Sunday, October 7, 2018

Of Socks Logos and Self-assurance

I bought socks today. Not an earth-shattering opening, I know. However, as usual, my quest did not go according to plan.

The thing is, I don’t buy socks in Britain very often. I tend to buy them in America, where I can buy a bale of them at a reasonable price—plain, thick, comfy, bog-standard socks, and lots of them. The last time I needed to do this was a few years ago. I brought them home, put them in my sock rotation and forgot about socks for several blissful years.

Unbeknownst to me, there was a huge flaw in my plan. When I installed the new socks, I retired all my old ones, and thereafter, conscientiously rotated them so they all got equal wear. (As you can see, I am rather meticulous about socks—or anything, really; some people might call it “Obsessive.”) This is a regimen that pleases me, and it has served me well over the years, until last week, when all my socks expired at the same time.

Consequently, over the past few days, I have thrown out almost all my socks. I still have a couple left, so it wasn’t an emergency, not until I realized we were going on holiday soon and I didn’t have enough socks to see me through.

And so, I went out to buy socks.

This would be so much easier for me if I could just shop somewhere else, like 1986. Sadly, I am stuck in the present and, although they have socks here, they are not as I know them. First of all, they come in packs of three, or four, or six. None of these numbers fit evenly into a week. I’d have to buy seven packages to come out with a number evenly divisible by the days of the week. Or are there days you aren’t supposed to wear socks? Tuesdays and Thursdays, perhaps?

I am certain I have seen, many years ago, packages of socks with the days of the week printed on them. That would surely have been a pack of seven. Or maybe I’m thinking of girls’ panties. (It wouldn’t have been mens’ underwear—they come in a 12-pack with the months of the year written on them.)

At any rate, buying a pack of seven, or a bale large enough where a week’s worth became irrelevant, was out of the question. Sort of.

There was a store that had socks in large quantities, of the right type, and in the desired color, but they had logos on them—obtrusive, gaudy logos. Never mind that no one would be able to see them, I’d know they were there, and I have a thing about being a walking billboard, especially when I have to pay for the privilege.

This isn’t an issue I generally have to grapple with when buying socks. Apparently, however, someone has discovered that, if you put a logo on socks, you can charge more for them, and while I don’t have a problem with this per se, I would at least like to be offered a choice. If I pay a little extra—beyond the extra you have already tacked on—can I have them without the friggin’ logo?

Apparently not.

In other stores, where socks came in smaller quantities, logos were still there in abundance. It was mystifying as well as frustrating. I put it down to the insecurity.

Back in the day (needless to say, we’re talking about MY day), if you wanted people to know you appreciated quality products, you could buy a garment—a Ralph Lauren polo shirt, for example—with a tiny, tasteful logo on the left breast. These days, you can get the same shirt with a hulking, huge logo, that screams “I paid more for this shirt than you spend on groceries in a month!”

Are we that insecure when it comes to ostentatious displays of affluence? Apparently so, for we now have the same sized logos on our socks.

I was about to despair when I happened into the dress-socks section, which is not a location I would normally find footwear appropriate to my current lifestyle. However, I happened to glance at a pack of socks that were nearly the right color, and nearly the desired thickness. Additionally, and unavoidably, they had a logo, but it was tasteful, something that didn’t broadcast low self-esteem. Still, I might have allowed these slight variations in scope to disqualify them, had it not been for one, crucial, selling point: they came in a pack of seven.

I bought them immediately, took them home and tossed them into my suitcase without even opening the package. Hopefully they’ll work out, or I’ll be spending the entire holiday barefoot.

Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about my underwear; I just changed into my October pair.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Practice Retirement Half-Year Review

Come September my wife will have been on her practice retirement for six months, so I think it’s about time for a review.

All in all, it’s going well. There are no more morning rushes, followed by panicked returns and frenzied searches for whatever it was she forgot. It is, as I often tell her, like an endless weekend.

The transition period went smoothly, as well, with only a minor hiccup in my morning routine. Prior to retiring, my wife rose (unwillingly, it must be said) at 6 AM, got ready for work and left around 7. This meant I had to get up at 5:30 so I could be relatively awake, in my office and—more to the point—out of her way by 6.

Knowing that she didn’t have to get up until 8 AM meant I didn’t have to get up until…well, 8 AM. I would tell myself that staying in bed wouldn’t matter because I had the whole day ahead of me, but with my wife home, I never managed to get around to the writing because I’d rather spend time with her than sit in my office and stare at a blank screen for hours on end. Every Monday I made a new resolution to start getting up at 5:30 again, and every Monday I failed. Weeks of this saw me getting precious little work done, so after a month of chronic failure, I realized I was going to have to do something about it.

I wish I could say that I was clever enough to come up with a solution on my own, but I had to go to the web and get a life-hack. It goes like this:

I have my alarm go off as usual at 5:30, but I have a second alarm in my office set to go off—with the loudest, most obnoxious alarm I could find—at 5:45. So, after my alarm goes off, I have 15 minutes to get out of bed, get to my office and shut the other alarm off before it wakes up my wife, and half the people in the apartment block.

That has worked brilliantly, so everything has fallen into place and now neither of us can imagine life any other way.

Over the years, I’ve listened to people talk about their other half’s retirement as something they dreaded. They said they couldn’t imagine them being home all day, they would be in the way, it would be boring, they would get on each other’s nerves.

I’m happy to say that is not the case with us. I like having my wife around all the time and, at least as far as I can tell, being with me all day hasn’t had a detrimental effect on her, either. We go for walks in the park and stop for tea in the café. We browse the bookshops, visit the nature reserve and spend one morning a week at the leisure center doing Tai Chi.

