Thursday, December 31, 2015

New Year Resolutions

Ah, the New Year. I can tell it’s here because the telly is cluttered with ads for nicotine patches, work out videos, dubious home-exercise machinery and scenes depicting smiling, happy people doing smiling, happy things while sucking on a mixture of water vapour and propylene glycol.

I wish them all well, I truly do, just as I hope the recent increase of joggers and cyclist we have to dodge during our morning walk will not prove to be a spike that lasts a week or two and then fizzles out by mid-month. I suspect that will be the case, however; it’s as predictable as a celebrity divorce following a celebrity marriage.

This is why I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions in January, and certainly not on January 1st. That is a terrible time to make a resolution, the day you wake up from weeks of excessive eating, drinking and carousing, feeling bloated and stodgy, with a throat stripped raw from cigarette smoke, sandpaper coating your eyeballs, a mouth that tastes like the bottom of a sump pit, and only a vague recollection of what transpired the night before coupled with the hope that, whatever it is you think you remember, is just an alcohol-fuelled fantasy. In this state, you are certain to exclaim, “I am never going to [insert undesirable vice here] again! Especially with Vietnamese twins and a Shetland pony” only to repent your decision in a few days, or until you open the door to a pair of fetching Asian ladies who look remarkably similar and appear to be leading a very large dog wearing a bridle.

That’s why I think the new “Dry January” movement is a grand idea. Sure, give up drinking, but just for the month. No pressure, nothing life-changing, just give your body a chance to dry out and then hit the booze in February. I’m not sure who is behind this, but I suspect it’s the liquor industry. It probably keeps a fair few people from climbing on the wagon every January first, and staying there.

(NOTE: Dry January is, at this time, limited to the UK and a few European nations, but you in America should be afraid, for it is on it’s way over. Think of it as pay-back for Black Friday.)

Back when I was younger, and had reason to make resolutions, I did so in February when my head was clear and the twins were safely back in Hanoi. It was only then that I could reflect rationally on my life and decide, with cold clarity, what needed to change. As I grew older and more sedentary, I gave up resolutions altogether.

This year, however, I am making an exception. My wife and I have made a resolution to start drinking. Heavily. And this is the reason:

Now I know that some of you are looking at this and thinking, “Well, that would do for the weekend, but what about the rest of the week?” Forty years ago, I would have thought that, too, but drinking does not play the same role in my life now as it did then. This can be illustrated by the bottle of gin I bought my wife for Christmas to supplement the one I bought for her last Christmas that she has yet to open, as well as the bottle of port my wife gave me to supplement the (unopened) bottle of whiskey from last year.

And that illustrates the most unusual thing about this situation: we are doing this to ourselves. Each year we give and receive alcohol and each year we fail to drink it (though, if you look carefully at the photo, you will see I am making a heroic effort with the bottles of Ileach and Tullibardine).

Therefore, while the rest of the country hangs itself out to dry this January, we will be knocking back the booze. (And I, thanks to my brother-in-law, will be enjoying the twelve days of Guinness.) It’s not that we want to become hopeless drunks, it’s just that we can’t abide seeing anything go to waste, and there isn’t room in our diminutive flat to store all this liquor.

So have a happy and safe New Year. And rememebr: drnik respensbilly.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Working With What We’ve Got

You may recall that, when I retired the first time, I bought a bike. Then someone stole it from our “secure” garage. So I bought a second one with a sturdy lock. The next day, someone stole it. And the lock.

As a result of this revelation that our secure facility is, in reality, an open marketplace for the light of finger, we have moved items stored in the garage that we would not want stolen and replaced them with things that, if they disappeared, we wouldn’t mind so much.

With the desirable items gone, we figured that would be the end of it. It wasn’t.

One day we helped my in-laws clear out some junk and volunteered to take it to the tip (US: Dump) for them as we live very near our Council-run Recycling Centre. (Aside: this is called an Amenity Tip, roughly translated to US English as “Free Dump,” and a sign reading, “Amenity Tip” points the way to it. When we first moved here, I thought Amenity Tip was the name of a village.)

Anyway, we brought some items destined for the scrap yard home with us and piled them in our allotted space, with a notion to take them to the tip the next time we fancied spending our Sunday morning sitting in a queue at the dump. But before we could do that, someone stole it.

But a secure garage? They've pretty much got all night.
Not all of it (shame about that) but a few items that were worthless to us but, apparently, not to others. That was when we decided it might be to our advantage to keep items in the garage that we actually wanted stolen, instead of just not minding when they disappeared.

A few weeks back, we had another clear out at my in-laws and uncovered an astounding number of redundant suitcases. We didn’t want to just chuck them away as they were in in fine condition, so we brought them to our garage, stacked them up and put a sign on them reading, “Perfectly good suitcases; please steal them.”

There are four left.

And then there came the Great Telly Crisis of 2015. Two weeks ago, my wife came home from work, picked up the remote and tried to switch on the telly. Nothing happened. I do not need to tell you what sort of panic ensued.

Fortunately, we live very near a Curry’s (I could throw a rock and hit it. Well, I couldn’t, but someone like Cy Young might.) so, with just an hour to go before closing, we hustled over and explained our predicament to the young man in charge of appliances. Twenty minutes later we returned to our flat with a new HD TV and a digital recorder. Two and a half hours later—after wiring them up, booting up both the TV and the recorder, running through separate initialisation sequences and connecting both to our WiFi—we had it set up.

Remember when you just plugged the telly into the wall and turned it on?
We then found ourselves in possession of an extra telly and digital recorder that we could not simply throw in the bin (recycling regulations) and that might possibly be in fine condition. The crisis was precipitated, after all, by the digital recorder not responding to the ON button of the remote. I changed the batteries to no avail and after that—given our skill sets—we were out of options. Buying a new telly and recorder was like hunting ducks with a howitzer, but it got the job done.

