Tuesday, May 12, 2020

It’s a Classic

One day, while I was still in single-digits, somewhere around 6 or 7, I went exploring in my parent’s bedroom closet. This was because I was young, unsupervised, and very bored (there was no Netflix back then; explain it to the youngsters). At any rate, I dug through the shoes and boots, and crawled beyond the bags of cast-off clothes, into the far, darkest reaches, and discovered an old cardboard box filled with what looked like magazines.

Now, in a normal house, this would have been my dad’s porn stash, which would have solved the boredom problem until my mom caught me. Instead, it was a treasure trove of old Classics Illustrated Comics, which held my fascination for many years.

This was one of my favorites!
There were dozens in the box, and from them I gleaned a knowledge of literature I otherwise could never have attained, even if my mom had had the original books.

First of all, I wouldn’t have voluntarily picked up a volume of Great Expectations, other than to use it as a weight for pressing leaves. (Explain it to the youngsters.) Secondly, the vividly colored panels, and the actions and dialog they conveyed, brought the stories to life in a way the stilted prose of the past couldn’t hope to.

What a story! And, even now, I'm not sure
I could conquer the actual book
They were old and dogeared when I found them, and by the time I lost track of them—somewhere in my late teens—the covers were falling off, the pages were cello-taped together and every volume was worn from having been read time and time again. It is because of this serendipitous find that I am able to hold my own in a conversation about Moby Dick or Lorna Doone or King Solomon’s Mines. And even when I am not trying to fool my fellow, ersatz literary snobs (they didn’t read the books either; they just read the Cliff Notes) the knowledge they conveyed remains.

Another favorite!
In addition to classic novels, there were also comics about science and nature. I recall one that purported to show how atomic power was our friend but was, in retrospect, little more than laughably ham-fisted propaganda. Others, however, contained things like dinosaurs and information about space, the universe and everything.

Yes, I even read Gothe (pronounced Go' theee)
They also proved useful as I progressed through school, enabling me to write reports on notable books I hadn’t actually read. (This is not really an impressive feat; who among us hasn’t turned in a book report based solely on the blurb printed on the dust jacket?)

How and when I allowed these comics to slip from my grasp I cannot say, all I can say is I have regretted not keeping them, repairing them, and cherishing them. I supposed it was due to an error in my thinking (which I still suffer from) that everything remains the same. I just thought, if I wanted them again, I could find them somewhere.

Nothing like a bit of Shakespeare when you're eight and a half.
Alas, one cannot. (Unless you are prepared to source expensive collector's items, but that’s another issue.)

Desiring to give my own children a taste of this literary magic, I ordered a full set of Classics Illustrated comics for them, but they were a shadow of their former selves. Gone were the glossy covers and lively interior artwork. The ‘New’ Classics Illustrated were booklets of uninspiring line drawings. My children gave them no more than a passing glance, and I didn’t blame them. In researching this article, I found that you cannot buy them at all anymore, not in any meaningful form. More’s the pity.

This is what they looked like inside.
If I had the chance to turn back time, I would visit my eleven-year-old self and tell him to treat the comics with care. I would urge him to protect them, and to keep them in a more secure container than my dad’s old cardboard box so that, in future years, his own children might benefit, and that he also might retain some cherished memories of his youth.

Scary stuff!
Then I’d tell him to not buy a Betamax. (Explain it to the youngsters.)






Monday, May 4, 2020

Quarantine Quandaries

To start off, I have to say that,  if someone put a gun to my head and forced me to pick a period in my life where I had to suffer through a global pandemic, this would be the perfect time to choose.

Neither my wife nor I have jobs, so we don’t have to worry about losing them, yet we’re still young enough to escape being put on the “Vulnerable” list. We don’t have anyone depending on us, we’re not dependent on anyone else and we’re not stuck in a one-bedroom, inner-city flat with three kids we need to home-school while worrying about how we’re going to pay the rent. Quite the contrary; our days consist of a refreshing walk around our lovely town park followed by a range of indoor interests to keep us occupied (now, now, I’m talking about arts and crafts), and very few worries.

