stood too close as wicketkeepercatcher. I managed to turn around in time to see his nose explode with the explosive power of a November 5July 4 firework. Paul Connell, if you’re reading, I’m truly sorry.

Our closest thing to baseball was rounders. With a shorter bat, and generally a tennis ball instead of a hard ball, rounders is to baseball what Joey from Friends is to Laurence Olivier. The only real memory I have of the game is the fact that, on seeing a player hit the ball far enough to allow them to get around all bases, it seemed to be compulsory for all participants to chant “rounder, rounder, rounder, rounder.” Trust me, there’s no greater sound in the world.

I always thought that baseball was a ridiculous waste of time, with far too many games every season to be taken seriously. And to be fair, rarely can so many out of shape men been employed as professional sportsmen. My dog can run faster than most baseball players, and she’s been dead for ten years.

But strangely baseball got its claws into me. Maybe it’s the endless statistics, or maybe it’s the fact that the backpages of the New York tabloids constantly splash on baseball stories. But however it happened, I’m hooked and there seems to be no way back.

I’ve only ever been to one baseball game, at the very start of this season with Brit Out Of Water Sr and The Eldest. That titanic struggle was between one of the most famous names in international team sport, and the side that has finished last in its division for nine of the last ten years. And was the worst team in the whole of baseball last year.

Needless to say, the Tampa Bay Rays beat the New York Yankees 6-3 that day, went from strength to strength during the season, and are currently playing the first game of the “World” Series. If you need your rubbish side to become useful, my father, stepson and I are all available at the start of next season to attend a game and support the opposing side.

I hate to admit it, but I’m actually going to miss baseball for the next six months. I’ll be savouring the World Series for all I’m worth, and hoping that the Rays come through to win over the next seven games.

If it comes down to the last game next Thursday, and a Ray hits a winning home run in the bottom of the 9th inning, I want to hear the entire crowd on their feet shouting a lusty chant of “rounder, rounder, rounder, rounder,” OK?

Now that’s what I call autumn. Or fall.

I always loved autumnfall when I was a kid. Little Sis, The Cousins and I would regularly get taken to Delamere Forest by our grandparents to pick up chestnuts and pine cones from the forest floor, and tear about like loons to run off excess energy. More importantly, we got to eat our grandmother’s chicken soup, the taste of which still lingers to this day, regularly infuriating me that I can’t recreate it. I can only assume that the secret ingredient was nicotine or, say, crack cocaine, such was the soup’s addictive qualities.

Part of the joy of autumnfall was the low strong seasonal sun, and the crisp but not too cold weather that always alerted me to the fact that my birthday and the festive season were just around the corner. Don’t get me wrong, I loved spending time with my grandparents, but the fact that I might soon be getting some new Lego or a new music compilation cassette was far more important at the stage in my life.

But ever since those early days, I’ve always loved that in-between weather – the times when it’s not too cold and not too hot, and everything’s changing from green to brown or vice-versa. I may not be able to have the chicken soup any more, but I’ll take a British autumn day over Now That’s What I Call Music 74 any time.

Last week, as I headed home on the subway, the N train on which I was travelling emerged from a tunnel out onto the Manhattan Bridge, giving me a striking view of the Brooklyn Bridge and the stretch of water down towards the Statue of Liberty. The low sun shone majestically off the East River, casting an ethereal glow over South Street Seaport and the bridge. The particular shade of light could mean only one thing – autumnfall had arrived at last.

Instead, this weekend, we turned the heating on and pulled out the thick coats. It seems that in the north east of the United States, two or three days is plenty enough of autumnfall, and it’s time to get ready for winter. Sure, there might be the occasional balmy day to look forward to, but other than that, it’s snow, ice and soul-chilling winds all the way.

Whatever happened to traditional seasons that lasted for a few months rather than a few days? I can only assume that the credit crunch has hit New York so hard that it can no longer afford to pay its bills, and we’ve duly had our sun taken away by bailiffs. Maybe if we all club together we can have it turned on again by February?

