31 December 2006


Cliche it may be, but after two consecutive years of trying and failing to get a good view of Sydney's legendary New Year's fireworks extravaganza, I lucked out in spades, securing a ringside seat on something like the 31st floor of the Intercontinental Hotel. The perspective gained thereby was not exactly like the one you see here, as this photo was taken from somewhere further to the east, and from a lower elevation, but it's close enough.

How I came to be ensconced there in a $1500-per-night (okay, only $1200 in US money) eyrie is part of an ongoing story of what the UK music press used to call full-scale liggery. Actually, I don't think they used the exact term "liggery," but they did frequently refer to "liggers," i.e., that ubiquitous breed of A&R vipers, journos and assorted hangers-on who made it their life's work to blag a spot backstage (and preferably near the deli table/open bar) of any concert or industry event, to the point where genuine fans of the band(s) involved often throw up their hands (or their dinner) and flee back to their bedsits where they can focus on the music unimpeded by the hordes of grubs and ratbags it inevitably seems to attract.

But I digress, as always; the past couple days has had nothing to do with music, and I actually don't think I've made anyone ill, though that's always open to speculation. But I have been enjoying a rarely-experienced level of luxurious hospitality at absolutely no cost to myself, all through no merit whatsoever on my part except for happening to be in the right place at the right time. Before getting invited along to the Intercontinental, I'd been enjoying a convivial gourmet feast on the upper balcony of Michael's Balmain home, after which we all 12 or so of us trooped down to the Wharf to watch the 9 pm (aka "children's") fireworks, and then trooped off back to the city. Kevin, the enormously engaging albeit occasionally frantic Mancunian who'd laid out all the money for the Intercontinental viewing platform (plus another $185 to get up on the roof, where we, lacking the requisite tickets, weren't allowed to accompany him) was suitably impressed, but after all was done, said a bit wistfully, "You know, it might have looked better from Balmain" (which was stone cold free).

After that we threaded our way through the hordes back up to Oxford Street, where we parked ourselves at a table on the footpath in front of Grumpy Baker and proceeded to watch the tumultuous parade of drag queens, stumblebums, muscle boys, and assorted suburban revellers en route to clubs, pubs, and some particularly prodigious hangovers. It was uproarious good fun, somewhat squelched, however, when somewhere after 2 am there was a screech of brakes and a few screams, followed by a couple of resounding thuds and thumps. The first came when an exuberant but not especially agile celebrant was sent flying over the hood of a speeding car, landing on and shattering the windscreen. From there he rebounded halfway across the street, landing practically in front of us on the pavement.

Well, there's that one dead, we thought a bit squeamishly, but no, he simply gathered himself and his dignity - what was left of it, at any rate - rose to his feet, and strode into the fast food chicken place next door to get a bite to eat. When the police arrived a few minutes later, the officers fanned out in what looked like it might be a fruitless search for "the victim." They finally did locate him, though, and then got involved in a lengthy argument with him over why he needed to go to the hospital to be checked out. I think they finally took him away, possibly under duress, and given the usual state of A&E units on New Year's Eve, I wouldn't be surprised if he's still sitting there waiting to be seen. Here's hoping the police at least allowed him to bring along his chicken sandwich.

This morning the heavens opened up with semi-tropical downpour, but it dried up soon enough for us to resume our watch stations on the Oxford Street front, which made for delightful viewing when, between 10 and noon, the various clubs began the chucking out process, herding bedraggled and bewildered drug and fashion victims out into the bleary midday sun, which was doing no favours to what was left of their makeup and/or outfits. Although the weather continues to be more reminscent of an English or San Franciscan summer than a proper Aussie one, it's still reasonably pleasant, and I must say that all things considered, the future looks rather bright indeed on this halcyon New Year's Day.

Oh, but before I go, I must mention my other major bit of liggery-pokery, on New Year's Eve Eve. That night I was invited along - why I'm not quite sure - to a "drinks party," which, though I don't have a lot of experience in such matters (in my drinking days, a "drinks party" would probably have involved 40-ouncers, some brown paper bags, and the nearest public park), is, I assume, the Australian equivalent to the American cocktail party. It was in what could safely be described as a mansion or at least a mansionette (the one next door was actually bigger and grander) looking out over Double Bay, and the guest list was heavily weighted toward multi-multi-millionaires, as near as I could tell.

The walls were hung with several hundred museum-quality (or better) paintings, to the extent one might have wondered if there was any point to having walls at all apart from holding up the paintings (for want of anything intelligent to say on the subject, I observed that it would be a terrible nuisance for them if they ever had topack up and move house). Strolling waiters provided endless amounts of wine and champagne (soft drinks were a little harder to come by, but available as well) and about 14 different kinds of finger foods (which has always sounded terribly unappetising to me, in that I half expect to see freshly detached fingers protruding from the elegantly constructed sandwiches).

I fell into conversation with several of the assorted heirs and magnates, one of whom was an acid-tongued chairperson of the local monarchist society, and another of whom was deeply concerned about the socialists who, if not watched closely, were going to ruin the Australian economy. Being no fan of socialism myself (to be fair, there is very little overt socialism being practiced in Australia these days, but one must remain vigilant!), we were able to have a merry old time bemoaning the state of things, until the topic shifted to the need to control those dreadful trade unions.

Fair enough, I conceded; many unions - London's Transport Workers, for example - have grown extremely corrupt, and do a great deal of harm, but at the same time, having grown up in a union family and heard from my father what it was like in the 1920s and 30s before the unions were successful in organising American factories, I could see that side of the issue as well. "I think I'll go see if I can find a bathroom," he told me, and that was the last I saw of him. Robert later furnished me with a report on his family, apparently (like most of the other families represented there) one of Australia's typical aggregations of plutocrats, all of whom seem to have gone to the same handful of schools and are related to the same handful of Antipodean aristocrats-in-exile. It was all very fascinating until they got onto the subject of old school ties (and in connections, not neckwear), at which point my eyes glazed over and I was glad to get back to the grubby environs of Oxford Street.

29 December 2006

Fast Away The Old Year Passes

Which reminds me, that was one Christmas carol I didn't hear a single time this year. However, Christmas in ancient history now; Sydney is all abuzz with New Year plans now, with little more than 24 hours remaining before a million or two people start their frenzied lemming-like migration down to Harbourside to try and find a suitable vantage point for watching the world's most spectacular fireworks display (in two installments, at 9 and midnight).
Considering that Sydney Harbour is absolutely massive, it wouldn't seem that getting to see the fireworks presented that much of a challenge, but when you consider the skyscrapers, the hills, the private properties, and the armies of drunks who occupy all the high ground, you'd be surprised. Put it this way: despite my best efforts, I have yet to see an unobstructed view of the midnight fireworks, and although I saw the 9 pm version pretty clearly last year, it was from out in Balmain, far enough removed that the heady sensation of bombs bursting in air all around you is more or less lost.

If you're willing to stake out a spot by Circular Quays at around 5 or 6 in the evening and then somehow occupy yourself for the next six hours while all around you the crowd gets thicker and drunker and crazier, you'll get the full effect of the pyrotechnic spectacular but, erm, I'm not. So unless one of us comes up with a better inspiration - and heads were being put together at sidewalk cafes all over town today trying to brainstorm this dilemma - it may well be Balmain again for me this year.

There's been very little in the papers of late other than a series of lists of somebody's best/worst movies/books/news events/fashion disasters/spiritual discoveries of 2006, and these seldom cease to annoy me. Not because I actually read them, which I don't, but because they take up space that might be dedicated to something worth reading. But since nobody in Australia - at least not anyone who has any control over the matter, which includes most media personnel - has done any meaningful work since well before Christmas, it's questionable that anyone would be around to write more interesting articles or, for that matter, to read them.

Yesterday one of my occasionally employed friends took me up to the north of Sydney, to the beginnings of the Central Coast, where the skies opened up with - surprise, surprise - a sudden burst of unexpected sunshine, enabling us to get in some quality beach time on one of the biggest, widest and longest beaches I've seen yet. The only trouble was the waves, which were rather taller than I was, and showed a distressing tendency to flatten people face first into the sand if they mistimed their approach into the water by so much as a millisecond. Needless to say, I never made it in past my knees, and even they got a sound thrashing from the swirling waters, but my friend, who's a rather keen and accomplished swimmer, still managed to get smacked down with sufficient vigour that he was still picking grains of sand out of his ears on the drive back to Sydney, by which time the weather had reverted to form, said form being thunder, lightning and copious amounts of rain.
Tonight I'm invited to some rather formal party out in the more or less posh suburb of Double Bay (formal by Sydney standards meaning that people are likely to eschew sandals and put on shirts that require buttoning), but haven't decided yet if this is something I want to get involved in. There actually is an ironing board and iron where I'm staying, but whether I want to plug it in and venture to use it is another matter altogether. I've been lugging my beach towel and swimmers around with me all day in what look to be vain hopes that the sun would put in enough of an appearance to make a beach trip worthwhile, but with the afternoon - like good old 2006 - fast waning, it doesn't look as though it's going to happen.
And with that, I guess I can't help being the kind of ponce I was railing against only a few paragraphs ago and cast a look back over the year. The thing is, inasmuch as I've kept up the radio and newspapers (oh yes, and the internet), it seems as though it must have been a perfectly dreadful year. Wars all over the place, people getting blown up and imprisoned and abused, politicians of unbelievable incompetence draining the Treasury for generations to come, the oil, the water, for all I know, even the air fast disappearing, and yet from a purely personal and selfish standpoint, I can't say it's been a bad year at all. I had similar experiences in the 1970s, when Nixon, Ford and Carter presided over ongoing political, financial and environmental disasters that had everyone in such an unrelenting funk that they resorted to dressing up in leisure suits and going to swingers' clubs, yet I personally prospered on a scale I could have never imagined. It probably didn't hurt that during much of this time I more or less ignored the news (very unusual for me, having been a current events and history junkie since around the age of 8 or 9), so when Reagan came along talking about how, "It's morning in America," I had to admit I'd never ever noticed it had been dark.
So I guess 2006 has been a bit of mini-version of that same phenomenon. Without wishing to downplay the personal or global tragedies experienced by so many, I have to confess that practically nothing more serious than the occasional inconvenience has befallen me during this year. I had an operation on my foot that seems to have turned out fine, I finally reached the decision (and took the action) to leave London and move to New York, I've had - as I have for the last few years - two summers, one on each end of the world, and though I did precious little work, my financial situation actually improved a bit.

