Just a Wee Blether…

About the joys of Thanksgiving Day

Last Thursday I sat down to a meal that started with shrimp cocktail, potato crisps with anchovy dip, and cocktail hot dogs.

This was followed by deep fried turkey, smoked turkey, baked ham, traditional stuffing, sausage and cheese stuffing, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, fresh cranberry relish, and homemade dinner rolls. For dessert, there was a choice of pumpkin pie, apple pie, or pumpkin and cream cheese roll, and ice cream.

Everything, except for the ice cream, was homemade. It was, as they say, a feast fit for a king. There were 15 people there. Two were friends who had driven across from San Diego, the rest were extended family members, ranging in age from one to 80.

This was Thanksgiving Day, to my mind the most enjoyable and uplifting day in the American calendar. What makes it special, in my opinion, is the lack of commercialism and the fact there is never any need to pick out the perfect gifts for people – or any gifts for that matter. Thanksgiving is simply a happy get-together of family and friends.

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It’s also the time of year when much-maligned America puts its best foot forward. Coming home from work on Wednesday I saw a car stopping at a road junction, the driver opened his window and handed what looked like a few dollar bills to a homeless person. The recipient, an elderly man with a long white beard and shabby clothes, is always there, holding a piece of cardboard with the word ‘homeless’. It’s the first time I’ve seen him being given anything.

Two days later I was at a Starbucks. Another homeless guy was standing outside asking politely for money. I gave him the ‘shrapnel’ money I had in my pocket, which didn’t amount to much. Then a customer came out of the restaurant, handed him a hot coffee and a bag with three muffins inside. The man was ecstatic at the show of kindness.

Perhaps people should be just as generous all year round but it doesn’t take away from the fact that the period around Thanksgiving brings out the best in everyone. It is a genuinely enjoyable and relatively stress-free holiday, certainly compared with Christmas.

Traditionally – at least going back to the 20th century – the day involves the three Fs. Food, family, and football. American football, that is. Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys have for years hosted a game on Thanksgiving Day and, in recent years, a third match has been added in the evening.

The food can take days of preparation, and everyone who comes along brings some homemade food. Well most people – my contribution amounted to scrutinising the cooking of the turkey while knocking back a couple of beers.

Even the roads department got in on the act. The illuminated information signs on the freeway carried slightly gruesome but effective messages. One said, “Mash your Potatoes, not your Head. Buckle Up’. Then there was the questionable ‘Gobble, Gobble. Go Easy on the Throttle’.

Thanksgiving Day is Turkey Day over here. Unlike the UK, Christmas dinner is usually something other than turkey. In the years I’ve been here for Christmas, I’ve eaten beef stroganoff, ham, lamb, and steak at dinner time.

The general rule on Thanksgiving is that, if anyone is spending the day on their own, then neighbours or friends will make sure they are not alone, they will be invited round or, at the very least, paid a visit. We don’t have a UK equivalent which is a shame. Most UK holidays seem to involve commercialism or religion – or both.

It’s a bit of a pity that the day after Thanksgiving is the awful Black Friday, a mass stampede to the stores to pick up bargains. Sadly, that madness is catching on in Britain too. However, there is one way to avoid it – just don’t go to the shops.

So, Thanksgiving has passed again for another year. It wasn’t without incident of course. The three-year-old and his great grandmother went missing just before the food was served. A search party was organised around the neighbourhood but there was no sign of them. People were getting just a little frantic.

Eventually they were found. In the bedroom closet telling each other ghost stories, Happy Thanksgiving.

Just a Wee Blether…

About the ‘state’ of America’s car plates

A car registration plate in America can tell you a lot about the person driving the vehicle. If you remember the movie Thelma and Louise, you might recall that the two ladies drove across the country in a 1966 Ford Thunderbird with an Arkansas license plate.

Every state in the US – as well as the provinces in Canada and Mexico – issue their own distinctive plates. They tend to reflect the culture and the history of the place. Wyoming has an image of a cowboy; Oklahoma, formerly known as Indian Territory, depicts an Apache warrior; and North Carolina has the words ‘First in Flight’ in recognition of the historic airplane flight by the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk.

