Monday, December 27, 2010

Fake tree

Many years ago, I deplored the loss of millions of young trees, to be cut down and displayed for a couple of weeks before being tossed out. Couldn't we just eliminate this somewhat dated symbol of the season?.

We had some friends who developed a small Christmas tree farm. It was a useful tax shelter for them. I also realized that sales of Christmas trees gave employment to many, and often resulted in income for various "good causes", so I relaxed about it. Every year, Barbara and I would go down to buy a Christmas tree, usually from Home Depot. We would somehow load it onto the car, drive home, and then mount it in a reusable stand designed for that purpose.

It was a tradition for some 20 years for our eldest granddaughter (Justine) to help Barbara decorate the tree. We placed the stand on an old sheet, to collect fallen needles, and minimize the work when it became time to clean up.

I always felt that the Christmas tree should not be in place until Christmas Eve, because it was "still Advent". Barbara's plan was to put it up about ten days before Christmas. So I agreed to a compromise: It could go up that early, as long as it stayed in place until Twelfth Night, when it could be taken down, and the unbroken decorations could be put away for another year.

Now that I am not so mobile, Barbara went down with our driver and brought back a small tree. When I saw it, I almost choked, and spluttered "That's a fake tree!".

I am still not completely reconciled to this deception. Where is the delightful smell of pine leaves? Somewhere, out there in the world, there's a tree which is being cut down and will just be put out with the trash. That tree was really destined for our house.

Oh, well; I must admit there are some advantages to the use of a fake. It is (of course) perfectly shaped. It doesn't shed any needles. It can be brought out again next year. Packages can be placed under the tree just as easily as if it were real. Also, I am determined to be more tolerant when Barbara wants to take it down before Twelfth Night.

I am reminded of the time, many years ago, when we brought into the house a somewhat mangy looking live Christmas tree. When the time came, we planted it in our front yard, for use the following year. Over the months, it didn't exactly seem to flourish. No matter: we didn't want it to become too large. But it was so ugly!

One day, Barbara asked our wonderful Japanese gardener (George Y. Sujishi) what he could do to help it along. "Christmas tree?", said George, "I make 'im Bonsai!".

Monday, December 20, 2010

All about "Eve"

No: not the wonderful movie about an ambitious young woman schemer. This is about the ambiguity of the word "eve". It can imply a time late in the day, typically between the evening meal and bedtime, but that usage is relatively rare. We tend to use the longer form--"evening"--for that. The main meaning of "Eve" is the entire day prior to some occasion or happening.

As I wrote here some months ago, another variant ("e'en") is best known for forming part of "Halloween", the day before All Hallows Day, aka "All Saints Day". Most of us consider "New Year's Eve" to be the entire day of December 31, even though we may primarily think of the time leading up to midnight, and the start of a new year in our time zone.

Likewise, "Christmas Eve" is all day on December 24, even though for some worshipers the emphasis is on the "Midnight Mass" at their church. (In most parishes, the service begins earlier. At St. Mark's, Berkeley, we begin with carols at 10:30, and start the service at 11:00, so it is about midnight before the bread and wine of "Holy Communion", the elements of the Eucharistic Banquet, are distributed.)

This year, for the first time, I heard the ghastly phrase "Christmas Eve Day". I shuddered. Then, quite recently, I heard a member of our wonderful extended-and-blended family repeat the solecism. I flinched.

Of course, I knew what the speakers were trying to do: to distinguish between the events of the working day, and the Christmas Eve celebration, which (in our family) takes place in accordance with Norwegian practice, on Christmas Eve. Call me a pedant, call me a stickler--and, yes, language (however "incorrect") is a tool we use to communicate, and the speaker's intent was clear--but, do me a favor, folks, don't bastardize Christmas Eve.

Monday, December 13, 2010


From time to time, I respond to an online poll, which covers various issues, some serious and some fatuous. Politics are always part of this. I'm asked if I'm a Republican, a Democrat, or an Independent. I truthfully respond that I am a Democrat. (I'm of an independent bent when it comes to voting, but I learned years ago that if I wanted to vote in a primary I needed to be a member of a party.) The next question is whether I'm a "strong" or "not-so-strong" Democrat, and I select the latter.

What I truly regret is the polarization of American politics. So I was delighted when Lisa Murkowski's campaign for write-in votes brought her success last week, long after polling day. Although her "official" Republican candidate (Joe Miller) still has a chance to appeal, the State judge who heard the case said that even if all Sen. Murkowski's challenged votes were tossed, she would still have a clear majority. Even in Sarah Palin's back yard, I really doubt that an appeal would get anywhere for Mr. Miller.

I understand that most of the challenged votes had simply mis-spelled "Murkowski". I do think it appropriate for election officials to support the clear intent of the voter.

However, I am shocked that so many voters, who must often have seen the name "Murkowski", can't spell her name correctly. Are they functionally illiterate?

The elitist in me sometimes wishes we had a simple rule to ensure that only those who can read and write have the right to vote. The egalitarian in me knows that isn't feasible, and that there are folk with (say) some physical disability that are quite capable of choosing for whom to vote, even though they could not pass such a test.

Welcome back, Senator Murkowski! You are now free to vote for what seems best for your constituents and your conscience.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


This seems to be a new buzzword. Until recently, it seldom appeared, although it was understood when it did. I have recently seen it in several different manifestations. Sometimes, it is used as a compliment, and sometimes as a politely negative epithet.

Most people would probably yawn at any reference to "baptismal theology". I recently found this referred to as "robust". I suppose that means that it is a lively form of that rather academic concept.

When there is a political confrontation, we hear that there has been a "robust" discussion. That is the equivalent of reporting a political argument (especially between leaders of two nations) as a "full and frank discussion".

When the word is used with health, I visualize a person who brags about being "in shape", and suggests that I need more exercise..

A red wine may be described as "robust", meaning that it lacks subtlety, perhaps to the point of being rough or overpowering.

It's a useful word in sports reports. When I read that a local team has put up "a robust defense", it's probably trying to comfort local fans, who have just had to swallow another defeat...

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Food Storage

Our refrigerator is bulging with Thanksgiving leftovers. It brings to mind some changes that I have experienced in my lifetime.

I can just remember when my family obtained a refrigerator to replace the icebox, in about 1930. Our large home in England had a room (which we called "the dairy" ) on the north side of the house, next to "the larder", which in turn was next to the kitchen. The dairy was where the "fridge" was located, and where we stored items that kept best when cool..

My father maintained a prize-winning herd of Jersey cattle, so we had an ample supply of full-cream milk. He was a successful businessman, not a farmer, and six days a week he was driven by his chauffeur to catch an electric train from Redhill to Cannon Street, where his company driver would pick him up and drive him the short distance to his London main office.

He loved to have his cattle compete at Agricultural Shows (somewhat similar to County Fairs in the U.S.), and the walls of the cowsheds were papered over with colored cards, celebrating awards, many of them First Prizes.

Our milk wasn't pasteurized, but the cows were "TT" (tuberculin tested). Even with our parents, three children, and about ten household servants, there was probably a surplus of milk, presumably sold to a commercial dairy.

Adjacent to the dairy was the "larder", the main food storage room, next to the kitchen. Then there was a cupboard for cans and unopened packages.

In the "pantry", on the other side of the kitchen, were cutlery, china, glassware, and other supplies for the dining room.

Like so many terms related to food in English, two of those words derive from Norman French--"lard" meaning bacon, and "pain" meaning bread. One doesn't see much lard these days, as Crisco and other vegetable shortenings have taken its place. It is essentially bacon fat, and was used in cooking, where today we would mostly use olive oil, canola, or other frying oil.

A "joint" of Roast Beef was a frequent feature of "Sunday Lunch", the most important meal of the week. Fat was collected from the roasting pan, and this "dripping" was often served (later) to all, being spread on bread. (In small quantities, I'd probably still think it delicious.) I remember the amazement of an audience watching a Pinter play when a character asked what was for breakfast, and was told "fried bread". When served with (say) bacon & egg, fried bread is delicious.

Enough, already. Time to eat some of the superb turkey & mushroom pie that Barbara has made, followed by salad and a cranberry cake dessert. Yum!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Verbal Ineptitude

I like simple prepositions: "on peak" and "off peak" are clear and simple. Most switches have an "on" position and an "off" position.

For some reason, many Americans add "of" after the word "off". I don't know why this was started, but I dislike adding another redundant preposition.

I also dislike hearing "unbelievable" or "incredible", instead of "amazing" or "spectacular", or other adjective to express appreciation or surprise, rather than disbelief.

t not disbelief.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


There's a family further up our street, appropriately named "Rose". (We don't live on Rose Street, but the usual way to our home on Spruce Street is to drive up Rose Street. However, the appropriateness arises because this is about various colors, including rose.) The parents are unable to have children of their own, and adopted a daughter, who recently celebrated her second birthday.

By a happy coincidence, there was a young single mother, not a blood relation, but related through a "blended marriage", who couldn't afford to give up her forty-hour-a-week job if she were to be a "stay at home mom". When she is old enough, the little girl will be told that the loving woman she knows as a family friend is, in fact, her birth mother. We were lucky enough to get to know both adoptive and birth mother at this happy birthday party.

The little girl has already developed a color sense, and is particularly fond of pink and purple. Her home was decorated with approximately those two colors, mainly with balloons. All guests were asked to wear, if possible, those two colors, and I changed into a pink shirt. Barbara wore a beautiful top which incorporated a variety of colors, including those requested.

Looking around the room, I saw many variants, ranging from violet to crimson. The word "purple" is in fashion, for those states that are neither as blue as California or as red as Texas. No doubt some of you have read Alice Walker's best-seller The Color Purple, or seen the movie: purple is in fashion.

In the Episcopal Church, where we elect our bishops, we use the expression, "will be wearing a purple shirt", for someone who has been elected bishop. You will see bishops wearing that same variety of colors, from violet to crimson. There is no strict rule about this, but I do wonder why the various outfitters that specialize in clerical clothing don't get together and decide one consistent shade.

