Tuesday, August 28, 2012

In With the New

 I can’t leave a “well done on the Olympics” post up with the Paralympics starting, so I thought I’d post some pictures of our spiffy new railway station, because I know you want to see it.

This is the new entrance. They have been working on this for a long time and but I knew they were getting close to finishing because, after they laid the nice, new entrance patio, they ripped it up to lay underground cables and pipe. This is standard procedure in British construction.

The interior of the station is cavernous compared to the old one, and really looks spiffy.

Also, we still have our Solo Café, one of the few independent railroad cafés in existence. They were going to give them the heave-ho in favor of a chain café, but popular opinion won out and Solo remained.

These are the new gates. They put in a reduced, but still respectable, number of them. When they revamped the station in Newport—a large city with a heavy commuter flow—they reduced the bank of gates to two, one for entering and one for exiting. Madness; and I wonder how that works out during rush hour. I was glad to see some degree of sense prevailed in our case.

The shiny, new stairway going up into the old bit.

Here’s where the old bit starts.

And this is the old bit. Nothing wrong with it; it looks comforting and familiar.

This was where we had to get tickets and access the station for I don’t know how many months. I’m going to miss it; it was fun climbing up the scaffolding to the train platforms.

Sorry about the lag in real posts but, hey, life happens.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Olympic Gains

My, but weren’t the Olympics wonderful?

And I say that without my usual sarcasm; I really think they were great and that the Brits did a superb job of pulling it off.

I had my doubts. During the best of times, Britain is a nation famous for massive cost overruns and laughable timescale miscalculations. The Millennium Tower had to be renamed The Spinnaker Tower because it was finished in 2005 instead of 2000, as planned, and the Scottish Parliament came in 1,000% over budget. So a lot of people were expecting the British to really fuck it up.

 In my opinion, they did not. From the opening ceremony onward it was—at least when viewed from my sitting room sofa—practically flawless. The venues were stunning, the contests were exciting, the commentaries were interesting, the athletes were inspiring and the closing ceremony was artfully calculated to help us return to the “business as usual” mindset by causing the entire nation to suddenly realize they were watching the Spice Girls ride around on the top of taxi cabs and collectively sigh, “Bugger this! I’m turning off the telly and going to bed.”

The best thing, in my view, was that it finally allowed the Brits a guilt-free reason to be proud. British people are ferociously self-effacing. The general consensus is that they are rubbish at everything, consummate failures and that anything they had been good at in the past involved the subjugation, enslavement and exploitation of weaker nations. So to see them (politely) proud of their efforts, their athletes and their country did this flag-waving American good.

One of the few moments I could have done without included the attitude—espoused by interviewers and athletes alike—that not getting a gold metal meant you failed; you failed yourself, you failed your family, you failed your country, why don’t you crawl into a hole and die you useless loser. Now, I know winning is fun and it’s what we all want, and there is nothing wrong with that, but where is the joy of simply taking part? And it’s the Olympics fer crissake! You are competing against the best of the best on the entire planet; coming in third is nothing to beat your head against a fence post over.

Anyway, well done Britain. I know these were officially the London games but it was, believe me, a national effort. And well done you 250,000 people who signed up to be volunteers, and you 70,000 who were chosen. And a special “huzzah!” to whomever it was who had the job of overseeing this army of enthusiastic helpers. I have heard, both from the media and from actual people, that these volunteers really made the “Friendly Games” friendly. So thanks for not being your usual grumpy selves (“The information kiosk? How should I know!”) and for being true ambassadors of Britain to the rest of the world.

And well done athletes, who gave your all and played fair. (And you who cheated, aren’t you ashamed of yourselves?) And kudos to all you “classic” entertainers who got up out of your rocking chairs to remind the world of what Britain has contributed to the collective culture. I know some of you were probably glad for the gig.

So many people contributed in so many ways to these games that it would be impossible to mention all of them, but I do want to commend those residents of East London who had the missile silos erected on the roofs of their apartment buildings. I know you complained when they first went up, but in all you gracefully accepted your role as the official human shield of the 2012 Games.

So well done, all of you.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Lighten Up

Gosh, was that last post maudlin enough for you? Sorry, but in case you hadn’t guessed, my sudden departure to New York had to do with a family emergency—the kind that ends at the cemetery—and introspection sorta comes with the territory.

