Thursday, March 31, 2005

Starbucks Speak

In a spooky follow on from the men-can’t-ask-for-a-proper-haircut issue raised a few days ago, I’ve now come across a similar episode at Starbucks, namely - men are crap at ordering a cup of coffee. I have some sympathy with this dilemma because there are apparently 190,000 possible permutations of the coffee experience at Starbucks, what with all the different sizes, flavourings, number of espresso shots etc. So a few years back when I found something I liked, I committed it to memory and have ordered the same thing every time since. All hail the adventurous traveller.

Here in the UK, the Starbucks phenomenon is a relatively new retail experience. The standard of product, environment and customer service varies dramatically throughout the country but one thing that remains consistent is the reticence evident in the British male customer as he approaches the counter. They come in all shapes and guises.

There’s the first-time bluffer who ignores the menu board and tries to bluster his way through the ordering process, usually at a high volume.


As soon as he’s paid, he instantly forgets what it was he ordered and will grab the first exotic sounding drink he hears called out at the other end of the counter. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to wrench my coffee from the sweaty hands of an over eager arse.

At the other end of the customer spectrum there’s the nervous male customer who scrutinises the menu board for an interminable amount of time but then loses heart and says,

Eh, just this bottle of water please... and a chocolate muffin.”

Lying somewhere between the two is the guy I stood behind in the queue yesterday who wants to try the coffee experience but doesn’t quite know where to start.

Barista: “Yes sir, what can I get you?”

Guy: “I’d like one of your caffè lattes please, white not black.”

Barista: “The latte IS white sir. It’s made with steamed milk.”

Guy: “Really? That’s fine then.”

Barista: “What size would you like?”

Guy: “Eh, small thanks.”

Barista: “A tall?”

Guy: “No, no just that little cup there.”

Barista: “That’s a tall sir. It’s the smallest size we have for a latte.”

Guy: “Oh right. On second thoughts I’ll just have tea.”

Close but no cigar. At least we’re learning at our own pace and haven’t quite reached the ridiculous lengths often observed in America. I once heard a guy in Texas demand a “1% grande latte”. He went on to explain that he didn’t want the normal latte made with semi-skimmed (2%) milk or the non-fat ('skinny') version made with skimmed (0%) milk but a version made up of half of each… as if he could tell the difference. Arse.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Playing Around.. eh.. A Round With Russell

I’ll give you fair warning – this story is about golf. No, wait, wait, don’t click on “Next Blog” cos it’ll just be some angsty teenager contemplating self mutilation or purring about cats. Golf is so much more than just ridiculous trousers and men with small, white balls. It encapsulates everything that is good, honest and fair (and unfair) about life itself. It transcends sport and becomes an intimate human drama with extreme joy and agonising failure. And it means you don’t have to kick around the house cutting the grass or washing the car on a Sunday morning.

Last Sunday morning, I had my first golf match of the year against my good friend Dr. Russell Thompson, loving husband of Katie, proud father of Megan and Jamie and genius expert in some field of science that he’s explained to me a dozen times but I still don’t understand. Something to with human cloning and world domination I think?

Russell believes I’ve been in Florida during the winter helping a friend out with her two boys but little does he know I’ve actually been attending the David Leadbetter Golf Academy in Orlando with twelve intensive hours of golf instruction a day. Excuse me while I snigger and twirl my moustache.

Our matches in the past have been keenly fought and it’s fair to say I had the upper hand last year… “upper hand” being equivalent to whooping his scrawny little ass almost every time. Being the Bank Holiday weekend, the weather forecast was God awful for Sunday and I was half hoping that it would be too wet to play when I finally acknowledged my alarm after three snoozes. I could then catch up on the sleep I didn’t lose with the clocks going forward. Although overcast, the rain was nowhere to be seen so I set off with only minimal enthusiasm for Lenzie Golf Club.

Russell was waiting patiently on the first tee as I rushed from the car park with a minute to spare before we were due to start. It was clear he had completed his thorough mental and physical workout in plenty of time and threw me a cheeky smile as he invited me to take the first shot of the day. Bastard. I skied my drive about 120 yards up the fairway and then bit my lip as he topped his about 100 yards shorter.

I won’t bore you (further?) with the handicap system or the rules of matchplay but after this inauspicious start we both started to play well, really well, even after the rain woke up and started to fall. Not intense, heavy rain but that fine rain that can often soak you through. After five holes, I was one up on Russell and only one over par and I promptly went two holes up at the short 6th when my majestic nine-iron almost disappeared into the hole in one and left me a two-foot putt for birdie. (Man, I could write all day about golf.)

Russell showed impressive bouncebackability by winning the 7th and after halving the 8th we both reached the short, par four 9th with two impressive shots. I was only four feet from the hole and looking forward to recapturing my two-hole lead but Russell knocked in an unlikely, long, slippery, downhill putt and it took all my mental strength to control my shaky (and by now, frozen) hands to hole my putt. A half in birdie threes. Game on.

The 10th, 11th and 12th at Lenzie are known as Amen Corner… or at least that's what I was calling them after Russell pulled out his game face (very much like his normal face only redder) and won all three to go two holes up with some sparkling golf. Struggling to stem the tsunami of his fine strokeplay, I managed to halve the 13th and then promptly won the 14th when I didn’t concede his short, slippery, downhill putt and it went sliding by the cup. The respite was only temporary though as I lost the 15th and stood on the 16th tee two holes down with only three to play.

