Monthly Archives: November 2003

Detroit Blue

Been in America a week. Seen my first corpse. Today, just one week after Halloween.

The temperature’s dropped thirty degrees since I arrived. I know this because there’s a huge sign on the way to Detroit which shows the date and the temperature. “42 F” it beamed, in big red lightbulbs as the traffic–nearly all new cars, nearly all racing, cutting in and out–went speeding past. What was their hurry? Must have been the joy of having a new car in the Motor City. And the joy of being alive.

We were in no such hurry. The person we were going to see wasn’t going anywhere. We were on our way to Laura’s Grandma’s funeral. She was 97 and passed away last weekend, two days after I arrived. I’m sorry I never got to meet her. My grandma died many many years ago and the idea of someone my age having a grandparent is kind of nice. But she had a good innings (as my dad used to say) and you can’t really ask for more than that. People seem to live an awfully long time here in a country which has no big social medical programme.

It had occurred to me as I’d put on my suit earlier that this was only the second time this year I’d worn a shirt and tie, let alone the suit. It was the tie Laura had hunted down for me to dress as Agent Smith last Friday. My first black tie getting its second outing in seven days. The first, Halloween, was just a memory as we locked up and headed out, on to the street where leaves are piled high waiting for the city contractors to come and collect them. No bonfires allowed in Michigan. We passed our remaining pumpkins at the top of the steps, now filled to the grins with rainwater like two small church fonts.

Lunch before we’d left had consisted of Nutella, grape jelly and peanut butter sandwiches. Americans have an unnatural love affair with peanut butter, especially mixed with chocolate. Reese’s pieces. Why? It’s bizarre. Peanut butter and chocolate. No wonder Jimmy Carter became President. That and the evangelical bleem-bleem pearly white smile. These people love a preacher man even more than they love peanut butter.

This proved true when we arrived at the White Chapel cemetary. I thought briefly of Whitechapel, the suburb of London, England. Michigan’s White Chapel comprises an eponymous building with three entrances and a large ornamental pond out the front. The building’s walls strain for a false architectural vanishing point above creating an imposing spectacle alone on the flat, framed by space and sky. Big sky. Gravestones are nowhere to be seen.

Odd for a cemetary not to have gravestones or upright personal markers of any kind. Memorial stones here are set flush with the immaculate lawns to create a tranquil flat vista which mirrors the surrounding Michigan farmland. The landscape is broken only by a few mournful bare trees and occasional vases of flowers–real, not artificial. There’s a sign informing visitors in no uncertain terms “No artificial flowers”. A few leaves blow across the road. Apparently people buy their ‘plots’ here decades in advance. We’re not in St Albans any more, Toto.

We go into one end of the white building, into the chapel. Chapel Of The Flowers. It’s peaceful. Quiet. Marble, soft lights, soft voices, stained glass. Grandma Bird is laid out in the casket which is open. Laura and the boys go forward to see her and Laura quietly talks to the boys about what’s happening. I’m left standing there with Laura’s cousin but frankly, I’ve never seen a dead body before and I’m curious. I want to look. So I do. I go over.

As far as I can tell, she looks just like she’s sleeping, although Laura remarks that she’s very thin. Not like her old self. But this is the only self of hers I’ve ever seen and my eyes keep playing an almost hypnotic illusion there in the dim lighting. As I stare, I’m sure I can see her breathing, which of course she isn’t. I guess it’s just my mind refusing to accept this first-time reality of a non-breathing body.

We sit down to listen to the preacher, a Baptist minister, who knew both Marie and her late husband, Charlie. They were apparently very religious. Laura and one of Marie’s friends said a few words. Laura remembered her Grandma’s banana bread. Then the preacher warmed to his themes, supposedly to commemorate the life of this apparently very spirited lady who’d lived for so long but he also did a fair amount of praising Jesus. We all managed not to sigh as he finished and then started again when he remembered some anecdote that fitted his sermon for this cold wintery day.

It’s the Bible Belt, for sure. And the preacher was as sure as any of us, although I’m not so sure he always knew down which path he was leading us as he imparted his Message. At one point he went off on a tangent about how astronauts could only be a maximum height of six feet because of the size of spacecraft. And he was short, he told us. A short man. But what his point? I’m six foot one. Does this mean I won’t fly to Heaven in a rocket but he’ll get in?

It was all very puzzling. Jack sat with his eight-year-old jaw hanging open, staring at the man, while Sam had his hands over his ears, displaying incredible patience for a six year old, kicking his legs in space and only squirming infrequently. Mom had briefed them at lunchtime that it was a solemn, serious occasion and they appeared to have taken it in. No Nintendo. No fighting. Quiet. Respect.

Me, I sat staring at the stained glass windows, trying to figure out all the symbolism while the words went one way, then another and the wind howled eerily outside the doors. I was swept away on the wings of the ghostly wind, whistling as if on cue to the funeral service. Cold wind, howling round the crypts. My mind wandered to thoughts of the blue in the windows. Blue, deep rich blues.