Rose is a pretty color. The Episcopal Church has a "penitential" season (Lent), when purple vestments are usual-- or (as my parish prefers) "Lenten Array", a "natural" off-white. In many places, including my parish, the Fourth Sunday in Lent sees vestments in rose, denoting the relaxing of the strict (or not so strict!) rules of fasting still complied with by many Christians.

The Season of Advent is properly not considered one of penitence, although one may see purple vestments in many churches. Rather, it should be a time of patient, watchful, waiting for Christmas. The Third Sunday in Advent is the Rose Sunday in Advent.

I am looking forward to Rose Sunday next month, as for the first time the Presider and the Assisting Priest will be wearing rose stoles (the long scarves they wear).

All this reminds me: next summer I must serve some of the Rosé wine that isn't very popular--although some that isn't sweet is much to my taste. I have about a dozen bottles in my cellar, great for quaffing on a hot day.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


I began this on a Thursday morning. I had just ordered the restart of a newspaper that has been on "vacation hold", with the first restarted issue to arrive in nine days' time, on the Saturday of next week. I would call that "Saturday week". The clerk who was responding told me that the paper would arrive "next Saturday". I resisted the temptation to say "No, the following Saturday".That highlights another cause for confusion between "Brits" and what those Brits would call "Yanks". By now, after more than fifty years in the US, I have learned that "Next (anyday)" doesn't mean literally the next Monday, Tuesday, etc., but is shorthand for (anyday) in next week.

In both cultures, there's no ambiguity when folk say "this (anyday)". So the very next Saturday is "this Saturday", or perhaps "this coming Saturday". Also clear is to give the date: "I'll be there on Saturday the 13th" avoids any ambiguity.

I wonder how many Brits have decided they were being "stood up" when an American friend who'd agreed to meet for lunch "next Friday" didn't show up? Or how many Americans visiting the UK appeared at a rendezvous seven days late? The sentimentalist in me feels sorry for those who fail to connect because of this misunderstanding. It is a less tragic happening than the unnecessary deaths of Romeo & Juliet, but equally illustrates the importance of timing.

Then again, the romantic in me (don't look so surprised!) imagines arriving solo, to find a beautiful maiden staring into her empty glass, deciding she never wants to see that other guy again, and I "seize the day"...

Something similar happened to me over forty years ago, when I first met Barbara--but that's another story...

Monday, November 1, 2010


In the U.K., "holidays" in the plural usually refers to what we would call a vacation. There are School Holidays, Summer Holidays, Winter Holidays, and so forth. Here in the US, the meaning is usually narrower. When you ask someone if they have plans for the holidays, it tends to mean Christmastide, maybe the period up to and including New Year's Eve, and possibly even Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday in November).

Public Holidays in the UK are called "Bank Holidays". As Wikipedia notes, "There is no automatic right to time off on these days, although the
majority of the population not employed in essential services receive them as holidays; those employed in essential services
usually receive extra pay for working on these days."

Originally, a "holiday" was indeed a "Holy Day", commemorating a religious feast day. Few of these remain as secular "days off" ; in the UK, until relatively recently, "Whit Monday" was a Bank Holiday, being the day after Whit Sunday (Pentecost). .

Good Friday is a holiday for most folk in the UK. Generally, it is used to make a four-day break, with Easter Monday being a Bank Holiday.

In the US, Good Friday is a working day for most employed people. I remember my surprise in 1958, when I spent my first Good Friday in San Francisco. One could take three hours off in the middle of the working day, because many churches, particularly (but not exclusively) RC places of worship, offered a Three Hour Service, from noon to three p.m., the traditional hours when Jesus is said to have been nailed to the Cross. We were not released until the hour of twelve, so office workers who went to church arrived late and left early, to be back at their desks by three. It was evident that not everyone fasted or went to church: the bars did a roaring trade, and not much work was done between three and the hour of release. It has always seemed to me a defective system.

My parish church has three services on Good Friday: usually at 7 a.m., the three-hour service at noon, and an evening liturgy at 7:30 p.m. A Frequently Asked Question is "Why Good Friday? What was good about the day of crucifixion?" Far-fetched explanations point out that it was ultimately good for humankind that Jesus died for our transgressions, but English is the only major language to use the adjective "good". It has probably arisen from confusion with "God". (We say "goodbye" when friends leave, but most folk don't realize that this is a corruption of the pious "God be with ye".)

Most offices now close on the day after Thanksgiving, making it more feasible to turn it into a time to visit out-of-town family. There is a tradition that one takes children to "Grandma's House" for the Thanksgiving meal. I attend church on Thanksgiving, knowing that it was originally a harvest festival, to give thanks to the Almighty for successful crops, though now a largely secular occasion.

American children, adolescents, and adults young in years or spirits, treat Halloween as a holiday, although it isn't usually a day off work. I remember how shocked the parents of my best friend were, when they visited the US one autumn in the forties, and hordes of children came to their hosts' home, shouting gleefully "Trick or Treat!", and demanding candy.  Most revelers don't realize that the name comes from it being the day before November 1, and thus the eve of All Saints' Day: All Hallows' Eve.

An important "non-holiday" in the UK is November 5, "Guy Fawkes Day",
when fireworks and "bonfires" (where permitted) celebrate, to the
delight of young and not-so-young.

November 2 is All Souls' Day; as "The Day of the Dead", it is a major celebration for Latinos.It is a Lesser Feast in my Church's calendar, whereas All Saints' Day is a Major Feast. It isn't moveable, but in our current Book of Common Prayer, there's the very practical rule that the day can also be celebrated on the Sunday following. That will happen this year at St. Mark's, when we shall also be baptizing the newest family member, Holden James Clifford, son of Justine Lewis and Joe Clifford.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Dialects and Accents

Barbara & I accompanied daughter Kristin to the theater in Denver recently. Kristin subscribes to plays at the Performing Arts Center, and normally attends with two women friends. She was out of town for her regular Tuesday night performance, as she had been at Jalapa, in Nicaragua, attending a 25th anniversary celebration of the opening of a school building she had designed "pro bono" for the youngest children, using inexpensive "vernacular" materials. This was part of Jalapa's "sister city" association with Boulder. Kristin and her friend Susan, the mayor of Boulder, had been invited to attend the celebration (at their own expense, of course--Jalapa is a very poor city, close to the border with Honduras). So Kristin had changed her performance date, and invited us to accompany her.

The play was a 1990 adaptation of Bram Stoker's ever-popular novel Dracula. Kristin would not have chosen such a play, any more than we would, but when you buy a season subscription, you end up with the theatrical equivalent of a table d'hote meal.  I had never read the book, nor had I chosen to see any movie or TV version of the story. I did remember that Count Dracula was a vampire, living in Transylvania; I had heard about the use of garlic and a small wooden cross to ward off the Evil One; and the need to drive a wooden stake through the heart of an "Un-Dead" victim, as well as that of the Count himself. The play was fun, but that's not the subject of the musings.

As I thumbed through the program, I noted that the production had used a "dialect coach". I also noticed that much of the action took place away from Transylvania, in England and elsewhere in Continental Europe. Among the characters were seamen and working class Londoners: hence the "dialect coach", I assumed. I did not think that the English "gentry" in the cast would need such training. Evidently, I was wrong.

Unlike most New York and West Coast actors, the Colorado actors apparently hadn't been trained to speak in "stage English", so necessary for an authentic performance of the plays of Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, or Noel Coward. It appeared that the dialect coach had tried to teach some of the performers to speak like upper-middle class English men and women. As far as the men were concerned, they failed, in this harsh critic's judgment. They sound phony, with exaggerated vowel sounds.

Now, I have modified my own speech during half a century in the US; I have never tried to sound like a man born in the US. My basic speech was "BBC English", as it used to be called before regional voices were acceptable for reading the news in the UK. It was also known as "U" speech, as opposed to "Non-U", with the letter "U" allegedly standing for "upper class". Sometimes this way of speaking was called "Public School" English--as opposed to the"Grammar School" version.

Some of these class distinctions have disappeared by now. When I hear younger British members of my sons' generation, and even those younger still, they use a more blended accent. (When you listen to the recorded voice of the Queen, you hear authentic old-style BBC English.) 

This is not about "dialect", of course: it is about accents. In my day, we didn't think we had an "accent": we spoke proper English. I remember the very mixed feelings I had, many years ago, when an older woman, who clearly enjoyed hearing me speak, told me "I just love your brogue".(Irish has a word "barrog", from which we derive the word "brogue", meaning a strongly accented way of speaking.) The idea that I spoke with a "brogue" seemed hilarious, rather than insulting, and I knew she thought she was paying me a compliment.

Monday, October 18, 2010


"Vegemite" is an extract of yeast, marketed by Kraft in Australia. Several years ago, a friend brought several jars, correctly guessing that I would enjoy it. When freshly opened, Vegemite can be easily spread on buttered bread. If there's a difference between Marmite and Vegemite, I don't know it. My guess is that the name "Marmite" has been trademarked, but that the extraction process is "in the public domain".

A few years ago, Marmite developed a witty advertising campaign, on the theme "Marmite--you either love it or hate it". I was shown some of the commercials, probably displayed on YouTube. For any readers who don't know about Marmite, it is a sticky brown paste, usually spread on bread, toast, or a plain cracker, with a salty, tangy taste.

As a child, I used to see two brands of meat extract, Oxo and Bovril. As their names imply. these were made from beef . They looked rather similar to their vegetarian cousins, and were mainly used to make "beef tea", a warm drink for cold weather, essentially just the beef extract dissolved in hot water. I seldom saw beef tea, apart from when we were spending days on long sea voyages. On cold nights in later years, keeping watch as a Naval officer, i learned to prefer the strong cocoa we called "Ki", made from dissolved bars of solid chocolate.

