Saturday, December 29, 2018

Making Space

One of the best outcomes of the recent kitchen renovation was that it enabled us to get a clothes dryer, even though there was no room for a clothes dryer in our kitchen. None at all. Still, we managed to create some.

That is the enduring challenge of living in a tiny flat: creating space. We’ve become proficient at it, but by now we’ve pretty much conjured up all that is possible, so I was skeptical about generating a dryer-sized hole in a kitchen that obviously had no room for one. I was, however, keen to try.

This is the kitchen, with no space for a dryer.
We used to have a clothes dryer back in Pelham Court, and it was brilliant. There was more room there, so squeezing one in wasn’t very difficult. The difficult bit was the exhaust hose that we had to dangle out the window every time we turned it on. Eventually, however, they invented viable condenser dryers, and life got a lot more convenient.

Then we moved, and we haven’t had a dryer since.

The flat in the Forum, where we lived for about three years, had such a diminutive kitchen area that there wasn’t room for much at all. What it had was a tiny washer/dryer unit that was less than useless. It washed only a handful of clothes at a time, and its wash cycle ran for nearly two hours. To then dry the clothes in the same machine would mean spending the entire day getting three shirts and a pair of trousers done, so I used it only as a washing machine and strung the wet clothes up all around the flat. Sheet day was a joy, as I had to run a line down the hallway to hang them out to dry.

Moving to this flat, with its normal-sized washer, meant I could do the week’s laundry in two loads, and then string them up all over the flat.

This worked while I was the only one home during the day, but then my wife began her practice retirement and the paradigm shifted. It was still possible, but really inconvenient, to hang the clothes on racks, which are continually in the way with the two of us here, but sheets proved impossible to dry. There simply was no space large enough to hang them out. Our space-creating skills are fairly sharp, but they are not good enough to generate an empty room with the necessary dimensions to dry a set of sheets and a duvet cover. So, for the past nine months, we’ve been hauling our wet laundry to my mother-in-law’s house, like a couple of college kids, to use her dryer. It is not an ideal situation.

So when the destruction of our kitchen was proposed, my wife began shuffling cabinets and counters and drawers around in her mind—like a giant, imaginary Rubik's Cube—until the kitchen yielded up enough space to shoehorn in a dryer. It was an amazing victory of willpower over physics.

The plan called for removing the smallest of the kitchen cabinets and moving its contents to a larger cabinet that we had been using as a pantry. This not only gave us more space for the pots and pans, it also meant we could move the pantry, which was closer to knee-height than eye-height and therefore in a position we were both finding increasingly awkward. (None of us are getting any younger, and bending over to stare into the dim recesses of a cabinet to try to locate a tin of soup isn’t as easy as it used to be.) The pantry move involved me building a custom designed shelving unit to create even more space, a challenge I was eager to take on. I had, after all, created 25 feet of unobtrusive book-shelving in the hallway where there had been only 4, and produced 30 square feet of storage in the bathroom cupboard where they had been only 8, and pulled 97 and a half square feet of storage/shelving/work space out of thin air in The Office (its sort of like the loaves and fishes, only with pine boards and rawlplugs) so manufacturing enough space for a pantry would be child’s play.

As a bonus, I was able to justify spending some quality time in my shed (it’s really my mother-in-law’s shed, but I’ve kinda taken it over), emerging some time later with, if I say so myself, an attractive shelving unit that held all the stuff in our erstwhile pantry, plus a few bits more.

The new pantry, bigger, more visible, and with added space.
As a result of all this finagling, our kitchen has acquired a dryer-sized hole that is currently waiting for a dryer to be installed in it.

Now all we have to do is create enough space for the rubbish bin.

The Dryer-Sized hole.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Yes Virginia

Ah, the Christmas season! It must be time to trot out my “Brush With Greatness” story. But first, a little historical context.

If you were to buttonhole a random Brit and ask, “Do you know who Alice Liddell is?” They would most likely look stealthily around to see if there was a cop, or at least a PCSO, in the immediate area, but once they understood that you weren’t a serial killer or, worse, a Chugger, they might smile nervously and tell you they had no idea what you were talking about. If, however, you asked, “Have you ever heard of Alice in Wonderland?” They would nob and give a resounding yes, then look for a cop.

If you went on to tell your newfound, but unwilling, friend that you had actually met this famous Alice, they might think, “This person is obviously loony! Alice was a character in a book. How could he have met her?” This inner argument would be given credence by the fact that it would likely be taking place in a Care Home, because you’d have to be in your mid-nineties for your story to be true, but we’re getting away from the point.

Alice Liddell, looking all pouty and sexy in a photo taken by
Mr. Charles Dodgson, alias Lewis Carroll
My point is, if you told someone you had met the real Alice from Alice in Wonderland, they would (after you convinced them that she wasn’t simply a character in a book) be impressed. Such is her fame that this would happen on either side of the Atlantic. Everyone has heard of Alice. Not so with Virginia.

Virginia O'Hanlon, looking a little more demure than Alice.
Ask a random American if they’ve heard of Virginia O’Hanlon, and you’d get the same nervous looks and surreptitious search for law enforcers. But ask if they have heard the phrase, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” and they would immediately know what you are talking about. Then they’d go find a cop.

