The Nashville Diaries, part II

Sunday

Sunday morning the coffee-making travails continue, as, having laboriously ground the beans, and successfully decanted the resulting grounds into the basket thing, I then accidentally catch the edge of the basket and flip the whole lot onto the counter-top.

Ryan saves the day by producing a sheet of paper (quality cardstock, none of your cheap 75gsm stuff) and I brush the grounds onto the paper. Then, curving the paper, I get most of the grounds back into the basket. Katie helpfully points out, somewhat after the fact, that it would have been easier if I had used the paper in portrait orientation instead of landscape.

Later I visited Wholefoods. Picked up some Maine Root Sarsaparilla, and Maine Root root beer. Plus some A&W at Kroger.

(4) Maine Root Root Beer. Decent but unspectacular. A little bland even. 6/10.

Ryan disagrees, but this is my blog so it’s getting a 6.

Monday

Monday morning the Robinsons’ sweet children involve me in one of their games, which involves Jude (3) chopping off many of my body parts. He starts with the arms and doesn’t stop, at anything, really, naming each body part as he goes, and it turns out his genital vocabulary is pretty extensive.

I am relieved that we’re only pretending.

Every time I come to the States I get a temporary sim from Zip Sim. On activating it, I get assigned a US number. Two years ago I was given a number that had clearly belonged to someone who had signed up for daily parenting advice texts.

This morning, at 09:26 I get a text from an unknown number

GET YOUR ASS IN HERE!!!!

I am unsure where I am to get my ass in to, so I stay where I am.

Tried to have a Maine Root Sarsaparilla but couldn’t get the top off. Nearly shredded my fingers before I conceded that it probably wasn’t a twist-off cap. Searched for, and failed to find, a bottle opener. So I have one of the A&W cans instead. It’s ok.

(5) A&W root beer. Really not that bad. 7/10

Tuesday

Get a text at lunchtime:

“Who is girl next to Patrick. Have not been here since break”

I research the area code of the text-sender, which is 267 – the same as my temporary number for the week – and it belongs to Philadelphia. Which is funny, because I am currently reading Silver Linings Playbook – set in Philly – and watched Creed on the plane on the way over, also set there. I am feeling a lot of connection to Philadelphia right now.

I drive back to Franklin, swinging past the Drake Motel, where I stop for a quick selfie to send to Nicola, as it features in the film Wild Rose, of which she is a fan.

Then onto my old haunt the Jam Coffeehouse. The sat nav takes me down South St, and on impulse I hang a left into my old neighborhood. It’s radically transformed from when I left 5 years ago. All around are brand new houses and condos, with boats in the driveway. The house immediately beside ours, which at the time belonged to a local drug dealer, has been pulled down and some tall construction is going up in its place. 

On arriving back in Franklin, Ryan shows me where the bottle opener was, so I could finally try the Maine Root Sarsaparilla, and then opens the bottle for me by twisting it off with his fingers anyway. I feel weak and unmanly.

But the MR Sarsaparilla is good, really good. Sarsaparilla, whatever it is, seems to be the thing. In discussion with Ryan, we concur that the Sioux City was marginally better, so this one gets an 8.

Maine Root Sarsaparilla. Pretty excellent. 8/10

TOWIE

I’m seriously considering renaming this blog “I apologise for the lack of blogging recently.”

It’s not a very snappy title for a blog, I grant you, but might set expectations appropriately.

This week finds me back in Nashville and Franklin, visiting old haunts. With last year’s experience still fresh in my memory, I gave careful thought to the timing of the shoe-to-flip-flop transition. Anticipating an arrival temperature of 34C/93F, I decided an early transition was called for. I made the leap in Heathrow, while the feet were still relatively fresh.

Heather, Jacq and I were flight pioneers on this trip, taking an almost-brand-new flight route direct to Nashville from London Heathrow. I had slept badly the night before we left, due mainly, I think, to a certain amount of childlike excitement at the prospect of coming back to Nashville again. 

Both of our flights went off without incident, although my carry-on bag took the dreaded diversion down the inner track at security screening. 

Do you mind if I look through the bag, sir?

Absolutely, I said, brimming with confidence that a mistake had been made. And besides, what’s the alternative answer to “yes” for that question?

