Monday, March 30, 2015

About that house

The problem with looking at real estate in the South Bay is that after a little while, you start to think a $3.75m 5 bed/4.5 bath Cape Cod style home is normal...
 ...when in fact, this is what a starter home looks like in Hermosa Beach.
 And while I might have enjoyed looking at listings for homes that are 'like a European Castle'...

..or which 'leave nothing to the imagination' (what does that even mean?), reality bites. For our budget, and to be West of Pacific Coast  Highway, we were looking at ads for homes that specified features like 'overhead lighting'. No, really: they were that short of features.

In the end we got really lucky. Our house has a tenant in, and the owner was eager to sell before the end of the tenancy - not a problem for us, since we're renting. So we think we got a pretty good deal: it's West of PCH, walkable to the beach, plenty of living space, and just a peek of an ocean view from the deck. Oh, and overhead lighting! We won't move in till the summer, at which point I will post endlessly about the house. Till then, we're enjoying our last few months in the Sugar Cube, which will be hard to leave.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


I mentioned in my 'we're buying a house' post the standards that apply to termites. They are a thing here. As in, a recognised feature of living in a house. Home owners have two choices: tent the house once a decade and have it fumigated, or have an annual inspection and spot treatment. So the sight of homes covered in tents is not unusual. Here's one on Eighth Street, near our potential new house - which was just recently treated for termites, as part of the purchase process.

I'm not sure why termites are so common here. Maybe they (like me) like the weather. I don't think New England, with its freezing cold winters, suffers them. Or maybe it's not the weather but the wood. The houses I see here under construction seem to be made primarily out of wood, not the steel frames and breeze blocks I'm used to seeing in the UK.

I'm not sure why people build houses out of wood here, either. Maybe it's to do with earthquakes. Or perhaps it's just one of those inexplicable differences which is so thoroughly woven into the fabric of the way the world works here that it takes a while to notice. And once you've noticed, you can't stop noticing. And that niggles away. Like a termite.

I wonder if there's much more like that, which after five years of transatlantic life I have yet to spot. And I wonder how long I'll live here before I stop noticing those differences.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Only in America...

...would this guy -

a wildlife biologist with almost 30 years experience teaching Stone Age skills and nature connection and is considered one of the top Stone Age skills experts in North America. Chris has lived most of the past 20+ years in the wilderness ... he lived in a tipi for 6 years, homesteaded along the most remote mail route in the lower 48 states, lead totally Stone Age expeditions into the wilderness of Idaho and Oregon, worked in the most dangerous job in the world, was one of the largest python breeders in Canada, was a waiter at a 4 Star restaurant, managed over $100 million worth of property in Park City, UT, and has had multiple near-death experiences. His teachers include Lakota, Shoshone, Arapaho, Crow, Blackfeet and Serri tribesmen, many wilderness skills experts and life itself 

 - be making  his living running a kids summer camp, during which children learn:
  • Sensory awareness, expanded vision 
  • Silent walking and stalking 
  • Tracking and reading animal signs  
  • Safe use of knives and knife sharpening 
  • Edible and medicinal plants 
  • Fire by friction methods 
  • Making rope/string from plants for fishing line, nets, snares, etc. 
  • Primitive hygiene (making soap, shampoo, toothbrush and comb) 
  • Paiute deadfall trap, quail trap and springpole snare 
  • Accessing intuition 
  • Native and nature immersion games 
  • Traditional and modern stories 
  • Wilderness ethics 
And, probably only in the beach towns of SoCal, come to that. Like so many aspects of life here, my first response on reading his ad was 'how ridiculous' - followed moments later, by the realization that this is awesome. What pampered, urban kid wouldn't gain something from mucking about with sticks and camouflage and fire with a professional wildman? Oh, and 'accessing intuition' too, of course.

It's the season for summer camp ads, and I'm seeing ads like this every day. Children here from the age of 6 or 7 and up can join a camp to pursue almost any interest you can possibly conceive of. I've heard of restaurant camp, photography and film making camps, an animal hospital camp, lego, chess and robotics, and a bunch of sporty ones too.

Nothing so high falutin' for Lady P. We've signed her up for a couple of days a week at the Montessori for the month of July - dipping our toe in the water of South Bay education, so to speak. In a few short years she'll be off experimenting with with knives and fire, playing chef or movie maker.

