Doing battle with daily dragons

Friday, July 29, 2005

Wow, You Can Tell That From Only Asking Me my Job Title?

In a Past Life...

You Were: An Albino Alchemist.

Where You Lived: Mexico.

How You Died: Hung for treason.

That explains my fanatical application of sunblock and cravings for Taco Bell, anyhow.

Witness to History

Blues Mama got me thinking about history, so I thought I’d borrow her meme for Friday morning musing.

The Top 10 Events in History that I Would Like to have Witnessed

#10. The Battle of Agincourt- I’m not a war buff by any means, but it would be something else to be able to witness one of the greatest military upsets of all time. And, as a bonus, I’d also get to witness the birth of a popular, rude English hand gesture.

#9. The Coronation of Elizabeth I

#8. Listen to Mozart as a child in recital to the French Court circa 1763- Just to be able to elbow the King and say, “Keep your eye on this one!”

#7. A Beatles gig at The Cavern

#6. Jimi Hendrix playing The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock- Like Blues Mama said, I think if I HAD been at Woodstock, I probably would have been too high to remember my name, but to see the Great Jimi in action would have been something else.

#5. The Moon Landing- I envy my parents tremendously for that one.

#4. Along for the ride on The Beagle with Charles Darwin.

#3. The writing of the Constitution- Constructive criticism from the future might be useful: “Hey guys! And before I go any further, may I just say GREAT job with the First Amendment? Boy howdy, you should SEE the Internet! But can we talk seriously about the Second? You just have no idea what kind of a hoo-ha THAT one’s gonna cause!”

#2. Standing in the shop with Gutenberg when the first page came off of his printing press.

#1. Being in the audience for the first ever performance of Hamlet starring Richard Burbage- Arguably one of the most influential pieces of theatre in the English language. Being surrounded by the syphilitic unwashed of 17th century London would be a small price to pay.

After doing a bit of complementary time travel to the past, I though perhaps I’d flick some switches and twiddle some knobs to change direction.

The Top 10 Future Events in History that I Would Like to Witness

#10. Flying cars- This is a throw-away, because deep down, EVERYBODY secretly wants flying cars. Why GM isn’t working on this right now, I have NO idea.

#9. The last tick of The Clock of the Long Now.

#8. The next step in human evolution- Whether it’s global homogenization or integration with organic circuitry, getting to see where it is that we’re headed as a species would be fascinating.

#7. The day the oil runs dry.

#6. The first self-aware computer- “Dr. Chandra? Will I dream?”

#5. The birth of my great, great, great grandchildren- I wish them luck on the day the oil runs dry.

#4. A permanent base on the moon.

#3. The first truly honest politician who tries to do the right thing by the people that elected them- I know, I know, this is supposed to be a list of things that are actually going to happen.

#2- The discovery of intelligent life in the universe- Like Jodie Foster’s character in “Contact” says, “If it’s just us, it would be an awful waste of space.”

#1- The first human being to set foot on Mars.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Hurrah for Civilization

Summer is when I tend to get a little homesick. The fireflies, the cicadas, crickets and katyadids, the thunderstorms...Home rocks.

But then there are just some summer traditions here in the UK that make me so happy to be here, I could just kiss them. Having two and a quarter straight months of classical and world music that are affordable and accessable to everyone near London is just about as civilized as it gets.

The Rock Star is kindly taking me to Prom 32 next Sunday featuring Bobby McFerrin. I beg anyone who's only experience of this unbelivable performer/conductor has been the terminally banal "Don't Worry, Be Happy" to please, for the love of musical aesthetics, find his "Medicine Man" or Yo-Yo Ma collaboration albums and listen to them. Plus, you gotta love a man with dreads that cool in classical music.

We're also going to the Last Night Proms in the Park with a few friends. We went once several years ago and made the fatal mistake of not bringing alcohol. Lawful goobers that we are, we actually took the "Do not bring any glass containers into the park" missive on our tickets seriously and found ourselves adrift in a sea of people who had all brought champagne. A most disagreeable situation.

So, this year, while music is the main focus of the evening, it's all about a bag big enough to stash 5 bottles of Lanson in.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Reflections on Being a Geek

Can I just say something quickly about being a geek?

The Space Shuttle went up yesterday for the first time since the Columbia disaster. For the first time in a long time, a whole lot of people were really interested in the space program again. The irony is, virtually no one watched the Columbia on it’s way up, but just about everyone sure as hell saw it come down. The days of families huddled around the television to watch a journey of discovery are long past, but everyone can’t get enough of a good tragedy.

Space stuff just rings my bell. Pure and simple; anything beyond the atmosphere totally kicks my ass. I’m sure my father is pleased that all of the hours he spent with me in front of the TV when I was small watching Nova, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Star Trek were not wasted. I was restricted to 2 hours a day of TV viewing. However, exceptions were made for science or nature programs. I think it was really just to prevent me from watching The Dukes of Hazzard.( I could watch Captain Kirk getting his shirt off with green slave girls, but Daisy Duke’s hot pants were a step too far.) Papapotamus molded me into a geek pretty early on.

So I had my nose pressed up against the TV screen yesterday with my fingers crossed to watch the Discovery go up. Just a year ago, Mama & Papapotamus, The Rock Star and I visited the Kennedy Space Centre and took the rather cheesy, yet informative “Behind the Scenes” tour that included the Assembly building and fairly close-up viewings of the launch pads.* Seeing the spot that the first mission to the moon began was quite humbling, to say the least.

