Thursday, December 31, 2009

One For The Road

On this last day of 2009 I thought I’d give you a belated Christmas present, and something to ponder as you start the New Year.

This is a chapter from my book, Postcards From Across the Pond, (I have mentioned that I wrote a book, right?) and I’m reprinting it here because A) I care about you, B) I want you to see what you’re missing by not having bought my book yet, C) I don’t have anything else prepared right now, and D) I get a giggle every time I read it (yes, I am my own best fan).

So have some holiday cheer, sleep in tomorrow, nurse your hangovers and get your sorry asses ready to hit the ground running on Monday for the beginning of 2010.

One For the Road

Has anyone else noticed that sleeping with your secretary at the office Christmas party is a perfect metaphor for the Holiday season as a whole? I didn't think so, but hear me out anyway.

First there is the overall event, filled with glitter, good cheer and lots of drunken hugging. Add to that the pervasive promise of presents, the excited expectation of secrets soon to be revealed, and you're practically bursting with excitement when the affair finally comes to a head. Then, in a brief, orgiastic frenzy, everything is unwrapped and opened, fondled and forgotten or eaten and drunk until, sated, you look around at the evidence of your excess and feel a rising sense of guilt. You begin to wonder where your resolutions vanished to and now wish the whole thing would just go away and let you get on with your life, or at least stop calling you at two o'clock in the morning in a weepy, drunken stupor.

(Allow me to state, for the record, that I don't even have a secretary and have, therefore, not slept with one; I am making these suppositions based on the observations of those people who do and did.)

The accumulation of days now pushing Christmas further and further behind us serve only as a nagging reminder that, A) it's now merely winter, and B) I haven't taken down my Christmas decorations yet. We're currently entering what I like to call the underbelly of the year, that ragged seam between the festive season and the arrival of spring; a time when getting up would be the hardest part of your day provided the rest of the day wasn't so crappy.

All of this is the long way of saying I have those mid-winter blues, and, while I have often remarked (to the irritation of those I left behind in the Great White Northeast) that winters in England are nowhere near as harsh as they are in upstate New York, they are God-awful dark. In addition to that, the British climate makes full use of what little cold it does produce and has, through centuries of diligent practice, long ago perfected the art of seeping into your bones and sucking your soul out through your nostrils. (Even so, I still wouldn't trade a winter here for one in Albany, but I wouldn't mind swapping with someone in, say, Barcelona.)

Winter in England means evening, like an inconsiderate dinner guest, arrives several hours early, when you're dusted with flour, making the hors d'Oeuvres and haven't stepped into the shower yet, while Dawn, the little tart, doesn't sneak in until most responsible people have already started their day, and even then can't be bothered to offer a suitable explanation. The few daylight hours occurring between these events tend to be muted by low clouds, dispiriting drizzle and the occasion, sad attempt at sleet.

And, to make things worse, all around me I see remnants of the erstwhile festive season--languishing decorations, dead, discarded trees and rubbish bins overflowing with shredded ribbons, crumpled wrapping paper and empty beer bottles--which, like the aforementioned secretary, seem determined to hang around even though they no longer have the capacity to inspire joy and serve only as a reminder of our brief, and perhaps misguided, frivolity.

I guess that means I've come full circle and, though I still have more to say on the subject, I suppose I ought to let you off so you can get back to the business of enduring winter. Besides, I think it's about time I took those decorations down.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Yes, Virginia

Back in The States, I used to periodically cash in on this brush with greatness: when I was in first grade, Virginia O’Hanlon, who was a friend of our teacher, Mrs. Drum, came to our class near the Christmas Holidays and read her famous letter to us. I was impressed even then. I’m more impressed now. But no one else is, especially now that I live in England. So in an attempt to get some more notoriety from this incidental meeting, I’m taking it upon myself to educate the Brits, and remind the Yanks, of what it’s all about:

In 1897, eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of The Sun (this was a respected newspaper in New York City then, not the rag famous for its page-3 girls) and the response was printed as an unsigned editorial on Sept. 21. The response was the work of veteran newsman Francis Pharcellus Church, and has since become history's most reprinted newspaper editorial, appearing in part or whole in dozens of languages in books, movies, and other editorials, and on posters and stamps.

He rarely gets any credit for it, however.

Dear Editor:

I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, 'If you see it in The Sun it's so.'

Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?