The sudden halt of social interaction, retail activity and travel plans was a bit of a shock, but on the upside, we’re saving a lot of money and, incredibly, losing weight. So, swings and roundabouts, as they say here.

(To explain the previous paragraph: Pre-COVID, our walk in the park always ended at a café and generally included a nose around the shops. Tea in the café wasn’t a problem, but, gee, those triple-chocolate muffins look good and, bingo…there goes the diet. Likewise, forays into shops—even when we didn’t go in to buy anything—rarely saw us emerge empty-handed. I hasten to add that none of this was a problem: treating oneself is what makes life worth living, and we were content knowing that we were helping the UK economy chug along. Now, however, when we go for our daily walk, I have to wonder about all the stuff we used to buy, and what we did with it.)

In short, quarantine isn’t as much of a hardship for us as it is for many, many others, and we are pretty much okay with it.

Pretty much.

Contented we may be, but we are now starting week seven of our Lockdown (Your Lockdown May Vary), and things are beginning to pinch around the edges. Consequently, an issue arose. The problem was our hobbies or, more specifically, my wife’s hobbies.

Unlike me and my writing, my wife’s hobbies take up room. Early on, she did a lot of knitting while seated on the sofa watching telly. This worked until she ran out of wool, so she has recently attempted to do some sewing, which has reminded her why the sewing machine she got some years ago has since been collecting dust: there is no place to use it.

Sewing requires space, and the ability to leave a project as it is and come back to it later, which takes the dining table out of the running. With nowhere else to put it, the sewing machine continued to collect dust. Likewise, art, which, in addition to being messy, requires a permanent and more spacious area than one end of the coffee table.

And this brought us back to the unassailable fact that we live in a tiny flat.

Now, we have, in the past, been able to “find” space using a variety of clever methods, but this was a big ask, and we had already wrung as much hidden space out of this rabbit hutch as was humanly possible. More, in fact. But, undaunted, we put our minds to it, hoping, once again, for a triumph of will over physics.

And we found some. Quite a lot, as it turns out.

The second bedroom, which is too small to raise veal in, is where I have my office. We tried to shoehorn a second desk in here when we moved in but abandoned the idea and, instead, I built a storage unit, so my wife at least had a place for her stuff. Most of it, anyway.

Wife's side of the Office

My Side
 But now she wanted a place to call her own. Fortunately, when I built the storage unit, I made it modular, so we were able to dismantle it and re-stack it, like a set of Tetris blocks, into a storage unit that contained a two-foot by three and a half-foot, flat, and pleasingly desk-like, area.

Same amount of storage space, but with a desk.
It looks the perfect solution, and makes me wonder what other bits of space I’ve overlooked. I’m in no hurry to search for any, though. I just hope we get released before my wife decides she needs a walk-in wardrobe.


Monday, April 20, 2020

Once More Into the Breach

Early in 2013, while wrestling with the plot of my hopefully-to-be-published second novel, I stepped back from the tangled mess I was making and diverted myself by writing a quick story for my grandsons. It involved them being transported back in time, and to England, where they faced a dragon, evil knights and a band of ruthless outlaws. (Hey, it could happen.)

In this dark-ages tale, they met an old Druid and encountered a magic stone called the Talisman.

Oh, and Arthur, they met King Arthur, too.

I spent some time trying to figure out a method of transporting the boys, and eventually settled on a cloak. This was due to my wife finding some blue, velvet curtains in a charity shop, which she made a large cloak out of, to go along with the book.

The finished product was titled The Magic Cloak.


I had two copies printed up, complete with illustrations. I put them aside to give to the boys as Christmas gifts and went back to my tangled plot.

But the little story wouldn’t let me go, and I found myself thinking more about that book than the one I was trying to write. So, I put my ‘adult’ book aside and wrote another for my grandsons.

In the second installment, they visited Roman Britain.

There, they were served some drinks, carried in by a servant girl. That was her role, to walk in, put a tray of drinks down and disappear. She didn’t even have a name. But, like the story itself, this girl wouldn’t go away. Eventually, I discovered that she wasn’t just a servant girl, she was the central figure in the book, and the lynchpin of the overall series, which continued to take shape in my mind.