The thing that impressed me most of all yesterday were the unbelievable images from the camera mounted on the large external fuel tank. It was extraordinary to get a Shuttle-eye-view of the coast of Florida falling away below, the moment when the sky turned from blue to black, the curvature of the Earth appearing and finally the moment the tank fell away, leaving the shuttle to swim away like a magnificent space whale. I don’t mind saying, it got my geeky little throat a bit choked up.

And yet, amongst the jubilant coverage, the whining from beneath began. “Why are we spending so much money on the space program?” “Shouldn’t we spend our money here on Earth where it can really benefit people?” “Why do we need manned space travel?”

My favourite answer is courtesy of Aaron Sorkin who wrote an episode of “The West Wing” titled, Galileo, in which NASA loses contact with a probe sent to the surface of Mars. White House Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborne is having an argument with Chief of Staff Leo McGary’s daughter, Mallory, over the merit of continuing to fund space travel.

It cost 165 million dollars to lose the thing. How much more money
is it gonna cost to make sure you’re never gonna find it?

I don’t know, Mallory, but we certainly won’t divert any municipal tax dollars, which are always best spent on new hockey arenas.

No, it’s best spent feeding, housing and educating people.

There are a lot of hungry people in the world, Mal, and none of them are hungry because we went to the moon. None of them are colder, and certainly none of them are dumber ‘cause we went to the moon.

And we went to the moon. Do we really have to go to Mars?



‘Cause it’s next. We came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill, and we saw fire. And we crossed the ocean, and we pioneered the West, and we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on the timeline of exploration, and this is what’s next.

And so, yesterday, we took another step on the path of what’s next.

It’s a good time to be a geek.

* Other than the actual space stuff, the most interesting fact is that the whole complex is actually a nature reserve. About 15 minutes before a launch, a series of loud explosions occur to encourage any wildlife in the area to kindly piss off to be avoid being cooked or sucked into important mechanical orifices. I can only hope that the animals that live there (including manatees, alligators, herons, etc) believe that having the living pants scared out of you once or twice a year is worth living unmolested the rest of the year round.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Lost in the Mist

I'm experiencing brain fog today. I can hear the little rhythmic ding ding ding of the warning bell on my dinghy of consciousness, but no land seems to forthcoming. If you were sitting across from me right now, this is exactly what you'd see.

I can report a strange dream, however. The Rock Star and I were in scrublands, in a little, beat-up tin shack. The Rock Star decided to go canoeing on a dried up river bed. (He got up quite a lot of speed despite the apparent lack of water) leaving me alone in the shack. All of a sudden, some cowboys showed up and taught me how to shoe a horse. What that means, I really don't know.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Cooking on the Edge

We’re having spaghetti for lunch today. To be specific, everyone in the HOUSE (4 people in total) is having spaghetti for lunch today. This is because I am a cooking gimp.

I’m not a fabulous cook. I’m not bad at it; I’ve got a repertoire of about 15 dishes that I can prepare competently and without instruction. (One of our current favourites is a feta cheese, onion and spinach omelette that I stole from Papapotamus who is a VERY good cook. We’re having it tonight.) I CAN follow recipes without too much trouble, although it takes me a few tries to actually get it tasting the way I think it’s supposed to. What I feel distinctly is that I lack is culinary common sense.

Last night, Baloo the Builder came over to have a jam with The Rock Star to prepare for his depping gig with The Mis-spelled Band this evening. Naturally, wanting to feed him, I made spag-bog because it’s easy to cook in large amounts. But for some reason, I believed that instead of just feeding the three of us, I was also cooking for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

When I was little, one of my favourite books was Strega Nona by Tomi dePaola. Strega Nona is a kitchen witch who leaves her bumbling assistant Anthony in charge of her house. Trying to be helpful, Anthony recites a spell over Strega Nona’s pasta pot and ends up with a town full of pasta. I thought of that book last night for the first time in years as it became readily apparent that I had cooked enough spaghetti to cause severe indigestion in the whole of the Black Watch.

This is a persistent culinary problem in our house that I think could probably be sorted out with a decent set of kitchen scales and a few measurement suggestions from the saintly Delia, the cheeky Jamie or the perpetually foul-mouthed Gordon. However, my biggest gastronomic disaster has been an attempt to bring a typically American recipe into our British household.

The Mennonite Cookbook was a treasure trove of goodness in my parent’s home while I was growing up and one of the things that got yummed up the fastest was always Shoo Fly Pie. Here’s the recipe. I would like to state for the record that I managed this successfully 3 TIMES while I was at college and once or twice in my mother’s kitchen. However, my attempts to recreate this delicious treat over here have been far less successful.

Attempt 1: Here’s something I found out: Treacle is not ANYTHING like King’s Syrup. Do not attempt this pie with treacle unless you want an unholy mess that will stick to the pie dish like hardened cement. Plus, your mother-in-law will laugh discreetly behind her hands at you.

Attempt 2: Here’s something else I found out: If you want to bring King’s Syrup back from America with you…it should REALLY go in your hand luggage. That’s all I have to say on that one except to report another gooey mess and more laughing.

Attempt 3: This was the puzzling one. I had managed to import all of the right ingredients without undue fuss or spillage, but I still ended up with a pie that was better served in pint glass than on a plate. And still with the laughing.

But I shall persevere. I shall have my shoo-fly, in this life or the next.

And if anyone’s free for lunch, there’s some spaghetti with your name written all over it.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005


A little meme that I skanked from Tony and Alkelda.