And so, I put the recorder, with the remote, in the garage, along with a note explained what had gone wrong with it. It disappeared a few days later, saving us another Sunday morning at the the tip.

I’m not saying I like having my “secure” domain routinely and freely invaded, but by offering items I can’t use and they (whoever “they” are) can, I feel a sort of balance has been achieved.

Incidentally, my newest replacement bike is in the hallway, leaning against the wall, 68 steps, two hallways and a catwalk from street level. Its tires have never touched pavement. I may like the balance we have negotiated, but I am not giving them another bike.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

And Here It Is: Merry Christmas

Ah, Christmas. That wonderful, joyous, achingly nostalgic holiday that lives so well in our memories.

The reality, however, is sometimes not so glamorous.

When we mis-remember Christmases past, this is what generally comes to mind:

Cue "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire..."
But at 8:00 this morning, this is what I saw:

This is the High Street

And this is what is growing out back of Sainsbury's
Still, despite the hurry and the hustle and the over indulging and the non-stop-shopping and the jaw-dropping cost, it is a wondrous time of year. One where we are encouraged to pause, look at the would around us—our world, not the fucked up greater world, the one that belongs to us, our family, our friends, our home—and reflect on the many pleasures they give us throughout the year.

May you all have a Happy Christmas, and a relaxing run up to New Year (which deserves it’s own post).

Friday, December 18, 2015

Retired II - the Sequel

And just when I started warming to the idea that having a job wasn’t so bad after all.

I don’t mind, really. And considering I was hired two years ago on a six-month contract, I have nothing to complain about. So I’m not complaining. But I do wish I could be made redundant in, say, May or June. Why is it always at the end of November, when the weather is crap and the most rapacious weeks of the year are already grabbing us by the lapels and barking at us like street hawkers? It’s like, “Merry Christmas; you’re fired!”

And, unlike my previous retirement, which came in with a bang, this one arrived with a whimper. Note that my first official day of Second Retirement was the end of November and I’m only now getting around to mentioning it. The first one was “Yippee! No more commuting to work, no more meetings, no more reports, I can do whatever I want to all day!” while this one is more like “I’m up, dressed and in my office; shouldn’t I be working?”

The thing is, when you work from home, they can make you redundant, but they can’t make you clean out your desk and leave the building. So it feels weird, like you’re still at work, but there’s nothing to do. So you make another cup of tea and check your e-mail. Again.

It doesn’t help that my alarm still goes off at 5 AM and that I am up and dressed and ready for work by 5:30 or 6:00. The idea is, I am supposed to be working on my own projects but, even at the end of my third week, I’m nagged by a misplaced sense of guilt and the feeling that I should be doing something else. Consequently, my writing has not taken off in the big way I had hoped it would. In fact, it’s still sputtering along the apron looking for a runway.

My talent for slacking off aside, I do have an excuse: More often than you might think (and certainly more often than I had anticipated), time that I could have spent writing (which, I hasten to add, does not mean time that I would have spent writing) was spent, instead, in a variety of other locations where my presence was urgently required, such as the bank, the solicitors, the audiologist, the mall (hey, it’s Christmas, I needed to be there!) or staring over the shoulder of the guy who came to look at the water stain in the hall ceiling where the roof leaked.

I do a lot of this these days.
So, yeah, my days have not exactly lived up to the super-writer ideal, where I jump out of bed brimming with creativity and pound out 1,000 words before breakfast. The most creative thing I do most days is try to think of a good reason to get out of bed. Then I stare at the keyboard for a few hours, run some errands an attempt to convince myself that I don’t need a nap.

Still, I have hopes that, once things settle into a normal routine, I will finally get back to doing what I feel I ought to be doing.

As long as they don’t offer me my old job back.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Paint It Black

It’s Black Friday here in Britain. I know, it’s ludicrous; you can’t have Black Friday without Thanksgiving but try telling that to the Brits.

Now, you may be thinking I’m a little late with this post, because Black Friday was ages ago, but here, Black Friday seems to be a weekend event. Hence, we had Black Friday Saturday, and Black Friday Sunday and, for all I know, this is Black Friday Monday and Black Friday Week is just beginning. This is because, although the shops are keen to cash in on the lucrative Black Friday feeding frenzy, they have no actual clue what Black Friday is about.

See? Not a clue.
You cannot import another country’s tradition without the feelings, cultural consciousness and collective clan memory that goes along with it. That would be like Price Chopper forcing Inuits to pretend to celebrate Independence Day by barbecuing hot dogs, eating potato salad and setting off fireworks simply so they could shift a surplus of Frankfurter buns. Chain stores holding sales on a random weekend and calling it black Friday makes it Black Friday in the same way that changing my name to Cheryl Cole makes me an anorexic X-Factor judge.

Black Friday is not a stand-alone event; it is part of a holiday tradition that goes something like this:


It’s a holiday but you’re up early because there is a lot to do. You will not be cooking a full Thanksgiving dinner this year, but the house is still bursting with food—bowls of nuts, plates of cakes, fresh rolls, spiced drinks, a small turkey and, of course, pumpkin pie. You have pumpkin pie for breakfast because you like pumpkin pie and, hey, it’s Thanksgiving, and the tradition of excessive eating begins NOW. Then you start decorating the house for Christmas.

At ten o’clock you have an early lunch of turkey with Stove Top stuffing and Pepperidge Farm gravy and a bit of ambrosia for dessert before starting the two hour drive to your father-in-law’s house, where you have an early Thanksgiving feast with him and his wife.

Mmm, ambrosia.
Then, stuffed with turkey, potatoes, candied yams, creamed corn, three-bean salad, ambrosia, pumpkin pie and more mulled wine than advisable, you drive your family to your mother-in-law’s house.

