Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Is It Always Greener ?

Today I went down the M1 to visit with an old friend who last year moved from Wetherby to Ruddington, near Nottingham. It was my first chance to see her new place as she moved while I was away in America. While waiting at the traffic lights where the Outer Ring Road meets Park Lane, I saw there was an ambulance at the front of the line on the other side. I noticed that the driver of the car immediately behind the ambulance had his window open and was flicking away his cigarette ash. Ironically at the same time, he was coughing like his lungs were about to burst and it put a nice twist on the phrase 'ambulance chaser.'

But it got me thinking about things medical and as I had the best part of a 2 hour drive ahead of me with no cell phone to play with (new laws came into force yesterday), I had plenty of time to mull things over. I had been home from America for 4 weeks and wasn't missing their medical commercials one little bit. In case you've not read my ramblings about these commercials before, they're based on the fact that in the US, patients have much more control over what pills they pop and even what doctors and specialists they go to see. It's a sort of 'you pays your money so you're the boss' sort of deal.

Many of the people I know are on first name terms with their various 'ologists' and know exactly who to call on for all that ails them......real or imaginary.

As a result, the vast majority of the medical ads on tv over there either end with the phrase, "ask your doctor about xxxxxxx" where "xxxxxxx" can be anything from viagra to suppositories or "ask your 'ologist about having your heart bypassed, brain upgraded or spine replaced" cause you know it makes sense. You are constantly urged to go annoy these poor professionals who, it seems, went through years of medical school and then years of specialist training just to be able to sit waiting for members of the public to come in and demand a plethera of pills or a set of procedures that they saw on the ad break between The Simpsons and Deal Or No Deal. Maybe it's a small price to pay for the high prices they charge.

After one of my trips to America, I went to see my GP about something and as an aside I mentioned that as I'd turned 50, I should maybe have a prostate exam sometime.

It's not often one sees their GP rolling on the floor convulsed with laughter - and I have to say it's slightly unnerving when it happens. Once he'd composed himself and the crash cart was wheeled out of his office, he said "you've been to America again, haven't you ?"

It appears that the NHS doesn't have the finances to allow every man over 50 a prostate exam. The working theory is that most men who develop this cancer will do so when they are over 60 anyway and, hell, that's a good lifespan after all !!! Proactive....what's that ?

But back to the commercials and I think it's because I've not grown up with these medical ads that they annoy me so much. My US friends are able to zone them out but as we don't have them here in the UK, then as soon as I hear all the medical mumbo jumbo, my ears prick up and I can't look away.

So do I feel better now that I'm back here where we don't have such ads ? Well not really as we have our own version of blanket commercials which, during weekdays anyway, are on constantly and presumably aimed at the various sections of humanity who are not out earning an honest living between the hours of 8am and 5pm - for whatever reason.

And what are they about ? Loans and debts. Debts and loans.

You get one, you get the other soon after ! It's a sort of financial BOGOF really. All day long it's one or the other.

"Having problems making ends meet ? Worried about those mounting bills ? Just got a 95" Plasma HD (Ready) Digital Mp3 Player and can't make the payments ?"

"Don't worry. Help is just a phone call away. Ring Shady-Loans-For-You right now and we'll sort it all out. We'll help you sell two of your kids into slavery and you'll be out of debt by 2075".

These cheery words are enhanced with video of a young couple sharing the phone earpiece as if it's all going on live before our very eyes. This couple have been hired for their expressive facial skills and especially their ability to place a call, get through first time, make the loan deal and do a high five all within 60 seconds. I especially like the one where hubby is so laid back about ringing for a huge loan that he's wandering around on the phone like a big kid playing with a ball and then covers the mouthpiece to confirm the loan amount with his wife as if it's some sort of afterthought.

I think if I was wanting a loan for 20 grand I'd have thoroughly discussed it and had that figure etched in my mind long before picking up the phone ! "Lets see, Mr Loan Man, I'll have £15k, no £18k.....no wait a minute, oh sod it, lets make it £20k".

Yes I know it's all supposed to be symbolic of how easy it is to get a loan but I'd really much rather have a nice bit of text slowly scrolling up the screen giving me all the info and spare me the idiotic video .

So those are the loan ads. To compliment them we have the debt ads where CONSOLIDATION is the order of the day. Bring all your debts together into.............one big debt !
Bloody fantastic idea. Brilliant. No preaching here about trying to buy things only if you have the money for it. No pontificating about financial responsibility. Hell no. You want it now, get it now. Life is too short and you NEED that car/holiday/kitchen upgrade/surround sound system/face lift/brain transplant. And what happens when the bills come in ? Lump them all together and given enough years, your grandkids will still be paying for those 'necessities' long after you've lost the ability to hold your own spoon or eat without dribbling.

The US has seriously annoying medical commercials. The UK has seriously annoying loan and debt commercials. Where is the grass greener ?

In this case, sadly neither side has a claim.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Trains & Boats & Planes - Part 1

As well as being a great song best covered by Dionne Warwick way back in nineteen flippity jippety, these are also my favourite modes of transport. Well 2 are anyway.