1) At this moment, what is your theme song? (Quote a lyric, please.)

Chariot by Gavin DeGraw

Oh chariot/ your golden waves/
are walking down upon this face/
Oh chariot/ I'm singing out loud/
To guide me/ Give me your strength

2) What edgy, hip thing do you wish would come to mind when people think of you?

Being neither edgy nor hip, I suppose I can settle for being a rock chick.

3) What is your favorite bad movie? Why is it so bad?

It was listed in the Top 100 Worst Movies of the 20th Century by the “Stinkers” site, so I suppose it must be bad, but I have to admit a fondness for Hudson Hawk.

I’m not entirely sure why it’s supposed to be so bad; it’s definitely surrreal. Although anything that boasts Sandra Bernhard AND Andy McDowell among it’s cast can’t have a WHOLE lot going for it.

4) Guilty pleasures:

a) Drinking Pimms by the pint rather than in tall, girly glasses
b) Kevin Smith films
c) tattoos

5) Take back these words:

Virginia: Yeah, you know you’re gonna go to England, meet a hot English guy, get married and move there.

Me: Whatever.

6) What should you have said?

Well, without the power of foresight, I’m not sure what else I COULD have said I wasn’t in the mood for romance at the time, having been uncermoniously dumped by Silent Bob, the musical stoner.

7) A recurring motif in a dream:

A house on a salmon colored beach, covered in broken paua shell.

8) If you were a character in a film, which one would you want to be?

I think I’d have to agree with Alkela, Eowyn is where it’s at. Totally hot, great with a sword and gets to wail on the Witch King. Losing your entire family along the way is a bit of a bummer, but a small price to pay for being a total bad-ass.

9) Which character do you think you actually would be?

One probably played by Joan Cusack.

10) Give your band a new name:

Wet Amish Hootie

Monday, July 18, 2005

Justifying Harry Potter

The first book I remember having a frenzied desire to know the ending to was My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George; the story of a boy who runs away from a stressful existence in the city and goes to live by himself in the wilderness. It was being read to us by one of my teachers in grade school. Strangely, I can’t remember who it was or even how old I was, although I’m sure it was before I was 9. Two chapters a day faithfully, she read us, always trying to find an ending point that would inflict the maximum amount of excruciating suspenseful agony, rewarded by a plaintive whine from her rapt audience. I am sorry to report that I no longer remember many details about the story other than that the boy lived in a hollowed out tree and might possibly have been involved with a large bird, but at the time, having to wait until the next day when the story would continue was unendurable. (Why it never occurred to me to ask my mother if we could check it out for the library, I have no idea)

Why is it that we as human beings become so incredibly involved in a good narrative? I spent some time asking myself that this weekend in the rather scarce free moments that I didn’t have my face shoved into Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. I was working as the children’s section leader at a large Borders bookstore in Minneapolis when the first two books were published. There was none of the hype then, only a mild buzz; people coming and telling me, “Someone told me I had to get these books for my kids. Have you got them?” By the time I finally picked them up and month or so later, they were at #1 on the bestseller list and flying off the shelves. I don’t think it was really until the third instalment of the series that it became “the Potter Phenomenon” rather than just a nice little series of kids books that appealed to adults too because secretly, we all want to be wizards.

Wizard envy aside, what makes the narrative of this story so special that people are willing to line up at midnight outside bookstores all over the world to buy a copy and answer the thrilling question, “What happens next?”

The basic story elements are nothing new. A dis-inherited prince, the Christ figure, a great treasure, a cruel upbringing that somehow produces a kind and well-adjusted person, forgiveness, good, evil, monster-slaying, a wise sage, a bully, a great foe, valiant and loyal friends…children’s fairy tales have been woven from these threads since time immemorial. But somehow JK Rowling has managed to take them and make an entirely new tapestry to tell us the tale of “the Boy Who Lived.”

It’s obvious to see that Rowling has been writing this book in our current world climate and that echoes of counter-terrorism measures, government ineptitude and useless information can be found throughout. I particularly enjoyed her early reference to a vague and useless pamphlet sent out by the UK government to “inform and educate” the public about what they should do in the event of a 9/11 style terrorist attack. It’s little touches like that that I think illustrate why the tales are so popular; we don’t love the world that Rowling created for it’s differences to our own, but rather for it’s similarities. We love that wizards, for all of their extraordinary power, still have bumbling, inept governments. That their 17 year olds have to pass Apparation tests before being allowed to appear and disappear at will. And that they face dangerous times with uncertainty and fear. Just like us.

So, did I like the book? Of course I did. And I await, with equal parts of anticipation and dread, the book that will complete the story and answer the burning question, “What happens next?”

Friday, July 15, 2005

Glut of Shiny

I am literally buzzing with excitement.

It has been a hot, sweaty, oppressive week. But today, a fresh breeze has blown in and with it, a veritable glut of shiny. I can scarcely believe my good fortune in the shiny department.

To assist in my new role as PA within PPD’s company, I’ve been furnished with a new shiny PDA that will hopefully tell me things that my standard paper diary doesn’t. If my standard paper diary would AWOOGA at me every time I had an appointment, I would be much happier with it, but since it does not, the PDA, while not quite as fun and colourful, will actually make sure I don’t get annoyed calls from the dentist asking why I’m three hours late and if I might be so kind as to join him so that he can scrape my teeth with a metal hook. Plus, I can tell PPD whether or not he’s supposed to be walking the dog or at the Royal Institute of Navigation. Sometimes he forgets. So, that’s some practical shiny.