She lives alone but she puts on a huge dinner for you and the rest of her extended family, all of whom—the adults, the teenagers, the children—are arguing and running riot. You eat more turkey, stuffing, potatoes, candied yams, creamed corn, dinner rolls, mince pies, cranberry sauce, ambrosia and three-bean salad and top it off with more mulled wine and a slice of pumpkin pie.

By now, thanks mainly to the wine, the arguing—for the adults and teenagers, at least—has stopped and everyone hugs. When you leave, your mother-in-law is crying.

You squeeze into your car, feeling like a tick about to pop, and drive to your father’s house for evening drinks and snacks. You have—at your wife’s insistence—non-alcoholic mulled wine, which tastes like lavatory cakes, and more pumpkin pie topped with whipped cream. You promise your dad and his new wife that, next year for sure, you will have the main Thanksgiving dinner with them. As you leave, you shake hands and his new wife gives you an awkward hug and you wonder if you are ever going to visit your father again and then you drive home for a night filled with troubled dreams, indigestion and alarming flatulence.

The next day, you have to go to work. Your wife, however, has taken the day off and is already out at the Black Friday sales. You have pumpkin pie for breakfast and go to the office to commiserate with your co-workers.

That evening, your wife regales you with tales of the sales as you eat left over turkey for dinner with a slice of pumpkin pie for dessert.

Black Friday, a sort of commercial interlude between Thanksgiving dinners.
On Saturday, you get up early. It's still dark when you set out on the road. Your family sits sullen and silent as you make the six-hour trip to your mother’s house. You arrive at noon, greet your brothers and sisters and step-father and settle into another turkey dinner, complete with arguments, mulled wine, pumpkin pie and hugs. You leave at 6 PM and arrive home at midnight.

Nothing says "I never want to see you, your wife or your spoiled brats again," like a nice family dinner.
(Ignore the fact that this is a British Christmas dinner--it was the best photo I could find.)
Sunday you are allowed to sleep late. A little. You have pumpkin pie for breakfast and begin clearing up the clutter. You have leftover turkey for lunch and dinner and, after you finally put the finishing touches on the Christmas decorations, you celebrate with mulled wine and a slice of pumpkin pie.

Monday AM, it is all behind you. You get up to go to work. You have muesli and soy milk for breakfast. You never want to see another slice of pumpkin pie as long as you live.


Now that, my British friends, is what Black Friday is all about.

The other problem with Black Friday in Britain is, while nobody is shy about going to the sales, everyone complains about it. The prevailing view seems to be, “Oh sure, another American custom insinuating itself into our culture.” I think you Yanks should be a bit miffed about this. I mean, there you are, having your turkey and holding your sales, and the Brits go and steal the 'Sales' part of your tradition, and then bad-mouth you for it. I think you deserve restitution. You should demand a British holiday tradition in return.

If you do, might I suggest Boxing Day. A day off after Christmas is a tradition worth adopting; it makes it handy for visiting your mother and step-father, who you couldn’t spend Christmas with because you were too busy visiting everyone else.

Thursday, November 26, 2015


Happy Thanksgiving

to all my American friends and family.

I hope you are enjoying your day off, your turkey, your cranberry sauce, your stuffing, your potatoes, your creamed corn and that odd looking dish your aunt always brings that no one can identify but you eat anyway because that’s the polite thing to do.

The Expectation
Over here, for most of us Americans, it’s just another day. No day off, no big feast, no family gathering.

I am, however, having this for dinner tonight.

The Reality
Marks and Spencer -- that's quality, that is.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Doctor Google, the NHS and Me

This is a cautionary tale wrapped in a cautionary tale. It's a tad convoluted, so hang on.

I have stupid eyebrows. If the hair on my head was like my eyebrows, I would have a shock of thick, lush hair just above my forehead and none anywhere else. I have no idea when or why this happened; it seemed to sneak up on me. One day my eyebrows were fine, the next time I took notice, they were stupid.

Some time ago, I mentioned this in a blog post. As part of the research for that post, I put “Stupid Eyebrows” (or something like that) into Google and discovered it was a symptom of Hypothyroidism, a condition that, among its many side effects, included death.

I found this amusing, mentioned it in the post, resolved to never again look up any symptom on Google and thought nothing more about it.

Until I had a heart attack.

Well, it felt like a heart attack. My heart was racing, my chest was tight, I had trouble catching my breath, I was sweating and, yeah, it felt like a heart attack. Except that I was pretty sure it wasn't, so I resisted turning to Dr. Google (because I knew what the diagnosis would be) and simply waited for the symptoms to go away, which they eventually did. Then I forgot about it.

My wife was not as sanguine about the event as I was, however, and insisted I go to the doctor. The doctor was not very sanguine, either; he sent me to A&E. (That’s the emergency room, for you American readers, not the popular cable channel that shows WWII documentaries.)

There, I was subjected to blood tests, X-rays, ECGs, exams and probing questions in what I can only describe as organized chaos. I was, however, impressed with the NHS, its calm competence, thoroughness and willingness to bring me a cup of tea in a china mug. (We watch the ITV reality show “24 Hours in A&E” filmed at St. George’s in London, and when they bring patients tea, it is always in a Styrofoam cup; at the Surrey A&E, we get china mugs, so suck on that, St. George’s.)

Eventually, a charming doctor with a plummy accent pronounced me healthy and let me go.

Naturally, I thought it would make an excellent post.

I didn't want to write anything about it until the entire drama was played out, however, which turned out to be a lot longer than I anticipated. In the ensuing weeks, I was poked, prodded, x-rayed and spent days wired up to a device worn around my waist, which made me glad I wasn’t travelling anywhere at the time. Had I shown up at an airport wearing that, I’m sure I would have been shot as a suspected terrorist.