In the meantime, I’m getting the blankets out of the attic.

Wherever I lay my hat

Everybody has a place where they feel most comfortable. A place that’s as soothing and becalming as your presence in the womb itself, providing you with a moment of sanity away from the world around you. An oasis of blessed relief, which at any given point would be the place you would instantly choose to be teleported. If it weren’t for the fact that teleporting isn’t actually currently humanly possible, obviously.

For some people, that place can be utterly specific. A particular table at a quaint little restaurant off the beaten track in a French market town, maybe. Or drunkenly falling comatose in the car park behind the Dog & Bucket in Trowbridge after one Smirnoff Ice too many. You know the kind of thing.

For others, the vision is a little less precise. Inhaling the unmistakable odour of the first mown grass of spring. Holding a loved one’s hand as you trudge through newly fallen snow. Or gazing wistfully over the Virginian plains as eagles and kestrels soar overhead. To be honest, I’m not particularly sure that Virginia has plains, let alone eagles and kestrels, but I think you know what I mean.

As for me, it’s gazing out over a vast expanse of water. Preferably with The Special One beside me. Only then do I feel calm and at one with the world. With the sea infront of me, a feeling hits me that makes me know that there truly is no place on earth I’d rather be.

For a remarkable number of New Yorkers, it seems, the place that gives them the same sensation is “the exact position that would cause maximum annoyance to commuters”. Whether it’s on the third step up a long staircase on the subway, or in the doorway to an office building, some residents of the city find a curious zen descend upon them at the moment of maximum inconvenience. A zen that roots them to the spot, oblivious to the muffled effing and blinding of all those around them. And only when everybody has taken a long detour/bodycharged/crawled under their legs to get past does reality re-emerge to allow the (now thoroughly relaxed) person to go on their way.

Still, I’m not going to forgive the woman on the N train who ran ten yards and practically wrestled me to the ground in order to get a seat that had suddenly become available right next to me. I wouldn’t have minded, but for the fact that I wasn’t even trying to sit in it in the first place, and was simply trying to make space for the seat’s current occupant to vacate it.

Everybody has their place, and who can deny them that? This person was just lucky that her place wasn’t her local A&EER, given the dagger looks I shot her for the rest of the journey.

Where’s the sea when you need it most, eh?

The restorative powers of fat

While I am obviously a man of restraint and fine moral vigour, occasionally the desire to celebrate with a glass of two of chilled sherry can become a little too much for me. Unlike certain other of my friends, I’ve never been reduced to begging for cash in public or been forced to leave a family member’s birthday party and subsequently fallen fast asleep on a cold hard kitchen floor. But that doesn’t mean I’ve never woken up with a head seemingly pounding out its own vibrant African rhythms, and a clear yet somehow elusive feeling of regret and momentary self-loathing.

On such self-induced occasions, the body really has no choice but to accept emergency aid. Yet like a foreign power helping out in a region so that it can later lay its filthy hands on all its natural resources, that aid seems to provide initial relief before you later realise that it’s probably done as much damage as the original problem itself. With more grease than the elaborately coiffed hair of a 50s throwback, the hangover breakfast tastes like the greatest meal on earth while you’re eating it, but 37 minutes and 23 seconds later leads indirectly to the familiar pained cry of “I’m never ever drinking again.” And an afternoon on the sofa watching fourteen episodes of Murder She Wrote on some obscure cable channel.

Nevertheless, there are some times when only fried food will do. And for me, the meal of choice on the morning-after-the-night-before can only be the bacon sandwich. Crisped to within an inch of their lives, each rasher must carry a powerful payload of HP Sauce, and preferably be sitting on thickly sliced highly processed white bread. Artisan-made organic multi-grain loaves have their place, but that place is not the morning after, say, showing off your breakdancing skills to a rapt-yet-terrified crowd.