We both reached the 16th green in three shots but Russell was getting his last stroke of the day so he was lying net two. (N.B. A “stroke” is not an inappropriate touching ritual that you have to deliver to your opponent if you’re behind… in the match… so to speak.) We both had similar, fifteen-foot, downhill putts and Russell managed to race his five feet past the hole. I had to hole my putt to have any chance of keeping the match alive so drawing on reserves of courage and determination not seen since the New Zealand bungy jump (3rd attempt), I rammed home the putt and made a mental fist pump (i.e. a celebratory gesture) in the dark reaches of my mind. Russell still had his five-foot putt to halve the hole and maintain an unassailable lead but as it slipped agonisingly past the hole, I was already marching to the 17th tee in triumph.

My seven–iron tee shot landed twelve feet beyond the hole at the par three 17th and when I saw Russell tug his twenty yards to the left of the green, I could smell the first signs of victory in my nostrils… if victory smells like last night’s burritos. Russell made a decent chip shot to ten feet and when I missed my birdie putt he had to make his to keep his one hole lead. His balls of steel made only the slightest of clinking noises as he sank the putt and marched past me to the final hole.

Conversation was polite but stilted on the 18th tee as we waited for the group ahead to move up on to the green. Russell knew he couldn’t lose the match overall but ultimate victory was still tantalisingly out of reach.

Failing to kid myself that I was relaxed and had nothing to lose (except the match) I hooked my drive slightly and watched it hang in the air for an interminable amount of time heading towards the out of bounds posts to the left of the fairway. Thankfully it landed safely in the heavy rough. Wishing to avoid the same fate, Russell over compensated and smashed his drive into the heavy rough on the right hand side of the fairway coming to rest behind a group of trees.

Studying our predicaments, we both came to the same conclusion that the green was out of reach for our second shots. I chose to ignore my conclusion and tried to reach it anyway ending up in a bunker for my trouble.

Russell’s mind was racing. He had to protect his lead and wisely decided to chip out from behind the trees back on to the fairway but it was then that disaster struck. Expecting a heavy lie, his cleanly struck shot flew too far and ended up over my head in the out of bounds area. An immediate two stroke penalty was the result effectively ending the game before reaching the last green.

So, overall the titanic struggle ended in a very honourable tie and as we shook hands on the 18th green, we both agreed that the outcome was the right result. I really hope he doesn’t read all this in case he mistakes my respectful admiration for his game and tenacity as a sign of weakness – I’m still gonna whoop his scrawny little ass next time.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Something For The Weekend Sir?

It’s a four-day weekend in the UK; the Easter Bank Holiday weekend although I always thought that Easter was supposed to be in April? By the way, why is the day on which Jesus was crucified called Good Friday? Can’t blame that one on Mel Gibson.

Like most Bank Holiday weekends, the British get in their cars to clog up the roadworks-ridden motorways and gaze at the constant drizzle through their windscreens. Or they clog up garden centres and DIY shops buying disposable barbeques they’ll never use. Or they get over excited about the clocks going forward surmising that they’ll somehow lose an hour’s sleep. How can you “lose” an hour’s sleep? Sleep the same and get up later - it’s Sunday. As for my weekend, I ate a lot of chocolate and got me a haircut. Not the “proper” haircut as instructed by my mother but something considerably shorter than it was before.

I used to absolutely detest getting my hair cut. I’d rather have chewed a roll of tin foil at the dentists, naked, than get dragged along to the salon/barbers. These days I realise that all my past fears originated from the fact that I (and most men I think) never knew what to ask for once we slipped our limbs into the straitjacket overall and were clamped to the swivel seat.

Hairdresser: “So what are we after today then?”

Neil: “Um, eh, just a bit of the top really… and perhaps the sides… but leave the back really, really long cause I still want to look cool.”

We just didn’t have the vocabulary or the articulation to describe the end result we wanted. Hairdressing terminology such as “layering” or “extra body” were fanciful, exotic phrases from the out of date magazines lying around the salon/barbers and might as well have been written in ancient Greek for all the sense they made. Having said that, even I was smart enough to know that the phrase “perm” would result in something evil and was never to be uttered out loud.

Nowadays as the vanity levels diminish at an almost equal rate as the hairline, the end result is much less of an issue than it used to be. I’ve been going to the same, talented hairdresser for over ten years and only occasionally now does she bother to ask me what I’m looking for. She knows that I know that she knows best so I just let her get on with it on the understanding that she won’t ask me if I’m going out tonight or enquire where I’m going on my holidays. So Marjory, thanks very much once again. You didn’t leave the back really, really long like I secretly wanted and I can see now that you were right… as usual. And no, I didn't need anything for the weekend, alas.

