Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Laying Bricks

As we quietly stitch the fresh beginning of 2018 to the tired end of 2017, we are presented with an opportunity to reflect, not just on the year gone by, but on the arc of a life lived so far.

I think of my own life, as it currently is, so far removed from anything I could have envisioned when I started out. And my son and his wife, juggling mortgages, jobs, three wonderful children and all the activities they are entwined in. Their life is hectic to the point that they must struggle just to get to the end of the day. I’m sure, if asked, they could reflect on how fortunate they are, but like most of us, joy is often smothered by simple daily necessities.

It’s like the old joke:
Short term goal: make it through the day.
Long term goal: String a bunch of short-term goals together.

It is, therefore, important, from time to time, to sit and reflect on what it is all about, and what we are actually doing. Because what we are doing is lying bricks.

Another day, another brick. Keep it straight.
Every day we get though is another chunk in the wall of whatever structure you are creating from your life. You don’t need to be retired to reflect on what you have accomplished so far, but you do need to have attained a certain number of years, because in the early days, when you are still close to ground level, you don’t have a very good view. But as the years slip by, and the building you are working on rises, you get a more encompassing view, and it would be a mistake to not have a look behind you to see what sort of edifice you are laboring on.

It might be a beautiful mansion, or a quirky cottage, or a soaring cathedral, or a bit of a shamble. But it will be something, because everyone is building something with their life, whether they know it or not.

And so, as we slip into 2018, I wish you exciting days ahead. Days where the joy and thrill of life are apparent. But during those days that make up the bulk of year, when getting that single brick into place feels like a battle, I hope you can remember this:

Everyone is battling with their own brick, so be kind to one another, show patience, embrace tolerance and, when necessary have courage.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Christmases Past

(Another blast from my past. Sorry to keep posting my Patriarch Diaries essays, but there really isn't much else going on.)

In my memory, like in most peoples, it always snows on Christmas. I know this is not true, however, for I do recall several Christmases where the ground was soggy with mud and mist hung in the night air.

Other times, it did snow, like the year I had to pour transmission fluid into my car, which came out like molasses because it was twenty-below zero, and lying in the snow banging on the starter with a hammer to make it work. I would have liked some mud and mist on that day, but on Christmas, you took the weather you were given.

Generally, the Christmases of my childhood blend together, and as such, the ones I will be describing are not in chronological order, but are simply the memories that surface. It’s as if all my Christmases past have been put into a bottle and shaken up to give an overall flavor of Christmas. Still, they do tend to settle out, like the layers of Jell-o 1-2-3, into when I was very young, when I was a child, and when I was a teenager.

Jell-O 1-2-3, quite the treat when I was young. Tasted as good as it looks.
The Christmases when I was an adult, well, they aren’t the same, are they? And they don’t count here.

The earliest Christmas I remember, my mom fed me the usual story about how Santa comes down the chimney and puts up the tree and leaves the presents, but I knew better. The chimney was connected to the kerosene heater beneath the hall, and the pipe leading to it, as well as the opening to the heater itself, was way too small for a man to fit through. And if he could get down it, he would just burn to death, anyway.

Mom, Melinda and Me getting our first sight of the tree.
Christmas morning 1957
So, I knew it was my parents who did all of that, but I also knew that, when a parent lies to you, you are supposed to pretend that you believed the lie, so I did. For a while, anyway.

Christmas, at my house, went like this. On the 22nd or 23rd, Dad would bring a tree home. I never questioned why we got the tree so late. It was just tradition, but in retrospect, I suspect it was because he got them cheap, because they were mostly sold out.

On Christmas Eve, he would bring the tree inside and stand it up in a big can of water. Then we would anchor the tree to the walls (we always stood it in a corner) with big upholstery pins and twine. And that was how it remained until I went to bed.

The Tree. This was the most amazing thing we saw all year.
It was 1956, we didn't have satellite TV back then, remember.
On Christmas morning we would wake up and the tree would be festively decorated, with a village under it—complete with houses, a church, a pond made out of a mirror with ice skaters on it, and roads made from coffee grounds featuring road signs and cars and trucks. And, of course, there would be presents, in big piles, all around the living room. (There would be more and more piles as the number of children increased from two to five).

My dad worked shift work at a paper mill, so each Christmas was a little bit different. When he worked 4pm to midnight, we would get up, open our gifts and have breakfast. When he worked 8am to 4pm (yeah, he worked on Christmas) we had to get up early (no hardship there) and open all our gifts, and then, after he left for work, we would have a leisurely breakfast. That was the good year. The worst was when he worked midnight to 8am. On those years, we were allowed to open one gift, then we had to wait for him to come home. Then we would have breakfast, and only then could we open our gifts. Waiting was torture.

Dad amid the Christmas wreckage, 1955.
Overall, however, it was, as it should be, a magical time, when the day seemed brighter and everything was perfect, and we would go to our grandmother’s house for a big Christmas dinner (either early or late, depending on Dad's shift) and then play with our new treasures late into the evening.

