Category Archives: Abridged blog

Fam I am

I changed my name about a dozen years ago. I didn’t change it to anything as spiffy as, say, Mark Twain, or offbeat as Kate Winslet’s husband Mr Rocknroll, but it met the main criteria of being different from that which I’d spent 20 years vaguely dissatisfied with. (If the math doesn’t add up to my age, that’s because I wasn’t always bothered.) I did it because I could, and it was easy. Except for the explaining part.

How do you tell your father you’re discarding the family name, apparently dissing him and the line of fathers which begat ungrateful you? If you’re a girl getting hitched, it’s not an issue even in these days of fewer nées; patriarchy has its silver lining. Boys are expected to display the marque. That’s one reason for the extra enthusiasm with which cigars are handed out, at least in the movies.


“Eeny, meeny, miny, Moe. OK, you’re Moe. Don’t cry, your brother got stuck with Sue.”

I didn’t tell him at first, even going so far as to carefully remove all luggage tags when my parents would meet me at the airport for my annual visit to the homestead. But eventually it seemed prudent to gingerly let the cat out of the bag and hope for the realistic best, i.e., a shrug and a sad smile of acceptance. I honestly still don’t know how he took it; I don’t remember if his body language was mute with shock or I averted my eyes at the crucial moment. Other than a steady stream of perhaps-not-always offhand remarks which suggests it remains a sore spot, we’ve never discussed it in any depth. It helps to have cultivated a reputation for being [pick an adjective] odd/‘creative’/difficult.

It’s hard to gauge the importance of the name that’s been stuck on the birth certificate. On one hand it’s—sorry, papas everywhere—meaningless. On the other, it’s your bloody name, innit. Tends to crop up on a daily basis. Gets called over the loudspeaker, machine-printed in junk mail, chiselled onto your gravestone. In my case, constantly misspelled or at least mispronounced.

If I’d been born Native American and followed traditional conventions, my parents would’ve called me boy-who-cries-a-lot, thanks to colic. In my teens this might’ve then become hogs-mirror-with-comb, perhaps finally culminating in adulthood with naps-on-couch.


Not exactly a role model, but we all have our redeeming qualities

As it was, I went from something howmanyofme.com informs me only 28 other Americans shared, to a meeting hall of closer to 300.

The transition wasn’t too great of a lurch in the small family unit of me and my wife. She’d known me as my now official first name since the 80s, the initials my parents had bestowed having formed a perfectly serviceable moniker that happened to appeal.

I retained my middle name as a kind of keepsake. My new surname came more or less out of a hat, like my father’s, at least from the point of view of a zygote swimming in a universe of possibilities. (I know, a zygote doesn’t do much paddling. It’s more a wallflower waiting to blossom.)

My wife didn’t follow suit. There’s no reason she should have. She chose it; I didn’t. Who could have guessed she’d be landing on what was to be my maiden name.

Not long ago I started visiting my hometown on a regular basis via the local newspaper, which has been giving me space to write about life as an expat. Call it boy-who-crossed-pond. As a byline I chose my old name. It made sense; my parents and their friends would be reading. I wanted them to be able to say “Yeah, he’s ours” should they be pleased with the result, without resorting to tedious explanations. (On the flip side, should they feel the need to cringe, well, tough luck. Heh.) Though pen names are common enough, it’s an unnecessary obstacle in a conversation.

I’ve also reverted to my given name on Facebook. Not only is it easier for relatives who haven’t been kept apprised of my idiosyncrasies to process, it’s pleasing to feed data-hungry Zuckerbeasts white lies.

Ironically, as I have a bit of a lisp, my self-chosen name appears to be difficult to convey to anyone needing to take it down. “Fam?” I’m frequently asked over the phone. <Sigh>


Original art spotted in a gallery. Afford it I couldn’t.

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The Zero Club

zerovenn
This is a club for content creators who work in the pristine vacuum of public indifference. It’s for those of us who do our bit to fill the web with stuff that someday someone special may stumble across and think: “cool”. Or words to that effect.

It’s for those who have no choice in the matter. We write or otherwise concoct whatever comes tumbling unbidden out of our brains, work it till it’s just right or as right as we can make it, then let it go. Then it goes nowhere. Which can be discouraging despite the awesome freedom that comes with always flying under the radar. We can say whatever we want! It will have absolutely no effect on the observable universe.

How do you know you belong in this club? It’s easy. All you have to do is post something somewhere and wait for nothing to happen. What do you expect is going to happen anyway? Are you waiting for applause? Kudos? Validation of the wonder that is you? I would say “grow up” but chances are you’re already grown up enough to know the world has placed a value on your efforts, and that value is nil.

Zero Club costs nothing to join. You don’t have to officially register or anything. We have no bylaws, other than this: Keep on keepin’ on.

jack

I was prompted to revisit this somewhat bleak topic after posting a bit of satire over in  Kosland, where for better or worse I’d been lapping up coverage of the US primaries. Let’s just say it flew spectacularly under the radar. 

stealthbomber

Fortunately there are peeps of taste and discernment in the Twittersphere.

