Saturday, 29 December 2012

The other side of the mountain

Towering over Walnut Creek, and a little off to the side, is Mount Diablo.  It's unfairly categorised as a "geologic anomaly", is 3,557ft tall (and growing, due to fault lines each side pushing it up), and narrowly avoided being renamed Mount Reagan.  Most of the time it sits there quietly turning a very dry yellow-brown, but when the winter rains come it buffs up and becomes a deep emerald green, popping out wildflowers and waterfalls with abandon.

Most of the action takes place on the far side from us, which faces out over the Californian central valley and to the Sierra Nevadas.  We drove around there this morning, parking on one of the streets that just sort of stops when the mountainside gets too steep, and headed upwards.

We found lots of mud, and a surprising number of runners.  All the green grass was growing up underneath the long-dead brush and we may even have spotted some Christmassy mistletoe.  We found some mushrooms too, though not the kind usually associated with California.

We didn't make it to the actual waterfalls, defeated by mud, more mud, general laziness, and seven months of pregnancy.  It's always good to save something for next time!

Green bits.

Muddy bits.

Bruce Lee trail - strictly for ninjas.

Mini-daffodils make an pre-St. David's Day appearance.

Berries!  But all the bears that should be around to eat them are long gone :(

Why did the mushroom get invited to all the parties?  Because he was a fungi to be with!  The one on the left is ramaria abietina, and you shouldn't eat it.

Does this count as a waterfall?  If so, we saw one.

Heading back down.

Mistletoe, maybe.

Leave only footprints, take only memories...if you can scrape the incredibly adhesive mud off your boots before you get into the car.

Christmas sales


Wednesday, 26 December 2012

God bless us, every one

It was all about tradition this Christmas - imported traditions, English traditions, traditional traditions.  In our goal to educate and entertain we invited around all the best people we knew - three US citizens, two Israelis, a Romanian and a Russian - and subjected them to a proper British Christmas meal, as it has been celebrated, unbroken, for 2000 years since the birth of Christ.

Nobody complained too much, and we did veer from the script with some fine roast beef (turkey is for Thanksgiving!) and Brussels sprouts that were roasted with balsamic rather than boiled to within, and then well past, a tasteless inch of their soggy lives.  It was all delicious.

Paper hats were worn throughout, although I did seem to be the only person standing when they played the national anthem before the Queen's Christmas speech (brought to us via YouTube).  If only for one day, there was a little corner of Walnut Creek that was overindulgently England.

Hannah, peeling spuds before dressing.  Good girl.

Christmas is a time to remember those who are alone, like Shauli whose wife and son are in Israel.  We saved him from his weeks of eating out every night, going to movies whenever he wants, having massages...

Two cows were harmed in the making of this meal.

Food prepared, a little present opening.

Laid up and ready.


Nate's a medic, so far more competent than me to carve meat.

The full spread.

Flaming pud!

National pride.

Sunday, 23 December 2012


An ongoing "discussion" throughout Hannah and my marriage has been about Christmas trees.  It's not that I'm against them per se, or the unsustainable environmental damage cutting a tree down to put in your house causes, or the ridiculous prices people charge for something that is, essentially, already dead, or the wanton, ephemeral consumerism that - yet again - obscures the true meaning of Christmas (mince pies).

It's mainly about the mess.  The last time we had a tree it sat by the side of our house in Durham until June, blocking the drain with its needles (those that hadn't been left scattered around the house), a six-foot skeletal twig until we...actually I can't remember what we did with it.  Maybe it's still there; apologies to the people we sold the house to.

On moving to California I decided to set the example.  An artificial tree was the way to go, one bought from a charity shop, no less, and so I triumphantly returned home with one that was 50% off in Salvation Army.  It was 7.5ft tall, but on unboxing was missing the top 1.5ft.  Who does that?  Luckily I found a much better one the next year, although Hannah continued to complain about the lack of smell (pine air freshener?)

Now, after weeks of grinding me down in charming Chinese-water-torture fashion, Hannah has a real tree. "I'll sort it all out," she said, and while it would have been fun to watch a six-and-a-half-month pregnant woman schlep a tree around I thought I should help.  We travelled to three different tree places.  "I can't believe these are so expensive!  I thought this was a good idea and now I think it's stupid," Hannah fumed, two hours later, in something not dissimilar to a tantrum.

Anyway, a week later we finally have a tree, from 'Trees 4 Less' in an abandoned lot in Pleasant Hill, obviously a front for something far more sinister.  We tied it to the top of a borrowed car in a manner that made the tree seller ask: "You're not planning to go on the freeway, are you?"  Ha!  We got home in one piece and the whole flat now smells of pine air freshener.  But if I find one needle left in this place after the tree has gone (roadside recycling collection on 7th Jan) then we are NEVER having a real tree again.  And what embodies the Christmas spirit more than another meaningless family ultimatum?

A fine selection.  Which forest did you steal them from?

It's all about the smell, Hannah says.  The smell of a planet dying!

Misusing Shauli and Anat's car.

It's the happy, expectant faces of the innocent that makes Christmas worthwhile.

After you're done with that you'd better be making my mince pies.

The finished article.  Looks...ok.

My first tree from all those years ago.  I can't tell the difference.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Replicant baby

I didn't have a doll growing up.  A shocking admission for a modern NorCal metrosexual man like myself, I know, but this was during the 70s when everything was beige rather than the rainbow sparkles of today.  I was more of a Lego child.  I did once use my sister's dolls as crash test dummies which, I'm told in the book I'm reading about raising boys, is completely normal.

Hannah had a doll, of course.  She and her sister each received one at the same time, and named them after themselves.  I'm still trying to judge exactly how unhealthy that is.  Anyway, dolly spent many years in storage, was transported to California with all our other stuff, and has been in storage here since.  I imagine the inside of a box looks the same in Durham as in Walnut Creek.