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” is so ingrained in US culture that people probably think, as they might of Alice, that she was simply a literary device. But Virginia, like Alice, was a real little girl, and, like Alice, she didn’t really do anything. All she did was write a letter to The Sun newspaper asking if Santa was real. (All Alice did, by the way, was have herself born into the British upper class and befriend a literary pedophile.)

In 1897, Virginia, who lived on Manhattan's Upper West Side—not exactly on a par with the British upper class, but no slouch, either—asked her father whether Santa Claus really existed. She was eight at the time, and her father, who doubtlessly wanted her to stop annoying him, told her to write to The Sun, reportedly stating, "If you see it in The Sun, it's so." And she did.

The letter was passed on to Francis Pharcellus Church, one of the newspaper’s editors. It was he who wrote what would arguably become the most famous editorial in US history. The editorial was well received and grew in popularity over the years. According to Wikipedia, it is the most reprinted editorial in any newspaper in the English language. In 1971, a children's book titled Yes, Virginia was published and noticed by Warner Brothers, who eventually made an Emmy award-winning television show based on the editorial.

As you can see, Virginia, her letter, and Mr. Church’s response, are rooted deep in the US national psyche.   

Well, I am here to tell you—Yanks and Brits alike—that I met Virginia O’Hanlon.

She spent her later years in the Barnwell Nursing Home in Valatie, NY. I am not certain what hideous things she did during her life, or any past lives, that caused karma to visit such a fate upon her, but that event allowed her to befriend a Mrs. Drum, who was my first grade teacher. At Christmas time, in 1961, Mrs. Drum invited Virginia to visit my class. She read her letter, and the famous response, and I recall at the time knowing that she was someone really famous, but I was most impressed by how incredibly old she was (whereas now I am wondering why, at the tender age of 71, she was in a nursing home).

Over the years, I have impressed many people by telling them of my encounter with the authentic Virginia (she of “there is a Santa Claus” fame; I did meet a woman over here who was a friend and contemporary of Virginia Woolf, she of “who’s afraid of” fame, but that’s another story), upon my arrival in the UK, however, this story stopped having any value. In Britain, asking “Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus?’” gets the same response as, “Did you know that cat urine glows under ultraviolet light?”And, in truth, they’d likely be more interested in hearing about the cat urine.

So, there is it, my brush with Christmas Greatness. And here is the letter that started it all, along with the famous response:


VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Customer Service UK Style

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that, this past week, we had some renovations done to the kitchen that resulted in the power going out. It eventually came back on. Here’s how that happened:

Our flat was apparently wired during the Victorian Era and not upgraded since, so the Kitchen Guy was not surprised when the fuse blew. Neither was I. Some months ago, all the lights in the flat went out, so I called the management company responsible for the flat (let’s call them Leaders) and they sent their trouble-shooter out to shoot the trouble. The trouble was the equivalent of a blown fuse, only it involved something the locals call “fuse-wire.”

You take some of this...

...and wrap it around this.
The trouble-shooter showed me how to wrap the thin wire around the knobs in the fuse and replace it. I found it fascinating. In my day, we had screw-in fuses and you just stuck a penny in the slot.

A proper fuse box, with fuses you can stick a penny in.
Although intrigued by the time-capsule of electronics he discovered in our wiring cabinet, the trouble-shooter said he would report it and recommend that something be done about it. That was the last we heard of it. Since then, I have had to replace a fuse-wire once or twice, but nothing truly untoward happened until this.

The Kitchen Guy poked around with an electrical thingamabob and said it wasn’t any of the fuses to the flat. In fact, there was no power coming into the flat at all, which meant there was another fuse somewhere down the line that had blown. Fixing it would solve the problem, but first we had to find it. Then he left.

I knocked on neighbor’s doors, both to ascertain that their electricity hadn’t gone out (it hadn’t) and to see if they knew who was responsible for the building (they didn’t). So, unable to locate the building’s managing company, I called the emergency/out-of-hours number for Leaders.

The nice lady at the other end of the phone (somewhere in Jersey, I suspect) took my details and told me she would call the local office and that they would contact me shortly.

Shortly came and went, so I called them, and got a recording telling me the office was closed. This concerned me because calling the local office was what the Out of Hours lady told me she was going to do, and I suspected she would get the same response I did.

Fortunately, I am familiar enough with the operations of Leaders Property Management to know that they operate in the same offices as Leaders Lettings (can you say, “conflict of interest”?). I phoned them and explained the problem to the woman who answered. Her overriding concern was how to rectify my urgent problem. No, wait, that’s not it. Fobbing me off, yeah, that’s it. She simply told me that the office was closed, and I would have to wait until Monday.

After succinctly and calmly explaining that this would be unacceptable (something along the lines of “You’re fucking kidding me!) she switched tactics and tried to pin the blame on me. The upshot was, a contractor I had hired did something that caused the electricity to go out, ergo, it was my problem. I told her what the contractor had told me, that the electrics were dangerously sub-standard, and that was why the fuse blew. To which she replied, “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”

To her credit, I eventually talked her around and she came up trumps (not that kind of Trump, the good kind) and doggedly fought my corner until a solution was found. I left her to do what she could and pursued my own leads. After exhausting all hope of contacting the management company for my building—or even finding out if one existed—I called Npower, my electric company. The woman there was very concerned about solving my problem. No, wait, that’s not it. Avoiding responsibility, yeah, that’s it. She cheerfully explained that it had nothing to do with them. Contrary to what one might expect, they did nothing but collect my money; the nuts, bolts and fuses were the bailiwick of a local supplier. So, I called them.