But that was just Christmas Day, the magic started well before that.

Early in December, we would make our Santas. Mom would help us construct a Santa Claus face out of a paper plate and construction paper. Then we would make a paper chain with a link for each day. We would hang these on our doors, and every morning from then on, we would tear off a link and the chain would get shorter, letting us know how close to Christmas we were getting. The chain, as I recall, shrank at a maddeningly slow pace, unlike now, when Christ seems to rush at me with the speed of a runaway locomotive.

My mother would make pies and cakes and candies, and the house always smelled heavenly. (My mother was a great baker, but a lousy cook.) We would tramp the woods in search of ground pine and bring home big bags stuffed with it, and mom would help us wind it around bent coat hangers to make wreaths and we would decorate the front and back doors with them. We would also put up our single string of outdoor lights, surrounding our front door with them, and when the cards began to arrive, mom would decorate the house with them.

What she did was tape them to the door frames. First along the top, and then down the sides. When I was in bed, the night-light cast a shadow of them against my bedroom wall and it looked like the teeth of a great monster. But this was a comfort, for it was the yearly appearance of this monster that signified that Christmas was approaching.

Christmas Eve was also magical, and in a way that was unique, but it was normal to me, so I never realize how fortunate I was until much later.

My grandmother lived in the town of Valatie, the first town in the US to have a Santa Claus club, and she always signed us up.

Here is an excerpt from a news clip dated 8 December 2017:

“The Santa Claus Club was founded in Valatie in 1946 following the end of WWII. This Club was formed by a small group of veterans who were motivated to give a young girl stricken with leukemia a special Christmas. Bill Farrell, one of the Club’s founders, dressed up as Santa Claus that year to deliver a present to her from the Club. Little did they know that their act of kindness would create the foundation of a program that would spread to many communities in the US and worldwide.

“The Santa Claus Club continues on to this day thanks to dedicated family members who have preserved this tradition. The program is made possible thanks to donations from people in our community, with gift stockings delivered to kids up to 10 years of age, often reaching 600 children. This Club is the first of its kind in our Nation and it’s something that has never been disputed.

“Children from the area are encouraged to write a letter to Santa and drop it in the special mailbox at the Valatie Post Office. To this day, Santa reads each and every one of these letters. The Club goes door to door in early December and takes a census of children on the route who wish to be visited Christmas Eve, that way they know the approximate age to tailor the gift. Each year on December 23rd, Club members and other Community volunteers gather to prepare everything for Santa. They help organize the gifts and fill the stockings to be given out on Christmas Eve to local children. Santa and his elves have eight routes to take and he is a very busy guy on Christmas Eve.”

But I didn’t know any of this as a child. All I knew was that every Christmas Eve, we would go to our Grandparent’s house, and Santa would visit and give us a stocking.

The evening was always filled with good food and lots of anticipation as we watched through the window. The first glimpse we got was of Santa riding through the town in his sleigh. He didn’t stop then, however, that was jus for show. We had to wait an indeterminant amount of time after that for him to show up, chauffeured in a station wagon, to deliver the stockings.
My sister Michele getting her stocking from Santa in 1965.
Santa was always jolly and boisterous and often smelled of beer and whiskey. He was always known to my aunts, uncles and grandparents, so the visits were always convivial, and the stockings were amazing. They were filled with fruit and candy and a gift, and not some cheap thing, but a real nice gift, sometimes one of the best I received that Christmas. The stockings, too, were amazing, and we kept them for months until we finally wore them out.

By the time we got home, we were on a high, and then we had to go to bed, and to sleep, so Santa could visit us. But Christmas Eve is the longest night in the year, and it would seem an age before I fell asleep. I must have done so more quickly than I remember, however, as I never heard my parents decorating the tree or putting out the presents.

The magic, and the tradition, remained, even as we got older, and even as we became ineligible for the stocking because our younger siblings still got one, and we could still, vicariously, experience the thrill.
Me, Melinda, Marc, Michele and Matt on Christmas in 1964.
The trumpet was my gift from Santa's visit on Christmas Eve.
As we got older, things began to change. We stayed home on Christmas Eve and were allowed to stay up and help with the tree decorating. I, of course, knew that my parents always did it, but I didn’t know how, and it was a revelation to see how my father constructed the village, stacking the boxes the ornaments came in around the base of the tree to form a hill, then covering it with a layer of cotton to make the snow. Then there was the village planning. Where should the roads go, the church, the houses, the mirror lake? He planned it meticulously, then set everything out, pulling the light bulbs through the cotton and into the cardboard buildings, laying out the road using a teaspoon and coffee grounds, tearing a hole for the lake and setting out the metal figures. He took great pride in it, and drank many beers while planning it out. And it always looked splendid.

Individual memories of Christmases include:

The year I got a mechanize tank. My dad spent weeks before hand putting it together. It moved forward and back, the turret turned, and it shot plastic shells from the cannon. It was wonderful, for about ten minutes. On its first trip across the living room floor, my brother Marc sat on it hoping to get a ride. Instead, he squashed it flat.

