Monday, February 28, 2005

The sunniest February ever

The weather has been far too wonderful of late for blogging. Despite the dire predictions and the climate charts I have hardly seen a cloud for the last three weeks, let alone witnessed any rainfall. Sunday was so warm and sunny that we sat outside Ben and Jerry’s in our t-shirts eating ice-cream (Rachel with a restrained waffle-cone vanilla heath-bar crunch, myself with the Banana Fudge Royale)! Quite the best February in living memory. Locals predict a dire Summer of drought, hosepipe bans and forest fires; really, there is no pleasing some people. Meanwhile, Californians have been swept away in torrential mudslides. Yes, it’s hard not to smile.

I have been in rude health of late; yes, that’s right: rude health. Clearly the climate here agrees with me as I have had barely a sniffle since arriving in August, as might be juxtaposed to my usual winter of discontent. This is despite the fact that colleagues and indeed Rachel seem to be getting sick on a regular basis, the office appearing, at times, rather more like the bronchial ward at Brighton General, with less tobacco. So given this history I was quite annoyed to catch a cold and take a sick day Friday before last. It was especially frustrating as we had planned to take advantage of the holiday weekend to travel to the coast… I was all for tucking myself in for the duration with a cup of tea, a cat and a few magazines. However much to Rachel’s credit she ordered me out of bed and into the passenger seat of the ginger car and drove us to Astoria regardless of my condition, which coincidentally took a rapid turn for the better (rude health I tell you). The journey followed the route of the Columbia out to the shore. We found a little restaurant for dinner, seemingly rather dumpy, where I ate quite the best halibut and chips of my life.

On Saturday morning we found a beautiful quiet stretch of beach just along the coast. The sun shone brightly. I walked along the line where the strongest waves fissle out to nothing and watched as pale circles extended out from my footsteps; meanwhile Rachel tracked one way and then the other in front of me, searching for sand dollars. Mission successful: not one but two complete specimens were discovered!

Next we headed on down to the imaginatively named Seaside - the most commercial of the coastal resorts, full of tourists even on this winter's day and with all the usual shops selling nonsense and sticky sweet things... including a store which boasted 192 flavours of salt-water taffy... I wasn't aware that there were 192 flavours of anything full-stop, so had to check it out for myself. Salt-water taffys, for the uninitiated, are irregularly shaped soft-toffee like sweets which taste like weak opal fruits that have been left in the sun too long. Not everyone's cup-of-tea, then. As far as I am concerned, British sweets reign supreme (apart from the Dane's tyrkisk peber of course, but that is an exception). Rachel strongly disagrees however, suggesting that these are tastes acquired in childhood. Although even she prefer's Cadbury's to Hershey's chocolate.

Lindstrom's Danish Bakery in Astoria, image added primarily for Jacob's sake.

I found the touristy delights of Seaside a bit too much of a contrast from the serenity of elsewhere on the coast and we returned to Astoria for the evening; more of a working town with some interesting diversions than a full-on cockney jellied eels and dodgems knees-up cor blimey sort of thing, US-style (which means better executed but without character). Speaking of cockney-isms, very few people over here can differentiate between Mike Reid and Brian Sewell accent-wise, providing the creative Brit-abroad a far wider range of expression that would normally prove acceptable amongst his peers. To the American ear (and I have this on good authority) a British accent is only one step removed from that of the outre homosexual - I presume of the bookish Oxford-don stereotype, rather than the Will and Grace variant. In consequence I feel quite free to use such terms as jolly and pigs-ear in consecutive sentences and apparently both are found to be equally charming. The screenplay for The Limey is a good source of inspiration and I look forward to deploying whole paragraphs of this nature in due course:

"Look, mush, you're the guv'nor here, I can see that, I'm on your manor now, right. So there's no need to get out of your pram. I'm Johnny-come-lately to all this. Whatever the bollocks between you and this slag Valentine, it's got nothing to do with me."

Charming I tell you.

Anyhow, back to the plot: we had a lovely time.

We travelled back through Tillamook, famous nationwide for it's dairly products. The cows have the best of it, as a visit to the cheese factory soon confirms: observing clinically-attired drone-staff mechanically moving identical giant-sized blocks of tasteless orange fat from machine to machine felt more like watching a Marxist video on the perils of industrial alienation than a celebration of the world of cheese.