But recently: emancipation!  With the need to practice baby-based skills (all our foster kids could do stuff like swear and set fire to things on their own - it's unfair to expect the same from a newborn) dolly was removed from cardboard incarceration and put to work.

Given that it's a toy made from cloth and plastic, Hannah got surprisingly upset when I carried it around by one foot, or passed it like a rugby ball.  I was impressed by Hannah's level of concern for something that even roughly resembles a baby...until I took off dolly's babygrow and found a nappy that had been there since the 80s.  Thirty years without a nappy change!  There's a call to social services right there.  Also, regarding all that information about how disposable nappies do not decompose - it's true.

Dolly has been put to good use trying out a baby carrier I found in a thrift store, helping to size up cloth "diapers", and giving swaddling practice, although she is a bit feisty and doesn't like having her arms by her sides.  I can't fault her behaviour, though, and I was moved to put her clothes through the wash; they were probably last cleaned when the nappy was put on.

She's now sleeping snug and warm, rocked in my arms as I apply Happiest Baby techniques to try to stop her crying.  Seems to be working.  Who's a good little girl?  Who is?  That's right, you are!  That's right!

A top-of-the-range Baby Bjorn Active with lumbar support!  Only the best for my baby ($14 from local charity shop).

Sleeping soundly, due to my expert swaddling techniques.  This baby is going nowhere!

She didn't even wake up during a diaper change!  Parenting is easy.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Drifting west

One of the things this part of the world doesn't have at Christmas is snow.  How I miss those gentle flakes drifting down in Durham, turning a seven minute drive into a two hour ordeal, turning quickly grey and then disappearing into a sludgy stream.  Other people around here miss it too, which is why 10 tons of the white stuff arrived in Berkeley for a "Snow Day".

How much is 10 tons?  Well, it seemed to translate into a 10 by 15 foot square which was swiftly compacted by twenty thousand children.  As this was a Berkeley event an atmosphere of anarchic disorganisation pervaded - seriously, the chaos was breathtaking.  We escaped to look around some local trader stalls, where an "elf" (a clown wearing an elf hat) was making balloon animals, and where the Snow Queen (wasn't she a baddie?) sat for pictures on her thrown.  Winter wonderland?  Almost.

Snow wonder.

How many people can you fit onto 150 square feet of stomped snow?

I venture on.

Hannah cannot be tempted.

My stay was brief.

A valiant effort given the availability of resources.

There were ponies too!  But no refunds.

Santa might want to think about recruiting some new little helpers.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Street fighting man

It's always puzzled me that excellence in the Olympic Games is highly rewarded whereas excellence in computer games is often ignored. Should someone who can run fast in a straight line be more feted by society than someone who can finish Tomb Raider? The BBC recognises Sports Personality of the Year but nothing for arcade players.

Luckily we live in enlightened times, and in an enlightened part of the world, and today I got to attend the Street Fighter 25th Anniversary Finals here in San Francisco.

Street Fighter is an arcade game where you unleash fierce and furious punches, kicks, and "special moves" on your opponent as you attempt to knock them out. It was never my game of choice. My friend Gaz had it on his Megadrive but we were more into Mortal Combat with its gruesome "finish him!" moves. Street Fighter is far more cartoony - no blood or anything nasty like that. The characters look like friends having a bit of fun. In bonus stages you break up abandoned cars, which could be considered community service.

Today the greatest players from all over the world gathered at a hotel just south of SFO. I caught the BART then walked through the surrounding area, probably the first place that most people go to having got off their plane.  It's an odd introductory zone to US culture after the trauma of immigration - no one owns anything around here; the traffic is all airport shuttles and rental cars, the hotels and coffee shops are all chains.

But I quickly left this soft hinterland of unbelonging behind as I entered the Hyatt Regency where smackdowns and sonic booms were being piled up by one player on another. Free-to-play arcade machines of every Street Fighter iteration filled the lobby, but the real action was taking place in the massive conference hall.

Two huge cinema screens stood at the front and the challengers, sifted from competitions in London, Paris, Tokyo, etc. sat dwarfed on a stage in the centre. They were taking it seriously - each brought their own controller, lovingly protected in padded carrying cases. As they fought vicariously above, the crowd whooped and hollered in reaction to every Hadoken and Arutimetto Atomikku Baasuta.

I joined the hungry Colosseum for several grueling matches before moving off to the numerous booths and trade displays. The general demographic was extremely male and adolescent, but I was pleased to see that they're bringing out a Hello Kitty-themed version soon.

Freebies were at a disappointing minimum although I was handed a nice picture of Ryu to colour in. If you wanted to win stuff you had to throw your hat in the ring, which would have led to humiliation more painful than a Flying Barcelona Attack. Perhaps one day the most beloved game of my youth, Chuckie Egg 2, will receive its due and be recognised as a competitive sport. Then the real smackdown will begin!

Not the most impressive sign for one of the most important things to happen in San Francisco ever!

That's better.

Free gaming in the hotel lobby.  I was too scared to challenge.

For purists, there's really only one Street Fighter - II.

Inside the competition hall.  They've been doing this all over the world, and these are the finals.

Not sure what was going on here, you could probably win a T-shirt, hence the crowd.

You could also buy things like this for $$$s.

Hello Kitty - more violent than you realised.

The tournament winner got...wait for it...$125,000 and this car.  Now how silly does playing computer games look?

Some fans took it far, although Vega looks less tubby on the screen.

Contenders, ready!  Two joystick-wielding gladiators take their place on the stage.

Hushed expectancy from the crowd.

They think it's all over!  It is now.