Thursday, October 31, 2013

America the Beautiful

I come from New England; that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Granted, New York is actually one of the Mid-Atlantic States but, as I lived very close to the boarder of Massachusetts, the land, the people, the traditions and the seasons in the area where I grew up were influenced more by New England than the industrial megalopolis stretching between New York City and Washington, DC.

What? Not New England enough for you?
And New England, for three or four weeks of the year, is arguably the prettiest place on Earth. We managed to be there for two of them; it was wonderful.

The weather for the second week was stunning; classic October weather with blue skies and golden trees glowing in the sunshine. There is no other sight on earth quite as charming.

Oh Beautiful for Spacious Skies...
The first week was grey and murky, but that only added to the allure, lending a brooding atmosphere to the countryside. With the woodlands shrouded in mist, you could imagine yourself back in colonial times, and might expect to see the Headless Horseman ride out of the gloom, holding a glowing pumpkin aloft.

(I am about to go off on what could be the longest parenthetical aside in history, but seeing as how it is Halloween, it isn’t totally off-topic, so bear with me.

The Headless Horseman and Ichabod Crane and all that are from a story titled, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” that takes place in Sleepy Hollow, New York, a small village just outside of Tarry Town. However, the actual events that led to Washington Irving writing that story took place not a mile and a half from where I grew up. According to a notation by Irving himself, the character of Ichabod Crane was based on a schoolteacher named Jesse Merwin, whom Irving befriended in Kinderhook, New York, in 1809.

For the sake of the youngsters among you, allow me to point out that Ichabod Crane was not:

  •           A detective from New York City
  •           A time-travelling uber-spy for George Washington
  •           Jeff Goldblum in a tricorn hat
Will the real Ichabod Crane, please sit down!.
Ichabod Crane, in the original story, is a school teacher and he is not the hero of the tale. Ichabod is conceited, conniving, self-serving, gluttonous, and not especially kind to children.

Additionally, the Headless Horseman was not one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, nor was he an actual apparition. It was, instead, Brom Bones attempting to scare Ichabod—quite successfully, as it turned out—into giving up his quest for the lovely, and wealthy, Katrina Van Tassel’s hand, leaving Brom free to marry her, which he does.

According to local legend, the event that sparked the story was a practical joke played on Mr. Merwin as he made his way home from the Van Allen house to his home on Merwin Lake Road one evening.

Just sayin'

The fact that the story itself was set further down the Hudson Valley gives Sleepy Hollow and Tarry Town the right to claim the story as their own—as well as to benefit from the tourist dollars this generates—but it does not detract from the fact that the genesis of the tale took place within two miles of my boyhood home.

After all, I went to Ichabod Crane Central School, we have the Ichabod Crane Motel on Route 9H, the Ichabod Crane School House historic site and we used to have Sleepy Hollow Carpets just outside of Kinderhook but then they turned it into an Elk’s Lodge.

And if that doesn’t convince you that the Legend of Sleepy Hollow actually started within walking distance of my home, have a look at my brother’s back.

He won't mind; this is his Facebook Profile photo
Would anyone do this to themselves if the story behind it weren’t true?)

But back to beautiful New York.

On our first morning there, we went to see the Blessing of the Hounds in Old Chatham, which was just down the road from where we were staying. It was a good reintroduction to local life and allowed me to steep myself in the culture I had left behind.

Yeah, we do fox hunting in America. What of it?
And then we took in the countryside. At that time of year, you can literally go anywhere, look from the top of any hill and be amazed at what you see. Gosh, the trees! I'd about forgotten what a proper autumn looked like; it can truly take your breath away.

A random hill outside of Ryder's Mills

A popular overlook near Old Chatham.

A random shot out of my car window while driving outside of Nassau.

The Thatcher Park Overlook.

A random lane outside of Schodack.
The main purpose of the trip, however was to play with the grandboys, and we managed to do quite a bit of this.

It is strange, seeing oneself as a father, and a grandfather, but there was my boy—my youngest—with a wife and a mortgage and two tow-headed toddlers running around the yard, jumping in piles of leaves and asking to be pushed on the swings. But I look at all of this as an outsider and if it wasn't for the fact that my sons and grandsons bear a striking resemblance to me when I was their age, I might assume I had nothing at all to do with them.

Allie and my wife with the G-boys in a corn maze.

