The Pygmy Forest

November 5, 2006

This afternoon I crossed the Hacienda Bridge over the Russian River for the first time (oddly, I’d kayaked under it months ago).  We stopped to collect tea/coffee in the picturesque town of Guerneville and then went on to the Sonoma coast.

Sonoma Coast The Sonoma coast

I’d driven up Route 1 from Thousand Oaks to San Francisco three years earlier and seen Big Sur.  The Sonoma coast is on a par, and is much less developed because it’s that much harder to reach.

We stopped in Gerstle Cove, Salt Point State Park.  There’s a peculiar local ordinance banning mushroom gathering on the seaward side of Route 1, so we stopped in the State Park on the landward side.  Shannon went mushroom-hunting whilst I went for a run up to the Pygmy Forest.  The Pygmy Forest sits on a beach from the Pleistocene era, which has been raised up by the violent faulting activity in Northern California.  The growth of these ancient trees has been stunted by the poor, acidic soil.

As I ran back down the trail into the ‘normal’ forest I could hear pinecones and acorns falling.  In American parks at this time of year it’s possible to be wonderfully alone with nature in a way that one can’t normally be in the UK.  Off to the left I heard a rustling in the leaves but ran on.  A huge buck deer trotted across the path in front me just thirty feet ahead and disappeared back into the forest.  I stopped to look at it, and it turned to look at me, just thirty yards away.  Then it turned to face me.  I wasn’t sure whether it was going to charge me, because I noticed a smaller deer deeper into the forest.  What was remarkable was that the simple act of turning to face me made the animal almost invisible against the trees.  I stood still for four or five minutes, as did the deer: I was keen to see which of us would blink first.

Spot the deerSpot the deer

After a minute or two of staring, my eyes began to see it as a kaleidoscope of green and brown just a few feet from my face.  It was a remarkable effect, and if this was how the Native Americans viewed the spirit world in their trances.

The deer looked away first, then back at me.  There was an element of trust, so I took the chance to take some photos.  It moved into a shaft of light, and suddenly became visible.  An acorn hit the ground to the left of me.  It was time to run on.

Dog Gone, Part II

November 4, 2006

We visited the pound again on Monday, looking for Skip.  The pressure was on because Zoe was due back with us that evening.  The same dogs were still   Buster Brown’s tennis ball was missing, and he looked at us mournfully.  He’d been in nearly two weeks.  I saw his ball in the sewage gutter some way off.  Shannon retrieved it, washed it and popped it back in his cage.  “It breaks my heart,” I said.  We hugged each other as we leave the facility.

I went out again for another reconnoitring run on Monday afternoon, calling his name and looking on the grass verges, checking further towards Santa Rosa, rather than Forestville.  I passed another fresh roadkill deer, and even a little finch.  The verges on River Road are near-vertical, because the road is built on a causeway above the Russian River flood plain.  I noticed that – despite the slope and the likely 55mph impact to the animals – their bodies were all within a few feet of the road.  The road itself has a reputation as a killer, and I passed a shrine to Luis C—-, a teen driver.

I told Shannon later that the distance of the animals’ bodies gave me hope in a way: I would have seen Skip if he’d been killed.

Zoe’s face was red when Shannon brought her back from school that evening, but she was composed as we ate dinner.  “She’s taking it really well,” I said.

“God, you weren’t in the car the first twenty minutes after I broke the news to her.  She was beside herself.”

After school the following afternoon we put up day-glo posters with photos of Skip on them.  “I miss him so much,” said Zoe.  “He’s like a little brother to me.”  Shannon and I look at each other and cringe.

“Hey, Zoe,” I said.  “You know how we’re going to get the FBI in on the search?”


“We’ll tell them that there’s a terrorist called Jack Russell on the loose and his codename’s Skip.”  She giggled, and I wondered how much more she’d suffer.

Three days later he’d been missing a week and we were all missing him.  We were lying in bed that evening I broached the tricky subject of What To Do If Skip Doesn’t Turn Up.  “I don’t know how long we give it,” I said.  “But Buster Brown’s sheet said he’s good with kids.”

“Yeah, he’s a cute dog,” said Shannon.  “I’d want another Jack Russell, though.”  Silence hung for a minute.  “You said you’d had dreams about him the last three nights.  Don’t you think that’s a good sign?”

“Yeah, they were really lucid dreams.  I don’t know what to make of them.”

Dog Gone, Part I

November 2, 2006

Skip the Jack Russell disappeared on the night of Thursday the nineteenth.  He had disappeared before, but usually it had been when Shannon was travelling and the person responsible had not fed and watered him properly.  “He’s smart, he’s with neighbours,” said Shannon, to reassure herself as much as anything else.  “He’s probably sponging food off them.  He’s a very smart dog.”

We called his name along the driveway, and she checked with the neighbours at the bottom of the hill, who’d been known to take him in.  We widened our search but there was no sign of him anywhere.

The following day we went to the dog pound in Santa Rosa to see if he’d been brought in.  Shannon had retrieved him from there twice before, at great cost.  As we waited to be given access to pound, we saw a dog being handed over by its owner.  It whined and howled as it was dragged off into the cold concrete cellblock.  Presently we were allowed access, the pungent smell of urine and faeces assaulting our noses.  Each block had two rows of three-by-four feet cells with bars at the front.  Our hearts leapt a little as dogs Skip’s colour came into view in the individual cells.  And our hearts broke a little each time we saw perfectly loving and loveable dogs abandoned to the lottery of lethal injection.  There were half a dozen dogs we would have loved to have given a home to.  “Did you see that lively brown dog?” asked Shannon.

“You mean Buster Brown,” I said.  “He picked up a tennis ball and bounced it just like Skip.”

I changed my run that afternoon to accommodate wide sweeps of town.  I ran through the neighbourhood calling Skip’s name.  I ran up and down Trenton Road and River Road, hoping I’d not find his remains.  There was a deer and a dog, but no sign of at all of Skip.

“This is my fault,” wailed Shannon.  “After the last time I should have had a new collar and a chip inserted.”

“He’ll turn up,” I said.  As I stacked firewood that evening I put logs in the pile that I’d thrown for Skip just days before.  I wondered whether it was bad karma to be burning them.

“He’s out there,” said Shannon, fighting back tears.  “Something tells me his story’s not over yet.”

To be continued…

Halloween — the American Dream

November 1, 2006

I had my first proper American Halloween (Hallowe’en for Brits).  You can’t grasp that $4.96bn figure for their spending on the event until you see it in on the night.

First up, there’s this curious salutation that people start using first thing in the morning: “Happy Halloween!” they cry to each other.  Two days ago I ran past the local high school and the same greeting was on their announcements board, in letters nearly a foot tall.  Surely ‘Happy Halloween’ is an oxymoron—isn’t it supposed to be anything but happy?

Zoe is with her father this week, so we had to pick her up.  But she was already out trick-or-treating with her friends Jonah and Scout.  We met them out on Mirabel, a quadruple cul-de-sac neighbourhood that could pass for a movie set.  And there weren’t just a few kids—hundreds of them roamed free in the darkness dressed in elaborate costumes.  Many had blue or green glow-rings around their necks so parents could keep track of them, all of them had swag bags full of goodies.

Halloween House

Many of the houses had gone to town to celebrate the evening, decking out their houses with fake spider-webs, pumpkins, life-sized horror mannequins—even a smoke machine.  The Speers—owners of the main local grocery store—had a complete mock graveyard lit by a strobe light.

I was asked by friends how it compared to the UK.  Although it’s only taken off in England in the last decade, when I was a five-year-old in Glasgow, and at primary school in the North East of England, we had something much akin to it—but nothing on that scale, and no one would ever have decorated their houses so elaborately for the event.

“What I find amazing,” I said to Scout and Jonah’s mother, Lauri, “is that America is the most practising Christian country in the world by far, with church attendance up around fifty percent.  Yet no one celebrates this very pagan festival the way America does.”

“It’s very American,” she said.  “Any excuse for a party—that’s the American dream.”

Royally Scared

October 31, 2006

Shannon’s Front DoorOur Front Door, Hallowe’en

This year, Americans are forecast to spend $4.96bn (£2.61bn) on Halloween, versus £120m ($200m) for the UK.  “It’s the second-biggest celebration after Christmas,” said Shannon.

Zoe was throwing a party for her friends the Saturday before.  Shannon is a Halloween veteran, and has been throwing them since Max (now 16) was three.  On Friday night after our weekly bookstore and dinner trip we stopped off at Joann’s Fabric’s in Santa Rosa to get material for Zoe’s costume.  She pointed out the perfect quarter moon on the way back.

“It’s going to be very scary tomorrow night, Zoe,” I said.

“I like being scared,” she said.  “But I don’t think you can scare me.”

“I’m going to make you pee your pants,” I said.

“No way,” she replied.  “You could never get me that scared.”

“Oh, we’ll see,” I said.  Moments later I had an idea, and chuckled.