I have to admit to not having travelled by train in several years and if I preclude the little return trips on the Transpennine Express from Leeds to Manchester airport when I fly to America, then we're talking several decades. As most of those trips were on business and I was usually worried and stressed about the meeting or course at the other end, then I still tend to view train travel with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

I certainly can't imagine taking a train nowadays - unless one of those little steam ones just to be able to say I've been on one. I've never been a fan of trains as such, but I might change my mind if the UK had a well managed, reliable and relatively cheap system. From what I've read over the years, we don't.

I do fancy one of those more exotic train trips though. Say, through the Canadian Rockies or across Siberia (in summer of course) or from Paris to Venice on the Orient Express. Bet you get your feet wet at Venice station ! Or on the Polar Express (if it's good enough for Tom Hanks) or from Seattle to Carlisle. No scrap that last one.

I'd love to have been on one of those old Western trains with the cow pusher contraption on the front of the engine like we see on the movies. I live for the chance to hear someone shout "Alllll Aboard" and then being able to casually grab the carriage handle and swing up onto the slowly moving train. Given my lack of grace in all things physical, I'd probably smash my face on the closed carriage door and fall in an embarassed heap onto the station platform.

Then we have planes. I don't mind plane travel itself but the palaver involved in just getting on and off one is getting to be a right pain in the proverbials these days. We have Osama and his merry band to thank for some of the delays we now face in getting to our plush, wide, comfortable, plane seats (dream on) but mostly they were in place to some extent long before he went into the demolition business.

I don't mind having to check in 2 hours early for my flight. I don't mind having to practically strip naked and still be hand searched before being allowed into the departure lounge. I don't mind having to show my passport and boarding card a dozen times to everyone from the floor cleaner to the man out on the tarmac who directs the planes with his little lollypop sticks. If this is the price we now pay to sit in relative safety at 38,000ft, then I'm all for it.

What I do mind is airlines setting luggage limits and then letting people ignore them. I'm one of those people, rare these days, who read the rules and regulations when travelling and then stick to them. So if I'm allowed 2 cases both under 50lbs and one carry on case of certain dimensions, then that's what I bring. Believe me, packing for a 6 month trip to America and getting everything into 2 cases and a carry on is quite a feat in itself.

So I stand in line at the check-in desk with mounting disbelief and then anger when I see people all around me with enough luggage to stock a small department store. The checked cases are so huge and heavy that they'd give an Olympic weightlifter a hernia and I'm not one for usually feeling sorry for airport baggage handlers who have ruined many a case of mine. As for their carry ons, well the one item limit seems to be taken to mean anything you can attach in any way to your person if that includes being pushed, pulled, in your hands or on your back. I've seen less items clutched by a Crackerjack contestant. CRACKERJACK !!!

Sorry...........had a mental flashback there and images of Peter Glaze floated before my eyes.

So why do I care ? Well for one thing, it's annoying to see people get away with this when I've stuck to the rules. I just know if one of my cases weighed 50.5lbs, I'd be charged for it. But it also affects me when I finally get onboard and try to get my legal carry on case or bag up into the overhead compartment by my seat. That space has been taken up by my fellow passengers and now contains the entire contents of their living rooms. Muggins here has to find another compartment usually underneath the rear gunners seat or in the pilot's snack locker.

This is because I'm always one of the last people to board a plane. Why ? Well again it's because I follow the rules and get up to board only when my seat row is called. Everyone else ? Well they've all shot off to the gate as soon as the announcer says........"we're now boarding first class, business class, our elite traveller passengers (thank you very much for using Air Cheapo once again, fawn fawn), those with small children, any wheelchair passengers and anyone who is grossly obese and needs help to be shoved through the plane doors and squished into our crappy narrow seats guaranteed to give you DVT".

I look up from my Readers Digest and find myself alone in the lounge area and behind me 324 people are standing in line to board the plane. D'oh. Why can't they shout "Allllll Aboard" and let us all scramble to get on first ? The British are used to that ????

Next time, I'm taking a stack of cases, 3 carry on items and a handbag. When they announce that boarding is starting, I'm grabbing the nearest kid, getting into a wheelchair and zooming down that ramp to get inside before the crew. Sorted.

Anyway, for the last 3 years I've forsaken Manchester airport as getting there and back, allied to the rest of the trip, was getting to be both expensive and exhausting.

I'd have to get up very early as most flights to the US take off early and get a taxi to Leeds station. Then I'd get the train to Manchester airport, often having to change trains at Manchester station. Although it was great that the train eventually stopped right at the airport terminal, it wasn't the terminal I needed and so I'd have a long walk to my check-in desk and so onto my departure gate.

If I was using a US carrier, I'd fly to somewhere like Chicago or Washington and after getting grilled at US customs and immigration, I'd be on another flight to Detroit. From there my friends would pick me up and after a 3 hour drive, we'd be at their house in northern Michigan.


I never liked my friends making this 6 hour round trip at the start and end of my time with them and so sometimes I'd add another leg to the trip by taking a short flight from Detroit to an airport only 2 hrs from their house. Hey four hours are four hours.

Speaking of four, it was 4 years ago that things changed when in an attempt to get over there by the cheapest means possible, I flew with Air Lingus, the Irish national airline. No jokes please.

I'll summarise the legs........

Taxi to Leeds station.
Train to Manchester airport, changing at Manchester station.
Flight from Manchester to Dublin.
Flight from Dublin to Chicago's O'Hare airport.
Shuttle bus across Chicago to Midway airport.
Flight from Midway to Flint (Michigan).
Car trip 2 hours to Houghton Lake.

