Friday, March 30, 2007

Vacation, OK

All right, it was better than OK, but like everything it naturally had its ups and downs. Actually, Oklahoma has relatively few, but that's not to say it's landscape is flat and without interest. Indeed, the state can proudly boast 11 distinct bio-zones (a lesson I only learned this time out - ah, if only they'd had three, I might have been able to remember them all) and a diverse range of wildlife. Also, I'm reminded that, prior to my first visit - some two years ago now - a friend assured me that Oklahoma had no mountains, but that simply isn't the case. It just happens that the mountains it has have been around for so long they've been worn down to the level of, well, hills. That first trip, my wife-to-be and I spent some time in the Quartz Mountains, and I was very happy to be able to send that friend a postcard as irrefutible evidence of the existence of Oklahoman mountains. Petty, but fun. And on this occasion we swung by a place by the name of Tiger Mountain - which I'm not even sure qualified as a hill, but it did at least have a ridge or two on the horizon and, more importantly, it was where we met Ginger the Bobcat (pictured left - or, for any of you who happen to be inside the text and looking out, right). She may be too domesticated to count as an example of the diverse Oklahoman wildlife, but she was the star of that particular day and a definite highlight of the trip. But more of her later.

To be fair the trip's only 'lowlights' were owing to the slightly over-booked social calendar, which at times led to a sense of the kind of packed schedule you'd associate more with, well, a working week than a holiday. But that was the nature of the beast: there were just too many people who hadn't seen us for a year and a half and even then we didn't get to see everybody. There was a good plan originally, for an open house party on the first Sunday we were over there, so everyone could come around and see us in one go, thus freeing up plenty of time for pressure-free, open-timetable R&R. But the best laid plans of us and in-laws have much in common with those of men and rodents, and of course not everybody could make it on the day arranged. So we ended up having to fit more people in here and there throughout the two weeks. No sooner had I enjoyed a welcome massage (all professional and above-board, just in case any more sordid-minded readers are looking in :) ) the day after we arrived than I was in need of another one to help me relax all over again. Thankfully, they were all nice people and welcome company. Well, except for the ones who thought it'd be a neat idea to just drop by on our last day there, when I was socialled out and ready to go home and re-establish relations with our kittens (I'll own up to worrying whether they'd even remember us by the time we got back!). Poor timing and not helped by the fact that a certain uncle-in-law insisted on barracking me about this novel he had been writing (30 pages so far, it's a crime mystery but it has no protagonist yet) the way some folks feel the need to say, "I've been having these dreams lately" whenever introduced to analysts at parties.

Luckily, the very next morning, before our departure, we breakfasted at IHOP (International House Of Pancakes - a house of pancakes! how cool is that! - which was a favourite of mine from previous trips) with mum- & dad-in-law and that made for a really nice note on which to end the holiday. And one much more in tune with the majority of the rest of the vacation. Because in the midst of the social assault course ( ;) ) we managed to squeeze in plenty of holiday-ish pleasures for ourselves, some planned, some unexpected, just as it should be.

Obviously, I needn't dwell on the shopping. Suffice to say there was some and my wife had a few items on her list she was determined to bring back with her - certain supplies that were either cheaper across the pond or quite simply not available here in the UK. And along with the shopping there was, of course, plenty of good eatin. By our presence alone, we probably doubled the state's vegetarian population, but there's no shortage of really wholesome, nutritious food to be had. All of which was just too hard put to compete with all the lovely junk food. Trust me, American restaurants are the place to go if you really want more pounds to your dollar. And these hearty meals can be readily supplemented with varieties of candy bars that can't be had for love nor money in British stores. Reeses Fast Break, I'm looking at you. Well, I'm not really - I don't have any of those left. I'll just have to console myself with the Reeses Peanut Butter Cups we've stocked up on (which I have found here in the UK, but they're not nearly as available as they should be). On top of which, the US diners, restaurants and cafes have for centuries now (two, at least, I'm sure) championed the principle of free refills when it comes to drinks. I love that. UK restaurants take note: import this facet of American culture today!

Friday 16th, two days after our arrival, was especially good for culture. I'd wanted to squeeze in at least one date out at the movies while we were there. There was a large selection to choose from, but not a great deal worth seeing. Luckily - er, for me anyway - 300 was playing. Not a date movie. If there's ever a shortage of red in future motion pictures, this is the one to blame. I thought it was great and can't imagine why the Iranians kicked up such a fuss about it in the press while we were over there. I mean, a) it's a Hollywood fantasy movie based on a comic book and has no basis in history and b) if the Persians really want to hold a grudge, that Xerxes chap shouldn't have attempted to invade Greece in the first place. It was grim, ferocious fun and, apart from a few stylistic touches (naturally) in common with Sin City, I'd not seen anything like it before. All aided and abetted by a truly fierce performance from the lead guy, with a talent for saying "Sparta!" a lot, with a similar kind of relish to that demonstrated by the inhabitants of Gormenghast when invoking the name of their home castle.