The other common usage for Oxo or Bovril was to add flavor and body to soups and stews. In 1951, I learned how these meat extracts were a byproduct of the beef trade between Argentina and the U.K. I took passage in a ship which picked up a cargo of chilled beef in the busy port of La Plata, south of Buenos Aires. A prize-winning article of mine (Meat Boat) about that trade was published in the Spectator later that year.

At our Colorado house, I recently finished my last jar of Vegemite, which had dried up since it was opened many moons ago. I was able to scrape out most of what was left, and even (with difficulty) spread some on an English muffin. Delicious! But there were several lumps that I was able to enjoy, much as I would suck what Brits call a "boiled sweet" and we call "hard candy". I washed out the almost-empty pot and recycled it.

Farewell, Vegemite! Now I can start the little jar of Marmite, awaiting me in the pantry!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Mary, Mayhem, and The Rotten Husband (cont.)


I was sitting in my car, the red Acura, at the edge of a large parking area at the end of a driveway. It was

neatly covered with a fine yellowish-brown sandy gravel. I was looking at a large country house. It was
somewhere on the Peninsula, perhaps in Hillsborough or Atherton. There were lights in the windows,
clearly visible behind the drapes. It was about 9pm on a clear evening.

Then, from the left, came the sounds of a marching band. There weren’t “76 trombones”, but it was
certainly a large band, although the uniforms and instruments were not very distinct. Somehow, I knew
that I had organized this band, and that they were there to serenade someone at the house. (The very
idea is absurd: one guitar or a gypsy violinist would do a much better job than blaring out one’s feelings
to the entire neighborhood, even in an area of huge park-like estates!)

I locked the car door, and walked over to the house. After a while, the front door opened, and I was
greeted by a man and his wife, probably in their late forties. Although it was the type of house that
would need servants to be run efficiently, I don’t recall having seen a butler or parlormaid.

The evidently wealthy couple who had let me in were contemporaries of mine. [In the dream I felt as if I
were (say) forty-five.] They treated me as an equal, and said something along the lines of “I expect you’d
like to see Mary. She’s out, but we expect her back very soon.” (Actually, the name has no significance.
If I had known the young women’s name in my dream, I had forgotten it by the time that I awoke in the
morning.) The parents were informally dressed. They did not seem surprised to see me, nor did they
comment on the music.

I have no sense of time delay, for very soon three or four people entered the room. They were young
people, but I only had eyes for one. She had medium-length black hair, a pale complexion, and bright
red lips. She was wearing a white blouse with a black skirt. She stood out, a strikingly self-possessed,
even charismatic, figure. She was very beautiful. I knew that I wanted to be her friend, and to be seen in
her company, but my feelings were of admiration, not inflamed desire.

The parents excused themselves, and left the room, together with the shadowy figures who had come
in with Mary. As soon as they had gone, she turned on me, and berated me for calling on her in this
conspicuous fashion. I was aware that I was a married man, although it wasn’t specifically to Barbara
of whom I was thinking, I just had the knowledge that I was married to another woman, and yet had a
considerable interest in Mary.

Mary said that she was very angry with me: how dare I come and attempt to woo her again with sweet
words and gifts of books? It was as if I had had one previous meeting with Mary, and had moved her to
care for me. Apparently, this had happened some weeks or months previously. For all that her parents
knew, I was a suitor, and by no means an unwelcome one. Mary was single, in her early twenties, and
given considerable freedom by her parents. Even while she was expressing her anger I felt immensely
drawn to this striking and intelligent young woman.

Mary then suggested that my interest in her was in part due to snobbishness. I knew that she was
closely related to some noble family, whose surname differed from the family title. My interest in her

was for her family connections, not for herself, she suggested. I protested at this calumny, but I was
aware that her family’s name impressed me.

Although the scene could have played in the United Kingdom, it was certainly taking place in California.

I have no specific memory of Mary leaving the room, but I have a recall of her returning and throwing
down in front of me some miscellaneous objects, which at first I had presumed to be some things that
I had given her on a previous visit, and which she was now rejecting. I also recall that there was at least
one piece of rubber – or plastic-coated wire.

Somewhat taken aback at my reception, I walked out to my car. To my amazement, I found that a front
window had been smashed, and that a lot of damage had been done to the instrument panel. Various
dials and wires leading to them had been pulled out. Mary had done a thorough job of trashing my car!
There seemed to be no way that I could drive the car, and I also noted that the hand brake appeared to
have been disconnected. I remember being concerned that even if I could get the car to start; there was
no way that I wanted to drive it off without having effective brakes.

At this point, I remember a number of other people coming to the car, expressing amazement at the
destruction, and some puzzled sympathy. I don’t think there was any doubt in anyone’s mind who was
responsible for the damage. The next thing I recall was that some family members, including at least two
males, one of whom was Mary’s father, had somehow done a miraculous repair job on the car, so that I
could drive it away.

It was at this point that I awoke for the first time, becoming aware that I had just come out of a
significant dream. I was amazed at the vividness, and the manner in which I had evidently angered Mary
because I had come a-courting. Her anger had in no way been directed at me on the grounds I was a
married man, and it is not clear to me whether in the dream I had revealed this to her. It is also not clear
that her anger was in any way affected by our age differential. We seemed very evenly matched. The
anger seemed to be a combination of her accusations that I was motivated by snobbishness, rather than
by love of her as a person, and because of the ostentation of my serenading her, catching her off guard,
and identifying me (to anyone who was watching) as her suitor. And then I fell asleep again.


There was Mary again, as striking as ever, but in an entirely different mood. She was extremely contrite
about the mayhem she had created in her rage, and she acknowledged that it wasn’t really justified. In
fact, she was very glad to see me, and she loved me.

In a few moments we were touching, laughing, kissing, and playfully happy. Mary had apologized
and I had forgiven her. That’s as far as things went in the dream, and I awoke again. Darn it!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Mary, Mayhem, and the Rotten Husband: An Unusual Dream

April 14, 1993

Mary, Mayhem, and the Rotten Husband:
An Unusual Dream
By Nigel A. Renton


I often have amusing dreams, and on several occasions I have awoken from a dream, and later fallen back to sleep, finding myself starting another chapter of the same story. In this dream I played the part of a rotten husband, had my car trashed as a result of chasing after a younger woman, and then – but let’s not spoil the ending.

My dreams remain very vivid in my memory immediately after I awake. Since this is usually in the middle of the night, it is rare for me to relate the dream (which would mean waking my wife) or to go upstairs and dictate the details while they are fresh in my mind. If I don’t do this, it is all too easy to forget the details. On this occasion they remained with me, and I felt impelled to record them. Barbara was out of town.


It is often easy to relate my dreams to events in my waking life. Very often there are a number of different happenings which affect my dreams. It is as if I take a little piece from many different parts of my waking life, including plays, movies, and the TV screen, and put them into a kaleidoscope. Then my brain shakes them all up while I sleep, and turns them out as marvelously complex and fascinating dreams.

There also seems to be some correlation between my having eaten cheese and having vivid dreams. I was told about this as a child, but this “old wives’ tale” may have some basis in fact. On the evening of April 13/14, 1993, I had liberally sprinkled a large salad with parmesan, before realizing that a similar amount would improve the flavor of the left-over spaghetti, which was the main course of my supper.

I had been talking to or thinking of women all day, but not with “evil thoughts”. That morning, I had had an intense conversation with AL. I had then arranged with my young friend from church, MB, to be my guest at the forthcoming DRA theater evening. I had also had good reasons to think about JK and MS, young women friends, and of RC and KL, women priests.

I had later been to the doctor, (the only man in this account), where there had been talk about a relatively minor operation for the removal of toenails, deferred until a possible future date: and of possible future urethral or prostate surgery. I had then gone up to a blood-drawing station, only to find that it was closed for the afternoon, and I would need to return the following morning.
During the evening, I had a phone conversation with Barbara in Colorado, where I plan to join her for the coming weekend. The call was more in the nature of passing on messages than a lovers’ chat. I should add that Barbara had worn a white blouse and black pants when I last saw her.

We also discussed whether Barbara would take Kate Learson to Rocky Mountain National Park on the day of my arrival, or whether we should spend part of my precious few hours in Colorado amid those glorious snow-capped peaks. (Kate is the daughter of the former chairman of IBM, and I vividly remembered how we had been drawn to each other’s company at the outset of the trip Barbara and I made to the Antarctic. Kate was unaccompanied: I remembered how I had come to terms with the realization that to maintain this friendship it was important that she and Barbara becomes friends, which they did very easily, while I worked through my feelings about this glamorous and intelligent younger woman who had found me a good companion. At the time, Kate had confided in me, and later to us both, her complex feelings about her lover, who subsequently became her husband. John won’t be with Kate in Colorado, so the three of us will be reunited, as we were for a couple of delightful days in New England last fall.)

On my rides to and from the office and for part of the evening, I had been listening to a wonderful recorded book about the Borgias, and the passionate involvement of male clergy, of all ranks and including the Pope, in licentious affairs, sometimes involving incest. A few days before, I had re-viewed the scene where Orson Welles as Citizen Kane trashes his mistress’s room in a violent rage.l

Then, after supper, I had watched Steel Magnolias, a movie I had recorded earlier. The main theme concerns a young woman (Julia Roberts), as a severe diabetic who rejects the advice of doctors and her own mother to avoid becoming pregnant. She wants to have her own child, and gives birth to the son and heir ardently sought by her husband. As a result of this, she had kidney failure and in due course, the kidney transplant from her own mother is rejected, and she dies. The movie is much more about middle-class white society in a small town in Louisiana, not too far from Shreveport, than it is about death, which comes at the end of the movie. It is generally upbeat and funny, and also stars Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis, and Darryl Hannah. These are the strong Southern women of the title, each very different, involved to some extent with men who are felonious, foolish, out of work, or pathetic. This affected me, because the mother of my own sons had also been a severe diabetic. We were not warned to avoid having children because of potential danger to a diabetic mother. Had I unwittingly put Lola into a life-threatening situation – twice? Had she deliberately – or unwittingly – downplayed the dangers to her own health?

