Friday, November 3, 2017

Television

(Note to readers: this is my first attempt at a Patriarch Diaries post. It goes on a little long. I hope future posts don’t, but I can’t promise anything—reminiscing is like that. Once you pull at one thread, a whole bunch of them unravel.
     On the up side, at least I’m not sitting at your kitchen table, beer in hand, rambling on about “the old days” to you. It’s a lot easier to stop reading than it is to shut me up once I’m on a roll. Just ask my wife.)

Even as I write this, there are many people who will not know that televisions were not always flat.

The TV that played a central role in my life was a huge, mahogany-esque box with a screen and speaker in front, and a removable back so you could get at the tubes and wires inside. This was necessary because “tubes”, which were essential to the working of the TV, occasionally (frequently) blew and had to be replaced.


This the TV I grew up with
This is not the inside of our TV, but it is typical of a TV of that period.
(Side Note: replacing the tubes was not something the average person did. This was a job for a specialist, and I recall a number of occasions when a man would come to our house with a travelling case full of tubes, who would remove the back of the set, fiddle with the innards, replace a tube or two and pronounce the TV fit and well. His calm and competent manner, along with his case of electronic remedies, reminded me of our doctor when he made house calls. Yes, kids, doctors in those days came to your house to treat you—more on that later.)

The TV had an on/off button, vertical and horizontal hold dials, and a channel selector. The On/Off button protruded from the TV like a brown gum-drop and you had to pull it out to turn the set on and push it in to turn the set off, sort of like the old car door locks (more on that later).

When you turned the TV on, it had to warm up. Conversely, when you shut it off, the picture didn’t disappear, it sort of faded away, shrinking into a little white dot in the center of the dark screen.


L to R: what it looked like when the Horizontal Hold went, what it looked like
when the Vertical hold went, what it looked like when you shut it off.
The channel selector had 14 positions—channels 1 through 13 and a strange setting for something called UHF—but we only got three channels: 6, 10 and 13. In later years, we did discover that the UHF setting could be tuned in to an alternative channel, where we could watch The Prisoner, the original Cracker and Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but for the bulk of my young life, television viewing was limited to those three channels.

I don’t recall feeling that I was 187 channels short, nor did I find it inconvenient that you had to watch what was on when it was on. The world made sense then: when something was happening, you watched it. When it was over, it was something that had happened, and you couldn’t see it again. (Unless it was one of the perennial Christmas favorites, like the Wizard of Oz, or Peter Pan, or Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, or A Charlie Brown Christmas.) In short, the concept of recording a show to watch later was unimaginable.


Peter Pan starring Mary Martin as Peter. A woman dressed as a boy hanging by visible cables,
"flying" against a hand-drawn backdrop. Those were simpler times.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
If you really analyse the story, Santa acts like a dick.

Linus, reciting scripture on stage. Call the lawyers!
I also don’t recall there ever being a show we wanted to watch on one channel, while another show we also wanted to watch was airing on a different channel. I assume this must have happened, but it has not made an impression, so I guess we just dealt with it.

I do recall, however, that getting up to walk across the room to change the channel was not ideal. This wasn’t because we were lazy—although we were—but because if you got up, someone would take your seat.

(Very Long Side Note: Due to this, we developed a system wherein we “called” our right to whatever seat we wanted. “I call the Grey Chair” one of us would declare during dinner, before our TV viewing commenced. That person could then sit in the Grey Chair, which was, incidentally, everyone's favorite seat, and why we needed to develop this system. The "call" remained in force even if they left the room, which seemed unfair, so we eventually revised the system and set a time limit. From then on, if someone wanted to go into the kitchen for something, they would have to say, “I call the Grey Chair for 30 seconds” and then they would have to the count of 30 to get back into their seat, or it was up for grabs. In looking back, I think it's admirable that we developed this method instead of defaulting to the normal childhood system of “might makes right.”)

We did have a rudimentary channel changer. We called it “our little brother” and it went something like this: “Hey Marc, come in here a minute.” Marc, toddling in from the other room. “What?” “Nothing. But while you’re here, change the channel on the TV.”

That worked until it didn’t, at which point the scenario went more like this: “Hey Marc, come in here a minute.” Marc, from the other room. “Fuck you!” Me, “I’m telling mom!” Mom, hearing her name invoked, comes in from the kitchen, “What’s going on in here?” Me, “Nothing. But while you’re here, change the channel on the TV.”

Fortunately, other channel-changers, I mean, younger siblings, arrived, making it unnecessary for us older sibling to have to shout, “I call the Grey Chair for 5 seconds” before dashing to the TV to turn the dial.

Because of our limited viewing options, and the abundance of interesting things to do outside, we didn’t watch a lot of television, especially when compared with the children of today. Mostly, we watched TV on Saturday morning, because that was when the cartoons were on. You got up early—but not too early, or all you’d see is the Test Pattern—and sat in front of the TV with your Frosted Flakes to watch Tom and Jerry, Popeye, Bugs Bunny and any number of other classic cartoons that can’t be shown today due to our modern sensibilities.

(Another Side Note: After the late news, the stations would play the National Anthem and then sign off. From then on, until about 6 in the morning, there was nothing on the TV at all.)


