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Thursday, May 31, 2007

You wait all day for a blog post, and then three turn up all at once...

I mentioned four weeks ago that bits of my Micro Fiction seem to be turning up as English assignments in the US. Well I didn't realise it at the time, but the author of that piece was clearly a straight-A student, top of his class, and heading for a place at Harvard. At least in comparison with the latest two.

First there's Curious Little Lena (I think that might be a nom de plume), who's been studying my story 'The Puzzle'. She states that "The Puzzle is about literally, a jigsaw puzzle". No it's not. It's about a power tool. That's kinda the point.

But it's hard to criticise when she launches into such a fantastic analysis of the story, viewing it as a complex metaphor for life, which is not only a puzzle, but also a struggle against external forces that requires determination to complete successfully. And there was me thinking it was just a cheap gag about DIY. How wrong I was.

Lena's work pales into insignificance however when placed up against the talented Walfrey, who reviews 'Summer Loving', a story I wrote for Lisa a good two months before I met her. Walfrey writes:

"The main storyline basically displays a man, who reminisces about the good times he and his lover have experienced together, such as taking a dip in the pool last week, the funny hair cut his lover had in the spring and the matching coats they wore in the winter. A literary element used in this micro fiction is symbolization. "The sky blue, the sun shinning" signifies a happy and blissful atmosphere between the two lovers. It also seems as if the the man has somewhat of a low level of happiness and also very appreciative. It seems to be this way because he finds value in little things such as getting funny hair cuts. Because this man can cherish a moment so simple, it also shows that his personality exudes a sense of appreciation to many things around him."

Which is excellent. Unfortunately...


I don't mean to overreact, but really, he's not a man, the pool is a sheep-dip, and no one "finds value in little things such as getting funny hair cuts" - they were being sheared for the spring!!!

But still, he's right about the symbolisation.

I think.

Of course, I'll feel terrible when I find out they're both eight years old and special needs. You're not allowed to tell children they're wrong these days. I could scar them for life.
It's a whopper.
So I'll calm down with a picture of my first ever home-grown strawberry, as harvested this morning. And eaten shortly afterwards. Who needs a garden when you've got a windowbox and some Smart Price compost.
Big Sis in a Small World
South Dakota (24 May 2007)

On entry into South Dakota, I was greeted by a church on wheels. Not something you see every day. Anyway, I only arrived in South Dakota 24 hours later than anticipated and rushed to Mount Rushmore in the hope I would see it before it closed. Well I was able to enjoy it for 6 more hours and so went there 3 times, keen to make the most of my car pass which is valid for a year.

Mount Rushmore By DayMount Rushmore By Night

Mat at Mount Rushmore
Mountain GoatOn one occasion, I decided to cycle up the hill and came face to face with this white fluffy animal which vaguely resembles a goat. Or a goat crossed with Phil's cat.

The next day, after an obligatory final visit to Mt. Rushmore, it was time to see the Crazy Horse which is also being carved into the mountain in a Mt. Rushmore kinda way, i.e. with controlled explosives (hence the dust in the picture below).

Crazy Horse ExplodesMe and Crazy Horse

From Crazy, I drove through the Black Forest which was very picturesque (although lacking in gateaux) and headed to the Devil’s Tower which inspired a boy to play with his mashed potato in 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind'. By this time it was raining, so I aborted my hike around the bottom of the mound. But I did nearly run over a whole pack of prairie dogs which added a bit of excitement before my long drive west towards Wyoming.

Mashed PotatoA Pack of Prairie Dogs
Big Sis in a Small World
North Dakota (23 May 2007)

Now this is another state which all of those who are 'in the know' told me not to visit. But on my quest to find something good about every state, and to add to my research on horn honking, I decided to drive through North Dakota for 8 hours. Now, admittedly, much of the journey looked like this...

North Dakota
But on the plus side, it gave me ample time to come up with 6 GOOD THINGS ABOUT NORTH DAKOTA.

Free Internet Access1. There is a Starbucks in Fargo which provided me with free internet access.

