Friday, April 12, 2013

When the Brits Get It Wrong

The Brits do many things right (sticky toffee pudding, a nice cup of tea and movies about children inhabiting a magical world, to name but a few) and they do many, many things differently—though not necessarily better—than we do (such as adding a redundant syllable to the word “aluminum” and using the term “redundant” to mean “laid off”) but there is one area where they are certainly, most definitely, wrong.

Now, I don’t want to be too harsh on my host country, especially now while they are so emotionally fragile due to the loss of Mrs. Thatcher, so I’ll start off by pointing out something that they do right and the Americans do wrong: using flatware, or cutlery, while eating.

The Americans famously put the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right, cut their food, then switch the fork to the right hand to lift the food to their mouths. Seriously, what is up with that? Even as a child growing up in the US I thought, “This is nuts! Why can’t I just keep the fork in my left hand?”

The British, quite sensibly, put their forks in their left hands and just get on with it. I, however, resolutely retain the American way of eating, because I am an American, and this is what I do. I am questioned about this occasionally, and I usually give the story about how the American colonials, in an effort to separate themselves from all things English, devised this bizarre way of eating. For all I know, this might be true, and it satisfies my inquisitors: purposely inflicting a strange custom of dubious historical origins on oneself as a matter of national pride is something they can understand, sort of like Morris Dancing, or haggis.

So, at the dining table, common sense wins out, but in the office, it all goes horribly pear-shaped.

Binders. Binders with only two holes placed close together near the middle of the page. US binders have three holes—one at the top, one at the bottom and one in the center—as God intended. I am not saying this is “different” or that, in my opinion, the US way is better, I am stating, categorically, that—according to the laws of physics—this is wrong.

To demonstrate: if you suspend a long metal bar using two ropes near the middle of the bar, and then hang on one end, the results would not be satisfactory.

If, instead, you used three ropes, the bar would be stable, and the pages would stop going askew and getting all rucked up and pulled out inadvertently and…I mean, you could hang on the bar without experiencing any surprises.

For the skeptics and physicists among you, I offer the following equation as irrefutable proof:
Now that we have sorted this out, allow me to propose a solution: we will stop faffing about with our knives and forks at the dinner table if you will adopt a three-ring binder system. This will undeniably improve life in both of our countries.

But keep the Morris dancers and the haggis; I’ve grown quite fond of them.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Out on Parole

I did something very foolish this past month. It’s a foolish thing to do no matter where you live, but it is especially foolish if you live in Britain: I let the weather get to me.

We have had (correction: we are having) the worst spring in 50 years. We enjoyed more agreeable weather during the winter months than we have had since March arrived. Aside from a single day off for good behavior, I have been a virtual prisoner for over a month, but only because I thought I could out-smart Mother Nature.

When spring auditioned on the 4th of March, I was well ready for it. So, when—two days later—winter dragged her off stage and, once again, hogged the spotlight, it put me in a right funk. The wind, the snow, the rain, the bitter cold, the grey skies—it was all too much, and I vowed not to go outside until the nice weather returned. How long could it be, I reasoned, it’s almost April, nice weather is just around the corner. So I sat and waited.

Thirty-one days later (barring the aforementioned sunny, but chilly, 19th of March) I was still inside, looking outside, growing more depressed every day. Then, this past weekend, spring poked her head up and made another game attempt at busting out all over. It was a nice weekend—we even got up to London for the day and it was grand—but Monday found me back inside, looking out at the rain and obsessively checking the weather forecasts, which promised rain, rain, rain and then more rain.

So I complained to my wife, who offered no sympathy and, instead, observed, “What did you expect? You live in Britain. If you wait for nice weather, you’re never going to go anywhere.”

I thought about her words and decided there was wisdom in them. So this morning I put on my wellies, struggled into a fleece coat and my waterproof jacket and—armed with an ordinance survey map—set out for one of my favorite pubs, in a town some five miles away. (I also, fortunately, grabbed a wooly hat on the way out; half a mile into the walk I put the wooly hat on and wished I had thought to bring gloves.)

Two hours and 11,000 steps later (I have a pedometer; wouldn’t I just) I am here, sitting in the canopied area of the beer garden, listening to the rain tapping on the roof, enjoying a nice pint and a cigar.

Not so bad, after all.
The walk was not as pleasant as it would have been on a summer afternoon, but it was certainly invigorating; there is something about walking in inclement weather that makes you feel energized, and just a bit smug. And the weather turned out to be not all that bad. It rained off and on, and was windy, but much of the pathways were sheltered by trees so, occasionally, the climate managed to skate up to the border of “pleasant.”

Good thing I wore my wellies.
One of the hazards of hiking in Sussex, though it does keep the walk interesting.
It was also a treat to find myself—in one of the most crowded locations in Europe—quite suddenly and totally alone. New York state has a population density of 413 people per sq. mile (for the continental US, it is 89), whereas West Sussex boasts 1,101 per sq. mile, yet soon after I left the edge of town, I entered a seemingly uninhabited wilderness.

That brown smudge near the end of the road is a deer.
There is also something satisfying about arriving at a destination under your own power. That first sip of beer is nowhere near as refreshing (or welcome) if you have arrived at the pub after a five-minute drive compared to, say, a two-hour walk. And it is exponentially satisfying when that pub has been around for a few hundred years, and realizing that the fireplace, the beams, the walls (well, some of them, anyway) were there to be enjoyed, leaned on and/or pissed against when Shakespeare was a boy. It makes me feel—interloper though I am—part of a continuum, as if I am a participant in something bigger than myself.

Abandoned nest of the Sussex Stealth Spider--we grow 'em big here, bucko!
And if I can enjoy all of this while smoking a fine cigar and sipping a pint of authentic ale sheltered under a canopy that affords a view of a picturesque country pub garden and the opportunity to watch rain falling on something other than myself, then life is very good, indeed.

Now, if I can just find my way back home, this will have been a good day.