My inbuilt Catholic guilt - which a commenter alluded to a few days ago - naturally makes me a bit alarmed at this, assuming as it does that even mild good fortune must inevitably be setting me up for a spectacular fall, but looked at from the other end of things, 2006 hasn't been anything that remarkable on the plus side, either. I haven't fallen in love - or seen so much as a smattering of a hint that such a thing might be possible, I haven't won the lottery (not that I play it, of course) or otherwise acquired a great fortune, I haven't even found the moderately well-paying job that I've been semi-actively looking for.

And at the moment my life is kind of in abeyance, suspended between two worlds, with my old home in London swiftly vanishing in the distance and my new one in New York still looming some way off in the distance. When I look at it that way, 2006 has been kind of like the last several "6" years, a period of retrenchment, marking time and gathering strength for the shocking and exciting changes to come in the following "7" year. It was definitely that way in 1996, when, at the end of my tether from trying to preside over the burgeoning Lookout Records empire, I was subconsciously laying the groundwork for my inglorious exit in the spring of 1997. In 1986 I was struggling back from the financial destitution of the year before, working on Lookout magazine, the Lookouts band, and helping to build Gilman Street (which celebrates its 20th anniversary tomorrow, hooray for them!), all of which contributed to making 1987 a banner year.

1976 was kind of lost in the haze of drug abuse and massive depression, but it was still comfortable and comparably noneventful, at least compared with the total upheaval of 1977, which saw me making more money and being more miserable than ever before, discovering punk rock, hating myself and everyone around me, and stumbling through a series of unmitigated disasters. So by that measure, 1976 wasn't bad at all.

The analogy falls down a bit when we get to 1966. True, once again I was being set up for a banner "7" year. I crammed more action and activity into 1967 than should be humanly possible, and it was nearly constantly thrilling, even though I was by almost any rational standard systematically ruining my life. But I'd been doing that in 1966, too, especially when I set fire to my college, got arrested for arson, and as a result ended up (oh, perhaps here's where the payoff comes in) getting disqualified from having to go to Vietnam and being put on Social Security disability, thus relieving me of the need to work for about 20 years. But let me tell you, it seemed pretty terrible at the time.

And 1956: absolute disaster from start to finish, except for our family's trip - the first proper "vacation" we'd ever taken - to the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, which probably helped plant in me the wanderlust with which I've been afflicted ever since. It's the year I went off the rails at school, stopped getting mostly A's, started being an ill-tempered, self-pitying, mouthy brat, and dedicated my life to being an antisocial misfit. Which, while it didn't produce a very pleasant 1957 - the first and only time I had a mohawk and the first time I got called a "punk" by some kid attempting to ritually humiliate me - it apparently helped set me up for a lifelong and relatively profitable career.

Sorry for any of you who are actually getting into this, but I can't furnish any memories of 1946, and those of 1947 are hazy at best, since I was preoccupied with the minutiae of being born. So, back to the future: I'm quite looking forward to 2007, as I have this abiding and perhaps touching faith that it's going to be a great year, both here in Sydney for the next two and a half months, then in my new home of New York City. I'm even willing to take the risk of jinxing things to say so, and just think how much pleasure of the schadenfreude ilk you readers will be able to derive from my posts over the coming year should my prediction fail to come to pass.

27 December 2006

Small Town, Small World

But even still, isn't it a bit odd to have already run into two people I know from London in less than a week? And the same thing happens when I'm in New York or (to a somewhat lesser extent) San Francisco. It's as though the several hundred people I know well enough to have a meaningful conversation with are not only constantly bouncing around the world much like myself, but that most of the bouncing is done within a few neighbourhoods of a select few cities where everybody either knows each other or knows someone who does.

Never mind, though. I'm sure someone, if not several someones, has already written more eloquently and perceptively about this aspect of globalisation than I could ever hope to, so why don't I get back to the fluffy, superficial stuff I'm more likely to excel at. The beach, for example. Today it was actually sunny and warm enough to go swimming and lie around basting in Factor 30+ for several relaxing hours. I even brought a portable radio - remember those? - so I could listen to England getting basted at the cricket, which seemed to annoy the perma-permed, nipple-pierced bronze Adonis who had unfurled his designer beach blanket and D&G bum bag next to me. He huffed and puffed ostentatiously as he plugged earphones into his mobile and repeatedly pushed them further and further into his ears, as if only the greatest effort and volume would suffice to drown out that dreadful sporting noise.

It's not that I'm a massive cricket fan myself, but the commentary, especially on the radio, ranges from soothing background noise - sort of like a languid, midsummer American baseball game - to wry and downright hilarious. The best bit is when the English BBC announcer comes in as a guest host; the interplay between him and the the ABC's Australian announcer is an artful blend of drollery and crassness, and not always originating where you might think it would. For instance, today the BBC man was telling an elongated anecdote that had something to do with a toilet - a "thunderbox," he called it at at one point - while the ABC man lent his broad Australian drawl to feigned - or possibly real - shock at the inappropriatenss of such a topic, "especially at lunchtime."

Anyway, I managed to get through my first full-length sunbaking session without so much as a splotch of pinkness, which means I'm either growing immune to the Aussie sun or more adept at applying great gobs of sunscreen, even to those parts of my body that are exceedingly hard to identify, let alone reach. Though even as I type this, I notice a slight redness to my arms, which mostly dissipates as soon as I take my glasses off. I put it down to the dreadful fluorescent lighting in this internet cafe which has come to serve as my second home here in Sydney.

Possibly not for long, however; my latest crisis is that my bank card won't work in the ATMs here, which means I'll be out of money within a day or so if some solution doesn't materialise. In order to resolve it I need to call the bank back in England, but since they've been shut down for the holidays, and only open about the time that sensible people here in Australia start going to bed, it's not the easiest thing to get through to them. It's simply a matter of luck that I have enough prepaid credit to keep me going at the internet cafe for a few more hours, but after that, who knows what will become of me? Should this happen to be the last blog post you ever read from me, direct all enquiries and complaints to Barclays Bank, London. It could be that I've been excised as one of their numerous cost-cutting initiatives.

25 December 2006

Christmas Barbie At The Beach

I don't think I've ever heard an Australian besides Paul Hogan utter the word "barbie" with a straight face (and I'm not sure Paul Hogan ever uttered anything with a straight face), but I'm a visitor here, so I'm entitled to use whatever awful Aussie slang I feel like.

Anyway, it's already such a cliche hereabouts to head for the beach and barbecue huge mounds of dead flesh to celebrate the birth of Baby Jesus that there's no point in striving for proper word choice when recounting my own participation in said ritual.

The sun finally broke through the celestial miasma that's been swirling over Southeastern Australia for the past week or so, but it still couldn't have been termed proper beach weather. That of course didn't stop my intrepid hosts, most of whom were either swimming or surfing before dinner, and a few of whom - those who didn't head out for the golf course - did so again afterward. But even the children, who normally seem impervious to temperatures that would freeze the bejeebers off of whatever creature it is that has bejeebers, commented that the water seemed a little cold. I dipped my toes in it, and it compared not all that favourably to the perennial ice pit lurking off the shores of Northern California.

The water temperature in Sydney Harbour is allegedly 20 degrees (68F), but the ocean has got to be a bit cooler than that. Last year at this time it was more like 23 (73F), which may not seem like that big a difference, but believe me, it is. Anyway, the stiff wind and waves as high as my head made swimming even less inviting, so I lay on the beach for a while getting sandblasted every time a particularly strong gust arose.

Most of the time, however, was spent up at the beach house, which doesn't sound like quite a grand enough description for a million dollar house with multi-million dollar views (and I'm talking American dollars here, not those puny 78-cent Australian ones). Apparently it's a requirement for every moderately successful Australian family to have a second home within sight of the water, and this particular Australian family is more than moderately successful. There was a matriarch, sadly a bit under the weather and just out of hospital for the day, seven children and assorted spouses, some of whom are high-powered movers and shakers in media and finance, others of whom, like yours truly, lead a more, erm, relaxed lifestyle, and nine grandchildren, ranging in age from six months to 20 years.

Dinner consisted of ham, turkey, chicken, lamb sausage, steak, and prawns, most of which had spent time on the barbecue grill out on the deck, and a token vegetable or two. Australians do love their meat, and a vegetarian would not be a happy camper in such an environment. On the other hand, there was loads of fresh fruit, even though someone forgot to take the diced watermelon out of the esky until everyone was packing up to go home. There was a fair bit of talk about the cricket - the oldest of the grandchildren was headed down to Melbourne in the morning for the fourth Ashes test match - and some mostly congenial argument about various political subjects too arcane to recount here.

All in all, a splendid Christmas, much nicer than I'd anticipated, since I'd been a bit hesitant about crashing what was otherwise solely a family celebration. It was really nice of them to have me, and I hope I didn't embarrass either of my home countries by my lack of couth or aplomb. Got home at 8 pm and promptly fell asleep, thus allowing me to get an early start on Boxing Day by waking up at 4 am. Oh, and the sun is actually shining full blast today, though the temperature is more akin to a bright day in early spring. Never mind, mustn't grumble, as all those years in England should have taught me. Curious, then, that the all-purpose Aussie epithet for Englishmen is "whingeing Poms."