As if all the chocolate-eating and hairdressing adventures weren’t enough for one weekend, I also now know all the names of the My Little Ponies thanks to a visit from my four-year old pal Megan. At first glance, they all seem to look very similar with their multi-coloured, 80’s-style manes but at closer inspection, the tattoos on their rear ends make each one distinguishable. Now was Rainbow Dash the one with the sapphire piercing?.. or was that Sparklearse? Shit, need to go and do some additional homework before she comes to visit again.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Tartan Kilts 2

Today is the 40th birthday of my brother Stuart, proud father of Joe and Fraser, loving husband to Dawn and creative website genius available for all types of freelance work. He’s spending the week in a lovely cottage in The Cotswolds (a mysterious nether region of the English countryside full of little villages with improbable sounding names like Flipping Norflap, Piddle on the Wrye and Ooh Vicar What Lovely Crumpets) surrounded by the glowing warmth of his loving family bosom… or some such similar phrase.

His birthday gift is a box filled with 40 presents, big and small, assembled by Dawn over the past year or so. One of the presents is an album of photographs containing a picture from every year of Stuart’s life. During the research for this project, some long-lost archive photos and audio tapes were discovered in the basement of the family home where we spent many a happy night locked in the darkness without food and water in punishment for using not too good grammar.

Here’s a photograph of Stuart and I attending the high society wedding of our Uncle Calum and Auntie Dee in 1967 proving that we’re not Johnny-come-latelys to the kilt game. And reproduced below for the first time ever is a transcript of the revealing conversation we had at the time.

Neil: “Stuart, look this way. I think Dad’s gonna take our photo.”

Stuart: “I think there’s an ice cream van over there.”

Neil: “Forget the ice cream. You’re only two and you need to learn the importance of superficial style and appearance when there’re cameras around.”

Stuart: “But my nappy makes my bum look big under this dress.”

Neil: “It’s a KILT and keep your voice down or the girls’ll get disillusioned. Just stand to attention and press your arms tight to your side like I do. And suck your cheeks in.”

Stuart: “And that’ll make me look slimmer?”

Neil: “Sure, it’s all smoke and mirrors. I’ve got my eye on that cute, wee three-year old chick over there.”

Stuart: “No chance. I saw Big Davie giving her sweeties in the church. You know, the five-year old guy with the Chopper bike and the shiny stabilisers.”

Neil: “Bloody typical!”

Stuart: “It’s endemic of this 60s, capitalist society that so much emphasis is placed on material things and looks.”

Neil: “Huh?”

Stuart: Too few people in the media have too much power over what’s going on and what we ultimately see. One day I’m going to work in a medium where global communication and information is accessible to everyone.”

Neil: “Don’t talk shite. Next you’ll be telling me that The Beatles are gonna split and I’ll end up working in a bank for twenty years.”

Stuart: “I’m telling you, by the time I’m 40, we’ll all be talking to each other on little hand-held, TV telephones, old Cliff Richard’ll still be churning out hits and I’ll be available for all types of freelance work in the new communications medium.

Neil: “Aye right, and I’ll be captain of the Starship Enterprise. Now look over here and say ‘cheese’.”

So, a very happy birthday to you today Stuart. Thanks for all the website support, the cool record collection I’d listen to when you were out and the help with the accounting homework. You were right about the future although my fingers are still crossed about the Star Trek gig.

Friday, March 18, 2005

The white zone is for loading and unloading ONLY!

People in airports are idiots; not the overworked airline, airport and security staff but the over perspiring passengers. It’s hard to tell whether these people are idiots when they’re not in airports (I suspect not) but they sure as hell become idiots as soon as they triple park their cars in a lane that says ‘no stopping’ in order to offload their feuding family and overweight luggage into the path of an oncoming taxi. (I sat outside in the sun at Miami airport yesterday and lost count of the number of times this happened.)

It’s almost as if people instantly lose the ability to read signs, tell time, follow instructions and communicate coherently with their fellow man when they walk through the Star Trek sliding doors into any airport concourse. (Maybe that’s it! It’s actually a parallel universe where the space time continuum has been suspended, a bit like the episode where the ‘alternative’, evil Spock grows a goatee beard in season 2, episode 4! But I digress.) Many passengers wander aimlessly around the aiport gazing up at the roof as if they’ve just woken from an unsuccessful lobotomy.

At the check-in desk after queuing for twenty minutes…
Oh, you want to see my passport? I’m sure I have it here somewhere.” Idiot.

At the security checkpoint…
Oh, I need to take my laptop OUT of its case? Because I thought that all the signs and verbal instructions to take my laptop out of its case meant that I should just stand here with it IN its case so I can set off the metal detector when I walk through at the same time as all five of my feuding family.” Blithering idiot.

At the departure gate…
A boarding card? What’s that?” Fuckwit idiot.

Chief among all the airport idiots I’m afraid, are the British. Instilled, still, with that domineering, Empire spirit, the British simply believe that rules and regulations shouldn’t have to apply to them. Many go to Florida on their holidays but come back with twenty new pairs of Levis and Nikes, a load of DVDs that won’t work at home and a full sized Mickey Mouse/Winnie the Pooh that should have an airline seat of its own.

What do you mean there’s a charge for our luggage weighing four times the allowable limit?” they screech incredulously. “Right Doris, grab 23 plastic bags and we’ll take it on as hand luggage instead - that’ll teach these bleedin’ Yanks.”