The local supplier was concerned with one thing, and one thing only: getting my problem solved. Wait, no, that’s not it. Avoiding responsibility, yeah, that’s what she was after. I repeatedly explained the situation, and she repeatedly told me it was not possible. Furthermore—and she was very clear on this—they were not going to do anything about it.

After five hours, my contact at Leaders managed to get an emergency electrician to visit the flat. He affirmed that the Kitchen Guy had been correct, there was another fuse down the line that had blown, but it wasn’t outside the flat as he had supposed, it was in the closet with the rest of the wires and fuse boxes, disguised as a random piece of bakelite.

There it is!
The problem was, it had a seal on it that was not supposed to be broken by anyone but the local supplier. So, he called the local supplier.

He got the same woman I talked to, and she assured him—as she had assured me—that what he was describing was impossible; it could not, did not, exist, and even if it did, it wasn’t their problem. She was so focused on her company mission of not accepting any accountability that she wouldn’t let the electrician get a word in edgewise. He finally told her that all he needed was permission to break the seal and he’d deal with the problem, but she wouldn’t do that, either. Giving him permission to break their seal on what was clearly their fuse would be to admit that it existed, so she refused to address the question and, instead, reiterated her assertions that what we were seeing was impossible and not their problem and…

So, he hung up on her and broke the seal.

The fuse was, indeed, blown. He replaced it and the electricity came back on.

When I contacted Leaders on Monday, their overriding concern was for my inconvenience and putting right the issues surrounding the incident. No, wait, that wasn’t it. Pinning blame, yeah, that’s what they were after. Every communication I had with them was focused mainly on making sure I understood what happened was my fault.

My take on this was: if I had rented a boat from a marina (let’s call it Leader’s Marina) and both they, and the guy who owned the boat, knew it had a hole in it, and I invited a friend on board and then the boat sank, would it be my fault for inviting the friend? Or might it be their fault for not fixing the hole? Just a thought.

Anyway, after a few exchanges of emails, they gave up, but I’m sure I haven’t heard the last of this. Someone has to pay that electrician for coming out here, and you can bet it won’t be Leaders, or the landlord.

And the other thing I can be certain of is, nothing is going to be done about the state of the electrics.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Tales of Renovation

We all have a renovation horror story. Here’s mine:

The Dream

It started because I got tired of putting my hand down on grit every time I touched the kitchen counters.

This wasn’t because we’re slobs; it was the fault of the counter itself, which came in the popular grey/white/black pattern I like to call Crumb Camouflage. Anything falling on that counter was immediately invisible and, therefore, not cleaned away. The solution, most people might suppose, would involve cleaning the counters more often, but to me, the obvious course of action was new counter-tops.

Kitchen Counter in the popular "Crumb Camouflage" style.
Incredibly, I managed to convince my wife of this. We knew we wouldn’t be able to convince the landlord, so we opted to cover the cost ourselves. Then I figure, if we were replacing the old kitchen counters, we might as well replace the old sink, and the antiquated hob, at the same time. My wife agreed to this, as well, but with less enthusiasm. The landlord approved our plans—with the stipulation that it wouldn’t cost him any money—and we set out to buy new kitchen stuff.

Love at First Sight

We picked out a nice wood-effect counter, a spiffy modern hob and then went to look at sinks.

Because I do the washing up. the sink is my domain, and I was the one picking it out. I looked at the standard-issue sinks on display, and was resigned to buying one of them, until I discovered, hidden away in a drawer, a granite sink.

It was black and sleek and sexy, and much sturdier than the stainless-steel models. I fell immediately in love and managed to convince my wife that, at merely twice the price of a normal sink, it was a bargain we couldn’t pass up.

Seriously, is that a sink to die for, or what?
Arranging a Date

We had already hired a kitchen fitter. He had visited, given an estimate and told us to call him once we had the materials. But when the materials arrived, he—like any good builder—became impossible to contact for a week or two. And when he finally called back, I was at a choir performance and not exactly in a position to give him my full attention. Fearing I wouldn’t be able to make contact for another two weeks, however, I agreed to the date he offered, which was two days before we were to host a Thanksgiving Day meal for friends. The astute among you will have spotted the problem. I wasn’t worried, however, because he assured me it would be a quick job, easily finished in a single day.

You can tell I don’t have builders in very often.

Second Thoughts

The night before the work was to start, my wife lay awake thinking of colors. She had picked out the counters she wanted, and I had picked out the sink I wanted, and we had picked out the paint she wanted for the walls, and in the night, belatedly, it occurred to her that the colors didn’t match the current kitchen decor. In the morning, we stared at the kitchen, imagining the new fixtures in place, and I realized two things: she was right, and there was nothing we could do about it. 

The Reality

On the appointed day, the The Kitchen Guy and his mates arrived and the destruction began. The one stipulation we had was that the kitchen cabinets and the tiles on the kitchen wall were not to be damaged as they were not being replaced. The Kitchen Guy was very conscientious about this, but no one (except my wife, who is a die-hard realist) was prepared for what he found when he lifted out the old counters.