“Oh-oh,” said Shannon quietly.  “He’s got something planned, Zoe.”

Just days before, Zoe had told us that she’d seen the ghostly vision of a king and his entourage in the forest adjacent to the house.  She said he was on a quest to find his missing daughter.  I was going to capitalise on her vision.  I laughed myself to sleep that night as I thought through the details.

Whilst Shannon and Zoe were out getting party supplies the following morning, I gathered several cubic feet of leaf litter and made it into the shape of a fresh grave a little way out into the woods, under a gnarled oak.

The kids arrived in late afternoon and so did my helper, Matt – father of one of Zoe’s friends.  Shannon, ever-resourceful, had managed to buy a fake gravestone.  At half-six Matt and I went out to the ‘grave’ and he dressed me in bandages and toilet paper.  In the ten minutes it took, the darkness thickened.  I lay down on the ground and he covered me with leaf litter.

“As soon as I leave, the maniac who’s been watching us will kill you,” said Matt.

“Farewell, then” I replied.  My nose immediately began to itch but I couldn’t move for fear of revealing myself from under the leaves.

Eventually, I heard the distant sound of adult and children’s voices.  I knew that Shannon – an expert storyteller – would have pumped up her audience to maximum fear levels.  I’d asked her to tell the kids that the king looking for his daughter had pined to death and been buried here – and that his grave only appeared every hundred years.  I learned later that she’d invoked the king’s spirit by getting the kids to chant his name, and blow out a candle.  Several kids refused even to be left in the lighted kitchen without an adult, let alone venture out into the darkness.

After another minute I heard Matt pretend to come upon my grave.  Through the leaves over my eyes I began to see the blue light cast by the storm lamp.  My heart beat faster – when to spring my surprise for maximum effect?

I heard the crunching of leaves next to me.  Zoe’s voice was near and the light was dazzling through the gaps in the leaves covering my face.  If I didn’t move, I’d be uncovered.

I reared up through the leaves and roared.  I’d forgotten how deafening the screams of ten-year-olds are.  Shannon said it went on for 12-15 seconds.

I went to bed tired, but satisfied at a job well done.  At one o’clock the following morning we were woken by Zoe at the bedroom door.  She was having nightmares about the story.  I’d passed my first American Halloween with flying colours.
My ‘grave’The ‘grave’ I rose from

Dog Gone, Part I

October 30, 2006

Skip the Jack Russell disappeared on the night of Thursday the nineteenth.  He had disappeared before, but usually it had been when Shannon was travelling and the person responsible had not fed and watered him properly.  “He’s smart, he’s with neighbours,” said Shannon, to reassure herself as much as anything else.  “He’s probably sponging food off them.  He’s a very smart dog.”

We called his name along the driveway, and she checked with the neighbours at the bottom of the hill, who’d been known to take him in.  We widened our search but there was no sign of him anywhere.

The following day we went to the dog pound in Santa Rosa to see if he’d been brought in.  Shannon had retrieved him from there twice before, at great cost.  As we waited to be given access to pound, we saw a dog being handed over by its owner.  It whined and howled as it was dragged off into the cold concrete cellblock.  Presently we were allowed access, the pungent smell of urine and faeces assaulting our noses, the barks and whines echoing around the bare room.  Each block had two rows of three-by-four feet cells with bars at the front.  Our hearts leapt a little as dogs Skip’s colour came into view in the individual cells.  And our hearts broke a little each time we saw perfectly loving and loveable dogs abandoned to the lottery of lethal injection.  There were half a dozen dogs we would have loved to have given a home to.  “Did you see that lively brown dog?” asked Shannon.

“You mean Buster Brown,” I said.  “He picked up a tennis ball and bounced it just like Skip.”

I changed my run that afternoon to accommodate wide sweeps of town.  I ran through the neighbourhood calling his name.  I ran up and down Trenton Road and River Road, hoping I’d not find his remains.  There was a deer and a dog, but no sign of at all of Skip.

“This is my fault,” wailed Shannon.  “After the last time I should have had a new collar and a chip inserted.”

“He’ll turn up,” I said.  As I stacked firewood that evening I put logs in the pile that I’d thrown for Skip just days before.  I wondered whether it was bad karma to be burning them.

“He’s out there,” said Shannon, fighting back tears.  “Something tells me his story’s not over yet.”

To be continued…

Maximum Competition

October 30, 2006

We were about to go out for an afternoon run, having been delayed by numerous calls.  The phone rang as we were leaving the house.  “Forget it,” said Shannon.

“I think you should answer it,” I said.

It was her 16-year-old son, Max, who lives with her ex-husband.  Things have not been great between him and either parent recently.  “We’re going for a run,” said Shannon.  “Fancy coming?”

Max and I had not met, so this was a big step for both of us as he jumped in the back seat ten minutes later.  We shook hands.  He began talking about relationships, and I turned almost every sentence he spoke into a double entendre, some of them Shakespearian.  Max is extremely intelligent, and a very accomplished lyricist, so I felt it was deferential to him in a way.  Shannon kept cackling with laughter and he eventually admitted defeat, hands on his head.  The ice was broken.

We reached the canal and got out of the car.  I slipped a lead on Skip but he was only wearing a flea collar.  It fell straight off so we had to leave him in the car.  We set off running, and I left Shannon and Max to talk at their own pace.  After quarter of a mile I heard thundering footsteps behind me on the gravel.  I knew who it was before Max steamed past me.  When I passed him a couple of hundred yards further on he was doubled over, recovering his breath.
He stayed for dinner back at the house.  “I gotta find something I can beat you at,” said Max.  This was the genetics of Shannon’s competitive ‘Willinuts’ side of the family expressing themselves.

“You don’t have to,” I said.

“How are you at baseball and basketball?” he asked.

“We don’t pay them in my country.”

“So I bet I could whip you at a few moves, right?”

“No, because I simply wouldn’t play you.”

“So could we play a game like soccer, which you do have in your country?”

“It’s not a game I’ve ever participated in, so I’d not do it.  I run and I do triathlon.”

“You could learn American games like baseball and basketball, since you’re in this America.”

“Did you know that they originated in the UK?  Baseball is called ‘rounders’ and is played by girls.  Basketball is called ‘netball’ and is also played by girls.”

“What?  No way!  Basketball has some really mean and vicious moves!”

“You haven’t met many British girls, have you?”

We said our friendly goodbyes and Shannon took him back to his father’s house.  I guessed Skip must have gone with them in the car because he wasn’t in evidence.  She came back half an hour later.  “Did Skip go with you?” I asked.

“No,” said Shannon.  “He must just be out and around.”  I had a bad feeling about it before we went to bed.  Skip habitually chases after the car when either one of us is in it, and he’d chased us the three-quarters of a mile down the drive the previous day.  He was nowhere to be found the next morning.
To be continued…

The Beast of Orchard Lane, Part III

October 29, 2006

I wanted to resume running down Orchard Lane into Forestville, rather than having to go out in the car for a run.  Shannon gave me a can of Mace from beside the bed.  “Use it,” she said.  “A friend of my mother’s got attacked last month by a Rottweiler when he was out running.”

I told her stepson Jonathan about it later and he laughed – typical of Shannon to have some Mace by the bed.  For me it was a very American experience, given that it’s illegal in the UK.  He told me he’d been chased by the dog a few times on the way to a friend’s house.  “So one day I was on my bike and the mutt was chasing me,” said Jonathan.  “I drop-kicked it in the head and it never bothered me again.”  I was heartened by his information but still dreaded any confrontation with the Beast.

The first three times I ran down the lane the Beast was in its pound, and tore up and down in frustration, barking.  I should mention that its pound is above head-height on the road, and that that’s often where it ambushes from. It is, to say the least, unnerving.

Yesterday I was running down the lane and noticed that the Beast wasn’t in his pound.  My heart sank, but I was glad I had the Mace.  I heard a loud bark up at his owner’s house and we made eye contact at fifty yards.  He bounded down the hill towards the pound.  Seconds later he was above head-height, barking ferociously.  I ran on, not wanting the confrontation.  I slipped the button of the Mace around to activate it.  The dog leapt down onto the gravel and began running up behind me.  I turned, stopped, and pressed the trigger on the Mace.  A feeble spurt came out no more than six feet.  The dog stopped a safe twenty feet away, barking.

I turned and began running again.  I had failed to release the Mace fully into the ‘armed’ position.  My heart was racing.  I hated myself for any harm I might do to the dog.  I turned again and it stopped, barking at me, well within range of the Mace.  I realised that it might just be chickenshit after all, so I didn’t use the Mac.  Instead, I turned back and began running down the hill again.  The Beast took after me once more, barking.  I knew what to do.  I turned back and ran towards it, not even saying anything.  It turned tail and ran back up the hill.  The point proven to myself, I disarmed the Mace and continued on my run, ignoring the chickenshit Beast, which chased after me some twenty yards behind, relieved I’d not harmed it.

