Just a Wee Blether…

About Life in the Desert Furnace

It took me no time at-all to settle into a new life across the pond. I’d been visiting the US regularly for 12 years so that made the transition easier. But every so often someone makes a comment that hammers home how different life is in Arizona compared with what I left behind in Scotland.

A few weeks ago, when the scorching desert summer was at its height, we decided to put ourselves through the ordeal of looking for a car. If you’ve ever been to the States you will know a vehicle is an absolute necessity. Be grateful for the public transport network that operates in Scotland.

So we showed up at a car dealership to be confronted by the obligatory snake oil salesman. This guy was particularly smarmy, the kind of character you just want to be out of your face within two minutes of meeting him.


But he did have a rather nice available car sitting outside so we took it for a test drive. He came with us and described the bells and whistles that came with the model and then proceeded to inform us that the car had heated seats.

“Well,” I said. “I don’t really think we’ll need heated seats in Arizona, do you?”

His reply was, “Ha ha, maybe not now, but in the winter when the temperature drops to 50 then you’ll be glad of them.”

Needless to say we didn’t get a car from him; we drove away from his showroom in the car we had borrowed from a relative. But at least he gave us a laugh.

In Scotland, when the temperature hits 50F, people drive with the windows down. And it rarely gets that “cold” in Phoenix. I’ve spent holidays here in November and December when it has been in the 80s.

As I write this – at the end of September – the temperature outside is 102 degrees. There is no cooling coastal breeze, Phoenix is in the middle of the Sonoran Desert and it really is intensely hot. During July and August, it routinely reached 115.

Of all the lifestyle adjustments I have had to face, the effect of the heat has been by far the biggest. Without air conditioning in every room, in shops, restaurants, offices and cars, life would be unbearable. And it is imperative to drink water to stay hydrated, especially if I’m planning to have a couple of beers in the evening.

I remember listening to radio weather broadcasts that said the day was going to be beautiful, sunny, with clear blue sky and a temperature of 112. The forecaster would end with the words, “It’s a perfect day to stay indoors.”

Just as people die from the cold in Scotland, they die in Phoenix as a result of the summer heat. Aid programmes are run every summer by local authorities and charitable groups like the Salvation Army to help the homeless with water and shelter.

Phoenix was built in a bowl-shaped valley – the Valley of the Sun – that traps the heat, making it a real-life melting pot. The thousands of buildings, roads, car parks etc have made the situation infinitely worse. The result is what scientists call the “urban heat island” effect where cities retain heat longer than their surroundings.

When the temperature hits 100 for the first time – usually in May – people here are genuinely sad at the prospect of months of unrelenting heat. Everything becomes too hot to touch, there are even animal cruelty regulations forbidding people from walking dogs at certain times of day.

Within a few weeks I’ll be cooling off in the 80s. It’s obvious I won’t miss the rain and snow of Scotland, I’ll just be happy it’s that bit more comfortable. And I definitely won’t need the heated car seats.

Just a Wee Blether…

About Having ‘The Greatest’ Neighbour

I have never been a great fan of boxing. But growing up in the 60s and 70s coincided with the peak years of one of the greatest sportsmen of the 20th century – Muhammad Ali. I used to love all his showmanship, trash talking of opponents and sheer brilliance in the ring.

To me and a few friends, Ali was “The Greatest”. As a primary school pupil I remember Cassius Clay – as he then was – beating Sonny Liston to become World Heavyweight Champion. After that we watched as many fights as we could, against the likes of Henry Cooper, Brian London, George Chuvalo, “Smokin” Joe Frazier and George Foreman.

FILE--Spray flies from the head of challenger Joe Frazier as heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali connects with a right in the ninth round of their title fight in Manila, Philippines, October 1, 1975. Ali won the fight on a decision to retain the title. Frazier was arrested for drunken driving early Tuesday morning, April 7, 1998, after being pulled over for driving erratically down a North Philadelphia street. The ex-boxer, who also runs Joe Frazier's Gym in Philadelphia, was later taken to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital after complaining of problems related to his high-blood pressure, authorities said. (AP Photo/Mitsunori Chigita)

In my opinion there has never been a boxer as captivating or charismatic as Ali. I’ve hardly paid any attention to the sport since he retired.

All these decades later I have started a new life in America, only to discover that my boyhood hero lives 20 minutes up the road from me. Sadly I’ll never meet him in the street; poor old Ali is a shambling wreck and has for years been the world’s highest-profile Parkinson’s disease sufferer. But it would have been cool to tell him “Muhammad, you were The Greatest”.