2. I gained an hour in time.

3. It didn’t get dark until 10:30pm (old time).

4. I saw virtually no rain.

5. They have the biggest buffalo in the world (apparently) and have a museum to prove it.

Cute Prairie Dog

6. Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a nice place full of cute prairie dogs.

This sign informed me of number 5.

National Buffalo Museum
Live BuffaloIn fact, I thought so highly of N. Dakota that I decided to delay my trip to see Mount Rushmore, so that I could spend more time in the north. And I’m glad I did, coz a trip to Theo’s NP made it all worthwhile. A beautiful place, very quiet and home to lots and lots of cute prairie dogs. I also had a confrontation with a buffalo and so have more faith in Good Thing no. 5 above. It was very peaceful and I was convinced the whole park was deserted except for me, a few buffalo and the prairie dogs.

Me in Theo's ParkThat was until I bumped into a fully qualified 'Elk Spotter'. The guy’s role is to carry around something which vaguely resembles a TV aerial, listen for Elks and then spend the day hiking, to see if his elk-spotting equipment is accurate. I want his job... although he did tell me that he aspires to be his boss who sits in a control tower monitoring all the Elk Spotters who monitor all the Elks.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

I have to say, I had no idea how stressful it is studying to become a postman. As of yesterday, I'm in the process of applying to become the new Rottingdean Postie, a position I've been particularly keen to fill since hearing my Mum's reminiscences about her time on the Christmas relief staff at Royal Mail during the war.* She always wanted to go full-time, but those were politically incorrect days, and they turned her down on the grounds that she didn't have a penis. Fortunately things have changed since then. And I don't mean she's now got a penis.

So having spent the morning filling in all six sections of the online application form, and writing about my love of early mornings and dogs, I finally submitted my application at lunchtime today...

... only to receive an e-mail half an hour later which said "Well done! You have reached the next stage of your application, we would now like to invite you to take an on-line assessment."

Naturally I felt a sense of pride at having been sent an automated e-mail of this calibre, so I strode forth immediately to the on-line (with a hyphen) assessment. The 80-question personality test wasn't too bad, although I do wonder how many people read the statement "I can often be quite rude", and then tick 'Strongly Agree', but it was the Royal Mail Sorting Test which really scrambled my brain. By the time you've been on the receiving end of 200 rapid-fire addresses, and attempted to match them each to a postcode within a time-limit of about three seconds, you feel like giving up on letter-writing and sticking to e-mail. I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown by the end.

But anyhoo, when I'm not passing the entrance exam for Royal Mail, I'm busy seeing out this year's Brighton Festival down at the Marina. My brother turned up on Sunday and asked me to babysit his wife and daughter while he went to an impromptu AGM for Kemp Town flat-owners. So having filled him in on the state of the partying Poles in flat 1, and the neighbours who bang on my ceiling, I fed my sister-in-law toast, tried to get a turn on my niece's Nintendo, then rounded everyone up for a trip to Pizza Express, where we encountered scenes like this...

PixilatedIt turned out that Brighton Marina was home to The Big Splash, a two-day event much like the Streets of Brighton spectacular, to round off this year's festival. This time around the street performers had come from as far afield as Mexico and Australia, which makes it all the more surprising that I couldn't find a single one worth watching. Even my eight-year-old niece was mocking them by the end. To be fair though, it must be hard to get a tune out of your singing fish when the weather's bad.

The BrimborionsI went back down there on Monday in the hope of better things, but when you've seen one mask-wearing foreigner on an electric scooter playing oompah music with an inflatable backpack, you've seen them all.

Tuesday was mine and Lisa's three year anniversary, so we did that lovey-dovey romantic thing that all courting couples do: we went to see a film about serial killers. I can recommend Zodiac (the movie, not the murderer). It's an interesting two and a half hours. Not quite interesting enough for Lisa to stay awake (she woke up near the end, just in time to see the main character and say "Who's that?"), but I enjoyed it.