There are also a curious variety of what they call vanity plates. I mean, who in his right mind would do something like this?

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Ok moving swiftly on. I’ve always had a slight fascination with these plates, and I often wished there was something similar in the UK. Scotland could easily have its own distinctive plate but so could all the counties – Aberdeenshire, Argyll, Dumfriesshire, and the rest could easily come up with their own designs.

In England, there is plenty scope for places like Cornwall, Norfolk and Cumbria.

In Arizona, there are a few different plate designs but the one shown is by far the most common. It depicts a lot of blue sky, a large sun, a range of mountains called the Superstitions, and Saguaro cactus plants. In the bottom, right hand corner are the words Grand Canyon State.

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That’s a fairly typical layout – the state name, the nickname or slogan, and some geographical or historical features. You can imagine Aberdeenshire with Balmoral or Fyvie Castle, Lanarkshire with Ravenscraig Steelworks, and Inverness-shire with the Caledonian Canal.

Throughout the year, we see plenty of the neighbouring state licenses, places like Utah, California, New Mexico and Nevada. But in the winter, the Arizona population increases thanks to an influx of ‘snowbirds’, people who escape the snow and ice of the far north for a second home in the sunny south-west.

That brings with it a rash of different plates from places such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota and the Canadian provinces. So just for some light-hearted fun, here’s a look at some of the designs.

This Minnesota plate is partly obscured but it bears the slogan ‘10,000 Lakes’ and you can see what is supposed to be a blue lake in the centre. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of Minnesota-registered vehicles in Arizona during the winter. So, I guess there must be some wealthy people up there.

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Wisconsin is known as America’s Dairyland. Again, this plate is obscured by a dealership logo but at the top right hand side you can make out a farmland scene.

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California, for all it is such an exciting and happening state, has one of the dullest plate designs. White background, blue lettering, and a red state name graphic. Patriotic perhaps…boring definitely.

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Legendary North Dakota, as it is called, is known as the Peace Garden State, and the license plate shows the sun rising over the prairies, and a buffalo or bison in the bottom right. Plenty North Dakotans make their way down here during the winter too. It’s one of the more common plates here.

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The Florida plate is the most distinctive in the country. The Sunshine State license plate is a riot of colour compared with most of the others. Green and white, with a state map, and a citrus orange plant in the centre.

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Washington, the Evergreen State, has a graphic of Mount Rainier, which overlooks the city of Seattle, on the plate. And Illinois is referred to as Land of Lincoln, and bears an image of Abraham Lincoln in the centre. The ex-President practiced law there for many years before he was a politician.

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Saskatchewan is one of the Canadian provinces that show up here. It’s largely a farming area so the wheat graphic speaks for itself.

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There are a ton of license plate variations over here – some for war veterans for example – and I’m a big fan of the whole idea. Back in the UK someone should suggest it to the DVLA.

 

Just a Wee Blether…

About where do we go from here?

So. The sky over here has well and truly fallen. The weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth can still be heard around the world. We have enjoyed two or three days of the calm after the storm, but the inevitable hurricane that was always bound to follow is already gathering pace. One week on and the reality – and enormity – is beginning to sink in.

America as a nation seems right now to be suffering the same conflicting emotions as the UK did post-Brexit. I’ve chatted with a good many people since the election, some are distraught, some are delighted to see Trump as the victor, others are equally delighted to see the demise of Clinton. But, even among the most ardent Trump fans, there is a sense of ‘what the hell have we done?’

I didn’t have a vote, I’m not a US citizen. So, my view doesn’t matter. But for the record I find Trump an abhorrent individual. We have had bitter experience of him in Scotland. I think he is genuinely unhinged, and possesses a range of deficiencies that a team of psychiatrists and psychologists would have a field day with.

However, let’s strip away the obnoxious nature of the man, and look at what has happened here. If this was anyone else, America and the world would be hailing last week’s result as one of the greatest political achievements of all time, a triumph for democracy – and rightly so.