Obligatory jumping-in-a-pile-of-leaves shot

Obligatory jumping-in-a-pile-of-leaves shot

The G-boys: Charlie and Mitch

My boy, Mitch, with his boys, Charlie (on lap) and Mitch
So, while we had a lovely time, it was also strange, and it left me feeling introspective. Autumn, for me, was always a time of reflection and mild melancholy. There is beauty, but also an underlying sadness, in watching the leaves burst into color and then fall to the ground; the year is ending, the cycle is closing and the long winter will soon cover the land, holding it in frozen limbo, waiting for the next cycle.

And this year, in addition to this autumnal melancholy, I felt the weight of nostalgia and the looming presence of what was no longer there. The familiar rituals of going to my dad's house, or visiting my cousin, or stopping in to see old friends are all out of reach now. We went on several long and rambling rides over country roads through stunning scenery but at each bend, it seemed, I was met by a memory of what once was, and it saddened me to realize I could no longer truly feel at home in my home.

I love it there; it is so pretty, so welcoming, so warming, but I don’t think I could ever go back, not to live. There are too many ghosts.

I wish I could credit this photo, but I forgot where I nicked it from.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Feeling Foreign in America

I love America; land of my birth, cradle of my childhood, my protector and provider for many comfortable and profitable years. Visits to the Motherland always filled me with a sense of belonging and the assurance that it was, and would always remain, my true home. This year, however, America seemed just a tad alien. More than on any other visit I found myself pausing to ponder over simple tasks or social customs. Where once I felt completely in step, I now found myself wrong-footed and occasionally lost. America, it seems, has moved on without me.

Television, for instance: while I have always found it more dire and insipid than British TV, this year it was nearly incomprehensible. The shows, the news, the commercials (many, many, many commercials) were filled with apparently popular celebrities—both local and national—who were complete strangers to me. And the screen flickered with pop-ups and scrolling messages while parts of it remained obscured by semi-transparent corporate logos. It was like trying to watch the telly on Facebook and, like Facebook, it left me baffled and slightly nauseated.

Okay, it's not quite as bad as this, but it's close.
And the grocery stores, always too large, were now intimidating massive and caused more than a few culture clashes. While the shelves still held many of my old favorites, there were just as many products that were unknown to me. Then, at the check-out, we encountered The Packer.

Being conscientious shoppers, we arrived at the check-out with our own bags and proceeded to pack our purchases ourselves. This really seemed to put a knot in The Packer’s knickers, and she remained determined to do the job even though we clearly didn’t want her to. She even tried to grab items out of my hand as I picked them up so she could deposit them in the bag she was holding ready.

“We have our own bags,” I kept telling her.

“It’s New York State Law!” she would reply, as we wrestled for the next item.

It was all very unsettling.

All we wanted was a pint of milk and a box of chocolate chip cookies.
Then I tried pumping gas.

The mechanism was familiar enough but I stood waiting for the pump to turn on for some time before realizing I needed to go in and pay first. The next time, I used my credit card at the pump, but I found I needed to key in my zip code in order for it to work. And, of course, it wasn’t about to accept my post code. The next time, I used my American credit card and had the requisite zip code at the ready. But that pump didn’t ask for my zip code and instead told me to “Press to Start Pumping.” I think this incident says less about culture differences and hints more at the idea that US gas pumps operate in random and esoteric manners because, as I fruitlessly poked at various locations on the pump face, my American friend got out of the car to help and then both of us poked fruitlessly at the pump face until he saw a sign—written in huge, red letters—reading “Press to Start Pumping.”

Things went a little more smoothly after that.

While driving, I had to puzzle over new road arrangements and also encountered a number of rotaries or traffic circles, which are the US equivalent of round-abouts, only used by people who have no idea how to drive on a round-about. And the Americans, bless them, have a knack for taking something that is relatively straight-forward and enhancing it into something dangerously confusing. Add to this my ingrained habit of looking right and turning left into the round-about and you will understand why we approached every traffic circle with a sense of dread.

Just a random photo to remind you that America was closed when we got there.
We thought they might suggest we go to Canada instead, but they let us in. Eventually.
But the main thing that made me despair of ever understanding America again was the phone. During my last visit, I bought a disposable phone and put a hundred minutes on it. It was a god-send, so I took it back to Britain with me and brought it along on this trip.

I knew that, unlike my British disposable phone where the minutes remain valid indefinitely, the leftover minutes on my US phone would dissipate after 90 days, so when I turned the phone on I was not surprised when it didn’t work.

I was, however, surprised that the new bundle of minutes I bought wouldn’t load onto the phone, so I called their customer service and they informed me that, when the time limit on the minutes is up, the phone becomes useless; the only thing you can do with it is throw it away and buy a new one or request a new SIM card (if you happen to have a US address, which I do not). I realize these are disposable phones but surely that is taking it to its illogical conclusion.