A quick-and-dirty installation of a boiler sometime in the recent past had pipes running along the base of the kitchen wall, and the cabinets were simply shoved up against them. This meant that the cabinets were not flush with—or even attached to—the wall, which also meant that the old counter tops didn’t touch the wall, either. They solved this problem by sticking wall tiles on with gobs of plaster to fill the inch-wide gap between them and the wall. As a consequence, the tiles were basically balanced on the back edge of the counter and, when it was removed, they fell off.

The Kitchen Guy said he could put them back up, but seeing a chance to rectify the color-scheme dilemma, I told him to take them all off and re-tile.

This pushed the work into a second day, not the re-tiling—which is yet to be scheduled—but merely the removal of the old tiles and putting right the series of bodge-jobs inflicted by builders past. Still, on the second day, they began work with unflagging optimism and assured me they would finish by noon. At 5 PM they called it a day and said they would return in the morning to clean up and do the few remaining odds and ends. So we put the kitchen back together, turned the oven on to begin baking for the Thanksgiving feast the following day, and discovered the oven wasn’t working. The Kitchen Guy said he could fix it the following morning when he returned.

And so, on day three of a one-day job, they came back, cleaned up, pulled the oven out to check the wiring, and the electricity went out.

But more on that later.

Suffice it to say, the electricity was eventually put right, along with the oven, and we have been left with a kitchen decorated in what I like to call Ghetto Chic.

Our walls are now done in Ghetto Chic.
The bonus is, when they removed the tiles, they found a mural painted on the wall just above the hob. Not a lost Rembrandt or anything, but it adds a bit of whimsy.

It actually looks better than you think; the tiling on top of it didn't do it any favors.
The end result, however, is that I’m still putting my hand down on grit every time I touch the kitchen counters.

But at least I can see it.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Incredible Shrinking Thanksgiving

I don’t generally do a big Thanksgiving dinner here. It’s sorta self-defeating to cook a turkey with all the trimmings, then sit and eat it by myself while my wife has a bean loaf with salad. This year, however, I had big plans.

We invited some friends over for dinner on the Saturday after Thanksgiving to have a full, traditional Thanksgiving Day dinner. It had to be the weekend because, you know, some people work. (On the real Thanksgiving, I don’t think we had anything for dinner because we didn’t have a kitchen—more on that later). The meal was to include—in addition to the main attractions of turkey, stuffing, gravy, roast potatoes and cranberry sauce—the traditional beans with slivered almonds, creamed corn, corn bread and pumpkin pie. Since many of these foods are unfamiliar to Brits, I thought this would be a great introduction to American cuisine. It also promised to be agreeably humorous, as the uninitiated’s initial reaction to creamed corn is generally incredulity followed by confusion.

As so, as The Day approached, we gathered all the necessary ingredients, and then found ourselves without a kitchen.

This wasn’t alarming, as it was something planned. What was not planned, however, was for the kitchen to be unavailable for a second day. This meant we couldn’t begin cooking the corn bread or pumpkin pie, so we had to call those off. I also canceled the green beans with slivered almonds because it would have been more effort than it was worth. No one would have eaten it; it would have received a bit of curious poking, then gone into the bin, so I decided there wasn’t enough comic potential to make it worthwhile.

The meal was now turning into more of a Sunday Roast than a special T-Day Dinner, but at least we still had the cranberry sauce and the creamed corn.

Then the kitchen was out of commission for a third day.

This was the day of The Meal, and we were scrambling to figure out how to get it done on time. The kitchen itself was complete, sort of, but when we turned on the oven, it didn’t work. This came as a surprise, as the oven had not been touched during the disruption to the kitchen. We weren’t too worried, as the Kitchen Guys were due to come back that morning to clean up. However, they were not coming until 11:00 and there was no way to get a turkey dinner cooked before the guests arrived. Our only option was to push dinner back by an hour.

Then, to our joy, the Kitchen Guys arrived early. They got to work straight away, and pulled out the oven to check the wiring.

And the electricity went out.

It wasn’t a simple case of changing a fuse or resetting a breaker, and a long period of darkness loomed. (More on that later.)

We called our friends and explained the situation. They offered to cancel, but we told them that, at the very least, we had wine and cheesecake, so they came over any way.

In the meantime, my wife nipped to the Co-Op next door and bought cold cuts, cheese, crackers, olives, veggies and dip, and managed to whip up a holiday buffet. Oh, and candles, she also bought candles.

A candle-lit Thanksgiving Day Buffet.
So, our guests arrived and we had a lovely, candle lit meal—with wine—and cheese cake for dessert. When the electricity finally came back on, we toasted the light with whiskey and settled down to a long game of Trivial Pursuit—Baby Boomer Edition.

The coup de grâce to any hope of having a turkey dinner came when we realized we would be too busy this coming week to be able to cook the thawed-out turkey breast waiting in the ‘fridge, so, many empty wine bottles later, our guests departed in a taxi, along with the holiday turkey and a box of stuffing.

Despite that, it turned out to be the most enjoyable Thanksgiving I have spent here, and it was certainly the best one I have ever experienced that didn’t involve a turkey.