There are drawbacks. On our walks, I often run monologues in my head to figure out what day of the week it is. They go something like this: “It’s Tuesday today, isn’t it? Then why is the market in town? It can’t be Thursday already; we just had Thursday. Saturday? That must be it.” Then, in conversation, I’ll casually mention to my wife that it’s Saturday, just to let her know I’m on top of things, and then she tells me it’s actually Sunday.

Also, where I used to have large blocks of time on my own—sweet silence, wherein I could procrastinate, take naps, wander around the neighborhood and, occasionally, do a bit of work—I now am with her almost all the time. Oddly, this has upped my productivity because I need to make the best use of the quiet hours in the morning.

The only other big change to my life—now that I’m under continual, adult supervision—is that I haven’t run with scissors in a long time, and I sort of miss that.

Mostly, however, I am glad to have her here, and it no longer seems odd that she is around all the time, and she openly wonders (as did I after I quit work) how she managed to fit a job into her busy life.

Unlike my practice retirement, which ended randomly when my office called and asked me to come back, my wife’s has a specific Use By date: she has to return to work (or not) on the 1st of April, and the “Or Not” part has to be decided by December, which means she has to start thinking about whether she wants to go back to work (or not) about…now.

At this point, neither of us knows which way she is going to go, but I do know, if she does decide to go back, getting up in the morning is going to come as shock to her.

Maybe she could benefit from my multiple-alarm hack.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018


Oh, yeah, we went to America. Sorry, I kinda forgot.

We left over a month ago and got back three weeks ago. And by the next day it seemed to slip into the past, as vacations are wont to do. I think this trip, more than others, slipped my mind for a variety of reasons: it was a shorter trip than usual, we didn’t take any side trips, and the weather was just the same as in Britain.

The decision to cut the visit short was based on our initial decision to go in July. I knew it would be hot, and the last time we were there in the summer my wife ended up in A&E. We hoped a shorter stay might prevent that from happening again. I’m not sure why we thought that; it only takes one afternoon of unrelenting sun to put some people on a gurney with a saline drip in their arm.

Chocolate health food. Yeah, we're in America.
Accordingly, we decided to take it easy on this trip, and stayed close to home. And home, this year, revolved around my son’s new house, which has a built-in swimming pool and central air conditioning. This, I found, made the 100-plus temperatures bearable. Just knowing the pool and AC were available made sitting in the shade, drinking beer and sweating, more enjoyable. Back in my day, knowing the only thing you could do to escape the heat was to drive to the nearest supermarket and stand in the frozen-food aisle, made hot days more oppressive.

We did manage one side trip, but that was just out to Cazenovia, the small town in mid-state New York where my daughter-in-law grew up. This was, by the by, the entire point of visiting during July. I wanted my wife to see an authentic, small-town, fourth of July celebration, and Cazenovia provided the perfect location.

Cazenovia has, somehow, become stuck in the late 1950s or early 60s, and is now some sort of Stepford town that looks like something out of My Three Sons. When walking down the street, you wouldn’t be surprised to see Fred MacMurray, or Ozzie and Harriet, step out onto their porch and wave at you.

(Gosh, you need to be real old to get those references.)

Hey, look! It's Ozzie and Harriet's house!
We went to Cazenovia early on the morning of the 4th of July to see my daughter-in-law run a ten-mile race around Cazenovia Lake. She finished about 9:30AM, but it was already hot by then. She said her time was about 9-minutes a mile, for those of you who care about such things.

Waiting for the race to end: My son, my granddaughter, my wife
my grandson and my other grandson.
My wife and I left my son and his family with their family and went off on our own adventure, which involved the shops and cafés of Cazenovia, checking into our boutique hotel and watching the 4th of July parade.

What is a small-town parade without a tractor pulling a wagon laiden
with young ladies on hay bales waving at people?
And that night, we watched the fireworks over Cazenovia lake. It was one of those rare, perfect days, the sort you normally only see on Leave It To Beaver.

Credit: Cazenovia Chamber of COmmerce
The next day, we all returned to my son’s house to continue sitting in the shade, drinking beer and sweating.

I think this was the main reason the holiday was so easily forgotten. We left Britain on a sunny, hot day, enjoyed a stretch of hot, sunny days in America, and then returned to hot, sunny days in Britain. Outside of my own bed, access to a swimming pool and readily available air conditioning, there was very little difference.

The haul: though the list is getting shorter, you still cannot get Cream-o-Wheat or French
Burnt Peanuts here. You can get pipe tobacco, but it is three times the price I pay in the US.
An interesting aside: we spent one morning in the Biergarten in Albany watching
England beat Sweden 2-nil in front of an audience of cheering locals.
When did America discover the World Cup? Last I knew, no one over there had heard of it.
My apologies to friends I couldn’t see on this whistle-stop tour, and assurances that, next time, we’ll come in cooler weather and stay a bit longer.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Another Day in Paradise

Here comes another beautiful, sunny day. When will the torment end?

Brits are happiest when their weather is awful. Oh, they’ll complain about it, and claim to be tired of grey, wet days in June, windswept Julys and August afternoons that require a puffer jacket and wellies, but deep down (actually, not so deep) they’re reveling in their misery. But what would you expect from a people whose finest hour was when the Germans were dropping bombs on them?

Accordingly, this spate of hot, sunny, summer-like weather has them in a state of panic. Granted, it is hot here, New York Hot, as I like to call it. I know it is as hot as New York because I was just there, and it is just as hot here as it was there, and to be fair to the Brits, that means temps in the mid-90s, which is pretty much unheard of.