Minutes later, the nice security lady was holding up a large Phillips screwdriver, in the now tension-filled space between us.

Uh. I’m so sorry.

No problem sir, I’m afraid you can’t take that on the plane as it’s a tool.

Yes, yes, I understand. I’m so sorry!

I’m going to lay – fairly and squarely at the door of sleep deprivation – the blame for failing to take that out of my bag before flying.

What’s slightly more concerning is that this happened in Heathrow, which means the nice security people at Edinburgh didn’t pick it up…

Once on the flight and getting settled in to our seats, it became quickly apparent that we were co-pioneering with a great cloud of Essex-ness. 8 or 10 of them. Their exact origin was a subject of some post-flight conversational dispute. Jacq reckoned London. Whatever, they were loud, not overly-endowed in the self-awareness department, and had the energy to maintain their volume pretty much throughout the flight. 

I quaffed a plastic cup of orange juice with ice, and being in bulkhead seats, placed the empty-but-for-ice-cubes cup in the stretchy pocket fixed to the bulkhead at floor level.

I made good use of my custom IEMs to drown out the Essex noise, and managed to claw back some of my lost overnight sleep.

But not for long. I was rudely awakened by someone kicking my cupful of ice over my bare feet. Coming to, slowly, from a distant and pleasant place, I realised a few important things:

  • There was no-one standing or walking nearby
  • I must have kicked the cup myself
  • I had done a decent job of distributing ice cubes around the cabin, including over the large gnarly bearded dude sitting across the aisle.

I apologised. In the light of near constant loud Essex-ness, I actually don’t think he minded the ice shower all that much.

Never managed to regain that distant land of sleepfulness.

First morning in Franklin meant a visit to the Factory was imminent. My three year old host Jude, on learning I was going to the Factory, immediately wondered if I was going to have a bowl or a donut. By “bowl” he means an Açaí bowl from the Franklin Juice Company. This is a bowl of frozen fruit sorbet, topped with organic granola and fresh fruit.

Donut means a 100-layer donut from Five Daughters Bakery.

Which one do you think I’m going to get Jude?

With a sidelong glance at my profile, he replied without too much consideration

Donut!

That’s right Jude, that’s right. Nailed it.

Back in the Six One Five

Well, my flight from the nest lasted approximately two weeks, whereupon the builders moved in to replace our bathroom, and I moved back in with my mother for the second time in my adult life.

Mercifully (for all parties) this latest visit also only lasted two weeks, whereupon I returned to a flat with a shiny new bathroom. Two weeks later, I packed my bags and caught a flight to Nashville. For two weeks.

Sunday was travel day, and my travelling companion was my friend Heather. A more amenable, lower-maintenance traveling companion you are unlikely to meet. Heather didn’t mind which seat she sat in, which meant she got the centre seat, with me in the window seat.

In the air, en route to New York in an old American Airlines aircraft with TV screens down the middle, just out of sight of anyone in a window seat, we were informed of the new automated passport control system in place at JFK. Heather expressed some concern about this, and the prospect of immediate deportation on the pressing of one wrong button.

As for me – I was no more nervous than I usually am on approach to the USA, having had dramatically varying experiences at US Customs in the past. Maybe a fraction more nervous than usual, given the perception I have that Mr Trump is not all that fond of non-Americans.

Ironically, Heather aces the automated system, whereas I fail to get past the first hurdle – getting it to read my passport. The machine metaphorically rolled its eyes, and displayed a message instructing me to go find a human being. Which I did, but it seems system failures of this kind are rare, because said human being wasn’t equipped with the requisite paper customs form.

Fortunately there was a semi-completed form – in Spanish – lying discarded on the counter (fate of the Spanish-speaking semi-completer unknown), and by ticking some boxes beside sentences I didn’t understand, and signing it, I had completed the paperwork required to enter the US. That, or I had signed a confession to some unknown crime. But what’s life without a little excitement?

In an oddly-quiet JFK, I noticed that the post-Trump America has sunk to new lows, selling white cheddar popcorn in a Union Jack-emblazoned packet. White cheddar popcorn is an abomination. Never have I come across such foul-tasting popcorn in the UK. Ascribing such a vile combination of foodstuffs to the UK is slander of Special-Relationship-threatening proportions.