Ultramarine, that deep colour (or color) beloved of the wealthy patrons of artists who wanted to display their wealth by the inclusion of as much of the hue as they could afford. Which is why the Virgin Mary is always shown in blue. Because it demonstrated that the person commissioning the work had dedicated a significant portion of their wealth to a religious work. Making statements on many levels. “Look how pious I am.” And, “Look how much money I have. How important I am. I can afford ultramarine.”

Ultramarine. Expensive. Expensive because it was made from crushed gem stones. Lapis Lazuli. Lapis Lazuli, mined mostly in Afghanistan. And there the preacher stood, in the chapel of marble, speaking in front of a window which in my mind reflected a whole course of history which had led to events now taking place on the other side of the world. Religion, wealth, power. All encapsulated right there in stained glass.

Yet this was all idle musing. We were there to pay our last respects to Grandma Bird, who died this week aged 97. Respects for a life lived with spirit. Wealth and power really mean nothing, in the end. It’s some kind of spiritual connection, whether through religion or with the universe in general, that makes us, poor humans, who we are. Respect for our place in the universe and our connection to it in all its unfathomable vastness.

Today I thought about how impermanent we are, lasting less time than the works we create and the possessions we temporarily own. Cars rust, some survive. People come and go while their manmade buildings and roads remain. At least for a while. Some of the feelings of now come from having divested myself of nearly two thirds of my worldly goods in the past two months. Left my job, house, moved on.

We are here, now, but for a short time. Yet it is all the time in the world. It sounds Zen, which pleases me. Life is magical.

Jack and Sam are oblivious to the Zen on the way home, alternately playing Nintendo and pounding on each other. Mom yells at them to stop but they’re giggling right up to the point where the inevitable happens and one really hurts the other. Sam wails. “He bit my finger!” We can’t make out the rest in the howling. Jack sits quietly, doing the innocent look beloved of siblings everywhere, as we pull up next to the house.

Five minutes later we’re all inside and the wailing has stopped. “Is your finger okay now?” asks Laura. “Yes,” says Sam, looking pleased with himself. “I dipped it in the pumpkin water.” Laura and I look at each other and do the eye-rolling thing. Magical indeed.

Smashing Pumpkins

Detectives today are probing the leaf-strewn streets of Ann Arbor searching for clues into a mysterious attack on an innocent pumpkin. The victim, a Mr Jack O’Lantern, was last seen sitting on the bottom step of a house on the west side of the city. Witnesses described his expression as “inane but with a hint of Buddhist serenity”.

pumpkins.jpgThe victim (bottom left) was out with friends recently, celebrating a popular pagan holiday enjoyed by the denizens of Ann Arbor and surrounding environs. A number of those same citizens were seen heading to the polling station today to vote on the controversial Amendment P, which would tax householders to promote pumpkin farmers.

There are believed to have been at least three eyewitnesses to yesterday’s attack which took place some time during a night of torrential rain and left Mr O’Lantern severely battered. The three, who were found sitting on steps behind and above where the beating took place, have been irritating police and journalists alike with their stoney silence and lunatic grins.

Squirrels are believed to have been the most likely perpetrators of the pumpkin slaying. Fat, heavy squirrels, barely able to move their little tummies after consuming vast quantities of nearby gourds. One leading theory is that a monster squirrel sat on the victim’s head and caused his weak cranium to cave in, resulting in the grisly demise seen below. Another theory involves teenagers with heavy boots.

pumpkinsafter.jpgAfter a lot of questioning, a spokesman for the local police commented simply, “I’m sorry, sir. I’m afraid you can’t bring your cell phone into the building. You’ll have to leave it in one of the boxes in reception.”



pumpkinsuicide.jpgLater this afternoon, a second pumpkin has been found dead on the porch steps, his orange carcass grotesquely shattered. Experts are suggesting this appears to have been a suicidal leap on his friend’s mangled body. Quite how an inanimate vegetable filled with two days rainwater propelled itself three feet down a flight of stairs remains a mystery.

Neighbours breathed a sigh of relief to discover the figure which had been menacing the fronts of their homes for several nights had finally been laid to rest. “That should wipe the smiles off his empty-headed friends’ faces,” said one. Another commented, “Durn squirr’ls up there in the creeky pine. They love to roll stuff into pumpkins–they’re bowling from creeky pine. Doesn’t happen in Switzerland, y’know. They have stricter pumpkin laws out there.”

Bottom left: did he fall or was he pushed? The two remaining witnesses remain silent but continue to grin inanely while the local squirrel population was heard sniggering in a nearby tree.

Halloween 2003

Everything falls into place at the last minute. I stuff my remaining stuff into the two out of three suitcases which still have space and Jaffa drives me to the airport. “Are you excited?” asks Kerrie as I head for the door. “I haven’t really had time to get excited,” I reply. “I’ve been too busy.” It’s true. My Laura is waiting for me, three and a half thousand miles away. I must be going.

Gatwick is a fair distance away and it’s kind of Jaffa to be driving me. On the way to the airport, he asks if there are maple trees in Michigan. I have no idea. Probably. I guess that’s where maple syrup comes from, although by what process, I am completely in the dark. The drive to the airport takes two hours. Plenty of time to speculate on the origins of sauces.