I was even treated to an ultrasound of my heart, and the opportunity of watching it pump away on a monitor. They didn’t tell me if it was a boy or a girl, but they did say it seemed fine.

What do you think, boy or girl?
The tests went on for so long that I thought the NHS was going to keep testing me until they, by God, found something wrong with me. In the end, they relented and satisfied themselves by diagnosing me with mild arrhythmia.

During the interim period, I did a bit of research for the post I was planning to write, the point of which was to demonstrate the dangers of relying on Dr. Google. I thought I’d use my eyebrows as an example, but instead of referring to my past post, I went back to Dr. Google.

This time, instead of a list of symptoms I clearly did not have, I saw myself, quite vividly, being described: leg cramps, yes, I had been having them (we call them Charlie Horses in the US; if you want to confuse a Brit, tell them you have a Charlie Horse, they will be utterly perplexed, but then so will you when they ask why it is called that and you have to admit you haven’t a clue), fatigue, biting your tongue (hadn’t I bitten my tongue just the day before?), restless leg syndrome, something I hadn’t even known I had (I just thought my leg was falling asleep), thinning hair, arrhythmia and, of course, stupid eyebrows.

Oddly, I was cheered by this news. Hypothyroidism is treatable. With some simple hormone therapy all these symptoms would disappear, my heart incident would be explained and my eyebrows would return.

Elated, I went to the doctor and told him of my symptoms and asked him to test me for Hypothyroidism. That’s when I got the bad news.

He had already tested me, and I did not have it.

“But what about my symptoms?” I asked. “My leg cramps, my fatigue, my thinning hair?” And that’s when he gave me even worse news. I was suffering from a fatal condition for which there was no cure: I was getting older.

I returned home crestfallen. Then a strange thing happened. The muscle cramps stopped, my leg settled down and I didn't bite my tongue again.

But I still have, and will likely continue to have, stupid eyebrows.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Dances With Ghillies

Following on from the previous post, wherein I was ejected from The Cult and began finding myself…

And so, I became an Irish dancer. I didn’t mean to. It happened in the same sort of way that I became a folk singer, and as a direct result of it.

Sometime in my mid to late twenties, I happened to walk into a bar where a guy was standing on stage strumming a guitar and singing rowdy songs. The crowd was loving it. I ordered a beer, watched appreciatively for a while, then thought, “I could do that.”

Happily, the bar hosted an open mic night on Wednesdays, so the following week, I returned with my guitar and signed up. Six months later I was getting paid gigs.

My preference was for light rock and folk, heavily leaning toward Irish drinking and rebel songs. They were infectious, the crowds loved them and there were a lot of Irish pubs in the area whose main criteria for hiring entertainment favored enthusiasm over musical skill, which suited me perfectly.

(ASIDE: although I was billed as an Irish folk singer, my signature song was an original composition titled, The Marsha Song. It was often requested, and although Marsha wouldn’t speak to me for several days after she heard it, she eventually saw the funny side.)

As you might imagine, I was heavily booked around St. Patrick’s Day, when all the Irish by descent, Irish by association and Irish by imagination called in sick, died their hair green, painted a shamrock on their cheek (the facial kind, although, really, one can’t be sure) and spent the day in any bar with a remotely Celtic theme (and if they were too crowded, a TGI Friday’s would do) drinking green beer and singing songs about the IRA.

Often the festivities included visits from pipe bands and, occasionally, Irish step dancers. The dancers always amazed me. I loved the rhythm, the movements and always watched with deep admiration bordering on awe.

Fast forward a dozen years or so, to a moment when I happened to look at an adult education flier and saw “Irish Dancing for Beginners” advertized and thought, “I could do that.”

I loved it, and became fairly good at it, so much so that I – and most of the class – joined the Irish dance school that had sponsored the class and became their first adult dance team. I was in my element (it was 98% women; really, what is not to like?); I made friends, I had fun, I bought ghillies and learned that there was such a thing as sock glue.
Ghillies. They come in soft and hard shoe varieties, as well as more masculine versions.
We competed in feiseanna (a feis is an Irish Dance competition) and the Eastern Regional Oireachtas (a mega-feis for the eastern US) and came away with a fistful of medals. My crowning moment came when I was picked to be on the team that danced on stage with The Chieftains when they played at Proctors Theatre in Schenectady

The Girls Dressing Room.
The Boys Dressing Room.
I was in a four-hand reel with another woman from my school. We practiced together, but on the night we were paired with the professionals. My partner was Cara Butler, the lesser famous sister of Jean Butler, who was the lesser famous partner of Michael Flatley in the very famous Riverdance.

Colleen, from my school, with our partners, Donny Golden
and Cara Butler (they are the tall ones).
We had a ball, and I managed to not embarrass myself.

Eventually, I became so enamoured of all things Celtic that I took up the bagpipes and then looked around for something else to do.

Not incidental to this story is that fact that, over the years, my incremental raises and promotions had begun to add up and, coincidentally, I was finally satisfying the many obligations accrued from a failed marriage, bad habits, reckless borrowing and a generally poor understanding of financial management. It was as if the money tap was suddenly turned on, affording me opportunities I could heretofore only dream of. So I thought, “Ireland. Yeah, I could do that.”

I am afraid that, once again, I am going to have to refer you to my book, Postcards From Ireland, where the whole story is revealed in greater detail than I can go into here. Suffice it to say I was extremely naïve. I booked a flight to Shannon, and nothing else. I was soon to learn about immigration control officers (and the fact that they take their job quite seriously indeed), come to the astounding realization that, just because a country speaks English, it is not a carbon copy of the US, and discover that my carefully guarded bachelor status was in danger of coming to an end.