* Falklands, not Second World.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Big Sis in a Small World
Minnesota (21-23 May 2007)

A Little DarkIn my quest for Huck Finn, I continued following the river road up into Minnesota. Admittedly it was a little dark by this point, but I still hoped to find my childhood hero. Unfortunately my hopes lasted about as long as the light. I gave up at about 10pm and headed instead to my hotel at the Mall of America in Minneapolis. Not to be beaten, however, I found out that there was a bike trail right by my hotel which followed the river road, and so set off the next morning to continue my Huck hunt. Twenty miles of cycling later and I'd failed to find the Finn (or catch the Twain)*. It was time to hit the Mall of America.

Me Cycling the Great River Road in Minneapolis
Mall of AmericaNow, I have to say, when I first arrived at the biggest mall in America and looked at the store directory, I was a little disappointed and wondered who had done the measuring and concluded it was the 'biggest'. But having walked around and observed that a large part of the mall consisted of a big Ferris Wheel, an indoor rollercoaster and a huge mass of other entertainment type stuff, I can kind of understand how this mall got its reputation. I’m sure Phil would love it..... especially as it puts the Dallas Galleria and its ice skating rink to shame (see
this three-year-old blog post and also this grainy photo. I think he's bought a new camera since then).

* Pun courtesy of Phil.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Wednesday was the day the ITV regional news announced that Weymouth is "a soulless summary of everything that's wrong with the British seaside experience". We tried not to let it get us down.

Lisa wasn't keen to visit Lulworth Cove on the grounds that "it's probably just a cove", so instead we set out on foot to Weymouth bay for a soulless seaside experience. In a bizarre coincidence, we passed a man en route who was wearing an identical shirt to mine. Which might have been ok had he not been in his seventies. Lisa insisted I have the dress sense of a pensioner, but I prefer to think that he had the outlook of a 33-year-old. Or maybe we just both shop at Oxfam.

Having failed to locate the Weymouth Whitewater boat yet again, Lisa phoned them on her mobile and was told they're not doing any more rides until the weekend. I was gutted. But I picked myself up with an All Day Breakfast Bap from Fran's Pantry, before leading Lisa on a tour of the seafront ice cream parlours. Purbeck's ginger ice cream turned out to be even better than Thornton's rhubarb, so with Lisa trying to calculate the number of WeightWatchers points in a waffle cone, we headed for the amusements where I deposited 24p in the two-penny falls, and got back £1.02. That's a 300% return on my investment. If I'd had more capital to work with, I could be a millionaire by now.

Let's just pause briefly for a photo of Lisa with a bouncing bomb.

Da Bomb
That's not something you see every day.

Right, well Thursday was our last full day in Weymouth, and with less than a week to go til our three-year anniversary (which is tomorrow, if you want to buy us a gift), Lisa treated me to lunch at Perry's, a restaurant described as "outstanding" by Bill Bryson in 'Notes From a Small Island' (I'd tell you which page, but I only have the audiobook). It's only two minutes walk from Seagull Cottage too, but strangely Bill fails to mention that.

The food was ok, although my chicken was swimming in oil, and when I asked for some water they brought me "a delightful spa" and charged me three quid. Thank god Lisa was paying. Overall it was a nice place, but they don't have a built-in bowling alley, so there is room for improvement. I can recommend the bread & butter pudding though. And the marmalade ice cream.

From Perry's we wandered back through the Brewers Quay shopping village, before heading for the Timewalk, which is just a jump to the left, and then a step to the right. Lisa wasn't that keen to attend (the words 'History of Weymouth' put her off), but I told her it was like Madame Tussauds crossed with Disneyland, and then offered to pay for her ticket, which was enough to get her through the door.

An hour of plague and beer later, and we headed down to Sweet Sensations, where I bought some ginger fudge, ate it, then took Lisa to the Excise House for cream teas and bowling. Before deciding I was still hungry and ordering pasta. And cinnamon pancakes.

Come 8pm we were still at Brewers Quay, languishing in a carbohydrate haze, when Lisa realised she'd been wearing odd shoes all evening. It's an easy mistake to make. Or it would be if they'd been at all similar. Unfortunately I don't have a photo of that, so here's a dashing young swanherd instead...