Similarly, in my teen years, I got a remote-control airplane. This was before advances in electronics, so the remote control was attached to the plane by wires. Still, the idea was the same, you taxied, took off and flew around—your distance limited by the wire—and, hopefully, landed. The plane itself was made of stiff plastic, which was made brittle by the cold air when my sister and I took it outside to try it.

My dad was there to show us how it worked. I don’t recall handling it myself, even though it was mine. What I do recall is my sister attempting a takeoff, inadvertently steering it directly at me, and the plane going right between my legs, sheering off both wings.

Those were anomalies, however, and I don’t recall either of those events ruining our Christmas. It was more a matter of, oh well, let’s find something else to play with.

I bet my dad was disappointed, however.

As an adult, Christmases became less vivid. I like to think that my boys hold special memories of those days, but I can’t even recall if we continued the tradition of putting the tree up on Christmas Eve or not. I do recall that I made a unique Christmas ornament that I used to decorate the house with, but not much else.
I made that. Pretty cool, eh?
My boys and their cousins getting a visit from Santa in 1986
This was not a Santa Claus club thing, Santa was a family friend.
When I became single again (sounds so much better than, “After I got divorced.”) Christmas become a more solemn affair. I never had a tree when I was single (one year, I drew a picture of a tree and hung it on the wall) and the day mostly consisted of visiting my children to give them whatever gifts I could afford that year. (Yeah, feel sorry for me, it really sucked.)

The only memorable thing that I recall that remotely concerns Christmas happened during the years I was with SWMNBN (She Who Must Not Be Named).

One year, while I was single, I happened to be at a friend of a friend’s house during the festive season and I was really taken with their tree. It was stunning, and I couldn’t imagine how they did it. I never asked then, and then I forgot about it, until Christmas with SWMNBN.

She had a vaulted ceiling in her living room, so she always got a big, live tree. Then we decorated it in her prescribed manner. This involved putting on an unimaginable number of lights. The stings of lights, joined one after the other, were carefully wrapped around each branch, starting from the tree trunk out. They went from the top to the very bottom. This took a full day.

The second day, we put on the ornaments. It was a grueling process, often filed with arguments, but when it was over, and the tree was turned on, it was spectacular. The tree glowed from the inside out, like a multi-colored star. As much as I hated putting it up, I never got tired of looking at it.

I was glad to learn the trick of making a tree look so amazing, but after escaping from her, I have never been tempted to do it myself. It is simply too much work.

Pretty spectacular, but it took two days to put up and a full day to take down.
And, frankly, I don’t have the room to store all those lights.

Friday, November 3, 2017


(Note to readers: this is my first attempt at a Patriarch Diaries post. It goes on a little long. I hope future posts don’t, but I can’t promise anything—reminiscing is like that. Once you pull at one thread, a whole bunch of them unravel.
     On the up side, at least I’m not sitting at your kitchen table, beer in hand, rambling on about “the old days” to you. It’s a lot easier to stop reading than it is to shut me up once I’m on a roll. Just ask my wife.)

Even as I write this, there are many people who will not know that televisions were not always flat.

The TV that played a central role in my life was a huge, mahogany-esque box with a screen and speaker in front, and a removable back so you could get at the tubes and wires inside. This was necessary because “tubes”, which were essential to the working of the TV, occasionally (frequently) blew and had to be replaced.

This the TV I grew up with
This is not the inside of our TV, but it is typical of a TV of that period.
(Side Note: replacing the tubes was not something the average person did. This was a job for a specialist, and I recall a number of occasions when a man would come to our house with a travelling case full of tubes, who would remove the back of the set, fiddle with the innards, replace a tube or two and pronounce the TV fit and well. His calm and competent manner, along with his case of electronic remedies, reminded me of our doctor when he made house calls. Yes, kids, doctors in those days came to your house to treat you—more on that later.)

The TV had an on/off button, vertical and horizontal hold dials, and a channel selector. The On/Off button protruded from the TV like a brown gum-drop and you had to pull it out to turn the set on and push it in to turn the set off, sort of like the old car door locks (more on that later).

When you turned the TV on, it had to warm up. Conversely, when you shut it off, the picture didn’t disappear, it sort of faded away, shrinking into a little white dot in the center of the dark screen.

L to R: what it looked like when the Horizontal Hold went, what it looked like
when the Vertical hold went, what it looked like when you shut it off.
The channel selector had 14 positions—channels 1 through 13 and a strange setting for something called UHF—but we only got three channels: 6, 10 and 13. In later years, we did discover that the UHF setting could be tuned in to an alternative channel, where we could watch The Prisoner, the original Cracker and Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but for the bulk of my young life, television viewing was limited to those three channels.

I don’t recall feeling that I was 187 channels short, nor did I find it inconvenient that you had to watch what was on when it was on. The world made sense then: when something was happening, you watched it. When it was over, it was something that had happened, and you couldn’t see it again. (Unless it was one of the perennial Christmas favorites, like the Wizard of Oz, or Peter Pan, or Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, or A Charlie Brown Christmas.) In short, the concept of recording a show to watch later was unimaginable.