Then, somewhere on the news, I saw a picture of a car that had been broken into, with bits of window glass on the floor. And so, to my dream …

to be continued in next week's post ...

Monday, September 27, 2010

National anthems

When I was at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, during WWII, I used to hear the band play a national anthem every weekday morning, as we assembled for the regular morning assembly (known as "Divisions") on the parade ground. We played the anthems of our allies, even if some of the nations were occupied by German forces. After Pearl Harbor, we added "The Star Spangled Banner". I liked the tune, although the words were hard to sing - not a requirement at Divisions.

In recent times, there have been suggestions that we should change our National Anthem, and that would be fine by me, but I should be surprised if it happens during the remaining years of my lifetime. The US Senate is far too busy filibustering to take up such a controversial topic.

What I most abhor is the "rendition" of our "Anthem" by pop singers, who give it their own "interpretation". I was heartened when a friend sent me an email, attaching a link to an excellent "straight" version, by the assembled cadet choirs of the Navy, Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.

I think you will like the recording, made at the start of a professional football game. It is here:

I'll admit that what is left of my taste for triumphalism in the Armed Services was stirred by this performance.

Until towards the end, when that terrible bane of premature cheering began. I just wish that stadium crowds would allow the singers to finish the anthem, before starting to applaud.

Barbara and I attended another concert by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra last night. It was an all-Mozart program, and the civilized audience avoided applauding the individual movements, and allowed the conductor a second or two of respite, as he brought Symphony #41 ("Jupiter") to its rapturous conclusion. Happily, no premature applause marred our appreciative enjoyment.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Mangled French

Despite the heading, let's start with German.

Americans can't do umlauts, so today I read that the prominent Presbyterian theologian Frederick Buechner pronounces his name "Beekner". That triggered thoughts of American pronunciation of some other languages, especially French.

In my early days, I didn't care much about French, although I studied it at my British-style prep school (typically age 8 through 13). I continued to study it without enthusiasm, when I moved to the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, where Naval training shared class time with a general secondary school curriculum. We were "streamed" for academic subjects into four groups, according to our ability. I was always placed in the "A" group--with one exception. At the start of one term, I was initially placed in the "B" group for French, but one of the masters (teachers) who taught French was either called up, or possibly suffered a long-term disability. The classes were reduced from four to three, and I found myself back in group A. That seemed to communicate a message! From that day forward, I have learned to appreciate French, and I can still speak enough to find my way around France.

The secret for English speakers in France is to start to communicate in French; if the person to whom you are speaking has better English than French, she or he will soon switch languages.

Particularly in California, French is not widely spoken or understood, because we have an unofficial "second language": Spanish. The French that I see and hear is mangled in several ways:

1. There are certain sounds, common in French, which Californians cannot pronounce. A particularly egregious example is the feminine of masseur. This is pronounced "massoose", instead of something like "masserz".

2. Usage. The main course (and this is true generally in the US) is called an entree. (This is usually pronounced with an approximation of correctness, as "ontray".) As the meaning of the word ("entry") suggests, an entrée is the course preceding the main course.

3. Pronunciation. Good pronunciation of French requires care with the stress. The phrase "Gay Paree" illustrates this point. Stress in French requires a light and delicate touch, not a heavy emphasis on the final syllable.

What does one do when using French words in California? If I pronounce the words correctly, I risk being identified as the linguistic snob I am. To "dumb down" my French risks being considered an ignoramus by those who know better. In defense of my amour propre, I have developed a middle way.

Perhaps this just makes me sound like an ignorant snob...

P.S. To my readers: I am going to mark a time close to my anniversary of blogging, by asking Jane to copy and publish, in two long(ish) episodes, something I wrote in 1993. Normal blogging service will be resumed thereafter..

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Clean Plate league

We recently bought dinner for two of our best friends. Let's call them "Bill" and "Mary". The food at the restaurant was excellent, but Bill left a little on his plate. Mary, Barbara, and I did everything short of picking up the plates and licking them. We used some of the excellent bread to mop up the last drops of superb sauce.

Later, Mary told me that Bill had been brought up in the US always to leave some food on the plate. She had given up trying to change that.

I told Mary that I had heard an expression "leave something on your plate for Lady Manners" when I lived in England. The justification (if you can call it that) given to me was that if you ate everything on the plate, the hostess might feel that she had not fed you enough. I told Mary that I thought that this was ridiculous, and she agreed.

An omnivore, I have always been a member of the "clean plate league", which sometimes causes some dismay to Barbara - not because I want to eat everything, but because I am so slow about eating such food as cracked crab.

Those of us who lived in the UK during WW II knew that it was unpatriotic to waste food. German submarines sank many ships bringing food to the British Isles. Many hundreds of merchant seamen lost their lives as a result.

Americans waste a lot of food. I was incensed at a recent question in a survey, asking which of the following leftover foods from a holiday meal did we throw away: Turkey, Dressing, Mashed Potatoes, Pumpkin, or Cranberry Sauce? There was no option for "None of the above".

We don't throw food away at our house. Leftovers are refrigerated and eaten within a few days.

WW II is long over, but I still consider wasting food to be sinful.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Turn off that light!

Seventy years ago, in wartime Britain, one might hear those words, probably from an Air Raid Warden, during the blackout. The words go through my mind unspoken these days for another reason. Well, yes, I do understand that we as a nation need to save energy, but that's not my main concern. It's not just because I pay our electricity bill, although that is certainly a consideration. It is because I abhor waste in any form.

Watching a British TV show on a local PBS channel, I recently learned the meaning of OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). Yeah, there's a touch of this in my personality, but my limited vision gives me an excuse: I do believe there should be "a place for everything and everything in its place"--especially in the kitchen, to help me make our daily breakfast.

But there's more to it than that. I almost always try to be generous with others, but I am "economical" with myself--some would say "cheap" or even "miserly". I remember being offended when a very good friend--a fellow native of the UK--pulled out a handful of tissues--maybe 6--when one would have done. I long ago learned that one doesn't need toothpaste to brush one's teeth. But mint or other pleasant flavor makes the chore more agreeable, so I do still use toothpaste. All the illustrations in the advertisements show an inch or more of toothpaste: i use about a quarter of an inch.

A while back, when there was a shortage of water in much of California, and it became patriotic to limit usage of this precious resource. Barbara even went so far to collect dishwater, etc., in a large bucket, which she would take outside to sprinkle on flowerbeds.
Wit her cooperation, I instituted a "limited flush" routine ("Yellow is mellow, but brown goes down" was my mantra).

Barbara replaced two perfectly good toilets with "low flow" models, at significant expense, but in a couple of hundred years or so, if our 1909 house is still standing, future inhabitants may have recovered the cost....

With all the rain this year, months ago the restrictions on use of water were lifted, but I cling to my routine. (After all, limiting the use of water is still environmentally desirable--and we save a little money, too!)

I am at my chintziest with food. Although my relatively affluent parents didn't suffer deprivation in the Depression, my father's business suffered, and millions of Brits lost their jobs, just as in the USA. When WWll began, it was a sin to waste food. I still feel that way. When no-one is looking, I even eat the edible rind on cheeses and stale bread. We do our best to keep milk from going sour, but on the rare occasions (once a year?) that this happens, I usually have a cup of coffee in which the milk has curdled before the rest id discarded. Many years ago, I tried (with limited success) to make cheese when half a quart carton went sour.

Do I suffer from OCD? I leave it to my readers to decide.


Monday, August 30, 2010

Widow's pension

I recently read somewhere about elderly couples living together as a married couple, without the benefit of actually being married. The article suggested that they stayed unmarried because of "dire tax consequences", if they actually tied the knot.

In at least most cases, the writer had it wrong, usually it is advantageous to be married as far as taxes are concerned. I believe it is even possible in some jurisdictions to file joint returns when the folk involved are members of a domestic partnership or registered civil union.

No, when people say "they can't get married", they usually mean that they have chosen not to get married, because of financial considerations. Usually, this is because one of them is receiving a "widow's pension". I am certainly not going to sit in judgment over those who make that choice, in the light of current practice. However, I do think we should look at what is behind the reluctance to get married. In times past, the man was usually the principal, if not the only, breadwinner. The expectation of life of adult males was shorter than that of females. A considerate society felt it was appropriate to provide some support for impecunious widows. However, many widows remarried, and of course they no longer needed a widow's pension. So the employer, trade union, or even the state, could save the money.

I consider this a very dated concept. Men and women are both eligible for their own Social Security pensions. Admittedly, many of those women now receiving Social Security benefits spent years as homemakers, or worked in low-paying jobs; as a consequence, their benefits are often relatively small. But "times they are a-changing", and I believe that any pensions paid to women (or to men!) after the death of a spouse should continue until the survivor's death, whether or not the survivor remarries. Also, the importance of pensions for survivors has diminished, and in the present state of the economy, we may find that they are gradually abolished by most employers.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Consent forms

A few weeks ago, I underwent a relatively minor outpatient procedure at Kaiser's Richmond medical center. The usual precautions were taken: my blood pressure and pulse before and after the procedure, and my name was written on a tape attached to my wrist - presumably in case something unexpected occurred and I had to be rushed off to the hospital's operating room.

All this I understand, but this particular procedure required me to lie supine on a table, and have straps secured around my calves - presumably in case I tried to escape!

After I was made quite comfortable, with pillows under my head and under my knees, a complicated document was stuck under my nose, and I was asked to sign a consent form. I did this quite cheerfully, being an obedient patient, but it got me thinking. It occurred to me that if a patient were unhappy with the result of the procedure, any competent attorney could easily discredit this so-called "consent form". In my mind's eye, I saw myself as a famous plaintiff's attorney, doing my best Walter Mitty act. (If that means nothing to you, ask an older person who can remember Danny Kaye's wonderful 1939 performance in "The Secret Life of Water Mitty".)