See also:

The Beast of Orchard Lane, Part II

The Beast of Orchard Lane, Part I

The Morning Catwalk

October 28, 2006

We got up extra-early this morning because Zoe wanted to go to the café before school.  I’ve been short of sleep this week and could’ve done with a lie-in, but I’d showered and had breakfast by 07.15.

Shannon and I were talking about her family’s new hotel complex up in, Sisters, Oregon, so she ignored Zoe’s plaintive cries from upstairs.  “Mom!” came the repeated call, with an occasional “I need help!”

I watched the minutes ticked by, and Shannon called off the trip to the café due to the time-pressure.  I put the kettle on for some tea whilst Shannon went up to see what Zoe’s problem was.  She came back down a couple of minutes later.  “A roomful of clothes and nothing to wear,” she said.

Zoe came down a few minutes later wearing a two-piece grey tracksuit.  Shannon gave her a shawl so that she could dress as a Gypsy fortune-teller for the Hallowe’en event at school today.  I sat down at the table with Zoe as she tucked in to her French bread and Shannon went to get dressed for the school run.

I was making some toast for myself when Shannon called “Babe!  Can you come here a second?”  I went through to the bedroom.  Shannon was wearing an orange top with a flower motif.  “Does this look okay on me?  I’m worried I don’t have enough of a tan to carry it off.”

“It looks great,” I said.  “A roomful of clothes and nothing to wear, huh?”

Dodgy Driving II

October 24, 2006

We have Shannon’s daughter Zoe with us this week, and she asked that we ‘walk her into class’.  (Rather than dump kids at the school gates, parents are encouraged to walk their kids into their classroom.)  We were up just after seven and out of the door at half-past.  It was a foggy morning – typical of Sonoma County at any time of year, though much chillier than the summer – and it was the first time I’d driven Zoe.  I neglected to shift the Durango into a lower gear and we accelerated down the steep, twisting drive.

“Slow down!” called Zoe from the back.

“But we love roller coasters,” I said.

“I’ve not got my seatbelt on and I’m sliding all over the seat.”  I waited as she clipped herself in.  “Ready!” she said.

I slewed the car around the steepest of the hairpins, the back end skidded but still the tilt alarm didn’t trigger.  I looked over and smiled at Shannon.

We went to the Front Street Café and played cards for forty minutes.  As we went back to the car Zoe asked if either of us had her bag.  We didn’t.  I went back to the house, surprising a large deer on the driveway.  I picked up Shannon at the café and we drove to the school.

“Reverse back into that space,” she said.  “Zoe hates me parking in it.”

I slipped the gear from D to R and looked over my shoulder.  “There are no lines.”

“They haven’t painted them yet.”

I started reversing.  Shannon said something I didn’t catch, my foot slipped on the brake and the car nudged back into the signpost.

“Ha-ha-ha!” she said.  “Oh, at last you’ve made a mistake!  Let’s see what damage you’ve done to your car!”

We went to the back of the car.  The wheels were a foot from the kerb, and the rear bumper was six inches from the sign.  The protruding towbar had hit the metal post square, and there was no damage to anything.  “I didn’t realise I had an eight-inch towbar protruding from the back.  I was miles away from the sign.”

“Damn!” she said.  “I just cannot believe your luck.  Damn, damn, damn!  But I’m going to blog this and have my revenge at last.”

 “I’ll blog it first, you watch me.”  Less than two hours later and my blog is posted, hers is not.

Diablo Range garter snake

October 23, 2006

I was on the return leg of a run along an irrigation canal yesterday afternoon.  It was a another hot afternoon, and the path had been quite busy.  On the dust and loose gravel a few feet up ahead I saw what looked like the black and yellow lace of a climbing boot.  Something told me it wasn’t what it seemed.  When I was a couple of paces away, it sprung to life.  I slowed down and watched as it slithered off into the grass.  I reflected that if Shannon had been with me she’d have touched it for luck.

“I saw a garter snake,” I told her when I got back to the car.

“Wow!  You and your animal magic again, huh?  Did you touch it?”

“The garter snake family contains some of the deadliest poisons in the world.”

“I’m pretty sure rattlers are the only poisonous snakes in California.”

“Better safe than sorry.”

Diablo Range GartersnakeDiablo Range Gartersnake in shallow water

I found the correct species on the internet last night.  It was a Diablo Range garter snake (Thamnophis atratus zaxanthus).  The young are born in the early autumn and are of the size I saw – around ten inches.  If threatened they may strike repeatedly, excrete faeces and a pungent musk.  They might also hide at the bottom of the nearest pond because they’re semi-aquatic.  I was surprised by that last fact, but its canal-side habitat made perfect sense.  For more information go to

I wonder about my apparent propensity to see a lot of wildlife – I’m becoming known for it in Shannon’s circle of friends – and whether it’s being in California.  However, running on Tooting Bec Common in broad daylight two or three months ago I had to side-step a stag beetle nearly two inches long as it crossed the path.  Stag beetles are an endangered species in Europe, and South London is thought to be the only major colony in the UK.  I guess what helps in spotting these creatures is to be out a lot, and to keep your eyes open.  But so far as the apparent fondness animals seem to have for me, I have no idea.
See also Crawling King Snake

Dodgy Driving

October 22, 2006

A month ago I sold out my beliefs and paid $4,000 (£2,200) to have Shannon’s Dodge Durango repaired.  I’m now the not-very-proud part-owner of an SUV, whereas in London I refuse to own a vehicle on environmental (and economic) grounds.  Faced with accusations of hypocrisy before leaving the UK, I pointed out that we do get floods, mudslides and rock-falls in Forestville – the rain is seasonally heavy and we’re in a very active earthquake zone.

Last Friday we went to the insurance broker and managed – after much fiddling with the computer system – to get me onto the policy.  That afternoon, Shannon insisted that I drive the Durango for the first time.  Being a Californian, she’s confident in her own ability…but not anyone else’s.  Although I have only driven in the UK twice this century, my previous job entailed a lot of driving in the States on business – though it was all in compacts (cars, not cosmetics, British readers please note).

“Oh, I can’t wait to see this,” she crowed, strapping herself into the passenger seat.

I turned the ignition on and reached down with my right hand for the gear stick.  My hand waved at air.  “Where the fuck’s the gear lever?”  I said.

Shannon doubled up with laughter.  “Great start!  Oh, that’s fucking classic – that’s going straight in an article!”

I saw the PNRD21 indictor on the dashboard, the orange indicator on the P.  Still laughing, she tapped the stick to the right of the steering wheel.  I pulled it towards me, moved the indicator to R and reversed the car so that it was pointing down the drive.  Mimicking her driving, I flicked it into D and slammed the accelerator down.  The wheels spun on the gravel and we barrelled down the driveway, bouncing over potholes.  “Howdya like that?”  I asked.

I looked over to see her holding her mug of coffee at arm’s length out of the window.  “Stop!” she yelled.  “You don’t know how to drive one of these things – you’ll crash!”

“Don’t like it much the other way, huh?”  I said.  I stopped on the tarmac on the communal driveway, at the top of the half-mile of hairpin single-track mountain bends that would take us down to River Road.

“Serious advice,” she said.  “Save the brakes.  Take it out of drive and put it in a low gear.”

I switched it from D to 2 and set off down the roller coaster driveway faster than even she would take it.  She held her mug out of the window again muttering expletives.  I took a racing line around the tightest and steepest of the hairpins.  There was silence and I knew what we were both waiting for: the dashboard ‘tilt’ danger warning, which activates every time she takes the corner.  We emerged onto the final straight without the alarm sounding.  “See?” I said.  “And I took that faster than you.”

“Okay, okay,” she said.  “You do a better line than me, I’ll give you that one.”

I pulled up at the junction with River Road.  It was a hill start to cross over one lane of 55mph rush-hour traffic to join the highway.  “Big test, baby,” she said, gloating.

A gap appeared on each side and I squeezed the accelerator.  We powered across and headed down the highway.

“Good job,” she said.  “Most people would have kangarooed that one.  Okay, I admit it: you’re a good driver.”

Two days on, and unfortunately she’s begun to enjoy being driven.  “I like this,” she said on her way to the café this morning.  “I get to read and drink my coffee.  Yeah, I’m getting to like this a lot.  It’s doing wonders for my serenity and productivity.”  It was then that I realised that going for groceries had ceased to be an ‘us’ event that she enjoyed.  It’s now a ‘me’ event.  So much for the four-wheeled freedom that I had craved….