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Bookshelved

What home library would complete without the Bible? I’ve even read it, if speed reading counts. This is what I remember.

tree

OLD TESTAMENT
God clapped his hands and there was light. A few more claps took care of everything else under the sun. Man was given dominion over all the animals except cats. A snake got into the garden and tricksied Eve, the first scapegoat. Everybody moved away because you can’t go home again.

The birds and the bees begat. There were giants in those days, and X-men. Also prophets like Nostradamus, who predicted Hitler before spellcheck.

The world quickly became overpopulated with ne’er-do-wells so there was a flood. Only Noah had bought flood insurance.

Joseph got a nice coat for Christmas; too nice. This angered his brothers, as did the fact that he never had dreams about falling like normal people.

Baby Moses was set adrift in a model boat then grew up to part the waters. Unfortunately he later missed the boat to the Promised Land. First he passed along the X Commandments as chiseled by God, who was pretty high on himself even though things never seemed to go according to plan.

Abraham nearly killed his prodigal son because of voices in his head, but relented and turned him into a pillar of salt instead.

God made Job suffer terribly. The devil made him do it. Job’s response was to say “Thank you Sir may I have another,” so God gave him 14000 sheep and more asses than one man can covet in a lifetime as a kind of apology for being a good sport.

David killed Goliath to show he wasn’t going to be anybody’s bitch.

Moby Dick swallowed Jonah but spat him out again because he preferred plankton.

Angels dance on pins. Because they can. They also leave messages.

womb

NEW TESTAMENT
Joseph believed Mary, bless.
All you need is love, loaves and fishes.
Matthew Mark Luke and John weren’t always on the same page.
The committee of three is making a list and checking it twice.
Hell is other people going around in circles. If you’re going there you probably haven’t been bad enough to meet Hister, but you might be bumping into a few peeps from work.

APOCRYPHA
There are no original sins because they’ve all been done before.

amen2

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Rabitting on

I had what educators call a teachable moment yesterday whilst interviewing a gardener (which makes me sound posher than I am, but if the Hunters fit…). “I see you around on your bike,” he said after we’d discussed how much Monsanto Roundup should be sprayed to stun but not kill bunnies. After we’d established that yes I am the village cyclist, he launched into a mini diatribe against cyclists who wear “those ear things” and weave all over the road. Needless to say I cleared my throat.

Had a bit of fun watching his eyes slightly bulge at the thought he may have just insulted a potential client, but I’m not cruel enough to enjoy the squirming of even tradesmen, so I let him off the hook by agreeing that yes, it looks like a crazy thing to do, before explaining why it isn’t any madder than spraying glyphosate around and hoping the local hoppers regard it as nectar.

Anyway, it turns out his anecdotal ire was based on an apparently misbehaving pedestrian, who in the interests of comity I agreed should also be sprayed with Roundup much like unruly weeds.

bunnyrolling

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Deceptively Haunted

socknersh3

You must understand, it was only the horror of renting which convinced us we must buy the stately house and garden. The price tag, £5 million, was somewhat aspirational given that we had neither part exchange, substantial deposit, large income, annuities, nor inheritance due save a rather nice reproduction Hogarth Chair from my wife’s side of the family that was only missing one leg, but we figured to use the government’s help-to-buy scheme and aspirational accounting to leverage ourselves onto the top rung of the property ladder.

We contacted the estate agent then drove out to view what we very much hoped would become our new home and hearth. Actually, 47 hearths, according to the birdlike Ms Heathcliff, “No relation!” as she chirped merrily from behind her clipboard upon meeting us at the end of a long and meandering driveway which we got lost on twice.

Our tour began in what appeared to be the Entrance Hall, which was large enough to echo but hung with ancient tapestries to muffle any yodeling. “They come with,” said Ms Heathcliff after consulting her clipboard. “Isn’t that nice?” Given that our last set of tapestries got caught in the hoovering and unravelled to the tune of a new beater bar for Henry, I rather thought not, but held my tongue in the interests of comity.

What we had taken to be the Entrance Hall was, in fact, the boot room; the cavernous space we were next led to was the Hall. “You could play a game of cricket in here,” I thought and indeed said. “Your house, your rules!” trilled the agent.

“What council tax band is this?” asked my wife, ever the Committee of Ways and Means. Ms Heathcliff consulted her notes. “It doesn’t say. However, a title is conferred with the property, along with the right to press gang locals to build follies, subject to planning permission of course.”

“Title?” my wife asked archly, entirely content with the honorific ‘Mrs’. As they chatted about correct forms of address, the agent quick to soothe any ruffled feathers in service to her commission, I wandered off to the games room. It took several minutes to walk around the aircraft carrier-sized snooker table, also apparently surplus to the owner’s requirements, to arrive at the windows and take in the garden. The topiary was splendid, though oddly, it consisted entirely of rabbits. Musing on the fecundity of the species, I headed back to find the ladies, though not before catching sight of a strange-looking fellow peering at me from between the ears of one of the gently rustling giants.bunnytopiary“Oh, that’s the gardener,” explained the agent. A look of displeasure momentarily flickered across her face then was gone. “He comes with, too. Lives in the coach house.”