In the NON practical shiny area, I’m now the owner of a new snowboard. This was a result of some consultation with experienced slope jockeys who told me there were 3 reasons my feet hurt every time I board:

1) My gear sucks.

2) I might be using the wrong “stance”.

3) My gear sucks.

None of the slope jockeys in question were actually trying to SELL me anything, so I used their expertise as a rather shallow excuse to buy a new, shiny board. It’s got a bird on it. Whether or not that makes my ride any better is yet to be seen.

The third bit of shiny I have not aquired yet, but come midnight the shiny new Harry Potter will also be mine. I feel righteous as I am going to purchase it at an independent, children’s bookshop in Richmond for no doubt, an undiscounted price. But that’s okay. Long live shiny, children’s bookshops.

I rejoice and give thanks for the abundant shiny.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Monkey Magic

The natural world is completely fascinating to me. Investigation of natural sciences is kind of like looking at a Seurat painting from up close and then pulling back; a mass of multi-colored dots suddenly becomes Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Things that look quite straightforward on the outside become startlingly complex and worthy of further study. This is the reason why this article completely slayed me.

Anyone who wasn’t completely convinced by Darwin has GOT to sit up and take notice. It’s official; monkeys like porn and People Magazine just as much as we do and are willing to pay for it.

In studies conducted in primate behaviour, researchers were astonished to learn that the monkeys in question would “pay” to see pictures of female monkey backsides by giving up little rewards that they had earned. Seriously. Just like monkey Penthouse. What was MORE astonishing was that they would also pay to look at pictures of higher ranking primates. They had never had any interaction with the primates in the photos, but could tell just from observation that they were of a higher social order than themselves. In the reverse, the researchers actually had to PAY the monkeys to look at pictures of lower-ranking primates. I suppose this is why Cosmo sells slightly better than Average Joe Monthly.

This begs the question: Do monkeys aspire to greatness?

This study is so cool, I just about wet my office chair.

Monday, July 11, 2005

A Very British Response

This is what comes from waving kilt-clad bare arses at the continent for the last 1000 years or so and daring them to come and have a go if they think they're hard enough.

Messages from the Telly

There are some days that I feel that I'm getting personal messages from my television. I'm wondering if anyone else who watched the BBC 1 o'clock news got the same message. It said: "Welcome Back! The world is utterly fucked!"

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Tales from the West

As I discovered, to my chagrin, that it wasn't possible to make Blogger postings from a PDA, I now include here, for your reading pleasure, or perhaps extreme boredom, a blog on the move.

June 23

Long ago, when my German forefathers set sail for the new world, along the way, one of them angered the Travel Gods. Perhaps they took a wizz through the wrong porthole during the full midsummer's moon. Whatever the misdemeanour, I feel certain that we're still paying for it to this day. Our vacations have always had the element of divine retribution about them. In 1983, while trying to get to Sioux City, Iowa, we made a wrong turn and didn't discover our mistake until we crossed the border into Missouri. That was the first time I ever heard my dad use the s-word. In 1991, after a long flight home from Seattle, we discovered that we'd left the headlights on in long-term parking. In a fierce downpour, my mother and I had to push the car across the lot while dad tried to get it started. There are too many other nightmare airline delays, food poisoning incidents and acts of God to name so it should really have come as no surprise when the following events occurred this morning:

- We neglected, upon leaving the long-term parking lot at 4am, to lock the car, but we would not discover this until a little later.

- Upon exiting the airport shuttle, we noticed we had left one of our bags on the luggage shelf necessitating my father to run after the rapidly departing bus like a wild howler monkey.

- The realisation that we had neglected to lock the car forces my father to catch the same shuttle bus back to the parking lot. "I think I would have just taken my chances," my mother remarked, "It’s a pretty old car." My parent's alignments are lawful good and chaotic good, respectively, but have the tendency to flip-flop depending on the issue.

- Our arrival in Dallas was auspiciously early. However, we got burnt by the age old "no jet ways to fit the particular plane you happen to be sitting in" tomfoolery and ended up sitting on the tarmac for a good 35 minutes waiting to be given a berth.

Now on board our flight to LA, I have little to do but wait to see what happens next.

June 25

Sitting safely in a hotel room 200 miles away from the madness, I've got a chance to have a bit of a blog. Utah is a good place for reflection. Lots of big red rocks and quiet highways. No bibles in the hotel drawers, either. Only the Book of Mormon.

Here's the thing about Las Vegas. The attraction that it has the most in common with is Disneyland. A Disneyland that’s spent a few years inside, become disillusioned and bitter and pledged the rest if its days to the selfish pursuit of hedonism. A Disneyland for sinners.

Vegas is a town on a grand scale; who can build the fastest, the highest, the brightest, the gaudiest monstrosity on the Strip. We stayed in The Stratosphere, notable for its Space Needle-style tower visible in the cut-away shots of CSI: Las Vegas.

Having arrived fairly late in the day and being slightly overwhelmed by the 102 degree heat haze hanging around outside, The Rock Star and I did what any self respecting Vegas tourists on their first evening in town would do: lost some cash, had some drinks, went up a huge tower and got on a roller coaster.

Due to an absurd number of places to be during our Western excursion, we had only one full day in the city that has more Hummers per square inch than The Governator's garage to get into trouble which we tried to use to the full. In true Vegas style, we began the day with a gut-busting breakfast buffet at The Tropicana. I think it was definitely the first time I've ever included both fried shrimp AND Jell-o in my first meal of the day.