My dermatologist had detected a suspicious spot on my nose, which wouldn't heal. She had called for a biopsy, which indicated that it was some form of skin cancer. Hence the procedure. It was a complex, painstaking, and meticulous business, lasting a full hour, but all is well, and the stitches were taken out early the following week.

It would be wise for those instructing hospital personnel to train them to obtain these consent forms before the patient arrives at the operating table .Perhaps it would also be wise to have a witness sign, in case the surgery ever becomes part of a lawsuit. Such a witness could testify, if necessary, that the patient was not under duress to sign.

Monday, August 16, 2010


In Britain, this word usually means a task or plan for the future. Just as a "projectile", refers to an object moving forward, so a "project" means a proposal for (say) a new building, a park, or a business venture.

Not that these senses are misunderstood in the US, but there is another usage, probably better known in New York than in California. When people talk, often disparagingly, about the "projects" they refer to public housing, originally built for re-housing folk living in slum areas. Often, these "projects" become the new slums.

It is an interesting change of meaning from something forward-looking, and usually positive, to part of what architects call "the built environment", steadily growing shabbier and less desirable.

Monday, August 9, 2010


This is another blog of several brief items about different meanings of words used in the UK and the US.

For years, I have been alternately amused and irritated because Americans visiting England talk about "the Lake Country". Just about everyone in the UK knows this area as the "Lake District".

I shall probably go on gently correcting any American friends who "get it wrong". However, only recently did I come up with an explanation. The word "district" has a different connotation in the US, in a country where the chief prosecutor is a "district attorney".

Another usage of "district" on the western side of the Pond is for school districts. We just don't think of an open country area as a "district". That is perhaps a minor part of the problem, Brits do not enjoy hearing the area called the "Lake Country". That word is used in two main senses: to refer to a nation, and to refer to rural (rather than urban or suburban) areas. This confusion is one of many reasons to recall the witty remark, attributed to George Bernard Shaw.

Monday, August 2, 2010


My blog has gone international! Check out the comment section, and you will see Chinese characters. Thanks to Google, I have been able to read a rough translation of several comments, all of which are encouraging. I wonder whether these are students of English, who prefer, reasonably enough, to comment in their native language.

If you would like to check this out for yourself, go to:

Now back to this week's blog entry:


Here's another word which causes confusion, because its use is completely different, depending on which side of the Atlantic you live.

In Britain, the usage is entirely benign. A particular use of the term with which I have been familiar for over half a century is a "pension scheme". This merely means that it is a plan or an arrangement. Brits do talk about villains "scheming", but the noun carries no such negative connotation.

In the US, the term is less common, but when it is used it carries the overtones of a scam or plot. I remember that, many years ago, I confused a colleague when I used the term to describe a perfectly innocent plan.

Common language, indeed!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Paul Larudee

Some of you will have heard about the ships that were attempting to take supplies to Gaza recently, which were attacked on the high seas by the so-called Israeli Defense Force (IDF), when numbers of Turks were killed by the boarders.

You may also have heard about one of the American protesters, on a different ship, who was an advocate of Passive Resistance. He (Paul Larudee) is 64, has a PhD in linguistics, and for many years taught at St. Mary's College. For many years, he has been a professional piano tuner, and that's how we met him. For many years, we have seen him when he comes to tune our piano, and when we buy another case of the excellent Palestinian olive oil that he and a number of friends (some Jewish) bottle and sell to help raise funds for the Middle East Children's Alliance.

Paul is a founder of the Free Palestine movement, and on one of several previous visits he was shot in the leg by a member of the IDF.

Paul lives nearby, and so an article about his passive resistance and subsequent beatings by the Zionists were published in the local press.

Paul came to our house on Monday, bringing us fresh supplies of olive oil, and to tune our piano. Mondays are when Martha Hernandez and either her mother (Digna) or brother (Joel) come to clean our house. At one point, Paul could not exercise his tuning skills, because of the noise of a vacuum cleaner, but we were able to mitigate the noise so that he could continue.

When he had completed his work, we asked him to join us for lunch, and we were treated to a first-hand of this self-described "troublemaker" and his successful passive resistance. It was thrilling for me to hear him, and to share his pleasure at the fact that the thwarted attempt to take goods to Gaza has, in fact, achieved much of it's ultimate objective, as the harsh conditions imposed on the Palestinians in Gaza have been somewhat ameliorated, in response to the world wide criticism of Israel, and the many deaths of Turkish crew members.

When we are invited to dinner at the house of friends, we now often take a bottle of olive oil, in place of the more conventional bottle of wine.

I greatly admire Paul, for his courage and good humor. He is remarkably fit for a diabetic in his mid-60s, and I am glad to report that he is almost entirely recovered from the savage treatment he received from his Zionist captors.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Take your time!

As many of you know, I don't move very quickly these days, and am slow getting in and out of vehicles. Kind people often tell me "Take your time". Frankly, I hate it. What do these people think that I am doing? My instinct is to respond angrily and sarcastically.

Of course, I don't do that. I am completely aware that, like a healthy majority of the people I meet, these are kind, supportive folk, wanting to let me know that they care about me.

So I bite my tongue, grit my teeth, and endeavor to respond with some affirming phrase, such as "I hate to keep you waiting" or "Thanks for your patience with me".

I would like to come up with a friendly, pleasant, affirming method of asking these wonderful people to "cease and desist" from telling me to "take my time". (Of course, if they read this blog, they'll know better next time!)

Any suggestions readers have to suppress those well-meaning, kindly words would be gratefully received.

Monday, July 12, 2010


I am not a major fan of sports, although with a granddaughter who excels in cycling, I have had to learn some of the jargon, such as "podiumed", meaning that the rider was one of the first three (or more, in certain instances) who appear on a podium to receive their medals.

As I write this, the Soccer World Cup is in progress. British readers may be surprised to learn that when the final score is even, American papers call it a "tie". Brits would call it a "draw".

In British soccer, competition for most of the year is in "league" play. Towards the end of the season, in professional soccer (known as "football" in the UK) the matches they play are known as "cup ties", as they vie to win the prestigious FA (Football Association) Cup. Feet don't play much part in American "football" after the kick off and until an attempt is made (usually, but not always) by kicking, to add the "point after", very rarely unsuccessful. In rugby football, a "try" is not the attempt, but the way in which points are scored by carrying the ball across the goal line. Then there is a chance to "convert" by kicking the ball over the horizontal bar, when the "try" becomes a "goal". (In most sports, a "goal" is scored when the ball (or "puck") passes under the bar.

As a small child, I did not understand why there was so much interest in a "test match". I thought it was the equivalent of a so-called "friendly". When would there be a real match? Americans should know that "test matches" are very serious affairs. Many years ago, the final cricket Test Match, when England played Australia, was played to a finish. Happily, these contests appear to be limited to five days at most.

In the UK, and in other parts of the world where cricket is played, the area between the wickets is called a "pitch". In the US, a "pitch" is made when a ball is thrown to the batter. If the "bowler" throws a ball in cricket, the umpire will call "no ball". (That adds a run to the score of the batting side, although the "batsman" is permitted to strike it and to increase the number of runs to be scored.)

A "bowler" in cricket is the one who projects the ball. In the US, a "bowler" is a participant in an indoor sport, a version of what I once knew as "Ninepins". In the UK, "bowls" refers to what those of us on the western side of the Pond would call "lawn bowls". "Bowls" in the US are end of season contests between College football teams, played by highly recruited young men on "athletic scholarships".

Confusing, certainly, but always entertaining.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


Americans are used to combinations of words ending in "-gate". It dates back to the Nixon-era Watergate scandals. It is now used for almost any scandal, such as "Travelgate", an almost-forgotten scandal in the White House travel office, during the Clinton presidency.

Lately, those of us active in TEC (The Episcopal Church), have been hearing about "Mitregate". The first half of this word is indeed about the headgear traditionally worn by a bishop, which is somewhat reminiscent of the top part of a bishop in a chess set. In the UK, it is always spelled "mitre". American reformers have managed to amend the spelling of many English words, so the usual form (even in the Episcopal Church) is "miter". If you look up that word in a dictionary, you will find that it also refers to a method of joining two pieces of wood together, by cutting off the ends of two pieces at a 45 degree angle, so that they will fit together smoothly - especially when glued.

Recently, our Presiding Bishop, the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, attended a meeting in England, and was invited to preside and preach at a Eucharist (Holy Communion) service in Southwark Cathedral. Word then reached her from Lambeth Palace, where the Archbishop of Canterbury maintains his office and residence. She was told that she should not wear her mitre, although it would be in order for her to carry it!

Some commentators explained that visiting bishops should not wear their mitres: they were only appropriate in an area that officially recognized the wearer's authority as a bishop. Unfortunately for those theorists, there was ample photographic evidence of visiting American bishops, including our Presiding Bishop's predecessor, wearing their mitres while functioning in England.

There are now 28 Anglican women bishops, mostly in the US, but also in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Cuba. However, in the "Mother Country" of the Anglican Communion, there will be no women bishops until 2014 at the earliest, and already there is talk of some conservative male bishops "swimming the Tiber" (converting to Roman Catholicism) with as many of their flock as they can gather. The two Archbishops (Canterbury and York) in England have drafted a resolution (for the next meeting of Synod) which has drawn fire from both the proponents and opponents of women being admitted to the Episcopate.

This may sound like a "storm in a teacup", but articles about "Mitregate" have appeared in the London Times as well as in US church publications.

I think that Rowan Williams, to whom we refer in the convenient shorthand as "ABC", is the second least-admired Brit this week. BP CEO Tony Hayward is in first place, especially after going sailing in his fine yacht with his son, one day before we celebrated Father's Day here.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Making soccer more palatable for Americans

It is widely known that, even with a World Cup in process, non-immigrant Americans are not as fascinated by soccer as people in most other parts of the world.