Our tour continued. At one point we crossed paths with a rambler. “There is a right-of-way down this corridor,” explained Ms Heathcliff airily, quickly ushering us past the mezzanine level to the map room, spare ballroom, “George III Room” (where the monarch was rumoured to have stayed during that anxious period when he still thought he was a badger), servant’s quarters long since converted to media rooms categorised by genre, an entire suite leased by covenant to the BBC for period adaptations of Jane Austin novels, bedrooms and boudoirs and more WCs than one could flush in a lifetime, and finally, a locked door.

“What’s behind that?” I asked, thinking it to be a British Library-sized library, or perhaps a branch line closed by Beeching.

“That’s just a closet,” said the agent, looking anxiously at her watch. “I’m terribly sorry, but I’ve got another appointment just now. You two are of course welcome to see yourselves out.” Then she was off with a smile and a wave and a darting glance at the locked door.

We had a bit more of a mosey then used the GPS on my wife’s phone to find our way out. As we were approaching the car I heard an urgent Psssssst! coming from the ha-ha. It was the gardener.

“Did she take you to the haunted wing?” he asked without preamble. “You mustn’t buy this house. Terrible things have happened in that wing. That’s why it’s kept locked.”

“What terrible things?” I asked, always game for a bit of intrigue. “And what wing?”

“The one she probably told you was a closet,” he said. “You don’t notice it until you’re outside and start counting wings.”

We counted. He was right! How odd. “What terrible things?” I asked again.

“Unspeakable Feng shui,” he said with a shudder. “Spirits wailing to be let out of the box room. Rocking horses rocking themselves to a frenzy in the nursery. Unearthly groans from the loft, moaning for better insulation. Broadband like treacle. Total eclipses in the solarium. Entire busloads of tourists lost in the maze, never to be seen again, umbrellas spit out like pips. Oranges mysteriously squeezed dry of their juice in the orangery. Easter egg hunts with shocking breakage…

“Ramblers and retired lollipop ladies are regularly devoured by these beasts,” he shivered, shrinking away from the topiary. “Bunnies too are creatures of the night.”

He then quickly jumped back into the ha-ha and flattened himself as if in the trenches of the Somme, refusing to speak further.

Much amused by the encounter, and little believing the fantastical tales from a man who had obviously been sampling too much product from the vineyard, we repaired home and made our bid: the full asking price.

Reader, our dreams were dashed, or so we thought at first. In the end we were gazumped by a developer who turned the property into affordable housing for Russian oligarchs made homeless by Hackney oligarchs. Later we read they were devoured by a herd of meerkats last spotted leaping into the ha-ha and headed for the coach house. It seems we made a lucky escape after all.

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All creatures great and small

I’m originally from the US. In the States we have something called ‘window screens’. This technology may be new to those born and bred in the UK, so please allow me to explain it:

A window screen is a fine mesh of cross-hatched metal threads stretched taught onto a frame like a paint canvas. The effect is similar to a flattened tea strainer. It allows you to see outside with a mostly unhindered view, whilst keeping flying pests, or tea for that matter, from coming inside. There can be a mildly distracting moire effect at first, but the eye soon adapts. How often do you look outside anyway?

themist
Stephen King has written about some of the horrors ‘outside’

I understand that fine old historic houses may have window casements which preclude easy fitment of such exotica, but not all houses were built before 1600, so the lack of this miraculous feat of engineering is somewhat perplexing to me.

It’s not just a mental health issue; it threatens to tear at the very fabric of our ‘big society’.

Imagine a group of specially invited guests sitting down to dinner. It’s a delightful, warm day, so windows have been opened to partake of the fresh air. Suddenly an uninvited guest buzzes inside. It’s threatening, loud, not a little alarming. The host opens more windows so that the creature may make an unhindered exit, but it refuses to take the hint. It circles round dinner companions who until that moment had been warming to each other’s company despite the yawning social gaps (the host has been bravely egalitarian), causing generalised anxiety then pandemonium when it is realised that one of the party may be allergic to bee stings. Is it, indeed, a bee? Nobody knows, as the little beast is maddeningly elusive, even to the trained eye. One of the guests slices angrily at the air with his fork, hoping to spear it, to no avail. The buzzing circles round and round, the consternation grows greater, and at last the host asks that the room be vacated and the door shut so that the problem may correct itself.

The party thus decamps to less salubrious surroundings, defeated, the conversation derailed for good, social relations marred, plans of peaceful dinners in the future a permanent question mark. Some time later the host quietly opens the door to see if the room has been cleared of the threat. All is calm at first. But wait, no! The fly – for that’s all it is – a tiny, perhaps even prepubescent fly has taken to the air, a one man battle-of-Britain as it were. All windows are checked to see that they are open to their widest possible aperture, but it is no use; the fly seems quite happy to make figure 8s in the air until the end of time.

Eventually the house is sold at a loss despite the bouyant market, the children are uprooted from their excellent school catchment area, local ties are cut, the hope of a lasting legacy in the village abandoned; even the beloved family pet has his previously placid existence shattered as he is forced to say goodbye to his pooch playgroup pals. All for the want of a humble window screen.

Written for the Sounding Off section of a local magazine

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