Anyway, on the understanding that the next movie we went to would be my wife's choice, we followed that up with dinner at Abuelo's, a classy Mexican restaurant in Bricktown, deep in downtown Oklahoma City, before heading over to the Ford Center (I know, they can't spell centre) for a show. Mum-in-law had won tickets in a competiton on local radio, and she very kindly gave them to us for a night out. (Many thanks.) The show was Cirque Du Soleil: Delirium and was a new experience for yours truly. My wife assures me that previous offerings from this troupe had been much more Cirque, and less Soleil. Where Soleil is, of course, a potent hallucinogen. For my tastes, there was always just too much going on, with weird, wonderful and/or wacky happenings spilling over the stage and onto these huge side screens, across which would flash a host of arty visuals to accompany both the stage acrobatics and the belting but for the most part not very memorable 'songs'. It was tough to focus on any one thing at any one time, so it was easy to miss this detail or that detail in all the colourfully orchestrated chaos. It was all very surreal, but what with the free tickets and all, you'd be hard pressed to find a drug-induced experience any cheaper. As a nice extra touch, the woman from the radio station came over to greet us before the show, and she introduced herself as Jolly, which - in the nature of unlikely names - led to some entertaining conversation.

It was all helped along by the fact that I was excited by the surprise prospect of another concert to come, having spotted in the rolling ads for upcoming events that Evanescence were playing there the next Wednesday. Way-hay! I thought. Surely synchronicity at work. On my first visit, I was treated to a Sarah McLachlan concert (amazing) and so good concerts appeared to be a developing theme for trips to Oklahoma. Still, I'll come back to that, since it's important to establish that the gig was preceded by five days of anticipation and generally 'being looked forward to'.

In the meantime, there was (amongst other things) the party on the Sunday and a visit to the Oklahoma City Zoo. I'd visited there before, and it's an impressive enough zoo - would have been more impressive too, if a great many of the animals hadn't decided it was nap time when we arrived - but they'd developed a whole new Oklahoma Trails exhibit, featuring all the state's 11 bio-zones (see, that's where I learned that lesson). There was still some work to be done, but the majority of the enclosures were really well developed, with overpasses to allow for good visibility and plenty of room for the critters - and more than made up for the fact that it was spring break and the place was filled to overflowing with noisy kids! (Plenty of lion fodder - I know I can't have been the only one thinking that.) Still, for all the zoo's beautiful creatures, it couldn't compete with our 'wildlife' encounter the following day.

For that was when we met Ginger. We'd arranged to head out to Tiger Mountain Ranch for some trail riding - as traditional a part of my Oklahoma visits as concerts, it seems (I've been three times now, so I'm guessing the things I do over there - like, oh, egg and cheese toasters from Sonic or sampling the goods at the local ice cream parlour - can be counted as traditions). It was such a great setting for it too. A spacious lodge on a lake shore, huge amounts of wooded acreage, with tipis in which tourists could sample something of traditional Native American (insert ‘make your reservations’ joke here) and a number of trails of differing levels of difficulty for horseriding. Yes, we were out of practice, so we chickened out and opted for the ‘Easy’ ride. My horse, Marotta, was a fairly passive character but impatient to get on with the ride – but I didn’t take it personally. Rain threatened anyway, so we cut our ride short by ten minutes, only to see the rain just fizzle out and pass on by. Oh well, not to worry, because when we got back, our hostess – the ranch owner, a gal name of Sharon – took us to see her bobcat, Ginger.

She and her husband had found Ginger when she was three months old. She had her own little enclosure out in the yard, but was free to wander about the house. She even indulges in some harmless play with Nugget, the family cat. As we got to step inside and spend some quality time with Ginger, Nugget was also close by, on the outside of the enclosure, taunting Ginger from the other side of the wire fence. Ginger would make these chucking noises, rather like a bark, as she paced around looking for a way to get to Nugget. When she wasn’t being coaxed over for petting by us or coming around to nuzzle into our hands, just the way any domestic cat does.

There was still a hint of the wild animal about her, but she was safe on her own territory and perfectly at ease even with us strangers around. She was great.

We rounded off that day with a visit to a nearby winery, and after more shopping and socializing the following day, it was time to head off for the Evanescence concert in the evening. Cool. I was really psyched to see them.

Unfortunately, we had to first sit through two dismal support bands, both of whom only sounded marginally better when we ducked out for a walk around the hall outside, to stretch our legs, investigate the price of an Evanescence T-shirt (too much!) and, well, to get away from the support bands. The only entertainment to be had from the first band was the sight of their guitarist who seemed to believe he was a marionette and ‘danced’ accordingly, despite some obvious string-related deficiency. He, his hair and his guitar were all over the place and I’m not sure I have the power to describe just how ludicrous he looked. Still, there’s only so much you can get from watching that sort of thing, and the second band didn’t even have that to recommend them.