24 December 2006

Christmas Eve

The southerly wind I spoke of yesterday dropped temperatures to the point where my t-shirt and shorts were simply not adequate, so I was home and in bed by about 10 pm, meaning I was up and about by 6 am this morning, which for those of you who know me personally will sound nothing short of miraculous. Which meant, of course, that I didn't have much of anything to do with myself, since my first order of business was going to the gym, and the gym wasn't opening until 8 because of some religious deal called Christmas Eve.

So I pottered around until 8, mostly listening to the football reports on the BBC and horror stories about the drought on the ABC, before heading down to the gym at 8:10, where I found about 30 exercise-crazed Aussies standing about in the rain, waiting for someone to show up and open the place. Being Aussies, they were pretty genial about it; New Yorkers would have been pounding on the doors and stopping random passersby to vent their feelings on the subject. Finally one bloke's mobile rang, and after a brief conversation, he announced to the crowd that someone had overslept, but would be there in "five minutes." Which, converting for Aussie time, I reckoned at between ten and twenty minutes, which turned out to be just about right.

The rain, which had been bucketing down since about midnight, finally let up just in time for me to walk up to the cathedral for Sunday Mass, presided over by the cardinal against whom I'd been warned, and assisted by 37 (!) altar boys. Seriously, I just grabbed the number 37 out of my nonexistent hat to express the idea that there were an awful lot of them, but as they exited, I counted, and what do you know? Exactly 37! I must be psychotic, erm, you know, that other thing...

The cardinal himself did look like a right drongo (hope I've got that bit of Aussie slang right, but even if I don't, it sounds like something he'd be). He's an enormous man, almost looking like a giant, but walks very hunched over, a posture emphasised by the - I want to say mitre, but I'm pretty sure that's his special bishop's hat, and I'm even surer because there was a pub called the Bishop's Mitre down an alleyway from my old church in London, and it had a hat hanging over the entrance - so what I mean, I guess, is his crook. A body-length, curved walking staff of the sort you see shepherds using in Biblical epics, but it did look a bit like an implement of destruction in his hands.

I know it's probably horrible of me to say, but he did look a bit evil. Probably it was only projection on my part, but my mind kept running through the various films he could have been a villain from. A bit of Darth Vader, a bit Orc from Lord of the Rings, and definitely a whiff of the Dementor from Harry Potter. The latter created the strongest impression, especially since the singing altar/choir boys also had a bit of Hogwarts about them, and the guy standing next to me, a Malaysian or Sri Lankan who came crashing into the pew at the last minute, leaving wet footprints across the kneeler (he walked his way in on it, rather than waiting for anyone to get out of his way), said his prayers in an accent that was a dead ringer for Harry himself.

But any other cavils aside, the church, the music, the flowers and decorations were all superb, and Darth Dementor even managed a pretty decent sermon, what I could hear of it. Being one of those preposterously high-ceilinged pseudo-goth edifices, the echo action was in serious effect. Being that it was a pretty posh display all around, I was shocked, well, surprised, anyway, that people were dropping 20 and 50 cent coins in the collection plate, where I would have expected 5 or 10 dollar bills ($4 to $8 US, 2 to 4 quid UK). I myself put in nothing, for which I was a bit ashamed, but all I had was a $50 bill, and that was just a tiny bit more generous than I felt like being, so I resolved to make it up next time I went.

Then as I was leaving I was stopped by a bedraggled lady who started in with one of those stories which you just know is going to involve a relative she needs to visit in hospital or not having enough petrol to get back to Wagga Wagga. "I'm trying to raise $50," she said, and I instinctively (after you've spent enough time among the beggars of London or Berkeley, it becomes instinctive, anyway) said, "No, sorry."

Then, walking down the street, I suddenly thought I could have just handed her a $50 bill and if nothing else, shut her up instantly, and probably blown her mind. And it was only $40 US, or 20 quid (sorry, I can't figure out how to do pound signs on these Aussie keyboards). It wouldn't have killed me. Who knows, she might actually have needed it for something besides booze or drugs, and what the hell, it's Christmas Eve.

But I didn't, and when I looked around to see if she was still begging on the church steps, I couldn't see her anymore. I had one of those eerie visions, like what if she was Jesus himself in one of his little disguises, checking out the true faith of the people who profess to be Christians? On the other hand, as I've also often thought, is it really doing someone a favour to hand them the money they most likely will use to buy drugs or booze that are slowly (sometimes not so slowly) and surely killing them?

But there you go, an opportunity to do either considerable good or evil (and not know for sure which it was) presented and swiftly passing away, which gave me something to brood about all the way home. In the afternoon I slept, and then went out to do some last-minute Christmas shopping for myself, which I managed by about five minutes, as the shops were all closing an hour before I'd anticipated. I needed a beach towel and some sunscreen (this is being very optimistic of me, and even the chemist who sold me the sunscreen remarked, "Good luck on finding some sun"), but tomorrow marks the great Aussie pilgrimage to the beach with which they seem to celebrate Christmas hereabouts, and should the sun put in a long-awaited appearance, I don't want to be unprepared. Having just arrived from the pale-skinned Northern Hemisphere, I couldn't risk more than 20 minutes in full sun without doing some serious damage.

And by the time I was finished, I'd spent almost as much as the poor old beggar lady had been asking for outside the cathedral, and once again felt a bit ashamed of myself, and a bit bewildered as well. How are you supposed to know the right thing to do sometimes, and is it always better to err on the side of trust and generosity? Something I'll have to give some serious contemplation to in these last few hours before Christmas is well and truly here.

23 December 2006

From A Windblown Street In Sydney

Wow, I see it's been a long time since I posted here. It seems even longer on this side of the world, where it's only a few hours away from Christmas Eve, whereas back in the States it's still yesterday. If that makes any sense.

In any event, yes, I am back in Sydney again, though not quite as enthusiastic about it as I've been the past couple years. This may have something to do with the fact that the weather has been kind of crap, more akin to an English summer than an Australian one. Yesterday we had a our first sustained bit of sunshine since I've been here, and while it got sufficiently warm to make it worthwhile going to the beach, there was a pretty stiff wind, and the water still had a bit of a chill to it. Robert, ever the consummate Sydney booster, was going on about what "a beautiful day" it was, but I felt it necessary to point out that while it might have qualified as a beautiful day in London, it was slightly sub-standard for Sydney.

Never mind, though; down south (which here in upside-down land is like saying "up north") it's been blazing hot and fires have been raging across the state, so they need this Antarctic blast of cool air and the rain it's bringing. And soon it will be hot and humid and sultry here in the streets of Sydney, or so they keep saying. If not, well, I've got a couple good books and there are a lot of cafes. I don't, however, have internet access at home, so my time here in blogland will necessarily be limited.

The other reason that I'm not quite as thrilled to be here as I have in past years is that I'm kind of antsy to get started on my new life in New York. I suppose these three months will qualify as some of interlude or intermezzo (I didn't know for sure what an intermezzo was until I looked it up just now, but it seems to fit), during which I can try to make sense of the now-ended London years and ponder what's to come when I finally settle down in Brooklyn this spring. Or perhaps "settle down" is not the most accurate term; I have a feeling that a new burst of activity and excitement is on the cards. But not just yet; Sydney seems positively sleepy by comparison with London or New York, and yet it's just enough of a big city to keep me on my toes. I found out last night that one of our dinner guests had recently been robbed at knifepoint right in front of our door.

Later on in the evening, over coffee, talk turned to the various things we had done for a living, and I went into a lengthy disquisition about my drug dealing career back in the 1970s. Our guest's eyebrows went up a bit, and shortly afterward he excused himself. "Who was that fellow, and how do you know him?" I asked Robert, only to be told that he was a District Court judge who had spent much of his life's work putting people not unlike me in prison. It should make for interesting conversation next time I see him, which I surely will, since I also learned that we are members of the same neighbourhood gym.

Just now I'm sitting in an internet cafe in the heart of King's Cross, one of Sydney's seedier districts, having just helped a lost Singaporean family visiting Sydney for the first time find their hotel just up the street from here. I kept wanting to ask them if they really wanted to stay around here, and to warn them that not everyone who offered to personally show them to their destination would have similarly good intentions, but the language barrier was sufficient that I didn't bother trying and simply hoped for the best. A chilly wind is scattering debris up and down the block, and clouds are hanging low over the building tops, promising a wet and stormy Christmas. I've been invited to the beach, the same beach where the shark alert sirens were blaring last time I visited. My crazy Aussie hosts will probably insist on going for a swim even if the temperature is only in the teens (60s for you Fahrenheit people), but it will be beautiful anyway.

Tomorrow I'm going to midnight Mass in the cathedral, though a couple locals have encouraged me not to because the Cardinal in charge is allegedly a homophobe and right wing control freak. I will do my best to concentrate on the music and the prayers and the message of the season, and if said Cardinal wanders off into unpleasant territory during his sermonising, I will resort to the old standby of clapping my hands over my ears and singing "La la la, I'm not listening." Call me a bad Catholic if you want, but just as I'm not going to let George Bush or Tony Blair ruin America or England for me, I'm not letting the occasional crackpot spoil a religion that's lasted 2,000 years. And religious considerations aside, I just plain adore Christmas carols, and will put up with considerable aggro to hear them. I know this may lay me open to excommunication should the Pope get wind of this, but unless I'm mistaken, I was already expelled from the fold back during my teenage years and have only sort of snuck back in by not calling too much attention to myself. So please, any of you potential troublemakers out there, could you do me a favour and not rat me out to the Vatican?