To say I was knackered would be putting it mildly and remember that to get from one leg of the trip to the next one involved me lugging my suitcases and carry on backpack with me. No wonder that with a few weeks to go before the holiday was over, I'd be dreading the return trip.

So I decided never again and looked for the quickest route rather than the cheapest and ever since, I've flown with Northwest Airlines and their Dutch partner, KLM. This involves a 15 minute drive to Leeds airport, a flight to Amsterdam and a flight to Detroit where my friends still pick me up as they say they like to do so. I know it's still a 4 leg trip but I wave goodbye to my checked luggage at Leeds airport and (most times) pick it up again on the baggage carousel at Detroit airport. Much less stressful and not so physically demanding.

In July 2005 I had my 2nd heart attack and when I was given permission to fly again 3 months later, I was very glad to have this 4 leg trip in place. Another journey on that Transpennine train would've finished me off !!

When I returned from America 3 weeks ago, it was my 44th transatlantic flight and you'd think I'd have clocked up enough airmiles to be flying for free now. Sadly I've chopped and changed my carriers so often that I've still not got enough airmiles with any of them to get one free flight, never mind several. Oh I have enough for an internal US flight but I obviously want a transatlantic one. I'm not even going to 'waste' any precious miles on an upgrade to first class as I got a free upgrade once and didn't think much of it anyway. Ironically it was when I flew with Air Lingus and the comfy seat did help a bit.

Nope, I don't mind being in with the rest of the cattle in economy. As long as I've 24 movies to choose from and the plane stays up above the clouds where it's supposed to stay for the 8 hrs or so, then I'm mostly a happy traveller. I still get palpatations with every unexpected pitch and yaw and I'll glance to see if the air stewards are on their knees praying. If they look calm and serene and are still flogging the duty free booze and ciggies, then I settle down again and let my medication take the strain.

So that's trains and planes. Hard to beat. Well actually boats do - but they'll have to wait for another post.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

It's Just Not Cricket

Cricket is probably the world's most bewildering game - and I love it.

Well that's to say I love watching it on tv as I've never been to a game and have no wish to ever do so. I watch a lot of sports with that attitude.

I'll watch a few legs of darts and then give up.......it's not the game that puts me off but the voice and general annoying personality of commentator Sid Waddell. He needs to be taken to a darkened room and quietly told that he's the reason that remote controls have a mute button.

And snooker. I used to like it in the days of Ray Reardon, Willie Thorne and even Alex Higgins when there was some excitement in the game and lots of personalities. I was one of the 18.5 million who stayed up that Bank Holiday night back in 1985 to watch Dennis Taylor beat Steve Davis in the best final in snooker history. Holy moley...........that's over 21 years ago !!! I've depressed myself now.

And Rugby Union. I can give the odd international game the few odd minutes of my attention but that's about it.

There are plenty of other sports I'll watch for a while on tv and then switch channels when they lose my interest. Then there are the sports that I'll never even consider as sports and so not watch at all.......like boxing, wrestling, fishing, synchronised swimming and anything on a skateboard, surfboard or snowboard. Grown men flying around on bits of wood. Wise up.

Anyway back to cricket and I'm constantly being asked to explain it to American friends. I can't. It's not that I don't want to.......it's just that I can't. You see, I don't totally understand it myself.

Well I know the rules and I can follow what's happening and all that important stuff but I just can't get my head around most of the fielding positions. Once you take the bowler and wicket keeper out of the equation (as we all know where they are on the pitch after all), then I start to lose the plot. I'm ok with the slip positions (and I know I'm losing more of you now) but even then there can be anything from 1 to 5 or more of them at times.

Now I know that when you have a large playing field with players mostly standing still all over it, then you need to be able to say that so-and-so needs to stand at such-and-such a position. Cricket isn't alone in this of course but it IS alone in having such ridiculous names for these positions. There are almost 30 of them and the trick is for the captain to place his team mates in a position where experience tells him the batsman is likely to send the ball.

And so I give you.........Silly Mid Off (and it's country cousin Silly Mid On), Long Off, Long On, Third Man, Cover, Extra Cover, Gully (I always feel sorry for the guy in that position as he must only see grass and ankles for most of the game), Short Mid Wicket and a whole plethera of 'leg' positions like Fine Leg, Deep Fine Leg, Short Leg, Square Leg, Forward Short Leg, Deep Square Leg, Leg Slip, Leg Gully and Fine Long Legs Deep Wide Open. Ok I made that last one up !

As if it hasn't enough going against it, a game of cricket lasts 5 days. Yes 5 days. There are several variants of the classic game which last a lot less and the most recent one (called 20/20) can be over in a couple of hours and is therefore very popular and exciting for the modern generation who have the attention span of a gnat.

As someone who needs to replace his tv remote control batteries every few weeks, I'm a bit surprised with myself that I love the 5 day game. Modern tv technology means that we see extreme close ups of everything. Nothing escapes the eagle eye of the instant replay system and when it does, computer software like 'hawkeye' shows us what WOULD have happened if someone hadn't been in the way.