But those incidentals were in the future. I spent the weeks before my trip sitting in the sun on my balcony, drinking beer, smoking cigars, enjoying my freedom and thinking that life could not get much better than it was.

Once again, I was dead wrong.

This concludes the Things I’ve Done portion of this blog and  I promise  we will shortly return to the more traditional Things I Am Doing Now episodes. It’s been a fun trip (for me, at least); thanks for coming along.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Life Among the Zealots

I mentioned in my previous post that I had been a member of a cult, and someone said they would like to hear more about it. So, at least one person might enjoy this; sorry about the rest of you.

From the age of 16 to 22, I was a member of a cult. By all definitions, it was a fairly pedestrian cult. We didn’t retreat to the hills with our Bibles and guns, we didn’t erect altars to the Sacred Rutabaga, and we didn’t even go on pilgrimages to see the Holy Cow in farmer Jones’ field, the one with the markings that—if you squinted and looked sideways—sorta resembled Jesus. But we were an insular group, convinced of our righteousness and suspicious of outsiders, lapping up the Word of God as translated for us by our Leader. So, in my view, it was a cult.

I ended up there for several reasons, mostly because I was a teenager with a head full of mush. Also, there was a nation-wide revival happening during the late 1970s and our area, like many others, became caught up in it. And so I went to a meeting in the barn/church where this group congregated. They seemed like nice people, they offered direction and meaning. So I signed on.

It wasn’t bad at first. I credit it with keeping me out of trouble during my teenage years, because Trouble and I were really bonding at that time. I, and my new friends, sang songs, we prayed, we were baptized by immersion, and we clapped our hands a lot. In general, it was good fun.

But then, as always happens when one person finds themselves in control of a devoted group of Acolytes, we were gradually transformed into mindless zombies who were not allowed to think for themselves. We were told what we could do, where we could go, how we could dress, who we could associate with, what music we could listen to and what books we could read*. If there is one thing this experience taught me it is that religion—any religion—is, at its heart, all about control.

I was not allowed to write, because fiction is a lie and lying is a sin. Everything I had written up to that point was burned—my stories, my journals, my poems—along with my Simon and Garfunkel records. I did this willingly, because that’s what you do when you are in a cult; you obey without question. Opinions are not encouraged.

Smart man, that Voltaire.
We were fundamentalist Christians, believing the Bible to be the literal Word of God. The world was created in seven days, dinosaurs were a hoax, evolution was blasphemy and modern innovations—such as scanning your groceries at the supermarket—were the work of the Beast. We were also charismatic, believing that the gifts of the Holy Spirit were still viable today. We spoke in tongues, we cast out demons, we laid hands on the sick (whether we healed them or not is up to speculation).

But we were also teenagers, with the same frustrations, insecurities, hopes, dreads and passions of normal teenagers. That was the one thing our Leader couldn’t cast out of us, and it really irked him.

Yeah, this was me. We were a boring cult...
...we never go to do any really cool cult things, like this.
There were, naturally, rules for relationships, tweaked over the years in a never ending quest to tighten the screw. As you might expect, fornication was a no no, but so was wanking. (Talk about some frustrating years!) We were not allowed to date non-Christians, a rule that not only made sense but was totally unnecessary; who on earth would want to date us?

Fortunately, there was plenty of Christian date-fodder around, especially as groups like ours were springing up faster than Starbuck franchises all over the place. But not all of them were charismatic, so scratch those people off the list. Then we weren’t allowed to date anyone who wasn't “growing at our spiritual rate,” which was nebulous enough to pretty much rule out anyone.

Soon, this barn/church was our whole world. Saturday night was Core Group night, where the ultra-faithful got together to whip ourselves into a pious frenzy (think of it as spiritual masturbation), Sunday we had a morning service and an evening service, Monday night was Bible study, Tuesday night was…well, you get the idea.

It was by no means dark and sinister, however; we weren’t locked in prayer cells and beaten with rosebushes or anything like that, we were simply controlled. And at a time when young people are eager to explore the boundaries of their lives, this can pinch around the edges. We were encouraged to grass each other up (US translation: rat each other out) if we saw a brother or sister doing something suspect. This could result in a group confrontation at one of our many meetings, or a private counseling session with the Leader, which was basically him giving us a bollocking (US translation: telling us off).

There were bright moments, too, though. We had several outreach programs, we ran weekend retreats for church youth groups and we travelled to other churches to speak about our work. We also made sporadic attempts at knocking on people’s doors and asking the startled occupants if they wanted us to tell them about Jesus. You can imagine the success rate.

I heard this a lot.
Then two things happened right around the same time: the Leader’s daughter and I became quite keen on one another, and at a meeting of the faithful, we theorized on ways to take our holiness to the Next Level.

But first, the daughter. I was in my early twenties now, I was part of The Committee, I went on the speaking engagements, I produced the newsletter, I taught at the retreats. I was trusted—relied on—to do all these things, but when I asked the Leader for permission to date his daughter, he told me “No.”

It didn’t end there, naturally. We began seeing each other on the sly, which was the only logical outcome in a situation like that.

Now, back to the meeting. It is stated in the Bible that anyone who becomes a Christian and then turns away is doing a Very Bad Thing. It is called Apostasy, and you don’t just go to hell for it, you go to double-dog hell, the furthest, deepest, darkest corner of hell’s sub-basement. Ergo, our Leader theorized, if you saw someone in danger of committing apostasy, it would be better for you to kill their body and send their soul to heaven instead of allowing them to go to hell. The group—young, white and middle class—all nodded their heads in agreement while the final, shredded remnants of my free thought screamed, “they’re talking about murder!”

I hear you've been thinking of leaving our little Group...
And then—also the only logical outcome in situation like that—the Leader found out about his daughter and me and I was summarily kicked out of the church, with the words, “don’t come near me, my church or my daughter again!” ringing in my ears.