Peter Pan starring Mary Martin as Peter. A woman dressed as a boy hanging by visible cables,
"flying" against a hand-drawn backdrop. Those were simpler times.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
If you really analyse the story, Santa acts like a dick.

Linus, reciting scripture on stage. Call the lawyers!
I also don’t recall there ever being a show we wanted to watch on one channel, while another show we also wanted to watch was airing on a different channel. I assume this must have happened, but it has not made an impression, so I guess we just dealt with it.

I do recall, however, that getting up to walk across the room to change the channel was not ideal. This wasn’t because we were lazy—although we were—but because if you got up, someone would take your seat.

(Very Long Side Note: Due to this, we developed a system wherein we “called” our right to whatever seat we wanted. “I call the Grey Chair” one of us would declare during dinner, before our TV viewing commenced. That person could then sit in the Grey Chair, which was, incidentally, everyone's favorite seat, and why we needed to develop this system. The "call" remained in force even if they left the room, which seemed unfair, so we eventually revised the system and set a time limit. From then on, if someone wanted to go into the kitchen for something, they would have to say, “I call the Grey Chair for 30 seconds” and then they would have to the count of 30 to get back into their seat, or it was up for grabs. In looking back, I think it's admirable that we developed this method instead of defaulting to the normal childhood system of “might makes right.”)

We did have a rudimentary channel changer. We called it “our little brother” and it went something like this: “Hey Marc, come in here a minute.” Marc, toddling in from the other room. “What?” “Nothing. But while you’re here, change the channel on the TV.”

That worked until it didn’t, at which point the scenario went more like this: “Hey Marc, come in here a minute.” Marc, from the other room. “Fuck you!” Me, “I’m telling mom!” Mom, hearing her name invoked, comes in from the kitchen, “What’s going on in here?” Me, “Nothing. But while you’re here, change the channel on the TV.”

Fortunately, other channel-changers, I mean, younger siblings, arrived, making it unnecessary for us older sibling to have to shout, “I call the Grey Chair for 5 seconds” before dashing to the TV to turn the dial.

Because of our limited viewing options, and the abundance of interesting things to do outside, we didn’t watch a lot of television, especially when compared with the children of today. Mostly, we watched TV on Saturday morning, because that was when the cartoons were on. You got up early—but not too early, or all you’d see is the Test Pattern—and sat in front of the TV with your Frosted Flakes to watch Tom and Jerry, Popeye, Bugs Bunny and any number of other classic cartoons that can’t be shown today due to our modern sensibilities.

(Another Side Note: After the late news, the stations would play the National Anthem and then sign off. From then on, until about 6 in the morning, there was nothing on the TV at all.)

First, you'd see this.

Then,you'd see this (or something like it)

And then, you'd see this, until the station came back on the air the following morning.

During the week, there were some kid programs on in the morning to entertain the pre-schoolers so their moms could shuffle the older kids off to the school bus and pack her husband’s lunch. Captain Kangaroo—with his side-kicks Mr.Greenjeans, Grandfather Clock, Mr. Moose, Bunny Rabbit and Dancing Bear—was an educational entertainment show. It was mercifully light on the education side and good fun to watch. Within the show format were several cartoon sequences, including Tom Terrific with his Thinking Cap and sidekick Manfred the Wonder Dog, and Pow Wow the Indian Boy. Also on offer was Romper Room. This was a franchise, so the show I watched—as was the case for most viewers—was produced locally. Delightfully amateurish, it was basically a pre-school, led by the teacher (Miss Sherry, in my case) who entertained and instructed children in her primitive classroom about being a Do-Be and not a Don’t-Be and leading them in Bend and Stretch, while I sat on the living room floor pretending to be part of her class. The highlight of the show was at the end, when Miss Sherry would look into her magic mirror and tell us who she could see watching her from home. When she said my name, well, that made my day.

"Romper Bomper Stomper Boo, tell me, tell me, tell me do,
did all my friends have fun at play?
I see Lisa, and George, and Bobby, and Cindy, and you, too, Deborah, and Margaret, and...
But enough of this stroll down amnesia lane. These idle, idyll days didn’t last long. When I was 12 we got a color TV. We thought that made us ultra-modern, even though the color was far from realistic. The technology improved rapidly, however, and fifteen years later, we got cable TV, HBO and 24-hour television.

The promotions for cable stated that, because it was a subscription service, there would be no commercials, and HBO promised you could “see movies at the same time they were in the theaters.” I knew this was bullshit the moment I heard it, but that didn’t stop me from getting cable and HBO.

From there, the number of channels expanded like Jiffy-Pop on a hot stove. To reach people who were not within reach of cables, satellite TV was born. To catch the signal, however, you needed a huge satellite dish. My dad—who still lived in the house we grew up in, which was in the back of beyond—had one. They were massive, and soon dotted the countryside. As technology improved, the dishes shrank, and the number of channels soared.