First, you'd see this.

Then,you'd see this (or something like it)

And then, you'd see this, until the station came back on the air the following morning.

During the week, there were some kid programs on in the morning to entertain the pre-schoolers so their moms could shuffle the older kids off to the school bus and pack her husband’s lunch. Captain Kangaroo—with his side-kicks Mr.Greenjeans, Grandfather Clock, Mr. Moose, Bunny Rabbit and Dancing Bear—was an educational entertainment show. It was mercifully light on the education side and good fun to watch. Within the show format were several cartoon sequences, including Tom Terrific with his Thinking Cap and sidekick Manfred the Wonder Dog, and Pow Wow the Indian Boy. Also on offer was Romper Room. This was a franchise, so the show I watched—as was the case for most viewers—was produced locally. Delightfully amateurish, it was basically a pre-school, led by the teacher (Miss Sherry, in my case) who entertained and instructed children in her primitive classroom about being a Do-Be and not a Don’t-Be and leading them in Bend and Stretch, while I sat on the living room floor pretending to be part of her class. The highlight of the show was at the end, when Miss Sherry would look into her magic mirror and tell us who she could see watching her from home. When she said my name, well, that made my day.

"Romper Bomper Stomper Boo, tell me, tell me, tell me do,
did all my friends have fun at play?
I see Lisa, and George, and Bobby, and Cindy, and you, too, Deborah, and Margaret, and...
But enough of this stroll down amnesia lane. These idle, idyll days didn’t last long. When I was 12 we got a color TV. We thought that made us ultra-modern, even though the color was far from realistic. The technology improved rapidly, however, and fifteen years later, we got cable TV, HBO and 24-hour television.

The promotions for cable stated that, because it was a subscription service, there would be no commercials, and HBO promised you could “see movies at the same time they were in the theaters.” I knew this was bullshit the moment I heard it, but that didn’t stop me from getting cable and HBO.

From there, the number of channels expanded like Jiffy-Pop on a hot stove. To reach people who were not within reach of cables, satellite TV was born. To catch the signal, however, you needed a huge satellite dish. My dad—who still lived in the house we grew up in, which was in the back of beyond—had one. They were massive, and soon dotted the countryside. As technology improved, the dishes shrank, and the number of channels soared.


Yeah, they were huge, and they were everywhere.
We called them the Arkansas State Flower.
People in Arkansas called them the New York State Flower.
I stole this photo off the web--no idea who the guy is.
I can't recall when flat screen televisions arrived on the scene. We got one in 2008, but we were Luddites—they had been around for a long time by then.

To my grandchildren’s generation, flat screens are normal, as are iPads and mobile phones. And the idea that you can’t watch whatever you want to watch, whenever you want to watch it, and on whatever device you want to watch it on, is as hard for them to conceive as the idea of more than three channels was for me.

I have to say, I enjoy the new technology, but I am glad I had the chance to know what life was like before it came along.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Patriarch Diaries

Some years ago, I found myself unexpectedly promoted to Patriarch of my small, but growing, clan. Soon after, it occurred to me that the entire reservoir of stories and legends about my family’s history resided, almost entirely, in my head. This wouldn’t have been a problem if we lived closer together but, being scattered as we are, late night chats around the kitchen table over a couple of beers are few and far between.

I, therefore, proposed to record the stories and legends (face it, most of them are legends) gleaned from kitchen-table discussions of years gone by. This was not to be a straight-up genealogy but rather a hodge-podge of tales, memories and lore with no logical order or narrative thread. The idea was exciting, but when it came to actually writing it, I found myself stymied by the sheer volume of available stories, the confusing plethora of loose threads, and the jumbled recollections of childhood, all swirling around in the cesspool of my consciousness.

And so, nothing was written.

It then occurred to me that writing out my memories as blog posts might spur me on.

Don’t panic. This is not me moving my blog in a new direction, it’s more about introducing a new flavor—reminiscence posts, occasional and sporadic—to it. Added value, if you will.

This, therefore, represents the first post in the blog category I am calling The Patriarch Diaries, with the ultimate intention of producing something I can pass on to my grandchildren, in order to introduce them to a time before iPads, flat screen TVs and Skype.

I have no illusions about them being grateful for my efforts, or even desiring to read them, but I think I owe them the opportunity. Being a patriarch, after all, does not come without responsibilities, and getting old should not be taken lightly.

There are, in case you are wondering, a number of indicators that you are getting old—the shocking realization that your doctor is younger than you, the apprehension that “kids today” are not quite up to scratch, the painful reminder that you can no longer do a hand-stand—but none are quite as defining as looking at an exhibit in a museum and recognizing an item on display as something you once owned.

And I’m not talking about an IT museum, where anyone in their 20s will find obsolete items they bought when they were teenagers, I mean real museums, featuring exhibits from the 1800s or earlier. This is where you might visit the recreation of a blacksmith’s shop and find yourself thinking, “My dad had a set of tongs just like that; I used to play with them when I was a kid!” while the younger adults around you have to read the information card to find out what it is.

That, my friends, is when you know you are old.