It's a long way from the summers I enjoyed as a child, of long days playing with my sisters and the local kids in the street or the fields behind our house, with very little structure to most of it. Which makes me think that maybe, when the time comes, we'll just ship her off to Yorkshire for a more traditional summer with her cousins - and call it 'British Camp'.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Pity the poor immigrant home purchaser

At the end of January we had an offer accepted on a house. We were super excited about it and I wrote a blog post at the time about how great it was to buy in America, where there is so much certainty about the process. But I didn't publish the post (though I have done so since) because - despite the apparent certainty - I had a fear that something might still go wrong.

I was right. We have been in underwriting limbo for six weeks... for a process that in theory takes a week or two. The problem is that I am an immigrant, with a slim US credit history. And it turns out if I'd only taken out a Banana Republic card a year ago I probably could've borrowed a million dollars with very few questions asked. So we are a slightly more complex case than the norm.

But the delays by far outweigh the complexity and we are trapped in a Kafka-esque twilight zone of repeated requests for the same pieces of unrelated information, with little explanation of what is required or intended. It is all starting to remind us both, in a foreboding sort of way, of the visa process. Yet again, it sucks to be an immigrant. The bank treats correspondence from the UK's Revenue & Customs like the scribblings of a madman. And makes the most bizarre requests: like, in addition to having seen a copy of my Green Card, requesting a letter from me stating that I had sent them a copy of my Green Card. How on earth a letter from me about a document holds any weight - let alone more weight than the actual document itself - is puzzling.

The latest request is for an explanation from BigCorp about why my paycheque was $284 more in February than January. Oh, and a monthly statement from my pension fund. To which BigCorp, in typical BigCorp fashion, reply that they aim to respond within 20 days.

Every time we provide new information - or, indeed, the same information again - the bank reset the clock, requiring another 24-48 hours to digest what we have sent. Which, when it's the third time we've sent, for example, our 2013 tax return, is more than a little frustrating.

Meanwhile with every day that goes by our seller is getting increasingly impatient. While gazumping is not a thing here, she does have a perfect right to tell us we're out of time.

So it turns out I was wrong. This process is not sure, and simple, and swift. It is bellyachingly, G&T-thirstingly, tense-makingly slow and painful. Rant over.

Having said all that, TLOML and I did just enjoy a blissful weekend eating and drinking with friends and family in the Sugar Cube's lovely yard, and walking to the beach, and just generally loving our neighbourhood. So if this new house is not meant to be, and we have to stay put while I run up a few months of credit card spending, we will live very happily with that outcome.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Big questions from the Midwest

A business trip to Ohio this week prompted some big questions.

First of all, why do my business associates have guns? There was a lot of talk of gun safes, Glocks, trigger locks, and the like. And while I understand it's legally permissible to own a gun, I was still confused about why some middle management, suburban dwelling, dads in a low crime town would want to own a gun. It's not like they were out shooting bears in self defense, or dealing drugs in a gangland, or anything.

I suspect it's for the same reason that men who live in a State with a 65 mile per hour speed limit, still want to drive cars with a top speed over 120mph. It's probably something to do with masculinity, and I'm sure good old Freud could explain it all. Whatever the reason, I just hope their children don't get their hands on the gun safe key, or the trigger lock code, or an accidentally-left-unlocked weapon. The whole scenario made me shudder and cry a little bit (on the inside, not in the office, that'd be unprofessional) for England and a land where no white collar workers own handguns and children don't accidentally get shot.

I was so saddened by the whole gun madness issue I was actually really happy when the second big question popped into my mind. It was a good distraction. That question is: why is the Midwest so far East? Or, to put it another way, why is that Eastern part of the US called the Midwest? Look where it is:
You know what's further West than the Midwest...? Almost half the country.

On reflection, I think it might be something to do with the Louisiana purchase. I can't wait till Lady P is at school and can come home and teach me some US history basics. She might even explain the weird gun thing too.

In the meantime, answers on a postcard, please.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Black napkins

Last weekend TLOML and I went out to our new favourite Hermosa restaurant, Steak and Whisky, with our two favourite South  Bay friends. The cocktails were perfect (mine, a perfect Manhattan, was literally so). The service was pleasant, and efficient. The conversation was convivial. All was good.