Virginia O’Hanlon
115 West Ninety-Fifth Street
New York City


Your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except what they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! He lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

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Friday, December 18, 2009

The Santa

My favourite season and my two favourite poems welded into one; what more could I ask?

The Santa
By Edgar Allen Moore

Once upon a yuletide dreary, while my brain with sleep was weary
and sugar plum visions danced in children's heads beyond the bedroom door.
Not a creature here was stirring; mamma in her kerchief was worrying,
I in my winter's cap was touring presents lying on the floor.
Train set, race cars, aircraft carrier and a purple dinosaur;
all in pieces on the floor.

Ah distinctly I remember it was in the chill December
and the moon its eerie light upon the fallen snow did pour.
Presently I heard a clatter, wondering what was the matter,
straight I spied an elf much fatter than any elf I'd seen before.
Drawn by reindeer in a sleigh this elf drew up outside my door.
Parked and sat, and nothing more.

Then this burgundy elf beguiling my wan spirit into smiling
By the jolly countenance and fir trimmed uniform he wore.
“Elf,” I said, “these reindeer brought you, but really don’t you think you ought to
let them go. If PETA caught you, they’d firebomb your house for sure.
Are you immune from PC zealots? Tell me why,” I did implore.
The fat elf smiled. “I’m Santa Claus.”

Then, me thought, the air grew colder, and my flagging spirit grew bolder,
cheered by memories of my pleasures drawn Christmases of yore.
“Santa,” I cried, “these memories hold you, like angel wings they do enfold you,
Sweet Virginia could have told you: doubters tried and failed before
to bend you to their narrow purpose and make you something to abhor.
Quote the Santa, “Never more.”

Be that word our sign of parting, elf or saint, I said, glad heartened.
Whether Coke created or sent by legends from the lusty days of yore,
you remain the true Yule Spirit, Scrooge himself was glad to hear it,
my soul is light, my mind is clear; it sadly was not so before.
But now this light will shine its tiding ever from my bosom’s core
I’ll keep the season evermore.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof - Audience Review

This isn't a review site, but I do like to mention some shows and movies I see that I think are notable. In this case, while the production was fine (and some might say superior, what with the voice of Darth Vader playing a lead role) the audience was far more remarkable.

First of all, about fifteen minutes into the first act, when the house was in silent thrall of the drama being enacted on the stage, they let in more people. These people moved through the rows in front of us, behind us and even right up in front of the stage, saying, "Sorry," "Excuse me," and making people stand up to block and drown out the acting.

I'm surprised James Earl Jones didn't stop what he was doing and say, "Okay, you folks take your time getting to your seats and settling in. We'll wait."

As far as I knew, if you showed up late for a performance, tough shit. Wait until the interval, give them a synopsis of the action and then let them in. That will teach them to catch an earlier train next time. My wife and I were an hour early and we came from Sussex.

As if this intrusion wasn't enough, a while later, a mobile phone began to ring, and it belonged to the lady sitting next to us. It was one of those obnoxious musical ring-tones that gets louder and louder and this woman rooted through no less than three bags in a frantic scavenger hunt for it as more and more people became aware of the noise and turned their attention from the stage to where we were sitting.

And then, when the woman finally, finally unearthed her phone, instead of apologetically (and with copious amounts of chagrin) switching it off, she flipped it open, checked who was calling and answered it!

"Hell-o,” she said. “I'm in a theatre, I can't talk."

What the FUCK? She just DID talk!

This left me shaking my head in awe, convinced nothing else could surprise me. But then, during a 5-minute pause between scenes, a stand-up row erupted in the front row.

At least that's what I think it was. There was a sudden and alarming amount of shouting in front of the stage, then everyone in front of us stood up to get a better look. All I got to see was a knot of people surrounding the action and a gaggle of usherettes running around talking into hand mics and listening to earphones as if they were Secret Service members in charge of protecting the President.

If War Horse gave me the best overall theatrical experience I have ever had, Cat On a Hot Tin Roof provided the most interesting audience I have ever had the misfortune of sitting through.

At least the show was good.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Thanksgiving Leftovers

I don't really have a post this week (very busy times for all of us, you know) so I thought I'd take advantage of this down time to throw up a hodgepodge of items I had on my list but never got around to writing about.

(You can take "throw up" as a metaphor if you like, but I will try to make this as tasteful as the traditional "First Week of December Turkey Casserole" at the very least.)