15 December 2006

Now Go Do The Right Thing

When Dr. Frank made a no-comment-necessary post about the Dr. Laura Talking Action Figure, I was amused but not informed, since as an inveterate Dr. Laura fan, I was well aware of said action figure. The acerbic radio shrink has been plugging it mercilessly on her show since last summer, prompting me reflect on occasion as to what sort of person would buy, um, this sort of thing.

Well, now I know, because as of last night, I am the proud owner of a Dr. Laura Talking Action Figure (23 different phrases, highly anticipated, and batteries included, according to her website). In fact, it turns out that Frank's initial impetus for posting about it had come when, hanging about at El Cerrito's trendy hideaway the Mel-O-Dee, Erika Little Type had shown him what was about to become my Christmas present.

I found it waiting for me - elegantly and tastefully wrapped, of course - on my plate when my mother and I arrived at chez Little Type for last night's dinner party, and though our merry little party of four was never at a loss for sprightly and stimulating conversation, Dr. Laura and her often highly germane comments very nearly made it a fifth. My mother had never heard Dr. Laura before, but now claims she's going to try listening to her, though as a very liberal proponent of the "If you can't say something nice..." school, I don't think she's likely to become a fan. Patrick, on the other hand, surprised me by allowing as how Dr. L did speak a fair bit of common sense. Having grown up in the intellectually squishy Bay Area, he's usually less given to flat statements of moral certitude than, say, Erika and I, with our no-nonsense Midwestern backgrounds. And if you ask why my mother, hailing from the same part of the world, is less likely to agree with Dr. Laura's contention that, "Sometimes it is a matter of black and white," well, she's originally Canadian and still hasn't forgiven Franklin Roosevelt for getting us involved in that awful war.

In other matters much kudos accrues (sorry, I can't help using "kudos" in the singular British sense, wherein it means something akin to "cred" rather than the American plural, where it's a synonym for "accolades") to Erika for putting an excellent pre-Christmas dinner party which also doubled as a dual birthday celebration for Patrick and my mom (123 years between them, so we dispensed with candles on the outstanding chocolate cake that I can still taste in fond memory the following morning). Oh, and since I'll be away for the next three months before (at last) taking up residence in my new home in New York City, I made the rather wrenching decision to let Dr. Laura stay with Patrick and Erika until my return. No sense in letting her sit in an empty room all that time when she can be dispensing wisdom to all and sundry who come tripping across the Little Type threshold. So now she sits, orthodox but ecumenical Jew, under the beautiful Little Type Christmas tree, and I can only hope (but probably not expect) that her batteries hold out until my return.

P.S. I'll save Erika the trouble of posting a comment about the astounding nature of the DLTAF's hairdo. Um, yes, it is truly impressive, in a Great Natural Disasters sort of way.

14 December 2006

Without Even A Whimper

So ends thirty one and a half years of my life in London. I predicted to a friend that I'd have broken down in tears at least once before I completed the process of packing up what was left of my belongings, closing up the flat for the last time, and heading off to the USA, but I was wrong.

The city has never looked lovelier that it has these past few days - well, objectively it probably has, but bear with me - and friends have been popping out of the woodwork in alarming abundance to tell me how much they'll miss me and urge me to come back and visit soon. Most disconcerting have been the sudden recollections of those picayune but nonetheless piquant pleasures of everyday London life and the realizations of how I'll miss them.

But despite all this, I went through my last 24 hours in London dispassionately, almost mechanically. Perhaps I was numb, in shock, even, at the prospect of having such an enormous part of my existence summarily amputated, or perhaps I'd simply reached a level of acceptance wherein I understood that there's no point in brooding or grieving over the inevitable changes that make life what it is.

I flagged down a cab to take me and three boxes of seemingly essential clothes and books to a UPS depot (this after spending an hour on the phone with UPS the previous day, during 59 minutes of which somone continually assured me that UPS would come pick up the packages only to be told in the last minute that no, they wouldn't after all), and then struggled for half an hour with some incredibly opaque US customs forms, including two entire pages devoted to explaining the exact construction, model number, form and function of two pairs of shoes that were already wrapped up tightly within miles of cardboard and duct tape and which I hadn't seen or worn, let alone described, in at least a year.

Then it was off to my local bank, once a place of constant sorrow which only years of mingled schmoozing and bitching were able to turn into a useful institution that I didn't particularly mind visiting and now will almost miss. A stop at my doctor's to get the results from my latest exam and be told that I was in excellent health and would be in even more excellent health if I'd only stop eating most of my favorite foods. Then a long trek across town to Hampstead to see a solicitor and fill in several acres of largely baffling forms relating to the sale of my flat. One last load of superfluous books and clothing (but not so superfluous that I hadn't only last week sworn I could never be separated from) to be hauled down to Oxfam in Auntie's old shopping trolley, and then it was back home to cram what was left of my London life into two suitcases and a backpack.

As usual when faced with the prospect of hard work, I promptly fell asleep, and woke up shortly before dawn with my suitcases still unpacked and only a matter of hours before it was time to leave for the airport. Still, I made everything fit, if not in the suitcases, then in the copious bins outside the back door, and was even able to do a bit of cleaning and laundry to help ready the place for its new owner (who happens to be a dear friend of mine, though he may grow a bit less dear if various towel racks make good on their threats to fall off the walls.

I actually was out of the house about 10 minutes early, made my way to Paddington and thence to Heathrow, arriving more than two hours before my plane was due to take off and three hours before it actually did. There were seven different movies showing on the flight, all of which were crap, and though I'd picked up copies of Metro, the Daily Mail and the Guardian to read on the plane, I barely had a chance to open them, thanks to being seated next to a very loquacious Kiwi on his way home to Auckland.

We talked about Sydney, London, New York, San Francisco, Cape Town, Canada, Texas, the relative merits of the North Island vs. the South Island, rugby, cricket, football, divorce, child-rearing, dodgy politicians, and that was before dinner. Apart from a brief nap, we talked all the way to San Francisco, about ten hours and fifty minutes all in, a record rivaled only once before, some years ago when I was flying the same route and unexpectedly found myself seated next to Dr. Frank.

So it wasn't until I was riding BART into town from SFO that I finally started reading the Daily Mail and experienced a moment of mild panic at the prospect of no longer being able to read ten pages devoted to cricket and/or the threat posed by mass immigration and the decline in public standards.

Nonetheless, the die is cast, the Rubicon crossed, and I'm an American again. Well, for the next three days, anyway; then it's off to Sydney where I'll be holing up on the beach until spring finds its way back to the Northern Hemisphere and at long last I take up residence in New York City. One closing note, though: the train line from Paddington to Heathrow leads directly past my (ex-)building, and normally when I go away I'll gaze out the window at it and at least mentally wave goodbye.

But this time I decided not to risk turning into a pillar of salt, and resolutely stared off in the other direction until we'd crossed Portobello Road. And here I am tonight, over 5,000 miles away, my longtime London home shut up tight, dark, cold and empty, gone now from my life like so many people, places and things before. And though it's a bit chilling and lonely to think too terribly much about it, for the most part I feel fine. Exhausted, yes, a bit more emotionally charged than usual, but overall at peace with the world and ready for the next big adventure.

11 December 2006

England Is Mine, And It Owes Me A Living

How have things changed in recent years? Enough so that Conservative Party Leader and likely future Prime Minister David Cameron is caught fare dodging on his way to a Morrissey concert while I, onetime Morrissey fan extraordinaire, wasn't even aware said concert was happening until I read about it in the papers the following day.

I wouldn't have gone anyway; Wembley Arena is a vile, foul place, more suitable for use as an abbatoir than a musical venue. But apparently Mr Morrissey was in fine fettle, at one point confiding to the audience, "There are only three things wrong with England: Jamie Oliver, Jamie Oliver and Jamie Oliver."

07 December 2006

Me And My Big Mouth

Not much more than a week ago, I cavalierly intoned that "we don't usually get tornadoes here in the UK." Cut to this morning, when a tornado touched down in Kensal Rise, about a mile, if that, from my house. It was a relatively restrained, English sort of tornado, unleashing nowhere near the sort of havoc one expects to see when a twister slams through a trailer park in the Southern United States, but as you can see from these pictures, not the sort of thing you'd want dropping in on your happy home. If there's a silver lining to this particular storm cloud, it's that I once, about ten years ago, seriously considered moving to Kensal Rise, then being touted as the new up and coming neighbourhood. Fortunately, Olivia put her foot down and said there was no way she would countenance moving to "that dreadful, dreary place." Considering that KR has been "up and coming" for at least a decade now without having come up very far at all, and that it's still plagued with muggings, murders and, now, tornadoes, I'd have to say Olivia did me a rather large favour.

06 December 2006


The ever-vigilant San Francisco Chronicle seems to have uncovered a "new" craze among teenagers, namely getting high by drinking whole bottles of cough syrup containing the chemical dextromethorphan hydrobromide, the best known of which is Robitussin. Since my friends and I were regularly imbibing the stuff 40 years ago, I don't know if this means we were ahead of the curve or the Chronicle, as usual, is far behind.

It's a truly vile substance, by the way, for any of you tempted to rush out to your local pharmacy and experiment with it. This hippie website prints a string of advisories that you'd think would dissuade nearly anyone with a couple of functioning brain cells to rub together from trying the stuff, but being that said website is all about facilitating and encouraging drug use, and hippies being hippies, probably not.

Even as far back as the 60s, Robo-heads were looked down on by more serious drug takers, i.e., hippies with the money and connections to get their hands on more sophisticated psychedelics like LSD, psilocybin, mescaline or even pot, and my cronies and I swiftly abandoned its use as soon as the California-style hippie drugs started rolling into town. Well, not completely, I must admit; there were a few times when I was seized with the desire to see what Robitussin combined with acid would do to me, and I have one particularly vivid memory - permanent hallucination might be the more accurate term - of clinging to a cliff on the side of Cincinnati's Mount Adams with what looked like the entire Ohio River spread out below me.