As I see it, there are few better ways to spend a cold, wet winter's day in the UK than to sit in the cozy warmth of my living room with drink in hand, watching a cricket game from Australia or anywhere in the Caribbean. The only down side to having a sporting event lasting 5 days is that you get the same commercials over and over again - and cricket is an advertisers dream as it gives many hundreds of opportunities for commercial breaks. I mean drinks breaks for the players are even built into the game !

And so at long last I come to the point of this post. A really really annoying commercial. THEY tell us that there are no bad commercials. If we talk about them for ANY reason, then the commercial has worked. I'd go along with that IF when talking about it, one could remember the name of the product ! And that's the case in point.

During the recent cricket one day series between England, Australia and New Zealand, there has been a specific car commercial shown during just about every one of the breaks and that's a LOT of showings. It is SO annoying and even if I'm in the kitchen and can't see the screen, I still hear the tinkling piano music and know that the damn ad is on again. So what is so annoying ?

Well the awful tinkling piano is bad enough and sounds like the music was recorded in an aircraft hanger at Luton Airport. But it's how they are trying to show us how smooth the ride is with this wonderful vehicle that gets my grrrrrrrr going. A little girl is sitting in the back seat of this moving car with her colouring book open and is carefully painting between the lines of some flowers or something..........and doing it perfectly. Ok now colour me sceptical but I don't believe she could do this even if the book was super glued to a table set in concrete.

I think I take these things too seriously. Maybe it was supposed to be giving a visual impression of stability and not meant to be taken literally. Probably. I mean I was very critical of the recent King Kong movie by pointing out numerous silly impossible action points......and as someone then said to me "you do know the movie is about a 60ft ape, don't you" ???

Ok fair enough but in this case the annoyance factor, for me anyway, means I actually switch channels or mute the sound or, if the remote is not to hand, la-la-la-la to drown the voice over.
And the car model ? I've really no idea.

So tv producers and planners be warned. I'm not one of the gnat generation. Hey, I can sit through 5 days of a sporting event. No problem. But I know my way around my remote and so don't waste my valuable retirement time with annoying commercials, annoying non sport sports and annoying Sid Waddell.

It's just not cricket.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Valentine Who ?

So who was this Valentine fella then ? Some great lover from a bygone age ? Some rascally rapscallion who set petticoats a-twiching back when petticoats rarely allowed a flash of bare ankle ?

Nope. His true full name was Hallmark Valentine-Day and he wasn't born of woman at all. (Gasps all round) No one can be sure just when this 'birth' took place, as it was never documented, but historians are agreed it was sometime in the middle of the 18th century, near the end of what we now call the 'not very romantic at all' period.

The slightly Rambling Chipping Norton Dictionary (as opposed to the Concise Oxford one) states that on a sunny Wednesday afternoon in May 1747, Charles Bendicoot Valentine came home from a hard day toiling in the fields, unhitched the plough from his pair of shire horses and moaned yet again to his long suffering wife that it was time for some sodding genius to invent the tractor as his back was giving him gyp.

Mrs Valentine had had a bad day herself as the steam powered mangle had broken down again and a travelling bard had kept her so distracted with his nimble fingered lute playing that she'd burned the gruel.

They ate supper in silence and headed off to bed at 7pm as it was dark and there were only reruns on that night. "There must be more to life than this" said Charles to no one in particular.
"I'd say you've got it pretty cushy" said no one in particular back at him. "Here, who you talking to" said Mrs Valentine, sneeking a peek under the duvet. "Oh just talking to no one in particular" came the reply. "Well", sniffed his wife, "stop that nonsense and talk to me. I slave away all day in this hovel and what thanks do I get ? None. You take me for granted, you do. I deserve a little thank you.......something special.......something romantic. You never do anything romantic."

Charles thought about this all night and the next day, before he went into the fields, he went to see his very good friend, Arbuthnot Day, who lived on the next farm. "My wife doesn't understand me" he moaned to his pal. "Told you she'd be trouble" came the reply. "You should never have married her." Charles told Arbuthnot all about the conversation in bed the previous night and the pair of them decided that his wife would soon find out just how romantic Charles could really be.

So later that day, as Daphne Valentine was thrashing the weekly washing against a large stone, a messenger arrived with a parchment-o-gram for her. Sitting at the kitchen table, she broke the seal, unrolled the paper and with mounting horror, read the message within.

I've had enough. Stop. I can't take life with you anymore. Stop. You wanted me to be more romantic and so I have. Stop. I'm leaving you and have run off with my lover, Arbuthnot, and we're going to live together and as for sex, well no one is going to tell us we have to. Stop. Sorry, that period shouldn't have been there as I meant that no one can tell us we have to stop. Stop. That stop was in the right place. Stop.

The farming lovers were the talk of the county for many months. In February 1748, news swept through the rural community that a baby boy had been born to them and this caused some consternation and much debate at the local inn. "A boy you say. They conceived a boy"? said Rev Harold Wishbone, the vicar of the parish. "That's a trifle unnatural, isn't it "? asked Bert Nosebleed, idiot of the village. "Maybe so" said Agnes Worrywart "but I think it's very romantic and someone should send them a box of dark Belgian chocolates and a dozen red roses". "What's a Belgian" asked Bert before he was thrown out of the inn and barred for life.