Speaking of cheese… while waiting in the lounge for the Nashville flight, I went to the restroom to swap my shoes and socks for flip flops. I was on holiday after all, and about to hit a Tennessee basking in 30C sunshine.

I returned to my seat in the lounge, and gradually became aware of a gently insistent stench. I initially convinced myself that it wasn’t anything to do with my newly-liberated feet, but it was a hard sell. I moved on to trying to convince myself that it wasn’t that bad.

We boarded the flight to Nashville, narrowly avoiding getting on the Montreal flight instead. The aircraft on the Nashville leg was a tiddler, as always, with just two seats per row on one side of the cabin, and only one on the other. Heather didn’t mind which seat she sat in, so she got the window this time.

The single seat across the aisle, empty when we boarded, was soon filled by a girl clutching a large pizza box. The box was clearly occupied, judging by the sweet meaty fragrance emanating from it. Still, this wasn’t enough to mask the aroma from my feet.

I enquired of Heather. “Can’t smell anything,” she said. Like I say, a great travelling companion.

I glanced left towards Pizza Girl. She was wearing an actual face mask, such as those seen on cyclists in smog-ridden cities. A mild over-reaction, I felt.

I retrieved my emergency pair of socks from my hand luggage and put them on, trying to do my bit for the environment, and concerned for the welfare of my fellow passengers.

Some time later I glanced left again. Pizza Girl had bolstered her defences by putting a white cloth over her head.

As the plane began its descent, a nervous glance revealed that she had the face mask and the white sheet on, and was slumped forwards over her tray table. Somewhat miffed, as I thought the sock approach was working quite well, I decided that she was making something of a meal of it all.

With a sniff and a mental toss of my head, I threw some Drew Holcomb on the iPod, as the Cumberland River and the Batman Building hove into view through the starboard window.

On disembarking the plane, Heather kept a respectful non-associative distance from me as we waited for the checked hand luggage to be delivered to the air bridge. Not because of the smell, but since the unplanned wardrobe change during the flight, I was now breaking new fashion ground by wearing socks and flip-flops.

Meanwhile Pizza Girl stood a good few metres even further away, presumably because of in-flight wounding and an unwillingness to forgive and move on.

Four days on, things are going well. I have a temporary SIM card for the two weeks I’m here, to allow easy communication with my American friends. This is working well, however it appears that the previous owner of my American number had signed up for parenting advice via daily text messages. So I now know that it’s good to let one’s child serve themselves, and it’s ok if they spill a little.

In a week’s time, armed with 11 days of text-borne advice, I expect to be a bona fide expert on parenting, and will be ready to share my expertise with any of my parent-friends.

You’re welcome.

Churchill and road trips

With my current stay in the US hastening towards its end, I find myself with a yearning to visit places and make the most of my time here in the South.

So one Tuesday evening a few weeks ago, I texted my friend and at-that-time partner-in-unemployment, Samuel, and asked if he wanted to visit Kansas City the next day. Kansas City is a 10-hour drive away from Nashville, so it would take us all of Wednesday to get there. And he needed to be back in Nashville at 4pm on Friday, which would have meant departing KC by 6am at the latest Friday morning. Accordingly it didn’t really make sense. Naturally we decided to go.

After a quick gathering together of the essentials, some gas in the tank and air in the tyres, we set off around midday on Wednesday. Our route took us north from Nashville, into Kentucky (stopped for lunch at Chick-Fil-A), briefly into Illinois (stopped for gas and a quick baseball-throw in Nashville, Illinois just because it was there), into Missouri and right through St Louis and the gorgeous sight of the sun setting behind the Arch and the downtown skyscrapers. Then a long haul across mostly nothingness to Kansas City. Samuel, naturally, had to pee at a most inconvenient time, so we pulled off the interstate and found what appeared to be a legitimate old time country store, complete with a solitary gas pump out front. Sadly it was closed, and so Samuel did the business round the back. Back on the interstate, we passed a massive sign advertising the existence of a Churchill Museum in Fulton, MO.

“Can’t be. THE Churchill? WINSTON Churchill?!”