Funniest of all though is watching the British queue for something. The British could queue for… eh… Britain at the Olympics and seem strangely drawn to joining a queue without questioning what the queue is for. Very occasionally they’ll ask someone else in the queue what the queue is for but they usually leave this until the last minute - to do otherwise would be impolite.

Yesterday at the departure gate in Miami, the British were restless. The plane to London was scheduled to leave at 5.10pm but by 4.30pm (the time by which the gate was due to close as stated on the boarding card) there was no call to board. Despite regular updates from British Airways, the passengers had formed irregular queues close to the exit door during the previous 40 minutes, determined not to be left behind should the plane suddenly decide to depart, passenger less, of its own accord.

By 4.40pm, the restlessness had turned ugly as the British wrath was unleashed in a series of barely audible ‘tutts’ underneath their collective breath and some additional inching towards the exit door. From the smug comfort of my three leather seats at the empty departure gate opposite, I was convinced that The Beatles had re-formed (and been resurrected) and that the last five tickets were about to go on sale for their reunion concert.

At 4.45pm, the attempt to pre-board first class passengers and those with young children disintegrated into bedlam as the British descended in an orderly fashion and ushered themselves and their endless plastic bags on board.

With little hand luggage and a pre-assigned seat (doesn’t everyone?), I was the very last person to board the aircraft some twenty minutes later. Ignoring the dirty looks that suggested I had single-handedly delayed their departure, I attempted to inadvertently smack as many of the idiots as possible on the head with my backpack and slumped into my window seat for the pleasant eight-hour flight home.

I always try and get a window seat because there’s no pressure then to get up first when the plane lands. An aisle seat would mean that I’d be duty bound to ignore the instruction to stay seated until the ‘fasten seat belts’ sign is switched off and attempt to remove my 23 plastic bags from the overhead compartments as the plane is taxiing to the gate. And then I’d go lurching forward (as many did this morning) when the plane comes to an abrupt stop. Idiots.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Tartan Kilts 4

One of my poorest fashion decisions ever (among many) was the time I found myself staggering down Lothian Road in Edinburgh (or Edinbororo for you Americans) at 3am on a cold Sunday morning dressed only in a toga. I say toga, but a poorly wrapped, patterned bedsheet would be a more accurate description. The reason for this garment choice has long since left me but I’m sure it had something to do with beer or a girl or Halloween or a party; or perhaps it was just Spring Break Baby Yeah, Woo Hoo, Look At Me, I’m A Dick.

The Edinburgh bars and clubs were in the midst of spewing their drunken customers on to the streets and I had to run a gauntlet of abuse and ridicule for my attire, probably because I’d forgotten to accessorise the ensemble properly with leather sandals and a headband of olive leaves.

Fast forward some twenty years or so to last Saturday and one of my best fashion decisions ever – wearing my kilt in downtown Austin. The occasion was the celebration dinner for the engagement of my brother Keith and his fiancé Kathryn (see ‘very cool’ references from yesterday) and all four Sutherland men were resplendent in the Clan tartan, turning many a head as we strode confidently down 4th Street to our restaurant.

Check out those guys in the skirts,” commented the young college dudes out on dates but they were quickly questioning their own masculinity when their girlfriends said how sexy we looked.

Our appearance also seemed to start something of a geographical debate about where exactly in the world we were from.

St. Paddy’s Day is next week dude,” said one guy helpfully.

By which time you’ll be coming out of surgery,” I replied as my fist connected with his nose, or would have done had I not strode on muttering under my breath.

I should have unleashed the punch instead on an annoying Cockney geezer when he (surprise, surprise) bellowed loudly, “It’s like bloody Brave’art out ‘ere.” Twat.

My favourite though, was the confused young lady on a stool in our last bar stop of the night, The Ginger Man, who made a double take and screeched to her friends, “Oh ma Gaaad, he’s from Germany!” She must have detected the air of efficiency in my walk and the side-splitting humour so prevalent among our Euro neighbours.

Anyway, before I offend any other cultures or nationalities here’s a not-so-efficient little photo to give you a splash of tartan colour.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The Bloggies

Austin, Texas is one of the top five coolest cities in America (he says quickly to avoid offending friends and family in other parts of the States) and this week the city is hosting the South by Southwest Festival. The festival is a very cool gathering of very cool people showcasing very cool things in the fields of music, film and interactivity.

Being lucky enough to be in Austin this week with all of my very cool family celebrating the very cool engagement of my youngest brother Keith and his very cool fiancé Kathryn, it seemed fitting yesterday that I went along to attend The Bloggies, the 5th annual, self-proclaimed cream of award shows for blogs and bloggers.

With a fairly heightened sense of excitement and anticipation, I arrived at lunchtime at the massive convention centre in downtown Austin accompanied my other brother Stuart - website genius available for all types of freelance work. We were looking forward to seeing just what constituted the ‘cream’ of the blogging world but two hours later we emerged back on the streets somewhat pissing our panties.

Imagine if you will, a large room filled with 98% men, 98% of whom looked like Al from Al’s Toy Barn in “Toy Story 2” or the dude who runs the comic book store in “The Simpsons” or every employee at Blockbuster Video stores in the US. Guys dressed in dark, drab colours, with long greasy hair, goatee beards and a sort of satchel arrangement draped across their chests; guys who obviously don’t see enough sunlight or get enough exercise or have enough conversations with other members of their species. The freaks! How could they let themselves go to such a degree? It’s a disgrace! You’d never catch me…etc…etc….