Then, thankfully, Evanescence showed up. Woo hoo!


Luckily, I still love the band. Don’t get me wrong, I think we got to see a terrific live performance – but none of it made it past the speakers. The volume was racked up so high as drown out Amy Lee’s vocals, such a vital element of the band’s sound, and reduce the music to percussion and so much raucous, distorted noise. These people do sound tests, don’t they? It was suggested to me it could have been down to the venue, but as I said, I’d seen Sarah McLachlan at the same place and her people got it right. Well, phooey. Definitely a letdown, but as I say, my love of the music is still intact – I’ll just be sticking to the studio material in future.

A shame too that the concert was the last major ‘event’ of our holiday, followed only by a scattering of more social engagements, another massage (I needed that!) and more dining, shopping and other miscellaneous activities of that sort. Fortunately, it wasn’t the last word on the entertainment front for us, because on the Sunday nights we got to enjoy the two-part Season 3 finale of Battlestar Galactica. Legitimately, recorded off the TV, complete with ad breaks to fast forward through and everything. Now that was a treat.

But I’ll save that for another time.

Not least because I’m conscious of having ‘gone on for a bit’. You’ll have to excuse me for that. I’ll put it down to the fact that you just don’t tend to walk anywhere in the States. It’s always driving here, driving there. So it’s only natural I suppose, now that we’re back home, I’d feel like having a bit of a ramble.

The main thing is, we had an OK time.

Friday, March 02, 2007

No More Nails

Metaphorical ones. They'd all been bitten down to the quick within the first half-dozen episodes of Battlestar Galactica Season 3. We've reached what must be the halfway mark by now and even if things settled down a bit, with a few 'ordinary' episodes here and there, I find even a standard BSG episode has more than enough to grip me. (Spoilers will undoubtedly follow for BSG Season 3, but I'm going to try to stay brief!) Woo hoo. I love this show.

One of the especially welcome touches in a recent 'ordinary' episode was the flashback to the earlier stages of the settlement of New Caprica. Intercut with uppercuts in the boxing ring, this episode could so easily have been BSG's TKO (a particularly poor B5 episode, the memory of which still causes a shudder or two). But since one of my 'gripes' about Season 2 was the One Year Later... jump to the set-up on New Caprica and the Cylon occupation, this provided some welcome colouring in of the gap. Of course, it had the ambivalent side effect of making me think what a great story that settlement would have made if properly explored and given air to breathe. Maybe just a matter of three episodes? Not too much to ask.

What was a big ask at the time was the dramatic adjustment the viewer was required to make, from military to civvy street (in the mud, no less) - and no, I'm not just talking about Adama's moustache. That said, the opening episodes of Season 3 deliver in spades. I'd mentioned before that this was a series that wasn't afraid to shake up its status quo once in a while, and it certainly managed that. It turned things on their heads to such an extent there was, on top of the customary nail-biting fare, a faint nervousness that things could never be the same again. We were in unknown, as well as occupied, territory, and it made for great, intense and even emotionally draining drama. All thoroughly enjoyable without the Colonel-Tigh-As-Bin-Laden comparisons. A particularly tense moment for me was when Laura Roslin was lined up for a Richard Attenborough Great Escape moment, and there was the sense of a chance, at least, that they might have killed her off.

To a certain extent, the bulk of the survivors (and that's not a reference to Apollo's weight problems) have effectively by now completed a journey back to something like the pre-occupation situation, but that’s a cycle necessary for the continuation of the greater journey and I think it's fair to say that all the characters bear their scars (some highly visible!) and certain relationships have undergone what must be irrevocable changes. First episode after the liberation, members of the Galactica crew - Starbuck included - are seen forming their own kangaroo court, doling out retributive justice as a means of dealing with their personal pain. Yikes. Just the kind of thing you used to get in every generation of Star Trek, eh. On which note, there are continued efforts to acknowledge factors like shortages of resources - food has been the theme in selected episodes of this season - and I've enjoyed the look inside the Cylon base ships, even if it has all had to go 'a bit weird' to show up the differences that set them apart from humans. Life on board seems disjointed, although that may be down to Gaius' disturbed perspective on the universe in general. Messianic complexes aside, the notion of Cylons projecting versions of reality to suit their tastes, the nature of the hybrid hooked into the baseship and the question of the final five Cylon models are the key sources of fascination so far on the Cylon side of things.

Well, those and Lucy Lawless. I've taken a real liking to her character, even over Caprica, who's been with us longer - and it's been interesting to watch her reprising something of her Xena role, championing the ideal of One God over a Greek-style Pantheon. Can't wait till she slays Athena with her chakram. Even if that doesn't happen and even if 'No More Nails' might be a bit of an exaggeration on my part, all this Season has to do is maintain the standard so far on display, and it will be sure to keep me glued.