My visit—despite the reason, and the rain—was really quite nice; the usual family squabbles that erupt when things like this happen only lasted a day or two, and the anticipated planning and attendance of the wake, funeral, post graveside get together and the drunken rowdiness that was sure to follow (this is my family we’re talking about, after all) never materialized, so for the vast majority of the time, I was on my own and able to do as I pleased. It was rewarding on many levels, one of which was the opportunity to slack off.

Think about it—how often do you get to do nothing? When was the last time you were able to lounge in guilt-free leisure?  Holiday? Not a chance; those are precious days, and need to be savored with an itinerary in one hand and a stop watch in the other. When you’re sick? Well, I grant you’re not doing much, but it’s hard to enjoy those sort of days, isn’t it? And, truth be told, you’re kept fairly busy trotting to the little room to expel various semi-solids from one end or your gastrointestinal tract or another, depending on just what type of sickness you have. When you’re on the dole? Yes, you can sit around watching Eastenders and The Real Housewives of LA, but isn’t there a niggle always present in the back of your mind, sucking the joy out of your day by reminding you that you ought to be down at the Job Centre filling in forms and adding another layer of hyperbole to your CV?

True down time is as rare as yeti scat, and I was handed a basket full of it as a final gift from my father.

Unbeknown to me (and, I expect, just about everyone else) my father had drawn up a list of last wishes. Getting over to the States was a scramble, and I managed to arrive just in the nick of too late. Then, as I mentally prepared myself for phase II, the final requests were revealed: immediate cremation and burial in the family plot without ceremony, memorial or fanfare of any kind. This was accomplished in a startlingly short time and without need of my involvement, which is, of course, what he wanted.

Lounging at Lyon's Lake on one of the few sunny afternoons.

So this left a span of days wherein I had nothing to do but ramble around, drink beer, listen to WTRY 98 All Oldies All the Time and catch up on what has been happening in the quiet countryside during my absence.

And it was nice, but I did wonder about dad’s chosen method of dispatch. I mean, he had himself cremated and buried. Granted, he already owned the plot, but it is still a lamentable waste of prime real estate. If he’d had himself scattered around the bar at the VFW, that would have been more appropriate, and then he could have sold the plot and thrown one last party that he might have enjoyed. And even as it stands, he’s only taking up half of the plot—he’s in an urn, after all—so he might have arranged for a sub-let of the remaining half and put the money to some use while he was still around to benefit from it.

But that was not my dad’s way. He was a taciturn man who just wanted to live life his way and not impinge on, or depend on, anyone else. And that was how he ended it.

So thanks for the free days, dad, I really enjoyed them. But I wouldn’t have minded if you had leveraged that plot while you had the chance. I would have happily scattered your ashes for you; I had plenty of time.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

You CAN go Home, You Just Can't Stay

And so it was decreed that I should sojourn in the land of my youth. It was the first time in over ten years that I had been in the United States on my own, and many more years since I had spent any significant time in that particular portion of it.

Home has been described as that place you cannot go back to, and yet here I was, wandering the lazy lanes on hazy afternoons, driving the familiar highways and stopping to chat with old friends in the village shops. I sought out old haunts and dusted off some memories while I adjusted to my new role as Patriarch of my small but growing family.

The essence of the land, that spirit of the place I call home, is—as one friend put it—imprinted in my DNA, and it sooths me in ways no other location can; sitting in the back yard on a warm night, with a bottle of Sam Adams Summer Brew and a Henry Clay cigar, talking bollocks with your buddy while gazing up at an impossible number of stars, well, there's nothing quite like it, is there?

Main Street, Valatie, near where I grew up.

And yet I was adrift, unmoored from the tether that has held me for so long. I suppose, in these modern times, it is unusual for a man my age to still have access to the home he grew up in, but that has been my reality, my rock and my anchor for all of my many years. When I went there on this trip, however, I knew it was for the last time. I would never walk across that threshold again. I would, in all likelihood, never visit that location again. Home, but no longer mine; it is true, you cannot go back.

All that remains are memories, so I collected as many as I could, determined to soak up the sights, smells, sounds and textures of the land and keep them safe with me. Devoid of a physical connection, however, I fear they are destined to fade.

Malden Bridge. Compared to where I actually grew up, this was a big town; there was nothing but corn fields and cow farms where I lived.

My journey, as all journeys must, came to an end, and I returned to Britain and my little flat on the Bishopric some three thousand miles from the house I started my life in. Almost immediately, the memories of America were displaced by the details of daily life, the rhythm of routine and the relief of being on the same continent as my wife.

Garrison Keillor has defined home as the place that, when you go there, they have to let you in. I suppose then, if you accept his definition, I am home.