And then, on the horizon, appeared a danger I had never even known existed. The perils of a white napkin. Dining out, at least in dark clothing, will never be the same again.

Our dining companions requested a black napkin. I looked puzzled. I thought I was hearing things. or it was a code for a secret off menu food item. Then they asked if I needed one too.

'I don't think so', I said. 'What..., um, ... why would I?'

'For the lint!', they said, barely concealing a 'duh' eyeroll.

I looked down at my lap. Sure enough, the white napkin I had thoughtlessly accepted had left tiny little white fluffs of lint all over my indigo jeans.

The horror on my lap - dark denim, pale linen

Because I'm British and like to be seen as low maintenance I declined (brushing off the lint and tutting to myself while no-one was looking). Still, now I know. Apparently black napkins are a thing you can request in nice restaurants, if you're wearing an outfit that wouldn't look good with too much white lint.
The lint-free smarts across the table: winning!
Every time I think I've got a handle on the amazing service culture in this country, the whole set of standards get ramped up another notch.

Do other cities offer black napkins, or is it just an LA thing? And what next, I wonder? And more to the point, in a restaurant with black napkins as standard, can I request a white napkin if I'm wearing white jeans? Watch this space. No indulgence will go unreported.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Rainy Season

Rainy season has been a bit rubbish this year. Not enough water for the farmers, and not nearly enough for Lady P either.

Umbrellas and rainboots are such a common feature in her books and so rare in every day life she finds them absolutely fascinating. She was given an umbrella for her birthday and we had to switch the sprinkler on so she could use it (I know, not very water sensitive of us - but it was only for a few minutes, I promise). She loved it.

Happily a couple of days later we had some rain. Lady P was delighted by the pitter patter on her brolly and puddles to splash in too.

Do children who live in rainier places (ahem, England) get the same thrill out of a puddle? Maybe so. But would they be as delighted by our constant sunshine? I don't think so.

My nieces, about to visit from Cumbria, will enjoy the weather I'm sure. But I don't think it'll have anything like the impact the reverse trip – a few days of rain, or snow, in the Lake District – would have on Lady P. Now my nieces are older than Lady P, so it's not a fair comparison, but still I think for any child the fun of the seasons is all about kicking fallen leaves, snow angels, and splashing in puddles. Even if you're British and you get a decent amount of puddle splashing and leaf kicking.

Sunshine, by contrast, is something grown ups take pleasure in. No faffing around with hats and scarves, the ease of leaving toys outside almost all year round, the ability to plan a picnic or playdate in the park without ever checking the weather. I don't know any children who care about any of those practical considerations. And I don't really know any children who complain when it's not sunny. Those nieces would be happy to run around on the beach in all weathers.

So there you go. Beautiful sunny weather - like so many other things (quiet time, personal space), wasted on the young. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

No on O

It's a big day for Hermosa Beach. The much debated Measure O, to allow oil drilling, goes to the vote today.

No prizes for guessing how our street is going to vote. Of the twenty or so houses on our block, fully fourteen have 'No on O' signs. One has a 'Yes on O' sign and the other three are undeclared. Which probably means they're voting Yes but too embarrassed to admit it.

Our street is pretty typical. The weight of public opinion seems overwhelmingly against Measure O. I guess everyone was convinced by this compelling presentation of the arguments, currently popping up on my Youtube feed:
Oh wait, no, that's just a bunch of surfers saying 'No on O'. Possibly not the strongest case to make.

To be fair, the facts are being published and debated and interpreted elsewhere. There are thousands of pages of reports and yards and yards of reasoned (and otherwise) arguments available online should you wish to get clued up on the details. The New York Times covered the story yesterday, if you want an objective, New York liberal's view (I usually do).

When all's said and done, the argument against does boil down to the vibe of this town, and the question of what makes Hermosa 'hermosa' (not just beautiful, but quirky and smalltown). In fact, what those surfers said. Just, vote No on O, man. Keep Hermosa Hermosa. Keep surfing, keep playing volleyball, keep running with your dog along the greenbelt, keep drinking at the Mermaid with sandy feet and beachy hair, and keep oil out.