Anyway, the whole awards ceremony started about 40 minutes later than advertised and consisted of a series of mumbling bloggers reading out the winners from an unending list of categories. For guys who clearly know a lot about technology, speaking into a microphone was obviously a bit of a stretch. They then handed out awards to the bloggers who had bothered to turn up and who they clearly knew intimately only to have the favour returned to them by those self-same winners a few minutes later.

Having said that, quite a few of the winning blogs seem to be excellent random rants about anything and everything so all concerned will instantly be my new best friends when I return to collect my Bloggies for Best New Blog and Best Travel Blog By A Blond 41-Year Old Scot at next year’s ceremony.

Judge for yourself with a selection of the winners below.

Weblog of the Year:
Best British or Irish Weblog:
Best American Weblog:
Best Weblog Not Nominated

Monday, March 14, 2005

Tartan Shorts 7

Website of the week: March Madness has begun here in the States and all over the country this morning, workers will be spending inordinate amounts of company time trawling through sporting statistics and making their predictions on who will become the best college basketball team in the country.

64 teams have made it through to the playoffs and my friend Brian in Illinois has his own purpose built website to allow you to play, regardless of your level of basketball knowledge. Full instructions are contained at the link below but please follow them carefully because Brian is of Italian descent and has connections with The Sopranos.

Golf shot of the week: The 40-foot birdie putt I rolled in on the first hole of my first round of golf of the year. Pity the other 80+ shots weren’t as good.

Fallen hero of the week: Darius Rucker, lead singer of Hootie & The Blowfish, dressed in a frilly cowboy suit singing about Tendercrisp Bacon Cheddar Ranch sandwiches in a Burger King commercial. Oh dear.

Humiliation of the week: Losing my dollars, shirt and dignity at Texas Hold ‘Em poker to my Dad, sister, brothers and two boys aged 12 & 9.

Song (and video!) of the week: “Stacy’s Mom” by Fountains of Wayne. A fascinating and educational glimpse behind the iron curtain existence of Desperate Housewives America… or an au pair’s dream? I think Shakespeare said it best… “hubba, hubba!”

Birthday of the week: There's a girl I know in Scotland, a good friend, who is one of the smartest people I've ever met. She's funny, artistic, creative and articulate and every time I see her she teaches me something new. She has the singing voice of an angel and is learning the piano at the moment to complement it. I have many happy memories of her but two in particular stand out...

(i) when she leant over once, unprompted, to give me a hug and a kiss as I was reading a book.
(ii) when she stood the longest waving me off before I left on my round the world trip.

...and today she's four years old; so I just want to say happy birthday Megan Thompson, I'll see you soon and I hope you’ve finished composing that concerto by the time I get home.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Curious State Laws - The Final Word

It’s my last day here in Key West (I’m heading to Texas this afternoon) and I’m departing just as numerous college students are arriving in town for Spring Break, or as its more commonly known, SPRING BREAK BABY, YEAH, WOO HOO, LOOK AT ME, I’M A DICK!!!

Time then, I think, to slip into my Speedos and wander downtown among the throng spreading my gift of song as I go. In Florida you see, it’s illegal to sing in public whilst wearing a swimsuit, a fact I discovered back in January when I read an article quoting extracts from The World’s Greatest Book of Useless Information.

By the way, did you know that turtles can breathe through their arses, kilts originated in France, 92 nuclear bombs are lost at sea and aside from humans, pigs are the only animals that can get sunburn? Add those to your “Gregory’s Girl” classics about the speed of sneezing and the men:women ratio in Caracas and you’re set for life at dinner parties.

Anyway, the Florida thing started my fascination with curious State laws and I began to conduct some further investigation. One theme immediately became clear; who would want to live in a State beginning with the letter ‘M’?

A Scot may have problems settling in Maryland where thistles are forbidden from growing in one’s yard and they, like Missouri, also decree that it is illegal to have oral sex.

King of the killjoys is Mississippi where unnatural intercourse, if both parties voluntarily participate, results in a maximum sentence of 10 years and a fine of up to $10,000. Fines and prison terms can also be dished out for adultery or fornication; having sex with someone that is not your spouse or living together while not married.

It doesn’t stop there. If one is a parent to two illegitimate children in Mississippi, that person can go to jail for at least a month. If they have another illegitimate child, they will spend another three months in jail. Men though have a particularly rough ride. Not only is it illegal for a male to be sexually aroused in public but a man is strictly forbidden from seducing a woman by lying and claiming he will marry her.

It’s not difficult to understand why many Native Americans live on Reservations when you come across some of the antiquated laws still on the statute books. In Maine for instance, shotguns are required to be taken to church in the event of a Native American attack. And in Montana, seven or more Indians are considered a raiding or war party and it is legal to shoot them.

Montana’s very big (actually, Montana IS very big) on its outdoorsy image and its love of nature, even if that’s to the detriment of its human citizens. For example, one may not pretend to abuse an animal in the presence of a minor and Lord help you if you have a sheep in the cab of your truck without a chaperone. It’s also illegal for married women to go fishing alone on Sundays and illegal for unmarried women to fish alone at all.