A toast, to good friends, good food, and an uninterrupted supply of electricity.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Being Flexible

For the past few weeks, I’ve been flirting with the notion of vegetarianism. The reasons for this are varied, strangely arbitrary and have nothing to do with animal rights (when did they write a Constitution?), the environment, health, religion or any other misplaced conviction. In fact, the reasons are so random, insignificant and seemingly unrelated that even I don’t know how they combined to cause such a radical (for me) decision. I suppose it didn’t hurt that I have lived with vegetarians for much of my adult life, but I can’t say that figured into my decision any more than reading a book about WWII spies* did. Suffice it to say, the drip-drip-drip of life events finally converged into a rippling wave that slowly pushed me toward the Island of Alternative Eating and left me stranded on its shore.

That's not food, that's what food eats.
My plan is to become what I like to call a Hypocritical Vegetarian (a Hypocritarian?), which means I will only eat animals that A) are too tasty to ignore, and B) suffer the misfortune of not having a suitable meat substitute available. Fish are especially lacking in this area. There is no substitute for tuna in a tuna-fish sandwich, nor do breaded tofu sticks measure up in any meaningful way to what Capt’n Birds Eye serves up. Also, I have yet to find a plant-based turkey, so I’m afraid Tom-turkey will be visiting my dining table this Thanksgiving, along with a bit of Percy-pig in the stuffing.

But I’m comfortable with that. Vegetarianism isn’t something you can nail down. You don’t pound a stake into the ground, point to it and say, “This is where vegetarianism lives.” Vegetarianism is a continuum, and anyone further along that continuum is free to look over their shoulder and call anyone behind them a hypocrite. I think that’s a waste of time, because while they are doing that, the people further along the continuum are looking over their shoulders and calling them hypocrites.

For the record, my wife is the only person I know—and I hasten to add there are certainly many more, I just don’t know them—who is a non-hypocritical vegetarian. This is because, unlike many vegetarians, she doesn’t avoid meat for any social, spiritual or metaphysical reason, she just doesn’t like meat. So, to be pedantic, she’s not really a vegetarian; she’s just a picky eater.

I, on the other hand, am quite fond of meat, but I am willing to give it up, to a degree, based on a collage of esoteric reasons that I don’t pretend to understand. It’s been an interesting journey so far, a time of trial and error and surprising discoveries — some good, some not so good. (Have you ever tried vegan pepperoni? Don’t.) But overall, I was pleased, especially with the idea that I had invented my own, personal style of vegetarianism, until I discovered that I hadn’t.

Apparently, what I am doing is so popular, it has its own name — Flexitarian — which is defined as “people who eat a plant-based diet with the occasional inclusion of meat.” (Or, to put it another way, people who aren’t vegetarians.)

Flexitarianism is not new, it is merely experiencing an inconvenient resurgence in popularity; otherwise, I would have remained happily ignorant of it. In 2003, the American Dialect Society voted Flexitarian as the year’s most useful word. Had I known this a few weeks ago, I would never have considered putting a toe on the vegetarian continuum; I hate the idea that I jumped on a bandwagon. I wanted to be a lone, hypocritical voice, crying in the vegewilderness. Instead, I’m just another guy pretending to be a vegetarian while the people ahead of us on the continuum look over their shoulders and scowl. It’s disappointing to discover that I have to share the scorn.

I remain pleasantly surprised, however, to find there are people on the continuum who are behind me. People I could scowl over my shoulder at, if I was of that ilk. Apparently, you can just give up steak and call yourself a Pollo-pescetarian. And if you give up chicken in the bargain, you become a Pescetarian, which is sorta where I am, with occasional forays into Pollo-territory. Then there are vegetarians who don’t consume dairy products, who can scowl at us all, and those who eschew eggs, who can scowl at them. Now you are getting into Vegan territory, but that is no more nailed down than vegetarianism is. Do you eat honey? What about plants that are sustained by slave-bees, who are trucked to orchards and fields and forced to pollinate, then rounded up and trucked to another location. So Veganitis is as woolly a condition as Pollo-Pesce-eggavoidance is.

Incidentally, the way to determine if someone is a vegetarian or a vegan is this: You can have a conversation with a vegetarian, even go for a meal with them. You’ll have a lovely chat and part never knowing they are a vegetarian. But if you meet a vegan, you can’t spend 15 second with them without them telling you about it. You might think their lifestyle a little odd, but trust me, they are simply the lid on an economy-sized package of nut-burgers.

No, it's you
Beyond vegans are fruitarians, who only eat fruit (not sustained by slave-bees, I assume). And beyond them are Breatharians, who believe you can survive on sunlight and water alone. Even Breatharians are divided into camps, where one group believes you don’t need the water, just the sunlight. The way to tell these two apart is: the non-water ones die within a few days, the water and sunlight ones can last weeks.

Obviously, I have no intention of exploring those extremes of the continuum, I’m comfortable back here, near the beginning (but not at the beginning) and unperturbed about being labeled a hyprcitarian.

Just don’t call me a Flexitarian.

* In this book, which was an account of a true story, a young man joined the Nazis for the purpose of spying on them and manages to tap into a very valuable stream of information. His girlfriend, who is helping him, gets mistaken for a Nazi sympathizer by Partisans and the young man has to stand by and watch her get put up against a wall and shot because, if he tried to intervene, he would have given himself away, wherein he would have found himself up against the wall, and the information necessary for the Allied war effort would stop. Nothing whatsoever to do with vegetarianism, but it provided one of the many threads that formed the rope that pulled me toward it. 