Yeah, they were huge, and they were everywhere.
We called them the Arkansas State Flower.
People in Arkansas called them the New York State Flower.
I stole this photo off the web--no idea who the guy is.
I can't recall when flat screen televisions arrived on the scene. We got one in 2008, but we were Luddites—they had been around for a long time by then.

To my grandchildren’s generation, flat screens are normal, as are iPads and mobile phones. And the idea that you can’t watch whatever you want to watch, whenever you want to watch it, and on whatever device you want to watch it on, is as hard for them to conceive as the idea of more than three channels was for me.

I have to say, I enjoy the new technology, but I am glad I had the chance to know what life was like before it came along.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Patriarch Diaries

Some years ago, I found myself unexpectedly promoted to Patriarch of my small, but growing, clan. Soon after, it occurred to me that the entire reservoir of stories and legends about my family’s history resided, almost entirely, in my head. This wouldn’t have been a problem if we lived closer together but, being scattered as we are, late night chats around the kitchen table over a couple of beers are few and far between.

I, therefore, proposed to record the stories and legends (face it, most of them are legends) gleaned from kitchen-table discussions of years gone by. This was not to be a straight-up genealogy but rather a hodge-podge of tales, memories and lore with no logical order or narrative thread. The idea was exciting, but when it came to actually writing it, I found myself stymied by the sheer volume of available stories, the confusing plethora of loose threads, and the jumbled recollections of childhood, all swirling around in the cesspool of my consciousness.

And so, nothing was written.

It then occurred to me that writing out my memories as blog posts might spur me on.

Don’t panic. This is not me moving my blog in a new direction, it’s more about introducing a new flavor—reminiscence posts, occasional and sporadic—to it. Added value, if you will.

This, therefore, represents the first post in the blog category I am calling The Patriarch Diaries, with the ultimate intention of producing something I can pass on to my grandchildren, in order to introduce them to a time before iPads, flat screen TVs and Skype.

I have no illusions about them being grateful for my efforts, or even desiring to read them, but I think I owe them the opportunity. Being a patriarch, after all, does not come without responsibilities, and getting old should not be taken lightly.

There are, in case you are wondering, a number of indicators that you are getting old—the shocking realization that your doctor is younger than you, the apprehension that “kids today” are not quite up to scratch, the painful reminder that you can no longer do a hand-stand—but none are quite as defining as looking at an exhibit in a museum and recognizing an item on display as something you once owned.

And I’m not talking about an IT museum, where anyone in their 20s will find obsolete items they bought when they were teenagers, I mean real museums, featuring exhibits from the 1800s or earlier. This is where you might visit the recreation of a blacksmith’s shop and find yourself thinking, “My dad had a set of tongs just like that; I used to play with them when I was a kid!” while the younger adults around you have to read the information card to find out what it is.

That, my friends, is when you know you are old.

A person who doesn’t accept the responsibilities of age might simply leave it there and, perhaps, start shopping for rocking chairs instead of patio furniture, or decide a big, comfy sweater looks more suitable than a button-down collar shirt. Anyone with an ounce of optimism, however, shouldn’t miss the fact that being old is not what it used to be (60 being, as they claim, the new 40), and that the world we grew up in is as far removed from our grandchildren as the horse-and-buggy days are to us. We, therefore, possess the energy, the enthusiasm, the technology and, at least for now, the mental capacity, to pass our experiences on to the next generations. Who knows, they might find them every bit as mysterious and fascinating as the horse and buggy days do to us.

It is with this hope in mind that I dive into the cesspool in search of diamonds, or shiny nuggets, or, barring that, some interesting sludge. It may be that I come up with nothing, but I owe it to the G-kids to at least have a go.

As for my credentials, and to stamp my location in history, I leave you with this:
  • I was born during the Eisenhower Administration
  • I remember when President Kennedy was shot
  • I was too young for the draft and missed Viet Nam by a whisker
  • I was raised in an era when children were allowed out of their parent’s sight (encouraged to be, actually)
  • I came home for dinner when I heard my mother yelling my name

Although these posts are ultimately for my grandchildren, I hope at least some of my readers will read them and think, “Yeah, I did that, too. In fact, I remember…”

That's my dad, helping to plow the field.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Expat Taxes

I’ve complained about taxes on this blog before. Most notably here, but I’m sure I’ve mentioned it at other times. It’s hard not to; taxes for American Expats are stunningly complex, unfair and onerous, so it’s almost impossible to let tax time slip by without me whining about it in public.

Every year, I suffer the strain of trying to decipher an undecipherable tax code, the pain of having to pay taxes on money I earned in the UK to a country that, logically, has no right to them, and the indignity of having to register with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, as if I’m a pedophile on parole.

I have to register with these guys, so I must be a criminal, right?

I am hoping that this yearly humiliation is now at an end.