Tracfone: a useless piece of plastic.
And so, on my first day back in America, I threw a perfectly good phone I had been hanging onto for the past year into the garbage and bought a new one that I will, likely, have to throw away next year, and I wondered just what sort of country I had landed in.

America, we need to talk; we seem to be drifting apart.

Friday, October 18, 2013


Home, Garrison Keillor reminds us, is the place that, when you go there, they have to take you in. If this is true, then America is no longer my home.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I love being in America (where else on this planet can you get aerosol cheese and a chocolate pizza?) but travelling to America leaves something to be desired. Forget for the minute that I am never at ease rocketing through the stratosphere in an oversized cigar tube with wings and concentrate, instead, on the indignity of being treated like a criminal every time you attempt to enter your own home. We live in perilous times, however, so absurdly intrusive security seems a small price to pay in exchange for our safety (though I have to admit, making people sign a waiver that essentially reads, “Say, you’re not planning on overthrowing the US government while you’re here, are you?” will foil the plans of no one save for the most unbelievably na├»ve anarchists).

With this thought in mind, and my yearly promise to myself to take it all in good stride, we left for America.

At Heathrow, we were pleasantly surprised. The guards were affable, non-threatening and even joked with us as they patted us down. They effectively conveyed the notion that we were all in it together, that they knew it was absurd but, hey, this is their job. I did not allow this unexpected pleasantry to raise my expectations of their America counterparts but I must report that, when we landed at Newark, none of the guards there made me feel the least bit threatened, either.

On the other hand, the American guards were a po-faced lot, processing the incoming with humorless efficiency. This general improvement was likely due to the many signs posted throughout the entrance hall reminding them they “are the face of America” and to be “courteous, cordial and helpful” and to remember that not ALL of the people coming into the US are criminals and terrorists and to at least occasionally assume that they aren’t. Though I might have made that last bit up.

I was, however, heartened by their attempt at a new attitude and walked with confidence to the immigration guard and proudly displayed my US passport.

“Where is you landing card?” he asked.

“My wife has it,” I told him, “She’s in the other line.”

“You can’t get in without a landing card.”

For the uninitiated, a landing card is a piece of bureaucratic fluff wherein you have to declare the value of anything you are bringing into the country so they can tax you on it. The US is the only country that forces its own citizens to fill one out and they supply a single one per family group, so you have to aggregate the value of your goodies. It’s a way of getting added revenue from really stupid people and this form is handled by the customs guards after you retrieve your bags. It has nothing to do with immigration and I have never been asked for it before.

“I have a card,” I reminded him, “but my wife has it. She had to go through the non-citizen’s line.”

“You can’t get in without a landing card,” he said.

Now, not only did he fail to explain how—if my wife and I were forced to go through two separate lines and had only one landing card between us—we were both supposed to get into the country, he also did NOT say, “You can’t get in without a landing card; here’s a blank one, fill it out now and I’ll let you go through,” or “You can’t get in without a landing card; go see the guard over there and he’ll help you out.” He simply said, “You can’t get in without a landing card,” and then turned away to attend to another person, leaving me standing there, holding my US passport, tantalizingly close to US territory but, apparently, unable to step into it.

And so I said, “Bloody hell!” and walked into the entrance hall where, in the no-man’s-land between the “stand behind this line until called” line and the guard booths, I faced the crowd of suppliants, held my passport up for them to see and said, “They won’t let me in!” Then I wandered away.

I had no real plan—my mind was too boggled for thought—so I simply wandered, cutting through lines, ducking under barriers to walk through restricted areas and passing by uniformed guards wearing grim expressions and side-arms, but no one shot me, no one even said, “Just what the fuck do you think you’re doing?” They just let me wander.

Eventually, I ran into my wife who was, by lucky coincidence, standing in the slowest line in the Non-Citizen side of the hall. If she had been in a faster line, she—and our landing card—would have already been on the other side, and I would have been doomed to roam the airport, like Tom Hanks but without Catherine Zeta-Jones, until my return flight.

As it was, I was able to get into America, the country of my birth, where I am a passport-carrying, bona fide citizen, only because my not-a-US-citizen wife vouched for me.

I have no words.

Hours later, safely ensconced in the abode of a good friend and surrounded by the dazzling display of New England in October, I listened to the sounds of the approaching autumn evening and knew—despite what my landing-card-obsessed immigration guard might think—I was home.