A strange sight. Shorts, that is.
So, they panic. They’ve rarely seen weather like this, and, granted, they have to endure it without air conditioning, but sitting in the shade with a cold glass of Pimms and enjoying the unusually fine weather doesn’t seem to be an option.

The standard greeting these days is, “Hot, isn’t it?” and the news stories are all about how hot it is, as if we don’t already know.

We get shown weather maps like this all day long; it doesn't help.
As someone who has gone through many a heat wave—and in the days before air conditioning—allow me to tell you this: it is hot, and it will be hot until it stops being hot. Complaining about it only makes it worse, and panicking makes it worse yet, so just relax and enjoy it. You’ll be back to normal, grey, rainy, cool summer days before you know it. In the meantime, do what we used to do back in the day—go to a supermarket and stand in the frozen food aisle.

I, for one, am relishing the unusual weather. It’s a joy to finally experience a real summer again, especially when you consider that, for the first five years that I lived here, I didn’t even own a short-sleeved shirt.

So, Brits, chill out. Get back to complaining about Brexit, grab a cold beer or a G&T with lots of ice and find a shady spot to sit and admire the flawless blue sky. Expose your white skin to the sun (but not for too long!), watch the grass grow brown, and savor the dusty, dry scent of summer heat. Trust me, you’ll miss it when it’s gone.

This is the grass outside my flat. Most of Britain looks like this now.
Not so Green and Pleasant, is it?
The good news is, it’s due to rain tomorrow. I expect everyone will complain about it.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Isn’t That Special

I’m on the Special K diet, and I’m pretty sure it’s all my fault.

We were visiting my son in America the other week and he and his wife told us how they had taken the Special K Challenge* and had both lost a significant amount of weight (as if they needed to; she’s a marathon runner and he’s an ex-marine and still in prime condition). This diet involves having Special K for breakfast and lunch, and a light, nutritious meal for dinner, for a period of two weeks. I noted that I liked Special K and often had it for breakfast, so it would be an easy diet for me. The next thing I knew, after landing back in the UK, my wife and I had bought two big boxes of the cereal and I was putting my money where my mouth was, so to speak.

I don’t mind, really. As I said, I like Special K, so having it for lunch isn’t much of a change and having it for breakfast is no change at all, which is the problem. After a week, I haven’t lost an ounce and have, in fact, gained weight.

If you do go on the Special K diet, it would probably be best if you chose the
Original Special K rather than the Chocolate Delight Special K. Just sayin'.
For the record, my wife and I are not fans of fad diets. I’m pretty comfortable with my weight, and I am bang on the Normal range on the BMI chart, as long as I record my height while standing tip-toe. The only reason we went on this diet was that it seemed an easy win, and I would like to put a crimp in my weight-gain trajectory.

When I was in my twenties, I weighed one-hundred and twenty pounds, in my thirties, I weighed in the one-thirties, and so on. As you can see, comfortable with my weight or not, I have concerns for the future, so dropping ten pounds would be a welcome reversal. I look at it as future-proofing my weight. I do not, however, hold out much hope; I think I am destined to weight as much as I do and there is very little I can do about it.

Weight is a direct result of calorie intake versus activity. My wife and I are well aware of this, so rather than diet, we traditionally seek to decrease our calorie intake and increase our activity. To this end, I have—over the years—stopped taking sugar in my coffee and gave up having a chocolate biscuit (cookie) with my nightly cup of tea. We have also cut down on the number of times we go out to dinner, from several times a month to special occasions, and instead eat healthy, balanced meals at home (my wife is a vegetarian, so we eat a lot of couscous, lentils and rice, which is not a problem, because I like couscous, lentils and rice; but unlike my wife, I also like bacon burgers, meatloaf and sausage rolls). Lately, I have stopped ordering muffins to go with our cups of tea at the café and, when we go to the cinema, we don’t buy any treats to eat while watching the movie.

I know that doesn’t sound like much, but on a whole, that takes a big bite out of our monthly calorie intake, and coupled with that, we are increasing our activity. And do you know how much weight all this self-denial has helped me lose? Absolutely none. In my mind, it would be better to keep all those treats and just remain at my current weight.

But we are where we are, and that is in the middle of our fortnightly experiment with Special K. I have fourteen more bowls to get through before I can return to bacon burgers, meatloaf and sausage rolls.

This is, as long as I don’t gain too much weight on this diet.

The Special K Diet: your millage May Vary.
Photo Credit: Stole it from a random website and changed it
enough (I hope) to avoid copyright infringement lawsuits.

* Special K, Kellogg’s Cereals or General Mills have not paid me for endorsing their cereal or promoting the Special K Challenge diet, nor have I written this post in exchange for products. And I’m a little bit miffed about that.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Too Old to OCD

Here we are, flying across the Atlantic again. Our 13th Trip is behind us so I’m not waiting for anything to go wrong again. I know it will but I’m a little more insouciant about it now.

If you count all the times I have done this flight, including those without my wife, I have done this trip 17 and a half times (the one-half being that time I came over to England and never returned) so there is very little to surprise me anymore.

Traditionally, I get through a flight by bitching about each of the segments—taxi to airport, security song and dance, waiting for our flight—but I just don’t have the energy for that these days.

Overall, it’s been a sort of loose trip. We packed, but not as carefully and meticulously as usual. I only got the cases down two days before we had to leave, and we sort of threw things we thought we’d need into them. And none of my usual “going to America” rituals came into play.