The animal theme continues in (relatively) nearby Minnesota where persons may not cross State lines with a duck atop their heads or enter Wisconsin with a chicken on their head. All bathtubs in Minnesota must have feet and it’s illegal to sleep naked there but my favourite is the ordinance that states that it’s against the law to stand around any building without a good reason to be there.

In Michigan, it is illegal to kill a dog using a decompression chamber but it IS legal for a robber to file a law suit, if he or she gets hurt in your house. Most alarmingly (and Bob, I hope you’re sitting up and taking notice here) no man may seduce and corrupt an unmarried girl, or else he risks five years in prison.

Finally, to end on a personal note, I’ve enjoyed a very pleasant visit to Boston in the past but the following five laws would prohibit me from ever living a comfortable (or free) life in Massachusetts.

(i) Snoring is prohibited unless all bedroom windows are closed and securely locked.
(ii) It is illegal to go to bed without first having a full bath.
(iii) Goatees are illegal unless you first pay a special license fee for the privilege of wearing one in public.
(iv) A woman cannot be on top in sexual activities.

and most disturbing of all…

(v) at a wake, mourners may eat no more than three sandwiches.

All in all, I’m glad I chose Florida as home for a while. Their ordinance stating that men may not be seen publicly in any kind of strapless gown didn’t give me sleepless nights nor the regulation that forbids having sexual relations with a porcupine, although I think the Spring Break dudes could have problems with that one.

So, time for the Speedos, some singing and one last beer at the local beach bar. I can see it now. A bikini-clad Spring-breaker sits on the adjacent stool. I suck in my stomach, lean over casually, raise an inquisitive eyebrow and say, “Did you know that aside from humans, the pig family…”

Thursday, March 10, 2005

The Day After Yesterday

International Women's Day followed by National No Smoking Day? Someone's taking the piss.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Friday Night Lights

Here’s an extract from a recent article in the The Citizen, Key West’s daily newspaper. Any idea what they’re talking about?

Randolph pounded a 373-foot grand slam to center in the fourth and belted a three-run homer to left field in the fifth propelling the Conchs to a 15-1 run-rule win against Ransom Everglades in their district opener. Randolph’s seven RBI were more than enough for starter Bobby Hernandez who pitched three no hit innings, striking out eight and walking one. Jordan Rivas, who went 2 for 3 with an RBI, drilled a double to deep left field to begin the sixth.”

Lots of numbers and aggressive sounding verbs suggest an unsavoury incident at an algebra convention but this is the rhythmic and poetic language used to describe the greatest of all American pastimes, baseball.

Baseball is a bit like cricket in the same way that American Football is a bit like soccer, i.e. not at all. There are bats and balls and helmets and gloves and runs and innings but baseball always produces a winning outcome no matter how long the two teams have to play to find one.

Here in Florida, the baseball season has begun in earnest and a couple of Fridays ago, Kieran and I went out to see a game featuring local heroes, the Key West Conchs. (A conch is a brightly coloured, spiral sea shell.) We happily paid our $5 each to enter Rex Weech Field, a smart and compact stadium with seating for a couple of thousand eager spectators.

Strolling past the merchandise and hot dog concession stands (yes, I managed to pass the hot dog stand), we took our seats in the bleachers (unroofed outdoor grandstand) just in time to stand up again immediately for a patriotic rendition of the national anthem.

The Conchs took a 7-0 lead in the first four innings and despite a spirited comeback by the opposition, the result was never really in doubt with the Conchs running out 9-7 victors in the end. This win extended their unbeaten run since the start of the season to five straight games and they were front pages news next morning as The Citizen lauded the achievement in its usual proud and homespun fashion.

It’s not remarkable or unusual in America for a community and it’s media to support their local supporting heroes but what is remarkable to me is that the Key West Conchs are not a professional team playing Major League Baseball. Nor are they one of the many minor league teams dotted around the country. They’re not even the team from the local college. The Key West Conchs are the local high school baseball team.

They adorn the pages of The Citizen every single day regardless of whether they’ve played a game or not. Their players and coaches (yes, ‘coaches’, plural) are acclaimed wherever they go and local businesses are falling over themselves to add their names to a long list of team sponsors.

It’s almost impossible to imagine what the equivalent picture would have looked like back in Scotland if the same amount of time, adoration and resources had been thrown at my Falkirk High School football team during that glorious 1981/82 season… cue Scooby Doo-like wavy screen and spooky flashback music…

- We would get more than occasional use of the ‘senior’ pitch, i.e. the one with only 50% mud.
- We’d demolish Bantaskine Primary School to make way for our 2,000-seater stadium.
- We’d have goals with nets!!!
- People would pay to come and see us play.
- We’d have at least five sets of strips, home and away plus free boots.
- We’d get time off classes to practice.
- We’d be the most popular guys in school.
- Scouts from universities and professional teams would offer us free education/paying jobs.
- And the Falkirk Herald would have to change from weekly to daily to cover all the match reports, the endless statistics, the player profiles & interviews, the Manager’s strategies, the fashion disasters (white shoes and mullets), the classic ‘Old Firm’ clashes with St. Mungos, the broken legs and the never-proven drinking shenanigans on the ‘lost weekend’ tour to Dumfries & Galloway.

