Sunday, March 29, 2020

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

No CORVID-19 FREE ZONE this time, I’m afraid. Instead, I’m going to take a light-hearted look at crises past and the turmoil that has sort of bookended our marriage so far.

I actually met my wife due to a crisis: the foot and mouth epizootic (yes, it’s a real word, look it up) of 2001, which saw the most ultimate form of lock-down imposed on over 6 million cows and sheep. Because of this, the planned hiking holiday in the West of Ireland that my future wife had booked, was cancelled and rescheduled for late August. Meanwhile, blissfully unaware of the horrific events across the ocean, I booked the same hiking holiday. The rest is history. (If you want the details: read the book.)

And so, we met in those halcyon days of late summer in 2001 when the world made sense, and everything was normal. On the 28th of August, I returned home. Two weeks later was 9/11 and the world has not been the same since.

My first visit to my wife-to-be was on 10/11, and it was a surreal affair. Hardly anyone was flying, even though flight schedules had returned to normal some time before, and London was nearly deserted. We managed to ignore all that and married five months later.

It was my first trip to London, so I didn't realize how ridiculously
and unbelievably empty of people this shot was.
Then America dragged Britain into a war. My son was caught up in it (not against his will, I might add) and I had to endure anyone who noticed my American accent immediately asking me what Bush (he used to be President) was going to do, as if I was on the War Cabinet and spent my evenings Skyping with the President about military strategy.

I did try to calm the fears of the locals (and they were genuine fears, trust me) by assuring them that—despite what Bush and Blair were saying—Iraq did not, in fact, have any WMDs. No one believed me, until the war ended, and the two embarrassed leaders had to admit that, not only were there no WMDs, but they had not even thought to bring a “drop piece.”

The Boy (RT) and his Marine buddies, fighting the Gulf War.
"It was like Boy Scouts, with guns."
Things calmed down after that, and life was good, and got better. Then the 2008 Financial Crisis came along.

This did not come as a surprise to us. In the months prior, well-meaning friends had told us we were foolish to be renting when we could easily buy a house. “You just go into any Estate Agent and make up a salary. You can tell them anything you want, and they’ll accept it, so you’ll get a mortgage.” All we could do was wonder how it was that they could not see what was coming. We saw it, but it didn’t stop it.

Yeah, I stole this.
Nothing truly awful happened, at first, but as 2008 became 2009, and 2009 turned to 2010, life got greyer and greyer.

I knew how bad things were by using the best economic indicator around: Every year, on the 5th of November, I would sit on my balcony as evening fell and listen. If the fireworks started going off, and if there were a lot of them, I knew the economy was getting better. (Because people, in the most literal sense, had money to burn.) If there were only a few, or none, then things were bad, indeed.

As for us, we crossed our fingers and hoped things would turn around, and just when we thought it wasn’t going to get any worse, the newly elected Conservative government introduced us to Austerity.  

In case you're wondering Austerity didn't turn out to be very popular.
The first thing they said was that it wasn’t going to affect front line services. I had all I could do to stop laughing. Naturally, front line services were immediately cut, budgets were slashed, and slashed again, and again, and again, and again.

As the little people do, and have done since civilization began, all we could do was hunker down and hope to survive the fallout from the ideological beliefs of those in charge. Eventually, however, it took its toll.

My company, who wrote and installed computer systems for local authorities, found themselves with fewer and fewer customers, and in need of fewer and fewer employees. I was invited to be one of the “fewer” in 2012. My wife clung on to a service that struggled to survive until it became too ludicrous to continue and, reluctantly, left in 2018. Both of us victims of Austerity.

In 2012/13 the Fifty Shades of Grey crisis hit, and previously upscale (and even low scale) bookstores became awash in sub-standard porn dressed up as sub-standard literature. As a friend of mine noted: “It’s a book for people who don’t read.”

No, no! None of that, thank you!
Still, we did not remain untouched by this epidemic. My wife’s curiosity overcame her, and she bought the initial volume. Fortunately, she’s a discriminating reader and put it down halfway through.

Over the years, literature improved, and on the odd year, fireworks went off (this is NOT a euphemism) and then, in 2016, we had a referendum on Brexit.

Once again, we hunkered down and hoped for the best and took solace from the fact that 2017 would have to be better.

It wasn’t. The Brexit decision became more and more heated, even though the decision had been made. Prime ministers came and went. We had elections. And we looked forward to 2018 when things would calm down.

The best thing about Brexit is how it united the British people
They didn’t. More confusion and mayhem ensued. Much to the delight of America, Britain took over as the world’s laughingstock. We didn’t bother thinking that 2019 would be any better.

It wasn’t. Another Prime Minister resigned. A mini-Trump with even worse hair took over. We had an election and watched as all hope swirled down the drain.