Following breakfast, we all waddled down to the exhibition hall to take in the Titanic exhibit. While I found it very interesting, I've always been a little mystified as to the level of public interest in Titanic, especially so many years later. I'm not sure if it's our morbid interest in tragedy or the fact that Titanic represents the ultimate in hubris; man's challenge to the elements and the element's utter triumph. At any rate, the exhibition of artefacts was tastefully done. I hope, however, that there is no further salvage work done on the wreck to pad out these sorts of displays. It smacks somewhat of grave robbing.

As far as the rest of Vegas, I had a hard time deciding if I was appalled or in love. From the second you enter a hotel whether it's the Bellagio or The Sahara, you are subjected to sensory overload in a major key. (An interesting bit of casino psychology that Papapotamus noticed; although you are surrounded by an unspeakable cacophony, none of it is actually discordant.) The gambling floors are vast, designed to bewilder and entice even someone who's just popped in to use the bathroom to put JUST ONE quarter in the slots. The Rock Star and I were not immune; we made a point to try to lose money in every possible venue.

After a long and mind-meltingly hot day on the Strip, the 'rents, The Rock Star and I took in a Blue Man Group show at the Luxor. For anyone not acquainted with them, their show is a mix of surreal comedy, percussion, (who knew you could play Freebird on PVC piping?) and an awful lot of toilet paper. Tremendously enjoyable and highly recommended to anyone whose experience of the group is limited to their rather unusual Intel commercials.

Mama and Papapotamus were pretty beat and after taking in the famous fountain show at The Bellagio, returned to the Stratosphere to lose a few more quarters in the slots before retiring. (Actually, Papapotamus's biggest win came from a payout on an escalator where he found 50 bucks.)

The Rock Star and I remained out and discovered how much it costs to buy two drinks in a fancypants casino on a Friday night, (24 dollars!) that roulette is easier to win at than blackjack (The Rock Star came out 5 dollars ahead at roulette and was made to grab his ankles at the blackjack table) and most conclusively, that the house always wins.

We departed in the morning around noon, but not before giving our luck one more try: The Rock Star made $100 at the tables and my dad and I roughly $20 each at the slots.

Heading east, we had a relatively short 4 hour drive to Kanab, Utah, our stopping off point on the way to The Grand Canyon. Distance is relative in the US; in the Southwest in particular. In the UK, a 4 hour drive is an interminable slog up the M1, complete with groaning and heavy sighs. In the Southwest, 4 hours is as far as some people drive to get their groceries.

The Basin and Range country has a terrifyingly empty beauty. One can only imagine the despair the first pioneers felt when their covered wagons crested the ridge and looked down on the barren, rocky plains, littered with towering buttes and mesas. It's a wonder that anyone ever made it to the south coast. But from the comfort of our air conditioned Chevy Malibu, the landscape was pure eye candy.

Papapotamus decided on a route that would take us through the heart of Zion National Park in the heart of red rock country. Zion, like all of the dramatic scenery of this area, owes its existence to the pre-historic oceans that carved out its magnificent red spires. I'll let the picture speak for itself.

So that brings us here to our Holiday Inn Express in Kanab, Utah where the frozen lemonade at the drive-in is "cool", the employee of the month at the McDonalds is Ronny and the crickets sing ceaselessly all through the night.

June 26

Theodore Roosevelt, who was largely responsible for the creation of The National Park system (Mainly because he wanted to preserve plenty of land on which he'd be free to shoot things) called The Grand Canyon "...something every American must see."

I'm not sure when I developed vertigo. Last year, when my parents visited the UK and we went to tour St. Paul's, I discovered I could go no further on the dome climb than The Whispering Gallery. It's a feeling that starts in my legs and spreads to upward to my butt and downward through the soles of my feet and physically prevents me from moving. The feeling isn't so strong when man-made objects aren't involved, (I had an attack of the screaming abber-jabbers on the top of The Eiffel Tower WHICH MOVES, by the way.) but as we made our way out along a narrow trail to Bright Angel Point, I thought of Theodore Roosevelt and made up my mind that the Grand Canyon was "...something that every American must see...from a safe distance."

Vertigo aside, the Canyon is certainly one of the wonders of the natural world. Although, like many of the most beautiful places on earth, it is slightly marred by people. Being one of the top 5 most visited National Parks in the country, it is FULL of people, many of whom have made the mistake of bringing their children in the hope that they will be so over-awed by the majesty of the experience, that they might stop pouring Mountain Dew on each other long enough to appreciate it. In this they are mistaken. To children, it is a large hole in the ground and an opportunity to explore many different ways to in which to a) frustrate their parents and b) plummet to their deaths.

One child called Bryce seemed mightily adept at both. We learned his name due to the number of times we heard it echoing through the canyon.




All of us, at separate occasions throughout the day contemplated giving Bryce a little help in his quest to get to the Canyon floor as quickly as possible.

To recover from our afternoon we headed back to our way-station for the night, several miles outside the park in the Kaibab State Forest. The Kaibab Lodge was not so much a lodge as a collection of tiny, comfortable cabins in the middle of a picturesque meadow surrounded by tall, Ponderosa pines.

After a nap, mom suggested that we return to the Canyon for a twilight hike back out to Bright Angel Point to watch what would certainly be a most spectacular star-rise.

One thing that I learned about vertigo; you don't necessarily have to be able to SEE an almighty drop to know that it's there. Cringing like the enormous coward that I am, I hung on to the solid rock outcroppings for dear life as we made our way along the trail, which, by day, had been cause for a mild case of wobbly legs, but by night was a long march to certain doom. As luck would have it, I didn't end up as Canyon pizza and we settled on a rock to await our celestial lightshow.