I found that strange. Didn’t Jesus teach us to turn the other cheek? He had another daughter. You’d think, instead of booting me out, he would have offered her, as well.

But that was not to be. I was shunned, just like the Amish. And, as with the Amish, it is not a pleasant thing. The church, the people in it, my girlfriend, they were my whole world. I was cast adrift with no friends, no direction and no purpose; it's a terrible state to be in, and can cause people to do some horrifically desperate and stupid things. I was no different; I got married.

Yeah, that was kinda how it was, except I wasn't wearing a dress.
Eventually, I got better. I remembered that I had aspirations. I began to write again. I started performing—singing on the folk circuit and doing some stand-up comedy. Gradually, I became the person I was meant to be, though not the person my wife (a nice woman who did not deserve to be saddled with me) had thought she had married.

It has been years—decades—since I have thought about that time. I rarely bring it up, unless I am asked to tell something about myself that not a lot of people know about.

So now you do.

* One of the books we were forbidden to read was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, simply because it had the word “witch” in the title, thus denying us one of the great Christian allegorical tales and proving that zealots are not only narrow-minded, but stupid, as well.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

I Would Like to Thank the Academy…

I recently received an award. Not because I’ve suddenly and inexplicably done something noteworthy, but because I have hung around for so long. It’s for blogging longevity; basically an award for people with too much time on their hands.
One of my early blog logos
My friend* Toni at ExpatMum nominated me. She’s been blogging since 2008 and in her post she expresses a fond nostalgia for these sorts of awards, which were popular when she began blogging. For me, they were a new and perplexing innovation, and something I never really got to grips with.

For those of you who don’t remember them, you would get “tagged” and then you had to perform certain tasks, namely show the award, tell 7 interesting things about yourself that not many people know, and tag 15 other bloggers.

Here's the Award. Task One: Complete
They’re the on-line equivalent of chain letters (remember those) but without the need to buy stamps or the dire warnings about breaking the chain. Therefore, since I don’t have to worry about some catastrophe befalling me, I am not going to tag anyone. As with chain letters, I feel it is a bit of an imposition to foist these tasks onto someone else. And, more to the point, I no longer know 15 other bloggers, especially ones who have been around for a long time. My blog has been going so long that it's now in that, “Hey you kids, get offa my lawn!” stage, so I am not the virtual gadabout I used to be.

So what is this blogging time-limit criteria? Five years. Phu-leese! I began my first On-Line Web Journal, which is what we called them (and we liked it that way), in March 1996. Most of the people on-line these days weren’t even born then.

In those barnstorming days of the Internet, you needed some real estate on an ISP, a dial-up modem (explain it to the youngsters), knowledge of HTML and an FTP tool. In short, it was not for the faint-hearted, and there were actually more people taking a curious, cautious look at this interweb thing than there were people regurgitating their views onto it. Therefore, good writing, and sometimes even mediocre writing (which would explain my following) earned an audience.

I started using some free space provided by a local university, then moved on to other free hosting sites—Xoom, Geocities, Tripod—before buying my own domain,, in 1999.

Some of my early Blog headers
My first blog was called Cracks of Time, described by me as “a grotesque monument of self-absorption.” That later gave way to a blog about my hiking excursions, then on to an account of my Irish Dance adventures and lastly morphed into "Suburban Hell" -- my statement on life in the soulless expanse of strip malls, gas stations, fast-food outlets and housing developments that was Clifton Park,

Suburban Hell didn’t last long. In summer 2001, I went to Ireland and met the woman who would shortly become my wife (Shameless plug alert! You can read the full story in my book, Postcards From Ireland). Soon after, I started Postcards From Across the Pond.

The first header graphic for PCFATP.
That is nearly 20 years of continuous blogging, so I guess it’s about time I got some sort of award, though the “Can’t He Find a Better Use For His Time?” award would be more apt.

Another PCFATP header
And so, on to the list – seven interesting things not many people know about me:

First, and most important is, I am not all that interesting.

At family gatherings, the most unusual thing about me is that I do not have any tattoos.

Another is that I have not done time.

In my teenage years, I belonged to a fundamentalist cult.

I have never read To Kill a Mockingbird

I have wanted to be a writer since I was a child. The first story I wrote was about a pilot who crashes his plane in a jungle clearing trying to save another man who is trapped there. Together they build a new plane from the wreckage and fly out just as the natives are coming to attack. Somehow, Elleston Trevor got hold of it and stole the plot to write Flight of the Phoenix. I was never able to prove that, naturally. Shame, too, as I could have used the residuals from the movie rights.

I play the bagpipes. Badly.

Oh, and I’m a certified SCUBA diver. (That’s 8, maybe I’m more interesting than I thought.)

Thanks for wandering down Amnesia Lane with me; we will now return to our usually scheduled broadcast.

* She's a real friend, not one of those sad, virtual acquaintances. Okay, she’s not the type I can call up on Saturday afternoon to ask, “Hey, you wanna go bowling?” but I have met her and we get on well and we even co-wrote a blog together for a couple of years.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Going with the Flo

We were on holiday a while back; south Wales this time. Pembrokeshire, where we stayed in a tiny little village called St. Florence at a holiday cottage I can only describe as “Pretty Darn Pink.”

The cottage, though pink, was comfortable, containing all you might expect from a holiday cottage and more: an old-fashioned claw-foot tub in the bathroom with a skylight directly overhead, an ample outdoor seating area, a second bathroom with a shower, an outer kitchen with a Belfast sink…and knick-knacks.

It was incredible. Nary a nook had not been filled with sea shells nor a cranny left bereft of colourful stones. Glass-fronted cabinets displayed ornamental tea sets, bowls of potpourri and doilies covered random occasional tables and shelves sagged under the weight of bottled ships and scented candles.