Of course all of this assumes that we’d also have been as accomplished as the Key West Conchs. There are tens of thousands of high schools in the United States and currently, Key West is rated the no.5 high school baseball team in the country. Impressive stuff for a small town and worthy of the plaudits and adulation heaped upon them in their quest to become the (and here’s my favourite, ridiculous Ameringlish word) winningest team in Florida baseball history.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Do As I Say AND As I Do?

I always imagined that a job that involved looking after children would allow ample opportunity to emphasise that as an adult, I’m governed by a completely different set of rules and regulations, both moral and actual. I knew, of course, that I should be advocating good examples on a regular basis (politeness, personal hygiene, toilet seat etiquette etc.) but I didn’t appreciate that I’d actually have to demonstrate these as well.

As an example, let’s take swearing, or cussing as they call it over here. I know better than to go around effing and blinding in front of kids; but to be expected to eradicate all insurgent expletives from daily life is neither practical nor healthy. Human beings need a regular discharge of profanity or else they’ll go blind… or is that something else?

I was driving Kieran home from his piano practice the other week when another motorist swerved wildly across our path in order to enter a gas station. The effort and strain involved in, first of all, repressing my initial, natural response and replacing it with a “Gosh darnit, what the heck does that guy think he’s playing at”, gave me a migraine that lasted the rest of the day.

A few days later I was shredding some vegetables using one of those TV-advertised kitchen gadgets that remove the need for expensive, electrical blenders. Unfortunately, they also seem to remove the need for a second thumb as I sliced open a deep gash and spattered the carrots (OJ-like) with an even deeper shade of red.

SHHHHHHHHHHHOOT,” I screamed through gritted teeth. “This frikin’ contraption’s gonna kill some mother-loving, son of a gun one of these days!

The carnage was only stemmed by the amount of blood departing the scene and rushing to my throbbing temples instead.

But it’s not just the swearing. I can feel my metabolism start to twitch and alter whenever it gets close to the time for washing hands before dinner or when vegetables are on the menu. I’m rarely awake after eleven o’clock at night and I somehow, unconsciously make my bed the next morning. I’ve begun to share the TV remote control with other members of the household and I now wear fresh underwear every day, having laid it out neatly the night before.

Most serious and disturbing of all are the words, sentences and phrases that I never thought I’d utter in a million years, which now cascade unrestrained from my lips. Here then, in all their shameful glory, are my top ten inexplicable outbursts…

· “You know, there’s such a thing as too much television.”
· “Schools just don’t give out enough homework.”
· “There are kids starving in Africa who would eat those sprouts.”
· “That’s not music, it’s just a noise.”
· “And if (insert name of child’s latest hero best friend) told you to jump in the river, would you do that too?”
· “Got a complaint? Phone Childline.”
· “Never mind, taking part is more important than winning.”
· “Those toys are not going to tidy themselves up.”
· “Do you think I’m telling you this (a) for the good of my health and/or (b) cos I like the sound of my own voice?”
· “More broccoli? Mmm, yes please.”

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Happy Birthday Kieran

Kieran Poirier Campbell is twelve years old today. Yesterday, he partied late into the night with a few close friends at a private function hosted by popular, local Japanese restaurant Benihana, or The House of Flying Spitballs as it’s now known.

Resplendent in a navy ensemble from - where else - Old Navy, Kieran and his posse managed to avoid the paparazzi assembled outside the restaurant and were last seen heading out a back door with a couple of new friends plucked from an all-female birthday party at a neighbouring table.

Today he’s spending some quiet time relaxing with family around the pool at his Staples Avenue estate and will be guest of honour at a concert celebrating his life and achievements later tonight.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Coming To America

I’m into the last fortnight (that equals two weeks) of my current stay here in America so it’ll soon be time to negotiate all the airport security procedures again in a fashion that gets me to the departure gate seconds before the plane is due to take off. Having said that, leaving the country is infinitely more stress-free than arriving so for those of you planning a trip here for the first time this summer, here’s a little something of what I went through back in January.

Negotiating admittance into the United States is an experience that never fails to turn me into a quivering wreck, full of unexplainable guilt and involuntary bowel movements. Post 9/11, the tension seems to have been cranked up considerably as machine readable passports are now a must together with the requirement to have sample fingerprints and photographs taken.

For me though, the trauma always begins on the plane when the ever-patient cabin crew circulate through the aisles distributing visa and customs forms that must be completed in readiness for the immigration interview.

Two forms are usually required by visitors arriving on holiday which will allow them up to 90 days in the States. The first is Form RUSMUGGLIN/DIAL911/Subsec-Betamax, a fairly straightforward Customs query asking if you’re bringing in any perishable goods/raw meat/livestock/class A drugs etc. Ticking “No” to most questions is the way to go here, unless you wish to declare your pet or your haggis.

The second form is Visa Waiver Form I-94WHOTHEHELLRU/Para(ia)-ECHO9ER and this is where the trouble starts. Despite having helpful boxes for each character of your name, address, passport number etc., you will inevitably write your date of birth in the wrong section or in the wrong format. After pestering the cabin crew for a replacement form, you’ll be concentrating so hard on using capital letters or not going over the lines with your pen (blue or black only), that you’ll completely forget how to spell your own name.