The next year saw the G-Boys fighting in the Battle of Hastings, and the year after that, conscripted—along with Shakespeare—into the army that Liz the First gives her famous “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman,” speech to.

   

From the vantage point I now occupy, I can’t say how the story grew, or when decisions were reached but, as the years passed and I continued to write the books, the epic eventually solidified. Naturally, I thought I’d like to publish it, but knew from the start that I couldn’t think about that until the series came to an end. This was because each book brought new revelations, and often those revelations meant revisiting earlier books and making adjustments to the story arc. But now, the entire series has solidified and I can start thinking about going back to the beginning to rewrite and revise and see if I can make it publishable.

Once I finish the final book.

The books, you see, aren’t written in the way a sane person would write a novel, which involves a detailed plot outline. These are written using a method we in the business call “pantsing” — i.e. Writing by the seat of your pants. With only the slightest idea of where I am going. (For Book V, the entire outline read: “the boys visit The Great Exhibition in 1851 London, and have an adventure.”)


What I do is, I sit down at the beginning of every year and start to type. It’s not how I want to write these books, but there doesn’t seem to be anything I can do about it.

While I always have an idea of where the overall story is heading, the path leading to that goal remains dark and mysterious. I can only discover it by walking along it, and occasionally falling off. Each book, therefore, is born from a series of dead ends, long periods of doing nothing, protracted bouts of agonizing over where I went wrong, and a few joyful realizations that I have hit upon an unexpected, but obviously correct, direction in which to move the plot.

The book where I have the boys flying a bi-plane in WWI—Book VI—was, by far, the most torturous of writing experiences…


…until I started the next one.


I have just finished that book—Book VII—which revisits Arthur, completes the narrative circuit and sets the stage for Book VIII.

I am now several chapters into that one, and I am already floundering.

After the sweat, blood and tears of the yearly novel, and once it is neatly confined between the covers of a book, I always tell my wife that the next one will be easier. It never is. It is so gut-wrenchingly NOT easy that my annual assertion has become something of a joke. This year, however, I have a new, and undeniably true, addendum: “The next book,” I told her, “may not be easier, but it will be the last.”


[NOTE: I wrote the above shortly after I began the book, back in August of 2019.

Since then, progress has been typical:

I wrote 1,000 words in one week, then sat for two months brooding about where the book was going. Then I managed 5,000 words in a single week in November before going dormant until February, when I trashed what I had done and started over. Eventually, I got to 12,000 words, then lost momentum due to an unexpected trip to the US.

I kicked the plot around for the next few weeks and now, for some reason I won't mention, suddenly find myself able to devote a lot of time to it.

I am about halfway in, and writing a chapter a day now, so I hope to have it finished by the end of May.

And then the fun begins.]


Friday, April 10, 2020

Going for a Swim

Over the years, I’ve noted how the swimming pool at the local leisure center comes up short when compared to my memories of swimming in the creek, and how what adventurous locals refer to as “Wild Swimming” is what I simply call swimming. I therefore thought it only right that I should chronicle my recent introduction to al fresco swimming.

It started with a notice in Next Door—the local on-line community forum—when a guy named Ady asked if anyone was up for a Cold-Water swim. Due to the aforementioned reasons, I thought I owed it to myself to give it a go.

And so, on a crisp October morning, I drove the short distance to Southwater Park and met Ady at the lake shore. Turns out I was the only one insane enough to take him up on the offer. Ady was undaunted, however, and pleased to have at least one person to share his passion with. Without fanfare, or preparation time (although what I might have done to prepare myself, I cannot say) we walked into the still, silent water where mist was rising in early light.

In the lake, smiling despite the numbness.
It was freezing. But I persevered, submerged myself up to my shoulders and, after a few seconds of hyperventilating, it began to feel normal. Invigorating, even.

We swam back and forth across the lake a few times while Ady extolled the virtues of Cold Water swimming and I luxuriated in the sensation of, once again, swimming in open water. It really was quite pleasant.

Then we got out.

My feet and hands were so numb I couldn’t feel them, and my fingers were so stiff I found it impossible to button my shirt. It was even difficult to insert the key in the ignition and driving home was a little dodgy. Fortunately, there were few cars on the road.