The combined effect of the drugs seemed to make hallucinations tangible rather than merely visual or auditory, and if you're the sort of person who thinks this is a good idea, well, go to it, but if on the other hand you're inclined to take my word for it, the DM in Robitussin stands for Dementor, the Harry Potter creatures who suck all the happiness and joy out of life and turn you into a blithering, miserable shadow of what you once were. Of course if you're not happy with who you once were, you might argue that you've got nothing to lose, which seems to be the underlying rationale of pretty much all mind-altering drug use.

04 December 2006

Adventures On The Northern Line

Up to Camden Town - well, not really; it was actually hard by Mornington Crescent - to see Punchpuppet put on a drunkenly exuberant Monday night soirée that was actually quite charming in a sloppy, beer-glasses-and-patrons-flying-all-over-the-place sort of way. Luckily the beer glasses were plastic and that patrons insubstantial in the weight and heft department, so no harm done.

I was accompanied by Sebby Zatopek, just back from a week-long tour of Italy, and in between bands we talked about the Zatopeks' prospects for conquering America, which I rate as fairly high, being that they are the best band to come out of UK and/or Europe in about 30 years. With any luck, we'll be seeing them on the East Coast at least come next June.

There was a fair bit of the hands-across-the-water vibe going on, with James Punchpuppet bedecked in a Leftovers t-shirt, Davey sporting the Teen Idols, and Sebby plumping for the Groovie Ghoulies. What's more, Punchpuppet, having been too forgetful and/or drunk to make a set list, wound up playing a string of covers, including two by the Lillingtons and another by Screeching Weasel.

Pippa Blankhead was at the heart of the festivities, commandeering the stage along with the guy from the Swallows to provide gang vocals, though to Pippa's credit, she took the time to pull down her trousers and show us her new Zatopeks and Griswalds tattoos. Afterwards, Pippa and Sebby headed off to Ghetto to see Zombina and the Skeletones, and I was tempted to come along, but a) I didn't have a thing to wear; and b) I have to be up at 7 am. It's times like that when it sucks to be old and responsible. Well, old anyway. Whenever somebody suggests staying out until after the trains stop running, I get edgy. It seems unnatural or something. Whereas when I'm in New York, where the trains run all night, I have few such qualms. Which goes to show... well, nothing really, except perhaps that I'm neurotic. Anyway, a good night out.

Sex On The NHS

One thing I will definitely miss about England is the National Health Service. I know it's a popular subject to complain about, but most of those doing the complaining have never had to endure the institutionalized barbarism that passes for a health care system in the US. Ordinarily I can listen to American right wing talk radio without taking too much umbrage, even enjoying the flights of rhetorical fancy and invective, but when one of those clowns starts in with, "But we don't want socialised medicine like they have over in England," I very nearly want to reach inside my radio and strangle the goon.

Yeah, I think, maybe you don't want national health care because you're pulling down a few hundred grand a year and have the kind of medical insurance normally reserved for Congressmen and CEOs, but probably a hundred million Americans, one out of every three, are underinsured, badly insured, or not insured at all, and for them, even a relatively minor illness can turn into a nightmare. It should tell you something that nearly every American medical office has at least one employee whose sole job it is to navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth and determine what if any procedures will be covered by any given patient's insurance.

Yes, the NHS has its problems too, many of them down to mismanagement and atavistic ideology. Just as Social Security is the third rail of American politics, so the NHS is in Britain. Everybody agrees it needs reforming and can't continue to be run as a showpiece for 1940s-style socialism, but nobody dares suggest the necessary steps (means testing, for example; London billionaires pay nothing for excellent treatment, while poor people in less prosperous parts of the country are the victims of postcode rationing). So as an alternative the Labour government pours billions of pounds into propping up the NHS in much the same way that US government handed billions over to Halliburton to "fix" Iraq. The result: some money for pay rises for doctors and nurses, but far more money for quangos, consultants, talking shops and ill-advised computer systems.

As it stands, NHS medical staff are paid considerably less than their US counterparts, but at least in my experience, render far better service. This might be at least partly because money is not such an omnipresent factor in treatment decisions, but for whatever reason, I have never seen an NHS doctor who wasn't willing to take more time to understand my case, to go out of his or her way to ask questions that might shed further light on my condition, and to suggest a variety of treatment options that I might not even have considered myself.

Case in point: last week during a routine checkup, my doctor started querying me about my love life (there is none, thanks very much to any of you who were going to chime in with your own questions). Now some might interpret this as a gross invasion of privacy, but she explained (quite reasonably, I thought), that modern medicine needs to treat the whole person, not just a collection of symptoms, and that a happy, healthy sex life is an essential part of a happy, healthy life. She then offered to refer me for counselling if I thought it might be helpful in coming to terms with any emotional or relationship-type issues.

I almost had to laugh, as I'd been referred for precisely the same sort of counselling some three years earlier, and as a result had about a year and a half of the best talking therapy I've ever experienced (and given the vagaries my life has taken, I've experienced a fair bit). "Oh," she said, "did it help?"

As it happened, I told her, the therapy had helped me in very nearly every way but that for which it was intended, i.e., I hadn't found love, sex or romance as a result, but at the same time I'd grown far less bothered by their absence. Still, she persisted, maybe I'd like to try another round of therapy? And I could only think, as Yakov Smirnoff used to put it, what a country. In America they hand you a bottle of pills and shuffle you out the door as if you were on a conveyor belt; in Britain it's a dire medical emergency, worth shelling out great gobs of the nation's cash, if a fellow's having trouble getting laid.

02 December 2006

Out My Door

Having now succeeded in getting rid of most of my record, cassette and CD collection, I rarely listen to music in any format other than the random shuffle served up by my computer and/or iPod. I've got a few thousand songs stored, but for purposes of working out at the gym, which is where I do most of my iPod listening (some people ride around town on trains and buses wired into their white earphones, but in increasingly lawless London, that's virtually begging for a mugging), I've winnowed it down to about 1,400 songs, predominantly of the upbeat pop-punk variety.

The other morning I was flailing away at the cross-trainers, debating whether to fall over with exhaustion or simply give up and go home - I've only just started back at the gym after a two-month hiatus enforced by my foot surgery, so my endurance is a shadow of its already anemic self - when some bombastic but vaguely familiar guitar chords came blasting into my ears. Because of all the new songs I've recently added to the iPod, it's not unusual to hear something that I barely if at all recognise, but it didn't take more than a few seconds this time to figure out what I was hearing: my own band, the Lookouts.

Except for a couple compilation tracks that were issued on CD, much of the Lookouts material - apart from Spy Rock Road, which was also released on cassette - exists in the vinyl-only realm, and since I haven't had a record player for a while now, it's been literally years since I've heard some of the songs. But recently, Gabe Meline, of the excellent Santa Rosa band Santiago (and formerly of Ground Round, Tilt and MTX), was kind enough to convert my old Lookouts records into mp3s for me, giving me an opportunity to get reacquainted with my musical past. This particular song was "Out My Door," from our last and by far best EP, IV, which was issued sometime around 1991, after the band had already... well, I don't want to say broke up, because we never officially did, but perhaps reached its natural conclusion.

A big part of why it was our best, besides the fact that by the time we recorded it in 1990, we'd had five years of much-needed practice, was that in essence it consisted of two thirds of Green Day. Billie Joe Armstrong, who in those days was a little more available for this sort of work, came into the studio to play lead guitar and sing backing vocals, and of course Tre Cool, who would join Green Day later that year, was still our drummer. As far as I know, it would have been the first time he and Billie ever played together, so very possibly that's when the seed was planted that ultimately resulted in his becoming one of the best and most famous drummers in modern rock and roll history.

Of course Tre was already an astoundingly good drummer long before he joined Green Day, but I sort of doubt he would have ever got the kind of recognition and success he's enjoyed if he'd stuck with the Lookouts. By 1990 we were rarely playing, and in fact were living in three different places and only got together on kind of a whim to record that last EP. Even more to the point, I was at best a mediocre guitarist, and that's probably putting it kindly. Which makes it all the more startling when you hear me start "Out My Door" and hear me starting the song with some adequate but hardly memorable power chords, only to have Billie Joe come zooming in with some extraterrestrial pyrotechnics.

And then on the chorus and bridge, which were decent, anyway - I don't mind acknowledging that I'm a better singer than guitarist - Billie adds some haunting whoa-ohs that instantly kick the song into a whole new dimension. There's another song on IV called "Agape." It's sung by our bassist, Kain Kong, who also wrote it, so my only job was to play guitar. Feeling uncharacteristically ambitious at the time, I actually devised a rudimentary lead for it, one of only a handful I ever attempted in my career. This was before I knew Billie was going to be joining us for the recording, so we ended up with dual - maybe even dueling - leads. It actually sounds pretty good, though it's not difficult, even for the rank musical novice, to tell which one is me and which is Billie.

But anyway, back to the initial point: I'm on the cross training machine, ready to fall over, and suddenly I'm hearing this blast from the past that so energizes me that I all but pedal and pummel the machine into scrap metal. It's a bouncy, upbeat little number, true, and that kind of music often has a similar effect when I'm exercising - Aqua, for example, will have me bouncing off the walls - but this time it wasn't just about the tempo or the beat. It was as least as much a matter of me thinking - to paraphrase that slightly dreary REM song - hey, that's me up there in the spotlight, that's me jamming with Green Day.

P.S. As he finishes converting my vinyl collection to mp3s, Gabe will be auctioning off a number of the records via eBay. Here's a list of some that he's already put up for sale.