We pull up at Gatwick around 10.45 and I sign over the car to Jaffa, hand him a paying in slip for my bank account and say, “Au revoir!” The car is his. Then I manoeuvre three suitcases, a full-sized A2 portfolio, a laptop and a bag of sweets that Kerrie has thoughtfully provided over to the NorthWest check-in.

“Can I take this on as hand luggage?” I point to the smallest of the cases, which is full of computer accessories. “Sure,” says the clerk perkily. She’s not so perky about the largest suitcase. 41 kilos. I can barely lift it on to the scales. “Um, could you transfer something from that bag to the other one? There’s a weight limit of 32 kilos.”

So there I am at 11am on a Friday morning, two suitcases open by the check-in counter at Gatwick Airport, trying to shuffle film cans and clothing and personal effects around. I’m wearing my ski jacket and a sweater over my T-shirt because, well, they couldn’t go anywhere else. The sweat is pouring off me. I take off the jacket. I’m going to be a joy to sit next to on an eight hour flight. This thought just makes me sweat more.

Eventually, somehow I juggle everything so that the largest case comes in at 31.5 kilos and the other case is okay. Somehow I’ve created a new bag in the process which gives me way too much hand luggage. The middle case, old and cardboardy, looks as if it’s about to burst and spill it’s guts over the conveyer. I’m beyond caring.

“Can I put my portfolio in the hold?” “Well, you can–but there’s a hundred and ten dollar excess baggage charge for a third bag. The plane’s pretty empty, though, so you should be alright with it in the cabin.” And that’s how I end up with four pieces of hand luggage, plus the bag of sweets, which I have no intention of giving up.

Amazingly, no one bats an eyelid as I take all this through the departure lounge. They do stop the small blue case though. I see them X-ray it twice. Must be all the computer gear, wires, wireless networking hub, webcam and other gubbins looking like a bomb. Security get me to open it up. They rummage around. They find… a pair of nose hair clippers. And they confiscate them. Bizarre.

They don’t find a metal letter opener with a serrated blade or a pair of nail clippers. Don’t we all feel a lot more secure now, eh? Safe from the threat of short nostril hairs.

NorthWest flight 31 on October 31 is uneventful. It is, as the perky check-in lady noted, half-empty. My excess hand luggage gets distributed around the cabin and I snag myself a row of five empty seats but am thwarted at the eleventh hour when a large woman ambles up the aisle with a seatbelt extender. Still, she’s friendly enough. Apparently she has M.E. and two broken legs. I give her some of Kerrie’s candy and she chats incessantly about her husband in the UK, her M.E., her house in the US…

In-flight movie is The Italian Job which turns out to actually be pretty good, not a remake at all, just a few character names the same. An homage. Not bad. I get a couple of hours sleep and finish reading Children Of Dune, one of the two books I have on the go at the moment. Finishing this one is symbolic for me because Leto II embarks on the Golden Path at the end. I have my own Secher Nbiw to begin.

Extender-belt woman is snoozing across the three empty seats beside me. This is okay. It’s better than her talking to me and stopping me reading, I figure. At the end of the flight, an attendant with a huge spider on the side of his head lets her know he’ll be getting her a wheelchair and the cabin crew wish us Happy Halloween.

“Y’know, I’m half tempted to give you my email address,” says my seat-row companion, “It was so nice talking to you.” Ha, that extra clause gets me out. “It was nice talking to you too. I hope everything goes well in Champaign with the house.” And, now the rest of the passengers have left, I head off to collect my various bags.

Nice thing about an empty flight: no line at the immigration desk. I show the guy my papers and he looks through them. “What’s your fiancee’s name?” he asks. “Have you met her?” I list the times and laugh at the question. “Well, you’d be surprised how many haven’t,” he says. He gives me form I-94 to complete and then waves me on through.

I am now a US resident, entitled to pay tax but not to vote. Sweet irony. Can I work? No one seems to know.

Outside the airport, it’s 72 degrees. A familiar blue Honda pulls up and Trinity steps out. The smile on my face is indescribable. This woman pleases me beyond measure. We stack her car up high with my luggage and head for home.

A short time later, I am carving pumpkins on the porch and small children are appearing with bags laden with candy under the watchful eyes of their parents at the kerbside. Having a pumpkin lit means your house welcomes trick or treaters. This is all new to me, these customs only partially grasped in the UK. Trick or treaters are all done by about 8am and the adults come out after nine.

My pumpkins grin manically as we head off to walk the nighttime streets of Ann Arbor. I am now attired as Agent Smith and checking out my new neighbourhood through stylish sunglasses. This is good. Laura is beside me, clueing me in on what’s going on, and we get admiring glasses from the ghouls and goblins.

Students are guarding the Diag from arch football rivals Michigan State–apparently an excuse to sit in the middle of campus on sofas while drinking beer–and a group of girls insults Oregon by appearing dressed as their college team. Assorted cowboys, cowgirls, hippies, TV and movie characters go by, including at least two Velmas from Scooby Doo. It is all bizarre.

I am happy. Happy happy Halloween.