I began drafting this tongue-in-cheek, but a friend pointed out that we could try some of my ideas in US professional soccer leagues.

I claim no originality in suggesting that most sports-loving Americans become impatient when watching soccer. While they may appreciate the ball control and amazing skill at passing manifested by professional players, there simply isn't enough scoring to keep their attention. They are accustomed to professional basketball, where a score of (say) 118-115 is not uncommon. In our version of football, although it often takes a little more time for one of the teams to get on the scoreboard, a game in which the two sides combine to score on
ten occasions or more is fairly frequent.

We need more viewers of soccer games on TV,  to support our economy by yielding to the beguiling advertisements. This could be achieved if we could make some changes to increase the

I have given considerable thought to this question, and I have several "modest proposals" to speed up the scoring. Just as we have different rules in baseball's National League and American League (which allows a "designated hitter" to perform). I just suggest that we could adopt an optional program to ensure more scoring. I am not suggesting that traditional soccer rules be banned.

How to achieve this? Well, one very simple change would not cost very much, and would allow stadiums to offer traditional or "improved" soccer games. That would be simply to make the "target" more readily available. Wider goal posts and higher crossbars would soon accomplish this.

A second idea would be that when a defender accidentally kicks or heads the ball over the end line, the other side be given half a goal. If this seems too generous, I would suggest moving the point from which the attacking side kicks the ball half way in towards the goal from its traditional corner.

A minor change would grant two goals when the ball is headed into the net. Another change which could be made without additional expense would be to abolish the "yellow card". If the referee detects an infraction, the offender should immediately be given a "red card", and sent off, improving the odds for his opponents.

The simplest change of all would be to abolish the so-called "offside" rule. If a player can move quickly enough past all the offenders (except the goalkeeper), so much the better.

There have been complaints about the amount of "flopping" occurring these days: in other words, a player attempts to have a foul called on a member of the other side. I would introduce a rule that anyone detected flopping should receive a red card.

I would divide the game into four quarters, as is done in American football. In each quarter, one of the teams would have one fewer player, increasing the odds for scoring. Each team would need to do this in alternate quarters.

With these changes, soccer scores should at least become similar to those experienced in baseball. The anomaly in that sport is that when no player on one team even advances to first base, it is called a "perfect game". For the pitcher, yes; for the viewer, far from it.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Farewell, Elderhostel!

The paid folk working for Elderhostel were getting worried. The average age of participants in their programs kept rising.

Commonsense should have told them that this was inevitable, for several reasons:

1. Educated middle-class Americans have been living longer, and aging more slowly. These are the people who have supported Elderhostel programs.

2. Many folk enjoy their first Elderhostel program, and then attend other sessions as they age.

3. Generally speaking, the average attender has prospered, and can afford to attend more sessions in retirement.

That is my totally non-scientific analysis. The paid staff began to be worried, and they sought to attract more folk in their 50s and 60s. How to do this? Why, hire an expensive consultant firm, of course.

What did these well-paid visionaries come up with? "We have a bad name. These people don't want to be thought of as 'elderly', so we must avoid any reference to 'elder' at all costs."

About a year ago, these brainy thinkers coined a word . When Barbara and I attended an Elderhostel program in the Monterey area last fall, the new name was revealed to us: "Exploritas". None of us liked that name, and we expressed our feelings vividly in our evaluation forms. I presume that many other otherwise happy Elderhostelers did the same thing in other parts of the country. Back to the drawing board, then.

Recently, we received a rather lame letter, indicating that a "small travel company" had sued to stop the use of "Exploritas". (The name of the other company wasn't given, but I'll bet it was "The Explorers Club", which runs small-group travel.) The letter we received explained that, although "Exploritas" had been carefully checked out by lawyers, and had been properly trademarked, the former Elderhostel management had decided to back off, although it was clearly in its rights to retain the name. They did not wish to cause any "confusion".


Having been let off the hook for a lousy choice, the management decided to come up with another name. In future, participants are to be known as "Road Scholars"...

Ugh! I gritted my teeth when I saw this, in part because it is another assault on the primary meaning of the word "scholar". Moreover, I abhor the pun. I can imagine the new team of wealthy consultants giggling when this name came up. (Yes, it's funny. You might also say that it could be just as"confusing" as the banished "Exploritas")

I am now wondering whether the other shoe will drop. Will we be hearing from Rhodes House in Oxford? Will the legions of distinguished former Rhodes Scholars rise up in arms? If the name remains, will it actually attract younger participants? Only the future will tell.

Monday, June 14, 2010


By nature, I am not a big tipper. I prefer the "service charge", which still allows one to add more if the service is outstanding.

When I lived in Britain, I generally conformed to the practice of tipping 10% of the bill, somewhat rounded up. Nowadays, I conform to the usual American practice, in which 15% is the standard (or at least it used to be: there is some "creeping inflation" pushing the level up to 20%, which I tend to resist.)

On a recent evening, I came to pay the bill for a party of twelve at a family dinner. The menu clearly stated that a gratuity of 18% would be added to all bills for parties of 6 or more. (I understand why restaurants do this, but that doesn't mean that I like the practice) To my surprise, when the bill arrived, no such charge had been made. I didn't have a portable calculator in my pocket, and so I multiplied the total shown on the bill by 18%, and wrote in that amount as the gratuity. I smiled at myself: Why did I do that? I could have simply asked the waiter to add the 18%. Again, with the amount of the tip left blank, why didn't I just add a tip of 15% or thereabouts? Truthfully, the service had been slow and spotty, although quite "professional".

In earlier years, I used to become quite irked when expected to include the tax before computing the tip. What did the governor's impost have to do with the service we had received? Going back several generations, I am half English and half Scottish, and the stereotype of Caledonian frugality has occasionally been justly applied to me, although I have mellowed on this with the passage of time.

On one occasion, about thirty years ago, I gave a substantial tip in advance of the meal, with the promise of more to come at the end. Barbara and I were entertaining a friend who had an exaggerated idea of his own fame as a painter. I coached the waiter to pretend to recognize the man, and to flatter him almost to the point of the artist's realization that he was being "set up". Perhaps the waiter was an actor "resting" between engagements, because he engaged in this jest magnificently. Barbara and I sat giggling to ourselves, and the man never caught on. I don't consider myself a vengeful person, but this was my payback time, since our friend had told Barbara that I was "irascible". That adjective has been featured in Barbara's comments whenever I speak wrathfully--and she certainly has a point!

Monday, June 7, 2010


We have a primary election here in California today, and we have already completed our mail-in ballots. It reminds me of how simple elections are in the UK. There are local elections, normally every year, largely for members of local councils. National parliamentary elections occur when they are called, and this must take place at least once every five years. Then there are by-elections, caused when a Member of Parliament (MP) dies, is raised to the peerage, or "applies for the Chiltern Hundreds", technically an office of profit under the Crown, which requires leaving Parliament, but actually a fiction allowing for departure without resigning - an action forbidden under the law. (There is an alternative "office of profit", the Manor of Northstead, although I have not heard of anyone taking that route in recent years.)

The British system seems sensible and attractive, by contrast to our system, in which wealthy persons can virtually "buy" public offices. Meg Whitman, the billionaire former eBay CEO, is reported to have spent some $81 million to date, in her quest for the governorship of California. (You might wonder why anyone would want to try to govern our unruly state, but it is believed that Ms. Whitman hopes that her election will enable her to be selected as running mate for Mitt Romney, who is expected to run again for the Presidency in 2012.)

We trumpet our "initiative process" as being very democratic. There are two problems with this process, which allows a vote to enact a law which can only be overturned by another "vote of the people". However, those who propose an initiative can usually find plenty of money in support, from "special interests" and anyone else who thinks they would profit from it. I don't believe I have ever heard of enough money being raised to modify these "initiatives" by a subsequent vote. Often I have found myself voting in favor of an initiative, based on my view of the preponderance of the arguments in favor, but where i have felt that some part of the initiative is misguided.

The late Democratic politician and Speaker of the Assembly, Jess Unruh, aptly remarked that "money is the mother's milk of politics". How true! I suppose that I should be pleased that millions of dollars are being spent on television, radio and print advertising on these "initiatives"; it is, after all, helping us in our slow recovery from our economic downturn. On the other hand, "there must be a better way" for making these decisions.

Since I came to this country some fifty-three years ago, and chose to become an American citizen (while retaining my British citizenship) as soon as feasible, perhaps I should refrain from any criticism of our political system.

I need to mention one more aspect of political life. We are constantly being bombarded on our landline by pitches from candidates and those supporting initiatives. We seldom watch commercial TV these days, so we are spared most of the flurry of political adds, although I can't escape them on the classical music radio station I visit most mornings.

I would prefer the British system, in which a representative of each contending party would ring a doorbell, and ask me how I planned to vote. This form of canvassing enables political workers to try to ensure that their supporters actually go to the polls. I can remember from my time in England that I and my colleagues would give laggards rides to the polls, as time was running out for them to cast their votes. Once the voting in the UK is over, the British leave it to the politicians to make decisions. That system works pretty well in a country which still maintains a free press and other media.

I guess that, instead of griping about our U.S. system, I should give thanks that I don't live in one of the many countries where the right to vote is either a sham or non-existent.

Monday, May 31, 2010


If you look this word up on Wikipedia, you will find a straightforward description of the term as used to describe a display of art or other objects at a museum or art gallery. However, I have known three other threads of meaning.

A misbehaving child is sometimes told to stop making "an exhibition" of herself or himself. Another less desirable use of the word is one I first heard in Egypt some sixty years ago. As male visitors would go ashore in Alexandria or Port Said, they would be accosted by touts, encouraging them to watch an "exhibition", often abbreviated to "exhibeesh". I always resisted the temptation, but I was reliably informed that these were displays of sexual athleticism, sometimes involving donkeys or other creatures, usually relating to a human subject.