I had promised to contact Ady when I returned from my trip to America so we could do it again, but here it is, nearly ten weeks later, and I haven’t yet made the call. Here’s why:

First and foremost, despite how pleasant it was, it’s another thing, and I don’t have room in my life for another thing. I know it would just be a one-morning-a-week outing, but I’m already getting up extra early to swim at the leisure center on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, there’s Choir, Thursday, it’s Tai Chi, Friday, we shop, and in between is another choir, the AmDram group, a book club and various other social obligations.

And I know me. If I took up outdoor swimming, I’d put 110% into it, and soon I’d be traveling to other sites, taking up even more time. Then there’s the kit. I’d want a set of activewear that would be easier to get on and off, and neoprene booties to make walking on the beach and lake bottom easier, and neoprene gloves to keep my hands warm, and maybe one of those fluffy, terrycloth robes to help stave off frostbite.

In short, it would take over the little bit of my life that I have left.

Secondly, there’s Ady’s intentions. It was significant that he termed it “Cold Water Swimming.” Addy wasn’t interest in open water, he was interested in cold water, the colder, the better. He was, he informed me, a practitioner of the Wim Hof method, and that calls for extreme cold-water challenges.

Mr. Hof is from the Netherlands and is known for his ability to withstand freezing temperature, as well as for holding the record for the barefoot half-marathon through snow and ice. (Did he really have that many other people to compete with?”)

Ady extolled the virtues of the WimHof method, and I don’t disagree with him. I have read that cold-water swimming is good for your immune system and yadda, yadda, yadda, but I’m in no hurry to travel anywhere that is covered in snow and ice just so I run half-naked through it.

So, I’m sorry I didn’t call you back, Ady, it’s just that I’m kinda busy and, although I had a great time at the lake, I’m in no hurry to freeze my balls off. I just want to go swimming.

Swimming, for real. Finally.


Sunday, March 29, 2020

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

No CORVID-19 FREE ZONE this time, I’m afraid. Instead, I’m going to take a light-hearted look at crises past and the turmoil that has sort of bookended our marriage so far.

I actually met my wife due to a crisis: the foot and mouth epizootic (yes, it’s a real word, look it up) of 2001, which saw the most ultimate form of lock-down imposed on over 6 million cows and sheep. Because of this, the planned hiking holiday in the West of Ireland that my future wife had booked, was cancelled and rescheduled for late August. Meanwhile, blissfully unaware of the horrific events across the ocean, I booked the same hiking holiday. The rest is history. (If you want the details: read the book.)

And so, we met in those halcyon days of late summer in 2001 when the world made sense, and everything was normal. On the 28th of August, I returned home. Two weeks later was 9/11 and the world has not been the same since.

My first visit to my wife-to-be was on 10/11, and it was a surreal affair. Hardly anyone was flying, even though flight schedules had returned to normal some time before, and London was nearly deserted. We managed to ignore all that and married five months later.

It was my first trip to London, so I didn't realize how ridiculously
and unbelievably empty of people this shot was.
Then America dragged Britain into a war. My son was caught up in it (not against his will, I might add) and I had to endure anyone who noticed my American accent immediately asking me what Bush (he used to be President) was going to do, as if I was on the War Cabinet and spent my evenings Skyping with the President about military strategy.

I did try to calm the fears of the locals (and they were genuine fears, trust me) by assuring them that—despite what Bush and Blair were saying—Iraq did not, in fact, have any WMDs. No one believed me, until the war ended, and the two embarrassed leaders had to admit that, not only were there no WMDs, but they had not even thought to bring a “drop piece.”

The Boy (RT) and his Marine buddies, fighting the Gulf War.
"It was like Boy Scouts, with guns."
Things calmed down after that, and life was good, and got better. Then the 2008 Financial Crisis came along.

This did not come as a surprise to us. In the months prior, well-meaning friends had told us we were foolish to be renting when we could easily buy a house. “You just go into any Estate Agent and make up a salary. You can tell them anything you want, and they’ll accept it, so you’ll get a mortgage.” All we could do was wonder how it was that they could not see what was coming. We saw it, but it didn’t stop it.

