Tuesday, July 15, 2008

En fuego

Summer in California means wildfire season, and this year's is looking set to be one of the worst ever. A rare lightning storm last month ignited forest fires across the state, and the fire services have been battling ever since to get them under control.

The scale of the problem is hard to comprehend. California has huge areas of natural woodland, and recent winters have been drier than normal. All that dense, dry underbrush is just waiting for a spark, and once the flames take hold they're hard to stop. The recent fires have burned more than 1,300 square miles of land, an area twice the size of Greater London. At one point there were a total of 1,781 individual blazes, apparently a state record. That this total is now down to under 300 is partly due to the efforts of the 20,000 firefighters tackling them, but also because many of the smaller blazes combined to form larger conflagrations.

Here in San Francisco, the only sign of the fires still burning comes when the wind swings round to the wrong direction, blowing smoke over the city like a dense smog. The air becomes noticeably harder to breath, and sunsets take on an apocalyptic beauty. But earlier this year, during a visit to Tahoe, I went for a walk through the "burn zone" (pictured) which had been left near where we were staying by a major fire there in 2007. The ground was still scorched down to the dirt and, while the black stumps of some trees had been left standing, others had been consumed completely. All that remained of them were holes in the ground where their roots had continued to smolder down into the earth.

But, like earthquakes, the threat of devastating wildfires is just a fact of life in California. My wife and I visited Malibu for a wedding in October last year, and the rehearsal dinner was held in the groom's parent's house, which had a spectacular view over this celebrity-strewn stretch of southern Californian coastline. It looks like the safest place in the world, but the groom's father told me that the family's first home on the same spot had been destroyed by a wildfire a few years before. He was philosophical about it, saying that they had been able to rebuild and, while they had lost almost everything, at least they were all alive and well.

This was true, of course, but I was still surprised at how relaxed he seemed about it all. Then, just over a week later another series of fires broke out in southern California, one of which led to the evacuation of Malibu and the destruction of some homes there. And then the same thing happened again in November. With the help of good insurance, it's amazing what you can get used to living with.

A tale of two magazine covers

While the New Yorker is known and respected for many things, the biting wit of its cartoons isn't one of them. Traditionally they span the spectrum from mildly amusing to vaguely depressing. But the magazine's latest front cover depicting Michelle and Barack Obama sees it plumb new depths in the humour department.

According to New Yorker editor David Remnick, it was intended to be a satirical statement about right-wing depictions of the Democratic presidential candidate and his wife, but it gets this horribly wrong: as a satire it is both cloddishly heavy handed and, importantly, not really funny. Sure, it will spark debate, but only in the same way your least favourite uncle might when he starts a joke during a family dinner with the words, "I'm not a racist, but..." I mean, even John McCain's campaign immediately condemned it.

When I first saw the illustration, I immediately thought of the Onion's front page headline earlier this year: "Black Guy Asks Nation For Change." Not only does this make me laugh pretty much every time I think of it, but it also nails the issue by making it crystal clear exactly who the joke is aimed at: us and our attitudes to race, not the candidate himself. New Yorker take note: leave the satire to the satirists.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

As others see us

Some American-Scottish humour, which I received in the post today courtesy of my father-in-law...

Maybe he wasn't listening when I explained to him that most of the kilt-wearers you see in Scotland are employed in the tourist industry - and that the rest are tourists.

The cartoon was drawn by Dan Piraro.

European soccerball

During Euro 2008, I couldn't help but notice that watching football at the pub here is, well, a bit odd. For a start, the time difference means that European football games kick off at any point from 4am onwards on the Pacific coast, and pubs seems to get progressively stranger for every extra hour before noon you visit them pretty much anywhere in the world (outside of Leith, at least). Then there are local peculiarities such as US broadcaster ESPN's regular commentary pundit Tommy Smyth, an eccentric Irishman who seems to have tricked the locals into thinking that "he's bulged the old onion bag!" is an acceptable euphimism for "goal". But, most of all, there is the solitude.

I'm used to football-watching being a communal activity. In Britain, even inconsequential mid-table, lower-league games featuring obscure teams will not only be shown in most pubs, but you can be sure that a large proportion of the drinkers present will be keeping at least half an eye on the action. Presumably this just in case that guy with two left feet playing up front suddenly blasts one into the top corner like Ronaldo. Or perhaps because watching Scunthorpe Utd vs Crewe Alexandria is a better prospect than staring at the flashing lights on the fruit machine - or, perish the thought, actually talking to someone. This meant that even on those rare occasions in London that I managed to persuade an unsuspecting pub to show a game featuring my home team, perennial Scottish underachievers Hearts, I could be pretty sure that I wouldn't be alone.

Things are different here in the US, where I have been relegated to a small, subversive minority of "soccer" fans for even the biggest games. We gather in carefully selected pubs at strange times of the day to huddle around the one television not dedicated to showing proper sports like senior tour golf, last weekend's Nascar highlights, or women's college softball.

But for the past few weeks, as the Euro championship progressed towards its conclusion, our small numbers grew a little. An Irish pub close to my work dutifully showed all the games, and the games that kicked off in the evening in Europe coincided quite nicely with my lunch hour here. During the group stages there were generally only a handful of us, and we would sit at one end of the bar, watching pictures without any sound, surrounded by indifferent locals. But, by the time the semi-finals came round, not only had the sound been turned up, but it was standing room only. Admittedly, some of the people present for those games were slightly confused locals who had stumbled in by accident, but most of us were there to actually see the match, and our numbers included both football-loving foreigners like myself, and that strangest and rarest of beasts: the genuine American soccer fan.

They are still a minority among their own countrymen, but their numbers are growing - and, thankfully, I'm friends with quite a few of them. The fascinating thing for me is the way this small splinter group of American sports fans, and the game of football itself, are viewed by the majority here. In the UK, football supporters are stereotypically thought of as boorish, uncultured lager lads, but here the opposite is true. To have even noticed the sport tends to take a certain cosmopolitan outlook, and the game also has a reputation in the States for being effete, certainly in comparison to the home-grown brand of football. One of the most common criticisms I hear about the round-balled version of the game concerns players "flopping", or diving, which seems to run counter to two of the most fundamental doctrines held dear by most American sports fans: masculinity and authenticity.

(Ironically, foreign football fans also have a reputation in the US for hooliganism, fighting and general thuggery, but we'll ignore that apparent contradiction for now)

These are generalisations, of course, but it's probably no coincidence that the only mainstream American celebrity I can think of who has also come out as a football fan is every liberal intellectual's favourite comedian, Jon Stewart from The Daily Show. Well, him and NBA star Steve Nash, but he's a Canadian who was born in South Africa to British parents, so he doesn't really count.

But, now that Euro 2008 is over, the television in my local pub will have little to offer but a steady diet of baseball for the next few months. Well, that and the fruit machine in the corner.

Oooh, pretty flashing lights...