Monday, December 29, 2008

The Pause Before the Norm

We're in that null season now, when the days hang suspended between the holidays, waiting for one to end, the next to begin and normality to reclaim life. These are the hours that bunch together to form the visible seam in the underbelly of time, where the years are stitched together. This is where we pause, draw a hopeful breath, and begin anew.

Wishing you all a Happy and Healthy 2009!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Politically Correct Holiday

I promised myself that I wasn't going to post on Christmas, but after two whiskeys and a glass of port (and it's not yet 2 o'clock here, Bucko) I just couldn’t help myself.

I wrote this years ago, but had all but forgotten about it. However, a friend of mine asked for a copy a few days ago and it remined me I hadn't shared it with you yet. So here is my ode to a Politically Correct Christmas. I hope you are all enjoying your day.

A Politically Correct Night Before Christmas (um, I mean, A Holiday)

T'was the night before a Holiday, which one I can't say
or the politically correct will come take me away.
And I couldn't decide, for the life of me
if that thing in my corner was a bush or a tree.
When in front of my house a car horn did blare
so I put down my egg nog to see who was there.
A clean-shaven man in a gabardine suit
stepped out of a taxi cab near my front stoop.
"On Driver!" he said, and paid the cab fare
"Are you Santa?" I asked of the man standing there.
"I was once called Saint. Nick," he said with a gleam,
"But lately that 'S' word has become almost obscene."
"I've been corrected for certain, though improved, I doubt it,
"Let's get out of this cold and I'll tell you about it."
I offered him cake, and bid him to try it.
"I can't," he replied, "You see, I'm on a diet.
"I'm not to have cookies or candy or sweets
"I must set an example for what children should eat.
"Overeaters anonymous and dentists both feel
"that I need to stay slim and eat healthy meals.
"My pipe, of course, was the next thing to go
"The Cancer Society's lawyers said so.
"My fur suit and leather were said to offend
"animal's rights, so I had to change them
"for a synthetic blend in this neutral color.
"And I shaved off my beard to please one group or another.
"My reindeer were loosed in a PETA raid one night
"and the elves unionized, now they're on strike.
"But I no longer need toys, so they're free to go.
"Leaving presents in houses; that's illegal, you know.
"And my name has been changed, it's no longer St. Nick.
"It's now Shirley Abdul Jacob Dinosovitch."
I shook my head sadly, stunned by his speech,
was nothing beyond special interests groups' reach?
"But you aren't Shirley or Jacob or Abdul," I said,
"If you pretend that you are then you're out of your head.
"These groups want you to act as they think you should
"as if they are the ones who define what is good.
"I don't have a society, lawyer or cause
"but I do enjoy Christmas, and I want Santa Claus
"the way I remember, a jolly red elf.
"You're Santa, godamnit, get hold of yourself."
"You're right," he replied, "it's to myself I belong
"they've been holding me hostage to their values too long.
"I'm through taking cab rides, it's back to sleigh power
"and I'll settle with the elves for nine dollars an hour.
"Let's cap this epiphany with a cup of good cheer,
"And for God's sake don't give me non-alcohol beer."

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Welcome To My Blog

Welcome everyone! Please come in and take a seat. It’s a bit crowded in here but we’ve sent someone out for a few more chairs. Help yourself to punch and cookies from the table in the back, and say “Hello” to my wife, who would be happy to sell you a copy of my book.

Great. Everyone settled? First some announcements: This is a non-smoking facility, so if you find yourself beginning to smoulder, please go outside. The fire exits are located at the side and front of the room. Please turn off your cell phones and other mobile devices.

Okay, let’s get started. Websters, meet the Bloglodytes. If this is your first visit to the Blogsphere, you may find it a bit odd, but you’ll get used to it. Don’t be shy; make sure to mingle and chat with the Bloggers after the meeting. Now for the Bloggers, please make the Websters feel at home; we may be in your town, but they have been with me a lot longer than you have, and you may find they have some interesting stories to tell about what the Internet was like before they built this shiny, new Blogsphere. So make friends; we’re all here for the same reason.

Ahem. I started my first weblog in 1995. Back then, you staked your claim with an Internet hosting site such as Geocities, Xoom or Tripod. That worked until they discovered that ads made money, and more ads made more money. Soon, any content you uploaded was covered in so many ads that your carefully crafted site looked as tasteful as the homepage for The Carphone Warehouse.

When I bought in November 1999, it was like buying my first house. Here was a permanent residence where I could do anything I wanted and no one could post anything I didn’t want them to. We built web pages using HTML in those days, Sparky, and we liked it that way, so I spent many a weekend and late night (this was between marriages) constructing one website theme after another.