Yeah, I stole this.
Nothing truly awful happened, at first, but as 2008 became 2009, and 2009 turned to 2010, life got greyer and greyer.

I knew how bad things were by using the best economic indicate around: Every year, on the 5th of November, I would sit on my balcony as evening fell and listen. If the fireworks started going off, and if there were a lot of them, I knew the economy was getting better. (Because people, in the most literal sense, had money to burn.) If there were only a few, or none, then things were bad, indeed.

As for us, we crossed our fingers and hoped things would turn around, and just when we thought it wasn’t going to get any worse, the newly elected Conservative government introduced us to Austerity.  


In case you're wondering Austerity didn't turn out to be very popular.
The first thing they said was that it wasn’t going to affect front line services. I had all I could do to stop laughing. Naturally, front line services were immediately cut, budgets were slashed, and slashed again, and again, and again, and again.

As the little people do, and have done since civilization began, all we could do was hunker down and hope to survive the fallout from the ideological beliefs of those in charge. Eventually, however, it took its toll.

My company, who wrote and installed computer systems for local authorities, found themselves with fewer and fewer customers, and in need of fewer and fewer employees. I was invited to be one of the “fewer” in 2012. My wife clung on to a service that struggled to survive until it became too ludicrous to continue and, reluctantly, left in 2018. Both of us victims of Austerity.

In 2012/13 the Fifty Shades of Grey crisis hit, and previously upscale (and even low scale) bookstores became awash in sub-standard porn dressed up as sub-standard literature. As a friend of mine noted: “It’s a book for people who don’t read.”

No, no! None of that, thank you!
Still, we did not remain untouched by this epidemic. My wife’s curiosity overcame her, and she bought the initial volume. Fortunately, she’s a discriminating reader and put it down halfway through.

Over the years, literature improved, and on the odd year, fireworks went off (this is NOT a euphemism) and then, in 2016, we had a referendum on Brexit.

Once again, we hunkered down and hoped for the best and took solace from the fact that 2017 would have to be better.

It wasn’t. The Brexit decision became more and more heated, even though the decision had been made. Prime ministers came and went. We had elections. And we looked forward to 2018 when things would calm down.

The best thing about Brexit is how it united the British people
They didn’t. More confusion and mayhem ensued. Much to the delight of America, Britain took over as the world’s laughingstock. We didn’t bother thinking that 2019 would be any better.

It wasn’t. Another Prime Minister resigned. A mini-Trump with even worse hair took over. We had an election and watched as all hope swirled down the drain.

Welcome 2020!
But then we breathed a sigh of relief on New Year’s Eve, 2019, and looked forward with hope to the New Decade. Surely, 2020 would be better. It had to be; it couldn’t get any worse.


Could it?

Friday, March 20, 2020

Shedding the Shed

When I was a boy, my dad built a shop in the back yard. It was about half the size of our house and he built the whole thing himself. He needed it because he was an upholsterer and, over the years, he re-upholstered chairs and couches and refinished cabinets and built all manner of household furnishings. It was a wondrous place that only became more and more wondrous.

By the time I was able to operate the machinery—button maker, band saw, table saw, vice, wood lathe, jig saw, electric sander, et al—there were so many bits of wood and cast-offs stored in there that you could make anything out of stuff you found lying around.

My father was a craftsman and, though he did teach me what I was capable of learning, I never came close to how good he was with wood.

My dad in his workshop.
Still, I tried. After I was married (the first time) we bought a house with a basement and I immediately set up a workshop. While I lived there, I made a number of things—dining room table that folded up into the wall so the kids had the dining room to play in, a toy box for them, cubby holes for their coats and books and boots—but then that time ended, and I spent years moving from rented flat to rented flat and never again had the opportunity to work with wood. Until a few years ago.

My new in-laws had a small shed in their backyard and, after my father-in-law died and it fell to my wife and I to take care of the property for my mother-in-law, I talked her into getting a bigger one. (She likes me, so it was easy to convince her.)

I set the new shed up as a workshop and immediately cast about for things to build.

Working on my first bookcase
In an era where everything is done on-line, it is gratifying to feel wood taking shape under your rasp and sander. I find the smell of sawdust soothing and evocative of my youth and I spent as much time as I could out there. Over the years I built several bookcases, an airing cupboard for our new flat, a tombola, storage units and a variety of other, useful items.