A person who doesn’t accept the responsibilities of age might simply leave it there and, perhaps, start shopping for rocking chairs instead of patio furniture, or decide a big, comfy sweater looks more suitable than a button-down collar shirt. Anyone with an ounce of optimism, however, shouldn’t miss the fact that being old is not what it used to be (60 being, as they claim, the new 40), and that the world we grew up in is as far removed from our grandchildren as the horse-and-buggy days are to us. We, therefore, possess the energy, the enthusiasm, the technology and, at least for now, the mental capacity, to pass our experiences on to the next generations. Who knows, they might find them every bit as mysterious and fascinating as the horse and buggy days do to us.

It is with this hope in mind that I dive into the cesspool in search of diamonds, or shiny nuggets, or, barring that, some interesting sludge. It may be that I come up with nothing, but I owe it to the G-kids to at least have a go.

As for my credentials, and to stamp my location in history, I leave you with this:
  • I was born during the Eisenhower Administration
  • I remember when President Kennedy was shot
  • I was too young for the draft and missed Viet Nam by a whisker
  • I was raised in an era when children were allowed out of their parent’s sight (encouraged to be, actually)
  • I came home for dinner when I heard my mother yelling my name

Although these posts are ultimately for my grandchildren, I hope at least some of my readers will read them and think, “Yeah, I did that, too. In fact, I remember…”

That's my dad, helping to plow the field.


Thursday, October 19, 2017

Expat Taxes

I’ve complained about taxes on this blog before. Most notably here, but I’m sure I’ve mentioned it at other times. It’s hard not to; taxes for American Expats are stunningly complex, unfair and onerous, so it’s almost impossible to let tax time slip by without me whining about it in public.

Every year, I suffer the strain of trying to decipher an undecipherable tax code, the pain of having to pay taxes on money I earned in the UK to a country that, logically, has no right to them, and the indignity of having to register with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, as if I’m a pedophile on parole.


I have to register with these guys, so I must be a criminal, right?

I am hoping that this yearly humiliation is now at an end.

A while ago, Taxes for Expats e-mailed me with an offer: I let them do my taxes for free, and all I had to do was mention it here on this blog.

I get offers like this all the time. I turn some of them down, the rest I ignore. My blog is not a billboard and I do not seek to endorse products in exchange for compensation. But as I took a second look at this e-mail, several things made it stand out from the others:
  • There were no misspeled wrods in it
  • There were no words in ALL CAPS
  • The tone was businesslike but cordial (they didn’t want to be my best buddy, they were simply offering a business deal)
  • They had actually at least looked at my blog (others state they are big fans of my blog while making it abundantly clear they have never seen it)
  • The link to their business didn’t take me to a dodgy-looking website selling sex-aids (but I can overlook that)
  • When I Googled them, the results were favorable and convincing
So, I replied to the e-mail and proposed that they prepare a dummy tax return with the idea that, once I saw how it was done, I could just copy that from year to year. That way, I’d get my free tax preparation, they’d get a plug on my blog, and I wouldn’t have to hire them again! Win, win, win. Except, of course, for that bit about them not getting my business.

What happened, however, was this:

I was assigned to Ben, my “Personal Tax Preparer.” I thought, “yeah, right,” but I tell you, I don’t care if he was juggling a thousand other clients, he treated me as if I was the only one. We exchanged numerous e-mails, and his responses to my questions were always prompt and polite, even when I was being obtuse.

What I sent to Ben was not my current tax situation, as that is fairly straightforward—I don’t earn any money, so I don’t pay any taxes. In the near future, however, things are going to get ugly. I have several income streams coming from the US, and when I start drawing on my retirement here, things get very complex very quickly.

They also get very expensive, which was why I sent Ben this data, and why I opened the completed dummy tax return documents with a sense of dread.

The final tally, however, was over a thousand dollars less than my calculation. My new best friend, Ben, had filed forms I didn’t know existed and had referenced favorable tax laws that I had never heard of (because the IRS, quite negligently, failed to send me the memo about the new regulations).

My immediate thoughts were, “There is no way in hell I can replicate this,” and “But it’s well worth the $350 fee.”

The result is, I become a client. And I put up this endorsement because, that was the deal. (They said I could say anything I wanted, even that they were rubbish, and I would have said that if they were, but believe me, they are not. If you are an American living abroad, check these people out.)

They can also file your FUBAR for you (it’s actually FBAR, but it will always be FUBAR to me). On this point, I have to admit that FUBAR filing isn’t very complicated or time-consuming. It is, however, a right pain in the arse and I think simply not having to deal with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network every year is worth the fee.

So, here's the deal:

  • Standard tax return: $350
  • FUBAR filing (up to 5 foreign accounts): $75 ($10 for each additional)
  • All you need to do is go to their website – Taxes for Expats – and sign up.
  • There are no obligations, you just need to pay them once a tax return is completed.
  • They can (for 80% of clients) file your return electronically. In some cases, the IRS rules do not allow this, but you can just print out and snail-mail your return.
  • Once you complete the tax questionnaire (which is very comprehensive and takes a bit of time) you can just copy it from one year to the next and update the figures, so subsequent years will be easy and relatively pain-free.