Welcome 2020!
But then we breathed a sigh of relief on New Year’s Eve, 2019, and looked forward with hope to the New Decade. Surely, 2020 would be better. It had to be; it couldn’t get any worse.

Could it?

Friday, March 20, 2020

Shedding the Shed

When I was a boy, my dad built a shop in the back yard. It was about half the size of our house and he built the whole thing himself. He needed it because he was an upholsterer and, over the years, he re-upholstered chairs and couches and refinished cabinets and built all manner of household furnishings. It was a wondrous place that only became more and more wondrous.

By the time I was able to operate the machinery—button maker, band saw, table saw, vice, wood lathe, jig saw, electric sander, et al—there were so many bits of wood and cast-offs stored in there that you could make anything out of stuff you found lying around.

My father was a craftsman and, though he did teach me what I was capable of learning, I never came close to how good he was with wood.

My dad in his workshop.
Still, I tried. After I was married (the first time) we bought a house with a basement and I immediately set up a workshop. While I lived there, I made a number of things—dining room table that folded up into the wall so the kids had the dining room to play in, a toy box for them, cubby holes for their coats and books and boots—but then that time ended, and I spent years moving from rented flat to rented flat and never again had the opportunity to work with wood. Until a few years ago.

My new in-laws had a small shed in their backyard and, after my father-in-law died and it fell to my wife and I to take care of the property for my mother-in-law, I talked her into getting a bigger one. (She likes me, so it was easy to convince her.)

I set the new shed up as a workshop and immediately cast about for things to build.

Working on my first bookcase
In an era where everything is done on-line, it is gratifying to feel wood taking shape under your rasp and sander. I find the smell of sawdust soothing and evocative of my youth and I spent as much time as I could out there. Over the years I built several bookcases, an airing cupboard for our new flat, a tombola, storage units and a variety of other, useful items.

Set of blocks I made for my granddaughter.
I loved being there, especially when it was raining, and I could take a break with a cup of coffee amid the sawdust and wood-shavings and assess whatever project I was working on. There is nothing quite like having your own space to work in.

Except, it wasn’t mine. Last year, my mother-in-law’s dementia got to the point where we could no longer support her, and she was moved into a home. We still went to the house from time to time—to mow and mulch in the back yard and make sure the house was in good order—but I didn’t have the time to spend in my shed like I used to.

Tub Guard to replace the unsightly piece of Masonite that was there. 
Then, we had to sell it. It went on the market last autumn and we exchanged contracts today. We took our last trip to the property this morning, so we could take the final meter readings. We will never go back.

Now, in addition to my shed, this house was the home of my wife from the time she was two until we married, so we both took a moment to say good-bye, and I expect hers was more bittersweet. But knowing I will never again have someplace to build something—anything—out of wood does close a significant chapter in my life.

So, good-bye to my workshop, and to the first home I had in Britain. I hope the new owners love it as much as we did, and find happiness there.

A final look

Sunday, March 15, 2020


When I started this blog, I promised myself three things: that I wouldn’t talk about politics, religion or my family (grandkids excepted). I have broken that promised a few times (Trump and Breixt were hard to ignore) and I am about to again. So, I hope you will forgive me for posting about my recently deceased brother, Marc.

Caveat: if you are a friend or family member reading this and your impressions differ from mine, that’s okay. It doesn’t mean my impressions are right, or wrong, it just means they are mine.

To begin with, I was never very close to Marc. I was very, very close to my sister, Melinda, however, because, for an eternity, it was just the two of us. Too young for school, Melinda and I played in the yard, the woods, the fields, the leaves, the snow and I couldn’t imagine life without her always with me. Then, when I was four, eternity ended; Melinda started school, and Marc was born.

September 1959
We greeted him with joy and much fawning, but he really wasn’t very much fun. He just laid there and gurgled and, eventually, we pretty much ignored him.

The first real memory I have of playing with Marc was when I shot him with the bow and arrow.

I was about ten—so he must have been about six—when my parents bought me a bow and arrow set. Not the cheap wood and suction-cup arrows variety you find in toy shops, but a real, archery set, with sharpened, metal-tipped arrows. (What were they thinking?) I spent lots of time shooting at the target set up in the side yard but became frustrated that I couldn’t hit the bullseye. So, I got a long tube from my father’s shop (he was an upholsterer and had large spools of material on sturdy, cardboard tubes that must have been 8 feet long) and had Marc hold it up to the target’s bullseye so I could shoot the arrow into the other end.

As you have already guessed, I missed the hole and hit Marc in the arm. It didn’t (thankfully) stick in, but it did leave a mark and it made him scream like a banshee and I dropped the bow and ran to him saying the only thing a child could say in a situation like that: “Don’t tell mom!”