Trump, pretty much single-handedly, took on the might of the corrupt and crooked US establishment and won. In doing so he turned American society on its head and demolished both the Republican and Democrat parties – two of the largest, wealthiest and most powerful institutions in the world.

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The establishment hasn’t been toppled of course, but it has had a serious and long overdue kick in the butt. It’s difficult to accept that the man has, in any way, been a force for good but he does deserve credit where it’s due. He won, against all odds.

It’s quite strange, in a way, being here but not having the chance to be part of it. That means that, despite my anti-Trump feelings, I can take a detached view of events, almost as an outsider looking in. So, let me take the chance to put right a few general misconceptions, some put about by the media, others just wrongly accepted as true.

First, that Trump supporters are all ‘uneducated whites’. You know, like big Bubba the farm boy with a rifle in one hand and a bottle of Coors in the other. A guy with few brain cells to rub together and who, as one media commentator put it recently, enjoys shooting his neighbours’ cats.

Wrong. That portrayal may be easy, but it is very far off the mark. I know a good many people who voted Trump and they are well educated and intelligent people; they are middle-class and living the happy American family dream in comfortably-off suburbia; they are successful, dynamic business people. These are folk who take their politics and elections seriously and think before they vote.

Some I have spoken to voted Trump because he was standing on the Republican ticket – that simple. Others said they could not stomach voting for Clinton. Others that they felt a change was necessary.

The second misconception is that Trump is a Republican. He’s not and many party members are aghast that he stood in their name. He often sounds more like a Democrat. However, he saw a weakness in the Republican Party, took his chance, and won.

Thirdly, Trump is not a Washington insider and therefore not part of the problem. Of course, he is. He’s been a high-ranking schmoozer for decades now and how many Congressmen do you think have had their palms greased with Trump cash?

Fourth, that Hillary Clinton was unlucky and deserved to win. She deserved everything she got; she ran a dreadful campaign and lost touch with her voting base along the way. While Trump was roiling the populus, Clinton was like a cardboard cut-out. It sometimes felt like watching a bad Roger Moore film.

The most revealing story about Clinton is that she never once visited the state of Wisconsin  during her campaign. And, why should she? Wisconsin, after all, had voted solidly Democrat since the 1920s except for the Nixon landslide of 1972. So, while she sat back and waited for it to drop into her lap, Trump campaigned there vigorously – and Wisconsin went Republican.

The Democrats have lost an election, albeit painfully. It happens. They will now go away, lick their wounds, put the Clintons and their ilk out to pasture, regroup and come back strongly in 2020. The Republicans may have won but the party has been divided like never before, and where it goes from here could be the next fascinating political story.

I believe that Trump’s greatest danger is from within, from the thousands of Republicans, many of them high ranking, who cannot stand him. If he steps out of line, they would be happy to pull the trigger on his Presidency. Don’t be surprised if two parties emerge, a traditional conservative Republican party, and a more extreme right wing ‘Trump party’.

Many people have said to me that Trump has been telling Americans ‘what they want to hear’. The same people will say that Trump is not a racist. What he has told Americans is well documented, I don’t need to repeat it, but if that’s what they want to hear, what does it say about 21st century American society?

There’s no point in beating about the bush. Racism is a cancer in America, it always has been, ever since the country was colonised. I started visiting regularly in the early 2000s, and quickly became aware that the issue was bubbling on or around the surface. Since Trump took to the campaign trail, it has erupted like Mount Vesuvius.

White supremacist groups have become emboldened and have emerged from their underground shadows into the mainstream. I listened to a radio show the other day when the leader of one such group, a chap called Richard Spencer, said his goal was the creation of a ‘white ethno-state’ and that Trump had ‘slingshotted us to respectability’.

Another avowed white nationalist, Jared Taylor, was quoted in a newspaper as saying that Trump had made it ‘socially acceptable’ to talk about previously off-limits topics such as ‘the Globalist Jewish agenda’.

A few weeks ago, in a public place, I heard someone referred to as a ‘thick-skulled darkie’. That is language straight from the Civil War era.