So, the choice is yours: an annual festival of stress, befuddlement, anxiety and humiliation (as well as the secret conviction that you’ve done it wrong and paid too much), or you can go here, and have these guys do it for you.




I know which option I’m choosing.





Saturday, October 14, 2017

Insanity

They say one of the definitions of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. If that is the case, then I am officially insane.

Yeah, I bought another bike.

In case you don’t know why this is insane, I refer you to here, and here.

In case you want the tldr; version: I bought a bike some time ago and it was stolen, so I got another one, and it was stolen, so I got another one, and that was stolen, too.

And so, I resigned myself to a life without a bike.

But now that we have moved out of the town center, and I don’t always want to do the twenty-minute walk into town, I bought another one.

No, it's not a girl's bike.
This wasn’t as easy as it might have been because, apparently, they don’t sell bicycles any more.

I could have bought a stonkin’ Trail Machine with knobby tires, disc brakes, hydraulic suspension and more gears than my telly has cable channels, or a sleek Road Racer made of titanium alloy with tires the width of an index card and the gross weight of a pear. Or a Commuter Special that folded to the size of a large pizza. But I couldn’t buy a bicycle.

Not me.

Not me.
These items all came sans fenders, chain guards or lights and carried price tags in the thousands. All I wanted was a bicycle I could use to make the short commute into town, not something to careen down Scafell Pike on, or to ride in the Tour de France. But, alas, none were to be found. They were, as I was beginning to feel, out of date.

More like me. Not the guy on the penny-farthing,
I mean the woman in the background.
I turned to the Internet and still couldn’t find any. I did, however, find laments from people like me who just wanted a bog-standard bike and found they could not buy one. Undaunted, I made it my mission to search every bike rack in town, looking for something, anything, that was anywhere near what I had in mind. There were a few, and I took photos of their brand names. But this led only to more frustration when the web sites turned out to be non-existent, out of date or, having been updated, not selling that model any longer.

Then one day, I saw the perfect bike. And a young woman was standing next to it, unlocking it and preparing to ride away. I could not believe my luck. Braving a possible “Creepy Man Harasses Young Cyclist in Town Centre” headline, I approached her.

“Sorry to be so forward,” I began, “but can you tell me where you got your bike. I’m looking for one just like it.”

The young woman laughed. Not a reaction I was anticipating.

“I’m afraid I can’t help you,” she said. “I found it on the side of the road.”

Turns out, she was walking along the street one day and happened upon this bike, just sitting there, with a note attached to it saying the owner no longer wanted it and was giving it free to anyone who did. So, she called the number, the woman was glad to give it to her, and she had been riding it ever since.

A charming story, heartwarming, even, but of no help to me. I thanked the woman and, as I walked away, she advised, “Keep looking, you’ll find one somewhere.”

“I’ll start checking the sides of the roads,” I replied.

Still determined, but at the end of my wits, I turned to my wife.

“What you want is a Dutch bike,” she told me.

Five minutes of browsing and a one-click order from Amazon UK later, and a Dutch bike was on its way to me from, appropriately, Holland. It arrived two days later, a unisex (it is not a girl’s bike) model with “normal” handle bars (what they call “sit up and beg” handle bars), fenders, a chain-guard, front and back lights and reflectors, a bell, coaster brakes and a front brake, three gears, a carrying rack, and a kick-stand (remember those?) And, as a bonus, it also has a skirt-guard (it is NOT a girl’s bike).

This one, I hope, is more theft-resistant. For starters, it’s not worth enough to make it theft-worthy, and attempting to steal it would involve cutting the lock that secures it to the bike rack, then discovering it could not be ridden or wheeled away because it comes with a built-in lock that immobilizes the back wheel and, once that was discovered, the thief would find it difficult to pick it up and run away with it because it weighs more than a yearling calf.

And so, clad in an eye-wateringly yellow Hi-Viz jacket and helmet (but no Lycra), I can nip into town in no time. Such has been my experience with bikes and Horsham town center, however, that, for the first half-dozen times I returned to where I had left my bike, I was visibly surprised to find it was still there.

Now, people ask me where I got my bike from. And I see more and more bikes like it being ridden sedately around the town. This, in my view, demonstrates the root of the problem: bikes can be used competitively, and cycling can be a sport, but primarily, a bicycle is a mode of transportation. People seemed to have forgotten that, but now they are beginning to remember, and bikes like mine are becoming more common.

This trend was confirmed for me when I happened by the bike shop where I had made my unsuccessful attempt to buy a bike. There, in the front window, was a bike just like mine, with a price tag to match. It was called, fittingly enough, the Townie. And it was pink.

I would have snapped that up in a second if it had been there when I was looking. No one would have the balls to steal something like that! And it would certainly make a statement.

Not the bike in the window, but this is exactly like it.
And I wouldn’t even try denying it was a girl’s bike.

Okay, it's a girl's bike.


Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Force Slinger

I don’t usually review things on this blog, but I’m making an exception for The Gunslinger.

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Stephen King fan. Or, I was until he stopped writing decent books, though I have to admit, I haven’t read any of his recent work so perhaps I am missing out on some good stuff. But I digress. His early books were great. And the Gunslinger epic was, well, epic, so I was looking forward to the movie.