Sitting alone in the corner was one Daphne Gaybasher (nee Valentine) who was listening attentively to every word. A sly smile broke up her normally fixed and miserable face.

Later that day, the 14th, chocs and flowers arrived at the lovers farmhouse as they sat around the crackling fireplace taking turns holding their son. "Look little Hallmark" said Charles to the infant, "someone has sent us chocs and flowers" "Who sent them" asked Arbuthnot. "No idea. The parchment is unsigned and just says Roses Are Red, Voilets Are Blue, Hallmark's a B* And So Are You Two". "That's all "? asked Arbuthnot, not the sharpest knife in the drawer. "I don't get it. It's a puzzle for sure."

Every year, on the same date, the chocs, the flowers and the same message arrived at the farm and they never did know who had sent them. As the decades passed, Daphne's bitter words got lost in the retelling and the idea of flowers, chocs and lovers passed into folklore. No one ever knew what became of the farmers or their mystery son, Hallmark Valentine-Day, but early in the 20th century, a man by the same name bought out several small greeting card companies and started on a run of success and profitabily rarely seen in those days. Then came the depression and no one had time for greeting cards. In an effort to rebuild his empire, he recalled the story of his ancestors and decided to invent a day for lovers. Everyone could identify with that. The idea spread and after a few years it had taken on a life of it's own and the world congratulated him for thinking it up.

"God bless Hallmark Valentine-Day" they said as they tried to resurrect doomed marriages and heal crumbling engagements. "God bless Valentine-Day indeed" said the inhabitants of Belgium who saw their GNP increase fourfold on that one day of the year.

So there it is. The real story behind the 14th of February. Romance be damned; it's all a commercial plot to increase the profitability of card companies, florists and.......Belgium.

We have a saying in Yorkshire "There's Nowt So Queer As Folk"

A smirking Hallmark would agree.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Sorry - We're Closed

Well the forecast snow came overnight and as usual the UK has come to a virtual standstill.

You see we Brits don't 'do' snow very well......or hail, or sleet, or wind, or rain, or heavy leaves. Basically if it's not a sunny day, we fall to bits.

Did we have any warnings about this latest brutal and savage fall of heavenly whiteness ? Of course we did.

Did we do anything about it ? Of course we didn't.

What COULD we do ? Nothing much really. We're not going to go out and buy specialised vehicles just for a few days of snow per year. We're not going to stockpile mini mountains of grit and sand for the couple of days when you can't actually see the road surface.

Nope, for most of us, being well prepared means we just are able to talk about the snow the day before it comes. Yesterday in supermarket lines and hairdressers and hospital operating rooms up and down the country, people were talking about THE SNOW coming. It was like we were getting invaded by Martians or Mexicans or some other illegal aliens.

"Oh we're getting in 100 tins of soup and spam as there is snow forecast for tomorrow" they'd tell each other. "Yes and I'm keeping little Johnny off school tomorrow as the bus steps will have snow on them" another wailed.

"But my Billy HAS to go to school tomorrow", one said. "He'll be in trouble with the authorities if he doesn't" she added. "Why is that; has he been missing a lot of school or something" "No, he's the principal" Ok old joke I know.

I'm looking out my living room window at the light dusting of snow that was forecast for us. It's like God sprinkled some icing sugar on parts of my driveway and front wall. The pavements and roads are quite clear - not thanks to the wonderful council gritting lorries but because not enough snow has fallen to even leave a dusting on them.

I realise parts of the UK got more snow than I'm describing and I'm sure people and animals are being badly inconvenienced in remote and high lying places. The BBC site has been reporting on it all day as have all the tv news stations. I'm not trying to belittle what these people are having to put up with......but come on.....4 ins !!! This shouldn't be enough snow to close schools and have motorists warned to only make journeys 'if they really have to be made'.

Of course it's a great excuse not to go in to work. "Sorry, boss, but there is a build up of snow on my hub caps and my TomTom says I'm currently in a parking lot in Anchorage. Can't make it in, I'm afraid"

But we wouldn't be British if we didn't act like this every winter. Questions will be raised in Parliament. The Snow Minister will be asked to stand down. Promises of 'doing much better next time' will be made by anyone with a microphone shoved in their faces.

Through all this adversity, our Dunkirk spirit WILL shine through like a beacon in a blizzard. Life WILL go on. Babies WILL be born. Leeds United WILL continue to lose at home.

In the meantime, I'm off out to get a big plastic shovel. There might be another dusting tomorrow !

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Apologies For The Size

I should've known something was different with that previous post when I uploaded the first photo and it took longer than usual to finish. I realised right away that I'd forgotten to resize it but was pleased that I didn't get the usual error message to remind me. I just thought the new improved blogger software would reduce the photos, and the others, so that they'd be like they've always been on here.

Having published the post and gone back to check how it looked, I decided to click on a photo to make sure all was ok - and was horrified to see it take up my whole screen ! Yikes.

I'll try and remember to resize them in future so please, take this as a 'warning' that if you do click on a photo in the post below, it'll be BIG.

No tittering in the back there.

Another Walk In The Countryside

I've been very lazy over the last few weeks and the scales have been warning me that my weight is heading in the wrong direction.

Yes I know; the solution is very obvious. Get new scales !