That may not make Trump a racist in the eyes of some – although to my mind he is an out-and-out racist – but it certainly makes him guilty of enabling an unsettling new chapter of racial disharmony in America. In a court of law, he would be an accessory, a bit like Al Capone’s driver.

But, as the saying goes, you dance with the partner you are given, and very soon we will all be foxtrotting and waltzing with Donald J Trump. His defeated foe Hillary Clinton said last week that America now ‘owes it’ to Trump to chart the way ahead, whether we like the guy or not. She is right.

I fervently hope, for the sake of my adopted country that I have grown to love – warts and all – that I am wrong and that the dark side of the Trump campaign fades away. Love the guy or hate him, he has achieved something truly seismic. But if I’m honest, I’m not holding my breath.

 

Just a Wee Blether…

About my love affair with San Fran

I didn’t wear flowers in my hair, or leave my heart there…but I did recently rekindle something of a love affair with what is so far my favourite American city.

My first visit to San Francisco was in 2009 and I was immediately struck by its vibrancy, its multi-culturalism, its stunning location, and its downright coolness. The ‘City by the Bay’ is an exciting and fun place to visit.

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To be fair, I’ve only been to a handful of big cities over here. New York was equally cool, a must see US city; Los Angeles was a massive, busy, dirty sprawl and I wouldn’t go back; Las Vegas was a bit of fun; Pittsburgh is like Glasgow, an old industrial city newly reinvented; Tucson has a part Wild West, part Mexican feel; Phoenix is the desert city I now call home.

But when my son Kenneth arrived for a two-week holiday last month, I immediately booked a two-day, one-night side trip to San Fran for the two of us – a boys’ getaway if you like.

We flew into nearby Oakland Airport and took a boat across the bay, underneath the Oakland bridge, watched the city skyline unfold before us, and disembarked at one of the famous piers that line the waterfront. One of the first things that strikes you about San Francisco is how compact it is. Unlike many other American cities, everything is reasonably close to everything else.

Our first port of call was a trip to Alcatraz Island and the now disused prison they called ‘The Rock’. It’s a truly grim reminder of what life was like for the criminals who were the ‘worst of the worst. Al Capone was here, so was George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly – two of the most notorious gangsters of the Prohibition era.

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But the man the prison guards feared most was a killer called Robert Stroud, aka the Birdman of Alcatraz. People who knew Stroud describe Burt Lancaster’s ‘lovable rogue’ portrayal of him as a comedy. Stroud, they say, was an animal. And to confuse matters, he was never allowed to keep birds in his cell at Alcatraz, that part of his life story was confined to Leavenworth Prison in Kansas.

A walk through the cell blocks, and a view of the conditions these men were kept in, can send a shiver down the spine. The regime was brutal but, to make matters 1000 times worse, these guys exercised every day in the prison year – which commanded a panoramic view of the beautiful San Francisco skyline. Just in case they weren’t missing the outside world, there it was right in front of them.

Getting around San Francisco means a pass for the city’s cable cars. Of course, we hung off the side like a couple of daft tourists. The system is uniquely San Fran and was devised by Andrew Hallidie, the son of a Scotsman from Kirkpatrick-Fleming in Dumfriesshire.

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Another reminder of Scotland is the old sailing ship Balclutha, now a US National Historic Landmark. She was built in 1886 at the former Charles Connell shipyard at Scotstoun on the Clyde and, after decades transporting cargo around the world, she is now an impressive to San Francisco’s Maritime National Historical Park.

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The cable cars will drop passengers at the crooked Lombard Street, possibly the weirdest section of city street in the world. The story goes that the 27% gradient was too steep for cars to navigate so this was a way of slowing them down. It’s bizarre and quirky but, again, it fits in a city that is full of surprises.

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On day two we sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge, ate and shopped on Pier 39, visited the Cable Car Museum, and discovered an excellent Irish bar for lunch and a couple of pints – one of which was free because of our Scottish accents.

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It was a wonderful break and I would recommend San Francisco to anyone visiting America. There are many other places here I would love to visit – Nashville, New Orleans, and Boston are top of my ‘bucket list’ – but I’ll never tire of visiting San Fran.