The Gunslinger would not, I surmised, be hugely disappointing to either my wife or myself for two reasons: 1) my wife has never read anything by Stephen King and knows nothing about the Gunslinger saga, so she couldn’t be disappointed in that respect, and 2) I knew that fitting a 7-book series into an hour and a half was impossible, so it was going to be nothing like the epic journey Mr. King took me on all those years ago.

The Gunslinger Movie - 4,352 pages condensed into an hour and a half.
I also thought, knowing the series, that fitting the Gunslinger story into a single movie wouldn’t be all that hard. Two of the seven books are only peripherally related to the plot, meaning a total of 1,300 pages could be (and were) left completely out of the movie. The remaining 5 books are also bulked up with side-tracks and Mr. King’s famously bloated prose. Take away all of that, and you get a 90-minute movie.

A classic movie, as it turns out. This is how it goes:

Luke, I mean, Jake, is a boy with a power he doesn’t understand, and this makes the Empire, I mean, the Man in Black, interested in him. He escapes and meets a Jedi Master, er, Gunslinger, but the Emp..Man in Black kills aunt Beru and uncle Owen,I mean, his mom and step-dad, so he goes off with the Jedi-slinger to learn the Ways of the Force, I mean, you know.


Anyway, young Luke, I mean Jake, ultimately destroys the Death Star, or whatever that thing the Man in Black is using to bring down The Dark Tower. So, in the end, evil is vanquished, Luke…er, Jake, is learning the Ways of The Force, and… oh, bollocks.


It might not have been Star Wars, but all the elements were there (as, indeed, they were in The Force Awakens), but this shouldn’t surprise us, or put anyone off from watching the movie. After all, there is an actual formula for these types of stories, so you expect them to be, at least, similar.

I know this because, when you decide to become a writer, they give you The Rules for Plots. I don’t know who “They” are—no one does—but unless you’re a writer, like me, you won’t have been given The Rules. So here they are:

Act I
1. Readers are introduced to the hero's world
2. A disturbance or "call to adventure" interrupts the hero's world
3. The hero may ignore the call or the disturbance
4. The hero crosses the threshold into a dark world

Act II
5. A mentor may appear to teach the hero
6. Various encounters occur with forces of darkness
7. The hero has a dark moment within himself that he must overcome
8. A talisman aids in battle

Act III
9. The final battle is fought
10. The hero returns to his own world (to which I add: or continues on his quest, depending on reviews and revenue)

It was because of these Rules that The Gunslinger parallels Star Wars in so many ways (note: this is not, however, the reason The Force Awakens parallels Star Wars in so many ways; the reason for that is, they were out of plot ideas and the first movie seemed to work, so…).

In fact, the only major difference between Star Wars and The Gunslinger is the budding sexual tension between Luke, Princess Leia and Han. (Don’t forget, in the first movie no one—even themselves—knew they were brother and sister, so the initial attraction was, um, okay, even when she kissed him – eewww! – to make Han jealous. Anything more than that, however, wouldn’t fly, except in the more southerly solar systems.) All young Jake gets to do is save a girl—one he’d exchanged meaningful eye-contact with earlier—from the Imperial soldiers, I mean, the Dark Forces.

Ewwww! With tongues and everything!
But by far most impressive thing about The Gunslinger is how it made 95 minutes seem much, much longer.

If you’re a King fan, you shouldn’t miss it. Otherwise, watch Star Wars, for the 187th time. You’ll enjoy it more.




Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Moving Stuff

We spend a lot of time moving stuff these days. It’s what happens when you live in a small place; you are always in your own way.

If you want to get some stuff, chances are it’s under or behind some other stuff, so you have to move stuff off the top of stuff to get at the stuff you want. And then you have to move the stuff you took off the stuff you wanted back to where it was or it will be in the way of other stuff that belongs in the place where you put that stuff.

It’s like living on a canal boat, but without the charm.

Okay, so our flat isn't this small, but still...
When you are faced with the problem of having too much stuff to fit into the place you live, there are three options:
                             1.      You can cleverly store your stuff
                             2.      You can get rid of stuff
                             3.      You can let the stuff overwhelm you

A fourth option would be “move to a bigger place,” but we can’t do that, so we are making use of Options 1 and 2 and striving to avoid Option 3.

Having grown up in a three-bedroom house with my parents, two brothers, two sisters, various dogs, cats, guinea pigs, occasionally homeless friends and frequent visitors, I know how to ferret out usable space. Looking up is a good place to start. In our tiny office, I have managed to find accessible locations for my guitar, keyboard and bagpipes, something I didn’t even have in the old flat. And, as a bonus, with all that stuff off the floor, you can actually open the office door now.


Prior to moving in, we managed to off-load one filing cabinet, leaving us with just two smaller ones. After moving (i.e. once reality set in) it became necessary to dispose of another one. Fortunately, Staples had a marvelous solution in the form of stackable, plastic file boxes. Now, if I need a file, I still have to move stuff, but at least I don’t have to hunt for what I’m looking for; I can see the folders without opening the boxes. This save a lot of time.