High on a hill was a lonely swanherd...
I'm hoping no one will notice that these photos have nothing to do with the blog post.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The big news on Monday was of course the news about the Cutty Sark. Not the news that it was burning, but the news that Lisa had never heard of it. I think her exact words were "What's it called? The Cutty Suck?". But it's not entirely her fault - she gave up History at school in order to battle her way to an ungraded O-Level in Home Economics. So she can't name any famous boats, but she can make a crisp sandwich if she has to.

Anyhoo, Sunday had been mostly uneventful, the highlight being a trip to the Weymouth branch of McDonalds where we had a row about vinegar, before returning home to settle down to some serious reading. The Sunday People for Lisa, a self-help book for me. I think she learnt more than I did.

But having recharged our batteries over the weekend, we set out on Monday for Dorchester (the town, not the hotel) where I managed to look around three charity shops in the time it took Lisa to get out of the Marks & Spencers changing rooms. It was worth the wait though, because she bought some very nice underwear (are you allowed to try on underwear?) which she insisted on showing me in Dorchester High Street. Fortunately she wasn't wearing it at the time.

Our greatest discovery however, was that Dorchester is home to a charity shop dedicated to Feral Cat Care. Having spent many a happy week caring for one feral cat, and two others who I wish would leave home, I bought a Jeff Banks t-shirt for £2 on the grounds that having done my bit for wild felines, I can say no to Lorraine the next time she asks me to cat-sit.

Tuesday was probably my favourite day of the week. And not just because it was the day it stopped raining. We drove along the Jurassic Coast, dodging the dinosaurs, to visit Abbotsbury Swannery. And here we are relaxing with the swans...

Get Thee to a Swannery
At first glance we could be anywhere, but trust me, there is a swan in that picture. And it's not in the tree.

Anyhoo, Abbotsbury has been home to hundreds of swans for hundreds of years, which is surprising, as they used that stretch of water to test the bouncing bomb in 1943, so it's a wonder any survived. Personally I was more interested in knowing what they taste like, after discovering that the colony only exists because the monks used to farm them for Sunday lunch. I scoured the gift shop for swan sausages, but they were right out of them.

They did however have a lot of very cute cygnets (though not in the gift shop), and the nests sit right on the pathways, meaning you can take photos like this...

... although that one did result in me getting a peck from the mother.

Eggs is EggsI'm actually amazed they have any swans at all though, because the cygnets are so appealing, and the eggs so easily stealable, that it's a miracle every passing child doesn't take one home. Lisa was certainly egging me on to nick one.

Having spent an enjoyable afternoon swanning about Abbotsbury, we headed back to Weymouth in the evening for a meal at the Excise House pub in Brewers Quay, where they were doing a 'two meals for £7.95' special. Bizarrely, the pub has its own 6-lane bowling alley, so having eaten our low-cost food, we splashed out eight quid on two frames of bowling, and another three on the electronic versions of 'Deal Or No Deal' and 'Bullseye'. I think they saw us coming.

All in all though we had a very nice time and felt we got value for money. Until discovering that the pub opposite were doing two meals for £7.45, and the one down the road 'two for £6.99'. It pays to shop around.
Big Sis in a Small World
Indiana, Wisconsin & Iowa (20-21 May 2007)

After a quick stop in Indiana, I made my way to Wisconsin where I’d cunningly booked a hotel which was just 2 miles from the beach. Ever so eager to check out the sand, I quickly got directions from the hotel who told me it would be a nice 2 mile run but warned me there was a good and a bad side. Well, 2 miles later, no sign of a beach, I realised that the area didn’t look particularly ‘good’ so I asked a nice lady for directions. She told me that I “looked hot” and that I “turned her on” but wasn’t particularly helpful in providing me with directions to Lake Michigan. After a sighting of a wolf on the other side of the road, I decided to retreat and leave the beach for the next morning. I went for the car option this time and I have to say, I was impressed. Considering it is only a lake, it did a pretty good impression of an ocean with a gorgeous beach.