It’s not that I don’t want to go, which I don’t—I would happily have stayed in the UK this week to enjoy the glorious and nearly-as-hot-as-New-York weather—but I’m getting sick of being sick of the effort it takes to get there. All the moaning about the inconveniences and the delays and the food and… I simply can’t muster up any enthusiasm for that.

Therefore, I’m just going along with it, without all the rituals I used to employ to help pass the time and assure a safe flight. I’m still doing some of the rituals, but that’s because, in cases like this, they are truly important.

I recently found out they call this behaviour “Magic Thinking,” where a person thinks, “If I do such and such, then this bad thing won’t happen, or this good thing will happen.” I was surprised; it’s not magic, it works. Every time I fly I wear my lucky underwear and we have never crashed. What more proof do you need?

But, overall, being OCD takes a lot of effort and, these days, I can’t be arsed Oh, I’m still OCD, just not as much as I used to be.

I know there are cans in the cupboard with the labels turned to face the back or, heaven forbid, stacked upside down, but I don’t have the desire to set them right. You know, with the labels facing forward and right-side-up, as God intended.

Over the years, many spreadsheets have fallen by the wayside. I used to keep track of how much I exercised, what I ate, all the movies and plays I went to and all the places I have lived. That final spreadsheet came complete with a coding system comparing things like cost, porch, access to amenities, size, storage and location. These ratings were automatically run through a formula the produced a Quality of Life indicator. I no longer understand the coding system, or the formula. Other spreadsheets had similar systems that I no longer understand, and almost all of them had charts and graphs. I must have spent half my day updating spreadsheets to quantify what I was doing the other half of the day.

But my flight rituals, they’re important. Mainly because—as we have just discovered—they work. The underwear is the one people know about, because my wife knows, and we joke about it with friends. But there are others, those that other people do not know about. They are the true talismans. Because they work. But that’s about as OCD as I care to be these days.

I continue to keep meticulous track of our finances, even though I don’t really want to. I can’t put that aside, however, because it’s required (taxes, royalties, and all that). Likewise, I keep a spreadsheet of every book I have ever read but that’s also necessary because, well, they’re books I’ve read. I mean, you have one too, don’t you?

I never went to therapy for my OCD. I never needed to. I was comfortable with it, and it served me well, and now that it doesn’t it has fallen by the wayside. I now spend a lot more time doing things and a lot less time keeping track of them. And I don’t go through as many mandatory rituals.

But I still put on my lucky underwear every time I fly.

This is my 9th post of 2018. Above is a graph comparing post quantities from previous years.
What makes you think I'm OCD?

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Choiring Along

I haven’t updated in a while, but that doesn’t mean I’m not doing anything. I’m actually a lot busier now than I have been in a long time. It’s just that I’m not doing anything you’re likely to be interested in.

Aside from our calendar of social engagements (bit of exaggeration there) and random domestic emergencies (broken windscreen, waiting for a mattress to be delivered and then wondering how we’re going to get rid of the old one), the activities filling up the bulk of my time include writing and singing, and I realize these activities are of little interest to anyone not A) currently writing a novel, or B) actively engaged in choral singing.

I have, therefore, elected to talk about my choir, figuring you would prefer that over me talking about my writing, in much the same way as you might prefer to be stripped naked, tied to a fence and beaten with a rosebush over, say, being dipped in a vat of hot oil.

Recall that I was accidentally promoted to the office of Choir Director after volunteering to be a temporary instructor for the foundering Show Choir. Then Show Choir abandoned us and threw me into the deep end and, well, here we are. But, I hasten to add, it is a good place.

The first weeks of being a pretend choir director were, as you might expect, a bit rocky. Aside from me not knowing what I was doing, numbers were a worry. We bumped along, flirting with single digits for a long time. On one occasion, only seven people showed up for choir practice. Seven people are not a choir, they are a septet.

All through that time, when every week looked as if it might be our last, I kept thinking: “If we get our numbers up to twenty, then we will be a real choir.”

Eventually, our numbers grew to a baker’s dozen and I accepted a booking at the Horsham Day of Music, which seemed to galvanize the choir. Fear is a powerful motivator.

Long story short, we had an outstanding debut. The choir performed brilliantly, and we managed to hide our shortcomings—which included having only an alto section—through creative arrangements and careful song selection.

It was a triumph, and they were justifiably proud, but it left me with the problem of what to do next. And on top of that, because of our public appearance, we—incredibly—gained another member. And another. And another. We now have, at last count, twenty members, over half of whom know me only as The Choir Director instead of that guy form the tenor section who got a little ahead of himself.

I would agree that, having a real choir—with Soprano and Alto sections, even—means I am, in fact, a real choir director, but that still doesn’t mean I know what I’m doing.

I see this as a critical time for the choir. Having gained so many members in such a short time, it is essentially a new choir, and that means I need to up my game. As such, I’m putting my newly acquired music theory knowledge to the test by arranging songs into two-part harmony, which is a challenge for both the choir and myself.

It’s a fine line to walk, making the choir challenging enough to hold everyone’s interest, but not so challenging that it drains the fun out of singing. I suspect finding and walking that line is the goal of every choir director. And it isn’t easy, because it’s never the same. Some choirs like to be stretched, others prefer to just have a nice sing-along, and if what they’re doing doesn’t suit them, they’ll walk.

And having finally achieved the goal of acquiring twenty members, I can’t afford to lose any.

This is one of the songs we did at our debut performance. The video was taken by the husband of one of the members and it demonstrates the disadvantages we faced. We were a small choir, singing outside to a group of not-always-interested people. Still we held our own and, for the people standing directly in front of us, we produced a good sound.