If only life was so fair. But it's not and so for my weight and overall health's sake, I started to walk again today. I'd mostly cycled in Florida as walking didn't get me very far, literally, and I was fed up seeing the same rows of neat homes within Buttonwood Bay all the time. On the bike I could at least get out of the park and explore a bit more.

But Florida is a flat state. The flatest in fact. I yearned for countryside and.........hills.

So it was as much to see my local rolling hills as much as for the exercise that I set off for a walk this afternoon. Within a few minutes I was out in farm country - although even here, one is
often reminded that modern man and his motorised vehicle is not far away.

But it was as if I'd got the ultimate remote control as even though I could SEE the traffic, I couldn't hear it at all. It was wonderful.

Taking care not to step in anything nasty, I went deeper into the countryside and totally lost all thoughts of modern life entirely.

I walked around the edges of a few fields, probably trespassing at the same time, through a small forest and found myself in a new place for me.......Lost.

I knew roughly where I was but still impressed myself by looking at the sun and heading south. Sure enough after 20 minutes I came upon the path I'd been on and was soon heading back to my housing estate. Civilization beckoned.

The gravel path became a narrow tarmac road and crossed over the local golf course.

The sign you see here is mostly for car drivers as you'd like to think a walker would hear something before a golf ball hit him on the head.

When I'm not in a rush or trying to keep my heart rate at a set level, I often poke around the trees on both sides for any errant golf balls abandoned by their owners. I find a suprising number actually so either the holes closest to this path are very difficult or, more likely, the local golfers aren't going to put pressure Tiger Woods any time soon.

Speaking of local golfers, a foursome had just putted out on the hole to one side of the road and so had to cross over to tee off on the next one.

It was a chance for me to test out the sports setting on the camera so I extended my monopod (don't even go there) and setup ready for action.

I don't think having a camera wielding spectator pleased the group very much, but if they had any comments, they politely kept them till I was out of range.

I soon realised I needed to consult the camera instruction booklet again as although the shutter blasted off at an impressive rate of 3 frames per second, none of the images captured were worth keeping as they were out of focus. I've still a lot to learn.

By the time the last golfer was ready to drive off, I'd had to return to the normal 'auto' setting just to get any sort of photo at all. The result is the shot above.

After they had left the tee, I turned around for a look at the hole they'd just played and noticed that, due to the low temps all day, the morning frost had never had a chance to burn off.

I opened the little gate and went through to get closer to the green. There was a lone golfer coming up the fairway so I had to take a quick photo and get off the course.

Back on the road I waited for him to get to the green and once he had chipped up a few feet from the hole, he picked up his ball without putting out as I assume the frost would've made putting awkward.

He crossed over the road and prepared to drive off on the next tee. I was tempted to try the sports setting again and set up as if to take some photos. But I decided not to bother and just leaned on the camera atop the monopod......and watched. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I'll say that my close attention put him off as he totally mishit the ball and it shot off about 20 yds to his left and barely left the ground. Oops.

Grinning, I walked on.

As I approached the main road leading back into my housing estate, I came upon this lovely little grouping of snowdrops which, as we all know, despite their name, normally flower in very early Spring.

Hopefully they withstand the next few days as we're due to get a dusting of snow. I say dusting, as we rarely get much more than what would be called a dusting in US states like Michigan and North Dakota - but it still manages to bring the UK to it's collective knees and sends sales of huge red plastic shovels through the roof.

By now any heat that the late afternoon sun was producing had long since gone and I could see my breath.
I'd gone out well prepared, however, and under my jacket I was wearing a fleece over my t-shirt. I was toasty warm and even my gloveless, camera carrying hands were comfortably warm. It was easily the longest walk I'd had since leaving Michigan in late October for the warmth of Florida and I enjoyed it enormously.

If the forecast snow does arrive tomorrow, I'll strap on a pair of old tennis rackets, saddle up the reindeer and head out into it. If no post appears, you'll know the dust got me !

Monday, February 05, 2007

Monday Woes

It's not been a normal Monday morning for yours truely. Oh no.

I'd been up till 4am watching the Super Bowl (go Colts) and then had to be up in time to get to the dentist at 10:30am. Yes a morning appointment ! What possessed me to make a morning appointment ??? It probably seemed like a good idea back in July - "this will get me up early on a beautiful crisp winter's morning" I may have told myself.

Note to self : NEVER make a winter appointment in high summer as the heat obviously affects the thinking process.

As it happens, once the shock of getting up 5 hours after going to bed had worn off, it WAS a wonderful crisp winter's morning - but I just wanted to be back in bed !

The visit was painless enough but I still miss my old dentist who was kind and gentle with my oral imperfections. I'd been with him for about 17 years when he announced last year that he was retiring in stages (no, not bodily stages you silly reader) and was only going to be working a couple of days a week. I was duly passed on to another dentist and lets just say sadism is alive and well and working in north Leeds.

I found myself lying (through my teeth as my mouth was full of implements) when asked if I'd been using those little pokey things that dentists want you to shove between your teeth down at gum level. I hate them as they make my gums bleed and I don't really think I want gaps down there anyway. Let those holes fill up with that nice plaque stuff I say. Feels nicer when the tongue slides over them.

So I said I used them a few times a week and the dentist said....."well they're working as there is much less plaque this time. Well done" !! I gave a toothy grin and said "thuarranque" or something like that. Why DO they ask you questions when you have a ton of metal bits and two hands inside your mouth ???