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Of Socks Logos and Self-assurance

I bought socks today. Not an earth-shattering opening, I know. However, as usual, my quest did not go according to plan.

The thing is, I don’t buy socks in Britain very often. I tend to buy them in America, where I can buy a bale of them at a reasonable price—plain, thick, comfy, bog-standard socks, and lots of them. The last time I needed to do this was a few years ago. I brought them home, put them in my sock rotation and forgot about socks for several blissful years.

Unbeknownst to me, there was a huge flaw in my plan. When I installed the new socks, I retired all my old ones, and thereafter, conscientiously rotated them so they all got equal wear. (As you can see, I am rather meticulous about socks—or anything, really; some people might call it “Obsessive.”) This is a regimen that pleases me, and it has served me well over the years, until last week, when all my socks expired at the same time.

Consequently, over the past few days, I have thrown out almost all my socks. I still have a couple left, so it wasn’t an emergency, not until I realized we were going on holiday soon and I didn’t have enough socks to see me through.

And so, I went out to buy socks.

This would be so much easier for me if I could just shop somewhere else, like 1986. Sadly, I am stuck in the present and, although they have socks here, they are not as I know them. First of all, they come in packs of three, or four, or six. None of these numbers fit evenly into a week. I’d have to buy seven packages to come out with a number evenly divisible by the days of the week. Or are there days you aren’t supposed to wear socks? Tuesdays and Thursdays, perhaps?

I am certain I have seen, many years ago, packages of socks with the days of the week printed on them. That would surely have been a pack of seven. Or maybe I’m thinking of girls’ panties. (It wouldn’t have been mens’ underwear—they come in a 12-pack with the months of the year written on them.)

At any rate, buying a pack of seven, or a bale large enough where a week’s worth became irrelevant, was out of the question. Sort of.

There was a store that had socks in large quantities, of the right type, and in the desired color, but they had logos on them—obtrusive, gaudy logos. Never mind that no one would be able to see them, I’d know they were there, and I have a thing about being a walking billboard, especially when I have to pay for the privilege.

This isn’t an issue I generally have to grapple with when buying socks. Apparently, however, someone has discovered that, if you put a logo on socks, you can charge more for them, and while I don’t have a problem with this per se, I would at least like to be offered a choice. If I pay a little extra—beyond the extra you have already tacked on—can I have them without the friggin’ logo?

Apparently not.

In other stores, where socks came in smaller quantities, logos were still there in abundance. It was mystifying as well as frustrating. I put it down to the insecurity.

Back in the day (needless to say, we’re talking about MY day), if you wanted people to know you appreciated quality products, you could buy a garment—a Ralph Lauren polo shirt, for example—with a tiny, tasteful logo on the left breast. These days, you can get the same shirt with a hulking, huge logo, that screams “I paid more for this shirt than you spend on groceries in a month!”

Are we that insecure when it comes to ostentatious displays of affluence? Apparently so, for we now have the same sized logos on our socks.

I was about to despair when I happened into the dress-socks section, which is not a location I would normally find footwear appropriate to my current lifestyle. However, I happened to glance at a pack of socks that were nearly the right color, and nearly the desired thickness. Additionally, and unavoidably, they had a logo, but it was tasteful, something that didn’t broadcast low self-esteem. Still, I might have allowed these slight variations in scope to disqualify them, had it not been for one, crucial, selling point: they came in a pack of seven.

I bought them immediately, took them home and tossed them into my suitcase without even opening the package. Hopefully they’ll work out, or I’ll be spending the entire holiday barefoot.

Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about my underwear; I just changed into my October pair.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Practice Retirement Half-Year Review

Come September my wife will have been on her practice retirement for six months, so I think it’s about time for a review.

All in all, it’s going well. There are no more morning rushes, followed by panicked returns and frenzied searches for whatever it was she forgot. It is, as I often tell her, like an endless weekend.

The transition period went smoothly, as well, with only a minor hiccup in my morning routine. Prior to retiring, my wife rose (unwillingly, it must be said) at 6 AM, got ready for work and left around 7. This meant I had to get up at 5:30 so I could be relatively awake, in my office and—more to the point—out of her way by 6.

Knowing that she didn’t have to get up until 8 AM meant I didn’t have to get up until…well, 8 AM. I would tell myself that staying in bed wouldn’t matter because I had the whole day ahead of me, but with my wife home, I never managed to get around to the writing because I’d rather spend time with her than sit in my office and stare at a blank screen for hours on end. Every Monday I made a new resolution to start getting up at 5:30 again, and every Monday I failed. Weeks of this saw me getting precious little work done, so after a month of chronic failure, I realized I was going to have to do something about it.

I wish I could say that I was clever enough to come up with a solution on my own, but I had to go to the web and get a life-hack. It goes like this:

I have my alarm go off as usual at 5:30, but I have a second alarm in my office set to go off—with the loudest, most obnoxious alarm I could find—at 5:45. So, after my alarm goes off, I have 15 minutes to get out of bed, get to my office and shut the other alarm off before it wakes up my wife, and half the people in the apartment block.

That has worked brilliantly, so everything has fallen into place and now neither of us can imagine life any other way.

Over the years, I’ve listened to people talk about their other half’s retirement as something they dreaded. They said they couldn’t imagine them being home all day, they would be in the way, it would be boring, they would get on each other’s nerves.