What is missing from the video is my introduction, explaining that, because it was an all-female choir, I would be taking the tenor parts.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Glory, Glory

I have been living in Britain for over sixteen years now, and in my earliest days here, I heard about an ice cream concoction called a Knickerbocker Glory. It was, they told me, the ultimate childhood treat, a combination of ice cream, whipped cream, sauces, sprinkles and other yummy stuff served up in a tall glass.

It sounded like something I needed to try, so I kept searching for one, but they were nowhere to be found. The more I looked, the more elusive they seemed. My friends assured me they were a favored childhood treat, but it seemed they had become extinct during the ensuing years.

Yet I still heard rumors of them. Like the Yeti or Bigfoot, there were unverified sightings by friends and acquaintances, but never any concrete proof that they still existed in the wild or, more importantly, any sighting of my own.

Then, in an ice cream shop along the seafront in Ramsgate in Kent, there, on the menu, was the elusive Knickerbocker Glory. Naturally, I ordered one straight away.

Yummy, but vertical.

It was everything my friends had promised it would be, but left me wondering why it was considered the ultimate treat. I enjoyed it thoroughly, but in the end, it was just a vertical banana split, without the bananas. A banana split, being horizontal, has much more room for whipped cream and toppings and, as an added bonus, you get a banana with it.

While I am glad I finally got to tick that off of my To Do list, if I ever visit that ice cream parlor again, I’ll order the banana split instead.

Horizontal, and yummier.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

My Name is Michael

I’ve just had what you might call an intervention.

I guess I was in denial. You know the tune: I’m not dependent on it, I’m just a casual user, I can quit any time. It’s a comfortable little lie to live inside of, until something happens…

So, yeah, this morning, my Smartphone broke.

I visited most of the seven stages of grief—desperation, disbelief, bargaining, anger, hope—everything except acceptance. I performed CPR (Continually Pressing Reset) and tried defibrillation by plugging it back into the charger, but nothing worked. It happened hours ago and I’m still carrying my poor, dead phone around in my pocket, like Kala, the gorilla-mother of Tarzan, who continued to clutch her dead baby to her chest until she found a substitute in the white-skinned child. And like Kala, I’m still taking out its cold, dead body to shake it and press the ON/OFF button, hoping against hope that it will miraculously come back to life.

I was going to post a photo of my dead Smartphone,
but I need my Smartphone to take the photo.
Oh, the humanity!
I think my lack of acceptance is because it happened so suddenly. If it had been behaving strangely, or had a warranty about to expire, I might have been more emotionally prepared for it. But it was so sudden. Its alarm went off this morning, like always, I turned it off, unplugged it from the charger, checked my e-mail, updated my Garmin Activity-Tracker, read a few news articles, and put it on the desk beside me.

Not five minutes later, I got an e-mail saying I had a message from HMRC telling me I needed to log into their site to get an important message from them. (For you US readers, HMRC stands for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which is the UK version of the IRS, and like the IRS, you do NOT ignore messages from them.) So I went to the site, put in my username and password and got a screen telling me they had—for security reasons—sent a text, containing the access key, to my mobile phone.

As soon as I picked up the phone, I knew something was wrong. It seemed colder than usual, less lively, less animated. I felt a chill bloom in my stomach. And then I looked into its blank, dead face. It was, it was…sorry, I can’t talk about it.

Since then, I’ve missed several alarms that were to go off to remind me to do things, I couldn’t check my schedule, I couldn’t use the satnav, I couldn’t look anything up, I couldn’t listen to any music, I couldn’t access the calculator. The emptiness stretched on and on.

It was then that I realized I had a problem, so I checked (on my laptop, because my phone…well, you know) for some group to help me, someone going through the same thing I was, and to my relief, there is an  organization to assist people like me. It’s called by the unwieldy name of Addicted to Smartphone (Small, Handheld Or Large) Electronic Systems, but is better known by the acronym ASSHOLES.

It was a relief to know I was in good company. Those people who use their Smartphones in the cinema or the theatre, they are ASSHOLES, the couples in restaurants who, over dinner, ignore each other and spend the evening glued to their Smartphones, they are ASSHOLES, the people who cluster in front of paintings in an art gallery taking photos of it on their Smartphones, they are ASSHOLES, the people on the train who shout into their Smartphones, “I’M ON THE TRAIN…” they are ASSHOLES, as are the people who wander into traffic while sending texts, or take calls while they are driving. They are, like me, all ASSHOLES.

But now that I know I’m one of the ASSHOLES, I can start my recovery. I can begin to start learning to live without my Smartphone, to be more self reliant, to realize I don’t have to be connected all the time. And someday, by the grace of God, and by taking it one day at a time, I may no longer be one of the ASSHOLES.

Yeah, her, too.
I am, however, going to go out promptly tomorrow morning to see if I can get my phone fixed. It’s okay though, really, I don’t have a problem. I’m not dependent on it, or anything, I’m just a casual user, I can quit any time.

If you want to find out if you are one of the ASSHOLES, take this quiz:

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Practice Retirement

My wife begins her retirement today. Sort of.

She’s actually been off for the past four days, but that doesn’t count because it was the Easter Holiday weekend and she’d have had it off anyway. Also, she’s not really retired, she’s just sampling the life of leisure to see if it suits her. It’s a sort of practice retirement, to see if she’s ready for the real thing.

Most people don’t find retirement difficult, but my wife has one of those jobs that defines you, like police, fire fighter or serial killer. She works in social services. It’s a calling, not a job, and it’s what she has wanted to do from an early age, so giving it up is not something to be undertaken lightly. Our Plan had her retiring last summer, but she decided she wanted to keep working. The Tory government being what it is, however, meant that the job, and its increasingly insane directives, began putting undue stress on her, and I encouraged her to rethink her decision.