Anyway it was all over in 20 minutes and I was sent on my way with praise ringing in my ears and my teeth sparkling in a glass.

The sunshine and clear blue sky tempted me to stay out and I decided to go shopping to Sainsburys even though I only wanted a few items and none of them were basics that were needed today. I hoped that the store would be somehow different than last time and that my shopping experience would be better all round as I wasn't jet lagged anymore AND I knew what to expect this time.

Sadly it was not to be. Ok a few things were better. There were less customers as last time I'd gone on a Saturday evening. There were a few less staff out filling shelves and therefore less of them getting in the way with their trolleys blocking the aisles. Come to think of it, those were the only two things better.

I started with the new stationery section as I needed a 2007 diary and as it's February, my choices are limited. I get the same brand every year but that means a trip into Leeds and that's too much hassle right now. They didn't have any. Well they had those personal organisers that require you to have a briefcase to carry them around in and I'm afraid Filofax and yuppies ruined the idea of them for me years ago.

But I thought.....ok, it's cheap enough and I DO need a diary so what the heck. I plopped one in my trolley and sped off. I was in the fresh fruit aisle trying to decide if a 21p golden delicious was really that price because they'd put a gold treat inside it somewhere when I had second thoughts about the organiser. What about next year ? The whole point of these things is they take refils so you only have that initial expense....initially ! But I'd seen no refills.

I went to customer services where the two girls were telling each other what they'd done at the weekend and I became a helpless evesdropper as they had their backs to me and were presumably 'on a break' or something. I coughed and got their attention and I asked about refills. One went off to ask a supervisor and came back to inform me that I could get them from Boots......or WH Smiths........in town !! Great. I said the point of getting a diary/organiser here was to avoid going into town. The girl smiled absently and said "well you can get the bus into town just outside here and it'll be free for you" !!! WHAT ???!!!!!

I'll be wearing my baseball cap the next time I shop at Sainsburys. Young whippersnappers.

In a huff, I shuffled off with my trolley with newly leaden legs (mine that is, the trolley had leaden wheels though) and half way down one aisle and heading towards the deli counter it hit me. Smelly Aisle Syndrome !! Now I'd been warned about this in a post from my fellow blogger (ess) Daphne, but I'd somehow missed it on my previous trip. Everything she'd said was true. I think Grissom (CSI) or that cutie from Bones needs to investigate as something is well out of whack there. It's awful and follows you to the next aisle like some sort of nasty clinging atmospheric best buddy. Someone HAS to be missing a loved one or a pet or something that used to be a living, breathing creature. Actually it must be twins as the smell comes back further down in aisle 12 too. Could be another part of the same body I suppose. I'll ask my Mafia friend if they did any 'work' in the area late last year.

I was still reeling from the smell when I was accosted by a girl who sprang out of nowhere (well from her kiosk at the end of aisle 11 actually) and said something so fast I didn't catch the start of it. She had her hand to her ear in classic phone mime with her pinkie at her mouth and her thumb to her ear and asked me which land line phone company I was with ? I don't know about you, but that question is pretty straightforward and unambiguous and I didn't feel that I needed a mime of a telephone to add anything to it. Maybe it was this that caused me to lie again. Maybe it was that I don't like being sprung at - even by a pretty girl - when shopping. Maybe it was that I was still getting over the effects of the decomposition special offers on aisles 6 and 12 (BOGOFF never was so apt).

Whatever the reason, I heard myself lie and tell her I didn't have a land line and just used a mobile. She moved on to pounce on some other innocent.

Two brazen lies in one morning. There will be hell to pay....and probably visit.

I got my few purchases and headed for the checkouts. The lady there had a badge with a large 21 on it and some text which I took to be some sort of birthday blurb. It seemed a free offer to peer more closely at her chest area......so I did. She made eye contact and stuck out her chest even more and she seemed to know what I'd been thinking. God I hope not ! "Oh no I'm not 21" she giggled. By then I'd read the text and it just said she wasn't allowed to sell ciggies to anyone under the age of 21. As she was middle aged, I'm not sure why she thought I'd mistaken the badge for anything else but after my sobering incident at customer services, I kept my ageist thoughts to myself.

I rushed home for a strong mug of tea and a chocolate digestive.

Shopping might be good exercise and good for your health........but it can be brutal on your ego and absolute murder on your nostrils.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Looking Back

I've been home almost a week now but as usual, my mind often drifts back to Florida where I now have my 2nd home......literally.

The news here goes on about the mild weather but of course it's still a big change for me. For all it's talking points, thankfully we rarely get extremes of weather in the UK and I've been reminded of that again today as I see reports on tv and on the internet about a severe storm which swept across central Florida from midnight last night. Tornados hit the Lady Lake area (50 miles north west of Orlando) and 14 people are reported killed and there has been a lot of devastation to homes in the area.

Thankfully Buttonwood Bay has been spared the worst of it and currently it's only raining there right now but it reminds me that I need to keep an eye open for the weather there as well as here. Not only are my friends still there for another 2 months, but I've property to think about !

