Saturday, 21 October 2017

Monster

Just when I think I've seen the best that America has to offer, along comes Monster Truck Jam!  Why wouldn't you pile dirt into huge ramps inside an arena?  And get trucks with gigantic balloon tires to jump off them at high speed?  What could go wrong?

In the way that the rodeo was invented by cowboys who got extremely bored on long cattle drives, this is what happens when you have big cars, a lot of space, and cheap petrol.  Basically, anywhere in the States.  We got tickets through event sponsor Chevron.  "Why would we want to sponsor a monster truck show?" asked Hannah, showing that the image of Chevron held by those within is somewhat different from those without.

The whole event is presented as a sport - everyone gets points, and there's a grand final in (where else?) Las Vegas.  Of course, like most American sports it's more about giving you something to watch between adverts, and each truck is sponsored by motor parts companies, or a fuel additive, or even a movie or TV show.  Along with 55,000 others we were cheering on VP Racing Fuels' Mad Scientist, Gas Monkey Garage, and the somewhat-clunkily-named Marvel's The Punisher™ On Netflix.

After the national anthem - naturally - the spinning death machines arrived in a flurry of fireworks, and proceeded to race and jump.  And crash.  The first time this happened I assumed ambulances would arrive and we'd be asked to file out in respectful silence.  But no!  A tow truck appeared, flipped the truck back onto its wheels, and off it went again.

It was AWESOME!

In the racing part, Lucas Oil Crusader reigned triumphant, before Maximum Destruction took the two-wheel skills challenge.  In the freestyle - which everything leads up to, as that's the crazy trucks-doing-backflips bit - it was Grave Digger who came away with the trophy.

As the fumes of petrol, testosterone, and freedom began to grow stale we wandered back to my Ford Fiesta.  I gunned the engine, slipped the clutch, and drove under the speed limit observing all stop signs on the way home.



Monster Mummy and driver.  I don't hold out much hope for those pumpkins, mind.


The pre-show pit party, where you could stand by a truck and get dubious freebies from various companies.  No one was advertising any electric cars down there, I'll tell you that.


Pete, feeling a little tired.


I made truck ownership a condition of moving to Texas.  Still waiting...


One of the aforementioned freebies.  You were meant to write the name of the truck you were supporting.  Peter is supporting Peter.


Excitement builds...


Boom!  It's Marvel's The Punisher™ On Netflix!!


And lots of other trucks.


Racing, two at a time, like that cycling one they do at the Olympics, only NOT BORING!!


Um...is that meant to...is he ok?


Let's get this show back on the road!


Whoa!  If he can land that then -


Oh.


Nothing to see here, move along.


Smash!


You'll believe a truck can fly.


Amazingly, this did not end in disaster.


Backflip!


And it was LOUD!  But the Davies motto is 'safety first'.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

First of the season

Autumn, my favourite season.  Well, if not my favourite then certainly in my top four.  In Maryland, autumn was the pleasant two weeks between the suffocating heat and the teeth-shattering cold.  In Houston it's when temperatures finally drop to those of an English heatwave, and you can venture out for five minutes without risking instant dehydration and donating blood to a million mozzies.

But beyond all that, it's the season of pumpkin spice!  This stuff gets everywhere: margarine, nuts, doggy dental treats, spray cans.  Every now and again you even find it in a pumpkin pie recipe.  But its most important appearance is - of course - in the Pumpkin Spice Latte.

The history of the PSL is somewhat cloudy, but it was certainly popularised by Starbucks, who launched it in Vancouver and Washington DC late in 2003.  Since then, like crazy tweets from the President, it has become a part of American life, equally loved and bemoaned.

Here at the Davies Coffee Emporium we fall strictly on the love side, so much so that I bought a crateful of discounted pumpkin syrup earlier in the year and have been holding a rabid Hannah at bay until October.  She now leaves for work each morning with a thermal mug full of the good stuff, and is 12-15% more productive as a result.  You're welcome, Chevron.

What follows are some photos cementing my place as one of America's #1 aspirational lifestyle blogs.


Mmm, the good stuff.  I'm not sure if there's a difference between "pumpkin pie" and "pumpkin spice" syrup but, you know, pumpkin, so...


Beans means espresso.


The other black gold.


Frothy, like my blog.


Lifestyle model, although she is genuinely enjoying it.  Aren't you, dear.


A real pumpkin?  Not sure what we're going to do with that.  Is it pumpkin spice flavour?


Ah!  A pleasingly Picasso-esque design from Pete.