It is mainly about another form of "exhibition", that I write today, a usage I have not heard in the United States, but of which I was reminded in a recent communication from my alma mater, Lincoln College, Oxford. It refers to a sort of minor scholarship, although in the UK we used to hear of major and minor scholarships also.

In Britain, a "prep school" refers to a private school for children from about the age of eight until they move on to a so-called "public school" (which is, of course, a private school as opposed to the American version, which one attends if not enrolled in a private school.) Confusing? You bet.

In my day, prep schools and public schools were for boys or girls, but not "co-ed". This has long ago changed in the UK. Other changes may make my comments here rather dated: for example, in my time, prep school boys did not take the notorious "11+" exam which, before the advent of Comprehensive schools as the norm for all children, was used to separate "the sheep" destined for secondary modern schools from "the goats" who were admitted to "grant aided" grammar schools.

In my time, virtually all public schools required those seeking admission to take the Common Entrance (C.E.) exam. There were a few holdouts: in my day, Winchester required applicants to take that school's own examinations, heavily laden with the classics. Whereas I understood the appeal of learning to read and understand history and poetry in Latin and Greek, I felt that the art of turning English prose into Latin - or, God forbid, Greek - verse reflected the sadism of our mentors.

It is possible that some schools offered scholarships or exhibitions to gifted students based on the results of their C.E. papers, but the norm was to require applicants for these honors to take separate scholarship exams. The best results earned a scholarship; others with not-quite-so-good results were awarded an "exhibition".

On the other hand, I have recently also encountered further abuse of the term "scholarship" for those unable to pay their way to a church camp, etc. I am still firmly of the opinion that there are more appropriate ways of describing monetary relief to those who cannot afford to pay the full charges. I don't see the word "bursary" these days, but sometimes I do see reference to "grants" or "financial assistance".

Monday, May 24, 2010

Punitive Damages

I am a believer that both the British and US systems of jurisprudence have their merits. However, one aspect of Civil Law in the US troubles me. It is about punitive damages.

The theory of this feature is easy to understand. If I drive my car into yours and damage it, I'm clearly responsible for repairs, any depreciation in value, and the loss of use when your car is being repaired. The same applies to any injuries incurred by you as a result of the incident, and the law properly allows for such matters as "pain and suffering". If you (as Plaintiff) claim that I have recklessly or maliciously caused the damage, you may choose to claim "punitive damages" in addition. The idea is to punish me for my behavior.

This is where it gets murky. It has been held that, to be appropriate, such damages must take into consideration the wealth of the offending party. Thus, an oil company or other wealthy corporation must pay huge punitive damages, for a small penalty would be a slap on the wrist, or "a mere flea bite" as a British schoolboy would say.

In civil litigation, about which I have some knowledge through my experience as an expert witness, punitive damages are often alleged as an additional bargaining chip, and awards are relatively rare, although certainly not unknown. (I guess that I should explain that my experience has largely been with California litigation, although I have also been involved in cases in Colorado and Nevada.)

Often, claims for punitive damages blur the distinction between civil law and criminal law. I see civil law as a system primarily designed to assure equity in our common life, whereas in criminal law the malefactor is properly subject to punishment.

I realize that some who are reading this may be qualified lawyers, which I am not. There is little prospect that punitive damages will be eliminated in the foreseeable future, so I need to accept them. I just believe that there needs to be some work on this issue if a heavily divided Congress, full of lawyers, ever takes serious action on Tort Reform.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


When we attend a reception here in California, we are often responding to an invitation which indicated (say) cocktails 6:00, dinner 7:00. It is rare indeed for cocktails to be featured, although anyone who askes for a "martini" may well be served with the traditional ingredients of a "dry martini".

No, most of what is offered is a choice of at least one red and one white wine, perhaps scotch, vodka, or gin; probably beer and non-alcoholic alternatives. Since I so rarely drink anything but wine these days, that's not a problem for me, I do like to know whether I am drinking chardonnay or sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon or zinfandel, and so forth. Cocktails? Never!

It was very different when I began to imbibe alcoholic drinks at the age of 21 (the delay was in fulfillment of a pledge I made to assuage my guilt at smoking when I was 11 years old. I pledged not to smoke until I was 18 and not to drink until I was 21). Admittedly, my fellow Naval Officers took me ashore soon after my 21st birthday, and I drank enough brandy and ginger ale (we called this concoction a "horse's neck", for reasons which remain obscure) to walk a little uncertainly up the gangplank, and endure a major headache that night. Oh, there have been a few instances of over-indulgence since, including one within the past five years, but heavy drinking is fortunately not part of my customary pattern of life.

However, there was a time in my twenties when I was very interested in cocktails, without actually drinking any. In fact, I had my own manuscripted book of recipes, copied from many sources, all neatly and orderly arranged in order of the principal ingredient, such as Scotch, Bourbon, Brandy, Vodka, Gin, etc.

Besides table wine, in my time I have sipped small quantities of fortified wines, including port, the preferred after-dinner drink of British males of a certain status in life. When it comes to aperitifs, I will take the occasional Dubonnet, but for the most part I stick with dry Sherry. In Sherry terms, that is "fino", the most famous brand of which is Tio Pepe , but my personal favorite is La Ina. For the occasional contrast, I usually have a bottle of Amontillado open. Purists will tell you that Sherry and Port should be consumed promptly once a bottle has been opened, but I don't buy that. Fortified wine stays pretty good after opening, if re-corked and stored at typical room temperature.

During the past 50 years, the quality of wines from many countries has improved greatly. I remember a trip to Banff over 30 years ago, when I learned that most Canadian wine then being produced was hardly drinkable. In a recent visit to Ontario, I discovered excellent wine. The same is true of California wine. We drink a fair amount of wine from South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand. I have learned to appreciate wine from Spain, Portugal, Croatia, Hungary, Georgia, Germany, and Austria. Well, wine from Switzerland, Romania, and perhaps other parts of Europe are certainly better than they used to be.

Almost every state in the US now makes some wine, including Colorado, where our second home is located. I know there are many other parts of the United States, including the Finger Lakes region, where good wine is to be found, although I cannot speak from personal experience.

If you don't live in the UK, you may not know what an "Offy" is, but the word is an abbreviation for "Off Licence", an establishment in the UK licensed for the sale of alcoholic beverages, for consumption "off the premises". There are parts of the country, devoid of such a fancy establishment as a wine merchant, where a citizen may buy a bottle of "cooking" (inexpensive) sherry or a bottle of wine for dinner. The term "off licence" puzzled me as a boy: I thought it must mean that the establishments license had been suspended for some offense, such as selling liquor outside the government-mandated drinking hours.

On one occasion, when I had business in Evanston, Illinois, I went into a Safeway store, and wandered around looking for the wine section. I wanted to take a nice bottle of California wine to a party given after a child's baptism. When the assistant manager asked me if he could help, I explained my quest. He laughed, and said "You must be from out of town". I admitted to this. He then explained that Evanston had been the birthplace of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and it was still a "dry" town. He helpfully explained to me that if I drove a few blocks down the street, I would enter the Chicago city limits, and I would find what I was looking for. Indeed I did, and I found one of the best wine merchants that it has ever been my good fortune to encounter. My bottle of "California Sunshine was greatly appreciated.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Open Houses

I am happy to report that Barbara and I have many interests in common, although she does not share my interest in matters ecclesiastical. Nor, for that matter, do I share her perennial hobby of visiting Open Houses. There are plenty of these in Berkeley, and Barbara loves to stop the car on a weekend when she sees that there is a house for sale. In she goes!

I used to accompany her, and suppress my embarrassment when she would chat to the realtor as if she were genuinely interested in acquiring the property. I don't know if it was my inhibition, but I excused my lack of interest by telling myself that I really didn't feel it was right to waste the realtor's time. Now, I do understand that it is probably helpful for the seller's representative to have someone apparently interested in the place, as this might well encourage interest of those really planning to buy a house for themselves. Besides, in her time Barbara has bought several houses in the area, either as an investment for her own account, or as a place in which some other family member might want to live.

My excuse is that we already have a very nice home in Berkeley, and a lovely second home in Boulder County, Colorado. However, although I fiercely deny any tendency to snobbishness, I must admit that I love to visit Stately Homes, whether somewhere like Hearst "Castle" at San Simeon, on the coast road from San Francisco to Los Angeles, or somewhere like Woburn in the UK.

Nowadays, with reduced mobility, I usually prefer to sit in the car and listen to the radio. When Barbara returns, she is usually happy to tell me about the places she has visited, so I'm not about to discourage her from her inquisitive hobby of visiting Open Houses. I prefer an Open Bar....


As someone who would rather be a book maker than a bettor, perhaps it is a little strange that I would pick this topic. However, I would like to contrast our well-known courses in the US with some of those in Britain.

I don't think the general public is very familiar with racecourses outside their own area. Most of us know that the Kentucky Derby is raced at Churchill Downs. We have heard of Santa Anita, Hialeah, but the names of famous races, such as the Belmont Stakes and the Preakness are probably better known than Aqueduct and Pimlico

I can recall my first visit to Epsom Downs, although it wasn't Derby Day. It was very colorful, watching the bookies communicate with each other as soon as too much money was laid on one of the horses, causing the bookies to shorten the odds. I did attend a meeting at Goodwood, a beautiful course in Sussex. Because the UK is more compact than the USA, most folk are familiar with at least the names of Cheltenham, Newmarket, and Ascot.

A good friend of mine, who was truly a Squire from Lincolnshire, was for several years a Steward (racecourse authority) until some hanky-panky was alleged (if I recall correctly) concerning actions of his trainer. Although personally blameless, and upheld by his friends, my friend had to pay the price and was removed as a Steward.

The headquarters of racing in the UK is Newmarket, and I have visited that famous course, although no racing was taking place that day.

One important distinction is that in the UK "National Hunt" racing involves steeplechasing, an interesting name, although I have never seen a horse attempt to jump that high! I used to work in Liverpool, and I do remember that one year I went with friends to Aintree, the location of the Grand National, which engages the interest of a large proportion of the populace.