You’re a Loser, Charlie Brown

October 22, 2006

Charlie ‘Loser’ Brown Statue, Downtown Santa Rosa, CAOne of many Charlie Brown statues, Santa Rosa, CA 

We were driving in downtown Santa Rosa after dark on Shannon’s birthday.  Zoe had had a long day at school and parking places were in short supply.
   “Why do they have so many statues of Charlie Brown?” asked Zoe.
   “Charles Schulz, the guy who wrote the cartoons, lived in Santa Rosa,” said Shannon.  “That’s why they have all the statues of the characters.”
   “Yeah, I know.  But why do they have so many of Charlie Brown.  He’s boring.”
   “So is Linus,” said Shannon.  “He’s uptight.  And Lucy’s a bitch, taking that ball away.  In fact, all the Charlie Brown characters are jerks.”
   “I like Snoopy, though,” said Zoe.
   “Yeah, Snoopy’s cool,” said Shannon.
   “And I like his bird-friend,” added Zoe.  “What was he called?”
   “Woodstock,” I say quietly.  I want to tell them that my friend Lucy stole the show as Woodstock in the play Snoopy! a few years ago, but I am spellbound by this glimpse into the American psyche.
   “Yeah, Woodstock.  He’s cool,” said Zoe.  “Why can’t all of the cartoons have been about Snoopy and Woodstock?”

Woodstock Statue, Downtown Santa Rosa, CAThe only Woodstock statue in Santa Rosa, CA
   “Well,” I said.  “Millions of people all over the world loved Charlie Brown.”
   “Yeah, but why?” asked Zoe.
   “I guess they must have seen something of themselves in him,” I said.  “He spoke to them about their own experiences as a child, and maybe even as an adult.”
   “Well he was a loser,” said Shannon.
   “Yeah, he sucked,” said Zoe.
   As a depressed child I identified strongly with Charlie Brown’s depression.  Every time it rains on me I still think of the cartoon where it rains progressively harder on Charlie Brown before he says, ‘It always rains on the unloved’.  “Charles Schulz was certainly a very successful American,” I said, keeping my thoughts to myself.
   “Charlie Brown sucked,” said Zoe.

Of Cats and Women

October 20, 2006

Shannon, her mother and I went for a hike and then a run in a local nature reserve yesterday.  Unfortunately, the sun-bleached maps and brief trail signs led to us being a little off-course when we came back down off the mountain, so we had to skirt around the edge of it.  We found a short-cut through the forest and had gone perhaps a hundred yards when Shannon – who was on point – said “I see I bobcat!”  We stopped behind her and looked up the trail to see a large, dark cat disappearing round the corner.  “You sure it wasn’t a household cat?” I said.  “No,” she said, “I actually think it was a mountain lion cub.”  “It wasn’t a bobcat?” asked her mother.  “No,” said Shannon.  “The tail was too long.”

We ran further along the trail and saw it again.  It stopped and looked behind us.  A shaft of sunlight through the trees lit its fur better, and we could see that it was mottled.  “It’s a large domestic cat,” I said.  “No, look at how thick-set it is,” said Shannon.  “It’s not a bobcat?” asked her mother.  “No, look at the tail on it, Mom.  Bobcat’s have short tails.”  The cat padded on and we followed, but we couldn’t see it on the path ahead.

We reached the point where I’d last seen it.  I looked through the scrub and saw that it was perhaps thirty yards downhill, waiting to break cover onto a larger, gravelled trail.  I was reminded of disputed footage of the Beast of Bodmin Moor, and the analysis of body-tail-leg ratios.  I could at last get a proper perspective on it because I could see it against the type of leaves on a bush right next to me.  There can’t be many domestic cats with such thick legs and large paws, and with a body a good 18 inches long.  And its head was not bulbous like a domestic cat’s – rather, it tapered to a head from a thick neck set on broad shoulders.

“It’s a cub,” said Shannon.  “So its mother may be quite close by.”  “Yeah,” I said.  “And junior’s leading us right into an ambush.”

The coast evidently clear, it set off on the main path, and we scrabbled down through the bush to follow it.  I ran up ahead and saw it disappear into a dense thicket that looked like the kind of place an animal would call home.  A bird began an incessant alarm shriek for the benefit of the neighbours.  We ran back to the car.

“Do you know how rare it is too see mountain lion?” said Shannon.  “I’ve never seen one before,” said her mother.  “I suppose it’s just par for the course for me, isn’t it?” I said.  “He has this thing with animals,” said Shannon.  “It’s amazing.  Tell Mom about the time you had a fox run with you in London.”  “It’s not just animals,” I said.  “It’s women too.”

My Psychic Washing Machine

October 14, 2006

My Psychic Washing Machine - bit scary, eh?  My Psychic Washing Machine (which also looks quite psychedilic)

Stick with me — this one’s off-the-wall even for me.

When my machine breaks down I have a mixture of dread and excitement.  I’ve owned it for nearly 14 years, long enough for man and machine to form a bond.  Every time my employment status changes my machine will develop a fault: I kid you not.  The scientists amongst you will rightly point out that I must treat it differently after the employment change — what those of us in the know would call ‘researcher bias’.  This isn’t likely, since the machine sometimes develops the fault a day or two before I know my status is going to change.

A physician friend told me a while ago that in medical knowledge “Once is a case, twice is an interesting coincidence but three times is a syndrome”.  So I would guess that five times must a strict rule.   Last night’s breakdown on Friday 13th was due to my having left my job on Wednesday.  Luckily, I’m in control — so it’s mainly excitement I’m feeling.

Entertainment — My Arts!

October 9, 2006

Last night I had one of life’s pleasantly surreal experiences.  I went up to Little Venice, near Maida Vale to see a show called Entertainment — My Arts! by the Blag Theatre Company at the Canal Café.  Nothing too surreal about that, you might say (though most Londoners might be unaware of their city’s Sunday night fringe scene, and this beautiful venue in particular).  What was so bizarre was seeing a friend for the first time in 15 years, right there on stage.  The only contact we’d had were emails in the last month after I’d tracked her down.

I recommend you see the show, which is a parody of musicals from Andrew Lloyd-Weber to Disney’s Mary Poppins, with a special dig at the awful Les Misérables.  The founders of the Blag Theatre Company are veterans of some of the West End’s biggest hits and the writing benefits hugely from the intelligent insiders’ insights.  I missed part two (separate show), which is a swipe at film and television celebrities.  Blag are playing Sunday nights at the Canal Café to October 22nd, £10.50 on the door.  You can find them at venues throughout the South East throughout the year.  Believe me: it’s much more deserving of a good audience than any of the shows it parodies.

And there was Lucy in the limelight, fifteen years and two children since I saw her at her wedding.  And she was just so… quintessentially Lucy.  There are people who give up and conform, become grey.  Happily, Lucy and her husband David are living full Technicolor lives and it warms the heart to see that.

As I waited for her afterwards I witnessed a minor miracle.  A middle-aged American male was waiting beside me.  It transpired that he had turned up on spec to this obscure venue on his last night in London and seen his old university friend Ricky on stage.  They’d not seen each other in 25 years.

1,000 Hits

September 28, 2006

Yesterday afternoon I logged in to find that I’d received my 1,000th hit on this blog.  This news came just the day after I added a clustrmap [sic] to my site.  With hits coming from as far away as Bulgaria and Australia in the last two days, my main audience is mostly the UK and the USA.  Now that I’m finished the novel, and just about to finish full-time work, look out for an increase in content.  Later today, or maybe tomorrow, I shall be writing a blog on the weird search terms used to find my blog.  I promise you: you will be amazed.  Many thanks to my growing readership for your support — you ain’t seen nothing yet!

Talking to the Neighbours

September 20, 2006

Living in London, I don’t talk as much to my neighbours as I did in my Northern youth.  I had my annual conversation with one of my more talkative neighbours on Sunday morning.  Here’s a snippet:

Neighbour: How did you get on in the [London] marathon this year?

Me: I didn’t get a place.

Neighbour: Oh, are there are a lot of entrants?

Me: Yes, it’s three times over-subscribed.  But I did run the Edinburgh Marathon in June.

Neighbour: Really?  Was that the same sort of distance?

I kept a straight face, honestly I did.  Hmm… I wonder if Sir Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile because he was doing a half-mile race?

On Finishing a Novel

September 18, 2006

At 13.40 this afternoon I finished writing the first draft of the novel I’m submitting for my MA in Creative Writing. At 83,500 words, it’s not the longest I’ve ever written. But it’s the most commercial, and the first I’ve written in 17 years. It’s only the first draft, and there’s a lot to do before I begin the laborious and heart-rending process of trying to get it published, so the journey’s far from over.

How does it feel?  It’s always sad to lose something that’s been a big part of your life for so long, not to have the characters talking to each other in your head, or reminding you to write specific things about them when you’re trying to concentrate on something else. But it feels great to have it out and onto the page. And it’s even better to know how much enjoyment it’s going to give its readers.

I’ve never before let anyone read anything I’ve written until it’s finished, but this time I read out ever chapter to my girlfriend as I completed it. A little after half-six this evening — half-ten in the morning for her in California — I read out the final paragraph to her. She loved it.

My web stats suggest that the satire on this blog has gained quite a following. The better the stats are for my blog, the easier it’s going to be for me to sell this novel to a publisher. So if you’ve enjoyed the blog, please recommend it to your friends, or put an RSS feed from here to your own blog. What’s in it for you? Well, there’s this wickedly funny novel about free internet porn movie downloads, hot sex and betrayal that will just blow you away — and if you support the blog, you’ll get it into a bookshop near you soon!  Many thanks for your support.

