Monday, 31 January 2011

Trophy husband

The success of the local SF Giants in the so-called World Series of baseball has been well documented on this blog, and today that success came home to roost when the trophy they won rolled into Walnut Creek as part of a regional tour.

Insanely long queues seem to be de rigueur in northern California at the moment, and it was no different when I wandered into town at 10.30am, two hours before the doors opened.  Apparently some people had been there since 8am!  I could understand if it was a significant trophy.

I did sneak back later and, with the crowds disbursed, managed to take a snap or two, but my decision not to hang around for an official photo paid off when they shut the doors at 2.30pm on the dot with about 15 people left waiting to go in.  Really?  I'd expect that in England, but here in California?!

Haven't these people got anything better to do?  I don't, but honestly...

Baseball and credit card companies, a heady mix.

Ooooo, shiny.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Opportunity doesn't knock

Fame and fortune beckoned this week in the form of a casting call:

Kate Winslet and Jude Law? They're British too! Surely this connection alone was enough to get me a role as unnamed-man-in-crowd #376. With stars in my eyes I printed out a picture of myself at Target (32 cents) and headed into the bright lights of the big city.

I'd heard that, aside from war and cricket, movie making involves the most standing around doing nothing of any human activity. It would seem that applying to be an extra involves the same.

By my count, around 3000 people had turned up to apply for the 2000 non-starring roles available. The line to the door of the YMCA snaked around a complete block (up to the entrance of Chaya, by coincidence) until the queue ended about 20 yards from where it started. It's a block-buster before it's even made. A company lackey was desperately stringing "caution" tape between lamposts to stop fame-hungry people falling into the road.

I sighed, and decided that if this was the price of global stardom then it was too high. I suppose the fact that every other TV program has "reality" as genre should have alerted me that I wouldn't be the only person seeking my 15 minutes. Time to go back to more traditional ways of gaining fame and fortune, such as hard work, or playing the lottery.

I thought this was the start of the line...

...and then I thought this was...

...but it was somewhere in the middle of this.

Finally, a place it's worth queuing.

The earth moved

Earthquake in the Creek!  Not too dramatic, but it did wake me up at 3.30am which meant I could check on the Andy Murray match and the England cricket.  Both bad news...

Earthquake Details
  • This event has been reviewed by a seismologist.
Location37.849°N, 122.030°W
Depth7.8 km (4.8 miles)
  • 1 km (1 miles) SSE (166°) from Alamo, CA
  • 6 km (4 miles) NW (311°) from Danville, CA
  • 7 km (4 miles) SSE (167°) from Walnut Creek, CA
  • 13 km (8 miles) S (186°) from Concord, CA
  • 18 km (12 miles) ENE (71°) from Oakland, CA
Location Uncertaintyhorizontal +/- 0.1 km (0.1 miles); depth +/- 0.3 km (0.2 miles)
ParametersNph= 76, Dmin=5 km, Rmss=0.12 sec, Gp= 40°,
M-type=local magnitude (ML), Version=3
Event IDnc71522231

Friday, 28 January 2011

About Town

San Francisco is holding its 2011 season of Dine About Town.  This is when, for a few weeks, usually ridiculously priced restaurants offer prix fixe menus so that cheap people like Hannah and me can eat far above our station.  It was one of Hannah's nice Fridays that Chevron lets her take off, so we decided to try out Chaya near the Ferry Building.  They have restaurants in Beverley Hills and Venice too, don't you know.

When eating out, I always like to try something that you'd never make at home (which is why an animal-style cheeseburger with fries and a Neapolitan shake is my meal of choice).  This time I enjoyed Wild Arugula & Fennel Salad, Parmigiano-Regggiano, Meyer Lemon Olive Oil while Hannah had the Soup de Jour (all food tastes better if it's named in French), then she followed up with Pan-Roasted Local Petrel Sole, Rutabaga Purée, Brussels sprouts, Pancetta, White Balsamic & Caper Brown Butter while I had the Chef’s Choice Sushi Rolls Medley.  And in my professional restaurant critic style, I can tell you that it was all extremely tasty.