I’m happy to say that is not the case with us. I like having my wife around all the time and, at least as far as I can tell, being with me all day hasn’t had a detrimental effect on her, either. We go for walks in the park and stop for tea in the café. We browse the bookshops, visit the nature reserve and spend one morning a week at the leisure center doing Tai Chi.

There are drawbacks. On our walks, I often run monologues in my head to figure out what day of the week it is. They go something like this: “It’s Tuesday today, isn’t it? Then why is the market in town? It can’t be Thursday already; we just had Thursday. Saturday? That must be it.” Then, in conversation, I’ll casually mention to my wife that it’s Saturday, just to let her know I’m on top of things, and then she tells me it’s actually Sunday.

Also, where I used to have large blocks of time on my own—sweet silence, wherein I could procrastinate, take naps, wander around the neighborhood and, occasionally, do a bit of work—I now am with her almost all the time. Oddly, this has upped my productivity because I need to make the best use of the quiet hours in the morning.

The only other big change to my life—now that I’m under continual, adult supervision—is that I haven’t run with scissors in a long time, and I sort of miss that.

Mostly, however, I am glad to have her here, and it no longer seems odd that she is around all the time, and she openly wonders (as did I after I quit work) how she managed to fit a job into her busy life.

Unlike my practice retirement, which ended randomly when my office called and asked me to come back, my wife’s has a specific Use By date: she has to return to work (or not) on the 1st of April, and the “Or Not” part has to be decided by December, which means she has to start thinking about whether she wants to go back to work (or not) about…now.

At this point, neither of us knows which way she is going to go, but I do know, if she does decide to go back, getting up in the morning is going to come as shock to her.

Maybe she could benefit from my multiple-alarm hack.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018


Oh, yeah, we went to America. Sorry, I kinda forgot.

We left over a month ago and got back three weeks ago. And by the next day it seemed to slip into the past, as vacations are wont to do. I think this trip, more than others, slipped my mind for a variety of reasons: it was a shorter trip than usual, we didn’t take any side trips, and the weather was just the same as in Britain.

The decision to cut the visit short was based on our initial decision to go in July. I knew it would be hot, and the last time we were there in the summer my wife ended up in A&E. We hoped a shorter stay might prevent that from happening again. I’m not sure why we thought that; it only takes one afternoon of unrelenting sun to put some people on a gurney with a saline drip in their arm.

Chocolate health food. Yeah, we're in America.
Accordingly, we decided to take it easy on this trip, and stayed close to home. And home, this year, revolved around my son’s new house, which has a built-in swimming pool and central air conditioning. This, I found, made the 100-plus temperatures bearable. Just knowing the pool and AC were available made sitting in the shade, drinking beer and sweating, more enjoyable. Back in my day, knowing the only thing you could do to escape the heat was to drive to the nearest supermarket and stand in the frozen-food aisle, made hot days more oppressive.

We did manage one side trip, but that was just out to Cazenovia, the small town in mid-state New York where my daughter-in-law grew up. This was, by the by, the entire point of visiting during July. I wanted my wife to see an authentic, small-town, fourth of July celebration, and Cazenovia provided the perfect location.

Cazenovia has, somehow, become stuck in the late 1950s or early 60s, and is now some sort of Stepford town that looks like something out of My Three Sons. When walking down the street, you wouldn’t be surprised to see Fred MacMurray, or Ozzie and Harriet, step out onto their porch and wave at you.

(Gosh, you need to be real old to get those references.)

Hey, look! It's Ozzie and Harriet's house!
We went to Cazenovia early on the morning of the 4th of July to see my daughter-in-law run a ten-mile race around Cazenovia Lake. She finished about 9:30AM, but it was already hot by then. She said her time was about 9-minutes a mile, for those of you who care about such things.

Waiting for the race to end: My son, my granddaughter, my wife
my grandson and my other grandson.
My wife and I left my son and his family with their family and went off on our own adventure, which involved the shops and cafés of Cazenovia, checking into our boutique hotel and watching the 4th of July parade.

What is a small-town parade without a tractor pulling a wagon laiden
with young ladies on hay bales waving at people?
And that night, we watched the fireworks over Cazenovia lake. It was one of those rare, perfect days, the sort you normally only see on Leave It To Beaver.

Credit: Cazenovia Chamber of COmmerce
The next day, we all returned to my son’s house to continue sitting in the shade, drinking beer and sweating.

I think this was the main reason the holiday was so easily forgotten. We left Britain on a sunny, hot day, enjoyed a stretch of hot, sunny days in America, and then returned to hot, sunny days in Britain. Outside of my own bed, access to a swimming pool and readily available air conditioning, there was very little difference.

The haul: though the list is getting shorter, you still cannot get Cream-o-Wheat or French
Burnt Peanuts here. You can get pipe tobacco, but it is three times the price I pay in the US.
An interesting aside: we spent one morning in the Biergarten in Albany watching
England beat Sweden 2-nil in front of an audience of cheering locals.
When did America discover the World Cup? Last I knew, no one over there had heard of it.
My apologies to friends I couldn’t see on this whistle-stop tour, and assurances that, next time, we’ll come in cooler weather and stay a bit longer.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Another Day in Paradise

Here comes another beautiful, sunny day. When will the torment end?