As you congratulate yourself on successfully completing your personal details on a third form, you realise that your neighbour is now filling in the reverse side. Here, a series of probing questions are listed, designed to check your eligibility for entry but instead, end up making you feel like you really don’t get out enough.

Have you ever sold drugs, been arrested, been a prostitute or procurer of prostitutes?” Arrested? Nope!

Have you ever participated in persecutions directed by the Nazi government of Germany; or have you ever participated in genocide?” Nope! But would I really tick “Yes” if I had?

Do you seek to enter the United States to engage in export control violations, subversive or terrorist activities, or any other unlawful purpose?” Ah now, good question but because they omitted a “well-you-see-it’s-a-bit-like-this” box, I just ticked “No” and started to prepare for the interrogation on landing.

Inching my way forward in the queue towards the robust-looking Immigration Official, I tried desperately to think of the most appropriate demeanor and attitude to make the inquisition as smooth as possible.

Right Neil, be cool. Informative but not too chatty. Smile but don’t try and tell any jokes. Avoid twitching, rapid gum chewing or suggestive winking. And whatever you do, don’t mention the fact that you’re in America to become an au pair to a friend who has two young sons and is going to slip you some cash-in-hand dollars every week.”

Eventually I was given permission to cross the line in the carpet and approach Roberta, my official interviewer. I swaggered forward in a manner that was meant to exude James Bond-like poise but instead, managed a passable impression of Mr. Bean on speed.

Roberta flicked through my passport and without looking up or changing expression asked, “So, Neil Sutherland? Any relation to Kiefer or Donald?”

I grinned inanely and shook my head not certain whether this was a genuine attempt at affability or a trick question. I knew her next query was going to be, “Are you here for business or pleasure?” and I had my one word answer all prepared when she threw me yet another verbal curve ball.

So what’s the purpose of your visit to the United States?”

Instantly losing the ability to construct a coherent sentence, I transformed into Yoda and mumbled something like “stopover brief friend help out writing holiday I am thanks.” Roberta frowned quizzically, clearly mesmerised by my charming accent and completed the remainder of her form-checking and passport-stamping without any additional flurry.

And I emerged shaking into the Miami sunshine ready to hide from the law, sip an overpriced coffee and take up smoking again.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Tartan Shorts 6

Unnecessary radio panic of the week: In Florida, any change in the weather from the normal “scorchio” is big news. This week, I heard a local DJ on the car radio get very animated about a cold front that was moving in.

“Well, I’ve been keeping an eye on the temperature all afternoon,” he rattled off in a high pitched voice that hinted at one espresso too many. “Currently, we’re looking at 78 degrees in downtown Key West but with the wind chill, that’s gonna feel more like 74.”

Film of the week: I was going to choose “Hitch” a standard, Hollywood romantic comedy starring Will Smith that I really didn’t expect to like but it had more laugh-out-loud moments than I’ve seen in a long time. But then I went to see “Sideways” again so…

TV plot teaser of the week: After twelve years, the last ever episode of “NYPD Blue” was aired this week. Andy’s still angry, Greg’s still geeky and... excuse me... Bobby Simone comes back from the dead??? It’s “Dallas” all over again.

Ice cream flavour of the week: Double Chocolate Fudge Brownie… says it all really.

Curious State law of the week: In Washington, when two trains meet each other at a railroad crossing, each shall come to a full stop, and neither shall proceed until the other has gone.

Child quote of the week: “Nice? Don’t you mean hot?” (Kyle seeking clarification when my first attempt to describe, in neutral terms, the attributes of Agent Dana Scully in The X-Files produced a perplexed reaction.)

Birthday of the week: Kenny Dalglish is 54 years old today. Many happy returns and hail to the King.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

EXCLUSIVE! neilwritestheworld merchandise!

In a press conference held late last night, executives at unveiled their new spring line of website merchandise, soon to be made available at all good clothing stores and some rubbish ones as well.

Eager to sign up a major celebrity to endorse this groundbreaking collection, can exclusively reveal that Danny from “The Kids From Fame” has put pen to paper – a doodle of a doughnut was the result – and is seen below modeling the Mens white T, size XXXL, priced $19.99 (tea cozy and Noel Gallagher jacket not included).

“This is an exciting time for everyone involved in the company,” said Ned Suderlang, neilwritestheworld CEO and President for life. “Danny is someone who exudes all the brand values to which we at neilwritestheworld aspire. We’re confident that he’ll become our… ahem… ‘Starmaker’, ha, ha, ha!”

The press conference ended in scenes of chaos and confusion as Stuart Sutherland, one-time website wizard and alleged brains behind the company, was seen being dragged kicking and screaming from the room.

“This trivial initiative is a joke and a humiliating waste of my time and talent,” he screeched, “but I’m still available for all types of freelance internet work.”

The full line of merchandise will be available by the end of this month including a glossy, adults-only “Neil’s Secret” catalogue that is rumoured to include Danny in nothing but his neilwritestheworld boxers, thongs and white woolly vests. Form an orderly queue ladies.