Saturday, April 30, 2016

Impressions of America

Now that we’ve got the big stuff out of the way, it’s time to talk about the minutia of our visit.

This happened before we got to the US, but I wanted to share it with you.
Heathrow airport: still the best place to get a £2,45 ($4.16) glass of water.
Fist off, we arrived just after the biggest snowstorm of the season. That sounds bad until you consider that they’d had an unnaturally warm and snow-free winter. Still, it was a significant amount, but by the time we arrived, it was all but gone.

That was all the snow I saw; and all I wanted to see.
And, although I complained about the weather, it was actually very nice most of the time we were there.

One of the things that impressed me was Whoopers. Whoopers are the US equivalent of the UK Malteser. They are both about the size of a large marble, have a brown confection coating and a crunchy malt middle. That is where the comparison ends, however. I used to love Whoopers, but when I tried one while I was there, I found they tasted like chemicals. Then I read the label and found out why.

Where's the chocolate?
Nothing resembling chocolate comes anywhere near a Whooper during its creation. The ingredients for Maltesers start with “Milk Chocolate 75%…” Taste the difference.

I was happy to see that the Americans are as loopy over adult coloring books as the Brits. I think it’s a fine idea, but I’m not going to pick one up until I see a “Color by Numbers” coloring book.

They were, as in Britain, everywhere.
Twice—once when I went to visit my brother out in East Batshit and again when we went to Cooperstown—I came upon 4-lane highways out in the middle of nowhere with not another car anywhere in sight.

It didn’t surprise me that there were no other cars around, after all, we were out in the middle of nowhere. What surprised me was that they had built a 4-lane highway out in the middle of nowhere. Still, it was a welcome change from the congestion endemic to southern England.

As mentioned above, we visited Cooperstown, but we did NOT go to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Instead, we visited the Farmer’s Museum and the Fenimore Art Gallery. Both were spectacular. And the Farmer’s Museum had the Cardiff Giant!

Don't know about the Cardiff Giant? Look it up; it's a fascinating story.
In Newark Airport, and in a Friendlies Restaurant in East Greenbush, of all places, I came across something very disturbing: every table, every seat at the bar, every space at the counter, had a computer screen. You could not go in and not stare at a computer, which invited you to spend money on a number of diversions. I fervently hope this practice does not spread, but I am afraid it is inevitable.

If you don't want to stare at a computer screen, then you can't get anything to eat or drink.
And this is why I don’t want it to spread—we’re already too attached to computers as it is:

My Grandboys.
My friend's boys, when we were over for a visit.
We did, however, enjoy spending time with the grandchildren, which was, after all, the main reason for the trip. We were introduced to the Granddaughter—already 8 months old—and reacquainted with the G-boys—now aged 5 and (in six more days) 4. And we were finally able to give them their Christmas presents from 2015.

The theme for that year was the Battle of Hastings. (This year it's Shakespeare. We’re going to make British history scholars out of those kids if it’s the last thing we do.) To accomplish this, we gave them shields, swords and an altered version of the Bayuex Tapestry.

Not bad for an old pair of trousers and some Elmer's glue.
The swords were bought at the gift shop in Battle Abbey. The shields were made by my wife, who cut up an old pair of trousers, painted them with acrylic, painted over that with a solution of water and PVA glue and then waxed it. The result was a stiff material, much like leather. This was put into quilting hoops and studded with brass tacks.

Okay, so it not really a tapestry.
Random scene. You have no idea how long it took to do this.
The tapestries (I did one for each boy) were made on scrap paper that came as packaging in a box from Amazon. I painted the paper with tea to make it look old (I didn’t have to do anything to make it look beat up; it came that way) and then transferred images onto it that I downloaded from the Internet and fudged about with on Photoshop. Then I took colored pens and filled the images in with hash marks to make them look like sewing.

The man-hours to complete the tapestry were phenomenal. And then, when I finished, I had to make another.

Mitch pretty much ignored his tapestry in favor of the sword and shield (really, wouldn’t you?) but Charlie was fascinated by his. He spent hours unrolling it, then releasing the end and letting it roll up.

Amazing what will amuse kids.
But at least they got some enjoyment out of them.