It made me wonder what other famous personalities live not too far from my new home. What well-known faces might I expect to see in and around Phoenix?

The city’s most visible celebrity figure is the “Godfather of Shock Rock” himself, Alice Cooper. The bad boy image is long gone. Instead of draping boa constrictors round his neck on stage, Cooper is a high-profile businessman with a successful restaurant, Alice Cooper’stown. He is also a major charity fundraiser, keen golfer and baseball fan.

Stevie Nicks, the Fleetwood Mac chanteuse, was born in Phoenix and lived here until two years ago when she sold her mansion for a tidy $3.3million. She still has family in Phoenix though and occasionally visits so I’ll keep my eyes peeled.

Others in the music world are Rob Halford, lead singer with Judas Priest; rock guitarist Nils Lofgren; and Bret Michaels of the band Poison. If you are of a certain age you might remember a duo called Sam and Dave who had a 60s hit with Soul Man. Sam is Samuel Moore and lives here with his wife.

The vast majority of these celebs live in the city of Scottsdale and the wealthy suburb of Paradise Valley. Think Newton Mearns, Bearsden and Morningside and you get the picture – the posh part of town.

Remember the man who couldn’t spell potato yet was a heartbeat from the US Presidency? Yes Dan Quayle, George Bush the elder’s Vice-President, is a local. Incidentally Quayle’s wife Marilyn Tucker is a successful novelist (and presumably can spell) whose maternal grandfather came from Maybole in Ayrshire.

Another major political figure of 20th century America was G Gordon Liddy, who spent more than four years in jail for his part in the Watergate conspiracy. His crimes don’t seem to have hurt his lifestyle; he now lives in a very large house in Scottsdale.

Other figures from the world of literature who call this place home include Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series of novels, Stephanie Meyer, who wrote the vampire series Twilight and the adventure novelist Clive Cussler.

From the world of TV and cinema I might be lucky enough to spot Emma Stone, who has moved to California but whose parents co-own an up-market golf resort in Phoenix; Frankie Muniz, star of the TV sitcom Malcolm in the Middle; or actor and comedian David Spade. In fact my wife once saw Spade and his mother in Costco not too long ago.

A few celebs left the area just before I got here, Dick Van Dyke, Mike Tyson, Glen Campbell and jazz musician George Benson among them. And if I take a trip to Tucson I might bump into the great singer Linda Ronstadt.

So if you are an old shock rock fan or hooked on the Outlander books then let me know – I might just be able to get you an autograph one day.

Just a Wee Blether…

About My First US Gun Scare

A couple of weeks after I arrived in the States I spotted a news headline that read ‘Kansas Bans Cruises for the Poor”. It sounded like a quirky story. For a start cruise ships don’t sail out of land-locked Kansas and a cruise is way out of the reach of the average impoverished American. So I read on.

It turns out it was a catchy headline to a story about the State of Kansas cracking down on how welfare recipients could spend the money they received. A long list of spending possibilities was now off limits to them including a night at the movies, public swimming pools, lottery tickets, expensive restaurants, tattoo parlours, lingerie shops and concert tickets.

But the most shockingly ridiculous revelation was buried far down the story. It was of course perfectly acceptable for these people to buy essential items. And among the items state politicians deemed essential for day-to-day life in Kansas were GUNS AND AMMUNITION – yes, you read that right.

Two Glock .40 caliber semiautomatic handguns are displayed in Woodbury, Minnesota on May 28, 2011. AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

This was justified on the grounds that weapons were needed “to protect a family in a ‘dangerous neighborhood’ or to hunt for food”.

So welfare claimants in Kansas can’t see the new Star Wars film, but they can buy a Glock or a Beretta in their neighbourhood gun store. It is as crazy as it sounds but it is, sadly, symptomatic of America’s obsessive love affair with guns.

And the reason I am writing about this? Well this week, for those of us living in Phoenix, that obsession came dangerously close to home – way too close for comfort.

It started last weekend when several pot shots were taken at cars on the various highways and freeways that criss-cross the city. No-one was injured but bullets had struck car doors. These were real bullets, not air pellets or ball bearings. If they had hit a driver or passenger, they could easily have been killed.

After that it happened every day – 11 shots in all. Different roads were targeted by “the shooter”, the story led the news all week, police issued warnings to drivers not to use their cars unless necessary. But of course a car is necessary here.