One Or Two Robinsons Short Of A Neighbours Episode

That's how a BBC Five Live reporter described the barmaid in an Adelaide establishment that he happened to wander into, no doubt eliciting instant recognition and mirth from English and Australian listeners and utter bafflement from the rest of the world.

Neighbours is, of course, the long-running Australian soap that few if any Australians will admit to watching but which remains unaccountably popular here in the UK, and the Robinsons are one of the egregious clans that has infested Ramsay Street since 1985 and specialises in making life miserable for the other egregious clans dwelling in that accursed cul-de-sac.

Today Neighbours retains but a shadow of its former glory, when it was the UK's top-rated programme. It's broadcast at lunchtime and re-broadcast at teatime, making it suitable viewing only for, as Sean never tired of reminding me, "children and unemployed people." Being a bit of both, I still look in on it occasionally enough to be able to report that Robinson-in-chief Paul, now missing one leg thanks to a bit of villainy gone terribly wrong a year or two ago, is still hopping around casting Robinsons everywhere - including his namesake, the England goalkeeper - in an extraordinarily bad light.

It was with such thoughts gnawing feebly at the outer recesses of my consciousness that I slipped into the only vacant seat on a southbound Bakerloo train, only to find myself next to Davey Punchpuppet, just off work and already nursing a restorative can of cider. The connection, you see, is that Davey is part of that generation of scholars who attended university - erm, were enrolled in university - in the late 90s and early 00s but foreswore lectures in favour of staying home in front of the telly, the better to study and discuss the minutiae of Neighbours. I still vividly recall a night spent in the Wig and Gown some years back during which Davey and his mates regaled the visiting Hyneses (Mr and Mrs Little Type) and myself with several hours of arcana from that blighted soap opera.

This time we only had from Baker Street to Oxford to converse, just long enough for Davey to remind me that his loud and sprightly band Punchpuppet would be playing at an unlikely venue called the Purple Turtle in Camden Town on Monday the 4th and in Romford, Essex (I've never been there, but it seems to be the butt of a disproportionate amount of jokes involving blondes and/or hairdressers) on Tuesday.

And oh yes, Neighbours and Punchpuppet aside, I should return to the original point of this post, which was to marvel over last night's events at the cricket, which is why the BBC was broadcasting from normally obscure Adelaide in the first place. I already knew, btw, that Adelaide was known as the "City of Churches," but not, if the reporter is to be believed, that it got that name from an ancient bylaw requiring one church to be built for every tavern allowed to operate in that generally sleepy sheep-shearing station that's now home to over a million sun-blasted South Australians. I'm fairly new to paying attention to cricket - or understanding or even tolerating it, for that matter - but last year's Ashes finally turned the trick, to the point where I almost bought a ticket for this year's test in Sydney.

Never mind, it'll look better on television, assuming England are still in it come January. Based on this morning's activities, however, in which Paul Collingwood turned in a double century and teamed up with Kevin Pietersen for a total of 310. And if this makes no sense at all to you - indeed, if it infuriates you - rest assured that I know exactly how you feel, for two short years ago I would have felt exactly the same way. And if you wish to continue neither knowing nor caring about the cricket, never fear, I promise not to beat you about the head with it. As an alternative, I suggest going to see Punchpuppet and/or tuning into a nice episode of Neighbours.

30 November 2006

It's Not A Stereotype If It's True

After years of irritating and annoying me with meretricious and obfuscatory bafflegab, academic Terry Eagleton has confounded the odds by coming up with not one, but two cogent thoughts in quick succession. Rather like London buses, you might say.

Shortly after ripping Richard Dawkins a new one on the subject of the latter's silly anti-God screed, Eagleton follows up with this on the subject of ethnic stereotypes:
The Welsh do not take kindly to being regarded as a race of cunning runts permanently coated in coal dust and sheep shit, but they tend to protest rather less hotly when one praises their musical abilities.
He then goes on to take a swipe at Scousers, suggesting:
It is unusual to meet a working-class Liverpudlian who dresses for dinner other than in the sense of putting on a shirt.

29 November 2006

At Last I Can Die A Happy Man

Supporting Fulham Football Club can be a thankless task, and that goes double or triple when Arsenal are involved. Some of my most miserable moments of the last ten years have come at the hands of the Gooners. Sometimes they've beaten us in thumpingly embarrassing fashion, just running all over us as though they were the Harlem Globetrotters and Fulham were a gaggle of poorly disciplined choir boys. Other times they've beaten us narrowly by nicking a goal in the last minute or through one of their slippery Continentals pulling off an egregious dive to win a free kick or a penalty. At least a couple times they've had the cooperation of a dodgy ref like Rob Halsey, who awarded Fulham a fully deserved penalty before taking it back when the Arsenal players made a fuss over it, and subsequently ruled out perfectly legitimate Fulham goal. Both episodes took place no more than 20 yards from where I was sitting, close enough to see the evil grin on Halsey's face.

But by fair means or foul, by dint of overwhelming talent, great luck, superior management skills or a bit of artful cheater, they always beat us. With one exception, that is; the one time that we held them to a 0-0 draw. On that occasion Fulham fans went on cheering long after the players had left the pitch. You'd think we'd won the FA Cup and the European Cup in the same day.

But all that has changed now. Tonight was probably my last Fulham match for the season, possibly longer. I was fortunate enough to get a ticket for the front row, with a perfect view of the goal into which Fulham landed two picture-perfect strikes before the game was 20 minutes old. In all my years of watching Fulham play Arsenal, I'm not sure I'd ever seen us score two goals in one match, let alone go into halftime not only leading, but having utterly dominated the proceedings.

And it's not as though Arsenal played badly, though I see some commentators making that claim. In fact they played quite well, were always a threat, and it was painfully plain to see that in terms of raw footballing ability and depth, Arsenal are completely out of our league. But for one magical night, Fulham were better. They played almost flawlessly - were it not for the one major error, Liam Rosenior's conceding a dangerous free kick through a mistimed tackle - Arsenal wouldn't have scored at all. But Rosenior made up for that mistake by playing like a superstar for the rest of the match, as did pretty much every Fulham player, even those who've been hobbling around like donkeys in cement boots for much of the season. At one point, with the clock beginning to wind down, they were keeping the ball away from Arsenal with a series of deft passes that looked more like Barcelona than the Thameside plodders we're used to seeing at Craven Cottage.

Only some brilliant saves by Jens Lehmann kept the score from going to 4-1. Overall, he was excellent; the two Fulham goals that did get past him were more or less unstoppable. And with a few exceptions, Arsenal not only played well, but also managed to do so with a bare minimum of shady tactics. There were a few rough challenges on both sides, but none of the barefaced cheating I'd seen in past years. In fact, it was such a treat to watch them that I wouldn't even have been that bothered if they'd managed to beat us. Simply put, it was 90 minutes of top-class, high-intensity football, one of the better games I've ever witnessed in person.

Naturally it makes the experience all the sweeter to have finally seen the Arsenal jinx broken. They were the only major Premiership team I had never seen Fulham beat, and now that I have, well, I don't really feel the need to die and go to heaven yet, but it does make leaving England just a little bit easier. In at least one small way, my work here feels completed.

27 November 2006

Green Skies At Morning

I slept fitfully on Saturday night, which is to say barely at all. Not surprising, I guess, considering the way I'd spent the previous 24 hours.

After a happy Thanksgiving spent with 11 family members and a couple of stray neighbours, I set about packing for Friday's flight to London. First, however, I had to spend an hour and a half at the all-night laundromat on Solano Avenue, which apart from the maniacal bearded hippie intently playing some incessantly beeping handheld video game and who I soon vibed out the door, was completely empty. I highly recommend Thanksgiving night for those who prefer to do their laundry in solitude.

But the packing was presenting a problem. Normally my approach is to get either a mental picture or a written list of what I think I'll need to take, discover that only about half of it fits in my suitcase, and then proceed to remove all the things I really need and stuff my suitcase full of non-essentials, many of which I'll never even get around to unpacking. But this time I wasn't coming up with even the vaguest picture of what to pack. I wracked my brain again and again, but it came up resolutely blank.

So here it was 2 in the morning and I really had to get to bed if I hoped to get any sleep before setting off the airport, and all I'd accomplished was stuffing a smaller suitcase inside of a bigger one because I knew I'd need extra carrying capacity when I came back from London. Finally it sunk in: I didn't need to take anything. The main purpose of this trip was to retrieve the last of my belongings from my soon-to-be-former home. This would be my last trip to London, at least in the capacity of a resident. My dithering about what to pack had been little more than an escape mechanism to stop me brooding about that fact.

It seems like leaving London has been a foregone conclusion for so long now that it no longer needs thinking about, but I was startled to discover this morning while looking through my journal that I didn't make the final decision until September 30, not even two months ago. But events once set in motion take on a life of their own, and now I'm in no position to do anything other than go with the flow.

The flight over was smooth and uneventful, and were it not for (welcome home!) a complete cock-up on the Underground, I would have been in my flat and ready for bed by 8 am (we'd landed at 6:15). It ended up being closer to 9, and by the time I'd forced the door open over the two months' worth of mail that had accumulated, and started compulsively opening the mail to see if anyone had sent me money (hey, don't laugh, one other time when I came home there was a £100 cheque from my Premium Bond waiting for me), it was getting on for 11.

The reason I was so determined to get to bed - well, not really, I guess - was that I had to be up again shortly after 1 to go to the football. I made it, though a bit blearily, and had an excellent seat at centre pitch to watch my beloved and maddening Fulham lose a desultory match to Premiership newcomers Reading. Fulham's Ian Pearce gave away a penalty by lopping a Reading attacker's legs out from under him only a couple yards from goal; Reading converted to make it 1-0 after only 17 minutes, and that was the game. A 10-man Fulham squad - Pearce had been sent off - tried to make a go of it, but neither team looked much like scoring. If not for the penalty, it almost certainly would have ended up 0-0.