A while ago, Taxes for Expats e-mailed me with an offer: I let them do my taxes for free, and all I had to do was mention it here on this blog.

I get offers like this all the time. I turn some of them down, the rest I ignore. My blog is not a billboard and I do not seek to endorse products in exchange for compensation. But as I took a second look at this e-mail, several things made it stand out from the others:
  • There were no misspeled wrods in it
  • There were no words in ALL CAPS
  • The tone was businesslike but cordial (they didn’t want to be my best buddy, they were simply offering a business deal)
  • They had actually at least looked at my blog (others state they are big fans of my blog while making it abundantly clear they have never seen it)
  • The link to their business didn’t take me to a dodgy-looking website selling sex-aids (but I can overlook that)
  • When I Googled them, the results were favorable and convincing
So, I replied to the e-mail and proposed that they prepare a dummy tax return with the idea that, once I saw how it was done, I could just copy that from year to year. That way, I’d get my free tax preparation, they’d get a plug on my blog, and I wouldn’t have to hire them again! Win, win, win. Except, of course, for that bit about them not getting my business.

What happened, however, was this:

I was assigned to Ben, my “Personal Tax Preparer.” I thought, “yeah, right,” but I tell you, I don’t care if he was juggling a thousand other clients, he treated me as if I was the only one. We exchanged numerous e-mails, and his responses to my questions were always prompt and polite, even when I was being obtuse.

What I sent to Ben was not my current tax situation, as that is fairly straightforward—I don’t earn any money, so I don’t pay any taxes. In the near future, however, things are going to get ugly. I have several income streams coming from the US, and when I start drawing on my retirement here, things get very complex very quickly.

They also get very expensive, which was why I sent Ben this data, and why I opened the completed dummy tax return documents with a sense of dread.

The final tally, however, was over a thousand dollars less than my calculation. My new best friend, Ben, had filed forms I didn’t know existed and had referenced favorable tax laws that I had never heard of (because the IRS, quite negligently, failed to send me the memo about the new regulations).

My immediate thoughts were, “There is no way in hell I can replicate this,” and “But it’s well worth the $350 fee.”

The result is, I become a client. And I put up this endorsement because, that was the deal. (They said I could say anything I wanted, even that they were rubbish, and I would have said that if they were, but believe me, they are not. If you are an American living abroad, check these people out.)

They can also file your FUBAR for you (it’s actually FBAR, but it will always be FUBAR to me). On this point, I have to admit that FUBAR filing isn’t very complicated or time-consuming. It is, however, a right pain in the arse and I think simply not having to deal with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network every year is worth the fee.

So, here's the deal:

  • Standard tax return: $350
  • FUBAR filing (up to 5 foreign accounts): $75 ($10 for each additional)
  • All you need to do is go to their website – Taxes for Expats – and sign up.
  • There are no obligations, you just need to pay them once a tax return is completed.
  • They can (for 80% of clients) file your return electronically. In some cases, the IRS rules do not allow this, but you can just print out and snail-mail your return.
  • Once you complete the tax questionnaire (which is very comprehensive and takes a bit of time) you can just copy it from one year to the next and update the figures, so subsequent years will be easy and relatively pain-free.

So, the choice is yours: an annual festival of stress, befuddlement, anxiety and humiliation (as well as the secret conviction that you’ve done it wrong and paid too much), or you can go here, and have these guys do it for you.

I know which option I’m choosing.

Saturday, October 14, 2017


They say one of the definitions of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. If that is the case, then I am officially insane.

Yeah, I bought another bike.

In case you don’t know why this is insane, I refer you to here, and here.

In case you want the tldr; version: I bought a bike some time ago and it was stolen, so I got another one, and it was stolen, so I got another one, and that was stolen, too.

And so, I resigned myself to a life without a bike.

But now that we have moved out of the town center, and I don’t always want to do the twenty-minute walk into town, I bought another one.

No, it's not a girl's bike.
This wasn’t as easy as it might have been because, apparently, they don’t sell bicycles any more.

I could have bought a stonkin’ Trail Machine with knobby tires, disc brakes, hydraulic suspension and more gears than my telly has cable channels, or a sleek Road Racer made of titanium alloy with tires the width of an index card and the gross weight of a pear. Or a Commuter Special that folded to the size of a large pizza. But I couldn’t buy a bicycle.

Not me.

Not me.
These items all came sans fenders, chain guards or lights and carried price tags in the thousands. All I wanted was a bicycle I could use to make the short commute into town, not something to careen down Scafell Pike on, or to ride in the Tour de France. But, alas, none were to be found. They were, as I was beginning to feel, out of date.

More like me. Not the guy on the penny-farthing,
I mean the woman in the background.
I turned to the Internet and still couldn’t find any. I did, however, find laments from people like me who just wanted a bog-standard bike and found they could not buy one. Undaunted, I made it my mission to search every bike rack in town, looking for something, anything, that was anywhere near what I had in mind. There were a few, and I took photos of their brand names. But this led only to more frustration when the web sites turned out to be non-existent, out of date or, having been updated, not selling that model any longer.