Stackable, transparent file boxes, and a rubbish bin, all neatly stored under other stuff.
Another issue was my guitar case. Having solved the storage/access issues vis-à-vis the guitar itself, I now found I had a lumbering, space-consuming, and surprisingly heavy, hard-shell case to contend with. So, I bought a guitar bag, and that solved that problem. However, it left me with another problem: what to do with the hard-shell guitar case.

I put it outside in the hall hoping someone would steal it, but unfortunately, we have a better class of tenant here and, several days later, it was still there.  So I told my wife I was going to take it into town and leave it in the market place with a sign on it reading, “Looking for a new home,” but she said that would be Fly Tipping.

(I don’t think there is a US word for Fly-Tipping but, basically, it means taking stuff you don’t want—garbage, topsoil, that old armoire you don’t need anymore—and, after checking that no one is looking, dumping it somewhere so as to make it someone else’s problem.)

I told my wife that, since I was planning to come back and check on it at a later time, it would not be Fly-Tipping. It would simply be an unattended parcel, which would also mean I would just have to wait for the sirens and the swat team and the helicopters and the loudspeaker announcements that the town center was to be evacuated immediately to know that someone had taken an interest in the guitar case.

We’re about as packed in here as we can be now. It’s workable, but, ... well, whenever it starts to get to me, I just remind myself that people are currently paying over a quarter of a million pounds for flats that are smaller (and less well built) than this one, and that do not contain any storage space whatsoever. So, even though we have to move stuff off of stuff to get at stuff, at least we have a place for our stuff.


Well, most of it, anyway.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Residential Respite

It’s been a month since our move and, diminutive living quarters aside, we like where we live.

The town center was a convenient and agreeable place to reside, but Horsham is a growing town and, lately, it had become too rowdy for the likes of us. Here, I don’t have to jostle my way through crowds to get to the corner store. It’s peaceful, and secluded and you hardly see anyone, and the people you do see often say, “Good morning,” which still startles me a little. Instead of the bustling main street, the lanes are tree-lined and empty.


Where we live now

Where we used to live
And it is so nice to be able to walk out of my front door and not have to go down 68 steps to reach the pavement. I have not lived in a ground floor flat since 1993 and, although I did like being on top of the world, there is a lot to be said for street level.

Even on the ground floor, this flat has a balcony, so I get to sit, have a pipe and enjoy the view. Granted, the view is of the building where they keep the rubbish bins, but it’s a tidy little brick structure that reminds me of a pill-box, and at the very least it’s better looking than the rubbish area at Pelham Court, where we originally lived.

My current view

View of the rubbish area at Pelham Court
And it’s quiet. At night, there are no revelers with their 110-decibel conversations at two in the morning, no delivery vans banging and clanging at four, no bin lorries bashing and revving their engines at five and no street sweepers whirring and churning at six. For the first time in nearly three years we are able to get a full night’s sleep.

The nights here are dark, and the only sound is the distant hum of the highway (this is the south-east of Britain, after all; you are never very far from a main road). In the mornings we hear only the twitter of birds, and I’m pretty sure a pellet rifle will take care of that.

It is also, however, very, very white. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m no racist; I’ve got nothing against white people (though I wouldn’t want my sister to marry one), but the town center was populated with people from the sub-continent, China, Indonesia, Africa and Eastern Europe who, together, wove an exotic human tapestry, and I find I miss the diversity.

Fortunately, the town center is just a15 minute walk away, so when I feel the need for multi-culturalism, I can find it fairly quickly.

But, alas, the place where I spend the bulk of my time—my office—is much smaller than my previous office and I find it still pinches around the edges. With so many other advantages, however, I’m sure I’ll get used to it. In time.


Old office

New office

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Settling

Well, we’ve moved. Or, to be exact, we are in the process of moving: we are still have stuff to retrieve from our old flat and there are still many things lying around on the living room floor, or in boxes, looking for a place to live. But the heavy lifting is done, the massive payouts are now just a painful memory and most of the initial maintenance has been completed – more on that in a moment.

We were without a phone or internet for two weeks after we moved in because, well, Britain. And we spent a lot more than we should have needed to on maintenance materials.

As mentioned in my previous post, we are being held to exacting standards vis-à-vis the condition of our erstwhile flat, but it seems the people leaving here were not, nor did the landlord care to give the place a quick once-over. And so, in addition to the headache of moving in, we had to deal with the dust and dirt and the pervading aroma of “old person’s house,”

Not only was the place not cleaned thoroughly, it was…well, take a look at these:

This is the inside of the cabinet in the dining area.

This is what happened to the towel holder when I touched it.
Some bright spark drew instructions for the burners, but didn't think
to tell us which was was "Hotter" and which was "Less Hot."
This is the inside of a kitchen cabinet.
And this is the inside of the other dining room cabinet.

I do give the landlord credit, however, for being tenacious enough to seek out the cheapest, flimsiest, most insubstantial shower curtain I have ever seen. He obviously puts a great deal of effort into sparing no inexpense.

In short, if this place was a hotel room or a holiday cottage, I would give it two stars.