Brixton Fails Drugs Test

September 10, 2006

I’d told Shannon that in 2002 Brixton had pioneered the downgrading of marijuana on a national level.  She was amused to hear that even a guy like me — who looks every inch the off-duty policeman — is continually offered ‘skunk’ ‘weed’ and ‘marijuana’ every evening in the throng of humanity between the Tube station entrance and the bus queues.  She laughed her ass off at the prospect of hearing British guys offering her drugs, and couldn’t wait to hear it firsthand and flip them a caustic comment.

The first time we did the fifty-yard push through the crowd there was not one mention of drugs — no deep voices muttering those magic words anonymously but directly at us.  “It must be the time of day,” I said, disappointed.  “It’s lunchtime.”  The following day we emerged around four o’clock, to be met with silence again.  “You just wait until we’re coming back from Edinburgh late on Thursday night.”

That Thursday we emerged onto the street around half-seven, straight from King’s Cross.  “Prime time,” I said.  We walked through the crowds without a hint of interest from any of the usual suspects.  “I can’t believe it,” I said.  “I swear, every time I walk through there I get offered, and I look like a damned cop.”

“Maybe it’s me?” she said.  “They must know I’d just laugh and call them pussies.”

She got a taxi to Heathrow at six on the Sunday morning. I went over to water my parents’ plants and do their mail at ten.  I came out of Brixton Tube at half-eleven, the sun high in the sky. “Skunk,” said a deep voice.  “Weed,” offered another.

Inherited Scooby-Doo Fanaticism

August 28, 2006

My friend Simon and his family were over from Ghana.  They came back after an afternoon shopping expedition to Streatham.  Two-year-old Mya was wearing brightly-coloured Scooby-Doo sandals and was keen for me to admire them (see photo).  “Scooby-Doo!” she said and then ran off laughing.  The shoes squeaked loudly like dogs’ toys with each step.  “Uncle Mark!” she shouted as she ran, squeaking, back into the room.  For the sake of my sanity, I made a mental note not to get her excited whilst she was wearing those sandals.

Mya's Scooby-Doo sandals

I was agog at the extent of Mya’s enthusiasm, because her Australian half-brother who is seven years her senior is also a big Scooby fan.  Christmas 2004 in Ghana had seen us all watching a 24-hour Scoobathon with young William.  Then I realised that there must be a Scooby-Doo Fan gene — and Simon is obviously a carrier.

See also In Praise of Scooby-Doo’s Mystery Machine

An Unsettling Quiet on the London Underground

August 10, 2006

It was eerily quiet on the Tube home tonight, and I had a seat on each of the three trains I took — this was at the rush-hour peak.  The Northern Line platform at Bank was emptied of the usual, heaving crowds I’ve been contending with ever since the Waterloo and City Line was closed for maintenance.  Normally one can barely squeeze down it, but this evening one could have sprinted because there wasn’t even a full line of passengers at the edge.  Perhaps people heard the news this morning and stayed at home, remembering the long walks home last summer on the 7th and 21st of July — afternoons where thousands of strangers walked together, bound by sadness.  I know many of us are simply waiting for the next attack on London’s soft underbelly… and somewhere there’s a group of misguided youths, dreaming of ‘glorious’ martyrdom.

The Curious Case of the Unhappy Ghanaian

August 9, 2006

I had my friends from Ghana staying with me, in what is becoming a July tradition.  Their two children Mya Ekua (2) and Chris Kofi (11 months) were a joy, but a handful.  Shannon had been able to guide me — a 40-year-old bachelor — into buying the right gifts for them on my trip to the States.

Simon and Efua didn’t want the chocolate I’d brought back for them, but I had something she wasn’t expecting.  We’re both fans of Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, and I had planned a little surprise for her weeks in advance.  I opened up an Amazon box, telling her I had something I knew she’d love.  I took out a copy of the latest novel in the series: Blue Shoes and Happiness.  “There you are,” I said, triumphantly.

“What’s this?”

“It’s the latest in the series about Mma Ramotswe.”

“It can’t be.  I’ve read them all,” she insisted, holding the weighty hardback.

“It is.  It’s the latest one,” I said.  I looked at Simon, who looked embarrassed by his wife’s incredulity.  “He was contractually obliged to write two more after Cheerful Ladies.”

“There are no more books on Mma Ramotswe.  This is something else.”

“But can’t you see from the cover?  It’s by Alexander McCall Smith.  Read the back cover.”

“Have you read it?” asked Simon, perhaps to break the awkwardness.

“No.  I’ve been too occupied with reading for my novel.  I’ll get it when it’s out in paperback.”

“Oh,” said Efua finally, reading the cover.  “Thank you.”  Then she turned to me.  “You didn’t ask my question on the radio!”

“You didn’t get it to me in time, so I had make one up.”  Harriett Gilbert, my course director on the MA, has a couple of BBC World radio shows.  In World Book Club earlier this year, she interviewed Alexander McCall Smith.  I had promised her a question from a Ghanaian, knowing Efua would love it.  “I emailed you a number of times and I copied Simon so I knew you’d get them.”

“Why didn’t you get her to ask my question?” I found her aggression difficult to read, and out of character.

“You emailed me after the show was recorded.”

“But I emailed you the question.  You should have got her to ask it,” she said, irritated.

“But the show had been recorded by the time I got it.  That’s why I had to make up a question on the day.  I emailed you several times and you never replied.  It had been recorded by the time I got your question.”

Simon saw my discomfort: he was uncomfortable himself.  “She had her hands full with the kids when she heard it.  She was really pleased to hear her name read out on the radio.  It was a lovely thing to have done.”

I explained the bizarre business of the book and the question to Shannon the next day: I couldn’t understand Efua’s behaviour.  “How old’s Chris?” she asked.

“Eleven months.”

She laughed.  “Less than a year.  Her hormones are everywhere — she’s just not herself.  And just you wait until fatherhood, mister.”

Bugged Into Hypocrisy

August 7, 2006

There’s always a certain relief to getting home, no matter how good one’s vacation.  After all, I had been gone nearly four weeks.  There was a pile of mail in the hall, but not as much as I’d feared.  Despite the jetlag, I had stopped at the shops for milk and vegetables on my way back from the station.  First things first: a cup of tea.

The kitchen was swarming with ants.  Hundreds, if not thousands, of them.  They were going to and from the back door in a neat line, supporting a steady stream of winged ants headed in the direction of the door only — off to colonise and plague other householders.  Except that the door was airtight and the ants had plastered it with their glistening black bodies and shimmering wings.

This swarm happens on the same July day every year.  Last year it happened whilst I was at work.  Friends arriving from Ghana opened the front door to find the hallway floor a writhing black carpet of ants.  On that occasion, they bought insecticide and sprayed it liberally over the intruders — something I disapproved of strongly.

I reached for my trusty Dyson and vacuumed up every ant in sight.  It was then apparent that they were coming from under my dishwasher.  I pulled the machine out from under the unit and found discarded egg husks and serried ranks of insects waiting to venture out.  A couple of passes with the vacuum and they were gone.

I went out for a run to shake the jetlag off.  When I came back, more ants had emerged.  I vacuumed them up and saw that they’d mined a long hole in the grout between the tiles and the wall.  I rummaged around in my cupboard for the insecticide my friends had bought last year.  With a heavy heart, I shook the can and sprayed it liberally down into the nest.

The Beast of Orchard Lane (Part II)

August 4, 2006

Read The Beast of Orchard Lane (Part I) before continuing. 

I was determined that the Beast would not close down my main running route from the house.  But it was also the last day of my stay.  “Can you take Skip with you?” asked Shannon.  “He’s driving me nuts.”

“Sure,” I said.  I knew that Skip spent time with the dogs down Orchard Lane, so I thought he must know the Beast.  He strained at his leash as we headed down the drive and onto Orchard Lane, which was littered with dog turds.  We passed the Beast’s territory without incident, but Skip whined a little as we ran past the house of another loud dog that I’d faced down successfully a few days before encountering the Beast.  He had always whined as we passed this dog’s patch.  I wondered whether that meant that he was actually part of the Beast’s pack.

We ran down to Forestville, the neighbourhood dogs barking behind their fences.  Skip didn’t respond to any of them, trotting obediently beside me.  Then we began the climb up Orchard Lane.  We reached the point where the tarmac runs out.  The coast was clear.

Then there was yap up to my left and as I ran on I saw a driveway leading up to a house.  The yap was from a pathetic little long-haired mutt, but with it was the Beast, its eyeballs practically popping out of its head.  The two dogs bounded down the drive towards me.  Skip glanced to his left and… completely ignored them.  They stopped in their tracks.  I was free to run on — I had faced down and tamed yet another dog.

But as Skip and I ran into the cutting there was a crashing in the undergrowth as the Beast ran to catch up with us.  It was above head height as it began its dreadful barking.  But not one of the Forestville dogs had ever crossed even an unfenced property boundary.  And I reasoned that, if Skip hadn’t responded to the Beast, then surely I had nothing to fear.