He told mom.

Archery mishaps aside, we did play together more as he grew older. He was a bubbly, happy child with a good sense of fun, quick to laugh and always up for adventure, if it didn’t involve me shooting arrows at him.

Me, Marc, Melinda and Michele, Matt
Christmas 1964
The first photo (that I have) of us all together.

The last photo I have of us all together--with Dad, even
Dad, Marc, Me, Melinda, Michele, Matt
May 2006

As the years progressed, his sense of adventure grew and, eventually, he and my sister—who also had a wild streak—became tight. Left on my own, I spent a lot of time contemplating nature and writing angst-ridden poetry while Melinda and Marc drank and smoked with an increasingly rowdy series of friends.

(Later, when I became a Jesus-freak, nobody wanted to associate with me at all, and I can’t say as I blame them.)

When I was finally thrown out of the cult (something to do with the minister’s daughter) I returned to the fold, partying with my siblings but never really fitting in (there was still that poetry thing).

Matt, Michele and Marc
September 1969
The most surprising thing about this photo is that people
actually went out dressed like that.
As we grew older, Marc’s adventurous nature began costing my father money. He had several run-ins with the law and one time, when he and his buddies were partying, they got a wild hair up their collective butts and decided to go to California. Fetching him back ratcheted up the debt my father continued to keep track of.

My father maintained a belief that Marc was going to pay him back, which was optimistic, but charmingly naïve. Then, as Marc approached his twenties, my father made him an offer: he would forgive Marc’s debts if he would join the army. He should have had a lawyer look the agreement over first; a legal mind would have spotted the glaring loophole immediately.

Marc joined the army, my father forgave his debts (by now into the thousands) and, between the time he signed up and before he had to leave for boot camp, he was involved in an horrific car crash that shattered his leg, and the army pronounced him unfit for service and discharged him. (Additionally, while waiting to go in, Marc had convinced a few of his friends to join up with him. They had to go, but he didn’t.)

Marc spent weeks in traction and then was put into a body cast. After a month or so in the body cast, he was put in a smaller cast that allowed him some mobility. Subsequently, he went out with his buddies, got drunk and chipped the cast off, necessitating a trip to the hospital to put a new one on. This became a pattern until, some months later, he was finally out of his cast for good. Until I broke his leg again.

Me, Marc, Matt
March 1977
By now he was engaged to Wendy, and I became engaged to Wendy’s best friend, Jayne. (In looking back now, I find it odd that our wives were closer to each other than I was to my brother.) Marc and Wendy were in the boy’s dorm and Jayne and I were in the kitchen (there were seven of us—my parents, my two sisters and me and my two brothers—in a small house containing, as I termed it, a master bedroom, the girl’s dorm and the boy’s dorm) and Marc was drunk and getting bolshie. Somehow, we started annoying each other. Words were exchanged and we ended up in a tense standoff, facing each other on either side of the doorway to our bedroom.

Marc and Wendy at their wedding
September 1979
I am, by nature, a peaceful individual. I always said I was too small to fight fair, so I usually walked away from conflict, but I was determined not to back down in front of my fiancée so I jumped up and kicked him square in the chest. He went down and, to my horror, I realized that, if he got back up, he would kill me. So, I dove on him and, with the girls screaming and us shouting, we rolled around on the bedroom floor until we heard a snap and his face went white and I looked and saw his foot had become stuck under a dresser and had not rolled with his leg.

I jumped off him but, bellowing like a bull, he tried to get up and come after me. My father rushed into the room and had to punch him in the face to keep him from getting up and doing more damage to his leg. The ambulance was called and arrived in short order, just about the time (as I recall) that my sister came out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around her. Marc was still screaming that he was going to kill me, and the paramedics were telling him that if he didn’t quiet down they were going to sedate him. They strapped him onto the gurney and took him out and, as was often the case when Marc left a gathering, everything went suddenly quiet.

The next morning—fearing he might make good on his promise to kill me when he got back home—I rented an apartment and permanently moved out of my parent’s house.

As with the bow and arrow incident, the broken leg was soon forgotten. I was at his wedding, and he was at mine, but even then, he was living in Texas and I hardly ever saw him. As the years went by, even though I saw him at sporadic intervals, we became virtual strangers.

After I left for Britain, however, our family established an agreeable tradition: every time my wife (New wife; want the story? Buy the book.) and I came for a visit, we would hold a family reunion. In this way, I began seeing him, not often, but at least regularly. By now he was divorced, but still quick to laugh and always ready with a humorous anecdote, and almost always drunk. He was fun and funny and quite a force, and no one, to my knowledge, ever said, “Marc was at that party I was at last night? That’s funny, I didn’t notice him.”