Looking back on my 6 months in the US last year, they were certainly much different to any of the previous ones. We didn't travel that much as the major trip was down to Florida in late October. If I fly directly to Florida next time for the full 6 months, then I've no idea when I'll be seeing Houghton Lake again so it was good to spend those first 3 months of my trip there last year.

But Florida will now be the state for me and it's ironic that we'll now be based in a state where we still have to drive several hours just to get into the body of the country. It's not even a picturesque drive as being the flatest state in the union, stunning Florida scenery is hard to find (not sure it even exists) and certainly none of it is seen from the main interstates.

So what did I like about my time there ?

Well the obvious first thing has to be the weather. It's awesome and makes it just about acceptable to put up with the worry of tornados and hurricanes and whatever other extremes of weather that can hit the region from time to time. Yes it's easy for me to have this opinion as I've never experienced extreme weather and I may feel differently if I do. I'm not going to worry about the house either as not only is it something I've no control over, but we have insurance cover.

Who am I kidding - of course I'll worry. It's in my nature.

I also loved Florida senior discounts. I'd been using this 'scheme' for a while in the US to get into movie theatres and eat out on the cheap but until we went to Florida, I'd had to ask for it and then stress out for the few seconds while the ticket guy or the waitress looked me over and thought about challenging my claim to seniority. No such problems in Florida and I'd be given the discounts without asking in most cases. Now this might upset some other 54 year olds who wouldn't like to think they look old enough to qualify for a discount but I'm not that vain and I'm too much of a skinflint to care less. Bring it on.

A bonus of getting the senior discount in restaurants is that not only is the cost of the meal a lot less, but so is the portion. I'm trying to eat sensibly and healthily when in America and it's very hard with the cheapness of eating out (even without the discounts) allied to the huge portions on offer. My weak willpower gets a good helping hand when I order off the senior menu as normally this means a more sensible, yet still very filling, plateful. However I did notice that one of the myths of getting older was being debunked on many occasions and that was that oldies eat less. Don't you believe it. I saw many a 16oz steak (plus all the fixings, as they say) vanish down many a wrinklies throat - even if a son or grandson had to cut it into bite sized pieces first !

Man, some of them could eat like horses and there was no ordering off the senior menu for them. I think that when you get to 80+ you pretty much don't care about your cholesterol levels or the amount of trans fat in your food. If you still have enough intestinal length to feed it along, enough stomach acid to process it and bowel movements regular enough to poop it out, then at that age you should just enjoy your food and damn the consequences.

I can't wait !!

But back to why I like my part of central Florida; the town of Sebring is just about big enough for me - a town big enough to have most of the stores I like and need and yet not big enough where you need to think about traffic at peak times. It's about the same 24/7 really which suits me just fine. Maybe it's no tourist trap and yes, maybe it's typical of most nondescript US towns with one main route through it and little to cause you to stop for more than a passing meal. But I liked it....a lot. And not just for the senior discounts !!

And finally to Buttonwood Bay. As I've said before, Florida is THE retirement state and retirement communities are all over the place. They come with various names and descriptions and ours states it is an 'RV Resort & Manufactured Housing Community' and the next line on the welcome sign says it all............'An Active 55+ Community'. It's certainly blown away all my preconceptions of what such a park would be like. The list of activities is impressive and there aren't enough hours in the day to do most of them. The amenities are also first rate and if all you want is to lounge by one of the pools, then that's all you need to do.

However that could mean missing out on Buttonwood Bay's biggest selling point - the friendliness of it's residents. They are there in all shapes and sizes, all states of physical abilities and all ages from under 55 like myself to over 100 in a few cases. And are they active ? I'll say !!

They do Tai Chi, water aerobics, every kind of dancing, clogging, golf, bowling, softball, crafts, tennis, pool, horseshoes, bocce ball, shuffleboard, cards, table tennis, fishing and those are just off the top of my head. What I really like is that everyone is keen to pass on the knowledge and experiences gained over many years of life. Can't sew to save your life ? Try a craft class. Never played bocce ball before ? Pop along, join in and be shown the ropes. Want to get fit and exercise those joints ? Use the exercise room equipment or join in with the aerobics or tai chi sessions out near the lake. It's up to you. Do as much or as little as you want.

Then there are the regular events from the Christmas golf cart parade to the weekly dances, from resident produced plays to pot luck meals. I tell you, it's all go and knowing that you'll be enjoying sunshine and high temperatures during the outdoor activities helps enormously.

And it all helps with my health too. I need regular exercise and a UK winter is not conducive to going out for walks or bike rides. Both are a pleasure in BB all year round and of course there are the 2 heated pools to help when those become boring.

But I'm here in the UK for probably the next 9 months as if I'm going to spend 6 months at a time in Florida, I might as well make it October till the end of March. With a UK Spring and Summer to look forward to, I'm almost done with looking back now. Yep, I've got Florida out of my system. Really.

So what's on this weekend ? Footy of course and I can watch live games on tv now. Wooohooo.
Leeds will be losing again. The Rugby League season starts. Tiger will be hoping to keep his winning streak going amongst the sand dunes of Dubai. Oh and the Super Bowl is on this Sunday so I'll be glued to the telle for that.

Now where is it taking place ? Lemme think. Oh yea, Miami. That's in Florida you know.
Hmmmmm Florida.

Maybe I'll just look again at one or two of those photographs I took.................

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