Tuesday, 29 May 2012

ITIN therefore I am

It's hard to exist in America today.  Or, rather, it's hard to convince other people that you exist.  This is especially true if you're dependent on your wife (and long may that glorious state of affairs continue).  The key to existence is a number, a magic number, that consists of nine digits.

The Social Security Number is needed for everything - a bank account, a mobile phone, a driver's licence, medical records.  There are ways to get around this; I am listed a 000-00-0000 in various places.  But to get at the good stuff, things like credit cards (and we all know how good they are), you can't do without your SSN.

Luckily there is a second number, not quite as magical but almost as good, called an ITIN.  This one was designed so that non-existent people, the ones that pick the fruit and clean the toilets, the ones that are actually useful to the economy, can pay their taxes.  Yes, the IRS and Border Control don't talk to each other.  Why ever could that be?

You also need an ITIN to do various legitimate things, like pay tax on interest earned on your bank account, or to be a director of a company (try new Turbo Crosswords by Puzux!)  All you have to do is fill in the correct forms and hand them in at the tax office.  Which I did!  Four times!  None of these resulted in the winning number.  If I had some illegal income to declare they would have thrown one at me immediately, but try to play by the rules and there's nothing they can do.  Such is life in a liberal western bureaucracy.

This year, however, Hannah decided that I could be employed not only as her personal executive domestic manager but also as a useful tax break.  It involved more form filling and another personal appearance at the Walnut Creek tax office.  Even then it wasn't over!  Although all my documents had been photocopied by the office, stamped and sent off, I received a letter some weeks later asking for "notarized" copies.  Apparently the IRS don't trust their own staff, but are happy for the girl at UPS to confirm my identity (for a $10 fee).

But now I'm happy, because a nice letter arrived today, and suddenly I am a complete person!  Tomorrow I'll be dropping in to see the bank manager about a credit card, which I'll use as collateral against a loan, with which I can now buy stocks on the Dow Jones, which I'll sell short to fund speculation on grain futures.  It's a sure bet!  My American Dream continues...

Monday, 28 May 2012

Spanning the years

The Golden Gate Bridge was officially opened on May 27th 1937, so today marks 75 years of one of the wonders of the modern world.  Everyone was commemorating, including a special doodle by Google.  Hannah and I joined the estimated 500,000 people who turned up at Crissy Fields to celebrate and watch the massive fireworks display.

We weren't actually going to mingle with the unwashed masses, of course.  Hannah had (once again) scored corporate hospitality tickets, which we thought meant a fenced off piece of grass and hopefully our own bank of portaloos.  We were pleasantly surprised to be shown to our luxury Chevron cabana, with our own bar (two bartenders), hot buffet, and open-fronted view of the bridge.  Endless dim sum and noodles, three cocktails and a beer later, I was ready to watch lots of coloured things go boom.

The display did not disappoint.  I have no idea how they managed it, I presume the bridge has been shut to pedestrians for days to set it up.  The display was enormous, as songs about San Fran echoed around the Bay, finishing with Tony Bennett and his heart which he left here.  It was an incredible sight, one I hope we'll be back to see in 25 years time.

Show over, the streets of SF were filled with revellers attempting to get back to where they'd come from.  We decided that feet were going to be the best method of transport, and headed for Fisherman's Wharf.  Every third window gave you a glimpse into another party, and cars and buses simply waited for the happy pedestrian throng that filled the streets to disperse.  The fact that it's a public holiday tomorrow didn't hurt the mood either.  Amazingly we found a half-empty trolley car, and nestled into a packed and warm BART train that was waiting for us when we arrived at Embarcadero.  Those trying to drive home seemed to be fairing worse than anyone - they need to build a few more bridges around here.

No surprise.

Jesus loves you.  Everyone else thinks you're a clown.

The crowds at Crissy Fields.

Restricted access, that's how we like it.

Hannah cabana.

Is that an open bar I see before me?

Ahhh...start the afternoon as you mean to go on.

The sun sets.

An expectant crowd waits.

When the lights go down in the city.

Happy birthday Golden Gate Bridge!  Now we're going to set you on fire.  (To give you an idea of scale, it's 4,200ft, or 1.3km, between those towers).

I mean, it was huge.

Lights too.




Whizz bang.

Then they did the waterfall thing again, but this time it was different colours!

Peace is restored, and the bridge can relax for another few years (or at least until they let the traffic back on at 10pm).

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Towering inferno

Overseas news: The most exciting thing to happen in Frome for some time (possibly since Jenson Button was awarded the freedom of the town) occurred today.  As part of an ancient and sacred tradition, the Olympic Torch made it's way though this quiet corner of Somerset where I was born.  Locals stopped drinking cider and worshipping ancient woodland gods to watch its progress.

Luckily my Mum was on hand, in her official capacity as coffee and tea maker in St. John's church forecourt.  She had a front row view of proceedings, although there were whispers that one of the runners actually came from Shepton Mallet.  At least no one was from Trowbridge.

The torch is continuing its massively circuitous route around the British Isles, even though the high point of its journey is obviously now over, before it lights the big flame in London on 27th July, and then we can all get down to the business of watching the USA win more medals than anyone else.  The flame has already blown out a couple of times - in Greece and again in Devon - but soothsayers of doom should keep quiet.  The stadiums are built, the London underground has been upgraded...eleven billion pounds on a couple of weeks of fun doesn't sound too bad.

We have high hopes from Mum bringing home the gold in the "being lovely" event!

Children allowed out of school?  That used to only happen for the Cheese Show.

Frome's finest make sure everyone's under control.