Brits are happiest when their weather is awful. Oh, they’ll complain about it, and claim to be tired of grey, wet days in June, windswept Julys and August afternoons that require a puffer jacket and wellies, but deep down (actually, not so deep) they’re reveling in their misery. But what would you expect from a people whose finest hour was when the Germans were dropping bombs on them?

Accordingly, this spate of hot, sunny, summer-like weather has them in a state of panic. Granted, it is hot here, New York Hot, as I like to call it. I know it is as hot as New York because I was just there, and it is just as hot here as it was there, and to be fair to the Brits, that means temps in the mid-90s, which is pretty much unheard of.

A strange sight. Shorts, that is.
So, they panic. They’ve rarely seen weather like this, and, granted, they have to endure it without air conditioning, but sitting in the shade with a cold glass of Pimms and enjoying the unusually fine weather doesn’t seem to be an option.

The standard greeting these days is, “Hot, isn’t it?” and the news stories are all about how hot it is, as if we don’t already know.

We get shown weather maps like this all day long; it doesn't help.
As someone who has gone through many a heat wave—and in the days before air conditioning—allow me to tell you this: it is hot, and it will be hot until it stops being hot. Complaining about it only makes it worse, and panicking makes it worse yet, so just relax and enjoy it. You’ll be back to normal, grey, rainy, cool summer days before you know it. In the meantime, do what we used to do back in the day—go to a supermarket and stand in the frozen food aisle.

I, for one, am relishing the unusual weather. It’s a joy to finally experience a real summer again, especially when you consider that, for the first five years that I lived here, I didn’t even own a short-sleeved shirt.

So, Brits, chill out. Get back to complaining about Brexit, grab a cold beer or a G&T with lots of ice and find a shady spot to sit and admire the flawless blue sky. Expose your white skin to the sun (but not for too long!), watch the grass grow brown, and savor the dusty, dry scent of summer heat. Trust me, you’ll miss it when it’s gone.

This is the grass outside my flat. Most of Britain looks like this now.
Not so Green and Pleasant, is it?
The good news is, it’s due to rain tomorrow. I expect everyone will complain about it.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Isn’t That Special

I’m on the Special K diet, and I’m pretty sure it’s all my fault.

We were visiting my son in America the other week and he and his wife told us how they had taken the Special K Challenge* and had both lost a significant amount of weight (as if they needed to; she’s a marathon runner and he’s an ex-marine and still in prime condition). This diet involves having Special K for breakfast and lunch, and a light, nutritious meal for dinner, for a period of two weeks. I noted that I liked Special K and often had it for breakfast, so it would be an easy diet for me. The next thing I knew, after landing back in the UK, my wife and I had bought two big boxes of the cereal and I was putting my money where my mouth was, so to speak.

I don’t mind, really. As I said, I like Special K, so having it for lunch isn’t much of a change and having it for breakfast is no change at all, which is the problem. After a week, I haven’t lost an ounce and have, in fact, gained weight.

If you do go on the Special K diet, it would probably be best if you chose the
Original Special K rather than the Chocolate Delight Special K. Just sayin'.
For the record, my wife and I are not fans of fad diets. I’m pretty comfortable with my weight, and I am bang on the Normal range on the BMI chart, as long as I record my height while standing tip-toe. The only reason we went on this diet was that it seemed an easy win, and I would like to put a crimp in my weight-gain trajectory.

When I was in my twenties, I weighed one-hundred and twenty pounds, in my thirties, I weighed in the one-thirties, and so on. As you can see, comfortable with my weight or not, I have concerns for the future, so dropping ten pounds would be a welcome reversal. I look at it as future-proofing my weight. I do not, however, hold out much hope; I think I am destined to weight as much as I do and there is very little I can do about it.

Weight is a direct result of calorie intake versus activity. My wife and I are well aware of this, so rather than diet, we traditionally seek to decrease our calorie intake and increase our activity. To this end, I have—over the years—stopped taking sugar in my coffee and gave up having a chocolate biscuit (cookie) with my nightly cup of tea. We have also cut down on the number of times we go out to dinner, from several times a month to special occasions, and instead eat healthy, balanced meals at home (my wife is a vegetarian, so we eat a lot of couscous, lentils and rice, which is not a problem, because I like couscous, lentils and rice; but unlike my wife, I also like bacon burgers, meatloaf and sausage rolls). Lately, I have stopped ordering muffins to go with our cups of tea at the café and, when we go to the cinema, we don’t buy any treats to eat while watching the movie.

I know that doesn’t sound like much, but on a whole, that takes a big bite out of our monthly calorie intake, and coupled with that, we are increasing our activity. And do you know how much weight all this self-denial has helped me lose? Absolutely none. In my mind, it would be better to keep all those treats and just remain at my current weight.

But we are where we are, and that is in the middle of our fortnightly experiment with Special K. I have fourteen more bowls to get through before I can return to bacon burgers, meatloaf and sausage rolls.

This is, as long as I don’t gain too much weight on this diet.

The Special K Diet: your millage May Vary.
Photo Credit: Stole it from a random website and changed it
enough (I hope) to avoid copyright infringement lawsuits.

* Special K, Kellogg’s Cereals or General Mills have not paid me for endorsing their cereal or promoting the Special K Challenge diet, nor have I written this post in exchange for products. And I’m a little bit miffed about that.