Then one day, I saw the perfect bike. And a young woman was standing next to it, unlocking it and preparing to ride away. I could not believe my luck. Braving a possible “Creepy Man Harasses Young Cyclist in Town Centre” headline, I approached her.

“Sorry to be so forward,” I began, “but can you tell me where you got your bike. I’m looking for one just like it.”

The young woman laughed. Not a reaction I was anticipating.

“I’m afraid I can’t help you,” she said. “I found it on the side of the road.”

Turns out, she was walking along the street one day and happened upon this bike, just sitting there, with a note attached to it saying the owner no longer wanted it and was giving it free to anyone who did. So, she called the number, the woman was glad to give it to her, and she had been riding it ever since.

A charming story, heartwarming, even, but of no help to me. I thanked the woman and, as I walked away, she advised, “Keep looking, you’ll find one somewhere.”

“I’ll start checking the sides of the roads,” I replied.

Still determined, but at the end of my wits, I turned to my wife.

“What you want is a Dutch bike,” she told me.

Five minutes of browsing and a one-click order from Amazon UK later, and a Dutch bike was on its way to me from, appropriately, Holland. It arrived two days later, a unisex (it is not a girl’s bike) model with “normal” handle bars (what they call “sit up and beg” handle bars), fenders, a chain-guard, front and back lights and reflectors, a bell, coaster brakes and a front brake, three gears, a carrying rack, and a kick-stand (remember those?) And, as a bonus, it also has a skirt-guard (it is NOT a girl’s bike).

This one, I hope, is more theft-resistant. For starters, it’s not worth enough to make it theft-worthy, and attempting to steal it would involve cutting the lock that secures it to the bike rack, then discovering it could not be ridden or wheeled away because it comes with a built-in lock that immobilizes the back wheel and, once that was discovered, the thief would find it difficult to pick it up and run away with it because it weighs more than a yearling calf.

And so, clad in an eye-wateringly yellow Hi-Viz jacket and helmet (but no Lycra), I can nip into town in no time. Such has been my experience with bikes and Horsham town center, however, that, for the first half-dozen times I returned to where I had left my bike, I was visibly surprised to find it was still there.

Now, people ask me where I got my bike from. And I see more and more bikes like it being ridden sedately around the town. This, in my view, demonstrates the root of the problem: bikes can be used competitively, and cycling can be a sport, but primarily, a bicycle is a mode of transportation. People seemed to have forgotten that, but now they are beginning to remember, and bikes like mine are becoming more common.

This trend was confirmed for me when I happened by the bike shop where I had made my unsuccessful attempt to buy a bike. There, in the front window, was a bike just like mine, with a price tag to match. It was called, fittingly enough, the Townie. And it was pink.

I would have snapped that up in a second if it had been there when I was looking. No one would have the balls to steal something like that! And it would certainly make a statement.

Not the bike in the window, but this is exactly like it.
And I wouldn’t even try denying it was a girl’s bike.

Okay, it's a girl's bike.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Force Slinger

I don’t usually review things on this blog, but I’m making an exception for The Gunslinger.

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Stephen King fan. Or, I was until he stopped writing decent books, though I have to admit, I haven’t read any of his recent work so perhaps I am missing out on some good stuff. But I digress. His early books were great. And the Gunslinger epic was, well, epic, so I was looking forward to the movie.

The Gunslinger would not, I surmised, be hugely disappointing to either my wife or myself for two reasons: 1) my wife has never read anything by Stephen King and knows nothing about the Gunslinger saga, so she couldn’t be disappointed in that respect, and 2) I knew that fitting a 7-book series into an hour and a half was impossible, so it was going to be nothing like the epic journey Mr. King took me on all those years ago.

The Gunslinger Movie - 4,352 pages condensed into an hour and a half.
I also thought, knowing the series, that fitting the Gunslinger story into a single movie wouldn’t be all that hard. Two of the seven books are only peripherally related to the plot, meaning a total of 1,300 pages could be (and were) left completely out of the movie. The remaining 5 books are also bulked up with side-tracks and Mr. King’s famously bloated prose. Take away all of that, and you get a 90-minute movie.

A classic movie, as it turns out. This is how it goes:

Luke, I mean, Jake, is a boy with a power he doesn’t understand, and this makes the Empire, I mean, the Man in Black, interested in him. He escapes and meets a Jedi Master, er, Gunslinger, but the Emp..Man in Black kills aunt Beru and uncle Owen,I mean, his mom and step-dad, so he goes off with the Jedi-slinger to learn the Ways of the Force, I mean, you know.

Anyway, young Luke, I mean Jake, ultimately destroys the Death Star, or whatever that thing the Man in Black is using to bring down The Dark Tower. So, in the end, evil is vanquished, Luke…er, Jake, is learning the Ways of The Force, and… oh, bollocks.

It might not have been Star Wars, but all the elements were there (as, indeed, they were in The Force Awakens), but this shouldn’t surprise us, or put anyone off from watching the movie. After all, there is an actual formula for these types of stories, so you expect them to be, at least, similar.