Of course, the danger of going for a cheap meal is all the little extra treats you decide you can afford because you're paying so little for your main course!  After we threw in the Basil-Cucumber Gimlet and Joie de Vivre cocktails before food arrived and finished up with a Creme Brulee Trio, the bill was looking considerably larger than the portion sizes.  Back to In 'n' Out next time.

Something while you peruse the menu?

Hannah celebrates a Friday off work the way she celebrates everything.

Creme Brulee, always dangerous.

The real sign of a great meal.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Farewell Antipodeans

Richard Hadlee, Jonah Lomu, Edmund Hillary, Kiri Te Kanawa...all great New Zealanders, but all pale in comparison to Dan and Fiona.  Unfortunately Fi was on the MBA program with a grant from the Kiwi government that specifically stated she had to return home for the good of New Zealand.  Come on, she's the best ambassador NZ could have over here!  They didn't even have to fund her (vast) entertainment allowance!

We've had a huge number of adventures with our fellow Commonwealth subjects, including freezing nights in Yosemite, teaching the Yanks the real sports of rugby and cricket, and several events that seem a little hazy in my recollection.  Anyway, I have been assured that they will be back around August, hopefully on something more than a tourist visa.  Right now there's an Air New Zealand flight somewhere mid-Pacific that's running out of alcohol...

Dan and fellow Kiwi Sean enjoy a final taste of American "beer".

Cheer up Fi, you'll be back soon!

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

State of the Union

When living in a foreign country, especially one as foreign as this, one should always try to partake in as many local customs as possible.  So tonight I decided to sit down and watch the annual State of the Union address by President Obama.  This is a bit like the Queen's Christmas Message, but not as important.

It's quite a glitzy affair nonetheless.  Mr President comes into the hall on Capitol Hill and all the senators and representatives stand up and clap for a long time while he makes his way down to the podium, shaking hands and even kissing his fellow politicians.  It's all a little different from Prime Minister's question time.  People don't even shout things out while he's speaking!  And they call this a democracy.

Instead, as Obama spoke, there were plenty of standing ovations, even though half of the people in the room allegedly hate him.  He did talk a lot about how great the United States is, but then that is his job.  The American Dream is apparently very much alive in the mind of the 44th President, and there were plenty of echoes of JFK sprinkled in the talk of innovation, transparency, reform, etc. etc.  There was some unfortunate stuff about cutting subsidies to oil companies, but I'm sure that will be ironed out once the lobbyists get to work.

But, you know, this guy is a damn fine speaker, and having tuned in with my usual knowing cynicism I couldn't help but be impressed.  I found myself desperately hoping that he could make some of this crazy stuff work - like sensible spending, competence and co-operation from both political parties - especially the cool bits about super-fast wi-fi for everyone.

Let's see what any of it looks like after it's been squeezed out the other end of the legislative mincer, but if I can live in America while things similar to the New Deal and the Space Race take place to get them out of the mess they're currently in, it could get exciting around here.

I would have listened until the end, but the 4th England/Australia One Day International started before it finished...

Monday, 24 January 2011

Summer comes home

It's been a hard winter in northern California.  It started getting cloudy just before Christmas, and has lasted on-and-off all the way until now.  Thankfully the meteorological powers have determined to set things straight and we've enjoyed a great weekend of sunny frolics that included a trip down to Monterey to celebrate Amanda's 29th birthday (wasn't she 29 last year?)  To get there we hired a car, and Hannah immediately fell for the cherry red VW Beetle sitting on the forecourt.  It cost an extra $2 a day!  But Hannah's smug grin as we drove down the Californian coast in the sun (burning Chevron petrol, of course) made it a price worth paying.  Maybe.

It's a baby!

An afternoon stroll around Carmel Valley.