Currently, I am engaging in another time-honored holiday tradition called "Waiting in Line at the Post Office." I arrived just after they opened but the queue was already out the door; the only good thing about that was it has, briefly, stopped raining.  So while we're here, let's talk about some unconnected trivia:

Ah, the power of my web site! After my last post, more lights have begun appearing around the town—not many, but a few. The black hole that was the Bishopric now has festive lights strung in the trees so it no longer looks like this:

but now looks like this:

How much effort and expense could that have taken? No more than half an hour and £6.00 at Poundland. Yet they had to be shamed into it by my previous blog post. (I know they must have read it and been spurred into action by justifiable guilt; what other explanation could there be?)

In other news, no one here seems to know what 1,000,000,000 is called.

Traditionally, a British billion is a million millions, or 1,000,000,000,000, which is a US trillion. Granted, this is falling out of fashion but it was the standard until a few years ago. However, no one has been able to tell me what increment comes after the American million. If it's not ‘billion,’ then what is it?

My boss, who was a math teacher in a former life, couldn't tell me, so I went to the bank and asked, "Hi, I'm Trish, How Can I Help," but she puzzled over the query and had to retreat to the back room to consult with her mates while the queue stretched out behind me and I apologetically explained that I hadn't meant to take so long, I was only doing it for a joke. (Now you see why my wife doesn't like to come into town with me.)

Eventually, I'm Here To Help Trish returned with the pronouncement:

1,000,000 = Million
1,000,000,000 = Billion
1,000,000,000,000 = Trillion

I thanked her and, in order to keep the queue from turning in to a lynch mob, left without pointing out that the combined knowledge of the entire bank staff was patently wrong. My next stop was Waterstones Book Shop and the Oxford English Dictionary, which unequivocally states that 1,000,000,000,000 is a British Billion, though it does note this is falling out of favor (or, favour, if you will).

It did not, however, tell me what 1,000,000,000 was, and further confused matters by telling me that a British trillion is actually 1,000,000,000,000,000,000, or "a million, million, million."

So what do they call a proper quadrillion? The mystery deepens.

And finally, British clothing is pants. (For those of you light on the lingo, "pants" is a mild insult, as in, "having to work on Thanksgiving Day is pants!") Anyway, I've been on a quest for pants, or underwear, lately because, frankly, the ones I brought over with me nearly eight years ago are starting to show their age. I've tried British Home Stores and several brands from Marks and Spencer but, with one notable exception, they were all, well, pants.

The BHS line fell apart after a few washings, as did one M&S line. One of M&S lines, however, wore well and was every bit as snug and comfy as my traditional fruit-of-the-looms. (If any of you are beginning to suffer from Too Much Information syndrome, I invite you to move along. I won't be insulted, honest; I wouldn't want to hear about your underwear, either.)

American underwear after 7 years

British pants after 7 months

The problem is, I can't find the 'good' line again. I've looked in every M&S I have been in and even wrote down the make, model and serial number for comparison and still cannot find any. They say, "Better to have loved and lost," but I would prefer not having found any good pants than knowing there are perfect pants out there somewhere, hiding from me.

Another fashion anomaly involves shirts:

US Shirt

UK Shirt

Enough said.

British shirts do not come with sleeve sizes. You get a neck size and just deal with it. This makes me look somewhat silly when my cuffs stick out 6 inches from my suit coat sleeves, so one day I came up with what I thought was an ingenious solution: I put rubber bands around my arms just above my elbows to hold the sleeves at their proper length.

This worked well enough, and back at home when I removed my suit jacket, I expected my wife to look at the rubber bands and exclaim what a great idea they were. Instead she just looked puzzled and asked, "Why didn't you borrow mine?"

Apparently, croupier-style arm garters are standard apparel here in Britain. I now do borrow her pair (I had seen them before, I just thought they were some sort of bracelet) and I have to say it is really cool dressing like a Wild West bartender. All I need is the vest and the handlebar moustache.

The queue has moved a bit. I'm nearly inside now and should be out of here in time for lunch. This, you see, is another British tradition—a Christmas queue filled with people mailing packages all over the world and the only time they can do it is between nine and noon on Saturday morning and the Royal Mail sees to it there are never more than two tellers on duty at one time.

Traditions: what would Christmas be without them?

Seriously, if this is true, why are they bragging about it;
why not make the service less complex and confusing instead?