We then set about the task of trying to fit ten pounds of shit into a five-pound sack, which involved the shedding of furniture, the building of a bespoke (US: custom made) desk that would fit into the tiny office, the hanging of shelves and the creation of an airing cupboard and storage cabinet where there had once been a large but useless space in the bathroom. Then there was the painting and the general maintenance, but much of that is also behind us (he says with the smell of fresh paint wafting through the air).

And in the middle of all this, our car died. It was ten-years old and had over 100k miles on it, but it seemed robust and we were quite fond of it, but then it just, quite suddenly, gave up the ghost. “Cam-belt,” the car-guy said, as he pronounced it DOA. At least it didn’t suffer.

So then we had the experience of trying to buy another car, while not having a car, and in the middle of moving, without the aid of a phone or the internet.

So, do I have anything good to report. Certainly:

The flat, while smallish, is adequate, and we are quickly making it our home. The area we moved to is quiet and close to town and has a Co-Op mini-market around the corner, a pub across the road and a theme restaurant (The Smith and Western, Yee Ha!) next to it. It also has a covered balcony, which has come in really handy these past two weeks.

The other good thing is, with all this heavy lifting, DIY and running about, I have lost nearly 10 pounds. But don’t worry, it’s got to be around here somewhere, I’m sure it will turn up again soon.




Saturday, July 8, 2017

Moving UK Style

We are still in the throes of moving, and the strain on my nerves and wallet are reaching a crescendo. The only consolation I have is to remind myself that we’re moving, and that’s just the way it is. But then I think, should it be?

I know I haven’t moved from place to place in the US for a long time, but when I did, I don’t recall it being so traumatic. In fact, I once moved seven times in the space of four years and, aside from having to move all my stuff, no onerous inconveniences,or unexpected expenses, stick in my mind when I reminisce about those days.

In the US, this is how I moved:

Realtor shows me an apartment. I like it. We sign a lease. I pay one month’s rent up front and one month’s rent for a security deposit. Then I go to the Post Office and submit a change of address form. For free. End of.

In the UK, this is how it goes:

Letting agent shows you a flat. You like it. Letting agent says, “Okay, pay £500 and fill out this notice of intent to rent.” Then you have to provide reams of documentation to prove that you live where you currently live (really, what’s the difference, I could live under a bridge and then move into a flat as long as I can pay the rent), how much you earn and your citizenship status. You then have to provide references, and pay the letting agent £30 to contact them.


Then you go to the Royal Mail and submit a change of address form: £125.98 for the two of us.

When you take possession of the flat, you pay one month’s rent up front, one and a half to two month’s rent as a security deposit, and another £126 as a check-out fee. (Yes, check-OUT fee.)

Every year, when your lease is renewed, which involves the letting agent sending you an e-mail informing you that the lease has been renewed, you are charged another £160.

When you check out, you are “strongly advised” to hire a professional cleaning company to stream-clean the carpets and curtains and generally bring the flat up to the sort of condition they will find acceptable, and, by the way, the letting agents have just such a cleaning service, so why don’t you hire them? This, in my mind, is a thinly veiled threat: “Pay us more money, or you won’t get your security deposit back.”

But that’s just my letting agent (Leaders, by the way). Others, and there are many, are just as bad, and some are even worse.

The reason for these money-grabs is, some time ago, letting agents discovered that they could charge random fees, with no reason or justification, without anyone complaining. Much. And they have embraced this business model with alacrity.

But, after all of that, you at least get a spacious, well-maintained flat at a reasonable pr…HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA.

Sorry, I couldn’t write that with a straight face.

Fact is, if you are not rich, you take what you get, and you don’t complain, unless you want to find yourself out on the street and someone else living in the place you used to call home. Because there are more people looking for places to live than there are places to live, landlords can be choosy, meaning they will choose people who won’t complain about the state of their flats.

If you’re rich, you can rent a luxury flat. We’re in a luxury flat right now, and that’s one of the many reasons we're moving: we are not rich.

The “luxury” flats, however…Now, I’m not saying this will stop me from complaining about the size of our future home, but I took a peek at the flats for the latest development in town to see the cost and size of those flats. What I found just made my heart sink:

This is your living space, kitchen, dining room, living room, all
562.7 sq ft of it, and yours for only £295,000 ($380,228)
Do you see space for a TV?

And I thought our 600 sq ft flat was bad.

The up side, however, is that Prewetts Mill,when it is finished, is going to be located in 1962.
And this is what you get for your money:

Notice the insubstantial breeze-block (cinder-block) wall and the 2x2/chipboard framing.
Those bricks aren't real, either. That is (hopefully fireproof) imitation-brick cladding.
So, even though we are moving to a smaller place, at least our block of flats was built in the 1960s, when they used robust building materials, believed windows should be large and allowed to open, and understood that actual people were going to live in them.

Sorry to be so sour these days. It’s just that we’re moving, and that is really stressful.




Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Lowering the Flag

The flag has come down.

No, it’s nothing political—not me getting steamed up over Brexit, Chairman May or the village idiot in the White House—and I’m still as patriotic as ever. The reason is, we’re moving.