Back in Portland I have found a group of people to kick a football with on Saturday mornings. After six months on the old Ben and Jerry's diet, the first game nearly did for me, but I seem to be back in my stride now (i.e. hapless but enthusiastic). To call it informal would be a bit of an understatement but it's good fun and a good way to meet new people too.

We met up with the Bartster on Saturday night to hear some music at Dante's in Old Town (the rougher side of downtown, near the river). The first, Robbers on High Street (sic - obviously it should be Robbers on the High Street) sounded to me like a more melodic and far less pretentious versionof The Strokes, with some outstanding songs. Then the main act: Devotchka, who were simply outstanding; offbeat and utterly hypnotic tunes which sound like they've been dragged from a Polish gypsy camp and abandoned somewhere down in South America. One man wore a suit which it looked like he'd slept in for several years and had the bearing of an awkward Eastern European intellectual who'd fallen off the boat onto Ellis Island circa 1900; he alternated playing the violin and the accordian. The drummer (who came on stage playing the trumpet) looked like James Fox in Performance and played in an upbeat, moddish fashion. A Spanish senorita alternated between the double-bass and the tuba. Meanwhile the lead vocalist - an incredibly charismatic individual who looked like a darker, more slender and more handsome (yes, ladies, it's really true) version of George Clooney, played guitar, sitar, trumpet and what looked like an ancient experimental electronic instrument and sang like his heart was breaking and his life depended on it, eyes closed. No, I know you don't believe me, but check out their site and then buy their records and then hope they tour Europe soon! In any case if you like music then we should return to Dante's when you visit; it's a great little club with little round tables and (albeit flaky) waitress service, an old brick-building with great acoustics, dimly lit in red and with a huge firepit in the corner. Either that of The Crystal Ballrooms with the amazing bouncy dancefloor!

Monday, February 14, 2005

Work: the curse of the drinking classes

You will have noticed that I have spoken little of work. Not so much because I've been living some kind of bizarre Falling Down style double life: merely faking the daily regimen that has become the singular source of my identity having been downsized some months previous. Au contraire mes amis. Rather because, as you may have noticed, this is the internet, hence public, hence actionable. Still I thought I'd share this little vignette of madness with you all the same... We're coming up fast on our annual review period and I have the job of rating myself and my reports (aka staff) against three axes of performance: work ethic, criticality and competence. Two and three of course, not an issue. Here's the definition of an 'A' for work ethic: "Consistently works greater than fifty hours per week... Works nights/weekends to complete work on time or ahead of schedule without complaint." Not so much a work ethic as proof positive of a mental disorder. I especially like the "without complaint" clause; so you worked all weekend? Tell it to the hand, sunshine. And put that finalised spreadsheet in the other one, while you're at it.

Still my only real complaint with work is that there's too much of it. You can almost feel your life being exchanged for mammon cent by cent, a little spinning silkworm, spinning the deluxe lining to one's own coffin. Still there's a plus side: I've got me a hot tub.

Yes, it's been bubbling-and-steaming for about a month now; I've been for an extended soak every other evening or so; I lie back and watch the steam curl into the pines. Lately I've been trying to formulate a convincing subtext for a novel I will never almost certainly never write. I don't think I have any problem with text. Text is fine, text is everyday. Even this is a text - more or less. Subtext though - that's the stuff - that's art that is, mate. Anyhow it's all very relaxing. And, as a fringe benefit, I have become aquainted with the science of hydraulic chemistry. You never know when that might come in handy.

I do not think I will ever quite get used to the sight of young men with extensive facial hair. A alarmingly common practice in these parts, I find it immensley distracting and, as with Ian McShane's mullet in Lovejoy, or ditto Nicholas Cage in Con Air, my mind is consumed with the desire to personally and violently remove the offending coiffure, offering it up in sacrifice to the gods of taste and decency. An act of humanity, you understand. A man of about twenty-two sometimes takes the same train as me in the morning, sporting a ginger beard which extends, gnome like, at least eight or nine inches below his chin. What ignominous deed could possibly demand such self-inflicted penetance? Whatever the crime, surely now the price has been paid, the debt settled.