When did she grow up?

Montara Beach on Sunday.

This type of lifestyle can be very draining.

Pounding surf.

Hannah and her dream car...until we give it back.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Squirrel Appreciation

Another day, another great American holiday. Admittedly I don't think anyone's getting today off, but if you were not aware it is Squirrel Appreciation Day!

The American grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) does get a bad press in the UK, where it has turned up and scared away most of our native, far cuter red squirrel population, but here in the US these rats-with-fluffy-tails are still held in high regard.  As previously reported on this blog, Berkeley's campus squirrels are ranked #1 in the country.  There has also been a resurgence of squirrel eating in these tough economic times.

On a personal note, I enjoy watching the little critters as they hop, skip, and jump around outside my window, foraging for nuts and getting up to their squirrelly activities.  It's inspiring.  And, as luck would have it, such a beasty was perched in the tree this morning.

I'd like to think the appreciation is mutual.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

High energy

California has a bad history with energy.  A company you may know called Enron manufactured a power crisis here a few years ago, sending electricity costs soaring by switching off their own power stations and then claiming that demand outstripped supply.  It's what the free market was invented for!  This was before they started swapping the 'profit' and 'loss' columns in their financial reports, but at least they eventually got into trouble (and someone made an excellent film about it).

Now Pacific Gas & Electric is the big kid in town, and light bulbs have remained on.  Unfortunately, they too had a year to forget, with a fatal gas explosion, a failed attempt to buy the legislature, and missed renewable energy targets.  So, as I walked up our street to find a large crew of PG&E men digging up the road, I sighed at the prospect of weeks of disruption and chaos.  I grumpily crossed over because they had closed the sidewalk.

Imagine, then, my surprise at getting to the end of the roadworks to be greeted by a man dressed up as a PG&E hat!  What stroke of public relations genius was this?  Standing amongst the surly, orange-clad workers was (I have to say it again) a man dressed as a hard hat.

As is always the case when such things happen, I was lacking my camera.  To be honest, I am also not intrepid enough to walk up to a bunch of workmen and ask if I can have my photo taken with one of their number who is probably sweating uncomfortably under this heavy latex contraption.  PG&E Hard Hat Man is also tough to track down online, but I have found this rare shot:

Yes, officer, that's definitely the man I saw.

And a far more appropriate, toy-sized version:

Well...perhaps I'm breaking an exclusive on a new PR strategy from the energy company.  Perhaps their marketing gurus figured that having a mascot to distract you when driving through road works would lessen any annoyance you feel.  I mean, who's going to get angry and shout abuse at a huge squidgy hard hat?  Perhaps I have glimpsed into the murky world of energy labourer initiation ceremonies, or witnessed a punishment.  Why, frankly, didn't BP have a person in fluffy fancy dress at all their Gulf Coast disaster press conferences?

If I pluck up the courage to return and snap a photo I may have to ask these questions directly.  In the meantime, it's good to know that we have an energy company utilising every available resource at their disposal...

Monday, 17 January 2011

Brewing up baby

Dan and Fiona made a trip down to Monterey today and were kind enough to offer me a ride.  It was MLK Day, and although Chevron expected Hannah to work Vince, Christine, and Jack were all excused from their military education duties.  By coincidence, the Cannery Row Brewing Company was a convenient central location for us all to meet.

Given his heritage, what could you expect?

Still the cutest Mucker (Claire, I mean).

Not yet convinced.

Looking good, like that Athena poster.

Small and sweet.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Labor Day

The Mucker family extends by one!  Claire now has a younger brother, and I'm told that tentative introductions have been made but the jury is still out on how Mucker #1 feels about it all.  Having a younger sibling myself, I know the joy that such a relationship can bring.

Anyway, James John Mucker has the cool birthday of 11/1/11 (or 1/11/11 if you're American), was born at 9.03pm and weighed 7lbs 8oz.  Well done Christine and Vince (mostly Christine).