It seems strange to be moving again so soon. We haven’t been in our new flat long enough to stop calling it “our new flat,” and now we’re going to an even newer flat. There are various reasons for this move—cost, noise, 68 steps up to the door, rubbish managing agent—but overall, I think the main reason I decided to move was to make my wife stop looking at listings for flats.

Since we moved in here, she has been scrolling through listings for flats with all the enthusiasm and glee of a 13-year-old boy perusing porn. Now this wouldn’t be an issue (hey, I’ve been there) except, unlike that 13-year-old, her obsession demands an audience.

“Look at this one,” she says, setting her laptop down on the balcony table, “it’s really nice. And this one is expensive, but look how awful it is. We couldn’t live there.”

I nod and relight my pipe.

“And, oh, I found a good one in Southwater. Look at that! It has communal gardens, and it’s on a bus line…”

The good thing was, when we finally decided the reasons for staying did not outweigh the reasons for leaving, my wife had the lowdown on every available flat within a 10-mile radius.

And so, with our criteria firmly in mind—quiet neighborhood, ample parking, big enough for our stuff, close to town, in our price range, and on the ground floor—and a perky lettings agent leading the way, we set out to view flats.

It didn’t go as easy as in the past. The first four we looked at were all either too far away and/or too expensive and/or lacking in any parking (it still amazes me how, in Britain, there are properties with absolutely no place to put a car). But then we came to a ground-floor flat that was located in a quiet cul-de-sac with on-street parking (but there were lots of empty spaces) that was within our price range and just a short walk away from town. It even had a balcony. (Yes, a ground-floor flat with a balcony. Go figure.)
Our new flat is just off of the graphic. Not too far from the town centre.
It ticked every box, and so we took it. Then we realized we hadn’t actually checked that it was big enough for our stuff, but we figured it had to be about the same size as where we are living now so we didn’t worry about it. Until I went back with a tape measure.

Our future flat, it transpires, is way smaller than our current flat.

To get some perspective on how my life is shrinking: the one-bedroom flat I lived in before moving to Britain had 800 square feet of living space. Both two-bedroom flats we have lived in here have been around 720 square feet. Our future flat has only 600 square feet—an area an American wouldn’t raise veal in.
US 1 Bedroom, UK 2 Bedroom, our future flat
Consequently, we are now on a mission to jettison as much stuff as we possibly can. We downsized when we moved into this flat, but now we have to downsize in spades.

Will we manage to fit all our stuff in? Can we dispose of enough of our lives to allow us to live in such a small space and still have room to practice Limbo Dancing (if we ever want to take it up, I mean.)?

All that remains to be seen. In the meantime, I have forbidden my wife from looking at any more flats, lest she suddenly find “the perfect property” and leave us forever regretting this rash decision. (I’m pretty sure she still scrolls through the listings when I’m not looking, though.)

Oh, and the flag. Well, there’s really nothing to stop me from putting it up—no regulation that I know of—but a flag flying from a ground floor balcony will simply make me a target. And you just know some little oik will steal it.


Friday, June 16, 2017

Triskaidekafication

We go to America once a year, which adds up to a lot of trips. For the most part—despite the occasional hiccup—we have been lucky.

We have been lucky with the flights. But this time, both going and returning, our flights were missed, cancelled, delayed and just not very comfortable (in a first-world complaint sort of way).

Long story short: Missed connection in Newark, next flight cancelled, next flight delayed, and delayed, and delayed.

This would not have been so bad if we had not been in Newark’s United terminal, which handles short flights and therefore has all the amenities, comfort and grandeur of a bus station.

We finally took off at 11:30 PM after 12 hours in the airport.

(We did, however, take off in a thunderstorm, which made for a lively flight.)

Overall, we were lucky. Others didn’t even make it out that day. And I just saw on FaceBonk that my niece has been in Newark since Tuesday trying to get to Italy.


What the departures board looked like while we were waiting

(First World Problem: On the return trip, the in-flight entertainment was on a loop. There were a number of channels you could select, each one showing a movie. The movies all started, apparently, when the plane did, so when I went to look for some diversion, all the movies were already on. There was no indication of what the movies were or how long they had been playing. When the movies ended, they repeated, but since all the movies were not the same length, you could only watch one, partial, movie, then switch to another, partial, movie. I know this is a really small thing, but c’mon, that’s 1970s technology.)

My final three words on this: “United,” “Never” and “Again.”

Moving on.

We have been lucky with the hire car. Never a scratch. This year: three.

We have been lucky with timing. This year, my son, his wife and the G-kids moved house while we were there. (They were supposed to have moved last month but, you know, closings.)

We have been lucky with the weather. This year, it rained every day, except the last day, which was, oddly enough, the 14th day.

This, you see, was our 13th trip. I didn’t know it at the time, I just went along in a fog thinking, “Why is everything going wrong?” I’m not triskaidekaphobic or anything, but when I got home and realized what number this trip was, it all made sense.

We’re back now, and I’ll write up our adventures soon. Until then, watch out for that pesky number…you know the one.

We went to visit our favorite cafe, but it was closed. So we went to a different one.
Pretentious, confusing and expensive, and this was our order number.
I'm not superstitious or anything, I'm just sayin'