I just hope they like the Shakespeare books half as much.

Mitch, Charlie and Reagan (yes, after the President).

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The State of the Nation

Yeah, we visited my homeland last week, so it is now time for me to report on what I found.

Before I begin, allow me to confirm that Americans are still the most welcoming, friendly and effusive people on the planet. They are large (my god, the amount of sugar those people go through) and loud (but that’s part of their charm) and will give you the shirt off their back (if not the sugar and butter icing off of their cake) if you ask for it, and it is a joy to be among them.

Unfortunately, before you can be among them, you have to pass through the gauntlet of thugs, thieves and Jack-booted bullies who collectively make up the the odious organisation known as the TSA.

This year, it was our pedometers.

We have been carrying pedometers for many years, and have passed through airport security a number of times with them, but there now appears to be some unwritten prohibition about them because, after the usual “I can see you naked” scan, we were pulled aside and treated to full-body pat-downs and I had my hands swabbed for explosives residue. All because we were carrying pedometers.

It’s not really their fault; TSA agents obviously have to fail an intelligence test in order to qualify for the job (they don’t want people who can think, they just need to be smart enough to follow orders — “Jawohl mein kapitan!, um, I mean, sure thing!”) so the agent in question probably couldn’t pronounce “pedometer”much less know what one was and he innocently mistook it for a nuclear detonator or something.

Really, it's an easy mistake to make.
But—and I really need to stress this—while we were actually IN America, we were treated very well.

Also, I found one of these in my suitcase when I got home.
They didn't steal anything, though, so I guess I should consider myself lucky.
Weather: prior to leaving, I checked out the weather in upstate New York and was distressed to discover that they were having a snowstorm. However, by the time we arrived, the snow was gone. The cold weather, on the other hand, had moved in to stay. The wind was sharp and bitter and the trees were bare, making it seem more like mid-February instead of April. One night, my son took us to dinner in Albany (driving us to a location that looked like a place you would take someone to kill them) and we about froze wandering the streets looking for a suitable restaurant.

Obviously, I have been living in southern Britain too long; I am turning (no, I have turned) into a weather wienie.

Fortunately, warmer weather followed, and before we left, we enjoyed sunny skies and temps in the high 70s, so “well done” New York.

The Radio: One day, while driving around on my own, I turned on the car radio and tuned it to my favorite oldies station, only to find they were playing songs from the 1990s! That’s not oldies! What happened?

These Kids Today: My grandsons are now 5 and 4. When we showed them our digital cameras, they had no idea what they were. In their world, photographs are taken with phones or tablets.

These Kids Today, Take II: My grandsons aside (they are the definition of precocious children) people seem to be getting stupider. I noticed, with some alarm, that you no longer have to tax your brain figuring out a tip. Tips are helpfully printed on the receipt, showing you how much to pay if you want to give 15%, 18% or 20%. That is truly astounding, both the fact that people are no long able to figure percent in their heads, as well as the notion that 20% is a reasonable tip. I consider myself fairly generous, but even I stop at 15%.

Apparently, even the people who figure out the tips can't do math, either.
In addition to that, I was in a store and bought $17.73 worth of merchandise. At the till, the cashier asked if I wanted to make a donation to some worthy cause. So I handed her a $20 bill and told her to put the change toward the donation. “So how much would that be,” she asked.

In her defence, I was in a Wal-Mart, so I really shouldn’t have expected anything different.

Driving: I take to driving on the other side of the road fairly well. I admit to “going British” on occasion, and finding myself in the left lane wondering why cars are driving toward me, or pulling to the extreme right when a truck approaches, thinking the road will not be wide enough for both of us, but for the most part I am a careful, polite driver.

The indigenous population, however, are not.

They have forgotten how to use their blinkers: Now, using the turn indicator was never a popular sport in the Capital Region but, since my last visit, they seemed to have agreed to abandon it altogether. Negotiating round-abouts, turning into a side street, changing lanes? No need to alert anyone to your intentions, just swing your car in any direction you feel like.

They have learned how to run red lights: It used to be, if you were waiting at a red light, you would wait for the other light to go red, then you could go, even if—for a second or so—your own light remained red.