There was hardly a square inch of wall space not covered by decorative plates, framed photos or amateur artwork. Everywhere there were dado rails festooned with figurines, cubbies crammed full of ceramic tat, dresser-tops adorned with Dutch shoes and chests piled with porcelain jugs. Mugs hung from every exposed beam and even the limited space on the diminutive kitchen table was half taken up by a large lazy-Susan covered in a set of Portmeirion pottery.

Are you sure you can't fit any more knick-knacks in here?
It made it difficult to unpack, as there was no place to put our stuff. And you couldn’t move the knick-knacks; there was no place to move them to because every space was taken up with knick-knacks.

Even so, we had a great time. One of the many sites we visited was the city of St. David.
St. David is the Patron Saint of Wales, and he has his own cathedral in a small town bearing his name. The fact that there is a cathedral in the town, however, means that the town has city status, making it the smallest city in Britain. In 2011 it had a population of 1,841, making it—population wise—about the size of an average village.

St Dave got this...
One of the more interesting things about St. David, is his girlfriend, St. Florence, who was the namesake of the village we were staying in. Now, the canned histories that I skimmed intimated that she was a contemporary but you don’t get a village named after you (along with a nifty and picturesque church) for just a wink and a smile. In my book, she was his main squeeze.

...St Flo got this.
I didn’t bother delving too deep into the text on the history plaques; I liked my imagined version too much to sully it with anything as mundane as facts.

We also visited the bustling sea-side town of Tenby, with its medieval town walls, castle and Victorian fort.

Nothing like having your town protected by a 20-foot thick wall.

St Cathy's Fort. 1870s. A new build, hardly worth a mention.
The street, cafés, bars and even the church were lively but the local council still seems to be short of cash: in practically every tourist town we have visited, there have been three old duffers sitting on a bench near the town centre giving the place a little local colour. Tenby, apparently, can only afford two.

Those guys again.
There were a lot of places selling tourist tat but I didn’t see any ceramic effigies of St. Flo. Sort of a shame, as I would have liked to buy one for the cottage.

Though I doubt we would have found nay place to put it.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Is There Room For One More?

We interrupt our usual offerings to announce the birth of my first granddaughter:

Reagan Tierney, a backup to my two grandboys, arrived at 8:30 AM on the 28th of August.

Hopefully, we'll show her a good time.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Working for a Living

I haven’t been paying much attention to this blog lately. Don’t judge me; I have my reasons. The main one being my job.

I tried to hang on to the remnants of my retirement as long as I could—hoarding days off and clinging to my free afternoons—but in the end they were inexorably pried from my grasp. At first, I was horrified, but now that I am settled into the job I’m wondering what all the fuss was about. I can’t even imagine what I did with all that free time. (The answer being, not a lot.)

But back to my blog. Prior to my retirement, I was full-time employed for many years, and I managed to post quite regularly. This time, however, I am working from home.

When I say I work from home, this is how I want people to imagine it...
 Before I go on to point out its disadvantages, I wish to state, up front, that working from home is brilliant. The commute takes seconds, there is ample tea and coffee and you can work in your pajamas. As a bonus, if you’re into saving the planet, you can feel as smug about your carbon-footprint as a devout cyclist without having to risk your life on the A-281 every morning.

These advantages, for many, far outweigh the alternative of traveling to and from an office. But, that said, there is a down side, and more to the point of this post, the reason my blog is suffering neglect:

When you work from home, you are always at work.

(Case and point: I wrote this post over the course of two weeks during the odd free moment, and then it sat on my hard drive for another fortnight before I found the time to post it.)

I try to be reasonable, I try to set specific hours, I try to end early so I have time to go outside and wander around town. This is often thwarted, however, by the unfortunate combination of my job—which involves intricate and precise work, similar to solving a jumbo Sudoku—and the fact that I enjoy these sorts of things (obsessed much?).It is, therefore, not unusual to find myself looking up from my computer at some point during the day, to discover it is 2 o’clock in the afternoon, I am still in my pajamas and I haven’t had breakfast yet.

On those days, after I finish work, I find it difficult to muster much enthusiasm for turning on my other computer and working on something else.

Which illustrates another disadvantage: when you work at home there is no one around to bring you cups of tea or coffee, and no reason to feel guilty about not getting up to get someone else a cup of tea or coffee. Therefore, one can spend the day without tea, coffee, lunch, acceptable clothing or speaking to another human being. Which, of course, illustrates another disadvantage: you are always alone.

Back in our other flat, if I was home on my own, I merely had to step out onto the balcony for company. There was always someone coming or going, or a neighbour out on their balcony to have a chat with, so I never felt totally alone, more like I was in a suite of rooms in a very large house filled with other people.

Here, I feel like I’m in solitary confinement in a particularly posh prison. No one is out on their balconies, no one is in their back gardens, no one is coming or going or even, for the most part, visible. (Okay, so the lady on the ground floor occasionally sunbathes topless, but she doesn’t actually talk to me.) The fact is, during an average day, I see no one, I hear nothing, I go nowhere.

This isn’t necessarily a disadvantage, (at least I like the people I’m working with) unless you’re writing a blog, and that blog happens to be about what you do during the day. Hence, the unusually long periods between posts.

I don’t see a remedy for this, at least not in the foreseeable future. As I have mentioned before, you do not turn down a job in this economic climate, and since this is the type of job that came my way, I will continue to hunker down in my lair, getting slowly more reclusive and feral until they find me someday, surrounded by the gnawed bones of small animals, dressed in a tattered bathrobe, growling through my tangled beard and snapping at the poles they use to prod me into the cage.