People were, not surprisingly, terrified. It was the talk of every household, workplace, coffee shop and radio station. The closest call came when a bullet hit the windshield trim on the door of a small truck, only a foot or so from the driver’s head. That picture was published and only served to increase the panic.

Eventually on Friday a 19-year old was taken into police custody. On Saturday two more “copycat” suspects. Since then the shootings have stopped and people are beginning to breathe more easily.

Over the years I have had conversations with Americans about the gun infatuation and why it persists. I haven’t yet got a proper answer. Some cite their Constitutional right to “bear arms”; others say it is for protection.

Every single day in life, there are fatal shootings in America. Some, like the Sandy Hook school killings and the TV journalists shot while broadcasting, make worldwide headlines. There are hundreds of others, domestic incidents for example, that warrant just a few paragraphs in newspapers.

Of course many hundreds of thousands of people own guns and behave responsibly. But guns are as readily available as sweeties in the US. Whenever there is an atrocity, nothing is ever done to curb that availability. If relatives of the victims call for gun restrictions, they become the “enemy”, such is the power of the gun lobby.

To be honest I find it a strange and alien culture, I don’t pretend to know the answer and I’m not in a position to make judgments. All I can say is that people are shot to death here every day. Surely that death toll can be minimized.

It is the first time I’ve felt threatened by America’s love of guns. Yes, this is a huge city but the knowledge that someone could be across the road ready to fire at my car is not a comfortable feeling. For now the panic has subsided but I daresay it will rear its ugly head again.


Just a Wee Blether…

About What Happened to the Railroad

When I am next back in Scotland I’ll be making a point of taking a trip on the newly-opened Waverley Line connecting Edinburgh with the Borders – and let’s hope more similar projects, even on a smaller scale, are completed in the years to come.

I was only a primary school pupil when the Beeching Axe fell but I have always thought it was one of the stupidest Government decisions of my lifetime. And let’s face it there have been many stupid decisions to choose from.

Travelling by train is one of the joys of living in Scotland. A rail journey from the Central Belt to Oban, Fort William or Inverness passes through some incredible scenery. So do the “inter-Highland” lines that service Mallaig, Kyle of Lochalsh and Thurso. The east coast services to Aberdeen that traverse Speyside and hug the North Sea coast offer equally stunning views.

You can sit in relative comfort, lap up the scenery, have a beer or a glass of wine, read the paper, do the crossword – it removes the hassles of driving. Commuting might be a bit more stressful but there is no shortage of services, especially between Glasgow and Edinburgh.

2012 2521

In the Greater Glasgow area, with a population of 1.1million, there are in the region of 95 railway stations. A quick calculation shows that, on any given weekday, a total of 458 trains travel between the two cities.

Why am I telling you this? Well, let’s compare and contrast what I’ve left behind in Scotland with what I’ve come to in Arizona.

Phoenix is the state capital of Arizona and is now the sixth most populous city in the United States. It is home to 1.5million people.  But Phoenix is only one city in a massive metro area that contains a handful of other heavily populated places such as Mesa, Tempe, Scottsdale, Chandler, Gilbert, Peoria, Glendale and Surprise.

They are all cities in their own right and all house more than 100,000 residents. Mesa on its own is the 38th largest city in the US. The total population of the metro area is more than 4.4million. It’s a huge centre of population and getting bigger by the day.

This is where the comparison between Glasgow and Phoenix gets silly. To cater for this great area and all these people, the grand total of ZERO train services are provided – none.  Not a single train is ever seen. There is one railway station – Union Station – but it is no longer in use and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The city of Tucson is a 90-minute drive from Phoenix to the south. It’s slightly longer than the journey between Glasgow and Edinburgh. But instead of 458 trains a day there are none. All commuters have to drive.

Buses are available and there is a limited light rail service– effectively a jumped-up tramcar – in Phoenix. Beyond that everybody travels by car. The reality of living here is that a married couple needs two cars; a family made up of mother, father and two teenage children will often have four cars.

I find the situation insane to say the least. There is so much wide open space in America that laying tracks would not be a difficulty. Some are in existence already, used exclusively by freight trains.

America, of course, is the nation where many millions of dollars went into the building of the railroads to help open up westward expansion back in pioneer days. Every town and village had its own station. If Jesse James and his gang were alive today they would have nothing to rob.

I have to be biased and say I far prefer the lochs and glens of Scotland to the scenery here. But parts of Arizona are stunningly beautiful. It would be wonderful to sit in a train carriage and drink it all in.