Samuel didn’t know.

I checked it out later. It is indeed a museum dedicated to the most tweetable prime minister in British history. Does the UK even have a Churchill museum?! I know that part of the Imperial War Museum is dedicated to him, but… why is there a full museum in his honour in Fulton, Missouri?

Turns out Mr Churchill gave a speech at Westminster College, Fulton, MO in 1946. In which he coined the term “iron curtain”. Incredible stuff. Sadly I didn’t have time to stop in.

Last week I did manage to visit a couple of museums that had caught my eye on a previous road-trip north.

Disappointingly, Samuel had acquired gainful employment after the KC trip, and so was unable to accompany me. Ryan and Katie, my travelling companions for pretty much the whole of last year, have between them now also got jobs. Slackers. Running out of actual unemployed people, I turned to a full-time musician friend instead, and we hit up the National Corvette Museum first, an hour north of Nashville in Bowling Green, Kentucky. This was actually a bit of a let-down, although not as much as it was early this morning when a sink-hole appeared and eight vintage Corvettes disappeared into it. Kind of glad we made the trip last week, although frankly it would have made the tour more exciting.

Then it was on to Louisville, KY to visit the Louisville Slugger factory and museum. Putting quarters in the parking meter, I was perplexed by it only giving us 7 minutes of parking time. I fed it a few more coins to make sure. Got no change out of it, either figuratively or literally. Parking on that street was not allowed after 3pm, but this was just before 2pm… and then I remembered that Louisville is in Eastern Time, not Central. Louisville, sitting a few degrees to the east of Nashville, has no business being in Eastern Time if you ask me. But it seemed pointless to argue about it with a parking meter, and so we found another, less restrictive parking spot, threw down a quick lunch, and made it to the factory for the final tour of the day.

Earlier in January I did manage to get on the road with Ryan and Katie (and Samuel), heading up to Indiana for a quick two-day ski trip. Indiana does not have mountains, but it does have a couple of hills and some lifts, and we had a blast for a couple of days. So much so that we’re going back on Friday. And against my better judgement (many, many judgements actually), I think I’m going to try snowboarding.

Wiseman, look out.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas….

“Let your heart be light… Next year all your troubles will be out of s-i-i-ight…”

Every frickin year Jane McDonald promises me that all my troubles will be out of sight. Next year. Every year.

Clearly Jane McDonald has not invested any time and money in watching England play cricket, or she wouldn’t be making such rash predictions.

A shade under one month ago I sat down in front of my laptop, all excited that I had managed to secure a way of watching the Ashes online from Australia. My happiness was only enhanced by the time difference, which meant that the day’s play in Oz didn’t start at midnight (as it does in the UK), but at 6pm. Perfect tea-time viewing.

My American room-mates observed my nightly rituals with mild amusement, and gradually absorbed that each day’s play was not a match in itself, but a continuation of a single match stretching over five days.

And aside from the occasional question along the lines of “Wait, what now? They’re taking lunch?” we all got along just fine, until I lost the appetite for watching (usually around Day 3), and by extension the desire to explain what was going on.

“This isn’t going so well, is it?” would be met by a defiant explanation of how, if England’s batters were to perform to an acceptable international standard, England could still be in the game here.. and then within a few hours the same question would be met with a shake of my head, and a resigned grimace.

Within a couple of weeks my joy at being able to watch the Ashes had been severely dampened by actually watching said Ashes.

Well done Mitchell Johnson. I didn’t think you had it in you to perform consistently for more than one match in every five. Apparently you now do. If you had discovered the secret to bowling that well earlier, I suspect the results in the 2009, 2010/11 and 2013 series would have been different.

Anyway, on to cheerier subjects. Like my car, which has been in for repair three times since I bought it in September, and quite separately from those issues, fails to start some mornings. All these failings I could live with, if the horn didn’t sound like a toy bugle, thus rendering me utterly incapable of expressing my displeasure of others’ driving habits in any meaningful way.