Does anyone here remember what used to be before it was “Postcards From Across the Pond”? Ah, a few of you. Was it the Cigar Pages, or the Irish Dance Diary? Cracks of Time!! Well, you certainly take the prize for longevity; pick up a free book on the way out. You deserve it.

So, yeah, I bought Lindenwald to cope with my habit of switching hobbies every few years; I felt would be too restrictive, whereas Lindenwald would allow me to reinvent myself periodically. (Also, was taken.)

It wasn’t until 2001 that I came up with Postcards From Across the Pond, but it has stayed with me longer than any other theme. Without meaning to, I built up a following, and you, my loyal followers, encouraged me, nay, enabled me, to write my book. So this book is yours as much as it is mine, and I want to thank you – free books for everyone! No, wait! My wife is shaking her head. Sorry, I got a bit carried away there.

To get back to my story: then came the blogs. I did try them. I didn’t like them. It was like renting a flat in the city when I already had a four-bedroom house with a full basement in the suburbs. Websites were for craftsmen; blogs were the territory of tyros. Websites were a beacon shining in the night; blogs were a disposable lighter. Websites . . . okay, you get the picture.

But as things evolved, blogs became more than a temporary dumping ground for the angst-ridden verbal meanderings of earnest fifteen-year-olds. They matured, they expanded, they became…attractive. Blogs are simple (though I used to see that as a disadvantage, I now regard it as a selling point), and blogs allow other bloggers to see what you are blogging about without having to put your URL in their Favorites list.

So now I don’t feel as if I’m renting a flat, it’s more like I’ve built a clubhouse and invited all the cool kids to be members, and they have invited me to be a member of their clubs, and so on. And I’m a sucker for clubhouses—they make great places to sneak off to with a nicked bottle of your dad’s Dandelion wine and Sarah Jane Pomeroy, who told her parents she was on a sleep-over at Mary Liddell’s house.

So, welcome; rest assured you are all ‘the cool kids’ and I am honoured to be in your company. And if one of you happens to be Sarah Jane Pomeroy, I want to say I’m sorry I spoiled the mood by throwing up in your hair; it must have been the wine.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Quebec and Beyond - North American Tour 2008 Part 8, 17 - 20 June

We said goodbye to our hosts, and to New York, and set out on the road to Quebec. Three hours later we were at the Canadian border and I was recalling that I had forgotten to stash my numerous boxes of cigars somewhere out of sight.

Getting into Canada is, not surprisingly, easier than getting into the US, but they still stop you and ask you potentially embarrassing questions, such as, "Do you have any tobacco products with you?"

I told her I didn't, and if she glanced into the back seat to see the pile of Henry Clay, Excalibur and H. Upman boxes, she never said.

Two and a half hours later we were at the Comfort Inn, in Levis, just across the river from Quebec. I have to say--and they can bring their lawyers out if they want but I will not retract--that the Levis Comfort in was a piece of crap compared with the other places we stayed. I posted this on the travel website but, for some reason, it disappeared:

Levis; all the ambiance of Bayonne

The Comfort Inn in Levis was a mean little place. Everything extra, aside from the bed and the room, had to be paid for with an extra fee, even Internet access and the 'complimentary' coffee n your room if you wanted a second cup (there was no tea available). There was even a bottle of water on the dresser with a note stating that, if you drank it, they would charge you
$2.99. All of this is free in other hotels.

The area surrounding the hotel was a casualty of sprawling roads and unimaginative brick structures and had all the charm of a strip mine.

The only good thing about it was, it was near enough to Quebec to allow easy (well, sort of) access to the ferry. Quebec was lovely.

It really didn't matter, we weren't there for Levis, we were there for Quebec, and as soon as we could we left for the ferry.

Quebec, as promised, was a lovely little city, and is the closest to a European capital you can get without the assistance of a jet liner. We had a good nose around, ate dinner at a Creperie and meandered back to the ferry and Levis.

But the less said about Levis, the better.

If you stay at the Comfort Inn at Levis, bring your own water, and coffe.

Quebec: all the disadvantages of being in Europe (coach tours,
unintelligible language, foreign tourists, strange food) with none of
the actual culture, grandeur or antiquity.

A mark of an important country is how well-guarded your parliament is.

The next morning we headed further east and it was interesting to see how European Quebec looked even on the outskirts, where they had somehow managed to make it as ugly and unappealing as Calais.

While on the road, we stopped at our old friend, Tim Horton's, where I attempted to order coffee and a muffin from a French-speaking clerk. The only thing I have to say about that experience is, it convinced me to not stop for lunch until we reached New Brunswick, where they are legally obligated to speak English.

We spent the rest of the French-speaking portion of our journey playing "Guess What the Road Signs Mean." One, I am certain, translated to: "Remain on the fender of your mother."