Sadly bacon in the United States is 98% fat, 2% pig testicle, and as a result, the bacon sandwich doesn’t quite have the same appeal. Instead, the hangover breakfast American-style comes either with eggs, or at least 87% more cheese than an Abba-themed fancy dress party. The everything bagel with ham and cheese is a welcome addition to the campaign to fight over-consumption, but it’s not the universal panacea that the body requires.

On Sunday morning, I woke up with a slight sore head and jokingly remarked to The Special One that she would be my hero forever if she brought me a bacon butty in bed, safe in the knowledge that the house was a resolutely rasher-free zone. Fifteen minutes later, she stepped into the bedroom with a toasted sandwich containing two split open and grilled smokey hot dogsbrats. American ingenuity and innovation at its best, I say. And you know something, it actually tasted remarkably good.

Didn’t stop me from having sausage, chips and beans for lunch at the local chipshop, obviously. But pretty damn good nonetheless.

Putting a price tag on health

After twelve straight hours in the ER last Friday, my friend was finally admitted to the hospital. I manfully stifled my laughter as he was put in a wheelchair and slowly wheeled around the medical corridors like an 85 year old war veteran by a man in maroon overalls. I wouldn’t normally have controlled myself so well, but the look on the face of my friend suggested that he wouldn’t have been averse to getting out of the wheelchair and putting me in my own ER cubicle if I didn’t keep quiet.

Wheeling through the hallways of the ER, and into the main hospital itself, I looked puzzledly at the porter. Had he possibly made a wrong turn, and accidentally taken us through an adjoining door into the Brooklyn Hilton? After all, the floors seemed to be vaguely marbled, and the walls had dark wood panels that wouldn’t have looked out of place at some gentleman’s club in Pall Mall.

To be fair, the presence of a number of wheezing old ladies suggested that we’d either wandered into the host venue for the “Lucky Strike for Seniors” convention, or else the guy knew what he was doing. Before we knew it, he’d put the brakes on the wheelchair and left us infront of the door to one of the rooms.

Now, I’ve stayed in a few hotels. This time last year I was kicking back in a two floorduplex affair in the Greek islands, with an infinity pool just outside the French doors and the sea only a few short yards further away. I know the things that hotels can include just to make you feel like you’re in the greatest place on Earth.

Last time I checked though, that list of perks did not include ‘a bed containing an old bloke with a hacking cough’. Admittedly you could only rarely hear the cough, but that was largely because his television was loud enough to be audible in Georgia.

Given that it was almost midnight by now, I had to make my way back home. But before I pushed off, my friend asked if I could make my way down to the foyer to pick up some bottles of water for him. After all, we’d already watched in horror as the old man had drunk directly from the water jug provided for the room, and neither of us fancied supping on ‘eau de pensioner’.

With a security guard having given me the dubious stares reserved for somebody who seemed to be visiting four hours or so after visiting hours had finished, I wandered the corridors looking for some Poland Spring. It was only then that I truly realised that I was in America.

Firstly, the vending machines contained every manner of crisppotato chip known to man. From TGI Friday’s cheese and bacon flavour potato skins to onion and garlic snacks, it was a veritable high fat, high cholesterol temple. Don’t get me wrong, I grabbed myself a bag of something salty and sickeningly unhealthy for the trip home, but that doesn’t mean I condone it.

But even the snack factory couldn’t prepare me for the sight of the gift shop. Yes, you read it right. The gift shop. Stand aside Disneyland, back off Alton TowersSix Flags. You’ve got nothing on the American medical system and its desire to shift souvenirs on the ill and infirm. And what better for the friends and family of the sick to take their mind off their troubles than a little bit of retail therapy?

Given the late hour, the gift shop was sadly closed and as a result I can’t comment on the range of products available for purchase. I might go back this weekend though, and if they don’t have “Welcome To Brooklyn” colostomy bags and clothing with the slogan “My Grandma Had A Heart Attack And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt”, I’m going to be very disappointed.