Stole this off the web.
Fortunately, and uncharacteristically, her employer came to the rescue by offering something called a Career Break, which would allow her to take a year off—without pay—to rest, recharge, rethink and then return to work. Or not. It proved to be the prefect solution: she gets to be a layabout for a year, realize what it is like to have a lot of time on her hands but no income, and then decide if she wants to keep it that way or go back to the job that was slowly killing her. Really, it was a no-brainer, so she took the offer and her final day of work (for a year, at least) was last Thursday.

So far, thanks to the holiday weekend, it’s had no impact on us, although we did celebrate last Friday by going out to dinner at our town’s Michelin star restaurant, because there is no better way to commemorate a 50% loss of aggregate income than by spending the equivalent of our bi-weekly grocery bill on a single meal. But it was worth it just to be in a restaurant where the servers don’t wear name-tags and you’re discouraged from hanging your coat over the back of your chair. From today onward, however, things are bound to be a bit different.

When my wife was only home on weekends, I had the whole week to myself. I’d get up early, then write, play music, go into town, take a nap or go see friends, and not have to worry about informing anyone of my plans. On weekends, there was a different routine, involving a cup of tea first thing in the morning (yes, I do get up and make my wife a cup of tea first thing in the morning), then, generally, a walk in the park, a tour around town (just to see what they’re getting up to these days), a protracted discussion about what we might have for lunch, and then having it. And then I’d follow her around the flat and annoy her for the rest of the day.

That’s fine for two days in a row, but now every day is Saturday. That’s a lot of cups of tea, which I don’t mind, but it’s also a lot of days I might be tempted to sleep late, which would impact my writing. So I somehow have to get used to the idea that, although my wife is not getting up to go to work, I still need to get up early and do as much writing as I can before it’s time to bring her a cup of tea because, after that, I’ll just follow her around the flat and annoy her for the rest of the day.

I expect there will be a lot of adjustments. I also suspect that, like me, after a few months she’ll begin to wonder how she ever fit a full-time job into her schedule.

In anticipation of this event, and feeling that I ought to keep at least a little of my time free to spend with my wife, I sat down and listed all the tasks I was performing, and how much time they took up. The total came to 46 hours per week. Now, I don’t necessarily have to do all of those things every week, but still, that’s more than a full-time job, and I’m supposed to be retired!

So, as you can see, changes need to occur in both our lives if we’re going to achieve any sort of balance. I’m all for that; I suspect a lot of the things I do are unnecessary and won’t be missed if I drop them from my routine.

We’ll be keeping that morning cup of tea, however.

Stole this, too, but then I modified it.

Monday, March 26, 2018

First World, Third Age, Thirteenth Trip

Years ago, before the notion of leaving the States occurred to me, if someone had said to me that, one day, I would be sitting on the quay-side, in Malta, gazing over the sparkling Mediterranean Sea and thinking to myself, “I liked Cyprus better,” I, literally, could not have believed them. It would have been akin to attempting to convince me that one day I’d be sitting in a café on Mars thinking, “They don’t do a grilled cheese here the way they do on Moon Base 7.”

I am here to tell you, however, that it is so. Not Moon Base 7’s famous grilled cheese sandwiches, but the fact that I have become such a world-weary traveler that I can sit in an extremely desirable Mediterranean destination, compare it to another, and find it wanting.

This opinion, I hasten to add, is not Malta’s fault. Malta is, in fact, a perfectly adequate island, in possession—I am certain—of many fine qualities. Those qualities, however, remain eclipsed by factors that, not long ago, would have been incidental, but which now loom large enough to derail an entire holiday. The first, and most pervasive of these, is the hotel.

Time was, a hotel was just a place to store my stuff while I went out and did things. More recently, however, I have come to appreciate certain qualities that most tourist hotels offer, these being an assortment of the following:

  • A decent sized room, sometimes large enough for a table and chairs.
  • A balcony, or outdoor seating area.
  • An adequately sized bathroom.
  • A café/restaurant/lounge area where you can sit with a drink and relax with a book.
  • Maid service that has your room cleaned by, say, 2 PM.
  • A view of something, anything.
Our hotel in Malta had none of these.

View from our room.
The room was tiny, with an archer’s slit of a window that looked out onto a brick wall.
The bathroom was so small that, after you showered, you had to dry off in the bedroom.
And there was no place in the hotel to sit an relax, which was a shame because the maids didn’t clean the room until 5PM, which made it less like a hotel and more like a B&B, where you were expected to get up and leave and not return until the end of the day. This wouldn’t have been so bad had it not been for the second factor: The Area.

Malta is lovely. On our wanderings we found much to admire, but the half-mile on either side of our accommodation was tourist hell. It was on a busy road, one side of which—the hotel side—was packed with restaurants, one after the other. And the dining rooms of these restaurants extended onto the sidewalk, so you were essentially walking through an endless string of dining rooms, dodging waiters, diners and other pedestrians. (We did, in fact, step into a restaurant's dining room when we stepped out of the hotel.)

The other side of the road—once you found a crossing—hugged the waterfront and might have been idyllic had it not been for the barkers. Every ten feet you encountered someone touting bus tours or boat excursions, making what should have been a nice stroll into something reminiscent of a county fair midway.

"Step right up! Buy a trip for the little lady! C'mon now, best deal in town!"
Even this might have been manageable had it not been for a third factor: we were both sick.