April 2002
At one of these reunions, some 14 years or so ago, he told me he had 5 years to live. I was never clear on what was wrong with him, but I gather his drinking had something to do with it and he was strongly advised to give it up. He didn’t, but in a way, I can respect him for remaining true to himself. He lived his life the way he wanted and outlived the doctor’s prediction by a long shot.

Moriah (Marc's daughter), Marc, Melinda
June 2008
In his later years, he returned to NY and moved in, coincidentally, with an old friend of mine, Tanya, and on each visit my wife and I made certain to spend some time with them. For the most part, despite his increasing debility, he was still his old self, but when we visited last autumn, he remained quiet and withdrawn and we feared the worst.

I heard he was going downhill on the 15th of February. I flew over on the 20th and arrived as he was taken home from the hospital. Tanya told me to visit in the morning as he was tired from the trip. He died over night however, and I never got to see him.

All I can says is, he lived—and died—on his own terms, and that’s not something a lot of people can claim.

True to himself.

Thursday, March 12, 2020


I recently returned from the US, and none too soon from the look of things, as the Americans appear to be ready to pull down the shutters.

It was a hastily arranged and unexpected trip. I could just leave you hanging under the nebulous explanation of “Family Emergency” but in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll tell you that the reason was my brother died.

Or, rather, he was sick. Very, very sick. So I booked a flight, got to my son’s house, where I was going to stay, and called for an update and was told he was at his home but was very groggy and to visit in the morning. Then he died during the night.

This was, naturally, a tragedy within my family. But you are not in my family so I feel comfortable sharing a bit of black humor with you, especially since this black humor originated within my family:

Exactly the same thing happened when my father died. He was very ill, I jumped on a plane, arrived late in the evening and when I got up the next day to go visit him I found he had died during the night. This has earned me the moniker “The Angle of Death” and my other brother requested that, if he is ever sick, to please not visit him. A phone call, he told me, would do.

And like my father, my brother’s wishes were to be cremated and disposed of without ceremony, which, again, afforded me two weeks in America with no demands on my time. And no adult supervision.

As it turned out, there was a memorial for him, arranged by his daughter, and it was really very nice. No punches were thrown, so I’d call it a success.

Since I have already come to terms with the notion that I no longer fit into America, I won’t go on about the changes and how I feel like a foreigner and all that “when I a boy” shit. I’ll just point out a few interesting details:

When I visited last October, I saw something remarkable that I failed to remark on in my posts about the trip. Along Route 9, in an area that used to be fields and scrub brush, a vast area had been cleared. And I mean vast. It was so large I genuinely thought they were gong to build a new village in it.

When I drove up Route 9 this trip, there was a building on the site.

It's an Amazon Fulfilment Center, and I think you can see it from space.

There is a lot of controversy surrounding this. It is providing jobs, but they are low-paid and temporary, but at least—as one friend put it—the ceramic coffee pot and orange juicer will be sure to arrive by the next day, and that’s what’s really important.

On a trip to the grocery store, I saw this:

I get that Americans are into St, Patrick's Day a lot more than the Brits, but this was the 21st of February!

One of the best thing about visiting the US is going out to eat—for me, anyway; my vegetarian wife has a bit of trouble, but she wasn’t with me, so it was Applebee’s and Cracker Barrel and the Valatie Cafe and, well, let’s just say I enjoyed myself. However, if you recall my previous post, you’ll know that I have been on the IF Diet. This, of course, went on hold while I was away, but in the week that I was on the diet before I left, I lost 7 pounds. When I returned from the States, however, I was ten pounds heavier. 

All I can say about that is, it was a good thing I started that diet when I did. Now all I have to do is claw back the gains (losses) I made.

It was an unusually warm and snow-free winter, at least in the lowlands.

A sultry day playing hockey in the driveway. Not a usual sight in Upstate NY during February.

When, on the 28th of February, I went into the wilds to visit my other brother, this is what I found:

And it was jolly well cold, too!
Meanwhile, back in Sussex...
I also found it was his birthday.

My brother, in his Man Cave.

I had forgotten all about it and, as we talked about birthdays and anniversaries, I realized that it was also 18 years to the day when I had left the US for Blighty. So it was quite a nostalgic evening.

There really wasn’t much else of note that happened, other than the shock of airport prices and the surprise of a near-empty flight on the way home.

Between $9.50 and $11.55 for a beer to go with your $24.00 hamburger?!?
There is taking advantage and there is taking the piss, and this is taking the piss.
Add to that the fact that there was not a seat to sit in that did not have one of these screens in front of it
urging you to buy over-priced food.

It was, despite the reason for it, a nice trip. It brought to mind again how important family is, even one as far-flung as my own. And, perhaps, being so far-flung makes it that much more important.

The G-Kids