Now, it seems, you have to wait for the other light to go red, then wait for your light to go green, and then wait a few more seconds as two or three cars run through the red light. Then you can safely go through the intersection.

It keeps you on your toes while driving, and it reminds me of this joke:

A guy and his girlfriend are out driving. He runs through a red light. “What are you trying to do,” shouts his girlfriend, “get us killed?” “Relax,” the boy says, “my brother does it all the time.” Next red light, same thing. The girlfriend protests again and, again, her boyfriend says, “Relax, my brother does it all the time.” At the next intersection, the light is green. The boy stops. “Why are you stopping,” the girlfriend asks. The boy says, “My brother might be coming.”


Okay, back to my observations.

Christmas: There were an unusual number of houses still decorated for Christmas and, at night, many of them were lit up. On the drive from my son’s house to the place we were staying, we counted six houses lit up for Christmas. Now, the distance we drove was several miles and I admit that six is not a very large number, but when the number you would reasonably expect to see is ZERO, six is quite startling.

Come on people, it's April FFS!
NOTE: I stole this off the web; it is not one of the houses we saw.
All of them were more tastefully decorated but I was driving and couldn't get a picture.
Politics: Really, the less said about that, the better.

United Airlines: We flew with United this time. It wasn’t awful. In fact, it was sort of okay. But if United wants to up their game and get into the “Hey, it was really nice” league, then I suggest that each and every United employee book a flight with Virgin Atlantic — it doesn’t matter where; just fly Virgin — so they can see how it is done.

Fly the friendly skies of Virgin
So, the State of the Nation is pretty much okay,but you should take another look at your driving manuals, develop a taste for other flavors besides sugar, brush up on your math and, well, Trump, really, get a grip.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Now That April’s Here

It’s raining right now. Beyond the droplets on my window pane I see skies the color of dirty cotton, and hear the wind, which I know to be from the north.

Still, I am upbeat because spring — and all that comes with it — is well and truly here. Showery days aside (which, after all, is what defines April), it was intermittently nice yesterday, and this past weekend was lovely.

On our weekend morning walk around the park, the sun was shining, the children were mucking about in the muck and the daffodils were blooming. It was heartening to see that, because the daffodils began blooming in December.

December Daffs.
I was concerned that we might have a less colorful spring if all the flowers bloomed between Christmas and St. David’s Day, but they have managed to pull off a decent spring showing.

Spring blossoms.
At the park, the ducks appeared to have migrated (something they are unlikely to do since they get such generous handouts from visitors to the park pond — ducks on the dole, I call them) but a closer look revealed they were merely blending into the weeds along the shoreline, camouflaging themselves as tufts of grass and bushes. And then I saw one disguised as an empty carrier bag, and others camouflaged as crisp packets and discarded drink cups. It was all very heart warming, until my wife spotted one pretending to be a large brown rat, then we moved on.

"Don't mind me, I'm just a mallard in disguise."
Spring, in Britain, never fails to surprise me. All winter, no matter how grey the weather, there is always a lot of green. The grass stays green, many trees—not just evergreens—keep their leaves, the holly bushes, the rhododendrons, the mistletoe all stay green, as do many of the hedgerows. It really is cheery, especially when you consider that, back in New York, winters are just ice, snow and dead vegetation. By comparison, Britain is so green that spring always amazes me by proving just how much greener and pleasant an already green and pleasant land can become. It may seem green in February, but by the beginning of summer, it is green to the 10th power.

Pretty green for February.

Same scene, four months later.
But while spring in Britain is marvellous and pleasing, it does not compare to the feeling New Yorker’s (and, pretty much anyone else living above the Mason-Dixon Line) feel when spring, at long last, arrives. After months of cold and ice, the sound of snow-melt babbling down the gutter and the scent of wet earth is akin to the feeling of being released from a dungeon cell.

To get that wonderful feeling, however, you need to endure winter, which is why, despite the current dreariness, I am glad to be in England, especially when I hear that, in my old home town, it is currently snowing.

Yeah, I used to live there.
Oh, look! The sun is coming out, and it’s warming up nicely.