I felt bad on the flight, and worse when we arrived. Then my wife got a cold. And being forced out of our room and not allowed back in until 5PM and having not much to do except wander around and pose as bait for barkers did not make for pleasant days.

Valletta, just across the bay from us. We went twice. It is a 2018 European City of Culture.
It was marvelous; you must visit!
I realize all the above smacks of First World Problems (Whaa! I went to Malta and didn’t have a marvellous time!) and the fact that I am older than I used to be (give me identical circumstances—illness and all—shave 20 years off my age, and I’d have had a brilliant adventure) but privilege and age aside, you can’t deny that this holiday did not stack up favorably when compared to others we have taken, and I put that down to the final factor: triskaidekaphobia

Midway through the holiday, I began to suspect that triskaideka-trickery was at work, and as soon I go home I checked my holiday spreadsheet (you knew I had one, didn’t you?) and found, to no surprise, that our Malta trip was our thirteenth excursion to the Continent.

I am not superstitious (much) but, I can’t deny the evidence, or the outcome.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Perfect Storm

I freely admit to being a Weather Weenie. I proudly tell people I haven’t had to clear the snow from my roof in 16 years, and I respond to complaints about Britain’s famously dreary weather with the boring but true observation of, “I don’t have to shovel drizzle.” The idea of spending another winter in conditions similar to Upstate New York is not something that inspires warm nostalgia, and I have been grateful for the past five or six years of agreeably mild winters.

Still, I wouldn’t have minded going through some of what happened to the rest of country this past week. I’m not a masochist, but it seems like a missed opportunity.

Here’s what happened:

This winter has been agreeably mild, as well. It would be cold for a few days, then it would go into the 50s or 60s, then we’d have some cold, rainy weather, followed by a string of 50-degree days. It was, in short, a normal winter, and spring was already within our grasp. Crocus, snow drops, even daffodils were blooming, trees were budding, and the air smelled of damp earth and the promise of new growth. It was lovely.

But we are Brits, and we love to complain about the weather, often to hyperbolic degrees, therefore, when an “Arctic Blast” was predicted for last week, I figured we’d just get a few days of chilly weather before, once again, enjoying more spring-like days. I wasn’t alone in thinking this: the weather is so routinely dramatized that many of us were surprised by just how cold the Arctic Blast –dubbed The Beast From the East (the Brits do love word-play)—was.

When it gets down to Zero here, that’s just 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and I don’t consider that cold. It rarely does get down to freezing, by the way, and when it does, it doesn’t stay there for long. This Arctic air, however, brought the temps down into the low 20s F, which is cold by anyone’s definition, and they stayed there, day and night, which, in my experience, is unprecedented.

This resulted in the ground freezing and ice forming on puddles and ponds. I know you people from back home are reading this thinking, “Yeah, so what?” but there are school-aged children here that have never seen ice in the wild.

The cold caused some disruptions because we’re not used to it being that cold for that long. Then, after a few days, something unexpected happened: Storm Emma came up from the south, met the cold air from Siberia, and the snow started.

Storm Emma meets The Beast From the East.
No, it's not a WWE Wrestling match, it's what happened this week,
with a helpful hand to explain it all.
I’ve seen it snow here before. I’ve even seen it snow a significant amount (meaning two or three inches), which would wreak havoc and cause panic for a few hours until it melted. But those incidents, in addition to being ephemeral, were also localized, so it was only one bit of the country struggling while the rest got on with their day.

This storm, however, covered the entire British Isles, dumping snow—as much as a foot and a half in places—over England, Wales, Scotland (but they’re used to it) and Ireland. The frozen ground kept the snow from melting, as did the frigid temperatures and the bitter, driving wind. What resulted was a New York Style winter, visited upon a land with a traditionally mild climate. The results were predictable.

Major roads were closed; people spent the night in their cars.
Trains stopped running, trapping people in cold, stationary carriages for hours. Roads became blocked, trapping people in their cars, sometimes over night. Airports cancelled flights or shut down completely, stranding thousands of people who couldn’t get to their destination, or go back home due to the weather.

Farmers struggled to keep their herds fed, watered and, in the case of dairy farmers, milked. To add to their misery, the daily milking had no place to go as the trucks couldn’t get to the farms, so the farmers had to dump the milk. People who could get to shops found them empty, and unable to re-stock. And at least one baby was born in a stranded car.

You generally expect to see drifts like this in Upstate New York
But people came out to help. They brought food and water to stranded travelers, they cleared snow, pulled cars out of snowdrifts, services—hospitals, police, social workers and even the people who fix your gas heating—made heroic efforts to continue running and get to people in need. A man booked a string of hotel rooms so homeless people could sleep someplace warm. They struggled, but they persevered.

During all this, I learned (there has been NOTHING on the news except reports about the weather all week) that Sussex, where I live, has been the least effected county in the country, and I’m a little bit disappointed by that.

This is the extent of our winter storm.
We’ve been, at best, inconvenienced. We have had only a dusting of snow, which made the roads slippery for a while. You can get to the shops, and there’s plenty of whatever it is you want to buy there. The trains are running (and for Southern Rail, they are running as well as they usually do, which is not very well), the roads aren’t closed, no one is stranded anywhere nearby, and we even had choir practice during the worst of it.

We’ve been lucky, but I can’t help feeling, as I watch the misery in other parts of the country, that we’ve missed out on something special, a chance to step up to a challenge, to prove ourselves in the face adversity, to re-live a little of that Blitz Spirit. Instead, we’ve just hunkered down, complained about the cold and gone about our business.