I enjoyed watching steeplechases, because there is a much greater chance of an "outsider" winning. Also, for reasons I cannot explain, the weight carried by the horse seems to allow for taller and heavier jockeys, including some successful amateurs.

Back to the US: What about trotting races? The only race with a well-known name is the Hambletonian. Thanks to Google, I discovered that this is now run at the Meadowlands, presumably in New Jersey. However, this form of racing is not very well known by the general public.

Back across the Pond: There is another form of sport in England, which I remember as being very popular in the Fifties, the "Point-to-Point". I remember going to a nearby meeting in Kent, not far from the Penshurst area, where my mother lived for many years.

Point-to-Points are usually held at less formal locations, such as large fields otherwise used for livestock grazing. The owner of the land has to put up with scores of cars parking on the land. Events such as the one I attended were a lot of fun, especially when one took a sumptuous picnic, washed down by champagne or Pimms No. 1 (in my day, one could also drink Pimms No.2 or Pimms No.3, but I believe those have both vanished from the scene).

Yes, there was betting there, with loudly dressed bookies very much in evidence. I suppose you could consider a Point-to-Point as being largely for the "Country Club set", but out in the countryside, its adherents came from all classes. Now that fox-hunting is essentially banned in Britain, something which one of my favorite authors, Anthony Trollope, might find amazing, I hope that Point-to-Points are still thriving.

Monday, April 26, 2010


The use of written disclaimers is understandable to anyone familiar with the climate of litigation in this country. Their language is reasonably clear, and the purpose of their use as a loss prevention device is self-evident.

Then there are those noxious messages that are virtually incomprehensible, which appear after an advertisement on radio. The advertisers find people who can read quickly, and then use technology to reduce the space between the gabbled words even further.

Since the purpose of these messages is to protect the advertiser from claims, surely they should be understandable? One might hope - vainly, it seems - that the Advertising Council would come up with some form of self-regulation, so that these disclaimers could really fulfill their purpose, instead of cocking a virtual snook at the listener. The greed of the advertisers is made clear by these incomprehensible messages: the truth is that the advertisers don't want us to be able to understand what is being said. If these messages were spoken more slowly, the advertisers would have to abbreviate their sales pitches, which they would obviously be reluctant to do.

How long will we put up with such nonsense, before Congress is forced to consider legislation designed to prevent this abuse?

Monday, April 19, 2010


No, this has nothing to do with General Motors. In this case, the initials stand for "genetically modified". When some folk see those words, their hackles rise. They are absolutely opposed to genetic modification of agricultural products. They stress that (for example) designing corn that incorporates a pesticide can upset the balance of nature. If the bugs can't feed on the corn, then the birds that depend on the bugs can't survive either. If a GM crop is grown in a field adjacent to one containing unmodified crops, the latter can become contaminated. Of course, I am not saying there is nothing to these and other points raised by opponents of GM food.

At this point, I should disclose that, many years ago, our stockbroker bought some Monsanto shares, and that company and its ubiquitous pesticide "Roundup" are seen as the chief villains. Notwithstanding our minor investment in this company, I'll try to remain objective.

There is a strong case that we need GM crops to help feed a hungry world. Those who express this viewpoint sometimes consider their opponents as latter-day Luddites.

As you might expect, I am somewhere in the middle! On balance, I believe that the advantages of GM agricultural products outweigh the disadvantages. However, in one respect I am 100% in agreement with Barbara. Food often doesn't taste as good as it did when we were growing up. One of the most obvious cases is that of the strawberry. The huge red berries one can buy at the supermarket seem virtually tasteless. We look for smaller berries, often to be found at local Farmer's Markets.

Another example is the tomato. These look great, being firm, beautifully curved, and attractive. Yes, and often virtually tasteless. A partial exception to this judgment is the so called "Cherry Tomato". We almost always use cherry tomatoes in our salads these days.

Related concerns apply to animal husbandry. There is a move toward larger sizes and standardization. I have another concern: When we breed such a bird as the turkey into obesity, we increase the poultry farmer's profits, but are these waddling creatures leading as happy a life as their ancestors? I don't know, but I do have my doubts. We have even learned to raise the offspring of some creatures by cloning. This and other breeding techniques can produce a standardized product welcomed by the purveyors in the marketplace.

My beloved elder sister, Evelyn, who died over twenty years ago, was a supporter of "British Breeds", a society whose objective was to ensure reproduction of many types of domestic animals in their original form. The motives of those who supported this movement were varied, but all felt it was important to maintain established breeds for future generations.

I think that such a concept is equally important for fruit, vegetables, and other agricultural products. I hope that growers who concentrate on GM agriculture will maintain a supply of seeds, etc. of the original product.

Monday, April 12, 2010


Have you ever been told that you are guilty of using stereotypes? Many of us are told that we should avoid stereotypes at all costs. Some stereotypes are so far out that one can't take them seriously. For example, there's the nursery rhyme that begins "Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief..." Because of my upbringing in England, I learned that the Scots were mean and the Irish were drunkards. Such stereotypes are obviously prejudicial.

However, few, if any, stereotypes are made up out of "whole cloth". There is often some folk wisdom behind them: just because some concept depends on a stereotype doesn't mean it is always wrong.

My late mother, who died in 1996 at the age of 105, had a favorite joke. She said that Heaven was where the French were the cooks, the English were the police, the Swiss were the organizers, the Germans were the mechanics, and the Italians were the lovers.

Hell, on the other hand, was where the Italians were the organizers, the French were the mechanics, the English were the cooks, the Germans were the police and the Swiss were the lovers.

See? The whole joke is based on stereotypes. Most of us would say that there is a good deal of truth behind these supposed national characteristics.

Judging people based on stereotypes is clearly inappropriate. Nevertheless, we probably all know of situations in which the stereotype accurately reflects some personality characteristics. There is certainly some truth when I sign myself, as I sometimes do, as "Nitpicker". It's quite ok to grin at that!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Bread and cheese

In wartime Britain, there wasn't much choice of cheese. There was a somewhat bland variety, allegedly "cheddar", but usually described by those I knew as "mousetrap" cheese.

To digress for a moment from time to time some mice have crept into our Colorado home. Our wonderful handyman (Roger Opfer) has stopped up most of the crevices and other "ports of entry", thus preventing more mice invasions. However, we did need to use some traps, which he baited with peanut butter, which works very well.

I have no objection to peanut butter, but it is not part of my regular diet. One day, Barbara found a jar of peanut butter in the refrigerator, and wondered why it was there. I explained that Roger had put it there to preserve it for the next invasion.

Soon after the end of the war, we were able to obtain Camembert and Danish Blue, and then there was Brie, very much a favorite in Northern California these days.

In the 50s, one of my friends was a Cheese Factor in Cheshire. He would travel to farms in the area where cheese was made, and purchase it for later retail sale. Cheshire makes its own blue cheese, which is very similar to a cheese I buy these days from the Cheeseboard, Shropshire Blue.

The Cheeseboard is a Berkeley institution. It's just about a mile down the road from our house, in what was once known as Berkeley's "Gourmet Ghetto", before Cocolat was brought down by an employee's embezzlement, and the Pig-by-the-Tail charcuterie went out of business. One can sample a variety of cheeses at the counter before buying anything. Instead of awaiting the calling of one's number, you take a playing card, and these are called out in order. If you are lucky enough to draw the "Joker" you are attended to immediately. Another advantage is that there is a discount for older folk, which increases as one ages. Barbara and I cheerfully accept a 20% discount these days. (If we make it to 100, "what you see is what you get"). Barbara doesn't look her age, so she usually carries her driver's license, but she has an honest face, and I think that the employees trust her when she explains that she is over 80 now.

The Cheeseboard also sells olives, sometimes free-range eggs, and a variety of bread products. Barbara and I really love their English muffins, but my favorite product is their fresh baguettes, often still warm when they are sold. I eat a slice of baguette almost every day of the year, usually with some cheese and a small slice of Black Forrest ham.

Perhaps the Cheeseboard's best known product is its vegetarian pizza. Always delicious! From Tuesday until Saturday, quantities of these pizzas are sold, including many ready-baked, sold whole, half, or a quarter. The Cheeseboard recently expanded, with a separate entrance, where they sell warm pizza. The new premises have tables and chairs to sit at, and offer beer and soft drinks to accompany the food, and (on Saturdays) live music. However, we usually buy our pizza half-baked, and pop it into an oven at 425 degrees F for 8 minutes.

On many visits to the UK, I have chosen a "Ploughman's Lunch". Involving a thick slice of bread and a chunk of good cheddar, usually served with olives or other condiments. In many British pubs, one can order a "Stilton Ploughman's" for a slightly higher price.

This brings me to tell you the names of some of my other favorite cheeses. I love Gruyere. This comes in two varieties at the Cheeseboard. There is the "Reserve", and "Cave-aged", slightly more expensive. When I am shopping at the Cheeseboard, I usually ask the server to give me a "blind" taste of each of these, and up to now I have always been able to determine which is the cave-aged, my favorite.

I am fond of "stinky" cheese, even Limburger. Actually, I don't think I have ever met a cheese I didn't like. Of the many excellent English cheeses, I also enjoy Cotswold with chives, Double Gloucester, and several others.

Of the many other excellent French cheeses, I particularly appreciate Bleu d' Auvergne. I buy strong German cheeses and several Italian cheeses, including Gorgonzola, Parmesan, and Romano. That's enough: I am beginning to get hungry!

I really prefer a cold lunch, whereas I like hot food at dinnertime. Recently, Barbara and I visited a delightful restaurant at Larkspur Landing, which features an impressive array of South-East Asian food. Barbara and I weren't very hungry that evening, but with my glass of red wine I needed something to eat. You guessed it: I chose a small slice of baguette, the last morsel of Camembert, and a deliciously creamy Montagnola.

Yes, I am a creature of habit when it comes to bread and cheese.