It burst out of the bushes twenty yards ahead and ran, barking, down the path towards us.  Skip trotted on beside me.  With four miles under our feet in ninety-degree heat, was he simply too tired to respond?  Would there be fur flying, and had I made things worse by bringing him?  The Beast made a jump at me but I kept my pace as it sidestepped.  “Bad dog!” I shouted.  It ran up behind me and jumped again, falling short.  I yelled some obscenities and the Beast gave up its chase earlier than last time.  But was it because it realised I wasn’t a threat, or because I’d had Skip with me?  We ran up the drive to the house.  “Thanks for nothing,” I said to Skip, letting him off his leash.

“How’d it go?” asked Shannon.

“The Beast completely ignored Skip, and the little bastard ignored him too.  I’m taking a fucking gun next time.  Greg’ll lend me his Glock, won’t he?”

“Oh, my God.  You’re becoming an American!”

Riding Shotgun

August 3, 2006

“Shotgun!” shouted Zoe as we headed for the SUV.  I looked at her, mystified.  “Whoever shouts ‘shotgun’ first gets to sit in the front seat,” she explained.

“Okay, you won fair and square,” I said.  Delighted, she skipped to the car and clambered into the front.  I sat in the back and fastened my seatbelt.

Shannon came out with her mandatory cup of coffee and got into the driver’s seat.  “What the hell are you doing in there whilst Mark’s in the back?”

“I said ‘shotgun’ first, so I get to sit here.”

“It’s adults only in the front seat, so Mark goes in the front seat.  Come on, get back there.”

Zoe did as she was told and joined me on the back seat.  “Go on, you have the front seat now,” she said.

“It’s adults-only in the front seat, Zoe,” I said.  “Do you really think I’m an adult?”

“No,” she replied without hesitating.  I held up my hand and she gave me a ‘five’, laughing.

Shannon glared back at me through her sunglasses.  “You,” she said.  “You’re impossible.”

Fit to Pop Over Yorkshire Pudding

July 30, 2006

This is a follow-on from our conversation about which was more uniquely American — apple pie or blueberry.  (Click here to read it.)

Shannon, Zoe and I had been out for a run at Point Reyes.  We’d kept Zoe motivated with the promise of an early meal at a famous restaurant.  “I’m ordering popovers and cornbread to start,” said Shannon.  “I hope they still do popovers — you’ll love them.”

She needn’t have worried: instead of bread, the waitress put down a basket containing three pieces of cornbread and three Yorkshire puddings.  “This is a Yorkshire pudding,” I told her, putting one on my side plate.

“It’s a popover,” she said, her voice tightening.

“It’s named after where they were invented.  How can you possibly claim to be an Anglophile, and to have been to Britain fifteen times if you’ve not had roast beef and Yorkshire puddings?”

“It’s a popover.”  Her eyes glistened dangerously.

“Perhaps if you were to ‘pop over’ to Yorkshire you’d find an angry mob waiting to lynch you?”

“They’re delicious!” said Zoe.

“Now, your American cornbread is delicious by itself.  Yorkshire puddings are especially delicious when eaten properly, as an accompaniment to beef, especially if the gravy’s good.”  The popover was the blandest Yorkshire pudding I’ve eaten in my life — almost as tasteless as fufu — made all the more so by being eaten on its own.  I went for a slice of cornbread to put some flavour into my mouth.

“We are eating them properly,” said Shannon.

“They taste even better when they’re eaten with roast beef,” I told Zoe.  “When we pop over to London England-land-shire at Christmas we’ll eat them properly with roast beef.”

“We’re eating them properly here,” said Shannon.

“As an Italian American, where would you go for a real pizza?  Would you ‘Hit the Hut’ or go to Naples?”

“I can’t wait to go to London at Christmas!” exclaimed Zoe.

I flashed a victorious smile at Shannon’s withering look.  The silence was as golden as a good Yorkshire pud.

Can’t See the Wood for the Bars

July 29, 2006

“Stop!” I yelled.

She hit the Pause button on the TiVo. “What?” We were watching a documentary on a rape and murder in a Bible Belt state. I’d asked her to freeze the picture on a man talking to camera.

“His name, it’s hilarious.”

“I don’t get it. Explain.”

“Randy Wood. He sounds like a porn star. I know you understand the ‘Wood’ bit, because that’s American slang for erection. ‘Randy’ in Britain means horny. So to a Brit this guy’s name means ‘Horny Erection’.”

“Yeah, I see that. God, that is funny.”

“You know on my website I have a section of words in foreign languages which are offensive in English, as well as English words which can be offensive in other tongues. This guy’s photo is going on it.” I tooka photo and we resumed our viewing.  (Click to see unintentional foreign humour.)

Randy Wood

Then we found that — although Randy Wood took part in an horrific crime when a drunken teenager — he’s an honourable man.  He helped the prosecution build a tight case against the instigator, who brutally murdered a former girlfriend of Randy’s.  Even the chief prosecutor and the victim’s family urged him not to go down a particular legal route, and to take a plea bargain instead.  But Randy did it because he had a strong sense of wrong and right.  As a result, he’s in jail without parole for forty years.  Had the murder taken place just yards away, in his home state of Oklahoma (thanks for the correction, Mo), he’d perhaps be serving ten.  But it took place in Texas — the one state that can make Mississippi’s justice system look liberal by comparison.  For more information: read this.

What’s Your Poison?

July 28, 2006

Like many Californian settlements short on history but long on sentiment, Santa Rosa makes much of its Historic Square.  The march of progress since 1833 has seen the Square overshadowed by an elevated section of Route 101, which is currently being widened.  The disused stone-built station has been converted into a tourist office — though it’s a sign of another kind of progress that the railway should be rolling again by 2009.

And at one side of the Historic Square is the Aroma Café, a long, single-storey building.  It’s here that Shannon and I often go to write.  It’s the antithesis of Starbucks, and at peak times there are queues out of the door.  We regularly drive twenty minutes to get to it.

After 16 years of travelling in the States, it’s the first place I’ve found that does really good tea: Irish Breakfast.  I learnt to buy 20oz cups, rather than pots because I found that by the time I reached the end of the pot the tea was so strong I got a caffeine headache — something I’d not had since giving up coffee fourteen years ago.

There’s a wonderful, understated quirkiness to Aroma’s.  Your order is taken with your name on it, so you and the staff get to know one another on a first-name basis.  There are no staff uniforms, and the young crew come in a variety of clothes, a multitude of piercings and a gallery of tattoos.

There’s free wireless connection, but that’s where the welcome ends because the power sockets are papered over with notes saying ‘You will be asked to leave if you use this socket’.  Shannon and I bring extended battery packs.

The gorgeous Shannon in her native habitatShannon in the Aroma Café

But if the warmth of the welcome to laptop users is un-American, the health information is not.  There are cards posted at the counter — and even in the toilets — telling you just how much caffeine is in your beverage (see picture – click for larger view).  And in a nod to its effects, the café has a free water dispenser with proper beakers.

Caffeine guideCaffeine content

It begs the question as to whether the owner is afraid of patrons either ‘driving under the influence’ of caffeine, or concerned about future lawsuits relating to kidney stones due to dehydration.  And it finally puts paid to the myth about tea having more caffeine than coffee.

A Flying Fish

July 27, 2006

Sonoma County has bought old quarries and turned them into recreational lakes.  We took the kayaks down one afternoon for a paddle on one of them.  Shannon had her dog, Skipper, on the prow of her boat.

We’d been on the water about twenty minutes when I saw a large bird of prey hovering a hundred feet above the water.  I pointed it out to her.  “An osprey,” she said.  As soon as she’d said that, it tucked its wings in and began to drop.  It hurtled towards the water and flared its wings as its talons splashed through the surface just forty yards from us.  The huge effort in changing direction was so impressive that neither of us will ever forget it.  As it beat its wings and lifted away, we could see that it had seized a decent-sized fish.  Neither of us spoke until it had landed in the top of the tallest tree overlooking the lake and began to eat its fish.

“I’ve always wanted to see that in real life and I never thought I would. Never,” I said.

“Me too,” she said.  “And we saw it together.”

The ripples from the splash reached us.

Manhattan vs. Womanhattan

July 24, 2006

We were lying in bed watching TV, our laptops on.  Suddenly she stiffened.  “I have to go for a walk.”  She saw my look.  “Don’t’ worry, it’s not you.”

I waited, watching the real-life American carnage on CourtTV.  She came back five minutes later and got back into bed.  I put an arm around her.  “Want to talk about it?”

“That frikkin’ agent in New York rejected my proposal.”

“Did he tell you why?”

James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces apparently wrecked the market for autobiographical works from unknowns after the Oprah Winfrey-endorsed book was revealed not to be a memoir.  The agent said it would be several months before editors commission such works again, pointing to some edits she might make in the interim.