Quebec is a large province, certainly large enough to be its own country, which, of course, is what it wants to be. Splitting away from the rest of Canada, however, would isolate New Brunswick and Nova Scotia from the mainland, though I expect their aim is to take them with it. After all, why else would Nova Scotia and New Brunswick be so keen on practicing their French?

Eventually, we reached New Brunswick and the little town of Grand Fall that had, for some reason, captivated us when we were booking the trip. We flew 3,000 miles and drove another 2,500 to get to get there and all they had was a hydroelectric dam. Give them their due, the rapids, thanks to the recent rains, were impressive, and the gorge was very picturesque.

They call it Grand Falls because Grand Hydro-Electric
Dam didn't have the same pleasant ring to it.

Okay, the gorge was kinda cool.

We stayed in the local Best Western, a well-appointed hotel with an alarmingly perky clerk. Besides watching the water cascade over the dam, there wasn't a lot to do in town, so we picked up dinner at Subway, ate in our room and left the following morning not feeling as if we had missed anything.

It was a long way back to Halifax. We picked up breakfast at Tim's (where I was pleased to find the staff not pretending they couldn't understand any other language than French) and spent the next six hours looking at pine trees.

The drive was broken up by a visit to The Magnetic Hill--an optical illusion that makes it seem as if your car is rolling uphill instead of downhill. There is one in
Girvin, where some of my wife's family lives in Scotland, but they don't make a big deal out of it. Here, there is a theme park built around it and, by the size of the parking lots, they must get a huge number of people in season. We just drove through and took some photos of the theme park; the actual Hill is probably hidden away and requires an initiation and payment to visit it.

A few hours later we were back in familiar territory. We checked into the same hotel we had left a week earlier and returned to Montana's for one last Yee-Ha meal.

The next morning we checked out and had a quiet, last look around Halifax. In the afternoon, after an uncharacteristically warm and sunny day, we returned to the

Hours of fun, bring the kids.

When we returned to Halifax, we found the tourist season
(complete with pirates) had started during our absence.
Avast, me beauties! Prepare to be boarded!

Pirates in the mist.

After I took this photo, the security officer had a word with me.

The next morning, when we landed, it was, naturally, raining.

Welcome to Britain..

Next: We return to our regularly scheduled broadcasts.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Learning My Limitations - North American Tour 2008 Part 7, 13 - 16 June

Our days in the US were, for the most part, hot and sunny. We were able fit in most of what we wanted to do and still managed to steal some time to sit out with my friend Glenn in his back yard with bourbon and cigars while the sultry summer night closed in.

It didn't feel as if I were on holiday, but more like I had just stepped out of a long dream, or into one; it was a surreal, disconcerting feeling. All around me were sights, sounds and smells that were so familiar yet strangely foreign. There was so much I had forgotten about life in rural America:

- The soothing symphony of crickets
- - The hum of June bugs
- - Snake spit
- - How the world just seems suspended during a lazy, sunny afternoon
- - The dewy freshness of a meadow in the morning
- - What a really hot day feels like
- - The stillness and quiet of a country morning
- - Screen doors
- - Houseflies
- - Fire Flies
- - Thunderstorms
- - Yellow School Buses

I could go on, but I'll spare you more details. Suffice it to say, it was magic.

For those of you wondering what I am on about, this is snake spit;
it's not from a snake, it's a sort of bug larva covering.

Another forgotten item was 'Alphie' my old AlphaSmart. I've been using AlphaSmart devices for over eight years and when I moved to my Neo in 2006 I lent Alphie to Glenn. She has been at his house ever since. I can't say I have given her much thought but when I saw her on the bookshelf I couldn't resist taking her out for old time's sake.

Turns out, I wasn't the only one glad to see her.

Ah, my old AlphaSmart!

Neo and Alphie becoming reacquainted.

Neo and Alphie got on like a house on fire and, as the evening progressed and the wine flowed freely, they became quite cuddly.

Later, when they thought I wasn't watching, they slipped away and I caught them, in flagrante delicto in the spare bedroom.

Caught in the act.

I didn't do it on purpose; it's just that I had an idea for an article and I wanted to write it down before I forgot it so I went looking for them. I found a pad of paper and a pencil, instead, and left them to it. After all, they're both of age and we were on holiday; no harm in a little fun.

While based on home turf, there were two major reunions: one with my family and one with my friends.

I've always said that the best thing to come out of my moving to England was the fact that my visits home provide an excuse for my family to get together without requiring someone to die. My siblings come up from down south and down from up north and we all descent upon my cousin and her husband, who willingly open their home to the horde. The day is filled with barbeques, beer, campfires and reminiscing, and it is always the focal point of the trip.

At my cousin's house.

At my Dad's house. that's Becky on the right, my brother's wife,
and my sister, Mel, with the hair (you figure out who my Dad is).
When we were young, I used to call my sister 'Cousin It'.