...this is closer to the reality.
I doubt it will get that far, however. Truth be told, there are at least a few perks that keep my spirits up and prompt me to remain on the polite side of the demarcation line between civility and barbarism. For instance, I believe I am a shoo-in for Employee of the Month again, and that means I’ll have to get up early, shower, shave and put on a suit for the awards ceremony.

It’s kind of a pain but it keeps me civilized and they always have tea and cakes afterward.

Monday, June 29, 2015

10 Simple Things That Give Me Joy

I have much to be joyful about—three sons, two grandsons, a pending granddaughter, lovely wife, income, published books, et al—but these are the deep-seated joys, the ones that infuse the fabric of life with a cheerful background color. And they are often (far too often) taken for granted. But, acknowledged or not, they are not the things that make your life truly joyful.

And I am not alone in thinking this:

“Happiness consists more in small conveniences or pleasures that occur every day, than in great pieces of good fortune that happen but seldom to a man in the course of his life,” says my alleged great (great, great…) grand Uncle Ben. "Thus, if you teach a poor young man to shave himself, and keep his razor in order, you may contribute more to the happiness of his life than in giving him a thousand guineas.”
My favorite portrait of Uncle Ben, who also said:
"If you give a man a fish, he will eat today,

teach a man to fish and he'll sit in a boat and drink beer all day."
Wait a minute...I may be wrong on that one.
A kind word from a stranger, a laugh shared with the bus driver, an unexpectedly fine cup of tea—link a few of these together and you have a good day, live without them for very long, and life becomes monotonous and dreary.

That said, and to follow up my Modern Anxiety list, I offer here a few of the things that, throughout my day, I can count on to inject a little cheer:

This is a bottle of Baylis and Harding hand wash (Sweet Mandarin & Grapfruit). By scratching out a portion of the D, I made myself part owner in the company, and every time I look at it I want to giggle like a school girl.
My very own brand of hand soap.
Shower Squeegee
My shower resembles a glass phone booth with a shower head instead of a phone. It’s a nice shower, but the sight of the glass walls speckled with water spots made my inner OCD cleaner uneasy. Then I found a shower squeegee. Now, after a couple of deep-knee bends while holding the squeegee against the glass, I have a sparkling clean cubicle every day.
Squeegee. Photo taken through the squeaky (literally) clean walls of my shower. 
Mirror Hob
We have one of those newfangled hobs with pictures instead of burners and electronics instead of dials. I hate it. You have to wait for it to boot up, then fiddle with the buttons to get it to do anything and then it has only two settings: not hot enough and way too hot. Also, it gets dirty easily.

Fortunately, a quick scrub with Hob Brite makes it glow like an obsidian mirror.
Disclaimer: This is not my actual reflection.
The View
I liked the view from our previous flat, but I love the view from here. And it is especially pleasing when I think that almost everyone else in this block of flats gets to enjoy the panorama of Sainsbury's car park.
What I see.
What they see.

The Balcony
Unlike the balcony on our previous flat, this one is actually a usable size, and it has become one of our favortie rooms.

In agreeable weather, we eat breakfast in the warm morning sunshine, and spend lazy afternoons reading and enjoying the view. It’s a marvellous enhancement, and yet no one else seems to bother with theirs.

Most of them contain a few neglected plant boxes or even a small table and chair set, as if the residents had initial enthusiasm but then decided they couldn't be arsed. And since this is a more "upscale" location, I don't even see people popping out for a fag. It's sad really, but only sad for them; we're very happy.
If people don't start using their balconies, 'they' will take them away.
Future generations may thank us.
Pipe Tool
A friend of mine gave his father's pipe tool to me. I was overwhelmed, but he said he didn't smoke and, although the pipe tool was over 60 years old and had belonged to his father, it really didn't hold any value for him so he thought I should have it.

My friend's generosity, and the pipe tool's pedigree, are never far from my mind as I enjoy the convenience it affords. But this is not the main reason it brings me joy.

I have decided to bequeath it to my son, who has also been known to enjoy a pipe, and I am going to tell him the original owner was an RAF pilot in the Battle of Britain, and that the dent is from hitting the side of his Hawker Hurricane as he was bailing out over the Channel.

Family legends have to start somewhere, so I figured, why not start my own.

Pipe tool, with Battle of Britain dent.

Seeing 10,000 On My Pedometer
My wife and I have pedometers. The type we use has a little man that appears and raises his arms up and down in a congratulatory "touchdown" motion when you hit 10,000 steps. Needless to say, seeing this little man is always a cause for celebration.
Ohhhh! Twelve thousand! That was a particularly good day.
Our Galileo Thermometer
A friend of ours gave this to us and it has brought unanticipated joy. Being, as it is, a crude measure of temperature, it mostly doubles as an ornamenta sort of lava lamp for the incredibly patient. Accordingly, seeing a bauble rise to the top or sink to the bottom brings the same sort of exhilaration usually reserved for bird watchers sighting a Hudsonian Whimbrel.

Galileo Thermometer

Hudsonian Whimbrel
Our New Electric Kettle
An electric kettle boils watera simple but useful task—and that was all we looked for in a new one after our old one broke. But when I turned on the new one, I found it also glowed in the dark. A patently useless feature, but one I never get tired of seeing.

It boils water, and glows! Seriously, how cool is that?
My Bialetti Coffee Maker
After years of trying one gadget or anotheralways with disappointing resultsand eventually consigning myself to a life of instant coffee, a German Hausfrau introduced me to the Bailetti. It makes the best cup of coffee I have ever tasted and I am thankful for every sip.

Thanks for telling me about this, Mella, it's brilliant!
I could go on, but I think it's time you went out and found a few of your own. Little joys are everywhere, if you care to look,

And while you're at it, think about exchanging a few kind words with a stranger; you may be the joy that brightens up their day.