In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Zaphod Beeblebrox is taken to Frogstar to be fed into the Total Perspective Vortex; a box into which a human being is bundled into only to find the entire rest of the universe in the box with them, rendering them totally insane. This is rather like the experience of sitting on the edge of The Grand Canyon at dusk and watching the whole of the night sky unfold before you in a way you've never witnessed before. Utterly humbling.

Although the Rock Star and I know how to lower the tone of any spiritually enriching experience:

Me: I spy with my little eye something beginning with "D".

The Rock Star: Dark?

Me: In one.

On our walk back up the trail, we encountered a group of hikers being led by a park ranger WITHOUT the benefit of flashlights. We flattened ourselves against the rocks to let them pass, but in the process, rendered ourselves completely invisible to the hapless wanders prompting several cries of, "AAA! There's a GUY over here!"

And so I close to prepare myself for a long day on the road. Our eta at Mt. Witney tomorrow is about 10 hours from when we depart. Oh, the huge manatees.

June 27

I write today from the heart of UFO country, not far from Area 51. This is a real get abducted off the highway, get an anal probe and get dumped naked in a field in Nebraska territory.

It's bleak out here and we've been driving since 7 am. The Rock Star is taking a turn at the wheel and is looking like he's thinking of different ways to kill himself.

4 pm

At the bottom of Death Valley. Anyone for a weenie roast? Just jam them on a stick and crank open the window, ladies and gentleman, it's 114 outside.

7 pm

Settled into the Gunga Din suite here at the Best Western in Lone Pine, California. Most likely, every cowboy film you've ever seen was filmed here. With the spectacular Sierra Mountains and their foothills as a backdrop, there was never a better bit of country for American folk heroes.

Not only that, but it seems like it would be a nice place to be from. A place where people sit out on the porch at night and invite the neighbours over for pie and coffee. Where the local pizza joint has a sandwich named after the local sheriff. (The "Officer Pino" special; ham, peppers, onions, olives and Jack cheese on a white sub roll. Seriously.) A place where you have to make your own fun. I love small town America.

June 28

I know that everyone out there has a "happy place" that they transport themselves to while looking out the window at work, staring at your computer or listening to your buddy Mike recounting for the 50th time the story of how he almost scored with that hot girl from the office but threw up on her at the last minute. Without a doubt, my happy place is Yosemite National Park.

We entered the park via the Tioga Pass, which, up until about 3 months ago, was impassable due to snowfall. A very hairy trip up a steep mountain pass ensued, replete with plenty of sheer drop offs and rather magnificent vistas including waterfalls and snowfields. During a quick rest stop, The Rock Star and Papapotamus ganged up on me in a snow battle which resulted in me spending several minutes digging bits of slushball out of the pockets of my shorts and sweatshirt. Traitorous swine.

We meant to spend a good deal of the day on the Valley floor, but due to the spectacular scenery on the way down and my father's addiction to boulder fields, (he taught Earth science for the best part of 30 years and has a serious thing for rocks) we spent most of it sitting on the edge of precipices and going "wow."

Yosemite, like the Grand Canyon, is one of the most popular National Parks in the country, so when we finally arrived on the Valley floor, we found half the population of Northern California there as well. The Yosemite Valley, however, is designed as an organised, small village and lacked the chaos of the Canyon. Not only that, but the tall pine trees give more of a sense of solitude by separating you, at least visually, from your fellow men, women, children and large pets.

What could generously be described as our hotel was about 35 miles outside of the park in a town called Mariposa. (Spanish for "butterfly") We've gone fairly budget on this trip in the accommodation stakes and don't get me wrong, that's fine with me. As long as there are no bugs, bad smells, soiled linen or obvious blood stains on the walls, I'm cool. Norman Bates could be working the desk, but as long as there are clean pillowcases, I'm all over the place. Here are the things that kept this particular way station from meeting my rather low standards.

-Overflowing trash bins a-la frat house; pizza boxes and beer cans.

-An elevator whose floor notification noise sounded like an ailing Speak-n-Spell experiencing a climactic moment with a pocket calculator.

-Curtains that had obviously been put through the dryer on too high a setting so that the backing had melted, letting random blotches of light into the room.

-A drywall job done by trained chimpanzees.

-A maid that stole our old towels and neglected to replace them forcing The Rock Star and I to dry ourselves with hand towels.

Although we are missing the used needles and dead hooker under the bed (anyone who hasn't seen Four Rooms should be ashamed and should stop whatever they're doing to go out and do so.) we're still regretting having to spend two nights in this little way-station.

June 29

Our second day in Yosemite begins with my Quote of the Week.

One of the best features of the National Parks is the Wildlife. In previous visits, I've managed to get up close and personal with antelope, moose, ground squirrels and Stellar jays, but the gold medal wildlife spotting trophy goes only to those who have seen the Hairy Grail...a bear. Which is exactly what we encountered soon after we entered the park.

There is always much excitement and stupidity surrounding a bear sighting. (Why the first thing that many people think to do upon seeing a wild bear seems to be getting out of their car and creeping closer is beyond me.) We pulled into the lay-by with our fellow bear spotters and were enjoying the sight of a small brown bear foraging peacefully in the meadow when we overheard this exchange between two 9 year old children sitting in the bed of the truck parked next to us.

Child 1:
Wow! Cool! A bear!