Last week, we had a significant snowfall in Nashville. It fell late on Monday night/early Tuesday morning. Probably a whole inch. Immediately the schools closed. The program at Grace Center that I help out with cancelled the morning’s activities. What else was I to do but head to the Jam? The Jam is my favourite coffee shop in Nashville. It’s run by a lady and her three daughters who moved here from California a few years ago. They serve great coffee, and what’s more they’re so close to my house that I can actually walk there when I come over all European, or (more commonly) when my car doesn’t start. Walking there provokes great astonishment in the Jam Girls, roughly equivalent to the dismay they experience when the sun momentarily disappears behind a cloud, or the temperature drops below 75F.

The place has become a regular hangout for me and several friends. Much along the lines of the Central Perk in Friends, I am informed by younger friends who are more in touch with popular culture. They started making a flat white for me at my request, and have even added it to their menu. Apart from that they regularly heap abuse on me for spending so much time in there.

So, imagine my disappointment when around 8.30am I pulled into the parking lot to find the Jam closed. Clearly Momma Jam and the Jam girls were so dismayed by the snow and the cold that they had not ventured beyond their comforters that morning. Sometimes I don’t wish they all could be California Girls… 😉

Life in Music City

 

My good friend Kat emailed me from Edinburgh back in mid-February.

Subject: Good beards
Message: Avett Brothers @ Bridgestone Arena on 18 May

On seeing the subject I thought she had caught sight of my facial hair (an ill-advised experiment earlier this year) on Facebook and was writing to compliment me. It seems not. Kat has her finger on the musical pulse and goes to more shows than anyone else I know. She even knows the upcoming shows in Nashville, and emails me when she sees something coming up which will enhance my musical education.

I had never heard of the Avett Brothers, which is pretty much par for the course where her musical suggestions are concerned.

There is an abundance of live music in Nashville, as you might expect. But more than that, music pervades the culture, in such a way that they have guitars slung on the walls (and decent music playing overhead) in the grocery store. Overheard conversations at coffee shops will frequently reference technical aspects of record production. At any given restaurant your waiter or waitress is probably an exceptionally talented musician or singer waiting for a big break.

This can make life interesting for touring bands. My roommate informs me that artists hate playing Nashville, sometimes avoiding it altogether, because at any given show in the town, a significant proportion of the crowd will be professional, semi-professional or good amateur musicians, who stand with their arms crossed, and an attitude which screams “Go on then, impress me!”

And that makes sense.

But the enormously refreshing thing is that at church (at least at Grace Center) that attitude doesn’t seem to exist. At least not within the worship team, in my experience. I have never before come across a place where there was such a proliferation of phenomenally-talented musicians who were still excited by playing music and yet apparently indifferent to their own skill and achievements.

Last night was a case in point. Before our midweek worship service, the bass player, a former member of Sonicflood, recently back in Nashville after playing for several years with Jason Upton, and about to depart on a tour of Asia with Don Moen, asked our guitarist if he listened to bluegrass at all.

Our guitarist drawled “Yeah man, that’s mainly what I play.”

Bass player: “Ricky Skaggs? Man I grew up on that stuff.. Kentucky Thunder..”
Guitarist: “Yeah man, I played in that band for a year”
Bass player: “Whaaaaaaatt?!?”

And he starts looking around for a piece of paper and a pen to get his autograph. Half-jokingly. Conversation turns to Ricky Skaggs’ recent collaboration with Bruce Hornsby and the live album that ensued.

Guitarist again: “Aw man, I’m on that record somewhere.”
Bass player: “Are you SERIOUS?!?”
Guitarist: “I had no idea they were recording the shows until I got a cheque in the post and thought ‘What’s this?'”

Meanwhile the drummer, a successful recording artist in his own right, is sitting quietly on the sofa minding his own business. Looking on is the worship leader, a songwriter with several worship albums under his belt. And I am standing off to the side, (last musical achievement: Grade 7 piano twenty years ago), wondering “WHAT AM I EVEN DOING HERE?”

But here’s the thing. This is worship, and not just music performance. And so although these guys operate in a different musical stratosphere from me, I can still contribute. It’s taken me a while, but after a year and a bit of teaching on it and exposure to it, I’ve learned the reality of the supernatural/spirit realm and how my actions and words can have an impact there as well as in the earthly, visible realm. And for that matter, how the spirit realm can have an effect on my thoughts. And so I understand that when I play, it’s heard in heaven and not just in the room on earth where I happen to be. And people in the room are not just hearing the notes and chords but are being ministered to by the Holy Spirit.