JJ.  So tiny!

Mother and baby doing well.

Tired, but slightly less shocked than the first time.

Someone doesn't look convinced...

New manny already hired!?

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

More pain, no gain

"If you're looking for rock hard, welcome to the quarry," read the poster. I wasn't, but here I stood on the weight training side of the gym with diminuitively terrifying Kim, ready for induction part two.

Having confidently stated that I knew what I was doing when it came to cardio machines - run, cycle, row... how hard can it be? - she suggested that designing a weight-training regime would be in my best interests.

At induction #1 I'd had to pick a target date, and went for my birthday as suitably far away (and I didn't specify which year). "I can whip my top off at my party," I told her with a nervous, uncomfortable chuckle. "You can, and you'll look good!" Kim responded, showing how incorrect two people can be within one conversation.

She went on to tell me I could "afford to gain some muscle" on my arms and chest, so I was now sitting on some kind of torture machine while Kim punished me, repeatedly, for unknown crimes.

I had to grab these handles and pull them back, keeping my elbows down, until I felt it in my shoulders. Did 30lbs sound about right, she asked.

Was this a trick question? Was she quietly judging my inadequacies? What's the etiquette? Would I sound more masculine asking for a heavier weight, only to be humiliated when I couldn't lift it and have to ask for it to be lightened?

And so it went while I was introduced to contraption after contraption, each designed to hurt me in a different way. "Can you feel it?" was Kim's constant question. Yes, yes I can.

Even the sanctuary of the spa, where my captor released me after 45 minutes, was shattered by having hundreds of people in it. Still, I asserted my personal space by floating naked on my back in a star shape in the hot tub, and people quickly left me alone.

"Using this spa under the influence of drugs or alcohol can have serious consequences," I read on the sign as I drifted. Serious party consequences, maybe, but I'm learning quickly it's not that kind of club.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

How to feel older in one easy step

Hannah and I have joined a gym.  This isn't a short-lived-New-Year's-resolution-type-thing, because we actually joined two days before New Year.  It may be more of a recognise-you're-getting-old-thing, as all the food and drink I consumed over Christmas has betrayed me by turning itself into fat.

We didn't just join a gym.  In a pleasingly ex-pat style we joined a club.  Walnut Creek Health & Fitness Club, a short walk from the house, complete with its own pool, sauna, steam room, Jacuzzi, $0 joining fee and first month free with no commitments.

Despite the swanky surroundings, this place isn't messing about.  "Pain is temporary, quitting lasts forever," says the banner that hangs behind reception.  "Check CAN'T at the door," reads one in the gym.  "Blood, sweat, and tears.  If only it were that easy," proclaims another.  Hmmm.

Part of the joining deal is an hour's fitness appraisal with one of the trainers, so yesterday I popped down and said hello to Kim.  She was very short, which was useful as she assessed me to be six foot tall when looking up at the height chart.  I then had to step up and down onto a platform for three minutes, have my pulse and blood pressure checked, and answer a long list of questions about my exercise, my aims (physical and mental!) and my family history.  "My Dad's 77, and he still ice skates three times a week," I told her.  "So one of your aims could be to get as fit as your father," Kim suggested.  It's still hard to tell when Americans are mocking me.

The culmination of all this was a nifty computer program that calculates your "health age" and sets out your targets, then e-mails nagging reminders to you.  Hannah's result had put her a year younger than her actual age, so I was desperate to top that.  The moment of truth arrived and my body is apparently...37.  Thirty seven!  That's three years older than I actually am!  I'd already told Kim about Hannah's result.  "Remember that this is your personal assessment, and you don't have to show it to your wife," she advised.  Was it really that bad?  The shock meant that I didn't hear much more of what she said, but left her office determined to shake off those extra years as quickly as possible.

