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.