The beach fun delayed my departure, so I sped along the freeway in the direction of Iowa. But the road soon felt very bumpy and I stopped at the side of the road, thinking my 4th tyre was flat. All seemed good with the world, but as I started driving I noticed a couple of horse and carts with people dressed in black. Either I’d gone back in time or I’d strayed into an Amish community. I figured it was the latter and realised that their way of life included keeping their roads in poor state. I was unbelievably tempted to stop to take a photo, but wasn't sure how they'd react to that new invention, the camera.

Leaving the horse and carts behind, I arrived at the scenic 'Great River Road which runs along the Mississippi river crossing the state boundary between Iowa and Wisconsin (see left pic). Despite many people telling me that there was nothing worth seeing in Iowa, I beg to differ and thought it was beautifully beautiful. I kept expecting Huckleberry Finn to jump out at any moment and run along those rail tracks.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

You know you're missing Brighton when every sign reminds you of Patsy Palmer...

Pasty Parlour
Well Lisa and I are are back from Weymouth, considerably fatter, poorer, and the colour of lobsters. I knew we should have packed sun cream. And what the heck has been happening on my blog while we've been away? I've never seen so many badly positioned photos. It's like Crane Kalman all over again.

And talking of badly positioned photos, we've returned to the news that I've graduated from the position of tired old hack to that of esteemed photo journalist. The Kemptown Rag have dedicated page 2 of the current issue to my photo of the Deep Sea Jivers (and accompanying mishmash of words). I still feel it was a mistake not to put Amy Lamé on the cover, but on the bright side I'm now listed as a member of 'The Kemptown Rag Team'. Just as long as they don't expect me to play football.

Anyhoo... before you ask, yes, we did have a nice time in Weymouth. Seagull Cottage is nowhere near as bad as the reviews suggest. I don't expect everyone (or indeed anyone) to plough through all of what follows, but it's important I get it down for chapter eight of my autobiography, 'The Lisa Years', which I plan to write when I retire in 2038. That's if I've managed to find a job to retire from by then.

Right, well our journey down to Dorset last Friday was, predictably, a nightmare. Having been stuck in a traffic jam near Worthing, followed a tractor through Arundel, and joined a caravan rally in the New Forest, we eventually completed the 125 miles from Brighton to Weymouth in four hours. Although that did include stopping to pay £3.90 for a cheese and ham baguette. By the time I'd counted out the money, we'd wasted a good half hour.

Seagull CottageSeagull Cottage turned out to be far roomier than it seemed the last time I was there in 1997. Which just goes to show how your perception changes when you lose ten stone and move to a flat the size of a cupboard. The first thing you notice as you walk in the door is a bookcase containing such works as 'Jane's Nato Handbook 1988-89', 'International Symposium on the Air Threat at Sea (Vol. 11)' and 'Get Fit With Bicycling'. Which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about my sister. There's also a lot of Ikea furniture, a Postman Pat cookie jar, and no food in the fridge. The place screams 'Big Sis'.

My ingenious plan to bring tea bags so that we could have a cuppa the moment we arrived was scuppered (that's a cuppa scuppered) by my forgetting the milk, so having unloaded our junk, we headed straight off to Brewers Quay, conveniently situated a hundred yards away down the nearest alleyway. Two minutes later we'd forgotten the milk and were in the fish & chip shop ordering sausages.

On Saturday we ventured into Weymouth town centre, a five minute stroll away past the harbour, where we encountered signs for the Weymouth Whitewater, a speedboat ride which is apparently "not for the faint-hearted". I told Lisa I am quite faint-hearted, but naturally she ignored me and insisted we go on it anyway. So when we found that the boat had already gone out, I felt like my boat had come in, and we headed for the charity shops instead.

Half an hour later I found myself hanging around in Boots (the shop, not the footwear) while Lisa shopped for shower gel, which gave me time to investigate their new weighing machine which, in return for 70p, promised to measure not only my weight, but also my height and body fat content. I naturally jumped at the chance to accurately calculate my flab quotient, so I handed over my cash and jumped on the scales...

Fat Chance... only for this piece of cutting edge technology to announce that I'm five foot one. A calculation which it then merrily combined with a weight measurement that was a stone out, due to me being fully clothed with a (particularly heavy) camera in my pocket, to produce a Body Mass Index of 39. Making me morbidly obese and eligible for a stomach stapling.