The 1+ mile each way between Craven Cottage and Hammersmith Station was the farthest I've walked since my foot operation, and that combined with the damp and blustery weather convinced me to spend the rest of the day in the house. I noticed that the Thames was fuller than usual, even lapping halfway up the trunks of some trees on the far side, and observed that the radio and newspapers were no longer talking about the drought that they'd been banging on about for the past two years. Now it was all about the floods.

Anyway, after napping off and on through most of the evening, waking up in time to watch Match Of The Day (the Fulham defeat didn't look any more appetising on TV than it had in real life), found at midnight that I was wide awake and couldn't get back to sleep. Until about 6 am, that is, and that lasted only until about 8, when I woke up as it was getting light outside.

But what a strange light it was. I want to say that sky was green - it sounds more picturesque, don't you agree? - but actually most of the sky, apart from one opalescent blue corner off to the east, was covered by sinister, menacing clouds, that though blueish-grey themselves, had the effect of casting an eerie green light over the city. The only time I'd ever seen the atmosphere turn that colour before was as a boy in Michigan, and that was right before a major tornado struck nearby.

We don't normally get tornadoes in the UK, however, so I didn't worry too much, and tried to go back to sleep. Spectacular bolts of lightning and crashing peals of thunder soon made that impossible, but no tornadoes, whirlwinds, hurricanes or other natural disasters ensued, and within another hour or three, the sun was smiling down on a lovely autumn day. The leaves still aren't gone from the trees, even though we're less than a week from December, and here and there you can find roses in bloom. But the storms of the past couple days have made a rather sweeping change, and it can finally be said that there are more leaves on the ground than hanging overhead. This morning the dustmen were out with their brooms, collecting innumerable bags of them and trundling them into trucks to be taken off to - well, who knows where, really?

Today it's warm again, following another bit of rain to help the leaves stick to the pavements and bedevil the sweepers. I went to the gym for the first time since my operation and was pleased to discover that my muscles hadn't completely atrophied from two months of inactivity, though they were certainly headed in that direction. Then off for a haircut from the taciturn Ukrainian (£8), a spot of shopping at Tesco (a lot more than £8), and home to begin the melancholy task of sorting out a dozen or more years of London life into boxes and bin bags. Given the cost of shipping things back to the States, little more than my favourite clothes and books are going to make the cut; almost everything else will remain here, either to find a good home or to clutter up the already overstretched British landfills.

And in between the tedium of packing, throwing things out, making calls to cut off the phone, electricity, internet, etc., and making calls and visits to say goodbye to all the people who've been a part of my life here, I expect I'll put in a fair bit of time just wandering the streets and trying to fix in my memory for all time just how magnificent and beautiful and maddening and strange this city has been, and how fortunate I feel to have had this chance to be a part of it.

23 November 2006


I called a friend in England and reflexively greeted him with "Happy Thanksgiving" when he picked up the phone. "Thanksgiving?" he responded. "Oh, is it Thanksgiving over there?"

He was playing dumb, of course; he's been to America a couple times, even has a brother who emigrated here several years ago. He knows perfectly well what and when Thanksgiving is. But he still had to go through the requisite harrumphing and tutting and mild drollery that roughly translates as, "You wacky Americans!"

I don't mean to suggest that English people are any less grateful than Americans, merely that they're much less inclined to make a special occasion of it. The more cynical might also suggest that by condensing all their gratitude down to a single daylong orgy (mostly devoted to rapaciously consuming all the things they are allegedly grateful for), the Americans have given themselves a pass to abandon any pretense of it for the rest of the year.

I'm not one of those cynics; in fact I think one of America's great redeeming features is that by and large its people - even those who might appear not to be having the best time of it - have a pretty good sense of just how fortunate they are. True, they have funny ways of showing it at times, and maybe the holiday glow has caused me to over-romanticize or idealize my fellow Americans, but I think on balance they're a pretty grateful lot, and perhaps as a consequence, a fairly generous one as well.

Whether you agree or not, there's no doubt that declarations of thanksgiving will be winging their way effulgently about the land for the rest of this day and well into the night. And it occurred to me to ask: just where do they all go? Put another way, when all these people say "thanks," to whom or what are they saying it?

The majority of Americans espouse some form of religious or spiritual faith, so presumably they're thanking God or one of his intermediaries. But what about the millions of agnostics, or their fundamentalist cousins, the atheists? Are they any less grateful for want of some specific entity to be grateful to?

Obviously a fair number of them - especially here in California - will be addressing their praises to Gaia or "the force" or whoever/whatever it is that Wiccans revere. And still more of them will reserve their gratitude to friends or loved ones or the aged relatives who endowed them with substantial trust funds. But what of the truly hardcore fanatics - the Richard Dawkinses of the world, shall we say - who steadfastly refuse to accept that there is any power extant beyond the bounds of their own keenly honed powers of reason? Can they be truly thankful, if indeed there is nothing out there worthy of being thanked?

I was reminded of this question - one which periodically, but not too periodically occurs to me - by Dr. Frank's mention of an intellectual/theological spat among the above-mentioned Dawkins, the post-structural obscurantist Terry Eagleton, the rather-a-bit-too-full-of-himself commentator/philosopher A.C. Grayling, and the fairly astute professor and blogger Norm Geras.

I will say right from the start that I've never had much use for Richard Dawkins. I think of him as a more obtrusive and obnoxious Noam Chomsky, i.e., someone who by virtue of having achieved modest success in one field proceeded to appoint himself an unrivaled expert in a completely unrelated field. My own personal experience with Dawkins is limited to having heard him on the radio, where he would snap, "That's a completely stupid question" or the like at anyone who showed the temerity to question his theories. But a journalist friend who interviewed him confirms my impression of him as someone completely obsessed with his own idiosyncratic view of the life and the universe, to the exclusion of anyone or anything else. "He [Dawkins] was in a bit of a state," my friend reported, "as if he were having a spiritual crisis," which could be terribly disconcerting for the man who believes there is no such thing.

But what surprised me was Eagleton's commentary, because Eagleton, one of those products of the 1960s who has pledged unswerving allegiance to Marx, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, et al., in other words, a roll call of some of the past century and a half's most spectacularly wrong individuals, provided a very well-reasoned and (in light of everything I've seen by Eagleton in the past) astoundingly readable evisceration of Dawkins's half-baked adolescent temper tantrum-cum-best selling novel, er, screed, The God Delusion.

I'd just heard the old proverb about my enemy's enemy being my friend on some radio talk show, and wondered if I would now have to find new tolerance for the previously intolerable Eagleton. In his defense, he does at times show signs of having a sense of humor, which puts him streets ahead of Dawkins, whose idea of a good joke doesn't seem to extend beyond, "There's no God and you think there is, so you're stupid, ha ha ha." And equally ahead of A.C. Grayling, who I'm most accustomed to reading in the Guardian, where his doleful and lugubrious commentaries have unsurprisingly found a ready home.

But as long as Eagleton clings to his discredited Marxism as tenaciously as Dawkins does to his teenage atheism (or Grayling to his mumbly-jumbly Grauniadism), I can't take any of them too seriously. Still, it's disconcerting to find myself - on this issue, anyway - largely in agreement with Eagleton, who has previously been unable to string two sentences together without either annoying or stupefying me. Professor Geras, who of the four I'm least familiar with, had by far the best of the exchange.

Enough of such intellectual dither, though. I started out to express my own thanks, and shall do so now, before this dispatch reaches thoroughly unwieldy lengths. The past couple months, what with my medical difficulties and being marooned in sad old Berkeley, have not been easy, but the year overall, and the several years previous, have been outstanding. I've been privileged to spend time with wonderful people, both new acquaintances and old, to see a good deal of my family, to travel to some of my favorite places on earth, to enjoy (again except for this brief interval) really good health and and a joyous disposition. Life's been very good to me, and with any luck, I will continue to learn how in turn to be good to life.

In my own case, I don't have any problem with giving my thanks directly to a higher power that I personally call God. I equally have no problem with people - and this includes most of my friends - who can't get their heads around the concept of any such thing as God. The only reason I get so exercised about Dawkins and similar extremists is that - like Christian or Muslim fundamentalists - they cling so ferociously to a single-pointed ideology that is as joyless as it is lifeless. Worse, not with darkening only their own enjoyment and understanding of existence, they loudly insist that anyone else who does not embrace it with them is a heretic or an idiot or both. Granted, at least Dawkins hasn't yet taken up the fatwa or the suicide bombing campaign, which gives me, I suppose, yet another thing to be grateful for.

It's interesting, though, how I can happily interact with many agnostics on an ongoing basis without the subject of God or religion even needing to be discussed. I suspect this is because whatever name or voice we give to our beliefs (or lack thereof), we're not really very far apart on the essentials. Neither they nor I have any particular ax to grind when it comes to spiritual matters; I don't feel compelled (nor able, for that matter) to demonstrate the existence of God to them, and they similarly are quite content to let me think and believe, even worship and pray, the way I do.

"The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao," it says at the beginning of the Lao tzu, which was a close to a bible as I'd allow myself back in hippie days, but it strikes me now that the identical words could be said about God in whatever form we (attempt to) understand him. Anyone who claims to know the nature of God (or to be able to prove his absence) has already missed the point, and anyone capable of keeping an open mind, especially when coupled with reverence and gratitude, is well on his or her way to understanding exactly what they need to know to live a long and fruitful life.

Well, that's the way it looks at the moment, on this Thanksgiving Day, 2006. I'm very happy and grateful just to be alive and well, here and now, and I hope very much that the same is true for you and yours.

21 November 2006

North Berkeley

A few years ago - quite a few years, in fact - I was having an argument with Tim Armstrong about what was the cover of the first Rancid album. It was a purely academic argument, since the record was coming out on Epitaph, rather than on my label, but since all of Tim's previous records had come out on Lookout, I felt entitled to have my say.