Child 2: Aw, he's so cute! I wanna ride him.

Child 1: You wanna ride the bear? You're gay.

I'm pretty sure that I saw even my mother, who spends a couple of hours a year reprimanding her students for name-calling, crack a smile.

After the bear got tired of being paparazzied and wandered back into the woods, we began a 30 mile drive to the opposite end of the park to take in the Big Trees.

At the end of a long, twisting, climbing, nausea inducing road, we came to the Mariposa Sequoia Grove. These guys are the granddaddies of living things; the oldest among them having been a mere twig over 2000 years ago. It's good for the soul to see them and had they not proved to provide such inferior lumber in the days when logging began in the west, perhaps we would not be so lucky, but they still stand, majestic and silent. (Note to any present deity who may allow re-incarnation- you've got my vote in.)

On the way back from the Trees, we stopped out on Glacier Point for the most breathtaking view of the whole Valley including Half Dome. Although we have evidence of glaciers at home, (The Chilterns were made from the debris left over after the glacier that flattened the Aylesbury Vale melted) there's nothing quite as spectacular as the broad U carved of the granite in Yosemite.

I hate to keep harping on about people spoiling the surroundings, but I can't help wishing that I had asked the raucously loud Jewish family from New York to kindly shut their pie holes. Glacier Point is a place people go to reflect on the magnificence of creation and not to hear how Morty's prostate is fairing.

Our last stop of the day was a short trail through the woods in the Valley to the base of Bridal Veil Falls. Due to a tremendously wet winter, the falls were even more magnificent that usual and we stood at the base enjoying the spray for a good long time.

Tomorrow we say farewell to my happy place and truck on to San Francisco, land of fog and rainbow flags.

June 30

I would like to add to my description of San Francisco as "the land of fog and rainbow flags." I would like to add that this city is also completely chocked with lunatics.

However, before I move on to toon town, we stopped off along the way to visit Muir Woods, a grove of Coastal Redwoods nearby. Redwoods don't quite have the incredible girth of Sequoias, but they grow taller and with more grace. The Rock Star found it impossible to resist the temptation to make Ewok noises and voice disappointment that there were no speeders available for photo ops.

After spending a few hours communing with giants, we headed into San Francisco via the famous Golden Gate Bridge and into the Heart of Darkness that is downtown.

Our hotel, from outward appearances, looked like a place you might suspect of charging by the hour, but once we got the useless key-cards to admit us to our rooms, we discovered rooms far superior to the rat holes we'd left in Mariposa. However, what waited for us just yards outside its walls was much different.

San Francisco has a massive homeless population, partly due to its mild climate and partly due to the liberal attitude and extensive services offered by the city itself. A good many of these rough sleepers are products of the clear out of state mental facilities in the 70's, so you are left with the impression of a city populated by the living dead, muttering to themselves and
lurching alarmingly around the sidewalks, in search of human brains. It's depressing that the mental health system is in such as state of disrepair that those whose lives could be transformed by the right treatment are forced instead to live on the streets in an impenetrable mind fog.

My parents, my husband and I clung to each other in a box formation to cover all avenues of attack as we ventured out to find dinner and played "Spot the Sane" which proved considerably more difficult than "Spot the Psycho".

We settled on Mel's Diner; a charming 50's throwback place complete with acres of stainless steel and mightily good tuna melt on rye. The Rock Star has turned out to be pretty good little photo journalist and took these rather moody monochrome shots of the place.

Having survived the loony gauntlet, The Rock Star and I have retired and are availing ourselves of American television which seems to be broadcasting The Simpsons on one channel or another at just about any hour. I don't care what the international community says. If this country isn't civilized, I don't know what is.

July 1

Today we visited the parts of San Francisco that make people want to visit San Francisco. After a short hike through the sections of town I described yesterday (only slightly less frightening in the light of day) we arrived at Market Street to catch the trolley car down to Fisherman's Wharf.

I'm sure native San Franciscans do not look on the trolley cars with the same degree of fondness as visitors to the city. Especially those who have the misfortune of living along its track. The Rock Star and I, as we were riding along, speculated that certainly the cable cars didn't run through the night due to the cacophonous rattling, squealing and piercing bells. However, we discovered that they only stopped running after midnight. I suppose it's no different that living next to any source of noise; it soon becomes white noise. After living next to 3 train tracks and under the flight path of a major international airport, I can understand being able to drown out just about anything.

Fisherman's Wharf is far cry from the squalor of downtown. It has the feel of the boardwalk and the smell of the sea mixed with sourdough bread. Over the rooftops of the tacky t-shirt shops, we could see the mast of a tall ship that we made for to get a closer look.

It turned out that there were 3 ships in the port, and better yet, all three were free for exploration. The tall ship, The Balclutha, a tug called Hercules and Excalibur, a steam ferry. We headed at once to the tall ship, all secretly wanting to have a Russell Crowe Master and Commander moment off of the side. No one can tell me that they didn't want to be a sailor after seeing that film. Even watching Paul Bettany dig a bullet out of his own gut probably didn't do much to dampen your enthusiasm.

Before too long, the smell of sourdough bread got to be too much and we wandered off in search of its source. We were rewarded in our quest by the appearance of a Boudin's café. Boudin is only the maker of the best sourdough on the planet and we were pleased to sample it. I'm a carb junky anyhow and I could eat bread all day long, but this stuff is pure ambrosia. If we didn't have 3 more days on the road and another two recuperating in Maryland, I'd leave all my clothes behind and fill my suitcases with it, because, tragically, while they DO deliver to US locations, they won't ship overseas. Trust me, I've checked.