And there it goes!  Hopefully carried by a genuine Fromer.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Astronomically important

Today we were lucky enough to be in the path of an annular solar eclipse!  Almost.  The real excitement took place a bit further north, around Sacramento, but we got to see a fairly decent chunk of the sun blocked out by the moon down here in the Creek

For some reason this was not all that widely publicised.  Perhaps because the astronomical sciences are not held in such high esteem this side of the Atlantic, or maybe because Americans see the blotting out of the sun as divine judgement against the President's endorsement of gay marriage.

Either way, we weren't going to miss out on an afternoon sunning ourselves and witnessing events of galactic importance.  As our natural satellite passed in front of our local star, the light took on a strange dim hue and a preternatural eeriness descended.  Was this the herald of the end times?  No, things brightened up fairly quickly, and we celebrated with a couple of glasses of our neighbour Eavan's homemade beer.

How do you view an eclipse?  Well, my Mum taught me, actually, long ago in a field in Wales.  It's true!  She's a scientist.

Look at that!  See, it works!!

Hannah's method.  She's a theologian.

To the naked eye, things still look pretty bright (please don't try this at home).

Young neighbour Faye takes her first steps on the road to scientific progress.

This is as annular as it got for us, but still pretty impressive.  And in 3D!

Monday, 14 May 2012

Corporate baseball

Now this is the way to enjoy sport.  Hannah was hosting some Chevron-supported charities at a San Francisco Giants baseball game, and after some people dropped out, and then everyone else worthy and deserving said they were busy, I got given a spare ticket!  The only stipulation was that I had to smile, nod politely, and not say anything stupid.  It sounded like hard work, but I took the chance.

Chevron's box is on the fourth floor of the stadium, behind the batter, which I believe is a good position to watch from.  It's decked out in corporate logos, posters of petrol stations, etc.  More importantly, it has lots of beer and wine and limitless food from the moment you arrive!

It took a while to remember that there was a baseball game taking place outside, so I carried my mountainous plate of burritos onto the terrace and decided to make things more interesting by filling in a complimentary score card.  Wow, for a straightforward game they sure make this complicated.  By the time I'd worked out I should be writing 1XH(92) in the box (runner on 1B thrown out going home, right fielder to catcher) the innings was over.

Still, it was all pretty exciting.  Mostly because we had a hot dog machine in the room, but also for a close match in which the SF Giants barely won against the Colorado Rockies.  That'll keep me going until the West Indies/England Test Match starts on Thursday.  While baseball is not really for me, corporate hospitality certainly is.

Hannah has asked that we remodel our sitting room to match.

The rather fine view over AT&T Park.

Hey!  Who put all this fruit next to my beer?

Not just hot dogs, but a hot dog machine!

Hannah and fellow-Chevronite Janet chat (probably not about the ball game).

They have a nice (exclusive) museum downstairs.

A load of old balls.

This is The Crazy Crab, and original SF mascot who supposedly brought incredibly bad luck to the Giants.  You can find out all about him at Rehab the Crab.

Some more fans.

This is what it's all about!  I thought this must be a replica but no, apparently they make a new trophy every year for the winner.  Which seems to undermine the idea of a "trophy", but there we are.

Following a DP 6-4-3, an E2 and IBB, the batter was looking for an SAC to silly mid-off, but was out LBW.



Saturday, 12 May 2012

Our man in Japan

Jack is in Japan, and Amanda has popped in to say hello on her way back East.

Despite being on an active naval placement, Jack is continuing his unparalleled run of not actually setting foot on a ship.  Here he is, enjoying a nice cup of tea and - yes - that's his aircraft carrier in the background, sailing off without him.  Apparently they're only gone for four days of sea trials and then will be back to pick him up.  But don't bet against another "delay".  Keep up the good work, sailor!


Friday, 11 May 2012

The pool is open!

It's early in the year, but with temperatures nudging the high 30s (nearly 100 in Fs) questions had been asked about the opening of our swimming pool.  I got an email tip-off from our neighbour that she'd spotted the plastic chairs and loungers being put out, and decided to saunter by in the hazy afternoon heat to see whether my wishes had come true.

They had!  And, as tradition dictates, I had to be the first one in.  This year I was joined by the fearless Arbel, who became decidedly annoyed if anyone tried to help him in or, indeed, keep him afloat.  We splashed around in the surprisingly warm water (for this time of year) before he declared the fun over by running to the gate and shouting "Hannah" repeatedly.  I know who his favourite is.

And summer is here!

Dipping a toe in.  Ok, it wasn't that warm.

Arbel is skeptical.

Sink or swim.  (Many thanks to guest photographer Anat!)

Tuesday, 8 May 2012


Another item was ticked off the American Dream list this evening when Hannah and I went to our first drive-in movie!  We're babysitting Amanda's car while she's in Japan, so what better opportunity?  Ten minutes away is the Solano Drive-In, up in Concord, and tonight they were showing The Avengers.  We motored up there and waited for sundown.

I wasn't sure what to expect.  Are there big queues of cars to go in?  Was it in a field?  Do they clip speakers onto your windows?  As it turned out, it was a very large car park but with clever humps in place so you can park uphill, lie back and get an undisturbed view of the screen.  And the sound comes through your radio!  This modern technology...

There was a snack bar at the back, and a retro feel to whole place.  $7 a ticket is also phenomenally cheap, especially as all their films are double-bills (except that The Avengers was double-billed with The Avengers.  Not too sure why).  We enjoyed a fantastic film in our own private motor cocoon and we didn't even have to pay for parking!

The one downside was that Hannah kept pretending to yawn and then put her arm around my shoulders.  When I challenged her she said she was trying to "make out".  I don't even know what that means, but it certainly has no place at the cinema.

Driving in.

Parking up.

Get your popcorn here!

Front row seats.

It got better as it got darker...