I looked for a member of staff with a tape measure to protest my innocence, demand my 70p back, and request compensation for gross defamation of character, but the queues were stretching back to the door, so I decided to go and get ice cream instead. And may I say, Thorntons rhubarb flavour is very nice.

Seagull Cottage is conveniently situated just 200 yards from Nothe Fort, so having spent the afternoon eating pasties and ice cream, we decided to walk it off with an evening stroll around Nothe Gardens, which is not only very pretty, but is also the nearest place you can get a mobile phone signal. Lisa and I are obviously no strangers to forts, so here we are with another one. Or, if you prefer, a second fort.

I've had a second fort.
If I'm five foot one, then she's four foot nine.

Big Sis in a Small World
Ohio and Michigan (19-20 May 2007)

2 nights in Niagara Falls and it was time to drive to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Obviously escaping Niagara is easier said than done, but as we queued in our car at the border, we met all sorts of people including a friendly taxi driver who didn’t seem to understand what I was saying. Fortunately, this immigration officer didn’t ask if I wanted US citizenship (I may have answered ‘yes’), but we did declare our 2 cups of Starbucks coffee under US law for imports. Our coffee wasn't confiscated and our trip continued through fairly unexciting countryside, to a Cleveland shopping mall. Excited that we were finally in Ohio for the first time, we stopped to take a picture of a local car, bought some Ohian clothes and headed on our way to Michigan. As we’d only met a few random people today, R decided to speed so we could have an encounter with an Ohian police officer. We chatted about all sorts of things, including our history of getting speeding tickets but eventually he sent us on our way with just a warning.

Next stop, Michigan. As R had a friend who’s the pastor of a Grand Rapids type church, we just happened to time our arrival on Saturday night, in time to check out the church the next morning. The words 'meet you in the church foyer' seemed quite straight forward until we had 4000 people to contend with but we managed to locate one of R's friends and then another one, and then about 3 more. It turns out half of Dallas were visiting Grand Rapids that weekend and so R was able to enjoy a Texan reunion whilst I tried to explain to them all that I wasn’t French (not sure how that rumour started). R and I said a tearful farewell as shown by the photo below, before I went on my merry way towards Milwaukee (who did invent that name?)

Friday, May 25, 2007

Big Sis in a Small World
New York state & Ontario, Canada (17-18 May 2007)

We eventually managed to drag ourselves away from the luxurious life to which we had now become accustomed, to make the long drive to Thousand Islands, NY. In the cold and the rain, we managed to count 3 islands from our vantage point but the guide books assure us there are about 1800 of the things. Not to be perturbed, we continued along the west NY coast along a scenic trail which wasn’t very scenic until we stumbled across this lighthouse just before it got dark. Our drive through the state of New York continued until we arrived at Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada.

As we approached Niagara, I have to say the scene looked a little like Las Vegas with a bit of water, but the falls themselves are incredible and very impressive. As we passed over the border, the nice immigration officer just said ‘Citizenship?’ Naturally, I thought he was asking if I wanted citizenship of Canada. So I declined his kind offer which seemed to create a lot of confusion until I realised the correct response I was supposed to give was ‘British’.

On escaping the Immigration Officers, we made our way to our home for 2 nights, the Marriott Fallsview hotel which was great except that they charged ridiculous prices for anything and everything. But we did have this fantastic view of the falls, so much so that we considered remaining in the room for the duration of our stay.

But the next day we decided to venture out onto the Maid of the Mist boat tour for a close up and rather wet experience of Niagara Falls.

This was followed by an early dinner in the Skylar restaurant overlooking the falls, and, inspired by the Olympic hotel, we purchased some sporting attire at an outlet mall nearby. We finally returned to our room to watch the fireworks over the falls – the first night of the season. However, we weren’t used to being in a hotel room before midnight, so soon felt the need to escape to the casino and test my long proven theory on the 'Wheel of Fortune'. We didn’t quite make the 1000s of dollars we hoped, but did leave a few dollars richer, needed to pay the rip-off, I mean nice Marriott Fallsview hotel bill the next day.