I realise that this is an ‘out there’ concept, but am fully convinced that the supernatural realm is just as real as the wind, while being just as invisible to most of us, most of the time.

Overheard conversation between the sound engineer and a guy I only know to be a car park attendant as I left the church..

“You have a demo tape?”

“Yeah”

“Ok, well, we’ll probably do the drums in the morning..”

Four weddings & the Maple Leaf Bar

 

Having been at a ministry school for the best part of a year, I feel I am now entitled to include a Verse Of The Day in my blog posts. Verse for today comes from Ecclesiastes:

“Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties.
After all, everyone dies—
so the living should take this to heart.”

Especially, one suspects, if the funerals are in New Orleans. Sadly(?) we didn’t see or hear any funerals while we were there, but did see four weddings. No, seriously. Parading through the streets with jazz band and second line. Was awesome. New Orleans was a lot of fun all round. Great food and great music.

One evening we lined up for a show at Preservation Hall – a venue which has been showcasing New Orleans jazz since 1961. It was a smallish room – held about 100 people – mostly standing. Ryan, Katie and I found a little bit of space at the back and, not to be put off by the humidity and an absence of air conditioning, “danced” for most of the 45 minute performance.

During the 8 hour drive down from Nashville, we were forming plans about what to do and where to go. Being a man of great awareness, I, all of a sudden, remembered that the Maple Leaf Bar was in New Orleans, and was the primary reason I had wanted to visit the place for years. So Katie, who was in the back researching activities and venues online, checked it out.

The Maple Leaf came across my consciousness because of one man – James Booker. A friend in the hearing aid industry introduced me to a recording of Booker playing some live show in Switzerland, and I was blown away. Blues piano like I’d never heard. Sounded like he had four hands. Further investigation online revealed that he did in fact only have two hands, he was from N Orleans, was the house pianist at the Maple Leaf from 1977 to 1982, and had done some recordings there. Mostly, to be honest, his recordings are patchy, as I understand a lot of his performances were, due to various addictions. Booker died young, probably as a result of said addictions, and became another tragic-tortured-genius statistic. But any hearing of him play at anywhere near the top of his game is breathtaking.

And so it was that Ryan, Katie and I traipsed into the Maple Leaf Bar at around 10pm one evening. There was a live band advertised as starting at 10. As is the way of these things, the live band were mostly not there, and certainly not ready to play. So we wandered through what was the sketchiest looking bar/venue I’d been in for a while, and headed towards the back – because that’s always a good thing to do in a sketchy bar in a town that you don’t know very well and has a reputation for random shootings.

There was another bar at the back, with a couple of customers chatting to the bartender. We kept going, out the back door, into the walled beer garden, which was so dimly lit that we could only tell a couple of the tables were occupied by the sounds of people talking and the interesting aromas wafting across from where they were. (Note to any HX readers: this was the safest beer garden I’ve ever encountered)

Sat there for a bit, then wandered back inside. The two customers at the back had gone, so I approached the bar and asked the barman if this was where James Booker had played in the 70s/80s.

“Aw yeah, this is where Booker played, man.”

I turned and pointed to an old, frankly knackered upright piano in the corner. It seemed implausible, but the piano was certainly old enough.

“Um, that wasn’t the piano he played, was it?”

“Yeah man! That was Booker’s piano, and Jamie Foxx also played it in the Ray Charles movie! It’s kinda wrecked, but the manager is looking to get it tuned and fixed up so people can use it in live shows and stuff.”

Mildly stunned, I made my way over and played a few keys.

“EASY THERE SOLDIER!” came the warning from the bar. I froze.

“Aw I’m just kidding man, fire away.”

Breathed out. And played it a bit more. Truth was, it was so wrecked so as to make it unplayable. But man, it still felt good. The keys that *did* work had a really easy action, like they’d been hammered into submission by someone who really knew how to hammer a piano into submission.. which they had.

In due course the live band came on. They were terrible. At least, they probably weren’t terrible, but I have a limited tolerance for 6 saxophones playing modern jazz. What a racket. But nothing could spoil that night.