Cycling across the Hawthorne Bridge on my home this evening I passed a man running along with a shopping cart, screaming into a mobile phone which he held to his headphoned ears, his dog tied to the trolley and running beside him. The odd thing is quite how quickly one gets inured to the weirdness of Portland or - perhaps - city life in general and yet, sometimes you stand back and reflect on it and it's all quite magical and absurd and mildly terrifying at the same time. Of course I have filled this journal with nothing but the finer side of Portland and none of the bad. Bad stuff happens of course, if not on the scale of other American cities. Probably the biggest single issue is the prevalency of meth(-amphetamine) addiction. I'm not one to criticise drug use per se, but this is really nasty, highly addictive and unpleasant substance; those suffering withdrawal often experience psychotic episodes; jumpy and unpredictable you could run into them anywhere and one gets the feeling that the typical Portland laid-back sixties anything-goes demeanour is not going to cut you a lot of slack with someone that desperate, paranoid, frightened and aggressive. Social programmes are chronically underfunded in the US, so the authorities don't have the resources they need to tackle the problem. On the plus side (for us that is) it's something which seems mostly to happen elsewhere in the city, far out to the north and to the east, save the odd burglary or two that is.

Local news - something to talk about in the boozer; a recent find: the Kennedy School by night. I think I've mentioned this place before: an old high school converted into an hotel, several bars and a cinema. After a couple of beers Matt (a friend from work) and I wound up in 'detention', a very cosy little wood-pannelled bar, drinking single malt, sharing a cigar and putting the world to rights. A little place to take you to when you visit.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Banana splits for lunch

Of course I had to go to bastard work on my birthday, for the first time ever as I recall. It took the edge off the day but at least I managed to guilt everyone into taking me to Baskin Robbins for lunch and singing Happy Birthday to me. Indeed the rendition appeared to carry unusual sincerity and was - in fact and much to my surprise - mildly touching. I had a banana split with Jamoca® (coffee), Winter White Chocolate® (White chocolate ice cream with chocolate-covered cherry pieces and a cherry ribbon) and Tiramisu ice creams, topped with hot (chocolate) fudge sauce, whipped cream, cherries and chopped nuts. Try getting that at Pizza Express. Go on, try, you poor benighted fools. Yes, you may have a free press and democracy, but I've got Baskin Robbins, Ben & Jerry's and the Coldstone Creamery all within wobbling distance. See what a heavy price you pay for your precious ideological principles? Poor saps.

On this culinary theme, my Mum and Dad bought me a KitchenAid Artisan mixer for my birthday. In the purest ginge of course (though they call it tangerine). It's a design classic, essentially the same as it was back in the fifties, blending form, function and ingredients with equal aplomb. It looks great amongst our other ancient appliances and creates a batch of brownie batter far smoother than I can muster in about a quarter of the time. Brownie baking is my new hobby, a quintessentially American art which I intend to master on behalf of the Commonwealth. It takes guts - chutzpah perhaps - to remove that batter from the oven before it's cooked, relying on residual heat and the dark powers of the brownie elves to bring the mixture to a solid but divinely gooey set.

Of course having my birthday on a Monday gave me a good excuse to draw out the festivities over an entire weekend. Friday night took us to Jakes Crawfish - my favourite restaurant in the city; I had a dozen oysters followed by seared tuna and finished up with their upside-down walnut-crusted caramel apple-pie with cinnamon ice-cream. On Saturday we caught up with several back episodes of 24 accompanied by a bottle of Chateau Magdelaine '95. That is probably a first, I would imagine. We also went to the Portland Cat Show. Not as impressive as the Earl's Court equivalent of course, but plenty of handsome specimens to be sure, including several ginger Somalis. There was also an absurdly pointless "agility course"; a fenced-off subsection of the arena where overly optimistic owners attempted to entice their darlings around an obstacle course which would have been somewhat more at home at Crufts. Fences, hoops, a tunnel, steps, a chicane - you know the drill, but the cats don't. They are easily distracted and really can't be bothered anyhow. Enough animated dangling of bright objects on fishing rods eventually gets them around, some minutes later.

On Sunday we went to no less than two Superbowl parties after receiving assurances that we wouldn't have to pay any attention whatsoever to the game. Only in America - or Lewes - could a one hour game take over 3 hours, but at least it gives one plenty of time to survey the canapes. For some reason Safeway had a special on asparagus that morning, $1.75 a bunch as I recall, so I pretty much ate that all day. On my birthday we went for sushi, but had to be back home at 9 for 24 of course.