And here he is holding an alligator, just because.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Appliance of science

Science has given the world many wonderful things; reanimated corpses, a theme park full of dinosaurs, matter transporters and the warp drive.  Of course, science's insistence that the Bible isn't true will hinder it from ever going mainstream, but we can cherry-pick the most useful/enjoyable bits.

And today we did just that when we enjoyed ice cream made with liquid nitrogen!  Nitrogen is something you can't see, like germs or angels, but if you make it very very cold it turns into a liquid, by a process known as "magic".  Add this liquid to a ton of unhealthy ingredients and you can create one of the foundations of human civilisation: ice cream.

This is exactly what Creamistry does here in Houston!  We visited under the pretext that Pete had worked really hard at school, or helped at home, or something.  Mmm-mmm!  There was a sign explaining it's about the cream freezing into smaller crystals that makes it deliciously smooth, etc.  If you need science to prop up your worldview then who am I to judge?  Me, I'm just going to sit here and stuff my face with the ice cream they serve in heaven.


The difficult decision of what to order.  The Quantum Coffee?  The Elemint?  The Chocolate Combustion?  Stop blinding me with menu choice!


Anticipation.


Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.


What could be better than great ice cream?  Great ice cream that makes clouds you can touch!  So much wow.


And there are still people who claim God doesn't exist!


Birthday cake ice cream with sprinkles.  Make sure you have a good week at school next week, Pete, otherwise we'll have to come up with a different excuse to visit here...

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Galveston

Ah, the slightly-run-down seaside town.  Wherever sand meets water there will be a somewhat shabby settlement, well-kept buildings along the front masking dilapidated hotels and eateries behind, and a marina that smells of old fish.  Even after being forced to read Brighton Rock at school I still love to visit them.

Our nearest such resort is Galveston, down on the Gulf of Mexico and a scant hour from downtown Houston.  Hannah's been wanting to go for a while, and it managed to escape the onslaught of Hurricane Harvey, so off we went.

What sets Galveston slightly apart is that it's a working port, with cruise ships coming and going, and plenty of terminals for loading tankers.  There are also many oil rigs tied up, waiting for the price-per-barrel to rise.

Also, they have dolphins!

We booked ourselves onto a little cruise, one which promised the appearance of marine mammals, one I naturally assumed would take us into the open ocean to find them.  But no!  The dolphins like to hang around the harbour, and such was their friendly proximity we could probably have enjoyed a similar display sitting on a jetty.  You could hear them clicking and squeaking, but they didn't do any tricks, being extremely protected.  "Imagine telling your cellmates that you're in prison for feeding dolphins," our captain told us with dark amusement.

The port is on the landward side of Galveston island; on the other is a beach along the Gulf.  It doesn't get the best reviews, but you have to remember that Weston-super-Mare was my nearest childhood resort.  Hannah and Pete had a lovely swim, in temperatures she described as 'bath water', while a few working rigs perforated the horizon.  The only things missing were candyfloss and donkey - or, indeed, dolphin - rides.  Maybe a business opportunity...


"It's the most beautiful view I've ever had at lunch!" commented Hannah.


Dolphin hunting.  Not that sort of hunting.


A dolphin!


And some more!  Which is the more intelligent species, the dolphins or the schmucks who pay to see them?


First steps on a long and illustrious naval career.


Jumping in the bow wave of a tug.  Dolphins: easily pleased.


What's wrong with this sandy beach?  Nothing.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

It was twenty years ago today

The Britain into which Hannah and I were born was a different country.  Margaret Thatcher was yet to win the Cold War.  A Mars bar could be yours for eight-and-a-half pence.  It was only a decade since we'd won the World Cup rather than, you know, 50 years.  And arranged marriages were the norm.

I can remember the day, aged twelve, that my mother brought me a picture of Hannah - a crude chalk drawing on an old school slate.

"She's so beautiful!" I declared, distracted from my homework translating ancient Greek.

"Indeed," agreed my mother.  "She is of reasonable breeding and should provide us with an heir.  You are to be married within the month."

"But what if I don't love her!" I cried.

"Love?" exclaimed my mother.  "Love?  What's love got to do with it?  Her parents have offered a sizable dowry, which will allow us to clear your sister's gambling debts and restore the Davies family to its rightful position in society."

We met on September 13th 1997, our wedding day, and naturally Hannah fell instantly in love with me.  Since then our marriage has been based on communication and respect - she tells me what to do and I respect her authority.

Has it really been twenty years?  It has passed in the blink of an eye, and soon we're going to have to line Pete up for marriage.  Several families have expressed interest, although it's so hard to find one that matches our social class.  Perhaps we'll do the royal thing and let him marry a cousin, thereby cementing the dynasty and concentrating the wealth rather than diluting it.