In years to come, when talk turns to the great winter storm of 2018, everyone else will have an unending supply of snowstorm-from-hell stories to tell, while all we’ll be able to do is say, “Yeah, I remember; it got cold for a while.”

Snow: it's a bitch, but it can be pretty.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Sixty-Three Years Young

Yes, it’s my birthday today and, unlike previous years, I am unabashedly owning my advanced age, because the World Health Organization has given me a reprieve.

Three years ago, I crossed the line from Middle-Age to Old, and I wasn’t very happy about that, but the WHO recently had a re-think and came up with a new Young/Middle-Aged/Old labeling paradigm, which turns me into a young man again.

As it stands now, if you subscribe to the WHO’s new guidelines—and you’d be daft not to—you are considered Young until you reach Middle-Age, which doesn’t kick in until you are 66.

As a bonus, Middle-Age has been extended to 79, so you’re not considered Old until you get to 80, which gives me some welcome breathing space.

And that’s about as nice a birthday present as anyone can get.

With luck, by the time I reach 79, the WHO will have extended Middle-Age to 90.

Me, in 1955, still very much in the Young category
Me, now.
Actually, this was last week, when I was still OLD -- that explains the grimace.
Now that I'm a young man again, I'll have to rethink the cardigan.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Ringing In the New Year

My, oh my, isn’t 2018 clocking along! It’s the 10th of January; half the year’s gone already!

With the shitstorm that was 2017 behind us, we have to hope that 2018 gets better, and not fall into the trap of thinking, “Well, it can’t get any worse.” I fear it can, what with Britain tripping over its own feet in the race to become a Third World nation, and the US careening headlong toward their goal of becoming a Banana Republic. Given that, the only thing left for us (you know, the people who aren’t responsible for the mess, but who have to suffer the consequences) is to try our best to make 2018 a good year for ourselves, on a personal level.

(You could, of course, become an activist and work to make things better on a global level, and, frankly, I hope you do, because I can’t; that’s not in my skill-set.)

Those things that I, personally, am working on to, personally, make my life a little better (or at least help me, personally, while away the hours in an agreeable manner) are, personally, getting off to an optimistic start. Unlike the wider world.

I’m afraid I need to back-track a bit here. Some time ago, something came into my life that gently altered it very much for the better: I got a shed.

It’s not actually my shed, it belongs to my mother-in-law, but I talked her into buying it to replace the old one, which was rotting away. The new one is bigger, and pretty much my domain.

It’s nowhere near as big—or as kitted out—as my dad’s shop, which was about half the size of our house, but I make do, and I have already built a number of things in it, the first being the workbench.

I wired it up with electric; it has a heater, and a kettle.
Naturally, I can only work in the shed when I’m at my MIL’s house, but I’m there often enough that I can make steady progress on my projects, and enjoy the nostalgic ambiance of making things out of wood. The scents of sawdust, varnish and pipe smoke (yeah, it’s my shed, I can smoke in it if I want to) all bring me back to the days of watching my dad working in his shop, and it is so gratifying to be following that tradition, even if I’m nowhere near as good.

The choirs are starting up next week. I have no idea how well that is going to go, but I do have hopes.

And my writing has taken an interesting turn.

I’ve written a few times about what I have been working on for the past five years -- the 8-book fantasy-adventure series for my grandsons. I also wrote about how, even though I am retired, I spend most of my time NOT writing, and earlier this year, I even posted about how I no longer consider myself to be a real writer.

I didn’t really think much more about that, or make any momentous decisions, but over the past few weeks it has occurred to me that, right now—despite labelling myself as a non-writer—I am being more consistently productive in my writing than ever before. I have finished Book V and am now working on the truncated, children’s book to send to my G-boys (as a belated Christmas gift), and am looking forward to starting Book VI. My alarm goes off every morning at 5 AM and I almost always get 1,000 words written before 8.

I don’t recall any resolutions to pull this off (or any more than the normal amount of resolutions) but, over the past few months, this has become an ingrained habit, one that I hope will carry on into the new year, and beyond.

I also had an epiphany about the series, and some welcomed information from my son. I had a bit of trouble with this year’s book, and realized I wouldn’t get the boys’ version of the book to them by Christmas. This didn’t worry me because, as I have written several times, I didn’t think they cared about them. This was, of course, due to me dropping pebbles down the well but never hearing the splash. When I told my son I wasn’t tossing a pebble in this year, however, he told me the boys would be disappointed because they look forward to the books and really like them.

Who knew?

This gave me renewed enthusiasm and some clarity on what I am trying to accomplish, which led to what I hope is the final resolution about what I am going to do with the books once I finish them. Right now, they are all rough drafts, nothing more than five individual piles of words that need to be hammered into coherent stories, but I am now far enough into the series that I feel confident enough to begin that process. And I have decided that the books will be, to the best of my ability, straight-up fantasy-adventure stories fit for publication, or, at least, self-publication.

Me, at work on my books.
(In case you haven't figured it out, this is a staged photo.)
Writing 1,000 words a day has not only helped move these stories forward, it has also spurred my Patriarch Diaries on. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your point of view, the essays I have written are far too long to post here. “Television” pushed the blog-length limit at 1,500 words, and I am now working on one about cars that is 2,000 words and counting. So, the good news is, my Patriarch Diaries are shaping up, and the good news is, I probably won’t be posting them here.

In short, my writing is going as well as it ever has, the choirs (fingers crossed) are on track, and I’m enjoying working in my shed. What else could I want?

And for my next trick.
Well, to play the piano, for one, and I have decided that 2018 is the year I learn to do it.

I’d better get busy, the year’s half gone already!