Set of blocks I made for my granddaughter.
I loved being there, especially when it was raining, and I could take a break with a cup of coffee amid the sawdust and wood-shavings and assess whatever project I was working on. There is nothing quite like having your own space to work in.

Except, it wasn’t mine. Last year, my mother-in-law’s dementia got to the point where we could no longer support her, and she was moved into a home. We still went to the house from time to time—to mow and mulch in the back yard and make sure the house was in good order—but I didn’t have the time to spend in my shed like I used to.

Tub Guard to replace the unsightly piece of Masonite that was there. 
Then, we had to sell it. It went on the market last autumn and we exchanged contracts today. We took our last trip to the property this morning, so we could take the final meter readings. We will never go back.

Now, in addition to my shed, this house was the home of my wife from the time she was two until we married, so we both took a moment to say good-bye, and I expect hers was more bittersweet. But knowing I will never again have someplace to build something—anything—out of wood does close a significant chapter in my life.

So, good-bye to my workshop, and to the first home I had in Britain. I hope the new owners love it as much as we did, and find happiness there.

A final look

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Eulogy


When I started this blog, I promised myself three things: that I wouldn’t talk about politics, religion or my family (grandkids excepted). I have broken that promised a few times (Trump and Breixt were hard to ignore) and I am about to again. So, I hope you will forgive me for posting about my recently deceased brother, Marc.

Caveat: if you are a friend or family member reading this and your impressions differ from mine, that’s okay. It doesn’t mean my impressions are right, or wrong, it just means they are mine.

To begin with, I was never very close to Marc. I was very, very close to my sister, Melinda, however, because, for an eternity, it was just the two of us. Too young for school, Melinda and I played in the yard, the woods, the fields, the leaves, the snow and I couldn’t imagine life without her always with me. Then, when I was four, eternity ended; Melinda started school, and Marc was born.


Marc
September 1959
We greeted him with joy and much fawning, but he really wasn’t very much fun. He just laid there and gurgled and, eventually, we pretty much ignored him.

The first real memory I have of playing with Marc was when I shot him with the bow and arrow.

I was about ten—so he must have been about six—when my parents bought me a bow and arrow set. Not the cheap wood and suction-cup arrows variety you find in toy shops, but a real, archery set, with sharpened, metal-tipped arrows. (What were they thinking?) I spent lots of time shooting at the target set up in the side yard but became frustrated that I couldn’t hit the bullseye. So, I got a long tube from my father’s shop (he was an upholsterer and had large spools of material on sturdy, cardboard tubes that must have been 8 feet long) and had Marc hold it up to the target’s bullseye so I could shoot the arrow into the other end.

As you have already guessed, I missed the hole and hit Marc in the arm. It didn’t (thankfully) stick in, but it did leave a mark and it made him scream like a banshee and I dropped the bow and ran to him saying the only thing a child could say in a situation like that: “Don’t tell mom!”

He told mom.

Archery mishaps aside, we did play together more as he grew older. He was a bubbly, happy child with a good sense of fun, quick to laugh and always up for adventure, if it didn’t involve me shooting arrows at him.


Me, Marc, Melinda and Michele, Matt
Christmas 1964
The first photo (that I have) of us all together.

The last photo I have of us all together--with Dad, even
Dad, Marc, Me, Melinda, Michele, Matt
May 2006

As the years progressed, his sense of adventure grew and, eventually, he and my sister—who also had a wild streak—became tight. Left on my own, I spent a lot of time contemplating nature and writing angst-ridden poetry while Melinda and Marc drank and smoked with an increasingly rowdy series of friends.

(Later, when I became a Jesus-freak, nobody wanted to associate with me at all, and I can’t say as I blame them.)

When I was finally thrown out of the cult (something to do with the minister’s daughter) I returned to the fold, partying with my siblings but never really fitting in (there was still that poetry thing).


Matt, Michele and Marc
September 1969
The most surprising thing about this photo is that people
actually went out dressed like that.
As we grew older, Marc’s adventurous nature began costing my father money. He had several run-ins with the law and one time, when he and his buddies were partying, they got a wild hair up their collective butts and decided to go to California. Fetching him back ratcheted up the debt my father continued to keep track of.