Either way, all I can hope is that my son's life will be as happy as his parents'.


Mere children (they also hadn't invented colour photography back then).

Sunday, 10 September 2017

I don't like to talk about my charity work

It's at times of crisis that those with the requisite skills stand up to be counted.  Unfortunately I have none of the requisite skills.  I can make a cup of tea - the perfect response to a British crisis but not held in such high regard elsewhere.  Nonetheless, I pulled on a Chevron T-shirt and joined Hannah and her colleagues at the largest hurricane shelter here in Houston, the NRG Center.

The disaster response in Houston has been huge, with many places turning volunteers and donations away due to supply exceeding demand, but the larger shelters still require round-the-clock help.  We walked into the volunteer registration area with a medical technician called Lisa who had driven down from Dallas for the weekend.  "Wow, someone with useful skills," Hannah told her.  "Everyone has useful skills," Lisa replied, kindly and incorrectly.

The oil industry - Shell, Exxon and Chevron - has taken over the dispensary, where anyone inside or outside the shelter can come and pick up donated items, to replace what they lost in the flood.  We were led there by one of many radio-wielding ushers.  I have to say, the level of organisation is impeccable, with medical, social, food, and most other services you care to mention on hand for everyone displaced.  It doesn't begin to make up for the misery of sleeping on cots with hundreds of others in massive halls, but the scale and quality of aid is remarkable.  Maybe lessons have been learned since Katrina, maybe (cynically) Houston just has a bigger economic footprint than New Orleans.  Either way, hopefully the people organising here are on hand to deal with Irma.  Then Jose.

We were quickly in the dispensary hall, countless tables of donated clothes and supplies laid out before us, and suddenly my calling became clear.  It's not that I spend all my time in thrift stores, but I do spend a lot of my time there.  My nose for a quality item is well calibrated and here I was, tasked with several hours of sniffing them out, at high speed and accuracy, for other people!  Was it destiny?

There was a row of desks set up for people to register their needs, and then the lists were passed back to "runners" (such as myself) to fulfill in blue Ikea shopping bags.  Full bags were then handed out at the collection desk, where people could sort through to make sure they were happy.  I wouldn't claim to be the best runner (although I was) but I certainly located some gems, and my eye for fashion - especially in men's underwear - was complimented on more than one occasion.  If you needed boxers, I was your man.  It was actually quite tricky not to fill a bag for myself and run, but I endeavoured to keep my personal thrifting purely professional.

After a few hours, crowds of police turned up and began hanging around the doors, and whispers went around that someone famous was arriving.  "I hope it's Trump or Beyonce," I confided in a fellow runner.  "Nah, it's probably Jackson," she replied.  "Micheal Jackson!" I exclaimed.  "I knew he'd faked his own death and has been hanging out with Elvis this whole time!!"  "Erm...Janet Jackson.  She's on tour," my colleague stated before shuffling carefully away.  In the end it turned out to be a Hollywood actor called Kevin Hart and a basketball player called Chris Paul.  I didn't recognise them and, to be fair, they didn't recognise me either.  (Beyonce was somewhere else).

Shortly after that my shift was over.  Hannah and I wandered out past some halls that were previously occupied but were now being cleared of their vacated cots as people returned home.  We drove back to our unharmed home having spent a tiny amount of time making a tiny difference, but hopefully with so many volunteers working together human power can overcome the devastation that Harvey left.  Given the usual political **** that follows these disasters, it's the only thing that ever can.


The shelter (from The Houston Chronicle - you're not allowed to take your own photos inside).


The dispensary (from The Sacramento Bee).


And this is Kevin Hart, in what is possibly Pete's favourite movie.  He was very jealous.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Home and dry

We're back in Houston and, thankfully, the house and the neighbourhood seem to have come through Hurricane Harvey with few ill effects.  Our next-door neighbours lost their car that was parked at the airport while they were stuck in Chicago, but our only hardship was having to fly Spirit Airlines when Southwest cancelled our original flights.

Driving back from Bush International it's remarkable how normal everything looks after seeing all those images and videos of flooding.  Of course, that only means that the major damage happened elsewhere, mainly to the south-west and east.  Most of the shops are reasonably well stocked but out of meat and beer - in the same way that Brits in a crisis make a cup of tea, Texans like to barbecue.

So we shall see.  During the day the city is very quiet, and then rush hour is conversely completely crazy as several major roads remain shut.  It's going to take a long time to return to normal, whatever the new normal turns out to be.  And in the meantime we keep an eye on Hurricane Irma.


Time to start...?