Scratch that; I was the sort of person who felt entitled to have his say regardless. And Tim was the sort of person who was inclined to give my opinions a respectful hearing before telling me I didn't know what I was talking about.

At issue was the large gun which Rancid were planning on using as their cover art. I argued that it was an unnecessarily negative and violent image. Leave that kind of stuff to NWA, I urged.

"Larry," Tim said patiently, "See, you don't know what it's like down in the streets, you know what I'm saying? You live up here in North Berkeley where it's all nice and safe."

A word about local geography: South and West Berkeley are the "bad" parts of town, especially that portion of South Berkeley that juts into Oakland, and it was there that Tim had recently taken up residence after spending his formative years in Albany, which is a good bit north of North Berkeley. A solid working class kind of neighborhood, nothing fancy, but definitely a pretty safe sort of place. Not a lot of gangbangers running riot in the streets of A-town.

And technically, geographically, Tim was right. I did live in North Berkeley; University Avenue is generally considered the dividing line, and I was one block to the north (still am, in fact, as I type these very words). But to me North Berkeley had always meant the antiseptic yuppie precincts of Solano Avenue, the tree-lined streets of million-dollar houses, not my grubby little neighborhood situated only steps away from bum and crime-infested downtown Berkeley.

Anyway, it was a pointless argument. Tim always used to say, "You can tell Operation Ivy, but you can't tell 'em much." Or maybe that's what he said I used to say, but it was true, and now that half of Operation Ivy were in Rancid, it was doubly true. The gun went on the cover, the album sold a lot of copies, and as far as I know, no one ever got shot or otherwise harmed as a result.

Regardless of what Tim had said, though, I never accepted that I was part of North Berkeley. In fact, North Berkeley didn't even register on my radar; just about everything I ever did in Berkeley took place on the south side of University, and most of that within the five or six blocks just beyond University and Shattuck. The old Lookout offices and store, my bank, the post office, the now-defunct Cafe Firenze: what more was there to life, I'd often ask myself. Right before asking myself what I was doing stuck in this wretched little two-bit town, but that's an old story I don't need to go into again here.

The point is that I developed an automatic reflex response that meant I would automatically turn right, never left, when I got to Shattuck Avenue. Occasionally I'd read articles in the paper about Berkeley's "Gourmet Ghetto," supposedly strung out along North Shattuck and no more than a 10 or 15 minute walk away, but it might as well have been in Shanghai or Timbuktu for all I saw of it.

But tonight I was feeling antsy, wanting to go for a slightly longer walk on my still-mending foot, but having, as is often the problem in Berkeley, nowhere in particular to go. Downtown after dark is kind of crappy, and the farther south you go, the crappier it gets. In a pinch, and if you're really bored or jaded, you can always walk to Telegraph, but it's best to do this only when you're already depressed, because you're pretty sure to end up that way once you've got there. So I took a deep breath, turned left at Shattuck, and headed deep into the wilds of North Berkeley.

I must say, it was like visiting a different city than the Berkeley I've known and loathed for so many years. Not necessarily anywhere I'd want to live, but it wasn't bad at all for a brief visit. About a hundred restaurants, at least two or three of which might have been affordable for normal people, but many of which were at least pretty to look at. Lots and lots of cute little shops, and a fair number - especially for a Monday night - of strollers, promenaders, and boulevardiers. Okay, I stretch the point slightly, but at least it wasn't completely desolate and scary the way so much of downtown is.

I was surprised, too, to see only one beggar and two shopping cart scavengers in the whole 15-block stretch that I walked. On the other side of University you'd see double or triple that on any given block. Why is that, I wondered? Downtown there's nobody much to beg from apart from other beggars or the occasional movie-goers; on North Shattuck, there's a steady procession of yuppies, students and elderly baby boomers, all of whom you'd think would be relatively soft touches.

It was also about 99% white, in marked contrast with downtown, which by night is 50 to 75% black. Again, for those not familiar with Berkeley, I'm not talking about some vast geographical divide; the two areas are at most a few blocks apart. How this class and race separation was achieved and maintained is a mystery to me. I didn't see any cops telling "those" people to stay on one side or the other of University; in fact I didn't see any police at all. It seemed as though people knew where they were supposed to be and faithfully gravitated there, much as I imagine things worked in Southern American towns during the days of Jim Crow.

Interesting that I discovered this whole new corner of Berkeley right under my nose; as I say, it's not really my scene, but I'd definitely go strolling there again if I weren't leaving town in a few days. It does help explain why so many Berkeleyans don't understand what I'm talking about when I bemoan the sad state of this town; if you confined your comings and goings to the favored precincts of North Berkeley, I guess life could look pretty darn pleasant. A little boring, true, but pleasant.

So maybe Tim was barking up the right tree when he suggested being from North Berkeley was blinding me to the reality of street and thug life. He just didn't know - how could he? - that all those years I'd been turning right instead of left at Shattuck. Or, that for my few days left here, I'll probably continue to do so. I guess it's just the way I roll.

P.S. I probably can't get away with titling this piece "North Berkeley" without some of you Operation Ivy-Downfall-Rancid connoisseurs wanting to know what's up with that "North Berkeley, scene of the crime" lyric from the legendary lost Downfall album. Well, the answer is, you'll have to ask Tim. I don't have a clue either, but it still sounds cool.

19 November 2006

Bad Sports

For many years the only sport I've followed faithfully has been English football - soccer to my American readers. True, I was enough of a glory hunter to watch and enthuse about England winning the rugby World Cup. And, after a decade of professing blank incomprehension and/or annoyance at the very existence of the game of cricket, England's triumph over Australia in the most recent Ashes series finally inspired me to figure out not only how the sport worked, but also to acquire a real appreciation for its nearly infinite nuances and subtleties (not necessarily enough, however, to sit through a typical five-day, 40-hour test match, but perhaps as I get older I'll be blessed with more patience or at least a suitably lethargic disposition).

But leaving England would, I feared, put a real damper on my sporting life. Once I've settled into someplace semi-permanent in America, I can always get digital TV and watch more English Premier League matches than I typically saw back in London, provided I'm willing to get up at ungodly hours to do so, but it's not quite the same when you're surrounded by people who are similarly obsessed. If you're ever at a loss for conversation with another English male, there's a considerably better than 50-50 chance that asking, "Did you watch the football yesterday?" will do the trick. Often you don't even need to specify which particular football, because he'll immediately go off ranting or gushing about whatever match seemed of all-consuming importance to him.

But even if living in America was to put a damper on my enthusiasm for English football, I didn't expect was to re-acquire an interest in American sports. I was pretty keen on baseball and (American) football as a boy, and though I'm not sure hockey technically counts as American, I worshiped the Detroit Red Wings during the days of Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay and Alex Delvecchio. So I surprised when I found myself getting a bit emotional about the Detroit Tigers having a go at the World Series. I was a big Tiger fan all through the 50s and early 60s, and it was only when I'd moved away to California and finally given up hope on them that they finally won a Series in 1968. This year would have been my first opportunity ever to actually watch them win it all, but naturally they stuffed it up, much like the Tigers of old.

And I really didn't expect to watch American football again, with its maddening stop-start routine and commercial breaks that take up more time than the actual playing of the game. But today I had the chance to watch two of my old favorites, Michigan, who I followed as a boy and have always had a soft spot for, and California, my beloved alma mater. Never mind that I haven't set foot in Michigan Stadium since 1979, and Cal's Memorial Stadium since approximately the same era, they both wear blue and gold (also the colors of my other alma mater, Cabrini High School) and carry a certain resonance with my past, and that's good enough for me.

Yes, they both lost, Michigan bravely and Cal humiliatingly, and yes, I'm a sucker for caring. Wasn't I just the other day arguing with someone that American football was infinitely inferior to the English variety anyway? No comfort there today, however; Fulham, the team I followed at the cost of great financial outlays and considerable emotional damage throughout my time in London, were at the wrong end of a 3-1 drubbing by Man City (which, as Mr. P. Hynes wittily remarked at last night's dinner, would be a great name for a gay football team).

In fact, the only bright spot in this dismal sporting weekend, nay, month, has been the sterling performance put in by my nephew Jackson's Hurricanes in the El Cerrito Youth Soccer League's under-12 tournament. The Hurricanes breezed through this morning's game 5-1, and had to struggle a bit more against determined opposition to squeeze out a 1-0 victory in the afternoon match (and how many Premiership sides do you suppose could pull off two championship matches in a single day?). Tomorrow they go for it all, and if today's gutsy performances were any indication, they'll be bringing home some of the first silverware ever to adorn the family trophy cabinet.

Well, there was another family member who lifted a few trophies in his time, my second cousin once removed, Joe Montana, who used to play for another local team. Second cousin or not, I only got to see him play in person once, as my dad put the kibosh on calling in favors - like season tickets, for example - from the relatives. The year Joe came to play for the 49ers, his grandma - my dad's first cousin - sent us a Christmas card urging us to get in touch with Joe "now that he's got a job out there in California near you." She thoughtfully included the address and phone number, but my dad confiscated the card before I could say, "Yo, cousin Joe, hit us up with some tickets!" "It wouldn't be right," Dad insisted, "it would look tacky. He must have relatives coming out of the woodwork right about now." "Well, then what difference would a couple more make?" I protested, but as always, Father knew best, and I was consigned to watching the 49ers' glory years on TV, just like millions of ordinary Northern Californians.

And there you go. I've gotten sidetracked as usual, since my original intention was to point out that it was obviously best if I didn't watch my favorite teams play at all, since they'd inevitably lose. Only to prove in the course of writing this that I was actually rather wrong. Not the first time that's happened, either.