My father maintained a belief that Marc was going to pay him back, which was optimistic, but charmingly naïve. Then, as Marc approached his twenties, my father made him an offer: he would forgive Marc’s debts if he would join the army. He should have had a lawyer look the agreement over first; a legal mind would have spotted the glaring loophole immediately.

Marc joined the army, my father forgave his debts (by now into the thousands) and, between the time he signed up and before he had to leave for boot camp, he was involved in an horrific car crash that shattered his leg, and the army pronounced him unfit for service and discharged him. (Additionally, while waiting to go in, Marc had convinced a few of his friends to join up with him. They had to go, but he didn’t.)


Marc spent weeks in traction and then was put into a body cast. After a month or so in the body cast, he was put in a smaller cast that allowed him some mobility. Subsequently, he went out with his buddies, got drunk and chipped the cast off, necessitating a trip to the hospital to put a new one on. This became a pattern until, some months later, he was finally out of his cast for good. Until I broke his leg again.


Me, Marc, Matt
March 1977
By now he was engaged to Wendy, and I became engaged to Wendy’s best friend, Jayne. (In looking back now, I find it odd that our wives were closer to each other than I was to my brother.) Marc and Wendy were in the boy’s dorm and Jayne and I were in the kitchen (there were seven of us—my parents, my two sisters and me and my two brothers—in a small house containing, as I termed it, a master bedroom, the girl’s dorm and the boy’s dorm) and Marc was drunk and getting bolshie. Somehow, we started annoying each other. Words were exchanged and we ended up in a tense standoff, facing each other on either side of the doorway to our bedroom.


Marc and Wendy at their wedding
September 1979
I am, by nature, a peaceful individual. I always said I was too small to fight fair, so I usually walked away from conflict, but I was determined not to back down in front of my fiancée so I jumped up and kicked him square in the chest. He went down and, to my horror, I realized that, if he got back up, he would kill me. So, I dove on him and, with the girls screaming and us shouting, we rolled around on the bedroom floor until we heard a snap and his face went white and I looked and saw his foot had become stuck under a dresser and had not rolled with his leg.

I jumped off him but, bellowing like a bull, he tried to get up and come after me. My father rushed into the room and had to punch him in the face to keep him from getting up and doing more damage to his leg. The ambulance was called and arrived in short order, just about the time (as I recall) that my sister came out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around her. Marc was still screaming that he was going to kill me, and the paramedics were telling him that if he didn’t quiet down they were going to sedate him. They strapped him onto the gurney and took him out and, as was often the case when Marc left a gathering, everything went suddenly quiet.

The next morning—fearing he might make good on his promise to kill me when he got back home—I rented an apartment and permanently moved out of my parent’s house.

As with the bow and arrow incident, the broken leg was soon forgotten. I was at his wedding, and he was at mine, but even then, he was living in Texas and I hardly ever saw him. As the years went by, even though I saw him at sporadic intervals, we became virtual strangers.

After I left for Britain, however, our family established an agreeable tradition: every time my wife (New wife; want the story? Buy the book.) and I came for a visit, we would hold a family reunion. In this way, I began seeing him, not often, but at least regularly. By now he was divorced, but still quick to laugh and always ready with a humorous anecdote, and almost always drunk. He was fun and funny and quite a force, and no one, to my knowledge, ever said, “Marc was at that party I was at last night? That’s funny, I didn’t notice him.”


Marc
April 2002
At one of these reunions, some 14 years or so ago, he told me he had 5 years to live. I was never clear on what was wrong with him, but I gather his drinking had something to do with it and he was strongly advised to give it up. He didn’t, but in a way, I can respect him for remaining true to himself. He lived his life the way he wanted and outlived the doctor’s prediction by a long shot.


Moriah (Marc's daughter), Marc, Melinda
June 2008
In his later years, he returned to NY and moved in, coincidentally, with an old friend of mine, Tanya, and on each visit my wife and I made certain to spend some time with them. For the most part, despite his increasing debility, he was still his old self, but when we visited last autumn, he remained quiet and withdrawn and we feared the worst.