General Hospital: a lesson in the difference between fact and fiction

Luckily enough, I’ve never had to spend much time in hospital. There was the time I fainted and fell back off my stool in a physics class at school, although walking in with a suspected fractured skull and walking out with a fractured thumb was frankly embarrassing. And when I was a toddler, I naively put my hand on the side of a hot oven and had to be raced off to casualty. It wasn’t a lesson I learned particular well either – a couple of years ago I cooked Christmas dinner for fifteen friends, badly burnt my hand as I served up the food, and spent the rest of the evening watching other people eat while I sat in excruciating agony with a bag of frozen Thai green curry in my rapidly blistering hand.

Given that those were my only two visits to an A&E department, I’ve generally had to look elsewhere for my understanding of medical emergencies. And by ‘elsewhere’, I’m clearly referring to hospital dramas on TV.

In the UK, hospital drama means ‘Casualty’, the gritty weekly show based in the fictional city of Holby. Famous largely for the presence of the world’s worst actor (Derek Thompson, who plays Charlie Fairhead, somehow manages to make David Caruso look like a Shakepearean veteran), Casualty is apparently the longest running emergency medical drama in the world. I appreciate that this might not be the most expansive category in the world, but bless ‘em for coming up with the stat anyway.

In the US, Casualty’s equivalent is ER, the George Clooney-launching monolith that has just lumbered into its fifteenth and final seriesseason. For a while back in the 90s, ER seemed to be the biggest show in the world, although if you ask me it was just Casualty with more money and less wooden acting.

Anyway, the point is that as far as American emergency rooms go, my experience was limited to the times when I happened to watch ER. With flying trolleys carrying half-mutilated traffic victims, and surgeons bearing high voltage defibrillators asking passers by to stand back, the US emergency room always seemed to be the pinnacle of unbelievable tension. Especially compared to the early years of Casualty, when the most exciting injury of the evening was generally a pretty nasty paper cut.

However, having spent much of Friday night sitting with a friend in a Brooklyn ER, I can’t begin to sum up my disappointment at the grim reality. That the biggest piece of excitement seemed to be the moment one woman breathed in on an asthma inhaler would probably best sum it up. No dashing trolleys, no electric paddles, and not an Alex Kingston or Anthony Edwards in sight. Hell, I’ve been in more exciting shoe shops.

In fact, it’s difficult to imagine a situation in which there could have been less of a sense of urgency. It’s almost as if hospital staff were trying to bore patients into curing their own illnesses. Although given that most patients appeared to be founder members of Brooklyn’s ‘Why Take Up One Chair When You Can Put On Enough Weight To Take Up Two’ society, it would have taken more than casual nonchalance to shift some of these folk.

At least I wasn’t in a British A&E on a Friday night, I guess, watching a succession of dishevelled and dirty individuals, almost certainly over the legal driving limit, and ready for a fight at any moment. And that’s just the staff.

Still, with Charlie Fairhead and Doug Ross as examples, what can you expect?

America: your country needs you

Look, this is no political blog, and I’d like to think that people of all ideological persuasions are welcome here. But after tonight’s vice presidential debate, I find myself duty-bound to make five points:

1. Why aren’t there ever any debates between party leaders or their deputies in the UK? I’d have paid good money to see John ‘Slugger’ Prescott clash with anybody the Conservatives cared to put up, to be honest.

2. Could the moderator have been any less confrontational? Paxman would have made mincemeat of both of them, especially given that one candidate refused to answer any of the questions put to her.

3. Did Sarah Palin really wink at us, in an almost coquettish fashion? I thought America was looking for a vice president, not a morning TV host…

4. Tina Fey is way too scarily spot on with her Palin impression.

5. If that woman ever becomes vice president of the United States of America, I swear that I’m making immediate plans to leave the country.