A documentary on Booker’s life has, I understand, recently had its premiere at the SXSW film festival earlier this year. If that movie comes anywhere near Edinburgh or Nashville while I’m in town, I’ll be all over it.

Three more days here in Tennessee, and then am heading back to the UK, and work again. This will be the biggest shock to my system since I first sucked orange juice through a straw as a small child.

But on Saturday I have a date with Wiseman at PizzaExpress. So it’s all worth it.

Curry, cricket and Charleston

 

Found myself at an Indian restaurant the other night. Nothing unusual in that, except that Indian restaurants aren’t that common in Nashville. And this was a vegetarian curry house, which I’m reasonably confident I haven’t had the dubious pleasure of experiencing before.

It turns out Mushroom Masala is very similar to Chicken Tikka Masala, but without the chicken, and with more mushrooms. Who knew? It was extremely tasty. And since poppadums, mango chutney and peshwari naans have no meat content, not too much of my regular Indian restaurant experience was disturbed.

A bunch of us from the school were meeting to mark 3 weeks since we graduated. Three weeks is not especially significant, I think we were all just missing each other.

As the meal was winding down, I asked the waiter if he liked cricket. I always do this in Indian restaurants over here. The last time the guy was Nepali and liked football. Very disappointing. This guy was more rewarding. We dived straight into a conversation on corruption in the IPL and spot-fixing in general. I felt like I was getting reacquainted with proper sports chat, after many months of double plays, RBIs, and rosters. It’s going to be wonderful to again watch a game that’s allowed to finish with the scores level.

And then, just as my internal sporting equilibrium was returning, news filtered through that the Holy Cross 2nd XI had won a game. What gives?

Since school got out I have done a bit of travelling around.. toured the Jack Daniels distillery, which I discovered is located in a dry county. Alanis, that’s ironic. Spent a week in Charleston, South Carolina and then a weekend in Memphis. Charleston was beautiful, unusually walkable-around for a US city, and very relaxing. Memphis was sketchy, run-down, full of deserted buildings, and jammed with music history and history in general. Loved them both. Tomorrow morning Ryan, Katie and I hit the road south again, for New Orleans this time. Katie is nervous about spending yet more extended periods of time in the car with Ryan and I, on account of us both being extremely talkative. We have both promised to tone it down and try hard to maintain periods of silence now and then.

New Orleans is one of the few places in the world I have specifically wanted to visit for a long time. For the cajun, and the music. Not going to lie, am kind of hoping to see a funeral while I’m there. Not an easy thing to arrange, but you never know…

The last day of Movember

 

Eleven weeks here, and the US is still treating me well. Am developing an addiction to southern-style sweet tea, and have found a balanced diet of fried chicken and Mexican food.

And yet, despite my refusal to eat anything other than the healthiest fast food takeaway fried chicken and fries, I have somehow accrued a few pounds from somewhere. Life is a mystery sometimes. It may well just be my rather weighty moustache making its presence felt on the scales, but in the event that it isn’t, I signed up to a gym membership for the first time in my life. I have never before done this because (1) they’ve always been outrageously expensive, and (2) I hate gyms. But this is America, where it costs you not much more to work off the pounds than it does to put them on in the first place. And so they get you both ways. And then add tax. No matter, they had a Black Friday deal on membership, so I and my partner in crime, Ryan, signed up, with lofty ideals to work out regularly and keep each other accountable. It may yet happen, it’s early days.

I certainly need the opportunity to exercise, with it seemingly preferable in this country to abandon your car (or large truck) on a grassy area near the front door of the building you’re visiting, rather than park it in an actual parking space if said parking space is more than 50 yards away from the front door.

Being a keen cricketer, I thought about finding an equivalently high-intensity sport and taking it up, like bowling (that’s ten-pin, not lawn bowls, UK people, come on, be serious), or pool, or speed-walking to Chick-Fil-A. I have even been bowling a couple of times, including once against my roommate. My roommate is the kind of guy who has his own kayak, surfboard and skis. And bowling ball. I discovered this after we agreed to go bowling one morning and he re-emerged from the basement carrying it, along with his bowling shoes. I like to think of myself as being a man of some discernment, and it was at this point I discerned that I was in trouble. And I was. I have never before bowled against someone who could rack up over 200. After I had overcome the intimidation factor (4 games in) I found myself raising my game a touch and scoring 192. He scored 193 that time.