The other reunion is a bit simpler and involves me going to a predetermined pub and making sure everyone knows I'm there so they can stop by for a drink and some catching up. This year, four people showed up; I guess I don't have the star power I used to have.

We might have been a small group, but we had a grand time and made a pact to meet up again on my next visit.

At the Pump Station; that's Mitch (AKA The Boy) with Allie, my
future daughter-in-law. In the background is Glenn, who has
already abandoned us to chat up a bevy of young beauties.

Our last day in the area was, fortuitously, Father's Day, which provided The Boy with the unprecedented opportunity of treating me to dinner. He took me, my wife, his fiancée and my other son to the Real Seafood Company. It was a marvelous meal but a bit beyond Burger King. I never saw the bill, but the look on his face when it arrived was the best present I could ever have received.

After that we moved further afield, visiting my friends, Matt and Lisa, on their croft. Having visited there before, I hadn't bothered to print a map, believing (in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary) that I would remember the way. My backup plan (and I did have one) was to buy a map once I got in the general vicinity.

I had been taught a lesson about pay phones the day before when I went to locate my son's apartment without benefit of having an actual address, but I never supposed the phenomenon would encompass road maps.

It seems, as the proliferation of cell phones is causing the demise of pay phones, the same is happening to maps because of the widespread use of GPS devices. After not finding any maps at the first two gas stations, I asked the young lady behind the counter about it and she told me they had no call for them any more.

I finally had to resort to asking directions, which proved useless, but by continuing to stop at every gas station we encountered, I eventually found a map. And we eventually found Matt and Lisa's farm.

We had a terrific lunch of real, homegrown products and a nice long chat on the screened-in porch during a spectacular thunderstorm. Then we headed off to our next destination. Fortunately, I knew the way.

Down on the farm.

Matt, John Jay and Dinner.

You can take the boy out of the country, but
you can't take the country out of the boy.

We spent the evening with some friends up north in a log home surrounded by forest; a peaceful and serene end to our days in the US. The next morning we would be heading back to Canada, and I would be taking these impressions of America with me:

- - "Have a GREAT day!" seems to be replacing "Have a nice day!" I guess they felt they needed to up the anti.
- - Despite reports that the US recycles more than the UK, I saw little evidence of it.
- - Everywhere I went, no matter what I was doing, I was inundated by a barrage of options: crushed ice or cubes? Chocolate sauce or caramel? Economy sized or extra large? I think it supposed to be a good thing and emphasize the casual prosperity they enjoy, but I found it inconvenient and annoying after a while.

And finally, my Food Quests were all fulfilled::

- - Clam Chowder: The Real Seafood Co.
- - Ruben Sandwich: East Greenbush Diner
- - A Decent Bagel: Brugger's
- - Eggs Benedict: East Greenbush Diner
- - Buffalo Wings: Pump Station
- - Barbeque: my buddy Glenn's house

Next: Quebec and Beyond

Friday, November 7, 2008

Bowing Down to Blogger

In the end, it was the gadgets that got me.

I have (and you'd know this if you'd been paying attention) been heroically avoiding the blogshpere, preferring to remain in the luddite world of actual, handcrafted, html WebPages. For years I watched other web-page journalist succumb to the lure of Blogdom and then endured them as they celebrated the wonders, ease and convenience of this brave new world.

I was skeptical; I still am.

For one thing, I don't find this easier. When I first attempted a blog, I spent many hours tinkering, losing text, trying to figure out how to post photos and ultimately ending up with an unsatisfying result. So I scurried back to my cave where I could draw on the walls with charred sticks and berry juice, and have remained there ever since.

But the blogshere moved on without me and now I find myself an outsider. If I want to see what other people are up to, I need to read their blogs. And if I want to comment, I have to have a blog. And if I want people to see what I am up to, I need to have some content on that blog.

But I won't surrender, not totally.

I am keeping my website, "Postcards From Across the Pond," but will post the content to this blog, as well. That way, people can stop here if they wish to read my posts, or visit the website for a fuller, more satisfying experience.

But the Blog can do something my website can't, which is feed some sort of electronic beast called an "RSS". Several devoted readers have asked if my website can feed this creature, forcing me to admit I had no idea what they were on about. Then I saw that Blogger now features a gadget that, with one click, enables the care and feeding of "RSS" without requiring me to earn a PhD in computer science.

All I had to do was click a single button to include it on my blog; it's there on the side somewhere, but don't ask me how to use it or what it does.

So against my wishes, as well as my better judgment, I am being sucked in by Blogger without really knowing what I'm doing. It's like giving your gran an iPhone for Christmas and expecting her to figure out how to send you a text.

It's daunting, but at least I have some cool gadgets to play with.