“Most writers would kill for a rejection like that,” I said.  “He’s telling you it’s marketable in a few months, and that you can use that time to edit it.”  She smiled weakly.  “He’s also a man.  Didn’t I say that this is very much a woman’s story, and that you should focus on your experience as a mother?  His hobbies are yachting and golf, for God’s sake — he’ll never understand it.  You’re going to break the heart of every mother in America with this book.  Approach a female agent and you’ll sell your manuscript in a matter of months.”

“Thanks, babe.  You’re right.  You know, this is one of the things that’s so great about our relationship.  This whole mutual support is so powerful.”  We talked excitedly about the edits, and I made her laugh about how the male agent’s going to feel when he sees her book soaring up the bestseller lists.  She rejected the idea of looking for an agent on the West Coast, at least for now.  “I’ve just always wanted to be able to say ‘I’m going to see my agent in Manhattan’.”  I didn’t question her — we all have our dreams, and I want to make hers reality.

Three weeks later she forwards me an email from a female agent in Manhattan.  The agent is interested and wants to see more of the manuscript, together with a marketing plan.  “See that?”  I told her.  “It came on the twenty-first.  Your lucky number’s three and mine’s seven.  Three sevens are twenty-one.”  We set to work editing the documents.

After the Fireworks

July 23, 2006

Shannon and I were in San Francisco for July the Fourth.  We watched the spectacular firework display from the swimming club near Fisherman’s Wharf, where she trained for the Treasure Island triathlon last year.  Some members of the club chose to swim out into the harbour of Aquatic Park to experience them at closer hand.  “I’m going to be in the water next year,” she said.

The following afternoon we ran from our hotel on Nob Hill to Fisherman’s Wharf.  It was a warm summer afternoon, with none of the fog so typical of the Bay Area at that time of day.  We ran along the sea front in the direction of the Golden Gate Bridge and then out along the curving west pier of Aquatic Park, the spent cinders of the star shells from the firework display underfoot.  When we reached the end of the pier I spotted a seal bobbing in the water.  “Look,” I said.

“You hear stories about them biting swimmers,” she said.

“I’ve scuba-dived with them and never felt threatened — they’re very playful.”  The seal disappeared.

“I really feel like a swim.  Fancy coming?”

“Shanny, there’s a time and a place for it.  You’ve got a sore stomach and you’re finding running difficult.  Imagine what it’ll be like with the cold-water shock.  And you must never get into water where you can’t see an exit point.”

“Over there,” she replies, pointing at the beach two hundred yards away.  She’s already astride the harbour wall.  “Go on, dare me to do it.”

“No.”  I know that she will always rise to any dare.  “What would I tell your parents when I meet them for the first time?  ‘I’m sorry, she sank before I could save her’?”


“Not a bit of it.  Just sensible.”

“Come on, dare me.”

“Absolutely not.” I decided my best strategy was to resume my run.  After a few seconds she followed me.

Lying in bed later she said,  “Thank God you didn’t dare me, my stomach’s agony.”  A few days later she had an emergency scan for a suspected hernia that turned out ‘only’ to be a torn stomach muscle, with a blood-blister the size of a grapefruit.


July 22, 2006

“I’m going to take you on my favourite ride now,” said Shannon as we left Zoe and Jonah at the water park.  “You know Zoe loves big-thrill rides like Top Gun, but she refuses to go on this one again.  Think you can handle it?”  She squeezed my hand.

“Of course,” I told her, squeezing back.  “The scariest ride back at home was the dive-bomber.  I went on it nine times in a row when I was twelve.  I couldn’t afford a tenth time.”

Delirium is a giant pendulum that swings up beyond the horizontal as the passengers are simultaneously spun around on the end, legs dangling.  Disembarking passengers looked genuinely shaken.

We reached the front of the queue and dashed for seats next to each other.  Bars locked down over our shoulders.  “No going back now,” she said.  “Sure you can take it?”

“I’m more worried about whether you’re going to be able to take this,” I replied.  I reached for her hand as we swung higher and other passengers started screaming uncontrollably.  The fluctuation in g-force was literally breathtaking — taking us from weightlessness to face-sagging g-force and back with increasing rapidity.  “This is what it’s like getting emails from you,” I said.  She struggled to turn her head to look at me.  “I have no idea what to expect.  It could be loving, or you could be tearing a strip off me.  It can be really unpleasant.”

She can’t free her hand from my grip.  “You bastard — I can’t hit you because my other arm’s locked down.”

“See what I mean?” I replied.  “Mood swings more violent than this ride.”  We both howled with laughter as the ride hurled us upside down.  “And that was last Tuesday morning,” I yelled.

We staggered off the ride, hand-in-hand.  “You really meant what you said, didn’t you?” she said, wiping away tears of laughter.

“Yeah.  But I wouldn’t have it any other way — you know that.”

Skipper Shipwrecked in Lake Sonoma

July 21, 2006

The Americans excel at recreation, particularly when it comes to water sports.  The first time I drove through the high desert of Arizona I was amazed to see speedboats on trailers — which I later found were heading for a reservoir.

Lake Sonoma, Northern California, is about 70 miles north of San Francisco and was created in the 1980s for flood control, irrigation… and recreation.  Covering over 2,700 acres (England’s biggest lake, Windermere, is around 3,600 acres), it is formed from several valleys, giving it a huge shoreline of coves and bays.

We rented a ‘party barge’ — a half-covered platform floating on three aluminium tubes, powered by an outboard motor.  Shannon navigated as I piloted us to a deserted bay near a tributary she’s used in the past.  We tied the prow to the top of a sunken tree and cut the engine.  Across the bay there was a rocky outcrop and the four of us – Shannon, Zoe and her friend Nova – as well as Skipper the dog, swam over.  The water was not cold, though it was cloudy from the dust blown from the arid countryside.

It was Skip who provided the entertainment.  A keen chaser of sticks and balls, he couldn’t grasp that stones sink, so Zoe and Nova had him chasing splash after splash.  In his frustration, he tried biting into the branch we were moored to so I swam to the other shore and brought him back a stick.  He enjoyed jumping off the boat to fetch it, with me there to retrieve him and his stick from the water.

Skipper shipwrecked in Lake Sonoma

He let us know he’d had enough of the game by putting his front legs over a fork in the branches of our mooring tree, looking every inch the shipwrecked Skipper.

The Beast of Orchard Lane (Part I)

July 19, 2006

I took my usual run down Orchard Lane, out onto Russell lane and then on to Forestville itself.  I waved at the odd neighbour I’d become familiar with through my regular runs.  Dogs barked at me from behind fences and ran the length of their properties.  I turned back after twenty-five minutes.  It was a baking summer afternoon and the journey back up to my girlfriend’s house would be a punishing 300ft climb in the heat.

I ran up Russell Lane and dug in for the steepest part of Orchard Lane.  Just where the road changed from Tarmac to gravel, I heard a deep and unfamiliar woof.  I looked up to see a massive Rottweiler bounding down towards me.  Its docked tail gave me no indication of its mood — here was a real test of my supposed ability with animals.  I decided to do what it would least expect: I kept on running towards it on a collision course.

I can’t recall which of us side-stepped the other, or perhaps it was both of us.  I heard it scattering stones behind me as it turned.  The barking continued and I heard it closing on me again.  I shouted “Bad dog!” over my shoulder as it jumped and snapped at my heels.  It ran past, turned, and ran at me again.  It was the Beast who side-stepped this time, though my heart was pounding.  I shouted some obscenities at it, which I hoped the owner might hear and call off the hound.

Towards the end, Orchard Lane turns into a steep-sided cutting, with impenetrable undergrowth on both sides: I was in a real fix if things turned nasty.  But the path also dips slightly, so I upped my pace easily.  Behind me, the Rottweiler’s pace seemed to slow and I could see the gate to Shannon’s property, which would mark the limit of this dog’s domain.  The last thirty yards to the gate were uphill again, and as my pace slowed, the barking grew louder and the Beast streaked past me again, this time brushing my right leg.

It stood snarling and barking in front of the gate, ignoring the abuse I shouted at it.  I ran past the car gate, through the open pedestrian entrance.  After a couple of barks from its territory, it trotted back down the lane.

Neither Shannon nor her stepson — whose friend lives on Orchard Lane — knew who owned the Beast.  A search in the car the next day revealed nothing either.  I couldn’t afford to have this running route closed to me, but could I risk taking it with the Beast unleashed?  Would it let me away with a second incursion into its territory?

Continued . . . Read The Beast of Orchard Lane (Part II)

Fuzzy Feelings

July 18, 2006

I was brushing my teeth when there was a mewling at the bedroom door.  “That’s Fuzz,” said Shannon.  “He’s very shy, so I’m surprised he wants in if he knows you’re here.”  She went to the door and let the cat in.  He was the only one of her pets I’d not met — an old cat with a tail as thick as one of Ken Dodd’s tickling sticks.