I know this because, when you decide to become a writer, they give you The Rules for Plots. I don’t know who “They” are—no one does—but unless you’re a writer, like me, you won’t have been given The Rules. So here they are:

Act I
1. Readers are introduced to the hero's world
2. A disturbance or "call to adventure" interrupts the hero's world
3. The hero may ignore the call or the disturbance
4. The hero crosses the threshold into a dark world

Act II
5. A mentor may appear to teach the hero
6. Various encounters occur with forces of darkness
7. The hero has a dark moment within himself that he must overcome
8. A talisman aids in battle

9. The final battle is fought
10. The hero returns to his own world (to which I add: or continues on his quest, depending on reviews and revenue)

It was because of these Rules that The Gunslinger parallels Star Wars in so many ways (note: this is not, however, the reason The Force Awakens parallels Star Wars in so many ways; the reason for that is, they were out of plot ideas and the first movie seemed to work, so…).

In fact, the only major difference between Star Wars and The Gunslinger is the budding sexual tension between Luke, Princess Leia and Han. (Don’t forget, in the first movie no one—even themselves—knew they were brother and sister, so the initial attraction was, um, okay, even when she kissed him – eewww! – to make Han jealous. Anything more than that, however, wouldn’t fly, except in the more southerly solar systems.) All young Jake gets to do is save a girl—one he’d exchanged meaningful eye-contact with earlier—from the Imperial soldiers, I mean, the Dark Forces.

Ewwww! With tongues and everything!
But by far most impressive thing about The Gunslinger is how it made 95 minutes seem much, much longer.

If you’re a King fan, you shouldn’t miss it. Otherwise, watch Star Wars, for the 187th time. You’ll enjoy it more.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Moving Stuff

We spend a lot of time moving stuff these days. It’s what happens when you live in a small place; you are always in your own way.

If you want to get some stuff, chances are it’s under or behind some other stuff, so you have to move stuff off the top of stuff to get at the stuff you want. And then you have to move the stuff you took off the stuff you wanted back to where it was or it will be in the way of other stuff that belongs in the place where you put that stuff.

It’s like living on a canal boat, but without the charm.

Okay, so our flat isn't this small, but still...
When you are faced with the problem of having too much stuff to fit into the place you live, there are three options:
                             1.      You can cleverly store your stuff
                             2.      You can get rid of stuff
                             3.      You can let the stuff overwhelm you

A fourth option would be “move to a bigger place,” but we can’t do that, so we are making use of Options 1 and 2 and striving to avoid Option 3.

Having grown up in a three-bedroom house with my parents, two brothers, two sisters, various dogs, cats, guinea pigs, occasionally homeless friends and frequent visitors, I know how to ferret out usable space. Looking up is a good place to start. In our tiny office, I have managed to find accessible locations for my guitar, keyboard and bagpipes, something I didn’t even have in the old flat. And, as a bonus, with all that stuff off the floor, you can actually open the office door now.

Prior to moving in, we managed to off-load one filing cabinet, leaving us with just two smaller ones. After moving (i.e. once reality set in) it became necessary to dispose of another one. Fortunately, Staples had a marvelous solution in the form of stackable, plastic file boxes. Now, if I need a file, I still have to move stuff, but at least I don’t have to hunt for what I’m looking for; I can see the folders without opening the boxes. This save a lot of time.

Stackable, transparent file boxes, and a rubbish bin, all neatly stored under other stuff.
Another issue was my guitar case. Having solved the storage/access issues vis-à-vis the guitar itself, I now found I had a lumbering, space-consuming, and surprisingly heavy, hard-shell case to contend with. So, I bought a guitar bag, and that solved that problem. However, it left me with another problem: what to do with the hard-shell guitar case.

I put it outside in the hall hoping someone would steal it, but unfortunately, we have a better class of tenant here and, several days later, it was still there.  So I told my wife I was going to take it into town and leave it in the market place with a sign on it reading, “Looking for a new home,” but she said that would be Fly Tipping.

(I don’t think there is a US word for Fly-Tipping but, basically, it means taking stuff you don’t want—garbage, topsoil, that old armoire you don’t need anymore—and, after checking that no one is looking, dumping it somewhere so as to make it someone else’s problem.)

I told my wife that, since I was planning to come back and check on it at a later time, it would not be Fly-Tipping. It would simply be an unattended parcel, which would also mean I would just have to wait for the sirens and the swat team and the helicopters and the loudspeaker announcements that the town center was to be evacuated immediately to know that someone had taken an interest in the guitar case.

We’re about as packed in here as we can be now. It’s workable, but, ... well, whenever it starts to get to me, I just remind myself that people are currently paying over a quarter of a million pounds for flats that are smaller (and less well built) than this one, and that do not contain any storage space whatsoever. So, even though we have to move stuff off of stuff to get at stuff, at least we have a place for our stuff.

Well, most of it, anyway.