Today is 30 November, and is almost certainly the last day of my moustache. For a while there, I was tempted to keep it, but have grown fed up with having an overgrown hairy caterpillar on my lip. It interferes with some of life’s primary functions, like blowing one’s nose. It just makes the clean-up operation so much more … involved. No doubt I could invest in a beard trimmer, which would keep it in check (that’s the moustache rather than the snot), but it seems simpler to just shave it off.

Farewell, dear ‘tache…

The Invisible Election

So, Obama got re-elected last night. Cue spontaneous street celebrations (including fireworks) in my street, and much hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth in other places. I arrived in America knowing that I would be here for the election (and the run-up to it) and was both anticipating and dreading what that would entail. The images of American elections and political rallies I absorbed while in the UK involved mass public displays of hysteria and hyperbole. And no doubt all that has been going on of late, but I have been utterly unaware of it. Had I been living in the UK for the past few months, I’m confident I would have been more aware of the circus than I have been right here in the heart of the USA.

There are a number of reasons for that, chief among which is that I haven’t really exposed myself to ‘news’ over here. I haven’t bought a newspaper, I have barely watched TV, neither of which I really did in the UK, but when I lived there I was regularly checking in to the BBC News website, and here I just haven’t. I guess I was expecting more in the way of billboards and things, but as I have been led to understand, Tennessee is “not really” a swing state. Makes sense.

What has been pretty refreshing is that the debates I have heard people getting into have been, for the most part, rational and balanced. I have heard my peers in the school express the full range of opinions on the election and the main political parties. And by peers I mean mostly twentysomethings, for as a single thirtysomething on a “year out” I have more in common with twentysomething singles than I do with married friends of my own age. Some have railed against the pressure they feel to vote, and to vote in a particular way. And I have heard and read many guilt trips that have been thrown onto people who have been considering not voting, or have been unsure of how to vote.

Now, is it important to exercise your democratic right to vote, which is a privilege many fought and died for? I believe it is. But is it also understandable to be unsure who to vote for, when neither main party or candidate fully represents your views on issues that matter? Or, put another way, when both of them support things that you really don’t want to support? I believe it is. And while many seem to think that voting for a particular party (and which party apparently depends on which part of the US you live in) is the God-honouring way to vote, I have never found it that simple. In the UK it appears to be less clear-cut how a Christian “should” vote, as both the main political parties support issues that Christians would traditionally vote against, such as abortion and gay marriage. While that adds confusion, it also to a certain degree releases the pressure that voting in a particular way is somehow betraying God.

The Republicans take views that a large percentage of Christians can get behind. But do they completely espouse Christian beliefs? Is Mitt Romney not a Mormon?

And here’s a question. Should the traditional strongholds of the Republican Party such as the Bible Belt become, over time, gradually less and less Christian, will the Republican Party continue to take a “Christian” view on the big issues? They might, in which case I can only envisage they would gradually slip into political obscurity, and another, more secular party would rise to prominence to challenge the Democrats. Or would they reflect the change in views of their electorate in order to survive? I reckon they would.

Last night my roommate tried to extract from me how I would have voted had I been able to vote here. I successfully bodyswerved the question. For the truth is, I really don’t know how I would have voted.

I write this as an outsider, fully aware of the limits of my understanding of American politics, and conscious of how I receive the opinions of outsiders on Northern Irish politics. I write it not as an observation on the American political landscape but as an opinion on how Christians seem to be press-ganged to vote in a certain way.

When God has moved in power in the past, has it been through godly government? I have not studied revivals enough to know the answer to that, and so it is a genuine question. But I know that whenever the church is persecuted, it thrives. Would God pour out blessing on America if it had a genuinely godly president? He might. Were any of the candidates for the presidency genuinely godly men? I don’t think so.

When I moved to the States, my Scottish friend Boyd, who has lived here for a few years, gave me two pieces of advice.

(1) Be very specific when asking for a haircut.

(2) Don’t discuss politics with anyone.

I’ve managed the first…