As if the bread weren't bad enough, Ghirardelli Square was only a few feet away. Ghirardelli is perhaps the only US chocolate manufacturer who's product doesn't taste like watered down, sugary bum. Yes, we bought chocolate. Yes, we bought ice cream. And yes, The Rock Star and I have vowed to live on celery when we return to the UK.

After the obligatory visit to the serpentine Lombard Street, we returned to the hotel and grabbed some food along the way to avoid having to venture forth later armed with hammers and stakes. We will undoubtedly retire shortly. Just after The Simpsons.

July 2

Scenic drives are always pleasant as opposed to non-scenic drives. However, after 2 hours on Route 1, the coastal highway, all of us were remembering the long, flat roads of the Mojave Desert with fondness.

It was chock full, however, of redeeming features including lots of lovely beaches and flowers, but the biggest treat of the day was running across a wild colony of elephant seals, basking in the sand. The stupidity factor as far as onlookers went was far less than it seemed to be in the National Parks; at least no one tried to approach the seals due to their size and disagreeable noises. (I also have a theory that no one particularly wanted to pet them because no one has ever been read a story in childhood about a cuddly elephant seal who goes on a picnic in the woods with all of his friends) As for the noises, The Rock Star compared them to an evening out with The Mis-spelled Band.

We arrived in our half way to Los Angeles stopping point; a town called Atascadero, which means, incidentally, “a place you get stuck”. The distinguishing feature for us was a wickedly good Chinese restaurant with a buffet that was so big, it should have been illegal. Again, the resolution about the celery sticks.

July 3

The Rock Star was excited about our destination for today from the moment I told him about it back in January, but it could not match his excitement when the place itself hoved into view. Early this afternoon, we finally arrived at The Queen Mary.

Moot and PPD met aboard the ship in 1967 where she served as a nurse and he as an electrical engineer. From all of the stories they've told, it's a wonder that they remember their time at sea at all, but The Rock Star has grown up listening to these tales of the grand old ship and was hugely excited to see her at her permanent mooring in Long Beach, where she's now a hotel and tourist attraction. As a special treat, Mama and Papapotamus arranged for us to stay the night aboard, which has thrilled The Rock Star to no end. In fact, it's nearly midnight and he's still out exploring; no doubt wandering through any open doorway he can find. At least the LAST thing he need fear is ghosts.

As a way of making some extra cash, the QM offers a "special effects" ghost tour which turned out to be slightly less terrifying than a man in a white sheet with slightly crooked eye holes jumping out from behind a post and shouting "boo". Any self respecting ghost that MIGHT have once inhabited this great ocean liner has long since buggered off in a huff after workman barged in to install stage foggers, smart lights, projectors and a sound system that can probably be heard as far east as Utah. Add in one hugely unenthusiastic guide and you have the makings of a tour whose lameness borders on legendary. Even the small children in the party seemed wholly unmoved.

The day was redeemed however by a sumptuous dinner and self-guided tour which The Rock Star is still indulging in. If he does meet any spirits, perhaps he can make an apology to them on behalf of the living for making an undignified spectacle of their non-living state. As for me, I'm sleeping easy.

July 4

As we rose this morning, it seemed The Mary wasn't quite done with us. Although the hospital Moot served in no longer exists, PPD's engine room is still open to the public and The Rock Star practically danced with excitement when we finally managed to find it. I suppose it's always strange when an abstract, yet ever-present concept in your life suddenly becomes real. I imagine that's how my husband felt looking at the very wheels, knobs and levers that his father manipulated before the idea of him even entered into being. I'm glad he got to see it.

After bidding adieu to the great Queen, we realized, with a mixture of sadness and relief that our vacation was at an end. We had no other plans save for a stay at an airport hotel prior to our departure tomorrow, so we decided that, since we were a mere 25 miles from Hollywood, it would be a shame to have been in the neighbourhood and not dropped in to say hello.

Advice to anyone making a special trip to California just to see the city of motion pictures: don't. While all four of us were pleased to have seen The famous Chinese Theatre complete with it's famous hand and footprints as well as the rather more modern famous Kodak Theatre where the Oscars are held, the rest of the city is distinctly an unfamous dump covered in movie posters. The best that can be said for the place is that The Rock Star met a guy dressed like Jimi Hendrix in the toilet.

The hotel we booked into near the airport had a severe lack of comestibles in the vicinity so our Fourth of July feast came straight from the shelves of the local 7-11 where The Rock Star discovered the joys of both Twinkies and huge cans of Fosters. Mmm, balanced meal.

We did, however, get to see some patriotic fireworks. The fact that we were in a heavily built-up area did not stop people from launching what looked like heavy artillery shells from their backyards. Buying large fireworks for private use is illegal in most states, but California seems to be okay with industrial strength explosive devices in the hands of the public.

And now to sleep. If I can.

July 5

This is where our tale ends; sitting in the John Wayne/Orange County airport enjoying some frozen yogurt and waiting for a seriously overdue plane. I’m so pleased that The Rock Star has gotten to see some of the awesome sights that I remember from my childhood and that all four of us got to see some new ones together. Although I now feel like I need a holiday to recover from this one, it is a happy exhaustion.

I shall petition the Travel Gods for a safe return.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Back on the Radar

Just a quick post to say we're back from California and will be travelling back to the UK tomorrow. Hope everyone there is okay and all Londoners are safe at work or at home.

Travelogue to follow.