I heard he was going downhill on the 15th of February. I flew over on the 20th and arrived as he was taken home from the hospital. Tanya told me to visit in the morning as he was tired from the trip. He died over night however, and I never got to see him.

All I can says is, he lived—and died—on his own terms, and that’s not something a lot of people can claim.


Marc
True to himself.


Thursday, March 12, 2020

America

I recently returned from the US, and none too soon from the look of things, as the Americans appear to be ready to pull down the shutters.

It was a hastily arranged and unexpected trip. I could just leave you hanging under the nebulous explanation of “Family Emergency” but in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll tell you that the reason was my brother died.

Or, rather, he was sick. Very, very sick. So I booked a flight, got to my son’s house, where I was going to stay, and called for an update and was told he was at his home but was very groggy and to visit in the morning. Then he died during the night.

This was, naturally, a tragedy within my family. But you are not in my family so I feel comfortable sharing a bit of black humor with you, especially since this black humor originated within my family:

Exactly the same thing happened when my father died. He was very ill, I jumped on a plane, arrived late in the evening and when I got up the next day to go visit him I found he had died during the night. This has earned me the moniker “The Angle of Death” and my other brother requested that, if he is ever sick, to please not visit him. A phone call, he told me, would do.

And like my father, my brother’s wishes were to be cremated and disposed of without ceremony, which, again, afforded me two weeks in America with no demands on my time. And no adult supervision.

As it turned out, there was a memorial for him, arranged by his daughter, and it was really very nice. No punches were thrown, so I’d call it a success.

Since I have already come to terms with the notion that I no longer fit into America, I won’t go on about the changes and how I feel like a foreigner and all that “when I a boy” shit. I’ll just point out a few interesting details:

When I visited last October, I saw something remarkable that I failed to remark on in my posts about the trip. Along Route 9, in an area that used to be fields and scrub brush, a vast area had been cleared. And I mean vast. It was so large I genuinely thought they were gong to build a new village in it.

When I drove up Route 9 this trip, there was a building on the site.

It's an Amazon Fulfilment Center, and I think you can see it from space.

There is a lot of controversy surrounding this. It is providing jobs, but they are low-paid and temporary, but at least—as one friend put it—the ceramic coffee pot and orange juicer will be sure to arrive by the next day, and that’s what’s really important.

On a trip to the grocery store, I saw this:

I get that Americans are into St, Patrick's Day a lot more than the Brits, but this was the 21st of February!

One of the best thing about visiting the US is going out to eat—for me, anyway; my vegetarian wife has a bit of trouble, but she wasn’t with me, so it was Applebee’s and Cracker Barrel and the Valatie Cafe and, well, let’s just say I enjoyed myself. However, if you recall my previous post, you’ll know that I have been on the IF Diet. This, of course, went on hold while I was away, but in the week that I was on the diet before I left, I lost 7 pounds. When I returned from the States, however, I was ten pounds heavier. 

All I can say about that is, it was a good thing I started that diet when I did. Now all I have to do is claw back the gains (losses) I made.

It was an unusually warm and snow-free winter, at least in the lowlands.

A sultry day playing hockey in the driveway. Not a usual sight in Upstate NY during February.

When, on the 28th of February, I went into the wilds to visit my other brother, this is what I found:

And it was jolly well cold, too!
Meanwhile, back in Sussex...
I also found it was his birthday.

My brother, in his Man Cave.

I had forgotten all about it and, as we talked about birthdays and anniversaries, I realized that it was also 18 years to the day when I had left the US for Blighty. So it was quite a nostalgic evening.

There really wasn’t much else of note that happened, other than the shock of airport prices and the surprise of a near-empty flight on the way home.

Between $9.50 and $11.55 for a beer to go with your $24.00 hamburger?!?
There is taking advantage and there is taking the piss, and this is taking the piss.
Add to that the fact that there was not a seat to sit in that did not have one of these screens in front of it
urging you to buy over-priced food.

It was, despite the reason for it, a nice trip. It brought to mind again how important family is, even one as far-flung as my own. And, perhaps, being so far-flung makes it that much more important.

The G-Kids