Fuzz made his way over to me and sniffed my ankle.  Then he leapt onto the washbasin counter and began rubbing my arm as I continued to brush my teeth.  “He never does that with anyone else,” said Shannon.  I shrugged and rinsed my mouth out before getting into bed.  Fuzz joined me and let me stroke him as Shannon got under the covers.

“First you stole my dog,” she wailed.  “And my ten-year-old daughter thinks you’re fantastic.  Now you’ve stolen my damned cat.”

“They say kids and animals just know when to trust someone,” I tell her.  I use my other hand to stroke her head and we both laugh.

Growing Pains

July 16, 2006

Shannon’s ten-year-old daughter, Zoe, fell off her bike the other day and got a bad graze under her right arm.  The pain kept her awake the first two nights, but the wound healed well enough for us to go swimming yesterday.  However, the scab wore away in the water and she was in agony after her bedtime bath.

“I’ve got a magic plaster that will help,” I volunteered.  Zoe looked at me, puzzled.

“He means a Band Aid, sweetie,” said Shannon.

I drew out an oval Compeed plaster from its green plastic box.  Zoe eyed it warily.  “They’re like a second skin,” I explain.  “You keep them on for three days.  It’s space-age technology.”

I placed it over the wound to see if it would fit.  She winced.  It was an awkward moment: Shannon had seen me use these plasters and Zoe likes me a lot.  But this was new territory — only parents and medics are allowed the intimacy of pain in the cause of healing.  I had no stomach for the challenge at this stage of my relationship with Zoe and handed the plaster to Shannon.  Under my close instruction she applied the adhesive side to the wound as Zoe gasped and chattered her teeth.  “Now you have to take the cover off the top,” I said.  Zoe winced as I directed her mother in the removal of the two halves of the upper layer.

Shannon came back downstairs after putting Zoe to bed.  “Boy, you’re popular.  She’s convinced she’s the only person in the country with your special plaster.”

The next morning I had to lift Zoe out from behind a bike in the back of the SUV.  I realised I was lifting her right on her wound.  She saw the sudden fear in my face.  “It’s okay — it doesn’t hurt at all now with that plaster,” she said, smiling.  Then she looked at me seriously.  “Can you bring some of those plasters for my Mommy next time you come to visit?  She’s a little clumsy.”

Crawling King Snake

July 12, 2006

Sonoma County has been buying old quarries and converting them into recreation ponds for fishing and boating, with surrounding trails going from Santa Rosa to the ocean.  We were running on such a trail, with Skipper the Jack Russell terrier running ahead of us, when I noticed a snake crossing the path about thirty yards up.  “Look,” I said to Shannon.  Skip ran on oblivious and nearly tripped over it.  He jumped back a couple of feet and waited until we caught up, laughing at his un-canine behaviour.

“It’s a king snake,” said Shannon.  “Awesome!”  It was about four feet long, with brown and white stripes.  It rolled into a hypnotically winding coil and began to shake its tail, adopting a strike posture with its head.  Skip looked on, panting — wary but curious.

“You’re sure it’s not a rattler?” I asked.  “It’s shaking its tail.”

“They do that to make you think they’re rattlesnakes,” she said.  “They’re not venomous.”  I moved in for a closer look — sure enough, it had none of the telltale loose ‘rattle’ of skin on its tail.  “You never see them that big,” she said.  “Normally they get run over long before they get to this size.”  She bent down to touch it.  “In Native American lore they signify transformation and healing.”

As soon as Shannon touched it, the snake seemed to know that its ruse was over.  It unwound and continued on its way, and we went ours.

Late Hits

July 11, 2006

Being an American Football fan, Shannon often threatens to ‘late hit’ me, and is not averse to giving me the odd flick on the arm.  So when I received a hefty kick in the shin just after two in the morning the other night it wasn’t too much of a surprise.  She’d been fidgeting so much I thought she was awake.  I lay still for a while waiting for a follow-through or a comment, but none came.  In the morning I explained what had happened.  “Oh God, I’m so sorry,” she said.  “I was asleep.”

The following night I received another kick, slightly later, but this time it was her toenails that made contact first. They were sharp and painful.  “I never did this before,” she explained over breakfast.  “But you know I sleepwalk.  You should wake me up if it’s bad.”

“The sleepwalking’s fine,” I said.  “In fact, it’s quite comical.  You usually yell at the dogs and kick them out of the house.  It’s the sleep-beatings that are disturbing.”

She was twitching in her sleep again that night as I was half-awake at three o’clock.  “Woo-hoo!” she yelled, then landed a hefty overarm punch on my torso.  I lay awake and observed her sleeping form for a few minutes.  Her eyes were shut fast, with a smile that would have made an angel look guilty.  Only the occasional muscle spasm disturbed her serenity.

I explained the latest overnight activity to her in the morning.  “Wow,” she said.  “I actually dreamt I caught this long pass into the end zone that won the game.  That must have been it.”

After we turned out the lights last night I eyed her cautiously.  “You know, “ I said.  “I’d feel a lot more comfortable if you didn’t have a hunting knife on your bedside table.  Can you just imagine if you…?”  I did a long overarm movement towards her, clutching an imaginary blade.

“Oh my God.  You’re right.”  She leaned over to the bedside table.  The six-inch hunting knife glinted evilly in the moonlight as she handed over to me.  I put it in the drawer of my bedside table.  “I feel so much better that you’ve got it now,” she said.

I didn’t tell her that when I was younger I used to wake up some mornings and find my hand reaching for my alarm clock…

More American Than Apple Pie

July 9, 2006

Shannon’s youngest brother, Pete, was supposed to come round for dinner last night, so she cooked a blueberry pie in the afternoon.  She was amazed I’d never had one.  I watched as she mixed in sugar, cinnamon and the juice from a lemon I’d grabbed from the tree at the front of the house (Skip the dog is a champion lemon-plucker, but that’s another story).

When I got back from my run, the pie was cooling on the kitchen counter.  “Too hot a day to put it on the windowsill like in the cartoons, eh?” I remarked.  “To me, blueberry pie is the definitive American dish.”

“No, apple pie is the definitive American dish,” she said.  “As in ‘As American as apple pie’.”

“Yeah, but we eat apple pie in the UK all the time.  Blueberry pie is uniquely American.”

“You don’t have blueberries in Britain?”

“Nope.  With airfreighted produce you might get them now, but I’ve never seen them anywhere.  Apple, cherry or gooseberry pie yes – as well as something we call rhubarb crumble — but never blueberry.”

“But we do eat a lot of apple pie.  What’s a gooseberry?”

“A gooseberry is what Pete will be at dinner tonight.  We also eat a lot of apple pie, and you got it from us.  But blueberry pies are what you see in American cartoons.  Where would be the joy of throwing an apple pie at someone?  In Tom and Jerry, it would be blueberry pies every time.  There’d be a couple cooling off on the windowsill and Jerry would splat Tom with them.  You’d get that purplish goo running down his face.  Apple pies just don’t stack up: they have no comedic value whatsoever.  Blueberries are uniquely American.  It should be ‘As American as blueberry pie’.”

Pete didn’t show for dinner.  He missed a great blueberry pie.

San Francisco Insular

July 6, 2006

San Francisco, CA.  I was walking through the financial district at quarter to eight this evening.  I looked up and saw into a second-floor gym.  From behind every window stared out a glazed-eyed person in their 20s or 30s, exercising on machines which simulated running, skiing or cycling.

It was a warm, sunny July evening.  Earlier, I’d enjoyed a wonderful fifty-minute run that had taken me past Lombard Street, to Aquatic Park and Fisherman’s Wharf, along the historic piers to the Ferry Building.  I’d had spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Treasure Island and the Bay Bridge.  Finally, I’d raced a cable car up the harsh incline of California to Grace Cathedral.  It was a real privilege to be able to run for free through one of the world’s most beautiful cities on such an evening.

Why pay through the nose to lock yourself up in an air-conditioned, artificially lit gym to simulate exercise, when less than 200 yards away you could enjoy the run I enjoyed?  Why bother to pay a premium to live in San Francisco?  If you like your office environment so much that you choose to exercise in it, and if you have no poetry in your soul, then there’s a place for you 350 miles south of here — it’s called LA, and I suggest you move there.

Hissing in Action

July 2, 2006

We’re driving east on River Road, towards Santa Rosa on a sunny Californian morning.  The driver of the oncoming Highway Patrol car waves at Shannon and she raises a hand in reply.

“You know him?” I ask.

“Sure, that’s officer Hiss,” she says.  “I owe my last two speeding tickets to him.  We’re cool.  The one that did piss me off was a couple of weeks ago when he was driving in the opposite direction.  He spun around and then stopped me right there.  I always feel like I’m in Smokey and the Bandit with him.”

“So why don’t you stick to the speed limit – then he’s just Hissing in the wind?”  She cackles with laughter.  “You must have been pretty Hissed about that second ticket.  Boy, that was really Hissing in action, wasn’t it?”  We’re both laughing our guts out.  “But what you really need,” I say between laughs, “is a Hiss-terectomy.”