My eye was caught by an interesting looking piece of equipment.  It was a recumbent bike, but more importantly had a huge video screen attached to it.  It turns out that it's part of the Expresso Cardio System, where you can see yourself riding around virtual tracks as you pedal in the real world, which is a little bit like a Nintendo Wii.  They also have one track that's around a space station.  How could I resist?

After ten minutes I began wondering if the lack of oxygen wasn't just on the computer screen, and if the liquid gushing down my face was the tears I'd read about on the poster.  But no, I seemed to be sweating from my hair.  I didn't know you could sweat from your hair!  Still, I pushed through the pain, and managed another five minutes before discovering that although quitting lasts forever it also has many immediate benefits.

I hobbled down to the steam room.  These are segregated, with a full spa set up in both the men's and women's changing rooms.  Perhaps I've been spoiled by our trip to the hot springs, but single-sex nudity just seems a bit, you know, weird.  Especially when there's an old man walking around wearing a white t-shirt and bottomless.  When is that ever acceptable?  Yet even his presence couldn't detract from the warming comfort that sitting in a hot whirlpool bath brings to limbs pushed to their limits by 15 minutes of exercise.  If this place offered a full bar service my lifetime membership would be guaranteed.

Where have the years gone?

Not sure what this is telling me, but that's not how I look.  I don't even own any blue shorts.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Works! Free!

With my Christmas money this year I bought myself a Nintendo Wii.  Several people have mocked me for not opting for an Xbox 360, with its greater power and new motion-detecting Kinect attachment.  And to them I say three words: Super Mario Galaxy.

Completely out of character, I'd chosen to buy everything the cheapest way possible - a selection of secondhand and dodgy online retailers.  One of the downsides to this approach (apart from things usually arriving in a less-than-working state) is that delivery dates vary wildly, and today I rode a roller coaster of emotions from the euphoria of the Wii arriving to the despair of not having the leads to connect it to my computer monitor.  Out of the box it will only work with a telly...

Walking home yesterday past some nearby apartments, what should I see sitting in the driveway but a 28" monster tv-and-video combo!  A folded piece of paper attached to the front read: "Works! Free!"  I looked for the angels who had left it there, but they had already flown away.

It might also be the heaviest thing I've ever carried.  Having to a take a break every 30 seconds did prolong my journey somewhat, but I remained focussed on my goal of being able to play computer games.  What, frankly, can be more important than that?

Back in our flat I nestled the behemoth into the corner and turned it on.  The piece of paper hadn't been lying, but after a while the screen began flickering and a strange crackling sound emanated from the back.  I decided to let it dry out before trying again (did I mention it was raining?)  A further challenge was getting the set tuned in to the Wii itself, a task only possible using the missing remote control.  After following several online how-tos about turning your laptop/phone into a remote I gave up and popped to Radioshack to find a cheap universal one.

And then it worked!  I was soon skydiving over Wii Sports Resort, a worryingly better-than-life island of white beaches and crystal clear seas.  I then headed into the cosmos with Mario.  Perfectly normal things for a 34-yr-old male to spend his afternoon doing.  Bizarrely Hannah didn't notice the mammoth black box in the corner when she came home, which means I get to keep it.

(The monitor leads, of course, arrived this morning.  Does anyone want to buy a telly?  Pick up only.)

You hardly notice it really.

Wuhu Island, where I'll be spending a lot of my free time.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Skypey New Year

We were enjoying the hospitality of the Singers last night as the clock struck Pacific Standard Time twelve, and were woken early this morning by 3-yr-old Sofia who performed a thirty-minute monologue (including singing and ballet) in front of our air mattress.

Earlier, at 4pm, once again through the magic of technology, we'd welcomed in the British New Year.  And when you own the Greenwich Meridian, it really is the only one that counts.  On one computer my sister played us the chimes of Big Ben, while on the other Hannah's parents let off fireworks in a very dark and very cold garden in Dorset (proving there are some things that are better when experienced in person.  Fireworks, that is.  Cold darkness can stay where it belongs).